WHAT IS OUR MEASURE?

Pentecost 17
James 3:13-4:3; 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

If anyone be first, he must be last of all and a servant of all

You just have to love the disciples! In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus catches them arguing over who is the ‘greatest,’ who is closest to the master, who has the honour, you could say, of being his best friend. Now, we look to the disciples as models of faith. They were the first to respond to God in Jesus, risking everything to follow him. And yet, as is often remarked, they are at the same time constantly somehow letting Jesus down.

So what could it be that God is teaching us, even through the failures of the disciples? For one, the stories of the disciples’ failures help me to see how truly human they were, and therefore that nothing essential separates them from me. I have, like them, said ‘yes’ in my heart to the invitation of Christ and have determined to follow him. In important ways, this ‘yes’ has changed me. I believe that my relationship with Christ Jesus is the defining relationship of my life. And yet at the same time, I am aware that in so many ways my life does not reflect that commitment. And this confuses me. What am I afraid of? Why do I side-step the demands of servanthood? Why do I turn such a long way from the way of the Cross?

Somehow, even as I respond to Christ’s invitation, I find myself obeying a call coming from a different direction. James identifies this other call as friendship, not with Jesus, but with the “world.” And this “friendship with the world” he says, is in “enmity with God.” So when the disciples argue over which of them is Jesus’ best friend, they are paradoxically expressing friendship with the enemy of the very person with whom they are claiming to be best friends. They are aligning themselves with the world, measuring themselves by how the world measures – comparing how they stand in over against one another – instead of allowing God’s love to be the measure of how completely they give themselves to serve one another.

Christ calls us, his church, out of the world. That is what the word ‘church,’ or ecclesia actually means: “the assembly of those called out.” Christ alone ought to be our measure, Christ who expresses completely and utterly the love, the servanthood, and the freedom, of God. When we judge ourselves in comparison to others, when we determine our worth by measuring how we stand in relation to others, we open the door to ambition, covetousness, false hope, and violence. We begin to see the world, not as providing more than we need, but as a field of competition where resources, and even love, are scarce. But the thing is, as we see in the disciples and especially in our own lives, no matter how far out of the world we may have followed Christ, we nevertheless remain deeply in the world at the same time. How hard it is for us to appear ‘last’ in the eyes of our neighbours. Who doesn’t want to be admired?

Fear of not fitting in, of not earning the admiration of our neighbours. Perhaps this explains why we are afraid – afraid to become what in another sense we desire above everything to be – followers of Christ, and so servants of all? Besides which, we do not live in a vacuum. Every life-choice involves others. Is it permissible (or even possible) to drag one’s children, spouse, friends, along the way of the Cross? And we have to earn a living. We have to participate in the infrastructures of our society. We have ties to the world that we cannot simply discard. What then are we to do? Perhaps a kind of hypocrisy or duplicity is inevitable. We desire friendship with Christ alone, but find ourselves unable to renounce even very far our friendship with the world.

Perhaps God is teaching us humility precisely in our failures of faith. Perhaps he is teaching us to confess, “God of all goodness, I cannot be the disciple you call me to be.” Perhaps in this way he is teaching us that we must relinquish our lives to the mercy of the God of mercy. Perhaps God is teaching us that salvation is by grace and not by works: that is, by what we receive from God and not by what we give to God.

And yet (there is always an ‘and yet’), even as we throw ourselves upon the grace of God because we fail to be the disciples we have been called to be, we cannot cease striving live the life of servanthood. After all, it is not ‘salvation’ that God calls us to, but to a life dedicated to the manner of Christ. We are called to serve in the service of God; we are called to delight in the delight of God! And the moment we stop striving to love in the way of Christ, even as we perceive we never shall live this love perfectly, at that very moment we stop desiring this Love to be all in our all. And at the moment we stop desiring Christ be our all in all, that is the moment we stop believing that the Love of God is the most important thing of all. So we must never stop striving to perfect our discipleship – though we must fail. For God is teaching us in our failures of love to throw ourselves upon Love all the more earnestly.

Think about this: since God is infinite in Love, no matter how greatly we succeed in the world, no matter how wonderfully we measure against the efforts of others, in comparison with God we are all, equally, every one of us, always only at the beginning. By the world’s measure, you might reckon yourself far ahead of the person next to you. You might own a house on every continent while your neighbour lives in subsidized housing. And that might fool you into thinking you are greater, more important, than your neighbour. Even if you yourself try not think this way, inevitably the world will treat you as if you were, and you will inevitably grow accustomed to this kind of treatment. But when you do, you will be forgetting that God is the measure of all things. You will be forgetting that compared to the mansion in heaven, the difference between owning a home on five continents and living in a unit of subsidized housing is nothing. Next to the infinity of God, even the greatest of differences comes to nothing, for no matter how far ahead one seems next to the other, in fact you both remain infinitely far from the end.

So, my friends in Christ, we must strive, you might say, to let go of our striving; we must learn to measure success, not by ‘success,’ but by the Cross, which by the world’s measure, means only failure. It is in being servants that we express our faith that Love is all in all. Which makes me wonder: how is God calling us to servanthood? In November we will be setting aside a Saturday for a parish ‘visioning day.’ St Barnabas is entering its 125th year as a parish, and that seems to call for opportunity both to give thanks and to discern where and how God is calling us to serve Him now and in the future. We will need to consider, “what does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parish?” We will need to ask ourselves, “by what measure do we determine failure and success?” By the measures of the world – by size, number, wealth, influence and accolades? Or by how deeply we yearn to walk the way of the Cross, loving God, serving God’s people and God’s world in Christ’s name?

AMEN

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A CUP OF WATER

Pentecost 18 (B)
Mark 9:38-50

Today we are confronted with some seriously difficult words:

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

Hardly ‘Jesus meek and mild.’ What provokes him to such difficult words?

To put them into context, we need to go back to last week’s reading. If you remember, we read about how the disciples argued amongst themselves over which of them was greatest – who was closest to Jesus and thus positioned for a place of influence when the Kingdom finally came. Jesus, confronting them, declared “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”   Then he put a little child in their midst and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Keep in mind that society in Jesus’ time did not regard children quite as we do today. Unless, I imagine, they were your own, children were not generally seen as precious or important, but as having no social standing in their own right, and so of little worth. By putting a child in their midst, Jesus is telling them that to welcome him into their lives and so to draw close to God, has nothing to do with being drawn into a circle of prestige as they imagine. It has rather everything to do with drawing close to those who have no standing in the world, the unrecognized, the ones of little worth.

Imagine Jesus saying these things in private room, surrounded by those closest to him. Perhaps a moment of quiet follows as the words sink in. Suddenly John suddenly breaks the silence. “Teacher,” he says, “we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” – that is, even though he was doing our work of healing, we put a stop to his work because we did not recognize him as one of the privileged inner circle. It is right here that Jesus steps up the urgency of his message a few notches: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones,” he says, pointing again to the child “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” – and the rest we have already heard.

What sparks Jesus off? John’s words indicate that the twelve still misunderstand something essential. John is looking for Jesus’ approval when he tells him of the man they stopped because he was not an officially recognized member of the ‘in’ group. The disciples still equate blessing – which does indeed mean being ‘set aside’ – they still think of their ‘being set aside’ by Jesus as offering a seat of special privilege and privileged authority.

Let’s consider once more the child which Jesus put in their midst. What did he mean when he told his disciples that to welcome this child is to welcome him – and so to be close to the Father? We understand, now, because of Jesus’ teaching, something that was never obvious in the world before Jesus and is still far from obvious: that the outcast, the sinner, the impure, the poor, the helpless, are closer to God than the rich, the privileged, the powerful. At least, we understand this intellectually, even if not very often practically: that the ‘little ones,’ those who have no standing in this world, are closer to God than the ones on whom the world bestows authority. But this is not because God loves the weak more than the strong. There is nothing about poverty or weakness that makes a person intrinsically more loveable to God. So what is the point of Jesus’ teaching? To welcome the ones without standing is to welcome him because he himself – Jesus himself – is one such person. Jesus, who the disciples know and believe to be the Messiah, God’s anointed – he himself has no standing in the world. He himself, and so also the Father, is one on whom the world bestows no authority. To welcome the child is to draw close to God because God himself is, as it were, an invisible one: invisible because, like a slave or a child, no one seems to recognize him, even when he is right there.

My friends, we are given one purpose in life – that is to love God and love one another. It is, in other words, to make Christ visible in this world and in this life. It is to give authority to God only when we serve God by doing God’s work in the world. And we do this, not by serving those whom the world serves, but by serving those whom the world counts as nothing: the powerless, the voiceless, the invisible people. It is then we prove the power of love, when we serve those whom the world does not see, or counts for nothing.

On Sunday November 8th, we will host a Tea Talk in our hall featuring Fr. Bruce Bryant-Scott, who heads up the refugee sponsorship committee of our diocese. I have invited him to help us discern how we are going to respond to the ‘refugee crisis;’ how we as a parish will get involved. We know that we must respond in some way, we must serve those who, having had to flee their home, have lost their place in the world. There will undoubtedly be many complications. But the demand is simple: we are called to welcome all those who have no place in the world – the widow, the orphan, and thus also, plainly, the refugee.

Finally, what about those difficult words with which we began? Jesus is warning his disciples, warning us: If our hand grasps after the hand of the world, cut it off; if our eye seeks the eye of the world, pluck it out. Being weakened in finite things as we serve the weak; becoming invisible in mortal things as we serve the invisible, strengthens us in our calling to serve the suffering and invisible One, who is our God. Cutting off the hand of worldly power by loving the powerless, draws us into the Love of God. Plucking out the eye of worldly ambition by loving those the world overlooks, draws us into the Light of God. So let us love one another; and let us love all who are refugees in this world, in Jesus’ name.

AMEN

ST FRANCIS OF ASSISI

Phil 4:4-9
Matt 19:16-21

Tomorrow is the actual Feast of St Francis, but we are celebrating it today in honour of our own Fr Francis – who appropriately was ordained to the priesthood on this day forty years ago. Does this mean my task here is to compare the Saint who Kenneth Clark called “the greatest religious genius that Europe has ever produced” with our beloved minister and friend? This strikes me as a potentially dangerous undertaking! But maybe not. For if Saint Francis is a ‘religious genius,’ it is because his life encourages and embraces the lives of all who desire to walk the way of discipleship. We identify with the great Saint not because we think our lives are as exemplary as his, but because he shines a light along that path on which we too are walking, or at least trying to. That strikes me as true of all the Saints: we identify with them because they are like us – even as we struggle to be like them.

 

But before I go on to say more about St Francis, the monk who gave his life to poverty out of love for the Gospel, let us take a look at Matthew’s story of the rich young man. This just may be the text that has haunted my conscience more than any other. He is a person rich with good things – not just material goods but, we easily imagine, all the attendant goods position and prosperity bring: he is from a family important to the life of their community; he is educated, healthy, eager to take his place in the world. His father regards him with hope and pride. He is the apple of his mother’s eye, the one who will care for her and honour her in her old age. Undoubtedly, there is a girl too, a girl already chosen for him and who looks toward him as a blessing . . . And the young man is not ungrateful for all this. He is generous of spirit. A devout Jew, he wakes early to pray; he faces toward Sion at noon with a psalm on his lips; and when the sun goes down, he lifts up his heart in thankfulness for the day. But at the same time, there is a voice in his heart asking, “is this all? Is this enough?” Somehow, God is calling him further out. And so he seeks the rabbi: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

We know well Jesus’ response: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give your money to the poor.” Hearing this, the young man goes away sorrowing. But why, do you think, is he sorrowful? What can he not part with? The possessions themselves? Or rather something else? After all, to sell his possessions would mean to judge his father, to abandon his responsibility to look after his mother, to give up his place in his community, to lose the girl. Wouldn’t this seem to all the people he loves to be an act only of ingratitude and rejection? Already, he gives generously to the poor. Already, he tithes to support the ministries of the Synagogue. What good would it do for anyone, his becoming poor?

 

Kenneth Clark called St Francis a “religious genius” because he understood that “it was only because he possessed nothing that St Francis could feel sincerely a brotherhood with all created things, not only living creatures, but brother fire and sister wind.”[1] That is a beautiful insight. Clark sees that St Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun,” that joyful celebration of the community of all creation in God, was made possible by his marriage to poverty, to his becoming ‘one flesh’ therefore with even the very least of God’s creatures.

And that insight brings us to see something integral to the Gospel itself and to the nature of Christian love. Love is not “charity” – at least, not in the way we use that word today. Acts of ‘charity’ may be necessary, but they are a concession to our weakness. For charity accepts and even reinforces the differences that separate us, one creature of God from another. Food banks may be necessary, but the truth is that they sustain and abet the gap separating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have nots.’ But Love rejects all unessential separation. Love seeks communion everywhere. When Jesus tells the young man to sell his goods and give to the poor – he is not advising him to works of charity, but to a life of deepening community. Only poverty really exposes us to the truth: that all creatures are entirely dependent for their life and being on the abundant goodness of God.

 

But the rich young man goes away sorrowing. I go away sorrowing. Jesus just seems too hard! Is he really demanding of us lives of ascetic renunciation? How dreary! – causing distress not only to myself but to family and friends around me. But then we look to St Francis. St Francis wasn’t dreary – quite the opposite! When Francis somehow wrangled an interview with Pope Innocent III (known as the ‘toughest politician in Europe’), and when the Pope had the miraculous generosity to grant Francis permission to found a new religious order based on poverty, Francis and his companions were so excited they began to dance around in the Papal suite! Whooping and singing! They were far from dreary. Anyway, only someone whose heart is brimful of joy could spontaneously begin to preach to the birds, recognizing them to be essentially no different from him – they serving God in their way, and he in his. St Francis’ life indeed expressed the words with which we heard St Paul encourage the Church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice! . . . the Lord is near!”

When Francis’ wealthy father disowned him for giving his possessions away too liberally, Francis upped the ante by taking off all his clothes, saying “from now on I will possess absolutely nothing.” The bishop of Assisi gave him a cloak to cover himself, and Francis went off into the woods, singing a French song. What a beautiful picture. Francis lost the world, it is true, but he gained his soul. He lost his family, but found that all creatures were his brothers and sisters, the earth his Mother; God his true Father. And somehow, he learned by this what it means to be free.

Now what about our Francis – that is, Lynford, Fr Smith – whatever name you happen to call him by . . . ? Although as far as I know our Fr Francis has never taken a vow of poverty, we know him as one whose love for God, like St Francis, expresses itself in a heart of caring for all – and especially those in any kind of distress. Rejoicing in the Lord always – for our Fr Francis this means a life given to loving solicitude, kindness, attentiveness, a deep feeling of communion with his brothers and sisters in Christ. And in all these ways at least, the other, somewhat older Francis, has indeed been a guide and model in his faith. Moreover, it is not unknown for Fr Francis to dance for joy – especially Sundays in the vestry; often enough singing a French song too. It isn’t always very graceful, but it is always very joyful! Fr Francis, we are deeply grateful to God that He sent you to minister here, amongst us. And we thank Him for the richness of your friendship. May it continue from now well into eternity! In Jesus’ name,

AMEN

[1] Kenneth Clark, Civilisation (London: Penguin, 1969), p.68

HUNGER and EUCHARIST

Pentecost 9 (B)
2 Samuel 11:1-15
John 6:1-21

“Man is what he eats.” This is how the Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann begins his meditation on the sacraments in his little book For the Life of the World. Today, our Gospel and Old Testament readings are all about eating, about hunger, about desire. Jesus, receiving the gift of five barley loaves and two fish, blessed them, and fed the multitude. And when all had had as much as they could eat, there was still an abundance left over for others. David, on the other hand, hungered for Bathsheba. David did not bless God in thanksgiving. David rather turned his eyes and his appetite toward what God had not given him. Although in truth David had everything, as soon as he desired fruit forbidden him to eat it was as though he was filled up with nothing: no longer blessed, but something lacking, a want, an appetite. Taking Bathsheba, David did not satiate his hunger. He created, rather, a vortex of scarcity. Since he could not share her with her husband, Uriah, David thus entered into what economists call ‘competition over a scarce resource.’ And David had his competition eliminated.
Did David lack wives? Did he want for concubines? Did God not bless him beyond what we would consider a rightful measure in these things? But as soon as he forgot to love God first, as soon as he forgot to put his love for God between him and what his eyes had widened for, David’s story inevitably leads in a direction opposite that of the Gospel. Instead of moving from modesty to unforeseeable abundance, David’s life falls from abundance into a confusion of lies, scarcity, violence, loss, and shame.

In For the Life of the World, Schmemann makes the Augustinian point that “Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him” (p.14). Now, our hunger can take what I like to think of as the way of delight, the way of Eucharist. This is the way Jesus demonstrates and recalls us to by the mystery of the feeding of the five thousand. But Jesus must recall us to this way of being because our hunger has taken us in another, opposite direction: the way of the Fall.
By Falling, Schmemann says, we mean:
not primarily that man ‘disobeys’ God; the sin is that he ceases to be hungry for Him and for Him alone, ceases to see his whole life depending on the whole world as a sacrament of communion with God (p.18).

In other words, to Fall is to be primarily consumers of the world’s goods, rather than blessers of God for the goodness of the world. To Fall is to cut the blessing of the gift of creation off at ourselves. Falling, our love becomes a “closed circuit.” We seek satisfaction only of our own appetites. This way, the way of the Fall, as we saw with David, ultimately ends in a situation of lack – not abundance. That this is not merely a ‘spiritual’ concern comes home as we perceive that it is upon this situation of scarcity which our whole economic system is predicated.
But there is an alternative! An alternative given to us in Christ Jesus: the way of Eucharist – that is, the way of blessing, delight, thanksgiving.
Listen again to Schmemann:
the whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God’s blessing with his blessing . . . the first, the basic definition of man is homo adorans . . . he is the priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God – and by filling the world with this Eucharist, he transforms his life . . . into communion with God.

This is our calling, my brothers and sisters – our calling as the Church, our calling as human beings: to be the creature that blesses God in his creation. Our calling is to live the way of Eucharist.

When Jesus, looking over the crowd, turns to Philip and asks, “how are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat,” he is recalling Philip and all of us to this way of Eucharist. Saint Mark, in his version of the story, says Jesus “had compassion (on the people) . . . because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). In other words, they were hungry, but did not know where to find the food that they needed.
Jesus teaches them where to find the food they need by recalling them to the way of Eucharist. He looks and sees hunger all around him. But he does not say to the disciples, ‘don’t worry, I’ll provide everything.’ He asks rather, “Are you hungry? What have you got? Go out, discover the blessing with which you are blessed.” Andrew returns to him answering, “we are blessed with five barley loaves and two fish.” Then he adds, “but what are they among so many?” Andrew slips again into the pattern of fallen desire. Believing his hunger can be satisfied only from what he can provide himself, he sees this bread and fish only in terms of scarcity, competition. It’s not nearly enough!
But Jesus receives the bread and fish. He then models our purpose and calling as human beings, homo adorans: “Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks.” Thanks! He gave thanks – for what? This pittance? But where Andrew saw only next to nothing, scarcity, Jesus eyes were full of God. Jesus saw a gift, and in this gift the work of his Creator and Father. So he lifts up all he has received, gives thanks, breaks the bread, and has the disciples distribute the pieces among the people. And everyone has enough – more than enough. In fact, there is such an abundance of food that they gather up what remains to feed the hungry who are not there with them. There is enough – enough and more than enough – love more than enough for the whole world.

To live the Eucharist: that is the life which we are to witness. Our purpose is to love by blessing God and blessing the earth; to be the creature in whom the whole creation lifts its voice in praise. But rather than delighting in the gift laid at our feet, we covet what is not ours. If only we could eat what our neighbour eats – then we would be satisfied. But this is the great lie. By it we have fallen into a vortex of hunger, an endless appetite which we have pursued to the destruction of so much of the beauty and diversity of the world we were created to bless.
But there is an alternative! Every day and every week in this place, Jesus calls us to return to the life of Eucharist. We are to lift up to God the blessing we are given – including most especially our seemingly little, ineffectual love. We are to bring it and bless it in offering. When we do this, our little love is joined with God’s infinite love. And so bears fruit we cannot imagine – a hundred-fold, sixty-fold, or thirty-fold. Enough to feed us. More than enough. Enough to satisfy the hunger of the whole world.
In Jesus’ name.
AMEN

PROPHETIC WEAKNESS

Pentecost 7
2 Samuel 6:1-19
Mark 6:14-29

Last Sunday, we read a passage from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul wrote that God had said to him, “my power is made perfect in weakness.” This allowed Paul to conclude, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses . . . for when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul is saying that discipleship means meeting power – not with reciprocal power, but with faith. To have faith in God, faith in the promise of resurrection, means that the Powers of this world have no hold on us, do not impress us or make us afraid. We are free therefore not to have to answer violence with violence. Faith can break the cycle of violence.

Today we heard the story of two kings: King David and King Herod. Their stories, put side by side, seem a perfect commentary on this saying of St Paul, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Let’s turn to King David first. David is dancing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Remember, the Ark contains the tablets on which are written the ten commandments. The Ark thus in a very concrete way represents the living presence of YHWH. It is extremely dangerous because YHWH is extremely dangerous – dangerous because he is absolutely free. He will not to be manipulated or made an idol of. He does not tolerate being employed towards our own ends and purposes, that’s for sure.

King David’s plan is to install the Ark permanently in Jerusalem. He knows he is playing with fire. Up until this time, you see, the Ark had had no permanent home. It was just too dangerous to reside in any one place for long. David’s plan to have the Ark reside permanently in Jerusalem thus will change the way the nation will worship, relate to, and thus under-stand YHWH. God will no longer be a wandering nomad, but the centre of his power and his glory will now be found in one place: Jerusalem.

Of course, David is removing the Ark to Jerusalem for what we today would call political purposes. He is centralizing the power of the monarchy. Although David believes he has YHWH’s blessing to do this, he is taking no chances. His dance seems to me to be like the dance of a courting male black-widow spider. After every six steps he stops, puts down the Ark, and sacrifices an ox in a gesture both of thanksgiving but also to determine whether God remains pleased to permit him to proceed a little further. David dances “with all his might.” He pretends no dignity, but leaps about in front of the crowds almost entirely naked. He demonstrates his utter vulnerability before God. David dances in the certainty that only as he renounces all personal right to power, will God continue to bless his call to rule as king.

His show of vulnerability is what makes him seem contemptible in the eyes of his wife Michal. “How the King of Israel distinguished himself today!” she mocks him. She is affronted because he shows himself ridiculous, undignified, and thus weak in the eyes of the people. She wants them to respect and to fear his authority and power. But David only tells her, “I will make myself more contemptible still.” David’s faith frees him from having to act from fear of the people. He does not need to prove to them his authority. It is only God he needs to fear.

So the exchange between David and Michal is very important. It shows that David has no need to demonstrate his power, to prove his authority, his ‘right’ to the throne. Notice that even though Michal sets herself in opposition to the King, the King makes no move to punish her. He commits no violence against her. Her punishment, significantly, is delivered by God: “Michal had no child to the day of her death.” God causes her to suffer this weakness in order that she might learn what her husband knows: that power does not belong to us by right, but only by grace, by divine gift.

Let’s turn now to King Herod. Herod in everything reverses the faith of David. His delight in the dance of Salome his step-daughter leads him to promise her anything she asks for. Many commentators make this into a story of Herod’s lust for Salome. But the text says nothing about that. Rather than lust for the girl, what leads Herod to make this rash promise is his desire to show off before his guests. He wants to prove his power, his authority, by an act of careless munificence – offering an incongruously large gift, “up to half of my kingdom,” as if it were nothing. But of course, the opposite is true: unlike David, he is not free but only a puppet king, his strings pulled by Caesar.

When his wife, Herodias, instructs Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist, he acquiesces because he is afraid to appear weak in the eyes of the guests. He violates his conscience – the voice of God in his heart – in his belief that to do so would demonstrate weakness and compromise his authority. Herod’s need to prove his power both to himself and to the world (in reality he has none) – leads directly to violence. His refusal to be weak, his refusal to appear “contemptable,” leads directly to violence.

The difference between David and Herod is obvious. The lesson we need to learn is that the weakness of David, the weakness of St Paul to whom God said, “my grace is sufficient for you,” the weakness of faith in the Christ who made himself weak even unto death – is the only way towards dismantling the escalation of violence. Blood, destruction of every kind, is inevitable whenever human beings set out to prove their ‘right’ to positions of privilege and power. That is the case whether the Emperor is an individual person like Augustus Caesar or an economic system like our own.

We are, as nations, much more like Herod than like David. We fear to reveal any sign of weakness. We refuse the truth: that every authority on heaven and earth belongs to God. And that fear and that refusal will end up destroying everything we are trying to protect through the use of our power. That is the way of empires. So we can see this logic of power and violence at work on a global, historical scale. But we can also see it at work in our personal lives. Think, for example, of our fear of sharing our love of Jesus Christ with our friends and neighbours. Aren’t we afraid to appear contemptable and ridiculous – that is, weak? In this, we are like Herod. We align ourselves on the side of power and the reciprocating logic of violence.

The challenge of faith is the challenge that David presents to us. His dance was the way of the Cross – a dance of faith that freed him and his people from the tyranny of violent power. Will we become who we are, children and heirs of David? Will we challenge the tyranny of the Emperor by making it clear that his show of violence has no power over us? Will our faith conquer our fear? For it is only faith in God, faith in the promise of resurrection, that frees us from the hold that death has on us and so can break the system of violence in our world. God has put the fate of the world in the hearts of those who believe.

AMEN

Now is the Acceptable Time

Pentecost 4 
1 Sam. 17:32-49
2 Cor. 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

Jesus lies asleep in the stern of the boat – asleep on a cushion! – as the storm rages around the little boat in which he and the disciples are making across the sea of Galilee. The waves are beginning to swamp them; they are taking on water; they are in immediate danger of sinking; and still Jesus sleeps on his cushion! Finally, the disciples can no longer tolerate his apparent indifference. Their lives are at stake! They shake him awake. “Teacher! Do you not care if we perish?” And as Jesus rises and calms the storm, he turns and asks them. “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?”

“Have you no faith?” What did Jesus mean by that question? What is faith? People often think faith means having decided upon a positive answer to the question “does God exist?” But that is not faith; that is only to have an opinion. Faith, you have heard me and no doubt others say, faith is a matter of trust – trust in the promises of God and trust that God is faithful to keep those promises. It may sound wrong-way round, but concern with God’s existence comes after, not before, this discipline of trust. Not many people sit themselves down to reflect philosophically on the question of God’s ‘existence’ and then, only after having somehow arrived at a positive answer, proceed to the question of how to trust. Most of us, I think, rather experience faith as a response to a summons. Faith is like encountering the person you know will be, from that time forth, the love that shapes your life – even if it takes some time to recognize it; even if you try to run away, terrified of the commitment. Faith is our answer, “here am I” when a voice calls our name in the night. It is a response of trust, because we must bring ourselves, our whole selves, forward in that response. At least, we understand that that is what is being demanded, even when we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

So faith is a kind of trust. But when, after quieting the sea, Jesus turns to his disciples in the boat and asks, “why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” what kind of trust do you think he felt they lacked? Do you think Jesus expected the disciples to trust that God, in God’s own time and by God’s own means, would calm the storm? Was Jesus disappointed because he expects his disciples to trust that God will protect them from harm, will make sure everything turns out ok in the end; that they will land safely on the other side of the lake?

I’m not at all sure that this is the kind of trust that Jesus expects of his disciples. I’m not at all sure that faith means trust that God will rescue us from the storm. It is true that many people are drawn into this temptation and think if only their faith is sincere enough God will get them through whatever hardship they might be facing. But that is not something that God has ever promised us. Rather, God promises us that even in the face of evil and death, He is with us. God has promised us to share in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, and the power of resurrection is thus with us in our faith. So faith, I believe, has more to do with trust that equips us, not to avoid the storm, but to face the storm. God put his little raft of a church in the midst of a dangerous squall – and Jesus chastised that church when it’s first thought was only to escape the danger that they were being called to face.

Trust. Jesus himself demonstrates what he expected of his disciples when he calms the wind and sea, “Peace! Be still!” His power over the storm was not just a sign of his divinity, but was an outward sign of the faith Jesus expects his disciples to carry with them inwardly, even in the face of mortal danger. To trust is to know peace: peace, not because one is assured of a particular outcome, but peace born by the trust that if you actively face the danger as a witness of the peace and the love of Christ, then you are sharing in the very life of Christ. You are being a disciple in bearing the cross. You are sharing in the eternal will and purpose and goodness of God: that purpose for which each of us are called to play our small part, whatever the consequences.

So Christian faith is the opposite of ‘otherworldly.’ We are a resurrection people and our faith in that promise is not ‘for’ our life after death, but for now. “Behold,” St Paul boldly reminds the church, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.” We cannot know beforehand what kind of storms we may be called to face: natural, personal, historical. But we do know that the resurrection we are promised in Christ demands that we confront the storms of our time, to witness our resurrection in faith, and so to be heralds of God’s promises at the very heart of the danger. Faith equips us for death so that we can be agents of life – exactly at the times and places where death seems certain to prevail. It may be that, like David, we prevail against whatever Goliath we may have to face. Or it may be that, like the Martyrs the apostles in that boat would one day themselves become, we are done to death for Christ’s sake. Either way, we do not need to fear. For we trust that “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom.14:7).

The cause may seem hopeless. How huge the enemy seems! David was a stripling, a laughing-stock. But faith is trust that ‘success’ is not measured by the way the world measures success: victorious in the battle, being on the side of the colonizers and empire-builders, long life, great wealth. Rather, ‘success’ is measured only by God: by our faithfulness, by the depth of our trust in God’s promises. Have we been witnesses of peace in the midst of the storm? Have we begun, now, today, to live our risen life? Have we lived in trust that God will never fail us, even though we die; even though the Philistine’s win the field?

The enemy may tower over us. We may not even know his name. We may not know what to do, what the solutions are. But these things are not what God needs from us. We do not need to be concerned overmuch with ‘results’ and with ‘outcomes’ and with ‘measured successes.’ All these things are not within our control. What we are called to do is witness the Word of peace where power strives for power; and the Word of love to the faces of that power; we are called to witness the Word of truth where there are lies and obfuscation; the Word of trust where there is fear; the Word of hope when there is no hope left.

Are we waiting for God to save us?
The good news is, God already has!
AMEN.

Reflections on St. Barnabas for his Feast Day

Today we are celebrating the feast day of our patron saint, Barnabas. Stephen Reynolds, in his compilation For All the Saints (Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days According to the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada), says this about Barnabas:

There were twelve apostles, and then some – some others who never belonged to the original companions of Jesus, but who were also called apostles because they were ‘sent forth’ (the word ‘apostle’ means ‘sent out or forth’) to proclaim the gospel. Saint Paul was one of these others; so was the man we honour today, the apostle named Barnabas.

The Book of Acts says that he was a Jew born in Cyprus, but that he was living in Jerusalem when he joined “the company of those who believed in Jesus.” His real name was Joseph; the apostles called him Barnabas or “Son of encouragement,” because “he sold a field which belonged to him and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet.” By this act Barnabas encouraged the rest of the disciples to provide for the good of the whole community.

According to the Book of Acts, Barnabas was the one who introduced Paul to the twelve apostles. Later on he moved to Antioch and sent for Paul to help him lead the Church in that city. From there Paul and Barnabas set out on a great missionary journey through the cities of Asia Minor and Greece. The two men had a falling-out over Mark, who wanted to abandon the mission. Barnabas returned to Cyprus with Mark and Paul went his separate way.

 St Barnabas: the son of encouragement. In the little we know about his life, two episodes stand out for me. First, he took St Paul’s side when the other apostles were still too afraid to trust him (the memory of Saul, the zealous persecutor in the earliest days of the church, still fresh in their minds). Barnabas recognized before anyone else the change that God had made in Paul; and it was his trust that won for Paul the trust of the other apostles. Later, he took Mark’s side when Paul was distrustful. Paul and Barnabas were planning to revisit the churches they had planted. Barnabas wanted to bring Mark, who had abandoned them on an earlier trip – but Paul disagreed. Again we see Barnabas trusting in someone that others felt could not be trusted. Barnabas felt so strongly about this that he ended up travelling with Mark to Cyprus instead of with Paul.

That the name of our patron saint is ‘Son of Encouragement’ ought to encourage us to be like him: hearts open and ready to see the transformation of the Holy Spirit in people; hearts ready to stand with the ‘outsiders,’ hearts generous and self-giving.