Hope for the church 

Rev Roger Wiig, Johnsonville Uniting Church, 2 November 2017, Reformation Sunday              Matthew 23: 1 - 12



This is Reformation Sunday the Sunday closest to 31st October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. And the question is: Is the church still reforming? Is there hope for the church? 

45 years ago I was asked to start a youth group for the church in Cambridge. I called together a small group of leaders and we made plans. The first night over 50 young people turned up. The second Friday night more than 100 were there. It doubled in size again the following Friday. It stretched our ingenuity and our resources and offered both a wide variety of activities and an opportunity for young people to think about what was important. Of course the Sunday School was big then too and a large congregation filled the church every Sunday. (I used to know how big the congregation was because the bank manager had the practice of counting the people in church, multiplying that number by the number of minutes late my boss was in starting the service; then he would tell me  how many ‘man-hours’ were lost that day!) 

Of course the world has changed drastically since the 1970s. And all around the world the ‘mainline’ churches are smaller. That is certainly the case here in New Zealand and I guess it is true right here in Johnsonville. Yes? 

It is not a lot of fun reflecting on your life’s work and recognizing that through those years the church has been going backwards and that it may not last much longer.

But I am not a pessimist. The reality is that the church is going through a transition — as it has done every 500 years. It will emerge in a new way with new understandings of itself and how the gospel is to be lived. I don’t know what it will look like, but it will, through its use of story and prayer, worship and action, work at assisting people to become their own best selves, the people God made them to be. But right now we are in a very strange time when the world we live in is changing rapidly. You all know that. The values we once treasured as New Zealanders are slowly being chipped away. It doesn’t matter whether it is housing, employment, public versus private, the sale of assets, or 26 million being spent on something as ephemeral as changing the flag — change is happening in every aspect of society. We can resist some changes, but we are going through what some are calling the ‘Great Emergence’.  Who knows what will emerge from these tumultuous years? 

Go back 500 years and the same thing was happening. The reformation was a time when not only the church was changing, science was emerging; new forms of the nation state were being shaped. 500 years before that, and we are at the great schism, the breaking up of the universal church into the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. 500 years before that, while the church was putting in place ‘orthodoxy’, the Great Roman Empire was crumbling. 500 years before that and we are back in Jesus’ time when the new was emerging and the old was being displaced.

It happens on a regular basis, the old is left behind and something new takes its place and the church is just part of that whole evolutionary process. It is true, when everything else is changing the religion that informs values and shapes culture, changes too. Right now we are again in one of those periods of change.

Of course these changes don’t just appear out of the blue. For a long time before we can identify the full nature of the change, under the surface new ideas bubble away, challenges to the old emerge — a wondering springs up:  Does it have to be this way? Questions create a new climate, new thoughts, new ways of doing things and eventually lead up to major shifts in understanding and organization — in who has power and who doesn’t, who is in control and what happens. There is a breaking up of the old before the new fully emerges.

You will recognize that that has been going on in the church for the last 100 years. We have had to re-think how the Bible was put together and what kinds of literature it contains; how we talk about God the creator, in a world where science is telling us how creation happened and how it has and is evolving. Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hamadi texts has caused us to re-think the biblical stories, what they mean and what diversity of belief and practice there was in the early church. We now have a better understanding of the man Jesus, the Jewish peasant from Galilee, and how he lived out his Jewish faith. We know more about the nature of myth and of the dangers of fundamentalism and we live in a secular society that dismisses religion for all kinds of spurious reasons.

But still, you and I come, still, we say we belong, knowing that here, sometimes, we are moved very deeply. We recognize that there is still something in our faith that has emotional significance and depth. The stories, the myths, the symbols, the liturgy, the actions that follow from all that still make sense, still give meaning to life, still enable us to face the griefs, the pains, the daily struggles. What we hear here still challenges us to live in a way that makes life better for others and leads us to the discovery of joy. What we do here still leads us to question what is happening out there in our community, in our nation and on the world scene and to search for what might be a more Christian, a more Human way, of dealing with the problems that beset us and that knock the world and its peoples around . 

The community we experience here leads us to believe that belonging and compassion, justice, acceptance and love are the things that make life better for others. That the forgiveness we offer one another sets us free to be ourselves and make the most of the gifts we have been given by God. And all of that is good reason for us to be here Sunday by Sunday. And all of that is reason for us to hope that the life and vitality in the church we once knew will return, even though we recognize it will be in very different form.

Looking back is a trap. We look back and remember and think it was good. The reality is even back then it was failing. A British writer recently said: ‘The church is always a failing, but never quite failed attempt by limited people to live out the unlimited generosity of God in the world’1.

That is surely what our readings were about — the kinds of actions we take, the kind of actions we expect from those in authority over us will demonstrate to all ‘the unlimited generosity of God in the world’. Our readings remind us that the faith, the trust we have in the life affirming actions of God, is seen primarily in what we do, rather than what we believe. And the question is, in this changing world, in this changing church, what do we do, where do we put our energies? Do we get into the political fray espousing Christian values in the rapidly changing public arena where morality and justice are barely thought of, or do we work quietly in the local neighborhood helping where we can?

The reality is that each of us will do what we can using the insights, skills, energy and commitments that are right for us and we will take what actions we can believing that it is in small, thoughtful, self-giving ways that the world can be changed to the glory of God. And hopefully the church will be there to support us. 

American anthropologist Loren Eiseley used to tell this story.2

 An old man was walking on the beach at dawn when he noticed a young man picking up starfish stranded by the retreating tide, and throwing them back into the sea one by one. He went up to him and asked him why he was doing this. The young man replied that the starfish would die if left exposed to the morning sun.

‘But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands
of starfish’ said the man. ‘You will not be able to save them all. How can your effort make a difference?’

The young man looked at the starfish in his hand and then threw it to safety into the waves.

'To this one', he said, 'it makes a difference.' 

The question is: what difference can you make, for you can make a difference — a difference to the world, a difference to the church. It is because I have seen so many people making a difference to the church, the community and the world because they cared, that I still hold out hope for the institution. And it is my belief that they cared because they caught, by their participation in the rituals, the stories, the prayers and particularly the celebration of the sacraments, a sense of the importance of the church community.

The Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, Dr Jonathan Sacks, has written a wonderful book entitled ‘To Heal a Fractured World’. As Christians we would do well to read it in order to understand the faith that gave rise to what we hold to be important. He tells the following story to remind us all about the importance of community for the people of God. 

He said: ‘I met David and Rachel when I was appointed to my first congregation. I did not notice them immediately. They sat at the back of the synagogue. They were inconspicuous, but gradually I began to realize that they were the most important people there. Quietly they helped transform it from a congregation into a community.

What used to happen was this: whenever a stranger appeared in the synagogue, they would go up to them and greet them, give them a prayer book, and invite them to sit next to them. At the end of the service they would invite them back for lunch. Their home, I discovered, was an open house. Every Shabbat their table would be full of strangers. More arrived during the course of the afternoon. Other members of the synagogue would drop in. Newcomers would find themselves, in the course of a single day, integrated into the community. They turned strangers into friends.

They were the congregation's Abraham and Sarah, watching out for passers-by, as did their biblical precursors, so that they could invite them to eat and rest awhile. They were redeemers of loneliness. Eventually they left the community and moved to Jerusalem, where they continued to do the same for people there. Like the best of the good, they saw nothing unusual in what they did, and were embarrassed when anyone thanked them. They have no idea that they are exceptional. They are the kind of people in whom God takes special delight.’3

What would happen if more of us were like David and Rachel?

What would happen if our experience of the communion helped us learn the lesson of hospitality and the cost of self-giving? What would happen if following the Way of Jesus we picked up our responsibility for (and found the joy of) providing hospitality to one another? And what would happen if we did that, not just as we shared tea and coffee after the service — but in our homes when we took time to get to know one another and to share the stories of our faith and maybe light a candle and say a prayer?

Could it be then that the emerging church becomes again a vital, lively, loving, compassionate, thoughtful community that lives out ‘the unlimited generosity of God in the world’?




1 Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense, Faber and Faber, 2013 p 198


2 Quoted in: Jonathan Sacks To Heal a Fractured World: the Ethics of Responsibility, Continuum, 2005 p 72


3 Sacks, Ibid p 238