The 54th anniversary of my priesting – Father John Beiers

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Sermon for St. John’s Halifax Street on the 54th Anniversary of my Ordination to Priesthood

Last Tuesday was St. Barnabas’ Day the 11th of June, and I celebrated the 54th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. Some of you have asked me whether I could speak in a sermon about where I been, and what had happened in my ministry, because you knew very little about me and my origins. So here goes, with a few remarks also about St. Barnabas.

My Early Life

I was born in 1937 in QLD, in an obscure village of about 12 houses called Mungar

Junction, near Maryborough. I had a very loving family, (mother, father and two brothers), and I had an idyllic childhood, roaming free on my bicycle on the bush roads. Every month we made the trip into Maryborough to go ‘to church, and it was at the age of about 8 that I felt a calling to the priesthood.

Next came High School, and then University, when we moved to Brisbane. I gained a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering, and did 5 years post-graduate work, before going to Broken Hill to work underground to obtain my Mine Manager’s Certificate. After that I went to St Francis’ College in Brisbane to study for the priesthood. There, on a College Mission to Charters Towers in NQ, I learned my first lesson — that all visiting, and mission work needs to be placed in God’s hands before you start. Though there may appear to be little result, God has used you to place one more piece or pieces of the jigsaw of faith in someone’s life.

As I move from one part of my ministry to the next, I want to share with you some of the things that God taught me at each step.

I was ordained a priest on the 11t of June, 1970, Ste Barnabas’ Day. Barnabas’ actual name was Joseph, and he came from Cyprus, and there is quite a lot about him in the Acts of the Apostles. However, the apostles nicknamed him “Barnabas” meaning Son of Consolation, or the one who encourages, because of his kind and encouraging manner, his understanding heart, and willingness to take a back seat when someone greater than he came on the scene. As St Luke puts it, he was “good man, full of the Holy Spirit”, You cannot give a person a greater compliment than that! I tried to model my ministry on his, react like he might have, and learn by experience. He was martyred at Salamis in AD 61.

Bundaberg

I was sent to Bundaberg in 1970, where the rector was supposed to have a problem with alcohol. But he had had a stroke earlier in his life, which left one side of his face drooping, as if drunk. So, rumours abounded but he was kind, holy, and prayerful, so I learned not to listen to rumours, or judge from outward appearances.

Once a woman in the parish mis-heard the words of a sermon I preached and refused all attempts of mine to set matters straight. It was crucial that this happen by the next Saturday night, The rector Wd me to pray and believe, On Saturday afternoon I met her and it was as if nothing had ever happened. Thus, I was taught the importance of persistent, believing prayer. I also learned how to handle 5 Masses on a Sunday in a big parish.

St George

I was sent to St. George (Q) in 1972, a grazing and cotton growing centre. Here I learned how to accept with gratitude the gifts of grateful parishioners, and not feel that I had to respond in kind. I was taught that there is a God-like innate compassion in folk who never come to church. My brother, aged 21, was killed in a car accident near Seymour, Victoria, and that weekday afternoon, the church was filled with people for Evensong. A man I did not know told me to be ready at 4.00am the next day, and he would drive me to Newcastle so that I could take the funeral without stress.

It was here that I came to understand the charismatic renewal, and was introduced to the church’s ministry of healing, through seeing a woman healed of a brain tumour before my very eyes, in two days.

It was here that, after a disastrous flood which left dead sheep hung on barbed wire fences for miles and miles, that I feared for the faith of a young grazier, who had lost 9,000 sheep. He looked at me and said, “God has left me 1 ,000 sheep to start over again with.” It was here that I was called to a stockman (whom I did not know) in Dirranbandi hospital, 80km away, on a wet and windy night, who wanted to see me before he died of cancer but was hanging on to life. I did not want to go, as the black soil roads were slippery like ice, and I had a very small car and no-one in their right mind would travel that night. But I went, unwillingly, got bogged, sat glumly in the car, and was pulled out by the only car to pass me that night. At the hospital door I took off my mud-caked boots and gave the emaciated man the last rites. As I blessed him, he folded his hands on his chest, and just stopped breathing. I went outside on to the verandah and cried, asking God for forgiveness. I learned then that no matter who we may be, God can still use an unwilling servant. This was to be the greatest lesson I was ever to be taught.

Cunnamulla 

In 1975, as Head Brother of the Bush Brothers of St. Paul, I moved to Cunnamulla, where there were three brothers in the one house. There was a problem with the isolation of the rest of the Brothers whom I was expected to visit regularly. We prayed about it, and it seemed good to us and the HS that we should buy a plane do the job. So, in faith, I learned to fly, and we bought a Cessna 182. We did not actually have the money for the plane, but that year, our income increased through bequests by $20,000, which was the exact price of the plane.

Here I realized that Ecumenism began in the Outback, Because of the lack of young men and women, marriages tend to take place between young people from local cattle stations. Thus, Anglicans and Roman Catholics tend to intermarry, so that there are many blended families. In times of crisis, your neighbours are the only people that stand between life and death, so denominational difference is not an issue in the Outback.

It was also my job to take the Brother at Quilpie to minister to the station people from Quilpie to Birdsville, and to the north and the south. Arrangements were made weeks in advance through the Flying Doctor Radio Network based at the Birdsville Hospital. We would visit three stations a day for 5 days. One for morning smoko, one for afternoon smoko, and one for a Community Mass and a bed for the night. This was not difficult, as the stations were often only about 150 km apart.

Charleville

In 1978 1 moved to Charleville, where I had an episode with peritonitis, and moved to Dubbo as my new base. The Brotherhoods wound up in 1981, and I was asked by Archbishop Rayner to go to a Port Adelaide and make peace between the Catholics and Charismatics. That was not difficult, as both groups believe strongly in sacraments, prayer, love and healing.

Port Adelaide

This was, at last, a settled ministry, with only three churches. It was here that I was taught the importance of not moving until there was unanimous agreement in the parish council. No one wins, no one loses.

It was here that I learned the joy of being part of every family, and the ministry of healing expanded to include exorcism of houses, of which there were many. It seemed as if I could spend the rest of my life here. But in 1988 I was asked to go to Normanton, on the Gulf of Carpentaria, as p.i.c. of a parish with 7 far-flung centres of worship, each 150 km distant from the next. One unfair attraction was that I would be the assistant pilot of the Diocesan plane. I was confused, so I asked the 6 of the most prayerful parishioners to pray about this and ask God what HE wanted. All but one reported back that I was to go to Carpentaria. The last one said he was unhappy with my request to pray about it.

Normanton

So in 1988 I went to Normanton. It was extraordinary. It was part of my job to fly round all the parishes from Normanton to Cairns, and all points north to pick up people from the parishes for Diocesan Council, Clergy Conferences, Retreats and Synods and fly them to Horn Island, the airport for Thursday Island. I had also to fly round all the islands in the Torres Strait collecting reps for these functions on Thursday Island. In my first year, I was also locum at Cooktown, which I visited by plane once a month.

So, I would spend on an average one week in Normanton parish, and the next week piloting the plane, a Cessna 210, a 6seater. I obtained my First Class Instrument Rating at the age of 51 , and so could fly in all weathers whenever required, in relative safety. My most joyful moments, however, were when, after battling  rainstorms for two hours down the QLD coast, in zero visibility, at night, I descended through the clouds to 300 feet, and could see the high intensity runway lights of Cairns spread out before me, welcoming me to land. Thanks be to God!

Aberfoyle Park and Clarendon

Finally, in 1992, I left for AB and Clarendon. That was a wonderful parish in a different way. It was new, having been started by Fr. Gene Bennett, and it had no traditions. All the parishioners were new, or converts from other denominations, so their outlook was fresh and willing to try new things. I had a ball! I retired in the year 2000, and it was then that I developed high blood pressure. Amazing! Since then I have done many locums, both in the Diocese of The Murray and Adelaide, and finally made my home with God’s people St. John’s. I still maintain a quiet ministry based at my retirement cottage for those seeking prayer, consolation and healing.

Thank you for celebrating with me my 54th anniversary of priesting. I have had a privileged life, and I thank God for all that He has taught me.

 

 

 

 

Be a support for those with mental illness

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Reverend Dr. Elizabeth McWhae

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20, 14-15,  Psalm 138,   2 Corinthians 4:13-:5:1, Mark 3:20-35

INTRODUCTION

When Peter asked me to speak about my chaplaincy work I wondered what could I say about mental health chaplaincy that people would find interesting. So I went and checked the readings for this Sunday and the Gospel from Mark had the answer. In particular this verse referring to Jesus as those around him said “He has gone out of his mind”.

What more do I need, than this verse as a starting point, to talk about mental illness.

POINT 1

Having worked as a Mental Health Chaplain for 26 years, in both public and private psychiatric hospitals, I can tell you that it’s not just patients who have gone out of their minds, but staff as well, as they try to navigate the complex and often confusing world of mental illness.

So this morning I thought I would talk about what we mean when we say someone is out of their mind or out of their right mind, or to use a more politically correct term, mentally unwell. The first thing I want to say, very strongly, is this, anyone can develop a mental illness. Mental illness can happen to anyone, simply because we all have brains that can stop working well. So, it doesn’t matter how intelligent or slow we are, how strong or weak we are, how well off or poor we are, in what country we live, if we are city or rural dwellers, if we are single, married, de facto, gay, straight, widowed, or orphaned. No one is immune to mental illness, although some people may be more prone to it, but just like Covid or the flu, we can all get sick. Some people with a mental illness have insight or recognition about their unwellness. Other people appear to be completely insightless, deny that they are unwell, refuse treatment completely or are non-compliant.

And I think many of us know where that can lead.

POINT 2

So let’s ask the question, why does someone become mentally unwell? As you may guess, there is not a simple answer to this but many factors worth considering. Firstly there are biological factors such as genetic predisposition to certain mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression. There are also situational factors such as upbringing, various forms of abuse, grief and loss, living in a warzone comes to mind as well. Often a person has both biological and situational factors that contribute to their illness. Sometimes a person may have other illnesses that contribute to their mental illness, such as chronic pain from arthritis, a neurological disease or cancer. Then there are substances that if abused may lead to mental illness, for example alcohol, illicit and over prescribed drugs. And of course there is the age factor. As people age and develop more illnesses, these may contribute to mental illness as well. For example, it is not uncommon for someone with dementia to develop paranoid ideas.

So what I am saying is that many factors contribute to a person’s mental wellbeing or illness. It is possible to have a period of being mentally unwell and then things return to normal again. It is also possible to have recurring times of wellness and sickness. It’s possible to live one’s whole life without any mental illness. It’s equally possible to develop a mental illness in one’s youth and never to be well again.

POINT 3

As a community of faith, what does all this have to do with us? Quite a lot really. As a community we are called to love, accept and care for those who are sick and vulnerable. Jesus was always interested in those who were outcasts in his day. Today’s outcasts are often the mentally ill. Ask anyone with a serious mental illness and they will tell you about abandonment, from family, friends and society. Jesus always had time for outcasts. So should we. In fact Jesus spent a good portion of his time being an outcast from his family, from the synagogue, from some of his disciples. He even felt an outcast from God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was his cry from the cross.

I have often thought that a good indication of how welcoming a Christian community is determined by how welcoming they are of anyone who may be mentally struggling. And I always assume that any one of us could be that person. So we should be open and prepared for people to discuss their mental health or illness, if they wish to, and at the very least know that this is not a taboo subject.

CONCLUSION

Our world is a difficult place to inhabit at this point in time. It is not surprising that many people struggle with their mental health. I find it very interesting that while we as a society seem to acknowledge the growing number of people struggling with their mental wellbeing, at the same time we have far less hospital psychiatric beds now than 20 years ago. As a Christian community let us make every effort to address this issue with wisdom and sensitivity. Let us avoid simplistic answers to very complex problems, but rather listen, learn, share and offer support. Amen.

 

Servant Leadership

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Provided by Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 3B1 Sam 8, Ps 138, 2 Cor 4, Mk 3 20-35

The subject of today’s Bible readings is servant leadership. Three of today’s readings are about how we receive God’s leadership—we who proclaim God as our guide. They’re about the way we receive God’s leadership, and also about the type of people who should, in God’s view, be leaders among us.

The Psalmist knows God’s in charge. 2I will bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name because of your faithfulness and your loving-kindness, for you have made your name and your word supreme over all things. Kings praise God. But there’s a verse we might miss if we’re not awake, 6though the Lord is exalted, he looks upon the lowly and he comprehends the proud from afar. God’s interested in the little people. God won’t mix with the proud. So leadership among God’s people is not to be given to those who would seize it. Such people are not close to God. True leaders in God’s community are more likely to be called from among the lowly—the meek—and leadership in God’s community is to be focussed more on the needs of the lowly than on the rich and influential.

The reading from Samuel underlines this. Leadership in God’s community is not like leadership in the secular world. Israel already had a wonderful leader in Samuel. Samuel had been close to God all his life. So as Israel’s judge and prophet, he gave wise and faithful leadership. In Samuel’s time, God was tangibly there with the people of Israel, as provider and protector. But the elders knew Samuel’s sons were nothing like him. They panicked. They couldn’t see an obvious succession plan. So they ganged up on Samuel; tried to bully him into giving them a King; the sort of leader everyone else had. Samuel was naturally upset, but his first response was to seek God’s wisdom; he prayed.

And obeying God, he warned the elders about the sort of leadership they could expect from a king. He was right, of course. What he said remains true to this day—except that the 10% taxation he predicted was not where it would stop.

But the question for us remains: the leadership of God’s people, what’s it about? True leaders I’ve known are always thankful people. They see the best in everyone, and they have a strong sense of their servanthood. They want to offer something back; particularly to make a contribution to people who struggle—to raise them up. And we know from the footwashing story in John’s gospel that this was the spirit of leadership that Jesus has called all of us to exercise.

Today’s Gospel specifically warns us about bad leaders. Jesus’ family and the crowds, knowing the leaders they have, begin to be afraid for Jesus’ safety. His mission’s become too high-profile. He must be mad to let this happen. Vested interests both in the temple and in the political world are very dangerous. Question the authority of these people and they bite. We know the story of Jesus’ arrest and execution; they bite very hard.

But the family gets to him too late. The authorities are already down from Jerusalem and they’re taking matters in hand. Their tactic is slander: they publicly declare Jesus to be in league with the devil. Slander is utterly forbidden among God’s people: the ninth commandment says—You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour. The religious leaders from Jerusalem misrepresent Jesus’ care for the needy with their malicious, lying slander—he has a demon. That’s bad leadership.

We know that slander still remains a tactic that leaders use against the people who threaten their power. The tragedy is, it poisons the spirit of any group or society which accepts leadership from them. We find out why after the next few verses.

Jesus begins to respond to their slander with the parables of the house divided and robbers binding the strong man. His parables expose the falseness of their slander. But his next words are terrifying. 28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for [the scribes] had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

The scribes saw Jesus heal people and exorcise demons from them by the power of the Holy Spirit, but they called this Holy Spirit power satanic. Jesus says what they have done is an eternal sin—the unforgiveable sin. I remember being terrified of this as a teenager. I thought I might have done it. But actually, committing the unforgiveable sin is pretty hard. It means seeing a wonderful act of the Holy Spirit, and fully in your right mind, calling it evil—calling it a work of the devil. Few people will sink so far.

But when a leader is known to resort to malicious, lying slander—to call good works evil—and when the people they lead know this, yet still accept their leadership, it can poison the spirit of that group or society. They are being led astray in a most Godless manner, and they are knowingly following this lead. Someone must warn them: name the evil and warn them. And that’s where we come in. We—Jesus’ family—brothers and sisters and mothers of Jesus.

Jesus identifies his true family as those who do the will of God, like him. That makes us leaders like him—servant leaders. And the calling of servant leaders—from what we’ve read in the Scriptures this morning—the calling of servant leaders is to heal the sick, and to deliver the weakest and most vulnerable from whatever oppresses them, and to do this work without fear or favour.

Deliver the weakest and most vulnerable from whatever oppresses them. We know who they are—they are people slandered by false leaders:

  • Aboriginal people whom our society fails;
  • victims of abuse and attack who cry out for justice, yet are slandered by those who say they were asking for it because of how they dressed;
  • refugees;
  • the unemployed;
  • the homeless;
  • the mentally ill;
  • victims of disaster;

all of them so often falsely accused, and, so, just like Jesus. As he said, … “Truly I tell you, just as you [cared for / stood up for] one of the least of these … you did it to me.” Mt 25.40

So how do we serve Jesus? By doing as he did; by serving those he served—and in our service, we offer the world the type of leadership which alone heals and makes it whole. This is our calling as the royal priesthood of all the baptised. Amen

Treasure in Clay Jars

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Rt Rev’d Dr V. Devasahayam – former Bishop of Madras, Church of South India

II Corinthians 4: 5 – 12

  1. Container: Pot of Clay

Treasure boxes are ornate to reflect the worth of what is inside.  They are very durable to preserve the riches within.

Clay jars: unimportant, insignificant and inadequate, not valuable, made of common material, cheapest storage container used to store trash or refuse, expendable, easily discarded and replaced if broken.

Jar of clay: Human beings, lives of Paul and his team – Jesus’ choice of disciples – This is to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to humans.

“For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Gal. 6: 3)

  1. Content: Inestimable Treasure

‘Vessels’ are made to contain something, the sole purpose of the container. The vessel is not much in itself, but by what it holds, an inestimable treasure.

If the substance is not there, it is an empty vessel experiencing ‘neurosis of emptiness’, leading to loss of goal, meaning, purpose, life goes dead, leading to restlessness and rebellion.

Content or treasure is of a pearl of great price that a person would be willing to sell everything he had in order to obtain it. (Mt. 13:44): Jesus, the Gospel, Salvation – without this treasure, human life is empty.

The focus would be on the beauty of the treasure and not on the container.  We are to draw attention to Jesus, not to ourselves.  We have to glorify God and not get credit to ourselves: ‘we proclaim Jesus as Lord and ourselves as slaves’; Baptist: “He must increase and I must decrease.”

We are called to preserve the treasure: our relationship to Jesus becomes precious and of priority.

We are called to pass it on to others, that others might have this treasure of their own.  We have to tell others about the glorious things that we saw and experienced.

  1. Conserving Power: Transcendent Power

It speaks of the persecution genuine believers face when they tell people about Jesus, facing the same type of attacks that Jesus did, which resulted in His death (John 15: 28-20; Luke 9:23). Speaking the truth and standing on God’s word may be costly.

Peter: ‘Do not be surprised at the fiery trial…. But rejoice and be glad …. For suffering results in glory. (I Peter 4:12-14)

The secret of experiencing the life of Jesus is an attitude which welcomes the cross and gladly consents to having the ego crucified within us, as in the story of Gideon (Jud. 7:20-22). The vessel must be broken in order that the torches in the pots may shine forth. Our lives are hidden so that Christ is on display.

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  There is a power within, a transcendent power, which keeps pushing back with equal pressure against whatever comes from without.” A person who depends on his own strength would be shattered by these things as an earthen pot. God gives supernatural and sustaining strength.  God gives strength to get through and still reach people for Christ.

Suffering always reveals the weakness of the humans and greatness of God. God’s power is on its greatest display when it transforms a weak, selfish, fragile, broken human as a strong believer in Christ.

‘Death is at work in us but life in you’: In facing physical death and persecution, they brought spiritual and eternal life. Jesus: ‘the grain of wheat bears much fruit when it dies.’

Celebration of the Lord’s Table: It is the death of Jesus, producing the life of Jesus to be manifest within us, in order to be shared with others.

 

God the Most Holy Trinity – three persons, yet one God

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Trinity Sunday B  – Rom 8 12-17

Rom 8 15you have received a spirit of adoption. 16… the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Paul’s saying we’re adopted into God’s family. It’s a lovely image for us; we’re more complete as human beings when we belong in a family or a group of friends. Belonging in community is intrinsic to our being fully a person; we’re social beings. But why are we thinking about this on Trinity Sunday? We puzzle that out by going back to the source.

Let’s go back to Genesis 1.26, where we read: 26a …God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Well, what’s God’s image and likeness like? What are we really meant to be like? Today, on Trinity Sunday, the two questions come together. Our focus is on God the Most Holy Trinity – three persons, yet one God – God in community – and us adopted into that community.

It’s a baffling and complex mystery, this three-in-one and one-in-three character of God. But at its most straightforward level, we can say that God whom we worship – God, in whose image and likeness we are made – God is a community. Our God is a community of such beautiful harmony that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are, for us, in a sense indistinguishable from each other. They have been revealed to us as completely one in their love – loving each other and loving all creatures.

That love is why theology teachers don’t want us to replace the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit with alternatives like Creator, Redeemer & Sanctifier or Creator, Liberator & Sustainer because that’s not a loving community – we mask the relationship by calling it a division of labour. It’s like saying God the Trinity is three engines, each specialising in different jobs that just happen to co-operate. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a community of love who co-operate so closely that we can’t say who does what. And the love is so complete that we can only comprehend what comes from God as coming from loving community.

But what does all this have to do with us? God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. And Paul writes that we have received a spirit of adoption. … that very Spirit [bears] witness with our spirit that we are children of God. So here we are; a community of people who are mostly not related to each other by blood, and who probably wouldn’t know each other if God hadn’t adopted us all into this family. And somehow, together in this community, we are called to embody the image and likeness of God. Our pilgrimage, our journey of faith, is to discover what that means; both who we are, and why we’ve been called.

We’re different from a social club or a special interest club. The reason for this community is God’s love; God has called us together. And the purpose of this community is the same love we see at work in the community of love we call God whose Name is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The clearest picture we have of the community of love that is God is given to us by Jesus – who we believe is himself God reaching out to people. We see Jesus gather people around him. He creates community. And he doesn’t let this community stay indoors and keep all the love to itself. The community of love that Jesus establishes is shown how to be outgoing – active – to address everyone’s need to belong in loving community.

Jesus’s community of love is shown how to see broken hearts, broken relationships, broken people, and to respond with loving respect and compassion. A community of God’s love is creative – Spirit-filled. A community of God’s love offers new ways, new connections, new freedoms, healing. A community of love is a wonderful networker; always creating life-giving connections; always going for hope.

Of course there are good and bad ways to be community. We can belong in a family or a group like a church or a class at school and be perfectly comfortable and fulfilled ourselves. But at the same time, we can also be completely oblivious to people who might feel on the outer. Our needs are being met; we’re fine. But some aren’t. And while that’s the case, our community won’t be a clear image and likeness of God. Whole church communities can be like that too.

We are in many ways a broken community; but that’s not the end of the story. Because we’re on the way – we are a pilgrim community following our Lord; we’re being created anew, each day, more nearly into the image and likeness of the lovely community that is our God. We’re sent help: prophetic voices still speak; gifts of the Spirit like our healing ministry flourish here; compassionate hearts; hospitality … we’re being recreated as a community every day, and we can risk being bold and join in that community-building venture. We can join with all people who exhibit the image and likeness of God and make the worldwide community stronger.

God is a loving community: in that image and likeness God has called us into being. Jesus has shown us how, and the Spirit gives us the gifts to do it. A final word from Jesus: a prayer he offered for his disciples, including us. John 17.20-21 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,  so that the world may believe that you have sent me.           Amen

Pentecost – the feast of the Holy Spirit

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

The Day of PentecostActs 2, Ps 104 Rom 8, John 15 & 16

Pentecost Sunday is also the culmination of the week of prayer for Christian unity. It’s very appropriate. Pentecost is the feast of the Holy Spirit bringing to birth the world-wide Church; the Church in all its amazing diversity. The Spirit fulfils the promise God made to Abraham and Sarah; that through their descendants, every family of Earth would be blessed. Gen 12 Today, we saw it begin in our first reading. There’s a good case for calling the book of Acts the Acts of the Spirit.

Each pilgrim heard the disciples speaking in their own native language. People from all over the known world; from Rome, Africa, Crete, Turkey, Arabia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, you name it. They heard ordinary people from fishing villages in Galilee speaking all their heart languages to tell them about God’s deeds of power. And that day, about 3,000 of them responded and received baptism.

It’s an amazing event. Some people say the curse of Babel Gen 11 is reversed in this moment. The curse of confusion and estrangement was healed by a new creation of understanding and community. These Galileans could suddenly to speak the various human languages of their time. Everyone could understand. Everyone was included. It’s one of the important messages of that first Christian Pentecost. God is for inclusion and God is for diversity. There’s no pressure to conform; no forcing everyone to speak the same language. All are addressed in their own language, all invited; belong as you are. God is for a unity that embraces inclusion and diversity.

It’s something we see in the older Jewish Pentecost, called Shavuot; the festival of the giving of the Torah. One text that Jewish people always read at this festival is the story of Ruth. She was a foreign woman who received the Torah and so became a Jew. She was to become the great grandmother of David; their most revered king. Pentecost says everyone’s in. Everyone really belongs.

At the first Christian Pentecost, God included people by giving the disciples a gift of the various languages of that time so all the foreign pilgrims to Jerusalem heard the disciples speaking in their own native language.

Many Christians today also experience a gift of tongues, but in their case, we’re talking about something different from the human languages of today’s story. We’re talking about the tongues of angels.

You may be familiar with the expression tongues of angels from the reading we often hear at weddings, 1st Cor 13; the hymn to love. Though I speak in the tongues or mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. Tongues of angels. Many people have this gift; many don’t. And there are various attitudes to it. People in Pentecostal Churches value the gift very much. People in many other Churches tend to be suspicious of people using the gift in public worship. Paul teaches in 1 Cor 14 that if we have this or any other spiritual gift, its value is measured by the way we use it to build up an inclusive community of Jesus. Pentecost as we’ve seen is about everyone being in; everyone belonging.

I should say that I don’t have the gift of tongues, but it’s a most beautiful thing to hear – particularly singing in tongues. But what are tongues? What’s going on?

In 1 Cor 14, Paul writes that this gift is mostly something that strengthens the believer who has the gift. He says it’s not to be something which should dominate public worship. So in congregations that are used to this today, if someone speaks in tongues publicly – at the microphone – everyone will wait for someone to give an interpretation; to say what the angels’ message to them might be. And then someone else with a prophetic gift of discernment is expected to confirm the interpreted message. What is given must build up the Church, otherwise it can’t be received. So, as I said, more often, people with this gift exercise it privately – it builds them up in their faith so that they’re better able to build up their churches.

This is not something that I’m aware of happening much in this parish. So given God’s love of diversity and inclusion, and particularly at this feast of Pentecost, and the week of prayer for Christian unity I thought it appropriate to talk about it.

I believe at our Baptism, the Holy Spirit enters us and begins to pray for us and with us from deep within our hearts. Rom 8 26-7 The Spirit knows the deepest needs and gifts of our hearts better than we do. And in her love for us, she holds them up in prayer before the throne of grace. A very important, life-long process of prayer for us is to learn to hear those prayers of the Spirit and to let her prayers shape our own; to bring our prayer into harmony with hers. We can only receive this as a gift. I believe some people are given the gift of hearing, from their own tongues, the prayers which the Holy Spirit speaks from their hearts. It’s a beautiful thing; it calls us to participate in the love and understanding that flows within the Trinity, and for that miraculous honour poured out on us, I give God thanks and praise. Amen

Be an effective witness to the love of Jesus

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Rev’d Balabanski

Ascension b – Acts 1 1-11; Ps 93; Eph 1 15-23; Mk 16 15-20

A colleague of mine – a priest – was out at a local community event when a stranger asked if she had a moment to chat with him privately. As they moved away from the crowd, he said, ‘I don’t have anything to do with the Church, but I have a couple of questions.’ He was very churned up. A good friend of his had died, just a few weeks ago. And now, with the funeral over and a growing sense of emptiness and loneliness, two questions kept plaguing him. His tears started when he asked his questions out loud. ‘Where is she now? Is it okay that I keep talking to her?’

They’re really important questions. Probably every one of us will ask them one day. It’s a terribly painful place to be; Where is s/he? Will s/he hear me if I talk to her/him? None of us knows for certain. And our unknowing clouds our peace; it unsettles our happiness. You’d have hoped before Jesus’ Ascension he might have allowed a little light on our questions. But no, the light is blocked by a cloud. And the cloud of unknowing is a barrier they say only Love can pierce.

Jesus’ friends thought they’d lost him forever on Good Friday. But he rose to life again on Easter Day. It was so unexpected that they didn’t recognise him until he said their name, or broke bread with them. Today we watch with them as Jesus disappears into the cloud of all our unknowing. Jesus, the one who knows the answer to our hearts’ most agonized questions – dead on Friday, alive again on Sunday – and then he leaves us without answering.

Does that mean our questions have failed us? No; they haven’t. They’ve drawn us to Jesus. They’ve drawn us to this place where we can strain to see where it is he does go. We concentrate on that last glimpse – will we see what others have missed? Maybe we can work out his trajectory. Our questions must be answered.

But maybe we concentrate so hard on our questions that we miss what Jesus has said. Let’s face it; our priorities and questions aren’t often that important. Apart from times when we have lost someone precious or when someone we love is deathly ill, our questions can be amazingly trivial – tomorrow’s shopping plans; our favourite team; dinner tonight. His disciples were like that too. We saw them today in the Acts reading. They had their resurrected Lord with them, for heaven’s sake, and they asked him about politics … will you get rid of the Romans now?

But even if they had asked him the Big Questions – the life and death questions – I think his answer would have been the same. Jesus replied, ‘It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth

Poor question: huge answer. Our questions don’t fail us. Deep or trivial, they’ve drawn us to this place where Jesus is. And then he calls us to journey on with him. So we’re not given answers to our questions; we’re set free from them. We can leave them safely and respectfully at the foot of the Cross. Then, in place of our heavy load of questions, we’re given a journey. We are entrusted with a quest that is utterly breathtaking. Our calling is to carry on the ministry of Jesus himself. We’re invited to put on his sandals, and journey out to bless the world. You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

It’s not that our questions have been ignored. Jesus does know the pain of our questions. He’s lived and died them. There’s nothing wrong with our questions? They’ve done their job. They’ve brought us to the foot of the Cross. We can leave our questions there and follow Jesus, baptizing and teaching as he commanded.

Our job is to get out of our churches and help people to get to know Jesus. I bang on about this quite a bit; that we all have to get out and tell people about Jesus. It’ll take us out of our comfort zone. It’s not something we’re used to. When we ask the question, ‘How’s the Church going to continue if young families won’t come along?’ we seem to be expressing regret and helplessness. I don’t get the impression that we’re asking for ideas about how we might get personally involved in the renewal. But we must.

Today, let’s cry out to our risen, ascended Lord Jesus – way up there somewhere. ‘How’s your Church going to continue if young families won’t come along?’ I think Jesus’ answer will be the same as it was before his Ascension: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.

We’ve been blessed with the faith of the resurrection. We can bring our burdens and our limitations to the Cross, and then leave them there to travel on unburdened. We’re set free to join in the mysterious journey trodden by all Christians.

Next Sunday is Pentecost – when we will remember how the power of the Holy Spirit dissolved the boundaries of a frightened Church’s comfort zone and sent out the most ordinary women and men to bring the freedom of Christ’s reign to their neighbours.

Remember that heartbroken man who spoke to my friend; ‘Where is she now? Is it okay that I keep talking to her? Please pray this week –Holy Spirit, make me an effective witness to the resurrected Jesus; please use me to help others to bring their questions to him. It’s important.’         Amen.

I chose you

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 6 – Acts 10 44-48 & John 15 v 16a

I had a conversation on Friday with a Hindu friend about an American conservative Christian group that contacted him. Many of their views worried him: vehement condemnation of gender diversity; unconditional opposition to abortion; absolute support for Zionist political and military supremacy; denial of climate-change science; opposition to gun control. They preach a political and moralistic agenda to impose these views on entire populations. My friend and I agreed that these sorts of views and agendas are expressed not only by conservative Christians, but also by conservative Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

So how does anyone enter into productive dialogue with militant puritans? How do I talk with someone from my own religious tradition when I think they’re preaching a message Jesus would not endorse? Who am I to think that? How do I respond to the fires lit by these media-savvy people when they make inflammatory public statements and claim they speak for the whole Church?

How? Bp Jack Spong used to say, we have to know scripture really well. And I find that our scriptures today are a good place to start; particularly the reading from Acts. Today’s reading needs more context to make much sense of it. It’s the third in a sequence of stories where Luke describes the infant Church suddenly receiving, as full members, people who’d never have been accepted into Jewish fellowship. These three stories paint a picture of a religion with no fences; no borders.

Last Sunday’s reading from Acts (the second in this sequence of three) ended with Philip baptising an Ethiopian eunuch. We were told an angel had commanded Philip to go to the road between Jerusalem and Gaza so he’d meet this person. The eunuch had been to Jerusalem to worship, and was on his way home in his chariot. As they met, Philip heard him reading out loud from the prophet Isaiah.

This was a person who was drawn to the Jewish belief in one, universal God. In the language of Acts, he was a God-fearer; someone who revered the one true God. But as one of our zoom study group reminded us, Hebrew law forbade a eunuch from being accepted into Jewish fellowship, no matter how deep his faith. Deut 23.1 So when he was in Jerusalem, the closest this eunuch would have got to joining in worship would have been from one of the outer courts of the Temple.

God obviously had other plans for him, and sent Philip to meet him. Philip baptised the eunuch, making him a full member of the Church.

God chose an Ethiopian eunuch – a gender-diverse foreigner – to become one of the first non-Jews ever to become a member of the Church. We heard Jesus in today’s gospel say, You didn’t choose me; I chose you. Jn 15.16 This Ethiopian, along with the Samaritans Philip had baptised just days earlier, and today, the Roman centurion Cornelius and his guests who Peter is compelled to baptise – these show that God wants us to be a faith community with no border police. These stories tell us that from the beginning, the Church was called to be open to diversity. You could almost say we’re the fish John West reject.

But I haven’t given you the context of today’s story where Peter was interrupted mid-sermon by the Holy Spirit falling on all his foreign listeners. It’s a story that started with two people having visions. The centurion Cornelius was told in a vision to send for a stranger called Simon Peter. And Peter in a trance state was told (three times!) to abandon kosher dietary laws. Eat anything with anyone; everything’s clean if God says it is! No sooner does he come out of his trance than Cornelius’ messengers appear and the next day, he and his associates go and visit foreigners.

As they talk, the penny starts to drop for Peter. He’s invited to speak to the household, and he starts to preach about God showing no partiality about anyone’s ethnicity. That’s a good start. He goes on to speak about the ministry of Jesus, about his death and resurrection. But then he starts to suggest that only he and some chosen others were selected as witnesses and preachers. This is not looking good. He doesn’t seem to be making the connection between his first words about God’s multicultural revolution and the people in front of him – not like Philip did with the Samaritans and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Peter is slowly returning to the idea that everyone (note that word) everyone who believes in Jesus will receive release from sins through his name … and it’s just after this that we enter the story today … when suddenly, the Holy Spirit precipitates the finale, falling on all the foreigners, and giving them spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues and extolling God; and this before they’d even been baptised!

This little sequence of three stories – Philip baptising Samaritans – the ancient heretics despised by the Jewish scholars; Philip baptising the Ethiopian eunuch – so much for those ancient rules; and today, Peter compelled to baptise Romans who were the modern enemy colonisers. These stories all say what Jesus says in the Gospel; you didn’t choose me. I chose you. No conservative agenda can exclude anyone Jesus has chosen. Jesus does the choosing. Praise God for his love!  Amen.

I am the true vine

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 5b / Anzac Day John 15 1-8

Today’s Gospel passage happens to be the text that was chosen by Fr Francis Horner SSM when he preached at my deaconing here in this church in 1995. Francis was a self-confessed gardener, and he focused on the words about pruning – the Father removing any branches that don’t bear fruit. Francis advised me to let it happen; focus on fewer things and let them bear plenty of fruit.

So since then, I’ve tried to focus on learning the original context of what I read in scripture. I find it very fruitful to learn what was going on around the people who lived back then. I find a story’s context and the events around it help us get what it’s really saying, and imagine our way into what it calls us to do in our context.

Jesus told his disciples, I am the true vine – I am the vine, you are the branches. We are that intimately connected to Jesus. But context? His I am statements often make a connection between Jesus and the Temple. Today’s I am statement does this. It evokes the Temple’s Golden Vine; a huge sculpture of a vine wreathed around the columns of the Temple porch. It recalled the prophets who often called Israel God’s vineyard. Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem would bring offerings of solid gold leaves and grapes to add to the Golden Vine, adding to its splendour. I am the true vine. When Jesus says this, he’s declaring that he embodies in a living form what the Golden Vine of the Temple represented in sculpture; he embodies God’s people.

Sculpture is static, but living vines have a mind of their own. What their tendrils grab onto sets the direction of growth for the rest of the vine. But if they’re going to flourish and bear much fruit, they need attention. (Neglected Bulgarian vineyards courtesy of the EU) So the true vine tended by the Father is the beautiful picture Jesus gives us of the bond between us and him, and through him, with God. As his branches, we abide in Jesus, and we’re called to provide abundant fruit for the world he came to save.

Often when we think of an image for the Church, we think in terms of Paul’s image of us as a body; the body of Christ. In that image, Christ is the head and we are the various members. It’s a wonderful image. But in terms of what a local 21st-century church should be doing, today’s image of us as a plant can be really helpful. It demands that we look at the connection between us and our context. Plants of the same species can be quite different from each other in different contexts. Each individual plant has to adapt to its own environment. And then wherever they are, through the fruit they bear, they do their job as providers of God’s bounty.

Let’s consider a plant that has a bit more to do with our church’s European heritage; one called the Major Oak.

It’s an ancient oak tree growing in Sherwood Forest. Over 800 years old, it first sprouted from its acorn in the time of King John. (He reigned from 1199 – 1216) The Major Oak is held up by beams which support its branches. Steel hawsers suspend other branches, and a metal band around the trunk makes sure it doesn’t fall apart. It’s magnificent; people revere this ancient beast. It’s still producing acorns, and every year, its acorns are gathered up and planted in different countries around the world. The Adelaide Hills are full of its descendants. In every place they’re planted, the acorns carry the DNA of the original tree. But the shape of each tree is different depending on local environmental conditions.

Peter Pillinger writes about the Major Oak as an image of church life. He’s a Methodist from the UK. He refers to the Major Oak to talk about a mixed ecology church. Mixed ecology church means that in every niche of our society, there needs to be a Christian presence which is the right plant to be growing there. It has to shape itself to bear fruit for the ecological niche that it’s growing in. And just as every ecological niche on the planet is interlinked, so this expression mixed ecology speaks about the inter-connectedness of this diverse Christian Church.

So to us and our context. For 132 years, this new St John’s building has stood here, originally dominating its surroundings, but over recent years, steadily dwarfed by developments around us. Until WWII, it was surrounded by majority Anglo-Celtic households. But with returning soldiers only able to get loans for new builds further out, our demographic changed. The Methodists just down the street had to close and we were also on the brink of closure by Don Wallace’s time in the ‘70s. Like a vine or an oak or a gum tree, we relate to our context, or we wilt away.

So what does it mean for us to be pruned so we can bear much fruit? And what fruit are we talking about? Paul says the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Gal 5 22-3 These are fruits that can nourish anyone, and they need to be the first things anyone would notice here. Is there anything hiding them in today’s Church? What are the opposites of the fruits of the Spirit? Indifference, bitterness, violent anger, intolerance, selfishness, wickedness, inconstancy, callousness and self-indulgence? Because that’s where the pruning will happen. In an era of epidemic loneliness, epidemic gender-based violence and the beating drums of war again, the fruits of the Spirit must be every church’s focus. And that requires that we abide in Christ, that we accept being actively pruned and reshaped by God, and that we rejoice to see our fruit harvested and distributed. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Are we ready?  Amen

Jesus, the Good Shepherd

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Easter 4b – Good Shepherd Sunday – John 10 11-18

Kenneth Bailey’s book The Good Shepherd studies the image of God as our shepherd through the Old and New Testaments. When he gets to today’s Gospel, he reminds us that it’s a parable. He says Jesus told parables because they’re a form of teaching you can give people in a context of powerlessness and oppression. p.233 Teaching in parables is a way of protecting the people who hear the teaching, because the authorities can’t prove that what you’re saying is subversive; that you are in solidarity with the people they’re persecuting.

We can tell Jesus’ teaching method here was necessary from the context of his Good Shepherd parable. In the previous chapter, we read that Jesus had given the gift of sight to a man who’d been born blind. But because the religious authorities were out to get Jesus, and the man was completely open about who had given him his sight, the religious leaders drove him out of synagogue-fellowship; a shocking punishment.

By placing today’s parable straight after this story, John the Evangelist is giving us a pretty strong hint who the hired hands and the wolf might be. Jesus’ parable was a picture of the bad shepherds; the type of self-serving religious leaders that the prophets before him had exposed so eloquently. Jrm 23.2, Ezek 34.1-10, Zech 10.2-3 John’s gospel is effectively denouncing as ‘hired hands’ the Pharisees and other members of Jerusalem’s religious establishment who challenge Jesus’ healing work. And quite possibly the Roman governor is the wolf. John is the evangelist who tells us that Rome alone had the legal power to pass a death sentence. 18.31

And Jesus is talking about himself in this parable too. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. Kenneth Bailey says this is the closest John’s Gospel gets to Jesus telling his disciples of his coming passion and death. And it says a lot more than that too. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. Jesus is saying that we have a relationship with him as intimate as the relationship he has with the Father. We see this in the commitment of the good shepherd to the sheep. And this relationship is possible because of the cross. p.231 I am the good shepherd, says Jesus. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

But what’s the point? What’s the use of a dead shepherd? Aren’t the sheep more vulnerable than ever if the shepherd dies?

It’s definitely not pointless. We experience suffering as a part of being mortal – it’s a part of who we are. We don’t like suffering, but without it, we aren’t real people. Suffering is the great leveler – it comes without fear or favour. Whether someone hits me on the head or I forget to drink enough on a hot summer’s day, the end result is the same; I go to bed with a headache, like anyone would.

If God sent Jesus as a bodyguard who took away my attacker’s club, it may save me from a headache. But that doesn’t change anything really. The world stays the same and God is still remote. The bodyguard, Jesus, is immune, and while I’m spared, many other people aren’t. A god of that Jesus would be choosey. That god would have favourites. That god isn’t the real one.

So, no big Jesus the bouncer. Instead, God came to us in Jesus as someone who was just as vulnerable to a beating as we are; someone who probably also got dehydration headaches on those long sessions when he was out caring for the crowds. The real Jesus is at one with us in our vulnerability; and I’m so grateful that he is. Because then, even the tiniest child has a God who knows what it feels like to be them in their hard times; helpless and blameless when someone or something hurts them. As the shepherd who’s willing to lay down his life for us, Jesus is saying he has compassion for us. He’s in our situation, feeling what we’re feeling. He won’t let us face our pain alone.

Our pain is not a weakness; it’s an integral part of who we mortals are. When Jesus says he’s the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, he’s telling us that in our pain, in our fear, in our danger, in our brokenness and our indignity, he is with us. He is an integral part of who we are too.

So he’s not asking us to break bits off ourselves and throw them away. He’s taking us as we are, and asking to relate to us as we are to show us that we can love like he loves. It’s in receiving that love, from Jesus, from ourselves, and from each other that we move towards believing that we are whole and wholly loveable. That we can change and grow because we are together with the one who knows and loves us most deeply – the one who can transform our wounds and fears into wellsprings of compassion and love just like his.

Jesus can help us discover that it’s in our vulnerability to pain and mortality that we discover compassion, and in our compassion that we discover ourselves as made in the image of the lovely God who is the real one – that we can be agents of God’s healing too. Praise be to our God who sent us Jesus the Good Shepherd! Amen