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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Epiphany 1, Year A
Baptism of Jesus
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 9, 2011

Isaiah 42:1-9; Matthew 3:13-17

The passage in Isaiah is one of my favourite passages in all the Bible. It always lifts my heart as I hear the voice of a God who calls the people towards a life which is higher, grander and deeper than we can imagine.

It articulates a dream for humanity and the wonder of a God who could imagine us living out that dream. Even as we wish we could live out this hope in a more faithful way, we are invited to look ahead and see new things breaking forth from the buds of life.

his voice has called to all people down the centuries as we wonder what we are here for – what is the meaning and purpose of our life together? It speaks beyond any one faith and invites us to hear the call of God within our hearts in every land and generation.

Before I reflect a bit more about that, I want to go to the Gospel reading which is, of course, an account of the baptism of Jesus which we celebrate today. There are two ways in which we can interpret this story. The first is that this was a special baptism – that the Beloved of God was specifically Jesus. The second is that the baptism of Jesus baptism makes clear the nature of all baptisms and therefore, we are each and all the beloved of God.

Most of the mainstream churches around the world, including the Uniting Church, believe that the second option is true. We believe that, within all baptisms lies the message of the unconditional love of God for all people, even before they are old enough or aware enough to claim that love for themselves. That is why we believe in infant baptism rather than that which happens in response to an adult decision.

In saying that, I am not suggesting that there is a problem with adult baptisms or that they are any the less because of the stage of life when they happen. It is rather about a love and grace of God which is not dependent on any decision which we might make – a love which is given without condition. As adults, we have the decision to make about whether we will receive that love and live by it.

I have often reflected that the hardest thing to believe in is the never-ending love of God. I suspect that is why some parts of all religions create for themselves a God who is more like we are – those who love the lovable and judge and condemn those who are not that, or who do not believe what we believe. They rather like concepts of heaven and hell.

Of course, in formulating this view of the righteous and judging God, they are supported by people down the ages – including many of those who wrote the ancient religious texts. Possibly the greatest human temptation is to formulate our God in our own image, to give ourselves the deep satisfaction of consigning others, with whom we disagree or who we see as doing evil, to the fires of hell.

Christians conveniently forget that the Christ who is at the centre of their faith would rather die than give up loving them. Instead of calling on his supporters to follow him with swords and shields to destroy the ones who oppressed the people and threatened him, he walked on down the road to look his enemies in the face with dignity and to non-violently confronted them.

He showed us the life of God – the love which cannot be destroyed and which rises again among us, as he did to his disciples, and says “Peace be with you” even though we have failed to be loyal to that life.

In the love and grace of baptism, we are invited to believe that we can fail over and over again and still be invited into a new day in the love of God. In my experience, it is really hard to believe that – we are mostly tougher on ourselves than God is. There is, of course, a hell. It is that moment when we have betrayed our own values and we look ourselves in the face. It is the moment when we stand before the everlasting grace of God and know who we are, which we do in moments of our life, as well as after death.

In receiving the forgiving love of God, we can be inspired to sometimes have the grace to offer that same love to others, even when they haven’t earned it. This can come in serious moments when we are confronted with people who really do violate God’s laws of justice, compassion and peace.

More often it can face us in very ordinary times – ones where we can severely judge others for some misdemeanour or see beyond that to people who are mostly just like us. I suggest that it is in these moments that we have the real opportunity to add to the life of the world in the creation of humble and generous community around us.

I was thinking of two occasions when I needed to learn that lesson of seeing others as beloved. The first was some years ago when the previous Pope was in Sydney for the beautification of Mary Mackillop. I had been asked by the Sisters of St. Joseph to write the liturgy for the occasion of the welcome to the Pope which was held in the Domain. After I had done that, the Sisters invited me to meet the Pope. I refused to do that as I disagreed with him on many issues.

However, I agreed to accept their invitation to be present at the great Mass. I went out of curiosity. As I sat there watching, the Pope entered the racecourse where it was held and held out his hands to bless the people as his Popemobile travelled through the crowd. I felt his love for them and what it meant for people to receive it. Then he mounted the sanctuary platform and said to them “From you, a saint may come!” The people cheered with joy at the thought and received that gift of hope and grace from him. I bowed my head in humility and confessed that I had failed to see that this man was also beloved of God and had much to give to others.

The second was one of those ridiculous and trivial moments but it demonstrates what I am talking about. I was at the Ashes cricket test in Sydney and my family and I found ourselves sitting surrounded by members of the Barmy Army. I listened to them singing songs like “You all live in a convict colony” and “God save your gracious Queen, born to rule over you etc.” and muttered in indignation. Then one of them saw a guard on the field being booed for deflating a ball which the crowd had thrown over the fence. “It’s an Indian!” he said. “Stone him!” I found myself feeling good naming the guy as a racist. Then we sat there and I couldn’t help hearing he and others talking. I was annoyed to find myself hearing things which told me that they were kindly people. I had to face that, in my self-righteousness, I was resisting finding anything beloved in those concerned.

In the end, I was thinking that the true love of God and belief in that God has within it the eternal invitation to see that we are not God – to live in humility with others, because we are all fallible and can never measure up to the perfection of God. That can be one of the benefits of religious life.

Another benefit is to have the faith to believe that we are endlessly called into a greater and grander hope for our lives and the life of the world. This hope is what we receive in the Isaiah passage.

If there is one value that shines forth in this grand calling to us all, it is kindness – we do not break a bruised reed or put out a dimly burning wick of life. We are to take hold of the hand of God for comfort, guidance and strength and bring the people to freedom and the light of justice, compassion and peace. Many things less than this great hope may have happened in the past, but God announces new possibilities for us and calls us on.

As we look out on our country and world today in this new year, what do we see that needs our voice and our commitment for good?

How could we announce the new possibilities and faithfully stand by them and enact them? Every day is a new day. How can we bring the message to all humankind and the planet itself that God loves all creation? The past can be laid down and we can look at transforming possibilities, we who are also the beloved of God.

After the silence, you are invited to come and touch the water of baptism and place your hand on the map of the world as you share your hope for the news of God’s love to come to some people or place. Or you may prefer to remember am moment when you resisted seeing the good in another and inviting a new future for yourself in the way you see people around you.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon


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