Saturday, July 11, 2009

Power made perfect in weakness

2 Samuel 5.1-5 & 9-10

True leadership is not something that is conferred by the office we hold, or by any title that's bestowed upon us. No one knows that better, I suspect, than Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown. Gordon Brown may be the prime minister, but Lord Mandelson appears to be the true leader of the Labour Party. Of course, that's not one of his official jobs. William Hague reminded Parliament recently of all the titles and jobs that Lord Mandelson actually holds. He is 'The Right Honourable the Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State and Lord President of the Privy Council and Secretary of State for Business and Secretary of State for Innovation and Skills. It would be no surprise,' said Mr Hague, 'To wake up in the morning and find that he had become an Archbishop.'

King Saul was the nominal leader of Israel, but David was the man who was born to be king, the man who was the true shepherd of God's people and who led out Israel and brought her in. The storyteller is alluding to the way that a shepherd leads the flock out of the sheepfold in the morning and takes them to the pasture or to water to drink, and then leads them safely back again in the evening. David, who had himself begun his working life as a shepherd, was an instinctive leader in that mould.

Lord Mandelson is not unlike King David. He's an instinctive politician - someone who knows the right thing to say in a crisis, and who understands that politics is the art of the possible. He steered Tony Blair to power in 1997 and now he is trying to keep Gordon Brown in power, too. But he's no King Canute. He recognises the limits of his influence, which is why he climbed down last week over his plans to privatise the Post Office.

King David, for all his popularity and charisma, also understood the limits of his power. He was not an absolute monarch. When he was offered the throne, he made a covenant with Israel before the Lord. Although the God of hosts was with him, and although he became greater and greater as the years went by, he was nonetheless a ruler with boundaries to his authority and when he overstepped them, as he did when he murdered one of his officers, Uriah, in order to marry Uriah's beautiful wife Bathsheba, God humbled him and punished him.

They say that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. All leaders - whether they be ministers, or MPs, or councillors, or managers, or supervisors, or church stewards, or neighbourhood watch organisers, or even parents in their own home trying to control their unruly children, need to remember that titles are one thing, but true leadership is a gift and it has to be exercised with care, and prudence, and humility. It has to be ethical. It has to be mindful of values like justice and truth, compassion and love.

The passage goes on to describe how David made Jerusalem the capital city of Israel. Then as now it was a disputed city, and in some verses that are missed out of the story by the editors of our lectionary, it also tells how David banished disabled people from his new capital because the Jebusites, the former masters of Jerusalem, had felt themselves so impregnable in their fortress stronghold that they scoffed at David, saying even disabled people would be capable of defending the City against him. How wrong they were, because David captured the City by a cunning stratagem, gaining access to the fortress through its water system.

We tend to think of cities as sources of trouble. People escape from the cities to live in villages like Appley Bridge and Shevington Vale, so that they can bring up their children in a safer and quieter environment. But the Bible doesn't accept this attitude at all. It sees the big city as the dwelling place of God every bit as much as the mountainside or the green pasture.

I work in an inner city neighbourhood, encouraging people of different faiths and cultures to work together to build a stronger community. I'm encouraged in this task by the conviction that, wherever we live, people are called by God to be in community with one another.

The Book of Revelation reminds us that the ideal community, the New Jerusalem, is one where God is at the centre of all that happens. The calling of the Church is to be a model, a miniature version and a type of, that New Jerusalem, a community where people are in peace and harmony with one another because God is in our midst. Is that, I wonder, an image which we recognise as an accurate description of our churches?

Psalm 48

Psalm 48 is a wonderful poem about Jerusalem. The opening verses conjure up a picture of its breathtaking beauty and majesty, perched on Mount Zion, so impregnable that lesser kings than David are astounded when they come in league together to capture it, and their feelings turn from pride to panic.

That snapshot of the City reminds me of William Wordsworth's sonnet "Upon Westminster Bridge", inspired by seeing the City of London from Westminster Bridge at daybreak:

EARTH has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

More recently, Carly Simon wrote an inspiring song about the New Jerusalem:

Let the river run,
Let all the dreamers
Wake the nation.
Come, the New Jerusalem.

Perhaps you feel the same enthusiasm for the centre of Wigan. Did you know that the Council has a vision for Wigan, as a lively mix of culture, business, leisure and tourism? The Psalmist had a vision for Jerusalem, too. He begins by describing the Temple, with God in its midst - the beating heart of the City. But soon he is challenging his audience to count the City's towers, to consider its ramparts and to go through its citadels. Jerusalem, he seems to be saying, will endure for ever, not only because it has impregnable fortifications but also because it has a secret spiritual weapon - God is Jerusalem's God for ever and ever. But, and there is a but, the Psalmist only believes that God will be with the city, bringing her victory, so long as the citizens remember to ponder his steadfast love, rejoice in his judgements and be guided by him forever.

Subsequent generations forgot those important provisos and imagined that they would always enjoy success whatever values they embraced. And that's often been the problem with regeneration schemes in our country, too. People have believed that success can be measured purely in terms of the number of apartment blocks built, or pounds invested, or jobs created - like the official who boasted that he had managed to persuade a company to close its factory in Derbyshire and relocate to South Yorkshire instead. Now what was the point of that? Who did it really assist, apart from making his own personal record of achievement look better? And, even then it was a hollow triumph, wasn't it, because no real jobs were actually created. And, of course, it was only possible for him to attract that company to Yorkshire by offering a handsome subsidy, so it was you and me - the taxpayers - who footed the bill. If the official had remembered to ponder God's steadfast love, to rejoice in his judgements, and to seek his guidance, he would have gone out of his way to create additional jobs instead of moving them around like pieces on a chess board.

But the malaise goes deep, doesn't it? The recession we are experiencing now was caused by bankers and shareholders who valued short term profit over long term sustainability. The recent furore about MPs' expenses was caused by politicians who were more concerned to maximise their income than to behave with integrity. And the defence which was offered on their behalf, that everyone of us would fiddle our own expenses if we got the chance, just goes to show how far the entire nation has slipped from seeking in God a sure defence against troubled times.

Yet God is still waiting patiently, says the Psalmist, to be our guide. Is the church, are we, ready to rejoice in his judgements and to let him be our guide as he forever wants to be? And, if we did, where would he lead us? What is he asking us to do in the future? Is he challenging us to take risks, to seize new opportunities, to look for fresh ways of being church for today?

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

All of us, says St Paul, are a strange mixture. We have the potential to transcend our own weak human nature and see visions and dream dreams. He, himself, seems to have been inspired by an ecstatic experience of God's presence which felt like being caught up to the third heaven - a reference to an ancient Jewish idea that the universe was made up of a series of spheres, each one further out from earth than the previous one. The third heaven, the sphere furthest away from earth, was the dwelling place of God,and that's where Paul felt he had been, at least in his imagination.

Whether he is referring to his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, or to other subsequent visionary experiences, we cannot know. But we do know that he was under pressure from the Christians at Corinth to prove what a super spiritual guy he was, otherwise, they said, why should they listen to what he had to say? Paul was never someone slow to boast about himself so, despite his own protestations that boasting would be wrong, he rises to the temptation to tell them just what an A Grade spiritual person he really is. 'Eat your hearts out!' he seems to be saying to his challengers. 'Have you lot been to the third heaven yet?'

However, there was also a very strong streak of honesty and humility in St Paul, which balanced his boastful side. On the one hand, he can't help sharing his intimate spiritual experience with his readers, but on the other hand he also finds himself sharing the humbling fact that he was also tormented by some sort of weakness or disability. We don't know what it was. It may have been a problem with his eyesight, which he complains of elsewhere. It may have been some kind of psychological torment. Some people have speculated that it was an addiction to alcohol, but on only the flimsiest of evidence. None of this matters. What is really important, though, is to recognise that our weaknesses give the power of Jesus, dwelling within us, the opportunity to give us strength from beyond ourselves, making us aware of our ultimate dependence on God. Power, then, is made perfect in weakness. What a glorious paradox!

That's where King David went wrong, wasn't it? He thought he was not governed by this timeless paradox. As his reign progressed he became greater and greater until he forgot that his greatness was entirely dependent on the God of hosts. And then, when he abandoned the steadfast love and the judgements and guidance of God, and went his own way, his power rapidly diminished and his country was plunged into anarchy and civil war. His power was at its most perfect when he recognised his own personal weakness.

Mighty Lords, with ever so many honours and job titles after their names, and prime ministers and heads of state, must always remember that they have weaknesses as well as strengths. If they want to enjoy true strength they must turn to God for help. And doesn't that same rule also apply to each one of us?

The Psalmist remembered to focus on God's Temple, the symbol of God's loving presence with the people of Jerusalem, and he remembered the constant need to rejoice in God's judgements and to rely on his guidance. But he also couldn't help being seduced by all those towers and ramparts and citadels, the product of human ingenuity rather than divine help. They symbolise the craving deep down in everyone for comfort and safety whereas God may be challenging us to step outside the walls and barricades that we erect to protect ourselves, and to take risks. For, says St Paul, whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

What are the defences that we construct around ourselves to protect us? We tell ourselves that we only want to be safe from harm. But are we also trying to protect ourselves from challenge or change? Are we trying to keep a distance between ourselves and people who are different from us? Are we trying to avoid feeling vulnerable? if we are, we shall find ourselves a long way removed from Jesus, who made himself vulnerable even to the point of death on a cross. The cross is the enduring sign that Jesus is a sure defence against the power of evil only because his power was made perfect in weakness.

I heard a sad statistic the other day. The number of gated communities in this country is steadily increasing. But, apparently, the residents of these new communities don't feel any safer. On the contrary, the presence of the high walls and gates surrounding their homes only makes them feel that the world outside must be far less safe than it really is. So people actually worry more once they retreat behind the walls. They need to listen to St Paul, to be content with weakness and, in facing up to weakness, to discover the true source of strength, which lies in the God who is our guide forever.

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