5th Jun, 2005

The Third Sunday After Pentecost

5.6.05 Trinity Two, Pentecost Three
8am Low Mass, 10.30am High Mass

Lections:
Gen 12:1-9 Abram called to Bethel
Roms 4:13-25
St Matt 9:9-13, 18-26 call of Matthew Levi, woman with haemorrhage, twelve year old girl raised to life.

There is an old favourite joke that we tell in Britain about a Welsh Baptist Minister who goes on a round-the-world-trip aboard a cruise-ship. There’s a terrible storm. The ship is lost at sea and is dashed to pieces on the rocks. The Minister is the only survivor of the ship-wreck and he ends up living on a desert-island for quite a few years. After twenty years or so, the Baptist Minister is eventually rescued by a passing oil tanker that spots him one day. The rescue party sent from the oil tanker land on the desert island and are impressed by the Welshman’s Robinson Crusoe-like ingenuity and industry, for there on the beautiful beach of the island he has constructed not one but two large and well-proportioned Welsh Baptist Chapels. When asked to explain why there are two chapels and not one the sage, old minister replies: “well, it’s simple, that’s the Chapel I go to and the other one THAT’S the one I don’t go to.” The Welsh are known for our habit of attending a Chapel or Church for many years and then finding some reason to fall-out, complain or just get plain fed-up and leave. There is always ‘the Church I go to and the one I used to go to but don’t anymore’ in every Welsh town and village.
For those of us who have roots or experience of the more Evangelical or non-conformist part of the Christian tradition we know that the story can ring true: how many times have the Chapel Deacons or the Vestry got their talons into the soul of the poor Minister for something he said or did that didn’t quite suit their temperaments? The members call an emergency congregational meeting and the Minister is put out for having a relationship with the young lady from the village- such, of course, is the story of ‘How Green Was My Valley.’ But the truth of such Churchy politics is always more complex and actually far more intriguing. There is an intricate and balanced relationship between who we are, what we believe, the way we believe it, the way our identity is formed, the formation of our faith and where we locate authority. For Anglicans, Episcopalians, Orthodox and Roman Catholics the nature of our polity and governance means that Bishops always play a most significant role in the way we view the Church. Now Fundamentalists of any persuasion, Evangelical, Baptist, Anglo-Catholic or Liberal (and the term Liberal Fundamentalist may strike you as something of an oxymoron) all fundamentalists face relatively few problems when it comes to authority. Authority can be located in a literal reading of the Bible, or more accurately, a literal reading of certain selected bits of the Bible, for Anglo-Catholics we can locate authority in a certain ‘golden-age’ of history when everything was smelling sweet and fragrant in the rose garden and everything was wonderful and certain and functioned like clock-work. Or perhaps for the Liberal Fundamentalist authority can be located in the belief that everyone’s experience and world-view is correct and true and there is no such thing as right and wrong, good or bad- well, not ultimately- and all you’ve got to do is really just make it all up as you go along.
But for us Episcopalians in the Anglo-Catholic tradition as we ‘read’ Scripture, ‘live’ tradition and ‘grapple’ with our own situation we are not faced with absolute fundamentalist ‘truth’ on the one hand and utterly impotent relativism on the other. Today the question of what authority might mean is an incredibly hotly contested and pressing topic. As Christians we believe, for example, that the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments have a foundational character that makes them crucial in all contemporary ethical discussion- but we do not prescribe stoning to death for blasphemy under any circumstances. A regime such as John Calvin’s Geneva or any state that enforces literal readings from Scripture will soon plunge into dictatorship. And really it is the ‘teasing out’ of the themes of power from authority that can be most helpful for us. Power today seems to equal, at least in our contemporary culture’s eyes, whoever has the most money or military might on their side- might is right is the chilling motto.
On British television not so many years ago there were an interesting and intriguing series of advertisements: there were the soft tones of Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, superbly photographed and filmed scenes of rioting and brutal military retaliation, hostages being exchanged and prisoners released on a remote mountain pass. But they weren’t advertising the good work of Amnesty International or the plight of some political or persecuted minority: all of those images and sounds were being used to sell cars. The trivializing of human rights opposed to dictatorship and the persecution of political prisoners all used as advertising images is simply one symptom of our rampantly materialist and sometimes morally bankrupt culture. Everything seems to be reduced to commercial, financial, economic and casual choices of how we spend our money. It seems that everything and I mean everything; from political authority and moral debate to religion and God can be bought and sold or bartered for in the free market. Power in terms of monetary power has become synonymous with authority.

Having been quite negative, or at least sounding quite negative so far I would like to end with three observations about authority as they may be understood in the Christian paradigm of Christ’s ethic.
Power and authority are not synonymous: authority is firstly vulnerable authority because it is the authority for love and does not exist to exercise power, manipulate or influence but exists for freedom and fulfillment- always it is in the ultimate analysis not about getting one’s own way but about the striving for the good of the other- even when that good is perhaps against, profoundly against what is good FOR ME. Anyone can be virtuous when it’s for our benefit, anyone can be holy, just, honourable, kind or giving if there’s some reward or benefit in it for ME: the real test comes when rather than reward, rather than benefit, there is profound pain, loss, hardship or dishonour FOR ME.
Wasn’t it strange that when we were teenagers we were so convinced that that rule about being home and in bed by nine o’clock seemed so designed to curb our longing for independence and maturity? And yet just a few years later one realizes that those who make decisions like that are actually doing it for our own good, welfare and protection: and sometimes it would have been so much easier for parents or guardians to have a quiet life, to live and let live, “of course you can stay out until three in the morning” and we’ve have liked them so much more wouldn’t we?
So, secondly authority is for service and not domination, for the good of others and their welfare and not our own gain.
Thirdly and for the Christian most importantly, because authority is the service of love it is capable of creating a common life, a community of healing, a family, a society, a culture that gathers together what human selfishness has scattered. Strangely enough it is the very opposite of Mr Calvin’s Geneva which tried so very, very hard to be a Christian Community modeled on a literal and fundamentalist reading of Scripture and then in its earnestness failed appallingly because it failed to take into account grace and the possibility that God is NOT on our side: And God is NEVER on anyone’s side- rather we should always be on His! God is not for co-opting onto our Moral Abuses Committee.
Vulnerability, service, grace and community, not the sort of things that are popular in our television commercial world of free-market enterprise, but the very fabric of this place, and the very fabric of you and of me, if we are prepared to risk taking God seriously and like St Matthew to rise and follow Christ.

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