Stewardship Sunday – 20 September 2009

Michael Willis

Executive Director – Presbyterian and Methodist Schools Association

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee, but he did not wish anyone to know about it.  He was teaching his disciples and telling them, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”  But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  But they remained silent.  They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

It is said that lightning doesn’t strike twice. Well, this is the second time in my life that I’ve been in this spot.

The last time was about 30 years ago, at an annual ecumenical service for the churches of this area. I was then a young student at the Catholic Seminary at Banyo, undertaking a placement in the local Catholic Church in Hamilton, St Cecilia’s. I had to read a lesson for the service.

You made quite an impression on me! Because I didn’t go on to become a Catholic priest. In fact I left the seminary and became an Anglican, got married in the Anglican Church at Toowong, where Marion and I served together on the council. And I have since spent a fair bit of my life working with the Anglican Church – at Anfin, and with Anglicare, and now, I work for the Presbyterian & Methodist Schools Association.

I tell that story to illustrate that things are changing in the way Australians relate to churches. The old order is well and truly gone. Once, religion was in your genes, it was handed down and kept within the family.  Now it is very different – it is very much a matter of personal choice, and (to use the quaint phrases of the computer geeks) is no longer the “default option” for most Australians.

You may have heard of the British journal called The Economist.  Two editors of this financial journal published a new book last week – on religion! One of these two, John Micklethwait, is the journal’s religion editor – a Catholic – and the other, Adrian Wooldridge, is an atheist.

Their book is titled “God is Back: how the global revival of faith is changing the world

Their thesis is that in recent years, religion has undergone a remarkable global revival.

The conventional secularist view (as propounded by Richard Dawkins and others) is that religion is dying. That it faces too many social advances… scientific discoveries in physics, biology and archaeology;  the growing material wealth that we’ve enjoyed in the last 60 years;  the political, sexual and social freedoms we’ve enjoyed in that time; the technologies that have changed the way we relate to people; the multi-cultural milieu of our society; and a post-modernist understanding of our world.  In the face of all these waves, church membership and religious belief are being eroded; and that the ageing and decline of our churches confirms this.

The authors of this book agree that in the old world – particularly in Europe – this argument holds true, because religion is so bound up with traditional authorities. As examples, they offer:

  • In Germany and Sweden, churches are still funded through compulsory taxes;
  • In Ireland and Italy, the churches’ moral teachings determine many laws;
  • Even in Britain, the Prime Minister still has some influence over who heads the Church of England.

In this old world, people are voting with their feet and leaving the churches. The authors argue that this is a rebellion against religious authoritarianism – that state authority is no different to the old village and parental determinism. People are rejecting religious conscription!

But, they claim, there is life in the new world (ie: the USA). Their argument is that religion actually flourishes in freedom, and prospers most when it has to adapt to modern life, to freedom and to pluralism.

Why? Well, this is where the economists in them come to the fore – they explain that pluralism means choice. And the result is that faith, religious belief, is increasingly being chosen, not inherited.

Where churches have responded to the needs of their communities, rather than controlling their communities, religion has flourished.

(They use the example of immigration – that migrants generally become more religious when they move to a new place, to help them retain their identity. Correspondingly, the host communities also become more religious, as they reassess and claim their own values and identity. If we bear in mind that one in every four Australian was not born here, there is quite an opportunity and a challenge for our churches in that tale.)

So what can this book tell us about what St Augustine’s Church might be in the future?

What it tells us is that

  1. Our churches cannot assume a generational hand-me-down. Nobody comes here anymore because they feel obliged to, or because mum and dad did!  It is not the “default option”.
    Our pews are now almost totally filled by people who attend church by conscious choice.
  2. And most importantly, our Churches have to engage with our community, to give them a reason to WANT to come here.

I believe our Anglican Church is capable of doing this well – and of doing it a lot better than we do it at the moment.

To me, Anglicanism appeals as a very practical sort of faith. It didn’t waste time on the un-necessary stuff, it doesn’t create false illusions.  It deals with practical Christianity for real people.

We don’t, for example, go in for excessive commitment to any form of authority or fundamentalism – whether it is some centralist authority, or a literalist view of our sacred texts, or for any emotional excesses in our religious practices. We hold the three pillars of faith – scriptures, tradition and reason in a creative and realistic tension.

Our tradition might seem a little bland, but it tries to deal in an earthy way with the challenges of life.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. My son goes to an Anglican school, and has done so now for 8 years. One great trait of this school is that it has a very clear focus, that I think most of its students and parents could express, if asked. It is set out in four simple aims:

  1. Academic achievement
  2. Personal growth
  3. Spiritual awareness; and
  4. Service to the community

These four aims cover all of the ordinary, practical stuff of human life. They are easily applied across most aspect of life, and are tools that teenagers, like my son, can take with them for the rest of their lives. Those four tenets might be adapted for all stages of life…

  1. Academic achievement
    Can mean achieving the best in the walk of life one chooses – being the best carpenter, accountant, entrepreneur, nurse, parent or partner, in whatever vocation one enters; doing it well, reaching your potential.
  2. Personal growth
    At school, this might mean being a musician, a sportswoman or a debater. But beyond that stage, at its heart, it is about building good relationships, acknowledging our own weakness and our need for growth and improvement.

The next two tenets are where a church school might diverge from others, and where there is a real challenge for us as a church.

  1. Spiritual awareness
    This is not some prescriptive demand for religious obedience, but a challenge to reflect on the deeper meaning of life, and even death, to consider the question of ultimate meaning and destiny, and how that might impact on how we might live our lives today and tomorrow.
    Fortunately, we can draw on the great teachings of our traditions, particularly our scriptures and the teachings and actions of Jesus, to help us make sense of the challenges we face in life.
  2. Service
    “Service” should flow on from the last challenge of spiritual reflection – it means simply the realisation that we all have been given something in our lives, and that we should give back to our community in some tangible way.

There has been an interesting debate this week in the Qld Parliament. The State member for Bundamba, Jo-Ann Miller whose electorate include the emerging Springfield development, made the statement that this new city has no soul – that the absence of churches, and scout halls, means it lacks a genuine spiritual centre and is poorer for that lack.

Now whether that is true is a matter for debate. But it presents a real challenge to our churches, and maybe for you here at St Augustine’s:

What is your church to be? Does this church help to provide a soul for the community of Hamilton? Will it be a place where those twin aims of “spiritual awareness” and community service are evident, so that it engages your community and invites people to want to join?

To use an old desert image used many times in the scriptures, many people “draw from this well”. Some of you come here each week, to be challenged and refreshed, offered some inner meaning to return to your lives, your work, your families and friends.

Others come here in times of need, or at critical moments in their lives – some for help in dealing with death and grief; others come at time of change in their lives, migrants from other cities or countries, maybe to be married or to welcome a new child, some for help in a crisis.

For whatever reason you come here, for whatever reason they come here, this place, your church has been the heart of your community.

How well this church does that today and tomorrow is a choice for you to make. It doesn’t just “happen”, like it once did. And it is not a challenge we can just out-source to our clergy.

It is a task for everyone who chooses to be a part of this place.

Having drawn from this well, what can you and I do to put something back in?

It is not my place to judge or advise how any one of us puts something back.

It is done in different ways, some not obvious at all. Many people do the nuts and bolts of church life – making rosters, cleaning the place, maintaining the buildings.  Others have different gifts to offer, as counsellors and shoulders on which others can cry, or offering business skills, resources and equipment.
I gather that you have a terrific community stall that raises funds and engages with many in need among your local community.

But for many of us in churches, what we draw from this well is then contributed back in other places – we take our nourishment here each Sunday, and it enriches and guides our family life, our work, our relationships and our contributions in other communities.  Many people here will never know what this place offers to you, and how you contribute elsewhere.

But wherever we do contribute, it is important to remember that this well-spring must be maintained. If this place is to provide a soul for your community, and for you in your wider life, then it has to be supported and provisioned.

So, to return to my school story, if St Augustine’s Church provides you with that spiritual awareness, or if it helps you to serve your community in some way, then please take some time to reflect on what you might do to maintain the well-spring.  It needs your support, for this place to offer those two core elements, both to you and to the many other people who come here to be nourished.

“Anyone who wishes to be first should be the last of all and the servant of all.”  (Mk 9:35)

Or in other words…  We will only get out of life what we put in.

May God keep St Augustine’s Church, for many years to come, as the place where the soul of Hamilton is nurtured and your community is cared for.


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