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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Pentecost 16 (Ordinary 25), Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 23, 2012

Psalm 1; James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37

Participating in eternal life’

We are called to live the dream of life, one where our living is profoundly renewed by a God who invites the things of eternity within us. We will be planted by streams of living water, and fed by a Spirit who longs to nurture all that is good. Sometimes we will bear surprising fruit, enough to share with others in humble gratitude.

This is the joy of our future with the Christ, the one who looks upon us with hope and calls us on towards that life.

Often the focus on eternal life, by people of faith, is strongly linked with concepts of heaven and hell. People did not like the placard held up by Muslims in their recent demonstrations which claimed that all who were not of their faith would be consigned to that hell. However, let us admit that there are many Christians who would say the same of those who are not of our faith. Wherever that idea comes from, I do not believe that it lies at the heart of eternal life.

In the Gospel, we find the disciples, anxious about what Jesus is telling them about his future, competing with each other, focussed on who is more important.

In one minute, Jesus is sharing with them what lies ahead in the way of the cross and his resurrection – a very challenging and costly example for them. Then, in the next minute, Jesus tells them to become like little children.

Of course, we know that children are not always good. They surely do have their moments! However, there is something especially open, innocent and generous about the life of a child. As I prepare to leave my present home, the little children who are my neighbours offer me love almost every day – reassuring me that they will come and see me and that they will miss me.

We see in the children here, a wonderful freedom to create, to simply join in, in their own ways and to offer a sort of delight in life to us. I think Jesus is inviting his friends to see the depth of eternal life within this – uncluttered by competing with each other and looking into the future with trusting eyes.

When we ponder what eternal life might mean, let us remember times in our lives when we dared to become as little children –moments of innocent expectation, vulnerability which revealed love in others and trust which led to new relationships. We give thanks for friends around us who do not invite in us the need for being other than ourselves, who simply love us as we are.

The first Psalm gives us an interesting picture of virtue and wickedness. Virtue is attached to a life which is like a tree planted in streams of water – it grows, it is nurtured and renewed and bears fruit which others may share.

On the other hand, wickedness is imaged like chaff, which is blown away in the wind. This gives us a picture of life which is about what has lasting value, rather than one which points to good and evil in the traditional way. Personal importance may be a human illusion which, when we are face to face with God is like worthless chaff?

When I was reflecting on eternal life, it seemed to me that the only completely eternal existence in the universe is God. Everything else is vulnerable and moving in and out of eternal qualities and values.

Having said that, this God in Christ Jesus longs for us to see what eternal life is really like and invites us to engage with that as best we can on our human journey. The Holy Spirit calls us on to live with a passion for this eternal good and holds us in love when we stumble or fear.

So, what are eternal values? I believe that they are all linked with love – that open gracious love which we often find in a child. Love is lived out in many ways – in justice, compassion, courage, inclusiveness, forgiveness, and humility. It is expressed in the depths of true community.

For people of faith, we face our God in every moment and we see what this God is like in Christ. However, I guess that we only know the total reality of who this God is when we die. When I wonder about what might be waiting for us after death, there are two books which have influenced me deeply - not just because they reflect on life after death, but because I believe that the possibility for eternal life for us lies within each moment now.

I can’t remember the author of the first book, which I read many years ago and which was called “Life after life”. It was written by an American surgeon who found himself hearing consistent stories from people who had entered the journey of death and then recovered. All of them, whether of a faith or of no faith, told stories about moving through a passageway and finding themselves in the presence of absolute love. This love was so great that they could see clearly who they were and found it safe to do so. This love held them fast, no matter what they saw.

The second book is called “Testimony of light” by Helen Greaves. It has now gone into its 20th edition and I think that Ali and I between us would have given away at least 17 copies of it.

Helen Greaves is a very leading Anglican woman in England, a member of national committees of that church. Her close friend, who was an Anglican nun, died, and not long after her death, Helen found herself writing down what seemed to be messages from her about life after death. When she showed other friends what she had written down, they all recognised the typical style of speaking of the woman who had died. After a few months, no more messages came to her.

What she related was a journey of moving towards light, that which revealed what she had within her life which had eternal value. What was not of eternal value was reduced to nothingness, like the chaff in today’s Psalm. She told of people engaging with each other in love and care and offering what they had brought with them to add to life.

One story was of a person who had been a Nazi in the death camps and who was lying like a skeleton in a foetal heap – so little of eternal value had survived in him. Instead of some sort of punishing hell, people who had loving skills would gather around him each day and hold him gently or stroke him. Always people were moving closer to the light of God, bearing with them the qualities of eternal life, as far as human beings could do.

If I share these stories, it is not so much as a sort of warning or even as a reassurance. It is more as an invitation to us, both individually and together, to add to eternal life within us and around us. It doesn’t mean that we would ever expect to be perfect, but that the wisdom of the Spirit, the company of Christ and the creativity of God can lead us in ways which expand true life through us.

As the Psalm says, we can be like trees planted by streams of living water, yielding fruit and leaves which do not wither – holy gifts for the church and the world.

In the silence, as we complete the homily together, let us reflect on what we had seen or done which we believe has eternal value, something in life which is cherished by God’s living water. Then, if you wish to share or do so in silence, come and take a leaf from the little tree on the Altar table.

And may streams of water feed our life together,
Christ Jesus challenge us when we go astray
and the Holy God show us,
in the Spirit, what really matters in the end.

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon