Friday, March 21, 2014

The Dignity of Balance: The Third Sunday of Lent (23 March 2014)

RCL Lent 3A
23 March 2014

Saint Faith's Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  Psalm 95

Click here to listen to an audio recording of the Sermon as preached at the 10.00 a.m. Eucharist today.

In ancient Roman times there were three qualities that defined the status of a man:  auctoritas, potestas and dignitas.  Auctoritas was rooted in whatever public office a citizen might hold; auctoritas or 'authority' came and went as the citizen entered and then left the exercise of any given official role in the imperial government.  Potestas was not dependent upon the exercise of public office; its source was in the raw power that a citizen might gain from great wealth, extensive lands and the support of the Roman mob.  Potestas also came and went --- if the citizen was not careful to cultivate carefully the sources of his power.

The third quality that a Roman citizen sought was not dependent upon public office, although it might be a by-product of the effective exercise of a civic role.  Nor was this quality linked to wealth, lands and popularity.  Dignitas was a mysterious quality that rested on an individual whose public and private life exhibited all the positive virtues the Romans valued.  A citizen possessed dignitas when he had exercised his public roles in the political arena with wisdom, fortitude and respect for the ancient ways of the Roman republic.  Auctoritas and potestas were transitory; dignitas was eternal.  To undertake any action that undermined a citizen's dignitas was almost an unforgivable sin.

Dignitas was also the product of balance, a balance between the values of the past, the realities of the present and the promises of the future.  The importance of balance found expression in one dimension of the rituals surrounding the famous Roman triumph, the grand parade of soldiers, booty and prisoners that every Roman general hoped might come his way after the defeat of a foreign army.  On the day of the triumph, the victorious general rode in a chariot drawn by four horses, dressed in finery intended to convey a certain divine image to the adoring crowds of Roman residents who lined the triumphal route.  Who would not be overcome by the shouts, the colours, the honours, the emotions of such a day?

To preserve dignitas, to ensure that the triumphant Roman was grounded not in the grandeur of the occasion but in the dignity of his role as representative of the Roman people, a slave or a younger son or a young officer would stand just behind the victor.  As the procession made its way through the city, this voice of reason would whisper into the ear of the victor, 'Remember you are only a man.  Fame passes away.  You will pass away.  This is only a fleeting moment.'  How many victors heeded that advice I leave to classical scholars to determine, but it is worthwhile to remember this during triumphal moments in our individual lives and in the corporate life of our Diocese.  Our new Bishop, Melissa, has the auctoritas that accompanies her office as Bishop; she may even have sources of potestas that we know not of.  But what we wish for her and for ourselves is dignitas, a balanced leadership that values our past, that acknowledges our present realities and that offers us a promise for the future.

In this morning's psalm we hear the voice of an ancient Hebrew writer who calls upon his own community to find such balance even as they celebrate their ascendance in their small part of the ancient world.  For Anglicans who have grown up with the Prayer Book, especially its office for Morning Prayer, Psalm 95 will be familiar.  I cannot number the times that I have sung this Psalm, whether as a congregant, as a member of a choir, as a seminarian or as a priest.  But those of us who have grown up with this Psalm have, for the most part, only heard its positive verses that extol God and, in extolling God, are a declaration by the people of Israel that they are experiencing a high point in their political, religious and social life.

And why shouldn't they celebrate?  This is a Psalm that celebrates the Temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem for the Holy One of Israel, the One who led the people from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the land of Canaan.  This is the Temple that was acknowledged in the ancient world as one of the worthwhile sights for ancient tourists to see, even if its interior was only open to Jews.  This Psalm speaks of a time when the people of Israel had their own place among the kingdoms of the Mediterranean and conducted trade from one end of the known world to another.  It is a Psalm that celebrates the auctoritas of the king and the potestas of the people.

But the author of this Psalm expects something more of the people who gather in the splendour of the Temple.  He expects them to find balance even as they are tempted to live only in the glorious present.  And so he ends his Psalm of praise, his hymn to God's glory, with verses that Anglicans only rarely hear, verses geared to cool the ardour of his fellow Jews.

8 "Harden not your hearts, as your forebears did in the wilderness, *
            at Meribah, and on that day at Massah, when they tempted me.
9 They put me to the test, *
            though they had seen my works.
10 Forty years long I detested that generation and said, *
            “This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
11 So I swore in my wrath, *
            “They shall not enter into my rest.”

Just as the Roman victor needed a voice whispering in his ear, 'Remember you are only a mortal.  Fame passes away.  You will pass away.  This is only a fleeting moment.', so too do the worshippers in the Temple need to be reminded that their relationship with God has not always been a steady one.  In the roughest moments of their journey from bondage into the freedom of the promised land, they turned against God and lost their faith in God's promise to bring them in safety across the Jordan.

As we continue our annual journey towards the celebration of our liberation through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we need to be reminded that we are called to a balanced life that embodies dignitas.  We have a firm foundation upon which to build our lives:  the witness, wisdom and generosity of generations of believers who have come before us.  That foundation allows us to face the realities of Christian witness in the twenty-first century where there are so many of our neighbours who have not heard the good news you and I have to share.  That good news allows us to face the future, with all its uncertainties, with confidence in God's love for us and for the whole creation.  Even as we celebrate the ministry of our new Bishop and, perhaps, bask in the afterglow of a glorious celebration that literally stopped traffic on Burrard Street, we need to hear the quiet voice of God, whispering in our ear, 'This is a passing moment.  Enjoy it but do not linger here.  There is still much work to be done and I want you to join me in accomplishing it.'  Even as we come to the end of this eucharist, let us hear the voice of the Deacon who says, not so quietly, 'Rejoice that we have gathered.  Now, move on and get on back to work!'

Let us find in God's Word, in our prayers and in our community of faith that balance, that dignitas, that enables us through our deeds as well as our words to glorify the God who created us, the God who redeemed us, the God who works in and through us.  Amen.

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