All posts by Judy

St John’s Dedication Festival

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Dedication Festival – 1 K8 22-30, Ps 84, 1P 2 4-10, Mt 7 24-29

Sometimes when you visit a special place in the Holy Hand, a fragment of Scripture will come alive for you in a new way. One such place for me is a little chapel inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem (Eastern churches call it the Church of the Resurrection). This ancient church was built around 326 CE by St Helene, the mother of the Emperor Constantine. It was built to enclose two important sites.

One site is the one that gives the Church its name, the Holy Sepulchre. Originally a cave was cut into the wall of a disused quarry, and bought by Joseph of Arimathea to serve as a family tomb. It’s the tomb he gave to enable the hasty burial of Jesus.

The other site is very close by. It’s a rough rocky outcrop that was left over in that disused limestone quarry. It was left there as it was useless for building material. Tradition places Jesus’ crucifixion on the top of this crumbly, fissured outcrop – a highly visible place just outside the city wall. And it’s still there to touch and to see. You can touch the top of the rock from inside a chapel built above it. You touch the stone by crawling under the altar and reaching down to it through a hole in the floor. And downstairs in a small, dimly-lit chapel, you can see its base lit up through a window set into the wall. Pilgrim groups walking the way of the cross stop here for the tenth time to remember Jesus being stripped of his garments before his crucifixion. And the scripture they read is one we heard this morning. The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner. 1 Pet 2.7b – Ps 118.22

Those words in that place. Jesus was the stone rejected by empire builders – people who built on the sand of their own ambition and pride, their selfishness and their cruelty. But Jesus rose from the dead, from a rock cave to be revealed as our cornerstone – the foundation on whom we and everyone and everything stands.

Today we gather in this much smaller, much younger stone church to give thanks for the hundred and eighty-one years of worship and loving service Christians have been able to offer here, and to affirm again that Jesus is our one foundation-stone.

Our parish family began its life here as St John’s in the Wilderness. But with time, things have changed. For many years now, we’ve been St John’s Halifax St., a central-city parish. How have we navigated this change; how have we responded faithfully to what this calls from us? Our foundation, Christ, has always been our guide. His love and acceptance offered to the poor, the lonely, the sick and the troubled have remained our standard. Our mission has become more complex with the passage of time. The needs we are called to address keep growing.

Years ago, we responded to these growing needs through the establishment of St John’s Youth Services, and by entering into a covenant with the Cathedral, St Mary Magdalene’s and Anglicare in order to nurture and manage the Magdalene Centre.

But now both SJYS and TMS have grown up, and despite the strong ties that still bind us, they’ve left us with something like empty-nesters’ syndrome. Painful as that is, it’s a good thing. We can celebrate the wonderful work our kids are doing out in the world. But we can’t relax. So what’s next? Many of us are very active as individuals in voluntary community work. But as a congregation – a parish – what’s our next project? How do we imagine ourselves as the body of Christ – as we say each week – embodying Jesus in a community where, in the post-Covid and climate-changing world, needs and crises are greater than they’ve ever been?

We’re empty nesters. One of Michael Leunig’s cartoons depicts an empty-nester couple sitting in their calf-leather recliner-rockers in front of a magnificent home-entertainment unit, each with a large glass of red in their hand. And there’s an embroidered sampler on the wall proclaiming their new motto: ‘We have overcome’.

Have they shut the world out? We can’t be like that. We have a founder whose example defines our mission as one of active compassion and an accepting hospitality right to the end. We know that we are called to follow Jesus, walking the way of struggle together with each other and with all in need. Today’s hymns, psalm and readings remind us that the blessings we enjoy are inextricably linked to Jesus’ model of compassion and radical hospitality. They say the only way we can live with integrity is to be firmly founded on Christ’s example all our lives. There’s no retirement age for a follower of Jesus.

We’re experiencing our call to mission in the world in a different way from earlier generations because the place we have in the hearts of the wider community is steadily deteriorating. It’s as though we’re coming to be seen in the way the builders saw that old rocky outcrop in the quarry back in Jerusalem; no use for building anything. Many can’t see us as relevant to anything in the modern world.

Rev Andrew’s irrigation installer asked him, ‘So whaddaya do for a crust?’ Andrew replied, ‘I’m a minister in the church.’ To which the irrigation installer scratched his head in bewilderments and exclaimed, ‘Geez Mate! There can’t be much call for that any more!’

The local community care we once offered is increasingly managed by corporate agencies; no longer so much through humble parish relationships with locals. But we have gifts that corporate agencies can only dream of. The stone that the builders might reject can still be revealed as the head of the corner by our response to Jesus’ call. We still offer the millennia-old sanctuary of life-long friendship and protection. We still offer life-long belonging in a family community whose first principle is loving acceptance and hospitality; and we still offer life-long companionship on the pilgrimage that each person travels. Corporate agencies, eat your heart out!

Particularly here at St John’s, as part of our community care, we treasure beauty, culture, creativity, thinking, art, history, literature and music. All of these are under growing threat as a utilitarian world-view poisons our governments against supporting creative people in need, or funding the study of the humanities and social sciences. Again, as in earlier dark ages, this Church – the stone the builders would reject – we can nurture and preserve these gifts of civilization which, like creation herself, proclaim our Saviour as the creative, redemptive giver of all life, beauty and meaning

So what are we going to do next? I’m seriously asking for suggestions from each of you. Building on our strengths is a good start, but how? Over to you.                           Amen

Many are called, but few are chosen

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 19 A – Exodus 32 1-14 Matthew 22 1-14

Was there a sign outside that wedding venue? Dress code. If ladies present, thongs, stubbies and dark blue singlets prohibited! Was it that sort of offence? Is choice of clothing so important that the heavenly bouncer, having roughed you up, then throws you into the outer darkness to weep and gnash your remaining teeth? I doubt it.

This is another in a series of parables where Jesus challenges some who believe they’re called and chosen to be the leaders of the chosen people. Jesus ends this parable with an unnerving warning: ‘many are called, but few are chosen’. Stung, these indignant chosen leaders will plot to trap Jesus.

A scary message of this parable is that there’s no guarantee you’re on the inside. Being on the invitation-list, being an insider – think of being a baptised or ordained member of the church today – neither qualification is a guarantee that you’re in – that you end up being chosen.

What about the chosen people; the called and chosen people – Israel? Over the past months, the lectionary has followed some central events of their call and choosing. The story of the Exodus records their rescue from slavery in the land of Egypt, and their journey towards the Promised Land. We’ve often been up close, like today, wincing at their rocky relationship with the God who rescued them. The people of Israel in the wilderness behave like the invited guests in today’s parable who violated the invitation so dreadfully. They were God’s invited guests – called out of slavery, led through the waters of the Red Sea to journey to a Promised Land, where they were to be blessed with freedom, justice, trust, wholeness and mutual respect; they were called to be a beacon of hope to the world.

To be the ones chosen for such a destiny was a staggering honour – called to robe yourselves in a rich garment of privilege that slaves could never have dreamt of. How do you begin to respond to such grace? This morning, sadly, we see how they do. As they wait for Moses to come back down from Mount Sinai, we watch them lose patience; lose trust. They decide to cover all bases and worship another god, just in case – an image of a golden calf which they make for themselves.

That’s what our parable depicts; people who only honour an invitation if they feel like it, who aren’t really committed – who don’t put on the garment – who publicly insult the King and his Son. The honour of the invitation is unimaginable; impossible to reciprocate. Yet they turn it down and even abuse and kill the bearers of the invitation.

In their place, strangers and foreigners are asked along, regardless; good or bad. This parable drives home the point that it’s not necessarily the people you’d expect to know God who actually do. God is more broad-minded than we can imagine, inviting … well… anyone … into the kingdom. That’s what makes Church so exciting; random; edgy – that’s something we call a foretaste of the heavenly banquet – the unpredictable, wonderful variety of the community God calls; God chooses – not whom we might have thought of at all.

Amidst all this, what’s this wedding garment about? The king noticed one hastily recruited guest who hadn’t put on a wedding garment. We’re clear that it’s an insult – not putting on the garment. But what is this wedding garment – what does it mean?

Over the centuries, people in the Church have come up with a fascinating range of possibilities. Very early on, Tertullian 160-225 CE said it was a garment of good works and self-denial. Later, Hilary of Poitiers 315-367 CE said the garment was the Holy Spirit. Augustine 354-430 CE had two goes; first that it was a garment of love, and then later, that the garment was the Christ himself, whom we put on at our baptism. The Reformation preachers said that the garment was faith; faith that was active – so it was something you could see expressed in love and good works. Catholics of that time agreed about it representing faith, but the faith they meant was shown by the guests accepting the invitation to the feast; not by the garment. For them, it was clearly a symbol of good works.

In the 18th century, a teaching surfaced that said wedding garments were given to guests by their hosts in that time. As you can imagine, this fitted very well into protestant teaching about faith as a gift from God; not a human work. That’s how it’s been preached in protestant circles now for over two centuries. Luz Matthäus III: 246-9

I think it was probably preached this way because people felt a need to explain why the king could deal so severely with a guest whose only offence was not to wear a wedding garment. And that severity is certainly an issue.

But this teaching about God giving the garment sidesteps what all the other interpreters of the wedding garment were trying to address, which is what the garment says about our true relationship with God. Whatever else they say, they agree that this wedding garment means that something about us really matters to God, and secondly, that putting this garment is to accept the invitation to belong to God; it is to receive a new identity as one of God’s community. Matthew put things in a pretty scary way – with the murderers and their punishment, and the gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness. Maybe their community needed a bit of a kick-start at the time: this is, of course, told to shape a community, not individuals. So what might this parable say specifically to us? Does our community wear this wedding garment?

By wearing this robe, our community can honour God and his Son. Wearing this robe, we can radiate the joy and expectation of a wedding banquet. Wearing this robe, we can be a beacon of hope in the world. Wearing this robe proclaims that God is changing us; that we’re a work in progress. As one American Catholic scholar put it, today’s ‘Gospel is not the announcement that [we are] fine the way we are. Rather, [that] God loves us so much that he will not leave us unchanged. Leonard R. Klein

We’re called to open ourselves to that grace; to stay open to it so we can be changed and go on being changed; to grow, which is to live. We’re called to put on the garment to signify to the world and to each other our true identity as a community of Christ.                   Amen.

The feasts of Francis and Michael

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Feasts of Francis and Michael – Jrm 22 13-16, Ps 148 1-13, Rev 12 7-12a, Mt 11 25-30

(Patron saint of ups and downs.) Today, one of those we celebrate is Francis. He’s a wanderer whom we remember with love for his words of encouragement and wisdom to people and to birds and animals. Our Psalm this morning could virtually be his theme song. Praise (הָלַל boast of) the Lord from the Earth! All the creatures in this Psalm are cause to boast of God’s greatness – land and sea creatures, forces of nature, all types of people; everything boasts of God, source of our being.

Psalm 148 takes us back into the journey of our last four weeks where we’ve joined together with forests, soils, wilderness and rivers to praise / boast of God who is with us. In our hearts and minds, we’ve walked in forests where the sounds of the life surrounding us gradually still our talk, and the peace of listening prayer settles in. We’ve acknowledged that we and all life are born of the soil; so we’re all one family. We’ve heard the invitation to stay long enough in the outback that its seeming changelessness brings about deep spiritual change in us. And last week, we recognised rivers as the living bloodstream of this Land – like the blood of Christ is for us, bringing new life, protection and deep healing.

Nature is the constant work of the living God; teaching us about God’s nature. As spring erupts, God’s love for all life and for Earth who sustains us is now on show for anyone to see. May our eyes and hearts keep opening up to embrace a much bigger family than just our fellow humans. This past month, Earth has been our spiritual guide. In Francis we meet a daring ancestor who opened himself, body and soul, to her leading; to the spiritual journey we’ve walked this Season of Creation.

We know Francis gave up a life of wealth and luxury. He set out on his new journey of service to God, barefoot and wearing only rags. His new life was marked by poverty and humility. His vocation – his calling – was to rebuild a Church which was being ruined by its power and wealth, just as he had been.

Alongside his challenge to the church – and that’s still going on – Francis was himself ‘rebuilt’. His new life of poverty and simplicity led Francis to learn that God’s love is for all, not just for the great and the lucky; and not just for the human race either. Francis lived that new insight more deeply as time went on. He taught that all creatures bear witness to God as we do; he called them our sisters and brothers; fellow servants and witnesses of God with us.

So Francis’s original calling from God was to reform the Church.

As his understanding of his vocation developed, it was obvious that Francis’s life would become a challenge to the whole social order. Society should be just and compassionate; all people should be cherished. This conviction lies behind the confronting nature of the scriptures set for his special day. I can imagine Francis preaching from today’s passage in Jeremiah as he takes a rich person to task for using the unpaid work of neighbours to build a luxury home. The example of Francis’s life directly challenged the greed and abuse this represented.

Francis, like Jesus, lamented the idea some have, that only the wise and intelligent are qualified to exercise spiritual authority, or are capable of receiving spiritual guidance. Francis, like all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and like Jesus, his model and his master, defied the curse of self-importance; the delusional contempt of this world’s ‘great and powerful’ for the welfare and wisdom of the vulnerable.

A barefoot man dressed in rags lived a life which defied this very powerful delusion. And there’s no point in denying that the delusion lives on. Deluded human beings still seek to take the place of God, and they bring disaster to millions. But a barefoot man in rags who wandered and taught as his Master had done still speaks with a moral authority which human power can’t silence.

Our reading from Revelation 12 reminds us that this is a spiritual, cosmic struggle; one we don’t fight alone. Angels and archangels fight for us in a battle against the forces of hatred. Michaelmas is a time to celebrate with thanksgiving the myriad angels God sends to defend, heal and sustain all life.

As if our mortality weren’t enough, every generation is compelled to endure greed, injustice, hatred and destruction. Michaelmas is a time to stop and remember that God never lets us face these trials alone.

Over the Season of Creation, we’ve looked at the way greed and the abuse of power have been allowed both to ravage the world’s forests, soils, wilderness and rivers; allowed to ruin the lives of the creatures and ordinary people who depend on them for their livelihoods. The feasts of Francis and Michael remind us to be humble, vigilant and outspoken.

In God’s strength, and with the saints and angels beside us, we are called as a prophetic people to name and challenge wrongs when we see them, and to offer support and healing to those who are weary with carrying these heavy burdens. Let us be angels sent by Jesus to give help, rest and hope to these dear ones.         Amen

The Fourth Sunday of Creation: River Sunday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 4A River Sunday – Rev 22 1-5, Mt 28 1-10

…the angel showed me the river of the water of life

Whenever I’m out walking with anyone and our path crosses a river, there’s something important we have to do. As we get to the bridge, we each have to find a small wooden stick. Then we go to the upstream side of the bridge, above the middle of the current, lean out as far as we can, and let our sticks drop. Then, for a slow river, we amble across to the downstream side, or for a fast one, we rush over to watch for our sticks to appear again.

Sometimes we treat it all superficially, as if it’s just a race; whose stick’s going to appear first? But deeper down, we share a hope. We hope the sticks we dropped at the upstream side will actually appear at the downstream side; that the unseen bit of the river will flow freely; that there aren’t any hidden snags. Sometimes it can take ages. All sorts of obstacles or eddies you can’t see might be lurking under that bridge. But we wait together in hope. Pooh-Sticks trains us in hope.

Another thing Pooh-Sticks teaches us – and yes, that is the official name of this spiritual exercise in the English-speaking world – another lesson of Pooh-Sticks is that upstream, our relationship with the river is quite different from what it is when we’re downstream. It’s as though we become different people. Upstream, once we’ve dropped our stick, our part of the job is over. We must trust the river to do the rest. All the fun and none of the responsibility – as grandparents sometimes say.

But for downstreamers, there are deeper questions of commitment. When our sticks do come into view, will we still be like the people we were upstream? As the stick appears, do we just smile, and then relieved, turn and walk on our way? Or do we stay to watch them out of sight? If we just turn and walk away, we haven’t grown; we’re still upstream people. But staying to watch – or even better, taking to the river bank and tracking alongside our sticks – we commit ourselves to the down-stream adventure the river calls from us; we commit to a relationship with the river.

We South Australians know well what it means to be downstream people. We’re conscious of our vulnerability. But perhaps we’re not always conscious of the miraculous, intricate web of life that’s also sustained by our river system, which in its turn looks after the health of the rivers themselves. This land is like a living body and the rivers are like its bloodstream. I read recently how the 30,000 Murray Darling Basin (MDB) wetlands don’t just sustain the land’s unique plant and wildlife. They’re like the rivers’ kidneys. They absorb nutrients, filter out pollutants and regulate flow so that they manage the rivers’ ‘flood-pressure’.

We know this is all in grave danger – particularly if the MDB plan is completely mutilated by the politics of greed. Over 80% of the waterbirds we had in 1987 have disappeared. And that seemingly limitless supply of red-gum firewood trucked in from NSW each winter; it’s a frightening local image of the holocaust in the MDB.

So while we hope and trust that those upstream will give us some thought, we must also remember the web of life which the rivers are less and less able to sustain. Are we and the upstreamers willing to be stewards of all this, or are we just another of the introduced pests; self-appointed top predators in a food-chain which we allow to serve only our own interests? What we throw in or take out of the river is a matter of life and death for a vast area of this land and all its ecosystems. Will our legacy be that of life-restoring custodians of the rivers, or the ones who finally killed them?

In Rev 22.1, we heard these words; the angel showed me the river of the water of life. These words echo the story we read three weeks ago in Gen 2 about a stream rising from the Earth – a river flowing out from Eden to water the garden. At the centre of that garden grew the tree of life. The river flowed out and branched into four rivers which brought life to the known Earth. But then we read how the humans behaved like up-stream people. We did what we felt like doing, and the world downstream was cursed to weather the consequences of our selfishness.

Today, hearing the final chapter of the book of Revelation, by the Grace of God, we’re given a call to recommit to being downstream people. And the stream is again the River of the Water of Life. This time, it flows towards us from the Throne of God, past the tree of life, again offering year-round fruit, and now also providing desperately-needed healing to the nations. It’s a clear message for us!

Both the people who wrote the early chapters of Genesis, and John of Patmos who gave us the book of Revelation, were writing at a time of community crisis. Each of their communities was crushed by a powerful, upstream empire; Babylon and Rome respectively. Each community was looking for God to help them with the terrible suffering they were enduring. Their misery was caused by the same thing; the selfish abuse of power by a ruling elite; people of the great cities who sucked up all the goods, and ultimately even the lives of the people of the lands they colonised.

The first river flowed out of Eden to water the garden. People were placed in this garden which was able to provide for everyone’s needs. Yet some wanted more, and they took it, bringing a curse on the ground, our Mother. Human development has been a curse on the land ever since. And yet in Revelation, at the end, God is offering the River of the Water of Life again. This time, very surprisingly, it’s coming from a city to bring healing to the lands; to a renewed Earth, not a new one.

The river at the beginning of our Scriptures and the river at their end both bring life. They are one and the same river. They’re a beautiful image of God coming to us both from our past and from our future along the stream of eternal life. One of the most amazing things about God’s relationship with us is that God approaches us in all time. God comes from our past as we saw in Genesis, and in today’s vision from Revelation, we also see God coming to us from our future. And all the while, God is with us here and now. Do we choose to be upstreamers, entitled and detached, or downstreamers, Earth’s grateful servants and committed protectors?   Amen

The Third Sunday of Creation: Outback-Wilderness Sunday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 3A Outback–Wilderness Sunday-Joel 1 8-10, 17-20 Ps 18 6-19 Rom 8 18-27 Mt 3 13–4 2

In my last parish, we did something the Archbishop’s requiring all parishes to do again now; we worked together to develop a Mission Action Plan – a MAP. This parish well knows that a mission’s something you’re sent to accomplish. Anyway, we prayed, thought and discussed what God might want us to do. Eventually, it became clear that God’s mission for us was to work alongside Aboriginal people. We did this in several ways over following years. One of the upshots of that mission is that Vicky, the girls and I have been adopted into a central desert family in Papunya NT, and one of their daughters in particular is now also our daughter.

When Shekayla came to do her schooling here, Adelaide was quite bewildering for her. We confronted her with a strange wilderness filled with rules and regulations about time, money, strange manners and customs, and endless bureaucracy. Her home languages don’t need words for time or number, let alone words to translate our crazy form-filling language; Centrelink, Medicare, bank account applications, and forms for work-experience and school excursions. We’re raised in this jungle of expectations and rules. It was all a painful, steep learning curve for Shekayla.

The shoe was on the other foot when we went to visit Papunya with a bunch of young people. Shekayla wanted to show us a rock-hole where Papunya’s kids like to swim. We drove out towards the nearby ranges, then the track gave out. So we climbed out onto a very stony, slippery landscape. We had sturdy shoes on, which was good; the stones on the ground slipped and moved under us, and they were ferociously hot from the sun. But Shekayla and her cousin Tobias didn’t bother with shoes. They skipped off ahead of us, absolutely at home in this pathless wilderness, laughing and calling out to each other in the beautiful, bubbly language the Land had given her people over tens of thousands of years. It was a precious vision. We saw children who were fully themselves and completely at one with their ancestral lands; kids we love and care for, but whom we really hardly knew.

The Land and its people in harmony; it’s a belonging we’re trying to recover during this Season of Creation. Genesis portrays our common origin with all life – Earth as Mother of all living – and also our tragic loss of that belonging. Today St Paul takes the image of Earth our Mother to a new level in Romans 8. Creation is groaning in labour pains, and we’re there in the birthing centre with her; yet at the same time, we’re in the birth canal – we are to be part of the anticipated, renewed Creation.

Paul reminded us today of the curse which God declared would befall Earth as a consequence of human recklessness. We’d already heard this over the past two weeks in Genesis. Paul goes on to name that curse as creation’s bondage to decay. We resonate with the truth of his words as we did with Genesis.

Because we’re seeing this curse in action right now, and at a catastrophic level. If we hadn’t been plundering the wilderness and making its wild creatures our food, this pandemic and several other of our recent plagues may never have happened.

So we groan with Earth as she endures this abuse. Yet as we’ve just noticed, Paul hears these groans as something more than the sounds of undeserved agony. When he says they’re the cries of Creation in labour, he injects a wonderful hope into the pain. The story’s not headed for inevitable tragedy; God doesn’t want it to be like that. New life is summoned from death; new life is revealed as old life reborn to goodness and health. Somehow, as we see in today’s Gospel, that’s connected with a willingness to endure the isolation and fear of wilderness; a wilderness of unknowing fear, and fearful hope, of hunger and isolation.

It was a good start for us to enter the risky wilderness out beyond Papunya. And it’ll probably be better if, next time we’re there, we go out one at a time; alone. Being alone with Creation, we discover connections with our deepest selves – and with our Maker. We might even learn to hear the groanings Paul describes: Creation groaning in labour pains; our own groaning as we wait to be born into the fulness of a redeemed, renewed Creation; and the groaning of the Holy Spirit, helping us in our weakness; interceding for us with sighs too deep for words.

Celia Kemp writes, When I first left the big cities for Australia’s north someone said ‘that’s great, you can stay for a year and it will look excellent on your CV’. [The implication was that] successful folk can’t spend too long out of the main game. Anywhere else is to be travelled through briefly to mine for experiences that can be used to benefit us back in the real world. ‘A packaged tour of the absolute’, to steal Annie Dillard’s term. … However if we duck the tour bus mentality and spend long enough in the desert the seemingly unchanging surroundings force a massive change in us. We let go of the illusion that we are somehow more special than others.

Surprisingly, one day, we are even glad to be rid of it. For we are free like we have never been before. Celia Kemp: Into the desert. Day 40
So much about our settled, city lives cuts us off from this. And the support systems we require to keep our ever-more-demanding cities alive are the engine room of the destruction we are wreaking on our world.

Plunge into the [wilderness] beyond your own comprehension … Bewilderment is the true comprehension. Not to know where you are going is the true knowledge. … That’s the way of the cross. You can’t find it yourself, so you must let [God] lead you as though you were a blind person. It’s not you, no person, no living creature, but God, who instructs you by word and Spirit in the way you should go. Martin Luther quoted in Bonhoeffer Nachfolge 83 Which way do you hear God calling us? Which wilderness?

The Second Sunday of Creation: Land Sunday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Land Sunday – Gen 3 14-19 & 4 8-16, Ps 139 7-12, Rom 5 12-17, Mt 12 38-40

My Mum has very, very green thumbs. When we were small, she transformed our garden from a sandy waste into a lush jungle. And she didn’t stop at our garden. When neighbours moved out anywhere up or down our street, before the next people arrived, she and a friend would duck in and plant things in those gardens too. So as I grew up, I watched our street slowly turn green. Mum’s every spare moment was spent in the garden, shadowed by a Labrador, several bantams waiting for her to lift the next pot and reveal the slaters beneath, and Andrew, our bluetongue lizard, ready for Mum to hand over each juicy snail she found.

Once Mum fell seriously ill – a very bad reaction to a cholera shot. Nothing seemed to help, and it wasn’t certain she’d survive. After days of anxiety, she whispered to Dad that if she could only get her hands back in the soil; she was sure it’d help her get better. Moments later, Dad was back with a bucketful of dirt. Her hands went straight into it, and almost immediately her recovery began. Soil bacteria have amazing healing properties – even for depressive illness.1. We come from the soil, we living things. Soil and us, we have a symbiotic relationship.

Today, Land Sunday, we focus on that connection; particularly how we’re looking after our relationship with the ground; looking after the health of the soils we depend on. Today’s two episodes from the early chapters of Genesis address our relationship with the land. They’re not very pleasant reading. We came in at the moment where Adam and Eve were banished from the garden because they’d betrayed God’s trust. Then we moved on to the story of a cold-blooded murder; Cain killed his brother Abel. These are early episodes in a series of catastrophes described in Gen 3–11 which Christian tradition knows as ‘the fall’; terrible choices which lock humanity out of paradise and alienate us from each other and from God.

We normally focus on the way ‘the fall’ alienated humanity from God. But today is Land Sunday, so we’re also reminded to look at the impact of ‘the fall’ both on Earth herself, and on our relationship with the soil. Significant when you think, only last week, we named soil our Mother; Earth, the Mother of all living things.
In the first episode we heard today – the expulsion from paradise – something odd happened. As well as suffering the consequences of our folly – one of which was the curse of patriarchy – God declared that the ground was cursed because of what we’d done. It’s like that story of The Portrait of Dorian Grey. The effects of the shocking things a man did were only visible in his portrait – something outside him, which he hid from others. That’s very like what we see in today’s world. Here in Australia, where land is still being clear-felled, the soil soon degrades or disappears in dust storms. It’s lost its living protection from erosion. But the perpetrators are nowhere in sight; we’re off stage left doing the same thing somewhere else. It’s clearly happening, but today yet another government is gutting the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. But more on that another day.

The second episode we read in Genesis today saw Cain murder his brother Abel. Cain is earlier identified as a tiller of the land; a settled farmer growing crops. Abel is a keeper of sheep; a nomadic shepherd. I can’t think of a time or a country where these two ways of life have not been in conflict, and nomads / subsistence farmers are always the losers. Right now in the Amazon, the Arctic, Mongolia, Indonesia the Philippines, and PNG, they’re still being evicted and murdered by people who replace their way of life with the settled agriculture our insatiable cities demand.

The American biblical scholar, Ched Myers, believes these stories in Genesis preserve the perspective of ancient indigenous peoples towards the ‘curse’ of aggressive, colonising civilisations.2. Today’s chapters were probably written by exiled Israelites trying to tell the story and the lesson of their abuse – in code, of course – first the extortion they endured from their own kings, and now from Babylon who had carried them off into slavery. These chapters describe the early days in ‘the longest war in history, in which relentlessly expanding civilizations conquer and exploit the Earth and all who live symbiotically with her. It continues to our day.’ Myers p. 90. And of course, it’s happening here too; the insatiable demands of our so-called civilization continue systematically to ruin traditional ways of life.

So what’s a faithful response? Our collect prayer reminded me of a poem by W.H. Auden; ‘In memory of W.B. Yeats’. Auden wrote, Earth receive an honoured guest, William Yeats is laid to rest. Our prayer of the day says something like that about us. We are sojourners passing through Creation. May we be gracious guests and mindful stewards … of your good world.

I confess I haven’t lived my waking life thinking ‘I’m a guest on Earth’; but I am. And when I do stop to think about it, it means that ideas I take for granted – like property ownership or citizenship – these ideas suddenly lose their solidity. They’re not real things; just agreed figments of our communal imagination. No I’m a guest; a steward; not an owner. Guests and stewards have obligations. And as we were reminded last week our first vocation is as servants and protectors of what is God’s.

I believe the faithful response that today’s scriptures call from us is a change of perspective. A change of perspective can change things dramatically. The land provides us guests and stewards with our life. Our deluded notions of ownership and entitlement underpin the destructiveness of our ‘advanced civilisation’. They’re an affront to the hospitality of Earth, and to God who made us to be her servants and protectors. Let’s turn from the curses; enmity, pain, endless toil and patriarchy.

This week, let’s focus our prayers on a simple change in perspective; I’m a guest, a steward; not an owner. Let’s remember the stories which tell how God is always calling us back from the dangers of jealousy and arrogance. Let’s go home today, stick our fingers in some soil, and remember that it’s God’s gift of life. Amen.

2 In N.C. Habel, D. Rhoads, & H.P. Santmire (Eds.), The Season of Creation: A Preaching Commentary p.88

The First Sunday of Creation: Forest Sunday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Forest Sunday – Gen 2 4b-22, Ps 139 13-16, Acts 17 22-28, John 3 1-16

Early on in my time as a Buddhist-leaning uni student, the local campus evangelist was on my case. He talked me into a few days away at a Christian retreat in the hills east of Melbourne. That was a tricky time for me; I was the only one there who wasn’t a Christian. To be polite, I tried to be as open-minded as possible. So at one point, I even headed off by myself into the nearby forest to give God an afternoon to let me know if there really was anyone there.

If I expected a divine voice, I was disappointed. God doesn’t cave in to that sort of pressure. But I’ve never forgotten the impact of being alone in that forest. A mountain ash forest is very good at making you feel small, yet exultant. The great trees soar up ramrod straight for 60 or 70 metres or more. Sitting alone with your back against one of these forest giants for a few hours is a rare experience for a child of the city. I was a visitor that the forest didn’t seem to notice. I was concentrating on the possibility of any word I might hear from God. So I missed what was really going on. But the smells of that day, the sounds, the living damp and the sense of being alive and insignificant have never left me.

Why go looking for God in a forest? परिव्रजका वनम गच्छत्ति The mendicant goes to the forest. Something deep inside me said it was a good place to look. Our reading from Genesis backs that up. In v. 7, God makes the first human (adam) from the dust of the ground. (adamah) And we read in vv. 9 and 19 that from this very same soil, God causes all the trees, every animal of the field, and every bird of the air to emerge. All of us – God forms us all from the Earth. So I was there with my ancient family that day. We’re connected with all life by the very nature we share with each other; we are all beings born from Earth. So in a forest, we’re with our family – with those fellow Earth creatures who connect us to our deep beginnings.

And there’s more. In this story, there’s a special element named in our kinship with the natural order. In v. 15, the first vocation we are given is to serve as protectors of the garden – the biosphere. This is before any command about law or loving God or neighbour. So we aren’t just connected to the plant and animal kingdoms by our shared provenance from Earth; we humans are connected to forests by our vocation.

In Hebrew, God declares that the human being is put in the garden to serve עָבַד and protect שָׁמַר it. Yet in fifty-one of fifty-two English translations, instead of the word serve, the translators choose to write that God put the first human into the garden ‘to till it (variants are tend, dress, cultivate, work, farm, or take care of it). And instead of protect, forty-nine of those fifty-two translations say we are to keep the garden (variants are care for, look after, maintain or watch over).

Only one of the fifty-two English translations says serve; and only three of them say guard. And French, German, Spanish and Italian translations are the same. Till and keep. Can you see how our translations subtly put us in charge of the garden – suggest that our work somehow earns us a right to it, as if the garden is there for us? The Hebrew is an important corrective. We’re here to serve the garden and protect it for God. It’s not ours; the garden is God’s gift to all life. Our work doesn’t earn us the right to take it over just for ourselves. The trees are there for much more than their value or utility to just us humans. Look at v. 9; Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The beauty of trees is their first quality, then their gift of food. There’s nothing there about value or utility to humans alone. Precious in themselves, trees proclaim God’s beauty and kindness.

Serve and protect the natural order; it’s our first vocation. Yet we’re doing the exact opposite. The effect on Earth of humanity’s blind greed for ever-increasing wealth, control and power is horrifying. The effect on the Earth community of our sin of arrogance – our selfish abuse of our fellow creatures and even poor and vulnerable fellow humans is monstrous. We were made to be much better than this.

The worldwide Church marks the Season of Creation so we can pray and learn to change; to learn what our tradition teaches us about our relationship with creation. Today we’ve seen how scripture says clearly what that relationship should be. So it also exposes how distorted that relationship is now. As God’s Church, it’s our duty to speak and act prophetically – to speak God’s mind on the great issues of our time, and to live accordingly. The great issue right now is human industrial-scale desecration of Earth’s sacred forests, rivers, oceans, soil, atmosphere and wildlife.

Our experience of Covid-19 should be a wake-up call. It shows us the risk of rejecting the life-principle of co-existence. Anyone who disregards their duty of service עָבַד and protection שָׁמַר of their community puts that whole community in grave danger. Can we see how this mirrors the danger of our abuse of the Earth-community’s fundamental interdependence? God is committed to the poor and the vulnerable, and to all our fellow creatures. Yet our daily news carries stories of the systematic destruction of forests and the people and creatures who live in them, all in the blind service of our insatiable consumerist lifestyle.

Nothing, no-one can live without forests – eucalypt, mixed, conifer or kelp. Today we read of our first vocation; to serve and protect the world’s forests as our family. Forests are screaming out to us; we must hear them and act. Churches must declare and model the fact that humans are to serve and protect forests; not destroy them. We answer to God for the forests and all the creatures they sustain. This must shape the social action of the whole Church, and of all individual Christians.       Amen

Being pilgrim people

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 13A – Ex 3 Rm 12 Mt 16

Jesus said …, If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Matt 16.24–25

There’s a remarkable story in the book of Jeremiah that’s never read in our worship services – for reasons which will become obvious. Jeremiah’s ministry had bits he’d rather have avoided. This time, (Ch 13) he had to buy a loincloth and preach in it for a long time without washing it. Then God told him to go and bury it in a cleft in the rock by the Euphrates River. Much later, God sent him back to the river to dig up his loincloth and resume preaching in it. We can only imagine how he looked.

First impressions make or break a person’s image. God wanted to show Israel and Judah how their way of living gave everybody a shocking first impression of God. As a people called to showcase the goodness of God to the nations, they were a disgrace. God says V. 11 ‘… as the loincloth clings to one’s loins, so I made … Israel and … Judah cling to me as the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.’

We’ve been thinking about our identity as the Body of Christ. We are like Christ’s clothing; the first impression people get of Jesus. As a community, being Jesus here and now is our true identity; our calling is to be living icons of Christ in our time and place. In the language of Jeremiah’s prophetic action, we’re the intimate clothing Christ wears; the first impression people get of what Jesus might be like.

Identity is partly nature, partly nurture, partly choice. And God’s people are able to make astounding choices. Last week, we heard the voices of Muslim people in Aotearoa/NZ. One voice struck me particularly; Janna Ezat’s. Her son Hussein was murdered at Al Noor Mosque. In court, she told the gunman “I decided to forgive you … In our Muslim faith we say . . . we are able to forgive. I forgive you. Damage was done and Hussein will never be here so I have only one choice to forgive you.”

God’s people can choose to show what God is truly like. Mostly, it means choosing the way of giving things up; choosing the more vulnerable way, as this mother did.

It goes against the grain to choose this way; we saw it in today’s scriptures; Peter’s allergic reaction to Jesus speaking about his coming passion, death and resurrection – Peter rebukes Jesus for talking like that; he calls on God to prohibit such a path. And Moses is hardly a model of enthusiasm when God tells him what his mission is. The way of – is it weakness, or is it trust? Whichever we call it, it doesn’t come naturally; it’s almost always a deliberate choice. But when we choose to accept this way – this pilgrimage – God is revealed. This will happen in a time and manner of God’s choosing. But we must know that I AM has called us – I AM sends us.

Last Sunday, I spoke briefly of a conversation where we discussed working on three aspects of our life as a parish to develop our ongoing mission as disciples of Jesus; those three things are Sanctuary, Community and Pilgrimage. Last week, our scriptures got us exploring Community – St John’s’ identity as the Body of Christ in this part of the city. Today the scriptures draw our focus to Pilgrimage. Moses is embarking on the Exodus – the perilous journey out of slavery for God’s people. And in the gospel, Jesus is inviting his disciples to the daunting Way of the Cross.

I believe that as a pilgrim people, the choices we make as we travel alongside others have the potential to reveal the companionship and the ways of God. Paul obviously thought this way when he wrote to the Christians in Rome. He portrayed those choices as revealing the love of God through our choices for love for others.

Let love be genuine; … show honour. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Give to saints and strangers. Bless those who persecute you; don’t curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony … don’t be haughty, associate with the lowly. Don’t repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Never avenge yourselves; no, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

As street directory for walking in the footsteps of Jesus, this is crystal clear. When people choose to accept this path – this pilgrimage – Christ is revealed to our fellow travellers. When we decide on a new mission, these are clear directions for helping us find our way, and for welcoming fellow travellers to come with us. Amen

Who do we say Jesus is?

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 12a – Ex 18-2.10, Ps 124, Rm 12 1-8, Mt 16 13-20

Our readings today invite us to think about identity. Moses’ identity, Jesus’ identity, Peter’s identity and our own identity. This question of identity matters; if we’re not clear about who we are, how can we expect others to know who we are? Vicky’s just shown us about how someone can go from one identity to another; Moses moved from being a slave to a prince of Egypt, but without losing his connection with his family of origin. The Gospel today talks about a similar move. Peter goes from being just himself to being the Rock of the Church, and having the identity of Christ. He is still himself, but he has taken on a broader identity.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus poses the question of his identity to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They tell him what they’ve overheard in the crowds. People say he’s one of their greatest prophets. But then Jesus asks, ‘[What about you]; Who do you say that I am?’, and Peter answers; ‘You’re the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ … Is that what we would say?

Messiah and Son of God: those titles name the one God’s people have been waiting and hoping for; the mighty defender and rescuer; the one to restore liberty to slaves, the healer, provider, giver of life itself; the one whose love is the very love of God.

This is the true identity of Jesus. Once we’ve realized this, it says something about our own identity as Jesus’ followers. Imitating Jesus is our true identity and mission. Imitating Jesus shapes us, the Church, to be a body that is Christ to others. We are sent to offer his gifts of liberty, healing, compassion, generosity, hope, life, peace and love to all comers – rescue in the here and now; not just the afterlife. The world needs to meet Jesus in us; in followers of Jesus.

Our NT readings both say the imitation of Christ is our calling; that being Jesus is our true identity. Did you notice in the Gospel how, as soon as Peter could name the true identity of Jesus, Jesus responded with a true identity for Peter? He changed his name from Simon to Peter; named him as one of the living stones of the Church; mortals who bind evil and set captives free; living embodiments of Jesus the Messiah.

As we see, what is true for Jesus the Messiah is true for all his followers. We’re sent out from our baptism to provide people with the very gifts we see offered by Jesus himself; healing, hope for freedom, unconditional, loving acceptance, compassion, and practical support, freely given to all comers.

Paul tells the Christians in Rome essentially the same thing. Paul tells a community with a multitude of opinions about who they are that 12.5 we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. Paul uses the analogy of a body to describe the fact that our differences are simply functional, like the difference between eyes and ears, feet and hands. Our calling is to work together as a body with a common mission to offer spiritual insight, practical service, wisdom, encouragement, generosity, leadership and hope. That’s our collective identity; a Christ Body in this place, animated by the Holy Spirit. We are the Body of Christ in this place. That’s who we say we are.

Who do other people say we are? Let’s think about that for a minute. What people say is very much shaped by their experience of the Anglican Church. So if they’ve been hurt by the Church, they’re likely to say we’re judgmental hypocrites who protect our own; we protect our paedophiles, our wealth and our social prestige; that we tell people how to live and who they may love; that we’re cultural imperialists who’ve actively engaged in the genocides of original cultures in this and many other lands. Very severe stuff, yet understandable.

And people who have no connection with the Church? They’re likely to see us as just another club or society; part of the establishment; another brick in the wall.

What do we do about this? The question is, when people encounter us at St John’s, do they meet Jesus? If we’re the ones who showcase Jesus – his blessings of sanctuary, belonging and journeying together with him – are we introducing people to the authentic Jesus?

For anyone who’s browsing for an impression of God, what might they think of the goods we have on most prominent display? Are we what Jesus is really like? This is a question worth asking ourselves, both as individuals and as a community.

How we embody Christ – our Christian identity – is significant. Many people don’t read the Bible. They’re going to look at us, and on the basis of what they see, they’ll form their opinion of Jesus. Will people recognise that we are offering everyone and anyone the glorious freedom of the children of God – like Jesus?

For some weeks now, we’ve had the opportunity of reading through the National Church Life Survey results for this parish. We can see what we value most highly and also what we most want to give attention to. We have a number of people who are interested in supporting social action and aid, and ensuring that new people are included. These are special gifts of this parish; spiritual gifts that we’ve been given. They’re qualities which closely match the character of Jesus. But is that something that’s visible both in our gatherings and beyond them?

At the moment it’s not prominent on our website; I don’t see stories of our day-to-day parish life there. Just a statement; ‘St John’s is an open and welcoming Christian community’. I can imagine a net-surfer seeing that and wondering, Okay, that sounds good! But is there evidence in what they do?’

As we look closely at our NCLS results we need to look with the eyes of people who might ask startling questions, ‘Will I meet Jesus if I come to this community?’ Will I find a sanctuary there? Will I find a community offering me friendship? Are there companions there for my spiritual journey? A seeker might say, ‘I heard Jesus got out on the streets and loved people. Does this community come out to find people like that?’

Who do people say Jesus is? We who say we are the body of Christ – does the life we live as his body mean people will really meet Jesus among us? … I think so.

Who do people say Jesus is? We say we’re the body of Christ. Can we plan for a future where people will continue to meet Jesus among us? … I believe we can.

Please pray with me that, by God’s grace, we grow as a community that makes Christ visible to others.   Amen

The Canaanite woman’s faith

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 11a – Matthew 15 21-28

A sick child gets healed in an instant. But before that joyful instant, there are some shocking moments. If you found the story shocking, you’re not alone. It’s so unlike the Jesus we think we know. What’s happened to him? Actually quite a lot; there’s been the feeding of the 5000, yet another fight with religious leaders and again Jesus withdraws to take refuge from the crowds and critics. This time, he goes way up north in the region of Tyre and Sidon, in Lebanon. But his last debate with the Pharisees about who’s an insider and who’s not – that debate won’t get left behind.

No sooner does Jesus escape the Pharisees than he’s being hounded by a foreigner – a local woman who cries out to him constantly that her daughter’s being tormented by a demon. A Canaanite woman. Canaanite civilization was the one Joshua meant to wipe out 1500 years earlier. But Joshua didn’t succeed; Canaan still had a sophisticated artistic, commercial and religious life in the time of Jesus. There was a big temple in Sidon dedicated to the Canaanite god Eshmun, a god of healing. But this woman doesn’t go to Eshmun for her daughter’s healing; she goes to Jesus.

She appears out of nowhere, crying out loudly and continuously that her daughter is tormented by a demon. She uses words familiar to us; eleison-me Kyrie – have mercy on me Lord. She calls Jesus ‘Son of David’. She knows who this exhausted traveller really is. But Jesus’s response shocks us. He meets her anguished cries with silence. Then, musing to himself, or to his disciples, he mutters that his mission was only to the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’. That’s what he’d taught his 10:5-6 But the woman’s cries continue. She confronts him; blocks his path – 25 she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26 He answered, ‘It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it [out] to the pet dogs.’

This shocks me. It’s insulting; racist; it devalues the woman’s humanity. It goes against all I proclaim Jesus to be. But then something unexpectedly cross-cultural happens. And it bridges the gulf between them. She accepts the insult – and it is an insult. She agrees with Jesus, but then uses his own dog image to contradict him.

Yes, Lord, yet even the pet dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. Cross cultural? Jewish households of the time didn’t allow dogs inside. So even though the word Jesus uses is the one for pet dogs, not wild dogs, he’s saying that for him, taking a gift he’s brought for Israel and giving it to a foreigner would be like flinging it out the window. But in this woman’s community, pet dogs did come inside. They’d be near the table, ready for any scraps that came their way. (Contrasts like this still between Middle Eastern communities) This woman doesn’t see herself asking for the children’s bread; she’s just desperate for any crumbs that may fall. For her child’s sake, she accepts the insult, and Jesus is won over; Woman, your faith is great. Let it be to you as you wish. Her daughter was healed from that hour.

She’s audacious and unflinching, and Jesus is won over by her unshakable faithfulness to her child, and her belief in him. Woman, your faith is great. Let it be to you as you wish. And her daughter was healed from that hour.

This woman teaches us about faith. Faith doesn’t just mean belief in the way we think of it. The Old English word beleven meant ‘to love’. So the belief aspect of faith is not belief in, but commitment to. It’s an expression of trust; of faithfulness, of love. This woman’s love for her daughter, and her trust in Jesus took him part of the way from local mission to world mission. He would only fully declare himself as Messiah to the whole world, not just Israel, after his resurrection. 28.16-20 She sensed the mercy of the Son of David. Somehow she knew that the heart of the mission of Jesus was not about who’s in or out; it was about grace; that ultimately, all are welcome in. That’s what Jesus came for, and I wonder if she helped him realise that.

Matthew’s community was based in this area, and this story flagged their mission as one to outsiders. It tells us about our mission too. Those unlooked for moments of distraction from the main game, when our mission seems to be hijacked by peripheral things and people – those very moments can be moments of insight which we must seize. We must also learn that peripheral people are not peripheral at all. We are all family. Jesus heard one call; he changed; he responded – and so must we. Amen