Sunday, October 14, 2018

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’[d]”
20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”
21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

I’ve got good news and bad news.

The good news is that I’m not going to preach on stewardship for five Sundays in a row, as recommended by the latest program from the national church. It’s too bad, really, since the resource includes five sample sermons and a nice break for the preacher.

The bad news is that I won’t be letting the topic go, and I will be mentioning stewardship from time to time over the next few weeks—from the pulpit, in a letter, and in other non-invasive ways. I say non-invasive since the program from the national church also suggests we stop my your house and make our case, something few people seem very keen on.

So let’s call it a pact. You receive our letter and consider what it says, and I won’t preach a stewardship sermon every Sunday until Advent. And as an added bonus, no one will stop by, so no needless tidy-up required. I love it when a plan comes together.

So stewardship. You might say “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” is the stewardship sermon that writes itself. Nice young man wants to know what he has to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus reminds him of the messy interpersonal commandments, and he assures Jesus that he’s kept them all. And then a personalized commandment: ‘Thou shalt sell everything you have and give to the poor.” Mark tells us that the young man went away sorrowful on account of his many possession, Jesus then shares an interesting visual with camels and needles, and the twelve ask the next obvious question, “who then, can be saved?”

I want to look at that question a little later, but first, I want to talk about the next hymn. “Take my life and let it be” is a personal favourite, written by Frances Ridley Havergal, the same poet who gave us “Lord, speak to me that I may speak.” The simplicity and the clarity of her words, her ability to describe the very personal nature of commitment—these are the elements that make these hymns timeless.

My only frustration with the hymn we will sing in the few moments is the exclusion of the best verse—or rather half the verse—as it appears in our hymnbook. I like to call it “the Dutch verse,” and I’ll tell you why after I share it.

Take my silver and my gold,
not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect and use
every power as thou shalt choose.

I said half the verse because the hymnbook editors did find a way to retain “take my intellect and use,” but silver and gold when out the window. And it’s not clear why. The verse ties in very nicely with today’s lesson from Mark, and there’s also a reference to the widow’s mite found in Mark 12. And it makes a handy talking point in a stewardship-sermon-that’s-not-part-of-a-five-week-series. So I really don’t understand their thinking.

And the idea that this a Dutch verse—well, you’re just going to have trust me. Culturally, we’re pleased to show all we have, and remind you that it is a product of our hard work, and then quickly admit that everything in this life is fleeting and may soon be gone. For the full treatment, I recommend Simon Schama’s “The Embarrassment of Riches,” a 700-page look into the Dutch psyche—and the extent to which we never really got over the Golden Age.

And you don’t even need to read it really, just look at the front cover: Jan Steen’s formal portrait of a wealthy merchant and his daughter, captured at the very moment that a beggar and her young child stop to ask for a handout. Is it sign of his concern for the poor? Is it a meditation on a moment we have all faced—and a challenge to reflect on how we would respond? Or is it a acknowledgement that fate could see their fortunes reversed? Maybe all three, or just another visual reminder that treasure in heaven comes when you give away your silver and gold.

And all of this leads me to another idea. Take the simple yet eloquent words of a Victorian-era poet, and the cultural and historical world that it opens for me, and you get something that the late Michael White called “absent but implicit.” When we experience something—like a well-loved hymn—it opens a world for us based on our experience. This is a world that is both subjective to me—and maybe some of the other Dutchies in your midst—and carefully hidden. It’s absent but implicit because it’s my lens, and it colours how I see the world.

That’s one half of “absent but implicit.” The other half of this idea is the shared lens that we all carry, the lens that goes unspoken but is very much a part of our shared experience. For this, I’ll take an ancient example that will allow us to circle back to Mark. The reading we didn’t hear today was from the Book of Job, the riches to rags story that recounts Job’s suffering and the lengthy and comprehensive ways in which his so-called “comforters” try to help Job see that it’s all his fault.

‘It has to be,’ they argue, ‘since everyone knows that God rewards the righteous and causes the wicked to suffer.’ Job is suffering, they argue, and argue, and argue, and therefore Job must have done something to offend God. Identify the sin, repent, and voila! back to riches.

The problem is that Job has done nothing wrong. And this small bit of information becomes the heart of the story because it contradicts something that everyone believed: the good prosper and the wicked suffer. This idea is “absent but implicit” in every story of suffering (“who sinned that this man should be born blind”) but also present in every story of prosperity. And that brings us back to the rich young man.

Most people looking in, would see a rich, young ruler who by his very situation must be upright. How could it be otherwise? Consider Proverbs 14.24, almost lyrical in it’s redundancy: “The crown of the wise is their wealth, but the folly of fools brings folly.” So the disciples and everyone in town that day saw this ancient near-eastern dot-com millionaire and thought ‘the crown of this wise young man is his wealth, and something-something folly.‘

Everyone, of course, except Jesus. Jesus ignored the absent but implicit assumption that this prosperous young man must be uniquely right with God, and peered instead into his soul. Jesus overthrew convention and common sense and opted instead for a deeper look—at the anxiety that comes with gaining and maintaining wealth, the pressures of station and status, and the assumptions put on others. He knew, just in his approach, that this person needed to transfer his earthly store to heaven by giving away all he had.

So two things are happening, one a bit scary, and one that needs to be shared. The scary thing is that Jesus wants me to say “take my heart, it is thine own, it shall be thy royal throne.” He’s not interested in outward signs of righteousness, displays of piety, even ostentatious giving (but we don’t don’t mind that). Jesus wants to help us overcome the absent but implicit barriers to devotion that he knows, and we know, and really want to shed.

The other thing that is happening here is a reassessment of wealth in our world, a reassessment that we have tried to forget since the very moment Jesus said that seemingly crazy thing about camels and needles. Wealth is a number—and a lifestyle—but it doesn’t follow that you should be considered clever enough for high office. Nor should we assume it gives someone special insight into how the world works, or more say on the important matters of the age. To be fair, some have displayed unique compassion and generosity: Bill and Melinda Gates come to mind, and J.K. Rowling—famous for being the first billionaire to stop being a billionaire because she gave so much of her fortune away. Jesus smiles.

So we made a pact, we gained a bit of insight into the Dutch brain, and we disabused ourselves of some harmful ideas about wealth. What we’re left with, of course, is that nagging question: ‘who then, can be saved?’ What the disciples meant was ‘if the prosperous aren’t good, and favoured, upright, then who is? Who can be saved?

And Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals the answer is impossible, but not for God—for God all things are possible.” Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Thanksgiving Sunday

Matthew 6
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

From the better-late-than-never-file, my son is learning to drive.

I say better late than never because Isaac is 27, and has only recently discovered that there is a whole world of places north of Bloor Street that are best reached by car. I’m actually pleased he waited—why drive if you don’t have to—but now that he has started down this road (pun intended) I’m not sure I’m ready.

It never occurred to me, for example, that someone would be quizzing me on the rules of the road while we drive. “What’s the rule here?” is a frequent question, and I have to confess that I often have no idea. How should I know if you can make a left-hand turn on a red light from one one-way street to another one-way street? (turns out you can!).

Luckily, my role as the parent with a manual transmission is to allow Isaac to practice—and learn together just how forgiving a clutch can be. Stay tuned. I’m therefore in rule-of-thumb territory—like going around corner in second gear—and not the rule-based instructor role that I’m feeling unqualified to fill.

It got me thinking, however, about the other places where we follow the “rules of the road” without ever really knowing the precise details of the rules. Take worship, for example. It should begin with an act of praise, in prayer or singing, it continues with the confession and assurance, and recognition that we come as broken people in need of redemption. The Word is read (in scripture) and proclaimed (through this thing we call a sermon). Having heard the Word, we make a grateful response, through an offering, through our prayers, and (sometimes) through communion.

It should be noted that the United Church is an amalgamation of three worshipping traditions, and for this reason we have always defaulted to what has been described as “ordered liberty.” Congregations decide the shape of their worship life, mindful that there are essential elements as I described. Other traditions, Presbyterian and Anglican for example, are much more proscriptive in their approach, creating orders and resources that are filled with “shoulds and oughts.”

Going deeper, there are also “rules of the road” for prayer, elements that form a sort of discipline, reminding us (or compelling us) to engage the breadth of prayer without simply defaulting to our preferred mode. Helpful in this regard is the acronym A.C.T.S., a clever reminder of the four elements that should be included in our prayer life. They are adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication.

(Worship fun fact: the earliest source for this helpful model seems to be Dr. John Burns, a Scottish physician who wrote two landmark books, one on Christian Philosophy and one on midwifery. I’ll just leave that with you.)

In adoration, we praise God’s goodness, the wonder of creation, the gift of Jesus the Christ and more.

In confession, we have an opportunity to be reconciled with God, with our neighbours, and (perhaps most importantly) with ourselves.

In thanksgiving, we thank God for the blessings of this life, for faith and for those who walk this way with us.

And in supplication, we bring to God our concerns for ourselves and others. We pray for a world made new: for healing, for wholeness—not simply for people—but the earth itself.

Again, we live in a tradition based on “ordered liberty,” the freedom to craft our worship in a way to meets our situation and story. But worship helps like A.C.T.S. (adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication) give our worship some structure, and remind us that each element is essential to a balanced spiritual life.

And that brings us back to today. Worship planning at Thanksgiving has it’s own version of bounty, as there are readings for Thanksgiving (both Canadian and American dates listed), and general readings for the day. Matthew 6 is the suggested lection: lilies and birds, the splendour of Solomon and a sharp admonition regarding worry. How we make this a Thanksgiving message is entirely up to us.

Jesus, we recall, is most often called “teacher,” and as such begins this lesson with a thesis. He says:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

It’s a provocative idea, of course, and we can imagine the first listeners leaning in and wondering to themselves how to avoid worry if faced with hunger and nakedness. But Jesus is building a case, and is in the middle of a longer address, so we need to step back and look as we consider this question about worry.

The overall context is the Sermon of the Mount. He begins with the Beatitudes, moves through various lessons (“Love your enemies”) and teaches his followers how to pray, beginning with “Our Father.” He has just told them to store their treasures in heaven, how to fast, and then he turns to the topic of worry.

“Look,” he says, “at the birds of the air. They’re not farmers, but God gives them food to eat. And what about the lilies of the field? They don’t gather or spin, yet even Solomon in all his finery is not as brilliantly clothed as these. So stop worrying like those without faith. Seek the kingdom of God first, and then all these things will appear.”

Implied in this message about worry is the message to be thankful. Somehow it never occurs to the birds of the air or the flowers of the field to worry. They live in an unconscious state of grace, with God providing along the way. The cycle of need and provision implies thankfulness, always aware that God provides while never really knowing how in a conscious way.

For those of us who are neither birds nor flowers, some obvious objections come to mind. The first one says “yes, God provides, but we’re not completely passive in the receiving.” Luther famously said that God provides food for birds, but doesn’t drop it straight into their beaks. So there is some effort required, even as God provides.

The second objection is in the realm of want, something that we are painfully aware of here at Central. Some have no food, and have no clothing, and have no support—and so the advice to set aside worry seems rather unhelpful to those who have nothing. But there’s a hidden link in the passage, one that may address this objection.

So listen again to Jesus’ summary at the end of today’s passage: “So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’”

Okay, now listen Matthew 25:

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Part of the “no worry” approach is to trust in the goodness of others. To trust in the Matthew 25 crowd, the people who will always seek to serve the least and the last in Jesus’ name. Implied in Jesus’ command not to worry is a command to love and serve others. We can set aside worry and be thankful for those who engage in the grateful response, expressing thanks through helping others.

Learning not to worry, trusting that God will provide, is part of the prayerful approach of A.C.T.S., the rules of the road for prayer. Through adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, we surrender our spiritual need, and embrace the glory, redemption, blessing and potential that God provides. And Jesus, of course, makes every lesson a prayer—most of all the one we heard today. Let us pray:

Like the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field,
you care for our every need, O God.
Yet we are consumed by worry, even as we know
that worrying won't add a single hour to our life.
We are thankful, God, that you know our every need.
Help us to set aside worry, and to seek your kingdom first,
trusting that all we need will be added unto us, Amen.