Part 1 – Membership: being an Active Disciple
QUC 2019 Membership (PDF)
But as for you, person of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time–he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Some weeks ago, I shared with you an understanding of membership derived from the way that the Regulations of the Uniting Church describe what is involved in the act of Confirmation (Reg. 1.3.3).
In my understanding, this regulation looks for people to make commitments, as members of the church, in various ways: first, the foundational faith commitment, traditionally expressed in terms of commitment to Jesus as “Saviour and Lord”; and second, an active and practical commitment to the local community of faith in Queanbeyan, in four specific ways.
Affirming our commitment to this community means, first of all, active discipleship in our daily life. Our discipleship is not measured primarily by what we do on Sunday, but by our deeds and words on each and every day of the week. It seems to me that, after expressing faith in Jesus, this aspect is the primary measure of membership.
Good members are active disciples. How that is expressed is worked out differently by each person, in accord with the gifts that the Spirit has given them, for their specific ministries.
Alongside this, there is a commitment to active participation in the fellowship of the Church, which can encompass the various ways that we gather together under the umbrella of QUC: in Sunday morning worship, in the weekly Jumble gathering, in the fortnightly BS group, in the regular bible study groups of the congregation, in the prayer group, in the Messy Church gatherings, in Friendship group gatherings, and in other ways that QUC people gather together.
Good members participate regularly in fellowship. Participation in any one, or more, of these gatherings contributes to the overall sense of fellowship that we share as a community of faith. No one gathering is of more weight or more significance than any other.
Membership also involves active support for the work of the church. This can be in physical ways, through providing morning tea or mowing the grass or counting the offerings or reading scripture in worship or leading worship in the aged care facility or praying regularly for the people of the church and the mission of the church … and in many more ways.
It can also be in financial ways, through contributing a regular offering to support the work of the church (and such offerings may be given electronically or directly during worship). Good members are supportive of the ministry and mission of the church.
It is also clear that membership involves a commitment to work for the reign of God in human society. This can take many and varied forms: assisting in preparation of meals for the needy at St Benedict’s, participation in rallies relating to climate justice or justice for refugees, serving with Meals on Wheels or visiting people in a hospital or an aged care facility, taking people shopping when their mobility is limited or providing meals for people whose domestic situation is difficult, and in so many more ways.
Good members are working for the health and flourishing of others in society.
In association with supporting the mission and ministry of the church, and seeking the reign of God in our society, we might reasonably expect that good members are also willing to bear witness to their faith commitment, to offer words alongside of deeds, to speak about their faith as they participate in fellowship and serve others in need, to testify to their faith as they stand for justice and work to encourage one another.
It is thus essential for us to talk about what we value, to testify to the one who loves us, to share faith in appropriate ways with others. That might provide a fifth mark of the church: good members are committed to discipling others.
Of course, this looks like a long and daunting list. And it is! Probably there is no one of us who could affirm that we do all of these things each and every week of our lives. Yet, the list is aspirational (we aspire to be like this) and visionary (this is what we imagine we could be like). It is a good list for us to commit to.
And, it is clear that, for some people, because of their stage of life, their physical or emotional capacities, their health situation, or because of other factors, a full expression of these criteria is not possible. For such people, who have been faithful and committed members of the church over past years, their membership of the Congregation is surely to be affirmed and celebrated, alongside those of us still able to be more active in the various ways outlined.
So, today, I invite you to take these key markers of healthy, active membership, reflect on them, and consider how it is that you meet each of these markers. We will spend some time in quiet, reflective prayer; and then I will offer the opportunity for us all to affirm that this understanding of membership is one that we each can stand with, as we publicly affirm our commitment, as members, to this Congregation within the Uniting Church in Australia.
So let us reflect, in silence.
Part 2 – Discernment: Knowing What God Wants
Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.”’
Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.”
Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
Then I knew, that this was the word of the Lord. I knew, says Jeremiah, that this was what God wanted of me. I knew, he asserted, that I was able to hear and respond to a direct charge from God. Do this. And he did. Jeremiah discerned the will of God. He heard the word of God. He acted in the way that God had told him to act.
Last week, we heard of the despair of Jeremiah. My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick, he lamented. The people cry out from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” Life, for Jeremiah, as for all of his fellow Israelites who had been besieged and oppressed by the Babylonian forces, was grim. Doom and despair were the dominant emotions of the time. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved, the people lamented. My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick, Jeremiah cried.
Today, we encounter Jeremiah in a different place. He is optimistic. He is positive. He appears to have come to grips with the situation of seige. He is planning for a future in his homeland. He knows what he needs to do. He has heard God speak to him, and he is responding, in faith, with determination.
The word of the LORD came to me: ‘Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth.” So, I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.
Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.
By this very public act, then, recounted in such detail, the newly-confident Jeremiah indicated that he had, indeed, discerned the will of the Lord. He knew what to do. He was committed to life in Israel, even as foreign forces held power over the Israelites. He was buying property, putting down his roots, envisaging a promising future, setting out in hope.
Most strikingly of all, Jeremiah is sure that what he is doing is in accord with the express will of God. He knew what to do. He had discerned the will of God.
If only it were so simple, for us.
If only we could hear a voice, and act in obedience, knowing that we had discerned the will of God.
In a prayer attributed to King Solomon of Israel (recorded by a wise teacher in ancient Israel in a book entitled the Wisdom of Solomon 9:13), we read:
For who can learn the counsel of God?
Or who can discern what the Lord wills?
For Solomon, the wise ruler of Israel, it seems that discernment was an elusive thing. How can we really know what God wants?
Nevertheless, as Paul writes to the Romans, he asserts:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2)
and to the Corinthians, he affirms:
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them
because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:14-16).
Then, in 1 Cor 12:10, Paul makes it clear that one of the gifts of the spirit relates to the ability to make a discerning choice about “spirits”; to discern who speaks in ways that God motivates, and who does not. The same gift is noted at 1 John 4:1. Likewise, in 1 Cor 14:39, Paul instructs the Corinthians, in their worship, to be sure to undertake discernment when someone is speaking in the manner of a prophet, proclaiming the word of the Lord.
So Paul affirms that discernment is, indeed, something that people of faith are able to undertake, and, in fact, are called to be involved in. With prayerful attention to the stirrings of the Spirit, it is possible, according to scripture, to know what God wills for us.
In this congregation, we will be asked to undertake some discernment in the coming months. We need to renew our leadership team. We will be electing new members of Church Council, and one of them as Chairperson. We also need to elect office bearers for our Congregation, and consider who will be our representative to Presbytery.
You can see the timetable for this process on the screen. You should each have received the monthly newsletter that sets out the process and provides you with nomination forms to use. I have hard copies of nomination forms available today as well.
So this process of nomination, discernment and election needs to occur before we move on to consider ministry staffing in this Congregation in 2020 and beyond. And, in doing so, we will need to undertake a process of discernment.
So, what is involved in discernment?
During my years in ministry, I have had the opportunity, in various roles I have had, to be involved in a number of conversations where the focus has been on discernment. Conversations with colleagues in different roles, in different places, with different responsibilities, about different issues and regarding different possibilities. It is not always straightforward. But it is something that we need to attend to, expecting that we will be able to discern what God is calling us to do.
Discernment means figuring out the best course of action and identifying the wisest way ahead; it means clarifying the most sensible thing to do.
Discernment means working out the clearest way of responding to an opportunity that arises or an invitation that someone else offers or a sense of “I’ve got to …” that burbles up from the inside.
Discernment takes place through talking sensitively and debating vigorously, as well as through listening carefully and praying intentionally. It means stepping up to meet a challenge, as well as sitting back to listen carefully to the possibilities. It means asking the right questions as well as considering carefully the answers that are provided.
Discernment takes place by collecting data from a wide range of sources and exploring strategies with a number of variables factored in. It means being prepared to test options, to review and redevelop scenarios, to identify the key markers and sketch out the best and most suited plans. It entails a willingness to be stretched as well as a desire to consolidate.
Discernment requires that we connect honestly with our emotions and know “how we are feeling” about the possibilities; it means engaging seriously with our minds, so that we carefully think through the pathway ahead; and when it is done well and robustly, it means making commitments which, although informed by data and planning, are commitments which are undertaken in faith and with hope.
Discernment. It’s a strange word and can be an unsettling process. It’s a necessity of life, however—especially in the church, where we say we want to be open to the leading of God’s spirit and sensitive to the call of God on our lives. It can be scary, but also envigorating. It can feel exhausting, but can also be energising.
Discernment. At this time in the life of our Congregation, we are called to engage in discernment, in a prayerful, hopeful spirit. I invite you to walk that way, in that spirit, over the coming weeks.