Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday

 2 Kings 2

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”


But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.


3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”


“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”


4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”


And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.


5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”


“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”



You know about TLC and PDA, but do you know about BPR?


In case you’re not up on acronyms vaguely related to Valentine’s Day, the first two are “tender loving care” and “public displays of affection.” We all need a little of the first, and we can probably live without the second. But what’s BPR, and how did it get on our list?


BPR stands for “benign positive regard,” a phrase first coined by researchers looking at religious attitudes among teens. Conventional wisdom suggests that when young people drift away from religious practice, it’s likely a case of teenage rebellion, doing the opposite of whatever their parents are doing. What they found instead is that teenager’s attitudes toward religion actually mirrors what the parents are doing—in this case, benign positive regard.


So what is BPR? Let’s just say that if your sweetheart sends you a card professing benign positive regard, he’s just not that into you. Benign positive regard is how most people feel about—say—post-it notes: helpful, even clever, but few people write poems about post-it notes. Maybe a haiku.


Post-it in my book

Marks the page I am reading

So helpful I guess


The puzzle with benign positive regard among religious people of all ages is the extent to which it’s at odds with the faith itself. The story of God is a story of passionate love, creating us out of dust and placing us among the wonders of creation. Liberating us in times of peril, saving us from ourselves, entering the world to walk beside us, even dying to free us from the power of death.


Kendra Dean, the researcher who popularized benign positive regard, wants us to think instead about passion. She argues that our faith should act as an external authority in our lives, it should make compelling claims on our time and attention, it should challenge us to grow in ways we might not want to grow. Listen as Dr. Dean makes her case:


Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic. It is Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King. It is Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Passion is “to die for.”


If she was writing on Transfiguration Sunday, I expect she would add Elijah and Elisha. And then maybe Ruth and Naomi, because their love is the same:


When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.


Oddly, we learn very little about Elisha before this episode. God appoints him as Elijah’s successor, Elijah retrieves the lad and “adopts” him, and then Elijah’s larger-than-life ministry continues with Elisha in the background. But today’s passage, recounting Elijah’s last moments on this earth, we learn everything we need to know about their relationship.


Like Ruth’s famous “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” Elisha pledges that he will not leave Elijah’s side. Each time he is confronted with the inevitable, we get the same reaction: “Yes, I know, so be quiet.” Can you hear the translator’s dilemma, trying to find a polite way to say “shut-up”? Poor Elisha, set to lose the one he loves.


No doubt seeing the toll that this is taking on Elisha, Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” At this moment Elisha asks the seemingly impossible—a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. You wonder if asking the seemingly impossible is a way to delay his departure, or create a rift that may make it easier to part, but Elijah says “we’ll see…if you see me depart, it will be yours.”


Elisha does see him depart, in a chariot of fire no less, and gains that double-portion that will be important for Elisha going forward. The chariot ascends, Elisha cries out, and tears his cloak in grief.


We share this passage on Transfiguration Sunday because it gives some of the background for the event itself. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up the mountain, where he is transformed, transfigured in a blaze of light, flanked to the left and to the right by Moses and Elijah. God speaks, blessing Jesus as he approaches his passion, and the scene ends.


Generally, we read the Elijah story today because he is mentioned in the passage. And that might be reason enough, except that is a parallel here to the mantle being passed, with three of the twelve witnesses to the glory that Jesus will soon experience. The light, the blessing, the company— all point to Jesus’ return to God.


There is, however, one more element to the transfiguration worth noting: the symbolism of the figures, one on the right and one on the left. Moses is the liberator, the first and most powerful prophet, who used God’s might to free his people. Elijah is also a prophet, but even more, since he represents the passionate activity of God in the world: raising the dead, calling down fire to defeat the priests of Baal, riding a chariot of fire to eternity.


Jesus, then, is both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he is our liberator, freeing us from sin and sorrow, and defeating death itself so that we might be free. And like Elijah, Jesus is God’s passionate presence in the world, raising the dead, defeating the forces of despair, and returning to God in glory. Today is dedicated to freedom and passion, and a world transformed.


You may have noticed that there are very few Transfiguration Sunday hymns, an enduring mystery, except perhaps that it’s hard to describe in verse something so unusual. Likewise, there are few hymns to describe Elijah and his chariot of fire, with one notable exception: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.


Written by Wallis Willis around the time of the American Civil War, it describes the hope of being carried home, with a band of angels and a sweet chariot sent for the task. And as with many African-American spirituals of this era, there is often a hidden message, encouraging those enslaved to escape, even giving coded directions.


In the case of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, some have suggested that we’ve received a “public” version of the song, when the private (coded) version may have been sung “swing low, sweet Harriet,” for Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, but then returned to the south to lead others to freedom. During at least 13 missions she led over 70 people to freedom, earning the nickname Moses. Soon, she will claim her rightful place on the US $20 bill.


Passionate love, and a desire for freedom, these are the hallmarks of Transfiguration. This is the opposite of BPR. Allowing our faith to direct us in ways larger than ourselves, giving time and attention to our passion, and growing in love—for God and each other—these are the marks of new life in Christ. May God bless us and surround us with enduring love, Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Epiphany V

 Isaiah 40

28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.



Often called the king of all birds, we might better say the eagle is the king of all symbols.


If we begin in the middle of the story, we arrive in Rome, where the symbol of the eagle is second only to a certain shewolf and a couple of hungry lads. Rome’s legions took the eagle on campaign, where it became symbolic of both the might of Rome and the fate of individual legions. This would be the moment to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful book The Eagle of the Ninth, exciting interest in Roman Britain since 1954.


After Rome, the eagle remains a symbol of empire, with various royal houses sporting the bird, wings outstretched, sometimes adding an extra head or two for effect. This, of course, crosses the Atlantic, where our pretentious neighbour to the south adopts the eagle as their own. To be fair, they were trying to recreate the Roman Republic in America, so the eagle makes a lot of sense.


That’s the forward view, how about looking back in time? Among Canada’s First Nations, the eagle is considered a messenger to the Creator, lifting prayers to the Spirit world, providing courage and strength. It was no accident that Elijah Harper held an eagle feather while defending the rights of his people back in 1990, a moment that is considered a turning point for Indigenous people in Canada.**


Within the Christian church, the eagle is most often associated with St. John the Evangelist. Beginning in the second century of the Common Era, thinkers such as Irenaeus made the connection between John’s homily to the Word (found in John 1) and the eagle, symbolizing “the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church.” We’ll have to leave Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion) and Luke (an ox) for another day.


In the Hebrew Bible, the eagle is a symbol of swiftness (often related to conquest), nurture (offering shelter), and renewal. It is this last attribute that takes us to the reading Marlene shared today. But before we look at Isaiah 40, there appears to be one passage where swift rescue, shelter, and renewal happen all at once. From Mt. Sinai, the LORD spoke to Moses: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex 19). The Lord then asks for faithfulness, and a willingness to keep the covenant God made.


On to Isaiah 40, where we heard what is the second most familiar part of this remarkable chapter. The first most familiar of is best shared in the language that G. F. Handel knew:


Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.


So the context of Isaiah 40 is forgiveness, an end to exile, and a return to the land. And without jumping to the end of the story, we already know that the renewing spirit of the eagle is for those returning from exile, those charged with rebuilding the holy places. This, then, is the context for those who first heard these words:


Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.


This is the moment that the preacher encourages you to make your own homily, connecting our time to the anguish of exile, the desire for return, and the need for strength. I’m not saying these sermons write themselves, but we live in a time when the need for shelter and renewal has never been greater. Likewise, our need to trust in God has never been greater, but it is this trust that cries out for greater understanding, as much as connecting exile to our time. For a place to start, I might recommend Proverbs 9.10:


The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.


The first dimension of trusting God is acknowledging that we can’t fully understand God. In this case, fear seems more a case of bewilderment, or confusion, which is always the starting point for gaining wisdom. To say you don’t understand something, or you need to learn something, is the first step on the journey to gaining wisdom. And this takes us back to the middle section of Isaiah 40:


25 “To whom will you compare me?

Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all these?


Those who love the Book of Job will immediately hear God speaking from the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is God and Job is not. To be fair to poor Job, he was simply talking to his mates when the Most High finally had enough of their ignorance. And the question they asked—why do people suffer?—remains a question for all time. Where is God in the midst of plague and disaster? Is God cause or cure? Or both? (Spoiler alert: I do not believe that God sent COVID or caused it to happen).


But I know I’m not the first to imagine—if only for a moment—that COVID is some form of punishment for our misdeeds. Climate change, loss of habitat, unsustainable farming practices: all these trends have a hand in zoonotic diseases, those moving from animal to human. And the spread of the disease, more active under populist and authoritarian regimes, just adds another layer to this question of human foolishness.


Back to the Book of Job, we know that there is no connection between wickedness and suffering, yet we also know that God remains unsearchable. We can never fully understand the ways of God, but we can trust that God will bring rescue, shelter, and renewal in the midst of crisis. We can trust that God will bring comfort and forgiveness in the midst of our foolishness. And we can trust that God will give us new strength, to soar on wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint.


In John’s extended description of the Last Supper, Jesus offered comfort to his disciples, he washed their feet, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Soon,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you and remind you of all that I have said to you.” This is not a promise to reveal the unknowable mysteries of the Most High. This is a promise to help us remember everything Jesus said and did. It is a promise to send the sustaining power of the Spirit upon the church, and it is a promise to send the Spirit of the eagle—so that rescue, shelter, and renewal will come to us, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Epiphany IV

Mark 1

21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”


25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.


27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.



It seemed too-clever-by-half.


In the December 2004 issue, Rolling Stone Magazine decided to announce to the world the top 500 songs of all time. As expected, the Beatles posted the most songs. Among Canadian artists, Neil Young was the most represented. The 1960s was the most popular decade (203 songs) and the 2000s the least popular (with only 3). Go ahead boomers, feel smug.


The too-clever-by-half part was Rolling Stone Magazines choice of number one and number two on the list: “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Yes, both fine songs, but a little too meta (self-referential) as the kids might say.


Meanwhile, the song I really want to talk about is not so far down the list at number 48: “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Thanks first to Taye for choosing it and singing it today. And thanks too to her talented accompanist. We can debate whether it belongs higher or lower on the list, but there is little debate about the magic of the song.


The story goes that in the spring of 1969 Paul Simon was reflecting on the state of the world, particularly the tumult of the previous year: riots and unrest around the world, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King, the war in Vietnam. A tune appeared in his mind, and a fragment of lyrics, but he didn’t quite know where to go with it:


When you’re weary

Feeling small

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all.


“I was stuck for a while,” he admitted. “Everywhere I went led to somewhere I didn’t want to be.” Finally, the block ended while he was listening to a gospel song by the Swan Silvertones. One line of “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep” caught his attention: “I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.” Simon readily admits to borrowing the line, and later in he shared some of the proceeds of the song with Claude Jeter of the Swan Silvertones.*


“I’ll be your bridge over deep water, if you trust in my name.”


It has echoes of scripture, particularly Psalm 18 (also 2 Samuel 22) and Psalm 69, with one important caveat: the word bridge does not appear in the Bible. Amazing, actually, with the Roman world filled with bridges, and not a single mention in scripture. I’ll leave that for another sermon. Meanwhile, the experience of being in deep water has some sort of universal resonance, something I think most of us can relate to.


Out of our depth would be another way to say it, maybe out of control, or even possessed by something beyond ourselves. I think you see where I’m going here. Demon possession, the theme of our reading, and the theme of a number of Jesus’ healings, is generally problematic to the modern reader. We tread lightly when the lesson lines up with what we would now describe as mental illness, or epilepsy, or any other disorder that the ancients might have described as demon possession. We tend to set the whole thing aside, unsure how to proceed.


At the same time, we are well-acquainted with the idea of being in the grip of something: an idea, a movement, a turn-of-events that draw people in. People become possessed by the latest get-rich-quick scheme, or some counter-cultural movement, or a conspiracy theory. All of this can be subjective, of course, thinking of the adage that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Generally though, we can usually spot when someone is caught in something beyond their control.


Reflecting on our passage, and the various healings that involve demons, there are a couple of things to note. The first is the extent to which this is personal for Jesus. Time and time again, it is the demons who call Jesus by name, and name him for who he is: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” This tells me that Jesus has unique concern for the demon-possessed, literal or metaphorical. His emphasis is freedom: freedom from the forces that would diminish us in some way, and freedom to love and serve God.


The second thing to note here is the connection between healing and speaking with authority. Like the Most High speaking creation into being, Jesus speaks (commands) the demons and they obey him. Speaking with authority here is more than sharing the Good News of the kingdom, it’s speaking new life into being, freeing those caught up in something larger than themselves, and giving them back their freedom.


I want to return to Paul Simon for a moment and encourage you to think of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” as an anthem for our time. Think of all we have endured since March of last year and listen to the poet:


When you’re weary

Feeling small

When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all.


Maybe you are out of your depth, maybe you feel out of control, or maybe even possessed by something beyond yourself. It doesn’t need to be something dramatic, it can be something as simple as feeling sad. Whatever it is, recall that for Jesus this is personal: he knows what we face, and he seeks to free us from it, whatever it may be. He seeks our freedom—freedom from the things that oppress us, and then freedom to love him and everyone we meet.


It was no accident that Paul Simon found inspiration in a gospel song. In Old English, “godspel” means good news, or a good story—words to convey the message needed to find new life. The Spirit moves in us and around us to convey the message we need to find our way out of deep waters. The Spirit will form a bridge for us to pass over.


May God bless us and grant us freedom in Christ Jesus. May we be free to love and serve others, now and always, Amen.


*https://www.loudersound.com/features/story-behind-the-song-bridge-over-troubled-water-by-simon-garfunkel

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Epiphany III

Mark 1

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.

19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.



It would seem that sparse words summon the poets.  


But before we meet the poets, we need to consider the sparse words.  Mark, never one to gild the lily, describes the call of the disciples in as few words as possible.  In fact, we witness “the call” with as few disciples as possible—five, by my count.  By the third chapter there will be a general inauguration of the twelve, but we only learn how a handful come to follow Jesus.


On this day, it’s Simon and Andrew, then James and John, the sons of Zebedee.  For the first two, we get a transcript of the encounter, but by the next two we get more summary, and we have to assume the invitation was the same.  Mark is leaving more than a little room for the imagination when he records these words:


“Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.”


As we ponder these words, I can confess a certain weakness for obscure French philosophers, namely Paul Ricoeur.  Ricoeur would say that while trying to understand Jesus’ words we are “standing before the text,” meaning we can see the outline of what Jesus means, but the exact meaning (behind the text) is unknown to us.  So we use our imagination.  We interpret, we speculate, and we play with these words to find meaning.  And some, they write poetry:


Jesus, you have come to the lakeshore

looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones;

you only asked me to follow humbly.

For the Spanish poet, Cesáreo Gabaráin, the emphasis is on humility, both the humility of setting aside whatever work they were engaged in, and the humility of these people themselves.  They were not selected for wealth or wisdom, just a willingness to follow.  That’s one poet’s take, now another:


In simple trust like theirs who heard,

beside the Syrian sea,

the gracious calling of the Lord,

let us, like them, without a word

rise up, and follow thee.


Our second poet, with the rather poetic name John Greenleaf Whittier, the emphasis is on trust, and the willingness of the reader (singer) to engage the same simple trust.  Without a word they rise from their places and follow: no questions, no conditions, just trust.  It takes a skilled poet to challenge the audience without seeming overbearing or judgemental, and Whittier does it.  And one more example:


Long ago apostles heard it

by the Galilean lake,

turned from home and toil and kindred,

leaving all for Jesus' sake.


This time it’s Cecil Frances Alexander, the best known of the poets mentioned so far.  She wrote hundreds of hymns, including All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City, There is a Green Hill Far Away, and I Bind Myself to God Today.  The last one is a rewritten version of a poem by St. Patrick—fitting since she was married to the head of the Anglican Church in Ireland.  


The hymn I quoted, Jesus Calls Us, O’er the Tumult begins with what seems a reference to Jesus stilling the storm, but returns to the call of the disciples.  “Turned from home and toil and kindred/leaving all for Jesus’ sake” is a remarkable line, injecting the tension implied in the scene: yes, they were leaving home and kindred, but they were also leaving behind a life of toil.  They would, of course, pick up another sort of toil—perhaps emotional and spiritual—but there may have been some relief leaving the back-breaking life of a labourer.  


Again, the task of the poet is to take the shell of a story, or a few vague words, and turn them into something meaningful.  The twelve will need humility, simple trust, and a keen sense of what they are leaving behind in order to follow.  Likewise, when we take up the invitation to follow Jesus, we also need humility, simple trust, and a keen sense of what we are leaving behind in order to follow.  Followers of Jesus swap toil for toil, the hardship of meaninglessness for the hardship of service.  The hardship of despair for the need to care for the despairing.  Graceless living for costly grace.  I could go on.


Instead, I want to highlight another poet, this time Amanda Gorman, 22-year-old youth poet laureate of our neighbours to the south.  In an instant she became the most famous poet in the land, by doing very much the same work that our other poets did.  You see, the Oath of Office taken at the inauguration is the same 35-word statement recited since this experiment in self-government began.  So what do you say in response?  The job of the poet is to “stand before the text” and find meaning in the moment, or meaning for our time.  So I’ll share a sample:


When day comes we ask ourselves,

where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry,

a sea we must wade

We've braved the belly of the beast

We've learned that quiet isn't always peace

And the norms and notions

of what just is

Isn't always just-ice


Her brilliance is in naming the trouble in our times without being specific.  She doesn’t tell us what trouble she feels we should list as the trouble that truly matters, she simply points to trouble.  And in troubled times, this can only help us attach our worries and our hurt to her words and see where she will take us next.  She begins with the dawn:


And yet the dawn is ours

before we knew it

Somehow we do it

Somehow we've weathered and witnessed

a nation that isn't broken

but simply unfinished


It’s a longer poem and I encourage you to read it, but for today we are left with open-ended hope: not the answer, not any kind of solution, just the recognition that their nation isn’t broken—as many would claim—but simply unfinished.  Taken another way, it’s not a call to fix things, but to begin to finish what was already started—and get back on the best path.


Jesus called the twelve without a detailed program, without benchmarks, or a measure of performance.  Jesus simply said “there is unfinished work to do, the Kingdom of God has come near” and then “come, follow me.”  He gave them open-ended hope that the Kingdom would come, and that together they could be part of something larger than themselves.  


All they need to do, all that we need to do, is follow.  To follow and turn the outline of our lives into poetry, for Jesus’ sake, Amen.  

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Epiphany II

1 Samuel 3

7 Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

8 A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. 9 So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The first rule of comedy is repetition. The second rule of comedy is repetition. The third rule of comedy is, you guessed it…

Perhaps the real second rule of comedy is don’t analyse comedy, but we’re going to do anyway.  Repetition, stating the same turn of phrase over and over, is funny because it does the unexpected.  In my example, it was funny the moment I repeated repetition, and then it’s up to the audience to decide when it’s no longer funny.  

Another version of repetition is in the set-up.  “Two guys walk into a bar” is an example, where we’re anticipating something funny because we know a joke is coming.  Likewise with “Knock knock,” which we might describe as training wheels for the aspiring comic.  Again, the repetition of the frame tells us that something funny (may) be coming.

Back to the first example, repeating a phrase or situation over and over tends to trigger a delight response, especially when it involves children.  Bil Keane’s iconic joke that begins with some variation of “What did you do today, Billy?” (followed by a look at his route around the neighbourhood) is just one example.  Another, of course, is the call of Samuel.  The author’s triple-telling is a signal that this is meant to delight us:

Samuel: “Here I am, you called me.”

Old Eli: “I didn’t call, go back and lie down.”

Parents and babysitters will also recognise another bit of humour here: the kid who keeps getting up.  And like my first joke, it’s cute for a time, until it stops being cute altogether.  Back to Samuel and old Eli, the key to the passage is hiding in plain sight at the beginning: “In those days the word of the Lord was rare.”  It takes Eli two or three goes to recognize what’s really happening here.  After all, the word of the Lord was rare.  

But with recognition, and a skilled teacher, Samuel learns that the Lord is speaking and learns an appropriate response: “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The word that follows—what will become his first prophetic utterance—isn’t an easy message to hear.  The Lord reveals to the boy that his mentor Eli will fall from grace, owing to the misbehavior of his sons and his inability to restrain them.  What began as a playful exchange becomes a hard word for Eli and his family.  No one said being a prophet would be easy.

Jump to our gospel lesson, and we see a strange parallel.  It begins like the old shampoo commercial, when you told two friends, and they told two friends.  Jesus calls Philip, and Philip calls Nathanael saying 'come and see the one foretold in the law and the prophets...Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.'  And without missing a beat, Nathanael says "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  

Again, we tend to be entirely too serious when we approach scripture, since Nathanael has just used another comedic device: hyperbole.  Hyperbole exaggerates or overstates something that may or may not be true, but it’s fun to say.  There’s nothing wrong with people from Nazareth—per se—but saying it makes it funny.  

And there’s another comedic device here too, that of the stereotype.  We recognize that this is one of the more dangerous types of humour (often misused) but when used with good intention it can be very funny.  Think small town rivalries, or Leafs versus Habs, or whatever people in the Galilee thought about from Nazareth, and you get the humour.  

 And like our introduction to Samuel, there is a similar movement that will follow.  Jesus’ call to the disciples is largely playful—’come and I’ll make you fishers of people’—but the outcome will be anything but.  And maybe that’s intentional.  A teasing quip about Nazareth or a clever turn on fishing is the lightness needed when the outcome for most of these followers will be suffering and martyrdom.  

I think the closest parallel here would be a film where you already know the ending.  If it’s a film about a beloved person who dies at the end, we enter the theatre ready to be sad.  But that’s not how storytelling works.  The film may open with a reminder that this beloved person is gone, but we are soon lost in the story from the beginning.  Whatever humour or lightness found at the beginning is even more pointed in light of the end.  Our delight is increased because we get to love and laugh once more, even knowing the end of the story.  

So, two lessons here.  The first is to delight in each moment you can, knowing the end of the story.  It’s not an easy lesson to hear or an easy lesson to apply to our lives.  But we know that God gives us delight in the form of humour, tenderness, absurdity, playfulness, and a countless other small things that we can only see if we truly look.  Life is serious enough that we shouldn’t take it entirely seriously.  Life is hard enough, and short enough, that we need to delight in what we can.  That’s the first lesson.

The second lesson is the cost of being a disciple, or in Samuel’s case, a prophet.  Once you accept the call, everything becomes more complicated, more perilous, more demanding.  We can delight in the relationship between Samuel and his mentor, but we also know that Samuel’s first task as prophet was the beginning of a very hard life.  Likewise, the joy of walking with Jesus each day, the gift of his teaching, the window on eternity—all these things live under the shadow of the cross.  And even knowing the end of that particular story—new life in Christ—doesn’t diminish the pain of being a witness to his passion.

Just like Samuel’s time, the word of the Lord is rare in our day.  But just because God is the strong silent type, doesn’t mean God is absent.  God is in the delightful, the touching, and the moving.  Christ is in others, and the people who minister to us.  And the Spirit is all around us, and in us, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, January 10, 2021

Baptism of Jesus

 Acts 19

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

It began with a vision, as these things often do.

Sometime after the Council of Jerusalem, St. Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia, and in this vision, the man spoke:

“Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

So he does. Paul begins this leg of his journey in Philippi, where he meets Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. Her heart is open to the Good News that Paul shares, and she is baptized—her and her entire household.

Thus begins Paul’s entrance into Europe, an initial success that will soon become something else altogether. The latter half of Acts 16 reads like a Hollywood screenplay—an accidental healing, some swift justice, a violent earthquake, and a surprizing conclusion where Paul and his companion Silas talk their jailer off a ledge and help him find new life in Christ.

Their travels continue—Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth—to places that will become synonymous with Paul’s ministry, and places that will illustrate the challenges he faced. By the time Paul reaches Ephesus, it becomes obvious that he’s a step behind another evangelist, Apollos. And this is where we pick up our story:

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we haven’t even heard that there’s a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

“We haven’t even heard there’s a Holy Spirit!” This confession has to be one of the most delightful responses in scripture. You can almost hear Paul’s internal “Oh my goodness!” as he struggles to understand what they do know, and what they have done to adhere to the faith. And the point of the story, it would seem, is to allow us (and them) to understand the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism. With this they receive Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descends, and the story continues.

I will leave off a discussion about the baptism Jesus receives at the hands of John the Baptist, and why the one-without-sin would submit to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Instead, I want to dwell a moment longer with the unfortunates who didn’t even know that there was a Holy Spirit. They didn’t know, they said, because no one told them.

It’s important to note here that Paul didn’t ask them if anyone told them about the Holy Spirit. He asked if they received the Holy Spirit, which is a whole other matter. Experiencing the Holy Spirit, as they finally would, is quite different from being informed. Paul didn’t want to know what information they had, he wanted to know what experience they had—in this case, an experience of the Holy Spirit. In other words, they didn’t have the answer because they couldn’t understand the question. How could they? They didn’t know the Holy Spirit.

I share all this for a couple of reasons. First, to illustrate that our faith is based on experience and not just knowledge. It’s helpful to understand the basic tenets of the faith, but more important to feel the tug of the Holy Spirit as we pass through this life. To know that Jesus walks beside us, and to feel the presence of a loving God. They received the Holy Spirit and then began a new life in Christ Jesus.

The second reason is topical, here at the end of a very long and troubling week. What we witnessed in Washington was alarming, infuriating, tragic, and sad all at once. I feel like I still lack the words to sum up what happened, and put it into some sort of faith perspective. Obviously it’s a story about sin and human failure, and the power of words to distort and inflame. But it’s also a story about mistaken belief, and the extent to which people can be manipulated to say and do things they might otherwise never say or do.

It also leads me to ponder populism, which we increasingly associate with the right, but can belong to either end of the political spectrum. With populism, people join a movement—always a powerful thing—and then paint their hopes (and fears) on the populist leader. The populist leader can then direct their followers in an appropriate direction, often for good, or they can do the opposite.

The malevolent populist will use vague and misleading rhetoric to inflame his followers, and direct them toward a particular goal. And goal may not be the right word here, because the populist may only want chaos, or to maintain power. The point here is that those who follow the populist may or may not understand or follow the goal. Instead, they may simply have taken the rhetoric and interpreted it in such a way that they come to believe that the populist will deliver on those hopes and fears.

What I think I’m trying to say here, is that it’s easy to write off everyone who falls for the malevolent populist, and to deride people who seem to finally (!) understand the danger that this particular populist poses. It’s harder to try to imagine that many were truly conned, or fell into a cult, or were manipulated by mass media and social media. Of course, some are criminals and should be treated as such. And some are enablers and should be banished from public life. But many—too many—were misinformed about the goal or the nature of the project, and will someday suffer the regret of being part of such a terrible era.

There are many more things to say, of course, and these will be said in time. One topic is white privilege, and the extent to which Wednesday was a master class on the way protest is met depending on the race of the protestors. And there are other learnings. For today, we pray for America, and we pray for the families of those who died, and we pray for peace.

Finally, we pray for the Holy Spirit. We pray that the Holy Spirit will enter and transform hearts, that the Holy Spirit will reveal a way forward in troubling times, and we pray that the Holy Spirit will provide comfort in an anxious time.

And may we, who know the Holy Spirit, pray always that others receive the same gift. Amen.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Christmas II

 Ephesians 1

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ[a] before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance,[b] having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this[c] is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.


Ironically, one of my favourite films begins with the news that the theatres have been closed on account of the plague. Henslowe, the owner of the Rose Theatre, has just been accosted by Mr. Fennyman, the producer (aka “the money”). Demanding to know what will happen to the play he is paying for, we get this exchange:

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Fennyman: So what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

“It’s a mystery” becomes a touchstone throughout the film, as we get a highly fictionalized account of how a young Shakespeare transforms “Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter” into the play we know and love. Does anything in this account resemble what really happened? I don’t know, it’s a mystery.

I share all this because of my love for romantic comedies set in Elizabethan England, and because of one critical verse in our reading:

God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together in Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.*

So often with St. Paul, we get the answer to the question without actually getting the question. Sometimes the question appears earlier in the text, and sometimes the question may have come in the half of the correspondence we did not see, and sometimes the question is just a question someone might ask. In this case, it seems to be the last one, the kind of question that lives all around us: what is God’s plan?

This is not the micro “plan for your life” question, although we are certainly part of God’s larger plan. This is a larger question, like ‘what is it all for?’ What is God’s plan for creation and creature, the work of God’s hands. And where does Christ come in, aside from in the present season?

Maybe that’s too many questions, so we’ll stick with ‘what’s the plan?’ Imagine that something as simple as ‘what’s the plan’ inspired Paul to write. And further imagine that Paul is addressing an audience that understands the troubles of this life. There is the obvious “nasty, brutish, and short” nature of life at the time, and then there are the universal constants of loss, heartache, and a quest for some semblance of meaning.

What is the plan? For much of time, the answer would be “it’s a mystery.” Seasons of life and faith unfolded, and God would chide and bless in good measure, sending prophets and people of goodwill to communicate God’s desire for our lives. Being human, we found ways to enjoy the blessing and ignore the guidance, often finding trouble even before trouble could find us. God needed a new plan.

God being God decided to take the bold step of entering our world. And since the plan called for experiencing all of human life, an obvious part of the plan was to enter our world as a child. The details are well known to us. And upon entering our world, there would need to be a sign, some manifestation of the unfolding before us. In time, we would come to call this Epiphany, which we mark on January 6—the season of light.

At Epiphany, we celebrate the first light of God’s plan. All the signs come together, the star of Bethlehem and the Light of the World, the Word made flesh and the light that shines in the darkness, the very light that the darkness shall never overcome. ‘The time was right,’ as Paul tells us, because “at the right time he will bring everything together in Christ—everything in heaven and on earth.”

Just now you might be thinking ‘ah, yes, but the trouble remains.’ And that would be true. The coming of the light didn’t take away our trouble, it simply began a process that continues to this day. Recall that Jesus prayed “Thy will be done (meaning God’s plan), on earth as it is in heaven.” This tells me that the plan continues, with a beginning, a middle, and a future end. And this is where we find ourselves. In the very middle of God’s plan, a plan that continues here in the heart of Epiphany.

Here’s how I know: “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said, and then he said ‘you must let your light shine for others, that they may see me in you, and in the God who made you’ (Matthew 5 and John 14). When we let our light shine for others, God is glorified, and the light is cast further and further in the shadow places of our world. We don’t make the light, we cast the light. This is always God’s work, the work that we share. But in sharing this work, in casting the light of love and mercy, we see Christ in others and in ourselves. And the plan continues, ever forward, to that final moment when heaven and earth are joined again.

May the light of love and mercy surround you, as you surround others, Amen.

*New Living Translation, adapted.