A Sign on the Highway. (Anniversary of the Uniting Church in Year B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of God gathered as Morwell Uniting Church on Sunday 24th June 2018.  It was a communion Sunday and the closest Sunday to the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia

Psalm 127:1-2; Ephesians 2:17-22; John 17:1-11

Without wanting to get overtly political, even if a gathering such as this where the congregation is very much minded of justice and equity in the world, I have something profound to tell you: US President Donald Trump is not the Antichrist. However, in light of reading I have undertaken over the past few weeks leading into today’s service I have come to the conclusion, shared by many others of my spiritual persuasion, that Christ Jesus is the anti-Trump. This is especially true today, in June 2018.

Where the leaders of many nations, including our own, wish to erect fences or walls or enforce strict controls to separate families and isolate the much loved but very unwell, Jesus offers citizenship of the greatest realm of all – the Kingdom of Heaven. Where many flee poverty and corruption, and others flee persecution and genocide, we are brought to thought by today’s readings that each of us in this house have fled sin and tribulation. Make of those words what you will, be they literal fire and brimstone to you or simple metaphors of a life lived outside the love of God; II don’t know your past, but I so know mine and both of those apply, the literal and the metaphorical. Paul says that we are all refugees from the world and that God in Christ offers us not only asylum but citizenship wherever God is king.

With respect to the Kingdom of Heaven as it was proclaimed by Christ “Operation Sovereign Borders” is a series of rescue, recovery, and reuniting manoeuvres; it is about expanding the reach of God to include all, rather than erecting barriers to exclude most. In the homeland of the People of God the resources of compassion are never overwhelmed, the earlier arrivals and previously settled are never envious or afraid of the newest arrivals, and the welcome at the door is as effusive for the last one in as it was for the first.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, we are no longer strangers to God in danger of deportation, but citizens with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities, of belonging to the realm. In realm of God those rights and responsibilities include shalom (Ephesians 2:17). Shalom; that deep, soulful, healing, energising, forgiving, cleansing, restoring, satisfying, joy-bringing peace that only perfect love can bring. That’s our experience, and that’s our mission as ambassadors of the Kingdom, not cross-armed bouncers but hospitable welcomers and stewards of the message of peace to the world. In Christ’s love, in the Father’s realm, in the Spirit’s fellowship there is no division because God is equally present everywhere and with everyone (Colossians 3:11). Paul told the Ephesians and by our reading this morning he tells us that the realm of shalom is the kingdom of God, built upon the foundations of those who went before. Paul wrote of the apostles and prophets, women and men who are gifts of God to us and charisms, gifts of the Spirit, women and men who were sent by God and therefore are sources of authority and wisdom with Christ as cornerstone. Jesus is the connection holding all together, this temple who we are is a dwelling place for God. It is the congregation which is the temple, not the individual because as Paul wrote we are built together in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22) to form the place which God inhabits in the world. Where God “lives” on Earth is where we gather when we are gathered. An empty chapel or a single Christian is not “the place”, but the congregation gathered where it is gathered.

I have spoken often in the past nine months about shalom, and about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Reign of God in various combinations of those words. So today, today when we celebrate the anniversary of the Uniting Church in Australia and its now 41 years of service to the nation under that name, and close to two hundred in the various forms of Methbytgationalism, I want to touch briefly on the topic of apostles and prophets.

The Uniting Church of itself is not a church of hagiography, the stories of saints. Today’s house at St Luke’s Morwell is named after a first century evangelist, not a twentieth century administrator. We are St Luke’s, not St J. Davis McCaughey. But we do have our cultural heroes in Misters Knox, Wesley, and Brown of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational movements; and we do remember with thanks to God the work of Davis McCaughey and Ronald Wilson. We celebrate the ongoing teaching of Andrew Dutney, Vicky Balabanksi, Chris Budden, Katherine Massam, Geoff Thompson, Deidre Palmer, and foremost, Damien Tann. We are a pilgrim people on the path to salvation on the Way of Christ, and we have been blessed with faithful guides along the way. Today we thank God for the women and men of faith and courage who walk a step or two ahead of us, or who walked a generation ahead of us, and leave us markers.

Turning to today’s set gospel reading in John 17:1 we read Glorify your Son that your Son may glorify you. These are the words of Jesus, and since it’s John 17 you already know that these are among the last words of Jesus. “Glorify your Son” said by Jesus on Maundy Thursday seems obvious, but what do those words mean for us? How can we pray this? Well, in many ways this is a prayer only Jesus can say since he is Son in the way that no other man is – and there are no daughters like him either. Jesus alone is worthy of the glory of God, I’m sure I’ll get no argument from you at this point, however I wonder if “glorify” might also mean “shine the light of world attention” on us so that we might “shine the light of world attention” on God through our glorifying. The Church can certainly pray that, we can and indeed should have the courage to pray that God would make us notable such that we can point to God when people are looking at us. Let the Uniting Church in 2018 be another Statement to the Nation as Assembly issued in 1977 and 1988. Again in the steps of those who walk ahead of us let us give thanks for those times when the Australian society has established justice, equality, and mutual respect among people; has placed care for the people who have least above sectional interests; has welcomed new migrants and refugees; has exercised solidarity and friendship in times of crisis in Australia across divisions of race and culture; and has engaged constructively with the peoples of Asia, the Pacific and the rest of the world as peacemaker. This is what we told Australia in 1988: let us in Morwell be a sign on the highway, a sign of the compassion, grace, justice, and shalom of God. In words addressed by the newly birthed Uniting Church, to Australia, in 1977 let us continue to challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness and greed in disregard of the needs of others and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor. I know this is a passion, a flavour, of St Luke’s Morwell and as you gather over lunch to discuss your way ahead I pray that you would continue to hold the wounded world in your eyes even as you keep Christ central in your heart and mind.

Eternal life, the life of the Kingdom of God is the knowledge of God and Christ whom God sent (John 17:3), so it’s about fullness rather than endlessness. Eternal life is not just chronologically infinite, it is broad and expansive. Eternal life is seeing Jesus for who he always was (John 17:5), the one from before time, the glorious God the Son. In Jesus we see God, God is compassionate and self-giving, generous to death, not wrathful. Eternal life is also responding to the complete revelation of Jesus by making Jesus known in the world (John 17:6), especially in the part of the world to which we have been given and has been given to us. As Gippslanders gathered as a Uniting Church on this 24th June we ask who are our people, where is our country, to whom shall we share the glory of God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. When we proclaim Christ what we proclaim is what Christ proclaimed to us, they are his words and we have heard them before because they are the words to which we responded in the first place (John 17:8). Jesus prays for us that God will be with us as God has been with him – since Jesus is no longer in the world in himself but only through us (John 17:11).

The believing community has been formed by Christ’s call to each to follow him, and to whom he has displayed God, and by the receivers of revelation and the responders to call becoming brother-sisters with each other in that coming together.

In the context of Psalm 127:1-2 we are the house built by God, and therefore not built in vain. This reminds us to build only for God and in partnership with God, our being a Church and a Christian organisation does not protect us from foolishness and failure if what we do is not directly informed and partnered with God. (We partner with God first, not asking God to partner with us in projects of our choosing – although we are encouraged to be creative in our response to God’s call to meet the world’s need.) Without God all work is a waste of time, even the work of being church and doing faith stuff. Not only must we rely on God we must make known that God is our source – we don’t take God’s help and then take all the credit, neither do we do the work of the gospel yet hide our light. We do what we do with God, and we do what we do to glorify God. Even if it “works”, if we haven’t made God’s fame public in the doing of it then the whole point is not made. It is good to be compassionate, it is better (fullest) to be compassionate and let God be glorified (the illuminated focus of the world’s attention). We don’t serve the world for credit and our own fame, but we do serve the world for God’s credit and God’s fame: our humility (and especially our fear of embarrassment) must not get in the way of God’s glory. We are God’s advertisement, not our own, but not no one’s either.

What we advertise is that God is dependable, and that we attest to this because we are dependent upon God and God sustains us. The same power that conquered the grave lives in us and can live in others who want what we have – because of God. Because of God we do not strive, we have no need to. We operate in the world out of shalom, out of eternal (fat) life.

So, whether you trekked alongside the followers of Wesley, Knox, or Brown before 1977, and whether you march amidst the followers of Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson, Justin Trudeau, Richard DiNatale, Angela Merkel, Benedict XVI or Francis or Lyle Sheldon today, the call to you is the same. Walk with Christ, walk his Way, share his love, and invite others to join you on the road to God which already traverses the outlands of the realm of God.

Amen.

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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

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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