Minister's Blog

Reflections from habitat uniting church's minister, Rev Joan Wright Howie.

Farewell Habitat

Wednesday, February 12, 2020
In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel there is a long passage described as ‘the sermon on the mount’. We can imagine Jesus standing on the top of one of the hills around Galilee with the mountain above and the lake below, delivering his famous speech that begins with the beatitudes.

You know the sayings:
Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Blessed are those who mourn, they will be comforted,
Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth…

It is most likely that the people gathered around Jesus at that time were the ordinary folk who’d come from local villages to hear his message. He was out in the countryside, not in a temple or a church where the wealthy and powerful would gather. He was not standing in the town center to speak to the town leaders. He was out on a hill, on the margins, where the working folk could gather to hear him. It is here, on the outskirts of social and political power and influence that Matthew places Jesus. It is right near the beginning of his Gospel where Jesus delivers a message that holds the essence of God’s vision for the way the world could be.

A vision of the city of God:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled…..
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God…

Here are the keys to God’s city. Here is God’s vision that Jesus has come into the world to proclaim: Jesus is calling people to embody God’s vision. To be people who are seeking justice, sharing mercy, loving hearts, making peace, building righteousness.

It is to these kinds of people that God’s kingdom belongs. Next Jesus turns to the people standing around him and tells them, you are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. You are the city of God. (Matthew 5:13-16)

The Greek word for city here is polis, with the same root meaning of the word people and population. It is these people who gather to hear Jesus’ message who live out God’s vision, it is these people who populate God’s city. I wonder who those people were who followed Jesus to that hillside. Did they have any idea that Jesus’ speech that day would go viral …

Remembered and recorded and shared around the world and down the ages? Jesus’ message is not new. It’s the same sermon that’s been preached by teachers and prophets for generations.

In the book of Isaiah 58: 1-9, the prophet says, not in a small voice, but in a full on loud shouting voice: ‘You people, you Parade around in faith. You show off and act all pious. But that’s not what God wants. God’s not that interested in people doing a whole lot of pious prayers and bible studies, if faith it not put into action’.

Isaiah says that God is calling us ‘to to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts’/ God is calling us to ‘share food with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into our homes, put clothes on the shivering ill-clad and be available to our own families’.

These words are part of a long sermon that Isaiah preached 700 years before Jesus turned up. When the tribes of Israel were established in the land and from an economic perspective were prospering. There was a ruling class of people who held the wealth and power and laborers who worked for them and slaves who toiled on the land. The temples were strong and the leaders promoted devotional activities. But there was something fundamentally wrong. It’s the same problem that has plagued humanity for generations: the resources are not distributed evenly, the power not shared equitably, some have more than they need while others are lacking fundamental human rights.

I wonder, who were the people in the crowd that day when Isaiah was preaching this sermon. Who were the people listening to Jesus on that hill above lake Galilee? Who are the people listening today? Whoever they were back then, they found the vision inspiring enough to tell it to their friends and neighbours, to pass the vision on to their children and their children’s children.

It was inspiring enough to eventually be written into books that became the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian gospel. It’s a vision not only written and shared, but also enacted. It’s a vision that has inspired leaders and government, unions and worker co-operatives, businesses and projects, hospitals and hospices. Down through the ages, ordinary people have heard this vision and put their heads together tried to work out how to share resources equitably. People have come out to hear the likes of Isaiah and Jesus proclaiming God’s vision across the centuries and around the world.

I first heard of God’s vision when I was a small child sitting in a worship-in-the-round group where the adults were all talking. I remember vividly enacting the stories from the bible with enthusiasm: ‘God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed, that grows to a mighty tree’. I remember attending the palm Sunday peace march through the city. I remember my family visiting an asylum seeker family from Vietnam in the Carlton commission flats, I remember folding my hands together waiting to receive communion ‘many grains gathered to make this one loaf so we who are many become one body’.

Do you remember too… when did you first hear this vision?

When did God’s vision start tugging on your heart?

Back then for me it seemed quite simple. God made the world and all its people, everyone was loved by God and everyone should learn to share, so everyone gets what they need.

Simple.

But as we grow older and start to look around, it’s clear that sharing is harder than it sounds, terrible things happen, people get hurt on the outside and in the inside. Everyone does not get what they need, it becomes harder and harder to remember that we are all loved by God.

It was in my late teens and early 20s that I sensed in me a call to ministry in the Uniting Church. It came as a nudge from the inside and invitations from the outside and I found myself working as a glassy eyed youth worker in the northern growth corridor of Melbourne ready to take on the world.

I can remember feeling so proud to be part of a church with a vision to care for the most vulnerable and share God’s love and vision for justice. I participated in church life, developed leadership skills, contributed to endless committees.

I became a candidate for ministry and studied theology. Now married and ordained I stepped into my first placement at Burwood Uniting Church were I soon became a mother and parenting became a priority.

In this local context I was keen to find new ways of being church in communities where the younger generations continued to walk away. Through encounters with the realities of being human, some painful confrontations and profound disappointments, the glassy eyes developed clearer focus.

I worked in the Synod on the Call to the Church project and developed the Lacuna resource. I trained as a spiritual director and connected into the ecumenical spiritual direction community. I discovered that removing the chains of oppression Jesus talks about are not just present in the material world. There is a whole world inside people where oppressive chain traps hearts and minds, and the homeless inner child thrashes about desperate for comfort.

Our little family expanded and I became the minister at Fitzroy Uniting Church and then moved into the Spiritual Formation Advisor Role at the CTM and then on to join you here at Habitat Uniting Church.

For me, ministry opened doors into people homes and lives with astonishing gifts of intimacy. I’ve married hopeful friends; baptized babies and fresh new adult Christians; buried children, accompanied the dying and farewelled the old ones. Listening to confessions of secrets, I’ve waited as, through tears, healing light is shed on deep wounds. Beaconed or not, named or unrecognized, I am convinced that God’s love is actively present in peoples’ living.

In our church, our common life holds vision and also disappointment. The structures serve and also undermine. The communities care and also harm. Ministry is sometimes joyful, sometimes profoundly upsetting, but always rewarding. I’ve dived deep within myself to find the companionship of God’s presence. A well of healing and window into the realm beyond the three dimensions we tend to inhabit. It is here in the vast unknowing that I’d like to travel further: letting go and sensing connectedness in, and with, all that is. 

With this growing sense of connectedness, I can’t but love my neighbor both human and animal, plant and mineral.

Where are the people crafting policies to ensure resources are shared?
Where are the companions nurturing souls to remember that we belong to one another?
Where are the leaders who don’t mouth empty prayers, but act and act now?
Where is there a balance between private interest and public duty?
Where is the independent and accessible public service?
Who is regulating arms manufactures and the fossil fuel industries with their multimillion dollar executive pay packets?
Why would we even consider continuing to let logging happen in the remainder of the East Gippsland forests? Where is our climate policy?
Why is water sold for no decent purpose?
Why is taxpayer money spent on political marketing?
Why can’t we have a tax system that distributes wealth with equity, and substantially fund programs to care of the poor and marginalized?

It’s pretty clear, God calls us to share food with the hungry, invite the homeless into homes, put clothes on the shivering ill-clad and be available to families. Who will shout out like Isaiah and Jesus?

Who will shout Wake up Australia?
Wake up!!!

Watch Paul Kelly's 'Sleep Australia Sleep' on U-Tube

Groups of ordinary folk have come out of the towns and cities to gather on hillsides to listen to Jesus describe God’s vision for the world. It’s a vision that is simple and incredibly complex. It’s a vision that needs to be shouted from the rooftops and whispered in the hidden places.
Wake up! Wake up ….

Jesus said: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Or if we read another translation we’ll hear Jesus say: I have come that they may have fullness of life.

Habitat’s vision for SWell is to awaken abundant life.
World Vision is for every child, fullness of life.

It’s God’s vision proclaimed by Isaiah and by Jesus and by countless others: What God is interested in is simple: share your food with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your homes, put clothes on the shivering ill-clad, be available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on, and your lives will turn around at once.
Do this, says Jesus and you will be salt of the earth, you will be light to the world.
Do this, and you will be the city of God.

My path is now branching off toward World Vision. From the local context of a neighbourhood church to an organization of global partnerships.

Your path here is to lean into the felt sense the living God and work out how to share your resources. To continue being a church with a passion to connect with people who don’t come here church on Sunday mornings, but might connect into the SWell Centre and who might find a home with the Boroondara Community Outreach.

I have been invited to join the team at World Vision Australia as Head of Faith and Development. It’ s a role providing spiritual care to staff and fostering theological reflection to support the Christian ethos of the organization. To be a voice that wakes people up to the presence of God and our call to join Jesus, not to act like the thief but awaken life in abundance, fullness of life for every child. From the very well known and familiar networks of the UCA, I’m going to be a new face amongst strangers.

But the vision will not be strange to me, the narrative that binds us is not new.

World vision began the same way Christian churches around the world have formed across the centauries.

‘No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your God.’ (Matthew 5:13-16)
Give Glory.
Give Glory. AMEN

 

Habitat Uniting Church Office
2 Minona Street, Hawthorn VIC
phone 9819 2844
office@habitatforspirituality.org.au

St David's Centre
cnr Burke & Mont Albert Rds
Canterbury VIC

Habitat Spirituality Centre
@ Augustine

2 Minona St, Hawthorn VIC

Kew Uniting Church
23 Highbury Grove
Kew VIC