Tuesday, 19 January 2016

“The challenge of community”: a sermon (1st Corinthians 12: 12 – 31)

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

As we approach another Australia Day, I think that one of the saddest things about living in Australia in Twenty-sixteen is the diminishing sense of community.  In the past few decades, Australians have been taught by politicians, by economists, and by the media
  • to suspect each other,
  • to mistrust each other,
  • to fear each other,
  • to hold each other in contempt,
  • to regard each other, not as neighbours, but as competitors,
  • even to regard each other as potential threats to our well-being.

Like the various bodily organs in Paul’s extended metaphor in today’s lesson, we’ve become very expert at saying to each other, “I have no need of you.”  We read it in letters-to-the-editor pages.  We hear it on talk-back radio.  For example:
  • Many non-indigenous Australians have become very expert at telling indigenous Australians “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians by birth have become very expert at telling Australians by choice “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians who are part of nuclear families have become very expert at telling Australians who are part of other sorts of families “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Australians with jobs have become very expert at telling Australians without jobs “I have no need of you.”
  • Many Christian Australians have become very expert at telling Muslim Australians, Jewish Australians, and Australians of other faiths “I have no need of you”.
  • Many non-religious Australians have become very expert at telling Australians of any faith tradition “I have no need of you.”
And, being an election year, we’ll probably hear more and more of this sort of thing as time goes on and politicians on all sides continue to stake out mutually exclusive positions.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

And every time one group of Australians tells another group of Australians “I have no need of you”, we lose some of our sense of community.  We become that much less Australian.  We increasingly resemble that much more divided and fragmented society on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, the one in which I grew up.

I believe churches and other religious communities have a role in helping to restore this lost sense of community.  Historically, in many parts of the world, churches have had such a role in helping develop a sense of community where one was missing.

During the Apartheid era in South Africa, many local congregations (particularly congregations of the Methodist, Anglican, and Catholic churches) served as some of the very few Apartheid-free zones that were available in the country.

Among the African-American community in the United States, the churches served as training ground for participation and leadership in civil society.  It was no accident that so many leaders in the Civil Rights movement in the US were Baptist or Methodist ministers.

During the collapse of the Soviet system in Eastern Europe, churches in many countries (the Catholic Church in Poland, the Lutheran Church in the former East Germany, and others) enabled the development of an emerging civil society in these countries.

And for us, in Australia in Twenty-sixteen,
  • an Australia that is increasingly suspicious of the outside world,
  • an Australia whose people are increasingly suspicious of each other,
the churches (and other faith communities) have a role in modelling authentic community to a culture that has increasingly allowed itself to forget the crucial importance of community.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

But, of course, the same disease that has infected the wider society has also infected many of the churches. 
  • Some churches are tearing themselves apart over fine details of theology, or biblical interpretation, or personal lifestyle, or worship styles, or musical preferences.
  • Some churches are very selective in their welcome to newcomers, particularly if the newcomers are from a different ethnic background, social demographic, or age profile to the existing congregation. 
Such churches are unable to show our culture a better way of being community ... because they haven’t learned that lesson themselves.  Those churches are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

In the face of a society that increasingly denies – and often mocks – our need for community, the church has the responsibility to provide examples of authentic community, even if this includes starting from scratch to re-learn the values of true community ourselves.  On this Australia Day weekend, I believe this is the way in which we can most effectively serve our community in the name of Christ.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet “I have no need of you.”

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