Today in the midst of this penitential season of Lent we remember the horrific events in Christchurch last year when a lone gunman killed 51 people and injured many more. The dead were from a variety of nationalities – including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Fiji, Jordan, Malaysia, Mauritius, New Zealand, Pakistan, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia. All the victims were of the Muslim faith.
We remember too the many people who helped – not least the emergency services, hospital staff, and police officers. And we remember the huge outpouring of goodwill towards and solidarity with Muslim people in our land and the victims’ families overseas – symbolized most poignantly in this picture of our Prime Minister.
And we remember also on this day that peace is fragile. Peace will not be achieved simply through more police policing disturbed and hate-filled individuals like the gunman. Peace requires all of us to be engaged in the breaking down of prejudice and racism. Peace requires extending and receiving hospitality, assistance, and other forms of practical care. Peace requires learning about and accepting those different from us. Peace requires moving over to make room so that all have a place around the table called Aotearoa New Zealand.
Today I encourage us to think about the metaphor of weaving – bringing together the very different colours and textures of our lives, faiths, customs and beliefs, and weaving them into a much bigger tapestry where all can belong and contribute to the beauty of the whole.
If you read over two days the Bible from beginning to end, you will not close the book and think you’ve just read a manifesto about creating a more tolerant world – a world tolerant of difference - different cultures, races, religions, etcetera. For the Bible is largely tribal. By that I mean it is about tribes of people – Abraham’s clan, or Jacob’s boys, or Jesus’ disciples – thinking (or being told by their partisan God) that they are the chosen ones. While there are texts about welcoming strangers, caring for foreigners, and being merciful to one’s enemies, there is an underlying assumption that obedient followers of the partisan God are the ones who are truly blessed and going to receive the bulk of any heavenly/godly reward (and not get banished or punished). And, those chosen followers are to first to care for members of their own tribe before extending any mercy beyond.
That I would suggest is the dominant religious matrix, not just of Judaism and Christianity, but of nearly every world religion.
The other thing you might gain from a two day intensive read of the Bible is that religion evolves. Despite what the author of 1st Timothy says (and that author was not Paul!) God is not the same yesterday, today and forever. The tribal gods throughout the Bible do change, do change their minds, and at times show universalistic tendencies. One small example: last week the reading from Genesis 12 had the God of Abram telling him “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse.” Then we have the historic Jesus (as in Matthew 5) saying “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.” Jesus is telling his followers to do better than the God of Abram!
Probably the biggest evolutionary change in the first century Jesus movement was opening the doors to those who weren’t Jewish, and those who weren’t and didn’t want to be circumcised. God’s rules from the Torah were disregarded. The conditions for entry into the Jewish Jesus tribe changed, and with that change the whole Jewishness of the Jesus tribe would in time change too.
The challenge today for churches, and indeed for most faith communities, is that religion needs to keep on evolving. The reading today from Colossians (another pseudo-Pauline text) has a lovely metaphor of us putting on the garments (the blankets) of compassion, kindness, humility, forgiveness and the like. “Above all clothe yourselves with love”, for we are all called to be woven together into one great tapestry. Yet this reading is about 2nd century Jesus followers treating other Jesus followers with compassion, etcetera. It’s about the Jesus’ tribe’s internal relations. It’s not about how we are to treat other faith tribes or foreign tribes, let alone animals, birds, and other species.
Our vision has to be more than having a great Jesus community where we treat each other well. Or even a great New Zealand community where we treat each other well. Or even a great human community where we treat each other well. Our vision needs to be planetary – embracing different peoples, species, and environments. Blessed are we, this world, all who make up planet Earth, when woven together into one cloak/korowai of belonging. Spirituality – the blanket of divinity – is about connectedness, mutuality, and treating others with kindness and dignity. Such spirituality transcends our tribal concerns and allegiances.
There is no doubt we need community/communities to belong to. And those communities, like the Community of St Luke, are at their best when they can stretch to include all manner of people, conditions, classes, and peculiarities. And you need a fair bit of tolerance, kindness, and forgiveness for that to all work. Yet we also need a vision of mending the torn and ripped fabric of our planet by weaving together all the various strands of difference.
We know this is hard work. In our Presbyterian denomination there are many who would consider most of my sermons to be heretical. There are many who believe quite fervently a number of theological and ethical propositions (they would use the word ‘truths’) diametrically different from my own, and those of many of you. So what do we do about that? Well, in past times and centuries, our forebears and their opponents have tried to convince one another of the rightness of their position (the metaphor of battle is at times not inappropriate), sometimes our forebears and their opponents have built up their own parishes/communities and tried to ignore the other (the metaphor of castles comes to mind), and sometimes, though warily, our forebears and their opponents have tried to find ways and projects where they can cooperate (hopefully by not finding a common enemy!). Being true to what you believe, including keeping the door open to change around your beliefs, and trying to build a larger community with folk who don’t believe what you believe is hard but necessary work if our vision is planetary. How do we weave theological and difference into a larger tapestry of all belonging?
This Presbyterian experience has echoes in the relationship between different denominations and religions, and different races and cultures. We can find common ground in abhorring violence (like the Christchurch killings and other lesser forms of physical assault). We can find common ground in hospitality to strangers and speaking out against prejudice. We can find common ground in wanting a society where everyone feels safe. Yet we also know the dominant group in Aotearoa (that is Pakeha who are, or whose forebears were, Christian) can be reasonably tolerant of the minority groups and perspectives until they perceive their dominance to be under threat. This is the challenge to us: Can we see difference as a blessing rather than a threat? Can we see such blessing being compatible with discomfort, even a lessening of our influence? Can we weave a tapestry with people who are very different from ourselves and who might determine in the end what the overall tapestry looks like?
The story of the Afghani refugee girl, “Two Blankets”, is a familiar tale, and not just for refugees. There are many people in our country, and some in our St Luke’s community, who have two blankets, who know how to walk in two worlds. And those blankets/worlds talk to each other, sometimes critique each other.
The little Pakeha girl who befriends Cartwheel reflects some of the best things of our Pakeha Christian culture. She wants to be hospitable, kind, and friendly. She is patient and is ready to help. Her kindness enables Cartwheel to weave a ‘blanket’ in the land she has found refuge in.
The story invites us too to wonder, speculate, about whether Cartwheel also comes in time to help her new friend weave a new ‘blanket’ – weave a blanket/worldview that understands a little of Afghani culture, the Dari language, the experience of being a refugee, and the experience (though not explicitly mentioned in this story) of prejudice due to race and religion. Maybe Cartwheel’s friend goes to a church. How will she come to understand Cartwheel’s Muslim faith?
Some of us here have had the privilege of being immersed in another culture and through that immersion developing a new ‘language’ that hears and sees the same society we live in differently. I hope that will be the experience of Cartwheel’s friend.
This morning you have been invited to bring strips of coloured cloth to church – and if you haven’t brought any there are others who have strips to spare. By weaving these strips together (as you will be invited to do shortly) we are bringing together something symbolizing ourselves and weaving it into the bigger picture of a diverse community. By being alongside others, recognizing and appreciating both their similarities and differences, we can build a community of peace.
Blessed are we, this world,
when woven together into one
korowai of belonging.