Monday, June 9, 2014

Schools Immersion Program - reflections on Pentecost Sunday

(an edited version of my sermon from Pentecost Sunday on 8th June at Pilgrim Uniting Church - audio version on website, click on 'hear here' on top bar. Biblical texts were Acts 2 and John 20:19-23)

This week I have been involved in planning and leading a city immersion with 75 Year 11 high school students from Victoria. For most of the students, they had expected the five days in Adelaide would just be a chance to hang out with their friends. But the retreat program I was asked to plan focused on social justice. Quite a gulf in terms of expectations and one, in hindsight, that could have derailed the program I had planned. The program included large and small groups of the students involved in:

A visit to Inverbrackie Detention Centre (refugees and asylum seekers); attending a baptism of two Iranian children from Inverbrackie; listening to the stories of refugees; ten pin bowling with disadvantaged people through RecLink; a visit to Parliament House with Hon Kelly Vincent (Independent member, Dignity for Disability party); a visit to the law courts; visiting programs in a church supporting refugees and asylum seekers and offering welfare programs; time spent at a church in their café and op shop and hearing about the community work they do; visiting a Salvation Army centre and seeing facilities for homeless people, detox programs, sobering up unit and support for Aboriginal people; hearing about advocacy work for Aboriginal people; reconciliation with Aboriginal people and the Recognise campaign; a workshop with Amnesty International: spending time with Aboriginal women; spending time with women who have experienced domestic violence and are in safe housing; spending time with young women who are pregnant or already parents in their teenage years; learning about the stories behind the vendors of The Big Issue, and learning more about homelessness.

There were many more activities and visits in the program; the social justice issues the students encountered were very diverse, engaging and challenging.

In the student presentations on Friday, the last day of the city immersion, the students described what they had experienced. For many, the city immersion had been a life changing experience. Student after student spoke about the way stereotypes had been challenged, about the ways their awareness had been raised and attitudes changed. In a very real way, the students saw the church in action beyond the ‘four walls’ - engaged in the community with real needs and pressing issues. It invited them to a bigger understanding about the church, and the church’s involvement in social justice. It assisted in enlarging their faith, from a limited individualistic understanding, to see faith spilling over into engagement with the community. To see faith as something that naturally invites us to people on the margins, where Jesus spent so much of his own time.

It invited the students to dream dreams - dreams of peace, reconciliation, liberation, freedom, forgiveness, and where people might be all they were meant to be without fear, oppression, violence and disadvantage. What might happen as these young people continue to open themselves to the creative and renewing energy of God’s Spirit?

If these are the visions that these young people have, what are your own dreams you long to see – in and through the church, and in the world? What dreams are shared in common with these young people, that unites us as together we look beyond the walls of the church. In this place, in this building, we gather, for worship and renewal. And each week, we are sent from this place, this building, blessed, to be a blessing. The ongoing rhythm of gathering to be ‘church’, and the sending to be ‘church’ engaged in the world.

Pentecost invites us into a bigger picture. The Gospel reading takes us once again to the room where the disciples are huddled together for fear of the authorities. And Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on them. The Acts 2 reading tells us that they were still in waiting mode - this time with a larger group of people. Now the disciples were not fearful but expectant, eager to see the revelation of what God would do in their midst that would surely transform the lives of all those present. God’s spirit is poured out on ‘all flesh’ – male and female, old and young, slave and free, and people of all cultures. It is the dawn of a new era, the birth of the ‘church’.

Here, in these two readings, we see the journey from private to public, coming out from behind closed doors where the disciples had hidden, and moving beyond the protection of safe walls into the public domain. The movement from privatized pietistic belief to that expressed in concrete public engagement. A line from the baptismal service says, faith is personal but never private. Faith calls us to be engaged in the public square.

The language groups and cultures present at Pentecost shows that from the outset the community was inclusive, multi-cultural and cross-cultural. The Uniting Church proudly names itself as a multicultural church, requiring from us an openness, one to the other, so that
relationships can be built that are based on mutual respect, collaboration and recognition of the gifts and calling of peoples of diverse cultural and language backgrounds. “Differences can actually enrich and enliven what we share, if we can reach across what separates us, not only in language and culture but also in religious upbringing, economic class, educational background, and basic personality types. If we learn to communicate effectively, to hear what God is still speaking today, we will hear a call, together, that may astound us and gather us into something more effective and more amazing that we have been before.  Underneath the differences of nationality and language, there was a fundamental unity”. (Kate Huey)

Today, the question for us may be how to reach across boundaries that divide us, be they ecumenical or interfaith conversations and controversies; customs and traditions; age and experiences; gender and orientation; and multi-racial, multi-cultural, and inter-cultural ways of relating one to the other. The Spirit draws us all together in the one body of Christ, an embodiment of Christ we name as ‘church’. At its best, the church is a potent symbol to the world of unity and diversity, respect and mutuality, enlivened by God's Spirit, and following the example of Jesus Christ as he gathered a disparate band of followers drawn together into one inclusive community. The disciples had three years to watch and observe Jesus, and then to accept the mantle handed to them to continue all that they had seen and done.

God is up to something in this time and this place - and we are invited to get on board with God’s transforming work in the world. May it be so. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment