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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 5, Year C
The Baptism of Bethany Grace Hughes
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 2, 2010

Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35

The holy city’

The Hebrew name ‘Bethany’ means “house of the figs”. Bethany was an ancient village near Jerusalem – the hometown of Jesus’ close friends, the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus, as well as Simon the leper. It was, for Jesus, a place of refreshment, refuge, renewal.

I’d like to share a short reflection on cities/villages (our local Council regards Sydney a city of villages). The Greek word, leitourgia (liturgy), means a public work, or better, a service rendered to the city. Acts of worship imply allegiances, they implicate us in politics, and there is no Christian worship that does not entail some kind of civic participation, some kind of civic responsibility.

I’d like to share this homily (in two related parts) on behalf of Bethany Grace, on the day of her baptism in the Spirit of Christ, friend to the hospitable and the “untouchable”, with a prayer for her happy participation in the life of community – in the church and in the city the church is called to serve.

Part One

The extraordinary image of the holy city descending from heaven is, like the image of the new heaven and new earth, not a simple rejection of Jerusalem but a translation of hope into new dimensions. What is yearned for in Jerusalem only God can bring. God appears to be operating from various angles: creating the city in the first place; then giving commentary on its significance and finally being the partner in the intimacy that ensues. Ancient Israel’s hopes of God’s future presence find their echo here. God will come to dwell among the people (Leviticus 26:12; Ezekiel 37:27; Zechariah 2:11).

Who would hope that tears be wiped away, death and pain cease? Those in the midst of pain, or facing its prospect. Such pain generated visions of hope, some of them wild, some of them bizarre. But they are a defiance of current suffering, the obverse of despair and hopelessness. Without touching such extremities it is hard for us to enter into what these hopes mean, let alone engage their poetry.

It is shocking and uncomfortable to listen to the imaginations of the desperate. We draw back from the terror and find the hopes quaint. Revelation is as strange as some religious movements in our own world that seek to defy the world order, ultimately in response to pain which is, of course, not unrelated to our vested interests.

John saw in the demonic city, Rome, what many today see in the west. As we engage Revelation we may find ourselves more aligned with the intoxicated Idolater astride the seven hills than with the painful striving after hope that meets us in its pages. But if we allow ourselves to suspend alliances with the powers of wealth, and engage with our hearts and minds the injustices which drive people to the craziness that generates dreams of utopia at one end and terror at the other, we might find a way for ourselves in their poetry and have some chance of meeting them where they are.

With whom do you associate dreams of utopia and terror? Whose imaginings come to mind when you think on the imaginations of the desperate?

Part Two

Graham Ward is a British theologian who has done more than most towards finding a way for the church in the twenty-first century – a way that takes politics as seriously as ethics and aesthetics. His latest book is entitled, The Politics of Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens (Baker Academic, 2009). In a chapter entitled, ‘The City and the Struggle for Its Soul’, Ward reflects on cities as “the greatest and most complex of human art forms” founded on sacrifices … bearing the scars of defeat and the laurels of triumphs … shot through with transcendence … modernised, globalised … the various flows within essentially flows of money. The global city becomes, he argues (without explicit reference to Australia’s “premier drama”, Underbelly), “a compilation of sites … where we can be diverted away from the seedy, run-down, dysfunctional margins and be gloriously entertained”.

The global city is both ambitious and impersonal, he says, “and this is why there is a struggle for its soul. Its soul should be the collection of its citizens all working toward what best cultural and social conditions might be provided for the common pursuit of human happiness and enjoyment. It is this working that constitutes the political and where the real struggle should take place”. And further, “[t]here are two conceptions of being political involved in this struggle: the working on behalf of the common pursuit of human happiness and enjoyment, and the contending for dominion … the struggle for maximal human flourishing and the struggle for power. To understand the differences in the nature of the political and the character of the struggle is theologically important because, if the church sees itself simply as another possible stakeholder in the city’s life, then it will always lose out. It will be working in accord with an understanding of politics and struggle that belong to the market, understandings that are not its own …”

Ward saves his most incisive words for the chapter’s end. I don’t usually quote such lengthy passages, but I found myself underlining sentence after sentence. There is much that is relevant/resonant and much to dwell on here – if not to dwell in

“Although there is a development of mixed housing ‘across the river’ or ‘the other side of the rail-track’”, Ward writes of the British city, “the center itself is fashioned for the propertied, the landlords with buy-to-rent mortgages, the professionals who need saline swimming pools and gyms in the basements of designer apartment blocks, who gaze at night out of their floor-to-ceiling windows at the network of lights and the floodlit attractions. And we all want to be with them. Some of us find it hard to admit this. But we want to be with them because we, too, have been sold this dream as the good life, which should be available to everyone. So the church has to be alert to … dehumanizing and godless dangers … The church must not allow areas of the city to be walled up. Ghettos and gated communities must be entered; the no-go zones riddled with racial and economic tensions and ruled by violence must be penetrated and linked back to the wider civic society; and the Christians in these places must be hospitable, opening the possibilities for transit, for the flow of communications necessary for freedom. The church must work alongside other agencies at every level, from city governance and planning to networks dedicated to helping those newly arrived in the city to establish themselves, helping those who fall beneath the pressures of the city’s ambitions, those dwarfed and rendered insignificant by its towering achievements.”

“The church must become the church in every relationship it creates and maintains throughout the city; it must perform Christ in every microcontext; it must recognize and own the politics of its discipleship.”

In the Silence let us consider how we (each and all of us, older and younger), might become the church in the relationships we create and maintain throughout this city; how we (each and all of us, trusting, hoping and loving) might perform Christ in every microcontext; and how we might recognize and own the politics of our discipleship … Amen.


Other Homilies