Monday, December 10, 2012

Great Sermon by Bishop Howard Gregory: The Anglican Lord Bishop of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands

Let us pray.
Gracious God, who sent your own Son to prepare the way for our salvation, give us the grace to heed his word and accept his forgiveness of our many sins. In the name of Jesus Christ who lives with you and with us, now and forever. Amen.
Luke 3:4-6
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
And the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

Today is the second Sunday in Advent.  As such, it has that over-arching theme of the season, namely, the second coming of Christ in triumph and the need for human readiness in face of such an impending reality.  This Sunday, however, has as a particular focus, the messengers of God – those who have served to herald the activity of God through the ages, including those who heralded the coming of Christ in humility the first time, and those who seek to herald his second coming, and the reality of the Kingdom which he has already inaugurated, but which he will bring to fulfillment on his return.
In the context of the readings and the Advent season, the person of the messenger of God, seems to be a reference to the religious leader, whether prophet or priest.  Nevertheless, it is true to say that the messenger of God is not restricted to a religious functionary within institutional religion.  Just the very thought of assigning the designation of “messenger of God” to anyone, is likely to create difficulties for some in the modern and increasingly secular world.  Indeed, it is true to say that even when identified with religious figures, developments within the life of individual ministers/church leaders in the international and national arenas, have at times raised serious questions in the minds of people concerning the credibility and integrity of individuals who dare to claim the designation of messengers of God.  In the wider context though, we are also seeing, as part of the functioning of the post-modern society, a sense of suspicion toward, and the questioning of every institution and person of authority, the messenger of God being no exception.  So in the midst of a modern and pluralistic world we question the relevance and authority of such a person, since after all, much of life is organized around our subjective perceptions and choices.
Notwithstanding these realities, we are still left with the fact that there are persons who through the ages have been faithful messengers of God and, as such, had an authentic word from God to deliver to those who would listen and those who refuse to listen.  In the gospel for today we encounter one such messenger, namely, John the Baptist, as he undertook his mission as presented by St. Luke.
One of the features of Luke's Gospel is that it employs temporal markers to situate the Good News within a historical landscape (cf. Luke 1:1-5). So while the word being proclaimed by John the Baptist is "in the wilderness" around the Jordan, it is in reality being proclaimed within the wider context of the wilderness of the political world: during the reigns of emperor Tiberius, governor Pilate, and "ruler" Herod. Luke is quite intentional in situating the advent of the revelation to John the Baptizer in the context of the temporal framework of the native ruler Herod, the local but foreign governor Pilate, and the final authority who sits above all, Tiberius.  Luke is making it clear at this point that the drama that is to be played out is not a religious one which has no contextual relevance to the political system of governance.  Clearly, Luke is from the outset pointing us to the fact that the activities and the word which the messenger of God has to deliver is not just for some kind of esoteric community of the religious but, the wider reality of the civil and religious community.
Additionally, as one commentator points out, “this is a top-down look at the political reality of the day. In a sense, this would situate the word, which comes to John, and the Messiah whose path John prepares, in very bottom-up terms; the small, the unexpected, the apparently trivial comes as answer to the problems of the hierarchical political structure under which it is apparently pinned. So the messenger and the one who becomes the very embodiment of the message, the Messiah, Jesus, are not just part of the status quo, but voices and actors from the very bottom of the rung with a word that speaks to the highest reaches of the system of governance”.  Here is clearly a word to those who constitute the system of governance and are not favourably disposed toward those at the bottom of the rung who would call them to account, even as it is a word to those at the bottom of the rung who seek to retreat behind the claim of impotence and inability to influence what happens in governance.
But Luke does not allow the religious community to somehow drift into the background as if the revelation to be manifested in John is for a secular and unholy order of governance and civil society.  So Luke does not stop with his focus on the political order. He goes on to list the "spiritual" or "religious" power-structure as well. Not only are Tiberius, Pilate, and Herod noted, but the high priests Annas and Caiaphas are highlighted as well. There may be a sense in which the religious parallel to the political hierarchy is intentional, representing another strand of leadership which must also be addressed by the revelation of the messenger.
It is then into a world that stands under the jurisdiction and control of these various authorities that John makes his entry as the messenger of God.  The word comes to John in the midst of the messy reality of a world defined by both secular and religious powers.  It is a wounded world, and like a two-edged sword, the word comes to John, dividing religion and politics, interjecting itself in both the political and religious realms?
What then is the nature and content of the message which John has to deliver?  The first thing to note is that it points to God as the principal actor rather than focusing on the person of the messenger.  By drawing on the quotation of Isaiah 40:3-5, which forms the text, Luke wants us to see this new initiative that is coming to fruition as the fulfillment of God’s promise made to Israel. In its original context, this quotation, in Isaiah, had to do with a promise of return from Exile. God will make straight paths through the wilderness, a smooth and easy return -- in essence a new "exodus" -- bringing the people of Israel out of bondage and back to the Promised Land. The path is for the people; God-made, God-led. This is the proclamation of the prophet (Isaiah), made to the people; it is declarative, promising, hopeful.
Luke then locates John the Baptist, the contemporary messenger, within the framework of God’s liberating activity by recalling and renewing the promise of old, and giving it current application, even while noting that the current application requires a new interpretation. So John is now the one who is out in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. The path is by the people, who are called to repentance, to return themselves to their Lord; God-focused, human-centered action. This is the promise of the prophet himself (John) who calls for a different kind of return to God; his message is one of exhortation, challenge, command. So then, here are two aspects to the message: one promises God's action, the other calls for human action/response.  And, for the Church, that two-fold action of God on the one hand and human action on the other continues through subsequent ages.

That ongoing divine activity was highlighted a few Sundays ago, when the Church observed the feast of Christ the King, which has as its central focus the fact that Christ our risen and ascended Lord has begun his reign, and that all the powers of this world are subject to him, and furthermore, all evil is being brought down.  The ultimate end of human existence in the divine providence is the return of Christ and the final defeat of all principalities and powers which have been purveyors of evil and have rejected the message of the gospel.  That is at the centre of Christian hope, and I am prepared to affirm that there is nothing that politicians, economists, or the managers of this global environment have to offer which contains for me any sense of an alternative hope to the Christian hope, and which is credible. 

In the meanwhile, the role of the Church, that is, all of us, is to proclaim the truth of the message of the gospel.  We will never be able to do it by matching forces with the powers of this world.  Indeed, our efforts may look very feeble and we may even be perceived as weaklings and the vulnerable of the world, but the day of judgment comes and Christ will call persons to account.
Another manifestation and affirmation of the divine activity in human affairs is in the Church’s observance of the season of Advent in which we have now entered.  It is a time of preparation for the reception of that great divine activity known as the Incarnation, in which God not only affirms his power and control in entering the world with all of its distortions and frailty, but that he has the power to redeem human life and the world from the grip of any force of evil.  That reality was demonstrated at the birth of Jesus Christ and is recalled and celebrated each succeeding Christmas.  Advent points us to the ultimate fulfillment of our hope of the coming of the end of the age, while affirming that the climax of the story is the supremacy of God, and the participation in his reign and rule by those who in their own time have been alert, watchful, prayerful, and pursuing a life of holiness.

But one of the things about faith affirmations is that they run the risk of lifting us into the realm of the ethereal whereby we lose our sense of being grounded in the realities of life.  It is for this reason that I am pleased to have worshipping with us members and supporters of the National Integrity Action Jamaica.  [The National Integrity Action (which began with its antecedent institution National Integrity Action Forum) was launched in January 2009 with its main purpose being “to build public awareness of the critical importance of and steer a comprehensive action plan in the national struggle against corruption in Jamaica.”

The aims are to help:
-         Combat the corruption plaguing the Jamaican society
-         Reduce the level of frustration amongst champions of integrity
-         Contribute to concrete results which can dispel the pervasive perception that Jamaica is amongst the most corrupt of Caribbean countries.]
Many of us Jamaicans make corruption a partisan political issue which one party and its followers use to gain political mileage over against the other.  Indeed, it often becomes a kind of comic circus of a tragic nature, by which millions of dollars and creative energy are put into investigations of the outgoing political party by the incoming one, in one of the most wasteful exercises, achieving absolutely nothing of consequence at the end of the day.  So what then is corruption?
In a release issued by the Office of the Contractor General on December 9, 2010, corruption was defined as follows:
“Defined generally as the abuse of public office for private gain, corruption, which is often driven by individual greed, will manifest itself in ways which are inimical to the national security and political and socio-economic interest of the world community of countries, of which Jamaica is a part.  Its impact is incredibly wide.
Corruption erodes the quality of life, leads to human rights violation, steals political elections, distorts financial markets, reduces investor confidence, increases the price of goods and services, undermines or destroys confidence in critical public institutions, and enables organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish”.
Corruption comes in many guises: bribery, extortion, fraud, trafficking, embezzlement, nepotism and cronyism.  For some of us Jamaicans, corruption is a kind of conversation piece for the verandah, as it is deemed not to have anything to do with us but with politicians, public servants, the “big man”, and the party “faithfuls”.  And yet corruption is something which involves all of us as members of this society.  Yes, when we pass cash to a policeman to avoid getting a ticket; do not bother to have our car go to the Examination Depot to have it passed for a certificate of fitness, but send along some extra cash with the papers; or when we purchase goods from persons we know are not legitimate and boast of the bargain price, we are complicit in the corruption in this society.  I recently learnt of the man who was caught stealing orchids from someone’s garden in Upper St. Andrew, and who was chased and held.  It turned out that he was on a mission to steal the orchids for the “big man” who was waiting on him in his BMW parked further down the road.
In a similar vein, the nation would have heard the Minister of National Security giving a speech in Montego Bay recently, in the wake of the rape of that household of women and girls.  In that speech he appealed to his audience to report wrongdoing in their neighbourhood, and his offering as a specific example the fact that if scamming is known to be going on in their neighbourhood they are to report it.  To which a loud chorus of “NO!” was forthcoming from a gathering of women.  Not surprisingly, there are persons who would like to see the government and the police ease up the pressure on scammers.
The National Integrity Action may cringe at the thought of being identified as messengers of God, but they are certainly calling us as a nation to confront and reject in our system of governance, our social and economic relations, and in our own lives the moral evil of corruption which is plaguing our society and contrary to the will of God for his people.  For the Christian, as I hope for the NIA, the call to stand against corruption is grounded in God, constitutes a part of the divine action, even as it demands human action and response.  But, the messengers of God, whether prophet, priest, or lay persons, must not only be persons who are possessing of a sensitive moral conscience.
The messenger of God understands that the message which he or she has to deliver to the society is of God, so that the locus of authority does not merely reside in self and the dictates of one’s moral conscience, because, not only can the conscience be deceived but, the truth is that not everyone who presents himself/herself as having a call and message from God is duly called of God.   As the old gentleman was heard to say after having to deal with an ill-natured, and ill-tempered minister, “Look at it eh, some went, but were not sent”, echoing a prophetic condemnation of false prophets found in the Old Testament.  With that strong sense of being called and entrusted with a message, the messenger of God in Scripture was able to claim the formula of the messenger – “Thus says the Lord”- authority.  And the truth of the matter is that to be a faithful messenger of God, the very people and institutions to which you are sent will wear you out, without heeding the message. The mission to get legislation passed to allow for accountability and the prosecution of corrupt public servants who are found to be corrupt, to get legislation to have a single agency deal with matters related to corruption, and the mission to get legislation to govern election campaign finances, will weary the spirit of the most committed messenger.  Have you not noticed that it is with the departure of Contractor General, Greg Christie, from office that the society is not ready to beatify him?  At last he is in no position to cause offence to those whose social status he apparently overlooked and so belittled them by bringing them under the microscope of his jurisdiction! Thankfully, renewal for the messenger comes from God. 
The messenger of God must have the capacity to empathize with human hurt and alienation – individual and social. As such, the messenger must be related to the actual context of “political power, social crises, economic needs, and cultural transformations” within which people live.  The messenger of God of old did not have on blinders which allowed them to see only that thing called the “religious”.  They saw life as people lived it.  They saw the suffering, the injustice, the frustration, and with particular reference to corruption, they knew that in the long run the primary victims are the poor.  Those politicians and others who love to say that the Church must not concern itself with politics but only with religion, have no idea what the Judeo-Christian religion is about.  Not to mention the fact that Christians who subscribe to this view have no appreciation of the prophetic condemnation of religion that is focused on ritual and worship experiences but which neglect the weightier matters of justice, hospitality, care for the outcast and stranger, etc.

Think also of the cutting words of a Hosea, Joel or Amos, with the plea for justice.
For example, Amos 5:24:
Let justice roll down like waters,
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
The truth is that authentic messengers of God do not make good friends of those who control society, because the latter do not want things to change in favour of those who hurt and are oppressed.  Attempts to discredit messengers in our world are many and some of us choose to remain na├»ve or to simply maintain our loyalties. 
The messenger of God never loses sight of those who hurt and the context of life.
The messenger of God offers credible moral leadership arising out of prophetic moral imagination (moral vision).  It was the prophet Jeremiah who said, “where there is no vision, the people perish”, and which words are embedded in our national anthem.  Another way of expressing the same idea is that the society looks at things in terms of how they are, while the messenger of God looks at things in terms of how they should be. If a society is to move ahead it needs men and women of vision who can imagine things as they could become.  People who simply maintain things outlive their usefulness eventually.  So, the society needs people possessing of moral vision to guide it.

At various times we have been blessed with such persons of moral vision within Caribbean society.  Part of the tragedy of the situation is that we often lack the kind of social, political and religious leadership necessary to build on the moral vision bequeathed to us.  We need the messengers of God more than ever who have the moral and spiritual imagination which serves as a guide and critique for society.
The messenger of God stands under the judgment of the message which he/she proclaims. So the messenger of God lays no claim to an “holier than thou” posture.  This is one of the most difficult aspects of being a messenger, but it is based on the premise that the truth of what is proclaimed does not originate with the messenger but is of God. The prophet Ezekiel had some very harsh words of judgment for the false prophets who claimed to have been receiving their vision from God and speaking on behalf of God.  In Ezekiel 13:1+ we read:
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the prophets of Israel who are prophesying; say to those who prophesy out of their own imagination: “Hear the word of the Lord!”  Thus says the Lord God, Alas for the senseless prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! …… They have envisioned falsehood and lying divination, they say, “Thus says the Lord,” when the Lord has not sent them, and yet they wait for the fulfillment of their word!
Pray, therefore, my brothers and sisters, that:
1.     God will raise up men and women, ordained or lay, who will be messengers to our community of faith and the world;
2.     That our messengers will be persons of sensitivity to the hurt, alienation, and the realities of life in our context;
3.     That they will be persons of moral and religious vision and that we may be responsive to their proclamation;
4.     Pray also that the messengers of God will be faithful and sincere knowing the account that we must give to the one who has called us.


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