Here is the text of the sermon preached at Ascot Vale Uniting Church on the 23rd of September, 2018, but also the liturgy that I prepared for the service. In case it’s of interest to people. (I have added a couple of explanatory notes throughout.)
Gathering to Worship
Welcome | Acknowledgement of Covenant and Country
In the ancient stories of the Jewish tradition, the tradition out of which Christianity emerged, and receives much of its wisdom, the figure of Moses looms large. God called Moses by appearing in a burning bush.
God spoke to Moses and told him to remove his shoes, for the place on which he stood was sacred. The presence of God made the land sacred.
The Uniting Church recognises that:
‘The First Peoples of this country had already encountered the Creator God before the arrival of the colonisers; the Spirit was already in [this] land revealing God to the people through law, custom and ceremony.’
The presence of God made the land sacred.
‘The same love and grace that was finally and fully revealed in Jesus Christ sustained the First Peoples and gave them particular insights into God’s ways.’
As we gather in this place, we give thanks for the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation.
We acknowledge the commitment their ancestors made, across the generations, to nurturing this sacred Land. We acknowledge their elders: past, present, and emerging. We acknowledge the need for reconciliation.
The churches that formed the Uniting Church arrived in Australia as part of the process of colonisation.
Some members of the uniting churches approached the First Peoples with good intentions, standing with them in the name of justice.
Many in the uniting churches, however, were complicit in injustice.
[Moment of Silence]
Lord, have mercy
Christ, have mercy.
Together, may we walk into the future. Recognising the sacred footsteps that continue to lead us to reconciliation and renewal, which is the end in view for the whole creation. Amen.
Call to Worship
God was present before us
And made this holy ground
God is present with us
And calls us all together
God is present ahead of us
And leads us into the future
We are in the presence of God
And respond to God’s voice with joy
Hymn - TIS 683 - Come as you are
Candle lighting is a practice Ascot Vale Uniting Church traditionally do as part of their service. It is what it sounds like: an opportunity to sit, reflect, walk up the front and light a candle, share a thought, or a prayer. It’s a really lovely centering practice, which is usually accompanied by music. The song on Sunday was:
Prince - Welcome 2 the Dawn
The question for me leading the service is how I hold the candle lighting, while moving into the rest of the service. For this reason I’ve become a fan of an invocation prayer, to acknowledge that I’m drawing together the wisdom and experience of others; while also reminding us that we direct our concerns to God. For this Sunday I borrowed the opening section of Padraig O Tauma’s “In the Name.”
“In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of goodness and love and broken community.
In the name of meaning and feeling and I hope you don’t screw me…
In the name of darkness and light and ungraspable twilight
In the name of mealtimes and sharing and caring by firelight
In the name of action and peace and human redemption
In the name of eating and drinking and table confession
In the name of sadness, regret, and holy obsession,
The holy name of anger, the spirit of aggression
In the name of forgive and forget and I hope I get over this
In the name of father and son and the holy spirit”
Hymn - ATO 413 - The Summons
Hearing The Word
Setting the Theme
Receiving and Giving Hospitality
For the Word of the Lord we hear in Scripture.
Thanks be to God.
God, help me to welcome your wisdom with my words; and help those that listen to shut out what is foolish. Amen.
I want to begin by pointing out a particular point in today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel. After Jesus predicts that he will be betrayed and killed, we are told that the disciples “did not understand … and were afraid to ask.” Can I begin my sermon by urging you, strongly: don’t be like the disciples! If you don’t understand, do not be afraid to ask. I am more than happy to sit down and have a chat about any concerns or questions that you have related to anything I say from up here. As I have noted in previous weeks, I wear this preaching scarf to remind myself, and to signal to all of you, that I am up the front performing a task for which I am responsible. So don’t be like the disciples: always ask questions.
Indeed, much of how I understand my role as a preacher is to ask good question. To look at a short text, like we have from Mark’s Gospel, and to ask what speaks to us from the text? What, after all, is important in what this text says? What does it mean when Jesus says that greatness comes through welcoming children, and being a servant?
For me, much of my Christian faith is about asking a lot of questions. And, hopefully, trying to offer some tentative answers.
Today’s reading comes after the story of the transfiguration - which happens to be one of my favourite sections of Mark’s Gospel. In response to Peter’s confession that Jesus is, in fact, the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, Jesus goes up a mountain to reveal his glory. Glowing white, Jesus appears angelic, as if giving a foretaste, a preview of the coming resurrection.
The story of the transfiguration seems to have been one of the more well-known, and often told stories floating around early Christian communities. It appears in all four of the Gospels (although it’s rather subtle in John), it appears in 2 Peter, and seems to form some of the influence on Paul’s re-reading of Exodus 34 in 2 Corinthians 3. In each of these recorded instances the story of the transfiguration is connected with a discussion of the glory of God, and what it means to see this glory.
Mark’s reworking of the transfiguration story, in his account of the life of Jesus, tries to shift the assumptions we are prone to make about what the glory of God looks like. While on top of the mountain the glory of God seems to be what we expect: glowing white, great angelic figures of Jewish history, God’s voice booming from a cloud. And yet, at the bottom of the mountain Jesus encounters and heals a demon-possessed boy. The glory of God at the bottom of the mountain looks at the suffering child, and brings liberation and healing, in the difficult experiences of life.
This context of two visions of glory: one glowing and angelic, the other messy and painful, frame the reading we have today. The disciples failing to understand Jesus predicting his own suffering and death. The disciples arguing over who would was the greatest. Are both after signs of the conflict between the understanding of God’s glory that many people assume, and the new vision of God’s glory that is offered to us in the person of Jesus.
It must be admitted at this point that Jesus’ reference to himself as “The Son of Man,” does not exactly help with the confusion. This term “Son of Man” comes from the book of Daniel. Where Daniel’s fantastical vision imagines the rise and fall of empires as horrifying beasts, with wings, and claws, and teeth. The Son of Man is sent against these beasts to save God’s people and restore peace, justice, and order to the world.
The disciples seem to have transferred this expectation onto Jesus. Jesus was, somehow, this figure - this Son of Man - that would save God’s people from the beasts of empire, and overthrow the Roman occupation. And yet Jesus own words are confusing: Jesus identifies himself with the Son of Man, and yet doesn’t talk of conquest, but talks of death. Jesus doesn’t talk about victory, but of betrayal.
Was Jesus the Son of Man many Jews expected? Or was he going to be handed over, betrayed, given up: killed? How was that path going to help anyone?
The disciples were afraid to ask.
Instead, maintaining the hope of shining glory the disciples argued about who among them was the greatest. Who was the most likely to share in the glory of God - the glory Jesus would ultimately bring.
It is at this point that the we really see the reinterpretation of glory, the new vision of glory, that Jesus offers us. And it runs counter to what the disciples had assumed.
Greatness … is about welcome. It is about serving. It is about embracing children. Opening ourselves us to being last of all and servant of all.
When Jesus embraces and welcomes the child we must understand how deeply this simple act goes.
We are accustomed to understanding the importance and value of children. And yet, it was not so long ago that children in the West were forced to labour in factories, risking injury and illness. (Tragically this still happens around the world today.) Many have talked about the “invention” of the child, as a way of recognising that the value we place on children and childhood has not been a reality throughout all of culture and history, but developed more recently.
The value of children in the ancient world must be understood through this lens: one’s own children mattered deeply, children in one’s own family mattered deeply, but children were less than adults. They mattered less than adults: they had no value for broader society yet.
Jesus embracing a child was not simply an act of kindness. In the act of embrace Jesus asks his disciples to set aside their pride, to sit with the lowly, to think of others not based on their perceived value to society.
What Jesus offers us in his life and teaching is a new vision of the glory of God. This is what we see in today’s reading. A vision of God that doesn’t look up, to the top of a glowing mountain. But looks down, at the suffering in the world, at those who are put last, at children.
The vision of glory that Jesus offers us is one of humility, and service. And, ultimately, of hospitality.
Counter the vision of Jesus the Messiah, who will descend from the “clouds of heaven, one like a Son of Man” … Jesus goes the way of the cross. Counter the vision of God’s glory that will overthrow the Roman occupation through military strength. The glory of God is found in the battered, and bloodied, and weakness of the cross.
Attempts to try and prove, once and for all, that Jesus was the all-powerful, all-knowing God above miss the central point of the cross. If you want to understand what it means for Jesus to not only be the Son of Man, but also the Son of God, then you don’t go looking for glory: you go looking for the least, the last, the humble one who embraces the child, the suffering one who welcomes the leper and possessed. If you want to know what God’s glory really looks like, you find it in the form of a servant.
Before I had written this sermon I titled it ‘On the Hospitality of God.’ My intention was to explore how the welcome Jesus offers to the child gives us an insight into the way that God welcomes us. I still think this is true. We receive from God in Christ an unconditional word of welcome.
But I think it is important not simply to say nice things - like, you are welcomed, and loved, and righteous, and good. -- which you are. I think it is also important to try to understand that the welcome we receive from God is offered to us by Christ himself, we receive the welcome of God by participating in the life of Christ.
What, for me, is even more exciting about the welcome we are offered by God, is that we receive this welcome by offering it to others. We become the greatest not simply when we see Christ as the great servant, but when we become servants. We are offered a welcome from God, when we offer a welcome to least, the last, the suffering, and the child.
When we welcome the child, we welcome Christ, and the God who sent Christ. When we welcome those who are outcast by society, we welcome Christ, and the God who sent Christ.
The heartbeat of the Gospel, the word of welcome that God offers us, is made possible because we find God in Jesus. As the writer Brian Zahnd has put it: “Jesus is not like God, rather God is like Jesus.” Because God is like Jesus, God’s glory is seen in the embrace of the vulnerable: there we find new life. The welcome we offer those in need - refugees, queer folk, the homeless, and unemployed, and suffering - the welcome we offer is not about simply about our giving and their receiving. In the welcome we offer them, we receive our own salvation, we receive back our humanity. We have no choice but to participate in this ongoing movement of God, as God’s unconditional word of welcome pours out further, and further into the world.
To welcome the child is not a nicety. It is the very road to redemption. It is the very glory of God. It is way of Christ: who gives himself up to vulnerability, that we might be welcomed into an encounter with the living God.
May we all be caught up in this ongoing life.
Prayer of Confession
We offer thanks and praise, O God,
because you have created and sustained us
and all things.
And yet we have at times forgotten
Forgotten the unconditional welcome you offer us
Forgotten the love we owe others in turn
We have at times ignored the call of God
In the voices of those who need care in our community
In the voices of those who are suffering in our world
We have at times failed to build each other up
By not living together in simple friendship
By not living in a way that embraces love and forgiveness
Hear us O God,
Declaration of Forgiveness
Friends, hear Christ’s word of grace to us:
You are welcomed into the love and life of God
Live in this love
Our sins are forgiven.
Thanks be to God.
Hymn - TIS 607 - Make me a channel of your peace
The peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Prayers of the People | Lord's Prayer
During the prayers of the people I firmly believe that the congregation are the people, and it is their concerns that should be reflected back to themselves, and in doing so brought to God. And so I leave an open microphone for people to come up and share their thoughts and concerns. (This week the Church Officer also very wisely roved with the mic to include some of the less able-bodied in the congregation — which, to be honest, I should have been more attuned to.) I then close off with the Lord’s Prayer.
… who taught us to pray:
Our Father in Heaven,
The Sending Out of the People of God
Hymn - ATO 313 - Christ be our Light
Benediction and Sending Forth
May the Lord give your journey mercy
May you be successful, grant you favour
And bring you back safely, God loves you.
Go in peace,
Welcoming others into the life of God,
Love and serve the Lord
In the name of Christ