Sermon – February 1, 2009
When I was very young, I constructed a picture in my mind of what I thought God must be: I figured he was pretty old – sort of a stern grandfatherly type with long white flowing hair and a matching beard. He wore strange robes and sat atop a heavy throne looking down upon the world — and me. I don’t think he ever smiled – in fact he was angry most of the time because we were “bad”. I lived in fear of slipping up and suffering some terrible punishment, or worst of all, eternal damnation – which sounded pretty awful.
I carried this image of God around in my back pocket for a good part of my life. He had a huge influence on my developing understanding of the world, and in particular, of how I came to see myself — as someone flawed and only worthy of being loved when I was a good and obedient girl. In later years I would name him “My Anglican God”, because he was the one I met in the teachings of the church, and in the culture of Christianity to which I was exposed as a young child. And like a bad penny, he still shows up from time to time to rattle the foundations of my faith.
But at the same time that I was coming to terms with this remote and impersonal deity, I was conscious of the subtle presence of a benign Other who was my constant companion: sometimes as a quiet strength through difficult times, or a gentle hand holding me back from the edge of a precipice when I was in unfamiliar territory. And sometime as a warmth that would meet me in the depth of loneliness or despair.
And I remember sitting in church — in those years before my confirmation — on the one Sunday of the month when we would be having Communion, feeling that warmth welling up within me as I looked longingly at the veiled chalice and paten on the altar; wishing for the day when I too would kneel there and receive the body and blood of Christ.
Eventually I was able to recognize this companion as Emmanuel — the Living God-With-Us who, unlike the construct of my child’s imagination, dwelt permanently within the very core of my being.
Sadly, many of the people I visit in my work as a hospital chaplain have met only this cardboard version of a remote and disapproving God. And they have known him in the words and actions of good Christian people exercising a claimed authority to interpret God’s Laws — as they perceive them to be, in order to uphold the traditions and rules of the Church. Pushed to the edges, by well-meaning but judgmental folks, my patients have chosen to drop out — turning their backs on the Body of Christ, because they think that God has turned his back on them. Yet the fact that they still name themselves as Anglicans, and allow me into their lives at a most difficult and vulnerable moment, leads me to believe that there is within them, a deep longing to know that life-giving Other — who will love them, and hold them, and heal them.
When I enter their hospital rooms, it is with the authority of the Anglican Church, and in the name of this God of Love that I presume to minister to them — and I am very aware, that I am given the opportunity to let them meet Christ in me, or to re-infect their wounds with the narrowness of my vision, and my incomplete comprehension of God’s unfolding purpose.
Standing in sharp contrast to my experiences in the hospital — with what can be the fallout of misused authority — is what I encounter every time I visit a L’Arche community. From people who have been labeled as handicapped, feeble-minded, retarded, useless — I receive the hospitality of open hearts, so in tune with God’s love, that their wisdom to know their own beauty and giftedness, allows me to accept mine. This has truly been an amazing teaching for me, and one shared from the perspective of a self-giving love that I would wish to imitate –because it is Christ-like in it’s nature, seeking only to honour God by serving the greater good of the other.
When the people of Capernaum come to hear Jesus teaching in the synagogue, they are amazed and astounded. They want to know the source of his authority, because they can see that he does not fit the mold of those others with whom they are familiar – he has no wealth or social status, no political or military power, he is not a professional – yet even the demon obeys his command, and recognizes in him what his followers and the gathered crowd have not — the power of God, bringing something new and radically different into a world held in the thrall of sin. No wonder it shrieks and shakes the man violently as it leaves him – foreshadowing perhaps, the shaking of the foundations of evil, and the resulting violence with which Jesus and those who follow him in faith will be met when they speak truth, and act in justice and mercy.
When we seek to respond to the question raised about Jesus’ authority, we can’t help but think about how we would respond to questions raised about our own authority as individuals and communities who follow him: How do we get it? And how do we use it?
In the world, authority is often obtained through personal achievement, beauty, fame, wealth… We invest authority in individuals and institutions with the expectation that they will act on our behalf and in our best interests, often enforcing the rules that hold the fabric of our society together. It can be a power for great good or the tool of evil in the hands of those who are self-serving and corrupt.
This type of authority can be associated with the head – and is expressed for instance, through logic, deduction, and comparison. In her book, The Wisdom Jesus, Cynthia Bourgeault calls this the Egoic Operating System – comparing it to a computer program that operates in the human brain. It helps us to make sense of the world around us by categorizing information. It is the system that helps us to decide what is right or wrong, who is out or in. It is the place where we consider what is fair and not fair, keep a tally of what is owed us, plot our revenge, and measure ourselves against the accomplishments of others.
The authority of the “Interpreters of the Law” in Mark’s Gospel, and those other religious officials Jesus so frequently opposed, was an “authority of the head”, — depending on their knowledge of the traditions of Judaism, and their strict adherence to the rules set out in the Torah – it was not necessarily a false knowledge, only limited in its perception, and was often interpreted in a self-serving way, that denied the spirit of justice and mercy that was the heart of God’s Law.
Jesus’ authority rests in his being in resonance with the will of God – it expresses his confidence in God’s wisdom and love and his willingness to live as God’s servant no matter where that may take him. His is an “authority of the heart” – not the heart of sentimentality and emotion – but, as Cynthia reminds us, that heart of deep spiritual perception that enables him to see the truth in others despite their masks and disguises, and respond to them with a compassion that finds its source in the deep well of God’s unconditional love. It is an authority that does not seek it’s own ends or outcomes but the welfare of the one served and glorifies the Creator.
This “authority of the heart” is the gift given each of us in our baptism through the anointing of the Holy Spirit and unites us as the living body of Christ to continue his ministry in the world.
One of the functions of our Christian community is to build a place where we can come to know the living God, and let him be known to others. My experiences with people who have fallen away from the life of the church, have helped me to understand that we have as much potential to do harm as to do good, when we are not conscious of the consequences of how we are presenting our faith to the world.
Our intellect is a great gift we can bring to the task of exploring and reflecting on the mystery of what we hold in our hearts to be true about God his love for us and for all of creation. But my experiences with L’Arche help me to understand that our authority to be the Church in the world does not rest on our intellect – on how well we know the Bible — how well we can recite the creeds – or how elegant are the words we bring to our prayers and the expression of our faith. Our authority rests in the heart tuned to the frequency of God’s love for us made known in the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we are tempted to see spiritual matters in only black and white, or react in fear to ideas and practices that threaten our traditions and disturb our comfortable faith, we are exercising an authority of the head that creates an exclusive community in which only the remote and loveless God can be proclaimed
When we let go of our fear, we can create places that are welcoming and inclusive — when we open our eyes to see the poor and forgotten, and lend our voices to those who have been silenced, we are exercising an “authority of the heart” and realizing our greatest potential as human beings “fully alive”.
And when we speak and act with the authority of a self-giving love that shifts our focus from our own concerns to the needs of the other, we are letting the Christ who lives in our hearts loose in the world.
May God give us grace to let it be so.