Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Some sermons to get started

Marion Uniting Church – 6 July 2008

Romans 7:15–25, Matt 11:28–30

Who I am is in between what I want to be and what I am.

 

I had a struggle preparing this message. I couldn’t find my way into the readings, and it took some time to settle on a new message we could take away. That is the gift of the lectionary, though, to bring before us the passages that take some effort, need us to spend time with them, to hear them speaking into our lives. Rather than speaking on and listening to the same sort of message over and over.

 

I focussed on the passages from Romans and Matthew, reading commentaries, checking out websites, looking at them from all sorts of angles, as they’re both reasonably well known to many people.

 

One of the websites I looked at was Bruce Prewer’s. He puts prayers, poems and sermons on his website, to help people in their reflections. For this week he had a sermon for the Matthew passage and for the one from Song of Songs. In worshipping communities I’ve belonged to, we haven’t considered Song of Songs very often, if at all. It’s a bit tricky, and over the centuries people haven’t known quite what to do with it. There was a trend to read it as songs to God, but recently the approach is returning to seeing and valuing these songs as between a woman and a man, singing their love for each other. Bruce Prewer has provided an Aussie version of the song we’ve heard for this week:

 

LOVE SONG

Song of Solomon: 2: 8-13

 

Isn’t that the voice of my lover?

There, look, see him coming,

leaping from crag to crag

and bounding down the hillside.

 

My true love moves as easily as a roo,

and as gracefully as a dancing brolga.

See how he vaults over our stone wall,

hoping to glimpse me through windows.

 

Now his voice reaches me clearly:

Come on out, my lovely darling,

see how the winter has gone away

and the season of chill rain is over.

 

Wild flowers are scenting the bushland,

the joy-time for songbirds has come,

and the voice of the mating doves

are once more heard in our land.

 

The wattles trees are ablaze with gold,

lorikeets a feeding on the gum blossom.

Come out and join me, my darling,

Put on your shoes, come walk with me.

                                                               © B.D. Prewer 2000

 

I paused for a moment to sit with this song, and I was reminded of the importance of having Song of Songs in our scriptures. There are difficult passages of the Bible, difficult for many reasons, most of which are the result of the tyranny of time and distance from the people who recorded and compiled this sacred narrative. But I enjoyed this chance to sit with this one; we should spend time with Song of Songs, and rediscover the depth of the love a human being can have for another. If we become familiar with the language of love to speak to those closest to us, perhaps the language of love will be less threatening to speak and act with strangers.

 

So I had considered the passage from Song of Songs, but I was still drawn more to what Paul was saying in Romans. And so I struggled on.

My main difficulty was with the differing opinions about whether Paul is referring to his personal struggle as a Christian, the general struggle of Christians, or the relationship of Israel to the Law and grace.

 

For instance, one person suggests that it refers to a specific time of inner conflict for Paul following his own conversion – in the three years between Paul’s conversion and the beginning of his ministry with new Christians. Others think Paul is drawing on his knowledge of life for these new Christians, and speaking about the struggles generally encountered among the people he knew. And others suggest that, having outlined in the previous passage of this letter what happened when Israel received the Torah, Paul now goes on to describe what it was like for Israel living under that law. The law shows sin for what it is.

 

Studying poetry at university, we learnt that though poems usually have deep, hidden meanings beneath what is often quite complex figurative language, the surface meaning has to work also. The simplest interpretation of a text is often its truest meaning. So I read this passage simply. I understand that in the ongoing argument Paul is developing through this letter the relationship between the Law and grace for Jewish people is key. However, the simplest reading of this text is perhaps as the struggle of the person, any person, who has accepted grace as redefined by the resurrection of Christ, but still lives in a state of sinfulness.

 

My struggle continued, as I tried to find the words to speak today. Eventually I did what I often do when I’m preparing a sermon – I listened to music.

 

And then I found it – on a cd I haven’t listened to in years, and have almost given away on countless occasions, the song that puts Romans 7:15–25 to music. The song is ‘In Between’, by a band called the Orange County Supertones. They put it this way in the chorus:

 

Who I am is in between

What I want to be

And what I am.

 

Who I am is in between

What I want to be

And what I am.

So what am I?

I am a human being. And for Paul, to be human is to be caught in the state of being which is understood as the consequences of humanity’s / Adam and Eve’s greedy thirst for knowledge and their betrayal of God’s trust in Genesis 3. This understanding was central to all Jewish people of Jesus’ and Paul’s time. So to be human is to be out of the garden, so to speak; outside the relationship with God that God intended for us. That’s what we are.

 

But that’s not what we remain. Paul spends some energy discussing the implications of Christ’s life, death and resurrection for us all, Jew and Gentile. The Law – or Torah, which really means instruction – highlighted the ways we do not live according to God’s law of love. Paul has just described how it was not sinful in itself, but it was never intended to do anything other than begin to bring us back into right relationship with God. God’s presence on earth with us in Christ, and the life death and resurrection of Christ became the next act of God to help bring us back into right relationship with God. Because of Jesus Christ, we are ultimately not enslaved to sin. We have moved to the in between. We have been liberated from the human condition of distance from God and are heading in God’s direction once more.

 

And perhaps that’s part of what the yoke is that Christ offers in the reading from Matthew today. 

 

City dwellers like me may not appreciate the image of a yoke as immediately as those who heard Jesus and Matthew. A yoke is designed to make the carrying of a burden or a load easier.

 

Bruce Prewer’s reflection on Jesus’ image paints a helpful picture in contemporary language:

 

MISMATCH

 

  Matt 11: 28-30

 

The oldtimer chuckled

remembering bullocks

harnessed to pull a plough;

one powerful beast

and one weak runt

together yoked somehow.

 

The small one strained

and did its best

to make a useful team,

the big one bore

without complaint

the weight of that crossbeam.

 

The oldtimer said

that’s how it was

with him and his best Mate,

he did his bit

as best he could

but Christ took all the weight.

                                      © B.D. Prewer 1992

And this is some weight Paul describes. That feeling of inevitability about our getting it wrong sometimes does make us feel like a wretched person, wondering how on earth we can be saved from the death of our soul. Paul is pretty morbid, but he gets to the point quickly, in what is described as a most eloquent expression of what it is to be a follower of Christ:

 

Verse 24: Wretched person that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

And straight away in verse 25: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

 

This is Jesus’ yoke of kindness. Jesus, who speaks the language of love in his very being, invites us to keep moving towards reconciliation with God.

 

So who I am – Who I am is the person who is headed in the right direction. We have turned towards God, and we are on the Way. Followers of Christ, who struggle but keep going, who sin but accept grace, who are in between what we are as humans, and what we want to be as people of God.

 

Amen

 

Psalm 23 – Brighton UC – 2 March 2008

 

Psalm 23 – Bruce Prewer version

Congregation Song – Together in Song 10

CD – Hebrew reading of Psalm 23

 

Perhaps because of its lines, yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and, I’ll dwell in the house of the Lord forever, Psalm 23 is often read at funerals. It certainly gives great comfort at that moment of farewell and in our grieving.

But should it be confined to being ‘the funeral psalm’? Do we miss something of what this poem expresses of life, by hearing it only at the time of death?

 

Every verse in this psalm expresses trust and thanksgiving to God, who is understood and known to be close. The name of Yahweh is spoken only in the opening and closing verses, enfolding the words of confidence and relationship. At the centre is the statement – you are with me. central to the message of this psalm. You are with me.

 

There is a lyric I like in a song by a band called The Goo Goo Dolls. Funny name for a band, but the line expresses the feeling of loss of a loved one – it’s like falling backwards into noone’s arms.

 

For me, this psalm feels like falling backwards into someone’s arms. Trusting, surrendering, falling backwards into God. As I read this psalm, I can almost feel myself standing in the shallows of a pool, falling backwards with complete trust that the water will hold me and set me free.

 

This psalm isn’t about death at all for me – it speaks to me of life.

So what is in this psalm that makes it, for me at least, more about life than life after death? Let’s take it piece by piece.

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

Most often, the Lord as shepherd is shepherd to the flock, the many. Here, God is my shepherd, shepherd to the individual, in an expression of intimate relationship.

Jesus knew this intimacy, and he spoke of it, too, and of the importance of the one to God as much as the many.

Luke 15:3–7. The parable of the lost sheep. I know this isn’t the gospel passage for today, but still – in the face of more questioning and grumbling from Pharisees and scribes regarding Jesus’ insistence on eating with tax collectors and sinners, he answers, ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’

The Lord is my shepherd.

 

He makes me lie down in green pastures;

He leads me beside still waters;

He restores my soul.

This, too is about life. God the shepherd provides food, water, shelter for the sheep, preserving physical life.

The life of the soul, too, is restored, revived, strengthened through the spiritual nourishment of stillness. I wouldn’t mind guessing that there are some beach dwellers among us here who walk on the beach, swim in the sea, or sit listening to the waves ebb and flow and feel their souls revive.

So much of our daily lives drains our energy, takes the life out of us. And so wherever we go to be still and breathe – the golf course, the beach, a bath, a walk, a cup of tea – wherever the stillness is, we go there to find life.

He leads me in right paths

For his names’ sake.

For a sheep, life depends on a shepherd’s guidance on safe paths.

Sometimes this phrase has been translated as being paths of righteousness, rather than simply a safe journey.

Righteousness, however, means less to me than right relationship with God, which is a central concern of the Old Testament and the life of the people of Israel. Their identity was wrapped up in being the people of God, and so they were striving daily to walk closer with God.

If you read the prophets, there are many calls to Israel to return to right relationship with God. Many answers to questions of how to ‘fix’ the relationship, how to live out their covenant relationship. You may recognise this one:

 

God has told you, O Mortal, what is good.

And what does the Lord require of you, but

To do justice

And to love kindness,

And to walk humbly with your God.

 

For walk humbly, however, we could say, live rightly, follow right paths for the sake of your God.

 

It’s about life, and how to live it.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley

The psalms are nothing if they are not real.

In the midst of such positive, affirming statements about life and how to live it, this psalm acknowledges the dark side of life as part of its affirmation of the trust we can have in this intimate relationship.

Dark valleys, troubled times, loss, depression, illness, I could go on.

There are times when life asks a lot of us – asks us for strength we don’t have, demands courage we cannot find, wants us to be resilient when we’d prefer to crumble.

I shall fear no evil

Why?

For you are with me

You are with me

This is the centre of the poem, as I mentioned earlier, the statement of ultimate trust on which the whole psalm hangs.

The intimacy, the still quiet assurance, the right relationship we’ve talked about so far, lead to this falling backwards, letting go, with trust.

 

You are with me.

 

And I am comforted.

The rod and the staff, by the way, were respectively an instrument for beating off wild animals that threatened sheep and the crook that hauled the wanderers back into the flock.

There is much comfort in knowing we are held safe.

 

You prepare a table before me

And now the celebration!

Among enemies, trouble and darkness, my cup overflows because it is filled by God.

And this celebration, this table, it’s not just for two. One commentator I read suggested it was, but I don’t think that’s right.

Even though this is quite a personal, intimate psalm of the individual, the community is so much part of who each one of us is, who a person was in Israel, that the feast must be about community. My shepherd is the shepherd of my people.

Surely

Of course, certainly …

This psalm, I may have mentioned it already, is about trust.

These statements are from the heart of someone absolutely certain of God, certain enough to let go of myself and find freedom in the flow of God’s Spirit. Can you feel it?

 

Goodness and kindness shall follow me

Firstly, the Hebrew word we translate as follow is apparently used in other places as pursue – the shepherd doesn’t amble after the lost sheep, he runs, he pursues it with goodness and kindness and brings it home.

Secondly, kindness, in Hebrew – hesed. This is my favourite Hebrew word so far (I’ve still got plenty to learn). God shows hesed to God’s people – it’s something like loving kindness or mercy – it’s about giving honour to the receiver. We, incidentally, are expected to show hesed to our neighbours, too. It’s part of right relationships, allowing the fullness of one’s humanity to be honoured.

Again, it’s about life and how to live it to its fullness.


I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long

For the people of Israel, the House of the Lord was the Temple, a place of safety, sanctuary and ultimate closeness to God.

Also, Jewish people then, and some today I understand, have no concept of life after death. So this confidence in God is about the relationship that exists here, now, in life.

 

But, for Christians, we live with this notion of the Kingdom of God, which is here, but not yet here. And life in the kingdom transcends this earthly life. So dwelling in the house of the Lord for a Christian person might be more about living out the Kingdom of God that Jesus spoke so much of, and living in hope of the fulfilment of that kingdom in time to come.

 

The 23rd Psalm, is, for me, very much about life, full life as we find it falling backwards into God.

 

Reflecting on Psalm 137

This is a sermon that includes prayers for the people. The song is one from a record my parents had when i was a kid - by Boney M. 

That’s some anger.

This psalm is one of the lament psalms. These psalms speak of sorrow, anger, loss – the ugly side of our human experience.

They are an important part of the worshipping life of the people of God who were Israel. Too often we leave lament out of our worshipping life today. It is ugly. It is frightening. It is challenging.

In psalms of lament people blame God for their suffering. They don’t just ask God, where are you?, they admonish God for being absent.

We have a covenant with you. We’ve been doing the things we promised – worshipping, praising you, faithfully as your people. But you haven’t held your promises. The land you brought us into has been taken away – why haven’t you protected it? why didn’t you protect us? What are we supposed to do now? ANSWER US! Get down here and DO SOMETHING.

Are we allowed to tell God what to do? Aren’t we supposed to apologise for the wrong we have done and ask forgiveness? Even if we can’t think what we have done to deserve this present suffering? We can’t get angry with God – God didn’t do it.

Why, then, are there psalms in the scriptures, the record of the relationship of God and God’s people, that contain anger, pain, cries for revenge?

Had they lost faith in God?

 

Well, if they were throwing insults at god, they were talking to God, and that would indicate that they thought God was still close enough to hear. Still listening.

It kept the lines of communication open – so very important in any relationship. And it says something else about the relationship of God’s people with their God. They knew their God was interested in their experience of life – their whole experience of life. the hard bits, the anger and hurt and vengefulness were not hidden from God, they were not kept out of the prayer and worshipping life of the community. Oh, no. The presence of lament psalms demonstrates and open and honest relationship between Israel and God, and between the members of the community. All of life is present and acknowledged, in the most important activity for a people of God – their gathered worship. There is a trust, a deep trust that God would listen and not reject them because of their anger. It demonstrates faith.

It reminds me of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, in which he is asking the church to be a body that weeps together when one member weeps, and rejoices together when one member is happy. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. Our whole human experience is part of the gathered time of worship. Every response to life comes to the community, to God.

 

To leave out the ugly bits is to be dishonest about the human experience. It is to be dishonest in our relationships with each other and in our relationships as members and as the body with our God. And though I may not feel like weeping today, as a member of the body of Christ, I take this moment to stand alongside those who do weep. We take this opportunity to remember, before and with God and each other, those in our community who, like the Israelites in Psalm 137, are exiled, longing for their homeland, and yearning for a way to sing their song in a strange land.

 

We’re going to hear three stories of lament now. After each story, we will reflect in silence and honour the sorrow and the anger. We will offer the sorrow and the anger we feel in solidarity with our neighbours to God. These will be our prayers for others today.

Warradale only – I spoke of drought last time I was with you, and that’s where we’re going to begin today.  

 

[Sing]

By the rivers of Babylon

Where we sat down

Yeah we wept

When we remembered Zion

 

By the rivers of Adelaide, where we sit down

Yeah, we weep. When we remember the ‘lucky country’

 

Now, it’s the dry country. The very dry country. so dry you feel thirsty looking at the earth. So dry you want to cry so that your tears can water it. But even those rivers don’t run deep enough.

I’m a farmer in the Murray Valley. Well, I farm fruit. And I sit by the river sometimes and – yep, I’ll cop to this – I weep. Where’d the ‘lucky country’ go? What did we do to it? Was it really just a dream?

[pause]

What have we done?

I remember great years, bumper years. ‘specially as a kid – all I wanted to do was take over the property from dad. Some great years. Boy was it good to work God’s earth in those times.

 

I never intended to send my kids away to the city for boarding school. But it would have been nice to have made the decision for ourselves – rather than having no option ‘cause the money’s just not there.

The kids will have to get jobs in town if they can, help us out. It’s not the way I’d like it to be. They seem to like the idea of being able to do something to help out, but I wish I could let them concentrate on their education properly. I won’t be encouraging them to take on this business unless they’ve got to university and learnt some new water management techniques. That’s the only way forward.

It’s the only way to get back to the familiar territory.

Oh, God, I know we got this land by dodgy methods, and in the end it’s all yours –

I try to remember the ideal, the promises, the garden. It’s hard to remember sometimes, hard to keeping singing in this strange, dried up land. But there has to be hope, or we wouldn’t even try – doesn’t there?

 

It makes me so mad, all this suffering. There are farmers much worse off then us. Although, we might have to take some of that charity soon. Not sure whose going to cope with that one better – me or my wife …

The authorities, the governments, they’ve known for years, they’ve known we were heading for this. Driest state. Driest continent.

Why bother with the titles if you’re not going to make any effort to manage what water we have got? Why?

Boy, I’d like to sit them down, all the people who could have acted and didn’t, and I’d, I’d, I’d throttle them – God, you know I would. Make ‘em last a week – 24 hours even – without water. See how it feels.

My trees, God, my trees are dying and I can do nothing but watch it happen. I can hear them groaning with the weight of it all, and no water to replenish them.

God – let me at ‘em. I’ll speed up the decision making process, you’ll see. They’ll be gasping. Gasping.

 

Remember, Lord, remember how they have hurt this land of yours, how they have left us with nothing. No alternatives, not a clue, they’ve let this happen, God. Don’t you forget what they’ve done!
We pause to remember those who are so deeply affected by this drought, by our mismanagement of water, by the loss of their lives on the land.

 

Silence

 

 

God, we lament the loss of water in our rivers. We join our cries of sorrow and anger with the many whose living comes from the land.

We trust each other and we trust you with these emotions, and in faith we pray, in love we weep, in hope we keep on singing.

 

[Sing]

By the rivers of Babylon – Where we sat down

Yeah we wept – When we remembered Zion

 

By the rivers of Adelaide, where we sit down

Yeah, we weep. When we remember the Africa

 

I long for Africa. Not the Africa you see in the news – the Africa of my dreams, of my ancestors. I do not recognise what it has become.

All my daughters know of our homeland is the camp. I love my children very much, but it is hard not to remember why they came to be born. Hard not to see them as a product of the brutality of our lives then. They do not understand. They both have different fathers. They have no father. Uncles and cousins they have, but we see them very little. I do not trust men easily any more.

I weep for what we have lost.

I weep for my father and my mother, killed so long ago.

I weep for my sister who lives with us. She dreams the same dreams I dream. The same nightmares, too. I could not protect her from that.

I weep for my brothers who were stolen in the night. Always in the night these things happen. I do not know what has happened to them.

How do we keep singing, people ask me?

We sang in the camps, even when soldiers taunted us, ridiculed our language, tried to beat it out of us.

But we had to sing. To lose the song was to lose the soul. I knew women who could or would not sing. They had empty eyes. They had lost hope.

But we sang, my sister, our friends, and me. we sang as we put up our tents. We sang as we waited in line for our rations. We sang as we walked to the well and carried water all the way back – it shortened the journey, lightened the load. It reminded us of peace and of home.

Sometimes it was sad to remember, but we would not let them take our memories from us. They were not going to kill our souls.

Yes, we sang out of defiance. Sometimes, the songs expressed the anger we dared not show any other way. What did they know? Ridiculing our language, taking no trouble to learn it, they would not know how we cursed them in our singing.

Rage still burns in me, sitting here by the rivers of Adelaide. When I remember, I scream. I scream silently and I scream loudly. I scream most often in my nightmares. But I also scream in the kitchen, throwing things, breaking things, shaking the anger out of my body. It frightens the children. It frightens me.

Oh, my children. They do not understand how I hate myself for wishing they had not been born. I hope they do not know what I see when I look at them. I have lost the chance to love my children as a mother naturally loves her children. I hate the soldiers most for that. For what they have stolen from my children by giving them life.

What would I do to them if I had the chance? I would like to slit their throats. I would have, too, on my way out that last stinking day, but it would have taken the last of their mother from my children. God, I know you are listening – curse those deadly men.

 

We pause to remember these women in our midst, whose memories tell horror stories to bring tears to our eyes. We remember them in their exile – in camps still in Africa or in their Australian refuge.

Silence

God, we lament the losses of home suffered by so many African women and men. We join our cries of sorrow and anger with the many now in exile.

We trust each other and we trust you with these emotions, and in faith we pray, in love we weep, in hope we keep on singing.

[Sing]

By the rivers of Babylon ­– Where we sat down

Yeah we wept – When we remembered Zion

 

By the rivers of Adelaide, where we sit down

Yeah, we weep. When we remember the Burma

 

Myanmah the junta call it. Had to give it a new  name as well as everything else. Well, good. What they have done to this country would defile the name of Burma. So take it away. Do not violate it with your filthy mouths. How can they do these things to their own people?

Not that we are entirely their people. We were an independent state before they flattened our villages, forced our leaders into exile and displaced thousands in our own country.

I have been moved from three villages. All in what they call the ‘cease-fire’ zone. Ironic. They may not fire their guns, but they manage to use just as much force without them.

Never settled, we can find no paid work. If we do, they pull us from our jobs to build roads or clear fields the army confiscates to build castor oil plants for oil they will not share. We are made to tend the plants for no pay, no share, no gain. And the working conditions themselves are so dreadful. Someone tried to escape last week. They hunted him down, brought him back badly beaten, forced him to continue working when he could hardly stand, and fined the whole village 100 times a daily wage, which most of us cannot even earn.

I am thankful I have not married, and have no children.

Daughters are sold to Thai men as slaves. The money covers the fines for a while, and the daughters are never seen again. The wailing echoes between your ears long after the trucks have taken them away.

Sons join the drug trade. Good money, I guess. Well, any money would be better than what most jobs pay. There’s little risk of getting caught – the soldiers don’t care. Actually drugs seem to be leverage, in one way or another, to get want they want, with minimal fuss.

It all makes me so angry. It’s like being tied up, you can’t move, can’t escape. We are all imploding with rage.

We heard of the monks in the city walking with the people on their way to work, who can no longer afford gas for their cars or tickets for the bus. A sea of red, they said. They should have let them walk with the people. But of course they saw it as disrespect, as a political act, a threat.

So they used violence as usual.

What has to happen to a person’s soul for them to beat a monk? The monks are peace personified. It is so symbolic, this violence against monks. They are killing peace. They are, have been for so long, killing this country.

Take their children, sell them to the Thai slave trade. Make them build a road with bear hands made for playing music not laying stones. Stones. You know what I was doing with the stones in my head each time I threw them down? It makes me shudder to think of what I wanted to do to another human being. Even God would rage against this regime. Buddah, too. It is hard to sing the song in this strange, strange land.

 

We pause to remember the monks who march for peace in Burma, the thousands of displaced people and the thousands more in exile. We remember a country being torn apart by a violent regime.

Silence

God, we lament the loss home suffered by so many Burmese people. We join our cries of sorrow and anger with the displaced, the exiled, and the monks who march for peace.

We trust each other and we trust you with these emotions, and in faith we pray, in love we weep, in hope we keep on singing.

 

How do we feel?

Hearing these stories of lament, what are the emotions stirring inside you? Hearing of

the fruit farmer, held hostage by drought

the African woman, abused, her only refuge to be found in exile

the Burmese villager, an exile in his own country

 

if you feel you can, name your emotions out loud and let us share them together

 

And so we pray – God, we bring these emotions to you – name again,

And in faith   we pray

Out of love    we weep

With hope   we sing.

 

Amen

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