Return to me with all your heart: a sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17              Psalm 51     2 Cor 5:20-6:10                 Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.

Return to the Lord.

Today we begin our journey into lent, knowing it takes through the wilderness, among the hosannas of the ride into Jerusalem, and to the passion and pain of the cross.  We know what lies ahead, but there are 40 days in which to get there. How will we use this time?

Return to me with all your heart, God says, with fasting, weeping and mourning.  Return to the Lord.

So my questions this Lent, are:

  • Where is your heart currently?
  • Where do you need to go, to retrieve the pieces of your heart that are not with God? 
  • How will you search for those pieces to bring them back?
  • And how will you hand them over to God?

Return to me with all your heart, God says.  All of it.

What will help, this lent, for you to discover where you have left your heart? If you aren’t sure where all the pieces of your heart are, check the end of this gospel passage – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Check where your treasure lies, and there you will find your heart.

So before you give up chocolate or wine or social media this Lent, consider ‘how will my lack of these things help my heart return to God’? Will not doing these things make me love God more??’  And if it will, then it is the perfect Lenten discipline.  The perfect way of fasting.  If it wont bring your heart back to God then you might reconsider…

A while ago, I gave up drinking – it was stealing too much from me and not giving me any of the things it promised. Giving it up was a good thing – it has great benefits. I sleep better, my anxiety is reduced, my heart rate is improved, my mind is clearer, I have more time and more money available, I’ve even dropped a few kilos. All these things are good. But God is not so intent on good, as much as holy. Giving up drinking is good, but what I do with that extra time and clearer mind and increased money and energy – what I do with that has the potential to become holy.  Especially if I use it to bring my wandering heart back to God.

And, truthfully, if I want to reclaim the distracted and straying parts of my heart, and return them to God, that is not found in the absence of wine; it is found in what I do in its place. Reclaiming my heart for God happens when I choose to spend more time with the God I’ve chosen to follow all my life, and who I gave my whole heart to back in the beginning.

Giving up something is ok, but only if, in its place, something holy begins. And Lent is a gift of time and space to do that; to try one new thing that will return your heart more fully to God.

In the church we begin Lent with receiving the sign of the cross on our foreheads, in Ash.

This is an ancient tradition, where ash is a symbol of mourning; where we mourn for all the ways we have failed God and failed one another; a moment to turn from all our failings and purposefully face the direction of the cross: literally realign ourself with the cross – it is right there, on our heads, right in front of us, and we are immediately placed right behind it, back where we belong.

On Ash Wednesday, we commit all over again to walk the way of Christ, together, as we try to return to God, with all of our heart, drawn by God’s grace and mercy and steadfast love. 

Return to me with all your heart God says.  Not because God is possessive and angry.  Not because God doesn’t want us to love other people and other things.

Return to me with ALL your heart God says, because that is the best and safest place for our hearts to be.  It is an invitation of love, on God’s part – as always. Because when our hearts are fully with God we can love outrageously and fiercely and boldly.  When our hearts are fully with God our friends and neighbours and community will benefit most fully. 

Returning to God, with all our hearts takes work and commitment.  It takes dedication and doesn’t happen accidentally, but it is the absolute best thing for us, and for those around us.  It will transform our lives and our church and our community.  It will change the world.

Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping and with mourning.

Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

So, my questions for this Lent, again, are:

  • Where is your heart currently?
  • Where do you need to go, to retrieve the pieces of your heart that are not with God? 
  • How will you search for those pieces to bring them back?
  • And how will you hand them over to God?

Return to me with all your heart, God says.  All of it.

May this signing, with ash and oil, mark a significant moment in your returning.   Amen.

Planting the Alleluia

Exodus 24:12-18              Psalm 2        2 Peter 1: 16-21               Matt 17: 1-9

Sometimes it is easy to become complacent about our bible readings – we have these readings every year – we know the story of Transfiguration – there’s Jesus, a mountain, Peter, James and John and a bright light and we know the rest. Sometimes it seems easier to be more enamoured by transfiguration when it is in Professor McGonagalls class at Hogwarts than when it is in our church. But Jesus’ disciples fell to the ground at the sight of the transfiguration. When was the last time I was ever that overwhelmed by the glory of God? Was I ever?

Several years ago, I first heard about this ancient practice, dating back to the 10th century, that can help us to do recapture something of the enormity of these readings – or at least be able to approach them afresh. it is a practice I introduced in my last parish back in 2020 and we did it here last year. It is the practice of burying or locking the alleluia. Do you remember?  Let me recap with the words I first read about it. They said this…

‘…nine weeks before Easter, the custom of ceasing to sing ‘Alleluia’ at mass [begins]; a practice referred to in medieval England as ‘locking the Alleluia’. The word was symbolically [and literally] locked away, to be unlocked again amid the celebration of Easter – then the word was released from its captivity, just as Christ would break out of the tomb and human beings would be liberated from captivity to sin.’

I love symbolism in worship, and I love ritual, so I was eager to reintroduce it.

In 2020 I got every child in our local primary school to make their own alleluia on a piece of paper and bring it to church – 350 alleluias in total. And during the Sunday service each member of the congregation made one. They all went into a box and were ‘buried’ underneath the high altar, ready to be spectacularly released on Easter Sunday. Then COVID hit and those symbolic songs of praise were left there, unsung for the next 6 months and they were never resurrected in the way it was intended. And the symbolism of not being able to celebrate the resurrection but rather it being recycled into something else felt very 2020.

Then, last year, we buried the alleluia here.

At the time, we were visiting three friends who were incarcerated at the prison at Perth airport, for seeking asylum here; Ned, Javad and our dear Aref. I had visited them a few weeks before and Aref had given me a Tupperware container with his name on. Do you remember it? In that container, we placed our alleluia letters.

And, with Aref’s box in front of us, we thought about our brothers in detention, and what life was like for them, and how glory couldn’t be further from their experiences.  Our readings tell us about standing in glory, with the Divine. But how do we stand, what do we say to our fellow siblings, when we and they are far from that experience.

Well, what we did, as in every lent, is to stop saying the church’s great word of praise and we buried it, as a prayer for those who have lost their alleluia. And then, on easter Sunday, we dug it up and brought it back into church. Except something had changed, something very significant had changed. Two of our friends had been released – Aref was right here when we dug up his now-holy lunch box – in fact, it became the day of his baptism. I can’t put into words what happened in those 40 days, nor the symbolism and significance of that buried alleluia in that box with his name on but, somehow, together, we were witnesses of something close to resurrection.

So it is with some kind of trepidation that we bury the alleluia again this year. Because, what if we aren’t actually burying it at all. What if we are actually PLANTING it? Burying something, digging a hole and putting it into the ground, is very similar to planting, isn’t it? But burying is about marking death and planting is the absolute opposite – planting is about looking for, and waiting for, life.

At the end of the service today we will take our word – alleluia – and we will place it into this tub and we will put it into the ground where we wont see it again until our dawn service on Easter Sunday. But I wonder what we want to see grow here – what and who do we want to see spring into life, or show the first buds of some new creation? What will we place, symbolically, into this tub that God might feed and nurture and break open and transform to add to God’s glory; the glory witnessed on the mountain by Moses and Jesus and Peter and James and John and Elijah.

And as it is buried – as it is planted – so we will no longer use the word Alleluia in our worship.  There will be a gap where it once was. May we really notice it is gone. May our liturgy and worship take on a sombre tone, a more serious meaning.  And each time we notice its absence – in that silence, may that be our prayer for those who are currently unable to murmur that word of praise; may it be our prayer for the trafficked, the asylum seeker, the traumatised family fleeing war, the homeless, the lonely, the addicted, may it be our prayer for the deepest saddest parts of ourselves. And may it be a cry to the Divine Gardener – the one we will meet in that garden on easter Sunday – may it be a cry for an outpouring of watering and tending and caring for the shoots that may grow from this planting. And may it all be for the glory of the one who creates and recreates. Amen.

Get some sleep!

DEUT 10: 12-22. PSALM 119: 1-8 1 COR 3: 1-9. MATT 5: 21-37

One of the lovely things about my morning routine is our daily dog walk. Each morning, Maggie and I walk with Maureen and MillyMae. Maureen is an amazing storyteller, and she regales me with tales from her life, and from her work as a nanny. This week, one of those stories came back to me as I’ve been reading these pretty unpalatable readings…

One of the children Maureen nannies is a little 5-year-old named Otis.  He is sharp and inquisitive and very bright. One day, Maureen and Otis were on the train, heading to the city, travelling in a busy carriage, full of commuters.

Into this mass of people, Otis pipes up, ‘Maureen…do you know one thing I really HATE?’

‘What’s that?’ Maureen replies. (Several people in the carriage also wonder what this little person REALLY HATES and begin to tune in).  ‘SLEEP’ he says, ‘AND, do you know my mother makes me do it every single night???’

I’ve been thinking about that gorgeous exchange this week; about Otis and his mummy and their inevitable battle each bedtime. Go to sleep! I hate sleep! It’s good for you! I hate it! I’ve been thinking about encouraging those we love to do the things that are best for them and how unpopular that might seem but how important it is.

And I’ve battled with Jesus’ words in the gospel reading because if I was to truly follow them, I’d be standing before you, eye-less and hand-less and bound for prison or the gates of hell. I would. And the only reassuring thing about that is I would probably be alongside most of you here, wouldn’t I?! wouldn’t I???

But yesterday, something shifted in my mind and heart, and I began to read that list of unattainably high standards alongside the reading from Deuteronomy; those beautiful verses that said ‘what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to keep the commandments of the Lord your God for your own well-being’ and I thought, Wow. God is loving me! God is commanding me for my own wellbeing, not because God is a killjoy and wants to steal my fun!

I want what’s best for you, says God. But since those days of Deuteronomy, humanity had several centuries to muck things up further, and get themselves into all manner of trouble, so Jesus raises the bar higher…

You have heard it said, ‘you shall not murder’, but now I say ‘don’t even be angry with your brother and sister’. You have heard it said, ‘do not commit adultery’ but now I say, ‘don’t even look with lust because you’ve already committed adultery in your heart’.

Jesus is loving his followers; he is deeply caring for his people – don’t do those things because they’re not good for you and I want you to experience the best life has for you. Don’t only avoid the big things, avoid the things that lead to it. Not because Jesus wants to steal our fun. Not because he has insanely high standards for us and is waiting for us to fail so he can send us to hell. None of that, but simply because he LOVES us. He utterly adores us. Every single one of us. And he wants the best for us.

He knows what happens to those who murder – he knows the shame and the guilt and the anger and the hatred and the secrecy and all the other things that will chew us up and spit us out. He knows we don’t need to be sent to hell because we will be living there already. And he doesn’t want that for his people, so he says don’t even get angry. Don’t go down that path. I know where it leads.

And he knows what happens to marriages and relationships where adultery sneaks in. He knows of the shame and secrecy and resentment and the damage it causes to hearts and minds and self-esteem and self-worth. He knows that and he doesn’t want that for his people. He is saying these things for our own wellbeing, as those verses in Deuteronomy say.

And these gospel verses are part of the sermon on the mount; they come soon after those glorious ‘blessed are’ verses that I wept through a couple of weeks ago. And that struck me yesterday too. Jesus is saying don’t do these things because they’re really not good for you and I love you and I don’t want to see you hurt and damaged. I don’t want to see you weeping on your bathroom floor at 3am, weighed down by whatever it is you have done – and I don’t want you to do things that will make you believe you are separated from my love.

I don’t want you to do that. But. If you do. When you do. Know this:

Blessed are you. Blessed are you anyway.

Blessed is the murderer and the angry one and the adulterer and the lustful. Blessed is he who sins with his eyes and she who sins with her hands. Blessed is the divorced and blessed is the one they left. Blessed are you. I’m still here, Jesus says, and nothing will ever separate you from my love. It’s not what I want for you, but it is not the end. It is never the end.

I read these words from Jesus as judgement. I read them as pass or fail. And I didn’t come out well. And The Church, and Christians have used these words to condemn and judge others. They have used them to abuse people who are tentatively taking their first steps towards faith in God. These words have been used to keep people out of church and to keep people oppressed and to push them further onto the fringes of society. And, friends, THAT is the sin here. Because these words are intended for love:

My darling friends, Jesus is saying, my precious followers, I want life for you in all abundance. I want all that is best for you. when you slip up you are still loved and still welcome and still held and still whole, but I want more than that for you so I am giving you these guidelines so that you might choose life.

Whenever Jesus speaks, his message is love.

Every time God speaks, it is to reiterate the point that we are loved and accepted and welcome and forgiven. Every time. Always.

So, just as Otis’ longsuffering mama will probably have to keep having the nightly ‘go to sleep’ battle, so too will God keep on encouraging us to make wise choices, for our own wellbeing. May we see it as encouragement not judgement. May we share it as encouragement not judgement. And when our heavenly parent suggests it, may we go to sleep!



Malachi 3: 1-5                 Psalm 24          Hebrew 2:14-18             Luke 2:22-40

I’ve told you before about when God invited me to Australia to create holy chaos, but I don’t think I’ve told you about what came next. I heard this invitation – you can come to Australia if you want – and I said yes…so the job hunt began. I went onto the diocesan website for Perth and found the bit where it listed the vacancies. Let me tell you, there are lots of them, or there were when I was looking. And I clicked on each one and began to read. Some were immediately discarded because they had heavily coded messages that indicated they wanted a men or someone who was conservative or an evangelical minister, and that clearly wouldn’t have been a match, but even so, a short-list began to emerge. And then I’d message Craig – things like, what about Kwinana, where’s that? How about Bassendean? And Craig would – literally every single time – say no. I’m not moving there – it’s too posh or too far or too whatever and he was pretty determined to stay in Alkimos, so I’d go back to the drawing board.

And then one day – actually while the time difference meant Craig was sleeping – I saw the advert for this little place called St Paul’s, in Beaconsfield. And I clicked on the link, and it took me to the church website and I read the first sentence on the home page and knew, in less than 3 seconds, I was home. It said something like, ‘come and join us as we search for the Divine together’.

The fact God was not being described as He, and I was being invited on a journey – with others – to figure out what this crazy life as a God-chaser might look like was enough. It was everything. And I messaged Craig and distinctly remember it said something like ‘I’ve found the place. I don’t know where you’re going but I’m moving to Beaconsfield’. And that one sentence – come and join with us as we seek the Divine – was the key.

And I’ve been thinking about that this week, as we approached today – Candlemas – when we remember the presentation of the baby Christ in the temple, and the epiphany to faithful Anna and devoted Simeon, and as we heard those wonderful words from the prophecy of Malachi – because all of it is all about seeking the Divine, together.

So hear again, the words of the prophet Malachi, echoing down through the ages: The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…

This prophecy speaks of who Anna and Simeon, and the whole Jewish nation, were waiting for: a death-defying, devil-slaying, high priest, in the service of God.  And it foreshadows this day, when the Holy Spirit propelled them to the temple, inspired their vision, and revealed the Lord, in their very midst. 

And they found a baby.  Just an 8-day old baby.

Was this really what had been promised for more than 500 years?  Was this the hope of the world?  The one who would judge and redeem and purify and refine?  The one who would set the oppressed free, defend the widow and the orphan, and care for the alien?  Could this little person really turn the whole world upside-down?  It seems hard to believe, doesn’t it? Could this baby be the Divine?

But Malachi’s prophecy continues, this one who suddenly comes to his temple ‘…is like a refiners fire…he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and will purify and refine like gold and silver’. 

And this bit blows my mind, every time, because do you know how a silversmith refines and purifies their metal?  They sit, for long periods of time, holding their metal in very intense heat and they hold it there until the dross burns off.  They hold it until it is free from impurity.  And they only know it is pure when they can see their reflection perfectly in it.  When the face of the one who is creating it can be fully seen.

Malachi’s prophecy promises the Lord is coming and will refine and purify like gold and silver.  And on that day, in the temple, prayerful Anna, and spirit-inspired Simeon, recognised the image of God in the face of the baby Christ.  And they took the child and saw the future salvation of God, God’s very self, reflected in that pure unadulterated face of Christ. And they believed.

And that is what we remember today – that the image of the creator was revealed in the face of that tiny baby who was brought to the temple. But what this place – this temple – has shown me is that the image of the creator is revealed in one another as we journey together to discover more of the Divine. It’s like this place is another of God’s refining fires – where we are each held to the light, held in the fire, until God can see God’s face in each of us – until our own reflection is the image of God. That’s the journey of this place.

That might sometimes feel like a big ask – being held in the fire doesn’t sound comfortable and trying to reflect the image of the divine sounds like something I fail to do every single day. But, friends, we are baptised children of God and everything that needs to be done happened right there in those waters. In the waters of our baptism, we were cleansed and purified and made holy – in those waters we were made to fully reflect the face of the Divine – and we were given a holy calling, symbolised by the gift of the lit flame: shine as a light in the world, to the glory of God, we were told.

And today, Candlemas, is the festival of light; it is a day to celebrate this light.  And, as Rumi says, we are stars wrapped in bodies, thoughts and feelings and the light we seek is right here. We cannot fail to reflect something of the Divine because it is in our very DNA, it is the foundation of who we are; our life’s work is simply to allow it to shine more brightly, more clearly, that others might see and, like Anna and Simeon, believe.

So, on this festival day, where we think of light and fire and our call to shine and reflect the image of the Divine, even as we are seeking after them, let’s have a visible reminder of this.

Candles – light one from paschal candle – pass along – light one another’s with ‘let the image of the divine shine through you’


Blessed are you…

Micah 6: 1-8  Psalm 15          1 Corinthians 1:18-31            Matthew 5: 1-12

On 13th April, 2001, sat in a huge circus tent, I heard these words from Matthew’s gospel. I was broken and sad. My marriage had recently fallen apart; I had lost my home, all but a bag full of my belongings, and had been told I was no longer welcome in my church. My faith in marriage, and humanity, and God was pretty much nil, and I was finding my solace in the arms and beds of inappropriate people. I felt disgusting and cheap and full of shame. How I had found myself surrounded by 5000 Christians – who I thought were the worst and most judgemental people of all – was nothing short of a miracle, but there I was. And the preacher read these words…

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain.

He went on to say the crowds couldn’t help but follow Jesus – they were the outcasts and the sinners – they were the prostitutes and tax collectors and the poor and the sick. They were the ones nobody else wanted to be associated with and they couldn’t help but be drawn to Jesus AND, not only that; He was pleased to see them.

And in that tent, I felt like one of them. My church had told me I had to leave. I was disrespecting my body, through food and drink and sex, and I was cloaked in shame. And this man was telling me Jesus was pleased to see me…and, somewhere inside me, I knew he was right. And, like those people on that mountainside, I couldn’t help but follow him either.

And so began my second journey of faith, my following of Christ as an adult, with all my shit; hopelessly and helplessly in love with God, knowing I could never turn back now, not even if I wanted to.

Knowing Jesus to be the one who attracts the outcasts and those the world hates; knowing they are drawn to him and he is pleased to see him, pleased to see ME, has been the foundation of my faith and my call to ordination and my life as a priest and sold out Jesus-lover.

That sense was enough in itself, but here’s the thing – this crowd of people; outsiders and unwelcome everywhere else – when they follow Jesus, he is not only pleased to see them, he blesses them. Isn’t that just so Jesus?! These people, on the very edge of society, they’re the ones who get the blessing:

Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek and the hungry and the thirsty, blessed are the peacemakers and the persecuted and the pure. And blessed are the hated. Yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Several years ago, I read a wonderful sermon on this passage, given by one of my favourite preachers – Nadia Bolz-weber. (if you don’t know her, you should!). She said…

‘Maybe the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside, who his world—like ours—didn’t have much time for… Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing… I mean, come on, doesn’t that just sound like something Jesus would do? Extravagantly throwing around blessings as though they grew on trees?’

And then she goes on to write her own version of this passage, for the people around her that day. And she throws out blessings of her own, things like…

Blessed are the agnostics. Blessed are they who doubt.

Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.

Blessed are those who no one else notices. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.

Blessed are foster kids and special-ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.

Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.

And so she goes on…

And I wonder what blessings Jesus would throw out here today. Maybe it would be something like this…

‘Blessed are you, wherever you are on your faith journey; the atheist, agnostic, quaker, lapsed catholic, evangelical, seeker, conservative, liberal, Jesus-lover, God-doubter. I am pleased to see you…

Blessed are the phds and doctors, the MAs, BAs, OAs and those who trained at the university of life. Your mind is beautiful.

Blessed are the faithful, who have been here for decades, and keep on showing up,

Blessed are you who are grumpy and judgey and bored and wish you were somewhere else – none of that stops the kingdom of God being open for you

Blessed are those who don’t know when they will next eat.  And blessed are you who will feed them.

Blessed are those who have children, don’t want children, can’t have children, and those who are children – you are made in the image of God.

And blessed are you, even while you are addicted to alcohol and drugs.  You are blessed by God – yours is the kingdom. And you are welcome here. God sees you and loves you and is the light in the darkness you face. 

Blessed are those who care about the plight of the widow and the orphan and the homeless and hungry and blessed are those who haven’t even thought about those who are worse off, for weeks, or ever. 

Blessed are the refugees and asylum seekers; you who arrived by boat or land or air. Blessed are you who were welcomed in and those who are still locked up at the borders – the kingdom of God is yours, you are welcome and you don’t need a freaking visa. Citizenship is yours.

Blessed are you, even though you are sat there saying ‘but she can’t mean me because I’m…’ whatever.  Yes, even you.  Blessed are you.

And blessed are you as you sit in your secrecy, fearful of being found out. God sees you and knows you and hates your shame and says ‘blessed are you – I love you – you are enough’

Blessed are those the world loves, and those the world hates, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

The kingdom of heaven sounds alright, doesn’t it? This place where everyone is welcome and blessed and accepted. But for people like me, who sat in that tent feeling like the world’s outcast, we need to do more. We need to be more.

We need to become the answer to the prayer that we pray every time we meet. We need to be the Kingdom here and now; your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, we pray. May we become that, so we don’t need to wait until we get to heaven, Amen.

Come and See!

Isaiah 49:1-7          Psalm 40:1-11       1 Corinthians 1:1-9         John 1:29-42

Last week I told you about the epiphany I had, some years ago, about epiphany. Well, this week, the epiphanies continued….so I’m having epiphanies about the epiphany I had about epiphany. Are you keeping up?!

Two weeks ago, we had the epiphany of the wise men, as they encountered the baby Jesus and discovered him to be the Christ, the hope of the nations.

Last week we had the epiphany, I suppose, of John the Baptist and all who witnessed Jesus’ baptism, at the waters of the Jordan river, as Jesus was baptised; the heavens were torn open, God’s spirit descended like a dove and rested on him and that voice was heard proclaiming, ‘this is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased’ and all who were there discovered this carpenter man was, indeed, God, the Christ, the Son of the Almighty.

Today we are still in epiphany season and we have a continuation of last week; it’s the day after, and John sees Jesus and says ‘here is the lamb of God’…this is the one I was telling you about – and, he says, ‘I saw the spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him…this is the Son of God’. It’s like a precis of the plot. Those of you who missed last week, or yesterday in John’s case, this is what happened – I baptised him, the spirit came, this is God. He’s the one.

And what is the epiphany here? Well, John reveals and confirms that Jesus is God, but we had that epiphany last week.

He tells those gathered that he is the Lamb of God, and commentary writers and greater minds than mine can’t agree what that means, and they tie themselves up in all kinds of theological wranglings. Anyway, in whatever way he says it, and whatever it means to those with him that day, it results in two disciples hearing…and responding by following Jesus. Maybe John’s words are the epiphany. Maybe it’s the revelation that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the epiphany to me in these verses is this…

Every epiphany, every revelation, every discovery given to us, by God, through Jesus, is an invitation. A divine invitation, for all people, and we get to choose how we respond. Every epiphany – every unveiling or revealing of something amazing is an invitation, from God to us. Epiphany is invitation. It is always an invitation.

In the epiphany to the wise men, they were invited to stop their searching, kneel, and worship. All they had been looking for, maybe for generations, had been found.  You don’t need to look any further! It is here, he is here, in this baby. Their invitation was to stop, bow down and worship.

In the epiphany of Christ’s baptism, where those gathered got to see the Spirit of God descending and hear the voice of God speaking, the epiphany was that this person is the messiah, the christ, the Son of God. But the invitation was to become one of God’s children; to know that same voice was speaking over them too; ‘you are my child too – you are beloved and with you I am so pleased’ – a divine invitation to join the family of Christ – and last week Kaius and Nathan and baby Gabriel said yes to that invitation, as many of us have before them. And many more will after them, too.

Epiphany is invitation. It’s not just a divine unveiling – a showing of something good – it is always an invitation to become part of the revelation.

And in today’s verses the invitation is explicit and clear.

‘What are you looking for?’ Jesus says…and then he says, ‘come and see’. Come and see! And they came and saw, and they remained with him, and then they went and told others ‘we have found the messiah’.  They were invited to see where Jesus was staying and whatever it was they saw there revealed this incredible epiphany that Jesus is the Messiah, the saviour they have been waiting for…and they went and told others.

Epiphany is not just an event in history. It is a series of events, of happenings, that course through time and continue happening and revealing themselves, and every single one is a holy invitation. Every single one says ‘come and see’.

In the journey of the Magi, God was leading them on, saying ‘come and see’.

At the baptism of Christ, God was drawing people to that water’s edge, saying ‘come and see’.

When John’s disciples saw Jesus walking along, God, in Christ, said ‘come and see’.

And right here and now, that same God is saying to us, ‘come and see’.  Come and see what I have in store for you. Come and see how much you are loved. Come and see how life can be when we journey together. Come and see.

And this holy invitation is for us individually, and it is also for us, collectively, as a church, as The Church, as God’s people who come together in this place.

What are you looking for, people of St Pauls?, Jesus asks.

What are you looking for, for the people of Beaconsfield, and for one another?

Come and see what I have for you. Come and see how and where I live. Come and see that I am the messiah. Come and see. And then go and tell others that you have met the Christ, that you know the Messiah and life can be different.

 Come and see and then let others know that they can come and see too.

May God give us grace to see each epiphany as an invitation.

May we have the courage to say yes to every divine offer.

May we come and see and go and tell.

And may it all be for the glory of God. Amen.

An Epiphany about Epiphany

Isaiah 42:1-9          Psalm 29      Acts 10: 24-43                   Matthew 3: 13-17

A few years ago, I had an epiphany about epiphany. Until then, I had thought epiphany was the word to describe the journey of the wise men. A day in the year. A celebration. I hadn’t connected that epiphany was a word we use in other contexts when speaking about sudden realisation or revelation. Recognising that was an epiphany in itself! And here we are in Epiphany season – the wise men came and went last week and epiphany continues. Today we find ourselves at the banks of the River Jordan, where Jesus and John the Baptiser are gathered with a crowd.

Imagine that…

People, filled with expectation: is John the messiah we’ve waited for??

Queues waiting to get into those waters, dying to sin and coming out the other side – dripping on the riverbanks. 

And then along comes the Palestinian carpenter, Joseph’s son, wading into the water.

There’s an exchange – will he, won’t he? He will! And John sinks him under and then something happens.

He’s lifted out of the water and the very heavens burst open; the spirit descends, visibly, like an actual dove and there is a voice…

This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

An epiphany

The epiphany – the surprise realisation – in the baptism of Christ is that Jesus is the Son of God, and because of this, things are about to change.  It is a revelation, an epiphany, of the reality of the Christ.  And maybe this was an epiphany to Jesus too.  This is the Son of God, You are my son, and God is not angry – God is well pleased.  This is who they have been waiting for, the dawning of the age of salvation, grace, mercy and Love.  An epiphany of a seismic change in history.

And when people come for baptism, like baby Kaius and little Gabrielle who I am baptising in the ocean this afternoon, all I really want for them and their family is their own epiphany; an overwhelming realisation that they are a child of God and that God is well pleased with them. That’s what I pray for each time. That’s what I always try to communicate; if you are going to leave here with just one message let it be that you are a beloved member of God’s family; God’s child, utterly loved.

When I was at college, our principal worked hard to hold together a group of ordinands from different traditions, with differing theologies and vastly varying opinions. Time and again he would remind us that our greatest calling is our baptism; that the thing that unites us is our God-given status as baptised and beloved children of the living God; that there is nothing greater than that – not our call to ordination, not if we go on to be bishops or archbishops, not our family wealth or intellect. Our greatest call is our call to walk through those waters of baptism – like Kaius and Gabrielle will today – and know in our hearts that the heavens broke open over us and God’s voice declared you are my child and I love you. With you I am well pleased.

And God tells us that regardless of what we have done and what we will go on to do. God declares that over each one of us regardless of where we have come from and where we are going. And God keeps on telling us that, every last moment of every last day, until God can tell us face to face. And that is the epiphany of baptism – that you are loved, just as dearly as Christ and just as profoundly as you were at that moment of your baptism.

And I pray that this is an epiphany for you today; that today might not just celebrate the epiphany of Jesus being proclaimed as the beloved Son of God, but that it might be an epiphany for each of us too. That today might be overwhelmingly significant for Kaius and Gabrielle and their family and friends, but also it might be significant for you too; that you see and hear and sense and feel the enormity of your greatest calling – a beloved child of God who is proud of you. May that be an epiphany that lives in your heart for this whole season and beyond because it is the truth.

You are my child, God says, my beloved. And with you I am well pleased. Amen.


Sing the Story: a sermon for Christmas Eve, midnight

Isaiah 62: 6-12                  Psalm 97                  Titus 3: 4-7             Luke 2: 1-20

I started singing Christmas Carols early this year.

Each month I go into the local aged care facility at Hilton and hold a communion service for the residents. We often have half a dozen or more people who come, and we share the bible readings, the bread and wine, and we attempt to sing one old well-known hymn together, but mostly I land up singing a badly-pitched solo. Some doze off. Some snore. Some have no idea what is happening around them. And some just sit and smile at me, while I press on through. But not this time.

I went at the start of December – still in the early days of advent – but suggested we sang a carol. This ordinarily quiet, subdued group of octogenarians became animated as they called out the names of their favourites; away in a manger, while shepherds watched their flocks, once in royal David’s city, hark the herald…and so they kept coming. And they sang! Oh they sang! Heads back, smiles on faces, they sang the Christmas story over and over. And there was such joy!

This past week we sang carols again…this time a group of us sang, with protest banners in our hands, outside the prison at Perth airport, where our friend Ned is detained indefinitely for seeking asylum in this country. We sang outside the window, seeing him through the mesh that keeps him locked up. He has spent the last 10 Christmasses there and has no idea how many more will come and go before he is released. He is so often in despair and sad, but hearing those songs made him beam with joy. At the end we sang ‘we wish you a merry Christmas’, which brutally clashed with the surroundings, but I dared to believe that our being there, singing the greatest story of light, life and hope, had contributed some merriness to his day. And he said it did.

And then we sang more carols right here this afternoon and again tonight. And in each of these places the Christmas story rang out and reminded me, clear as day, the importance of singing the story.

Singing the story woke those old ladies up and reminded them of christmasses gone by, and the truth of the glorious incarnation; the saviour who is Christ the Lord. Singing the story at the detention centre brought light and life to that horrendous place and brought joy to those who feel forgotten. Singing the story reminded them that they are human and held in our thoughts. And I hope that on some level it connected within them the deepest truth that the first Christmas celebrated a middle eastern baby, homeless, state-less and looking for a safe place to live…just like them. Singing the story told them that.

And this afternoon we sang the story with people from our local community as they played. And again, tonight, as people wandered in.

And on the first Christmas the angels sang the story, and the shepherds sang the story too.

‘Glory to God’, the angels sang, ‘and on earth peace among those God favours’.

And when the shepherds met the baby Christ-child they went back to their town singing the story to everyone they met…and everyone was amazed.

Singing does something to us, doesn’t it? It does something beyond the physical.

I mean, the angels could have just said their message…but singing it somehow underlines it, makes it bigger…and it gets into your head. Having an ear-worm can be super annoying but imagine having the angel’s song ringing around your head all day, singing in your soul.

There’s an old proverb that I love, often attributed to St Augustine, way back in the first century, that says ‘he who sings prays twice’ and that’s the crux of it.

Words are good. Spoken words are great. But singing the story is the most important of all. It is prayer. More than that, it is prayer…twice over! The one who sings, prays twice.

Returning to those precious old people at Hilton care home; as they sang the story, as they woke up to those timeless beautiful truths of the incarnation – that God came down to be with us and among us and to change the world forever – their faces shone. They became alert in a way I’ve not seen before, and they chatted together and wished me a merry christmas and I set them a challenge. I challenged them to go back to their wing quietly humming the story we had sung; casually sing these truths, under their breath.

And I believed those 7 or 8 old people could start a gentle revolution in that place as they sung the story…subversively communicating that the Lord Jesus was near, that the angels had sung, that shepherds had gone running, that wise men had travelled from far away in search of this new-born king, that light had dawned and the weary world rejoices. By singing the story, a quiet revolution could break out…not unlike the birth of a baby who is God. Because it is very like God to choose the most unusual of people to share the story; thief-shepherds, teen mums, a choir of angels, star gazers, fishermen, old ladies who often don’t even know their own name or where they are. That sounds like God to me.

And maybe it could also be true that God could even choose and use you to share this crazy, world-changing, life and light bringing story with the world. Maybe you could join and continue this revolution of love, simply by singing the story wherever you are.

So, as I challenged my dear friends at Hilton, so I challenge you this Christmas; sing the story to everyone you meet. Sing it with all your heart. Sing it at the top of your voice. Sing, even if you’re not sure which bits you believe and which bits you don’t. Sing it if you know the tune, if you know the harmonies, and even if you are tone deaf and sound dreadful. Sing the story until others join in. Sing as a lone voice or as part of a choir. Sing unafraid and unashamed. Sing of the birth of the messiah, born this night, because he is Christ the Lord.

Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth. Amen.

How is a baby made?

Isaiah 7: 10-16      Psalm 80: 1-8                    Romans 1: 1-7                  Matthew 1: 18-end

Virgin births are complicated.

We know how babies are made; it requires a sperm and egg. So, for some, the idea that the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…without sex but with a divine conception from the Holy Spirit…, this is where their encounter with Christianity ends. This is where they get off. This claim is too audacious, too crazy. It doesn’t make sense. And they’re right. You’re right. It doesn’t make sense. Babies aren’t made that way.

When I was about 3, my mum decided it was time my sister and I should learn these basic facts about life, so she bought an animated story book called ‘how a baby is made’. Not wanting to make too much of it, she casually sequestered it away on our bookcase, waiting for the time we might select *that* book for our bedtime story. So, imagine the scene…grandad comes over and offers to read to the cute little grandchildren sat on his knee. Little Gemma scurries off and selects a book. Ooh, a new book, let’s have this one! And grandad begins to read… ‘mummy and daddy love each other very much’… ‘sometimes, to show their love, they take their clothes off…’ and so it continued, resulting in the most toe curling experience grandad ever had. By age 3, I could tell you exactly how babies are made. And it wasn’t like this.

But, if we allow the unusual conception and remarkable pregnancy and birth to derail our faith journey; if we allow the questions and even the logic to distract us entirely, then we risk failing to encounter this wonderful truth: the son shall be named Emmanuel, which means God is with us.

God is with us.

And that is the beauty of the Christmas story, that is the outrageous claim of our faith – the fundamental truth – that God chose to leave heaven aside, put on flesh and come and be with us; no longer simply above us, but with us, alongside us, intimately connected with, and part of, humanity.

And what could be more intimate, more vulnerable, more ‘with’ than being right inside another human being, growing, moving, being nurtured and nourished, in the act of conception, pregnancy and childbirth. God was ‘with’ Mary.  And Mary was with child, and that child was God.

Doesn’t that say something remarkable about the incarnation? That God’s intention was always to be with humanity – not doing things to us but actually being with us, in real intimacy, even depending upon us for God’s very birth.

And God didn’t just come to earth once, in that first nativity. Yes, God’s incarnation was absolutely sufficient for all time and eternity. That once was enough. But God keeps on incarnating, keeps being born, keeps showing up on earth, with all humanity – you’ll see the wonderful Meister Eckhart quote on page 10 in your service book, which explains it just perfectly, ‘we are all to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born’.

And that is the truth.

God is always needing to be born; every moment is a nativity; every moment is the incarnation. And God still relies on humankind for that birth.

Mary’s role was very clear – be a vessel, a carrier of the divine. Be the one to hold and nurture and intimately carry the Christ. And then, when the time came, when the world needed him most, present that Christ to the world – bring him forth and reveal him to others – bring his light to the places of darkness and then set him free, that his goodness might be free to grow and spread and multiply and be passed on exponentially. Mary’s job was to know her encounter with the divine, experience it in her very body and then share it with the world.

And Mary’s job is our job too.

We are also called and created to be vessels and carriers of the divine. We also need to hold and nurture and carry Christ and then take him to the darkest places of this world and share his light and life and love with others. Our role is to encounter the divine; not keep him to ourselves but share his goodness and joy with the world.

And that is why we meet together here, and keep on coming back to this place, over and over. In our gathering we see something of the Christ in one another, we have opportunities to encounter the Christ and know Emmanuel – that God is with us. And in the breaking of the bread; in the eating and the drinking, we get to carry the Christ, literally in our body – just as Mary did – and then we are sent from here to take the Christ into the world.

In that first Christmas, Mary became Theotokos – literally the God-bearer. Growing and carrying the Christ in her body must have assured her, beyond all doubt, that in this event God is with her, with us. In our own journey, and uniquely in this mass, we too become the carrier of the divine and have that same responsibility to make the world a different, better place – a place that is acutely aware that God is – as God always was – with us.

I will end with the beautiful words of a Roman catholic sister – Frances Croake Frank – who wrote the stunning words of the poem ‘Did the Woman Say’. She writes this…

Did the woman say
When she held him for the first time
in the dark dank of a stable,
After the pain and the bleeding and the crying,
“This is my body, this is my blood?”

So, as Mary encountered her Christ in that dark dank stable, may we encounter him here, in the faces and actions of one another and in the body and blood of the eucharist. May we, and in turn the world, be changed by our encounter. And may we always know that God is with us. Amen.

Advent 2: Peace like a shoot…

Isaiah 11: 1-10, Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-21, Romans 15: 4-13, Matthew 3: 1-12

Back in 2005 I was fortunate enough to take a group of young people to Hiroshima, for a conference marking the 60th anniversary of the dreadful destruction caused by the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. In that moment, 140,000 people died in a split second as they were vaporised in a flash of heat reaching 4000 degrees Celsius. 

I remember as we walked through the city there was a small, insignificant plaque standing in front of an enormous tree.  The plaque said the first green shoot appeared right there, just 3 days after the bomb wiped out the entire city. Three days – from death to the first signs of resurrection: the symbolism is impossible to ignore.

That green shoot grew into this tree; a tree of hope, a symbol of well-fought-for peace.  A sign that nature would indeed be right back, and She would not be silenced forever. An indication that peace and hope will always eventually win.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; Isaiah prophesied; from his roots a branch will bear fruit.

A shoot will appear; a symbol of hope…and the prophecy goes on to say, its appearing will result in all good things – wisdom, knowledge and delight.  Righteousness will flourish, there will be peace in abundance, and justice for the poor.  Mountains laden with peace. Oppression crushed. Predators and their prey will live together.  Children will play safely.  And there will be rest.

And then John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the one the prophet speaks of.  And, through him, we will come to the day that is promised, when all these wonderful things will be restored, when the kingdom of heaven is fully and entirely established. 

But we are not there yet, are we?  We really aren’t.

And while there are signs of hope springing up like those wildflowers I spoke about last week…while there are glimpses of peace…and sometimes humanity does amaze us by doing some incredible acts of kindness…on the whole, this world still feels pretty broken, and we have to recognise that this is not what God intended God’s divine gift of creation to be. And the way humanity manages this gift is not what we were created for either.

And yet the prophecy remains.  The promise was made.  And God does not break them.  So, it means it is still on its way, even when it is hard to imagine, impossible to see and difficult to believe.  And, as people who are trying to follow Jesus – the root of Jesse, the hope of the nations – we have a role to play in spotting and nurturing those shoots as they appear.

It is God’s promise, not ours, and God will do all God needs to do to make it come to pass.  It is not entirely down to us, but we are called and commissioned and entrusted to do all we can to partner with God – to be God’s hands and feet, here, where we are ‘planted’.  To make Beaconsfield, Perth, WA, and beyond, a better place, in this generation.

So, the question is, what will we do to help to bring this about; to see hope, joy, and peace spring up around us?  What can we do to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight?  Maybe we can’t change the whole world, but we can do our bit to change that which we are dissatisfied with in our own streets, in our town.  We can do something in order to see those tiny shoots spring up in places of destruction, like that tree in Hiroshima.  And it is essential, imperative, that the Church is the one leading the way in that, because we follow the one who promises it’s not just possible; it’s on its way.

But our theme for this second Sunday in advent is peace. Yet these words from Matthew’s gospel don’t say a great deal about peace; repent, John says! There is wrath to come! The axe is at the root of the tree…every tree that doesn’t bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…there will be baptisms of fire…and unquenchable fire at that.

And yet, I keep returning to that shoot in the park in Japan. After so much destruction, such extreme temperatures, so much fire… a shoot appeared. And I wonder if sometimes the path to peace takes us through hard and testing times before we can see it. Sometimes the road to peace is hard-fought. Sometimes the way to peace involves uproar, hard work, self-examination, change.

Oftentimes, the concept of peace gets a bad rap – like its meek, passive, an absence of something – like a lack of conflict, a gap, rather than something fierce. But that little shoot said so much. It said ‘war thought it had won. Destruction seemed to be the end. But I’m here to say something different’.

And the shoot that comes out of the stump of Jesse – Jesus – says the same thing. Darkness threatened to win but I’m here to say something different – me and my kingdom, says the Lord, shall be glorious and peace will be abundant. And we will get there; the path to it might be strewn with rocks and stumbling blocks, but it’s not just possible – it’s on its way.

Today is the Sunday of peace. The day we commit again to being agents of peace – to taking up the weapons that lead to peace. But our weapons are different. They are the belts of righteousness and faithfulness. Our judgements are equitable and right. We rescue the child and the needy and crush the oppressor. Our language is love and right-speaking. Our actions bring blessing and hope and great rejoicing. And all that we do makes the paths straight for those who come after us who want to follow our Lord.

This advent every parish is being encouraged by our Archbishop to plant a tree, as a symbol of hope and peace and as a tangible commitment to caring for our planet. In the coming days we will be planting a eucalyptus tree in our gardens – a tree of peace. As we see it planted, may it be a reminder to us of our call to be agents of peace. May it remind us that sometimes the pathway to peace takes hard work and struggle but is always worth it. And as we see it shoot and grow, may we be reminded that peace will blossom until the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Amen.