As part of the worshipping life of the congregation at Kippax, the three governance bodies – Church Council, Congregational Strategy Team and UnitingCare Kippax Board – regularly lead worship. This week, the UnitingCare Kippax Board shared the responsibility in worship planning and leading. This message was given by Meg Richens, the UCK Executive Officer.
I’m really pleased to be able to be here today, to talk a bit about some of the ways that the mission of this congregation is implemented through our community services and community development activities, as I’ve already done, but also to reflect on those activities in the light of the reading from Matthew today.
I’m no type of theologian and even less of a biblical scholar, so I’m grateful to be able to draw on other people’s wisdom and experience in those areas. I have both Roger and Gordon to thank for pointing me towards some of that wisdom.
I didn’t really think very hard about this reading in the past – it seemed fairly simple to me…. Support those who have less. That was it. But two things have become clearer for me the longer I have worked in community services. One is about motivation: why should we or why do we support those who have less? I have some very secular reasons… for example, I can see it as one small way of distributing the wealth and resources of our community a tiny bit more equitably. Bill Loader, however, says that the motivation for the actions described in this reading is love and he notes that “there is no distinction to be made among who should be the recipient of love…” So the motivation for acting to support others is not that they have less or that it redistributes wealth. It is that we are called to love others, regardless of their status.
Loader goes on to say “Matthew is not saying: pretend Jesus is in people and that will enable you to love them. Rather the sheep loved people because of who they were as people.” And that links to the second thing that has become clearer to me over time. That is, that it is likely, indeed pretty much guaranteed, that any one of us will be, at some point in our lives, someone who needs feeding, or welcoming, or visiting; someone who will benefit from love being acted out socially. The reading doesn’t say, as I interpreted it from my social position of relative luxury, support those who have less. Rather, it says love people and act from that love to respond to their need. And, when that’s combined with my own realisation that I – we – are all needy at some point the reading then can be interpreted to say that we should support each other – for at some point we are all going to be both the ones caring for others and the ones being cared for. The reading doesn’t talk about loving those who are different from us, by dint of their hunger or their loneliness or their illness. Over time, this reading has become for me a challenge. It challenges me to recognise that we humans have hunger, thirst, loneliness and illness in common and then it calls me to act in response to those factors.
So what does that mean here in our local community? What does it mean about the community services and community development activities that happen here at Kippax? For me, it links directly to the mission statement: we are building a loving, nurturing community, one in which people can live a decent life. That’s actually quite a big task. So how do we go about that? I’ve already talked about the wide range of services and activities that happen here – it’s an astonishing level of engagement in, and commitment to, our community of communities.
But there are a few other things that this reading says that I believe are reflected in the ways we choose to engage. I just want to note three of them.
The first is that we use an assets- based approach – so instead of focusing on deficits (the hunger, thirst, homelessness, or other need) we work with people to focus on what strengths and assets they and we as a community have that can be employed to respond to that need. It’s a deliberate process of acknowledging that there is need and there are resources and assets and working on how we bring these two into a better balance.
The second is that we choose to be generous – to provide food, drink, welcome, support, connection, space, opportunity and so on in response to the person’s need rather than determining what people can access on the basis of a set of organisational rules about what’s available. This means putting the person at the centre of what we do. In practice this can be quite difficult – how do we balance giving people what they want with what we have available? How do we share what we have equitably between those who need it? How do we ensure that what we’re doing is empowering people to live a decent life not building a dependency?
And the third is that we have to identify the spheres within which we have influence and choose how we will work within them to create positive change towards our goal of a loving, nurturing community. There’s always more to be done and often very little that we can do about particular situations, so we choose where to apply our influence.
These three factors all interact with each other. There’s more to it than just that of course, but these three things are important in how we work. They’re important because they help us make difficult choices the best we are able. They’re important because they constantly remind us that everyone has different spheres of influence so there are many people able to make a difference in a huge range of ways. They’re important because they place us in the midst of the people we are engaging with, allowing us to journey alongside them for a short time. Bruce Prewer has said this clearly when he said about this reading from Matthew:
“But this Jesus is himself the quintessential nonconformist. He tells stories about the hungry and thirsty and the stranger and the sick, and those shivering without clothing, and the prisoners in gaol.
He says we will find the King there with them, and that when we respect them, care for them, befriend them, we will have been truly worshipping his true majesty. He says his judgement does not work from a lofty height, but from the lowest point; being with us in the mass of humanity and encouraging us to make the hard choices.”
So how is it that we, individually and together, worship? We worship in these gatherings in this place. We may well worship privately as well. And perhaps we are also worshipping when we respect, care for and befriend others… when we are, together, through our variety and breadth of activities, building a loving, nurturing community.