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2018 June 17- FROM LITTLE THING BIG THINGS GROW. The Five Marks of Mission.

1Samuel 15:34- Mark 4:26-34

On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little lifesaving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost. Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little lifesaving station grew. Some of the new members of the lifesaving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea. They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in an enlarged building. Now the lifesaving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they redecorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club. Less of the members were now interested in going to sea on lifesaving missions, so they hired lifeboat crews to do this work. The mission of lifesaving was still given lip-service but most were too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the lifesaving activities personally. About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boatloads of cold, wet and half-drowned people. They were dirty and sick, some had skin of a different color, some spoke a strange language, and the beautiful new club was considerably messed up. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside. At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's lifesaving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal pattern of the club. But some members insisted that lifesaving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a lifesaving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the life of all various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own lifesaving station down the coast. They did. As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another lifesaving station was founded. If you visit the seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but now most of the people drown!

We used this parable a lot in the 70’s and 80’s, at a time when many churches had become complacent in the prosperity of earlier decades, and in their communal life. It reminds us that mission is the reason the church exists; also, that the church needs to regularly revisit its primary goals and reform itself when it reverts to the human default position of its own comfort.

The reminder of the primacy of mission is appropriate as we prepare to take a fresh look at the mission of this church. The main thing I want to draw from the story is that mission begins where there is a perceived need and starts with a grassroots response by courageous, committed and compassionate people.

We are as a congregation at a critical point in our journey where we now have to decide on a mission plan for the next five to ten years. We need to once again ask ourselves the critical question- "Just what do we think we are doing here?” What are the needs around us that God is calling us to address?

Even if the answer to that question was "business as usual”, our current trajectory will not take us to that uninspiring destination. If the answer is "for my own spiritual growth and personal comfort”, it leaves us short of answers to the critical question, "how are we using our gifts to build the church and serve the common good.

As a church we need strategies that will give us sustainable growth. Just as the polar icecaps are melting faster than predicted, we stand on thinning ice of our financial and human resources. Doing nothing is not an option.

And yet, even ‘sustainable growth’ is not in itself a goal worthy of the good news of Jesus. Sustainable growth for what? That is why we need to address the issue of our mission plan. And to address our mission plan, we need to understand what christian mission looks like.

And so, next Wednesday, church councillors and elders will meet to work on our mission plan. These deliberations will then be presented to the congregation for scrutiny. The agenda is twofold. A good plan gives us direction. We also know that the Synod needs to see one before they will give us access to the proceeds from the sale of the Sunday School Hall and house on William Street, funds that are essential for the redevelopment of Fellowship House. And the point of the redevelopment is itself for the purposes of God’s mission in this place. We have job to do and we need to get to work.

Because mission planning in the Uniting, and many other churches, bases itself on the so-called five marks of mission, today I am going to outline these to you. Every building needs foundations, and for mission, these are what they look like.

1. The first is "to proclaim the good news of the kingdom”. Those with good memories will recall that we began the year looking at Jesus’ first proclamation in Mark, "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” I dwelt on the fact that ‘repent’ here is not primarily about sin as it is about a positive change of direction. We understand good news not as ‘if you believe in Jesus you will go to heaven and not to hell’, but that God in Christ has fullness of life to offer us in community with God.

2. The second is "to teach, baptise and nurture new believers”. We know as soon as we hear this that this is an area of slim pickings, and has been for a while. The reasons for this are multiple and complex, and feeling guilty about it gets us precisely nowhere. If the answers were obvious, we would be using them. If you cannot think of a way to encourage your neighbour to take a fresh look at Jesus, it is likely that the rest of us here today have a similar problem. We might want to say that the church should be doing something differently. My answer to that is "You are the church. I am the church. We are the church together.”

Inspirations will be welcome for next Wednesday. I am also mindful of the wisdom of church growth specialist Kennon Callahan, who cautions church against identifying its weaknesses, then trying to turn them into strengths. Often, the resources to do this are just not there. Instead, he says, identify your strengths, and build on them.

3. The third mark of mission is "to respond to human need by way of loving service”. I was inspired to read these words in an obituary for Freda Whitlam, former educator and Uniting Church NSW Synod Moderator. "After a meagre severance pay (from her position of principal of PLC Croydon) Whitlam went to live in a two bedroom townhouse at Penrith. "I felt I could offer more to the people of the Western Suburbs” she said. She threw herself into unpaid community work with the NSW higher education board, Premier’s Drug review Committee, The AIDS Council, local health and hospital Boards and the Q Theatre. As Moderator in 1985 she urged Christians to build bridges with secular Australia.

Much closer to home, just recently the Margaret Jurd School won an important award for its work with students being lifted to new planes of achievements. That whole movement started here in this church, with the Newcastle Youth Service, in the new Fellowship House. As we seek to redevelop that facility, we are challenged as to how to find fresh expressions of mission that will meet similar needs in new ways. This calls for us to engage our inspiration and creativity; to dream new dreams.

4. The fourth Mark of Mission is a traditional and ongoing strength of the Uniting Church- "seeking to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue reconciliation”. I have here a book "For a World Reconciled”, which contains all of the national Justice Statements from the Uniting Church from 1977 to 2015. And we don’t just talk. Our church is often in the thick of the action. Another opportunity to do that will be next Thursday, when we gather with the Grandmothers against the Detention of Refugee Children to make a line of lights and banners in Civic Park. One hour of witness, 5- 6pm. From little things, big things grow.

5. The fifth mark of mission is "safeguarding the integrity of creation, sustaining and renewing the life of the earth. We gain impetus from the understanding that creation is good in and of itself, as well as nurturing and sustaining our lives. Some have been inspired by the recent Inspiracy weekend on eco-theology and eco-justice. We need to act locally and think globally. We have a few ideas of what to do right here in the front of the church. It is a mustard seed of action. Let’s see what grows from it. (Reiterate 1-5).

We know, both from our life experience and the Gospel reading, that from little things big things can grow. As I understand it, most authentic mission grows from a tiny seed planted in the heart of a committed, concerned and compassionate person or faith community. From there, it takes a lot of faith, courage and hard work for the seed to grow into a giant tree which towers over the landscape, and gives shelter to all who seek it.

In addition to the five marks of mission, there are some values that help us to discern what true mission looks like. One is that it is incarnational. Mission does not happen in a vacuum, but in a context. In Jesus, God does not sit apart from God’s world, but engages in the human experience. Our mission, if it is God’s mission, happens where the action is. Secondly, it is transformational. Jesus wanted the world to be changed for the better by the presence of his followers. Finally, it is relational. We engage in caring and friendship with people and God’s creation, in such a way that both they and we are changed.

I wonder if you have heard anything so far this morning that has moved you, enagaged your energy? What have you discerned that might influence the choices of this congregation as it seeks to serve God and the common good? Can you be a Samuel for us, hearing something the rest of us may not heave heard? Or, like the prophet, can you see beyond the obvious line-up of ideas, to an outlier that will best serve the mission of God here? Don’t play down your instincts, or too quickly dismiss you inspiration. As Jesus says, a tiny seed planted in the right place, given the right encouragement, can become the biggest tree of all. From little things, big things grow.

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