Which Crowd? 2013 04 21 Rev. 5, 7; Ps 23
Sky and Justin were wandering downtown when they saw a crowd going by, and they decided to follow the crowd to Prince’s Island. All of a sudden, everyone stopped, spread out, shed their jackets and started running on the spot. They had joined a group of boot campers out for their daily workout.
Psalm 23, according to tradition, was composed by David while watching his sheep, a regular part of a mental workout for David as he chose words and music to express his sense of God’s presence in his life. It is the best loved of all of the psalms, and many of you would have memorized it as the opening devotion in school. While it uses singular language, “The Lord is my shepherd,” it is also automatically communal as shepherds always looked after flocks of sheep. Psalm 23 offers a view of life with the crowd that is with God, doing what it ought to do, and provided with God’s care and protection.
In chapter 5 of the Book of Revelations, the author described a scene in which angels, elders, four animals and all creatures were praising the Lamb, John’s code for Jesus.
In chapter 7, the crowd is made of too many people to count, standing, dressed in white robes, holding palm branches, singing, and joining the crowd described in Chapter 5. This huge crowd is made of the people who suffered in the great tribulation, the terrifying persecution.
These passages, like the rest of Revelations, were written to give encouragement to his readers, that their suffering would not be in vain.
There were other crowds they could have chosen: There was the great crowd of people who blended into the background, like people today, the ones who refuse to take public stands on anything that is controversial.
They could have joined the crowd of people who publicly renounced their faith, escaping persecution. We don’t know what choices most of them made, but someone kept a copy of John’s letter, and more copies were made.
This letter does not sugarcoat their situation. There is brutal honesty in describing the destruction and suffering that existed and the destruction that was almost certainly coming. The letter goes on to describe the good things that would happen for those who stayed faithful in the face of persecution, and the promise that the source of evil would be destroyed.
Of the many crowds from which we have to choose today, which one is right for us? What is the purpose of the crowd, and is it a worthy one of us? What are the costs of belonging to that crowd? How can we recognize it?
There is the growing crowd of people who have given up on religion altogether, a crowd made of several smaller crowds. There is the crowd that has always existed which cares only for their own interests. Another crowd is made of people looking for connection with creation and their inner selves who don’t believe they can find that connection through religious institutions. A third crowd is not looking for spirituality, but wanted the church to help them make a difference. Disappointment in the church has them leaving looking for other ways to make a difference in their own lives and in the world.
Many crowds are made of people who have belonged to a particular faith community all their lives, and stay part of that community, even when they don’t do much of the work of being part of that community, or even believe the creeds of that community. For them, church is more habit than conviction. As long as church sustains a feeling of connection, that is all that matters.
There is a crowd feeling overwhelmed by the world and looking for security and comfort. They desire the sense of certainty of traditional faith, and some of them want traditional worship, while others want the traditional faith with modern music such as praise bands.
Some people are looking for purpose and connection, and look for that in churches. Many of these people also seek opportunities to help make the world a better place.
And there are people seeking greater understanding as well as connection and purpose, and seek churches willing to explore the edges and questions of faith.
Each person here will be part of one or more of crowds, and differences in the reasons for being here will complicate our process of discerning how to move forward in a faithful response to God’s initiatives.
How we participate in a crowd also matters. The Gateway pipeline presents us with one example. There is a crowd of people promoting the pipeline without reservation because they see economic opportunities for themselves or their allies. Another crowd is unreservedly opposed to the pipeline on general principles related to various environmental issues. Neither crowd is interested in any kind of compromise.
One of the issues for the against crowd is the development of the bitumen deposits in northern Alberta. Green house gases are one concern, and most of the data used by opponents is out of date, reducing their credibility. A second concern is the environmental destruction. I don’t have the data, but I suspect the destruction of tropical forests for the production of biofuels is greater for each unit of fuel produced. I would rather have boreal forest damaged than have greater amounts of land in tropical forests destroyed to produce the same amount of fuel. Another issue for those opposed to the pipelines is enabling the continuation of a style of economy that is destructive of the environment. They need to make a better case for believing that stopping the pipelines will help change the global economic system. Participation in the against crowd could include raising these kinds of issues.
Proponents for the pipeline could be raising issues that are problems for the pipeline beginning with pressuring Exxon to settle its debts to all the people and communities affected by the Valdez disaster. Exxon as a corporation consistently uses the court system to resist paying compensation to anyone, and governments in Canada and the US maintain legal systems that make it possible for Exxon to do this. As long as the people on the BC coast see the ability of a company to delay settling claims through spending hundreds of millions of dollars on legal processes, it would be difficult for them to trust any promises made to them by pipeline companies. People who want the pipelines to happen need to find a way to guarantee compensation for people harmed by the project or any future failures in the system. Proponents of the pipeline need to also raise the issue of ensuring accountability by the management of pipeline companies for the quality and reliability of the pipelines being built.
There are many other things members of both camps could do to work for a result that is best for everyone in the long term. When it is treated as a power and influence issue, the result will almost certainly be harmful, no matter which way it goes.
Tomorrow is Earth Day. The pipeline issues are just one example of the many environmental issues that are part of life today.
It is time to look at deliberate political misinformation that equates environmental protection with economic loss, when many examples exist to show that protecting the environment creates new economic opportunities. The problem with most of these is that they are good for small businesses and workers, but reduce the profit available to the owners of extraction corporations: mining and oil companies.
From the point of view of faith communities, the central question is to whom does the world belong? Is it God’s world, or the world of those who have gained ownership and control of pieces of it according to human institutions and laws? Do we support an economy that behaves as though tomorrow does not exist, that it is okay to leave the consequences for our decisions to our descendants?
In the church, our participation in any crowd includes the need to ask the following questions:
How much is my personal comfort level part of what I want done? Is this our agenda or God’s agenda? Where does God seem to be? What does God seem to be doing? What makes me or us believe this? What do I believe about God? What do I believe about the church? If Jesus faced criticism, torture and death for what he believed, should I expect no painful cost to be part of my faith journey?
No matter which crowd includes us, we are assured that God is with us, and wanting what is good for us. Whatever we may give or experience in serving God, serving well is more than worth the cost. It is in our careful giving that we most fully experience being human.
May the Spirit help each of us understand where we are and why, and help us make decisions that honour God, and give honour to ourselves. Amen.