Sunday, August 12, 2018

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 4, 5
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbour, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. 28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5 1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.


The name of this game is Guess the Actress.

In one of her first starring roles, nearly 20 years ago, she played an insurance investigator pretending to be a thief in order to catch a thief, in this case played by Sean Connery. It’s hard to explain the most iconic scene the film—it’s sort of yoga with lasers.

Her next big film, set in the Jazz-Age, she plays a singing and dancing murderess surrounded by other singing and dancing murderesses. This unlikely story is loosely based on fact and nets her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

In her next major role, she is chasing thieves again—twelve of them—with the added twist that she is the daughter of the most famous thief of all, LeMarc. Once again the iconic scene involves lasers (and this time dancing!), clearly a homage to the first film I mentioned.

The answer, of course, is Catherine Zeta-Jones, and next question is ‘why does Hollywood seem so interested in thieves?’ Jewel thieves, car thieves, art thieves, and those who steal secrets—the thief is a cinematic staple that never seems to get old. The theme seems to lend itself to large, ensemble casts and exotic locations (and who doesn’t love large, ensemble casts and exotic locations?) but it also works as the lone thief fleeing a smart apartment with a pocketful of jewels, and usually appearing sometime later wearing a tuxedo.

Oddly, we cheer them on: holding our breath as they tiptoe past an alarm, leaning in while they speed away, and celebrating with them as they luxuriate with their ill-gotten gains. Cinema is all about escape, so I suppose you could say we are taking a moral holiday—enjoying something that we wouldn’t do ourselves.

But that hasn’t always been the case in congregations, and my proof is found in Ephesians 4.28:

28 Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Clearly, there was a thief in the congregation at Ephesus. The church was the only audience for this letter, and St. Paul wrote pastoral letters for the sole purpose of commending or condemning behaviours he learned were happening in the church. Therefore, we can conclude that there was a thief in the church at Ephesus—or maybe more than one.

And notice too the Robin Hood reference in the verse. Paul says ‘stop thieving, get a job (since you obviously have some skills) and then share what you gain with the poor.’ Maybe they had developed a new take on outreach, a little too Sherwood Forest for these supposedly upstanding citizens of Rome.

Either way, Paul says ‘stop.’ Whatever your motive, crime does not pay. And as a Roman speaking to Romans, Paul would be thinking specifically about the penalties for theft in the Roman world at this time. If you were a slave (remembering that the early church included many slaves) you could be flogged, sent away, or even crucified for theft.

Free citizens of Rome were usually subject to fines, several times the value of the item stolen, with the exception of getting ‘caught in the act,’ which could bring harsher penalties such as public shaming (ignominia) or banishment. Obviously this might reflect badly on the congregation as well as the thief, and may have been part of Paul’s motivation for including this particular warning.

But there was certainly more than cat burglars and joyriders in the church at Ephesus. (Grand Theft Chariot?) In the handful of verses for today we have discovered that the church was filled with:

Liars of all kinds
Anger-mongers (including the petulant, the peevish or just plain crabby)
Unwholesome talkers (I’m going to come back to this one. Unwholesome talkers may include slanderers, gossipers, the potty-mouthed or the braggadocious)
The bitter
The pugilistic
And those who engage in “every form of malice.”

So if you have a time-machine, take me with you to Ephesus, circa 50 AD, since this seems like quite the crew. It must have been the most interesting group of people ever assembled, or perhaps they were was just like me and you.

Now, I’m not going to point a finger, so I’ll stick to my own faults. I can be peevish AND petulant—even crabby—and I’ve said the occasional bad word while sailing or renovating. But I’ve never stolen anything, unless you include the occasional sermon idea.

You can make whatever confessions you need to make over juice and cookies, but before you do, you should note one important thing: there was room for all these people—everyone on Paul’s list—in the church. He didn’t say ‘go away,’ he said ‘mend your ways.’ Even notorious Ephesian jewel thieves weren’t shown the door—they were strongly cautioned to mend their ways.

But there is more to this passage than simply the message that sinners are welcome in church (though thank God for that)—there is another hidden issue that I happened upon while trying to understand this idea of unwholesome talk.

In a Bible study written for student athletes at Princeton University (see, a footnote!), the author makes a connection between our passage and the Epistle of James.* In our passage, we are told to avoid unwholesome talk, choosing instead to use language that will build others up. As I noted, this is the garden-variety stuff that comes with community, including gossip and gossip’s evil twin slander. But now let’s look at James 2:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. 2 Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. 3 If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” 4 have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Here, unwholesome talk includes the way we speak to people, or the way we speak about people, when we imagine that our situation or station is somehow better. Ask anyone in a frontline job dealing with the public, and the candid ones will confess that how people look, talk, and carry themselves will have some bearing how how they are treated. Add to this gender and race, and it soon becomes clear that “inequality of treatment” is as true today as it was in New Testament times.

But there is more. If unwholesome talk includes the way we speak about those we struggle to respect, or look down on, or have written off as foolish (or worse), we’re going to be severely tested in the Age we live in. Just last week I said that “bread and circuses” refers to the people who want to be distracted and entertained by bad behaviour, failing to live up to the values on which free societies were founded. Should I be more understanding? Do I have a choice?

I do. We all do. We are tempted to refer to someone’s “stupid followers” as if they were a enablers and wrongdoers rather than broken people like you and me. It seems that unwholesome talk includes generalizing about an entire of group of people without acknowledging that every person has a story and everyone’s motives are based on a lifetime of experiences, both good and bad.

Trust St. Paul to look in on us, see our brokenness, and say something like this:

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. 5.1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

*http://www.princeton.edu/~aia/files/vbc/Unwholesome_Talk.pdf

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

John 6
24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
30 So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.


A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.

You forgot to pick up the bread! You remembered the wine, the oil, the garum (the fish sauce—the ketchup of the Roman world) and maybe a bit of salt, but you forgot the bread.

You’re not rich, so you’re not buying actual bread. You’re heading to one of the many communal ovens in the city to pick up the bread they baked for you overnight. You see, it’s far too dangerous to have a city full of homes with ovens. There’s already too great a risk of fire with all the oil lamps in use, without adding the additional risk of household ovens. So you drop off your dough, and by daybreak you’ll have bread.

But we should back up a bit. There are a few steps first. The recipe you’re using is the same one your parents and grandparents used, and it was already old when they made their bread. It’s from Cato’s classic de agri cultura (“On Agriculture”), a kind of cross between the Joy of Cooking and Farmer’s Almanac. It starts like this:

Recipe for kneaded bread: wash both your hands and a bowl thoroughly. Pour flour into the bowl, add water gradually, and knead well. When it is well kneaded, roll it out and bake it under an earthenware lid. —Cato, On Agriculture, 74*

(Note to my 21st century listeners, this recipe is actually incomplete. Cato was describing a type of sourdough bread, and it needed a starter. He doesn’t mention it because it’s assumed. Thank goodness for culinary historians. And thank goodness that he reminds us to wash our hands. Some advice never gets old.)

So it’s kneaded, formed into a circular loaf, and scored in the same manner later Romans might score a pizza. You have added your personal stamp (how else will you know which loaf is yours?) and you have delivered it to the neighbourhood oven. Some time tomorrow, you and your household will have bread.

And you dig in, because you’re going to need your strength to line up later today for the dole. It’s your right as a citizen—free grain—given out every month. What was once a heavily subsidized staple, cheap for anyone willing to line up, eventually became a giveaway. Famine can lead to unrest, so some clever politician (Clodius) ran on the “free grain” ticket and won. It fell to every politician that followed to figure out how to keep it up. Free grain is an idea that works.

And then much later, it was the little known Emperor Aurelian who decided to simplify the process and just hand out bread. He also gave away pork and wine, which begs the question ‘what type of wine goes with a ham sandwich?’ History is silent on the matter. Setting that aside, Aurelian should be the second-most-famous person who called for “daily bread,” but most have never heard his name. So on then, to the most famous:

30 So they asked [Jesus], “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’[a]”
32 Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

The chapter begins, of course, with the feeding of the five thousand. Five loaves and two fish are miraculously transformed into enough food to feed the five thousand, with a dozen baskets of bread left when people had their fill.

But the food and the baskets also prompt questions. ‘Surely,’ they say, ‘this is the great prophet we are waiting for.‘ But Jesus must slip away, knowing—John tells us—that the people intended to force Jesus to become king. This was never the plan, so Jesus retreats to the mountainside to be alone.

Later, of course, he is discovered, and more questions follow. How did you get here? (word was already out that he walked over the lake) How can we be faithful? What other signs are you prepared to show us?

It is here that these witnesses make the connection to the story of their faith. “Our ancestors,” they said, “ate manna in the wilderness. What will you do?” So Jesus completes the connection.

First, he tells them, there is bread and there is true bread. True bread comes from God and brings life to the world. “Then give us this bread” they say, seemingly unaware that Jesus has entered the realm of metaphor. And then the reveal: “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Some time later Jesus will teach them to pray saying “give us this day our daily bread,” and they will no doubt remember that Jesus is the daily bread, and a daily walk with Jesus is the cure for the hunger and the emptiness that everyone feels. And the same daily walk will slake the thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5.6) and ensure they are filled.

And this takes us back to Rome, not that we ever really left. For you see, bread and the politics of bread loomed in the background of Jesus’ words, something that he would work to redefine or redeem, transforming the bread of the Roman street into the bread of heaven. But it was never going to be easy.

It was the Roman poet Juvenal who coined the phrase “bread and circuses,” words that I have always taken to mean the things that your leaders will offer you in place of real action. Seems I was wrong. Take a careful look at Juvenal and his context, and a different meaning emerges.

The poet, you see, was a satirist—and satire is always written for an audience. So while the object of the satire might seem to be the powerful—particularly the foolish powerful—the real object is the audience. The idea is ‘make them laugh and make them think,’—to send them home with a lesson or a more realistic sense of themselves.**

In this sense, “bread and circuses” is a commentary on the people who are willing to be distracted, and the extent to which people need to take a hard look at themselves.

When the emperor is trying to incite the crowd by calling some “the enemy of the Roman people,” they need to think. Or when the emperor suggests that a wall be erected to somehow keep the world’s more powerful empire safe, the people need to think. Or when the emperor makes 4,229 false or misleading statements in 558 days (as of yesterday), then the people need to think.

Eventually the people need to think, ‘what will be the cost of all this “red meat” and circuses? What damage is being done to the collective, and what damage is being done to individual lives?’ If there was ever a better illustration of ‘what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul’ I can’t think of it. The hope is that over time, one-by-one, people will think and say to themselves, ‘this is not right’ and ‘what was I thinking?’

When you feed five thousand people, it’s always going to be difficult to convince them that you were mostly preparing them for a metaphor—and that our Saviour and Lord is the only bread you need. People were slow to think, slow to realize that the daily bread Jesus was offering was himself. “I am the bread of life” he says, “whoever believes in me will never go hungry.”

Then give us this bread, Lord, and give it always. May we walk with you daily, fed with meaning and filled with righteousness. And help us help others on this daily walk, thankful that never walk alone. Amen.


*http://pass-the-garum.blogspot.com/2012/10/moretum.html
**https://www.improbable.com/ig/