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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 10, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 6, 2010

1 Kings 17:17-24; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 7:11-17

Sickness unto death?’

I begin this week’s homily having been a little unwell and just starting to feel again the heaviness in my body lifting, a renewed desire to eat and think and run. It’s a good feeling, restored wellness – the promise of life. I have also just received an email with photographs of my Canadian cousin’s newborn baby, Elise – born prematurely at 22 weeks and weighing only slightly more than 1kg. A tiny and vulnerable person. My cousin, Greg, and his wife, Laura, are praying and hoping and taking it one day at a time. I’m sure they can relate to biblical stories of anxious and desperate parents – also stories about the wonder of life. Elijah’s pleas and YHWH’s restoring breath to a widow’s child. Luke’s account of Jesus himself restoring life to a widow’s child. “The dead youth sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him back to his mother.” The promise of life. New life.

These are experiences and stories that set us to fervent caring and praying, with greater sensitivity to life’s fragility and value. We are mindful of our friends and their particular striving to be well.

These are also experiences and stories that may set us to thinking about some other kinds of illness, some other kinds of sickness unto death in our world. When I read this past week of Israeli commandos boarding the Marvi Marmara in the early morning darkness – and the ensuing tragedy, it makes me feel sick in a way that no virus does. Blood in the stairwells. The sound of ammunition hitting metal. Nine pro-Palestinian activists killed and dozens wounded. What am I to pray for? What are we to pray for?

One thing that comes to mind is the deep and abiding sense of the importance of the Holy Land for Jews and for Palestinian Arabs, Christians and Muslims. It’s something not to be underestimated. And there’ll be no progress, no peace, until that importance, that connection, that sense of belonging is acknowledged and taken into account by all involved. There’s a profound sickness many of us (not all of us!) are only beginning to recognise/diagnose – a profound homesickness. Disconnection from culture, language and land. We can pray about that.

There’s also a sickness that is an historical forgetfulness. How can it be that Israel forgets what happened following the Second World War, when, as Mike Carlton recounts in yesterday’s Herald, “a rustbucket American steamship renamed Exodus 1947 sailed from France with 4,515 Jews on board. Most were Holocaust survivors, bound for a new life in the Promised Land, then the British Mandate of Palestine. The British refused to accept them as immigrants and stopped the ship off the Palestine coast. Three people were killed when the Royal Navy boarded it by force and sailed it to the port of Haifa … There was a tremendous international outcry …” We can pray, then, for the healing of those who are homesick and of those whose sickness unto death is forgetfulness of the lessons of history.

Our reading from Galatians touches on another possibility – opens another wound, that there may be a healing. In the process of telling his story, speaking of how God called him to new life, Paul makes allusions to the stories of the prophets Isaiah and Elijah (we’ll be hearing more about Elijah over coming weeks). Elijah was one of the two great heroes of Jewish religious zeal. The other was a man called Phinehas who appears briefly in the book of Numbers (25:6-18). At a time when maintaining the ethnic purity of Israel was seen as an essential act of religious devotion, Phinehas had saved the people from God’s anger through an act of vigilante ethnic “cleansing” by spearing to death where they lay together an Israelite man and his foreign wife. Phinehas is commended there, and in later Hebrew literature, for his exemplary “zeal for YHWH”. Elijah is similarly lauded as a hero for his “zeal for YHWH” because of the episode where, after winning a fire on the mountain competition, he took the sword and slaughtered 400 prophets of Baal.

The Apostle Paul would have seen himself as following in this tradition as he participated in the vigilante murder of early Christians. “You know that I went to extremes in persecuting the church of God and tried to destroy it,” he writes. A commendable passion for the holiness of God easily becomes hostility towards those who are seen to be promoting rival gods or rival religions. And when that happens, we interpret our own violence as expressions of what God is calling us to do.

Zealous religious devotion (and much of it purports to be Christian) is a kind of sickness, really, whether associated with the one true God or with false gods, and is always in danger of turning violent. We can’t be naïve about this. It is a fact of history that violence is most often seen as justified by its perpetrators. Our passion for truth can turn that very truth into an idol in whose name we are willing to hate, attack and destroy.

And the change for Paul comes when the risen Christ identifies with the victims of Paul’s zealous quest. Paul is at pains to make clear that his new understanding of God was not given by scholar or school, but by God in the revealing of Jesus the Christ. It is Christ and Christ crucified who makes known to us who God is and what God’s relationship to violence is. God is always the victim of it, and never the perpetrator of it. The cross reveals all our justifications of hostility to be idols, to be blasphemies. For in the cross we see that God’s way of dealing with the prophets of false religions is not to destroy them or mandate hatred and hostility towards them, but to die for them, breathing words of forgiveness and gracious invitation.

And, Paul is saying, this revelation of the God in whom there is no violence is also the call of God to us. Paul doesn’t say that God revealed “Christ to me,” but that God revealed “Christ in/through me”. We are called to embody the message, to be the ones in whom the gracious truth of Jesus Christ is seen.

Today we are invited again to the altar-table. We hear again the words of grace and the offer of life, new life. We are offered, again, Christ’s own brokenness, that we might be lifted into wholeness and strengthened for the living out of grace in the days ahead.

We can pray for each other. We can pray that what is dead or dying in us, and around us – including our hopes for peace and justice – may be brought to life in and through us, in the name of the crucified and risen One.

Let us complete the homily together. What is it that is dead or dying in us, and around us? How shall we pray for peace and justice, for wellness and life? …

(Draws on reflection by Nathan Nettleton.)