All posts by Judy

The Season of Creation 2: Sacrifices needed for the sake of the Earth and the poor.

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

SoC 2  – Mark 8.27-38

Mk 8.34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

We’ve probably heard these words all our lives, and each time, we may have wondered what they’re asking of us. Jesus calls to the crowd and the disciples, it says. This is Mark’s way of saying that Jesus is looking straight out of the page at you and me – the crowd; it’s Mark’s way of saying Jesus is calling to each of us, and if we want to be his followers, we are meant to respond to this.

The words about gaining the whole world speak directly to me. I lack for nothing in this world. Yet I’ve just heard Jesus equate worldly gain with forfeiting life, and losing life for his sake and for the sake of the Gospel as the way of salvation. I’m strongly reminded of the words I quoted from Rev Sabelo Mthimkhulu last week. Those of us who live comfortable lives, can no longer live as if we are ignorant of the links between our comforts – built on exploitative and unsustainable economic practices – and the suffering of the poor. … So what’s a way forward?

Roman Catholic social teaching has always been very forthright. Discussing today’s gospel (in materials I’ve sent you), they make a clear link between those who lose their life for Jesus’ sake, and for the sake of the gospel and the ones they call present-day climate martyrs. They write, ‘people around the planet who are raising their prophetic voices for Care of Earth and Care of the Poor in these times are enduring the resistance, persecution, suffering, and death we hear about. They make up a community of the human martyrs of this age, joining the plants, animals and other species suffering extinction from the effects of human-generated climate change. These human martyrs have numbered between one and two hundred each year in the last two decades and represent all major areas of the planet: powerful witnesses calling us all to the seriousness of our mission and to courage and hope.’

This is powerful teaching; it presents contemporary examples of people who deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus. And it’s very, very confronting for ‘developed-world’ Christians. It’s a call to each of us to make real sacrifices for the sake of the Earth and for the sake of the Poor. I know that some of the goods and services I consume here cause the sufferings and deaths of poor people and wild creatures. If I wish to be a follower of Jesus, I must change the way I live, and I must urge people of influence to change the way the economy operates.

A story of economic regulations imposed on the economies of poor countries burdened by loans. These so-called ‘structural adjustments’ are required by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund who act on behalf of wealthy donor nations. The loan recipient countries are required to sell essential utilities to foreign bodies, and ordered to gear their primary industries – agriculture and resource extraction – so as to generate cash to service the loans. The fact that these requirements are imposed on many countries, and many are required to produce the same ‘cash crops’ simultaneously mean that the World Bank can ensure that we of the rich world pay these countries rock-bottom prices for them, and so the loans can almost never be paid off; eg, sugar in the 1980s and palm oil now.

If I wish to be a follower of Jesus, I must change the way I live, and I must urge people of influence to change the way the world economy operates. As a group, we’re not good at hearing this. We sing God’s praises for the plenty we enjoy. But if we get fired up to protest, it’s about personal liberties being infringed by others – like the Taliban’s treatment of women and girls, or other repressive governments’ unfair control of their citizens.

Yet when it comes to the effect of our developed-world economic system on the Earth-community and the poor of this world, as a society and as a church, we’re often deaf, or we think we have no voice.

There are loud voices out there who champion the status quo – angry, dangerous, false voices that intimidate and ridicule to silence the truth. It’s always been so; witness Good Friday.

But as followers of Jesus, we answer to the God who calls us to serve and protect the Earth, and in the Spirit’s strength, to proclaim good news to the poor and to set the oppressed free. Time is short, and the call is crystal clear to all of us. And of course, it’s risky to do this; our lifestyle will need to change.

This is how I hear Jesus’ words today; Jesus calls us, and says to us, ‘If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves and take up your cross and follow me.

In their joint statement, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin link our experience of the Covid pandemic with the climate catastrophe in terms of the importance of justice. They remind us how we’ve ‘realised that, in facing this worldwide calamity [of Covid-19], no one is safe until everyone is safe, that our actions really do affect one another, and that what we do today affects what happens tomorrow.

These are not new lessons, but we have had to face them anew. May we not waste this moment. We must decide what kind of world we want to leave to future generations. God mandates: ‘Choose life, so that you and your children might live’ (Deut 30:19). We must choose to live differently; we must choose life.’   Amen

The Season of Creation 1: Climate Injustice

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Season of Creation 1 – Prov 22, Ps 125, Jas 2, Mark 7

Today we begin our Season of Creation. Creation astonishes me with its beauty, its incomprehensible vastness and its microscopic intricacy; with its tremendous age and inexhaustible energy. We experience Creation directly in Earth’s disinterested generosity; in the way Earth engenders and sustains a staggeringly diverse and balanced web of life in perfect balance, and yet in terrifying vulnerability– there’s a home for every creature under the sun. And when any creature confronts a barrier to its thriving, creation has endowed life with the gift of adaptation, evolution.

The more I learn of all this the more astounding it is. Creation teaches me about the divine Spirit who infuses, embodies and bathes all this; love and delight, weaving an ever more diverse web of interconnected mutual being, balance and life. This is reflected in the life of Jesus; in his way of building beautiful, healing, life-giving community. This isn’t to ignore the traumas and tragedies that are a part of life – and the witness of Jesus shows that God is no stranger to them. Death and suffering are part of life. God has entered all of this with us in Christ; that’s compassion.

For me, all this is what reveals our God whom we worship as Trinity. And yet, on this first Sunday in the Season of Creation, in the face of Creation’s generous provision for all, we are confronted by scriptures which speak to us about the breakdown in justice between people and peoples which produces obscene discrepancies of wealth and poverty; scriptures which speak to us about the greedy and the dispossessed, scriptures which challenge those with the means to clothe and feed the poor or heal the sick – that we should get on and do so.

In world terms, I am being addressed here personally as one who has those means, and so what I might say about these things can hardly have a ring of authenticity about it. So I’m going to share part of a sermon on today’s scriptures from someone who speaks to us from the place of the dispossessed and the poor; Rev Sabelo Mthimkhulu, of the Diocese of Natal. Let’s hear what he has to say.

Rev Sabelo says, “Jas 2.15-17 is a direct challenge to us in a world of climate injustice. It is not enough to send ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those impacted by drought or extreme weather events.

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:15-17

In a world of climate injustice, where careless use of fossil fuels leads to insecurity, disaster, and suffering for the world’s poor and marginalised, we can no longer send ‘thoughts and prayers’ to those who are victims of drought and extreme weather events. We must do something, take action, both in terms of our carbon footprint, but also to pressurize our church institutions, our politicians and our businesses to hear the cry of the poor and hungry.

  1. 6 Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?

For those of us who live comfortable lives, we can no longer live as if we are ignorant of the links between our comforts – built on exploitative and unsustainable economic practices – and the suffering of the poor. … Many churches are involved in relief efforts, when we hear of a hurricane or drought made worse by climate change, in the face of media photos we give, we donate, and we pray. We must also support developmental projects assisting people to adapt to climate change (for instance water tanks in drought areas, agro-forestry efforts.) But we also need to challenge the structural injustices and root causes of climate change and environmental degradation. We need to re-activate the prophetic voice of the church, particularly by amplifying the voices of women and youth. And we must be willing to be converted ourselves, by the voices of the marginalised. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘If you are being neutral in the situation of injustice, you have already chosen the side of the oppressor.’” (I’ll include Rev Sabelo’s full text on our website)

Back to me. Today’s readings speak about injustice; about shamefully unequal sharing in the good gifts of Earth which God has provided. They expose the way the celebration and joy and thanks we want to offer to God in this Season for Creation’s wonder, intricacy, beauty and bounty are mocked and thwarted by the injustices they name and denounce. These are injustices which are instrumental in sustaining our lifestyle. The readings remind us that injustice is the product of greed, which is self-worship. And in the Season of Creation, we become especially mindful of this greed being so out of control now that it threatens the existence of life on Earth within the lifetimes of our own children, if not our own lives.

The materials I attached to my weekly newsletter offer suggestions for strong action that we can take to make a difference. Over the coming weeks of this Season, let’s think about how we as individuals and as a community can make changes to the way we live, and how, together, we can amplify the call for justice.      Amen

Perfect gifts that are the stock in trade of St John’s Youth Services

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 14 – James 1 17-27 Mark 7 1-8 14-23

At last week’s meeting of the local ministers’ association, I sat down with three of my Lutheran colleagues to discuss the scriptures that were to come up today. We share the same lectionary with them and with many other churches. Seeing as the Letter of St James was among these readings, I rudely asked them if the Lutherans were okay with James these days. One of the best known facts about the Letter of St James is that Martin Luther really didn’t think it should be included in the Bible.

Luther was a great supporter of St Paul’s teaching that we are saved by faith alone. Paul says we can’t be saved by doing good works or earning merit, but rather – God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Rom 5.8 Luther read that to mean that the Pope was teaching the wrong thing back then; all those indulgences – buying Rome’s merit to earn salvation. For Paul, Jesus died for us even though we don’t deserve it; even though we don’t have lots of stars beside our names in God’s little black book. By God’s grace, salvation is an unearned gift.

So when Luther read in James faith without works is dead 2.26 he called it Popish; he saw it as directly opposed Paul’s teaching, so it should be left out. Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know that my Lutheran colleagues assured me they’re okay with James these days. And part of the reason why is in the first verse we read from his letter today; Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.

What that means is that people’s good works and kindness are also God’s gift to us; they’re the Holy Spirit’s gift through us. The Holy Spirit inspires gifts of generosity and compassion in people. James builds on this; he teaches Christians about daily life. He calls us to be responsible, taking seriously our emotional lives, our religious faith, and our behavior. For James, we can even see ourselves as early signs of God’s new creation. But there’s something else very interesting in this verse. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above. The Letter of James doesn’t confine itself to the generous acts and perfect gifts of people who profess a faith in God; it says every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.

James actually sounds a lot like Paul to me here. Just as Paul teaches that God doesn’t wait for us to earn salvation before offering it to us, James teaches that God’s grace doesn’t wait for us have a faith, or to earn a gift of generosity or kindness before we find those gifts at work in our lives. They’re gifts we see being used everywhere, not just among people of religion, but anywhere they’re needed. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.

Some people seem uncomfortable with the notion of God being involved in their kindness and generosity. But they seem happy to say the Universe has somehow had a hand in it, and I’m sure God’s okay with that. Anyway, today, I’m delighted that we have the letter of St James in front of us with its focus on generous social justice. Because today, I want to celebrate the generous acts of giving – perfect gifts – that are the stock in trade of St John’s Youth Services.

Every month, I look forward to the stories in the CEO’s report to the board; stories of case workers going a huge extra distance; of young people receiving a new start in life they’d never imagined possible; lives characterised by security, possibility, safety, hope, confidence, joy; things we want for all young people. After their encounter with SJYS, almost none of these young people ever need to come back there for more support. They’ve been launched, carrying that love and commitment within them. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.

Because of SJYS, over the past three decades, more than 15,000 of SA’s street kids have experienced perfect gifts; gifts of compassion, respect and dedication. They’ve experienced the most sincere belief in them; belief in their value, their ability and their potential. They’ve been championed by the most skilled, united team of tenacious advocates walking alongside them that I can think of anywhere. In my language, they’ve experienced God’s love for them. The SJYS team has a collective sense of family and purpose, there’s an atmosphere of compassion and commitment that seems to be the air these people breathe. Perfect gifts for the job. Today as Wendy retires after 28 years as CEO, we give thanks for all this.          Amen.

Commit to following the way of Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 13 – John 6.56-69… eat my flesh and drink my blood …

This is the year when the Church all over the world reads the Gospel of Mark. But for the past month, we’ve been reading the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. We started this just as we were about to read Mark’s account of Jesus feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. Instead of reading it in Mark’s version, we swapped to John’s. And since then, we’ve stayed with John 6 where the theme is belief in Jesus who calls himself the living bread from heaven.

These weeks with John 6 mean we don’t simply witness a miracle and move on, but we stay and learn what it calls from us; it’s a call to deepen our faith and live it out in a way that bears witness to the character of Jesus; it’s a call to be discipled. It’s also a chance to deepen our thinking about the Holy Communion. John doesn’t actually give an account of the Last Supper, but rather teaches us about it by building on the sign of Jesus multiplying a boy’s bread and fish to feed everyone around him.

Today, when we hear Jesus describing himself as the bread that came down from heaven – and that whoever eats [him] will live forever – John wants us to see in this a definite continuity with Jesus’ multiplication of the bread; a continuity that carries into our weekly practice of Holy Communion, where Jesus continues to feed all of us. All the way through John 6, the challenge to believe is not the common one of whether or not we can accept that the sign of the feeding happened just as it was described. We’re called to look beyond that question. We’re called to respond to the one that the sign points to – we’re called to respond to the call to believe in Jesus.

The sign directs us to give attention to the one who shows us what God is really like; the one who shows us God who provides for all, unconditionally, who loves all unconditionally; God whose providence multiplies grace, love and justice.

These characteristics are most perfectly shown in the life and witness of Jesus. So in John’s Gospel, rather than a shared meal on the eve of the crucifixion, it is the whole earthly life of Jesus which institutes the sacrament of the Eucharist.

This means sharing in the Eucharistic meal means more than remembering or commemorating one particular event; rather, it’s a sharing in all of Jesus’ life, including ultimately his death and resurrection.’ NISB 1920

One of the challenges of this chapter in John is the astonishing way Jesus expresses himself. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. We know that most people there found these words from Jesus very hard to hear. And that difficulty remains for many. Jesus says that HE is the food that gives life, not Manna or any other bread. And it’s through eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6.53-6) in the Eucharist that we fully share in him and that we embody him. NISB 1920 We proclaim this in our Eucharistic prayers each week.

But the language of these prayers varies from church to church. There’s plenty of variety; a whole continuum from HC/ the Eucharist being an act of remembrance and no more, to it being a literal partaking in Christ’s flesh and blood. But across that spectrum, we agree that joining in HC/ the Eucharist embodies a relationship between Jesus and the believer which contains within it the promise of new life.

John the Evangelist declares that Jesus is the flesh and blood Word of God – the almighty creator of the universe. Yet today, he also shows us how Jesus’ most recent followers melt away appalled by his difficult call to eat his flesh and drink his blood. So Jesus is also the one who ends up abandoned to his first tiny band of disciples – and to us. Then Jesus addresses you and me directly. As he asks the twelve who remain with him, he also asks you and me ‘Do you also wish to go away?’

In this chapter and throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to move from a faith based on miracles that fulfil our own physical needs to a faith that is total trust in him, and in his words; words that can appear foolish, absurd, impossible, even scandalous.

John 6 is a difficult passage for us all. Jesus leads us from the excitement and enthusiasm of star-struck, new discipleship to one of sustained mutual love and friendship; a discipleship that is more hidden and humble. It’s the long road of choosing to be trustworthy, decent people; people who persist in believing that the cost of compassion and love, and the daily fight against injustice, greed and deceit abuse are sustained at a personal level by a lifelong commitment to following the way of Jesus. Are we prepared for that journey?

In God’s providence, those first disciples were able to travel that road. Jesus says to such as these, 40 This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.

Do you also wish to go away? Simon Peter spoke for us when the challenge was most intense, 68 ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We go to Jesus – we go with Jesus; we follow him.

I pray that these six Sundays with the Bread of Life, the Word made flesh – our retreat from the headlong energy of Mark’s Gospel – gives us a deeper insight into both Gospels, and food for our journey with Jesus.  Amen

‘Headship’ and Domestic Violence

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 12 – Ephesians 5.11-31

I imagine parts of the Epistle reading shocked some of us this morning. Last week, I was contacted by a year 12 student who’s doing a research project on something called headship. Headship is a teaching emphasised in conservative and evangelical churches. It holds that in a marriage, the husband is the head of the household, and the wife should be subject to her husband in everything. This teaching is based in part on verses we heard in today’s epistle reading. The lectionary gave us the option of leaving these verses out, but I thought it better to confront them head on because of how they’ve been misused and how they’re still being misused to violate women.

The student’s research question is this: To what extent is the theology of male headship being used to justify domestic violence in marriages and against women in Christianity? You’ll notice that the question is not if headship is used to justify domestic violence; it’s asking to what extent it’s being used to justify it. There’s no question that it’s happening, and that is appalling.

I shared evidence of this with you in my weekly letter of June 18, where I included a copy of Abp Geoff’s pastoral letter. He directed our attention to a report which had just then been released by the National Anglican Family Violence Project. I emailed you the summary of that report on Friday to refresh your memories, and I have copies available here this morning for anyone who’s not on email.

Among the shocking findings of this report are that intimate partner violence happens more in Anglican households than in it does in the wider Australian community, and further, that it happens more in Anglican households where householders attend church than it does in homes where their church membership is nominal.

Does this mean headship teaching is heard as allowing intimate partner violence? Yes it does. And so it should come as no surprise that the majority of Anglicans experiencing ‘headship’-justified violence don’t approach a church for help.

Why would they? That’s where the teaching about ‘headship’ comes from; teaching that their abusers twist into violence. What help could they expect from a Church?

So to answer my year 12 student’s question, yes, this report shows that church teaching about male headship is definitely exploited by perpetrators to justify the violent abuse of their female partners. This is absolutely horrifying.

So to anyone who has endured bad teaching from the Church which has been further twisted to violate you, I say sorry. On behalf of the Church, I apologise.

Headship is not a new teaching, and it’s not confined to evangelical or conservative churches in our Anglican tradition. Looking back over the marriage vows in our prayer books, it’s been there all along. In the 1662 BCP marriage service, the bridegroom is asked to promise that he will love, comfort, honour, and keep the bride. But the bride must promise to obey, serve, love, honour, and keep the groom.

So for some reason, being ‘subject to the husband’ in Ephesians is interpreted in the BCP to mean obey and serve. The proposed 1928 revision of the BCP tried to make the vows equal – that each would love, comfort, honour, cherish and keep the other – but the Westminster parliament rejected that change.

In our 1978 AAPB, obey was still there in the first service, but not in the second one. In our current 1995 APBA, obey is finally gone altogether, but its shadow remains in the first service where the bride must honour the groom, but the groom is not asked to honour the bride. It’s an awful distortion of scripture, all the way through. It reflects an attitude that there is a hierarchy in households which admits of domestic abuse – the statistics bear witness to this.

So what is the right way to understand the scripture which gets invoked as a warrant for this hierarchical reading and the abuse which proceeds from it?

Ephesians 5.22 – 6.9 is a set of instructions which we call ‘household codes. This household code is one of several we find in the New Testament. They are quite similar to others we find in Roman and Greek writings of the time.

They are sets of guidelines on the conduct of relationships within a household. This one in Ephesians 5 deals with relationships between married couples, between parents and children, and between slaves and their owners.

Scholars (Keener 1992, Crouch 1972) believe that a major reason for the inclusion of household codes in the epistles was so church communities who were being accused of undermining the moral fabric of Roman society could show written proof that their teachings conformed to traditional Roman values. They also had the function of discouraging new believers from taking their new freedom in Christ to the point of publicly casting off all normal social constraints, and again, risking the safety of the church community – this was something which looked like happening in Corinth (1 Cor 5 – 7).

The household code in Ephesians 5 differs from the secular codes in a very particular way. It’s headed by verse 21 – Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. This is the principle which governs the code that follows it. It tells Christians to renounce any sense of priority over each other out of reverence for Christ – who emptied himself (Phil 2.7). So relationships between marriage partners, parents and children, slaves and owners are all to be seen in this light.

Our translations disguise the fact that in the most ancient Greek authorities, the injunction in verse 22 to wives does not contain the words be subject at all. So the original text works as though there is a semi-colon after verse 21 to be followed by a list. So verse 22 would then read as the first in a list of injunctions to Christians who must all respect this command … Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ; wives, to your husbands, as to the Lord … with the implication that in verse 25, husbands are the second ones thus addressed. This is underlined where husbands are charged in verse 25 to treat their wives like Christ who gave himself up for the Church. There is NO marital hierarchy here; and NO licence to control.

All followers of Jesus are to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ Jesus, who taught that service is the mark of discipleship – not dominance.

So understood rightly, this code teaches mutual care and service. But we have to name the fact that over the centuries, their reflection of first-century Mediterranean cultural mores has seen this and the other biblical household codes used not to promote care and service, but domination and patriarchy. And that’s abuse.

So what do we do with these codes now? We can reject them or ignore them, though that may sweep them under the carpet. And things under the carpet tend to pop up in unexpected and ugly ways. So instead, we can reclaim and teach a truer sense of these instructions; we can proclaim verse 21 as the key: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Every Christian needs to reflect on how our intimate relationships can increasingly reflect Christ’s character – generous kindness, consistency, gracious forgiveness, open-hearted love.

In the meantime, we have much work to do to offer practical support and protection to victims and survivors of intimate partner violence. The Church owes these dear ones whatever is needed to break their prison bars open and release them into the true freedom of Christ.

May God give us the will and the strength to do that here – to do much better – so the true character of Christ may be seen by all – and so that every member of God’s household flourishes. Amen.

Allow stories to provide growth, healing and change

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Children’s Story

2 Samuel 11.26 – 12.13a

Remember last week’s story about the three terrible things King David did? David didn’t lead his soldiers out to battle; instead, he stayed safe and comfortable at home. David decided he liked the wife of one of his soldiers and he just took her for himself. And David had his loyal soldier Uriah killed so he could keep Uriah’s wife for himself.

God was not happy with David. But it’s as though David didn’t care about that; as though he were closed. How could God get through to David; how could God help David become a good King again? … God did it with a story.

God gave his prophet Nathan a story to tell David. It’s a special sort of story that we call a parable. Jesus told lots of wonderful parables. They’re stories about other people and what they do and say. When we hear these parable stories, some of them make us feel glad or happy. Other ones can make us feel sad or angry. Parables are stories that open us up to our feelings. And when stories open us up to our feelings, it’s possible for us to change – to grow; to get better.

When we don’t have stories, and just think about ourselves, it’s hard to change, or grow, or get better. It’s like tickling yourself under your own arm; it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make you giggle. It needs someone else to tickle you before it’ll work properly. That’s like it is with stories; it takes a story about someone else to open our feelings; to help us change and get better.

So God gave Nathan a parable to tell King David; a story about how a rich person hurt a poor person terribly. The story made King David very angry; the story opened up David’s feelings. And then Nathan could help King David see the truth about the bad things he’d done to his poor people. Nathan’s parable helped King David see that the three bad things he’d done were really terrible. The parable story that God gave Nathan for King David turned the king’s heart from a bad one to a good one again.

Stories are amazing things. They can help a frightened person to become brave; they can help a mean person to become kind. Stories are amazing things. That’s why God gives us stories. So let’s hear this very special one now.

Sermon

Pentecost + 11 – 8-8-21 – 2 Sam 18 Ps 130 Eph 4 – 5 Jn 6 35 41-51

Today’s readings include stories of confrontation and how different people deal with it – confrontation within King David’s family, between the nation and God in the Psalm, within the Church family as we’re addressed by the Epistle, and in the Gospel, between religious factions in the Jewish family; stories of confrontation.

We thought last week about how stories affect us; how they can expand our world – take our vision beyond our personal concerns, and open our feelings and our minds to grow, to heal, and to change. The stories themselves may be pretty confronting, but they provide us with a bird’s-eye perspective on confrontation that helps us see how often competing worthwhile priorities surround conflict. That such stories are preserved and held in common is a gift; it gives us a chance to come to a balanced mind together when we have to handle competing values within our Church family.

Every family handles confrontation differently – many by avoidance. I enjoy the moment in the film version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility where Mrs Dashwood’s gives advice to her impetuous third daughter. If you can’t think of anything appropriate to say, you will please restrict your remarks to the weather. I think that’s a case of Steer the conversation around the elephant in the room. My Mother never shied away from confrontation. If we ever cheeked her, she’d check us in an instant: Don’t you ever forget that I used to change your nappies!

In the Gospel today, I feel as if the religious leaders try a similar tactic with Jesus. They react to his confronting statements about himself by trying to domesticate him. We know where he comes from – we know his father and mother – as though that can neutralise any claim a person might have to being unusual.

They may annoy us, but because we can look at this story from a remoter vantage-point, we can also see that there are competing loyalties involved – there’s more than one truth. These Jewish leaders see their sensibilities around blasphemy challenged – this strange miracle worker claims to have descended from heaven – a human claiming some sort of parity with God! They wanted to defend God’s good name. So both sides were loyal to God. But they didn’t agree on that.

When our Zoom study group suggested that today’s sermon should focus on all the good advice about interpersonal relations that the Epistle gives us, I was a bit taken aback. You want me to talk to a church full of decent, generous people about being kind and thoughtful to each other? Isn’t that preaching to the converted?

But then our conversation somehow drifted into the way our church is different from others. We got some glowing reports, I can tell you. But they were expressed by way of unflattering contrasts with other churches – who are actually doing their best to be faithful followers of Jesus too. So I wondered if we shouldn’t spend a few moments thinking about the Ephesians passage after all.

First, we’re told to tell the truth to each other. We’ve just seen how that’s a dangerous business to start with. David’s story tells us that his truth was love for his son, the usurper Absalom. But David’s general Joab had another truth; Absalom alive was a danger to his King. Or in the Gospel, Jesus’ truth is blasphemy to Jewish religious leaders. So yes, tell the truth, but do so fully aware that it will sound very different to its hearer, and they may well tell us some truths we can’t hear easily too; even an old friend might surprise us this way.

We’re given permission to get angry with others, but we’re meant to sort our differences out as soon as possible – preferably before bed time. Otherwise, the anger becomes a driving force in our choices and our relationships.

I like the advice to thieves. They’re not meant to stop robbing because it’s wrong; no, they’re asked to take on an occupation which will be a blessing to the needy.

Then there’s the prohibition of evil talk. Again, a constructive alternative is offered; say only what builds up. Don’t restrict our remarks to the weather; better things are possible, even confrontation. At our baptism, we were sealed with the Holy Spirit. But if the fruits of our hearts are bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling, slander and malice, then something is definitely wrong. We’re not allowing the Spirit to work within us if that’s happening. Rather, we’re called every day to become more like God. As one of our study group put it, embrace the life of the Spirit; trust God.

So let’s read the stories and learn from them; ponder them; open ourselves to the new growth, the healing and the sanctifying change they hold for us. Amen.

Share the Gospel: tell the story, and live it

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 10 – 2 Sam 11 26-12 13a, Ps 78 22-28, Eph 4 1-16, Jn 6 24-35

Our Zoom study group often worries about how our Sunday Bible readings are going to come across. These stories are often about violent and abusive behaviour and strange supernatural experiences. What effect are they going to have on a 21st century Christian community – not to mention our visitors? It sometimes feels as if we Zoom in each Tuesday evening to discuss what sort of hand the lectionary’s dealt us this week, and what on earth we’re going to do with it. We have great fun!

I think we generally agree that the world needs these stories. They often tell us what God thinks about a self-satisfied, inward-looking society focused on national self-interest, where individuals focus on immediate gratification. It’s quite contemporary really; like the evening news. But where’s the Good News in it?

There was plenty last week. At the feeding of the 5,000, that Jesus dished out food to just such people: no means tests; no questions about whether they deserved it or not. He just gave everyone what met their needs. That’s pretty astonishing. But in today’s Gospel – even more astonishing – he tells them the bread he gave them is actually his own self; I am the bread of life. And in communion today he’ll do it with us; we’re going to eat the bread of life. His life is part of us; and it can either give us the strength to do his work for which it was intended, or people can ignore the grace and use the energy for ourselves, or just sleep through its effects.

And that’s what seems to happen to the Gospel now in prosperous, self-satisfied communities. It seems almost to be received as a right rather than a grace. And because it’s been received as some sort of a right, it’s treated as our property, and not to be shared. … Is this what some people mean when they say that their religion is a private matter? Not that it’s too personal to talk about, but that it’s a commodity, like everything else our society tells us to hoard and insure? Does saying it’s private keep it from anyone who’d come to enjoy it with us.

This seems more and more contemporary to me.

The Gospel is given to be shared, just like everything else is on this Earth. That’s not in question. The question is how do we share it? And by this, I mean something quite different from acting on the Gospel. Acting on the Gospel is a wonderful and necessary thing. It means living compassionately and justly; loving our neighbours as ourselves. Acting on the Gospel is living a life which opens ourselves generously to a world that is desperately in need of grace. And that’s a wonderful way to live: yet even that’s not everything.

Sharing the Gospel is more than that. It’s always meant telling the story; telling it to someone who doesn’t know it; or who needs to hear it afresh. Just as we tell our children the stories that we grew up with – nourish our children with the food that we were nourished with – we are to tell people – tell all God’s children the Gospel; tell them the Gospel which has given us our life in Christ. We are to share with them the bread of life as we have known it – in the living Christ we meet in the Gospel stories: the living Christ we meet in the broken bread and wine poured out.

The simplest way for us to share the stories is to read the Bible together with others in church and in home groups – like our Zoom group. If we’re not in a home group or a group that meets in a pub or café or a park – a group who reads the Gospel together – it’s probably time we were. A group is less threatening than a church. A small group is somewhere to put the Gospel stories next to our stories, and push back and wrestle with them. And our gatherings can’t be exclusive; they must be deliberately inclusive – always open to new people – new insights.

We may think that’s not our style, but Jesus calls us to change our style. Jesus gave up everything to offer people what we need. We keep hearing that hiding away safely with a close circle of friends was one of the very things he sacrificed. Doing likewise, our comfort in being among friends may suffer. But not doing that puts at risk any person who hasn’t heard the Gospel story; at risk of going through more of life without hearing it. Our calling is to tell the story as well as to live the story. I pray that each of us is set free to respond to our calling as story-tellers. Amen.

Signs that point to truths about Jesus, God and ourselves

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 9b – 2 Sam 11 1-15, Ps 145 10-18, Eph 3 14-21, Jn 6 1-21

KidsDo you remember the story of David and Goliath? David was a little kid when King Saul and his army faced a giant problem; a giant soldier called Goliath. David offered to face Goliath with only a few stones and a leather slingshot. He was brave because he believed God would help him. And he was right. God gave him what he needed to beat that giant. I wonder if there are giant problems you kids will have to beat. …

Today we hear a sad part of David’s story; it’s when David had grown up. Now he’s the king. Being king sometimes made David forget about God and think ‘I’m king, so I can do anything I like.’ Today we hear that he did three horrible things. He didn’t go out to battle with his army like he should’ve. Instead, he let them go out and fight while he stayed safe at home. And then, while he was lazing about, he saw a soldier’s wife that he liked, and he took her for himself. Then worst of all, instead of being sorry for what he’d done, he arranged for that loyal soldier to get killed in the war, just so he wouldn’t look bad stealing his wife.

Terrible things! Do you wonder what God will do with him?

Later on in the story, God will deal with David and David will realize how bad he’s been. Then David’s really sorry, and God helps him change, so he manages to become a good king again and act the way he should.

We all do bad things sometimes. But that doesn’t have to make us bad forever. If we listen to God and stop doing bad things, God will help us change back to being good and brave and trusting, like that little kid David was.

Speaking of little kids, in the Gospel today, we’ll meet another kid who also helps adults with another giant problem. So let’s listen to the readings and see what happens.

 Adults – We just heard about a little boy whose lunch went out to feed a vast crowd, and he saw it make all the difference in the world. I don’t know whether he started off by thinking, My lunch will be enough for everyone, or, Well, there goes my lunch, but after what he saw happen with it, I’m pretty sure he’d have kept on being a generous person from then on. Jesus helped him learn that whatever he could offer was enough because he had Jesus with him.

Would he have grown up into a very different person just because of what happened that day? Maybe; maybe not. Maybe, over the years, he’d believe the people who would tell him he’d only imagined it; after all, he was only a kid at the time. I think it’s possible that he’d forget the miracle. But he’d never forget Jesus, and he’d never stop thinking, Who is that Jesus?

John’s gospel doesn’t use the word miracle. None of the Gospels does. John calls it a sign. This sign points to who Jesus is, just as the next sign does; Jesus walking on water. If you see a sign and think it’s just a miraculous act, your vision is limited. But see it as a sign, and you ask what it points to. Then you’re liable to grow.

If we simply respect Jesus as a miracle worker, then all we’d say about him from that perspective is, Look what he can do. But see his action as a sign, not just a miracle, and what we say about Jesus is, Look at who who is. He’s the giver of abundant gifts (Jn 2:1-11); the giver of life (Jn 4:46-54), the giver of abundant life ( 10:10).

Then it dawns on us that Jesus points to who God is, and what God is like. This is trustworthy ground for faith. We might have the gift of faith, but it’ll only grow in the deep soil of a relationship with a God we can know. There’s no future for a deep, life-long faith in the propagator-tray of a few miracles. We need a sign. We need to know where to look to know God.

John’s Gospel points to Jesus as the way to God. (14:6) But there isn’t just one approach to Jesus. We can meet him as the Holy One of God (6:69) and as the bread of life (6:35); as the presence of God who walks upon the water (6:20) and as the only one who’s ever seen God (6:46); all sorts of signs point to who Jesus is: they point to him as the way to God. And that happens in all cultures, and wonderfully, it’s done so among people who’ve never even encountered the written Gospels.

All these signs of Jesus’ power show what God’s power is about. God’s power is about grace and loving-kindness; the very opposite of the corrupted, cruel, coercive, selfish power we met in the story of David today. Feeding the 5,000; walking on water – these are signs which reveal God’s grace and glory in Jesus. And astonishing as they are, do you notice that they are offered to meet basic human needs – the need for food, the need for safety, for rescue from danger? They are signs of God’s love and care for us. That is deep soil for lifelong faith.

John reminds us that the God who Jesus points to has always been a protector and provider. He puts a special signpost early in today’s reading. Before he tells the two sign-stories – the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on water – there’s a big signpost in verse four that we might easily overlook. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

For those with ears to hear, John wants this to make them think of hungry people in the wilderness, of manna from heaven, of crossing dangerous water safely on foot and of a prophet like Moses to lead them. (Dt 18.15)

John tells us that the people Jesus fed made this connection as well as others from the Hebrew Scriptures (eg, 2 Kgs 4:42-44): 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus could hear them thinking, God got Moses to set us free from Pharaoh; let’s get Jesus to free us from Rome.

But that would have been a mistake. 15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Jesus came to connect the whole world with the freedom of entrusting ourselves to God; the whole world, not just his own Jewish people. John warns us again not to see a sign that points to God’s glory, and then try to confine that glory to the service of our own interests: that is a mistake. There is no growth in that sort of vision.

For the next four weeks, we’ll keep reading this chapter in John’s gospel. The theme of this whole chapter is Jesus, the bread from heaven – the bread of life. We are not to see the sign of the feeding of the 5,000 and decide for ourselves what it might mean. If that’s where we stop, we won’t move; we won’t be changed; we won’t grow – there’ll be no journey.

It’s central to John’s Gospel that a sign by itself is not enough to sustain faith; the sign points to truths about Jesus – truths about God – and truths about ourselves – truths that we need to open ourselves up to. As we read the rest of this chapter over the coming weeks, John will challenge us to open ourselves to two questions about Jesus, and three truths about you and me.

The questions about Jesus are: Who is Jesus? and What does he ask of us?

The truths about us are:

1 He loves us, body and soul;

2 He calls us to follow him;   

3 When we turn and follow him, we’ll grow into abundant life.

Today’s signs call us as a church and as a nation to be generous; to take risks with what we have so that people living with hunger or fear might be set free from their suffering. The signs we have seen today point us in this direction. Do we want to believe that is our direction; will we accept the gift of this faith? If so, our work continues from right now.    Amen

Share the healing love of Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 8B – Mark 6 30-34 & 53-56

Do you think much about picture framing? I’m always impressed by people who know about colours and visual association. They see things I don’t. And when they show me how the associations work, it can really change the things I see.

The Gospel of Mark does this too, but in stories. Often in this gospel, one story gets put inside another. The first story stops while another story or two get told, then the first story picks up from where it left off. So the feelings, colours and impressions you build up as you read one story carry over into the next one. And just in case you’ve forgotten those impressions and feelings by the time you’ve got deeper into the other story, you pick them up again afterwards, because the gospel takes you straight back into the first story. So when you think of the middle story, your idea of it is touched and coloured by the story that surrounds it; by its frame.

The Gospel story we heard last week – that horrible one about Herod having John the Baptist killed – was framed by the story of Jesus sending out the twelve, and their return today. By putting that terrible story of the end of a ministry in the middle of a story about new ministries beginning, Mark is saying that bad things may happen in the midst of kindness and hope, but that kindness and the hope continue on anyway. So Mark uses the mission of the twelve as a frame to help us see that it’s the good news that sets the agenda; not the terrible event.

Today, we’re given a frame without its picture. First, we gather around Jesus as the disciples report back on their mission. Jesus invites us to sail away to a quiet place with him; somewhere we can rest and eat. But nobody lets us get away with that. People guess where Jesus and his disciples are going, and by the time they land, there’s a large crowd waiting for them. Jesus has compassion on that crowd. So that’s the top of the frame. Then we jump about twenty verses and find Jesus and his disciples again quietly mooring the boat. Again, a needy crowd quickly gathers. People rush off and stretcher their sick friends and family to wherever Jesus can be found. And they receive compassion and healing. That’s the of the bottom frame.

Compassion infuses this frame; people crowd around Jesus as soon as he arrives anywhere, and despite his fatigue, he doesn’t send them away; he has compassion on them. He gives them the teaching and healing they seek. His disciples have just returned from doing teaching and healing work themselves, and now they’re with Jesus sharing more of this same work. So this is the frame; what’s the picture?

Mark puts two miracle stories into this compassion frame; the feeding of the 5,000, and Jesus walking on the water. We’ll be looking at these stories next week in the version from John’s Gospel. But today we’ve just got the compassion-frame and us.

So do we fit in this frame? I think we do. Lots of us here will feel that the image of the exhausted disciples picks up something about ourselves. And Jesus said weary disciples need to spend some time quietly; somewhere by ourselves, just with him. So is that part of a picture of us that we find inside this compassion-frame? Yes it is; in our daily prayer, in our friendship and fellowship with each other, and in the solace we share, it’s a very real picture of us. But it’s only a part of the picture.

Also in this frame is the image of people looking to see which way Jesus is moving and making sure they’re headed that way too. So is that part of a picture of us that we find inside this compassion-frame? Yes, though I think that’s always a growing edge for us. But as long as it springs from genuine compassion – willingness to enter the sufferings of Christ’s little ones and respond – we’ll be on the right track.

And the people who bring their vulnerable ones to a place where they can make even the faintest contact with Jesus. Is that part of a picture of us that we find inside this compassion-frame? This is our most urgent task; to trust that the people we might bring to Jesus will truly meet him, and so to trust ourselves to do that – to learn together how to do that, and simply get on with it.

The frame we’re looking at today is made to embrace a picture that embodies compassion; one which includes self-care, attention to Jesus and an urgent commitment to bring others to experience his healing love. That’s the discipleship we’re called to embody and teach as the living body of Christ in this place. Amen.

Let our good works give glory to God

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 7b 11-7-21 – 2 Sam 6 1-5 12b-19 Ps 24 Eph 1 1-14 Mk 6 14-29

I’ve just negotiated a week with my brothers and my sister under our Mum’s supervision as we closed down her home and distributed her belongings to various people and causes. Despite odd miscommunications and our differing perspectives, we’re all still on really good terms with each other. We have no regrets about any decisions we made. But we did have our moments; families can be really awkward. This morning’s scriptures remind us just how dysfunctional families can be.

Today, we saw King David establish Jerusalem as the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people. It’s a pivotal moment in their history and ours. And yet there’s a nasty little family moment in the story that’s quite puzzling. In great joy, stripped down to a simple priestly cape, David danced with all his might before the Ark of the Lord as it was brought into the city. But then we’re told 16 … [David’s wife] Michal … looked out of the window, and saw [him] leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. …………………Why?

There’s only one hint, and it comes just after today’s passage. When David got home, Michal greeted him by saying, 20 …How the king of Israel honoured himself today, uncovering himself today before the eyes of … female servants, as … vulgar fellows shamelessly uncover [themselves]! Our Bible study group speculated about Michal’s spite. Did she simply find liturgical dance embarrassing? Were there issues in their marriage? There certainly were. But why did the writers highlight this particular moment of tension? And what are we to do with it today?

The equivalent issue now seems to be when a family member gets religion and the rest of the family find it very, very embarrassing. It would be interesting to chat about that together. When I announced my call to ordained ministry to my parents and siblings, their response was quite varied. They’d known me all my life, and so they had quite a bit of history to set against what they made of clergy in general.

There was puzzlement; lukewarm acceptance – Well, if that’s what you really want to do. It ended up as a bit of a no-go zone in our conversations for some years. It’s tricky, isn’t it. Your family’s opinion is so important – you want to look after those relationships. But does that mean you only do something if they like it?

In the end, you can’t let a desire for people’s good opinion get in the way of doing what you believe is your responsibility – even if they’re your family. Imagine if David had been in the middle of his dance, glimpsed Michal’s face in the window and stopped. He went on dancing, oblivious to her contempt, and the rest is history.

We see the reverse of this in the Gospel today with Herod giving priority to his guests’ good opinion. Herod was giving a birthday party in his own honour. He counted the good opinion of his male guests so highly that he was prepared to expose his stepdaughter to them and then commit murder to honour a drunken promise they’d witnessed. As our psalmist puts it, Herod set his soul on an idol; in this case, mistaking his popularity for his honour.

So our readings today put a choice before us that we all face very often – as a group and as individuals – between what we believe God truly wants of us, and what makes us look good; between honouring God, and preening ourselves.

Today’s Epistle tells us it’s not just a matter of personal choice. It’s a family matter for us too. We heard in the letter to the Ephesian Christians that 4 [God] chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 [God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ.

The Christians of Ephesus are being reminded that they’ve been adopted into God’s family, and that this has implications for their conduct, even in the face of rejection from their ‘old family’ – who were mostly worshippers of Artemis. Ephesus was a major centre of Artemis worship. Her temple there was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. When the Ephesian Christians became followers of Jesus, they were adopted into a new family – an incredibly counter-cultural move in any traditional society – and not much less extraordinary for us.

We’re like the Ephesians. As Gentile Christians, we have the honour of being adopted as members of God’s family, with all the privileges and responsibilities that go with it. For some of us, that means we’ve renounced our birth families too – or been renounced by them.

However we became part of this family, what that change means in Biblical language is that now our lives reflect on the honour of God’s name. What people see Christians do affects how they can know what God is like. So the way the Church has protected its reputation and its power has tarnished God’s good name.

We are part of God’s family. The way people see us treat each other or anyone else is on display. What we say to each other; what we say about each other; what we do; the choices we make; who we include and who we leave outside – it’s all on display. We are to let [our] light shine before others, so that they may see [our] good works and give glory to [God]. Mt 5.16      Amen