A Pastoral Statement

Greetings in the name of our Lord Jesus.

The week ahead will be challenging for our community and our church, as the results of the Government’s voluntary postal survey on same gender marriage will be released.

We are in challenging times facing a range of disturbing issues all of which go to our common humanity – our inherent worth to God and to each other. This affects how we speak and act and, as disciples of Jesus, we are called to reflect upon what the gospel asks of us.

This week we have been meeting together in Sydney and sharing our heart for the Church, the whole people of God.

Every human being is of equal value to God. From the creation story, to the birth of Jesus and our own baptism, we assert that every person is created in God’s image, and our worth is without question. Our humanity is made whole in Jesus Christ.

Whatever the result of the postal survey, many people in our community will feel hurt, some deeply. Our families and friends who are LGBTIQ have found the whole survey incredibly difficult, and indeed unsafe. Many of our families and friends in the broader community have also found this time disconcerting.

There has been a great deal of anger, fear and hurt, for which we grieve.

The question for us is how we will act as the church now, and in the weeks and months ahead. We must care for each other, acknowledging that most of our congregations will host a diversity of opinions, as does our community. We cannot use our roles in the church to tell people what to think, to criticise, or to abuse, others.

Ministers and those in specified ministry have particular responsibilities to demonstrate leadership that all with whom they engage, whether directly or through various social or other media platforms, hear and experience the witness of the gospel to the God given dignity of all people.

We are the Uniting Church, a wonderfully diverse community of faith, which is founded in the grace of God’s act in Jesus Christ.

We are responsible to, and for, each other. We need to pray for wisdom, courage and discernment. In this difficult season, we will look towards Christ and encourage others to do the same.

“God has given to all people in the Church the Holy Spirit as a pledge and foretaste of that coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation. The Church’s call is to serve that end: to be a fellowship of reconciliation.”(Paragraph 3 Basis of Union).

Friends, when we allow the Spirit to shape us then our witness and love counters the hostility of the world and testifies to the reality of the risen crucified One.

If you need support please make contact with your Presbytery or Synod.

Be assured that we are praying for our whole church, and for the community in which we live.

Grace and peace,

Stuart McMillan, President

Rev. Sharon Hollis, Moderator, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania
Rev. Simon Hansford, Moderator, Synod of NSW and the ACT
Rev. David Baker, Moderator, Synod of Queensland
Rev. Sue Ellis, Moderator, Synod of South Australia
Rev. Thresi Mauboy, Moderator, Northern Synod
Rev. Steve Francis, Moderator, Synod of Western Australia

Echoes of God’s Voice

Close friends of mine have recently become engaged, and they have graciously asked me to celebrate for them on their wedding day. Their announcement and invitation have required me to consider, again, what lies at the heart of the marriage event.

Competing voices in our community – more strident and condemnatory with each media thread – claim marriage as being about children, or tradition, or love, and demand our consent, even our obeisance.

Always beware those who are certain beyond doubt and then mandate our compliance.

Whenever I celebrate a marriage, I talk about covenant – a choice to act in hope, founded on love. Covenant reflects God’s hopeful choice in loving us, a hope that welcomes, restores, heals, chastises, forgives (and seeks forgiveness), and loves.

The vows at the heart of the covenant are two people choosing, in hope, to love each other, when they are at their best, and when they are not.

“All that I am I give to you, all that I have I share with you;

 whatever the future holds, I will love you and stand by you …”

When the vows are spoken, we hear an echo of the voice of God.

When the community surrounding the couple affirms those vows, we hear God’s voice again. The marriage covenant is surrounded by witnesses, whose role it is to encourage the couple with love and care, champagne and casseroles.

We act in hope because we know that some marriages will not endure and some will break. We know that there is injustice, even violence, in some marriages, which is intolerable.

We hope, because God embraces us in hope. Where might this hope lead us, as we live in our communities and bear witness to our God?

Starting A New Story

Fiona and I arrived home from Sydney, on the Thursday evening following the Synod Meeting, to find two ewes standing, quite composed, in the middle of our lawn. They had found their way through the paddock fence and had taken advantage of the garden, which had decidedly more green growth than the paddock from which they had escaped.

At four o’clock in the morning, they escaped again, leaving their lambs behind. The lambs were not happy and made their case. Therefore, we happily rose, caringly ushered the ewes to a reconciliation with their abandoned offspring and returned to bed.

It wasn’t the gentle return for which we had hoped. It was, however, a reminder that events like our Synod Meeting occur in the reality of our lives, and that the decisions we make are in the midst of our congregations and our community.

So much of what happened in the Synod meeting reminded us that we are a church at mission in the world.

Our two guest speakers – Joel and Hannah – placed our lives squarely amongst  everything, reminding us of both God’s grace and our response in hope. We crafted poems on the spot to offer a blessing to someone we value, and watched as the foundations of our faith – relationships with God and those we love – were reshaped by the crises and circumstances of our lives, and by God’s mercy.

The gathered Synod affirmed proposals about “Pathways” and “Pulse”, but they will only make sense as we enact them in the life of our Synod. Statements about mission and young people can be motherhood statements, or they can be declarations of intent; attending to the voice of God’s Spirit to reshape the mission priorities of our presbyteries and making decisions – sacrificial, generous, deliberate, but always hopeful decisions – about how we engage and grow our mission with young people.

Once again, we asserted the vital role of the rural life of our church. However, central questions remain. How do we reflect that in our sharing of resources, in our call process, in our formation of ministers both lay and ordained, in our decisions? How is our theology of ministry reflected in a church which has more and more resources harboured in the growing metropolitan areas, which are also in need?

Our worship was bookended by the St. Stephen’s pipe organ and the Terrigal Congregation jazz band, and we were generously served by a gifted team throughout our meeting. New songs were written to amplify our faith in Christ in the world in which we live, and they are available to congregations across our Synod.

We made a hopeful, challenging decision about the ministry in this Synod of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress. We worked hard to listen to each other and resolved a way forward which will take grace and work, prayer and courage – and time.

The reshaping of the Synod Standing Committee may seem to be a mundane piece of news, but we hope it becomes a way of making decisions more effectively. The challenge will be how the prophetic voices will be present alongside those with other gifts of leadership.

We had conversations in Discernment Groups about Same Sex Marriage, asking how we bear witness in our seemingly scattered and somewhat divided communities – caring for those in need, living out justice, healing wounds, speaking prophetically and always offering hospitality.

We gave thanks to God for the gracious, pastoral leadership of Rev. Myung Hwa Park. Myung Hwa presented her final report and the Synod then reflected on what a gift she has been to our church.

A moment later, it seems, we celebrated the appointment of Rev. Jane Fry as Synod General Secretary, inducting Jane in the final worship event, as our Synod creates a new leadership team.

The Uniting Church asserts God’s mission places us in our community. We worship, witness and serve in our world, not immured in our church buildings. The Synod Meeting was hopeful and engaged, and we made decisions in that light. They will only become effective as we discern – together – God’s voice, as we act upon our decisions, and as we seek courage – not safety – for the story which lies ahead.

A Prayer for Synod

God of all, speak with us.

 

Creating, you spoke light and life and hope.

In our worship,

     let us honour your presence;

in our deliberations,

     move us to serve your mission;

in our decisions,

    let us reflect the image

     which is shaped by your breath and love.

 

Living and dying and rising, you recast everything.

Help us discover your courage and your joy

     to live your hope and justice in our community;

enable us to trust you,

     as we discern your call,

     or struggle with what may appear mundane;

keep us faithful to the task in our hand –

     to be your church,

     in worship, in witness and in service.

 

You breathe, and whisper, and sing

     a story which seems beyond us

     and yet is placed in the palms of our hands.

When we find consensus,

     let us celebrate your guidance;

when we struggle to discern your voice,

     keep us patient,

     reminding us of our diverse lives and call;

have us mindful, always, of the world in which we live and move:

     the world for which Christ died

     and in which we bear witness

     in our lives and words each day.

 

Creator, Word, Spirit,

     lead us, that we may serve you well.

 

Amen.

Striving – & Limping

Holy God – in this precious hour, we pause
and gather to hear your word –
to do so, we break from our work responsibilities
and from our play fantasies
we move from our fears that overwhelm
and from our ambitions that are too strong.
Free us in these moments from every distraction,
that we may focus to listen,
that we may hear, that we may change. Amen.

– Walter Brueggemann

In these last few weeks, I have been inclined towards reflection. I have pondered change and its consequences; I have thought about what call means, in terms of our discipleship. I have considered some of its costs.

Slivers of beloved poetry and prose have found their way from my memory, about journey, new paths and change. I am hopeful that this new call in ministry will offer me opportunities to serve God in new ways and to bring my particular gifts to bear in the life of God’s church.

There is also cause for sadness, as with almost every ending.

I have loved serving in ministry at Southside.

I have loved sharing in worship and care and small groups and thinking things through and watching people grow and welcoming new folk and sharing meals and coffee and art and shovelling mulch and curly questions and decorating the sanctuary and planning for the future (even when it kept stalling and changing direction) and breaking bread and sharing wine and praying with and for people and working out our faith in Jesus Christ as a cluster of disciples.

Thank you for our time together.

Jacob’s story has held some fascination for me since college; it is the story about his wrestle in the dark (with God) which holds me most firmly. The agile trickster plays his last cards in this event and remains marked forever. The story ends with Jacob, freshly named and no longer agile, as he limps into his new future of reconciliation with his brother, Esau.

Discipleship marks us, sometimes even wounds us. This is not a palatable idea, as we live in a world where we have striven for comfort and security, where our lives are more comfortable than ever before.

In one breath we proclaim our ancestors in faith who served and died as witnesses to Jesus; in our next breath, we eschew any call to discipleship which may discomfort us.

We translate ‘cost’ into dollars and cents, while whittling our sense of call so it fits into the appropriately shaped hole. I’m confident it has ever been thus, which is why Jesus keeps talking about it.

I am confident that Jacob’s limp is inherent to his blessing by God, even though it is not the one which Jacob expected when he asked. Once Jacob was blessed in this way, his sidestep was not so prominent and he needed to face things properly.

He also needed to trust God more and his craftiness (dodgy dealing?) less.

Leaving Southside is costly for me, but the grief of leaving is a blessing for the ministry I have ahead of me – shared service, shared hope, shared lives.

I also believe it is an opportunity for Southside in new areas of ministry. This is a time of possibility for Southside, exploring new lay ministries, like Suzanne’s, as well as calling a new minister to placement. There is the creation of a new team, with Rev. Chris Wright at City, and – hopefully – a Young Families Worker alongside the placements at City & Southside and St. Andrew’s Village.

Grace and peace for the wrestling ahead, my sisters and brothers!

Simon

 

The Whole Story

I had a goodly number of reasons to be frustrated in the last week, and (almost) none of them was my fault. Some of them are insignificant and some less so. There were also several occasions of graciousness and blessing offered to me, and in this season of my life I am holding them close.

I have tried to not let those kinds of events – helpful and otherwise – define my sense of myself, or my understanding of the world. Hard moments are precisely that, and there are some which make us gasp, lost for words. But they are not the whole story.

There are moments, perhaps even tiny in the scale of human history, which give our hearts cause to beat joyfully. I saw a photograph of a friend holding a newborn baby which he had helped deliver in a Mosul refugee camp this week, life’s new wonder on his face. This is not the whole story.

We are caught in creation’s heartbeat, and have been since God first said yes to light and life. We are creatures of dust and breath and love, inherent to the world around us, in its wonder and its frailty. We are tempted to believe that we are entirely responsible, that our efforts alone address the brokenness and celebrate the wonders. This way leads to frustration and despair.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them – they are more than the sand;
I come to the end – I am still with you.

We are not the whole story, and it is not in our hands. This is, and has forever been, in the hands of God.

How else do we face the trials, trivial and otherwise, which confront us? How else are we able to receive the blessings bestowed?

Listen for Paul’s Roman symphony; in the midst of the appalling exigencies confronting the Roman church, Paul tells us there is more – more glory, more justice, more hope. The struggles we face, with war and environmental disaster and diverse human cruelty, are not the whole story.

Paul is not naïve, writing in some sheltered theological workshop; he is writing to a church confronted by the empire’s fist. God has more for us, and the entire creation, in the hope of Jesus Christ.

As the world groans in what seems an interminable labour, the promise of new birth is grounded in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not up to us, we are only invited to live the story out in every way we can.

We forgive and serve and hope, because of Jesus. We act and proclaim because of Jesus. And we hope, entirely, because of Jesus Christ, who is the whole story, forever.

 

 

Regrets … I Have A Few …

I have a new regret. I wish I had started our Curly Questions small groups two years ago. We’ve had four groups so far and we have wrestled with a handful of relevant and perplexing issues.

When we worked through some of our thinking on same sex marriage and the church, our primary concern appeared to be how we bear witness, show compassion and hospitality, and work out what we think in a world which has (or appears to have) changed phenomenally in the few generations.

We acknowledged the vast gulf between how our parents and grandparents spoke (or didn’t speak!) about these issues and how our children and grandchildren understand them. As law and culture shift – as they always have – we need to be able to live out our faith with grace and justice.

Our varied backgrounds and our current context affect how we think, speak and act.

How do we articulate the gospel in such a multi-lingual space?

One of our conversations this week was how we address Old Testament stories which are confronting, or even which we find appalling. There are stories in scripture which encourage violence, or appear to be unjust; laws which seem to make no sense, or to have less relevance, are all part of the biblical witness.

What do we do with these texts? Is it reasonable, or theological, to lay these aside? Where do we place our emphasis, and how do we decide?

It’s the challenge of finding our way, as disciples. One of our conversations was about denominations and how, when the Uniting Church was formed only four decades ago, most of the boundaries were firmly aligned and people’s faith traditions were inherited from their parents and bequeathed to their children.

Now, thankfully, many of the walls have crumbled; some of the more traditional denominations are unnerved and are resisting the need to adapt to a community where the role – and identity – of the church is changing.

So many of our conversations so far have been about how we live out our faith in our community, which is precisely what Jesus taught his disciples, and Paul  emphasised to churches he pastored in vastly different communities.

Loving your neighbour makes sense everywhere, but loving your enemy when they are the occupying empire seems a little extreme. Forgiving once seems manageable, but 490 times might be regarded as excessive.

When Paul wrestled with issues like circumcision, or the role of women in the church, he tried to understand how to live the gospel in a foreign community coming to terms with a radical new faith discovered in Jesus Christ.

As we negotiate our way on the journey of faith, our first resource is always Jesus. We have the gift of the Spirit as we stumble and dance our way; what we once knew about denominations, or sexuality, or reading Scripture, or salvation, appears to be under question, or simply changing.

We will only find our way by trusting Jesus. Some things are certainly changing, some by culture, some by the impetus of God’s mercy. Sometimes we will need to stand firm and bear witness to a God who is with us, and who calls us to a rigorous discipleship in the face of challenge in the world around us.

We are in this path under the grace and mercy  of God, in the company of saints and sinners, past and present and to come. We are called to be faithful: to live and serve as Jesus lived and served. And we have the gift of the Spirit, so that we may not lose our way.

comic 6

 

When Discipleship Comes Knocking

The continuing story of Sarah, Abraham, Hagar, Ishmael and now, Isaac, is commonly a strugglesome one for me. The astonishment and hope of God’s covenant with Abraham is offset by the punitive behaviour of Abraham and Sarah towards Hagar and her child, and then the story of Abraham and his child.

I know this story is thousands of years old and told in a context well beyond my own. This only drives me deeper into the story and its tribulations. I was relatively okay with it until College, when the Old Testament lecturer asked us “Do you like the kind of God who would ask a father to execute his child?” and suddenly my applecart was empty.

Now, before you start defending God (as if God requires our defence), or attacking the lecturer, take a breath. I know God resolves the dilemma, and that the resolution is not only Isaac’s life, but blessings multiplied (unless you’re the jumbuck). I note, additionally, that the dilemma only existed because God created it in the first place.

Sarah is disconcertingly absent from the story; I wonder why? Would she have cried out this time, rather than laugh?

Isaac is old enough to carry the means of his execution, so there’s an established relationship between parents and child – a child marked as God’s covenant and the hope of God’s people.

And then this. Sacrifice is inherent to so many stories, within our faith tradition and without. Jesus’ sacrifice lies at the heart of how we understand ourselves.

But what of this?

Is this what discipleship means when God takes us to extremes, when God invites us to move and act beyond any boundary we have set for ourselves?

Last week’s Gospel reading saw Jesus reveal to us that his presence causes division, so much so that even those closest to us can become our enemies. We water it down, and ameliorate the implications of Jesus’ language: “It’s hyperbole and rhetoric – the art of every compelling public speaker”, or, “It’s the language of comparison, so that we know where our priorities really lie.” Every preacher (with an eye to long-term job prospects) has done it, to soothe the congregation.

We can be horrified at the prospect of God’s call to Abraham (and Isaac) and breathe sighs of relief when a replacement is found.

Then we tell ourselves that God wouldn’t do something extreme like that nowadays, and the water drips on the stone, beginning to shape it to our particular need.

From Abraham to … us.

“I think God has called me here; the family is happy/the location is right/I feel at peace / we have good friends here / there are good schools …”

We consider the cost of following and, like the stallholders in middle eastern markets, we haggle over the price.

This is not Abraham and Sarah, despite their flaws. They left their original home and followed God’s call to a foreign country; they attended to an improbable, impossible promise and discovered its truth, with their occasional detour. So when Abraham is told to sacrifice his son, he trusts God despite the appalling implications of extinguishing the only tangible sign of hope in God’s promise.

Dare we trust God enough to risk it all?

What if God’s call to us requires more than attention, but requires obedience? The hallmark of call in Scripture – and our Church – is not peace, but discipleship; not convenience, but obedience.

As we find our way with the living God, let us not be too hasty to dismiss our call because of improbability or inconvenience, but look to the one who shapes and completes our faith, Jesus Christ.

 

Appropriating Mr Fraser

It’s really quite easy.

These are the words which raise trepidation for me, especially when I am in a conversation about computer stuff. I am purchasing a new programme, or hardware, or struggling when a problem has arisen which is beyond my capability, and I ask the obvious question “How does this work?”

It’s really quite easy.

At this point, my concern traditionally gives way to assertiveness and I am inclined to make comments which cause harm to the salesperson-customer relationship. If it was so easy, do you think I’d be here?

I have similar conflicts and response with people proclaiming the ease of their discipleship. When people talk about their faith in Jesus as if it’s a walk in the park, and all their “struggles” are cosmetic; when discipleship is dissipated to such a degree that it fits snugly into the culture around us; when people quote bible verses about suffering as they deal with traffic, or a head cold, or a computer programme.

The readings this weekend, about Hagar and Ishmael [Genesis 21] and persecuted disciples [Matthew 10] are not easy, because the lives of those to whom they are originally addressed are not easy.

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is always hard to bear, but particularly so in our current world context, as people are forced from their homes as refugees all across the Middle East. To think that Sarah and Abraham had a deliberate hand in their suffering is equally hard to understand.

We can see from their story that God resolved their struggles, towards life and hope, but only at their uttermost point of need, after a despairing mother is unable to watch the impending death of her only child.

When we teach memory verses to children saying that “all the hairs on your head have been counted”, do we do acknowledge that those heads may well be in the noose, or on the chopping block, because of what Jesus is saying?

When we talk about discipleship, it is not easy to preach on following Jesus when it leads to divisions – especially in our families. Following Jesus can lead us to places and people we would not choose to see.

In this week of Uniting Church celebrations, we acknowledge our discipleship of Jesus. If we are honest – and that is one of the hallmarks of our Uniting Church – then we also acknowledge that as we rejoice in our life in Christ, much of this journey is rigorous and costly. One of our claims as Uniting Church, is that we are “a pilgrim people, always on the way towards the promised goal”.

It is not easy to live out this life of faith in our world, especially if we take Jesus seriously and live in the world, not hiding in our ecclesial bubble, or singing songs of praise so loudly we cannot hear the cries of those in need.

The assurance we have – even in the appalling story of Hagar and Ishmael – is that God has not abandoned us, and will not. Knowing that I will not fall without my God’s hands beneath me is nice when I’m struggling to prepare a sermon, but everything when my life and the lives of those around me are under threat.

Forty years of the Uniting Church is a robust, biblical number; memories of exile and exodus, wanderings in the wilderness, and rising above flood waters. Where may our travels with God lead us next?

Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

 

 

Life In The Cloud

I have been thinking about the Uniting Church, our fortieth anniversary this week and what it means for me to be part of this cloud (crowd?) of witnesses.

I love the Uniting Church, although there have been times when I was unsure that we would make it this far. I love our attempts to understand ourselves in this place – in the context of twenty-first century Australia – and the faithful, fallible, foolhardy, sometimes false and occasionally fabulous, choices we make as a result.

I love the Uniting Church like that refractory child remaining steadfastly unconvinced (‘Why can’t you just do what I ask you?’), knowing that the energy for obstinacy and mistakes is the vitality which makes for creativity and wonder.

I love the Uniting Church like the grandmother who is always telling me how good it used to be, but who says in the next breath that ‘You don’t know how lucky you are to be living in this day and age’.

It’s the Uniting Church like the eccentric uncle who is always finding something wrong: with his health, with his house, with his neighbour, with his neighbour’s cat, with the fact that no one else can see how wrong things are and that no one ever listens. And he’s the first one to slip you some cash when you need it.

There’s the cousin, about whom everyone always rolls their eyes, who notices a wonderful flower or bird in the garden, or wears outrageous outfits, or marches in protests, but never has time for the “important” things, like getting the washing done, or tidying the house, or simply settling down. ‘And where did you get those leg warmers?’

Or when the Uniting Church acts like a great mum, saying ‘We’ll sort this out together’, and doing just that, when it seemed like there was no way of solving things. Or the great dad, providing support and encouragement, quiet and steadfast, without any fanfare.

Like any family, there are times when I am frustrated or annoyed. I am impatient that we seem to have constant meetings, reflections, or consultations, about everything. I despair that, like the most fallible of teenagers (and others of every age) we succumb to peer pressure and the facile values of the world around us.

Once or twice, I have been ashamed of our Church. I can’t believe how much some of us invest in trying to hurt, or accuse, or blame. And I am humbled by how much some of us bear when that hurt, blame and accusation strike.

Some families forgive easily, with grace and great example. Forgiveness usually comes at significant cost, but it is the only path in the life that Jesus Christ offers to us.

Like a lot of families, in the Uniting Church we don’t talk about our love much; most of us just get on with it. Sometimes, though, it would be good to name it out loud, to bear witness; we love and are loved by, our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. And because we are so loved, we do our best at living out that love in the lives we lead.

We are pilgrims on the way towards a promised goal; “on the way Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and [we have] the gift of the Spirit in order that [we] may not lose the way.”

Grace, peace and love and many thanks for our shared lives.

 

How baffling you are, O Church,

and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer,

and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed,

and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal

and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world

more devoted to obscurity, more false

and I have touched nothing more pure,

more generous, more beautiful.

How often I have wanted

to shut the doors of my soul in your face,

and how often I have prayed

to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you,

because I am you,

although not completely.

And where should I go?

 

from The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto

 

This is a revised article of one I wrote for Ruminations, the Rural Ministry magazine, in 2004.