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1st January 2017 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
29 December 2016

Isaiah 63:7-9

Isaiah 63: begins with a section of terrible vengeance which Maurice Andrew calls one of the bloodiest expressions of judgment in the Hebrew Scripture.  He notes that A.K. Grant refers to that passage when he quotes Lord Goddard saying ‘all the fun’s gone out of judging since we stopped hanging people’[1]  The Passage we read follows on from that terror by remembering Yahweh’s gracious deeds of the past so perhaps what we learn is that the Bible contains disaster and terror alongside hope because the Bible addresses life that is real.

Matthew 2:13-23

Warren Carter maintains that one of Matthew’s agendas is to redefine the traditional patriarchal household and in this passage Joseph does not rule over his family but acts to protect them under God’s guidance.  Carter also notes the references to Hebrew Scripture and the other Joseph from Genesis who also receives divine instruction through dreams. Both escape from danger and ultimately their families are saved by going to Egypt.  Carter writes that there are several similarities between today’s reading and ‘the experience of Joseph, son of Jacob, in Egypt, danger, dreams, divine protection in the midst of political power, family bonds and deliverance.[2]

Bill loader writes that ‘The narrative is packed with allusions’ and goes on to say:

We not only have Israel going down into Egypt and being called up out of Egypt in the Exodus as God's son but we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.[3]

Sermon 

Following Advent and Christmas Matthew’s reading takes us away from the birth narrative and introduces his theme of Jesus as a new and better Moses forming a new people of God.  This theme is referred to throughout his gospel through allusion.

As those who grew up in a scientific, modernist age we tend to expect accounts of significant people to be filled with facts.  But as we move further into a postmodern world we are discovering that story and allusion often give us a much better understanding.

My son gave me a book for Christmas called The Kiwi Pair by Hamish Bond and Eric Murray.  At the end of his introduction Bond gives a glimpse of his feelings waiting for the start of an Olympic final.

The brain is easily distracted if you know where to lead it.  My final thought was this: It’s too late for nerves, the buzzer is going to go off, as it always does.  You’re here now, you may as well just row.’[4]      

That personal reflection gives us an insight beyond the facts we know of a spectacular gold medal performance.  We get a glimpse into the mind of an exceptional athlete.   

That is what Matthew tries to do.  Matthew not only recounts stories and teaching of Jesus, but also what Jesus’ life means to his followers.  Hamish Bond can remember what he thought but Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus, not written by Jesus.   So Matthew alludes to traditional faith stories to evoke meaning without interfering with what was passed down to him about Jesus. 

Both that short memory from Bond and our Gospel reading brings us understanding beyond mere facts and both are appropriate for New Year’s Day because they are about starts. 

The start of an Olympic event and the start of Jesus’ transforming life journey, the journey of the new Moses and the forming of a new people of God. 

The new people of God were not defined by their ethnicity, but by their commitment to follow Jesus.  They also reached an understanding of God through the Risen Christ within and around them.  That understanding was continually refreshed by the continued study and reflection on the Gospel stories.  It is an understanding that lead us through the excitement, frustration and heartache of 2016 and will guide us as we refresh our gospel vision into the challenge of 2017.  

By following Jesus as a parish, we will face whatever the future brings.  This is the first day of 2017, it is too late for nerves, the journey has started and we may as well just follow Christ into wherever the spirit leads us.

Nevertheless there is merit in reflecting on the year that has passed and looking at where that might lead us in the year ahead.

Without a doubt the weekend of the 21st and 22nd of May was the highlight of the year with the opening of this new complex.  The journey to that event was long and varied and time and time again I referred to it as a wilderness journey.  Like the Exodus journey it had many times when we wished we were back where we began. 

Looking back from inside this new complex the decision to rebuild seems self-evident but this was not an easy decision.  The journey began bringing our remaining three congregations together and that seemed a logical decision.  After all including the Edgeware congregation in the Berwick Street Congregation had worked in the past and the parish was struggling to maintain enough income to support full time ministry.  

The idea to worship on one site was well supported but there was equal division about which site that should be and making the decision cost the parish members.  Therefore after selling surplus buildings we were left with a building that would have served the worship needs of the existing members for the rest of their lives, even if we couldn’t use the hall.  Furthermore, the capital from the sale of the buildings gave us enough to pay a minister’s stipend and provide a surplus.  Looking at the wider church and its declining statistics it was hard to imagine the mainline churches lasting another five years so what was the point in trying to survive or rebuild. 

Could we, with a clear conscience, spend more than a million dollars on a building that may not be needed in five years’ time? 

That was certainly a question our wider church partners asked us.  They had also begun to ask if it was right for a parish to sustain itself on investment income without any effort to regrow and pass the mission of Christ onto future generations.

Should it not be the wider church that decides which parishes survive and which parishes are supported by extra funding rather than simply an accident of history as communities change and leave parishes surplus to requirements.   

So, our flight into Egypt was about plunging into the depth of mission planning, to justify our optimism and determination to be Christ in the community with no strings attached.  It was like the journey of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.  A temporary exile to avoid being dominated by others.   On the 21st of May, we returned. 

Mixing biblical allusions built on further allusions, we can say we have made an amazing journey together and worked through the temptations of both the church’s and our parish’s wilderness. 

Tovia, on behalf of the Methodist Church and Andrew, on behalf of the Presbyterian Church, have blessed this building for its sacred mission and Lianne, on behalf of the city welcomed it into the city.

It was in that spirit that our building opening symbolised our return from exile. 

Like Jesus we have made a very public return from exile and announced our mission to the community.  We have even quietly started to gather disciples as people for various reasons have begun to attend. 

We have also shared hospitality with our neighbours. To feed sixty one people at a pre-Christmas dinner was a great conclusion to a frustrating effort to stage a neighbourhood dinner every two months.  Likewise, the Fun Days that Liz has been organising and had their origins in a community effort to boost post-earthquake moral, culminated in a phenomenal event this December.  Three to five hundred people through the building.

Our garage sale initiated by the Men’s Shed seemed painfully slow but at the end of the day our diligent treasurer discovered there was over a thousand dollars in the till.  We may have just re-discovered how to run church fairs and our fundraising committee has also obtained some significant grants. 

Overall our journey, our wilderness experience, and our building development has taught us that we are not an aging, declining congregation.  Certainly, as we moved through that five-year time span when we could have gone out of existence we all got older but St Albans Uniting is still here.  What we have discovered with the events we held last year was that we still know how to do things. 

This New Year’s Day the Spirit’s arm stretches out into the year ahead and opens the way for us.  It is time to cross over to the other side and look at who we have become and who are called to be in 2017.

Some of the challenges are already apparent, or already programmed for us.  During 2017 a commission will come to talk about our hopes for new ministry in 2018 when my contract finishes.  Although it would be wrong for me to express an opinion about that it is my responsibility to insure this year prepares the way for whatever is decided, and all the signs are good.

Much that we have proved possible in the past we can continue in the future.  Furthermore, the Presbytery Mission fund has just given us a huge challenge by inviting us to apply for three years funding for our community development worker. 

In preparing for the mission fund and any other funding application, as well as preparing for the future, we will need to relook at our mission plan. 

A lot of the detail in our plan is about building a new building.  That was last year’s news.  We also need to look at what we have learned to do and therefore what we can achieve in the future. 

Most importantly we need to look at why we do things and recognise that all parishes give a great gift to the future.  Christianity has been a tremendous force for good in human history and can only continue to do so if we pass our Christian understanding to future generations. 

Keeping the faith alive is a task in itself.  

But in our own self-examination, our own lonely exile, we easily see ourselves as completely inadequate.  How can we possibly make any sort of difference by simply following Jesus? 

All of us see ourselves as too old, too young, too insignificant too busy or too isolated.  To name just a few toos.   

But listen to this small paragraph from a speech made by a ninety year old lady.

It’s understandable that we sometimes think the world’s problems are so big that we can do little to help.  On our own, we cannot end wars or wipe out injustice.  But the cumulative impact of thousands of small acts of goodness can be bigger than we imagine.[5]

That is the Queen’s challenge and following Jesus makes it our challenge. 

Last year we moved on as our building was finished, our exile over and we discovered new possibilities for St Albans Uniting.   ‘Because of all that the Lord has done for us’ (Isaiah 63:7) we are now called to follow Jesus in combined acts of goodness as a parish, and small acts of goodness as individuals.

As we move into 2017 in small steps of transforming goodness the footsteps we leave behind will be the footsteps of Christ.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 443.

[2] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000),p. 83.

[4] Hamish Bond & Eric Murry, The Kiwi Pair, (New Zealand: Penguin Random House 2016), p.20.   

 

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