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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 10, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 10, 2018

Psalm 81; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23 - 3:6

‘The question of family’

Reading Mark’s account of the true kindred of Jesus, and the implied critique of those constrained by cultural and religious mores (the “relatives” who at times confuse care with control; the “religious scholars” who misread  – intentionally or unintentionally – blessing as blasphemy), I think of another bold leader – one who attracted crowds and aroused suspicion of madness. In London, 280 years ago, John Wesley wrote of his “heart strangely warmed”. God be with you

“I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation,” Wesley wrote, “and an assurance was given me that Christ had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

It’s a well-known text. It’s also well-known that John was widely regarded a strange person: an open-air preacher, an eccentric cleric, passionately engaged in mission work and theological debate, restless, sometimes withdrawn, highly educated, a committed abolitionist, unhappily married …

John Wesley was a priest in the Church of England during the period following the agricultural revolution (1730s–40s). Large numbers of farm workers, displaced serfs, converged on the city, desperate for work. Most could not read or write, many drank heavily, succumbed to sickness or criminal activity.

Wesley involved himself, gave himself, to what he saw to be a movement of the Spirit in his day – a “rising of the poor” – peasants, working people, claiming for themselves a place within the religion of the time, which they had been otherwise denied, and creating for themselves societies and associations to support and extend their new-found consciousness.

In a sermon on “National Sins & Miseries”, he said: “That the people suffer, none can deny … thousands of people in the west of England, throughout Cornwall in particular, in the north, and even in the midland counties, are totally unemployed … I have known families, who a few years ago lived in an easy genteel manner, reduced to just as much raiment as they had on, and as much food as they could gather in the field.”

Wesley didn’t just preach about poverty. He didn’t just provide handouts. He listened and learned from those “in misery”; from their courage he learned joy – rooted in friendship with Christ. He made them, whom others called “a few raw, young, unlettered men [and women]”, preachers and leaders of small support groups, house churches and proto-trade unions. A list of Bristol preachers in 1741 includes “2 hoopers, 2 weavers, 2 master-mariners, 2 braziers, a house carpenter, a serge maker, a cork cutter”.

Wesley’s sole criterion was whether a potential preacher had a “spiritual power” and a “conviction to declare”. He trusted their call and believed God was at work in and among them.

Wesley received a great degree of acceptance and affection from the common people. He became, ultimately, more uncomfortable with the upper class, Oxford or London society, than with his “Kingswood colliers”. His highest praise was to say that someone was like one of his Kingswood colliers. “O, that our London brethren would come to school at Kingswood,” he wrote.

His style of living reflected his giving himself, his incarnation into the world of working people. He kept a very simple “cell” in London, Bristol and Newcastle. When elsewhere, he stayed with his preachers. He urged and practised a diligent frugality. He saw to it that all the giving of his congregations went to those in need. (Only in later Methodism was most of it deflected into buildings and ministerial salaries, with only a token “Poor Fund” left at an infrequent sacrament.)

In a leaflet addressed to his fellow disapproving clergy, Wesley said: “The rich, the honourable, the great, we are thoroughly willing to leave to you. Only let us alone with the poor, the vulgar, the base, the outcasts …” And to George II (pertinent in light of this Queen’s Birthday holiday weekend), he declared: “We are inconsiderable people, a people scattered afield and trodden underfoot. Silver and gold have we none.”

Wesley’s witness is pertinent today, in light of our Gospel, in that, like the witness of Jesus, it speaks of a God who gives Godself away, a self-emptying motivated by care and genuine concern for others – a self-emptying, ultimately, unhindered by ridicule or scorn.

In Roman Palestine, a criminal was forced to carry a cross through the city. A public display of guilt that attracted ridicule, scorn and horror. “Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus, according to a later chapter of Mark. In other words: “Be willing to publicly display your faith and endure the consequences of such a display.”

It can be hard for us to comprehend what the cross means. Before it became a sign of conventional religion (sectarian or establishment), the cross meant statelessness, accursed abandonment, loss of identity. Resurrection, then, meant/means some kind of new life/hope via identification with non-citizens, cursed and lost ones, outsiders.

Norrie put it so beautifully at Wednesday night’s gathering to discuss pastoral and liturgical responses to marriage equality legislation: “We are all siblings of Christ.” Ian was equally eloquent in offering prayers for inclusion. Knowing something of their conviction and pain, I was moved and proud to know myself a sibling in the same Spirit. “This is my family!” says Jesus.

Because God’s promise to send a Messiah, a servant-ruler unlike the kings of old, is fulfilled; because John Wesley and others remind us that this messianic praxis, this love goes on … we are freed from anxieties of self (How do I prove myself, succeed, impress, achieve, avoid all ridicule and pain?), freed for genuine concern (How shall I respond to pain in the world – sensitive in particular to the pain I have caused?), free to love and to give, assured that what we have to give – hearts strangely warmed, souls regarded strange – is more than enough.

Outsider Art celebrates the creativity of “unqualified” or “unlikely” artists. The artwork on our printed liturgies is by J.B. Murray of Glascock County, Georgia. What do you see in his “Spiritual Vision” that speaks to the question of family? You might like to move into small groups for sharing Amen.