CHURCH

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Epiphany 5A, 2017 Matthew 5: 13-20

CHURCH

If there’s one subject that comes up often it has to be the role of the Church. And the word ‘Church’ contains or embodies a wide range of meanings. There is the ‘church’ in a universal sense, the ‘church’ in the local expression called a congregation, the church as in a building, and then there is ‘The Church’ as in the global expression of Jesus followers, and then there is the invisible church, that which is akin to the Spirit of God at work behind the scenes so to speak.

The other thing to note is that perhaps because of this wide and uncontainable thing we call church we push the philosophical or the spiritual aspects away and concentrate on restructuring out of some hidden drive to keep up with change. And the unspoken reasoning appears to be that the institution is crumbling because we haven’t kept up with the physical, embodied realities. Currently our Presbytery is attempting to restructure in the hope that the perils of centralization of control and decision making are minimized, that work loads of particular individuals and groups are minimized and that the sense of disconnect between those in church leadership roles and the people in the pews is somehow restored. Of course this is fraught with a perception that the past was better and we need to return to it. And then the old bogey; how does presbytery fulfil it’s key role of “facilitating and resourcing the life, worship and spiritual nurture and mission of the congregations for which it has responsibility”. And then it lumps all this into the idea that the mission and ministry support is directly within smaller manageable Mission Regions of ministers and elders. Make the admin responsible for a wider region but hobble it by ensuring the real power lies within each isolated congregation.

Now just in case you think I am overdoing the negatives, it is said that I along with many on the Council of Presbytery are old school and set on maintaining the old ways at all costs and that is probably valid criticism. I am old, I have been around a long time and I know the way the structures work. The challenge for me then is that form follows function, that structures serve mission. That the church is bigger than all we might want it to be

So while I think that restructuring is inevitable and necessary I think its goal should always be to enable the Church to more resemble the kingdom/realm of which Jesus spoke. And I want to suggest that we need to stop playing games with the words like church and mission and be honest about what we are trying to do and that is adjust our human organizational model to suit current circumstances and governance requirements. It is very likely that the causes of our dilemma have more to do with dwindling resources, both in volunteers, and in finances, an outdated theology, that no longer holds anyone’s interest outside the church and the rate of change in the world. Even the world is struggling to keep up with the exponential nature of change.

For instance, each generation finds itself further removed from its predecessor. The gap between children and their parents is always a little wider than it had been for parents and their parents (Friedman 2009:10). The same can be said for ‘church’. During this time of continuing change, what will guide us in our understanding of ‘church’? And our theology? We can do all the restructuring we like but if the thing we think we belong to doesn’t exist or the story we tell that shapes our place to stand in this exponential environment doesn’t make sense intellectually then its all a waste of time and energy and it will have very little effect other than to destroy what we already have.

Lets be sure that it is good to look back but only so that we do not repeat all the mistakes we made but some will be about timing and what may not have worked in the past will now. It is always tempting to look back.  Many do, to the so-called ‘good old days’! But as historical beings we are not just nourished by our past. We actually live in the present, a new present, “qualitatively different from any of our human pasts” (Kaufman 2006:106).

It is also tempting to do nothing, lest we upset someone or their pet likes or dislikes, or power structures. Most of you know me and while I am an older person at risk of doing it the way it has always been done I think that the new, different and alternative is more important. The point here I think is that both of these modes or approaches are inappropriate, when not critiqued properly. The questions we must ask ourselves in the current restructuring are; where are our guides amid these calls for change or redefinition? What will shape our new present which is qualitatively different from our past?

 

Here we also have a scenario we face with building a school or what we do with the old brick building that needs millions spent on it. Do we spend the millions on a building that no longer serves our needs or do we spend it to save an old building we like. The questions here are not about the value of the old building but rather about what questions do we need to ask ourselves that will enable us to be ready for the new world that is already upon us and will be different tomorrow?

Matthew in today’s stories, seems to hint at common everyday life in first century Palestine, and maybe the stories can be a guide, or at least offer a couple of suggestions or signposts for us. The images of the ‘church’ as light or salt, as eagerly grabbed hold of by many church leaders, seem to be in sharp contrast to much of our modern mega-church or mission thinking. They appear to uncover something of the indirect and hidden nature of the church. That is, they reveal a way in which the life of a faith community should seek to express itself.  Rather than calling attention to itself, a church or congregation or a ‘follower of Jesus’, is most effective when it/they are not noticed (Reid 2001:61). Maybe mission is more about the universal invisible church? Likewise, they also make it clear ‘church’ cannot exist alongside of, or in separation from, the community that surrounds and feeds us as human beings. Overdoing either is not about being ‘church’ it seems.

Some years ago, retired Melbourne theologian and educationalist, Denham Grierson, published his book called, A People on The Way. It was a study of ‘congregation, mission and Australian culture’ and in it he picked up the three biblical images of light, salt and yeast and said they provide “a theological foundation for a local congregation as it seeks to define its mission”. He then said that : “That mission is best understood as a continuing persisting presence…  Much of the witness of the local congregation (will be) of the kind that is hidden within the fabric of community”. A continuing persisting presence…  Hidden, you might say, like salt? Just enough salt and we say ‘this steak is juicy and tender’. Too much salt and we spit it out and complain. The salt is not detectable if it is doing its job. Its effects are.

Grierson, also being a storyteller, dugs into his local history and told a ‘salt’ story…  During the post war years in the 1940s in Australia a small but determined Catholic woman heard of the sickness of aged neighbours in small houses in her street. South Melbourne, the suburb where she lived, was hard hit by strikes and unemployment. Many people were sick because of poor nutrition, and unable to act because of advanced age. So Mary Kehoe mobilized some of her friends and they cooked meals for those who were ill.

The problem arose as to how to carry the meals to those in need? A solution was found in the use of an old pram. The meals were loaded into the pram, and pushed up the street to the houses of the unwell and needy, and to a canteen two houses from Mary Kehoe’s place. Her efforts to involve the local council had resulted in the provision of two huts to act as a relief centre. Meals cooked at her house were wheeled to the canteen where many gathered for emergency help.

Thus began ‘Meals on Wheels’, in Australia which today it is so much a part of their social service environment that its beginnings are lost and forgotten. It gives hope and support to hundreds of people, who without it, would not survive. A continuing persisting presence, do you think? Hidden, like salt.

Biblical scholar Barbara Reid puts Matthew’s ‘salt’ story in some sort of context: when she says “…the uses of salt in the ancient world included: seasoning, preservation, purification, and judgment…” She goes on: “In saying to his disciples, ‘You are the salt of the earth’ Jesus could have meant that they perform any and all of these functions: that they draw out the liveliness and savour of God’s love in the world; they are a sign of God’s eternal fidelity; they bring to judgment all that is opposed to God’s basiliea(Reid 2001:48).

Then she makes the comment: “The task of Christians in every age is to discern what it means in a new context to be faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus.  Just as Christians of the last century determined that abolition of slavery was being most faithful to the gospel, even though Jesus’ teachings presumed the institution of slavery, so today we face the challenge of eliminating sexism and systems of domination, though these are woven into the fabric of the Gospels” (Reid 2001:59). This change idea has more to it than we think! It seems that sometimes even if the old way worked there is need for something new.

A Vision Statement and a Mission Statement in today’s world might be to listen to the community first rather than thinking it needs us and talking to it about what we think it needs. It might be letting what we hear and feel and sense genuinely shape our gospel response;, and it might be about letting our response be original and creative. A model of evangelism might be to be a continuing persisting presence, hidden if you like, like salt. And an unswerving acknowledgment that change is happening faster than we can keep up and that means we need to be even more reliant on our imagination and take greater leaps of faith.

If we are to face a ‘church’ which is discussing change and restructuring… And if we are to face this changing situation with integrity and purpose, then how we become ‘church’ in the community, will be more important than how we are structured within a set of Regulations or a Constitution. Form should follow function in other words, because the form will never keep up with a continuing persisting presence… Amen.

Notes: Friedman, E. H. What are you Going to Do with your Life? Unpublished Writing and Diaries. New York. Seabury Books, 2009. Grierson, D. A People on The Way. Congregation, Mission and Australian Culture. Melbourne. JBCE, 1991. Kaufman, G. D. Jesus and Creativity. Minniapolis. Fortress Press, 2006. Reid, B. E. Parables for Preachers. Year A. Collegeville. The Liturgical Press, 2001.

 

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