Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

 Mark 11

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

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


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

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

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lent V

 John 12

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

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

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

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

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

I can confess a certain passion for borrow-words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Lent III

 Exodus 20

And God spoke all these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lent II

Mark 8

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

A Lenten study by Zoom? It must be 2021.

First of all, I want to thank our intrepid learners, braving a virtual wilderness in Lent, confronted by muting and unmuting and the awkwardness of the PDF screenshare. If you don’t have a hot clue what this means, don’t feel badly—there will be a bright moment when we study in-person once more.

Evening two of this particular study is a personal favourite. Normally, I get to haul ten pounds of books from my office: Greek and Hebrew Bibles, Bibles in translation, interlinear Bibles, parallel Bibles, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries, and at least one exhaustive concordance (that’s the title, not the result of all the heavy lifting). This time we had to make do with pictures of the books, and the confession that all these books have been rendered useless by one or two websites.

One tradition we did not lose was the awkward photocopy, the reproduction of a vital page from one of these resources. In the real world—as any teacher will tell you—these handouts are often copies of copies, with each successive generation of copy less legible than the last. In the best of the worst, you will have annoying dark borders, or even a photocopy of someone’s fingers. And through the miracle of technology, I was able to recreate the experience by showing my Zoom friends just one such handout.

The handout is called “The Growth of the Jesus Movement,” and it appears in a book called The Five Gospels, written by Funk, Hoover, et al. In this one handy chart, we see how the contents of the New Testament emerge over time, with books and sources neatly mapped out, and arrows to indicate lineage of the material. It shows us, for example, that Mark supplies material to Matthew and Luke, but Matthew and Luke do not reciprocate. This, then, tells us that Mark was written before the others, and served as a source.

Another handy part of this handout is a backdrop of cross-hatching, showing the types of material that went into the writing. One section is the parables and aphorisms of Jesus (aphorisms are his short, pithy statements, like “no prophet is welcome in his hometown”). Another section is stories about Jesus, circulated among his followers, and the final section is called “Primitive Christian Gospel,” falling mostly upon John, but touching each of the rest of the Gospels.

So what is it? What is this “primitive Christian Gospel” that lies behind most of the New Testament? I guess we should start by setting aside our 21st century understanding of the word primitive, which we take to mean crude, simple, or basic. Whenever I tell people that my great-great-great-great grandpappy was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, they give me that look that says “primitive huh? I can see it.” For our purposes today, and in the realm of biblical study, primitive means ancient, earliest, or original. So the primitive Christian Gospel is the Gospel as it was first introduced, or first shared.

And I share all this because our passage comes pretty close to giving us a glimpse of this Primitive Christian Gospel:

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Before we go further, it should be noted that this passage is among the most misused parts of the Bible. Too many were led to believe that “denying themselves” meant giving power to others, particularly unscrupulous leaders. It is important to underline that any self-denial we engage in is for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, not leaders or churches. It should also be noted that you can only give things up if you have them in the first place, meaning extra caution is required when preaching self-denial among the most vulnerable.*

The first primitive element to this passage is the ideal of aligning our lives with Christ and the Gospel. St. Paul tells us that through baptism we “put on Christ,” or “clothe ourselves in Christ.” (Gal 3.27) And then Paul takes this a step further when he urges us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3.12) So this is the first part of this primitive Gospel, to deny ourselves the opposite of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and follow the way of Jesus instead. That’s the first part.

The second part of this primitive Gospel also begins in baptism and finds voice through St. Paul. In Romans he uses that “you better listen” voice when he says “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6.3) Now he has our attention, he shares the Good News:

We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.

Maybe this is where primitive goes from “ancient” back to our more familiar meaning, which is simple. I’m not saying that following Christ is simple—in fact, following Christ makes our lives much more complicated. Living for others, being intentional, being righteous, all of these complicate our lives rather than making our lives simpler. What makes the primitive Gospel simple is the way it appears in our lives.

At baptism, you put on Christ, and were dedicated to follow in his way. Likewise, at baptism you experienced death and resurrection with him, raised that you might walk in newness of life. In other words, the challenge given to the disciples—deny yourselves, pick up your cross, lose your life for me—all these happened at baptism. The moment we were marked as God’s alone, we lost our lives for Christ and the Gospel and were saved.

I share all this, in part, to help us recapture the primitive (original) Gospel that changed the world. People learned that Jesus set aside his life for the sake of others and were transformed. Peter Abelard said that simply hearing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection could turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, dedicated to God alone. And the message is just as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago. People are searching for meaning, for connection, for something to give themselves to, and God is standing by, ready to show them newness of life in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is share the story.

Part of the reason we study the Bible is precisely because it is a long and complex document. And we tend to reread the parts we like and set aside the rest. But study, the most helpful study, will simplify our understanding and remind us of the primitive meaning, the meaning that is ancient and earliest, the meaning that first led countless souls to the faith. It led countless souls to the faith, and through faith to salvation, walking each day in newness of life. Amen.

*Tests For Preaching B, p. 210

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Lent I

Mark 1

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

It feels like the longest Lent ever.

If we mark time according to the liturgical calendar, Lent ended on April 5th of last year—then Holy Week, then Easter, and so on. If you mark time by an emotional calendar, then maybe Lent never ended. Let me explain.

We begin the season of Lent with Jesus’ retreat into the desert, a symbol or metaphor for this 40-day season of withdrawal and solitude. Observing the season should include simplicity and self-discipline, and it should be reflective, which by its very nature should end up being penitential. I think you see the connection: The last year or so has been a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. Even extra time to reflect remains a feature, with lots of “if onlys” and “I wish I’d known” thrown in for good measure. As I said, the longest Lent ever.

Of course, I should also note some of the good things. Walking is up, local travel (and spending) is up, time spent with immediate family is up, even creativity is up, from baking to mending to making do. One of the things I have come to treasure is talking with my father. He’s never been a phone guy, but now we spend time each day chatting and discovering new things about each other.

I don’t think he’ll mind if I give you one example, in this case a question that never occurred to me. There were a number of stories in the news about kids out of the classroom and the potential effect this might have on them, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know whether dad went to school while living under occupation. He was eleven by the time Holland was liberated, meaning these were critical years in his development. Anyway, he said that yes, they went to school through most of these years, except in times of crisis.

“Okay,” I said, “I have to stop you there. The country was occupied for over five years…how can you tell what’s a crisis in the middle of a crisis?”

Then he patiently explained the difference to me. And as he talked, it occurred to me that this also finds parallels in our experience. At times you settle into the routine of a new normal, maybe things ease or appear better, and then you are suddenly thrown into a new stage of the same crisis. Once it was a crisis, and now it seems a series of crises within a crisis.

Back to Lent—this Lent. We are barely a dozen verses into Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus finds himself in a crisis. Newly baptized, the Spirit sends him into the desert, where he faces the adversary. Mark, a man of few words, then tells us wild animals were with Jesus, and the angels tended to him. And that’s it. But we’ve read other accounts, by evangelists with less commitment to brevity, so we know the makeup of these temptations. Hungry, the devil brings bread; lonely, the devil offers crowds; uncertain, the devil offers him protection from harm. One writer says the devil bested God twice before this moment (see the garden, see Job) and it wasn’t going to happen again.* I’ll let Luke finish the story:

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (4.13)

So the crisis is past, but as Luke foreshadows, there are more on the way. We could spend much of the next 40 days debating the opportune time Luke is alluding to, and all the ways the adversary enters the passage up to Jerusalem. And maybe we will. Whatever we conclude, it seems obvious that God’s desire to be with us has moved from gift to crisis in a matter of weeks, and we are left to reflect. And we are left to prepare.

Early on in this crisis I remember seeing a cartoon of a man in a tiny rowboat in the middle of a great storm. The caption is the man shouting into the storm, “I guess I finally have time to finish that novel!” Is funny because it’s absurd or is it funny because it’s true? Both, I suppose. So here we are, nearly a year into the crisis, entering a Lent within a Lent once more. Part of my job is to guide you through the season, so let me begin by saying that this is not the Lent you will sit down to write the great Lenten novel. And I’ll tell you why:

Very early in the pandemic the Italian newspaper Repubblica published an article by Dr. Paolo Legranzi, professor of psychology at the University of Venice. The title of the article (“Why I can’t read a novel while in confinement”) explains the problem. You see, in times of crisis, the human brain is designed to do one thing at a time. You can’t focus on a novel when you’re waiting for Dr. Tam to speak, or waiting for the latest numbers to drop.

But there’s more. Dr. Legranzi also points to the disconnect between the world of the novel (unless it’s a novel about pandemics) and the world we currently live in. I’ll let the doctor speak, strangely clear for something translated from Italian to French to English:

“Page 21 of the novel we are reading: the protagonist stands up and prepares to shake hands with his future great friend, but just then our reading instincts prevail and burst out like a cry: ‘Don’t do it, respect the social distancing rule, we can’t touch each other anymore!’”**

I recall spending weeks trying to push similar thoughts aside as we roamed Netflix and Amazon Prime. Seeing a crowd was jarring, or a hug, or even a simple handshake. It’s amazing how many shows are set in bars or restaurants, or around impossibly large dining room tables, or on crowded streets. When your brain can only do one thing at a time in a crisis, even watching television becomes a challenge.

Back to Lent, we’re already living a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. So maybe this Lent we should simply spend more time thinking of others. Thinking of others as a form of prayer. Thinking of everyone who is suffering, both the people who are experiencing what we experience, and those who are having a very different experience—something we know we can barely understand. Let’s make Lent a time of solidarity and compassion, taken one at a time, of course.

May God be with you in this wilderness time, and may the wild beasts of worry be kept a bay, as you let the angels minister to you, Amen.

*Jack Miles

** and

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday

 2 Kings 2

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”

4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”

You know about TLC and PDA, but do you know about BPR?

In case you’re not up on acronyms vaguely related to Valentine’s Day, the first two are “tender loving care” and “public displays of affection.” We all need a little of the first, and we can probably live without the second. But what’s BPR, and how did it get on our list?

BPR stands for “benign positive regard,” a phrase first coined by researchers looking at religious attitudes among teens. Conventional wisdom suggests that when young people drift away from religious practice, it’s likely a case of teenage rebellion, doing the opposite of whatever their parents are doing. What they found instead is that teenager’s attitudes toward religion actually mirrors what the parents are doing—in this case, benign positive regard.

So what is BPR? Let’s just say that if your sweetheart sends you a card professing benign positive regard, he’s just not that into you. Benign positive regard is how most people feel about—say—post-it notes: helpful, even clever, but few people write poems about post-it notes. Maybe a haiku.

Post-it in my book

Marks the page I am reading

So helpful I guess

The puzzle with benign positive regard among religious people of all ages is the extent to which it’s at odds with the faith itself. The story of God is a story of passionate love, creating us out of dust and placing us among the wonders of creation. Liberating us in times of peril, saving us from ourselves, entering the world to walk beside us, even dying to free us from the power of death.

Kendra Dean, the researcher who popularized benign positive regard, wants us to think instead about passion. She argues that our faith should act as an external authority in our lives, it should make compelling claims on our time and attention, it should challenge us to grow in ways we might not want to grow. Listen as Dr. Dean makes her case:

Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic. It is Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King. It is Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Passion is “to die for.”

If she was writing on Transfiguration Sunday, I expect she would add Elijah and Elisha. And then maybe Ruth and Naomi, because their love is the same:

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Oddly, we learn very little about Elisha before this episode. God appoints him as Elijah’s successor, Elijah retrieves the lad and “adopts” him, and then Elijah’s larger-than-life ministry continues with Elisha in the background. But today’s passage, recounting Elijah’s last moments on this earth, we learn everything we need to know about their relationship.

Like Ruth’s famous “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” Elisha pledges that he will not leave Elijah’s side. Each time he is confronted with the inevitable, we get the same reaction: “Yes, I know, so be quiet.” Can you hear the translator’s dilemma, trying to find a polite way to say “shut-up”? Poor Elisha, set to lose the one he loves.

No doubt seeing the toll that this is taking on Elisha, Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” At this moment Elisha asks the seemingly impossible—a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. You wonder if asking the seemingly impossible is a way to delay his departure, or create a rift that may make it easier to part, but Elijah says “we’ll see…if you see me depart, it will be yours.”

Elisha does see him depart, in a chariot of fire no less, and gains that double-portion that will be important for Elisha going forward. The chariot ascends, Elisha cries out, and tears his cloak in grief.

We share this passage on Transfiguration Sunday because it gives some of the background for the event itself. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up the mountain, where he is transformed, transfigured in a blaze of light, flanked to the left and to the right by Moses and Elijah. God speaks, blessing Jesus as he approaches his passion, and the scene ends.

Generally, we read the Elijah story today because he is mentioned in the passage. And that might be reason enough, except that is a parallel here to the mantle being passed, with three of the twelve witnesses to the glory that Jesus will soon experience. The light, the blessing, the company— all point to Jesus’ return to God.

There is, however, one more element to the transfiguration worth noting: the symbolism of the figures, one on the right and one on the left. Moses is the liberator, the first and most powerful prophet, who used God’s might to free his people. Elijah is also a prophet, but even more, since he represents the passionate activity of God in the world: raising the dead, calling down fire to defeat the priests of Baal, riding a chariot of fire to eternity.

Jesus, then, is both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he is our liberator, freeing us from sin and sorrow, and defeating death itself so that we might be free. And like Elijah, Jesus is God’s passionate presence in the world, raising the dead, defeating the forces of despair, and returning to God in glory. Today is dedicated to freedom and passion, and a world transformed.

You may have noticed that there are very few Transfiguration Sunday hymns, an enduring mystery, except perhaps that it’s hard to describe in verse something so unusual. Likewise, there are few hymns to describe Elijah and his chariot of fire, with one notable exception: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Written by Wallis Willis around the time of the American Civil War, it describes the hope of being carried home, with a band of angels and a sweet chariot sent for the task. And as with many African-American spirituals of this era, there is often a hidden message, encouraging those enslaved to escape, even giving coded directions.

In the case of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, some have suggested that we’ve received a “public” version of the song, when the private (coded) version may have been sung “swing low, sweet Harriet,” for Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, but then returned to the south to lead others to freedom. During at least 13 missions she led over 70 people to freedom, earning the nickname Moses. Soon, she will claim her rightful place on the US $20 bill.

Passionate love, and a desire for freedom, these are the hallmarks of Transfiguration. This is the opposite of BPR. Allowing our faith to direct us in ways larger than ourselves, giving time and attention to our passion, and growing in love—for God and each other—these are the marks of new life in Christ. May God bless us and surround us with enduring love, Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Epiphany V

 Isaiah 40

28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Often called the king of all birds, we might better say the eagle is the king of all symbols.

If we begin in the middle of the story, we arrive in Rome, where the symbol of the eagle is second only to a certain shewolf and a couple of hungry lads. Rome’s legions took the eagle on campaign, where it became symbolic of both the might of Rome and the fate of individual legions. This would be the moment to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful book The Eagle of the Ninth, exciting interest in Roman Britain since 1954.

After Rome, the eagle remains a symbol of empire, with various royal houses sporting the bird, wings outstretched, sometimes adding an extra head or two for effect. This, of course, crosses the Atlantic, where our pretentious neighbour to the south adopts the eagle as their own. To be fair, they were trying to recreate the Roman Republic in America, so the eagle makes a lot of sense.

That’s the forward view, how about looking back in time? Among Canada’s First Nations, the eagle is considered a messenger to the Creator, lifting prayers to the Spirit world, providing courage and strength. It was no accident that Elijah Harper held an eagle feather while defending the rights of his people back in 1990, a moment that is considered a turning point for Indigenous people in Canada.**

Within the Christian church, the eagle is most often associated with St. John the Evangelist. Beginning in the second century of the Common Era, thinkers such as Irenaeus made the connection between John’s homily to the Word (found in John 1) and the eagle, symbolizing “the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church.” We’ll have to leave Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion) and Luke (an ox) for another day.

In the Hebrew Bible, the eagle is a symbol of swiftness (often related to conquest), nurture (offering shelter), and renewal. It is this last attribute that takes us to the reading Marlene shared today. But before we look at Isaiah 40, there appears to be one passage where swift rescue, shelter, and renewal happen all at once. From Mt. Sinai, the LORD spoke to Moses: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex 19). The Lord then asks for faithfulness, and a willingness to keep the covenant God made.

On to Isaiah 40, where we heard what is the second most familiar part of this remarkable chapter. The first most familiar of is best shared in the language that G. F. Handel knew:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

So the context of Isaiah 40 is forgiveness, an end to exile, and a return to the land. And without jumping to the end of the story, we already know that the renewing spirit of the eagle is for those returning from exile, those charged with rebuilding the holy places. This, then, is the context for those who first heard these words:

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

This is the moment that the preacher encourages you to make your own homily, connecting our time to the anguish of exile, the desire for return, and the need for strength. I’m not saying these sermons write themselves, but we live in a time when the need for shelter and renewal has never been greater. Likewise, our need to trust in God has never been greater, but it is this trust that cries out for greater understanding, as much as connecting exile to our time. For a place to start, I might recommend Proverbs 9.10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The first dimension of trusting God is acknowledging that we can’t fully understand God. In this case, fear seems more a case of bewilderment, or confusion, which is always the starting point for gaining wisdom. To say you don’t understand something, or you need to learn something, is the first step on the journey to gaining wisdom. And this takes us back to the middle section of Isaiah 40:

25 “To whom will you compare me?

Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all these?

Those who love the Book of Job will immediately hear God speaking from the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is God and Job is not. To be fair to poor Job, he was simply talking to his mates when the Most High finally had enough of their ignorance. And the question they asked—why do people suffer?—remains a question for all time. Where is God in the midst of plague and disaster? Is God cause or cure? Or both? (Spoiler alert: I do not believe that God sent COVID or caused it to happen).

But I know I’m not the first to imagine—if only for a moment—that COVID is some form of punishment for our misdeeds. Climate change, loss of habitat, unsustainable farming practices: all these trends have a hand in zoonotic diseases, those moving from animal to human. And the spread of the disease, more active under populist and authoritarian regimes, just adds another layer to this question of human foolishness.

Back to the Book of Job, we know that there is no connection between wickedness and suffering, yet we also know that God remains unsearchable. We can never fully understand the ways of God, but we can trust that God will bring rescue, shelter, and renewal in the midst of crisis. We can trust that God will bring comfort and forgiveness in the midst of our foolishness. And we can trust that God will give us new strength, to soar on wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint.

In John’s extended description of the Last Supper, Jesus offered comfort to his disciples, he washed their feet, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Soon,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you and remind you of all that I have said to you.” This is not a promise to reveal the unknowable mysteries of the Most High. This is a promise to help us remember everything Jesus said and did. It is a promise to send the sustaining power of the Spirit upon the church, and it is a promise to send the Spirit of the eagle—so that rescue, shelter, and renewal will come to us, now and always, Amen.