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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 4, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
April 21, 2013

Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 10:22-30

The Voice

“I don’t like talent shows at all,” I said to my friend. “But I quite like The Voice.” I like that the judges/coaches have real empathy for the creative process and for the contestants/artists. The coaches don’t underestimate what it takes to get up on a stage and sing – and they encourage performers to persevere with singing – understood not simply as self-expression but as an act of faith in response to a calling. At its best, the show is about responding wholeheartedly to a Spirit of music, beauty, truth, humanity, humility (I don’t think all or most of the references to humility are phony), redemption, connection. The Voice of the title may be heard as the Voice of God. God be with you

My friend is a music fan, a feminist, a student at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Radio Broadcasting course), and a Reform Jew. I hear today’s Gospel as if in her voice – and recalling her stories of vibrant community life at (Temple) Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra. Today’s Gospel sees Jesus walking in the Temple precincts. Readers then and now are aware that the site is a ruin – the religious questions turn on concerns for the future of a faith in a God who creates and liberates and sustains life. What will become of a people chosen that a Voice of liberation might be heard?

In scenes prior to today’s scene, Jesus is in conversation with the Pharisees. Some scholars read literal reference to “the Jews” as continuing reference to the Pharisees. It makes sense.

The Pharisees were vigilant about exposing pretenders and religious fanatics. If there was a school to which Jesus belonged, it was that of the Pharisees. They were the reformers who worked and witnessed for a return to the more prophetic images of God. The Pharisees, like Jesus, disputed the Temple authorities over how best to serve and honour a God of justice and compassion. The Pharisees are the ancestors of the Rabbinic School that moved out from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple and continues Judaism in synagogues and family gatherings throughout the world.

By the time of John’s Gospel, the Temple has been destroyed and both Jews and the early followers of the Way were trying to survive in the midst of an often-oppressive Roman Empire.

We in the Church are descendants of the Pharisees through both Jesus and Paul. As Pharisees we ask questions. My radio broadcaster friend, like my friend John, reminds me of this shared heritage. We are all people of God in the ruins of the Temple.

I’d add here that, for many Jewish believers, the diaspora – the state of being scattered throughout the earth – is regarded an opportunity and even a blessing. Many believers are highly critical of a Zionism that reduces Jewishness (Jewish traditions, Jewish thought) to the interests and policies of the State of Israel. I’m thinking of Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler whose most recent book is called, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (2012). “It is clear that Jewish history comes to bear on Palestinian history through the impositions and exploitations of a project of settler colonialism. But is there yet another mode in which these histories come to bear upon one another, one that sheds another kind of light?” Butler asks. It’s a great question. Butler engages Jewish traditions in the interests of what she calls federalism and cohabitation, and in the name of justice and compassion for Palestinians and others, drawing on teachers such as Rabbi Hillel whose famous formulation reads: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” Mighty good questions.

Giving voice to these kinds of questions is already to begin discerning the Voice. In other words, these are prayerful questions. We’ll spend some time with these rabbinic questions in a few minutes, and then share initial responses with one or two partners.

Before then, though, I’d like to share a simple model of prayer that involves imagining a conversation with Jesus. “What would Jesus say?” At its best, this kind of prayer entails bold questioning and deep listening – asking what we really need to ask, and having the patience and courage to wait on an answer. What would Jesus – the storyteller and the host of scandalous dinners; the friend to the poorest who confronts the powers that manipulate and belittle; the crucified and risen Christ – What would this Jesus say?

Here’s an example of how such a prayer might unfold …

Me: “Who are you anyway, Jesus?”
Jesus: “That’s the big question. Who do you say that I am?”

Me: “So you answer a question by asking another? I love you because you show me the human heart of the compassionate God. I see the Spirit in and through and around you; the Spirit that moves over the whole creation like the first breath. And still lives as a human being, willing to live life fully into life, through death, into new life. I see the Love in you, willing to accompany us through all our joys and trials.”
Jesus. “It is enough. If you were to believe in the beauty of the flight of a bowerbird, it would be enough, for in such believing it would lead you into seeing the holy in all things.”

Me: “Can I believe, then, that you and Abba-God, the Father-Mother, are one?”
Jesus: “I’m glad you put it that way. The feminine has long been denied. It’s there in the traditions. What’s so hard to believe about that? Sure we are. While I was with you on earth I was limited in my ability to discern the great heart and mind of the Creator. That was the price and joy of being human. And yet, I was able to participate in God’s vision for creation through giving myself permission to
be in God’s presence. Now I’m taken up into the heart of God’s spaciousness. We are of the same substance; all of us on the planet contain the substance of the holy. We are one with God, as much as we desire and take time to be with God and practice that love with our neighbours. While I was with you, part of my journey was to be fully human while holding fast to my connection with my Abba. That’s why I gave the prayer: Abba God in heaven…” So that when you sought to be in God’s presence you could say this prayer and be there.”

Me: “What can I do?”
Jesus: “Besides to love one another, tell those who know me that I am a Jew, that I was born and died a Jew. It is out of the desert and out of bondage that I continue to walk with my people” (conversation based on meditation by Bob Stuhlmann).

Let’s complete the homily together. Hillel was born in Babylon about the year 100BCE, and died in Jerusalem at the turn of the first century. He is associated with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. It would be hard to overestimate his contribution to Jewish thought and practice. Our prompt for today comes from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” Let’s spend some time in silence, in company with these three questions. We’ll then have opportunity to share with our neighbours something of our discernment of God’s Voice … Amen.