Saturday, February 8, 2014

High Time for High Tide

RCL Epiphany 5A
9 February 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus texts:  Isaiah 58.1-12 and Matthew 5.13-20
            In the Acts of the Apostles we read several descriptions of the activities of the earliest Christian communities.  Each of these descriptions shares a common structure:  a small community, usually meeting in homes and, if possible, a synagogue, for teaching, prayer and ‘the breaking of bread’.  These communities are also known for their ‘good works’, whether these works include healing of the sick, charity to the poor, care of those who are imprisoned or in any distress. 
            At first these communities were known as ‘followers of the Way’, but at some point in our history, probably in the city of Antioch, they were called ‘Christians’ or ‘followers of the Anointed One’.  These early communities were not without opposition and in the Acts of the Apostles we read of the first martyr, Stephen, as well as many stories of violence and injustice directed towards the followers of the Anointed One.  Despite martyrdom, imprisonment, violence and prejudice, these early communities began to grow throughout the Mediterranean world, following the trade routes and often taking root in cities and towns where the Jewish community had already found a home.
            At some point in their history, the followers of the Anointed One were asked what they were rather than who they were.  These followers of the Anointed One had a number of options.  Since they often owned cemeteries, they could have said, ‘We are a burial society.’  Since they had frequent communal meals, they could have said, ‘We are a dining society.’  Since they gathered for worship, they could have said, ‘We are a religious society.’  All of these terms were available to them, but they chose none of them.
            To the surprise of some and, no doubt, to the concern of the Roman imperial authorities, the followers of the Anointed One said, ‘We are an ekklesia.’  In the ancient Mediterranean world, the word ekklesia meant ‘a public assembly of citizens to take counsel and to act for the common good of the whole community’.  Throughout the Mediterranean there were numerous city-states where the citizens, almost always men, gathered from time to time for these ‘town meetings’, to debate and to vote on public policy and action.  When the followers of the Anointed One said, ‘We are an ekklesia’, they were staking out a claim for themselves.  ‘We are not simply a group of people who gather for religious rituals,’ these believers said, ‘we gather to discern how we might best serve the common good of everyone.’
            Within the gatherings of the ekklesia one prophetic book held special place:  the book of the prophet Isaiah.  It is difficult to understand the evolution of the Christian movement without taking into account the influence of this prophet.  I do not think that it is too far a leap to see why Christians chose to call themselves ‘a public assembly of citizens to take counsel and to act for the common good of the whole community’.
            Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  (Isaiah 58.6-7)
The end, the purpose, of our gathering for teaching, for prayer and to break the bread is that we should go forth from this place to participate in God’s work of justice, of kindness and of humility.  This is not a liberal agenda or a conservative agenda; this is God’s agenda repeated time and time again in the prophets and in the life and teaching of the Anointed One, Jesus of Nazareth, the one you and I call ‘Lord’.
            Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  (Matthew 5.17-18)
            And how is this purpose to be accomplished?  In today’s gospel we hear a truly daunting declaration of the role you and I are to play in bringing about God’s purposes.
            You are the salt of the earth . . . . You are the light of the world . . . . A city built upon a hill cannot be hid . . . . No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  (Mathew 5.13a, 14, 15)
The work that the prophet Isaiah speaks of is entrusted to a people, a flesh and blood community that sometimes succeeds gloriously and sometimes fails spectacularly, a community that sometimes sees clearly the way forward and sometimes suffers from such overwhelming blindness that we fall flat on our faces.  But despite our failures and our blindnesses, God does not relieve us of our task, our role in the ongoing work of renewing and restoring balance and right relationships between human beings and God, between human beings and between humanity and the rest of creation.
            To be a Christian is to be political.  Please do not confuse ‘political’ with ‘partisan’.  It is our vocation to ensure that all the voices within our communities are heard.  Given the power of the media and the advantages of certain groups within our society, this will often mean that we speak for the voiceless and the powerless.  This will be confused with ‘partisanship’ and those who gain from our silence will quickly claim that we are crossing the boundary between ‘church and state’.  Sometimes our neighbours will be concerned that our activities are bringing ‘the wrong kind of people’ into our neighbourhoods.  It is our responsibility to care for all, rich and poor, abundantly privileged and under-privileged, and we will do so with an eye to protecting all.  But we will ‘loose the bonds of injustice’ however inconvenient that may be to some.
            In all of this, it is important to keep in mind that useful motto, ‘Think globally.  Act locally.’  The greatest power that evil can wield against believers is leading us to think, ‘What can we do?  We’re only a few people.  How can we change the world?’  What God expects of us is that we tend the gardens in which we have found ourselves.  God does not expect us to change the world, just ourselves and then Shannon Park and then join with others to change Metro Vancouver in a growing tide.  Sometimes it feels as If we are at ebb tide, even low tide, but I believe that the high tide of God’s purposes is slowly but surely returning.
            To do these things, to participate in this mission of God, will require that we be equipped.  We need to learn the difference between what the scriptures say and what the scriptures mean.  We need to learn how to open our souls to God and to each other in private and corporate prayer.  We need to worship in ways that comfort, inspire and challenge us.  But we must keep firmly in mind that our teaching, our prayer and our worship have a common purpose:  working for a world in which we and all God’s children shall be free, a world living to praise the name of God.  Amen.

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