Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sixth Sunday of Epiphany

1 Corinthians 3
Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

It feels like we’ve been on this academic adventure together for some time now.

You will recall the paper called “The Case of the Beautiful Captive Woman in the Temple Scroll.” It was going to be Indiana Jones meets Wonder Woman in an exotic location until I put my foot in it and said “I guess the audience for this paper is pretty small.” Some time later another paper, this time read aloud for the sake of timing—45 minutes—not a minute more or a minute less. I awoke to Carmen shouting “are you asleep?” which is the sort of thing you can’t deny when you’re out cold (and allegedly snoring).

Perhaps as part of my penance, I can share some excellent and thoroughly engaging research that Carmen has been doing in the area of wetnurses, part of her ongoing look at foreigners in the community at Qumran that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls. It seems that wetnurses were very common in the Roman world, mostly slaves (but sometimes servants) who freed up mothers to run the household rather than trouble themselves with nursing their babies.

The community at Qumran was no exception, and one of the documents shares a rule that wetnurses must refrain from lifting the baby on the Sabbath. Aside from being awkward, the rule hints at the possibility that this slave woman was also a Jewish convert—why else would she follow Sabbath rules? On one hand this makes sense—the milk of a gentile slave would be impure—but it opens other questions like the nature of her conversion and her standing in the community.

And since I’m now at the outer limit of understanding these questions, I will move instead to Jochebed (Yok-a-bed). Who is Jochebed, aside from the answer to the most difficult Bible trivia question ever? Jochebed is the mother of Moses, herself a wetnurse, but in the most unlikely of circumstances.

You remember the story: evil Pharaoh has made an evil decree concerning male Hebrew babies, and Jochebed decides to hide her baby until she can hide him no longer. She creates a basket of reeds, adds a little pitch, and casts the baby adrift on the Nile. She casts the baby adrift, but she cleverly does so in the vicinity of Pharaoh's daughter, just then bathing in the river. When the princess finds the baby she immediately resolves to keep it—but she needs a wetnurse. Through a little clever subterfuge the baby is handed off to Jochebed, allowing her to (secretly) nurse her own son.

So far we see that our first wetnurse is likely a convert, upholding the need for purity. But in our second example—Jochebed—we see that there seems to be some transmission of identity, even wisdom, as the Hebrew slave passes on something that Moses will discover in time—that he is a member of God’s chosen people. I’ll have to stop there, since I’m busy giving way the gist of Carmen’s next book. But I think you can see why purity, wisdom and identity are wrapped up in mother’s milk. And this takes us full circle to our reading:

Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly.

It seems self-evident that St. Paul would make a lousy wetnurse, but he does a fine job at employing the milk metaphor to describe the scope of his work. Mother’s milk is foundational, the place you begin, long before you can have the solid food of a mature believer.

So milk, in this case, seems to lead to conversion, and the matter that you transmit in the first stage of becoming a Christ-follower. It’s easy to digest, and it seems to have the most impact. Lives are transformed through this first step, even as we anticipate the maturity that will follow. Still, it was just the beginning.

Just the beginning because Paul goes on to the heart of the matter: you’re little more than babes because you’re now fighting. One belongs to Paul, you say, while another belongs to Apollo. And both, of course, are wrong. All belong to God, the author of growth, and the source of solid food that makes that growth possible. They have mistaken the messenger for the message. You can’t follow Paul or Apollo—when the Way belongs to God in Jesus.

But I think there is still more here, and for this we need Tom Long. In the time before these Corinthians became Christ-followers, there were very likely followers of Plato. And not just Plato, but the entire western philosophical tradition that said we are souls trapped in bodies. Bodies were nice for a time, even idealized, but eventually became less than ideal until they were no more. At this stage, according to Plato and others, the soul was free from its bodily prison and free to return to light or truth or whatever you described as the best Greek future.

But when these same Corinthians found Christ, they entered a new worldview without pure souls and corrupt bodies, but dust instead. And into that dust, God breathed life. As Tom Long says, God didn’t “snatch some immortal soul out of the air, sticking it into a body, and force it to work in the garden.”* Rather, God takes the substance of earth and breathes into it the breath of life. We’re not just bodies and souls, we’re embodied, a body with breath that Long says forms “an inseparable unity,” made in the image of God.

And this unity is without end. It begins in the silence of the womb, knit together, being both fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139.13-14). And it extends to the end, as our mortal bodies must put on immortality” (1 Cor 15.53), that is the resurrection of the body. Tom Long: “This is not about deathless souls shedding bodies—this is about embodied mortals being given new and glorified bodies by the grace and power of God.” (p. 26)

And all of this begins with milk, not solid food, but milk. We tend to read Paul and agree that we solid food eaters are better than the scrappy Corinthians who were busy fighting over apostolic baseball cards. We hear the message of planting and watering and growing and we give thanks that we’re at the end of this spiritual spectrum, without stopping to consider the implied message in Paul: we all begin with milk.

We all begin with milk when someone cared enough to introduce us to Jesus Christ. We all begin with milk with someone describes his ethical system, where the last are first and the least of all are the greatest of all. We all begin with milk when someone tells us that we never walk alone—we walk together with Christ as followers of his way. We all begin with milk when someone reminds us that our sins are forgiven. And we all begin with milk when we learn that Jesus died to make us whole, reconciled to God at the same moment that death was no more.

After breath, it is milk that continues the unity of embodiment. Like Jochebed, transmitting the essence of God’s covenant while nursing, Paul and Apollo have shared the heart of the faith—the essential first step—before the solid food of faith can be digested. Yet even as mere infants in Christ, we remember that Jesus said that unless you change and become like little children, you cannot enter the Kingdom. And he took them in his arms, and blessed them, and gave them the milk of human and heavenly kindness.

May God bless you whatever your spiritual diet, wherever you find yourself on the way, and however you express thanks, Amen.

*Long, Accompany Them With Singing, p. 24.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany

Matthew 5
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Just in time for Oscar night, a quiz. And following our custom, I’m going to move from the absurdly obscure to the painfully obvious. Just shout out your answers.

[Dave, for the sake of fairness, if you know the answer, simply say “got it” rather than revealing it. Sheesh.]

This 1987 film was nominated for four Oscars, taking home the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Brian de Palma directed the film, and David Mamet wrote the screenplay.

The film concerns the United States Treasury Department.

The film is set in Chicago.

It stars Kevin Costner, Robert De Niro, and Sean Connery (the Oscar winner in this case).

The name of the film is also the name of a group of legendary crime fighters led by Elliot Ness.

The film, of course, is The Untouchables, and it recounts the true story of Al Capone, or rather the true (and unlikely) way the Untouchables brought down Al Capone. And without completely spoiling the film, I will say it underlines the importance of paying your taxes. Oscar night and tax time makes this the most topical sermon ever.

But there is more. There is a connection between The Untouchables and Matthew 5, and it’s partly found in a bit of dialogue near the beginning of the film. This is Elliot Ness defining the “spirit” (no pun intended) of the Untouchables:

l have one more thing to say. l know that many of you take a drink. What you've done before today is not my concern. But now we must be pure, and I want you to stop. It's not a question of whether it's “a harmless drink.” lt may well be. But it's against the law. And as we are going to enforce the law, we must do first by example.

The context is prohibition, and the extent to which people ignored a law that they didn’t agree with. Speakeasies, bathtub gin, rumrunners—all of these reactions to prohibition demonstrated the extent to which people were willing to go against the law of the land. Eventually the law would be repealed, but until then Elliot Ness and this gang of Untouchables would uphold the law.

So here is Jesus’ Elliot Ness moment, from the Sermon on the Mount, addressed to everyone who seeks to follow him:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Perhaps the first thing that likely pops into your head is all the ways in which Jesus seems to break the law: healing on the sabbath, eating on the sabbath, openly cavorting with the wrong sort of people. I want to come back to this question, but first I want to highlight where Jesus is headed as he creates his own version of the Untouchables.

What follows the passage Linda read is a seeming attack on the law he has just defended—defended in the most unambiguous way. Jesus says this:

The law says 'you shall not commit adultery,' but if you have lust in your heart, you already have.
The law says follow the proper procedure in obtaining a divorce, but by divorcing your spouse you cause them to commit adultery.
The law says do not swear falsely, but you shouldn't swear anything, just say yes or no and nothing more.
The law says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but you should turn the other cheek instead.

In other words, he didn’t come to abolish the law, he came to embellish the law. When he said ‘your righteousness should surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law,’ he meant don’t stop at the letter of the law. Don’t stop at the letter of the law but look instead to the spirit of the law—what more could you do?

Jesus doesn’t abolish the laws concerning divorce, oaths, or retribution—he says they don’t go far enough. Or rather, Jesus takes what is permitted under the law and says “yeah, but Moses didn’t say you had to divorce, or swear an oath, or seek revenge.” You’re not breaking the law of Moses if you choose another way.* I have not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

And fulfilling the law means continually seeking a better way. It means doing more than is required, not just the minimum to get by. To misquote a familiar quote, "not only must righteousness be done; it must also be seen to be done." If righteousness means living in a way that pleases God, we need to make it a mission, not a passive effort to avoid God’s ire. If righteousness means living in a way that pleases God, we should find joy in being righteous. What could be more joyful than pleasing God?

I promised I could come back to this question of Jesus breaking the law, so I guess I better keep my word. It’s one of those debates that always seems freighted—it takes us into doctrine, tradition, and the often picayune. Think of that other Sean Connery film, The Name of the Rose. Monks dying left and right and it turns out the whole sorry episode turns on the question “did Jesus own a cloak?” It’s on the list of great films that were completely shunned by Oscar.

The question of Jesus breaking the law comes down to a dispute, and a false accusation, but not in the way you might think. You see, the Pharisees are recorded as complaining about Jesus healing and eating and cavorting, framed as breaking the law. But we know that the Pharisees were reformers just like Jesus, but with very different ideas about the nature of holiness. We read what seems like a life and death struggle (especially in light of Good Friday) but what we should read instead is a debate between reformers. The fact that the four gospels are written at a time when church and synagogue are in direct competition, should tell us all we need to know about the way the Pharisees are unfairly portrayed.

So imagine with me that Jesus and the Pharisees are rivals and not enemies, and further imagine that they were creatively debating for the sake of reform, then listen to this:

23 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Three things. I love the spices, and I cook with all of them, especially cumin in refried beans—see me later for a recipe. Next, this was omitted from the lectionary, our three-year cycle of readings, obviously from someone who prefers coriander or chili powder. And finally, it gives us the best frame for this question of fulfilling the law: with justice, mercy and faithfulness.

But hold on. In the same way that the disciples of Jesus become the church and eventually become you and me, the Pharisees, the religious ones, also become you and me when we’re failing to see what Jesus sees. They become a stand-in, a metaphor, for everyone who is more interested in who is tithing than who who just, merciful, and faithful. Jesus said “you should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” give and be generous, tithe if you can—but don’t neglect justice, mercy and faithfulness—the heart of the law.

And if you have to win an Oscar, make it in the best supporting category: best supporting others, best supporting your church, and best supporting the heart of the law. Amen.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 1
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Some people collect baseball cards, I collect vocational quotes.

Like this one that my son picked up in art school: “If you can’t make a good painting, make a big painting, and if you can’t make a big painting, make a red painting.” Just now you’re trying to picture all the artwork on your walls.

Or this quote that has popped up more than a few times over the last couple of weeks: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table…” I guess I would say ‘if you can’t pound the table, argue that something clearly inappropriate doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment.’

I’ve been struggling to come up with a parallel quote for preachers, and best I can find is the old St. Francis quote “Preach the Gospel at all times—use words if necessary.” There is considerable debate about whether he actually said it, but he certainly came close when he wrote in his Rule “friars...should preach by their deeds.”

See me later if you have a pithy vocational quote to share.

In the meantime, St. Paul seems to be engaged in pithy quote-making when he sits down to write to the church at Corinth:

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are.

All of the quotes I’ve shared so far seem to rest on the same approach: using reversals and a touch of the unexpected to help people ponder something they might not otherwise see. So, in a world that seeks power and admires power and obeys power, God makes another choice. In a world that seeks wisdom and strength as a way of being, God chooses foolishness and weakness, and questions the very idea of “being” itself.

I feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Maybe better if we go back to the beginning of the chapter to see how Paul’s homily on foolishness and weakness fits into the overall letter. What led him to make this argument? What was happening in the congregation to prompt these words?

First, we know there was conflict. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians fought about food offered to idols. The majority of poorer believers fought with the small group of wealthier believers. And there was obviously some conflict over the role of women: between some strong female leaders and the men foolish enough to try to take them on.

So Paul has his hands full. He needs to fight down the impulse to knock heads and make a case for harmony, and he’s going to use every tool in his toolkit to do it. Political nerds like me who remember the 1984 election—and specifically Ed Broadbent’s appeal to “ordinary people”—will immediately see what St. Paul is doing here:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.

But God chose the ordinary people of the world—the foolish, the weak, the lowly, even the despised—to shame the rest. Do you think you are the author of your own power? That’s not how it works. Do you think you have some internal source of wisdom? Aren’t you cute. Do you think some worldly position you have makes you better than everyone else? Think again, Mr. President.

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

All this points to the real message that Paul hopes to send: writing to the church, Paul “urges them to foster a sense of being at odds with the world.”* It’s really that simple. In the world, but not of the world. Deeply in love with the world God made, but always aware that there’s more. Or enacting God’s seemingly foolish desire to save us from ourselves.

In many ways, it’s at the heart of our DNA as a church. From the beginning we were evangelists with a social conscience. The religion that became stale and philosophical was rejected in favour of a religion for the masses, preached in the open air, deeply concerned about the state of our souls, and equally committed to the betterment of the human condition. Slavery, child labour, poverty, working conditions: all of these became problems for the church to help solve.

And for a time we were extremely successful. Nineteenth century reforms ended the most egregious forms of oppression, and twentieth century cooperation helped create the modern welfare state. Everything the “social gospel” movement promoted came to pass: pensions, labour reform, medicine—even temperance for a time. And in one of the great ironies of the past, the more problems we helped solve, the more our influence—and our role—declined. We were at odds with the world once more, and once more we were aligned with the original vision.

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Paul the master letter-writer inspires with daring reversals and clever insights, and sometimes he does it to the extent that we miss the program he sets out. Hiding in plain sight is a three-fold movement toward being in the world but not of the world. He gives us three words to describe how we can remain at odds with the world while drawing the world closer to Christ: righteousness, holiness, and redemption.

Righteousness means living in a manner that pleases God. It means demonstrating another way to live, a way that might surprise or delight people who are weary of the way the world lives. Holiness builds in this. Holiness means living within the sacred, honouring God with humility, gentleness, and a sense that everything belongs to God. And redemption, that means that all things can return to God. No one is beyond redemption, everything can be forgiven, and all can be saved, even from themselves.

Three words to describe how we can remain at odds with the world while drawing the world closer to Christ: righteousness, holiness, and redemption. Three words to cut through meaninglessness and despair. Three words to lead people home.

May God make us agents of righteousness, holiness, and redemption, and may we always dwell in the wisdom of God. Amen.


Sunday, January 26, 2020

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Isaiah 9
9 [a]Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.

Suddenly, everyone is a photographer.

It was bound to happen, since anyone with a smartphone in their pocket has a pretty decent camera on them all the time. And these cameras are getting better all the time, something that makes traditional camera makers very nervous. So you’ve got a camera in your pocket, how are you going to make the most of it?

Well, after reading countless blogs and watching numerous youtube channels, and doing my own version of trial and error, I can share a few ideas. Let’s begin with the alarmingly obvious: let the sun shine on your subject, never let them dwell in the shadows. Or the rule of thirds, where you place your subject off-centre in the frame. There is just something more pleasing about putting your subject in one of the outer thirds. Some have suggested it is related to the golden ratio, the same golden ratio I told you about (recently) in one of my weirder sermons.

The there is the idea that you should get closer to your subject. And then closer still, and closer again, and there— that’s about right. Unless you’re trying to show that the shoes match the belt, you gotta get closer. And finally there is the light, or rather the quality of the light, and for that we need the golden hour. The golden hour is the hour after sunrise and the hour before sunset. Some call it the magic hour— magic in the sense that every picture taken then somehow seems better.

Some say it’s the diffused light, less intense than the harsh light of the middle of the day. Some say it’s the unique glow, the light filtered at a low angle through the atmosphere. And some say it’s the versatility of the light, being one of the few times you can place the sun behind your subject and allow the soft light to illuminate them from behind. In other words, magic:

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Dawn, of course, has long been associated with hope, renewal, birth, and alike. And when I say long, I mean long: places like Stonehenge or Avebury (largest stone circle in Europe) are linked to the solstice, as well as Newgrange in County Meath, nearly 5,000 years old and perfectly aligned with the return of the light each year. And the idea of the dawn is a busy metaphor, signalling new beginnings and the start of something new.

So why is Isaiah employing the dawn metaphor, and what is he signalling? It’s a long story, and it all begins when God was king. Actually, God never stopped being king, but there was a moment when the people of Israel demanded an earthly king like all the other nations in the neighbourhood. Partly it was jealousy, partly it was practicality: either way, God granted Israel a king. God did set up an “I told you so” by first describing why having a king is a really bad idea (1 Sam 8), but eventually relented and granted them a king.

What follows is a mixed bag of kings. There is Saul (neither great nor good) and then David (great but not good—see Bathsheba) and then Solomon (great but not good—see all those foreign wives) and then a parade of so-so kings all the way down to Jehoiachin (Ya-hoya-keem), the very last king in the line, dethroned and carried off the Babylon. It seemed an inglorious end for such a great house, and perhaps even the end of God’s covenant with David. Still, the promise remained:

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Walter Brueggemann, the other Old Testament scholar I turn to, defines faith this way: “Faith is understood in the Old Testament as Israel’s confidence that YHWH’s promises are reliable; in response, Israel is prepared to stake its future on that promise, even though it flies in the face of fact.”* Flies in the face of fact, like that fact the Jehoiachin (Ya-hoya-keem) is doing some sort of ancient Game of Thrones, former king in the land of exile, never to return home.

I think you can see a need for the dawn. Exile, humiliation, and the very real possibility of a broken covenant all point to a need for a sign, a signal, some sort of indication that faith is the right response in these times. The answer is messiah, the dawn of a new House of David, appearing in the time to come. God will come in a new way, to enact the promises of old and return people to a path of hope:

2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.

Sadly, in the golden light of God’s new dawn, some could see Messiah and others could not. Martin Buber addressed this very problem when he said that Christians and Jews should wait together for Messiah, the second coming in our view and the first in theirs. The key at that moment will be to fight down the urge to ask who was right, since it will no longer matter.**

What matters in our passage, at this moment, is the dawning light. The magic hour of renewal and hope will come, and our task is to hold it fast, understand it, and share it with others. This might be the moment to reference the madness happening south of the border, but I’ll hold that for now. It might be enough to say that I expect the 95 million eligible voters that stayed home last time might be reconsidering that decision, perhaps even resolving to make amends.

In a few moments we will share the Sacrament of Communion, a ritual that Jesus gave us on the night he was betrayed. Two of the three evangelists who recount the story tell us that it was evening, as Jesus and his friends sat down for the Passover meal. Bread is broken and wine is shared, and the words of the Master leave little doubt that something has changed, as the sun has set and the evening come.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, photographers have a name for this moment too, calling the time immediately after sunset the “blue hour.” The residual light we name as twilight has a bluish quality, ample light to capture your subject, especially landscapes or architecture with some artificial light as well.

As we approach the table, perhaps it is helpful to remember that this is happening in the blue hour. The great light of the resurrection remains a hope is this hour, and Jesus is busy reassuring his friends and helping them understand that the dawn is coming and those living in a land of deep darkness will soon see the light. The words of institution provide comfort and hope.

As we navigate the fading light and dream about the dawn we have faith: faith that God will remain true to the promises of renewal and new life, faith that God will act through human history to save us, and faith that the golden light of God’s new dawn will soon appear, Amen.

*Reverberations, p. 156.
**p. 129.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

How would you describe a lamb who can’t be good? Baaaaaad.
How would you describe my joke? Baaaaaad.

Well, I can take “have the congregation make involuntary sheep noises” off the list. But wait: sheep noises or lamb noises? Seems they’re the same thing, which the smug agrarians among us already knew. Sheep begin as lambs, for the first year or so, then they are sheep. The sheep are divided between ewes and rams, and when they get together, they make more lambs.

It is believed that sheep were the second animal to be domesticated (after man’s best friend), so I suppose sheep are our second best friend. And for thousands of years, sheep were an important source of milk, meat and skins for our distant relatives. Some time later wool become a thing, and you’re likely still wearing it today. Speaking of meat, when you eat lamb it’s lamb and when you eat sheep it’s mutton. I understand both go well with mint jelly.

Again, the sheep farmers in our midst already know this stuff, but those of us who have been domesticated to city life, less so. Things that were common knowledge a hundred years ago are no longer common knowledge, as our connection to the farm—any farm—has been severed. Despite this, we read our Bibles and find countless references to agrarian life. Fields and groves, seeds and vines, stables and pasture land—scripture gives us everyday things that are really symbols, and we look for meaning.

If we heard the extended version of the reading Joan shared, we would already know that “lamb of God” appears twice. Rule of thumb: if a symbol or motif appears more than once in a short passage, pay attention. So twice John the Baptist refers to Jesus as the Lamb of God, and on the first occasion adds an important addition: “Behold, the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We already know what this symbol does, but how does it work?

Before we do that, though, we need to review a thousand years of religious art. I hope you don’t have plans. Actually, I can be quick, because I’m leaning on the work of art historian Waldemar Januszczak. Waldemar—we’ll just call him Waldemar—begins his look at Jesus in art by looking at the earliest depictions. And Jesus appears frequently on sarcophagi—stone vaults that Roman Christians used to bury their dead.

The first thing that he notes is that Jesus looks young, a handsome lad, clean-shaven, with curly hair. Generally, he’s busy doing what Jesus does, healing the sick, making water into wine, and raising Lazarus. Often he has a sort of wand in his hand, touching the lame with it, or pointing it at poor old Lazarus. Waldemar notes that it will take nearly a thousand years for artwork with the crucified Jesus to appear, which is squarely a product of the Middle Ages. But early on, in art at least, Jesus is a miracle worker, freeing the people from every sort of sorrow.

Also in the Roman period, we find a lot of lambs in Christian art. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Between the first and the fourth century, eighty-eight frescoes [showing Jesus carrying a lamb] were depicted in the Roman catacombs. Clearly this symbolizes a lost soul being carried off to heaven by the Good Shepherd. It would have brought great comfort to those visiting these underground resting places.

Likewise, the catacombs featured lambs depicted with milk. One fresco “shows a shepherd milking a sheep, while still another shows milk-pail on an altar between two sheep.” Some argue that the sheep’s milk symbolizes communion, while others suggest milk represents the joy of heaven, once again a comfort to grieving family and friends. Whatever it means, it has an innocent quality to it, literal “comfort food” pointing to an eternity with the Most High.*

Now, before we drift too far from our passage, we need to hear our key verse again: “Behold,” John says, “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” You don’t have to travel far to begin to see this is Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Maybe he’s the Passover lamb, sacrificed to save the Israelites in their hour of great need. Maybe the lamb sacrificed in the temple, or the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or the vision of the lamb found in the Book of Revelation.** Even St. Paul describes Jesus as the Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5.6), but curiously doesn’t dwell on the image.

So even though it’s obvious that Jesus died that others might be free from the power of death, it doesn’t automatically follow that the ‘Lamb of God who comes to take away the sin of the world’ is a reference to his passion. Rather, John’s words seem to describe his earthly project, soon to be revealed, where the very presence of God would begin the work of healing, reconciling, and forgiving on Jordan’s bank.

A moment ago I mentioned innocence, the quality that comes when we see the Good Shepherd carrying that lost sheep in his shoulders, or the innocence of heavenly milk in art. Listen again the part of our passage, and focus on the innocence implied:

When [John] saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”
“Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.

Oddly, my favourite part of the passage is four in the afternoon. Why would John (the evangelist) remember such a detail? What could it mean? Now think back to the moment you met someone that would become important in your life, a partner, or a special friend: are there details that remain vivid in your memory? Can you recall the time of day, or the weather, or the place where you were? You see, memory and emotion tend to fuse, and sometimes we find details emerge, details you might not otherwise remember. It was four in the afternoon.

Likewise, the conversation itself has a sweetness that won’t be reflected in the latter half of John’s Gospel:

“What do you want?”
“Rabbi, where are you staying?”
“Come, and you will see.”

Some years ago I was attending the Greenbelt Festival, on a rainy Saturday in the Cotswolds. This was also the day that I discovered that yellow raincoats are unusual in the UK (I’m not sure why). At any rate, walking along, I got the sense that I was being followed, so looking around, I saw half-a-dozen girls following me, all around twelve. Curious, I said, “What's going on girls?” and then the answer: “We’re following the yellow man!” For me, it’s a delightful memory, one I won’t soon forget.

Back to our passage, what if it’s his innocence—his light—that takes away the sin of the world. Perhaps it’s his very presence and his tender approach—both lamb and shepherd—that embodies God’s desire to dwell with us, to befriend us, and to give us aid. Whatever trouble surrounds us, whatever ailment befalls us, whatever challenge confronts us, the Lamb of God is at our side and the Good Shepherd is carrying us home.

God’s approach can sometimes feel abrupt—serving us lessons we wouldn’t seek on our own—but for today it’s gentle, and innocent, and filled with the promise of a Saviour who is always companion and guide. May you be blessed by the Lamb of God and the Shepherd of the sheep, now and always, Amen.

**Texts for Preaching A, p. 107.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Baptism of Jesus

Matthew 3
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

“Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

This wonderful quote comes from the late Gracie Allen, part of the comedy duo Burns and Allen, along with her husband George Burns. When Gracie died in 1964, the quote “Never put a period where God has placed a comma” was found in her papers, as a message for George. George, it turns out, would live another 32 years and take her advice to heart, reinventing himself and entertaining people to nearly up to his 100th!

Years later, when the United Church of Christ went looking for a motto, they took inspiration from Gracie Allen’s words. The motto said “God is Still Speaking” and adopted the comma as the unofficial symbol for the denomination. Even today you will see United Church of Christ congregations with a giant comma on their church sign, or as a graphic on their website. And while it is hard to measure the effectiveness of a motto or an ad campaign, the words “God is Still Speaking” certainly became part of the identity of the church.

And the idea itself didn’t appear out of nowhere. One of the “founders” of the United Church of Christ (and an indirect founder of our own denomination) was the Rev. John Robinson. He ministered to the Pilgrims before they left for America, and blessed them on their way saying “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” In other words, God is still speaking, and therefore we use a comma rather than a period.*

I share all this because of the voice of heaven found in the passage Bob read, the moment that Jesus emerges from the water, and a dove descends, and we hear the words “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” It is the conclusion of the baptism of Jesus narrative, and it follows that moment of dissonance that we’ll ponder in a moment or two. For now, we need to remain with these words from heaven, and the whole topic of divine silence.

It is a favourite motif among preachers that these words mark a significant shift, God breaking the silence that had lasted 400 years. And the logic seems simple enough: the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi, the last prophet before “the long silence” that is only broken in the New Testament. There is even a name for the period, most often described as “intertestamental,” the 400-year timeline represented by the last page of one testament and the first page of the next.

Sadly for preachers, it’s not that simple. While our Bibles may go charging from Malachi to Matthew, Roman Catholic Bibles include the Apocrypha, with books like Judith, Tobit, and the Book of Wisdom. And then there is the Pseudepigrapha, which Carmen will be happy to tell you about over coffee, and then there are the Dead Sea Scrolls, which Carmen will be really happy to talk to you about over coffee.** It seems God had lots to say during this so-called 400 years of silence, God simply said it in other (non-canonical) ways.

And the events don’t bear this out this silence idea either. Back in December our Jewish friends celebrated Hanukkah, the festival of lights that began in the intertestamental period. When the Maccabees retook control of the Temple (164 BC) they reconstituted it for worship and relit the lampstand, even though they only had enough oil for one evening. Miraculously, the lamp burned for eight nights, time enough to find more oil (and inspire the festival of lights, already being celebrated at the time of Jesus). Indeed, the only reason Jesus is able to be presented in the Temple at all, is through God’s activity during the Maccabean revolt.***

So God was still speaking. God was speaking through priests as they reconsecrated the Temple in 164, God was speaking through the translators who gave us the Greek Old Testament, and God was speaking through the community at Qumran (again, ask Carmen over coffee—it’s gonna be a long coffee hour). God was still speaking through Anna and Simeon as they blessed the infant Jesus, and God was still speaking through John the Baptist—calling people into the wilderness to accept a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

And then God spoke again, saying “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” But before I say more, I promised you some dissonance—maybe embarrassment is a better word—as Jesus is baptized by John. We are supposed to raise our eyebrows over this turn of events, something John points to when he says “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you come to me.” It does seem quite reversed, God’s incarnation seeking baptism by John. But Jesus has the answer for this, saying, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So John consented.

“All righteousness” simply means in a manner that would please God,” or in a way that reflects the ministry that will follow. In the way of Christ, the least become the greatest, enemies become friends, and the face of Christ appears in others, particularly those in need of redemption. Jesus gets in line with all those seeking a baptism of repentance, not because he is sinful, but because he wants to walk beside them each day. This is the son in whom God is well-pleased, the one who is willing to stand with the sinful and the broken, receiving the baptism they receive, and returning only love.

And this takes us back to the comma where we began. But before we consider the ways in which God is still speaking, I want to share a story from school. When we arrived in Chicago for our preaching programme, we were told to pick a college to affiliate with, owing to the fact that the United Church of Canada is not represented among the Chicago seminaries. We (me and Jimmy) picked the United Church of Christ college, and when we were asked why, we pointed to their progressive approach to things, including LGBT matters, such as same-sex marriage. Our United Church of Christ hosts had a bit of a giggle, and said “well, that’s true of course, but we’re congregationalists.”

And when they said congregationalist, they meant it in the most positive light. We tend to use it as an insult, like saying “that church is too congregationalist—they ignore the wider church.” But in fact, congregationalism is a tradition and a worldview, one that says you are responsible for the worshipping life of this congregation, you get to pick your own minister (thanks for picking me!) and you get to decide how you will express your outreach to the community.

It means that when we say “God is still speaking,” we say it in the local sense. This is not a matter for church courts or denominational statements, this is a question of how we listen for God—here and now—and how we share what we hear. And as denominations fragment and decline, it becomes more important than ever to do our local listening and speaking—recognizing that congregations are the primary expression of God’s love and mercy.

Knowing that God is still speaking, what is God saying? Let me be bold and suggest a few things. First, God is speaking through global citizens, those who speak for the health of our planet and the world God made. Also, God is speaking through those who speak out, naming the mayhem caused by dangerously inept leaders, and decisions that cause harm to the innocent.

Next, God is speaking through those who truly have a heart for this community: activists and volunteers, members of the arts community, and small-business owners who first took a chance on the new Weston. Some day, when the last payday lender closes, we won’t thank governments (who have never properly taken up the issue) but rather the entrepreneurs who were willing to fill the same spaces with proper businesses.

Next, God is speaking through those who are searching for meaning. Many of our neighbours struggle to pay rent or maintain a mortgage, raise kids in a challenging time, or simply ward off the despair that comes everyday in the newspaper. But underneath that they ponder meaning, and look for hope. And our task is to listen as God tries to speak through them, and point to the compassion of Jesus and the gift of fellowship.

Finally, God is speaking through us. God speaks when we say a kind word, when we argue for love or mercy, when we stand with the oppressed. God is still speaking, and describing Jesus, with whom God is well-pleased. Amen.

*Rev. Larry Reimer, May 7, 2006.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Epiphany Sunday

Ephesians 1.3-14
11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.

There are no ropes on a boat.

There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat. Maybe power boats have ropes, but how would I know? Ignoring that question, I want you to go home today understanding that there are no ropes on a boat.

Mostly it’s a way to torment new sailors. They will innocently point to something that in their mind resembles a rope and maybe ask a question like “what does that rope do?” and we give the standard response. There are no ropes on a boat. There are lines, there are sheets, there are halyards, but there are no ropes on a boat.

It’s not that we’re being difficult—okay, maybe a little difficult—we’re simply doing that sailors have done since the ark cast off (lifted off?), and that is to introduce people to the complexity of the thing they seek to learn. And it takes time. Everything on the boat has multiple names as well: jib, jenny, genoa, foresail or blade (that’s five) for that sail at the front that’s not the spinnaker—that’s the one that looks like a balloon dragging the boat.

Clearly we are at the midpoint between last racing season and the season to come. But that’s not why I share all this. I share all this because there are always things that are foreign to us, but known to others. Or things that we know well, but completely foreign to others. Like, for example, going to church. So far today it’s narthex, greeting, bulletin, pew, prelude, announcements, peace, prayer, hymn, get the picture. And if you give this list to someone who has never come to church before, you might lose them at narthex and say a bunch of other words that don’t make a lot of sense with the exception of announcements. Everyone understands announcements.

Now, this isn’t an evangelism sermon (not yet), I simply want you to understand the extent to which we are engaging in a slightly complex endeavor that will be unfamiliar to most. Actually, it’s slightly less than slightly, but I don’t think there is a word for that, so we’ll go with slightly. It’s not complicated like sailing, but it’s certainly unfamiliar (to many) in the same way.

So what do you do? Some churches have tried to eliminate “insider language” like narthex, and opted for lobby instead. And I guess that’s okay, but part of the joy of joining something and having a new experience is learning. It’s certainly part of the appeal of sailing— twenty years later I know that I have barely scratched the surface—and that makes it more engaging for me, not less.

And if you take away all the insider or churchy words that describe rooms and rituals, can you stop there? What about words related to faith and belief, do you take them away too? Grace, redemption, salvation—are these words too churchy? I expect few would want to ditch grace, even though it’s an insider word that describes God’s unconditional love for us. It’s part of the learning curve of faith, as is the word faith, now that I mention it.

Speaking about faith, one of the ways we learn the faith is through reciting creeds (we will recite our creed next week) or memorizing a catechism. A catechism—now that we’re confronting churchy words—is a form of instruction, usually in a question-and-answer format. If you learn a catechism, you are engaged in catechesis. The adjective is catechetical (you undertake catechetical instruction), which is not only fun to say, but an important step in a life of faith.

So why have we arrived at catechetical instruction, of all places? Well, because Ephesians said we should. St. Paul (or more likely someone writing in Paul’s name) wants to tell us about predestination, unity, and glory, more or less in that order, and he wants us to understand how unique we are—with something that is available to everyone. So let’s do first things first.

No one is predestined to win $70,000,000 on Tuesday, but buying a ticket will increase your odds—but not by much. Predestination doesn’t work that way, because if it did, we could point to any misfortune and say ‘that was their destiny,’ it was meant to be. In fact, it’s more complex than that. Misfortune, and even good fortune, comes from a melange of external factors, sheer randomness, and the choices we make in life with the ever-present gift of freewill. We live in the tension between God’s control over our lives, and the extent to which we live in a complex collusion of human factors.

So what does Ephesians say? First, we are called to praise the God who chose us “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” In other words, this is our destiny: to be holy and blameless. And just to be clear, he says it again: “In love, he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” It is God’s desire (God’s will) that we be God’s children—not just to reflect what God wants, but for God’s pleasure.

In other words, we have been adopted as God’s children—this is our destiny—that we might be holy and blameless in the same way Jesus is holy and blameless. It brings God great pleasure to have this bond with us—in Christ, and to each other. And not just us, but all people, because there is no limit to this potential bond. And this takes us to unity, and what we are destined to experience together. Let’s listen again:

With all wisdom and understanding, God made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

Again, reaching our destiny gives God pleasure, but in this case it’s a larger project than adoption, maybe the largest project of all—the end of time. Jesus prayed and said “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and his goal was unity, “unity to all things” in this world and the next. It is, therefore, God’s desire (and our destiny) that this realm and the heavenly realm be one, and we each experience the unity this implies.

The question that follows, of course, is what do we do in the meantime? What do we do while we wait for the fulfilment that will come at the end of time? And for that answer, we need some catechism. Perhaps the most famous (in our Presbyterian tradition) is called the Westminster Shorter Catechism, originally written for the instruction of children. This is perhaps why it’s so profound, profound in it’s clarity and simplicity. And the author of Ephesians would approve. The first question is all we need:

Q: What is the chief aim of humanity?
A: To glorify God and enjoy God each day.

It’s certainly simpler than the difference between lines, sheets, and halyards, and that is no accident. The first question of the “shorter” catechism is meant to stick with you, to live in your heart and mind, to challenge and guide in the face of the everyday. So taken in reverse, do you enjoy God everyday? It is actually a tough question, but one worth pondering. If half of my purpose in life is to enjoy God each day, how will I do it?

Giving thanks—that’s a great place to start. It’s not the obligatory “thank you” that your mother made you say, but the ‘Thanks!” that you spontaneously say when someone does something really thoughtful for you, when you are really enjoying the gift. And then there is wonder, the enjoyment we find in the people we love, or the things we treasure, or the time we have been given. And then there is the mystery: enjoying God’s grace, the inexplicable, inexpressible, and often undeserved love God has for us.

And to glorify God? First, we glorify God by living well, reflecting God’s glory in what we say and do. And second, we glorify God because God deserves our praise. The author of all that is, the source of love and mercy, the light of the world—our words fail to express the glory that surrounds us. And so, we become students of glory, seeking examples of God’s glory and seeking ways to express that glory. All in the light of Jesus the Christ.

Chosen, adopted, destined—we seek to unify heaven and earth, and in doing so, give God the glory, now and ever. Amen.