Sunday, September 23, 2018

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


http://www.oacas.org/2017/11/toronto-region-remains-the-child-poverty-capital-of-the-country

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.


There is nothing quite like a good disguise.

And no where is this more obvious than in films. Think Tootsie (1982) where Dustin Hoffman plays a notoriously difficult actor who must dress as a woman in order to find work. Or Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), where Robin Williams plays a divorced father who dresses up as a nanny to spend time with his children. Or Some Like it Hot (1959), where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon dress as women to escape the mob, or to lounge around with Marilyn Monroe. Both, really.

And disguises, of course, are not limited to famous actors putting on dresses. In The Parent Trap (1961), twins Susan and Sharon (both played by Hayley Mills) meet at Miss Inch’s Summer Camp for Girls and discover that they are literally “twins separated at birth.” Adopting the same hairstyle and mannerisms they switch places, a simple but effective disguise.

And there is the disguise we also call “slumming.” A famous example is Sir Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Henry V (yes, I know it was a play before it was a film) where King Henry puts on the cloak of someone of lower rank and moves among his troops to learn how they feel about their king and the looming battle. He uses the not-very-convincing name Henry Leroy (French for Henry the king) and tells people he’s Welsh (well, he was once the Prince of Wales). I love the film, but recognize that it’s really just Sir Kenneth’s excuse to make the famous speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

That’s the closest I’ll ever get to the stage. I share all this because the reading Bob shared is all about disguises. Listen again:

On the way [Jesus] asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

It’s an odd little exchange, really. It appears almost word-for-word in Matthew, Mark and Luke, with the only real difference being a sort of conclusion added in Matthew whereby Jesus rewards Peter with the “keys to the kingdom.” Otherwise, they maintain the dialogue we heard this morning. There is no parallel in John—where there seldom is—with John’s Jesus being more vocal about who he is through a series of “I am” statements familiar to us.

But in our passage, Jesus wants to know what people are saying about him. In some ways, the disciples become a sort of focus group, sharing the most common responses they have heard. The first most common response is also the most unexpected: “Some say John the Baptist.”

Unexpected because Jesus and John the Baptist are together at the beginning of the gospels, John the Baptist baptizes Jesus, and John the Baptism even seems to help Jesus craft his early message (“I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”). Even Herod (who is responsible for the Baptist’s death) decided that Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life, saying more about his remorse perhaps than any theological insight.

Others, the disciples then suggest, say Elijah. This suggestion is both logical and plausible: Elijah multiplied bread and oil for the widow of Zarephath, he raised her dead son, he confronted Baal in the same way Jesus confronted the Adversary. Elijah is even predicted to come at the last, “during the great and terrible day of the Lord.” The parallels are irresistible, and by the time Jesus is transfigured, Elijah will appear (with Moses) before Jesus in glory.

But he’s not Elijah. We know this because the focus group continues, as Jesus—unsatisfied with the answers so far—says “yes, but who do you say that I am?” Peter speaks first and for the rest and says “You are the Christ.” Mark remembers it as “the Christ, son of the living God” and Luke simply “the Christ of God.” With this, Jesus says “tell no one.”

I can tell you that a lot of sermon ink has been spilled on this statement “tell no one.” Most often it’s the contrast to John, the Jesus who introduces himself as “the light of the world” or the “Good Shepherd” or “the way, the truth and the life.” It’s hard to overstate the contrast, but it’s also hard to discount John’s recollection, since so many of these “I am” statements have brought so many to faith in Jesus. So we live with the tension.

I can also tell you that “tell no one” is a vain hope. If the somewhat thick-headed disciples can figure it out, then so can everyone in the next row of followers, and those who experience some miracle or healing. The disguise becomes increasingly thin until it’s no longer a disguise at all. Near the end of Mark, as the trial begins, he High Priest examines Jesus and says “tell me, are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus has finally embraced the spirit of John’s Gospel and says simply “I am.”

But the disguises will continue. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener asking “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me, and I will get him.” Two disciples have an extended conversation with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, only recognizing him when he breaks the bread before the meal. And again, after his death, the disciples are fishing and he appears on the beach, saying “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they say, and he encourages them to try fishing from the other side. Only in the context of the miraculous catch that follows, do the see it is Jesus, who then grills some fish and shares some bread and instructs them one last time.

And the disguises will continue. One of the most pervasive heresies in the early church was docetism, the belief that Jesus wasn’t really human at all, they it was merely ‘God-in-a-Jesus-costume’ that came to earth and walked among us. It seems a convincing way to explain all the miracles and all the wisdom, and it also became a simple way to explain the bodily resurrection: Jesus was never really here, just God visiting in the form of a man.

The problem with this idea was immediately obvious. It reduced the Christ-event to theatre, and it eliminated the vital link we have to God through the humanity of Jesus. It makes Good Friday, Easter and all the resurrection appearances false, along with very identity of the Lord and Saviour that continues to walk with us down to today.

Most importantly, the heresy denied Jesus his humanness, the very means by which he experiences the pain of human living and the suffering we experience in the face of death. The deep well of pain that God holds is only present to us if Jesus knew pain, if he felt betrayal, if he drew a last breath, and returned to God with the totality of human suffering. He can only save us because he knows that from which we need to be saved. He can only forgive us if he experienced our failure first hand.

And the disguises never end. The famous passage in Hebrews says “Don’t forget to entertain strangers—for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares.” In Matthew 25, we are reminded that what we do for the least and last we also do for Jesus, perhaps the verse that most animates those who serve and seek to see Christ in others.

Imagining everyone in need as perhaps Jesus in disguise is a revolution in thinking—it creates a realm of concern and empathy and it destroys the very human impulse to serve only our kin and clan and those who can provide some sort of reward. Our service becomes a way to meet Jesus—it becomes a spiritual encounter—and an act of faith that returns him to our midst once more.

May we find Jesus in everyone we meet. And may God bless every act of kindness, Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2018

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

James 2
12 Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.


Advice for today: If you’re gonna read your Bible, don’t begin at the beginning.

I know it seems counter-intuitive, since we are often told to begin at the beginning—but for Bible reading it’s just not the best place to start. Maybe that’s why that little Bible you got in the fifth grade was only the New Testament and Psalms, a simple way to solve the problem of beginning at the beginning. Unfortunately, this causes another issue, since Matthew is better read after you read Mark—so again, don’t begin at the beginning.

So why the lack of love for Genesis? Is this guy Genesisist? Is that even a word? In fact, I love the book of Genesis, and I would commend it to anyone, except the person reading the Bible for the first time. And here’s a simple list to explain:

In the first chapter of Genesis, on the first day, God created light, then separated light and darkness.
A few verses later, the sun (which separates night and day) wasn't created until the fourth day.

In Genesis 1, trees were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before trees were created.

In Genesis 1, birds were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before birds were created.

In Genesis 1, animals were created before humans were created.
In Genesis 2, humans were created before animals were created.

In Genesis 1, man and woman were created at the same time.
In Genesis 2, man was created first, then woman sometime later.*

I think you see the problem. There is obviously something happening in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, something that the earliest biblical scholars will sort out in the eighteenth century. Early on, it was suggested that maybe there were two separate accounts melded together, each too important to discard. Thus, what we call source criticism was born. Two sources, edited together, one book with obvious contradictions.

But we don’t need to stop there. The very nature and identity of God is described in varied and often contradictory ways. Some examples:

God is a vengeful God (four places)
God is a warrior (three places)
God is a jealous God (seven places)
God is angry (eleven places, but can you blame God—have you read a newspaper lately?)
But God is love (five places)

I think you get the picture. The truth is, the Bible is not a book, but a library. We call it the “good book” but it’s really more like a good library: many books, by many authors, on various topics—but with lots of agreement and lots of disagreement. Go across the street right now (well, not right now) and find a couple of books on Canadian history. What do they emphasize? What do they downplay? Who will be featured and who will be ignored? They may both be excellent treatments of the topic, but they will inevitably disagree on what’s important.

So too with the Bible. Divinely inspired writers took up the story of God and God’s people, and wrote numerous books on the topic. And in the absence of an overall editor (would a library have an overall editor?) in the absence of an overall editor we have received a varied, rich, complex, fulsome, vexing, engaging, frustrating, inspiring, troubling, and glorious collection of sacred writings that we can now spend our life with. Thank God for that.

I share all this this morning to set the table for one of the primary dichotomies found in scripture: “Faith, without works, is dead” (from James 2) and “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (from Romans 3).

Having spend much of 2017 marinating in Martin Luther’s Reformation ideas, we might be predisposed to the favour the latter, by faith alone we are saved, not by any effort on our part, not by works, but by the grace and mercy of God. But then James speaks:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

In many ways, this is catnip for the United Church, and for Central in particular. Food, clothing, clean needles, condoms, advice—if we can get it, we will give it away. Going downstairs is like taking a trip to James 2. We begin with physical needs (food, warmth, companionship) then support (housing, harm reduction) and finally advocacy, encouraging people in the face of systems that often seem designed to keep them down. It’s the whole package.

But it’s far from all. Nearly three-quarters of the units next door receive some sort of support, because seniors living in poverty is one of the great scandals of our time. Down the hill, at the Mount Dennis satellite, we’re confronting a “food desert” with cooking classes, a pop-up market, and social enterprise incubation (yes, it’s as cool as it sounds).

Occasionally I’m called upon to offer support to other congregations—congregations who are trying find their way. And I always begin by describing the James 2 congregation I serve. I describe all the outreach we do, I give them all the confusing four-letter names we seem to favour (CKSR-WKNC-MDNC) and then the same question comes every time: “How big is your congregation?”

What would you say? Not big. Big enough. Could be bigger. I tell them that even a relatively small congregation can have a large impact when they put the focus on addressing the needs right outside their front door. There is no magic here. Just faithful people trying to help. Faithful people who read James 2 in the present tense: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.” What would you do?

(Just as an aside, congregations make other choices, like the congregation I met that gave over 90% of their building to a private school. They had lots of money, but complained that they had no room left over for any kind of programming, especially outreach to the community. We have made the opposite choice, and depend on generous givers instead of a private school who would gladly take over our building. Subtle stewardship plug ended.)

So back to the seeming contradiction between ‘saved by faith alone’ and ‘faith without works is dead.’ Can they both be true? Is there a way to capture the grace and mercy we receive (without any effort on our part) and the grace and mercy we should return in order to have a faith with meaning? I think the answer is in the question.

Like Ol’ Blue Eyes said, you can’t have one without the other. You can’t accept that your life with God is a gift freely given unless you can share the same gift with others. Put the other way, you can’t freely share with others unless you understand that all that you have was a gift to you.

And, of course, whenever it seems that competing verses have gotten us into some kind of mess, we return to the Bible for the answer. And more often than not, the answer is in the letters of St. Paul. And it makes good sense: Paul was helping non-Jews discover the God of Israel through a Jewish rabbi who insisted that faith was for everyone. Talk about a challenging job description!

And he spends plenty of time describing the outward marks of his faith and the extent to which they can be a barrier to new believers. He talks about the law, he talks about conversion, and he talks about faith and belief. And when he’s done talking about all these things, he settles on this: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5.6)

See what he did there? God is the source of all love, so faith expressing itself through love is accepting the love that God has for us while sharing that love with others. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

God sent Jesus to show is “faith expressing itself through love—love for the least and the last, love for tax-collectors and sinners, love for the gentiles who sought him out, love for the broken people he surrounded himself with, even love for those who took him to the cross. Paul said it, but no doubt Jesus whispered it in his ear:

“The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Amen.

*https://infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/contradictions.html”

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Fifteenth Sunday of Pentecost

Song of Solomon 2
8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”


If you’ve ever seen an old painting, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a religious painting.

For you see, there was a time (before the Renaissance of the fourteenth century) that almost everything painted had a religious theme. It helped that the church was the primary patron of the arts, but in general terms, religious themes were considered to be the only themes suitable for representation in art.

And even after this assumption changed, and people started painting the human figure for the sake of beauty alone, or some Roman ruin in nature, or some classical story or character—even after such a profound shift in subject—religious art was still being created. The Last Supper is a Renaissance painting, an obviously religious theme by a painter who was equally interested in showing his use of perspective and the brilliant way he could paint human figures.

According to the National Gallery in London, fully a third of their collection of Western art is religious in nature. And the topics are easy to predict: the crucifixion, the (aforementioned) Last Supper, and any story that involves a beautiful woman: David and Bathsheba, Susanna and the elders, Samson and Delilah. Perhaps the most popular (unsurprisingly) is the Madonna and Child, to the extent that I’m sure a third of the third of the religious paintings at the National Gallery depict Mary holding the baby Jesus.

(Incredibly, I’ve only ever seen two paintings of Joseph with the baby Jesus, and they’re both at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Seems it’s a theme that occurs in Latin American art, and a pleasing one to this dad.)

So I’ve taken you on this brief tour of religious art to highlight a bit of an anomaly that relates to our reading this morning: there are very few paintings based in the Song of Solomon. Yes, by the nineteenth century painters like Dante Rossetti would try, and Marc Chagall some decades later, but by-in-large the Song of Solomon was ignored over the span of Western art.

Why would this be? The primary reason, it would seem, is the way the book as been viewed through the ages. From the time it was included in the Jewish Bible down to the modern era of biblical interpretation, is has been viewed as allegory. Not a story of desire between two lovers, not a story about Solomon and one of his many wives, not even a guidebook on how to woo your lover (though it does a great job at that)—but a story that points to something else altogether—in other words—an allegory.

And it would have to. This book of the Bible that doesn’t mention God, or the law, or the covenant, must have some larger, symbolic meaning—so the earliest thinkers settled on the relationship between God and humanity. Later, Christian theologians would clarify this belief and say it’s an allegory of the relationship between Christ and his church, but the view is the same: this is about the passion God has for us and the passion we are urged to return.

I think you can see the issue for the visual artist. You could paint lovers or various creatures described in the book, but it’s not really about that. If it’s an allegory of mutual love between Creator and creature, that’s something that is hard to represent in oil or watercolour. I think there may be a way—or at least I may have uncovered one way—but before we look at that, we should spend a bit more time on the Song of Solomon.

I keep using the word “story,” but even that is a little misleading. It’s not a story in the sense that it has a plot or a series of events. It’s more of a dialogue between lovers, a “celebration of love,” and a loose collection of moments of “passion, descriptions of physical beauty, memories of past encounters, and longing for the lover's presence.”*

It’s more like a collection of scenes, meant to evoke a sense of the passion and mutuality that exists between these lovers. Let’s listen in again:

8 Listen! My beloved!
Look! Here he comes,
leaping across the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag.
Look! There he stands behind our wall,
gazing through the windows,
peering through the lattice.
10 My beloved spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, come with me.
11 See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.
12 Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”

We can hear the passion and the mutuality, but there is something else. A few verses later she says “My beloved is mine and I am his,” (2.16) which adds the virtue of fidelity, the abiding sense that these lovers will remain faithful within the sensuousness of the place they find themselves. Suddenly, this is starting to sound like a wedding homily, but there is more.

Just a few chapters later, she picks up this theme again, but restates it to say “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.” (7.10) According to Dr. Ellen Davis, this is a critical moment in scripture, a moment when this confident woman has reversed the curse found in the Book of Genesis. She explains it this way: After the fall, Eve is punished for her disobedience and God says "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” And human history would seem to bear this out. But within the Song of Solomon, comes the reversal: “I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me.”

In other words, there is something in these words that returns these lovers to the Garden of Eden, repairing the rift that begins with the apple and restores them to equality and mutuality once more. Add to that the abundance of nature in our passage—flowers, cooing doves, the early fruit of the fig tree and the fragrance of the vine—and we are transported to another theme in art that seems to locate our lovers once more: the peaceable kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom (which you have in your hands) is a common theme in art (Edward Hicks painted this painting 62 times!) and it is most often associated with Isaiah 11 (“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”) Hicks’ paintings often include settlers and their First Nations neighbours, or groups of Quakers (from his tradition) or simply the abundance of the natural world. In some ways it’s about a return to Eden, like the Song of Solomon, but it’s also about the age to come. It’s a glimpse of what God intents for us, what God will provide in the fulfilment of time.

And in this sense, we’re back to allegory. If the Song of Songs is about God and humanity, or Christ and his church, then what we’re introduced to is the way things ought to be. Or the way things will be in the age to come. There is living with passion, there is mutuality and the respect we extend to the people around us, there is fidelity to the relationship and the future we share, and there is the abiding sense that we are not only loved but sought after.

And it’s this passion that holds the key. Imagine each day God says to us “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me.” See the world as I wish it to be. See the others among my beloved who are doing my work, remaking the world as we speak, bringing together heaven and earth. “Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, come with me,” and see the peaceable kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Amen.

*Kathryn M. Schifferdecker (workingpreacher.org)

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 2
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”


Sometimes I think you’re keeping stuff from me.

Stuff like great quotes, little know facts, and historical tidbits that you know I’ll enjoy. Take, for example, the eminently quotable John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy collected quotes, shared quotes, and generated quotes in a way few presidents have.

And those of you old enough to remember President Kennedy have first hand knowledge of something I have only recently learned: He loved reversals, lines that take something and then turn it into something else. An example? I’ll ask you. What’s his most famous reversal?

“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

It kind of defined the spirit of the age. The president challenging people to set aside narrow self-interest in favour of serving others. Oh, how times have changed. But let’s not dwell on that, let’s look instead at these great reversals that JFK loved and no one felt the need to share with me.

"The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

“Our problems are manmade—therefore, they can be solved by man."

“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.”

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”

"Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames."

I’m going to assume it’s something he picked up at Harvard, perhaps while reading the classics, since this type of reversal was quite popular among Greeks and Romans. It has a technical name, antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli), a device that allows new meaning from the reversal of (often) common words.

Take for example, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” See how the use of the word “tough” transforms from “hard times” to “people who can handle it.” So the linguistic trick is to employ the same words, but expand the meaning. Some have suggested that “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” was first said by Joe Kennedy, father of JFK, so perhaps the president found this linguistic habit a little closer to home.

And the technique doesn’t even need to be that complicated. Back to the first example (“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”), all the president is doing is shifting the focus from selfish to selfless. He still reverses the words, but mostly seeks to create a comparison. And since the preferred option is usually presented last (“what you can do for your country”) it reinforces that this is the option to choose.

I share all of this because we should all strive to remember what presidents are like, and because Jesus also favoured reversals—we find one in our passage:

27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

It’s an antimetabole (anti-meh-tab-oli) of the more simple variety, reversing the same words, but in this case presented the preferred option first. In this way to seems to add authority. It fits with all the “verily, verily” passages, which continue “I say unto you...” followed by some important lesson.

So what does this sabbath lesson mean, and who on earth is Abiathar?

Maybe we’ll look at the second question first. We get to Abiathar through a field of grain, as Jesus and his disciples create some controversy picking grain on the sabbath. The Pharisees challenge them, and (as is his custom) Jesus offers them a lesson. Jesus recounts the (then) familiar story of David’s struggle with King Saul.

David is on the run from Saul, who considered him a rival for the throne. He shelters among the priests, and seeks food for himself and his men. The chief priest prays to the LORD for guidance, and is instructed to give the sacred bread of the priests to David and his companions (1 Samuel 22.10). Lacking weapons, David also asks for a sword, and the priest turns over a treasured relic, the very sword that David took from the giant Goliath years before, and the story continues.

The lesson Jesus points to is God’s willingness to overlook a hard-and-fast rule for the sake of David’s future. The story of Israel’s greatest king hinges on surviving this moment, and God provides. In other words, it’s God’s rule, and God may belay the rule if it conflicts with something else God hopes to achieve.

For the rule-driven, for the Pharisaic, this kind of thing drives them mad. Why make a rule if you’re going to set the rule aside the first time some future king is in trouble? What’s the point of having capital L laws if they suddenly become optional? To this, Jesus would say something like “the sabbath law was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath law.”

In other words, observing the sabbath is supposed improve our situation, not make it worse. If Jesus and his disciples are hungry, and David and his companions are hungry, why should following the law add to their burden? If the point of sabbath is renewal, how can hunger on the sabbath renew them?* Clearly, it can’t.

Just now you might be thinking “I’m not really a rule-bound person, but even I wonder at God’s willingness to make exceptions.” And I hear you, even if you’re just thinking to yourself. I wonder too at this subjective God, making and breaking rules to suit this or that need. And then I remember Exodus 32.

It’s one of my favourite scenes in the Ten Commandments. The Israelites roll out the Golden Calf, which in the film looks like a cross between a rabbit and whippet, painted gold, and paraded among the people. The narrator says the people were “perverse and crooked,” when it actually looks more like a country line-dancing.

Meanwhile, on Sinai, God fumes at their disobedience. Making another god to worship jumps to the top of the shall nots, and God says “look at what your people do. In my anger I will destroy them all and make you into a great nation instead.”

But Moses pushes back: “First of all, these are your people, the very people you just rescued from Egypt. Do you want the Egyptians to say ‘what kind of god would rescue the people only to kill them in the wilderness?’ I don’t think so. So turn from you anger and keep your promises, the promises you made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”

And God repents. God’s subjectivity saves the Israelites—God’s willingness to turn aside from anger and forgive them the party and the whippet-rabbit cross. God’s subjectivity is based on the very practical principle that the law was made for us, we weren’t made for the law.

The law is meant to guide us, to temper our actions, direct our choices, not bind us to fail. If we were made for the law, our constant failure would eventually render the law void. Is a law even valid if no one is able to keep it? Jesus knew that keeping the sabbath (and all the other laws) were aspirational, goals for human living, and not the kind of legislation that would lead to our doom. We’re too broken for hard-and-fast, too human for the letter of the law.

But just as God’s law is aspirational, God’s forgiveness is aspirational too. God’s forgiveness is the signal that God sees more in us than we can see in ourselves. We know our limitations, but God sees beyond them to see what David and his companions can do, what the disciples can do, and ultimately what we can do—when we understand that we are loved and forgiven.

So if I had to sum it up, I might say something like ‘you can’t have faith in God unless you accept that God has faith in you.’ Amen.


*Lamar Williamson

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 4, 5
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.


The name of this game is Guess the Actress.

In one of her first starring roles, nearly 20 years ago, she played an insurance investigator pretending to be a thief in order to catch a thief, in this case played by Sean Connery. It’s hard to explain the most iconic scene the film—it’s sort of yoga with lasers.

Her next big film, set in the Jazz-Age, she plays a singing and dancing murderess surrounded by other singing and dancing murderesses. This unlikely story is loosely based on fact and nets her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

In her next major role, she is chasing thieves again—twelve of them—with the added twist that she is the daughter of the most famous thief of all, LeMarc. Once again the iconic scene involves lasers (and this time dancing!), clearly a homage to the first film I mentioned.

The answer, of course, is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and next question is ‘why does Hollywood seem so interested in thieves?’ Jewel thieves, car thieves, art thieves, and those who steal secrets—the thief is a cinematic staple that never seems to get old. The theme seems to lend itself to large, ensemble casts and exotic locations (and who doesn’t love large, ensemble casts and exotic locations?) but it also works as the lone thief fleeing a smart apartment with a pocketful of jewels, and usually appearing sometime later wearing a tuxedo.

Oddly, we cheer them on: holding our breath as they tiptoe past an alarm, leaning in while they speed away, and celebrating with them as they luxuriate with their ill-gotten gains. Cinema is all about escape, so I suppose you could say we are taking a moral holiday—enjoying something that we wouldn’t do ourselves.

But that hasn’t always been the case in congregations, and my proof is found in Ephesians 4.28:

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Clearly, there was a thief in the congregation at Ephesus. The church was the only audience for this letter, and St. Paul wrote pastoral letters for the sole purpose of commending or condemning behaviours he learned were happening in the church. Therefore, we can conclude that there was a thief in the church at Ephesus—or maybe more than one.

And notice too the Robin Hood reference in the verse. Paul says ‘stop thieving, get a job (since you obviously have some skills) and then share what you gain with the poor.’ Maybe they had developed a new take on outreach, a little too Sherwood Forest for these supposedly upstanding citizens of Rome.

Either way, Paul says ‘stop.’ Whatever your motive, crime does not pay. And as a Roman speaking to Romans, Paul would be thinking specifically about the penalties for theft in the Roman world at this time. If you were a slave (remembering that the early church included many slaves) you could be flogged, sent away, or even crucified for theft.

Free citizens of Rome were usually subject to fines, several times the value of the item stolen, with the exception of getting ‘caught in the act,’ which could bring harsher penalties such as public shaming (ignominia) or banishment. Obviously this might reflect badly on the congregation as well as the thief, and may have been part of Paul’s motivation for including this particular warning.

But there was certainly more than cat burglars and joyriders in the church at Ephesus. (Grand Theft Chariot?) In the handful of verses for today we have discovered that the church was filled with:

Liars of all kinds
Anger-mongers (including the petulant, the peevish or just plain crabby)
Unwholesome talkers (I’m going to come back to this one. Unwholesome talkers may include slanderers, gossipers, the potty-mouthed or the braggadocious)
The bitter
The pugilistic
And those who engage in “every form of malice.”

So if you have a time-machine, take me with you to Ephesus, circa 50 AD, since this seems like quite the crew. It must have been the most interesting group of people ever assembled, or perhaps they were was just like me and you.

Now, I’m not going to point a finger, so I’ll stick to my own faults. I can be peevish AND petulant—even crabby—and I’ve said the occasional bad word while sailing or renovating. But I’ve never stolen anything, unless you include the occasional sermon idea.

You can make whatever confessions you need to make over juice and cookies, but before you do, you should note one important thing: there was room for all these people—everyone on Paul’s list—in the church. He didn’t say ‘go away,’ he said ‘mend your ways.’ Even notorious Ephesian jewel thieves weren’t shown the door—they were strongly cautioned to mend their ways.

But there is more to this passage than simply the message that sinners are welcome in church (though thank God for that)—there is another hidden issue that I happened upon while trying to understand this idea of unwholesome talk.

In a Bible study written for student athletes at Princeton University (see, a footnote!), the author makes a connection between our passage and the Epistle of James.* In our passage, we are told to avoid unwholesome talk, choosing instead to use language that will build others up. As I noted, this is the garden-variety stuff that comes with community, including gossip and gossip’s evil twin slander. But now let’s look at James 2:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Here, unwholesome talk includes the way we speak to people, or the way we speak about people, when we imagine that our situation or station is somehow better. Ask anyone in a frontline job dealing with the public, and the candid ones will confess that how people look, talk, and carry themselves will have some bearing how how they are treated. Add to this gender and race, and it soon becomes clear that “inequality of treatment” is as true today as it was in New Testament times.

But there is more. If unwholesome talk includes the way we speak about those we struggle to respect, or look down on, or have written off as foolish (or worse), we’re going to be severely tested in the Age we live in. Just last week I said that “bread and circuses” refers to the people who want to be distracted and entertained by bad behaviour, failing to live up to the values on which free societies were founded. Should I be more understanding? Do I have a choice?

I do. We all do. We are tempted to refer to someone’s “stupid followers” as if they were a enablers and wrongdoers rather than broken people like you and me. It seems that unwholesome talk includes generalizing about an entire of group of people without acknowledging that every person has a story and everyone’s motives are based on a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad.

Trust St. Paul to look in on us, see our brokenness, and say something like this:

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5.1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

*http://www.princeton.edu/~aia/files/vbc/Unwholesome_Talk.pdf

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

John 6
24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

You forgot to pick up the bread! You remembered the wine, the oil, the garum (the fish sauce—the ketchup of the Roman world) and maybe a bit of salt, but you forgot the bread.

You’re not rich, so you’re not buying actual bread. You’re heading to one of the many communal ovens in the city to pick up the bread they baked for you overnight. You see, it’s far too dangerous to have a city full of homes with ovens. There’s already too great a risk of fire with all the oil lamps in use, without adding the additional risk of household ovens. So you drop off your dough, and by daybreak you’ll have bread.

But we should back up a bit. There are a few steps first. The recipe you’re using is the same one your parents and grandparents used, and it was already old when they made their bread. It’s from Cato’s classic de agri cultura (“On Agriculture”), a kind of cross between the Joy of Cooking and Farmer’s Almanac. It starts like this:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly. Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well. When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. —Cato, On Agriculture, 74*

(Note to my 21st century listeners, this recipe is actually incomplete. Cato was describing a type of sourdough bread, and it needed a starter. He doesn’t mention it because it’s assumed. Thank goodness for culinary historians. And thank goodness that he reminds us to wash our hands. Some advice never gets old.)

So it’s kneaded, formed into a circular loaf, and scored in the same manner later Romans might score a pizza. You have added your personal stamp (how else will you know which loaf is yours?) and you have delivered it to the neighbourhood oven. Some time tomorrow, you and your household will have bread.

And you dig in, because you’re going to need your strength to line up later today for the dole. It’s your right as a citizen—free grain—given out every month. What was once a heavily subsidized staple, cheap for anyone willing to line up, eventually became a giveaway. Famine can lead to unrest, so some clever politician (Clodius) ran on the “free grain” ticket and won. It fell to every politician that followed to figure out how to keep it up. Free grain is an idea that works.

And then much later, it was the little known Emperor Aurelian who decided to simplify the process and just hand out bread. He also gave away pork and wine, which begs the question ‘what type of wine goes with a ham sandwich?’ History is silent on the matter. Setting that aside, Aurelian should be the second-most-famous person who called for “daily bread,” but most have never heard his name. So on then, to the most famous:

30 So they asked [Jesus], “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The chapter begins, of course, with the feeding of the five thousand. Five loaves and two fish are miraculously transformed into enough food to feed the five thousand, with a dozen baskets of bread left when people had their fill.

But the food and the baskets also prompt questions. ‘Surely,’ they say, ‘this is the great prophet we are waiting for.‘ But Jesus must slip away, knowing—John tells us—that the people intended to force Jesus to become king. This was never the plan, so Jesus retreats to the mountainside to be alone.

Later, of course, he is discovered, and more questions follow. How did you get here? (word was already out that he walked over the lake) How can we be faithful? What other signs are you prepared to show us?

It is here that these witnesses make the connection to the story of their faith. “Our ancestors,” they said, “ate manna in the wilderness. What will you do?” So Jesus completes the connection.

First, he tells them, there is bread and there is true bread. True bread comes from God and brings life to the world. “Then give us this bread” they say, seemingly unaware that Jesus has entered the realm of metaphor. And then the reveal: “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Some time later Jesus will teach them to pray saying “give us this day our daily bread,” and they will no doubt remember that Jesus is the daily bread, and a daily walk with Jesus is the cure for the hunger and the emptiness that everyone feels. And the same daily walk will slake the thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5.6) and ensure they are filled.

And this takes us back to Rome, not that we ever really left. For you see, bread and the politics of bread loomed in the background of Jesus’ words, something that he would work to redefine or redeem, transforming the bread of the Roman street into the bread of heaven. But it was never going to be easy.

It was the Roman poet Juvenal who coined the phrase “bread and circuses,” words that I have always taken to mean the things that your leaders will offer you in place of real action. Seems I was wrong. Take a careful look at Juvenal and his context, and a different meaning emerges.

The poet, you see, was a satirist—and satire is always written for an audience. So while the object of the satire might seem to be the powerful—particularly the foolish powerful—the real object is the audience. The idea is ‘make them laugh and make them think,’—to send them home with a lesson or a more realistic sense of themselves.**

In this sense, “bread and circuses” is a commentary on the people who are willing to be distracted, and the extent to which people need to take a hard look at themselves.

When the emperor is trying to incite the crowd by calling some “the enemy of the Roman people,” they need to think. Or when the emperor suggests that a wall be erected to somehow keep the world’s more powerful empire safe, the people need to think. Or when the emperor makes 4,229 false or misleading statements in 558 days (as of yesterday), then the people need to think.

Eventually the people need to think, ‘what will be the cost of all this “red meat” and circuses? What damage is being done to the collective, and what damage is being done to individual lives?’ If there was ever a better illustration of ‘what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul’ I can’t think of it. The hope is that over time, one-by-one, people will think and say to themselves, ‘this is not right’ and ‘what was I thinking?’

When you feed five thousand people, it’s always going to be difficult to convince them that you were mostly preparing them for a metaphor—and that our Saviour and Lord is the only bread you need. People were slow to think, slow to realize that the daily bread Jesus was offering was himself. “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Then give us this bread, Lord, and give it always. May we walk with you daily, fed with meaning and filled with righteousness. And help us help others on this daily walk, thankful that never walk alone. Amen.


*http://pass-the-garum.blogspot.com/2012/10/moretum.html
**https://www.improbable.com/ig/