Sunday, April 25, 2021

Easter 4

 John 10

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

You might call it reporting about reporting.

For voracious news watchers, this idea won’t come as a surprise. Spend an hour on any of the major cable networks and you will discover that it’s mostly reporters (or presenters) interviewing reporters about getting the story. And of course, it makes a lot a sense: if you can’t interview the prime minister, why not interview someone covering the prime minister instead?

So that’s the topline version of reporting about reporting. The next version is reporters who watch the news on television, and write articles about what they see. For start-ups and low budget news organizations, this may be the only way they can cover the story—saving the cost of sending someone to the scene. A variation on this is writing a story about someone’s appearance on the news, maybe the ultimate low-budget reporting.

Finally, there are the stories about stories. A story appears somewhere, goes viral, and other news outlets cover the viral story like a story. Most often they will cite the source, but sometimes they will simply do a similar story and pretend it was their reporting all along. Does it matter? If you’re the original author, I suppose it does—unless you’re just happy to have the idea out there.

This week’s viral example is a story that appeared in the New York Times called “Thereʼs a Name for the Blah Youʼre Feeling: Itʼs Called Languishing.” The next day, The Guardian picked it up, People Magazine the day after that, then the National Post a couple days later. Google “Languishing” and you will find even more. The original author was Prof. Adam Grant from Wharton, but it seems the idea belongs to everyone now.

Languishing, of course, is an old word, which means to feel weak or dispirited, to lack vitality, or to suffer neglect. Fast-forward to the mid-90s, and psychologist Corey Keyes applied the term to mental health, suggesting that the opposite of flourishing is languishing. Fast-forward again to this strange era we inhabit, and you see how the concept might resonate. Prof. Grant calls languishing “the neglected middle-child of mental health.” It’s the absence of well-being—not depression, but not sterling mental health either, but something in between.

See if you can find yourself among Dr. Grant’s observations: not feeling a lot of joy, somewhat aimless, feeling a sense of stagnation, maybe emptiness, generally you’re just muddling through your days. In other words, fear and uncertainty (from a year ago) has morphed into something else: less motivation, less concentration, less direction. Languishing.

The first step is to name the problem. Dr. Grant cites another viral article from last year, which appeared in the Harvard Review (and that named the prevailing emotion we were feeling as grief. We were grieving the loss of many things, both traditional and unexpected. It was helpful to give it a name and apply some well-known approaches to the problem. So too which languishing, but before we get to that, we need to meet a certain shepherd.

In a minute. First, I want you to recall the outline of a parable. A parable creates a little world, that suddenly sours, and then is resolved in such a way that it shows us the Kingdom. That’s a parable. But the same outline, the same emotional journey, can be found in other places in scripture, even the psalms. So step back and look at the twenty-third psalm through the lens of our little structure.

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need. I can rest in his pasture, near quiet waters, refreshed in body and soul. He leads me on the correct path, God’s own way. Even in the valley of shadows, there is nothing to fear, for he’s with me, giving direction and comfort. My adversaries can see me at the Lord’s table, chosen and sated. Surely my Lord will be a step behind me every day, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

From pastures green, to death’s dark vale, to an eternal dwelling place—we see the markers of this literary passage. Pleasance, peril, and eternity in God’s own realm—knowing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.

So where are we on our pandemic journey? You could argue that we inhabited a happy pre-pandemic world, which soured, and now we await release, our very own kingdom-come. Alternately, you could say we found ourselves in a COVID world, we managed, then we languished, and now we await that post-pandemic world. However you frame it, we seem to be in some late-middle stage, coping how we can, maybe feeling too tired to panic at each new peril in this dark valley.

So back to Dr. Grant. For the languishing, he suggests establishing “flow.” To become engaged in something, even for a short time, that can give us a sense of purpose. He suggests we start small, something intentional that takes us outside of ourselves. Next, he encourages people to carve out some time, away from news or email, time to focus on those small tasks or nothing at all. Finally, he says we should focus on small wins, anything that might build energy or enthusiasm in the face of languishing.

And as you might expect, all this fits with the context of our psalm. The psalmist begins with gratitude, praising the Shepherd God for stillness, direction, and companionship in times of peril. There is a flow to prayer, and the psalmist encourages us to praise God, to give thanks, and to acknowledge that we need the protection and comfort that only God can give. Prayer allows us to carve out some time for God. And every prayer is a small win, because it takes us outside of ourselves and leads us back to God’s goodness and mercy.

We name what we face, and that becomes a small step toward healing and wholeness. Then we turn to the Good Shepherd, trusting that he walks beside us, calls us forward, and dwells with us forevermore. Amen.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Easter 3

 Luke 24

36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.

Have you seen a ghost? There are a few reported here in the city, something to ponder when you’re finally out and about once more:

Apparently Queen’s Park has four ghosts, among them a melancholy lady in white and an angry looking soldier. Seems the place has always made people sad or mad.

The original director of the ROM is said to hang out in the museum, wandering around in only a nightshirt. Shocking!

The Elgin Theatre has the Lavender Lady, The Royal Alex has Al Jolson from time to time, and the Winter Garden has a trombone player often heard near the stage.

Robertson Davies has been spotted at Massey College haunting U of T students the same way he tormented anyone who took Canadian Literature high school.

Finally, and closer to home, it is said that the old Prittie Building at West Park was haunted (no surprise) by the constant footsteps of a young nurse.*

I share this not to scare you, but to underline the enduring nature of ghost-spotting. Our passage begins with the most gentle thing an apparition could say, that is, “Peace be with you.” Yet even then, the remaining disciples are startled and frightened, assuming they see a ghost. And then, in a bit of a replay of last week, Jesus says “Why are you troubled and doubtful? Look, touch me and see me; a ghost does not have flesh and bones!”

Luke tells us that they begin to shift their view, moving to joy and amazement, yet are still not fully convinced. Then Jesus hits on a simple strategy: he asks them to share their lunch. They gave him some broiled fish, and he took it, and he ate it in their presence. And then he began to teach them once more. It’s one more episode in a series of appearances, all happening (as Acts tells us) in the forty days after his resurrection.

This might be the time to look at them as a group, these appearances, and look for some sort of pattern or order. All the Gospels find Jesus near (or in) the empty tomb. Matthew and John make it clear that this is Jesus, the other two less so. That’s the first episode. The next is an appearance to just two disciples, on the road to Emmaus, found only in Luke. Then the division: Matthew and Luke share versions of today’s lesson, centred on this idea of taking his message to the nations, but John tries another approach. I encourage you to reread John 21, perhaps the most cinematic chapter in scripture, where Jesus fishes with them, eats with them, then delivers a remarkable call-and-response message that ends with “feed my sheep.”

Overall, the pattern is recognition, realization, and response. Most of these appearances begin with some obstacle to recognition, and then Jesus making them understand that he is far from finished with them. Then there is realization, that movement from doubt to joy, the sense that that is real. Finally, there is a response. Jesus sends them to share the Good News, to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations, and know that he will be with them—to the end of the age.

Recognition, realization, and response. Think of it as the pilgrim’s progress, the steps a follower will take on the road with Christ. We come to see Jesus for who he truly is, either suddenly like St. Paul or gradually like the twelve. You can be surrounded by religion and never see God—this is the heart of Jesus’ message—but the hope is that the day of recognition will come. And what joy when it does!

Then the realization. We step from the shadow of meaninglessness and give ourselves to something higher and better. We finally see ourselves as God sees us—a beloved child, with whom God is pleased. If you have ever had a mentor, or seen a counselor, you know that the gift they can give you is seeing your situation in a different light. 1 Peter 2 says it best: “Once you were no people, now you are God’s people; once you had no mercy, now you have God’s mercy.”

And then the response. We are grateful for love and mercy, so we love and serve others. We are grateful that our sins are forgiven, and we in turn forgive others. We are grateful that in dying Christ destroyed death, so we share our sense of eternity will all we meet. We were once ghosts of ourselves, seldom seen and never fully understood, now we know God as we are fully known.

I’m going to give the last word to Katherine Hankey: poet, missionary, abolitionist and activist. She sums up the grateful response that will carry us through whatever challenges or trouble life gives:

I love to tell the story,

’Twill be my theme in glory

To tell the old, old story

of Jesus and His love.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

Easter 2

 John 20

19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the religious leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

24 Now Thomas (also known as the twin), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Maybe doubt is a good thing.

I doubt this boat is really unsinkable.

I doubt there are enough lifeboats for all the passengers and crew.

I doubt that 24 knots through iceberg infested waters is a good idea.

I doubt that we will ever trust technology in such an unquestioning way again.

In his landmark book “Listening to Prozac,” Peter Kramer takes on an entire branch of modern medicine that he labels “cosmetic pharmacology.” In a nutshell, he argues that while some were taking Prozac as an anti-depressant, others were using it to achieve a sort of personality makeover, a way for the shy to become more outgoing and the timid to become more confident.

He then goes further, into the world of anthropology, to argue that within tribal cultures there needs to be a balance within the tribe. You need both the timid and the bold. Otherwise, there will be no one to challenge the group when it is being too cautious or caution the group when it is being aggressive. Then Kramer points back to the corporate boardroom, the place where this misuse of Prozac became the most apparent. If everyone around the table is overly confident, either by nature or medication, bad decisions will surely follow.

Think of it as a modern version of the ancient near-eastern practice, at least among one tribe, to get really inebriated on the eve of battle. By the end of the night it was usually ‘we don’t want to go to war with those guys, we love those guys.’ If they didn’t reach that insight, even after a really long night of drinking a fine Babylonian single malt, then maybe war was the best course after all.

Poor Thomas. Stuck forever with the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” Some clever person said that we never hear ‘Denying Peter’ so why Doubting Thomas? Add to that, he already had a perfectly acceptable nickname: “Didymus,” which means “the twin” in Greek. Maybe not as evocative as “Spike” or “Tiger,” but Didymus was a fine nickname, and certainly better than Doubting.

So Thomas is stuck with an iffy name, and seemingly forever. I say why not make the most of it, and that brings us back to Prozac. Doubt, or at least the ability to question, or to be that discordant voice that expresses something outside what the crowd is saying, must be a good thing. If everyone is unquestioning, and expresses no doubts about an event or a course of action, then they are little more than sheep. Or worse, if everyone is harbouring the same doubt but no one is willing to say it, then they are guilty of the worst kind of ‘groupthink.’

Suddenly Thomas is looking like a hero in the story, willing to say what no one else thought to say, or saying the thing that no one else had the nerve to say. Thomas is suddenly the Ralph Nader of the group, questioning the status quo and accepting the risk that he might go down in history as someone truly outspoken, as outspoken as say…Ralph Nader.

Another landmark book, this one Nader’s 1965 book “Unsafe at Any Speed,” made a bold statement that said (in effect), “I doubt Detroit really cares automotive safety.” Chapter by chapter he cites examples of everything the automakers were doing to imperil drivers and pedestrians: chrome covered dashboards that reflected light into the eyes, confusing transmission patterns that allowed drivers to make terrible mistakes, and even vehicle profiles that seemed to direct pedestrians under the car. He systematically doubted all the counter-claims of all the car companies, and made history.

Speaking of doubt in corporate claims, there is, of course, the terrible case of the Titanic. It took three days for news to reach New York that the Titanic had struck an iceberg, though the result of the collision was still unknown. In what must be the most foolish press release in corporate history, the Vice-President of the holding company that owned the White Star Line said, “We cannot state too strongly our belief that the ship is unsinkable and passengers perfectly safe.”

The Greeks have the best word for people who put too much stock in human achievement: hubris. Hubris is extreme arrogance or pride, the overconfident belief that you can do something like build an unsinkable ship or cover yourself in wax and feathers and fly toward the sun. Confidence allowed the Romans to defeat the Carthaginians, and hubris led them to salt the fields around Carthage, making their defeat permanent. Sailing through icebergs is risky, sailing through at 24 knots is hubris.

So if doubting makes Thomas a hero, the logical question might be ‘a hero of what?’ We all experience doubt from time to time, sometimes appropriately and sometimes not so much. It is seldom worth celebrating though, so Thomas is different. Another comparison: in the same way that someone needed to betray Jesus to move the passion narrative forward, someone had to doubt the resurrection so the question could be out in the open.

You might even say that Mary Magdalene gives us the first hint of the question that will dog Christianity from the beginning: “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” From the earliest days of the church there was a suggestion that his body was stolen, or worse, hidden by the disciples to create the impression that he was raised from the dead. Call it the first real conspiracy theory, since the stone was likely too heavy for one person to move, and therefore the work of a few.

But Mary speaks to the resurrected Jesus, and he then appears to the disciples, but that is just a handful. It falls to Thomas to speak for everyone else, missing from the first and second appearances, and willing to make the bold statement: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

In many ways, Doubting Thomas is a placeholder, standing in for everyone who was not with Mary at the tomb or in that locked room with the disciples. Thomas stands in for us, saying the words we would say and expressing the same doubt that it is perfectly human to express. He says what we would say, he receives the proof that we need, and is even willing to take the slight rebuke that Jesus delivers (really a side comment to us): “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The other thing Thomas does is buy the church some time. For the first generation, the generation who knew Jesus, they were relieved to see that while Jesus died, he really didn’t die, and was able (for a time) to walk among them, give them some final advice, grill them a little fish, and encourage them for the times to come. This was critical as the church was set to be born and the message set to be proclaimed.

May God bless the doubtful, the cautious, the bold, the in-betweens, and everyone who seeks to see the Risen Christ. Amen.

Sunday, April 04, 2021

Easter Sunday

 John 20

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 

Welcome to the first Sunday after the Paschal Full Moon, that is the first full moon that occurs after the vernal equinox, which signifies the beginning of spring in the northern hemisphere.

When it comes to calculating the date of Easter, the message is don’t try this at home. Your head will hurt, for one, because the description I just shared is only a summary—the actual calculation requires formulas and theologians. And even then, the result will be contentious. Anyone living near the Danforth will tell you that Easter usually comes twice, which is very exciting if you like roast lamb.

So Easter can happen anytime between March 22 and April 25, vexing for anyone who likes to plan ahead. Over the centuries people have argued for a fixed date, even suggesting April 9th (the actual date of the resurrection according to scholars), but Christians are too unruly for anything that obvious. So we opt for the “moveable feast” approach, which takes us to April 4th.

April 4th takes us to another tradition in Christian calendar- making, and that is the idea of “birth into heaven.” From the earliest days of the church, martyrs (and saints) were commemorated on the date of their martyrdom, the day they were translated into glory. And so today we honour Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born into glory on April 4, 1968.

But before I talk about Dr. King, I want to say a word or two about what was really happening on Easter morning, long long ago. This year, and most years, we go with the longer version of that first day, the stone that is rolled away, the running back and forth, the quiet belief of the beloved disciple. We weep with Mary, we quiz the stranger, we hear the tenderness as Jesus calls her by name, and we hear her cry “teacher!” because she has seen the Lord.

Nearby in Mark—the first and most concise telling—we hear something a little different. This time Mary has companions on this journey: Mary the mother of James, and Salome, together bringing spices to anoint his body for burial. At this moment, their biggest concern is who will roll the stone away—as they ponder the destination.

But there, at the tomb, the stone is already rolled away, and within they find a young man who gives them the message they need: “Be not afraid,” he says, “for the one you seek is not here, he is risen!” And these are the very last words of Mark’s Gospel, an ending that has troubled translators since the time it was set down:

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Of course, we know that if there was a ninth verse or a tenth verse to this chapter, Mark would already be contradicting himself, because they did find the courage, and the message was shared, and these women became the founders of an evangelical movement that would transform the world. But Mark did not write that. Somehow we wanted to leave us at verse eight.

I want to share with you part of an article written by Esau McCaulley, and published in Friday’s New York Times. He wrote:

The women did not go to the tomb looking for hope. They were searching for a place to grieve. They wanted to be left alone in despair. The terrifying prospect of Easter is that God called these women to return to the same world that crucified Jesus with a very dangerous gift: hope in the power of God, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and an abundance of love.

Fast-forward a few centuries and we get the same hope, the unending reservoir of forgiveness and abundance of love nesting in the African-American church that formed Dr. King. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he reminds his white colleagues that he’s the son, grandson, and great grandson of preachers—yet he would be the first to tell them that Black women were (and are) at the forefront of the fight for civil rights. In other words, the same women, centuries later, leading with hope in the power of God, unending forgiveness, and an abundance of love.

So the road that led to April 4, 1968 was long, but it led to a nation and a church transformed. Inside and outside the US, the life and death of Dr. King galvanized a generation of pastors and theologians to reconsider the relationship between the church and the oppressed. Where we once offered comfort, or benevolent aid, we were challenged to offer solidarity—through analysis, social action, and an abiding sense that God has a unique regard for the poor and oppressed. In other words, God called the church to return to the same world that crucified Jesus and offer the dangerous gift of hope: hope for the future, and hope for a world made new—abounding in love and mercy.

Before I conclude, I want to look at the last pages of Mark once more, and look back to Friday night, under the cover of darkness, when an unlikely friend of Jesus sought his battered body for burial. Joseph of Arimathea is recorded as the one member of the priestly class brave enough to care about dignifying Jesus in this moment, brave enough to approach the centurians to ask for his body. The gift that Mark gives us, however, is the gift of summary, as he introduces him with these words: “Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God.”

I would argue that this is the descriptor that we should all strive for, the introduction we should all seek, ‘meet my friend—waiting for the Kingdom of God.’ Waiting for the promise of a new age, when heaven and earth are one again, when God’s desire for us is our desire, and when God’s ways become our ways. When the power of God, and unending forgiveness, and an abundance of love has set everyone free.

I want to give Dr. King the last word, this from his reflections on Good Friday (“every time I look at the cross I am reminded of the greatness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ”) and, of course, his summary of today:

Jesus had given himself to certain eternal truths and eternal principles that nobody could crucify and escape. So all of the nails in the world could never pierce this truth. All of the crosses of the world could never block this love. All of the graves in the world could never bury this goodness.


Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

 Mark 11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,


“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Jesse Owens had one. Ben Hogan had one. Amelia Earhart had two, and should have had more.

I hope I have you stumped. Theodore Roosevelt had one, as did Queen Elizabeth and the future Queen Beatrix. John Glenn had two, and the New York Yankees had too many to count. Finally, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had one—Michael Collins the astronaut, not the Irish revolutionary.

If you guessed ticker tape parade, you would be correct. Funny thing, the ticker tape parade. Shower tons of ticker tape upon adoring crowds (and the source of their admiration), then let someone else sweep up the mess. The good news (for them) is that the work is getting scarce. In the 1950’s there were over 60 ticker tape parades in New York, but in the last decade there were only three. Maybe there is less to celebrate.

And since someone reading or listening today has no idea what ticker tape is, I suppose I should explain. Ticker tape is a continuous printout of stock prices, named (of course) for the tick-tick-tick sound of the machine that produced the tape. All over the city, businesses had these remote read-outs of the stock market in great quantity, and they in turn became a very handy way to celebrate. Think of it as long confetti.

I share this because the ticker tape parade may be one of the best modern examples of what happened that day in Jerusalem. It certainly wasn’t a parade in any sense that we might know. It wasn’t a military parade—think Red Square or Bastille Day—since those are really a show of force. It wasn’t an event parade like St. Patrick’s Day, though you could argue it became one. And it wasn’t a victory parade, since the outcome of the next few days was yet to be revealed.

The reason the ticker tape parade is a good parallel begins with design. A ticker tape parade, like our palm parade, is a planned event, carefully choreographed for maximum effect. This is not to suggest it is disingenuous somehow—it simply acknowledges that these are not spontaneous events. Jesus gives his disciples specific instructions on where to go, what to get, and what to say if anyone has questions.

Further, the ticker tape parade, like our palm parade, was held to send a message. City officials would select the people to be honoured (which by definition means others were not selected) as a way to align themselves with some triumph or celebrity. Likewise, Jesus enters on a humble beast, not some grand mount, sending the message that he would be a different kind of king, not the one they were anticipating.

Finally, the ticker tape parade, like the palm parade, belongs to the crowd as much as the planners or the people being honoured. Just as ticker tape parades would be meaningless without the celebrating crowd, the palm parade would be just an awkward entry without the palm-waving, the scattered cloaks, and the passionate shouting. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So the palm parade was carefully choreographed, message-laden, and dedicated to the people who stood by that day. It was a turning point, or maybe a point-of-no-return, when Jesus truly “set his face to Jerusalem.” And it was also a declaration, a declaration that Jesus’ kingship would be unique, unlike any other. So what would it be like?

It might be helpful to think about kingship before Jesus’ reinterpretation of kingship, and the momentous change God was planning that day in Jerusalem. In the distant past, it appeared that God blessed those in power. They ruled at God’s pleasure, and then they fell when the reverse was true. And then the first big change, through Moses. Remember that God, through Moses, defeated a king and freed the people. But the king (Pharaoh) remained. He did not fall, although certainly his economy was ruined. God only acted to free his people, to end their suffering, and bring them home. Moses mounted his own parade of sorts, through the Red Sea and on into the wilderness. It wasn’t a coup or a revolution, more of a parade in the form of a successful rescue mission.

Back to Jerusalem. Jesus confronted royal power that day not with a show of force or a victory parade, but rather with symbols: kingship that should humbly serve the people, kingship that was based on biblical models of faithfulness and not the sword, kingship that was located in heaven rather than on earth. It was a carefully choreographed, message-laden, and dedicated to the people who would then witness even more symbolic action: tables turned in the temple, a clarifying conversation with the high priest about kingship, and his journey to the cross.

So let me end with that clarifying conversation, the real conclusion to the palm parade, when Jesus is asked, “are you the anointed one, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14.62)

“I am,” he said. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This was never insurrection, rather the last stage of incarnation. Jesus entered Jerusalem to promptly leave Jerusalem, changing the nature of kingship forever. Earthly kings cannot save you, and they cannot even save themselves. Rather, we wait for the Son of the Most High to save us, now and in the days to come. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lent V

 John 12

20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

I can confess a certain passion for borrow-words.

If I told you that the melee we call the Norman invasion caused some malaise in our milieu, you might say ‘yes, but at least we gained some dandy borrow-words from the French.’ And we did. And even before the Normans, the Vikings who “visited” the land of our language left behind some helpful words: ransack and berserk, for obvious reasons; heathen and troll (the bridge kind, not the internet kind), and the more earthly words dirt, mire, and muck. All fine words, but none as evocative or enjoyable as schadenfreude, which means ‘taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.’

To be clear, I enjoy the word, not the sentiment (unless we’re talking about crossing the line ahead of the rest of the fleet). But it got me thinking about the last few weeks and whether our German friends have a word for the opposite, ‘feeling displeasure at the good fortune of others.’ More research is required. Maybe we could simply default to another borrow-word, actually a double borrow-word, (envy) that began as Latin, then French, then English.

O envy, you are so much more than one of the seven deadly sins. You appear every time someone gets something we want, and can lead to upset, frustration, and often anger. Some have learned the hard way that sharing the news of your recent vaccination can generate a variety of responses, and not all positive. Rather than a sense of relief that one more person is edging toward immunity, and therefore making all of us safer, we have witnessed upset, frustration, and even anger.

We’re simple creatures, we humans, and we frequently default to assessing worth, or value, or deservedness, rather than taking pleasure in the good fortune of others. As some medical person said this week, it’s Team Human versus Team COVID, and we should be cheering on our side rather than second-guessing who gets to score first. So the next time you’re offered the opportunity to share someone’s outrage, remind them that epidemiologically speaking, we’re all in this together. End of sermon.

Well, not really—more end of rant. But my rant does relate to the Gospel lesson for today, when Jesus says “we’re all in this together,” or rather, we should be. The heart of the passage is right in the middle: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. And my Father will honor the one who serves me.” But before we examine the heart, let’s zoom out (no pun intended) and see where these words are set.

Chapter after chapter in John, Jesus says, “my hour has not come.” His mother needs more wine, but his hour has not come. Twice they tried to arrest him, and twice he said his hour had not come. But here in chapter twelve, finally, he says his hour has come. In Luke, we famously get the phrase “he turned his face to Jerusalem,” but for John, his hour has come.

So Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, and he says “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Think about these words. Whoever serves me must follow me. We tend to conflate them—service and following him—but Jesus wants to keep these two ideas separate. We serve Jesus whenever we seek the lost, or slake the thirsty, or visit the sick—but can we also follow him? For you see, following is another thing altogether.

And it’s something Jesus tries to explain again and again. In Matthew (20) he’s confronted by the sons of Zebedee (and their mom!) about this question of who gets to sit at the right and left of Jesus in eternity. Again, Jesus famously asks “can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” and the sons say “oh yeah!” This was not the answer the Master was looking for. But he doesn’t give up on these two (or their mom), choosing instead to restate the lesson they struggle to understand: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Again, the difference here is between service and giving his life. Whoever serves me must follow me. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. These are hard words, words we struggle to understand, so maybe it’s time for an example.

Remember back in January, the Vancouver couple who chartered a plane to some remote part of the Yukon, got in the queue pretending to be workers at the local hotel, got the shot, then made the mistake of asking for a ride to back to the airport, proving that clever and stupid often live on the same street? They clearly love their life, and love it enough to break the law, to put an entire northern community at risk, and risk the infamy that comes when every half-baked plan fails. This is what happens when you love your life, to the exclusion of others.

Jesus would have us do the opposite, obviously. ‘Hate your life’ is meant to get your attention, but it just means doing the opposite of the excessive life-lovers, or those who are willing to risk the lives of others in order to preserve their own lives. Yes, we need to avoid doing foolish things; yes, we need to love and serve others; but we also need to follow in his way. And following in his way means loving our own lives a little less.

Back to our example, knowing that remote and northern communities are ahead in the queue should be gratifying— these places where there is no 9-1-1, or a big hospital, or an ambulance on the way. It should be gratifying to know that we are part of a society that works, giving priority to the most vulnerable, and not the people who can afford to charter a plane. It should be gratifying to set aside our own sense of urgency, knowing that we can love our own lives a little less for the safety and well-being of others.

As we get ready for our annual meeting, we can take pride in the fact that the building is filled with food, and boxes, and clean needles, and packaged meals, and clothing (sometimes on the street too). We can take pride knowing that we set aside our own comfort, we set aside the urge to find the building exactly the way we left it, and we set aside the need to control the space—for the sake of others. It’s not a small thing, even if you don’t feel directly involved.

In other words, we serve, but we also follow in his way. Amen.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Lent III

 Exodus 20

And God spoke all these words:

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”

I’ve never heard of it, and I’ve never seen it, and frankly, I don’t think I’d like it.

I’m talking about a film called The Fifth Commandment (2008), written and directed by Rick Yune, and rated by Rotten Tomatoes at 25 percent. Ouch. I’m surprized, actually, because Rick Yune is one of the best Bond villains, or rather a villain’s sidekick: the character Zao from Die Another Day (2002). Zao is famous for surviving an explosion and becoming bejeweled in the worst possible way. Let’s just say diamonds are forever.

So, I’m telling you about a film I’ve never heard of, and I’ve never seen, and frankly, I don’t think I’d like—because of the title. Being churchgoing folk, you will of course know the fifth commandment, the commandment that apparently inspired a rather uninspiring film. So what’s the fifth commandment?

Well, based on the premise of the film—an assassin who becomes the target of assassins—we would assume that the title of the film refers to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” But we already have a problem. You see, “thou shalt not kill” is the fifth commandment for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, but not for us. Over here in reform territory, the fifth commandment is “honour thy father and mother.”

Actually, I’d like to see the director do a reformed church remake of the film, maybe making his parents a cup of tea, or driving them to the store. And maybe that’s not the most compelling idea for an action film, but it might do better than 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. So if you’re reading this Mr. Yune, get in touch—I have lots of ideas.

I also share this numerical anomaly because it has some bearing on what I really want to say this morning—and that is the nature and scope of the first commandment. Again, there is disagreement within the Christian family: with Catholics and Anglicans including making idols in the first commandment, and the reformed crowd giving idols their own separate commandment. So let’s just pretend we’re Catholic for a moment while I make the point I hope to make—and that is the length and breadth of the first commandment.

To begin, the commandment runs to 98 words. 98 words, compared to five for adultery, four for theft, and just four for murder. 98 versus five, or four, or four. Clearly, if importance was determined by word count, you wouldn’t worry so much about that bicycle you lost back-in-the-day and worry more about any idols you might have laying around the house. Or who you might be putting ahead of the Most High. But let’s leave that for a minute and listen again to the first commandment, as defined by the non-reformed:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It’s part preface, it’s part mission statement, and it’s part dire warning. And it begins as these things often do—with reminder. And the reminder is the first strand on our collective DNA, the magna carta of our relationship with God—that is, we were redeemed. We were redeemed by God, and released from bondage, precisely because this is what God desires for all of humanity. And so, God creates the template whereby people resist bondage in whatever form it appears, whatever guise it wears.

Yet running to 98 words means that this commandment/ covenant has a “wait, there’s more” quality to it. I redeemed you, therefore you shall have no other gods but me. And furthermore, don’t make idols, because I know that having idols is the same as saying “gosh darnit” and pretending you’re not breaking the second (or third) commandment, which is about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And then there are some sub-clauses about jealousy and how long it takes God to forget.

At our study this past week, we were inevitably comparing the Old and New Testaments, and trying to find the divine line between judgement and mercy, and more-or-less deciding that it’s complicated. In the first half of Isaiah God fumes over the disobedience of these people, but in the second half of Isaiah we meet a loving God, offering comfort, and willing to make a highway in the desert of our lives. Likewise, in the first commandment, God warns about visiting the sins of the parents down the third and fourth generations, but then pledging a thousand generations of love if we can simply follow God’s ways.

Just now you’re thinking that this love feels conditional, and not the grace that we have some to expect from God, especially the God we find in Jesus. But let’s not forget that the first words Jesus said to his disciples was, “come, and follow me.” Following Jesus is conditional, insofar and many choose not to follow. Too hard, too complex, and too demanding—this need to love and serve others. Yet here we are, doing our best, trying to live with love and mercy, because Jesus invited us to do so.

So too with God. Being part of a covenant is conditional by definition, the party of the first part offering love, and the party of the second part offering devotion. Recall the old catechism, our chief aim as humans is to glorify God and enjoy God each day. So it need not be onerous. Acknowledging God as the source of all this is; praising God for the wonder of life and creation; following God through our decision to love our neighbours—all these constitute the first commandment. And then, of course, there’s the idol thing.

Idols, you see, are what we make them. Anything that tries to take the place of the God we love and serve can be an idol. In fact, even serving God can become an idol if we make serving into servitude, where we make God into some sort of harsh taskmaster like old Pharoah. So idols are what we make them and idols are everywhere. The market is an idol, made plain by the golden bull on Wall Street that everyone loves having a picture with. Our obsessions become idols, our cravings become idols, even the people we love can become idols if we forget that God loves them more.

So maybe it’s time for a little spring cleaning. Check here and there for idols, and then put them in the trash or maybe the recycling bin. Reread the covenants found in scripture: the God who redeems us and wants only our devotion and concern. And then take a walk—with Jesus, of course—through these Lenten days of pondering and reflecting, and meet God anew. Amen.