Sunday 13 • 2 Jul 2017

Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42

Rev. Chris Udy

This image comes from Human Universe,
one of the science programs
written and produced
by Professor Brian Cox.
Image result for Brian Cox Fateful EncounterIn this episode, Brian Cox was describing
an event – a single event –
that has had enormous impact
on the development of life on earth.
He said:
“A long time ago, two or three billion years ago,
the Earth was populated only by single-celled organisms,
two great kingdoms of life - the bacteria and the archaea.
And, it has to be said, things were pretty dull.
There was nothing that we might call complex
and, in fact, very little happened.
Those two single-celled things just stayed the same
for billions of years.
But then one day, quite by accident, everything changed.
What many biologists believe to have happened
is that a bacterium got inside an archaean
and for some reason wasn't digested.
Instead, a symbiotic relationship began.
The bacterium may have been protected by the archaean,
while the archaean got access
to the energy generated by the bacterium.
Once that cell had access
to the vast amounts of energy,
the potential that the internal bacterium gave it,
then basically all hell broke loose.
And that energy allowed the cell
to begin to work in larger colonies,
to begin to build complex living things.
So the mitochondria in your cells today
are the descendants of that chance collision
billions of years ago.”

Most biologists believe that this event –
which they call the ‘Fateful Encounter’ –
happened just once.
One bacterium got inside one archaean,
to make a single, symbiotic cell –
the first eukaryotic cell –
a cell with a ‘true nucleus’.
That cell divided, and divided again, and again …
each time keeping the elements
of that first symbiosis together -
and all the cells
in every complex life-form on the planet –
every plant, every fungus, every animal cell
in all the variety and myriad combinations of cells
that exist on the earth today,
every one of them is descended
from that ‘fateful encounter’.
From the single cell that formed
when that archaean extended a kind of hospitality –
nourishment and protection –
to a bacterium that then provided energy,
and a creative potential for complexity –
came the possibility of all multi-cellular life:
life in community.

Our Gospel reading for today
comes from a longer passage –
a set of instructions for Jesus’ disciples
as he sent them out on mission.
He was sending the 12
to the towns and villages of Galilee and Judea,
and their mission
was to proclaim good news:
“The Kingdom of Heaven has come near”.
But what is striking
about the instructions he gave his disciples
isn’t so much in what they had to say,
but in what they had to do.
He told them not to take gold or silver –
so they couldn’t buy what they’d need.
They couldn’t take a bag for the journey,
so they couldn’t carry anything with them.
They couldn’t take extra clothes,
or anything else to give them shelter.
They were utterly dependent
on the hospitality of those they went to.
When they came to a town or village,
they were to find a host,
and stay there until they left that place.
If they were welcomed, Jesus said,
their peace would bless the house.
If they weren’t welcomed,
their peace would leave with them.
“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me”
Jesus says in our reading for today;
“and whoever welcomes me
welcomes the one who sent me.”

From the beginning,
and at the core – the nucleus –
of Christian mission
is hospitality.
God comes near to us
in a fateful encounter,
and when we are welcoming,
when we make space
for God’s presence – for God’s strangeness –
then God’s blessing of life and peace,
God’s energy for reconciliation,
for creativity and complexity and community –
comes into the space we provide.

The instructions Jesus gives his disciples
begin with them:
he tells them what to say,
and what they can take with them
as they go –
but the words we read today
are really for the people they will go to.
The blessings and warnings are relevant
to those who’ll extend hospitality –
or who don’t –
and it looks like Jesus – or Matthew –
intends these words to be heard
by people who can choose
to welcome the Kingdom of Heaven –
to respond to God’s presence – or not.
“Whoever welcomes a prophet
in the name of a prophet
will receive a prophet’s reward;
whoever welcomes a righteous person
in the name of a righteous person
will receive the reward of the righteous;
and whoever gives even a cup of cold water
to one of these little ones
in the name of a disciple
truly I tell you, none of these
will lose their reward.”

It’s often a little confusing
to know just where we sit
when we’re reading passages like these.
Are we disciples on the road,
bringing the blessing and peace of God
to the tables we’re invited to share –
or are we being asked to be welcoming –
to make space at our tables
to those in whom God’s presence has come near?
Or, maybe, is it part of being hospitable
that we don’t always know
whether we’re the guest,
being welcomed and bringing a blessing,
or the host, making space
and providing something to share.
And maybe, when it’s working well
we move between the two,
or we do both at the same time …
Maybe we’re like the disciples
on the Emmaus road with Jesus,
who thought they were extending
hospitality to a stranger,
only to find, when the bread was broken,
that God in Christ was present and among them.

The heart, the core, the nucleus of Christian mission
is hospitality.
Sometimes we’re receiving it,
sometimes we’re extending it,
sometimes we’re doing both at the same time –
and whenever we live hospitably
the reign of God comes near.

At our Presbytery Zone service
to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of the UCA
David Gill spoke about his experience
as the General Secretary to the Assembly,
and his understanding of the mission of God’s people.
As part of his address he said:
Christians must develop
  • not the diplomatic skill to charm the other,
  • not the political know-how to manipulate the other,
  • not the worldly power to coerce the other,
  • not the theological clout to convert the other.
  • But the spiritual capacity to see
  • the grace of God in the other.

It was good to celebrate 40 years
of worship, witness and service,
and it was encouraging to be reminded
of some of the high points and achievements
of those 40 years.
It wasn’t quite as encouraging
to read this week’s first snapshots of the census
or to be reminded, later in the week,
that the Church’s response
to children and adults who deserved
our most careful, respectful and gentle
hospitality and protection
has been so poor.
Whatever the legal outcomes might be,
it’s absolutely obvious
that when our emphasis is institutional:
when our first concern
is the safety and protection
of our assets and reputation –
then we’ve lost our heart, our core,
our nucleus – our DNA.
And if that’s what’s happened to the Church
over the last 40 years or so,
then it’s no surprise
that our neighbours no longer see us
either as messengers with good news
or as a home that might welcome them
with grace and hospitality.

The census information for Crows Nest and Waverton
says that over the last 10 years
our neighbourhood grew by another 3000 people.
Most of our neighbours were born here (55.3%)
and the most common language spoken at home,
after English, was Mandarin, at 3.5%.
Income, mortgages and rents in our area
have increased over the last 10 years –
so no surprises there –
but there was a surprise
in the census results on religion.
Our neighbours have never been especially religious.
In Crows Nest and Waverton
‘Secular & No religious affiliation’
has been the highest reported response
to the question on religion for quite some time –
and it’s grown by nearly 15%
over the last 10 years.
Buddhists and Hindus have remained about the same,
and Catholic numbers are only slowly in decline –
but Anglicans have lost almost half their numbers,
and in 2016, the Uniting Church
appears to have disappeared –
at least from the list provided by the Guardian.

Obviously the story of faith in our suburbs
is a bit more complicated
than those numbers seem to imply –
but around Australia, for the first time,
more people chose ‘No religion’ (30%)
than any other category in the survey,
and that was especially true
for people aged from 18-34 (39%).
Over the last 50 years
the number of people
who have identified themselves as Christian
has declined from 88% to just over 50% (52%),

so it’s clear that the mission
Jesus gave his disciples,
at least in Australia,
could do with some adjustment,
and if it’s true that in many places
the Church has become remote,
and is seen as unwelcoming and hard,
maybe we can learn something
from the instructions Jesus gave his first disciples,
and from the good news
Jesus gave them to deliver.

Maybe we can be open
to another ‘fateful encounter’,
and be open to seeing the heart of our mission
as radical hospitality:
making a space at our tables and in our lives
for the God who comes to us as a stranger.
Maybe it’s worth affirming
that the reign of God comes near,
bringing a blessing, and peace,
and new energy for life
when we build community together,
not, as David Gill reminded us,
when we’re obsessed
with absorbing or consuming each other,
not when we’re invading and conquering one another,
not when one is dominating or controlling
or enslaving the other,
but the reign of God approaches
when we embrace vulnerability,
when we extend a welcome,
when we hold together – even when that’s difficult,
uncomfortable, messy and boring –
when we remain together –
until we see the grace of God in each other
and our differences become God’s blessing
and God’s gift.