St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Authority from Outside

Phil 2:5-11 | Matthew 21:23-32
And so we start to move towards the climax of Matthew’s gospel; the final week of Jesus’ life, a week, in Matthew’s telling, shaped by the growing conflict between Jesus and his followers, and the two main groups holding religious power in his day, the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Chapter 21 began with the story of the triumphal entry, which threw the city into turmoil; and is immediately followed by the cleansing of the temple, the throwing out of the money changers and merchants who had set up business meeting the needs of the faithful who came to offer sacrifices, as commanded in the law of Moses.

In doing so, Jesus has set himself unambiguously against the authority of the Priests, the ones who were the arbiters of what was and was not appropriate within the grounds of the temple, how things should be set up in order to follow God’s rules.

As so the next day, when Jesus returns to the Temple, they are waiting to challenge him with a deceptively simple question: “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”

And when we read this passage, I think we tend to look at this as if it were essentially a trick question, trying to trap him into blasphemy. And perhaps there was some of that, but the question they ask him really goes to the heart of the conflict between Jesus and the representatives of the Temple.

For they knew where their authority came from. The tradition of the elders had been passed down to them. The priests had been appointed as the spiritual leaders of the people – appointed by God. And they had secular authority as well; by this point the high priesthood of the temple was de facto in the gift of the Rome – before Caiphas, three high priests had been appointed and removed by the governor in quick succession – but he had managed to hold the role for 15 years by the time of Jesus – Caiphas was no fool.

So more than a trick question, this is an attempt to move the debate onto ground where they feel they are strong. The priests believe that if the argument comes to ‘who has the authority to make decisions around here?’, they will be onto a winner.

And Jesus’ response – well, again, we often seem to read it just as a clever bit of debating, avoiding a difficult question by turning it around.. But I believe there is a much more real message in the way he answers. So let’s take a look at his words: “what was the source of John’s baptism?”

We’ve seen several times before in Matthew’s gospel the closeness of the link made between Jesus and his cousin John; and here again, Jesus uses John as his argument.

John, you’ll remember, was a bit of a character – locusts, wild honey, camel’s hair. He was a figure very much on the fringes of society – though his father, Zechariah, had been a priest, John had taken instead the path of the wild prophet.

And the thing about prophets, is that they existed outside of the usual systems of power; they were neither priests nor kings, they were afforded authority only by the moral strength of their words, by the sense that they were speaking for God.

The story of the people of Israel – from the time of the judges to the exile and beyond – was a story in which over and again the people had gone wrong, and the prophets had been sent by God to set them right. They almost always came from nowhere, from the outside, and while sometimes they spoke to challenge the people, just as often – more often – their words were directed against those in power.

Nathan challenged David, the king, calling him to account over his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah.

Samuel condemned the line of Eli, the priest, denouncing his sons as scoundrels with no regard for God.

Jeremiah spoke against priest and king alike.

Deeply embedded in the Jewish cultural psyche, in the story of the people, was this image: the outsider, speaking with an authority which came directly from God. Challenging the power of state and Temple.

So when Jesus challenges the priests with his question about John the Baptist’s authority, yes, he’s playing a rhetorical game, but it’s a game with a real question behind it: “You ask me where my authority comes from? Well, what is the true source of authority? Do you remember your story?”

And the priests cannot answer. Because the answer they need to give is that their authority comes from the system, from the power and wealth and richness of the tradition that the Temple represents, from the religious system that it codifies, that lies at the heart of the people, and that the Priesthood serves.

But by mentioning John, Jesus has reminded all those who hear that in the story of the people of God, the centre does not have the final voice. Power, and the structures of power, of institution, of tradition, do not have ultimate authority.

And then Jesus asks another question. He tells the story of the two sons, and asks “which of these did the will of his father?”

Now sometimes it seems as if we need to really dig into the culture and practices of the day to really get Jesus’ parables, to understand the symbolism and meaning of the story in the context of its day. But here we have a story which translates pretty well across cultures, a story whose deep meaning is found right there on the surface. “Who does the will of the Father?”, he asks, “the one who said the right thing, who offered his obedience by outward show, or the one who rejected the command, but later changed his mind, and without show or ceremony went and got on with the work?”

Now an outside observer, in the house when the father went to send his sons to work would have seen an immediately recognisable scene: an obedient son, immediately agreeing to do what he was told, and a surly, resistant, son, rejecting his Father’s command. And such an observer, going by the words spoken and the outward show of obedience, if asked who the true son was, would clearly have chosen the one who said the right words.

And would have been entirely wrong. For as the story unfolds, all would agree that it is the one who starts in the wrong, but changes his mind – repents – that is the true son – not the one who knows the right words, makes the right show.

And then once again, Jesus returns to the authority of the prophet: not himself, but John, the outsider who spoke with the voice of God:
the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him

The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of the religious elite: not because they are better, for they aren’t, but because they recognised the authority of God in the voice of the prophet.

And here, in the end, is Jesus’ claim for the authority of his own words; his answer to the question that began our reading; not “you must do what I say because of who I am”, but “listen to me, because if you do you will hear the words of God”.

though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.

Though he was God, he did not choose to exert his authority from a position of power, but stepped down, down to the form of a servant, a slave, an outsider; down to a place where no one would feel compelled by his title or status to listen or obey; so that the power of his words would come not from people having to listen because of who he was, but people choosing to listen because of what they heard.

And I guess it leaves us wondering: where do we hear that voice today?

We who are, like it or not, part of the institution; part of the religious institution by virtue of our presence here – especially those of us for whom it’s our day job – and part of the social establishment by geography, by social standing, by education, by employment.

Where do we hear the voice that speaks from the outside of power, the voice of the prophet challenging the system, asking difficult questions, confronting the deep systemic injustices in society that we take for granted or don’t even notice?

Who are the people – within or beyond the Church – who speak to us, and we find ourselves listening because when we hear them speak, the words burn into us with an authority that pays no attention to status or education, title or position?

Who speaks to you in the voice of the prophet?


Theology of Marriage

The assembly doctrine working group has published a discussion paper on “The theology of marriage in the Uniting Church”, and are inviting responses. The paper is available here; I have printed some copies (but please use the electronic version if possible!) and put them in the narthex.

If you have any comments you would like to make you can:

  • email them to me
  • give them to me in written form (via the office, since I’ll be away)
  • come to a group discussion at the manse on Tuesday October 14th, at 7:45pm (the usual Nooma timeslot).

I will collate responses from St. John’s and submit them to the working group.

The God we don’t want

Jonah 3:1-4:11 | Matthew 20:1-16
I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again – I have this sort of love-hate relationship with the Jonah story. The problem with Jonah is that the moment you say the name, everyone with any sort of Sunday School background immediately pictures a whale. It’s like some sort of pavlovian response: Jonah – Whale. And probably not just the Sunday School crowd, either – it’s one of the bits of the Old Testament that made it into popular culture, even getting its own verse in “it ain’t necessarily so”.

Which is a shame, because the punchline of the book of Jonah has nothing to do with any strange form of aquatic transportation. The book of Jonah revolves instead around the attitude of the reluctant prophet.

Now lots of God’s prophets were reluctant to do the things that God sent them to do. Hardly surprising, since for the most part their job was to tell people that they were in the wrong, that they had offended God, that they needed to change. It wasn’t a safe or comfortable job, to be God’s prophet, to speak the truth to the powerful. They were often ostracised, frequently killed, almost never recognised.

And Jonah, called to preach repentance to the people of Ninevah – the enemies of God and of Israel – might have had good reason to fear that this was not a safe assignment. But his reluctance, it seems, stemmed from an entirely different concern.

Jonah was, at least, effective: when he finally, reluctantly, made it to Ninevah and preached to the people there, telling them of God’s anger and how God would destroy them, they did repent; they fasted, put on sackcloth and ashes, the works. And it was then that Jonah’s worst fears were realised:

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. …That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.

Jonah, the reluctant prophet, not because he feared what might happen to him, but because he knew that God would forgive, and didn’t want him to. Didn’t want this foreign city to be given another chance. Didn’t want God’s grace to extend to the enemy.
Didn’t want the sort of God that he had.

Jonah wanted to serve a God who was powerful, but still tribal. He wanted to serve a God who would be for us, and against them. He wanted to serve a God whose response to atrocities committed against the people was one of anger and judgement. The sort of God who would go to war to punish anyone who dared execute one of ‘us’, especially if they had the nerve to post the video on social media… The sort of God that the stories of his history spoke of; the God of Moses, drowning the Egyptian army when they were in retreat, the God of Joshua, committing genocide against the people of Jericho.

But that wasn’t the sort of God he had. And he knew it. And he didn’t like it.

He got the God he didn’t want.

The workers in the vineyard, in Jesus’ parable, have a similar crisis. The ones who have worked all day, that is. They would have been quite happy to be paid the fair daily wage for their labour; that is what they agreed to, that is what they had earned.
What they can’t stand is the others – the latecomers, the slackers, the dole bludgers, getting as much as they did. They don’t really want more (I’m sure they’d have taken it if offered!); they want more than them. They want their reward to reflect their merit, their hard work; and the only way that they can see for the landowner to recognise what they have done is for there to be a difference in what they receive; a pay differential, to reflect the difference in value of work done, of contribution made.

The parable offends – it offended the pharisees of the day, it offends many today – because it seems unjust. And, according to our economic system of assumptions, it is unjust. Equal pay for equal work is a rallying cry for justice in our economy; but unequal pay for unequal work is the dark form of that same justice. Our economy depends upon this sort of logic: steep variations in material wealth to act as an incentive; for those who contribute less; whatever the reason, at best we would grudgingly grant them some minimal pension – for to do more would be to encourage idleness. It would be like paying those who do ony one hour’s work as much as those who worked the whole of the day. And if there is not enough money to pay those at the top, or in the middle, more, then to maintain the differentials we must instead make life harder for those at the bottom.

It’s a sad truth – bourne out by psychology research – that seeing ourselves do better than others, especially others we see as less worthy, is more important to us than absolute outcomes. We would rather receive $5 and them get $2, than receive $6 if they get $10.
Jonah wanted a God who would play by the rules of the story he lived in: the story of tribes and nations at war with one another, in which the role of our God is to deliver us victory over our enemies.

And we are not immune from that story. But perhaps we also want to worship a God who plays by the rules of our story: the story of liberal democratic capitalism; the story in which we are rewarded for our talents and efforts, praised over and above others because we have worked the full day in the vineyard.

But breaking into both these stories comes another: a story that is reflected in the two great sacraments that we celebrate today.
A story in which we baptise baby Ava, not because of anything that she has done, nor anything her parents have done in the past or promised to do in the future: a story in which we baptise because God’s love is unconditional, prevenient, reaching out to us with generosity and without rules or catches, conditions or qualifiers.

And a story in which we come to this table, the meal of Jesus Christ, trusting, as the old words said it, not in any goodness of our own, but in God, whose nature is always to have mercy.

“Are you envious,” the landowner asked, “because I am generous?”. Of course we are. We are human. We don’t want to see God treat the others – the outsiders, the enemies of faith, the militant athiests and the followers of other Gods, the lazy and the apathetically agnostic – as well as us, God’s people. As well as we who have worked for God’s kingdom in the heat of the day.

But in the end, we too do not get the God we want.

We get the God that is.

And thank God for that.


Remembrance of Baptism

This year on All Saints Sunday, November 2nd, we will be celebrating a Remembrance of Baptism – an opportunity for all, young and old, to remember and rejoice in their baptism. If you know people – especially those baptised here or who have had children baptised here – who might be interested in joining us, please let them know!

A day in the park

For the past few years, St. John’s, along with a number of other Uniting Churches and Church playgroups, have hosted “A Day in the Park” to mark international Children’s week. A Day in the Park is a free event for preschool children and their carers, held in Wahroonga Park, with various fun activities and live music. I’m delighted to say that this year the Wahroonga Prep. School vocal ensemble will be singing for us – if you’ve never heard them, then you have no idea how good a primary school choir can sound!

St. John’s has traditionally provided the sausage sizzle – so if you are free on Tuesday October 28th for a few hours in the morning, please come and talk to Chris about sizzling sausages…

Annual Congregational Meeting

The annual congregational meeting will be held after the morning service on Sunday October 19th. If you are involved in any of the activities of the Church, could you please let Sandra have a report in plenty of time.

This meeting is an opportunity for anyone who would be prepared to serve as an elder or councillor on the Church Council to be appointed. If you are interested, talk to Chris, Kit, or Ted.

We will also be considering the formal adoption of the Vanuatu Literacy Project as a mission goal, in partnership with WPS, UnitingWorld, and the Presbyterian Church of Vanuatu. If you have any questions about this project, perhaps you could let Chris know in advance so that he can make sure he knows the answer!

Insights and Struggles

Listen!Psalm 149 | Romans 13:8-10

It’s a common complaint – and one with a certain amount of validity to it – that Paul, in the writing of his letters, ended up making the gospel, Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God more complicated, less inclusive, more rule-bound, than Jesus ever intended it to be.

In this reading of the events of the first half of the first century, Jesus came and preached a message of love, against the hard rules of the Pharisees, of acceptance, against the withdrawl and isolation of the Essene, of spirituality, against the sacrificial system of the Saducees, of non-violence, against the revolutionary Zealots. His message ended up upsetting almost everyone, and led to his eventual arrest and execution.

But Paul, converted on the road to Damascus, brought his Pharisaical past into the new faith and, through his energetic and, clearly very effective, spreading of the message, shaped the growing Church into a new movement, with its own rules and regulations, its own structures and processes, its own doctrines and dogmas. A movement based on the message of Jesus, but now taking the shape of a formal religion, in place of the simpler, gentler, less structured faith that Jesus proclaimed.

And, as I say, it’s a complaint not entirely without merit; although I suspect that for the most part it is a complaint levelled at the wrong generation: while Paul certainly seems to lay down the law about what people should believe and how they should act, there was clearly a wide diversity of belief and practice in the early Church, a diversity that came under pressure as the Church became an institution, but which was not subject to outright attack until the Church councils following the adoption of Christianity as the official faith of the Roman empire in the early fourth century.

Even when we consider the more legalistic writings in the epistles, it’s worth remembering that many of the letters that bear Paul’s name may well have been written by the generation which came after him – for someone who learnt the faith at Paul’s feet might quite legitimately, in the mode of the day, have used his name – today we might consider that fraudulent, but in the thinking of the day it was more like an act of humility; not claiming these things for yourself but giving the credit to your teacher.

And in the writings that are widely accepted as from the pen of Paul himself, we find a number of gems of faith which reflect a much simpler form of the faith (and note, simpler does not mean the same as easier), a faith much more obviously derived from the life and teaching of Jesus. In the book of Galatians we have his revolutionary claim that in Christ there is neither male nor female, greek nor jew, slave nor free; in the letter to Philemon the request that a slave owner take back his runaway slave as a brother in Christ; and here in the book of Romans – a book full of complex theological and philosophical argument – Paul’s summary of the law: “The commandments are summed up in this phrase – love your neighbour as yourself… love is the fulfilling of the law”.

So what are we to make of this character, Paul? And, perhaps first, does it matter?

Well, yes, I think it does. Because unless you take a view of scripture in which every word is directly inspired by God, inerrant and infalliable – a view, which you’ve probably worked out by now, I don’t share – understanding the author is an essential part of understanding the text, and of making it mean something for our generation.

What we seem to me to find in the writings of Paul is the thinking and teaching of a man who has seen something totally mind blowingly new to him – a God who treats all people as equals (male and female, Jew and gentile, slave and free) – it’s almost impossible for us to understand how radical such an idea was to a man of Paul’s era. And a way of reading the law, that the whole law is fulfilled by the commandment to love – so totally alien to his culture, his teaching, his life.

And so we find in his writings a mixture – moments of incredible, radical clarity, such as our reading today, times when he is clearly struggling to make sense of those moment in his world, his context, and times when falls back into old understandings.

And in a sense, this is the story of the whole of the Bible – a collection of writings by people who have seen something amazing, something world changing; understood something about themselves, about the world, about God, and then struggled to understand it, to make sense of it in their culture, their context.
So the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, grasp this incredible truth – that there are not many Gods, one for each tribe, one for each nation, but all of God is everywhere. And yet, living as they do in an age of tribal Gods, they still fall back into speaking as if God was specially for them; their God, to the exclusion of others.

Or the disciples, as we’ve talked about in recent weeks, getting that Jesus was the Messiah, but struggling to take on board a new sense of what that might mean.

And of course, the history of the Church has been the history of steps forward and back; of genuine, passionate people struggling to make sense of what they have seen and heard of God, sometimes getting it right, often getting it wrong, but, under the gentle guidance of God’s Holy Spirit, I believe, gradually moving forwards.

And the thing is, we are still doing the same thing today.

Our job as a Church is to be the bearers of this story; the story of God, of the people of God, the story of Jesus Christ. We receive that story from those who have come before us; bear it, keep it alive, make it somehow new and real for ourselves and for the generation that is to come. Around the walls of this Church are windows and plaques commemorating some of those who have carried the story before us (including some of Poppy’s anscestors) – we are surrounded by our past, the tradition that has shaped us and gifted us with the story of God, the story of Jesus; and today in baptism we have promised to continue to be part of that story, that tradition, another link in the chain passing the story on to the next generation.

Of course there is a lot else that we do as a Church – caring for one another, fighting for justice, working to look out for the poor, the needy, the oppressed, the marginalised, the young, the old. Doing all these things is a direct consequence of who we are as the people of God. But we join in those tasks with others; with those of other faiths and none, with government and non-government organisations, who share the calling to care for those in need.
The one things that we do uniquely as the Church is to carry forward the story of Jesus; to work out and share what it means for us, in Australia, in the world, today. We will, no doubt, make just as many mistakes as every generation before us; different ones, probably, but just as many.

And all we can do is keep on bringing ourselves back to the one we follow, the one whose life Paul was reflecting upon when he wrote “In Christ there is neither male nor female, jews nor foreigner, slave nor free”; the who he was quoting (more or less) when he wrote “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law”.

To keep alive that story, and try to make sense of it for ourselves, our children, our society. Amen

Nooma end of term

Next Tuesday, 9th, Nooma will be taking a week off. The following Tuesday, 16th, we’ll meet at the earlier time of 7pm for our traditional end of term meal. Bring a plate of food to share, all welcome!