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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 8, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 27, 2011

Isaiah 49:8-16a; Matthew 6:24-34

Consider the lilies’

Sidney Poitier won an Academy Award for his starring role in Lilies of the Field (1963), “a funny, sentimental, charming and uplifting film” (The Hollywood Reporter). Homer Smith (Sidney Poitier), an itinerant worker (and ebullient Baptist), is driving through the Arizona desert when he meets five impoverished nuns (refugees, it transpires, from Germany, Poland and Hungary). Stopping to fix their leaky farmhouse roof, Homer discovers that not only will the Mother Superior not pay him for the work, but she also wants him to build their chapel for free! Mother Maria, who believes Homer an answer to her prayers, appeals to his “little faith” and generosity by reference to our Gospel: “Consider the lilies…” Reluctant at first, Homer soon finds himself raising the chapel and the financing (ultimately, the faithful in the nearby town do contribute materials and labour). Although he never does receive a monetary reward (“You cannot give yourself to God and Money”), Homer leaves the desert town a much better place than when he found it.

Alison recommended I watch the film and I’m glad she did. It’s a wonderful film. It’s a wonderful interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount – filled with spiritual and material poverty, gritty determination, singing and dancing, fasting and feasting, passion, contrition and conversion, human encounter and transformation, big dreams (Mother Maria also envisions a school and a hospital), humility. One of the opportunities for relationship sees Homer teaching English to the Sisters: “I build a chapel (‘I build a chapel’); you build a chapel (‘you build a chapel’); we build a chapel (‘we build a chapel’) …”. Mother Maria interjects: “God build a chapel.”

The image on the front of our printed orders sees Homer atop the finished steeple – “This spot is mine”, he says, and writes his name in the wet cement up there (where only God will see it). It’s a cryptic illustration of what Jesus teaches in the passage immediately prior to the passage we have heard today. “… pray to God who is in that secret place, and your Abba God – who sees all that is done in secret – will reward you” (Matthew 6:6,18).

Our reading of the Gospel for this week is rocked by events in Christchurch and Littleton. How could it be otherwise? “Consider the lilies”, “Learn a lesson from the way the wildflowers grow”, “God knows everything you need”, “Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own” – everything we hear today is heard in the context of our near neighbours’ anxiety, grief and fear; churches (people and steeple) laid low. I suspect that what we most need to do here together is to pray with and for the fallen in Christchurch and Littleton.

We are reminded, at the same time, that Jesus was addressing a multitude, and that his Sermon focused on the fallen.

His words were not directed towards people with ample food, drink and clothing (wealth and security) but towards people living at subsistence level, in a drought-ridden, war-torn and heavily taxed region. These were people who rarely had tomorrow’s bread in hand; they really did have to pray for their bread daily. For these people, a bad crop, a vicious military encampment, a new tax, or the death of a working member of the family often meant extreme hunger. Extortionate taxes were forcing many off the land, and smallholders were being driven into homelessness, beggary and prostitution. In this context, Jesus’ words promise relief and security in God’s new economy – the reign and kindom of God, the culture of God.

Making good choices about who we are and what we do is about living with our hearts and hands open wide, sharing what we have now rather than storing it up for tomorrow. On the television news I overheard one woman in Christchurch whose house was demolished in the earthquake. She was surprised, she said, that she felt so unconcerned about her lost possessions – what concerned her was the life she shared with family and neighbours. Making good choices about who we are and what we do is about living with our hearts and hands open wide, sharing what we have now rather than storing it up for tomorrow. When we do this, we are participating in the new culture of God, the reign and kindom of God.

And Jesus tells us – in the context of lives laid low – that the kindom of God is eating and drinking together, sharing resources and stories. In the kindom of God there’s enough to go around, and, as emergency services personnel, caring citizens and international friends remind us, there are many gifts to be given and many gifts to be shared.

As God’s faithful people, we are called to do what we can to build this reality, to rebuild it when it is demolished, to model it here and now, eating and drinking and sharing what we have.

Father Murphy, the world-weary Irish priest in Lilies of the Field, is stunned to see the desert chapel finished and prepared for the Mass. He comes to realise that the chapel – the work of the hands of those with so little to give, or so it seemed – is the answer to an immature and selfish prayer he made one time as a young ordinand – a prayer for prosperous and adventurous life. “I pray now,” he says, in the presence of Homer and the refugee Sisters, “that I become worthy of God’s trust, and yours”.

In the Spirit of such a prayer Jesus is among us.

As is Isaiah whose prophecy directs us again to the image on the front of our printed orders. Just as Homer writes his name for God to see, so, says Isaiah, does God write lasting names. “I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.”

As we make our prayers for others now, let us write names on the “hand of God” in contemplation of our future and the future of others.

… Amen.