Heritage and renovation

This is the sermon for the “feast of consecration” – the anniversary of the dedication – of the parish where I am the vicar.  This week marks sixty years since the completion of the building, and forty years since the loan was paid off and the building consecrated.  Therefore we were celebrating some significant milestones in the life of this community.

I was so intrigued to see the interview in the Women’s Weekly when this building was opened, where young parishioners described the building as “really cool.”  I don’t know what it would take to have a church building described as “really cool” today, but I’m pretty sure no matter what, it wouldn’t be in the Women’s Weekly.  How times have changed!

But the people of the parish then decided to build a “really cool” church for a reason.  I suspect that it was partly to demonstrate that in a new era of society and Australian culture, the church could still be relevant, and focussed, and part of the progressive momentum which inspired such a vision of a better future.

Rather than this building representing the dead weight of conservative forces, it could be an icon of hope to the people around it.

This is a model of mission that’s sometimes called “institutional renovation;” you take something fundamental to Christianity – in this instance, the concept of a “parish church” – that’s declining in significance, or being increasingly neglected, and you present it in a way which is fresh and invites people to make new connections and discover new meaning (or, perhaps more accurately, rediscover old meaning).

This isn’t a new idea, of course.  Think of St. Francis and his sense of call to “build my church.”  Francis started out by literally renovating a neglected church building, but eventually working out that what God wanted him to do was start a movement of people who lived out being Christian in a fresh way, one which drew in people who had been indifferent and apathetic.

Or if you want a Biblical example, you can think of Nehemiah and his project to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem; and with them, to rebuild the people of Israel’s sense of identity as the people specially called by God.

It’s not the only model of mission, of course, and for us right now, I think it’s probably not even our strongest.  This parish’s long focus on social justice issues, for example, probably impels us to different ways of being church than just this kind of renovation work.  We probably want to respond to the needs of the world out there, as much as we want to renovate the church as an institution.

But those aren’t entirely unrelated things, actually.  The more we can position ourselves to build points of connection between us and the wider community, the more we’ll be well placed to respond to the needs of that community out of an absolute treasury of authentically Christian spirituality and wisdom.

In order to do that, we need to know what’s in our treasury, and how it might speak to people in our contemporary culture; which is, again, a kind of renovating, or updating, or translating, even, of old treasures into a style that fits where we are now.

Think of it like this, maybe; if I ever inherit my mother’s engagement ring – and God grant that it might be a very long time before I do! – I’ll probably have it remade.  Not only are mum’s hands tiny compared to mine, but dad’s taste when he bought it was – ah – well, not really my taste.  For it to be something I could wear comfortably, it’d need to be remade.

And so it is with how we express ourselves as church.  Not that the fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian, to love God and our neighbour, change; think of that as the diamonds, maybe; but that what that looks like and sounds like and feels like, how we set those diamonds into something people will want to wear, changes as our neighbours change.

And so it’s helpful to recognise that that’s what was happening, in the decision to build such a radical and different building, and to see that this kind of renovating approach is part of who we have been; part of our DNA as a parish, as it were.

In a way, the conversation that parish council has begun to have – and that parishioners are being invited to join – on the identity and future intentions of this parish is a similar sort of exercise.  We might know, intuitively, who we are as a parish, and what we value; but getting to the point of being able to articulate that, to communicate it clearly and effectively to the people around us; and to be able to thus communicate our relevance to the people around us; that kind of – for want of a better word – rebranding exercise is also a kind of renovation and, crucially, an invitation to new relationships.

We want to proclaim the good news in ways which genuinely answers the needs of people around us; well, just like the people who built a “really cool” place to encounter God, we need to make sure that the people who receive our message are hearing what we are trying to say.

So just like the architects who avoided the clichés of generations past in making choices about shape and style and materials for this building, we might follow their example by making sure all our communications avoid Christian jargon, or theological terms which mean little to people with no theological grounding.

Or rather than focussing on the fact that we no longer have a Sunday school with hundreds in it, we might realise that helping to foster Christian maturity might need totally new patterns of teaching and nurture; or we might even find that much older patterns of teaching and nurture, ones much more embedded in community and much less dependent on being “in church” at a given time, can be updated for our current context.  It might take some digging into the treasury to explore that.

Those are just examples, but I think you take my point.

Even as we’re engaged in building a picture, a vision of the future we want to aim towards, we can think of the past, and what we’ve inherited from the past, as the frame through which we look at that picture of the future; what we’ve done, why we’ve done it, and how we’ve done it, will set some parameters about what will make sense in our picture of the future.

Just as you wouldn’t – I don’t really know much about art – but just as you wouldn’t put an incredibly modern abstract piece of art in a heavy antique baroque gold frame, and expect them to “go” together, we can’t build a future that’s out of keeping with who we have been.  So getting beyond the surface of “they built a really cool building” to see what’s behind that – an attempt to renovate the concept of “parish church” to be relevant to a new age – helps us see what will be in keeping with that legacy, as we keep working to renovate and re-present the treasures we have, to meet the needs of the world around us.

It’s an exciting approach.  It invites us to be creative, and innovative.  To listen to our neighbours and one another and dream about how things could be different.  To try to anticipate what the needs of the next sixty years might be, and how we might answer them with the resources we already have.  And to see that, not as new and a scary challenge, for which we’re ill equipped, but as something we’ve been doing since the first conversation about the possibilities for a new building here.

And long may it continue!

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Seeds and life cycles

This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 4:26-34.

“Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what arrived was the church.”

That’s a famous comment by a French priest of the 19th century, and I think he meant it to express both his hope that in the church, he might find something of the kingdom; and at the same time, his ironic disappointment that so often, we find so very little of the kingdom.

And I wanted to start with that distinction today because we’ve often been conditioned to assume that the kingdom and the church are the same thing; or at least, that we can speak about them as if they are the same thing.  Or that we can read parables about the kingdom, and mentally substitute “church” without doing any damage to their meaning…

But that’s not really the case.  And I want to think about that a little bit this morning, in light of the parable of the mustard seed, which we just heard.

The kingdom of God is like the smallest seed, which grows up to become the greatest of all shrubs with large branches, so that other creatures are sheltered by it.

It’s a great image. To a tiny, persecuted, first-century community of believers – the first people to read and hear Mark’s gospel – it would have been an encouragement.  Hang in there; we might not amount to much now, but just wait till you see what God’s going to do with us!  For them, seeing the kingdom and the church as more or less the same thing made sense.

But we stand at the other end of an enormous span of time.  The church did grow from those tiny, persecuted beginnings; it spread all over the world, allied itself with powerful states, and birthed institutions and movements which shaped whole cultures and societies.

And now, in the west, at least, it seems to be shrinking in terms of commitment of people to it, it’s more and more at odds with the states within which it operates, and many of its institutions are tottering, if not gone.

What happened to the greatest of all shrubs, and all of that?

The way to make sense of this is to realise that the kingdom might be always growing until Christ’s return, but the communities through which the kingdom is expressed go through life cycles.

That’s really important, so let me emphasise that: the kingdom, the unseen reality which is the reign of God, which brings wholeness, justice, peace and so on… that’s always growing.  But the communities – including the churches – which are the expression and the vehicle of the kingdom go through life cycles.

They have small beginnings, they grow and are innovative and pioneering, they become settled and plateau, and then they decline… that is the life cycle of a church or organisation, or a parish, and all organised groups of people go through it.

We’re in the decline phase of that cycle right now.  Betty [a 95-year-old parishioner], whose funeral is tomorrow, when I used to visit her, used to reminisce about the days when you had to tell people to “shove over” so you could get a seat in a pew at a service here; now frankly you could stretch out and sleep on a pew and still not put anyone out.  (Just not during the sermons, please!)

The question is – what comes after decline?

Death and resurrection.

Here’s what I mean.  The kingdom is always growing.  The kingdom is always breaking through into our messy, chaotic, sinful lives in grace-filled ways.  The kingdom will always do that through whatever people offer themselves to the work.

So after a group – or let’s say a parish – goes through decline, the kingdom isn’t necessarily going to let go of what was done there.  Even when a parish closes, the people who leave there and worship elsewhere, and their ongoing influence in the world, continue to be part of the dynamism of the kingdom.  New life breaks out in surprising and unpredictable ways.

But even when a parish doesn’t close, there still is death and resurrection.  Because for a parish to go from decline, back into the growth part of the curve, old things have to die, and new things have to start.  New people have to be involved in new ways.  What was settled has to be shaken up, as the community returns to the open, experimental, innovative and creative attitudes and culture that allow for growth.

I’m not saying there’s no continuity between what went before the decline, and what comes after.  If there were no continuity it wouldn’t be resurrection, it’d be a whole new creation.

But while there might be continuity of ethos, continuity – in some sense – of the fundamental identity of a parish, that ethos and identity are expressed very differently in a growth phase, than they are in a phase of decline.

A growth phase is a time of dreaming big dreams. It’s a phase of asking ourselves what we stand for, and then setting bold goals in line with that.  It’s a time of being excited about what we can accomplish, an excitement that’s infectious and invites people to commit themselves freely to be part of achieving something worthwhile. It’s a time where the focus is on a vision of God’s kingdom made real and tangible in this time and place, in this community of people.

A decline phase is the opposite; It’s a time of not knowing where we’re going, or what we might have achieved when we get there.  It’s a time of managing administrative details as a matter of routine, rather than with a sense of a larger goal.  It’s a time of turning inward, and where the focus often shifts to doing what we like, and keeping people happy.

I am, of course, talking about trends, not describing what’s in every person’s heart.

But if we want to shift from decline to growth – and I certainly do! – if we want to know the resurrection and growth of our community again, if we want to be a dynamic expression of the kingdom of God… that tells us something of what needs to happen.

It’s time to start dreaming together.  What would you like to look back on, in ten years’ time, and marvel that we’ve accomplished?  What would you like to take a stand on, and see our parish actually make an impact?  What aspect of the kingdom of God can we give ourselves to living out together?

These aren’t trivial questions.  These questions are key to shifting from decline to growth, from death to life.  Nobody wants to join a dying church, but they want to join a church that’s going to make a difference for the kingdom.

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and part of what arrived was this parish.  How will we relate to the reign of God, that organic growth of wholeness, justice and peace, in the next phase of our life together?

Growing edges of welcome

This is a sermon for the third Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:5.

Long distance relationships are difficult.  These days, with the internet and skype and all of that, it’s not quite so bad; but I can remember when I was little, and writing a letter to family members in another country meant it would take weeks to arrive; and that was if you had a “by air mail” sticker on it!  I know some of you have had similar experiences.

Ministry – like any other relationship – is difficult at long distance, too.  In the last parish where I worked, there was one vicar for two parishes; and this meant his effective absence from a lot that was important in the lives of each of those communities; and that was keenly felt as a problem.

How much harder then for St. Paul!  Absent for years on end from congregations he’d started, communicating by letter – in the days before any sort of postal service, when you had to try to convince someone going in the right direction to carry it for you, and then hope and pray that your letter would eventually get there – it’s not surprising that sometimes his relationships with these churches became a bit strained.

That seems to be one of the live issues in his second letter to the Corinthians, which we read part of today.  Paul’s been away for some time, other teachers have been involved with the Christian community in Corinth, and the relationship with Paul is being tested.  The bit of the letter that we’ve read this morning seems to be part of a lengthy defence of what he taught and the way he’s acted.

That’s helpful to bear in mind because otherwise it can be hard to understand why he makes the arguments he does.  And the bit that this morning’s reading hangs on is this sentence: “Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”

It’s not about me, Paul’s saying. I didn’t do and say what I did for my sake, because of ego or the desire for power or what have you.  But everything in my ministry has been for your sake.  And, through you, for the sake of all the people to whom you’re going to proclaim the gospel, and whom you are going to introduce into relationship with God.

That’s what matters.  That’s where Paul’s focus is; not on the leadership squabbles or whatever else was going on in Corinth, but on the big picture of the church’s mission.  Jesus Christ – or at least this is the way Paul presents it – has opened the doors of grace to everyone, so that grace should extend to more and more people.

And it does so as we interact with them in a way which makes God’s hospitality and welcome real and concrete in each person’s lived experience.  Rowan Williams put it this way: “The one thing you know for certain about your tiresome, annoying, disobedient, disedifying fellow Christians is that God has welcomed them; that becomes your challenge.”  Paul welcomed the Corinthians into a community of belonging to God, and their challenge now – and it remains our challenge as well – is to extend that grace-filled welcome to more and more people.

What has happened in the events of Jesus’ death and rising is that the social barriers between us have been destroyed; people who were far off have turned up next door (or sometimes even closer).  We need to make our peace with that, each of us within our own heart, and then between ourselves, and looking outward, down the street and around the suburb, at all the people who don’t know it yet.

Now here’s something uncomfortable that I’ve observed.  We as Christians like this as a big idea, but we are not always so comfortable with it in practice.  The idea of a big inclusive community is a great thing – because all of us want to belong – but when we need to extend that to people we find difficult, we struggle.  I notice this particularly with some kinds of mental illness, actually.  I’m not sure why; is it that we lack confidence in dealing with people we find volatile or whose sense of reality is at odds with ours?  But whatever it is, we need to identify it and get over it.  In a country where one in five people have experienced mental illness in the last year, we can’t afford to overlook their need to belong, and our responsibility to provide a community where they can truly belong.

Let me give you some examples.  It’s very common for people with mental illness to be told that their mental illness either means they’re not really a Christian, or that they’re not a good Christian.  That is false.  Our job as a church is to surround people with mental illness with love, warmth, understanding, acceptance and friendship; for who they are right now, without any expectation that this will somehow “fix” them.  We should neither criticise nor judge for the things they find difficult, even if they’re things that we ourselves take for granted.

More than that, I remember a friend of mine who goes through bouts of depression, saying to me once that when someone in the church is physically sick, people turn up with casseroles; but that when she’s bed-bound with depression, nobody brings her a casserole.  She was trying to point out to me that we tend not to do a good job of caring for people with these kinds of struggles.

Caring here starts with understanding.  How much do we have a good working understanding of anxiety disorders, of depression, of substance use disorders?  Do we know how to care for people coping with these things?  Do we have a plan for support that we can put into action as it’s needed?  Is our theology of illness and the way we relate our wellbeing and our faith one which supports or undermines people with mental illness?  Do we even know the difference?

I’ve made an extended example of mental illness because it seems to me to be one of the most consistent existing social barriers in our community.  I do want us, as a parish, to think about whether someone with anxiety or depression would find it easy to belong here.  But it’s an illustration of a bigger principle, the one Paul was on about in his letter to the Corinthians: grace is supposed to extend to more and more people.  And that commits us to relationship with more and more people.  We mush each look out for one another.  We can’t do effective Christian community at long-distance, or indeed at arm’s-length.

And when we really get that, when we really live it, then we’ll be the kind of church that Paul was trying to help the Corinthians be, where more and more people know grace and are able to give thanks to God.

What defines civilisation?

I often reflect on how Christian ideas and wisdom relate to the non-Christian ideas, ideologies and wisdom expressed in Australian society and culture.  This reflection is necessary if we’re to be capable of meaningful dialogue with those outside the church!

Today, as I was doing some reading on Indigenous philosophy, I came across the suggestion that civilisation should be measured by the degree of polishing of an individual’s mind, and the building of his or her character.  (As opposed to, say, technological advancement).

This reminded me of studying Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in high school, and how in that work, civilisation was as much about self-control as it was about external cultural markers.  It also reminded me that the ancient Greek philosophers had a fairly low view of technology, feeling that it undermined the dignity of a human person by taking away meaningful work.

My critique of this idea would, I think, be that it is a mistake to be individualist.  We ought to look at corporate character and corporate wisdom as much as, or more than, individual development.  I am not sure that our society has good models for considering corporate character.

What do you think?

Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.