Saturday, February 11, 2012

Blessed Are the Lowly and Faithful

RCL Epiphany 6B
12 February 2012

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  2 Kings 5.1-14

            On Thursday, the 1st of December 1956, at 6.00 p.m. in the evening a forty-two-year-old woman who worked as a housekeeper and a seamstress boarded a bus to go home.  She took a seat mid-way back and prepared for her trip home after a long day’s work.

            At each subsequent stop the bus began to fill with more passengers.  The bus driver finally stopped and rose from his seat.  He approached the woman and three other passengers and asked them to relinquish their seats and move further back into the bus.  Although the three other passengers complied, the housekeeper refused.  She was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and violating a local ordinance.  Within the week she was before a judge, convicted and fined $10 plus $4 court costs, a considerable sum for a working person in the 1950’s when gasoline sold for about 20 cents a gallon.

            The woman’s name was Rosa Parks and you may have already guessed that she was an African-American woman living in the segregated South of the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Her refusal to move to the back of the bus was the catalyst for the civil rights movement in the United States.  Within ten years the laws that kept African-Americans as second-class citizens for almost a century following the Civil War would be ruled unconstitutional and new laws would guarantee the rights of every citizen of the United States regardless of their race.

            Although Rosa Parks was not poor, she did represent the second tier in American society, both north and south.  The citizens of Montgomery, Alabama were not the only ones who considered her and any person of colour as social inferiors.  Her decision not to relinquish her seat, however, was not part of some grant protest strategy.  Some years later she would tell her biographer:

People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true.  I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. . . . No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.  [Rosa Parks & James Haskins, Rosa Parks:  My Story (1992), 116]

            My own family story is entwined with Rosa Parks’.  My family, a northern family, owned slaves until 1800 or so.  Mortimer Leggett, a kinsman of mine, was a Union general who served with Sherman on his march through Georgia to the sea.  My high school was the object of court-ordered bussing during my Grade 12 year and the halls began to fill with African-American and Hispanic-American students in 1970.  I can honestly say that my life changed in 1970 because of Mrs. Parks’ action fifteen years earlier when I was two and a half years old.

            Three thousand years before Mrs. Parks’ experience on a bus in Montgomery a Syrian general fell victim to a skin disease which had the potential to make him a social pariah and to force him out of his privileged position.  His eventual salvation came, not from the rich and powerful of his time, but from his social inferiors and foreigners.

  1. It was a young Hebrew slave who told her mistress about Israel’s holy man, Elisha, whose healing gifts were known.
  2. It was a Syrian wife who dared to challenge social mores to tell her powerful husband that his healing might be in the hands of a foreign holy man.
  3. It was an Israelite prophet who dared to chastise his own monarch for not trusting in God and ordered the monarch to send Naaman on to him.
  4. It was unnamed servants who convinced their haughty master that obedience to the simple directives of the Israelite holy man might actually be in their master’s best interests.

Naaman’s story, you see, is not about the high and might; it is a story of the lowly and faithful who prove to be God’s agents.

            It is also a story rooted in the ordinary rather than in the extraordinary.  There are no divine fireworks in this story, no dramatic interventions from on high nor booming disembodied voices.  All Elisha says is, “Go bathe in the river.  It’s down the hill on your left.  Mind the sheep.”  God’s healing touch comes in the form of the water of the Jordan, a small river, usually no more than waist-deep.

            If there are two things that I have learned in my life as a Christian, they are these:  (i) God tends to use unexpected agents to achieve God’s purposes and (ii) God accomplished extraordinary things in the midst of ordinary life.  No Syrian would have ever predicted that their powerful hero, Naaman, would follow the advice of a Hebrew slave, consult an Israelite holy man, bathe in the puny Jordan and leave its waters healed.  No American could have predicted that Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of the bus would set in motion events that would one day culminate in the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States.

            Whether we realize it or not, you and I are viewed by some to be among the powerful in our society.  While we have our challenges, we have homes, are well-fed and clothed and are able to enjoy the freedoms and privileges of life in Canada.  Our religious tradition has played a significant role in shaping Canadian society, but this significant role has waned in recent decades.

            But all around us our voices calling from unexpected places and inviting us to explore unfamiliar corners of our community.

  1. In recent years we have seen an increasing number people who do not enjoy what we enjoy.  As they come through our doors during the week, their stories combine to raise questions about how we might better serve their needs and contribute to shaping solutions to long-standing social problems.
  2. The faces of our neighbourhood have changed and are changing.  We can either ignore them or identify how we might more effectively share the good news of God in Christ with them.
  3. In the past Anglican parishes in urban areas could conduct themselves as if they were independent franchises of a national firm.  Our future, however, will most likely be found in rediscovering what Paul knew when he wrote to the Corinthians:  “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.”  (1 Corinthians 12.26)  As we listen to our Anglican neighbours, we may hear ways to work together to show God’s love in the here and now.

            I am also sure that what we will hear will be a call to live out our faith in the events and places of our ordinary lives.  It is in how we live our lives there that God will achieve extraordinary things.

  1. Our quiet words of encouragement and comfort to a friend or a neighbour or a co-worker may well be the window through which God’s love will shine upon them and transform their lives.
  2. Our stewardship of the assets entrusted to us may be the foundation upon which new initiatives in ministry will be built here at Saint Faith’s.
  3. The hospitality we offer to various neighbourhood groups may fix us more firmly as a place of hope, welcome and wholeness for all.

            A thousand years after Naaman and some two thousand years before Rosa Parks, a young woman of no social status or political importance had a vision while awaiting her marriage.  God, the creator of all that is, seen and unseen, could not achieve the divine purposes without this ordinary girl’s ‘yes’.  Mary’s ‘yes’, the ‘yes’ of a powerless, ordinary girl, is one of the reasons you and I are here.  May her song become our song:

Our soul magnifies you, O Lord,
and our spirit rejoices in God our Saviour,
for you have looked with favour
on the lowliness of your servants.
Surely, from now on all generations will call us blessed;
for you, O Mighty One have done great things for us,
and holy in your name.  Amen.

No comments: