“We stay together. We survive.” Sun. Jan 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
You might remember the epic, and now classic, 2000 movie Gladiator starring Russel Crowe. By way of reminder… It’s set in Roman times, the year 180, with Crowe playing Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius who returns home having been victorious over Germanic tribes. Palace intrigue erupts, as it oh so often does, and Maximus finds himself enslaved and forced to perform as a gladiator. He does well in local, provincial, gladiatorial fights, mostly meaning he stays alive, and he befriends some of his follow prisoners along the way.
His debut fight in the Roman Colosseum is meant to be a re-enactment of the Battle of Zama, with the gladiators “playing” the Barbarian hordes fighting the Roman Legionnaires. As the show is about to begin and the gladiators are lining up, Maximus quietly asks them: “Anyone here been in the army?” After some mumbled positive replies, he goes on: “Whatever comes out of these gates, we’ve got a better chance of survival if we work together. Do you understand? We stay together, we survive.” That was it. The gates open and their foes emerge, with better weapons and superior equipment than the gladiators. At first, confusion reigns. A few isolated gladiators are picked off quickly. But the rest finally come together, gathering in the center and using their shields together to protect them all. It takes only a few minutes before the equipment and weapons and organization of the Roman Legionnaires begins to break down and then the fight is truly on. The gladiators continue to work together, with Maximus even saving the life of one of his friends along the way, and eventually they prevail.
It wasn’t how the story was meant to go… as pointed out by one of the spectators. The gladiators were supposed to die. The Roman Legionnaires were meant to be victorious. The deck was stacked for that outcome. But in the face of certain death, Maximus spoke deep wisdom: We stay together, we survive. And together, those slated to die flipped the script, changed the story, and lived. Maximus couldn’t have done it on his own. If he had tried to be the solitary hero, a lone ranger, he and all the rest would have perished. But they had a common goal, a communal purpose, for which each one had a clear personal stake… one that was as simple as it gets: survival. The teamwork that proceeded wasn’t so much selfless as addressing all of their self-interest. And despite all the odds, however unlikely the chances of success, they lived. They stayed together, and survived.
I’m not a fan of its violence, but nevertheless, the image of the arena as a metaphor for church is one I’ve thought of often in the past year. The reality is that parish ministry too often feels like a fight… physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual. I might argue that a traditional understanding of church has the priest as the gladiator, the one in the arena, fighting against all manner of cultural incursions while also mediating skirmishes within the community. There is a particular frustration when those internal skirmishes take so much energy that there’s little left to meet whatever comes out of the gates to challenge or destroy. Sometimes the internal skirmishes ended long ago but the deep memories remain, along with scars that limit the community’s ability to function as a unified whole. Instead of coming together to face all manner of cultural challenges; instead of working together for a greater good beyond ourselves, individuals drift up into the bleachers, or retreat to their own private corner of the arena.
Today you will receive a copy of our annual report in preparation for our Annual meeting next Sunday. I hope you will notice some of the blank spaces on the nominations report. And I hope you will wonder why there is such a dearth of people willing to accept leadership roles in the parish. A good place to start in your wondering is with your own self… your own heart and mind, your own spirit and soul. You’ll also read in my report about the many transitions that have happened in my years with you so far. My key epiphany this year has been the lack of capacity in the parish system, the culture of this community, to effect such transitions yourselves. And so my key goal in the foreseeable future is to help develop leadership such that we build sustainability into the parish system and grow everybody’s sense of responsibility for the whole. My hope is that you will choose to evolve the parish culture away from stasis and towards self-rejuvenation, generation, and positive forward movement.
I have been learning recently of the very different ideas and experiences of leadership here than what I think of as leadership. The nature of the leadership that I talk about is relational rather than hierarchical. It’s about listening and discerning and calling people together to common purpose, based on higher ideals and broader goals, than immediate relief from, or avoidance of, short-term pain. It’s not about a sugar high but deep nourishment. It is not lone ranger or solitary hero leadership. There is too much evidence that that kind of leadership doesn’t work, at least not for the long haul. A gladiator fighting alone will be killed. Leadership that lasts; leadership that builds community and institutional strength to face whatever comes out of the gates trying to destroy it, is leadership based not on charisma, but on passion for the health of the whole body, combined with skill that can be learned.
In the February bible study “Transforming Tradition” we’ll explore a former time in our sacred history when there was a stark shift from individual to communal agents of salvation. Besides which, we already have a saviour, Jesus Christ. We are called to be the body of Christ, together, each with our own unique role. Today Paul writes to the Corinthian church: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” Paul goes on to describe a detailed metaphor of “one body” for the community of faith. We are each unique members of one body, with many and varying gifts. We work together, we survive.
It hardly needs to be said that there are many forces working against the church in our day and age. They’re not so straight-forward as literal lions or Roman Legionnaires, but the threats are no less real. Some of the forces that seek to destroy churches and communities include such things as: rampant individualism, a lack of emotional intelligence, buried conflict, denial of self-interest and magical thinking… to name a few. Many people today say they don’t believe in organized religion, but as Brian McLaren says, they’re not looking for disorganized religion. Religious communities organizing for a greater good, however… parishes participating in fighting the scourges of our time: poverty and homelessness, hunger, climate change, hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, mental health, loneliness, reconciliation with our Aboriginal sisters and brothers… joining any of those fights and more, is worth the effort. We stay together, we survive.
In a speech on April 23, 1910 titled, “Citizenship In A Republic,” Theodore Roosevelt spoke of an arena as a metaphor for life. He calls for the courage to risk failure for the sake of something more. Roosevelt says: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
In the arena of life… in the arena of church, if we stay together, we survive. We are all members of one body, the body of Christ, and when we work together as such, we have the power of God to flip any script that proscribes death… we can change a seemingly set story… we can spend ourselves in a worthy cause and even if we fail, at least we fail while daring greatly.