Wednesday, June 19, 2013

2000 Years Later, Commencement Morning

Scripture read this morning, Commencement Day at Williams College here, included Galatians 1:1-12 and Luke 7:1-10

There are two portions of Christian scripture, each nearly two thousand years old. Isn’t it satisfying to stand at this end of that timeline, purged of the temptation to curse gospels contrary to our own? To live in a world where slavery has been completely eradicated? To have evolved to the point where human worthiness is no longer determined by a person’s wealth and what he or she chooses to do with it?

Hmm. I guess not. We are still a work in progress. The ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us, and it is a universe of tasks requiring us to keep reaching for the skills and commitments and alliances that are needed. The Book of Common Prayer defines the mission of the Church: To restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The universal all-embracing Christ is ready for the task, ready to join all people of good will and a yearning for peace that is built of justice. He is ready also to equip us with the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

What more is needed? Another two thousand years? Our first double-millennium in the common era suggests that time alone is not the deciding factor. The pivotal power is the one named in today’s Gospel, the attitude demonstrated by this Roman centurion about whom Jesus says, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such trust.”

An officer of the imperial army, the centurion knows what it means to be under higher authority, answerable above, and so he recognizes that Jesus is under the authority of God. This is the basis for his trust that Jesus can and will help him. They both want the same thing in this moment: healing. So trust bridges a vast gulf, worlds of difference, uniting these men in a common purpose.

Yes, I reached for a word other than “faith” yet intimately related: trust. Trust is the active ingredient in faith, the vital core that makes belief matter, the broader power, the one that restores unity between sacred and secular, between the Kingdom of God and human society. All that the ministry of reconciliation requires entails trust: skills, commitments, and alliances all need to be trusted to become enough, to become effective by the arithmetic of grace, God’s ability to multiply loaves and fishes, to breathe spirit and truth into our dust and clay, animating the material by the spiritual, revealing opportunity in crisis.

No one would have expected Jesus to raise up a Roman centurion as an exemplar of faith, but he does. The authority of this army officer depends upon the trustworthiness of those one hundred soldiers he commands, and upon the loyalty of his household slaves. The centurion helps form and train and reinforce these attitudes and commitments by his trusting them, his people. And his word is enough to accomplish this shaping. His word can be a gracious word: he appears to care about his slave’s wellbeing and he has shown generosity, even love, to the religious community he has been sent to control. Two thousand years later, it is often by afterthought that our own occupying armies discover gracious ways to earn a degree of trust from local communities.

Certain attitudes expressed in these scriptures upset us. Heaping curses on other people’s gospels, accepting slavery as a given, gaining respect in worldly ways that only the wealthy can afford. Even more upsetting, these issues are still with us as evidence of an unreconciled world. The use and abuse of sacred texts enshrining such attitudes has even sabotaged the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us.

The camel’s snout has poked its way into the tent of the Bible. Enough of the ancient world remains embedded in some texts that we must be alert to inherited ignorance, narrow-mindedness, prejudice, the denial of universal human rights, and the unjust distribution of wealth. The Church must be mindful of its responsibility to hear and declare its own sacred texts critically and honestly.

And humbly, given the evidence that reconciliation is a longterm commitment.

And passionately, confident that the priorities of God’s Word are enlightenment, justice, and peace.

And the Church must declare its message creatively, lest we miss the moment we are given: now, the precious present of the new creation.

Our very dear friends in the Class of 2013 are about to walk through the open gates of now to invest their powers of trust in the skills, commitments, and alliances that can help reconcile a world still stuck on the horns of prejudice, injustice, and greed. May they keep growing in awareness that this great work belongs to both God and them.