Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Psalm 103

8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,

    slow to anger, abounding in love.

9 He will not always accuse,

    nor will he harbor his anger forever;

10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve

    or repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;



Everything comes back to George Bailey.


A conversation about affordable housing?  “The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others.”


A conversation with evil rich guys?  “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town...but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle.”


Or how to “get the girl” as they say in movies: “What is it you want, Mary? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon.”


And I think it’s a fairly straight line from George’s promise to lasso the moon to the many ways love is expressed, particularly in books for children.  “I Love to the Moon and Back” (Tim Warnes) is the first and obvious example, along with “Guess How Much I Love You?” (Sam McBratney)  Even the Munsch classic follows this lead, which (of course) you now have to say with me:


I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be.


Unlike Robert Munsch, I can’t condone breaking into your grown children’s homes and rocking them in the wee hours, but it does add to a lovely story.  So we go from a lasso around the moon to loving from “the moon and back” (to quote Big Nutbrown Hare), pausing for a little nocturnal singing on the way.  Yet even before George Bailey and Robert Munsch and all the other writers we love, there was Psalm 103:


11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;


So the poet reaches for a spatial image when trying to describe the greatness of God’s love and mercy.  In a pre-scientific age, these immense distances—the east from the west—were ill-defined and a ready shorthand for a vastness that could not be measured.  


But there is more here.  The poet is making an intentional connection between the love of God and the natural world: the size of the sky, the dimensions of the known world, the depths of the sea.  We know that we’re never far removed from our ancient forebears, as we too experience awe as we look to the heavens or ponder the far horizon.  


So back to our passage.  “For as high as the heavens are above the earth,” the psalmist says, “so great is his love for those who fear him.”  Already we have a problem.  Fear of the Lord takes us to all sorts of uncomfortable places, where we are inclined to push back on a relationship based on fear.  We are ready to love God in return for the love God has for us, but to introduce fear doesn’t seem right.  So we look for a way forward.


A lazy theologian might step in at this moment and suggest we simply substitute the word “awe” for “fear” and it’s problem solved.  We all know awe, from the mountain vista to the wonder of a newborn.  ‘So great is his love for those in awe of him,’ simply feels better, and is certainly one way to solve the problem. 

 

Maybe I’m being too harsh on lazy theologians, but wouldn’t the poet say awe if she meant awe?  Fear and awe may live on the same street, but they are clearly not the same thing.  So it’s back to the drawing board.  


And to do this, I want to take you on a rollercoaster ride.  Why do people take a rollercoaster ride?  I expect they take the ride to experience fear.  Safe fear, or controlled fear to be sure, but fear nonetheless.  The rollercoaster is a sort of simulated danger, lighting up parts of our imagination and leaving us with the kind of euphoria you get when you survive a brush with danger.  A cynic might say this is fake danger, but your brain may not know the difference, and the result is often the same.


Please don’t go to lunch and say “pastor told us that our relationship with God is like a rollercoaster ride.”  Because there is more.  There is the difference between fear and fear.  We all know fear.  Fear for the future, fear for the safety of those we love, fear for our planetary home, fear of human carelessness and fear of human stupidity.  Fear of the things we can’t control and fear that we’ll mishandle the things we can control.  I could go on. 


This is the very real fear we experience through life on earth, and it’s also the precise type of fear that God seeks to save us from:


“The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27)

“I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” (Ps 23)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1)


The last example might be the most instructive.  An angel speaks to Mary and says “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”  But Mary is rightly terrified.  This is the other fear, the natural fear that follows the unexpected, the tremendous, the truly startling.  It was more to do with the exhilaration of the rollercoaster than fear of harm, in whatever form it may take.  An encounter with the Living God ought to be fearful, in the best sense, or it might not be an encounter at all.  


On Boxing Day, 1958, Pope John decided to visit a prison, only the second time a pope left the safety of the Vatican in 88 years (the first time was the day before).  In his characteristic style he said to the prisoners, “You could not leave to see me, so I have come to see you.”  At one moment a murderer broke through the cordon and threw himself at the pope’s feet.  “Tell me, Holy Father, is there hope for even me?”  And the pope embraced him.  I tell this story, because it’s a story filled with fear.  I expect the pope was fearful, surrounded by hardened criminals.  His staff were fearful, freaking out, in fact.  And the man who stepped forward was terrified, that God would not forgive.  It’s in this light the poet speaks:


12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;


God’s love for us is best expressed in forgiveness—the unexpected, the tremendous, and the truly startling.  A thief is forgiven on the cross, St. Paul is thrown to the ground, a reprieve comes before the first stone is cast.  Compassion can be truly unsettling when the world demands judgment, retribution, and revenge.  But God has another way.  


“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul wrote, maybe reflecting on his own story.  “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.”  When we love and forgive others, we have the same capacity to unsettle or amaze.  When we imagine that everyone is a child of God, and treat them with compassion, we have the same capacity to unsettle and amaze.  With apologies to Robert Munsch, I’m going to suggest that each of us, whether deserved or not deserved, is held by the God who says:


I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be.


Amen.  


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Fourteenth after Pentecost

 Psalm 119

33 Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

35 Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

36 Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

    preserve my life according to your word.

38 Fulfill your promise to your servant,

    so that you may be feared.

39 Take away the disgrace I dread,

    for your laws are good.

40 How I long for your precepts!

    In your righteousness preserve my life.


There’s something about the beginning of September and the need  to review my summer reading list.  

Maybe it’s a bit like that recurring dream where I wake up on the day of the exam and realize I forgot to take the course.  I wish I was joking.  Last year, the challenge was to only read books I bought at the dollar store, and this year it was to read books that have been hanging around too long.  And some others.

So the first was “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War” (by Steve Inskeep).  You don’t need to read this book, it’s all in the subtitle.  My first lapse in the program was reading “Trumpocalypse” by David Frum.  In this case, all you need to know is in the title, four years in a single word.

Next was Rachel Maddow’s wonderful book, “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.”  The industry, of course, is oil, and the book connects the dots between fracking, hacking, and authoritarian leaders.  Needing to have my faith in democracy restored, I then read Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Washington.  Excellent book, but it didn’t have the desired effect—something I hope to talk about in the near future.

The rest of the reading was a blur.  Helen Castor’s fine biography of Joan of Arc, a wonderful little book called “Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames” by Lara Maiklem, as well as Simon Schama’s “Landscape and Memory,” a book I’m embarrassed to say I have owned for over 20 years.  Finally, I finished Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” (borrowed from Dr. Jim in 2017).  It explained a lot.  And remaining current, I’m still reading “White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.  Again, I hope to say more about the book in a future sermon near you.  

Sometimes I think it’s appropriate to step back and consider why we read.  Some seek a distraction, entering a new (sometimes fictional) world.  Some seek insight, learning about new topics or diving deeper into topics already familiar.  Some seek assurance, words of comfort or conviction, or words that connect us to some higher need.  Some seek confirmation, words that reinforce what we already suspect or believe.  And some seek all of these, and leap from book to book happy with whatever comes.

So we open our Bibles this morning, and we read this:

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

The psalmist has opened the law and seeks several things at once.  Like an eclectic reader, the psalmist is looking for instruction, understanding, direction, and a heart for others.  The psalmist wants to find meaning, assurance that God’s promises are sure, and salvation.  

The first thing we should note (according to Walter Brueggemann) is the variety of ways the psalmist describes Torah.  Beyond simply “the law,” Torah becomes statutes, decrees, commandments, ordinances, precepts, ways, and promises.  It takes us out of a legalistic mode, and opens a library of guidance, the foundation on which we may stand.   

But Brueggemann takes this a step further, and highlights the danger of choosing eight verses in the middle of a psalm.  It would be easy to read these words and conclude that the primary concern is our personal relationship with God (B. calls this the vertical axis) and ignore the horizontal axis that’s at the heart of Torah.  Jesus found the heart of the law in Deuteronomy (“Love the Lord your God”) and in Leviticus (“Love your neighbour as yourself”), creating a mandate that holds both axes together.  Only in the context of a loving relationship with God can we find a way to love those around us.  

Love your neighbour.  It would be an understatement to say loving our southern neighbour is getting harder by the day.  Elections are divisive by their very nature, but 2020 has taken this to the next level.  It would be simplistic to set this at the feet of an individual (yet tempting), when these deep divisions have grown over decades, with fewer and fewer points of agreement by the day.  

One of the truly frustrating aspects of our time is the seeming demise of truth.  It was the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”  Somehow this wisdom slipped away, with everyone struggling to see a way forward.  It’s one thing to disagree on the solution to a problem, but quite another to disagree on whether the problem exists at all.  

The book that only took me three years to finish—Fantasyland— attempts to locate where this split began, where truth became just another dimension of personal expression.  The author, Kurt Andersen, points to the 1960s.  He argues that what we label as “counter-cultural” became the mainstream, and that all the ideas that we associate with hippies (“mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth”) belonged, in fact, to everyone.  I’ll let Andersen give you some examples:

The 1960s gave licence to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly—superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age Shamans; fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials.

I think you get the picture.  In effect, we entered a profoundly self-centred age: “What I believe is true because I want it to be true” or “What I believe is true because I feel it to be true.”  Experts are no longer needed, nor the certainty of science, when my feelings about a topic become my truth.  And I hope you see (based on Andersen’s quote) just how ecumenical this idea is: it’s not a left-right thing, or a liberal-conservative thing.  People on the left are just as likely to dispute the science of genetically-modified foods as people on the right dispute climate change.  Pick your truth.

This would be the moment in the sermon that I offer some solutions, or maybe just a poem while I back away from my metaphorical pulpit.  I don’t have a poem, so I guess I’m stuck suggesting a way forward.  In a word, it’s education.  Apropos to the week, we need to get back to reading and learning about the world that surrounds us.  We need to travel, and experience different cultures and learn new points-of-view (here in Toronto, you don’t need to travel far).  And we need to be intentional about addressing gaps in our knowledge: at the library, on the internet, or with a learned friend.  Only through education will we gain perspective on the problems that face us.  Only through education will we find some common ground.   

The psalmist is clamouring to get into this conversation, and point out something that we might not see on first reading.  Each verse begins with a variation on “teach me”—turning to God for understanding.  That’s the beginning.  But each verse ends with the result. 

With understanding: I can follow to the end.

With understanding: I can obey with my whole heart.

With understanding: I can find delight.

With understanding: I can follow your word.

With understanding: I can live without fear.

With understanding: I can live without disgrace.

With understanding: I can be preserved.

God will give us these things, and remind us to trust in God alone.  God will give us these things, and allow us to see others in a new light.  God will give us these things, so that we, in turn, give them to others. 

Most of all, may we cherish the law of love and kindness, now and always, Amen.  

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Romans 12

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.



No one wants to be regarded as a loose cannon on the deck.


But if you were a loose cannon on the deck, you would surely be aware that you are being summarized with a sailing idiom.  An idiom is a turn of phase with a particular meaning often unrelated to the words themselves.  In other words, you may be disruptive, or careless, of a breaker of norms, but only a “loose cannon” if you know the idiom.  Clearly, this idiom doesn’t hide its maritime origin.


Other idioms hide their nautical beginnings a little more carefully.  If you are learning the ropes, you know that you are acquiring knowledge unique to a disciple or a trade.  For the new sailor, your full-time job is literally learning the ropes, or determining the purpose of every sheet, halyard, or line. (Ironically, the first thing you learn is that there are no ropes on a boat, only sheets, halyards, and lines). Likewise, showing your true colours—giving people a sense of the real you—began as a nautical phrase.  Flags (your colours) were used to identify your country of origin, unless, of course, you were a pirate.  Pirates would fail to show their true colours, until they showed their true colours, and by that time it was too late.  


Sometimes we suspect that an idiom comes from the sea, but it’s not clear how.  Pipe down, as an example, is something you tell noisy children or neighbours, and it seems to come from the practice of blowing the bo’sun’s pipe at the end of the day.  You were literally piped down to your hammock.  There is evidence, however, that ‘pipe down’ became just another thing to shout at the crew, something my skipper does with some regularity.


Finally, I give you a favourite of mine, ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion.’  There’s no mystery that this is a nautical idiom, shipshape gives it away, but ‘Bristol fashion’ is a bit of a mystery.  Some argue that Bristol was a preeminent port that prided itself on its orderliness, while others have a more complex origin story.  Bristol is located on the River Avon, a tidal river, which in olden days meant that when the tide went out your boat would rest on its keel, often on an angle.  In Bristol, therefore, everything on board had to be fastened securely—Bristol fashion—or there would be a terrible mess.  


I share all of this because St. Paul shares an idiom with us, and the meaning is somewhat unclear.  Here it is:


“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”


First, we should note that it’s actually a quote from Proverbs 25 (21-22), a fact that doesn’t make the meaning any clearer.  Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to make sense of this idiom, found in the context of not seeking revenge—while at the same time sounding like the precise sort of thing you might do to seek revenge.  So what does it mean?


One kind-hearted soul suggested that “heap burning coals on his head” was something you did for others if their homefire went out.  Since the ancient near-eastern practice was to carry burning coals on the head (in a suitable vessel, of course), the phrase simply described an act of neighbourliness.  Lovely, but unlikely.  I expect “heap burning coals on his head” sounds harsh, because it was meant to be harsh.


Another suggestion looks to Egyptian literature, in this case to suggest that “coals of fire” meant to change your mind, or have a change of heart.  Therefore, it would seem, that “heap burning coals on his head” was a way to expedite this change process, to help them along.  I think this is a little closer to the mark, since we are talking about transformation, but again we’re not quite there.  Again, “heap burning coals on his head” sounds rather unpleasant to me.


More convincing, to my mind, is the idea this is an analogy.  Being kind to your enemy will humiliate them, in the same way that heaping burning coals on their head would be a terrible humiliation.  Rather than repay evil with evil, why not repay with good.  This will disarm your enemy, leaving that about as unbalanced as getting the burning coal treatment.  


All of this, however, is jumping ahead.  The passage is about Christian living, an answer to the question “how then, shall we live?”  God has given us the gift of new life in Christ, and now we need to do something, respond somehow, and live differently.  How then, shall we live?


What Paul has assembled is an assortment of Old and New Testament quotes, bits of wisdom, law and Gospel.  There’s Amos 5, Proverbs 3, Lev 19 and Deut 32, and that direct quote from Proverbs 25 we’ve already exhausted.  Paul quotes Jesus (John 13, Mat 25, Luke 6, Mat 5) demonstrating this adherence to the Gospel and his familiarity with Jesus’ thought.  But there is more happening in this relationship than just effective quoting.  There seems to be another story, and I’m going to suggest it began the day Jesus heaped burning coals on Paul’s head.  Let me explain.


Before I do that, I have to tell you about one of my favourite paintings.  It’s here in the liturgy, Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, found in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  I would put heavy emphasis on the word found, since you have to search for it once you’re in the church.  You would expect that when your church has one of the most famous paintings in the world, you might put it someone visible, but that would be too obvious.  Instead it’s in a small side-chapel near the chancel, perpendicular to the viewer, and nearly impossible to see in its fullness (or get a proper photo).  Luckily, we have the internet, so we can see it in all its drama and glory.  


We see St. Paul unhorsed, at the second that he appears to hit the ground.  His arms are elevated, that familiar reflex as you fall, as his attendant looks on.  Beside him is his sword, his saints’ symbol, and the mode of his death (he was beheaded).  His eyes are closed, which seems a likely response to fall, but we soon learn that his eyes have been closed by the experience, and will not reopen until some time later.  Unspoken in the painting (but in the mind of the viewer) is the words spoken by Jesus in that moment, "Savle quid me perseveres?" (Saul, why do you persecute me?).  


Saul (pre-Paul) has done evil to Jesus and his followers, and was first among those who opposed Jesus and his way.  We see him on the edge of the crowd during the stoning of St. Stephen, and we know that he will confess more in his letters.  And how does Jesus repay this evil?  First, by loving him enough to see that he can become more than Saul—more than a persecutor of the church.  But more importantly, he repays Saul’s evil by destroying the life he was living, heaping the burning coals of destruction on his head, ending one life so another could begin.  


And Jesus expects no less of us.  Maybe we weren’t unhorsed, and maybe we didn’t have burning coals heaped on our heads, but the experience of new life in Christ is meant to be just as dramatic a turn-around from the way the world lives.  Maybe you can’t name a Saul-Paul moment, a dramatic rebirth at the bidding of Jesus the Christ, but the change is still there.  Day-by-day, our walk with Christ is meant to unhorse us, to open our eyes to new needs and new trouble, and new meaning.  Everyday is the opportunity for rebirth, a new baptism of forgiveness and love.


Paul became a loose cannon on the deck.  No longer Saul the persecutor, he became Paul the apostle, the teacher, the guide.  His message was about Christian living, how to live in the light of new life.  Love, share, and be hospitable, he said.  Live in harmony with others, laugh with the happy and cry with the sad, don’t imagine you’re better than others, and do not repay evil with evil.  It’s a vision of an alternate way of being, where you too can be a loose cannon on the deck.  Amen.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Twelfth after Pentecost

 Exodus 1

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.



In the spirit of fairness, I give you evil kings.


After Mary I, Eadburh of Wessex, and old Jezebel, it seems fair to look at regal malevolence from the male point-of-view.  There are, of course, no shortage of examples.  And for that reason, I’m going to limit my look to evil kings in the Bible, beginning with Ahab, consort of the infamous Jezebel.  You might say Ahab is more of the unindicted co-conspirator type (see last week), but he’s a bad hombre nonetheless.  


Next, I might suggest Abimelech, who wanted to be king of Shechem, but had two problems: he was illegitimate (being the son of a Shechemite concubine) and he had 70 brothers, each with a better claim to the throne.  He killed them all, save one, and claimed the throne.  


Then there is the first Pharaoh on our list, this one made famous by Yul Brenner in the Ten Commandments.  Handsome, yes, but hardhearted, stubborn, and seemingly impervious to frogs, lice, boils, pestilence, and most other plagues.  


Or, how about King Herod, stock villain of every church school pageant since the dawn of time?  Infanticide is the quickest route to being declared an evil king, so he qualifies.  


And speaking of infanticide, we meet today’s evil king, an unnamed Pharoah who was obviously the boyhood hero of King Herod.  In Exodus 1, we learn that whatever lingering gratitude the royal house of Egypt felt toward Joseph and his people was gone.  The Egyptians felt threatened by the growing Israelite population, and feared a slave revolt or worse.


More taskmasters were appointed, and the Israelites were compelled to build new cities—cities of stone—yet the sense of threat did not recede.  The author of Exodus describes the situation in simple terms: “the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly.”  Clearly, Pharaoh needs a new plan, so he calls the midwives:

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”


19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”


I don’t do sermon titles, but if I did, I might call this sermon “How to lie to a tyrant.”  For you see, when you lie to a tyrant, you need to speak to the tyrant’s bias or base assumption.  So, in this example, they describe the Hebrew women as more “vigorous,” which I expect Pharaoh heard as less refined than the Egyptian women.  Some scholars have even suggested that vigorous is code for beast-like, which would take the existing bias argument even further.  Whatever the meaning of vigorous, it’s clear that Pharaoh accepts the lie they concoct— disappointed that they have not completed their mission, but satisfied with their answer.  


So who are these women, Shiphrah and Puah?  The fact that they are named, while Pharaoh remains unnamed, tells us that they are the real subjects of the story.  Again, there is a bit of a debate about their identity, since the Hebrew is unclear.  It seems the key words can be translated “Hebrew midwives” or “the midwives to the Hebrews.”  Now, my resident scholar is out of town, so I’m flying blind here, but this translation problem could explain a lot.  


If the midwives were Egyptians tasked with obstetrics among the Hebrew women, the order to kill the male babies seems less unlikely.  If the midwives were Hebrews, then we get into a whole other conversation about servitude and the extent to which those enslaved could be expected to carry out genocide against their own people.  There is ample evidence that this occurs, but it remains a puzzle within the text.  


The one thing we can infer is that these women have status within their society.  They seem to have some oversight role among the midwives, since we can safely assume that there were more than two.  Perhaps they were the head of their guild, women responsible for the practice of midwifery throughout the society.  Such guilds functioned as both oversight bodies and centres of education.  Perhaps Shiphrah and Puah were “ministers of midwifery” within the governmental structure, the kind of people you would turn to to implement a controversial plan.*


But the plan—for a moment at least—is thwarted.  Pharaoh accepts the lie that the midwives were late every single time, and he must find a new way to proceed.  The late professor David Daube describes the action (inaction?) of Shiphrah and Puah as civil disobedience, and “the oldest record in world literature of the spurning of a governmental decree.”  It won’t take long for the next act, when Moses’ mother and the daughter of Pharaoh engage in their own flaunting of the law, but pride-of-place belongs to Shiphrah and Puah.  They are the mothers of civil disobedience, engaging in “good trouble” (quoting the late John Lewis) to overcome the ultimate example of state-sponsored violence: genocide.  


And just because the lesson for today has taken us into the realm of resistance, I want to go a step further, and draw a link between the language of Pharaoh and the great scourge of our time, white supremacy.  Listen as Pharaoh describes his view:


8 Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. 9 “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”


It has long been argued that “Make America Great Again” is a dog-whistle to those who believe that America peaked in the 1950s and can only be great if the clock could somehow be wound back.  And the choice of time is not accidental, since it predates civil rights legislation, gay rights, environmental regulations, second-wave feminism, and increased immigration from non-white majority nations.  The words “far too numerous for us” could be found in a tweet, and they betray a sense that some belong and some do not.  


When Hannah Arendt wrote her book on the Eichmann trial, she chose as a subtitle “A Report on the Banality of Evil.”  It has become a familiar and oft-deployed phrase, describing the way evil hides behind “just following orders” or “just following the law.”  When malevolent people control the levers of government, making dangerous laws or enacting corrupt policies, it falls to ordinary women and men to do the extraordinary things needed to meet the moment.


Meeting the moment, we meet Shiphrah and Puah.  They bravely defy Pharaoh and “so God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.”  Thus the House of Shiphrah and the House of Puah were founded, blessed by the God who blesses the troublemakers, those willing to defy the Pharaoh’s of this world.  


May God continue to bless those who seek justice and resist evil.  And may God bless those with the determination and creativity of Shiphrah and Puah, midwives of good trouble. Amen.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

Eleventh after Pentecost

 Genesis 45

Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.

3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.



Our story begins with a criminal conspiracy.


No, we’re not talking about Russian interference or coercing Ukraine to help find dirt.  That’s another sermon.  In this sermon, Joseph’s brothers conspire to murder the lad, then change their minds, then conspire to deceive their father, and break an old man’s heart.  But is it still criminal?


Conspiracy is one of those things you hear on television all the time.  If you have an appetite for procedural dramas of a criminal sort, you will know that when two or more people conspire to commit an offence, yet only one person does the deed, everyone gets charged.  In fact, doing the deed isn’t even necessary for the conspiracy charge to stick, since planning a crime is a crime itself.


And just because I’ve waited 30 years to quote a legal decision in a sermon, here is Regina v. O’Brien [1954]: “The law punishes conspiracy so that the unlawful object is not attained. It considers that several persons who agree together to commit an unlawful act, are a menace to society.”  So the next time you and a friend are eyeing the donut on my plate, and agree to split my tasty donut, think again—no one wants to be labelled a menace to society.


(Just as an aside, keep R. v. Déry, [2006] in your back pocket.  In my donut example, the Supreme Court does not include “fruitless discussions” as conspiracy.  You need to make a proper plan.)


Back to poor Joseph.  It’s not his fault that he’s his father’s favourite.  Of that he has vivid dreams that others find annoying.  Or that he can interpret the dreams of others.  Or that his father gave him a fabulous coat, the kind of coat that just screams “Broadway musical.”  Maybe Joseph was a little overbearing, or enjoyed his special status a little too much.  But a criminal conspiracy?  That’s going too far.


On the day in question, Joseph’s father has sent the lad to check up on the others, and make sure they’re doing their work.  He’s still a speck on the horizon when the brother’s decide they’ve had enough of this upstart.  They agree to kill him.  Their plan—if you could call it a plan—is to kill Joseph, throw his body in an empty cistern, and claim a wild animal did it.  


Luckily for Joseph, one brother couldn’t abide the plan.  Reuben suggested they forget the killing part and just throw him in the cistern—just teach him a lesson, I suppose.  But just then some traders appear, and the brothers hit on a new plan: sell Joseph to the Egyptbound traders, make some shekels, and then present a bloodied dreamcoat to their father.  And the plan works.  Joseph is sold on to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard, and Jacob believes that his son is gone.  


But that, of course, isn’t the end of the story.  To summarize our way to today’s reading, we learn:


Some sort of Mrs. Robinson thing happens with Joseph and Potiphar's wife.

Joseph lands in jail, but uses his dream gift to impress others.

One of the impressed inmates takes word back to Pharaoh, and Joseph is released.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dream of fat and skinny cows, and becomes vizier.

As vizier—sort of like Prime Minister—Joseph saves the land from famine (and skinny cows).

People from the surrounding nations come to buy from Egypt’s ample supply of grain, including Joseph's own brothers.

There is some back and forth with a silver cup (see chapter 44)

And the moment finally comes for Joseph to reveal to his brothers that he is, in fact, the vizier of Egypt.

  

But first Joseph has a good cry.  People were a bit more emotional back then.  He has a good cry and then the reveal:


“I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.”


And just because they’re in shock, he says it again, and then again: “God sent me ahead of you to save your lives!  Go and get my father, and bring him along.  There will be five more years of famine, some I’m going to settle you in the nearby Land of Goshen, and I will provide for you there—for you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all you have.”  At this moment, he embraced his brother Benjamin, and started crying. And Benjamin hugged him back, and started crying.  Then I assume everyone was crying—because afterall—it was a more emotional time.


This is the moment to ponder hugging in the Bible.  Where else do we see tearful reunions, families reunited in an emotional time?  I think you see where I’m headed.  This is really just an early telling of the prodigal son—which Jesus has recast to teach us about the Kingdom.  How does it work?


Joseph, like the prodigal, is in a faraway land, and only late in the story chooses to return home (or rather, lets home come to him).  There is lots of brotherly resentment, for Joseph on the front-end of the story, and for the prodigal at the end-end of the story.  Both stories have an element of “while he was still far off,” but with a twist.  For Joseph being far off gives his brothers occasion to plot against him, for the prodigal being far off gives the father time to plot forgiveness.  


And forgiveness is where the stories truly meet.  Yes, Joseph was forgiving from a position of good fortune, but this does not erase the pain of being sold, imprisoned, and separated from the father he loved.  He could have just as easily turned his brothers away, or imprisoned them for all they did and for all they conspired to do.  But he did not.  He chose to forgive.


Likewise, the father of the prodigal had every reason to align with the older brother.  Half his fortune wasted on profligate living.  A faithful son still by this side.  He could easily have turned the prodigal son away, and let the dead remain dead in his eyes, but he did not. He chose to forgive.  


The glue that binds these two passages is a forgiving God.  God could have acted to thwart the co-conspirators, but gave occasion to save them instead.  Joseph gives God the glory, he doesn’t claim it for himself.  It is God’s desire to preserve Joseph and by extension to save the rest of the tribe, since God has plans for all of them.  And God can forgive these brothers, even when they don’t deserve it.


And again, the parable of the prodigal son is a glimpse of God’s kingdom, where wastrels and those given to profligate living also receive forgiveness: once dead, he is alive once more—was lost, but now is found.  It is God’s desire to reach beyond resentment and “the way the world works” and forgive instead.  It is God’s desire that everyone separated from kin and clan find their way home, resting in the everlasting arms of a forgiving God.  Amen.


Sunday, August 09, 2020

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 19
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
14 He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”


It seems accurate to say that your legacy is a matter of perspective and circumstance.

Take, for example, Mary I of England, known to history as “Bloody Mary.”  Her premature death meant the failure of her project of returning England to the Roman Catholic faith.  Had she succeeded, history would view her very differently, and we might be in the middle of Mass right now.  

Yet even with her tarnished legacy, and a reputation that approaches the stereotype of an “evil queen,” recent scholars have taken a second look and decided that her legacy is less one-sided.  Many in the realm welcomed a return to the old faith, and many of the things that her sister gets credit for—naval supremacy, the beginning of the age of exploration—actually started under Mary.

If you want someone closer to the evil queen trope, look no further than Eadburh, queen of Wessex.  Annoyed with her husband’s advisor, she poisoned him, and inadvertently killed her husband (the king) as well.  She fled to Francia, and ended up in an awkward love triangle with Charlemange and his son.  Banished from court, she was appointed the abbess of a convent, a position she soon lost after a tryst with an overnight guest.  If you were wondering why so few little girls are named Eadburh, then wonder no more.

And then, of course, there is Jezebel.  Ignoring the way Jezebel has been reinterpreted in recent years, we need to look again at the book of 1 Kings to see Jezebel in her original setting.  Like many “foreign” queens, she brought her religion with her to Israel, meaning that she was always going to be controversial.  But rather than quietly worship Baal in her well-appointed chapel, she exploited her husband’s weakness to promote Baal throughout the land.  

Enter Elijah the prophet.  First, he warns the king that years of drought will follow if the worship of Baal does not stop.  (In addition to being a garden-variety punishment for disobedience, drought is also a direct attack on Baal, since he was supposed to be the god of rain).  Exiled the first time, Elijah waits three years before he is commanded to confront the priests of Baal directly.  Read 1 Kings 18 for the best duel in history.  It’s Jezebel and the priests of Baal zero, Elijah (and YHWH) one.  

So Elijah must flee once more—and we reach today’s reading—but the real conclusion of the Jezebel story comes in the next episode.  Ahab, the weak king, is unable to convince one of his subjects to sell him a vineyard.  Annoyed, Jezebel arranges to have the vineyard owner killed through an abuse of the courts, and she seizes the vineyard.  For the God of justice this is a step too far, and Jezebel’s inevitable fate is sealed.  Again, if you were wondering why so few little girls are named Jezebel, then wonder no more.

Back to our reading, Elijah’s second exile is worse than the first.  This time he’s hiding in a cave, feeling sorry for himself, and generally resigning himself to defeat at the hands of Jezebel and Ahab.  God is having none of it.  The word of the Lord came to Elijah and said “what are you doing in there?”  He could have just admitted that he was hiding, but instead he tries to explain himself: “everyone,” he said, “is dead.  The covenant is gone, along with the places of worship.  I’m the only prophet left, even though I have been zealous for the LORD.”  

At this point the LORD was growing tired of all the gloom, and told Elijah to wait at the mouth of the cave for the LORD to pass by.  Here’s what happened next:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.  Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The same question, then the same response.  Still, God is having none of it.  “Go back to the seats of power,” the LORD said, “and you will have occasion to make some political changes.”  And then the most important message at all: “You imagine that you are the last of a breed, but this is far from the truth.  There are seven thousand others in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and whose mouths have not kissed him.”

When we’re surrounded by trouble, the first and obvious question is ‘where is God in all this?’  Weak kings and evil queens, the worship of foreign gods, the murder of prophets, abuse of process and the state-sanctioned killing of innocent people—where is God while all this is happening?  We want God to move heaven and earth to defeat the unjust, to overcome those who would rule with such inequity, but direct intervention doesn’t follow.  A great and powerful wind levelled mountains before the Lord, but the Lord is not in the wind.  After the wind, the earth trembled and quaked, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  After the earthquake there was fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  But after the fire came a still small voice.  

So we pull our cloaks over our heads, and we edge farther out of our hiding places, our eyes adjust to the light of this moment, and we train our ears and truly listen as the heavenly voice speaks: ‘You suppose you are alone, but you are not.  You suppose that you are the last to seek justice, but you are not.  You suppose you are the last to hate abuse, the last who decry the way the powerful oppress the weak—but you are not.  The Lord of all can see into the hearts of the people, and understands that many have not bowed down to useless gods of this age.  

Perhaps they are quiet now, and perhaps they remain in their caves of fear and reluctance, but they too are ready to listen for the still small voice of the Most High.  Elijah felt alone, but 7,000 others meant he was not alone.  

The bluster of those who worship the false-god of strength (and power at any cost) can be overwhelming.  The noise of those who lack compassion or promote discord can be overwhelming.  The intensity of daily outrage and 20,000 lies can be overwhelming.  But we do not lose heart.

For God is not in the strength of the wind, nor is God in the noise of the earthquake, nor is God in the intensity of the fire.  No, God is in the still small voice that says “we are not alone.”  Thanks be to God.  Amen.  

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 14
16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.


I open the backdoor, I see a new tree.  I look up from my book, I see a new tree.  I close my eyes and count to ten, I see a new tree.

And not just any tree.  This fast-growing and seemingly supernatural tree is known to some as the Tree of Heaven, the Chinese Sumac, the Varnish Tree, the Stinking Sumac (like rotting cashews?) while some cheeky gardeners and landscapers have been known to call it the Tree of Hell.  

It grows quickly.  It requires no care.  It is one of the few trees that will take root in a crack in the sidewalk and make a go of it.  And while this constantly reseeding tree will spread and quickly take over any space available, it has some internal weakness, and is known to drop branches or topple over in a strong wind.  In most places, it is classed as a noxious weed, and should be avoided, as it pushes out native species and is very hard to eradicate.  

I know, you’re thinking, “tell us how you really feel...”  But I can confess to you that I have mixed feelings about the tree.  It is an attractive tree, and I admire it’s tenacity, but the cost to the neighbourhood is too high.  Meanwhile, it does teach us about abundance, and the extent to which nature finds a way.  There may be no mustard tree in my backyard, but the Tree of Heaven is the next best thing, if explosive growth from seemingly nothing is what you’re looking for.  

Lectionary watchers, attentive to the sequence of readings we follow, are just now wondering if I have the wrong sermon.  The mustard seed and the yeast in three measures of flour is so last week, and this week we are supposed to be feeding the five thousand, or trying to understand this moment in the unfolding story.  Rest assured I’m on the right week, but I see a parallel—maybe a bridge—from the seeds and yeast to the five thousand on the hillside.  

Just ten chapters ago, Jesus was calling the disciples.  The first crowd appears, a direct response to the healing and teaching that has begun.  He shares the Sermon on the Mount, and the crowd grows.  There is more healing, more teaching, and soon Jesus is struggling to keep up.  “The harvest is plentiful,” he says, “but the workers are few.”  He sends out the twelve to share the load, but this only increases the need.  Soon we’re at five thousand, and when Jesus landed he saw them he had compassion on them and healed the sick—but the crowd remained.

Before we talk about feeding anyone, we need to recognize that this is a living parable, a sure sign of the kingdom embodied in the explosive growth of the crowd. Jesus is the leaven, the seed that grows, creating a plant where everyone can find shade.  The explosive growth from inviting an intimate group to walk with him, to facing a hillside of hungry souls, is just as kingdom-setting as the mustard seed or the yeast in flour.

So too the premise of the story.  “They need not go away,” Jesus said, “we should feed them instead.”  

“But Lord,” they said (something I’m sure Jesus was tired of hearing, or is tired of hearing), “we have food for ourselves, and no more.”  They actually gave the evening’s menu—five loaves and two fish—but the assumption was the same: few could be fed.  Soon, however, we learn that explosive growth is on the menu, and the kingdom comes to the hillside that day and everyone is fed.

I want to interrupt this sermon with an observation.  God in Jesus feeds the five thousand, something that all preachers agree.  Then things diverge.  On one end of the spectrum, feeding the five thousand becomes an early version of stone soup, with Jesus inspiring the crowd to share the food that was already on hand.  At the other end of the spectrum, the physical limitations of five loaves and two fish were overcome, in the same manner that the storm was stilled, the leper was healed, and the demons sent away.  

I can’t tell you what to believe, I can only point to what the world seems to need.  We need God to be active in the world, overturning our expectations, expanding our horizons, overwhelming us with the explosive growth that belongs to the kingdom alone.  Efforts to explain (or explain away) don’t live comfortably with the arresting and unexpected nature of God’s own realm.  When faced with longing and hunger, Jesus said “we should feed them instead.”  

In our time, on many levels, we face an explosive growth in need.  The hillside crowd continues to swell, with people who are hurting, lost, broken, afraid, grieving, isolated, alienated, oppressed, confused, angry, bewildered, or simply exhausted.  The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.  Now, more than even, we turn to God to help us address this need, in both ourselves and others.  We turn to God to open the kingdom store of loaves and fishes once more, to fill us—that we in turn may fill others.  “They need not go away,” Jesus said, “we should feed them instead.”

I want to conclude with words from our passage, words that transform this living parable in a sacrament of compassion:

Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied.  

May it be so.  Amen.