Toorak Uniting Church

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The next generation

Hebrews 11: 29 – 12: 2     Isaiah 5: 1 – 7
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
19 August 2007

Not long ago on SBS there was a documentary about Easter Island and the mysterious statues that adorn its shores. Very little is known about the culture that put them there and in the program an attempt was made to reconstruct the rise and fall of a culture that could put up such magnificent statues, but had also completely deforested the island and had disappeared without a trace into the mists of time after that.
The conclusion of the program (if I remember right) was that somehow they had become undone by their passion for big statues. That they’d used up all their resources erecting them and ended up starving to death because of it. I am sure there are more and probably better theories around about what happened to the Easter Islanders, but this particular one caught my imagination and came back to mind when I read the passage from Hebrews that is on the lectionary for today.

It offers a line up of all the heroes of faith, one after another, not unlike the statues on the shores of Easter Island. In just over 10 verses some of the most magnificent stories of biblical story telling pass by calling to mind all the greatness and heroism of past generations. Wow!

Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, and still not receiving what was promised. Or, in other words, according to the writer of Hebrews, none of that very long line of witnesses quite got there. They missed out on Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of faith indicating that he believes that in Jesus God took a radical step forward, taking the relationship with humanity to an altogether different level, providing something better than there had been before, enabling us to run the race of faith in an even better way than they did. Which has, since then, resulted in a new line of giants of faith who have run the race and shown what the love of God can inspire in human history. Making for a new line up of statues along the shore of the Judeo Christian tradition to be revered, imitated and reflected upon.

Were the Easter Island statues erected to honour such heroes of their faith? Were they statues of gods? Were they there as part of an ancestor cult? Images of the dead?

We don’t know.

And why don’t we know? Because there is nobody left to tell the story!

In this congregation we have arrived at a cross roads. Over the last 20 years we have seen a steady decline in numbers, we have seen less commitment, less passion, less involvement and dedication and it has become alarmingly clear that if we keep going the way we have been it is very likely that in another 20 years there will be no next generation and most probably no Toorak Uniting Church. At least not the active, creative, lively and inspiring hub as we know it.
We are at a cross roads. And today, by starting the process of looking for a new second minister and making choices that will further determine the future of this congregation, some may feel daunted and intimidated that what happens next may be crucial for the future of this congregation. I do, at times, anyway. We have to get it right! Or there is a real chance there won’t be anybody to tell our story in 20 years time!

That’s when we look at it from a human, limited perspective. That’s what the Easter Islanders did when they threw all their resources to the continuation of their culture as it was, no matter if keeping erecting the giant statues meant their demise in the end.

I wonder what lesson is in that for us. I know I find it difficult to let go of tradition and the Church culture I have grown up in. To let go of the image of what Church should be and open myself up to something completely different. Even where I have moved Churches and cultures often enough to know that most of what we hold sacred is relative and may be valued and done completely different in other places. And with success.
I am convinced that the future of the Church does not lie in keeping the traditions and cultures alive and as they are, but that we need to go outside the square and come up with new and different ideas that build on the past, and honour it, but take it to a completely new level. I am convinced that God’s creativity and renewal has not stopped with Jesus, but is still taking us to new levels of giving shape to faith and that he invites us to be part of that forward movement rather than to stay where we are and treasure what has been.
But I am not sure where that call is taking us right now, nor can I see what the future holds in store. A multi ethnic, multi denominational Church? A Church with a different organisational structure? But how? The multi faith dialogue taken to new levels of cooperation and integration? Mega Churches? House groups?
How are we going to tell the story of our faith in the next generation? I don’t know.

But I want to try. Because I don’t want us, I don’t want the faith that is sacred and all important to me and this Church which I have come to love deeply to end up the equivalent of an Easter Island statue in 20 years time, with nobody to tell the story. But more importantly because I believe that the story we have to tell is worth telling and has the potential to change the world into a better place and us into better people if we let it.


My beloved planted a vineyard……

Where is God in all this? Isn’t that one of the things that gets forgotten while we are busy saving the Church and worrying about the future? That God is there looking after the vineyard he has planted, expecting a plentiful harvest not of statues and age old well kept traditions, but of justice and peace?

Perhaps it is time to let God look after the Church, let him worry about the future, and trust that if we run the race of faith to the best of our abilities, committing ourselves to bearing good fruit and yielding a plentiful harvest of what constitutes justice, wholeness and peace in this world, God will look after the rest for us.

All these giants of faith, says Hebrews, they did a great job, but they never really got there. It was Jesus Christ who did, who lost everything, even his life, to find the grace and power of new life in God.

It is possible we need to lose everything in his footsteps to gain the freedom to live life as God would want us. Not encumbered by what is past, by our fears and anxieties about the future, by our limited abilities to do what is right, by our weaknesses and our sins, but inspired and set free by the Spirit, called to a future we can’t yet imagine where the old has died to be replaced with something better and greater again, like in the days of Christ when death was conquered by life and what no eye had seen and no ear had heard became living reality in the lives of many.

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2007

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