8 April 2020
What an extraordinary history this parish has had. Being at the forefront of settlement in this area and not only offering services of worship in our buildings; but as part of our ministry to the community, starting the first school and the first library in the district, not to mention what has to be one of the first tennis clubs.
The names of our early members have streets and parks named after them. Our cemetary is a treasure trove of history for the local area (as well as being a great place to play hide and seek in after the morning service when we were kids).
I remember talking with Mrs Jolly a few years ago who recalled how, as a child, she used to sit on the back of the family?s farm cart as they travelled from their farm (which is now across the road from Manukau Polytech), along the dirt road (which is now East Tamaki Road, crossing what is now the Southern motorway) to church. Their nearest neighbour was a couple of miles away.
South Auckland is a completely different place today of course. Glen Colquhon has written a poem which captures up something of the mix of people and cultures which fill this place now.
Glen Colquhon?s poem: Bred in South Auckland from The Art of Walking Upright, published by Roger Steele 1999.
In his poem Colquhon is asking questions about his identity. Where he fits in. What he can say about himself. What better place to ask that kind of question than in South Auckland.
And in a way what better place for the church to ask that question about who it is, where it fits, what mission God is calling it to join in with than in South Auckland.
150 years ago we were looking at a small, pioneering farming community with the church firmly at its centre.
The church was held in high regard and the values of the church and the community were intertwined?back then it was probably hard to tell them apart.
Now we have the big, busy, multi-racial, multi-religious community of Papatoetoe of the 21st century where the church is regarded with a polite but firm indifference. Much as it is regarded everywhere else in New Zealand.
Life in 21st Century NZ poses a real challenge to us about how we bear witness to our faith in our society, how we remain true to the faith that Jesus calls us to and the mission we have to make Jesus Christ known?.making the light of our faith shine and make a difference.
I want to ground what I am going to say this morning in one of the great stories of the New Testament. The story from Acts 10 and 11about Peter and his meeting with Cornelius is about a point of awakening, of transformation for Peter and for the early church.
Their understanding of how God works in the world is blown open and the early church is led in a new direction.
Up until this point the Jesus movement was firmly grounded in Judaism. Non-Jewish, or Gentile followers were free to join, but they had to be circumcised first?because to follow Jesus was to become a Jew and to learn and understand the ways of Judaism including following the Jewish laws, which included restrictions on food.
And then Peter, this Jewish follower of Jesus, has this extraordinary meeting with Cornelius, a gentile, where he discovers that God is free to speak and act, to do a new thing in our midst, even if it goes against how we understand God to work.
In his vision where Peter is told to eat food that would usually be considered unclean for Jews, Peter discovers that God isn?t bound by how it has been in the past, however deeply that has been built into religious tradition.
Peter discovers that Cornelius the gentile, the outsider, belongs to Christ too, that he is to be included?that the gospel of Christ is for everyone, not just a select group.
And so the church moves into a whole new way of being as it opens its focus to include Gentiles and moves out into the gentile world.
One of the things that amazes me when I read this story is how Peter and those first followers of Jesus recognised and accepted this as God at work and were willing to go with it.
We don?t always find it that easy to accept that things have to change and to move in new directions. We often don?t have our eyes open to recognise God at work in our world and to follow.
The great challenge for us as a national church is facing up to change and moving in the new directions that God is pointing us in.
Most of you will probably know that the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand like most ?mainstream? churches in the western world is facing a situation of strongly declining and aging membership.
The church in NZ, not just the Presbyterian church, has greater proportions of people aged over 50 years in its membership and only half the number under 40 years than the surrounding community.
In national terms, our adult Sunday worship attendance figures as a denomination, dropped by just under 25% from 1990-2000.
Our denomination and our country is in no way alone in this situation. Australia and Canada for example show similar statistics.
There is of course no simple answer as to why this has happened. The reasons are complex and multi-faceted. One of the most significant that is being looked at increasingly closely though is the impact of the shift in our culture from modernism to post-modernism, and the immense difficulty the church has had in keeping up with that culture shift.
The church is now largely regarded as outdated, boring and irrelevant to those who are growing up in what is often called the ?emerging culture? of Postmodernism, that is, those born after 1960, the very generations that are under- represented in our churches.
I guess the shift in culture, which has been emerging over the last 50 years, is characterised by the huge leaps that have been made in technology.
Our children talk, rather distressingly to my mind, about my childhood as the ?olden days? and can?t believe that we lived in a world where there was no morning TV, no gameboys, videos, internet, e-mail or cell phones?and that computers took up a whole room instead of a desktop, or laptop, or palm.
So, probably the easiest way to begin describing post-modernism is to say that there has been a ?revolution in the way we know things?.
Post-modernism is a slippery sort of a thing to get hold of, hard to nail down and describe totally?and that?s part of what it?s all about. There are just three aspects of it that I?ll mention this morning because they are relevant to how we are as the church.
In the Modernist era we tended to think that knowledge and truth and progress were things that we could control and pursue to an end point. A rational approach would win out in the end and we would work out what was truth and what wasn?t.
This of course was not a good look for things which involved mystery and spirituality and faith. Some decades ago it was thought that we were entering a secular age when things of a spiritual nature would gradually disappear. The whole ?God is dead? approach.
In post-modernism we are reclaiming the understanding that there is more to life and being than rational, scientific thought.
Conseqeuntly there is an enormous interest in spirituality in our society today?unfortunately there isn?t a corresponding interest in institutional religion
?but I?ll come back to that later.
In the Modernist era thinking in straight lines was valued as the right way of doing things?.everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, you approach something at its start and move through to its finish.
This is how we are used to doing things, we feel confused and even lost if things are done ?out of order? or changed from their normal pattern?actually the way in which we conduct our morning worship is a very good example of that linear way of thinking, as we move through our Order of Service in an orderly and largely predictable manner week by week with a person up the front leading.
In post-modernism working in straight lines still has its place of course but people also enjoy other ways of absorbing information in different ways using many types of media and not just sitting listening either, but actively taking part.
In Modernist thought institutions played an important role in regulating society. Things like the monarchy, the military, the church, as well as other institutions such as marriage, the family unit, the village or local community.
In post-modernism, those institutions hold on the regulation of society has been eroded or weakened.
People are no longer interested in their lives being controlled by others now that they live in a climate which promotes individualism and freedom of choice and where ease of transport means we?re no longer restricted to our own village or town.
People are no longer interested in remaining loyal to an institution for the sake of it when it has little impact or relevance to their lives.
Institutions and people who make decisions on others behalf have to earn that right?.people are much more interested in participating in decision-making rather than being told what to do or having decisions imposed on them.
Now to the church and its place in all this.
Because it is still largely immersed in a modernist way of doing things the church struggles to make connections for people who are immersed in post-modernism?namely those born after 1960.
Kevin Ward, dean at our school of ministry in Dunedin who has done extensive research in this area writes:
?Take what happens in services. Shaped by our Christian heritage, the main fare is corporate singing and listening to a 30 minute monologue with no opportunity to interact. Where else in society do we attempt to create a sense of belonging and community in this way.?
Even if you?re quite happy and comfortable with the usual shape of worship we all need to be aware of our surrounding culture and the difficulty our society, particularly the younger generations have in relating to how we ?do? church.
For them it is an alien environment which bears little resemblance to and makes few connections with their everyday life.
We in the church can stand accused of hiding what we know of the light of God?s love for the world under the packaging that is the stuck patterns and unhelpful traditions of the church which makes it inaccessible for others.
We need to know God breaking in on our understanding and our attitudes again ? reshaping and transforming them as God did with Peter in the story from Acts 11.
I think that there are some significant things that the church as the Body of Christ can offer to our society in its post-modern living that we need to ?reclaim?. Some things that we can pay attention to in our being salt and light to the world.
Firstly, what people are interested in is relationship. And relationship and community is something that as Christians we can offer to people?.its something we know a reasonable bit about.
In a society where the emphasis is on the individual, on personal rights, where extended families are often living far apart, where consumerism makes the empty promise that getting possessions will bring happiness?.there is a deep hunger for relationship, for being part of a community, for belonging somewhere, for knowing that we matter.
We know about relationship in the church. As people who follow Jesus Christ we are called to be in relationship with God and with other people. God has created a relationship with humanity, which is witnessed to in the Scriptures and then through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus always worked with a community of people, beginning first with a small group of 12 who he trained to live out and speak of the transforming relationship which God holds out to us.
The community of Christ?s followers, inspired by the Holy Spirit, struggled and stumbled and grew and changed together as they sought to worship God and make Jesus Christ known to others, drawing them into the community of faith, so that they could find a place where they both met God and found a home.
As followers of Christ we know about relationship, we know about community as the place where we gather to meet with God, as the place where we can support and build one another up, as the place where we meet the call of God to care and practise compassion to others.
The challenge for us is to be conscious of community we have and to claim it as something which we have to offer to others. To commit ourselves to building it, to draw others in so that they can be part of it.
Secondly, as I said earlier, in the post-modern age people are interested in spirituality. Again, Kevin ward points out that research in Britain revealed that in 1987 48% of non-church goers admitted to a form of religious spiritual experience. In 2000 this had increased to 76%. People want to discover things about the significance and meaning and purpose of their lives, which is very exciting.
What is not so exciting for us is that they are looking elsewhere than ?organised religion? which they see as having little to offer in the way of depth or meaning.
This is another challenge for the church today?.how to live out and present a gospel to the community that is filled with depth and meaning, that makes a difference to people?s lives.
In the Western world we have made the gospel middle-class and comfortable and seem to have lost that sharp, radical edge that Jesus brought.
One of the criticisms levelled at the church today is that it demonstrates little difference in values or focus to that of its surrounding community.
I heard a moving story recently about a group of Christians in Uganda. These people were very poor, there were many widows among them because their husbands had died of Aids. Their main livelihood was through their cattle, and yet a neighbouring hill tribe continually raided their village and stole their cattle. The man talking about these Ugandan Christians was telling us of the way in which they pooled their meagre financial resources so that the widows and other vulnerable people amongst them could be cared for and supported. And he talked about the joy and the depth that was in their worship.
How they thanked God for all that they did have, they asked God to help them forgive their neighbouring tribe for their theft, and asked God to show them a way in which they could live peacefully with them.
I found the story very moving and powerful. To me it was a story of how faith in Christ can radically transform people?s lives and how the Christian community can be a place that can draw others to God?s light even in a situation of crisis and seeming chaos.
So, as we think back to St John?s 150 years ago where Christianity was so much more embedded in our society and taken for granted in terms of the values and lifestyle of the time, it seems to me that we have a real opportunity as the church in the 21st century to stand out as a community of difference, a place of light, that offers the life-giving love of God.
It?s been said that the emerging church of the 21st century will have some of these characteristics.
*It will radically reclaim its roots as the community of Christ and all of it forms and tradition will be shaped by Christ?s story of life, death and resurrection.
*It will reflect the life of Jesus in its generosity and sharing, its friendship and belonging, its mission and identity, its freedom and risk-taking.
*It will be a community of passion. A place where suffering is accepted and given voice. Where people are supported. A place where life is affirmed and celebrated.
*It will be a community of partnership where everyone?s contribution is honoured and valued.
*It will be an alternative community to its surrounding community. A place where the surrounding cultural values are held up to the light of the values of God?s kingdom.
Much like those early settlers in Papatoetoe who stepped out into the unknown as they moved into this area, put down their roots and put their faith into action - we are called to step into God?s unknown future, and like Peter, to have our minds and hearts open to the possibilities and the challenges God puts before us so that we can be God?s salt and light in the world ? in the name of Jesus Christ and through the energy and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Rev Sharon Ensor
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