Toorak Uniting Church

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Living With Faith

Rev. Dr James Donaldson
4 June 2000

I’d like to thank you very much for your warm welcome to Toorak Uniting Church. Very happy to be here. I feel a bit like the Minister who dreamt that he was preaching a sermon in this pulpit and woke up to discover that he actually was.

Living with Faith.

Theodore Weidel tells a modern parable about a crude little lifesaving station set on a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occurred. The building was just a hut. There was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch and with no thought to themselves went out in all kinds of weathers tirelessly seeking and searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by that little station and it soon became famous. Indeed many of those saved and various others in the district wanted to become associated with that hut and gave their time and money to support its work. New boats were built and new crews were trained for the work of that lifesaving station. Yet some of the members felt that that the hut was so crude and so poorly equipped that they replaced the emergency cots with beds, they bought new furniture, they jazzed the place up. New people joined and it quickly became THE place to be to meet your friends. Fewer members were interested in actually going out in the lifeboats so they hired other people to do that. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and hired crews brought in boatloads of cold and wet, half-drowned people. Some were dirty and sick, some were of black skin and yellow skin. The beautiful new clubhouse was in chaos. It looked like a refugee camp. Immediately after this unfortunate event the property committee ordered that a new shower block be built outside the clubhouse, where the victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before they came inside. At the next meeting of the station there was actually a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club’s lifesaving activities altogether as being unpleasant and dirty and dangerous and indeed a hindrance to the social life of its members. A small number of these folk reminded the others that lifesaving on the coast was their primary purpose, but they were voted down and so they left and began a new lifesaving station further down the seashore. As the years went by this new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old hut. It evolved into a club and yet another station was founded. The parable concludes history began to repeat itself and if you visit that seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along the shore. Shipwrecks are frequent in those waters but most of the people drown. In this striking parable, Theodore Weidel depicts the perennial danger confronting the church in modern days - irrelevance - irrelevance. This parable is particularly acute in times when churches feel they are being outwardly successful, or in times when those in the congregation have forgotten the basics of what it means to be a church, forgotten the essentials required for growth and vitality, forgotten the reason of why there is a church there at all. The parable highlights the fact that the only relevance that ultimately matters is relevance to the deep needs of people. Relevance to the places in their lives where they hurt and where they hope, where they laugh and where they cry, where they curse and where they pray, where they hunger for meaning in their life and where they thirst for meaningful relationships. For me that is what the incarnation of Jesus Christ is ultimately about. That is the whole impact of why God in Jesus Christ was reconciling the world to himself. Relationship and relevance between God and people. Relationship and relevance between person and person, relationship and relevance between person and environment. I'm sure you would agree with me that the church must stay relevant to human need else it denies the incarnation, it rejects the Gospel and refuses to be part of that ongoing ministry of Jesus himself, and when it does that it forfeits any opportunity it has to be relevant.

Significantly it is the people of this congregation at Toorak who must make it happen for those who live along this shoreline. For if you don’t, no one else will. It is you and you alone who must serve as enablers of healing and wholeness. After all the Greek word for salvation soteria not only means salvation it is also the word to be whole and to be healthy. To you has been given the responsibility of being the church in this place. Let me say first of all the ministry of the church seeks to impart growth towards wholeness in six independent aspects of a person's life. These six are enlivening one’s mind, revitalising one’s body, renewing and enriching one’s intimate relationships, deepening one’s relationships with nature and the wider world, developing growth and relationship to the institutions of one’s life and deepening and revitalising one’s relationship with God.

You know there’s a Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown is talking to Linus and says, "I’d like to be able to feel that I am needed." Linus replies, "Don’t forget Charlie Brown, that people who are really needed are asked to do a lot of things." Charlie Brown pondered this for a while and then declared, "Well I’d like to feel needed, and yet not to have to do anything." That’s really not an option in the Christian life. To want to feel needed and yet not having to do anything. For needs I think make for demands and demands mean that a response is asked for. As Christians we believe that each of us is given special responsibilities by God through the Holy Spirit and each of us is responsible for using the gifts that he and she have been given. The thing about it is that every church and every person is given exactly the needs that they need in order to perform the task that God asks us to do. Christians of course who are lazy about their faith will not succeed, neither will congregations. If there is no cost of discipleship when Christians are being lazy then there is no gain. That is what St. Paul is meaning when he is speaks in his Letter to the Romans in Chapter 12. He speaks of never flagging in zeal. A more literal interpretation of these words from Romans might be, "In regard to what you ought to be doing don't be lazy." Now that’s very powerful stuff when you think about it in relationship to individual lives and in the life of any congregation. In regard to what you ought to be doing, don't be lazy.

Scott Peck has written many of the more popular books in the field of psychotherapy, such as "A Road Less Travelled" and Peck says that laziness is a major cause of evil, it is the primary cause of psychological illness and it’s the main reason that Americans are increasingly failing in human relationships. Because they’re lazy. Peck says that this failure to recognise that love is an art requiring discipline and hard work, is largely responsible for the absence of love in so many of our personal relationships. According to Peck people are saying that it is too hard to love others. Too hard to love others! When a Church says it is too hard to love others, that church has already gone out of business. A new commandment I give unto you, that you love one another. Now quite frankly that’s not just a Sunday morning option for Christians. It is a commandment. When a church fails to discipline itself to doing the hard work of loving others it has failed to follow that commandment, it has become disobedient to the command of Christ himself. In other words that church, that person has become a disobedient servant of God. One only has to contemplate what laziness can do to the personal life of an individual Christian or to the worship life or the outreach life of a congregation to work that out.

We must remember of course that congregations and churches are not only asked to be the model of being a lifesaving station. But we are here to take on the model of being a garden where people’s growth is nurtured throughout their whole life’s journey, to be a model of a training centre where we are equipped and empowered to be the agents of wholeness in the lives of other people in society.

The second thing that I would like to say is that God holds every single Christian responsible in three areas that are all equally important. No area is more important than the other. And these three areas that God holds us responsible in are in ministry and mission and in maturity. Briefly put, Mission, it means that every Christian is a minister in the church, chosen and baptised like the children this morning in to taking responsibility for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. Now if we don’t believe that we are responsible for the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, then we should forget praying, "Thy Kingdom Come". Every member of a congregation needs to be the supporter of the other Christians in the congregation so that the whole church may be trained and equipped and strengthened to fulfil its mission.

Jackie Robinson was a black American baseball player. Indeed he was the very first black American baseball player to play in the major leagues. While breaking baseball's colour barriers, he faced jeering crowds in every stadium week after week every time he played. One day in his own home stadium at Brooklyn he committed an error, he misfielded and his own home crowd booed him and they began to ridicule him. He stood on the second base humiliated while the thousands of fans jeered. His teammate, the Brooklyn Dodger whose name was Peewee Reece, he walked over and stood next to Robinson, he put his arm around Robinson and he faced the crowd. The fans grew quiet. Robinson later said that it was that arm around his shoulder which saved his career. When Peewee Reece put his arm around Robinson he gave a clear and a strong message. If you love me then you have to love him too, because he is me and we need this kind of living commitment in our church today, to demonstrate the clear message that people are accepted and loved and cherished, not just our friends, but folk who are different and folk we don’t always agree with, even the strangers in our community. The fact that so few children in many families in churches today find relationship in the church, the fact that so many people leave the church having been made unwelcome and ignored, the fact that so many people abandon congregations with painful memories and bitter experiences are indications that warm loving supportive behaviour is just not happening in church today.

Joy Davidman, the wife of C.S. Lewis wrote a book on the Ten Commandments. The book is called, "Smoke on the Mountain". She writes about the way we model or fail to model brotherly or sisterly affection that surely God desires. She writes many of the ordinary folk who lose their faith are not overthrown by philosophical argument, they lose faith because they are disillusioned by the church people they meet. We must show the rest of the world, she continued, that a Christian gets something worthwhile out of his or her worship. It’s not much use asking others to turn to God unless we set up an example.

Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote,

"Many people in society are looking for a ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because Christians are talking when they should be listening. And the person who no longer listens to his brother or sister will soon no longer be listening to God either."
That's powerful stuff.

Second, Mission. Everybody needs to be a missionary. That simply means that we are called to be Exhibit A of what it means to have God in one's life. We do this by telling other people about our experience of God in Christ and validating it with his love for us. If you were arrested on suspicion of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you! I certainly hope so.

Thirdly, Maturity. Everyone is to grow up into Christian maturity, the process of becoming the children of God, and the true sign of Christian maturity is not that we demonstrate certain gifts of the spirit anymore than you can stand up and proudly announce that you keep at least two of the Ten Commandments but that you demonstrate the fruit of the spirit of God that Paul lists in Galatians, that you demonstrate joy and love and peace and patience and gentleness and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and self control. Not a couple, the lot. These are the things that show that we are walking close to Jesus. If there is no evidence to convict us of being close of Jesus, then people will never confuse us with being a Christian. And they'll certainly never ask us what Christianity is all about. Even if our Churches are full of people but bereft of any contaminating evidence of being a Christian, then why would anyone ever come into that church to find an abundant Christian life.

A Minister was having a cup of coffee in a little cafe across the road from his church when another man came in also for a cup of coffee and fell into conversation with the Minister.

"See that Church across the road," the man said, pointing to the church, "that’s the church I go to." "Oh," said the Minister, a bit surprised, "That’s strange. I’ve been preaching there for ten years. I’ve never ever seen you there." The man said, "Come off it, Minister, I never said I was a fanatic." You might not be a fanatic about church but surely it is necessary to be far more decisive about one's faith, to have some commitment to the things that we profess to be committed to. Churches must be places where we can find community and healing and love. They must be places of powerful faith community who demonstrate not talk about but who demonstrate the trust and belief that they profess to believe in.

We make many choices in our life, which clubs we’re going to look at and which clubs we’re going to belong to, but a church must be an extended family of Christ related and committed to each other through a new life given to us in Christ.

Have you ever heard of Rositha? Her mother’s name was Sophia Pedro. Rositha was born in a tree, born in a tree in Mozambique while all around her and her mother the flood waters swirled around. We've forgotten the floods of Mozambique, pushed the birth of little Rositha from our minds, as well as the courage of her mother. Two thousand years ago a new life was given, born in a tree. His name was Jesus. He died on that tree. He was from Nazareth, but it is that tree and that man who gave us all the capacity to become Christians. New birth from a tree, new life which gives us hope. Because of that tree we have an altered past and a changed future.

A man named Dan Richardson expressed this hope in ... form. When Richardson an enthusiastic believer in Jesus lost his battle with cancer, this little piece was distributed at his memorial service. As one myself who once had cancer, I feel it is a wonderful statement of a vital Christian faith. He wrote,

Cancer is limited, Cancer cannot cripple love, it cannot corrode faith, it cannot eat away peace, Cancer cannot destroy confidence, it cannot kill a friendship, it cannot shut out memories, it cannot silence courage, it cannot invade the soul, it cannot reduce eternal life, it cannot quench the spirit, it cannot lessen the power of the resurrection.
That's dynamic faith. Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Richardson knew that, because Richardson knew Jesus. Richardson knew that Jesus was totally committed to him, knew that he was accepted and knowing that gave him a sense of the possible even as he died. Now don't you that that's the kind of vital faith and gives others hope and gives them encouragement. Is not that the kind of vital trust in God that you would like to have in the storms of life, the kind of vital faith that Jesus spoke of when Roy read the Gospel Reading to us this morning. With that security in Christ you don’t have to look back over your shoulder and hope that you're going to be okay in the middle of life’s tragedies.

I don’t have to tell you, any of you, that there are many events in life which qualify as genuine grief producing heartbreakers. A loved one dies, it doesn’t matter if the death was unexpected or not. Our hearts are broken. A marriage falls apart. It doesn’t matter whose fault it was. It hurts, our heart aches. A job is terminated. It doesn’t matter how it happened. Our heart is troubled We cannot pay the bills. Anxiety keeps us up half the night. We fail to make the team or we miss out on promotion, or somebody else is noticed. Our hopes are shattered. We're told that we've got a terminal disease and our impending death crowds out every moment of our mind. I tell you, when your oncologist tells you that you've got a tumour, you find it very hard to concentrate on the way home from the clinic. When your eldest child leaves home to go to college or overseas the loneliness is there. You keep looking into the room to see if your child has returned. Yes. As Christians we grieve over so many things in life and rightly so, but because of God's great love we grieve with hope, we grieve with courage, we grieve with help from our friends. And as a result of this we heal with hope, we heal with courage and we heal with help from our friends. A Christian faith is of no heavenly use if it's not a godly faith. And a Christian faith is of no earthly use if it's not going to help us in times of grief or sorrow. That is why we need a faith that is vital and alive, full of God's spirit pulsating within us full of divine power, full of God's presence, a faith that can travel, a faith that can face the troubles and the storms of every day. That’s the kind of faith I want. God knows it’s the kind of faith I need. As James Moffatt translated Isaiah, he said, "Blessed is the person who trusts in the Lord, for they shall never be rattled." I think that's fantastic.

Are you a Christian? By all means ask that question of yourself. It’s not a bad question for any Christian to ask occasionally. Am I a Christian? It’s not a bad question for people celebrating 125 years of witness in the one place. Are we still Christian here at Toorak Uniting? And when we are sure, be sure of this truth too, that nothing in heaven or in earth will ever separate you from the love of Christ. In this changing world this is the time to know, to trust and to follow the one who said that, and to mean it. I am the way and the truth and the life. Whoever believes in me though they die, will live and whosoever believeth in me will have eternal life. If we don’t believe that we should rip the page out of the book and screw it in a ball and toss it away.

Let me finish by saying this. It seems to me that the least thing we can do in life is to work out where our hope in life lies. And the most any of us as human beings can do is to walk in that hope, not so much as to assent to it as a theory but to live totally within its shadow and under its reality and within its orbit. Christians sing, "All my hope on God is founded". Is that your hope? If it is, then the most we can do in life is to live in that hope. That is the commitment that will make people sit up and take notice, if this church or any other church espouses values about God. If we talk about the values of life and of individuals, and ethics and behaviour and relationships, eventually we will all have to stand up and back them up. Stand up and be counted. Otherwise the church has no credibility, no capacity to be taken seriously, seen as a decayed sepulchre to a decayed ??? faith in the sense of losing that inner vitality but to stay relevant in the new millennium, the church in any model you accept, whether it be a life saving station, a garden, whether it be a training centre, whatever model you chose, you will have to be open to God, and his presence and his guidance, open to each other and especially to those around us in the troubles of their living. The life of any church must be guided by an evolving vision, the cutting edge of ministry will change as it has to as the future unfolds. Can I remind you that a successful church is not necessarily a large church, but a faithful one, a believing one and an obedient one. I hope somebody stands in this pulpit in the next 125 years time. saying, "Thank God for the Toorak Uniting Church, thank God for those who have witnessed and who have worshipped in this place, thank God for the vitality of faith that has been like a lighthouse on a wonderful shoreline."

© Rev. Dr James Donaldson. 2000

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