Sunday, October 11, 2020

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Philippians 4

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Sometimes you’re rhetorical, and other times you’re rhetorical.

The first and most common meaning is the rhetorical question. If you looked outside last night and cried, “why is it getting dark so early?” then you were asking a rhetorical question. There’s a scientific answer—something to do with the earth’s axis—but that’s not the purpose of the question. The rhetorical question is meant to make a point, like the surprising pace of seasonal change.

The other rhetorical, the one that St. Paul loves, relates to persuasion and the use of language. There are numerous devices, or techniques, that are commonly used, and have been identified. And since rhetoric is an ancient discipline, it has long been the subject of study. And no one studied rhetoric as thoroughly as the Greeks, who claimed the right to name these devices. Some examples:

When Yoda said “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering,” he wasn’t just making an excellent point, he was employing anadiplosis. The ‘last word becomes the first word’ pattern is anadiplosis.

When Ben Franklin said “we must all hang together or most assuredly we shall all hang separately,” he was using antanaclasis—two meanings for the word hang to emphasize his point. Lucky for him, they won their little rebellion.

If I said “tens of people attended worship this morning,” it would sound funny—perhaps even clever—and would be an example of antiphrasis. Antiphrasis takes a common phrase (“tens of” is usually followed by thousands”) and applies it to a given situation.

On the more serious side, if someone raises a topic while pretending not to raise the topic (“I don’t know anything about it, but people are talking about it…”) then they are engaged in apophasis. It’s a way for liars and cheats to deny they ever talked about something. Michael, tell is how you truly feel.

My final example is anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase to underline your point. Lincoln did it at Gettysburg, and most famously Churchill did it on June 4, 1940:

“…we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The use of “we” is meant to unite the nation, create common cause, and underline the resolve to never surrender. Interestingly, Churchill used only Old English words in this quote—words in use for over a thousand years—except one: surrender, from the French.

And finally to dear Paul, who wrote in Greek and used anaphora to create this remarkable passage:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

It’s a powerful passage, made more powerful by the use of anaphora. Paul could have said “think about truth, nobility, purity, loveliness…” and it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect. Here Paul is almost pleading, and the repetitive use of “whatever” is an invitation to think of these virtues and whatever else comes to mind. And this, of course, leads to his conclusion—whatever you see in me—try to do this too.

This might be the moment to say more about the context of these words, both the church at Philippi, and people who lived in the city. Philippi was first a Greek city, mostly abandoned by the first century before the common era. After Rome’s civil war (42 BCE) the city was colonized by retired Roman soldiers, a reward for their service to the republic (soon to be empire). There were mines in the area, which meant prosperity, making Philippi a very attractive place to live.

All of these clues (proud, prosperous) may reveal why Paul wrote what he wrote. If you had to summarize the Letter to the Philippians with two words, the two words would be humility and unity. Maybe all that wealth explains the need for humility, or the humility you might need as a proud Roman surrounded by colonized Greeks. Maybe a mixed church of Romans and Greeks, colonizers and the colonized, explains the need for unity. Whatever the reason, Paul wants humility and unity, and he’s willing to use powerful rhetoric to get it.

Still, I think there is more here—more about the Roman world itself—and the ideas that defined the culture. I’m thinking specifically of Roman virtue (weir-tus), which meant something quite different from the virtue we know. We think of goodness when we hear the word virtue, but for Romans virtue was closer to manliness, valour, courage, character, or worth. The Roman god Virtus was the god of bravery in battle, the personification of the Roman virtue.

Later on, the meaning of virtue will begin to resemble what we call virtue, but at the time Paul is writing, virtus is about strength. Everything you did in the public sphere was about gaining and maintaining virtus. You could become famous in the process—there was no shame in glory—but the overall goal was the betterment of Rome. Virtus meant higher standing, higher standing meant more responsibility, and more responsibility meant more opportunities for conquest.

Hold that in your mind and listen to Paul’s plea once more: “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.” These are his concluding words, which are really just a coda to his starting point back in verse four: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”

“Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

It would be easy, then, to suggest that our time period has returned to Roman virtus—manliness and conquest—and somehow left a gentler age behind. We could idealize the recent past and imagine that what we face today is unique or new. Yes, we seem to be sliding into a dangerous new age, but for many people and places (even here in Canada) the danger never went away. The view from relative wealth and privilege makes it harder for us to see that for many—too many—conquest never stopped.

And this just adds urgency to Paul’s message. The goal of seeking these things is as relevant today as the day Paul put pen to parchment. As the people of God, we stand up for “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…” What other goals are there? The world needs reminding (and Christians everywhere need reminding) that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of gentleness, and mercy, and justice. Paul gives us powerful rhetoric for powerful ideas— Godly ideas that may be our only hope. Amen.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

The Feast of Saint Francis

Phillipians 3

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

He preached to the birds, he befriended a wolf, and he rebuilt ruined chapels.  

Like many saints, he was a reformer, directing the church back to founding principles: repentance, care for the sick, and a call to poverty.  His movement, the Friars Minor, grew from the strength of his personality and the compelling example he set.  He was no revolutionary, and he never sought to break with the church—something that disappointed his critics.  He is perhaps the best known saint after Mary herself, and certainly among the most loved.

Francis began his life with wealth and position.  His father was a successful cloth merchant in Assisi, his mother a French noblewoman.  And Francis lived into this wealth.  He had a reputation as a wild young man, a rogue with deep pockets and easy charm, which made him very popular.  

The first change to this life of ease began in war.  Enlisting to fight—some say to demonstrate his love for luxurious costumes—he was captured in battle and held for a year.  Finally ransomed by his father, he returned a changed person.  He began to spend less time at business and more time in prayer, mostly outside Assisi in small chapels.  He developed an affinity for the poor, and when he went on pilgrimage to Rome, he spent much of his time around St. Peter’s with local beggars.

Returning to Assisi, he continued to pray in remote chapels.  On one occasion, Christ spoke to him and said "Francis, Francis, go and repair My house which, as you can see, is falling into ruins."  He took this direction literally, rebuilding ruined chapels and gathering fellow-minded followers.  

His father, you can imagine, was not impressed.  Fearing that all this wealth would one day be spent on these projects, his father sued to disinherit Francis.  The climax of the case saw Francis renounce his father, and famously disrobe, returning his clothing.  As his local fame increased, so did his followers.  

And Francis soon understood the command to rebuild the church as metaphor.  He directed his followers to care for the poor, tend to lepers, and share a message of repentance, brotherly love, and peace.  He and his followers rejected possessions, survived (in the early days) by begging, and saw themselves as standing against the surrounding culture.  

Perhaps this is at the heart of his lasting appeal.  Like the hippies of the 1960s, Francis and his group defied the dominant culture.  They wore simple tunics, and went barefoot—earning them the name pazzo, meaning madmen.  Labelled fools, Francis called himself “a new kind of fool.”  He spoke about himself and his followers as Jongleurs de Dieu (which means something like "jesters for God").  And together they were also referred to as poverello (little poor ones) for their refusal to accumulate possessions.*

All of this points to a departure, a turn from one life to another life altogether.  It defines the life of Francis, and it defines the life of St. Paul.  We hear this in our reading from Philippians: Paul’s recitation at the beginning, his former c.v., and then the conversion that follows.  Listen once more to the source of his early confidence: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.”  

But his confident recounting of the past is then transformed into new confidence in the present:  

But whatever were gains to me, I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I now consider them garbage…

In both Francis and Paul we see the same pattern: renunciation, redirection, and rededication.  They discard comfort (Francis) and confidence (Paul) for the sake of Christ.  They redirect their effort to care for the poor (Francis) and the poor at heart (Francis and Paul).  And they rededicate themselves to the gospel of Jesus Christ, building a church (Paul) or rebuilding a church (Francis) to reflect God’s glory.  Whatever was gain is now considered loss for Christ Jesus.

About now you may be wondering how this tiny temple to Methodism (Central) ended up marking a feast day on the Catholic calendar and engaging in so much hagiography—recalling the lives of the saints.  It turns out that Francis is also venerated by Anglicans—our ecclesiastical forebears—and most other traditions too.  Oddly, scholars can find no mention of Francis in the writings of John Wesley, strange because they had much in common.  They shared the same concern for the poor, the same desire to preach Christ in the open air—directly to the people—and the same desire to rebuild the church.  They even shared a love for God’s creatures, Wesley preaching against cruelty to animals.**

What these reformers share is a desire to return to the primitive church.  Reading scripture, considering the relationship between Christ and his disciples, and trying to find the heart of the message—these are the hallmarks of the reformer’s project.  Time and trouble create a complicated church, and the task of the reformer is to return the church to first principles: forgiveness, care for the vulnerable, and peace—peace between people, and between people and the earth.

And this last point, perhaps, explains Francis’ lasting appeal.  Each generation can find in Francis the simple and unifying message they need in troubled times.  In the 60s it was an end to war, and the sense of sisterhood and brotherhood of all peoples.  Today, it’s the environment, and a saint that can bless our need to care for creation, to guide us back to a peaceful relationship with the one Francis called Sister Mother Earth.  To this end, I want to conclude with the story of the Wolf of  Gubbio.

Fear of wolves lived in the hearts of many in the middle ages, and none more than rural people.  Wolves were a threat to livestock, and a threat to the lone traveller, particularly at night.  While Francis was living near Gubbio, the townspeople were contending with one such wolf.  The town, in effect, was under siege.  Attempts were made to kill the wolf, but to no avail.

Francis, deciding on a new approach, departed the town walls, and found the wolf near its lair.  Making the sign of the cross, he spoke to the wolf, offering a simple exchange.  Past wrongs would be forgiven, and food shared, if the wolf left the people and their animals alone.  The wolf extended a paw and Francis took it.  It is said that the people befriended the wolf, and mourned when it died, even (according to tradition) burying the wolf in the churchyard.  All of this, of course, was regarded as legend, until 1872, when the skeleton of a large wolf was discovered near the outer wall of the church.           

Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live new lives of love and mercy.  Knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can live differently on the earth.  And knowing Christ Jesus, understanding his way, we can rebuild the church for each new generation.

May God bless us and the world God made.  Amen.

*Thanks here to my neo-Franciscan friend Ted.  

**Sermon 60, “The General Deliverance,” §1-2



Sunday, September 27, 2020

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 21

28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

You don’t need to be Lucy van Pelt to see that there is some complex psychology going on in our parable.

Actually, Lucy’s standard response—”Snap out of it! Five cents, please!—might not be up to the task of solving the interpersonal stuff that’s going on in these five short verses.  But before we dig into the Parable of the Two Sons, I want to talk a little bit about scripts.  

In most families (all families?), each member of the family is assigned a “part” to play.  In essence, we are given a script to follow, and the character we play tends to define us.  Thinking about your own family, perhaps you can picture someone when I describe some of the roles: the peacemaker, the fragile one, the helper, the victim, or the one who can always look after themselves.  I’m sure you can think of more.  

Reading the script, or following your assigned role isn’t a problem in-and-of-itself, unless you get locked in that role and can’t get out.  Sometimes people carry that role into other situations and cannot understand why it doesn’t work the way it does back home.  And then, of course, there is a common source of conflict in families: stepping out of your role and trying to be someone else.  Imagine the play where one character suddenly decides to go “off-script” and the chaos that follows.  

So the first son in our parable is the one who always says “no.”  You know that person, maybe even by looking in the mirror, the person who leads with no and needs to be convinced—or needs to convince themselves.  So the first son says, “I will not,” but then quickly changes his mind and heads off to the vineyard.  

And then there is the second son.  The son who will say anything that the questioner might want to hear (“Sure, I’ll go!”) but has no real intention to follow through.  There is a technical term for what the second son is doing, but instead I’ll call it balderdash, codswallop, hogwash, hooey, malarkey, or trumpery (more on that in a moment).

So, which of the two did what his father wanted?

Before we dig into the question, we should talk about meaning, and how meaning is the first-cousin of assigned roles.  Whenever we are confronted by a situation, or we’re trying to summarize some event, we tend to attach a particular meaning.  Whenever someone uses phrases like “a cautionary tale” or “a redemption story,” or my new favourite, a Bildungsroman—a borrow-word that means a coming-of-age story—we are attaching meaning.

Preachers do this all the time.  We assign meaning to a story, or receive an assigned meaning from others, and develop that meaning before we land the plane and go to lunch.  The problem with assigned meaning is that it tends to be fixed.  It’s hard to change your mind, or imagine that there are other ways to explain the same story.  So, in the Parable of the Two Sons we might say “deeds speak louder than words” and call it a day.

So, which of the two did what his father wanted?

In the “deeds speak louder than words” interpretation, the son who actually did the work was the one who did the will of the father.  And it fits with Jesus’ previous words on the same topic.  You can only judge a false prophet by their fruits, not by the words they say.  “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” goes the lesson, “but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” (Matthew 7)  Deeds speak louder than words.  Even in the context of prayer, Jesus condemns the one who prays “thank God I’m not like that guy over there” (I’m paraphrasing) in favour of the one who says simply “have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18)  The attitude of humility before God also fits in this “deeds speak” model, since it neatly defines who we are.

Now I want to try on a new meaning.  What if we shift the meaning and say “words matter.”  On the face of it, no one’s words matter in this parable, since no one did what they said they would do.  So let’s try again.  What if the matter was simply about what the father wanted to hear?  Hear me out.  Imagine that the father simply wanted a day without drama.  One son can never manage a day without drama, refusing to go to the vineyard while just as likely to go anyway.  The other son, never one for drama, says “sure pop, I’ll go.”  Is the work really that important?  Maybe the father just wanted everyone to get along.  

In years to come, when we try to make sense of the era we’re living in, we might reach the conclusion that sometimes people just want to be lied to.  Maybe it doesn’t matter if someone makes the best trade deals, or hires the best people, or even manages to make a beautiful wall that someone else will pay for.  What if people just want to be lied to?  Now you’re getting more than your original five cents worth, but this theory might explain a lot.  Maybe it was never about results at all, only the lies that drive some people crazy and give others a false sense of comfort.    

As you chew on that, we should return to the text and look for some real clues.  It turns out that the Greeks among us may have known the meaning all along, based on the word kyrie, a word that can mean either ‘Lord or sir.’  So when the second son speaks, he’s actually saying “Sure, I’ll go, kyrie.”  This is the same Greek word that Jesus uses when he creates the caricature of the obsequious prayer: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘kyrie, kyrie,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven...”  

In other words, words matter, because the person who’s first to make ardent promises (saying “Lord, Lord!”) is the least likely to keep them.  Yes, there is also a problem with Mr. No-And-Go, but the person who says the most and does the least is the one who truly disappoints.  If you think we have come full circle, you would be right.  Again, there is a link to Jesus’ thoughts on prayer, condemning the one who prays a Very Big Prayer (“Thank God I’m not like him, or him, or her over there”) while lifting up the humblest prayer (“Lord have mercy”).  

So it turns out our words matter, and our deeds matter, and the humility we bring as we encounter the Most High.  Maybe our role in the script dictates that we will be an initial “no,” before we become a resounding “yes!”  Maybe we stand with generations of initial noes, reluctant to follow, or take a risk, or give voice to the “yes” in our hearts.  It hardly matters, because God can read the “yes” in our hearts even as we say “no.”  

May God find us in the vineyard, labouring with others, working to turn every “no” to a “yes.”  Amen.  

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Matthew 20

9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

I’m certain my son is not reading this, so I’ll share a story.

The summer Isaac finished high school, he got a job with the school board doing some sort of data entry.  Not a glamorous job, but one with decent pay and regular hours.  The challenges began on day one: “Hey Isaac, you gotta get up, or you’re gonna be late!”  He got up.  Day two: “Hey Isaac, you gotta get up, or you’re gonna be late!” No response.  

Now we’ve on the horns of a dilemma.  Badger the boy until he gets up, which would undermine his new status as an adult, or let him sleep, and allow him to suffer the consequences of this choice.  We chose the latter course, but this comes with it’s own cost: daily anxiety as his departure for work became later and later, and the constant fear that he would lose his job.  Consequences are all fine and dandy, but what happens when the consequences actually appear? 

Finally, we had enough.  It wasn’t on the scale of an intervention, but we finally asked, “how is it that you manage to keep this job?”  

“No problem,” he said, “they only pay me for the hours I’m there.”  

In a weird inversion of the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Isaac was extended the grace of never losing his job, only losing the money that he was supposed to earn.  I can report that a decade later my son has become very diligent, even hard-working, and now complains about the people who roll in after lunch.  

So that’s the weird inversion, what’s the parable?  A couple of things first.  This is a parable, and not a true story.  Parables are short fictional stories that are meant to teach us about the kingdom of God.  They usually have a twist, or a situation that sours, until it is resolved in the kingdom way.  And they usually involve something familiar, something we should understand or can experience firsthand.  Second, this parable (and many of the others) are insider challenges, often directed at the disciples and those in the inner circle.  If you are looking for meaning, the first question should be “how does this relate to what the twelve are doing?”  Or maybe it’s a case of what they are not-doing.  Either way, the twelve (and us, as the extension of the twelve) are the intended audience.  

The parable begins by describing this transaction between day labourers and the vineyard owner.  Come to work and earn the usual amount.  Then the owner returns for additional workers, and sets the terms of employment: “You also go and work in my vineyard,” he says, “and I will pay you whatever is right.”  See how the story-teller is setting this up.  The hours pass, more workers are hired, and then still more, until we reach the end of the day.  The owner tells the manager, “pay the last to arrive before you pay the first.”  And to those who worked just an hour, he gave them the daily wage.  

Here is where this little world sours.  We’ll let Matthew finish the story:

10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“You have made them equal to us…”

We were here first, we’ve worked the longest, and you have made them equal to us.  The outrage!  Of course, the vineyard owner makes the argument that he was only maintaining the contract set at the beginning of the day, but that won’t wash.  The belief that a bonus should follow is hardwired, and even the most grace-filled person can see how this seems unfair.  An entire day in the hot sun.

Tom Long tells the story of describing the jubilee year, the year the Israelites set aside for complete debt forgiveness, to a class full of conservative seminarians.  These seminarians, looking for ways to interpret the Bible in the most literal way possible, were taken aback by this idea of universal debt-forgiveness.  So they ask, “is there any evidence that this jubilee year ever occurred?  It must be just a metaphor for forgiveness, right?  Right?”

Walter Brueggemann, also quizzed on the topic of the jubilee year, and the historical record, said “the fact that the Israelites could imagine it makes it powerful.  It makes it something for us to long for and perhaps strive for.”  

I share this because the jubilee year is just another version of the Workers in the Vineyard.  In the year of jubilee, debts were forgiven, land was returned to formerly indebted owners, and those in debt-slavery were freed.  If you imagine society collapsing under the weight of all this forgiveness, then you’re likely being too modern in your thinking.  Constant cycles of debt forgiveness would have a dampening effect on the amount of lending, reducing the likelihood of a 2008-style financial crisis.  Still, forgiveness is forgiveness, and you can imagine the society-wide transformation that would follow such a change.

And this might be a place to think about the impact of our parable.  If Bernie Sanders inspired a future president to forgive all student loans, what would be the reaction?  If you had substantial loans, and were suddenly free of them, your life would be pretty sweet.  If you just paid the last installment of your massive debt load, your reaction would be quite different.  Or you paid off your loan years ago.  Or you avoided college altogether because you didn’t want debt.  Everyone will have a different take on forgiveness based on their experience.  Meanwhile, Bernie would say “celebrate with them! This is the first generation of students who can begin their working lives without the burden of debt.”  You have to say it with a Brooklyn accent to make it work.

So whether it’s working in the hot sun all day, or exiting the bank after your last payment, the generous news will be hard to swallow.  Likewise, the disciples—leaving home and family, walking the road with Jesus, sharing the burden of teaching and healing, supporting the growing crowds, or just offering support to the son of the Most High—might be alarmed to learn that they might not spend eternity at the right hand of the throne of glory.  Maybe that spot is reserved for a tax collector, or a thief, or a notorious persecutor.  Maybe all the effort, saving souls in the hot sun all day long, makes you no more or no less than everyone else in the kingdom.  How would you feel? 

In many ways, this is a rubber-hits-the-road kind of parable.  It is very tangible, involving elements that are common and easy to understand.  Jesus wants to disturb us with God’s version of fairness, and remind us that it has very little to do with our sense of fairness.  God’s version of fairness is like the parent who says they love all their children equally—and actually means it.  You are loved, based simply on your identity as a child of God.  Some children want to be the favourite, but that’s not how it words—not in the divine household.  

So there are two sets of implications here, one in heaven and one on earth.  In heaven, we find all the unlikely candidates for glory, but by the time we get there, we may not be so disturbed after all.  I assume in glory we will see through the eyes of glory.  On earth, however, we continue to struggle.  Even the most saintly figure, and perhaps especially the saintly figure, will puzzle over all the grace extended to the least deserving.  We are human after all.  Instead, we need to imagine such grace, such equality, and wonder at the glory of the God who made it possible.  This gives us something to long for, and even strive for, with God’s help, Amen.   

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 Psalm 103

8 The Lord is compassionate and gracious,

    slow to anger, abounding in love.

9 He will not always accuse,

    nor will he harbor his anger forever;

10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve

    or repay us according to our iniquities.

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

Everything comes back to George Bailey.

A conversation about affordable housing?  “The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others.”

A conversation with evil rich guys?  “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about...they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this town...but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle.”

Or how to “get the girl” as they say in movies: “What is it you want, Mary? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon.”

And I think it’s a fairly straight line from George’s promise to lasso the moon to the many ways love is expressed, particularly in books for children.  “I Love to the Moon and Back” (Tim Warnes) is the first and obvious example, along with “Guess How Much I Love You?” (Sam McBratney)  Even the Munsch classic follows this lead, which (of course) you now have to say with me:

I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be.

Unlike Robert Munsch, I can’t condone breaking into your grown children’s homes and rocking them in the wee hours, but it does add to a lovely story.  So we go from a lasso around the moon to loving from “the moon and back” (to quote Big Nutbrown Hare), pausing for a little nocturnal singing on the way.  Yet even before George Bailey and Robert Munsch and all the other writers we love, there was Psalm 103:

11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

So the poet reaches for a spatial image when trying to describe the greatness of God’s love and mercy.  In a pre-scientific age, these immense distances—the east from the west—were ill-defined and a ready shorthand for a vastness that could not be measured.  

But there is more here.  The poet is making an intentional connection between the love of God and the natural world: the size of the sky, the dimensions of the known world, the depths of the sea.  We know that we’re never far removed from our ancient forebears, as we too experience awe as we look to the heavens or ponder the far horizon.  

So back to our passage.  “For as high as the heavens are above the earth,” the psalmist says, “so great is his love for those who fear him.”  Already we have a problem.  Fear of the Lord takes us to all sorts of uncomfortable places, where we are inclined to push back on a relationship based on fear.  We are ready to love God in return for the love God has for us, but to introduce fear doesn’t seem right.  So we look for a way forward.

A lazy theologian might step in at this moment and suggest we simply substitute the word “awe” for “fear” and it’s problem solved.  We all know awe, from the mountain vista to the wonder of a newborn.  ‘So great is his love for those in awe of him,’ simply feels better, and is certainly one way to solve the problem. 


Maybe I’m being too harsh on lazy theologians, but wouldn’t the poet say awe if she meant awe?  Fear and awe may live on the same street, but they are clearly not the same thing.  So it’s back to the drawing board.  

And to do this, I want to take you on a rollercoaster ride.  Why do people take a rollercoaster ride?  I expect they take the ride to experience fear.  Safe fear, or controlled fear to be sure, but fear nonetheless.  The rollercoaster is a sort of simulated danger, lighting up parts of our imagination and leaving us with the kind of euphoria you get when you survive a brush with danger.  A cynic might say this is fake danger, but your brain may not know the difference, and the result is often the same.

Please don’t go to lunch and say “pastor told us that our relationship with God is like a rollercoaster ride.”  Because there is more.  There is the difference between fear and fear.  We all know fear.  Fear for the future, fear for the safety of those we love, fear for our planetary home, fear of human carelessness and fear of human stupidity.  Fear of the things we can’t control and fear that we’ll mishandle the things we can control.  I could go on. 

This is the very real fear we experience through life on earth, and it’s also the precise type of fear that God seeks to save us from:

“The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps 27)

“I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” (Ps 23)

“Do not let your hearts be troubled, do not let them be afraid.” (John 14)

Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God.” (Luke 1)

The last example might be the most instructive.  An angel speaks to Mary and says “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”  But Mary is rightly terrified.  This is the other fear, the natural fear that follows the unexpected, the tremendous, the truly startling.  It was more to do with the exhilaration of the rollercoaster than fear of harm, in whatever form it may take.  An encounter with the Living God ought to be fearful, in the best sense, or it might not be an encounter at all.  

On Boxing Day, 1958, Pope John decided to visit a prison, only the second time a pope left the safety of the Vatican in 88 years (the first time was the day before).  In his characteristic style he said to the prisoners, “You could not leave to see me, so I have come to see you.”  At one moment a murderer broke through the cordon and threw himself at the pope’s feet.  “Tell me, Holy Father, is there hope for even me?”  And the pope embraced him.  I tell this story, because it’s a story filled with fear.  I expect the pope was fearful, surrounded by hardened criminals.  His staff were fearful, freaking out, in fact.  And the man who stepped forward was terrified, that God would not forgive.  It’s in this light the poet speaks:

12 as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

13 As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

God’s love for us is best expressed in forgiveness—the unexpected, the tremendous, and the truly startling.  A thief is forgiven on the cross, St. Paul is thrown to the ground, a reprieve comes before the first stone is cast.  Compassion can be truly unsettling when the world demands judgment, retribution, and revenge.  But God has another way.  

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul wrote, maybe reflecting on his own story.  “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you.”  When we love and forgive others, we have the same capacity to unsettle or amaze.  When we imagine that everyone is a child of God, and treat them with compassion, we have the same capacity to unsettle and amaze.  With apologies to Robert Munsch, I’m going to suggest that each of us, whether deserved or not deserved, is held by the God who says:

I'll love you forever,

I'll like you for always,

As long as I'm living

my baby you'll be.


Sunday, September 06, 2020

Fourteenth after Pentecost

 Psalm 119

33 Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

35 Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

36 Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things;

    preserve my life according to your word.

38 Fulfill your promise to your servant,

    so that you may be feared.

39 Take away the disgrace I dread,

    for your laws are good.

40 How I long for your precepts!

    In your righteousness preserve my life.

There’s something about the beginning of September and the need  to review my summer reading list.  

Maybe it’s a bit like that recurring dream where I wake up on the day of the exam and realize I forgot to take the course.  I wish I was joking.  Last year, the challenge was to only read books I bought at the dollar store, and this year it was to read books that have been hanging around too long.  And some others.

So the first was “Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War” (by Steve Inskeep).  You don’t need to read this book, it’s all in the subtitle.  My first lapse in the program was reading “Trumpocalypse” by David Frum.  In this case, all you need to know is in the title, four years in a single word.

Next was Rachel Maddow’s wonderful book, “Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth.”  The industry, of course, is oil, and the book connects the dots between fracking, hacking, and authoritarian leaders.  Needing to have my faith in democracy restored, I then read Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography of George Washington.  Excellent book, but it didn’t have the desired effect—something I hope to talk about in the near future.

The rest of the reading was a blur.  Helen Castor’s fine biography of Joan of Arc, a wonderful little book called “Mudlark: In Search of London's Past Along the River Thames” by Lara Maiklem, as well as Simon Schama’s “Landscape and Memory,” a book I’m embarrassed to say I have owned for over 20 years.  Finally, I finished Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History” (borrowed from Dr. Jim in 2017).  It explained a lot.  And remaining current, I’m still reading “White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo.  Again, I hope to say more about the book in a future sermon near you.  

Sometimes I think it’s appropriate to step back and consider why we read.  Some seek a distraction, entering a new (sometimes fictional) world.  Some seek insight, learning about new topics or diving deeper into topics already familiar.  Some seek assurance, words of comfort or conviction, or words that connect us to some higher need.  Some seek confirmation, words that reinforce what we already suspect or believe.  And some seek all of these, and leap from book to book happy with whatever comes.

So we open our Bibles this morning, and we read this:

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,

    that I may follow it to the end.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law

    and obey it with all my heart.

Direct me in the path of your commands,

    for there I find delight.

Turn my heart toward your statutes

    and not toward selfish gain.

The psalmist has opened the law and seeks several things at once.  Like an eclectic reader, the psalmist is looking for instruction, understanding, direction, and a heart for others.  The psalmist wants to find meaning, assurance that God’s promises are sure, and salvation.  

The first thing we should note (according to Walter Brueggemann) is the variety of ways the psalmist describes Torah.  Beyond simply “the law,” Torah becomes statutes, decrees, commandments, ordinances, precepts, ways, and promises.  It takes us out of a legalistic mode, and opens a library of guidance, the foundation on which we may stand.   

But Brueggemann takes this a step further, and highlights the danger of choosing eight verses in the middle of a psalm.  It would be easy to read these words and conclude that the primary concern is our personal relationship with God (B. calls this the vertical axis) and ignore the horizontal axis that’s at the heart of Torah.  Jesus found the heart of the law in Deuteronomy (“Love the Lord your God”) and in Leviticus (“Love your neighbour as yourself”), creating a mandate that holds both axes together.  Only in the context of a loving relationship with God can we find a way to love those around us.  

Love your neighbour.  It would be an understatement to say loving our southern neighbour is getting harder by the day.  Elections are divisive by their very nature, but 2020 has taken this to the next level.  It would be simplistic to set this at the feet of an individual (yet tempting), when these deep divisions have grown over decades, with fewer and fewer points of agreement by the day.  

One of the truly frustrating aspects of our time is the seeming demise of truth.  It was the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”  Somehow this wisdom slipped away, with everyone struggling to see a way forward.  It’s one thing to disagree on the solution to a problem, but quite another to disagree on whether the problem exists at all.  

The book that only took me three years to finish—Fantasyland— attempts to locate where this split began, where truth became just another dimension of personal expression.  The author, Kurt Andersen, points to the 1960s.  He argues that what we label as “counter-cultural” became the mainstream, and that all the ideas that we associate with hippies (“mistrust authority, do your own thing, find your own truth”) belonged, in fact, to everyone.  I’ll let Andersen give you some examples:

The 1960s gave licence to everyone in America to let their freak flags fly—superselfish Ayn Randians as well as New Age Shamans; fundamentalists and evangelicals and charismatics; Scientologists, homeopaths, spiritual cultists, and academic relativists; left-wing and right-wing conspiracists; war reenactors and those abducted by Satan or extraterrestrials.

I think you get the picture.  In effect, we entered a profoundly self-centred age: “What I believe is true because I want it to be true” or “What I believe is true because I feel it to be true.”  Experts are no longer needed, nor the certainty of science, when my feelings about a topic become my truth.  And I hope you see (based on Andersen’s quote) just how ecumenical this idea is: it’s not a left-right thing, or a liberal-conservative thing.  People on the left are just as likely to dispute the science of genetically-modified foods as people on the right dispute climate change.  Pick your truth.

This would be the moment in the sermon that I offer some solutions, or maybe just a poem while I back away from my metaphorical pulpit.  I don’t have a poem, so I guess I’m stuck suggesting a way forward.  In a word, it’s education.  Apropos to the week, we need to get back to reading and learning about the world that surrounds us.  We need to travel, and experience different cultures and learn new points-of-view (here in Toronto, you don’t need to travel far).  And we need to be intentional about addressing gaps in our knowledge: at the library, on the internet, or with a learned friend.  Only through education will we gain perspective on the problems that face us.  Only through education will we find some common ground.   

The psalmist is clamouring to get into this conversation, and point out something that we might not see on first reading.  Each verse begins with a variation on “teach me”—turning to God for understanding.  That’s the beginning.  But each verse ends with the result. 

With understanding: I can follow to the end.

With understanding: I can obey with my whole heart.

With understanding: I can find delight.

With understanding: I can follow your word.

With understanding: I can live without fear.

With understanding: I can live without disgrace.

With understanding: I can be preserved.

God will give us these things, and remind us to trust in God alone.  God will give us these things, and allow us to see others in a new light.  God will give us these things, so that we, in turn, give them to others. 

Most of all, may we cherish the law of love and kindness, now and always, Amen.  

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Thirteenth after Pentecost

Romans 12

17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. 19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”[d] says the Lord. 20 On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”[e]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

No one wants to be regarded as a loose cannon on the deck.

But if you were a loose cannon on the deck, you would surely be aware that you are being summarized with a sailing idiom.  An idiom is a turn of phase with a particular meaning often unrelated to the words themselves.  In other words, you may be disruptive, or careless, of a breaker of norms, but only a “loose cannon” if you know the idiom.  Clearly, this idiom doesn’t hide its maritime origin.

Other idioms hide their nautical beginnings a little more carefully.  If you are learning the ropes, you know that you are acquiring knowledge unique to a disciple or a trade.  For the new sailor, your full-time job is literally learning the ropes, or determining the purpose of every sheet, halyard, or line. (Ironically, the first thing you learn is that there are no ropes on a boat, only sheets, halyards, and lines). Likewise, showing your true colours—giving people a sense of the real you—began as a nautical phrase.  Flags (your colours) were used to identify your country of origin, unless, of course, you were a pirate.  Pirates would fail to show their true colours, until they showed their true colours, and by that time it was too late.  

Sometimes we suspect that an idiom comes from the sea, but it’s not clear how.  Pipe down, as an example, is something you tell noisy children or neighbours, and it seems to come from the practice of blowing the bo’sun’s pipe at the end of the day.  You were literally piped down to your hammock.  There is evidence, however, that ‘pipe down’ became just another thing to shout at the crew, something my skipper does with some regularity.

Finally, I give you a favourite of mine, ‘shipshape and Bristol fashion.’  There’s no mystery that this is a nautical idiom, shipshape gives it away, but ‘Bristol fashion’ is a bit of a mystery.  Some argue that Bristol was a preeminent port that prided itself on its orderliness, while others have a more complex origin story.  Bristol is located on the River Avon, a tidal river, which in olden days meant that when the tide went out your boat would rest on its keel, often on an angle.  In Bristol, therefore, everything on board had to be fastened securely—Bristol fashion—or there would be a terrible mess.  

I share all of this because St. Paul shares an idiom with us, and the meaning is somewhat unclear.  Here it is:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;

    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

First, we should note that it’s actually a quote from Proverbs 25 (21-22), a fact that doesn’t make the meaning any clearer.  Gallons of ink have been spilled trying to make sense of this idiom, found in the context of not seeking revenge—while at the same time sounding like the precise sort of thing you might do to seek revenge.  So what does it mean?

One kind-hearted soul suggested that “heap burning coals on his head” was something you did for others if their homefire went out.  Since the ancient near-eastern practice was to carry burning coals on the head (in a suitable vessel, of course), the phrase simply described an act of neighbourliness.  Lovely, but unlikely.  I expect “heap burning coals on his head” sounds harsh, because it was meant to be harsh.

Another suggestion looks to Egyptian literature, in this case to suggest that “coals of fire” meant to change your mind, or have a change of heart.  Therefore, it would seem, that “heap burning coals on his head” was a way to expedite this change process, to help them along.  I think this is a little closer to the mark, since we are talking about transformation, but again we’re not quite there.  Again, “heap burning coals on his head” sounds rather unpleasant to me.

More convincing, to my mind, is the idea this is an analogy.  Being kind to your enemy will humiliate them, in the same way that heaping burning coals on their head would be a terrible humiliation.  Rather than repay evil with evil, why not repay with good.  This will disarm your enemy, leaving that about as unbalanced as getting the burning coal treatment.  

All of this, however, is jumping ahead.  The passage is about Christian living, an answer to the question “how then, shall we live?”  God has given us the gift of new life in Christ, and now we need to do something, respond somehow, and live differently.  How then, shall we live?

What Paul has assembled is an assortment of Old and New Testament quotes, bits of wisdom, law and Gospel.  There’s Amos 5, Proverbs 3, Lev 19 and Deut 32, and that direct quote from Proverbs 25 we’ve already exhausted.  Paul quotes Jesus (John 13, Mat 25, Luke 6, Mat 5) demonstrating this adherence to the Gospel and his familiarity with Jesus’ thought.  But there is more happening in this relationship than just effective quoting.  There seems to be another story, and I’m going to suggest it began the day Jesus heaped burning coals on Paul’s head.  Let me explain.

Before I do that, I have to tell you about one of my favourite paintings.  It’s here in the liturgy, Caravaggio’s Conversion on the Way to Damascus, found in the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.  I would put heavy emphasis on the word found, since you have to search for it once you’re in the church.  You would expect that when your church has one of the most famous paintings in the world, you might put it someone visible, but that would be too obvious.  Instead it’s in a small side-chapel near the chancel, perpendicular to the viewer, and nearly impossible to see in its fullness (or get a proper photo).  Luckily, we have the internet, so we can see it in all its drama and glory.  

We see St. Paul unhorsed, at the second that he appears to hit the ground.  His arms are elevated, that familiar reflex as you fall, as his attendant looks on.  Beside him is his sword, his saints’ symbol, and the mode of his death (he was beheaded).  His eyes are closed, which seems a likely response to fall, but we soon learn that his eyes have been closed by the experience, and will not reopen until some time later.  Unspoken in the painting (but in the mind of the viewer) is the words spoken by Jesus in that moment, "Savle quid me perseveres?" (Saul, why do you persecute me?).  

Saul (pre-Paul) has done evil to Jesus and his followers, and was first among those who opposed Jesus and his way.  We see him on the edge of the crowd during the stoning of St. Stephen, and we know that he will confess more in his letters.  And how does Jesus repay this evil?  First, by loving him enough to see that he can become more than Saul—more than a persecutor of the church.  But more importantly, he repays Saul’s evil by destroying the life he was living, heaping the burning coals of destruction on his head, ending one life so another could begin.  

And Jesus expects no less of us.  Maybe we weren’t unhorsed, and maybe we didn’t have burning coals heaped on our heads, but the experience of new life in Christ is meant to be just as dramatic a turn-around from the way the world lives.  Maybe you can’t name a Saul-Paul moment, a dramatic rebirth at the bidding of Jesus the Christ, but the change is still there.  Day-by-day, our walk with Christ is meant to unhorse us, to open our eyes to new needs and new trouble, and new meaning.  Everyday is the opportunity for rebirth, a new baptism of forgiveness and love.

Paul became a loose cannon on the deck.  No longer Saul the persecutor, he became Paul the apostle, the teacher, the guide.  His message was about Christian living, how to live in the light of new life.  Love, share, and be hospitable, he said.  Live in harmony with others, laugh with the happy and cry with the sad, don’t imagine you’re better than others, and do not repay evil with evil.  It’s a vision of an alternate way of being, where you too can be a loose cannon on the deck.  Amen.