I can’t claim to be any sort of football fan, so I confess to being mostly oblivious to the Women’s FIFA World Cup contest. However, I noticed as the Matilda’s made their way through the early rounds that the level of excitement and anticipation grew with each win. The only reason I noticed was that random people – strangers even – began talking to me about football assuming a shared interest and wanting to share the collective joy and hope about the team’s prospects. And yes, I did end up watching the second half of the quarter final against France and shared the general excitement over the win.
That experience got me thinking about other occasions when collective joy becomes evident. For many people, sporting events are the obvious example but there are others. I have a very fond memory of a Neil Diamond Hot August Night Concert at Sydney Showground with my mother (a fan) when the whole audience joined enthusiastically in the chorus of Cracklin’ Rosie. It was a really good feeling to be singing loudly and joyfully in that crowd and we took some of that spirit home with us that night. Total strangers can sing joyfully together and become less ‘strange’ to each other for a time.
There is another side to this coin as well. I remember the collective grief and pain that erupted over the Lindt café siege some years ago and the mountain of flowers that grew in Martin Place. I got the sense in the days that followed that people needed to gather together, to share their confusion, grief and fear and to be simply present to each other – a ministry of presence, bearing witness together – again, total strangers becoming less strange to each other.
And there is a dark side – witness the 6 January 2021 attack on the US Capitol Building and the subsequent riot following the US election. Collective anger is a dangerous, frightening thing and, in my view, actually turns people into strangers.
The willingness to be present to strangers in their joy and their pain is a defining characteristic of the ministry of Jesus Christ. There are so many examples – here’s a couple:
There are plenty of other examples – look and listen for them. The church, however, hasn’t always done this well and has to acknowledge a shameful history of ‘othering’ – making strangers – of people and groups. Unimaginable horrors like the Crusades perpetrated against Muslim sisters and brothers in the distant past; historic exclusions made on the basis of gender, sexuality or ability; not to mention the subtle exclusions practiced in many congregations (says she from painful experience).
Despite this horrible history and despite our best efforts to resist welcoming the stranger, the Spirit continually pulls, pushes and provokes the church into practicing the radical inclusivity of Jesus Christ. In the UCA, we can point to the founding commitment to the mutual ministry of women and men, to the Covenant with Congress, to being a multicultural church and, most recently, to marriage equality. All these worthy commitments will inevitably and always be works-in-progress – without constant vigilance and deliberate intention, they aren’t anything more than words.
In the increasingly polarizing world in which the church is called to bear witness, there are a couple of questions worth pondering:
At its best, the church celebrates and shares in collective joy wherever it erupts. Similarly, it shares in the collective pain as it reaches out to victims in prayer and service. It is a simple recognition of our common humanity and the particular, peculiar hope that the church has in the presence and promise of God living as we do ‘between the time of Christ’s death and resurrection and the final consummation of all things which he will bring…’ (Basis Of Union par.3)