Sunday, November 17, 2019

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

Uh-oh, now you have an earworm. You know, those sticky how-will-I-get-this-song-out-of-my-head moments that can stretch into hours? And you’re not alone. According to researchers, 98% of of us get earworms, and they tend to involve snippets of popular songs between 15 and 30 seconds long. Only 8% of us get instrumental earworms, and I expect they now regret buying the Star Wars soundtrack.

Oddly, the research shows that for women, earworms last longer and irritate them more (I’ll let you construct your own clever comment here). The good news is that there are cures, including chewing gum, Sudoku and other puzzles, or finding another song to replace the song in your head. I think we know how that ends. The ultimate cure, it would seem, is to avoid popular music, the source of most earworms. Alas, I expect it’s too late for most, since you’re already down to the last verse:

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right

Curiously, the young radicals of 1968, protesting in the streets of Paris and Chicago, saw the song as a betrayal. The New Left Review call the song a "a lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear,” and another publication suggested the Beatles had become enemies of the revolution.

Meanwhile, John explained that he began writing the song in India while studying Transcendental Meditation. He “would later say that the phrase repeated in this song, ‘it's gonna be alright,’ was borrowed from something the Beatles learned during the course. They were taught that God would take care of the human race no matter what happened politically.* Amen to that.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, another revolution is brewing. Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

They got the when and the what, but they didn’t ask the how. The actual destruction of the Temple happened late in the summer of AD 70. The conflict is called the First Jewish-Roman War, when the Romans besieged the Holy City, eventually destroying the Temple and altering the course of Jewish history. It seems the Roman general Titus had no intention to destroy it, instead wanting to rededicate the Temple to honour the Roman gods.

The fact that the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the Temple remains an important point in our look at this passage. What was Luke trying to say by giving the Temple such a prominent place in his telling? The destruction of the Temple was top-of-mind for his audience, and remains an important part of Jewish consciousness. Maybe Luke wanted to underline the events of AD 70 as he promoted the Jewish-Christian movement that would become Christianity. Or maybe he just wanted to signal the start of a revolution.

“Watch out that you are not deceived.” Jesus said. “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

Jesus goes on to describe conflicts and famines, “fearful events and great signs from heaven.” He describes persecution, and trials, and in an obvious reference to a post-70 timeframe, he suggests people will be “handed over to synagogues and put in prison.” In other words, it seems Luke is trying to do two things at once: comfort his audience in the midst of trouble, and point to the dawn of a new age.

And this might be the moment to meet N.T. Wright once more. I had occasion to hear him speak back in 2015, and his message was all about understanding the times and recognizing that we live in a new age that began on the Day of Pentecost. Let me explain.

Dr. Wright began his talk with this: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” He argued that the petty squabbles that divide Christians get in the way of the real story that God wants to tell: the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm someday become one.

So how does it begin? Wright argues that this is a story with five acts. It begins with creation, the first act of our life with God. Then disaster strikes in Act Two, as we are forced from the garden and reminded to never trust a talking snake. Act Three is the the call of Israel in two very unlikely people—Abraham and Sarah—the father and mother of three great religions. Act Four is the sending of Jesus, including his death and resurrection, and finally Act Five, the time after Pentecost—the time defined by the work of the disciples. According to Wright, we are in this last stage, the fifth act of God’s story of us, disciples acting for God in the world, seeking to ‘put to rights’ all that is wrong.

And based on N.T. Wright’s telling, our opening dialogue about the Temple can be either speculation about the end of the Temple-cult or a message about the age to come. Both are revolutionary. Judaism will reinvent itself and find new ways to honour the Most High, and Christianity will enter a pentecostal age, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles. We often speak of finding yourself in scripture, but Dr. Wright is more direct: the Book of Acts continues, and we are simply the latest characters in an unfolding story.

Now, I expect that if we took our roving microphone out to Weston Road and asked people to name the age we live in, the Age of Pentecost might not come up. We might hear Age of Terror, Age of Environmental Crisis, or (Lord help us) the Age of Trump—all sorts of names and ideas that are top-of-mind, much like the first readers of Luke thinking about the destroyed Temple. And I must confess I might be the first to say Age of Populism or Age of Disruption or some such rather than the age that God would claim for us.

What we need (what I need) is some good old-fashioned Lennonism—that would be John Lennonism—and the belief that ‘God would take care of the human race no matter what happens politically.’ And here is how I know: throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are shipwrecks and setbacks, conversations and conversions, baptisms and believers coming to Christ and changing the world. And at the same time, there are governors and emperors, world events and political episodes, but they play virtually no part in the unfolding story of the age as recorded in Acts.

Yes, the apostles seek to ‘put to rights’ all that is troubling, and yes they seek to promote God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, but their primary job is to love and serve others, and live with the confidence that God will take care of the human race, no matter what happens. The revolution they represent is a reunion, standing with the God who made heaven and earth and intends to draw them together at the last. It is a revolution of the age to come, and ‘don’t you know it’s gonna be alright.’ Amen.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Remembrance Sunday (Proper 27)

Luke 20
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

If you’re gonna argue, you should do it right.

Okay, then, what’s right? Well, doing to right means avoiding some of the countless false arguments that people tend to use. So now we need a list, and almost every list of fallacies or false arguments begins with the ad hominem argument. It sounds trickier than it actually is.

An ad hominem argument attacks your opponent rather than the substance of what they are saying. “Crooked Hillary” is a classic ad hominem attack. When you attack someone’s character, their motives, attack their friends, or compare their current stance with something they said in the past, it’s an ad hominem attack. Some argue (successfully) that we live in an ad hominem age.

The next and very common argument is the strawman, attacking a simplified version of your opponent’s argument, or an intentional misunderstanding of the same. If the topic is the science of evolution and someone says ‘my opponent would have you believe that we all came from monkeys,’ then you have just witnessed a strawman argument. It’s an unfair characterization.

Of course, I would be betraying my roots if I didn’t mention the ‘red herring,’ both an argument and the somewhat smelly fish. Seemingly, the phrase came from the practice of using herring to train hunting dogs away from needless distraction. And so, a red herring is an attempt to distract you from the matter at hand. From this point forward, any talk about the whistleblower is a red herring—a topic has been eclipsed by subsequent events, but still serves as a way to distract.

My final example is the bafflement argument, sometimes called an ‘argument by gibberish,’ where someone constructs an elaborate and seemingly technical scenario in order to baffle their opponent. Imagine a group religious thinkers who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. In order to further their argument, they construct a complicated and highly unlikely scenario where seven brothers each marry the same woman in turn, and then face the awkward possibility of a crowded afterlife. According to the Sadducees, this bit of bafflement proves that there is no resurrection of the dead.

Until they meet their match in Jesus. But before we learn again why it’s no accident that Jesus is called the “master,” we should close the circle on the art of arguing. Taking the ‘seven husband story’ as an example, it could fit other false arguments too. Here are a couple more:

Misleading Vividness is another, adorning your argument with so much detail it begins to seem plausible.*
And Argumentum ex culo, which I’m going to politely translate as “pulling an argument right out of your imagination.”

Jesus, the master, has heard it all before. You might even argue that he understood the weakness of their argument before they made it, but that would only serve to distract from the logical response he gave. He said five things:

The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
They are like the angels.
They are God’s children.
Even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”

This five-point response is the perfect counter-argument to the classic bafflement he’s met with. Jesus creates a thesis (“The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage”), adds some salient notes, and reaches a tidy conclusion—all in four verses. It has internal logic, it’s progressive—building one point on another—and it moves from the literal to the metaphorical, revealing truth.

Yes, I said truth. One of the sad realities of our time is that people have conflated factual and truthful. In our overly literal minds, we tend to forget that metaphors can be true, even if they are not factual. Let me give you an example: Time is money. On the face of it, it’s not factual: money is money and time is time. But it’s also truthful, because anyone who has ever received a paycheck knows that there is a relationship between the time worked and the money received. Further, we know that both time and money are scarce, part of the reason that the metaphor ‘time is money’ rings true everytime.

So Jesus begins with a literal statement, a statement of fact—said with the kind of authority we expect from the teacher, master, or Son of the Most High: “The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” That’s our starting point, the literal foundation of a dicussion that will now shift to the symbolic and figurative.

“They can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” This is metaphor. Angels, children of God, children of the resurrection—this is a creative way of saying that the dead belong to God in a unique way. Notice Jesus says it three different ways, three ways that we can ‘try it on’ to see what fits. Obviously, symbolic language speaks to the individual, it reaches each of us in different ways. At different times we will find ourselves and others in one of these metaphors—angels, children of God, children of the resurrection. They are all true, and some are more true than others, depending on what’s happening inside you at the moment you hear it.

And then Jesus appeals to the story of Israel, a perpetual touchstone for people of faith, but even as he reaches in this direction, he remains in the realm of metaphor. “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’”

Now, I’ve preached this passage more than a few times, and this time I found a new metaphor I hadn’t seen before: Jesus summarizes the story of receiving the covenant at Sinai as “the account of the burning bush.” Titles tell you what the speaker thinks is important, and in this case the presence of God in the bush that burns but is not consumed is an important element to the story, and perhaps in the story of God too. Something to ponder.

Back the dead, it’s all in the tenses. Jesus points to the use of language, noting that when Moses speaks to God it’s ‘you ARE the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ never ‘you were the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And then his conclusion: ‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.’ Jesus has taken us from divine certainty, through symbolic language we can make our own, and concluded with a vision of the living and the dead, alive together in eternity, forevermore.

Remembrance Day gives birth to more stirring metaphor, and we use these words to express how we feel about the events of the past. One example is describing the dead as “the fallen.” The fallen can continue no longer, but encourage others to pick up the struggle and carry on. It recognizes the sad irony that sometimes you have to fight to further the cause of peace.

We also speak of the sacrifice made in war, both the men and women who left home and family behind, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice—giving their lives. Entering harm’s way, setting aside personal needs, fighting to protect others—these are best described using the language of sacrifice.

Even the word remembrance itself, is loaded with more than memory: remembrance is an active endeavour, fusing commemoration and commitment, the desire to remember and the willingness to continue the cause of peace.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. Amen.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Anniversary Sunday

Joel 2
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.
28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I want to begin by saying it’s not my fault.

I’m just gonna put that out there, and then tell you about the scary slides. But before we get to the scary slides, I have to step back further and tell you about my not-so-secret life as a consultant. For you see, every once and a while I spend a Saturday trying to help some other congregation think about mission.

It is the context of these occasional opportunities to help that I show the scary slides. It happens like this: first we look at the nature of change in our society, and the extent to which everything that held in the past no longer seems to hold. For example: when a rather amateurish-looking video with a catchy song about a baby shark gets three-and-a-half-BILLION views online, you know the world has changed.

Next, we talk about the late Professor Phyllis Tickle, and her concept of the Great Rummage Sale, how the Holy Spirit seems intent on shaking things up about every 500 years. The last time it was the Reformation, and the time before that the Great Schism. According to the professor, then, we’re in the midst of one of these great spiritual rummage sales, and there is no way to know where it will lead (spoiler alert, Dr. Tickle was a big fan of the Holy Spirit).

And after such a lofty and abstract discussion, we retreat to more practical topics like duty versus choice, the current tension that plagues congregations with a population between the ages of 60 and 90. The older group still loves the D-word, and will drop everything to do their duty, while the younger cohort thinks duty is four-letter-word. There are usually smiles of recognition, and hopefully a little more understanding between members.

And then we look at the scary slides. For you see, all the mainline Protestant denominations—United, Presbyterian, Anglican—began to decline in 1965. And there are scary slides to prove it. Church membership began to decline, but the truly scary numbers were downstairs, where 600,000 kids in Sunday School across the church in 1965 became 250,000 just eight years later. Let me state that in the reverse. There were 600,000 kids in our Sunday Schools in 1965, and 350,000 less kids just eight years later. Other stats are equally scary. In 1963 there were 718 people preparing for the ministry, and five years later there were just 94. In another decade the number would rebound—in part because women were entering the ministry—but it still fits the overall pattern of decline.

Just now you’re thinking that this the weirdest Anniversary Sunday sermon ever, and you might be right. Still, born in 1965, it’s not my fault. I’m sure I screwed up somewhere along the way—but with the decline beginning in 1965, I think you get the point. And further, there is virtually no one left who was a church leader in 1965, which lets everyone else off the hook too. You see, we are constantly trying to understand what happened, or where we went wrong: was it the New Curriculum in the 60s or our look at human sexuality in the 80s, or some other outrage or misstep along the way? No, not when the scary slides show the opposite. Something was happening in society in the late 60s, something that we’re still trying to understand, in this church, and every other church, across most denominations, and throughout the land.

This would be the moment that I move to the reading, but before I do, I should finish the story. After all the theory, and dropping the D-word, and showing the scary slides, I try to inspire people with stories of congregations that have reinvented themselves and found a way to reconnect with their communities—which is the real secret of congregational renewal. So I talk about Central, our outreach, our commitment to study, and the habit of testimony that we developed almost by accident; I talk about Hillhurst in Calgary and ‘radical hospitality’ (some ideas we have already stolen) and I talk about what’s happening in the UK, where they got a 20-year head start in terms of decline, yet continue to innovate.

And in each example, we see the Spirit at work, the same Spirit described by the prophet Joel:

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Poor Joel, always a minor prophet, always a victim of the smash-and-grab approach to biblical literature—where one quote seems to sum up all we know about him. But what a quote! And if you’re thinking ‘dream dreams’ and ‘see visions,’ where have I heard that lately, you need only remember Pentecost, some twenty Sundays past, and still the season we inhabit. The church in its wisdom gave half the year to the spirit of Pentecost, the season that begins with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost.

It is the moment that the first church comes out of hiding and finds her voice. With wind and flame the Spirit greets them, and a thousand tongues are loosed to sing God’s praise. But there is more happening in this moment that the birth of the church: it is the moment that dreams and visions are unleashed, when the Spirit takes hold of some very ordinary people and compels them to do some extraordinary things. Extraordinary things like creating a church: a church to love and serve others, a church to extend mercy, a church to embody all we know about the compassionate way of Jesus Christ. It almost feels like the moment to land the plane (sermon-speak for end the sermon) but I see you’re still chewing on something, so let’s go back.

Why 1965? You used to love 1965: a new flag for Canada and the year Heather and Dave made their debut (among others). What on earth was happening to cause such a shift in 1965? Well, a couple of my colleagues were losing sleep over this question too, so Larry Doyle and David Ewart did some digging. The root of the problem came with a rule: in order to have your little bundle of joy baptized, you needed to join the church. So, throughout the 1950’s parents of those first-born boomers were joining the church, swelling our numbers, and making the whole picture look good. Every week there was a new church or Sunday School building being dedicated, all because people wanted their children baptized.

But around 1957 or ‘58, we were into the subsequent born. Sure there were more kids, but the parents were already members, so that source was getting cut off. At the same time those first boomer babies were nearing the end of Sunday School, and only some of them were being confirmed. In other words, we hit a peak. It also explains why I spent so much time in the 90s asking about names on the roll—who are all these people, does anyone know them? Not really, because they came for a reason or a season, then they moved on.

Now I can land the plane. But just before I do, I want to tell you about Dr. Rob Fennell and some of his work related to thriving congregations. I heard him speak at a recent event, and he teased us with some of his research (he has a book in the works, so he didn’t want to give it all away). After interviews and surveys across Canada, he has identified six attributes of thriving congregations, and then he shared four.

The first one he called ‘starting with yes.’ He described congregations that answer ‘yes’ when challenged, and then try to work out how to make it happen. Our tour after worship might be a good example (new food bank). The next attribute is having a strong identity, which means knowing who you are and to whom you belong. The next is risk-taking, getting involved with activities that others might find surprising or off-putting (a needle exchange comes to mind). And the last—that he was willing to share—was leadership: elders and members who embody the first three, starting with yes, knowing who they are, and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.

Now, we ought not get sore patting ourselves on the back. These attributes are always aspirational, and we could certainly think of ways we failed to live up to one through four. But I would argue we are on the right side of the ledger, that work and worship happen in this place, that faithful people remain open to the Good News and all it demands, and that we make 198 look good.

So as we begin the next 198 years, may God continue to bless us, may the Risen one walk beside us, and may the Spirit move within us, new and always, Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

It all begins with Jethro.

No, not that Jethro—son of Jed’s cousin Pearl. Although he does drive them to California at the beginning of the show, so you could say it all begins with Jethro, but that would another sermon altogether.

Our Jethro, for the purpose of this sermon, is Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who plays a small but critical role in the development of Jewish law. And it begins with an intervention. Moses, you will recall, led the people into the desert, helped them through some moments of great peril, and generally acted as the sole judge of these people. It was no small job.

In Exodus 18 we learn that Moses is adjudicating day and night, wearing himself out, trying to settle disputes between the people he is called to lead. Enter Jethro. Verse 14 begins with this: “When Jethro saw what Moses was trying to do, he took him aside and said ‘You idiot! (I’m paraphrasing here) Why on earth are you doing this alone? You should appoint some judges to do this work, maybe just after you teach the people how God expects them to live.’”

So Moses does. But before he does, Jethro has more advice, again from Exodus 18:

They must be God-fearing men who can be trusted and who cannot be bribed. 22 Let them serve as judges for the people on a permanent basis. They can bring all the difficult cases to you, but they themselves can decide all the smaller disputes. That will make it easier for you, as they share your burden.

Everyone who participated in our Lenten study should be feeling a flush of recognition, this description of the beginnings of the legal tradition in ancient Judea. Moses (on Jethro’s advice) becomes the High Court to these wandering people, with judges appointed to do the day-to-day work of administering justice. It’s the basis of a legal system that will feature in our parable, and it’s the basis for the legal system that exists in Canada today. Notice Jethro says ‘let them serve on a permanent basis,’ still a bedrock principle of the justice system, still protecting judges (and the system itself) from the ever-changing whim of popular opinion.

But before we move to the parable, a bit more on these judges appointed by Moses. At this moment in the story of Israel, Moses is the sole connection to God. He is the prophet who teaches God’s commands, interprets these commands in the administration of justice, and appoints judges. There are no priests at this stage (there will be soon) so the judge is a more religious figure than our modern minds might assume. They are appointed to carry out God’s commands, with Moses standing by to help.

And this got me thinking. What kind of person might fill this role? Interpreting God’s commands, settling disputes, seeking justice for the vulnerable. Then I remembered The List. But before I tell you about The List, you need a little more ancient history.

Back in my day, you could join the church on Sunday, meet the elders of the congregation on Sunday afternoon, go to presbytery on Tuesday, have an interview, and become a candidate for ministry the same evening. Obviously this rarely happened, but it was possible. The church, in its wisdom put the brakes on that path, and created something called discernment instead. But that’s not the ancient history that matters here.

The history that matters was a new process and the articulation (for the first time) of the attributes that a congregation should see if they think there’s potential minister in their midst. So here is the list:

A deep spiritual life
Personal integrity
An understanding of human behaviour
A passion for justice
The capacity for critical thinking
The integration of self
The capacity to be a life-long learner

I didn’t share the list so you could go ‘Michael, Michael, hmmm, let’s see, yup, yup, nope, maybe.’ I actually won a scholarship at Queen’s for being sixth place overall, a standard I strive to maintain. Don’t ask me how that fits with the list. Nevertheless, the list exists, and as congregations were compelled to see these attributes in potential ministers, they were also reminded that everyone is a minister, so the list applies to them (and you) as well. Again, that’s another sermon.

So assuming that the list also describes the kind of people that Moses might appoint as judges, let’s finally meet the judge of our parable:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice.”

You will notice that I have shared only the parable portion, not the frame that Luke provides. Yes, I think you should pray always and not give up, but I’m not sure that that is the point of the parable. And yes, I think God will attend to the needs of God’s chosen ones, but I’m not sure that’s the point of the parable either. All Luke was trying to do was provide some context to a difficult parable—so we might better look for meaning ourselves.

So first things first. We can agree that this is an unrighteous judge. The clue is when he says to himself “I don’t fear God or care what people think.” Clearly he would not find himself on The List, although he does have excellent self-understanding and an understanding of human behaviour. But two out of nine makes him unfit to serve as a judge, something that is so obvious that it may be extraneous to the point of the parable. I think Jesus was simply creating a foil for the widow, a character Jack Nicholson might play. (“You want the truth…”)

So that leaves the widow. What do we know about her? She seeks justice, she has an adversary, and she is relentless in her pursuit of justice. Having an adversary is a bit of a red herring in the parable, because the system was based on having an adversary—there were no prosecutors in the modern sense. All proceedings involved two parties, a detail we can set aside.

So the focus of the parable is a someone who seeks justice, and is relentless in the pursuit of justice. And who does that sound like? I’m going to suggest that God is the widow, constantly saying ‘grant me justice, grant me justice’ seeking it among creatures God created, seeking it for all the other widows, all the vulnerable ones who also cry out for justice. The unrighteous judge says he doesn’t fear God, but he sure does fear the widow and her constant cry for justice.

I’m going to let that settle in your imagination for a while, ever mindful that the preacher who made this suggestion finished sixth overall. I want to turn now to another topic that may be filling your imagination, a certain exercise in civic duty happening tomorrow. You will recall that we are non-partisan, strictly non-partisan and a law-abiding registered charity. We promote voting, we don’t suggest who to vote for.

A primary demand of Christian ethics is to pursue the common good. One of the most effective vehicles for this is voting, seeking to elect leaders that align with our sense of the common good. Put simply, we seek a “communitarian vision” (Anderson) where we live together peaceably, protect each other, and ensure that everyone thrives. Your tool to achieve this is your vote, cast for the person or party that (for you) best represents this vision.

But I also want to expand your toolkit, and for this, I think we need The List. Ignore that this as a list for potential ministers and eager lay people who take seriously the priesthood of all believers—imagine that this list describes someone who might be well placed to seek the common good. Let me walk through it once more, and add some annotation. I hope you vote for someone who has:

A deep spiritual life, not in the religious sense, but in the sense that they understand that life is more than the material or the tangible
Personal integrity, actions and word in alignment
Self-knowledge, especially a sense of their limitations
An understanding of human behaviour, and the way people can act against their own self-interest.
Intelligence, both smarts and emotional intelligence
A passion for justice, not just the charter, but justice for the most vulnerable members of our society
The capacity for critical thinking, seeing context and nuance, and the ability to see all sides
The integration of self, a sense of who they are and how they came to be who they are
The capacity to be a life-long learner, aware that there is always more to learn, that they don’t have all the answers.

May God be with you tomorrow, and may you join God in the relentless pursuit of justice, Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Luke 17
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Are you feeling thankful?

Is that even the right word? Maybe you’re feeling grateful instead. Maybe you’re gratified, gruntled (the opposite of disgruntled, of course) or just tickled pink. Maybe you’re chuffed, and if you don’t know what that means, you’re going to need to ask Harold, Barbara or Judith. Or someone who watches Top Gear.

And since we’ve crossed the pond for a moment, we should visit Oxford, or more specifically the Oxford dictionary, and investigate the difference between thankful and grateful. And you’ll be chuffed to know that there is a difference, something that doesn’t seem to be the case on our side of the pond.

So thankful, according to Oxford, means “pleased and relieved,” giving the example “they were thankful that the war was finally over.” Odd. And the second example, “I was very thankful to be alive,” seems to have been written by the same person who wrote the first. It doesn’t exactly say turkey and pumpkin pie, does it? So on to grateful.

Grateful, for Oxford, means “feeling or showing an appreciation for something done or received.” And then gives the rather obvious example: “I'm grateful to you for all your help.” This seems much closer to the mark, which makes me think everything we’re doing has been mislabeled. But before you toss out your Happy Thanksgiving napkins and party hats, maybe we should dig a little deeper—and for this we need scripture.

Ten lepers cry out for help: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” And without a thought, ten lepers were healed. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests—the only ones who can declare you clean—and they will discover that you are clean.’ So, off they go, but one turns back, praising God, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, and being thankful. At this moment Luke adds a ‘by the way’ to the story, saying ‘and by the way, he was a Samaritan.’ More on that in a minute. Jesus then transforms this healing into a teachable moment, saying ‘didn’t I just heal ten of you? Where are the others? Has no one else returned to praise God except this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’

So two things to consider here, the first is the tenth leper and the nature of his response, and the second is the obvious plot twist when we learn that this man is a Samaritan. Now, not wanting to wear you out with the dictionary, but I should point out that the nine who kept walking were likely “pleased and relieved,” meaning thankful, but it didn’t translate into any kind of tangible response. The tenth leper, “showing an appreciation for something done,” was grateful, and therefore returned to praise God and throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Now you can throw out the napkins.

And what about the plot twist? Does it matter that this man is a Samaritan? And why do Samaritans keep appearing anyway? So we’ll start there. In the literary world we find the idea of the ‘stock character,’ a person or group of people that frequently appear in a story to play a specific role—most often to embody a characteristic or trait. So Samaritans play the role of ‘the last person you would expect to do something’—like help someone beaten by robbers, or return to Jesus to express thanks. We don’t have time to do a full survey of the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, so I’ll give you some shorthand instead. Jews viewed Samaritans the way evangelical Christians view Mormons, or the way the NDP view the Green Party—and if that makes no sense, see me later.

For Luke, then, the Samaritan is playing a role. And like the Good Samaritan helping out when the so-called religious ones refuse to do so, the Samaritan leper turns around when the nine locals don’t. In other words, when the stock character—whoever that may be—understands the need to help or provides a grateful response, then we’re really going to be disappointed in everyone else. In other, other words, shame on the people who can’t respond as well as the outcast/foreigner/outsider/etcetera.

Now that the religious people have received their ‘direct message’ found in the lesson, what about those nine others? What are we to make of them? First thing to note is that they are still healed. Still released from a terrible ailment, still able to show the priest and be declared clean, still able to return to kin and clan, still able to rejoin the life they knew. With Jesus there are no take-backs, no retractions, no post-healing reassessment. They remain healed. A tad rude perhaps, but still healed.

And to understand the God of the no take-backs, we’re going to need to take a road trip, first to ancient Sparta, then Rotterdam, and finally a lovely town on the shores of Lake Zurich. Someday the readings will allow me to speak at length about Sparta, but for today I will only share a message from the Oracle at Delphi. It seems that when asked by some Spartan if they should go to war with Athens, the Oracle said "Called or not called, the god will be there” (vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit). I have no idea what happened next.

Meanwhile, 1,110 years later, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus is busy compiling Greek and Latin proverbs for publication (Collectanea Adagiorum) and includes this quote from Delphi (along with 4,000 others). Jump another 400 years, and a precocious 19 year-old named Carl Jung finds the quote and makes it his own. Decades later, as a pioneer in psychology, he will have the quote carved over his front door, a reminder to all who enter that “called or not called, God is with you.”*

Called or uncalled, God is with you. I actually prefer the alternate translation, “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” It takes the quote into the realm of worship, thinking of the bidding prayer—any words that express the sentiment “God, hear our prayer.” In other words, whether you acknowledge God or not, call on God or not, return and thank God or not, God is with you. So write it down, have it tattooed somewhere you can see it, or add it to your Twitter profile: “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” But please, use the Latin, ‘cause Latin makes everything classy.

So back to the no-show nine, or than thankless nine, God is with them. They have been released from sorrow whether they run back or not. And this is the nature of God’s unfathomable grace. You can sit out Thanksgiving, but God will still send sun and rain, secret growth beneath the earth, germination and growth, long summer days given to shorter, cooler ones, maturation and harvest, skilled hands at mill and kiln. You can neglect to thank God and still eat, but the experience will not be the same. Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.

Better, in the spirit of gratefulness, to show some appreciation. Grace received, new life given, hope restored—and we can give thanks. Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude transforms us, makes us into new people, restores us to the realm of grace where we can simply receive.

So, to you I say Happy Thanksgiving, or whatever combination of gratefulness and giving thanks you can make, knowing always that God is with you. Amen.


Sunday, October 06, 2019

Philippians 4.4-9

Philippians 4
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I have a vague memory of a time when every third word was ‘gentle.’

And it usually comes amid a parental word salad, along with ‘no’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘you better let me take this.’ Smashing, ripping, thumping, throwing—all part of the learning process, I suppose—discovering things like cause and effect, or what gets the best reaction. I recall a week when Isaac destroyed both remotes (it was a simpler time) and the VCR itself. Maybe he knew the technology was out of date.

I recall some years ago preparing for worship at a senior’s home, waiting for the staff to roll out the notoriously unreliable sound system for our use. On this day the staff person fiddled and fiddled until they reached the point that they were smashing the amplifier with the microphone and shouting “I don’t know why this thing’s not working!” Excuse me, I think I know.

You gotta be gentle. It works for toddlers, the frustrated—really anyone who thinks that you can smash your way to solving a problem. It generally works when dealing with other people, and it’s even good advice when dealing with ourselves. And it’s something that can be taught, as the smashing, ripping, thumping, and throwing behaviors give way to a new set of behaviours—like constantly asking why.

But that’s another sermon. For today, the advice is simple: You gotta be gentle. And don’t just take my word for it, listen to St. Paul, who begins this section of his letter to the church at Philippi with these simple words: “You gotta be gentle.” Then he says “The Lord is near.” We’ll come back to the second part of the verse in a while, but for now, it’s all about gentleness.

Recognizing that nothing ruins a perfectly adequate sermon like parsing the Greek, I’m going to parse the Greek. But I’m parsing with purpose, because sometimes a word needs to be explored in greater depth, and for this, we need Greek. Gentleness, in Philippians 4.5 comes from epieikos, one of those compound words that only makes sense if you break it down.

So epi- means ‘over’ or ‘in addition to’ and eikos- means ‘to yield’ or ‘to submit.’ You can see why we have Bible translators then, because telling someone to ‘over-yield’ sounds cumbersome and not quite right. So your pew Bible (NIV) gives us ‘gentleness,’ while other translations suggest ‘moderation’ (KJV) or ‘forbearance’ (ERV).

And just because we’re on a bit of a roll here, here is the English poet Matthew Arnold, who had his own swing at epieikos, suggesting it means “sweet-reasonableness.’ This sounds like something we all should strive for, like something you might want to overhear at a party: ‘That Michael—he’s known for his sweet-reasonableness.’

So what’s the context here? Why is St. Paul urging the church at Philippi to embrace sweet-reasonableness for all to see? To get to the request, it might be time to make a list, in this case ten things to know about Paul, his letters, and Philippi.

Paul wrote letters to people he knew, and letter was meant as a substitute for his presence with them.
Paul’s letters address specific issues within the church.
These letters really were meant to be correspondence— maybe shared around, but very much a letter.
A letter from Paul was meant to read aloud in worship, hence all the prayers, blessings, and fragments of hymns.
Paul sees no need to remind the church at Philippi of his authority as an apostle—indicating greater intimacy.
Paul describes the congregation at Philippi as a ‘house church,’ meaning small, and maybe very small.
The combination of a small church and greater intimacy with Paul gives the letter to the Philippians it’s hallmark beauty, simplicity and warmth.*
Immediately before our passage he urges two leaders in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche (YO-de-ah and SEN-te-key) to try to come to a common mind on some matter.
He doesn’t state the matter because he doesn’t have to— everyone in this small church understood why these two women were at odds, Euodia and Syntyche.
Paul seems intent on overwhelming them with love, something that seems plain from the language of our passage.

I guess I could have simply said two elders were fighting and Paul said ‘be gentle.’ That pretty much sums up the context, but now you also know that Paul knew and loved these people, he was invested in their success—if that’s even the right word. He wanted to convince them of a higher way, and he wanted to do it in the context of worship: praising the author of love through his words to the church.

So that’s the why of the matter, what about the how? How do you foster the sweet-reasonableness needed to move forward as a church? How do you become gentle, or at least mindful that gentleness is needed? Paul has an answer for that too, and he gives the answer in two of the most moving (and familiar) passages in all of Paul. The first is a blessing:

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

You may know this (in part) because it is part of our funeral liturgy, a blessing meant to calm hearts and quiet minds in the midst of suffering. It is Paul’s testimony that only the peace of God, the peace that frail human minds cannot fully comprehend, is the peace that will help us overcome trouble.

In other words, Paul is saying “I don’t know how this works, but it works.” Amazing, really, considering that Paul is Paul: he’s the architect of the Christian Church, and the foundational source of much of our theology, yet still doesn’t know the exact nature of God’s peace. I take great comfort in this—I don’t need to understand how God’s peace with protect my heart and mind, I only need to trust God in Christ Jesus.

And then this:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Obviously gentleness—the peace of God within you—requires practice, requires intentionality, requires mindfulness. I can’t really say ‘in other words’ at a moment like this, basking in the poetry of divine peace—whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Meditate on these and find some peace. Find the sweet-reasonableness that will allow you to live with others, and be a blessing to others.

Today we will share the most gentle of rituals, the sacrament of communion. Bread broken and wine poured—gifts of God for the people of God. Then the salvation history of our people will be recited in prayer, all leading to a single moment in time when Jesus said ‘this is my body, broken for you.’ The sign behind the symbol may be violent and cruel, but the remembrance is nothing but gentle, terror transformed by the peace of God—which transcends all understanding—transforming our hearts and minds through the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

Worldwide Communion is more than geography and joining together on the same day. Communion, worldwide or otherwise, exists outside of time and joins us with believers back to that house church in Philippi long ago and forward to the church of the future, whatever form it may take.

Most of all, we know that whenever we gather at this table, the Lord is near. The Lord is near because our hearts are joined in this peaceable ritual, drawn together in the sweet-reasonableness that is a life in Christ. Amen.

*Most of the list is suggested by Fred Craddock, Interpretation, p. 1-8.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 32
6 Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it.’
8 “Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’
“I knew that this was the word of the Lord; 9 so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels[b] of silver. 10 I signed and sealed the deed, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. 11 I took the deed of purchase—the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy— 12 and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard.

What Taye read wasn’t really a transcript.

And it certainly wasn’t a verbatim, and it barely approached the level of summary. It was more of a redacted memo, clearly edited to hide the more incriminating parts of the exchange. Luckily, with a little imagination—this happened before the subpoena was invented—we can reconstruct the conversation.

“Hey, earth to Jeremiah: you having a daydream?”
“Yeah, it was the strangest thing—I think the Most High wants me to get into real estate.”
“Real estate, huh? Isn’t the Most High more of a ‘follow me to the land I will show you’ kind of deity? Or ‘gather some creatures two-by-two’? And what kind of real estate? Just saying ‘real estate’ seems pretty vague.”
“A field, in fact. Remember my cousin Hanamel? Not that Hanamel, the other Hanamel, son of Shallum.”
“From Anathoth?
“Yeah, Anathoth. Anyway, in my dream the Most High says I have first-right-of-refusal. Seventeen shekels and the field is mine.”
“Well, I don’t want to rain on your parade here, but shouldn’t you ask Hanamel first?”
Just then there was a knock on the door.
“Hey, Jeremiah, you in there? It’s me, your cousin Hanamel. Remember that field you always wanted? We guess what, it’s for sale.”
“Okay, hold on. Jeremiah. I don’t want to interrupt the family reunion here, but you know the city is under siege?
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“And you know that Nebuchadnezzar, great general of the King’s Own Babylonians is leading the siege?”
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
And you’re remembering that just now we’re rotting in prison. Okay, maybe not rotting, but we are in prison.”
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“And you know that the old Babylonian trick is to carry off people like you and me, forcing us to live lives of relative comfort in Babylon?
“I know, I wanna buy a field.”
“Well, if you’re going to do it, you better do it right.”
“Great, I’m gonna buy a field.”

What follows is one of those remarkable—if not completely engaging—passages: a step-by-step guide to buying some land, circa 587 BC. It’s another element to an unbelievable story: imprisoned man buys a field in the middle to a siege, and follows each legal step as if it was just another day in Jerusalem. Clearly buying fire-sale items in the middle of a siege wasn’t unheard of. Why not make a few pennies on the shekel during a disaster? But there is no indication that this was a drastically reduced price. I think Jeremiah really wanted that field.

But why? What was his goal? Land speculation is risky at the best of times, but in wartime, you’re likely throwing your money away. So maybe it wasn’t Jeremiah’s goal at all, maybe the goal belonged to the Most High. Remember this starts with a vision, or a daydream, and God’s desire for Jeremiah to buy a field.

But that’s just the end of the beginning, Jeremiah buying a field. The real beginning of this story, the starting point for this story, is the call of Jeremiah. And it all begins in Anathoth, a detail that we’ll come back to in a few minutes. Meantime, God appoints Jeremiah:

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”
11 The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you see, Jeremiah?”
“I see the branch of an almond tree,” I replied.
12 The Lord said to me, “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”
13 The word of the Lord came to me again: “What do you see?”
“I see a pot that is boiling,” I answered. “It is tilting toward us from the north.”
14 The Lord said to me, “From the north disaster will be poured out on all who live in the land.

The branch of the almond tree is a play on words, since the Hebrew for branch and ‘watching over’ sound alike. And the boiling pot tilting toward us from the north, that’s an all-too-accurate description of the disaster of conquest and exile. But that’s in the future. Jeremiah’s task to “speak truth to power” and eventually share a word of hope.

Enter the false prophets. The false prophets were obviously unconcerned that the people had turned to foreign gods—gods like Baal and Molech—unconcerned that disaster at the hands of the Babylons was coming, unconcerned that the Lord had turned away. Jeremiah was abused, and threatened, and soon imprisoned. But the voice of the prophet cannot be silenced.

I want to pause for a moment before we return to Anathoth and the boiling pot that is tilting to Jerusalem and tell you about another looming disaster that we’re all too familiar with, even as we struggle to name it. The symptoms are obvious enough: the rise of populism, distrust of governments and so-called elites, and the chaotic circumstances unfolding in the nations closest to us.

And now, with some time for reflection, patterns are beginning to emerge. Close study of attitudes and activities across several Western countries has highlighted the real divide of our time. It’s less the division between left and right, even though those old lines remain clear—and more between those who would maintain the existing order and those who would tear it all down.

And these researchers have made the alarming discovery that nearly 40 percent of the population across these countries fall into the ‘tear it all down’ category. These people have lost faith in the existing order, including governments and the leading voices in society, and are seeking alternatives. They come from both the left and right, they tend to be disadvantaged in some way, or have simply lost faith in the idea that the future will be better than the past. They are particularly open to voices that cast blame or propose simple solutions to complex problems. And they are easy to reach—social media amplifies alternate voices and allows people to find each other—for good or for ill.

And on one level they have a point. Wealth inequality, a changing economy, the environmental crisis—none of these problems have been adequately addressed by the people who lead us. But the alternative—‘tear it all down’—is too frightening to contemplate when we remember how thin the veneer is between order and chaos, Syria being just one example.

So what is the answer? How do we respond to the growing number of people who want to tear it all down? The same scholars who describe the problem say that the answer is found in overcoming the original divide between left and right. If centerists or moderates (from the left and the right) can stop fighting and work together to solve larger problems, then ‘tearing it all down’ will be less attractive, and seem less necessary to the discontented.

I promised to tell you more about little Anathoth, and the reason it is so important to the story of Jeremiah. It’s Walter Brueggemann that insists that the real story of Anathoth starts 400 years earlier, around the time of King Solomon. His father, the King David, ends his reign worrying about dynastics matters, settling old scores, and smoothing the way for Solomon. And Solomon follows suit, exiling a certain Abiathar, an important priest and leader, to out-of-the-way Anathoth. For 400 years, Brueggemann says, this family watches as the arc of imperial power goes from good to bad, faithfulness to corruption, with Baal and Molech to prove the point.

Enter the prophet. From little Anathoth comes Jeremiah, witness to the long descent from promise to peril, 400 years on the outside looking in. God calls Jeremiah to take on the false prophets who promise to make Judah great again, who promise limitless growth and easy victories over powerful foes. Jeremiah can’t right the boiling pot that’s set to pour over the land, but he can offer a word of hope, because God told him to buy a field.

And Jeremiah bought that field, the end of the beginning of the story of redemption, but just before he did he spoke to the people and shared the promise that God can never turn away for long. The prophet speaks:

“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations;
proclaim it in distant coastlands:
‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—
the grain, the new wine and the olive oil,
the young of the flocks and herds.
They will be like a well-watered garden,
and they will sorrow no more.
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.
and my people will be filled with my bounty,”
declares the Lord.