St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Congregational Breakfast

Another date for the diary – on December 4th we’ll be holding a congregational breakfast. Come along before Church to hear our own Sureka Goringe talk about her work with UnitingWorld….

Guests from Vanuatu

Put the date in your diary – I’m delighted that in late November Johnknox and Esther will be coming to Wahroonga as guests of Knox Grammar, and on Sunday November 27th they will be worshipping with us at St. John’s. John is principal of one of the schools supported by the Vanuatu Literacy Project, and I’m sure he’ll be delighted to share with us the impact that this project is having on his school and community!

Capt. Mona Shindy

I’m delighted to be able to announce that Naval Captain Mona Shindy will be the second guest speaker at our Building Bridges event on September 4th.

Capt. Shindy is the Chief of Navy’s Strategic Adviser on Islamic Cultural Affairs, Telstra Business Woman of the year 2015, and was awarded the Conspicuous Service Cross in the Australia Day honours list 2015.

Capt. Shindy will be joining Dr Ibrahim Mohammed, Grand Mufti of Australia for our inter-faith conversation on Islam in modern Australia.

Entrance is free, but book online to be sure of a place!

Our Daily Bread

Listen!
Exodus 16:13-21 | Luke 11:2-4
In the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, that we explored last week, we found a sort of statement of identity; of Jesus identifying with the traditions of intimacy with God, of holiness, and of justice that ran through the Jewish faith of his day – and indeed, the Jewish faith throughout history.

But it was more than just identifying Jesus, than locating him, as it were, in the broader streams of faith and spirituality, as it might have been if we had simply been overhearing a prayer that Jesus prayed. This was not just a prayer that Jesus prayed, it was his answer to the question “teach us to pray”. In other words, it was not simply locating himself in this intimate relationship with the Holy God whose Kingdom was being proclaimed in the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry – it was an invitation to us to see ourselves in that same place. Jesus does not just pray “father” – he invites us to do the same.

And now the prayer turns from locating us in our relationship with God, to seeking God’s involvement, God’s activity, in our lives and in the lives of those around us. We turn to making requests of God.

And the first request is “your kingdom come”.

In keeping with all of Jesus’ teaching, most explicitly, of course, the sermon on the mount, the followers of Jesus are taught again that the first thing, the priority, the centre of their life as people of Jesus, is the Kingdom of God. “Seek first the kingdom”, Jesus taught; “pray first for the kingdom” he tells us here.

Perhaps the most important neglected truth of the faith of Jesus Christ is this: it isn’t about us.

The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us, and about our needs, it is about the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of which are citizens, heralds, ambassadors, and servants.

The first thing in the Lord’s Prayer isn’t about us and our needs. But the second is.

Give us, each day, our daily bread.

Pray for the coming of God’s Kingdom; but then also pray for those things you need. In the next chapter of the gospel we will Luke’s telling of the sermon on the mount, and these words “strive for God’s Kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well”.

There is no denial of physical needs here, no call for self-abnegation; those things we strive for – sustenance, shelter, security – they are things we need, things God knows we need. The faith of Jesus Christ is not so self denying or hyper-spiritual as to deny our physical needs; it is simply reorientating: God’s kingdom first, and the rest will follow.

I’ve chosen to pair the gospel reading today with the story of the manna, because I don’t think there’s any doubt that this is the story that would have been called to the minds of those who first heard this prayer.

For the manna in the wilderness was one of those stories that every Jewish child heard as they grew up: if the story of the Exodus was the defining story of God setting the people free, then the story of the quail and manna was the defining story of God’s provision for God’s people.

So we hear God’s command: “gather as much as you need, all providing for all those in their own tents”. God’s provision, the giving of the manna, wasn’t a free for all; nor was each person responsible solely for what they needed. The responsibility was given to groups within the community to gather enough for their group – their family, perhaps, but more likely a rather more extended relationship group who travelled together. Don’t just gather for yourself what you need; gather, as a group, what you, as a group require.

But the command also specified that amount that would be needed; an omer to a person.

The gift that God was sending was to be enjoyed equitably; the God who, as Jesus would say “sends the rain on the just and the unjust” would here offer the same gift to all. Gather an omer for each person, God commanded.

Of course human nature being what it was, and the simple unpredictability of a large group of people setting out to gather a fixed total quantity, some gathered more and some gathered less. But when they came to measure it, the second, less prominent miracle occurred; they all found that they had the same, correct, amount – an omer each.

I remember reading this passage many years ago, perhaps when I was still in high school, and thinking “I understand those who gathered too much finding they only had the right amount. Those who were greedy, who took more than they were told, were not able to hold onto the excess. That makes sense. But those who gathered too little? Aren’t they just being rewarded for being lazy, when God makes up the difference?”

And only this week, as I came read the passage again did I realise the sort of subcultural assumption in my puzzlement. I had assumed that the only reason that someone might gather less than they were supposed to was laziness. Because I had grown up with that message all around me – that if you worked hard, you would be able to get what you needed; and that if you didn’t, you wouldn’t.

But there is no hint in the story of criticism of those who did not gather enough, no suggestion that they simply didn’t bother. And, for that matter, it’s hardly credible that hungry people in the wilderness, finding food on the ground around them, simply wouldn’t bother.

Indeed, the story tells us that when God commanded them to gather the manna, they did so – but some collected more, and some less.

And there are so many reasons why that might be, constraints of capacity, not willingness: tents in which the travellers were old, or young, sick, nursing, or pregnant, or simply incapable for one reason or another of gathering enough; where the load fell upon a few able bodied to provide for many who could not take part.

But the gift of God did not discriminate against those who were less able to gather; God sent the manna to old and young, healthy or sick, alike. Each gathered as they had ability, and found provision as they had need. The early Church, of course, would repeat this pattern – in Acts 4 we read that “there was none among them that lacked… for distribution was made to each as they had need”.

In fact, perhaps even more than they had need. For although it’s hard to be precise with ancient measurements, an omer was a generous serving; probably around a kg of bread. Certainly some chose to leave some of the manna for the next day. Perhaps they had learned well the lesson of scarcity.

Their decision to store food over was directly disobeying to Moses’ instructions to them. Which is one of those times when the command of God seems to go contrary to – well, not just common sense, but wisdom, and, in this case, the desire to provide for yourself and for those who depend upon you.

But God’s command was for a reason; placed into the broader context of the story, the people of God had been learning to trust God. Or rather, they had been fairly consistently failing to learn to trust God. The exodus itself, the column of smoke and fire, the provision of water from the stone; each miracle had been welcomed and then rapidly forgotten. The idea that God could be trusted for the future because of what God had done in the past had not taken root.

And when God is not trusted for the future, then we have to worry about it for ourselves… again, taking our minds, our focus, our attention, off the main game: first, the Kingdom of God.

“Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus will remind his friends, “tomorrow will worry about itself.”

And this does fight against all we learn; and challenges us, too, to question the balance we strike between living today, and looking out for tomorrow. For – and this runs terribly counter to our culture, especially to educated middle class culture – you will struggle to find any encouragement in the Bible to set aside for the future, and a great deal of encouragement to focusing on living the best, most generous life you can today.

We do, of course, have encouragement to provide for ourselves and those we are responsible for – and in our cultural context that can reasonably be thought to include planning for university fees, or costs of retirement and old age. But we ought, perhaps, to hear the words as a challenge – that the obsession with tomorrow can destroy our today.

That we live in a society that places great pressure on us to emphasise “productive time” over “relationship time”; and yet, as Rabbi Kushner wisely reflected, “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”.

An obsession with the needs of the future cuts into our relationships today, and it cuts into our generosity today; will I be generous with the surplus I find I hold, or store it against a rainy day?

The Lord’s Prayer, the sermon on the mount, the manna in the desert; all call us back towards that trust in God’s provision that sets us free to seek first the Kingdom of God, sets us free to invest in one another more than in our savings, sets us free to live generously with our time and money.

For we shall not live by bread alone.

Amen.

Berowra Lego Exhibition

On Saturday September 3rd, Berowra Uniting Church will be hosting their 7th annual Lego exhibition. Pre- and primary-school aged children are invited to enter models into the competition, and everyone is invited to come and see the extensive displays. Find out more here.

Poetry Night

Put the date in your diary – on September 24th, at 7:30pm, Margaret and John Cameron will host a Poetry Night at their home. Bring along a favourite poem to share or just come and enjoy everyone else’s contributions!

Father, Hallowed, Kingdom

Listen!
Luke 11:2-4
The last of our so called ‘summer’ series – summer because the narrative lectionary that we are following, like so much of our Church year, originates in Northern climes – is a series of weeks looking at perhaps the most famous words of Jesus: the Lord’s Prayer.

So for the next four weeks, we’ll be hearing the same, very short, gospel reading each week – these couple of verses from Luke’s gospel in which Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

Luke chapter 11 starts “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”

Even before we get into the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus’ response, there are already a few things we might notice from the way this question is asked. The disciples have been watching Jesus pray – and clearly this is no novelty to them. They’ve noticed that he prays. That it is part of who he is, how he lives, how he operates. I think we can assume – from his criticism of the Pharisees for their ostentatious prayer – that prayer was not something he made a big show of; but those who were close to him knew that he prayed. And not just as part of public worship, not just in the synagogue or in the temple, but in, as our reading has it “a certain place”, or, as we might say, nowhere in particular.

Jesus was known, by those who really knew him, as a man who prayed. And I, personally, find that immediately and deeply challenging. Because I’m guessing that if the people closest to me did some sort of 360 degree review of my life, and came up with a list of descriptors of who I am, I really doubt that “person of prayer” would be near the top of their list. If it was on the list at all.

And if for a moment I were to think – ‘ah, but that was Jesus, he didn’t expect us to pray as he did’, well, then I’m confronted by the fact that when the disciple asked Jesus ‘teach us to pray’, he didn’t answer the question with a question, or with a story, or an obscure but deeply profound red herring, as he so often seemed to do. No, when Jesus was asked ‘teach us to pray’, he did just that. When you compare it with his frequent redirection of questions asked of him, the very fact that he responded as he did is a simple validation of the request; before we even look at his answer, he has already said to us “yes, how to pray, that’s a good question, that’s the sort of question I want you to ask”.

Prayer matters to Jesus. Being a person of prayer is a good thing.

But that’s just the fact of Jesus’ reply. What about it’s content?

Well that, we’re going to take a few weeks to unpack. But let’s begin with just that opening line “Father, may your holy name be honoured”.

We’ve said it, or words like it, so often, that I’m sure we miss most of what’s going on in this one line.

Because the strange thing is, no one bit of this line is novel. Jesus tells us to pray to God as Father – with intimacy of a family relationship, claiming a closeness, and more; claiming in fact, a right, an inheritance, a status as the child of God. But Jesus wasn’t the first to pray like this, or the first to teach other to do so. It was a rich and active part of the tradition of the prophets within the Jewish faith to refer to God “father”. To recognise God’s relationship to the people as that of a loving, protective, parent. The prophet Isaiah, trusting in God’s faithfulness, wrote “Yet, O Lord, you are our father”; Jeremiah declared God’s word “I have become a Father to Israel”; Malachi asked “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?”

To speak of God as Father was not a new idea in the Jewish tradition. And nor, of course, was to pray that God’s name be hallowed – made holy, set apart, kept pure, special. That idea runs through the Old Testament scriptures.

No, to say “our Father” was no novelty, nor to say “hallowed be your name”. But to say them both, together?

You see, the thing was, the Jewish tradition that named God as father was a tradition of contemplation, a tradition that celebrated the closeness of God to God’s people. It was a tradition carried in the mystics.

But the tradition that declared the holiness of God’s name was a tradition of law, of purity, of separation, of the unapproachable greatness of God; a tradition carried by the Pharisees.

And, as Kipling said, “never the twain shall meet”.

Those who recognised God as parent, and those who recognised God as holy, other, unapproachable, did not – how can I say – did not see eye to eye. Was God approachable, a loving parent, or transcendent, the holy one.

But Jesus, in one phrase, claims both traditions, both truths:

“Father, may your holy name be hallowed”.

Father – hallowed. The intimately close is also the unimaginably different divine.

And if that weren’t enough, his very next words threw another tradition into the mix: “your kingdom come”.

And we’re really used to spiritualising those words “the Kingdom of God”, making them about our personal relationship, to God, our recognition of God as king of our lives – but if you read the way Jesus used them, and if you reflect even for a moment on the time and place and culture – a nation, who identified themselves with God, but who were under the control, the power, of a foreign, pagan emperor – to hear the words “the Kingdom of God” was inevitably to hear “of God, not of Caesar”; the Kingdom of God was a deeply political declaration.

And that’s certainly how it was used by those of Jesus’ day who most passionately sought the political kingdom of God’s people, who sought (and fought) for justice, for freedom, for self determination, apart from the rule of Rome. The zealots, those who took up arms against Rome and all of its collaborators, they used the language of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of our father David, the Kingdom of Israel.

And in the opening words of his prayer, Jesus claimed that tradition too.

If you’ve been at St. John’s for a while you’ll probably have heard me speak before about the social-religious-political movements that made up first century Judaism. Four major strands: the Essene, monastics, the people of the dead sea scrolls, those who carried the mystic tradition, the language of God as Father. The Pharisees, conservative even sometimes to the point of legalistic, passionate about the holiness of God and the deep, profound, rightness of living according to the Torah, the way of God, even at great personal cost. The zealots, political revolutionaries, committed to God’s rule here and now, to the overthrow of the injustice of Rome in favour of a social structure in which the widow, the fatherless, the poor would find shelter and safety.

To these three, Jesus speaks in the opening words of his prayer: “Father – hallowed one – your kingdom come”. The fourth group – the Saducees, the masters of real-politick, the ones who collaborated with Rome in the name of peace, who accepted the status-quo as inevitable and right, and found ways to make it work for them; they got nothing from these words. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that they were the ones who, in the end, would see to it that Jesus was crucified.
But the other three groups – the mystics, the religious conservatives and the political revolutionaries – they were all welcomed into the opening words of Jesus’ prayer: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.”

So today, I take from these words great challenge, and great hope. Challenge – because I hear the importance that Jesus placed on prayer, the priority it had in his life, the eagerness with which he taught his friends to pray, and I see that terribly poorly reflected in my life of checklists and action items and busyness.

But hope, because in these words I see something that draws together three great and often disparate strands of our faith: the spiritual wisdom and closeness to God held in trust by the mystics; the resistance to the cult of the spirit of the age that is carried in the knowledge of the unchanging holiness of God, held in the traditions of our faith; and the never ceasing agitation to fight against injustice, to challenge systems of oppression, to rediscover the cutting edge of the words of Jesus that is championed by movements of radical Christian faith.

Three strands which each have a powerful contribution to make to Church and to the world, which seem so often to be set against each other, but which in Jesus’ words are drawn together, affirmed together, blended into something far more than the sum of their parts.

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

Amen

Job restored

Listen!
Job 42:7-17
So today we come to the end of our short series on the book of Job. And I hope you’ve found as much in it as I have – I’ll admit to approaching these five weeks with some trepidation, unclear, as I’ve said that the answers offered by the writer of Job were words that I would find much benefit, much life, in.

In many ways, the book of Job has the problems of much of the Old Testament write large: the assumptions challenged by the author of a God so absolutely in control that nothing happens apart from God’s will; of divine justice so cut and dried that good leads to rewards and wrong to hardship; of a complete distinction between those who are the people of God and those who are the other; these assumptions, probed and challenged by the book of Job, just aren’t where I’m at, not scratching where I itch.

But dig a little deeper, as we have done, and it turns out that the theology that Job’s author rails against – the theology of purity, of justice which operates fundamentally by punishing the wrongdoer, of holiness which requires the exclusion of any other and is rewarded by material benefit – that these theologies are, sometimes explicitly but more often hidden, still very much at work today.

And so today we come to the final words of the book, and the final twists in the story.

The first twist, of course, is God’s words to Job’s friends – those who have been consistently arguing to Job that God must be trusted, must be right, must be acting justly. Over and again, they’ve told Job that whatever is happening to him must be God’s will and must therefore be fair: but God says to them “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

Now of course, the interesting thing about that line is that Job actually said very little of God. Most of his monologues have been more along the lines of “but I don’t understand, these simplistic descriptions of right and wrong and God and justice don’t seem to make sense, but I have nothing else to offer”
Perhaps it is this that God, in the words of the author of the book of Job, is affirming; Job’s questions, Job’s doubt, Job’s open lack of understanding, set against his friends answers, certainty, and declarations of wisdom.

But then there is one more twist in the story still to come. And it’s hidden in the concluding paragraph.

And the problem is, on one level this final paragraph, in which God restores Job’s fortunes and gives him back all that he has lost – and more – is actually the most offensive passage in the whole of the book.

In particular, where it says “he had seven sons and three daughters”.

Now right back in the beginning of the book of Job, in Chapter 1 verse 2, it says that there were born to Job seven sons and three daughters.

But all of those original ten children were killed in the opening chapters, in the great series of tragedies that tore Job’s life apart.

But here at the end, he has another family; God restoring his fortunes, the text describes it as; another seven sons and three daughters.

And I don’t know about you, but that just makes me want to pull this whole book out of the Bible. Job’s ten children all die – at Satan’s hand but with God’s permission; but it’s ok, God restores Job’s fortunes and gives him another full set of children.

Because, let’s face it, sons and daughters, they’re just interchangeable assets, right? As long as God gives him back the same number as he had to start with, it’s like nothing happened.

But then, just as I’m at the peak of my anger at the author, one final twist.

Now the book of Job, we need to recall, is one of the oldest parts of the Bible, in terms of the date in which the story was first constructed. It’s hard to be sure about these things, but there’s evidence that the story of Job existed, in more or less it’s current form, long before the writing of the creation story, the life of Abraham, or the exodus. While a few phrases or stanzas of poetry might date back as far, the book of Job is really early in development of Hebrew thought.

So with that in mind, notice this. At the end of the book of Job, he has three daughters – Jemimah, Keziah, and Keren-happuch, and seven sons – of whom we hear nothing more.

I challenge you to find anywhere else in the whole of the Bible that someone is reported as having both sons and daughters, and we are told the names of the girls, but not of the boys.

And while you are looking – in vain – perhaps you might also seek for another case in the scriptures in which the daughters are “given an inheritance along with their brothers”.

Here, in this ancient, this most ancient of stories, we have the tale of man who is righteous and faithful throughout, a man who God praises and whose prayers God hears, and a man who, in complete disregard for the custom of the day (for if it were the norm, it would not rate a mention) treats his daughters as people. People who deserve to have their names recorded – unlike many of the great women of the Bible who are just referred to as “a woman” or “someone’s wife” or “the daughter of” – and people who are worthy of inheriting the great wealth which has been the blessing of God.

And maybe this is a fittingly ambiguous end to a troublesome, thought provoking, question raising but not answering book.

That a storyteller from the depths of antiquity can be so casual about human life to treat Job’s first set of children as replaceable by his second; and yet at the same time be so egalitarian as to give Job’s daughters as much – indeed more – respect than his sons.

The book of Job, then, in a nutshell. Lots of questions. Hidden nuggets of wisdom. But very few answers

Amen

Knowing all the answers

Listen!
Job 48:1-8, 42:1-6 | Matthew 7:7-8
So this week we come to the end of God’s reply to Job.

You’ll recall that last week, God challenged Job – and, even more so, Job’s friends, with the accusation that they were speaking words of apparent wisdom, words of great confidence and understanding, words which were totally at odds with their profound ignorance about the things of God.

The opening of God’s response, I suggested, was a challenge to anyone who is so confident that they understand the world, understand God, understand others, that they can declare with certainty “this is the truth”.

A challenge to anyone who believes that the answers to the problems we face are simple and clear, and that only those who are foolish or wicked would disagree. For, as the 20th century American author H. L. Mencken wisely said, “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”. In fact, as we see in our world today, for every complex problem, there are in fact multiple answers, all of which are clear, simple, contradictory, and wrong.

Today, we reach the end of God’s answer.

And if last week was “you know nothing”, then this week is “for you are so small”.

Job demanded an answer of God. He wanted God to justify God’s actions, to explain why Job had suffered as he had.

And after God had criticised all those who had spoken for their pretence of wisdom, now God, in effect, concludes: “you don’t understand, because it is all too big for you.”

And in face of this reply, Job – well, Job backs down. “You are right,” he says, “I’ve spoken without knowledge, I don’t get the big picture, I don’t have the wisdom, I don’t have the information: and now you have spoken, I realise the foolishness of even thinking about challenging you”

Did I mention at all, that at times I find the message of the book of Job to be really negative, really unhelpful?

Is this really the message? Job wants to understand – because, let’s face it, he’s having a really bad time – and God says “you know nothing, who are you to demand answers from me?” – and Job says “you’re right, I’m sorry, I should never have asked.”

Or, as a friend of mine described it “Job is like ‘I want to understand’ and God’s reply is ‘stand down, and no-one gets hurt’”

Is that it? Is that the point?

At this point, it’s probably really important to remember the nature of the book of Job. It’s not biography. It’s not history. It’s not about the real suffering of a real man.

It’s an exploration of ideas. Keep that in mind…

A couple of years ago, someone asked on the website reddit, “If someone from the 1950s suddenly appeared today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain to them about life today?”. The answer that caught the imagination was “I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entirety of information known to man. I use it to look at pictures of cats and get in to arguments with strangers.”

Or perhaps you know the experience of Wikipedia time – you go to Wikipedia to just check up some factual information, and four hours later you’re reading an article about Monte Irvin, the 1950’s New York Giant’s baseball player.

Or did you know that there are about 100,000 novels published each year – in English alone. So as long as you’re reading 300 books a day, you’re not falling behind.

In the 18th and 19th century it was not entirely ridiculous for a scholar to set out with the ambition of knowing, more or less, all of human knowledge. If there is one thing we’ve learned since then it is that Shakespeare was right: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”

The truth is, we know that we cannot – and probably, with a little more thought, wouldn’t want to – know everything that is to be known. Can you imagine a world without questions, without mystery, without problems remaining to be solved?

We are not made to know all the answers. That actually isn’t part of what it means to be human.

But at the same time, we are made curious, made to ask questions.

Which is why the message I take from God’s response is two-fold.

To ask; to seek knowledge, understanding, wisdom: but to do so with the humility that comes from knowing our limitations, our capacity (or lack thereof), our profound ultimate ignorance.
But at the same time – to be reassured. That our lack of knowledge, our inability to understand, our failure to make sense of the universe and our experiences in it, does not mean that there is no meaning.

For God’s reply to Job is not “you do not, cannot, understand” so much as it is “you do not, cannot, understand, but I do”.

I’m not sure I would want to live in a world in which I knew all the answers. But I also don’t think that I would want to believe that there are no answers, that the world is meaningless, random, soulless.

Job got what he asked for – an answer (of sorts) from God.

It wasn’t an explanation. But it was a reassurance.

“You don’t understand. You can’t. How can one part of creation hope to hold within itself the whole? But it’s ok. I am the creator. I can see the whole. There are answers. Too big for you, but that’s ok. There are answers.”

I have to admit – and I don’t think you’re supposed to say this when you’re preaching – I’m not sold on that answer. But I guess I’ll live with it. As long, at least, as I can add one caveat, one answer I think, I hope, that God would add, which is this:

“so keep asking”

Don’t expect to know, never assume you understand.

But keep asking.

Amen