Tuesday, 12 May 2020

Some thoughts about what worship may look like following the COVID-19 pandemic

As I write these reflections in early May of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in many places in the world.  Here in Australia, the “curve” of new infections is beginning to flatten, while most restrictions on physical contact and public gatherings have (intelligently) not been significantly eased yet in most states, although a process for the gradual easing of restrictions has been announced.

One area of life affected by these restrictions is the worship life of churches and other faith communities.  I doubt if many of us would have predicted at the beginning of this year that almost all worship services in Australia would have moved online for a significant part of this year.  In any event, it’s good to see the extent to which the move of worship online was well accepted by worshippers, compared to the reactions among some (admittedly extreme) groups in the United States.

In this regard, I’d like to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on worship and, in particular, to suggest some ways in which the experiences of the pandemic may affect our worship in the time after restrictions start to be eased.  My reflection is based on my own experience as a Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia, now retired, who has served both as a minister to congregations and as an ecumenical staffer.

Speaking personally, I feel I may have had a bit more preparation for the experience of worshipping online than many other UCA members have had.  For a number of years, I’ve been a member of a Rotary club which has its regular meetings, not over a meal at a local restaurant, pub, or golf club, but online using the “Zoom” platform.  (In Rotary, such clubs are known as “e-clubs”.)  As a result of my Rotary e-club experience, I feel I’ve been prepared for the experience of attending online worship and have found it much less jarring than I may have found otherwise.

In the time since worship moved online in late March, my online worship participation has involved three congregations of three denominations:
  • the outer-suburban UCA congregation of which we’re members,
  • an inner-suburban Anglican parish (with an Anglo-Catholic spirituality), where I’ve been a semi-regular worshipper for some years (and where I regard this involvement as an important dimension of my “self-care” in ministry), and
  • a Roman Catholic cathedral parish in a regional city interstate where we worshipped while on holidays a few years ago.
As a result, my experience of online worship during the time of the pandemic has not been limited to worship in a single congregation or, indeed, in a single denomination.

Looking more broadly, and in the multifaith context of
contemporary Australia, I’d like to suggest that the varied religious traditions of humanity can be grouped together into two large clusters:
  • On the one hand, for many of the faiths that arose in Eastern and Southern Asia, the heart of their spirituality is seen in the devotional practice of individuals.  A Hindu or a Buddhist may go to their temple to pray or to meditate, but it will most often be a private visit or a visit by a family group rather than attendance a larger gathering.  Group worship or group meditation does take place within these traditions, but (other than at major festivals) individual practice is far more crucial.
  • On the other hand, for a large cluster of faiths which includes Christianity, Judaism, and Islam (among others), the heart of spiritual practice is found in gathering together with other people of shared faith to join in shared worship.  Worship as part of a congregation is the “bread-and-butter” of spirituality, while private devotions are the “icing on the cake”.   If occasionally missing a worship service sometimes feels to some members to be more like wagging school than missing a meal, that feeling may often be a sign of being part of a dysfunctional congregation.
I believe that one result of the COVID-19 coronavirus on faith communities, both here in Australia and elsewhere, will be to reemphasise the value for people of faith of gathering together with others for worship.  Perhaps, it may even be the end of glib comments on the part of some people in the community about “I worship God best when bushwalking or playing golf.”

But the question then could be “What differences may we find when we begin to gather together again?”  (And here I’d like to focus on the effect of our re-gathering upon worship in the Uniting Church, although my comments may be relevant to other denominations as well.)  I’d like to make four suggestions about how the aftermath of the coronavirus may positively affect the shape of our worship.

1.  The first suggestion is that our congregations may find ourselves having more frequent celebrations of Holy Communion. 

In churches such as the UCA, worshippers attend public worship for a variety of reasons:
  • Some attend worship with the primary reason of learning some new insights about our faith.  For them, worship is primarily a teaching-learning experience.
  • Others attend worship with the primary reason of experiencing fellowship with our fellow-worshippers.  For them, worship is primarily a community-building experience.
  • Yet others (including myself) attend worship with the primary reason of becoming more aware of the closer presence of God.  Worship for us is primarily an experience of communion with the Sacred.
For most of us, all three motivations are present, but one or two may predominate.  These are all distinctions of emphasis, not of exclusivity.

Nevertheless, those of us for whom the motivation of communion with the Sacred is an important dimension of our worship have been finding the current situation particularly difficult.  In response to this, it may be a wise pastoral strategy for congregations to celebrate Holy Communion during the weeks, months, and even years following the resumption of public worship far more frequently than we’ve been in the habit of doing.

2.  The second suggestion is that some congregations may find themselves offering more services of worship at different times, but with fewer people at each. particularly given:
  • a gradual easing of the numbers permitted for public gatherings (as seen in the timetables offered by federal and state governments), and
  • a continued need for physical distancing even while restrictions for public gatherings are eased,
For some congregations – either for very small congregations, or for congregations of any size gathering for worship in spacious worship centres – this will not be an issue. 

For other congregations (i.e., any large congregation, or any congregation whose pre-coronavirus attendance at worship more closely matches the capacity of their worship centre), the easing of restrictions will necessarily mean fewer people attending any one service of worship, but with more services being held.

With this situation, I believe three things can follow:
  • The first is that these services of worship can, perhaps, be more specifically focused.  Rather than a congregation having a single service of worship in a “blended” (or, as I sometimes call it, “blanded”) style, the various services could reflect different styles and emphases.
  • The second is that the long-dormant Sunday evening worship service may be revived in some congregations, but with one major difference.  Rather than being offered as a “second helping” of worship for those who are already strongly-committed to the congregation’s life (as was the case for most of these services before they were dropped by most congregations), this service can be an alternative to Sunday morning worship for those within the congregation’s networks for whom Sunday morning is not the best time to gather for worship.
  • The third is that ministers serving congregations with multiple worship services may find themselves spending far more time and energy being the worship leaders they were called, educated, trained, and ordained/commissioned to be, rather than merely being the congregation’s “CEO” or the denomination’s local “branch manager”.
I see all these as highly desirable side-effects of our current situation.

3.  The third suggestion is that, with the ongoing need for continued physical distancing, members of our congregations will get into the habit of showing more respect for each other’s personal space. 

In many congregations, some individuals have been in the habit of greeting their fellow-worshippers during the Sharing of the Peace with an enthusiastic embrace that frequently appears to be uncomfortably similar to a sexual grope.  When calls for restraint in these embraces are made (either on behalf of the congregation or by the gropees themselves) in the name of making the worship service a safe space, these requests (and, sometimes, demands) are frequently met with a disingenuously stunned and offended reaction by the offenders.

As well, other worshippers have been in the habit of greeting their fellow-worshippers during the Peace (as well as before and after the service) with an aggressive “Bonecrusher” handshake that can be highly painful to people living with arthritis or with other orthopaedic conditions.

The ongoing need to maintain physical distancing as services of worship begin to recommence may put an end to the “Grope of Peace” and the “Liturgical Bonecrusher” in favour of (for example) an Asian–style “Namaste” greeting.  This would be a possible reform in our worship that many of us would welcome with enthusiasm.  (A more humourous alternative could be to bow or curtsey during the Peace like characters in a Jane Austen novel.)

4.  The fourth suggestion is that some congregations may continue to offer online worship, alongside face-to-face worship, even after the restrictions are fully lifted.  I don’t believe that every congregation currently worshipping online during this pandemic needs to do this, but it may be pastorally helpful to UCA members around Australia if some do. 

The congregations I believe should particularly consider continuing to offer worship online are those congregations reflecting a focused ethos or a specialised emphasis that may frequently not be found among the UCA congregations in many communities.

In particular, I believe that UCA congregations with a consciously “liturgical” ethos, an ethos frequently not found among UCA congregations in many communities, should continue to offer some online opportunities for worship as a ministry to UCA members living outside their immediate geographical area.  This particularly applies to congregations with a “liturgical” ethos which are also socially and pastorally inclusive.

Thinking ecumenically, I believe that similar opportunities regarding online worship are also particularly present for:
  • Anglican parishes with a consciously Anglo-Catholic ethos, particularly those which serve as spiritual “oases” within the aridity of conservative evangelical dioceses,
  • Roman Catholic parishes which seek to offer a combination of quality liturgy and a commitment to the ethos of the Second Vatican Council (as opposed to those ultra-conservative parishes which combine good liturgy with bad theology) , and
  • congregations of evangelical denominations which also affirm a strong commitment to social justice and pastoral inclusion, in contrast to the ultra-conservative social ethos found among many evangelicals.
In conclusion, my observation is that, both in the Uniting Church and in other denominations, congregations in this part of the world have responded well and creatively to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus.  Now, I believe we need to explore the challenges posed to the churches as the wider community eases its way out of the pandemic.


Wednesday, 19 June 2019

“A Dalek-shaped god or a Jesus-shaped God?: The choice is yours.” (a sermon)

The scripture lesson on which the sermon is based comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and is a combination of parts of two weeks’ readings from the lectionary.

I’m not a science fiction enthusiast.  Murder mysteries are my guilty pleasure.

While I’m not a science fiction enthusiast, I enjoy watching the occasional episode of “Doctor Who”.  Anyone who’s ever watched any episodes of “Doctor Who” would know of the Daleks, who are Doctor Who’s enemies par excellence.  The Daleks are creatures which are part-living beings and part-machines.  They look like vacuum cleaners on steroids, and have a large gun-like contraption where their noses should be.

The Daleks are not merely out for world domination, but for universal domination, and are willing and able to destroy anything that stands in their way.  Whenever the Daleks are on the march, their war cry is always the same:  “Exterminate!  Exterminate!”

Sadly, many of our neighbours think that the God we worship as Christians is a Dalek-shaped god, a petty little small-g god whose attitude toward most of humanity is one of condemnation.  They believe that we worship a god with an attitude of “Exterminate!  Exterminate!” toward anyone who doesn’t measure up to an impossible standard of perfection in their behavior.  That’s one of the main reasons why you wouldn’t find some of our neighbours in Church in a pink fit.  Who in their right mind would want to worship that sort of god?

Sadly, there are even some Christians who worship a Dalek-shaped god.  That sort of Christian makes a lot of noise and gets a lot of attention in the media, particularly when they’re politicians, rugby players, or other celebrities.  They’re the reason why many of our neighbours think you and I worship a Dalek-shaped god.  The worshippers of a Dalek-shaped god get a lot of attention in the media.  As a result, many people in the community think that’s the only sort of god on offer.

However, there is a real alternative to a Dalek-shaped god.  The alternative to a Dalek-shaped god is a Jesus-shaped God.  The alternative to a god who acts like a Dalek is a God who acts like Jesus.  The alternative to a small-g god of “Exterminate!  Exterminate!” is a big-G God who is radically inclusive, radically compassionate, and radically loving. 

This is the God of whom Paul writes in the letter to the Galatians, … the God in whom our human demographic differences become matters of enrichment and diversity rather than issues of destructive divisiveness, … the God who calls forth a collection of generous and inclusive virtues among his worshippers. 

The alternative to a Dalek-shaped god is the God whom you and I already worship.

We need to let our neighbours in on this secret.  The alternative to a Dalek-shaped god is the God whom you and I already worship.  But that won’t be easy, for three reasons.

1.   The first reason is that many people who worship a Dalek-shaped god are keen to bang on about their beliefs, while those of us who worship a Jesus-shaped God are much more reserved about sharing our faith.  We don’t like to bang on about religion.  We’ve been taught that banging on about religion  is as much a sign of poor taste as banging on about politics or sex, or (even worse) banging on about money.

It’s a bit like the way the purveyors of junk food and fast food advertise theirs wares constantly, while the producers of healthy food rarely advertise.  You’ll see a lot of ads for McDonald’s on TV, but very few ads for broccoli.  Similarly, the purveyors of junk religion bang on about their faith, while those of us who embrace a healthy religion often keep it to ourselves.

2.  The second reason is that the notion that all people in churches worship a god of “Exterminate!  Exterminate!” is far too ingrained in our culture.  (There’s the prevailing cultural stereotype about churches.  It used to be that the churches were full of wowsers and hypocrites.  Now, we’re full of wowsers, hypocrites, and paedophiles,) These stereotypes make it far easier for our neighbours to jump to the comfortable conclusion that’s there’s nothing in the churches that are relevant to their lives in any positive way.  It’s good to undermine this notion, but it won’t be easy.

3.  The third reason is, if we seek to let people in on the secret that we don’t worship a god of “Exterminate! Exterminate!”, we run the risk of being openly critical of those who do worship such a godlet.  We’re all far too “nice” to be fully comfortable in conflict.  We’ve often seen our faith calling us to follow the “gentle Jesus meek and mild”, the one who wants us (dare I say it?) to be his “sunbeams”.  

Many of us have been critical of the overly argumentative Paul, even when he does come up with some important affirmations about inclusivity, compasssion, and love.   (And it’s interesting to note that in the same letter we’ve read parts of today, Galatians, with its strong affirmation of inclusivity, is also a letter in which, at times, we find Paul at his grumpiest.) 

If we let our neighbours in on the secret that a Jesus-shaped God is a better God to worship than a Dalek-shaped one, we’ll come across as argumentative to those who are committed to worshipping a Dalek-shaped god.  We’ll cop some flak.  But the flak will be worth it.

In the 1980s, Adrian Plass wrote a series of screamingly funny books about a British congregation.  One of the members of the church was a man named Leonard Thynne, a sporadically recovering alcoholic who grew up as part of a rigid Brethren-like sect.  One Sunday, the congregation had a visiting preacher, a monk.  Leonard’s reaction to the monk’s sermon was this:  “He worships a different God to the one I grew up learning about.  His God’s nice!”

May we enable our neighbours to say the same thing about the God we worship.

Friday, 17 May 2019

“‘New!’: When is it good? When is it bad? When is it ugly?”: a sermon (Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35)

I mentioned this earlier in the service, but I’ll say it again.  All of my preparation for worship this week was completed before the polling places opened yesterday.  Nothing in this sermon or anywhere else in the service should be regarded as a comment on the result of yesterday’s election.

My sermon has the title “‘New!’:  When is it good?  When is it bad?  When is it ugly?”

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

The word “new” features in both scriptures passages we’ve heard a few minutes ago. 

In our lesson from the Book of Revelation, we hear of a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem descending from God.  We hear of the voice of God declaring, “See, I am making all things new.”

In our lesson from the Gospel of John, the setting is the Last Supper.  Jesus gives his disciples a “new commandment”, to love one another.  Oddly, Christians will argue about the meaning of this new commandment:  with some saying it’s a command to love our fellow-Christians, others saying it’s a command to love all people, yet others saying it’s a command to love all creation, and a few particularly sad sorts saying you’re off the hook as long as you love those who are the same sort of Christian as yourself.  Personally, I think the wider the definition of “one another”, the better, so that we don’t cause Jesus to ask us the question “What part of ‘Love one another’ don’t you understand?”

But meanwhile, here’s a fun fact about this passage.  The word for commandment in Latin is mandatum, from which we get our English word mandate.  The fact that this word is used in the Latin version one of the gospel accounts of the Last Supper is why the day before Good Friday has been called Maundy Thursday (in the English-speaking world at least) since the Middle Ages..

That Latin word is also relevant to the fact that there was an election yesterday.  After elections, politicians (at least the ones who won) talk a great deal about their “mandate” from the voters.  In our passage from John, Jesus gave us all a new mandate, to love one another, with the widest definition of “one another” which is possible.    

But looking at this word “new” or, in Greek, kainos, we see that the word is used in these passages to speak of something very good:  … a new heaven, a new earth, … a new Jerusalem, … a new commandment.  Here the word new implies being renewed, and perhaps even (as they say in advertisements) “new and improved!

But, in the Bible as in our day-to-day lives, the word new doesn’t mean always mean renewed.  Sometimes new may merely refer to a novelty or, as Luke called it, a kainotoron.   In the Book of Acts, as Luke described Paul’s travels, he mentioned his visit to Athens with some exasperation.  The Athenians were only interested in discussing the most recent novelty, the latest thing, the kainotoron.  Reading Acts 17, it’s easy to pick up that Luke was expressing Paul’s sense of both profound annoyance and sheer boredom with the Athenians.

This brings me back to the question I asked in this sermon’s title.  When something is new, … when is it good? … when is it bad? … when is it ugly?

When does “new” equal “ugly”? … When does “new” equal “bad”?

Sometimes a novelty can merely equal a trivialisation, a cheapening, or even an outright trashing of our culture.  Not all things which are new are examples of profound ugliness.  Most are not.  But some are. 

If something new, for example, happens merely (or even just mostly) for shock value, this is usually something profoundly ugly.  Sometimes, it crosses the line into something that’s also ethically bad.  To give an example of an event from two years ago, I would not call it “art” when a person cuts up a dead animal in front of an audience.  If the meat from the animal is than wasted, rather than used for food, the ugliness of the act is compounded into something that’s ethically very wrong. 

To give another example, much of “reality television” can involve the manipulation of vulnerable people to behave badly, in the interest of becoming a “celebrity” (whatever that means).  Frequently a group of strangers are placed in a confined space and presented with an artificial situation, while the viewers watch and wait for them to fight.

And, in the quest for the latest superficial novelties, the churches are by no means immune.  In the name of “relevance”, “getting bottoms on seats”, being “contemporary”, and (dare I say it) being “missional”, some churches have become as enthusiastic as Paul’s Athenians in embracing mindless kainotorons.

So, then, when does “new” equal “good”?

That is where the new commandment, the new mandate comes in.

Whenever something new makes us more caring, … more merciful, … more inclusive, … more compassionate, … more loving (as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, as a human race), the new development is good.  To use words politicians like to toss around, it’s progress.  It’s a reform.  It needs to be embraced and celebrated. 

If it makes us less caring, … less merciful, … less inclusive, … less compassionate, … less loving, it’s an abuse.  Get rid of it.  (Do not pass “Go”.  Do not collect $200.)

Jesus gave us a new commandment, a new mandate:  “Love one another”.   As I said earlier:  Personally, I think the wider the definition of “one another”, the better, so that we don’t cause Jesus to ask us the question “What part of ‘Love one another’ don’t you understand?”

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Friday, 10 May 2019

A Prayer for the Sunday after an Election

Let us pray.

God of all nations and peoples, we give thanks for all those who made yesterday’s election possible:
·        for all party leaders,
·        all candidates,
·        all election officials,
·        all campaign workers and volunteers,
·        all journalists and commentators,
·        all satirists, comedians, and cartoonists,
·        all sizzlers of democracy sausages,
·        and particularly for all voters.

May we all be grateful for the generosity of those who have given freely of their time, their energy, their talents, their intelligence, and their passion to make yesterday a reality.

We pray for all those who now have been given great responsibilities by the voters, as members of either the House of Representatives or the Senate.  We particularly pray for …., representing this electorate of ..., and for those who will be representing this state of ... in the Senate.  Grant integrity, wisdom, humility, and compassion to all members of both houses of Parliament.

We pray for those candidates who have stood for office but lost, and for those candidates for whom the election result is still unclear.  Free each from a sense of anxiety, bitterness, self-righteousness, or self-loathing.

In case of a clear national result:
We pray for …. and his team as they prepare to form a government for the next Parliamentary term.  May they lead a wise and compassionate Government, governing in the interests of all the people, not merely in the interests of their supporters.
We pray also for those who will take on the responsibility of Opposition.   May they undertake the tasks of keeping the Government accountable in a robust way, but without bitterness or negativity.
Without a clear national result yet:
As the national result of the election is still unclear, we pray for all who are coping with the ambiguities of yesterday’s election result.  Grant all involved a gracious patience, a cool head, a long fuse, an active sense of humour, and the ability to chill.

We pray for us all.  May each of us have a clear commitment to the well-being of all with whom we share this nation and this world, regardless of:
·        their race or their culture,
·        their faith or their philosophy,
·        their gender or their sexuality,
·        their political convictions or their political apathy.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who gave us all the mandate to love one another.  Amen.


Thursday, 18 April 2019

“A Moveable Feast”: a sermon for Easter Day

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Easter is what’s called “a moveable feast”.  Easter, and the days that depend on Easter, move around a bit in the calendar.

Once, Easter was so late that ANZAC Day was observed on Easter Monday.  (We’re close to that situation again this year with ANZAC Day happening on the Thursday just following Easter.) 

ANZAC Day on Easter Monday that year was particularly tricky.  We put a great deal of effort in explaining to veterans in the congregation (well in advance) that we’d wait until the following week to include ANZAC Day in the service.

One veteran said to me, “But we cannot forget the Honoured Dead.”

I replied, “But Easter is about the Honoured Dead-and-Risen,” to which the reply was a definite “Harrumph!” (as they say in the comic strips). 

However, we did ANZAC Day the following Sunday and gave it a lot of attention.

Another time, Easter was so early that St. Patrick’s Day occurred during Holy Week.  There was some tension in Melbourne between the Catholic Archdiocese and the various Irish social clubs, given that the Archdiocese was discouraging its priests from conducting the usual St. Patrick’s Day masses.  (A bit of pastoral flexibility could have gone a long way, I think.  If the chap in the pulpit brought the themes of Holy Week and Easter into people’s minds on St. Pat’s Day, when they were in a good mood anyway, they could well have come back to church for a second helping of worship on Easter.)

There’s always a certain logic to Good Friday falling on Friday the 13th.

The ecumenist in me particularly likes it in those years when the Western Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter on the same Sunday.  Nevertheless, the pastor in me has a real sense of “Holy Envy” toward our neighbours in the Orthodox Churches who, in most years, can celebrate the Resurrection without having to compete with the distractions provided by the longest long weekend of the year.

And the fact that Easter is at the heart of a marathon long weekend can be a problem for the churches as we try to communicate the faith to our communities. 

·        More people are around on Good Friday than they are on Easter. 

·        There are a lot of people – both regular worshippers and others - who attend worship for the more solemn service on Good Friday, but are away by the time of the joyous services of Easter itself.

·        I’m aware of a number of events here in the Hobart area in which a group of churches co-operated on a public event communicating our faith to the wider community.  They were good events.  I attended one.  All were on Friday.  None was today.  Our neighbours overheard our words of solemnity, but not our shouts of joy.   Could that have confirmed some of our neighbours’ stereotypes of what practicing, worshipping Christians are like?

Because of the long, long weekend, there is a big gap between the Easter celebrated by the churches and the Easter celebrated by the wider community.  Over the past few years, comparing Easter with Christmas, I’ve been putting it this way:

·        On the one hand, worshipping Christians and the wider community celebrate essentially the same Christmas as each other.

·        On the other hand, worshipping Christians and the wider community celebrate radically different Easters to each other.

And I think it’s definitely logically consistent for a Christian to seriously want to be “into” the culture’s celebrations at Christmas, yet also for the same Christian to want to be radically countercultural, and even borderline monastic, during Holy Week and Easter.

Back to our “moveable feast.”

In terms of a wider ecumenism, I always like it when Easter and Passover coincide neatly, as they do this year.  Once, there was even a year when Easter, Passover, and a major Muslim feast happened at the same time, so three great branches of the People of God were all celebrating major festivals of faith at the one time.

Last year, two interesting things happened.  One was that Ash Wednesday happened on the same day as St. Valentine’s Day.  This resulted in a few funny posts on social media, focusing on what a Lenten St. Valentine’s Day card would look like.

The other interesting thing last year was the best of all, though.  If you remember, Easter fell on April Fools’ Day.   

This makes particular sense.  In many ways the first Easter was also the first April Fools’ Day.

Think about it.  Death thought it had Jesus just where it wanted him.  But on Easter, Jesus looked Death straight in the eye and said “April Fool!” 

(If people laugh:  Thank you for laughing.  Resurrection people laugh.)

(If people don’t laugh:  It’s OK.  You were allowed to laugh at that.  Resurrection people laugh.)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!


Saturday, 30 March 2019

“There was a man with two sons …”: a sermon (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32)

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the most familiar passages in the entire Bible.  As with any familiar passage of scripture, we can find many different things jumping out at us from this parable.  In the lectionary, we hear this passage on this Sunday in the middle of Lent once every three years.  I looked back on some of the ways I treated this passage in sermons during my ministry.

I first prepared a sermon on this passage as a first-year theological student.  In the subject “Introduction to Preaching”, one assignment was to write a sermon based on one of a number of passages.  I chose this passage and wrote a sermon that was pretty forgettable – as forgettable as most sermons prepared by first-year theological students.  I don’t think I ever preached that sermon … and just as well really.

I wrote my second sermon on this passage while I was still a theological student, at this point a second-year student.  This time, I prepared the sermon, not for a classroom assignment, but to preach in my field education church.  The sermon was a dramatic monologue, telling the story of this passage from the perspective of the elder brother.  At the time, I thought it was pretty good. 

This sermon became my “travelling sermon”, maybe even my “party piece”.  For a number of years, whenever I was invited to preach anywhere where I hadn’t preached before, I trotted this sermon out (regardless of the lectionary). 

The point I made in this sermon, as I acted (overacted?) the part of the elder brother struggling with his decision whether or not to join the party for his younger brother was this:  Through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people.  God also calls us to be a forgiving people.

(And, of course, to forgive someone does not mean that everything is emotionally OK between yourself and the person who wronged you.  Far from it.  It means that you seek to promote the well-being of the one who wronged you, even if things will never be emotionally OK.)

A few years later, when I was considering the same passage, I had recently read the book Poet and Peasant by Kenneth Bailey.  Bailey was involved in research in villages around the Middle East, telling the parables of Jesus to peasant farmers.  After telling the story, Bailey asked the question  “What would happen if someone in your community did this?”

Bailey always received the same reaction when he told this story, whatever the religion or the culture of the people to whom he told it:  “This would never happen here.”  When he asked the villagers why it would never happen, some of the frequent responses were:

·        A son never asks his father to receive his inheritance early.  This implies “I’m looking forward to your death.”  This would be unthinkable.

·        A son would never refer to his brother as “this son of yours” when speaking to his father.  That phrase would implies “He’s your son, but I’m not.”  While a parent may disown a child, a child would never disown a parent.

·        No parent would ever beg their child to do anything, as the father did when he tried to persuade the elder brother to join the celebration. 

·        Neither would a man of high status run in public, as the father did when he saw the younger son returning.

The point I made in the sermon was this :  Even when people do shockingly (and scandalously) hateful things, as both sons did in the story, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving (and scandalously loving) things, as the father did a number of times in the story.

Another time was shortly after the death of Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote the classic book Baby and Child Care.  Dr. Spock taught generations of parents that it is better for children to love their parents than it is to fear them, and that (as a result) it is no sign of weakness for parents to show their love to their children.

I used the example of Dr. Spock – alongside the image of the father in Jesus’ parable - as a jumping-off point to say that our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to the ways our parents raised us. 

·        Those who grew up with the care of warm, loving parents often find it easy to appreciate the loving care of the Living God.

·        On the other hand, those who perceive their parents as having been cruel, harsh, selfish, erratic, or merely absent, may have problems coming to terms with a loving God.  Instead, they may find themselves worshipping a god of wrath, … rejecting a god whom they see as nonexistent, … or ignoring a god whom they regard as irrelevant to their lives.

(And, of course, it may not be terribly helpful to use this as an excuse to play the popular game of “My family’s weirder than your family.”)

Another time, I preached completely off the cuff, for the first – and only – time in my life.  It was on one of my visits to Bangladesh, visiting Christmas Bowl projects.

One Sunday afternoon, I attended worship in a Baptist congregation in a poor neighbourhood of Dhaka.  I was told by the Bangladeshi staff person who had brought me to the service that I’d be asked to give a brief greeting to the congregation on behalf of the churches of Australia. 

The service was in Bengali.  The Bangladeshi staffer was translating parts of it for me.  After about half an hour or so, the staff bloke translated the minister saying, “And now our Australian visitor will preach the sermon.”

I asked “Are you sure he said ‘… preach the sermon?’”


I thought for a moment.  I had no sermon with me.  The only Bibles I could see were in Bengali.  I had to say something.  It had to be on a passage of scripture I knew well enough to talk about off the cuff with no warning.  I asked the minister to read the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel.

“The whole chapter?” asked the minister.


While the minister read (in Bengali) the parables of the lost sheep, and the lost coin, and then the one about the two lost sons, I thought about what I’d do.

I’d retell the story of the man with two sons and hope that the congregation found there was sufficient vitality in the story itself.  So, after the minister read the passage, I started to re-tell the story.  Periodically, after every few sentences, the minister would translate my English into Bengali.  That gave me sufficient time to re-gather my thoughts to tell the next part of the story.  And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there was sufficient vitality for the story itself to suffice for that congregation in Bangladesh.

And, today, I still believe those things I learned on those previous occasions:

·        Yes, our own views of God are often dependent on our responses to our parents.

·        Yes, through God’s grace, we are a forgiven people.  God also calls us to be a forgiving people.

·        Yes, even when people do shockingly hateful things to us, God’s grace enables us to do shockingly loving things in return.

·        Yes, there are some sermons written by first-year theological students that are better left unpreached.

·        And, yes, in this ancient story that Jesus told, there is still great vitality in the story itself.