Readings: Psalm 100:1-5; Romans 5:1-8; Matthew. 9:35-10:8, (9-23)
As ourIn Touch magazine and the front page of Revive remind us, this coming week marks the 40th year since the Uniting Church was formed out of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational churches in Australia. And coincidentally I`ve just started doing a major clear-out of documentation and stuff dating back four decades. As I was ripping up a boxful of Synod papers followed by a boxful of prison reform efforts and church camp stuff, memories came flooding back. And I started thinking about how my life seems to have paralleled the Uniting Church journey. So I beg your indulgence in sharing some of that with you now.
Having migrated to Australia in the early 70s, built a house in what was then rural Swanview, and produced two sons, I felt isolated and so started reconnecting with the Methodist Church in the mid 70s. But it was all a bit confusing because one Sunday we were worshipping in Greenmount Methodist Church and the next in Brown Park Hall where the Presbyterians had been meeting - and the word Union was being bandied about. Key decisions had to be made about property needing to be sold and consolidated in the Midland area and I joined in parish meetings about that, trying to understand what it was all about.
Well, the next thing, I had this approach from an elder asking if I would become congregation secretary at Swanview. Like me? - why? Because at Union it had been decreed that a third of all councils and committees had to be women. Oh, I liked the sound of this Uniting Church idea! Little did I realise that this would open up a whole world of female empowerment, feminist theology and ministry involvement. I remember attending a joyous celebration of the inauguration of the Uniting Church held in the Perth Entertainment Centre in June 1977 still not really understanding the background to it all but picking up on the gracious spirit of so many willing to leave behind well-worn tracks and venture on this new journey into the unknown, a bit like I`d done in migrating to Australia.
The 80`s saw our family move to Manning and increasing involvement in a community-minded congregation helping run Sunday Club and church camps. The growth of Karawara state housing in the next suburb (with its single mums and refugees struggling to make ends meet) was the catalyst for the Manning Uniting Church setting up various support services including a foodbank and opshop in the disused Methodist church which grew to become Southcare. I ended up on the board till we moved to Willetton in 1990 but my husband Martin remained helping with finances at both Manning and Southcare for many more years.
The 90s saw me engaging in the structures of the Uniting Church, including being on the Synod Social Justice Commission (ending up as its chairperson), the Council of Synod, and also on the Assembly`s Commission on Women and Men, which highlighted the role of women disciples through an art and book project and played a key role in the push for gender equality and inclusive language in the Uniting Church. It was also responsible for introducing Sexual Complaints procedures and the Code of Ethics for Ministers (long before any other churches) - and I was supporting all this whilst undertaking theological studies and training to be a minister.
My first placement included involvement with various Uniting Care West groups alongside prison chaplaincy. The turn of the millennium saw me heavily involved in prison reform advocacy as well as being inducted into this socially aware church here at Wembley Downs. And this is your story now as the refugee crisis and peace activism and overseas connections produced such amazing compassionate and practical responses, and your support of Rainbow mental health group and school chaplaincy continues to this day.
The reshaping of presbyteries just over a decade ago saw me being asked to take on the role of Associate General Secretary Pastoral. And I got caught up in the administrative side, unfortunately so necessary if an organisation wishes to run well. But it`s a long way from our gospel reading for today where Matthew is reflecting on the rise of the early Christian house church movement as having been initiated by Jesus challenging people to be in community two by two. By Matthew`s time this Christian movement was leading to persecution hence his rather strong words which I don`t for one moment think came from Jesus.
During the three years I was in that Presbytery role, I too would go out to the country either with Martin or a church office person to meet up with small congregations. They weren`t facing the problem of persecution - just declining numbers needing different organising support. Then with my husband`s health came early retirement, and it was good to be able to come back into the community here at Wembley Downs. This Uniting Church, like so many others across Australia, provides such caring support both in personal times of stress and community trauma. And I think of the role of the Toodyay and Margaret River Uniting Churches in the devastating bushfires.
I am in my declining years now and so it would seem is the Uniting Church. Will it survive in the face of the rise of a new religion based on materialistic and monetary values? - Possibly not in its current form. But I don`t despair. Last Monday at the Living the Questionssession we were looking at the theme of resurrection and what that means for us today. Something Richard Smith said vibrated with me: `Jesus entered into the life of God, just as in his living God had entered Jesus`.
And it occurred to me that human consciousness of the divine was indeed forever changed by Jesus. He had imaged that `life of God` as being here on earth as an inclusive, socially just `kingdom of heaven` (as Matthew calls it). Jesus had also embodied this vision of unconditional love in his preaching and compassionate interactions especially with people who were struggling under economic, social and personal burdens. And of course he died for that vision.
Yet, since then, his `kingdom of God` vision has not died. Many social change movements have started with small groups coming together, upholding and acting on these God values challenging social injustice and oppression. And I think of the role Quaker Meetings had in seeking the abolition of slavery, the way early Methodist Societies were able to push for fair work conditions in industrial Britain, and the part played by southern Black American church prayer meetings during the Civil Rights movement. Some lost their lives too.
But my life has been much more plodding and mundane! As I ripped up another boxful of Presbytery-Synod papers I asked myself - all these words, all this effort, did it really make any difference? And then the article in last Saturday`s West Australian put everything back into perspective. It was about the difference made to refugees being welcomed and supported as epitomised in the story of the Afghani girl and her family and their interaction with CARAD including many of you here. And I can remember when our Social Justice Commission pushed hard for initial funding for CARAD and Nev`s role in housing and setting up the warehouse for furniture and household items. Be assured we have made a difference my friends, in many different ways - it`s just that we don`t get to hear about it too often though I do occasionally see on Facebook how well some of my former prison acquaintances are going.
I now realise that all our words and papers and meetings may well be tedious at times but they can also help keep us focussed on the Jesus vision. I am convinced this socially-just and loving `kingdom` vision will keep on resurrecting itself because in the end it is relating to others as valued persons in God`s domain which gives hope for the future and makes a difference in people`s lives. Being in community, even where only two or three are gathered together, is important - in 40 years` time it just may not be in the way we now call church. And I think of a Facebook group I heard of recently, including a woman almost housebound, who relate with each other online through art and theological discussion.
At the inauguration service held on 22nd June 1977 the first President Rev. Dr Davis McCaughey, the primary author of our Basis of Union, remarked that church union meant `absolutely nothing, unless it drives us back to the fundamental questions - where do you come from, where are you going, and who are you?… Are you and I prepared to find our bearings afresh?` asked McCaughey, as he urged the 1977 faithful on a new pilgrimage, to engage the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of his spirit. It would seem his questions remain valid for us to contemplate today, too!