Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Sunday

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

Come and see what God has done,
the wonders wrought upon the earth.
God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.
Be still and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth.
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

John 15
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Obviously every town and village in England is unique, but Accrington deserves our attention today.

First, it’s the birthplace of Charles Edward Hoyle, the young man we honour today in our service of remembrance. It’s also the home of his nephew Jim, who received the letters that were so carefully preserved by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

But there are other things about Accrington that stand out: the town is famed for making the hardest and densest bricks in the world, used in the construction of the Empire State Building, and the foundation of the Blackpool Tower. In town, the Haworth Gallery holds Europe’s largest collection of Tiffany Glass. And there is one more thing the town is known for— the Accrington Pals.

The Pals were part of a unique strategy employed in the Great War, reportedly the brainchild of Lord Kitchener himself, that entire battalions would be made up by recruits from a single town—pals. The logic here was that young men would be more inclined to perform valiantly in the service of friends and neighbours.

It doesn’t take a lot of 20/20 hindsight to see what might go wrong. On July 1, 1916, just one day after the death of Charles Edward Hoyle, the Accrington Pals joined the Battle of the Somme near Serre, resulting in over 600 casualties in the first 30 minutes. At the same moment, maybe a mile away, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out, a 90 percent casualty rate that was only surpassed by the West Yorkshire Regiment fighting some six miles south. It fell to a German officer to put all this in perspective: “Somme,” he said, “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The Somme joins a list of military disasters beginning all the way back at Cannae, to Antietam, and Gallipoli just a year earlier. History tends to turn on such battles, national identities are forged, lessons are (sometimes) learned, and the real cost of war becomes plain to see. We don’t celebrate the end of wars, we mark them: with solemnity, and humility, and a sense of awe at the sacrifice made.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In all things, Jesus begins with the individual and human cost of where we find ourselves: giving calm in the midst of trouble, healing in the face of suffering and loss, a word that brings life when the world cannot. He gave his disciples the seemingly simple command “love one another,” and knew that only in the fullness of time would they come to understand what this means. This was not kindness or amity, but a love that remains costly and implausible.

The first sacrifice, of course, would be his own. The water was barely wine when we learn that the temple that will be destroyed in just three days is his body. That unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. The world will see me more no more, he says, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

And this brings us back to the Somme, Vimy, Hill 70, and all the other names and places lodged in memory. It was Sir John Arkwright who managed to describe the journey across this ruined landscape, putting the individual and human cost in perspective:

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

One hundred years on and there is a natural tendency to relegate these things to the pages of history. For many in our society, the Great War seems as distant as the War of 1812. The difference, of course, is the continuing presence of monuments and plaques, preserved and in some cases updated to include Afghanistan and dates from our century.

And these memorials, many designed and dedicated in the 1920s, broke with the past and the conventions of remembering victories in battle. Gone were the equestrian statues and their supposed symbolism, one leg raised for a wound received in battle, or the triumphal arch.

Instead, the memorial makers opted for a different direction, Lutyens Cenotaph in the centre of the street at Whitehall becoming the most emulated design. An arch or pedestalized rider became an empty tomb, the wreath of remembrance in stone, a place to remember the dead who were missing or far away.

The other difference is the listing of names, ten in this room, and dozens more in our Upper Room. Search long enough, and most public buildings from the first decades of the last century will have a list of names: employees, students, members, individual names that draw the eye, asking only that we pause and remember.

Within the church, of course, we have a unique role to play, both in remembering and putting human conflict into the context of our faith. And it’s not just for the aftermath: chaplains were found in trench and field, sharing words of comfort, often quoting verses such as the psalm we shared this morning:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.

Back home, these same words gave comfort and reminded worshippers that God’s desire was peace, and an end to the wars that begin in the human heart. For concord between the nations, and justice within the borders of the same.

One of the resources I fell upon this week was a copy of the service of thanksgiving, published by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, for use on Sunday, November 17, 1918. And while the hope of the moment remains only a hope, even a hundred years on, the words still speak:

“Grant that a just and merciful peace may repair the losses and heal the wounds of war: unite in the bond of brotherly charity those who have been at enmity; and continually guide the counsels of the nations, to the promotion of thy glory and the lasting welfare of [human]kind.”


Sunday, November 04, 2018

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 146
Praise God, O my soul. As long as I live I will praise God.
Yes, as long as I have life I will sing praises to God.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
the One who keeps faith for ever,
who gives justice to the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry. R
God sets prisoners free, restores sight to the blind.
God straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
God cares for the stranger in the land,
and sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.
God shall reign forever, O Zion,
your God for all generations. R

My mother liked to tell the story about the time she was an enumerator, visiting homes throughout East Gwillimbury, adding people to the voter’s list. She and her co-worker were met at the door by a potential voter with a less-than-welcoming look. When informed about the purpose of the visit, the person was quick to say “I’ll not be registering to vote—you see, I’m voting for God.” My mother’s co-worker, without missing a beat, said “I see, ma’am, but God’s not on the ballot.”

There is something magical about having just the right comeback at just the right moment. I think we all wish we were as quick-on-our-feet as my mother’s co-worker that day. But setting aside the power of a good comeback, I’m left puzzling over the response, and the extent to which religious people vote for God.

If we could track down this anonymous non-voter, she might tell us that there should be a strict separation between church and state, and that those most actively involved in a life of faith should focus on that realm alone. Most Amish, for example, choose not to vote, believing that politics belongs to the material realm, and they would rather remain in the spiritual realm.

Or, perhaps her motives related to our “fallenness,” the idea that humans are too corrupt to govern themselves. It was Billy Connolly who said “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one. Don't vote. It just encourages them.” I’m not sure this person in the wilds of East Gwillimbury was channeling the great Scottish comedian, but the impulse is the same.

The last suggestion is that she was advocating for theocracy, literally “rule by God.” One need only point to Calvin’s Geneva to see where this leads. In the mid-1500s, people in Geneva came to believe that God had ordained that Calvin should rule every aspect of faith and life in the city. Social control was maintained by a group of twelve elders who heard reports once a week of any moral infractions. Penalties included fines, excommunication, banishment, and death. Blasphemers, traitors and adulterers were put to death. Every “vice” was banned, including alcohol, dancing, cards, the theatre, laughing in church, coming late to service, and so on.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but theocracies exist in our world, and at least one politician was campaigning this past week on the idea that it’s okay to make war on your neighbours if they don’t support a program that bans abortion, same-sex marriage and idolatry. And all of it hinged on obeying “biblical law” without defining what that means.

Now, we on this side of the border have an internal mechanism, somehow inserted at birth, that protects us from wacky things that happen down there. It’s a self-protection thing, allowing us to say ‘yeah, but that’s America’ without needing to spend too much time worrying that what happens there will somehow happen here. The reflex keeps us sane, but it also lulls us into a false sense of security. Sleeping next to an elephant, as Trudeau the Elder famously said, means that “no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Just now you’re thinking ‘this sounds like one of those pre-election sermons that the preacher feels compelled to preach, but we’re not having an election. Has he been listening to too much MSNBC again?’ Amazing how I can read your thoughts. And I might agree that I’m listening to too much MSNBC except that the lectionary, our three-year cycle of weekly readings, gave us Psalm 146, one of the most overtly political psalms in the hymnbook.

It begins by echoing our old friend up that country lane in East Gwillimbury:

Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.

This seems to have shades of Billy Connelly, but it’s clearly a hymn to the Most High, as the very next words say “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth.” This is voting for God, seeking help and hope when the princes of this world have returned to dust.

So let’s travel this road for a moment, and consider what this ‘vote for God’ might look like. And most often, we begin with a platform. Good metaphor, the platform, which of course is made up of planks, things politicians stand on, and ask for our vote. And the psalmist, God’s campaign manager, doesn’t disappoint:

[God is] the One who keeps faith for ever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
sets prisoners free,
restores sight to the blind.
straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
cares for the stranger in the land,
sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.

Just now you’re thinking ‘this God sounds like a Democrat, maybe Beto O’Rourke’ but I don’t think you’re right—not that I want to disagree with your imaginary interior monologue. That’s probably rude. No, the clue that this is not about a party or their platform, as close as it may appear to Psalm 146, is in that last line: “but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.”

The great Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and dean of applied theologians, would say that’s Pharaoh, the ultimate object lesson when “the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.” We want to imagine that there is some sort of running battle between progressive forces and those that stand in their way, when (for Brueggemann) the stakes are higher and the objects of the lesson are bigger.

Let me explain. First, we are reminded that there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the Exodus. God hears the cries of the Israelites, and God moves within history to free the people, but God does it by hardening the heart of Pharaoh. Somehow God brings an end to empire by acting through Pharaoh and what are the very worst impulses of maintaining power in the face of popular rebellion. Even Brueggemann can’t explain it.*

Next, Brueggemann underlines the true reality of what’s happening at the Exodus. And he does it by lifting up one of those verses that is easy to overlook in the scope of a dramatic story. The verse is Exodus 11.7:

"But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel."

In other words, this is the God who takes sides. Not between political parties or contrasting ideologies, but between oppressed and oppressor, slave and taskmaster, the hungry and those who are excessively fed. It’s a remarkable thing, this God who takes sides, but it’s also a note of caution, and a safeguard of sorts to be aware that we alternate between oppressed and oppressor, we can feel enslaved but we can enslave others, and we generally spend more time feeling fed than hungry. We can get very excited about the God who takes sides until we soberly assess which side we’re on–sometimes depending on the day of the week.

And there is one more thing, a kind of coda to this platform that God is running on, this manifesto for the bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans at the rear of the caravan. The God who remains ‘wholly mystery’ and more-often-than-not inscrutable, does provide moments of clarity and comprehension. And this takes us to the second reading Victoria shared:

“First,” Jesus said, “Love God through the mystery, with all your heart, your soul, and your strength. And second, do this [knowing full well that it was a perfect summary of bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans too]: love your neighbour as yourself.” Amen.

*The Prophetic Imagination

Monday, October 29, 2018

Anniversary Sunday

John 11
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”
43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face.
Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”

What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?

I don’t want to burst your bubble, but the answer is ‘it depends.’ If you’re talking about the Bible in English, and specifically the King James Version of the Bible, then yes, “Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible.

If, however, you are looking at the original Greek, the answer is found at Luke 20:30 which says “the second.” You can see why we don’t like sticklers. There is nothing memorable here, a snippet of a verse that recounts the story of the widow who married six brothers before finding herself in a rather awkward situation in the hereafter.

I can share all this because “Jesus Wept” has it’s own Wikipedia page, sharing details like the controversy over the shortest verse and equipping you to be uniquely tiresome at your next dinner party. But this is fun, because the entry reminds us that, “Jesus wept” is commonly used to express exasperation.

So, as you go on and on about that thing your minister told you about “Jesus wept,” it would be entirely appropriate for someone to say “Jesus wept, what kind of sermon is that?” As we try to escape this homiletical funhouse mirror, I should say that some describe Jesus wept as a “minced oath,” that thing you might say that your mother claimed as still swearing—like ‘gosh’ instead of ‘God.’ So “Jesus wept” instead of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Whatever it is, it’s only the shortest because we want it to be, the verse that everyone can claim to have memorized, the verse that packs a punch because it’s at the very centre of an important narrative in the unfolding story of Jesus in John.

I say Jesus in John because the story of the Raising of Lazarus only appears in John, and has the important role in the story of being the seventh sign, the seventh miracle that John wants to mark for us and make us take note. So we will. But before we do, we should review the story of the death of Lazarus.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is the longest single story in John aside from the passion story. It begins with news sent to Jesus, some miles off, that Lazarus is sick. Mary and Martha send word that their brother is ill, but Jesus decides to remain in place longer, explaining to his disciples that “this sickness will not end in death.”

When Jesus finally arrives at Bethany, Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. A crowd has gathered to mourn Lazarus, and support the sisters in their grief. Martha meets Jesus first:

21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

You might say everything that follows this brief exchange is just an add-on, details to fill out the story. But God has more to show us, so we continue. Mary confronts Jesus next, making the same argument, and this time Jesus wept. Voices in the back ground swell up, ‘could he have not prevented this may from dying, he healed others?’

Jesus insists that the tomb be opened, and the practical people object: ‘four days, Lord, he’s been in there for four days.’ Then Jesus says, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He is speaking, of course, to us as much as Martha and Mary and the anxious crowd. The stone is rolled away, Jesus prays for Lazarus and then says in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The dead man comes out dead no more.

Before I take you back to the seven signs, I want to go back to “Jesus wept.” While it may not be the shortest verse in the Bible, it is the shortest verse to provoke the most discussion. Why did he weep? Is this the human Jesus showing us his humanity? His dismay over the seeming power of death? His empathy for Mary and Martha?* Shame for the delay and hurt he may have caused them? Whatever the exact reason, the tears transfix us, and open our heart to Jesus in a new way. This is no bystander, or simply-God-in-disguise—these are real tears.

So seven signs in John: turning water into wine, healing the official’s son, healing at the pool of Bethesda, feeding the 5,000, walking on water, healing the man born blind, and raising Lazarus from the dead. There were other signs, because John tells us this at the end of his Gospel. But these are the seven he shares, the seven that show us everything we need to know about the glory of God made know in Jesus.

Good number, seven. My resident scholar tells me that seven is the number of completeness, wholeness, the last day when God rests, the end. There’s even a verb for it in Hebrew she tells me, and if you want to know more you can ask her over coffee. She’ll even parse it for you, if you ask nicely.

So seven signs to completeness, seven movements that take us to the end of this part of Jesus’ earthly ministry. We know it’s an ending because a verse later we’re building up to an arrest. Like Icarus flying too close to the sun, Jesus has upset the existing order of things and officialdom has taken note. Suddenly everyone is at risk because Jesus has overcome the one thing the occupying Romans hold over everyone: the power of life or death.

Note too that the signs build: the first is light-hearted, water into wine, hardly a threat to anyone outside the temperance movement. Healing the sick, feeding a crowd—none of these threaten the overseers, because in fact they lighten the load. Itinerant preachers and miracle-makers who decrease demand on the Imperial bread supply are hardly a threat. But reversing death, that’s a threat, because Rome was built on the fear of death—for slaves, opponents, rebels and the like.

But Jesus wasn’t busy defeating death to make a point. He wasn’t trying to start a revolution, or defeat Rome in a direct way. He was simply marking the end on one era and the beginning of another. You see, seven is the number of creation, and completeness, and the raising of Lazarus is the end of death in the classical sense, the sense that nothing could be done. But Lazarus still dies, not that day, but some time later.

So the raising of Lazarus may mark the end of an assumption, but more would need to be done. Rob Bell says “the old creation had a death problem,” from the Garden to Jesus and back to the garden, when we find the tomb is empty and death is no more.

Call it the eighth sign, a new creation, which Bell also notes is happening right here in the midst of us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall lead them to springs of living waters: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes.

An anniversary is an opportunity to gather the saints in light, to call them to mind and give thanks that so many paused to spend time in this place, to enrich our lives, to show us—through their very lives—the glory of God. A congregation is a special place in creation. It is more than a meeting or a service, it is the body of Christ and a living monument to the power of God to transform lives. It is another sign of the new creation that surrounds us and blesses us each day.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again. Some seek signs but we are surrounded by them: the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Texts for Preaching B.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that I’m not going to preach on stewardship for five Sundays in a row, as recommended by the latest program from the national church. It’s too bad, really, since the resource includes five sample sermons and a nice break for the preacher.

The bad news is that I won’t be letting the topic go, and I will be mentioning stewardship from time to time over the next few weeks—from the pulpit, in a letter, and in other non-invasive ways. I say non-invasive since the program from the national church also suggests we stop my your house and make our case, something few people seem very keen on.

So let’s call it a pact. You receive our letter and consider what it says, and I won’t preach a stewardship sermon every Sunday until Advent. And as an added bonus, no one will stop by, so no needless tidy-up required. I love it when a plan comes together.

So stewardship. You might say “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” is the stewardship sermon that writes itself. Nice young man wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminds him of the messy interpersonal commandments, and he assures Jesus that he’s kept them all. And then a personalized commandment: ‘Thou shalt sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Mark tells us that the young man went away sorrowful on account of his many possession, Jesus then shares an interesting visual with camels and needles, and the twelve ask the next obvious question, “who then, can be saved?”

I want to look at that question a little later, but first, I want to talk about the next hymn. “Take my life and let it be” is a personal favourite, written by Frances Ridley Havergal, the same poet who gave us “Lord, speak to me that I may speak.” The simplicity and the clarity of her words, her ability to describe the very personal nature of commitment—these are the elements that make these hymns timeless.

My only frustration with the hymn we will sing in the few moments is the exclusion of the best verse—or rather half the verse—as it appears in our hymnbook. I like to call it “the Dutch verse,” and I’ll tell you why after I share it.

Take my silver and my gold,
not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
every power as thou shalt choose.

I said half the verse because the hymnbook editors did find a way to retain “take my intellect and use,” but silver and gold when out the window. And it’s not clear why. The verse ties in very nicely with today’s lesson from Mark, and there’s also a reference to the widow’s mite found in Mark 12. And it makes a handy talking point in a stewardship-sermon-that’s-not-part-of-a-five-week-series. So I really don’t understand their thinking.

And the idea that this a Dutch verse—well, you’re just going to have trust me. Culturally, we’re pleased to show all we have, and remind you that it is a product of our hard work, and then quickly admit that everything in this life is fleeting and may soon be gone. For the full treatment, I recommend Simon Schama’s “The Embarrassment of Riches,” a 700-page look into the Dutch psyche—and the extent to which we never really got over the Golden Age.

And you don’t even need to read it really, just look at the front cover: Jan Steen’s formal portrait of a wealthy merchant and his daughter, captured at the very moment that a beggar and her young child stop to ask for a handout. Is it sign of his concern for the poor? Is it a meditation on a moment we have all faced—and a challenge to reflect on how we would respond? Or is it a acknowledgement that fate could see their fortunes reversed? Maybe all three, or just another visual reminder that treasure in heaven comes when you give away your silver and gold.

And all of this leads me to another idea. Take the simple yet eloquent words of a Victorian-era poet, and the cultural and historical world that it opens for me, and you get something that the late Michael White called “absent but implicit.” When we experience something—like a well-loved hymn—it opens a world for us based on our experience. This is a world that is both subjective to me—and maybe some of the other Dutchies in your midst—and carefully hidden. It’s absent but implicit because it’s my lens, and it colours how I see the world.

That’s one half of “absent but implicit.” The other half of this idea is the shared lens that we all carry, the lens that goes unspoken but is very much a part of our shared experience. For this, I’ll take an ancient example that will allow us to circle back to Mark. The reading we didn’t hear today was from the Book of Job, the riches to rags story that recounts Job’s suffering and the lengthy and comprehensive ways in which his so-called “comforters” try to help Job see that it’s all his fault.

‘It has to be,’ they argue, ‘since everyone knows that God rewards the righteous and causes the wicked to suffer.’ Job is suffering, they argue, and argue, and argue, and therefore Job must have done something to offend God. Identify the sin, repent, and voila! back to riches.

The problem is that Job has done nothing wrong. And this small bit of information becomes the heart of the story because it contradicts something that everyone believed: the good prosper and the wicked suffer. This idea is “absent but implicit” in every story of suffering (“who sinned that this man should be born blind”) but also present in every story of prosperity. And that brings us back to the rich young man.

Most people looking in, would see a rich, young ruler who by his very situation must be upright. How could it be otherwise? Consider Proverbs 14.24, almost lyrical in it’s redundancy: “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.” So the disciples and everyone in town that day saw this ancient near-eastern dot-com millionaire and thought ‘the crown of this wise young man is his wealth, and something-something folly.‘

Everyone, of course, except Jesus. Jesus ignored the absent but implicit assumption that this prosperous young man must be uniquely right with God, and peered instead into his soul. Jesus overthrew convention and common sense and opted instead for a deeper look—at the anxiety that comes with gaining and maintaining wealth, the pressures of station and status, and the assumptions put on others. He knew, just in his approach, that this person needed to transfer his earthly store to heaven by giving away all he had.

So two things are happening, one a bit scary, and one that needs to be shared. The scary thing is that Jesus wants me to say “take my heart, it is thine own, it shall be thy royal throne.” He’s not interested in outward signs of righteousness, displays of piety, even ostentatious giving (but we don’t don’t mind that). Jesus wants to help us overcome the absent but implicit barriers to devotion that he knows, and we know, and really want to shed.

The other thing that is happening here is a reassessment of wealth in our world, a reassessment that we have tried to forget since the very moment Jesus said that seemingly crazy thing about camels and needles. Wealth is a number—and a lifestyle—but it doesn’t follow that you should be considered clever enough for high office. Nor should we assume it gives someone special insight into how the world works, or more say on the important matters of the age. To be fair, some have displayed unique compassion and generosity: Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind, and J.K. Rowling—famous for being the first billionaire to stop being a billionaire because she gave so much of her fortune away. Jesus smiles.

So we made a pact, we gained a bit of insight into the Dutch brain, and we disabused ourselves of some harmful ideas about wealth. What we’re left with, of course, is that nagging question: ‘who then, can be saved?’ What the disciples meant was ‘if the prosperous aren’t good, and favoured, upright, then who is? Who can be saved?

And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals the answer is impossible, but not for God—for God all things are possible.” Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 6
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

From the better-late-than-never-file, my son is learning to drive.

I say better late than never because Isaac is 27, and has only recently discovered that there is a whole world of places north of Bloor Street that are best reached by car. I’m actually pleased he waited—why drive if you don’t have to—but now that he has started down this road (pun intended) I’m not sure I’m ready.

It never occurred to me, for example, that someone would be quizzing me on the rules of the road while we drive. “What’s the rule here?” is a frequent question, and I have to confess that I often have no idea. How should I know if you can make a left-hand turn on a red light from one one-way street to another one-way street? (turns out you can!).

Luckily, my role as the parent with a manual transmission is to allow Isaac to practice—and learn together just how forgiving a clutch can be. Stay tuned. I’m therefore in rule-of-thumb territory—like going around corner in second gear—and not the rule-based instructor role that I’m feeling unqualified to fill.

It got me thinking, however, about the other places where we follow the “rules of the road” without ever really knowing the precise details of the rules. Take worship, for example. It should begin with an act of praise, in prayer or singing, it continues with the confession and assurance, and recognition that we come as broken people in need of redemption. The Word is read (in scripture) and proclaimed (through this thing we call a sermon). Having heard the Word, we make a grateful response, through an offering, through our prayers, and (sometimes) through communion.

It should be noted that the United Church is an amalgamation of three worshipping traditions, and for this reason we have always defaulted to what has been described as “ordered liberty.” Congregations decide the shape of their worship life, mindful that there are essential elements as I described. Other traditions, Presbyterian and Anglican for example, are much more proscriptive in their approach, creating orders and resources that are filled with “shoulds and oughts.”

Going deeper, there are also “rules of the road” for prayer, elements that form a sort of discipline, reminding us (or compelling us) to engage the breadth of prayer without simply defaulting to our preferred mode. Helpful in this regard is the acronym A.C.T.S., a clever reminder of the four elements that should be included in our prayer life. They are adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

(Worship fun fact: the earliest source for this helpful model seems to be Dr. John Burns, a Scottish physician who wrote two landmark books, one on Christian Philosophy and one on midwifery. I’ll just leave that with you.)

In adoration, we praise God’s goodness, the wonder of creation, the gift of Jesus the Christ and more.

In confession, we have an opportunity to be reconciled with God, with our neighbours, and (perhaps most importantly) with ourselves.

In thanksgiving, we thank God for the blessings of this life, for faith and for those who walk this way with us.

And in supplication, we bring to God our concerns for ourselves and others. We pray for a world made new: for healing, for wholeness—not simply for people—but the earth itself.

Again, we live in a tradition based on “ordered liberty,” the freedom to craft our worship in a way to meets our situation and story. But worship helps like A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication) give our worship some structure, and remind us that each element is essential to a balanced spiritual life.

And that brings us back to today. Worship planning at Thanksgiving has it’s own version of bounty, as there are readings for Thanksgiving (both Canadian and American dates listed), and general readings for the day. Matthew 6 is the suggested lection: lilies and birds, the splendour of Solomon and a sharp admonition regarding worry. How we make this a Thanksgiving message is entirely up to us.

Jesus, we recall, is most often called “teacher,” and as such begins this lesson with a thesis. He says:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

It’s a provocative idea, of course, and we can imagine the first listeners leaning in and wondering to themselves how to avoid worry if faced with hunger and nakedness. But Jesus is building a case, and is in the middle of a longer address, so we need to step back and look as we consider this question about worry.

The overall context is the Sermon of the Mount. He begins with the Beatitudes, moves through various lessons (“Love your enemies”) and teaches his followers how to pray, beginning with “Our Father.” He has just told them to store their treasures in heaven, how to fast, and then he turns to the topic of worry.

“Look,” he says, “at the birds of the air. They’re not farmers, but God gives them food to eat. And what about the lilies of the field? They don’t gather or spin, yet even Solomon in all his finery is not as brilliantly clothed as these. So stop worrying like those without faith. Seek the kingdom of God first, and then all these things will appear.”

Implied in this message about worry is the message to be thankful. Somehow it never occurs to the birds of the air or the flowers of the field to worry. They live in an unconscious state of grace, with God providing along the way. The cycle of need and provision implies thankfulness, always aware that God provides while never really knowing how in a conscious way.

For those of us who are neither birds nor flowers, some obvious objections come to mind. The first one says “yes, God provides, but we’re not completely passive in the receiving.” Luther famously said that God provides food for birds, but doesn’t drop it straight into their beaks. So there is some effort required, even as God provides.

The second objection is in the realm of want, something that we are painfully aware of here at Central. Some have no food, and have no clothing, and have no support—and so the advice to set aside worry seems rather unhelpful to those who have nothing. But there’s a hidden link in the passage, one that may address this objection.

So listen again to Jesus’ summary at the end of today’s passage: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’”

Okay, now listen Matthew 25:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Part of the “no worry” approach is to trust in the goodness of others. To trust in the Matthew 25 crowd, the people who will always seek to serve the least and the last in Jesus’ name. Implied in Jesus’ command not to worry is a command to love and serve others. We can set aside worry and be thankful for those who engage in the grateful response, expressing thanks through helping others.

Learning not to worry, trusting that God will provide, is part of the prayerful approach of A.C.T.S., the rules of the road for prayer. Through adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, we surrender our spiritual need, and embrace the glory, redemption, blessing and potential that God provides. And Jesus, of course, makes every lesson a prayer—most of all the one we heard today. Let us pray:

Like the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field,
you care for our every need, O God.
Yet we are consumed by worry, even as we know
that worrying won't add a single hour to our life.
We are thankful, God, that you know our every need.
Help us to set aside worry, and to seek your kingdom first,
trusting that all we need will be added unto us, Amen.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

I’m not going to suggest we’re some sort of secret society, but the ’65 babies in your midst know each other and share a special bond.

And we’re hardly babies, but somehow the name stuck, so the ’65 babies greet you and want to suggest that we are somehow unique. Part of our uniqueness is coming of age in what some have suggested is the true golden age of television, the 1970’s.

So two problems first: my professors would quickly argue that television (unlike film) is beneath the dignity of the pulpit, but they’re not here today, so bear with me. The second problem is defining my generation through television, and the shows we watched, but again, bear with me, because I think you will soon see my point.

I say “golden age” because if you take a typical Saturday night in 1973, home with a babysitter—never sure where my parents were—we would settle in and watch All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, (and if the babysitter was really kind) the Carol Burnett Show. With Archie and Edith’s chairs currently on display in the Smithsonian Museum and a statue of Mary Tyler Moore in downtown Minneapolis (yes, throwing her hat) we get a sense of the iconic nature of these shows.

In the first example, we meet Archie, the bigoted everyman who tries to overcome every movement and counter-cultural moment the 1970’s can serve up. The show broke ground discussing racism, homosexuality, women’s liberation, rape, menopause, and more. Next up showed the Korean War, with the shadow of Vietnam in the minds of the viewer, and the tension between the doctors forced to leave lives of comfort and regular army, like Major Houlihan, as she tries to bring discipline and sense of duty to these male doctors. And Mary Tyler Moore, breaking ground by showing us an unmarried career-woman who defeats her boss with hard work and kindness. I think I fell asleep before Carol Burnett started.

Watching television the 1970’s also had an element of time travel to it, watching reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, current shows set in the past like Happy Days, and of course the classics that I loved the most, Looney Tunes and The Little Rascals. It’s amazing that Our Gang, filmed between 1922 and 1938 was still a television staple, still entertaining generations of children, and still (in it’s way) breaking ground. Just the idea of white and black children playing together was unique, and the way certain ideas were handled, such as typical boy behaviour (they stated the He-Man Women-Haters Club) and the way the club was undermined by Alfalfa’s abiding love for Darla.

Okay, time to say goodbye to nostalgia, but Our Gang does allow us to jump to the reading for today, when we meet the Gospel’s own version of the He-Man Women-Haters Club:

38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us.

Three years ago, or six years ago (where does the time go?) I described the theme of this passage as ‘the Jesus doctrine,‘ (“whoever is not against us is for us”) and drew a sharp contrast to a certain former president who said the precise opposite (‘you’re either with us or you’re against us’). Sometimes these sermons write themselves, but this time I’m struck by this idea of the disciples deciding who was ‘not one of us.’

And as human behaviour goes, this is pretty standard stuff. The disciples, like everyone who follows in this tradition, will seek to define insiders and outsiders. Part of this desire will come in the heat of conflict, as the Jewish-Christian movement moves out of the synagogues and two religious groups emerge. And part of this desire will come as the circle of followers expands, and each new circle is farther from Jesus and the first twelve. “Not one of us,” is hard to define, but the disciples do their best to try.

But Jesus has another idea. He decides to set aside familiarity and look instead at intent. As the bonds become more tenuous and the nature of the movement shifts, Jesus looks into the heart of the potential follower rather than who knows them or who can vouch for them. In other words, it’s judging actions rather than social circle, it’s looking for fellow-travellers rather than members of the same club. And then a further shift:

41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

Ironically, this is a passage that is often used to defend Christians, positing that there is some enemy that might undermine belief and that they deserve the rather graphic treatment of the millstone around the neck. I’m not sure this is correct, and I would suggest instead that Jesus is insisting the millstone is reserved for those who attack the vulnerable. Last week, Jesus took a little one in his arms and said receiving the vulnerable is receiving me. This week he goes a step further to say causing the vulnerable to stumble, to lose faith in Jesus’ unique concern for them, is an extreme offence. If you’re not against us, you are for us, and the most vulnerable require protection.

And that brings us to this week. Also born in 1965, Judge Kavanagh, is one half of an unfolding story that has gripped many over than past few days. On the other side is Professor Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee of attempted rape in 1982, she just 15 and the judge then a lad of 17.

I think it’s important to begin with the tragic aspects of this story. Whatever the truth, the misuse of the allegations for partisan purposes is tragic. The damage to the families involved is tragic. And the terrible events of abuse and misconduct that this event has surfaced, some telling their stories for the very first time this week, is tragic even as it provides the thinnest of silver linings. If this event prompts greater dialogue and understanding, if it allows some to seek healing following years of silence, them some good will come from this most difficult of weeks.

I think we can thank Sen. Jeff Flake, for being brave enough to trade his vote for a week of investigation, and even if there is some cynical element to his move, it does allow a time of pause and reflection in the midst of these rapidly unfolding events. It allows us to put the week in the context of the #MeToo movement and the extent to which violence and misconduct toward women toward women and girls is being addressed at this moment in time.

For the male preacher, this is not a simple task. As a “pro-feminist” ally of women who have suffered abuse of any form, I hesitate to speak without naming my own “role” in the story, namely the ways in which my experience is profoundly different from my female colleagues and the women and girls I have ministered to. For example:

I’ve seldom experience fear when walking at night, or alone in the church.
I don’t face scrutiny over the way I dress or present myself.
I can offer opinions without having to establish my credibility first.
I can offer strong opinions, and I can even shout now and again without begin labelled hysterical, strident or bitchy.
I never have to endure “mansplaining” or other forms of condescension.
I’ve never been the first man to serve in a pulpit, nor has anyone ever suggested that I don’t look like a “leader.”
I have never had anyone suggest that I can’t be heard, nor that my voice doesn’t somehow carry.
Whenever I have presented myself as a victim, I have always been believed.

#MeToo is a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge for men to stop talking and truly listen to the voices of woman and girls, and an opportunity to learn and begin to understand an experience that is generally far beyond the experience of men. It is a chance for women to say “whoever is not against us is for us,” and find allies among the men who are willing to listen and try to help. It is an opportunity to support the most vulnerable, and recognize that the heart of the Christian message is never far from giving a cup of water in Jesus’ name and ministering to those in need.

From those half-remembered times in my childhood, and years before, we have been confronted by vexing issues and troubling times. It has been reflected in the films and television we watch, the people we know and the situations we have encountered. There is nothing new about the challenges we face, only the way we address them. A moment has come when some will need to find silence and just listen: to the voices from the margins—from those who have lacked power and those who have suffered abuse.

And as always, it belongs to the church: creating a place where some can find comfort, others challenge, remembering that Jesus walks with both. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Among scholars, there is a lively debate about when, precisely, childhood was invented.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, and the leading theories are quite convincing. This is largely a debate that concerns Western societies, and crosses lines between history, art, literature and social science. Class figures large in the debate, and the church plays an important role.

Where to begin? Philosopher John Locke, writing in the late 1600’s, suggested that children are born like a “blank slate” (tabula rasa) and should be instructed with correct ideas that might serve them as adults. Jean Jacques Rousseau took this further some years later, suggesting that children are—by nature—innocent and ought to be protected and treasured. This lead to a new style of portraiture, where artists presented an idealized version of childhood innocence and grace.

By the Victorian era this had blossomed into a full-fledged industry, when the so-called “golden age of children’s literature,” took hold. Books such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan portrayed a kind of perpetual childhood—and child’s desire to remain in this idealized state forever. But only of you were rich.

Across town, where most of our forebears lived, Locke, Rousseau and Lewis Carroll were largely unknown. Childhood meant labour, first on the farm or amid small craft industries, and later in the dark, satanic mills of the industrial revolution.

The evidence is in the laws passed that outlawed what was then the life of a working-class child. In 1833, the British parliament passed the 10 Hours Act, which forced woollen mills to no long employ children under nine, and further required that anyone under eighteen work no more that 58 hours a week. And these were the trades that were easy to regulate: chimney sweeps and coal miners proved much harder.

And what about education, the “job” we now assign to children? This is where the church first shines, with the invention of Sunday School at the beginning of the industrial revolution. There was some religious instruction: but mostly classes in literacy and numeracy for the children that worked six days a week in the mines and factories.

And the idea spread: congregations like Central were synonymous with their large Sunday schools, providing basic instruction in the period before governments undertook this role. In fact, it was one of our ministers, Egerton Ryerson, who promoted free and universal education, and went on to become the founder of public education in Ontario. With parents compelled to send their children to school, some might argue that the idea of childhood was fully formed.

Now that you have this five-minute history of childhood in the West firmly in your head, what do we make of Mark 9, and the little child that Jesus takes into his arms? This child becomes an object lesson for the kingdom, an example of a great reversal, and a welcome by proxy. Listen again:

“Anyone” Jesus said, “who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Before we try to understand this seemingly simple passage, it might help to do a wee survey of children in the Bible. Who are they and what do they represent? What can they teach us about the faith? The word “child” or “children” appears nearly a thousand times in the Bible, so how will we review all of them and still get home for lunch?

Luckily, they seem to fall into some general categories. Children begin, obviously enough, as a symbol of the future: the hope of generations, descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.” Sarah laughs when she is promised a child, and God keeps that promise.

The story takes an odd turn when God says to the child’s father “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Funny that just the mention of Mount Moriah and my son Isaac would smarten up—proving that scripture has a variety of uses.)

Scholars argue that the “sacrifice of Isaac” was God’s symbolic rejection of human sacrifice, but it still proves Abraham’s obedience and his trust in God’s promises. And this is echoed in another theme, that of dedication. Hannah thanks God for the gift of a child and then dedicates young Samuel—giving him to the High Priest Eli for instruction. God’s call to Samuel, and the back-in-forth with old Eli is perhaps the most delightful interaction with a child in scripture.

Far less delightful is the treatment of children in Proverbs, which serves up some sadly familiar ideas such as “spare the rod and spoil the child.” And while these exact words do not appear, they summarize a handful of passages including this “wisdom” in air quotes: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.” It’s a bit of a shock that in 1976 the Good News Bible took this archaic advice and gave to an unhelpful, modern spin. They wrote, “Children just naturally do silly, careless things, but a good spanking will teach them how to behave.” As a rule, I don’t condemn Bible passages, but this one deserves to be forgotten.

By the time we get to the New Testament, the picture of children is mixed. St. Paul seems to represent the “silly, careless” view with familiar passages such as “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Childhood is a largely ignorant state for Paul, one that we must overcome to grow into a mature believer.

The contrast, then, is to Jesus, who seems to find children exactly when he needs to make a point. And in our passage, it’s about welcoming a child as a symbol of welcoming Jesus, and by welcoming Jesus you welcome God. It seems straightforward enough, but some of the first readers obviously disagreed. Chief among them was Matthew, who read (or remembered) the story by Mark’s telling, and decided to make it clearer. He wrote:

2 [Jesus] called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

In other words, set aside your petty argument about which among you is the greatest, and become humble like children. If you can become humble as this child is humble, only then can you be great in the kingdom. But there must be more to children than their humility, their lower rank in the estimation of the world. It’s not like Jesus to reinforce hierarchy, even if it’s big versus small.

I think this is why Jesus takes another try at explaining children, just one chapter later, with this passage from Matthew 19. I’m going to read from the King James to help understand:

13 Then were there brought unto [Jesus] little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. 15 And he laid his hands on them, and departed.

Suffer, of course, it just an archaic way of saying “permit, or let” them come unto me. We don’t use suffer in place of permit any more, but the King James writers made this choice, and I think the choice was intentional. They came from a time before the dark, satanic mills of industrial England, but child mortality was high, and the lot of children was difficult, and their situation had advanced little from the time of Jesus.

Nor has the worldwide picture really changed: Children still work, children are malnourished, children lack healthcare or even clean water to drink, children suffer abuse (in every society) and children are caught in war. Toronto is the child poverty capital of Canada* with one-in-four living in poverty, while in York South-Weston it’s one-in-three. It makes the drop-in and the community kitchen critical to the neighbourhood, and our support for the food bank more vital than ever.

Jesus, from the moment his ministry began, was healing children, feeding children, driving demons out of children, and even returning children from the dead. In our terms, he spend as much time in the Sunday School as he did with the big people. “Suffer little children to come unto me,” he said, “for such is the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.