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Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral September 25, 2005

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A Sermon for September 25th, 2005

Sermon preached by

The Right Rev. J. C. Fricker

September 25, 2005

We fly to Vancouver fairly often because part of our family lives there. Every time the flight begins the routine is the same. A calm voice, with just a touch of boredom, is heard over the address system: “This is your captain speaking. Our flight to Vancouver will take the usual five hours and ten minutes, and I expect it will be the usual smooth ride, perhaps interrupted by only occasional bouts of turbulence. If these should occur, I will advise you to fasten your seat belts.” Now I’m not your classic white knuckle flyer,

But I confess to a degree of cynicism about these remarks from pilots. Mt cynicism is probably based on a view that the human reality is the reverse of what the pilot says. In real life turbulence is the norm, interrupted by only occasional periods of tranquility. One of the most enduring human illusions is that the experiences of difficulty in life are abnormal, that they will soon pass, and will be succeeded by an uninterrupted era of tranquility. That’s never been so. If you think that the ultimate example of the tranquil life is found in the person of Jesus as he is presented in the scriptures, I think you have been misinformed. Today’s Gospel story from Matthew puts us right into the middle of the kind of controversy and tension which more properly describe Jesus’ earthly life. The chief priests and elders of the people angrily confronted Jesus after he had disrupted their sacred temple, and stirred up the entire city of Jerusalem, attracting large and favourable crowds. They demanded of him, “by what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” Turbulence was the norm for Jesus earthly ministry.

When all the bishops of the Anglican Communion gathered in the last Lambeth Conference several years ago, there was much turbulence. Some people predicted that the Lambeth experience clearly pointed to the inevitable disintegration of the Anglican Communion. Some said we have departed or fallen from this normative tranquility, and that our present troubles are abnormally stimulated by human wickedness and error. The fingers of accusation have pointed directly at the Episcopal Church in America and the Anglican Church in Canada.

Well let me say after 53 years in ordained ministry, the last 20 as a bishop, I take the complete opposite view. Disagreement and turbulence are normal. In fact, they are signs of life.

It’s interesting that instead of directly answering the question the priests and elders addressed to Jesus “by what authority do you do what you do”,Jesus told the story about a certain father’s two sons and their conflicting responses to their father’s authority. As every parent knows, conflict and turbulence are inevitable from time to time in family life. Now how authority gets expressed and how it is responded to is at the root of much disagreement. An interesting book by Norman Nixon, written a few years ago, entitled “The Psychology of Military Incompetence”, presents a fascinating study of the authoritarian personality. Nixon shows that behind many of the avoidable military disasters in history were officers who were virtually crippled by authoritarianism. He describes an authoritarian as having an obsession with spit and polish, with ritualistic minutiae, captured by the classic sergeant major who tells his recruits, “If it moves, salute it, if it don’t, shoot it”. The authoritarian, according to Norman Nixon has an excessive reverence for authority and for precedence.

Now we have this kind of authoritarianism in the Church, symbolized by those seven last words of the church employed by people who resist change, “We’ve never done it that way before.” Some people resist change in the church for exactly that reason, because its new, or because it differs from their own experience with the church. The problem lies in the fact that the Christian Church down the centuries has become the incidental transmitter of much beauty in language, in symbolic ornaments, and in architecture, the preservation of which may be thought of as the church’s primary mission. But preserving them is not the essential task of the church, so there is inevitable conflict between the true mission of the church to proclaim the gospel and the heritage movement.

We have all been involved in these struggles, which have to do with the externals of faith. But the truth is that change is the law of our human nature and it cannot be avoided. Christians have sometimes tried to delude themselves into thinking that our theology has been ring-fenced against all change. But our experience teaches us that Christianity has been a primary revolutionary agent in human history. The most revolutionary thing about Christianity has always been its powerful, even though troubled commitment to a God whose purpose unfolds in history, to a God who is not just to be looked back at through the telescope of times past, but discerned in the action of time present, and the unfolding of time future. Our God does new things, does things for the first time, reveals truths hidden from previous generations, and made known

to us in these last days. The danger and paradox of our faith is that too unyielding loyalty to the truths of our tradition can end as a disloyalty to the living God by whom previous generations were prodded into truth.

“By what authority do you do what you do Jesus?” Jesus didn’t answer. Instead he told that story of a father and his two sons. He confronted them not with theories about authority, but with direct personal authority, the authority of his life which was the authority of love incarnate. An authority that is not orderly, tidy or controllable, but a love that is tough, hard, accepting and challenging. A love that leads to change, to transformation, to renewal, the energy of the loving God expressed in action.

By what authority does the church say what it says, do what it does? The church acts with authority only as it becomes an accepting,loving,supporting,challenging community, held together by bonds of affection.

 

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2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York