The three Bible readings we had today talk of God’s faithfulness to his people down through the ages.
In first Samuel after a miraculous victory over the philistines, Samuel erects a stone pillar that he called ‘Ebenezer’ which means, “thus far God has helped us.” acknowledging that Israel’s continued survival was and is and will be because of God’s faithful love and grace. All who passed the stone and remembered it would remember ‘thus far God has helped us’.
In the reading from Luke chapter 1 John the Baptist’s father Zechariah gives thanks and points to the fulfilment of God’s promise to save his people and that John the Baptist would be the herald of that new age. In this advent season we focus on the coming of Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s help and faithful love throughout Israel’s history and we look and await for his second coming to bring that to completion. We’ve been working our way through Luke chapter 7 this past month and in the way the crowd responded to Jesus rising of the widow’s son at Nain we hear an echo of Ebenezer… “God has come to help his people”… In Jesus God has come to save his people.
Then the third reading was from the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church and the promise of the presence of the Holy Spirit for all who repented and were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. A promise that was not just for that time and that place but of God’s ongoing faithfulness and presence and help off into the future, not just for you, but for your children and your children’s children, not just for those gathered but for those far off. A promise of God’s on going presence and help… It means we as a church two thousand very odd years later can equally acknowledge our ‘Ebenezer’ thus far God has helped us’ and look to the future trusting God for the Spirit’s on-going presence, leading guidance and help.
We have a couple of stones in the garden out the front of the church. The one that I call the Narnia garden, it’s like the lamp post wilderness in CS Lewis’ wonderful books. They are not massive majestic mounds of marble, or proud prominent pillars they are just simple rocks, probably put there for decorative purposes… but when I drive past them I am reminded of ‘Ebenezer’ of God’s faithfulness and presence of the fact that ‘Thus far God has helped us.’
We also want to acknowledge people who have been pillars in this congregation. Our three elders who are retiring today and those who hold that wonderful title of elder Emeritus Retired eleders) in our midst and say thank you for your faithful service and for faithfully being prepared to give, to care and to lead trusting in God’s faithfulness living out the hope we have that thus far God has helped us.
I don’t know Miles and Anne and Owen, if you know but you’ve been involved in church leadership in historically what has been one of the hardest times for the church in the western world. Leonrad sweet calls it being the church in the perfect storm... It’s been a time of unprecedented change. Technological change, population change, societal change, cultural change: We are living more and more in a post-Christendom world, a country where Ian Grant says most new Zealanders have forgotten which denomination their grandparents were staying away from. A post Christian world, where the Christian worldview and faith are no longer in the centre of western thought, rather we are being pushed to the fringe, some would even say the lunatic fringe. On a more practical scale the explosion of multiculturalism, with its wonderful benefits but great challenges as well. Auckland now is one of the top ten most culturally diverse cities in the world. The world is literally our neighbourhood. We live in a post forty age, and no that’s not a dig at your advancing age, rather the reality that the forty hour week and the single income is not enough for people to survive, the church used to be held together by volunteer work mainly by women who didn’t work, but now we are faced with on-going work pressures and limited time, the need for longer hours and two income families, even seniors work long into their retirement. We are dealing with a consumer age, those who want to go to church are prepared to travel to get what they want, you just have to look at the mega churches that have sprung up at all the motorway onramps. We live in a post institutional time, did you know more people run than ever before but athletics clubs find it hard to keep going. More people are into spiritual things but institutional religion is not as popular. I could go on…
It would be easy as Leonard sweet says to simply ‘hunker in the bunker and try and ride this storm of change out, but the challenge for the church is to unfurl the sails and see where the wind of the spirit will take us… and you’ve managed to keep the place here going open to the wind of the spirit and yes growing, there is new growth there is greening and growth tips, new mission buds pregnant with possibility new generations replacing the old, new people replacing those who leave, in our continually more and more mobile world. It is time for you to serve in God’s ongoing mission in different ways.
Over the past few months the parish council have been working on a five year plan for the Church, its part of the on-going process of looking to the future that we’ve been doing for quite a while now. But as we’ve been working on it I’ve sort of being seeing it emerge in the shape of a Celtic-cross like you might see on a hill or a coastline, acting as an Ebenezer... to remind of of God's ongoing help. The one behind me (see right is in Oihi Bay in Northland, it is the Marsden cross and marks the spot where the gospel was first preached by a missionay in New Zealand (although Maori had heard responded and shared the gospel befoe then). The plan looks to the future and says thus far (into the future) God has helped’. It’s been a bit of a hard process actually looking five years into the future… But I want to share with you where we are up to… as part of inviting to you to come and join us making steps and planning and working our way forward.
At the centre of it all is our vision statement. What we believe God is calling us to be which is … “ a vibrant, authentic, sustainable community, growing as followers of Jesus and inspiring others to join us on that journey.”: That we are a Christ like community, growing in that Christ likeness and growing as people respond to Christ.
How we put that into action is expressed in our mission statement that at St Peter’s we… worship God, support each other and reach out in love. The could say that gives our vision some wheel. Then we’ve been looking at how that works in reality what are core and important areas that we need to work at to see that vision become a reality through that mission… and we identified eight significant areas and we’ve established an objective for each of these areas. Which I’ve divided into four quadrants like the four arms of a cross… but they are all interconnected. Being in the sahpe of a cross also reminds of the cruciform shape of the Christian life... it calls us to be prepepared for sacrifical living in response to Christs sacrifice for us.
Two have to do with readying us for mission… Christian education and leadership. (click for words) Our objective in five years when it comes to Christian education is that an effective age appropriate small group is available for every person in the St Peter’s Community… We want to build on the short term and occasional small groups that are run at St peter’s we want to see our children ministry grow and we are aware of the priority that youth ministry is becoming. (click for words) In leadership our objective is the development of leadership in all areas be a priority and we have in place processes for identifying, training and mentoring new leaders and providing training opportunities for, and reviews of existing leadership…
We need to continually be renewed for mission so we see prayer and worship as important.(click for words) The objective in prayer is that Prayer be a vibrant part of St Peter’s life reflected in a variety of practises. We can often forget that a vibrant prayer life is foundational for the church. (click for words) Our objective for worship is very similar that worship is a vibrant part of St Peter’s life reflected in a variety of different styles. And as we’ve begun to set goals for each of these objectives one that has come up for worship is that in five years’ time we will have established a second worship service… Either here or somewhere else.
The third arm is relationships, pastoral care and community outreach. For pastoral care our objective is that pastoral care is extended to all, by both lay people and the minister so that everyone receives appropriate pastoral care. And community outreach is that we build on strengthen and expand existing community contacts by listening , helping to meet needs and building bridges that can bring others to faith. Once again as we’ve looked at goals to meet these objectives we are hoping to have a men’s ministry established that will provide for the husbands and partners of our mainly music and playgroup families and our won men’s needs. A first step is simply to arrange to go together to a super rugby game in the New Year. That actually helps address a perceived need as In the Herald recently it reported on research into men in New Zealand that said men find it hard to have places to make new friendships and are likely to be isolated and cut off in the community.
Finally we have resourcing for our mission… the two areas of finance and property. For property that ‘through a diversity of income streams that the finances are able to resource the ongoing mission of St Peter’s’ full credit to our finance team that they have been good at looking at different ways to fund our mission. With property that St Peter’s property continues to meet the needs of the mission of St Peter’s and that tenants at St Peter’s reflect St Peter’s mission. So often congregations can simply continue to maintain a building rather than the finances and property be seen as being there for the mission of the congregation.
The parish Council is planning to have a retreat day in the new year to invite people to come and be part of taking the steps to meets those objectives of continuing to look to the future trusting in our Ebenezer that so far God is our help… to faithful move forward trusting the God who has been with us in the past and is with us today…