Toorak Uniting Church

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The pilgrimage is an enactment of trust

Psalm 125: 1 – 2
Rev. Dr Duncan Watson
10 September 2000

"Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds his people, from this time on and for evermore."
         (NRSV)

What do you say when you have been invited to preach in this 125th Anniversary year of the Toorak Church, a church in whose manse you grew up and in which you spent your formative years as a Christian? As an answer I shall try in part to wed my story as a son of this manse and a former member of this congregation to the text. The psalm is called a psalm of ascent used by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem; as a commentator remarks, "The pilgrimage is an enactment of trust."

After the call of my father Alan Watson to Toorak our family arrived in March 1942 from New Zealand, not long after the outbreak of the Pacific War. I suppose my pilgrimage in a real sense began with that move. It was quite a step for my parents if not so consciously for me. About all I remember thinking about Australia as a little New Zealander are three things: Australia was a land of bush fires, snakes and also of Don Bradman. I have always wondered how a small boy became a cricket fanatic in rugby mad New Zealand.

I don’t recall any problems about settling in both at school and the church. Soon I belonged. I know it is invidious to mention names but there was one church family which became very important in our lives and that was the family of Harry and Kathleen Melville and their children. They were pillars of the church and the kindest of people. Very early in 1942 at least one or two of the children were told by their mother to go and play with the Watson children and amidst groans they came. Ever since the youngest Colin has been the best of friends to me and the only daughter Nancy a friend of the family and particularly of my sister Margaret. The Boxing Day test wouldn't be the same without them. They were part of that church which surrounded us as the Lord surrounds his people.

This church has shaped my life. There was the Sunday School, the PFA for the youth - how important that has been in so many lives ~ and my father’s minister class in which I learnt basic doctrine, and about the worship and life of the church. With all this there was the worship of the church, at 11am or 7pm. Through the readings, preaching, prayers, and not least the music and hymns I learnt what it means to be a pilgrim, to go with God through the world. The hymns, the metrical psalms and their music I mention particularly because they have become part of my life and have been significant at various stages. A final thing I wish to mention came through my father’s ecumenical contacts which were supported by this congregation when, as it seems to me now, a stream of people from overseas visited this church and the manse, and through them and my father’s concerns I was made very much aware of the world wide church. There began my realisation that the world church is a very important element in reminding us of the Lord who surrounds his people, like a mountain. As we bemoan our condition in Australian churches I want to say, "lift up your eyes"; we are not alone, there is a world church and its Lord out there.

I had a privileged, rather dull upbringing some may say; solid at best they might allow. But how grateful I am that I was given a solid foundation. In this place I began to learn that those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved. Here I began to learn that however I or the church may feel or whatever our situation God is there like an immovable mountain. Our strength is not in ourselves, not in the church as such, but in the Creator of heaven and earth who in Word and Sacrament comes so close in Jesus Christ, the only head of the church.

From that base I went to study overseas, to Princeton Seminary for my ministerial training and on to Edinburgh University for further study. What a culture shock it was for me to disembark in San Francisco on my lonesome and to see in huge glaring neon lights over the sidewalk "Shock, Horror Movie Show". It wasn’t like home. It wasn’t Australian, not even British, and French wasn’t the second language but Spanish. And it was not yet the 1960s. It was exhilarating and daunting at the same time and I must admit I was feeling a mite lost. But on the Sunday evening of that first weekend I went to a Presbyterian Church and not far into the service they sang a well-known metrical psalm ~ and I was home: with God’s people worshipping God. How important good well known hymns and psalms are for the pilgrim. Surely, even with their dry theology, my eighteenth century Scottish forebears who sang the psalms with such lovely melodies could not have been altogether devoid of hearts and souls.

After my time in America I married Tertia, an Afrikaans speaking South African, and was inevitably drawn into an ongoing encounter with the apartheid system of the beloved country and beautiful land to steal words from titles of two of Alan Paton’s novels. Over the years we have lived in Scotland, here in Parkville, in Perth, and then for twelve years we lived in South Africa, the most challenging, at times frustrating, but also the most exciting time of my life, and back here to Brighton Beach and Geelong City. Mostly I lived in a world of privilege and I certainly did in South Africa. Yet those years were not without considerable hard times for our family. However, South Africa provided a time of learning which took me well beyond myself.

Although I taught in a university, I had the privilege of being moderator of the Durban Presbytery for two two year terms, and represented the Presbytery both on the local Council of Churches, and on a justice and reconciliation organisation called Diakonia. These positions particularly gave me some entry into the thoughts and lives of black Christians and of blacks in general, although, if you wanted to know something, all you needed to do was look around you, read and listen.

One thing I learnt was how true are the words of James we read this morning: "Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith." The faith of black Christians and the cheeriness that often went with it, staggered me. For instance, I always thought that Archbishop Tutu was a bit off his rocker when he kept saying that God would not allow the apartheid system and government to last for ever. But he was right. When we were in South Africa again in 1994, just after the election of Nelson Mandela as president, people used the word miracle in a religious sense to describe what had happened. It may need, as a woman said to us at the time, a miracle to sustain the miracle, but a miracle it was.

Now, during our time in South Africa we had a year’s study leave back in Princeton and I took the opportunity to hear every lecturer and speaker I could, notable people from across America in the rnain. I could not but remark that, both in these lectures and in conversations, there seemed to be a very widespread pessimism, this in the richest nation on earth from the lips of privileged people. To be sure it was a time of deep recession and President Reagan was upping the ante with his talk of The Evil Empire. Yet I still could not but contrast this mood with that of many black Christians in South Africa who were so unrealistically hopeful, at a time when things were very grim in that country. I also remember, just before we left South Africa during very tense times in Durban in late 1985, walking near the Catholic Cathedral where we were the only white people amongst Indians and blacks. I heard a voice "Duncan" coming from a large group of black people. I looked up and saw the Rev B K Dludla, the chairman of the Council of Churches, detaching himself from the group and coming over to us to wish us well as we left. You learn again that God is God and cannot be moved; his support and love overcome all the divisions we make.

Of course God’s support and guidance are not restricted to blacks or to the poor - for instance I immediately think of South African people like Beyers Naude, the prominent Dutch Reformed minister turned opponent of apartheid; Denis Hurley, Catholic archbishop of Durban; Paddy Kearney and Sue Brittion of Diakonia; provincial council politician, Molly Blackburn; and state employed medical doctor Wendy Orr, who all made their witness in those days - and you could name people you know as I could, not least from this congregation in the past. Their witness and their faith likewise remind you of God who surrounds you like a mountain which cannot be moved.

Over the years there have also been Christian teachers who guided me, but let me, in concluding, mention two I have never met but who have influenced me profoundly on the pilgrimage of trust. Both have been giants in their time. The first is the greatest theologian of the last century, Karl Barth, one of the leaders in Germany in the church struggle against Nazism. Barth has his whimsical side not least when he is speaking of his favourite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in whose music he heard parables of the Kingdom of God. One statement of Barth reminded me of our text for today. It comes from a letter he wrote to the long dead Mozart on the two hundredth anniversary of the composer’s birth. Barth wrote: "What I thank you for is simply this: Whenever I listen to you, I am transported to the threshold of a world which in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world. Then as a human being of the twentieth century, I always find myself blessed with courage (not arrogance) . . . with peace (not a slothful peace)." What Barth is reminded of is the God of the psalm, the God who upholds his good and ordered world, who grants us peace. Trusting that God provides assurance and freedom for the pilgrim. In that freedom you don’t need to be either arrogantly assertive to know where your dignity lies or a doormat trying to retain your own little space.

The other great teacher lived four hundred before Barth. He was the first reformer of the Reformation, Martin Luther. Near the beginning of his short work on ethics significantly entitled "The Freedom of the Christian" he writes two paradoxical but true sentences. The first sentence is: "A Christian is a perfectly free Lord, subject to none." The second is: "A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."

The first sentence speaks of what has been the main burden of my sermon, the assurance and freedom which comes to you from the God who stands like a mountain. The second sentence, which reminds us of our service of and subjection to others, takes up the emphasis found in the latter part of the psalm, of the expectation that we walk in the ways of God. More particularly it reminds us of what the letter of James this morning does so forcefully, of your calling as free Christian people to care for those in more need than you. In short, love your God, and love your neighbour.

© Rev. Dr Duncan Watson, 2000


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