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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 7, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 23, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18; Psalm 119:33-40; Matthew 5:38-48

‘When the given becomes the gift’

"You've heard the commandment ... But I tell you ... You have heard it said ... But I tell you ... [B]e perfect, as Abba God in heaven is perfect." There is a movement in today's Gospel, a movement towards the perfection of godly love. Again, in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which begins in blessing and ends in astonishment, we can hear the words as words of commission (rather than command). The movement toward godly love is something of which we are capable. We have this capacity for godly love, Jesus says - there is the possibility of conversion. In relationship, as a people, as a community of equals, a community of priests and poets ... this is always possible. God be with you ...

At Tuesday's Church Council meeting we shared in pairs our responses to the question: How would you express the Gospel in terms of gift and task? We shared our most comprehensive experience and understanding. The Gospel is, most fully, gift and task. My partner and I spoke of grace and nature, faith and good works, the adoration and imitation of Christ.

It strikes me today that one way of handling the gift is to think first about what phenomenologists call the "given" - the given law or scripture, for example - and then the movement toward gift or grace - when the given is made new, made now, somehow. What was merely given becomes something more, something we no longer take for granted, something that stirs a song of thanks and praise, something that startles, something that saves and makes beautiful. This is the gift. And the gift commissions - it sets for us a task, a work of love, a life-long project. Dignifying, uplifting, humanising.

The given means the basic reality, the bare fact of existence. There is a church in Waterloo. We are here. Each of us has come into the world by way of biology, genetics, geography, culture, politics. Each of us has a past we cannot change. Each of us has a temperament, a personality ... and together we have a history, too. All this is given. The raw material. The world, too, might be viewed this way. It is just there. It just is.

Religion is interesting and wonderful not least because religion is interested in the transfiguration of the given - the moment the given becomes the gift. Conversion. And we can appreciate this on multiple levels, from the cosmic to the personal.

When we say that the universe - space, time, air, water, earth - is alive with the presence and purpose of God, we are saying that there is more to the universe than the mere fact of its existence. We are pointing to enchantment - or better, we are witnessing to our own enchantment, our own place in the universe as priests and poets.

When we look into the eyes of a fellow creature, a neighbour, a friend, and see there the wonder of life and love - mystery as well as possibility - we witness to the sheer beauty of life together - miracle is a word we might use - or gift.

How does this conversion take place? How does the merely given become the sheer gift? In personal terms it seems to have something to do with acceptance and forgiveness. My past, my mistakes and gross misjudgements, may become a source of self-awareness, even wisdom and generosity ... a gift of compassion for others ... in a Spirit of acceptance and forgiveness. This might happen! It is possible!

Though it may entail much work. I was talking with a person last week who told me about an abusive childhood, and a decades-long course in reading and counselling. This person is one of the most dependable people I know - vulnerable, self-aware, safe, consistent. The raw data of a life transfigured or transformed into free responsibility, responsible freedom. My friend is wary of using the word God to speak of this movement. The word God connotes crippling abuse of authority and trust - demeaning notions of service and humility.

How does this conversion take place? How does the merely given become the sheer gift? I don't know. But it might!

In social or political terms it seems to have something to do with equality and respect. Our passage from Matthew 5 includes illustrations of confrontational equality and respect - respect for the other as well as self-respect. The verses are often read as promoting passivity or self-loathing - as though the only alternative to vengeance is collusion with a bully's disrespect.

Jesus commissions a deeper love.

Striking the cheek of one perceived to be of lower social status is the action in view. With the back of a right hand, the "superior" would strike the "inferior" on the right cheek. Turning the other cheek challenges the oppressor to rethink the behaviour. In first-century Palestine, an open-handed slap or punch to the left cheek would be considered an acknowledgement of equal status! It's easy for us to miss the paradoxical/comical nature of this example.

Giving an intimidating creditor a shirt and coat, and thus appearing naked before such a creditor, would be considered very confronting. Nakedness was thought to shame the one who beheld the nakedness. Again, the illustration has to do with provoking change, a movement towards equality and respect - a better way of resolving financial disputes, a better economics.

Roman soldiers were permitted to press into service any citizen or subject for the distance of one mile. To go an extra mile, willingly, would seem a creative and/or disarming gesture. It's the kind of response to brute authority that just might change perceptions. Of course, it might not work ... It might not be the most effective means of challenging the behaviour or attitude of your assailant or bully. Maybe, in your particular situation, it can inspire some other kind of response. The point would seem to be: accept the reality of the situation (the given circumstances) but look for means of transforming the situation - do what's least expected, out of respect for yourself as a creative person, and, as well as you are able, out of respect for the person who, in this moment, mistreats you.

The response, whatever decision you make, will encourage responsible engagement. If it doesn't foster respectful relations, stop and rethink what you're doing. Get out of there, or seek the safety of a trustworthy friend. The gift brings life and laughter, equality and respect.

That's true, whether we're talking about a difficult situation or relationship, or changes to the layout of our worship space. Is this a space in which to better express the gift and task of the Gospel? Is this a space in which to freely adore Christ and seriously imitate Christ? Might the pews and furniture items we're given become gifts of hospitality and safety, accessibility and care - can everybody see and hear comfortably, can everybody gather at the table, is there room to move around, is there space for play, is there space for guests and strangers, is there every chance of meeting face to face, speaking heart to heart? ... Is this a change for its own sake or a change for Christ's sake - stronger community ties and accountability to God and each other?

How does this conversion take place? How does the merely given become the sheer gift? I don't know. The given, at any moment, may become the gift. In a Spirit of acceptance and forgiveness, the gift commissions. The gift brings life and laughter, equality and respect. Is there a gift you'd like to give thanks for today? ... Amen.