Wed, 16 November 2016
The Tradition of Christmas a wonderful collection of 15 carols is still available.
To purchase this album as a download via iTunes click on this button:
The two artists are members of the congregation. Heather Gillies who is a tallented vocalist who has performed leading roles in Musical Theatre and Opera both in Australia and her native New Zealand. Most recently she was the opening artist for the Mayor's Carols here in Toowoomba.
The organist is Don Ross, an accomplished church organist who took over playing at St Stephen's over 30 years ago.
The purpose of the album is to promote and celebrate the 150th anniversary of the congregation and to raise some funds for the clebrations.
The album contains 15 traditional carols recorded live at St Stephen's in Toowoomba Australia and a number of tracks have some wonderful harmonies.
The tracks are:
Angels we have heard on high uThe birthday of a king
The first noel uHark the herald angels
Joy to the world uO come all ye faithful
O holy night uO little town of Bethlehem
Silent night uWhat child is this?
Once in royal David's city uInfant holy, infant lowly
The Coventry Carol u Away in a manger
We wish you merry Christmas
Category:general -- posted at: 3:22pm AEDT
Fri, 11 November 2016
Focus Reading Isa 65:17-25 Direct Download click here
Have you ever been at the sales point at a shop and been greeted by a sales assistant who adds to your day. They smile, they are polite, without being pushy or holding you up they engage in genuine conversation. You leave with the impression that they saw you as a person and not merely as a customer or client. The book of Revelation borrows the term ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ from today’s Isaiah reading. (Isa 65: ) In Revelation we get the idea that eternal life is one long worship service but in Isaiah we see it as meaningful and rewarding work. On this stewardship Sunday I want you to think about how you support the church, but even more I want you to think about how your work, your volunteering, your social activities, your friendships and your family can bring glory to God. As a child perhaps no-one dreams of being a sales assistant in a chain store, but as a Christian, in that setting and every setting, you can witness to a little bit of heaven.
How much more heavenly is your world because of your Christian witness? What would God’s “Kingdom come, God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven” look and feel like?
Fri, 11 November 2016
Is a new Reformation needed?
I am part of an unusual group. Once a week a group gets together to discuss a book with Christian or theological themes or to study the Bible. The group includes one atheist, a couple who might be described as liberal or progressive, two to three other people of moderate views and me. If I had to put myself in a box I would describe myself as evangelical and reformed but not fundamentalist.
As a group we have read a number of books by authors as diverse as John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Bart Erhman, NT Wright, Robin Myers, and CS Lewis. Sometimes the discussion is very robust. Usually we are on good terms but occasionally we lose our tempers. I believe I am the worst offender, the chief of sinners in this regard. We usually enjoy a splendid morning tea.
One of our main topics is that of the nature of God and God’s relationship to Jesus. Another is how relevant God and the church is and how relevant our particular view of God is. Often our conversations centre over doctrine and dogma, our beliefs about things. Was Jesus really the Son of God, God incarnate, truly God and human in one person or was he a human being who was just more in tune with the divine than most of us.
Do we need a revolution or a re-formation in our understanding of God and the church which exists in God’s name? Is God up in the clouds, up there, out there, other, or is God the depth or Ground of being, to be found as the divine spark of being in every human soul? Can we believe all that stuff about God being, three yet one, and in the miraculous? Who could believe in the resurrection of Jesus let alone the general resurrection of the body at the end of time?
In the late 60s there was a watershed in the church in the West and in western culture. From then and through the 1970s large numbers of people, baby boomers in particular stopped going to church. The causes of this are somewhat difficult to identify. People like Bishop Robinson with his Honest to God and following in his footsteps Spong and Robin Myers argue that the cause of this exodus was that no-one could believe that stuff anymore. Picking up the ideas of Tillich and others they argue that we have an outmoded view of God which leads us to be inward looking and to focus all our attention on salvation rather than on the world, and our neighbours. The title of Myers’ book, “Saving Jesus from the Church: how to stop worshipping Christ and start following Jesus” is an expression of this. Although I’ve not read it Spong’s Christianity must change or die picks up similar themes.
In contrast in both Protestant and Catholic circles there has been an opposite reaction to the kind of thing represented by Spong, Myers and others. The problem with the church, some argue is that it has become too liberal, too progressive. Conservative Protestants and Pentecostals argue we must return to the fundamentals of the faith. We must hold to a literal reading of the creeds as a test of small “o” orthodox faith. The Bible is the “word for word” inspired word of God dictated by the Holy Spirit, and is not only without error but is mostly to be read very literally. The problem is, they argue, that we have abandoned the well spring of truth and cut of from that truth, of course we are withering from thirst without the water of life. On the other hand there are Catholics who wish to return to the Latin right and feel that it was the reforms of the Second Vatican Council are where all the rot set in. The church was strong in the 60s. In the year of my birth 1967 Pius XII seminary peaked with 134 students, the churches wore packed and the service was in Latin including the reading of the Scripture and the priest faced away from the people, often behind a screen. It was in the same year when this all changed that the church began to decline, they argue.
I can not speak for the Catholic church, but it seems to me that for us Protestants at least that we actually need to take a longer view. The figures are very rubbery but in Australia and in the UK at least the high water marks for the churches was really around 1900 and the 1950s and early 1960s. Between the wars there seems to have been quite a lull but when world war 2 came the churches filled and remained full to overflowing right through to the 1960s. If anything protestant theology was more liberal from the 19th century through to the mid 20th century than it is now.
Some time in the early 1900s Presbyterian churches seemed to abandon the saying of the creeds, in 1934 one of my predecessors at St Stephen’s elected moderator of the New South Wales Assembly argued “the need for a restatement of Presbyterian beliefs in the light of modern knowledge... He declared that many of the old beliefs were rendered impossible by the teaching of modern science.” (Canberra Times 16 May 1934) He went on to ask “Is religion the only one that must lag behind because it is tied to a, chariot wheel of outworn creeds?" (Ibid) This view about creeds and so on goes back much earlier, as early as the 17th century. Most famously William Wilberforce did not receive his degree from Cambridge until years after he earned it. It was a requirement that in order to receive your degree you had to agree to the Creed. It was not until his evangelical conversion that he was able to sign off on the creed. Unlike many of his contemporaries he was always a man of principle.
The liberal project that had it’s beginning in the 17th century was losing momentum by the interwar period. It reached it’s climax with people like Bultmann and von Harnack. It was reexpressed by people like Tillich and Robinson, and in more recent years by Borg, Spong and Myers. There was a feeling after world war one and especially after the horrors of world war two that the liberal project had failed. The liberal German church had not stood up in either World War One or Two and it did not seem to be able to cope with the evils either of war or the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust. In response to these failures the theologies of Barth - Dogmatics , Moltmann - The Crucified God, Pannenberg - Jesus God and Man and TF Torrence Space Time and the Incarnation were born. These theologians all returned to the central figure of Jesus as the primary source of our knowledge of, our connection with, and our salvation by God. Revelation was firmly back in the centre. We only truly know God because God is revealed to us, not because we can find God within ourselves or creation. God may be there but God is only revealed to us in Jesus who in turn is ultimately revealed in the Bible. The Uniting church’s founding document strongly influenced by Barth puts it like this: When we preach Christ our preaching is to be “controlled by the Biblical witnesses”. (Basis of Union Paragraph 5)
I may be very wrong but I believe that the maiin reasons people no longer attend church is because of the shift from the coporate to the individual and away from the community and the corporate and an increase in affluence which means that we don’t think we need God. We create our own meaning and if there is a problem, the government, the doctor, our health insurance, our savings etc. will rescue us. Life is about self realization. What the church teaches whether it is Catholic, or Protestant, Pentecostal or Eastern Orthodox, is God realization. That is God’s love for us is a gift in Jesus Christ. We go on to say that in the light of this gift we should stop living for ourselves, stop trying to create our own meaning, and live to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength and that we should love our neighbours as ourselves.
It is not surprising therefore that in Australia at least 47% of non attenders give the reason that church is “irrelevant to my life” as the main reason they do not attend church. The same research indicated that only 14% do not attend because they do not believe in Jesus and the Bible. ( ‘Social Change, Spiritual Trends: Christianity in Australia Today’ Mccrindle Research 2012(??)) The truth is the church gives away (or as a Protestant I would say advertises) a free product that much of Western culture does not want to buy. Instead of self fulfilment we present a God filling life of community. Instead of offering people a better way to go their own way we tell people about the way of Jesus. We tell people that “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and gave us his son as the means by which our sin might be forgiven. If God has loved us this much, then we should love one another.” So not only do we tell them they can not create their own meaning and value because it is a gift, we tell them that they must live for the other, for God and for their neighbour.
So do we need a new re-formation? One answer might be to say that we need to give the culture what it wants; we need to become a self help and self realisation organisation. You will not be surprised to learn that, that is not my view. I think at times though this is what we do. We try to make the church relevant telling people that if they join us they will live longer, be more prosperous, be happier and find their unique God given purpose for the fulfilment of their lives.
Another approach might be to ask ourselves if we are really striving to point beyond ourselves to God and our neighbour, and equipping ourselves to tell that story and live that truth outside the walls of our buildings?
In recent decades there has been a realisation that there is a profound interconnectedness in the created world. A photon separated by hundreds of kilometers from it’s entangled mate will rotate in a predictable maner mirroring it’s mate, possibly instantaneously and at least 10, 000 times faster than the speed of light. (http://www.livescience.com/28550-how-quantum-entanglement-works-infographic.html). I have no idea what this says about God if anything, but it does say that for human beings and all creation that we are not necessarily as divided or as individual as we think we are. Notions of God being three yet one are not so far fetched and frankly are easier for me to explain than Quantum Physics.
I think it is here that a re-formation might be needed. Just as the Father and the Son and Spirit give themselves to each other and all creation, including to human beings, so that “his Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the Children of God, and so we cry out to God Abba, Father” so we are called not to define ourselves in terms doctrine, denominations or institutions, necessary evils though they may be, but in terms of relationships which witness to the relationship we have with God and each other, and with all creation.
To give just one example, whatever we believe about the Lord’s table, The Supper, Eucharist, Communion, it would be wonderful to find a way to share it which says that relationships with God and with each other in Christ by the Spirit are more important than doctrine, or denomination. And this is not just a church thing, because we also need to find a way to see the table of our non believing neighbour, and our neighbour of another faith as places where we with Christ can be the guest.
In other words perhaps we could reform the church so that our fellow Christians and our neighbours are welcome to join in our fellowship at the Lord’s table, and we could take our relationship with God in Jesus to the tables of our neighbours.
Presenter & Author: Andrew Gillies
Category:Theology and reflection -- posted at: 4:00pm AEDT
Sat, 5 November 2016
When I was a high school English teacher, I shared the Lyrics of the Midnight Oil song - The Forgotten Yearswith my year 11 English class.
As they looked at the lyrics and listened to the song one said to me "Sir, you've made a mistake! This line should read ‘seasons of war and peace', not ‘seasons of war and grace'". But I hadn't made a mistake because Midnight Oil's song was reflecting on the idea that our nation has never been invaded in a major conflict and that it had been two to three generations since we were involved as a whole nation in a large scale war. (This was before September 11 2001)
"Grace" is a Christian word which means God loves us and forgives us even though we don't deserve it. Through most of Christian history not just most Catholics but most Protestants and Orthodox alike all believe that if we ask God will forgive us for whatever we have done wrong. This might sound unfair. And you're right! It is unfair.
We live in a "season of grace". For at least 30 years we have lived in a time of unfair gift.
This time of peace and prosperity has been given to us, especially people my age and younger, even though we done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Others have made sacrifices so we could live in peace and security.
With Remembrance Day on Monday we would do well to make sure the war years and all those who served should not be “forgotten”. They have given us non servicemen, a season of grace, a gift we do not deserve- a gift like that of God in Jesus upon the cross.
Image credit: stevemeese / 123RF Stock Photo
Fri, 28 October 2016
[EDIT 5/11]If you follow this link you will find very short reflection on this Sunday's Reading.
After listening to that you might want to check out this video.
Have you ever been unexpectedly invited to a wedding, or a meal, or invited someone, a friend or family member who you thought would not come, or have you been invited to some special function at a place you thought you would never go.
In the ancient world a meal was a sign of relationship. When you were welcomed into someone’s house, they were saying they were your friend. If a person of great honour came, a King, a Rabbi, a priest, then your life could change quite radically.
This is the turning point in the life and story of Zacchaeus. Tax collectors did not get important people coming to their houses. No one was prepared to be publically known as their friend. When Jesus says to Zaccheus, I want to stay at your house, he was giving him friendship and honour greater than anything he would ever have known in his life.
From that moment his life was transformed for in being Zacchaeus’ guest Jesus was saying “you are my brother, a child of God and your home is the home of God.”
Questions for thought and discussion.
What was the most significant meal of your life? What made it so? How do you respond to the idea that Jesus wants to be your honoured guest? How could the guest Jesus transform your life and the lives of your friends and families?
Fri, 28 October 2016
Focus reading: Luke 19:1-10 Direct Download link Proper_26_c.mp3
At the Wavell Heights congregation there was a wonderful woman by the name of Jean Ferguson. Jean in her 70s and 80s ran a young mothers group and took a lively and genuine interest in what the young people of the church were doing. She had been an Australian pioneer in the kindergarten and day care area and had written some of the first text books on the subject. Whenever a child came to the church especially when Sunday School was in recess she would take him or her under her wing. They loved her. But there was one more impressive thing that she did. Every Sunday lunch she had a minimum of 12 people round for lunch and frequently had as many as 24. Young and old, children, young people, young couples, churched and unchurched - everyone. I had the great privilege of being her guest on only one occasion, but it was probably the thing that struck me about her most and the thing I will best remember her for.
Jean’s ministry of hospitality was very powerful for literally hundreds if not thousands of people. In Jesus’ time meals were even more important than ours. His eating with sinners and tax collectors like Zacchaeus was so powerful that it transformed people’s lives. In effect he was saying that all who would seek to be in relationship are embraced by God. That includes you, and me, and even those we might consider to be beyond the pale. All are welcome.
Questions for thought or discussion.
Have there been occasions in your life when you have been made to feel accepted and included because you have been invited to a meal? How willing are we to offer the kind of hospitality Jesus did? Are we even prepared to do the kind of thing Jean did? How open is our church to those who are different? How open are we to sinners like Zacchaeus?
Image credit: justaa / 123RF Stock Photo
Mon, 17 October 2016
It’s easy to believe that we are nothing like the Pharisee or the Tax collector in today’s reading, but I think most of us have a bit of a self righteous streak. To make the point in the prayer of confession and in the sermon I’ve updated the Pharisee’s prayer. "Thank-you God because I am not like used car salesmen, sharp lawyers, Islamic terrorists or that politician I saw on TV last night. I don't vote for my own superannuation, or kiss babies to get on TV. I am generous even though I earn less than most of these people and I help pay the minister's wages. You have truly blessed me Lord." Forgive us from this pride. Lord have mercy on me a sinner. It’s easy to build ourselves up by putting others down. The message of today’s Bible lesson is that it is God’s mercy and not our relative goodness or superiority which makes us right with God. It is the tax collector who can bring nothing but his sin and need, who Jesus says is justified. (The one put right with God.)
Do not leave church today saying I thank-you God that I am not like.... Instead leave saying thank-you God for you have forgiven me freely and set me free to stop serving myself and to serve You and others.
Questions for thought or discussion. Have you ever found yourself thinking that you are in some way better than, or more moral than another person? What, if anything does the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee say about this? What place is there for the good things the Pharisee does if a public sinner like a Pharisee is declared by Jesus to be right with God?
Image credit: stocking / 123RF Stock Photo
Direct download: Proper_25c_Dependant_on_God-1.mp3
Category:Sermons in advance -- posted at: 10:02pm AEDT
Mon, 17 October 2016
There is an old joke I’m sure you will have heard it about the man who is dangling from a tree on the side of a cliff. He calls out “Help! Is there anybody who can help me?” A voice booms from heaven “This is the Lord, let go of the tree.” The man pauses for a moment, thinks about it and then calls out, “Is there anybody else?” The man did not trust God. In 2 Timothy 3:15 we are told that the purpose of the Bible is to “instruct us for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” When we hear this word faith and “believe” in verse 14 we might think of a list of things to believe. If we do we really don’t mean what the Bible means. In the bible the words believe and faith mean something much more like “trust in”. It means something like, I trust or have faith in my wife, my brother, my accountant, my dad or my friend. Today’s reading urges us to read the Bible and remember what we have been taught about God by those who raised us in faith. If we do we will be able to trust God and live lives of good works and powerful witness, and not be sucked in to the latest idea or fad. We will be able to let go of the branch and trust God will catch us.
Questions for thought and discussion.
What are the differences between saying “I trust in God” and “I believe in God”? What could a life that trusts God look like? What Bible verses or passages have you found helpful in life? Who taught you most about trusting in God
Image Copyright: tinoni / 123RF Stock Photo
Fri, 9 September 2016
These days a meal can be “just a meal”, like a bowl of cerial before we rush off somewhere, or it can be a celebration like when we celebrate someone’s birthday. In Jesus time there was no such thing as “just a meal”. Every meal was “more than just a meal” it was about relationships. Everyone you ate with was officially your friend and so you tried to be careful about who you ate with. If you ate with tax collectors and sinners you were considered no be like them. When Jesus ate with people like this he was saying these people are God’s friends.
Today as we celebrate the birthday of St Stephen’s Toowoomba Meals on Wheels we are celebrating “more than just” subsidised meals being distributed. We are celebrating relationships formed between volunteers, clients and staff. We are celebrating God’s love, and human love and care shared with people who need support. Just like Jesus with the tax collectors and the sinners, we are saying that these people are loved by God, they are valuable. Not just the needy clients, but our volunteers, our staff and our committee are included in this love.
Questions for thought and discussion
Thu, 8 September 2016
Sermon Text Podcast to follow. This sermon refers to the meals on wheels service run by St Stephen's Uniting Church in Toowoomba.
One of the mottos that has been used in relation to meals on wheels is that it is “more than just a meal”. Two years ago we heard a member of the State council of meals on wheels tell the story of a life saved because a volunteer discovered a client very unwell ath their house. This story is one of many. Indeed I have personal experience as a family member of Meals on Wheels volunteers from the Geebung service alerting me to the serious state of my mum’s health. Beyond this the volunteers often go to very lonely people and bring human contact into their lives. For many people this may be a valuable point of contact in their week. Even if they have supportive friends and family this is true. Which one of us would be unhappy about a person voluntarily visiting us five days a week and spending a few friendly minutes with us. How many of us have friends or family who live outside our homes who are so dedicated.
Category:general -- posted at: 11:06pm AEDT