President's Sermon for the opening of the Tongan National Conference 2019

UCA President Dr Deidre Palmer preached at the opening worship of the 2019 Tongan Conference 

 “Liberating by Faith in Jesus Christ” Luke 13:10-17 and Galatians 3:26-29.

One of the key questions we reflect on in our lives is: Who am I? What is my identity? Who are you? Who or what defines you?

You may offer different answers to this question, depending on the context, the people you are with. And your answer may have changed over the years. Over the course of this weekend we may be answering this identity question in conversation with one another. Who are you? Who are you? What defines you?

I am Deidre Palmer, beloved daughter of God, follower of Jesus, powered by the Holy Spirit – these descriptors are at the core of my identity. I cannot imagine myself or my life apart from these core identity markers. I may describe myself in other ways – theological educator, passionate member of the Uniting Church, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother. But always at the heart of who I understand myself to be are these three – beloved daughter of God, follower of Jesus, powered by the Holy Spirit.

To know ourselves as beloved, to live our lives in the way of Jesus and to be gifted by the Holy Spirit, is to experience a liberated and liberating life. In Luke’s Gospel we encounter a woman, who could be described in a number of ways – who is she?

She is a faithful Jew – worshipping in the synagogue. She is a woman – unnamed, who has been bent over for 18 years, unable to stand up straight. A woman crippled by a spirit.

I wonder how people in the synagogue that day saw her? How did they define her? Did they even notice her at first?

The good news in this narrative of hope is that Jesus sees the woman and defines her as daughter. He notices her suffering, and acts compassionately to heal her. She is no longer the ‘bent over woman” crippled by a spirit, but a woman set free from her ailment - liberated, healed in ways that open her to new ways of seeing the world and seeing herself.

Her response is worship – she praises God for God’s healing in her life. And the entire crowd rejoice in this and other liberating actions of Jesus.

She is:

A beloved daughter Liberated by Jesus

One who sees the world differently

A believer offering her praise to God. Horizons of hope are open to her.

For me this story of Jesus has been iconic as I seek to faithfully follow Christ. It was significant for me when I worked for a Uniting Care agency in South Australia, Uniting Communities, counselling people who were survivors of childhood sexual abuse. It is an iconic story for the ministry of the Uniting Church through our Uniting Care agencies, through our chaplaincies, through our work with Uniting World and Uniting Justice. This story is a narrative of hope – like so many of the stories of Jesus’ encounters with people who are searching, seeking meaning in their lives and looking for healing.

People who have been bent over by years of suffering and trauma, people burdened by grief and loss, people whose view of life has them unable to stand up straight – to look around, to see a horizon of hope stretching before them… Jesus notices them… Jesus calls them to himself, with a word, a touch, and transforms their lives – offering healing, liberating hope and new beginnings.

I believe we are called as the Uniting Church to be bearers of this compassionate way of Christ Jesus. Noticing and truly seeing the people around us. Noticing the suffering of others, advocating for those experiencing injustice and oppression. Witnessing through our action in the world and through our faithful worship, witness and service, in such a way, that people encounter the God we experience in Jesus Christ as Liberator, Life-giver, Source of hope and compassionate Saviour.

It is through the lens of God’s compassion that Jesus notices the woman. And the people rejoice. The people see the woman and they see Jesus and they interpret what they see as an occasion for celebration.

But there is a challenge in this story – the religious leader of the synagogue does not see what Jesus sees. He does not see the woman and who she is - a beloved daughter, in need of liberation. He sees a troublesome teacher and healer, who has broken the rules, according to his interpretation of the rules of the Sabbath. He scolds Jesus: the story tell us he is “indignant because Jesus has cured on the Sabbath, and he communicates his anger to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” Jesus responds: “you hypocrites” “wouldn’t you treat your animals better than you are suggesting this woman be treated. You would untie and water them on the Sabbath, and this woman who is a daughter of Abraham – she should be set free from bondage – on this Sabbath day. Indeed the Sabbath is a most appropriate day for a woman’s liberation, as we take time to worship the God of the Exodus, the one who leads slaves into freedom.

We don’t know how this story continues – how did the religious leader respond? Did he become part of those religious and political leaders who plotted to have Jesus removed, silenced, ultimately killed for what he taught, what he did, and who he was, as the full revelation of our healing, reconciling, liberating God.

I would hope that this leader, may have been led into a new view – he was bent over – only able to see a narrow view, unable to see the broader view, the hopeful horizon of God’s liberating action in this woman’s life and the life of all those for whom Jesus came.

When we are formed deeply in this sense of identity as a beloved child of God, and God lifts our view so that we are able to notice others around us as daughters and sons – beloved of God, we are liberated and we become channels of God’s liberation toward others – inviting them to see themselves, and others, through the eyes of Jesus, who calls us to love God, love our neighbours and love ourselves, in such a way that we are invited into our fullest humanity, into the abundant sense of identity which God desires for us.

In the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, (Galatians 3:26-29), we find another key element that shapes our identity, defines who we are as a community in Christ.

“for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise”.

Biblical scholars believe these phrases from Paul was a formula that was used in baptisms in the early church.

Walter Brueggemann, the Biblical Scholar, comments on the way our baptism declares our identity:“In our baptism – we receive a name, an identity and a worth.” (A Gospel of Hope, Westminster/John Knox, 2018, p. 74). Our baptism declares: “You belong to, rely upon, and answer to Jesus Christ.” (A Gospel of Hope, p.75)

“We … who are baptized are welcomed into Jesus’ company and his work to be peacemakers in hard places, to refuse the way of anger and fear, hate and resentment, in order to enact a world of gratitude, generosity and forgiveness.” (A Gospel of Hope, p.53)

In our baptism, we become a part of a community, unified in common faith in Christ. We become part of a community in which the barriers of race, social status and gender are overcome – we become sisters and brothers in Christ, part of God’s community of equals. I invite you to look around – notice each other.

When we notice each other, when we truly see the other through the eyes of Christ, we grow into Christian communities of care and compassion, communities in which people can flourish, into their most life-giving identity as the children of God.

Where do you see the liberating Spirit of Christ at work in your life and the world around you?

I want to briefly highlight four key ministry contexts which I see in and through the Uniting Church that are expressions of the liberating Spirit of Christ, shaping people’s identity and way of being in the world:

I see the liberating Spirit of Christ in the deep commitment of the Uniting Church to the Covenanting relationship between First and Second Peoples in our journey towards reconciliation.

I was recently part of a First People’s gathering in Canberra – members of the Uniting Church, members of the Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress, and First Peoples who are working in UnitingCare agency contexts. We met with a number of politicians and we shared together about our common ministry and mission.

In this hopeful gathering, our First People expressed their voice, in advocating for justice and reconciliation in Australia and claiming and defining their identity as the oldest living culture in the world, their pride in their culture, language, and care for this land and their determination to define and shape our country in ways that all people can flourish.

I experience the liberating power of Christ in the ways the Uniting Church affirms and encourages the equality of women and men. When we support relationships of equality and mutual respect, we provide spaces for us to grow into our fullest humanity, affirmed in who we are called to be, exercising our gifts freely and fully. We see this discipleship of equals expressed in Jesus ministry with women and portrayed in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

In a society that was stratified - that divided people according to race, gender and social standing, the Christian community radically declared in Paul’s time and declares today it is a community of equals, woven together into one – all children of God. With every member participating in Christ’s ministry and mission.

At the end of July I hosted a Roundtable with a group of young adults from the Canberra Presbytery and other parts of the NSW Synod. I am hosting 12 of these gatherings of young adults over the next 18 months - a ‘listening tour’, where we listen to the voices of Uniting Church young adults around a series of key areas and questions about their journey with Christ and their Christian discipleship, their experience and views of the Uniting Church, and their hopes for who we are and are becoming as the Uniting Church.

I experienced the liberating hope of Christ as I heard these young people shared their commitment to being a welcoming inclusive church, which embodies the compassion and justice of God in the world.

One of the young women, shared her story of the way a local church in Canberra welcomed her as a student. Through their hospitality and embodiment of the Gospel, she has come into a relationship with Christ. She described the joy of being baptised in that community. Her sense of identity as a beloved daughter of God has invited her into a different understanding of herself and the life she is called to live.

I experienced the joy of our communal identity - celebrating together our liberation in Christ in a Pentecost worship service, in Brisbane, hosted by the Tongan National Conference young adults team. Many of those who were part of that service are here this weekend – you express the liberating Spirit of Christ in your worship, in your understanding of God’s call on your lives, in how you understand your identity in Christ. You are witnesses to God’s hope for us in the Uniting Church and the wider community.

On September 20, the Uniting Church participated in the Global Climate Strike, and in July, sixty people gathered in Nadi, Fiji, for the President’s Conference with the Theme “For the Whole Creation”. Both these gatherings are advocating that we all address the devastating impacts of climate change, particularly on those who are most severely affected and particularly for us our neighbours and family in the Pacific.

Christ’s liberation is not only for us as human beings. Christ’s redemption, reconciliation and renewal, Christ’s liberating, relates to the whole creation. Creation is not simply here for our use, it is God’s good creation to be loved, cherished, and brought to restoration, through our participation in God’s healing and creative actions.

As a Christian community, we are called through the person of Jesus Christ to be a community that actively lives out Christ’s liberating mission of love, justice, peace and, reconciliation. To live a vision of hope where the barriers that divide us, are overcome.

We are called to live Christ’s vision of hope, so that all people who are burdened might have their burdens lifted, and experience their world and their lives differently. To discover who they are as beloved children of God, invited into the reconciling and restorative love of God and into the horizons of hope, the life of abundance that Christ intends for us all and the whole of creation.

I pray that during this weekend, we will remember together – who we are, our identity as beloved daughters and sons of God, and we will see each other and the world around us through the eyes of Christ, the risen Crucified one, who calls us into a liberated and liberating life of faith, hope and abundant grace. Amen.