One of the most challenging questions with which I had to wrestle in discerning and testing the call to ordained ministry in South Africa was how I knew that I was called to be a minister of both Word and Sacrament. At eighteen, that seemed an impossible question to answer but it certainly started me on a deep and meaningful journey into what significance the rituals of baptism and holy communion have in our relationship with God, with one another, and with the world around us.
These simple lines in the Basis of Union are some of my favourites:
The Church lives between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which Christ will bring; the Church is a pilgrim people, always on the way towards a promised goal; here the Church does not have a continuing city but seeks one to come.
On the way, Christ feeds the Church with Word and Sacraments, and it has the gift of the Spirit in order that it may not lose the way.
Uniting Church in Australia, Basis of Union, Paragraph 3
One of the aspects of community life that I have most missed during this time of self-isolation and social distancing is the open table around which we gather – from such different circumstances – as brothers and sisters in Christ to acknowledge our need, to receive the free and lavish grace of God, to honour the invisible bond that connects us beyond time and place with the Church Universal, and to envision our role in making Christ present to the world which he loves.
All of this in a broken loaf and a shared cup!
As I share this photo today, I wonder:
what are you missing most of your Christian community?
what is sustaining you on the way?
how have you encountered signs of God’s grace in different ways?
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.
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.
On Sunday, at Pilgrim, we encountered the prophets: people who come so close to God and who God comes so close to that they know the most important things.
In particular, the prophet Isaiah inspired us with the promise:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The sanctuary was full of the colour purple to remind us that we have entered into a time of great mystery, and circles to show us that this is God’s time in which every beginning has an ending and every ending, a beginning.
The sanctuary was also full of laughter and conversation as we shared Harry’s story (keep an ear out for tomorrow’s blog post – and I do mean an ear), offered one another peace, ate together in Holy Communion, and coloured in a lovely little Advent calendar with all the characters of the Christmas story (mainly the kids, but I must confess that I’m still working on one that I brought home with me).
Our worship service was a wonderful start to the Advent season as we welcomed over 20 visitors who were part of the sacraments training held by the Riverina Presbytery. We were greatly blessed by their energy, their insights, and their company for morning tea.
Using name tags from last week’s High-Five Anniversary to which we’d added the names of our visitors and those who had been away, we prayed for one another in the simple act of holding each others’ names between our hands as a sign of the love, hope, peace, and joy enfolding each person.
We continue to pray for those in the place of pain due to bushfires and the ongoing drought.
God of gatherings, turnings and imaginings, you make all things possible through Christ. Inspire us with new vision, and the wisdom of ancient dreams. Give us strength to walk together until we come to our eternal home – the place of peace and plenty. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
We would love to have you join us next week as we travel a little further – this time with Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where she gives birth to a little baby boy.
Our Sunday services over the next few weeks draw us into the Christmas story
as we journey with
the holy family,
Join us at Pilgrim (10 Tanda Place) for an “as if” adventure for old and young alike
with carols (traditional and Australian), walking, hunting, and even a little baking
as we share this familiar story in unfamiliar ways.
Invite the guests to mark the day that the rising sun will come our way.
Light the candles, set the table; let everyone bring what they are able.
Cut the cake and pour the tea and pass the peace – like family
for Christ the King is present here as we celebrate 5 grace-filled years.
The Pilgrim worshipping community celebrated Christ the King Sunday and the end of this liturgical year with great joy on Sunday – our 5th Anniversary – as we set up tables in the sanctuary (decorated by precious china cups, and teapots, and centrepieces brought in by different people as an act of hospitality and self-offering); shared high fives, low fives, and baby fives; recognised the contribution of each person in building our community from the oldest to the youngest to the lay preachers who lead up front to the behind-the-scenes volunteers who do a lot of work without recognition to the very welcome visitors – both first-timers and regulars; and enjoyed a fabulous “high tea” together including a macaron tower and cheese-cake complete with the topper from our opening service 5 years ago.
Zechariah’s song from Luke 1:68-79 formed the basis of our reflecting as we took a moment to consider:
what might our life’s purpose be as the Pilgrim Uniting Church?
how will we point people to the rising sun – to Christ the King – who will come again from heaven to heal and reconcile and renew God’s good creation?
how will we be present to those living in darkness and in the shadow death that they may know hope and comfort?
how will we open up a path for peace – particularly in the ways in which we talk to or about one another and make space at our table for those who are radically different to us (and maybe even just plain radical)?
There’s a new day coming! And our 5 year celebration marks a shift much like that found in human development: from getting the basics right to a focus on developing our minds and our mission.
Thank you to each and every person present for your contribution to a wonderful time of fellowship! And to those who had other commitments on, we missed your company but you are very much in our hearts and our prayers.
A reflection for a service of acknowledgment and lament on the anniversary of the national apology to survivors of institutionalised childhood sexual abuse
At the age of 18, as a first year social work student who knew nothing really about the world, I was placed at a local children’s home to be a mentor and support person to a young girl who had been abused – mentally, physically, and sexually – over a prolonged period of time by her parents.
Well-schooled in the theory of what such an assault can do to the body and soul and innocence of such a small one, I was hopelessly unprepared for the sheer love and delight with which I was greeted each week – or the heart-wrenching sobs and sheer strength of her little hands as she clung to me when it was time for me to leave.
And so the scene from Luke’s Gospel, though brief, is for me a beautifully human and incredibly powerful one which challenges the traditional place that we as society assign to children.
In Biblical times, children had no rights, no status, and, therefore, no power whatsoever.
As they are brought to Jesus for a blessing – and please make sure to note that they are brought to him and don’t just approach of their own freewill or accord – Jesus not only protects them from rejection and criticism and makes them feel welcome, but he also up-ends every single power relationship and perception of what eternity with God looks like when he proclaims that the kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones more than it does to the people who have brought the children to him, more than the disciples who have followed him daily but haven’t seemed to grasp what grace is all about, and certainly more than the pharisees who have kept the letter of the law their whole lives long and use that law to nail Christ to a cross.
“The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these …”
I’ve read many commentaries and heard sermons where that line has been used to call us as adults into a more playful relationship with Christ, to innocence, to simplicity, to spontaneity, to wonder, to let go of grudges …. I’ve even preached a few of them myself but, as we talk honestly about the reality of the sexual abuse of children and of the place of the church in the midst of such pain, and as we read these words of Jesus in the light of little children being brought to Jesus for a blessing by one group of adults and turned away by another group of adults, perhaps we should hear a little more clearly that the kingdom of God belongs to:
those who are taken where they don’t want to go,
those who are kept from blessing and safety and love,
those who may have rights in this day and age but lack the power or resources to claim them,
those who are vulnerable, invisible, voiceless,
those who in their search for God – both intentional and accidental – are turned away because it’s not a convenient time, because they offend our sense of what is right or proper, because church is a place for worship and not for justice ….
On this day, may we be deeply challenged to consider how our church belongs to children and to those like them who, in their vulnerability, are made most welcome in the loving, healing, freeing grace of God.
How do we create a safe church together in which all can know that they are welcome, in which all can be protected, in which all are given voice?
September saw a spectacular worship series unfolding in the Pilgrim sanctuary as we shared with many congregations of different denominations around the world in the Season of Creation.
Under the theme of “The Wisdom of Creation,” we traversed the rising oceans, marvelled at the abundance of plants and animals with whom we enjoy the world, were moved by the sounds of the storm to pray for rain at this time in our land*, wondered at our place in the cosmos, and counted our blessings with the animals – both up at Galore Hill in the wide open spaces and in a somewhat different, digital service at Pilgrim.
Each week, we shared through prayer and song in the groaning of the Earth and listened through Scripture to God’s hope for this very good creation. We were challenged by climate champions from all walks of life who are passionate about environmental justice and listened for ways in which we can each contribute toward a world in which all people, creatures and the Earth can flourish.
On Friday, the 20th of September, we held an early morning love feast for the earth and some of our members participated in the Global Climate Strike in support of our youth and as an expression of our commitment to be part of Christ’s reconciling work for all creation.
A helpful resource for people looking to participate in the Season of Creation in September 2020 is the UnitingEarth website.
The Earth is precious to God.
May we protect and preserve it
until every creature finds perfect peace
Yours in Christ,
* The next day, as I conducted a funeral for a lifelong farmer in one of communities in the Southern Region, his family and friends were deeply moved by the rain falling constantly on the open grave into which they had thrown handfuls of wheat.