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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Lent 1, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 26, 2012

Mark 1:9-15

Wisdom in the wilderness’

“Abbot Pastor said: There are two things which a monk ought to hate above all, for by hating them he can become free in this world. And a brother asked: What are these things? The elder replied: An easy life and vain glory.” Today’s homily includes several fourth-century sayings from the desert fathers and mothers – believers who, like Jesus, sought Wisdom in the wilderness (beyond imperial Rome, beyond the compromises of state religion, beyond “Christendom”). The twentieth-century monk, Thomas Merton, greatly inspired by their counter-cultural example, sought to learn from them “how to ignore prejudice, defy compulsion and strike out fearlessly into the unknown” (The Wisdom of the Desert, 1960). God be with you …

I am invited to be in relationship with One who creates and redeems and sustains … One who, in Christ, shares my deepest fears and whose Spirit groans with a creation in bondage – One who is longing for the life of every frightened, cornered, cynical, starving, or despairing creature on the earth. Love. It’s not sentimental. It’s active, involving us wholly. It’s about repentance and belief.

That’s enough for us today. To hear these two words – repentance and belief – and to understand something of the spirituality to which they belong.

Repent! Be honest about the need for radical change. Changes to the way we relate the sacred to the secular, one to another, ourselves to the “others”, men to women, women to men, elders to youth, youth to elders, the present generation to a generation past, a generation to come. Changes to the way we work, rest (or fail to rest), resolve conflicts, distribute food, money, opportunities, treat the earth (with what manner of respect/disrespect?). Changes to the way we pray – as children intent on whining and blaming, projecting our own churlish tempers into the heavens, or as growing children, aware of the need for guidance, reproof, role models. Children assured of a dignity. Dependent and vulnerable, yet curious and creative. Repent! So John the Baptist called his fellow Jews to a baptism of repentance. So Jesus, baptised by John, identified with the same group of penitent, humble, hoping men and women.

“One of the brethren had sinned, and the priest told him to leave the community. So then Abbot Bessarion got up and walked out with him, saying: I too am a sinner!”

“A certain brother inquired of Abbot Pastor: What shall I do? I lose my nerve when I am sitting alone at prayer in my cell. The elder said to him: Despise no one, condemn no one, rebuke no one, God will give you peace and your meditation will be undisturbed.”

Repent! But also, says Jesus (distinguishing his ministry from that of John), Believe in the good news! Anticipate what a God who loves is yet to bring about. Participate in the Spirit of this God who loves. Celebrate the realities of healing and reconciliation, the realities of new life and peace with justice in the midst of decay and violence. Anticipate, participate in, and celebrate the good news of God’s costly and extravagant love for the world – and in particular, for the most hopeless and the least likely – the poor, the meek, the peace-makers, the persecuted.

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?”

“One of the elders said: Just as a bee, wherever she goes, makes honey, so a monk, wherever he goes, if he goes to do the will of God, can always produce the spiritual sweetness of good works.”

Two words. Repentance and belief. We might even say that the two words are expressed in one: Eucharist (which means thanksgiving). Gathering at the altar-table today we give thanks for everything that God has done, is doing, and has promised to do. Our thanksgiving is centred on love incarnate in Jesus whose ministry we both remember (lamenting, protesting and repenting of the evil that crucifies love in this world) and re-member, reconfigure, put together again (becoming for this world the loving body of Christ).

It is a spirituality as strange as it is sorely needed. It is the spirituality of the martyrs glad of the chance to bear witness to love. Shocking! Offensive! Can we open ourselves to it today? Can we be sufficiently still to allow its taking hold in our hearts? Do we discern that it entails not just a mere support for the cause, nor a mere sympathy for the plight of the mistreated and oppressed, but a genuine and Christ-like solidarity with others?

It entails seeing what we might prefer not to see. Systems of machismo in our societies; patriarchy and colonialism indifferent to desires for liberation and life; sentimental religiousness; petty self-righteousness. And … it entails a truly evangelical sharing – possible only in that Christ calls each of us to appropriate the good news for the benefit of others.

“A brother came and stayed with a certain solitary and when he was leaving he said: Forgive me, Father, for I have broken in upon your Rule. But the hermit replied, saying: My Rule is to receive you with hospitality and to let you go in peace.”

Each of us is called, in Lent especially so, to take to heart the good news of love. To practice a self-denial and self-emptying, yes, in the Spirit of Christ to expose ourselves to a testing, that we might know the joy of a love that gives – a love that gives to us our very selves as friends of Christ, as children of God.

To give up something for Lent is a valuable discipline if and when it helps me to repent and to believe. This double movement marks the moment of conversion, and more than that, a moment that opens onto holiness with others in the kindom.

Receive the ashes and oil – signs of common life in the world. You may like to say something about your experience of repentance and/or beliefAmen.