3rd Sunday of Pentecost/UCA Anniversary
(22nd June • 2014)
‘God Challenges and Disturbs Us’
ROCKINGHAM UNITING CHURCH
Jeremiah was not a special man. Like other prophets before and after him, he had been reluctant to respond to God’s call to proclaim God’s words to his nation. In the face of impending disaster, the people of Israel had refused to change their sinful way of life. They ignored the warning signs and fooled themselves by listening only to the ‘false’ prophets who told them that everything was fine and there was no consequence to their actions.
But Jeremiah was tasked to swim against the tide and proclaim that God was going to judge and punish His people if they did not repent from their sins. The consequence of his mission was clear: he became a laughingstock all day long, everyone mocked him, even his close friends were waiting for him to stumble.
“But, there was no way of escaping God,” Jeremiah said regarding his encounter with God. The word of God was like a burning fire within his bones that Jeremiah could not contain.
Indeed, Jeremiah’s description of his encounter with God was nothing like the loving and warmth encounter that many people often say regarding their encounter with God today. For Jeremiah, God was like a dreadful warrior. God was like someone who had enticed and overpowered him. Jeremiah encountered God like Jacob, his ancestor, who wrestled with God in the desert throughout the night until the dawn broke. Jeremiah felt as if God had dragged him, kicking and screaming, to proclaim God’s words.
Indeed, friends, if after hearing Jeremiah’s testimony about his encounter with God we still think that following God will keep us in our comfort zone, think again. In the words of one commentator, Jeremiah got stuck in the middle of, on one side, an insistent God and, on the other side, a resistant people who did not believe his words. Both sides were not willing to give up and being stuck in the middle was definitely not a pleasant situation for anyone.
Jesus too said that he came not to bring peace, but sword. He came not to lull us deeper into our sleep, but to shout at us and wake us up. He came to disturb our old and entrenched way of life: be it a norm or a tradition or a value that we hold dearly; be it our old habit or character. He came to ‘shake things up’ so that we can embrace the new life that he wants to give.
Jesus indeed turned the convention of his society upside-down. In his time, loyalty to family was number one. Children must obey the head of their family, who was usually the father. Members of the family must protect the dignity of their family at all costs.
But Jesus said that whoever dared to follow him must love him more than they love his/her family. Indeed, following Jesus often means leaving our comfort zone. Following Jesus often means leaving the familiar places and faces to go to unknown places and faces that God will take us to.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul too reminded the Christians in Rome that the only way they could be resurrected into a new life with Christ was by letting their old life die first. But letting an old life die is not as easy as it sounds, as any person who is struggling with an addiction can tell us. But the only way to enter into a new life is indeed through the death of the old life.
In the Oscar nominated movie, Flight, captain Whip Whitaker is a well known, respected, and experienced pilot. But he has a very dark secret: he is an alcoholic and a drug addict. He often takes drugs before flying an airplane. He even manages to drink alcohol during flights. Because of his addiction, his relationship with his family, especially with his son, is severely damaged.
One day, the plane he is flying has a fatal accident, taking the life of one of the attendants and injuring many others. But Captain Whitaker goes out of the accident unscathed. His reputation protects him from public prosecution. He lives from one lie after another to cover his dark secret and avoid accountabilities as the captain of the ill-fated flight.
But one day, he decides to lie no more and face up the consequences of his addiction. He admits to the court that he was drunk during that ill-fated flight. As the result, he goes to jail, loses his pilot’s license, and his reputation is ruined forever. Yet, in jail, for the first time in his life, he is sober for one year and is finally able to be at peace with himself and reconnect with his son.
Friends, perhaps, we too need to be ‘slapped’ in the face so that we can wake up from our ‘dream’ and face reality.
In his reflection on the current census of the UCA congregations, Prof. Andrew Dutney, the current President of the UCA, says that the Uniting Church in 2014 is a very different church from the Uniting Church in the 1970s; and if we live today as if we were still living in the 1970s, then we will sabotage ourselves.
The church needs to live in the present not in the past. Our love and loyalty to God must come before our love and loyalty to other things in life, including our tradition in the church. That means we are to be ready to let go off many things that we love dearly so that we can move on with God. Like what the President says in his reflection, God has already created us a new church to be God’s witnesses in a new Australia. We are to move on with God in the present, journeying into the future.
It doesn’t meant that letting go off the past will not involve any grieves or pains. Like what the President says in his reflection, many of us will deeply grieve and miss the old church. Indeed, it will not be an easy journey for many of us, but it is a necessary journey. The past is behind us. The old church is no more. We are to let it go so that we can embrace the new future that God is giving us.
Perhaps, the problems that we have faced as a denomination today are God’s way of stirring us up and disturbing us so that we are aware that something needs to change. Perhaps, the challenges that we have faced as a denomination, even as a universal community of believers, are signs form God asking us to take a new and different direction; and we always have the option either to ignore or to turn off the alarm and go back to sleep, to press the snooze button so that we can have extra time sleeping, or to heed the alarm and wake up into a new day with fresh possibilities.
In the movie, Chocolate, the main character of the movie, Vianne, is a young woman who lives like a gipsy, never putting down roots, moving from one place to another with her daughter, selling chocolate. It is not the best way of living as a family and raising a child, but Vianne knows no other life.
Her own mother was a native in the jungle of Latin America who married Vianne’s father, a missionary, and relocated to France. She, however, always kept the tradition of her ancestors alive even in a distant land. Her ancestors never settled down in one place, so, one day, she took Vianne and left her husband. It was the beginning of a never-ending journey.
Unbeknown to her, even as an adult, Vianne is still deeply influenced by her mother, even after she has passed away of many years. Whenever and wherever she goes, Vienne always takes the jar that houses her mother’s ashes; a jar that symbolises her mother's control over her life.
But, one night, during a heated argument with her daughter who refuses to yet again leave a village that they have been staying, Vienne accidentally drops the jar down a stair and scatters her mother’s ashes on the floor. The incident reminds her that something has to change; that the time has come for her to let go off her mother and take a new direction in life. For the first time in her life, she chooses to settle down for the sake of her daughter, the villagers, and her own.
The movie ends with Vienne scattering her mother’s ashes to the wind; the wind that, from the very beginning of the movie, has been whispering something new; the ‘wind’ that is more powerful than the jar and the tradition it represents. It is never said explicitly in the movie, but the ‘wind’ is like the Spirit of God, prompting Vianne to move on.
Perhaps, today, as we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church, it is well to remember that the Spirit of God is stirring us as well, asking us to leave our old way behind and go to where the Spirit leads us.
Let us pray.
Jesus, you call us to live our faith, travelling beside you, in a world filled with tension. As you bring peace to the world, you also disrupt our peace – turning our lives upside down. May we be reminded of your constant love for us. May we feel your disturbing presence in our lives as a reminder that we are heard, known, and loved, as cherished children of God. Amen.
 Fretheim, Terence E., Commentary on Jeremiah 20:7-13, on http://www.workingpreacher.org (June 22, 2014)
 Dutney, Andrew F., A Church Like Us For Times Like This Reflections on the National Census of UCA Congregations and Ministers, on http://andrewfdutney.wordpress.com (May 22, 2014)
 Seasons Fusion for Congregational Life -Pentecost 1, 2014, Seasons of the SpiritTM © 2013 Wood Lake Publishing Inc., New Zealand (p. 48).