Pilgrim Anniversary Service, 25 June 2017. Rev. Dr. Vicky Balabanski.
The two formative experiences that shaped the identity of the people of God in the Old Testament were ones that they didn’t want:
Slavery in Egypt and Exile in Babylon.
Both Egypt and Babylon were great political powers and seats of culture in their day. First in Egypt, the Hebrew people found themselves as a small and dispensable minority. It was in the hard labour of slavery there and their exodus from there into a life as nomadic people that their identity as a people was formed. And then centuries later another unwanted experience: the Persian Empire defeated and decimated Judea, and carted off their brightest and best to Babylon.
When we turn to the New Testament and the story of Jesus, we find a similar thread: it is not in the halls of power that we meet the image of the unseen God, but in a human being of complete integrity and compassion who is executed by the interests of Empire. Again, this is not the formative experience that God’s people would have expected or wanted.
I am painting with broad brush strokes, of course. The biblical witness has many plots and sub-plots, successes and failures. But at the heart of the story we find three foundational experiences of powerlessness in the face of Empire:
Slavery in Egypt;
Exile in Babylon;
A crucified messiah, executed by the Roman Empire.
Paradoxically, these are the very stories in which God is encountered most clearly as a God of faithfulness and a God of love. If the God of the universe is almighty, those who look to God for their identity and hope are not. The biblical witness requires us to think differently about God and power – it is in the crucible of genuine unwarranted and unwanted suffering, particularly in the face of Empire, that God is encountered most deeply. It is in the experience of human powerlessness that identity of God’s people is formed.
Today is a great celebration of the people of God in this place – 180 years of Wesleyan and Congregational presence in South Australia, 150 years of worship, learning and activity for justice in this place, first as Stowe Memorial Church from 1867, then as Union Church in the City from 1972, and now as Pilgrim Uniting Church. The remarkable thing about this beautiful building and the heritage that it bears is that it does not bespeak or proclaim the power of Empire, but the story of God’s people – a story which tells that even in the face of unwarranted and unwanted suffering, that God is a God of love. As much as the stones and plaques and furnishings bear witness to a culture, it is not to a culture of the power of Empire, but to a culture which remembers the story of God’s people as people who are shaped by faith, by hope and by love in the face of suffering and setback. This is a counter-cultural narrative.
So let’s spend a few moments reflecting on the parts of the story that we heard read today.
In the reading from Jeremiah, we heard a part of a letter written to the people in exile in Babylon. Jeremiah himself wasn’t in Babylon, but had stayed in Jerusalem. Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet – there were other prophetic voices prophesying rebellion, liberation and swift vengeance by God on the Persian Empire. Jeremiah gives a different message, spoken in the name of the God of Israel, the Lord of hosts (or armies!):
Build houses in Babylon and live in them.
Plant gardens and eat their produce.
Marry and have children.
Give your sons and daughter in marriage and have grandchildren.
Seek the welfare of the city as the place where I have sent you,
Pray on behalf of that city;
Combine the welfare of that place with your own welfare.
This was a controversial message for the exiles in Babylon. For one thing it was saying that their sojourn in exile would be for quite some time – time for marrying and children; time for those children to grow up and have their own children. There was no swift vengeance on their captors in view. For those who had gone into exile, they would likely not see a return.
It was controversial too for a people who saw themselves as set apart, purified, holy and distinct from the surrounding nations. This is a message of co-operation, of working with rather than against their captors – praying for their captors and working for their welfare. It’s perhaps not surprising that a people who were dislocated, angry and disenfranchised preferred the swift vengeance message of other prophets.
Jeremiah is saying: you have power to do great good right where you are. Invest in creating and shaping your living environment – houses and gardens and infrastructure. Invest in family life – don’t raise children to undermine the social fabric, but to foster a nurturing way of life. Invest in the city and civic life. Pray for the city of your captors and model your faith as something that brings good to all.
That’s quite a message! We might wish that Jeremiah’s words featured more prominently in all religious traditions! But this is no new message for those who stand in the Abrahamic tradition. If we think back to the original call of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12, verses 1-3, the point of Abram’s call is so that ‘in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. God sets aside a people for the purpose of blessing all the families of the earth. Not converting them, not punishing them, but blessing them. Seen this way, Jeremiah’s message is calling the people back to being that blessing, no matter where they are. This message also points forward to Jesus: ’love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…’ (Mt 5:44). Only so are they mirroring the nature of God to others.
This is also the point of our Gospel reading from John 17, when we hear Jesus praying on behalf not only of his disciples, but for all who will come after them. He prays: ‘they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.’ At the heart of Jesus’ revelation is God’s love for the world, and the unity of those who follow Jesus is to reveal that purpose and that love.
What is Jeremiah’s message for us, who are here to thank God for those who have gone before us – the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ of our reading from Hebrews? After all, we are not exiles nor slaves under a foreign power. But we are people living in a context that many of us did not expect…
A religious context, in which the church is marginal and even vilified;
A social context, in which we are not obviously progressing towards a more equitable, secure and humane future;
A political context, where we see the rise of political leaders and ideologies that we did not imagine…
We are not exiles nor slaves under a foreign power, but we are living in times of unprecedented change, fragmentation and polarization, even as we are more connected with each other via media and social media than ever before.
What I hear to be Jeremiah’s call is to invest ourselves right here and now in our own context. Not because we are powerful, but because we are empowering. I hear it as a call to invest ourselves in the lives of families over multiple generations. I hear it as a call not to give up on prayer which catches us up in the wider mission of God to bless all the families of the earth – not only human, but every species. I hear it as a call to champion the values of God, which will often differ from the values of Empire, whether that be transnational empire, ideological empire, or any other sort. I hear it as a call to make it our business to know our neighbours and to reflect deeply on what blessing we can bring in this place. And I hear it as a call to accept that we may be marginal for some duration, but without succumbing to simply mirroring the values of the market place.
In all these ways, we will bless the world which God loves and (to use the words of Davis McCaughey) we will ‘keep the rumour of God alive’.
We are indeed here to thank God for those who have gone before us at Stowe Memorial, Union Church and Pilgrim Uniting Church. We are therefore also here to remember: to embrace the trajectory of their faith and service and to write the next act of faith and service, in keeping with what has gone before.
We have a word in the Christian tradition for that type of remembering: anamnesis. Anamnesis is a conscious act of remembering which makes us part of the community of saints across time and space. The practice of the Lord’s Supper is an anamnesis, a conscious act of calling to mind and becoming part of a trajectory. But so too in a sense is today’s service of worship – it’s an anamnesis of the faith of the people who have worshipped and served in this place.
Many of you will remember them with a sense of great thankfulness. Let us take a moment to call them to mind.
So today we join together with them, part of the ‘great cloud of witnesses’. We do so ‘looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.’ I am glad that the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us that this trajectory is not only about unwanted and unwarranted suffering, but in the end even more about joy: as the text of Hebrews says, ‘…for the sake of the joy that was set before him’. As we engage in God’s great project of bringing blessing to all families of the earth, may we find that the blessing returns to us as well, in joy and God’s Shalom, God’s peace.
Pictured below from left: Rev Dr Vicky Balabanski Senior Lecturer in New Testament Flinders University and Director of Biblical Studies Uniting College of Theology and Leadership, Lady Mayoress Genevieve Theseira-Haese, Dr Marelle Harisun Secretary Pilgrim Church Council, Rev Nick Kerr Deacon of St Francis Xavier Catholic Cathedral, Rev Dr Dean Eland, Margaret Boyce Chair Pilgrim Church Council, Rev Dr Brian Phillips, former minister, Mrs Evelyn Kerr, Rev Bob Hutchinson.
An Anniversary Sunday to celebrate… 180 years since the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist (11 May 1837) and Congregational Church (19 December 1837) in South Australia…to celebrating 150 years since the opening of this building, (12 April 1867) formerly known as the Stow Memorial Congregational Church and to give thanks for those who came together to form Union Church in the City in October 1972. Our guest preacher today is the Rev Dr Vicky Balabanski Director of Biblical Studies at the Uniting College of Theology and Leadership.
Others taking part include the Rev Brian Phillips former Minister of the Pirie St Methodist Church and the Rev Dr Dean Eland.