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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Homily

Easter 3, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 8, 2011

Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-4,12-19; Luke 24:13-35

Talking to a stranger’

“Easter means coming to the memory of Jesus, looking for consolation, and finding a memory that hurts and judges, that sets a distance, even an alienation between me and my hope, my Saviour. Easter occurs, again and again, in this opening-up of a void, the sense of absence which questions our egocentric aspirations and our longing for ‘tidy drama’; it occurs when we find in Jesus not a dead friend but a living stranger” (Rowan Williams).

Last week, our inaugural artist-in-residence moved his easel and paints, books and radio into the upstairs room of the Manse. Johnny is someone I have known for more than a year, and yet his presence brings “strangeness”. I am made aware of my resistance to changes in the house, and my potential hostility – my lack of hospitality. It may seem a slight example – but it’s real enough. It’s enough to keep me from enjoying the creative possibilities in the year ahead – and beyond.

Our reading is from Luke 24 where Christ returns to his loved ones. The disciples cannot discern Christ (he appears in a stranger’s guise) until they relax a certain resistance and hostility born of disappointment, depression, anger – ideological convention – and commit to hospitality. Until they cease, for a moment, their anxious worrying. Until they give up, for a moment, their griefs. Until they let go their own version of events. They listen to the stranger from whom they are willing to receive ... They attend to the stranger for whose wellbeing they assume some responsibility ... They attend to the stranger whose pain they do not understand … whose pain, it turns out, they have in some sense inflicted …

“We have to begin,” writes Rowan Williams, “by seeing the cross as the cross of our victim, not of ourselves as victims … If I am involved in the transmission of violence, I cannot pretend that violence is something I can do absolutely nothing about; and if I discover, through this recognition, a possibility of transformed relationship with the other in whose suffering I have colluded, this makes some difference to the structure of the violent world …”

The assassination of Osama bin Laden is shocking in that triumphant appeals to “justice” have failed to discern an opportunity for moral action (capture, due legal process, exposure of terrorism and bigotry, some level of improved communications and relationships). The assassination, instead, reinforces a reckless sense of entitlement – and projects upon the “heavens” a wild western, and what’s worse, messianic, self-belief. The structure of the violent world is unchanged. Desires for vengeance are inflamed. We brace ourselves for “payback”, for retribution.

The Daily Telegraph went so far as to run a back-page notice of a “celebratory mass” to mark the event of bin Laden’s death. Whatever we feel about one who promotes violence and targets civilians (and we ought to feel repulsed), Christianity knows nothing of a “celebratory mass” to mark the death of a person – certainly not the state execution of a person (without the semblance of a trial). The Gospel – the Saviour – is drawn into a world of bloodthirsty desires, assimilated to a world of absolutised identities. No change. No growth. No repentance. No redemption. No reconstruction. No purification. No absolution.

President Obama addressed the residents of New York City and said that the assassination of bin Laden had been carried out in their name. His words were met with cheering approval – one person lauded a president who “really understands our suffering”, a president who “gets it”.

It’s a delicate, complex, highly emotional, even extreme example, and we can’t undo what’s been done. We can, however, be alert to what may encourage in us a concentration on our own suffering self-pity that prevents our liberation. “I shall not be asked at the last day whether I have ‘suffered well’, I shall be asked how far I have allowed Christ’s questioning to transform my life into compassion, and how far, therefore, I have allowed compassion in me to transform the world.”

We can be alert to the ways that suffering self-pity hardens our hearts to asylum seekers in “insanity factories” of our own government’s making. We can be alert to the ways that suffering self-pity keeps us in a state of infantile dependence, eager to please and thus to harness “parental” authority – and just as quick to blame, to resent and to punish. We can be alert to the ways that suffering self-pity fools us into thinking ourselves the completely innocent ones – keeps us from responding to the resurrection call forward “into a life that is genuinely new and effectively changed by a grace which both displaces the ego from its central and domineering position and grounds the self more and more profoundly in the accepting love of [Abba God].”

Today we are reminded that all this is possible because of the One we encounter at the altar-table – because of the Presence both real and reorienting. At the altar we are altered. The Eucharist confronts us with our victim and identifies us with our victim. Firstly, the risen Christ is other – stranger, dialogue partner. Then – only then – our eyes are opened and we recognise Christ as friend, as one of us …

“He is constantly ‘not here’. He is always the partner as well as the self-image, the stranger on the shore, in the garden, on the road, eluding identification and control. As such, he stands as a stark reminder that it is only in confronting the partner and the stranger that we meet him. He compels us to a self-forgetful ‘attention’ to all strangers and all dialogue partners – those of other races and cultures, of other faiths, of other Christian confessions, those with whom we create our ‘private’ lives, in marriage, family or community. To let the other be strange and yet not reject him or her, to give and to be given attentive, contemplative regard – this is all part of our encounter with a risen Lord.

“Yet at the same time, it is the encounter with this stranger which generates our own most central sense of identity, of ‘being at home’, so that the believer can invite the whole human world to find a home in the same encounter ... Around [the] magnetic centre of the person of Jesus risen and exalted there is room for us all, since through the medium of this figure the complex multiple relationships which bind people in mutually destructive patterns can become relations of gift and mutual enrichment” (Rowan Williams).

The disciples cannot discern Christ (he appears in a stranger’s guise) until they relax a certain resistance and hostility born of disappointment, depression, anger – ideological convention – and commit to hospitality. Until they cease, for a moment, their anxious worrying. Until they give up, for a moment, their griefs. Until they let go their own version of events. They listen to the stranger from whom they are willing to receive ... They attend to the stranger for whose wellbeing they assume some responsibility ... They attend to the stranger whose pain they do not understand … whose pain, it turns out, they have in some sense inflicted …

How might you relate to this? How have you encountered the risen Christ in the guise of a stranger? … Amen.