Welcome to the Church
Call to worship and introduction
The scriptures tell us that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Eccles 3:1)
The time now is a time to worship, a time to praise, a time to pray, a time to open the scriptures and seek God’s word.
As we worship together, even though we are physically separated, may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
On Tuesday – the fifteenth of September, it will be six months since we last met together, face-to-face, as Carlingford Uniting Church. I don’t think anyone at the time thought we’d be away from each other for six months – I know a few people were thinking we would be back together for Easter. I thought that Easter was a bit optimistic, and I offered my own prediction of back together by Pentecost.
Well, Easter came and went, Pentecost came and went, and we were all wrong. A couple of months ago, ministers were joking about taking bookings for Christmas services… but now that seems like a distinct possibility.
Everything, it seems, is harder during Covid – except maybe driving in Sydney, because traffic is definitely lighter. So just about everything, from the trivial – going to out for coffee, or doing the grocery shopping – through the bigger events – going on holidays, finding a job, doing the HSC, visiting people in hospital – to the very significant – births and deaths and major illnesses.
Just about everything is harder – and I include church life in that too. We are not meeting together, and so much of our church life is about being together. Fellowshipping together, singing together, praying together.
In some ways church on-line is easier – it’s far more acceptable to do on-line church wearing pyjamas than it ever was face-to-face. But it’s not the same as being together face to face.
No one’s going to notice if you don’t listen to or read the service – so it requires self-discipline.
It is a test of our faith – and some of us will do better than others. Some of us have weak faith and some of us have strong faith – and Paul talks about that in his letter to the Romans which I’ll be sharing in this service.
Today is the end of the sermon series on Romans – which I’m sure will be a relief to many; Paul isn’t always a popular author – but I hope this series on the later chapters of Romans has shown a different side to Paul.
But before we get to that… let us pray:
Prayers of adoration and confession
Almighty and everlasting God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
sovereign Ruler of all creation: as we call upon your glorious name
we give you praise, we offer you worship, we bow in adoration.
You alone are our hope, you alone are our salvation, you alone are our life.
To you belong all majesty and glory, dominion and power,
always, now and ever, and to the ages of ages.
Acknowledging your greatness, Lord, and our own shortcomings,
We confess we have strayed from your ways like lost sheep,
and have left undone what we ought to have done,
and have done what we ought not to have done.
We have put ourselves first,
and turned away from your commandments.
We ask you to have mercy on us, to forgive us, to change us and make us fit for your kingdom.
We ask this in the name of your son and our saviour, Jesus Christ,
Who died for us and rose again to restore us to relationship with you.
Assurance of forgiveness
The Psalmist assures us:
The Lord is compassionate and gracious; slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever;
He does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
So hear then Christ’s word of grace to us: ‘Your sins are forgiven.’
Thanks be to God.
Hymn – How great thou art
Psalm 103:1-13 (NIV)
1 Praise the Lord, my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul,
and forget not all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
5 who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
6 The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all the oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
his deeds to the people of Israel:
8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;
Romans 14:1-12 (NIV)
14 Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters. 2 One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
5 One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.
10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. 11 It is written:
“‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord,
‘every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will acknowledge God.’”
12 So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God.
Sermon “How strong is your faith?”
If there was a score out of ten for ‘strength of faith’, how do you think you would rate? Maybe Thomas would be at the lower end of the scale – 1 or 2, Peter a bit higher, but probably not getting higher than a five or six most during most of the gospel accounts, Abraham would be way up there – and 8 or 9 maybe, Stephen, of course, might be a nine or ten.
I suspect that if we were asked to rate our faith on such a scale, that most of us would probably nominate something safe – a score of six or seven out of ten, perhaps – and that we’d most likely add a qualifier – “Well, I’d rate a seven, but I’d like to have more.” Something that’s “okay” but also acknowledging that it’s not quite as much as we should have.
You might even make a comparison to others – “My faith might be only a six, but I think the average around here is barely five”.
And, as a church, I think we’d probably say that we want to help build up people’s faith.
But today’s reading isn’t about building up of faith, it’s about how we should act – and why – depending on whether our faith is strong or weak… and that seems a bit odd.
Paul is giving instruction to people of strong faith and people of weak faith, but he’s not saying “Strong people, well, you’re okay” and “Weak people, you’ve got some work to do”.
But in Luke chapter 17 (17:6) the apostles say to Jesus “Lord increase our faith!”, and Jesus responds by saying that “faith as small a mustard seed” can perform miracles. Faith as small as a mustard seed – and the mustard seed is one of the smallest units used in the bible, and symbolic of a very small amount indeed – that is all that Jesus says is needed.
Although we need to be careful: it’s not just the fact of faith which is important, instead it is the object of faith. People have faith in all sorts of things. Human goodness. Technology. Doctors. ‘That all things will work out in the end’.
But if we merely think that having ‘faith’ is what matters, then we’re wrong. If we think that having more faith rather than less is what matters, then we are wrong too. What matters, is what we have our faith in.
Or, more to the point, in whom we have our faith.
So, while we might like to build up or increase our faith, we must also remember that it is the fact of faith in Christ - not how much or how strong it is - that is important for our relationship with God.
So if it is doesn’t matter how strong our faith is, why is Paul writing to the Romans in today’s reading to tell them how they should act if they are of strong faith, or of weak faith?
Well, the term ‘weak’ that Paul uses here echoes what he writes in 1 Corinthians 8, where he is talking about food sacrificed to idols. For us, in 21st century Sydney, we’re not going to have to make any call about whether we eat food that has been sacrificed to idols or not. But it was a big issue in Corinth at the time. But Paul wrote to them “We know an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one.” (1 Cor 8:4) so the Corinthians were free to eat such food, but he also warned them “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block for the weak”.
And thus the strong in faith are called, not to merely ‘put up’ with the weak of faith, nor simply to make allowances for them, but rather to accept them. Just like God accepts all who turn to him in faith.
So we know that the strong need to accept those whose faith is weak; and the weak need to accept the strong in faith, without passing judgement on them for their weak or strong faith.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we have to accept anything and everything - because Paul is writing to the Christian believers in Rome – or as he puts it at the opening of the letter “All in Rome whom God loves and are has called to be his dedicated people.” So accepting those who are weaker in faith applies to the Christian sphere, not the wider world. Paul is not exhorting us to accept teachings, practices or beliefs which defy our faith in Christ.
The basis of our faith is not disputable: as Paul writes in verse 9 “This is why Christ died and came to life again, to establish his lordship over dead and living.” These things are not disputable – who Jesus is, and what Jesus has done for us in his life, his death and in his resurrection.
But within our faith, we hold many views. The Church in which I grew up – St Stephen’s Anglican church at Normanhurst was founded in 1920 – a fair few years before I arrived there. It was originally an austere brick building, and the small congregation worshipped together in a very low church way.
In 1958, a new senior minister arrived and he introduced a small brass cross, to be placed on the communion table. The move divided the congregation, with many parishioners decrying the display of the unadorned cross: to them a cross wasn’t a symbol of Christianity, rather, as local historian Keith Percival put it, they considered it “a sign of insidious popery”! Which sounds very quaint today.
When no resolution could be made locally, the dispute was escalated, and eventually Archbishop Mowll was called on to adjudicate. The archbishop resolved that there would be a twelve month cooling off period, after which the parish council would make a final decision.
A year later, the minister had gone, the dispute was forgotten. There was no final decision made by the parish council. But the brass cross remained on the table.
Had those people who didn’t want the cross displayed left? Had they resignedly accepted the display of the cross had been pushed upon them and there was nothing left for them to do?
Honestly, it seems neither. A few years later, when St Stephen’s built a new church building, it incorporated a timber cross on the front wall, and if you’ve ever driven north on Pennant Hills Road you’ve probably noticed a 15 metre tall steel cross in front of the building. Not a single objection was made.
The display of the cross was offensive, at least initially, to some. And it was also helpful to others. But I wonder, looking back over 60 years, which viewpoint can be considered to have had ‘strong faith’?
Whether our faith is weak or strong, as Paul writes, we have a duty to others. I don’t think we would think that any food was unclean, and Paul says later in verse 14 “I am absolutely convinced, as a Christian, that nothing is impure in itself”, but if us eating something which others consider unclean is going to cause division, then we should refrain. Verse 16 gives us a clear directive “what for you is a good thing must not become an occasion for slanderous talk.”
Not only must we do the right thing, but us doing the ‘right’ thing must not cause others offence.
Acts 16 records that Paul had Timothy circumcised before taking him on the missionary journey to Asia, not because it was ‘right’ – and the Council at Jerusalem had shortly before determined that it was unnecessary - but because it would make Timothy (whose father was a Greek, not a Jew) acceptable to the Jewish people to whom they would spread the gospel.
We need to always consider our actions in terms of how others perceive them, and we need to make sure that we don’t judge each other on such matters, but rather work together as the community of God.
And, whether our faith is weak or strong, our challenge is to refrain from judging or looking down on each other, for we know, in the end, it is God’s judgement, God’s standards which count.
Paul quotes Isaiah: “As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me and every tongue confess to God.’”
As we consider issues that affect our lives and worship as a Christian community today, we need to consider our own attitudes on all sorts of issues, and whether what we think of as right is that of a strong or a weak faith. Always, the challenge is to be sure about something, absolutely certain, but be strong enough to give way to others – to ensure that our strong faith does not become a barrier to someone else. And if we’re weak, not to condemn others in their strength.
Think about all the things around Church and Christian life that are disputable or contestable.
Drinking. Smoking. Divorce. Same sex marriage. Music. Communion. People have strong views on all these things, and at all the extremes. And some people don’t care.
Beyond that, the Uniting Church brings together a variety of traditions, Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational… all of which have had different approaches to worship, to church governance – and even significant differences in theology.
From all those things though, what brings us together is faith. Not strong faith, not weak faith. Not just faith in something. But faith in Christ – faith in the Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died and rose again. But we can so easily be distracted from him by all kinds of disputable things. And it’s so easy to become preoccupied with some of these things – “Why doesn’t the church agree with me on this point?” or “Why doesn’t the church support this particular charity, or support this cause, or support this particular initiative”.
In all things we need to remember that what brings us together is faith in Christ. And that is the important thing. Not our approaches to worship, not the Bible translation we read, not the good works we do, not the types of worship services we have, not how we might best use our assets, or our views on marriage.
“As I live, says the Lord, to me every knee shall bow, and every tongue acknowledge God.” (14:11)
So how strong is your faith?
If your faith is weak, will you heed Paul’s warning not to condemn those of strong faith?
And, perhaps even more importantly, if you have a strong faith, will you be strong enough to know that you’re right – absolutely right – but be strong enough to stand aside and give way to your brothers and sisters who are weaker in faith?
How strong is your faith?
Hymn – God is our strength and refuge
Prayers of Intercession
Merciful God our Father,
We thank you that you gave your son Jesus Christ who laid down his life that we might die to self and live in him.
We bring our prayers to you for all our brothers and sisters in the world, that they may know your love for them shown through Jesus Christ. We pray for all missionaries, sharing their faith in difficult situations and today we remember Alison Roeth.
We pray that you will bless your church with the gifts and graces of your Holy Spirit, helping it to work for peace and justice in the whole world. We pray for justice and equality for African Americans in the United States and First Nations people in Australia. May the churches lead the way.
We pray for UnitingWorld’s South Sudan Appeal. May our church partners in South Sudan be able to supply food for 7 million people at risk of starvation due to conflict and Covid-19. We pray for other countries where Covid-19 seems to be out of control. May the leaders have wisdom and the healthcare workers keep safe.
In September, we pray for Christians throughout the world who are promoting care for all the creation. May we limit the worst impacts of climate change, stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable, including Pacific Islanders, and prioritise a sustainable future, not fossil fuels.
In Australia we pray for good support for people with mental health issues and we pray for families with domestic violence issues to get positive outcomes. We pray for all who are hurting as Australia enters a recession. We pray that people will come to know that you love, comfort and support them through difficult times.
We pray for members of the Joint Nominating Committee as they continue to consult with the Presbytery about our future ministry leadership. We pray for Richie Dulin and his interim ministry with us.
We pray for those receiving treatment or recovering from surgery and we remember Bronwyn, Neil and Ted; and we ask for your blessing on those who are shut in or in care: Audrey, Luke, May, Pat and Sheila.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Hymn – Lord, I come to you
Offering Prayers and Benediction
We thank you, Gracious God, for all the gifts of human life: for all that we have and all that we are.
Most of all we thank you that even when we were far away from you, you gave your son to us. He lived a human life, died a human death, and opened the way to eternal life for all who turn to him.
In response to all that you have done for us, we offer ourselves to you as a living sacrifice, and ask that your Spirit will work in us and through us, so that we may be witnesses to you wherever we may be.
We come from a variety of traditions and backgrounds, some of us have strong faith, some weak. But the faith we have in Jesus Christ is what brings us together, so as we go out into the future, let us look to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
And as we go out, let us go out with the blessing of God almighty; Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Looking Out: Usefulness
Next week (20 September 2020):
Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 or Psalm 145:1-8
Exodus 16:2-15 or Jonah 3:10-4:11
Matthew 20:1-16, Philippians 1:21-30
Theme: “At the end of the day”