Sunday 14 • 3 Jul 2016

2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Rev. Chris Udy

Fifty years ago, in schools all over Australia
teachers used a game
to help their students discover and understand
the values they lived by.
The idea of the game was to choose 10 people -
or really 10 stereotypes, like -
a female teacher from New Zealand aged 30,
a male architect from Thailand aged 50,
a female student from Dubbo aged 12,
a male football player from Melbourne aged 25, and so on.
Then the class was given a scenario
like the outbreak of nuclear war,
and a bomb shelter that would save 9 people -
so the class was asked to choose,
and say why they chose the nine who would live,
and the one who would probably die.
As the game developed things would go wrong,
and one by one the rest of the people would be expelled,
until only one or two were left.
Fifty years ago it was a classroom game -
today it’s reality TV -
and millions of people watch ‘Survivor’,
and ‘The Bachelor’, and ‘Shark Tank,
and ‘My Kitchen Rules, and the list goes on.
It isn’t a matter of life or death,
and everyone involved
gets very well paid for their involvement,
but the exercise in values is still there -
and the implications are pretty disturbing.
I should confess
that I find so-called ‘reality TV’ utterly boring –
so all my research has been done with Google,
but with more than 10% of the Australian population
watching programs like ‘Big Brother’,
and more than 160 separate programs like it,
it’s fairly clear that many Australians keep tuning in
to watch other people being publicly shamed,
rejected and expelled,
while the rest do anything it takes -
lies, deals, betrayal, anything -
to stay in the game and win.
Social scientists, arguing against censorship,
tell us that the things we read and watch on TV
tend not to change our values or behaviour,
they just reflect and confirm
what we already think and believe.
Advertisers obviously don’t believe them -
because government and business
spend billions every year
buying time for their commercials
in programs like ‘Masterchef, and ‘The Voice’,
but it doesn’t really matter
whether TV changes values
or just reflects them,
the point is much the same:
we live in a society
that thinks ‘exclusive’ is a word
that means good value,
and we’re all afraid of being judged
and being found unworthy.

Public shame and rejection are nothing new -
groups and communities
have always used social pressure
to keep their members in line -
but when communities take the next step
and rely, to reinforce their own security or value,
on people being shamed and excluded,
or make a group or a race or a class of person
automatically and permanently rejected,
something has gone seriously wrong.

This morning we read the last part
of Paul’s letter to the Galatians -
and Paul was writing
to the Christian communities there
because something had gone seriously wrong.
Galatia is a region, not just a single city,
and Paul is writing to a group of congregations
established under his leadership
on one of his early missionary journeys.
As ‘Galatia’ suggests,
they were Gauls – Celtic people - not Jewish or Greek,
and they had responded to the Gospel
with great warmth and enthusiasm.
But some time after Paul left them
a group of travelling preachers,
possibly from Jerusalem,
came into the region,
and told them that they were not true Christians,
and could not be true Christians
unless they first became Jews.
They also said that Christians were required
to do everything that Jewish Law commanded -
including circumcision -
and that anyone who did not obey the ceremonial law
could not be part of the Christian community.

When Paul heard, he was horrified,
and he quickly wrote a very emotional letter
back to the Churches in Galatia
because he thought the essence of the Gospel
was under attack.
The problem wasn’t just circumcision,
or observing the seasons and the feast days
of Jewish ceremonial law -
it wasn’t any specific action or ritual
that had become the problem,
it was something much more basic,
and much more significant.
Paul believed that those travelling preachers
had undermined the message of Jesus himself.
They’d tried to rebuild the barriers and divisions
that Jesus himself had removed -
they’d overturned the gospel of grace
and gone back to the slavery of the Law.

So, Paul said,
if you believe that God’s love and acceptance for you
depends on you doing any specific action -
circumcision, baptism, saying a creed,
wearing a cross, celebrating Easter, speaking in tongues -
if you believe that your salvation
depends on anything you must or can do,
then you might as well give up,
because, Paul argued,
you’re relying on law to save you,
and to be saved through the law
you’ll need to keep all the law -
you’ll need to be absolutely perfect -
and nobody ever is.
But the good news, Paul wrote -
the Gospel of Jesus Christ is
that our salvation doesn’t depend on keeping the law,
our life now and our life to come is a gift to us -
a costly and precious gift
in the love and grace of God.

Today we read, right at the end of the letter -
“May I never boast of anything
except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,
by which the world has been crucified to me,
and I to the world.
For neither circumcision
nor uncircumcision is anything;
but a new creation is everything!”

Paul’s fear and concern
came from his understanding
of what Jesus had done for all people.
He believed Jesus has brought a new creation -
he’s changed the way the world works
and the way community forms and grows.
Without Christ, from Paul’s perspective,
society is doomed to be exclusive and divided -
based on race, and sex, and wealth, and class -
divisions and exclusions defined by rules and laws,
designed to perpetuate
the benefits of birth and inherited privilege.
But when Jesus sent his disciples out
to reveal and proclaim the realm of God
he told them to go everywhere,
to speak to everyone,
and to offer the good news of grace
to all who would listen and believe.
After the death and resurrection of Jesus
there were some in the Church
who insisted that the gospel was limited
and included only Israel -
but Paul was convinced,
and argued passionately
at the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem,
that there were no limits to God’s grace,
and that everyone was included -
everyone: gentiles as well as Jews,
women as well as men,
slave as well as free.
He won the argument,
and the very first decision
of the Christian Church in council
was written up
and sent out to every Christian congregation
like this:
“It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us
to impose on you no further burden
than these essentials:
don’t eat food that’s been sacrificed to idols;
or food that’s made from blood -
and don’t be sexually promiscuous.
If you keep yourselves from these,
you will do well. Farewell.”

That was it -
nothing about rituals or seasons
or even about beliefs and creeds -
it was a completely new way
of understanding the community of God’s people -
it really was a new creation,
and Paul and Barnabas were sent off
by the other members of the Council -
the Apostles and the Elders of the Church in Jerusalem
to make sure the Church heard the message.

Since then there have been
many Councils of the Church,
some of them producing thousands of words
and setting all kinds of standards
and rules and guidelines for God’s people -
but the first was probably the best,
and that amazing hope and vision
of an open and inclusive community
that Paul learned from Jesus
still challenges and inspires the Church today.

Every July congregations of the Uniting Church
are encouraged to celebrate
‘One Great Sunday of Sharing’ -
and to recognise the contribution of ethnic congregations
to our life together in the Uniting Church.
The aim is to catch a glimpse
of the richness of the Church -
the amazing cultural diversity
that enriches our lives as Australians,
as Christians, and as members of the Uniting Church -
and to understand that all our differences,
all our diversity,
is brought together in God’s grace.
In 1985 – so just over 30 years ago –
the Assembly of the Uniting Church -
our National Council –
declared that “the Uniting Church in Australia
is a multicultural Church”
and one of the things I treasure
about the Uniting Church
is that we share in worship
with members with cultural links
to Indonesia and Korea, Japan and Malaysia,
the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji, and PNG,
Africa, Europe, and even North America!
I remember one Pentecost Sunday,
in one congregation of the Uniting Church,
hearing the story of Pentecost read simultaneously
by members of that one congregation - in 15 languages.
The Uniting Church worships
in more than 30 different languages;
at last count there were nearly 150 recognised
multi-ethnic congregations and faith communities
and almost 20% of our members – one in five -
were born outside Australia.
Our richness of culture,
and the movement of the gospel all over the world
began with the vision Paul caught from Jesus,
and we inherit the benefit.
None of us here would be Christian
were it not for Paul’s insistence -
because all of us have been grafted in
to the original Jewish vine
by his passionate proclamation and defence
of the open grace of God.

But today the gospel challenges
other divisions and exclusions too -
not just religious heritage,
but all divisions of culture and language and race.
Global society seems to be fragmenting,
and there are some who seem keen
to exploit and extend our divisions.
Remarkably and thankfully our election campaign
didn’t amplify the bigoted voices of some parties,
although some of the results from Queensland are a worry,
but it’s now very clear that the Brexit decision
was essentially about immigration and race.
In Australia the gap between rich and poor is growing,
and generational differences are also emerging.
Many young people live hopelessly,
deeply in debt even before they finish their education,
overwhelmed by the demands they face
in starting out in a career,
uncertain about establishing
secure personal relationships
and cynical about the values of society,
but alienated from older people
and from established communities like the Church.
We still struggle with differences in sexuality;
we still have no humane solutions to a world confronted
by millions of refugees and asylum seekers;
and we’re beginning to wonder who really gains
from the push to globalization and deregulation
and so-called free trade.
In the face of confrontation and confusion
it’s often easy and comforting
to stay with people we know,
to mix with people like us,
to judge people according to stereotypes
and to exclude strange people and different ideas.
But that’s not the way God wants it.
God isn’t like Big Brother,
asking us to pick and choose,
to survive at any cost,
to reject and exclude those we don’t like,
and to lie and deal and cheat to stay in the game.
God’s challenge is to live by trust and in grace -
not to judge by the world’s values,
but to keep our community welcoming and open;
to enjoy the different gifts
God gives us in each other,
and to take the leap of faith
into conversation and friendship
with someone we don’t know.
We’ve planned our ‘Sunday of Sharing’
for later this year –
with our Multicultural Lunch on the 21st August -
but, for us, every Sunday,
and especially every celebration of communion
is a reminder that we have been welcomed here
not for who we are, or what we have,
but because all of God’s children are invited
to share in all the good things God provides
for this table of grace.