31 July 2022
Here we are, in your beautiful and beautifully strengthened and renewed church. What next? How will you use your treasure?
Strangely enough, the readings chimed in with these questions. We had Paul insisting on the universality of Christ’s new kingdom, and Luke reminding us about the futility of accumulating possessions, and challenging us to find and hold our real treasures. (As one of my favourite hymns puts it: ‘The pearl of great price and the treasure of heaven’, i e the great love of God.)
I thought I would share with you how both readings reminded me of issues that are among us today. I will begin by sharing some of the journey the Durham St congregation had in the process of establishing its new Aldersgate building. In the 9 years of seemingly endless congregational meetings and discission groups, when we were moving between four different venues for our Sunday services, we had no place to hold any other activities. In those years the original members faithfully stayed with us, but inevitably, death and disability meant the numbers dropped year by year and we had no new members coming in. In all the discussions with our Synod and the national church, the question would be asked: why should you build a new church for a declining congregation? You could put a small chapel in a garden maybe, if you want to stay on that central city site. And, as your Moderator said last week, we have a generation – probably now two generations – that have let go of affiliation to a church congregation. The millennial dilemma!
Well, we built a new church. We tried negotiating with a couple of other central city congregations about the possibility of sharing space, – ecumenical dreaming! But the Anglican negotiation fell apart over the issue of property title, and the Quakers wanted the parsonage as well as space for worship because they required accommodation for visiting Friends. Then we arranged to have part of Christchurch Methodist Mission and the National CWS office as tenants. And we finally got our building. But – what to do with it?
I haven’t, in these past few years, had many chances to worship with my home congregation, but on the few times when I do go, there are new people. More than half the current congregation are new. And most of them are millennials. Some have come out of other congregations and others haven’t had any church affiliation for years – if ever. Some, but by no means all, have come because we are a declared rainbow church – like Knox. When we ask, why did you come here? most of them say ‘because of your website’. We have a very efficient team that puts out a weekly newsletter that lists everything that is supported by the community, and that includes a number of ‘non-church’ activities. Like the Tuesday “Margaret Mahy breakfast’ for homeless people, and a workshop on the beginning of the Labour Movement (which was started by a Methodist who was one of the Tolpuddle martyrs). We have a monthly theology discission group that will often delve into current social issues. There is a monthly ‘games night’. Our young millennials have organised themselves home groups – which are not restricted to the ‘young’. And I know that the current incumbent has set aside fifth Sundays as ‘mystery Sundays’ when she is encouraging these newcomers to take an active part in the service. In addition, Durham St currently already has a number of effective lay leaders who take services every month, and we have our special taonga, Dorothy Drew, who is a retired lay preacher but is often rostered on for the prayers of the people, and writes the best prayers I have heard! She’s 97.
I think, what I want to say is, don’t be afraid to take risks when you think about using your new treasure.
And so, back to the texts. Paul’s letter is some diatribe! He’s not accusing the congregation of minor sins and disagreements – it’s anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language for starters. Whatever sort of group could this community of new Christians be? Would we even consider joining them? Well, Paul never did pull any punches when dealing with his new churches and here he’s using strong language to remind them where their new loyalty must lie. The challenge for us these hundreds of years later, is that we only have to look around at our own communities and we can still see the very different paths our church communities take. There can be antagonism between the groups and between and within them, violent disagreements about the right way to do things, let alone the right sort of people to be joining the community, and the right way to serve God. And there is a pervading uneasiness about the way forward, or even, if there is a way forward. Well, Paul reminded the Colossians – and us – that part of our future is hidden from us. “Our new life is hidden with Christ in God.” We are on the way, but we’re not there yet.
Trouble is, we don’t like waiting. Can you honestly say you’ve never been impatient when the car in front of us doesn’t immediately respond to a green light? Or never hung up in disgust after 30 plus minutes of hearing the recorded phone message: “Your custom is important to us. Please hold the line. We will be with you as soon as possible” – and back comes the dreadful ‘musack’. And, in our churches, that impatience for results now can so easily become the excuse for giving up.
The early churches had the same issues of different ethnicities that we are now facing. They too had to face the challenge of putting their primary allegiance to Christ and not to region, ethnicity or economic status. Every member of a community who has responded to God’s Spirit, however that response may happen is on the same journey. None of us knows what lies ahead for us, but all of us can be assured that our futures are in God’s hands.
I came up against another issue with church communities last week. I was asked to provide a reference for a child about to start primary school. The parents want to enrol her in a Christian school. She’s a bright little spark with serious physical disabilities and they want a smaller school than the local primaries. But – they have no church affiliation. They are two generations away from church life. The reference form provided had spaces for ‘church affiliation’ etc and when I submitted the form, I got an immediate automatic reply pointing where answers. I wonder what the school’s response would be to Luke’s stories about Jesus and children? When did Jesus ever ask anyone for their membership cards?
Luke, in the reading we heard today, goes straight for the issue of materialism – one of the millennial issues that we heard about last week. He talks specifically about money, but I don’t for a moment think he was downplaying the importance of money as a means to provide people with a life as a valued member of a community. He is really focussing our attention on the importance placed on individual gains that are not necessities of life. What’s best for me? Who’s going to give me the space to do exactly what I want? We see it in the widening gap between rich listers and the rest of us. We see it in the protest movements, where individual greed for renown or riches is masked by the placards declaring ‘my rights’ (and a wonderfully varied selection of ‘rights’ there are!).
The question for all of us is; “What does it mean to be rich before God?” I think at least part of the answer is that we need to look beyond our volatile economy with its booms and recessions and inflations and put our trust in the eternal economy of God’s love and mercy.
And, finally, I can’t resist putting in another of my encounters of this past week. Strangely enough, in one of the books I pulled at random from by bookshelf this week, I found a short extract that seems to me to a particularly apt way of expressing the dangers of random acts of turmoil in the name of freedom, in this wildly fluctuating time we’re living through. It came from a conversation about a talk given by the poet Auden when the narrator remembered, not the poet’s exact words, but their purport. So, to conclude, I quote it for you.
No game can be played without rules. A secondary world must have its laws no less that a primary world. By ‘secondary world,’ Auden meant a work of art, but it occurred to Kate, thinking of the present university situation of turmoil, to wonder where the secondary world the revolutionaries were trying to create were not, so far, dangerously lawless. Or did the young not realize the necessity of law? “Absolute freedom is meaningless,” Auden said. One is free to decide what laws there shall be, but once imposed, they must be obeyed…….And Kate remembered anther phrase of Auden’s she had wanted repeatedly to quote to the young, though he had intended it only for poets: those who refuse all formal restrictions don’t know what they’re missing. (‘Poetic Justice’, p156: Amanda Cross)
Rev Dr Barbara Peddie