Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.
‘TO BE, OR NOT TO BE’
As most of us watched the opening of the Olympic Games recently, we would have seen one of the most famous quotes from William Shakespeare – “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” printed on the ground. I had heard or read that quote many, many times before, but this time it both inspired and challenged me. Hamlet, who is saying those words in Shakespeare’s play, is contemplating suicide – deciding whether he will live or die. But, like many words and phrases, we can see all sorts of possibilities in their meanings and/or messages.
Today, I would like to reflect on what it might mean to “be”. In doing that, I will suggest that the life of Jesus gives us a picture of “being” at its deepest and grandest level and that, continuing on with our focus on “the bread of life” when we hold that in our hands during the Eucharist, it is an invitation to truly “be”.
In our Bible passages today we hear Solomon wanting the people to listen to their God and to forgive others, even foreigners. In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul is telling the people to put on the whole “armour of God” so that they can live as Christ calls them to do.
Then we have Jesus placing the gift of holy life in the hands of his friends, but finding that his teaching is difficult for them. Some of them are now turning away from him because the life he lives and invites in them is more than they can handle.
With these passages as our background, I want to suggest that there are two main themes in “being” and in living life to the full in the power and company of the Christ.
The first theme is one which has been developing for me in each decade of my life. It is about daring to be who I am, believing that I am a child of God, a very human one accompanied by a human Christ, and one who will live more fully if I am brave enough to go down into the depths and up into the heights of life’s experiences and realities.
There was a time when I thought being a Christian meant controlling my genuine feelings, always being “nice”, being positive about everything so I didn’t need to enter pain, fear, doubt and grief. It was a sort of living on the surface of life and having everyone love me because I was so kind and pleasant (or I appeared to be) and even imagining that I could protect myself from my own real feelings.
Over the decades, I have been taught by many inspiring friends and others that this is not truly “being” and that it is a life which actually lacks the faith in an understanding and human God. It also takes away the true riches of authentic life, which holds within it all sorts of ups and downs and riches of response.
I must say, my late partner, Ali, brought me more gifts of learning in this direction than anyone else. I remember first meeting her Irish Catholic family and sitting among them nervously as they shouted and swore at each other and then paused and said “Anyone want a beer?” as though nothing had happened!
Ali would tell me off and then, when I looked anxious, say “What’s wrong with you? I was just being honest. I love you enough to do that and I expect you to love me enough to do the same for me.”
Bit by bit, I realised that this was a rich and real way to live. It was to truly “be” and, when enacted by people who love each other carries us into wonderful laughing and crying, forgiving and encouraging.
Then, of course, for some of us there is another moment when we have to choose whether we will “be” when we face the fact that we are different from most others and that, if we “be” may face criticism, rejection and by some religious people, condemnation.
I will never forget the moment when I decided that I could do no other than claim my sexuality. I knew that so many things were at stake and it felt like stepping off a cliff. Just recently I found a poem that I wrote when I did that. Here it is:
THE UNUTTERABLE EXPERIENCE
OF THE GRACE OF GOD
It arises within me like the fluttering of my heart -
a trembling of hope which I can’t explain or name.
Then there is the sound of singing
in a voice of tenderness
which lies deep within me
and then spreads across the heavens like a universal song.
Could I dare to believe that I am loved?
Is the song really for me?
I look down into the depths of my soul
and feel beneath my life the firm hand of God.
“Would I ever forget you?” a gentle voice says,
“You are mine and I love you.”
The skies part in breathless joy,
my soul flies free for the first time
and all of my being wheels into oneness and fullness.
The fragmented elements of my truth,
which I have always denied life,
come together in delighted integration.
I am alive and Christ is risen within me!
The grace of God surrounds me like a cloud of love
and I stand on the ground in recreation.
I am home, I am free to live!
Thanks be to God!
That sort of claiming of “being’ can be costly for some of us, but I believe that we called into that place by a God in Christ who was, himself often rejected and criticised. We are also called into this “being” in honour of our Creator who filled the universe with the wonder of diversity.
The second theme around “being” is, in my view related to the “difficult teaching” which was turning people away from Jesus, as we hear in the Gospel reading. There were, obviously, many times when Jesus met the people, including his disciples, and they were attracted to him. He was their healer and inspiration. He fed them and loved them and often challenged the powers of the day on their behalf. They followed him around, hoping to receive all sorts of gifts from him.
However, now, the friends of Jesus are beginning to see that he is inviting in them a much more costly “being”. He is leading them on the way of the Cross, towards action for truth and justice and a love of neighbour which will put them at risk. It will demand courage and faithfulness from them in ways which may invite responses from those in power in the synagogues and in government.
In Christ “to be” was, and is, to enter a depth of living which may well not be popular. In some environments, it may invite the risking of life and liberty on behalf of others who suffer oppression, violence and need. What the Christ demonstrates to us is that this is the path to fullness of being and life which rises above and beyond deathliness.
Many of us will be tempted not to “be” on various fronts. In our sort of society, it is all too easy to live superficially, consuming life which brings us ease and pleasure and taking little notice of what happens to others. This is not, of course, the suicidal option which Hamlet was contemplating, but it is a choosing to let some parts of us die.
In saying this, I am not suggesting that our lives should not be joyful on many fronts. To “be” in Christ is not to deny or turn away from those parts of life, but to add to them in deeper ways.
If we do decide to live as fully as we can, obviously, we need to hold onto each other as we go. We can both inspire each other to deeper and grander being and we can create a sacred space of love and care which allows us to go down into:
and so on . . . .
Churches are not always so inviting of this sort of genuine “being”.
Then, we need to hold onto each other as we face the realities of the world and the community around us. True fullness of life is not just about being happy and believing in God. It is about daring to believe that we can be part of the creating of a grander “being” of Christ’s life in the way we live together.
We may need to take up the cross and follow Jesus in ways which respond to “difficult teaching” – walking the road with the Christ, even for small distances and encouraging each other as we go.
We could well spend time together asking ourselves what activity might bring our parish into deeper being? “To be, or not to be. That is the question”. Indeed.
In the silence, as we complete the homily together, I invite you to reflect on what part of “being”, either personal or in relation to the community, would feel to you like taking up the cross and following the Christ. Then, if you wish, come and take a small cross from the tray and place it before the Cross on the Altar Table.
Rev. Dorothy McRae-