This is the message I prepared for the people of Lakes Entrance on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia
Ezekiel 37:15-28; Psalm 122; Hebrews 13:1-8; John 17:20-26
Today we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of The Uniting Church in Australia. The UCA, as the cool kids call it, was formed on 22nd June 1977 when many congregations of the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and the Congregational Union of Australia came together under an agreement formalised in a document called the Basis of Union. As a denomination of Christianity in Australia we number around a quarter of a million enrolled members, and we gather in approximately two and a half thousand congregations. A recent Australian Census noted that over one million people identified some sort of association with the Uniting Church, and that on any given Sunday, (including Ordinary Sunday 12) around ten percent of them will be in church. So, congratulations for being here today, you and over one hundred thousand other Aussies are part of something big.
I introduced this topic to you last week, saying that today, (or last Thursday at least, the actual 22nd of June) is not just a date on a calendar, rather today is a reminder of the century-long effort of Australasian Protestants to form a new nation and a new expression of Christianity for that nation. The movement toward a union of Protestant Australians began alongside, and indeed amidst, the movement toward federation of the Australasian colonies in the 1880s and 1890s. That Australia was declared a Commonwealth of States in 1901, and the Uniting Church was not declared until 1977, in no way undermines the work of the women and men who saw this vision and worked hard to make it so. As with the work toward federation of the colonies, conversation partners came and went from the church and the final union was not the one first sought. The Anglican Church was part of our early conversations but they ultimately stepped back (on orders from London), just as New Zealand ultimately stepped away from talks of national federation.
The Uniting Church was one of the first Australian churches to grant self-determination to its Aboriginal members, and if you hang around at Synod you’ll hear this over and over. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress (UAICC) has responsibility for oversight of the ministry of the Church with the Indigenous people of Australia and there are between 10,000 and 15,000 people involved. It’s no surprise then that the Uniting Church has taken stances on issues of Native Title and the Environment, as well as the status of refugees in Australia and, more recently, in detention offshore.
Uniting, which used to be called UnitingCare is the largest operator of general social care activities in Australia, including being the largest operator of aged care facilities. It continues to serve in the ways he did in generations past with ‘central missions’; shelters and emergency housing for men, women, and children; family relationships support; disability services; and food kitchens for underprivileged people.
The Uniting Church is committed to ecumenism and to the fullest expression of God’s desire for unity among all people. The Uniting Church has a formal, covenantal relationship with the UAICC, and we also promote multiculturalism and intercultural activities and relationships between and across our congregations. We want to be present and fully engaged when God pours out God’s spirit on women and men, young and old, urban and rural, local and tourist, rich and poor; Koori and Islander and Pasifika and European and Asian and African and American and all combinations of the same. We have congregations which are now into their second generation of operation in various East and South East Asian languages, Pacific Islander languages, and of course in Australian Indigenous languages. I have worshipped with several communities where the spoken parts of the service (including the prayers) was in Yolngumata; where the only English spoken was my bit and some (but not all) of the songs. In the twenty-first century, the Uniting Church has begun to host congregations speaking African languages, such as Dinka which is spoken in Sudan.
We are an expression of church with an open purpose, a uniting church desiring a united church, and we understand that the work of bringing out unity is our work which we undertake with God’s guidance and God’s strength.
In Ezekiel 37:21-23 God says that God will reverse the dispersion of God’s chosen people, gathering them to one place and I shall make them one people with one government. They shall never again be divided from each other. I shall be their God, their only God, and they shall be my people. I have already spoken of the vision of one (Protestant) Church for one modern nation which burned strong in the hearts of many of the Fathers of Federation. (Sadly, we’re not often told what the Mothers thought, but I’m confident that what we see now in Australia and the Uniting Church would not be seen if it weren’t for wives, sisters, daughters, suffragists and voters agitating where they did.) That which had caused tension and fracture between the Judahites and the Israelites in Ezekiel’s day would be offered to God for healing and restoration, and God would be praised with a unified voice as a witness to the reunited nation. Ezekiel would have us know that God is in the business of restoration of broken ties: God desires to see unity, brother-sisterhood going forward, and jobs and growth. The secularists among the federalists were left in no doubt that God was not opposed to them: Australia was never intended by its founders to be a tower of Babel, and God has never seen us like that. God approves of unity.
In today’s lectionary Psalm, 122, all the people of God, from all the tribes, go up together to Jerusalem to worship God. While there they pray for the nation, the capital, the rulers and the government, and for the prosperity of the nation. This is indeed a prosperity gospel, “O Lord make our nation great so that we might serve you more effectively,” they pray. “If we live in the place where you are blessing us Lord, then we know that you are being served in the way you desire and that you will be happy.” Our human desire for peace and prosperity, (which is the motto of the State of Victoria), is ultimately for God’s glory because such things, peace and prosperity, are only possible when God’s will for the nation and the church is fully implemented by the worshipping people. God approves of prosperity.
In Hebrews 13:1-8 we hear God’s desire for the continuation of mutual love and hospitality to strangers. Last week in that epic sermon about ordinariness I spoke of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah to the men at Mamre: well the passage following that story in Genesis 18 is about God’s judgement upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities which were destroyed because they were decidedly inhospitable to the nomadic family of Lot. So, we already know from Jewish tradition that God is very much in favour of hospitality, and that God gets all fire and brimstone-ish when guests and strangers are treated poorly. And then we are commended to remember those who are in prison or are undergoing torture, in Hebrews 13:3, prompting our prayers for our fellow Australians in gaol, and for our fellow Christians undergoing ill-treatment across the world because of their faith and witness to the God of Unity. That desire for common concern leads the writer to the Hebrews to write of regard for marriage, that those who are married would stay married in that special relationship of unity which God has ordained; and regard for money where greed can destroy relationships. We readers are reminded pray for our leaders, those women and men who are responsible for holding unity in place through their governance. Today in East Gippsland, in Victoria, in Australia we remember the queen, the various governors, premiers, ministers, mayors and councillors. Today we remember Elizabeth, Peter Cosgrove, Linda Dessau, Malcolm Turnbull, Daniel Andrews, and Joe Rettino. We remember our church leaders, Stuart McMillan, Sharon Hollis, Jim Murray and each member of the councils and standing committees of the Uniting Church they chair. We pray for Collen Geyer, and Mark Lawrence who serve as General Secretary to each of Assembly and Synod; for those serving as Presbytery Ministers in Gippsland; and for those who serve our local congregation as Elders, office bearers, and members of Church Council. Whatever we think of these women and men as individuals, and whatever we think of the Westminster System of government or the modified Presbyterian system of church governance, each of these people has as his or her primary purpose the preservation of unity in our nation, state, district, and church.
And in John 17:20-25 we read, once more, Jesus’ great prayer for the unity of those who believe in him as the Word of God Made Flesh. As the Son is united with the Father in that perichoretic dance of Trinity so may the Church be one global mosh-pit of laughter, limbs and love. Our greatest witness to the world on the periphery of our great dance, indeed our great challenge and our great invitation, is that we enjoy being with each other. I’m not saying that church should always be fun, sometimes we must be solemn and there are times for mourning and lament; but I am saying that church should always be welcoming. Church if it is to reflect Christ should never exclude, but should always include. Church if it is to reflect Christ should never divide but always invite and call into unity. I don’t care what you think, but that’s what Jesus thinks, and that’s good enough for me. 😊
So where too from here? Well I think the answer is obvious, we keep working for unity. As Australians, we know we live in a comparably safe, comparably settled, comparably unified nation. There has never been a civil war here, nor an uncivil one. We know New Zealand is never going to join our Federation, (although it is seriously about time the Baptists and Churches of Christ get their act together and join the Uniting Church),😊 but as a Church which does not tolerate difference but embraces it and celebrates the God colours and flavours brought into our gathering by old neighbours and new friends we are always looking for more. Through the abovementioned UAICC and Uniting, through Frontier Services, through our Uniting Church schools, congregations, and fellowship groups, our desire continues to be met in those who are being added daily to our number, those who are being saved and those who are being welcomed out of the cold and into the dance.
If the old saying is true, and that life begins at forty, then I wonder what it is that will end in the Uniting Church this week. Perhaps we need resurrection, renewal, revival, re-invigoration, or even resuscitation: but the Uniting Church in Australia, and especially the Lakes Entrance Uniting Church, is not in need of removal or recycling.
“Jobs and growth”, “moving forward”, we are a people on the march and a pilgrim people at that. Saints of God wave high those banners of red, black, and white, you’ll want to be in our number!