Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

James 2
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

Advice for today: If you’re gonna read your Bible, don’t begin at the beginning.

I know it seems counter-intuitive, since we are often told to begin at the beginning—but for Bible reading it’s just not the best place to start. Maybe that’s why that little Bible you got in the fifth grade was only the New Testament and Psalms, a simple way to solve the problem of beginning at the beginning. Unfortunately, this causes another issue, since Matthew is better read after you read Mark—so again, don’t begin at the beginning.

So why the lack of love for Genesis? Is this guy Genesisist? Is that even a word? In fact, I love the book of Genesis, and I would commend it to anyone, except the person reading the Bible for the first time. And here’s a simple list to explain:

In the first chapter of Genesis, on the first day, God created light, then separated light and darkness.
A few verses later, the sun (which separates night and day) wasn't created until the fourth day.

In Genesis 1, trees were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before trees were created.

In Genesis 1, birds were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before birds were created.

In Genesis 1, animals were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before animals were created.

In Genesis 1, man and woman were created at the same time.
In Genesis 2, man was created first, then woman sometime later.*

I think you see the problem. There is obviously something happening in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, something that the earliest biblical scholars will sort out in the eighteenth century. Early on, it was suggested that maybe there were two separate accounts melded together, each too important to discard. Thus, what we call source criticism was born. Two sources, edited together, one book with obvious contradictions.

But we don’t need to stop there. The very nature and identity of God is described in varied and often contradictory ways. Some examples:

God is a vengeful God (four places)
God is a warrior (three places)
God is a jealous God (seven places)
God is angry (eleven places, but can you blame God—have you read a newspaper lately?)
But God is love (five places)

I think you get the picture. The truth is, the Bible is not a book, but a library. We call it the “good book” but it’s really more like a good library: many books, by many authors, on various topics—but with lots of agreement and lots of disagreement. Go across the street right now (well, not right now) and find a couple of books on Canadian history. What do they emphasize? What do they downplay? Who will be featured and who will be ignored? They may both be excellent treatments of the topic, but they will inevitably disagree on what’s important.

So too with the Bible. Divinely inspired writers took up the story of God and God’s people, and wrote numerous books on the topic. And in the absence of an overall editor (would a library have an overall editor?) in the absence of an overall editor we have received a varied, rich, complex, fulsome, vexing, engaging, frustrating, inspiring, troubling, and glorious collection of sacred writings that we can now spend our life with. Thank God for that.

I share all this this morning to set the table for one of the primary dichotomies found in scripture: “Faith, without works, is dead” (from James 2) and “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (from Romans 3).

Having spend much of 2017 marinating in Martin Luther’s Reformation ideas, we might be predisposed to the favour the latter, by faith alone we are saved, not by any effort on our part, not by works, but by the grace and mercy of God. But then James speaks:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

In many ways, this is catnip for the United Church, and for Central in particular. Food, clothing, clean needles, condoms, advice—if we can get it, we will give it away. Going downstairs is like taking a trip to James 2. We begin with physical needs (food, warmth, companionship) then support (housing, harm reduction) and finally advocacy, encouraging people in the face of systems that often seem designed to keep them down. It’s the whole package.

But it’s far from all. Nearly three-quarters of the units next door receive some sort of support, because seniors living in poverty is one of the great scandals of our time. Down the hill, at the Mount Dennis satellite, we’re confronting a “food desert” with cooking classes, a pop-up market, and social enterprise incubation (yes, it’s as cool as it sounds).

Occasionally I’m called upon to offer support to other congregations—congregations who are trying find their way. And I always begin by describing the James 2 congregation I serve. I describe all the outreach we do, I give them all the confusing four-letter names we seem to favour (CKSR-WKNC-MDNC) and then the same question comes every time: “How big is your congregation?”

What would you say? Not big. Big enough. Could be bigger. I tell them that even a relatively small congregation can have a large impact when they put the focus on addressing the needs right outside their front door. There is no magic here. Just faithful people trying to help. Faithful people who read James 2 in the present tense: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.” What would you do?

(Just as an aside, congregations make other choices, like the congregation I met that gave over 90% of their building to a private school. They had lots of money, but complained that they had no room left over for any kind of programming, especially outreach to the community. We have made the opposite choice, and depend on generous givers instead of a private school who would gladly take over our building. Subtle stewardship plug ended.)

So back to the seeming contradiction between ‘saved by faith alone’ and ‘faith without works is dead.’ Can they both be true? Is there a way to capture the grace and mercy we receive (without any effort on our part) and the grace and mercy we should return in order to have a faith with meaning? I think the answer is in the question.

Like Ol’ Blue Eyes said, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t accept that your life with God is a gift freely given unless you can share the same gift with others. Put the other way, you can’t freely share with others unless you understand that all that you have was a gift to you.

And, of course, whenever it seems that competing verses have gotten us into some kind of mess, we return to the Bible for the answer. And more often than not, the answer is in the letters of St. Paul. And it makes good sense: Paul was helping non-Jews discover the God of Israel through a Jewish rabbi who insisted that faith was for everyone. Talk about a challenging job description!

And he spends plenty of time describing the outward marks of his faith and the extent to which they can be a barrier to new believers. He talks about the law, he talks about conversion, and he talks about faith and belief. And when he’s done talking about all these things, he settles on this: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5.6)

See what he did there? God is the source of all love, so faith expressing itself through love is accepting the love that God has for us while sharing that love with others. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

God sent Jesus to show is “faith expressing itself through love—love for the least and the last, love for tax-collectors and sinners, love for the gentiles who sought him out, love for the broken people he surrounded himself with, even love for those who took him to the cross. Paul said it, but no doubt Jesus whispered it in his ear:

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Amen.


Sunday, September 02, 2018

Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2
8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”

If you’ve ever seen an old painting, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a religious painting.

For you see, there was a time (before the Renaissance of the fourteenth century) that almost everything painted had a religious theme. It helped that the church was the primary patron of the arts, but in general terms, religious themes were considered to be the only themes suitable for representation in art.

And even after this assumption changed, and people started painting the human figure for the sake of beauty alone, or some Roman ruin in nature, or some classical story or character—even after such a profound shift in subject—religious art was still being created. The Last Supper is a Renaissance painting, an obviously religious theme by a painter who was equally interested in showing his use of perspective and the brilliant way he could paint human figures.

According to the National Gallery in London, fully a third of their collection of Western art is religious in nature. And the topics are easy to predict: the crucifixion, the (aforementioned) Last Supper, and any story that involves a beautiful woman: David and Bathsheba, Susanna and the elders, Samson and Delilah. Perhaps the most popular (unsurprisingly) is the Madonna and Child, to the extent that I’m sure a third of the third of the religious paintings at the National Gallery depict Mary holding the baby Jesus.

(Incredibly, I’ve only ever seen two paintings of Joseph with the baby Jesus, and they’re both at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Seems it’s a theme that occurs in Latin American art, and a pleasing one to this dad.)

So I’ve taken you on this brief tour of religious art to highlight a bit of an anomaly that relates to our reading this morning: there are very few paintings based in the Song of Solomon. Yes, by the nineteenth century painters like Dante Rossetti would try, and Marc Chagall some decades later, but by-in-large the Song of Solomon was ignored over the span of Western art.

Why would this be? The primary reason, it would seem, is the way the book as been viewed through the ages. From the time it was included in the Jewish Bible down to the modern era of biblical interpretation, is has been viewed as allegory. Not a story of desire between two lovers, not a story about Solomon and one of his many wives, not even a guidebook on how to woo your lover (though it does a great job at that)—but a story that points to something else altogether—in other words—an allegory.

And it would have to. This book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God, or the law, or the covenant, must have some larger, symbolic meaning—so the earliest thinkers settled on the relationship between God and humanity. Later, Christian theologians would clarify this belief and say it’s an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his church, but the view is the same: this is about the passion God has for us and the passion we are urged to return.

I think you can see the issue for the visual artist. You could paint lovers or various creatures described in the book, but it’s not really about that. If it’s an allegory of mutual love between Creator and creature, that’s something that is hard to represent in oil or watercolour. I think there may be a way—or at least I may have uncovered one way—but before we look at that, we should spend a bit more time on the Song of Solomon.

I keep using the word “story,” but even that is a little misleading. It’s not a story in the sense that it has a plot or a series of events. It’s more of a dialogue between lovers, a “celebration of love,” and a loose collection of moments of “passion, descriptions of physical beauty, memories of past encounters, and longing for the lover's presence.”*

It’s more like a collection of scenes, meant to evoke a sense of the passion and mutuality that exists between these lovers. Let’s listen in again:

8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”

We can hear the passion and the mutuality, but there is something else. A few verses later she says “My beloved is mine and I am his,” (2.16) which adds the virtue of fidelity, the abiding sense that these lovers will remain faithful within the sensuousness of the place they find themselves. Suddenly, this is starting to sound like a wedding homily, but there is more.

Just a few chapters later, she picks up this theme again, but restates it to say “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.” (7.10) According to Dr. Ellen Davis, this is a critical moment in scripture, a moment when this confident woman has reversed the curse found in the Book of Genesis. She explains it this way: After the fall, Eve is punished for her disobedience and God says "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And human history would seem to bear this out. But within the Song of Solomon, comes the reversal: “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.”

In other words, there is something in these words that returns these lovers to the Garden of Eden, repairing the rift that begins with the apple and restores them to equality and mutuality once more. Add to that the abundance of nature in our passage—flowers, cooing doves, the early fruit of the fig tree and the fragrance of the vine—and we are transported to another theme in art that seems to locate our lovers once more: the peaceable kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom (which you have in your hands) is a common theme in art (Edward Hicks painted this painting 62 times!) and it is most often associated with Isaiah 11 (“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”) Hicks’ paintings often include settlers and their First Nations neighbours, or groups of Quakers (from his tradition) or simply the abundance of the natural world. In some ways it’s about a return to Eden, like the Song of Solomon, but it’s also about the age to come. It’s a glimpse of what God intents for us, what God will provide in the fulfilment of time.

And in this sense, we’re back to allegory. If the Song of Songs is about God and humanity, or Christ and his church, then what we’re introduced to is the way things ought to be. Or the way things will be in the age to come. There is living with passion, there is mutuality and the respect we extend to the people around us, there is fidelity to the relationship and the future we share, and there is the abiding sense that we are not only loved but sought after.

And it’s this passion that holds the key. Imagine each day God says to us “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” See the world as I wish it to be. See the others among my beloved who are doing my work, remaking the world as we speak, bringing together heaven and earth. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me,” and see the peaceable kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Amen.

*Kathryn M. Schifferdecker (

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”

Sometimes I think you’re keeping stuff from me.

Stuff like great quotes, little know facts, and historical tidbits that you know I’ll enjoy. Take, for example, the eminently quotable John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy collected quotes, shared quotes, and generated quotes in a way few presidents have.

And those of you old enough to remember President Kennedy have first hand knowledge of something I have only recently learned: He loved reversals, lines that take something and then turn it into something else. An example? I’ll ask you. What’s his most famous reversal?

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It kind of defined the spirit of the age. The president challenging people to set aside narrow self-interest in favour of serving others. Oh, how times have changed. But let’s not dwell on that, let’s look instead at these great reversals that JFK loved and no one felt the need to share with me.

"The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

“Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man."

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

"Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames."

I’m going to assume it’s something he picked up at Harvard, perhaps while reading the classics, since this type of reversal was quite popular among Greeks and Romans. It has a technical name, antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli), a device that allows new meaning from the reversal of (often) common words.

Take for example, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” See how the use of the word “tough” transforms from “hard times” to “people who can handle it.” So the linguistic trick is to employ the same words, but expand the meaning. Some have suggested that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” was first said by Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, so perhaps the president found this linguistic habit a little closer to home.

And the technique doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Back to the first example (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”), all the president is doing is shifting the focus from selfish to selfless. He still reverses the words, but mostly seeks to create a comparison. And since the preferred option is usually presented last (“what you can do for your country”) it reinforces that this is the option to choose.

I share all of this because we should all strive to remember what presidents are like, and because Jesus also favoured reversals—we find one in our passage:

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

It’s an antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli) of the more simple variety, reversing the same words, but in this case presented the preferred option first. In this way to seems to add authority. It fits with all the “verily, verily” passages, which continue “I say unto you...” followed by some important lesson.

So what does this sabbath lesson mean, and who on earth is Abiathar?

Maybe we’ll look at the second question first. We get to Abiathar through a field of grain, as Jesus and his disciples create some controversy picking grain on the sabbath. The Pharisees challenge them, and (as is his custom) Jesus offers them a lesson. Jesus recounts the (then) familiar story of David’s struggle with King Saul.

David is on the run from Saul, who considered him a rival for the throne. He shelters among the priests, and seeks food for himself and his men. The chief priest prays to the LORD for guidance, and is instructed to give the sacred bread of the priests to David and his companions (1 Samuel 22.10). Lacking weapons, David also asks for a sword, and the priest turns over a treasured relic, the very sword that David took from the giant Goliath years before, and the story continues.

The lesson Jesus points to is God’s willingness to overlook a hard-and-fast rule for the sake of David’s future. The story of Israel’s greatest king hinges on surviving this moment, and God provides. In other words, it’s God’s rule, and God may belay the rule if it conflicts with something else God hopes to achieve.

For the rule-driven, for the Pharisaic, this kind of thing drives them mad. Why make a rule if you’re going to set the rule aside the first time some future king is in trouble? What’s the point of having capital L laws if they suddenly become optional? To this, Jesus would say something like “the sabbath law was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath law.”

In other words, observing the sabbath is supposed improve our situation, not make it worse. If Jesus and his disciples are hungry, and David and his companions are hungry, why should following the law add to their burden? If the point of sabbath is renewal, how can hunger on the sabbath renew them?* Clearly, it can’t.

Just now you might be thinking “I’m not really a rule-bound person, but even I wonder at God’s willingness to make exceptions.” And I hear you, even if you’re just thinking to yourself. I wonder too at this subjective God, making and breaking rules to suit this or that need. And then I remember Exodus 32.

It’s one of my favourite scenes in the Ten Commandments. The Israelites roll out the Golden Calf, which in the film looks like a cross between a rabbit and whippet, painted gold, and paraded among the people. The narrator says the people were “perverse and crooked,” when it actually looks more like a country line-dancing.

Meanwhile, on Sinai, God fumes at their disobedience. Making another god to worship jumps to the top of the shall nots, and God says “look at what your people do. In my anger I will destroy them all and make you into a great nation instead.”

But Moses pushes back: “First of all, these are your people, the very people you just rescued from Egypt. Do you want the Egyptians to say ‘what kind of god would rescue the people only to kill them in the wilderness?’ I don’t think so. So turn from you anger and keep your promises, the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

And God repents. God’s subjectivity saves the Israelites—God’s willingness to turn aside from anger and forgive them the party and the whippet-rabbit cross. God’s subjectivity is based on the very practical principle that the law was made for us, we weren’t made for the law.

The law is meant to guide us, to temper our actions, direct our choices, not bind us to fail. If we were made for the law, our constant failure would eventually render the law void. Is a law even valid if no one is able to keep it? Jesus knew that keeping the sabbath (and all the other laws) were aspirational, goals for human living, and not the kind of legislation that would lead to our doom. We’re too broken for hard-and-fast, too human for the letter of the law.

But just as God’s law is aspirational, God’s forgiveness is aspirational too. God’s forgiveness is the signal that God sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. We know our limitations, but God sees beyond them to see what David and his companions can do, what the disciples can do, and ultimately what we can do—when we understand that we are loved and forgiven.

So if I had to sum it up, I might say something like ‘you can’t have faith in God unless you accept that God has faith in you.’ Amen.

*Lamar Williamson

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.