All posts by Judy

Let grace shape us for compassion

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Lent 2 C: Gen 15.1-12, 17-18; Ps 27; Phil 3.17 – 4.1; Lk 13.1-9

Two days after the Christchurch attack

I thought I had my sermon written early this week. But since the events in Christchurch on Friday, what I wrote is not what we need to think about today. We have seen yet another vicious, hate-filled attack on innocent people, and we need to grieve for them, and to join in solidarity with their families and friends, praying with them and for them in their agony.

These people were attacked ultimately because of their birth; their birth is who they are, where they come from, and how they worship God; just like us. These people who died and were wounded are the same as us. They’re members of our family. They claim the same spiritual ancestry as we do because we too are children of Abraham. And as we heard in the first reading today, Abraham, our common ancestor was also a migrant; someone who’d also travelled to find a new country; just like us or our forebears; just like the victims of Friday’s attack.

So the families of the slain who are grieving and shocked – people living a waking nightmare today – these dear people are our kin. And today, as far as is possible at this distance, we cry with these sisters and brothers, we embrace these dear ones; we offer our kin what comfort and love we can.

Friday’s horror has an uncanny parallel with a dreadful scene described in our Gospel today. Some people gathered around Jesus and told him of a very similar attack that had happened to a group of his fellow Galileans. These innocent people had made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God. But as they were in the very act of worship in the Temple, Pilate had them slaughtered – and in a deed of contemptible cruelty, he had their blood mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. Like the murder done in al-Noor mosque and in Linwood mosque on Friday, it was a ghastly, calculated desecration.

People are reacting to Friday’s attack in very different ways – there are even horrible reports of people celebrating the attacks. It’s a difficult mindset to imagine.

There’s another way people are reacting too. There’s a part of human nature that looks for a logical reason for other people’s tragedy – not taking pleasure in it, but perhaps looking for a failing in the victim that might explain why they suffer the way they do. People do think this way; it may spring from fear. We may be afraid of the cost to ourselves if we give ourselves over to openhearted compassion.

I imagine this tendency is what Jesus angrily confronts in the people who tell him about the victims of Pilate’s desecration. He seems to hear them blaming these poor murdered people for what Pilate did to them. It’s as if they’re saying God would only let that sort of thing happen in the Temple to very bad people. It’s a twisted sort of logic to see someone suffer and opt for an arms-length cause; it must be their fault – because otherwise, we’d have to do something about it. So victims are often unaccountably ostracised; shunned.

To be a victim of any sort of abuse is a terrible thing. But to be shunned or even blamed for what’s happened to you is to be abused yet again. It happens to victims of violent assault all over the world – Dressed like that?! Asking for it! It’s an outrageous attitude and we see Jesus confront it very strongly in today’s Gospel. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has shown that we in the Church are as guilty of this attitude as anyone.

So what does God call us to do about it – at a grassroots level? Here?

The Genesis reading today recalls Abraham, our common ancestor, and emphasises the fact that we must look for the kinship there is between us and all God’s children. We need reminding that anything that happens to these kin of ours could just as easily happen to us – that there isn’t some inherent fault or imperfection in them that doesn’t exist in us – to use us-and-them language. Our Scriptures tell us that choosing compassion instead of us-and-them is the responsible reaction.

Do the people telling Jesus the story of the murdered Galileans really mean that God would never let something like that happen to them? That’s what Jesus seems to hear. So he says simply that the tragedy they recount could happen to anyone. He underlines the point again with another story of people being killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. It could happen to anyone – this unexpected death.

So he tells them and us to recognise our common frailty. Don’t pre-judge; turn and face God; turn and discover God’s grace, and model our own lives on the basis of that grace; respond to that grace by allowing it to shape us for generosity. That means, in the case of last Friday, let that grace shape us for compassion.

In the parable of the fig tree that bears no fruit, Jesus even sets a time limit on this choice to turn to compassion. Remember how the gardener bargained with the owner of the fig tree to give it just one more season to prove it could bear fruit? The fruit Jesus was calling for then is compassion; the vaccination against victim-blaming.

If the Gospel reveals that a basic human reaction to violence and tragedy is the self defence of victim-blaming, then that is a call – a Gospel call to us – to oppose that tendency by openly choosing to feel and act on compassion; choosing to enter the dangerous space of shared pain; choosing to live as citizens of the costly realm of shared grace. The Gospel call is an invitation to join a counter-insurgency whose mission is not to take life, but to give it; not to mete out blame but compassion.

Let’s pray. Dear God, we grieve for our sisters and brothers who were slain and injured as they worshipped on Friday. We pray for their families and friends in this time of shock, of disbelieving horror, of sudden emptiness, and we ask that you hold them close and gather every one of their tears. We pray you protect these kin of ours from thoughtless words and gestures – we pray that they may be surrounded by compassion and healing love. We offer ourselves today as instruments of your healing grace, in the name of Jesus, Lord of Life,  Amen.

Jesus gives himself to His transforming purpose

Rev’d David Thornton-Wakefield

Lent 1:  A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…SALVATION HISTORY dtw

O God of the journey, lift me up, press me against your cheek.  Let your great love hold me and create a deep trust in me.  Then set me down, God of the journey; take my hand in yours, and guide me ever so gently across the new territory of my life. Joyce Rupp.

Deut 26. 5 ‘You shall make this response before the Lord your God, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.”

 “Tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story, tell me the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” I can still hear the Salvos singing that down Hay St, West Perth in the 60’s.  Today we begin a journey of rediscovering and reclaiming our roots, roots that go back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even before them, to the very loins of Adam and the womb of Eve, our primeval ancestors. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Day we journey with the great Bible heroes like old Abe, Moses, Isaiah, Peter and Paul. We are caught up in THE Story of Salvation History. Alongside this, be encouraged each day in Lent to make sacred space and look at YOUR OWN story of faith and life. All of this will come to a huge climax in the events of Holy Week, and notably an upper room, a supper, a cross and an empty tomb.

A wandering Pom was my father, William.  His father’s name was William, like his father before him.  They were all first-born sons in the Wakeford line.  I am not William because I had an older brother, William, who was still-born during the war while my father, a British Officer, was away fighting. But my son is called William. I am part of a story, and not only that story of naming, but I also discovered when I met my father’s sister, then a Mother Superior in a Convent in England in 1981, that I am a descendant of a number of English clergy.

The thing that bothers me about a popular current world-view is that we have to become our own creations, or so it seems.  Individualism is rife. For much of post-modern society life is no longer God’s gift, now it’s a matter of my rights or choice. Once people got their stories from their parents, or their church, or town and they lived them as best they could. Now, choice is freedom – or is it?  I believe that one reason why loneliness, alienation, depression, low self-esteem, suicide appear to plague post-modern life is that this way of thinking can make us all strangers -strangers without a story, strangers without connections or roots. Perhaps some of this leads to forms of abuse as well?  In fact, we are The People of The Story.

The ancient words from Deuteronomy, “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor…” are still repeated in sacred ritual by the Jewish people today. The story of a great nation enslaved in Egypt, then delivered under the leadership of Moses, is the very crux of Judaism’s Salvation History, while they still await their Messiah. So we Christians have nomadic roots.  Our journey goes right back to the wilderness wanderings of Canaan and down into Egypt and to a Tent of Meeting, a Tabernacle that travelled by day and by night with the Ark of the Covenant. For a time our forebears settled in the Land of Promise where a Temple was built only to be destroyed a number of times; for we were to learn finally, in these later times, of the God who pitched his tent in human form right in our back yard and in our face. The nomadic tribe has now become the people of the incarnation, the body of Christ and themselves, temples of the Holy Spirit. How awesome is this journey.

John’s famous Prologue (John 1.1-18) embraces the journey of the eternal Logos: the Word of God..  This eternal Word became a human being and lived right here among us. The Greek literally means: ‘entabernacled’ or ‘pitched his tent’ among us. Christ is our new Tent of Meeting, for we are the body of Christ. Imagine Jesus turning up at West Beach with his camper trailer! Picture it with me for a moment. People settling in for a frolicking, boozy, laid back time at the beach, letting their guards down with neighbours they only see once a year or never again. You go over to give him a hand with the annex, all the poles and canvas, and he says, “Peace be with you” and hands you a stubby. “Yeah, g’day to you too mate. Interesting jargon: you must be from Tassie!” His eyes look right into you and before you know it he says, “Let’s eat!” Some people would be quite honoured to have him there; others quite annoyed, knowing that the walls are so thin and the jokes a bit on the nose to put it mildly. The mind boggles.

 God chose a very ordinary event in history to do extraordinary things.  His very best shot at us came in the very ordinary business of a very ordinary town during a census, with war, racism, terrorism, poverty and exploitation hovering all around, along with angels and shepherds. Into all of this he pitched his tent. How could this make a difference to our world then? How can it today? We believe in a God who knows the way around this world, who doesn’t wave a magic wand, or descend briefly from the sky to clean things up.  God arrives on earth as a human being who will change things simply by the completeness of divine love: Jesus. Jesus gives himself to this transforming purpose in every moment, whatever it costs.  And the world changes…we are changed.  New things become possible for us, new levels of loving response and involvement.  As has often been said, the Christian answer to the trouble and evil in this world is not a theory but the story and reality of a life and a death and a rising; Jesus’ life and death and rising. And for that answer to be credible now, that story has to be visible in our story too. Christ has to pitch his tent in your heart and mind and soul, and mine too.

These last two weeks have been another tumultuous time for our nation and our church, particularly for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers.  Actions so contrary to the heart, mind and life of Christ have been perpetrated. More than ever, Christians are called to put on the whole garment of Christ and to incarnate Christ’s authentic love in every corner and crevice of life.

Think of your story today at the beginning of another Lenten journey.  It is in the ordinary, transparent things of your life and service that God incarnates the real work and does extraordinary things that will change the world. Let the salvation history keep rolling on.  Or as someone recently observed in a Q&A hashtag: Let’s make Christianity great again!

For personal reflection:

  1. Where did your story of faith begin?
  2. Ponder the ‘rites of passage’ that you may have celebrated, e.g. Confirmation
  3. Who are some of your favourite Bible heroes?
  4. What pieces of Scripture excite you about faith?
  5. Are there traditions in your family that still live on?
  6. What do you hope to receive from God this Lent?
  7. How might you be ‘re-clothed’ in the garment of Christ?
  8. Conclude with a prayer for those
  1. a) who feel ‘cut off’ from their story, alone, or depressed.
  2. b) preparing for Baptism, Confirmation and the Renewal of Faith.

Ash Wednesday

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Meditation for Ash Wednesday

On Palm Sunday last year, we held fresh, green palm crosses aloft and cried out with the crowds lining the track from Bethphage to Jerusalem; Hosanna! Save Us!

Today, we bring these palm crosses back. They’re dried out and more khaki than green. Are our hopes dried up too? We burn our palm crosses today. Does that mean we’re declaring our hope dead – the hope we shared with those crowds who thought Jesus would change everything that day? Hosanna! Save us! What from?

I have a sense that burning our palm crosses is in fact a symbol of our solidarity with the one who gave his life for us – a sign that we are prepared to join him in the hopeless despair of Gethsemane if that’s what it takes to be his disciple.

As we look forward through Lent to Good Friday, it’s perfectly clear what we’re crying for salvation from. The ashes also speak of our own death. Yet Good Friday will answer that Jesus is the one in whose death is our salvation. So maybe there’s another way of seeing what our actions today might mean – burning the palm crosses, being marked with the ash, being reminded that we are dust.

We know that in six weeks’ time, we’ll hold fresh palm crosses aloft and cry out again to be saved. The challenge to us is to be transformed people by the time we do that – to be people willing and active in the transforming work God wants to do in and through us. The language we use in the Church is to say we die to our old self in order that God might call forth new life in us. How do we die to that old self which separates us from God, from our neighbour, from our true selves?

Lent is the season where this question is our focus. We enter the journey of Lent today – following Jesus to Good Friday. What lies before us is a journey beset with obstacles we need to overcome like temptation to self-centredness, and full of challenges we must meet like renunciation and repentance. What does this mean?

Temptation does not mean enticement in Scripture. There, the one who tempts most often, is God, and God certainly does not entice us. When God tempts, what is happening is testing, testing the faith and obedience of God’s people.

And renunciation does not mean giving up chocolate or coffee. The word renounce is used at our baptism and it refers to changing our allegiance – turning from godlessness to God – choosing God.

Do you renounce Satan, evil, sinful desires?”

Renunciation is the exercise of our will for God. It’s a positive choice.

So it follows that repentance doesn’t just mean feeling sorry for the mistakes of everyday life; rather it’s the right exercise of this newly empowered will – setting out on the journey in the new direction we’ve chosen, facing Jesus. It’s a total change of perspective and direction; striking out towards a new life in a new world.

How does that work itself out in everyday life? That’s what we seek on the journey of Lent. But a hint comes from today’s Gospel – the first words about giving alms.

Almsgiving was the prime act of piety in Judaism – true religion is this; to care for the widow and the orphan. James 1.27

So Lent isn’t a time of giving up, but rather giving for – giving for life, giving for love, giving for God. The one who hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord.

Jesus went first on this Lenten journey – Jesus is the one who goes before us, whom we follow. We know where his journey took him, and today, as we remember that we are dust, we commit ourselves anew to accompany him on this scary road.

Mercifully, though, we also know that because of Jesus, death is not the end of this journey. It’s an end which he transformed into a new beginning – new life for those who would follow him into his Kingdom of faith, hope and love. Amen

Tragic losses and miraculous rescues

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 8:  Isa 55 Ps 92 1 Cor 15 51-58 Lk 6 39-49

One of the commentators I read for today’s sermon was Maria La Sala. She writes: ‘When I became a mother, a friend sent me a card that included a sentence from the King James Version of today’s reading from 1st Corinthians: “Behold, I shew you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.” In the weeks that followed, we got little sleep and did a good deal of “changing.” However, the text also had a deeper resonance. Paul presents the Christian hope of resurrection in the face of the inevitability of death, and for a parent holding a vulnerable newborn, the question of life and death, of mystery and miracle, is ever present.’

I’m struck by the way talk about death so often involves thoughts about vulnerable new life. And not just in our tradition. In the Church, our funeral services end with the Nunc Dimittis; the Song of Simeon. When he finally held the promised Christ child in his arms, Simeon told God ‘I’m happy to die now’. Death and new life are somehow linked. Again, last week, we read Paul’s metaphor of life after death in terms of us planting the seed of the life we’re leaving, and God calling a new and different resurrection body from that seed. Our mortal body and our resurrection body are not the same, yet they’re somehow linked; there’s a continuity which is influenced by the fruits we bear in our present life. Jesus teaches about this today in his parable of the good and bad trees, and the fruit they produce.

But back to last week for a moment; Paul gave us the image of our death being like a seed we plant which sprouts, but in doing so, dies and is lost. What sprouts from it is not the same as the seed, but it’s definitely in continuity with it. He was clear that we’re not going to rise as some other creature. To mess with a silly phrase that’s doing the rounds, ‘not different, not quite same same’. Remember how the risen Jesus walked with his two sad disciples on the Emmaus road yet they didn’t recognise him until he did something they recognised; the way he broke the bread. The fruit of his life – what Jesus did and taught – that’s how they recognised him.

So I think Paul’s point is made; our natural world proclaims it in the life cycles we observe: new life rises out of old, old life produces new. Today, Paul completes this lesson, his most extended teaching about resurrection. ‘Listen, I will tell you a mystery.’ For Paul, mysterion refers to the hidden counsel or purposes of God, something you can’t know simply through rational problem solving, but only through revelation, proclamation, or fulfillment. Rom. 11:25; 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:1, 7

Throughout chapter 15, Paul argues for the bodily resurrection of the dead. I confront it every day in the Apostle’s Creed; I believe in the resurrection of the body. Paul is convinced that Christ’s resurrection was not an exception but the crucial precedent – the first fruits of many for those who believe. Our perishable body will put on imperishability too; our mortal body will put on immortality too.

What does this mean for us? Today in our service, we have a focus on healing – and heaven knows how vital that is. What does it mean for me when I bring my illness or the illness of those I pray for every day to someone who will anoint me and pray with me? If I believe that this life is all there is, that can paralyze my hope or smother it in desperation. Depression can then add to any other issues.

But *if we believe that God is calling me beyond the gradual deterioration of my ageing – *that there is hope – *we can honestly say to the people we accompany on their journey from this world that we will be re-united with loved ones – *that death is far more than just a merciful end to suffering – if we can take hold of all that hope together, then our anointing and laying on of hands today is a sign that we are journeying together towards healing; journeying together past death towards God’s tears of joy for us; God’s arms open to welcome us in an embrace of pure love, joy and peace. We are set free from our lonely sickness; set free from our alienation.

This is not a call to squeeze our eyes shut and believe in the tooth fairy. It’s a call to consciously choose freedom and life in the midst of the inevitable aches and pains of our mortal existence; to make life choices based on a determination to be free.

The collect prayer for today holds before us an image of our being set free from bondage to sin – something I’d call the chains of isolation – being set free from that bondage so we can choose to dedicate our freedom to God’s service – and that service means caring for all God’s creatures in need. Almighty God, you have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts and freed us from bondage to sin: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all people may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God. Amen

Both tragic losses and miraculous rescues can inspire people to dedicate their lives to a cause. If it’s a tragedy, they want to make sure this never happens to anyone else. If it’s a miraculous rescue, then they dedicate their lives to seeing that other people have that unexpected freedom made available to them too. These are people whose extraordinary circumstances have untied them from a normal, routine life. They’ve been set unexpectedly free, somehow, to focus on their particular cause; their mission. And many of them achieve extraordinary things.

Can we pray for this freedom for ourselves and our community – keeping the prayer of the day and the readings from Isaiah, the Psalmist and Paul open before us during the ministry of healing?

Almighty God, you have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts and freed us from bondage to sin: give us grace to dedicate our freedom to your service, that we and all people may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God. Amen

Today, we offer prayers particularly for survivors of child-sexual-abuse whose wounds have been re-opened by the events of the past week, and for Christians like us struggling with the shame and grief that our family is like this.

Model your life on Jesus

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 6: Jer 17 5-10 Ps 1 1 C 15 12-20 Lk 6 17-26

Michael Leunig once pictured a person telling a priest about terrible mood swings: ‘Reverend Mother … One minute I’m up, the next minute I’m down…’

The priest replies, ‘You must pray to the patron saint of ups and downs, St Francis of a See-Saw’

There are plenty of ups and downs in today’s scriptures. Jeremiah is down on people who think living without God is an option, and then praises the life of faith to the skies. Psalm 1exalts the faithful, then comes down hard on the rest. Luke does the same in Jesus’s ‘sermon on the plain’ with its blessings followed by the woe sayings.

There are also physical ups and downs. Just before today’s passage, Jesus goes out to a mountain where he prays through the night. There, he calls his followers to come to him, and chooses the twelve from among them. Today, he goes down with these disciples to a plain, to a great crowd of his disciples and other people who’ve come from as far afield as Judea and Lebanon to hear him; many of them seeking to be healed. We’re told that all who came to be healed received that healing. Then when he’s done that, Jesus looks up at his disciples, and begins to teach.

I wondered when I read it whether Jesus was looking up from the side of the last sick person he’d just ministered to, or whether he’d sat down to teach in the customary way of Rabbis. Whatever the case, he’s gone from a high place of prayer to a low place where he offers his ministry. That’s where Jesus leads his disciples; from a high place of calling and prayer down to where the need is. He doesn’t keep them up the mountain to give them special, private knowledge. His model of leadership is the apprenticeship model. No sooner has he chosen the twelve than Jesus takes them down to where the people are so they can start work immediately. And we should note the order in which he works. First Jesus attends to the sick. Then he teaches about God’s love for the down and out.

And what have we, his apprentices learned? By beginning on the mountain where he prayed, then going to the plain where he heals, Jesus has shown us that we should first seek God’s strength for our work, and then go among the needy as hands-on care-givers. You’ve heard the saying ‘people should practise what they preach.’ Jesus does it this way; first seek God’s strength, then serve, and then teach about God’s love; how that calls us to respond to the needs of God’s world.

Jesus’s teaching is straightforward and challenging. He talks to the poor, the hungry, the grieving and the outcast, and declares them blessed now; blessed in the sight of God. And because they’ve either been cured and cleansed, or witnessed it happening to others, they’ll know personally how trustworthy his words are.

Amongst that crowd stand Jesus’s disciples – us. Jesus is talking to us at the same time as all the others, as if we’re also poor, hungry, grieving and outcast. By including us – addressing us in this way – Jesus is calling us as apprentices to identify with these suffering ones; to love these people the way he himself does; to come among them and look after them just as we’d want to be treated if we were poor or hungry or grieving or outcast. No surprise then; five verses on from today’s passage comes the golden rule. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

But on the way to the Golden Rule are the woe sayings – woe to the rich, the full, the frivolous and the popular. These are extremely strong words – inescapable in their meaning. Luke has a real thing about the right use of wealth – it’s still part of Mediterranean culture to view the accumulation of wealth with deep suspicion. The pie is only so big. In Luke’s culture, someone who has lots while anyone else goes hungry is nothing but a thief.

This is a very clear ethical issue in a traditional culture where a village is the normal size of a community. You can see who buys up the land of a neighbour who’s fallen on hard times. You can see who builds bigger storehouses while poor people beg for scraps.

Sometimes, you can shame a person like that into changing. And when you do, the rich man is somehow set free, like Zacchaeus was by Jesus. But what does it mean for us in a globalised world? Burning palm oil as so-called renewable-diesel. You may be able shame a rich village sheikh into changing. But can you shame a global trade system which trashes the lands of the poor and destroys nature so that rich countries can prosper even more? The trouble with this sort of inequity is that it’s pretty well invisible to much of the developed world; we’re blind to it.

Jesus and his disciples were surrounded by the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the sick and the possessed, just as we are today. The reason Jesus’s teachings carry the weight they do is that his teachings are perfectly reflected in his life. And the reason the Church has been able to pass on those teachings authentically is because, in every age, there have been some people and communities who have modelled their lives on the life of Jesus. Just like him, they’ve also put their lives on the line.

Throughout our history, there have always been people and communities who have heard today’s Gospel as if for the first time. By the Holy Spirit’s gift, they opened their lives, and let themselves be transformed by the Gospel.  

The effect of such transformed lives is tremendous. These people have brought the Holy Spirit’s fire of renewal to their Church community in their own lifetimes, and they’ve passed on that heritage to us.

We saw today how Jesus went to the people – regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion or social standing. They came from everywhere; from Lebanon down to Jerusalem. And he simply went among them unconditionally, ministering first; dealing with explanations later – that’s the model he’s given us.

Now it’s our turn; now we are the bearers of his Gospel of new life; new birth into the realm of God’s love for all. May God give us the grace to live the gift of this new life unreservedly, and to hand it on authentically to coming generations. Amen

What God wants from me

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 5:   Isa 6, Lk 5

The other day, I asked Vicky, “When you have an experience of the divine, do you think it means God wants something from you?” Vicky looked a little bit scandalised. But on reflection, she seemed to concede that there might be something in it. It just needed to be expressed differently. So we tried saying it another way. When we have an experience of the divine, we feel uplifted and transformed. We feel as if we can do extraordinary things. But it’s way beyond our experience, and we think God ought to know what we should do next. So then we ask God what we can do. God’s direction – our response – Chicken and Egg?

Let’s look at today’s readings. If we think about what we just heard from Isaiah, there’s a bit of both – direction and response. Isaiah has a vision of the throne of grace, and sees himself exposed in its light as ‘a man of unclean lips’. Peter’s reaction is the same in the gospel to the revelation of Christ’s power; ‘leave me for I am a sinner’. Two people have a vision of God; in their case, their response is to feel self-conscious and embarrassed.

But God’s response – Jesus’s response – says that’s not necessary; it’s a response that affirms and enables. We see Isaiah and Peter given their life’s calling. Isaiah is called to the life of a prophet; Peter is called to the life of evangelist and apostle. This is a calling which comes both from within them, and from without – it’s a meeting of two lines of music that will accomplish wonderful harmony

I suppose in each case you could still say that God did want something from them. But you might prefer to say that God gave them something – something that many people search for all their lives, but without success. Isaiah and Peter are both given great purpose in life. Their lives are transformed.

That’s a spectacular feeling – at once bewildering and exhilarating. A friend of ours was talking about his son who had just finished a science degree in biology, and landed a job on a research vessel studying blue-fin tuna.

As he lugged another stack of fresh tuna steaks home (surplus to the experiment), he asked his parents, ‘Is it really work, when you’re doing something you love so much? When do they stop the party?’

Neither Isaiah nor Peter ended up having a life you could call a party, but excitement, challenge, purpose, seeing lives transformed, and the world turned upside down – I don’t think you’d turn that down for anything.

So did God ask something of them, or give them something? It’s a bit of both really. It’s something to do with becoming aware of the fact that we share this universe with God, and that we see things differently because of this awareness. You don’t judge yourself in the same way. Isaiah and Peter found themselves in the presence of the divine and automatically thought of themselves as unworthy. But that wasn’t what God wanted of Isaiah – it wasn’t what Jesus wanted of Peter.

Isaiah and Peter only appeared unworthy in their own human eyes. In the divine presence, both of them were given the gift of seeing themselves differently. The Psalmist puts it this way: …on the day I called, you answered me; you put new strength within my soul. 138.3

So that question I asked at the beginning…does God want something from you…I think the answer is yes.

First, God wants you to see yourself differently; positively.

The other thing about these encounters is that God gives the person a life’s work to accomplish. But it’s worded in such a way that you can see it differently from being simply a command to be a prophet or apostle or evangelist. It’s as though God is looking at you from way outside your life – from its beginning and its end and beyond, yet at the same time, seeing you from within the pit of your stomach – divining your deepest yearnings – and all that at once. So when God asks, ‘whom shall I send?’, you answer that that’s just the sort of person you are.

So in the end, when we have an experience of the divine, it’s one of the two or three moments in life when we are being offered ourselves. Our deepest self is rescued from being unhappy or out of place; rescued from doing something that doesn’t give life; rescued from seeing what we’re doing as being unworthy.

You or I may be given a new way of seeing who we are and what we’re doing. Or we may be given a way to move forward – move on to something that we can only do now, because of the new way we can see ourselves right now.

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.

Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.

In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.

Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

Amen

God is the faith, the hope and love

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 4C:  Lk 4 21f & 1 C 13

With the bushfires threatening Tasmania and Victoria this week, my mind is drawn back up the hill where everyone makes one particular preparation for the bushfire season. They have a little tin box or a small bag near the door containing family photographs, documents, and essential medicines that they want to grab if they ever have to flee a bushfire. Different things are important to each one of us, but it’s striking how small a container can be big enough for the absolute essentials. So many things we think are essential for life aren’t really.

Those people Jesus offends in the synagogue today; they believed that from a spiritual perspective, they had their essentials in the bag. They were ready for their sudden exit if it came. They were children of Abraham and Sarah, children of the Promise; God’s favoured ones. But Jesus tells them about the time God’s favour was given only to a starving Lebanese widow; and another time when God’s favour was shown only to a Syrian general with a skin disease, and not to the children of the promise; just to people God wanted to bless, regardless of their religion.

Jesus tries to tell those people in the synagogue that being a child of the Promise is not the essential thing; the essential thing is God’s compassion; God’s love for the outsider, the poor, and for those who suffer. If poverty and suffering do come our way, they’re just the occupational hazards of being mortal. But they’re in no way signs that God’s love had dried up. Look what happened to Jesus himself! God’s love was most deeply present in the way he shared our mortality – our occupational hazard!

What if somebody asked you to name the absolute essentials of our being Christian – what it is that sets us apart from people who aren’t Christians?

I suspect one of the first things we’d name is something called faith. And we might also mention hope; that we believe we can bear suffering better than we otherwise might because we have hope. So we might say that faith and hope are two of the absolute essentials of our Christian life – two things we have in that box by the door. But today, did we hear Paul say that they aren’t?

Chapter 13 of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church is perhaps the best known of all his writings. We hear it time and time again at weddings and funerals. But as is so often the case with very familiar words, we may not hear what they actually say. Is faith an essential? Paul says, “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, I am nothing.” Nothing!? So is he saying we don’t need faith in that little box of essentials we grab as we rush out the door? That Lebanese widow and the Syrian general were neither of them of the “true faith”, remember?

The faith and hope we’ve got in that box by the door are really important; don’t get me wrong. But they don’t happen in a vacuum; they belong to the ‘still more excellent way’ that Paul introduces chapter 13 with.

People say to me “I don’t have enough faith”. I say it too. “I don’t see any chance of hope”, we say. Paul tells us that we don’t have to; it’s not our job. We don’t have to be the engine-room that generates these things because God is. Listen again to verse 7: [Love] “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. So it’s love that does it – it’s God who does it!

Love bears all things. What we have to carry through life – we don’t have to carry alone, because of God’s love for us, God is carrying it all with us. If we’re hurt, God’s love hurts with us. And faith and hope? What does it mean that it’s not just us but love that does the believing and hoping?

Think about the people who love you. They believe in you, they hope in you because they love you. Their faith in you, the hopes they hold for you are because they love you. It’s not something you’ve done; it’s not something they do. It’s a gift; God’s free gift of love. And today’s gospel tells us there are no prerequisites for receiving God’s love – the people of the synagogue in Nazareth would have seen that Lebanese widow and the Syrian general as outsiders, but Jesus reminded the Synagogue of their stories to tell them that no-one is an outsider to God’s love.

Love believes all things, hopes all things. There they are – faith and hope – bound together with love. Faith, hope and love endure – the absolute essentials; the things we have by the door to grab as we leave. Are we being told today that love is the container for the faith and hope? Or are we the box, and God, in love, puts faith and hope in us? All these are lovely possibilities, yet sometimes we lose faith and hope.

But if I understand Jesus and Paul correctly, it really won’t matter if we look inside and find the box empty sometimes. If we lose faith – lose hope, it’s not the end. Jesus lost both of them too. And even if we feel like we have no faith and hope at all, that can be okay too. God’s love for us looks after that. Remember that Lebanese widow? She had food containers she couldn’t fill during the drought, but God made sure she always had enough oil and meal in them. 1 Kings 17

It’s out of our hands. God’s is the faith; God’s is the hope, God’s is the love. And for some wonderful reason known only to God, God’s love for us means that God places faith in us; God places hope in us. Our part is to recognise this love and to know that it’s ready by our doorways – by all our doorways – to grab, not for ourselves alone, but to share with everyone we meet – because it’s theirs too. It’s not emergency survival stuff for us; it’s love; it’s meant to bind us together. It will never run out; it will never be withheld. We’ll be okay. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Glimpses of a resurrected- life here and now

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 7C: Gen 45 3-11, 15, Ps 37 1-11, 40-41, 1 Cor 15 35-50, Lk 6 27-38

Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery. Today, we saw his gracious reunion with them. That story is a chilling reminder of just how bad sibling rivalry can get. Please think back to your childhood for a moment? If you had a brother or sister at home and your parents were out for a while, try to remember the way you greeted them when they got home. Was it always a scene of joyous, loving reunion? Or were you playing beautifully with each other, and so absorbed in your play that you didn’t even notice their arrival? Or was the reunion perhaps less than ideal?

My parents would usually arrive home to at least two raised voices, each of us putting a strong case for the other’s punishment. Our parents discovered yet again that they’d returned to be changed into judges required to umpire a quarrel. If they were out for a long time, phone calls took on the same noisy function. It was, of course, very wrong to tell tales; but reporting serious issues was a different matter.

Today, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians reminds us how such quarrels and requests for adjudication were communicated in the days before telephones and when journeys took months. I had the chance to re-read the whole of 1st Corinthians on Tuesday and I was struck by how many times Paul wrote that someone had informed him of this or that dispute amongst the people of this church he’d founded in Corinth. Either they’d written to him, or they’d travelled to find him.

First Corinthians is very much a letter sent to settle disputes – and some of them remarkably petty. These recent Christians have been bellyaching publicly about each other and about Paul. Some have been surprisingly selfish; holding communal feasts where the rich Christians eat everything – including communion – before the poorer ones even have time to get there. 1 Cor 11.17-34  Some people are also trying to set themselves up as having more important spiritual gifts than everyone else. 1 Cor 12 Understandably, Paul calls the Corinthian Christians spiritual infants 1 Cor 3.1-3; he writes that they are his children, and he is their father.1 Cor 4.14-17.

But as he corrects and rebukes them, time and time again, he presents them with a tremendous vision of the transforming power of Jesus’s love. Three weeks ago, we heard his hymn to love as the answer to their disputes about who had the more important spiritual gifts. As an alternative to their bickering pride – the great leveller – Paul presented these new Christians with God’s Love as the unstoppable force for universal exaltation – raising up the whole creation.

Two weeks ago, we heard Paul remind everyone of the Gospel which had called them into community as a church, and then last week, he went on to deal with voices in the community saying there is no resurrection of the dead. This week, Paul seems to be tackling one or more of the community intellectuals who’ve been offering their own versions of what resurrection must look like. It’s not easy to determine what they’ve been saying; we only hear one end of the ‘phone call’; but they’ve infuriated Paul. Many scholars speculate that these dissident community members are influenced by a philosophy of their day – Middle-Platonism – which saw the physical realm as being of a lesser order than the spiritual. If they believed this, they wanted to reject Paul’s teaching about our resurrection being physical.

One recent scholar offers quite a new insight. She points out that the almost universally accepted Stoic philosophy of that time would have had these dissidents arguing that the resurrection world will be an exact replica of the current one, as Stoicism says the universe repeats itself in an endless cycle of decay and carbon-copy rebirth. Imagine how that might suck the hope out of a community!

Paul responds, as we just heard, that the resurrection body is not the same as the one which dies, and yet it’s absolutely in continuity with that mortal body. He offers a metaphor from nature to argue this; that death and resurrection are like planting a seed or a grain which must be utterly lost so the new life dormant within it might awaken.  36‘What you sow doesn’t come to life unless it dies.’ And the new life form is of a completely different order from the seed it springs from.

The ‘fool’ that Paul challenges should accept the wisdom behind this resurrection as God’s – and that this is a reason for hope. And if that ‘fool’ wants to pontificate about the universe, Paul says that God is way ahead of any amateur philosopher, who might want to splinter a faction from the Church simply in order to become its leader of a group. God has the universe covered too. Thus Nicola started us off this morning with St Francis’s Canticle of the Sun. ‘All creatures of our God and King.’

Paul tells that ‘fool’ in Corinth not to try to subordinate the Christian Gospel to the popular philosophy of the time. It’s like an onion seed telling God it’s decided it’ll grow into a river red gum. Paul says your philosophy won’t determine the life form God calls out of the seed you sow. 50‘The perishable doesn’t inherit the imperishable’. No; whatever imperishable existence springs from you will inherit the qualities you’ve cultivated in this perishable life of yours. So look out! This is quite a roasting.

Like all of Paul’s teaching, it’s primarily aimed at the welfare of a community; it’s aimed at community cohesion, and most important of all, on community reliance on Jesus. Only then can we consider resurrection life. And what is that?

This is where we return to Joseph – and incidentally, to the same message as we find in today’s Gospel. Joseph offered forgiveness and new life to those brothers of his who’d only narrowly been convinced not to kill him, but rather to sell him into a life of slavery in a foreign country. They had unintentionally sent Joseph as a seed of God’s people to be planted in foreign soil. And if you go home and read his story, you’ll see that he brought life to that country where otherwise there would have been death. He also transformed that country into one which could provide salvation to all the countries surrounding it. That’s resurrection-life in action.

Every day we can discern glimpses of resurrection-life here and now – in the lives real people live. May these insights be planted as seeds among us and germinate to enable this community to flourish as a resurrection-life-bearer to the world. Amen

Christian lives are lived out in relationships and community

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 3: Neh 8 1-3, 5-6, 8-10, Ps 19, 1 Cor 12-31, Lk 4  14-21

Like lots of people, I have a family story that shapes the way I see myself. On Mum’s side, my grandmother was a daughter of engineers and miners. She was a schoolteacher, artist and calligrapher. She died of diabetes when my mother was six. Her husband, my grandfather, was a son of farmers and miners, and the grandson of two convicts. He was a music teacher and a violinist.

On Dad’s side, there were tea merchants, missionaries, butchers and dentists. Both my grandfathers were Methodist Lay Preachers. So if you read all that tea-drinking, preaching, writing, mission, criminality and music as the story of where I come from, it makes some sense of where I am now. I feel blessed to have this story. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without it.

But imagine thinking that you didn’t have a story, and then suddenly discovering that you had one after all. It could change your life. Suddenly, you’d belong. You’d have a ‘because’ in your life. All sorts of things about you might start to make sense. And with a ‘because’ in your life, a sense of purpose and belonging might encourage and shape you.

That’s what happened in today’s reading from Nehemiah. We met dispirited, uncertain people —returned exiles—whose immediate ancestors had also been born in exile. These people were gathered together by the priest, Ezra, and he told them their true ancestral story; the story of where they come from and why they were a nation. With their story came both pain and new heart. Maybe they couldn’t cope with the enormity of it all, but as they listened, purpose flooded back in.

This Australia Day weekend, this scene from the book of the prophet Nehemiah calls me to imagine Aboriginal people around the world suddenly having all their Law, Language, Land and Tradition restored to them – a sense of what had been lost, and a vision of its restoration. I get the weeping.

Nehemiah had overseen the rebuilding of the city. Now, through the ministry of Ezra and the Levites, we see God set about rebuilding the people themselves.

The books of the Law of Moses are still written on scrolls that you can see being read each week in Synagogues. These books tell the story of the commitment there is between God and people. It’s a story of belonging; a story of a people’s heritage; the reason they are a people; their purpose as a people. And it tells in great detail how they are to be a healthy, life-giving community. We saw Ezra’s reading give all this back to people who’d lost it generations ago – gave them back their belonging. And no sooner were they given it than they celebrate and feast, but importantly, to include others. Eat hearty, but make sure other people can too.

It was a transforming moment for these people – hearing their story afresh, with understanding. It poses a question for us; what do we expect will happen to us when we hear the Scriptures read as a gathered community? Does something happen?

What does it do to us when we followers of Jesus hear him this morning proclaiming his mission statement – our mission statement? What’s it meant to do to us? What’s it meant to feel like? Let me ask the journalistic question—what does it feel like to hear this as coming from your own mouth – from your own heart?

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Just imagine if you didn’t have a story, and someone suddenly gave you this one – not just any story – this one. What if they gave you this story that puts you in a huge picture, filled with a family you never imagined was yours, and a call to belong and join in!

We are most fully ourselves when we are connected – when we are part of a shared story of God’s extravagant generosity. Today we heard Ezra tell the returned exiles: this is your story and it’s a story to be shared in word and action most particularly with those who have nothing to give back. We are shown what this means for us when Jesus stands up in the synagogue and declares his commitment to the poor, to captives to the sick and oppressed. We are shown what this means for us when Jesus lives this story and dies to protect those sick, oppressed captives.

The Christian life can only be lived out in relationship; in community; in care and compassion. And central to the way we live it out is a shared commitment to the poor, to the weak and the marginalized. It is not the work of a moment, neither is it the work of momentary grand gestures and inspiring events; though they may sometimes happen. The Christian life is lived out by ordinary people who grow in our sense of belonging, care and inclusion. It’s simple, and lovely.

As we think about the on handing of stories, we remember that our children soon return to school. Can we see their return in a new way. Education is the sacred responsibility of each generation – handing on the story of how we’ve become who we are. Our children learn how and why they belong; they discover what gifts they have, and become equipped to care for their community when they become adults. Here, we seek to do that handing on of the story in the kids’ corner, and we are partners with other groups who seek to do it with us in the wider community – SJYS, Dulwich, MM, SLWS – partners honouring this co-missioning we share.

We call our community the body of Christ, so we seek to live a life anointed by the Spirit; to proclaim good news; to offer our story to people who might have lost theirs; to release people from the prison of isolation; to offer a vision of life to people who see no purpose, and release people from the slaveries of our age. Jesus has this day declared our belonging and our purpose in this mission statement.

Amen

The wedding at Cana

Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Epiphany + 2:  John 2 1-11 – The Wedding at Cana

Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and bless what you have given us.

Leaning there were six stone water jars…each holding 20 or 30 gallons. There’s a lot of food and drink that gets consumed in John’s gospel … an awful lot. So I thought it a good idea to say grace first.

In a former life, I used to teach English to people who’d come to live in Australia. One of my favourite times then was teaching groups of tram drivers and conductors in a tram depot in Melbourne. In one class, I had a student called Joe who’d come from Italy. In class conversations, it appeared that Joe seemed to spend most of his available energy on bottling home-grown vegetables, making tomato sauce and, of course, ensuring a plentiful supply of strong red wine. At our end-of-course party, Joe brought several flagons of his amazingly strong, rugged wine for everyone to enjoy. In fact he brought so much, I was worried he might run himself a bit short.

I asked him if he would, but he smiled comfortably: “Peda, I make-about-a tirdy gallon evera year; iss anuffa,” said Joe, with the serene confidence of a man fully prepared for any emergency life might bring. I think of Joe when I hear the story of the wedding at Cana and the hundred-and-thirty odd gallons of wine (500 litres).

A lot of church history … and a lot of the history of religions generally … tells us stories of people who’ve tried to get the food and drink thing under control so they can be free to concentrate on “higher” things … spiritual things.

But John’s gospel says that separating the spiritual from the physical is not an option. John is much more concerned than the other three gospels with physical things; things you can touch, taste, see, smell or feel. It’s John’s gospel which starts by telling us that God who was the Word became a physical being in order to share our material existence with us: the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us1:14.

God enjoys us so much – God is so fascinated by the things that make up our lives – that nothing short of being one of us could adequately express that delight and fascination. The Church celebrates the fact that a risen, ascended, physical, human body is forever a part of the Trinity we worship as our God; God is interested in bodies, and as today’s Gospel reminds us, God likes food, drink and parties.

But in today’s story, this fascination with joining in the fun doesn’t seem to grab Jesus immediately. His Mother tells him that the wine has run out, and like any sensible Mediterranean guest, he asks what that has to do with them. He also adds, “My hour has not yet come. It hardly sounds like his mother’s message was warmly welcomed. Yet undeterred, she turned to the servants and said they should do whatever Jesus told them to do.

We might be excused for feeling baffled here, but Johannine scholars Sherri Brown and Frank Moloney highlight the example of the Mother of Jesus here as a disciple par excellence. Just like John the Baptist had shown in the previous chapter, she showed true discipleship. In John’s Gospel, this means trusting entirely in Jesus, pointing people’s eyes towards him and teaching us to listen to him. The Mother of Jesus uttered a prayer; she was met with the discouraging deflection that we can so often feel as God’s silence, and yet she trusts whatever he will do, and insists that others should also trust. She teaches us that prayers are heard.

Our next puzzle is this initial, seeming reluctance of Jesus to act – was he worried whether this wedding feast should be the place to launch his public ministry? That would be understandable – once the course was set, there was no turning back. But there may also be a very human, kindly element to his hesitation too. Around the Mediterranean, a person’s honour is their most valuable possession. If Jesus were publicly to fix the wine shortage, his host would lose face. Maybe Jesus was thinking of a way to fix the wine supply, and preserve his host’s honour at the same time, so the wedding banquet could go on in uninterrupted joy.

In any case, that’s precisely what he manages to do. Jesus meets two needs; the one his mother brought to him there’s not enough wine, and also the fact that his host’s honour is at stake. The way he meets these two needs is ingenious. He has the servants do everything; they fill the great water jars, they draw the new wine and they take it to the master of ceremonies. And, I’d guess on that day, they also begin their discipleship to this kind, thoughtful man. The MC and the guests think the host provided this wine. Two needs are beautifully met, more wine is provided, and the honour of the host is preserved. And for us, Christ’s Glory is revealed.

Come Lord Jesus, be our guest, and bless what you have given us. There’s a link between this traditional table grace and the story of Jesus at the wedding of Cana. When we sit down to eat and we say this grace, we’re saying that Jesus is at once a guest at our table, but that at the same time, he’s the one who provides what we have on the table; just as Jesus was an invited guest at the wedding, but at the same time, provided that huge quantity of wine for the feast.

Jesus is a guest at each meal; at our dinner table and at the wedding feast. But at the same time, he’s the one who provides what is served up to him and to everyone else.

We take all this a few steps further in our gathering today … and this is where that other comment of Jesus to his mother needs to be mentioned … My hour has not yet come …. When Jesus talks about his ‘hour having come’ in John’s gospel, he’s talking about his crucifixion (Jn 12.23–13.1). Soon, we’ll be declaring together that we are the body of Christ – that by our gathering, we somehow constitute Christ in this place. Then in our prayer over the gifts, we affirm that everything we give to Jesus has come from him in the first place. And finally, as we rehearse the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper …this is my body, given for you…this is my blood poured out for you … we declare that the bread and wine on our altar are somehow Christ in this place. This extraordinary chain of symbols gives us the Eucharist, where, as a friend of mine once put it, Jesus is both the host and main course. Amen