Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 6
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 “But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.


After a few weeks of bad press, you might want to curb your ambition to be a billionaire.

Do they pay enough tax? Should governments trade tax breaks for new jobs? Are they qualified for high office simply because they are rich? Should they be allowed to control so much of the world’s wealth? See, it’s hardly worth it, being a billionaire. Too many questions, too much scrutiny, and where would you keep all your stuff?

Ironically, the current richest man in the world, worth an estimated $125 billion, is a bit of a lightweight compared to other wealthy people in history, when their wealth is adjusted for inflation. John Jacob Astor was richer, making his fortune from the pelts of small furry creatures, and when that became less profitable, he bought up much of New York City. Henry Ford was richer than him, making cars, and Cornelius Vanderbilt was richer than him, in railways and shipping. Carnegie (steel) and Rockefeller (oil) were both three times richer than today’s titleholder, but they all look poor compared to Augustus Caesar, who controlled a fifth of the wealth of the Roman world, worth maybe four or five trillion dollars.

I’m going to come back to Augustus in a moment, but I shouldn’t trash the rich without mentioning some of the good they do. The library across the street was partly funded by the Carnegie Corporation, one of over a hundred in Canada to receive such funding. If you head down to the AGO, you will see Lord Thomson’s collection of paintings and little boats, a billionaire with a good eye and a thing for Cornelius Krieghoff. Even the church has benefited, with families like the Masseys and the Eatons founding charities and building churches.

So when Jesus says “woe to you who are rich” or “woe to you who are well fed,” he’s speaking within living memory of Caesar Augustus, the five trillion dollar man. Imagine owning a fifth of everything, every fifth house on your street, and every street, in every town, in the known world. So it would be easy to think that Jesus isn’t talking about us, the comparatively wealthy. Maybe he’s just saying ‘woe’ to Caesar, and everyone else in a really nice toga.

Or maybe not. 50 feet behind me is a walk-in clinic, giving us instant access to healthcare, something we tend to take for granted. Does that make us rich? Close to a billion people live in extreme poverty, meaning less than two dollars per day—does that make us rich? Over half the world’s population has no income protection program to fall back on—welfare, employment insurance and the like—does that make us rich?

While you answer that question in your mind’s eye, let’s look at the rest of the passage. This passage is part of the Sermon on the Plain, Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount, but comes with one striking difference. It has a similar list of beatitudes (the “blessed are” sayings) but it also includes an equal number of “woes,” kind of anti-beatitudes, or warming markers. A quick glance might lead you to assume that these woes are like curses (cursed begin the opposite of blessed) but scholars say no— “woe to you” is more of a mark of God’s displeasure, like “sad for you” or “sucks to be you” as the kids might say.

Taken in summary form, you are blessed to be poor, hungry, weeping or hated, and the opposite (woed?) to be rich, full, laughing or well-thought of. In each case Luke gives us an example or a qualifier, like “woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort” that either expands the thought or cites the opposite. In the middle of these statements he adds what amounts to an aside, a “message to the reader” on the topic of persecution:

23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

Recall that Luke is writing late, and the followers of The Way are already experiencing persecution. This sidebar comment offers some comfort to those who are feeling excluded or reviled, and points to the future hope of some reward. Luke is not saying that heaven is reserved for the poor, hungry, weeping or hated, only that those who endure suffering in Jesus’ name will receive unique care.

The woes, of course, are always more interesting, a kind of moral rubbernecking where we get to look on while God appears to withdraw favour from people and groups of people that don’t resemble us. The rich, the full, those who are excessively happy and well-regarded, especially those who don’t deserve such high regard. It becomes a sort of personality test, the extent to which we look at these as distant or close to our experience. Some are happy to view these as wholly-other, while some see themselves among the woes, if even for a moment at a time.

And this leads us back to the very subjective nature to categories of human experience. We may not be poor according to contemporary accounting, but we can feel poor, or diminished, or somehow other. We may not experience physical hunger very often, but many know longing, or the challenge of unmet needs. We may not be weeping like those who are truly weeping, but moments of sadness come—we wouldn’t be human otherwise. And the opposite, as I’ve said: we’re all rich, well-fed and given to laughter, if your comparisons are broad enough.

In effect, Jesus is capturing everyone at all times. We swing back and forth, different characters in the same human drama, experiencing the joys and the vicissitudes of life, often on the same day. So it becomes difficult to find ourselves in the passage, find the simple key that clearly defines who we are and where we are with regards to God’s favour. We need to look farther afield for insight, maybe beginning at the beginning.

In the garden, of course, there was no rich or poor, no one was hungry (before fruit season) and there was no cause for weeping. Famously, it was the radical 14th century priest John Ball who asked “When Adam delved (tilled the soil) and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?” What he meant was that hierarchy and inequality are not our natural state, it was imposed on us. For this catchy slogan (and others) he was hanged, drawn, quartered, and displayed all over the kingdom.

When the people became slaves in Egypt (not endured servants as some might have you believe) they cried out and God listened to their suffering, calling Moses to free them with the power of God. Then the people found themselves in exile, weeping by the rivers of Babylon, unable to sing the songs of Zion when their captors made this cruel demand. Yet God offered them comfort, and a path to return, where the songs were sung again.

When Jesus met the sick, the sad, the tortured, he offered healing and forgiveness, comfort in the face of rejection and hope in the face of fear. He become the embodiment of God’s desire to find us at our more vulnerable moments and offer something—wholeness, reconciliation, a return to others. And this appears to be the key to understand all these blessings and woes: we move back and forth between vulnerable and the opposite, but God finds us in the first. Those who live in fixed state of vulnerability get God’s unique regard: a desire to comfort them and offer them a home.

The usual conclusion to sermons like this one are “go and do likewise.” Don’t do this and make sure you do that, live in the best category and avoid the other. Help others and great is your reward. So yes, do all that. But I want to add another conclusion, a little further than ‘go and do likewise’: explore your vulnerability. Some feel guilty for enjoying all they have, worried that somehow favour will rest on others. I would say that makes you vulnerable. Some give more and do more and spend the rest of their time worrying that they ought to give more and do more and I say that makes them vulnerable. And some are done with caring, maybe they have nothing left to give, the world has worn them down, and I say this makes them extremely vulnerable.

And we already know that God has unique regard for the vulnerable. In the midst of all the subjectivity that defines life on earth, God finds us at our most vulnerable moments and offers help. When we’re less vulnerable, it’s safe to assume that God is busy helping others, mirroring Jesus’ ‘the healthy are in no need of a doctor.’ But that’s always shorted-lived, and help returns.

Wherever we find ourselves, may God provide what we need when we need it: comfort, or even a little discomfort, and help to those in need. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret,[a] the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God. 2 He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. 3 He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.
4 When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
5 Simon answered, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
6 When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. 7 So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink.
8 When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” 9 For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, 10 and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.
Then Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” 11 So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.


Well, it wasn’t quite Hogwarts, but there were a few similarities.

Studying theology at Queen’s did not include a sorting hat, or houses, or paintings of long dead luminaries that could talk (although, in some cases the eyes seemed to follow you). There was, however, the start-of-class trip to the campus bookstore, in a somewhat creepy basement, run by the Engineering Society, who had a somewhat fearsome reputation. A sort of Daigon Alley, minus the wands and gowns—the gowns, of course, would come later.

First on the list was A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, more commonly known as Brown, Driver & Briggs or BDB, for short. First published in 1906, it is helpful as a doorstop, a paperweight, a way to press flowers, or a teaching resource for future professors of Hebrew. Next, it was The Ancient Near East, Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, and the most I can say for it is it has pictures. Too thin to be a doorstop.

Two Bibles were required, Hebrew and Greek, in this case, gifts from the Bible Society. For generations, the poor person from the Bible Society has looked on as eager seminarians flip through the shiny new books, excitement turning to horror as they realize they need to learn what these squiggles on the page mean. Back to the bookstore, there is one final book that every hatchling minister must get: Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels.

It’s quite magical, really. Matthew, Mark, and Luke presented in long columns, page after page of places where these three Gospels line up. So that’s what it is, but what does it do? Well, imagine your favourite parable or story, which sounds familiar as you hear it, but something seems different. A quick look at Throckmorton will show you that your favourite passage may be told three times in three gospels, each telling it a little different than the others.

I now realize that buying Throckmorton’s was just the first step in a long journey through biblical studies, realizing that each Gospel found a different way to express the story of Jesus, sometimes a word here or there, sometimes a very different version of the same story. Those who want the Bible to be free of errors or maintain some sort of internal consistency are going to be disappointed as they study the Bible in depth, and Throckmorton’s helps cushion the blow. You learn immediately that Mark (written first) gives a thumbnail sketch, and the other two say more. You see that they don’t line up perfectly, but the words we treasure are still there.

I share all this because our passage seems familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Jesus teaching from a boat near the shore. An invitation to put out a little from shore and do some fishing. Peter’s objection—he’s tired and a little cranky—and a miraculous catch, so many fish that the nets begin to break. Peter feels the need to repent, though we’re not really told why, and general astonishment is shown at the catch. Finally Jesus says “don’t worry, from now on you will be fishing for people.” They left their nets, and followed him.

Again, familiar and unfamiliar all at once. Getting into a boat to teach takes us to Mark 4, where we actually get to hear the lessons. He shares a few parables: the sower, the lamp and the basket, the parable of the measure, the parable of secret growth, and the parable of the mustard seed. Mark 4 also includes heading out from shore, only to encounter a violent storm, which Jesus promptly stills.

The miraculous catch takes us to John 21, and while not covered by our old friend Throckmorton, it’s still instructive on how these things get told and retold. The outline is the same: Peter’s frustration after a long night on the water, and invitation to try again (using the evocative phrase ‘try fishing from the other side’) and a catch that stains the nets—153 fish in a single catch. Scholars will spend eternity arguing over that number, but I think it just means a lot, more than expected, like God’s grace.

Peter’s repentance takes us to a completely different time and place, in the cold and dark before that fateful day, when the words “get away from me, for I am a sinful man” will be made manifest. The outline of the threefold denial is known to us, but it’s the dialogue that sticks with you:

“You were with that Galilean, Jesus.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I don’t know the man.”
“Surely you’re one of them—your accent gives you away.”
This time he swore, and said “I do not know the man.”
At that moment, the cock crowed, and Peter remembered.

Finally, the invitation to become fishers of men and women is well-known, but in this setting less known. In Luke 5, Jesus gives them an object lesson, an alarmingly large catch of fish, and an invitation to follow him in this new project. Neither Mark nor Matthew give this invitation any context, it’s just ‘come and follow me.’ Luke, however, gives a foretaste, the miracle before the miracle, the astounding catch of people that will someday include you and me.

Why is this important, this free-association that links one passage to another? First of all, reading scripture is an act of imagination. It’s not just words on a page, it’s a living text that includes you. There is the usual code that we follow: whenever we hear ‘the crowd, the people, the disciples’ we have to look for ourselves in the text. Wherever people have fallen short, or overcome their limitations, or displayed the grace that only God can give, we can see ourselves in the text. That’s the first act, finding yourself in the pages of the Bible.

The second part is more difficult, and it stretches our ability to understand the living document before us called scripture. The Bible generates new meaning each time it is read. When you change, your reading will change. When you grow, your reading will change. When you are challenged in some way, through the difficult things life can send, your reading will change. The Bible will present new meaning—seeing things we didn’t see before—and the Bible will generate new meaning, a new way of seeing, a new way to understand the words and their message for our lives.

As Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were standing by and hungering for the Word of God. He stepped into one of the boats and told Peter to put out into the deeper water of meaning, beyond the everyday concerns of the shore—of homes and family, work and worry—and into the depth of God. ‘Let down your nets,’ he told them, ‘explore the deep.’

‘Master,’ Peter said, ‘we’ve plumbed these depths before: dragging our nets through empty words, tales of no consequence, the murky water of worldly wisdom.’ Peter hesitated, but then gave it a try, saying simply “Lord I will, because you say so.” Soon, of course, they are straining at the nets, catching parables and promises, lessons of the Kingdom and words of grace. In their nets they find forgiveness, and mercy, and a vision of the new creation that will feed them for all time.

But grace can be hard to accept, and Peter declares himself unworthy. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man.” Sometimes it is obvious that God is doing precisely what Jesus does that day by the shore: ignoring our protests and saying ‘do not be afraid of the person you think you are—become the person I see, the person who will help me, as we fish for people instead.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.

You don’t need a degree in theology to read the Bible or find meaning in the text. You don’t need Brown, Driver & Briggs or any other way to press flowers to find meaning in the text. You don’t need the best teachers or preachers to find meaning in the text (but I think we’re nice to have around). What you do need is an open mind, and an open heart, and a willingness to engage the text over time.

And when I say engage, I mean really engage: sit with it, struggle with it, play with it, argue with it, and give yourself to it as much as you can. Free-associate and see where it takes you. Hear a news item, and imagine what passage it suggests: How would Jesus respond? Or Mary, or Martha? Or Paul? Then how would you respond, as a neighbour, or a citizen, or a follower of Jesus? Find someone in need, and respond to them from the pages of the Bible, extending compassion, describing hope, reminding them that they never walk alone.

One of the gifts of congregational life is reading together, in worship, and having a shared experience of God’s Word. Even as the words are read, they are finding a home within us and within this gathered community. We respond together, and give voice to God’s hope for each other and for the people beyond these walls. May God bless us and continue to speak through us, Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”
24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[g] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.


What do we deserve?

It’s one of those questions that’s akin to quicksand— the more you struggle to answer the question, the more stuck you become. So we can begin with the basics: we all deserve a warm place to sleep, enough food to live, and some companions on the way. After that, it becomes tricky.

Politicians will tell you that that we all deserve to be middle-class, with a steady income, some savings, and a plan for retirement. This idea usually includes more specific items too: house, car, cottage or trailer, vacation in the sunny south, college for kids, and so on. But then the speech ends, or it splits off in different directions.

On one hand, the left hand, these things come through a progressive tax code, and the right to collective bargaining, and a government willing to safeguard the social safety net. On the other hand, the right hand, it’s moderate taxation that doesn’t stifle the entrepreneurial spirit, support for business and markets (who seem to have a mind of their own) and services that the public purse can realistically afford.

Until recently, these were the two messages we heard, beginning with what you deserve and applying contrasting lessons on how to get what you deserve. Until a new voice entered the conversation. This voice agrees that everyone should be able to realize their dreams, middle-class or beyond, and then the vision sours. “There are others,” this voice insists, “that are actively trying to steal what is yours.”

This leads to a list of others, with descriptors attached—scary, disgusting, immoral—and a parallel list of possible solutions: deportation, prison, eradication, and so on. Enemies are identified and quickly dehumanized, since it is always easier to convince someone of a drastic measure when you’re trying to defeat ‘animals’ rather than humans. This voice says “you deserve to be safe,” even if you didn’t feel unsafe in the first place.

It should not surprize us that this new conversation has left traditional politicians and thinkers at a loss. Generally, your opponent didn’t just make stuff up, and if they did, you could defeat them with facts, or logic, or the good old fashioned truth. We have learned in this new age that some would rather be lied to—and seem to relish it—if the lies unsettle the existing order. Norms are gone, decency is gone, and truth has become the relic of a bygone age.

Now you’re really looking forward to lunch. Why so cranky, preacher? Is it the polar vortex, a split-decision on Groundhog Day, or another birthday come and gone? Actually, our passage today is all about the preacher’s dilemma: do you tell-it-like-it-is or do you apply a thin sugary-coating to the message and carry on to lunch?

So Jesus decides to tell it like it is. ‘You’ve all been so kind,’ he says, ‘you remember me and my kin, and you’ve obviously been following me on Instagram. You’ve heard about the all the healing, and the various signs that even I struggle to explain. And maybe you think you deserve the same, since it took a village to raise me, but that’s not how it works. God decides who deserves what—and won’t be compelled to do anything.’

‘You want examples?’ he said. ‘Many people were hungry in the time of Elijah, but he went to the widow of Zarephath instead, even raising her child from the dead. And there were lots of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha, but he healed Naaman the Syrian while the others looked on.’ They were cut to the quick, his formerly proud friends and neighbours, and made a plan to silence him for good. But he slipped away.

Think of it as the place where human nature meets classical wisdom thinking. Human nature says give me some advantage or special treatment because of proximity: you know me, we’re neighbours, we come from the same place. And classical wisdom thinking says the good shall prosper (like church-goers) while the wicked suffer. It’s a powerful combination: ‘Jesus, we know you and we’re good people, so give us what we deserve—a sign, a local miracle, something to make us the talk of the Galilee.’

But God decides what we deserve and when we deserve it, and the deliberations are done in secret, a mystery to our eyes. And while this frustrates all of us—the faithful, the faithful who feel entitled—we can only remain frustrated by the lack of transparency that seems to define the Most High.

I say ‘seems to define’ because we’re just verses from last week’s lesson—so close that it’s really just one long lesson anyway. Last week Jesus read from the scroll: good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom from oppression, and a jubilee year, an idea that sends shivers down the spine of every banker and debt collector in the land.

So yes, God lacks transparency, but definitely has a weakness for the weak. From last week, if you are in need for good news, or freedom from any form of imprisonment, or new sight, or the need to escape oppression—especially if you oppress yourself—God is on your side. God loves the oppressor AND oppressed, but is always going to help the latter overcome the former.

The crowd in Nazareth, however, likely didn’t fit into either category. Like the rest of us, they may have taken on one role or the other, depending on the day of the week, but by-in-large they were just busy trying to get on with their lives. Jesus’ visit must have seemed like an opportunity, a chance to shake things up, maybe a way a ‘make Nazareth great again,’ but it was not to be. Jesus wanted to say pleasant things about foreigners instead.

Their anger, their desire to take him to the edge of the cliff outside town, is really just some not-so-subtle foreshadowing, a look ahead to Holy Week and another set of onlookers who would become an angry mob. And the reasons are more-or-less the same, disappointment turned to anger, and anger expressed in violence. On the next occasion there would be no walking away—another story for another time.

We dwell instead on the impulse: when God is near we expect special treatment, to get what we deserve, some advantage over others. It’s not really clear what the Nazarenes were looking for, maybe just a bigger dot on the map, but by the time we get to Holy Week it all becomes clear.

By the time we get to Holy Week it’s obvious that a ‘revolution of the heart’ was not going to cut it. People wanted an end to the existing order, they wanted a conquering hero, they wanted less metaphorical King of the Jews. But the climax of the week unfolded this way instead:

"Put your sword away," Jesus said, at the very moment of his arrest. "Don't you know that if you live by the sword, you will die by the sword? You know I could call on a legion of angels anytime to do my bidding? Am I leading a rebellion? See, I am surrendering to you, that the writing of the prophets might be fulfilled." The passage concludes with the saddest note in scripture: "Then all his disciples deserted him and fled."

Again, another story for another time, but we got what we deserved. Dying and alone, save the criminals that hung beside him, God-in-Jesus looked at our sorry state, authors of desertion and betrayal, and gave us what we deserved, saying “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.”

Even in the act of killing God, God forgives. If God decides that that’s an act worth forgiving, what smallness do we cling to? If God can forgive an attempt on God’s own life, what could we possibly do that God won’t forgive?

Think of all the forgiveness in scripture: the prodigal son, the people of Nineveh, even Saul of Tarsus, and imagine that behind each example there was disappointment. The older brother, old fish-guts Jonah, everyone who met St. Paul in his former life: we learn that even forgiveness is hard to accept and even harder to do. But God forgives that too, just to make point.

We want favour, and God gives forgiveness. We want a reward for being good, and God gives forgiveness. We want to be lied to about all that we deserve, and God gives us forgiveness instead. You would think we could spot the pattern, but we can’t, and God forgives that too.

May the God of forgiveness give us what we deserve, and may we extend that to others, in Jesus’ name, Amen.