Category Archives: Sermons

Healing is much more than a cure

Healing is much more than a cure

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Epiphany 5, 7th February 2021

It’s easy to lose faith. When we look at the world, there are so many bad things that catch our attention. If that’s not enough, personal hardship can also result in losing faith. Despite all this, the gospel encourages us to hold on to faith. In case we mistakenly believe that living by faith involves turning a blind eye to the harsh realities of life, the bible reminds us that’s not the case. The call to live by faith does not ignore what’s wrong with the world, or with our lives, in fact it is from within suffering and hardship that we are encouraged to hold on to faith. Take for example a portion of today’s passage from Isaiah (40:28ff): Isaiah says, the Lord

gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah wrote those words while his nation was held captive for seventy years in Babylon. It would be like a refugee driven from her home by war, claiming that God empowers the oppressed, such as herself, so that one day she shall rise above her oppression. Hard to see it happening, yet Isaiah does see it, or believe in it, and his suffering and dire circumstances prove that he’s not coming from a position of detachment, or ignoring harsh reality. Generally in the Bible and the great spiritual writers, we find people holding on to faith from within, or after, struggle and doubt. In other words, their faith arises or is formed in hardship. The reason Isaiah’s words are in the Bible is that for thousands of years, people have found his words to be inspiring and true. Of course though, every generation has to work out what that means for themselves, and every individual too.

Our gospel story (Mark 1:29ff) can help us to trust Isaiah’s in words, so that we hold on to faith in the face of adversity. At first, the miraculous nature of Jesus’ healings may be a barrier to faith because they seem so unrealistic. Do we experience such things? Can such things happen today? It’s really the same question that we might put to Isaiah: does God really renew the strength of the weary and help the oppressed? So what’s going in the healing stories we read in the Bible?

To understand them, we have to differentiate between healing and cure. A cure involves the body returning to its previous state, whereas healing is about wholeness. In the gospels, cures are not presents from God, that is, they are not ends in themselves, in the way that getting over a bad cold is an end in itself, because you’re strong again. In the gospels, cures are signs – signs that God is at work in the world. The equivalent could be a beautiful flower in the garden, or the taste of a juicy nectarine in summer: small pointers to God. The purpose of cures in the gospels is so that people will pay attention to the bigger picture, which is God bringing the world to wholeness.

The reason Jesus silences the demons in the story, is that demons deal only in absolutes. They’re like a dog waiting to be fed. It only deals in two states: either there is food in front of me or there is not. A dog has no in-between position. There is no such thing as I am going to be fed, so will wait patiently. When it comes to the well-being of individuals, the demonic view is that people are perfect or imperfect, that is, physically and mentally ‘flawless’ or they are physically or mentally ‘defective’. When I carry on like that, I see any illness as a defect in my life, a set-back, something which prevents me from being the perfect person I wish to be. The same goes for mental or psychological weakness or illnesses. As the demons who Jesus silenced speak only in absolutes, they would call a cure by Jesus the granting of perfection, thus making Jesus into a miracle worker, but worse, a miracle worker who selectively grants perfection to individuals. Silencing the demons shows that Jesus does not use the absolutist language which classifies people as either ‘perfect or imperfect’. It’s language which belongs to the honour-shame (ins and outs) culture of his day and ours too.

Jesus is not about curing, but healing. He doesn’t want to merely restore people to peak fitness or perfect mental and psychological power, but to all-round wholeness. In the gospel story, that’s reflected by Peter’s mother serving Jesus and his companions after her fever is taken away. It doesn’t mean she has been restored to her role of catering and washing dishes, rather, it shows that service is integral to human wholeness. That is the humanity Jesus is creating. It is no small thing though, for Mark describes Simon’s mother in law’s service in the same way he describes the action of the angels who minister to Jesus after being tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Service is not about servitude, but about commitment to the well-being of others. True wholeness then, involves communion with God and other people. The curing of a person’s disease is for them alone, whereas an individual’s healing also involves restoration and strengthening of their relationships with others.

Healing, or becoming whole, is not tied to a cure. In fact, healing begins in sickness. The reason is that sickness or suffering causes us to lose our grip on life. Our defences are down. That makes us open and less resistant to the pull towards wholeness. For example, sickness usually slows us down, so can make us aware of having too much going on in our lives, if it’s the case. Another outcome from sickness and suffering is that it often causes us to re-evaluate the meaning of our lives. It’s not that God makes us sick, but that we stop resisting God’s attempts to wake us up, or grow up, let go of what holds us back, or holds us apart from others. Healing reconnects us to our deepest centre, and through that, we connect to God and each other. (John Shea, Eating with the Bridegroom) That deeper, more meaningful way of living, is described as new life by Mark, for he uses the same term for Jesus ‘lifting up’ Peter’s mother-in-law as he uses for Jesus’ resurrection.

The opportunity is there too for us. In our sickness, in our physical and psychological struggles, in our having to adapt to growing older, where and how are we being led to greater maturity? – to grow up, to let go of what burdens us and makes us less human, to forgive, to accept, to love ourselves and so on? There is so much more on offer there than the possibility of a cure. Hopefully of course, that may come too. Who knows what determines that? All we can do is commit to what provides the best chance for it, but at the same time remember that life isn’t found in absolutes. Life, or wholeness, doesn’t come as a flawless existence. Some of the most whole human beings are physically flawed, or mentally or psychologically imperfect. It’s about the quality of our humanity, not whether we are like models for gym membership.

Returning to the big picture and Isaiah’s ‘promise’ that God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless, does it mean we will see world peace soon? Probably not. It’s fine to hope for it, but not tie ourselves to it, just as not tying ourselves to cures. Mostly, the healing God brings to the world is going on internally and so won’t make front page news. Spectacular instances of progress in peace or cooperation are great, but like cures, they are just reminders of the bigger picture. In terms of wars and other forms of oppression, we are in a better position to understand how God works to bring about healing and wholeness in the world out there, the more we respond to God drawing us to healing and wholeness within our lives, for they are always connected.

Kirk the Tartan

May everyone have a good one

Sermon by the Rev’d Andy Wurm, for Kirking the Tartan celebration, 24th January 2021

Today as we ‘Kirk (Church) the Tartan’ we focus on something particular in order to connect with the universal. It’s like the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable – God’s love for one sheep, or one person, indicates God’s love for every person. Or when the church celebrates a particular saint, we embrace the significance of the whole communion of saints. In praying for one person who has died, we remember all who have died.

Back in World War 2, Reverend Peter Marshall saw that recapturing the power of Scots having what was rejected and banned, blessed, could be a gift to the world. Every race, every culture, could be affirmed vicariously, by focussing on one.

The value of this should be obvious to us who have heard the same story over many years, of the Jews having their nation conquered and their people deported to Babylon. At the heart of that was the destruction of the temple, the key cultural symbol representing their deepest beliefs and values and the place in which they were celebrated and affirmed. To destroy that was to crush their connection with God, through which they received their identity as a people. Hence the question in Psalm 137 How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How could they maintain their sense of who they were without being able to live their culture? And like that line from Psalm 137, there’s the chorus in the Midnight Oil song (Beds Are Burning) How can we dance when our earth is turning, how do we sleep while our beds are burning? For indigenous people to have their land taken away was to lose their culture, severing their connection with the source of meaning and identity.

When Scots took their tartans and other cultural artefacts to church to be blessed, they were rebelling against the oppression of their culture and affirming it. In religious terms, they were reminding themselves that God loved them.

Not everyone has had their culture suppressed. Some of our cultures have been more perpetrators of oppression than victims of it, and not necessarily total oppression. The suppression of indigenous culture is part of the history of our country, and needs to be acknowledged, not clinging to past suffering in order to create the one-up-man-ship of victimhood, but to affirm what was taken away and accept responsibility. That’s what people who respect each other do. When culture is suppressed, denied or dismantled, everyone loses, because the richness of humanity is diminished. In the Bible, sometimes the sky serves as a symbol for the unity of humanity. As the sky has no end, we sort of live under the same sky as people on the other side of the world. When we see images on the news of people taking the same measures as us to limit the spread of Coronavirus, that too may serve to remind us of our common humanity. If St Paul was alive today, as well as shopping at Norwood Foodland, I’m sure he would notice how his words that in Christ there is no discrimination between Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, also apply to vulnerability to the virus. It makes no distinction between people of different races and so reminds us how much our rivalry with one another is not natural and inevitable, but something we impose.

In the gospel reading for today, Jesus paints a picture of God’s inclusive love flowing out into the world, manifesting in many forms and in that picture there is an inherent divine blessing over the variety of expressions of humanity. And so we can think of God’s blessing being given to all cultures and sub-cultures.

To understand the nature of that blessing, we need to know something of what God is like. In God’s fulness, God is beyond our grasp, and yet as God desires to connect with us, God reveals enough to enable that. And in our gospel passage, Philip puts the request to Jesus on our behalf: show us the Father please. Who hasn’t asked that? God, please show yourself to me. Just give me some proof you are there and I’ll believe. However, our relationship with God doesn’t require proof of God, so much as trust. So we are asked to trust in what Jesus shows us. Philip wants to see what God looks like. Well, this is what he looks like: an itinerant preacher on his way to be killed. That’s it. There is no other version. Jesus is the Creator, in human form, exercising power in loving openness and vulnerability: utterly without rivalry, devoid of competition, desiring only our good and our love. The same God who revealed himself to Moses as I AM now reveals himself to the disciples using that same name (or the Gospel writer does): I AM the way, and the truth and the life.

So what does Jesus tell us about God’s action in our lives? First of all, he says that no-one comes to the Father except through me, which is a backwards way of saying that everyone comes to the Father through him. In other words, Jesus makes it possible for everyone to have access to God. And it’s that making it possible, which Jesus is referring to when he says he is going to prepare a place for us. It will be his death that makes it possible. (I won’t go into why here.) And he’s not so much going to prepare a place in which that can occur, but will be becoming the place in which you can access God. And that place, which he will become, is his Father’s house. And then comes the really interesting part, which is that we can become his Father’s house. In other words, God wants to come and make a home in us. God wants to dwell in us. And God will do so according to how much we allow our lives to manifest love and goodness. Jesus is so confident and trusting that we will do so, that he states that we might be even more creative than he was in manifesting love and goodness. That’s not limited to our individual lives, but applies to our culture, and our society too. When a society functions well, it is a blessing to its people and to the world. This vision Jesus inspires, encourages us to see how far we can go with our cultural institutions and practices. An example of that is the variety of expressions of family we have these days.

Speaking of variety, that too is integral to Jesus’ description of God’s involvement in our lives. In my Father’s house are many rooms. That’s about variety. Because we fear freedom and seek to control ourselves and each other, we tend to think that one way of doing things is right and we tend to want to limit how our humanity is expressed, especially when we think of what God might want for us. But here is a sanctioning of variety, which we might apply to cultures, but also to groups within our culture. God doesn’t want us to all be the same, but delights in difference.

That God’s life and love is expressed through the variation in human cultures and patterns of relating, doesn’t mean we should accept every form of it. When Christian missionaries went to India, they came across the custom of throwing widows on the funeral pyres of their dead husbands and put a stop to it. No culture is absolutely perfect. To deny that would be idolatry. We should challenge what we believe to be oppressive in other cultures, but only with respect.

Finally, something I really enjoy, is the coming together of cultures and one situation in which I experience that, is when I buy food from Asian shops at the Central Market and upon leaving, are given the traditional Australian blessing: have a good one. Isn’t that what we want for everyone? It certainly seems to be what God intended.

How do we respond to light: in love or fear?

How do we respond to light: in love or fear?

By Andy Wurm. Epiphany 3rd Jan 2021

The story of Epiphany tells us something about ourselves, and so does the story about the story. By that I mean what happened to the story of Epiphany, which is that a group of wise men got changed into three kings. Our psalm to day (72) is the connection. At some time, a parallel was seen between the wise men bearing gifts and the three kings of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba which were mentioned in the psalm. At Epiphany, the Light of Christ is revealed to the whole world, so it seems logical to apply it to the idea of the kings of the world acknowledging Christ. We’d like that to be the case anyway. If the kings of the world acknowledged Christ, the world would be a better place, but of course, that’s wishful thinking.

The reality is that the wise men were not kings. They were not men with power and the sort of certainty and security that comes with power. The wise men were from the east, probably from Persia, which is today called Iran, or from Iraq or Afghanistan. And they were likely to have been priests of Zoroastrianism, a religion which worshipped the god Mazda, the god of light. They believed that the births of famous people were always accompanied by bright lights in the sky. They must have had a few false positives when lighthouses were invented! Anyway, these wise men traveled a long way from their home, following their vision of finding someone famous, and driven by their belief that they would find him.

Incidentally, if you think this might just be a story made up by the gospel writers, it makes no difference to point of the story, which is what really matters.

When the wise men found Jesus, their attitude to the Christ child was so different to that of Herod, the Jewish king. The people whose only connection with the Christ child was their belief about light were full of joy when they found him, whereas Herod, representative of the Jews, was full of fear. He should have been the one to have been joyful, for his society had produced someone who would bring so much. These two responses of joy and fear were seen through all of Jesus’ life, and are still the two main ways in which we might respond to his light.

Jesus was aware of the choice that people made in their response to his light, as were the gospel writers. In the gospels it is not so much joy and fear that is contrasted, but faith and fear. And fear doesn’t just mean anxiety, but means being threatened. The story of Jesus walking on water is an example, hence Jesus asks his disciples (who should be people of faith) “why are you so afraid?”.

The wise men who travelled to see Jesus were people of faith. Travelling from far away, they had to endure danger on the way and when meeting Herod, who would probably have killed them if they had returned to him after seeing Jesus. The experience of these wise men was very different to that of the shepherds. The shepherds were just out in the fields minding their flocks, when angels came and told them that Jesus had been born, and how to find their way to the manger. They had an easy time. No difficult journey, no danger, and best of all, certainty. And they knew exactly what it was that they would find.

If only we could find light, or life, like that. But that’s not our experience. Our experience is usually more like the wise men. No certainty, not exactly sure where what we are looking for is to be found, or exactly what it will look like, if we find it. We face danger too. King Herod wanted to destroy the lives of little children, so too, on our journey through life, our inner child, and the children around us, face the danger of being caught up and then run by fear of not being approved of, fear of not having enough, fear of not being enough, fear of living in a world we don’t control.

Yet we also have our stars, we also perceive lights, which we believe will lead us to something we need. We are made to want what is life-giving and it doesn’t always get suffocated by the world, or smothered by ourselves. Sometimes the light we feel drawn to involves the opportunity to make the world a better place, or perhaps the opportunity to make our inner world a better place. Do we respond like the wise men in joy, or like Herod, in fear? Sometimes we might be the light, or the light might be life we have.

Men, women and children have come to our country from the east, sometimes from the same place as in our story. We could consider them wise in the sense that their wisdom is their hope for a better life, for themselves and those they love. They come for one reason only: because they believe that whatever is here, is better than where they came from. That’s their light.

Like the wise men in our story, their journey was perilous, fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was risky, but better than staying where they were, they set out following their star, their hope for life, with a belief, a faith, that for some reason, things would work out better by doing so.

I wonder whether we have as much faith as they do? Are we as willing as they were to follow our light, to act in accord with what we believe? Or do we choose fear? Do we choose to hold on to what we have, like Herod, to protect the status quo, whether it be things in ourselves, or our society, that could be better?

Are we people of joy or fear? People of faith or fear? The only path to the light of this world is the path of the wise men. Not the path of fear, but the path of joy, the path of faith.

To finish off, I will read a poem by Michael Leunig, who writes about this, but instead of joy or faith, he calls it love.

There are only two feelings: love and fear.

There are only two languages: love and fear.

There are only two activities: love and fear.

There are only two motives, two procedures, two frameworks, two results: love and fear.

What do we choose: love or fear? What do you choose: love of fear?

In the face of competition, creating community is miraculous

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 9, 2nd August 2020

The story of Jesus feeding five thousand plus people is one of the miracles Jesus performed, which makes him a person we want to grow closer to. We want to know how he is relevant to our lives, and what is the nature of his miraculous power? To find out, we need to know what Jesus really did with those people seated on the grass that evening. We’re told there were five thousand men, plus women and children. I suspect women weren’t normally counted at public gatherings because they were blessed with the joy of the kitchen sink and ironing board, and children were probably at home too. They’re included here because men, women and children made up the main groups of society, as they still do today in many middle-eastern countries, eating separately – but notice here, they eat together!

Let’s go straight to the obvious question: did Jesus make enough food to feed all those people from just five loaves of bread and two fish? The answer to that question is hinted at in the beginning of today’s story, with Jesus withdrawing to a deserted place because he’d been told that Herod, who had chopped off John the Baptist’s head, thought that Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead (which was why Jesus could do amazing feats). How likely is it then, that having heard that, Jesus would decide to perform an amazing stunt, which would light up Herod’s radar and his desire for a bit more head-chopping? Fairly unlikely!

To understand this story, we need to consider the importance of meals in Jesus’ day. Dietary laws were the major hot point of his culture. Today’s equivalent might be something like public statues, in which a number of cultural and political ideals and changes are churning around and clashing. In Jesus’ day, what you did with food reflected how respectable you were. In other words, whether you were a person who ‘did the right thing’, whether you were someone who respected your culture and national history, and whether you were faithful to God.

Orthodox Jews (‘proper’ Jews – in their own eyes) would go to special lengths to make sure they ate only certain foods, in certain ways and mostly only in the company of other orthodox Jews. If not, their food could bec0me contaminated by the impurity of non-proper Jews. Even eating with other Jews was risky then, but far more stressful, was eating with non-Jews, and that was becoming more difficult as their society became more multi-cultural.

When the crowd of people gathered in that deserted place to hear Jesus, there were probably orthodox Jews among them. Some may have been interested to hear what he had to say, while others might be looking for faults in his teaching, but none of them would be going to McDonald’s on the way home. They would have come prepared with their own food, to ensure they wouldn’t be caught out having to eat other people’s food.

Jesus had been teaching the crowd and when you read the gospel passages before this story, there’s lots of his teaching about what the kingdom of God was like. Now Jesus decides he’s going to get the people there to act that out: they’re going to eat together. So, I don’t think Jesus whipped up more bread and fish. I think he got people to eat together: that was the miracle.

Don’t forget that the definition of a (religious) miracle is not that something amazing occurs. It’s that people’s hearts are transformed. The only relevance to people’s hearts, of Jesus providing heaps of bread and fish to eat, is that they won’t have to take their fish-oil tablet that night. Getting people who never eat together, to eat together, changes lives.

Imagine if you could get the people who want to tear down statues of flawed men, to have a cup of tea with people who like those statues. Imagine if you could help them to see each other as human beings and learn something from one another, that could benefit both groups of people. The Advertiser report might say that there were five thousand statue-removalists present, besides statue appreciators.

To be able to bring about such a way of being together is the power that Jesus wields. That’s what attracts us to him. But what’s its significant for us? Its significance is that he gives us that power too. The story presents Jesus’ action as eucharistic. His actions of taking bread, blessing it, breaking it and sharing it, are what we do in the eucharist. Jesus gave us that ritual so that we could partake in, but also enact ourselves, his transforming power to change the world, to bring about the kingdom of God: the life of mutual care and enrichment.

That’s all great, but how did Jesus get those people to share their bread and fish (and perhaps vegemite sandwiches)? Jesus’ disciples suggest he send the people away to get tea from nearby towns, but Jesus tells the disciples THEY can feed the people. They haven’t yet grasped that they can do that, so Jesus might have said something like ‘okay watch this and learn..’ Then Jesus tells the people to sit down on the grass. In Greek it really says to recline, in other words, lay back and relax, like when you go to a friend’s house and they put a gin and tonic in your hand and tell you to sit back and relax while I get tea ready. Something about Jesus has the power to make these people loosen up and let go – people who can’t even relax around their own people, in case they somehow become affected by their impurity (or today we might say can’t relax, in case they become tainted by other’s political incorrectness).

The people eat together because God has moved their hearts. God has moved their hearts through Jesus’ attitude towards them. He relates to them, not as selfish so and so’s, but as potential sharers with open hearts. In Jesus, they experience God, who knows nothing of purity laws, nothing of political correctness, nothing of contamination from those who are politically incorrect. Jesus neither approves nor disapproves of any group of people: such categories of judgment are non-existent for him.

In Jesus, the crowd are engaged with the One for whom there is no such thing as not enough to go around, for whom there is no such thing as scarcity and the need to compete. They are engaged with One who is encouraging them to let go of those humanly-created, death-dealing concepts and see what way of living they can create together. That is the power of the Creator, who can bring forth something out of nothing: the power to create a banquet from people who won’t normally eat together.

As we share bread and wine together then, will there be a miracle for us? Will the divine power we see in Jesus be able to transform the world through us? It depends whether we’re willing to give up our belief in scarcity and there being not-enough and trust that whatever is needed for our mutual benefit is always available. It will be available if we let our desire be reshaped by the One who has no concept of us being inadequate or lacking anything, but only ever looks on us as more than enough.

A heart open to God

A heart open to God changes our perception and thus our reality

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 8, 26th July 2020

Today I’m going to talk about intercessory prayer – when we ask God for things: for ourselves, for those we care about and for the needs of the wider world. Here’s a helpful story.

Several men are in the locker room of a golf club.  A mobile phone on a bench rings and a man engages the hands-free speaker function and begins to talk.  Everyone else in the room stops to listen.
MAN:  ‘Hello’
WOMAN: ‘Hi Honey, it’s me.  Are you at the club?’
MAN: ‘Yes.’
WOMAN: ‘I’m at the shops now and found this beautiful leather coat. It’s only $2,000; is it OK if I buy it?’ MAN:  ‘Sure, go ahead if you like it that much.’
WOMAN:  ‘I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models.  I saw one I really liked.’
MAN:  ‘How much?’
WOMAN: ‘$90,000.’
MAN:  ‘OK, but for that price I want it with all the options.’
WOMAN:  ‘Great! Oh, and one more thing… I was just talking to Janie and found out that the house I wanted last year is back on the market. They’re asking $980,000 for it.’
MAN:  ‘Well, then go ahead and make an offer of $900,000.  They’ll probably take it.  If not, we can go the extra eighty-thousand if it’s what you really want.’
WOMAN: ‘OK. I’ll see you later! I love you so much!’
MAN:  ‘Bye! I love you, too.’
The man hangs up. The other men in the locker room are staring at him in astonishment, mouths wide open.
He asks, ‘Does anyone know whose phone this is?’   

Sometimes when we pray to God, we’re like that woman. Her problem isn’t that she’s making outrageous requests to the man she thinks is her husband. Her problem is that he’s not her husband.

Similarly, when it comes to our prayer, we need to ask ourselves whether we are actually praying to God, or to an idol. If we are praying to God, then our prayer should correspond to God’s nature.

Usually when we pray, we have already decided what we believe God is like, but we may be on the wrong track. That is why it’s crucial that we reflect and examine different ideas about God.

There are a couple of dilemmas which we need to have worked through for our prayer to be meaningful. The first is whether or not we believe that God acts in the world. If we believe that God created the world, but then leaves it to its own devices, then there’s not much point to asking God for things. On the other hand, if we believe that God does act in the world, in what way is that? Experience and common sense tell us that God doesn’t intervene in the ordinary, natural operation of the world. Even though we hear stories about people being healed and other miraculous interventions by God, there are too many problems in the way of believing God works like that. For a start, it probably never happens to us. And then what if two people ask for different outcomes of the same circumstances? What is God to do? These are only some of the problems raised if we believe that God intervenes in the way things usually work.

Are we then forced to accept that God does not act in the world, so that God’s involvement in our lives is reduced to being alongside us in the ups and downs of our lives? The trouble with that approach, apart from God not being of much help, is that first, Jesus told people to pray, and that God would answer prayer, and second, millions of people over the years have prayed. Have those people been doing something pointless? Have they just been doing something quaint, which offers no more than emotional comfort? Out of all that, surely the most important thing to hold on to is Jesus’ advice. But that’s not straight-forward either, for we know that God won’t necessarily give us what we ask for. So what do we do?

This is the same question asked by a woman back in 412. Anicia Faltonia Proba, was a widow from a wealthy and powerful Roman family, who had fled from Rome when it was sacked by the Goths. Accompanied by a number of other women, she fled to Carthage in Africa, where they established a Christian community. To have got to that point in their lives would have required a fair bit of courage and strength, but left Anicia wondering what part God played in getting them to where they were and being with them in their future. So she wrote to another resident of Africa, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.

Anicia asked Augustine how she should pray, and whether she was right in believing that asking God for the wrong thing could cause problems.

Augustine’s advice to Anicia was simply to pray for a happy life. That meant it was okay to pray for things like a good marriage, children and health, and even honours, power and possessions! That sounds like a good deal, except Augustine added that it was okay to ask for those things, and anything else, as long as what she asked for was sought for the genuine good of others. That sounds like he was saying that it was wrong to ask God for your own needs to be met, but that wasn’t quite where he was leading. What Augustine was really conveying was that the main point, or focus, of prayer, should not be your own needs, or even the needs of others. Once that is established, you can ask for whatever you want. Does that mean we should not ask for what we want? Not at all! It just means that we should not ask for what we want for the purpose of getting what we want. What Augustine was hinting at was that the true purpose of prayer is not to get what we want, but to unite ourselves to God. Augustine’s famous prayer, ‘our hearts are restless, until they rest in you’ O God, sums it all up. The whole point of prayer is to ‘rest in God’, which means unite with God, put ourselves into God’s hands, relax into God, fully entrust ourselves to God, commit our spirit to God, ‘let go and let God’, or whatever other way you want to put it.

Our real need, which underlies every other need in our lives, is for God. We are made that way. We are restless, lost, incomplete, afraid, selfish, less joyful than we can be, less compassionate and less insightful, than we can become, when we unite with God. The trouble is, that because we are stuck in our restlessness, our incompleteness, we cannot know exactly what the path to that unity is. So for example, say I am applying for a new job. I have sent in my application and have been shortlisted. Now my life is in turmoil. I really want the new job. But why? The money is better than my present job, but it’s not about the money. But would I want it if the money was less, or the same? What if I get the job and it doesn’t work out? Maybe I should just stay where I am. No, I want the job. I’m sure it’s right for me. I really hope the others who are shortlisted don’t get it. How can I get an advantage over them? But that’s selfish. Is it right to want something purely for myself?. .. and so on. Often when we pray, there are all sorts of conflicts and uncertainties going on within us. What should I pray for then? The answer is that I don’t have to work it out. I already have the answer. But all I have within me is turmoil, what in that matters most? The answer is not within the turmoil. The answer is the turmoil. That, according to St. Augustine, is the most basic and necessary prayer. He calls it groaning. It’s like the soul doesn’t know what to ask for, because it’s all too much. We know we want healing, or our friend to get better, a new job, or whatever, but we don’t know how to let what we want connect us with God.

St. Paul uses a different term to groaning. He calls it ‘sighing’. And he also knows it’s not something we have to generate. It’s already going on within us. We’re always doing it, because we always have concerns, worries, frustration and anger over the circumstances of life. At the same time, there are great joys and pleasures we want to express, but find hard to put into words. How do we say thanks for someone we love deeply and who loves us? It’s beyond words. Only a sigh captures it. Words aren’t enough.

In case we still thought that all this groaning and sighing was the work we do in prayer, Paul tells us that it’s actually the Holy Spirit praying in us. Our sighing and groaning is the Spirit, at work, in our restlessness, trying to take us home to (heavenly) Dad, or (heavenly) Mum. God. The One in whom our restlessness is answered. The One to whom our restlessness wants to take us.

Prayer then, is much more something for us to let happen, than something we have to work at. The hard part is letting it happen. Sitting with our restlessness, our groaning or sighing. Sitting with it and letting it be, in the trust that it will lead us into God. Augustine says that our tears are better than our words. Our words are helpful, he says, but only in as far as they help us on the way to knowing what we really want. Our words certainly are not for the purpose of telling God anything God doesn’t already know (and God knows everything), and neither are they to get God to do anything (God is quite good at knowing what God needs to do). Our words are for us, not God. Our words are to help us open up to God, that we may drawn into God.

To finish off, sometimes we do need to pray with words. It is always only to clarify to ourselves what we want (if that is possible), so that our requests become movements into God. But there are four good reasons for using words to move ourselves into God. They are: (1) that God wants us to participate in God’s involvement in the world, so for example, when we pray for the poor, we commit ourselves to helping them. (2) asking God means sharing what is on our hearts, and that’s as essential for intimacy with God as it is with other people. (3) asking God for things is entrusting ourselves to God. It’s knowing our needs and the needs of the world are greater than we can handle, and we will only begin to grasp their true significance in the context of God’s relationship with us. Beyond that, there is no hope. (4) Last of all, prayer is always desire for God. Often our asking others for things is because we want them. We might ask a friend for advice, but what we really want deep down is for them to share the burden of our circumstances. We want to be with them. These four reasons for praying in words influence the way we see what we are praying for, because they change our view of reality.

So our deepest prayer is always beyond any words. We should ask God for things, but it’s never about getting what we ask for, or telling God anything. It’s more important than those reasons. It’s about moving into God and taking those we love with us.

God is entwined in our significant relationships

God is entwined in our significant relationships

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 5, July 5th 2020

The story of Abraham and his family looks more like a fairy-tale than the life of real people when we hear that Sarah gave birth to Isaac when she was about ninety years of age, but at least it’s a great story, with interesting twists and great names. My favourites are Uz and Buz, two nephews of Abraham, followed closely by Nahor, who reminds me of Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. Today we heard an excerpt from the story of Abraham, concerning the romance of his son Isaac and Rebekah. That little story is part of the bigger story, through which we are being told that God’s will unfolds through the significant relationships of our lives.

To see that in the story of Abraham, we have to first hear the story free of the theological interpretation. So here goes: Abraham wants a new life and so leaves home for another land, far away. There he will build a new home and starts a family, which will set a new direction for his descendants. On the way to this foreign land, Abraham meets Sarah, who he marries and hopes to raise a family, but they can’t, so he has a child with his servant-girl Hagar, and they name him Ishmael. Eventually, the unbelievable happens and Sarah gives birth to a son. In time, Sarah, determined that her son Isaac becomes Abraham’s true heir, pressures Abraham to throw Ishmael and his mother out of their home, which he does. All seems good for the future and Isaac and his father get on swimmingly, until Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac on a mountain. Even though Abraham didn’t actually go through with it, Isaac can’t forgive him, and so moves out from the family home. Sarah also moves out of the family home and then later dies. Abraham organises her funeral and mourns her. Still maintaining his fatherly obligations though, Abraham organises a bride for Isaac, Rebekah, who happens to be his nephew’s daughter. Good to keep family in the family. Being a mere one hundred and fifty years old by then, Abraham thought he had many good years left in him, so he remarried, this time to a woman named Keturah, who may have been his servant-girl from the past with a new identity, which, if true, means that Ishmael, his other son, had arranged for them to get together again. A bit like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. They bring forth lots of children, who themselves bring forth lots of children, and so the number of people with funny names multiplies greatly. Finally, Abraham dies at an ancient age, and is buried by Isaac and Ishmael, who in doing so, reconcile their past differences.

The story of Abraham could be the story of a man living in twenty first century Australia, as many family histories are a similar mixture of love, joy and the fulfilment of dreams, but also with complications, tragedies, disappointment, falling out and hopefully reconciliation, or a combination of those.

Abraham’s story is the story of the founding of a nation, in that he is the father of Israel, but it is also the story of a family. Interwoven in that story is the story of God. So, we have Abraham and his family, fulfilling their dreams, and God fulfilling his. Here that means creating a nation through which all the nations of the world shall be blessed, or in other words, setting up a means by which his love for the world would be shown forth concretely, and thus also providing a way for people to love God back. Or another way of seeing it is as a story written by people to convey their belief that God’s love for the world could be discerned through the history of their people.

When we read the details of Abraham’s story, we may wonder what the relevance of Rebekah’s uncles Uz and Buz have to our lives, but if we step back and look at the big picture of the story as a whole, we get the message that God’s story and our stories are intertwined. That challenges the view of God’s will being achieved through God controlling things from afar. And throughout the story, God’s responses, which are at times all too human-like, only serve to emphasise that personal relationships are central to God’s interactions with the world.

The story of Abraham presents God as one who gets what he wants, but not through force or coercion. God is mighty, but not as some may think. Consider this quote from Rowan Williams

“We believe in God, the Father Almighty…” (from the Nicene Creed) …this is what almightiness looks like in practice.  It’s the unlimited power to be there, to be faithful to and for a world that is deeply unstable and unjust and suspicious and uncooperative: the power to go on trying to get through at all costs, labouring and wrestling with the human heart. This is why belief, trust, in God the Father almighty is so different from wish fulfilment and projection about some all-powerful character who can just do what he decides and get what he wants straight away.  Instead it’s the discovery of what Abraham and Moses have discovered, a God who never runs out of love and liberty.  God is to be trusted as we would trust a loving parent, whose commitment to us is inexhaustible, whose purposes for us are unfailingly generous; someone whose life is the source of our life, and who guarantees that there is always a home for us.

(From Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief)

Part of the Christian life is to interpret what God is and what God is doing. The story of Abraham helps us with that, as it shows us where to look for clues, which here, is in our significant relationships.

The Anglican marriage service reflects this same belief that God is integrally involved in our significant relationships. It speaks of God leading the happy couple to their special day, but that’s not in terms of them being like puppets controlled by a heavenly master. It is more subtle than that and never violates the freedom of individuals to do as they wish. In fact, if God were to control what people did with their lives, then it would not be an act of God, because it would violate human freedom (which would go against God’s nature). Contradictory as it may seem, because God’s nature is what it is, the activity of a person can only be described also as the action of God, if that person chooses it of their own freewill. The same is true for any creature on earth. In other words, the part that God plays in creatures’ lives is to enable them to be themselves.

Going back to our significant relationships, how can we look back and see the hand of God at work? Is it to be seen in what happens, or what comes from what happens? Is God only at work in what works out well, or is God always there in some way? And what are we to discern of God’s activity in our relationships in the present?

Here it may be helpful to think of God as the Power of Mutual Relation (a term coined by feminist theologian Carter Heyward). In our gospel passage we hear Jesus criticising people of his time for indulging in relationships that are competitive, rather than mutual. Asking ‘where is God in our relationships?’ then, is asking where, who or what is the power of mutual relating in our relationships? Where do we experience it? How can we bring it? Do I need to leave to find

it? Does something need to change? Am I celebrating it when it’s present?

The Spirit leads us to love, freedom and communion

The Spirit leads us to love, freedom and communion

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 6, July 10th 2020

These days if you buy an electronic gadget you sometimes get two manuals. One is the detailed manual, usually too big to print and given on a disc or found on the internet, and the other a simple guide to help you understand the basics. What would be really good would be a guide that is translated into English by someone who speaks English. Also helpful would be a manual that applies only to the model you bought, rather than the whole range, so that you’re not having to work out whether the features mentioned apply to your particular model.

Parents may have liked an instruction manual to have come with their children, and that would definitely be a case of needing a manual for your particular model, because not every model comes with the same features. The same is true for a manual on friendship, or love, or just being yourself. You can buy manuals or ‘how to guides’ on all those subjects, but they are of the general variety. You need one that applies to your circumstances.

Speaking of manufacturers providing manuals, what about our heavenly manufacturer? Does God provide us with a manual, guiding us how to live? Some would say the Bible is just that, and there’s some truth in that, but it definitely requires quality translation, involving more than conversion into another language. It requires knowing the manufacturer and awareness of the manufacturer’s purpose in creating the product. When reading the Bible, it really matters whether we take God telling the Israelites to slay the Philistines as an instruction for treating people we don’t like, or part of a story with a deeper meaning.

In this morning’s gospel passage, Jesus tells a parable of a sower sowing seed on different types of soil. There are various ways we could read that, but one way is to think of there being two elements to God’s ‘telling us how to live’. Just as both the seed and the soil quality play a role in delivering a good yield, so too, both God’s communication to us and our receptivity (which includes our willingness to carry out what God asks of us), play a role in delivering a good outcome.

If we apply that to scripture, we can say that the message is there, but without appropriate interpretation, it can’t be properly received and enacted. And of course, love is the lens through which all interpretation must pass. It’s also important to remember that our circumstances can differ from those referred to in the Bible. The soil that God sowed the seed of God’s word when the Bible was written, is not always the soil of our day. So for example, we can’t open up the Bible to the page in which God tells us what to do about carbon pollution.

As Christians we hold the Word of God to be our guide in life. The Word of God is not the Bible though. The Bible has God’s words (message/s) to us, sometimes deeply hidden within stories of people with funny names begetting or invading each other, and other times in straight-forward talk from Jesus, but it is Jesus who is the true Word of God, or God’s mouthpiece. We may discern God’s will from the world around us, but with Jesus, God speaks directly – sometimes through words, but more so through actions. That’s why the cross matters so much: it’s the non-verbal message that God is non-judgmental love.

We can read about Jesus in the bible, but we have his Spirit with us now. If we think of the way Jesus’

disciples came to follow him and eventually emulate him, then that is how we can also understand the Holy

Spirit in our lives. The Holy Spirit is that which draws us towards and enables us to become, like Jesus.

The Spirit is not just a source of wise ideas, but is personal and wants to tell us how to live more than we want to know. Or to put that another way, the Spirit wants to shape us and ‘run’ us, as love expressing itself through our lives. To use language that sounds very controlling, the Spirit wants to possess us and be the guiding factor in our lives. That would be controlling if it was selfish, that is, if it were for self-glorification or self-gratification. Then we would be talking about a type of possession that is evil. But the possession by the Holy Spirit is possession by love and for love, so it is only for good.

So, imagining the Holy Spirit as a living manual for how to live, we have half the equation I mentioned before – we have God communicating to us. Now we need the other half, namely, our receptivity and willingness to carry out what God asks of us.

When we speak of people telling us how we should live, we usually mean that in a negative sense, i.e. someone else getting us to live their way, but if we think of God doing that it has to mean something different. God is perfectly unselfish, so for God to tell us how we should live, it’s meant in the same way

as when someone sees a great gift in another person and tells them they should do more with their gift.

Apart from wanting us to know what is best for us (and the world), God is silent.

For us to follow God’s will requires us to first hear what God is saying, discern where we’re being led or what the Spirit within us is causing us to react to. How do we know it is of God then? There are particular characteristics for that to be the case, among which I would include that: it leads to greater love (of self, others and the world); it leads to greater freedom ; it leads us to deeper communion (with others, with nature and with God). Can we then say that any message, inspiration, thought or guidance which does this is therefore God communicating to us? The answer must be yes, for God is the Source of Life.

These characteristics of God’s communication don’t conflict with each other. If they do, then maybe it’s not God who is speaking to us, or maybe we’re not understanding what God is saying to us properly.

For example, I might feel God calling me to love others – it’s in the words of the prophets in the Old Testament, it’s in Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, it’s in the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s in the need for love and security of those close to me. So my soul is fired up – I put greater effort into meeting the needs of others, however, rather than greater freedom, I find my life becoming more constricted, as my actions become more driven by other’s needs, including the needs of the earth. If I take that to heart too much, I begin to lose myself. I may console myself with the satisfaction of knowing I’m following God’s will, but I can’t be, because my freedom is diminishing. The associated effort of having to counter the decreasing sense of aliveness should alert me to that. So maybe my assumption about how God is telling me to live is wrong.

Realising that can then help me to see that the way that God is asking me to love others more, is not by focussing on what others need, but on what I can contribute. I do that by making the decisions that I feel are right and doing things my way. If that leads to a greater sense of love in my life and my relationships (including with the earth), and a deeper sense of communion, then it is more likely that I have truly discerned God’s will and am responding appropriately.

Like the seed and the ground it falls upon, it’s not just God’s communication that matters. The openness of the soul that receives it is just as important.

A Reflection on Call and Response

A Reflection on Call and Response

In his book Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, Gregg Levoy says, ‘living means being addressed,” as the theologian Martin Buber once said, and whatever or whoever is addressing us is a power like wind or fusion or faith; we can’t see the force, but we can see what it does. Primarily this force announces the need for change, and the response for which it calls is an awakening of some kind.

A call is only a monologue. A return call, a response, creates a dialogue. Our own unfolding requires that we be in constant dialogue with whatever is calling us.”

Call and response is an ongoing mutual dialogue between us and the divine, which brings us closer to the source of meaning in our lives. It enables us to respond to the love of God by sharing love.

The mutuality of call and response is there within the Trinity itself: Jesus is called to his ministry through the experience of the baptism, the spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him, and the heavenly voice calling him the Beloved Son. He responds by beginning his ministry of teaching and healing, but not before he is driven into the wilderness to face deprivation and the temptations of survival, fame and power. He cannot fulfil his call until he is prepared to face those shadows of the call.

Responding to a call requires us to be vulnerable and to take risks.
The gospel today shows the ongoing call and response that the disciples face, a continuing outworking of their first call to follow Jesus. They are being formed to fulfil their best selves,
but at the same time they have given up much, their livelihoods and security to go with a man who puts himself and them at risk from hostile crowds or scandalised authorities.

In the gospel today, they are responding to the next stage of their call, to go out doing what Jesus himself is doing, proclaiming the good news that the kingdom of God is near, healing the sick, releasing people from dark spirits, and giving hope and guidance to those who are harassed and helpless. It’s a positive ministry and they delight in it, but it also requires them to travel with no payment or comforts, and to face those who reject them.

Let me tell you a story of my own calling to the priesthood as an example of this dialogue of call and response that evolves. At the time my father died of cancer, I went to Queensland to be with him and the family through his death and the funeral. I had the feeling that God was asking me for some commitment and I said “Yes,” although I didn’t know what exactly was involved.

At the time, my sister suggested that I consider hospital chaplaincy, but I said that I couldn’t see how that was an option. I went back to my priest at Mt. Barker and described this sense of having said “Yes,” to something. I asked whether this could be a call to the priesthood or some other form of ministry. He said I had to find out, and he described his own experience of such a call, and his own attempt to resist it, because he couldn’t see how a truck driver could become a priest.

About that time, I heard words that seemed to be from God saying, “I call in the opening and closing of doors.”

A parishioner at my church saw an advertisement for a hospital chaplain at Mt. Barker, and suggested I apply. It seemed a bit spooky that my sister and this lady had independently suggested this, so I felt obliged to apply.

I didn’t get that job on this application, although in two years time I was appointed as ecumenical chaplain there. In the meantime, I went through the door that opened, a pastoral care course at Flinders Medical Centre called Clinical Pastoral Education. At the end of that year, I was saying that chaplaincy and music ministry were my direction, not the priesthood.

Then I wrote a song I want to sing to you later. It was about the calling to the priesthood for an Anglican friend who was being ordained. Writing the song for him, I felt it was also for

One night while washing up, I perceived the voice of God speaking to me again, almost teasingly: “You’ve tried the back door, why don’t you try the front door for a change?”

It seemed evident to me that the front door meant theological study and testing the path of ordination. There was still a painful discernment process to go through, and a long slog through study and student ministry. It was a time of much fulfilment, but also of exhaustion, vulnerability and anxiety.

The struggle to be what I’m called to be goes on, sometimes painfully.

As I age, as we wrestle with the changing scenario of Covid 19 restrictions, I keep wondering: What is the call for me now? What is the call for us as church?

Brian McLaren began his book church on the other side with the quote: “If you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world.”

I’ll conclude by singing you the song I wrote 20 years ago, called Out of the Blue.

1. Lord, yes, I know the call goes on
past these arrivals and beyond
all that I know of who I am:
I shall keep striving to respond.
Here I am claimed,
wrestled and named.
Dark turns to light;
grant me the sight.

2. Nothing as simple as one “yes”
answers the urging that I hear.
Nevertheless I celebrate
all the assents despite the fear.
How I am wooed,
tracked and pursued.
Losing I find
me in your mind.

3. Here I have come to be your priest:
here is my future for your own.
Holding your life within my hands,
let me embrace the grace I’m shown.
Here I am heard,
speaking your word,
lifted above
self in your love.

God is love, so ‘God’ is a verb

God is love, so ‘God’ is a verb

Sermon by Andy Wurm, for Trinity Sunday, June 7 th 2020

Winston Churchill, once said that Democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the other forms of government. He was quoting someone else.

Today, as we celebrate Trinity Sunday in the church, it’s worth remembering that the ancient theologians thought much the same way about the Trinity, i.e. that it’s the worst theory about God, apart from all the other ones that have been tried.

If you have problems with the idea then, don’t feel there’s something wrong with you. There’s an ancient legend about St Augustine. One day he was walking along the beach, contemplating the mystery of the Trinity and he came across a boy who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again, bringing some
water to fill the hole. St Augustine asked the boy what he was doing and the boy replied that he was going to pour the entire ocean into his hole. ‘That’s impossible, the whole ocean will not fit into the hole you have made’ said St Augustine. The boy replied ‘and you cannot fit the Trinity into your tiny little brain’. And then he vanished, because he was one of those angels disguised as hole-digging boys.

I haven’t met one of the hole-digging angels, but I know what he meant when he said ‘you cannot fit the Trinity into your tiny little brain’.

It is for that very reason that one Australian theologian suggests we get rid of Trinity Sunday. Well, I’m not going to try to explain the Trinity to you and I hope you aren’t going to try and understand it
either. That would be trying to understand God. Instead, I’m going to talk a bit about why we believe in God as Trinity.

The reason we speak of God as Trinity is because we believe God really is that, and talking about God like that helps us not project what we want onto God and helps us not believe in something that is not God (idolatry).

So for example, it means we don’t believe in a God who is distant and removed from us, but we believe in a God who is close to us and intimately involved in our lives.

It means God is loving and not nasty.
It means God wants us to be part of God’s life and God wants us to share in the work of creating the world, and God loves variety.

In fact, all the great Christian beliefs about God can be traced back to the idea of God as trinity.

The reason that theologian suggests ditching Trinity Sunday is because we’re actually talking about God as Trinity the whole year, and when you put aside one particular Sunday for it, there’s a danger that it could be thought of as something special and different to how
we think of God the rest of the time.

Believing in God as Trinity is like having a set of guidelines for understanding God and being directed towards God. But we have to be careful, because every word used in the doctrine is used in a very limited way, so should not be taken literally. An example of that is the word ‘Father’, which the ancient theologians used to convey
the sense of God as relational, in a way that’s too big to go into here, but my point is that in no way did they mean God was male.

Another example is that when we speak of God as ‘one’, we don’t mean it as a number, but more in the sense of ‘God is’ and ‘God is – like nothing that is’ and when we speak of the Trinity being ‘three’,
we don’t mean that as a number either, rather, we use it to express the perfection of God’s love and the incomparable fullness of God.

Remember in the story of Moses, how when God asks Moses to go to the Pharaoh and demand he let Moses’ people go, Moses asks in whose name should Moses tell Pharaoh he makes the command? God says tell Pharaoh ‘I am’ sent you.

In the gospels we hear Jesus using that term quite a bit – ‘I am the bread of life, I am the vine and you are the branches, I am the way, the truth and the life, and so on.’

Remember also the Ark of the Covenant – the holy box the people of Israel carried around in the desert and then stored in the temple. God was in there. It was God’s presence. But if you opened it up, you would find nothing. That says a lot about God and it also says that God is beyond comprehension. Just like the angel digging a
hole in the sand said. The doctrine of the Trinity is like that – the contents are incomprehensible, but they point us to God and help us understand our experience of God.

The doctrine of the Trinity helps to shape our imagination, so that we come to see God and are changed by what we see. So for example, we see that God is not an individual, but three, so God is not actually the name of a being, or the name of a person (like a human person), but is the name of a kind of life – eternal and self-
sufficient, always active, needing nothing. God is therefore ‘more a verb than a noun:

God is three relations… a mystery who can never be understood with our rational… minds.

God is a process rather than a clear name or idea, a communion, Interbeing itself and never an isolated entity that can be captured by our mind. (Richard Rohr. Immortal Diamond, 156)

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to its simplest form would be to say that God is Love and that means that all forms of love are experiences of God and participation in the life of God.

God wants us to stop sacrificing others

God wants us to stop sacrificing others

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Pentecost 4, June 28th 2020

What is faithfulness? Isn’t it what we want most of all in a close relationship? Even in an employer-employee relationship, it’s the most valued feature, for it implies trustworthiness. The boss can assume things will be done, because a staff member is faithful. In a friendship, and especially a close friendship, faithfulness is everything. Consider these synonyms for being faithful in a relationship: it means being dependable, devoted, honest, steadfast, true, trustworthy, constant, confiding, genuine, supportive, enduring, unchanging, unswerving, unwavering. Using that list, think of what you get from and give to someone who’s dear to you, and there’s a lot to be grateful for.

What about faithfulness when it comes to God? Today’s Old Testament story is about faithfulness – what it means to be faithful to God, but it also says something about God being faithful, which is surely the most important characteristic of God.

The story is known as the Sacrifice of Isaac, or in the Jewish tradition, the Akedah, which means ‘the binding’. It’s a key story for understanding faithfulness to and from God, but it’s challenging.

There are few stories in the Bible that bring up our hackles us much as this story. Abraham taking his son up a mountain to sacrifice him is bad enough, but God requiring Abraham to do that, is even worse. And the fact that after Abraham proves he is willing to sacrifice his son for God, God retracts his request, doesn’t make God any more appealing. What sort of father would do that? What sort of God would require that?

There would be few things that we would be against more than the idea of child sacrifice. It’s hard for us to fathom how anyone could do that. In Abraham’s day though, it was common practice throughout the ancient Near East. But that was then and there – so different to here and now. It’s stories like this which make people reject religion, or at least want to throw away the Old Testament. Or some see it as showing that the God of the Old Testament is mean and nasty, compared to the God of the New Testament, who is nice.

Now let’s take all that rejection of child sacrifice and just hold on to it for a moment, as we look a bit closer at ourselves and see where we really stand in regard to this story. In my previous parish church, there was a memorial to a soldier. The soldier was a young man, 18 years of age – just above the age of a child. His name was Kenneth Wendt, and he was killed in the battle of Bullecourt, in France, during the First World War.

We might say that he was an adult, so it’s different to child sacrifice, but would we say that if Abraham had waited until Isaac turned 18? Would it be acceptable to us if Isaac was only 17, so Abraham waited with him on the mountain until he turned 18 and then told him he had a surprise for his birthday?

Abraham took Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him for God, for what was holy, sacred. We might think that we no longer sacrifice people for God, but we still do sacrifice people for gods or their equivalent, i.e. for what we consider sacred, for what we consider our ultimate values. There are still many young people who are sent to die, to be sacrificed, for what we, or others, call freedom, or democracy, ‘our way of life’ or what is considered sacred. So our horror at what Abraham did, or was prepared to do to Isaac, is only a mirror for us, showing us what we have done and continue to do.

If we’re not sending young people to war, what about the young and not-so-young people who are

caught up in war, live in poverty, or work in terrible conditions so we can have our current lifestyle? Or when the church sacrifices the rights of gay people to maintain unity with those who think that’s okay? In our personal lives, what about gossiping to enhance our social standing? What about throwing statues or law professors in the river to maintain what we hold sacred?

In the film Gandhi, there’s a scene where Gandhi says he’s prepared to suffer for resisting the South African apartheid laws. Speaking to the Anglican priest, he says for that cause I am prepared to die, but my friend, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill. In other words, he won’t sacrifice another human being for anything. Yet, here’s a story, of God demanding a father sacrifice his son for him!

Well, Gandhi is right in his stance. And in him, we see a person who is truly faithful to God, because the reality is that God doesn’t require any sacrifice. In fact, God detests it. That’s what the story of Abraham and Isaac is telling us. To understand this, you just have to be able to read Hebrew – because when you read the story of Abraham and Isaac, you see there is not one, but two (or even more) God/gods in the story! A goody and a baddy! In the Hebrew, Abraham is asked to sacrifice Isaac by God, named Elohim (which means gods), but when he’s about to do it, along comes God named Yahweh (who was the One the Hebrews came to worship) and offers an alternative. The story is about Yahweh, the God of Israel being the true God, as opposed to the gods (which represent anything that demands people be sacrificed for its sake). Yahweh offers an alternative to sacrificing people. The story is telling us that the real God, the only God, requires no sacrifices.

So we may find ourselves a bit red faced, because either we rejected religion for encouraging sacrificing others, or we rejected the Old Testament, or its God (Yahweh), for doing so, when, it is actually we who continue to require/let others be sacrificed for us. Four thousand or so years after this story was written, wouldn’t it be great, if the followers of the religions in which Abraham is considered a father of the faith, accepted that the true test of faithfulness to God is to refrain from sacrificing others. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived out our faithfulness to God in that way?

There is a bit more to Yahweh offering an alternative to the ‘gods’ who require sacrifice. The story does emphasise a major difference between the God of Israel and the gods of surrounding cultures, but it’s also about the transition in Israel from practicing child sacrifice to animal sacrifice. It’s the beginning of the evolution in Israel’s understanding of God. Sacrificing animals is so much better than sacrificing children, or adults, unless you’re a lamb of course, so this change was not an absolute rejection of all sacrifice. Christians have always noted though, that Yahweh, the good God, the real God, provided the alternative of a lamb, and saw in that, a vision of the future, in which God would provide another lamb for sacrifice. That lamb of God was Jesus. Jesus allowing himself to be sacrificed for the desires of human beings, was God providing an alternative to human beings needing to be sacrificed for others. Or if we inserted Jesus into to the story of Abraham and Isaac, Jesus would be the lamb from Yahweh, caught in the thicket. Jesus offering himself is God offering himself, offering an alternative to human sacrifice. That’s what we acknowledge in the prayer before receiving communion, which begins with Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.. In saying that, we are acknowledging that not only do we sacrifice one another, but God makes it alright, for God has become the lamb we require to make things right.

So, we come full circle, beginning with what it means to be faithful. For us to be faithful to God is to not engage in sacrificing others. Hopefully, we can do that. But for God to be faithful to us, is for God to ensure that sacrifice is never needed, and God has already done that.