On 8 July at St Michael’s Uniting Church in the heart of Melbourne, Dr Deidre Palmer was installed as President of the Uniting Church in Australia. What follows is the transcript of her sermon.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Some of you may recall being part of celebrations that greeted his release. Mandela was a leader in the African National Congress and had been in Robben Island prison for his activity opposing apartheid in South Africa.
After his release, Mandela visited Riverside Church in New York City. He spoke to the crowd that day about the irrepressible God:
“This day and this occasion under these circumstances would be utterly impossible except for the truth that there is a God who presides over the affairs of history, who vetoes the schemes of evil people, and who decrees that truth crushed to the ground shall rise again.”
Nelson Mandela went on to quote the words from the prophet Isaiah that we have heard this evening, “We have risen up as on wings of eagles, we have run and not grown weary, we have walked and not fainted. And (he added) finally our destination is in sight.” (p.236 Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)
Mandela was raising up a narrative of hope – a narrative that shaped and sustained him in his struggles for his people. Such core narratives of hope are found in the Christian and Jewish narratives and have inspired people like Mandela to lead people out of horrendous oppression into liberation that had seemed unimaginable and impossible.
This was a moment of hope. I invite you to remember a moment of hope. It may be a hope seen in a global event. It may be a moment of hope for you personally or in your ministry context. I invite you to share over supper or during our Assembly meeting that moment of hope that you remember.
A moment of hope we have recalled tonight – more than a moment – is the hope that emerged for the woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus at a well. She may have thought this was just another ordinary day. She was, as usual – going to draw water from the well. But through her encounter with Jesus, her life was turned upside down.
The Samaritan woman, as she came to Jacob’s Well in the middle of the day, understood her need for water. In her first exchange with Jesus her thinking is very much on the task at hand. He talks to her about water and she is thinking about the stuff she is just about to draw up from the well. But we know that this story is not simply about a cup of water quenching our thirst. This encounter with Jesus – this is about life itself.
As the woman engages in a conversation with Jesus, it becomes clearer to her who Jesus is. She grows in her understanding and she comes to faith. She moves from responding suspiciously to Jesus’ request for water, to a growing engagement with him. He reveals that he knows something of her life and she moves to seeing him as a prophet, who knows her. She moves to a much deeper understanding – that he could be the Messiah, who would deliver her people.
She is one of the models of discipleship in John’s Gospel. For us this woman’s witness, her willingness to engage, to dive deeply into this conversation with Jesus echoes over the centuries to be life-giving for us. For her community and for us she is an evangelist, witnessing to hope – that the Messiah has come among us, the Christ who is Saviour of the world.
In speaking with the woman Jesus is challenging religious and social prejudice. She is a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans had been divided for a long time. They had longstanding differences that led to hostility between them. But Jesus intentionally enters Samaritan territory and engages in a theological conversation with this Samaritan. And not only that – she is a woman. His disciples express their reaction to this when they return from gathering food. “They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman”.
In this encounter Jesus seeks to break down the barriers that separate us socially, religiously, politically – to move beyond prejudices to find that in our meeting we discover, thirst-quenching, life-giving water.
Through this story, we are reminded again of who we are called to be – the people of God – a God whose living water, cannot be contained within the bounds we may seek to define, but whose abundance and extravagant grace washes over us and through us to offer life and hope to our world.
Jim Wallis, one of the founders of the Sojourners community in the US, in a rephrasing of Hebrews 11 describes hope this way.
Hope is believing despite the evidence and watching the evidence change… Hope is our vocation and our identity as the people of God.
In all of our work for justice, we need to wrestle with this question – where and how is the hope to be found? And how do we bring it – not just the language, but the reality.
As the people of God, the hope that calls us forward, is hope that is grounded in the faithfulness of God and God’s desire for us and the world. And this God, fully revealed in Jesus is Saviour of the world. The Samaritan woman and her community name this revelation and we hear this again tonight.
In 1957 the Joint Commission on Church Union was established by the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches – the General Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia and the Executive Council of the Congregational Union of Autralia and New Zealand. This Joint Commission negotiated the way toward union and the Uniting Church in Australia.
The Joint Commission understood God to be calling them beyond their denominational loyalties to ask again, what is the faith of the church in the context of the 20th Century?
The Commission believed the Churches in Australia should ask themselves four questions:
- Is our message unequivocally conditioned by what God has said to man (sic) in Jesus Christ?
- In listening to that Word have we sought the aid and guidance of our confessing forebears?
- Are those of us who value the traditions of the past and cherish them, equally prepared to confess the Faith afresh in the present?
- Are we facing the world, or just facing each other?”
(Source: The faith of the church : the first report of the Joint Commission on Church Union of the Congregational Union of Australia and New Zealand, the Methodist Church of Australasia, the Presbyterian Church of Australia, Melbourne : Joint Board of Christian Education of Australia and New Zealand for the Uniting Church in Australia, 1978.)
As we enter into this week of our National Assembly meeting, these questions continue to be important for the 21st Century. We will be reflecting on significant issues of our day in the light of the Gospel of Christ. We will not simply be facing each other, but facing and engaging with the world, which God loves deeply.
The Uniting Church believes that God’s mission calls us to participate in the world in ways that address our whole reality. It addresses meaning making. It includes our spiritual, psychological, social, economic and political realities. We understand that our participation in God’s mission is toward the transformation that God desires for the whole creation – reconciliation, love, justice, peace, abundance and flourishing for all people and the whole world.
This understanding of the Gospel finds expression in the key directions of the Assembly and the major reports and proposals that are coming before the Assembly. We will be having conversations about issues and concerns we share in as the Church with the wider society and global community. I am so glad that we are engaged in discussion on significant issues – the life of our planet, the nature of our relationships, the way we shape communities and families that are free from violence.
We will be exploring Sovereignty of First Peoples, and reflecting again on our Covenant as First and Second Peoples – the call to reconciliation that arises out of coming to terms with the truth of our past, and moving forward together in ways that are healing, just and reconciling.
It is exciting that we are meeting in NAIDOC WEEK and that the theme of NAIDOC week is: “Because of Her, We Can!” This year’s theme celebrates the essential role that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women have played and continue to play as active and significant role models at the community, local, state and national levels.
And we have these women who are part of our community here: Wanita Calyun’s leadership of the Dusty Feet Mob – encouraging and nurturing young people in the arts, Denise Champion’s leadership in theology and spirituality, leaders throughout our country of the UAICC, Bible translators in the Northern Synod.
I have had the joy of meeting many of these women in different parts of Australia and I look forward to meeting more in my time as President. They are significant witnesses to the hope of Christ in their communities.
We will be asked to adopt a statement on Domestic and Family Violence. This is a devastating issue, globally and here in Australia. How will we as a Church respond to people who are victims and survivors of domestic violence? How will we as a Church raise up God’s invitation for us to flourish in loving, trusting, respectful relationships, free from violence?
The Statement For the Whole Creation addresses Climate Change. This is a global issue. Our partner churches in the Pacific have first-hand experience of the devastating effects of climate change. Our God is committed to the renewal of the whole creation. How will we participate in God’s renewing work?
We will hear a report on our response to the Royal Commission on Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse and our commitment to responding to the recommendations of the Royal Commission. We lament and apologise for the abuse of any children entrusted to our care and strongly affirm our resolve to create communities where children are protected and are safe places where children can flourish.
We will be responding to a paper and proposals on marriage and same-gender partnerships. This is an issue that includes people’s most intimate relationships. We do not often talk about these relationships in public. For the Church it includes conversation about how we view Scripture, and how we can live together with different views?
This is a conversation that has tested us in the past, and will test us this week. But we can have this conversation, because we place our trust in the living Christ, who is present here and through all our meeting together – who is the Head of our Church – who rules and renews our life.
I do not know what we will decide this week – I know there are various predictions, particularly in relation to our marriage conversation. I have heard a number of people speculate on how they know what decisions we will make. I don’t know, but what I do know is that when we encounter Christ, God invites us to see ourselves for who we are and who we might become – to be transformed by the one who is the Saviour of the World. Christ knows us, is with us, invites us to abide in his love, to see one another as the Beloved Community of Christ.
We began with reflecting on a moment of hope.
Being part of the Uniting Church has been a journey of hope for me, since I was a young adult, and leaders In our Church spoke of the Uniting Church as a movement of the Holy Spirit in our time.
I see that hope embodied in us gathered here tonight –from every state and region of Australia – I see it in our intergenerational, multicultural Church.
I see it in our willingness to be in solidarity with one another as First and Second Peoples.
I hear that hope, as I listen to the younger members of our Church – including children like Josh who will lead us in prayers for the world tonight. I hear the liberating hope of God in young adults I have been with in Walking on Country, in National Young Adult Leaders Conference, in Yurora NCYC, and here on Saturday morning, when I met with the Youthful members of our Assembly.
I see hope in people who use their creative gifts to invite us deeper into discipleship – into faithfully following Jesus – in MiniM choir, in Dusty Feet Mob, in the poets and artists and songwriters, who lead us into creative imagining as a Church.
In this Assembly we will also hear about the work of our Assembly Agencies: UnitingWorld, UnitingCare Australia, and Frontier Services. We will hear about the developing work of our Assembly Resourcing Unit. All of these ministries arise from the abundant grace of God, and are signs of God’s liberating hope in the world.
We have all heard the narrative of scarcity and despair that swirls around the churches today – the scarcity may relate to numbers – how many are present, the age groups that are absent, the financial circumstances, the availability of ministry agents, our scarcity of time and energy in the face of such enormous demands on our lives.
These are important concerns for us to engage and in the midst of all of this Jesus comes to us in our thirst for life and hope and offers us living water of abundance – a narrative that says this God we worship desires that we flourish, this God we worship will raise up new vision among us – it is here now in us, in our Assembly members, in the more than 2,000 congregations that are part of the UCA .
People have asked me – how have you prepared? I have done various things to prepare, including interviewing our Past Presidents, whose prayers for the Church are included in your congregational booklet.
And one of the ways, has been to pray that God will expand my heart, my mind and my spirit with the love and tender mercy of God – God’s grace. I pray for our Church, for our gathering this week, that Christ will encounter us in ways that so fill us with love for each other and for the world that we will discover in renewed and transformative ways the joy and wonder of being the Body of Christ – a community of hope for all people and the whole creation.
God’s grace is a gift and we see it fully revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christ’ continuing, liberating presence among us – right here, now
Grace cannot be controlled or contained by us – that is the beauty, and wonder and scary thing about grace – God pours out God’s love, mercy, forgiveness and redemption abundantly – freely – at times more freely than we would prefer.
To be a follower of Christ is an amazing adventure – Jesus comes to us in the ordinary every day of our lives. Like the Samaritan woman, we could be simply carrying out a daily task and God surprises us – raises up our view – engages us in difficult conversations – overcomes our prejudices, sees us for who we are and in that encounter, we see – the Saviour of the World – one who desires love, reconciliation, and hope and truth for us all.
It’s no wonder the woman runs to tell the whole village – she could not be contained, because God’s grace expanded her heart and vision and helped her to see more clearly
How will we be shaped by God’s abundant grace?
God invites us into community – to look into the face of our sisters and brothers and see the Body of Christ.
And God doesn’t leave us on our own in generating that love.
God gives us the capacity through the power and the strength of the Holy Spirit to love each other.
Some say this Assembly meeting is a test of the UCA.
The test, sisters and brothers, is how we engage in this discernment process together in ways that reflects the love of Christ for us and the whole world. It’s a matter of opening our hearts and lives to the God who first loves us!
I pray that as the Uniting Church – we will be known by our love, the deep love that wells up from the Living waters of God in us – flowing abundantly.
God’s abundant grace shapes and reshapes us. When God’s grace expands our hearts and minds it is transformative.
I remember when I was 13 – upbeat and on a high from a conversion experience at a Church Easter camp – I was going to do everything right as a Christian – I was going to be the best follower of Jesus I could be. I wasn’t going to get annoyed with people, I was going to be the best embodiment of love, so people would be drawn to Jesus, because of the transformation and love they saw in me. And probably a day or two after coming home from camp – I broke those promises I had made – I got annoyed, I wasn’t very loving, and I remember how devastated I felt – how sorry I was that I messed it up.
Now at 62 I am still a follower of Jesus and I probably do it more imperfectly than I did then, but I am so much more aware of the power of God’s grace – how renewing and life-giving it is – for all of us. How remarkable it is to be so deeply loved – and to be so forgiven, and to live in the promise of reconciliation.
This is the Good News of Christ of which we are called to be bearers.
We have this countercultural narrative – of abundance and hope.
This hope liberates in us the strength to soar on the wind of the Spirit like eagles, to continue to walk and run the journey of faith.
In this week and in the coming years, I pray that we will be shaped and embraced by God’s abundant grace. I pray that we, like the woman of Samaria, will run to share God’s liberating hope with the whole world.
First published on the 15th Assembly website.