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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Pentecost 14 (Ordinary Sunday 22), Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 28, 2010

Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; Luke 14:1,7-14

By Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon.

The writer of Hebrews challenges the followers of Jesus to continue to live in “mutual love”, with hospitality to strangers true empathy with people who are imprisoned and sharing what we have with others. We need not be afraid and try to get more and more money and things because God will care for us. I imagined that applying to us all and thought with sadness about the values espoused in our recent elections – virtually none of the above.

Then I looked more deeply at the Gospel passage, with Jesus talking with the people about the nature of true hospitality and it seemed to me that, as we stand around the Holy Table each Sunday, we might well imagine that there could lie an example of true human relationships.

When I worked in the ecumenical scene and moved from denomination to denomination, I received many gifts related to the way different churches offer the Eucharist. I loved the high drama of the Catholic mass. I especially celebrated the wonder of the Feast of Heaven, the Eucharist of the Orthodox Churches. It really was intended to image all that is beautiful in coming together in celebration. There were sounds, tastes and smells. You could come early or late and leave when you chose because it was not about you as an individual but the Body of Christ which was formed by everyone together. It had a sense of joy which is hard to describe. Maybe one day some of us can visit the Greek Orthodox Cathedral over in Cleveland Street.

This understanding of the unity and community of the Body of Christ gives to us a model of human relationships, where all our lives and our well-being are entertwined one with the other. If one suffers, we all suffer. If one celebrates, we all celebrate. If someone is frail, they receive strength from the others and if we are strong, we share that into the whole.

As you know, there are just some of us who preside at the Eucharist. What does that mean about all gathering around the Table in equality? I will tell you a little of my story to demonstrate something. You could say that those who are ordained are automatically sitting at the head of the Table of hospitality. On the other hand, I am going to suggest that we are simply there to serve you.

In 1975, I was representing the then Methodist Church at the World Council of Churches Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. We came to the grand Eucharist which is the central moment at every Assembly. It was being administered by the African Churches and, as I sat and looked at the sanctuary platform with its gathering of priests ministers and servers, there was not one single woman among them. As I received the elements, I wept, as I thought about a Eucharist which excluded women from its leadership. It was not demonstrating true human community and equality before our God.

Then something stirred within me and I reflected with wonder that maybe one day I could hold the bread in wine for the people in my hands, that I could be part of the changing of this lack of inclusion.

I went home and began studying theology, not as yet sure where that would lead. Five years later, when I was nearing the end of my study, I began to believe that I really had a vocation for ordained ministry.

At this stage, as some of you know, some of my brave friends sat me down and challenged who I was becoming. I was placing myself at the head of many tables of power – ostensibly fighting for the rights of others, but accruing all sorts of ego-enhancing things to myself. I knew they were right. With great sadness, I moved away from the path to ordination and sought spiritual direction from a wise Mercy nun. She guided me through painful acknowledgments of who I had become and wrestling with the consequences of that. Had I proceeded without doing that, I would be taking from those around the Table, instead of giving to them.

Meanwhile, I was still working in international aid for the NSW Ecumenical Council. One day, I decided to go to the St. James Anglican Church for its lunchtime Eucharist. I sat in the church, with a sense of longing and sadness. Then I went forward to the Communion Rail and the priest placed the chalice in my hands. I looked in wonder at the light which was around it and which stayed in my hands after the chalice had gone. I felt an inner voice which told me that it was now safe to proceed to ordination.

On the day of my ordination, I moved towards the moment of holding the bread and wine in my hands with a strong sense of anxiety. What if I wasn’t worthy? Then, as I did hold the chalice and the bread, I received a gift of profound peace. My hands were only the vehicle. Of course, the bread and wine had its own life in Christ, not in me.

My ordination was a calling, just like others are called to teach, to sell groceries, to be artists or technical people, or whatever their vocations in life. I had a grave responsibility to make sure that all who came experienced profound hospitality at the Table of the Christ, to be a good host and servant. Those who had other vocations, also had responsibilities to ensure that the hospitality to which we are all called is expressed in what they do.

None of this is to suggest that the Eucharist is not a very special experience of hospitality. It is just to say that those of us who preside are as much called to humility and an acknowledgement of our humanness as anyone else who stands around the Table.

As we participate in the Feast of Heaven, the Eucharist, what is demonstrated each time is that we are all part of the brokenness of Divine life in Christ Jesus. That costly life is offered to us in grace and love. We are all part of the making whole and just and true the life of the world, alongside that Christ. None of us is not welcome at the Table, no matter what our level of virtue and none of us is superior to the other.

There are, of course, many differences in church traditions. In the three churches which formed the Uniting Church, there has always been a commitment to an open Table. When the Uniting Church was formed, we also included little children in that invitation, even if they had not confirmed their faith.

So, as we stand in a circle around our Table each Sunday, we are not only there to receive what is placed in our hands, important though that is. As we look around the circle at each other, no-one has significance beyond another. Even if we have come on a day when we feel less or more human than others, at that moment, we are gathered into grace which not only comes from Jesus Christ but from each other.

When I was at Pitt Street Church in Sydney, people used to come to me for forgiveness – a surprising number. After a while, we developed a little ritual which included a simple form of the Eucharist. I would buy a small chalice-like goblet, and at the end of the Eucharist, I would present it to the person concerned and say “Take this little wine glass, and if you are ever tempted to feel less human or more human than the rest of us, remember this moment of grace.”

This is the hospitality which Jesus offers us all and we can indeed offer each other. As we do this, we will be valuing things in life which have true and eternal value.

The word “righteousness” means “right relationship” and we hope and pray that the people of God can show the world what that might mean. That has been needed in every age, but never more than today.

The mutual love which we experience in the circle around the Holy Table is just the beginning of our commitment to bring that into being in the world. That is our calling and that is the dream.

As we complete the homily together, in the silence, I invite you to remember a moment in your life when you longed for hospitality or found yourself unexpectedly given it. You may want to come forward and touch the chalice in silence as you think of that moment or you may like to share it with us all.

When we receive our bread and wine in the Eucharist today, we will pass the bread around the circle and offer it to the person next to us as a special sign of our community of hospitality and connectedness.

 Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon