Sunday, April 05, 2020

Palm Sunday

Matthew 21
The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

In my mind’s eye, the palms are waving, having shared the keyword “Hosanna!” (there, did it again). I hope you have some sort of rudimentary palm branch nearby—window blind maybe, or unravel a toilet paper roll. And thanks again to our younger members, who have been busy improvising since midweek. “Hosanna!”

One of the curious aspects of the Palm Sunday story is the ever-growing nature of the audience. Like the “one that got away,” the size of the crowd grows with each retelling. In Mark, written first, “many people” gather to greet Jesus. In Luke and Matthew we go from “a whole crowd of disciples” to a “very large crowd.” And finally, in John’s Gospel, a “great crowd” forms to welcome the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Based on the evidence presented then, we can assume it was a small crowd—not socially-isolated small—but small nonetheless. And this assumption, rather than diminish the story, makes it more dramatic. In any form of protest there is safety in numbers—and in this case there was not. These brave few took a big risk that day, something that seems to get lost in the excitement of the day.

The primary clue will come a week from now, when the disciples will lock themselves away for fear of the authorities. And this tells us that danger was present in this earlier episode, but more of an implied danger than the overt danger that followed the events of Good Friday. So, excitement and fear, in equal measure, as Jesus enters Jerusalem that day.

It’s hard to make a direct comparison to what we are collectively experiencing, but I’m going to try. These days we are trying to walk each day, usually down to the lake, through a fairly quiet residential neighbourhood. Even still, there are a few people around, with everyone trying to do the polite thing and make space. So, there is the excitement of time out of the house, and the fear which is now implied in every encounter on the street. And it’s a complex fear: fear that we’re scaring others, fear that we’re offending others when we scramble across the street, and fear—of course—that someone we meet may be ill. It’s a mix of the rational and the irrational, and it’s a way of living that I pray is short lived. But here we are.

Having shared all that, I think you can see the parallel I’m beginning to draw. Imagine the mixture of excitement and fear as Jesus does this new thing. Even his initial instructions (“If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them”) suggests confrontation. By the end of the story the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The extra character in the story is the anonymous other: the one who might demand an explanation, or the one who might bristle at this overt act of defiance. The whole city becomes a character, and the description “was in turmoil,” which actually tells us very little.

Why turmoil? Well, the answer is in the text, because soon after dismounting the animal he has been riding, Jesus heads straight for the Temple. You know the story— he’s turning over tables, he’s making an improvised whip of cords, and he’s explaining as he goes: “This house of prayer,” he says, “has become a den of robbers.” He pauses to heal some people—he always pauses to heal some people—and then the fight comes. As the words “Hosanna to the Son of David,” still surround him, the so-called religious ones protest: “Do you hear what we hear,” they ask, but Jesus has a verse. He always has a psalm in his back pocket, this time from Psalm 8:

From the lips of children and infants
you, Lord, have called forth your praise.

Again, it’s praise but it’s also protest. By blessing the “one who comes in the name of the Lord” they are also blessing his program, the program where “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Luke 7.22) In other words, the existing order is coming to an end and a new creation is dawning. Friday may be a bump on the road, but the road still leads to a new heaven and a new earth.

And change on this scale is always threatening. One of the unknowns in this current crisis is what happens next. There are questions about underfunding in healthcare and public health, but larger questions about income inequality, mounting personal debt, and the cost of housing. Do we rush back to “the way things were” or do we take time to reflect on how our current structures have made this crisis even worse?

The end of our passage is also a good place to end. “Who is this?” an anxious city asks. And answer comes back: “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” Remember this name, and hold a place in your heart. He comes in the name of the Lord, and his name is blessed. Hosanna (“save us”) the people say, and the wonders begin. Amen.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Lent V

John 11
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.
36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said.
“But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”
40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”


Help can come from unexpected places.

Somehow I fell upon an article in the Harvard Business Review with the simple and arresting title, That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief. As the author describes it, the editorial staff were meeting online when the conversation turned to how people were feeling. When one colleague added that she felt mostly grief, the group resolved to learn more.

They turned to David Kessler, grief expert and protégé of the late Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kübler-Ross, you will recall, pioneered the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance—and helped millions overcome a common burden. Kessler, with permission from the Kübler-Ross family, added a sixth stage, something we will turn to later.

To begin, though, we should let David Kessler explain how the five stages fit into our current situation:

“Whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we saw a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger: You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed.” [1]

And this, of course, is just the surface. Kessler’s five examples mirror the earliest stages of the crisis—the part we’re already experiencing—and not the profound loss that may visit or has already visited families during this time. And this takes us to another point that Kessler underlines: much of what is troubling us right now is anticipatory grief, the worst-case feelings that can overwhelm us. His primary lesson is this: acknowledge these feelings and don’t try to suppress them—and then balance them by calling to mind all that we are doing to avoid what we fear most.

It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that the reading for today is master class in grief. But before I go further, I need to make a couple of points about the story of raising Lazarus. First, and most importantly, this is a miracle story—Jesus resuscitates Lazarus—and not a resurrection story. Resurrection is coming, but we still need to wait. And this takes us to the second point: Lazarus was raised from the dead, but still died. The defeat of death will come later—once and for all—but for the story of that blessed day, we still need to wait.

So let the class begin: the denial begins early, in the first part of the chapter, when Jesus breaks the bad news by saying that Lazarus has fallen asleep. In their denial they take him literally, the first stage. Stages two and three—anger and bargaining—appear the moment he meets Martha: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” It seems like Martha knows the end of the story, that she believes that her brother will be raised, but her next comment tells the real tale: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” What seems like a hopeful statement is really sadness: she understands that she will not see her brother again in this life. And at the same moment, there is a measure of acceptance—providing examples of sadness and acceptance in one simple statement—and the final two stages. Or so it would seem.

And here is where we get to explore the difference between what seems to be happening and what’s really happening. You may recall that last week I described John’s Gospel as an extended book of signs that all point to God’s glory. And that’s what is really happening here: the raising of Lazarus is another sign of God’s glory. John himself sums this up in the beginning of his book when he says “In Him was life, and that life was the light for all people.” In the same way Matthew, Mark and Luke speak of the kingdom, John speaks of life: abundant life (10.10), life everlasting (3.16) and the bread of life (6.48) where Jesus reminds us that he is the “living bread that came down from heaven.” [2]

And this takes us to David Kessler’s sixth stage of grief: meaning. The author expresses the hope that we can move from ‘acceptance’ to meaning: finding light in the midst of our grief—some life-giving meaning that comes despite the dislocation and fear. And he suggests a couple: remembering, for example, the joy of an extended telephone conversation, or really savouring a walk outside, not just walking to rush somewhere. The challenge is to name your own examples, to mine the meaning that will allow us to defeat anxiety in a tense time.

Before I close, I want to share a word about that unique little verse that makes this passage noteworthy: “Jesus wept.” Even when the sign was ready, even as the plan was unfolding, even as the end was assured—Jesus wept. Jesus wept for the pain of everyone around him, for the fear and the heartbreak, for the damage this event might cause his friends. He wept for them and he wept with them. And the weeping continues. Whatever befalls us in the days and weeks to come, remember the compassion of Christ: he weeps when we are weeping, and we never walk alone.

Back to our search for meaning, Jesus provides—even before he brings his friend back to life: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” The question, of course, is another challenge in the meaning-making that only Jesus can give. We need to remember and cling to the new life we have already received in Christ Jesus—the life that is meant to be a light for all people. May our light shine forth even in this time of trouble. Amen.

[1]Scott Berinato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” HBR.
[2]Craig S. Keener, “Eternal Life in John,” bibleodyssey.org

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Lent IV

John 15
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.


I’m trying to remember the moment the world changed.

For me, I’m going to suggest a week-ago-Friday, during a trip to the supermarket. The whole toilet paper thing was already a thing—I wasn’t expecting to find any—but that was just the beginning. The lot was full, the cart supply was low, and people were giving each other a wide berth. Then I saw the line: carts lined up to the rear of the store and beyond.

I guess we were practicing appropriate social distancing, but there was still lots of conversation. It turns out that the person ahead of me was the spouse of a local pastor, so we had lots to talk about. We compared some of the plans being made, some of the changes already happening, and why she was hoarding potato chips (she has teenagers and plans to trade snacks for chores).

Even then, this may not have been the moment of change. We did worship together on March 15, a time that now seems a month ago. And that’s the other feature of this new time we inhabit: time itself seems to have slowed to a near halt. Maybe it’s all the difficult news we have to digest, maybe it’s a bit of boredom, or maybe it’s adjusting to this new, less hectic, pace we have adopted.

The world has changed. New and frightening news each day, disruption on a scale we’ve never seen, and stress: worry about loved ones, our neighbours, the people we usually see day-by-day—and a variety of institutions and enterprises that are newly at risk. Our (new) main job is to manage this stress: for the sake of ourselves, for the people we live with, and for everyone we are in touch with.

One of the blessings we have received is our new phone tree. Many people offered to help, lists were assigned, more people offered to help, and now we have a network of care that includes everyone in the congregation. (Phone captain’s note: you may not know the number of the person calling, so please pick up.) In effect, we are recreating what happens on Sunday: checking in, expressing need, and extending kindness. Thanks again to all our callers.

And the phone tree is also a metaphor, the vine and branches that link us one-to-another. And that, of course, takes us to our reading:

4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

John’s Gospel has been described in a variety of ways: a book of signs followed by a book of glory; a long passion narrative with an introductory section on Jesus’ ministry; an extended book of signs that all point to God’s glory. In John 15, we read part of the “farewell discourses,” words and prayers that share a vision of the passion, as well as the unique time that will follow this event. And the overall message of these discourses is simple: ‘remain in me and I will remain in you.’

Time and again the message is the same: “I will not leave you orphans” (14.18) and “I am going away and I am coming back to you” (14.28) and “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them.” (17.15) We may feel alone, but we are never alone: the Risen One walks beside us each day. We may feel isolated, but we are part of a larger fellowship, animated by the Holy Spirit.

Maybe I watch too many mystery programs, but one of things that comes to mind when I read this passage is “means, motive, and opportunity.” Usually that is a list of ingredients needed to solve a crime, but in this case it explains the image of the vine and branches.

Means: We are part of the same branch, and that means we are linked together and cannot be separated, regardless of what the world sends.

Motive: Jesus the True Vine asks only that we remain in his love—that is our motive. Our motive is not to create the fruit—the fruit comes from God—but simply to bear the fruit that follows when we remain in his love.

Opportunity: The time in which we find ourselves is the opportunity. We are called to remain in his love, to express his love in the way we care for one another, and in the way we care for our neighbours.

We have discovered in this new age that we are all connected, for good and for ill. But rather than separate ourselves, we need to draw together, and remain in the love of Christ that defines us. We need to ignore those who would seek to divide us—nation from nation—and see instead our common humanity. And so we pray: for health and healing, for an end to fear, and for a world made new. Amen.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Lent III

John 4
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”


They say ‘use the time like Sir Isaac Newton.’

The year was 1665, when the Great Plague hit London, and population centres such as Cambridge assessed the risk of the disease spreading beyond the capitol. Students at Trinity College, Cambridge were sent home, and young Isaac found himself in self-quarantine at the family estate in rural Lincolnshire. He used the time wisely.

In what was later described as his “year of wonders” (annus mirabilis), Isaac Newton invented calculus, experimented with prisms and developed a theory of optics, and then began to ponder the apple tree outside his window. We can’t say he invented gravity, but he developed a theory of gravity and motion that became a cornerstone of the scientific revolution.*

So we’re planning for a time away—no longer than a couple of weeks—we hope. We’re looking for ways to remain in touch, to keep track of each other as we would if we were gathering Sunday by Sunday. It’s hard to imagine this turn-of-events arriving, and harder still to understand when our community seems untouched by the virus. But we have been challenged to see this as an act of social solidarity, best described by Matt Pearce, reporter for the Los Angeles Times:

I imagine all the closures and cancellations give people a sense of ominousness. But it's really an amazing act of social solidarity: We're sacrificing so we can give nurses, doctors and hospitals a fighting chance. Start from there and hopefully we can figure out the rest.

We will be ardent in our prayers, that the illness pass quickly, that people remain calm in the face of crisis and that everyone treat others with compassion and understanding, even those who fail to rise to the challenge of this moment. And, these virtues— compassion and understanding—are also the themes of the day, and a link to the passage Bob read.

Gospel readings in Lent this year are a series of extended dialogues: with the adversary in the wilderness, with Nicodemus by night, with the woman at the well, with the man born blind, and finally, with Mary and Martha upon the death of their brother Lazarus. Each reading is a glimpse of God’s Kingdom, a look from a slightly different angle—shared through a conversation with Jesus.

Today, he meets a Samaritan woman at the well. He asks her for a drink and the dialogue begins: and before they’re done, they have a religious and cross-cultural encounter, they will discuss her past, and Jesus will make a very important confession. But before we get to any of that, we start with 'Why me?'

"How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?" John is helpful here, because he reminds us that Jews and Samaritans do not share things in common. This is a bit of an understatement, with centuries of conflict and mistrust in the background. But what stands out is the forthright way she expresses herself, insisting he explain himself in the face of this curious turn-of-events.

And since Jesus lives for this sort of conversation, he has an answer: 'if you knew me and knew where I came from, you would be asking me for water—living water to be exact.' Now they’re having fun. 'Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. How do you plan to get your living water? And then she gives him a history lesson: 'Are you greater than Jacob, who gave us this well in the first place?'

Maybe Jesus is feeling bested at this point, because he switches to creedal mode and makes his case: "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." I'm going to reread the next bit of dialogue, because it seems to be the heart of the reading for today:

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water."
Jesus said to her, "Go, call your husband, and come back."
The woman answered him, "I have no husband." Jesus said to her, "You are right in saying, 'I have no husband'; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!"
The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet.

A couple of things to note here. First of all, Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He’s not trying to trick her here, or condemn her—quite the opposite. Jesus knows her situation and whatever hardship that led to this moment and still offers her living water. But it’s not a gentle moment either, rather it fits well into the context of the conversation so far—a challenge offered, a revealing reponse, and the sense that the concern of the Most High reaches beyond ordinary boundaries.

And that’s another important point. Once again, the disciples don’t get it: ‘Why are you talking to a woman,’ they ask. It seems remarkable that these guys have had a front row seat for all the teaching and healing and interacting to date and they still don’t get it. Obviously, old habits die hard, but Jesus will persist in teaching them. Jesus will teach them (or die trying), but they will get it sooner or later.

The thing they will someday get can be summarized as compassion and understanding. These are the twin themes that Jesus brings to every encounter, and brings them still. From the Sermon Mount, to the man born blind, to the tomb of Lazarus—Jesus meets everyone with compassion and understanding. It surprized people then and it would continue to surprise people, as the people called “Christians” made their way in the world.

And this takes us to another plague year, and another thinker, this time Bishop Dionysius of Corinth, writing in 260 AD. In a sermon he described the response of local believers: "Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves, and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains."

It was recorded that as Roman pagans fled in fear, the believers of Corinth and other plague centres remained with the sick. These same pagans were confounded by their behaviour, confounded that these ‘Christ-followers’ would act against their own self interest. I’m not sure much has changed, with people confounded by our desire to welcome the stranger, the ill, and those broken by the world.

Quoting Dionysius is not a call to take unnecessary chances, or ignore the authorities that are charged with keeping everyone in society safe. We can help others without adding to the problem or putting those closest to us at risk. Mostly I am making a case for the Kingdom, where the Spirit fills us with compassion and understanding, and leads us to help others while we help ourselves. God’s love extends to every member of the community, those who seek to live as one, and those who haven’t found this vision yet. May our example be God’s witness to others.

Go gently, then, as you plan how to use the time. Reconnect by telephone, check on friends and neighbours, get caught up on things set aside in the everyday rush of normal life. And pray. Pray that compassion and understanding enter every heart, and that the Kingdom Way of healing and wholeness reign.

I want to conclude with poetry, this from Charles Wesley, expressing the Kingdom vision we cling too:

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


*https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2020/03/12/during-pandemic-isaac-newton-had-work-home-too-he-used-time-wisely/

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Lent II

John 3
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.[a]”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”[d]


Just in time for International Women’s Day, I’m taking you to Flin Flon, Manitoba.

Located about 500 miles north of Winnipeg, Flin Flon is a mining town in decline that has been also described as “moderately popular tourist destination.” That’s what we call ‘damning with faint praise.’

In the 1970‘s, Flin Flon was also the subject of a landmark study on the nature and scope of domestic labour: an intensive look at three generations of women who ‘worked at home’ to support their families. The researcher, Meg Luxton, spent fourteen months interviewing and befriending women, and listening to stories that ranged from the poignant to the absurd. I’ll share one of the latter.

One woman described in great detail the challenge of getting her husband to help with the laundry. She began this covert operation with a simple request: ‘Honey, when you take off your clothes, could you drop them in the laundry basket?’ Mission accomplished, and a few days later it’s on to phase two: ‘Honey, could you move the basket to the top of the stairs? I’m going to do the laundry today.’ More days pass. ‘Honey, could you be a dear and carry the basket to the basement?’ I think you can see where this is headed. ‘Honey, since you’re down there, could you just drop the clothes into the machine? Thanks a bunch.’ And then, some days later, sweet success: ‘Honey, when you put the clothes in the machine, could you toss in a little powder and turn the thing on?’ Slowly, and without her husband even noticing, she trained him to do the laundry. Score one for the female side in the ‘battle of the sexes.’

I share this because it’s March 8th, and because there is a link to the gospel lesson. But before we get there, I should continue to tell you everything I learned in second-year sociology—less practical than teaching men how to do laundry—but interesting nonetheless. Even the professor had an interesting backstory: Dr. Reiter did her thesis on Burger King, spending ten-months gathering information from the inside. That’s two fast food references in as many weeks. I will try not to do it again.

I won’t tell you everything, but I will share three waves of feminism, three stages that make it easier to understand whenever the topic of women’s rights come up. For the first wave, think Emmeline Pankhurst. Mrs. Pankhurst was a suffragette, and a leader in what is described as the ‘first wave’ of feminism. The right to vote was eventually extended to British women at the end of the First World War, but the pre-war activities of these women ensured their success. Window smashing, arrests, and hunger strikes brought the issue of universal suffrage to the fore. That was the first wave.

The second wave of feminism takes us back to Flin Flon, where the study of housework and the nature of family life ended up under the microscope. Add to this reproductive rights, women’s sexuality, workplace inequality and domestic violence and you have a good picture of second wave feminism. From the 1960’s to the 1980’s these topics were taken up by the media, the academy and the courts. Third wave feminism, which is ongoing, extends second wave feminism and offers a critique by looking more closely at issues of class, race and sexual orientation. Some argue this latest wave is a fracturing of the movement, with greater diversity of opinion held by an increasingly diverse group of participants.

In each wave of feminism, women and men were compelled to change their perspective on women’s lives and the role of women in society. In the same week that the last viable female candidate for US president dropped out, the conversation continues about changing perspectives and the role of women in society. And that first part—changing perspectives—takes us to the third chapter of John.

We know the story— a religious leader comes to Jesus under the cover of darkness, struggling to understand Jesus and his project. Nicodemus begins the conversation by acknowledging that there is something unique going on with Jesus. This is a big concession on his part, but Jesus is not impressed. “No one,” Jesus said, “can see the unique thing God is doing unless they are born again.”

And that’s where most of us get lost. Baptized as an adult, I feel like I was born again, and then I think of everyone I’ve ever met who has taken up “born again” as their theme. On one hand you have to admire their determination, and the simplicity of their message, but you also have to be wary of such a binary—on/off—approach to Christianity. Following the Way is a lifelong journey, and while it may begin with a momentary decision, it requires years of practice to become Christian in our approach to the world.

Better, I think, to speak of rebirth. Rebirth means we have entered the sometimes painful process of seeing the world differently, or seeing ourselves differently, or seeing ourselves in the world differently. It can mean gaining perspective on the past, understanding the roles we play in relation to others, or simply setting aside one set of goals for another. So again, back to John.

Nicodemus has come by night because he is the representative of a worldview, a set of conservative religious practices that Jesus seeks to reform. Nicodemus is obviously ripe for rebirth, because he’s desperate to understand this new thing God is doing in Jesus. But it’s not going to be easy. Even understanding the idea of rebirth seems to mystify him, and this is Jesus’ response:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

One scholar cites this as evidence that Nicodemus is a one-dimensional thinker, trapped “in the flesh” while Jesus wants to show him the Spirit. ‘The flesh’ is just another way of saying our ordinary human existence—how things are—and the very stubborn way things tend to remain the same.* But Jesus has another project, life in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit means anything is possible, change is possible—what we see, how we see it, and how we see ourselves.

If I had to find a companion verse, it would be Luke 2.22, the summary of this project: "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everything is up for grabs in the Kingdom, and what seemed fixed is no longer fixed. Even death, even the shame the poor have felt from the beginning of time—Jesus says it doesn’t have to be this way.

Women still make 87 cents for every dollar a man makes—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women remain most unsafe inside their own homes—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women are still directed away from science, technology, engineering and math—but it doesn’t have to be this way.
Women are the primary target of every effort to limit religious symbols in public service—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Rebirth means we have entered the sometimes painful process of seeing the world differently, or seeing ourselves differently, or seeing ourselves in the world differently. Rebirth means following the Spirit’s bidding as we seek a world made new. Rebirth means a change in perspective for everyone, because everyone who experiences rebirth will meet others in a new way.

May God bless you and move you, where Spirit gives birth to Spirit, and nothing is the same. Amen.


*Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching A

Sunday, March 01, 2020

Lent I

2 Corinthians 5
We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
1 As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 For he says,
“In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you.”[a]
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.
3 We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited. 4 Rather, as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; 5 in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6 in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; 7 in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; 8 through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; 9 known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; 10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything.


The next time you worry that something you’ve done was a bad idea, remember the Hula Burger.

It was 1963 and McDonald’s franchisee Lou Groen spent every Friday looking out at a nearly empty restaurant. His McDonald’s, in a very Catholic part of Cincinnati, fell victim to the moral teaching that the faithful were to avoid meat on Friday. And Lou, a good Catholic, wouldn’t even eat his own food on Friday.

Lou knew, of course, that his customers weren’t staying home—no, they were at Frisch’s up the street, enjoying a fish sandwich. Try to say Frisch’s fish sandwich ten times. So Lou decided to make his own: breaded halibut, slice of cheese, bit of sauce. Everything was going well until McDonald’s “founder” Ray Kroc heard about it, and hit the roof.

Obviously not a fish fan, Ray tried to talk Lou out of the sandwich but failed. So he came up with an idea. Ray would launch his new meatless Hula Burger, and challenge Lou to a one-day sales contest. Would it be Lou’s Filet-O-Fish or would it be Ray’s Hula Burger—a fried slice of pineapple with two slices of cheese! Final score? Filet-O-Fish, 350; Hula Burger, 6.*

I didn’t grow up in the church, but I knew from an early age that Roman Catholics have a different approach to faith. ‘Giving up for Lent’ or avoiding meat on Fridays—these are the marks of a tradition that tries to live a little differently than non-Catholic neighbours and friends. Fasting is something you do before a blood test, not something that a religious person might do in the modern world. Or is it?

Just five years ago, it made headlines in Oregon when a group of evangelical millennials were found fasting in Lent. Apparently they were interested in ritual too, and even liturgy, things that their parents and grandparents would struggle to understand. Obviously the old divides are breaking down, but how did it start in the first place?

The Reformation is the quick answer, and the reformers’ belief that fasting in the 16th century Roman Catholic sense wasn’t biblical. And that seemed true enough: Jesus didn’t say ‘you should fast’ and he didn’t say ‘you shouldn’t fast.’ Instead, Jesus said ‘if you fast, do it in secret and don’t tell anyone,’ which is more or less what he said about prayer. (Mt. 6)

So the Reformation is still the quick answer to why we don’t fast, but the longer answer involves sausages, Swiss sausages to be exact—in Zurich, in Lent, in 1522. Turns out that Ulrich Zwingli, the eventual father of the Swiss Reformation, was having some sermons printed, and felt badly for the printers as they worked long into the night. His quick solution was a tray of sausages, which caused the Lenten police to hit the roof. Soon Zwingli was preaching against forcing people to fast—better they should act like Christians every day he said—and breaking with the Catholic Church.** Something to ponder over your next sausage. Is it lunch yet?

It’s not lunch yet, so sit tight. It’s time to give St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians a little context. And with everyone else who every sat down to read Paul, we don’t always understand what he’s on about after the first look. Paul was a first-class rhetorician, someone who sought to persuade and impress. But the words seem dense, so we read again:

We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

We need to be reconciled to God. This is the heart of the matter. God allowed the sinless one to die a sinners death, destroying once-and-for-all the power of death over us. He did this so that we might become examples of God’s righteousness—if we accept this offer of reconciliation. Paul says it again two verse later: we urge you—don’t receive God’s grace in vain. God has done the reconciling work needed to save us, all we have to do is accept it. It’s really that simple.

“I tell you,” Paul says, “now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” But some could not accept it, and some turned away. Like anything we imagine we don’t deserve, we struggle to accept it. And what follows—his list of hardships—is a testament to the human capacity to resist God’s grace: “in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger.” All this, in trying to convince people that something free is truly free.

And it’s never really clear if Paul is encouraging the Corinthians in their reconciling ministry, or if he is trying to reconvert them to something they should have understood all along—maybe both. Whatever is really happening here, Paul goes the extra mile to give them a strategy, a methodology, to reach the people God wants to reach. ‘Meet them,’ he says, “in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left.”

I love the ‘weapons of righteousness’ in your hands, though I’m not fully sure what they are. My best theory is that the weapons of righteousness are the aforementioned virtues: purity, understanding, patience, kindness, sincere love, truthful speech. Taken together, these are the power of God, the power needed to convince people that God wants to be reconciled—a gift, freely given.

I’m thinking about the Filet-O-Fish again, and the desire to fast. Remembering that Jesus said fast or don’t fast, just don’t make a fuss—I think we can assume there is some value. In fasting, we realize that we are blessed enough to have something to give up. In fasting, we demonstrate that we are fed enough to miss a meal and be okay. In fasting we try to see our lives differently, life without this or that, even for a day. If your faith is strengthened, go ahead a fast, without making a fuss.

If however, you are fasting to be reconciled to God, that work is already done. Fasting won’t fix something that’s no longer broken, and fasting won’t reset something that’s already in place. We are already the righteousness of God, armed—to use Paul’s language—with purity, understanding, patience, kindness, sincere love, truthful speech. ‘Use them,’ Paul says, ‘because now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.’

One of the strangest—and not infrequent—questions I get is some variation of this: “can anyone come to your church?” It seems like an odd question, until you think about a few things. First, we are surrounded by rules, often absurd rules about who can do what and when. There’s that. And also there is a real lack of knowledge, now three generations after most people attended church. But there is one other issue, and that is worthiness. People want to know if they are good enough to join us, or is the church a club for the super-sinless?

The answer is an obvious no—I’ve been to church—but also no because the healthy have no need for a doctor. God has reconciled with everyone, and waits for them to understand—to feel it, in their heart of hearts. May God help us to help. Amen.


*https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/how-a-catholic-businessman-put-the-filet-o-fish-on-the-mcdonalds-menu
**https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/october-web-only/illegal-sausage-dinner-that-sparked-swiss-reformation.html

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.


It has been variously described as a protest, an uprising, or a fight for self-determination.

And like most mass-movements, it wasn’t without conflict. Provisioning was just one example, providing for those engaged in the struggle. Finding the basics—food and water—became a logistical challenge in such a remote location. Creative solutions were found, but not before a rift emerged between the leaders and those being led.

And this tension, between movement members and leadership, found expression in a variety of ways. Complaints, direct action, even protests within the protest were seen. Eventually a form of arbitration was settled on, taking conflict resolution out of the hands of leadership.

And then, of course, there was the question of the overall direction of the movement itself. Within days of the launch of this action, some were arguing for a return to the status quo. It quickly became obvious that the lack of a comprehensive manifesto might be at the heart of the conflict. A set of guidelines, perhaps some goals, or even just a set of group norms to guide the people were needed. And this is where we pick up the story:

12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”

The Exodus is imprinted on the DNA of every protest, uprising, or fight for self-determination. The Exodus takes the existing order and turns it on it’s head. The Exodus says that injustice and oppression and the denial of rights are not in the plan that the Most High has set out. The Exodus is the early light of God’s Kingdom, where the divine will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

I’ve mentioned to you before that when the preacher needs a preacher we frequently turn to Dr. King. And it’s not just for a quote or an idea, or the way he spoke to the struggle he led. It’s also for his ability to leave the constraints of time behind, and lead his people across the arc of history. I’m going to share an example, this one from his final sermon, from the evening of April 3, 1968. He begins by thanking his host, and thanking his audience who came out on a stormy evening, and then he says this:

Something is happening in Memphis; something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn't stop there.

I would happily set aside my time up here to read the whole sermon, but Carmen would tell you that I’d be a mess in a few short paragraphs. Mostly I want to illustrate my DNA claim, and the extent to which the passage from Egypt to Canaan defines the quest for liberation. And the passage Shauna read for us, the “mountain top experience” that belongs to Transfiguration Sunday, is a critical moment in the story.

After the wandering, the fighting, the disobedience, the peril, after the complaining that tried God to the very edge of God’s patience, the people need something. God invites Moses up the mountain, promises the law and the commandments, and underlines that this is what the people need. Our passage seems somewhat logistical, but hidden in the words, we find the real meaning: the glory of the Lord.

We read it twice in just four verses, a flag if ever there was one. Moses ascents into the clouds, and the glory of the Lord settles on Sinai. To the people at the base, “the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.” Like Transfiguration, the light of this consuming fire will alter Moses’ appearance—as we learn at the end of this episode that an encounter with Most High will cause his face to shine with reflected light. So bright is this light, that Moses must wear a veil rather than overcome the people with the intensity of this light.

It seems clear, however, that the glory of the Lord is more than just light. It is the light that illuminates the face of the liberator, it is also the light that produces the law and the commandments, providing them with a template for living as God intends us to live. And it is the light of clarity, allowing God’s own light to shine upon the arc of history: long, but always bending toward justice.

And that brings us to today. Justice, according to Walter Brueggemann, is deciding what rightfully belongs to whom, and giving it back to them. From fair wages to basic equality, to the right to self-determination, Dr. Brueggemann’s definition seems to fit them all. From the end of slavery to the struggle for civil rights to the creation of a social safety net, much of the last 150 years has been a struggle for justice. And more often than not, it began with protest. Not long ago, a reminder went viral online, a reminder that the framework of the Holocaust was legal, while hiding Jews was illegal; that slavery was legal, while helping slaves to escape was illegal; and segregation was legal, while protesting segregation was illegal.

Further, it’s helpful to note that when Americans were polled on Dr. King’s activities—the marching, the arrests, the gathering in Washington—60 percent of the population thought he went too far. It’s easy to look backwards at the progress made through protest and imagine that we would march with Dr. King, or at least voice support, but the data tells another story. It’s easy to say something was good and important and righteous when we’re not the ones making the sacrifices needed.

Clearly, the conflict between the government and the Wet’suwet’en people is complex and demands more time and a more appropriate venue than this pulpit. But I will say a couple of things. In a poll released on Wednesday, three-quarters of Canadians said something needs to be done about the plight of Indigenous people—a heartening result. At the same time, 60 percent surveyed disagreed with the protests as they have been carried out—there’s that old 60 percent number again. That’s the first thing. The second is that the commitment that we have made as a nation—the commitment to reconciliation—will always come with a cost. Otherwise our commitment is meaningless, amounting to just words.

The glory of the Lord is more than just light. It is the fire of transformation, it is the light of illumination and new understanding, it is the moral clarity that decides what rightfully belongs to whom, and gives it back to them. The glory of the Lord begins in the wilderness, a light to guide them by night. The glory of the Lord continues at Transfiguration, more light and a divine blessing for those gathered. And the glory of the Lord is our future hope, praying with the One who taught us saying “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Amen.