Five years ago our congregation went through an exercise setting down what we thought our mission was and setting goals to achieve it. Helen Clark was still Prime Minister. Dick Hubbard was Auckland’s Mayor. There was no Supercity, or talk of one. George Bush was still torturing people. Having a black US President was a pipe dream. Christchurch Cathedral was still standing. Unprecedented greed had not yet melted down the world’s economy making the 99% poorer and the 1% richer. Something called an “iPhone” was first mentioned by Steve Jobs. Facebook was in its infancy (only a year old). It would be another year before Tweeting would enter the lexicon. Five years ago I didn’t know what an iPad was or that I would be preaching on one today. In today’s world, five years is a long time.
During those same five years St Matthew’s has gone through many changes as well. From where you sit in your pew you can see many of them: the new organ and kitchen and reincarnation of the St Thomas Chapel are the most obvious. But as grand as those changes are there has been a more important change. Look around. There are many faces who weren’t here five years ago and those who were here have experienced billboards that went viral, the trauma of Glynn’s illness, Geno’s rejection by the church because of who he is and our reaction to that injustice, the many challenges of putting in a new pipe organ and the parish celebration of Lynette’s and my wedding, to mention just a few. We are a different community than we were then, a little bit younger, more diverse, hopefully, wiser.
Individually, we have changed as well. We’ve experienced births and deaths, illnesses, new or lost jobs, broken relationships and new ones, disappointments, failures and unforeseen successes. None of us sat still and unchanged since last we reflected on where we wanted to go as a congregation. So today is officially declared a day of reflection at St Matthew’s. It is the first step that the Vestry asks us to take in setting a new and intentional vision for St Matthew’s that will guide our actions and priorities for the next five years.
During the notices we will explain the process, so all I will say now is that I hope as many of you as possible will stay for it. Each of you is essential, whether this is the first Sunday you have sat in one of these pews or you have been sitting there for years. Anyone absent will diminish the vision of what we are capable.
Instead, I want to do what you pay me for, offer some theological reflection, albeit it briefly, on why we are here in the first place and why it matters to do what we are going to do this morning.
I want to begin with Alfred North Whitehead, a mathematician turned theologian. He argued that we cannot account for the creative process without an understanding of the role of the divine. His central insight is that everything becomes whatever it becomes by virtue of how it relates to everything else. Whether you are a Hobbs-Boson subatomic particle, a person or even God, your identity over time develops though a process of relating to everything else.
Whitehead spent a lot of time observing nature. His conclusion was that the mystery at the base of all that is, is not arbitrary. Our experience of that mystery through our relationships with everything else gives us the confidence to know the final worth of our existence. We matter.
So why does that matter? It matters because we have chosen to be part of a religion. The purpose of any religion is to seek a comprehensive understanding of the good. There is no aspect of life that religion’s vision of the good doesn’t include. When bad things happen in any aspect of life, including religion, we have become detached from a comprehensive understanding of the good.
When we look around the world we can see that there is plenty of detachment. The war on the poor, support of the military-industrial complex, denial of human rights to segments of our society, global climate change are just the more glaring examples.
As we reflect on our experience as a community, I hope we will ask does our faith include a comprehensive view of the good? Do we demonstrate confidence in the ultimate worth of all existence? How do we even know what is good?
One way we do is through our worship, which is at the core of who we are. Worship is a discipline of opening our hearts to people we don’t fully know, our minds to ideas we don’t fully comprehend, and our souls to a divine presence we cannot fully name. Worship reminds us of the ignorance that infuses everything we know and the mystery that lies beyond our reach.
We worship to awaken our sense of the sacred and to transform our selves and our world. We want our lives to be different and we want our world to be different. Worship prepares the community for the task of transformation by drawing us toward a comprehensive understanding of the good. To determine the good we seek requires an inclusive community that acknowledges that we all emerge from the same source and share the same destiny; that celebrates and gives thanks for what we hold in common and honours the ways in which we differ. For we know the former unites us and the latter frees us as individuals. The first forges shared commitments and the second, nurtures the individual responsibility required for bringing them to fruition.
Is a comprehensive vision of how we wish to be transformed enough? No, once identified we all need to move toward it. Not just some of us, but all of us. No gift we offer is too small. No person is not important enough. Without you it all comes apart.
In 1961 John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to put a man on the moon by the end of that decade. Later he visited NASA. While touring the facilities, the President stopped a janitor in the hallway and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “Mr President, I am working on putting a man on the moon.”