Thursday, December 27, 2007

Getting Up on My Soap-Box

Hineini asks the question in Attack on Sanctuary,

Do you feel you are entitled as a pastor to ask your congregants to give up their safety? I'm not sure this is a fair question really but I'm curious on your take. I like the idea of sanctuary and abhore the idea of violence but, for me, part of the idea of sanctuary is that God will provide protection and I'm not seeing much of that anytime lately so I'm wondering if its time to rethink things....

This is definitely a two-part question. First is the role preaching or perhaps even education or transformation more generally. This Advent season represents the close of my first full year of preaching. Most of my sermons up until about a month ago were centered around particular images that I thought would be evoking and generative for people's lives. Very little came off as prescriptive. I did not offer a very specific 'application' for my sermons. In my mind I probably still favour this approach. However, my temperament is to be a little avoident and so I suspect this type of preaching flows from here.
Something happened in reflecting on the texts for my first sermon in Advent. Paul says to the church in Rome that it is time for them to 'wake from their slumber.' This passage roused my own thinking and challenged me in what a church responding to the Gospel should look like. I saw this call as re-focusing on the simple but encompassing love for our neighbour. The OT text was Isaiah 2 and I preached on the surrounding passages that spoke of leveling of all those lifted themselves up on high hills, which I interpreted as isolating yourself from your neighbour. I spoke these words,

Being awake means being aware of your neighbour. St. Antony the monk once wrote, “Our life and our death is with our neighbour. If we win our neighbour, we win God. If cause our neighbour to stumble, we have sinned against Christ.” This is similar to Isaiah’s criticism.
Now then, listen, you lover of pleasure,
lounging in your security
and saying to yourself,
'I am, and there is none besides me.

We need to know our neighbour so that we can know Christ. If we do not listen to our neighbour we will doze off to sleep again.

And in conclusion,

Christ came to establish the mountain of God above all other hills and so our calling is to come down from our individual high hills and journey to the mountain of God where justice and wisdom flow. This Christmas season we will not see Christ if we remain on our high hills. We must come down and gather together first in the valley as it will lead to the mountain of God. And then gathered together there we can make way for the saviour who has come, who is present among us and who will come again. We make way for Christ in our minds and in our actions. We make way for Christ as he comes in our neighbours. This Christmas season we are called to make a place Christ in our homes and in our lives. Keep watch and stay alert in this age because Paul tells us that our salvation is nearer now then when we first believed. The night is nearly over. The day is almost here. Stay awake. Keep watch in faith and journey with your neighbour in the valley and in the storm as we travel with Christ to the mountain of God.

This is strong language for my style of preaching and it continued into my sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Isaiah 35; Luke 1:47-55; Matthew 11:2-11), which moves into the second part of the question, Do you feel you are entitled as a pastor to ask your congregants to give up their safety?
I was moved by the presence and use of lethal force by armed guards at New Life Church in Colorado and decided that would be my base image for my last sermon. In that sermon I focused on the context, more so that the specific content, of the texts for that Sunday. For both Isaiah's ministry and first-century Palestine the question of deliverance and freedom were open. I admitted in the sermon that other passages could be used to respond to the question of violence but that "our passages here are clear and unequivocal in their rejection of the world’s use of force." Isaiah condemns those who look to Egypt for help and points to Hezekiah's faithful act of trust that delivers Jerusalem (for the time being). Jesus overturns the popular notion of Messiah as people anticipated and rallied around heroic characters who rose and fell at that time.
And I concluded the sermon with the following statements,

Seeing and receiving Christ means being outside of the world’s power and following Christ mean walking daily in the rejection and overturning of those powers. This is why the image of armed guards at church remains so unnerving. It is perhaps possible to agree that the use of force can restrain certain events from happening. We can be thankful that the incident in Colorado did get any worse that it did. But we need to remember that this incident is not unlike another incident in the U.S. On September 11 2001 a group of extremists attacked what citizens saw as the sanctuary of their homeland. It was believed that quick and decisive action would bring about peace and justice to the situation. The world’s force only offers the possibility of restraint. Contrary to Churchill’s statement there is no promise of peace when rough men stand ready to do violence. The U.S. is not a place of peace because they have largest and most powerful military. And here in Canada we must beware of the extant to which we profit from the military strength at home and in the U.S. In these realms there is no vision of desert flowers bursting into bloom. We must individually and communally navigate and respond to conflict and brokenness around us asking ourselves if we will attempt to restrain force with force or if we will, in faith, open up a way in the desert.
In our aid the Gospel gives at least one response to a violent attack on the church. That is a response to an attack on the body of Christ, which is the church. In the Garden of Gethsemane towards the end of his ministry Jesus and his followers are approached by a mob wielding clubs and swords coming to arrest Jesus. In defence one of those with Jesus strikes out with his sword and cuts the ear of the servant of the high priest but before the violence escalates Jesus intervenes and speaks to the reality of God’s world saying, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” God and God’s Kingdom is not threatened with the world’s force. The mountain of God rises up on a different foundation. That foundation comes to us weak and vulnerable as a child. This is our story in the Christmas season. This is must be our story the year as it carries us towards Easter. This must become the story of our life because this is the only place where God promises peace. And from that place a way opens up where justice comes from unlikely places like flowers in the desert bursting into bloom.

What I emphasized was that there is no promise of peace or justice through the means of the world's power and force. I hoped that here I would walk a line between overt prescription and vague moralism. Did I ask my congregation to give up their safety? Not really, I suppose. What I said was that there is no promise of safety (peace) through the medium of force. A community of non-violence must be voluntary community. This falls off the radar quickly in churches without an historic peace stance. It did for me in my time away from the Mennonite church. It is becoming more and more pressing as I allow it to intentionally emerge from the Gospel.
I see this question also opening into the larger arena of education and transformation. What challenges me is preaching such a sermon and then living with and among my congregation and wondering if and how change is possible through such mediums. I am sure this is the perennial challenge of professors and teachers as well.
Any thoughts, comments, reflections on the roles of preaching, transformation or peace and violence?


hineini said...

I used to exhort a stance of non-violence because I thought that an even more powerful force was standing behind me. God as protector and avenger seemed to be the reason why I could reject violence as my own response and trust in providence.

But that trust, at least for me, was a ruse and as I engaged more into the struggles of my neighbour that trust was shattered and shown to be empty and cruel.

Which leaves me with nothing but the thinest hope that the divine may show up, eventually, but unpredictably, unreliably. Instead it is up to me, or us, to seemingly step out with no back-up, no divine bully to cash our cheques if you will. I am responsible for my neighbour, I am repsonsible for a rejection of violence, a violence that privilages my life over the life of the other. I'd like to say I don't have to be violent because things are going to be ok. But all I can say is I won't be violent, no justification possible, and it will very likely cost me my life.

Unknown said...

I certainly shared some of your sentiments regarding the 'presence' of God as the enforcer standing over my shoulder. In working through a recent sermon I became increasingly convinced (or reminded) that the divine presence offers no promise of meeting force with greater force (though in appearance that may seem to happen at times). That has not cause a disillusionment with regard to the "reliability" of God. It has rather challenged my own and culture's concepts of divine presence.
What I am beginning to reflect more on is that if we believe in a God who some how relates/communicates in the world than we need to have a clarification of just what, if any promises, are made on the divine side of the matter.
And this appears what you have done with your stance on human responsibility. Not sure how I would articulate that (apart from what has developed already in these posts).

hineini said...

Ya, I seem to have similar challenges in rethinking "presence" which, in all but name, resembles absence more than anything I know of as presence. I'm having a hard time reconciling my experience (or lack thereof) of God with the traditional characteristics attributed to God justice, compassion, provision to name a few. Each of those seem to require some sort of agency, some sort of arrival, in a concrete way for them to carry any meaning, at least for me. So, when God doesn't arrive, for whatever reason, I'm left with these characteristics that are only applicable to the divine if said divine always gets the benefit of the doubt so to speak; where I am always either missing the arrival or at fault for the lack of arrival. This, as you can imagine, gets tiresome.
I see some alternatives in work like Levinas who sees God in the face of the other or in Richard Kearney's "The God Who May Be" which I haven't got through completely. Let me know if you've read this one, I'd be interested in your thoughts.