Life Begins…

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

Logo - UCA

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!

Amen.Logo - UCA

Humbility

This is the text of my “Minister’s Message” which I wrote for inclusion in the May newsletter of The Lakes Parish

I have been thinking about the topic of humility recently and what it means to say that Jesus humbled himself to come to Earth and be our saviour.  If Jesus chose to be humble then it must be a good thing and something we should be doing as followers of him.  Yet as a disciple of Jesus and a participant in the Great Commission I wonder how humility is compatible with evangelism.

 Paul says variously in his letters that Jesus chose humble obedience as the way of ministry (Philippians 2:7-8), and that God has not called Christians to a life of timidity but rather to a life of power (2 Timothy 1:7).  While these may seem contradictory, or at least counter-productive, they are of course complimentary texts.  God has called us to be assertive in life and ministry.  We are to remember that we were each created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) as the pinnacle of created beings (Psalm 8:5) subject only to God.  We were not made to be timid or anxious, that is not in our design nor is it within God’s plan for humankind.  At the same time, we are not to be arrogant or lordly but are to serve our world as stewards (Genesis 2:15), in the way that Christ served the world as redeemer and defender (Ephesians 5:25).  We who know who we are, each a beloved daughter-son of God called to a specific task in declaring the news of God’s approaching reign.  We live with confidence as examples of what the Kingdom of God looks like in practice.  We are not arrogant or superior, since Christ who truly is king never acted like that, but we do not act like doormats or peasants in the world because that is not who we are.

 To be humble is to live according to who you know yourself to be.  We are neither haughty nor timid, rather we are confident and assured.  As royal priests and holy princes (or -esses) we have both a mission and an identity of belonging.  My prayer throughout May is that you will live out your calling in poise and wonder, knowing that God has called even you, while acting with assurance that this is indeed the truth.

That Shy Hope (Easter 2A)

This is the text of the message I prepared for Lakes Entrance Uniting Church for Sunday 23rd April 2017.  This was the first Sunday after Easter.

Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31

Last week in course of my bringing you God’s word for Holy Friday I used a phrase which has garnered a great deal of feedback.  In speaking of what the day of our Lord’s death might mean for us I quoted C. Manning Clark and his description of the spirituality of Australians as “a shy hope in the heart”.  As Australians, we are not known to blow our trumpet in the world too much; unless it involves the Ashes or the Bledisloe Cup, but since neither of those trophies belong to us at present there’s little to say on the world stage.  Mostly we are a people who like to go unnoticed in the world; we don’t like tall poppies and we don’t like being told what to do.  Australia is not a shy nation, we never have been, but as a nation in the world we are far less brash than our nasal accents and the boisterous singing of our countrymen in European pubs might suggest.  We live in a lucky country, (a phrase which was originally an insult, as if such people of us don’t deserve what we have been given), and we like to think of ourselves as a nation of battlers, pioneers, diggers, and vanquishers only so far as we have made a go of it.  We are hard-fought survivors not empire builders; we are not flashy and we dislike those who are.  It is in view of this that Clark addressed the spirituality of Australia.  We are not a nation of flashy preachers, we are not Americans.  We are not a nation of lofty cathedrals and bells and smells, we are not Europeans.  Even as we have both of those things, Australia’s largest single congregation is Hillsong Church and we do of course have our cathedrals of the Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox varieties, for the most part the churchgoing of Aussies is local and hidden.  We are quietly confident that we are on the side of right: like Crocodile Dundee we believe in a Jesus who has fishermen mates and we reckon he’d like us because of that.  How much of this view of Australia is true, how much of it is stereotype, and how much of it was once true but is no longer so in an Australia which now resembles the culture northern hemisphere than it does the culture of the Northern Territory is not mine to say.  I’ll leave that to the sociologists, I’m a theologian and a narratologist.  But I think it’s an image worth looking at, and after the feedback I have had in this past week it seems like more than a few of you agree with me.

So, what is this shy hope in our hearts?  Is it permissible that Christianity be “a shy hope” at all?  After all isn’t Christianity all about witnessing and boldness?  Isn’t our call to extroversion, extravagance, and exaltation?  Aren’t Christians supposed to be the Strayan tourists in the world, loud, brash, bold, and publicly celebrating in season and out of season?

Maybe not.

I believe the story of the Christian scriptures is that the people of Jesus are to be confident but not showy.  The writer of Psalm 16, whom Peter quotes in his sermon on the day of Pentecost and names as David, has penned a song of trust and security in God.  Those who trust in the Lord in reliant assurance will live lives of delight, confidence and joy.  This is how we are to be: this confident reliance upon God is the Australia of the shy hope.

In John 20, following from last Sunday’s reading and speaking initially of the evening of Easter Day, Jesus appears to the ten, greets them with shalom and breathes the Holy Spirit onto them, imparting to the Church the power to forgive.  The purpose of the gospel is later summarised as being that those who hear it (without seeing) will believe that Jesus is Messiah, and that having heard and believed the message the life of trust in Christ brings an abundance of life.  In view of this Thomas, who meets Jesus a week after Easter, (which is to say today), does not deserve his title of “doubter”.  Thomas is no different to the others; recall that the men had not believed the testimony of Mary, indeed they had locked themselves away in terror until they saw Jesus personally (and somewhat miraculously) enter their locked room.  Jesus demonstrated grace in showing himself 1:1 to Thomas, as he had done on Easter day to the other ten.  In the same way that the revelation was given to eyewitnesses who then went and spoke of what they had seen to others who were never given the opportunity to see so now we have the gospel according to John to tell us that even though Jesus has ascended (which John does not record at all) all who hear can still believe in the written and spoken words of the evangelists.

Seven weeks after that first appearance of Jesus to the ten Peter stands up on the day of Pentecost, the Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the ten commandments at Sinai, and addresses the people he calls Israelites.  In Peter’s day, and indeed in our own day, the Israelites were native Jews who were not priests or Levites.  So, Peter is literally addressing the crowd, the common people when he tells them the story of Jesus and how his ministry amongst them had carried the evidence of God’s favour in deeds of power (dynameis).  God was obviously blessing and in favour of the work of Jesus, says Peter, but you Israelites, you mob of common man, you handed him over to Rome and Rome killed him.  Peter is pulling no punches here.  Perhaps he is bold in the Holy Spirit’s anointing, perhaps he’s an unschooled fisherman and doesn’t know how to be polite in public address so he’s calling a “manually operated, blunt-edged, single user excavating apparatus” a “bloody spade”.  It’s probably a bit of both, but at least he’s speaking plainly.  He goes on to say in his straightforward manner that the same power that worked through Jesus in his life, God’s power, the power which then raised him from death, (and thereby continued to attest to his identity), that same power now courses through Peter and the 120.  By that power, God’s direct empowering, the Jesus group proclaims Jesus as Messiah even as David in his day proclaimed the messiah as the message of the Lord God.  The power of God in Jesus the Christ, makes his disciples bold, confident, joyous in the face of continued life on earth.  We have seen Jesus raised, says Peter, therefore, we are confident (and no longer hiding in locked rooms afraid of what the Priests, Levites, and you Israelites might do to us).

This is supposed to be true of us today.  As an Australian (Strayan) Christian living in Gippsland in 2017 I live without the terror of Jewish authorities.  I live without terror of any authorities.  In part that is because of how Australia operates as a nation in my generation, but it is also because I am filled with the spirit of God and I am living a life of freedom and confidence because of “Christ who liveth in me”. As I said a few weeks ago about the Tanakh, the scriptures used by Jews, having the overarching message of the fulfilment of a promise for home so God has showed to Peter’s Israelite audience (who knew that tradition) an instance of this in God’s faithfulness to Jesus.  Jesus has been redeemed from the exile of death, into everlasting life in the land of promise.

In the letter attributed to him Peter extends the promise of God revealed in the resurrection (rebirth) of Jesus to all who trust in Jesus.  We, like Christ risen, are reborn into a living hope, and into the promise of abundance in Heaven and protection on Earth.  Life will be hard in days to come, there is no hiding from that fact, but God has your back and you can trust with full confidence in the promise given to you.  Let the fires of the world burn away the rubbish, let that happen because you know that there is something precious within you just waiting to get out.  Although you have not seen him you love him says the writer in 1 Peter 1:8, fulfilling what Jesus said in John 20:29.  As early therefore as the middle of the first century the discipleship thing is seen to be working: there really are second generation believers who have heard about Jesus from the eyewitnesses and believed in their testimony.  Peter and the eleven, plus the other members of that first 120 on the day of Pentecost, plus Paul and others who saw the risen Christ, went on to tell the story to others who never saw Jesus and those others believed what they were told.  And they told others, and they, and they, until in our day we have none who saw the risen Jesus, or even met the apostles in person, but have believed the message of Jesus in our billions.

This is the shy hope in our hearts.  We have been told that God loves the world, our world, our 2017 world, and that the evidence of that love was seen in a Bethlehem barn, a Roman cross, a garden tomb, and the eyes of the woman or man who told you that story and you believed it.  It is a shy hope, almost unbelievable, but it is a sure hope too.

Amen.

Acts of Easter

This is the text of my ministry message for the April 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish UCA.

Several weeks ago, I read to you a prayer which I wrote in 2011, a prayer entitled “An Act of God”.  As I write today Cyclone Debbie is pounding its way across the Queensland coast, and whole tribes of television Karlites and Kochies are battling the rainstorm and wind to provide up-to-the-minute reports.

 In today’s Queensland storm, and yesterday’s 38 degrees in Lakes Entrance, I am reminded that while climate and weather can play havoc with our human plans, God’s plans are not thwarted.  Whether your theology suggests that God sends storms, or allows storms, or that God has simply set the world in motion and lets the elements look after themselves, I am convinced that God remains in overall care and charge of the world.  For me, as I prayed first in 2011 and then last month in the face of immanent fire and flood disaster in New South Wales and Western Australia, the assurance that God has all things in hand in the work of the Church is ever present.  Remember, the Acts of God are not the storms themselves but the work of the local Christians in responding to the needs of neighbour and stranger in the aftermath.

As we move toward Easter in the next two weeks, through it in the middle of April, and beyond it as we head toward May, let us remember that we have a role in what God is doing in the world.  The greatest Act of God was seen in the death of Jesus on the cross, but God is still at work amongst, amidst, and because of those who remain faithful to the call to call forward the Reign of God in the world.  Our gospel is one of salvation, which implies that the world needs to be saved/salved, so we are conscious that we live amongst danger.  The gospel requires a response, not just a “sinner’s prayer” that gets us a grace-based, forgiveness assured ticket to Heaven when the time comes, but that we resist evil where we see it and that we bring healing to those who have been laid low by it.  That time has come.

Equality

This is my minister’s message as presented to the people of The Lakes Parish (Uniting Church) in their March 2017 newsletter

Shalom ye Gippslanders of God.

Equality is one of those words which has become loaded with all sorts of meanings in our post-modern world.  In contrast to the selfless character of Jesus it seems that grasping for sameness in position, authority, value, and income is a necessary and desirable activity.  Today (March 5th) we read of Eve and Adam seeking equality with God, and thereby breaking the sacred trust between God and humankind.  As the pinnacle of Creation man and woman were made to be stewards of creation and co-workers with God, however our desire for more than what had been provided breaks the whole system.

 With that in mind I wonder about the gaps between women and men in our day.  Not only in terms of gender inequality (women get less money and do more vacuuming), but economic inequality (the poor are getting sicker), social inequality (the loud ones rule the world), and spiritual inequality (dogma trumps love) is our world fallen.  Our need for Jesus is not limited to restoring what Eve and Adam destroyed in the garden, but extends to the need for grace in what every woman and man has done since in the city, the wilderness, and the home.

 In God’s perfection equality is not something to be demanded or snatched (Philippians 2:6, Genesis 3:5), but something to be revealed as people in community act with the fruit of the Spirit in their interactions with each other.  So, in this season of Lent I urge you in the Spirit to defer to one another in love; to acknowledge the worth of the person with whom you are speaking, rather than insisting that they acknowledge your value back to you.  If Christians act as if the people around us are only a little lower than the angels in value perhaps no one will feel the need for aggression about their perceived inequality.

 Damien.

Are there key features that characterise appropriate styles of leadership for rural congregations in South Australia?

This is the abstract of my coursework thesis for the degree of Master of Theological Studies, submitted to Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia) on Wednesday 7th September 2016.  I shall not be publishing the dissertation on this blog, but if you’re interested in what I’ve said here you’ll be able to access it via Flinders University or  Adelaide College of Divinity after assessment and review.

That life in a country town is different to life in a capital city’s suburbs is universally acknowledged, but the ways in which these differences manifest in the styles of leadership appropriate to local churches appears less well understood.  This study explores those differences and it seeks to present them in ways which might be helpful to placements committees within Uniting Church presbyteries and to ministers seeking to move from a suburban to a rural placement.  Such leaders in ministry must be willing to learn and embrace the specific ways in which life is different in rural areas and what the implications of those differences are on the ways in which ministry is gone about.  Interviews with former and current practitioners of rural and urban ministries in South Australia were undertaken alongside a literature review.  What was found was that whilst it is thought preferable to have ordained leaders in congregations it is actually better to have appropriately trained local lay members presiding than to bring in an accredited stranger.  Where an ordained minister is present he/she is most effective when he/she acts primarily in the mode of dialogue partner and facilitator of the congregation’s ministry rather than as a resident theologian or expert.  It is vital that local lay members are empowered to serve and lead their congregations, therefore a catalytic style of leadership is the best fit since rural placements often do not last long enough for ongoing mentorships to be effective.  The minister must enable and equip the local people such that that when he/she departs to take up a placement elsewhere the ministry is not left without direction or directors.  Ministers within rural communities are expected by their congregations to serve and comfort the community beyond the church; a rural minister, isolated from other ministers, may be the only person available to fill the many representative roles required, therefore he/she must have a preparedness and a willingness to do so.  It was also found that ministers in isolated placements need to take greater personal responsibility for their own and their family’s self-care and resilience than urban ministers who tend to have support networks closer-by.  Whilst the majority of people who live in rural areas are socially and theologically conservative this is by no means the case for everybody.  The minister must be able to lead the whole congregation in discipleship and learning with respect for every person’s theology and worldview whilst simultaneously upholding the distinctive flavour and form of the Uniting Church.

Church Attendance for Other Reasons

Some people attend Church for reasons other than worship.  This might include the desire to deepen their sense of belonging alongside meeting what Long describes as the need for human community[1].  It is no great surprise to anyone that people go to church to be with each other as well as to be with God, but in the twenty-first century Church are these desires in conflict?  What of those who wish to meet with God in solitude, or those who wish to participate and communicate without religion?  Such expressions have been known in the past, but in which direction is the general flow?  The reasons that people have stopped attending local churches are therefore twofold.  On the one had spirituality has become a personal pursuit and is done in reading or meditating alone, or on spiritual retreats, rather than in the local parish church. Why join the church when I can meditate and listen to worship CDs at home?  (Yet congregations founded on intimacy and small group modes of connection are also booming.)  On the other hand, service clubs provide the needs of those who wish to be helpful and make friends in the local area without the need for religious activities.  Why join the church when Lions Club makes me feel valued?

So how are such people to be lead?

[1] Thomas G. Long. Beyond the Worship Wars: Building Vital and Faithful Worship (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2001) 25.