Sunday, July 26, 2009

Move the Chair!

RCL Proper 17B
26 July 2009

St Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Propers: 2 Samuel 11.1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.1-21

+ May only God's truth be spoken. May only God's truth be heard. Amen.

In my first semester of theological college our New Testament instructor, Jim Dunkley, gave us a demonstration of the difference between the words ‘authority’ and ‘power’. He first pointed out that, in New Testament Greek, the word ‘authority’, exousia, means ‘something that flows from one’s being’, whereas ‘power’, dynamis, has the same root as our word for a powerful explosive, dynamite. He then took a chair and put in front of the whole class.

Now Jim is a big man with a big voice. He let loose with a roar, “Move!” But the chair did not move. Jim pointed out that the chair did not move because there was no relationship between the chair and him, there was no connection that flowed out of their beings. Then, he bellowed, “Move!” and kicked the chair. It flew into the first row and sent panicked seminarians fleeing to the back. Jim pointed out that he did have power over the chair and could force it to do what he wanted it to do. No relationship was necessary.

I don’t think any of my classmates ever sat in the front row of one of Jim’s courses for the remaining years of our seminary education.

I cannot help but wish that David had been in our class to witness Jim’s demonstration. What we heard this morning was the story of a young man who had been given authority to lead God’s people and it has gone to his head. He has forgotten the years of being pursued unjustly by King Saul. He has forgotten Saul’s use of illegitimate means to secure his royal power. He has forgotten the disasters that had befallen the people of Israel and how, under David’s leadership, they had regained possession of their lands as well as recovered the sacred Ark of the Covenant from the hands of their enemies. David has succumbed to the allure of power, the darker side of leadership.

David’s descent into adultery and murder troubled some rabbinic commentators. David was, after all, the one to whom God promised to be faithful, the one whose ancestors God promised would always occupy the throne of Israel. Some rabbis taught that David had not committed adultery because it was supposedly the practice of warriors to give their wives a conditional divorce before going off to battle. In this way their wives could remarry if they did not return. But, of course, David’s adultery occurred while Uriah was still alive. Some rabbis taught that David was not guilty of murder since Uriah was killed by the enemy. But, of course, Uriah was set up, abandoned by his troops, on the orders of David.

It is always difficult to accept that those whom we admire or whom we have been taught to admire may in fact have feet of clay. Our failure to accept this can make us blind to the potential lesson we might learn from their example.

Today we hear the first part of story that marks the beginning of the decline of David’s leadership. True a moment of truth will come and David will repent, but from this moment on, David’s reign will be marked by all the ills we have come to associate with leadership that has forgotten that authority depends upon a respectful relationship with the source of that authority, whether that source is God, one’s ancestry or the people. Those who forget this and turn to the darker side, the coercive allure of power, will inevitably fall prey to their weaknesses.

My friends, the earliest Christians had no power, only the authority that came from pro-claiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians puts it so well: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3.20-21) His words do not diminish our accomplishments; they put them in relationship to the source by means of which our power comes, the Holy One who caused all things to be and to continue. Such words keep believers humble, because they hold us to the exercise of authority rather than the wielding of power.

But we became the victims of our own success. Emperors and others saw the Christian movement as a valuable tool to achieve their own political purposes. Privileges, honours and power rained down upon the leadership of the church. Well into the early decades of the twentieth century the Christian churches were a power to be reckoned with, whether you were a prime minister, a provincial premier, a mayor or the leader of any social or neighbourhood agency. But power corrupts individuals and communities, deflecting them from their primary obligations, obscuring their understanding of the source from which power derives.

I will not burden you with a recitation of a tale of woes. No one who has continued to follow the way of Christ as proclaimed by our own community of faith needs such a recitation. But I can point the way towards the regaining of our authority.

Prior to the de-criminalization of the Christian faith in the year 313, a Roman citizen in North Africa wrote to the municipal authorities. His complaint was that Roman religious authorities were doing little if anything to alleviate the needs of the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the powerless, the widowed and orphaned. In contrast to the inaction of the Roman religious authorities, he pointed to the activity of the illegal and despised Christians who were caring for all these sectors of society, whether they were Christian believers or not. Is it any won-der, he wrote, that the Christian church was growing by leaps and bounds, while the temples were left empty?

Christian people of Saint Faith’s, we are not many nor are we mighty. But we do have the opportunity to exercise authority here in Kerrisdale and all the neighbourhoods that we in-habit. Like David, the church has been tempted to follow the way of power and abandon the exercise of authority. But in these days we live in communities that need to see the kind of authority exercised by our sisters and brothers described by the Roman citizen of some many centuries ago.

• In a society where many do not know their neighbours, we can be Christ-like neighbours who help form communities of care and support wherever we live.
• In a society where many hold fast to old wrongs, we can be Christ-like ministers of reconciliation who heal the wounds caused by ancient hurts.
• In a society where many live for the acquisition of more and more consumer goods, we can be Christ-like stewards who point the way to genuine stewardship of the gifts of creation.
• In a society where many live only for themselves and for their own self interests, we can be Christ-like voices for those who have no advocates in the halls of power.
• In a society where many are denied their rights and proper place, we can be Christ-like servants who model justice, peace and respect for the dignity of every human being.

If we do this, then perhaps chairs will move when we speak to them, for they shall recognize the voices of those who exercise the authority that comes from the Holy One, the One whom it is right at all times and in all places to praise and thank. Amen.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

But I'm Not Dead Yet!

RCL Proper 15B
12 July 2009

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

2 Samuel 6.1-5, 12b-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

+ Lord, your word is very near to us. You have placed it in our mouths and in our hearts. May you give us your power to speak it and to live it. Amen.

About a year ago or so I became a regular reader of the obituaries in the Vancouver Sun and the Globe and Mail. I am not entirely sure why. Perhaps one reason may be the simple fact that I have become more aware of my own mortality as I move closer to sixty than to fifty. Another reason may be more professional. I have noted the increasing number of obituaries that indicate that there will be no service, usually at the request of the deceased. or that a so-called ‘celebration of life’ will take place in a non-religious location such as a family residence, a social club or a favourite haunt of the deceased.

One of the other aspects of an obituary is the way that the life narrative of the deceased is recounted. Some are simply the facts such as the date of birth or date of death, the names of the surviving family and friends and the like. Others are panegyrics, filled with excessive praise and extravagant claims regarding the deceased. I often feel that these reveal a certain amount of guilt on the part of the survivors as if a glowing obituary can replace years or a life-time of neglect.

My favourites, if one can describe an obituary as a ‘favourite’, are those that tell a genuinely human story: the successes and the failures, the joys and the sorrows, the dreams and the disappointments. When I finish reading one of these well-crafted accounts, I have some sense of the person, a literary portrait of a human being.

Obituaries such as these bring to mind a prayer composed by Huub Oosterhuis and adapted for use in The Book of Alternative Services.

"God of grace and glory, we thank for N, who was so near and dear to us, and who has now been taken from us.

We thank you for the friendship he/she gave and for the strength and peace he/she brought. We thank you for the love he/she offered and received while he/she was with us on earth.

We pray that nothing good in this man’s/woman’s life will be lost, but will be of benefit to the world; that all that was important to him/her will be respected by those who follow; and that everything in which he/she was great will continue to mean much to us now that he/she is dead.

We ask you that he/she may go on living in his/her children, his/her family and his/her friends; in their hearts and minds, in their courage and their consciences. We ask you that we who were close to him/her may now, because of his/her death, be even closer to each other, and that we may, in peace and friendship here on earth, always be deeply conscious of your promise to be faithful to us in death.

We pray for ourselves, who are severely tested by this death, that we do not try to minimize the loss, or seek refuge from it in words alone, and also that we do not brood over it so that it overwhelms us and isolates us from others. May God grant us courage and confidence in the new life of Christ. We ask this is the name of the risen Lord. Amen."

It is an honest prayer and a hopeful prayer.

In many ways the readings we have heard today can be read as obituaries, the stories we want to tell and to be remembered after the death of a loved one.

Over the coming summer weeks we shall hear stories of the successes and failures, the joys and sorrows, the dreams and disappointments of Israel’s beloved king, David son of Jesse. In today’s reading from 2 Samuel we hear of his success; soon we shall hear of his adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a man whom David arranges to be abandoned in the midst of battle so as to ensure his death at the hands of the enemy. Despite this moral failure, David shall remain fixed in the Scriptures as beloved of God, the one from whom the promised Messiah shall descend.

From the story of David we move to a letter written by an anonymous disciple of Paul, perhaps incorporating some of Paul’s own writing into his own. The writer of Ephesians confronts a church that is still uncertain about the role of Gentile Christians, non-Jewish believers in Jesus as Lord.

For more than two thousand years Christians have treasured these words as we have confronted our own conflicts regarding who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. Can Gentiles be Christians without becoming Jews first? Can slaves become Christians? Can a freed slave become a bishop or a presbyter or a deacon? What role or roles can women legitimately exercise in the life of the Christian community?

These and many other questions have been asked and debated over two millennia. Time and time again Christian leaders and teachers have turned to the anonymous writer of the letter to the Ephesians to seek guidance. So do we in our own turmoil over the inclusion of gay and lesbian disciples of Christ as well as our relations with peoples of different faiths.

Then comes Mark’s gospel, his proclamation of ‘the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’ (Mark 1.1). We learn today that prophetic witness is always threatening to entrenched powers who will cheerfully arrange for the disposal of the inconvenient witness to the truth.

Poor John! After years in the wilderness proclaiming the kingdom, he will be overshadowed by his younger cousin, Jesus. After years of being Herod’s conscience, he will lose his head because Herod makes a foolish promise while besotted by the allures of his step-daughter and is such a moral coward that he cannot deny what is a patently vindictive request.

Yet it is John whom we remember and commemorate in the Christian community. It is John whose feast is the fête nationale of Quėbec.

My sisters and brothers, there are those who are writing the obituary of the Anglican Church of Canada. Some of those who are writing of our death point out that we are like King David, off to a good start but fallen victim to power. Perhaps they are right in their assessment.

Other commentators believe that our efforts to include many who are excluded by the majority of Christian communities, the divorced, gays and lesbians, women who feel called to leadership, have caused us to lose our edge and that we have become a nice but irrelevant social club. Perhaps these commentators are right.

Still other analysts suggest that our decline is due to our emphasis on prophetic social witness regarding the needs and concerns of aboriginal people, the hungry, the homeless rather than an emphasis on winning souls for Christ. Perhaps they have a point.

But I hope that you will forgive me if I take the attitude of Mark Twain that the rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated. We may have fallen victim to our privileged role in society; but we are not privileged now and we know how to repent and return to the Lord. We may have lost our ‘edge’ by reaching out to those who have been marginalized; but we are now the marginalized and we are learning how to confront prejudice and injustice. We may have been too focused on prophetic witness; but we know that we have more in common with John the Baptist than with Herod and we will continue to speak for those who have no voice.

It may be that these are the last days of the Anglican Church of Canada as we have known it. So be it. But the story that will be written about us will be an honest one, a human and humane one. It will be a story that will long be remembered because it will be the story of our lives and our witness to the gospel in our time and place. It will be a story of how God has worked, is working and will continue to work to bring about God’s purposes for the whole of creation. Thanks be to God. Amen.