This morning at Collins Street we celebrated our 170th anniversary. As the oldest Baptist church in the nation, we have much to celebrate and even more to be thankful for. We read today from Psalm 1 and I offered some reflections. For those who asked, I’ve included them here.
As I walk down Collins Street each morning on my way to work, I am often captivated by the plane trees that line the footpaths on either side of the road. They have been there much longer than me and, I am sure, will outlast me by decades. The branches extend high above the street, overhanging the wires, the poles and shop-front awnings. Allow your eye to follow the shape of one of these trees, from the tip of its branches all the way down to its base, and you’ll see the trunk disappear into the concrete below. How do these magnificent things survive in the middle of a city? There’s no dirt to see, no verdant soil to put our hands in. Yet every spring, as predictable as Carlton’s September demise, new green leaves sprout from their branches. They’re alive.
These trees were not there 170 years ago. In fact, though the regimented street form—the Hoddle Grid as we know it—was roughed out on the landscape, Collins Street was nothing more than a glorified dirt track. There was not a sidewalk tree in sight except for the tree stumps that stubbled the road alongside potholes large enough, the historians tell us, to swallow horses. In the summer the constant swirling of dust meant pedestrians had to cover their faces with handkerchiefs, and in the winter, with the dirt turned to a muddy bog, the potholes filled with water and human waste. The fatal outbreaks of dysentery decimated entire neighbourhoods. But somewhere along the line, our forefathers and mothers had the vision to plant trees along the edges of these so-called streets. They were elm trees to begin with. It was an act of hope, believing something into existence that far exceeded what they could see.
So 170 years ago, in 1843, a little band of 16 people stood shoulder to shoulder to form the Collins Street Baptist Church. In a public meeting hurriedly convened in the Mechanics Hall, today the Athenaeum Theatre, a visiting Baptist preacher called John Ham, on his way to a pastorate in Sydney, gave a lecture with the riveting title The Constitution of the Christian Church at the end of which he gave an altar call. These 16 people responded, inspired to plant a tree, or a church actually, this one. There was no building to meet in, no grand while pillars, no pastor, no pews and no organ, just a shared vision for a community faithful to God’s presence in this fledgling city and an extraordinary belief in God’s ability to bring it to life.
Since then this tree has flourished. Through times of great blessing and growth, times of drought and struggle, times of harmony and others of dissension, this church has persisted. Year in and year out the old leaves die and fall to the ground while new leaves sprout in hope and faith. How can this be so? Why does a church like ours persist? And what does this tell us about our future?
Psalm 1 is an introduction to the psalter, the 150 psalms that express the prayers, longings and faith of God’s people. Psalm 1 sets the scene. It summarizes the way of life to which the people of God are called. It’s a way of being in the world, one that conforms with God’s intentions and depends on God’s grace. Verse 3 tells that such a life, such a community, is like ‘a sturdy tree planted in rich and life-giving soil. As the tree bears fruit, so its life manifests blessing for others.’
There are two simple truths for us in these words. Firstly, the future of this church depends entirely on the rich and life giving soil in which it’s planted. Its roots go deep into a source that we cannot see and routinely forget. That source is the life of God. According to verse 4, the wicked are without such a source. They have no roots at all. They are driven by the wind, surface chaff blown away so easily. Their lives are entirely self-referenced, consumed with the comfort and wellbeing of now, focused on their own security and prosperity. They are rootless. But that cannot be for the people of God. This is not what makes for a growing and sturdy tree. Our roots reach down for a source beyond our own selves.
Many of you will know that in this church just a few weeks back, we hosted the funeral for Ross Langmead, professor of missiology at Whitley College. Some of you were there. Ross was one of my dearest friends, our offices side by side for 10 years. In his committal, I said these words:
And now we commit his body to the earth
which is gentle to us in the time of death.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In the cycle of life and death
the earth is replenished
and life is eternally renewed.
There is such painful yet profound truth in these words. Life depends on death. The life of faith is never a life consumed with itself, but one lived in community with and dependence upon others, past and present. God’s eco-system is so much larger than one life or even one church. Just as a tree cannot exist in isolation, so the growing church is gathered up in something so much bigger and more significant than itself. What’s more, the continuous cycle of life is what keeps the soil in which we are planted sustaining. We continue to see green leaves today only because of the mulch of yesterday—the lives, the sacrifice and the faith of countless people who have gone before us.
Secondly, the purpose of a tree that bears fruit is the life is makes possible for others. According to psalm 1, the good life, the verdant and green life, is a life lived in response to God’s presence in the world and one that brings blessing to it. Aspiration to ‘the good life’ is a common drive today. Flip through the pages of lifestyle magazines that promote it and its sure to include a beautiful home, luxurious vacations and an abundance of food and wine leisurely imbibed with an urbane circle of good looking friends. But that’s not the good life the psalmist has in mind. Prosperity and growth do not consist in getting what we want for ourselves, but in being connected to the source of life in all creation. We exist for the sake of others. Thomas Merton once said,
A tree gives glory to God by being a tree.
It consents to His creative life.
It expresses an idea which is in God’s mind.
So the more a tree is like itself,
the more it is like him.
For the church to be a church, we must understand what we are and what we are not. We are not a corporation or a franchise. We are not a museum or a concert hall. We are certainly not a club of common interest. We are the church. We are the body of Christ in the world, our branches reaching out into the world. We are a community of faith responding as faithfully as we can to the call of Jesus, ‘follow me.’
It is good today that we celebrate 170 years of life and ministry here on Collins Street. This tree that has grown and flourished on this spot is an extraordinary thing and we are grateful. But we must never forget that we are not here to preserve the tree, but to bear fruit, to offer food and shelter and hope and healing to the world around us. The tree that disconnects from its environment, from its neighbourhood, and lives for itself alone will die. The church consumed with its own wellbeing and the maintaining of its own traditions will die. It may continue to exist as an institution or a club but it ceases to be a church. ‘As the tree yields fruit, so its life manifests blessing for others.’
As we move into the 171st year of life at Collins Street, I pray that we will do so with gratitude and courage, feeding deeply in the rich soil of God’s grace, and ever more determined to be a tree of blessing to the city of Melbourne and far beyond.