‘Truly, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in a prophet’s hometown.’ Are those words with which we can identify? I think it is one reason why most priests and preachers do not work in the communities in which they were born and raised. For, as the proverb has it, familiarity can breed contempt. Sometimes it requires someone to come from outside to help uncover the ‘uncomfortable truths’ which can set us free. When we have grown up very closely with one another, there are all kinds of familial and friendship bonds which bind us. To speak of painful truths and community secrets is then both very hard to do and very difficult for others to receive. Perhaps that is why, therefore, that a significant number of ‘tall poppy’ Australians make their homes and careers overseas, at least for a while. I am thinking, for example, of Stan Grant, the excellent Aboriginal Australian journalist. In the last week or so, some of his prophetic truth-telling words about our Indigenous Australian history and realities have gone viral. I commend them to us all. Yet Stan has himself had a long struggle to be in a position to be heard, as a tall poppy Australian among us. Can you think of other Australians, here and overseas, whom we have often found it hard to value, and perhaps still do? In that sense, today’s Gospel story of Jesus is also a story about Australia today: wherever we fail to hear today’s prophets of love, justice and freedom; whenever we respond with anger, fear and mistrust towards those who have broken our spoken, or unspoken, taboos; wherever and whenever our uncomfortable community truths have been spoken.
There are some healthy Australian virtues which are unfortunately distorted into the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’. For Australia has a long history of affection for the ‘underdog’, for a ‘fair go’ for all, and for a certain self-deprecating humility in contrast to the class, caste and commercial arrogance found in many other nations, albeit, sadly, manifest in other ways in our own. So, as the journalist Peter Hartcher has rightly stated: ‘(Australian) Citizens know that some among them will have more power and money than others... But according to the unspoken national ethos, no Australian is permitted to assume that he or she is better than any other Australian. How is this enforced? By the prompt corrective of levelling derision. It has a name—The "Tall Poppy Syndrome". The tallest flowers in the field will be cut down to the same size as all the others. This is sometimes misunderstood...It isn't success that offends Australians. It's the affront committed by anyone who starts to put on superior airs.’
What we see in today’s Gospel story however is not the healthy Australian virtues which are suspicious of flaunted power and wealth. Jesus is right there with us on that! No, what we see in today’s Gospel passage is the unhealthy human tendency towards parochialism, towards and denying truths we would rather keep hidden, and towards keeping people in their place,. No wonder Jesus upset the people of his home town. He was calling them to be bigger and better than they had settled for, to face up to their faults as well as enjoy their good things, and to encourage and celebrate fully his and everyone’s gifts. Can we do the same?
Stan Grant, in his speech to the St James’ Ethics Centre in Sydney, which has now gone viral, spoke both of the terrible mistreatment of Aboriginal people, but also of how, as he put it, we Australians -white and black, and all colours in between – are ‘better than that’. He challenged us as a nation to face up to our past and continuing failures, but, above all, he encouraged us to be ‘better than that’: in other words, to become, like the The Glennie School motto, all that we might be. That is the lasting challenge of our Gospel story today.
The other evening I was at a bitter-sweet event, to say farewell to Sister Deirdre from our local Catholic community and to celebrate her wonderful work with refugees, social justice and education in our city. When it came for a blessing for her new work in Sydney, Father Peter Dorfield from St Pat’s Cathedral, asked everyone present to join in by saying the Lord’s Prayer together. For, rightly, he said that, far more important than a priest’s calling is the calling each and every one of has, through our baptism. Each of us is called to share in blessing – blessing one another through the exercise of all of our gifts given to us by God. So what do you, and I – each and every one us – need to do to use our gifts and share God’s blessing through them?
Yesterday, Penny led the annual service The Glennie Junior School has for its Year 6 students. For, at this time of year, they are called and commissioned to be the student leadership for the coming year: note well, not just a few of them, but each and every student in the year group. For The Glennie Junior School recognises, like Father Peter, that using our gifts, and exercising leadership, is for each and every one of us, just as Jesus taught ans showed us in the Gospel. To do so requires that we take courage – as it happens, The Glennie School’s theme for the year – that we face up to what is uncomfortable, and just do it anyway; and that we encourage each and every oen of us to be ‘tall poppies’ in our own particular way.
As Marianne Williamson put it, in a now often-quoted rendering of part of the heart of today’s Gospel message, deeply appropriate for Candlemas:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
In the name of Jesus, the tallest of all poppies, who was not afraid to let the glory of God shine in him, and who encourages and accompanies us in shining our own light in the world: in the name of the God of true love, life and liberation. Amen.
by J.Inkpin for Epiphany 4 Year C, Sunday 31 January