Sunday 24th July 2022
Text: Deuteronomy 6: 4-9, Luke 5: 17-24
In 3 weeks’ time I am preaching at St Cuthbert’s, the mother church of Edinburgh. It is part of a trip as Moderator to connect with the Church of Scotland as Moderator of the PCANZ. It is also a personal pilgrimage, linking with my own family roots in the Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The day after I preach at St Cuthbert’s, I make my way up to Iona, homage to St Columba and his impact on Celtic Christianity. I hear that some of you did a similar pilgrimage to Scotland in 2016. That on that trip the author of a book on St Ninian told you: “Forget Columba – Ninian was the spring from which the river of Celtic Christianity flowed”
That is, indeed, a claim to fame that you can be a part of. From those beginnings of Celtic Christianity with St Ninian in the 4th and 5th centuries, here we are in 2022 reopening a church that bears his name!
From then to now there has been this unbroken chain of religious memory, of Christian faith that has come down from one generation to another, to another, to another, to another, to another, to another; a chain of religious memory that remained intact as our forbears left those Scottish shores and sailed to the other side of the world and set up churches like this.
My great-grandfather and grandfather settled in Waimate, were elders of the parish there who led the building of that stone church there; my Mum remembered as a girl laying one of the stones in that building.
So it is that a very similar building was erected here in 1926, on land gifted by the Deans family, named after the saint who built the stone church in Whithorn, Galloway, in the 5th century!
Today, this story continues as we re-open this building, strengthened after the earthquakes of 2010-2011.
It is a celebration steeped in very long history, delighting in this present day and pondering the future of this chain of religious memory that has sustained Christian faith, century upon century!
This story fits beautifully with both our Old Testament and New Testament texts today.
From the Old Testament, we see Moses as a very old man, knowing that he will not get to the Promised Land himself. What is it that he wants as his legacy for the younger generation? It is a heartfelt desire for them to be nurtured in faith. That their grandparents and parents live out the faith in contagious ways. That they integrate it into the way their lives are led so that the younger generation have the importance of faith impressed upon them.
I experienced that with my parents. They lived out their faith in a way that deeply impressed me and nurtured faith in me. My Mother – this woman whose father helped her lay a stone in the Waimate church building as a young girl – she grew into a woman of faith who nurtured that faith in me.
I was with a family some years ago as they gathered with their Mum to plan her funeral. Their Mum was a devoted Christian. One daughter suggested that, as her Mum’s Bible was so important to her, it could go in the coffin with her. Sick as she was, the mother rose up at that suggestion and decreed: “No! that Bible s not dying with me. You are to have it and I want you to read it!”
That is the spirit of Moses on his deathbed – a heartfelt desire for faith to continue down through the generations!
And so it is that I have my grandfather’s Bible on my desk at home and my Mother’s Bible beside my bed to remind me of the chain of religious memory that I belong to.
But, and this is a big but, that very chain of religious memory is under great threat of being broken. My children are from the millennial generation, born . This is a generation missing from our churches. They are hugely represented in the growth of those reporting as ‘no religion’ in the NZ census statistics. My children are typical of many of their generation – they are not connected to Church. Nurtured right though to the end of youth group, they have all drifted from church in the few years after leaving school. Research in NZ and the USA bears this out – 80% of those who come right through church until the end of high school have disconnected 2 years later!
And so we have a hugely secular generation who have shunned institutional religion.
At the same time, it is a hurting generation with high levels of anxiety and depression. Horizon Health News website reports:
‘Before the pandemic, nearly one third of millennials reported mental health or substance abuse problems, a rise of 43% in just 5 years. Then the pandemic arrived and the crisis became worse, with around one half of people in this generation reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression.’
This is backed up by an article in The Weekend Press two weeks back entitled ‘How anxiety has frozen a generation’, the sub-title:
‘Throw together a pandemic, cost of living and housing crises and climate change – along with online trolls – and you get a ‘tsunami’ of anxious young adults.’
So, according to The Press, the blows that have crippled this generation are pandemic, cost of living, housing crisis, climate change and online trolls! To that I would add some bigger trends that are robbing this generation of life:
And yet they are also, it seems, still haunted by a feeling that there is something spiritual to life that can help them find the meaning they are looking for.
And this is where the New Testament reading comes in. Because my Moderator theme is Empowering Generations, I tend to look at scripture through this lens. And as I do that, I see the man on the stretcher as the millennial generation, crippled as they are by anxiety, depression and a loss of meaning in life. They have been disabled by things like the rising tide of materialism, secularism and individualism, robbed of the life-giving energy that comes from a relationship with God. They, like the man, need the healing touch of Jesus.
And so the friends carry the man to Jesus and, when the front door is blocked, they boldly and creatively break through the roof to get him to Jesus!
That speaks to me about our task in keeping the faith alive for our younger generations – it raises these questions for me:
- How can we bring them into contact with the healing power of Christ?
- If they are not going to come through the front doors of our churches, what new, creative and bold ways can we break through the barriers that prevent this, so they can come to know the life-giving message of Jesus?
For the older generations of church goers I think this is about stopping to genuinely engage with what makes this generation tick, to take their pulse, hear their heart beat. To hear their story. If we stop we will hear things like:
- Longing for more meaning – the haunting feeling there is more to life.
- Disillusionment with the ability of organised religion to deliver this.
- A creative right brained approach to seeking truth that encourages doubt, questions, both/and answers (as apposed to either/or answers) and looks for truth through art, music, movies, stories, rather than rational sermons that seek to convince. David Seel in the New Copernicans says: ‘They do not want their pastors to be certainty machines”
- A deep desire for social justice, expressed in climate action, acceptance and celebration of human diversity regardless of race, creed or sexuality.
- A craving for meaningful relationships and networks that care and support.
These are the heartbeats of this generation.
And then committing to doing what is necessary to find a way in that will bring healing to this disabled man/generation.
The question then becomes, knowing the issues and where the disconnect is, can we baby-boomer, builder generation Christians and churches provide a healing space where the millennials can reconnect with meaning and life in its fullness?
What would that look like? Lots of soul-searching, openness to change, pivoting to new ways of being church, handing over leadership wherever possible.
Could this be our churches – what needs to happen that they become places of deep, life-giving healing for these younger generations desperately looking for this? Places of genuine intergenerational hospitality and healing?
In 2009, I was in Jerusalem. I went to the Wailing Wall, the remnant of Herod’s temple where people place prayers in the wall between the huge bricks and then stand with a hand on the wall and offer their prayers. As I stood there with my hand on the wall, I had a vision of a vast line of those who had gone before me in faith, in terms of Hebrews 12 “a great cloud of witnesses.” This was a sense of faith passed from one generation to another not just for centuries, but for millennia!
And yet, right now this chain of religious memory is under huge threat!
Our task here at St Ninian’s, with the lineage you possess and as Presbyterian Christians across the land, is to boldly and creatively think of ways for this chain to be re-linked! That our bibles do not die with us!
Preacher: Rt Rev Hamish Galloway, Moderator, PCANZ