Sunday 28 • 15 Oct 2017

Exodus 32:1-14
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

Rev. Prof. Clive Pearson

Twenty years ago we were gathered together in Room G3 at UTC [United Theological College]. The class was a Masters’ class; the subject had to do with how we understand who Jesus Christ is for us today in our diverse contexts. There were 28 students in the room; they were a mix of men and women but what set them apart was the level of cultural diversity. There were 19 separate ethnicities represented in that room.

There were Koreans and Tongans, Samoans and Cook Islanders, Vietnamese and Filipino; there were New Zealanders and Dutch; there were Tamils and folk from the hill tribes of Myanmar: there were Fijians and there were other islanders whose cultural purity had been compromised through some Chinese genes; there were folk from rural New South Wales and a minority from Sydney’s north shore. The list could go on.

For some English was there second or third language; for others it was their only language. Some had been raised in country towns where there were no ethnicities other than their own; their world was more stable, more homogenous; there were others who had come through dreadful circumstances: Some were boat people – one man had been imprisoned by the Viet Cong and had made his way to Australia by way of leaky boat. Some were refugees of a different kind, and some had migrated for the sake of their children and the hope of something better.

And here we were gathered in room G3. We were here for one reason and one reason alone. And let me be clear: we were not here to be a multicultural society, though that was what we happened to be; we were here for another reason. We were here because each, in their own way, was seeking to understand how Christ had touched our lives and, in a rather strange fashion, called us to belong to one another for 3 hours per week for a semester.

That we should be doing this should come as a no surprise. It’s a sign of the times. With the change in immigration laws during the 1970s Australia has been reinvented; at its inception forty years ago the Uniting Church had declared itself to be an Australian church and one which was committed to the Asia-Pacific region. It had brought together at that point in time three denominations that had their fingerprints of being made on the side of the world. Now it was time for something new

– but strange to say – those formative documents of the time – the Basis of Union, the Constitution, the Regulations, the Statement to the Nation made no reference to the indigenous Aboriginal peoples, nor to the emerging cultural diversity within our church.

All of that was on hold. It was not until 1985 that the Aboriginal peoples were first mentioned in a formal declaration of what it meant for us to be the body of Christ in this time and place- and that long overdue claim was first made in a statement which declared that “we are a multicultural church”. That statement came with some accompanying recommendations that turned out to be more aspirational than real.

And I know that to be so. I had been asked to chair an Assembly working group; its brief was to discern how well known resolutions to do with cultural diversity might be in the various councils of the church – at synod, presbytery and congregational level. We were also discern how well they were being put into practice – and the result of our enquiry was not very uplifting.

Our class in Room G3 was reflecting something of what it meant for us to be that kind of church, nevertheless. But there was an underlying feeling that something was not quite right. Yes, the language of being multicultural had taken root within society as a whole. And politicians increasingly used it as a matter of course – so much so that it was now being described as a motherhood kind of statement. But did it really reflect who we were and why we were engaged with one another in being the church, in belonging to the Lord, rather than being a citizen, a resident of an Australian society.

There was some discussion. Some folk thought that Anglos tended to think that anything advertised to do with being multicultural didn’t involve them: it had to do with the others. Some folk thought that we indulged in what was described as a kind of boutique multiculturalism. We taste one another’s food; we see different ways of dressing; we enjoy a cultural performance of song and dance – but really that was as far as it went.

And then there were the problems: the problem of different aromas persisting in the kitchens, the problem of how best to share the property, the problems of differing expectations from one culture to another in matters to do with the role of the minister and the equality of women. And, then, more recently was the problem of professional supervision when some cultures are more communal than individually based, besides which they had no word for supervision in the first place.

We were looking for something deeper, something that held us together; we were looking for something which helped explain why men and women, boys and girls, from different backgrounds, speaking different languages, eating differing foods might end up living out their faith in the same church. Was it enough simply to say “we are a multicultural church” – when the word multicultural cannot be found in the Bible. And that’s no surprise. Guess when the word was invented! Guess where: Canada in the 1960s.

Was there, perhaps, some biblical theme that might explain our presence in this room – for it was quite clear to all of us that none of us had ventured into this space for the sake of being multicultural. That was not why we were there. And then finally it dawned upon us: we had come together out of our different backgrounds for Christ’s sake.

The thing that was binding us together was our baptism in Christ. It did not matter from which ethnicity came. It did not matter if we were Anglo or Fijian, Arab or Korean. Each of us had been baptised in Christ: in the language taken from Paul our old selves had been crucified and we had been raised to a new life in Christ -a new identity in Christ. The very first generations had been known as a third race – alongside Jew and Gentile,

In that classroom the language of cross began to take hold. We had come together through the cross of Christ. Paul uses the term, the word of the cross, to represent the whole Easter event. We noticed that throughout the gospels Jesus never went ‘multi-ing’ about; he crossed over from one place to another.

We had found a biblical and theological term rather than a relatively new word coined from the field of sociology and popular culture to define who we are. We were being cross cultural: the cross signifying both the horizontal relationship with one another, but more importantly, the vertical relationship between us and the purposes of God in Christ Jesus. The word multicultural cannot do that: it only deals with the horizontal.

And so we played around a bit. We played with what happens when we don’t understand each other. What happens if we speak fluently in English and the other does not the same proficiency? Who’s right then? Is it the person who is speaking? Is it what is said? Is it what is heard - or do we need to negotiate the meaning in the space between us? How do we help each other understand across the language gap?

And then we remembered that we are called to follow Christ and as will become very clear next year, while we are in the company of the gospel of Mark, following and being on the way carries certain expectations. The moment Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah – Matthew would add, son of the living God – then we are called to take up our cross and follow.

Being multicultural meant that we could note the existence of the other; we could enjoy their food and their company – but it did not mean that we needed to leave something behind; it did not mean that we had to cross over into the experience of the other and allow that to shape us in return.

And so we began to think about living cross-culturally. In the years that followed I would run seminars when I would ask an Anglo to be a Tamil for the class, an Armenian to be a Korean, a Niuean to be an Anglo. What was it like to live in the space of the other? What did you see? What did you notice? What did you hear? What was it like being someone from a culture other than your own? Was there anything which made you cross – and, if so, did being cross give you a passion, a concern for justice?

In 2006 the Uniting Church put out another statement. It was called ‘For all God’s people’. It was still wrestling with this matter of cultural and linguistic diversity within the church. It recognized that the coming together of cultures like this was a sign of the kingdom; it was a gift given to us by God; it is a sign of hope and a witness to the surrounding society. And that latter claim is important when high profile people start playing populist politics in a way which targets some ethnicities.

At that time (2006) the church concluded that if we wish to be a ‘true multicultural church’, then we needed to live cross culturally – and, by 2012 it was saying that the Aboriginal peoples are first peoples, all the rest of us are second peoples and we are called to live cross culturally for the sake of the multicultural kingdom of God. No longer was the church multicultural. That term was now being reserved for describing the kingdom of God.

The impetus for that shift in language – to living cross culturally and doing so for the sake of the multicultural kingdom of God – came from that class 20 years ago. Room G3. One of the biblical themes that pervaded our talk back then was talk of the hospitality of Christ.

Over the past couple of decades there has been a lot of work done on this theme of hospitality -and especially the need to recover its value, its worth, from simply being applied to the hospitality industry, the hospitality boxes at sporting occasions and the kind of hospitality which springs from rather free use of the ever present platinum visa card.

You may have noticed: there is a lot of eating and drinking in the gospels. Sometimes Jesus is the guest: he is eating in the home of a Pharisee; sometimes he is eating with tax collectors and sinners. Sometimes he is the host - there is a feeding of the four thousand, the feeding of the five thousand; there is the last supper; and then are those times, those parables when Jesus likens the kingdom of God to a banquet – like what happens in this morning’s reading from Matthew.

Here we have a wedding banquet. It is the last of three parables through which Jesus engages with the Temple authorities. The king has sent out his servants, his slaves, to call those who had been invited to his son’s wedding; but they did not come. He sends out a further invitation: everything is ready but those invited had other things to do while some mistreated and kill his slaves;

the king then sends his troops: those who were invited are now deemed not to be worthy – and so now a fresh invitation was made – the slaves went out into the streets, they found the good and the bad and the wedding hall was filled with such guests. In Matthew’s version there is one who still stands out – he is not dressed properly for the occasion and is deemed to be ill-suited to be there.

This reading is a strange one. It is full of judgement tempered with some grace. It is nevertheless a parable that is established in an invitation to be present, to celebrate; it is an invitation extended to many who would not otherwise expected to have been invited: it is invitation to the good and the bad – to those out in the main streets - and I suppose that is us;

For hospitality to happen, for it to be real, there needs to be an invitation and an acceptance. It is easy to find the excuses. It is known in the work of cross cultural ministry one of the excuses most often masked is one of fear – the fear of not knowing what to do, what to say, the unknown.

There is a sense in which the practice of being cross cultural – and doing so in response to the hospitality of Christ – that requires an overcoming of barriers and obstacles; that can be coupled with the recognition that Christ may well come to us in the guise of a stranger, that Christ might be revealed in new and fresh ways through a culture that is not our own.

Being ill-suited for such occasions may mean being bound down by low expectations; it may mean not wishing to see Christ in the other, as our guest and as our host; being invited to this kind of banquet, ‘the multicultural kingdom of heaven’ can mean learning to live cross culturally and making room for the one whose language and culture is not the same as ours. Those of us who met in that room G3 some years ago – we found that kind of invitation exciting and nothing short of being good news.