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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 14, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
July 5, 2015

2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13

‘Learning to be graceful’

Various theories have been propounded to explain the mystery of Paul’s tormenting “thorn in the flesh” serious suggestions, like eye disease and arthritis, have been put forward, alongside more speculative ones. We are invited to identify with the weakness of Paul. His relationship with God depends upon what one commentator calls a sense of Christ-esteem. Paul sees his true self in Christ. God be with you

In the past I’ve shared an experience of weakness an experience of involuntarily donating blood while at a youth conference in southern India. Memory of lying on a table in a school hall in Chennai again calls to mind a vivid image of Christ-esteem.

Søren Kierkegaard says that a person is both spirit and matter, eternal and temporal, and that despair (Kierkegaard’s word for sin) consists in clinging to one or the other. I sin by thinking myself simply eternal (arrogant, superior, godlike) or merely temporal (worthless, inferior, ashes and dust). In an oft-cited passage from a book called The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard [Anti-Climacus] proffers a “formula for the state in which there is no despair at all: in relating itself to itself and in willing to be itself, the self rests transparently in the power that established it. This formula in turn … is the definition of faith.”

Elsewhere Kierkegaard likens faith to being “out on 70,000 fathoms of water and yet joyful” (Stages on Life’s Way). I love this image. Yes, that’s what it was like, “floating” on that table not fainting feeling that I was a part of something life-giving, something happening in spite of my weakness, in and through my weakness a buoyancy resting transparently in the power that established me, in the power that, in every moment, establishes me.

I love this image of faith as swimming. Swimming entails a certain resting or relaxing (learning to not thrash about), just as it entails a certain effort or skill (learning to reach, to cup the water, to pivot and to kick). There is grace (buoyancy) and there is striving (freestyle, breaststroke, etc.). There is learning to be graceful but always the water to lift me up, always the primacy of grace.

I have another experience (and a tuneless song) to share this year. Not of swimming, exactly, but of riding a Boston bus on a rainy night.

Everybody alone, everybody street smart
I’m listening to Jessica Pratt
Her lips in a bow, her eyes far apart
Hair in a straw-coloured gambler hat

A woman in a black TSA shirt, eyes like stones
She pats me softly on the arm
I notice people smile into their phones
And mostly they mean no harm

On a midnight bus to Roxbury
The watery road signs glow
A woman in a blue headscarf has started to cry
Sitting at the back by the window

With a bundle of papers, a roll of tape
A folded sign for a rally and a march
A man with mottled skin on his neck and face
Gets off at Washington and Malcolm X Boulevard

Everybody alone, everybody stretched out
I hurry up Warren to Moreland Street
Everything looks different, even my house
I wonder where the despised and the satisfied
people meet

Where do the distressed and the unblessed
 people meet?

Roxbury is one of the poorer suburbs of Boston. Social inequality, race and gang violence are prevalent issues. Recent incidents involving police brutality and a terrifying attack on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, heightened tensions in a place like Roxbury where sirens are heard most nights and gun shots not infrequently. A large mural near the bus station laments the high number of gun-related fatalities among African-American youth. I tried to act cool and not call attention to myself but again I was “all at sea” in an unfamiliar culture.

In such a context, it’s not just the road signs that are difficult to read. There are all the other signs too uniforms, music, clothes, skin, hair, houses; gestures, postures, comportment ... who sits where on the bus, and why.

I tried to empathise with my fellow passengers without seeming shocked or condescending, and to acknowledge the little acts of kindness and acceptance.

I was thinking about the blessings and woes, and the gospel presentation of people who are poor, weeping, hungry and hated or feared. I began to wonder where, if not on a bus, these blessed people might encounter those upon whom Jesus pronounces woes: the rich, laughing, satisfied and famous. Where might a healing encounter take place? A place of understanding, listening, sharing, shared blessing?

One simple answer, of course, is the church. The church or the body of Christ is (supposed to be) this place of encounter understanding and healing. So it’s not “everybody alone”, however individualism and competition shape our experiences (Jesus commissions disciples in pairs, to risk hospitality and connection), but it is “everybody stretched out” in the sense that the body of Christ is stretched out on a cross the discomfort and agony of the despised is a reality for us all to appreciate, lest we fool ourselves into believing that blessedness comes without the hard work of learning to be graceful.

How the American people this past week needed their president to speak of the agony of injustice, the urgency of graceful responses to injustice ... and to sing of an amazing grace.

Swimming entails a certain resting or relaxing (learning to not thrash about), just as it entails a certain effort or skill (learning to reach, to cup the water, to pivot and to kick). There is grace (buoyancy) and there is striving (freestyle, breaststroke, etc.). There is learning to be graceful but always the water to lift me up, always the primacy of grace.

Perhaps the philosophy of swimming is not to your interest. If a sense of Christ-esteem is about overcoming anxiety or despair, and embracing the freedom to be and to love, then there’s a simple word for it:honesty. To rest transparently in the power that established me is to be honest with myself and others, to be honest before God. Dishonesty is despair. Honesty is sheer delight.

Life comes to wholeness in active dependence on God. We are free to accept the things within us that are ordinary, weak, confusing, vulnerable, incomplete ... and sinful.

Assured of forgiveness and support, we can be honest about that. And we can come to see our true selves in Christ.

Whenever I am weak (in myself), then I am strong (in the One who is Sovereign Love). After a period of silence (in which we’re encouraged to rest in God and to be honest with ourselves), we can complete the homily together.

In which image of Christ from today’s Gospel do you see your true self?

Christ, the teacher drawn to wisdom? (Mark 6:2)
Christ, the rejected but resilient prophet? (Mark 6:4)
Christ, proclaiming repentance? (Mark 6:12)
Christ, the bearer of freedom and healing? (Mark 6:13)

... Amen.