Prepare to stand before Jesus and meet his gaze

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Advent Sunday C – Jrm 33 14-16, Ps 25 1-10, 1 Thess 3 9-13, Lk 21 25-38

A brief homily.

I can hardly think of an Advent Sunday where the Gospel cry for justice and grace has spoken more plainly to this world. Those apocalyptic images from the Gospel – 25…on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People…fainting from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world – it seems no exaggeration to imagine that this time is upon us. You may disagree.

But people hear this message quite differently from each other. Think of how these Gospel images have been heard in Pacific island churches earlier this morning; or how Jeremiah’s promise of justice and righteousness is heard among peoples excluded from our rich-nations club. The islanders are living the environmental apocalypse right now. And they and others in the ‘developing world’ are living the Covid apocalypse without access to enough vaccine for their people while we muse about booster shots.

The islanders bore the prophetic cry for justice to COP-26, but they were met with obdurate rejection by our nation and many others. Can we hear the cry to God from today’s Psalm as they would have heard it a few hours ago; 2 God, let none who wait for you be put to shame: but let those that break faith be confounded and gain nothing. They must place their trust in the one who is coming, because the world has broken faith with them. And we are part of that world which has broken faith.

Advent Sunday begins the season when we get ourselves ready for Jesus to come; get ourselves fit to stand before Jesus and meet his gaze. Are we ready? This is not about individual, personal piety or anything so banal. The readiness in question means making sure that we as a church are hearing the Gospel, living it and in a voice that won’t be ignored, proclaiming to power the Gospel cry for justice and grace for the least of Christ’s children.

I get letters from charities which ask me to direct the church’s charity to oppressed Christians in other countries. I feel uneasy that Christians are singled out as the only ones we should be helping. Jesus made no such faith distinctions. It seems to me that we as a church – a rich church in a rich economy – that we should be very obviously doing the Gospel work of living and proclaiming good news to the poor, bringing release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind and setting the oppressed free. Lk 4.18

It’s a huge task, but whether we make big inroads or small steps on this journey, that is most definitely the road we must be travelling when he comes to meet us.  Amen

Welcome the Reign of Christ here and in our own hearts.

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Christ the King / Reign of Christ B – 2 Sam 23 1-7, Ps 132 1-12, Rev 1 4B-8, Jn 18 33-37

If you haven’t read the Harry Potter books yet, you’re missing out on one of the great English-language Christian epics of the past century. The central setting in the stories is the British boarding school for witchcraft and wizardry, Hogwarts. The Headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, has a particular gift for making his school one where the most unlikely people can have a place to call home. There are several incompetent staff and some very unpleasant members of the community, some quite psychotic. Yet they all remain unquestionably part of the community. Dumbledore resists all efforts by people to have any of these troubled ones ejected from the community. In time, their true gifts and qualities are revealed, and Dumbledore’s bewildering loyalty to them is vindicated.

It’s an image of the Reign of Christ as it might be on Earth. The reign of Christ is not a democracy, but it’s a community where every individual is accorded the courtesy and presumption of belonging; a community where lasting judgement is suspended in favour of patience and mercy. It’s no utopia; humans are human; people get hurt; people are ill-treated and misunderstood by one another. But no-one is outside as far as Jesus is concerned; and anyone who tries to give that impression doesn’t understand the way things work in the Realm of Christ.

It’s very appropriate that we’ll hold the annual general meeting of St John’s Youth Services on this Christ the King Sunday. St John’s Youth Services is an organisation whose reason for existing is to proclaim by word and deed that every young person is worth believing in, and to see that every young person might safely call somewhere home. It’s an ethos that springs directly from the values of the Reign of Christ. Jesus has a very special care for young people; a particular concern that they should never stumble into a barrier that suggests they don’t have a place of their own; a particular concern that they encounter his care for them as a gateway to abundant life.

St John’s Youth Services sprang from this parish – its basic ethos expresses the values that the people of this parish share with the whole Christian community. We seek to embody the Reign of Christ by asserting that everyone belongs under the protection of Jesus. We try to do this because Jesus wants us to go out of our way to make sure everyone does belong.

A lot of us people have trouble belonging in the wider world because of where we come from – what race or country or educational background we come from, what emotional baggage we bring with us.

But in Christian communities, living under the reign of Jesus, we seek to live the fundamental truth that he wants us all to know we belong. We might have trouble belonging in the wider world, because of our age, or because we’re too sick, or we’re a bit different. But in this and in any Christian community, we seek to live the truth that Jesus wants us all to belong. Jesus is King here; Jesus is in charge – and he’s not someone who’s influenced by bigotry or jealousy or ambition or rivalry or selfishness or concern with prestige. He calls his communities to be places where everyone is safe from those poisons.

It’s something that’s learned slowly – this belonging; something that has to be passed down the generations; something that has to become quite natural. We need to pray that anyone who encounters this belonging among the community of Christ will be protected from our sharp edges – they’ll always be there – sharp edges caused by our own frailties and insecurities. But then Jesus experienced them from us too. Today’s gospel reading has him on trial precisely because of those insecurities and frailties in his community.

I believe we’ve been offered a vision today which can help us welcome the Reign of Christ in this place and in our own hearts. Everyone has an image of the effect a true leader can have. God gave King David just such a vision on his death bed; a true, Godly leader – One who rules over people justly, ruling in reverence for God, 4 is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. 2 Sam 23.3-4

Can people in this community experience such contentment – as though we arrive to the light of morning, … the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land .

On this Christ the King Sunday, I pray for a communal vision that we and all who come to this, or any Christian community, are always greeted by Christ’s blessing, and always feel at home and at one in this place of frailty, contentment, struggle and love.   Amen

The stories of nobodies who changed the world

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 25 B – 1 Sam 1 4-20, Song of Hannah, Heb 10 11-14, 19-25, Mk 13 1-11

Children: Introduction to the story of Samuel using the first three verses of 1 Sam: make connections between Hannah’s, Ruth’s and Mary’s stories and highlight God’s call to powerless people to change things for the better.

 1 Sam 1.1There was a certain man of Ramathaim, a Zuphite from the hill country of Ephraim, whose name was Elkanah (God creates) son of Jeroham son of Elihu son of Tohu son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives; the name of one was Hannah (grace), and the name of the other Peninnah (jewel). Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. Now this man used to go up year by year from his town to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. 

Sermon

Before there were Kings in Israel, God appointed men and women to govern the nation. We know them as Israel’s Judges. Some of the great names of Hebrew Scripture come from this period; like Deborah, Gideon and Samson. But things were going badly towards the end of the time of the judges. In fact, the last verse of the Book of Judges says something quite worrying. In those days, there was no King in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes. Jud 21.25 It’s a picture of growing anarchy – a bit like now in some parts of the world.

But we heard last week in Ruth’s story that God was doing something about it. We saw God actively at work in the life of a very vulnerable, foreign widow named Ruth. God was preparing to give kings to the Hebrew people. And Ruth, a foreign nobody of a woman would be the ancestor of their most famous kings, including David and Solomon – and ultimately of Jesus as well.

As our gaze begins to turn towards Christmas and Mary’s story, we are reminded by the story of Ruth and now this week with Hannah’s story, that God’s call to Mary wasn’t just a one-off. God seems to make a habit of commissioning a completely unknown woman or girl for a pivotal role in salvation history. These women are role models to us of courage, faith and patience; women who know what it is to wait in hopeless misery, and yet still find room in their hearts to hope again; women who have the amazing trust in God to do that.

And with their courage and faith and trust and patience, God chooses these women and works together with each of them to take the history of salvation a giant step forward. We meet another such woman today in Hannah. We just heard the birth story of her son, Israel’s last judge, the prophet Samuel; God’s answer to his mother’s desperate prayer. Anyway, let’s look at what we’ve heard today about Hannah’s story and see what it might call from us.

As with Ruth and Mary’s stories, before we meet the children, we meet the families they’ll be born into. Like all families, Hannah’s has its share of troubles. In her family, there’s Hannah, who can’t have children. Her name in English means Grace. It’s a bitter irony; she’s a woman caught up in a patriarchal society that only values women if they have male children. Hannah can’t have any children; but her husband’s other wife, Peninnah is blessed with child after child.

Hannah’s misery is bad enough in itself, but on top of her own sense of hopelessness, Hannah suffers the vindictive taunting of her husband’s other wife, Peninnah. And she endures an annual religious ceremony that rubs her nose in the bitter shame of her situation. She’s not helped by the awkward way her husband handles things.

This particular year, she couldn’t stand it any more. Refusing to eat, and leaving straight after she’d served the meal, she fled to the sanctuary and poured out her grief to God. She bargained with God for release from her prison of shame. 10Her life was bitter, so she prayed … with deep sobs. “O Lord of hosts … give to your servant a male child, I will present him to the Lord a consecrated one all the days of his life…” Her prayer was a vow, a sacred oath.

While Hannah prayed, the old priest Eli watched her and shockingly, he accused her of being a public drunk! Hannah corrected him. No, my lord. I am a woman troubled in spirit; I have drunk no wine. I have been pouring out my life before the Lord. She’d been pleading with God for release from her life-sentence of shame in this traditional society, and Eli got it wrong. A priest disapproves of someone for praying! You can’t win sometimes. Don’t think that your servant is a worthless woman; I have been speaking out of my great distress and misery all this time!

Eventually, Eli sends Hannah off with a blessing. She’s recovered remarkably from the bad start to their encounter – but then, we know she’s accustomed to being abused. You can tell that when Hannah responds to Eli’s blessing by punning on her own name. She asks that she might find favour [‘grace’] in his eyes. We know Eli has seen “grace – Hannah” right before his eyes, and he doesn’t yet know it. But he will.

Grace is astounding: it’s a treasure we most often discover at the lowest of low times. We watched Hannah reach that point today. She hit rock bottom, and Eli the priest failed her. But as her song showed us, we saw the Lord raise her up from the dust; he lifted the needy from the ash heap, to make her sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. 1 Sam 2.8 That’s in the song that she’d sing years later when she presented her miracle son to Eli, back at the sanctuary – the longed-for child, Samuel, whom she returned to God as promised. She had truly experienced Grace; she would sing her heart out!

For us, the message is clear – adult or child, we might be nobody; an outsider; bullied (yes adults get bullied too); misunderstood; sad. But take our tears to God: take God our heart with the gaping hole in it, and God will receive our trust, gently collect our tears (Ps 56.8) and heal our hearts. Then together with us, US! God will set about healing a whole world!

Ruth, Hannah, Mary – God seems to make a practice of calling ‘outsider’ women to move salvation history onto the next plane. I wonder if you can think of such a young woman today who may be just such a partner of God’s in the world’s hour of need?

There are plenty of reasons for feeling powerless and trapped today. These stories of nobodies who changed the world have been preserved to tell us that a different story is possible, and that for us too, the different story is the real one. Amen

Loving sacrifices of little people can shape history in extraordinary ways.

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 24b – Ruth 4 – Mark 12

We’ve just heard the joyful end of a love story. But Ruth and Naomi’s story had some tragic moments along the way. It starts and finishes near Bethlehem. Naomi, her husband and their two sons go to Moab across the Jordan to escape a famine. But Naomi’s husband dies. She manages to marry her two sons to Moabite women; Orpah and Ruth so they’re all safely connected with extended family networks. But ten years on, tragedy strikes again. Both of Naomi’s sons die. Now there are three childless widows left to grieve together. Where can they turn?

Naomi hears that the famine in Judah has ended, and so she sets out to travel home. She tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their family homes and try to re-marry. Reluctantly, Orpah does leave her. But Ruth clings to Naomi and says: Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die – there will I be buried.

Utter commitment; Ruth takes a great risk going with Naomi. Like Abraham, she leaves country, kindred and ancestral home to go somewhere unknown. She does it because she loves Naomi; she’s determined to care for her. So they travel to Bethlehem together. They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest. To support Naomi and herself, Ruth goes straight to the fields to glean; to gather stalks of grain that the reapers have missed. If she’s lucky, she’ll strike somebody kind. Hebrew Law required reapers to leave something for the poor (Lev 19, Deut 24). Not everyone did this, but Ruth found plenty to gather because she struck kind, Godly people.

We find out why they are like this when we first meet the land-owner, Boaz. He and his reapers greet each other respectfully in God’s name when he arrives. Boaz is the head of a decent, caring household. And as it happens, Boaz is a close relative of Naomi’s late husband. Ruth 2.1 He’s exceptionally kind to Ruth. He says he’s heard of her loyalty to Naomi, and he takes Ruth under his wing.

That evening, Ruth finally staggers back to town carrying about fifteen kilos of barley. She’s thoroughly quizzed by Naomi about her extraordinary day. As Naomi hears about Boaz’s gracious care – particularly his willingness to go beyond the requirements of the Law – she begins to see a chance for Ruth.

Hebrew Law calls upon a man to marry his brother’s childless widow so she might have children to inherit her husband’s property. (Deut 25, Gen 38) Naomi thinks Boaz might just go beyond the call of duty and, even though he’s not a brother, he might marry Ruth anyway.

So as we heard today, Naomi got Ruth to wash and anoint herself, put on her best clothes and head straight back to the farm. She was to seek out Boaz at the threshing floor that night and wait until he’d gone to sleep. This is where the adults only bit begins, so we cut a long story short. Ruth effectively proposes marriage. Boaz is rather pleased but says there’s a possible snag. There is another, even closer relative of her father’s. But he’ll see what he can do. Before dawn, he sends Ruth back to Naomi with a gift of so much grain that it takes a donkey to carry it. Seeing this, Naomi becomes quietly confident.

Boaz heads up to the town gate and the first person he meets there is that other relative. They negotiate the matter in the presence of the gathered elders.

Boaz puts it very cleverly. He makes sure that relative realises that he may claim Ruth’s father’s property, but that if either Boaz or the relative marry Ruth and she bears a son, the son will eventually get the property back. Not only that; Ruth’s son will also have a part-claim on the relative’s estate. That’s something the relative won’t risk that, so before the elders, he takes off a sandal and hands it to Boaz; a gesture which in Hebrew Law says – She’s all yours.

And as we heard, Ruth and Boaz would become the great grandparents of King David. The graciousness of a destitute widow and the decency of a good-hearted farmer are pivotal in the history of God and humanity. The book of Ruth is traditionally read in Synagogues at the feast of Shavuot – the anniversary of the giving of the Law at Mt Sinai. Ruth’s journey from Moab to Bethlehem is seen as an allegory of the people who left Egypt and went to Mt Sinai to receive the Torah.

Ruth’s story, and the Gospel story of the generosity of that poor widow who Jesus sees in the temple, tell us that the loving sacrifices of little people are noticed by God. And by God’s grace, they can shape history in extraordinary ways. In this time where climate change and pandemic weigh so heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable of the Earth community, we should be encouraged to act on our kind, generous impulses to support them. I suspect that it will be one of the poorest of the poor who does something – acts in some way, gives in some way – and God will use their gift to transform history again; that’s my prayer; we should be encouraged as big people in a big wheel – because we have no idea what God might make of our sacrifices. Amen

All Souls Commemoration of the Faithful Departed

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Vicki Balabanski

Teach us so to number our days. That we may apply our hearts to wisdom. (Ps. 90:12)

All Souls is a time when we sit quietly for a little while with the reality of death. Death of someone or ones we love, and the reality of our own death.

The first time I can remember thinking about death was when I was about 8 years old. It came about when my mother showed me a photo of a girl about my age, a girl I’d never met, called Elsa. My mum said that Elsa had died, and I remember staring at the photo and feeling very sorry for Elsa. As we looked at a photo together, my mother said that God had spared Elsa the sufferings of this world. This wasn’t something that I had expected to hear from my mum – she wasn’t a very pious person.

I remember feeling outraged. Could she possibly think that being spared suffering was enough reason to make sense of Elsa’s death?

In retrospect I admit that maybe mum could really have thought that– her own experiences of life, wartime, being displaced, may have led her to hold that view. Or maybe it was the answer she had been given as a child. I couldn’t accept that there could be any logic to this girl’s death – a girl I had never met, but one who was probably just like me. After all, if there were logic to it, by that logic, God might want to spare me too, and I wasn’t going to agree to that.

Mum was trying to define death as a friend. But I wasn’t going to see it that way. I wanted no such friend.

St Francis of Assisi, in his Canticle of the creatures, Brother sun and sister moon, says something similar:

We praise You, Lord, for Sister Death, from whom no-one living can escape.

Francis invites us to view death as friend, even as our sister. We all have known someone who has reached the point where they are wanting to embrace death as friend. That’s the meaning of the word ‘euthanasia’: good and welcome death.

St Paul, by contrast, sees Death as enemy (1 Cor. 15:26): ‘The last enemy to be destroyed is death’.

The Book of Job is on this side of the ledger, too. Job gives a pretty bleak look at mortality. It’s a passage full of questions about what hope there is if everything ultimately ends in death.  Job ‘numbers his days’ and ‘applies his heart to wisdom’, but at this point in his story, everything seems absurd and futile. The experience of our own mortality can invite us to ponder what really matters in life, or it can leave us feeling very alone, whether there is any meaning to be found at all.

So we have both insights as part of the tradition: death as friend, and death as enemy. We experience both perspectives at times: death as friend, death as enemy.

My mother herself died within two years of that talk, and before a further year had passed, my father died as well. My sister and I were still at Primary School, and we had no family in Australia. As a child, their deaths were the end of my world.

My memories of this time are of fear and also courage, grief, lots of discussion about where we would now live, and a certain isolation that descends when your peers are no longer on the same page as you are. God was present too. Because we were not allowed to view dad’s body nor attend the burial, probably for fear of what the grief might evoke in us, any talk about God was held at arm’s length. In the end, my sister went to live with our next door neighbors.

And I eventually went to live with a family a few doors away that was newer to our community – a Churches of Christ family with three daughters.

Mum and dad’s death was the biggest challenge to my faith that I had ever had or would ever have; how could a loving God let that happen?

John’s Gospel weaves a mysterious picture of death, judgement and eternal life. These are images we often associate with the future, but here we are told that these are already at work here and now. ‘Very truly I tell you, the hour is coming and is now here when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.’ This eternal life is not some future disembodied existence, but life that we’re invited to participate in here and now. We are invited to enter into the life of God, described here as the love of the Father and the Son, which makes space for us.

For my eleven year old self, and for me today, I found that invitation into a life that crosses the boundaries to be compelling. I can’t explain how, but in the darkest of places, I sensed the loving presence of God.

Death is real. It’s the consummate expression of what it is to be human: our creatureliness, our mortality. But death is not the point of it all; life in relationship with the infinitely loving God is the point.

As Jesus says later in this Gospel: I came that they might have life, and might have it abundantly. (John 10:10)

Jesus models a particular type of life: It’s about living a life of generosity and compassion. It’s a life that sits lightly to itself, not constantly worrying about preserving what we will ultimately lose anyway. This sort of life also has something to say about our attitude to our self, our personhood, our soul. Our life, our soul, is found in service: those who put all their effort into preserving their life, their personhood, will lose it. After all, death will be the end of it. But those who voluntarily surrender it, will find that it is caught up in the very life of God.

There are many biblical streams of thought which reflect on death: death as friend, death as enemy. Maybe tonight we can ponder death as a horizon that reminds us to reflect on what really matters. And if we can do so with the sense of God’s loving embrace, death ultimately holds no power over us.

Teach us so to number our days. That we may apply our hearts to wisdom. Amen.

 

 

The Feast of All Saints

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

All Saints – B  31-10-2021 John 11.32-44

Isa 25.7 The Lord will destroy … the shroud that is cast over all peoples … 8 the Lord will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away    the tears from all faces

Since WW2, probably now is the only time this image of a shroud that is spread over all nations can be sensed in this country – the shroud of Covid-19, and the shroud of human-induced planet-wide annihilation. Everyone is threatened with the kind of danger that is normally only faced in a time of war. Death threatens.

Today – All Saints’ Day – we hear the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. The raising of Lazarus is a startling confirmation of the power Jesus claimed over death when he said: Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.Jn 5:25 We’ve just seen Lazarus hear that voice, and we’ll all hear it ourselves one day. So today it’s time to talk about what happens when loved ones die.

One of the central things Christians believe is that Jesus gives believers eternal life. John’s gospel speaks of this gift often. (Jn 3.16,17,36, 4.14,36, 5.24,39, 6.27,40,47,54,68, 10.28, 12.25,50, 17.2,3) The special meaning of this gift that we celebrate today is that our loved ones who’ve died are not dead to God. Even though, to us, our loved ones are gone for now, we believe that they are alive in the presence of God. To us, they rest in peace, awaiting the last day; the day when all will be raised and Jesus will come a second time to judge the living and the dead. We may be constrained in time, but time is within God. So both the living and the dead are present to God.

This means that all the people around the world who gather for worship today are not the whole Church. On All Saints’ Day, we celebrate a Church that is much bigger than we can see. We look around at each other today and we see visible saints. But we don’t just gather with the believers we can see. We believe we’re also surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (μαρτυρεῖτε), as our prayer book says every saint’s day. I’m sure I sometimes hear them joining in when we sing together.

These invisible witnesses are in God’s presence – veiled from us, but alive to God. Our Scripture sentence today from Revelation gives us a fabulous vision of what we’ll see when the veil is removed: I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…Rev 7.9

It’s a huge vision; a vision of what Jesus’ work finally achieves; the consummation of the great search and rescue mission that each and every one of us is engaged in.

I marvel at this; that we each have a part to play in something so huge – a movement that means we and that countless multitude of saints can celebrate the end of all bitter tears – can celebrate an eternity of joyful peace in the company of those we love, and in the presence of the God who loves us and wants us together like this!

In today’s Gospel, we see the face of the God who makes it all happen. There are tears of deep compassion on that face! Jesus weeps with his friends in their grief – the same Jesus who summons his dead friend from the grave. Jesus weeps for the death of Lazarus and for the pain of those who love him. Jesus shows us God’s compassion for you and me. And out of that compassion, Jesus acts with appalling power. Jesus’ tears are the compassion God feels for the suffering of all the living. And his summons to Lazarus to come out from the tomb is what Jesus will call each one of us to do.

What will that day be like? When I think about this mighty sign of Lazarus’s raising, I’m reminded of Ezekiel’s thundering oracle: Then you, my people, will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live. Ezek 37.13-14

The raising of Lazarus is a story of what God does – the lengths God goes to – to make faith possible for us – to make possible a free relationship between a frail, half-seeing person and our God who loves us. In Jesus, God comes and cries our tears with us, and in God’s time, will come to our graves and call us out from them.

These are not stories made up to create a system of belief. They are genuine stories told by people who experienced them as Good News – written down so that we might be encouraged by this Good News and have some hope in our lives that is greater than just an end to grief. And these stories which hold the rumour of God’s love for this world – these stories have been preserved, experienced, lived and told by generations down the ages – continuing with us – the saints.

These people are all the saints whom we honour today – the billions of ordinary people down through the ages who have lived and transmitted to us the resurrection faith; our hope of an eternal life of peace and joy with our loved ones under the delighted smile of our God. Thus the beautiful 27th Psalm says, I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Ps 27.13

So, with all the saints, we praise our God through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

 

Prayer changes us, so that we can change the world

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 22   – Mark 10 46-52  Blind Bartimaeus

One of the oldest prayers of the Church is called the ‘Jesus Prayer’. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. It should ring a bell; we sing a version of it every Sunday in the Kyries – Lord have mercy. And today we heard it when Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’. His cry is one of the earliest forms of the Jesus prayer we have. And my experience of this prayer is that when you pray it, things really happen.

Sr Joan Chittister OSB says “…prayer is not something given to us to change the world. It’s meant to change us, so that we can change the world.” Please hear that carefully; prayer is given to us. Does that match what we think prayer is?

I think this means that the words we pray may be ours, but what makes them prayer is a gift from God. It’s only possible that our words become prayer because God has reached out to us first; God has come near to us, like Jesus did for Bartimaeus. Without that nearness, there’s no prayer; just words. God coming near is the enabling thing; it gives us the gift of prayer.

“…prayer is not something given to us to change the world. It’s meant to change us, so that we can change the world.”; it’s given to us to enable change

Today we see that gift for change at work. Bartimaeus refuses to let his gift be silenced or controlled. The immediate effect on him is that his prayer sets him free from worry about his most precious belongings; they are the good will of his neighbours, and his beggar’s cloak – both absolutely critical to his survival. He ignores his neighbours’ attempts to control his access to Jesus. And he throws off his cloak. He might never find it again. Bartimaeus discarding his cloak becomes for us an image of someone who leaves their old life behind when he springs up to go to Jesus. “…prayer is not something given to us to change the world. It’s meant to change us, so that we can change the world.” …

Prayer changes the people around Bartimaeus because of this change they see in him – he changes from a beggar into a disciple. As Bartimaeus blindly feels his way towards Jesus, people who, moments ago, were trying to shut him up have turned into his cheer squad. They were an impediment to his healing one minute, and an aid to it the next. “…prayer is not something given to us to change the world. It’s meant to change us, so that we can change the world.”

In today’s Gospel passage, I see this understanding of prayer come to life in a way that confronts me head on. I feel Mark’s eyes on me. I’m one of that capricious crowd. First I’m trying to gag Bartimaeus – sternly ordering him to be quiet – and then the moment Jesus has said the magic words, ‘call him here’, I change and become all friendly and encouraging; ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’

I’m afraid that first reaction is sometimes my instinctive behaviour when I’m confronted by overwhelming need; need that I can’t possibly meet myself. Rather than refer it on to Jesus, who can meet any need, I can be tempted to turn a blind eye to the need: to turn my back; “what can I do about it?” And if it’s insistent, I might even be tempted to discourage the messenger from telling me about it.

When I do that, who’s being blind to what Jesus can do? Who needs to be changed? Today, Mark helps us see a blind beggar sitting next to the dusty road that runs up from Jericho to Jerusalem. I wouldn’t have seen him otherwise. And that beggar Bartimaeus – son of honour – teaches me and the rest of the crowd that we’re blind to Jesus – blind to his love, and so blind to the real reason of his coming. The blind man reveals this to us; to people who can be spiritually blind.

We learn through the gift of prayer to see people who pray out of deep need; we learn to see them as Jesus sees them – not in terms of how they inconvenience or embarrass us with our inadequacy – but through the eyes of love. And that changes us. It changes us so we become ready to be Christ on earth now – his body – and in his power, to throw off our mantle and step forward to change the world.  Amen

St John’s Dedication Festival

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Personal reflections on the St John the Evangelist Halifax Street Adelaide, History of a Colonial Church (working draft 2021).

Judy Gilbertson

Firstly, I must say that I could never be construed as a historian. At St Johns that cap fits firmly on two heads whom we all know and respect. But I do find enjoyment in good stories and this church certainly has a few.

Guests who roam around our church may wonder at the aged fixtures, beautiful glass windows and … they may even look at the Rood and wonder where these features all came from…and indeed they should. For we are a part of this city’s colonial past and on a journey to this present moment.

When Rev’d James Farrell sailed from the motherland to lead his new congregation at St Johns- in -the- Wilderness he was no doubt full of energy. He was sent out into the bush to find his church only to discover its foundations. The tears he is said to have shed can be understood as he was expecting something much much better.

Eventually the church was built but it was far from serviceable. Indeed, it was with time so woebegone (according to Rev’d Slaney Poole) that it was condemned by the City Council. The walls were out of plumb and cracked and the floor a home to white ants. All I can say is that the parishioners must have been sturdy folk at that time. Given our risk management focus these days most of us may have felt compelled to stay at home, or listen to the service from one of the cracks in the walls.

With the passage of time a new church was built and many of the old bricks provided for the building of what is now known as St Mary Magdelene….so all was not lost. The style of that new church is the form we have today.

Over the next few decades, the depression, world wars, and indeed the great flood of the river Murray created havoc in society. St Johns led the way with youth shelters and accommodation for homeless men and women. We should be proud as parents of these programs.

More recently arrangements with the Society of the Sacred Mission proved hugely beneficial to both parties. It seems to me that a pivotal point came when Father Christopher Myers was appointed as he took to heart the outcomes of the Second Vatican Council. I recall him saying to me how important he thought visual experience and power of beauty was to worship “to move people beyond words alone.”

Thus began a monumental shift in the St Johns interior decor. I have no doubt many of you may recall those heady days of renovation. They must have been all consuming. Ron Danvers told me that when Father Christopher hung the Rood, he felt the church’s keystone was at last in place…. how special is that!

To those of you who are part of that history and the wonderful restoration work I say thank you.

Looking back over our grand history I am taken by the faith, resilience, and sheer determination of our forebears. Even we, who seem to live in a time bubble, can if prompted, look back at our youth and marvel at the journey that has led us here.

The thing that is the bedrock of our lives, and that unites us as a community is our faith. Without this certainty and guidance, life would be lived from one moment to the next and from one challenge to the next, without recourse to a rationale for the journey we seem to be on. Similarly church life can either be lived thinking of short-term goals or perhaps expanding them to a more distant horizon, the “long game”. That is the difference between strategies quickly achieved and those that are worked through over time.

I would like to think that at some point in the future a historian will say …look at the St Johns church and its community…still strong and purposeful. They must be blessed … and indeed we are. Let’s be grateful for God’s guidance and for providing us with an anchor and strength as we move through this life to the next.

But let’s also look at the journey of our forebears as they can teach us much.

David Hilliard OAM

St John’s is one of a handful of congregations in Adelaide which have had a continuous existence since the early years of the colony of South Australia. And unlike most of the others it remains on the same site.

In reading the history of this church, which was initiated by Caroline Adams and Ted Ward and brought to completion by Judy Gilbertson, I am struck by these particular features.

Churches change. This is pretty obvious. And they have their ups and downs. St John’s had a near-death experience in the 1970s and was rescued by the arrival of the Society of the Sacred Mission which brought in new people and revitalised the parish. Sunday worship and the preaching at St John’s in the 1840s was very different from, say, 1901 and there are many differences between 1950 and the present.

This is one of the few churches in the south-east corner of the city of Adelaide and therefore it has a unique relationship with this area. The only other churches are, I think the Christian Spiritualist church in Carrington Street and the Christadelphian Temple in Halifax Street which do not see themselves as part of the local community. Madge Memorial Methodist Church, further west along Halifax Street, was closed in 1960.

When this area was thickly inhabited St John’s was parish church for all sorts of people who lived here, in the big houses along East Terrace and the little cottages in the side streets. This is shown by the number of names on the First World War honour roll of young men from the parish who served and died. But today St John’s does not have the same local connections that it once did and not many parishioners live in the area. For the people who occupy the cafes and restaurants in Hutt Street on Sundays this church is foreign territory.

For much of the last 130 years, since the opening of the new church in 1887, St John’s has a strong tradition of church music. In the early years there was large choir of men and boys and H. P. Finniss, who was rector in the 1920s was a noted church musician. In recent years this tradition has been revived. The church has come to be a popular location for concerts and recitals.

Notable people have been associated with this church. Not many can claim as a parishioner a professor who was later awarded a Nobel Prize – Sir William Bragg. Many parishioners have played an important role in the public life of this city and state.

The people of St John’s have not been concerned only with personal piety and the church world. They have looked outside. They have sought to meet the physical needs of people of the area – relief during the Great Depression, Father Wallace’s assistance to homeless men in the 1970s, and notably the youth shelter that evolved into St John’s Youth Services.

There is much to be proud of. However, no church can live off its history. This church has shown that it can adapt. It has great resources to meet the challenges ahead.

Caroline Adams

As the second Anglican church in South Australia St John’s holds an important place in the European history of the colony. Since its shaky beginnings from the laying of the foundation stone in October 1839 and its early meetings in the ‘Temple of Ease’ in Halifax Street it has been a part of Adelaide life. It has been a constant through depressions, wars, good times and pandemics. Such as constant can be a great comfort to the community. It is also important to consider that the land that St John’s was built on was sacred to the traditional owners. In a way we are continuing to uphold a sense of sacredness.

Researching the history of St John’s allows me to enter into the lives of others. Yes, the past is a foreign country that we can never fully understand, but we can appreciate the faith of those who came before us, from Jane Cox of Derby who, it is reported in 1841 donated amongst other things, some 200 hymn books to the fledging church, to local parishioner Professor Bragg. (How many churches can boast a Nobel prize winner as a sidesman!) Reading old copies of the parish magazine reveals that they had similar issues to us, from fund raising activities to caring for the welfare of others. They also had to deal with war, and indeed much of the fabric of the church has some connection to the memory of those who served Australia in war, from the memorial candlesticks (and snuffer) to the font and various stained-glass windows. There is a certain incongruency in that so much of the beauty of the church, much commented upon by visitors, is as a result of such remembrance.

Rev Don Wallace, writing on the 125th anniversary of St John’s wrote how ‘[T]he original St John’s congregation were pioneers. They faced the task of establishing a nation, and the equally formidable task of meeting and dealing with all the new knowledge that was just waiting to be born …’. In the 21st century we are still pioneers, exploring how we can best use technology, negotiating living in a postmodern world with a multiplicity of voices and working out how we can live ecologically sound in God’s creation. Perhaps in years to come, historians will be writing about how we, in our little corner of Adelaide, tackled these challenges.

 

 

Experiencing alienation, suffering and uncertainty may lead to true compassion

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

Pentecost + 20 B – Job 23 1-9, 16-17, Ps  22 1-15, Heb 4 12-16, Mk 10 17-31

Heb 4.15 we don’t have a high priest who’s unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

Today our scripture readings are about people being tested: their pain thresholds are tested; their faith is tested; their relationships with family and friends are tested; their commitment to God is tested. We’ve heard Job’s cry of fearful despair, 17If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face. Then the Psalmist’s anguished cry, My God, I cry to you by day, but you don’t answer: and by night also I take no rest. And in the Gospel, when Jesus calls the rich man to exchange his worldly inheritance for the inheritance of eternal life he seeks, the test is beyond him, and we witness his shocked grief as he goes away from Jesus.

We’d have more difficulty relating to all this if it hadn’t been for the past eighteen months where the pandemic response has seen the world turned upside down for us and billions of people. Old certainties have been swept away; connections with friends and family cruelly disrupted; people’s jobs dramatically changed – if they haven’t disappeared altogether – and making plans for the future has become frustratingly provisional. Most unusually for citizens of a country like Australia, we’ve had a taste of what life is like for much of the world much of the time. So this morning’s readings may speak to us more immediately than they usually do.

Job, the Psalm and the Gospel give eloquent portraits of human suffering in the face of God’s apparent silence, and Hebrews gives us Christ entering into that pain as both the mediator between us and God, and as the embodiment of both us and God. Heb 4.15 we don’t have a high priest who’s unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.

This comes up in so many conversations – the question of where God is when it hurts. So many people are caught up in the apparent meaninglessness of their chronic pain, or that of their loved ones. Yet we, the Church, assert that God loves us. Does this make sense? How can God really be loving if this sort of thing is allowed? There are people all over the world asking this question right now – children orphaned by Covid, medical staff bearing the brunt of the unspeakable suffering of patients cut off from their families.

Online, there’s a parallel pandemic of unfeeling opportunism which makes things even worse for the victims of Covid. Where on earth is God? It’s no wonder that people feel cut off from the love of God when so much of the commentary offers such a cruel parody of the care God wants for them. People feel cut off.

Our readings today speak out of that experience of being cut off. They face the fact head on that being a person of faith doesn’t give us immunity from suffering or misfortune or unfulfilment. Job’s is a story of someone whose world collapsed around him. His neighbours turned out to be the exact opposite of the proverbial friends in need. His faith was no guarantee of him finding meaning in his suffering. And the Psalmist laments God’s silence in the midst of terrible pain. And then, out of the blue, we run into that rich man in the gospel. He had all his financial and religious ducks in a row in this life, but he wasn’t confident of his place in the next.

Faith is no insurance against being a mortal human. The rich man sensed this, so he asked Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ It’s a question someone only asks if they’ve inherited everything they need in this life. Now he wants to know how he can inherit the life to come? The heart of this story is where Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you’ll have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ Give away your family inheritance; your responsibility to your parents and your children; all you’ve been entrusted with; everyone you belong to. Go, give it to the poor. Then come and join me, says Jesus. I offer you a new family; me and my followers.

Jesus, looking at us, loves us. He calls us to be his family – to work with him to alleviate people’s poverty, their fear, their illnesses and their loneliness – to adopt these dear ones into Christ’s family by being family to them, and by doing that, to end the silence they’ve endured when they cried out for God.

And these stories today make me ask if there’s one more thing Jesus is asking of us – whether we may need to experience alienation and suffering and uncertainty like Job and the Psalmist and the rich man did so that we can offer true compassion to the poor and the needy – the compassion that comes from experience – maybe even of poverty. Then through us, these dear ones might just meet the one who’s able to sympathize with all our weaknesses, because we’ve been tested as they are.  Amen

The Season of Creation 5: St Francis Sunday

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Rev’d Peter Balabanski

St Francis Sunday – Season of Creation 5B

For me, this Season of Creation has again been one of deep challenge. In no other season of the year are we challenged so directly to renounce our current lifestyle and live simply so that others may simply live. The immediate urgency of that message is amplified by the international Covid vaccine disparities. While we rich countries discuss the possible benefit of a third booster dose, millions fall ill in poor countries and their health systems collapse as their governments cry out for even a first dose. What on earth do we think we’re doing?!

Live simply so that others may simply live. It’s very like a call to renounce the world of materialism and enter a religious order, and by doing that, to choose to proclaim the Gospel through a decision to live simply. Franciscans and many other orders choose a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; a choice for renunciation.

I had a childhood where a type of renunciation was a very attractive proposition; it was taken up by people who were just a little bit older than me. Their way was to drop out, leave the rat-race behind and embrace peace and love. It was the reaction of young, idealistic people against the lifestyle of their parents and the Vietnam War. They sang about these things in the protest songs of their era, and they carried their message to the world in VW Kombi vans painted with iridescent flowers. It’s an irony that some of them grew up to become prominent billionaire entrepreneurs.

So I’ve been left with an ethos inside me that’s a combination of the flower-power peacenik, the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus’ command to mission. And on St Francis’ Day, it all comes to a head. It’s been given a much sharper edge by the intertwined messages of this year’s Season of Creation – creation care and social justice. They can’t be separated. I’m also aware that this Season of Creation is being observed by people of other faiths too. The call to detach ourselves from the ties that bind us to selfish lives, and instead live in simple ways that leave enough for everyone and everything to share in life; this rings true in other world faiths too.

So what are the next steps? Overcoming fear is one of them. Rowan Williams says that when we are healed of our sin and our fear, when we find our healing, our deliverance from selfishness and greed and anxiety, it begins to make a mysterious difference to everything. We begin to see that God’s purpose for the whole creation is glory for all that is made, where human beings share with all other things. As St Paul puts it, creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Rm 8.21 What joy!

Rowan Williams says that somehow our deliverance into joy and thanksgiving – into reconciliation with God and one another – spills over into the reconciliation and the transfiguration of the whole world we’re in. Our liberation is the world’s liberation. Good news for us should be good news for the whole of God’s world.

So for us to be sharing good news with the whole human race and the whole world in which and from which we live, means first of all for us to be set free; set free from the myth that somehow human beings really exist somewhere else than in the world as it truly is; that somehow we’re in charge; that somehow this is given to us to use as we wish, as if we were not embodied but disembodied.

Rowan Williams says we need to be delivered from all that. We need to be delivered not only from untruth but from fear; the fear that if we take steps of courage and generosity in relation to the world and to each other, that there’s anything fearful in that. We can live simply so that others may simply live. And that’s a new life; life for us, life for our neighbours, life for the creation in which God has placed us. That’s something for joy not fear. So let’s focus on the thanksgiving and the wonder of the gift we’ve been given in our universe. And the gift of faith, perspective, courage, and spirit-filled vision that is ours.

It starts right now. We begin this right now with our prayers for healing. Today, they’re worded in a way that calls each of us to the vocation of healing; healing for each other, healing for the sick and the poor, and healing for the Earth. Amen