With the start of Spring and the celebration of the Season of Creation over the month of September, I have found myself spending much time in the garden enjoying the earlier lightening of the morning sky, the birdsong, and the riot of colour that has bloomed from bulbs planted in the faith that winter’s dark and cold would not endure for too long.
At the Wagga Wagga Uniting Church, new life is truly springing into being after a number of substantial changes this year: in ministry agents and members of Church council, in worship times and formats, in partnerships with community organisations and agencies, in involvement with the wider Southern Region, and even in this website which has received a much-needed facelift and opens up new opportunities for sharing and engaging.
Much like when I keep an eye on the irises to see what colour unfurls from their tight buds, or wonder at how those particular shades or pink, yellow and orange can possibly work pleasingly together, or check carefully every couple of days to see that the soil is still wet and the fragile things have a shady spot in which to shelter from the moving sun, these new things unfold and evolve slowly through attentive conversations, deepening relationships, and the ever-inspiring, transforming grace of God.
So, whether you are worshipping with us at Pilgrim or Wesley, wanting to be part of a caring online community, or simply looking for a burst of hope and inspiration on a bleak day, we pray that you will be blessed as you stroll through these posts and pages and spring into the new with us.
On Sunday, the 16th of February, our five elders – Betty, George, Marilyn, Rob, and Ruth – were commissioned for the task of spiritual and pastoral oversight in the Pilgrim worshipping community.
Worship started with an energetic prayer as the children led us in a “Mexican wave” each time the word “Hallelujah” was mentioned in our praises. Sometimes they were crouched down in expectation; sometimes they were huffing and puffing to catch their breath after a string of joyful “Hallelujahs!”; but my favourite part was the transition into the time of quiet confession where a simple “shhhhhhhhhh” brought a deep and sacred silence upon us all.
While they worked on making prayer leis for each of the elders, Reverend Peter Walker, principal of the Uniting Theological College offered the assurance to the elders and to each of us that Christ IS with us as we seek to engage in God’s mission in the world.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:16-20, NRSV
Marilyn, Rob, Betty, Ruth, and George committed to serving both God and us in prayer and discernment, welcoming and caring, teaching and silence, visitation and leading, pruning and planting, building and support, and encouraging our hope and love as we participate in God’s saving grace in the world in a beautiful exchange of vows between them and the gathered community:
I do not stand before you as a master but a servant. I do not stand before you to gain but to give. I do not stand before you out of pride but obedience. I do not stand before you in my strength but by the power of the Spirit.
We give thanks to God who has named you and saved you. We give thanks to God who has called you and equipped you. We give thanks to God who will strengthen and sustain you. We give thanks to God for the gift that you are.
I stand before you for my gifts are not my own. I stand before you because of God’s great love. I stand before you because faith needs to find expression. I stand before you because I am willing to serve – you and God.
We affirm that your obedience is not without cost. We affirm that in serving you bring glory and pleasure to God. We affirm that you are a precious blessing to this Body. We affirm that in serving you bring joy to us.
I promise to celebrate and share God’s embracing love with the world. I promise to follow the pattern of Christ who was not afraid of getting his hands dirty. I promise to seek to grow my gifts through prayer, and study, and training. I promise to walk closely with God that I might serve you better and love God more.
We promise to partner with you in God’s love and work: to seek to find our own calling and gifting, to affirm the things that bring us joy, to pray for you and love you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
It was wonderful to have the diversity and breadth of the church represented in the laying on of hands and blessing of the elders by members of the worshipping communities, Rev. Walker, Rev. Nigel Hawken (our new presbytery minister), and one of the youth. The children also hung their vibrant leis around the neck of each elder and received, in turn, a blessing.
Going forward, each elder has accepted oversight of a particular aspect of our community life in line with their gifts and passions and all questions, concerns, or ideas can be directed to them as follows for discussion in our regular meetings: Rob – prayer and worship e.g. quiet days, retreats, Sunday worship Betty – pastoral presence e.g. people in need of visitation and care George – visioning and stewardship e.g. property, finances, future plans Marilyn – formation and story e.g. preaching, Bible studies, courses Ruth – justice and hospitality e.g. welcoming newcomers, mission and outreach initiatives
As we build together this beautiful community, may we continue to pray for one another and offer our gifts in humble and heartfelt service to the glory of God.
To the people of God on the way to the promised end
Last weekend was a time of great rejoicing with and within the wider Body as we attended the induction service of our new Presbytery minister, Nigel Hawken on Saturday, and on Sunday commissioned Pilgrim’s elders with the good news that Chist IS with us.
One of the most significant moments for me was the presentation of gifts as the children brought forward the prayer leis that they had made during the service, placed them around the elders’ necks, and then received a blessing in turn as the elders (some even kneeling) laid hands upon them.
In order to be a living Church, our conversations have to hold in tension these four threads:
God’s continuing mission in the world,
expressing our unity in diversity,
personally committing to playing a part in building up Christ’s body,
and regularly considering the legacy that we will leave our children and their children and their children’s children.
In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain we witness how the past and future are brought together in the persons of Moses and Elijah (pioneers of our faith) and Peter, James and John (pivotal figures in the early Church) to bear witness to that glorious affirmation – “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear him!” (Matthew 17:5)
Today, we find ourselves with Christ on that high mountain from which he leads us towards the table of remembrance, the cross of great suffering, and, ultimately, the liberating hope of the empty tomb.
How do these places give shape and substance to our mission, our unity, our stewardship, and our legacy as we claim, in Christ, our own belovedness and seek to pass that affirmation on?
To the people of God on the way to the promised end,
Today is a very special day in the life of the Pilgrim worshipping community as we welcome Reverend Peter Walker from the Uniting Theological College to talk about the nature and purpose of the church and our commitment together as Christian community as we celebrate those in our midst who have heard the call to serve God as elders within this part of the Wagga Wagga congregation: in prayer and discernment, welcoming and caring, teaching and silence, visitation and leading, pruning and planting, building and support, and, always, in encouraging our hope and love as we participate in God’s saving grace in the world.
I have to admit that sometimes I worry about what we worry about as Church – our mesmerisation by narratives of decline to borrow a phrase from a well-known commentator on the Basis of Union.
Our preoccupation with the work of constitution, organisation, funding and administration to enable the work of reconciliation and renewal can, easily, become an end itself, rather than the means to making tangible in people’s everyday here-and-now lives the vision of God’s promised end.
As the Gospel brings us a challenge today I pray, for these elders and for us all, a preoccupation in 2020 with seeking God, building deeper connections, imagining new forms of worship and mission, and encouraging all people to participate in a way which brings eternal glory to Christ Jesus.
“Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? … But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well”
One of the most common complaints around our dinner table since arriving to Australia in 2018 has been the lack of salt in every meal. It’s not that we don’t put enough salt in – my mom’s pinch is very generous and she has taught me well. It’s simply that the salt is insufficient to produce the meaty flavours we’ve grown up with when we’re suddenly cooking with salt-reduced soy or low-salt chicken stock or salt lite.
In the well-known words from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus questions what use salt is when its lost its saltiness or who would light a lamp and then hide it from sight (Matthew 5:13-14).
As people who seek to live according to the very best way when God’s law and God’s love hold us together in abundant grace and humble obedience, we should enrich the world all around us: the land and the sky and the waters and all that live within them.
I have found that the Uniting Church in Australia has a particularly savoury saltiness, an inviting rainbow-coloured light spectrum that intrigues the palate and expands the palette by intentionally holding together people of such different traditions and cultures and journeys and spiritual practices and theological beliefs as a sign of the promised reconciliation and perfect shalom we will find in God’s right-here-right-now-for-all-eternity kingdom.
What great things God has prepared for us! Not just for us – but for the world to which God came. What great gifts God bestows on us! Not just for us – but that the world may be full of rich and complex sights and flavours.
Through the love that we bear and the stories that we share as members of the Body and, particularly, of this UCA family, may others come to taste and see that God is good!
To the people of God on the way to the promised end,
Warm greetings to you in this first “love letter” of the new year!
In South Africa, the first Sunday in February was often set aside in Methodist Churches for our annual Covenant services in which each person was encouraged to make a radical declaration of love and loyalty to God. Though its language has been modernised, the words of the covenant prayer penned by John Wesley can still be jarring to 21st century ears (and hearts): “I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will .…”
In this week’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:22-40), we encounter two (very old) characters at the Temple who embody this prayer beautifully – Simeon and Anna: male and female, priest and prophetess; both devout; both longing and waiting and praying for the salvation of God’s people; both filled with wonder and uncontainable joy at seeing God’s promises fulfilled in this Christ child who would grow in wisdom and become strong in God’s grace.
As we seek to be faithful disciples like Anna and Simeon, to proclaim the message of hope and salvation, I wonder:
how may we better hold the living God in our arms in this new year?
how may he be born(e) in the midst of both the light and the dark of life, the highs and the lows, the celebrations and the sorrows?
how may he continue, through us, to be touched by the brokenness and sorrow and worry and pain of everyday people and to offer, through us, support and healing and comfort – particularly to the most vulnerable in our society?
As God’s Church, I pray that 2020 will be a time of growth, self-offering, and deeper unity as we walk in the way of the Spirit and use our diverse gifts for the building up of the Body and in expressing God’s all-embracing love in life-giving ways in the world around us.
It’s good to be back in Pilgrim’s familiar sanctuary space after a couple of weeks on leave, to feel the soft comfort of the carpet beneath my feet, to watch the light dance in from the windows, to see crayons and cushions and kids’s books waiting to be put to use in Sunday’s worship ….
My heart thrills with the memories of a moving Advent|Christmas|Epiphany journey: ~ of a giant star and shepherds adorning the roof to proclaim the story, ~ of old carols sung with great joy, ~ of a bare Christmas tree brought to life with each week’s additions, ~ of children baking gingerbread biscuits for morning tea, ~ of seekers walking the labyrinth, ~ of heartfelt and spontaneous communal prayer for the world’s great need, ~ of hands stretched out in comfort and fellowship to those evacuated from the fires, ~ of a little church in Mangoplah absolutely packed on Christmas Eve with friends and families from across the Southern Region bound together by song and food and laughter ….
For us as a family, there has also been the usual jumble of emotions after the departure of visiting family, the announcement of long-awaited HSC results, two trips to the emergency room to patch up injuries, the death of a beloved pet, the long monotony of the school holidays punctuated sporadically by family outings and a seasonal cold, end-of-year cleaning out and tidying up, and a seemingly endless stream of washing ….
This is both the gift and the mystery of the Incarnation for me – that God is to be found not only in the sacred and the special but in this moment of this day: in the slow typing of text across this page, in the faces of the people passing by (some clearly happy and others decidedly unhappy), in mundane discussions about telephones and storage, in items checked off the to-do list, and a quiet moment in which to savour a sip of coffee and daydream for a while.
As Benedictine sister Joan Chittister prays:
Loving God, You who dwell in our hearts, make for us a cave there in which to hear your voice more distinctly, feel your care more tenderly, understand your will more clearly, and come to know your presence at every moment of our lives with new clarity and new courage, with new faith and new urgency.
May the presence of the Christ-child grow with and in you, today and always.
It was a wonderful time of fellowship and worship at Pilgrim on Sunday as we:
followed a secret family recipe and baked gingerbread cookies in the sanctuary,
(we certainly followed our noses to find some of this deliciousness to enjoy with our morning cuppa after the service),
followed our hearts and welcomed visitors from different places and life circumstances – including an affectionate fur-baby named Tilly,
followed the music and learned a new carol,
followed our faith and offered spontaneous prayers for those who are finding this season tough and frightening,
and followed the star with the wise men to the perilous place in which God engages with the world, establishing peace and righteousness at great cost to our pride, possessions, and power ….
One of my meagre claims to fame is that I conducted Christmas services with the Pope. This is a true story.
The senior minister at our large suburban church in South Africa had taken leave for the Advent/Christmas period and I had been having a wonderful time running a preaching series that was leading up to a slightly chaotic, very creative, completely interactive Christmas service.
At ten past ten on Christmas Eve, my phone pinged.
“Just to let you know, there will be a camera crew in the church tomorrow and the service will be broadcast live throughout Southern Africa. Blessings!”
Blessings!?! Pfft – I spent most of the night tossing and turning, second-guessing my preparations and wondering whether I should switch from my very pretty Christmas dress to more formal clerical attire.
In the end, the service went ahead as planned. My mom recorded it so that we could sit down and watch it together at a later stage – which is when it all took a very funny turn because the news channel had decided to simultaneously broadcast the Pope’s Midnight Mass along with our service.
So you had these alternating scenes on the screen of the Pope in his beautiful robes leading 15 000 worshippers in formal prayers and angelic singing sustained by a massive and well-rehearsed choir and me running around the sanctuary barefoot with the children while the congregation slowly straggled in, ducking as best they could when they passed in front of the camera ….
Sometimes you had the Pope and I together, on a split screen, while the poor news anchor back in the studio tried to offer meaningful commentary on what was happening in these opposite and obviously unfamiliar spaces.
There you have it – I have conducted Christmas services with the Pope – and what I got out of the experience was a deep awareness of how difficult it can be for outsiders to follow our rituals and traditions as we seek to “Keep the Christ in Christmas” each year.
Year after year after year, I am struck by the remarkable faith of the magi or wise men who, on the strength of an unreliable astrological sign in the sky, undertook a perilous journey to a foreign land to find a child from a different ethnic group and religion to their own in order to offer three remarkable gifts as an expression of their worship.
Year after year after year, I marvel at their openness to God at work in the world around them, the humility they displayed in their willingness to follow, and the generosity of their gifts and their spirit as they pay homage to this newborn baby, the King of the Jews, who they find lying in a manger, in a stable, in the insignificant town of Bethlehem.
This year though, I am struck by the line “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, as were all the people in Jerusalem.” I want to know why the news of the birth of the King of the Jesus – which is such good news for us! – troubles not only King Herod but all the people in Jerusalem.
On the first Sunday of Advent, at the start of a brand new liturgical year and lectionary cycle, I said that we would be spending a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew this year. And one of the distinctives of Matthew’s Gospel is the way in which he tries to show that God does what God says God will do.
In our dramatic reading this morning, there were two Scriptures woven together – the prophecy of Psalm 72 and the story of the wise men from Matthew 2. It was done like that so we could give some thought to what the “good news” brought by the wise men might mean for a powerful man like Herod and a prosperous people like the city dwellers in Jerusalem:
justice – and judgement,
the elevation and rising up of the poor and the needy,
the redistribution of wealth and resources,
the suppression of the oppressor,
and a reorientation of power with all kings and nations falling before this new King.
For those who go along with, who follow, pride, power, and possessions, peace for all people and the flourishing of righteousness is not good news at all.
If we truly want to keep Christ in Christmas in what is proving to be a brutal, heart-wrenching, fearful time; to live “as if” Christ’s coming into the world is Gospel truth and very good news, it’s not about holding beautiful church services or keeping our traditional carols going as though we are untouched while the world around us burns –
it’s about showing up to clean out an unused little sanctuary and offer hospitality and company in a community that hasn’t had a carol service for quite some time;
it’s about going down to our local producers market and supporting our farmers and entrepreneurs with our money and our presence and affirmation;
it’s about redirecting the resources from a cancelled Christmas holiday – as disappointing and frustrating as that is – to small rural towns and centres;
it’s about taking the risk to invite someone to church for the first time and picking them up to ensure that they get here and sitting with them to ensure that they feel a little less uncomfortable about things they might not really be able to follow;
it’s about visiting with the frail and the ill for whom this might be the last Christmas;
and, yes, it’s about engaging in political activity around issues like climate change, consumerism, and effective and accountable governance and leadership.
And it’s about prayer – not the one-off, desperate, somewhat dubious intercessions that we often offer but a deliberate and determined seeking from God the peace that is promised in Christ Jesus.
As the wise men left behind all that they knew in order to find all that they longed for, may we journey day by day towards peace and righteousness, knowing full well that such things do not come without a cost and willing to bear it – as Christ himself bears our death and our life. ***
An ancient prophecy, a sign in the night sky, a dangerous journey across the desolation, the camaraderie of travelling companions spurring one another on with hopes and expectations, a treasure carried as tribute to a King …
… this is the stuff of fairytale and legend – captivating, romantic, remarkable.
How far removed from every Christmas play I’ve ever seen where, as Eugene Peterson so perfectly put it: “Three bathrobes wise men with six or seven Inches of jeans and sneakers showing, kneel Offering gifts that symbolise the gifts That none of us are ready yet to give.”
As we light the fourth candle for the wise men and make our way in a few short days to the manger to welcome Immanuel, God-with-us, I wonder just what it is that we’re hoping to receive …
… and what we’re willing to offer in our wonder and our worship.
Blessings to you and yours in this holy time of giving and receiving.
And may the God of hope be with us in our Advent journey to the stable and beyond, in our meeting and in our travelling together, in our feasting and our resting.
To all looking for Joy in the midst of the world’s troubles …
One of my all-time favourite movies is an animated film titled “Inside Out” which is set almost entirely inside the head of an 11-year old girl named Riley. Inside there, five main characters – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust – work (somewhat together) to help her navigate her way through her world.
It’s well worth watching – on your own or with the grandkids – as the manic pixie-like character named Joy struggles to keep Riley happy after a stressful cross-country move and a difficult period at work for Riley’s father by dismissing the voices of all the other characters.
In the end, Joy discovers that her significance is much more than making Riley feel upbeat and positive all the time and that the experience of life as meaningful and worthwhile requires that Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust live and work alongside her too.
As we light the third candle in our advent wreath, we open ourselves up to Joy of the shepherds who were the first to receive the glorious news of the birth of Christ, the promised Messiah. The purpose behind the angel’s tidings was to bring good news that would cause great joy for all the people: people living under the oppressive force of Roman power, religious legalism, and poverty.
As the pronouncement sent the shepherds on a journey from their fields to seek the truth for themselves, may we bear glad witness to God-with-us on the highest mountains and in the shadows of the deepest valleys.
Sunday’s sermon at Pilgrim; also shared at liturgies4life.com
Today, we look at Jesus’s family tree from Matthew 1 against the backdrop of the prophecy in Isaiah 11 regarding the shoot that shall spring from the stump of Jesse. You’re welcome to read through the first half of the first chapter of that Gospel but for those who may be put off by all those names, here’s a handy little lyrical version that I found on youtube:
Isaiah’s hope-filled vision occurs, interestingly, in the context of the growing Assyrian threat, in a time when the legacy of King David is all but lost in spite of God’s promises that his house would endure forever.
In the midst of those first 39 chapters of the book, we hear the voice of first (or proto) Isaiah: a voice full of judgment and warning about the bad things that are about to happen because the people of God have not lived in right relationship with God nor with one another nor with their neighbours.
It’s a countdown to conquest really; but, against all odds, a new shoot will grow from an old stump – the stump of Jesse who was David’s father and David was Israel’s first and greatest King.
And this new King – the Messiah – will receive the fullness of God’s Spirit: wisdom and understanding, counsel and power, knowledge and reverence for God and delight in doing God’s will. Through him, the poor and the needy will find favour and all that are divided will find peace and harmony. There will be no harm, no hurt in his kingdom.
Isn’t that a beautiful image? A hope to hold on to?
But what do words and pretty promises mean when your home is burning, your child is dying; when you have no freedom; when there is no peace or harmony – only harm and hurt, hurt and harm day after day, month after month, year after year after year?
It was 700 years or so before the promised child was born – so full of Spirit; the Son of God. Born into the midst of Roman occupation and religious exploitation and poverty and need …
… for the more things change, the more they stay the same as we say so casually.
But when we step back a little further and look at Jesus’ family tree, we see, in fact, God’s promise to deliver, to rescue, to save spanning the fourteen generations from Jesus’ birth to the exile in Babylon. And fourteen generations before that between the tile and the reign of King David. And fourteen generations from David all the way back to Abraham, who is known as the father of our faith for God made a promise to him and he left all that he had known to follow God.
Forty-two generations! That’s a long time to wait for a promise; a long time to hold on to a hope when you’re hurting right now.
We will spend a lot of time with the Gospel of Matthew in Year A of the lectionary cycle, and you will see how often he draws attention to things happening in fulfilment of what the prophets said. The author wants us to know – in both head and heart – that God does what God says God will do.
But each person has a part, a place, in fulfilling these promises, including:
Tamar, who was nearly burned to death for being pregnant out of wedlock,
Ruth, the foreigner,
Rahab, the prostitute,
Bathsheba, who was so beautiful that King David had her husband killed so he could have her for himself,
and Mary, who was pretty much an insignificant little nobody until she was chosen to bear the Christ-child.
Everyone has a place – including those we deem unlikely, insignificant, and unworthy (hence my choice of women from Jesus’ family tree) – in the unfolding promises of God who is active in every generation.
As we hear again in this Advent season that familiar story of the Christ-child born in our midst who will come again one day to establish the perfect peace of his kingdom, once and for all, it would serve us well to wonder – and perhaps to talk about over the table:
what does that promise really mean?
what might it mean for those who are in the midst of drought, destruction, and despair right now?
do we walk with dread each day because of bad things happening?
do we set out into the world in anticipation that God will draw near to us?
do we offer hope through pretty words or through active participation in what we see God doing to bring comfort and healing and peace in the midst of harmful, hurtful situations?
My prayer as we travel the prophet’s path is that we will enter into each new day as if God is coming – not in 700 years’ time or 7000 – right here and right now, in the words that we speak, and the love that we share, and the space that we make at the table.