Benediction Online

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Challenge Authority

“You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Lk 12:56)
Interpreting the present time, understanding what’s going on and how to respond, may be one of the most difficult things for us to do. As we watch television and read the newspaper, and as we pray about our world, how do we make sense of what we see? We certainly see people in difficulty and in distress but without being sure of the causes or the best course of action it’s difficult to know how to respond. There is no doubt in my mind that we are called to be ministers of God’s love, and that means standing up against injustice and standing for gospel values but knowing exactly where and when to take a stand is much more complicated. It’s clear that things are not well in Iraq, but should we withdraw our troops? will that make things worse or better?

Our first reading today is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in Judah just before the Babylonian invasion and subsequent exile. He was not a popular person. In fact he was accused of treason because he recommended surrender to the Babylonians. Jeremiah knew that the country’s failure to protect the poor and oppressed had opened it to God’s wrath and that if Babylonia were successful, Judah had only itself to blame. Jeremiah’s words were not welcomed by the king or by his fellow countrymen – there were plenty of other prophets around saying much nicer things. Today’s reading is an excerpt from a lengthy speech about false prophets who reassure the people falsely. “Is not my word like fire, says the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

In the gospel reading, Jesus uses a similar image. “I came to bring fire to the earth… do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No I tell you, but rather division!” These are not comfortable words. When I read today’s readings I wished it were Faye’s turn to preach! If I’d been a prophet in Jeremiah’s day I suspect I’d have been a false prophet. I’d rather preach peace, love, acceptance and hope than fire and division.

But that, I think, is one of the signs of the times. We want to have a quiet, gentle spirituality which makes us feel good. We don’t want to have to grapple with a God who is demanding and challenging, who calls us to take difficult, unpopular positions. We want to go with the flow, to live in the zone, to know ‘the secret’ to getting what we want. I want to preach a God who is unconditionally loving and accepting, gentle Jesus meek and mild. When conflict arises I want to sweep it under the carpet and preach unity and abundance.

But that is not the God of Jeremiah, or the God of Jesus. Today’s Gospel reading is harsh - it depicts Jesus in a very different state of mind than when he’s preaching or healing. Jesus was heading towards Jerusalem and towards a very difficult encounter with dominant culture. I think that, after all these years of hearing the stories about Jesus, we have forgotten just how shocking and how revolutionary his teachings and his actions were. He challenged the morality of the day – he made lepers clean, he ate with sinners, he allowed a hemorrhaging woman to touch him – he broke down the boundaries between clean and unclean. He talked with women, he conversed with Samaritans and foreigners. He challenged the current notions of who was in and who was out.

With 20/20 hindsight we may say that Jesus died on the cross to bring us salvation, but in the moment he died on the cross because he was so threatening to the authorities that they couldn’t allow him to live any longer.

When we are moved by the Spirit of God it is deeply disturbing. Yes there is, much of the time, an underlying peace, a knowledge that we are being held. But our God is a God of fire as well as a God of peace. Fire which is fierce, demanding, purifying and transforming. When God gets involved things get stirred up. Business as usual no longer exists.

So we have paradox. On the one hand we are to be peacemakers and to be one with each other in the Body of Christ. On the other hand Jesus brings division. And as we can see from the current situation in the Anglican Communion, that division comes not just between us and them, but between us and us.

However conflict and division also come from the work of our little egos. Sometimes I get stuck on the way I think something should be done and it’s hard for me to let go. When I am determined to have things my way, when I am caught up in my own importance it can create conflict. It’s important to distinguish between the two, conflict for the kingdom or conflict for and by the little ego. One way of discerning the difference is to ask, how does this contribute to increasing the kingdom of God? If it doesn’t, then it’s probably just my ego getting in the way.

Jeremiah, like Jesus, challenged the authorities. It didn’t make him popular. It won’t make us popular either. But if we are to be disciples of Christ then it is an inevitable and vital part of our calling. There are two levels of authority that we have to challenge. Both are important – one without the other is only a partial response to the gospel.

The first is within ourselves and our own lives. We have to fight the authority of the little ego and the dominant culture, what the Bible often calls the world, and sometimes the devil. We have to fight all the ways that it keeps us trapped in layer upon layer of stuff. It tells us that we need to hold on, tightly. That we will be lost if we let go of anger, resentment, depression. That something terrible will happen if we don’t keep getting more things, or watching our investments. The dominant culture tells us that we are basically insecure and at risk and the best thing to do is to hang on for dear life.

It is a very powerful voice but the gospel, the good news is that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God and there is nothing, nothing to fear. That is the hope that allowed the martyrs to face often painful deaths. That is the hope that leads us on. There is nothing to fear and so we can dare to forgive, we can dare to let go, we can dare to give generously. We can dare to be counter-cultural in the way we think and the way we act.

The second place where we challenge authority is in the outer world - in our work for social justice. If we are truly working for the increase of God’s Reign on earth we are going to ruffle some feathers. We are going to be unpopular with some people.
Working for social justice would be much easier if we could be sure that we were doing the right thing, but there is rarely an open and shut case in any area of human life. Now we can see that the slave trade was wrong, but in its time there were many reasons why it was good for slaves to be slaves – after all it would be cruel to free them when they didn’t know how to act as free people. Today we are proud that the Episcopal Church was involved in the civil rights movement but in the 1960s many people thought it was quite improper. We may take a position believing it to be the very best thing and find in twenty years that it didn’t work out the way we expected.

If we are to be disciples of Christ we will work for unpopular causes. Not just talk about them and think good thoughts, but really work to change the world so that all beings can be free and know the joy of their own true natures. It’s not easy. We are to interpret the present time and work within it for the reign of God.

Being a follower of Christ is not easy. But the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that we are not alone. We are just the current team in a relay race that has been going on for millennia, and those who have run before us are now cheering us on. While we have the baton, our job is to do all we can to challenge the authority of the dominant culture. When the going gets hard we look to Jesus for encouragement.

My friends, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”


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