St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Caring for Carers

Gordon Uniting Church are hosting a workshop on “caring for Carers”, conducted by Sallyanne Aarons, a psychologist with expertise in assisting those looking after someone with dementia or cognitive impairment.

The workshop is on March 23rd, at 10am – 12.30pm, and costs $30. Please contact Sue Cripwell suecripwell01@gmail.com or 0411 542 248 for more details or to book.

Congregational Lunch

Put the date in your diary – the next Congregational Lunch will be on May 17th, after morning tea. Over 100 attended in November, it would be lovely to see a big turn out again!

Wilderness

Listen!
Psalm 25:1-10 | Mark 1:9-15

So we enter into the time of Lent; a time best known, in popular culture, at least, as a time to give something up. Now in previous years I’ve done all the standard sorts of Lenten fasts – alcohol, coffee, sweets; so this year I wasn’t sure what to do. But fortunately, on Friday the decision was made for me: this year, I’ve decided to give up caring about how England are doing in the cricket. It’s hard, but at least the lads are doing their best to make it easier for me.

Of course, in modern years, and with an eye to shedding the negative, life-restricting image that the Church too often has, many people have tried to change the emphasis of Lent. It’s quite popular now to talk of taking something up instead of giving something up; to view Lent as an opportunity to build a new, positive dimension in your life; whether that be committing to a time of prayer or reading of the Bible, or a regular act of service, or spending increased time with family and friends, or giving in a more disciplined way to a cause you believe in.

In truth, all of these things: choosing the discipline of going without, or the discipline of taking something up, of reflecting, acting and connecting with the wider world, are just parts of what Lent has traditionally been about.

Lent is a time of getting ready.

But getting ready for what?

Well, one obvious answer, rather suggested by the calendar, is that Lent is about getting ready for Easter. It makes a certain sense – we have advent, a period of getting ready for the great mystery of Christmas, and we have Lent, a period of getting ready for the great mystery of Easter.

And indeed, one of the earliest traditions of a Lenten fast was for those wishing to be baptised into the first century Church. Lent, for them, was an intense period of fasting and study, preparing themselves for the lifechanging commitment that they would make on Easter Sunday.

Perhaps that’s a hint about what sort of getting ready Lent is all about.

Of course, the period of 40 days of lent is an echo of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. Perhaps as you heard the story read today you were stuck, as I was, by how much seemed to be missing from it. Because we all know the story of Jesus’ temptation, right? Turn stones into bread, leap from the top of the Temple, worship satan in return for all the kingdoms of the earth. All of that detail is there in both Matthew and Luke’s account of the temptation.

But all Mark gives us is one sentence: He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
But the story occupies a crucial spot in Mark’s narrative: it stands between the Baptism of Jesus and the start of his ministry.

In the story of the baptism of Jesus we get God declaring who Jesus is: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”. Perhaps for Jesus this is the confirmation of what he already knew; perhaps it is the crystallisation of some sense that had been growing in him over the years; perhaps it was a moment of stunning revelation. But whether it was the culmination of a gradual process or a radical shock, it was a declaration of who he was: the child of God, the beloved of God.

And in the verses straight after the temptation, we have the start – and in many ways, the summary – of Jesus’ ministry. He came proclaiming the good news of God: that is – the kingdom of God has come near.

And between the two, lies the wilderness. The wilderness and the temptation took Jesus from God’s declaration of who he was, to his declaration of what he was going to do.
This is the sense of getting ready that we see in the tradition of Lent. Not preparing for a celebration, as we prepare in advent for Christmas, not preparing in any external, organising sort of sense; not getting something ready, but getting ready to act. Just as the time in the wilderness took Jesus from recognition of who he was, as the son of God, to what he was called to do, the time of Lent is intended to take us on a journey from who we are – children of God, called to be God’s family – to what we are called to do.

Of course, for most of us, we’ve been here many times before, we’ve gone through many Lents. We aren’t making that first transition from a recognition of God’s love for us to a commitment to action in response to that love. But each year we take the chance to stop; almost to start again; to remember who we are, the beloved people of God, and to prepare ourselves once again for action.

Those early believers who started the tradition of Lent as a preparation for baptism were reflecting this. Those preparing for baptism were converts, believers – they had already recognised who they were in the eyes of God. Baptism marked their transition into the Church, the body of Christ, and into the mission and work thereof. But between those things, between who they were and what they would become, between their declaration of faith and their commitment to mission, lay a time of preparation, a time of getting ready.

It is this getting ready, this preparation, that we mark in the period of lent. And that is what lies behind all of our Lenten traditions.
We take up committed disciplines of prayer and study because it is in the depth of our relationship with God and our knowledge of the heart of God that we understand how the world was meant to be, understand the end point, the destination, the goal of our mission.

We go without, in part, to bridge the gap between our experience and the experiences of others; to gain just a fraction more understanding of what it is like to live without the luxuries that we take for granted. And we go without, in part, because it makes us stronger, reduces our dependency on stuff, asserts our freedom to enjoy the good things we have without being held captive by them.

And we take positive action; because having seen – at least in part – what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like, and having seen – at least in part – what the world today looks like, we long to do something about it, to be part of Jesus’ proclamation that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near”.

Lent is not an end in itself. Giving something up, or taking something up, is not the point. Being made ready to advance the things of God’s kingdom is the point.
So I don’t know if your tradition is to give something up, or to take up a discipline of prayer or study, or to engage more deeply in acts of service. I would encourage you to do something to mark the time of Lent; to pray, perhaps, for a different friend each day; or to give some time, each week, in service of others; or to read the scriptures more systematically; or to give something up, as an act of self control and solidarity with those who have no choice but to go without.

And I’d encourage you to hold these two thoughts in your mind as you practice whatever discipline it is that you have chosen: “you are God’s child, beloved, with you God is well pleased” and “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has drawn near”. And let this Lent form, once again the connection between who you are, who God has made you, and what you are going to do about it.

Amen

The image of God

Listen!
Genesis 1:24-31 | Mark 9:2-9
So we come at last to the final day of the process of creation – day six, the creation of humanity.

Except, of course, it’s not just the creation of humanity. We share this day with the creation of all sorts of other things – in fact, with the creation of all the animals that live on dry land; the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that creeps upon the earth.

We don’t even get a day to ourselves, but at the same time the description of the creation of humanity makes it clear that the author sees us as the pinnacle, the crowning glory of creation. Which seems to me to neatly capture the dual nature of humankind; we are another animal living on the earth, created in the same phase of the story as all the other animals – for you are dust, and to dust you will return – but at the same time, created uniquely in the image, the likeness of God.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”

Which is a pretty loaded phrase, rich with all sorts of hints and questions. For a start, did you notice how God’s voice changes? The opening days of the story are spoken in the passive “let there be light, let there be a dome”. And then it moves to the third person “let the waters bring forth”, “let the earth bring forth”. But when it comes to humanity, God speaks in the first person: “Let us make”. The imagery is almost like that of a master craftsman, who has been prepared to give commands to the apprentices; but now takes on the finishing touches of the work herself.

‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness

Which is, let’s face it, a fairly problematic phrase. In the image of God, according to the likeness of God.

Now there is plenty of scriptural evidence that the people of Israel did not believe that God had, or took, a physical form, so despite the fact that there are places where that idea seems to have leaked into the scriptures from other ancient belief systems (in genesis 2, for instance, where God is described as ‘walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening’), it’s probably safe to say that the intent of the phrase ‘in God’s image’ was not to describe a physical likeness.

But what does it describe? It seems a fairly basic question – for the concept that we are made in God’s image is pretty foundational to our understanding of who we are in relationship to creation and in relationship to God.

But of course, as is the nature of poetry, the author doesn’t stop to give us a formal definition of the language used. Leaving space for some speculation, some imagination, some wondering.

Sometimes it is taken to refer to the idea that humanity is uniquely gifted with a soul; but the idea of an eternal soul is really quite alien to the ancient Hebrew worldview – it really only comes into Hebrew thought with the Hellenization of the world around the time of Alexander the Great. The idea eternal life, or of resurrection, to the extent that it existed in Jewish thought, was based on the faithfulness and memory of God, not on some property of humanity.

Or it is suggested that “made in the image of God” refers to the value of each unique human; that we should treat others justly and generously and mercifully, for they too are made in the image of God – which is of course true, but noticeably not an argument used by the Bible anywhere that I can think of. When the scriptures appeal to the people to treat the powerless well they generally either appeal to memory (“welcome the foreigner amongst you, for remember that you too were foreigners in Egypt”) or to empathy (“treat others as you would have them treat you”) or to God’s justice (“for as you judge others, so you will be judged”). The argument “for they are made in God’s image” is conspicuous by its absence.

Others speak of “the image of God” as referring to some unique property of humanity – consciousness, perhaps, or creativity, or the ability to form a relationship with God. But attractive as those ideas might be, there isn’t anything in the passage to suggest that they are, at least directly, what the author had in mind.

It seems to me that the best guess at the meaning of “made in the image of God” lies in the very next verses that follow. Recall that up to this point, God has been the only actor in the story; everything that has happened, has happened because God has said it should. All the power, all the authority, all the control, has been entirely in the hands of God.

But then “let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, and let them have power over the fish, the birds, the cattle, the wild creatures, the creeping things”.

The defining characteristic of God in the Genesis story is God’s creative power; and then God says “let us make humanity in our image and let them have power”.

I’ve spoken before about the humility of God portrayed in this account – the creation of that which is not God, the gifting of the ability to reproduce to creation, and now we have one more astonishing act of divine humility: the gifting of divine power to humanity – or perhaps, the sharing of divine power with humanity.

For though many – most – creatures manipulate their environments, to change the nature of creation that is around them, humanity uniquely shares with God the ability to purposefully and intentionally recreate the world around us.

It is this likeness of God that allowed nomadic people to become a settled, agrarian society; not dependent upon where food naturally grew, we had the power to choose to sow and water and reap.

It is this likeness of God that allowed us to take the wood of the trees and put it to use to build shelters, and later to burn it to fire bricks and build cities.

It is this likeness of God that has allowed us to breed and crossbreed – or even genetically engineer – animals and plants for our needs.
And, as Peter Parker would say (knowingly or otherwise, quoting Voltaire) – with great power comes great responsibility.

For the creation story speaks to this power of God gifted to us – the power to change, contradict, or undo what God has set in place. A power that we have for both good and ill; for creating wonders, and for incredible destruction.

It’s sometimes said that it is arrogant of us to believe that we could make any lasting change to God’s creation. But the creation account encourages us to admit our power, gifted by God, over creation, and with it to aknowledge our opportunities for great good and our responsibility – our share of culpability – for the great harm that is being done to world. For, through overconsumption and habitat destruction we (as humanity) are already responsible one of the greatest mass extinctions the earth has ever known, and, through climate change, are on the verge of wrecking greater destruction still. But it need not be so.

And when God saw everything that God had created, God said that it was very good. And in so many ways, gifted with God’s creative power, we have worked to make it even better, ever more beautiful. The creation story encourages us to celebrate those achievements, and to believe that we do have the power, even now, to act to prevent the worst of the damage that we have set in motion. We even know what it is we need to do; though there may be quite legitimate differences of opinion about how we should set about reducing greenhouse gas emissions; the one option that is both scientifically and theologically untenable is that it is ok to do nothing.

I’ve chosen to finish this series on the sixth day, though there is, of course, a seventh day in the creation story. For it seems to me that the sixth day, the day of life, the day of humanity, is where we are in the story. The seventh day; God’s rest, remains ahead of us, waiting for us, calling us on. One day, perhaps, we will all enjoy it, along with all that God has created. But until then, we live in the sixth day, gifted with God’s power, and there is work to do.

Amen

First walk of the year — Jerusalem Bay, Saturday,14th February, 2015

The Cartophiles gather at Cowan Station for the first walk of the year ………………. L-R James (obscured), Tim, Annie, Paul, David (obscured), Mary (back turned), Sue, Glenn, Angelina, Penny, John

The Cartophiles have opened our 2015 programme with the lovely walk along the Great North Walk from Cowan Station to Jerusalem BaCIMG1675y.  When we reached the iconic view from the headland we all felt so fresh that we decided to cross the small creek that enters the bay here and have lunch by the small waterfall at the start of the very steep climb out of Jerusalem Bay to Brooklyn.

Thirteen Cartophiles met at Cowan Station for an easy 10.30 start.  Regular members David, Paul, James, Annie, Mary, Sue and Kit were joined by occasional members Penny, Angelina, Nicolah, John and Glenn on a bright, mild morning ideal for a walk.  The recent overnight rains had muddied a couple of spots on the track, but mostly the footing was dry and solid.  The creeks were flowing gently, the trees rustled in the breeze and, even though the tide was out, Jerusalem Bay was filled with houseboats and swimming children when we arrived.

Lunch

Lunch

CIMG1681John and the children walked down onto the mud flats to look at the large groups of hermit crabs running between the puddles as the rest of us followed the track into the mossy creek bed.  We crossed to the sandstone overhang and trickling water of the grotto at the foot of the very steep hill that has been such good training for endurance walks in the past.  We had a very pleasant lunch in the dappled shade.

During the walk back up the hill the humidity in the gully began to get to us and we were all feeling the heat.  By the time we reached the cars we were all ready for our debrief at the Blue Gum Hotel, which luckily coincided with the start of Australia’s opening game of the ICC World Cup.  A lovely walk, good company, great scenery, and air conditioned pub, and cricket.  Life doesn’t get much better than this!

The Cartophiles’ next day walk is participating in the NSW Rogaining Association’s annual 6 hour Metrograine.

Movies for Lent

Three Saturday night inspiring and thought provoking movies – 6:45pm for 7pm start in the upper hall. Tea, coffee and nibbles provided, BYO wine!

Feb 21st – Chocolat
March 7th – Philomena
March 21st – Babette’s Feast

40 Days of Hope

Join us this Lent for a series of six studies from UnitingWorld, “40 Days of Hope”. Tuesdays from Feb. 24th, at the Manse, at 7:45pm.

Optional hard copies of the studies with daily prayers and an accompanying DVD are available from Chris for $12.

Kokoda Secret

Slightly belated congratulation to Susan Ramage, on the publishing of her book Kokoda Secret (available from Abbey’s Bookstore, abbeys.com.au) – the story of her father, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Hutchison. You can read more about it here – or talk to Susan!

Monsters and Fish

Listen!
Genesis 1:20-23 | Mark 1:29-39
And so, on the fifth day of the story, the ordered universe is ready for the emergence of animal life. There is a place for them – dry land for some, the seas for others – and there is structure; day and night, summer and winter – and there are the plants upon which they will survive.

So the time has come for things that move – for the birds that fly, and the fish that fill the seas. Fish that, of course, are the great gift of the oceans to the needs of humanity.

But at the same time, the oceans are also filled with danger. For they are still the place of chaos, feared by the people of Israel; and this fear takes concrete form in the creation of the great sea monsters.

Now if you do a bit of searching on the web you will find all sorts of theories abounding about these great sea monsters. They are, it seems, proof both for, and against, the existence of dinosaurs, they are mythical sea serpents, they are entirely real sea serpents that we have not yet discovered; they are the forebears of the loch ness monster; they are simply the great whales with really bad PR; they prove the ancient Israelites knew about giant squid; or they are dolphins with an inflated sense of self importance. OK, I made that last one up. But all the others you’ll find seriously argued online.

But as I read this passage – and others in the Old Testament which speak of the sea monsters, the leviathian, and the like – the impression I get is that of those old maps, where, written around the outside of the known and inhabited areas are the words “here be dragons”. For the oceans were the great unknown – and even the inland seas upon which the people of Israel would come to depend for fish were places of sudden danger – these were not the places of safety and order that the creation story speaks of God creating.

And in truth, even today the oceans are a vast unknown. It’s been estimated that for every species living in the ocean that we have identified, at least ten more remain undiscovered; most of the ocean floor remains unmapped and unexplored; it’s been said that reaching the depths of the ocean is harder than landing on the moon. For all our research and investigation we still know very little, for instance, about the giant squid – researchers can’t even agree if there is just one such species or many. And, of course, as we have discovered in the past months, the oceans are also vast enough to cause something as big as a passenger jet to disappear without trace, and to make the search more futile than the proverbial needle in a haystack.
But if the sea monsters are the “here be dragons” of the ocean, the fish are the gift – and, once again, the evidence of God’s provision. For on day five of the creation story God does not just create a few fish, but does it in abundance; swarms of living creatures to populate the oceans, filling the waters with an extravagant abundance of the fish upon which so much of the world will rely.

And then something new enters into the poetry of the story. We have seen a pattern of God speaking, as it were, into the whole of creation: let there be light, let there be a dome separating the waters below from the waters above, let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures; but here, for the first time, God seems to speak directly to a part of creation – “and God blessed them, saying ‘be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas’”.

Now at the time when the people of Israel came to be a people, a nation, and began to record their creation story, in the form that would be finally written down many years later, one of the things that they were doing was expressing how their understanding of God was different to that of the nations around them. And one of the common beliefs, or practices, of the religious systems of the day was that of fertility rituals – religious rites and sacrifices designed to enhance or renew the fertility of the crops, the herds, the oceans, and, indeed, the people. The belief that it was by these practices that the earth continued to reproduce was widespread.

And it was to these beliefs that these few verses of the Genesis story specifically speak, declaring that the fruitfulness of the oceans, and (for the words will be repeated in day six) of the animals of the land, arises not from religious rites but as a gift of God. That ultimately ability of the fish to fill the seas and the birds the skies and the animals to the land, is because God blessed them. The first words spoken to the creation; words of blessing, words gifting the fish and birds with the power to do what the plants could do by virtue of their seeds: be fruitful, multiply, fill the seas and skies and earth.

And those words of blessing to the fish were, of course, words of blessing to humanity as well. For it’s not always obvious to us in Australia, or the western world as a whole, with our ready access to cattle, and sheep, and poultry; but throughout history fish have been the main source of protein for humanity – even today, around a quarter of all protein consumed by humans is in the form of fish. We might eat seafood once or twice a week, but for over a billion people fish are a central part of their diet.

Once again the theme of the creation story comes back to this: God’s generosity, and the goodness, the fruitfulness of creation; the way that each stage in the process as told in this poem of creation describes a world made right for those who will inhabit it, made, if not safe, at least liveable.

And the fish filled the seas, and the birds filled the air. Just one space remained, one stanza in the poem. Everything is now ready for the grand finale.

The sixth day.

Amen

Vanuatu Literacy Project Kick-Off

On Tuesday February 17th we’ll be holding a kickoff meeting in support of the Vanuatu Literacy Project. Jane Kennedy, the project coordinator from UnitingWorld, will be coming along to join those from the school and Church communities who are interested in organising fund-raising and awareness-raising events in support of training librarians in Vanuatu. If you’re interested, please join us in the school library at 7pm.

Shrove Monday Pancakes

To avoid a clash with the Vanuatu Literacy Project meeting, this year we’ll be celebrating the little known feast of Shrove Monday for our traditional pancake party. Come along any time from 7pm on Monday 16th February, bring something that you can eat with pancakes or something that you can drink with pancakes, and we’ll provide the pancakes!

Time

Genesis 1:14-19 | Mark 1:21-28
Listen!

The earth has been completed; dry land has emerged, the sea and it’s destructive chaos driven back and constrained; and plants bearing seeds have covered the land. There are no animals yet in the story; not in the air or water or land; but the place is ready. Order has been brought to the geography of the cosmos.

But something is still lacking. Although the writer has used the language of “days”, of “evening and morning” to give shape to the poetry of the creation story, it is only here in the fourth “day” that God places lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night.

Even though light was the very first thing spoken into being on the first day, there seems to have been no order, no structure to the light– and just in case you haven’t noticed yet, the creation of structure, the imposition of order on a background of chaos, is one of the deep themes of the creation story.

So now here, in the fourth day, God’s work is to bring order to the light; to create day and night, giving each a great light, the sun and the moon, to rule over day and night, to keep the light of day separate from the darkness of night.

But the creation of day and night, and the bringing of order to the difference between the light of day and the darkness of night, is not all that’s happening here.

For the lights in the dome of the sky are signs not just of the days, but of the seasons, and of the years. The lights in the sky do not just mark day and night, they mark all of the basic units of time. For, of course, from the most primitive of times, people have known to read the skies, to tell time of day and time of year by the position of the sun and the stars.

Order has been brought not just to light, but to that most elusive of ideas, time.

For time is something which seems so obvious, so simple almost, but which proves to be incredibly difficult to pin down; it’s a slippery idea, resistant to definition. The great theoretical physicist, John Archibald Wheeler – a close collaborator with Einstein in his later years – described the scientific struggle with the idea of time like this:

“Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than “time.” Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time.”

When it comes to understanding what time actually is, we really aren’t all that far past Ray Cummings’ oft quoted quip “time is what stops everything from happening at once”. Or, for that matter, Douglas Adam’s “Time is an illusion. Lunchtime, doubly so”

Of course, the Genesis story doesn’t answer the sort of questions that theoretical physicists want to ask about time – such questions wouldn’t even have made sense to ask in the worldview of the ancients Hebrews.

But the orderly structure of time was of crucial importance to them – more so, perhaps, than it is to us. Signs to mark the seasons are no idle curiosity for a people moving from a nomadic existence to an early agrarian society. Indeed, this step is a natural follow on from the creation of plants bearing seed; for of course, the management of seed crops is crucially dependant upon knowledge of the seasons – and survival in a farming community is crucially dependant upon the reliability of the seasons. As many of you will know far better than good old city born and bred me, when rains fail to come when the seasons say they ought, or come when they ought not, it is a very short path from inconvenience to disaster.

So this day; like all that has come before in the story of creation, boils down to a declaration of the benevolence of God. Darkness, with all its dangers, has been driven back by the creation of light; the chaos of the waters has been driven back by the creation of the dome, and the constraint of the sea to allow dry land to emerge; the plants, capable of reproduction, upon which the people rely, have emerged; and now, the orderly, reliable, pattern of seasons has been established.

Order has been brought to creation; the order upon which human survival, human flourishing, human society, depends.

And – ironically, given the whole futile science v. creationism debate – it is this very order upon which science depends; the whole scientific endeavour starts with the assumption that the universe has rules which do not arbitrarily change. Thus it is that Johaan Kepler – one of the greatest students of the order of the starts – could say that “all I have done is to think God’s thoughts after him”
Whether it be for our crops, our sense of history, our planning ahead, or our science, the orderly nature of time is fundamental to creation. The gift of the fourth day.

Amen.

Newnes to Rocky Creek, Wollemi National Park Weekend 21st/22nd March, 2015

Wolgan Valley imageThe first overnight walk of the year takes the Cartophiles to the Wolgan Valley, one of the most impressive gorges in NSW. The Wolgan River rises in the Newnes State Forest and is rimmed by massive cliffs for nearly 30km downstream to where it meets the Capertee River to form the Colo River.

This walk starts at the Newnes Campsite, roughly halfway between Lithgow and Mudgee, and heads about 12km down the river on the old fire trail to the junction with Rocky Creek. The second day is a return walk.

The walk is along fire trails past refinery ruins, fenced off mine shafts and old farm sites running to nature. It is mostly pleasant, undulating walking except for one steep uphil climb about 4km in where a section of the track along the river was washed away by a massive flood in 1978 at a place known as the Devils Pinch.

For more information see 2015 Overnight Walk 1 (Newnes to Rocky Creek) flyer

You must register for this walk by Monday 9th March. For more information contact Kit Craig on 0411 507 422 or email cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org