Guest preacher, the Rev. Dr Clive Pearson, BA(Hons), BD, PhD, delivered this special message on Sunday 22 September 2013 as part of our celebratory service.
Consider the rock from which you were hewn; look to the quarry from which you were dug. The prophet Isaiah speaks to a people whose lands have been invaded; to a people whose temple has been destroyed and their places of worship have been compromised; he speaks to a people who have been carried off into captivity but for whom the possibility of something new is on the cusp. Consider the rock from which you were hewn. Isaiah bids those on receipt of his message to look back to Abraham and Sarah and to the promises made to them. They are asked to look back beyond the problems of the present to their beginnings as a pilgrim people of God.
Consider the rock from which you were hewn; the guest preacher began. There was a ripple of smiles which crossed the faces of the congregation present that morning; knowing looks were cast from one to another, the occasional raised eye brow, a quick smirk here, a not again there. The preacher was not Isaiah; we were not a people whose place of worship had been destroyed – quite the reverse. Emmanuel URC in Cambridge was celebrating not its 60th but its 300th anniversary. It was birthday party time; it was a time for history – one which has just been written; it did not look back to Abraham and Sarah but rather to those who had taken the initiative and established this congregation which in years to come would have a vital role to play in the life of the nonconformist tradition – that is ‘us’ – in England.
Consider the rock from which you were hewn; look to the quarry form which you were dug. The words are designed to remind a people of God of the traditions in which they have been established. And here the word tradition does not necessarily mean something static; something old fashioned; something that binds us into inactivity. The word itself is taken from Latin roots which means to hand over. It presupposes something dynamic, more like a relay race. In terms of the gospel we might say we also receive faith through the life and witness of others and we, each one of us, is called to hand on something to those who follow us. We receive and we hand over. In the course of time in this place others might hear those lines: consider well the rock from which you were hewn – and we, with the passage of time, will have part of that quarry from which they have been dug.
Consider the rock from which you were hewn; the knowing smiles darted around the church, for this anniversary was extending not over one weekend, but over several weeks. And all the previous ministers still living had been invited to preach on succeeding weeks. Whether by accident (which I think it was) or by design it did not matter: most had selected the same text. The prophet Isaiah was in demand, week after week after week – after week …… after week …. after week.
In the course of this year we have been travelling in the company of Luke’s gospel. And Luke rather likes Isaiah. This is the gospel which speaks most often of Jesus as a prophet. It is as if its Luke’s preferred title. And, so in a variety of ways, Luke has been inviting us to shape our common Christian life around the desire to follow the prophetic Jesus and become not so much a missional church – that is the language often used these days in the synod – but rather a prophetic church. And for Luke there are things which follow from that. There are consequences.
The way in which he tells his story of Jesus is peculiar to him. It’s the longest; and it is almost as if he knows the rocks of the film trade: once you have a blockbuster, you go for a sequel – and so we get the book of Acts; his community is better off than the other communities for which gospels are written; you can tell that quite easily: whenever there is reference to money in Mark it is the smallest coins imaginable; in Luke – it’s time to bring out your Platinum visa card. If you like to sing, then there are more songs per verse in this biblical book with the exception of the book of psalms; and, in terms of parables, if there was no Luke, then there would have been no good Samaritan and no prodigal son. Imagine that.
If we were a church following Luke’s gospel, then what would it mean for us to consider the rock from which we were hewn then? What would it mean for us to follow Jesus and be a prophetic church? Well, there would be a balance of men and women for a start off: whenever there is a story which features a man, Luke seems to have it either preceded by or followed by one with a woman. In this gospel the ministry of Jesus is supported by wealthy women. If we were to be a prophetic church in the spirit of this gospel, then there would be no church council where there would only be one woman considered to be there on merit: let me repeat that rather slowly: there would be no church council where there would only be one woman considered to be there on merit: and, if we were seeking to imitate Luke, there would be a celebration of cultural diversity for Luke, of all the gospels, is the most cross-cultural, multi-cultural.
There would be a deep commitment to the stranger and to the one who is in most danger, for the neighbour you are called to love in this gospel is the one who is stereotyped, marginalized, made into a caricature; the neighbour is the one you are most suspicious of, the one you seek to keep at arms length or on a distant island or an off shore camp. In summary form you would seek to live out the passage from Isaiah which Jesus reads from the synagogue in his own home town – only in Luke: the spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed and the year of the Lord’s favour.
Imagine that. Imagine if this was how you saw your past and how that should inform what now you do. Imagine if this was your goal, your vision for the next little while as you strove to honour the legacy of your foundations. … But let me confess. I have altered the gospel reading for this morning. I am not sure how many days it is to Christmas, but it will soon be advent … we will soon change gospels and we will fall into the company of Matthew, the sermon on the mount and the way he sees Jesus as a teacher of wisdom. ‘Each of those who hears my words and does them is like the man who built his house on rock’. Only in Matthew; only at the end of the sermon on the mount. And by the way we only have a sermon on the mount in Matthew; in Luke it is a sermon on the plain. When I pointed this out to a 93 year old woman in a residential home she said quite strongly: why do they keep on changing things! Consider well the rock from which you were hewn; the quarry from which you were dug.
I can imagine that at a time of anniversary your church will have received a number of letters of congratulations and apology. Imagine if you had received one out of the ordinary. Imagine if it was designed to remind you of the rock from which you were cut and set before you the way ahead for the future. Imagine it presupposes your life this year with Luke and your life next year in the company of Matthew. Imagine receiving Paul’s first epistle to the Frenchs Foresters. It might seem strange receiving such a letter these days given that we now seem to rely on iphones, emails, tweets and Facebook.
The mailbox only seems to deliver junk mail and bills. Nevertheless imagine getting a letter from Paul. And I concede there might need to be some public relations done; is there a spin doctor in the house? Paul does not travel so well these days – as indeed was pointed out by that same 93 year old: she couldn’t wait to get upstairs to give Paul a piece of her mind. Let’s imagine that we have rehabilitated him: What would this anniversary epistle to the Forest Kirk say?
Over the last several years I’ve worked with a number of congregations on such missing epistles: to the Port Macquariers, the Oberonites, the Castle Hilarians, the Crows Nesters, the Balmainites, the Grenfellas, the Nabiacites, the Bathurstians and the Centenarians.
Paul’s letters were all written before any one of the gospels. The earliest was 1 Thessalonians, the last Romans. They are what we would call occasional letters. That means that they were a response to particular issues or problems. If everything had been running smoothly in the early church there would have been no epistles. And lets be honest: when we read some verses from Paul’s letters in a service of worship these days, we are reading someone else’s mail. If Paul were to be a special guest at your anniversary service, he would now be stunned: he did not write his letters expecting them to be read in services of worship ever after.
And he would be surprised for other reasons as well. How would you feel if only a few verses of one of your letters was read out in public? Paul’s epistles were designed to be read out loud in one go. There was no quiet reading in a corner all by yourself. Now if Paul was to write an epistle to this congregation on the occasion of its anniversary, the letter would follow a stock form. Do you remember learning how to write a letter while you were at primary school? Date and address up the top left; name and address to whom you’re writing down to the right. Dear so and so right through to yours sincerely. There were conventions to follow. Paul’s epistles all follow a Greek pattern of letter writing.
You begin by saying who you are, by what authority you are writing; you then name the people who will receive this letter and you send them a greeting. Paul is bicultural. His greeting of grace and peace draws upon the Greek greeting – grace – and the Hebrew one of peace. In the church today Paul might recognize the different languages of the cultures which make up our membership.
Then the standard convention is for an act of thanksgiving. Paul will frequently say, whenever I think of you, I give thanks to God for the way in which you have preserved the faith, shared my sufferings etc. There is one exception to the rule – the epistle to the Galatians – this is Paul on a bad day; you foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, who has led you astray; why have you departed from what I handed on to you …. It is almost as if he is saying consider the rock from which you were hewn; look to the quarry from which you were cut and consider what you have become.
This weekend is your anniversary. Let’s imagine that Paul wishes to recall with thanks the ministry which has been performed in this place. What might he single out? What might he give thanks to God for you and for what you have accomplished and demonstrated your commitment to Christ? Imagine that you are not the Galatians but rather the Philippians. This is church the letter to which shows Paul at his most intimate, his warmest, those with whom he wishes he could be present in the flesh.
And then comes the crunch. The third movement in an ancient letter was its body. This is the reason why the letter was written. What might be included here was not idle chit chat; nor was it the kind of trivia which abounds on Facebook. Here we have the guts of the letter. In most cases Paul is responding to a particular problem, but let’s be clear about this: he is not seeking so much to be a change agent, a resolver of problems, a facilitator – all those sorts of things. His primary concern is for the integrity of the gospel. All those problems are only symptoms of how the particular church has lost sight of what it means to follow Jesus Christ; what it means to try and imitate Christ; what it means to live in the freedom of the spirit – that freedom being grounded in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ – and the forgiveness of sins. Paul is concerned for the gospel.
And so at this point he might examine the life and witness of this church. And no doubt there are some concerns here and there. That is true of every church. Here in this epistle to the church at Frenchs Forest those issues would be named. What do you think he would include? Sometimes those matters can have something to do with people not getting on with one another; sometimes they have to do with how that gospel has been lost sight of and other ways of relating to one another have grown up; We become obsessed with finances, numbers, structures. We lose sight of the neighbour we are called to love; we lose touch with the language of grace, hope, wisdom, faith, mercy, forgiveness, compassion. The sociologists of religions say we become the language we use: we become the words we say. The church is at risk these days of losing touch with the language of grace, hope, wisdom, faith, mercy, forgiveness, compassion.
Sometimes these matters have to do with how the life of faith, how the community of Christ relates to the surrounding society – which in our day and age might mean: how do we live out the Christian faith in a society which is now both secular and multifaith – and the Christian faith is often looked upon with suspicion because of the hurts it has caused. Sometimes the church needs to be a penitent church: it needs to say sorry for Christ’s sake.
What might Paul say in this body of his letter to you? Perhaps one of the things you can do to celebrate your 60th anniversary is to work together on what this part of letter might contain. And then your epistle can continue with a word of encouragement where Paul exhorts you, urges you, to imitate Christ. Just like he does with the Philippians. Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, humbled himself. Consider well the rock from which you were hewn; the quarry from which you were cut.
The epistle would conclude with some acknowledgements of people in your midst. Imagine Paul writing: blessings be to Mel, to Sisilia, to Malcolm, to Cameron, to Dorothy and to others whom he names. He might also name one or two who don’t get on with each other. Imagine the congregation turning their heads and so and so are told to stop quarrelling and make up with one another. Imagine the morning tea afterwards! And then there is a benediction. That is the standard practice.
Paul’s first epistle to the church at French’s Forest is waiting to be written. The celebration of an anniversary is a good occasion to consider what it might include. It is a chance for you to consider how you are living out the gospel and you can look to the themes of Luke and now Matthew to serve as a foil for what you do. In the spirit of Isaiah you can consider the rock from which you were hewn; the rock from which you were cut … and you can place alongside that consideration the end of the sermon of the Mount. Jesus says: each of those who hears my words and does them is like the wise man who built his house on rock.