‘Unexplored Tomorrows’

Posted: May 11, 2022 in Uncategorized

‘Unexplored Tomorrows’

When the progressive Christian movement began to pick up a following there was an attempt to define its goals. To their credit they did come up with 8 points of identification that a global organization of Progressives might claim.

I guess by now you will also have gleaned that I have spent some time in my last parish ministry searching for something a progressive congregation might say about itself today. I hope that you have been able to recognise this struggle in the services I take. I am not claiming anything like perfection but I do try to be consistent theologically and to apply the thinking to the fact that while words are transitional in nature the conceptual change and challenge is there.

Despite a loathing for labels, I have said that what makes a Progressive Christian, a PC as opposed to a traditional or mainstream or liberal of conservative or any other definition is that in following Jesus a progressive Christian is able to discern one of many ways in which the sacred might be understood and he or she can see the oneness and unity of all life. A PC can see that while the bible is essential as the story of Jesus, they can draw from many other sources in their spiritual journey. They can see that all people regardless of their differences are to be included in community because they believe that actions toward others are the fullest expression of what we believe.

I wrote a poem that speaks of this that I will share it in the hope that you might feel the essence of this sense of oneness I am talking about.

The truth is that I need you as the other

I need you to ask me why I care for you this way.

I need you to wonder how I could smile every day.

The truth is that I need you as the other

The truth is that you make my life worthy

Having you around makes my day smooth and easy.

Without you it is hard for me to end a day fulfilled.

The truth is that you make my life worthy

The truth is that you give me reason to love

Without you I cannot say “I’ve loved you since the day I met you.”

I cannot stare at you from afar and know the deep feelings that rend me silent.

The truth is that you give me reason to love

The truth is that without you I cannot love

In you I see the stories of the one you meet

You share the love you have known that stops my heart from beating.

You speak of happiness with a smile that makes me weep with joy

The truth is that without you I cannot love.


The truth is that I need you as the other

I need to be able to say, “I could be the one that loves you like you love me.

There’s nothing I would do better than to be able to keep it this way,

Wishing that you would know all the secrets I’ve kept,

Especially those that have kept our friendship sure and true.

The truth is that I need you as the other.

PC people are also people who place more value in asking questions than accepting absolutes not as a denial of absolutes but rather as a recognition of their limited nature, and they are people who strive for a peace created by justice as opposed to victory. Winning and getting revenge are not part of a healthy progressive nature. PCs are a people who seek to restore the integrity of our planet and commit to a life long journey of learning, of acting compassionately and of a selfless loving. Of course these are goals or aspirations that will never be complete, or as my title suggests a people who see life as the experience of unexplored tomorrows.

To that end then, I want to talk about being a progressive, healthy congregation, and I want to do this from what I think is most likely to have come from Jesus of Nazareth.
The reading I have chosen to speak from is a saying from Thomas about ‘new wine’ and old wineskins’, that appears in every gospel – except John.  What is significant is that this is a saying and that it is found in the Gospel of Thomas, a gospel most likely to have been earlier as a selection of sayings of Jesus. Biblical scholars of the Jesus Seminar, suggest that it is probably the most authentic version of these sayings.

“Nobody drinks aged wine and immediately wants to drink young wine.  Young wine is not poured into old wineskins, or they might break, and aged wine is not poured into a new wineskin, or it might spoil…”

We could embark on a short course in winemaking or wine appreciation but as I have said I want to explore briefly, a metaphorical image about being a congregation. And, I want to claim that saying this raises a very important question: can we leave our communal religious life in old vessels, or do we can embrace new theological understandings and new church practice, as we continue to evolve as a Congregation.

I don’t know about you but I have heard stories that affirm an emerging expression of what we might call church in its first stages of development. It might even be said that it comes out of the work being done by PC people to find the earliest expression of church and begin again but it might also be a quest to find an ecclesiology and a hermeneutical framework for today. What seems to be universal is essentially people gathering to journey together in the search for an understanding of human spirituality and how that is to be expressed in real places where real people co-exist. With the ethnic, religious faith and cultural differences, the world is a place like no other has seen or been before. So much so that it seems absolutely arrogant, insensitive and downright ludicrous to assume that we know what our world needs by way of response. For the church as we know it to say that if only people would join us we could help is a benign statement at best and an alienating pompous arrogance at worst.

I poked my computer nose at the general assembly on line recently and heard a little of our church’s attempt to train leaders for this new world where all the old ideas of what Church is and how to do church are no longer considered helpful. The writing on the wall is clear. The way we do things, the way we do church is not working. The time spent and the struggle of the PCANZ to find a way forward is very sad. The decline is no longer just the result of looking at statistics it has become our way of life, so what is the point of continuing to do it the way we have always done it. The difficulties loom large here also, not least is the question; can we, who are the church make and resource the changes that are needed. Do we have too much invested in the way we are to make the changes required?  Again, in light of my title to this sermon “Unexplored tomorrows”, there are some huge challenges for us to consider.

Just some of those challenges are what do we mean by ‘membership, is the centrality of worship essential, do we need to own property? The assumption that we have a model of community that works, the assumption that the way we manage our lives is helpful but is it? And that’s just to name a few issues we need to consider. And let’s be clear it will not be easy to contribute to this new thing, this emerging church so to speak. I remembered the sermon David Clark gave at my induction to my last parish in 2001. He was eluding to this matter from an institutional aspect but what he was suggesting is unfolding further today. The church world has changed and the task to put it crudely is to change or die. The next question is of course the same as it was then. How? How do we change given that the way we engage with life, the way we value the important, isn’t the way we value our lives bound up in the fact that the way we do things now and where we do it is part of who we are.

Like many other congregations in the Church, many of us are part of a smaller congregation, membership-wise, than we were in the past. Things like ‘heritage’ and ‘nostalgia’, ‘honouring the past people, all come to the fore, but the reality remains. We are not what we were in terms of being a congregation and being involved in the community of our day. The word has changed around us. And like many other congregations we have not stood idle and given up on the future. Most of us are a future oriented people and I think courageous people who have given towards creating a better future. And I am not stroking any backs here, I genuinely believe that people are ready to give their all including their buildings, their hearts and souls into the future. And just like many others they want to do this well. I am encouraged when I hear young people talking about making the world a better place. I was a little saddened to be reminded of an attempt to plant a parish school being lamented by some. It was agreed that this was sadly a vision of the possible that the institution was unable to risk because the change would be too difficult to manage. I sensed a bit of this institutional fear on line at the General Assembly too.

I can remember from many years back meetings talking about innovative learning hubs where the future church could be explored, nurtured, tested and developed free from the rules, regulations and order that our current institution is bound to, shaped by and maintained with. This for me affirmed and encouraged my thinking. We spoke of learning centers and a school was and is seen as an expression of such. The mission statement I still adhere to today is that Mission is expressed as honouring the mind, in other words bringing neuroscience, psychology, biology and theology, together as all products of the human mind and our only way to grapple with questions of God. Living the questions, in other words accepting that life is a journey and not a destination, Eternal life is the state we live in and not something away out ahead that we need to capture for ourselves. Life is not black and white, it is not a collection of absolutes, nor is it from a faith perspective finite. Finite perhaps from a biological view but not theologically. Or finite within infinity. And the third part of the motto or mission statement , Explore the adventure of being human. This is a claim that with our minds and bodies we have a unique and valuable contribution to make to the reality as we see it. Being human is an invitation to evolve and it is an adventure like no other and it has a role to play in the picture we have of that which we name God. Our motto of Honour the Mind, Live the questions and explore the adventure of being human expresses the biblical hope of a promised land, a land shared with our God, It expresses the hope of a new world Jesus opened up with his life, and it expresses the confidence in a more complex and better future.

Progressive Christians, as a congregation has also intentionally decided to become a niche congregation, by making itself open to encouraging progressive religious thought,
and living out of its own space. And here I want to challenge some thinking also. Taking the energy sapping issues around buildings and demolitions and political machinations out of the equation, becoming a so-called progressive congregation has been and can be a successful thing to do. It is well documented in the church that building projects can cause decline, not because of the potential but because of the inevitable conflict that comes with such projects of change. When one takes that factor out of the equation it is probable that an arrest of the decline in membership might happen by attesting to an intellectual creditability and a more real engagement with community. Life is not black and white nor is all bad and in need of redemption. Yes, it is complex and yet it must be lived as it is, and yes, it is a wonderful participatory experience. I want to suggest that we might be able to arrest the decline, even though we will not recognize the outcome because it is hard to see the change and that is because we are subjectively measuring it from an older culture.

Yes, growth might seem small in terms of numbers attending but maybe our influence cannot be measured by old criteria. I can hear all the buts rising up in your minds now but I suggest we might ask those buts where they are coming from?

On the obvious matter of worship… which is a measuring criteria that we use and one that gets in the road of a new thinking we would have to say that the worship service on a Sunday morning is our celebration of Life, and traditionally is the hub of our faith community’s life. Community is when we express our togetherness and it is the place where our vital vibrant differences rub shoulders with the least friction. The essence of a faith community is that all the social, political and cultural differences take a back seat to the common inclusive faith setting. What we struggle with is that with the rise of social media, online everything, and electronic communication we have something that we like, something that makes much sense and something that is inevitable taking place that does not replace the human need for engagement with others and I suggest the all-important empathy creation that is vital for human community. The shape of the community might gather differently but it will gather. I think the quality of community depends on empathy building and this is what online or facebook and twitter type community seeks. The difficulty is an authenticity or a credibility as safe, common and resourceful. If there is one thing we do not do well yet it is the online presence and more importantly the online connections. I heard some years back already that the only growth in the business world was in many cases in the online sales. Something like 80% of sales are online in some cases.

My traditional fears were raised the other day when I heard of the world of avatars and a new economy based on NFTs (NFT is a digital asset that represents real-world objects like art, music, in-game items and videos. They are bought and sold online, frequently with cryptocurrency, and they are generally encoded with the same underlying software as many cryptos.)

I want to make the claim that we can offer people an experience that it helpful by reminding ourselves why we are here. That at the core of this gathering is a progressive, inclusive, ‘familial model of what might be termed a faith journey. The challenge for us is to explore newer ways of inviting people to share our discoveries.

What are those discoveries? They are our ‘progressive’ theological underpinnings.
that we think there is more to know and that this is not easy. It doesn’t mean we all think alike.  We have agreed that we would search the idea of progressive religious thought. That single decision has had a huge effect on how a congregation is perceived. What it does is give others ‘permission’ to follow suit. There is a growing ‘progressive’ movement in New Zealand. Not the doing of any one congregation alone, but in partnership with others. The hub of this movement is already nationwide, and like the movement nationwide the progressive theology it is theological based in biblical scholarship, honesty, and integrity. The challenge is the environment where theology is seen as the domain of the academic elite and not of the common people. This says that thinking theologically is different now than in the past and it requires us to imagine what this new understanding implies for worship, for preaching, for prayer. And while not obvious many of us have personally become committed to that future.

The challenge is that like Christianity’s earliest theologian, Paul, we are standing at the intersection of two eras. We are aware of the difference between old and new wineskins, we recognize that we are old wine and that we would break the new skins if we try to put conditions on the new wine yet we know there is a need for new wine and new skins. This is what Progressive theology means. It means an appreciation that we are products of a past that we have to let go of the present if we hope to have a future of ‘unexplored tomorrows’. In this context congregations of faith are crucial for the future, if they do not exist, it will be necessary to invent them like NFTs because a congregations roll role today is not to teach or critique are to lead the way. It is to fill the imaginary hole between the old and the new, perhaps to hold the old wine in the old skins so that the new wine will be free to mature and the new skins to age. The idea of ‘Unexplored tomorrows’ invites us to approach change with confidence, courage and creativity as a congregation on the move.

As a community of people seeking to be inclusive by searching to discern together the transforming presence of God in the world and in our own lives, we Honour the mind, live the questions and explore the adventure of humanity and we discover what this journey is like through reforming and reformed worship, radical hospitality, and open and vulnerable conversation with care” PCs are a community of people open to unexplored possibilities! We have been focusing our resources both human and financial on the future and while we have a diminishing resource the most important is the investment of personal spirit.

If I was to give you a plea today it would be to ask you to realize your, and your gatherings full potential as an agent of change. We are talking the walk and we need to remember to walk the talk!

Everbody’s future is before them and it is filled with both challenge and possibilities.
Our need is to build upon the strengths of our long history, valuing “the richness of that mature wine.  But we must create new wineskins to hold the new wine” (Stinson 2007, FCC, Long Beach web site).

And let’s be clear about our motivation. “We move into that daunting but exhilarating challenge not because it is the expedient thing to do, but in response to a desire to follow the historical Jesus into [all] arenas of human need…” (Stinson 2007, FCC, Long Beach web site).

And at risk of going on too long I offer another you a poem about an ‘Almost God; that does not exist but rather insists.

Almost is about something that is not yet

It is about to be but not yet

Its promise is in it’s all but

And its approximately

Almost is around and as good as

It is bordering on and close to

Always close upon and essentially about

for all practical purposes it is

and for the greatest part too.

Almost is in effect

And in the neighbourhood of

Assured to be in the vicinity of

Yet also just about and mostly

It is much to consider as

near to, nigh and not far from

Almost is not quite yet

on the brink of and at the edge of

It teeters on the point of

on the verge of practically and pretty near

relatively speaking it roughly describes

It substantially and virtually reveals

The well-nigh and within sight of

Amen.

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