Each of us are formed by stories. They exist in our families. Sometimes they are very sad stories – of suffering, or untimely death, or survival. Sometimes they are very happy stories of romance, of fortune, of people coming together. Sometimes they’re a mix of both. And out of these stories come values and understandings that impact upon the direction of our lives.
So, for example, one of the stories that shapes me is of a grandmother who didn’t have much financially, tended her husband who for 50 years had poor health, lost her legs to diabetes, yet was unfailingly happy, positive, and hospitable to whoever came to her door. And not surprisingly a lot of people came to her door. She was a legend and she left a legacy: I learnt that happiness is not reliant on circumstances but on attitude.
Communities too have stories, as do nations, as do churches. These stories shape our kaupapa (values) and are a big part of the formation of both those who belong and those who join us. And as people formed by the stories, we live out that kaupapa and create new stories.
St Luke’s has many stories.
In the 1960s St Luke’s acquired a property which we would call Te Whetu. It was local. It was originally for the purpose of providing a hostel for young Māori women attending Auckland Girls’ Grammar. A deaconess in the parish was the matron. Over the next two decades the ministry of Te Whetu evolved. It catered for both High School and beyond High School learning. It included Pakeha young women, and for a time too, young Māori men. It later became a home for those living with mental ill health, and then for refugees.
Note the themes here: providing for those with a need rather than trying to increase church membership; commitments to education and good health; commitments not limited by age or culture. This is the kaupapa of manaakitanga (hospitality).
Later, in 1980, the house was sold and the capital used in the development of the Community Centre, through which this kaupapa of manaakitanga continued. The counselling arm of Presbyterian Support (later HD&T) was to be resident here. Education would feature strongly in the Centre’s programme and activities. As would the desire to be outward facing, responsive to the surrounding community.
This kaupapa of manaakitanga – meeting need – has and will continue to require us to question what we are doing, who we are serving and who we aren’t, and how can we prepare for the needs ahead.
Another big St Luke’s story is what happened in the aftermath of appointing my predecessor, David Clark, an openly gay minister, here in 1988. For the next 24 years, particularly as the governance of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand became increasingly conservative, David would be subjected to significant criticism and vitriol from Presbyterians and others outside our parish. And St Luke’s would increasingly become more protective of David and more openly aligned with thinking and theologies that promoted the acceptance and celebration of people regardless of sexual orientation.
This is the kaupapa of awhitanga (inclusivity). An inclusive congregation is not one that simply puts up a sign that says ‘All are welcome’. Rather an inclusive congregation thinks deeply, takes sides, and acts, in the large and far-reaching debates about sexuality, race, gender, poverty, etcetera. Awhitanga – the embrace of all – will require us to keep on changing, and keep on taking sides.
In the large anthology of Jewish and Christian stories, known as ‘scripture and tradition’, there not dissimilar stories about manaakitanga and awhitanga. And I’ve chosen two as our readings today.
The first: the Parable of the Lighthouse. This comes from the end of the theological continuum that operates with a paradigm of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ people – the former being part of the church, that latter not. But the parable transcends this paradigm in its critique of churches as clubs. For regardless of one’s theology if your purpose is help those in need then any and every church can fall into the fallacy of defining need solely in reference to their existing membership.
In the parable, meeting need was rescuing people at sea. The original group of people had that kaupapa solely as their focus. But as more people joined them the kaupapa shifted to meeting the needs of members rather than the needs of those at risk of drowning at sea.
Now, the needs of members are important to any church or organisation. Building relationships, caring for each other (the kaupapa of whanaungatanga), and having facilities that facilitate that are not unimportant. The problem is those needs can easily take precedence over the needs of those outside the membership, ‘in the sea’.
And so, in the parable conflict arose in the club, and a split occurred over priorities. Then history repeated. Another split. And repeated. Another.
The challenge for us is how to, while valuing relationship-building and care among our whanau here, continue to prioritize the needs of those beyond our doorstep, and adapt our ‘clubhouse’, our buildings, with that priority in mind.
The second reading today is that of ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’.
The rich man in this story is not portrayed as an overt evil-doer. He is part of the urban elite. His wrong-doing is his preoccupation with his own needs and the needs of his whanau; and his indifference to those outside his societal circumference.
The Bible as a whole is clear: everything belongs to God. We own nothing. We are kaitiaki, caretakers. Wealth is not condemned in scripture, nor is enterprise. But the pull of wealth to draw us away from God’s priorities is. Wealth has a way of saying ‘You deserve me, and I deserve you.’ It’s very seductive. And in its seduction, it asks us to forget that we are all one human family.
By contrast with the rich man, Lazarus is a destitute beggar, knowing abject poverty and the psychological poverty of estrangement from his family. He is likely one from a rural community driven by the need to seek work in the towns, but due perhaps to the oversupply of labour, or misfortune, or malnourishment, or illness, has been unsuccessful.
The story-teller wants to bring Lazarus and the rich man into close proximity. But the reality was - then, as now - society tried/tries to keep poverty out of sight, and thus out of mind.
Lazarus is also portrayed as ritually unclean, a sinner. Religion often colludes with the notion that poverty is the fault of the poor. They’ve done something wrong and this is the consequence.
As for the dogs, they are showing affection, trying to heal his wounds. The dogs in the story are the compassionate ones. Sometimes grace appears in unlikely guises.
In the world of the story, the rich man and Lazarus end up in the afterlife before Father Abraham. Abraham is indeed in scripture, tradition, and culture the father of both. So, the inconvenient and unwanted truth is that they are kin. The rich man cannot see the simple truth that Lazarus is his brother, and his brother is suffering. So, the rich man did nothing.
Stories are central to the religious identity of any people. The psychologist Jerome Bruner has written that stories become “recipes for structuring experience itself.” And Nancy Ammerman likewise notes that “religious narratives [are] the building blocks of individual and collective religious identities.”
We carry with us a collection of religious narratives that shape our consciousness here at St Luke’s, and the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of them.
Think of the messages:
Wealth is to be shared with those in need. That’s the wealth of our time and our buildings, not just our bank accounts.
We are kin with all - across social, economic, and cultural divides. So, their need is our need, and we need to collaborate in order to build a wider community of wellbeing.
Compassion (arohatanga), empathy, generosity, empowerment shape our beliefs and actions.
Actions, even very little ones (think of the dogs licking) are commended.
Recently, I invited Parish Council to dream of how we might extend the hospitality (the kaupapa of manaakitanga) of St Luke’s. Over the last decade or so we have built strong relationships with groups beyond our doorstep – like East Tamaki School, ADC, Pillars, Restorative Justice - and some cross our doorstep to meet here. What we haven’t done is think about building a new, or redesigning, our space to be a welcoming place where people living roundabout – an increasing number - can feel at ease dropping in to sit, relax, meet friends, and have a cuppa. We need to think about who we might want to extend hospitality to, and how. What and whose needs are we trying to address? We need to think about the shortcomings of our existing kitchen and common room, and what might suit both our needs and the needs of those outside our membership. Some things we could do immediately, like signage and fliers. Other things will need discussion, planning, and fundraising.
In such a process our stories, and the kaupapa that arises from our stories, will offer guidance. But they won’t tell us what to do.