“A ministry of words, but not deeds”

There is danger in the gospel this morning.

An accusing tone – a terrible truth – a secret we don’t want to share.

Remember, this is Jesus on the end of his earthly journey.

This is a teacher who must suspect his time is running short –

the questions directed his way are becoming more pointed.

His accusers are bolder – his arrest and execution are immanent.

And rather than soften his stance to save himself grief,

Jesus deliberately provokes the powerful traditionalists – the “keepers of the faith”.

More than that, Jesus is stirring the people against their spiritual guides.

“Listen to what they teach, but do not do as they do…”

The habits of the shepherds have become suspect.

This is, of course, an appropriate text to mark the day of Martin Luther’s defiant act

against a church structure that he considered corrupt,

and without proper reverence for God,

but that doesn’t make this text any easier to preach.

Reform was supposed to save us from the mistakes of our ancestors.

Reform is suggested by Jesus warning words,

which are aimed so deliberately at the pompous folks 

who held the ordinary people to such high expectations of devotion and deference,

that any real participation in the work of the people of God (in that time) was nearly impossible.

Jesus points out the seductive trap that waits for those in positions of authority; to all who seek knowledge for the sake of power, which  is too easily abused.

Caution is indicated – changed attitudes are necessary

but we are notoriously slow learners.

I spent Thursday evening and Friday morning as witness

to the ongoing work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission events in Halifax.

Nowhere in Canadian history have the lessons of Jesus been more completely ignored

and the abuse of power been more clearly evident, than in our residential school system.

To hear the stories of those who suffered –

and to see the intensity on the faces of those who were commissioned to listen –

was a humbling thing.

No, I was not directly involved in the abuse, racism or arrogance 

that presumed  the superiority of one culture to another – 

but I am compelled to learn from the mistakes of those

 who did not practice what they should have been teaching.

Jesus’ words hit me particularly hard after hearing several hours of testimony Friday morning –

after seeing the anguish in the faces of those forced to carry the heavy burdens

thrust on them by representatives of Church and state

who dressed themselves in imaginary honour, and it made me wonder how the reputation of the church fares in more ordinary circumstances…

Even if we can convince ourselves that the church in our time has made no enemies;

even when we describe our various activities as “open”,

and our congregations as “welcoming”,

we must face the fact that the church today is hardly the centre of community life. 

It is not just because of competition from other activities,

it is because that somewhere along the way

we have alienated those whom we were supposed to help.

We are responsible for presenting people with the burden of OUR expectations;

we have made ourselves masters and teachers for the sake of public recognition,

we have quibbled about process, and argued about orthodoxy,

and the body of Christ,

which includes a great many more members than we can imagine

has suffered as a result.

I am not the judge of this – I am deeply implicated; part of the system.

And as part of the system, a member of the body of Christ

it is my privilege and responsibility to contribute as I am able to the shape of this journey.

I have heard the cry of the church as it struggles, and fails,

to understand its present circumstances.

I have observed the apathy of those outside –

good people who want guidance without guilt

friends and neighbours who have been hurt by our inability to practice what we preach.

I am challenged by the task that you have called me to –

and I am grieved at the reality of our slow, but certain failure.

The church universal – of which we are a part;

no matter what our denomination – no matter where our congregation –

can only be called successful where it has stooped to serve

when it dares to acknowledge its own failure

and when, in times of remarkable clarity, it hears the call of Christ.

I pray that through this present time of self-doubt and insecurity

the church – the whole church –

might stop its incessant whining –

stop beating our breasts about how misunderstood we are –

and pause to listen to the leading of the Spirit of God.

I don’t know where that might take us. I’m not sure we know what to listen for –

but I know it is time to remove ourselves from the places of honour

and return to our place at the feet of Jesus

listening, astonished, to the wonders God has planned for us.


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