St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Alone Again, Naturally

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The Castle

The Castle

Instead of a sermon I’m going to tell you a story. Of course, my story involves bushwalking.

Most of you probably know that every year the St Johns Cartophiles Bushwalking Club does one multi-day trek, like the Overland Track in Tasmania. Last year’s trek was in the Budawangs Wilderness Area, inland from Ulladulla. I expected about five people to join me, but after a variety of reasons from work pressures to family events to Sue’s simple, “I don’t want to” there was only me.

I really wanted to do this walk. I’d last been in the area as a Rover Scout in 1975. I wanted to again climb the mountain called The Castle, just to prove I could after 38 years.

I was also not in a happy place last November and I wanted a break. Work was awful. Sue and I were spatting. I wasn’t spending enough time with my children and grandchildren or here at St Johns. Barrelling towards me was a 60th birthday screaming, “What have you achieved?”

I was depressed, and Sue had made me promise I’d see the doctor about it after the walk.

On top of all this, though, I felt really compelled to go in a way that I couldn’t quite describe. So instead of cancelling the walk I headed off by myself for a 50 km walk in the wilderness.

On the way I rang Ian Paterson to ask him to stand in for me to chair the church council meeting while I was away. He generously agreed and asked me what I was going to do all alone. I replied something like, “Maybe have a chat or two with God.”

I don’t know why I said that; it just came out.

I’ve often had conversations with God when I’ve been by myself in the bush – I discussed with Him selecting Chris as our minister while walking the Six Foot Track. But I hadn’t had that kind of chat for quite a while.

The walk was hard. I got into camp the first night bone tired, scratched and bleeding. Camp was in a valley surrounded by sheer cliffs with nothing but wind noise and bird cries for company. I was lonely.

I pitched my tent and started collecting firewood. I remembered my comment to Ian and thought that I should try a chat with God. So I said something profound like, “Well, um, g’day God, it’s been a while since we had a chat.”

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I was talking to myself. All the misery and depression and loneliness crashed down on me. I had tears streaming down my face. I dropped the bundle of wood I was carrying and cried out in my despair. “Oh please, at least say you love me.”

A sudden wave of overwhelming love and assurance filled me in way I will never be able to adequately describe. God was with me and in me and around me, drowning me in His love, reassuring me that He was there with me. I was overcome … I don’t know how long it lasted, but I vaguely remember saying thank you over and over again.

I finished collecting firewood chatting away to my friend like we’d never been apart. I poured out my heart to Him while I made my fire and ate dinner. I turned in feeling better than I had in weeks.

I woke the next day still very tired and sore. I may have been spiritually better but I was physically worn, and I considered just abandoning the walk and going home. During breakfast I noticed the echo from the cliffs around me and, being me, I tried singing; after all, there was no one else there for me to disturb. I don’t normally spend my spare time singing hymns, but for whatever reason I started with the 23rd Psalm. I was joined by a choir who all sounded like me! All excited I tried something more thumping to follow up and started belting out “To be a Pilgrim”.

When I reached ‘there’s no discouragement shall make him once relent his first avow’d intent, to be a pilgrim’ I paused. I realised that my hike was actually a sort of pilgrimage. My compulsion to do the walk was my need to get closer to God. I had to re-establish a relationship I had let sink under a pile of phone calls and meetings and other man-made priorities.

I was following the long example of the prophets and Christ Himself, going out into the wilderness to be closer to the Creator. I had to be surrounded by the things of God’s creation, not man’s. I couldn’t turn back.

So I went on. Whenever the going got particularly tough I found I was quietly singing to myself “the Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want …”

Over the next five days I rebuilt my waning faith. God was with me every step of the way and I was uplifted by Him. It was hard, but worth it.

Some of you have a faith strong enough that you can clearly hear God even through the man-made noise that surrounds us. I envy you. But if you, like me, don’t have a faith that strong I urge you to find the wilderness to hear Him more clearly.

I know we not all nutty enough to do a five day trek, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find the wilderness for yourself. Drive to the bush, take the train to a national park, or find some other way to remind yourself of what the wilderness is like. Go to a local park, watch a National Geographic documentary, stare at a Steve Parrish postcard … just do something to help you reach out to your God. Find a way to surround yourself with the things of God’s creation, not man’s.   The effort is worth it. He is waiting there for you.

That’s not the end of my story, though. Fast forward three days.

I’m sitting in a cave half way up The Castle, making a cup of tea. A few minutes I’d abandoned my attempt to climb to the top. I’d found myself on a rope on a nearly vertical rock face, with a long drop below and a harder climb ahead, and I knew I didn’t have the bottle to make it. I was frightened I SMSed Sue to tell her I loved her before I began the descent. I reached the bottom of the cliff, leant against the rock and breathed a sigh of relief. In my ear … in my mind … in my heart … oh, I don’t know how I heard it, but God said, “How do you feel now?”

He was asking me about failing. I thought about it and answered, “Pretty good, actually.”

He replied, “Good. Now turn around.”

The view from halfway up, or down, The Castle

The view from halfway up, or down, The Castle

I turned, and laid out before me was a magnificent view across a deep valley to purple hills fading into the distance. The wild bush bloomed in flower, yellow sandstone bluffs shone in the sun, birds and cicadas flew in a dance. I said, “Wow! Thank you for showing me.”

I walked downhill to the cave and made that cup of tea. I thought about how I’d felt helped in the tough bits of the walk, but not on the climb. I realised that the walk was for both God and me, but the climb … well, that was just for me. I made it on my own or, I didn’t. And when I didn’t, God was still there with me saying, “How do you feel? Look at this much more important thing I have to show you.”

That’s true for so much of life. There’s stuff we have to do on our own: it goes along with having free will. God wasn’t going to carry me up that mountain any more than He’s going to give me more money or a bigger house or a faster car. God’s not going to make us successful at work, or an Olympic swimmer, or an award-winning writer; that’s up to us. He’s not going to cure our depression, or our baldness, or heart disease, or our cancer.

But he is going to be there saying, “How do you feel? Have a look at this.”

I named this sermon “Alone again, naturally” mostly because I liked the pun. But the song also includes the lines, “leaving me to doubt all about God and His mercy, for if He really does exist why did He desert me? And in my hour of need I truly am indeed alone again, naturally.”

That’s humanity’s great cry. It’s on the lips of the orphaned child, the grieving mother, the suddenly widowed husband. It comes from battlefield wounded, flood victims and crippled sportsmen. It’s the cry of Jesus on the cross.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But that was Jesus’ humanity crying out, not his divinity. God hadn’t forsaken Him. Nor has God ever abandoned us, though we have often abandoned Him.

In every trial we have only to reach out. He is waiting, a loyal and loving friend, to gently say, “How do you feel? Come and have a look at this.”

Thank God.

Amen.

Burrawang Walk & Cape Baily Track, Kamay Botany Bay National Park, Saturday 21st June, 2014

The Cartophiles’ sixth day walk of the year takes us to the Kamay Botany Bay National Park: the point of first contact between Aboriginal people and the Endeavour crew.

The walk starts and finishes at the Kurnell Visitor Centre and starts with the easy-rated Burrawang Walk before exploring the heath and the great views along the moderate-rated Cape Baily Track to the Cape Baily Lighthouse. The walk follows a mixture of service trails, bush tracks, rock platforms and sand dunes as it makes its way through the park. Hopefully we’ll see some migrating whales offshore.

The 9.8km walk should take 3-3½ hrs.  For more information see 2014 Walk 6 (Burrawang walk & Cape Baily Track) flyer.

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org or on 0411 507 422.

Cancelled: Wondabyne Station to Kariong Brook Waterfall Saturday 17th May, 2014

Kariong FallsTHIS WALK IS CANCELLED DUE TO RAIL TRACK WORK

 

The Cartophiles’ fifth day walk for 2014 takes us into the Brisbane Waters National Park and follows a section of the Great North Walk to the tranquil and beautiful Kariong Brook falls.  The walk starts and finishes at Wondabyne railway station, the only railway station in Australia which has no road access.

The 8.1km walk is rated hard and should take 3-3½ hrs. It’s suitable for novice walkers of reasonable fitness.

For more information see 2014 Walk 5 (Wondabyne to Kariong Brook Falls) flyer

To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org or on 0411 507 422.

Easter

Listen!
John 20:1-18
At the heart of the Christian faith lie three great mysteries.

Not mysteries in the sense of a murder mystery, in which, when the truth is revealed all will become clear, but mystery in the sense that art is a mystery, music is a mystery, science is a mystery: a mystery in this sense is something that goes deeper than we will ever see. It’s a mark of a great work of art, that its meaning can never be exhausted by our appreciation. That however long we listen or look or reflect, there will always be more to it than we have yet seen.

But to acknowledge that we will never reach the end is no disincentive to keep looking. For as we continue to ask questions of it, we continue to be rewarded with insights, with revelations of beauty and truth, and, most of all, with more questions. So it is with art, so with science, and so with the mysteries of our faith.

At the heart of the faith lie three such mysteries.

The first is the mystery of creation. How is it that from nothing, there could be something? How could it be that the God who was everything, the only thing, could create that which is not God, could give freedom to something different, something separate from, but not separated from, God?

The mystery of creation is the mystery of the creative nature of love; that love overflows itself to create the beloved, to give life, to give freedom. It is the mystery we witness in the birth of a child, in the dedication of a teacher, in the genius of composition: love creates, love gives, love sets free.

The second mystery of our faith is the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of Christmas, of Emmanuel, God with us. How can it be that this God who is the creator of all can enter into God’s own creation, how can the infinity of God be found in the helplessness of a baby, what does it mean when we affirm that Jesus was fully God and fully human?

The mystery of the incarnation is the mystery of the redemptive power of love; that where love sees separation, it longs to see reconciliation; that where love sees brokenness, it longs to see healing; that where love sees despair, it longs to see hope. In the mystery of the incarnation the greatest imaginable chasm is bridged; creator and creation are brought together, in the person of Jesus Christ. This is the mystery we witness in graceful acts of forgiveness, in individuals, groups, societies, nations, who choose not to be bound by the past, but together seek a better future. Love repents, love forgives, love reconciles.

And the third mystery of our faith is the mystery we wonder at and celebrate today; the mystery of resurrection. This mystery is the overturning of the law of life and death; the reversal of the triumph of evil over good; the ultimate triumph of love over all its enemies: hate, greed, fear, envy, and the rest. It is, in Aslan’s words, the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, declaration that God is love, so love forever, o’er the universe must reign.

The mystery of the resurrection is the mystery of the final power of love.

On Good Friday, love was defeated. On Good Friday, realpolitik triumphed over idealism, self interest over generosity of spirit, fear over hope.

For two long nights and a day, creation waited.

And then early on Sunday morning, the mystery of Easter unfolds before us.

All the brokenness of the world had descended upon Jesus, battered him, broken him, killed him: but he was alive.

Death had been overturned,
and hope had returned from despair.
And love wins.

Most people, most of the time, live as if Good Friday was the defining story of the world. As if Jesus’ life was noble but naïve; his death on the cross a meaningless gesture; his life of love only proved that power, wealth, and influence are what make the real world go round, that hatred and violence get the final world.

But on Easter Sunday the resurrection declares that it is the love of God – the creative love that spoke the universe into being; the redemptive love that became flesh and dwelt among us; the resurrection love that overturned death and hate and violence – that these are the things that lie at the core of creation.

That we do not live in a universe devoid of meaning, in which the material struggle to survive and prosper is all that we can ever know.

The story of Good Friday tells us that whatever we might do, death brings it all to an end: the mystery of the resurrection says death ends nothing.

Good Friday tells us that love is a dangerous path: the resurrection agrees – but says we can take the risk of living lives of reckless love; of giving ourselves for others.

Good Friday tells us that the powers of the world will always crush the individual: the resurrection says that the world is changed by those who insist on living as they are called by God, not by those who simply know how to play the game better than most.

Good Friday tells us that violence and anger can tear us from those we love: the resurrection says that reconciliation can be the norm in our relationships; that no breakdown in relationships is ever entirely beyond hope.

The mystery of Easter, of love undefeated, asks us the question: does this love – this love which treats others, whoever they are, wherever they come from, as God’s children; this love which pours itself out in creativity, in generosity of giving, in seeking reconciliation, in the struggle for justice – does this love form the core, the heart, of our lives?

Do we live lives bubbling over with a love that knows no bounds, a love which brings healing and reconciliation, peace and justice and beauty into our communities, that protects the wonder of creation and holds its hands out, its arms open, to all?

As we stand here today in the light of the resurrection, in the story of the power of God’s love, what’s stopping us?

We can be those people, whose love changes the world.

Amen

Broad but shallow

Listen!
Psalm 118:20-29 | Matthew 21:1-11
We all know the story – it’s one of the big spectacles of the Christian year. The triumphal entry, the palm branches cut down and lain across the road, Jesus riding in on a donkey, children shouting “Hosanna”.

And we all know, as well, because we’ve read the end of the story, that the euphoria of the moment doesn’t last. That within a few days Jesus’ following has evaporated to the point where the crowd will call for the release of Barabbas, and for Jesus to be taken and executed.

It’s a pretty spectacular fall from grace, when you think about it. In such a short time, to go from the flavour of the moment to the reject heap. Even today, in the age of the short lived hyper-celebrity, of social media and Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame, it would be a bit of a surprise, a bit hard to explain. Because when a celebrity, a star, a hero of the people falls suddenly from grace in the modern world, there is usually a story behind it. A shocking revelation, a terrible miscalculation, a stunning dummy spit.
And the narrative of Holy Week gives us nothing of the kind. Of course, Jesus has his dummy spit of sorts – throwing the money changers out of the Temple, reeling off his list of “woe to you” criticisms of the Pharisees, upsetting, no doubt, the Roman authorities as well by disturbing the fragile peace of Jerusalem at festival time.

But all those parts of the story only really give reason for Jesus to confirm his identity as an enemy of the powerful – the religious powers of the Temple and the Synagogue, and the military powers of the Romans.

It doesn’t explain why those who welcomed him with shouts and palm branches were so easily turned against him.

It seems as if Jesus’ following, his support, was broad, but shallow. Many people willing to join the crowd to shout Hosanna, but not many whose support stood the test of the week. And what we might be looking for in today’s story is some sort of sense of why.
The story is amazingly rich in contrasting images – contrasts that translation of language and culture may hide from us. It starts with the way that Jesus obtains his ride – sending two of the disciples ahead to get a donkey (and a colt, for some reason that I’ve never quite understood – “they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them” – did Jesus ride both animals? The only explanation that I’ve heard for this oddity is that the Isaiah quote, written in poetry, names the king riding a donkey and a colt, and Jesus wants to fulfil the prophecy – or Matthew wants to portray him as doing so. But that’s an aside) – Jesus sends them to get the donkey, taking it as if he had the right to it, with the words “the Lord needs them”. It’s simultaneously a claim to authority – “the Lord”, to the right to assume, or at least, borrow, the property of another – but the thing taken is a donkey, a symbol of humility and, well, ordinariness, not royalty, still less divinity. “The Lord wants to ride your donkey” is almost an oxymoron.

And added, of course, to the contrast, is the response of the people to Jesus as he approaches the city.

They throw down cloaks in front of him, and cut down branches from the trees to line his path – the imagery is that of welcoming a conquering hero as king. When the military general Jehu claimed the throne of Israel, we read that “all the officers took their cloaks and spread them before him; and they blew the trumpet, and proclaimed, ‘Jehu is king.’”

And of course, all the people cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David”. A phrase that today is so obviously religious, that we lose sight of its connotations in first century Jerusalem. Hosanna, or the Hebrew Hoshana, is the word used in our psalm today, translated “save us” – it is a cry addressed, generally, to God, calling out for help in time of oppression or hardship.

And the use of the title “Son of David”, points even more to what was on people’s minds – David, the great military ruler of Israel, the man who was forbidden to build the Temple because he was a man of war – David, who God had promised, that his descendants would rule Israel forever.

They cast their cloaks down to welcome a king, descendant of the great warrior king, promised to be ruler forever, and cried out “save us”. And the whole city was in turmoil.
I don’t think it really leaves much room for doubt about what was going on in the minds of the crowd. Or the effect that the manner of Jesus’ arrival had on those who held religious and military power in the city.

And it perhaps goes a long way to explaining how it was that Jesus’ support could be so broad, and yet so shallow, and could evaporate so quickly, when it became clear that he was not going to be the king that the people were expecting, hoping for, wanting him to be. When instead of uniting the people, he divided them, attacked the Pharisees, upset the Sadducees, missed the window of opportunity to gather a popular movement, throw the Romans out, and establish, once again, an independent Jewish state.

Lots of people shouted their praise of Jesus, but in truth they were not praising him, but their image of what they wanted him to be: worshipping the Messiah they wanted, not the one they got.

And that’s not hard to recognise in the modern day: how many of us have, at one time or another, been disillusioned when some leader, in politics or business or any other walk of life, has turned out not to be what we thought they were – or, if we are more honest – hoped they might be.

But I think this story, this sense of Jesus’ following being broad but shallow, of people following only as long as Jesus appeared to be what they wanted him to be, has a much wider reality than just that of a leader who people felt let down by.

Because “wide but shallow” is a pretty good description of the following of Jesus in todays world, of the attitude of many in our community who will happily identify as Christian, attend Church occasionally – or even every week – or not at all – but for whom the Christian faith has less to do with the call of Jesus to radical discipleship, and more to do with following a set of so-called “christian values” which, when inspected, are very hard to distinguish from some other set of values – from good traditional conservative morality; or from liberal democratic norms; or from socialist idealism – take your pick.

On Palm Sunday, many people were willing to cheer Jesus on as long as he continued to appear to be the person they wanted him to be. But they abandoned him when he insisted on being something else, someone unexpected.

There are a number of places in the gospels where the authors tell us that people stopped following Jesus because his words were too hard. Even those who stayed with him only did so because they asked, in Peter’s famous saying, “where else would we go”. They only stayed because leaving Jesus seemed even more impossible than continuing to follow him.
But the majority left him, each time his teaching got hard, or following him got politically inconvenient or socially embarrassing or physically dangerous.

All of which leads me to conclude that if we don’t find it hard to follow Jesus, if we don’t find his teaching shakes us up, changes our mind, forces us to do things that go against our social, emotional, or political instincts: if we don’t find Jesus’ teaching pushing us out of ourselves, then perhaps we, like the crowds on Palm Sunday, have been all too successful at making Jesus into the figure we think he ought to be.

And to be clear – this is just as true for those whose image of Jesus is that of a radical: I’m quite certain that we are just as able to make Jesus into our sort of radical as into our sort of conservative. It’s not about revolution versus the status quo: it’s about us making Jesus in our own images.

And the only cure, that I know, is to hear his voice: to actively listen to those who follow Jesus but disagree with us; to prayerfully read the gospels and listen for what the words say rather than what we know they ought to say; to be suspicious whenever we think Jesus would agree with us. Not because he never would, but because it is all too easy to find support for what we already want to believe.

Far harder to be true to the spirit of the (probably apocryphal) Abraham Lincoln quote: Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side

Amen.

Farewell Laurena

Many will no doubt have already heard the sad news that Laurena Potter died peacefully in hospital late on Thursday night. The funeral will be held on Wednesday at 2pm, followed by an afternoon tea.

Congregational Meeting

Date for your diary – on May 18th we’ll be holding a congregational meeting after the morning service. At this meeting we will be electing representatives for the Church Council. If you are interested in serving on the council, have a chat with Kit or Chris, or any other council member about it!

Eggs and Bunnies

Each year, there are more and more fairly traded chocolate treats available for the Easter rush – so if you are buying eggs or bunnies, make sure that you get them from producers who pay a fair living wage to our brothers and sisters in the developing world. Check the list on the fairtrade website here, or look for the Fairtrade symbol on the packaging…

Dry Bones

Listen!
Ezekiel 37:1-14 | John 11:17-27
Not long before, the people of Israel had been part of something exciting, something vital; they had been part of the people called to be the people of God, and it had really meant something. They’d been a nation that worshipped God, a nation that identified with God, a nation in which each generation taught the things of God to the next generation, in which children grew up practicing the faith of their parents, and grandchildren the faith of their grandparents. They’d been called by God to show the love of God to the whole world, to be a light to all the nations, a wellspring of hope and faith and all that is good and true and godly.

But within the span of a generation – less than a generation – it had all vanished. Suddenly they were a minority, surrounded by people who did not know their God, did not value their faith, did not care about their understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.

The community had been broken, families separated. The people were scattered like the bones of Ezekiel’s vision. Worship, instead of being the vibrant heart of the community, had become a thing mocked by outsiders.

And the question that had to ask was “what is God doing?”. Or, even more so “what will God do now?”

Everywhere you go at the moment there seem to be billboards for the new blockbuster, Noah. In the story of Noah God is faced with a broken world, and chooses to wipe the slate clean, to starts again with one loyal family.

And perhaps in Ezekiel’s vision God might have done the same, looked out at the bones and said “I will start again. I will find a new people. I will create a new nation. There is no life here.”. Perhaps God might have done that – or perhaps the people feared God would, or felt as if God already had.

But of course the story of Noah ends with the rainbow, the promise that never again would God choose that solution, choose to discard what was broken and start again with something new. In fact, the story of Noah really reads like God recognising a divine mistake, realising that this was not the way. And perhaps that story marks the start of the idea of redemption; of God taking the broken, the sinful, the lost, and fashioning something new from them. An idea we explored last week, an idea that is at the heart of Ezekiel’s vision.

God does not cast dry bones aside.

Instead, God declared “I will bring you back, and you will live”. And the prophet spoke to the bones, repeating God’s promise to them.

And the bones came together, bone joined to bone, there were sinews and flesh, and skin covered them.

Where before the people had been scattered, now they were one. They had looked random; a broken, meaningless collection of bones, now they looked like a people, a community.

But still there was no life in them. Still they lacked the spark of life, that indefinable something that separates the living from the dead, the makes a body into a person, a group of people into a community. They lacked something, something for which there is no good word.

And God spoke again. “Speak to the wind, speak to the breath, speak to the spirit, and command it; it is time – come, blow, breathe, be in these bodies and make them live”. There is something here that is impossible to capture in our English words; breath, wind, spirit are all the same word, the same idea, in Hebrew. The wind blows, God breathes, the Spirit comes.

And the breath – the wind – the spirit of God came into them, and they lived, and they stood, together.

Here is redemption. Here, the redemption of a whole a people, a community who believed that God had forgotten them, perhaps wondered whether God had ever been with them, perhaps wondered whether there was a God at all. Drawn together by the words of the prophet, and enlivened by the spirit of God.

Redeemed, so that once more they might take their place in the world, blessing the world, challenging the world, redeeming the world.

In our gospel reading, we find another image of redemption; of the dead living – this time, quite literally. But it’s not so much the miracle of Lazarus rising that interests me, as the conversation that proceeds it.

Martha gives voice to both her feeling that Jesus has let her down – “if you were here, he would not have died” – and to her hope that something, she knows not what, can still be done – “but God will give you whatever you ask”. And when Jesus replies that Lazarus will rise again, she demonstrates that she has hope for the future – the distant future, the final resurrection – she has hope of heaven for her brother. What she lacks is hope for now.

And isn’t this often a good description of us, in the Church? Faced with the hard realities of life – with friends and family who get sick, with relationships that break up, with stress and depression and addiction, with the consequences of bad decisions, both ours and others, we fall back on hope beyond, hope of heaven.

And in so many ways it is right that we do so. For all those times that the pain and wrongness and tragedy of the world would rear up and overwhelm us, and all we can do is hold on and say “this is not the final word. In the end, even if not in this life, God’s love will triumph. God’s love will carry us through”. Our tradition is rich in this imagery, our hymns full of this poetry – “he will keep me till the river rolls its waters at my feet; then he’ll bear me safely over, where the loved ones I shall meet”. It’s a faith that holds us in the darkest time – though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death…

But the story of Ezekiel’s vision, and the story of Lazarus, remind us, that good and right though this faith is, it is not all; that we have more even than that to hold on to. That our hope is not limited to the final end of all things; but that our God brings that hope – brokenly, perhaps, partially, certainly, into the present.

That God takes the dry bones – people used up and cast aside by life, people who feel that they have nothing left – and draws them together. Alone, a bone is nothing more than a snack for a dog – but together, they take shape. God calls broken people; and that, in the end, is all any of us can claim to be; into a community, and calls it “Church” – and then breathes the Spirit of God into them, so that they might live again, hope again, dream again.

That is us – a bunch of bones who have been called by the voice of God into this place; who find some strange way to fit together, to support one another, to make up for one another’s weaknesses and feed off one another’s strengths; and on whom God then breathes the Spirit of life, of love, of hope, of power, and brings us to life.
Look around you. Look at those you share a pew with. Look at those with whom you will chat over coffee. Look at the other bones in this body. And as you look, don’t forget those you can’t see – those in this community who cannot be with us, and those who are with us in another room, our children and their leaders.

These are the bones that God has drawn together in this place. These are the bones that have come together to form the body of Christ, the body which, with the breath of the Spirit of God in it, lives again, to the glory of our God.

Amen. Let it be so. Amen.

Broken Stories

(Due to technical failure, this sermon wasn’t recorded….)
1 Samuel 16:1-7 | John 9:13-17, 35-41
On the surface, 1 Samuel chapter 16 tells a simple story. King Saul, the first King of Israel, has gone bad; and while he still rules, God has rejected him. Samuel, God’s prophet, is commanded by God to go to Bethlehem, to the house of Jesse – for Jesse was an honourable man, obedient to the law of God – and secretly anoint a new king.

Samuel obeys, and he sees Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab – good looking, tall, already seasoned in battle – and is sure this will be the man. But no – God does not judge on outward appearances, like mortals do, but God judges the heart – and it is Jesse’s younger son, David, who is to be chosen, anointed as king.

It’s a great story, with a great, memorable, take away line: “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

But read around the story, and perhaps just a little bit between the lines, and a different picture begins to emerge.

Samuel, God’s prophet, was the one who anointed Saul king in the first place. And if you remember the story, you’ll recall that Samuel didn’t want to anoint a king, but the people demanded it of him. before Saul, the prophets and judges had been the de-facto rulers of Israel – the call for a king was a rejection of Samuel, a dilution of his influence, the creation of an alternative powerbase within the people – who were, remember, less a nation, and more a collection of families, tribes, at this point.

A king would unite them, make them a nation, lead them. And Samuel didn’t want it to happen.

But the people insisted, so Samuel anointed Saul as king of Israel. And he was the obvious choice. Tall (“a head taller than any other Israelite”), handsome, a dutiful son, and an accomplished military leader. But it didn’t work out well. Sure, Saul united the people, but personally he began to fall apart. Depression, paranoia, fits of wild rage followed by deep remorse. And, most tellingly for the writers of the book of Samuel, an increasing tendency to disobedience to God.

Which rather raises the question: if God does not see as mortals do, but judges the heart, why was Saul God’s choice as king? A man who met all human standards, but for whom a combination of the lure of power and, perhaps, an underlying mental condition, would lead astray?

Was Saul God’s choice, chosen to teach the people a lesson about kings? Or Samuel’s choice? Or was his rise to power more to do with his own abilities, and Samuel’s anointing something of a rubber stamp: since he has become king, he must be God’s chosen one?

And the story just gets murkier as we start to look into Saul’s disobedience. 1 Samuel chapter 15 tells the story. Samuel decides that God wants to punish the Amalekites for opposing Israel when they first entered the land – and just to put that in context, the Amalekites lived in the land when the people of Israel, under Joshua, entered; their opposition to Israel was that of a people defending their homes from an invading army.

But Samuel says God wanted them punished – by complete destruction. Every man, woman and child, every animal was to be slaughtered. And Saul’s disobedience was this: Samuel tells Saul to commit genocide; and Saul, though he kills all the people, spares the life of the King of the Amalekites, and takes the sheep and cattle as the spoils of war.

And for this, he is to be rejected as king.

So perhaps you’re starting to get a sense of why I say that a different, and rather more problematic, story starts to emerge. A simple reading of 1 Samuel, with Samuel as God’s hero, doing what is right, speaking God’s messages, requires that God appointed as king a man who turned out to be mentally unstable, commanded him to commit genocide, and then rejected him because he didn’t kill enough.

As Jeyanth said to me the other day, when we had just listened to the story of Joshua first taking the land “but didn’t Jesus say that fighting our enemies wasn’t the right way?”

Perhaps we have to find other ways to read these stories.

The books of Samuel were, according to most Old Testament scholars, compiled by the people during the years of exile in Babylon, after the fall of Jerusalem. And they were written with a very particular purpose in mind: to make sense of who the people of God were, how they had come to be where they were, how their understanding of God, their theology, if you like, fitted with their experience.

And at the heart of their theology, their core revelation or insight of genius, was: “The Lord your God is the only God”. And everything in their understanding of history, and their telling of their story flows from that one truth.

We read, hear, and tell the story through different eyes; for we have another truth at the heart of our story: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Our rereading, retelling, must be through eyes that have seen the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, and because of him, see everything anew.

And the revelation of Jesus Christ allows that not everything happens the way God ordains.

So reading between the lines a little, we might imagine a different way to tell the story. Saul, fresh from a major military victory, positions himself as king, and Samuel, the respected religious leader, seeing how the wind is blowing, and, rightly or wrongly, interpreting that as God’s blessing, anoints him.

But Saul becomes inebriated by power, and, perhaps, less and less inclined to accept Samuel’s advice. So Samuel sets out to find another man who might be king instead. Not Eliab. Eliab is too like Saul. Tall, handsome, accomplished in battle – and a loyal member of Saul’s army. No, it’s the younger brother, David. Someone more likely to listen to the prophet.

It’s a story that is just as messy; but this time it is messy in a very human way. Political manoeuvring, shifting balances of power, relationships made and broken. A history written more in shades of grey; but out of which emerges the kingdom of David and of Solomon, the one true high point in the history of the people of Israel.

And when we read this story through eyes that have seen Jesus, perhaps we recognise something in the flavour of the story. A very human story, rich with betrayal and friendship, jealousy and generosity, war and peace, a broken mess out of which something wonderful is fashioned by the mysterious workings of God.

A story, in fact, of redemption – for what is redemption if it is not God taking something that is messed up and broken, and turning it into something that is beautiful.

In the end, for me, this tells a richer story. Not the story of a God who chooses king and commands them to violence, and casts them aside when they will no longer obey; but the story of a God who works with and in and through the very brokenness of humanity to bring about unexpected ends.

A God who does not expect – or need – us to be perfect; and who does not reject us, or cast us aside as of no more use when we fail in our calling.

A God who works with our weakness, sickness, rebellion, foolishness, confusion; not because those are good things, but because they are less bad than God is good.

A God who uses broken things, broken lives, broken people, to bring about healing, wholeness, beauty.

A God who used the death of God to compose the crucial chapter at the heart of the story.

This is the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, the one through whom we read the scriptures.

Amen