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.


Reb Barry said...

Personally, I've always been troubled by rabbinic efforts to "whitewash" David's behavior by finding ways to say it wasn't adultery, etc. One of the things I find most compelling about the tales of our ancestors is that they are flawed human beings, and struggle with the "yetzer hara" (evil inclination) just like the rest of us -- yet that does not prevent them from doing great things.

The Rev'd Dr Richard Geoffrey Leggett said...

In my edition of The Jewish Study Bible the marginal notes indicated that the attempts to justify David's actions seems to be a minority view. I am guided by the view that our lives participate in the narrative of God's mysterion, the unfolding of God's purposes for the kosmos through the divine activities of creation, redemption and fulfilment (teleiosis). If I understood the world in this fashion, 'white-washing' human activity defeats the purpose of discerning how God works in and through us to achieve these three purposes.