Category Archives: Sermons

The Parable of the Mustard Seed – Mark 4 :30-34

Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. Clearly it was absolutely central in his message. But he never succinctly defines what it is, but it’s clear it’s about a new way of living. A way of finding life. The Kingdom of God is like mustard seed we hear today. It doesn’t help us much does it…. Jesus loves to talk in pictures and stories!

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. The mustard seed parable like so many of the parables has all sorts of meanings. It makes you want to say to Jesus, ‘just tell us straight’. But the point of parables is that you have to wrestle and question and work things out in your own context.

We need to get some sort of picture of mustards seeds and how they grow. The sort of mustard plant Jesus was talking about is obscure because he doesn’t use botanical names but I suspect it was the black mustard seed brassica nigra. That’s right it’s a brassica! In fact brassicas are known commonly as mustard plants. Your cabbage, cauilis, and broccoli are all mustard plants. A reason some people don’t like these plants is that they all contain a compound phenylthiocarbamide or PTC which is either bitter or tasteless to people depending on your taste buds. The good news is that brassicas and mustard plants are good for us. They have health providing properties, but I don’t think Jesus was thinking of that when he shared this parable.

The Roman author Pliny the Elder who was born in 23CE was a curious fellow. He was actually a little too curious because he died when he went to explore the erupting Mt Vesuvius in 79CE. But before this tragic end he wrote an encyclopaedic Natural History in which he tells us about the mustard plant. He tells us that with its pungent taste and fiery effect it was actually extremely good for your health. But he goes on, “It grows entirely wild, though it grows better when transplanted. But on the other hand when it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it as the seed when it falls germinates at once”.
It other words it grows like a whole host of weeds in my garden. It keeps popping up all over the place. The seeds s[rout in a few days and it grows easily, it grows all over the place, and it grows without our input. It happens! God is a power at work in our communities, in all sorts of places, inside and outside the fences, quietly nurturing life. God is at work as a power called life in all sorts of places including your life and mine, in our community, everywhere. Open your eyes. Like weeds popping up there are little bits of the kingdom of God happening all over the place if we have eyes to see them.
We aren’t sprouting the seeds, it’s just happening. There’s something else at work in our world and in our lives. But like mustard bushes they will grow better if we nurture and water the plants.

Jesus goes on to talk about the birds resting or nesting in the shade. The mustard plant was a shrub growing maybe just over a metre high, or maybe a couple of metres with nurturing. It’s not a great tree. But in Israel large trees are rare, any sort of significant vegetation is rare. The mustard shrub growing to over a metre was just a bushy shrub that would grow just about anywhere. In Israel it’s hot for much of the year and shade wherever you can find it is vital for life. I’ve walked out in the sun and unless you find shade life can be precarious. The common mustard shrub growing everywhere and anywhere offered life. There is I might say just a little bit of pesky humour in the parable because farmers not only didn’t want the mustard plants mixing with their crops, they didn’t want the birds either because they would raid their harvest. So not everyone welcomed the mustard plants like the birds who found in it shade and rest. They were a weed for some and a place of shade and life for others. Such is the Kingdom of God.

And for us – well we don’t literally have black mustard plants all over our gardens and community. I’m thinking cabbage trees. Attractive to birds, they seem to pop up everywhere in our garden, and everyone just loves the leaves when they fall. Cut them off at their base and they just pop right on up again because they have a long tap root. They are a tree that just happens.

The Kingdom of God is like a cabbage tree… and yes there are plenty of people who don’t like cabbage trees because they are messy. But the point…the kingdom of God is happening all around us. There are places where life is flourishing, where people find shade and food… places where God is alive. Many of these places are surprising, beyond the fences of church.

The Kingdom of God is alive in our midst. Surprising seeds of love, or life in which the power of God is present. Seeds we can nurture and water and help grow into bigger plants. Seeds that bring shade and refreshment, and life.

So I wonder where you might find a mustard plant in your journey this week? God is at work in your life, in our midst, and in the life of our wider community and world. Like a weed the kingdom is taking root and growing. Keep your eyes open, have your word of encouragement and watering can ready.

17 June 2018

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Global Day of Prayer to End Famine

Reading: Mark 6:30-44

I wonder what you make of this amazing episode. How did Jesus do that? Five fish and two loaves of bread feeds 5000 men along with women and children. 12 basketfuls of food left over. Before you get too far down the track of answering that I want to remind you that Jesus taught with stories. These stories were sometimes word stories. He taught using parables and pictures because I think he knew well that faith doesn’t reduce well easy simple answers… I think like many of contemporary rabbis he often answered a question with a question because he wanted to engage his listeners not with neat logical answers but with metaphors and images. God didn’t direct with neat rational certainties, but worked in the mystery of the images and stories to engage hearts and minds. It is an engaging approach in which we are drawn into to find the answers in our context.

So why would his actions be any different. Our logical un-poetic minds want simple neat answers, so when we read of so many of Jesus’ actions or miracles and we are left pondering, ‘so how did he do that?’ as if he went around performing magic tricks. We miss the point. We should be asking what this action, this pictures teaching us. What is Jesus trying to engage us with? Actions like feeding an army of people with fives loaves and 2 fish may tax our rational minds with how did he do that, but the real question is what Jesus is teaching us. Did it happen exactly like this – I have no idea, and actually that’s not important. It’s the message, the picture that we need to engage with.

I find my eye catching two parts of the story. The first is when the disciples look to Jesus to tell the crowds to disperse and go and get some food. It was well past dinner time and things needed to be closed off so they could eat. It seems a reasonable request. Get the boss to sort them out. But Jesus responds with a startling comment. “You give them something to eat”. The disciples are dumbfounded he doesn’t seem to comprehend there are thousands of hungry people. Imagine you are the disciples and you do the sums – we’ll need at least $10,000. You mean we should go and buy food for this lot. Well that wasn’t exactly what Jesus had in mind, so he asks them what they have. It isn’t much. They are able to rustle up five loaves of bread and a couple of fish. But as they offer what they have it proves to be enough. My eye catches the end of the story with 12 great basketfuls of leftovers. Where did all that food come from? Did Jesus secretly call in the catering ladies? Did he actually create more food out of the 5 loaves and two fish? Did he have a secret source of food he was hiding? ??? What do you think?

I have another question. Why did Jesus even care about their need of food? (He started off the day searching for peace and quiet with his disciples and ended up surrounded by hordes of people who he felt compelled to teach. If I was Jesus I think I would have happily sent them all away!)
So what do you make of this story….What is the picture that sits there for you? For me it is a simple picture of the new earth God is calling into being where there is no hunger. Everyone is fed. There is a plentiful supply of food and it finds its way into everyone’s mouths. Food is a basic need, we pray for food every day in the Lord’s Prayer and as we pray that surely it’s not just us we are praying for. We are praying for an earth where everyone has daily food aren’t we?

Today is a day in which churches around the world are asked to pray for the alleviation of famine. You know as I do that there are millions of people going hungry and needing dinner. Hordes of people. What can I do? The reality is possibly not much… I feel like the disciples felt…but what more do we learn from the gospel?

Do you sense the concern of Jesus? Do you feel the compassion of Jesus in your bones. Do you feel the agony of Jesus when in the western world our problem is obesity while elsewhere it’s famine. Something is very wrong. Listen to that voice from heaven….
I know it’s not as simple as shifting some of the food off my plate onto someone else’s plate, but don’t let the tension of the situation simply go into the too hard basket. There are issues of trade here. Pay more for your bananas with the Fairtrade sticker because you know the producers are getting a fair wage which will enable them to put food on the table of their families. Ask the clothing retailer when you buy clothes to assure you there is no slave labour used in the production of the clothing. Use the Tearfund ethical guide to find out which brands perform well and which have no ethical accountability in their supply chain. Use consumer pressure and ask questions – it does change things.

Keep talking to God about famine. One of the things I know I need constant reminding of is that the life of a black Somali person is of equal value in God’s eyes as mine. I find it too easy to forget that and to say I deserve more of the earth’s resources because …I don’t know really… I’m part of a society that has been more successful at harnessing the goodness of the earth, I have more education, I’m white and white is intrinsically better….I simply hear God saying – really??????

But also acknowledge the good. I am part of a church community where this week two of our members will be off to Tanzania to visit the Your Sisters project. That’s about education, giving young women skills to shape a better life, and they will bring change to others around them. Educating women is a huge thing in alleviating famine. Educate men and they want to buy guns, educate women and the want to feed the children. That’s doing something about famine and its root causes.

I am part of a church family that works through agencies like Tearfund, World Vision, CWS, to help when the typhoon or hurricane comes, when the rain fails or the rain never ceases (often these days caused by climate change of which we contribute). When the crises come and there is literally no food, these agencies provide. But they also work to educate, to build stable community where food production can happen locally.

And locally I am part of a church community that works through projects like Waltham Cottage, providing support, providing food to vulnerable people. Waltham Cottage helps build community in all sorts of ways and in that building of community people are fed. But they are fed literally in the support we offer through a food bank. It’s not dramatic – maybe 3-4 households helped every week. People on the edge faced with an unexpected bill and the first thing that is hit is the food budget. Our donations of food are put to good use.

So we pray today for the alleviation of famine because we know God cares. E pray because we know there is enough food to go round but we need to reshape trading patterns to be just. We pray for changes of heart that really do see all people as God’s children. We pray for educational initiatives especially for the women of the world. We pray for the local initiatives like Waltham cottage.

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Practicing the Sabbath

[Readings: Exodus 20:8-11, Mark 2:23-28]

In 1874 there was a huge debate in Dunedin. Ten per cent of Otago’s adult population signed a petition about it. There were fourteen leading articles in the Otago Daily Times. The major tension centered on whether the trains and public transport should run on Sunday. The province’s first railway, from Dunedin to Port Chalmers, had been opened with a seven day a week service, and some saw this as evil, along with the opening of recreational facilities, such as the library at the Dunedin Athenaeum on the Sabbath. The issue was ‘what activities could be allowed on Sunday’. On one side were fervent sabbatarians or Sabbath keepers, mostly evangelical Presbyterians while others who were also Christians were more liberal and free thinking argued that running trains and opening public reading rooms for the purpose of education and enlightenment were not evil and were to be permitted on the Sabbath. The debate continued for many years with the more conservative voice of Christianity finding itself to be in a minority unable to dictate to society at large what it should do. But there were some startling exceptions. The sabbatarians in 1885 held enough sway on the Dunedin City Council to prevent the Navy Band playing in the botanic gardens on Sunday afternoons with one councilor declaring that nothing could be more effective in destroying the morals of the children of Dunedin than a band playing at the public gardens on Sundays. I’m glad the Sabbatarian’s didn’t hold sway forever because as a youngster I rather enjoyed band concerts in the gardens in Dunedin, and I don’t think it destroyed my morals.

Many of you will recall similar debates about movie theatres opening on Sundays, or sport being played on Sundays. You may also recall family traditions that revolved around the Sabbath and may reflect on how these have watered down or been lost completely. I can’t help thinking however that the Sabbatarian’s actually had a point. I think of the importance of going to church every Sunday and how we prepared by dressing in our Sunday best, cleaning shoes on Saturday, and then gathering for a family meal after church with possibly a lengthy family walk on the Sabbath afternoon. These were activities that caused me to notice God, to reflect on life, and to bond as family. Of course such activities as family walks would have been frowned upon by the Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century when the expectation would be that one should spend the time studying scripture and going to the Sunday afternoon or evening service as well as the morning. But I do wonder whether keeping the Sabbath isn’t good for us. Stepping back from the busy-ness, reflecting, reconnecting with soul, nurturing family and faith relationships – I can’t help thinking we need more of that in our world. I can’t help thinking we might be healthier with more of that sort of practice in our lives….
Central to the Sabbath and something on which all Christians were agreed was that the Sabbath was a day to focus activity on God and attend worship. Worship at its heart is about connecting with God, getting in touch with our soul. In the nineteenth century you might go to church twice a day, in the morning and in the afternoon or evening. Regular weekly attendance was simply how it was but recently a Baptist minister was telling me recently that he now considers regular attendance as seeing his parishioners once a month. Things have changed.

Sabbath or Shabbat as it is known in Hebrew means to cease. It is a day to cease work, to rest, and to refocus. As Jesus pointed out in our gospel reading there is always a danger that any spiritual discipline can become not a life giving discipline but a legalistic rule. I recall visiting a strict Jewish family in Jerusalem on the Sabbath and being shocked to learn they had turned to oven on before the Sabbath and left it running so they could cook a meal. To turn the oven on constituted starting a fire and that was not allowed on the Sabbath. For very strict Jews even flicking a light switch is considered work….We may smile, but I think it could be said of us often that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. We reject the legalism but fail to see the importance of the practice.
In Jesus’ time the Sabbath was kept strictly. There was to be no work on the Sabbath, and work was defined by the authorities under 39 key headings. These included reaping, winnowing, threshing, and preparing a meal. So the disciples in picking the wheat, rubbing it between their hands to free the individual grains, eating the wheat and spitting out the husks had broken at least four key rules about working. The Pharisees expected Jesus to rebuke them, but instead he launches into a scriptural precedent from King David’s time in which human need took precedence over the divine law as they interpreted it. David it seems took his men when they were hungry into the temple and ate the holy bread kept there. It’s a little like someone who was starving coming and eating the bread we will shortly share together in communion. Jesus I believe is saying to us, ‘it’s easy to forget the laws of God actually are for our benefit, and keeping the laws is for our own good, not to earn points and merit with God.’

The meaning of the Sabbath is found in the fourth commandment which says “remember that the seventh day belongs to God. No-one is to work on that day, not even your children, your slaves, your animals, or foreigners who live in your towns.” There was to be a communal focusing on God on the Sabbath, it was a day to cease work and reconnect lives with God. Just how that plays out is something we have to work out, but I suspect our Sabbath keepers of the nineteenth century have a few valid points to make to us. It’s not the rules I’m thinking of but the valuing of practices and rituals that help us reconnect with God. In our secularized society it is so easy to forget God…to forget there is something bigger than us at work in our world, in our community, in our very lives.

For me the Sabbath has three important functions.
Taking time to refocus in God
Working to nurture my church family connections
Enjoying the grace and goodness of God

Ceasing work, drawing aside, and taking time to reflect will always be an important part of the Sabbath, and in our busy world this is so important. The Sabbath is a time to listen to your soul and follow the example of regularly taking time out to listen for the voice of God in your life. It’s a time to know again that we are held in something bigger than us. We often carry big loads – the Sabbath is a day to remember we do not carry alone. But it’s more than this. In the original Hebrew there is also a sense of refocusing. Early Christians in a radical move changed the day of the Sabbath to a Sunday and said this was the first day of the week. This was the day of the resurrection, the day when they celebrated that God was alive in the world through the living presence of the Spirit. The Sabbath then isn’t just about remembering God but has a stronger ‘looking forward’ element. It was a day in which we are recreated in God to go out and be the presence of Jesus in the world. It is a time when we should re-focus our lives in God, and prayer and singing, reflection and learning will be part of this. But we should also be asking how is my relationship with God going to shape the forthcoming week. Sunday is a time to remember that our lives are lived in partnership with God, but we should also plan how we might take the light of God into the week ahead.

I’m interested that an enduring feature of the Sabbath is corporate worship. It’s a day to gather with other faith journeyers. Jesus didn’t leave a set of doctrines, or even a written guidebook. What he did leave was a human bunch of misfits who formed a community of faith committed to changing the world.. But it only works when we get it together as a team, which is why I think one of the important tasks of the Sabbath in our time is team building – developing a strong sense of church family. We commit to coming together, to catching up, to sorting out our differences, maybe sharing a simple meal together. Coffee and tea are a vital part of our worship. Team building remains a very important Sabbath activity.

Sadly the heritage of Sabbath keepers is one of long unhappy judgmental faces as they witness someone else breaking their beloved Sabbath. I think Sabbath keepers should be joyful, and part of our keeping of the Sabbath should be enjoying the gifts and the grace of God. If you enjoy a good glass of wine this is the day to enjoy it and give thanks to God. If you enjoy the gift of God’s creation this is the day to get out and revel in it. What is it that brings joy into your life? This is the day to nurture that. I believe God has been wonderfully gracious to us in so many ways and this is the day to honour the gift of life and the life affirming gracious God who called all life into being.
For me the Sabbath is not about rules but it is about developing practices and rituals in our lives that refocus us in God, that build the team of faith, that put a smile on our faces as we celebrate the gift of life with a deep thankfulness.
It’s not a day of long faces, and judgmental pronouncements.
Sabbath keeping is according to our Christian tradition important. Moses when he was interpreting the fourth commandment went on to say as it is recorded in Exodus 30:15 “if you work on the Sabbath you will no longer be part of my people, and you will be put to death.” These could be interpreted as harsh words indeed, but I would interpret them as words telling us how important this commandment is. If we do not keep the Sabbath something in us dies, but if we do keep it, if we relax and enjoy the company of God, we should indeed find life.

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The Importance of Seniors – 20 May 2018

The Importance of Seniors….
One of the interesting realities that sociologists are reporting is that there is a growing interest in spiritual things in our wider communities. People are looking for something more. People are even looking for God, but that does not translate into an interest in church. As we were talking last week we have a huge issue with the institution, and a feeling that church will suck life out of me rather than helping me find life. I think people have a fear they’ll be required to believe certain things like gays are going to hell. They fear that if you set foot in a church you’ll be hit up for money or put on a committee. They wonder if time is so precious why bother with church. You’ll have to give up enjoying life and conform. We have plenty of work to do to be a community that promotes life as Jesus intended!
However I remain interested in the reality that people who have been hooked into consumerism and materialism are searching for something more because these religions don’t offer life. I think the image of Zacchaeus is an important one for us. Zacchaeus was a rather unpopular fellow who had become an outsider within his community because he had grown rich at others expense. He was a lonely man despite his wealth and he was someone who recognised a hole inside. There was a hunger for something more, a gnawing sense that something wasn’t right, peaceful. People were talking about Jesus and he hid up a tree to catch a glimpse of him as he passed through Jericho. He wanted to engage but actually he didn’t feel comfortable facing Jesus, so he watched from a distance – hidden and unnoticed. But he was noticed by the one who valued all people. Even hidden in the tree Jesus noticed him and said ‘let’s have a talk’. Over a coffee and lunch they engaged in conversation and Zacchaeus decided to become a Jesus follower in his life. I wonder….. are there Zacchaeus’s out there in our wider society? Are there people who have some sense of hole, some sense that maybe they are missing something… some sense that church isn’t all bad and might just be a place where they could find life. How might we engage them in conversation? Who might engage them in conversation?
I want to dig a little. One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve looked at the future is that there is a very interesting change occurring in our demographics. In line with most western countries Christchurch is seeing the effects of the growth in numbers of older adults. In the past century the number of adults over the age of 65 has increased by about 10 times. People are living longer and we are feeling the effects of the boom in population post the Second World War. That’s the group that is called the boomers. Those born between about 1945-1964. In Christchurch in the year 2000 the median age was 35. Half the people were under 35 and half the population over 35. By 2043 this is projected by Statistics NZ to have climbed to 43. That’s a very significant increase. The 65+ age group used to be the smallest grouping but now it’s climbing fast. In fact the numbers in this age grouping are going to almost double in the next 20 or so years. The next most significant increase is the 40-64years age group.
What does this mean for us?
As we have more people in the older age groups, or another way of saying this is people who are entering the third phase of life, this will present challenges and opportunities for churches. While the knee jerk reaction in many traditional congregations is to say we need to focus energy on developing our youth ministry so we get more young people, a better reaction may be to say we need to have a focus on our ministry to older people. This is where we currently have ‘strength’ and it is where we are most likely to connect with others. It is also a growth market as the projections above indicate. If we do want to focus energy on families and younger people (and hopefully we do) we probably need to do this with a new and different discipleship and worship format.
People who are entering the third phase of life were traditionally called the retirees. The generation before the boomers were a generation who looked forward to hanging up their boots, but boomers want to keep active in some fashion after they retire. They have better health prospects and many will have part time jobs. Actually many boomers want to work at things that they have a personal interest in, and where they feel they can make a difference in society. Having worked for the past 40 years in a defined job they see the so called retired years as a chance to live out their inner dream in the third phase of life. This is not a time to hang up boots but potentially is the time to make a difference. Often they are financially secure and have skills of influence. They may want the flexibility to travel, spend time with family, take time for leisure, but many are wanting to give something back. One of the drivers for boomers is that they are searching for purpose. They want their lives to be productive and meaningful, and rather than seeing life slowing down they see the third phase of life as holding exciting possibilities. Some at least are looking for a spiritual ‘beyond me’ dimension. Some are looking to serving their community in some way.
It’s probably helpful to divide the third phase into two areas. I hesitate to put any age onto these areas as exceptions abound. Malaysia has just elected a 92 year old Prime Minister! But seniors are generally in the 80+ age group. They may no longer be driving but they have wisdom and can offer great encouragement and prayer. They know death is just around the corner because constantly those around are dying. They are often isolated and lonely. As a church we have a responsibility to care and to speak often of the enduring love of God. Around Christchurch I see a number of churches running short midweek services for people sometimes with a simple meal and other activities attached. Maybe a sit and keep fit class, maybe a game of cards. Human interaction is vital. I see such groups develop a strong sense of companionship. Stories are told, pictures shared of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Memories are valued. There is an underlying message that lives are valued. I see real potential to develop our Homeshare Plus or as we now are calling it South Elder Care programme. I wonder what it would look like if we employed someone to run it and develop it, not just for those with dementia or other issues but for all the 80 pluses?
The 60-80 year olds have more energy. They are changing focus. They are discovering life outside of work and outside of having kids at home. There may be a new focus on grandchildren, and elderly parents, but there is often a looking at life as an opportunity to do the things that are really important to me. There is an opportunity to engage with the God dream or soul within. So for example we could encourage groups that engage the physical, mental, relational, and spiritual. We have a waking group, but what about a tramping group, a book/movie group, a travel group, a men’s shed, a mission group, an art group, a singing group. But what is essential is to keep a spiritual focus and to keep asking questions about listening to one’s soul, discovering the God dream, serving with purpose to shape a better world. Some mentioned in our little survey last week of the desire to have a discussion group. What is the Bible about, what does retirement look like for a Christian, how do we invest wisely, and other ethical issues. A mission group could be a regular trip to Vanuatu to undertake an activity that builds bonds with locals but also offers assistance. Along the way there would be a bike trip to have some fun. A mission group could have a creation focus eg caring for a stretch of the Heathcote, providing assistance with low cost housing and teaching skills of gardening. Groups begin with conversations about dreams and passions of God. Remember back to the story of Pentecost and the observation that a little flame came upon every person. There is a God given passion or flame within each of us. A God dream within each of us. Sadly those flames are usually starved of oxygen and never get beyond a gentle smoulder as we wait for someone else to do something. Again a major stumbling block always seems to be leadership and maybe we simply need to employ someone to lead, or maybe we start with more conversations about our passions and God dreams. What is does our unique flame look like?
There aren’t too many big sycamore trees around our area thank goodness where people like Zacchaeus may be hiding, but there are people like Zacchaeus who are hearing God whispering into their lives. Plenty of those people are over 60…. Plenty of those people are hungering for community not only with God but with others. Our church, you and I surely have to speak and invite those people into conversation and connection.
Dugald Wilson 20 May 2018

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Our Changed Context John 17:6-19 (13 May 2018)

Things have changed. Back in the 1950’s when the current St Martins church building was built the vision was that there would be a Presbyterian Church within 15-20 minutes walk of everyone in Christchurch. Congregations were neighbourhood churches, serving the needs of the people of the suburb they were in. St Martins Presbyterian church was to serve the people of St Martins suburb. St Peter’s in Ferry Road served Woolston, St David’s served Sydenham, St James served Spreydon. A key function of the parish church was to provide a worship event to which people would come to worship and nurture faith, to teach children about Jesus and the Christian faith, and to provide pastoral care in the parish, the neighbourhood near to the church. People learned the basics of faith and how to be good people and citizens in Sunday School and the faithful then received regular top ups at weekly worship..

This model is now no longer operative. More than two thirds of us here live outside the St Martins suburb. Most of us now drive a vehicle to worship. The area we now draw from includes Woolston, Opawa, Waltham, Spreydon, Somerfield, Sydenham, Beckenham, Hoon Hay, and further afield to Lyttelton, Westmorland etc. The reality is that we are a gathered church that happens to have our focal building and base in the suburb of St Martins. We are clearly no longer the parish church of St Martins although of course our church building is located in St Martins.

But there are other changes too. We no longer have a thriving Sunday School and our means of growing new disciples in faith are broken. Actually they’ve been broken a long time. The wider community now places little value in our pastoral care. If you have a crisis in your life it’s not a minister you’ll think of seeing but a counsellor, and with all due respect to my older ministerial colleagues that’s actually not a bad thing. Many funerals, weddings, and naming of children are now secular affairs and the church is seen to be largely irrelevant in offering meaning and ritual to mark key transitions in life. The Christian worldview is now one of many with the dominant religion now consumerism or materialism. Christian ethics and morals are often considered outdated and the church’s voice on questions and issues facing society outmoded. Christians are a dwindling small minority group. Sociologists tell us we now live in a post Christian world. Things have changed. Our context has changed.

I believe we have something of great value to offer. I believe God’s mission to bring true life into the world is as valid as ever. Last week I defined this in a sentence. Our church community exists to discern, model, and teach what makes for true aliveness.

One of the exercises our Mission Discernment Group engaged in is to prayerfully discern what we notice in the neighbourhoods we represent. What might God be saying to us about this patch of city we live in. It will come as no surprise to you that one thing we noticed was lonely people. Mums walking by the church. Donald an older fellow who is an alcoholic. Older folk walking by a number of times a day heading to the local shopping mall. Fences and empty streets apart from cars. A lack of human chatter. The lack of the sound of play on the streets.
There are lots of cars moving about but where is the genuine human interaction. There are some warm spots in local cafes and other places.

I asked the question last week what is one thing you really want our congregation to be known for. Our responses were thoughtful. A clear response is that we want this congregation to be known for its inclusive caring friendliness and compassion. We didn’t have time to unpack that but I take that to mean we want to be known for the quality of human connection. Genuine community is important to us. We know that genuine community brings life. In study after study genuine community is shown to have positive health effects, and provides a seedbed for individuals to flourish. I hear stories here of how important small groups are here like the walking group, homeshare, the foot clinic team, or fireside. We start to really get to know each other and care for each other when we go walking together each week and we have honest conversations. I came across a quote this week: God’s basic method of communicating God’s self is not the saved individual, but the journey and bonding process that God initiates through community. Connecting in a smaller group does take time but literally it gives life. One of the questions is how to keep growing these sort of groups because invariably each small group reaches a maximum size. We need small groups of all sorts, we need people to step up and initiate small groups that become places of human interaction, caring, learning and serving. In the new context small groups are going to be vital, especially groups as the MDG has discovered that try and nurture a spiritual component along with the outward service to others component.

What has also become critical in our new context is the importance of the teaching ministry that will take the Christian message into the community. Jesus spent most of his time teaching because people need to catch hold on different ideas and different ways of seeing. Traditional teaching was coming to church on Sunday to listen to the minister, but we have to experiment with new ways. In the new context people don’t come to church and people don’t sit passively and listen to learn. Gathered times of teaching and nurturing are really important but they need to be interactive and visual. Learning by experimenting and reflecting together is better learning. Conversations, questions, and sharing experience. I’ve said before and I’ll say again church of the future is circles not straight lines, and while we have begun this journey we have a way to go. But there is something more. Just like the early church we are reliant on members taking Christian messages out into their little sphere of influence, their workplace, their rotary club, their friendship circle. Our traditional church has not equipped its members to do this and instead has relied heavily on the minister as the teacher. Our church culture needs to change. Like the early church we now live in a society that knows very little about the Christian faith and church members need to be equipped and encouraged to have conversations about their faith in the real world in which they live. If Jesus is going to have a voice in our wider community we need to be that voice. Why is it important to treat others with respect? Why is greed not a good basis for community? Why is it important to forgive? Why is poverty such a disaster and a lack of equality in resources so evil? If we want to grow the influence of Jesus it has to happen in conversations out there as well as in here.

There is something else about our new context that we need to understand. I was talking to someone this week about the use of our refurbished church building. We were actually standing inside our church talking about the need for the building to be inconstant use and not sitting idle. How the building serve our aim to bring aliveness into our community. An obvious answer is that it becomes a community connecting point. A place that is a spiritual connecting point but also a place a human connection. The person I was talking to was raised a good Catholic, but no longer practices. He told me as I talked about possible activities we could bring into the building that there was something I needed to understand. I didn’t really understand how difficult it is for non churched people to connect with church. There is a large group of people who are turned off by church. Some remember going to church in days gone by and it was boring and over their head. Others have been hurt by churches.. They’ve seen hypocrisy, they have heard Christians pontificate in judgmental ways that appal them, they have felt judged. I’m sorry Mr Folau but I wish you would keep your twitters to yourself. There is a deep distrust of institutions. You and I may experience church as a safe place of warmth and friendship, but for many church doesn’t feel a good place or a safe place. I pondered. I know there are places I don’t feel comfortable in. Walk into a country pub where everyone knows each other and the place goes quiet as heads turn to look at you. I remember wandering into a TAB shop and feeling completely at sea. What do you do, how do you even place a bet. I had no idea. I do know that when they began a new style of church called BATCH (Breakfast at The Coronation Hall) in the Maori Hill parish they actually chose to hire the community hall over the road from the church because it was neutral ground and not contaminated by images and memories of traditional institutional church. And it worked…Strange eh?…

People have to build a relationship of trust before they’ll set foot inside a church. They have to get to know a human face and feel they will be honoured and listened to and not seen as another recruit for the envelope system before they’ll dare risk coming through a door.

The context has changed.
Circles instead of lines.
Conversations instead of monologues.
A focus on what makes for aliveness.
Church will be different!

Dugald Wilson 13 May 2018

What would be the focus of a small group you would like to be involved with at church?
What hinders you from inviting a friend to participate in an activity of the St Martins Presbyterian Church?

Posted in Sermons | Comments Off on Our Changed Context John 17:6-19 (13 May 2018)