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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Easter 7, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
May 13, 2018

Psalm 1; John 17:6-19

‘Just like a tree that's standing by the water side’

My Mum really likes the Seekers. You might know one of their hits from 1968 called “We Shall Not Be Moved” … “Well, I’m on my way to heaven … On the road to freedom … Just like a tree that’s standing by the water side/ We shall not be moved …” The African-American spiritual was recorded by Charlie Patton in 1929, the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger (a union song) in 1955, the Freedom Singers at the March on Washington in 1963, Johnny Cash (on an album called My Mother’s Hymn Book) in 2004, and Public Enemy (on an album called Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamp) in 2012.

The song is inspired by a much older song – the very first psalm. God be with you

It’s a striking psalm, the central image a “fruitful evergreen on the banks of a stream”. A tree of life – the image (in good company among these new works by Jovana Terzic) is associated with happiness, nonviolence, delight in God’s word, and justice. Thursday night biblical scholars might picture Aaron’s staff. From a Christian point of view, the tree is the true vine, the budded cross, Jesus himself.

Psalm 1 lays a foundation for the songs that follow. The entire book of psalms – the song collection or album – is concerned with happiness, nonviolence, delight in God’s word, and justice. The songs, as a whole, express the struggle to discern what is good or wise over that which is evil or foolish. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, no stranger to the struggle, taught his student pastors to imagine Jesus praying the psalms alongside them.

As songs, we might also imagine Jesus playing or singing alongside us. “Just like a tree …”

Our Gospel is, indeed, about Jesus praying with and for us – a person facing an imminent execution, yet concerned for his friends. Praying joy for them and for the “world” into which he/they/we are sent as holy ones or saints – the “world” that even yet “may believe”. At this terrifying point in the story we are given to see Jesus praying for others. “I consecrate myself now for their sakes ...”

There are several references to the “word” (more than a “message”) Jesus shares. This word has to do with resisting evil, with joyful and truthful living.

I think again of the psalm – of Charlie Patton, Pete Seeger, the Seekers, the Freedom Singers, Johnny Cash, Public Enemy – of the singer who delights in the word. We can resist evil, we can overcome violence and injustice by the power of a delightful word, an enjoyable word, a creative word. We can endure meaninglessness by the power of a word (metaphoric, poetic) that invites new meaning. Other meanings turn our hearts, minds and hands toward others.

I recall the playful scholarship of our Thursday night Bible studies. Enjoying the word. Allowing the word to lead us into unfamiliar and ambiguous realms ... The adventures of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, the five bold daughters of Zelophehad; seekers, rebels, pilgrims. Balaam’s donkey, the mysterious angel of YHWH … A small group gathered in the name of Jesus … “knowing that words matter” ...

I see the words, the word, like a stream, beside which grow the trees, the tree, fruitful and evergreen. The story of God is like a stream – creative, life-giving, flowing. “Study it always,” the psalmist says. Learn it, tell it, retell it, drink it in, appropriate it for yourselves, delight in it ...

The creative word – the story of God, the story of Jesus and his friends – is not so much a “message” as an affirmation, a promise ... In other words, the text becomes the living word in the process of listening, engaging, and then producing a new text (a homily, proclamation, prayer, song or silent reflection).

Biblical scholar Anthony Lees, author of a commentary on the Book of Numbers called Voices of the Wilderness, writes about identification with biblical figures, then retrieval of voices – soft or stifled. Retrieving the voice of a victim of human/religious violence. A sacrificial cow, a long-suffering donkey, Mother Earth, holy water. Retrieving the voice of a gracious Saviour.

Drawing from the stream, we are offered refreshment and enjoyment. Jesus prays and plays alongside us.

Perhaps you can guess the prompt. Let’s complete the homily together by writing new verses to the old spiritual. “Well, I’m on my way to heaven … On the road to freedom … Just like a tree that’s standing by the water side/ We shall not be moved …” Amen.