Sunday, June 14, 2020

Second Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Trinity Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, May 18, 2020

Easter VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Easter V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Lakoff & Johnson, p. 5

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Easter IV

John 10
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Few slogans sum up a people like “keep calm and carry on.”

If you didn’t know that the slogan originated in Britain as a wartime motivational poster, you would likely guess that it did. Ironically, of the millions of posters first printed, most were never used. And it was only in 2000 that a bookshop owner found a copy and made it public. The rest, as they say, is history.

The advice, to keep calm and carry on, is part of the genesis of what is now called “emergency risk communication.” It pairs what we know about effective communication and twins it with human psychology, all in an effort to reduce risk to the general population. It is the social science behind the message, and it all feels rather familiar.

The first thing to note about the psychology of a crisis is our inability to process complex information. We have trouble hearing, understanding, and remembering. So messages have to be simple and to the point. “Stay at home” and “wash your hands” are good examples of this approach. Next, we tend to hold on to current beliefs. Early misinformation comparing the virus to a seasonal flu meant that some had a harder time adapting to the crisis.

Going a bit deeper, we tend to seek second and third opinions in a crisis, partly because we can’t take it in, and partly because we are looking for an opinion that fits our existing beliefs. The key here is listening to experts and avoiding Fox News. The final point in emergency risk management ties all these threads together: we tend to believe the first message we receive. In other words, we need to hear an accurate message from multiple sources in a timely manner.* And it needs to be memorable too, so keep calm and carry on.

It is no accident that we turn to the psalms in a time of crisis. They constitute the spiritual side of emergency risk communication, the simple and direct messages we need when we are being tested in some way. Walter Brueggemann tells us that the psalms fed the “liturgical imagination” of Israel, allowing the people to order their lives under the “the rule, guidance, and protection of Yahweh.” So whether recited in worship, or prayed at home, the psalms voice our need for God in the midst of whatever life sends our way.**

And the twenty-third psalm, perhaps most of all, captures the mood of this moment. The Divine Shepherd will lead us to a better place, a peaceful and refreshing place. The Divine Shepherd will restore us there, and keep us in the right path. Even at the height of crisis, the Divine Shepherd will protect us and comfort us. We will be anointed and fed, and even our adversaries will see. Goodness and mercy will follow us all our days, and we will dwell in God's house forever.

Again, if we are looking for the rule, guidance, and protection of God, the Divine Shepherd is the model we need. The message is simple and consistent, the path is clear, and the protection never ends. The gift of liturgical imagination is then personified, and we meet the Good Shepherd, the Word made flesh. Jesus expands the scope of the psalm, becoming shepherd and gate, the means and the destination in one.

Part of the context of John 10 is the ongoing risk posed by false-prophets. Jesus compares them to thieves and robbers, those who do not care for the sheep but only themselves. Notice the link back to messaging: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Not so with the stranger. The stranger speaks with an alternate voice, urging us to reject the shepherd, to make our own way in the wilderness, and to neglect the needs of the rest of the flock in favour of our own needs. But Jesus calls out the stranger, exposing their lies, and points instead to the abundance that comes within the sheepfold, where our cup overflows.

As I noted in the blast on Thursday, this feels like the end of the beginning of this crisis. We are moving into the next phase, with changes coming as early as tomorrow. As expected, these changes will have little bearing on the churches, with our mature demographic and our common life based largely on gathering together. And so we wait, but we do not lose hope.

We give thanks that our church continues to be a venue for love in action, feeding the hungry in a time of need. We give thanks that God has given us the means to worship remotely, and hear the voice of the Spirit through a number of voices. And we give thanks that we can reach out to each other, and speak words of comfort.

May we shelter with the Shepherd of the Sheep, and find pasture in his presence, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Easter III

Luke 24
25 He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

We’re seeing things we never thought we’d see.

Take the Thursday night “At Issue” panel. For avid CBC watchers, Chantal, Althea, and Andrew usually appear in the studio, around a fancy glass table. Now, we see a rec room or a loft, a rather nice exposed brick wall and what appears to be a guest bedroom in the Coyne household. I don’t watch late night television, but I understand all the hosts are showing us a glimpse of their homes too.

Of course, this glimpse of the private from public figures is heavily curated, since we are only shown what they choose to show. It’s not like a spot inspection, or a random glimpse—there is still a private life behind this (strangely intimate) public face. Some would say this is nothing new, and that the rise of social media has prepared us for this moment. Facebook and Instagram are gateways to this new world, photos and “moments” that gave us a glimpse into the private, usually augmented by some sort of filter—a form of enhanced reality or even a distortion of the truth.

The terrible and tragic events in Nova Scotia take us down a rabbit hole once more: why didn’t people see this coming? How do ordinary and seemingly upstanding people turn out to be the opposite—a monster in our midst? This is the shadow side of unseen lives. In the weeks and months that follow, our society will need to untangle the threads of this terrible event and ponder. What should we know about each other, and what should we reveal? How do we address the pattern of male violence and massive loss of life? What control can we apply to random acts? There are many other questions.

And then, of course, we add this to the pile of things we are already trying to grapple with. Isolation, grief, uncertainty—just to name three—and the abiding sense that the world has changed. It’s all too much, and so we look for solace: in each other, in the God we worship, and the scriptures that animate our life together. I say trust the Bible to reveal what we need, to give voice to our hopes and fears, and to illuminate some truth for our time.

The first thing to note about the Road to Emmaus is that the story takes us back to the first evening of the resurrection, as two members of the fellowship are leaving Jerusalem. So we have to adjust our look to recognize that this is an early moment—with confusion and uncertainty still part of the telling. Next, we should note that Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not part of the eleven that remain. We are being introduced to more of the extended circle, the extended circle that symbolizes future believers like you and me.

Mostly, though, we need to remember that this takes place under the shadow of the cross: barely 72 hours earlier. The meaning of resurrection remains unclear—while the experience of Calvary and the cross is still very real. The first thing Luke tells is ‘their faces were downcast,’ and their conversation with the anonymous stranger begins with a pain-filled question: “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

I want to step back for a moment and admire Luke the storyteller. At least two things are happening in this question, so filled with heartache. First, we know the answer—we know about the things that have happened during these days. And in asking the question, Luke has made us insiders, made us part of the group. Next, we know this is Jesus (Luke just told us) and we know what kind of story this is—a story of the hidden visitor. So let’s step out of the story for a moment to meet the hidden visitor.

The first and most familiar example of the hidden visitor is the Lord’s appearance in the form of three strangers. Abram (Abraham) welcomes them, feeds them, and leans in as they ask “pray, where is your wife, Sarah?”

“There, in the tent,” he says.

“Did you know,” one of the strangers says, “that when we return next year, Sarah will have a son?”

Sarah, listening from inside the tent, laughs and says to herself, “I’m worn out, and he’s old, so how’s that gonna work?” But nothing is too hard for the Lord, as the Lord reminds them in the guise of a stranger, then departs. You could argue that this moment is the beginning of three of the world’s great religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam— three religions, one covenant.

The trend of the hidden visitor continues. Jacob wrestles with God throughout the night to secure a blessing, Moses encounters God in the burning bush, the commander of the army of the Lord appears to Joshua near Jericho—in each case, God is hidden then disclosed, unknown then revealed.

At Emmaus, Jesus is revealed in two ways, and I want to look at each in turn. The first is a partial revealing, or perhap the key to revealing, as Luke describes the dialogue: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” Jesus uses the words and the stories of the Bible-he-loved to help them see, to help them understand the continuing covenant of love and mercy. The Old Testament is the story of God and God’s people, and Jesus asks us to locate him and locate ourselves in its pages. This does not supersede the covenant with our sister religions: it simply helps us in our walk with God—through all the ages.

The other way Jesus is revealed is in the breaking of bread. Why bread? Well, Jesus is the Bread of Life, so it follows. But bread is also the most common of foods, often broken each day. From the humble to the grand—kitchen table to well-appointed dining room table—bread is broken. “Each time you do this, remember me,” Jesus said, seeking a place in our every day. He is our daily bread, and he seeks a place at our table. Jesus is revealed when bread is broken, whether the table is crowded or we eat alone.

In truth, we’re seeing things we never thought we’d see. I have seen more baked goods in the last six weeks (at our house and online) than I’ve ever seen before. But I also see a continuity, a desire to show the positive and the creative, to show some normality in the abnormal times we inhabit. And I see signs of people reaching out, creating symbols of solidarity and comfort in a difficult time. Hope that feels hidden is being revealed, and many are doing their best to find hope in others. At the top of this page (online) is an effort to summarize this work: “seeing Christ in others” and seeing Christ revealed is the same work, from that table at Emmaus to the table in your home.

“Were not our hearts burning within us,” they ask, “while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” Our hearts burn with the desire to walk with the Risen One, to see him in psalms and prophets, and to see him in each other. May God bless us, and hold us, today and every day. Amen.