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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 20, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
August 18, 2013

Psalm 80; Luke 12:49-56

‘Praying with fire’

The primary image for us today is the image of fire. Today’s homily is first of all a reflection on/in fire – firepower in terms of being peace and making peaceGod be with you

A number of related images arise …

“Be praised, God Most High, through Brother Fire, / through whom you brighten the night. / He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong” (St Francis of Assisi).

“Until Europeans came, Australia had no wilderness, and no terra nullius. Today, amid the wreck of what Aborigines made [with fire and without], there remain relics of their management. They depended not on chance, but on policy. They shaped Australia to ensure continuity, balance, abundance and predictability. All are now in doubt. In the face of such doubt, so basic and so sweeping, can we really say we are managing our country? Can we really say we are Australian?(Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Allen & Unwin, 2011 – the book explodes the myth that pre-settlement Australia was an untamed wilderness revealing the complex, country-wide systems of land management – “fire-stick farming” – used by Aboriginal people).

Jesus said: “I’ve come to light a fire on the earth. How I wish the blaze were ignited already! …” (Luke 12:49).

Jesus said: “The one who is near me is near the fire, and the one who is far from me is far from the kindom” (Gospel of Thomas, 82).

At the Wesley Uniting Church in Hamilton last weekend, we arranged four candles on the altar-table as part of the wedding ceremony. We rehearsed the lighting of the candles the night before the wedding: a Christ candle, candles representing the families of the bride and groom, and a wedding candle. The rehearsal went smoothly. The following afternoon, however, first the bride’s family candle refused to light (I needed to dash into the vestry to find a replacement candle), then the groom’s family candle went out. Playing with fire is risky!

Heartwarming, though, was the sight of the bride’s mother persevering – the mother of the groom standing patiently with her at the altar. Both women unfazed – too happy to be fazed. Heartwarming was the sight of the bride and groom smiling through it all – as his family candle emitted a tiny smoke streamer, the groom mouthed to me the words, “Don’t worry”. Actually, I think they were enjoying the scene. Before reading the Gospel I relit the candle, which shone brightly thereafter.

Praying with fire might not be too ridiculous a description of the ceremony. Family members, relationships, were tried in the flames, where some kind of fusion occurred – some kind of purification … Later, at the reception, speeches were made, speeches with glowing references to the bride and groom’s good character – as well as glowing references to parents and parents-in-law, sisters, brother and brothers-in-law.

We know, too, that fire – even fire as a symbol of passionate love – isn’t always heartwarming. Jesus says that the fire he has in mind brings division. He highlights division within families.

The good news of equality can be confronting. Justice for all is confronting. Truth telling as a prerequisite to justice is confronting. Overcoming fears and claiming personal dignity is confronting. Learning to trust compassion’s lead is confronting. Discerning a call to solidarity with the homeless, to solidarity with the stateless, to solidarity with the nameless and voiceless – with those whose non-human voices are neglected or silenced … all this can be very confronting. And families, like all systems, can be judgmental, cruel, indifferent … or worse.

One of our members here has worked for some years as a casework leader within a foster care program. She knows how divisive truth telling in the Spirit of Jesus can be. We are in the process of setting up a prayer station here in honour of thousands surviving child abuse – in honour of daring and courage, the right to healing and support. Sometimes divisions are important and necessary – we pray that we are not lulled into inaction – or burnt out – by false unity, by ignorant or willful desires for unity.

One helpful distinction I’ve come across lately is the distinction between being peace and making peace (Paul F. Knitter). Being peace has to do with transforming my sense of who I am. There is a peacefulness that can sustain me no matter what happens, and that becomes the ground out of which I confront or embrace all the events and the beings that make up my life. Being peace is about nurturing wisdom. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh refers to waking up to our “not-self” reality lest our “ego-self” make a bigger mess than the one we are trying to clean up.

How do you nurture wisdom? Do you pray or meditate? Do you set aside time for reading and resting? Do you draw, paint, write, sing, stop, garden, listen, walk, run, cycle? How would you describe this fire (enlightenment) within?

Making peace flows from being peace. One theologian writes: “Because of his Jewishness, because of his participation in a tradition of socially engaged prophets, and especially because he lived and taught and experienced Abba at a time when the Roman Empire was brutally oppressing his people, Jesus’ mystical experience of Abba was at the same time a social experience of the reality he called the Basileia tou Theou – the Reign of God. For Jesus, the two were like … wisdom and compassion: you can’t have one without the other. A God without the Basileia of God – or an experience of Abba without an experience of the need for Basileia – was, for Jesus, an experience of a false God …”

“[T]he Basileia of God requires not only the transformation of the self but also the transformation of society; and that means social, political, economic and military structures … The awareness of oppression – or the preferential concern for the oppressed – was a pivotal part of how Jesus experienced and lived out his oneness with Abba …”

Being peace will not, as it were, automatically or seamlessly make peace. To truly make peace, oppressive structures, and those who hold them in place, have to be confronted … It requires taking on what St Paul called the powers and principalities (Rom. 3:38; Eph. 6:12). This is what led to Jesus’ crucifixion and to Paul’s beheading” (Paul F. Knitter).

How do we live with compassion, most compassionately? How do we maintain the fire of passion for equality (in a society where a newly elected archbishop makes reference to “minor” and “major” decisions within a marriage – the minor decisions assigned to a wife and the major decisions assigned to a husband!)? How do we (as a congregation, as a church, as a community) maintain the fire of passion for solidarity, for sustainability?

Let’s complete the homily together. What is the “peace” that Jesus doesn’t bring? … Amen.