Sunday, December 01, 2019

Advent I

Romans 13
11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.

Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy.

If this sounds like your last office Christmas party, you might need a new job. Meanwhile, over in the Colossian office, we get this: “fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (3.5) None of this is good. But if the question is ‘who takes the cake,’ then look no further than the Galatians, seemingly given to “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (5.19-21). What other things? What else is there?

If just now you trying to figure out the difference between debauchery, concupiscence, and licentiousness, let me save you some time—they all mean the same as lasciviousness. This is obviously the last time you’re coming to church without a dictionary. So what are we to make of St. Paul’s comprehensive collection of lists? What can we conclude?

I think it’s safe to say that Paul had an issue with sex, but that’s not the topic we’re looking at today. Interesting and controversial sermons are set aside for low Sundays, say the one between Christmas and New Year’s, and certainly not the first Sunday of Advent. Still, we can assume these questions were top-of-mind for Paul.

The more important conclusion is that Christians ‘in here’ are supposed to act differently than the world ‘out there.’ And we can see that more clearly if set aside all the concupiscence and lasciviousness, and go with the garden-variety sins: carousing, covetousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. Tipsy sorcerers who angrily covet what others have, whether in a pugilistic way or not, seem to have no place in the church.

Still, I think it’s safe to assume these things were present among those who gathered in the Roman church. With a concordance and an hour we could compile a list of all the ways Paul’s flock were failing, but it might be enough to say they were human. Yes, they were saved by faith and given access to grace (5.1-2) by which they stood with Paul, but they were still human. Yes, through baptism they died with Christ and were raised to live in newness of life (6.3-4), but they were still human. And yes, all things work for good among the people who love God, called according to his purpose (8.28), but they’re still human.

And human they remain. But for today, they are Advent human, and for this we need more Paul. Just moments age we heard this:

Understanding the present time, the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light.

In other words, we live between 'the hour has come' and the challenge of living in the present time. We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And how do you live in such a space? You might say the danger is implied in the season.

Another way to say ‘the hour has come’ and ‘not yet’ is Black Friday. Somehow this abomination has been thrust upon us, where the pent up desire for shopping meets Christmas gift giving, where acquisitiveness and consumption define us rather than the season of reflection we enter today. (Note, nothing I am saying applies to our pop-up market place, which begins at 12.15 in the Activity Room. Please bring small change).

Sorry, where was I? We have entered a liminal space, a space where the ‘soon and very soon’ meets the not yet. And in most ways, this describes the churches founded by Paul. Waiting for signs of Christ’s return, given to slumber and sleep, needing constant reminders about the nature of new life in Christ—all these things were happening at once. But salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, nearer as the calendar leads us ever closer to our destination.

But that doesn’t make us any less Advent human. So let’s take just one example: in my compendium of careless human behaviour, envy appears three times. In three ways: Paul warns us against envy, jealousy, and covetousness. Really, three sides of the same coin. And say something often enough, or raise a matter three ways, and it’s a safe bet it was a problem. The church in Paul’s day were mostly people at the bottom in terms of wealth and power: slaves, ex-slaves, women. These were people who might experience envy, not having to look hard for people up a rung on the ladder.

In our day, it’s a variation of the same. Impossible expectations abound, with constant reminders that somehow our affection should be proportional to the money we spend. Or we’re invited to spoil ourselves, since advertising always has a selfish subtheme. Again, we’re Advent human, because we live in the world and the world hardly seems to change.

So where is the hope? What are the signs of this new age, this age of love and mercy for which we wait? Well, the great thing about a list is the opportunity to make an anti-list, a compendium of caring or consideration:

Instead of covetousness, we covet generosity.
Instead of idolatry, we see God in others.
Instead of sorcery, we look for the magic of the season.
Instead of enmities, we imagine everyone is a brother or sister in the Spirit.
Instead of strife, we say ‘peace on earth and goodwill to all people.’
Instead of anger, we have some healthy indignation, for the inequality that only seems to grow.
Instead of quarrels, we work together for peace.
Instead of factions, we agree that unity is more important that whatever may divide us.
Instead of jealousy, we jealously guard the time we have together.

In other words: hope, peace, joy and love, the reason for the season before the season with the reason arrives once more. We carry these themes through Advent because of our humanness, themes that provide shelter, maybe a bit of a shield, and certainly the four corners of this place. Salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, described in this moment as hope, peace, joy and love.

I want to give St. Paul the last word, speaking words for waiting, words to lead us home:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit. [We] groan inwardly while we wait for adoption...for in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (8.22-25).


Sunday, November 24, 2019

Reign of Christ Sunday

Colossians 1
11 [Be] strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, 12 and [give] joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. 13 For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

I don’t want to go all Dan Brown in you, but we’re surrounded by powerful symbols.

Take your bulletin, for example. First notice the fold is perfect, done by a highly-qualified expert. Then look at the overall shape of the bulletin, taller than it is wide, like a window, or a book, or a portrait painting. And here is where it gets interesting: if you take one of the bottom corners and fold it to meet the opposite side of the page, you will have something that begins to resemble paper airplane—but it’s not. Next, fold the upper portion over, and then unfold. You should see that the line across the page creates a proportion of one to point-six. Taken overall, the bulletin had a patio of one to one-point-six. And this, according to everyone including Dan Brown, is called the golden ratio, or the golden mean, or what some have called it the divine proportion.

And now, without dragging you down the rabbithole of the Fibonacci and a sequence of numbers that will blow your mind, we can simply look around us and see the divine proportion. Faces have it, except for those two Russian guys arrested in connection to the impeachment investigation (Lev and Igor, if you’re following the news). You can see the divine proportion in the way the shell of a snail spirals outward, or the way sunflower seeds are arranged on the face of the flower. We live in a galaxy that takes the shape of the divine proportion, and even the double-helix of our DNA has it too. Think of a well-proportioned building, like St. Lawrence Hall at King and Jarvis. Each window has the divine proportion, 1.6 over 1. Take four of these windows, two over two, and the shape is the divine proportion. Take nine windows, arranged over three stories, and the effect is the same—the divine proportion.

Maybe your mind is blow even without discussing Fibonacci (you can google him later), but let’s add one more: the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant, instructions given by the Most High to create the symbolic vessel of God’s presence in the tablets of Sinai—which match the divine proportion, two-and-a-half cubits by one-and-a-half cubits. And just because, one more: look up in your mind’s eye at the Creation of Adam, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and measure. From Adam’s shoulder to the tip of his finger, then the tip of God’s finger to the tip of God’s toe—the divine proportion of one to one-point-six.

The thing about things like the divine proportion is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The ratio between the length of your hand and the length of your forearm—it’s obviously hard to stop. Where was I? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Something invisible has become visible, something seemingly undisclosed has been disclosed and then cannot be hidden. St. Paul said so himself:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

It’s such a simple thing: Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God. Want to know what God is like? Look to Jesus, before all things and in all things, the firstborn of creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood (Peterson).

But how does it describe Christ the King, the Reign of Christ in our time? Well, hidden in plain sight is the order of things: “whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” Students of history may wince that this point, thinking of the so-called ‘divine right of kings,’ and the kind of turmoil caused when rulers ignore the will of the people. But the verse says no such thing. The verse reminds rulers that they are uniquely obligated to follow the direction of the King of Kings—to rule his way, and follow his will.

And the letter doesn’t stop with kings and other rulers. Paul turns his attention to the church, insisting that Christ “is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.” Not the pope, not the moderator, and never the minister—Christ is the head of the body that he himself personifies. He is the ‘first born from among the dead,’ at the head of a long line of saints from the beginning down to today. When Paul begins Ephesians and Philippians with “to all the saints” he is inviting us to add our name to the list: to all the saints in Weston, God’s holy people, faithful in Christ Jesus.

And while we’re on the topic of seeing the unseen, this is still another layer of making visible the invisible, namely seeing Christ in others. See how it works? When we see Christ, we see God. When we see Christ in others, we see God. So whether we see Christ or whether we see Christ in others, we are seeing God. The visible image of an invisible God is manifest everywhere we look, and within everyone God favours—the poor who are first in the Kingdom, and those who mourn, the vulnerable, those who hunger for justice, the merciful and the pure of heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted, who are very often one and the same.

And just when the poetry of seeing God seems to have reached a conclusion, Paul says ‘just one more thing.’ And the one more thing might be what someone practical person might call ‘the point of the exercise,’ the place where this conversation is leading—and that would be incarnation:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

And while I said incarnation, you would be correct if you said ‘yes, but I heard atonement.’ Making peace through his blood is certainly one way to describe the way we are reconciled to God, but I think Paul is saying more. I think he is giving us two options here, two options in the face of a mystery that will only be revealed in time. This is why you only ever hear the phrase ‘atonement theory,’ because there are a few.

In one theory, Christ wins a cosmic battle over the forces of evil, bridging what separates us from the divine. In another, humanity is rightly convicted of malfeasance, but Christ pays our penalty. In yet another, the story itself, on a hill far away, is enough to turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh for God alone. And then one more: “pleased to have all his fullness dwell in Christ, and through him reconcile all things to himself.” In other words, incarnation.

Obviously, this topic will come up more than a few times in the next few weeks. And when it does, I hope you can see what can often go unseen: God in Christ, pleased to dwell. Christ in others, blessed to reveal. And God in each of us, in some sort of divine proportion, allowing us to be Christ to one another. Amen.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 21
5 Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, 6 “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
7 “Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

Uh-oh, now you have an earworm. You know, those sticky how-will-I-get-this-song-out-of-my-head moments that can stretch into hours? And you’re not alone. According to researchers, 98% of of us get earworms, and they tend to involve snippets of popular songs between 15 and 30 seconds long. Only 8% of us get instrumental earworms, and I expect they now regret buying the Star Wars soundtrack.

Oddly, the research shows that for women, earworms last longer and irritate them more (I’ll let you construct your own clever comment here). The good news is that there are cures, including chewing gum, Sudoku and other puzzles, or finding another song to replace the song in your head. I think we know how that ends. The ultimate cure, it would seem, is to avoid popular music, the source of most earworms. Alas, I expect it’s too late for most, since you’re already down to the last verse:

But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow
Don't you know it's gonna be
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right, all right
All right, all right

Curiously, the young radicals of 1968, protesting in the streets of Paris and Chicago, saw the song as a betrayal. The New Left Review call the song a "a lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear,” and another publication suggested the Beatles had become enemies of the revolution.

Meanwhile, John explained that he began writing the song in India while studying Transcendental Meditation. He “would later say that the phrase repeated in this song, ‘it's gonna be alright,’ was borrowed from something the Beatles learned during the course. They were taught that God would take care of the human race no matter what happened politically.* Amen to that.

Meanwhile in Jerusalem, another revolution is brewing. Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
“Teacher,” they asked, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

They got the when and the what, but they didn’t ask the how. The actual destruction of the Temple happened late in the summer of AD 70. The conflict is called the First Jewish-Roman War, when the Romans besieged the Holy City, eventually destroying the Temple and altering the course of Jewish history. It seems the Roman general Titus had no intention to destroy it, instead wanting to rededicate the Temple to honour the Roman gods.

The fact that the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the Temple remains an important point in our look at this passage. What was Luke trying to say by giving the Temple such a prominent place in his telling? The destruction of the Temple was top-of-mind for his audience, and remains an important part of Jewish consciousness. Maybe Luke wanted to underline the events of AD 70 as he promoted the Jewish-Christian movement that would become Christianity. Or maybe he just wanted to signal the start of a revolution.

“Watch out that you are not deceived.” Jesus said. “For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”

Jesus goes on to describe conflicts and famines, “fearful events and great signs from heaven.” He describes persecution, and trials, and in an obvious reference to a post-70 timeframe, he suggests people will be “handed over to synagogues and put in prison.” In other words, it seems Luke is trying to do two things at once: comfort his audience in the midst of trouble, and point to the dawn of a new age.

And this might be the moment to meet N.T. Wright once more. I had occasion to hear him speak back in 2015, and his message was all about understanding the times and recognizing that we live in a new age that began on the Day of Pentecost. Let me explain.

Dr. Wright began his talk with this: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” He argued that the petty squabbles that divide Christians get in the way of the real story that God wants to tell: the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm someday become one.

So how does it begin? Wright argues that this is a story with five acts. It begins with creation, the first act of our life with God. Then disaster strikes in Act Two, as we are forced from the garden and reminded to never trust a talking snake. Act Three is the the call of Israel in two very unlikely people—Abraham and Sarah—the father and mother of three great religions. Act Four is the sending of Jesus, including his death and resurrection, and finally Act Five, the time after Pentecost—the time defined by the work of the disciples. According to Wright, we are in this last stage, the fifth act of God’s story of us, disciples acting for God in the world, seeking to ‘put to rights’ all that is wrong.

And based on N.T. Wright’s telling, our opening dialogue about the Temple can be either speculation about the end of the Temple-cult or a message about the age to come. Both are revolutionary. Judaism will reinvent itself and find new ways to honour the Most High, and Christianity will enter a pentecostal age, beginning with the Acts of the Apostles. We often speak of finding yourself in scripture, but Dr. Wright is more direct: the Book of Acts continues, and we are simply the latest characters in an unfolding story.

Now, I expect that if we took our roving microphone out to Weston Road and asked people to name the age we live in, the Age of Pentecost might not come up. We might hear Age of Terror, Age of Environmental Crisis, or (Lord help us) the Age of Trump—all sorts of names and ideas that are top-of-mind, much like the first readers of Luke thinking about the destroyed Temple. And I must confess I might be the first to say Age of Populism or Age of Disruption or some such rather than the age that God would claim for us.

What we need (what I need) is some good old-fashioned Lennonism—that would be John Lennonism—and the belief that ‘God would take care of the human race no matter what happens politically.’ And here is how I know: throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are shipwrecks and setbacks, conversations and conversions, baptisms and believers coming to Christ and changing the world. And at the same time, there are governors and emperors, world events and political episodes, but they play virtually no part in the unfolding story of the age as recorded in Acts.

Yes, the apostles seek to ‘put to rights’ all that is troubling, and yes they seek to promote God’s will on earth as it is in heaven, but their primary job is to love and serve others, and live with the confidence that God will take care of the human race, no matter what happens. The revolution they represent is a reunion, standing with the God who made heaven and earth and intends to draw them together at the last. It is a revolution of the age to come, and ‘don’t you know it’s gonna be alright.’ Amen.


Sunday, November 10, 2019

Remembrance Sunday (Proper 27)

Luke 20
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[a] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”

If you’re gonna argue, you should do it right.

Okay, then, what’s right? Well, doing to right means avoiding some of the countless false arguments that people tend to use. So now we need a list, and almost every list of fallacies or false arguments begins with the ad hominem argument. It sounds trickier than it actually is.

An ad hominem argument attacks your opponent rather than the substance of what they are saying. “Crooked Hillary” is a classic ad hominem attack. When you attack someone’s character, their motives, attack their friends, or compare their current stance with something they said in the past, it’s an ad hominem attack. Some argue (successfully) that we live in an ad hominem age.

The next and very common argument is the strawman, attacking a simplified version of your opponent’s argument, or an intentional misunderstanding of the same. If the topic is the science of evolution and someone says ‘my opponent would have you believe that we all came from monkeys,’ then you have just witnessed a strawman argument. It’s an unfair characterization.

Of course, I would be betraying my roots if I didn’t mention the ‘red herring,’ both an argument and the somewhat smelly fish. Seemingly, the phrase came from the practice of using herring to train hunting dogs away from needless distraction. And so, a red herring is an attempt to distract you from the matter at hand. From this point forward, any talk about the whistleblower is a red herring—a topic has been eclipsed by subsequent events, but still serves as a way to distract.

My final example is the bafflement argument, sometimes called an ‘argument by gibberish,’ where someone constructs an elaborate and seemingly technical scenario in order to baffle their opponent. Imagine a group religious thinkers who don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. In order to further their argument, they construct a complicated and highly unlikely scenario where seven brothers each marry the same woman in turn, and then face the awkward possibility of a crowded afterlife. According to the Sadducees, this bit of bafflement proves that there is no resurrection of the dead.

Until they meet their match in Jesus. But before we learn again why it’s no accident that Jesus is called the “master,” we should close the circle on the art of arguing. Taking the ‘seven husband story’ as an example, it could fit other false arguments too. Here are a couple more:

Misleading Vividness is another, adorning your argument with so much detail it begins to seem plausible.*
And Argumentum ex culo, which I’m going to politely translate as “pulling an argument right out of your imagination.”

Jesus, the master, has heard it all before. You might even argue that he understood the weakness of their argument before they made it, but that would only serve to distract from the logical response he gave. He said five things:

The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.
They are like the angels.
They are God’s children.
Even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’
God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.”

This five-point response is the perfect counter-argument to the classic bafflement he’s met with. Jesus creates a thesis (“The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage”), adds some salient notes, and reaches a tidy conclusion—all in four verses. It has internal logic, it’s progressive—building one point on another—and it moves from the literal to the metaphorical, revealing truth.

Yes, I said truth. One of the sad realities of our time is that people have conflated factual and truthful. In our overly literal minds, we tend to forget that metaphors can be true, even if they are not factual. Let me give you an example: Time is money. On the face of it, it’s not factual: money is money and time is time. But it’s also truthful, because anyone who has ever received a paycheck knows that there is a relationship between the time worked and the money received. Further, we know that both time and money are scarce, part of the reason that the metaphor ‘time is money’ rings true everytime.

So Jesus begins with a literal statement, a statement of fact—said with the kind of authority we expect from the teacher, master, or Son of the Most High: “The dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” That’s our starting point, the literal foundation of a dicussion that will now shift to the symbolic and figurative.

“They can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” This is metaphor. Angels, children of God, children of the resurrection—this is a creative way of saying that the dead belong to God in a unique way. Notice Jesus says it three different ways, three ways that we can ‘try it on’ to see what fits. Obviously, symbolic language speaks to the individual, it reaches each of us in different ways. At different times we will find ourselves and others in one of these metaphors—angels, children of God, children of the resurrection. They are all true, and some are more true than others, depending on what’s happening inside you at the moment you hear it.

And then Jesus appeals to the story of Israel, a perpetual touchstone for people of faith, but even as he reaches in this direction, he remains in the realm of metaphor. “But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’”

Now, I’ve preached this passage more than a few times, and this time I found a new metaphor I hadn’t seen before: Jesus summarizes the story of receiving the covenant at Sinai as “the account of the burning bush.” Titles tell you what the speaker thinks is important, and in this case the presence of God in the bush that burns but is not consumed is an important element to the story, and perhaps in the story of God too. Something to ponder.

Back the dead, it’s all in the tenses. Jesus points to the use of language, noting that when Moses speaks to God it’s ‘you ARE the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,’ never ‘you were the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ And then his conclusion: ‘God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to God all are alive.’ Jesus has taken us from divine certainty, through symbolic language we can make our own, and concluded with a vision of the living and the dead, alive together in eternity, forevermore.

Remembrance Day gives birth to more stirring metaphor, and we use these words to express how we feel about the events of the past. One example is describing the dead as “the fallen.” The fallen can continue no longer, but encourage others to pick up the struggle and carry on. It recognizes the sad irony that sometimes you have to fight to further the cause of peace.

We also speak of the sacrifice made in war, both the men and women who left home and family behind, and those who made the ultimate sacrifice—giving their lives. Entering harm’s way, setting aside personal needs, fighting to protect others—these are best described using the language of sacrifice.

Even the word remembrance itself, is loaded with more than memory: remembrance is an active endeavour, fusing commemoration and commitment, the desire to remember and the willingness to continue the cause of peace.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them. Amen.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Anniversary Sunday

Joel 2
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.
28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I want to begin by saying it’s not my fault.

I’m just gonna put that out there, and then tell you about the scary slides. But before we get to the scary slides, I have to step back further and tell you about my not-so-secret life as a consultant. For you see, every once and a while I spend a Saturday trying to help some other congregation think about mission.

It is the context of these occasional opportunities to help that I show the scary slides. It happens like this: first we look at the nature of change in our society, and the extent to which everything that held in the past no longer seems to hold. For example: when a rather amateurish-looking video with a catchy song about a baby shark gets three-and-a-half-BILLION views online, you know the world has changed.

Next, we talk about the late Professor Phyllis Tickle, and her concept of the Great Rummage Sale, how the Holy Spirit seems intent on shaking things up about every 500 years. The last time it was the Reformation, and the time before that the Great Schism. According to the professor, then, we’re in the midst of one of these great spiritual rummage sales, and there is no way to know where it will lead (spoiler alert, Dr. Tickle was a big fan of the Holy Spirit).

And after such a lofty and abstract discussion, we retreat to more practical topics like duty versus choice, the current tension that plagues congregations with a population between the ages of 60 and 90. The older group still loves the D-word, and will drop everything to do their duty, while the younger cohort thinks duty is four-letter-word. There are usually smiles of recognition, and hopefully a little more understanding between members.

And then we look at the scary slides. For you see, all the mainline Protestant denominations—United, Presbyterian, Anglican—began to decline in 1965. And there are scary slides to prove it. Church membership began to decline, but the truly scary numbers were downstairs, where 600,000 kids in Sunday School across the church in 1965 became 250,000 just eight years later. Let me state that in the reverse. There were 600,000 kids in our Sunday Schools in 1965, and 350,000 less kids just eight years later. Other stats are equally scary. In 1963 there were 718 people preparing for the ministry, and five years later there were just 94. In another decade the number would rebound—in part because women were entering the ministry—but it still fits the overall pattern of decline.

Just now you’re thinking that this the weirdest Anniversary Sunday sermon ever, and you might be right. Still, born in 1965, it’s not my fault. I’m sure I screwed up somewhere along the way—but with the decline beginning in 1965, I think you get the point. And further, there is virtually no one left who was a church leader in 1965, which lets everyone else off the hook too. You see, we are constantly trying to understand what happened, or where we went wrong: was it the New Curriculum in the 60s or our look at human sexuality in the 80s, or some other outrage or misstep along the way? No, not when the scary slides show the opposite. Something was happening in society in the late 60s, something that we’re still trying to understand, in this church, and every other church, across most denominations, and throughout the land.

This would be the moment that I move to the reading, but before I do, I should finish the story. After all the theory, and dropping the D-word, and showing the scary slides, I try to inspire people with stories of congregations that have reinvented themselves and found a way to reconnect with their communities—which is the real secret of congregational renewal. So I talk about Central, our outreach, our commitment to study, and the habit of testimony that we developed almost by accident; I talk about Hillhurst in Calgary and ‘radical hospitality’ (some ideas we have already stolen) and I talk about what’s happening in the UK, where they got a 20-year head start in terms of decline, yet continue to innovate.

And in each example, we see the Spirit at work, the same Spirit described by the prophet Joel:

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Poor Joel, always a minor prophet, always a victim of the smash-and-grab approach to biblical literature—where one quote seems to sum up all we know about him. But what a quote! And if you’re thinking ‘dream dreams’ and ‘see visions,’ where have I heard that lately, you need only remember Pentecost, some twenty Sundays past, and still the season we inhabit. The church in its wisdom gave half the year to the spirit of Pentecost, the season that begins with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost.

It is the moment that the first church comes out of hiding and finds her voice. With wind and flame the Spirit greets them, and a thousand tongues are loosed to sing God’s praise. But there is more happening in this moment that the birth of the church: it is the moment that dreams and visions are unleashed, when the Spirit takes hold of some very ordinary people and compels them to do some extraordinary things. Extraordinary things like creating a church: a church to love and serve others, a church to extend mercy, a church to embody all we know about the compassionate way of Jesus Christ. It almost feels like the moment to land the plane (sermon-speak for end the sermon) but I see you’re still chewing on something, so let’s go back.

Why 1965? You used to love 1965: a new flag for Canada and the year Heather and Dave made their debut (among others). What on earth was happening to cause such a shift in 1965? Well, a couple of my colleagues were losing sleep over this question too, so Larry Doyle and David Ewart did some digging. The root of the problem came with a rule: in order to have your little bundle of joy baptized, you needed to join the church. So, throughout the 1950’s parents of those first-born boomers were joining the church, swelling our numbers, and making the whole picture look good. Every week there was a new church or Sunday School building being dedicated, all because people wanted their children baptized.

But around 1957 or ‘58, we were into the subsequent born. Sure there were more kids, but the parents were already members, so that source was getting cut off. At the same time those first boomer babies were nearing the end of Sunday School, and only some of them were being confirmed. In other words, we hit a peak. It also explains why I spent so much time in the 90s asking about names on the roll—who are all these people, does anyone know them? Not really, because they came for a reason or a season, then they moved on.

Now I can land the plane. But just before I do, I want to tell you about Dr. Rob Fennell and some of his work related to thriving congregations. I heard him speak at a recent event, and he teased us with some of his research (he has a book in the works, so he didn’t want to give it all away). After interviews and surveys across Canada, he has identified six attributes of thriving congregations, and then he shared four.

The first one he called ‘starting with yes.’ He described congregations that answer ‘yes’ when challenged, and then try to work out how to make it happen. Our tour after worship might be a good example (new food bank). The next attribute is having a strong identity, which means knowing who you are and to whom you belong. The next is risk-taking, getting involved with activities that others might find surprising or off-putting (a needle exchange comes to mind). And the last—that he was willing to share—was leadership: elders and members who embody the first three, starting with yes, knowing who they are, and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.

Now, we ought not get sore patting ourselves on the back. These attributes are always aspirational, and we could certainly think of ways we failed to live up to one through four. But I would argue we are on the right side of the ledger, that work and worship happen in this place, that faithful people remain open to the Good News and all it demands, and that we make 198 look good.

So as we begin the next 198 years, may God continue to bless us, may the Risen one walk beside us, and may the Spirit move within us, new and always, Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

It all begins with Jethro.

No, not that Jethro—son of Jed’s cousin Pearl. Although he does drive them to California at the beginning of the show, so you could say it all begins with Jethro, but that would another sermon altogether.

Our Jethro, for the purpose of this sermon, is Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who plays a small but critical role in the development of Jewish law. And it begins with an intervention. Moses, you will recall, led the people into the desert, helped them through some moments of great peril, and generally acted as the sole judge of these people. It was no small job.

In Exodus 18 we learn that Moses is adjudicating day and night, wearing himself out, trying to settle disputes between the people he is called to lead. Enter Jethro. Verse 14 begins with this: “When Jethro saw what Moses was trying to do, he took him aside and said ‘You idiot! (I’m paraphrasing here) Why on earth are you doing this alone? You should appoint some judges to do this work, maybe just after you teach the people how God expects them to live.’”

So Moses does. But before he does, Jethro has more advice, again from Exodus 18:

They must be God-fearing men who can be trusted and who cannot be bribed. 22 Let them serve as judges for the people on a permanent basis. They can bring all the difficult cases to you, but they themselves can decide all the smaller disputes. That will make it easier for you, as they share your burden.

Everyone who participated in our Lenten study should be feeling a flush of recognition, this description of the beginnings of the legal tradition in ancient Judea. Moses (on Jethro’s advice) becomes the High Court to these wandering people, with judges appointed to do the day-to-day work of administering justice. It’s the basis of a legal system that will feature in our parable, and it’s the basis for the legal system that exists in Canada today. Notice Jethro says ‘let them serve on a permanent basis,’ still a bedrock principle of the justice system, still protecting judges (and the system itself) from the ever-changing whim of popular opinion.

But before we move to the parable, a bit more on these judges appointed by Moses. At this moment in the story of Israel, Moses is the sole connection to God. He is the prophet who teaches God’s commands, interprets these commands in the administration of justice, and appoints judges. There are no priests at this stage (there will be soon) so the judge is a more religious figure than our modern minds might assume. They are appointed to carry out God’s commands, with Moses standing by to help.

And this got me thinking. What kind of person might fill this role? Interpreting God’s commands, settling disputes, seeking justice for the vulnerable. Then I remembered The List. But before I tell you about The List, you need a little more ancient history.

Back in my day, you could join the church on Sunday, meet the elders of the congregation on Sunday afternoon, go to presbytery on Tuesday, have an interview, and become a candidate for ministry the same evening. Obviously this rarely happened, but it was possible. The church, in its wisdom put the brakes on that path, and created something called discernment instead. But that’s not the ancient history that matters here.

The history that matters was a new process and the articulation (for the first time) of the attributes that a congregation should see if they think there’s potential minister in their midst. So here is the list:

A deep spiritual life
Personal integrity
An understanding of human behaviour
A passion for justice
The capacity for critical thinking
The integration of self
The capacity to be a life-long learner

I didn’t share the list so you could go ‘Michael, Michael, hmmm, let’s see, yup, yup, nope, maybe.’ I actually won a scholarship at Queen’s for being sixth place overall, a standard I strive to maintain. Don’t ask me how that fits with the list. Nevertheless, the list exists, and as congregations were compelled to see these attributes in potential ministers, they were also reminded that everyone is a minister, so the list applies to them (and you) as well. Again, that’s another sermon.

So assuming that the list also describes the kind of people that Moses might appoint as judges, let’s finally meet the judge of our parable:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice.”

You will notice that I have shared only the parable portion, not the frame that Luke provides. Yes, I think you should pray always and not give up, but I’m not sure that that is the point of the parable. And yes, I think God will attend to the needs of God’s chosen ones, but I’m not sure that’s the point of the parable either. All Luke was trying to do was provide some context to a difficult parable—so we might better look for meaning ourselves.

So first things first. We can agree that this is an unrighteous judge. The clue is when he says to himself “I don’t fear God or care what people think.” Clearly he would not find himself on The List, although he does have excellent self-understanding and an understanding of human behaviour. But two out of nine makes him unfit to serve as a judge, something that is so obvious that it may be extraneous to the point of the parable. I think Jesus was simply creating a foil for the widow, a character Jack Nicholson might play. (“You want the truth…”)

So that leaves the widow. What do we know about her? She seeks justice, she has an adversary, and she is relentless in her pursuit of justice. Having an adversary is a bit of a red herring in the parable, because the system was based on having an adversary—there were no prosecutors in the modern sense. All proceedings involved two parties, a detail we can set aside.

So the focus of the parable is a someone who seeks justice, and is relentless in the pursuit of justice. And who does that sound like? I’m going to suggest that God is the widow, constantly saying ‘grant me justice, grant me justice’ seeking it among creatures God created, seeking it for all the other widows, all the vulnerable ones who also cry out for justice. The unrighteous judge says he doesn’t fear God, but he sure does fear the widow and her constant cry for justice.

I’m going to let that settle in your imagination for a while, ever mindful that the preacher who made this suggestion finished sixth overall. I want to turn now to another topic that may be filling your imagination, a certain exercise in civic duty happening tomorrow. You will recall that we are non-partisan, strictly non-partisan and a law-abiding registered charity. We promote voting, we don’t suggest who to vote for.

A primary demand of Christian ethics is to pursue the common good. One of the most effective vehicles for this is voting, seeking to elect leaders that align with our sense of the common good. Put simply, we seek a “communitarian vision” (Anderson) where we live together peaceably, protect each other, and ensure that everyone thrives. Your tool to achieve this is your vote, cast for the person or party that (for you) best represents this vision.

But I also want to expand your toolkit, and for this, I think we need The List. Ignore that this as a list for potential ministers and eager lay people who take seriously the priesthood of all believers—imagine that this list describes someone who might be well placed to seek the common good. Let me walk through it once more, and add some annotation. I hope you vote for someone who has:

A deep spiritual life, not in the religious sense, but in the sense that they understand that life is more than the material or the tangible
Personal integrity, actions and word in alignment
Self-knowledge, especially a sense of their limitations
An understanding of human behaviour, and the way people can act against their own self-interest.
Intelligence, both smarts and emotional intelligence
A passion for justice, not just the charter, but justice for the most vulnerable members of our society
The capacity for critical thinking, seeing context and nuance, and the ability to see all sides
The integration of self, a sense of who they are and how they came to be who they are
The capacity to be a life-long learner, aware that there is always more to learn, that they don’t have all the answers.

May God be with you tomorrow, and may you join God in the relentless pursuit of justice, Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Luke 17
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Are you feeling thankful?

Is that even the right word? Maybe you’re feeling grateful instead. Maybe you’re gratified, gruntled (the opposite of disgruntled, of course) or just tickled pink. Maybe you’re chuffed, and if you don’t know what that means, you’re going to need to ask Harold, Barbara or Judith. Or someone who watches Top Gear.

And since we’ve crossed the pond for a moment, we should visit Oxford, or more specifically the Oxford dictionary, and investigate the difference between thankful and grateful. And you’ll be chuffed to know that there is a difference, something that doesn’t seem to be the case on our side of the pond.

So thankful, according to Oxford, means “pleased and relieved,” giving the example “they were thankful that the war was finally over.” Odd. And the second example, “I was very thankful to be alive,” seems to have been written by the same person who wrote the first. It doesn’t exactly say turkey and pumpkin pie, does it? So on to grateful.

Grateful, for Oxford, means “feeling or showing an appreciation for something done or received.” And then gives the rather obvious example: “I'm grateful to you for all your help.” This seems much closer to the mark, which makes me think everything we’re doing has been mislabeled. But before you toss out your Happy Thanksgiving napkins and party hats, maybe we should dig a little deeper—and for this we need scripture.

Ten lepers cry out for help: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” And without a thought, ten lepers were healed. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests—the only ones who can declare you clean—and they will discover that you are clean.’ So, off they go, but one turns back, praising God, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, and being thankful. At this moment Luke adds a ‘by the way’ to the story, saying ‘and by the way, he was a Samaritan.’ More on that in a minute. Jesus then transforms this healing into a teachable moment, saying ‘didn’t I just heal ten of you? Where are the others? Has no one else returned to praise God except this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’

So two things to consider here, the first is the tenth leper and the nature of his response, and the second is the obvious plot twist when we learn that this man is a Samaritan. Now, not wanting to wear you out with the dictionary, but I should point out that the nine who kept walking were likely “pleased and relieved,” meaning thankful, but it didn’t translate into any kind of tangible response. The tenth leper, “showing an appreciation for something done,” was grateful, and therefore returned to praise God and throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Now you can throw out the napkins.

And what about the plot twist? Does it matter that this man is a Samaritan? And why do Samaritans keep appearing anyway? So we’ll start there. In the literary world we find the idea of the ‘stock character,’ a person or group of people that frequently appear in a story to play a specific role—most often to embody a characteristic or trait. So Samaritans play the role of ‘the last person you would expect to do something’—like help someone beaten by robbers, or return to Jesus to express thanks. We don’t have time to do a full survey of the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, so I’ll give you some shorthand instead. Jews viewed Samaritans the way evangelical Christians view Mormons, or the way the NDP view the Green Party—and if that makes no sense, see me later.

For Luke, then, the Samaritan is playing a role. And like the Good Samaritan helping out when the so-called religious ones refuse to do so, the Samaritan leper turns around when the nine locals don’t. In other words, when the stock character—whoever that may be—understands the need to help or provides a grateful response, then we’re really going to be disappointed in everyone else. In other, other words, shame on the people who can’t respond as well as the outcast/foreigner/outsider/etcetera.

Now that the religious people have received their ‘direct message’ found in the lesson, what about those nine others? What are we to make of them? First thing to note is that they are still healed. Still released from a terrible ailment, still able to show the priest and be declared clean, still able to return to kin and clan, still able to rejoin the life they knew. With Jesus there are no take-backs, no retractions, no post-healing reassessment. They remain healed. A tad rude perhaps, but still healed.

And to understand the God of the no take-backs, we’re going to need to take a road trip, first to ancient Sparta, then Rotterdam, and finally a lovely town on the shores of Lake Zurich. Someday the readings will allow me to speak at length about Sparta, but for today I will only share a message from the Oracle at Delphi. It seems that when asked by some Spartan if they should go to war with Athens, the Oracle said "Called or not called, the god will be there” (vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit). I have no idea what happened next.

Meanwhile, 1,110 years later, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus is busy compiling Greek and Latin proverbs for publication (Collectanea Adagiorum) and includes this quote from Delphi (along with 4,000 others). Jump another 400 years, and a precocious 19 year-old named Carl Jung finds the quote and makes it his own. Decades later, as a pioneer in psychology, he will have the quote carved over his front door, a reminder to all who enter that “called or not called, God is with you.”*

Called or uncalled, God is with you. I actually prefer the alternate translation, “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” It takes the quote into the realm of worship, thinking of the bidding prayer—any words that express the sentiment “God, hear our prayer.” In other words, whether you acknowledge God or not, call on God or not, return and thank God or not, God is with you. So write it down, have it tattooed somewhere you can see it, or add it to your Twitter profile: “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” But please, use the Latin, ‘cause Latin makes everything classy.

So back to the no-show nine, or than thankless nine, God is with them. They have been released from sorrow whether they run back or not. And this is the nature of God’s unfathomable grace. You can sit out Thanksgiving, but God will still send sun and rain, secret growth beneath the earth, germination and growth, long summer days given to shorter, cooler ones, maturation and harvest, skilled hands at mill and kiln. You can neglect to thank God and still eat, but the experience will not be the same. Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.

Better, in the spirit of gratefulness, to show some appreciation. Grace received, new life given, hope restored—and we can give thanks. Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude transforms us, makes us into new people, restores us to the realm of grace where we can simply receive.

So, to you I say Happy Thanksgiving, or whatever combination of gratefulness and giving thanks you can make, knowing always that God is with you. Amen.