Saturday, June 1, 2013

Waiting for God

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9C)
2 June 2013

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC
         About fifteen years ago the Principal of Vancouver School of Theology asked me to be the welcoming committee for a visiting bishop from the United States.  On the day of the bishop’s visit I went out of my way to dress more formally than I might.  I waited in my office, but no bishop came to my door nor did the front desk call me to tell me that there was a bishop awaiting me in the lobby.  I finally wandered down to the lobby.

         In the lobby there was a gentleman with a beard and a pony-tail who was wearing a red plaid shirt and jeans.  I smiled at him and he smiled back.  I went to the front desk and said, “I waiting for Bishop X who hasn’t shown up yet.  Would you please call me when he arrives?”  From behind me a voice said, “Oh, I’m Bishop X.”  I turned  and found myself looking at the lumberjack on the couch in the lobby.  I suppose that I wasn’t able to put my poker face on quickly enough, because Bishop X then said, “I guess I’m not what you were expecting.”

         Despite all the efforts of my parents and my teachers, I do have a habit of judging books by their covers.  As a professor at the School of Theology I was very conscious that it was difficult for me to change my perspective on a student once I had made my initial judgement.  It was not nor has it been easy for me to change my mind about someone.  I do not say this with any sense of pride; it is a shortcoming that I still struggle with as a priest.

         So it is with a degree of caution that I approach the readings that we have just heard.  All three readings deal, in one way or another, with first impressions and with dealing with someone who does not meet one’s expectations.

         In our first reading from 1 Kings we hear Solomon’s prayer as he celebrates the completion of the First Temple in Jerusalem.  This temple represented the sovereignty of Israel’s God and the election of the people of Israel as the people of God.  It was a moment of supreme national pride, yet the author of 1 Kings, as he records Solomon’s prayer, dares to mention foreigners.  The writer expects foreigners to come and to worship in the Temple, something later generations will prevent by erecting barriers to keep Gentiles from entering into the sacred space.  ‘We may be God’s people,’ the writer is saying, ‘but our God is the God of all peoples and will hear the prayers of any who reach out with a pure heart and clean hands.’

         When Paul writes to the Christian community in Galatia, he is responding to reports that Jewish Christians are troubling the Gentile Christians by suggesting that the Gentile believers are not really Christians.  To be a real Christian, they argue, requires that one become a Jew first and keep the Jewish law.  For Paul this is a direct assault on his understanding of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Paul believes that, in Christ, all peoples are called into a new covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  This new covenant does not require any believer to become someone else.  Jewish Christians live out the new covenant as Jews, Gentile Christians as Gentiles.  From God’s perspective, a perspective Paul expects all believers to adopt, there are no strangers only friends; there are no privileged communities only the tapestry of God’s loving diversity.

         When we turn to the gospel, we hear a story that I once said to friends is one of my ‘desert island’ texts.  When the elders come to Jesus, they say to him, ‘We know he is a Roman, a soldier, an agent of imperial oppression.  But just this once, treat him like a Jew.’  Yet this Roman, this soldier, this agent of imperial oppression shows the depth of faith and trust in Jesus as God’s beloved that no one else has shown.  This enemy of the Jewish people is actually more deeply convinced and trustful of God’s compassion than anyone else Jesus has met so far in Luke’s gospel.

         We all know the old saying:  Looks can be deceiving.  Certainly this is the view of the scriptures we have heard today.  The ‘other’, no matter how we may describe the ‘other’, is as much a part of God’s saving purpose as those we may think of as ‘us’.  It is in our diversity that we show the world the immensity of God’s loving.  It is in our celebration of our distinctive gifts rather than in our concern to reduce differences that we show the world our faithfulness to following the way of Jesus.

         This is the difference between tolerance and respect.  I, for one, believe that God calls us to respect others rather than tolerate others.  When I tolerate others, I decide what I am willing to put up with before I put an end to my tolerance.  It’s a perfectly appropriate attitude to noisy block parties, car alarms and people listening to loud music on public transportation, with or without earphones!

         Respect begins with curiosity and imagination.  When I respect someone else, I am expecting that our relationship will be mutually beneficial.  The other person’s distinctive character may help me grow into the person God intends me to be.  My distinctive character may show the other person dimensions of life and faith that he or she has never seen before.  Respect does not require uniformity of thought or constant agreement, but respect does require steadfast love and humility.

         Solomon, Paul and Jesus tells us that the stranger is not necessarily our enemy.  The stranger, the one who is not like ‘us’, can actually be an agent of God who comes among us to lead us out of our narrow ways of thinking into the broader paths of God’s wisdom.  When we welcome the stranger and respect the gifts that the stranger brings, we will find our lives enriched and our insights into the mystery of God increased.

         Sometimes we are reluctant to invite others to be part of our community because, deep down, we know that our community will be changed if our invitation is accepted.  I know that this has been true for me.  The many developments of the past three decades in the Anglican communities in North America sometimes make me feel a stranger in the religious tradition of my birth, my nurture and my commitment.  But then I have moments when God challenges my first impressions and my natural conservatism.

         Our predecessors built this church as a sign of God’s presence in this part of the city.  Over the years each successive generation of members have brought their gifts here and this community has been enriched and transformed.  Just as Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem and offered it a place of prayer for all nations, so we open our doors to all who would enter and seek to follow God.  Just as Paul called upon the Christians in Galatia to celebrate their distinctive contribution to the covenants God made with Noah, with Moses, with Abraham and with Jesus, so we invite others to join us here so that we can celebrate God’s faithfulness with all the voices of creation.  Just as Jesus discovered in an unlikely person more faith than in any of the ‘usual suspects’, so we encounter every person who joins us, anticipating that they will reveal God to us in ways we cannot ask or imagine.

         Some day, you know, God might even show up with a beard and a pony-tail, wearing a red plaid shirt.  Amen.

No comments: