Guest Speaker: Rev. Peter McNaughton JANUARY 29, 2012
EPIPHANY 4B Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Our readings for this morning are perhaps unduly appropriate for a Sunday when we commission and covenant with the Joint Search Committee that is undertaking its work on behalf of this congregation, and Presbytery.
And I say this because there are a couple of themes coming out of them that I wish to explore with you. One concerns the notion of false prophets; another the issue of speaking with authority; another recognizing the word of God, especially in today’s society, and finally, one that is perhaps more relevant to the congregation than a Search Committee—the desire of the Israelites to have a prophet appointed so that they don’t have to deal directly with God. Which, to my way of thinking at least, kind of raises the question of why congregations need Ministers in the first place. But it is a question that, with the looming shortage of Ministers in the United Church at least, many congregations will have to address. And some reflecting on that question provides an opportunity to re-imagine how we ‘do’ church; an honest – and painful attempt at answering that difficult question forces congregations to focus on what it is to be church and what it is to follow Christ. I was talking with someone in the social time following the December fund-raising concert, and that person mentioned to me ‘this is our last chance; we know we’ve got to get it right this time’—a reference to Glen Rhodes’ financial situation. So—no pressure on you as Search Committee members! But hopefully, that kind of reflection will only need to happen under less-stressful conditions. Because I firmly believe you have a purpose here—and that there are boundless opportunities to be ‘church’ in this area.
In some ways it is kind of a pity that the lectionary bounces around, from pillar to post as it were, at least with respect to the readings from Hebrew Scripture, because we don’t get a chance to do a lot of in-depth study. Last week we had a glimpse of Jonah, the reluctant prophet; today we’re back in time in history and next week you will be into Isaiah. But there is a bit of a link between last week’s theme—which was on call, and today when we begin to explore how we act on God’s calling as Ministers. There’s also a sub-theme, as it were, these last two weeks relating to the exile.
This notion of exile is an interesting one—my dictionary refers to it as being expelled, or long absence from one’s native land. Which is, probably, a technically accurate definition, but one that – to me at least -- doesn’t address the emotional state that comes from being in such a situation; the emotional state when you find yourself in a strange situation—when the world you knew is no longer there-- ungrounded; rootless—with nothing firm to grasp; to anchor you. And I sometimes wonder if the church today isn’t in a form of exile. Anyone who is familiar with United Church history knows that, in its early days, it helped shape social policy in Canada. Today, we seem to be more of a lonely voice crying out in the wilderness. And some are feeling confused by this; and wondering what our purpose is—not unlike the Israelites so long ago. This is not to say that there is no vibrancy; no life within us—because we are still making a difference—but we do it differently now. As we have moved into a more secular and multi-cultural society that big booming voice we once had now seems to be smaller—but it is still there.
If we were doing some more in depth study, we would read through more of the Deuteronomistic History (Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 11 Samuel, 1 & 11 Kings) which endeavours to show the Israelites why they ended in exile—and which just might provide us with some insights as to why we’re in the situation we’re in today. In those days, the prophets played a major role in speaking God's word, calling the people back to the first commandment, which is to worship God alone. It was this failure by kings and people which, according to the writers, led to the demise of the Davidic kingship, loss of land and temple. However, in all fairness it is difficult to apply the test of future fulfillment – if the prophesy does not come true, then it is not authentic -- when one is hearing the prophet's warning in the midst of a crisis – sort of like that quip from my days in working in Government —when you’re up to your backside in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.
Going back to Israel’s history, it is easy in hindsight to say the people should have listened to one prophet and not another. To apply this criteria today is equally difficult because those who feel called to proclaim God's word presumably believe that what they are saying is the authentic word of God – how do we know which prophet, or, for that matter, which politician to believe, and thus to follow? Much of American politics is dominated by issues of what passes for faith—the conservative evangelical movement is very influential. And we catch glimpses of that here in Ontario, and Canada as well, as anyone who has seen Charles McVety on the news can attest.
Daniel B. Clendenin, of the Journey with Jesus Foundation, in a now somewhat-outdated blog posting provides a delightful commentary on Pat Robertson, a one time Presidential contender, who, “after claiming that God caused Ariel Sharon's massive stroke as punishment for conceding land to the Palestinians, later claimed that Satan caused Dick Cheney's shortness of breath that briefly hospitalized the Vice President. Why? "Because he is dedicated to defeating the evildoers in Iraq, and that angered the evilest doer of all, Satan." On that same show Robertson extended condolences to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who needed fifteen stitches in his lip after "a motorcycle accident that I'm pretty sure was caused by Satan. ‘ Satan, Robertson advised, ‘is no match for a Republican’ ." Which, I am sure, is great comfort to Americans.
I happened, purely by accident, to catch a glimpse of the Republican Primary Debate in Florida on Thursday evening. I caught a portion of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich answering a question about how their faith would impact their presidency. Stupidly, because I wanted to watch something else, I did not stay tuned, but I did catch the beginning of Newt’s answer, which was, in essence that one needed to turn to God for all things, because no decision a President makes can be made without Divine guidance. Hmmmm I thought as I reached for the remote—so God will speak directly to Newt and guide him on all his decisions—wonder how much listening he’s done so far.
Okay, so it’s easy to poke fun at those on the extreme. But all this raises the question, which is relevant to the Search Committee, of how we determine authenticity in someone who claims to be a prophet, or, in our case, a Minister. And again, I will turn to Clendenin for some guidance. And although his message is not meant primarily for Search Committees, his insights are, I think, relevant. He begins by saying: “Start with your sanctified common sense. Also, remember that speaking truth does not mean you never offend someone. (He continues) The Scriptures for this week then suggest two other principles that should guide us”.
“First, people who speak truly for God operate with a healthy sense of the audacity of what they are attempting. They are acutely aware of the presumption inherent in claiming to speak for God.” He continues: “Who in their right mind would hazard such a claim given the combination of human frailty and divine inscrutability?! Every sane preacher who has ever mounted a pulpit has experienced the dread and adrenaline shock of his preposterous task—in some stumbling and bumbling way to speak a word that is true to God. And I would extend that concept to much of our current political rhetoric. I can’t tell you how many times, when I’ve heard the Prime Minister authoritatively stating that ‘Canadians want such and such’ and thinking uuuhhhh, this Canadian –and I’m sure many others, doesn’t want that. I just want to take a moment to insert part of the epistle reading for today, from the 8th Chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Paul writes: “3The question keeps coming up regarding meat that has been offered up to an idol: Should you attend meals where such meat is served, or not? We sometimes tend to think we know all we need to know to answer these kinds of questions—but sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds. We never really know enough until we recognize that God alone knows it all. But knowing isn't everything. If it becomes everything, some people end up as know-it-alls who treat others as know-nothings. Real knowledge isn't that insensitive.”
Which leads in to his second point in which Clendenin begins by turning to Paul, who “insisted that concrete deeds of love accompany genuine claims of divine knowledge: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Corinthians 8:1). In Mark's Gospel we read that people were amazed at Jesus' authority and his "new teaching." But in marked contrast to how the religious establishment operated, writes Mark, Jesus’ was an authority that authenticated itself by fostering human healing and wholeness (Mark 1:21–28). [The fourth century Christian theologian] John Cassian called this "integral wholeness," and we wish it not only for ourselves but for every human being.”
Clendenin continues; “Here too the ruthless realism of the monastics can save us from foolishness that masquerades as wisdom. Those grizzled monks experienced every sort of pompous pronouncement, spiritual fraud and pious pretense. They knew what it meant for a deluded believer to be "deceived by his innumerable revelations and [wrongly] believe that he was a messenger of righteousness." Their antennae were especially sensitive to what Cassian called "specious authority" and loveless judgmentalism.” Now, hopefully that latter isn’t likely something you are likely to encounter in your search, but his next sentence throws out some aspects for consideration in your new Minister: “Rather, they counselled an unqualified compassion toward human weakness, a consideration for frailty, and heartfelt empathy for those who struggle. Christians truly close to the heart of God "never frighten with bleak despair those who are in trouble or unsettle them with harsh words." They gladly, fully, and freely proclaimed that God alone was "the gracious arbiter of hidden strength and human infirmity." They looked "with a kind of overwhelming wonder at God’s ineffable gentleness." So should we.”
Now, heeding Clendenin’s advice, I’m not going to stand here and say that just because I am wearing a clerical collar and fancy robes, and thus have some sort of ‘authority’ conferred upon me by the church, you should blindly follow everything I’ve jut said. But it speaks to me, and frankly, I wish that what he says could be heard by more people – because I am concerned that we, as a society, are in danger of losing our way. So much of our political and social agenda seems to have been taken over by simplistic formulas, by fear-mongering and authoritarian appeals to our personal self-interest, not the interests of society as a whole.
And this is why the United Church is so important to our Canadian society. We are the church of social justice; of compassion for those in need. We are the church that clothes the naked, cares for the sick, and visits those in prison, that feeds the hungry and gives water to those who thirst, the church who welcomes the stranger. And it is precisely those actions that give us our authority—and give you yours as you continue your ministry.