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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 2, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
March 20, 2011

Genesis 12:1-5a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; John 3:1-17

How can anyone be born after having grown old?’

The artwork on our orders of service this morning is entitled, “Mother, Daughter, Holy Spirit”. I chose it because our Gospel refers to spiritual rebirth. It’s helpful sometimes to image what the evangelist imagines – to make explicit that this oft-cited text imagines God as a Mother of whom we are born and may be born again. It’s a text favoured by “born-again” fundamentalists who typically eschew all talk of God as Mother. Let’s begin by affirming the evangelical notion of God as Mother, God as Woman (a thoroughly orthodox notion in keeping with the doctrine of human beings made in the image of God).

At yesterday’s forum on juvenile justice Julie recalled a visit to a juvenile detention centre and interviews she carried out with detainees. When you get out of this place to whom will you turn for support? Overwhelmingly, the response was given: “Mum”.

Tim Grey, one of our four speakers yesterday, could relate to this. He remembered the painful loss of his foster mother, an experience of incarceration and a turning to his grandmother. Joe Correy, another speaker, nodded in agreement. He, too, was very close to his grandmother – and his mother was in attendance yesterday – the very model of supportive.

George Dieter, psychologist and author, took the opportunity to suggest that mother-love points to one’s whole existence – one’s life in all its messy complexity. There’s no one answer to the question of fixing the juvenile justice system, he said. The solution, however, will entail attending to the whole person – starting, he said, “with the baby in the womb”. In other words, the solution will move away from punishing young people enduring anxiety, addictions and abuse, and towards custody as an opportunity for care and growth. A juvenile justice centre can be a place of consistency and what he called “active” security – examples include sports and the arts: “Whatever fosters an identity that is an alternative to a criminal identity.” So the image of God as Mother can help us to see a person as a vulnerable, growing being, and also re-image custody itself as a place of rebirth.

Karen Bevan of UnitingCare said afterwards that she learned a lot from the forum, in particular from the wisdom of Tim who said that a turning point for him was having juvenile justice officers ask him why he’d engaged in anti-social and criminal behaviour. They then listened to all he’d experienced and encouraged him to find a voice as a musician. Karen was also impressed by Joe who said that giving young people a voice is important so long as the importance of community listening is stressed. We are all called, that is, to mother young people in our neighbourhood. We are called to help bring a person to birth or rebirth. It’s an ongoing process but a particularly intense process for vulnerable teens.

I hope I’m not labouring the point! Our Gospel is about seeing things differently. Opening up the possibilities for grace, for change, for learning. The word “compassion” is derived from the Hebrew for “womb-space”. To have compassion for others is to acknowledge them as siblings, those with whom I share a womb – children of God. To have compassion for others is to feel that sense of sister-brother-creaturehood. To be “born again” or “born from above” means to connect with vulnerable others. It means to see them anew, to hear them anew, to sympathise and empathise – ultimately to experience the world anew, to experience the world as the creation.

Spiritual rebirth is not the exclusive preserve of “born-again” fundamentalists. Perish the thought. It’s something we can all be talking about, inviting different perspectives – infinitely interesting, infinitely rewarding.

And it strikes me that rebirth often happens in contexts of trauma or awkwardness.

Adam Kotsko’s recent book, On Awkwardness, was one of my summer holiday favourites. “The utopia of awkwardness is where we already are,” he writes. I liked that so much I’ve used it as my email signature since the start of the year. We expend a lot of energy, Kotsko argues, trying to make ourselves safe and secure inside cultural and sub-cultural spaces – norms, rules, rituals. And yet we are born without cultural securities. We are born naked and blinking, “thrown together” with siblings we have played no part in choosing. We are not in control of being born. Kotsko sees this as a good thing – and in terms of the genius of Paul the Apostle.

Rather than encourage a third culture into which Jews and Gentiles might assimilate, Paul affirms the space between Jewish and Gentile cultures as the fertile ground of grace. He says, in effect, “Come as you are”. Jews, love your Gentile brothers. Gentiles, love your Jewish sisters. The utopia (the no-place and the ideal place) is where you already are. It’s awkward to encounter another beyond the safe confines of culture – awkward like meeting someone who speaks another language. What could we possibly have in common? It’s awkward, raw, real … and it’s also the presence of God “who calls into existence the things that do not exist”. Kotsko’s book encourages me to be open to awkwardness – to embrace awkward situations as opportunities for improvised relationship, or what we might call “going with the spiritual flow” – as opportunities, at least, for laughter, thus, grace, thus new life.

No doubt you’ve been watching and reading the news from Japan this past week. How does the situation make you feel? I heard one commentator suggest that for many of us – those of us born after the Second World War – it may be the most traumatic event we have witnessed. My mother was born on August 7, 1945, the day after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and two days before the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. At that time the bombings killed a quarter of a million Japanese people. That’s without taking into account the effects – on people and animals – of radiation sickness. The trauma of that has always felt close somehow – familial, personal. And the nuclear reactor at risk of meltdown this week – well, it’s frightening, isn’t it? It’s traumatic.

What does it mean to be born again, born from above or born of the Spirit this week? I think it can mean seeing and hearing Japanese anxiety as our own. Not just seeing and hearing but feeling and knowing, believing. It can also mean seeing nuclear technology as inherently dangerous. It can mean seeing the urgent need for greater investment in renewable energy technologies. Last week a German newspaper carried the headline: “End of the Atomic Age.”

Is this what the Spirit would have us see and believe? Is this where the Spirit would have us go?

How do you understand the movement of the Spirit in your life? What kind of new birth might you undergo? … Amen.