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The Will to Embrace

Third Sunday in Lent: 3rd March, 2013
Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster, Vicar of St Peter's, Eastern Hill

"The national disgrace that is our asylum-seeker debate." This headline from an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times yesterday says it all. As if asylum-seekers in Australia don't have it hard enough already. The vast majority are genuine cases of people who have fled a level of violence and persecution in their homeland that we could hardly comprehend. We give them no work rights, which frequently forces them to live in overcrowded accomodation and take cash-in-hand jobs for as little as $8 per hour to survive. And then, in election year, when one such young man makes a mistake and commits a crime, the Coalition's spokesperson on immigration calls for asylum-seekers to be treated much like paedophiles on parole: alerting residents in advance of "boat arrivals" being located in their communities; notifying police when they are released into "their jurisdiction"; and subjecting asylum seekers on bridging visas to "behaviour protocols" with "clear negative sanctions for breaches" (From the Canberra Times). A disgrace indeed.

The Croatian theologian, Miroslav Volf, knows better than most what it is to live through violence and times of extreme political conflict. In an essay, "Piercing the Heart" (in Against the Tide, pp. 192-4) he tells the story of a young man who came to a book launch:

He was sitting quietly, almost impassively, as I talked to a group of people gathered in Zagreb at the launching of the Croatian translation of my book Exclusion and Embrace. The forcefulness and impatience with which he later asked his question as he brought the book to be signed took me by surprise. 'But where does that will come from, that will to embrace the enemy?' I had just finished explaining one of the central claims of the book. I had argued that truth, justice and peace between human beings are unavailable without the will to embrace the other. Moreover, the will to embrace must precede any 'truth' about others and any construction of their 'justice.' In a sense, everything in my argument depended on that will, but I said nothing about how to acquire or sustain it; I simply assumed it.

The will to embrace other. Where does it come from? How can we foster it, in ourselves, in our communities of faith, in our society? We are given a theological archetype of such embrace in today's gospel. Jesus is on a teaching tour through the towns and villages on his way to Jerusalem. He is warned by some Pharisees to turn back because rumour has it that Herod is wanting to kill him. In response he proclaims the most beautiful, impassioned song of embrace: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34).

Where does that come from? How can someone facing the threat of violence summon up from within themselves such love for the other, even love for the hostile other, the enemy? Volf writes (p.194):

Ultimately, the only answer possible is the one Augustine gave. Addressing God, he wrote about his conversion, 'Thou hast pierced our heart with the arrow of Thy charity.' Liberation of the will by a piercing of the heart? ... But if the heart is not to be violated, love will have to do the piercing - ultimately, divine love, which comes not only from the outside but is always also inside the dungeon, tearing at its walls and striving to transmute the will to exclude into the will to embrace.

Bishop Philip visited our church this week, preaching at the Melbourne Deanery gathering of clergy that we were hosting. He mentioned the film Lincoln, and told a story of the President attending church. Afterwards he was asked how he found the sermon. He paused: "Well, it was well presented, good scholarship, humourous, but lacking in one thing. We were not asked to do anything great." The model of Jesus, the will to embrace, demands something great of us. We can practise on those around us, church is a great place for that, we are a diverse community, we have the opportunity today and each week to truly embrace one another for who we are. But it shouldn't stop there. There are much bigger things that we are called to in today's world. The plight of the asylum-seeker, the refugee, the homeless person, gay rights and the list goes on. We can do great things at St Peter's and as part of the wider Anglican Church. Do you have the will?

In closing I'd like to share with you a chant that I came across at theological college. It was published in the 1991 World Council of Churches worship book: In Spirit and in Truth (p. 162). The words are from Psalm 85:10. "Let us hear! Let us hear what God the Lord has said: Justice and peace embrace one another. Justice and peace embrace one another."


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