Change

There are a whole series of jokes around the place about Anglicans and change… you may have heard some of them, indeed you may have told some of them yourself.  Here are three that I have heard recently:

  • How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: None, they always use candles.
  • How many Anglicans does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer: Change? We don’t do that!
  • How many Anglicans does it take to change a light-bulb? Answer: Five – one to put in the new one, and four to admire the old one.

How have you changed in the last few years?  How has your understanding of God, and your relationship with God changed and grown and developed? How has this congregation changed during that time?  I am not going to ask you for answers now, but you might like to talk about those changes which have come into your mind in response to those questions after the service.  Because I have to say, that they are very real questions for me this morning.  The last time that I worshipped with you here at Mallabula, was exactly three years ago (give or take one or two days).   The readings which we have shared in this morning were the same readings that we reflected on together last time I was here with you.  (I did wonder whether anyone would notice if I found my sermon from three years ago and brought it back to you this morning).  This week, I have been wondering about how you have changed over the last three years, and I have been thinking about how I have changed as well.

Change is almost always challenging for us.  Sometimes change can be hard for us, and sometimes change can be wonderfully transforming.  As I travel around the Diocese one of the stories which I hear time and time again is the joy that the change of moving from being parents of grown up children, to being grandparents, or even great grandparents has brought to people.  I am sure that for each of us we could think of changes which have been hard and costly, and changes (as well) which have brought us great opportunities.

Imagine how the disciples felt in the first of the two encounters which we heard about in our Gospel reading this morning.

A foreign woman has come to Jesus pleading for her daughter.  The girl is tormented by an unclean spirit and despite Jesus’ desire to remain hidden in the house, this woman has heard where he is, and has searched him out.  The dialogue between the two of them may seem strange to us.  How would you feel if you were called a dog? – because that is what Jesus says to her.  He is letting her know that his mission is to the Jewish people, the people of God’s covenant, and in his scheme she is at best a second class citizen.

We get an unusual glimpse of Jesus from this encounter. He is focused on his ministry to the Jews, and he is not particularly interested in the problems of this Greek woman and her daughter.  But she is so desperate for help, and so transfixed, I think, from being in the tangible presence of God, that she will not take ‘no’ for an answer, not even from Jesus.  And so, in front of the disciples, who themselves believe that Jesus’ mission (and therefore their mission) is only to the Jews, this woman dismisses his claim that the children (the Jews) must be fed before the dogs (foreigners like her) and with great faith she dares to try and persuade him.

“Well master,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the crumbs that the children drop – could it be also for me, and my daughter.”  In this one seemingly small encounter, there is much more going on than the healing of the daughter in response to the pleas of her mother.  In his decision to heal her, Jesus changes the whole course of his future ministry, and the ministry of his disciples who are gathered with him.  Because, after all, you and I are not Jews, and yet we know that we are loved by God.   We know that we are loved by God, because generations of Christians in the life of the Church, have believed that God is not just interested in the Jews, but is interested in us as well, and they have shared that message with their friends and with their neighbours.

Until Jesus meets this woman, all of the encounters in Mark’s Gospel have been between Jesus and his disciples and other Jews.  But now something new, is emerging.  Something has changed.  Jesus, and his followers, and those who follow after them, have a much bigger sense of the mission of God in the world.

In Mark’s Gospel this shift, this change in understanding about the breadth of Jesus’ mission is underlined by the two events which follow.  We heard about the first event in the second part of our reading – the healing of the man who is deaf and mute.    If we had read on in Mark’s Gospel the next story is the feeding of the 4,000 by Jesus.  The significance of both of those events is that they both take place in Gentile (rather than Jewish territory).   This first encounter with the foreign woman, and the healing of her daughter, leads to a change in Jesus’ ministry which is then underlined for us by the Gospel writers by the events which they re-tell afterwards, which are also revolve around ministry to non-Jewish people.

The point which the Gospel writers are trying to make is simply this: the story of Jesus is no longer a story just for the Jews, it is a story of love for the whole world.

Imagine how the disciples felt as they had to begin to come to terms with this change?  Until this encounter everything had been nicely packaged up for them, they knew that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, and yet now they had to begin to think in much bigger terms than simply the salvation of the Jews.  As we read on in the New Testament, we find in the Acts of the Apostles the ongoing debate about how ‘Jewish’ Christianity should be, as the leaders of the Early Church continued to grapple with this change in understanding.

Change can be hard, but think where we would be if the disciples had not come to understand the change in Jesus’ focus from the Jews to the whole world.  Father Ken and the Church Wardens have invited me hear this morning to continue our conversation about the vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission.

When we began this conversation three years ago this was one of the first parishes to be involved in the conversation.  I remember talking to you about my hope that teams would be developed in each of the parishes of the Diocese to sustain and grow our mission and ministry – teams of lay leaders, and people who might be ordained for a more flexible form of ordained ministry as deacons and priests in the life of the Church.  When we had that conversation (three years ago) none of the teams which I was talking about actually existed.  It was an idea, a dream, of what the Diocese would look like if ministry was better co-ordinated, and if we put more resources into helping the whole congregation (and not just the priest) do the ministry to which we have all been called.

A lot has changed since we had that conversation.  Now over half the parishes in the Diocese are engaged in some formal and deliberate way in the vision of Ministering Communities in Mission.  Over a third of the parishes have ministry teams actively in place, and there are now over 45 people in the process of being trained for ordination, and 15 people have ordained already as deacons and priests to work alongside our paid-clergy in the parishes of the Diocese.

When we began this conversation three years ago, I remember talking to you about the idea of starting a School of Theology – not a school that was just for people who could go away and live on a campus somewhere (as people had done at Morpeth in the past), but a virtual school for people from every parish of the Diocese.  Through which training could be offered in theology and in ministry to sustain and develop a new breed of leaders for our congregations.  Well, a lot has changed over the last three years.   We did start a School of Theology in 2007, and we have had over 200 people graduate from programmes (including some from this parish), and this year we have 125 people in training from across the Diocese.

Most of all, I remember when I was with you three years ago, talking about my deepest desire that each of the churches in this Diocese would spend more time focused on those people outside of the congregation, than those people who are already members.  Anyone can set up training and programmes, but they will count for nothing if they do not lead to people actually becoming re-invigorated with the task of sharing God’s love with others.  As I look around the regions of the Diocese,  I think that there have been some pockets of dramatic change over the last three years in relation to our approach to local mission.  All over the place there are small and fragile projects which are being started to try to make connections with local communities.  Some of those stories are told in our Diocesan newspaper each month.   They have taken local people a whole lot of energy and imagination to get them started, and they will take a whole lot more perseverance to keep going, but they represent a massive change of thinking and culture around our Diocese.

The way that Anglicans have understood mission has been changing slowly for many years.

There was a time when we presumed that all Australians were Christians, and that all that we needed to do was to build churches and ring the bells and people would come.  When that stopped happening (which was quite a long time ago) we largely carried on doing what we had done before, and simply concentrated on looking after the people who gathered week by week.  If there was to be outreach to those who lived around us we largely understood that to be the task of the person that we paid to lead ministry.

In my own life one of the most significant changes in understanding for me, was when someone told me that being a Christian was not so much like being a spectator at a football match, but much more like being a player on the field.    That deeply changed my understanding of who I am and where I fit into God’s plan.  For the first disciples of Jesus, the change in focus from ministry just amongst the Jews to ministry to everyone, was a world changing moment in their understanding of God’s love for the whole world.  The vision of Becoming Ministering Communities in Mission has, for many people in the Diocese, been a similarly significant change.

There has been significant change in our Diocese since I was last with you three years ago.  We are moving, across the Diocese, from an understanding of the Church being just for us, to being a Church

which is here for others.   Change is costly, and often painful.  But it can be transforming and joyful as well.  The question for us here at Mallabula, and at Williamtown and Medowie as well is, ‘are we going to be a part of it?’