August 19, 2012
During the recent Olympic Games, we watched the heartbreak experienced by the Canadian men’s 4 x 100 relay team, who thought they had won the bronze medal, and were jogging around the Olympic stadium, draped in Canadian flags, giddy with excitement, overjoyed at their achievement. Seconds later, they found out that one of them had not managed to pass the baton properly. No medal, no glory. Their efforts were in vain, never to enter the record books. The team sat there in tears on the track, looking like kids who have had their Christmas presents taken away.
The importance of passing the torch has been expressed in a variety of ways. One famous expression is John MacCrae’s First World War poem, In Flanders’ Fields, which says: “to you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high …” That sense of continuity and ongoing responsibility to keep the flame alive is essential whether in sports, in families, in the military or in the Church.
At one point (1Cor. 9:24 ff.), St. Paul portrays the Christian life as a race, a metaphor which speaks to us about how important it is to have a sense of direction and purpose, and also about how quickly opportunities, and even life, go by. It speaks of the discipline and training and time commitment required in order to accomplish anything important. It speaks of how important it is to offer our best.
In a relay race, the hand-off is the critical moment, one that must be managed with skill, because the runner completing his/her part of the race is tiring, and the one about to begin can be too eager to blast down the track without properly connecting with the one who is trying to hand off the baton. And it never works at all if the next runner simply refuses to leave the transition point. It’s all about carrying it forward, keeping the momentum.
When we choose to see ourselves connected that way, and not in isolation, we tend to operate in the present in a way that reveals we have a bigger perspective on things – we see ourselves as contributing to a bigger picture and purpose; we are aware of the importance of continuity, and our own place on the continuum.
The prevailing metaphor in Western society has been living for oneself – the focus on the isolated individual rather than the community as a whole. We are encouraged to live for the moment, to acquire and consume without any sense of context or consequence or guilt, rather than pay any attention to what our lifestyle means to others or worry about what we are passing on to future generations.
The first reading this morning reminds us of the saga of the kings of Israel. In the First Book of Kings, David has just passed the baton to his son Solomon.
Solomon has just been proclaimed king, and as the scripture portrays it, his approach is not, “Oh boy, now I have unlimited power and can do anything I want” or, “Oh boy, now nobody can tell me what to do.” He doesn’t treat it likes he’s just won the lottery – in terms of personal success and glory. In our time, that is how we are supposed to think about such things but, according to scripture, that is not the model Solomon is operating on. The text acknowledges he is not perfect, that he has his faults, but he reflects, he meditates, and he thinks in terms of what will be required of him – what kind of legacy he has the opportunity to create not just for himself but for the people of Israel. He knows how fragile the nation of Israel is at this point, and how bad it will be if he drops the baton. So, rather than being eager to jump on the Gravy Train, Scripture portrays him turning to God, seeking a deeper wisdom than he has on his own, and entering into a living dialogue with God that becomes the primary characteristic of his reign.
Solomon makes the choice to make spirituality more important than personal wealth and power, and thus becomes primarily known for the depth of his wisdom, rather than the size of his kingdom or his bank account (his harem was pretty big, though). As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and all things [that you need] will be granted to you.” In modern terms, you could say Solomon chooses to build Oxford, not Las Vegas, or a cathedral instead of a casino.
As we reflect on Solomon asking God for discernment so that he might act as wisely and faithfully as possible, and as we see him building the great temple in Jerusalem, we may be encouraged to reflect on our own efforts to be faithful and to make the right choices so that we are building something, adding to the heritage of faith we have received, contributing something meaningful to the life of this particular community. It may not be a great Temple or Cathedral – just this little parish of St. John’s for instance — and we don’t have to be kings to make a difference.
Years ago an article covering the construction of the huge Anglican Cathedral in Washington DC (popularly called the National Cathedral), expressed admiration and awe at the care and craft going into the building. To those building it, it was not merely a construction project – it was a work of art, a labour of love, a personal legacy from everyone who worked on it. It was a privilege to be part of building something so magnificent.
The writer marveled at one worker perched high in the rafters of the Cathedral, doing fancy filigree work on one of the columns. Quite aware the man was risking his life, and also that the back side of the column would be virtually invisible to anyone, the writer suggested to the worker that despite his heroic efforts, why bother, because no one would ever see his work. “God will,” the man replied matter-of-factly. God will – that understanding of life changes things completely.
I have conducted a lot of funerals over the years. One thing that people are always searching for, hoping for, is some sense that this life they are remembering has had a meaning, a purpose, an impact. They want to know and even assert that the life of their loved one has made a difference to those going forward, which is a way of reminding ourselves or reassuring ourselves that life is worth living in the first place. And a funeral is an opportunity to call people to reflect not just on the legacy of the deceased, but on the legacy that they themselves are creating moment by moment, because every single choice, every single action we take, creates the legacy that we will pass on.
Jesus said things like “You will be judged for every careless word you utter;” and “every hair on your head is counted” as a way of expressing this profound sense that we matter, down to the most minute details. Who we are and what we do has meaning and purpose and value, to many more people than we imagine. And ultimately, who we are and what we do matters to God, the One who invented us in the first place, and for whom we ultimately exist.
So St Paul says, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise.” The wisdom of Solomon is to make the right choice, and his example calls us to pay attention to how we are living – and why.
So the people of God need to be reminded: you’re not just some anonymous statistic – you’re not just a tax-payer or shopper or an economic unit – you’re not too small or irrelevant. You’re not an innocent bystander, video-taping life as it goes by or watching it on television. You’re a child of God – you are part of the body of Christ! You can make a difference, and what’s more, you are MEANT to make a difference. We are meant to bring to bring the kingdom of God into the present moment – every moment.
Otherwise, what is your life really about?
During the Olympics we also saw the incredible efforts of the Jamaican relay team, which blasted its way to a gold medal and a world record. It was an inspiring thing to see. We pass things on in order to create an enduring legacy. Jesus spoke to the people of that time, urging them to seek for more lasting sustenance and meaning and purpose, which was to be found through him. He was that gift to the world – he was the torch you might say, that must be both received and passed on to others.
It could be said that we are in a transition point in the life of the Anglican Church. We need to become more skilled at mentoring and transitions. It seems to me, in terms of a relay race, we have one generation struggling to even finish their leg, while the next seems preoccupied by what is happening in the stands and appearing like they are not ready to move forward even if they get the baton. Our membership is mostly seniors, and there is a need to pass the baton of responsibility and authority to new people. We are also in a time of significant re-working of the Christian faith itself – everything from our understanding of the Bible to how we pray to how we relate to people of other faiths. So it is a confusing and anxious time for many. How well we choose to make the hand-off, the transition, will be critical for the future of the Anglican Church.
It might be helpful to reflect on who we are and where we are in the relay of faith – what we have to pass on and to whom we are passing it. We might reflect on whether we are one of those needing to get moving ourselves toward the finish line and the future.
I hope that we will strive to see things in larger perspective and become more deeply concerned about the legacy we are leaving as a parish community, and our own contribution to that process.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+