Tag Archives: Basis of Union

‘You have hidden your face from us’

Readings
Isaiah 64.1–9
Mark 13.24–37

 

Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
O God of Israel, the Saviour. — Isaiah 45.15

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It’s Advent, one of those times of year we don’t quite know what to do. Do we have a jolly time thinking about Christmas? Do we focus — as our ancestors may have done — on the ‘four last things’? (Oh, and what are the four last things? They are death, judgement, heaven and hell. Sounds bleakish …) 

We’re not going to go retro with the four last things, but still, there are some pretty bleak words in our reading from Isaiah. Listen: 

There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand
  of our iniquity.

In these last chapters of Isaiah, we encounter people who are disappointed and struggling. The Jewish people had come home from exile in Babylon, hoping and expecting to rebuild the Temple and be a great nation once again. But this cherished hope had barely borne fruit. Time had passed, the rebuilt Temple wasn’t a patch on the old one, the people were dispirited and under pressure from the nations around them. 

You have hidden your face from us …

In times past, God had delivered the Israelites from Egypt in the Exodus. And centuries later, God had brought them back from the Babylonian Exile. Yet now God was hidden from them. The great things God had done in the past were just that. Past, and gone. Isaiah cries out to God to do what God used to do in the old stories. He invokes the stories of Moses before God on Mount Sinai:  

O that you would tear open the heavens
  and come down,
so that the mountains would quake
  at your presence …

God, you used to act like a real god! You used to do things! Do something now! Come and fix things around here! 

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‘An informed faith’

Readings
Ezekiel 34.11–16, 20–24
Matthew 25.31–46

The Uniting Church acknowledges that God has never left the Church without faithful and scholarly interpreters of Scripture, or without those who have reflected deeply upon, and acted trustingly in obedience to, God’s living Word. In particular the Uniting Church enters into the inheritance of literary, historical and scientific enquiry which has characterised recent centuries, and gives thanks for the knowledge of God’s ways with humanity which are open to an informed faith. The Uniting Church lives within a world-wide fellowship of Churches in which it will learn to sharpen its understanding of the will and purpose of God by contact with contemporary thought. Within that fellowship the Uniting Church also stands in relation to contemporary societies in ways which will help it to understand its own nature and mission. The Uniting Church thanks God for the continuing witness and service of evangelist, of scholar, of prophet and of martyr. It prays that it may be ready when occasion demands to confess the Lord in fresh words and deeds.

Basis of Union, 1992 version

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Last night, we enjoyed the a cappella singing of Daisy Chain and we also welcomed the Brisbane Pride Choir here at West End Soul. What a great night it was!

It’s only right then that today we look at the history of the Uniting Church’s response to and reception of LGBTIQ people. To make it a sermon, I’ll weave something of my journey in with the history. 

Let’s start in 1985. I turned 32 that year, the year I started my studies as a theological student. NSW had just decriminalised homosexuality and the Uniting Church there needed to formulate its response. Gordon Dicker, a good theologian and gentle human being, was Moderator of the NSW Synod at the time and chaired a group to address this question. The committee concluded that the Bible did not support homosexuality, but Dicker also wrote

[However] we did say that people with homosexual orientation should be welcome in the church, eligible for church membership and other suitable roles.

He produced a book, Homosexuality and the Church, and suffered savage abuse from people who disagreed with him. I enjoyed the book, but I have no idea where my copy is now. 

Fast forward to 1997, in Perth. I was out of college, ordained, and attending the UCA Assembly for the second time. The Assembly is the national council of the Church and meets every three years. The Assembly has authority to determine the Uniting Church’s position on areas of doctrine. 

This 1997 Assembly received a report called Uniting Sexuality and Faith, but did not act on it. The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress was opposed to any consideration of bringing LGBTIQ people into the full life of the Church, as were more conservative elements of the Assembly. 

A young woman came out at the 1997 Assembly, along with a number of others. Subsequently, we became and remain good friends. Three years later, at the 2000 Assembly, she asked if I would be one of the respondents to a questionnaire she had prepared as part of her PhD studies. I recall one question: 

If you were convinced that the Scriptures taught that loving homosexual relationships were wrong, would it change your mind about accepting LGBTIQ people? 

I answered No. It wouldn’t change my mind. 

That was a big call for a former fundamentalist. 

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‘The Word of God on whom salvation depends’

Readings
2 Timothy 3. 14–17
John 1.1–4, 14–18

It is part of the joy and glory of the Churches of the Reformation that they have come to speak of the Church not only as reformata (reformed) but as ecclesia semper reformanda (a Church always to be reformed). This constant reformation is to be by the Word of God, not by laws and precedents once derived from God’s Word, but by hearing now what God the Lord would say.…

The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments contain all things necessary to salvation, they announce to us the Name and Purpose of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and declare the mighty acts of God in reconciling the world through Jesus, who alone without qualification can be called the Word of God.

‘The Church: Its Nature, Function and Ordering’, in Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as unique prophetic and apostolic testimony, in which it hears the Word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated. When the Church preaches Jesus Christ, its message is controlled by the Biblical witnesses. The Word of God on whom salvation depends is to be heard and known from Scripture appropriated in the worshipping and witnessing life of the Church. The Uniting Church lays upon its members the serious duty of reading the Scriptures, commits its ministers to preach from these and to administer the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as effective signs of the Gospel set forth in the Scriptures.

Basis of Union, 1992 version

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Today’s theme in our series on the Uniting Church is what the Basis of Union says about the Bible. And about the Word of God.

But before I talk about that, I’d like to back up a bit and give a little testimony about my own journey. 

I’ve mentioned before that I was converted at a Billy Graham rally in 1968. A few months later, I found myself going to a little fundamentalist church in Brisbane. There, it was clear what the ‘Word of God’ was: it was the Bible. Every word was the Word of God. The Bible was inerrant. Every word was true, and there were no contradictions. 

So: when people found out I was going to leave them for the Uniting Church, one of the first reactions some of them had was ‘But they don’t believe the Bible in the Uniting Church!’ And there was plenty of evidence, as far as my fundamentalist friends were concerned. The Uniting Church had women ministers. They baptised infants. They got involved in politics. 

All signs, they said, of a bad attitude to the Bible. 

Now, if you google ‘fundamentalism’, you’ll find a lot of derogatory statements online. There’s no need for that; and anyway, since I left my old fundamentalist church, I have reconnected with some old friends from those days. They don’t deserve to be called names. Our goal as Christians is reconciliation, not to run other people down.

I’ve already mentioned that word ‘inerrant’. An inerrant Bible is totally free of any errors or mistakes or contradictions. According to one statement

This inerrancy isn’t just in passages that speak about salvation, but also applies to all historical and scientific statements as well. It is not only accurate in matters related to faith and practice, but it is accurate and without error regarding any statement, period (John 3:12).

(I don’t actually see how John 3.12 refers to inerrancy.)

Now, as a young person who embraced fundamentalism this troubled me. I had become an avid reader of the Bible, and it didn’t take me long to find a contradiction or three. 

There was always an explanation for these contradictions. I tried really hard to find all of them convincing. But they didn’t convince me. 

And it would take only one contradiction to wreck the whole inerrancy thing. A Bible with even one contradiction was no longer inerrant. 

It felt to me like a house of cards. One big puff could blow it all down. 

When I was nearing the end of year 12, I toyed with taking a Batchelor of Divinity course at Uni. I remember one lady advising me to go to a Bible College instead, because if I took the university course I would lose my faith. 

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A Pilgrim People

Readings
Ephesians 2.11–22
John 17.20–26

The Uniting Church in Australia’s relatively brief history has been characterised to no small degree by several vigorous and demanding theological debates. These debates have elicited some quite probing theological inquiry, analysis and exposition. Some of these have reflected the tensions which resulted from the three traditions coming together. Some have been provoked by our engagement with ecumenical partners. Some have been occasioned by particular contemporary issues which have pressed themselves upon the consciousness of the Church. It is also the case that the movement towards union was itself characterised by intense theological reflection and argument. In fact, it would be hard to challenge the view that this particular union had the character it did precisely because of the very considerable investment of theological expertise that went into producing the Basis of Union.

Robert Bos and Geoff Thompson, Theology for Pilgrims

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What is a uniting church? Does a uniting church do what it says on the can, unite? Or is our name, well, ironic?

The Uniting Church is one of a number of union churches around the world. Our union joined the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches together on 22 June 1977. We aren’t the only union of these three traditions; there are others, for example

The United Church of Canada
The United Church in Papua New Guinea
The United Church in the Solomon Islands

There are others which are wider unions: the Church of South India united those same three churches with the addition of the Anglican Church; the Church of North India united all Protestant churches, adding the Baptists and Churches of Christ as well as the Anglicans. Quite the feat. 

In Britain, the United Reformed Church includes Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Churches of Christ. But not Methodists: they are closer to the Anglicans over there. 

All of this could be seen as part of the Ecumenical Movement, which was aimed at reversing the tendency towards splits that has bedevilled the church, especially since the Reformation which started over five hundred years ago. 

The Ecumenical Movement was influential in getting churches to unite; and also to agree on common ways of worship, and to recognise one another’s baptisms as valid and one another’s ministers as kosher. 

Sometimes, churches allow members of other churches to receive Communion at each other’s services; the Anglican and Uniting Churches have such an agreement. (To be honest, it was more about the Anglican Church allowing us to receive in their church; the Uniting Church is more relaxed, simply because it is a uniting church.) 

So, what is a uniting church? You may have noticed that the other churches I mentioned are ‘United’ — the United Church of Canada, the United Reformed Church, the United Church of Papua New Guinea. We are merely ‘uniting’.

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Creation groans

Reading
Isaiah 65.17–25

 

Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart. — Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club 

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea as a result of people’s actions, so he will make them taste (the consequences of) some of their actions, so that perhaps they will return (to righteousness). — Quran, 30.41; and

The earth lies polluted
under its inhabitants;
for they have transgressed laws,
violated the statutes,
broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse devours the earth,
and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;
therefore the inhabitants of the earth dwindled,
and few people are left. — Isaiah 24.5–6

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Creation groans; and we are part of creation. So let me ask: did this last week frighten you? Like we’re on the edge of a precipice? About to fall into an abyss if we don’t burn to a crisp first?

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Finding ourselves, and others

Readings
Deuteronomy 26.1–11
Luke 4.1–13

All this is the role that Jesus is acting out in the wilderness. He learns to be the precarious one in the desert. But where Moses reassured his listeners with the little word when, as in ‘when you come into the land,’ the devil comes to Jesus and thrice tempts him with the word if. If is the entry to privation, not abundance. ‘If you are . . .’ is supposed to cause Jesus to doubt that he is the Son of God and feel the need to prove it. If is the trigger for me to foreclose, to grasp my identity before time, to settle for a fake identity rather than to wait for the identity that is mine already, but coming upon me, not available to be grasped. —James Alison, https://outline.com/EULmKB

…my son continued his hand-me-down exposition of the text. Leaning closer to me and dropping his voice to a loud whisper, he said, ‘If we were at a store, and you and Dad were in one aisle, and I was in another aisle, and’—his hushed tones became downright conspiratorial at this point—‘there was candy…’ He paused for effect. ‘The devil would say, “You should take some!”’ I am not sure what was most startling to me in this retelling of the story of Luke 4:1–13 by my three-year-old: that he could, in fact, retell it—especially in such dramatic fashion—or that the version he had learned placed such heavy emphasis on the temptation and the personified tempter. — Lori Brandt Hale, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 2

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What are you giving up for Lent? You have to give something up for Lent, don’t you? Alcohol, chocolate, Facebook… Something, anything.

Lent is all about self-denial. Isn’t it? 

Not really.

Jane Williams writes

Lent is not primarily about ‘giving things up’, or denying ourselves. It is about finding ourselves.

Lent is about finding ourselves… The thing is, we’ve been hiding ourselves, and hiding from ourselves, ever since Adam and Eve discovered they were naked. 

We hide from ourselves by achieving things, and defining ourselves by our achievements. And of course, an achievement can be almost anything—a well-paying job, a trophy spouse, a PhD, a child who has done well, winning a competition… 

We hide from ourselves by drinking, by using other drugs, by driving too fast, taking risks, anything really that turns our eyes away from ourselves and who we actually are. 

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The sea so wide, the boat so small

Maker and Sustainer of creation,
you bring order out of chaos
and calm in the discord of our lives;
help us to trust in you,
even when all around seems to be giving way;
this we ask in our Saviour’s name. Amen.

Reading
Mark 4.35–41

 

Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice. — Will Smith, After Earth (2013)

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There are a number of ways of picturing the Christian church—the church is the Body of Christ, we are living stones, or a royal priesthood. Or that perennial favourite: a peculiar people. 

There are other pictures too. For example, we can see the church as a boat, sailing over the waters of chaos. There are two places in the Bible where we are encouraged to see this image:

Firstly, in the story of the Flood in which Noah and his family are delivered from death through the ark;  and secondly, in today’s Gospel story, in which Jesus stills the storm that threatens to send the disciples to a watery grave.

Here are two examples of nautical logos for church bodies, the National Council of Churches in Australia, and the World Council of Churches: 

IMG_0132

IMG_0133

 

The inside of a traditional church building may also remind us of a boat:

 IMG_0135

Just over five years ago, Karen and I were on a boat in the Holy Land. One of our favourite parts of Israel was Lake Galilee and the surrounding areas. Our guide would take us places and say things like This is the traditional site of the Sermon on the Mount, or the Feeding of the Five Thousand—and he always said that it might well not be ‘the’ place. But there’s only ever been one Sea of Galilee, and when you looked at the water and the shore and the sky you knew that Jesus himself had seen that same sea, that same shoreline, that same blue expanse of sky. There was something very special in that. 

We went across the Sea of Galilee on a boat, and had Holy Communion as we went across. They say storms blow up very quickly there, and it was certainly true for us that day. We began in a calm, glassy sea and ended up in rolling waves. Our guide said he wouldn’t have allowed us to go out if the weather had been like that when we started out.

Today, we find the disciples sailing a boat across Lake Galilee, when

Suddenly a strong wind blew up, and the waves began to spill over into the boat, so that it was about to fill with water.

Yes indeed, storms blow up quickly there all right.

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UCA Anniversary (24 June 2012)

The Uniting Church celebrated 35 years last Thursday, 22 June. Here is a reflection:

A Basis for a direction

Readings
Ephesians 2.19-22
John 17.1-11

On Saturday 22 June 1977, I was walking along the beach at Caloundra with some friends. Our spirits were buoyed up by the creation of the Uniting Church in Australia that very day.

I wasn’t part of the Uniting Church back then. I wasn’t a Methodist or a Presbyterian. I wasn’t a Congregationalist. I was looking in from the outside and it was all very inspiring to me.

It wasn’t long before I was reading the Basis of Union, the document that the three churches who came into union agreed to. It excited me. (If you don’t think the Basis of Union could excite anyone, may I suggest you take the time to actually read it?)

Since 1977, the Uniting Church has become a source of joy and pain to me and to many. How could it be any other way? If you love something or someone, if you open your heart to them, you become vulnerable. I certainly feel ‘vulnerable’ to the Uniting Church.

Sometimes, though, I can’t quite identify with the ‘pain’ some other people talk about. For example: people have accused the Uniting Church of failing to stand for anything. I joined because the Uniting Church stood for active Christian unity, because it cared about the place of women in the Church and because it was passionate about justice.

But still there are those who have said our Church has no real identity. Sorry, but if a passion for unity and justice aren’t an identity, I don’t know what is.

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Jonah, the reluctant prophet (Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, 22 January 2012)

Jonah, the reluctant prophet

Readings
Jonah 3.1-5, 10
Mark 1.14-20

Do you have a favourite book of the Bible? I do. It’s the Book of Jonah.

So I want to talk about Jonah, the most reluctant prophet ever. The Book of Jonah is only four chapters long, and only forty eight verses. Read it when you get home—it’s far more than a story about a prophet who had a whale of a time. No, the Book of Jonah is a great satire on those who can’t keep up with God; specifically, God’s superabundant willingness to forgive and heal people.

I don’t mind saying that the first time I read it in one sitting I found it to be hilarious. I laughed out loud. Don’t worry if you do too—it is meant to be funny!

The story begins with the word of God to Jonah:

Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.

Seems straightforward enough. God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh, which was situated on the edge of modern-day Mosul, the second-largest city of Iraq and the site of much of the fighting in that unfortunate country. Jonah was to cry out against Nineveh because of its wickedness.

What problem could Jonah have with that? The most obvious objection he might have had was that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the superpower of the time. And Assyria was the enemy of Israel. Perhaps we might assume that Jonah thought he may be killed by his enemies?

Nice try, but Jonah’s real problem was somewhere else. We’ll come to it soon.

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21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C: 22 August 2010)

Living God’s Mission


Readings
Jeremiah 1.4-10
Luke 13.10-17

We’ve heard a fair bit the last couple of weeks about the Church being here not for the benefit of its members, but for the benefit of those outside. And we’ve said that the Church is here to benefit us in one way: that is to meet our truest need, the need to become disciples of Jesus, the need we have to be made more like him.

I’ve been asked, ‘What about the abundant life that Jesus promises? Isn’t the Church here to help deliver that?’ And I’m very glad indeed to get questions like that, because they help me to shape what I need to say.

Jesus does promise us abundant life. So shouldn’t the Church be there to give us that abundant life? No. And yes.

No, because the Church isn’t there to give us the abundant life directly. The Church is there to form us as disciples. But: the abundant life comes to us as we commit ourselves to Jesus as his disciples. Look at the woman in today’s Gospel story. She was bent over. Perhaps we are too. She stood straight when Jesus laid his hands on her. She was healed—and like her, we are not truly healed unless we give ourselves to Jesus in love and trust.

Look at Jeremiah: he gains confidence in God as he allows the word of the Lord to enter his very being:

Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.

Remember, our vision statement is

Living God’s mission
as disciples of Jesus
united in the Spirit

Being disciples is central! But never forget that first line: We are on about ‘living God’s mission’.

We don’t have a mission. God has a mission, and God invites us to join him in that mission. God’s mission is about setting people free (including us). God’s mission is about bringing purpose into people’s lives (including ours). God’s mission is about creating peace and harmony among people (including among us). God’s mission is about preserving the earth (so that all people can live and thrive, including us).

God’s mission is big. Seriously big. It’s bigger than the Church. It includes the whole creation. The Basis of Union of the Uniting Church says that God’s mission concerns the

coming reconciliation and renewal which is the end in view for the whole creation.

God’s mission is so big, it includes people of good will all over the place. Some of them don’t know they’re sharing in God’s mission. Some of them don’t even believe in the God with whom they are cooperating.

But notice: we are living God’s mission. God’s mission brings life. And when we are on about God’s mission, we bring life to people. Including to ourselves.

Sometimes, that life comes in the midst of death. Life is a bummer. Things are not going right; in fact, they are just wrong. But God is there, with abundant warmth and acceptance and compassionate love. Sometimes, that’s all we can know of the abundant life; but it’s there in abundance for those who live God’s mission.

Do you want the abundant life? Then see how you can share in God’s mission—through the congregation, and in your daily life. You’ll find the abundant life that Jesus promises through obedience to God.

So the Church isn’t here to give us that abundant life. It’s here to make us disciples. But: disciples are sharing in God’s mission, and that gives them the abundant life.

So the Church is here to bring that abundant life after all!… But the abundant life is a ‘side effect’ of sharing in what God is doing. If we seek the abundant life without sharing in God’s mission, without living God’s mission, then we’ll only have a counterfeit kind of so-called ‘abundant’ life. That counterfeit life will go once real difficulties come our way. That counterfeit life will go sour one day, and we’ll wonder where the joy and the peace went.

Living God’s mission. That’s the way to the abundant life that Jesus promises. It’s the way to true inner peace and joy and freedom.

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