Balkara Parish, Jan 30, 2013
Hello everyone. Thanks for your welcome, and especially your prayers, as I embark on this new part-time ministry within the Parish of Balkara in Oakleigh.
Apart from a few friends and colleagues who have come tonight to offer their support, not many of you know me at all well. It would perhaps be helpful, therefore, if I share with you something of what you can expect, and not expect, of your new minister: what you can rely on me for, and something of what you should not – under any circumstances - rely on me for.
First, you should not expect me to be a messiah-figure who will convince all your young people to return to church, solve your financial problems, and return the church to its former position as a place of power and influence in our society and culture. I am not the messiah, you see. And the reasons why the church is no longer at the centre of people’s lives are complex and long-standing. I cannot, and will not, resolve that situation any time soon - even though I understand the whys and wherefores of our situation better than most. Sorry about that! You can reply on me, however, to be a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. Repent, and believe the good news!’ You can rely on me, in other words, to be a witness, a witness in the midst of this community to an ancient way and word that - I believe with all my heart – indeed has the power to save us. But I am not myself that power. And you enjoy the liberty, of course, to do as you please with the witness I bring.
Second, you should not expect me to slavishly imitate the workaholism of Western capitalism, which values a person only if she or he can produce things – goods and services – that are valued by their social betters. I cannot be relied on to work frenetically, or for more hours that you have employed me for, or when I am sick or my family is sick. I won’t do it. Because to do so would be to conform myself not to the gospel of grace – a grace in which we are loved and valued by God quite apart from what we produce – but to the gospel of karma by which we must earn our salvation by the sweat of our brows. Instead, you can rely on me to bear witness to the love and beauty of God: a love which makes a nonsense of striving, because in Christ God has already given us everything we possibly need; and a beauty in which we may behold - if we will still ourselves long enough to notice - the good creation that God has given us, not as a reward for work, but as a gift. A gift, pure and simple. You can rely on me to bear witness to such things by my slow and steady method of work, and by my essentially contemplative spirit and imagination.
Finally, you should not expect me to immediately do and say things as they have always been done and said. You cannot rely upon me to support and confirm whatever projects you have personally or collectively taken upon yourselves. You should not assume that the new minister will immediately see the goodness and sound logic of the ways and means by which the congregation or the parish or the Presbytery runs and follows its course. Why? Well firstly (and this is perhaps very obvious) you may find that I’m just not very bright. What is obvious to all and sundry may not be obvious to me! In this circumstance, I beg your patience as I seek to listen and understand. It might take a while, but even the dimmest person can get there in the end. And so shall I! But there is a second reason why I may not immediately come to the party, and it is this: sometimes, despite devoting considerable time and effort to a desire to understand, I simply will not come to see a harmony between the word and Spirit of God in which I have immersed my life and the way things are commonly thought and done. In such circumstances, you can rely on me to be somewhat contrary, even iconoclastic. In such circumstances, you can rely on me to carefully explain the difference between what already is, and the new thing God would bring into being. I will do so, of course, as gently and carefully as I can. I will do so in a spirit of service which wants only good for you, and not ill. But I will not demure from my calling. Where I perceive a difference between the ‘way of the world’ and the way of Jesus Christ, you can rely on me to bear witness to the way of the gospel, even if it renders me rather unpopular in the process. Coming from a long line of dissidents, as I do - Irish, Aboriginal, Christian - I am quite prepared for that if it is God’s will.
So there you have it. That is what you can expect, and not expect, from your new minister and, indeed, from any minister of Jesus Christ. For the calling I’ve described this evening is not mine by virtue of my individual personality or personal vocation. It is mine because I am called into a company of people and an order of ministry. It is a vocation in which all ministers are called to share. This is so by the gracious call and election of God which, in my experience at least, is completely irresistible.
In that spirit, I should like to conclude with a prayer of John Wesley, which we are encouraged to pray each year at the renewal of baptismal vows, my friends, if not every day:
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will; rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or laid aside for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing.
And now most glorious God
- Father, Son and Holy Spirit –
you are mine and I am yours.
May it be so for ever,
to the glory and praise of your name. Amen