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Homily by Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon

Christmas 2, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
January 3, 2016

John 1:1-18; Jeremiah 31: 7-14

‘From the fullness of life have we all received’

When we read the Bible passages for today, especially the Gospel, we can celebrate the wonder of God’s love for us in Christ the “grace upon grace” that we are offered and the belief that we are “children of God”.

This is a time of restored hope. As we read in the Jeremiah passage, all people wait for such a message from their God. In a time when cynicism is rife, which is always the sign of a lack of hope, the people of God are called to offer renewed hope to the world.

The world will not believe us if that is a sort of happy-clappy romantic statement. It waits to see a community of faith which will enact hope as though it is true and possible, whatever the cost. This hope looks pain and injustice in the face and places the life of Christ on the ground in sometimes costly expressions of love and determination for change. When we do that, the world will hear the voice of a God who turns our mourning into joy and Christmas will become real.
 
But what does this mean and how do we invite those outside the church to join us in receiving these and countless other gifts from God? It is often all too easy to see ourselves as “special” superior to those around us who have not chosen to be Christian.
Self-righteousness is, I believe, one of the most common sins of people of faith all faiths.

When we decided to make our paper, the South Sydney Herald, an interfaith paper, one of the messages we hoped to give to the community is that we respect people of other faiths, that we are to listen to and learn from one another as people who seek to know God.

If there is one thing about the phrase “grace upon grace” it is that we are all those who need grace. We are definitely not the pure and sinless followers of the perfect God. In fact, we are those who, because we do relate to God, know all too well that we very frequently fail. If we ask God for forgiveness every week in our service, it is because we recognise that there is rarely a week when we have not been somewhere or done something we regret.

Part of the wonder of our God is that we are indeed forgiven grace upon grace is real. Many of us find that hard to believe and, even though we participate in the formalities of pardon, deep down we wonder if we can truly lay down our guilt and move on towards fullness of life again.

If there is one thing which I have learned in my years of ministry, it is that. It makes me ask myself whether the church that people see around them actually truly represents a God who offers forgiveness? How do those outside the church see us? Are we seen as those who offer all people grace upon grace, as Christ gives to us, or are we seen as those who judge others, and see ourselves as less human than those around us.

Many people carry guilt with them for decades of their lives, often until they are dying. When I was doing quite a lot of palliative care work, I started creating little statements about God’s love and forgiveness, grace upon grace - typing them up, framing them and putting them beside the hospital beds of people. I can’t tell you how often I would come to see someone and they would be asleep, literally holding the little statement of grace close to their hearts.

When I last visited the Pitt Street Church and was wearing my clerical collar, I walked up Park Street and there were four homeless men sitting on the footpath. They looked at me and one of them leapt to his feet and said “Rev. would you do something for us?” I assumed he was about to ask for money. Instead, he said, “Would you place your hands on us, forgive us and bless us, please?” All four of them wanted me to do this. They cried as I did it.

I must say that, one of the reasons I have stayed in this church at South Sydney is because I feel that we can be authentic, honest about our struggles and failures. In our paper, we try to bear witness to a God who loves us as ordinary human beings and would be prepared to pay any price to sustain that love.

As some of you may have seen, in the last week or so there have been numbers of Letters to the Editor in the SMH discussing who God might be if there is so much evil and suffering on earth. How can you believe in this God? I am not sure why some of us clergy haven’t responded, including me.

The God I believe in weeps with us as people suffer, lifts our hearts to try again when we fail, inspires us to see new possibilities, gives us courage to face into life’s hardest situations and loves us as we journey on in hope.

I believe this God sets us free to make our own decisions about the world around us and the community we form together while, of course, guiding and encouraging us towards truth. This is not about being directly rewarded when we are good and punished when we are bad. If that were so, I suggest that many people would try to be good so they were rewarded, rather than simply trying to do what is right for its own sake.

That would not be an appropriate relationship with our God, any more than it would be with each other. Of course, there are consequences for what we choose to do and for what others choose to do. We are all related to one another. When we kill others in warfare, that cycles around and creates enemies for the future. When we imprison innocent refugee children, it affects who we are, as well as who they may become.

When I worked internationally, I was always surprised by how deeply our historic wrongs and rights are embedded in the lives and cultures of people of other countries. People do remember when their ancestors were slaves of people who would now claim to be free and democratic. You hear that all through Africa and parts of Asia and South America.

That is not God punishing us, but us reaping the long-term consequences of the sins of our ancestors. God can invite grace and mercy in people who have been wronged, but they don’t or can’t always offer that.

Cultures are often formed by people of centuries ago and they live on without present people being aware of where they come from. I am always convinced that, if the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is the most conservative Anglican Diocese in the world, it is because those church leaders who first came with the convicts to the colony of New South Wales were known as the “dregs of the Missionary Movement”. They set up an Anglican Church which was simplistic, fundamentalist and quite different to that in, for example, the Diocese of Melbourne.

In giving these examples, I am suggesting that what we choose to do in any generation or moment, can affect not only our own lives, but the lives of others possibly for many years.

Our God will hold us in love and grace, whenever we live and will try to offer us greater courage and wisdom at each moment in our lives inviting us towards a greater good and deeper love for our world and our neighbours. But this God cannot make the changes for us.

On this day, as we stand close to our celebrations for the arrival of the vulnerable ChristChild, we might ask ourselves whether the Christian churches in general are perceived to be sources of inspiration, understanding, hope and grace? While I know that the Uniting Church is far from perfect, I have always been proud to be part of the most radical church in this country one which is inclusive and which enacts love and care for many vulnerable people and which takes its stand on many significant political issues.

I thought that the community at large would be relatively familiar with this, even if the mainstream media rarely gives us attention or a voice. However, in 1997, when I publicly owned my sexuality at the meeting of our Uniting Church National Assembly, I realised that I was wrong.

In spite of the fact that I received an 85% vote of affirmation from the Assembly, I suddenly found myself within a widespread response from the Australian community at large. In effect they were saying to me “Don’t worry. We will look after you Dorothy. We won’t let the church hurt you!”

Within three years, I received over 150 invitations to speak at various community events and to launch all sorts of things. I couldn’t do them all, of course, but I did do many. I couldn’t imagine why the Police Academy in Goulburn would invite me to speak to its trainee police officers. I can still see a Police Commissioner sitting among them with tears streaming down his face as I spoke.

In sharing this, I am suggesting that we have a significant task ahead of us in inviting hope about the church and for the world as we try to create true community a strong commitment of this parish.

Hope is not just about being optimistic in the general sense. It is about holding the life of Christ in our hands, as we do each Sunday in our Eucharist, and reflecting on what dream we can offer and live from in the next days of our lives. These dreams of compassion and justice may well seem impossible to achieve, but that is the example of the Christ who we serve. This Christ teaches us to dare to live so fully that it will call forth life from those around us.

Of course, it may also invite opposition from those whose power and profits we threaten, just as did Christ in living fullness of life. However, that costliness still leads us on to grander and more faithful life as followers of the Christ.

In response to the homily, in the silence, let us reflect on what hope we would like to express, both as a church and as individuals, if we could live more fully today?

Rev. Dorothy McRae-McMahon