Saturday, March 21, 2015

Who Has God's Ear?

RCL Lent 5B
22 March 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

Focus text:  John 12.20-33

         Among some early Christian communities, confession was public not private.  The penitents would gather in the midst of the assembled community and then, one by one, they would come and kneel beside the bishop.  The penitent would then make her or his confession and the bishop would tell the penitent what acts of contrition he or she must make.  Then, the bishop would declare forgiveness of the person’s sins.
         In the spirit of that tradition I have a confession to make to you all.  Over the past two weeks I have not done those things which I ought to have done because I watched all three seasons of ‘House of Cards’, a dramatic series produced by Netflix and based on an earlier British series --- which I have also watched in its entirety.  My sin was triggered by my discovery that I can gain access to my Netflix account from my television provider at home.  Big screen.  Better sound.  Clearer picture.  All the proper elements to tempt even a priest from doing some of the things he or she ought to do!
         The main character, Francis Underwood, is a U.S. congressman who, by hook and by crook, has managed to become President of the United States without standing for election to that office.  If you think this is far-fetched, it isn’t.  Some of us here may remember the scandal-plagued second presidential term of Richard Nixon.  First, Nixon’s Vice President, Spiro Agnew, was forced to resign and Gerald Ford, a congressman from Michigan, was elected by Congress to replace Agnew.  Then came Watergate and Nixon’s resignation.  VoilĂ  --- Gerald Ford, a man who never stood for election as President becomes President of the United States.
         In a recent episode Underwood, as President, participates in the burial of three U.S. sailors killed in Afghanistan.  The bishop who is presiding at the burial uses the image of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as a metaphor for our own feelings when our young men and women put themselves in harm’s way.  Underwood is intrigued by the image and arranges to meet the bishop in a church later that night.
         In the darkened church Underwood asks the bishop what God expects of him as President.  The bishop says, ‘Only this:  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.  This is the first and the great commandment.  This second is like it:  Love your neighbour as yourself.  There is no commandment greater than these.’  Underwood thanks the bishop and asks to be left alone at the altar to pray.
         He looks up at the large crucifix hanging over the altar and tells God that if love is the answer, then God is a fool and Underwood will not be a fool.  Underwood will choose power rather than love.  Underwood spits at the figure of Christ and then, to cover his sacrilege, reaches out to wipe the spit away with his handkerchief.  The figure of Christ falls from the cross and shatters.  As the Secret Service agents rush to protect the President, Underwood simply tells them to clean the mess up.  As he leaves the altar space, Underwood leans down and picks up a broken piece of the statue that turns out to be Christ’s ear.  ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I’ve got God’s ear now.’
         In today’s gospel reading from John, some Gentiles, probably Greek-speaking followers of God who, for one reason or another have not fully converted to Judaism, come near to Jesus and his disciples.  They know that a direct approach is not appropriate and that they need to catch the ear of one of the disciples as a sponsor.  They choose Philip whose Greek name may well mean that he has some familiarity with the Greek language and culture. 
         Once they’ve got Philip’s ear, these Gentiles make a dangerous request, one that has the potential to change their lives completely and to challenge the status quo: ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’   In John’s gospel to ‘see’ Jesus is to ‘believe’ in Jesus and to seek to follow Jesus as Lord.  Jesus’ answer may seem a bit strange:  ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to glorified.’  These Gentiles may have caught Philip's ear, but now Jesus has caught their lives.
         The glory Jesus speaks of here is the glory that comes when non-Jewish believers in God realize that in Jesus God has come into our midst.  Imagine the outrage that some of Jesus’ Jewish followers must have felt.  Most Jews in the time of Jesus did not think much of Gentiles.  Paul often writes about this in his letters to the various churches and, at times, even gives way to his own native dislike of Gentile customs and attitudes.
         With non-Jews approaching Jesus’ disciples and asking to ‘see’ Jesus, to become followers of the Way that Jesus shows us and lives for us, all the windows and doors are thrown open.  Every human being, Jew and non-Jew, male and female, slave and free, is welcome to become a member of the community that confesses Jesus as Lord.  Ethnic origins, gender and social status no longer define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.  All the membership tests that human communities have used since the beginning of our species to identify friend from foe no longer apply if one ‘sees’ Jesus and believes in the good news.
         Everything now changes.  The religious status quo cannot be maintained.  God’s mission in Jesus is shown to be universal, reaching out to all of humanity, reaching out in all times and in all places.
         Never underestimate how the good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth comes as bad news to many in our world.  It should come as no surprise to us that this proclamation of self-giving love is a threat to those whose status is defined by wealth, power and prestige.  Just think for a moment how often we are pleasantly surprised when someone with great wealth or great influence stoops down from high and helps someone who has little wealth or influence.  Just recently a teacher won $1,000,000 when she was named one of the finest teachers in the world.  She donated the whole amount to the school she founded; but I cannot help but think that there were a few voices in the audience said, under their breath, ‘She’s a fool.’
         The good news of God in Jesus of Nazareth is very bad news indeed to those who use ethnicity, gender and social status as means of control.  The message of the cross proclaims that God sacrifices God’s very self in order to restore a loving and compassionate relationship between human beings and the One in whose image we are made.  The message of the cross proclaims that when Christians gather to share in the eucharist we do not do so for ourselves alone.  In this eucharist today God opens our eyes to God’s hand at work in the world about us.  We are delivered from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength, for pardon only and not renewal.  In this eucharist we are made one body, one spirit in Christ, so that we may serve the world in the name of self-giving love. [1]
         Francis Underwood may think that such a God is a fool.  The purveyors of prejudice, oppression and death throughout the world may think our God is a fool.  Those who benefit from ethnic conflict, sexism and social inequality may think any followers of such a God are fools.  But God is not a fool.  Our shared humanity is more powerful than isolation.  The wonder of being male and female, a physical embodiment of God’s own mystery, is more powerful than discrimination.  The realization that we are all dependent upon one another, that we are all made in the image of God and are entitled to dignity, is more powerful than any class privilege. 
         The truth is that you and I know who has God’s ear --- God’s people when we are united in prayer and action, drawn together by love and compassion made known to us upon the cross by the one who is our way, our truth and our life.

[1] The Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church 1979), 372.

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