Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, July 05 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Andrea Budgey, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
2 Sam 5:1-5, 9-10; Ps 48; 2 Cor 12:2-10; Mk 6:1-13

Today is one of those days when the lectionary tries to protect us from the Bible. In our Old Testament reading, in the middle of the passage about the recognition of David as king over all Israel and the establishment of Jerusalem as his stronghold, comes a disturbing little anecdote which was omitted from our reading:

The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever would strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

It’s easy to see why the compilers of the lectionary left this out. The whole biblical narrative of David is problematic, written far later than the events it presents, and clearly edited and reworked by more than one person. This unpleasant little vignette may have been inserted to explain the belief—not supported in scripture, but definitely held by some groups—that people with certain physical disabilities or deformities should not be permitted in the Temple. It shows David as cunning and violent, as well as inexplicably prejudiced against vulnerable people. But however it got into the text, the tradition accepted it, and it stuck, and I think we have a responsibility to deal with the story as generations and centuries have received it, because our historical inventions tend to have a far greater influence on us than actual events, lost and forgotten.

What this story is about, of course, is power and the use of violence. The Jebusites boast that their position is so unassailable that “even the blind and the lame” among them, the weakest and least able to fight, could hold their stronghold against the enemy, but they have not anticipated David’s attack through the water-shaft. His words about “the lame and the blind” may be read simply as a response to the rhetoric of the Jebusites, but the chronicler doesn’t try to distance David from their hatefulness. Whether any of this actually ever happened is open to question, but the story does have something very true to say about violence—it is almost always the vulnerable who end up bearing the brunt of it. That has been true in war throughout the centuries, and it is equally true of economic and environmental violence. Austerity measures imposed under threat always have their primary effect on the poor and marginal, and the consequences of pollution and climate change pose the greatest danger to those whose lives are already precarious in other ways. The biblical account, in this story and throughout his career, presents David very much as a “mainstream” user of power, clever perhaps, merciful when it suits him, but never really questioning the ways of violence. The Davidic model idealises strength, cunning, the use of advantage, and an exclusive understanding of community and kinship.

That model, of course, was what so many people initially had in mind when they welcomed Jesus as the Messiah—someone who could inspire a revolt against Roman occupation, plan it, lead it, and bring it to a victorious conclusion. And that’s why, for some of them, Jesus was such a disappointment, choosing to sit with the marginal, teach, and heal, not as a kind of audition for political kingship, but as the announcement of a different kind of kingdom altogether, one in which the vulnerable come first, and authority comes from love. In our Gospel today, he gives his newly-chosen disciples an object lesson in kenosis, or self-emptying: they are to go out in pairs (so that they can be accountable to each other), without food, or money, or superfluous clothing. They are to be dependent on the generosity and hospitality of strangers, as beggars are, and if they and their message are rejected, they are not to retaliate in any way, but simply to shake the dust off their feet and move on. (In this first mission of the disciples we can find the origins of the Franciscan order, with its rigorous vow of poverty, and also the rationale for Christian non-violence movements). Most of the disciples seem to have been from fairly marginal groups to start with—fishermen and tax-collectors—and this first exercise in making themselves even more vulnerable may well have puzzled and confused them. They would grow into deeper understanding only through their witnessing of the complete self-offering of Jesus, his utterly gracious and non-violent submission to the power of empire and human violence, and his overturning of that power in the resurrection.

Paul, who came into the Christian community only after the resurrection, learned from others’ witness to this Gospel of self-emptying, and from their example. In the part of his second letter to the church in Corinth which we heard today, he’s almost grandiose in the way he describes his experience. God speaks to him in prayer: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” and he responds “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” If that comes across as a particularly macho version of kenosis, we need to remember that he was writing in the context of persuasion and exhortation, rather than autobiography. The central idea, that God’s power is perfected in our weakness, is so counter-cultural, in very nearly all human cultures, that it needs to be conveyed clearly, distinctly, and repeatedly. It’s something we need to keep hearing, reflecting on, praying about, trying to figure out what it looks like in our own lives.

Very few of us think of ourselves as powerful, at least in comparison with all the greater powers under whose jurisdiction we find ourselves. But if we consider the question carefully, we have to acknowledge that simply by living where we do, when we do, most of us have power that people in other ages, or in other parts of the world, could only dream about—powers of choice and consumption, power to control our immediate environments (even if renovation projects sometimes make us question that), and perhaps most important—because usually the least obvious—the power to affect the lives of others, and the health of the planet, by the choices we make in what we consume and how we invest and how we vote. It would be very difficult for any of us to slide completely out of the web of our culture and economic and political systems, but I believe that what we are called to do is to examine those structures and our place in them honestly, to experiment prayerfully with what it might mean to relinquish some of our choice and control, and to stand in solidarity with those most affected by our systems, at home and abroad, the marginal, the vulnerable, and the broken, and to unite equally in order to imagine a world more nearly in conformity with the kingdom into which God in Christ has called us. That’s really what the “March for Climate, Jobs, and Justice” this afternoon, and other events this week, are about, whether or not many of the participants would choose to describe them that way, and even if you aren’t able to come to the various events, I would ask you to pray for the work they embody, and reflect on how all of us, as individuals and as a parish community, can offer ourselves in service to a renewed vision of God’s kingdom, one into which all may enter.