St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

God is near

Psalm 145:10-18 | John 6:14-21
At the heart of the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus lies a deceptively simple, profound, provocative, and frequently misunderstood statement: Jesus was fully God, God incarnate.

When I say it’s frequently misunderstood what I mean is this: we often use it the wrong way round. That is, we take what we think we know of God – whether it be the philosophical categories of divinity that we inherit from Greek thought – omnipotence, omniscience and the rest – or the revelations of divinity in Hebrew thought – holiness, unity and so on – and try to apply them to Jesus.

And, frankly, we get into a mess. We have to start by saying that not every characteristic of God fits into Jesus – omnipresence, to start with – and we start wondering whether Jesus had, for instance, unlimited divine power as a baby, or as a toddler (which is a pretty scary thought). In some of the apocryphal stories of Jesus childhood there are cameos like Jesus as a child making clay pigeons and then breathing life into them; and those stories just seem, feel, wrong. But wouldn’t a child who was also God do stuff like that?

But the Christian belief of Jesus as God doesn’t work that way around. Instead of saying “Jesus is, in every way, like God”, what we need to hear is “God is, in every way, like Jesus”. Anything we think we know about God – whether we think it from instinct, reason, tradition, or the Bible, we need to hold up against the revelation of God that is Jesus; his life, his teaching, and most of all, his character.

As someone wrote recently “if your reading of the scriptures does not lead you to the conclusion that you should love all people, you are simply reading it wrongly”.

Our gospel reading today follows on from the feeding of the 5000. Now from my very unscientific survey of sermons on the feeding of the 5000, I’d estimate that about half of all preachers take it as a miracle of provision; like the manna in the desert (about which more next week), God multiplies the food to make sure that everyone has enough; and about half of all preachers speak of the miracle of generousity; that Jesus, through the generousity of a child, enables all those present to share what they have, so that all are fed. I tend towards that reading myself; and I’ll never be able to hear the reading again without the words “sharing our campfires” coming to mind.

I might just add one small observation to that story – in the synoptic gospels telling of the feeding of the 5000, Jesus has the people sit down “in 50s and 100s”. If the story here is really about the miracle of sharing we might just notice the brilliance of that simple act. That in the huge crowd, overwhelmed by need, everyone holds tightly to what they have. No one shares in a crowd of 5000. But in the smaller groups, where we can look at everyone, and see them as people, our instinct to share overcomes our fear of scarcity, and we can give.

Our politicians know it very well – we can be persuaded fear or reject the ill defined crowd – Muslims, Asylum Seekers, dole bludgers – in a way that breaks down when we realise that they are our friends, our neighbours, people like us.

When gathered as 50 or 100, as we are here today, we can feel a connection with one another that we do not have in the crowd. We are ultimately, designed to live as a village, not a city.

(In my first draft of that sentence I wrote “we are village people”. But fortunately I spotted it)

But whatever the process that took place at the feeding of the 5000, there can surely be no question that it was a picture of God at work; Jesus responding to the need of those around him, those who reached out to him to seek his help.

As the Psalmist wrote: “God is near to all who call on God”.

And the gospel story today is another example of the same; the disciples head across the lake towards Capernaum. Jesus is not with them (I’ll come back to that), and they find themselves getting nowhere. The wind is against them, the sea is rough.

And when they see Jesus, walking on the water, they are understandably terrified. But he comes to them, calms their fears, and brings them to to safety of the other side.

John’s telling of this story, you’ll notice, leaves out the whole Peter walking out to Jesus bit: perhaps because John isn’t trying to tell us something about the nature of faith. It seems as if John has a couple of messages embedded in this story. The first, and most obvious, is this: when the disciples got into trouble, when they weren’t getting anywhere, Jesus came to them, and helped them.

The second, perhaps a little more pointed, was this: the disciples went on ahead, without waiting for Jesus, and when they did that, they found themselves getting nowhere. Only when he was with them again did they start to make progress.

And those are both great messages. But I’d like for a moment to reflect on what is almost treated as a throwaway line, the reason Jesus was not with them:
When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Jesus was near to the people who needed food in the feeding of the 5000. He came near to the disciples in the boat when they were afraid. The psalmist tells us the God is near to all who call on God.

But when they came to Jesus to make him king, he was nowhere to be found. The reason the disciples found themselves, as evening fell, needing to travel on alone was just this: Jesus had withdrawn, because they (and I wonder who they means – the crowds? The disciples? All of them?) wanted to take Jesus and make him King by force (and again, the wording is ambiguous – was their intent to make Jesus king by force, or was it by force that they came to take him?)
God was near to those in need. But when those same people wanted to reshape Jesus into their own desires, to use him to advance their own ends, he was nowhere to be found.

And it made me wonder – how often are we guilty of that? How often do we fundamentally miss the point?

If it is true that what we need to know of God we can see in Jesus: then God is there for those who are in need, there for those who cry out to God, there for those who are afraid and getting nowhere – but absent to those who would take hold of God and use God to advance their own causes.

The people tried to take Jesus, as if they owned him, as if he was theirs to use, to gain the political freedom they desired; and he would have none of it.

I wonder if we in, or as, the Church are just as guilty of treating Jesus as if we owned him, as if he was ours to roll out. To seek to use Jesus, to seek to use God as if God were our property, as if we had the right to decide what God would do.

To seek – by force – to put God where we think God should be.

And to forget that Jesus point blank refused to be made king.

This is not to say that we should not allow our faith to shape what we believe in, the causes we will fight for, the values we will hold. Of course we do, of course we must.

We have every right – indded, a duty – to say (for instance) “because I am a follower of Jesus, and because I believe that Jesus stood up for those who were oppressed by his society, I will speak for those who have no voice, fight for those who cannot fight for themselves”.

But when we hear ourselves, or our fellow believers, saying “this is what God would do, this is what God thinks” I fear we have perhaps crossed a line. Especially when such pronouncements take us further from the gospel of God’s unconditional love.

We do not own God. We seek to follow him. But God is not ours.


Recent news of The Dish

Thanks to Alison Stewart for this update:

It is a while since a report was written about activities of The Dish Van. Quite a few new things have happened. Let me bring you up to date:

Hornsby Baptist Church have a team of cooks who prepared the meal earlier this month for our friends who come to share a meal each Friday. Manning the serving of the meal was another team from the Baptist Church at Hornsby – one of whom has been serving since he was in Year 11 at Normanhurst Boys’ High School. They will all be helping on a regular basis. This is great!

Turramurra Uniting Church has been preparing meals and serving at The Dish on the first Friday of the month for almost ten years – shortly after the activity commenced. This gives the organisers at St. John’s a break away from being “on hand” each week. To have other churches of the area taking on this task is a wonderful way for this activity to be shared by the whole community.

St. Phillip’s Anglican Church, South Turramurra, has a number of men who are also prepared to take on the task of driving the Van to Hornsby, on a rostered basis, to share the load of transporting the meals to serving.

Members of other churches and organisations are represented in those who form the team of volunteers who are rostered to serve each week. To all of these people and organisations we say “Thank you” for the continued help and enthusiasm you all have to continue this community support work.

Last weekend, after news of the death of a woman in Hornsby near the Great North Walk Track, The Dish was inundated in response to a Facebook page put up by one, Pauline, who had offered to help clothe, make warm, these folk who are sleeping rough or are cold with not enough warmth this extremely cold winter. North Shore Mums overwhelmed us with the goods that were brought to the Church. Janet and Alison were helped by Mel from St. Phillip’s to sort through everything. The generosity of local Mums was amazing. Many more “Thank you’s” are needed! Our storage area, in the Van and at the Church were soon filled. Tinned food was put aside so that we can distribute it each Friday we go to serve, women’s and men’s clothing was sorted and stored, then the remainder has been taken to St. Vincent de Paul at Hornsby. Each day needy folk come in to St. Vincent de Paul to get goods, clothing for themselves. This supply will help benefit those in need. There has been a wonderful response to this need this winter. The folk at the Store were delighted with the goods. The folk who receive them will be even more delighted.


With apologies for the substandard audio quality, here is Kit’s sermon from Sunday. Listen!

… and, here’s the text …

I don’t preach very often, so when I prepare I have the luxury of looking back over everything I’ve said before. Preparing for today I realised that the last several times I’ve preached, the sermon was based on stories about hiking.

Now, I’ve struggled with the morality of organising Cartophiles walks that take us away from church on a Sunday.  I’ve talked about this with Chris, and he’s reassured me that there is more than one way to worship God.  I certainly feel very close to God when I’m in the bush, and I guess the fact that my occasional sermons are based on hikes means there really is a strong element of worship in my bushwalking.

So, on that basis … who’d like to hear a hiking story?

Last month James Loxton and I walked from Mt Victoria to Govett’s Leap.  This is recommended to be a three day walk, but since it was just the two of us, and we’re very tough, we decided to do it in two days.  We walked past the planned day one campsite to make our way to Acacia Flat, the campsite for day two.

It was a pretty tough walk and we finally arrived at Acacia Flat well after dark.  It may surprise some of you to know that it was also quite cold.  Actually it was really, really cold.  Who’d have thought it would be cold in the Blue Mountains in June!

As we walked into the campsite we could see several fires, with people wearing headlamps around them.  We hauled up between three campfires, and pitched our tents.  James was a bit crook so he lay down in his tent to recover.

Now, here’s where things got a bit weird.  The Cartophiles typically reach our campsites pretty early.  Usually people come in after us and we invite them to share our fire.  That’s just the way it is.  That’s just the way we expect it to be.

But this time we arrived late and, surprisingly, no one invited us to share their fire.  I sat alone in the dark and cold eating my “arrival treat” and looking longingly at three fires all within about 25m of me.  After a while the three people at the nearest fire walked away.  I thought they’d left and gone to bed so I collected a bit of firewood, went over and stoked their abandoned fire.  James came over and joined me and we had a cab sav or two as we warmed ourselves.

As the fire grew we realised there was a tent nearby.  It turned out that the three people had merely gone to collect firewood themselves.  When they got back we learnt that they were a family: Simon and Alison and their 11 year old son, Joseph. After they put Joseph to bed Simon and Alison joined us at the fire. Their hike that weekend was training to walk the Overland Track in July.  James and I recounted our recent experience walking the Track, including details of the accommodation huts, as we shared a drink with them.

The next morning James and I were up before everyone else, so we lit the fire again and, as each tent roused, invited them to share the warmth.  Not everyone took us up on the offer, but we had several pleasant conversations we would otherwise have missed.  As each set of walkers left the campsite there were warm farewells and offers of good luck.

Later, as James and I climbed out of the Grose Valley, I thought about the experience.  If we hadn’t pushed our way into the fire circle the night before we never would have had that sense of community; everyone would have remained separate little campfires not sharing experiences and knowledge, not wishing each other luck, not helping each other along the way.  And I realised how that reflects our society.

Most of us huddle around our own metaphorical campfires, keeping ourselves warm but often never thinking to offer our warmth to others — probably not even noticing that they’re cold or in the dark.  Maybe we do notice, but we’re protecting our campfires and those of our family around it … like our 11 year old son … from a potential risk, even if we don’t really know that the risk exists.  It seems easier that way.

That’s not the way the Cartophiles expect it to be.  That’s not the way we should see it.

Today’s readings are about being one people, about breaking down barriers, “… You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household.”  As Christians we are called to share our campfires.  More, we are called to reach out to others and help them share their campfires.  We are called to seek opportunities to share comfort with others.

So, look inside yourselves and think about the last time you may have failed to share your campfire.  Think about when we here at St Johns may have failed to notice someone alone and cold and failed to offer warmth.  Look more widely at our country and think about how well Australia shares its campfire.

We are diminished when we huddle in our small groups without sharing.  We are even more diminished when we leave the latecomer to camp sitting alone in the dark and the cold.  Worse, we are not doing what Christ has asked us to do.

I won’t belabour the metaphor any more than this.  I had a moment as I climbed a hill where one of God’s truths came to me in the image of a simple campfire.  I’m sure you can find the same truth as soon as you think about it.

We are not doing the right thing if we leave others sitting alone in the cold and dark.  It’s our duty to share our campfire.  Remarkably, we learn and are enriched when we do … and it’s more fun when we share.  And underneath it all, as God shares His campfire, I think He wants us to have fun.


Joyce Eastaugh’s Funeral

As most people have probably heard, Joyce Eastaugh died early on Thursday morning. The funeral and celebration of her life will be at 1:30pm on Monday at St. John’s, followed by afternoon tea. Steve Aynsley, of Pymble Uniting Church, has kindly agreed to preside at the ceremony in Chris’ absence.


Micah 6:6-8 | Matthew 25:31-40
What is good, and what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
I can’t really take any credit for the work of The Dish. By the time I arrived at St. John’s it was up and running smoothly; I’ve never cooked a meal for The Dish (for which our friends would probably be grateful, did they but know), and hardly ever volunteered. My role seems to have been to chair a few meetings, and sign cheques and letters put in front of me by the treasurer and secretary respectively – normally reading them first.

So when I came to reflect on the work of The Dish for this celebration, the tenth anniversary, my memories were less “what I’ve done for the Dish” and more “what I’ve learned from the Dish”. Things I’ve learned about the world; things I’ve learned about vision; and things I’ve learned about mission.

So the first thing I’ve learned is something about the world in which we live, and it’s this: when Jesus said “The poor will always be with you”, he knew what he was talking about. If you’d asked me, moving to Wahroonga, what mission outreach I thought was most likely to be relevant to the Church, what social justice action a Church in the Northern Suburbs was likely to find itself called into, I don’t think that a van offering food and friendship to the homeless and disconnected would have been very near the top of my list.

But the truth is, of course, that the need of those who find themselves relying on the Dish, and the other services like it, has roots far more complex than simple lack of resources. Mental illness, domestic violence, histories of abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia; all these factors and more play their role in creating and sustaining systems of poverty; complex problems which are at least as much human as they are economic, and which therefore cry out for human solutions – of which, perhaps, a healthy meal in friendly, non-judgemental company, might be one small part.

The poor will always be with you – however much wealth you generate, and whatever suburb you live in – because poverty is about a great deal more than money.

The second thing I’ve learned – well, really, it’s a cluster of things I’ve learned – is about vision. Because Churches, of course, like most organisations, often spend a lot of time and energy trying to work out what their vision is; what they are meant to be, what they are called to do.

But perhaps a lesson of the Dish is that often – surely not always, but often – vision doesn’t come from brainstorming at Church council, but from a passionate individual. Perhaps this is something of what the prophet Joel was talking about in his famous words (quoted by Peter at Pentecost): I will pour out my spirit on all people; the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams.
The Church of God was never designed as a top-down organisation, where decisions taken by the elite get implemented by the pew fodder: the imagery of the Church is far more organic: a body, a vine, a building. For the Spirit of God moves where she will: sometimes in councils and vision planning meetings, other times in the heart of one who dares to listen.

But of course, the Dish would never have got off the ground if it had remained the vision of a single person. For the Church was also never called to be an anarchy of individualism. It is when the vision that comes to one finds a resonance in the hearts of many that something powerful emerges.

And then, the establishment of the Church can play its proper role: not dictating and directing, but giving permission and lending support, oversight, governance.

And the third thing I’ve learned (because of course, there have to be three, that’s just one of the rules of writing a sermon) is something about mission. Because The Dish, though started by and coordinated by a Church, has many volunteers – through the school communities, and through the general public – who do not identify with a congregation, who are not regular – or even, perhaps, occasional, worshippers at any Church, who do not, perhaps, even identify as of the Christian faith.

There are many in our community who are not interested in being part of a worshipping community, but who are more than ready to join hands with us when we step out in acts of mission. And I often wonder if the Church is not far more effective in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ when we take concrete steps to live it out, and invite those who are not of our faith to walk alongside us in doing the work of the Kingdom of God, rather than inviting them to join us as part of our group.

Because (and this is really my third and a half point) when people get involved in something like the Dish, the effect it has on them is at least as profound as the effect on those friends who we serve. This is why I’ve been so delighted to see the school communities join with us in the work of the Dish; because every child who helps prepare a meal is a child who has learned something about how fortunate they are, and something about what it means to serve others; and every parent who volunteers is one who understands just how important that lesson is for their children, their family, to genuinely understand.

As I was preparing for today, there was a quote doing the rounds on Facebook, and I’d like to end with it. Some words from Pope Francis, which I believe go to the heart of what we are celebrating today.

You pray for the hungry. And then you feed them. That’s how prayer works. Prayer is important, but you need to take action if you want things to change. It is not about praying for something and then doing nothing.