I think, with this being a baptism service, and with so many children with us today, we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room. And that is the current scandal about the Church’s involvement in the sexual abuse of children. This is a crime, there are no excuses for it whatsoever. Sadly, many people will look with scorn on the Church because of recent revelations. And there is clearly more to come. The Uniting Church takes very exacting steps to ensure that the children in our care in no way come to any harm at all. Immediate, stern and effective disciplinary action is taken should there be any infraction of the law.
We who are gathered here today will be experiencing mixtures of feelings, and I doubt that any of them would be benign. I feel shame that the name of the Church has been dragged through the mud, and so do many, many others. The majority of Church members long eagerly for the Church to reflect the Kingdom of God, and we feel deep grief when this hope is violated. We long for the holiness and love of God to be shown to the world through the words and actions of the Church, and when this longing is dashed to pieces, we are devastated. We long for God’s peace and justice to be revealed within the world, and when vulnerable people are victimised, we are horrified.
We may well be wanting to ask where God is in all of this. Let me quote to you from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 18. It is written that Jesus said: “If anyone should cause one of these little ones to lose his faith in me, it would be better for that person to have a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the deep sea. How terrible for the world that there are things that make people lose their faith! Such things will always happen- but how terrible for the one who causes them!”
There would be any number of people, I believe, who would respond: “I really needed to hear God say something like that. I want God to do something about this situation!” I put it to you that God does seem to be doing something- and that is why these things have come to light with such force. We are assured by Jesus that “The Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth.” It appears to me that this is exactly what is happening. Jesus didn’t say that the truth would always be something we wanted to hear.
The Church was intended by God to be a sign to the whole world of the holiness and the beauty of God. We are meant to show the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives: individually and collectively. And these things are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control. These things, when present in their purity, can never harm anyone. No-one can be manipulated, dominated or coerced by any of these qualities when they are practiced in their purity. When these qualities are present in their purity, the person who possesses them is truly free to be as God intended them to be.
Of all places, the Church should be a safe place for the vulnerable. I can assure you that the Uniting Church, Australia-wide, works very hard to enact this principle. The God we believe in protects and defends the vulnerable. It is a matter of the greatest seriousness when the Church violates these principles. Those who treasure their faith and seek to live by it day after day want the Church to be a shining light, reflecting the God who is all that is good, true and beautiful. It is a tragedy when this desire is trampled in the dirt.
So what do we do now? The reading from the letter to the Hebrews set for this week says: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…”
You will have heard the saying: “You need to be the change that you want to see”. This is so very true for us in the Church. We want to see the peace and justice of God enacted in this world. We want the love of God to flow between people all around the world. We are not going to throw our hands in the air and say it’s all too hard. It is not only up to us to work towards the spread of love, peace and justice in the world. This is the work of God, and we are simply working in co-operation with God. We are hungry for justice for the people who are downtrodden in this world. We long to see peace where there is war, and safety and security where there is oppression and harassment. We want to see the hungry fed, and the poor given back their human dignity, and the vulnerable protected from exploitation.
Our role in the Church is to enact the love and justice of God. Our role is to support the vulnerable in every way that we can. In the Church, it is the role of the strong to support the weak and needy, whoever they may be. Let us hold on to our belief in the God of justice more strongly than ever, and let us act as disciples of Jesus Christ, who said “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.” The innocence and trust of a child are very precious in the sight of God. Such innocence and trust are to be nurtured and preserved amongst all the children we know.
It is up to we adults amongst the people of God to preserve our own innocence in the sense of having a real purity of heart- motives and intentions which seek only the very best for all the people around us. We need to constantly nurture our trust in God through worship, since it is a true saying that “We become like what we worship”. In a world where motives are muddy and minds and hearts shadowed by the darkness of base intentions towards others, we in the Church need to show ourselves to be a light of purity, pointing towards the God who is purity and holiness itself. Amen.