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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 6, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 5, 2013

Psalm 67; Acts 16: 9-15; John 14: 23-29

Circle of responsibility

The death toll for Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster has climbed to 511 as the army continues to clear out debris at Rana Plaza, a garment-factory building that collapsed on April 24. Police have arrested Abdur Razzaque Khan, an engineer who worked as a consultant to Sohel Rana, the 38 year-old owner of the collapsed building. The government has also suspended Savar Mayor Muhammad Refatullah (for alleged corruption). Bangladesh’s garment factories face increased scrutiny after the building collapse (which followed reports of cracks in the structure) and also a November fire that claimed 112 lives. Western retailers and labour activists have been wrangling over a two year-old memorandum aimed at improving safety in the South Asian country, which supplies cheap clothes to stores around the world.

Today’s reading from the Book of Acts features Lydia, a first-century Asian woman involved in the garment trade. Her conversion is expressed in words and acts of generosity and hospitality. The Orthodox Church gives to St Lydia the title “Equal to the Apostles”, which signifies her importance and level of holiness. Jovana [Terzic] of Enmore depicts St Lydia with a pelican, ancient symbol of generosity and hospitality. Catherine [Wood] of Waterloo maintains St Lydia’s Library here at SSUC on behalf of members and visitors, each one deemed important and holy. God be with you

Paul receives his vision in the night. It’s a vision that requires interpretation; more to the point, it requires the community of faith. Famously, this is the first point in Acts where the narrator (Luke?) seems to join the characters as a part of the story.

Paul received the vision, but verse 10 says that “we” concluded what it meant and what to do about it. The vision must be interpreted, and that task does not fall to Paul alone. The small community contained in “we” is involved in discerning that this is God’s call not just to an individual, but to “us”; that the “help” needed is the preaching of the gospel; that the call is for immediate action.

The mission doesn’t belong to Paul alone. The mission, of course, doesn’t even belong to the church; it is God’s mission. Yet the church is called into the discernment of God’s mission at every turn. Where is the Spirit calling us?

It is worth noticing that Paul and his entourage do not stop in the lovely seaside town of Neapolis (modern Kavala in northern Greece), but immediately head for Philippi – “a Roman colony” – to the seat of imperial power in this corner of the world, an extended section of Rome itself, intended to be an example of what Rome offers to the world.

Perhaps a place like Philippi is where the Spirit of Jesus the Paraclete/Defender/Defence Lawyer (John 14:26) is needed most. And so, unlike the unsuccessful wandering that characterised the verses before the vision, here there is no hesitation and no meandering – it is straight to Philippi. God plants the church to be a community that says “no” to the ways of imperial power and offers a different way of life, a different story, and a different promise.

Though the team apparently wastes no time in getting to the city, the mission still requires patience. Not much happens for a while. They were there for “a few days” (just how long was that?). The appeal in the vision is urgent, and the response to it is immediate; but the results are not seen right away. When God does begin to work in Philippi, it comes with a surprise. Paul’s vision had involved a Macedonian man. But the first to welcome the gospel in Philippi is a woman, and in fact a woman from the area that Paul had just left in the east. Any simple expectations about God’s mission are likely to be wrong. How odd, and grace-filled, that this woman from Thyatira (in modern-day Turkey), in Asia where the Spirit had forbidden Paul to go, is now met in Philippi and hears the gospel.

Lydia listens, but Christ must open the heart to believe (verse 14). At this crucial point, Paul practically disappears from the story. It is not the charismatic personality of the missionary that has the power to create faith; it must come from God’s own merciful activity.

Lydia’s faith becomes immediately active: she is baptised along with her whole household, and she opens her home. Social and cultural barriers crumble. The author says that Lydia “extended an invitation” to Paul and his companions to stay with her and accept her hospitality. There is only one other place in the New Testament where this word is used: in Emmaus on Easter evening, as the two traveling disciples urge the risen Jesus to stay with them that night (Luke 24:29).

The fellowship of the risen Christ continues to extend into the world (Brian Peterson). God extends, through us, invitations to hospitality, to justice- and peace-making. Where is the Spirit calling us, and doing so through those whom we might otherwise think are outside our circle of responsibility? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before?

Western retailers and international labour activists met last week in Germany to discuss the Bangladesh safety memorandum. The contractually enforceable document, which would require companies to pay suppliers more so that factory owners can afford safety upgrades, was at the centre of discussions in Frankfurt on April 29.

Companies including Bentonville, Arkansas-based Wal-Mart and Plano, and Texas-based J.C. Penney attended the Frankfurt meeting, which was scheduled before Rana Plaza collapsed. The participants have set a May 15 deadline to draft an agreement and decide whether to accept the terms.

The global garment industry would have to spend about $3 billion over five years to bring safety standards at Bangladesh apparel factories to Western standards, according to an analysis by the Worker Rights Consortium. Upgrading the country’s approximately 4,500 factories would cost the garment industry about 10 cents per garment.

The annual cost would be $600 million, or about 3 per cent of the $19 billion the Bangladesh Manufacturers & Exporters Association says Western companies spend annually on manufacturing in Bangladesh.

At yesterday’s Writers’ Meeting, one of our young journalists, Ada, was moved to accept an invitation posed by Oxfam to investigate the situation of justice for garment workers in Bangladesh. Her report will be published in the June SSH.

Let’s complete the homily together: Where is the Spirit calling us, and doing so through those whom we might otherwise think are outside our circle of responsibility? What visions call us beyond the boundaries into ministry where we had not considered it before? … Amen.

Based on article in SMH, “Death toll in factory fire tops 500” by Arun Devnath (May 4, 2013).