Toorak Uniting Church

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What defines the life of a Christian congregation?

Luke 12: 32 – 40
Rev. Robert McUtchen
8 August 2010

What defines the life of a Christian congregation? Engagement with and service to the community? Attention to well crafted liturgy, music and worship? Ministry based on quality preaching? Attention to prayer, spirituality and discerning the will of God? These are profound questions for every congregation as they account for their life and ministry; they confront TUC as it begins the journey towards seeking a minister.

The answer to these questions is naturally "YES". But the reality is often different because these things are rarely in balance. Some things tend to attract energy more than others.

As we reflect on Isaiah, the Psalm, Hebrews and Luke readings today there is a muted theme underlying the more apparent one of taking positive action for the poor. A subtle thread recalling people to the essential relationship with God, which is characterised by acts of devotion, thanksgiving and praise. I suggest that this is an often overlooked dimension of congregational life.

The Uniting Church has a reputation in community and among other churches for leading community opinion and action in social action and human rights. Some congregations believe they most fully give expression to Christ’s command to discipleship through social engagement and community outreach programmes.
I have found while clergy and people of other churches perceive the Uniting Church is very much into social action and outreach, they also detect a general lesser focus on prayer and spirituality. In my first parish in Mt Beauty the church had established an active and valuable Neighbourhood Centre when these were the popular means of engaging the people; my Catholic colleague observed in admiration – "the UCA is much better at social action than we are, but" ...... he wondered about the way we said our prayers. And I find 30 years later that this perception persists.

Surely it is all about getting the balance right. A term less often heard today is "The means of Grace" which refers to prayer, worship and the scriptures. The means of Grace are ways in which God works invisibly in disciples, quickening, strengthening and confirming faith. As far as I can find in our worship book in the Confirmation rite, the Means of Grace was replaced with this: "I will seek to love and obey Christ, and to grow in my relationship with God through prayer and study of the Bible". It is regrettable this omits what we once quaintly referred to as "the nurture of the sacraments".

Wesley had defined The Means of Grace as covering two broad areas:

Works of Piety, such as:

Individual Practices
Prayer, Fasting, Searching the Scriptures, Healthy Living

Communal Practices
Holy Communion, Baptism, Christian Conferencing ("community")

Works of Mercy, such as:

Service focused toward individual needs
Doing Good (Good works)
Visiting the Sick
Visiting the Imprisoned
Feeding & Clothing those in need
Earning, Saving, & Giving all one can

Service focused toward communal/societal needs
the Seeking of Justice; Opposition to slavery.

The Westminster Confession of the Church of Scotland divided the means of grace into three branches, the word, the sacraments, and prayer.

Martin Luther: coined a term: sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia. Against the Calvinist use of Reason Luther answered, "Sola fide (by faith alone)". When confronted with Rome's use of Tradition, Luther answered, "Sola scriptura (by scripture alone)". To both, when their doctrines led to work-righteousness, Luther answered, "Sola gratia (by grace alone)".

The means of Grace – word, sacraments and prayer – need to be approached in balance, avoiding giving undue attention to any one dimension. Every congregation must be careful in its corporate life to strive for that same balance.

A concern may be raised from the Old Testament – where Isaiah condemns worship and sacrifice because the hearts of the people were not clean. Fast forward to the Reformation and it happens again, where Roman ritual and decoration was ruthlessly destroyed. Visit Carlisle Cathedral in Cumbria and you can see the fractured remnants of carvings and sculpture which zealots tore away in the Reformation. The substitution of one form of idolatry with another, defined by its austerity. A person may argue – we do not make too much of our worship, so that we can attend to the care of others and engagement with the world in Christ’s name. But therein lies peril of making an idol of our commitment to service, and in failing to hear the words of the psalmist - 23Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me; to those who go the right way I will show the salvation of God." Its all about balance.

Another may argue – if we make spirituality and our prayer life our focus, but are not active as servants to the poor and the needy, we fail to honour Jesus command, or that of the Hebrew prophets, to be God’s agents for change in the world. How often that was used to criticise closed contemplative religious communities. To that one can respond – indeed – but it is not prayer and spirituality at the expense of the other, but in equal measure with those excellent things.

The texts today all speak of serving God actively, but also of simply worshipping God, of according God the honour and glory which is his due from all his creation. This theme is present in the Hebrew Shema – Hear O Israel, the Lord is One ..... and Jewish prayers of thanksgiving at Shabbat and Passover, Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe ........

Remember Jesus was constant in his Prayers throughout his ministry. The drama of the healing miracles, the parables , and conflict with the Pharisees overshadow his prayer life. Jesus life manifested the balance he calls us to seek – engagement, with the world, and with God.

So Jesus teaching about "being ready" can be understood as a call in two ways:

My dear friend Betty at Ormond in her 104th year would still remind me regularly of the Shorter Catechism, in particular the first question:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God,[1] and to enjoy him forever.

As much as we try and serve God in practical ways, engaging with community, pursuing causes and projects, may we also set aside that appropriate portion of time in which we may simply glorify God, and enjoy him .... forever. Amen.

© Rev. Robert McUtchen, 2010

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