Martin Johnstone is Secretary of the Priority Areas committee of the Church of Scotland, working with the poorest parishes in Scotland. This was his sermon at a summer evening service at the Old High on 11 August 2013
Texts- Micah 6:6 – 8 and Acts 2:43 – 47.
If you were to have a look on the website of the Poverty Truth Commission you would find the story of Isha, a remarkable young Muslim girl who lives in Govanhill, Scotland’s most diverse community and also one of the most fragile. Isha talks about the struggle of growing up in poverty and of how things will change when she is Prime Minister. Ten days ago, Isha had major surgery to remove a brain tumour and although she is making a remarkable recovery – and is a wonderful young lady – the dream of becoming Prime Minister (or First Minister) seems even more remote than it did a couple of years ago. Isha is a fragile girl in a fragile world.
Many of the people I know, virtually all of the communities I spend my time in, could be described as fragile. And when that term is used, it tends to be used pejoratively. But in recent years I have begun to think differently. The difference began when I realised that while people without doubt struggle that is never the whole story. The real story is often one of incredible resilience in the face of horrendous adversity. What if the Gospel message is not about escaping from fragility but actually embracing it? If that is the case what does a fragile Church in a fragile world look like?
When I was a wee boy my Mum was busy cleaning out the china cabinet. She gave me a cup to hold. It was part, I think, of my great grandparents’ wedding china. It might even be my great, great grandparents’ wedding china. However, she gave it to me and she said: ‘Mart. Be really careful with that. It’s really fragile.’
Often when things are described as fragile, it is as if we are describing something that is of little or no value or seriously damaged. ‘He’s awful fragile,’ we say of someone struggling with mental health issues. ‘The economy is pretty fragile at the moment,’ our politicians tell us. ‘We need to do something about that congregation,’ the presbytery tells me. ‘It’s pretty fragile.’
And the insinuation is always that the task is to move away from fragility – to make something strong. But what would happen if we were to begin to understand fragility in the same sort of way as my Mum did when she gave me the cup to hold. It is something of huge value, incredibly precious, absolutely beautiful. It is a gift from the past to the present and if we value you it deeply enough it is also a treasure which we carry into the future. We live fragile lives, in fragile communities on a fragile planet loved by a God who has deliberately chosen to embrace the fragility of the stable, the cross and the Spirit. And what might the shape, or nature, of the Christian community look like through such a lens? I think that we can begin to glimpse a little bit of that in Scripture passages this evening.
In Micah we have the prophet condemning those who seek power and who abuse that power in the name of God, those – we might suggest – who turn their backs on the fragile and on fragility seeking instead the growth of power and domination. And we have the prophet pointing instead to a different way of worshipping God. He encourages people to ‘do what is good, show constant love, and live the way that God has chosen to live.’ That’s my paraphrase of Micah 6:8 but I think that it is a pretty accurate translation.
And we see, despite the many struggles, disputes and disagreements which are regularly exposed in Acts and in the letters to and from the early churches, the first Christian community living as a profoundly fragile, precarious community, embracing fragility.
Many miracles and wonders were being done through the apostles and everyone was filled with awe. All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions and distribute the money among all according to what each one needed. Day after day they met as a group in the Temple and they had their meals together in their homes, eating with glad and humble hearts, praising God and enjoying the good will of all the people. And every day the Lord added to their group those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43 – 47)
There is a temptation to focus on the first and last sentences of this passage and to miss out the significance of what is talked about in the middle. And so there is the temptation to lament the apparent lack of miracles and wonders in our church today. Or to look back jealously at a community of faith which was regularly growing in number and apparent strength. But to do so is to actually miss the point. The really intriguing and attractive thing was the way that this group lived out their commitment to God in their commitment to one another. At the heart of the commitment of this early Christian community lies something profoundly fascinating, revolutionary and challenging. The community did not have more because they gathered more but because they shared what they already had much more effectively.
I am no economist and am probably anxious about speaking about these things in the midst of a community who, without doubt, understand these things better than me but I just don’t believe that our economy can keep on growing and be sustainable. The solution, instead, lies with us sharing what we have far more equitably. What attracted people to the early church – rich and poor – was the commitment to live more fragile and interdependent lives.
When people talk about the Church in priority areas – the name that we give to those economically poorest neighbourhoods – people often talk about us in terms of pity or charity. Or sometimes, if we are honest, they might also talk of the small, fragile communities of faith as bleeding the rest of the Church dry. I have to tell you that it is not my experience. These are places where human life is often at its most raw. But they are also the places where I most often see people at their very best. I see it in the way that people share what they have. I see it in astonishing, life transforming youth work. I see it in credit unions and food cooperatives. I see it in worship – in its informality and exuberance. I see it in prayer – and the way in which prayer is truly the breath of living for people who struggle to breathe. I see it in the way that people from other churches and communities pitch up and pitch in. I see it in the way that people in more prosperous communities and churches continue to be generous with your resources and time. And on behalf of these fragile communities of faith I want to say thank you. And I really want to encourage you to embrace that fragility also – it’s wonderful and its life transforming. I think it is a way for us to understand the future of the Church in our land. It is a gift from the fragile church in fragile places to those parts of the Church who are not fully there yet.
If what I have tried to say tonight has not really made a lot of sense then I apologise for my inability to share effectively the importance of the message. What I will do is to conclude with a final story which, if nothing else – along with the picture of my great grandmother’s tea cup – I hope you will go away thinking about.
The best part of 20 years ago I was fortunate enough to spend three months in Brazil. I met with all sorts of people but my core question was always the same: ‘What do you think the Church in your part of the world has to teach the Church in my part of the world?’
One afternoon I was sitting in a woman’s house in what I think is possibly the most fragile place on the planet that I have ever had the privilege to spend time in. It is worth pointing out that the house was made of wood and cardboard and the chair I was sitting in was the only one in the house. The house was home, if I remember rightly, to seven people in the midst of a favela (or shanty town) where over 200,000 lived. It was a sweltering hot day which meant that the stench of human waste caught the back of your throat. But I was glad it was a dry day because it meant that the open sewer which ran past the door did not run under it and into the house as it did when there was torrential rain.
So back to my question. What, I asked her, can the Church in your part of the world offer to the Church in my part of the world? She thought for a moment and then replied: ‘Martin, we can offer you hope.’ Hope? In this? I must have looked confused, reckoning that my translator had let me down. She saw my confusion and said again: ‘Yes. Hope.’ And then she said: ‘You must not confuse hope with optimism because here there are no grounds for optimism because here people die every day. But still there are grounds for hope – for hope comes from God.’ More than any person I have ever met that woman articulated and demonstrated the nature of hope in a fragile world and the calling of the Church within it. Amen.