Today the Christian Church begins a new year. And we begin it, like Mother Mary expectantly, fearfully with few certainties. It begins with the colour purple – the colour of hope - when there are few signs of it. Mary was poor, pregnant and ostracized. Who would imagine she was a bearer of hope?
You may be familiar with Alice Walker’s book The Colour Purple. It’s a story of abuse, pain, courage, and faith. The stage show puts the title into a song, which is sung to God: “Like a blade of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me. Like the colour purple, where do it come from?”
Where does hope come from?
We are called to be a community of hope – hope for one another, our society, and our world.
First and foremost hope comes from our spiritual vitality, individual and corporate, which is both expressed and nurtured by our worship together. This year I worshipped in some 15 different churches overseas – in Anchorage, Boston, New York and London - and saw a great variety of reformed liturgy, met their ministers, and listened with both my ears and my heart.
The bedrock of good worship, good liturgy, and good community is the same: it is hospitality and kindness. It’s simple really. This is what nurtures spiritual vitality. Yet it is an ethos that needs leadership and support. Good hospitality shapes and creates good theology (if we let it). Remember that God often comes to us as the stranger, the outsider, and in an unrecognisable guise.
Worship is like the children’s maxim for crossing a road: ‘Stop, Look and Listen’. We need to come and stop; to still the turbulent waters of our minds; to step away from busyness, from the usual ways of demand and response. As the Psalmist said, “Be still and know that I am God”. We come to look. We look at the faces, the spaces, the places here… We are nourished by this sacred space and the sacredness of each other. And we need to listen. Music and words are important but they not what we are listening for. They are merely aids. We are listening for the core of our being grounded in the mysterious in-breaking of God. Like the metaphor of Mary, God is growing as a foetus in us.
You can have great singing in a church. You can have great prayers. You can have great preaching. You can have great programmes. But these are all secondary to worship grounded in hospitality and kindness.
As an aside although I came away with many ideas, particularly about hospitality and Presbyterian/Congregational worship in general, I also came away with a deep appreciation of St Luke’s liturgy and practice. We at St Luke’s have in our written prayers and liturgy a resource that is at the forefront of progressive worship not just in Aotearoa New Zealand but also overseas.
Time and again overseas, particularly in Boston, I saw churches struggling with their buildings. A wise congregation knows how to inhabit and resource old buildings so that the buildings can spirituality uplift rather than pull energy down. One of the things secular people value ironically is spiritual spaces, and many of our old churches are such spaces. They are a great gift we offer to the wider community. At their best they symbolize the stillness in God.
St Luke’s church is such a spiritual space. But the space alone is not enough. The walls need to be invisibly impregnated with kindness: kindness to ourselves, kindness to others, and kindness to those who society discards and often despises. Attitude affects architecture.
Later today at our community meeting we will look at the idea of focusing our community outreach (and in-reach) around four pillars. They are social justice, progressive theology, music, and interfaith. But pillars need a base to be built on. That base is worship grounded in hospitality and kindness.
I met with ministers in the USA and England committed to a similar vision to St Luke’s, it that they wanted to make a difference, to help make their cities and society more just, more equal, more caring, and implicitly more Christ-like. They wanted to give hope and be hope for others.
I discovered that most churches got involved in projects of hope through ‘what came in the door’ – either through parishioners and leaders’ passions and interests or through crises in people’s lives, for example gun deaths, homelessness, racism, or discrimination. Engagement in these projects arose contextually both in terms of the broader community and in terms of the resources, history, and interests of congregation and/or leaders.
A lot of the congregations were engaged in responding to homelessness in ways that aren’t necessary at this stage in Auckland, though soon could be. As I mentioned in a sermon in August[i] the most impressive group I found was Common Cathedral. But a lot of churches just do what they can manage – like the 1st Presbyterian Church in Waltham, Boston, letting their hall be used each night by the Salvation Army to feed 50 people; or the United Reform Church in Highgate, London, who for one night a week in winter feed 15 homeless folk.
Probably the most impressive project I found was the Greater Boston Inter-Faith Council (GBIFC). It’s not an interfaith programme like we run at St Luke’s but a community organisation and empowerment programme, which on the model developed by Saul Alinsky. In short it works like this: the faith communities in a neighbourhood encourage everyone in that neighbourhood to gather together and identify what issues in the community disturb them. Those groups then do two things: brainstorm solutions and ask elected officials what their solutions are (then both support them and hold them to account). It is from GBIFC that the idea of handprint ‘signatures’ on guns has been advocated. This is an approach that says trying to restrict Americans access to guns, like access to buying cars, is a hard ask. It’s better to promote handprint signatures to make guns safer, or seatbelts to make cars safer. And it’s better to get major purchasers of guns on-board (like the cops and military) rather than start with politicians.
The congregational church in Cambridge, Boston, gives two days per week of their senior minister’s time to GBIFC. Although this is impressive, again it is contextual, merging their minister’s passion with the congregation passion (and their considerable resources) and with the needs of the wider community.
I also met though meet many liberal/progressive ministers who are overwhelmed by the multiplicity of social issues and the need/demand to respond to them all, whether they have the resources to do so or not. One of the hardest things for liberal/progressive congregations is to be kind to themselves, to not overstretch themselves, and not condemn themselves for doing too little. The learning I came away with was to focus, to choose a few issues or projects – ones that the congregation not just the minister have energy for – and put the others on the back shelf. Of course there may come a time when one of those issues may itself be put on the back shelf, and a back shelf issue come to the fore.
Some churches become tied to a single issue for so long it comes to define them. Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Anchorage, Alaska, was for decades at the forefront of campaigning for gay and lesbian rights in a conservative environment. Gay and lesbian Christians and their families joined up. Then society changed, and the PCUSA changed. Suddenly the main justice focus for Immanuel was no more. Now, says their minister, they are ‘flying the plane as they build it’.
The problem of being overstretched is in part tied to the fact that most churches have over time declined in membership. So what a church with 500 people present on a Sunday could achieve, compared with a church that has now only 100 members, is rather different. But a lot of the members still have expectations based on when there were 500 people present. So they still want their church out educating and marching on a dozen different issues each year. And as churches age they increasingly want their clergy and other paid staff to do the educating and marching for them.
Yet as churches have declined over the last century or so more and more so-called secular organizations have arisen to try to fill the gap. So today churches are trying to partner with, not only with other churches within or without their denomination, but with other charities, Not-For-Profits, and educational institutions that are working for change. So for example in Boston the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement – a movement founded by three black women – is one that many churches support and are involved in, working and praying alongside many people who have long discarded or never been part of churches. The Common Cathedral is a churches initiative but has significant support and partnerships with local bodies and Not-For-Profit organisations.
One church alone cannot do everything needed to save the world. We need friends, and networks. At St Luke’s two of the significant relationships we have built are with Auckland Restorative Justice Trust and Presbyterian Support Northern (who now are partnered with Shine) to pursue common goals and a common vision of hope.
For St Luke’s the first task is sharpening our focus and identifying our handful of issues, and what partnerships might be possible and appropriate. For the last three years your Parish Council has been discerning what those key issues might be.
We will continue, irrespective of our discussion later this morning, to support our existing social service commitments – like the Dingwall Trust [2 representatives], like the East Tamaki Readers [9 people], like the Remuera Christian Trust [1 representative], like ADC, like being a centre for counsellors, like helping the Hospital Chaplains.
We will continue to encourage any parishioner who has passion for an idea to give it a try – whether it be a biking trip for parishioners, or a hiking trip with single parents and their kids, or a lecture on some item of interest.
But we will also, with your support, focus our resources in time, money and energy into making a difference in both our church and in our city through theological/spiritual education, social justice – particularly with Restorative Justice and Presbyterian Support Northern, through music, and through inter-faith ventures.
We are called to be a community of hope – hope for one another, our society, and our world. To do that we not only need to pray, to learn, and to care for one another in our community of hospitality and kindness, but we also to step out, step up, to focus our mission so that we are an effective blessing for others, so we make a difference, so that we, like Mary, are bearers of hope.