Category Archives: Sermons

Going beyond returning to the Father, in order to become the Father

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 4, 27th March 2022

Not many of us remember our baptism, but the point of our baptism is to kind of ‘brand’ us with our spiritual identity, which is our deepest identity. Baptism names what we are and what we are to become. It also assumes that we will forget and lose our way, but assures us there is a way back.

Our gospel reading for this morning sums all this up very well. It is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One of three stories Jesus told to explain why he ate with sinners and tax-collectors.

The parable is named the Parable of the Prodigal Son after the behaviour of the younger. His behaviour is the most dramatic, in its recklessness and wastefulness, but also in the degree to which he turns around and finds life again. The story is not just about him though. It is also about the father and the elder son, with whom we might identify more than we like to admit.

Much of the inspiration for this sermon comes from Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is based on his reflections on Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. (Seen above.)

In Rembrandt’s painting we see the state of the younger son when he has returned home to his father. He has been reckless and wasteful, but his worst sin is what lies behind his desire to leave home and make his own fun in the world. To ask for his portion of the inheritance was selfish, but in Jesus’ day, even when a father handed over his business to his son, the father was still able to live off its income until he died, but for a son to spend it all was to act as if his father were dead (and therefore not needing any share of the income). In other words, the younger son was wishing his father was dead. That’s rejection.

The son goes off and spends his money until it’s all gone and he is destitute. Then he hatches a plan to win back a place in his father’s life. He is still trying to make life go his way.

Eventually the younger son returns to his father. In a previous painting, Rembrandt painted that scene with movement. In this painting, rather than movement, the energy is conveyed by light, which emanates from the father’s face, down through his arms, into his young son. The father is God, whose inner compassion glows outward into the darkness of those he embraces.

The appearance of the younger son conveys his destitute state. He is wearing underclothes. Perhaps he had to sell them to get food, or they wore out from sleeping in rough places. His vulnerability is exposed for all to see, but that’s all he’s got. His shoes are worn. One, without a sole. Shoes represent dignity too, but also wealth, of which he has almost none left. And his head is shaven, like individuals who lose their identity, e.g. a prison inmate. But he hasn’t quite lost everything, for he still carries his little sword, tucked into his belt. That sword is a sign of his nobility. It is a reminder of who he is: the son of his father. There is still a tiny reminder of his identity.

The father embraces the younger son. Having requested that a ring be put on his finger, he restores him to his position in the family and in the world. Rembrandt has painted the father’s hands resting on the younger son as one masculine and the other feminine (a replica of a woman’s hand in another of his paintings). He sees in the father also a mother, and so represents something which both fatherhood and motherhood provide.An interesting picture of God.The boy’s bald (baby-like) head might therefore also be to picture him as an infant returning to his spiritual mother’s womb.

As the father (and mother) in the story is God, the younger son who has left home can be us, when we stray from God. The story tells us that God wants us to ‘come home’, but what is this (spiritual) home? Our spiritual home is where we feel the unconditional love of God, who loves us as we are, without needing to prove or earn our worth. It is where we hear (in a whisper) the voice of God saying what God said to Jesus at his baptism: ‘You are my Son (or daughter, child, therefore). With you I am well pleased.’ It is where we know that we are loved, worthwhile and ‘good’.

Where is this home to be found? Jesus tells us it is within us. That’s where God makes his home. The story is about coming back to ourselves. We don’t need to go off looking for affirmation of our existence. It’s right here, where we are. And, as Jesus tells us, in God’s life there is room all, and variety is the way of things.

To leave our spiritual home is to abandon the unconditional love of God in pursuit of alternatives, and there is plenty of encouragement for us to do so. Voices in the world that tell us to ‘make our mark’ and ‘be a somebody’, are often conditional upon our exercising power over others, buying things we don’t need, or gaining popularity. None of them can give us a true and lasting identity and none of them make us truly free, because our identity is conditionally bound to those things. It is not freely given and therefore, cannot be exercised freely.

If we need forgiveness and setting free, it is for turning away from unconditional love (wishing God was dead) and adopting conditional acceptance of ourselves. It is for believing we are only worth something if we are better than others, stand out from others, win others’ approval, achieve our own standards, and so on.

Forgiveness and setting free come through ‘returning home’, which involves turning away from conditional love and allowing God’s unconditional love to be the centre of our lives.

The elder son is also in need of forgiveness and setting free. As represented in Rembrandt’s painting, he is unmoved by his brother’s repentance. Unmoved, because he resents his father’s love being given to his brother. Underneath that, he is something more complex than his brother. His bitterness is tied to his goodness, and therefore harder to separate. All his life he has remained a loyal son, maintaining his duty, acting out his obligations and responsibilities, but is hasn’t brought him freedom and joy. He is a grumpy old man. He has no more allowed his father’s unconditional love to be at the centre of his life than his brother did. Instead, he is angry that his goodness hasn’t won him special recognition. And the more he acts out his goodness and doing the ‘right thing’, the more his resentment grows. Nouwen asks what is more damaging: the lust of the younger son, or the resentment of the elder? Both are rejections of the father’s unconditional love, but the latter is harder to free oneself from, because it is tied to one’s goodness.

The elder son’s bitterness is always also turned on himself, so he never feels he is good enough or that his father really cares for him. He is us when we see ourselves only in a negative light and decide that God obviously doesn’t want to love us or care for us.

The real challenge here, which is the ultimate spiritual challenge, is to reject this conditional, negative view of ourselves and accept God’s unchanging love for us as our true identity. The younger son can do it because his state has grown out of his simple wanting to do his own thing. The elder son cannot, because his has grown from his desire to be good. He can only get there through the disciplines of trust and gratitude. When we are like that, we must discipline ourselves to trust that God’s love for us is unconditional and allow it greater room in our lives, than the negative voices. And we must discipline ourselves to be more grateful, choosing to see the goodness in ourselves, others and the world around us, rather than focussing on what is wrong. And the more we choose to focus on goodness, the more of it we shall see. The more we trust in God’s love also, the more we shall feel it and be changed by it.

Last of all, perhaps the ultimate message of the parable is to do with the father. The response of the elder son to the father’s love is not necessary in the parable, because the father will act as he wishes, regardless of any response. His love is constant and unchanging, however, a response is hoped for. The younger son returns home, in order to become a hired hand. At least he’ll get something to live off. But that is not what the father wants. After accepting his place back in the family as a loved son, the younger son must discover that his true destiny is to become a father. He must discover that he has it in himself to not just receive from his father but become like him. So too, to mature spiritually, we must accept all that God wants to give us as loved sons, daughters, children, but only so that we too can be spiritual fathers, mothers, parents, for others. That is our ultimate spiritual destiny.

image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn

Save us in the time of trial and deliver us from evil

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 1, 6th March 2022

Today, on the first Sunday in Lent, the gospel story offers one way to look at Lent, which is wrestling with temptations. The 40 days Jesus spent in the desert, represent the years of a lifetime, therefore he faced the temptations faced by every person in their life. It wasn’t so much his choice though, for we are told the Holy Spirit shoved Jesus into the desert. That makes sense, because often it is only through being forced to go without our usual supports and securities, that we discover new sources of strength, -retrospectively realising it was necessary for our growth.

Prior to being shoved into the desert, Jesus was baptised. He emerged from that experience with an unshakeable sense of God’s love, which enabled him to overcome the temptations.

No-one was with Jesus in the desert to record what really occurred there, so what we have in the gospel account are teachings of the early Christian community about how to respond to the temptations we face during our life. (Interwoven with the gospel writer’s view of Jesus.) Behind the teaching of the early Christian community, lies the spiritual wisdom about engaging with temptation received from their ancestors, crafted into the story of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was how they remembered God’s love for them. The Promised Land represented union with God, which is fullness of life. The story of the journey to the Promised Land is the spiritual map of how to get there. It’s the journey to freedom with God, and liberation from all that spiritually enslaves us. If we are to make it to the Promised Land, we must overcome temptations along the way, and the way to do that is not of our own making, but is given to us by God and so requires faith.

When the people of Israel put their faith in God, they moved closer to the Promised Land. When they lost faith in God, they were prevented from moving closer. Many didn’t make it to the Promised Land, including Moses, who only saw it from a distance. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as the new Moses, but where Moses failed, Jesus succeeds. Jesus, then, is the one we must follow if we are to make it to the Promised Land.

Recently emerging from the waters of baptism, Jesus mirrors the ancient Hebrews, who emerged from crossing the Red Sea to freedom from slavery. Following the account of Jesus’ baptism, the gospel-writer inserts a long list of Jesus’ (male) ancestors, implying that Jesus was immersed in the history of his people (and in fact all humanity). Not all of those listed were as pure as Mother Teresa though, so not only does Jesus show us the way through temptation, but he is with us in all its mess and in our dysfunctional coping with it.

Jesus’ wrestling with temptation involves engaging with the devil. In scripture, the devil takes two forms, and both are in operation in this story. In one, he is simply a member of God’s heavenly staff, responsible for testing how faithful to God people are. That involves encouraging them to sin, to see how they will respond. In this way, the devil function is that which helps people discern what is the best way to act, so in Jesus’ case, the devil helps him decide how he will live out his mission of love. The other form the devil takes in scripture is as the spirit of evil, which is not power in its own right, but always a distortion of power, or a distortion of good. The devil is not an individual, but a function which can be manifested by an individual, or a number of individuals.

The first temptation Jesus faces is to turn stones into bread. Being a long way from the Bridgewater Inn, Jesus is hungry and so is tempted by the suggestion to turn stones into bread, yet he responds by reminding the devil that deep satisfaction comes from more than filling the stomach.

Jesus is not denying the value of visiting the Bridgewater Inn, (or feeding the hungry), but emphasising the deeper need for God. St Augustine says we are made for God and only fully satisfied when we rest in God. That’s not easy though. A few centuries after Jesus, men and women flocked to the Egyptian desert, adopting a monastic lifestyle. They were very aware of the temptation to fill the God-shaped hole in their lives with other things, just as we do with material possessions, busyness and addictions. These desert fathers and mothers hoped to give themselves fully to God, but even out in the desert, also far removed from Bridgewater Inn, and with no access to the internet, found themselves unable to abandon the anxieties and temptations of their former lives. Free of external distractions, they found themselves bombarded with endless mental activity.

Apparently, they were often tense with each other, obsessed about the trivia of their work and compulsive about their few material possessions. They fantasized a lot about sex, but even more about food. They were, however, able to transcend all that by regular practice of contemplation (now known as mindfulness). Like the newly baptised Jesus, emerging from the pool of imperfect humanity, they found peace and satisfaction by transcending their preoccupations. By simply allowing their obsessions and endless mental activity to just be, rather than fighting them, or seeking to fulfil them, they let the resulting emptiness fill them. In that emptiness was God.

The second temptation Jesus was presented with was to use his power to win over others. The devil can offer Jesus the ‘kingdoms of the world’ (the power structures of the world), because to a large degree, they are his. They operate through force, so to worship the devil (which the devil invites Jesus to do) is to use power to control others. There are many ways in which we can do that, from using words to using guns. Whether we kill people to get our way, or belittle them with words, we are still worshipping the devil, because those are his ways. More successful than either of those (which give the game away too easily), the most devious way to control others is through subtle manipulation. Just small steps. Just get them to go along with one small step, and then another and another. It’s only afterwards that anyone can see the change that’s occurred. Using power to dominate others is to serve the devil, even if we are trying to overcome evil. As the evil Emperor in Star Wars says to Luke, who he’s encouraging to give in to his anger and hatred and strike the Emperor down, the more you do that, the more you become my servant. That is why Jesus offered no resistance to those who crucified him, and thus revealed his utter difference to power which dominates. God’s power is not power to dominate, but the power of mutual relation. We avoid falling for the temptation to dominate (in which we also surrender ourselves to domination) by committing ourselves to relate mutually with others.

The third temptation Jesus faces is to test God. We all doubt God, but giving in to that doubt is another matter. The ancient Hebrews emerged from the Red Sea to freedom from slavery, but shortly after they began to wander through the desert they started to doubt God. They doubted God would provide the food they needed, and wished they were back Egypt, where, although slaves, they were guaranteed food. Freedom isn’t always easy.

Jesus’ ultimate temptation to test God was his temptation to avoid death. He could run away from it,

but then would not be able to reveal to the true nature of the world’s violence. He had to therefore trust that God would deliver him, even from death. How far do we trust God? The devil tempts Jesus to do something stupid to test God, even quoting from a psalm, that God will guard you ‘lest you dash your foot against a stone’. Jesus shows us that instead, we must live our lives simply and honestly, not expecting God to meet our demands by presuming God will do what we want, nor denying our responsibility by leaving to God what is ours to do. The more we give up using God for our purposes and the more we listen to God’s desire for us, the more we shall find ourselves able to trust God.

Losing familiar securities and supports is not always a bad thing.

God is waiting to meet us in the ashes of our lives

Sermon by Andy Wurm for Ash Wednesday 2nd March 2022

Today on Ash Wednesday, we have a cross drawn on our foreheads with ashes.

The cross of ash can represent many things, but today, let’s think about it as the coming together of two things: the cross, representing God’s unconditional love and ashes representing our mortality.

Pertinent to today is the old story of the ‘Ash Girl’, the girl who has to sit in her ashes, or cinders – the girl who became known as Cinderella. Crushed by her step-sisters, she must ‘sit’ in the cinders of her life, and when she does, the prince appears and she lived happily ever after.

One way we can take that story is that to live ‘happily ever after’, we have to face up to our mortality: that is, face up to the limitations of our lives, which include limitations we impose upon ourselves and limitations imposed by ‘society’ or ‘culture’. There are also limitations imposed by nature, such as our looks. Those we must accept. The others we can do something about.

If we don’t face up to those things, they are likely to run our lives without us knowing. Generally speaking, people are aware of those things, and there is no end to solutions offered. The most simplistic solution offered is that if everyone loved each other, the world would be a better place. We all know that’s true, but the reality is that it’s not that straight-forward. Will-power is not enough.

This truth is conveyed in verse 17 of today’s psalm (51): the sacrifice of God is a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. What’s it’s naming is that we have to see how imperfect we are, and how driven we are by forces outside of ourselves, before we can begin to be free of them. We have to realise and accept that we are empty, misled, blind, selfish, ambitious, afraid, faithless, and so on.

To realise and accept all that about ourselves is liberating: we are free of having to be perfect. But it isn’t experienced as such. Who feels good about realising they are misled, or empty? When we begin to embrace those aspects of ourselves, all we feel is a broken and contrite heart. We can feel that we are a failure. That’s why human beings tend to fill our lives up with all sorts of things, to avoid seeing what we really are. Maybe the hardest aspect that, is it can also reveal the depths of our faithlessness, because instead of feeling our imperfections don’t matter because God is with us, we tend to forget God and feel the imperfection of our lives is a disaster, from which there is no escape.

But, as the psalm says, God will not despise the sacrifice of a broken spirit. In other words, God will embrace our facing of the truth of ourselves. Groups like AA and Weightwatchers know this. They might not describe it that way, but they know that facing the truth about yourself is the beginning of change for the better.

Let’s turn to today’s gospel passage, in which Jesus outlines some ways in which God can help us turn our mortal nature into life.

He begins with ‘beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them’. He goes on to describe things people to, and are rewarded by others, such as publicly giving generous donations away. They have received their reward, he says. And that’s a big problem. Their reward is public affirmation – needing it, and drawing energy and affirmation from it. Once you do that, you’re addicted. If your actions are driven by how much affirmation from others you’ll receive, then you will only or mostly, do only what results in getting that reward. So you become a puppet of other people and the forces which decide what shall be rewarded and what shall be punished. Before you know it, you will not be an individual deciding what to do, but there will be a manifestation of all that is socially acceptable and fashionable at the time, and it will be labelled ‘you’.

The reward from the Father who sees in secret, is that life and communion flows from doing the ‘right thing’, or acting in ways that are loving and appropriate for a world shared with others.

That’s why, when you pray, Jesus says it’s best to go into a room and shut the door and pray to your Father who sees you in secret. In other words, enter into, or make, a space, that is cut off from the world, which bombards you with messages about what you should be, or what you should do. Much of that is to serve the power interests of those who are not concerned with the common good. Much of that is trying to make you a servant of values, individuals and corporate bodies, rather than servants of God, who by definition, wants you to serve only in ways that enhance and fulfill your life, and serve the common good.

When you pray, Jesus says, do not heap up empty phrases, thinking you will be heard because of you’re using many words – your Father knows what you need before you ask him. If you think you can’t pray, just sit still and see what rises in your hearts. I bet one thing on everyone’s heart at present would be Ukraine. You don’t have to try hard to let that rise to the surface. God knows everything on your heart, even more than you do. Why pray then? Because you want to and you need to. That you want to, is obvious because things just rise to the surface. Your soul wants to deal with them. You were made to rest in God (St Augustine’s prayer). In other words, you were made to be at peace and at one with yourself and the world around you, so that you could be yourself. When you’re not, your soul searches for answers, for peace and so on. Letting it search, reach out, ask for what it wants, is what you need to do. Words are only needed to help you realise what you are yearning for. And if we’re praying together with each other, those words can help others pray too.

Then Jesus tells us to forgive others their trespasses, so that your heavenly Father will forgive you. It doesn’t mean God will be nice and forgiving to you if you are to others. It means you will only be able to receive forgiveness from God if you offer it to others. We treat ourselves as we treat others, because the same values drive our attitudes and behaviour towards others, as drives our attitudes and behaviour towards ourselves. And being forgiven doesn’t mean being let off the naughty things we’ve done, so much as being liberated from the ways we are caught up being driven to act dysfunctionally and destructively.

Last of all in Jesus’ ‘Ash Wednesday advice’, is the suggestion to not store up treasures on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven. Treasures on earth include material possessions, but also attitudes, values and patterns of behaviour, which are not linked to, or expressions of, what we might call ‘heavenly’ things: things which connect us to God and give us life, such as faith hope and love, things which no-one or no circumstance can take away from us. I might spend my whole day doing good for other people, yet experience no peace within myself – which begs the question of what’s really driving me, and what is it I really have to offer others. Or I might use my achievements to feel worthwhile, but what happens when they fade into my past?

This Lent, let’s spend time ‘sitting in the ashes’ or ‘with the ashes’ of our lives, which have much in common with the ashes of others’ lives and with the ashes of the world.

The path which leads to life is a broken and contrite heart. God won’t condemn us for the imperfections of our lives. God will meet us there, lovingly embrace us and give us what we need.

Treating others as enemies goes against God

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ,
27th February 2022

Relations with neighbours aren’t always straight-forward. It’s great when you get on well with your neighbours, but I know some people whose neighbour is very difficult to get on with, and that must be hard to live with. My neighbours include one who tends to yell at us through the fence. It’s not easy to ignore her, so the best thing is to give her some attention, although even that’s not enough usually. When I say that she yells at us, it would be more accurate to say barks really, as she’s a dog. I’m referring to our neighbour’s dog, Lucy. The reason she barks at us is because De commenced neighbourly relations by giving her a dog treat through the fence, and so if Lucy sees we are around, she barks, hoping that a dog treat may be delivered through the fence.

Lucy could respond to us as a threat and be aggressive towards us, but by approaching the fence between us as an opportunity for something good, Lucy demonstrates a degree of spiritual intelligence. Spiritual intelligence is the ability to produce something life-enhancing out of the options available. For Lucy that means a dog treat. For us it means another friend.

There’s some spiritual insight from an encounter with a dog, part-way up a mountain (Mt Lofty). In today’s gospel, we hear of 3 of Jesus closest disciples gaining some spiritual insight from an encounter with God, at the top of a mountain. Although the insight didn’t fully click in at the time, hence, they kept it to themselves. Only later, in the light of Jesus’ death, did they really understand what it was about, which is because it was about the same thing.

When it comes to neighbours, the people of Ukraine are suffering greatly at the hand of their neighbour, Mr. Putin, whose spiritual intelligence seems to be much lower than our neighbour’s dog. There we are witnessing the antithesis of Jesus. Putin’s actions are what Jesus taught and died to undo and lead us away from. While we witness the horror of his actions, reasonably powerless as ordinary people to do anything about it, we can at least honour those who suffer, by noticing the impact of his actions upon people, and committing ourselves to not act that way ourselves – because what Putin is doing is what we all do, in some ways, although he’s doing it with much greater weapons.

Let’s turn to what happened on the mountain for Peter, James and John. Jesus prayed and then became dazzling white. It was a revelation of who he really was: God in all his glory. Then he’s joined by two prophets, who were considered spiritual giants. The gospel writer describes them as also appearing glory. Because of what the word for glory can mean in Greek, the gospel-writer is placing the truth about God in Jesus, and the truth about the two ancient prophets, at centre stage.

Then Peter suggests building a house for each of them. He wants to preserve them, make a container for them, something which will retain their significance. A bit like the replica of Captain Cook’s cottage in Sydney, where you can get a bit of insight into the man by seeing what sort of house he lived in. Perhaps down the track, the houses for Jesus, Moses and Elijah might become tourist attractions. But God interrupts Peter’s plan, kind of telling him to shut up and forget preserving them, and just listen to Jesus, because he is God’s chosen one.

Being ‘Chosen’ means being special, beloved. Like when a mother tells her daughter she’s the best daughter in the world, she’s not stating a fact, but conveying how much she loves her. It’s is an expression of unconditional love. It’s also a divine giant tick of approval for Jesus and all he stands for. God is saying to Peter, let go of Moses and Elijah, and instead pay attention to my love: what it is and where it’s to be found.

What this highlights, is that Peter has the wrong idea about God. He thinks that Moses and Elijah show us what God is like. But as we heard from St Paul, in our second reading this morning, Moses won’t give you a full revelation of God. He was close, but flawed, for example, when he received the second set of the Ten Commandments and came down from the mountain and to see his people worshipping a golden calf, he got the priests to kill them all. Not the right thing to do. Low spiritual intelligence. Similarly, Elijah, not only did he organise a competition with the prophets of Baal worshippers for who’s God was best, which showed low spiritual intelligence, but he had them all killed when he won the competition. Also, not the right thing to do. And then just to makes things clear for us, in Luke’s gospel, shortly after Jesus dazzled his disciples on the mountain, when people of a village weren’t receptive to Jesus’ message, two of those disciples, who should have learnt from their experience on the mountain, ask whether they should call down fire from heaven to consume the villagers (following the example of Elijah). Jesus’ response to them was along the lines of that now famous Australian saying ‘Not happy, Jan!!’. In other words, that sort of attitude, that sort of behaviour, is far from God.

God doesn’t even want a little plaque placed on the mountain to acknowledge Moses an Elijah’s presence on the mountain that day. Love is what matters. Only love. For that is what God wants, because that’s what God is. What is love? The experience on the mountain explains it more by saying what it isn’t: love is not being against others, not competing with them.

Loving others doesn’t mean avoiding conflict. I can understand Moses being angry when he’d climbed all the way up the mountain for a new set of Ten Commandments, only to find his people worshipping their own creation. And I can understand Elijah having a problem with a religion that practiced child sacrifice. Similarly, I can understand Putin having a problem with Ukraine joining NATO. Probably feeling as threatened as the USA was, when the Soviet Union tried to park missiles in Cuba.

Those are big problems, but we all have our own smaller versions of them, such as my cousin, who works in the area of land rights, once had his own ‘land rights’ issue concerning the fence between him and his neighbour. We all find ourselves in situations where we differ from others, even growing into conflict.

The spiritual intelligence on offer in the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is to correct a wrong understanding of God. If we think God is in some way against those who differ to God, even those who are violent towards what is good, we are wrong. What we call God’s greatness, of God’s almightiness, doesn’t mean God gets what God wants. Instead, God’s greatness, God’s almightiness, is to love. If the ultimate authority over everything is like that, then there are no grounds for oppressing others, putting others down, or even belittling others.

The people of Ukraine are suffering. People in Russia are suffering too – those who don’t want war. In the suffering, especially of the people of Ukraine, God, who is being crucified again, is calling for this war to stop, but also, as for the last two thousand years, God has been calling for all of us to stop treating others as enemies, even if we’re in conflict with each other. There’s something we could give up for Lent.

Loving my Enemy

Epiphany 7; Luke 6:27-38

To call that man my enemy

would seem too strong a claim,

yet still I feel unloving,

remembering his name.

A bully in the workplace

the three of us agreed.

It’s fifteen years behind me,

and still I am not freed.

One dived into a bottle,

one left for pastures green.

I plodded on, diminished,

with wounds that felt unclean.

I never learnt to stand there

and turn the other cheek,

though fight and flight had failed me,

and tears and fears seemed weak.

So Jesus, though your teaching

could truly set me free,

and keep the world from warfare,

how hard it seems to be!

I try to understand him,

his hidden hurt and strain.

I see the need for loving,

but anger clings to pain.

The secret of forgiveness –

“They know not what they do!” –

is born of such deep loving

it can make all things new.

I pray to want renewal:

undo this knot within,

so I look back unflinching,

and let your love flow in.

Barbara Messner 15/02/2022

Elizabeth Greeting Mary

Advent 4; Luke 1:39-45

I call her blessed, and so it seems am I,

with new life growing in a womb long bare,

and though as victims both our sons might die,

their purpose justifies the risks they’ll share.

A fearless prophet waits to leave my thighs,

the one who’ll dare to shout “Prepare the way,”

while from my cousin’s angel blessed surprise

comes one who’ll bear the light of God’s new day.

The Spirit stirs when we two mothers meet:

we sense we bear the gifts that others need.

My baby leaps for joy; my life’s complete,

and in fulfilment, power to bless is freed.

God’s word comes pouring through us as we praise –

two women prophets, eloquent, ablaze.

Barbara Messner 17/12/2021

Mary is a powerful role model for everyone

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent 4, 19th December 2021

Today we focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, who has become a bit of a controversial figure. On one hand, she is praised for her extreme humility, while on the other hand, she is celebrated with the title of ‘Coredemptrix’ which means Co-redeemer. If they’re not enough to get you stirred up, then there’s also the belief (which is an official Roman Catholic teaching) that Mary was assumed into heaven when she died. As far as women go then, Mary has the highest status in the church, but for those who see her status as the glorification of female submissiveness, she is not so appealing. Many Christians (especially non-Catholics) are therefore ambivalent about Mary.

The low number of references to Mary in the Bible show that she wasn’t as significant for the early Christians as she has come to be, but that can also be said about core doctrines, such as the Trinity. The reason for this is that the Christian faith is so rich that it can take centuries for the full significance of its spiritual wealth to unfold, e.g. Paul’s assertion that in Christ all are equal, was such a radical idea that even he didn’t fully realise what it meant. Its impact on the position of women and slavery only evolved later on.

An important contribution Mary makes to our faith is that her role of giving birth to Jesus brings a feminine dimension to God’s relationship with the world. That’s very necessary, because there is such a strong bias towards the male dimension in the Christian view of the relationship between God and the world. The roots for that began as ancient Hebrew religion formed against a backdrop of the Canaanite fertility worship, involving gods and goddesses. Rather than providing a feminine balance to Canaanite religion, the goddesses made women into sex objects. The determination to not allow anything of Canaanite religion to creep into Hebrew religion, resulted in an emphasis upon masculine images of God almost exclusively and that influence carried into the New Testament. Despite this, we have in the first book of the Bible, a clear statement that both male and female human beings bear the image of God.

The story of Mary begins with God proposing that Mary become the mother of the Saviour-child, and she says yes. Exactly what that involves is of great importance in the Christian faith. Does Mary play an active or a passive role? Some argue she plays a passive role, on the grounds that medical knowledge at the time held that the woman was nothing more than a container in which a could baby grow, but that’s a simplistic and purely biological view of what is involved in bearing a child. Those who wrote the stories of Mary’s pregnancy clearly believed she played an active role in the process, and that makes all the difference when it comes to what salvation entails.

Throughout the history of Christianity, debate has raged between whether salvation is purely something God brings about, we bring about, or a combination of both. It’s such a hot topic that it was at the core of the Reformation, but is still debated today. By salvation I mean transcending the imperfections which diminish us. There have been Christians who argued that human beings can save ourselves. They used to be called heretics. Now we tend to call them humanists. Mainstream Christianity however, has always held that however hard we try, human beings cannot transcend our imperfections by ourselves. That’s why the Christian faith has never been about trying to be good. We can’t do it on our own. We need God. Salvation then, is primarily the work of God, but Mary shows us that we play a part.

Mary’s role is an active one, indicating that human beings, in fact the whole creation, plays a part in God’s saving work. Mary said yes to God. And her yes was much more than passive, because she had to give birth to Jesus through her body, but also her heart. Her role didn’t end the moment Jesus popped out of her womb. Mary nurtured him to maturity too. And through Mary’s love for him, Jesus would have experienced and become conscious of God’s love for him.

Mary’s active role stands for the role that every one of us is invited to play, contributing to God’s project of a beautiful world of love and justice.

Salvation isn’t an objective action of God, which takes place irrespective of human life. It relies upon human participation. It relies on the personal element. It requires people to relate mutually with one another, giving and receiving. Mary shows us that we each have our unique way of experiencing God’s love for us and our unique way of expressing God’s love through our lives. It reflects the reality that God works with our co-operation. The chief role model for that is a woman.

Despite Mary being honoured in this way, how much honour is there in being a ‘perpetual virgin’ as she is known in some traditions, and in her seemingly submissive role as handmaiden? Of course, we would convey these things in other ways today, but one thing that Mary’s virginity stood for is that being a virgin mother showed God’s preference to work through unconventional means. Mary’s status therefore does not flow from what was socially acceptable in her day. She was valued by God, regardless of her social standing. This makes Mary into a strong figure, whose strength and influence flowed from a Source that is beyond manipulation and control by others. She therefore also models for us how to live in freedom.

Another way in which Mary’s virginity was significant is theological, and that is that it reflects the way that God creates the new humanity, which is through means that we cannot see and touch. It’s not by creating a new batch of superhuman babies, clones of Jesus perhaps, but is a spiritual process. Just as Jesus tells Peter that coming to awareness of God is a process that cannot be seen or measured. It’s creation out of nothing, and as a virgin, Mary represents that emptiness out of which God brings new life.

What about Mary’s humility? When her cousin Elizabeth congratulates her on being chosen to be God’s mother, Mary bursts into song: My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. While it is unlikely that an uneducated teenager could craft such a song, which coincidentally is very similar to a song found in the Old Testament, it is a perfect expression of Mary’s state. But what sort of a hero is she? A lowly servant. Some may feel there is justification for the submission of women in that. The most significant woman in Christianity is worthy because she is a lowly servant! Yet, it’s actually a powerful state. The term used for servant here is the same one that Paul uses for Jesus! And the humility of Mary is nothing other than what all followers of Jesus are called to. Remember that humility is nothing to do with being a doormat, but is exercising power in a loving way, and it’s godly, because God only ever exercises power in a loving way. To be a humble servant then, is to allow one’s life to be a pouring forth of love, being the image of God.

As well as all that, there is one more claim about Mary: that after she died, she was assumed into

heaven. This belief is relatively recent, in fact it was only last century that one of the popes decided all Roman Catholics should believe it. Until then it was just a popular idea. The first thing is that being assumed into heaven is different to ascending to heaven. Jesus ascended to heaven. Mary was assumed into heaven. The belief that Jesus ascended to heaven doesn’t really mean that there was a heaven which Jesus rose into. A better way of putting it would be to say that Jesus created a heaven, and heaven is not a place but a relationship. In other words, Jesus created a relationship which connects God and the world together. To be in heaven is to be in full relation with God and the rest of the world.

To say that Mary was assumed into heaven then, is to say that God drew her whole being into God’s life and therefore into unity with the rest of the world. It means that all she was and all that she did, is never lost and becomes eternally influential in the world. It is not just Mary that this happens to though. The claim that Mary was assumed into heaven represents a belief that all of us are, and even the whole universe. Nothing is ever lost.

So, all the big claims about Mary are really just filling out other beliefs which are central to Christianity. Viewing those beliefs through the life of a woman reminds us that as Genesis tells us, both male and female are made in the image of God, so God’s relationship with the world has both masculine and feminine aspects. And as we can come to know God through the masculine aspects of life, so too Mary helps us to remember that we can come to know God through feminine aspects of life too.

Blessed Among Women

Then Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit,

said that you would be blessed among women,

but we struggle to see you here, Mary,

though we long to take part in that blessing,

in the God-bearer’s loving and knowing.

Come and teach us your gift of commitment:

“Let it be with me as God is saying.”

It is hard to relate to you, sister,

for our images do you no justice:

there’s Miss Anglo in blue with a halo,

or some icons surrounded by gilding

with your lap as a throne for the baby,

or the glass that is clear for the God-light

with no stain of identity showing.

Yet the Word is, we’re made in God’s image:

our uniqueness can honour the baby,

with diversity given as blessing.

We are all of us chosen as you are

to be pregnant with God growing human,

and your brave “Let it be” is not passive,

but an act of inspired co-creating.

Mother Mary, as woman we need you:

giving birth in a non-sterile stable

with no mid-wife but animal females –

an old ewe or a nanny goat, watching

as you labour in straw for your young one

with the mess and the primal expression

of the pain and the wonder of living.

How we need your intuitive wisdom!

Let our hearts learn from you how to ponder,

how to cherish each sign of maturing,

every insight and graceful unfolding.

You’re our model for motherly loving,

as your child becomes leader, then victim,

and you’re there for him, dying and rising.

Barbara Messner November 2018

God will heal the world if we allow God to

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Advent3, December 12th 2021

Today and over the past few weeks, in our scripture readings, we have heard prophets talking about judgement. Today we heard from the prophet Zephaniah. Although one of the shortest books of the bible, his message is perhaps the most extreme, for his book begins by announcing that God is going ‘utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth’! By the time we get to today’s passage God has calmed down a fair bit, and is merely going to destroy Israel’s enemies.

To hear God saying anything meaningful for us in all these sorts of writings, we have cut to the core message, and so let go of everything except for God’s passion for healing and justice. So we must translate God ‘will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth’ to mean ‘God is really sad that things aren’t what they could be and will do all that he can to change it’. That means there will come a time when there is no more injustice or poverty, domestic violence, war, exploitation and everything else that’s wrong with the world. It’s a concept that’s conveyed in a number of ways in scripture, particularly during Advent through the notion of the ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, when all the world will become Christ-like. It’s a wonderful image, but is it realistic?

Zephaniah promised his people that God would deliver them from captivity in Babylon. Did his people then break out the champagne and start packing to go home? Not at all. And if God was going free the people of Israel, would God not set free all other oppressed people, even today? So why hasn’t God freed the people of Israel and Palestine from the violence they are trapped in now? When I hear the words of Zephaniah and think of the middle east or the Uyghurs in China, or others, I don’t head for the cellar, yet Zephaniah actually promised healing for the whole world.

It all seems a bit ‘fairytailish’. Yet for thousands of years people have read Zephaniah’s words and found comfort and inspiration, within their suffering. Similarly, from the writings of St Paul, who, although wrongfully imprisoned, encouraged the Christians in Philippi ‘rejoice in the Lord always’!

Why is there this strong current of encouragement in ancient Judaism and Christianity to rejoice and celebrate when there is so much wrong in the world, and even great suffering amongst those being encouraged so?

The first thing to realise is that those who imparted those messages and their listeners generally didn’t expect God to fix the world immediately. (Paul is an exception, as he believed it would all happen in his lifetime, but later let go of that.) Then, as well as realistically not expecting God to make everything wonderful straight away, there was even the expectation that suffering would continue, or get worse! Christians knew that an empire that seeks to dominate and control the world, such as the Roman Empire, would eventually see Christianity as a threat, because it stands for the very opposite. So Christians not only thought persecution was possible, but they expected it (and were surprised and glad when it was absent.) The point is, Christians and Jews have been quite realistic in what is expected from God. There is to be no superman to the rescue. Does this then leave us with no divine help? Not at all.

Here we must think of God as loving creator, who creates and loves by providing the potential for love. What that means is that in every moment, God makes available a variety of possible outcomes to any situation. Take for example a chocolate cake which someone gives me. I can eat the whole cake by myself. Or I can share it with a friend, or I can share it with friends and also strangers, so I might walk into a bank and offer the staff some chocolate cake. I might also save some crumbs for the ants in my garden, and use the situation to teach my children about caring for other creatures. So you see, in this one example there are numerous outcomes: some selfish and limited, but many generous and producing wider forms of love. They are merely the possibilities I can imagine, but there must be far more, and starting to share may inspire me in more ways. And as God is infinite, God’s creativity and capacity to love and inspire to love, are infinite. So there is no limit to the potential for love in any given moment and situation. All the time, this is what is trying to break through into our lives, to be born.

Apply that then to the violence throughout the world. Imagine the potential for peace and love that God is right now making available to every individual, group and nation. It’s beyond 0ur imagining actually. But this is the reality that the ancient prophets, Paul and others were encouraging people to celebrate. Because one day, something’s going to be allowed to break through, and everything will change. And they see this in a worldwide perspective. One day it will all be different. Not that it will really happen in one day or all at once, but eventually, we will get there.

I strongly suspect that it won’t be in my lifetime, but it actually could be. Miraculously, it could. That miracle would not be God intervening in the world. It would be the world, or some in the world, or even perhaps just one person, making an opening for God, so that something of all that potential God is ‘offering’ can become real in the world.

Why isn’t it happening now? Because of sin, which is both physical and spiritual, e.g. denying hungry people food is sin, but so is the attitude that says it’s not our problem. All that blocks God giving the world what it needs must be addressed physically and spiritually. So we must strive to understand what’s really going on, through social, political and economic analysis, and then address those issues however we can. But at the same time, we must address the spiritual aspects of sin, and that’s where prayer comes in. It may involve soul-searching, but probably for most of us, we are already at that point of seeing things aren’t right and wanting change, in which case, our prayer is simply to ask God to fix it.

This is not asking God to do something God doesn’t already want to do, though. It’s a matter of opening a channel. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he didn’t say that as God doesn’t realise you need bread, ask nicely if he would he kindly send a few loaves your way. Rather, he said tell God to GIVE US TODAY OUR DAILY BREAD. Similarly, Jesus would say tell God to BRING PEACE TO THE MIDDLE EAST. Tell God, but only because God wants us to tell God, for doing that is offering a tiny opening in our lives to bring about whatever is possible. It doesn’t mean we are likely to solve the whole problem ourselves. It just means we are offering to do what we can. It’s about unblocking what is blocking God. Tearing away the barriers. Freeing God to be able to do what God wants, yearns, aches, to do. God just wants a chance to get in there and pour out love. Imagine if everyone made such an opening for God.

We live then with the reality of domestic, communal, national, transnational forces and systems which resist life, perpetuating injustice, poverty and violence. But God passionately desires to give love into the world, and waits for opportunities to do so. Psalm 23 describes that as God’s love and goodness pursues us, all the days of our lives. How do we live in that tension? Paul and others tell us: become what you hope for. Live the love you believe is possible. In other words: live with joy.

With Joy You Will Draw Water

Advent 3: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6

Joy bubbles up like some underground stream

channelled anew to this hidden dry pool.

Out of the depths it bursts into the light,

mating with air in bright bubbles and mist.

Maybe these waters remain for a time;

maybe they’re gone soon after they’ve come:

yet they awaken the ground all around;

greenness emerges and soon there are flowers.

So we’re encouraged to sing and rejoice,

let go of fears that have weakened our hands.

Prophecy claims God rejoices in us;

love soaks the driest of seeds into life.

Joy is the drawing of water from wells,

hidden in depths but raised up cool and clear.

Joy is refreshment in thanks and in trust –

healing distilled from the ages and earth.

Know that in flower and in flow God comes near;

shame will be changed and the outcast restored.

Gather like waters that flow into pools,

pray in thanksgiving and sing out in joy.

Barbara Messner 8/12/2021