Todays readings for 7th Sunday After Easter - (Reconciliation Sunday) Acts of the Apostles 1: 6-14 Psalm 68: 1-10, 32-35 1 Peter 5: John 17: 1-11
Transcript of the Sermon given by David Hewitson-Kerr
Respect your elders. It’s a rule we’ve all had to follow at some point in our lives. Respect your elders. Wisdom of the elders. Mother and father know best. You can’t put an old head on young shoulders. Idioms of ages past; the internet memes, if you like, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The question that I’d like answered, though, is: can you indeed teach an old dog new tricks?
Today is Reconciliation Sunday, part of Reconciliation Week; a time when we acknowledge and celebrate the relationships between Aboriginal Australians and the wider community. It is bookended by two milestone dates of recognition for Aboriginal Australians: the 1967 referendum, where Australia gave a resounding ‘yes’ to their existence in the law, and the Mabo decision of 1992, recognising the unique relationship between Aboriginal people and the land. It should not be glossed over, though, that these victories, and victories for Aboriginal people even today, have not been without tremendous hardship. Many of us white folk will never fully understand the struggle faced by Aboriginal people, then or now, because as a social and cultural group, we don’t know what it’s like to face being forgotten. White Anglo-Saxons are such a dominant presence throughout history that we simply don’t know what it feels like to be overlooked. Because we do the overlooking. We are educated enough and rich enough and industrious enough and cunning enough to always come out on top. It is only in recent times with the fluctuating Western economy and rapid expansion on all fronts in Asia that we are beginning to feel a certain sting of marginalisation; the fact that, even through sheer numbers, white people are facing becoming a minority on this planet. A realisation of the fear that has underpinned white dominance from the beginning. It’s an old trick.
With this shift comes a new appreciation of the importance of culture. In some respects, nations are becoming protective of their cultural identity. In others, multiculturalism has become a watchword. Also in this shift we see two particular groups emerge: the critics and the elders. Both serve the same purpose of protecting the traditions of their people. The elders are a source of wisdom, preserving spoken and unspoken artefacts of their culture through sharing and teaching and celebration. The critics defend the way that things used to be, claiming that it’s their culture, and superior to everything they don’t understand. National pride walks the fine line between the two. When laid out before us like this, it is easy to see why elders are worth respecting. True elders, however, respect the critics.
When looking up just what is an elder in the context of Aboriginal culture, I stumbled across the following appraisal by a Wiradjuri elder Jenny Munro:
‘Some people think becoming an elder is an automatic thing. Well it’s not. You become an elder because you have lived your life in a particular fashion giving service to your community. Your wider group will decide that you’ve reached a milestone and that you are then an elder. It’s not like, oh, I was a dead bastard for forty years and I thought I’d change for the last five years. No, that five years doesn’t make you an elder. It’s a lifetime of working for your community.’
The role of the elder is service, and imparting knowledge, bit by bit to younger generations. Being old doesn’t make you an elder. It’s what you’ve done with your life, in the context of your community. It is a hard earned privilege, but a privilege nonetheless. You become a leader through exemplary service to your people, particularly those younger or less wise than yourself. Put it this way: a critic is a manager who turns down a job application citing a lack of experience on the applicant’s part, for fear of taking a risk with a novice in the business. An elder is a manager who takes on the applicant as an intern, and guides them for a while until they are skilled enough to earn a living. Which one are you? Which is the Church?
In the reading from John’s gospel this morning, we see Jesus paying respect to his elder. The Son looks up to the Father, and prays a prayer of thanksgiving for believing in him, for giving him responsibility over the disciples. This prayer concludes what are known as the Farewell Discourses of John’s Gospel. Starting with the famous passage of chapter 14, ‘do not let your hearts be troubled’, and ending with chapter 17 that we have heard today, these are the final teachings of Jesus that assure his place as an elder. A summation of the Christian lessons we are to remember when faced with strife, persecution and loneliness. These are very real threats to every community, no matter the size or composition; the sense of exile, of being forgotten. It is true of all people, Aboriginal or otherwise, that we fear abandonment. What if the brokers of truth, the elders, were to disappear as Jesus did? Nay, what if they were removed as Jesus was, by members of his own community? He was called a teacher, but even in human terms, was so much more. All through his life, Jesus of Nazareth held his followers together, not only through education, but self-giving, and adding a sense of worth to the otherwise worthless of those who looked to him. Scripture or no scripture, they were not prepared to lose their solidarity of life. Even armed with the lessons of his life and ministry, the disciples would have felt no less vulnerable when faced with the prospect of losing their elder. Yet he teaches them to trust in his elder, the Father, by whom all wisdom and glory is imparted to the community, whether at this point they realise it or not.
By virtue of the Trinitarian relationship, the Father eternally loves the Son, and trusts him, and vice versa. Yet by virtue of the Incarnation, the Son is also part of the Creation, loving the Creation and responsible for its wellbeing. But he would not have this responsibility, this dominion, were he not the only Son of the Father. The Son has always petitioned the Father, and the Father has always trusted the work of the Son. ‘I glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do’. ‘They were yours and you gave them to me’. ‘I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world’. So runs Jesus’ appeal to God. The Son has been such a valuable part of the Father’s community, that by the grace of God, Jesus is made an elder. True, he has already imparted much wisdom in his earthly ministry, but the greatest wisdom comes with his death and resurrection, thus fully consolidating his status as elder. He was a servant to the end, and continues to serve, albeit through us. Old dog. New trick.
In the reading from Acts, his disciples see Jesus in his last appearance, in his heavenly body, well and truly in the capacity of their elder. The irony is, physically speaking, he would have been one of the youngest of his particular group. They, of course, knew better (mostly) than to judge by appearances. They knew that their teacher had something more to teach them. He told them to wait in anticipation of the Holy Spirit, of a new Baptism. The promised land was nigh, Israel would be united under one ruler, the reign of God had come at last. Well…remember how I said that elders teach the young bit by bit? The journey to become an elder isn’t an easy one, nor does it mean that elders should go easy with overseeing and supporting their communities. It’s not respect if you don’t allow your people the dignity to grow in their own time. That’s precisely the point that Jesus makes to his followers. It’s not time for the story to end, nor is it their business to know when that will happen. They’re just not ready, as indeed we are not ready. We’ve got a lot more growing to do, as a community of human beings, before we have as direct a line to God as Jesus. That doesn’t mean though, that just because the teaching is hard to swallow, we should stop respecting our elders. It’s a real problem with Aboriginal people today; Western ideologies and stereotypes win out, and the belief in the wisdom of the elders is lost. Tradition is lost. Culture is lost.
The excerpt from Peter’s letter shows us that whilst this is always a danger, God always allows a remnant to survive. No matter how great the chaos of dispersion, the likes of which Peter is addressing, if God wants a culture to survive, it will survive, even just a shred of it. Jesus has gone up to the Father, the disciples are abroad, or finding their fates, but the teaching remains. The example of servanthood remains. In Peter. In Paul. The people who missed the point. The people who doubted the teaching, and faced trials for doing so. They were baptised by fire, and compelled by the Spirit to continue the tradition of their elder, Jesus Christ. In his letter, just as with Paul, Peter speaks with the authority of an elder of his community. He does not have the authority afforded by the Father to the Son, as seen in John’s gospel, but in his trials, in his acceptance of the tradition, in taking on the care of the Christian community, he has earned his place as an elder. Venerated even today. The old dog’s not slowing down.
Would we be so bold as to face hardship and remain faithful to the teaching of the Truth? Do we have what it takes to be elders of our community? Put age aside, in this case, it means nothing. Do we live our lives in service to the community? Are we teachers, who respect the learning and growth of our young ones? Young in faith, that is. As a church, do we care enough about our culture to live out the heart of the gospel, in humility and respect for others, regardless of heritage? Do we care enough about our culture to treasure it, and not to inflict it upon others? Not just the tradition of Jesus, but the Anglican tradition. If our cause is to make Jesus known throughout the world, what gets in our way? What stops us respecting our own culture by rejecting other cultures in society? Age? Wealth? Gender? Politics? Jesus didn’t teach us how to discriminate. That’s our reading. Jesus is an example of what happens, not only when we disrespect our elders, but when we do not seek to reconcile ourselves to what we don’t understand.
Yet our misunderstanding is not our undoing. It’s a chance to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Misunderstanding is the beginning of wisdom. Provided we don’t hide away from the problem in our ivory white tower. As baptised members of God’s church, we are invited to see ourselves as elders in the community, no matter who we are otherwise. We are all on the path to becoming elders, because we have heard the teaching of the tradition, and we are called to live out a culture of love, service, and reconciliation. A counterpoint to the Western imperialist mindset. We are called to recognise the Spirit in each other. We might be divided by barriers as simple as a fence, but we are nonetheless connected to one another, and to the rest of the created world. This is what we can learn from the elders of Aboriginal culture; the innate connection to and concern for the created world, land, animals, children, adults, of which we are carers. This is our calling as the people of God, passed down from the Father through Christ, and made known by the Spirit, all in God’s own time. This is where reconciliation starts, with the wisdom of the elders: patience, learning, teaching, understanding and respect, of cultures, groups, ideas, and knowing what brings us together, as a community of human beings. We’re never too old, or too young to learn a new trick.