MISSION: GIVING AND RECEIVING WITH GRACE
Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Easter 2010
RCL appointed readings: Acts 16:16-34 Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 John 17:20-26
Paul often spoke often of his sufferings – beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, imprisonments, etc. Reading his accounts, you could get the impression that he was rather proud of it. At times I get the sense that maybe he deserved it! Sometimes I think he may have thought he deserved it! Paul said some of the greatest things ever said but he could be one of the snarkiest, most pig-headed people on the face of the earth, and embodies in himself the contradictions, conflicts and paradoxes of the first Christians and the early Church.
In today’s reading from Acts, Paul and some fellow disciples were moving through Philippi on a missionary journey, and a girl started following them. Apparently she had some kind of gift of insight or discernment and was used by her “owners” as a source of income. Paul got annoyed, but instead of just telling her to “buzz off” or something equally rude, Paul went much further. He used his own spiritual authority to denounce whatever spirit was guiding the girl.
When I was in seminary, one of my fellow seminarians spent most of a Sunday afternoon condemning everyone on his floor of the college residence to burn in hell. He shouted and screamed, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I condemn you to burn in everlasting hell.” You might think: He must have had a really good reason for this outburst. Quite the opposite! Some fellow students, as a prank, had “papered” his room, which means they stuffed it full of newspapers. Instead of just playing along with the gag, he chose to believe this was an assault of Satan worthy of his strongest spiritual condemnation. He also called in the police because one of his toe rubbers went missing.
The girl’s behaviour sounds a bit bizarre (perhaps she was mentally ill) but perhaps she had a gift of the magnitude of Isaiah the Prophet, or John the Divine. Paul didn’t care. Just on the basis that she was bothering them, Paul turned on her and, in a way, quenched her spirit.
This is what happens sometimes when people get over-stressed — they begin to act out in harsh and uncharacteristic ways. Intending to do good, they end up hurting people, as I imagine the girl was deeply hurt. It is also what happens when the goal becomes more important than the journey. For Paul, in his single-mindedness, only the cause matters. Unlike Jesus, Paul has lost sight of the importance of the individual person, and as a result it begins to compromise the larger picture he is trying to paint. It shows a great difference in approach between his way and the way of Jesus, whose cause he was trying to serve.
It speaks to me of the many people who have been labelled as witches, as evil, as demonic, etc. simply because they have some spiritual gift. The entire New Age phenomenon was shunned by the Christian Church, so thousands if not millions of people with real interests in spirituality, mysticism and the mysterious have been obliged to seek and practice their spirituality elsewhere, in other ways.
Paul’s attitude, obviously shared by the person who wrote this account of the incident, was: How dare you stand in the way of God’s purposes? What was to become of the girl? The story doesn’t seem to know or care what happened to this young woman. To me, not caring is not good enough!
Many years ago I chaired a conference of the diocese and invited one of the two main speakers to preach in my parish that Sunday. Quite the evangelical, this man preached for almost 40 minutes, but that wasn’t his worst sin. Much of his sermon involved scolding and denouncing the ordinary Anglican in the pew. This man had anger, assumptions, and prejudices which would have been better worked out on an analyst’s couch than in the pulpit of a church. One man stood up suddenly in the middle of it, grabbed his son by the hand, and headed out the door. It took some persuading for him to return to the parish at all. People inn general were really taken aback, and had various negative reactions to the tirade. Quite the opposite of evangelism, in that he was driving people away!
I had arranged to take this guest preacher out to lunch (which was a bit redundant, because in some sense he already was!). Over lunch I challenged him about the harsh way he had preached at the people of my parish. I told him he didn’t know these people at all, that his accusations were extremely unfair and hurtful, and that I was going to have to do some serious “damage control” in the next few weeks as a result of his sermon. His response: “I don’t care.”
Clearly, the writer of the passage didn’t seem to care either – the focus is on the apostles. There is no concern for the future of this poor girl — the focus is entirely on the cause. In this passage, you can see the path Christianity began to take early on – dualistic, either/or, Us vs Them and Clean (washed) vs Unclean – Christianity as being in conflict and competition with all other religious expressions. We all have to make choices in life and sometimes the choices are indeed between good and evil, but the irony I see so often is that the Church sometimes seems to be more of a reflection of the Pharisees than of Jesus. That can’t be right!
Recently, the Pope has finally begun to acknowledge, and take responsibility for, the issue of widespread sexual abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Church. Initially, the response was to protect the institution at all costs; initially, the response was to pretend it hadn’t happened and ignore the damage to the individuals involved; initially, the response was to deny the credibility of the abused; initially, the response was to blame the media and others of prejudice against the Church. Like Paul, there was no care or concern for what happened to those many little boys and girls who happened to be in the way of this “apostolic” ministry. I hope to God the Roman Catholic Church, as well as other churches, including our own, will finally begin to heal some of the fundamental, systemic issues which have created a sense of divine right, and led to such absolutely evil abuses of power and authority.
Entrusted with a message of reconciliation, of God’s good will to all people, of peace and love and universal harmony, the Church has at times been an agent of oppression, and its mission has been carried out with careless violence. Neither Paul nor the writer of the passage cared at all about what would happen to this slave girl whose most important gift had been stifled. But what happened next was directly related. Paul and the others were dragged into the centre of town, beaten severely and then imprisoned. Ironically, Paul suddenly became the victim. I like to think it probably took Paul a while, through a number of these experiences of being victimized himself, to begin to come to the deeper wisdom he later achieved.
Jim Bakker was another evangelist who apparently needed some jail time to come to his senses. Bakker’s PTL (Praise the Lord) empire at one point was drawing $1 million/week from faithful TV viewers. According to Frances FitzGerald in an April 1987 New Yorker article, Jim and Tammy Fay (his wife) “epitomized the excesses of the 1980s; the greed, the love of glitz, and the shamelessness; which in their case was so pure as to almost amount to a kind of innocence.” After years as a TV evangelist, with a huge empire and income and way too much influence, he was sentenced to 45 years in prison (later reduced) for fraud and theft. The book he wrote to tell of his journey was simply entitled, I Was Wrong. Gone was the entitlement, the obliviousness to the consequences of his actions, the glib sense of superiority. Jim had lost his reputation, his career, his marriage – he still owes IRS $6 million — but I thought he was a better man after his empire collapsed and he was humbled.
There is a lesson here about what happens to us when we become so zealous, so intense, and so convinced that our cause is so important, so right, that our sense of how we relate to others becomes distorted, deformed, as it were. Christians for centuries have acted as though every other religion, including Judaism, has nothing to offer, no spiritual gifts we might incorporate, no wisdom we might learn from. Paul, at this point in his journey, intent on seeking out unbelievers, doesn’t seem much different than Saul (his original name), the self-righteous zealot, who was intent on hunting down Christians, before he was converted to Christ.
Our guest speaker at Synod yesterday was Rabbi Robert Daum, whose very presence as a Jew was a simple but profound reminder not only of our spiritual roots, but also of the tremendous damage that Christians have caused by attitudes of superiority, arrogance, and divine entitlement.
Rabbi Daum told a story about how he and his sister were reminiscing about their mother, and he realized his own sister had a quite different sense of who his mother was. Of course, they remained siblings. The point was obvious but profound: as Jews and Christians, we may have differing views of God our divine Father/Mother, but we are children of the same God and therefore, brothers and sisters.
That is what today’s Gospel reminds us about, and where the Good News is to be found. Perhaps like the slave girl, Jesus had the great gift of discerning the inner meaning in outward appearances. On the surface, it appears we are all radically different – unique, individual, etc. Only a parent can see the similarities, the family resemblance, in children who are struggling to gain their own unique identity and as a result may become blind to the many ways they are similar and related to each other. The good parent reminds us of who we truly are. It seems to me that an important aspect of what the Church is meant to do is help people see the connections. Jesus prayed for unity, in the knowledge that only love, the kind of love God has for us his children, has the power to make that happen. According to John, Jesus prayed that prayer, on the eve of his death, so his followers would make unity their goal, their vision — unity in the face of hostility and growing persecution and violence; unity in the face of puzzling differences; unity in the face of our own fears and confusion.
We all have our lapses but the Gospel (and Paul at his best) compels us to aim for the biggest view possible. Jesus’ message consistently moves us toward a non-dualistic approach – it is profoundly tilted in the direction of reconciliation and ultimate unity. Paul too, was capable of soaring to great heights and opening his arms very wide, but in this little incident in the lesson today, we see the inner conflict, the contradiction, which we must be aware of and try to work out. Paul did nothing to try to bring the girl onside, or to allow her gift to serve a higher purpose, or even give her some sense of direction. Out of annoyance, he swatted her like a fly — condemned her — and not only left her without her most valuable gift, but perhaps put her life in danger with her owners.
So often the church has turned on people like Paul did to the slave girl, and condemned their gifts, and devastated people in the process. I know far too many people who have been condemned by Christians, and their gifts have thereby been lost to the church, and to themselves. Gifts of discernment, insight, prophecy, and healing, have all been lost to the life of the Church, and the world in general, because someone made them feel their gifts were not welcome, or that they were suspect in some way.
The theme of Synod was “Moving Back Into the Neighbourhood.” Synod — our Diocese — is calling us to become a “missional” church, calling us to get out of the box and into the neighbourhood. Mission in the past has often meant the powerful, the righteous, extending a kind of charity to other who are considered inferior and ignorant. The basic premise of the old style of mission was that it was not an equal exchange – those being missionized had nothing to offer, and should be grateful for receiving our ways, even if it meant the destruction and loss of their own ways.
A missional church in our time is not one that goes out and seeks to conquer others in the name of Christ; it is not imperialistic; it does not seek specific results and rewards; it is not closed to gifts that others have or to the possibility of being transformed by the process. As Jesus indicated, the approach must be to serve (rather than seeking to be served), to be motivated by love, not to lord it over others, and never to let go of the value of even the smallest and apparently most insignificant person. As he taught, it is those who pay attention to the least in society who are often the truest servants of God.
We are being called to re-connect with the wider community which, ironically, and perhaps justly, has shunned us. To do so, we don’t have to be perfect. In fact, our best gift may be humility, a recognition of our own faults, and a willingness to believe, whether we see it or not, that there is an inherent unity in life which is the presence of the Spirit of God in all things.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers