Sunday, June 13, 2021

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Weston has a secret portal that gets you under the 401.

Weston has a secret Victorian village hidden amid the highrises.

Weston has a somewhat secret shrine to Mary, right up there with Lourdes and Guadalupe.

Weston has a secret history on the west bank of the Humber, until the river had other ideas back in 1850.

Weston is mystified by the secret of all those bank departures, though greed might be the answer.

And finally, number nine on Now Magazines “Hidden Toronto” list of the city’s best-kept secrets is…Weston.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here. And I didn’t even start on the secrets of Mount Dennis or the secret part of Pelmo Park north of the 401.

Leaving that for another day, we are surrounded by things unknown and things unexplained. There is a popular online forum called whatisthisthing, where people will post a picture of something mysterious looking, and enlist others to help them figure it out. It’s the ultimate crowdsourcing, where the secret of an unfamiliar item is revealed by someone who immediately knows what it is.

Related to this is an entire genre of “reality television” with titles like How It’s Made, How Do They Do That? and What on Earth? There is obviously an appetite for understanding hidden things, or things that are remarkable in their creation, even if they are commonplace or familiar.

And that takes us to our lesson. Seeds scattered on the ground, the disproportionate growth of the mustard seed—these parables take something familiar and open up the meaning to reveal more. And in this case we get the explicit introduction “this is what the kingdom of God is like”—the implied purpose of every parable. But before we begin to draw Kingdom lessons, let’s look again at how these tiny literary units work.

These parables use a device best described with the words “and yet.” On other occasions, we have talked about parables creating a world, which sours, then resolves to reveal the Kingdom. These simpler parables function in the same way: describing something, adding the “and yet,” and then pointing to some Kingdom theme.

In the first one, the Parable of the Growing Seed, the constructed world is someone planting seeds, and yet they don’t know how they grow. Still, the growth continues, until the harvest is plentiful. In the second—even simpler than the first—the constructed world is the mustard seed, and yet it’s among the smallest seeds on earth. It grows into a large shrub, and birds make nests in it’s branches.

In each case, the “and yet” is the secret of the parable, the hidden meaning that makes this part of the Kingdom. The simple act of sowing seeds results in the harvest. The tiny seed becomes a shrub, far out of proportion to the size of the seed. It’s about the miracle of growth, of course, but it’s mostly about the abundance that follows the simple act of sowing a seed.

Now, a scientist could explain all the steps needed to achieve germination (even a scientist in elementary school) and tell you about hydrating the seed (imbibition), activating the enzymes inside the seed, and putting down a root (radicle). Soon it will sprout, and the sun will take over from there—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

But rather than looking at the science and saying ‘mystery solved,’ I think the mystery deepens. With each new discovery, and each new insight, what is really revealed is the remarkable complexity of everything God made. The more complex, and the more inexplicable, the more we wonder at the gift of the natural world that keeps giving. Things that work in nature for the benefit of others, cures waiting to be discovered in the natural world, even the number of stars in the sky—all reveal the glory of the Most High.

And then God made humans. Odd that we don’t need to condemn humanity for all our failures relating to the natural world, because we humans are busy condemning ourselves. Every day we need to choose whether we are part of the natural world, and therefore worth protecting, or we are somehow outside the natural world, and on our own. At this moment in human history we seem very much on our own, and we may pay a steep price.

In the same manner that we have divided ourselves from the natural world, we insist on dividing ourselves from one another. Some divisions—location, language—are a part of the diversity of human life. While others—race, status, economic standing— we create and impose on each other. The need to feel superior seems hardwired somehow, and the project of human living should always be setting aside that particular need.

It’s no secret that there is racism in Canada. We have been blessed with abundance, and yet we retreat to racism and xenophobia. We have created a society where everyone has access to healthcare and basic needs, and yet we imagine that some are less deserving or jumping some sort of invisible queue. We have all the resources to educate ourselves about how to live together, and yet we retreat to the voices that tell us what we want to hear, even when it leads to violence.

It’s no secret that there is racism in Canada, and yet the solution is within us, since we all contribute in some small way. Sounds like a parable, because it is. This little world we have created, remarkable in so many ways, still sours because we each carry that gene of superiority, that sense of suspicion, and that willingness to listen to the least helpful voices. It’s hard to even name that we carry around the kernel of racism within us, but by naming it we can perhaps begin to move on.

The point of a parable is resolving to reveal the Kingdom. Resolving implies trouble, or some human problem we face. And yet, in the face of trouble, God is most attentive, most willing to stand beside us, and most willing to lift up those in deep need. The parables show us that God’s direction always points to the Kingdom, where everything that divides us is cast out, where everything that hurts us is healed, and everything that separates us from the love of God is set aside—now and forevermore, Amen.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Second Sunday after Pentecost

 2 Corinthians 4

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[a] Since we have that same spirit of[b] faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen on Zoom, but on what is unseen beyond Zoom. Since what is seen on Zoom is temporary, but what is unseen (beyond Zoom) is eternal.

I think I mentioned before about the highly “curated” world some have created for Zoom. Appropriate artwork, a plant or two, lighting just right, doors closed to block noise and wandering family members. Some, of course, preempt the entire curation process by simply selecting an engaging background: palm trees, outer space, or that view from the end of the dock.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the age of Covid about the meaning behind what you present. Books say “look at me, I’m clever.” Diplomas on the wall say “trust me” or maybe “take me seriously.” An open door in the background says openness, or maybe it says you’re one of those brave people who can arrange their desk with their back to the door. I’m not one of them.

Whatever message you send, intentional or unintentional, curated or uncurated, it’s not real. We have advanced to the point where we can present ourselves to the world the way we choose, for good or for ill. One of the primary objections to social media—Facebook or Instagram—is that it breeds the abiding sense that other people are having better lives: more adventuresome, more meaningful, more beautiful. But it’s not real, it’s an illusion we create, or an illusion we consume.

Of course, with all technology, there is a lively debate about whether we would be better off without it. Philosophers would step into the sermon at this point to remind us that the minute someone invented the bicycle it guaranteed that someone would be the first to fall off a bicycle, in the same way that the invention of the telephone pretty well guaranteed that someone would call and offer to clean my ducts. Phones don’t phone people, duct cleaners phone people.

So we can’t turn back the clock, but we don’t have to accept our reality either. And this seems to be the subtext of Paul meditation on reality found in 2 Corinthians 4. Jesus has died, and Jesus has risen, and Jesus will come again to take us to himself. Outwardly the followers of Jesus were aging, some wasting away, some sleeping in death, but Paul says “do not lose heart,” for you are, in fact, being renewed day by day. The momentary affliction that is holding you down today will be replaced by an eternal weight of glory.

And I’m sure some were convinced. Some understood that the promise to return in glory didn’t have a date attached. Some knew that brothers and sisters in the faith would pass before that great and glorious day, and trusted that all would be sorted in eternity. Some were able to “trust the process,” words that never fully convince anyone, while others were not able to trust the process. And for the unconvinced, Paul had more to say:

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

It’s amazing really, the extent to which Paul could make good on his promise to be “all things to all people.” To those familiar with Plato he had one message, and to those who had never heard of Plato, he had another. Ironic that Paul, the tentmaker, had a foot in each world, and could speak to both.

To the Platonist, or those who knew about Plato, he seems to be making a reference to The Allegory of the Cave. In the allegory, his fictional cave dwellers are chained in a cave, facing away from the light, only able to see shadows of the world behind them. Some try to turn around, only to be blinded by the light of reality, and some may even escape—to see the full reality of the world beyond the cave. But there is more: anyone who tries to return to the darkness of the cave to warn the others will be disoriented and stumbling about as they enter, which will only serve as a warning to the cave dwellers that escape may not be worth it.

Paul is suggesting that those who live in a land of shadows need to see the light, regardless of the risk.

To the practical, or those who knew about practical things, Paul returns to tentmaking. Tents are great, tents offer a temporary solution to a practical problem, but tents are easily destroyed. Fortuitously, we have a building from God built for us, not made by human hands, but eternal in the heavens.

Back to the cave reference, Plato (and Paul) give us an allegory that fits any number of situations. Anyone who feels timid, or troubled, or overwhelmed, can find themselves in the Allegory of the Cave. Venturing beyond the known, the familiar, the comfortable, will seem like a risky endeavor. Anyone who has created a false reality for themselves, or has had a false reality imposed on them, will understand the Allegory of the Cave. Indeed, anyone who is tired of the way we have structured life in the cave of this society, will understand the power of the allegory to encourage some and inhibit others. Some want to escape the cave we have created, and others are happy with shadows.

The last fews days have been difficult for most, and most of all for Canadians that live in this land that once belonged to others. We are the heirs of a society that lived in the cave of superiority, the abiding belief that the shadows on the wall meant that our culture, language, and religion were better than the culture, language, and religion of the Indigenous peoples who have called this place home for countless generations. And now, in recent years, some have come to see reality, and others have not. Part of our work as a church is to convince ourselves (and others) that the reality of our past is hard to face, but facing it is the right and true thing to do. But there is more.

Some in the church will be tempted to define our relationship with First Nations as a social justice issue, something to champion with them and for them. The additional layer of reality here, however, is that it’s not a social justice issue for a church that operated residential schools. It would be like if I assaulted someone and then became a champion for victim’s rights. We need to be about reconciliation, and right relations, and repairing the damage we helped cause.

What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Such is the Christian hope. The earthly tent we live in, the tent of superiority, and structured inequality, and state-sponsored violence will be swept away in time, leaving an eternal dwelling place, the place God would have us dwell. And then, at the last, all will be one—on earth, as it is in heaven.

May God help us as we seek this place. Amen. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Trinity Sunday

 Isaiah 6

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;

the whole earth is full of his glory.”

4 The pivots[a] on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

It’s easy to get lost in the image of the three hares.

Three hares appear to be chasing each other in a circle, and their ears form a triangle in the centre of the image. Looking closer, you see that there are only three ears for three hares, with each ear doing double-duty as the ear of the other. If you focus again, this time looking at each hare, they clearly appear to have two ears.

So, a unique image, but also a unique story. Or maybe I should say lack of story. For you see, the image of the three hares appears from the Far East to Britain: in China, Nepal, Iran, Southern Russia, Switzerland, Germany, France and the UK. They appear in caves, on sacred artifacts, and on medieval church decorations. In Devon alone, there are 29 examples found in 17 churches.

Theories abound about the source and origin of the symbol, but it remains a mystery. Rabbits and hares are common enough symbols, with some obvious associations and others that are less obvious. The ancients believed that rabbits reproduce spontaneously, and could therefore be associated with the Virgin Mary. This might explain why some of the examples in Devon place the hares near the equally ancient symbol of the Green Man, which in a church setting may represent our fallen state—sort of a point and counterpoint idea.

Point and counterpoint. One of the great ironies of church life is that this place we associate with holiness and purity is also a place built for sinners. This is where we confess, this is where we seek to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters in the faith, and this is the place we hear of the life and death of our redeemer. The healthy are in no need of a doctor, Jesus said, and therefore we find a home in his church.

And this point and counterpoint is also at the heart of our reading from Isaiah. On the surface, it’s a rather elaborate call story, where the prophet appears in the presence of the Most High and takes up his vocation. But ritual action tells us that this is also our story, the story of entering a sacred space to be redeemed.

Everything is the story is meant to overwhelm: the almighty seated on a throne, the six-winged seraphim, and even the song that sounds familiar to our ears as the seraphim call to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The threshold of the imposing doors shook, and the temple filled with smoke.

And then the counterpoint. You might imagine our future prophet would have joy to sing or praise to extend, but instead we get dread. “Woe to me!” he cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” This, of course, is a reference to Exodus 33, when Moses asks to see God but is warned off. “No one may see me and live,” is all God says, a bit of divine legislation that need not be repeated twice.

So Isaiah braces for the worst, but then the extraordinary happens: from the brazier a seraphim retrieves a burning coal, and this coal is skillfully carried to the lips of the prophet. With this his sin is removed, and his feelings of guilt taken away. Then finally, the call and response: I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

And I said, “Here am I. Send me!”

In our context, it’s hard to miss the movement here. A very human prophet is created, approaching the Most High with all his limitations and flaws. Through ritual he is cleansed of his sin, redeemed to do the work he is called to do. Then this call is formalized, with the pledge to go to the world and speak for God, to tell-forth through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I think you see the shape of this movement. Created, redeemed, sustained—God in three-persons, blessed Trinity. And it all seems straightforward enough until someone asks you to explain it. And for this purpose another symbol emerged during the Middle Ages, that of the “Shield of the Trinity.” Developed by a French Theologian (Peter of Poitiers), the shield has God in the centre circle, with three others circles surrounding the first. The three outer circles are labelled Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with lines connecting all of them. On each line you find writing, with the lines connecting the outer circles to the inner circle labelled “is” and the lines between the outer circles labelled “is not.” Reading the lines and circles, you get this:

God is God

The Son is God

The Spirit is God

God is not the Son

God is not the Spirit

The Son is not the Spirit

(and so on)

It’s not as intriguing as intertwined hares, but it serves a purpose. The persons (personas) of God are separate, but all part of God. Each has a role to play in the unfolding of our life with God—creating, redeeming, sustaining. Each helps us arrive at the place where we enter the picture, speaking for God, through the Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ.

Speaking of those hares, it truly is more than a clever design. Like our circles and lines, the missing or not-missing ears underline the interconnectedness of God. You don’t need six ears to see that each is a hare, each is linked to the others, and each is connected to the whole.

Outside the church there is a surprisingly durable vinyl sign that says “Seeing Christ in Others Since 1821.” Again, not as intriguing as the three hares, but showing us (in words) the same interconnection. Together, God made us and made us one in our humanity. When we see Christ in others, we see evidence of our redemption, and we know that Christ is in our midst. And when we see Christ in others, and we speak to them, we speak through the power of the Spirit, the same Spirit that asks “Whom shall I send?” And the answer—with God’s help—is “Send me!” When we see Christ in others we never see strangers, only friends. We speak to them and for them, making us one.

May you be surrounded by evidence of the Three-in-One God we worship. And may you always trust the words when you answer the call, saying “Send me!” Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021


Acts 2

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?

Westonites, Mount Dennisians and Humberleans; residents of Pelmo Park, Rockcliffe-Smyth, Silverthorne and Lambton, The Westway and the Old Mill, Humber Heights and Emery, Richview and the parts of Brookhaven near Amesbury; visitors from the Junction (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Rexdale and Syme—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams.

18 Even on my servants, both men and women,

I will pour out my Spirit in those days,

and they will prophesy.

19 I will show wonders in the heavens above

and signs on the earth below,

blood and fire and billows of smoke.

20 The sun will be turned to darkness

and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

21 And everyone who calls

on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

I think you can see what I did there. And I’m not sure it’s Mount Dennisians, but it should be.

The traditional reading, with all those exotic place names, tells us that Pentecost is about a gathering of people (from everywhere) that were present for the birth of the church. And while this is certainly true—and we can then speak of the worldwide spread of the nascent church—it might be more helpful to take a step back and try to understand what else the author may be trying to tell us.

Tip O’Neill famously said: “All politics is local.” Luke, who famously wrote both Luke and Acts, may have said: “All religion is local.” What we are tempted to read as “everywhere” is, in fact, more like “your place, and your place, and your place over there.” This is local religion, not in the tribal or parochial sense, but in the intimate sense that it belongs as much on my street as your street.

Some time ago we had the good fortune of visiting the Basilica di San Clemente, just a stones throw from the Colosseum in Rome. From the outside, it resembles many of the other churches you might find in Rome. But this one is a little different. You enter a 12th century church at street level, and then you head downstairs. One level below is a fourth century church, well-preserved, and below that is a first century house church, which began as a typical Roman home. Three layers and two thousand years of Roman history in a single stop.

With the tongues and wind and flames the message began. From the waters of baptism the church was born, carried off to those hard-to-pronounce places, but also an ordinary house in Rome. A community formed and met in that house. The community expanded, and knocked down a wall or two, making the circle wider. Walls were reshaped into a primitive form we might come recognize as a church—as kitchen table became altar and cup became chalice.

The journey from kitchen table to high altar, twenty centuries and perhaps thirty feet up, is not about the passage of time and the human effect on topography, but about the locality of our faith. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm but right here, at 1 King, where the communion table faces east-ish to Jerusalem and makes a direct line from the day to Pentecost to today. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm, but in your favourite chair when you close your eyes to pray. It belongs in kitchens and cubicles and neighbourhood churches; our faith belongs wherever breath is felt and language is spoken and love is made known.

But there is more. The message that these woman and men carried home, the message of death and resurrection, the message of a world made-new, was neatly summarized by Peter that day: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The conclusion of the dreamed dreams and the clearest visions, the surest signs and loudest prophecy is the simple truth that God saves.

It points to another prophecy, this one found in Zechariah. The angel of the Lord comes to the prophet and shares this wonderful verse:

Not by might, nor by power, 

but by my spirit, says the Lord.

It has a musical quality to it, and this is not an accident. God wants the prophet to make no mistake about the source of human transformation, about the source of change in a hurting world, about the presence of God in the midst of adversity. I commend it to you, the kind of verse that reminds us that we are never alone, and that the presence of the Spirit is ever near.

Not by might, nor by power, 

but by my spirit, says the Lord.

The other thing that happened that in the Day of Pentecost involves memory and longing, a sense of promise given and promise fulfilled. Only weeks earlier, Jesus made a simple (yet profound) promise:

25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But soon the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Today the Advocate has come. The Advocate has come to your home and mine, to this place, and the many places like it. The Advocate has come to hearts broken and minds confused, and to troubled places and everyplace, where peace is elusive and the pandemic rages.

Yet the Advocate is still speaking. The Advocate is speaking through the least and the last, speaking through unsteady voice and faintest whisper, speaking to anyone who will listen. The Advocate chose the vessel we call the church to seek peace, to care for others, to continually remind them that God is the peacemaker, the caregiver, and the only one that saves.

Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Let the Spirit find you this day and always, Amen. 

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Easter VI

 John 15

9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command. 15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other.

My late mentor, the Rev. Doug Paterson, once said that anyone who says they don’t believe in original sin has never met a toddler.

He was kidding, of course, but it does underline the extent to which a toddler will always be at the centre of everything—for good or for ill. Loudest, most destructive, most adorable, and always demanding the most attention. But then they grow out of it—well, some grow out of it.

Think of it as part of the rule of 80-20. The kids may make up 20 percent of the family, but they get 80 percent of the attention. And why stop at the kids? In any human activity, there are basically 20 percent that get 80 percent of the attention. 20 percent of drivers cause 80 percent of accidents. 20 percent of industry creates 80 percent of the pollution. 20 percent of workers tend to do 80 percent of the work. Even preachers fall into this: 80 percent of our sermons tend to come from no more than 20 percent of the Bible.

How did this come to be? Back in olden times, preachers preached passages of particular prominence, along with lots of alliteration. They would gravitate to their favourite passages, and return to them with surprizing regularity. To remedy this, some wise people invented the common lectionary, meaning more of the Bible shared over a three-year cycle. Your favourite passage would then appear only once every three years, by which time you might have something new to say.

Yet still, the three-year cycle of readings represents little more that 20 percent of the overall Bible. Thus, 80 percent of sermons tend to come from no more than 20 percent. Still, the idea was sound. And of course, I would take this a step further to suggest that within a particular passage there is always a verse or two that gets all the attention—akin to the rule of 80-20. Share ten verses, preach on two, and the rule returns.

How does that work? Well, imagine that like toddlers, there are verses that demand your attention. The most famous example, perhaps, is John 3.16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

But some have argued that the verse that follows says much the same thing, but with a slightly different focus:

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

In verse 17, John clarifies God’s intention—not to condemn but to save—and therefore explodes any suggestion that God is simply waiting for us to fail. It speaks to the believer’s fear, and sends grace instead.

I share all of this because our passage from John 15 has the exact same issue: a single verse among many grabs our attention and tends to be the one we lean toward. (For our online worshippers, go back and reread the passage and guess which one I’m referring to).

I’m referring to verse 13 (“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”) Amid all the loving, the mutuality, the desire to remain in his love, we get a single verse that takes us straight out of the passage and on to the cross. In the most technical sense, this is called intertextuality: one verse suggests another, or another story, or another theme. And since there is no bigger theme that Christ’s passion, you can see how verse 13 tends to draw our attention away.

This verse is about love. And it does fit with the theme of ‘abide in my love.’ In some ways, it’s a request before Calvary to remain in his love come-what-may. Because truly, there is no greater love than laying down your life for others. But this need not lead us away from the real lesson of the passage, found just a verse earlier: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”

If you participated in the Maundy Thursday service, you will recall that this verse is at the heart of the service. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, the word that gives us “mandate” in English. In this sense, the command to love one another is our mandate, or our mission—however you want to call it. There, amid all the final instructions that Jesus shares before his passion, only one rises to the level of a mandate: love each other.

In our online “static” service, Heather has played “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” a classic contemporary hymn that really states the obvious. Since our mandate is to love each other, and abide in the love found in Jesus, and since God is love, it seems rather obvious that they’ll know we are Christians by our love. Or is it?

Well, if you’ve been in church for longer than 10 minutes you’ll know that it’s not always the case. Like the twelve, people in church bicker (but not at Central, of course). Like the twelve, people in church seek pride of place (but not at Central, of course). And like the twelve, people in church are given to doubt, and even disbelief (but not at Central, of course). And even pastors have been known to sprinkle a little sugar on their message to make it go down better (but not at Central, of course).

Like any mandate, the command to love each other is aspirational. We work toward a mandate, and sometimes we achieve it, even if only for a time. But it’s still our mandate, and it’s still the reason we exist. We abide in Christ’s love, we love each other, and we show the world the power of love. We can do no other. And whatever happens, and however the world responsed, we begin and end with love—we never condemn, we only seek to save through the love, the same love we have received.

May God help us to remain among the 20 percent that are doing 80 percent of the loving in this town, and fulfil our mandate, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sunday, May 02, 2021

Easter V

John 15

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes[a] so that it will be even more fruitful.3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Any anxiety you feel about cleanliness likely comes from television.

Do you worry that your whites are not whiter than white? Your colours are not brighter than bright? Are your paper towels absorbent enough? Does your broom reach those hard-to-reach places? Do you need to dip your entire house in CLR? Does it even work?

Obviously, the Bible has a lot to say about being clean. But before I give you my one-minute overview, I want to dispel a popular myth. Nowhere in scripture does it say “cleanliness is next to godliness.” These words come from one of John Wesley’s sermons, given late in his life, and likely related to some sort of controversy around neatness and dress. In effect, he tells his followers that God condemns neither the sloppy nor the well-dressed, but in general, cleanliness is next to godliness. In other words, if you’ve been wearing track-pants for the last 400 days that’s okay, as long as they are clean.

So, what does the Bible say about being clean?

In Genesis, it’s animals for sacrifice, clean and unclean.

In Leviticus, it’s food, disease, and even the mould in your house.

In Numbers, it’s about ritual, and being ceremonially clean.

In the history books, it’s about being rewarded and restored.

In the wisdom books, it’s about a clean heart and clean hands.

In the prophets, it’s about cleansing the sin of Israel as a nation.

For Jesus, it’s about making lepers clean, and being clean on the inside (and not just on the outside).

And in Acts, and the letters of Paul, it’s about food, and declaring that nothing God has created can be named unclean.

I share all this because I’m interested in one of one of the most neglected lines in our passage about the vine and the branches. Jesus said, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” There amid all the talk of fruitfulness, and all the connections, and all the potential pruning, we get this simple declarative statement: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.”

Following my summary, Jesus is all about being clean on the inside, and not the countless ways people are considered clean on the outside. And I might go even a step further, to suggest that if we stumbled upon Jesus’ dog-eared Bible, there is one page (from Psalm 51) where the corner would decidedly be turned down: “Create in me a clean heart, O God,” the psalmist said, “and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

Do I have more evidence? Three other short verses, in fact. One that echoes Psalm 51, one that makes these heart-sayings a little more tangible, and one that belongs on a t-shirt:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5.8)

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12.34) 

For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Luke 6.45)

I told you it belongs in a t-shirt. Wear it to Mar-a-Lago, I dare you. (Okay, enough of that). But I think you see the progression here: Jesus blesses those rare ones among us who are pure in heart. Then he warns us about the treasure store we’re building up in life, and the extent to which it reflects the content of our hearts. And then a little brutal honesty, which Jesus only seems to resort to when the twelve were being particularly thick in the head.

And then he said “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The scripture he shared, the hymns they sang, the Word he gave them—taken together these words made them clean. Attend a master class in cleanliness given by the Master himself, and you will graduate with an honours in having a clean heart. But then what?

In many ways, the “then what” is the sum of Christian living. We can align ourselves with the words, we can be cleansed by the words, we can even recite the words to others, but unless they remain within us, we’ll soon find treasure elsewhere. This is why the psalmist’s prayer is twofold: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” The most difficult part—the clean heart—has already been given, and given freely. This leaves us with the desire for steadfast spirit, something that God will also freely give.

The desire for purity is something that never goes away. Moralists on the right and activists on the left, everyone wants a particular kind of purity. Everyone is seeking a purer form of the treasure they store. But God seeks a pure heart, a heart made new through the grace of Jesus Christ, and a heart that desires constant renewal, renewal in love and mercy.

Brian Wren describes the way God found us, summed up with the simple words “forgiven, loved and free.” All the bright colours and better brooms cannot compare to the purity that God gives, the purity within us, and the purity within others, when we truly see. Amen.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Easter 4

 John 10

11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”

You might call it reporting about reporting.

For voracious news watchers, this idea won’t come as a surprise. Spend an hour on any of the major cable networks and you will discover that it’s mostly reporters (or presenters) interviewing reporters about getting the story. And of course, it makes a lot a sense: if you can’t interview the prime minister, why not interview someone covering the prime minister instead?

So that’s the topline version of reporting about reporting. The next version is reporters who watch the news on television, and write articles about what they see. For start-ups and low budget news organizations, this may be the only way they can cover the story—saving the cost of sending someone to the scene. A variation on this is writing a story about someone’s appearance on the news, maybe the ultimate low-budget reporting.

Finally, there are the stories about stories. A story appears somewhere, goes viral, and other news outlets cover the viral story like a story. Most often they will cite the source, but sometimes they will simply do a similar story and pretend it was their reporting all along. Does it matter? If you’re the original author, I suppose it does—unless you’re just happy to have the idea out there.

This week’s viral example is a story that appeared in the New York Times called “Thereʼs a Name for the Blah Youʼre Feeling: Itʼs Called Languishing.” The next day, The Guardian picked it up, People Magazine the day after that, then the National Post a couple days later. Google “Languishing” and you will find even more. The original author was Prof. Adam Grant from Wharton, but it seems the idea belongs to everyone now.

Languishing, of course, is an old word, which means to feel weak or dispirited, to lack vitality, or to suffer neglect. Fast-forward to the mid-90s, and psychologist Corey Keyes applied the term to mental health, suggesting that the opposite of flourishing is languishing. Fast-forward again to this strange era we inhabit, and you see how the concept might resonate. Prof. Grant calls languishing “the neglected middle-child of mental health.” It’s the absence of well-being—not depression, but not sterling mental health either, but something in between.

See if you can find yourself among Dr. Grant’s observations: not feeling a lot of joy, somewhat aimless, feeling a sense of stagnation, maybe emptiness, generally you’re just muddling through your days. In other words, fear and uncertainty (from a year ago) has morphed into something else: less motivation, less concentration, less direction. Languishing.

The first step is to name the problem. Dr. Grant cites another viral article from last year, which appeared in the Harvard Review (and that named the prevailing emotion we were feeling as grief. We were grieving the loss of many things, both traditional and unexpected. It was helpful to give it a name and apply some well-known approaches to the problem. So too which languishing, but before we get to that, we need to meet a certain shepherd.

In a minute. First, I want you to recall the outline of a parable. A parable creates a little world, that suddenly sours, and then is resolved in such a way that it shows us the Kingdom. That’s a parable. But the same outline, the same emotional journey, can be found in other places in scripture, even the psalms. So step back and look at the twenty-third psalm through the lens of our little structure.

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need. I can rest in his pasture, near quiet waters, refreshed in body and soul. He leads me on the correct path, God’s own way. Even in the valley of shadows, there is nothing to fear, for he’s with me, giving direction and comfort. My adversaries can see me at the Lord’s table, chosen and sated. Surely my Lord will be a step behind me every day, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

From pastures green, to death’s dark vale, to an eternal dwelling place—we see the markers of this literary passage. Pleasance, peril, and eternity in God’s own realm—knowing that we will dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.

So where are we on our pandemic journey? You could argue that we inhabited a happy pre-pandemic world, which soured, and now we await release, our very own kingdom-come. Alternately, you could say we found ourselves in a COVID world, we managed, then we languished, and now we await that post-pandemic world. However you frame it, we seem to be in some late-middle stage, coping how we can, maybe feeling too tired to panic at each new peril in this dark valley.

So back to Dr. Grant. For the languishing, he suggests establishing “flow.” To become engaged in something, even for a short time, that can give us a sense of purpose. He suggests we start small, something intentional that takes us outside of ourselves. Next, he encourages people to carve out some time, away from news or email, time to focus on those small tasks or nothing at all. Finally, he says we should focus on small wins, anything that might build energy or enthusiasm in the face of languishing.

And as you might expect, all this fits with the context of our psalm. The psalmist begins with gratitude, praising the Shepherd God for stillness, direction, and companionship in times of peril. There is a flow to prayer, and the psalmist encourages us to praise God, to give thanks, and to acknowledge that we need the protection and comfort that only God can give. Prayer allows us to carve out some time for God. And every prayer is a small win, because it takes us outside of ourselves and leads us back to God’s goodness and mercy.

We name what we face, and that becomes a small step toward healing and wholeness. Then we turn to the Good Shepherd, trusting that he walks beside us, calls us forward, and dwells with us forevermore. Amen.