PreachFest 2021

Welcome to the inaugural PreachFest, an offering on behalf of our Uniting Church, to the whole of the Church, as we celebrate, and seek to elevate, the art and call of preaching.

I welcome you from Gadigal Land, country of the Eora nation. On behalf of our Church, I pay my respects to the elders past and present, for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, the lands and waters under their care.

I extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and to those lands on which you all gather. I pray that this care will continue into the years ahead, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.

James McAuley invites each poet and thus, each preacher,

Take salt upon your tongue.
And do not feed the heart
with sorrow, darkness or lies:
these are the death of art.

We are nourished by Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, then music and poetry and words and wonder and our lives.

The extraordinary technological improvements which enable us to broadcast this festival live and online, to record it and offer it to Congregations and communities, do not always serve us well.

We have begun to trust the marvel of the medium and not the wonder of the message.

We live in a world where the image is vital, the screenshot, which flicks across our retinas and, almost immediately, is gone. Shazaam helps us to capture the snippet of music we like for the moment; TikTok testifies to the trimming of our attention spans – and our memories – to the equivalent of a goldfish.

We have fallen into the trap of believing that preaching is an archaic, or even obsolete, gift in our Church’s life. Thus, we have reflections, or testimonies, or “talks”, with none of the discipling, or risk, of a sermon crafted to remind the disciples of Christ who we are called to be. Our liturgical response of “anyone can do this”, neglects the vital diversity of gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit for all the aspects of the Church’s life and mission.

These are not the only challenges before us. We have taken Barth’s supposed dictum, updated, about a bible in one hand and a tablet in the other, and have become so immersed in the media cycle, that preaching is at risk of becoming a political polemic and not the gift the Church – and our community – so desperately need.

Scripture is not one option among many, it is the first option, each and every time. We hold it carefully, with respect and joy.

Some of us have stayed securely in the past, nestled in the brilliance of Calvin, the rigour of Wesley, the challenge of Spurgeon. However, there are preachers now, like the mob we have gathered for this festival, like Rutledge and Lischer and Curry and Brueggemann and Lose and Taylor (have a listen to Raffel the new Anglican Archbishop!), all of whom will remind you of the call of Jesus Christ to bear faithful human witness in our world.  

Les Murray reminds us, tongue firmly planted in his cheek

Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic,
poetry is presence.

Preaching is not just reading out something written by another, it is living out the proclamation of the living God, whose kiss of life has created us, and whose breath now breathes through us.  

We are, each and all of us, called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those of us, called to preach, do so in a public way, as a prophetic offering to the community of faith.

We are not called to convert, or to save. These tasks are entirely – and thankfully – the movement of the Spirit of the one about whose life and death and resurrection we preach. We are called to bear witness – in our proclamation and in our lives. The significance of our words must be echoed by the integrity of our character, in humility and mercy.

R.S Thomas goes to efforts to keep us suitably humble

I see them working in old rectories
by the sun’s light, by candlelight,
venerable men [and women], their black cloth
a little dusty, a little green
with holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
ripening over so many prayers,
toppled in to the same grave
with oafs and yokels. They left no books,
memorial to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on people’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten. God, in [God’s] time
or out of time will correct this.

Our proclamation must always point to Christ, crucified and risen. That is our calling.

I note that there are experienced preachers, ordained and lay, gathered here and in Canberra and online, as individuals and in regional hubs; there are preachers in waiting, those apprenticed to a community of faith, and preachers who are discovering their call.

I welcome those preachers from other traditions, including those who will be teaching and leading us.

All preaching begins in prayer, so let us pray.

One of Those Days

It was not just one of those days, but one that helps define who we are as church, and how our discipleship is shaped for the task before us.

That particular Thursday began as many Thursdays do, but middled – and ended – not with a whimper, but a bang. Sometimes in the Synod offices, we are “just getting the job done”, as we seek to serve the Church, as the Church serves the community, but fanfares are not always the order of the day.

First stop was St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the city, opposite Parliament House. I sat in the front row of one of our most beautiful, “churchiest” churches, between a doctor and a past NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister on one side, and three recovering drug users and the Executive Director of Uniting on the other.

We celebrated two decades of hard core, high quality, care and justice, as the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre was recognised as a lifesaving, life-changing institution at the heart of Kings Cross. The testimonies – of the three men on my right giving thanks for their lives, of a Liberal and Labor politician in furious agreement, of doctors Marianne Jauncey and Ingrid Van Beek in passionate service – all bore witness to a hope in action driven by Rev. Harry Herbert and our Synod, which has changed thousands of lives, politics and a community.

We hung our banner of hearts across the facade of Parliament House and danced down Macquarie Street, returning to our other work.

As I landed in the Synod Office, we welcomed student leaders from our schools. More than twenty senior students, chosen by their peers, had come to discuss the issues which they had elected as important – consent, climate change and the environment, and mental health registered as their top three.

This was an opportunity for me and some other members of our Synod to engage with the considerable capacity of these students, as they wrestled with confronting problems which beset them and everyone else in our community.

They were not hindered by their surrounds but, rather, energised by the opportunity to have their views expressed and challenged. When they were asked what it means to be part of a Uniting Church school, even those students from other faiths were able to name their sense of being welcomed, of engaging in education, faith and issues which are important to them. Almost everyone talked of the diversity – of faith, of opinion, of experience – and they attributed that to being part of the Uniting Church.

We have children in schools of all styles across our Synod; they are not the church of the future. They are the church now, and we should celebrate them as such. The gifts offered by all teachers, by chaplains, by parents, by our children need to be treasured.

As our schools’ event drew to a close, I hustled down Pitt Street to an Iftar meal hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, convened by a man who calls every friend “cousin”.

This was a meal within our community, for Muslims and as many friends as they could fit in the room. My table had a judge, a politician, and two members of the armed services. We sat near politicians and broadcasters, journalists and sportspeople, as we considered what it means to be a diverse, creative community. We wrestled with justice for refugees and Australians trying to come home, from India and other countries. We voiced concern about labelling, even blaming, specific groups of people because of their belief and background.

Iftar is not only a meal as part of the season of Ramadan, it is often hospitality at its best, where difference and shared hopes are held together.

This story of my Thursday is a story of our Uniting Church; engaged in conversation with our community, often over a coffee, or dolmades. It is meeting with politicians and priests, or those ensnared by the challenges of life, or emerging from its injustices. We know that Jesus met with people living in all aspects of his community and, at our best, we seek to do the same.

We are called to be in the midst of things. It is here that we bear witness to our hope in Jesus, and offer that hope to others with whom we share our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we are in conversation with our community, articulating hope, embodying justice.

Every day.