© Revd Rex A E Hunt, MSc(Hons)

Induction of Revd Neale Roberts into South Woden, Parish, Canberra

Luke 24:13-35


...Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him,
‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know
the things that have taken place there in these days?’

The above, and the biblical quotes which follow,  are not a sermon text.
But I do want to explore the image of ‘stranger’ which is both part of the Emmaus story,
and the ministry of deacon.


Over the past 20-25 years or so,
give or take a few popular articles either way,
        a significant shift has been occurring within Australian Christianity.

For one thing, organised religion of the mainline/oldline churches
has continued its decline.  While spirituality 
- or a desire for connectedness in the midst of 
all sorts of the ordinary, with or without a God association - has surged.

The institution’s reaction to this surge of interest
could be summed up in this apparent lament:
‘God in Christ continues to be known in this land, but as one 
option among others...’ (Sherlock/47).

And for another,
there has been less and less ‘systematic’ - or big stuff - theology produced.
And more and more ‘popular’ - or small or thematic type stuff - explored.
Spirituality in the pub. Eco-theology. Indigenous spirituality.

Now as it happens, I welcome such exploration… 
For theology must always be the art of imagination
discovering, celebrating and experiencing,
        rather than just a concern for fact or precision, 
        development or systematising.

But coupled with these shifts is another movement,
far more serious, I would contend, than what I have just outlined.

And that is what has been called the privatising of religion.
A domesticating of the sacred.
A tribalising of the holy.
A refocusing of the religious venture upon ‘intimate’ rather than on ‘public’.

For what is missing from this privatising, this domesticating,
is any deep or genuine appreciation of the larger world 
        that is symbolised by the ‘stranger’ among us.

The stranger... the person who is not part of our intimate community of sharing, 
but whose insights and concerns 
might preserve us from a kind of 
narrow narcissistic intimacy.

‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know 
the things that have taken place there in these days?’


Let me for a moment offer some personal observations,
gained from dialogue with some others much wiser than I.

While the image of stranger in our community is often linked with danger,
and if you have children or grand children 
many things I’m sure will come to mind on hearing that comment,
        a greater danger facing the church, I believe, 
        is for there to be no stranger at all.

That is, it seems what is missing 
in much of our current decision making and religious thinking
        is any real sense of the church as a public institution, 
        in which the focus is broader 
than our immediate itches and personal scratches. 

What is missing is an understanding that the circle of relationship 
out of which a genuine sense of the sacred might be enacted, 
        must be broader than those who sit in our circles of intimacy;
        must include the stranger who journeys with us on the road 
but who will never sit in a circle with us.

‘Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes 
were kept from recognising him...’

What is missing is an understanding that the job of the church 
is to lift us out of a fascination with ‘self’ and into a responsible
and compassionate engagement in the public realm 
- with the stranger 
and in a sometimes broken and bleeding world.

David Tacey, in his intriguing and sometimes frustrating book, Reenchantment
seems to confirm this missing element when he suggests: 
‘the Australian psyche is split between two levels of reality, and the spiritual level is encountered only in individual or private experience; it is never engaged at the social or public level’. 
(Tacey 2000:239).

While Tony Kelly is equally observant:
‘Christians have to imagine religious meanings in a more social manner. They now need to appropriate their faith as a way of social involvement rather than as a transcendent form of social security’. (Kelly 1990:73).


Historically, we all know that religion has been both institutional and individual.
But what appears different now 
is at least a couple of things, I would suggest.

(i) While attitudes towards ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’
appear to be undergoing a profound and dramatic change,       
the surprise is for those who wish to ‘guard’ the tradition,
         it is from within the ‘secular’ rather than the ‘sacred’
         that this new spirituality is being birthed.

A spirituality which is not proud, haughty or exalted
but rather is welcoming of mystery
        and honours the everyday, the horizontal and the earth.

(ii) And attitudes towards ‘church’ as a public institution with a public responsibility
seems to have been replaced by
church as family and church as caring community.

As a consequence, we have permitted the vision of a larger arena
of compassionate action and religious responsibility, to weaken.

Behind this latter change is, I feel, the assumption that
real religion only or primarily happens in small groups,
in face-to-face interaction with those
        who know our pain
        and share our joys
        and understand our delights and despairs
        and are prepared to reveal themselves to us.

As David Bumbaugh has warned in his disturbing article “God, worship, and the tyranny of intimacy”,
we no longer value the stranger.

We no longer value the stranger.
We make little or no room for the stranger…
except as the stranger is willing to abandon that role
and to be inducted into our community.

If she or he is prepared to be adopted into our tribe.
If she or he is willing to adopt the practices of the tribe, to become our intimates.

Strangers are affirmed to the degree
they show potential for becoming one of us.

But if the stranger chooses to remain a stranger,
we have little real avenue of engagement with that person,
for our rituals do not affirm that interaction with the stranger, has any value.

We have lost the wisdom borne in the Celtic Rune of hospitality:
‘We saw a stranger yesterday,
we put food in the eating place,
drink in the drinking place,
music in the listening place
and, with the sacred name of the triune God,
he blessed us and our house,
our cattle and our dear one.

‘As the lark says in her song:
Often, often, often, goes Christ in the stranger’s guise’.

My concern which I invite you to reflect on today at this induction of Neale Roberts, deacon?
Few of us seem to really understand
how great a redirection of the focus
and the purpose of the church,
this privatising represents.

A redirection which I and other fellow religious ‘dinosaurs’, fear
will tame
and domesticate
and limit our ability to envision a public dimension
to religious relationship.

And in the end trivialise the entire religious enterprise
into some kind of alternative, quasi-Christian therapy.

Again, I feel the wisdom of Celtic spirituality can help us
if we are open to that rediscovery.
For the Celts, integrity and wholeness, for example,
was not just that of the individual person.

The wholeness was that of the whole community including the community of the earth.
The integrity not just that of the body personal
but of the body politic.

‘Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted
to them the things about himself in the scriptures...’


Neale, you come into this congregation and this presbytery, a deacon.
That is, someone whose primary ministry
is with those who are called ‘stranger’.

Those outside our intimate and congregation circles.
Those who constitute the larger community.

Welcome to you, to Itis and to Carlos.
Thank you for responding to the Call.
We can only be blessed by your gifts,
and by your presence among us.

We need the emphasis your ministry brings.
And we all need to be reminded of it again and again.
        Please do that!  And often.

I offer you my friendship and encouragement.
I also look forward to sharing with you as a colleague in ministry in the Valley.

Despite most of what is written these days about spirituality
and cultivating a so-called ‘private garden of inner experiences’,
        public conversation and engagement with the stranger on the road
        is still the purpose of the church institution.

For most of the maps left by the great classical explorers indicate that
at the end of the day the road takes a 180-degree turn 
away from the self and intimacy
and toward compassionate action in the public realm.
‘...not to convert the world’, as Jack Spong reminds us, ‘but to 
call all who are also part of the creation into the fullness of life’ (Spong/196).

Surely there is more than a hint of all this in the invitation
of sage we call Yeshu’a/Jesus,
to experience God in newer ways.

To enlarge God to include humankind
and to enlarge self to include the neighbour - the stranger.

The Gospel of Thomas - the book rather than the so-called ‘doubting one’, reminds us:
‘Split a piece of wood and I am there.
Lift up a stone and you will find me.’

Neale, may it be so in your ministry with the stranger, in this place.

Resources which have influenced the thoughts of this Sermon:
Bumbaugh, D. “God, Worship, and the Tyranny of Intimacy” in The Journal of Liberal Religion 3, 1, 1-7, 2002
Kelly, Tony. A New Imagining: Towards an Australian Spirituality. Burwood. Collins Dove, 1990
Sherlock, C. “From ‘Mate Upstairs’ to ‘Spiritual Sponsor’: God Images in Australian Society” in P. Malone (ed)
Developing an Australian Theology. Strathfield. St Pauls Publications, 1999.
Spong, J. S.
Why Christianity must Change or Die.  A Bishop Speaks to Believers in Exile. New York. HarperCollins, 1998.
Tacey, D.
Re-enchantment. The New Australian Spirituality. Pymble. HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.