Radical Hospitality

It is convenient, for the sake of political argument, to perpetuate the stereotype of churches as gatherings of middle-class, middle-aged, mostly white, suburbanites on a Sunday morning.

It polarises the argument when the identified group – “the Church” – is simple to define, thus making the issue about compliance, or not. There are “people who attend” and, therefore, people who do not.

It may be convenient, but it is also a myth.

The stereotype fails to reflect the diversity throughout our church, and many others. This diversity is not just cultural, it is social and structural. This means that any conversation engaging with mandatory vaccination for faith communities needs to understand that we are as diverse as the communities in which we live and work.

The Uniting Church, like many other faith traditions, is deeply engaged in our communities. Our congregations run op shops and food banks, kitchens and play groups, community gardens and homework centres. Worship is the central act of our existence, but certainly not the only one.

When we talk about our congregations, our membership is far more comprehensive than Sunday worship and morning tea. 

The church, at its best, exists for others, and especially those for whom the journey of our lives is difficult. During the pandemic, life has become more difficult for many.

At this moment, we are funding support ministries across the state for people still recovering from previous disasters – drought, bushfires, and floods. During the pandemic we are providing finance to university students and hampers to the communities of Dubbo, Wilcannia and Goodooga.

We have Parish Missions around NSW and the ACT; ask Wesley Mission, or Wayside Chapel, or Exodus Foundation who belongs and who does not. What does it mean to ask someone in need if they are vaccinated, before we offer a meal, or shelter, or safety?

The social justice arm of our church, Uniting, is engaged in aged care, as well as foster care, early learning centres, working with young people in need, with people who are differently abled, and with First Nations communities. The Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross is part of our Church’s life and ministry.

The cultural diversity of our community is echoed in our congregations. People gather for worship in Tongan, Mandarin, Fijian, Armenian, Korean, Swahili, Samoan, Indonesian, Cantonese, Tagalog as well as English, and these communities are growing. The next Moderator of our Church in NSW and the ACT is a Tongan Australian woman, Rev. Mata Havea Hiliau, reflecting the breadth and depth of our church.  

We are working hard – and together – on communicating that vaccination is critical for everyone. We are using social media, emails, video links and worship services to emphasise the need for vaccination across our whole church. We have identified many of the cultural challenges before us, and that has been recognised by our state politicians, as well as our congregations.

For many of these communities, church is not just Sunday morning, but community at its most inclusive and comprehensive. Mandating vaccination needs to be understood through cultural lenses as well as political and health-based ones. There have been social media campaigns by some religious fringe groups, using faith and scripture in unhelpful, even destructive, ways, to undermine the need for vaccination.  

For churches like ours, this is not some facile political argument about freedom, but about the radical shape of hospitality when we follow Jesus. We serve at cost to ourselves; we exist for the sake of serving others. 

Once again, at our best, everyone is welcome. How we create a safe place for everyone is always a challenge, but that does not make the need for hospitality any less vital. We are absolutely committed to keeping people safe through vaccination and all the pandemic protocols.

However, the breadth of our churches, and the critical service they offer in our communities, require a more nuanced approach as we emerge from this phase of lockdown.

Our churches understand – perhaps better than most – the need to protect the vulnerable members of our community. We are committed to working with the government and other services for the sake of everyone around us.

We are profoundly committed to those whose lives are at risk, whose voices are silenced, whose hands appear empty. To these neighbours our door is open.  

Worth Remembering

Many of us are brought from a simmer to a slow boil, as eleven o’clock chimes each morning. Medicos, politicos, journos and others talk in numbers and percentages about life, death and underlying conditions, while pundits of all shapes and abilities on media – social and otherwise – offer angry comment. 

Mostly, we remain frustrated, waiting in our homes and nowhere else. Part of our frustration is that we are unsure of what comes next, of where this season ends, and what life – and church – will look like on the other side of this. At our worst, we want someone to blame, because powerlessness and isolation are not good comrades. 

Deeper, there is the sadness for those who are emotionally or physically affected. The growing cases in south-west Sydney and the western part of our state are not statistics, but friends, colleagues and family. They are not them, they are us.

We worry too about our church community. People with whom we would share and sing are reduced to a matchbox on our screens. Together is altogether not.

Through all this, Afghanistan, Haiti, climate change and women’s safety are almost airbrushed from our screens because our gaze is fixed on this one thing.

In the face of this turbulence, it is easy to forget who we are. Our response is that we become self-absorbed, worrying solely about our health, our safety, and that of our immediate family.

We become focused on QR code compliance and masks and urban boundaries which have never mattered until now. It is hard to see beyond our own immediate constraints.

An essential part of our discipleship is remembering. On each occasion when we celebrate the bread and wine of the eucharist, we are commanded, remember me. The central act of our shared life calls us to remember the crucified and risen Christ.  

Remembering calls us back to ourselves, to who we are called, by Christ, to be. The awe-inspiring news that we are crafted in the image of God; the reminder that at our best, at our most average and at our worst, we are still loved by God. The astonishing promise that God’s mercy and hope address each frailty and failure, and articulate each time we bless others in our turn.

This is why community is so valuable. On the occasions when it is difficult to recall our hope, our faith, there are others who break the bread and share it with us, inviting us to rediscover our value and our call. We are re-membered, regathered by the community as we tell the stories of how Christ has acted, and is acting now. 

We have congregations across the Synod who are helping people in their communities to discover hope in Christ, or to remember it. People are being offered food parcels, or phone calls, hampers are being carried to isolated communities and congregations are partnering with vaccination hubs to support everyone who calls through.

Our Ministers are being vaccinated to encourage our church community and posting it on social media – #loveneighbour – and our parish missions across the Synod are engaging in vaccination and meals and community support for isolated people of all ages.

Our university chaplains are providing pastoral support to overseas students, offering financial support to many in need. I am pleased that the Moderator’s Fund is being used in several places in our Synod, in a disaster where there are no fires, floods or drought, but plenty of people struggling.

Remembering, under the urging of the Holy Spirit is about our decision, about our faithful following of Christ. In seasons like this one, the Spirit reminds us of the One who has died and been raised, which is the reason we serve – and proclaim – in the world around us.

I am praying for our church, for all our congregations and communities, parish missions and service agencies, for our presbyteries and for our Synod.

We are in this challenging time, this pandemic, with the living God. We will serve, and proclaim, offer forgiveness and mercy, and live out justice. We will remember the one who calls us, who is always faithful.

For Afghanistan

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

– Psalm 22.1-2

To you, the God of earth and heaven,
we turn, in grief, and pray.

For the peoples of Afghanistan,
facing terror once again,
haunted by the serried ranks of ghosts
from interminable invasions and wars,
desperate for hope,
hungering for peace;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We weep at what we have seen
in these last weeks and months;
we are heart-struck
with what we fear will happen now.
We have nowhere else to turn, but you;
and so we cry out:
halt the violence,
restrain those who would seek vengeance,
shelter those most at risk;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We confess the arrogance of empire
– Mongol, British, Russian and American –
which has spawned generations of brokenness
amongst the rubble of injustice and war.
Forgive us, we pray,
for the destruction we have wrought,
falsely determined that we knew what was right.
Forgive us for our failure to offer the Afghan peoples
what they most sorely need;
Help governments, including our own,
to act with integrity for those who have served us
and those who seek refuge within our land;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray, especially, for women and girls,
who have most to fear from the Taliban’s return.
Endow them with further courage and wisdom,
to endure what is to come;
to create hope where none seems evident;
to sow justice in what appears barren ground.
May they know their inherent value and worth
especially when days are darkest;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

May the leaders of the Taliban
and all who cast their lot with them
realise the inherent and abiding evil
of vengeance and violence.
Cause them to govern with the possibility of justice
and the realisation that each and every person
is valuable in the eyes and heart of God;
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

Crucified and risen Lord,
Our prayers arise,
accompanied by our groans,
may your Spirit move where we have failed,
for the sake of those most in need this day
and in the days to come.
Lord, in your mercy,
Hear our prayer.

We pray in Jesus’ name.

PreachFest 2021

Welcome to the inaugural PreachFest, an offering on behalf of our Uniting Church, to the whole of the Church, as we celebrate, and seek to elevate, the art and call of preaching.

I welcome you from Gadigal Land, country of the Eora nation. On behalf of our Church, I pay my respects to the elders past and present, for the way they have stewarded the creator’s good creation, the lands and waters under their care.

I extend that respect to other indigenous people past and present, and to those lands on which you all gather. I pray that this care will continue into the years ahead, hoping that our creator will continue reconciling all things to himself in Jesus Christ.

James McAuley invites each poet and thus, each preacher,

Take salt upon your tongue.
And do not feed the heart
with sorrow, darkness or lies:
these are the death of art.

We are nourished by Scripture, by the Holy Spirit, then music and poetry and words and wonder and our lives.

The extraordinary technological improvements which enable us to broadcast this festival live and online, to record it and offer it to Congregations and communities, do not always serve us well.

We have begun to trust the marvel of the medium and not the wonder of the message.

We live in a world where the image is vital, the screenshot, which flicks across our retinas and, almost immediately, is gone. Shazaam helps us to capture the snippet of music we like for the moment; TikTok testifies to the trimming of our attention spans – and our memories – to the equivalent of a goldfish.

We have fallen into the trap of believing that preaching is an archaic, or even obsolete, gift in our Church’s life. Thus, we have reflections, or testimonies, or “talks”, with none of the discipling, or risk, of a sermon crafted to remind the disciples of Christ who we are called to be. Our liturgical response of “anyone can do this”, neglects the vital diversity of gifts endowed by the Holy Spirit for all the aspects of the Church’s life and mission.

These are not the only challenges before us. We have taken Barth’s supposed dictum, updated, about a bible in one hand and a tablet in the other, and have become so immersed in the media cycle, that preaching is at risk of becoming a political polemic and not the gift the Church – and our community – so desperately need.

Scripture is not one option among many, it is the first option, each and every time. We hold it carefully, with respect and joy.

Some of us have stayed securely in the past, nestled in the brilliance of Calvin, the rigour of Wesley, the challenge of Spurgeon. However, there are preachers now, like the mob we have gathered for this festival, like Rutledge and Lischer and Curry and Brueggemann and Lose and Taylor (have a listen to Raffel the new Anglican Archbishop!), all of whom will remind you of the call of Jesus Christ to bear faithful human witness in our world.  

Les Murray reminds us, tongue firmly planted in his cheek

Prose is Protestant-agnostic,
story, discussion, significance,
but poetry is Catholic,
poetry is presence.

Preaching is not just reading out something written by another, it is living out the proclamation of the living God, whose kiss of life has created us, and whose breath now breathes through us.  

We are, each and all of us, called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those of us, called to preach, do so in a public way, as a prophetic offering to the community of faith.

We are not called to convert, or to save. These tasks are entirely – and thankfully – the movement of the Spirit of the one about whose life and death and resurrection we preach. We are called to bear witness – in our proclamation and in our lives. The significance of our words must be echoed by the integrity of our character, in humility and mercy.

R.S Thomas goes to efforts to keep us suitably humble

I see them working in old rectories
by the sun’s light, by candlelight,
venerable men [and women], their black cloth
a little dusty, a little green
with holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
ripening over so many prayers,
toppled in to the same grave
with oafs and yokels. They left no books,
memorial to their lonely thought
in grey parishes; rather they wrote
on people’s hearts and in the minds
of young children sublime words
too soon forgotten. God, in [God’s] time
or out of time will correct this.

Our proclamation must always point to Christ, crucified and risen. That is our calling.

I note that there are experienced preachers, ordained and lay, gathered here and in Canberra and online, as individuals and in regional hubs; there are preachers in waiting, those apprenticed to a community of faith, and preachers who are discovering their call.

I welcome those preachers from other traditions, including those who will be teaching and leading us.

All preaching begins in prayer, so let us pray.

One of Those Days

It was not just one of those days, but one that helps define who we are as church, and how our discipleship is shaped for the task before us.

That particular Thursday began as many Thursdays do, but middled – and ended – not with a whimper, but a bang. Sometimes in the Synod offices, we are “just getting the job done”, as we seek to serve the Church, as the Church serves the community, but fanfares are not always the order of the day.

First stop was St. Stephen’s, in the heart of the city, opposite Parliament House. I sat in the front row of one of our most beautiful, “churchiest” churches, between a doctor and a past NSW Premier and federal Foreign Minister on one side, and three recovering drug users and the Executive Director of Uniting on the other.

We celebrated two decades of hard core, high quality, care and justice, as the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre was recognised as a lifesaving, life-changing institution at the heart of Kings Cross. The testimonies – of the three men on my right giving thanks for their lives, of a Liberal and Labor politician in furious agreement, of doctors Marianne Jauncey and Ingrid Van Beek in passionate service – all bore witness to a hope in action driven by Rev. Harry Herbert and our Synod, which has changed thousands of lives, politics and a community.

We hung our banner of hearts across the facade of Parliament House and danced down Macquarie Street, returning to our other work.

As I landed in the Synod Office, we welcomed student leaders from our schools. More than twenty senior students, chosen by their peers, had come to discuss the issues which they had elected as important – consent, climate change and the environment, and mental health registered as their top three.

This was an opportunity for me and some other members of our Synod to engage with the considerable capacity of these students, as they wrestled with confronting problems which beset them and everyone else in our community.

They were not hindered by their surrounds but, rather, energised by the opportunity to have their views expressed and challenged. When they were asked what it means to be part of a Uniting Church school, even those students from other faiths were able to name their sense of being welcomed, of engaging in education, faith and issues which are important to them. Almost everyone talked of the diversity – of faith, of opinion, of experience – and they attributed that to being part of the Uniting Church.

We have children in schools of all styles across our Synod; they are not the church of the future. They are the church now, and we should celebrate them as such. The gifts offered by all teachers, by chaplains, by parents, by our children need to be treasured.

As our schools’ event drew to a close, I hustled down Pitt Street to an Iftar meal hosted by the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, convened by a man who calls every friend “cousin”.

This was a meal within our community, for Muslims and as many friends as they could fit in the room. My table had a judge, a politician, and two members of the armed services. We sat near politicians and broadcasters, journalists and sportspeople, as we considered what it means to be a diverse, creative community. We wrestled with justice for refugees and Australians trying to come home, from India and other countries. We voiced concern about labelling, even blaming, specific groups of people because of their belief and background.

Iftar is not only a meal as part of the season of Ramadan, it is often hospitality at its best, where difference and shared hopes are held together.

This story of my Thursday is a story of our Uniting Church; engaged in conversation with our community, often over a coffee, or dolmades. It is meeting with politicians and priests, or those ensnared by the challenges of life, or emerging from its injustices. We know that Jesus met with people living in all aspects of his community and, at our best, we seek to do the same.

We are called to be in the midst of things. It is here that we bear witness to our hope in Jesus, and offer that hope to others with whom we share our lives. As disciples of Jesus, we are in conversation with our community, articulating hope, embodying justice.

Every day.  

Moderator Report to Synod

The Uniting Church acknowledges that the Church is able to live and endure through the changes of history only because its Lord comes, addresses, and deals with people in and through the news of his completed work. Christ who is present when he is preached among people is the Word of God who acquits the guilty, who gives life to the dead and who brings into being what otherwise could not exist. Through human witness in word and action, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ reaches out to command attention and awaken faith; he calls people into the fellowship of his sufferings, to be the disciples of a crucified Lord; in his own strange way Christ constitutes, rules and renews them as his Church.  [Basis of Union, Para. 4]

We are an Australian Church.

We assert this with passion from the very marrow of our bones. A Church formed in, and for, the Australian community. In our next breath, and in our more candid moments, we ask ourselves what on earth this might mean, given the dramatically altered contexts from conception, to birth, to our fifth decade.

The certainty our grandparents and their parents apparently felt, about what it means to be Australian, has changed remarkably – and wonderfully – since three protestant churches first considered Union almost a century ago.

It is not only the cornucopia of culture and language which infuses and enhances our community and our Church, or the technologies which transfix us with their imagery and sound, or the diversity of voices we are hearing – with many more to attend to – of age and gender and education and background.

We live in a community where some of our friends are five generations absent from a worshipping congregation; a community which bears the scars of abuse and arrogance and pious judgment from many who name themselves as followers of Jesus. Our community is suspicious of our integrity, and we dare not be surprised.  

I have been ordained for thirty years and so often we reflexively turn to the programme, plan, or guru, to guide us to a better place. We manage ourselves into models of mission and wonder why they wither after a rigorous season, especially when we have worked so hard and frequently paid so much? We look to our own fear, our own survival and misremember the witness, invitation and grace which welcomed us in the first place.

We have only to look at the current federal political disarray when the disregard and abuse of women, coupled with diseased male entitlement are seen as “issues to be managed” and not as illnesses to be confessed, diagnosed, and cured.

We cannot manage our way through this, or out of it. We cannot perfect our mission plans, or so distil our theology to a pristine purity that our problems will be resolved. We may well have sufficient property and financial resources, and the administrative skills to organise them, to fund creative ministry placements.

However, do we have the intrinsic hope – the wherewithal – to invite people to discover their life in Christ? Are we faithfully deliberate to challenge them as we walk together? How do we identify each other for the tasks of ministry across the life of our Church?

At our last Synod in Session, we declared our need to grow in faith and depth and numbers; we agreed that we need to be better formed for ministry – lay and ordained, congregation and individual – in order to better exercise our discipleship; we re-affirmed our focus on people in the first third of life, to welcome and engage them in the mission of the Church; we asserted that Makarrata is critical to our integrity as Australians, to listen and listen again to our First Peoples; we again identified the crisis of climate change as inimical to all our world and thus, the need for all our world – and our Church – to act.    

Notwithstanding the importance of these decisions, and our need to adapt to the needs of our transforming community, we cannot begin with a more acute strategic plan. We begin with Christ.

We proclaim Christ, crucified and risen. We exist and we grow because of what God has completed in Jesus Christ.

We proclaim, bear witness, and through the mercy of God in Christ, we join as disciples, not for the survival of our Church, but for the sake of the world.   

Which is why ministry formation is so critical in the life of our Synod – indeed, our whole Church. The Period of Discernment has misled us to think that being formed for ministry is an individual endeavour, focused frequently on ordination, or that discipleship occurs in isolation. This has led, in some places, to a selective sense of call, identified by what an individual believes she, or he, hears. Call is affirmed by community as well as an individual.

Comfort and peace are rarely the biblical measure of a disciple’s call. The Spirit moves across the Church; the call to ministry is about being discipled to the one who has nowhere to lay his head.

Discipleship is about the community of faith, as we are formed for ministry of all shapes and sizes, together. This discipleship is ongoing, as Paul consistently reminds us; ordination, or eldership, or becoming a pastor does not complete it, rather these are simply a mark of the journey on which we have been called – as one body.

Ministry Formation has continued to develop for those who are candidating for ordination, including formation panels and developing facets of regional formation in areas outside metropolitan Sydney. There are indications of the benefits for candidates, for their placements and for the presbyteries.

We intend to grow the formation of discipleship across our communities of faith – congregations, universities and colleges, schools, aged care communities – wherever disciples may be found. This has been hindered by our “COVID season” but we are stepping back into that conversation once more, engaging Ministers in placement to explore how we might best form disciples across our Synod.

This, of course, is integral with how we proclaim and worship, how we carry our witness to Christ and how we invite – and offer hospitality – to any who seek it.

The task of Ministry Formation is to keep our focus on the main thing: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world+. Immediately this cannot be solely about ordination, but incorporates each of us, called, welcomed, and witnessing to the risen, crucified Christ.

The dilemma we often name is the changing community around us. The temptation is that this distraction becomes the pole to which the compass needle points us, rather than the one to whom we are discipled. We assert our faith that in each circumstance Christ is not only present, but that it is Christ’s work of which we are a part, and not our own.

There are significant challenges before us. Our Uniting Church structure was designed for another season, and for a human capacity which currently exceeds us. Our presbyteries and several of our congregations are not as the Constitution – or we – imagined and we need to understand how we are being formed by the Spirit of God for the context in which we worship, witness and serve. Self-preservation is neither a hallmark of the gospel, nor is it practical.

Essential to being Moderator is the responsibility to remind the Church who we are called to be. We are holding this first stanza of our Synod in Session in the light of Easter. Where might we imagine, even believe, that the risen Christ is calling us? This is not about mechanics, but about how we discern the song of the Holy Spirit in a Synod which is so often pragmatic, rather than hopeful.

This cannot be decided by demographics, or by the financial generosity of wealthy congregations and presbyteries. How will we have the necessary conversations about trying new models of ministry which need seed money, or realising stranded property assets into more fruitful ones to resource new imperatives for mission?

The challenge of serving the rural communities, which is close to my heart, is almost overmatched by that of caring for Sydney and Canberra’s growing edges. We dare not measure our effective ministry life by the security of our congregation, whatever its size.

I have seen parables of resurrection in our church. When our Auburn Congregation proclaimed for me the wonder of Easter in worship which resounded in my soul and when a woman, ten years clean after a decade in hell, talked about those who were kind to her and walked beside her to new life at our Medically Supervised Injecting Centre.

Several of our Parish Missions are bywords in our community for hope and salvation at their most profound. Our school leaders are talking articulately with the Synod about the safety of each other, and climate change and mental health and want to talk more.

We are accomplished at talking ourselves into irrelevancy, when we are responsible to proclaim the gospel. We are here because of Christ, alone.

Recently, an established journalist wrote to me, identifying the Uniting Church as a compassionate church which wanted to have a conversation with our community, rather than lecture, and one which did not always fit the stereotype of what people expected from the church – if they expect anything at all.

As the COVID season began, I stated that I believe that we are supposed to be here, as challenging as it is. It is our task to trust and follow Christ and to invite others to do likewise. Our hope is found in the completed work of Jesus Christ; we worship, witness and serve only because of that. We are ideally suited for this season in our world, by God’s grace.

Carlo Carretto once wrote “how baffling you are, O Church, and how much I love you!” This might well be a meme for many, if not most, of us. I look each day, in prayer, in wonder and in frustration, for the signs of Jesus Christ “constituting, ruling and renewing us as his Church.” As this second stanza of my placement as Moderator has begun, I give thanks for our Church and for the Synod in which I serve.

May the risen, crucified Christ bless you for the season ahead.

God Comes Close

In a dream, wrapped in the swaddling bands of confusion caused by Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph hears God’s comfort and direction as to what to name their child. And Matthew, with customary editorial license, reminds us of Jesus’ pseudonym and purpose, “Emmanuel … God is with us”.

In the shadowed mystery and wonder of the Christmas story, we find ourselves relieved and thankful that God is such a God as this. The delight of a newborn baby, even in these fearful circumstances, is joy incarnate. We sing Emmanuel.

Yet Emmanuel seems to slip from our vocabulary as we read further into the gospels. We bias one side of the scales, to speak only of Jesus’ earthed humanity, or elevate him beyond our laughter and fears and grumpiness to a hologram. Neither is sufficient.

The sacrilege of God’s behaviour is in breaking all the rules, to defy and surpass the expectations of what a God – our God, any god – is supposed to be and do. To assert that God is born, as we are all born, that God lives and stumbles and serves and loves and laughs and grieves, moves us into the depths of the promise cracked open in Joseph’s dream and Mary’s faithful acceptance.

In this season, of all our recent seasons, this promise of God is vital. We have been meeting and worshipping on screen or, perhaps, at double-arms’ length and wonder if we will ever shake a new friend’s hand again. Our singing is constrained (unless we’re barracking), and we are wary of holding those who have lived (and we have loved) longest for fear of infection. We have seen the suffering across our world, acknowledging the danger of being close.

In these difficult days, we proclaim Emmanuel.

It is not simply COVID 19. The viruses take many forms and are equally infectious: social distance caused by mistrust; endemic violence blamed on race and gender and sexual orientation; callous disregard for the world which God created in love and joy.

Because of these, and in their midst, we assert Emmanuel.

In our churches, disciples can lose hope, as we struggle to discover the rhythm of this new journey. If worship is not how we have known it, then what might it be? If we cannot break and share the bread in the manner known and loved, then how? Can we stand shoulder to shoulder in prayer for our world, and if not, who are we?

Precisely here, we preach Emmanuel.

Easter is history’s darkest moment, before the startling light of resurrection. The resurrection will always bear the signature of the cross. We need it to be so.

God not only knows the struggles through which we live, but has also suffered. More than that, we assert with hope and profound thanks that God is with us in each moment. Easter is not a theological maths problem, solved by God’s clever calculation.

Easter is God’s engagement, beyond expectation, even beyond hope, entirely in prodigious love.

The brokenness of Friday is Emmanuel at its most necessary, most wonderful and most awful. The Word is framed in wood.

Friday is God in solidarity with us, in injustice, or suffering, even when caused by our own hand. Solidarity even with those whose hands hold the nails.

Saturday’s silence is the waiting that people experience all the time; waiting for COVID – or other – test results; waiting for justice, or for hope; waiting for the struggle, or grief, to end.

Sunday is always more than we expect: death defeated, life proclaimed. Forgiveness for all who seek it. Mercy to quench all those who thirst. Christ’s resurrection transforms history and creation, and each of us.

Hold this promise carefully, offer this hope gently, because many live in Friday’s grasp, or Saturday’s hiatus.

Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel “the reign of God has come near” are most completely true at Easter. On Friday’s cross, in the silence of Saturday and when the triumph of Easter is revealed, God, in Christ Jesus, has come close.

Here, wonderfully, from Jesus’ birth, and life, and death, and life, we sing Emmanuel.

A Prayer from Mark 1.29-34

We pray, God of life,
aware of our world around us:
struggles, grief, vast injustice;
hope, hospitality and small signs of your presence.

Your hand and love have shaped everything, and everyone,
teach us your patience and your mercy,
both with ourselves and with those around us;
help our anger at wrongdoing to be shaped into acts of justice
and words of challenge;
reform our grief that we might live more fully into your promise.

Lord Jesus,
You brought healing to those who could not imagine renewal,
and opportunity to those who had been denied.

We think of countless women disciples who have shaped opportunity into service;
who have borne witness over millennia,
with acts of justice, mercy, courage and hope;
who have used hospitality to echo your welcome
and have entertained angels unawares. 

Holy Spirit,
Breath and wind and wonder,
remind us of your call to serve and to proclaim,
to offer life to those who are demonised
and hope to those possessed by hopelessness.  

As our community begins to fragment,
make us ambassadors of reconciliation;
as we fear to be too close to each other,
remind us that you gather us with the kiss of wind and flame;
as we are confronted by struggles beyond our strength,
give us the capacity and courage to serve where we are,
and those people within our reach.

Raise up leaders to speak of you and your promise,
challenge our current leaders now to act justly
and not from self-interest;
lift up those who are poor,
whose names are unknown,
who are discarded by systems, or politicians,
or us.

Bless our congregation here,
bless our Uniting Church,
bless your Church in every appearance and every place,
that we may serve you well,
and the world for which Christ died.

A New Economy

At the conclusion of an insightful and thought-provoking review, Jon Piccini writes:
“If contemporary debates in Britain on the place of the empire in national memory are anything to go by, the accumulation of evidence for colonialism’s dark past – from mass violence in Kenya to concocted constitutional crises in Australia – only cements entrenched views, driving partisans and apologists to new heights of fantasy and self-soothing. Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.”[1]

Piccini’s review is of two new books about the correspondence between Sir John Kerr and Martin Charteris, the private secretary of Queen Elizabeth II, at the time of the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government in 1975.

This piece is not about these books, apart from in passing. Piccini notes that the two works he is reviewing approach the event from starkly contrasting perspectives and argues, convincingly, that almost everyone who reads the books will do so in order to have their points of view reinforced, rather than challenged, or subverted.

My questions arise from this ultimate paragraph and, in particular, the final two sentences.

Do these sentences have any bearing as we consider the great issues of our time: the effects of human activity upon our climate, both in punishment and remediation; the place of privacy and the individual in a world connected, through technology, beyond the control of most citizens; the nature of identity when gender and sexuality are suddenly not what we have been historically and erroneously told they are; our changing world – individual, communal and political – in the face of pandemics?

We know that, amongst other things, when we read literature, history and theology, where we stand determines what we see and what we do not see.[2] The illusion of objectivity has proved to be precisely that; we know that the dominant cultural group in any community usually has pre-eminence over the telling of history and the interpretation of events which occur. We are also aware that when less dominant groups seek to identify – and proclaim – their own stories, the dominant grouping often feels significant discomfort.

As an ordained Minister in the Protestant Christian tradition, and as an educated, middle-aged, Anglo-Celtic male, I am conscious that I am a member of what has traditionally been a dominant group in the life of the Church and, indeed, the community in the Global North.

My initial reading of any text (or, indeed, any event) will, almost reflexively, be courtesy of the lens through which I have been trained to look. How will I pay proper attention to those who were not educated in the way I have been? How will I attend, respectfully, to women, people of colour, people of other language, culture, sexuality and identity than my own?

How will my opinions be subverted, change and grow?

When we were taught at school that something is “historical”, it usually implied that there was consensus about an event, its causes and consequences. The intellectual and historical paucity of this argument is revealed in debates as diverse as the causes of the First World War, the arrival of Europeans in Australia, the Shoah, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Many of my culture and background, as inheritors of the Enlightenment, believe that reason will, finally, win out. Is this still true? There is clear evidence that, for a significant part of our community, anecdote and personal experience are at least as valid as historical events.

Moreover, if, just for a moment, we substitute “science” for “history” in the review’s penultimate sentence, we wade into even deeper difficulty. Those who argue for the objective nature of peer-reviewed results and evidence, for statistical precision, have experienced a difficult decade or two, as the decline of trust in institutions has leeched into the faculties of the sciences. Many leading scientists have said they were poorly equipped to respond to such a transformation.

Even worse, the debates have become polarised, with polemic in many forms taking the place of reasoned, passionate debate. This is not about education, although that does play a role. This is about demonising those who think differently, believing that a difference of opinion is worthy of – even demands – condemnation. Watching the political and social chaos in the United Kingdom and the United States in the response to the COVID 19 pandemic is evidence enough that even a crisis common to humanity does not guarantee an appropriate response.

Piccini argues that intent, political intent, is necessary. We must decide to engage, then to create and to drive change.   

Critics, then, cannot rely on history itself to change well-established patterns of thought, prejudice, and privilege. Only the hard slog of politics can do that.

So, what does this mean for the witness of those who follow Christ? We know, despite our pious protestations, that the Church is always influenced – for good and, for ill – by the community in which it worships, witnesses and serves.

Much of traditional apologetics in the Church argues from the historical event of Jesus’ existence, and thus his birth, death and the wonderful improbability of his resurrection.

If Piccini is correct, an argument on its own is insufficient. To present from the scriptural text, and to argue from history will not be enough.

What, then, are the politics of God’s economy?

We must tell the stories of what faith means – to me, to us. We need to engage in the consequences of our discipleship and talk about them; not the great worship team of which we are a part, but the simple faith-in-action which has changed lives, or discovered hopes, or salved wounds.

We need to be able to seek forgiveness from people when they have been told that because of who they are, they have no welcome in the hope of God for the world. People throughout history have been condemned because of wounds they carry, or the lives they lead, or because of their gender, culture, race, sexuality or position in the world to which they have been assigned, to believe that they have no place in the promise of God.

We also need to be able to offer forgiveness, and to mean it. Some will come, so broken by their circumstance, or their choice, that they believe themselves beyond the reach of mercy, even God’s mercy. We must embody the hospitality of God.

How willing am I to be transformed by each encounter and not to believe myself the sole dispenser of mercy and hope?

The witness we bear is not solely historical, it is for the present and for the future. We must take account of the world in which we live. Our faith is never anonymous; it bears our likeness, but first it bears the image of Jesus.

We must be able to welcome people into a community, even a small one, in which the integrity of this faith is borne out.

Let us not forget the Spirit of the risen, crucified One. The winsome, whimsical presence of the Holy Spirit is present in the world, before us, opening ears and hearts (inescapably my own) to the wonder of Jesus Christ.

Am I willing to live like this?

Am I willing to be a citizen, active in the politics of the economy of the living God?

[1] Jon Piccini; ‘An Endless Struggle with the Past’ Australian Book Review #428, pp.9-10

[2] Steve de Shazer; “Where you stand determines what you see and what you do not see; it determines also the angle you see it from; a change in where you stand changes everything.”

Loving God. & Neighbour.

It’s a long way from Dubbo to Sydney, especially when you’re in need of medical help.

I have worked for almost thirty years in rural and regional communities across New South Wales, and the resources we expect at our fingertips in Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong are beyond the reach of many people in other places.

If the medical help you need is linked to drug dependency, then rural people are consistently told that the nearest support is more than four hundred kilometres and a long waiting list away. I have heard countless stories from parents and families, about their despair at our current approach to drugs and the lack of services for the people they love, who are asking for help – now.

It is why the Uniting Church (NSW and ACT) is such a strong advocate for changing our drug laws. It’s why so many groups across our community are echoing our call.

Drug dependence is often misunderstood as a predominately urban issue. The reality is regional and rural areas of our country suffer a double blow on this issue.

Families, wherever they are, suffer the same loss and devastation if their loved ones develop drug dependence. However, country areas frequently lack the necessary services for drug treatment that are predominately situated in our cities.

This was the case with Dubbo and the story of Shantell – a Dubbo resident who wanted to receive treatment for her drug use, but the closest, suitable treatment was four hundred kilometres away in Sydney.

It’s not just the distance. Relocating for treatment can be really difficult, especially if you have children. There is also the chronic lack of places to access treatment – the wait can be over eighteen months.

It is a long way away from Dubbo to Sydney. In 2018 I walked part of the way, alongside many others, joining our Long Walk to Treatment as we sought to draw attention to the issue of fairer treatment for those people in regional areas who live with drug dependency.

Last month, the NSW Government announced it would allocate $7.5m to set up a new treatment centre in Dubbo. It was a very welcome move. But we need to do more.

I welcome news that the NSW Government is considering changing the law regarding small quantities of drugs and instead introduce a three-strike warning system.

These sensible measures are the sign of a Government that is listening to the medical and legal experts and making laws based on the evidence.

Too many people who use drugs are made to live in the shadows, looked down upon with shame and stigma and therefore don’t seek help because of our current drug laws.

We all want a society in which all people are valued, and their dignity as human beings recognised.

Parents want to know that their kids will come home safe from a night out. They also want to know that if their children develop drug dependency, our community will help keep them safe until they can get treatment. This move by the NSW government is to be applauded.

This long-awaited change is, currently, a flicker of hope. It has yet to be passed by Cabinet. No doubt there will be those critics in our community who will argue against doing anything which is not punitive.

But if you listen to the experts, as I have during my years in ministry and as Moderator, you will hear former police commissioners like Mick Palmer, you will hear doctors and other health experts, policy wonks, lawyers and community workers all speak about the importance of treating drug dependency as a health and social issue.

It may surprise many people to find a church on the frontline of such a campaign. It should be expected – Jesus’s essential command is “Love God and Love Your Neighbour”. We are here in this debate, because our faith places us here; caring for people and their families especially when we know the harm drug dependency is causing in our community.

The impact of drug dependency is being exacerbated by our approach to policing drug laws and punishing those who use even small amounts of drugs. It means those who might otherwise seek help for drug dependency, hide in the shadows of society, shamed.

When we treat drug use as a health and social issue – and this government proposal is an initial step in that direction – police will have greater resources to be tough on large-scale drug trafficking and violent crime.

In this we have the support of over sixty organisations as part of the Fair Treatment Coalition that we established and now counts amongst its members organisations representing legal, medical, health, community and church groups.

And of course, the Uniting Church, through its service arm Uniting, runs the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre at King Cross which has also taught us much about how to respond with compassion to those people who use drugs.

This proposal by the NSW Government is a step in the right direction. It should be encouraged and applauded; I hope people in NSW will give it their support and let their local MP know they are behind such a change.

Put simply, it will bring people nearer to help and hope. It will save lives.

This piece appeared in Guardian Australia on 7th December 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/we-will-save-lives-in-regional-australia-by-treating-drug-use-as-a-health-issue-not-a-criminal-one