On Authority in the Midst of Mediocrity – Sunday Sermon

Here is the Text of the Homily if you wish to read it:

The early community of Christians for whom Matthew wrote were the kind of idealists who really wanted nothing to do with the way the Jewish community they had left structured itself. They remembered Jesus’ instructions to have a different kind of community than that centred on power dynamics which they saw both in the Gentiles and amongst the Jews. The Jewish community had very rigid roles linked to titles like “Abba”, “Master”, “Rabbi” – Matthews community young and idealistic wanted complete egalitarianism.

I hope that every couple who set out on the journey of making a family are filled with ideals. I pray that there is an excitement to do things in a new way. Often I ask couples who come for marriage prep, “do you want your marriage to be like that of your parents.” The reaction of most, happily, is a strong yes… Perhaps that’s why they are getting married in the Church in the first place. The reaction of some is a strong no, and I hang my head for that is the consequence of my generation and our ease with serving our own happiness before that of our children. Others are mixed, they want their family to be both like and unlike their parents.

Well no matter what they try and do parents and up often like their own parents, the question is how to improve if only marginally what one has inherited. The fact of the matter is, no family is egalitarian there has to be someone who takes charge there has to be some structure and roles or else… Chaos. So too for the church led by the Holy Spirit, very quickly as Matthews community had to write things down and organize itself. Roles arose because that is just the way a community must organize itself. Fathers, Abbas, Teachers, all took their place (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12). Oh yes, every time a new Christian sect tried to reform the Church it espoused egalitarianism but that never lasted more than a few years. The challenge then is not a superficial response by avoiding the titles “father teacher master” but by changing how “fathers, teachers, and masters” conduct themselves: they must do it in the way of Jesus.

That is the way of never challenging others with the necessary demands of living a virtuous life without living the demands of a virtuous life oneself. This is very important. No father no mother can expect children to receive teaching of being virtuous without modelling that virtue. It would be certainly a lot easier for mothers and fathers (uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers, older siblings) to not demand anything of their children because then their children could not expect anything of their parents. But that’s not very healthy in fact we know that children who are totally indulged by parents do not feel themselves loved because their parents had not risked being disliked by their children in order to love them by disciplining them and teaching them.

            This is precisely what saddened and infuriated God’s prophet Malachi when he looked at the priests who were called to be parent-leaders of Israel. God had given Israel a second chance. Miracle of miracles, exile in Babylon had given way to resettlement of Jerusalem and the exiles had returned 600 years before Christ. Malachi, his name means “messenger of God”, addresses of people who are living in a time relatively free from crisis. Unlike other prophets, Malachi is not challenged by terrible idolatry nor the threat of armies and war. He is challenged however, with a broad scepticism among people who had lost passion for faith. And it started at the top. The priests who were entrusted with teaching the truth and worshiping the Lord God with care and fidelity to the commands of Deuteronomy had failed to do either. They chose the easy way of “tickling people’s ears” of crafting messages in order to make people pleased with the priests and feel comfortable – in other words, they showed partiality, bending the truth to preserve their place in leadership. And in the worship entrusted to them they allowed not the best to be sacrificed to the Lord but whatever was left over.

By offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.

In the heart of the priests had become the heart of the people. Partial truth and leftovers resulted in people accepting to live with the regular list of the afflictions that arise from human sinfulness; sorcery, adultery, false swearing, oppressing the worker, the widow, the orphan and the alien and refusing to fear God. And the people had become cynical asking, “where is the God of justice?” [Malachi turns on the leaders] “And now all priests, this command is for you… You have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction;

This has happened in the Church as well. Seems to me that too often we clergy have decided simply not to make any demands for heroic life of our people in order to be “liked” and not responsible to live ourselves heroic lives of sanctity and virtue. This might look superficially as if we are following Jesus instructions and not tying burdens on people without lifting a finger to move the burdens. But as the prophet Malachi teaches us this is the way in which the corruption of priests corrupts the people. One of the greatest corruptions is not to have “kept my ways but have showing partiality in your instruction.” [Malachi 2:9]. The partiality of trying to make people feel good completely betrays those entrusted as priests with the heart of a community, “you have wearied the Lord with your word yet you say, “how have we wearied him?” By saying, “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them”. Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17).

            This is a false kind of listening priesthood. It is like the false kind of listening parenthood which would be to listen to all the likes and desires of children and then give into every one of them even if they are not healthy desires even if they are wrong things. When the heart of an authority has no virtue that condition of virtuelessness will shape the whole community. You know, the word virtue comes from the Latin word for excellence – in the face of the grinding mediocrity of the modern world we Christians have to follow another way – the way of virtue. Has the Church forgotten this?  In quite a few places where the Roman Catholic Church is long part of history have we not become priests of the type that Malachi says that God curses – priests who “listen” foolish ideas … indeed, evil ideas – and try and attract people back into the institution by telling everyone that God delights in everyone who does evil? Priests who do not properly offer the sacrifices at the altar – who give God left-over time, keeping “me time” as more holy than God time? It doesn’t matter if you have Synods of people representing all different states of life in the Church if they are just committed to listening to each other and not sitting at the feet of the Holy Scripture and the Lord Jesus Christ. This is not the way of authority of being excellent – this is the way of surrendering to being mediocre. This is the way of collaborating with everyone’s personal whims, desires, and compromises of the moment but it will not stand on up to the day of the coming of the Lord. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? …

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord, as in the days of old and as in former years.

There is another way… It is the way of Christ. The way that will stand the test of fire when we are asked to show the authority of our works by our words.  It is the way of humbling oneself and one’s own desire to be liked and exalted in the eyes of others. It is the way of loving those entrusted to us as children as friends so thoroughly that we model our teaching. We model our teaching. This makes perfect sense because the word teaching comes from an old German word meaning “to show, to make visible”. This is the way of our community at St. Paul’s co-Cathedral in its priests its elders its parents exercise authority because this is the way St. Paul exercised authority: “though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ, we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves because you have become very dear to us.

Let us pray,

Lord Jesus, as the prophet Malachi foretold, you will come in judgement. “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until the present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (Malachi 3:2 – 3). Continue to purify us by your sacraments especially by confession so that we can exercise the kind of authority that will allow us on the day of your coming to turn to those entrusted to us and say, “we constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you receive the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but what it really is, the word of God, which is also at work in you believers.” And join with them in welcoming you.