Opening of the 30th Assembly of the Cook Islands Christian Church

Something remarkable is happening in Melbourne this week. For the fist time ever, the Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) is holding its biennial Assembly outside the Cook Islands – in Clayton, Victoria. The CICC is the main  denomination in the Cook Islands with about two thirds of the Christian population of this largely Christian nation. But just as about half of Cook Islanders actually live in New Zealand or Australia, most CICC parishes are there too. There are 24 parishes in the Cook Islands, but a further 20 in New Zealand and 18 in Australia.

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It was an honour to be invited to preach a the opening of the Assembly on Sunday. It was an amazing celebration. The singing has to be heard to be believed (and it could probably be heard blocks away) and the excitement of the 300 or so people involved was infectious.

The CICC uses a lectionary of daily readings published by Scripture Union and the reading for the day was Psalm 87. In case you’re interested, this is the sermon I preached on the Psalm:

 

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
    the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.

Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia—
“This one was born there,” they say.

And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in it”;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”

Singers and dancers alike say,
    “All my springs are in you.”

 This one was born there. This one was born in Zion.

1. What’s behind the text?

Psalm 87 celebrates Jerusalem, or Zion, as the city of God. It comes from the time of the exile, or very soon afterwards. At that time Jerusalem really wasn’t much to look at. It had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. Judah had been extinguished as a nation and turned into a province of Babylon. The king and most of the important people and their families were taken by force to the foreign capital. Others had fled either to Egypt – the other major power in those days – or to neighbouring Moab, Ammon or Edom. There wasn’t much left of Jerusalem and Judah as a whole, and there wasn’t much left to build on.

From that time onwards many of the Jewish people lived permanently in communities outside Judah. They became what we know as the Jewish Diaspora. They’d learnt the hard way – through the experience of exile – that God isn’t confined to their homeland. God is with them, promising justice, love and life even in nations that knew nothing about it. They’d learnt that “the God of the Jews” was in fact the creator, sovereign and hope of all nations.

It was this insight that lay behind Jeremiah’s prophecy:

 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon… Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 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. (Jeremiah 29: 1, 4-7)

 And so they stayed where they had been taken, where they had fled, where they were born, in foreign lands – worshipping the LORD, observing the law, maintaining their identity as the people of God, and looking back to Jerusalem, Zion, as the symbol of God’s sovereignty and grace.

It wasn’t much to look at up close, but in the prayerful imagination of the expatriate Jewish communities it was full of the glory of God. And Psalm 87 is a beautiful example of that prayerful imagination.

 This one was born there. This one was born in Zion.

2. What’s in the text?

The Psalm begins with a celebration of God’s choice – as inexplicable as falling in love – that of all the places God has given Jacob’s descendants to live, this will be the special place. The holy place. The city of God.

On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
    the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.

And then the Psalm mentions the “elephant in the room” – the descendants of Jacob, the children of Abraham, who not only don’t live in Jerusalem, but don’t even live in Judah:

Among those who know me I mention Rahab [Egypt] and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia…

They represent the communities of the Jewish Diaspora: what about them? There’s Good News for them in this Psalm:

    “This one was born there,” they say.

And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in it”;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.”

Because Jerusalem is the city of God, it is also the spiritual home of all the people of God regardless of where they live. In fact wherever a person was born, if you know God the creator and sovereign of all things you were “born in Zion”.

…those who acknowledge the LORD have birthright status in Zion, no matter where they live. Their true home is the place towards which their spirits turn in yearning for God, and God declares that they were “born there” and makes it official by writing them in the book. [James L Mays, Psalms, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994, p.281]

From the earliest church, Christian readers have recognized this inclusive love of God being fulfilled in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ. As St Paul proclaimed it:

 Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3: 6-7, 26-29)

 This is something to celebrate. Something to sing and dance about:

Singers and dancers alike say,
“All my springs are in you.”

The last verse suggests that Psalm 87 was written to be used in a celebration that involved singing and dancing. Maybe it was a procession. Maybe it was to be used by pilgrims on the last leg of a pilgrimage into Jerusalem for a festival – gathering from all parts of Judah and all the surrounding nations to journey together into the city of God. For, wherever they might have been born and wherever they might live:

This one was born there. This one was born in Zion.

3. What’s in front of the text?

This is a timely Psalm for this Assembly, gathering leaders and people of the CICC from wherever you live in the Pacific – wherever you were born.

Sometimes it can matter a lot where you were born. Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. For several years my wife and I lived in Scotland. We lived in the region called Fife – actually they call it “the kingdom of Fife” and are proud of its distinctive history. The locals had a very strong sense of identity and community, but they were a bit reserved with outsiders. To identify a new person they would usually ask two questions: Where do you stay? and, Where do you belong? The first question is trying to find out where you live, the second where you were born – and if you weren’t born in Fife you didn’t belong, you were an “incomer”. I remember visiting a woman in her nineties on one occasion who had moved into Fife from Glasgow when she was seven. She’d lived almost her whole life in the same town in Fife – married there, had her children there, been part of the fabric of the place. But she was born in Glasgow and as far as Fifers were concerned – and even as far as she was concerned – she was still an “incomer”.

We moved to Scotland, and into Fife originally for me to study at the University of St Andrews. The only accommodation the University could find for us to rent was in a pretty little fishing village about ten miles around the coast from St Andrews. So we moved there. Sometime later, purely by chance, my father discovered that his grandmother had migrated to Australia with her family from that same little village in Fife. What are the chances, eh? When I was appointed as the assistant minister in a parish in a nearby town the following year it made the local news. An Australian minister in one of their churches – very exotic. And when the East Fife Mail carried the story, they mentioned my family connection to Fife. He looks and sounds like an Australian, but his family comes from Crail! From that day onwards our life in Scotland changed. My wife and I were no longer regarded as “incomers”. I “belonged” in Fife even though I hadn’t personally been born there. (A few generations doesn’t count for much in that ancient kingdom. I’d just been “away” and now I was “back”.) Because we “belonged” we were included in the community without reservation. We could become as much a part of people’s lives and the life of the community as we wanted.

Sometimes it can matter a lot where you were born. Sometimes it doesn’t matter at all. In our experience in Fife both were true. If you weren’t born there you didn’t “belong”. But if you “belonged” it didn’t actually matter where you were born.

Experiencing that in Fife was deeply enriching. It gave me a sense of identity and belonging that I hadn’t had before. And it also helped me to appreciate that much more profound discovery of belonging, of identity and of purpose that St Paul proclaimed:

 …in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring,heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3: 26-29)

 The Cook Islands community in those islands, in the islands of Aotearoa New Zealand and on these islands of Australia, is one community. It is one community by family, language, culture and faith in the Lord Jesus. You honour the Australian Christian community by choosing to hold your Assembly here, among us. And you honour me by inviting me to declare formally that in this act of worship and fellowship the 30th Assembly of the Cook Islands Christian church is opened.

But more than that, you have blessed me by asking me to return again to Psalm 87 and reflect on its wonderful message. Hear the Good News: Such is God’s love, faithfulness and justice that wherever you happen to have been born and wherever you happen to live it can be said of you,

“This one was born there. This one was born in Zion.”

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