Sunday, August 12, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 4, 5
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

The name of this game is Guess the Actress.

In one of her first starring roles, nearly 20 years ago, she played an insurance investigator pretending to be a thief in order to catch a thief, in this case played by Sean Connery. It’s hard to explain the most iconic scene the film—it’s sort of yoga with lasers.

Her next big film, set in the Jazz-Age, she plays a singing and dancing murderess surrounded by other singing and dancing murderesses. This unlikely story is loosely based on fact and nets her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

In her next major role, she is chasing thieves again—twelve of them—with the added twist that she is the daughter of the most famous thief of all, LeMarc. Once again the iconic scene involves lasers (and this time dancing!), clearly a homage to the first film I mentioned.

The answer, of course, is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and next question is ‘why does Hollywood seem so interested in thieves?’ Jewel thieves, car thieves, art thieves, and those who steal secrets—the thief is a cinematic staple that never seems to get old. The theme seems to lend itself to large, ensemble casts and exotic locations (and who doesn’t love large, ensemble casts and exotic locations?) but it also works as the lone thief fleeing a smart apartment with a pocketful of jewels, and usually appearing sometime later wearing a tuxedo.

Oddly, we cheer them on: holding our breath as they tiptoe past an alarm, leaning in while they speed away, and celebrating with them as they luxuriate with their ill-gotten gains. Cinema is all about escape, so I suppose you could say we are taking a moral holiday—enjoying something that we wouldn’t do ourselves.

But that hasn’t always been the case in congregations, and my proof is found in Ephesians 4.28:

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Clearly, there was a thief in the congregation at Ephesus. The church was the only audience for this letter, and St. Paul wrote pastoral letters for the sole purpose of commending or condemning behaviours he learned were happening in the church. Therefore, we can conclude that there was a thief in the church at Ephesus—or maybe more than one.

And notice too the Robin Hood reference in the verse. Paul says ‘stop thieving, get a job (since you obviously have some skills) and then share what you gain with the poor.’ Maybe they had developed a new take on outreach, a little too Sherwood Forest for these supposedly upstanding citizens of Rome.

Either way, Paul says ‘stop.’ Whatever your motive, crime does not pay. And as a Roman speaking to Romans, Paul would be thinking specifically about the penalties for theft in the Roman world at this time. If you were a slave (remembering that the early church included many slaves) you could be flogged, sent away, or even crucified for theft.

Free citizens of Rome were usually subject to fines, several times the value of the item stolen, with the exception of getting ‘caught in the act,’ which could bring harsher penalties such as public shaming (ignominia) or banishment. Obviously this might reflect badly on the congregation as well as the thief, and may have been part of Paul’s motivation for including this particular warning.

But there was certainly more than cat burglars and joyriders in the church at Ephesus. (Grand Theft Chariot?) In the handful of verses for today we have discovered that the church was filled with:

Liars of all kinds
Anger-mongers (including the petulant, the peevish or just plain crabby)
Unwholesome talkers (I’m going to come back to this one. Unwholesome talkers may include slanderers, gossipers, the potty-mouthed or the braggadocious)
The bitter
The pugilistic
And those who engage in “every form of malice.”

So if you have a time-machine, take me with you to Ephesus, circa 50 AD, since this seems like quite the crew. It must have been the most interesting group of people ever assembled, or perhaps they were was just like me and you.

Now, I’m not going to point a finger, so I’ll stick to my own faults. I can be peevish AND petulant—even crabby—and I’ve said the occasional bad word while sailing or renovating. But I’ve never stolen anything, unless you include the occasional sermon idea.

You can make whatever confessions you need to make over juice and cookies, but before you do, you should note one important thing: there was room for all these people—everyone on Paul’s list—in the church. He didn’t say ‘go away,’ he said ‘mend your ways.’ Even notorious Ephesian jewel thieves weren’t shown the door—they were strongly cautioned to mend their ways.

But there is more to this passage than simply the message that sinners are welcome in church (though thank God for that)—there is another hidden issue that I happened upon while trying to understand this idea of unwholesome talk.

In a Bible study written for student athletes at Princeton University (see, a footnote!), the author makes a connection between our passage and the Epistle of James.* In our passage, we are told to avoid unwholesome talk, choosing instead to use language that will build others up. As I noted, this is the garden-variety stuff that comes with community, including gossip and gossip’s evil twin slander. But now let’s look at James 2:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Here, unwholesome talk includes the way we speak to people, or the way we speak about people, when we imagine that our situation or station is somehow better. Ask anyone in a frontline job dealing with the public, and the candid ones will confess that how people look, talk, and carry themselves will have some bearing how how they are treated. Add to this gender and race, and it soon becomes clear that “inequality of treatment” is as true today as it was in New Testament times.

But there is more. If unwholesome talk includes the way we speak about those we struggle to respect, or look down on, or have written off as foolish (or worse), we’re going to be severely tested in the Age we live in. Just last week I said that “bread and circuses” refers to the people who want to be distracted and entertained by bad behaviour, failing to live up to the values on which free societies were founded. Should I be more understanding? Do I have a choice?

I do. We all do. We are tempted to refer to someone’s “stupid followers” as if they were a enablers and wrongdoers rather than broken people like you and me. It seems that unwholesome talk includes generalizing about an entire of group of people without acknowledging that every person has a story and everyone’s motives are based on a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad.

Trust St. Paul to look in on us, see our brokenness, and say something like this:

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5.1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, August 05, 2018

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

John 6
24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

You forgot to pick up the bread! You remembered the wine, the oil, the garum (the fish sauce—the ketchup of the Roman world) and maybe a bit of salt, but you forgot the bread.

You’re not rich, so you’re not buying actual bread. You’re heading to one of the many communal ovens in the city to pick up the bread they baked for you overnight. You see, it’s far too dangerous to have a city full of homes with ovens. There’s already too great a risk of fire with all the oil lamps in use, without adding the additional risk of household ovens. So you drop off your dough, and by daybreak you’ll have bread.

But we should back up a bit. There are a few steps first. The recipe you’re using is the same one your parents and grandparents used, and it was already old when they made their bread. It’s from Cato’s classic de agri cultura (“On Agriculture”), a kind of cross between the Joy of Cooking and Farmer’s Almanac. It starts like this:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly. Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well. When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. —Cato, On Agriculture, 74*

(Note to my 21st century listeners, this recipe is actually incomplete. Cato was describing a type of sourdough bread, and it needed a starter. He doesn’t mention it because it’s assumed. Thank goodness for culinary historians. And thank goodness that he reminds us to wash our hands. Some advice never gets old.)

So it’s kneaded, formed into a circular loaf, and scored in the same manner later Romans might score a pizza. You have added your personal stamp (how else will you know which loaf is yours?) and you have delivered it to the neighbourhood oven. Some time tomorrow, you and your household will have bread.

And you dig in, because you’re going to need your strength to line up later today for the dole. It’s your right as a citizen—free grain—given out every month. What was once a heavily subsidized staple, cheap for anyone willing to line up, eventually became a giveaway. Famine can lead to unrest, so some clever politician (Clodius) ran on the “free grain” ticket and won. It fell to every politician that followed to figure out how to keep it up. Free grain is an idea that works.

And then much later, it was the little known Emperor Aurelian who decided to simplify the process and just hand out bread. He also gave away pork and wine, which begs the question ‘what type of wine goes with a ham sandwich?’ History is silent on the matter. Setting that aside, Aurelian should be the second-most-famous person who called for “daily bread,” but most have never heard his name. So on then, to the most famous:

30 So they asked [Jesus], “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The chapter begins, of course, with the feeding of the five thousand. Five loaves and two fish are miraculously transformed into enough food to feed the five thousand, with a dozen baskets of bread left when people had their fill.

But the food and the baskets also prompt questions. ‘Surely,’ they say, ‘this is the great prophet we are waiting for.‘ But Jesus must slip away, knowing—John tells us—that the people intended to force Jesus to become king. This was never the plan, so Jesus retreats to the mountainside to be alone.

Later, of course, he is discovered, and more questions follow. How did you get here? (word was already out that he walked over the lake) How can we be faithful? What other signs are you prepared to show us?

It is here that these witnesses make the connection to the story of their faith. “Our ancestors,” they said, “ate manna in the wilderness. What will you do?” So Jesus completes the connection.

First, he tells them, there is bread and there is true bread. True bread comes from God and brings life to the world. “Then give us this bread” they say, seemingly unaware that Jesus has entered the realm of metaphor. And then the reveal: “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Some time later Jesus will teach them to pray saying “give us this day our daily bread,” and they will no doubt remember that Jesus is the daily bread, and a daily walk with Jesus is the cure for the hunger and the emptiness that everyone feels. And the same daily walk will slake the thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5.6) and ensure they are filled.

And this takes us back to Rome, not that we ever really left. For you see, bread and the politics of bread loomed in the background of Jesus’ words, something that he would work to redefine or redeem, transforming the bread of the Roman street into the bread of heaven. But it was never going to be easy.

It was the Roman poet Juvenal who coined the phrase “bread and circuses,” words that I have always taken to mean the things that your leaders will offer you in place of real action. Seems I was wrong. Take a careful look at Juvenal and his context, and a different meaning emerges.

The poet, you see, was a satirist—and satire is always written for an audience. So while the object of the satire might seem to be the powerful—particularly the foolish powerful—the real object is the audience. The idea is ‘make them laugh and make them think,’—to send them home with a lesson or a more realistic sense of themselves.**

In this sense, “bread and circuses” is a commentary on the people who are willing to be distracted, and the extent to which people need to take a hard look at themselves.

When the emperor is trying to incite the crowd by calling some “the enemy of the Roman people,” they need to think. Or when the emperor suggests that a wall be erected to somehow keep the world’s more powerful empire safe, the people need to think. Or when the emperor makes 4,229 false or misleading statements in 558 days (as of yesterday), then the people need to think.

Eventually the people need to think, ‘what will be the cost of all this “red meat” and circuses? What damage is being done to the collective, and what damage is being done to individual lives?’ If there was ever a better illustration of ‘what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul’ I can’t think of it. The hope is that over time, one-by-one, people will think and say to themselves, ‘this is not right’ and ‘what was I thinking?’

When you feed five thousand people, it’s always going to be difficult to convince them that you were mostly preparing them for a metaphor—and that our Saviour and Lord is the only bread you need. People were slow to think, slow to realize that the daily bread Jesus was offering was himself. “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Then give us this bread, Lord, and give it always. May we walk with you daily, fed with meaning and filled with righteousness. And help us help others on this daily walk, thankful that never walk alone. Amen.


Sunday, July 29, 2018

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 3
14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family[a] in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Thank you again for revealing your summer reading list. There is something about summer and reading, even if it’s only getting through that backlog of magazines that tend to pile up through the year.

I suppose I should share too, beginning with the book I’m reading just now. It’s called "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories." Author Simon Winchester seems to know that writing a good sub-title is an art form, and he doesn’t disappoint.

I finally got through "She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth" by Helen Castor. The Elizabeth in question is Elizabeth I, and if you don’t know about Empress Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, or Margaret of Anjou, it’s worth a look.

The longest slog was reading "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" by Frederick Kempe. I didn’t know that President Kennedy’s first summit with the leader of Russia was also a bust, and page after page I kept thinking “if only a certain leader read books—there is so much to learn here.”

But the reading highlight of my summer (so far) has been “Imperium” by Robert Harris, first of a three-part series on the life of the Roman statesman Cicero. Harris decides to tell the story in the voice of Tiro, Cicero’s secretary (and slave). In some ways it’s a reimagining, since the real Tiro wrote a biography of the great Cicero—which is now lost to history. Tiro (the real Tiro) is also credited with inventing shorthand, something truly useful that I wish I had taken in grade nine instead of welding.

And it’s this last book, of course, that makes me think of St. Paul. Like Cicero, Paul left behind an impressive body of work, and like Cicero, Paul had a personal secretary to record his words for posterity. And the reason we know this—that he employed a scribe—is a wonderful little passage near the end of his letter to the Galatians where we read, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (6.11) He’s clearly taken the pen (pencil? feather?) from his scribe’s hand, and decided to add some final words of his own.

What does this tell us? First, it confirms he had a scribe, implied in the act of taking over the writing. We can assume his eyes were failing, hence the size of the letters on the page. That or bad penmanship, but I like the eyesight theory, since Paul was likely in his late 40’s when he composed this letter to the Galatians, and we all know what happens in the mid-40’s and beyond.

It also tells us that Paul was not above using a particular rhetorical device in his writing, since there number of times that he “writes in his own hand” (2 Thes 3, Col 4, 1 Cor 16)—always at the end of a letter. In other words, he is saying ‘pay attention to this,’ since it was important enough that he wrote it in his own hand.

And it further tells us that Paul wants us to know that he has a scribe, as a sign of his importance,* and perhaps as an insight into the proliferation of letters he wrote. Like Cicero, the ability to speak your thoughts aloud, and know that someone is keeping track, freed Paul to share more of his thoughts with the audience he addressed.

And because of this proliferation of words, we (as readers) need a way to approach Paul, to make sense of his writing, and to read in a way to bring life to the words on the page. Paul is writing letters, but he is also writing scripture. He may not have understood this in the fullest sense, but he certainly knew that his words would be shared among churches and would contain words of life for them.

The approach, in simple terms, is break it down. Paul has all the hallmarks of someone who is struggling to ‘get it right,’ and in the course of getting it right will state and restate until he seems satisfied that he has communicated the message he intends. For some, this may seem repetitive, or wordy, when in fact it’s an attempt to honour the very themes that drove Paul forward.

Where to begin? If you are doing this in the course of your own reading, I would recommend a summary, making a series of points to find the nub of the issue. For Ephesians 3, it might be this:

1. Paul prays that everyone may be strengthened by the Spirit to allow Christ to dwell within them.

2. He prays that everyone may know the vast love of Christ, though it is beyond human understanding.

3. And he seeks glory in the church for the God who is able to do more than we can even imagine.

I say ‘it might be this’ because your summary is by it’s very nature your summary. And this leads to a couple of points. First, in creating a summary, there is no correct answer. There may very well be a wrong answer (knowing that misrepresenting scripture is as old as scripture itself) but there is certainly no exactly correct answer or summary. Also, in creating a summary we are allowing the verses to speak to us anew. In the preaching business we call this “the generative capacity of scripture,” a fancy way of saying scripture continues to generate meaning—each time we read it, each time we share it, and each time we preach it. That’s the hope, anyway.

So back to my attempt at a summary, the thing that leaps off the page is the limit of human understanding. That even with the Spirit of Christ dwelling within us, we are limited by our very humanness to comprehend the power, the love, or the glory that dwells within us. In this sense, the passage presents a paradox, and to look at this paradox we need to look at another way to approach Paul: the summary verse.

In this approach, we read the passage and try to find the single verse that represents the rest. This is my choice: “May [you] have grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

In other words, as you are filled with the love you cannot comprehend, you will be filled with God’s fullness.

Let’s just let that sit for a moment and we’ll try a third way to approach Paul, and that’s through parallels. There are numerous parallel passages in Paul’s letters, examples of the author returning to an idea and trying to express it in a new way. Change or add a word, focus on another aspect of the same theme: however he does it, he is trying to teach or remind us of something we ought to know. So, a good parallel can be found in Philippians 4:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (v. 7)

Former Anglicans in the crowd will recognize this verse as part of the blessing after communion, appearing in some form since 1662:

The Peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: And the Blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you, and remain with you always. (BCP)

So, the love of Christ surpasses all knowledge, and the peace of God transcends all understanding, but Paul argues that we will still be filled with God’s fullness and guarded by the peace of God. In other words, the love and peace that God imparts may be incomprehensible to us mere mortals, but we receive it anyway.

For me, this is a relief. All the things I cannot understand—why does God still love us despite our failings and our foolishness, or why does God persist in sending peace when human history reveals our appetite for war—these are not mine to grasp. It has to be enough to trust that God loves us and wants us to live in peace, without ever fully understanding the length, depth and breadth of that wish.

And for those who want to do something, want to respond in some way to these words of life, Paul might say “take the pen.” Take the pen in your own hand and write the blessing that describes your life. Write the summation that will express the love and peace you feel, even if it’s a fraction of what you would wish for. The very act of forming these words on the page will increase your sense of gratitude and add to your blessing.

And finally, when Paul wrote and rewrote, explained and explained again, and claimed to understand while proclaiming a mystery—he wanted us to know that even in the midst of the biggest questions, God is with us. God’s love is a gift, an inscrutable, mysterious, generous, unconditional, and largely undeserved gift. And our task is to accept it, and love others in return. May God help us. Amen.


Sunday, June 10, 2018

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 3
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family[a] heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

There are questions you always answer in the affirmative, unless the answer is supposed to be no.

Take, for example, the seemingly simple question “does this look good?” Children’s artwork, yes, partner’s wardrobe ensemble, yes—to which you should likely add “yes, I really like it.” The opposite, of course, is the question that demands a negative response. I’m thinking of my colleague in Michigan who put a sign on her office door that says “Tell me, does this pulpit make my butt look fat?” The answer is no.

I fell into a similar dilemma recently when I was asked to listen to the paper that Carmen wrote for some scholarly meeting in Regina. First, she drew me in with the title, “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll.” I’m immediately thinking Dan Brown meets Danielle Steele in a kind of sexy thriller set in an exotic location—if you could class the Dead Sea as an exotic location.

Before I say more, I should remind you that I have studied theology. And while the lessons thirty-years-past fade, I have distinct memories of attending school. Nevertheless, when confronted with contemporary scholarship, I feel like I’m listening to adults in a Charlie Brown special.

So I listened to the “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll” and then the question: “what do you think?” It seems that the wrong answer is saying “I guess the audience for a paper like this would be rather small.” “So you think it’s boring?” was the next question (no—of course not) and followed by other questions that required a yes or a no.

To prove then that I was listening, I can tell you that the overall topic of “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll” is mutable ethnicity, and the extent to which a convert to Judaism in this period could be considered pure enough to participate in the rituals reserved for members of the Qumran community. In other words, there must be a way to be more than a convert, but a full-member of the community, and there must be marks of this conversion, such as the language used to describe them.

And this idea, oddly enough, takes us to the third chapter of Mark. There, before an astonished crowd, Jesus redefines the nature of family and kinship, asking the question “who are my mother and my brothers?” and saying “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” This is a revolution in thinking, and one that defines us down to today. But before we look at that, we should return to Galilee for a moment or two.

The title of this section, as assigned by the editors of your Bible, is “Jesus Accused by His Family and by Teachers of the Law.” It’s a good summary, even if not entirely accurate. For you see, there are two things happening in this passage at once: there is a rescue mission underway, and there is the beginning of a conflict that will follow Jesus all the way to the cross. So yes, these two things are linked, but not in the sense that his family and the teachers of the law are working together.

The rescue mission is a family-only affair. Three chapters in, and Jesus’ fame has spread throughout the region, healing, driving our demons, and drawing people to himself. He has called the twelve, and many more, and they have begun to share to good news of this prophet and healer. But the family is not among them, they are just worried.

And their worry is obvious in the words they share at the beginning of the passage, which I would transliterate to say “Have you lost your mind?” This could also be translated “do you know what you’re doing?” or “do you know the risk you’re taking” or “do you really need to do this?” These are all good family questions, the kinds of questions you might ask a son or a daughter intent of disrupting the status quo or challenging people in power. They are family, so their job is to assess the risk, to count the potential cost, and the ask the question “have you lost your mind?”

The teachers of the law take a very different approach, not really suggesting that he has lost his mind so much as suggesting that he has an unclean spirit. “He is possessed by the devil. By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” This is an extremely serious accusation, not in the same league as suggesting that he has taken leave of his senses. And so the case against God’s incarnation has begun, the light that some simply could not receive.

Back to his poor family, they simply want their son and brother back. They want an end all this and go back to the way it was before a life given to paralytics and sinners and tax collectors. So they set out to get him, and they suffer what some might see as a rejection: “who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers!”

But it’s not a rejection, it’s an expansion! Jesus has taken the love of kin and clan and dearest family and extended it to everyone who loves God and God’s way. Jesus has taken whatever we thought we knew about brothers and sisters and parents and forced us to look around. Look at your fellow travellers, look at the ones who love God and love their neighbours—they have become your kin and clan.

So today is all about applied scholarship. Jesus has expanded our notion of kinship, and forced us to rethink family, but he has also confronted us with his love. And for this latest confrontation, I will need words from another scholar I admire, William Countryman. Some time ago, he wrote a little book about some of the issues confronting his church, the Episcopal Church, and Anglican communion generally. And in the midst of this discussion, he seeks to redefine how we see Jesus. This is what he says:

Jesus, you see, is in love with you. If this makes you feel a little odd, it is not an occasion to worry. Jesus is the most patient and tactful of lovers. You can have time to get used to the idea. But don’t expect him to give up. He will not rest content until our lives are transformed and renewed by his love. (Calling, p. 35)

Interesting how we were encouraged to bask in this love when we were smaller: “Jesus, friend of little children” or “Jesus loves me, this I know.” And even after we graduated from the Church School, were were give permission to sing songs like Wesley’s “Jesus, lover of my soul/let me to thy bosom fly.” The language of intimacy was far from foreign to the church in an earlier age, when we could profess (again from Charles Wesley) “Thou O Christ art all I want/more than all in thee I find.”

So at the very least, we should let the knowledge of this passionate love settle on us, and return to the lesson of the day. Jesus looked out at the crowd around him, and didn’t see friends or acquaintances or friends-to-be but sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers—a new version of family based on love and shared commitment to the Kingdom. He didn’t see a collection of Galileans crowded in small space, he saw a church. And he didn’t see people on that day alone, he saw far into the future—he saw you and me.

Today, on the 93rd birthday of the United Church of Canada, we can confess that we don’t always have the same clear view of the future Jesus had. We don’t live with the same confidence that former generations lived, nor the same resources. But we have love. We have the love that is made known through care and mutual support, present this week as much as ever, and we have love that extends beyond these walls to the people the world often forgets. And in these simple and extravagant examples is our future.

Think on this: there is someone you know who needs to know that they are loved. They belong here. There is someone you know who loves what you love—the neighbourhood, the community, the planet itself. They belong here. There is someone who needs a new family, a new sense that love can be unconditional and ever-present. They belong here. All we have to do is tell them.

May God bless you and keep you, may Christ hold in a loving embrace, and my the Spirit speak through you, now and always, amen.

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter Sunday

Mark 16
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

To begin, it has to be plausible, something people will believe. And it has to be well-developed, to give the overall sense of being real. But there has to be a giveaway, some element that makes it obvious to someone with a keen eye that this is a hoax.

So, as an example, in 1977 the Guardian published a seven-page travel supplement about San Serriffe, an island nation dominated by two large islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. That should have been the giveaway. That, or the seemingly accurate map that showed two islands shaped like a semi-colon. But otherwise, it had all the hallmarks of a real holiday destination: Ads by Kodak and Guinness (describing how the freak barley crop of ’56 turned the beer upside-down) and glowing profile of president-for-life General Pica.

Amazingly (or perhaps not amazingly) many people bought it, and the Guardian received several complaints from airlines and travel companies, troubled by customers who refused to believe it was a hoax. Most got it, of course, and some played along, including the reader who sent a letter on behalf of the San Serriffe Liberation Front complaining about the pro-government slant of the supplement.

Sadly, most April Fools’ efforts lack the commitment of the Guardian in 1977. Some are fun—Microsoft promised to release a mobile version of MS-DOS some years back—but designed to be clever rather than truly deceptive. And that seems to be the key: for a moment at least, you need to think “wow, really?” until you discover the truth.

Ironically, celebrating the empty tomb on April 1st tends to highlight all the elements that strain belief. At the end of our reading today, the women tell no one, fearful—we can assume—of not being believed. We get the same reaction from Thomas, forever burdened with the name “Doubting” because he told his friends he wouldn’t believe unless he himself saw the wounds.

And perhaps most tellingly, the end of Matthew’s gospel addresses this issue head-on, describing a plot among the chief priests and the Roman guards (28.11ff) to forge a report that Jesus’ friends retrieved his body in the night, making the whole thing a hoax. “The Passover Plot” (1965) both book and film picks up this notion, casting Jesus as frustrated intellectual who draws in a group of twelve co-conspirators to creates an elaborate plan that includes a staged crucifixion (using the same near-death drug as Romeo and Juliet) and an escaped tomb.

It’s little wonder then that St. Paul gets the last word when he says: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1) And with a rhetorical flourish he continues: “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

The resounding answer is “yes.” By framing the entire story in such a way that it beggars belief, God is busy pranking everyone who is committed to the finality of death. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” Paul says, “and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

And the great Tertullian takes it a step further: "The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible." Credo quia absurdum.

Of course, we can’t talk about the absurdity of belief without stumbling into a bit of a conversation about the age in which we find ourselves. Clearly the impulse to label things we are unable or unwilling to believe a conspiracy, a deep-state plot, or simply fake news has been given new life in recent months.

And I don’t think it’s just a failing of the far-right. The success of “weaponized” misinformation on Facebook and other platforms is that we tend to “like” the things that echo our worldview and ignore the things that do not. As someone cleverly pointed out, we’re not the customer in the story, we’re the product—trained to generate and select the content that can then be sold on to others.

That’s enough of that. As I told my preaching students, you have to mix in a little judgment with all that grace, and remind people that we’re all redeemed sinners, we’re all in need of God’s abundant mercy. And right on cue, that takes us back to Paul:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Jesus gather to himself a few fisherman, a tax collector, people with “interesting” backgrounds or no background at all. He started in the Galilee, a backward region in an backward province, among the poorest of the poor, clearly the “least and the last.” He attended to lepers and the demon-possessed, in a contest for most reviled and most ignored.

He taught in parables, tiny riddles of the kingdom that left these followers scratching their heads and arguing amongst themselves. He spoke to everyone, drank with everyone, forgave everyone. And when he died, he didn’t lash out at the people to betrayed him or crucified him, he demonstrated God’s great foolishness by comforting others from the cross. “This day,” he said, “you will be with me in paradise.”

And on that first morning, the day hope was born, he didn’t appear to the governor or the ruling council, or the nobles or the chief priests—he appeared to no one. “He is not here,” the angel said, “he is risen!” And following our theme, he made foolish the men in a patriarchal society by sharing the news first with women—first witnesses to the resurrection.

And it’s here that I want to share a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who gets book title of the year for her recent book called “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.” Here is her quote:

"The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of [our] culture, is really about death and resurrection. It's about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small."

I think you can see how resurrection—while never a myth—is always a metaphor for the new life that surrounds us. Even in the midst of the most vexing moments, the most troubling times, the most grievous setbacks, God foolishly offers hope. God can do no other. Hope is hardwired into the unfolding of the human story, because it would otherwise be unbearable. Those graves we (as individuals) and we (as a collective) insist on digging for ourselves generate the same type of response: from an empty tomb to sprinkling of baptismal water to the fellowship that surrounds us just now.

Paul said “we are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.” May your Christ-wisdom lighten your every day, and shine on everyone you meet. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Mark 11
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

If I told you that the average temperature for the first week of spring was minus one, what would you call it?

Unfair comes to mind, sad (with an exclamation mark) might work, or someone brave might say it’s ironic. The problem with describing this turn-of-events as ironic, of course, is that a debate will immediately ensue. Is it ironic? Or is that just unfortunate? Or is it just cold?

One of the things I neglected to mention in our recent Lenten study on preaching is the appropriate use of poetry—it illustrate a point or raise the tenor of the preaching event. So perhaps something from a well-known Canadian poet will help:

It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
Who would've thought... it figures

Of course, the gift that our famous poet gave us is now 23 years of debate on the nature of irony. Bad luck is not really irony—it is said. Misfortune is not really irony, nor is sarcasm, though the debate still rages on the last one. Generous amounts of ink has been spilled on whether Alanis Morrisette was describing irony or something else, and all we’re left with is another ear-worm that will haunt us through lunch.

So what is irony, really? When what is said or intended is opposite to the outcome or the reality, it’s ironic. So, if you have ever shouted at someone saying, “I’m not angry!” then you have fallen into irony. Or that time the fire station in Mount Albert burned to the ground. I think you get the picture.

A closer look will tell you that there are three types of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic—and that all three happen in the reading Joyce shared this morning. But before we get back to the loud hosannas (palms wave) we should get our examples straight.

The first kind, verbal irony, begins with the “I’m not angry” example, with intended meaning and actual meaning falling apart. And this is where sarcasm enters the mix, and another debate we don’t have time to explore. If you can see your keys inside your locked car and you say “Oh, that’s just great,” it may or may not be ironic. If you have forgotten the spare key you left in the bottom of your bag as you stare into the locked car, that’s ironic.

Situational irony seems the most straightforward, with the fire station example, or “unsinkable” liner that left Southhampton and sailed the north Atlantic in April. Or the three characters that spend the whole film looking for a wizard to bestow courage, brains and heart, only to discover they possessed these things all along.

And dramatic irony, of course, requires a spoiler alert, because it’s all about the audience knowing things that the characters in the drama do not. So Juliet’s plan was clever but she forgot to tell Romeo, and bad things happen, but it’s the audience that’s all torn up because we can see exactly what happens when the best laid plan goes awry.

So how is Palm Sunday ironic? I guess we can begin by imagining a military parade, with a conquering hero entering the city, flanked by an excited crowd. People sing and shout, and celebrate the exploits of this general or strongman, a give him names like Africanus or Germanicus, places conquered or subdued. Instead, we hear this:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

So it seems ironic to use the form and circumstance of a military parade to shout hosanna—God, save us—to cry out for liberation in a setting that usually means victory. Unless you imagine that the victory is already won, and that the coming Kingdom has already arrived in the person of Jesus the Christ, perhaps a kind of double-irony. So that’s the verbal part.

The situational irony is like the first: using the familiar form of a military parade to welcome the Prince of Peace, and to call for the coming kingdom of David that will, in fact, be a spiritual kingdom. It’s using the form of conquest to usher in a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom that Jesus tells us already exists within us.

And the dramatic irony—that seems to be happening on a few layers. The first belongs to us, the audience for this unfolding drama. We already know what awaits Jesus—because he told us—and because we already know the end of the story. Even the first readers of this text would know the end of the story, most often introduced to Jesus through his death and resurrection.

So it’s dramatic irony in the sense that we know the outcome even as those shouting and waving palm leaves do not. We know, and Jesus knows, and together we can only shake our heads at the bystanders and the disciples who think this is real. Like poor Romeo, the disciples thought this was real, when in fact it was staged to make a point: the coming kingdom is unlike anything you know, and the coming conquest is unlike anything you know.

The theologian Tom Wright begins each talk with some variation of these words: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” The Christian story was never about saving souls or imposing some sort of religious agenda, but about the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm become one.

The first step in this project is the incarnation, God entering our world in a new way—in an ironic way—in the form of a baby. The next step was a variety of teachings, all counter-cultural and designed to disarm even the most jaded—blessed are the meek, and the poor, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Love your neighbour, and forgive seven times seventy.

The next step is this bit of theatre, mocking all the conquering heroes by adapting this form for the coming kingdom. And the final step—the step that will take us closest to drawing heaven and earth together at the last—is Jesus death on a cross. In perhaps the greatest example of irony yet known, Jesus forgives the very people who placed him on the cross, and began the mystery of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our faith.

As we enter Holy Week and the most ironically-named Good Friday, I encourage you to live the entire story. Wait with us in the Upper Room. Approach the cross and the mystery set to unfold. And then come Sunday for a celebration, as something empty becomes filled with the promise of new life. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Our Lenten study on preaching is nearly finished, only the Great Canadian Preach-Off remains, along with a handful of random bits of content that come to mind between now and Thursday. One of those, which I will demonstrate this morning is recycling, where a paragraph or two is taken from one context (say, a preaching study) and recycled for another (a sermon, for example).

You can’t plagiarize yourself, but you can tire your first audience, so for those present for evening two, the next moments are time to go to your happy place, maybe plan out your own two-minute sermon, or simply sit back.

I begin, then, in the pulpit of the former Cliffcrest United Church, a congregation I was blessed to serve for a number of years. The sanctuary was built in 1954, and reflected the assumptions and aspirations of the post-war period—in the church and society at large. The oddest feature was the long corduroy wall of brick facing Kingston Road. This windowless wall was meant to block the sound of traffic, since Kingston Road was much like the 401 in 1954, a highway that was still on the drawing board. On the opposite wall, facing inward, was a long wall of clear glass windows, the legend being that they were salvaged from a demolished factory.

The architecture seemed to say two things at once: we are a shelter from the busy world passing our door, and we are a lantern, shining the clear light of the Gospel upon the neighbourhood that surrounds us. I think it achieved both.

Meanwhile, in the chancel, the outsized table shared the space with an equally outsized pulpit, the latter being a wide curved affair that the preacher could easily hide behind if need be. The table was inscribed with a traditional message for the congregation (“Do this in remembrance of me” if I recall correctly). Meanwhile, the pulpit was inscribed with an interior message—a message for the preacher alone—that said “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Ignoring the erroneous assumption that everyone standing behind the pulpit should be addressed as “Sir,” the interior message functioned as a perpetual reminder, and a sort of moral imperative—that the congregation, like those Greek visitors long ago, are there to see Jesus.

It’s an odd little episode—Greek visitors take one of the disciples aside and ask to see Jesus—but it seems to send the signal that Jesus’ fame will spread beyond Israel and Judah. We’re not told why they wanted to see him or even if this backstage pass was granted. And as quickly as they arrive, our Greek friends disappear again.

What we’re left with—what we’re always left with—is context, and the place we find this passage in the larger picture of John’s Gospel. The immediate context, the passage that precedes this one, is the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a story will visit next week. This alone might explain the request to see Jesus—with foreign visitors in the capitol witnessing the parade to mark Jesus’ arrival.

But the larger context is worth noting too, since the story that takes us to the edge of Jerusalem—the raising of Lazarus—casts a shadow over what is to come. The eleventh chapter recounts the story in great detail: the news of Lazarus’ death reaching Jesus, visiting his sisters and the recrimination that comes, moving to the tomb and the skepticism that follows, and finally releasing him with the words “Lazarus, come out!” and “unbind him and let him go.”

It is the remarkable nature of this resuscitation—including the controversy it generates—that may have caused word to reach these Greek visitors to Jerusalem. The city was abuzz with both excitement and concern, from those who wanted to see the wonder worker that everyone was talking about, to the religious officials and their well-founded fear of disturbing the Roman occupiers.

And that too is an important bit of context, as the story of Lazarus ends with a meeting of the religious council, and the decision to arrest Jesus. Note that we are at the midpoint of John’s Gospel—that the last of seven signs is complete with the raising of Lazarus and the book then turns of Jesus’ passion. Fully half the gospel will be consumed by it, and the outcome predicted at the beginning of chapter one will come to pass: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (v.10)

And the shape of that prediction is now coming fully into view. The request to see Jesus may or may not have been met, but it prompts a response from Jesus, one of those statements that would grow in significance in the weeks to come:

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

This is what the Greek visitors will see—if they hang in a week or two longer—and perhaps they too will become the seeds of this new movement. At the very least they will see that this was never about a wonder worker and the crowds that inevitably seek out spectacle, but about the seed of faith that will grow in the most unlikely of ways—from cross to tomb to final glory.

In the meantime, we are learning about a new way of seeing, a lens that takes us back to that hidden pulpit message and the imperative to allow people to see Jesus. In effect, the Greeks are still speaking, still seeking to see, and the request that begins behind the pulpit extends to the rest of the disciples and beyond.

And what will they see? The gospels, as they develop, provide us with a template: it begins simply, with words of invitation, usually along the line of “come and see.” And then there are wonders to behold—a healing or a demon displace—and the words “you will see greater wonders than this.” He will speak to a woman at the well, and recount for her what troubles, and she will say “come and see this man who truly knows me.” The disciples will ask to see God and he will remind them that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” And when he finally makes plain all that will unfold he says “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

What Jesus has introduced is a new way of seeing—that everything from invitation to teaching to healing grows this new sight, leading to the conclusion that St. Paul makes in Colossians: “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God.” The Greeks came to see Jesus, but they ended up seeing God instead.

Of course it will be later, in the locked room, on the beach, on the road to Emmaus, that all of this seeing will come together. The words will finally make sense, and the events will meld to form a complete narrative. Only upon reflection, and in the telling and retelling, that the disciples will finally see. Only then will they come to understand that what so many cannot see—the light of the world—they can see in each other.

Like so many churches, this place is meant to be both shelter from the busy world and a lantern, casting light on a weary world. It is always reflected light: the light of Christ, the light that we have been blessed to see, cast from this place into the streets that surround us. We carry this light wherever we go—from seeing—to seen by all. Amen.