Sunday, November 22, 2020

Reign of Christ

 Ephesians 1.15-23

15 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. 17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit[f] of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

If you know me, you know I like a good metaphor.

A good metaphor can change the way we think, it can alter our sense of the world around us, and it can even direct what we do. A good metaphor can reveal hard truths, it can mobilize people into action, and it can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction. In other words, a good metaphor may not be good at all—but it can be extremely effective.

Case in point: In 1964, Lyndon Johnson announced the War on Poverty, a comprehensive response to the poverty rate in the US approaching twenty percent. Now, to our war-weary ears—having lived through “wars” on drugs, cancer, and terror—calling to mind the War on Poverty doesn’t have the same impact as it had in 1964. Back then, just nineteen years after the Second World War, using the war metaphor was highly effective.

You see, the war metaphor creates a mindset. Nations at war must band together, confront a common enemy, and make sacrifices. The appeal is obvious, and in 1964 it led to the creation of numerous social programs as well as a general sense of concern for something that was often hidden. The shadow side, of course, can be seen in the War on Drugs, an effort that took hold in several countries and led to criminalization of addiction, militarization of the police, and the disproportional targeting of racialized communities.

Most recently, we have witnessed the use of the war metaphor in relation to the pandemic. It is perhaps the closest parallel to an actual wartime situation, where the public is urged to make sacrifices for the sake of safety, warned against hoarding, and generally urged to “do our part.” One foolish man in Washington even declared himself a “wartime president,” before losing interest in the whole thing.

Again, there is a shadow side to the use of the war metaphor in the context of disease. There is no “front” in this war, with the virus lurking everywhere. It has led some to cast blame on the people and places the disease began. And it can lead us to celebrate sacrifice, especially among frontline heroes, without always asking what they truly need, like better hours, paid sick leave, or greater access to PPE. And then there is the question about disease generally: is it something you conquer or something you learn to live with? We need to handle our metaphors with great care.

Along with great care, we also need to lend metaphor great respect. In the realm of scripture, we know that when seeking to describe the sublime, we often reach for metaphor. The Good Shepherd, the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, the Bread of Life, the Alpha and Omega. These are things we can see and touch, used to describe that which we struggle to comprehend. We try them on, we adopt a favourite, and it transforms our understanding.

St. Paul, master of words, is also busy giving us figurative language to try on. And he’s pretty transparent about it, famously admitting “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9) Some have cast “all things to all people” in a negative light, but for Paul it points to his concern—bordering on desperation—about the state of our soul. And so we read these words today:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

Again, metaphor. Having eyes on your heart would be awkward—but in the poetic realm, it’s magic. He could have simply said “open your eyes to the hope he has given you” but he chose to add another image instead. And before we really dig into this image, I want to point out one more thing. Metaphor is a literal “rabbit hole” when you consider these two short verses.

You can’t see hope, unless you use imagination. 

The riches of this glorious inheritance can’t be taken to the bank, they live inside us. 

There is no outward sign that we are holy people, but God can see it.

We are given “incomparably great power,” but it’s not the power that the world would recognize.

The richness of symbolic language only works if you set aside the literal meaning of these words and enter the world that God has made, the “realm of God” where these words have power.   And with Paul as our guide, we can truly appreciate what the eyes our heart might see. To do this, he might have us open our Bibles and go back, way back, to see where all this began.

An early version of the “eyes of the heart” might be found in Genesis 6, where God is confounded by the creature God has made, and tries to understand. The author reaches for the word yetser, meaning “thoughts of the heart” (Gen 6.5) or “what is framed in the mind” (BDB, 428a). In a word, this is imagination. And in Genesis it’s generally about the mischief we can get into when we really put our minds to it. Still, it frames this idea of imagination, and it begins in the heart.

Likewise, the Greeks, when pondering imagination (what could be more Greek than pondering imagination?) gave us the word phantasia—literally things that appear. Obviously, we don’t have to go too far out on a limb to see what Paul is conflating for us: thoughts of the heart and things that appear come together to give us the “eyes of the heart.” Here is Paul, all things to all people, bringing together his Jewish self and his Greek thought to help us see God. You need the eyes of our heart to see the glorious inheritance God has given us through Jesus Christ. Full stop.

To conclude, we need a final metaphor, and that would be Christ the King, or the Reign of Christ, whichever you prefer. It takes considerable imagination to make Christ the king of your heart— with all your mind, and all your soul—but once you do, the riches of God dwell in you. Put another way, we can “put on Christ,” (Rom 13) and be transformed. Whatever metaphor you choose, Christ becomes the Lord of your life, and the eyes of your heart will open.

I want to give the last word to Charles Wesley, words from a hymn that first appeared in the wonderfully named collection Hymns for those that Seek, and those that Have Redemption (Bristol, 1747) I think that describes all of us! And I think his words best describe the Christian hope, when the eyes of your heart are open:

Jesus, thou art all compassion,
pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation,
enter ev’ry trembling heart.


Sunday, November 15, 2020

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Judges 4

Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, now that Ehud was dead. 2 So the Lord sold them into the hands of Jabin king of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor. Sisera, the commander of his army, was based in Harosheth Haggoyim. 3 Because he had nine hundred chariots fitted with iron and had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years, they cried to the Lord for help.

4 Now Deborah, a prophet, the wife of Lappidoth, was leading[a] Israel at that time. 5 She held court under the Palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim, and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided. 6 She sent for Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali and said to him, “The Lord, the God of Israel, commands you: ‘Go, take with you ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun and lead them up to Mount Tabor. 7 I will lead Sisera, the commander of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his troops to the Kishon River and give him into your hands.’”

Again the people did an evil and wrongheaded thing in the sight of the Lord. So they were placed in the hands of the apprentice king, who reigned first from somewhere on 5th Avenue. Mitch, the commander of the hundred, was based on swampy ground near the Potomac River. Together, they oppressed the people for four long years, and the people cried out for help.

Nancy, a prophet, held court near the same swampy ground as Mitch, in a place that was supposed to settle disputes for the benefit of the people. An election was called, and she sent for Barak, and said, “Go to the tens and the hundreds, socially-distant in their cars, and remind them of the ways of hope and change. And the people were led to the polls, and reversed the wrongheaded thing they did four years earlier.

This is not the New American Standard Bible, though a translation by that name does exist. I’ve given you an attempt at dynamic equivalence (Nida), a contemporary rendering that gives you a sense of the text without the avalanche of impossible-to-pronounce names. It’s also meant to underline the main theme of the Book of Judges: the endless cycle of obedience and disobedience that defines the relationship between Israel and her God.

Any historian will tell that history is a loop rather than a line, and that the seeming progress we experience will soon loop around to the past we thought we had left behind. And the cycle we see in the Book of Judges provides a perfect illustration. Overall it’s obedience and disobedience, but in text we find a more elaborate pattern:

The people do evil in the eyes of the Lord (v. 1)

The people are sold or given into the hands of their enemies (v. 2, 3)

The Lord lifts up a prophet or leader (v. 4, 5)

The Spirit of the Lord rests on the leader (v. 9)

The enemy is defeated (v. 7, 15, 22)

The people live in peace once more (5.31)*

Until the cycle begins again. A quick Bible search of the words “cried out” will reveal all the moments this movement is underway. The people forget the Lord their God. The people turn away, the people are disobedient, the people adopt idols, the people take foreign wives, the people fall in love with Baal once more. They cry out, and the Lord sends them a Moses, or an Elijah, or a Deborah. And the Lord saves them once more.

But Deborah is unique here. Not only is she the only woman named a judge of Israel, but she joins the war party in their battle with the Canaanites. And she goes further: “Certainly I will go with you,” she says. “But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” Like Elizabeth I at Tilbury, Deborah transforms supposed weakness into strength, and underlines God’s desire to save.

And, of course, it’s the end of the story, the part we did not read, that becomes the most memorable. The Canaanite general, Sisera, is defeated, but manages to escape the battlefield. He wanders into the tent of an ally, Heber the Kenite, and finds himself alone with Heber’s wife Jael. He demands water, and Jael gives him some warm milk instead, and a cuddly blanket, and soon Sisera is sound asleep. At this moment Jael takes a hammer, and a tent peg, and…well, you can guess the rest. The Canaanite defeat, at the hands of Deborah and Jael is complete, and peace returns.

Maybe we need a moment, after all that excitement, to ponder Western art in the High Renaissance. There seems to be a bit of debate about the preponderance of religious art: was it some sort of custom or decree, the fact that most of the art is religious, or was it simply that the church was the wealthiest patron of the arts? We’ll let the scholars argue over that one, but we should note that even the preponderance fell into predictable categories. Madonna and child, important saints, and predictably, women bathing, such as Susanna or Bathsheba. And then there is Jael, hammer in one hand, tent peg in the other, and…well, you know the rest. (In most paintings she looks really mad, but in Salomon de Bray’s remarkable painting we see the psychological complexity of this character).

In a Christian framework, we see the very same pattern. John the Baptist cries out “who told you to flee from the wrath to come?’ and then Jesus appears. The lost and the disobedient are found and forgiven, and the daily walk begins. Disciples are called, lives transformed, and moments later they are arguing about which one gets to sit at the right hand in glory. Jesus forgives their foolish ways, and the walk continues, up to a lonely hill where pieces of silver are exchanged and denials are made. Even the soldiers that mock and flog will recognize that this is the Son of the Most High—a day later, but never too late.

Failure and misfortune, faith and forgiveness, and the path continues until it loops around once more. It describes a life of faith, and it describes life on earth—the alternating times of promise and peril, progress and failure. Last Saturday, we celebrated the end of an era, the first major defeat in the battle against extremism and populism. By midweek the celebration was over, with numerous elected officials pointing to some sort of fantasy outcome—the rest of us mistaken. Who knows what the mood will be next week, or what brand of crazy we will endure, but the pattern is familiar.

And while we can’t necessarily end the pattern in our time, we should be able to disrupt it, or diminish it in some way. So this might be the moment to revisit something that we talked about last fall, some research on recent trends, from an article with the uncomfortable title “Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos.” In the article, we learn that a close study of attitudes and activities across several Western countries highlights the real divide of our time. It’s less the division between left and right, even though those old lines remain clear—and more between those who would maintain the existing order and those who would tear it all down.

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

And on one level they have a point. Wealth inequality, a changing economy, the environmental crisis—none of these problems have been adequately addressed by the people who lead us. But the alternative—‘tear it all down’—is too frightening to contemplate. So the authors of this study make a simple suggestion: that moderates on both sides of the political divide work together to solve the problems that lead to hopelessness and despair. Begin to address the complex problems we face, and over time fewer and fewer people will be drawn to chaos. It’s the hardest simple solution in the world, or the simplest hard solution, take your pick.**

Whenever It’s time to conclude a sermon like this, there’s usually a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to help us make sense of the situation we find ourselves in—and he never disappoints. This quote was shared in an address to the Montgomery Improvement Association’s first mass meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church.

I want to tell you this evening that it is not enough for us to talk about love, love is one of the pivotal points of the Christian…faith. There is another side called justice. And justice is really love in calculation. Justice is love correcting that which revolts against love.

When Dr. King shared these words, he was just 26 years old. So he underlines a couple of things. The first is that young people will inevitably lead us forward, since they seek to create the world they will inhabit the longest. And the second is that whenever we ponder love correcting that which revolts against love, we’re talking about God. God is love. And God’s love is always “love in calculation,” seeking ways to lead us home.

Meeting this moment may not require the drama of Deborah or Jael, but it will require the same trust in the power of God to transform lives. In our work, and in our prayer, we turn to God to calculate the love needed to build the kingdom, to make it known, now and always, Amen.

*Guest, 2003


Sunday, November 08, 2020

Remembrance Sunday

 1 Thessalonians 4

13 Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. 14 For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. 15 According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words.

The idea began by chance.

Padre David Railton, British army chaplain in the First World War, happened upon a recent grave marked by a rough cross. This, in and of itself, was not unusual, but written on the cross, in pencil, were the words “An Unknown British Soldier.” From that moment, and the impression it made, came the idea of gathering the remains of an unknown soldier from a battlefield in France and burying that soldier “amongst the kings” in Westminster Abbey.*

In 1920, the Dean of Westminster and the Prime Minister agreed that this would be an ideal way to honour those lost in the Great War. Remains were exhumed on the 7th of November for transfer to London, resting first within the ancient citadel at Boulogne. On the morning of the 10th, the casket was led in procession to the harbour, accompanied by a thousand schoolchildren and a division of French troops.

At noon, the casket was carried aboard the HMS Verdun, and departed Boulogne with a flotilla of six destroyers. Arriving at Dover, the unknown soldier was transferred by rail to Victoria Station, platform 8, and remained overnight. A small plaque between platforms 8 and 9 continues to mark the spot, and a service is held there each year on the 10th of November.

“Immense and silent crowds” met the procession as the casket moved through London to the Abbey. When entering the Abbey, the casket was flanked by an honour guard of one hundred recipients of the Victoria Cross. The guests of honour for the ceremony were nearly one hundred women, “chosen because they had each lost their husband and all their sons in the war.”

Soil was brought from each of the main battlefields, and covered with a silk pall, with the casket atop. When finally lowered beneath the floor of the Abbey, a large slab of black Belgian marble was laid, with the inscription, “Beneath this stone rests the body of a British warrior, unknown by name or rank, brought from France to lie among the most illustrious of the land.” It remains the only marker on which visitors are forbidden to walk.

The idea that began at Westminster Abbey was mirrored in France and other Commonwealth countries. It signaled that commemoration was no longer for the great and the good alone, but for ordinary citizen soldiers, working men and women who gave the most in war. It was an attempt to honour loss on an unimaginable scale, and it remains the most stirring monument in the great Abbey.

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.

Like those who mourned the missing from France and Belgium, believers in the early church were confronted by uncertainty in the midst of grief. They believed that death would not visit them before Christ returned, leaving them with a vexing problem. The march of mortality returned, and trumpet blast had not sounded. What will happen to the dead, they asked, if Jesus returns for the living? Will the dead be overlooked on that great and glorious day? St. Paul said “no.”

…we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

Only then, Paul insists, will the living be “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” We hear these words—remarkable words—yet our modern minds push back. Less than a generation passed from Jesus’ promise to the letter Paul wrote, and two thousand years on, the question only grows. Is it a reasonable hope, this promised return and the consummation of all things? Is it even desirable, when so many believers have used the endtimes as an excuse to ignore problems here on earth?

This last suggestion, a longing for escape, ignores the primary desire found in Jesus’ own words: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We cannot know if this long-imagined terminal point will come to pass, we can only surrender to the mystery—and trust the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. We may or may not be the generation that meets the Lord in the air, but we can rest in the knowledge that “in Christ all will be made alive.” (1 Cor 15)**

Much of what we do in this place becomes a mirror on our lives. We are encouraged to remember our baptism and give thanks. We witness vows that loving couples make and we recommit to our own vows. We listen to the words of the eulogist and wonder what will be said of us, at our own service of thanksgiving. We hear stories of sacrifice in war and we wonder what we would have done—or what we will still do—to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy. The dead in Christ surround us, calling us forward, encouraging us to be agents of mercy and peace. We give thanks for the foundation they laid, the service they rendered, and the love they shared. And we give thanks that those who are unknown, are always known to God. Amen.

*The Unknown Warrior, Wikipedia

**This quote is also inscribed on the Abbey maker

Sunday, November 01, 2020

All Saints' Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2

9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.I suspect my mother was a secret Catholic.

I suspect my mother was a secret Catholic.

And while my evidence may be vague and and a little flimsy, it remains a question in my mind. My suspicion began with the purchase of a late 70s Corolla, used, brown in colour with a beige vinyl roof. Already you find this story troubling, and that’s before you sit inside. For there, in the middle of the dashboard, was a small ornament, like a small coin on a pedestal.

Me: Mother, what is that?

Mother: That’s St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

Me: But you’re not Catholic.

Mother: I know, but he’s the patron saint of travellers.

Me: You’re just gonna leave it there, aren’t you?

Mother: Of course.

It was only later that I learned that St. Christopher had been demoted—maybe reassigned—within the list of Catholic saints. I can’t imagine that this information would have any bearing on the shiny metal object in the middle of the dash, since leaving it there was more about avoiding bad luck. In other words, she was not-so-secretly superstitious rather than secretly Catholic.

If you are currently looking at the St. Christopher medal on your keychain, I do not mean to offend. He’s an interesting case, and represents an important step in the evolution of the idea of sainthood. His story mirrors numerous saints who emerged in the middle ages and became increasingly popular. Christopher, like his colleagues St. Nicholas and St. George, appeared with the kernel of a story that was embellished over the centuries.

The name Christopher means Christ-bearer, and he is said to have carried a young child across a river, only to discover that he was carrying Christ. In this sense, he blesses travellers, as he was blessed. He becomes the embodiment of “entertaining angels unawares” (Heb 13) or serving Christ in the form of the “least of these.” (Mat 25)

This, of course, was not enough to keep him on the formal list of saints. Church reform in the 1960s demanded that saints who were more legend than fact be removed from the primary calendar of commemoration. They were never fully omitted, just placed in a new category. This allowed the church to emphasize saints that were recognized through the highly organized process of canonization.

Over here in the Protestant Church, we’ve taken a different approach. Our Anglican friends continue to commemorate pre-Reformation saints, but have shifted focus to “saints and heroes” of the faith. On the west front of Westminster Abbey you will find statues of Martin Luther King Jr. and Óscar Romero, modern saints and heroes, just two examples. Methodists have taken a similar approach, never praying to saints, but lifting them up as examples to follow.

The phrase “hero of the faith” is helpful, since the common definition of sainthood is to display “heroic virtue.” Beginning in the middle ages, this meant demonstrating the four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) along with the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity. If these three sound familiar, it may relate to the many weddings you have attended. St. Paul commends faith, hope, and charity in 1 Corinthians, though we usually flatter the bride and groom by using the alternate translation, “faith, hope, and love.”

In many ways, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians is an expanded version of faith, hope, and charity. The letter is less concerned with matters of doctrine, and more about living together as believers. The passage that Joyce shared is like a letter inside the letter, giving us the gist of the matter:

For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

Paul is keen to remind them that he was trying to set an example, demonstrating “faith, hope, and charity” at Thessalonica, and urging them to do likewise. In some ways it sounds immodest, reminding them that he and his helpers were “holy, righteous, and blameless” while with them, but it strengthens his point. By living lives worthy of God, we practice the ultimate form of devotion, the greatest gift we can give.

His words are not fully without doctrine, because he shares an important principle in the next section:

And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

“You accepted…the word of God, which is indeed at work in you…”

I’m going to be bold and suggest that what Paul is giving us is a summary of sainthood, a summary that includes virtue (in the word of God) and the abiding sense that God is at work in us. Consider it: when we follow the word, we take it on, we embody it—then we take it into the world. Without us, there is risk that the word of God will simply be words in a page. But when we live it, when we personify the word, then God is working in us.

And this, of course, is why we treasure scripture. It provides comfort and hope, inspiration and direction, but it also reminds us of the many ways we can allow God to work in us. Think about some of your favourite passages, and then consider the mandate of allowing God to “work in us and others.” Think of Micah 6, for example: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Countless believers have lived these words on their daily walk with the Most High. Likewise, these words from Proverbs 3: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (Prov 3)

Perhaps the Proverbs passage is a little less familiar than Micah, but “lean not on your own understanding” is also at the heart of sainthood. We imagine that the great heroes of the faith had all the answers, knew exactly what they were doing, always did the right thing—but this is not the case. Allowing God to work in us, allowing God to anchor our lives, doesn’t make us less human. In fact, allowing God to work in us will make us more aware of our need for redemption, and the power of God’s mercy.

I want to conclude with the list of church names that we have been compiling since last Sunday. As an anniversary project, the list represents all the churches that formed us, and formed Central, making us who we are today. That was last week. This week, we ponder the list and call to mind all the saints represented by the congregations of the list. Consider the service rendered by these congregations: the mercy shown, the comfort given, the instruction shared, the inspiration kindled. Each church on our list represents devoted service—the work of saints—to keep the faith, share hope, and enact the charity that God provides.

We’ll pray over these names in a few moments, but for now we give thanks, thanks for lives lived and love enacted, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Anniversary Sunday

 He’s the internet pioneer you’ve likely never heard of.

His name is Jacques Gaillot, and his route from rural south-eastern France, to the Algerian desert, and the early days of the World Wide Web begins with a sermon. But that’s the middle of the story.

The story begins as young Jacques completes compulsory military service, enters the seminary, becomes a professor and a priest, and later a bishop. At this point, his story reads like so many of the countless bishops within the Roman Catholic Church. But everything changes with his first Easter service as Bishop of Évreux, when he shares these words: “Christ died outside the walls as he was born outside the walls. If we are to see the light, the sun, of Easter, we ourselves must go outside the walls…Does a bishop remain in his cathedral or does he go into the street?”

His activism was boundless. From the “street” in Évreux he spoke out on disarmament, apartheid, gay rights, French nuclear testing, contraception, clerical celibacy—to name a few. A dozen years after Pope John Paul II appointed him bishop, he removed him, or rather, he relocated him to the Diocese of Parthenia—many times larger than Évreux, but almost completely covered in sand.

You see, Parthenia is a titular see, meaning it was once a thriving part of the church, but no longer exists (except on paper). Within the Catholic Church these former regions are retained as placeholders, or honorifics, or in the case of Jacques Gaillot, as punishment. Along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa there were nearly fifty dioceses with nearly fifty bishops, all of which were gone by the early middle ages.

Having been given a diocese buried under metres of sand, the good bishop moved online, creating the first “virtual” diocese and reaching a worldwide audience. What began as punishment became an opportunity and an early example of the power of the internet to inform and mobilize. 25 years later his work continues.

I share this unlikely story with you because I love stories of people who managed to “make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” but also because of the story of Parthenia. We celebrate 199 years of Central today, but we also celebrate all the history that led to this moment. We mark this place, but we also remember the parts of the church that led to the creation of this place: from the recent and well-loved places like Mount Dennis, Westminster, and Elverston-Trethewey—to the places that led to their creation. In the same way that each church was formed by people coming from other churches, each person was (and is) formed by others, all of them with a unique background in the faith. This web of believers, existing over time and space, makes us who we are today, as we mark this moment.

It also reminds us that we exist in the middle of the story—always the middle of the story—and what follows is always unknown. We recall the history of this place, and we celebrate the present of this place, and we anticipate with hope the future. Yet, it remains unwritten. We don’t get to see the promised land, the future church that is the fulfillment of all our hopes, because we belong to the middle of the story. And we’re in good company, of course, with no less a figure than Moses himself.

The remarkable passage from Deuteronomy 34 describes the end of Moses’ life, the middle of the story where God shows him the vastness of the promised land—a land he cannot enter. It is the culmination of the most important story in the Old Testament—along with creation itself. From the baby in the basket, to the Incident at Meribah, to this view of the promised land, the story of Moses is foundational to our understanding of the God Who Saves. And as I share this claim, and as you call to mind the arc of the Exodus, I hope you (like me) wonder at the Incident at Meribah.

It’s hinted at in our passage: God says to Moses “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” Walter Bruegemann argues that by the time God reminds Moses, it’s all ancient history—the Incident at Meribah—but our passage turns on this story nonetheless.

It happens like this: The people are complaining once more. Despite the water and the manna and the awkward quail, the people are complaining once more. And in their thirst and frustration they begin to complain to Moses and Aaron and it all sounds rather familiar: ‘Why did you bring us this evil place? At least in Egypt we had places to grow our grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and here, there isn’t even water to drink.’

So Moses and Aaron retreat to the tent of meeting and seek God’s help. God says (in essence) ‘do what you did before. Take the staff, tell the rock to bring forth water, give to the people.’ So they gather the people once more, and Moses speaks. He forgets his homily about the God Who Saves and the gifts God has given them to sustain them so far. And instead he says “Look you idiots, you want me to get some water from this rock?” (look it up—Numbers 20.10) He struck the rock (twice) and everyone drank.

But God was angry. ‘You didn’t speak to the rock, you struck the rock. You didn’t uphold me by saying ‘look at what God is giving you’—you said ‘look at what I’m giving you’ instead. For this reason, you will get to see the promised land, but you cannot enter it. Again, this may be ancient history for Moses, tired after leading these unruly people for forty years, but it defines his end. Stuck in the middle of the story, never entering the promised land, he must settle for hope.

It seems to me that the lesson of forever dwelling in the middle of the story has even wider application. Almost exactly four years ago I shared an article about St. Augustine, the North African saint that some were calling the “patron saint of the 2016 election.” It turns out it was a little too prescient. The author of the article argues that even as the barbarian hordes were overtaking the city, Augustine never lost hope. Even as the Western Roman empire was crumbling, and with it the certitude of the church in this period, Augustine was working for the well-being of the city, and the people he was trusted to lead. “Christians are not of the world, but we’re most definitely in it,” the Archbishop of Philadelphia said. “Augustine would say that our home is the City of God, but we get there by passing through the City of Man…and while we’re on the road, we have a duty to leave the world better than we found it.”*

Again, the middle of the story. And just because we need hope more than ever, I want to quote President Obama, who shared these words on Wednesday, more-or-less saying what all these others are saying:

And the fact that we don’t get 100% of what we want right away is not a good reason not to vote. It means we’ve got to vote and then get some change and then vote some more and then get some more change, and then keep on voting until we get it right.*

The past might be a mystery to us, or even covered in sand, and the present might look like one crisis after another, but we still have hope. The past might not feel like the past to us, and the present might seem like it never lives up to the past, but we still have hope. The past might seem like a trial in the desert, and the present merely a glimpse of the promised land, but we still have hope.

Our task is to keep wandering, keep moving, keep supporting one another, and keep the faith alive. Our task is to find Christ “outside the walls” of the church, and in the streets, the streets where God lives. And our task is to remember that God will save us from every kind of trial, and that God will always lead us home. Amen.



Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Philippians 4

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Sometimes you’re rhetorical, and other times you’re rhetorical.

The first and most common meaning is the rhetorical question. If you looked outside last night and cried, “why is it getting dark so early?” then you were asking a rhetorical question. There’s a scientific answer—something to do with the earth’s axis—but that’s not the purpose of the question. The rhetorical question is meant to make a point, like the surprising pace of seasonal change.

The other rhetorical, the one that St. Paul loves, relates to persuasion and the use of language. There are numerous devices, or techniques, that are commonly used, and have been identified. And since rhetoric is an ancient discipline, it has long been the subject of study. And no one studied rhetoric as thoroughly as the Greeks, who claimed the right to name these devices. Some examples:

When Yoda said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” he wasn’t just making an excellent point, he was employing anadiplosis. The ‘last word becomes the first word’ pattern is anadiplosis.

When Ben Franklin said “we must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” he was using antanaclasis—two meanings for the word hang to emphasize his point. Lucky for him, they won their little rebellion.

If I said “tens of people attended worship this morning,” it would sound funny—perhaps even clever—and would be an example of antiphrasis. Antiphrasis takes a common phrase (“tens of” is usually followed by thousands”) and applies it to a given situation.

On the more serious side, if someone raises a topic while pretending not to raise the topic (“I don’t know anything about it, but people are talking about it…”) then they are engaged in apophasis. It’s a way for liars and cheats to deny they ever talked about something. Michael, tell is how you truly feel.

My final example is anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase to underline your point. Lincoln did it at Gettysburg, and most famously Churchill did it on June 4, 1940:

“…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The use of “we” is meant to unite the nation, create common cause, and underline the resolve to never surrender. Interestingly, Churchill used only Old English words in this quote—words in use for over a thousand years—except one: surrender, from the French.

And finally to dear Paul, who wrote in Greek and used anaphora to create this remarkable passage:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

It’s a powerful passage, made more powerful by the use of anaphora. Paul could have said “think about truth, nobility, purity, loveliness…” and it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. Here Paul is almost pleading, and the repetitive use of “whatever” is an invitation to think of these virtues and whatever else comes to mind. And this, of course, leads to his conclusion—whatever you see in me—try to do this too.

This might be the moment to say more about the context of these words, both the church at Philippi, and people who lived in the city. Philippi was first a Greek city, mostly abandoned by the first century before the common era. After Rome’s civil war (42 BCE) the city was colonized by retired Roman soldiers, a reward for their service to the republic (soon to be empire). There were mines in the area, which meant prosperity, making Philippi a very attractive place to live.

All of these clues (proud, prosperous) may reveal why Paul wrote what he wrote. If you had to summarize the Letter to the Philippians with two words, the two words would be humility and unity. Maybe all that wealth explains the need for humility, or the humility you might need as a proud Roman surrounded by colonized Greeks. Maybe a mixed church of Romans and Greeks, colonizers and the colonized, explains the need for unity. Whatever the reason, Paul wants humility and unity, and he’s willing to use powerful rhetoric to get it.

Still, I think there is more here—more about the Roman world itself—and the ideas that defined the culture. I’m thinking specifically of Roman virtue (weir-tus), which meant something quite different from the virtue we know. We think of goodness when we hear the word virtue, but for Romans virtue was closer to manliness, valour, courage, character, or worth. The Roman god Virtus was the god of bravery in battle, the personification of the Roman virtue.

Later on, the meaning of virtue will begin to resemble what we call virtue, but at the time Paul is writing, virtus is about strength. Everything you did in the public sphere was about gaining and maintaining virtus. You could become famous in the process—there was no shame in glory—but the overall goal was the betterment of Rome. Virtus meant higher standing, higher standing meant more responsibility, and more responsibility meant more opportunities for conquest.

Hold that in your mind and listen to Paul’s plea once more: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.” These are his concluding words, which are really just a coda to his starting point back in verse four: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

It would be easy, then, to suggest that our time period has returned to Roman virtus—manliness and conquest—and somehow left a gentler age behind. We could idealize the recent past and imagine that what we face today is unique or new. Yes, we seem to be sliding into a dangerous new age, but for many people and places (even here in Canada) the danger never went away. The view from relative wealth and privilege makes it harder for us to see that for many—too many—conquest never stopped.

And this just adds urgency to Paul’s message. The goal of seeking these things is as relevant today as the day Paul put pen to parchment. As the people of God, we stand up for “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…” What other goals are there? The world needs reminding (and Christians everywhere need reminding) that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of gentleness, and mercy, and justice. Paul gives us powerful rhetoric for powerful ideas— Godly ideas that may be our only hope. Amen.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Feast of Saint Francis

Phillipians 3

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

He preached to the birds, he befriended a wolf, and he rebuilt ruined chapels.  

Like many saints, he was a reformer, directing the church back to founding principles: repentance, care for the sick, and a call to poverty.  His movement, the Friars Minor, grew from the strength of his personality and the compelling example he set.  He was no revolutionary, and he never sought to break with the church—something that disappointed his critics.  He is perhaps the best known saint after Mary herself, and certainly among the most loved.

Francis began his life with wealth and position.  His father was a successful cloth merchant in Assisi, his mother a French noblewoman.  And Francis lived into this wealth.  He had a reputation as a wild young man, a rogue with deep pockets and easy charm, which made him very popular.  

The first change to this life of ease began in war.  Enlisting to fight—some say to demonstrate his love for luxurious costumes—he was captured in battle and held for a year.  Finally ransomed by his father, he returned a changed person.  He began to spend less time at business and more time in prayer, mostly outside Assisi in small chapels.  He developed an affinity for the poor, and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, he spent much of his time around St. Peter’s with local beggars.

Returning to Assisi, he continued to pray in remote chapels.  On one occasion, Christ spoke to him and said "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  He took this direction literally, rebuilding ruined chapels and gathering fellow-minded followers.  

His father, you can imagine, was not impressed.  Fearing that all this wealth would one day be spent on these projects, his father sued to disinherit Francis.  The climax of the case saw Francis renounce his father, and famously disrobe, returning his clothing.  As his local fame increased, so did his followers.  

And Francis soon understood the command to rebuild the church as metaphor.  He directed his followers to care for the poor, tend to lepers, and share a message of repentance, brotherly love, and peace.  He and his followers rejected possessions, survived (in the early days) by begging, and saw themselves as standing against the surrounding culture.  

Perhaps this is at the heart of his lasting appeal.  Like the hippies of the 1960s, Francis and his group defied the dominant culture.  They wore simple tunics, and went barefoot—earning them the name pazzo, meaning madmen.  Labelled fools, Francis called himself “a new kind of fool.”  He spoke about himself and his followers as Jongleurs de Dieu (which means something like "jesters for God").  And together they were also referred to as poverello (little poor ones) for their refusal to accumulate possessions.*

All of this points to a departure, a turn from one life to another life altogether.  It defines the life of Francis, and it defines the life of St. Paul.  We hear this in our reading from Philippians: Paul’s recitation at the beginning, his former c.v., and then the conversion that follows.  Listen once more to the source of his early confidence: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”  

But his confident recounting of the past is then transformed into new confidence in the present:  

But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I now consider them garbage…

In both Francis and Paul we see the same pattern: renunciation, redirection, and rededication.  They discard comfort (Francis) and confidence (Paul) for the sake of Christ.  They redirect their effort to care for the poor (Francis) and the poor at heart (Francis and Paul).  And they rededicate themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, building a church (Paul) or rebuilding a church (Francis) to reflect God’s glory.  Whatever was gain is now considered loss for Christ Jesus.

About now you may be wondering how this tiny temple to Methodism (Central) ended up marking a feast day on the Catholic calendar and engaging in so much hagiography—recalling the lives of the saints.  It turns out that Francis is also venerated by Anglicans—our ecclesiastical forebears—and most other traditions too.  Oddly, scholars can find no mention of Francis in the writings of John Wesley, strange because they had much in common.  They shared the same concern for the poor, the same desire to preach Christ in the open air—directly to the people—and the same desire to rebuild the church.  They even shared a love for God’s creatures, Wesley preaching against cruelty to animals.**

What these reformers share is a desire to return to the primitive church.  Reading scripture, considering the relationship between Christ and his disciples, and trying to find the heart of the message—these are the hallmarks of the reformer’s project.  Time and trouble create a complicated church, and the task of the reformer is to return the church to first principles: forgiveness, care for the vulnerable, and peace—peace between people, and between people and the earth.

And this last point, perhaps, explains Francis’ lasting appeal.  Each generation can find in Francis the simple and unifying message they need in troubled times.  In the 60s it was an end to war, and the sense of sisterhood and brotherhood of all peoples.  Today, it’s the environment, and a saint that can bless our need to care for creation, to guide us back to a peaceful relationship with the one Francis called Sister Mother Earth.  To this end, I want to conclude with the story of the Wolf of  Gubbio.

Fear of wolves lived in the hearts of many in the middle ages, and none more than rural people.  Wolves were a threat to livestock, and a threat to the lone traveller, particularly at night.  While Francis was living near Gubbio, the townspeople were contending with one such wolf.  The town, in effect, was under siege.  Attempts were made to kill the wolf, but to no avail.

Francis, deciding on a new approach, departed the town walls, and found the wolf near its lair.  Making the sign of the cross, he spoke to the wolf, offering a simple exchange.  Past wrongs would be forgiven, and food shared, if the wolf left the people and their animals alone.  The wolf extended a paw and Francis took it.  It is said that the people befriended the wolf, and mourned when it died, even (according to tradition) burying the wolf in the churchyard.  All of this, of course, was regarded as legend, until 1872, when the skeleton of a large wolf was discovered near the outer wall of the church.           

Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live new lives of love and mercy.  Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live differently on the earth.  And knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can rebuild the church for each new generation.

May God bless us and the world God made.  Amen.

*Thanks here to my neo-Franciscan friend Ted.  

**Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2