Third Way Thinking


Notes from

‘Trinity on Church’ UC, Kitchener

Peace Sunday, October 21, 2018

Texts: Hebrews 5, Mark 10

It has been a year now since I started working with Trinity, and I admitted today that when I planned to preach on this topic, I forgot what I said last year – but then I guessed you did too. You can read those notes using this link:

It bears repeating in our current culture of political polarization and binary choices between falsely constructed poles. When somebody says that I must choose A or B, I respond C – or 3 – or both – or neither. Who wants to be on the right side of the wrong division, with unholy allies and tragic separations?

Yesterday, leaders from our new Region 8, perhaps to be called Grand Saugeen after the watersheds here and to our north, met in Mount Forest. Their water tower proclaims their motto: “high, happy, and healthy”, not yet changed despite the new connotations since last Wednesday’s legalization of cannabis.

Our speaker was the widely revered Betty Pries, whose theme was the same as mine, but better delivered. She said there is too much ‘either-or’ thinking in times of change. She said the ‘both-and’ thinking took more spiritual maturity and showed courage in our polarized times.

Betty invited us to admit the times we slip into ‘either-or’ and ‘us-them’ thinking. Somebody countered ‘when do we slip out of it?’ It’s tempting and easy to agree that ‘we’re right’ and ‘they’re wrong’, egged on by social media ‘likes’. Admitting our flaws, or others’ merits or pressures, is is more demanding.

I concluded that most of you, like me, forgot last year’s sermon, and its 10 point summary from William Ury’s 2000 edition of the book ‘The Third Side’. You could look it up on line, but probably wouldn’t. If you did hear it, you didn’t understand it, or forgot it – or agree that it bears repeating. Here it goes again:

It bears repeating in our current culture of political polarization and binary choices between falsely constructed poles. When somebody says that I must choose A or B, I respond C – or 3 – or both – or neither. Who wants to be on the right side of the wrong division, with unholy allies and tragic separations?

Diane read from Hebrews 5 this morning, with a couple of references to Jesus as a priest “after the order of Melchizedek”. You all nodded as if you knew what that meant –but I know how few are follow our daily readings Genesis earlier in the summer, or of Leviticus this fall, to have a hope of decoding the lesson.

Go back to check Genesis 14 sometime. Avram and nephew Lot migrate south from Syria (originally out of Iraq) into Palestine and Jordan. They prosper so well that they agree to split up, with uncle giving nephew the choice of turf. Lot chooses Jordan’s plains, leaving the hill country of Judah and Israel for Avram.

Lot, as the new kid in town, chooses the wrong gang colours, and ends up on the short end of a battle among kings – more like mob bosses in our world. Avram has to bail the kid out from his kidnappers, and bring him home to his new home towns we’ll remember as Sodom and Gomorrah.

Melchizedek of Salem welcomes Avram and Lot home, with a sacred meal of peace in the Valley of Kings, the cosmopolitan trade route. He’s not a Levite, or a relative of Aaron – that’s later in Genesis. He’s a cousin though, child of Noah and Adam like all of us. His ritual celebrating peace is beyond ‘sides’ of the war.

The wider argument of Hebrews is that Christ is mediator between earth and heaven, humanity and divinity, and Hebrews and Christians. Faced with a choice between ‘A and B’, reframe and choose ‘3’ or ‘both’ or ‘neither’ – trust, share in service to a greater good and greater God, and share suffering.

That’s a high calling for Jesus – and for disciples of Jesus. Mediators are neither commanders nor slaves, neither tyrants nor victims. He, and we, are called to share the purpose and pain of humanity, the service and suffering of mortality. That sounds a lot like ‘The Third Side’ living to me.

Eleanor read from Mark 10 this morning, the bold demands of James and John to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory. By the time Matthew spins the story it’s their mother promoting her boys, but here it’s naked ambition. Raise us up! Pick ‘us’ and not ‘them’! The rest of bid is so familiar, it’s not even repeated.

You don’t know what you’re asking, says Jesus. Can you drink the cup I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized? Oh, yeah, sure we can! No problem! James and John blithely respond Ruefully, Jesus responds: You will – but to sit by me is not mine to give.

A century ago we were a ‘can-do’ church, like James and John, confident that we were Canada’s national church in Canada’s century to bring Christ to the world. What naked ambition! How naive! It was not enough to assimilate the First Nations in residential schools – we set out to convert China and Japan!

James and John did not know they were at the end of Jesus’ initial triumphant tour of Galilee, according to Mark’s version of the gospel. Trinity, thousand member church, did not know we had already passed our peak of cultural power and potential, still growing, but slower than Canada around us was.

Now we are a people living out the ‘you will’ consequences and ramifications of our earlier choices and changing context. After ‘can-do’, comes ‘you will.’ Rather than some karmic retribution, we simply show our mortal limits, and resume a fairer share in the service and suffering. Jesus says ‘you will’, not ‘you can’t’.

We do have power, the ability to effect or resist change, as Saul Alinsky defined it in Chicago in 1960’s. We can make a difference – it’s just more modest and humbled, compared to what we set out to do, a century ago, or in the youth of each generation worshiping as Trinity in Kitchener.

It’s easy to deny power. Everybody’s always pointing to others who enjoy more power. But we have power each of us, and all of us in our communities. But it goes beyond to other kinds of power and capacity. It is, I am, and you are so: powerful beyond measure, as Marianne Williamson, quoted by Mandela, put it.

Perhaps we deny our power because we look only to ‘command and control’ kinds of power through domination: the boss, the government. We look to rulers, to frame the issues. If were we the boss, we’d do it differently. That reduces power into bullies and victims, distorts our recognition of our potential.

Mao wrote that ‘power grows out of the barrel of a gun’, and the Russians in 1915 were singing, ‘all power to the soviets’. Solzenitzyn wrote: “You only have power as long as you don’t take everything away from them. But once you’ve robbed a man of everything he’s no longer in your power – he’s free again.”

Domination or coercion is a real form of power, but suffers from mortal limits in God’s world. Perhaps it’s not God’s way.Tex Sample, southern drawl that

‘arguing, fussing, complaining, gossiping, and fighting in factions’ are among the strategies of resistance and subversion used by people with less power to redirect those who purport to command and control.

My Jesus is not standing in the pulpit, delegating hierarchies of power to the can-do guys. My Jesus is not standing in the lectern, assigning posts to right and to left. My Jesus is not floating above and outside of it all, safely transcending all power and politics with a vague promise of a heaven.

My Jesus is standing with us, ruefully asking ‘can you’, and ruefully warning that we will drink the cup, and we will be baptized – but that the glory is not his to give. Power, the ability to effect or resist change, is one way – but a good way – to work out identity, expression, meaning and purpose.

One person is eagerly affirming ‘can do’, another more bleakly ‘will do’. We’re humbled Christians. That’s how God made us so far. What are you going to do with that? God help us to be like Jesus, ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek’, sharing the service and sharing the suffering of our common humanity.

As Martin Buber said:

We cannot avoid

Using power

Cannot escape the compulsion

To afflict the world

So let us, cautious in diction

And mighty in contradiction

Love powerfully.

Here’s a more blithe, but no less bold, response to that same reality of our mortal finite power and our suitable faithful roles:

‘I Shall Wear Purple’ by Jenny Joseph:

When I am an old woman

I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go

and doesn’t suit me.

And I shall spend my pension

on brandy and summer gloves.

And satin sandals,

and say we’ve no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired.

And gobble up samples in shops

and press alarm bells.

And run my stick along public railings.

And make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain.

And pick flowers in other people’s gardens.

And learn to spit…

But, maybe I ought to practice a little now?

So people who know me

are not too shocked or surprised

when suddenly I am old

and start to wear purple.