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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 15, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 14, 2013

Psalm 25; Colossians 1:1-14; Luke 10:25-37

‘Two religions’

On Thursday night our Bible Study group convened at Pitt Street Uniting Church for a workshop with Seattle-based biblical scholars Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson. The couple presented a simple and helpful template for reading the Scriptures – it’s a template described in some detail in Howard-Brook’s latest book, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, a copy of which has been ordered for St Lydia’s Library. In short, the author reads the Scriptures as bearing witness to a struggle for understanding and allegiance between two contrasting religions or two ways of living together (religion, from the Latin religio, means to bind again) – a religion of Empire and a religion of Creation. It’s not so important, Howard-Brook argues, whether one identifies as an Israelite or a Judean, a Catholic or an Evangelical, a Jew or a Christian, but rather which religious way of life one adopts – which God one worships: the God of a religion of Empire or the God of a religion of Creation. God be with you

A religion of Empire has to do with power concentrated in the hands of an elite group – power exercised in the interests of a wealthy king and a heavily fortified temple/city – power lorded over the majority, exploiting the faith of the poor, exploiting the earth and its resources – modeled on Babylonian, Assyrian and Roman rule. A religion of Empire has to do with identifying insiders and outsiders – internal conflicts are resolved by scapegoating strangers and others deemed impure, dangerous, morally suspect, and so on. The stories in the Bible that tell of the kings, of the kingdoms, conquests and humiliations, of desires for a powerful and impregnable city, a mighty warrior Messiah, model a religion of Empire. At base, a belief in redemptive violence (the violence of the righteous over the unrighteous) animates and motivates.

My own experience of this type of religion is an experience of fundamentalism – a religion of fear, rules, patriarchy/patriotism, racism, homophobia, conformity and collusion with dominant legal, economic and political forces. You might have your own terms and examples. I mentioned recently Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of the social-religious mainstream he called Christendom.

A religion of Creation, on the other hand, has to do with the divine presence in the earth, in and through different cultures, creatures and peoples – the divine presence as power shared that all might be housed, fed, freed and valued. The Creation and Exodus stories, the words of the prophets in the name of justice, the apocalyptic unveilings of imperial seduction and manipulation – these are some of the examples of witness to the God of a religion of Creation.

Howard-Brook emphasises the incompatibility of these two approaches, these two belief systems, these two stories. They are entwined but incompatible. Attempts are made – in some of the Wisdom literature of the Bible, for example – to harmonise the two religions, yet they are incompatible.

Jesus was born into a thousand-year argument over true religion. The key to understanding the Good News, the author says, is to appreciate that Jesus sides with the religion of Creation. He does not see himself as a king in any sense resembling David or Solomon or Jeroboam. He laments the imperial and priestly collusion in Jerusalem. He identifies with the prophets and with the presence of God in birds of the air and lilies of the field (each flower more resplendent than Solomon in all his finery), water, light, bread, wine, sheep, hens, poor labourers and outcasts. Jesus parodies the warrior-king and embodies the Suffering Servant of Second Isaiah. In the company and Spirit of this Messiah/Christ, patriarchy and patriotism are deconstructed. His life is in collision with Empire – his risen life is the vindication of non-violent and egalitarian life in Creation.

Today’s Gospel shows it very clearly. One form of religious identity and observance gives priority to ritual purity – the priest and the Levite do not stop to help a wounded traveler for fear of being contaminated by blood or death. The shocking element in the parable is that the Samaritan is the one who shows compassion. Judeans (later, Jews) and Samaritans regarded one another with suspicion and hatred. Each regarded the other an imperfect and impure expression of Abrahamic faith. The Samaritans traced their lineage to the ancient Israelites, and so hostilities between Judeans and their northern neighbours in Samaria carried memories of failed experiments in monarchy and a divided kingdom.

If the Samaritan is the exemplar of faith, then it ceases to matter who is in and who is out. What matters is neighbourly love – compassion for the wounded and the dying, costly generosity, simple kindness.

In responding to a legal nitpicker by way of such a parable and its injunction to “go and do likewise”, Jesus repudiates all claims to “eternal life” (holy life, righteous life, justice, the good life, wisdom, prosperity, blessedness) without reference to compassion. Any way we say this is likely to soften and weaken the Word.

Religious ritual is practice in compassion – and there is no limit to neighbourly love. How can there be when the invitation is to become a neighbour oneself? What we are given, the gift of Good News, as a great many scholars note, is an image of God’s own hospitality, God’s own compassion. “In the ministry of Jesus, which the Church has to continue, God offers extravagant, life-giving hospitality to wounded and half-dead humanity. The way to eternal life is to allow oneself to become an active instrument and channel of that same boundary-breaking hospitality” (Brendan Byrne SJ).

“If one leads a life measured by the constraints of one’s own expectations and the cultural and religious expectations of one’s peer group, there can be no openness to the ways of God. God’s goodness to us and our goodness to one another can only have one measure: God’s love for us … Suddenly, whether we are culturally acceptable or not becomes unimportant” (Francis J. Moloney).

I do like Howard-Brook’s template. It may run the risk of sectarian pessimism (the Empire, it seems, forever strikes back), but pessimism is countered by a joyful mysticism and paradox: the more deeply Christian I become, the less it matters my being Christian.

Where do you see this compassionate God? This Hospitality? This Egalitarianism? This Love? In the Churches? In Christianity? In Creation? Somewhere else? How is this Good News for you? … Amen.