Pastoral Letter to the Canberra Region Presbytery of the Uniting Church in Australia. 31 March 2020

Dear friends across the Country and Coast, and in the Capital area of the Presbytery:

We write to express our gratitude to everyone who is working hard in the current challenging circumstances, and to offer encouragement to you as you offer ministry to the people in your communities of faith. We are experiencing a time of rapid transition and significant change, from week to week, from day to day. May you be strengthened as you continue to serve in this challenging context.

Like Christian communities right around the world, we are finding new and creative ways to worship, as we gather-apart. We are seeing that people in our congregations and faith communities are continuing to care for one another and stay connected with each other. Most of us are on a steep learning curve as we try to work out what is best for our own congregation in the light of the abundance of resources increasingly available.

As we connect online, we have an amazing opportunity to get to know one another in ways never possible before, as the distance between us vanishes with technology. Ministers, Pastors, and lay leaders in Congregations are now meeting up regularly via ZOOM to share concerns and learn from one another. From Bega to Crookwell, in Gungahlin and Braidwood, from Eden and Goulburn and Jindabyne, in Tuggeranong and Braddon, conversations have been flowing across the internet.

One exciting development in the Canberra Region Presbytery is the way in which our 28 Uniting Church congregations are willingly sharing the talent and expertise God has gifted us. Every congregation has been able to draw their people together in new ways. We have used YouTube, Facebook Live, ZOOM, Facebook groups, emails of PDFs and Word documents, the mobile phone, and Australia Post—an amazing array of options! (You can check out some of the creativity across our presbytery by looking at the Canberra Region Presbytery Facebook page.)

Last Sunday, members of Cooma and Alpine congregations shared in worship for the first time in many years. Rev. Noel Williams, taking the plunge with ZOOM, led the service from an otherwise empty St Andrews in Cooma. What resulted was a genuine worshipful experience, as Bible readers and musicians contributed from their own homes, and Noel preached a very relevant and meaningful message.

People who barely knew each other came into each other’s homes in a shared, good-humoured willingness to help make something new work well. An hour later we said cheerful goodbyes, enriched by a fellowship of the Spirit that knows no worldly boundaries.

The same happened with other groups meeting online for worship. Members of the Tuggeranong Congregation have told of their positive experience on ZOOM last Sunday (see the article contributed). Members of the Weston Creek Congregation worshipped in their own homes, using material sent to them, and then gathered on ZOOM for the after-worship morning tea time. Both groups valued the interactive element available by this platform.

There were a number of people from around our presbytery who shared in the Saltbush Sundays @9service (see the details at https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/news/saltbush-sundays-9/).
Others are using the online resources at a time more convenient for themselves (https://saltbushcommunity.uca.org.au/the-word-around-the-bush/).

As our daily lives are changing to combat the COVID-19 virus, we have the opportunity to engage in new expressions of congregational life. Connecting online means we have new opportunities to study Scripture, listen to good teachers, encourage our children and youth, pray and develop our personal spiritual life, explore music, witness to our community.  

In the mist of the suffering and pain that the world is experiencing, our God has given us a way to prepare for being part of a much-changed world, which will have an unprecedented need for the healing and restorative message of the Gospel.

Maintaining an outward focus is tremendously important. We are called to continue serving the world, even—especially—in the midst of the current pandemic. Kippax Uniting Church is coordinating the Canberra Relief Network (CRN) to create the opportunity for congregations in strategic geographical locations in the urban area to become centres for food relief packages to the Canberra population.

The CRN will provide the food relief packages, and the congregations will be asked to staff the distribution following health protocols for safe distancing and hygiene. This is one of the practical ways that congregations with the needed capacity can be involved in blessing their local communities and beyond. Already Gungahlin and Tuggeranong have agreed to collaborate with the CRN and conversations are underway with more UCA congregations as well as community groups.

Even though our church buildings are closed for worship and other meetings, there are places in our Presbytery where church buildings are being used to provide essential emergency services to homeless and marginalized people. In each place, special protocols to facilitate safe social distancing are being followed very carefully. Monty’s Place in Narooma is still providing take-away meals with these strict protocols in place, both on site and at delivery, to safeguard at-risk members of the Narooma congregation. We thank volunteers like Merrick Willcocks who arranged the deliveries.

Let’s not forget, also, that whilst the COVID 19 Pandemic has captured our focus, many communities in our Presbytery are continuing the struggle to recover from Bushfires. At Narooma, “Flowers for Cobargo/Quaama” has resulted in large numbers of pots of colourful flowers to be gathered and planted to lift to the spirits of residents in these towns devastated by fire in January. We thank folk like Di White and her team.

In Eurobodalla, Duncan McDiarmid has recently commenced in part-time ministry with the Moruya and Batemans Bay Congregations. Thanks to a generous offer from two Congregations in the Sydney Central Coast Presbytery, Duncan will be funded to provide some further community chaplaincy in the region. We are currently exploring ways that other funding might support community chaplaincies in other bushfire-impacted communities on the South Coast.

There are more stories which could be told … but we will leave them for another day. We are greatly encouraged by the commitment and dedication, energy and persistence, faith and loving compassion, determination and sensitivity, that we see and hear and experience in each of the communities of faith across Country, Coast, and Capital. We hope that as we share these stories, you also are encouraged in faith, strengthened in hope, and renewed in love.

So let us continue to live the Gospel, serve one another, and offer compassionate care to our wider communities. In the name of Christ.

Judy McKinlay and John Williams, Presbytery Co-Chairpersons
Andrew Smith and John Squires, Presbytery Ministers
31 March 2020

Towards Palm Sunday (Matt 21): Riding on a donkey (or two) as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’

Next Sunday is Palm Sunday. As we approach the day, we have opportunity (during this period of enforced social distancing and self-isolation), to survey the scene of the first Palm Sunday, and reflect on its significance. As you read the account in Matt 21, ask yourself: What do you see? What do you hear? How is God revealed to you in this story? How does God speak to you in this story? What is the word of God, the vision of the Lord, for you, today, from this well-known story from so long ago?

What do you see? What do you hear? We see pilgrims travelling the winding route to Jerusalem, climbing the hills outside the city as they make their way to the capital of ancient Israel. And in their midst, can you see the figure of Jesus, surrounded by his followers, approaching the city?

Jesus, seated on the colt, riding on a donkey, was the centre of attention—at least for his own followers. Those in the crowd who knew their scriptures, would have immediately recognised the allusion. The account of this story that we find in Matthew’s Gospel and that we hear this Sunday, actually specifies the verse that interprets the significance of the donkey (Matt 21:4-5).

In Zechariah 9:9, the vision is clear: “your king comes to you, triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey”. That is what the prophet declares; in this story of Passover pilgrims, Jesus can be seen to be bringing that vision to fruition. And that vision declares that this coming ruler “shall command peace to the nations, and his dominion will be from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth”. That is the vision that Jesus evokes as he rides into Jerusalem on this donkey.

What do you see? What do you hear? Can you hear the cries of the crowd: “Hosanna, hosanna!” they cry. What were they calling out? Hosanna is a foreign term, a word from the Hebrew language, not a common word in our English usage. The best way to translate Hosanna, is “save us”. It is a cry for salvation; a yearning for deliverance. The word appears in the Psalm we have heard today, in Psalm 118:25, where they people cry out, “save us, we beseech you, O Lord!” Save us, redeem us, liberate us.

Psalm 118 was one of the Hallel Psalms, the Praise Psalms, which were associated with celebrations on each of the three great festival days—the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths; the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost; and the Feast of Passover. These psalms of praise became particularly associated with the celebrations of the rebuilding of the Temple.

Rebuilding the Temple was an inherently political action. It was the foreign invasion of Palestine by the Hellenistic Seleucids some two centuries before Jesus which had led to the destruction of the Temple. It was the political activity of the Jewish Maccabees which had led to the reclaiming of the Temple two decades later.

“Praise you, O God, for we have our Temple, rebuilt, restored, renewed”. So the prayer might well have gone. And it was the political activity of the Maccabees which had brought this about. The Hallel Psalms had become Psalms of Praise for liberating political activity. And this is what the people were singing out!

They expected Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee. He entered the city in the midst of the pilgrims, for the festival of Passover. He came preaching the coming kingdom of God—a kingdom to be marked by righteous-justice (Matt 6:33). He blessed those who sought that righteous-justice (Matt 5:6, 10). He urged people to walk the way that led to justice for all (Matt 12:18-21). He came into the city filled with zeal for God’s righteous-justice kingdom (Matt 23:23). The festival of Passover was a most appropriate time for him to enter the city and make his mark.

This series of blogs on Palm Sunday is based on research by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires, published in Validating Violence—Violating Faith? Religion, Scripture and Violence. Edited by W. Emilsen & J.T. Squires, ATF Press, Adelaide 2008. See https://assembly.uca.org.au/rof/images/stories/interfaithsep/25sept.pdf

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/31/towards-palm-sunday-matt-21-passover-and-politics/

See more on righteous-justice at https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/13/you-have-heard-it-said-but-i-say-to-you-matt-5/

We have also turned it into a creative dialogue, which you can read at https://ruralreverend.blogspot.com/2019/04/palm-sunday-ps-1181-2-19-29-luke-1928.html

Tomorrow: Waving branches, spreading cloaks