Sunday, August 09, 2020

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, August 02, 2020

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.  Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 9.35ff
35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

7 As you go, he said, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

If you ever lay awake at night wondering what’s the most popular hymn, then lay awake no more.

For you see, the good folks at the Hymn Society have created a sort of CHUM chart of popular hymns, both “most popular” and “trending hymns.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference is, but I can tell you that “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” tops them both, owing—it seems—to the fact that it appeals to the most number of Christian denominations. Seems “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is the one thing we can all agree on.

(Just as an aside, if you don’t know what the CHUM chart is, you’re going to need to ask someone over 50.)

The other thing to note is that on the top fifteen list of most popular hymns, only one author appears twice, and that would be Charles Wesley. Now some may argue that he had an unfair advantage: that when you write 6,000 hymns, two of them are bound to appear in the top 15, and that may be so. But when you look at his “best of” list it’s hard not to be impressed:

"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
"Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending"
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"
"O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

Nevertheless, Charles never achieves the universal agreeableness of a “Holy, Holy, Holy!” because of his tendency toward the idea of Christian perfection. Wesley believed, along with the many Methodists he inspired, that you could achieve a measure of perfection in this life—sanctification being the term they used. In fact, if you dig around in the archives, the old Methodist class books would (on rare occasions) include an “S” beside a name, indicating that the class member had become sanctified.

Now those of us who feel we are equal parts Presbyterian and Methodist immediately start scratching our heads. “Who decides?” is the first and obvious question, along with “how long?” and followed by “then what?” I hope the Methodist class teacher was writing in pencil, since our capacity to sin—including the sin of pride—generally takes over, and leads to the disappearance of that rare “S” notation.

Back to hymns, hymnbook editors generally find a way to adapt hymns to make them more acceptable. An example is “Love Divine, all loves excelling” (number 10 in the top 15) and the original line “pure and sinless let us be.” Apparently, even brother John thought Charles went too far, by suggesting that we could somehow become sinless like Christ. So the line was changed to “pure and spotless let us be.” See, fixed. Spotless is like the kitchen floor that will be dirty again tomorrow, while sinless moves us into territory we don’t belong (and will likely never achieve).

Having fixed the hymn, it remains one of the best expressions of the Christian hope. Charles concludes the first verse with these lines:

Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

I may be guilty of quoting these four lines too frequently, but they seem to say what Charles meant to say when he drifted into Christian perfection. Jesus has compassion on us, meeting us with a love that is pure and unbounded, and may enter our heart—and every heart—trembling for salvation through him. We are saved then, rather than sanctified, and “perfectly restored” in Christ Jesus.

I share all this because I suspect that Matthew 9.35 and following was in his mind while Charles wrote these words. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew tells us, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” That’s where Jesus finds us. In fact, even after Jesus finds us, we can feel “harassed and hopeless,” and only able to go on, knowing that his compassion never ends. The Good Shepherd will tend us, and restore us to the fold.

Further, Jesus sends the twelve out into the world saying, “tell them this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” This can be read in a variety of ways, but once again Charles is here to help. “Visit us with Thy salvation, enter every trembling heart” is just another way of saying ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ It’s as near as your heart, where the kingdom will enter in and the will of the Most High will be done. Jesus said as much when he was arguing with the Pharisees. “When will the kingdom come?” they asked, and Jesus said ‘stop looking for signs, and ignore everyone who says “over here!” or “over there!” because the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17.21). It has already entered your trembling heart.

The kingdom is within us
it has entered our hearts.
The Compassionate One walks beside us
and restores us to our place with him.
We are surrounded by the harassed and helpless
and remind them the Shepherd is here.

May God bless us and fill our hearts with unbounded love. May we freely love others, as Christ has so freely loved us. And may the Spirit move within, and help us find the kingdom there. Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The Voyager 1 space probe had already been travelling away from earth for a dozen years when Carl Sagan approached NASA with an idea. Since the probes “photo assignment” included shots of the sun and the planets, why not spin around for a moment and take a picture of the earth?

So on February 14, 1990, as “the spacecraft left our planetary neighbourhood for the fringes of the solar system,” the probe came about, looked back four billion miles, and took a photo. Sagan described it as a “pale blue dot,” just 0.12 pixels in size, there amid the light rays cast by the sun.* Even the colourblind can see that it’s blue, and very small, almost lost in the vastness of space.

“What are we mortals,” the psalmist asks, “that you should be mindful of us? Mere human beings, that you should care for us?” Indeed, in the vastness of the heavens, among two trillion galaxies, averaging 100 billion stars per galaxy, you might suggest we are lost in space. And without opening a debate that includes little green men or saucers that fly, it remains safe to assume that we’re lonely in our little corner of space. Maybe not alone, but certainly lonely when the measure is in lightyears.

The psalmist then answers the question for us: “a little less than angels you made us, and crowned us with glory and honour. You have made us rulers over all your creation, and put all things under our feet.” So we are unique, with a unique role in the unfolding of creation. How do you think we’re doing? Before we get to that, we should spend a moment more on our semi-divine status, our position just shy of the angels. Again, how do you think we’re doing?

Well, the answer is mixed. Anyone looking in on us just now might question our near angelness, so we need to approach the question in a different way. I want to begin at the beginning, and for that we need to travel to Africa. Imagine for a moment that we’ve spent millions of years evolving. The earth is old, but humans are not, and there was a moment in time when one or two or more people developed consciousness. One moment this tiny band was like every other living thing that moved upon the earth, and then in the next moment everything changed.

Now, I don’t want to move us into the garden too quickly, so I’m going to stay with consciousness and the birth of our humanity. When it was just a handful of self-aware people and their Maker, things were simple. I’m sure there was conflict—it is one of our defining characteristics—but the danger was small. As consciousness spread, and the number of “humans” increased, we discovered our differences. Band A had a better diet than Band B. Band B. had better music than Band A, and so on. All the human emotions came into play: pride, envy, anger, distrust, and the rest. Every possible difference was explored, and our humanity began to show.

You can imagine this grieved (and grieves) our Maker. We were made in God’s image, the marker of our common humanity, but we see only differences. So God sent plagues to convince Pharaoh that the Israelites were human. God sent prophets to convince the Israelites that their neighbours were human. God sent Jesus to convince all of humanity that we’re human. Yet here we are. There is no easy answer to this problem, our focus on differences, but we can start with where God would have us start: rereading the stories of exodus, exile, and the one we call Emmanuel. And we might listen to other voices too, like Professor Alice Roberts who shared some truth this week:

We're all members of a young species...
wherever we've ended up, all over the world,
we're Africans under the skin. And
uncovering that story, retracing the steps of
our ancestors, has given me a profound
sense of our common humanity: our shared
past, and our shared future"

And what about our other question, our rule over creation? The creation narrative (delightfully read), is one of those earth-positive readings that demands to be heard. Same for Psalm 104, and Job 38 (a very unique celebration of creation), and all the places in scripture that describe the way the earth feeds us. We have dominion, which sounds an awful lot like domination, but means more like “supreme authority.” In the nuclear age, our authority became more supreme, with the power to keep or destroy. And with that in mind, I would suggest dominion is really just a form of extreme stewardship. The earth is ours to keep or destroy.

There were a number of stories in April about the environment and the pause that came through the pandemic. Birds sang, smog cleared, and animals cautiously entered places that humans appeared to vacate. It was a powerful moment. It’s obvious that we can’t shut down human industry, but the pause was a reminder that we can help the earth, that nothing we do is set in stone, and that change is possible. It’s a hard way to learn, but that doesn’t negate the lesson.

Every crisis reminds us that we have more to learn, more to fix, and more to grieve. Every crisis reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that God will hold us through our learning—and lack of learning. Every crisis reminds us that we need God: to remake is in God’s own image, to redeem us through the abiding presence of Jesus Christ, and to sustain us for whatever comes next, through the power of the Holy Spirit.


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost 2020

Acts 2
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I expect Luke knew that his recounting of Pentecost would someday be read aloud. He may have been thinking about his words being read at some sort of public gathering—and not read into a smartphone—but I expect he knew someone would read it to others. So as we thank Jenna for her fine reading, she can thank Luke, because he put the unreadable bits together in such a way that we can save them for later. Then, of course, it falls to me to struggle through Luke’s list, which I will do now. I’ll take it from verse eight:

Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Indeed, what does it mean? But before we get to that larger question—the meaning of Pentecost—I want to talk about diversity in the Roman world. Luke is amazed by it, and this tells me that we should be too. He recounts for us the nations represented that day, the nations with a large enough Jewish population that they deserved a mention. Looking at a map, you would see that his list takes us from Rome in the west (1,400 miles!) to Parthia in the east, and south into Africa, both Egypt and Libya. To the north is modern-day Turkey, and all those cities Paul and his companions will someday visit.

And as I began pondering this passage, thinking about the diversity of the Roman world, I remembered an interview with Professor Mary Beard, included in David Olusoga’s documentary Black in Britain.* Olusoga is also interested in the diversity of the Roman world, and how physical differences like skin colour were perceived. Dr. Beard begins with a rather long caveat (“I don’t...want to give any impression that the Romans are particularly nice or angelic about this”) but then goes on to say, “what the Romans weren't is racist in our terms, and there is no sense that skin colour is really the thing that marks you out for your position in the culture."

"When it comes to race [then],” Olusoga asks, “the Romans were more liberal than we are now?"

"Yeah,” she says, “I think we live with a kind of myth that somehow we've got less and less prejudiced over the centuries, and that's simply not true. And one of the points of looking at the Romans—one of the lessons they've got for us—is they remind us that some of the prejudices we hold haven't been held forever. There's something a bit optimistic about it because it might actually mean that we won't go on holding them one day. Who knows,” she says, “Who knows?"

I share all this at the end of a very long week, with the death of George Floyd and all the unrest that continues. 53 years ago, Dr. King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He wasn’t justifying violence—his project was always non-violent—but rather explaining why systemic racism and extrajudicial violence leads to unrest. We pray for an end to violence, best resolved through reconciliation and truth-telling. As we have learned on this side of the border, the process of addressing past wrongs is long and complex, but our collective future depends on it. And as Mary Beard reminds us, race and racial inequality are learned ideas, and can hopefully be unlearned.

On the day of Pentecost, differences melted away. Religious women and men from all over the known world had a common experience of divine power, the wind and flame of the Holy Spirit. They (literally) spoke with one voice to proclaim the wonders of God, the God who saves, the God who transforms us and makes us one.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it’s also the beginning of Joel’s “last days,” a new era that will lead to the “great and glorious day of the Lord.” It begins amid the Babel, erased by the power of the Holy Spirit. From this moment of unity will come a common message, and that common message will be carried back to the farthest corners of the Roman world. Soon the world will learn that “anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved”—saved from meaninglessness, saved from the things that divide us, and saved from death itself.

The cornerstone of Pentecost is baptism, entering into the death and resurrection of Christ to emerge a new person. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile,” Paul will soon write, “neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wind and flame—and the cleansing water of baptism—will sweep away what divides us, and make us one. May we ever remain Pentecostal people, alive in the Spirit, and determined in our desire for unity. Amen.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Easter VI

John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

James Bond is one.
Harry Potter is one.
Anakin Skywalker is one (sort of).
Batman is one.
Dorothy (of Oz) is one.
Frodo Baggins is one.
Almost everyone in the Marvel Universe is one.
Anne (with an e) is one, and Little Orphan Annie too.

If you guessed orphans, well done. If you guessed orphans after hearing Little Annie’s middle name, don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. Curious, isn’t it, that all these fictional characters—mostly aimed at children—are orphans. This is worth exploring, wouldn’t you say?

Whenever I have a question that relates to comic books, or comic book characters, I call my friend Ted. He knows comic books. He may be the only minister who signed up after learning that “to seek justice and resist evil” is at the heart of our call as a church, a bit of comic book hiding in plain sight.

“Ted,” I say, “I’m calling about all those orphans in the Marvel Universe.”
“Sure, he says, “it’s all about abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal.”

Now, with any trip to the mountaintop to consult with your comic book guru, there will need to be some pondering, unpacking, maybe some reframing. But before we do that, Ted also gave me a quick illustration of the opposite. Seems that in the golden age of comic books, DC introduced a character called Mister Terrific, who was, well, terrific. Athlete, scholar, self-made millionaire, Mister Terrific had it all, then turned to helping others mostly out of boredom. Needless to say, audiences didn’t respond to the character, and he was soon retired. Superheroes need to suffer on the road to becoming superheroes, so it would seem.

Before we draw a link between John 14 and some mountaintop wisdom, let's look at the choice of the word “orphans.” One of the pivotal (and often ignored) passages in scripture is found in Mark 3 (and Mat 12, Luke 8) where Jesus’ family comes knocking, and someone in the group says ‘your mother and brothers are here, looking for you.’ He looks around the room and asks ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ A pause, and then ‘you are my mother and my brothers, along with anyone who does what God intends.’

Clearly, the church has found this awkward through the ages. For most of our history, we have billed ourselves as ‘family-friendly,’ where we honour mothers and fathers, and seek to love our siblings, literal and metaphorical. But here, Jesus seems to reject his mother and brothers, making himself an orphan. In fact, he is redefining family, and adding to the concept rather than replacing it. Still, it is dramatic, stepping out of kin and clan and naming friends and fellow-travellers as his family as well.

Back to John 14, Jesus is busy explaining this new universe they have entered, a universe where family is redefined, where the Spirit is promised, and where the faithful are Jesus’ kin and clan. And he describes it like this: “If you love me, keep my commands.” It’s pretty simple, and it opens that other instruction, to love God and neighbour—the heart of the law. In other words, Jesus is saying “if you love me, keep the command to love God and love your neighbour.” Or in other, other words, ‘when you love me, you are loving God, and cannot help but do what God intends.’ That’s a lot packed into seven words.

He then promises an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who we know will arrive in just two weeks' time (Pentecost). He calls the Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” something the world cannot accept, and something that will live within us. Then the same promise, restated: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” And finally, some poetry, a new psalm that expresses the heart of the gospel:

Before long,
the world will not see me no more,
but you will see me.
Because I live,
you also will live.
On that day you will realize
that I am in my Father,
and you are in me,
and I am in you.

We cannot be orphans, since death is no more. We are alive in Christ, and he is one with God. “You in me, and I in you,” the re-formed family of God.

So what about suffering, or “abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal”? All of the characters listed a moment ago began with suffering and loss, and applied that same suffering and loss to the service of others, to prevent them from being defined by the same experience. And isn’t that just another way of saying Jesus died on the cross to save us? The way it works is a mystery, but the outcome is the same: suffering redeemed for the salvation of others. “Because I live, you also will live.”

That’s the cosmic answer, the “meta-narrative” that animates the universe of Christianity. Closer to home—today—there is another answer: our sense of abandonment (in this time of COVID-19) redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal. The higher ideal is being the body of Christ, even when we’re separated by disease and the threat of death. Jesus said “you are in me, and I am in you.” Our suffering is his suffering, and his suffering is our suffering. In any part of the body, suffering is added to the great well of suffering that God keeps—as God tends to it, and holds it in our stead. We surrender it to God, trusting that we never suffer alone, nor will we ever be orphans. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Easter V

1 Peter 2
2 Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, 3 now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.
4 You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour.
5 And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.

You don’t need to find a good metaphor—it finds you.

In part, a good metaphor lines up with our experience, confirming something we already know. If a scientist or a politician talks about “the battle against COVID-19,” it lines up with our present experience, and it speaks to our deepest hope that the virus will be “defeated” in our collective “war” against it.

A good metaphor will also test our experience, and pose questions about the nature of our relationship to the topic. In this case, my examples are the various metaphors present in our reading from 1 Peter. I’ll share a quick list—which may not catch all of them—and suggest that one or more of them will light up for you.

Pure spiritual milk
Taste that the Lord is good
Christ the living Stone
And you, like living stones
Built into a spiritual house
You are a holy priesthood
A chosen and precious cornerstone
A chosen people
A royal priesthood
A holy nation
God’s special possession
The people of God

Maybe we should step back for a minute and hear the textbook definition of metaphor. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”* In other words, seeing things we didn’t see before because we never saw them side-by-side. I’ve read this passage many times, but the metaphor of being ‘living stones built into a spiritual house’ speaks to me in this moment. We can’t meet in our regular spiritual house, but together we are the spiritual house, as living stones—each of us.

Likewise, on Mother’s Day, this passage leaps of the page:

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.

The metaphor tells us a number of things at once. All of us, even the most seasoned believer, need the pure spiritual milk that only God can give. Our continued growth depends on it, to fully understand our salvation. And we should cry out for it, and never imagine that we can somehow wean ourselves from this heavenly kindness.

The other thing this passage tells us is the importance of God the Mother, overshadowed in our metaphorical approach to God, but never diminished. Even at the beginning of creation, we find God brooding over the waters of creation, waiting to bring us to life (Gen 1.2). Then God lifts us to her cheek, and bends down to feed us (Hos 11.4). And “as a mother comforts her child,” God said, “so I will comfort you” (Isa 66.13). Time and again, we are being nurtured, sought, and sheltered, “gathered as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mat 23.37).

As I said, a good metaphor finds us. It finds us in a time of deep need, it finds us in the midst of longing, it finds us when answers seem remote or absent. One of my mother’s enduring phrases was “be careful,” something she would offer as response to most situations, but mostly as a farewell. I would tease her about it from time-to-time, wondering what hidden dangers she saw lurking in my immediate future—since it remained her blanket advice to every situation.

In many ways, her perennial advice is tailor-made for the present age, with hidden danger all around us. You might even say that in the present age, all that childhood advice has finally come into its own: wash your hands, cover your mouth, don’t stay out, and usually a question about doing something foolish just because my friends were doing something foolish. All good advice, and all rooted in the brooding, sheltering, and comforting love that we need.

Back to 1 Peter, there is another message hiding in plain sight, and that is the message of adoption. The context of 1 Peter is advice to new believers, those who have found the “wonderful light” of God. Here is his summary: “Once you were no people, but now you’re God’s people.” We are God’s “special possession,” chosen by God, chosen based on our need for God and God’s love. Anyone with the same need can be adopted into the household of God: nurtured, sought and sheltered by the Mother and Father of us all.

In a time of longing, or separation, or sadness, we turn to each other—our spiritual housemates—and minister to each other. We remind each other of the taste of God’s kindness, and embody the comfort that God gives, now and always, Amen.

*Lakoff & Johnson, p. 5