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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Pentecost 28 (Ordinary 28), Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
October 14, 2012

Job 23: 1-9, 16-17;Mark 10: 17-31

Hard Questions’

The book of Job is a very important one. It arises from one of the strengths of the Jewish culture, the courage to ask the hard questions of God and each other. The Book of Habakkuk is another good example of that. It is likely that Job never existed but that the Book was written by someone who, obviously, was prepared to enter the depths of life and faith and to challenge the simplistic view that the good are rewarded and the bad people are punished.

Job is crying out to God as he suffers in life and his “friends” and opponents insist, over and over again, that he must have done some terrible wrongs to have earned such punishment from God. In the passage we heard today, Job can’t even find the face of God. He feels rejected and alone. He pleads with God to come near to him, and in the end, God does do that and reassures him that he is not being punished.

In the Gospel passage, Jesus is guiding the rich young man towards things of eternal value, rather than his reliance on his wealth. It is clear that the disciples can’t understand this. Obviously, they too interpret wealth as a sign of God’s approval.

When I read the promise of Jesus to those who leave things they value for the sake of good – the rewards which included houses and fields etc, I must say that I was puzzled. It didn’t seem to fit with what Jesus was trying to teach his friends and the rich young ruler earlier in the passage.

In fact, when I looked at the accounts of the same story in Matthew and Luke, I found that neither of them mentioned that sort of reward for faithfulness. In other words, the writer of the Gospel of Mark has added that bit. Obviously, he couldn’t cope either!

This shouldn’t surprise us. It is very understandable and human to believe that, if things go well for us, God is approving of our life. Admittedly, it is a bit easier to challenge that when we look at the obscenely rich people of the world, but harder if we are just thinking of more modest signs of well-being among ourselves.

The reality, also, is that, even in our day, people make judgments of people for whom life goes wrong, especially if they can’t see any reason for it. When we and others make obvious mistakes or wrong decisions and suffer for them, mostly people see that as a reasonable consequence of what we have done. However, if our lives enter tragedy or some sort of disaster which doesn’t make sense, then there are still some people who will believe that we have brought it on ourselves. Possibly many of us do that subconsciously too.

As some of you know, Barrie McMahon and I had a beautiful little first-born son, Christopher, many decades ago. He was gentle, talkative and creative. Everybody loved him. Then, when he was two and a half years old, he suddenly stopped speaking, shrieked and banged his head against walls and on the ground, hardly slept at night, ran away, destroyed things, ate everything in sight including books and soap and his siblings’ homework and related to nobody.

It was several years on before we had a proper diagnosis for this tragedy and realised what had caused it – an allergic response to his polio vaccination. Even after the diagnosis and some medication, he needed 24 hour care for the rest of his life. He was, actually a casualty of progress.

Shortly after this time, the Salk vaccine was taken away and replaced by the Sabine vaccine which was far less dangerous because it went into the stomach rather than directly into the bloodstream. In my schooldays, there would always be one or two children disabled by polio. You would virtually never see that now.

When it happened, Barrie and I were leaders in the Methodist Church in Glenroy in Melbourne. Indeed, we were among the seven other couples who set up that church and later another one at Broadmeadows. If I share this, it is to affirm that we were clearly people of faith and faithfulness.

So, it amazed, hurt and disturbed me to find how many of our church friends said to us things like “What could you have done that this should happen to dear little Christopher?” I couldn’t believe that they would say such a devastatingly hurtful thing to us and that they could believe in a God who would basically destroy the life of a little child in order to punish the parents for something.

Fortunately, I had never been raised within a Christian family which believed such interpretations of life and faith and I knew how to challenge them. I suspect that people are more likely to interpret an unexpected and sudden tragedy like that in terms of God’s punishment, rather than see a rewarding God if someone has particularly good fortune in some way. It is probably about our being shocked and puzzled when inexplicable tragedies happen. Having said that, it is just about the most terrible thing to say to anyone just when they are devastated, quite apart from what it might say about our God.

The reality is that life is extraordinarily complex when we try to interpret it in either a large or small context. It most certainly is not based on a God who rewards people of faith and punishes those without faith, in the more obvious and direct sense.

As I have said many times before, that would mean that most of us would choose to be people of faith in order to receive our reward. It would distort God’s relationship with us and would play into the hands of people who enjoy judging others and being self-righteous.

Good things do happen to bad people and terrible things happen to good people. We are invited by a loving God to cry out in our pain and grief, to ask the hard questions of God, to shout “Why, O God?” into the universe. One of the things I love about this congregation is that I believe we feel we can do that here. We don’t have to pretend that we understand all that happens and that we should not ask the hard questions of God. In fact, when we do ask the hard questions of God, it is actually a sign of deeper faith – we are not afraid of this God.

When we do that, I believe that a God who has walked our way and suffered unjustly as did Jesus Christ, draws near to us in love and comfort and invites all of us to hold onto each other in love and care.

Apart from when we receive the fruits of good and wise actions and kind gifts from others, or the consequences of obviously bad choices of our own or destructive behaviour of others, life must be random. As we deal with that together, we may grow in understanding and kindness and discover ways of, often unlikely and creative, survival.

God also asks us to look out onto the wider world and to stand beside those who suffer from so many injustices. Over the centuries, we have seen countries who claim to be predominantly Christian interpret their wealth and good fortune as a gift from God. That was certainly so in many of the European countries and, later, the United States.

And yet, so much of that wealth and prosperity had been achieved and expanded by slavery and the colonisation of all sorts of vulnerable countries in Africa, Asia and South America and ongoing systems of oppression. As they said to me when I was in Africa “They brought the Bible in one hand and took our land with the other.” Even now, there is missionary activity around the world which promises people that they will be released from poverty if they believe in our God.

If there was one thing I learned from working in the field of international aid, it was that most poverty is related to systems of injustice and oppression. If we are to obey our God in Christ, we are called away from forever trying to make ourselves richer and more powerful, and to stop blaming many people in needy countries for their own poverty and suffering. They may need to end their own or inherited systems of oppression and we should support them in that. We must not simply give to charities but try to be part of the changing of systems which are focussed on their own advantages rather than justice and compassion.

We must challenge the culture in which we live and invite each other to see that a far grander life lies before us if we will share what we have, rather than accumulating more and more wealth. I mean this in relation to our country, not just as individuals. I believe that, in recent times, we can see more and more meanness emerging as politically advantageous. As we reflected on a few Sundays’ ago, Jesus was calling on his friends and us to move towards eternal values, rather than those which so many people around us recognise and applaud.

Another contributor to that life where eternal values are upheld is to believe in a God who will hear our crying out when we need to do that and to uphold that God in our own lives by creating a community where we are safe and loved if we need to do that. It is to challenge those who interpret tragedy as the will of God for those afflicted.

As Christians, we don’t need to keep pious smiles on our faces when we are suffering, or to offer pious and simplistic responses to those who cry out. We can dare to hear them when they cry or question life and faith and enter their pain and doubt with them.

In the silence, as we complete the homily together, I invite you to listen for any crying out to God in your own life, now or in the past, or in the world around us, Then, if you wish come and place a little cross near to the cross on the Altar Table, in silence, or as you share.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon