Thursday, 26 November 2020

Sunday 22nd November 2020 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory …”


The First Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23     The Gospel Reading & Preaching of the Word: Matthew 25:31-46  “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.”

The service this Sunday morning was one of those magical times when we all left the service feeling that God was really there with us – yes even online there was a magic glue that held all the elements of the service together to highlight the messages of the service in a way no one person could have foreseen.  I just love it when this happens and I am sure it happens sometimes for just one or two people and that is important - but sometimes it is so obvious we all share the magic.  As the service unfolded we heard from Davyn from the Parramatta Mission who was to have visited Marsden Road Uniting Church in March to tell us about the joy that had been shared when around 700 people had joined together at the mission for Christmas dinner in 2019.  Many “dinner plates” had been donated by people from our church family and we were eager to hear the good news story of God’s love being shared as people in need were fed and welcomed with love.

Then came “the virus” and almost every plan was disrupted. For so many essential charities who struggle to care for increased numbers of people in need, the challenges have increased and the environment has become more trying.

However, finally Davyn was able to join us online this Sunday morning and he shared the joy of last Christmas and the plans being prepared for this rather different Christmas.  We were all moved by the story he told of one lady he met at lunch, who has now been associated with the mission for more than 20 years; after having met Jesus there as a destitute woman who had been homeless and dependent on drugs which she was introduced to in her home at the age of 12.   Davyn told us that on hearing her story last year his Christmas became extra special – he said he felt as excited as he had been at Christmas when he was a young child.  As he watched this changed lady sitting and talking to a homeless lady and passing on the hope that Jesus had brought to her life years ago, he felt overwhelmed to watch God’s love and hope at work.

At the Parramatta Mission this Christmas, there are some wonderful plans being organised to once again be able to spread hope and joy - while following “virus rules”.  There will be no lunch for 700 people, but homeless people will be “pampered” for two weeks with haircuts and other grooming and well-being appointments, medical help and “Meaningful Gifts” – which are virtual gifts that supporters of the work of the mission can give to their family and friends who will receive a card describing their gift and the boost to the self-respect and hope the actual gift will bring to the homeless person or other person in need who will actually receive the gift.  You might like to look at the Parramatta Mission Website and “buy” a virtual gift you could give to someone “who has everything” and may enjoy together, sharing with someone who needs it much more.

The magic continued to build as the Rev. John read the well-known Gospel reading from Matthew 25 as a prelude to his Reflection/Sermon;  … for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

“God equips us with the gifts and not all of us have the same gifts, but all of us have gifts important to God. The life of faith is about finding and using these gifts to carry on Christ's work in the world.

Yet often it seems to be just too much. There are too many hungry and poor and lonely people for us to make any difference.”

Photo by Matt Collamer Unsplash

Because of the “magic” I was feeling - I watched Davyn’s face and could tell that he was getting excited about the way this so long delayed service had been arranged on just the right day and was giving us all the inspiration that could just help to make this Christmas very special for the strangers, the prisoners, the poor and the hungry and lonely people.   

In his Sermon the Rev John asked the question; “What is the ministry of the laity?” and he gave us the answer; “The ministry of lay people is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given to them, to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.  ...according to the gifts given them …  Yet often it seems to be just too much. There are too many hungry and poor and lonely people for us to make any difference.”  Of course we have all felt and expressed the frustration of feeling inadequate when it comes to making a difference to a bad situation.

Then the Rev. John told a story about a young boy who was working hard at the beach at dawn to save thousands of starfish that had been stranded on the beach during the night – a good story to inspire us to at least try and make a difference to someone and to show us that if we do nothing – nothing will happen; but if we stand on the beach and throw back some starfish before the sun comes up and they die on the beach – we will have made a difference to those few that we saved.  I could see that Davyn and all the other listeners in the Zoom Gallery were inspired to do something to make those in trouble safer.  

As at 13 November 2020 there were 12,866 inmates in full-time custody in NSW prisons and in-person family visits have been suspended since March to ensure the safety of staff and prisoners.  This strategy has worked, with only one confirmed case in the prison population – yet what has been the mental cost?  Coincidentally it was announced that Covid-Safe In-person visits would commence from the next day, the 23 November 2020.  I did not hear about this on the TV, the radio or the news this week – I asked Google!

Along with renewed optimistic reports of advances in the science and the production of covid 19 vaccinations as this week has advanced; there have been other more widely rejoiced changes to the government’s covid “rules” and other positive signs to bring hope to people in need of relief of all kinds. 

Since March my husband and I have particularly mourned the death of three beautiful gentlemen – all in their 10th decade.  Although they did not know each other, each has at times been part of our lives or part of an extended family through marriage.  I was very sad when a beautiful man from our little church died quite early in the piece when a total of only five people, plus the minister and the funeral people could attend a funeral - because we all wanted to celebrate and share his funeral with his family – we are a Church Family at Marsden Road Church.  So all I could think to do to share the feelings of our Church Family was to go to the church when the door was closed at the appointed time and keep an informal prayer vigil while strolling back and forth along Marsden Road as the traffic rushed noisily past.

The second funeral we attended was on-line and took place in Victoria during the recent sad “second wave” outbreak and even the man’s sisters were unable to be among the 10 people who could attend.  Shortly after the service started, the streaming was interrupted and after looking at a blank screen for some minutes the first part of the service was repeated.  Then, just as the eulogies and the family photo presentation were to begin, the streaming failed altogether and we were left with the sad frozen image of those ten people who were sitting apart and uncomforted in the family church in Victoria that their 96 year old father had helped to plan and build.

Yesterday under the new “rules” which allow up to 100 people suitably separated, to attend a funeral, I was able to attended my first Covid-Safe funeral at Eastwood Uniting Church.  It was such a relief to be allowed to be in the presence of the family as they celebrated the life of their beautiful kind and loving 93 year old father, grandfather, great-grandfather and friend of many people the family would not under the previous “rules” have even known admired and cared for him and supported them in their sadness.

A great-grandson of around 11 years old read a version of Isaiah 40:28-31 which I cannot identify, but I just loved to hear those words coming from the child, who will hopefully inherit the strength of character and kindness of his great-grandfather even if his memory of him grows faint with time.

“Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? God doesn’t come and go. God is Creator in all you can see and imagine. God doesn’t get tired, doesn’t pause to catch breath. God knows everything, inside and out.  God energises those who get tired, gives fresh energy to dropouts.  Because even young people tire and drop out, young people in their prime stumble and fall.  But those who wait upon God get fresh strength.  They spread their wings and soar like eagles.  They run and don’t get tired.  They walk and don’t lag behind.”

As this week has moved on - my heart has certainly been touched by the possibilities of 2021 being a better and safer year in Australia and hopefully in the whole world.  As I went for my walk yesterday afternoon and looked again at all the lovely jacaranda trees I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in the Blog, it reminded that God is not hiding – we can see and share his glory everyday – but we humans are sometimes too busy to stop and look; so today I took my camera on my walk and several people stopped to talk and admire the beauty of the world with me and we shared just a few minutes of simple joy. 

Thursday, 19 November 2020

“For it is as if a man …” Matthew 25:14-30


First I want to remind myself and others that in reflecting on Sunday’s sermon about the parable of the talents, our Leader Dermot stressed; that the “timid slave” in the story was to be thrown; ‘into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’.  He then said; “As a 21st century Aussie. (Inevitably, I read into the parable an idea that we are meant to substitute God for the owner.) This doesn’t sound like the God of grace and love I know.”


Next I want to go straight to the end of the Reflection so thoughtfully delivered (via Zoom) and suggest that Dermot, like some of the rest of us, is perhaps weary of trying to sort out the deep thoughts of 2,000 years of trying to come to terms, with the true messages of God which were recorded as parables and churned over year after year as we try to follow God’s ways and his thinking.


In talking about the parable of the talents Dermot shared his love of sitting quietly away from life’s turmoils and just “being with God” at the place in his life where he is at a particular time.  On this theme he said about Sunday’s Parable of the Talents; “But maybe this parable has a message for us personally and for the church today. Things are changing about us and maybe, in some way, we need to switch off the power which we are using, and glide for a time, trusting that in God’s support we will hear and become aware of new ways of being.

“And in doing that, we might allow the message of the parable to emerge – let us not hold back on the grace and love of God out of fear for what we have.  Let’s not try to protect the church from the world. Let’s take risks.  As Bill Loader (Rev Emeritus Professor William R. G. Loader BA (Auckl) BD (Otago) Dr theol (Mainz, Germany) FAHA, Emeritus Professor at Murdoch University) points towards – lets ‘allow the life of God to flow through us’. Let’s release the Spirit from any ropes and chains which we place upon it by our own expectations.  Let’s rejoice in the possibilities of the future. God is offering the “talents” – we need to have the courage and love to use them.  Amen”


I have a special memory of a “girlie” afternoon spent with my mother in front of the Kosi coke burning stove, with her patiently teaching me to knit a pink woollen baby bonnet in the popular feather and fan pattern.   It was only due to my mother’s great patience that I had eventually mastered the art of plain and purl knitting so that I could finish my knitted squares with the same number of stitches on each row as I had started off with; Mum was prepared to sit with me and guide my efforts to make something pretty and useful to be sold at the church fete that was planned for the spring.


As I look back at that happy afternoon, I realise that my mother was probably really eager to get back to her own effort for a new church project which was quite innovative and must have been the subject of much vigorous discussion in the St. Andrew’s Strathfield church meetings before the launching of “The Talents Project”. 


I was probably about 11 at the time and this idea made quite an impression on me as I heard the ideas and saw the enthusiasm of the people from the church as they took on the responsibility of “looking after” God’s talents and increasing them to be returned with a healthy bonus at the end of the time that had been decided for the church’s chosen project.  I don’t know if everyone started with the same amount of money being ‘given’ by the Parish Council, but I do remember that my mother had an amount of ₤5; which in the 1950s was $10 of today’s money, although the buying power of that amount was considerably greater.  However, I do remember that if you wished you could keep ‘investing’ your profit to become appreciated as a “good and faithful servant/slave”. 


Certainly there was no talk of being “thrown into outer darkness or weeping and gnashing of teeth” if your enterprise failed; although I did wonder if some lazy ‘slaves’ took the easy way out and just made a donation at the end so they would not be seen by their peers to have failed. 


For many of the church congregation it was an exciting time of sharing their gifts or talents and buying and selling all kinds of products as they contributed to the overall project.  There was much interest in the sweet little 4 or 5 cm ‘baby’ dolls which my mother bought by the dozens and dressed in perfectly scaled baby dresses with ribbons, lace and embroidered rosebuds.  The dolls also had little pink or blue jackets, bootees and bonnets with narrow ribbons and they were very much in demand.  Some of the dolls were dressed in complete miniature knitted layettes and it was good to watch my mother’s pleasure as her “talents” were recognised. 


My father was away in the navy at the time so my mother enjoyed “playing” with her lovely little dolls and it was good to see her excitement as her project grew, although I cannot remember the amount of profit she actually made for the chosen project. 


The memory of that “girlie” afternoon with mum is still quite vivid so that I can almost feel the warmth and the sensation of safety and protection as my 11- year- old self looked out the window at the wind-blown garden, now being soaked with icy rain.  We were certainly not rich – but it was a comforting feeling to know that we had enough of everything needed for our family – with just a little to share with others who had less.  


This was about the time I began to realise that some kids did not have all the advantages that my brothers and I enjoyed.  My brother John had one friend whose father was a cranky drunk who abused his mother - and he had another friend who was one of 13 children.  In his home there was not nearly enough money coming into the house to feed and clothe them all properly and sometimes his friend had to stay home while his pants were washed and he often had bare feet.  So the church project was a timely lesson in the satisfaction of using your gifts to help people in need.


Good News!  I am happy to say that Margaret has now come home from hospital and rehabilitation and after three operations and many months of tedious recovery she is beginning to feel much stronger.  On Tuesday, she and her husband were even able to join a group of around twenty Marsden Road Church members for a casual picnic lunch in a local park.  I am so grateful for the way hospitality and friendship has survived and grown during the difficult times for our close church community. 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Sunday 8th November 2020 “At that time Jesus said …”

 The First Reading:  1 Thessalonians 4:13-18     

The Gospel Reading & Preaching of the Word: Matthew 25:1-13

On Sunday 8th November, the highlight for me was the Hymn TIS 154: 

Great is your faithfulness”

“Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father; 

there is no shadow of turning with thee;

thou changest not, thy compassions, they fail not; 

as thou hast been thou forever wilt be. 


Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness! 

Morning by morning new mercies I see:

All I have needed thy hand hath provided--

Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!


The history of this hymn is not long, but it brings into our hearts and souls a feeling of comfort in the everlasting and predictable faithfulness of God and the joy of hope with the dawn of each new day - and the faith we can have that everything will continue to “be right with the world” as long as God is in control.


It is once again that beautiful time of year when the jacaranda trees splash our streets with riots of purple to be admired against perfect blue skies.  November again! As I stand on my front patio and look out I wonder at the miracle that unfailingly unfolds each year and I cannot believe that another year has gone by already.  I find I measure time differently as I grow older and I take time to enjoy these annual miracles instead of rushing thoughtlessly by.  I was really excited a few years ago when one of our daughters showed me a photo she had taken of a beautiful rose she had seen in the garden of Auguste Rodin in Paris.  “I remembered you told me before I left for my trip to ‘take time to smell the roses’ so this rose reminded me of your advice,” she said.  We often wonder if our children of whatever age take notice of those “throw away” bits of advice on life which we randomly scatter to the wind.

Hymns are like prayers and I think the reason why everything seems to fit together with such complete harmony in “How Great is Thy Faithfulness” is because the writer of this beautiful poem/hymn, Thomas Obediah Chisholm, sent it to his friend, the musician William Bunyan who felt the strength and the joy of the words and prayed for guidance that he might write the perfect tune to help others to experience the same feelings that overcame him when he read his friend’s poem.  William Bunyan first published the hymn in 1923, but strangely, it was not until the Billy Graham Crusades began to travel the world with George Beverly Shea making the hymn “his own” as he and the Crusade choirs introduced the beautiful words and music to “old” and “new” Christians around the world that its popularity grew.  Thomas Chisholm died in 1960 and in his lifetime he wrote 1,200 poems and hymns.


Perhaps you have noticed that I have been avoiding moving on to write about the theme of the reflection/sermon on Sunday 8th November.  The Parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids has worried me for many decades now – in fact it has upset me since I was a child. I have read and tried to appreciate and understand the various theologically accepted meanings of the parable – yet it still suppresses my faith and assurance about the love and forgiveness of God.  It is a negative effect all round for me - as are some other rather harsh bible stories; although I must confess I am not a person who spends long periods of time in bible studies.  My faith is strong – but simple.  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” 1 John 4: 8-9


Please stop reading now if I have offended you; but if you read on I would like to offer my suggestions and “alternate” thinking about the story which begins with such authority; “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”  Then the story is told and the conclusion is; in verses 12 and 13; But he (the Lord) replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”


In my 20th and 21st century thinking, I can’t help wondering why any of the bridesmaids wasted their oil by keeping their lamps alight while they were waiting and falling asleep. 


It would surely have been a better idea to keep just a few of their lamps burning for safety or to make themselves visible to the bridegroom in the place where they waited.  Then there would have been oil still available to be shared when the bridegroom arrived.  Or alternatively the wise bridesmaids could have taken the arm of their less prepared companions and showed them the way to the bridal feast along with the bridegroom.  I am rather shocked that the wise bridesmaids were selfish and made no attempt to share their light to go and meet God.  I get a little confused when I view this story alongside the one told only in Luke’s Gospel, where servants were sent out twice “to the highways and byways” to bring in strangers to replace those who ungraciously failed to attend or made insulting excuses.  Going back to the story told this week, I am appalled to contemplate that those bridesmaids who had failed to make contingency plans in case the bridegroom was late were to be shut out by God with no chance of forgiveness. 


In his sermon, the Rev. John said; “The foolish attendants were unprepared. They ran out of oil and were unable to obtain more. So, when their moment came, they lost the opportunity to help light the way. They were unable to act out their appointed role in the community. They lost the chance even to witness the wedding.


I am puzzled by the context of the following thoughts that the Rev. John expressed next; “Over and over again Jesus shows us what God is like. Today, he illustrates the truth that God takes no vacations. God never takes a break from offering love to us graciously. God is always prepared. God never stops forgiving us. God never ceases to watch over us. God never rests from the desire that we follow in his way. God never lets up on loving us, no matter how much we may rebel and stray. God is always ready.”


I am not saying that I do not agree with all those positive remarks about God’s love, forgiveness, constant care, presence and Grace – I am just saying that I still have problems with the thought that because we do not know when God will come; isn’t it possible that some good people may not be ready at the exact moment God comes?  I just have difficulties believing that God will shut us out in the cold and the dark and will unequivocally reject us for ever if we are not ready when He comes.


In my search for an answer to my questioning of the parables and their interpretations I have read some articles on Jesus' Ministry and Teaching.  If you have a computer and are interested, here is the link from which I will record a couple of short quotes that I found interesting.


John Dominic Crossan: Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies DePaul University.  He has written eighteen books on the historical Jesus and earliest Christianity. 


He asked the question: Is this [style of teaching] unique to Jesus?


“The parables are unique only in a very limited sense, in that the primary teaching of Jesus is not taking texts out of the Hebrew scriptures and explaining them, blasting them, commenting on them. What he is doing is telling a perfectly ordinary story. And using that as the major teaching. "The Kingdom of God is like this." Now you have to think, well, I hear the story, but how on earth is the Kingdom of God like that? That's your job as the hearer. So it's open to anyone. And that's, I think, the point of the parable.”


The next question: So right from the start his teaching depends on interpretation?


“If you teach in parables, you give yourself to interpretation. If you really want to tell people what to think you preach them a sermon. If you tell them a parable then you're leaving yourself open, inevitably, to interpretation.”


In the same way I worry about having to interpret parables; I question the work of artists whose paintings or sculptures require me to stand in the art gallery and listen to a long recording on a hired electronic device which explains what the artist was trying to express.


I think I will play the Youtube recording of Thomas Chisholm’s beautiful hymn once more and “sign off” with the thought: 


“Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!  Morning by morning new mercies I see:

All I have needed thy hand hath provided--Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!”