Safe Church Sunday

One of my particular passions at the moment is taking the “business” of being church and translating some of the policies, training courses, and decisions of our various councils and translating them into worship services that give our intergenerational, multicultural faith community and opportunity to engage with how they reflect our faith and help us grow into the love and image of Christ in the world.

Safe Church is often seen as a compliance issue is response to Work Health and Safety and the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse but it’s about so much more than that.

By identifying Safe Church Officers, publicly affirming those who attend Safe Church Awareness Workshops, and offering the whole community the chance to participate in building a sanctuary for all people, this liturgy hopes to shape consistent and authentic thinking about what it means to conduct church in a God-honouring, life-giving, and harm-free manner.

Credit given to the Church of England and Scott Noon’s “Life-lifting devotions for youth workers” for feeding some of this work.

Set up

As space allows, the sanctuary is set up in smaller groups with 6 to 8 chairs clustered around tables. Each table should be set with a brightly coloured piece of cardboard on which the letters SAFE are written vertically beneath one another (the blank side should be face up before the service starts), some felt-tipped markers, a centre-piece (floral, symbolic, or an image related to the “Sheltering God” welcome) and an ordinary plate and glass for a love feast. Posters containing contact details for Safe Church co-ordinators and helplines should be on display.

Sheltering God – welcome

Scripture is full of images of our Sheltering God:
who bears us on wings of love
and makes a home for us beneath the canopy of his wings;
who shelters us in the secret place in times of trouble
and keeps us out of reach of all our enemies;
who offers refuge from the storm
and a shadow from the heat;
who, with open hand, satisfies the desires of every living thing
and gives us our daily bread;
who comforts us as a mother comforts her child – 
nursing us, carrying us on her hip, and bouncing us on her knee.

Today, as we gather together to mark Safe Church Sunday (for the first time), we receive again the invitation to find
– in this time,
and this place,
and these people –
the shelter of God who soothes our souls
and shapes us into a sanctuary
that is God-honouring, life-giving, and free from harm for all people.

We bind our hearts together as we sing:

Gather us in, and hold us forever;
gather us in, and make us your own;
gather us in, all peoples together,
fire of love in our flesh and our bones. 

Signs of welcome

NAME-SHARING: At the table, each person introduces themselves to the group.

THE HELLO SONG – HEATHER PRICE: https://heatherprice.com.au/downloads/01-hello-song

RESPONSIVE PRAYER

Sheltering God, show us the signs of welcome in our worship.

Help us stand together, 
turn toward each other,
sing in harmony,
eat the same bread,
kneel side by side,
wave,
meet another’s eyes,
recognise a voice,
say a name by heart,
speak in unison, 
intercede for each other,
give thanks,
hear the same readings,
hug,
and join in a three-fold amen.

Sheltering God, show us signs of how we welcome one another
and build – together –
a sanctuary for hungry, hurting souls,
a place full of grace and Spirit and truth.
Amen. 

Settling into Scripture

SAFE CHURCH: As the people prepare to listen to the Gospel reading for the day, they are invited to think about what it means to be a safe church by completing the acronym SAFE with appropriate words and/or phrases. The following example can be displayed on a board or projector: 

Caring community
Headed by Jesus Christ
U
Real people with real joys and struggles
Called to be salt and light
Hope for reconciliation

Time should be given for groups to share their responses.

GOSPEL READING (chosen from Sunday’s lectionary – can be adapted)

Jesus was going through the city of Jericho. In Jericho there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a wealthy, very important tax collector. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but he was too short to see above the crowd. He ran ahead to a place where he knew Jesus would come. He climbed a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus. When Jesus came to that place, he looked up and saw Zacchaeus in the tree. He said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down! I must stay at your house today.”

Zacchaeus came down quickly. He was pleased to have Jesus in his house. All the people saw this and began to complain, “Look at the kind of man Jesus stays with. Zacchaeus is a sinner!”

But Zacchaeus said to the Lord, “I will give half of my money to the poor. If I have cheated anyone, I will pay that person back four times more!”

Jesus said, “Salvation has come to this house today. This man truly belongs to the family of Abraham. The Son of Man came to find lost people and save them.”

LUKE 19:1-10 (International Children’s Bible)

REFLECTION: LESSONS FROM THE SYCAMORE TREE

BUILDING A SAFE CHURCH, TOGETHER: The church’s safe church person is introduced and invited to share his/her thoughts on the importance of being a safe church community.

NAME, you have heard the call of Christ upon your life to be the Safe Church Officer of the [Name] Church.
We affirm your passion to protect others as a sign of God’s sheltering love
and we welcome your willingness to serve in this way.

Will you be watchful, yet caring,
trusting, yet ready to question,
and always available to those who may need support?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you deepen your knowledge and refine your skills
to the benefit of this church,
and encourage others to do likewise?
With the help of God, I will.

Will you work closely with your colleagues here
to ensure that all may flourish?
With the help of God, I will.

Faithful God, we thank you
that [NAME] has offered him/herself
as a Safe Church Officer in our Congregation. 
Uphold him/her by your love
and enable him/her by your Spirit,
that through his/her ministry
this church may be a place of welcome,
security and compassion,
that all who gather here may do so
in safety and in the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Safe Church Officer reads the names of those who have recently completed safe church training.

I offer my gifts through the grace of God and with the support of elders and ministry leaders who have also completed the Safe Church Awareness Workshop. Today we affirm the most recent participants from [NAME OF CHURCH and participants are read out] :

May you always hold before us the example of God’s sheltering love and particular concern with the most vulnerable in our communities so that, together, we may be a sanctuary and a safe-haven for all. 

Let us pray together:

For your sheltering love over us at all times
We praise you, O Lord.
For your blessings on this worshipping community
We praise you, O Lord.
For all who safeguard the well-being of your people here
We pray to you, O Lord.
For the call to build a sanctuary for all that you give to each one of us
We pray to you, O Lord,
For your grace and guidance
We praise you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In groups, people have the opportunity to make their own commitment to building this sanctuary. Flipping over the piece of cardboard on which the word “SAFE” is written, those who would like to trace each others’ hands. During this time a song medley can be sung:

You are my hiding place, There is none like you, A new commandment

The “posters” can be stuck to exterior facing windows of the sanctuary – some displaying the hands and others the SAFE words.

A place at the table

In celebrating and committing to being a sanctuary which we build together, a love feast is shared in groups around the table. The elements will be brought to each table from the central table, with the wine being poured from a large jug and a small loaf broken and placed on each plate. By way of introduction the following is offered:

The night before his suffering and death, Jesus shared a final meal with his friends around the safety of a table in which he could speak some uncomfortable truths and prepare them for what lay head. This time of sharing now is a sharing of food and of sharing in the love we have for each other and for our Lord Jesus Christ who said:

‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’

In that love, we are the body of Christ whose Spirit is with and within us.

On this table in the midst of this community with whom Christ is present we set symbols to remind us of His presence and his promises to us.

A candle is lit.

Jesus said, “I am the light of the world;
whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life”.

A loaf is broken and other loaves distributed with the words:

Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. The bread that I shall give is myself for the life of the world”.

A cup of wine is poured and distributed to the other table with the words:

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

So share these symbols with one another, be part of the story of God’s sheltering love, as we hold space for everyone at the table. 

Each group shares the bread and wine together – as they wish.

SHARING OF THE PEACE (after communion)

Jesus said: ‘Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’

So may the peace of the Lord be with you.
And also with you.

Going in peace

NOTICES AND OFFERTORY 
Sheltering God,
as we offer these gifts to Your glory
and in celebration of Your embracing love – 
may You take also the gifts of our awareness,
our compassion,
and our desire to be more and more like You 
and build us into a sanctuary,
a safe-haven,
in which You are honoured
and life is shared and given
and all are kept safe from harm.
Amen.

CLOSING HYMN: Sizohamba naye


A prayer for sinners

(inspired by Luke 18:9-14)

God make us right with you – 

not right in the sense that we never do anything wrong:
we never cheat,
we never steal,
we never take part in adultery ….

not right in the sense that we earn our righteousness:
we pray out loud,
we fast,
we tithe on all our income, 
we behave better than other people ….

right in the sense that we recognise how complacent we’ve become
about our religion,
and in our interrelationships,
that we don’t even see the sin in the way we look down

~ on those who are struggling,
~ on those who are different,
~ on those who don’t quite seem to belong,
~ on those who do things that we’d never do ….

right in the sense that as we stand in Your 
     holy,
             compassionate,
                                        healing,
                                                     forgiving, 
                                                                embracing presence,
we feel unworthy to even look up at You
as we pray for mercy
and hear Your words: 

all who humble themselves will be exalted.”                        


Amen.

Consecrating the elements

A simple call to the Communion table for Sundays centred around storms or sailing stories.

When the dark clouds thicken 
and the squall rides high
and the wild winds whistle
and the storm birds cry,

we will find our peace 
at a table wide 
decked with risen bread 
and a carmine tide 

of blood-stained tears 
in a silver cup
surging, spilling,
lifted up

to the Southern Cross  
which points our way 
on the boundless sea
to the breaking day.

Who is this Jesus?

A reflection on Luke 8:22-25 for Storm Sunday and ahead of the Global Climate Strike ….

One day Jesus boarded a boat with the disciples and said, “Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.” So they took off.

As they were sailing, Jesus took a nap.

Soon a squall came down on the lake, and they began to take on water to a dangerous degree. They woke him and said,
“Rabbi! Rabbi! We’re sinking!”

Jesus got up, and reprimanded the wind and the waves. Immediately the storm subsided and all was calm again.
“Where is your faith?” he asked them.

But they were both afraid and amazed, and they said to one another, “Who is this, who gives orders to the wind and the waves, and they obey him?”

Luke 8:22-25 The Inclusive Bible

Believe it or not we’re all in the same boat. And it’s taking on water – fast!

Whether we’re male or female, old or young, Anglo or Asian, wealthy or poor, Christian or atheist, politician or street-cleaner, living in first world Australia or war torn Congo, we are all vulnerable to and responsible for the extreme weather and climate events happening across the world.

From heatwaves, fires and droughts to hurricanes, heavy downpours and floods,
~ Earth demands our attention,
~ Nature reminds us of how fragile we really are,
~ and Disaster brings us together in acts of courage and compassion that deny our self-interests and defy all that divides us from one another.

We may well ask, in the midst of all this danger and devastation, where is the Lord God Almighty?

Luke’s answer, at first glance, is not a reassuring one: Jesus is asleep in the boat!

And whether we’re talking about situations that have us physically in fear of our lives or so mentally exhausted or emotionally drained that we don’t know how we’re going to make it through the next day, that’s just not the picture of God that we want to have in our heads.

Anyone of us who has gone through or is going through a tough time can fully understand that the disciples natural reaction in their time of trouble was to turn to the most powerful person they knew: wake up! Do something. Show that you care. Jesus, save us!!!

That is the cry of so many hearts throughout the world today – many of them not even believers; simply people so desperate that they’ll try anything.

Do we have any idea what it feels like to be waiting for that one final wave that will sink our boat and pull us down, down, down into the deep where there is no breath, no light, no hope and no-one is prepared to help?

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that the Gospel is not just the good news that Jesus loves me and died that I might be free of my sin and shame to live life full and free as I choose. The Good News as embodied by Christ Incarnate in our midst is that God is right here in the boat
with the abused wife,
the persecuted Muslim,
the homeless refugee,
the hungry child,
the last northern white rhinos
– with all of our sinking humanity, our groaning creation –

… for God so loved the world that he gave his only son ….  

John 3:16

I wonder what those desperate disciples were wanting Jesus to do when they woke him. Were they thinking that he could help them bail out some of the water? Did they hope that he would lead them in prayer and God would intervene on their behalf? Were they looking for a final blessing so that they could enter their eternal rest at peace?

They certainly didn’t anticipate that Jesus would scold the storm and it would listen. When he quiets the wind and the waves with a word, they are both too amazed and too afraid to even respond to his question, “Where is your faith?” 

Instead, they have a question of their own: “Just who is this Jesus that we’re following?”

It’s a question that we might want to add on to “how does this advance the coming of the kingdom of God?” as we seek to be an authentic, inclusive community of faith in this particular time and this particular place for the answer changes everything. 

“Just who is this Jesus that we’re following?” 
The son of Mary and Joseph?
A carpenter?
A teacher? 
A myth, a legend?
A historical figure?
The Son of God?
The Promised Messiah?
The Light of the World?

In our text today, in the time of need, Jesus’ disciples call out to their Rabbi – their teacher, their master. They’ve seen him heal a leper, eat with sinners, stand up to the religious whose practices kept people from knowing the presence of God. They’ve heard him preach with power, cure disease at a distance, and they’ve even witnessed how he raised a widow’s son from the funeral bier – yet somehow they have not understood who he is: the Lord of heaven and earth, the Living Word.

For a couple of decades now, we’ve been trying to repackage the Almighty God into Jesus, our best friend, soft and warm and cuddly and conveniently on call for emergencies or when there’s no one else around to care but, today, the One with the authority to calm the waves and speak peace to the wind asks us, “Where is your faith?” 

I want us to take a moment to feel the weight of that question, the intensity of Christ’s gaze on us, because the words are not just a reprimand in response to them doubting his power. I believe that beneath the surface lies a deeper question: why did you wake me instead of stilling the storm yourselves? 

Friends, we are more than disciples: we are sons and daughters of the Most High God. God’s Spirit dwells within us – the very same Spirit that hovered over the deep and brought life and light to the darkness and the chaos. And we have been given authority to go into the world, to get into the boats that are sinking as a sign of the presence of the Living Word with all that He loves, and to do more than try to rouse God in our Sunday services and occasional prayers ….

In the very next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends out the twelve with no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt, to proclaim the good news and heal people everywhere. That moment in the boat of sheer desperation, that question “just who is this Jesus that we’re following” changed everything … and I wonder, this morning, what lies ahead in our next chapter as Church? 

With the drought, our young people calling for our support and action in addressing climate change, and the press of problems in the loves of people that we know and people we may never even meet, it can’t be
~ business as usual,
~ worship as usual,
~ giving as usual ….    

We’re all in the same boat. And it’s taking on water – fast! May God reprimand the powers that seem beyond reproach this week and speak “Peace” through us.

May the peace of the Lord be with you.

Storm Sunday

Ideas for intergenerational worship on Storm Sunday. I used Rex Hunt’s wonderful progressive liturgies for the Season of Creation as a starting point.

Call to worship

The windows of the sanctuary are covered with black fabric or cardboard and a black tablecloth is placed on the altar with a single, unlit candle. As people enter the sanctuary a digital display of powerful storms, accompanied by sounds of rain and thunder plays.

Before the call to worship is offered, one volunteer is positioned with a gong on one side of the church and children with an assortment of pots, drums, spoons and other “noisemakers” on the other. Other volunteers stand ready to remove the window coverings. Instructions are given on what each group must do when you signal to them.

In the beginning the Creative Spirit hovered over the darkness of the deep …
<a cymbal or gong is clanged>
… and into the emptiness, into the chaos the Living Word thundered
<a cymbal or gong is clanged>
“Let there be light.”

<the black cardboard or fabric is removed from the windows
while you light the candle on the altar>

And there was – Light and Life and Love.
<the gong or cymbal is clanged, three times>

This day we invite, through the Spirit,
the power of the storm to gather with us.
The wild winds and the dark clouds,
the lightning flash and the thunder roll.
The fierce gales and blinding rains,
the crashing waves and swaying trees.

<wild crashing of pots and pot lids by children>

But with our invitation comes the question:
Where is the Almighty in all of this?
In the storm?
In the cyclone?
In the tsunami?
In the thunder of the storm?

<wild crashing of pots and pot lids by children – followed by signal for silence>

Or in the stillness after the storm?
<the quiet is kept,
the storyteller takes their place behind the altar and lays out the pieces for the story to come,

the children can be invited to gather round with simple hand gestures> 

Prayers of wonder: Noah’s Ark

For the story on Storm Sunday, I use Godly Play materials and an adapted version of “the flood and the ark” which includes “wondering” invitations to prayer/sharing throughout. A simple children’s story Bible could be used instead with these responses added where suitable. 

I have included the “wondering” responses and the wording which precedes them below:

  1. But people began to do bad things. God decided to send a great flood of water to wash everything clean and make it new again. I wonder what we want God to wash clean or make new in our lives. 
  2. Noah and all his family began to build the ark. I wonder what God would like us to build together in this place as God’s family.
  3. But God did not forget the creatures on the ark. I wonder if we have ever felt like God has forgotten us.
  4. All the creatures began to come out of the ark. They were so happy to be home again that they could not help it. They had to say their prayers to try to say how happy they were. They made an altar and gave thanks to God. I wonder what we’d like to thank God for today.
  5. Suddenly, all the creatures saw a great bow in the sky. It was a bow of many colours. You can still see it today when there is rain and the sun is shining. Today we call it a rainbow. <Use the prism to create a rainbow in the room – you may have to experiment in advance as to where and what angle best catches the light – if you’re happy with a little more chaos, give children flashlights and let them figure it out>This rainbow was God’s sign to say that God will never send such a flood again. I wonder what promises God has made you and what promises you have made God.
  6. The creatures then went out into all the four corners of the earth and filled it up again with life. <These words lead into the prayers for the world>

Prayer for the world 

Like many places in the world at the moment, water scarcity is a major concern in our community – particularly for those who make their living on the land. Our faith community will be joining other congregations in the region in prayer for an end to the drought. While these prayers can be offered in the church, we will “go out into the four corners of the earth to fill it up again with life.” 

In a circle outside, with some chairs for those who cannot stand for long periods of time and bubble wands for the young and young at heart (echoing the rainbow colours inside), we will simply sing these four lines as our prayer:

Let it rain,
let it rain.
Open the floodgates of heaven.
Let it rain.

Children’s activity

We have been creating a Season of Creation panorama using the glass panels in our church. For Storm Sunday, the panel will be covered in black cardboard and the kids’ rainclouds will be added after the service.

The instructions for these cute clouds can be found at Raincloud craft.

Love Feast

After reflecting on “Who is this Jesus?” from the Gospel Reading of Luke 8:22-25, a simple love feast will be shared using the following words as a call to the table:

When the dark clouds thicken
and the squall rides high,
and the wild winds whistle,
and the storm birds cry, 
we will find our peace
at a table wide
where the Lord of Love’s 
pierced limbs and side
reveal the truth
that he is here
and death is done
and guilt and fear.

<the blessing, breaking, and sharing of bread and wine>

A land without paper

This liturgy was initially written for a Presbytery meeting and accompanied by a handout for Holy Communion. The hope was that people, in the first part, would encounter God in a fresh (paperless) way which, in the second part (with paper and moving into the business of the meeting) would help them to look at the words on a page more carefully. The original idea was a poem in an old book of devotions for youth workers by Scott Noon and Herbert Brokering.

You will need to prepare/think about in advance:

  • Familiarising yourself with the “script” sufficiently so that it can be dramatised rather than read
  • An appropriate gathering song that can be played through a sound system – I chose one with a mixture of English and an indigenous language as preparation for the acknowledgment of country
  • 6 pieces or piles of paper that can be torn up
  • Substitute, as appropriate, some of the details to fit your context e.g. the names of God
  • How people will exit and enter the sanctuary and what space they will have to wander around – if there are many with mobility issues, you may want to place a few chairs outside in close proximity for them
  • Service sheets for Communion – you are welcome to download and use the service sheets I prepared: A Service for the Eucharist.

Gathering song

When it is time and most people are seated in the sanctuary, simply play the gathering song which will draw them into worship. I used We are gathering/ Nganana Lurtjuringanyi Palula .

Welcome
& acknowledgement of country

Welcome!
Welcome!
Welcome!

We gather this day on holy ground,
on the good earth that God has created. 
<take shoes off if you like>

We stand this day on sacred land
and we honour the peoples of the Wiradjuri nation
who were, who are, and who always will be its stewards 
and our covenant companions.

We gather. <arms in a circle, drawing in>
We stand. <arms at side like coming to attention>
We lift up <hands move to cover heart>
our hearts and our hands <arms lifted up in praise>
to Unkulululu, 
Modimo wa rona,
Elohim, 
who brings us from barrenness into being,
to the excitement of life
and the fullness of this day. 

<the candle is lit>

Let us take a moment to celebrate each other.
May God’s heart of peace rest within you.
<people are invited to share peace with their neighbour>

Call to worship
and experience God in creation

This part should be very dramatic and high energy with the “there could be no more” list being accompanied by the shredding and throwing of paper.

Once there was a land that ran out of paper.
Oh no!
What were they to do? 

There could be no more printed agendas to maintain efficiency,
no minutes of meetings to make sure they were all on the same page, 
no spreadsheets to keep them up at night,
no insurance forms to complete in triplicate – just in case, 
no “important” documents to keep them looking down
instead of paying attention to what was happening around them,
no more orders of service to warn them what would happen next ….

IT WAS A CRISIS! 

What were they to do???

<people can offer ideas> 

Finally, some wise person spoke up,
a mother of four,
so she was not only very wise but also very patient:

“Let’s watch the children,” she suggested. 
“The children always seem to know what to do next
just by being where they are.
If they’re in water,
the water seems to tell them what to do.
And it’s the same with the sand,
or a tree or a steep hill.”

By watching the children,
the land learned to do what there is to do.

So today, we’re going to go out into the world for a while
to see what’s happening,
to wonder what there is to do,
to pay attention to what God is saying
through earth and sky
and plants and animals and people.

Some of us might walk quite far,
some of us might sit in the first comfortable spot we see, 
some of us might want to be alone,
some of us might go together. 

But, if we’re paying attention,
we’ll learn a little about how much life there is to be lived
and we’ll also notice when it’s time
to gather together again. 

<people go out to explore> 

Circle of praise and prayer

After 10-15 minutes, gesture to nearby people to come together, hold hands, start forming a circle, and start to sing a simple song that most should know or be able to pick up quite easily. You may have to go and gather people (without words) by holding your hands out to them and leading them. It’s also lovely if others are given a chance to start a song that they know.

When everyone is together in the circle again, spontaneous prayers of praise and petition are offered. The worship leader should start these prayers – first with an offering of praise and thanksgiving for how they’ve encountered God in creation and, later, for those who need to encounter God’s presence, healing, and power.

Return to the sanctuary 

One day when the land has watched the children 
and learned what to do by looking at the signs of life all around them, maybe one day, when paper is plentiful again
we will look at the words on a page with new eyes
and new attitudes and find new meaning in them. 

The worship leader walks back into the sanctuary, gesturing for people to follow if necessary. At the door, people are given a handout with the order of service for Holy Communion and final hymn.

Bible reading and sermon 

Holy Communion

We used a beautiful liturgy by William Loader. Here is a link to the service sheet: A service of the Eucharist.

Closing hymn (Tune to TiS 547)

This is a beautiful hymn written by members of the Iona community. It is easily sung to the tune of “Be Thou my vision.”

Praise to the Lord for the joys of the earth:
cycles of season and reason and birth,
contrasts in outlook and landscape and need,
challenge to famine, pollution and greed.

Praise to the Lord for the progress of life:
cradle and grave, bond of husband and wife,
pain of youth growing and wrinkling of age,
questions in step with experience and stage.

Praise to the Lord for the care of our kind:
faith for the faithless and sight for the blind,
healing, acceptance, disturbance and change,
all the emotions through which our lives range.

Praise to the Lord for the people we meet,
safe in our homes or at risk in the street;
kiss of a lover and friendship’s embrace,
smile of a stranger and words full of grace.

Praise to the Lord for the carpenter’s son,
dovetailing worship and work into one:
tradesman and teacher and vagrant and friend, 
source of all life in this world without end.

Blessing 

May the source of Life and Creativity that we name God
help us to live this day as fully and generously as we can
as we are inspired by visions and causes
that cannot be contained by paper.
Let us embody a larger life and a loving God
in all the little things we say and do and pay attention to.
Amen.

The prophet and the prostitute

A sermon on Hosea 1:2-10

Hosea is a prophet in pain. 

He lives in the northern kingdom of Israel in about the 8th century BC, at a time when the people were enjoying a booming economy: good harvests, full storehouses, and a competent administration. 

But rather than responding to the faithfulness of God by deepening their covenantal relationship with God and with one another, many turned to the “Baals” – the gods of Canaan who were thought to have power over rain, crops, and fertility – with their prayers and praise. At their shines, the people gashed themselves with knives to offer the required blood sacrifices and had sex with the sacred prostitutes in the hope of securing further favour. Meantime, on the streets, the poor cried out  – victims of injustice – at best ignored, at worst exploited so that the elitist upper classes could maintain their position and their power.

God’s response to their spiritual adultery is certainly a puzzling one: he commands the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute. And, obediently, Hosea binds himself in covenantal relationship to a “wife of whoredom” as today’s Scripture reading so elegantly puts it. 

If you take the time to read the first three chapters of his story, you will quickly discover that Gomer is never very faithful for long. Old habits are hard to break, I guess? She leaves her husband and commits adultery with other lovers. Of the three children conceived during their marriage, only the firstborn (Jezreel) is directly mentioned as being Hosea’s son. Yet Hosea never stops loving her.

She is exploited and abused and eventually falls into slavery but Hosea pays the price to set her free, longing deeply for her restoration. Through his agony and his anger, he has discovered the heart of God.

Yet the heart of God is something that we do not – cannot – fully comprehend and, if we’re absolutely honest, we don’t always fully trust God’s desires for us, for our community, for the world around us.

We struggle, at times, with a sense of God’s inactivity. We wonder why life seems to work out so well for some, but not for others. We get into arguments with and render judgments against people who interpret the catastrophic pain that takes place in individual homes and whole nations as God’s justice against their wrongdoing.

And it’s passages like this one in Hosea that feed into some of that turmoil, for what kind of God would ask that three innocent children bear the weight of such awful names

As a mother, I remember well how long it took to come up with names for our precious boys. Each name that was mentioned triggered for one or both my husband and myself memories and encounters with other people in our lives (even brief ones) who were so named and most were discarded because of some negative characteristic that we didn’t want somehow magically passed on to our children through sharing a common name.

Yet here we have Jezreel, Lo-Ruhamah, and Lo-Ammi, named by God:
the first for violence and vengeance,
the second for the exhaustion of God’s love for an unfaithful people,
the third for the disowning of Israel. 

What have they done to deserve such a heartless legacy? 

Yet what have any of our children done to deserve the leftovers of this beautiful planet – the polluted air and oceans and soil; the species that remain rather than the abundance that once was; the struggle for scarce resources that will further divide, further impoverish?

What have our grandchildren done to deserve an inheritance of homeless people who no one wants to make space for or welcome in; a world of walls and wall builders who exploit our differences and fears to accumulate their own power and wealth?

What have our great-grandchildren done to deserve the labels that we have held onto and honed and passed on from generation to generation as weapons against another’s dignity and worth: retard, queer, Abo, whore?

My reading of Hosea and Gomer’s “love story” this morning is not of a distant, angry God passing the judgment against a wicked people onto the innocents, but of the broken heart of God becoming a living embodiment within a community that’s consistently overlooked the need for right relationship with God and with one another as the fundamental principle of a healthy society. The most vulnerable in their midst – these three innocents – invite them to turn from their pursuit of prosperity and power at any expense to, again, working for the day when all will be called “children of the living God.”

Jezreel declares to us this day that violence and vengeance break the heart of God.

Lo-Ruhamah cries out to us this day that the experience of not being loved breaks the heart of God.

Lo-Ammi wails that not having a place or a people to belong to breaks the heart of God.

As Hosea, out of his deep and unlikely love for Gomer, longs for her to love him in return and pays himself the price for her restoration, so too does the living God long for us to discover a fullness of life that is grounded in the wellbeing of the earth and of our community.

God’s heart breaks
for all who are victimised,
oppressed,
ridiculed,
cheated,
displaced,
disowned,
abandoned,
loathed … in this generation and the one after and the one after and the one after that ….

If we in our apathy, or or busyness, or hopelessness, or “i’m doing okay, why the heck is this my problem”-ness sit back and wait for someone else to get on with the work of embodying God’s kingdom right here and right now, we too break the heart of God.

My prayer for the Church is that as we come again and again to God’s table with open hands to receive the love and life of God, our hands will remain open to those who need a little help, or a kind touch, or someone to carry their load for a little while.

My prayer for the Church is that as we pray again and again for and receive fully and freely, the forgiveness of God for our own <stuff>, we will extend that same grace and mercy to a relationship that is broken or a person whose life choices we don’t understand or agree with.

My prayer for the Church us that we will walk into each day speaking hope wherever we find the broken-heart of God in our midst rather than reverting to the all-too-easy, all-too-familiar ways of looking, speaking, thinking, working that do nothing to help others encounter in us the heart of God for the whole world.

A possible translation of the Lord’s prayer from Aramaic (N. Douglas-Klotz):

And so O Birther! Father-Mother of the Cosmos,
focus your light within us – make it useful:
Create your reign of unity now –
Your one desire then acts with ours,
as in all light, so in all forms.
Grant what we need each day in bread and insight.
Loose the cords of mistakes binding us,
as we release the strands we hold
of others’ guilt.
Don’t let surface things delude us,
but free us from what holds us back.
From you is born all ruling will,
the power and the life to do,
the song that beautifies all,
from age to age it renews.
Truly – power to these statements – 
may they be the ground from which all
our actions grow:
Amen.


A pilgrim people

A reflection on Christian identity after my Uniting Church Studies course….

The Church is a pilgrim people,
always on the way towards a promised goal;
here she does not have a continuing city
but seeks one to come.
One the way
Christ feeds her with Word and Sacraments,
and she has the gift of the Spirit
in order that she may not lose the way.

Uniting Church in Australia, Basis of Union, paragraph 3

As a pilgrim people,
the Church is always on the move
– not in the sense of aimless wandering
or walking just for walking’s sake –
but with deliberate intent,
advancing towards the ever-approaching kingdom
of Christ’s shalom
for all people
and for the whole earth which groans
in distress and in anticipation.

As a pilgrim people,
the Church is aware that we walk
in the footsteps of Him-who-leads-us;
that we must follow in His way
as it leads over mountain tops
and through deep valleys.
Such journeys are never easy
for they require trust and obedience
when the road is steep and challenging
and the end nowhere in sight.

As a pilgrim people,
we take responsibility for
the grandmothers and grandfathers,
the aunts and uncles,
the sisters and brothers,
the children and infants,
the neighbours who walk with us –
carrying those too weak or ill to continue on their own,
matching pace with those a little – or a lot –
slower than ourselves;
even stopping with strangers in the hope
of being of help
and of them continuing with us on our journey home.

As a pilgrim people,
we have songs to sing,
and stories to share
of God’s power and provision –
every step of the way.
These songs,
these stories,
are at the heart of the hope that keeps us moving
though resources may seem scarce
or our strength inadequate,
for they remind us of where we’ve come from
and inspire us
with what God is guiding us towards.

God’s people have always been a pilgrim people;
not fully settled in this place and time
but always watching
and waiting
and walking
towards a new heaven
and a new earth:
towards the day
when we will finally be welcomed home by name.

Easter 5 letter

To my fellow pilgrims on the path of resurrection life 

Last Saturday, mom and I spent a lovely afternoon at Tambea Kitchen and Garden learning a little more about gardening in Australia – and, more specifically, in Wagga’s difficult climate. (I won’t go into detail about the caramelised pear and ginger cake that we also enjoyed over afternoon tea but it definitely deserves a mention).  One idea that the presenter kept coming back to, however, was the importance of thinking about your entrance – whether you live on a farm, in a cottage, in the suburbs, and even in a flat. Your entrance not only makes a first and lasting impression, but it also tells people something about who you are and lets them know where you want them to go and what door you would like them to enter in by. 

Alongside Janice’s joy-filled induction service and the celebration of Mother’s Day (which becomes a little more awkward each year for many preachers due to our deepening awareness of who might feel left out or even be hurt by their memories), the myriad pictures of bold and creative entrances that we were shown has had me thinking a lot about how we extend God’s welcome to our community: 

~ what do our entrances say about us?
~ how do people know where to go?
~ does our welcome encourage them to enter through the door of our church and the Door of Life?

As we continue to journey with the book of Acts and the stories of the church coming to life in this season of Eastertide, we encounter the apostle Peter freshly returned from Joppa where many had come to profess faith in the resurrected Christ. His greeting by the believers in Jerusalem is not quite what we might expect:

“The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, ‘You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.’”  Acts 11:1-2

And so Peter explains: 

~ his vision of God making what he considered impure clean,
~ the timely invitation to Caesarea,
~ and how he witnessed the gift of God’s Spirit to the Gentiles.

THEN the disciples rejoice at how God is opening up the way, expanding the kingdom to include those that they had not judged worthy! 

As Revelation 21:1-6 reminds us today: God is moving into the neighbourhood. Heaven, in Christ, is coming to earth. And the Church exists as a sign of this Truth.

As God makes God’s dwelling place with all people, I wonder how we can offer a cheerful entrance and a warm welcome rather than the unspoken 

“This venue reserves the right
to refuse admission to any person”

which shows on so many faces when the unexpected and “unwanted” show up. 

This week, may we be particularly aware of the opportunities to extend God’s welcome to friend and neighbour and stranger.

Yours in Christ
Yvonne 

Easter 4 letter

 To my fellow pilgrims on the path of resurrection life 

This week sees a wonderful celebration of women with:
~ the story of Dorcas, the dressmaker, as one of our lectionary readings in this time of Eastertide,
~ the induction of Reverend Janice McWhinney at Wesley on Saturday morning,
~ and, of course, affirming and praying for the treasures that we name “Mother” in our family and community.

These moments are of special significance to me as a mother, daughter, sister, sister-in-law, and woman in ministry for – despite gradual and intentional changes – the language and power hierarchies within human relationships are still very much masculine.

Imagine what it must have been like to be a woman in Dorcas’s time! 

Yet, in a patriarchal world and an emerging church led exclusively by a cadre of male disciples, Dorcas sews together far more than pretty garments:

  • Within her home, she drew together members of both the Jewish and Greek communities – note her two names – in a radical act of inclusion. 
  • Through her charitable acts, she helped those who had a little to offer to recognise their ties to the most vulnerable and poor within the city of Joppa – not by putting money in a plate but by making by hand something that would provide warmth and care for those in need. 
  • In the public square she wove into the understanding of Christian discipleship the colours of gentleness, compassion, and the desire to repair the world.  

William Willimon notes:

“When the story of the rising of Dorcas is told by the church, the social system of paralysis and death is rendered null and void. The church comes out and speaks the evangelical and prophetic ‘Rise!’ and nothing is ever quite the same.”

As we tell the story this week of a woman who brought the rising of hope to the vulnerable, alienated, oppressed cast-offs of her community; a new minister who will share in the work of repairing the world in this place; and the women who have carried us in their wombs – and their hearts, may we hear again the invitation to “Come to life!” and rise in the name of
~ our Labouring God who held us in the hidden depths of God’s own heart before bringing us into being,
~ our Accompanying God who draws near day after day with outstretched hand to walk and talk and work with us,
~ and our Affirming God who declares the goodness of each Word-birthed, Spirit-breathed man and woman.

And may God bless in this time of remembrance and celebration every woman who is and was and will be a living expression of God’s labouring, affirming, accompanying nature. 

Infuse them with Your wisdom,
encircle them with Your love,
empower them with Your presence,
that they may know in the very depths of their being,
their beauty and belovedness.
Amen. 

Yours in Christ
Yvonne