Wembley Downs Uniting Church
Current Sermons
A Reflection on Power (Douglas Lambert) 3.7.2016
Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-6; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

(A video clip parodying election advertising)

For me, that clip first played on ABC News 24 was the highlight of the election. This campaign has not been the most informative or edifying that we have experienced. When you are trying to maintain a very tight script, while the news media demands something new several times a day, then eight weeks is a bridge too far.

The world has changed from mass meetings in Forrest Place with the Prime Minister talking to and engaging in debate with the audience. A time when people attended public meetings to listen to the local candidates and what they had to propose. A few people in this room will have no memories of these things because it was a time before they were born. That world will not return for the rest of us.

The election marks another major change in our social experience. That is the almost total disconnect between the political class and the population as a whole. Sure, there are political junkies like me who spend time and effort reading the policies and following the news in as much depth as possible and in as many media as possible. I suspect we are a tiny minority. Most people participate largely through the TV media which in turn has an entertainment flavour and limits itself to superficial analysis. The new media such as Twitter and the online papers who have space for reader responses are even less enlightening. They are worth having a brief look at - instant response, generally vitriolic and lacking in any real substance, certainly highly partisan. None of this makes for the kind of thoughtful consideration which a genuine democracy needs to survive.

The political parties have recognised the challenges and attempted to respond by meeting the needs of the media. Lots of photo opportunities, brief outlines of a policy, then move on. They try very hard not to actually engage the population. Stay on script. Put the major focus on to what are identified as marginal seats. These get the time, the media exposure and the campaign promises which are aimed specifically at them. The marginal seats are the only thing that matter.

One of the consequences is the gulf which has developed between the politicians, policy makers, and the community. We are not alone, nor are we as far down the track as some. Clear evidence of the phenomenon lies in the success of Trump and Sanders in the USA, or in the UK Brexit decision. They are triumphs for populism. These campaigns are based on popular myths, superficiality, and in some cases deliberate lies. There is no question about the fact that the outcomes represent the power of the people. Democracy is far from perfect; indeed it was Winston Churchill who observed that `It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.` He also said that `the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter`.

In our case here in Australia there was a focus on populist proposals, pitched at a level that fosters expectations which are undeliverable. This results in immediate satisfaction and ultimate disillusionment. There was no attempt to have the electorate actually understand the social and economic issues confronting the nation, never mind have them come to perceive that government cannot provide the answer to every misfortune or desire of its citizens.

Our experience will not simply continue; it will grow exponentially. We will continue to experience the petty power plays, the lack of vision and substance, the straw men, an approach to the truth that would make a Jesuit smile, and the lust for power. Australia is not immune from the extremes of political decision making we have seen across Europe in the last five years or so. The resolution lies in a genuine reconnection between the community and its elected representatives. This will require a mammoth effort on both parts.

If achieved it will ultimately promote leaders who have a comprehensive vision for the future, a willingness to listen and to persuade the populace of the virtues of that future world. It will include a clear strategy for how this vision is to be achieved. It`s an evangelical exercise.

What have these meanderings on power got to do with worship in Wembley Downs? The lectionary readings for today are about the use of power.

First reading 2 Kings 5: 1-14

The story of Naaman and Elisha is full of contrasting pictures –

    Naaman the highly successful commander of the Syrian army, an epitome of power and influence, contrasted with a nameless Jewish slave girl.

    The King of Syria, the dominant nation state in the area, and the King of Israel who was weak both personally and militarily.

    Elisha with his apparent disdain for this mighty warrior Naaman, who was full of expectation, and disquieted by potentially undignified remedies.

Think about the emotional devastation serious illness brings. Naaman was from the cream of Syrian society. The disease confronting him had huge personal and social consequences. His circumstance was literally one of rock star today, and an outcast tomorrow. Cast your minds back to the period of the initial AIDS epidemic in 1982. The community response was beyond hysteria and the fear was palpable. We too engaged in exercises of exclusion from the community.

The fact that Naaman was willing to pursue the advice of a slave girl and travel to another country, indicates his level of desperation. This man was willing to believe anything.

On arrival in Israel his first confrontation is with the King who is beside himself about delivering a remedy the Israelite King knows to be impossible and slips instantly into paranoia country - probably with good cause, the Syrians were quite capable of over-running his country and, more seriously from his perspective, deposing him.

The next vignette is the arrival at the home of Elisha. You can picture the scene - undoubtedly a troop of horsemen and various other attendants. The noise and clamour and colour. This was a celebrity arrival. Elisha does not even have the courtesy to come out and greet him; converse over coffee and cake; talk about this great catastrophe.

Elisha just sends a message - go and wash in the river Jordan, not once but seven times. Now the Jordan is not one of the great rivers of the world, it`s not much more than a muddy creek.

Not surprisingly, Naaman is offended. Elisha on the other hand was not renowned for his people skills. Clearly he was a man of considerable courage who perceived that a lesson in humility would not go amiss. Members of Naaman`s party finally persuade him to give it a go - what have you got to lose they said, besides a bit of dignity. It might just work. Again the element of desperation. Success! Undoubtedly a triumphant return home.

Whilst the lectionary reading stops at this point the story continues with the perfidy and opportunism of Elisha`s servant.

The story is essentially one about humility and obedience. It`s also a story of power and its ability to access resources in its own interests. It`s a story of prudence - Naaman proposes to worship God regularly in the future but recognises the reality of his own religious circumstances at home, where the king was divine, and so seeks forgiveness in advance.

Second reading Galatians 6:1-6

Various sources tell me that Paul`s epistle to the Galatians was written around 49CE probably at Antioch, making it the earliest of Paul`s letters. There may be some argument about the intended recipients - however the term Galatia is being used in the political sense of an area which had existed as a more or less independent state since about 200 BCE. It was located in today`s terms in central and north eastern Turkey. The population were of largely Celtic origin.

The letter commences with a vigorous contribution to the Judaism versus Christianity debate and evolves into a commentary on the real nature of Christian freedom. This opening debate was essentially one around the question of `What makes a person a Christian?` Both sides of this debate believed in Jesus Christ. The issue was whether belief alone was enough for perfect Christianity. Paul says Yes; the Judaisers say No, you must also keep the Law and be circumcised. They wanted to perpetuate the old cultural traditions.

There is a more sinister theme underlying all this. Paul alleges that the circumcisers are doing so because it will protect you against Jews who would otherwise persecute us; they are acting in their own interests. As Bill Loader puts it `Their fundamentalist stance also has a social explanation - as it often has.`

Paul is pursuing one of his primary themes, namely that real Christian goodness is the result, not the prerequisite of our faith. The Christian way says, live, and do these things. It does not say, do these things and you will live.

We tend to ignore the intense debates which enveloped the birth of the church. Jesus was a member of a proud Jewish community with a worshipping culture going back several thousand years. The missionary efforts of Paul introduced Gentile participants with a quite distinct culture and little experience of the Hebrew God, let alone Jewish cultural and religious practices. The stage was set for real drama and the players were only too willing to engage.

The heart of the church outside of Israel lay in communities which were observant Jews practising their faith within a foreign culture. They were frequently targeted by the community as convenient excuses for whatever was wrong at the time and were no strangers to persecution. Hence they tended to keep as low a profile as possible, whilst trying to preserve what remained of their culture. Having been converted to Christianity they were deeply suspicious of Gentile outsiders and needed much reassurance.

The great pity is that these foundation debates were largely conducted through correspondence and we only have Paul`s letters. It would be good to have a more diverse range thereby adding wider perspective to what was happening.

To Paul the Cross was a declaration that God`s love reaches out to all people without discrimination and seeks to bring them to renewal. It was new creation theology applied to people`s lives in the here and now. In that context the rituals were irrelevant because God`s focus was on relationships rather than rules. So at the start of the letter he is proposing that when confronted with something which is wrong in principle or behaviour we need to deal with it - deal with the needs of the person; the object is to try to restore the person not merely to defend rules or laws. Paul reminds us that we are all capable of doing wrong and need to keep that in mind when entering into the process of reconciliation.

In his notes on the lectionary Bill Loader puts it this way –

`We can stop playing games with ourselves and others by trying to be one-up on them. Our value no longer depends on winning, being better than someone else, putting others down directly or indirectly. If we attend to our own integrity and wholeness then we won`t live in a way that depends on criticising others. For Paul it is about accountability. We carry our own burdens. We take responsibility for ourselves. Only when we do so will we be of much use in sharing the burdens of others. Paul never imagined that conversion suddenly made people good. His letters always imply that the potential of God`s goodness in our lives to bring renewal can be thwarted by our choices. . . . .

Ultimately, for Paul, love gets to the detail and teaches us what to do with it. It tilts us out of old grooves, whether they are habits of greed or biblically-sanctioned requirements such as the law about circumcising Gentiles. Thus Paul`s understanding of peace and love is radical and confronting and always focused on life and renewal.`

The Gospel reading Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20

Mission as Luke spoke of it uses the imagery of the harvest. It is an image which is largely outside of our culture and experience. We no longer celebrate a Harvest Festival as was done in my youth. I well remember the trestle tables at the front of the church loaded with fresh produce and surrounded by bags of wheat and bales of hay. My childhood was spent in rural communities and the harvest was an important aspect of life.

A few years ago Lynley and I attended a rural Church of Ireland service one Sunday morning to celebrate the harvest and it brought back all sorts of memories because the church was dressed for the occasion, right down to the apples on the collars of the columns supporting the roof, and up on the window sills.

Harvest of course is part of the cycle of life. Planting the seed, nurturing the growing crop, harvesting the produce, preparing for the next time of planting.

Bill Loader again in his notes for preachers –

`The ancient world had strong customs about hospitality. The mission used these. The result was quite confronting: you either welcomed these people or you turned them away. It was accepted that enemies should not be offered hospitality, but were these enemies or friends? They claimed to be envoys of peace and wholeness, including healing. They claimed to be announcing the reign of God and by their actions, bringing its reality into life in the here and now. To receive them was to receive the one who sent them and to receive him was to receive God, to be open to the kingdom. To reject someone who is not an enemy, to refuse to offer hospitality, was shameful. It brought disgrace and promised misfortune. That is the expectation here, too. Reject these messengers and you reject Jesus; reject Jesus and you reject God; reject God and you invite judgement. Shaking dust off the feet is probably symbolic of such judgement. . . .

This was a deliberate strategy. The alternative of dropping in on friends on the way to say, `Hello`, was forbidden. It would have thwarted the plan. The approach was quite confrontational.`

This strategy was founded on the culture of hospitality and the sharing of a meal in particular. The response of faith was about a willingness to share food, to come and be together in mutual fellowship and acceptance. This acceptance and togetherness was a central symbol of hope. Jesus goes on in Luke`s version of the story to move the focus from personal rewards to a symbolic way of saying that what matters most is your close relationship with God, which is its own reward. Hope, comes to fulfilment now when people are liberated from the powers that oppress them.

There is very little synergy between this strategy and our circumstances today. Our homes are not semi-public communities and Luke was not familiar with Facebook. The core of the strategy was for the missionaries to engage local people in the same mission - it was not about selling a brand. The missionaries were a living statement against the prevailing social values. God`s kingdom can still be advanced by this means.

A fellowship of solidarity in commitment and work for change has been created when people who love because of the influence of Jesus, join others who love and together they cultivate hope and restore life in otherwise empty or toxic communities. Even today the church has many examples of this. Rainbow lunches, Craft groups, coffee mornings, craft and sporting groups: these are some of the vehicles for inclusion and the seeding of hope. The real power in this strategy lies with the local community. If this does not ignite then all the exhortation in the world cannot initiate anything.

Naaman exercised power decidedly in his own interests, but came to understand that humility can bring its own rewards.

Paul understood the power of the cross and the mission of Jesus the Christ. He used his considerable intellect, and the power and influence he exercised in the early church, to spread the gospel of love and respect for one another. Communities grew up who exercised the principles of hospitality in love for one another, who brought themselves hope in their daily existence.

Luke brings together the stories of Jesus in a manner which outlines the journey to Jerusalem and the inevitability of what was to come. Inevitable not in the sense that this was some preordained act by God, but because commitment to the message could have only one outcome in confrontation with the power structure of the day. The elites of the day were not about to have their position threatened.

Much of our church activity certainly over my lifetime has been about marketing the Christian brand. That has been quite pointed over the last decade or so, not so much by the church itself, as by those in the community advancing their generally negative agendas under the banner of Christianity. We have had the Christian vs Muslim crusades in all their many varieties and not just between the 11th and 15th centuries; then the proponents of the male as sole head of the household, an ideology which underlies much of the conservative social debates. Large sections of the evangelical arm of the church expend considerable resources on promoting the Jesus brand and do so utilising all the strategies, resources, and cunning of a commercial PR campaign.

Somewhere along the pilgrim journey the church universal has lost its way. The message of real liberating love propounded by Jesus has been morphed into a parade of power and glory here on earth. It was not some philosophical waffling which caused us to maintain that church and state must become separate, it was the harsh experience of life. Much of our religious discourse has been focused on the afterlife. The need to be concerned about life today, to involve the local community in the resolution of its own relationship and support issues, has long been subsumed into tribalism, statism and superficiality.

But real power remains. Whilst the light might flicker a bit from time to time, it can never be extinguished. Not whilst groups of people like this gather to worship, to bear one another`s burdens, and to give themselves to the communities in which they live and work.

Praise be to God.

130 Calais Road, (crnr of Minibah Street)
Wembley Downs, Western Australia.
Phone 08 9245 2882

Ten kilometres northwest of Perth city centre,
set amongst the suburbs of City Beach, Churchlands,
Scarborough, Wembley Downs and Woodlands