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A Welcoming Christian Community for all People

The reality of a loving God has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I made a personal decision to follow Jesus Christ when I was 10 years old. As I have grown older Jesus Christ and the cross and what it stands for, has become more important to me.

Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah about the kind of fasting God expects, is set out in verses 6 and 7 as “to remove the chains of prisoners who are held unjustly. Free those who are oppressed and abused! Share our food with everyone who is hungry and open our home to the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those who don’t have enough to wear, and do not forget to help our relatives.” This passage has for the past 25 years been very special for me.

On a day in 1979, when I was working in Thailand near the border with Cambodia, I had a life defining experience. One that for a long time I could not bring myself to fully share. I still find it hard, but it is a little easier, if I simply read some words written by journalist and author William Shawcross, in his prize winning book “The Quality of Mercy.” I can sometimes read them without becoming too emotional, and without the smell of death becoming too overpowering for me. Shawcross, who I met on the border, tells of the scene we faced in early 1979.

He writes, “The most terrible sights were to be seen near the former Khmer Rouge held areas where the United Nations and the International Red Cross missions were appalled. It was here that most journalists went and most stories came, as daily, awful spindly creatures, with no flesh and wide vacant eyes stumbled out of the forests and the mountains into Thailand. They had malaria, they had TB, they had dysentery, they had appalling injuries from land mines, they were dehydrated, they were famished and they were dying. In many cases they were so starved their bodies were consuming themselves. Many were so weak they couldn’t move, the lassitude of death had taken over. They just collapsed on the ground exhausted, waiting without a sound, their silence a terrible reproach.

For most foreigners, whether relief workers, diplomats, or journalists the spectacle was the most horrible they had ever seen. They were compelled to put aside their typewriters, their cameras and their bags, forget their deadlines, for the humanity of the situation demanded an immediate personal response. They spent hours carrying water to the dying ‘there was simply nothing else you could do’ reported the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Never have I seen people in such despair and deprivation. There is nothing ennobling about death by starvation.”

In a refugee camp near that spot, built to house those who survived this long walk into Thailand, I first saw a disproportionate cross. I thought that the cross, put up to mark the entrance to a Christian Aid Agency, made out of rough scraps of timber, would be replaced when suitable timber became available. Not so. The cross was the way it was, as it spoke to the people who had survived Pol Pot’s death camps. Of the small percentage of the population of Cambodia who were Christian, many did not survive the ‘killing fields’ as they came to be widely known, but for those that did, Jesus Christ was very real. Just as in so many other wars and times of terror, the faith of God’s people had stood the ultimate test as they faced death. Some had actually been crucified.

The disproportionate cross spoke to these people of a Saviour whose love, and the hope it contained, was completely disproportionate, to all that Pol Pot and his army of teenage soldiers could throw at them.

In the years since that life changing experience, I have found that people who suffer from abuse, people who live with major debilitating illnesses, or disabilities also sometimes find it easier to identify with disproportionate crosses. This poem sums up that feeling:

Lord, I don’t like
Stained glass crosses
Neon crosses
Gold crosses
Pretty crosses
Proportionate crosses
Your body was desecrated and torn
My body was disproportionately born.
There is no cross without agony and pain,
My Lord and Saviour of the lame.

Words of Martha, a person born to live as a Christian with a major disability.

We have here a disproportionate cross. It was made by Rhonda Swenson, one of our conference members. Rhonda made this last year as a deep spiritual reaction to attending the first New Zealand, Disability, Spirituality and Faith Conference, entitled “Through the Whirlwind.”

How often do we in our church communities by our actions, or by what we have in our buildings or facilities, project images that speak only of a God of the rich, of the able bodied, of the well. You may say that’s not my church. But I wonder how many here today could say, yes, maybe that is my church community.

We all have an inbuilt longing to belong. When we go to a new church we look around at the facilities and the people. Are they welcoming? We notice the people who look like us

- we are comfortable with people who look like us

- speak like us

- behave like us

- share the same views as we have

We are not so comfortable with people who are different

- who are from a different culture

- who don’t speak as we speak

- who don’t behave as we behave

- who may have different views from our own.

Many people are uncomfortable with those who are infirm or disabled, or who seem confused; just as folk who are infirm or disabled are often uncomfortable until the have checked out those of us who don’t appear to be like them. They want to see if we will have time for them, if it will be safe for them, to be themselves with us.

In our message from Ephesians, Paul talks about unity which can lead to maturity, when we realise that there is a place for each of us in the body of Christ. It doesn’t mean that we all have to look, think, speak or act the same. God has bestowed upon each of us a great variety of gifts, all of them demanding a form of expression that is different and in some cases unique. Some gifts are expressed through a particular culture, some cut across cultures. They all need to be exercised to develop.

The great thing is that in the power of the unity of Jesus Christ, our gifts can mature and enlarge as they are joined with the gifts of other people, the other people of God. The more each individual person makes a contribution to the common life together, the greater the body becomes.

Jesus Christ came to the poor, the oppressed, the ordinary people of his day. He told them God loved them. He told them they were weighed down by the yoke of their religion and all its rules, the do’s and don’ts of the law. He said my yoke is easy and my burden is light. They were simply to love one another as he loved them, so they were to love one another.

1700 years later as we well know, John Wesley, a Church of England Priest, took his message outside the Church of his day. Out to the ordinary people, the farm labourers, the miners, the emerging factory workers, those without a future, who could not, even if they had wanted to, afford the price of a seat in a church. He told them, God loved them, God cared about them, that Jesus Christ had come for them too. That there was hope, no matter who they were, or where they were, or what they had done. They were not predestined to hell, they were not outside the reconciling love of God.

Today we are the inheritors of that message of John Wesley and the message that Jesus brought to the people of His day. We are also the inheritors of the message that was brought to this country by the missionaries and all those that have gone before us.

37 years ago in 1967, there was the Act of commitment by the five partner churches to move toward becoming a Uniting Church in New Zealand. Many of my age group, were actively looking forward to becoming part of the Uniting Church of New Zealand. Unfortunately, when it came to a vote in 1974, that was not to be. However, many “Methodists” are now part of co-operating parishes, part of the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand. We have found over the past 30 years our faith strengthened and challenged. Through the mix of denominations and team ministries, we have had to develop a tolerance of difference; in theology, spirituality, pastoral practice and governance. We have come to value this and in some cases, to delight in it.

21 years ago our Methodist Church decided to commit itself, to run its affairs as a bicultural partnership. I was not sure about the wisdom of that then, I even wrote a letter to our church newspaper “Focus,” expressing the view it was a far too low setting of our sight. I thought that we should be aiming to create a truly multi-cultural church. Subsequently, through a two week bi-cultural course for mangers of government departments, I had the opportunity to revisit our New Zealand history, to look at the history we had not been taught. This enabled me to glimpse, then understand and then accept the importance of the bi-cultural journey, and the need for reconciliation, not only for churches but for the future of our country.

Around that time the Rev Wati Tahere, then with our Christchurch Mission, spoke at a bi-cultural service at Durham Street. Just a small number of the things he had to say were:

“We must be a church for the poor or we forfeit the trust of the poor. We must not cling to mission properties acquired in colonial times. Jesus explained to his disciples: “it is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to get through the eye of a needle”

“We must be a church of races. Race is good. Each race has its own cultural inheritance, given by God and developed over the centuries?. It is racism that is evil. That is the demon we should fight with all our cunning and might. The extreme form of racism is the view that one race has a God given right and duty to impose its values on another, and to suppress or even destroy the values of another.”

He went on to say. “Our Methodist Conference requests us and urges us to redirect ourselves to meet the challenge, with fear and trembling, of re-examining our church structures, our Maori / Pakeha relationships, our power sharing, and working toward a truly bi-cultural church in which we can all be at home. And this, for Jesus Christ, head of all churches.”

Those words I believe are well worth recalling today 21 years on. 21 used to be the age of maturity. How well have we matured over the past 21 years?

The issues have changed. Consciousness of bi-cultural or Treaty issues, is now much more apparent in all aspects of our life as a nation. But there is still a long way to go.

The poor have changed too. Who the poor of our day are, depends a lot on our context and perspective, but I would like to suggest people who come within this category for me:

v The 1 child in every 3 children who lives in a family that doesn’t have adequate means to meet their basic needs of accommodation, food, clothing, warmth, education and medical treatment that we accept as essential.

v Those who suffer from all forms of abuse, especially children and women.

v Those who live with life threatening illness and who are on long lists waiting for life saving medical procedures.

v Those people with disabilities and illnesses that are permanent or incurable, but who have to go through periodic re-assessments to confirm they are still entitled to government assistance.

v Those whose ancestral land and inheritance was confiscated and who have to fight to gain recognition and compensation.

v The 9 out of every 10 refugees who come here with skills, but haven’t obtained employment after 2 years; and the 7 out of 10 that are still in this position after 5 years here.

v Those who are discriminated against because of their race, their language, their religious practices or even the way they dress, or because of their gender.

I’m sure you will be able to make a larger or different list.

When you came into this church building today, did you see the notice board at the front of the church facing out onto Pitt Street, that says “a welcoming Christian community for all people.”

I wonder what does it mean for us to be part of a welcoming Christian community for all people, today here in Auckland, or wherever we have come from? It’s a huge offer. Do we as the Methodist church really mean it?

Are we willing to equip ourselves to accept everyone?

The question really is, does Jesus Christ accept all people? Did he die on the cross for all people? If the answer is yes, can we do any less?

As a church we have known the darkness and pain of a difficult journey over recent years. There has been much grief. I believe we are now at a place, where we have created a point of difference, where we can confidently move forward with purpose and enthusiasm. Our thanks must go to those people who have worked hard over the past year on our behalf, to finalise the Memorandum of Understanding, that we authorised at last year’s Conference. This enables those who agree, and those who disagree, to stand together with integrity when it comes to the ordination of all people accepted for training for ministry in our church, who successfully complete their training in accordance with the rules of the church.

We witnessed at Conference last year, an unexpected and very real movement of grace. I trust that we can continue in that spirit of grace, and be gracious with one another, as we live out what it means to positively and deliberately remain together while holding diverse opinions. May we continue to be people who have a strong personal faith, who seek to share the good news of salvation and the love of God, and who go out of our way to help our neighbours.

I want now to take you back to the border of Cambodia. To the disproportionate cross; to a mass of human lives with everything of earthly worth stripped away, to bodies laid bare. At times like that, it is not what doctrines we believe, or subscribe to, what we are for, or what we are against that is important. But how we love Jesus Christ who first loved us, and who calls us to love one another. Let us go and share the love and hope of Jesus Christ with all people in this needy world. Let us make our Christian communities a welcoming place for all people.

The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed:

It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

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It is an attribute of God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice.

-William Shakespeare

Acknowledgements

I want to acknowledge my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and members of my family who are no longer with us. Their faithfulness to their Christian calling and their commitment to the Wesleyan Church, in Cornwall and Lancashire, and then in small towns on the West Coast of the South Island, gifted me a rich heritage of faith and social concern.

For enduring the long waiting in New Zealand, as I worked for extended periods in refugee camps in Asia, I thank my wife Kay and my daughters Tanya and Rochelle. Especially for being there for me, when the conditions in refugee camps eventually caught up with me and took their toll of my health.

Ron Malpass,

November 2004

Resources

Readings

Isaiah 58: 1-10, Matthew 25: 31-46, Ephesians 4: 1-16

References

“The Quality of Mercy – Cambodia, Holocaust and Modern Conscience” by William Shawcross; published by Andre Deutsch Ltd., U.K and Simon & Schuster Inc. USA 1984

“ A Bible People” Rev Wati Tahere originally printed in “Towards a Bi-cultural Church: A Resource Book “ published by Te Haahi Weteriana o Aotearoa.