Church & Change (with help from some visitors) – by Martin Stewart

Here’s an adapted reflection from a sermon I preached at The Village Church, Christchurch on 25 June.  The text was Matthew 10: 24–39.  The context was new buildings coming ready, and some voices wanting to go back to what we once had

As I have thought my way into this week’s reflection I have had a few visitors.

The first was Kobi Yamada and his book What Do You Do With An Idea?  I love the way the book evolves from black and white to full colour as the idea takes hold.  Isn’t that how ideas work out?  They turn up and try to speak into your already fixed view of things.  They are looked at, prodded and poked, often ridiculed, slept on, and either forgotten or picked up.  If they are picked up, the world changes.  Some ideas are not especially dramatic and the change is modest.  But the world still needs to embrace the modest idea.  But some ideas are dramatic – they rock the world, they reconfigure our understanding of things, and, most importantly, they become the springboard for other ideas.

This year it is 500 years since the beginning of the Reformation.  Martin Luther banged his 95 Theses into the door at Wittenberg in 1517 and started a revolution.  But what really made his act into the one that made a difference was that someone had had the idea of inventing a way to print material.

The Reformation rode the wave of the invention of the printing press.  The printing press has been one of those big ideas that changed the world.  Ideas could now be circulated widely so that other ideas could take shape.

One of the challenging things about ideas is that those who pioneer them often have to endure all the initial intransience of the crowd.  Who really wants to change?  The crowd are a curious lot though.  They can quite quickly shift from intransience to acceptance.  Eventually, miraculously, they can even embrace the idea and benefit from it as if it was their idea in the first place!  How about that!  The crowd can then become very forgetful, even quite unable to remember the nature and tone of their initial negativity!  Bless them!

Another visitor this week has been Moses.  He hasn’t popped up in the lectionary readings for today, but I have recalled this week, especially, that the wandering through the wilderness of the Sinai desert between Egypt and The Promised Land wasn’t an easy journey to lead the people through.  What could have taken a month or two ended up taking forty years.  Moses himself never got to enter the Promised Land.  He died within sight of it.  Why the forty years?  Because the people were slow to take on the fullness of the idea of their freedom in God.  They wanted a god in their image and the only one on offer was a bit demanding.

God had delivered them from slavery but they wanted to enslave themselves to idols and inflated ideas of themselves.  At one point they even resented the God who had delivered them and suggested that they were better off in slavery in Egypt!  How that must have broken Moses’ heart!

The challenge for them was to trust in God’s leading.  It seems that a whole generation had to pass before that trust was sufficient to enter the new land.  It seems to me that the church as we know it is entering (if not already well in) a period of wilderness.  I hope we aren’t facing forty years of this wilderness before we are ready for God’s new day!

Another visitor I’ve had this week is James Stewart.  He is my great great grandfather.  While he has a unique story of his own, he could just as well be your ancestor in terms of what he did.  He, like your ancestors, left there to come here.  His journey involved a journey on the high seas from his birthplace in Scotland to Melbourne and the goldfields at Ballarat, and then from Melbourne to Dunedin on the ship The Lightening, my great-aunt painted it, and somehow I am this generation’s custodian. From Dunedin, James travelled to Gabriel’s Gully, and then, with the money from his gold, he moved from Gabriel’s Gully to Moa Hill, a small hill surrounded by a flax swamp south of Warepa in South Otago.

I wonder who had the idea that he should travel to the other side of the world and never come back.  Was it the idea of a hot-headed young man, or was it the idea of his father and mother who believed that something radical had to happen for their son to have a better future?  I wonder about his mother and father and what they sacrificed in letting him go.  I have no doubt whatsoever that when he was born his parents hoped and dreamed that their boy would be there when they died, and that he would have prospered in the country of his birth.  But he left, or maybe he was sent.  Everyone who gathered at the wharf, those leaving and those staying, made a great sacrifice – all for an idea.

We, we Kiwis in Aotearoa, every single one of us, have a story in our background of there to here, idea and sacrifice, of death and new life.  Our well-being and identity has been built on these foundations.  Even our church identity has been forged by people making sacrifices of time, energy, resources and considerable disruption over many years.  I just want to say that chasing ideas has been deep in our history and the day we give up on doing it is the day we experience the wrong kind of death.

Another visitor has Jesus with his uncomfortable words: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” And the crowning words: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Has your faith life of late felt more like battle than peace?  I wonder.

I think of the post-quake story of the last six years in Christchurch and I find myself quite battle-weary.

Road cones, road closures, EQC repairs, cathedral squabbles, disorientation in the centre city (what centre city!), politicians, moaners, grumpy people, after-shocks, panic, broken churches, broken communities, tricky insurers, delays and more delays, red tape and more red tape, people wanting the good old days,

people clinging to what was before as if we can ever go backwards, frustration, anguish, lament, anger, complaint, silent whispers… all that stuff.

But I can remember a little further back to the years immediately before the quakes when our churches were already declining at an alarming rate, our budgets were getting harder to meet, we were struggling to connect with our communities and were wondering what we should do about it, and our buildings were kind of dictating the terms for how we could do church.

Do you remember the mathematics?  The number of people turning up and adding to our number was not even single digits some years, while the congregations were aging and all of our precious older ones, those wonderful people who had carried the flag for so many years, were dropping off their perches.  Something had to change.  Ideas were needed.  Didn’t we set about looking for them and embracing the ones that found us?

The Idea of The Village Church.

We decided we didn’t want to tip over without having a go.  We decided that we needed to generate.  We decided that we didn’t want to keep on the same trajectory because it was not pitching for a future.  We decided that we wanted church buildings that were relational and adaptable.  We decided that we needed to bring two churches together to create energy.  We decided that the best way to make our way through the storms that were buffeting us

was to explore frontiers and possibilities rather than cling and hunker down.  We decided that if we were going to die we would rather die trying.  We decided to widen our reach in the communities we were part of.  We decided to risk an adventure into the unknown.  We decided to embark on a journey from there to wherever here eventually is.

What do you do with an idea?  Do you hide it?  Do you simply walk away from it when things get a little hard?  Or do you play a part in bringing its life and colour into the world?

When the people informed Moses that they wanted to go back to Egypt God stepped in with food and water for the difficult journey ahead.  God called from ahead and the people had to invest big time in God’s promise.

When James Stewart set sail from Scotland, and was buffeted by storms and threatening seas around the Cape of Good Hope, he did not go to the captain and demand that the ship be turned around.  Nor did some of our ancestors who would have witnessed illness and death on board the ships that brought them here.

There was no turning back.  They had to see it through.  And then, one day, miraculously, it got better and they were different, their world was different, and what had once been home was no longer home.  Look how we have prospered because of their legacy!

And, finally, what does Jesus say we are to do and be about.  Curiously, his word, which initially sounds harsh, is a call to an adventure and an invitation to the wondrous possibility of what is yet to be.   He says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Lose your life for his sake.  Don’t cling.  Don’t grasp.  Don’t retreat.  Don’t live in the past.  Lose in order to find.  It is as the most natural of thing with a myriad of pointers, prompters and examples in nature.  Seasons coming and going.  Leaves sprouting only to wither and fall so that a new sprouting can happen.  The soil under our feet is composed of millions of years of life and loss of life, and it provides the food for our living.

The church, this family who we have been called among, is built on the stories and resources of old that have been handed down, that we may treasure it, and pass it forward, and one day yield the responsibility to the next season of gospel sojourners.

If we cling and grasp we will interrupt this rhythm.  The church is not ours, we are its.  Our church is about a way of reaching to the horizon when around us there seem to be so many who have given up and become committed to preserving their dead ends.  We’re having a go.  Isn’t that the best form of legacy?

Curiously, amazingly, the church has always been in its safest hands when people have made sure that they are letting it go by passing it forward.

3 thoughts on “Church & Change (with help from some visitors) – by Martin Stewart

  1. Your reflection reminded me of a book we (St Paul’s session) have decided to read together ‘Claiming Resurrection in a dying Church’ by Anna B Olson. It inspired a parish i met on study leave to learn the art of letting go of the need to survive and making room for discovering new paths. But we do find it hard not to hold on! thanks, martin.

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