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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 3, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 23, 2011

Isaiah 8:23-9:3; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23

The light beyond’

For Christmas I received a DVD of a documentary called Boxing for Palm Island, which I have found compelling, unsettling and very uplifting. It tells the story of a small amateur boxing club on Palm Island and a quest for life beyond trouble, despair and addiction that sees an older white trainer from the mainland and a group of young Indigenous men and one woman travel from Palm Island to Geelong for the National Titles …

Something I often do, in response to a compelling, unsettling and/or uplifting experience, is write a song. I spent about a week of my holidays working on a song called “Noby Clay” – Noby Clay is the name of the Indigenous woman boxer in the documentary. She is currently the national light flyweight champion (42kg class), and according to those in the know, Australia’s best chance of an Olympic gold medal for boxing in 2012.

There is something very attractive about her character. I started to write down her words – pages of them. I was drawn, we might say, to the light of her character, to the light of her being. She presents as honest, open, creative, courageous, disciplined, grounded in a secure sense of herself as a person in relationship with family and country, humorous, ready to rethink prejudices and to forgive, motivated by love for her children and people.

When I looked at the readings for us this week I saw them align in a sentence: We are called to the light beyond mere slogans or theories. Isaiah prophesies a light of joy and salvation; the Psalmist sings, “God is my light …”; the Apostle Paul warns the Corinthians about the dangers of reducing the Gospel to vain slogans or theories (however sophisticated, however impressive), and reminds them of their unity in the Cross. He reminds them, that is, of their common experience of Christ, and he sets before them the common ground of Christ’s suffering love and their willingness to respond in gratitude. The Gospel reading sees Andrew and Simon, James and John dazzled by the light of Christ – drawn to follow – a pattern we continue to repeat, each of us a little differently, a pattern of believing and practicing; trusting and risking. We are called to the light beyond mere slogans or theories.

Dorothy and I often share our thoughts about the readings, and one of Dorothy’s comments during the week was along these lines: Jesus invites the disciples to engage with others, rather than assert their own agendas. Is it not the case that slogans and theories tend to reflect selfish or shortsighted agendas? Slogans and theories (in lieu of real engagement with others; in lieu of belief and practice) tend to harden hearts and adversarial positions. Faith degenerates into factionalism, denominationalism, petty squabbles and worse. I don’t think that Paul is calling us to be anti-intellectual but he is calling us to a certain simplicity.

There are a number of ways we might express this simplicity. We might say that in Jesus’ dying agony on a cross at the hands of callous men we have met God and witnessed the lengths to which God will go to reach us in love and save us from the world’s headlong slide into destruction. We might say that we have met a God who could go through the full horror of death and still defeat it from the other side. We might say, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that a focus on the suffering of others rather than the “sinfulness” of others unites us in salvation – in healing and love. We might say, as today’s readings first spoke their meaning to me: We are called to the light beyond mere slogans or theories.

I like the openness of that sentence – its mystery as well as its sense of conviction. As a songwriter, it appeals to my love of the lyrical. I wonder where it will lead, and where it will lead me.

The Palm Island boxers pray before traveling south to Geelong for the National Titles. But I’d already come to recognize the religious sensibility of Noby Clay – it’s there in her story and in her words. She refers to turning her life around; to renewed belief; to the undergirding joy of being a mother; to delight in life’s surprises and gifts. I found myself underlining certain of her words: “patience”; “second wind”; “I believe”; “privilege”; “anything can happen”. These aren’t what we’d call philosophical terms. They aren’t abstract and lofty terms. They are common, ordinary, earthy – yet resonant and rich. I found myself wondering whether “second wind” might not be a very good term for “Holy Spirit”. “But you never know – anything can happen” is a lovely way to talk about faith – actually, it’s a lovely way to talk about God.

Before I sing the song I need to say something about a tension I experience in realizing that this is not my story. Noby Clay is an Indigenous Australian woman boxer from the north. I’m an Anglo-Australian man with a guitar from the south. There are numerous barriers between us, and my efforts to inhabit her story risk the offense of stealing her story for my own purposes – to alleviate my own colonial guilt, for example, or to bolster my reputation as a musical cleric. I don’t mean to make light of this, but it is true to say that my song can only be sung in the light of a graciousness that precedes it. “I believe I can go the distance,” Noby Clay says at one point, and I hear in that (as in her words and actions more generally) a willingness to go the distance in respect of somebody like myself – somebody who has only in a weak sense known that “You’ve got to fight to live and live to fight”. I wrote a final verse in my own words, from my own colonial, southern, white, urban perspective. I felt able, then, to begin as Noby Clay had begun: “I believe …”

By way of completing the homily together today I invite you to consider an alternative for “the light”. How else might the sentence be completed: I am called to __________ beyond mere slogans or theories. Trust your Christian and creative instincts!

… Amen.



“Goin’ down a one-way track you can see yourself
“Like there’s nothing for you to stop for”
She said, “I felt so down about myself”
She said, “I didn’t want to do that no more”

“Instead of slugging it out, I’m pacing myself now
“My training is mainly about having patience
“As long as I got my second wind, my stamina”
She said, “I believe I can go the distance”

Noby Clay, Noby Clay
From the mainland Palm Island is a world away

“I’m rollin’ with the big boys now, I’m gettin’ famous
“I’m glad my baby girl was there, my little black trophy!
“So I could give her a hug and give her a kiss”
She said, “That was a real privilege for me”

“Don’t think I’ll ever see that happen like that again”
She said it with a smile so broad and bright
“But you never know – anything can happen
“You’ve got to fight to live and live to fight”

Noby Clay, Noby Clay
Moves like lightning, light flyweight
Noby Clay, Noby Clay
She can punch above her weight

New Year’s Day, the car is hot, my hands are burning
I’ve never been anyplace north of Brisbane
But I know what it’s like to be a lost spirit hovering
And I believe something different ever since then

Noby Clay, Noby Clay
Deadly dancer, smooth stingray
Noby Clay, Noby Clay
Barefoot, champion light flyweight