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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Epiphany 4, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
February 1, 2015

1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

‘Strange passivity’

The last time I preached here was on the occasion of Laura’s baptism, when I had the opportunity to mention one of Laura’s musical heroes, Tori Amos a “poet steeped in language”.

On the V-Line from Melbourne last week I happened to read an interview with Tori Amos in the NSW TrainLink magazine. It seems apt that my first homily after a break should also cite Amos, who says: “… you co-create with what I call ‘the muses’ and … they speak to you if you listen. People who think that they do it by themselves usually have a very short career and aren’t able to write for 50 years. Different composers and songwriters call it different things. [But] if you’re able to tap in, you can hear different music structures. That’s what true inspiration is: it comes from somewhere. Trust me. It does not come from me. It exists and anybody can tap into it. But you have to be willing to listen …” (Tori Amos, The Link, Dec/Jan/Feb 2014/15). God be with you ...

What Amos calls “true inspiration” corresponds to what Paul describes as “being known”. One commentator refers to a “strange passivity” (James Allison). It’s not just a matter of apprehending inspiration as such, but, as Paul points out, it’s about compassion. It’s about love and the way that love informs and transforms knowledge the way that knowledge (of idolatry, for instance) is transfigured as wisdom (concern for others in their particular vulnerability).

Being in relationship trumps being right. If “trumps” is the right word.

Paul is responding to a letter from the Corinthians who boast about their knowledge of spiritual things. He writes: “We all possess knowledge. But knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds up. You may think you know something, but you still won’t know it the way you ought. But anyone who loves God is known completely by God.”

Strange passivity, indeed. You have to be willing to listen. Indeed.

On Friday I conducted a funeral service for a man called Bob Jarvis. Bob the builder, from Yorkshire. I mentioned him also in a homily just before I took leave last month. I’d married Bob and Helen six years ago, and caught up with them recently following Bob’s cancer diagnosis and time as a patient at the Sacred Heart hospice in Darlinghurst. Bob’s funeral was held at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium in Botany.

I arrived early and revised my notes. I felt that I was prepared but I also felt overwhelmed. I knew how devastated Helen was. She and Bob were not really religious in any institutional sense and I knew that Bob, especially, was wary of religious language and ritual. I’d decided not to wear my clerical shirt, but to wear a tie I’d bought in Melbourne on the day of Bob’s passing.

Inside the chapel I placed my notes at the rostrum and rehearsed the procedure for closing the sheer curtains in front of the casket. I made sure there were tissues and cups of water at the rostrum.

Family members, including Helen and her sisters and brothers, nephews and a niece, arrived. Bob’s daughter, Sue, arrived last of all, just in time for the service. She was distraught and made several attempts to enter the chapel before settling on a pew up the front.

I did my best to read the words I’d prepared. To be mindful of Helen and Sue and the rawness of their grief. I read a letter from Bob’s “heartbroken” family in England. Helen gave an impassioned eulogy. She recounted first meeting Bob in Bali when she signed up for his scuba diving class. She was “out of her depth” but Bob took her by the hand and led her to the safety of shallow waters.

We listened to Rod Stewart’s “You’re in My Heart, You’re in My Soul” … and the Gospel reading was Mark 12: 29-31 about loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength … and love of neighbour. The spiritual and the practical entwined. I’d noticed the loving touches Bob had made to the house where he and Helen lived in Botany rounded corners and archways and circular gardens and I regarded these as practical and spiritual expressions.

During the Committal Sue returned a second time to the casket and remained there weeping as the curtains closed.

It was not then that I felt I’d contributed anything much at all. If “contributed” is the right word. Feeling exhausted, really, strained and drained, I went with the family to the reception room for afternoon tea.

An hour and a half later, things were quite different. I was still there. I had spoken with Sue about collecting some of Bob’s ashes for a ceremony in Bali. I had joined in conversation with a few family members, including the children of Helen’s sister Ann Marie, who had travelled from Canberra. I had shared a cup of tea and a sandwich with one of Helen’s co-workers at Pacific Brands. I was befriended. It was then, and only then, that I felt I’d engaged in anything resembling ministry/care.

“You may think you know something, but you still won’t know it the way you ought. But anyone who loves God is known completely by God.” Strange passivity. You have to be willing to listen.

Whatever ministry means, it’s not so much knowing as being known. As with ministry, care, love, creativity … so with life itself. It’s about listening, responding, believing, trusting. I have a new working definition of religious life: love and wait for something to happen.

There’s another layer to this reflection. It was only when a friend asked me how I was feeling following Bob’s funeral that I understood something about what had happened to me, within me, through me and around me. That I experienced this “epiphany”.

There is discernment here we can call discerning the presence of a Christ whose power/authority has nothing to do with rivalry (the anxious desires we ordinarily mimic) and everything to do with liberty with the exorcism of all that possesses, inhibits and diminishes us.

Here’s how one commentator puts it, alerting us again to Tori Amos’ insight that inspiration comes from beyond one’s self.

“… the other who is prior to us [God] is not in rivalry with us, and we don’t need to possess who we are as though we would lose it if we didn’t grab it. There is not a scarcity of being or of regard from the other, against which we need to protect ourselves. And so we find ourselves being discovered and known in just the same sense as a really first-rate impresario spots a talented future actor or singer long before the actor or singer knows that they are really talented, have what it takes. And it is in the impresario believing in them that they are able to be discovered. They were ‘known’ before they knew it. And if we were to be such an actor or singer saying ‘I was discovered’ we wouldn’t merely mean that someone with the right connections had simply lighted upon our talent which was already there. We would mean that their act of knowing, of discovering, was actually creative of something into being. Our talent would be in some way a symptom of their discovery of us.”

To shift key slightly, but only very slightly: what would it look like to imagine the Eucharist as the body language of God come into our midst? Wouldn’t it be simply ... accurate?

When have you experienced this kind of liberating and “strange passivity”? How has your sense of knowledge or self-assurance been transformed by listening or by loving? Amen.