Sunday, September 15, 2019

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 15
Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

There is a certain sadness that comes with the end of summer.

Maybe sadness is too strong a word. Maybe I should say longing, or loss—a sense that something has passed and will not return—until next summer, of course. But we still have summer memories, stories to share, and books that finally made it off the shelf.

In fact, this summer I tried a new approach to reading. Rather than pick from the “I guess I better read this” selection on the shelf, I decided to read only books I found at the dollar store. Call it my frugal homage to summer reading—and the surprizing titles I found along the way.

First, a work of fiction—Patricia Bracewell’s “The Prince of Blood”—an historical novel set at the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Queen Emma is at the centre of a tangled web of characters, including King Æthelred (yes, that Æthelred) and her brood of children and step-children.

Next up was Antonia Fraser’s book “Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832,” a work that’s not just for nineteenth century parliamentary history nerds, but the general reader too. Everything that is currently happening across the pond—a nation divided, a bitter fight at Westminster, and a sense that the monarch is getting dragged into this mess—happened in 1832. And everything turned out alright.

Finally, I read David Alexrod’s autobiography called “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.” Axelrod begins as a cub reporter in the tangled world of Chicago politics, then starts running political campaigns, and eventually advises a young community organizer and part-time law professor who would become the 44th President of the United States. Along the way, you discover that Obama (and Axelrod) must live in the tension between high idealism and the vexing choices a candidate (and then a president) must make.

Back to sadness, the book describes some of the seeds of the current mess south of the border (the Tea Party appears midway through the book) and the sense that something has been lost—a deep respect for the office of president, an administration with a sense of history (Dr. King looms large as a touchstone), and the common decency that was present just three years ago.

Loss is a strange thing—it can appear from nowhere, and sting with a sense that it exists outside of time and reason. Things that you didn’t know you were missing can press in on you, making themselves known and pushing aside everything in its path. It involves people, of course, but loss can include circumstances and settings, times past, and a “world” that is gone and feels like it may never return.

And into this melange of emotion enters Jesus, sharing three parables about loss, two of which feature in our reading today. The three of them—lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son—fit the same pattern: a situation described, a problem solved, and a glimpse given, always a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. We get to learn what God is like, or rather, the things that God cares about, and the way God responds to those involved.

Before I do that, however, I want to describe another book, read long ago, that has something to say about the topic at hand. I’ve mentioned it before, and it remains one of those top-five-desert-island-books that demands attention even if you don’t read it. The book is Judith Viorst’s “Necessary Losses,” first published in 1987.

You might know her by her most famous book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” A great book, but for today it’s “Necessary Losses” with the sub-title: “The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow.” That’s pretty much the whole book in the title.

You left your mother’s womb, that was a loss. You went to Kindergarten: loss. You made a friend and lost a friend: loss. You graduated and they forced you to go on to what’s next: loss. First love, first car, first job, first former job: loss. Do you get the picture? Everything new, everything next, everything now eventually transforms into something else or nothing at all. All that we have and all that we hope to have will be with us for a time and then be with us no longer. Summer is mostly over, and 2019 will soon follow.

Viorst argues that everyday is a little loss, but if we accept it, and maybe even embrace it, we can live more fully and happily. And it’s not that we will somehow stop feeling it, or stop marking it, but rather we will make it a part of ourselves, the necessary losses that make up life on earth.

Meanwhile, in heaven, something else is happening:

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins[a] and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

First, see the pattern: a situation described, a problem solved, and a glimpse given—a glimpse of the Kingdom of God. Coin is lost, coin is found, and there is great rejoicing in the Kingdom of heaven. Situation, problem, solution. But what we don’t see as clearly in the parable, but is nevertheless present, in the sense of loss. Maybe it’s easier to see in the first parable, or the key moment in the first parable:

Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?

This is loss God feels. God feels the sting of that lost sheep, and the logic-defying desire to pursue that lost sheep when worldly-wisdom says ‘cut your losses.’ For the Most High, there are no losses to cut: there is only you and me, lost or nearly lost, and always the subject of an intensive search. The great rejoicing in heaven is a mirror of the great loss God feels over the one-that-got-away. Or nearly got away, because the pursuit is endless, and the resolve to find us infinite.

But there is more. The story of Jesus is also a story of loss. God (in Jesus) also left the womb, left the adoration at the beginning of the story, left the safety of clan and region, left the known and the familiar, left home in the Galilee, left the comfort of the open road, left the Temple in dismay, left the disciples in moment of uncertainty and betrayal, left his life on a cross, left the tomb, left his friends in a locked room, left his companions by the seaside, and even left the table when the bread was broken and the wine was shared. His whole story is one of loss, reminding us that God knows the loss we feel in the most intimate way possible.

But after loss comes rejoicing. The God that promises to turn our mourning into dancing will not tire in seeking us in our time of loss, nor stop rejoicing when we are found. Even those who mistakenly think they’re are already there, already found, are being pursued by the God-who-searches, through our misapprehension, through our false sense-of-self, and (for some) through the desire not to be found at all. God’s refrain is always the same, and ever shall be:

Seeking the lost, seeking the lost,
Saving, redeeming at measureless cost.


Sunday, September 08, 2019

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14
25 Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

It was the trial of the century.

The fifth century, that is—the fifth century BC. The accused was Socrates, philosopher and teacher, and the charges were serious: corrupting the minds of Athens’ young people, and impiety— refusing to follow the gods of the state. He was convicted, of course, and infamously forced to drink Hemlock, a mode of execution in Athens at the time.

There is little doubt these were trumped-up charges. If he corrupted the youth, it was only by encouraging them to think for themselves. His impiety was even harder to square. More likely, his trouble was based on a very public experiment he conducted, quizzing the great minds of Athens and finding them wanting.

His experiment began when his friend asked the oracle at Delphi if anyone was wiser than Socrates. The oracle said ‘no.’ Troubled by this, Socrates began quizzing the greats of Athens, in an effort to disprove the oracle. It didn’t quite go as planned: What Socates learned instead was that the great minds were too convinced of their own wisdom. By contrast, Socrates was well-aware of the limits of his wisdom—making him, somewhat ironically, the wisest man in Athens. This conclusion embarrassed many in Athens, mostly participants in this public experiment, and may have led to the philosopher’s death.

I share all this because many have noted the similarity between Socates and Jesus: both were teachers, with disciples, and both wrote nothing, leaving this to others. Both were concerned about the kinds of lives people chose to live, and were intentional about setting an example. And both faced trumped-up charges at trial, dying for what they believed in. Given the opportunity to flee, neither Socrates nor Jesus chose to do it.[1]

And then the similarities seem to end. If you had to describe Socrates’ thinking in a single phrase, it would likely be the question, “what sort of life is worth living?” In other words, what does the good life look like, or what do you need to do to be happy and fulfilled? To draw a contrast with Jesus, we get these words:

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Jesus’ single phrase might be “pick up your cross and follow me,” recognizing all the trouble you might find on the way: strife with family and friends, a world that cannot understand, and a lifelong commitment to the way of Jesus that most often seems the opposite of ‘the good life.’ So I want to further explore some this contrast, but first we should look at the context of Luke 14.

This middle section of Luke can perhaps best be described as the ‘long journey up to Jerusalem.’ It includes healing and teaching, conflict with the religious elites, and an increasing sense that this conflict will lead to peril. In chapter 14, there is direct conflict over healing on the sabbath, and a parable (the Great Banquet) that reminds us that the kind of people we hope to find at the heavenly banquet—friends, family, those who resemble us—may not be there after all.

And it leads to what we might best describe as a ‘hard saying,’ an intentional overstatement that catches our attention and tries to shake us from our dearly held assumptions. I think most of us assume that a good relationship with family is important, we might even class this as a dearly held assumption, but Jesus says ‘no’ — commitment to the way of Jesus is more important that those closest to us, and even life itself.

As I said, a hard saying. And like other hard sayings that would have is lob off a hand or cast out an eye, we need to give the message the gravity it deserves without resorting to self-inflicted mayhem. We need to accept the lesson and allow it to settle on us in a new and profound way, trusting that it’s medicine worth taking.

This passage itself, if it had a name, it might be Counting the Cost. And to that end, Jesus gives a couple of examples, a builder building a tower, and a ruler contemplating war. Taking just the first one, the logic is arrestingly simple: who would embark on a project unless you knew you have the resources to complete it. If you build a foundation but have no money for walls or a roof, you will become a laughingstock.

Likewise the decision to follow Jesus. If you make a commitment to walk in his way— to live with love and mercy, to treat others as you wish to be treated, to forgive generously— but chicken out at the first sign of trouble, then why begin at all? Stated another way, if you accept that we serve a God of forgiveness and love, then why would you avoid healing on the sabbath, or any other example of rules getting in the way of compassion?

Jesus had little time for convention or the rules if they interfered with an overarching need for love and mercy. And this is where we get to say a few kind words about our old friend Socrates, because he would be the first to ask ‘what sort of person should I be?’ Should I be the dogmatic rule follower, leading an unexamined life, or should I live with conviction, even if it means making some powerful enemies? Socrates could have renounced his beliefs, or ran away, but he decided to accept death as part of a life well-lived, something Jesus would do too.

Just now you might be thinking ‘this is all well and good, pastor, but what about a modern example for us?’ Who is living with this kind of conviction, breaking the rules for the sake of others? Who is facing the scorn of others to do the right thing? Surprizing, perhaps, that for many, it’s a sixteen year-old Swede that comes to mind, a climate activist for just a year, and already the most famous young person in the world.

Greta Thunberg began, of course, by breaking the rules: skipping school every Friday with her hand-drawn sign saying “school strike for climate.” Some of her teachers were unimpressed, but her parents didn’t stand in her way. At first, she couldn’t convince others to join her, but she carried out her strike anyway. Then finally her protest was noticed, and within four months she was invited to speak at a climate conference. Soon others took up her protest, and by this past spring over a million students followed her lead to protest inaction on climate change.

Some find her message and her approach unsettling. She has endured personal attacks, mostly from the usual suspects that dismiss the climate crisis. Still she persists, describing the threat we face in the most direct manner, and assessing blame where it properly belongs. She has helped many of her peers to move from helplessness to appropriate anger, and inspired countless older people along the way.

In many ways, she is a blend of both “what sort of life is worth living’ and ‘pick up your cross and follow me.’ Living with convictions is hard, and many of us try and fail on an ongoing basis. Still, we take inspiration from the Greta Thunbergs of this world, and we do our best. Jesus reminds us that living with convictions will put you at odds with others, and even with ourselves, but still we must try.

It would seem that everyone I have mentioned today would encourage us to think for ourselves. Let the youth of Athens make up their own mind on the great matters of the day. Let the activists speak uncomfortable words when the fate of the planet is at stake. And let believers follow in the way of the cross, even when it puts them at odds with kin and clan.

May love and mercy be our way, now and always, Amen.

[1]Boulton et al, From Christ to the World.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Simple question: are you a beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe?

One of these creatures is suddenly living in your imagination, and while you ponder that, I’ll tell you what I’m on about. For a few years now, I have had the privilege of training internship supervisors, the brave few who are willing to assist student ministers reflect on their practical training.

When we get to the module on learning styles, we begin by inviting them to move into groups: beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. And like a moment ago, we pose the question out-of-the-blue, with little time for second guessing or overthinking the exercise. We hope people will just know.

So having arrived in their groups—beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe—we further invite them to describe themselves: how they learn, how they relate to others as they learn, and the kinds of things that can get in the way of learning. This is usually the moment we have to tell the monkeys to be more serious, maybe stop grooming and self-grooming, and the lesson begins.

I’m going to suggest that the story of Mary and Martha is akin to beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. There are two sisters with very different roles in the story, and I expect you can somehow identify with one or the other. Leaving aside some of what seems like judgment in the passage (more on that later), which character can you best relate to? Where would you find yourself? Serving or sitting? Doing or being? Beaver or giraffe?

Remembering that we have set aside the judgment for a moment, we find ourselves in one or the other character. So then, like beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe, there is no correct answer. There is only the nagging awareness that we do tend to one sister or the other: listening at the Master’s feet, or busy serving everyone else.

I said “nagging awareness” because I’m not sure many are happy in the self-awareness that they are Mary or Martha. Maybe it’s the binary choice you reject, or maybe the truth is a little uncomfortable, or maybe it’s one of those compromise situations when no one is happy with their choice—making it a good comparison.

The church, the mainline-Protestant-present day church where we sit, is filled with doers. This is not judgement—remember we set it aside for the time being—it is simply the recognition that many of us will choose action over reflection, doing over being, activity over contemplation. Not that we’re averse to reflection or contemplation, it’s just that we like to DO something—the more meaningful the better.

We could spend the afternoon debating the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, but Weber was clearly on to something, maybe best summarized by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) who said “earn all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.” Keeping busy is imprinted on our DNA, and it needs to be balanced with the ability to stop once in a while and ponder.

In an earlier time, and in a much different context, St. Benedict was busy drafting his outline of monastic life. The summary, his summary, is captured in the Latin phrase “Ora et Labora,” meaning “prayer and work,” the model of life in community. People drawn to holy orders were naturally drawn to a life of contemplation, and needed to be reminded, it would seem, that prayer must be balanced with work.

We seem to be drifting into judgment, but before we arrive there, I would point out something else about our passage. Jesus does bless Mary and the contemplative life she is leading, but he is also doing something else: he is blowing up gender norms along the way. To explain, I give you Luke 4.38 and following, one of those ‘so-true-it-makes-you-laugh’ passages that only a man could write:

38 Now [Jesus] arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made a request of [Jesus] concerning her. 39 So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.

I’m sure she was healed for the sake of healing, and not because they were waiting for tea and scones. Forward to Luke 10, and the tea and scones are on their way, but there is Mary, sitting at the Master’s feet, adopting the role of student or acolyte, fostering her own small revolution in religious practice. This passage has lost the power to shock, since we know both Marys and Marthas, but to the first reader, this was an extraordinary turn-of-events.

But hardly a surprise in the context of the early church. Paul’s first convert in Europe is a woman, and many of the leaders he cites in his letters are women. Even the pseudo-Paul instruction that women should remain silent in church presupposes that women were not previously silent. They may have been silenced by the church that lost its way for a few centuries, but we know that silence was never the original plan. Christianity was a ‘religion from below,’ made up of women, slaves, ex-slaves, people at the bottom of the social ladder who truly understood (that in God’s mind) the last shall be first, and the least shall be the greatest of all.

My resident bible scholar tells me that women began to lose their place as leaders when the church moved from homes into purpose-built churches. Our passage marks the beginning of the previous phase, when student-minister Mary is receiving the training required to lead a house church, and her sister Martha is struggling to understand what is happening.

(If you will allow me a topical aside, it is no accident that the four members of the United States Congress being singled out for torment are women. Being women of colour adds a racist overtone to the story, but the first scandal in the minds of many is that these women have forgotten their place. Their strength and moral clarity are a threat to many who cling to an outdated way of thinking.)

It seems we have arrived at the judgment phase of the sermon. Looking over the short passage we have been given this morning, on turn of phrase leaps of the page for me and that is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Maybe Jesus meant to say ‘she has chosen what is better for her,’ toning down the either-or of the passage, but he is very clear at the end of this remarks: It will not be taken away from her. Student, contemplative, revolutionary—it will not be taken away from her.

In the end, we all get to be Mary or Martha, and like the opening exercise, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. We can be either, and we need to be both. Like ora et labora, we need to be dedicated to prayer and work, being and doing, action and reflection.

Prayer and study feeds our service and serving must be grounded in prayer and study. It’s not binary, it’s mutually-dependent. Like our friends in Mount Dennis, it’s the church of St. Mary and St. Martha, and may it always be so, Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

If you have a question related to human behaviour, there is a good chance someone has done a study.

Case in point are Ekman and Friesen (1986), who discovered that happy people smile everywhere in the world. And sad people frown, angry people look angry, and so on. Maybe it seems self-evident, but good to know in case you worry that you might encounter some happy-looking mad person in some far-off land.

Or how about Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), who discovered that the more you pay someone to do a menial task, the less happy they become. They were able to prove that poorly-paid participants were better able to trick themselves into thinking that the work wasn’t so bad, where the better paid person was less able to this. Good luck explaining this to the kid who wants $20 to cut your lawn (“Honestly, you’ll be happier if I give you five”).

Or the study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) that demonstrated that people can describe how they feel without fully understanding why. One group watched a movie with distracting noise outside, and reported that they disliked the film, while the group without the noises found the movie quite enjoyable. When the first group were asked why they disliked the film, not a single person mentioned the annoying noise.*

So how does this relate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most familiar stories in scripture? Well, since it seems there is very little that has escaped the attention of psychologists, I can tell you that the parable is the subject of a study too.

This one came in 1973, when psychologists Darley and Batson decided to recreate the parable with theology students. It was John Darley that identified the “bystander effect” in the aftermath of an infamous New York City murder, when several people heard screams but didn't do anything to help.

The Good Samaritan study began with a two-part assignment given to a number of theology students, with a trip across campus in the middle of the experiment. One group was assigned the task of talking about seminary jobs and the other group prepared to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some of each group were told to hurry, and some were told not to rush.

As individual theology students made their way across campus, they came upon a man on the ground, groaning and obviously in some sort of distress. The experimenters were nearby to chart student reactions, everything from failing to notice altogether to stopping to help the man and staying with him until help arrived.

I would like to report that they all stopped to help, since the entire group were students of theology. I would like to report that the theology students who had just prepared a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan were the most likely to stop, but they were not. In fact, the variable that determined whether they stopped to help or not was time: those told to hurry were the subjects that by-in-large did not stop. One student was in such a hurry he literally stepped over the “victim.” The theology students in less of a rush were more likely to help.

Looking for something positive to say, they certainly proved the parable. Jesus said that the religious “professionals” were the least likely to help the injured man and the research backed it up. Theology students, keen ministers-in-training should be the first to help, or so it would seem. The reality is quite different, proving that seminarians and ministers are human after all, just in case you were wondering.

It certainly takes the wind out of the sails of those who preach this parable as an illustration of Jewish failure. For centuries, preachers have said that a Jewish priest and a high priest did not stop, and this reflected on the quality of their religion. The Samaritan became a sort of stand-in for the early Christian church, illustrating a proper religious response where the Jews had failed.

It took a couple of psychologists to disprove that one too, and point out that being religious does not automatically translate into being good. Goodness seems to have some other source, although Darley and Batson seem to settle on the luxury of time as one of the key ingredients to being willing to help.

I want to come back to this point in a minute, but first I want to look at a bit of context, specifically how the parable comes about. The first answer is in response to the question “who is my neighbour,” which itself appears because we hear the Great Commandment. But there is more to it than that, because Luke has a different approach to the Great Commandment —something worth noting.

In Matthew and Mark, it’s a question of asked and answered: someone wants to understand the heart of the law and Jesus tells them: love the Lord your God with all you heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. In Luke it’s inverted: Jesus is asking the question, and someone clever shares to Great Commandment to great praise. And in the midst of this praise, the clever person says “but wait, who is my neighbour?” What follows is the parable.

I share this because Luke wants to remind us that we already know the Great Commandment, we just need to learn how to apply it. Like the subjects of some elaborate psychological test, we already know that the very best we can do is to love God and love our neighbours, we just have to learn how. And maybe we think we know, but the story of seminarians running across campus tells us that knowing and doing are two different things.

So taking the commandments in reverse, how we love our neighbour? Well, in this case, Jesus prompts the answer to this question too, and the clever person says “by showing mercy.” In other words, we can’t simply insist we love our neighbour and then do nothing about it. It’s not an abstract emotional response God is looking for, it’s mercy. And mercy can take many forms, everything from nursing the victim in our parable to just being more understanding. It includes demanding that the vulnerable be treated fairly, and reminding others that your ‘neighbour’ ranges from next door, to the next country, and even the earth itself.

Next up, how do you love God? On the surface, it seems rather simple—even obvious—until you consider some of the baggage we carry. It was Jack Miles in his book “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” who pointed out that our default approach to God is often far from loving. Life is short, trouble comes, people suffer, and the mortality rate among humans is consistently running at 100 percent—and for all these reasons it’s hard not to be angry. Even the most saintly among us will think about blaming God for the seeming raw deal we get in life: so much to treasure and celebrate in life—a life that is always finite.

Jack Miles then applies this to the Christian story: people harbour anger toward God, then suddenly God appears in their midst. People should be grateful for the opportunity to dwell in God’s presence but they do the opposite: they conspire to kill God on a cross. Yet even as God is dying, even as these frail humans seek their revenge, God is busy loving them and forgiving them and dying to save them (and us, from ourselves).

Amazing how parables work. The first time we hear it, we naturally imagine that we’re the Samaritan, loving our neighbour, showing mercy, enjoying all that praise. But if you listen to Jack Miles, we seem to become the robber instead, acting out in anger even if can never fully understand ourselves. The great irony in the passage is that the robber is quickly forgotten in the story, even if there is a slight chance the robber is us. But wait, maybe it’s double irony, because the watchword is mercy—and some time later we meet another robber (or the same robber?) who is on the cross beside Jesus, promised that day to see paradise.

May we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, and may we make mercy the grateful response that defines us. Now and always, Amen.


Sunday, July 07, 2019

Update of 8 June 2008

Matthew 9
9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

One of my crew mates described the first half of last month as “Junuary.” Then, as if mother nature remembered the very large thermostat on the wall, we entered summer. By mid-month the news was reporting the great national imbalance: too dry in the west and too wet in the east. If only we could get it together.

And on the theme of getting it together, much of the news these days is framed as a debate: 'going too far' versus 'not far enough.' The same newscast that described the ‘great national imbalance’ also reported on those who welcome pipelines, and those that don’t (another sort of national divide) and a federal government that seems intent of trying to please both.

It sort of defines a no-win situation, made worse by headlines such as this one: “Canada fourth-worst climate sinner, study finds.” Comparing emissions, emission reductions and public policy, the study put us in the bottom five along with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Australia and Luxembourg. Yes, I said Luxembourg. What they lack in size, they make up in climate inaction.

Funny headline, using the word ‘sinner.’ At one time it played a starring role in our fellowship, though not so much in the last couple of generations. There was a time, however, when church folk would gather and sing hymns like Wesley’s “Come, ye weary sinners, come” and never think twice. Here are a few others:

Jesus, Friend of sinner, hear
Would Jesus have the sinner die?
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
How can we sinners know?

I think you get the picture. And just to illustrate how far we’ve come, I give you Voices United #266: Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace made a comeback of sorts, excluded from the 1971 hymnbook, but still very much in the canon of well-loved hymns. So the editors of Voiced United brought it back, but with a minor suggestion. There, in the words, you will see a tiny asterisk, suggesting “and strengthened” as a substitute for the original.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and strengthened me.

Doesn’t really work, does it? I can imagine the committee meeting into the wee hours debating whether to footnote the original “wretch” or leave it in. They left it in. Perhaps they knew they were already in trouble for omitting a certain hymn that begins with the word “Onward.” Whatever the reasoning, the asterisk indicates discomfort, a discomfort felt in some quarters around sin, sinfulness, wretchedness, and all the other ways we describe the human condition.

The ironic thing here is the original is not the original. When John Newton, clergyman and former-slave trader, penned the original, he used the word “worm,” as in “saved a worm like me,” fully befitting the man who wrote the most famous Christian hymn long before he denounced the slave trade. He wrote “worm” because it was the most apt description—he felt like a worm. Later generations couldn’t face this, so first he become a wretch, then later, the self-judgement was gone altogether.

Another example: In the funeral liturgy I use, there is a very famous commendation near the end, the part of the service that sums up what we have done and prepares the congregation for the final words. It goes like this:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Someone I know, and I won’t reveal that it’s my wife said, “Oh no, we don’t say that anymore, we say ‘sister or brother’ of your own redeeming.” My best friend Jimmy, he says, “No way, man (we talk like we’re still in the 70’s) no way, man, we say ‘friend’ of your own redeeming.”

So let me get this straight: we don’t say sinner anymore, but the CBC can say ‘sinner’ when reporting on climate change. We become redeemed “brothers” or “friends” but it’s okay to call the people of Luxembourg a bunch of lousy sinners. Something is going on, and I aim to find out.

As Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

The little commentary I turn to pointed out that the location for all of this eating and drinking was Jesus’ house. I did a bit of a double-take. I was acquainted with the idea that Jesus lived in Capernaum before he began his itinerant ministry, but somehow I missed the detail that his house was party central. It adds another layer to the story, doesn’t it? What did the neighbours think? A young guy, continually hosting parties with the least desirable people, the recycling bin filled with heaven-knows what, the loud flute sounds at midnight, neighbourhood cats in the garbage.

And who did he invite? (Sinners!)

Back in the olden days, preachers loved allegory. They would open their bibles and try to piece together the meaning of the stories inside, and often they did it by assigning characters:

The storm represents God’s anger, the whale is Jonah’s conversion, a book of Hebrew love poetry is really about God’s love for the church.

Google “bible” and “allegory” and you will discover that some people still look for allegorical meaning, but they now tend to be the people looking for the devil in their SIN number or some such thing. Preaching biblical allegory fell out of fashion, or so it would seem.

Instead of allegory, preachers began a process of translation. Instead of supplying a list of characters to represent the story, preachers translate one variety of people into another. It works like this:

Someone preaching the same passage might tell the congregation that “tax collectors and sinners” represent “outsiders,” people who were unwelcome in homes and synagogues. The same preacher will tell the congregation to spend the week looking for the modern version of the tax collector and sinner, and welcome them in. There may be some well-meaning suggestions, like the homeless, or people on welfare, and the congregation will retreat to coffee after affirming the “nice message.”

This morning I want you to become momentary biblical literalists. Forget the allegory, forget the translation, and imagine our Lord hosting a party for genuine, grade “A” sinners. Imagine Jesus’ house filled with actual first-century, near-eastern sinners. Who did he invite? (sinners!) Fun to say, isn’t it? These were sinners who roughed people up to collect the tax, these are people who were cast out by family for any variety sins, who committed crimes or disrespected religion.

So rather than translate, I suggest you update, and imagine the sins that you find personally repulsive, the sinners you would avoid or condemn, or the people intentionally out-of-step with the times. Maybe the sinners are those who adore the candidate who puts kids in cages, or who call climate change a hoax, or someone trying to steal your identity online.

When we translate the passage and make it safe, we have robbed the passage of its power to convert. It would be too easy to name these “sinners” as “outsiders” and feel good about all the work we are already doing in the community. But that’s not preaching, not really, when the purpose of preaching is to reveal our sin and remind us that God forgives.

Reveal and remind. I may be overstating this a wee bit, but the established purpose of preaching is to remind people that the world needs saving and assure them that God saves. It’s not to explain the Bible and make it safe, it’s not to reassure people that they are already doing enough, and it’s not to denounce remote or far-off sin—when we know most sin is local.

It all begins at Jesus’ house, a house where everyone is welcome, where sinners are given the best seats, where the very presence of the living God is felt, in the warmth, and the comfort of Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 65
8 This is what the Lord says:
“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.
9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains;
my chosen people will inherit them,
and there will my servants live.

Summer is upon is, and the books are starting to stack up.

We often discuss summer reading at some point in the season—what are you reading or what do you plan to read—but maybe it’s time to write something instead. So find your typewriter, grab some paper, and let’s get started!

In order to help this effort to write the next great Canadian novel, we should begin, then, with a review of structure—the basic outline of what you’re about to share with the world. Everything should start with a plan, and may as well follow convention, since finding ideas is hard enough without reinventing the wheel.

Act one is your set-up, like the girl who runs away with her little dog Toto, only to be carried off by a twister to the Land of Oz. It will help the story if you inadvertently drop a house on some wicked witch, since the first act is all about conflict, or setting the scene for conflict. There is a way to get back to Kansas, but first you have to follow the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City.

Act two is where the real action happens. If act one is conflict, then act two is ‘complication,’ with twists, turns, and usually some flying monkeys. You and your companions may be given a task, and in the course of completing this task you may find some inner resources you didn’t know you had.

Act three, sometimes called ‘resolution,’ will solve or end the matter (nothing like a bucket of water to resolve your witch problem) and culminate in a moment called denouement, a French word that means denouement. Maybe you’ll get some random items to symbolize that you already had everything you needed to succeed. And maybe you’ll get some instruction on how to operate your ruby slippers, advice that would have been handy around the time of the flying monkeys.*

Conflict, complication, and resolution: three moves that give your narrative structure and might make you the next J.K. Rowling. So get to it, but don’t forget to share some of your millions with the church, and don’t forget that the same narrative structure that will carry you forward begins in the Bible.

Examples? God says don’t eat the fruit of that tree, they do it anyway, and they get hard work and pain in childbirth. (note: not every story has a happy ending). God frees the Israelites, they wander in the desert for forty years, and they finally enter the promised land. Jesus “lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly,” (Willimon), three acts that still give life.

So the movement of conflict, complication, and resolution can be found throughout scripture, but what about our passage today? Or what about the Book of Isaiah as a whole, how does it fit our narrative structure? First, and rather conveniently, most scholars agree that Isaiah is really three books, with three or more authors, and so we already have the beginning of a pattern.

First Isaiah, the first 39 chapters, is catalog of God’s anger at Israel, and the various ways God intends to punish her disobedience. In other words, conflict. Second Isaiah, chapters 40 to 55, “anticipates the restoration of Israel,” and the creative way this will happen.** Third Isaiah, the rest of the book (including our passage today), resolves the story by describing the New Jerusalem. Conflict, complication, and resolution.

Or is it? A careful eye will look at second Isaiah and question how the restoration of Israel could be described as a complication. And I wondered that too, until I realized that I was reading the book from Israel’s perspective instead of God’s perspective. The complication is God’s change of heart, or God’s willingness to “comfort ye my people” just a few verses after threatening destruction. Another complication is using King Cyrus of Persia to redeem the people from exile, the “creative way” I mentioned a moment ago.

So that’s the overview, what about our passage itself? It’s part of third Isaiah, but it mirrors the movement of the whole book. So here’s some conflict, the indifference that God cannot abide:

To a nation that did not call on my name,
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’
2 All day long I have held out my hands
to an obstinate people,
who walk in ways not good,
pursuing their own imaginations—
3 a people who continually provoke me
to my very face.

God gets more specific, even attacking the new-age people who invent their own religions (“Keep away” they say, “don’t come near me, for I’m too sacred for you!”). But then something happens, and this complicated God relents:

“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.

And finally the denouement, the resolution that only God can give:

9 I will bring forth descendants from Jacob,
and from Judah those who will possess my mountains;
my chosen people will inherit them,
and there will my servants live.

Disobedience leads to planned destruction, God relents, and the promise of eternity resumes. So what changed? Or rather, what changed God’s mind, from destruction to redemption in just a few verses? As always, the clue is in the text, but first another complex three-part narrative:

When God saw a golden calf, carefully crafted in the time Moses was away, God burned with anger. ‘Look at what your people have done,’ God said, ‘so step aside while I destroy them, and make you, Moses, a great nation instead.’ But Moses decided to complicate matters. ‘These are your people,’ Moses said, ‘and imagine the shame if the Egyptians see that you liberated your people only to kill them out here in the desert. Perhaps, God, you should remember your promises instead.’

When Belden Lane recounts this story he points to that awkward moment when your child wins their first argument against you, and the mixed feelings you feel. A bit of sadness maybe, having passed from the “I’m the parent and I’m right” stage into something else. A bit of frustration, maybe, having been bested by something you created. And pride, mostly pride (I hope), having made a person who can sometimes surpass you in wisdom and insight. And that’s what happened at the foot of the mountain, steps from the golden calf. So back to our passage:

“As when juice is still found in a cluster of grapes
and people say, ‘Don’t destroy it,
there is still a blessing in it,’
so will I do in behalf of my servants;
I will not destroy them all.

The complication is a God willingness to turn away from anger, hear words of life from the creature God created, and respond with mercy. A very brave Moses will challenge God and win, even if it means he will never see the promised land himself. A very human Jesus is dying on the cross and says “forgive them, Father, they know not what they do.” And God forgives. The pattern is the same: conflict, complication and resolution, and the promise of eternity resumes.

The novel you write is your life, with twists and turns, conflict and complication, and your co-author is the Most High. Sometimes it’s an uneasy writing relationship, with doubt and recrimination, and more than a few pages in the trash bin. But other times the pages take flight, animated by gratitude and deep joy, and resolved with redemption and forgiveness. It’s a creative partnership, and the story you tell together will bring life to others, now and always, Amen.

**Bruggemann, 2003, p. 171

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Trinity Sunday

John 16
12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

I suppose a summer sermon is as good a time as any to reveal the secrets of preaching school.

Everything, it seems, began with an E. First was elocution, literally teaching us how to speak. And that was only after learning how to breathe, among the more valuable things I learned at school.

Then there was exegesis, learning to read the Bible seriously but not literally. Exegetes—those who practice exegesis—learn how to explain without explaining away, an important skill when you’re handling words of life.

And then there was equivalence, specifically dynamic equivalence, retelling the passage in a language that makes the passage more comprehensible to a modern audience. Fans of The Message, a modern language version of the Bible written by the late Eugene Peterson, already know how dynamic equivalence works—substituting words and phrases that we might use today in order to make the meaning plain.

So, as an example, here is the first verse from our passage: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear.” The first thing that comes to mind is “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth,” but that might be a bit much. Anyway, I think you can see how it works, so let’s try an updated version of our passage:

I could tell you, but I don’t think you could handle it. But the Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. He won’t speak for himself: instead, he’ll pass on what he hears and what he’s told is coming. The Spirit will be my spokesperson, and honour me through the words spoken. God and I are sympatico—and what I say to the Spirit will be passed on to you.

It’s actually something you can do at home. If you are struggling to make sense of a reading, simply imagine a way to update the language or say it in another way. And it’s particularly helpful for reading John’s Gospel or the letters of St. Paul. So, not exactly earth-shattering as preaching secrets go, but it does help us unlock those words of life.

So what is this information that they couldn’t handle, maybe above their pay grade, to be shared on a strict need-to-know basis? The verses that immediately follow our passage reveal the secret, and don’t seem to require translation, since the emotion is so raw:

16 Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.”
17 At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” 18 They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.”

In his response, Jesus repeats “you will see me no more” again, to a total of four times in the passage, a sure signal that we’re at the heart of the matter. Jesus has been trying to prepare them for his death for a number of chapters, and also trying to signal something else: “then after a little while you will see me.”

In other words, you can spare them a bit of sympathy, with the Master pressing them to comprehend the incomprehensible. ‘You will see me no more and then you will see me’ is just another way of saying Easter for us, but to the disciples it clearly made no sense.

So it becomes a secret to be revealed. And the secret will require the Spirit of Truth for revealing, speaking on Jesus behalf, sharing words from God—and generally making comprehensible the incomprehensible. In other words, Pentecost. So, in effect, Jesus is describing Easter, Pentecost and the future of the church of God under the direction of the Spirit, all without saying those exact words.

Jesus is describing the church of God under the direction of the Spirit. If you are just now thinking what I’m thinking, you might be thinking that this sounds a lot like the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Said another way, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Whatever language you choose, it seems that the other secret Jesus was revealing to his disciples was the relationship between the Sacred Three.

So listen again to our passage, but this time listen with your Trinity hat on, and ponder the way these Three interact:

The Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. He won’t speak for himself: instead, he’ll pass on what he hears and what he’s told is coming. The Spirit will be my spokesperson, and honour me through the words spoken. God and I are sympatico—and what I say to the Spirit will be passed on to you.

God in Jesus formulates the message and the Spirit speaks. The Spirit will share the words we need to hear, revealing the truth and the truth to come. Jesus will be honoured through the Spirit, and you will get a glimpse of heaven through the words shared. Three persons, each with a role, are each an expression of the same divinity, blessed Trinity.

Speaking of the Trinity, my friend and colleague, the Rev. Connie den Bok, shared a helpful insight some years ago, with a built-in challenge to the church. She said that each major expression of the Christian church—Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal—tends to gravitate to particular Person of the Trinity. In this way it becomes definitional, expressing who we are and how we meet the world.

So, for Roman Catholics, it’s Jesus, particularly his passion, and his place at the table, the centre of their life together. Even the structure of the church highlights the second person of the Trinity: a succession of apostles beginning with Peter, selected by Jesus as the rock on which he builds the church.

For Pentecostals the emphasis is on the Spirit, specifically being baptised by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. The tradition’s emphasis is in the name: receiving the Spirit, personal conversion, and speaking in tongues. The story of this tradition requires more time, but it’s worth noting that something that started on Azuza Street in Los Angeles in April of 1906 now has over 500 million adherents worldwide.

And what about us, the mainline Protestants of the Methodist and Presbyterian variety? We tend to focus on God, in our prayers and liturgy, in the hymns we sing and the words we share. In the United Church, our Book of Worship is called “Celebrate God’s Presence,” which pretty much sums up the focus of the mainline Protestant church.

I share all this on Trinity Sunday to highlight the need for balance. This was the point Connie’s analysis—that we are not well-served by staying in our lane. We need to “lift high the cross” like our Catholic friends, and celebrate that the cross is the means by which we are redeemed. We need to live under the guidance of the Spirit, the “wind who makes all winds that blow”—the spirit of Pentecost constantly pushing us toward the next expression of church. And we need to celebrate God’s presence, all the while remembering that ‘God in Jesus formulates the message and the Spirit speaks.’

The Spirit of truth is coming, and all will be revealed. We live in the hope that God will renew the church, through the reconciling love of Jesus and in the spirit of Pentecost: breathing new life into all of us, Amen.