27 June 2010

Philippians 2:1-11 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,       though he was in the form of God,       did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,      but emptied himself,      taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,    he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name,  so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend,    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

 Despite all rumours to the contrary and appearances, being Chairperson of the Canberra Region Presbytery of the UCA  isn’t an enormous career move, or a launch to public recognition or fame. There aren’t all that many public gigs that you get in this sort of role,  despite the fact that I am now on the list of “heads of churches of the region”.

So it is not only really quite a positive (and unusual) thing for me to be speaking here today but it has also been quite an unusual week. In fact, this is the third public ‘gig’ that I have got in the past 4 days and each of them, in quite different ways, might help us with this passage  and our Stepping Stones service.

On Thursday I was representing the UCA at Parliament House,  during the launch of the Charter for Compassion. The launch was occurring from 12.45- 1.45.    You may be aware that there were a couple of other things happening around 1pm Thursday and no matter what view you may take about the events of the day, I think it is fair to say that it wont be recorded in Australia’s history  as one of the more compassionate days we have had.

Then on Friday night I was rung by one of the media outlets in the Territory, as the journalist was putting together a story about the reactions of the local churches to the events of the previous day, and whether there were any concerns  that our new Prime Minister did not affirm a practising Christian faith while our previous Prime Minister clearly did.  Was that a problem for the churches? I was asked

Clearly, my response was neither stunningly inspirational nor controversial as the story never quite made it through to publication.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds us of our identity and our character and in doing so, points us beyond our own to the identity and character of God.

We are here today to affirm, celebrate and encourage the ministry and service that is here not because a community of people have chosen to identify themselves as followers of Christ and point to themselves in this identity but because a community of people have chosen to live in a way that bears that identity for the sake of others.

We are not here today to affirm that Stepping Stones for Life (http://stmargs.unitingchurch.org.au/index_files/Stepping.htm) is better than other support networks for people who are ageing, or living with disabilities but to celebrate that this network exists.

We are not here today to declare that the members of the network and its steering committee possess the answers to some extremely difficult questions regarding life and to give these answers, or to hand over their gracious wisdom and time to the poor, the destitute and the needy. We are here today to celebrate a journey together between people of various abilities and, because we believe in the words of Henri Nouwen “People with disabilities often possess qualities of welcome, wonderment, spontaneity and directness and that they are a living reminder to the wider world of the essential values of the heart”

Services such as Stepping Stones for Life –  services which are an expression of the Church at mission –  need not aim, claim or pretend to be better than other services. To do so would, I am sure, would cause some tension with any good reading of Philippians 2

In fact, services which are an expression of the Church at mission  may or may not be fundamentally different from other services in similar areas in the community. In one very real sense, that is not our concern.

What must always remain our concern, however,  is that imbued throughout the character of the service and the people who form it is the character outlined in Philippians 2, which Harry Herbert read this morning.

Henri Nouwen, whom I quoted earlier, was a lecturer and writer in theology who devoted the last 15 years of his life as a pastor in Toronto’s L’Arche Daybreak community. In one of his writings he reflected on the life of a severely disabled member of the community – Adam – and on the theological concept of the “Incarnation”. “For many years” says Nouwen, “I had reserved the word Incarnation for the historic event of God’s coming to us in Jesus.  Being so close with Adam I realised that the Christ event  is much more than something that took place long ago.   It occurs every time spirit greets spirit in the body.   It is a sacred event happening in the present because it is God’s event among people.”

It is that sense of incarnation which we experience and celebrate in Stepping Stones for Life. In every event, and in every encounter,  whether it is in music, or art, or craft or in exercise, or meals, or in conversations each member of the community here has the opportunity to encounter the very being of God whom we affirm today as being made fully known in the humility and service of Jesus. Some times we may notice that encounter for what it is. Unfortunately, most times we will not, but still it is there.

As I end, I offer one last quote from Henri Nouwen and his experiences with Adam. Adam never spoke a word in his life.     For his 34 years he was almost entirely dependent on others. Yet, Nouwen talks of Adam as his teacher, guide and spiritual director. By no means was the relationship ever seen or experienced as one-way.

Reflecting on Adam’s life, Nouwen comments “Adam’s total dependence made it possible for him to live fully only if we lived in a loving community around him.   His great teaching to us was I can live only if you surround me with love and if you love one another.   Otherwise my life is useless, and I am a burden”

This teaching is for us today. Each of us, can only live fully if we are surrounded by a loving community. and as we form a loving community, we enable others to live to their fullest. It is good for us to celebrate that today, and to leave with its call constantly upon us.

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