A new covenant with the people (Jeremiah 31; Pentecost 19C)

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. He is rightly known as a prophet of doom and gloom.

And yet, in the midst of his despair, Jeremiah sees hope: “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors and they shall take possession of it” (30:3).

He goes on to report that the Lord says to the people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, for “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away” (31:1–2).

This grace was made known to the people in the affirmation that God makes, “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (31:3).

In this context, Jeremiah indicates that the Lord “will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:31–34). This covenant will give expression to the love and faithfulness of the Lord, which is how God’s grace is to be known by the people. This renewal of covenant is offered in grace; the requirements of the covenant make clear and tangible the grace-filled relationship that the people have with their God.

Clear appreciation for the grace that is offered to the people by the laws which guide the people to keep the covenant can be seen in the affirmation of the Torah as “perfect, reviving the soul … sure, making wise the simple … right, rejoicing the heart … clear enlightening the eyes … pure, enduring forever … true and righteous altogether … more to be desired than gold … sweeter also than honey” (Ps 19:7–14), and then by the majestically grand affirmations of Torah in the 176 verses which are artistically-arranged into acrostic stanzas of Psalm 119 (“happy are those … who walk in the way of the Lord … I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight”, vv.1, 174). The laws shape the way that the covenant is kept; the covenant gives expression to the steadfast love and grace of God.

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The renewal of the covenant was not a new idea in the story of Israel. God had entered into covenants with Abraham, the father of the nation (Gen 15:1–21) and before that, in the story of Noah, with “you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you … that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood” (Gen 9:8–11). The covenant given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 19:1–6), accompanied by the giving of the law (Exod 20:1–23:33), is sealed in a ceremony by “the blood of the covenant” (Exod 24:1–8).

The covenant with the people that Moses brokered is renewed after the infamous incident of the golden bull (Exod 34:10–28), then it is renewed again under Joshua at Gilgal, as the people enter the land of Canaan after their decades of wilderness wandering (Josh 4:1–24). It is renewed yet again in the time of King Josiah, after the discovery of “a book of the law” and his consultation with the prophet Huldah (2 Chron 34:29–33).

The covenant will be renewed yet another time, after the lifetime of Jeremiah, when the exiled people of Judah return to the land under Nehemiah, when Ezra read from “the book of the law” for a full day (Neh 7:73b—8:12) and the leaders of the people made “a firm commitment in writing … in a sealed document” which they signed (Neh 9:38–10:39). So renewing the covenant, recalling the people to their fundamental commitments made in relationship with God, is not an unknown process in the story of ancient Israel.

However, the particular expression of renewal that Jeremiah articulates is significance, not only for the exiled Israelites, but also centuries later, for the followers of the man from Nazareth who came to be recognised as God’s Messiah. Jeremiah’s articulation of the promise of a “new covenant” will prove to be critical for the way that later writers portray the covenant renewal undertaken by Jesus of Nazareth (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20; 2 Cor 3:6–18; Heb 8:8–12).

Especially significant is the claim that this renewed covenant “will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke” (Jer 31:32), for God “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (31:33). It is a covenant which has “the forgiveness of sins” at its heart (31:34)— precisely what is said of the “new covenant” effected by Jesus (Matt 26:28; and see Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).

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To signal his confidence in this promised return, Jeremiah buys a field in his hometown of Anathoth from his cousin Hanamel (32:1–15). the purchase serves to provide assurance that the exiled people will indeed return to the land of Israel; “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).

Jeremiah exhorts the people to “give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (33:11). Here, Jeremiah makes use of a phrase that recurs in key places throughout Hebrew Scripture, where it crystallises what the Israelites appreciated about the nature of God. The Lord is said, a number of times, to be “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod 34:6; 2 Chron 30:8–9; Neh 9:17, 32; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps 86:15; 103:8, 11; 111:4; 145:8–9). This is the Lord God who enters into covenant, time and time and again, with the people.

There is a strong sequence of affirming, hopeful oracles which characterise this section of Jeremiah, from “the days are surely coming … when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors” (30:3) to “I will restore their fortunes, and will have mercy on them” (33:26). All of this is done because, as the Lord declares, “only if I had not established my covenant with day and night and the ordinances of heaven and earth, would I reject the offspring of Jacob and of my servant David” (33:25–26). It is the covenant which holds the Lord and the people together.

So Jeremiah offers a clear sign of hope for the future; in the places laid waste by the Babylonians, “in all its towns there shall again be pasture for shepherds resting their flocks … flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord” (33:12–13). As the people return to the land, the Lord “will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15).

This oracle, also, is significant for the later community that developed from the followers of the man from Nazareth; the promise of a “righteous branch for David” becomes the title “Son of David”, which is then applied to Jesus in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mark 10:47–48; 12:35; Matt 1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30, 31; 21:9, 15; 22:42; Luke 18:38–39). The whole sequence of oracles in this section of Jeremiah is of key significance for followers of Jesus in later ages.

World Mental Health Day, 10 October

Every year during October, Mental Health Month is held. It is based around World Mental Health Day, which was first celebrated in 1992, as an initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health, a global mental health organization with members and contacts in more than 150 countries. World Mental Health Day falls on 10 October every year and is now promoted internationally by the World Health Organisation.

The day, and the month, offers a way of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world through government health departments and civil society organizations across the globe. The WHO says that “World Mental Health Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.”

This year, the theme for World Mental Health Day is Making Mental Health & Well-Being for All a Global Priority. The hope is that focussing attention on the mental health of people will result in a better general awareness in society as well as improvements in services offered. 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that one in eight people globally were living with a mental disorder. So this is a much-needed focus on a long-established matter. See https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/mental-well-being-resources-for-the-public

Certainly, the years of the pandemic have exacerbated short- and long-term stresses, undermining the mental health of millions. As mental health services were disrupted by restrictions and lockdowns, so the treatment gap for mental health conditions has widened. The need for ongoing attention to providing good mental health support is even more evident.

In NSW, people are being encouraged to Tune In this mental health month, with resources providing Tips to Tune In (practise self-compassion, take time to rest, notice your boundaries, connect with friends) as well as tips for a less-stressed workplace and colourful posts for social media, to spread awareness of the month. See https://mentalhealthmonth.wayahead.org.au/downloadable-resources/

In the ACT this year, the theme for the month is as simple as A—B—C: namely, Awareness—Belonging—Connection. Awareness is about understanding how to maintain and boost our mental wellbeing, realising when we need to reach out for help, and knowing where to get it. Belonging is about looking out for each other, feeling safe and supported, and knowing that we’re not alone: there are others going through the same thing. Connection is about our relationships: not just with our friends, families and those we care about, but also the groups, clubs, and networks we rely on to help us stay happy and healthy. See https://www.mentalhealthmonthact.org/

Loneliness is one significant cause of mental health issues. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that most Australians will experience loneliness at some point in their lives. 1 in 3 (33%) Australians reported an episode of loneliness between 2001 and 2009. 40% of these people reported experiencing more than 1 episode. In surveys undertaken since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, just over half (54%) of respondents reported that they felt more lonely since the start of the pandemic. See https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness-covid-pandemic

Friendship, care and support is something that the church can offer to people—especially to people who are experiencing loneliness. A supportive community can help lonely people to strengthen their mental health and have a more positive life. It’s something that every local congregation can easily do. Look around in your community; who are the lonely people? How can you offer them friendship and support? How can you live out the Gospel by giving compassionate care to such people?

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For myself, I have lived with an awareness of the importance of taking care of my own mental health for some decades. Long before the pandemic, I recognised the importance of accessing support services and taking steps to ensure that my mental health remained robust. It hasn’t always been so—there have been some difficult periods of depression, anxiety, and dysfunction that I have experienced. Some of those times were really tough. Fortunately, there were other times—more times, I am pleased to say—that were positive, enjoyable, hope-filled times.

I am most grateful for the consistent, loving support and the always perceptive guidance that I have had over all those years from my wife Elizabeth. There have been a number of times when she has made sure that I was safe, helped me to seek professional assistance, and let people know that I wouldn’t be able to carry through some of my responsibilities at those times. I am sure that I wouldn’t have made it through all those years without her.

I was also very fortunate that the church made generous provision for me to have extended periods of leave when that was necessary, following medical advice. I am so glad that I came through those periods of time and was able to continue in ministry and have the opportunity to serve in a variety of roles.

There are various learnings that I have taken from these experiences. In the early times, when I had no explanation for what was happening, working with various professionals to explore matters was certainly very hard work. In time, when a clear diagnosis was made and then a workable treatment regime was put into place, there was a clear pathway to enjoying better mental health. But it would take quite some time to get there.

Those were difficult and, at times, scary times. Coming to grips with the realities of life—learning to be honest about myself, with myself, and with trusted others—was a slow process, full of challenges, but ultimately a very important pathway to follow.

Integral to my particular process of therapy was dealing with memories of the past that surfaced. This can be a real challenge—especially when there has been no clear, present memory of those traumatic experiences back in the past. I had to be prepared to learn new things about myself. This was hugely confronting. Eventually, realising that many of these learnings provide insightful explanations about “the way I am”, and especially my specific idiosyncrasies, proved to be a helpful process. Difficult, costly, but ultimately quite rewarding.

In this process, I learnt the importance of building resilience to engage at deeper levels with what life presents. Dealing with a series of shocks that surfaced during periods of deepened depression, increased anxiety, and gradually-clarifying memories, needed constant inner strength. It was draining and demanding. Over time, looking back, I can see how I learnt to accept and integrate those learning experiences into my sense of who I am as a whole person.

For myself, I found that balancing personal and professional needs was very important. In crisis periods, prioritising the personal over the professional was essential. As each of those crises lessened in intensity, the integration of specific professional tasks became possible, so a phased “return to work” could take place in an appropriate way.

At times, my work in ministry, either in educational or in organisational/oversight roles, presented challenging emotional situations. In the regular run of things, being aware of the saturation level of emotional intensity in my life was quite important. I needed to know when to plunge in to such situations, and when to step back from those situations and leave others to deal with them.

This has helped me develop, I believe, a growing capacity to balance honesty and care: to know when it was most important to confront the truth in a situation, and when it was wiser to offer pastoral care to a person, or persons, caught in such a situation. I like to think that my own psychological journey, exploring and strengthening my own mental health, has given me some capacity to empathise with hurting people, to engage sensibly with angry people, to speak clearly to confused people. I don’t for one second imagine that I am world’s best at these kind of things— far from it! But I have tried to develop skills in such things over the decades.

When I look back on the three decades during which good mental health has been an important focus for me, I think that I can see how I began to forge a new way of being, in the midst of realising that I was actually a rather motley collection of battered and bruised pieces dating from various incidents in my life, long, Iong ago. I have thus had a focus on “becoming integrated” as a person (or, at least, becoming “more integrated” than previously). I think that this has been important for me to do as a person, and it has helped me to function effectively as a minister. I hope that has been the experience of other people.

So this year, on World Mental Health Day, I join with interested people around the globe in emphasising the importance of taking care of our own mental health, being alert to the signs of stress in other people’s mental health, and advocating for the provision of strong mental health services in our society. I hope you will share in that same commitment.

“I will not be lectured by this man”: remembering 9 October 2012

There have been some great speeches by politicians over the years. It was before my time, but Chifley’s “light on the hill” speech at a 1949 Labor Conference in Sydney, is often cited. “We have a great objective”, Prime Minister Chifley declared, “the light on the hill, which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind [sic.] not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.” The Labor party has referenced this speech regularly in the ensuing decades.

So too, also before my time, but also regularly referenced in the decades that followed, was a 1941 speech by Prime Minister Menzies, identifying “the forgotten class — the middle class — those people who are constantly in danger of being ground between the upper and the nether millstones of the false war; the middle class who, properly regarded represent the backbone of this country.”

Alongside them, who could forget other Prime Ministerial offerings? One of huge significance was Kevin Rudd’s 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations: “we say, sorry; to the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry; and for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”

Another, also filled with rhetorical power and cultural significance, was Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech in 1997: “we committed the murders, we took the children from their mothers, we practised discrimination and exclusion; it was our ignorance and our prejudice.”

And, of course, there is Gough Whitlam, a master wordsmith, whose quick wit and rhetorical prowess was evident on the steps of Old Parliament House, immediately after the treachery of The Dismissal in November 1975; “well may we say God Save the Queen, because nothing will save the Governor-General.”

All memorable speeches, on (mostly) memorable occasions, eliciting words which live on in Australian culture and memory. They point to the best in Australian society, the most worthy aspects of our developing national culture.

There have been other signal speeches with a very different perspective—speeches that I won’t quote from, such as Pauline Hanson’s 1996 inaugural speech making outrageously discriminatory racist claims; John Howard, opportunistically picking up and running with this xenophobic streak with his declaration, in 2001, that “we will decide who comes to this country”; and Fraser Anning’s terrible reference to “the final solution” in his 2018 speech. These speeches live on in infamy. They reflect the worst of who some of us are.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the most recent memorable, and utterly praiseworthy, speech by a federal political leader: a speech by Julia Gillard that has come to be known as the Misogyny Speech. This speech was delivered on 9 October 2012, with the penetrating declaration, “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not—not now, not ever ”, searing the air in the House of Representatives chamber, as Prime Minister Gillard spoke directly and forcefully to the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott.

Katherine Murphy has written a fine analysis of the moment, and how the speech was a turning point in the cultural change that focussed the nation’s attention on male privilege, misogynistic practices, and sexist words and actions, especially in the federal political arena. From that speech to the Enough is Enough! rallies on 15 March 2020, a significant shift has taken place. There is momentum for deep-seated cultural change, despite the troglodyte resistance of the pathetic remnant of conservative members currently in the post-Morrison federal parliament.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/30/i-will-not-how-julia-gillards-words-of-white-hot-anger-reverberated-around-the-world

The transcript of the speech, given by the Prime Minister without notes or briefing notes, can be read at

https://welvic.org.au/site_media/files/Gillard2.pdf

Julia Gillard’s potent impromptu speech is well worth reading once again on this anniversary—and worth remembering each day as a pointer to what is of fundamental importance in our society, if we really do want to commit to a fully equitable society. We remember this fine political speech, with gratitude. We anticipate ongoing cultural change, with hope. And so may it be.

Seek the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29; Pentecost 18C)

The Hebrew Scripture reading which the lectionary offers this coming Sunday is largely a letter—from Jeremiah, to some fellow-Jews, but written in the name of Jeremiah’s God. It is this letter which invites us to consider some important aspects of how we live our faith.

Jeremiah wrote this letter twenty-five centuries ago, a long, long time ago. Does this letter still hold relevance to us, today? Jeremiah wrote in the ancient Hebrew language, running from right to left across the page. It is most likely that the letter was written on a scrap cut from a roll of papyrus, or possibly leather; but there was no neat sheet of paper with carefully-inscribed words, or neatly-typed paragraphs, carefully folded into an envelope, such as we would expect of a letter today.

And not only does it look different, this letter was written to a very specific group of people, who were quite different from us. It was addressed to people in a very different situation from most of us; a group of people who had grown up in Israel, but were now refugees, sent into exile, forcibly removed from their homeland, mourning all that they had lost, and now trying to come to grip with their new life in the faraway land of Babylon.

Do you remember Psalm 137? By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept? This would have been the way that many of these people responded when they arrived in Babylon. And the fact that this Psalm is still in our Bible tells us that the people sang this song, for a long time; it was not just a top-40 wonder for a few weeks or months, but it was sung over and over, and became one of the sacred songs of the people for generations—through into our own time, in fact!

So this letter seems a somewhat unusual choice for the focus of our attention today, as the way in which the word of the Lord might possibly address us, in our settled, comfortable lives. What could it possibly have to offer us, as we reflect on our faith in the world of the 21st century?

And yet, the words have a distinctively contemporary, relevant feel about them. They speak of ordinary life, of family and home, of a life which is comfortable, settled, and peaceable. They speak of building relationships, undertaking good, honest work, and living with responsibility for those under our care. Hear again the heart of the letter: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Perhaps the heart of Jeremiah’s letter is in this simple phrase: seek the welfare of the city. This was the word of the Lord which addressed the disturbed and dispossessed Israelites who had tearfully followed their deposed Israelite King Jeconiah and his court into exile under the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, wondering what awaited them there in this strange land. Could it be that this is also the word of the Lord which addresses comfortable, settled Australians, enjoying the fruits of hard work over many years, living in a time of ongoing material prosperity?

Some knowledge of the original language of the letter might be relevant as we ponder this matter. In the last verse of the letter, Jeremiah three times uses the one Hebrew word that probably most of us have heard and would recognize: the word shalom. Each time the NRSV translates this word in this letter, it uses the English term welfare. We know this word, perhaps more familiarly, through the slightly different translation, peace.

And perhaps we are also aware that the ancient sense of shalom encompasses not just peace (the absence of conflict), but also wholeness, fulfillment, security, satisfaction, a co-operative spirit, a sense that all is well with the world. This is what the fearful exiles were being encouraged to work towards.

What would it have meant for those homesick Israelites, long ago, to have been prepared to seek the welfare [the shalom—the peace—the wholeness] of the city?

I think that it might have meant things like this: Get ready for a long period of time away from “home”; there will be no quick fixes, no easy answers, no instant gratification. You are here, in this strange land, for the long haul. Settle down, make your peace with the locals. Be prepared to make this the new “home” for yourselves and your descendants.

I wonder how would we feel if that were the situation we were facing? It could mean: Be prepared to work co-operatively and constructively with the very people who have inflicted pain and suffering on you and your people. They dragged you away from home and set you to work in this strange place. They are the ones who forced you into this bad situation. They are “the enemy”. But God is telling you to work with them. To co-operate with your enemies. To love your enemies, perhaps? To co-operate with those who hold different points of view from yourself—in precisely the way that various groups in our society are learning that they must do.

The word of the Lord presents a serious challenge, then, to the exiles in Babylon.

Even more than this; Jeremiah delivers God’s message to the people in very specific ways: Be prepared to marry and raise families with people from outside of your group … be prepared to marry these strange, alien, unfamiliar people. You won’t be able to keep on marrying your own people, those who have come with you from Israel; the gene pool is too small for that to work for too long. So get yourselves ready, to marry a foreigner. You are the ones who are going to create a multi-ethnic community, a multi-cultural society.

And perhaps, then, the challenge to the people of Israel, in exile, was for them to lift their eyes above their immediate grief and pain, and do what was good, what made for peace, for the whole city. Through Jeremiah, God was telling them: Set your goals, not on the basis of what is good for me as an individual, but rather on what is best for the whole community. Seek the shalom of the city; the whole collection of human beings who are gathered in this one sprawling metropolis.

What was this city, in which they found themselves? It has been estimated that Babylon was the largest city in the world in the 17th century BCE, and again between 612 and 320 BCE— and of course it is during this latter period that Jeremiah was writing.  Babylon was probably the first city to reach a population above 200,000—a figure which seems relatively small to us when we think about cities, but which would have required complex administration and organization to ensure that, just as a start, all 200,000 inhabitants were fed each day. So seek the shalom of the city means that the Israelites were being challenged to immerse themselves in the largest population, the most vibrant and diverse community of people, at that time, in the ancient Near East.

And this is the point at which I believe this ancient Hebrew letter comes alive and speaks to us with a message of relevance for our own times and our own place. Seek the shalom of the city in which you live, work, relax, shop, and worship. How might we seek the welfare of our own cities?

City life, today, is marked by its diversity, its complexity, its ambiguities and uncertainties. This is particularly so as the nature of particular suburbs and areas change over time. Once quiet dormitory suburbs for people working in the city, in nearby business centres, can change, as different groups of people move in. As times change, the old certainties of suburban life no longer hold; the predictable patterns of comfortable middle-class lifestyle are challenged. We cannot ignore these changes; we cannot hide our faith from engagement in what is taking place around us.

Perhaps a different ethos emerges in the quiet dormitory suburb, as the area transforms into a regional transport hub, is filled with medium-density housing, caters to a greater concentration of students and aged people. All of these features can be gleaned from census material; all of these factors, and more, need to be part of the deliberations for a local Congregation as they consider those vital questions: who are we? what is our ministry? what might our ministry be? what sort of leadership is required for us to develop accordingly? These are questions that all Congregations should ask on a regular basis.

In the city, says Jeremiah, the people of God are to seek the welfare, the wholeness, the shalom, of the whole population. It is a charge that we ought to hear as a clear and direct word to each of us, and to the Congregation where we are active, as we seek to contribute to the welfare of the city. What do we have to offer, as the people of God in this time, in this place?

The Uniting Church is committed to being a church that takes seriously the context in which we are located. Our Basis of Union set out to ensure that we were formed as a church that was relevant to our Australian location—not simply a colonial copy of an English or Scottish church, but an authentically Australian church. I was privileged to be trained in theology in the early years of this church, when living out our faith in the Australian context was of paramount importance.

In past years, I have been part of Congregations that have sought to engage in active ways with people in their local communities: through a weekly School for Seniors programme; by offering a weekly meal at no cost to people in the local community who are poor, or lonely; by volunteering with the telephone ministry Lifeline; by engaging with local artists in a programme called Arts in Action; by fostering constructive relationships with Indigenous students and their families; by supporting partnerships with people in the third world and developing robust micro-businesses; by undertaking training in the Sydney Alliance and engaging with local community groups on specific, focussed projects; by being active in a local environmental advocacy group, Climate Change Australia. These are but some examples of the many ways that our church has long been committed to seeking the welfare of the city.

So we, today, face the challenge of responding to the changing circumstances of our time, when fewer people claim an active belief and participation rates in church activities are much less than in the “glory days” of decades past. We might well be seeking to create new ways of being communities of faith; looking for new opportunities to make connections with people in our immediate locality; exploring the means for ensuring that our city is one which is marked by fairness and justice; and shaping a church which is committed to finding new and creative ways of expressing our faith in our own locality.

The Uniting Church is a participatory church. At every level, there are opportunities for people to play all sorts of roles, in contributing to the work of the church. We are not dominated by one group, a clergy-led church, or a male-led church, as some other denominations might appear to be. We affirm the equal role of people, regardless of their gender—males and females can exercise leadership and offer ministry; regardless of their race; regardless of their age. We believe that the Spirit is at work amongst people who are striving for justice, seeking fairness, working to create equity in the lives of other people.

As a Uniting Church, we are an inclusive church that values the contribution that each and every individual can make. We are also a church that values the commitment of groups of people—that is why we meet together, act together, and share with other groups who also act together, in organisations such as Sydney Alliance or Climate Change Australia or other local enterprises. As we work alongside others, we offer a way of understanding life which is guided by moral principles, shaped by ethical commitments, and always informed by standards based on our faith commitment. That is something of a distinctive quality which we bring.

Whilst our faith does not solve every problem or resolve every dilemma, it does equip us to think carefully and to act with integrity as we engage with others. In these ways, we can surely attend to the challenge that Jeremiah provides, and seek the welfare of the city (or town, or village) where we are.

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See also

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The Sydney Alliance is an organization which has been created in recent years, as one attempt to seek the welfare of the city of Sydney, to strive to make this city a better place to live for those who have lived here a long time, and for those who are recent arrivals to the city. It has a commitment to seek justice and fairness across the city. The Uniting Church is one of the foundation members of the Sydney Alliance, along with a number of community groups, trade unions, and other religious groups drawn from the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.

The website of this organization describes it in this way:

“The Sydney Alliance is a citizens’ coalition whose vision is to provide our community with a voice to express common values and aspirations for a fair and just Sydney.  The Alliance is broadly based across religious organisations, community organisations and unions establishing relationships that respect diversity, while building a cohesive society.  The Alliance is a non-party political organisation. Its primary purpose is the ability to act for the common good to achieve social change in our communities.”  

The way that the Sydney Alliance operates is through building bridges, engaging in dialogue between organisations, and seeking to find opportunities for its members to participate in reshaping the society of which we are a part. Why should the Uniting Church join itself with other organisations in our society in this way? Why should we commit time and energy to involvement in this kind of coalition, with a wide range of people who live alongside us in the city? Some of these are people who seem familiar to us—Catholics, nurses, teachers, members of the Cancer Council, bus drivers, public servants.

Some are people of nodding familiarity, perhaps, although we don’t know many of them very well—Jews, Asian women, hotel employees, members of the climate action network. Some are perhaps strongly alien to our regular lives—people from the Indian community organization Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan Australia, from the United Muslim Womens Association (complete with traditional Islamic female attire), from the Federation of African Communities Council. These are the people with whom our church is joining in this new, emerging Alliance.