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Archbishop’s Homily: a centenary of St Martha’s, Strathfield

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 Hundreds of faithful joined Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Fr Christopher Slattery for the centenary of St Martha's parish, Strathfield, on 14 August. Photos: Giovanni Portelli

Hundreds of faithful joined Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP and Fr Christopher Slattery for the centenary of St Martha’s parish, Strathfield, on 14 August. Photos: Giovanni Portelli

Dear brothers and sisters, it’s a great joy for me to be here this morning to celebrate the centenary of this parish.

St Martha’s holds a unique place in Australia as I understand it is the only church named after that holy woman for whom Jesus had so much love, and who is such a model of hospitality, work and service.

I’m looking forward to some of that hospitality at the morning tea after Mass! As we begin our Mass today, we remember with gratitude all those who built this parish over the century past, those who serve in it still and commend it to Almighty God in the century ahead.

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In the fourth instalment in the Die Hard series [of movies], released in 2007, John McClane, the old detective played by Bruce Willis, asks the following question: “You know what you get for being a hero? Nothin’. You get shot at. You get a little pat on the back, blah, blah, blah, attaboy. You get divorced. Your wife can’t remember your last name. Your kids don’t want to talk to you. You get to eat a lot of meals by yourself. Trust me, kid, nobody wants to be that guy.”

His young companion, Matt, a computer hacker John has recruited to help him, asks why he does it then.

“Because there’s nobody else to do it,” John replies, “Believe me, if there were somebody else to do it, I’d let them do it, but there’s not. So we’re doing it.” Matt thinks for a moment, then says, “That’s what makes you that guy.”

John speaks to a conflict in us all. Every human being, and certainly every Christian, experiences the tension between the desire for an easy life on the one hand, and the duty to do the hard thing, on the other.

What makes John McClane a hero is not that he stops the bad guy and saves the day – though he does; it’s that at almost every step along the way he has good reason to go no further.

But at each step he looks around, sees no-one else taking that next step that needs to be taken, and so takes it for them. He hasn’t got superhuman powers; he isn’t looking for glory or fame; he certainly doesn’t want to be shot at, exhausted, in pain. But he knows that what is right is often the very opposite of what is comfortable; and he’s prepared to make the sacrifice if needs be. Like an Olympian, and in the words of our epistle, he “throws off everything that hinders him, and keeps running steadily in the race he had started.” (Heb 12:1-4)

So, too, Jesus in our Gospel: “I have come to bring fire upon the earth,” He says, “not peace but division”, not security but challenge (Lk 12:49-53). This ‘gospel of division’ is one of the harder bits of Scripture to hear: for we like to think of Jesus as a peace negotiator, a community builder, a comforter; we prefer Him to say “Blessed are the peace-makers” (Mt 5:9) or “My peace I leave with you” (Jn 14:27).

Peace is, after all, what we pray for time and again during the Mass. But, as Jesus Himself said, the peace He’s about, the peace He gives, is not the peace of this world (Jn 14:27). Jesus’ peace is not the ‘interior peace’ of the self-satisfied — indifferent to the troubles of the world, or in denial about them, and enjoying the warm contentment of someone on morphine.

Nor is it an ‘exterior peace’ achieved by keeping our distance from people, from noise, from discontent. It’s certainly not the ‘good manners’ that parades as peace, keeping things under wraps, avoiding topics that challenge — anything for quiet and comfortable life. Those kinds of peace leave the causes of antagonism unaddressed, maintaining only an illusion of tranquillity, built on indifference, injustice, even force, and so include within themselves the seeds of future conflict.

So how is Jesus’ kind of peace different?

Well, to begin with, it is founded on a deep realism about the human condition in all its complexity. Jesus knew about the human mess, that maintaining good relationships and building community is not always easy. He met indifference, hatred, even attempts on His life. He brushed up against authorities and hypocrites of every kind.

To cleanse the Temple He took a whip to its stalwarts. And they in turn took Him, tortured, tried and brutally executed Him. While He was confident innocence would be vindicated in the end, He knew it could suffer in this life and its vindication would only come with terrifying judgment. In this Jesus was very much the prophet, like Jeremiah challenging and dividing and being cast down into the miry pit for his troubles (Jer 38:4-10).

By the time Luke wrote his Gospel the Church was experiencing tragic dissension within and persecution without. But already in His lifetime Jesus saw in the hearts of individuals, of families and of communities diverse temperaments, rival ambitions, strong passions, different views. Even with the best will in the world there will be different perspectives and contrary opinions; and with the less-than-best will that is all too common, there will be selfishness, unforgivingness, betrayal.

So Christ begins His lesson on peace with what seems to us its very opposite: He brings unease, subversion, a revolution of sorts. Jesus comes to overturn some of our neat little certainties, our comfortable self-delusions, our complacent self-indulgence.

As C S Lewis said, “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” Christ’s Gospel, if we are willing to hear it all, can cut us to the quick, praising our good-will and generosity but pointing out how much more we could and should be doing. He turns not just our tables but our values upside down, offering new perspective and only after a deal of upheaval, purification through “fire within the heart”. Christ’s is a very different kind of “inner peace”!

And then, through us, He brings peace to our external world, but that too is a very different kind of peace to that we might dream of. Christ’s external peace comes through struggle for justice, mercy and reconciliation, through all the ‘agro’ of identifying and articulating what we think and care about, what hurts us and what injustices we’ve been complicit in.

Only through this honest ferment, provocation, even division, this “fire upon the earth” can something new and better be built; only then can conflict, not embraced for its own sake but tolerated for its inevitability and opportunity, open a way to conversion and renewal and a more lasting peace.

A century ago, amid a terrible war, Cardinal Moran proclaimed peace by establishing a new parish and laying a foundation stone for a temporary church that is now St Martha’s Hall.

The permanent church was built soon after the war as Australians sought to rebuild their lives in peace. I’m told that among the nine parish priests since then, one used to say Mass in full military uniform each Anzac Day – a poignant reminder of the real costs of peacemaking.

The challenge of peace building comes to every generation and in these times of terrorist incidents, of the persecution of Christians, of economic insecurity, and of tension about an institution as fundamental as marriage, our challenge is no less and our need for the wisdom of the Gospel as great as ever.

If there could be tension even at the dinner table in St Martha’s home, even among the saints, we should expect no less.

The work of building up the kingdom of God in Strathfield is not complete, even after 100 years.

St Martha is the patron of those who serve, and it is rumoured that this parish was named in her honour because of the large number of Irish servants then in the area.

Strathfield is rather posher now: Martha the cook and serving girl in the Gospel, who complains of her sister Mary’s unhelpfulness and does not even bother to remark on her brother Lazarus’ indolence (Lk 10:38-42), would probably be running her own catering business out of Strathfield CBD today!

According to the latest census figures from 2011 – and who knows when we’ll get an update on those?! – a third of you now have higher degrees, most live in your own homes and more than a quarter come to Mass each Sunday.

We give thanks to Almighty God for the progress of this community over the century past. But we know this is no excuse for smugness or inaction: if one in four comes to Mass, three out of four are absent, and there is a big challenge for us to open our hearts and hospitality to others who need us.

So as a new century begins for St Martha’s, we echo the words of our epistle: “With so many witnesses in a great cloud on every side of us, let us too, then, throw off everything that hinders us, especially sin … and keep running steadily in the race [they] started. Let us never lose sight of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection …”.
Happy birthday St Martha’s Parish! Thanks be to God for you. Ad multos annos!

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at the celebration of the centenary of St Martha’s parish in Strathfield on 14 August.

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