Sun 18 Oct
Today is our patronal church day also known as our Feast Day – when we honour our parish’s patron saint – Luke. Another way to think about today is that it is our parish community’s birthday. We are now aged 140! Happy birthday to us! Who doesn’t like a birthday? Well, some of us as we rack up a few of them and wonder if they are starting to signal some sort of decline. It’s not all ‘onwards and upwards’ anymore. Fortunately parishes aren’t bound by the lifespan of an individual and we have the possibility for community renewal and development, even when the age of St Luke’s is heading toward 150.
Birthdays are a great time for celebration of course and to appreciate the good things that have been achieved over the previous year. It’s handy that we have just had our AGM for the parish community where all the groups and leaders have written up our recent achievements. Having a full ministry and leadership team in place is satisfying after a period of major change.
The new development of the Beyond the Borders conference last year and the Galston seminar this year has affirmed our ministry concerning progressive theology. We continue to develop our worship and liturgy in keeping with this progressive expression of faith. The other old timer that is part of this parish, the organ, received a boost with funds from a performance of the Messiah recently.
Our social justice initiatives include greater support of the Aotearoa Development Cooperative, inter faith pilgrimages and related initiatives, support for the Restorative Justice programme, partnering with Presbyterian Support on initiatives such as addressing domestic violence and child poverty, and challenging discrimination on sexuality in leadership in PCANZ among others.
Our community programme based in our centre continues to go gangbusters, alongside intensive pastoral care both within and outside of our parish community. We are so pleased to see growth in children’s and youth ministries as we broaden our community life and invest in the next generation.
But birthdays are also a good time to think ahead. Remember with birthdays, as we bring out the birthday cake and blow out the candles we are supposed to ‘make a wish’ aren’t we? What is it that we are really wishing or hoping for over the next 12 months? I can imagine what some people might be wishing for: perhaps Stephen Vincent and others who love our rather tired organ would be thinking – I’d like a renovated one please. And those looking after our church building might be thinking – could we have all the cracks fixed thanks!
Our gospel reading is a famous section from the book of Luke that we usually use on this our Feast Day. I love it for its potency and its poetry. The writer of Luke has Jesus teaching in his home synagogue in Nazareth on the sabbath and quoting from the book of Isaiah. It is early in the gospel, Jesus has only just begun his public ministry in the previous chapter. A commentator on the gospel of Luke, Luke Johnson – great name! (Johnson, 1991), notes the way the author of Luke’s gospel situates Jesus as the prophetic Messiah. The emphasis in Luke is on Jesus being anointed with the Spirit, having claimed the title of prophet in verse 24.
The reference to Isaiah places Jesus within the prophetic tradition of Israel, as Isaiah is an undisputed prophet. Later in this section Jesus speaks about the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, further aligning himself with the famous prophets of Israel. The section from Isaiah also talks about being anointed. Being set apart. And being commissioned to do something special. The writer of Luke tells us what Jesus was commissioned for: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
Johnson says the liberation mentioned in the text is not specifically a political or economic type of liberation rather a liberation that will be applied to individuals via exorcisms, healings and through teaching. This liberation will have a radical effect though. And it will be due to this mission being directed toward the outcasts. The ones who weren’t supposed to matter and shouldn’t have been the focus of any work by God through Jesus. At the time of Jesus this meant people who held little or no status: children, women, the disabled, those mentally unwell, the ritually unclean, collaborators with the Roman Empire, and anyone who wasn’t a Jew.
Back in my childhood there was a cartoon strip called Peanuts featuring Charlie Brown. A book based on the cartoon was published: The Gospel According to Peanuts (Short, 1965). This included such gems as Snoopy, the character of the dog, wondering why some were born as people and others were born as dogs, noting that it didn’t seem fair, especially as he was the lucky one.
If we were to update the gospel writing process for our time, what might we come up with as a ‘gospel according to the Community of St Luke’? In terms of writing a gospel, we would be challenged as the first gospel writers were as to what parts of the written tradition to use and in what order. But if we were to translate the gospel into our contemporary context, what would we have Jesus saying and doing in Auckland today? Perhaps we could imagine Jesus in Queen St partying with homeless people, and further down the road Jesus talking with bankers about wealth that lasts and produces strong human dividends.
Another challenge would be determining what our mission was here at the Community of St Luke and translating the Isaiah text of bringing good news to the poor, releasing captives, recovering sight, and freeing the oppressed. What is our interpretation of Jesus’ mission for our community in this time and place? Fortunately we’ve been working on this. Our leadership team led a process of formulating a mission plan earlier this year subsequently adopted by the Community. We stayed with the metaphor of the ‘thinking heart’ – integrating compassion, care, action, thought, creativity, and spirituality. In terms of mission, we say that we hold the following priorities: progressive worship and liturgy, social justice, progressive theological education, community care and outreach, and youth and children.
Our values include: spiritual wellbeing, respect and care, inclusiveness in diversity, engagement with our wider community, resistance to ideologies that support poverty and inequality, treasuring beauty and creativity, and supporting learning.
The first reading delivered today was from our national church’s Moderator, Andrew Norton – with his foreword from the recently published booklet of PCANZ, Justice and Action (Prescare, 2015). A booklet that our Community’s social justice team helped develop. He quotes our passage from Luke and notes the history of PCANZ in social action and advocacy, saying that the church is an agent of change with a mandate to be an instrument of social transformation. “In the face of contemporary problems such as family violence and child poverty the time to act is now”.
We face a number of challenges in charting our course for the future. Like many established parishes, we have an ageing congregation and an ageing infrastructure that must be supported and renewed. Church attendance is declining nationally, especially in the white, middle class type settings like ours. Many see the church as irrelevant. Our parish demographic is in stark contrast to where I live and work, which is the contemporary and very diverse Auckland. People don’t join organisations and commit to service like they used to. The conservatism of the church puts a number of people off, no help when we are trying to stand out as progressive and pro justice.
A major study by the Church of England concerning church growth and health, found there were signs associated with a healthy church: good leadership; a clear mission and purpose; willingness to self-reflect, to change and adapt according to context; involvement of lay members; being intentional in prioritising growth; being intentional in a chosen style of worship; and being intentional in nurturing disciples (The Church of England, 2014).
I believe we largely have these features in place. But we still need a sense of call to mission and a passion that will energise our work and our communal life. There are many issues and injustices facing us in Aotearoa NZ including the disastrous effects of economic inequality. Other issues have also been highlighted in seminars at our Community: religion and conflict, child poverty, food security, and affordable and healthy housing. The PCANZ has committed itself to the Living Wage campaign to address worker poverty.
I first had a sense of call to mission when I was 17 years old and active in The Salvation Army. It was what led me to commit myself to working with people, going into the social work profession and remaining active in the church. While my theological approach has changed a lot toward progressive Christianity, a sense of passion for justice and a compassion to support people through change has continued. I see very little difference between the work in my professional world and my life in the church. Both compel me to act in accordance with the gospel of Jesus.
One of life’s pleasures as a social work educator at Unitec is helping form the next generation of social workers on our Bachelor’s programme, most who are passionate about social transformation, many who’ve had a hard life themselves, and who represent the rich diversity of Auckland.
Let’s use our parish birthday to renew our commission to bring good news to the poor, release captives, support the recovery of sight, and free the oppressed. Let’s collectively wish for healthy growth as we ‘blow out the candles’.
Let’s embrace the challenges facing our Community. Ensuring everyone is included and feels cared for. Supporting our emerging children’s and youth work. Securing financial sustainability and addressing organ, manse and church building projects. Growing our mission to an increasingly diverse Auckland population and beyond. Being a minority progressive specialist part of a shrinking church. Developing our social media and contemporary communication, bringing our tradition into the future. Sharpening our social justice edge and capacity to address public issues such as family violence and child poverty. Strengthening progressive spirituality and worship to match our investment in theology. Embracing the Treaty of Waitangi and a bicultural approach. Putting our collective privilege and strengths to good use.
The Community of St Luke is 140 years old. We are the ‘Thinking Heart’ with a passion for justice and a compassion for our neighbour. In the coming year, what part will you play in our Community’s life and mission?
Johnson, L. T. (1991). The Gospel of Luke. Collegeville, Minnesota, USA: Liturgical Press.
Prescare. (2015). Justice and action. Retrieved from http://www.presbyterian.org.nz/for-ministers/prescare/justice-action
Short, R. L. (1965). The Gospel According to Peanuts. Louisville, Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Knox Press.
The Church of England. (2014). From anecdote to evidence: Findings from the church growth research programme 2011-2013. Retrieved from www.churchgrowthresearch.org.uk