Saturday, September 8, 2012

Have This Mind among You

RCL Proper 23B (Thematic)
9 September 2012

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Readings:  Isaiah 35.4-7a; Psalm 146; James 2.1-17; Mark 7.24-37

In 2008 I travelled to Burma (Myanmar) with Bishop James Cowan of the Diocese of British Columbia.  The Anglican Church in Myanmar has had a special relationship with the Diocese of British Columbia and they were about to celebrate the installation of their new archbishop in Yangon.  I went because they had asked to meet an Anglican professor of liturgical studies who could acquaint them with what was going on in the Anglican Communion.  The Bishop also brought along a young married couple to establish some relationships with the very active Anglican young people's movement in Burma.

On the day of our departure we arrived at the Yangon airport only to discover that an error had been made in the tickets for the young married couple.  Given the strict attitudes of the Burmese authorities and the mysterious way tickets are obtained, the two young people had to stay for several hours in the airport under the care of our wonderful tour director, Johnny.  Jim and I had no choice but to board our flight to Singapore and to leave them behind.  It was a worrying eight hours, but they did arrive later that night safe and sound in Singapore.

When Jim and I arrived in Singapore, we joined a lengthy queue of passengers from some of the poorer countries in southeast Asia.  I noticed that there were only two wickets open for general passengers and one for diplomatic travellers and aircrew members.  Jim and I looked at each and settled ourselves down for a very long wait.

After about ten minutes an immigration official began walking down the queue and looking very closely at the incoming passengers.  When he came to Jim and me, he paused and then asked us, "Are you Commonwealth citizens?"  "Yes," we answered, "we're Canadians."  He asked us to follow him and we were processed by the official at the diplomatic wicket.  As we walked through to the other side, Jim and I suddenly realized what had just happened.  The immigration official had only spoken to us and, after conducting us to the diplomatic wicket, disappeared.  Why?  Because we were the only white people in the queue.  We had been singled out for special treatment while young families and elders, struggling with their carry-on baggage and small children, were left to wait for at least two hours.

"My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory.  Imagine two people coming into your meeting.  One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags.  Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, 'Here's an excellent place.  Sit here.'  But to the poor person you say, 'Stand over there'; or 'Here, sit at my feet.'  Wouldn't you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges?"  (James 2.1-4, Common English Bible)

Among the challenges that every human being faces, and perhaps religious people in particular, is hypocrisy.  We all know what this word means, but I'll spell it out a bit:  Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another.  Usually hypocrisy is found when someone articulates some very high standard of behaviour and demands that behaviour from others, only to be discovered at some point doing what he or she has condemned as a failing in others.

I remember my father's disgust during the Nicaraguan contra  affair during Ronald Reagan's presidency.  Reagan's security staff figured out how to arm the opponents of the Nicaraguan government despite a congressional prohibition.  One of the participants was a Marine colonel by the name of Oliver North.  He showed up to the hearings wearing his Marine uniform and defended himself by saying that he was only following orders.  What angered my father was Colonel North's failure to abide by his oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  He was duty-bound to refuse to obey any unconstitutional order, but allowed himself to be co-opted into an illegal act.

It will come as no surprise to you that many of our critics, both people with no faith and people with disappointed faith, accuse the church regularly of hypocrisy.  Just yesterday the New York Times reported that a senior Roman Catholic bishop in the United States subverted both civil and canon law to protect a known pedophile.  I can almost hear someone saying, "Suffer the little children to come to me.  FAT CHANCE!"  Our own legal actions to maintain our property rights may seem to affirm the comment made in our 'Back to Church' video that the church is only interested in money.

What our critics and others want to see is that our actions reflect our oft-repeated convictions.  Most people will recognize human frailty and cut us some slack, but they won't cut us much if we seem too frequently inconsistent in what we say and do.  I reckon all of us here today will say that I am preaching to the choir and not telling you anything that you don't know already.

But it is interesting to note that even Jesus, as portrayed in Mark's gospel, has to be reminded about the need for consistency between one's words and one's actions.  In the early chapters of Mark's gospel, Jesus travels through Galilee and other areas proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is universal, a kingdom that has the potential to unite human beings in one great family.

And then along comes a non-Jewish woman who recognizes that Jesus has something to offer her as well as the Jewish community among whom he lives and teaches.  She dares to cross an invisible yet wide chasm:  a woman initiating a conversation with a man to whom she is not related and whom she does not know, a Gentile daring to ask a Jewish rabbi for help.  She puts Jesus to the test as surely as any of his Jewish opponents:  "[The Syrophoenician woman] begged Jesus to throw the demon out of her daughter.  [Jesus] responded, 'The children have to be fed first.  It isn't right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs.'  But she answered, 'Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.'  'Good answer!' he said.  'Go on home.  The demon has already left your daughter.'"  (Mark 7.26b-29, Common English Bible)

This unnamed woman gets the better of Jesus in a theological argument.  She reminds him that the kingdom of God cannot be limited to the Jewish people.  She confronts him with the possibility that he might be accused of hypocrisy, teaching one thing and doing another.  And Jesus gives in.  I love the Common English Bible's translation of Jesus' answer, because I think it captures the ebb and flow of the conversation:  'Good answer'.

Good answer, indeed.  When Micah asks, "What does the Lord require?", the answer comes in these familiar words:  "[The LORD] has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you:  to do justice, embrace faithful love, and to walk humbly with your God."  (Micah 6.8, Common English Bible)  Good answer.  Good answer, indeed.

The months ahead will see our congregation seeking to make sure what we do matches what we say.  If we are a place of 'home, help and hope', then how will this be played out?  Yes, we will welcome our neighbours on the 16th of September.  Yes, we will reach out to those who need winter clothing on the 14th of October.  These are good answers to our critics' questions.

But are we prepared to take the concrete steps to establish our pastoral resource centre?  We have prepared a proposal and I have heard many affirmative voices in support of the proposal.  These are good answers, but there is much work to be done to search out the sources of funding we require to make the Centre a reality.

I believe we are a community committed to an integrity of word and action.  I believe we are a community that seeks to offer a place of home, help and hope.  So let's make room at this table for all who are hungry, rich and poor, newcomer and old-timer.  Let's give ourselves to the task of making sure that every one has a seat at God's bountiful feast, for the need continues to be great and actions are needed more than well-turned phrases.  Let's make sure we have a good answer for those who would see the kingdom of God.  We have good news to share --- and to live --- so let's share and live that good news.  Amen. 

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