St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

In the world

Listen!
John 17:6-19 | John 6:60-69
Over the past few weeks we’ve been exploring different big issues that confront us as a Church and as individual followers of Jesus in the modern world. We’ve talked about the fear that we, as an institution, are shrinking and irrelevant; and then explored how we might actually be uniquely well placed to find new ways of being the Church in the emerging, post institutional world.

Two weeks ago we thought about how we could balance our desire to respect and even learn from the religious experiences and traditions of our non-Christian friends and neighbours with our calling to stay true to the scandelous claims of the uniqueness of life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus.

And then last week I sketched out why I believe that the Christian Church should be proud of, and an enthusiastic supporter of, the scientific exploration of God’s universe.

And all of these issues, and others raised in the feedback that I haven’t had the opportunity to address more directly, are facets of one, big question – how do we stay true to who we are in a society that does not value our faith?

How do we live as followers of Jesus in a post-Christian world?

But actually, there’s a question we need to answer before we can even ask that one, which is this: Why would we bother?

This is the question that really lies at the heart of our reading from John chapter 6. In response to some of Jesus’ harder words to understand and accept, some of Jesus’ followers start to wonder if they really want to hear any more; and many turn away and cease to follow him. Whatever it is that they have seen in Jesus, in his life, his teaching, his words of the Kingdom of God, isn’t enough to get them past the barriers to a genuine comittment to following him.

And that’s probably the way it should be. Jesus’ words offended some, shocked others, pushed yet others beyond the limits of what they were prepared to give. Those who stopped following when they heard what Jesus was saying, who said “this teaching is too hard”, at least proved that they were hearing what he had to say. In truth, if you’re not shocked and upset by Jesus’ words, at least some of the time, you’re probably not listening.

And, for that matter, if Jesus’ words are not clear and strong and, at times, hard, enough that some people will rebel against them, then I wonder if they are even worth listening to? If Jesus’ teaching can be reduced to what we sometimes refer to of as “Christian values” – being considerate, fair, generous, forgiving, kind – basically, being good citizens – then I’d have to wonder, firstly, why anyone would bother to kill him, and secondly, why anyone would bother to follow him.

Anyone whose teaching will inspire followers will also inspire opposition. Which I guess leads to my first observation about living as followers of Jesus in a post Christian world: that we ought not be afraid of people not liking what we have to say. That if we are true to the radical edge of Jesus’ teaching, there will be people offended or upset or even angered by what we have to say. If nothing in our faith invokes any emotional response – pro or anti – in those who hear it, then we have to wonder if we are true to the words of Jesus, whose words so divided those who heard him.

And we further have to wonder why anyone would bother to join us. Whether our desire to be nice and inoffensive so as not to drive anyone away from the Church has the reverse effect of giving no-one any reason to attend.

Of course, that’s not to say that we should be aiming to upset people, or that people taking offense is evidence that we are true to the gospel. Offense is not the end. But I wonder if we have allowed the faith to be an anaesthetic, when in truth it is a wake-up call.

And so Jesus turns to the twelve, and offers them the get-out. “What about you? Do you want to leave?”

I heard recently that the trendy online clothing company Zappos makes this offer to their new staff: once they finish their training, before they start work proper, they are offered a redundancy package. $3000 to leave at the end of training. The CEO explains the policy in these terms – if anyone would rather have the money than to work here, we don’t want them in the team. Jesus doesn’t offer the disciples a cash bonus, but he makes it easy for them. No threats or offers or promises if they stay. It falls to Peter to put into words what they all must have felt: “where would we go? you have the words of eternal life”.

You have the words of life. It is from you, in you, by you, that we can know what life really is. Life, as Jesus himself had put it, in all it’s fullness. Life abundant, in this age and the next.

And so if my first observation for living as followers of Jesus in a post-Christian culture was that we should not be afraid of people not always liking what we have to say as we echo the words of the kingdom, the second is this: that we must know and hold onto the value of what it is that we have received in our story, our tradition, our scriptures, our faith. Words of life. Eternal life, abundant life. Life worth living.
These are not words of incremental change, of marginal improvement, of a few tweaks to make life work better in the status quo.

These are words of life radically and revolutionarily different. Words that overthrow the tables in the temple. Words that raise up the downtrodden, set free the oppressed, heal the sick, comfort those who mourn, give hope to those who fear.

And so we come to the words that Jesus prayed, on the eve of his arrest and death – words he prayed for those who followed him. Words in which he seemed to be very well aware of the dilemma his followers would face. The dilemma of being in the world, but not of the world.

When I first started making my notes for what I would talk about each Sunday in September, and what reading would be appropriate, the theme that I jotted down for this week read “how do we respond to the call to be in the world but not of the world”. I had that in my mind right up until I reread the passages to write this sermon. It was then that I realised that Jesus words, which I’ve so often heard referred to, and have referred to myself, in those terms – our calling to be in the world but not of it – actually aren’t that at all. Jesus isn’t speaking to his disciples, telling them how they should be, he’s praying about how they are, and will be. That is to say – “in the world but not of the world” isn’t a calling, or a challenge: it’s a description. A fact.

Jesus prays “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world”. It’s not something we choose, or can unchoose. We are in the world. We are incarnate, physical beings who eat and drink and sleep; we are emotional beings who get sad and happy and angry; we are relational beings who have friends and enemies, families and lovers. And so Jesus goes on “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them”. Jesus is going to be taken out of the world – first by death, but finally by ascension; but he does not pray the same for us. Instead he prays “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world”

This is the core of our being. This is the core of who we are and why we are as the Church. As the Father sent Jesus, Jesus sends us. To proclaim the kingdom. To upset the tables in the Temple. To reconcile enemies, to bring forgiveness to the sinner, to challenge the comfortable elite. To be hated – according to Jesus’ words – by the power of the world, as Jesus was hated.

But if our “in the worldness” is an undeniable physical fact, the other half of the equation is a statement of Christian hope: we do not belong to the world. Sent by Jesus, our strength, our authority, our value does not derive from the strengths, authorities, or value systems of the world.

They say that he who pays the piper calls the tune – politicians favour those who get them into power, companies shape their policies around where the money is coming from, research organisations are all too aware of what their financial backers hope to see.

And it’s not just about money – so many people seem to be driven by their need for reputation, their need to feel wanted, their need for security, their need to be successful – and are, in turn, owned by those who can provide those things for them. Your deepest motivations own you – as Jesus said, where you treasure is, your heart will be.

This then, is my third observation – we are in the world, part of it, inseparably bound into our communities and cultures, families and other networks – but those things do not own us. They do not define us, they do not control us. They do not have the ultimate power to make or break us.

We are the ones who, with Simon Peter, have seen that in the end, we have nowhere else to go. We do not belong to the world, for we are owned by another story, the story of God, of God’s people, of God’s kingdom; that story that we tell with our lives as we live in a world that keeps choosing to walk away; a world that God has never given up on.

Amen.

Engaging with Science

Listen!
Genesis 1:1-19 | Psalm 19:1-4
Many of you will have heard this story before, because I love to tell it. When I first arrived at Uniting Theological College to start my training for the ministry, I got into lots of those conversations where you’re introducing yourself to fellow students, talking about where you’ve come from, what you’ve done in the past. At one point I was sharing a coffee with another theology student – someone not training for the ministry, but doing a theology degree – and I told them that I’d worked for quite a few years as a scientist. People quite often seem to get excited about the idea of a scientist studying for the ministry, so I wasn’t suprised when he enthusiastically responded “that’s great”. But then he went on “it’s so encouraging when someone comes across from the enemy”.

I can’t even remember my response – I may have muttered something about not really seeing it that way, or I may just have stared at him open mouthed. Not sure. But I know this – that he isn’t the only one, on either side of the perceived divide, to see things in those terms.

Surveys of social attitudes – most of all in the US, but also in the UK, and here in Australia – show that the overwhelming perception of the Christian Church amongst young adults who are not churchgoers is that it is defined by what it is against: the perception of the Church is that it is anti-women, anti-gay, anti-youth, and anti-science.

And sadly, we have to face up to the fact that much of this impression is, to a significant extent, both historically and in the modern day, the fault of the Church.

Historically, even though so much of science has arisen from scholars working within the Christian Church, there is no doubt that there have also been times and places in which the Church was the committed – and often violent – enemy of science.

It’s almost a historical accident. If you cast your mind back two weeks, to when I spoke about David Bosch’s book, transforming mission, I noted that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries marked the transition between the world of the empire Church – the one Catholic Church, a power across all the nations – to the world of national Churches, post-reformation. And a key factor in that transition was the question of authority. Oversimplifying, of course, it can be expressed as the authority of the Pope and the heirarchy of the Church, set against the authority of the Bible – sola scripture.

And into this bloody struggle came the scientists – and, in particular Galileo, building on the intellectual construct of the renaissance, and advocating an entirely different source of authority – the scientific method, experiment, reason, and observation of the natural world. In a world torn by arguments over authority, science was a threat to both sides.

It was an argument about knowledge, but more, about power, about asking questions. It was an argument about how to read scripture, and about the authority of the church heirarchy.

And of course in the grand battle in more recent years between the theory of evolution and the six-day creationists; again, the debate is not so much around facts and theories as it is around how we decide what to believe; whether we accept one authority as absolute above all others, or whether we accept the messy task of weighing different ways of knows against one another.

In fact, it’s one of the great ironies of the debate that the most strident voices on both sides – the militant athiests and the hardcore creationists – share a fundamental (even, a fundamentalist) trait: both would elevate a single way of knowing about the world (the scientific method on one hand, the Bible on the other) to the exclusion of all others.

So where does that leave the rest of us – people, and especially people of faith – who see the challenge of truth, of how we know what to believe – in shades of gray rather than black or white?

I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that I’m personally of the opinion that Christians should not just not be anti-science, but that we should be enthusiastically and vocally pro-science.

And it’s not just a case of trying to let the world know that not all Christians are set against science and progress and understanding and the rest as an enemy; not just trying to counter the impression that faith is somehow the opposite of science, believing despite evidence to the contrary; not just trying to differentiate ourselves from those parts of the religious community who would prevent the teaching of evolution or climate change or dinosaurs in our schools. It’s not just those things – although they are all very good reasons in and of themselves.

But more than any of those, I believe that we in the Church should be passionately pro-science because I believe that that is, in fact, the witness of our scriptures and our tradition. That far from being set against science, our story would encourage us to embrace it. Hear again the words of our psalm:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.

Now, of course, the psalmist wasn’t speaking of modern science when he composed these words; and nor would I seek to claim them as the sole province of the scientist. But “without speech and without words the voice of creation is heard to the ends of the earth”: the glories of the night sky call out to the cosmologist, the incredible detail of plant and animal life speak to the biologist, the grandeur of mountain ranges to the geologist, the power of the lightning stroke to the physicist, the smells and colours of creation to the chemist. Of course others hear the voices too; the poet and the artist and the writer and composer in us responds to the wonder of creation. But I wonder if anyone hears creation’s voice quite like the enquiring mind that is the child and the scientist in each one of us.

But ultimately, and ironically, given the role this reading has played in the evolution-creation debate, I would place the Biblical foundations of science right back in the opening words of the Bible, and in particular in the first four days, as the story is told, of creation. Because these opening days have a very strong theme to them, that I think we tend to miss because we don’t read them with the mindset of ancient Hebrew cosmology.

The creation story starts, not with nothing, but with darkness, and with the waters. In the ancient world, darkness, and the waters, both have a strong sense of chaos about them: it is in the darkness that anything danger might lurk; and the waters, always shifting, never predictable, never the same.

And what God does in the opening four days of the story is to impose order and structure, and safety, onto this chaotic, disorderly and unsafe universe.

So the first thing is to create light, and to separate the light from the darkness, to create a place from which darkness has been banished.

And then on the second day God says “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters”. The waters of chaos are separated – and yes, in ancient Hebrew cosmology the sky was a dome above which was water – that’s why it’s blue – and beneath the earth, there too, was water. But now they have been separated, to make a space of order in between the two realms of chaos.

On the third day the waters are further constrained, “gathered together” in order that dry land might emerge. Now chaos has been held back in both directions, and land, the place of safety and order, emerges. And straight away, the land starts doing orderly, predictable things: plants yielding seed and trees yielding fruit.

And then the fourth day: God marks the dome in the sky to separate day from night and to mark the seasons and days and years – though light and darkness have existed from day one, it is only here that we .see night and day and days and seasons and years – the whole orderly cycle of time.

I hope you’ve seen by now what I’m getting at – the whole story of creation is the story of order, structure, rules, being imposed onto chaos, of chaos being pushed back to create a place in which the orderly nature of the universe can emerge to support and sustain the garden. In which seeds grow to plants and produce seed; animals produce offspring “according to their own kind”; day follows night and spring follows winter.

The very cornerstone of the whole scientific endeavour is that the world – the universe, even – is a place governed by law – the laws of nature. Without a belief in that consistency there is no reason to believe that an observation made, or a law of science worked out in Sydney today, applied yesterday, or will apply tomorrow, or even applied today in London, or even next door.

For the philosophically inclined, it’s known as the problem of induction: that there is no logical or scientific reason to assume that the laws of science that held yesterday will hold tomorrow – the best you can do is to say “it’s worked in the past”, which is rather to beg the question.

In the end it is an article of faith – or a claim of theology – that lies at the very heart of the whole scientific endeavour.

And it is this theology – that God, the creator, is a God of order, not chaos, of law, not anarchy – that inspired the early scientists (in the west, at least); the belief that if God has ordered the days and the seasons and the stars and the plants and animals; if God has ordered them to be governed by law; and if God has set us a stewards of that creation, then it might be possible that we can learn and understand that law. That the whole endeavour of science is, as Johann Kepler, the first of the great modern cosmologists, wrote “merely striving to think God’s thoughts after Him”.

At the Cavendish labs in Cambridge, where I studied my undergraduate physics, over the main doors are engraved these words:

Magna opera Domini exquisita in omnes voluntates eius

They were carved there at the instruction of Clark Maxwell, the physicist whose theory of electromagnetism the cornerstone of, well, pretty much everything in the modern world. When they built the new Cavendish labs, they engraved over the doors the same words, but translated:

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

Amen

Muogamarra Nature Reserve Saturday 7th September, 2013

Photographic Phrenzy: waratahs with James, David, Bob & Tertius

Photographic Phrenzy: waratahs with James, David, Bob & Tertius

Muogamarra Nature Reserve is on the Hawkesbury River just north of Cowan and west of Brooklyn.  The reserve is open to the public just six weekends a year, when it is the site of one of Sydney’s most vibrant natural floral shows, including waratahs, native orchids, bright pink eriostemons, purple boronias and towering Gymea lilies.

Every year since 2009 the Cartophiles have seized this limited opportunity to experience the wildflower wonders of the Muogamarra Nature Reserve and have walked the moderate-rated, 6 kilometre Deerubbin Lookover circuit with its outstanding views over the Hawkesbury River. This year we opted for a change and instead did the hard-rated Peats Crater Walk, the longest available at Muogamarra Nature Reserve.

Rachel and Tertius drove up from Canberra and joined Annie, James, Paul, David and Kit on the walk.  Bob and Robin did the first part of walk with the group, then opted to remain on the ridge top and enjoy the views.

The 10 kilometre walk wound down Peats Bight Trail over historic road works into Peats Crater, a volcanic diatreme and the site of early farm settlements that took advantage of the rich soil.  A line of exotic Osage Orange trees runs north-south across the Crater, the remains of a hedge planted in the mid 19th century. The Osage Orange is native to Texas and was the favoured hedge plant in the prairie states of the United States before the invention of barbed wire in 1874.  The Peats Crater hedge is one of a very few known Osage Orange hedges to survive in NSW and is longest and best condition of the surviving hedges.

Tertius and the remains of the Peats Bight Guest House

The walk continued along the original road to Peats Bight and the scenery suddenly changed from the dry sclerophyll  forest we’ve been used to on the ridges to heavily shaded rainforest.  We entered another crater that was once a cricket ground,  home to the Peats Ferry Cricket Club. Looking at the wild bush it was hard to keep in mind that this was once a thriving settlement along the road to Peats Ferry, a major artery into Sydney. We were reminded again of what has gone before when we came to the stone wall which is all that remains of Peats Bight Guest House, which was originally the home of Joseph Izard, who built it in the late nineteenth century.

The last part of the walk parallelled the water through mangroves to the tip of the park at Peats Bight, where we enjoyed lunch looking across the breadth of the Hawkesbury.  This included an excellent view of a landing seaplane.On the return walk we took a shortcut up the hill to the look out on the Point Loop walk, with spectacular views over Peats Crater and beyond to Bar Island, Berowra Creek and the Hawkesbury River. Then we made our way back to the car park past stunning displays of pink wax flowers, boronias, old-man banksias and mountain devils.  We finished the walk with our standard debrief, this time in the Blue Gum Hotel.

On our next day walk we return to our home turf in the Ku-ring-Gai Chase National Park to walk the Sphinx, Warrimoo and Bobbin Head tracks on Saturday 19th October.  To register for the walk, or to get more information, contact Kit Craig at cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org or on 0411 507 422.

 

Jack Peattie Memorial

Long standing members of St. John’s may well remember Jack Peattie as an active member of the congregation and leader of the Scouts. As was mentioned in Church last Sunday, Jack died in New Zealand last Friday. The cremation will be held there later this week, and the family have asked for a memorial service to be held at St. John’s – this will be at 2pm on October 18th. All who remember Jack and would like to come to celebrate his life are most welcome.

Gentlemans Halt campground, Marramarra National Park, 31st August/1st September, 2013

This was a completely new walk for the Cartophiles, since one of us had hiked in the area before.   Thank you to Michael I for these walk notes.

Participants: Kit, James and Annie, Adam and Michael, Michael and GabrielThe Gentlemen, halted

The walk started with us departing in 3 cars from St John’s Church in Wahroonga to drive to Canoelands Road, Canoelands (east of Cattai, north of Dural). The walk notes (provided by Kit) described it lyrically this way:

“The Cartophiles first two day walk of the year takes us deep into Marramarra National Park to near the junction of Hawkesbury River and Mangrove Creek. Perched on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, opposite Spencer, Gentlemans Halt is a 10km walk from Canoelands Ridge Trail. It’s believed that Governor Phillip camped at Gentlemans halt in 1789 during his exploration of Hawkesbury River. It remains much the same as it was then – picturesque and remote bushland with great views across the river, and not a soul in sight.

The hike itself along Canoelands Ridge walking track is spectacular. We’ll see the beautiful ridge top colours of iconic Hawkesbury sandstone and remarkable views of Hawkesbury River. At the campsite we may well see lyrebirds at dusk and dawn. Bandicoots also often visit the site.

The first eight kilometres should be easy walking along a firetrail , but the last two is harder walking along a foot track”

Reality was close, but as usual the rough bits had been rubbed off the description. It neglected the need to mention we had to carry in our water and so each of us had several litres of the precious fluid (and the odd glass of wine).

The weather was perfect, around 22 degrees and sunny, and the footing along the firetrail was firm and comfortable. There was little water and so mud was not an issue. Spring was truly out, and the native flowers were blossoming – Gymea lilies were standing to attention, , the little trefoil orchids were up, and the red spider flowers (Cleome spp) were spectacular. Gums and Acacia trees were in bloom, the banksia were out, and their colours made the trackside bush a pleasure.

The track day oneThe trail was on a roughly easterly direction, but Kit’s favourite word ‘undulating’ was severely put to the test. The trail was occasionally flat, but more often crossed the contour lines at a rate somewhat unexpected when one just looked at the maps. There were a couple of sections where the trail switched-backed its way up and down the hills, and it seemed to be designed rather to support the direct slashes of gas and electricity paths, with little care of choosing the easiest path.

After stopping for lunch on the side of the trail, seated on conveniently sized and place boulders, we reached the turnoff for the campsite. This was clearly marked, although possibly in place for a while as some of the distances marked seemed to be in miles rather than kilometres. The trail set off along the side of the hill looking down onto the Hawkesbury (which had shown itself iridescent in the sun all along the first half of the trail but then gone behind the ridgeline for a while) before reaching an abrupt descent. By this time, the trail was limited, marked clearly with pink ribbons in the trees, but only faintly on the ground, showing that it was not a commonly used track This descent explained why. In no uncertain terms. The group descended in two parties, with Annie, That Terrible DescentGabriel, Michael and Adam gallivanting and gambolling down and Michael and James more carefully and cautiously using all four (five if including ones seat) attachments to the unstable and treacherous rocks behind. Noble and gallant Kit came with them to pick them up (invariably Michael) and dust them off as required.

Once we were at “the bottom of that terrible descent” there was a gentle 1-2km walk to the campsite along the lower and much more considerate slope and beside the mangroves. The ground was riddled with small holes that looked like burrows, only too small to be from rabbits. We wondered if they might have been crabs but they were above the mudline – in retrospect I wonder if they were bilbys or bandicoots. We didn’t see any sign of them, nor of the promised Lyrebirds either.

The campsite was a delight. Flat, open yet shaded, at the edge of the river but high enough to be well above water line, and with toilet and campfire grill installed. We dined well and breakfast was even better – bacon rolls for some! The peace of the evening was a little disrupted for some by the sounds of raucous laughter by others for an hour or two after nightfall (Gabriel commented that Uncle Kit laughed very loudly).

The top of the big climbWalking out was easier, the descent turned itself magically into an ascent, and as such was much easier to navigate. We were several kilos (litres of water) lighter and so returned to the cars uneventfully, if perhaps a little weary for some.

Gabriel was the youngest of the troop, but stoic and enjoyed the walk. He had no trouble with the distance or packweight, and was more than happy to walk along and start or join in any singing.

The Cartophiles’ next overnight hike is on the weekend 21st/22nd September, 2013 to the remote Colo Meroo campsite on the banks of the Colo River.  For more information contact Kit Craig on 0411 507 422 or email cartophiles@stjohnswahroonga.org

 

 

 

Engaging other faiths

Listen!
Acts 17:22-28 | John 14:1-10
As I mentioned two weeks ago, at the start of this September series of sermons on issues facing Christians today, when I asked members of the congregation to nominate what they felt those big issues were, I had a list of my own predictions of what people would say.

And one that I felt pretty confident of was the subject of today’s service: how do we, as people who follow and serve and place our faith in Jesus Christ and the story of the world and of the kingdom of God that he told, how do we understand other faiths – and, in particular, how do we relate to our friends and neighbours and colleagues who follow other faiths.

Or, as one of the comments I received put it – “what are we to do with Jesus saying he was the only way to God. I really wish he hadn’t said that.”

I’ll get to Jesus’ words in John chapter 14 a little later. But first, a bit of a sort of conceptual scene setting.

To oversimplify an argument that has shaped much of the history of the Western world, there is a continuum of attitudes within the Christian faith to the truth or otherwise of other faiths. At one end, there are those (often quite vocal) Christians who would say that the Christian faith is the only true revelation of God; that the teachings of other faiths are human invention at best, and demonic deception at worst. In it’s most extreme form this exclusivist view of truth gets more specific still – not only is Christianity the only truth, but there is one particular correct interpretation of the Bible, which we have, and all other readings of the Bible are false. We tend to call groups that take this attitude cults…

Moving a little further along, there are those who would say that in the Biblical story, and in particular in the person of Jesus Christ, we have a unique revelation of God. While founders and followers of other faiths might have grasped some truth of God, there is nothing in other faiths that can even begin to compare to what we have had revealed to us in Jesus and in the scriptures; that we can judge the truth of another faith simply by seeing how closely it conforms to the doctrines of the Christian faith.

Further along the continuum, some would argue that though Jesus is the most complete and perfect revelation of God, God has also revealed aspects of Godself to others outside of the Judeo-Christian story. While we, who have received the story of God’s revelation in Jesus, are uniquely blessed and gifted by that revelation, any beliefs or doctrines that we derive from the Jesus story are inevitably made imperfect by our very human limitations; and at times followers of other faiths may see some truths of God more clearly than we: not because of some fault in God’s self-revelation in Jesus, but because of our inevitable failure to follow or understand the teaching of Jesus.

And moving to the other end of the spectrum, there are those who would see all faiths as equally valid revelations of the character of God, and in sharing what we have seen as equals we find the closest approximation to the truth of the God who is beyond all human systems.

I’ve described this continuum not to say where we ought to lie on it, but because if we want to think clearly about how we relate to other faiths, and how we read passages like John 14 and Acts 17, we need to have a good sense of our own presuppositions from the outset. And by the end of this sermon you’ll probably have a pretty good idea where my sympathies, at least, lie…

So let’s look at the gospel reading – those words that appear quite high up manfoy our “I wish Jesus hadn’t said that” lists. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me”. What are we to make of these words with their shocking claim to exclusivity, or, as theologians like to call it, the scandal of particularity. The claim that Jesus, uniquely of all faiths and philosophies and gurus and prophets and preachers, is the way, the truth, the life.

The first thing, of course, to do, is to put these words, so often quoted in isolation, back into their context. Jesus is speaking to his friends just hours before he is to be taken from them, and he ahd told them what is going to happen. And they, understandably enough, are devastated. So he says “don’t be troubled. trust God. trust me. I’m going to make things ready for you, and you already know the way to where I am going.” Thomas blurts out the obvious problem “we don’t know where you’re going! how can we know the way?”, and it is then that Jesus offers them this reply: “you do know the way, for you know me, and I am the way. You know the truth, for you know me, and I am the truth. You know what life really is, for you know me, and I am the life.”

Jesus does not address these words to those who reject him, to those who don’t know him, as words of exclusion: he is speaking to his friends, to those who know him, offering words of reassurance.

And into the same context are spoken the harder words – “no one comes to the father except through me”. But do we have to hear these words as excluding those of other faiths or none from the work and Kingdom of God?

The claim is at least this – that Jesus in his life and death and resurrection achieved for us something – some connection with or access to God, that only he could achieve, only he could give. But does this necessarily imply that it is only those who knowingly claim the name of Jesus who can be recipients of that blessing?

I could not cross the harbour bridge without the work of those who built it: but I don’t know the name of anyone involved. I rely on their work to get into the city, without knowing who it was who made it possible for me.

Remember, Jesus is speaking reassurance to his friends. I’m the way. I’m the one who is making it possible for you to know the Father – for now, knowing me, you do know him. The words are scandalous in their particularity, but they are not – or need not be – as exclusivist as we tend to hear them.

If Jesus is the way, the truth, the life, the only way to the Father, then is it possible that others can find elements of that truth, parts of that way, aspects of that life, without knowing it is Jesus they are discovering?

In fact, of course, we have plenty of reason to believe that they can. Starting with the law and the prophets, the revelation of God to the people of Israel throughout the period of the Old Testament. Or reading Paul’s description of the revelation of God to all peoples in Romans chapter 1 – “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made”. Or his address to the people of Athens, quoting approvingly the truth discovered in their poets words – “For we too are his offspring.”, and declaring that he has come to give the name to that which they were already worshipping as the Unknown God.

One of my favourite parts of the passion narrative comes in Luke’s description of the last moments of Jesus’ life “It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two”. The curtain in the temple, past which on the high priest could go, was the symbol of the barrier separating God from God’s people: and in Jesus’ death, it was torn down – the separation between God and humanity was gone. God was in that symbolic act made accessible to all – uniquely by the work of Jesus Christ – accessible even to those who do not know how, or even that, the curtain was torn.

Not much later we read, on the day of Pentecost, the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy – I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. The promise that the Spirit of God we be present and active amongst all peoples – all flesh – not just a chosen few.

Which brings us – via a winding path, but believe me, I could have written a dozen sermons on this – to the question of how we can respect and relate to those of other faiths, while remaining true to the seemingly exclusive claims of Jesus.

It’s a huge question, and I’m sure I can’t give you a satisfactory answer. But it seems to me that we could do worst than start with these three statements:

Firstly, that in Jesus Christ humanity has the fullest and most complete revelation of God; that he is the way, the truth, the life, and that it is through his work that the kingdom of God becomes a possibility, in this world and the world to come. We need not be embarrassed of the scandal of that particularity; for it is the core, the heart of our story.

But secondly, that we do not have a full and true and undistorted image of Jesus; that our understanding of him and his story, and therefore of the God he revealed to us, is necessarily constrained by the limits of human language, distorted by our cultural assumptions, warped by the lens of history through which we see it.

And thirdly, that truth has been revealed to humanity in many ways, at many times, through many prophets and poets and artists and scientists: and while we might want to repeat that all truth is to be found in Jesus Christ, we must also aknowledge that others may have seen aspects of God’s truth more clearly than us, even if they give another name than Jesus.

So we have a great gift to share with our neighbours in the story of Jesus. But it is likely that they too, in the revelation of God found in their faith traditions, have insights that we have missed; truths that, if we look again, we might find in our story, in Jesus.

You don’t have to believe all faiths are equal to believe that we can all benefit from sharing the insights of God we have been blessed with with one another.

Amen.

Parramatta River Walk: Huntleys Point to Meadowbank Saturday 17th August, 2013

The Break OutThe walk from Huntley’s Point to Meadowbank was the last in our circuit of the Parramatta River Walk. Nine Cartophiles gathered at Meadowbank ferry wharf for the shuttle to our start point: regulars Mary, James, Annie, David, Virginia, Sandra, Sue and Kit and brand new Cartophile Semi. The first order of the day was a desperate search for coffee since careful diet and warm up is essential to good walking. Luckily we found a coffee shop, although it turned out that a ham and cheese croissant was not necessarily everyone’s view of a good breakfast.

The short ferry trip to the start point took us past all the landmarks of our previous two Parramatta River walks. We set off from Huntley’s Point with a clear sense of impending completion.

This is a lovely and varied walk along the river. The scenery constantly changes between suburban streetscape, foreshore bushland, paved running/walking track through landscaped parks and, at times, muddy riverbank. Our plan was to walk the first six kilometres to Putney Park for lunch, where we would pick up fellow Cartophiles Chris, Sureka, Jayanth and Maya for the last four kilometres to Meadowbank. We were a little late for lunch.

The first part of the walk took us through Gladesville Reserve in Wallumatta Bay, named after the local Aboriginal clan, and then wound through the historic former Gladesville Hospital grounds. The picture shows the Cartophiles breaking through the wall surrounding the former mental hospital. The time we spent looking at historic buildings and enjoying the lovely scenery around Bedlam Point and Glades Bay made our walk a very stately procession.

Enterprisingly, Sandra had also brought a lot of book fair flyers and distributed them to letterboxes along the streets as we walked.

Sue in the mudNot long before we reached Putney Park we had to negotiate a stone wall above the muddy river bank.  As the photo shows, Sue failed that negotiation.

Thanks to the joys of mobile telephony we met up with Chris, Sureka and family at Putney Park for lunch, then headed of towards our final destination.  Along the way we passed Kissing Point, the original site of James Squire’s Malt Shovel brewery established in 1792, and Settlement Park whose strange memorial plaque implies Bennelong’s grave is also in this area.

We finished at Meadowbank Wharf and gathered in the park for a debrief supported by ice cream for the kids and cider for the adults.  It was a lovely end to our exploration of the harbour for this year.

Margaret Mead Farewell Service

Margaret Mead has been principal of Wahroonga Prep. School for as long as I’ve been in Australia – 17 years! On Friday 20th September, her last day at the school, we’ll be having a service to mark the end of her time with us. The service starts at 8:45am, but you might want to be early because I think seating might be at a premium!

Engaging Culture

Listen!
Acts 5:27-32 | 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
In some ways last week’s sermon might have felt a bit depressing. I guess its kind of inevitable that if you ask what the big issues facing us are, then you’re going to start in a fairly negative place – starting, as it were, with the aknowledgement that not all is well in the world of the Christian Church, that there are big issues, genuine difficulties facing us.

Of course, in a sense, it was always thus. Every generation in history has despaired that “the youth of today” don’t hold to the stories and traditions and values that have been handed down to them; and each generation of the Church has feared for the future for the same reasons. And yet each generation in turn has also discovered, in their own way, the power of the Christian story, and carried it on.

And yet I also think it is true to say that we are living in a time of transition. In the early 1990’s the South African theologian David Bosch wrote one of those rare books that changes the landscape of thought. The book, “Transforming Mission”, traces the history of the Christian Church through 5 eras, or paradigms of thought; from the very early Christian Church, shaped by an apocalyptic expectation of Jesus’ imminent return; through the hellenistic period of the Church fathers, in which Hebrew thought and Greek philosophy were brought together in the works of St. Augustine and the like; into the medieval Catholic paradigm, starting, really, with Constantine, a single, universal Church, tightly allied to the powers and politics of secular world – that held sway for a thousand years and more.

The reformation then ushered in the fourth paradigm, that of the national Church – a Church for each nation, tied to the politics and welfare of that nation. Many different denominations, but for the most part only one in any given place. And of course much of the Tudor period of European history – Henry the 8th and all that – is driven by the srtuggle between the Catholic and Nationalistic view of the faith.

And then finally, with the enlightenment, and the emphasis on the freedom of the individual concience, we moved into a denominational paradigm; multiple options of Church, with believers freely choosing between them.

For the most part, that’s been the paradigm of the past hundred years or two. And it’s had some incredibly important implications for the way we are as a Church, and for the way that we engage with our community. And there are three implications that really matter to us today. The first is that it is this freedom to move between Churches, to choose your denominational loyalty, that inevitably lead to people taking the freedom to opt out of the Church entirely. It’s with the rise of the freedom to choose your Church that the freedom to choose to be non-Church emerges.

The second is that when people can choose their loyalty; and Churches, no longer paid for by the state, have to find their own way financially, the role of the priest or minister becomes more that of a CEO – tasked with the survival and growth of the organisation – for if it does not survive, the minister is out of a job.

And that leads to the third, and most destructive implication: for the easiest way to grow a Church is by competing with other Churches. It’s easier to persuade someone who worships elsewhere to transfer their alliegance (and their giving) than it is to draw someone who has left the Church entirely (or – nowadays – never been part of a Church) into the fold.

And inevitably this way of operating as Churches – competing (not, for the most part, explicitly – it’s far more subtle that that) to draw people from one place to another – contains the seeds of its own destruction, as those who opt out rarely opt back in, and those born outside the Church join it far less frequently than those born inside leave it.

And so, in the 1990’s Bosch argued that we were reaching the point where this way of being the Church was no longer sustainable; that while some Churches – the mega Churches, for the most part – would continue to succed, they would do so by capturing a larger slice of a shrinking pie, and that the rest – those who by bad luck or bad planning or an unwillingness to pander, did not find spectacular growth – would either vanish, or be forced to find something new – or perhaps, rediscover something old.

I’ve taken a bit of time to sketch this out, because I believe that the Uniting Church, for all its difficulties, is uniquely well placed to deal with this paradigm shift that we are living in: and that, in fact, St. John’s is especially blessed in that respect.

Why do I say that? Firstly, because of two things that the Uniting Church is not. We’re not an established or pseudo-established Church, like the Roman Catholic Church or, to a lesser, extent, the Anglican Church. We’ve never existed in a mindset of expecting people to come just because we’re here.
And we’re also not popularist, evangelical, charismatic – not even particually contemporary – it’s not our tradition, our theology, our culture. We’re not going to win the battle to be the mega-Church. And we know it.

We know, as a denomination, that we have to find a different way – we have to be at the forefront of the emergence of this new way of being the Church.
And as the largest of, as it were, the other denominations – we have the resources, the opportunity, the time to do just that.

But more importantly still, we have an incredibly strong tradition of being engaged with our local communities – as a denomination, as congregations, and perhaps most of all, as individual believers.

And while no-one knows what the future will hold, one thing that seems clear about the future of the Church is that it will lie in congregations and people of faith that are deeply connected with their local community. Congregations and individual believers who do not see the culture around them as an enemy to be fought or a source of impurity to be withdrawn from, but as the place into which the Kingdom of God is coming, and has, indeed, already begun to grow.

Paul, in the letter to the Corinthian Church, writes of becoming a Jew to the Jews, a gentile to the gentiles, weak to the weak. To the Jews he spoke the language of the Old Testament prophets; in Athens he spoke of their unknown God; to the Church in Rome – the political centre – he wrote as a lawyer; to the Church in cosmopolitan Ephasus he wrote as a philosopher. While never being compromised by the standards of the culture around them – we hear Peter’s words “We must obey God rather than any human authority” – the apostles, the very early Church, did not separate themselves from the world around them. They were, in Jesus’ words, very much in the world, while never of it.

The Uniting Church, with its current crisis – awake to the dangers and opportunities of the present moment, yet still resourced enough to do something about them – and its strong tradition and culture of involvement in the community, has, by the grace of God, the opportunity to discover what the language of the Kingdom of God might look like in twenty-first century Australia.

And if that’s true of the Uniting Church in general, it is specifically true of St. John’s. When I’d been here just a couple of months, and was asked what the place was like, I replied that I felt St. John’s was a congregation which had woken up to the future while there was still time to do something about it. It had been through crisis, pulled together again, and decided it would not walk blindly into the gradual fade away that seems the fate of so many places.

And St. John’s greatest strengths lie in its engagement with the community. It’s there in the mission goals – to engage with local families, to strengthen community life, to reach out with Christ’s love – it’s there in the relationship with Wahroonga Prep, with KCEA, in the coffee mornings and lunches and concerts and bookfairs and all those things that make St. John’s part of the Wahroonga scene. It’s there in the involvement of so many of our number in community organisations like Rotary, the SES, the volunteer fire service.

And it’s there in St. John’s putting it’s energy where it’s vision was – calling an untried intern straight of college because he had a passion to reach out to young families; finding the money in an overstreched budget to employ, and increase the hours of, a children’s worker; putting resources of time and money and effort into starting a playgroup, a Christmas club, the cartophiles, the Saturday nighters, an art group – all different ways in which the people of God in this place engage with, interact with, the community that God has placed us in to serve.

This is the new paradigm – at least in sketch form – in which the work of the Kingdom of God is more and more done outside the walls of the Church – but is done by the people who gather within those walls in worship. In which we don’t expect people to join our congregation because we have trendier music or better preaching or even friendlier people; but in which people will join us for worship because they have caught the vision of the kingdom that we are living out amongst our neighbours, and are inspired to join us in that crusade. In which the Church becomes better at hearing the call to go and serve alongside our neighbours, and less inclined to waste energy on the ways we disagree with them.

Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying that “the best way to predict your future is to create it”. I don’t know that I would want to echo the self confidence of that quote. But I do believe that we are called to work with God in creating a future in which the God’s people are at work in God’s world to make real God’s kingdom.

And I believe that our traditions, our resources, and our roots in the local community are the gifts God has given to put us in a place where we can make that real.

Amen.

Nooma – Animate: Faith

Next term Nooma will be looking at the seven week “Animate: Faith” course. This is a great opportunity for those who aren’t regulars at Nooma to come along and have a taste…

Animate is an original take on adult education that stirs curiosity. Participants are engaged and inspired to connect with their faith. Facilitators don’t have to have all the answers. Animate encourages everyone–including the facilitator–to participate in the experience, have a point of view, and deepen faith.
Videos bring seven contemporary Christian leaders from across the country into your group setting. They are authors, pastors, theological experts, and professors–and they each have compelling perspectives.
Animate resources appeal to a variety of learning styles, and have lots of ideas for discussion. Sessions don’t include fill-in-the-blank activities or answer guides, but they do include prompts for creativity–like doodling.

We’ll kick off the term with a shared meal together, on October 8th, at 7pm (bring a plate of food to share), then start the series the following Tuesday at the usual time of 7:45pm.

God, Science and History

Warrawee Anglican Church are hosting geneticist Dr. Andrew Ford and historian Dr. John Dickson for a talk and Q&A on the subject of “God, Science and History”, on October 10th at 7:30pm. Entrance is free, but they are asking for registrations on their website.

Dying and Irrelevant

Listen!
Ezekiel 37:1-14 | John 12:20-26
When, a few weeks ago, I asked members of the congregation to nominate what they thought were the biggest issues facing the Church in the modern day, I had some ideas about what might be suggested. I even went so far as to make a short list, for my own interest, of my guesses.

And, with a good number of members of the congregation taking the time to phone me, write to me, buttonhole me at morning tea, email me or leave messages on the website – and by the way, a big thank you to all those who did so – and my apologies that I won’t be able to cover everything that was raised (I’m thinking I might make this an annual event…) it was interesting to compare what I thought might be said to what was actually said.

And a number of things from my list certainly came up – how we relate to those of other faiths; how we respond to modern science; how we stay true to the Biblical faith and at the same time engage with the world around us – and others were noticably absent.

But what really struck me was the prevalence of one idea in a large proportion of the responses, an idea perhaps best summed up in the words of one email: “The Uniting Church seems to be dying as a denomination – and so do most of the others”.

And of course this is just the sort of thing to get the data junkie in me going – and the statistics really do make some grim reading. Since union, 36 years ago, adult membership of the Uniting Church has halved. While there is some switching in and out between denominations, the central factor at work is that we have people dying at about four times the rate at which young people are becoming adults within the Church.

“Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”

And if death was the theme which came through most strongly, the one it was most closely linked to was “irrelevance”. People just aren’t interested in what we have to offer (or, at least, in their perception of what we have to offer). Spiritual interest in Australia is still strong, perhaps even most strongly amongst the upcoming gen Y and Z types; but the Church is simply not seen as relevant to that interest.

Dean Drayton, former President of the Uniting Church put it to me once like this: “the biggest question facing us in mission is this: ‘how did the Church cease to be seen as a resource for spirituality?’”.

When people think of Church, they don’t think of God, or Jesus, or spiritual questions: they think of big buildings – great for weddings and funerals and maybe even baptisms, but empty most of the time. Old, slow hymns, boring, pointless sermons, irrelevant, unengaging rituals. And then add to that the wider perception that the Church is anti-science, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-youth and, perhaps above all, anti-change.

And perhaps our biggest problem is that we know that assessment isn’t true! Each one of us here has a reason why we come to Church – I doubt there are many people now who continue to go to Church out of habit, or out of some sense of social conformity. We are each here – I assume – because something in the deep life of this place, in the riches of this faith, touches – or least, has touched, and we hope might touch again – something deep within us. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, wrote the psalmist in the depth of his spiritual despair – something deep in our story calls out to something deep in our very selves, binding us to this tradition, this faith.

But because of that, I fear we can be blinded to the most threatening truth: that the spiritual experience, the spiritual ritual which connects to us may be meaningless to those who have not grown up sharing the lnaguage, culture, and ritual of the Church.

And for that reason, if none other, it seems as if many of our institutions – and this goes far beyond the Church; institutions from Rotary to Bowling Clubs to Political Parties are finding the same crisis in the demographics of their membership – are on a slow but inexorable death spiral.

Many institutions across society face this spiral. The Church is unique amongst them in that we can say “and that’s ok.”

For at the heart of the Christian faith there lies a belief in resurrection. And it’s not just about our personal salvation, but about the life of our communities.
It’s there in both our readings today.

Ezekiel speaks to the sense of desparation felt by the people of Israel. To their “We are nothing, we’re dead bones, we have no life, no future, no hope” he offers the gift of God – “breathe on these slain bones that they may live”.

And Jesus, facing the reality of his own death, offers a deeper insight still: unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

The problem, of course,with both of these images, is this: the future, the hope, the life, lies in same way beyond, somehow disconnected with the present. There is a discontinuity, a change, a crevasse lying between us and the promised future. The bones become dry and dead before the breath of God is breathed into them. The seed – even more viscerally – has to fall into the soil and die before it can become something new.

And does this mean that we have to expect the collapse of the things that we hold dear, in the hope that something new will emerge? It may be so. It may be that the Church as an established institution will cease to be in the next generation or two. In which case we might remind ourselves that the established institution of the Church is not the end of our faith. It is a means – a significant, powerful, energetic, means – to the end, but it is not the end. Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God: “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, not the establishemnt of the Church. We exist, as an institution, to serve the work of the Kingdom, and not vica versa.

But I’ve actually got a much more optimistic view of the future than that. And today being Fathers’ day, this seems a particually good analogy for the future.

Many parents – fathers and mothers, and, for that matter, grandparents – commit a great deal to the education of their children and grandchildren. That commitment might take financial form – economising on their lifestyle in order to pay for educational opportunities; it might take the form of commiting time and energy to supporting the child’s education; it might take the form of guidance or advice or tuition, or a thousand other forms.

It takes many forms: but what this passion has in common is the desire to give the next generation opportunities for the future. And what most of us realise – or come to realise – is that whatever opportunities we give to our children and our grandchildren, we have no control over what they choose to do with them. Actually, in the end, that’s what giving opportunities means – that they are free to do with this gift as they choose. We might pay for their college education, but we don’t get to choose what they do with it.
There are two gifts, the saying goes, that we can give to children: roots, and wings.

And what is true in generations within the family is also true in the generations of the people of God. We, who love and value and cherish the Church, with its deep and rich liturgy and tradition and its profound connection with the historic Christian faith, we do not get to choose what the next generation will do with the gift that we have carried and handed on to them.
The seed does not get to choose the shape of the plant that will grow from it. That depends on the soil, the climate, the context.

The two gifts we give the next generation of faith: roots, in the story, the faith we have received; and wings, to take it to places we could never imagine.

After I attended the Uniting Church national assembly just over a year ago I was asked if I saw any hope for the future of the Church. I answered – absolutely truthfully – that I has seen such passion in the generation of folk ten or twenty years younger than me – Amanda’s generation – that I had no doubt that the Church had a powerful and bright future. But, I had to add, I also suspected that the Church that they would build might be something that I would not recognise – for I do believe that we are living in a time of transition, a time in which the final collapse of Christendom will see the Church of God find a new shape – or perhaps, a multitude of new shapes. I might not recognise what the next generation, inspired by the spirit of God, will create, as the seed cannot imagine the plant, or the bone the body. I might not recognise it; but God will. Of that I am sure.

But, in the meantime, we still have a job to do. We might be living in the last generation of the established institutional Church – or we might not. But there’s a sense in which the most significant response to the question “is the Church dying?” must be to say “it doesn’t matter”.

We are called to be God’s people in this place and time. And so we are called to be in the world but not of it, to engage with the questions of the present age, while holding to the deep answers of eternity.

And that is where the next few weeks will take us. How do we engage, meaningfully, with modern culture, while holding true to the story that makes us who we are.

I hope over the next few weeks, together, we will be able to find some answers to that question.

Amen.