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Jesus’ authority is the power to encourage us to create our lives with others

Jesus’ authority is the power to encourage us to create our lives with others

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Epiphany 4, 31st January 2021

Jesus goes to the synagogue and encounters a man possessed by a demon. This is not something that is easily accepted today. You may find talk of demons too disturbing, or ridiculous and so dismiss this story as belonging to another time, when people believed such things. At face value, Jesus comes across as a kind of magician, whose power is greater than the evil forces he battles with, which makes Jesus into someone who isn’t relevant to life as we understand it.

But ask yourself what you think demons are and how you came to that understanding. Do your ideas come from watching movies? If that’s so, then you can park those ideas as fantasy. Perhaps your ideas about demons have come from taking biblical stories literally. That’s equally unhelpful, because demons are really metaphors.

What I want to suggest to you is that talk of demons in the bible is actually a way of representing the power dynamics in human behaviour. The important issue regarding spirits of any sort whether they are life-enhancing or life-denying. As the gospels present Jesus as the ‘lord of life’, of course he is going to have power over any spirit that is life-denying.

That’s why the angels (life-enhancing spirits) are his friends and the demons (life-denying spirits) are against him. As ‘lord of life’, Jesus commands the spirits to do as he says. They do not have power over him, for he is God, who is not bound by the same power mechanisms. All of this is pretty grand and deep, but as we see in today’s story (Mark 1:21ff) it’s part of everyday existence. That in itself is a big claim, because we might think that power dynamics is only part of politics or where people are in conflict with one another, and so not to do with everyday existence, but the perspective the gospels give us is that power dynamics are integral to everyday existence, and if we are ignorant of that, then we will be subject to the control of those powers without realising it. One of the goals of the biblical writers is to wake us up, to reveal or unmask, the powers that can influence and control us.

In describing the demon possessing the man in the synagogue as an unclean spirit, the gospel writer helps us understand the power dynamic at work. If something is ‘unclean’, it can also be ‘clean’, so we must be talking about something that can be one or the other. When people are involved, ‘clean versus unclean’ is like ‘in versus out’ talk. It’s labelling things in terms of opposites, it’s the same as speaking in terms as acceptable versus unacceptable, righteous versus unrighteous, proper versus deviant. This is rivalry or judgement. In Jesus’ day, people were divided into acceptable versus unacceptable, such as healthy people being acceptable, lepers being unacceptable; Jews acceptable, gentiles unacceptable, women who remained faithful, committed and monogamous: godly, righteous and therefore acceptable, women who committed adultery: evil and to be cast out (i.e. condemned and stoned). This division into ‘clean and unclean’ is found in all cultures and subcultures. It is so pervasive, that even when we get it and choose to let go of seeing people in this way can soon find ourselves labelling those who continue to do it as unclean (of course we don’t use those terms though, we would more likely say they are judgemental or self-righteous.) And so we’re back in the game again.

Back to the gospel story – the unclean spirit reacts aggressively to Jesus.

That’s to be expected because they represent opposing power – Jesus gives life to people, the unclean spirit takes it away or controls it. Let’s say, for argument sake, that the bloke Jesus has met with the unclean spirit, was the synagogue treasurer and embezzled all its money. It shouldn’t be a surprise to us that he isn’t its most esteemed member. No, he is its most hated member, and has been cast out – he’s not even allowed to step foot in the synagogue. Yet he has weaselled his way back in. Maybe he’s wearing a wig and fake moustache to disguise himself, so no-one noticed him. But his disguise doesn’t fool Jesus, because his being hated by the synagogue members and cast out has transformed him, so he now sees himself as they see him. That is what ‘being possessed by an unclean spirit’ means. This man, this ex-treasurer, feels he is a non-person, that he doesn’t count. He has lost his worth as a person. What does that do to a person? One thing is it may drive them to grasp for power from others, in order to gain a sense of worth. Such people will be attracted to those they perceive able to dish out power to them. Those people will be both attractive and a threat to them. Hence the unclean spirit in the man challenges Jesus –virtually saying ‘what the hell do you want with me?’ He’s sussing out whether Jesus is a threat or a possible source of affirmation. He decides Jesus might restore his honour, if he shows deference to him, which he does by honouring him as ‘the Holy One of God’. But that is a priestly title for one with a role in the temple cult, which is a sacrificial institution. In other words, he’s saying to Jesus ‘I see you are a man with power to include me or cast me out of this community (synagogue)’. Jesus rebukes him, commanding him to be silent, for that is exactly what Jesus is not, as he does not operate within the clean/unclean perspective of rivalry and judgment, which sacrificial cultures and institutions do.

Jesus operates within the perspective of divine love, which is unconditional, so yes, Jesus can grant this man life, he can give him worth, restore his sense of value, not by judging him, but simply by affirming him as worthwhile. And that involves discounting and so dismantling the mechanism of judgement which labels him as unclean. That is Jesus’ authority. He can author life, write life, create life, through affirmation, through unconditional love: the power to encourage a person to be themselves, to create themself, create their life. That is the power of the Creator at work.

The healing of the man with the unclean spirit is a process of him being enabled to move from being dependent to interdependent. He became subject to the control of the synagogue (community) by depending on it as the source of his worth. In other words, if he was accepted by the synagogue, then he was acceptable, worthwhile as a human being; if he was rejected by the synagogue, then he was not. Such dependence worked for him as a child, when he had to depend on others for safety, security and direction, but continuing to live that way made him subject to the power of rivalry and judgment which brews within communities. Often when people realise they are dependent upon others and so subject to how they value them, for example, they react by becoming independent. Hence, the possessed man acts independently of the synagogue’s rejection of him, dons his wig and fake moustache and attempts to gain kudos from Jesus, but such attempts to get free of dependence by acting independently are doomed to fail, because the dependence is internal – the individual has adopted it as a way of coping with life. He depends on how others see him and how others treat him as the source of his worth, or lack of it. Reacting to external influences won’t free him. In the same way, if we depend upon the circumstances of our lives to dictate our worth, we shall not be free.

Being freed from the demon is being no longer run by culture or institution or life’s circumstances. Something like Jesus identifying the unclean spirit in the synagogue and casting it out of our lives, occurs for us when following his Way allows us to see when our dependence on others’ opinions of us, or dependence on life’s circumstances as dictating our worth, means we are being driven by them and not by ourselves. In showing us how these mechanisms work, the gospel writers are giving us a way of breaking free of them, so that we can allow the true author of life, the One who writes our life, to create us, by encouraging us to create ourselves, within relationships that are interdependent.

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.

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 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.

New life requires acceptance

New life requires acceptance

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Sunday after Ascension Day, 24 th May 2020

One of the hardest transitions in life can be the move from the way you want things to be, to the way they are, if they are not the same.

A book about how to be a parent to a teenager says that teenagers are a gift to their parents because they’re trying work out who they are in the world.

They’re a gift because their parents are usually about the age when they are going through the same process again. That’s because the parents are noticing that at least some of their dreams have not come true: thing haven’t turned out as they were meant to.

It’s a good thing to count your blessings. Probably more things go right and work out well than we acknowledge, yet we tend to take that for granted, and would all be happier if we paid attention to
that. That’s a good reason to have rituals for giving thanks for the good things, such as saying grace before meals and thanking God in our prayers. When we take everything that goes well for
granted, we may be ignoring how much others do for us, or the enormity of what is involved, for example, we can only eat a slice of bread because of all the people who grow and process the
grain, and beyond that lies the ecological processes and beyond that, the evolutionary processes.

Failure to express gratitude for good things may make our lives shallow, but failure to acknowledge the bad things can be worse. I don’t mean we should pay attention to every bad thing in our lives. It’s good if we can ignore a lot of that, but I’m referring to things which press on our spirit, such as when our dreams don’t work out, the loss of a job, or house, or money, or
perhaps regrets over something we did in the past. Bad things we have done or things that have happened to us, or have been done to us.

The usual way to deal with disappointments, grief and so on, is to redirect our desire, or let it go.

Benedictine sister, Joan Chittister, always wanted to be a creative writer, but her dream wasn’t granted. Through redirecting her energies, today she is one of the most read writers on spirituality.

When we can’t redirect though, we may have to let go. Let go of the dream, let go of our insistence that we achieve something, or that we be a certain type of person, or let go of our insistence that we be perfect, let go of our expectations of others. It’s good to want others to be their best, but we can take that too far, expect too much, and we all want others to treat us well, to be good parents, siblings, friends, partners or just human beings, but we’re all flawed, no-one is perfect.

It’s important that we continually forgive each other, because we all fall short of perfection. It helps to assume that others are as likely to be as imperfect as we are.

Letting go isn’t always easy when we’re dealing with something that really matters to us. I knew someone whose marriage had ended. She met a new man, but didn’t feel comfortable marrying him. She was stuck because she was holding on to two good things: one was her belief that marriage should be for life and the other was that she found a good bloke and wanted to marry him. She felt torn over which one to give up. I suggested neither.

In the New Testament, there are two Greek words which get translated as forgiveness, but neither of them actually mean what forgiveness means in English.

One means to set free from debt, as in forgive us our debts (in one version of the Lord’s Prayer).
The other means to walk on by and leave behind your obligations to act.

This was the case when the Greeks spoke of divorce as
‘forgiving a marriage’. In neither sense does forgiveness mean what the other person has done to you is to be forgotten. The emphasis is on setting the other (and yourself perhaps) free.

This means that forgiveness of others (and ourselves) allows us to continue holding the values we do, even as we release the other (or ourselves) from the consequences of failing to uphold them.

That woman could continue to believe that marriage is meant to last forever, while at the same time letting go of not achieving that, and then was free to marry her new man.

One of the strongest motivations for letting go of disappointment is that we get tired of it. The son of a mass murderer in England came to a point where he was tired of hating his father, despite what he’d done. It’s amazing how far we can go with this sometimes though – how weighed down we can be, how angry we can be, how much grief we can carry, before we are willing to let go.

Even dying may not be enough to force us to let go! A woman told me her dead husband kept appearing to her until she told him she had to go on without him.

Sometimes we need others to help us see that we have held on to something or someone for long enough.

Letting go is not always the answer though, in fact, I’m not sure it really ever is. Instead, what is needed is acceptance, which is like letting go, except that we retain something important about
what or who we were holding on to, and it is that which allows us to move on.

For example, when someone who is dear to us dies, we don’t want to let go of them, but if we ‘give them to God’, we haven’t really let them go, because through God, we remain connected to them. Wherever God is (which is everywhere), they are too, so instead of letting go, we are accepting that things are different. That doesn’t take away our grief, but may help us to grieve. We leave them ‘in God’s
hands, always close to our hearts’.

Last Thursday was Ascension Day, celebrating Jesus’ ascension into heaven. (see Acts 1:6-14).
Jesus rises into the sky, symbolically portraying his passing into heaven (for it’s a state not a place). That means he will no longer be present to his disciples in one place and one time, but will
be present in all places and times, and therefore always available as the divine Spirit within them.

It is because he will be with them in this new way that his disciples can cope with the loss of his old form of presence. They aren’t letting him go. They are accepting that what he was before will become something new. Giving him to God is allowing him to become more present to them. The one who was significant to them in times and places past, is freed from that, to become significant to them in an eternal sense.

In the same way, when we accept things in our lives that are not as we wish them to be, it allows them to be freed from the significance they had at one time and place, to acquire a new, eternal significance.

In that, the past, the person, the dream, even the mistake or failing, is not lost, but out of it, God creates something new for us.

That means a person is not someone who is just a successful writer
in spirituality, but a successful writer who once wanted to be a creative writer. Someone is not just a single person now, but someone who lost a partner, yet carries on. Those losses, wounds,
regrets, even failings, aren’t gone, they’re transformed, just as Jesus, present with us as the living Spirit of life, still bears the scars of crucifixion. Those things which we so wish weren’t in our lives,
are an important part of us. They help make us who we are, and are transformed into blessings if we can accept them, which is what allowing them to ‘ascend into heaven’ means.

What we believe can make us more or less receptive to God

What we believe can make us more or less receptive to God

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Sixth Sunday of Easter, 17th May, 2020

Some years ago, a six year old girl named Lulu wrote a letter to God and asked her parents to post it. Being atheists, they struggled to know how to respond. In the end, they sent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury, at that time being Rowan Williams.

Lulu’s letter went like this: ‘To God, how did you get invented? From Lulu xo’.

This was the Archbishop’s reply: Dear Lulu, your dad has sent on your letter and asked if I have any answers. It’s a difficult one! But I think God might reply a bit like this –

‘Dear Lulu – Nobody invented me – but lots of people discovered me and were quite surprised. They discovered me when they looked round at the world and thought it was really beautiful or really mysterious and wondered where it came from. They discovered me when they were very very quiet on their own and felt a sort of peace and love they hadn’t expected.

Then they invented ideas about me – some of them sensible and some of them not very sensible. From time to time I sent them some hints – specially in the life of Jesus – to help them get closer to what I’m really like. But there was nothing and nobody around before me to invent me. Rather like somebody who writes a story in a book, I started making up the story of the world and eventually invented human beings like you who could ask me awkward questions!’ And then he’d send you lots of love and sign off. I know he doesn’t usually write letters, so I have to do the best I can on his behalf. Lots of love from me too. +Archbishop Rowan

Lulu’s father said he was touched by this more than he would have imagined. His scepticism about religion and his cynicism about the Anglican Church, didn’t dissolve, but he said that these things were quite easily put to the side in the face of the Archbishop’s kindness and wisdom. He had won his respect. As for Lulu, the letter went down well. She particularly liked the idea of ‘God’s story’. Although she said she had very different ideas, she thought the archbishop’s ideas were good.

A good thing about others asking about God, is that it’s a chance to clarify what God is for us. That was the case for St. Paul, upon finding an altar to an unknown God in Athens (Acts 17:22ff). Paul begins his response by noting how ‘extremely religious’ the people of Athens were, thus respecting their openness to more than they already understood or accepted, although his comment that they were ‘extremely religious’ can also mean ‘superstitious’. Such intentional ambiguity would be appropriate in regard to our society too, where religion is very much alive and well, yet much of it is of questionable value. I’m not just talking about organised religion, but all that functions in a religious manner, such as sport, nationalism, and worship of the self, for example. Paul uses the opportunity of the altar to an unknown god to introduce his beliefs about God to the people of Athens, and we are given the condensed version of his speech. Paul may have been simply trying to win people to his cause, but probably not, for there is much more at stake in sharing religious beliefs, e.g. in those days Christianity offered a way of deliverance from at least some forms of oppression. Beliefs can change lives.

There are situations in which it is appropriate for Christians to challenge existing beliefs or practices, but perhaps the most important contribution of Christian belief to our society is the simple sharing of ideas for people to consider. In this way people don’t ‘get’ converted, but may convert themselves (not necessarily to following Jesus, but converted to the same values he held). That doesn’t necessarily mean arriving at particular beliefs, but hopefully becoming more human.

The example of Lulu and the archbishop is a good one, where neither she nor her parents finished up believing what the archbishop believed, but did change their beliefs or their attitudes in response to his. And he no doubt, was affected by Lulu’s invitation. This is why often when we read scripture, the best outcome may be not what answers or further insights we get, but what questions are raised for us. Rather than being filled with more information, our minds and hearts are stretched.

When it comes to believing in God, there isn’t really one view, even within Christianity, so it’s pointless asking exactly what it is that Christians believe. In the bible, even within a single psalm, there can be contradictory statements about God. For this reason, Christianity isn’t so much a set of beliefs about God, as a set of rules to guide our formulation of beliefs about God. The church is therefore the community of people who use those rules. Like a game of footy, even though everyone plays by the same rules, it doesn’t mean their experience will be the same.

Beliefs are not the most important thing though. What matters most is how we act (for ourselves and also in relation to others) as well as how we connect with God, however, as six year old Lulu knew, what we actually believe still matters. If we are going to pray, for example, we need a God we are comfortable praying to. So, what rules help us believe in a God we are comfortable with? And by comfortable, I include room for a degree of discomfort, in the same way that a relationship with someone you love includes being challenged to become more.

When it comes to rules for shaping beliefs, the number one rule for me is the notion that here is only one God. The importance of that is that if there’s only one God, then there are no other gods, which means God has no competition. If that’s the case, then has God has no opponents which threaten, so God is therefore not against anything or anyone, either needing to remove them or defend against them. In short, God does not engage in rivalry. That means God’s love is for all. God is not on anyone’s side more than anyone else’s, although people may put themselves offside with God by engaging in rivalry themselves. If God does not engage in rivalry, then our value and the meaning of our lives are set, and we have no need to compete with others or pursue approval from others. We are free to be what God created us to be and free of our need for everything and everyone to be as we want. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves loved more by God, so we are free of guilt and shame for our shortfalls and also free to make mistakes as we explore how to be human with each other.

God’s unconditional love both exposes how we are caught up in rivalry and sets us free from it. If we are truly open to what that means, we must accept that we share in the human condition with every other person, and so in regard to our standing before God and our worth as individuals, we are no better than others, and those we judge worse than ourselves are not judged in that way by God. For that reason, by engaging in rivalry with them through our judgement, we close ourselves off from God’s love and the freedom it empowers us with. By judging others, we make judgement the source of our value and meaning. And in so doing, have moved away from belief in one God to idolatry.

Giving up our engagement in rivalry and allowing ourselves to be set free from its grip on us, does not mean that what we do and what others do doesn’t matter. We still have to find ways of responding to abuse and oppression that lessens harm and requires responsibility be taken, but that is different to judging the worth of ourselves and others, and the meaning of our lives.