Midweek Musing. Better together, better different.
I offered this reflection at Wesley Uniting Church, Canberra, this Sunday 20 January 2019. Biblical portions were John 2:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.
I was at a gathering of Christians to pray together this week; an ecumenical gathering, a multicultural gathering. For a prayer gathering, it felt to me quite wordy; for a worship gathering, it felt to me rather full of protocols, they seemed to need to thank everybody. The theology we sang used language I generally don’t prefer. Things were not done how I would do them, nor in a way that met my expectations, shaped by experience. I was often not really comfortable.
This was a Christian gathering, and it was me, a member of the church in Australia, a Uniting Church person and ours is one member of the global body of Christ. But if I expect every worship gathering I attend to express ideas about God like mine, in language that suits me, and to be structured according to my preferences and expectations – well, wouldn’t that be expecting the body to be all eyes, or hands, or lungs … ? We need, rather, different and distinct members for a healthy and vital body.
This gathering I was at, by the way, was part of a movement being convened by Aboriginal Christian leaders with the support of Common Grace. Common Grace has convened national movements of prayer themselves, often for those seeking asylum and refuge in Australia – we hosted their Kids off Nauru prayer gathering for Canberra in November last year. This time, they’re not naming it their event, but instead, offering their networks and logistics in support of these Indigenous leaders to be the ones to gather us, and lead Australian Christians in prayer. We are shown in this example the kind of partnership that is needed, a partnering that is not – decidedly not – the patronizing, empirical hangover from which we tend to suffer in Australia and in the church.
Our Aboriginal Christian leaders are asking us to pray for change in our country, beginning with the date on which we hold our national holiday. As one whose birthday is 26 Jan, I’ve been quite happy to have a public holiday on or near my birthday my whole life. But I will gladly give that privilege up, for I have long felt that this is an inappropriate day on which to hold our national holiday. It is the day that symbolizes the official dispossession of the land for its people, the dispossession of their identity. No. I don’t think that’s a good day to celebrate our nationhood: not if we truly desire to be a whole, healed, well nation that can move into a future of hope.
The Uniting Church strongly stands in solidarity with our Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders, honours their spirituality and diverse identity and peoples. We have in the course of our history as a Uniting Church established the Uniting Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Christian Congress, the collective member within our body that nurtures and supports our Indigenous members. Like Common Grace, we have got out of the way, lent our support to the autonomy of Aboriginal Christian leaders and people – and have also done this for other cultural collective members of our body, Korean, Tongan … and more.
It is hard work, it is uncomfortable, and it is at times painful. But it is the call of such letters in Paul’s name to the church as the one to Corinth we hear from today. If we do not offer humble, generous welcome of the diverse gifts we receive from our different members, we will stagnate, divide, crumble, die, as an organism.
Growth is hard work, discomfiting, painful. I watch my three year old niece go through days and weeks of listlessness, irritability, even some pain – they call them super weeks. I think when I was a kid it was known as a growth spurt.
I see one of my sisters nurse aching muscles after a good session at the gym, where she’s just intentionally torn her muscles by stretching them, in order to encourage them to grow stronger.
Staying alive and healthy means continuing to grow; growth is painful, and it requires nurture of all the parts, the members.
For Australia, we must continue to give appropriate nurture to the members we would overlook. We must make more room for the diverse and rich gifts of all our members – from the disempowered ancient Indigenous peoples to the disregarded new arrivals – how often is it the old and the young?? What we have in common is that the lands we now call Australia are our home; what we have in common is our shared humanity: and that ought to matter more than the little things that distinguish us from one another. For actually, distinction is important, not to be feared or resisted: distinction allows us to see each other, love each other, and engage in the mutual care of the relationality that is so central to our being human.
For the church, what unites us is, again, our shared humanity; what unites us is the Spirit, the Christ, the Creator, Holy One Holy Three in whom we find our home. We are baptized into one Spirit, and in that one Spirit we are one body. The distinctions between us invite our love and care, are the means by which we are to be healthy and whole, if we will accept the invitation.
In the Christian church, many communities choose to cycle through a three year lectionary of readings from across the Bible. Each of those three years, one gospel features (John’s gospel is woven through all three years in different ways). This year is the year of Luke. One of the themes we can see through Luke’s version of the story of Jesus is that Jesus issues an invitation from God to participate in God’s kin-dom. Invitation and participation. Contrary to some streams of Christian teaching, this is less a personal Jesus is my saviour I’m going to heaven invitation, and more a Jesus announces and brings about a new realm of radical, reconciling love, a new way to live in community. The invitation is as much to receive the gifts of others as it is to take responsibility for offering what is yours to give, both for the sake of individual and collective flourishing. For each is to be found in the other.
The story of Jesus is richer for our multiple different tellings of it. Across the gospels, their different stories weave a complex and textured portrait, illuminating themes in each other. They are, themselves, an example of the gift diversity is.
So, in the episode we have from John’s story of Jesus today, we are reminded that an invitation to participate in God’s kin-dom may come as a surprise, or a challenge.
Mother Mary. Her gift was a surprise to her son at this wedding celebration. He’d had his ideas about how the kin-dom was going to unfold, when he would announce it; and it was not this moment right here.
But Mary’s gift to the kin-dom of God was to see differently, to offer an alternative perspective; her gift was, in part, to refuse Jesus’ refusal to act, to challenge him and prod him into action. Who has a mother who has prodded them to action?
Now, Jesus could have insisted on his way. He could have dug his heels in and stuck to his ‘no’.
Jesus is, in so many ways, the announcement of the kin-dom, the alternative way of being in relationship: God with us, us with each other.
So Jesus listens. He discerns. He accepts the gift Mary offers. Jesus makes space for Mary in the kin-dom, the community they are building together, the people he has gathered around him. Jesus does not dismiss her, but hears the invitation to see differently, accepts the challenge to be uncomfortable. Jesus is not, from first to last, is not a lone wolf. The Kin-dom of God is not a bunch of individuals doing their individual thing like a club; it is individual members bringing their full selves as gifts, together, to build community.
So Jesus works with those in his community to embody the love of God, the call of God, the participation that is invited by God into a renewed way of being human.
Unexpectedly, this kin-dom is announced: wondrous, affirming of each person, each member, collective effort to bear witness to the extravagant radical love of God.
I wonder, what is the unexpected gift we might receive from a sister or brother in the family of God?
To what place of discomfort might we be challenged to move, in order for the gift of another to be offered and received for the sake of the growth and vitality of this body as a whole?
I am still processing the challenge, the ongoing challenge I heard on Thursday night from our sisters and brothers weeping while so many Australians carry on oblivious to the pain we might actually help to heal. But I know I must remain and return to those places of discomfort, to make more space for Indigenous Christian leaders, to help their voices and their story be heard, at times above my own.
The challenge to us as a community here, embarking on a new year, another year of our commitment to reciprocal care – what might that be? I don’t want to ask you only, what is your gift, your place in our congregation, our body, though it is vital for our ongoing health and vitality that each of us ask that question of ourselves, and recommit from time to time. I want to ask you just as much, or even more, to pay attention to each other: our commitment to reciprocal care must go beyond meals for the sick, though that is important. Reciprocal care, for me, means encouraging the whole health of each other; and that includes inviting and nurturing the gifts each of us has to offer, and may involve stepping out of the way, walking side by side, lifting up, cheering on. It means discerning together how we each might flourish, encourage each other to flourish, so that we as a whole might flourish and be an effective witness to God’s way of love.
It will take discernment, and some will have such gifts to offer; it will take administration and negotiation, and some will have those gifts to offer; it will take dedication and love, and we all may nurture these gifts as we nurture our relationship with the Divine Holy One. From our own acceptance of our gifts, our worth, found in God, we find confidence to celebrate each other without feeling threatened. And to do this – both nuture our own and each others’ wellbeing – this is to participate in the invitation God issues, an invitation in to the extravagant, radical, way of love.
So, as Mary spoke with insight, confidence, and participated in the announcing of the kin-dom of God alongside Jesus, may we have courage to offer our gifts.
And as Jesus paused, listened, discerned, adapted, and collaborated, may we have humility to receive the gifts of others as affirmation and nurture of their person, and in pursuit of the healthy functioning of the whole.