Under a flame-red sky
Sermon for the closure of ministry of Moderator Rev. Simon Hansford by Rev. Graham Perry, Presbytery Minister, The Hunter Presbytery September 06, 2023.
Readings: Exodus 3, Matthew 16
May your Word to us, O God,
Be a light in dark places when all other lights fail. Amen.
Way, way back, in time beyond our dreaming, Nicole Fleming stopped me in the Corridors Of Power (just around the corner near the faculty offices.)
“Graham, I need you to help me with something important. I’ve seen a sign! This will change everything, and possibly save the Uniting Church as we know it.”
“Go on”, says I, “I’m all ears”.
“I want you to second my nomination of Simon for Moderator!”
I paused “Why, don’t you like him anymore?”
So began the process which led to the only successful vote I have ever cast in a Synod meeting. Simon’s election led to many exciting things, including:
- a lot of uppity rural churches thinking they might be just as important as the Big City ones;
- a total blowout in the Synod travel budget,
- an unprecedented outbreak of poetry in Synod mailouts;
- indeed, Simon’s moderatorship appears to have led directly to the Covid pandemic.
Simon, and Fiona, it has been a long journey, sometimes arduous, whether bowling once more down the New England Highway, walking on country, talanoa in the Pacific, or frustratingly stuck in endless Covid isolation. All of these are signs of ministry in our times.
I love the texts God gave us for Sunday this week.
I see Simon, tending his flock in the wilderness beyond Hallsville, when behold, the evening sky takes on a reddish tinge.
Out of the mystic bonfire come (first some singed rabbits) then the Divine Voice:
“Simon, Simon, take off the RMs from your feet, if you can, for you are standing on holy ground!”
From that time on, we read, Simon began to realise that he must go to Pitt Street and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes…
It has been the gift of Simon to the church that, a little like Moses, he caught a vision of what the ministry of Moderator could be. Not as a chance to get his name engraved on some new toilet blocks; but as a chance to walk the whole Synod as if it were holy ground.
Moses felt Adonai’s compassion for the Hebrews:
‘I have seen the plight of my people; I have heard their cry. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.
So a leader who is also a Minister will first feel the church’s need as God feels it; sharing the sense of divine compassion that our Good Shepherd Jesus felt for the lost sheep of Israel.
Moses felt ill-equipped, and God gave him the strength he needed. Simon’s passion for this Uniting Church, his commitment to its integrity and flourishing are the gift which covers all Simon’s shortcomings.
In a singular way, Simon sees, hears, knows this church. Simon does not need to be Moses, or Jesus, to see and hear and know the real struggles and anxieties, the hopes and perplexity of the church in the world today, and the world seeking the church today.
Following his apostolic namesake, Simon has been one of the many rocks on which Christ builds his church, against which the gates of Hell may not prevail.
I say this not to blow smoke up Simon’s alb, but to honour a friend who continues to inspire many, including myself, to stay the course, to keep this faith and not lose heart on the road.
Under a flame-red sky, in the glow of a burning bush Moses heard Yahweh, the God Who IS, mourning, yearning, impassioned for a people who Were Not.
Under our flame-red Australian sky we look for a sign that the church will revive, grow, flourish as it did in earlier years.
Instead, the sign we receive is the sign of the cross, an invitation to follow Christ into suffering and death. And the warning that all we hold onto, we are likely to lose – that saving our life is a sure path to losing our soul.
Matthew riffs on the Greek word psyche, translated life in modern English –
Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it –
But ‘life’ seems a word too banal.
I hear life as heartbeat, breath, energy, sweat. To lose my life for Christ’s sake? There’s not much chance of being martyred in this pulpit – and I have my Mercer Super plan to fall back on.
The soul, the psyche, connotes more than simply my life. My psych-ologist relates my mind to my heart, asks how my anxious fears shape my actions in spite of my commonsense.
My soul encompasses my whole self as a complex of needs, desires, will, thoughts, feelings, sense, vocation and gift. My soul engages even my relationships – both with the people I love and those I fear.
My soul is not some trapped, immortal part of me. No detachable ghost will leap free from my cold corpse. My soul is embodied; I am dust, and to dust will return. But within this body I, too, am who I am.
I have spirit-mana, love and faith, sin and fear, calling and truth, my soul is all of me, where the God Who Is can reach and claim me.
I love my life; I’ll keep it, or die trying, but to lose my soul is death beyond all dying.
Does the Uniting Church have a psyche?
We certainly have a life – a property portfolio, bank accounts, ministers to pay, meetings to hold, commitments, obligations.
It might be argued that our leaders are there to save the church’s life – to maintain our reputation, keep us relevant, get us on TV for the right reasons, keep the lights on in every postcode, to do what it takes to make us shine.
But could the Uniting Church so struggle to save its life that it – that we – risk losing our soul?
That dreadful fear should keep a moderator awake at night, reminding himself – or herself – of the church’s vocation, God’s call to spend our life on the way of the cross so that we might truly have a soul worth saving.
Moderator, Brother, you helped keep our eyes open to see our soul beneath the daily life of the Secretariat, the Synod Board. You have shown us the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field, the gift and charism of God’s Uniting Church.
You’ve reminded us of the deep connection we cultivate with this land; in the sharing between black and white, first and latest, the crossings of many cultures. You’ve reminded us that unity comes before purity, that judgement is revealed as joyful reconciliation.
These things may not grow wealth or riches. These days, they don’t fill congregations or pay for pastors. But in poetic words of hope, joy, peace and love, in deep treasures of prayerfulness, old and new, You’ve reminded us that this church has a soul to save.
Under the flame-red sky of these troubling times we may give up more and more of our church’s life. Numbers down, ages up, this building sold, that mission closed. But the soul of the church you’ve held in sacred trust, our precious gift of life, will not be lost.
We, like Peter, rebel against your call. I don’t want to carry a cross!
And like Peter, we seem to miss that these words too are yours: On the third day I will be raised!
And I will come to reward each one for their praxis, their pains, what they have done on the cross-carrying road together.
This Uniting Church is holy ground on which we meet the God Who Is; the God who sees, hears and knows us, the God who bears the cross, to bring life out of death, to touch and save our Soul.
To this God, the God of Moses, Peter and our Lord Jesus Christ; rejoicing in the Spirit for Simon’s gift of service to us, we give thanks and praise beneath a flame-red sky both now and forever.
Rev. Graham Perry