Sunday, October 13, 2019

Thanksgiving

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.

*http://www.jungnewyork.com/photo_vocatus.shtml

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.

Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
3 “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6 “‘Nine hundred gallons[a] of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’
7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’
“‘A thousand bushels[b] of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
8 “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”


Do you ever get the sense the radio is talking to you?

So I’m listening to cable news on the radio, and they have to fill the commercial breaks with their own crop of ads, often over and over and over. Like this one: “Maybe you’re over fifty, maybe a little porky, and maybe you take meds to control your cholesterol.” Suddenly I’m feeling a little self-conscious. And then the conclusion: “Call Big Lou, he’s on meds too.” I like what you did there, Lou.

The second most frequent ad is for debt consolidation loans, because sometimes using one card to pay off another card just won’t cut it. And the next most common is under the general heading of tax relief, paying someone to negotiate with the IRS on your behalf. I didn’t even know that was a thing. If you weren’t listening carefully you would think it was a country song: ‘I was gonna lose my house, my car, my dog—until I called this highly memorable 800 number to get out of paying the tax I owe.’ I can confess that this is the moment I start shouting at the radio, using words generally reserved for sailing. Why not simply pay the tax you owe?

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. There was a rich man whose manager was profligate with company assets. So the rich man called him to the top floor and said, “You’re fired! Now sort out your accounts and go away.” Then the manager thought to himself: ‘I can’t dig ditches, and I won’t beg, so I guess I better find a way to retain my standing with my friends.’

So he called on some people with unpaid invoices. “I'm offering you a write-down,” he said, “even though I know that technically a write-down describes the reduction in the book value of an asset when its fair market value has fallen below the carrying book value.” Seems the manager has been reading Investopedia. For one it’s a 50% write-down, and for another it’s 20%. All in all, a good day for debt recovery, no memorable 800 number needed.

And then the conclusion, half a verse to sum up the parable: “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” If it feels abrupt, that’s likely because it is—the various verses that follow feels like someone trying to jam in those last puzzle pieces that just don’t fit. Jesus spend upwards of three years sharing parables and aphorisms, those pithy sayings designed to make you stop and think. What seems to have happened in Luke 16 is an attempt to explain the parable of the Shrewd Manager by attaching a set of sayings that might explain it. But it doesn’t quite work.

Worldly people are shrewd when dealing with their own kind.
Use worldly wealth to gain friends.
You're either trustworthy or you're not.
You can't serve two masters—you can't serve God and mammon.

I think the last one is true, and certainly sounds like something Jesus would say, especially if he was in a mood. But like the others, ‘God and mammon’ doesn’t seem to fit the parable. So back to the drawing board, and back to the assumption that Jesus presented this parable as a tiny literary unit meant to convict or confound—in this case, to confound.

But rather than remain confounded, we can turn to the work of John Dominic Crossan, one of the rare biblical scholars who understands ancient culture as well as he understands the Bible and someone who frequently looks at the Bible through the lens of class, power and social position. He also tries to relate the gospel story to the customs and worldview of the people that surrounded Jesus.

In this case, he describes a society organized as patrons and clients, interconnected by the work of brokers. Much of Jesus’ world was organized like this: for the vast majority of non-slaves, everyone was involved in little pyramids of power. Each little pyramid was headed by someone with more wealth than most. We’ll call him a patron. He would naturally attract clients, who by association would become important themselves. They, in turn, would attract their own set of clients, and by doing so become middlemen, or brokers. Each little pyramid would have layer upon layer of clients, all trying to better themselves or at least keep their position in the overall pyramid.

Enter our shrewd manager. We have tended to think of him in a traditional employment way (a modern concept) but instead we need to put him near the top of his little pyramid. We also need to bear in mind that there was lateral movement between pyramids, where being part of an “old boys” network would help you shift from one to another if need be. And this is exactly what is happening in the parable: our shrewd manager has found a way to keep his place in the overall structure even as he gets caught mismanaging his patron’s money.

Just now you’re thinking, ‘yes, but where’s my lesson? Parables are meant to show us the kingdom, to reveal something about God.’ And that’s a good point. Situation, complication, kingdom lesson—that’s what we’re here for. I see what you want, but I’m not sure you’re going to like it. Like the radio ad that seems to be talking right at us, the parable just might be about you and me. Let me explain.

If accept Dr. Crossans hierarchy—patron, broker, client—we might begin by looking for ourselves. To start, we’re not the patron. The patron is the all-powerful one, the one that blesses and pardons, and that’s more likely God that us. So there’s that. Maybe you’re humble (like me) and think ‘I guess we’re clients then, minor characters in this unfolding drama.’ But that feels too easy, simply getting in line with the invoice we forgot to pay. Paying 50 cents on the dollar for something we own doesn’t tell me anything about the kingdom. So what if we’re brokers?

Back to Investopedia, we learn this about brokers, or using their formulation, power brokers:

A power broker is an individual who, through his or her connections, is able to influence the decisions of other parties. A power broker is typically an industry insider, and is familiar with other individuals and groups able to exert influence or make decisions. Power brokers may be elected officials, business leaders or individuals who are "connected."

It all sounds rather positive, so let’s add a dose of human nature to the description, and try again:

We’re human, so we try to use our wits or our connections to influence the people around us. We want to be loved, or just taken seriously, so we try to impress others with the clever things we say or do. We want to associate ourselves with people or places that matter, and we’re not above name-dropping to make our point. Most of all, we want to be connected—connected with the right sort of people, because you never know when you might need help in the future.

In other words, we’re shrewd. And depending on where you sit, being shrewd is something to be embarrassed about or just part of being human. Recall the end of the parable: the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. In other words, God is saying ‘I know who you are, and I know what it takes to survive life on earth, and I can even acknowledge the moments you are the most shrewd.’ At the end of the day we are loved and forgiven, loved in spite of our need to continually broker what little power we have, and forgiven for the various ways we go about it.

May we see ourselves in the light of the kingdom, loved and forgiven, and free to love God in return. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 15
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”


There is a certain sadness that comes with the end of summer.

Maybe sadness is too strong a word. Maybe I should say longing, or loss—a sense that something has passed and will not return—until next summer, of course. But we still have summer memories, stories to share, and books that finally made it off the shelf.

In fact, this summer I tried a new approach to reading. Rather than pick from the “I guess I better read this” selection on the shelf, I decided to read only books I found at the dollar store. Call it my frugal homage to summer reading—and the surprizing titles I found along the way.

First, a work of fiction—Patricia Bracewell’s “The Prince of Blood”—an historical novel set at the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Queen Emma is at the centre of a tangled web of characters, including King Æthelred (yes, that Æthelred) and her brood of children and step-children.

Next up was Antonia Fraser’s book “Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832,” a work that’s not just for nineteenth century parliamentary history nerds, but the general reader too. Everything that is currently happening across the pond—a nation divided, a bitter fight at Westminster, and a sense that the monarch is getting dragged into this mess—happened in 1832. And everything turned out alright.

Finally, I read David Alexrod’s autobiography called “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.” Axelrod begins as a cub reporter in the tangled world of Chicago politics, then starts running political campaigns, and eventually advises a young community organizer and part-time law professor who would become the 44th President of the United States. Along the way, you discover that Obama (and Axelrod) must live in the tension between high idealism and the vexing choices a candidate (and then a president) must make.

Back to sadness, the book describes some of the seeds of the current mess south of the border (the Tea Party appears midway through the book) and the sense that something has been lost—a deep respect for the office of president, an administration with a sense of history (Dr. King looms large as a touchstone), and the common decency that was present just three years ago.

Loss is a strange thing—it can appear from nowhere, and sting with a sense that it exists outside of time and reason. Things that you didn’t know you were missing can press in on you, making themselves known and pushing aside everything in its path. It involves people, of course, but loss can include circumstances and settings, times past, and a “world” that is gone and feels like it may never return.

And into this melange of emotion enters Jesus, sharing three parables about loss, two of which feature in our reading today. The three of them—lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son—fit the same pattern: a situation described, a problem solved, and a glimpse given, always a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. We get to learn what God is like, or rather, the things that God cares about, and the way God responds to those involved.

Before I do that, however, I want to describe another book, read long ago, that has something to say about the topic at hand. I’ve mentioned it before, and it remains one of those top-five-desert-island-books that demands attention even if you don’t read it. The book is Judith Viorst’s “Necessary Losses,” first published in 1987.

You might know her by her most famous book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” A great book, but for today it’s “Necessary Losses” with the sub-title: “The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow.” That’s pretty much the whole book in the title.

You left your mother’s womb, that was a loss. You went to Kindergarten: loss. You made a friend and lost a friend: loss. You graduated and they forced you to go on to what’s next: loss. First love, first car, first job, first former job: loss. Do you get the picture? Everything new, everything next, everything now eventually transforms into something else or nothing at all. All that we have and all that we hope to have will be with us for a time and then be with us no longer. Summer is mostly over, and 2019 will soon follow.

Viorst argues that everyday is a little loss, but if we accept it, and maybe even embrace it, we can live more fully and happily. And it’s not that we will somehow stop feeling it, or stop marking it, but rather we will make it a part of ourselves, the necessary losses that make up life on earth.

Meanwhile, in heaven, something else is happening:

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

First, see the pattern: a situation described, a problem solved, and a glimpse given—a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. Coin is lost, coin is found, and there is great rejoicing in the Kingdom of heaven. Situation, problem, solution. But what we don’t see as clearly in the parable, but is nevertheless present, in the sense of loss. Maybe it’s easier to see in the first parable, or the key moment in the first parable:

Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

This is loss God feels. God feels the sting of that lost sheep, and the logic-defying desire to pursue that lost sheep when worldly-wisdom says ‘cut your losses.’ For the Most High, there are no losses to cut: there is only you and me, lost or nearly lost, and always the subject of an intensive search. The great rejoicing in heaven is a mirror of the great loss God feels over the one-that-got-away. Or nearly got away, because the pursuit is endless, and the resolve to find us infinite.

But there is more. The story of Jesus is also a story of loss. God (in Jesus) also left the womb, left the adoration at the beginning of the story, left the safety of clan and region, left the known and the familiar, left home in the Galilee, left the comfort of the open road, left the Temple in dismay, left the disciples in moment of uncertainty and betrayal, left his life on a cross, left the tomb, left his friends in a locked room, left his companions by the seaside, and even left the table when the bread was broken and the wine was shared. His whole story is one of loss, reminding us that God knows the loss we feel in the most intimate way possible.

But after loss comes rejoicing. The God that promises to turn our mourning into dancing will not tire in seeking us in our time of loss, nor stop rejoicing when we are found. Even those who mistakenly think they’re are already there, already found, are being pursued by the God-who-searches, through our misapprehension, through our false sense-of-self, and (for some) through the desire not to be found at all. God’s refrain is always the same, and ever shall be:

Seeking the lost, seeking the lost,
Saving, redeeming at measureless cost.

Amen.

Sunday, September 08, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.


It was the trial of the century.

The fifth century, that is—the fifth century BC. The accused was Socrates, philosopher and teacher, and the charges were serious: corrupting the minds of Athens’ young people, and impiety— refusing to follow the gods of the state. He was convicted, of course, and infamously forced to drink Hemlock, a mode of execution in Athens at the time.

There is little doubt these were trumped-up charges. If he corrupted the youth, it was only by encouraging them to think for themselves. His impiety was even harder to square. More likely, his trouble was based on a very public experiment he conducted, quizzing the great minds of Athens and finding them wanting.

His experiment began when his friend asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle said ‘no.’ Troubled by this, Socrates began quizzing the greats of Athens, in an effort to disprove the oracle. It didn’t quite go as planned: What Socates learned instead was that the great minds were too convinced of their own wisdom. By contrast, Socrates was well-aware of the limits of his wisdom—making him, somewhat ironically, the wisest man in Athens. This conclusion embarrassed many in Athens, mostly participants in this public experiment, and may have led to the philosopher’s death.

I share all this because many have noted the similarity between Socates and Jesus: both were teachers, with disciples, and both wrote nothing, leaving this to others. Both were concerned about the kinds of lives people chose to live, and were intentional about setting an example. And both faced trumped-up charges at trial, dying for what they believed in. Given the opportunity to flee, neither Socrates nor Jesus chose to do it.[1]

And then the similarities seem to end. If you had to describe Socrates’ thinking in a single phrase, it would likely be the question, “what sort of life is worth living?” In other words, what does the good life look like, or what do you need to do to be happy and fulfilled? To draw a contrast with Jesus, we get these words:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Jesus’ single phrase might be “pick up your cross and follow me,” recognizing all the trouble you might find on the way: strife with family and friends, a world that cannot understand, and a lifelong commitment to the way of Jesus that most often seems the opposite of ‘the good life.’ So I want to further explore some this contrast, but first we should look at the context of Luke 14.

This middle section of Luke can perhaps best be described as the ‘long journey up to Jerusalem.’ It includes healing and teaching, conflict with the religious elites, and an increasing sense that this conflict will lead to peril. In chapter 14, there is direct conflict over healing on the sabbath, and a parable (the Great Banquet) that reminds us that the kind of people we hope to find at the heavenly banquet—friends, family, those who resemble us—may not be there after all.

And it leads to what we might best describe as a ‘hard saying,’ an intentional overstatement that catches our attention and tries to shake us from our dearly held assumptions. I think most of us assume that a good relationship with family is important, we might even class this as a dearly held assumption, but Jesus says ‘no’ — commitment to the way of Jesus is more important that those closest to us, and even life itself.

As I said, a hard saying. And like other hard sayings that would have is lob off a hand or cast out an eye, we need to give the message the gravity it deserves without resorting to self-inflicted mayhem. We need to accept the lesson and allow it to settle on us in a new and profound way, trusting that it’s medicine worth taking.

This passage itself, if it had a name, it might be Counting the Cost. And to that end, Jesus gives a couple of examples, a builder building a tower, and a ruler contemplating war. Taking just the first one, the logic is arrestingly simple: who would embark on a project unless you knew you have the resources to complete it. If you build a foundation but have no money for walls or a roof, you will become a laughingstock.

Likewise the decision to follow Jesus. If you make a commitment to walk in his way— to live with love and mercy, to treat others as you wish to be treated, to forgive generously— but chicken out at the first sign of trouble, then why begin at all? Stated another way, if you accept that we serve a God of forgiveness and love, then why would you avoid healing on the sabbath, or any other example of rules getting in the way of compassion?

Jesus had little time for convention or the rules if they interfered with an overarching need for love and mercy. And this is where we get to say a few kind words about our old friend Socrates, because he would be the first to ask ‘what sort of person should I be?’ Should I be the dogmatic rule follower, leading an unexamined life, or should I live with conviction, even if it means making some powerful enemies? Socrates could have renounced his beliefs, or ran away, but he decided to accept death as part of a life well-lived, something Jesus would do too.

Just now you might be thinking ‘this is all well and good, pastor, but what about a modern example for us?’ Who is living with this kind of conviction, breaking the rules for the sake of others? Who is facing the scorn of others to do the right thing? Surprizing, perhaps, that for many, it’s a sixteen year-old Swede that comes to mind, a climate activist for just a year, and already the most famous young person in the world.

Greta Thunberg began, of course, by breaking the rules: skipping school every Friday with her hand-drawn sign saying “school strike for climate.” Some of her teachers were unimpressed, but her parents didn’t stand in her way. At first, she couldn’t convince others to join her, but she carried out her strike anyway. Then finally her protest was noticed, and within four months she was invited to speak at a climate conference. Soon others took up her protest, and by this past spring over a million students followed her lead to protest inaction on climate change.

Some find her message and her approach unsettling. She has endured personal attacks, mostly from the usual suspects that dismiss the climate crisis. Still she persists, describing the threat we face in the most direct manner, and assessing blame where it properly belongs. She has helped many of her peers to move from helplessness to appropriate anger, and inspired countless older people along the way.

In many ways, she is a blend of both “what sort of life is worth living’ and ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ Living with convictions is hard, and many of us try and fail on an ongoing basis. Still, we take inspiration from the Greta Thunbergs of this world, and we do our best. Jesus reminds us that living with convictions will put you at odds with others, and even with ourselves, but still we must try.

It would seem that everyone I have mentioned today would encourage us to think for ourselves. Let the youth of Athens make up their own mind on the great matters of the day. Let the activists speak uncomfortable words when the fate of the planet is at stake. And let believers follow in the way of the cross, even when it puts them at odds with kin and clan.

May love and mercy be our way, now and always, Amen.

[1]Boulton et al, From Christ to the World.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”


Simple question: are you a beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe?

One of these creatures is suddenly living in your imagination, and while you ponder that, I’ll tell you what I’m on about. For a few years now, I have had the privilege of training internship supervisors, the brave few who are willing to assist student ministers reflect on their practical training.

When we get to the module on learning styles, we begin by inviting them to move into groups: beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. And like a moment ago, we pose the question out-of-the-blue, with little time for second guessing or overthinking the exercise. We hope people will just know.

So having arrived in their groups—beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe—we further invite them to describe themselves: how they learn, how they relate to others as they learn, and the kinds of things that can get in the way of learning. This is usually the moment we have to tell the monkeys to be more serious, maybe stop grooming and self-grooming, and the lesson begins.

I’m going to suggest that the story of Mary and Martha is akin to beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. There are two sisters with very different roles in the story, and I expect you can somehow identify with one or the other. Leaving aside some of what seems like judgment in the passage (more on that later), which character can you best relate to? Where would you find yourself? Serving or sitting? Doing or being? Beaver or giraffe?

Remembering that we have set aside the judgment for a moment, we find ourselves in one or the other character. So then, like beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe, there is no correct answer. There is only the nagging awareness that we do tend to one sister or the other: listening at the Master’s feet, or busy serving everyone else.

I said “nagging awareness” because I’m not sure many are happy in the self-awareness that they are Mary or Martha. Maybe it’s the binary choice you reject, or maybe the truth is a little uncomfortable, or maybe it’s one of those compromise situations when no one is happy with their choice—making it a good comparison.

The church, the mainline-Protestant-present day church where we sit, is filled with doers. This is not judgement—remember we set it aside for the time being—it is simply the recognition that many of us will choose action over reflection, doing over being, activity over contemplation. Not that we’re averse to reflection or contemplation, it’s just that we like to DO something—the more meaningful the better.

We could spend the afternoon debating the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, but Weber was clearly on to something, maybe best summarized by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) who said “earn all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.” Keeping busy is imprinted on our DNA, and it needs to be balanced with the ability to stop once in a while and ponder.

In an earlier time, and in a much different context, St. Benedict was busy drafting his outline of monastic life. The summary, his summary, is captured in the Latin phrase “Ora et Labora,” meaning “prayer and work,” the model of life in community. People drawn to holy orders were naturally drawn to a life of contemplation, and needed to be reminded, it would seem, that prayer must be balanced with work.

We seem to be drifting into judgment, but before we arrive there, I would point out something else about our passage. Jesus does bless Mary and the contemplative life she is leading, but he is also doing something else: he is blowing up gender norms along the way. To explain, I give you Luke 4.38 and following, one of those ‘so-true-it-makes-you-laugh’ passages that only a man could write:

38 Now [Jesus] arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made a request of [Jesus] concerning her. 39 So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.

I’m sure she was healed for the sake of healing, and not because they were waiting for tea and scones. Forward to Luke 10, and the tea and scones are on their way, but there is Mary, sitting at the Master’s feet, adopting the role of student or acolyte, fostering her own small revolution in religious practice. This passage has lost the power to shock, since we know both Marys and Marthas, but to the first reader, this was an extraordinary turn-of-events.

But hardly a surprise in the context of the early church. Paul’s first convert in Europe is a woman, and many of the leaders he cites in his letters are women. Even the pseudo-Paul instruction that women should remain silent in church presupposes that women were not previously silent. They may have been silenced by the church that lost its way for a few centuries, but we know that silence was never the original plan. Christianity was a ‘religion from below,’ made up of women, slaves, ex-slaves, people at the bottom of the social ladder who truly understood (that in God’s mind) the last shall be first, and the least shall be the greatest of all.

My resident bible scholar tells me that women began to lose their place as leaders when the church moved from homes into purpose-built churches. Our passage marks the beginning of the previous phase, when student-minister Mary is receiving the training required to lead a house church, and her sister Martha is struggling to understand what is happening.

(If you will allow me a topical aside, it is no accident that the four members of the United States Congress being singled out for torment are women. Being women of colour adds a racist overtone to the story, but the first scandal in the minds of many is that these women have forgotten their place. Their strength and moral clarity are a threat to many who cling to an outdated way of thinking.)

It seems we have arrived at the judgment phase of the sermon. Looking over the short passage we have been given this morning, on turn of phrase leaps of the page for me and that is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Maybe Jesus meant to say ‘she has chosen what is better for her,’ toning down the either-or of the passage, but he is very clear at the end of this remarks: It will not be taken away from her. Student, contemplative, revolutionary—it will not be taken away from her.

In the end, we all get to be Mary or Martha, and like the opening exercise, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. We can be either, and we need to be both. Like ora et labora, we need to be dedicated to prayer and work, being and doing, action and reflection.

Prayer and study feeds our service and serving must be grounded in prayer and study. It’s not binary, it’s mutually-dependent. Like our friends in Mount Dennis, it’s the church of St. Mary and St. Martha, and may it always be so, Amen.