Sunday, March 19, 2023

Fourth Sunday in Lent

 John 9.1-38

Sometimes, when you want to truly understand something, you have to break it down:

1. Dorothy's house falls on a witch. 2. Dorothy’s new friends confront a number of challenges including flying monkeys. 3. Dorothy and her little dog discover ‘there’s no place like home.’

1. George dreams of a life beyond Bedford Falls2. Evil Mr. Potter traps George in Bedford Falls. 3. An angel convinces George that Bedford Falls isn't so bad if you have friends.

1. Scarlett loves Ashley, but Ashley marries Melanie. 2. There's a civil war and a girl falls off a horse. 3. Scarlett claims she no longer loves Ashley, and Rhett—he doesn't give…anything, really.

1. Harry, it turns out, is a wizard. 2. Strange and wonderful things happen at Hogwarts. 3. And He-who-must-not-be-named is defeated by impossibly cute children.

What we’ve uncovered is narrative structure.  And if you want to tell a story, you will need to pay attention to this three-act movement of set-up, conflict, and resolution.  Each element is essential to storytelling, and each performs an important purpose.

Act one, the set-up, introduces the characters and the problem that they together will face.  Act two is where much of the action takes place, and we see what the characters are made of.  In act three, things come to a head, and the story ends with some sort of resolution. Set-up, conflict, resolution.

Now what if we tried to fit this structure to the passage we heard this morning?  We’re in the extended storytelling part of Lent, so surely we can make this work.  On the most basic level, we get this:

1. Someone asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” 2. We learn that somehow his condition will reveal God’s glory, though we’re not sure how. 3. God’s glory is then revealed, and the man can see.

But hold on, you may be thinking: There is a lot more happening in this passage than a simple healing story.  Bigger questions are at play here, so we should expand the summary:

1. Jesus heals on the Sabbath. 2. Trouble follows, and a debate begins. 3. The truth is revealed—by Jesus, and by a newly healed man who turns out to be a rather gifted theologian.  

So let’s give this summary a closer look.  The set-up is healing on the sabbath, but this is nothing new.  Seven times Jesus heals on the sabbath, six times leading to our passage today:  

Healing Peter's mother-in-law, healing the man with the withered hand, healing the crippled woman, healing the man with dropsy, healing the man with an impure spirit, healing the man lame for 38 years.

That’s a lot of healing.  So much free healthcare, Jesus is practically Canadian.  And that’s just the sabbath healing, which is the line Jesus crosses on this particular day.  But sabbath healing is unique, because it poses a unique threat to the status quo.  Or perhaps we could say a double threat, since it twins Jesus’ unique relationship with the natural world with his rather relaxed attitude toward the letter-of-the-law.  

So trouble follows, and a debate begins.  

But I want to interrupt this sermon and add a couple of notes.  

The first is the implied separation that is happening in the Gospel of John, the separation between the Jesus community and the Jewish community.  In the passion narrative this will become more explicit, but even here we begin to see a dynamic develop.  The man’s parents, we are told, are “afraid of the Jews” and unwilling to answer their questions.  But it is important to remember that everyone in the story—Jesus, the young man and his parents, the Pharisees—everyone is a Jew.  The separation will come, obviously around the time John puts pen to paper, maybe 50 years later.  But the story of Christian anti-Judaic thought and the terrible cost it will bring is only beginning, so we need to take note.  

The other thing to note is the structure of John.  Some have described John’s Gospel as a passion narrative with a long preamble.  And the trouble that follows this healing on the sabbath reads like a trial, like the trial that will soon come.  

Bystanders question the young man, and unhappy with his answers, turn him over to the Pharisees.  The Pharisees question the young man, and doubting the basic facts of the case, they summon the parents.  The parents confirm that indeed their son was born blind, but they won’t comment further—they’re afraid to testify.  So they recall the young man, but this time it’s Jesus that’s on trial.  The young man cleverly turns the tables on them (“Do you also want to become his disciples?”) before giving his final statement on the matter.  And this the where the theologian emerges:

"Here is an astonishing thing!” he says. “You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.  Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do nothing."

This is where testimony becomes testimony, and the glory of God is revealed.  So I’m going to leave us in awe at the words of the young theologian for a moment, and this part of the healing story, and look at the human story.  Since this passage, perhaps more than any other, takes us to the heart of how we approach illness, and disability, and death.  

So how do we approach illness, and disability, and death?  To unravel the human part of the story I’ll focus on death, because it really brings the issue into fine relief.  When we’re at our best, we offer unconditional support and look for every way to help.  We deliver food, we send cards, and we remind others that when someone is hurting they’re often not themselves.  We try to find the sweet spot between active support and providing space.  We express regret, and we ask appropriately open questions like “tell me what happened?”  We do this because it’s helpful to say “I’m sorry to hear it,” and it’s helpful to allow them to tell the story.  In fact, telling the story, and telling it again, and again, is perhaps the best path to healing.  

But this is where it gets tricky.  Deep inside us, there is a longing to know more, to understand.  So it’s the question after the question that makes us human, because of the very basic need to know why this happened.  Now if someone dies at 115, there might be fewer questions, but anywhere south of 90 these days, and there is a very good chance we’ll want to know more.  And it’s a very thin line between asking questions as a means of support and asking questions to understand how they may have brought this upon themselves.  Again, we’re human.  Intentional or not, time and time again the bereaved will be faced with some form of the question that’s really just an echo of “who sinned, this man or his parents?”  

Call it a very healthy aversion to illness, and disability, and death.  And just as every funeral we attend is a rehearsal of our own, every death we hear about prompts the kinds of questions that can lead to judgement.  We need to discover that the story we’re hearing won’t be our story, even though we know that there is only one human story, and one human outcome.  

So we’ve looked at the healing story, and the human story, so now we can turn to the eternal story, the story that’s at the heart of our passage today.  And to do that, I need to torment you with some Greek verbs.  But before I do that, I need to introduce you to some Greeks.  

To begin, I give you one of the most famous sons of Ephesus, Heraclitus (Hera-CLE-tus) the Obscure. If you’re wondering why you don’t know Heraclitus, it seems the answer is in the name. But actually it’s not, because his nickname means “hard to understand” rather than unknown.

Heraclitus lived about 500 years before Jesus, but his reputation among Greek philosophers is solid, owing to a handful of ideas and some really great quotes beginning with “man’s character is his fate” or simply “character is destiny.”  It has elements of St. Paul’s adage, “you reap what you sow,” (Gal 6.7) but it’s less behavioural and more about the essence of who we are and how that tends to determine what becomes of us.  Good stuff.  

His other great quote, the one that speaks to today, is the equally profound “no one steps in the same river twice.”  He meant that the river, like everything else around us, is constantly changing, and therefore you never step in the same river twice. And like most philosophers, he had a rival, maybe a frenemy, by the name of Parmenides.  And Parmenides, being a rival, took the opposite view, summing up his view with the profoundly concise “what is, is.”  So either everything changes or what is, is.  You have to take sides, and you have to do it for proper reasons, and not just because it's fun to say, “what is, is.”

The answer to this debate—thanks to Plato—is a synthesis of these two views into a unified theory, perhaps best described as “being and becoming.”  According to this theory, we are all in a state of "becoming," whether it's growth, maturity, decline or death.  Even in death we are becoming energy for further growth.  You never step in the same river twice.

"Being," on the other hand, is the ideal and unchanging form in Greek thought.  There are the things that are transitory, and there are the things that eternally "are."  We’ve stepped in a succession of rivers, but we’ve had glimpses of something else.  And scripture gives us many examples of change and becoming, and then we find Jesus, who made the bold claim “I am.”  In fact, he did it about a dozen and a half times in John, giving us some of the most memorable declarations in scripture.  

Perhaps you can give me an example.

And this is where we have to do a little parsing.  The key here is the Greek phrase ego eimi, simply "I am."  And sometimes the examples are a little less obvious than the examples you gave me, but just as stirring.  Here’s John 8.57ff:

57The people said [to Jesus], “You aren’t even fifty years old. How can you say you have seen Abraham?”

58Jesus answered, “The truth is, before Abraham came, or came to be, I am."  

So hold that little bit of divine awkwardness for a moment and listen to part of the conclusion of today’s passage:

[Jesus asked the young man], "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"  

He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him."  

Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you, is he."  

"Lord,” he said, “I believe."

That’s the same declaration, albeit in the third person.  And the same idea of being and becoming.  The young man, who first uttered the memorable phrase “I was blind, and now I see,” is the model of becoming.  He has an encounter with the Most High, he is given the gift of healing, and now can see.  His life changes in a moment, and has now become a material witness to the power of God in Jesus.  He is transformed.  

But of course, we know that gaining faith makes your life more complicated and not less.  The young man must explain the nature of his becoming, the changes that have happened to him, and the good fortune he experienced that day near the Pool of Siloam.  Suddenly—in the eyes of some—he is a co-conspirator, and must explain the nature of this encounter, and the steps that led to it.

And this is where being comes in, in the lifegiving encounter that he neither asked for nor expected.  “Never since the world began,” he said, “has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.”  But without the touch of eternity, there would be no healing.  Only God can draw us from becoming to being: Those who believe in him, even though they die, will live.

All of us have a date with eternity, not in the overly dramatic sense, but in the sense that Holy Week and Easter will allow us to witness the most profound example of being from becoming.  Because what is the cross—on which Jesus will die—other than the intersection between the becoming of death and the eternal being of the end of death?  May each of us witness this moment, and be transformed.  Amen.

Sunday, August 07, 2022

New Covenant Baptist, August 7, 2022

 Luke 12.32-34, Isaiah 1.15b-17

Call it the ultimate personality test: Do you want the good news first or the bad news first?  

Let me put words in your mouth then, and suggest that receiving bad news first gets it out of the way, and then you have only good news to look forward to.  It’s akin to eating your vegetables first, or finishing your chores before you play outside.  For the rest of you, the good-news-first crowd, there seems to be a sense that perhaps getting some good news will fortify you for whatever comes next.  It also has elements of eating your dessert first, something that over at our house we call “pressert.”

There is no right or wrong answer, unless you’re reading the first chapter of Isaiah.  The Most High, speaking through Isaiah, doesn’t even offer a choice, leaping instead to the bad news. In fact, you could make the argument that the entire book of Isaiah is a bad-news-first book, with 39 chapters of it, and then a sudden shift to the good news.  

But that would be jumping ahead.  For chapter one, there seems to be a lively mix of good and bad news, with heavy emphasis on the bad.  The first section, the really bad news, is a message about worship.  

People! Enough burnt offerings! Enough meaningless offerings! Enough worthless assemblies!

It’s not that God is rejecting offerings, assemblies, prayers and the like, it's just that God is considering the source.  The truly bad news is that God has examined the hearts of the people gathered and found them wanting.  It’s not that worship is tiresome, meaningless, or worthless, it’s that worship has been rendered tiresome, meaningless, or worthless by the people attempting to do it.  

But it’s not just bad worship at issue here, though it does point to the priority the God puts on integrity in worship.  The issue is revealed in the next section, where God transitions from a generalised complaint to a more specific accusation:

Your hands are full of blood! So wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong.

So we’ve got a complaint, and we’ve got an accusation, and then a suggestion.  Maybe more of a command.  And like a good parent, God doesn’t just rail against bad behaviour, but offers some guidance, a way forward, a new way of overcoming the past.  God says:

Learn to do good; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.

Again, we get a window on God’s priorities here.  First it’s worship with a clean heart, then it’s seek justice (which here begins with care for the vulnerable).  If you’re hearing a faint echo here (“seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God”) then it’s no accident.  The call to righteousness is framed in a variety of ways, but the echoes and interconnections are always there.

So I want to go back to the centre of this passage (“stop doing wrong; learn to do good”) and suggest that we’re often in a little over our heads.  It’s not enough to say ‘stop doing wrong and learn to do good.’  We need some help.  Some years ago I was invited to speak to a local non-profit to talk about basic ethics.  It was an interesting challenge, and it was nice to be asked, so off I went.  Of course it had been some years since seminary, so I dusted off my old ethics textbooks and set about creating a summary of principles.  And then I decided to frame this summary of principles using something most people could relate too—like a trip to the supermarket.  So this is what I shared:

You’re in a hurry as you approach the supermarket, you know exactly what you need, and you won’t be a minute.  All the spots are taken, except that handicapped spot near the door, and in a flash of moral turpitude, you take the spot.  “What’s the harm?” you say to yourself, “I’ll just be a minute.”  Of course, immediate harm ensues, when the next person to enter the parking lot needs the spot.  So the first principle, rather aptly, is Do No Harm. 

It turns out the first item on your list is chocolate covered almonds.  Mmmm, you love chocolate covered almonds.  And as you lean over the bin, scoop in hand, you realize that you’re alone in the aisle.  Remember, you’re already on some sort of moral holiday here, so you decide to sample.  And as the taste explodes in your mouth, you remember this sermon, and with it the second principle: Pursue the Common Good.  Laws against theft are in place to allow us to live together as a society—and provide a set of assumptions about how we will behave—as we pursue the common good.

Next, you’re at the checkout, and the cashier has given you too much change.  It’s a simple enough mistake, “an error in your favour” like Monopoly, but this time you have a choice.  The first thing to consider is ‘what would I do if the situation was reversed?’  If you were short-changed, would you say something?  Of course you would!  So the next principle is simple: Treat Others as You Wish to be Treated.  We call this the “Golden Rule,” a principle that exists in some form in almost every religion and philosophy. 

Being moral is hard work, so it’s time to head home.  As you walk toward the door, you notice that the edge of the rubber mat is flipped over, creating a trip hazard.  What do you do?  In the strictest technical sense, it’s not your problem.  Stores have liability insurance just for such situations.  But what if your 90 year-old granny is two steps behind?  You fix the mat.  What if it’s your 90 year-old neighbour?  You fix the mat.  What if it’s someone you’ve never met? (You fix the mat)  See, ethics is not hard!

This scenario includes elements of all the principles we have defined so far: pursue the common good (a society where people care for strangers); do no harm (a reasonable person will see that the mat is potentially harmful); and treat others as you wish to be treated (I wish the person before me fixed the mat before I nearly tripped).  Using all of these principles together, we define our fourth principle as Develop a Moral Character. 

So just to close this story, the workshop at this local non-profit was going along swimmingly until one of the participants sharply disagreed with example four.  And they just wouldn’t let it go.  I tried more and more examples (what about your grandmother’s grandmother?) but the response was the same every time: ‘it’s not my responsibility.’  Meanwhile, at the edge of the room, various managers were wide-eyed and staring at each other, taking mental note.  

So if the task to ‘learn to do good,’ we have the outline of a program:

Do no harm, Pursue the common good, Treat others as you wish to be treated, Develop a moral character

(I should mention that I have handy wallet-sized cards available, so see me after)

Before I go back to Isaiah, I want to say more about pursuing the common good.  While I hope that you’ll never look at a chocolate covered almond the same way again, there is obviously more to the common good than deterring thieves and protecting tasty treats.  The common good is about how we live together as a society, and the various ways we safeguard each other, and in particular, the vulnerable.  

In other words, the common good of society.  And there is even a word for that—the common good of society—most often called the commonwealth. Yes, it’s also the name of an organization headed by my great and glorious queen, but it’s primarily an idea, defined as “a nation, state, or other political unit...founded on law and united by...the tacit agreement of the people for the common good” (Merriam-Webster).  It’s also a state where “supreme authority is vested in the people” and while sounding a little like Monty Python, it simply means we have a vote that matters.

So this commonwealth, the common good of society, is an idea that should inform every aspect of our lives.  Equal treatment under the law, equal access to the “goods” we share, like public education, government services and so on.  Plus, there is an element of responsibility implied too, paying our fair share of taxes, serving on a jury, making sure that others receive equal treatment and an equal share.  It’s not supposed to be political in the sense that it belongs to the left or the right—it’s foundational, the commonwealth we enjoy together. 

Until it’s not. When voices enter the conversation that reject the idea that we have a responsibility for the well-being of others, the commonwealth begins to fray.  When some are “more equal” under the law, or even believe that the law doesn’t apply to them, the commonwealth begins to fray.  When some suggest that the “goods” we enjoy cannot be shared equally—based on the state of the economy or the status of an individual, then the commonwealth begins to fray.  The commonwealth, like democracy, is an idea, and always more fragile than we assume.

And this brings us back to Isaiah.  Call him the original “social justice warrior.”  He spends chapter after chapter chronicling the ways society has failed to maintain God’s original vision.  He decrys those who make unjust laws (10.1), those who deprive the poor of rights (10.2), those who accept bribes to pervert the law (5.23), and even speculators who increase the homeless population (5.8).  And hanging over all of this, is his concern for the widow, the orphan, and the alien, the primary victims of this sort of malfeasance.  

Just as an aside, let me share with you a Canadian fun fact:  Just over 100 years ago, J. S. Woodsworth (who would go on to found Canada’s first socialist party) was busy editing a newspaper for those engaged in our most notorious general strike, in Winnipeg, Manitoba (picture Fargo, then drive north 150 miles).  The police were alarmed by his words and decided to charge him with seditious libel, a serious charge then as now.  On closer examination of his editorial however, the crown was forced to withdraw the charges, since almost everything he wrote in the paper was a direct quote from Isaiah.  

I share all of this for a couple of reasons, the first being that reading the Bible can turn you into a dangerous radical, and the second being that when society begins to fray, we need to find some common ground to begin again.  When everything is polarized, and politics shifts firmly from competitors to enemies, and even the events of the recent past are subject to wild variations of interpretation, we need to find some common ground.  

So what if we began with moral theology?  What if we could agree that there are three or four principles that form our common moral heritage and tried to move forward from there?  For you see, moral theology doesn’t belong to the church alone.  People beyond the church might simply call it “ethics” or “values” or even “civics,” it’s still moral theology, and it begins with a few, simple principles—that followed correctly—can further the commonwealth of all peoples. 

I want to conclude with the all important question, “but how?”  How do you develop a moral character when the world is drawing us toward tribalism and self-interest and the abiding sense that fewer and fewer things are our responsibility.  We can do our best, of course, but we still live in the world and we still internalise these pervasive messages.  So, to suggest a way forward, I might seek some input from Thomas Merton, or rather his early mentor, Mark Van Doran.  

Professor Van Doran, when teaching Don Quixote, would say to his students: “One of the lessons of this book is that the way to become a knight is to act like a knight.”  To a young Thomas Merton it became a lesson about sainthood and the contemplative life: to become a saint, you need to act like a saint.  Or put another way, if you want to become virtuous (or show heroic virtue, the definition of a saint), you need to act as someone with virtue.  Put still another way, we have our quote from Barbara Brown Taylor: “You are loved; act like it. You are redeemed; act like it. You are a saint; act like it. Become what you already are and you will be blessed.”

Jesus said ‘provide for yourselves treasure in heaven that will never fail, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  To understand resurrection, we must live as resurrected people.  For we know that wherever people are learning to do good, God is there.  Wherever people are trying to develop a moral character, God is there.  Wherever people seek equity, fairness, compassion, God is already there.  We don’t need to reinvent the commonwealth, the common good of society, we need to look for it in the people we meet.  Amen.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

New Covenant Baptist, June 12, 2022

 Luke 15.11-32

Strange place, Florida.  Coming from the frozen north, we are unaccustomed to such unusual flora and fauna, that never disappears under a blanket of snow.  When I told my father that there are cranes that stand four feet tall, he refused to believe it.  Then I learned (after carelessly swimming in the ocean) that we live in the sharkbite capital of the world.  Then I further learned that every puddle, ditch, or drain might harbour an alligator!  Letting that sink in, I opened the menu at a rather lovely riverside pub and saw gator bites, clearly a case of eat them before they eat you.  Finally, I’ve noticed that lizards seem weirdly attracted to our new “Florida car,” maybe they find the colour white somehow soothing?  I’m already underway and then I see one on the hood of the car, clinging on for dear life!  First we make eye contact, and he gives me that pleading look that says “you gonna stop or what?  You still see me, right?  If you stop here, I’d get off, seriously.”  Then I stop making eye contact, and pretend the whole thing is a bad dream.  How many accidents are caused by these talkative lizards?  Forget gators and sharks, maybe the lizards are the most dangerous creatures in Florida?

How appropriate then, that our parable begins with another frightening creature in another dangerous place: the belly of the whale.  Yes, the lesson is the prodigal son, and no, there were no whales in the Sea of Galilee where Jesus loved to teach and preach.  But I’m fairly convinced that one story casts light on the other.  My question is how did Jesus come upon the parable of the prodigal son, and I’m certain it began in the belly of a whale.

Jonah lists his occupation as prophet, but you would hardly know it from the beginning of the story.  He receives a call from God—a command really—to go to Nineveh and prophesy against them.  God has taken note of their great wickedness, and the prophet's job is to give them one last chance.  

Jonah gets this call, and even as he’s hanging up the phone, he’s already slipping on his coat and running out the door.  But it’s not toward Nineveh—the great city overcome by great wickedness—it’s in the exact opposite direction.  Our Jonah’s on his way to Jaffa, to catch a ship, with a one-way ticket to Tarshish—which I hear is lovely this time of year.

But I don’t think Jonah was really interested in Tarshish, he was only interested in getting away.  And so he must have breathed a deep sigh of relief once on board, sailing west, away from trouble—until trouble found him.  A great storm came up, maybe the perfect storm, and the crew began to panic.  They cast lots to determine who was to blame, but they could simply have noted a rather sheepish looking prophet hiding away below.  You see, God was now angry at Jonah too, squandering his prophetic inheritance—and you could see it in the wind and the waves.  

(My mother loved to tell the story of my early days as a mariner, aged 2, and my sudden disappearance every time the wind or waves came up.  Seems I would go below and hide in the head, making me a member of the Jonah school of prophets.)

Obviously the lot fell to Jonah, but the crew did something unexpected: they resisted throwing this fugitive overboard.  Maybe they were following the international rules of yacht racing.  These days you can be disqualified for throwing someone overboard, the rule being that you need to finish the race with the same number of crew members you began with.  Why such a rule is needed is a matter of speculation, but perhaps it has something to do with the temperament of skippers.  So whether it was racing rules or just common decency, they continued to resist, and resist,  until they could resist no more—and over Jonah went.  

But the story doesn’t end there, because God still had plans for Jonah.  And like that day you realise that the pigs are having a happier time—eating their tasty pig pods—Jonah comes to see the same thing, or rather feel the same thing, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale.  Now, it’s a well-known fact that prophets cause indigestion, so Jonah is regurgitated onto a beach, to mend his ways, and finally go to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh is big—three days across—and Jonah spent those three days doing what prophets do, saying “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed.”  Obviously he did something right, because everyone in Nineveh put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes, from the king in his regal sackcloth and this throne of ashes, to the ordinary folk, and the children, and even the family dog.  Even before the invention of Instagram, household pets were wearing sackcloth, looking sad and adorable.

Now God is overjoyed.  So overjoyed that God forgave the people of Nineveh, trading their sackcloth robes for some finer robes, celebrating with them the repentance they so thoroughly embraced.

But Jonah wasn’t celebrating.  He stood at a distance and refused to celebrate the good fortune of Nineveh.  “This!” he prayed to God, “this is why I ran to the coast!  I knew that you’re a compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  A God who relents from sending calamity!  When this wicked city shows a little remorse, and puts tiny Spot in sackcloth, you throw a forgiveness party instead of smoting them as you ought!”

And then the Lord said to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?  We should celebrate with all these people, foolish as they are, because they were lost, and now they are found!”  

Do you see that Jesus did there?  How did Jonah and the Whale become a parable, a window on the Kingdom?  Jesus did it the only way that made sense: turn Jonah into two people, two brothers, and set the story on dry land, which is always safer.  And so he did. 

Early Jonah, maritime Jonah, is profligate with his prophetic gift, as the younger brother is profligate (note that word) with half his inheritance.  Jonah discovers the error of his ways in the belly of a whale, and the younger brother makes this same discovery in a pigpen, never sure which would smell worse.  Then we meet later Jonah, born-again prophetic Jonah, who judges Nineveh harshly and hopes they get what they deserve.  He can’t stomach all this forgiveness and understanding, all this slow anger and steadfast love.  He came for the smoting, and all he got was a lousy sackcloth t-shirt.

Funny word, profligate.  I used it once to describe my own son, and he pretended that he didn’t know what it meant.  “You know, profligate, like one more broken cell phone, smashed to bits or soaked in water.”  Why does everyone under 30 have a cracked screen, or a cell phone drying out in a bag of rice?  But I digress.

Profligate means “recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources.”  And who might that be?  Running across the field to greet his lost son, fitting him with the finest robe, killing the fatted calf, forgiving just over 120,000 Ninevites (God is pretty precise about this number), and generally being profligate with grace.  Forgiveness would seem to be a finite resource, at least it is in human terms, but God is profligate—recklessly extravagant with forgiveness and steadfast love.

So why does Jesus remake the story, making one prophet into two brothers?  Well, maybe the answer is vocational, found in the role of the prophet, the role Jesus knew well.  Take Isaiah for example.  In chapter 39 he’s saying to the old king, “look around at everything you have, because one day it will all be carried off to Babylon,” and just a few verses later it’s all “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people...he tends his flock like a shepherd…he gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart.”  

In other words, prophets—people of faith—need to tell forth, saying things like, “Forty days more, and DeLand may be destroyed.  And maybe Orange City for good measure!”  AND, prophets—people of faith—need to forgive, as God forgives.  So Jesus gave a thought to his audience, primarily his not-so-clever disciples, and knew that a simple telling was better.  One prophet becomes two brothers, dividing one conflicted person into two stereotypical siblings, with a forgiving father, profligate with his love.

Of course, Jesus had another motive, beyond adapting this story for landlubbers: Jesus wanted to highlight what happens to the righteous when they cross over into self-righteousness.  And it’s easy to do!  Within minutes of announcing that we were moving to Florida, someone said “hey, have you done the Florida man birthday challenge?”  I’m sure you’ve done this: you google the words “Florida man” and your birthday, usually giving you a newspaper headline.  Mine, appropriately enough, produces the headline “Florida Man Confesses to Cops, Says ‘Jesus Told Me To Drive My Ferrari Off a Pier.’” (I expect the hood was covered in lizards) Or Carmen’s entry, “Florida Man Attacked By Neighbourhood Squirrel Who Has Residents On High Alert.”  Obviously our dangerous wildlife theme persists, but I’m more concerned about our innate capacity to judge Florida man, googled on every day of the year.  

It’s a short street from righteous to self-righteous, surrounded as we are by the foolish, the deluded, and seemingly unrepentant.  It’s a hard pill to swallow, knowing that this profligate God we serve has a limitless desire to forgive.  And even as we ponder this hard pill to swallow, we enter a sort of funhouse mirror to become the older brother ourselves.  Remember, the moment you think you have nothing to confess you suddenly have something to confess.  And on it goes.

In the end, parables are like personality tests, the challenge being ‘find yourself in this story.’  Are we younger brothers, hoping against hope that there will be redemption in the end?  Are we older brothers, so certain in our position that we’re willing to challenge grace itself?  Are we Jonah 1.0, running from our call, willing to risk everything, even life itself?  Or are we Jonah 2.0, so caught up in being prophetic that he can’t see when he’s succeeded?  Scripture gives us the opportunity to try all these roles on, and see what fits.  And over all this, we meet the God who saves us, mostly from ourselves.

May you know this profligate God, reckless in mercy and steadfast in love.  And may you be profligate in your love for others, Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Farewell Service, Central United Church

 Ephesians 3

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

20 Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Everything I know about saying goodbye I learned from the movies.

My first instinct was to recreate the end of the Salzburg Folk Festival, where Max says “the highest musical honour in the Ostmark goes to the family Von Trapp” (applause, spotlight in an empty entrance). The family Von Trapp…” Then someone shouts “They’re gone!”

The other option, of course, was to rewind the tape and sing to you:

Regretfully they tell us/But firmly they compel us/To say goodbye to you./So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, good night.

But I’m not going to sing, so that won’t work. This, then led to my perfect fantasy ending where a twister carries me off to some magical kingdom (maybe THE magical kingdom) and then I wake up only to discover that you’re all still with me—only now you’re transformed into various farm hands and my Auntie Em.

Sadly, I expect it will be more like the end of Casablanca, where you insist we get on the plane, remind us that we’ll always have Paris, and say something like “Here’s looking at you, kid.” That might work.

Better yet, we might want to look to our dear friend St. Paul for some direction on saying goodbye. It was my late mentor, the Rev. Doug Paterson, who once said “do you really think your preaching can improve on the words found in scripture?” He was talking about funeral homilies, but the point stands, because everything we need for learning, guidance, and inspiration is found in the pages of the Bible. Case in point:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4)

Finally, brothers and sisters, farewell. Be perfect, be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace shall be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss. (2 Corinthians 13)

But wait until the pandemic is over. I think you can see that Paul is giving us the perfect balance of encouraging the faithful, praising their goodness, and highlighting what truly matters. Now I’m no St. Paul, but I hope that in our time together I have spent enough time encouraging you to be faithful, praising your goodness, and highlighting what truly matters—the love and forgiveness found in our Lord Jesus Christ.

But this sermon is not about me. This sermon—and hopefully every sermon—is about what God can do through us, the grace and peace that we discover through Christ and share with others. It is about lives transformed and communities renewed, it is about the power of work and prayer, and it is about remaining open to where the Spirit leads. Paul captured this too, in our reading for today:

Now to God who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Glory in the church belongs to God alone, and we, as God’s servants, get to share in that glory, to dwell in that reflected light, to participate in the next thing God will do in this place. As one chapter closes and another begins, we trust in God’s power to work within you and continue to write the remarkable story of this church.

In a few moments I will stumble over more words, try to express more gratitude, and finally say “auf wiedersehen, good night.” Whatever I say, and however haltingly I say it, the meaning is this: to serve here has been a great gift, a profound honour, and a blessing from God. Amen.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

 Mark 6

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

53 When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Suddenly everyone’s going into space.

Well, when I say everyone, I mean everyone who’s a billionaire and can fund their own celestial science project. Sir Richard Branson seems to have won the race to create a space tourism industry, but others disagree. He only went up 50 miles, and everyone knows space is 60 miles up, right? Quietly, some ask the awkward “couldn’t this money be better spent on problems here on earth” question, but that betrays the spirit of the age.

All of this put me in mind of the last time too few people held too much weath, and that would be during the Gilded Age. Generally the period began in the 1870s and ushered in rapid economic growth, industrialization, and massive wealth inequality. The names of the leading men of the age are still familiar to us, so dramatic was their share of the wealth. Rockefeller, Carnegie, Guggenheim, and Vanderbilt are perhaps the best known, some for the scale of their wealth and some for charitable causes they supported. The library across the street was funded by the Carnegie Co. of New York, an example of something the Gilded Age gave us—our own little piece of all that excess wealth.

Something else the Gilded Age gave us was stress. Yes, stress existed before 1870, but the race to become wealthy in this new age created a new kind of pressure. The myth that if you worked hard enough you could become the next Rockefeller tormented the minds of many, and the result was a new ailment, the nervous breakdown. And with a new ailment comes a new cure, or perhaps we might say a new old cure, and that would be rest.

S. Weir Mitchell, a neurologist based in Philadelphia, created the rest cure, “a regimen of forced bed rest, restricted diet, and a combination of massage and electrical muscle stimulation in place of exercise.”* He is also known for his theories on women’s health, particularly the idea of “hysteria,” and in doing so caused great harm. Yet on the rest cure, his influence was short-lived, to be replaced by another nineteenth century innovation, the work cure.

The work cure was definitely a product of the age. A new theory replaced the idea that troubled people were somehow depleted, suggesting instead that people are like streetcars, meaning they need only draw on “sources of power beyond themselves.” Like the crisis that follows when the 501 gets disconnected from the overhead wires, you just need to reconnect and get going. I expect this is where the foolish advice to “keep busy” comes from, something we still hear today. Eventually, the work cure was discredited too, but vestiges remain in the popular imagination.

Jesus said “Come with me to a quiet place and get some rest.”

It sounds familiar because it is, but it also sounds familiar because of a more famous passage in Matthew 11 where Jesus says to the crowd “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Looking closely, these two statements are somewhat different, and require a look.

The first cure is finding rest in a quiet place. This is advice Jesus lives and shares throughout the Gospels. He knows the power of solitude, the need to retreat from the crowds and their demands—and be alone. He makes time to be alone with God, which is a remarkable thing considering his utterly unique relationship with the Most High. Still, he takes the time, and commends taking time to others, to find a quiet place and get some rest.

The second cure is finding rest in Jesus. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” The reason we share this quote at funerals is precisely because Jesus is the ultimate source of comfort. We support one another, we try to find the words, we might give a little advice, but ultimate rest is found in the arms of Jesus. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he said, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Since I’m the third generation off the farm, I needed to look up yoke to recall exactly what it looked like. Essentially it’s a cross-beam, laid over two animals, often oxen, connecting them and allowing the farmer to control both animals. These “beasts of burden” work together to pull a plough, under the direction of the ploughman.

So a couple of things here. The first is the promise that Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light. When you choose to follow in the Way of Jesus, you are literally yoked to him and expected to do work. Preach and teach, forgive others, seek the Kingdom where it may be found; visit the sick, feed the hungry, encourage the despairing. “Love and serve others,” our creed says in summary, while you “seek justice and resist evil.” So we’re yoked, but the yoke is easy. And the yoke is easy precisely because we’re yoked to Jesus, the source of all rest.

That’s the first promise, yoked to the source of rest. The second part of the promise is implied in the design of the yoke. We are yoked together, not alone, but yoked to fellow travellers. We find greater rest when we share our burdens with each other, when we remember that we never pull alone. Everything that a life of faith demands is best met when we look to each other, and understand that discipleship is always a shared task.

In another time and another place, great wealth existed alongside great poverty. The time was the late Roman period, and the place was North Africa, called the “crown jewel” of the Roman Empire. North Africa was the wealthiest province, produced the most grain, and generated many other exports including ceramics and olives (and olive oil). All this made North Africa the place to acquire wealth and pursue your dreams. At the same time, great poverty existed with an underclass of labourers, slaves, and ex-slaves doing the bulk of the work. And into this setting stepped Augustine of Hippo, later St. Augustine, ministering to everyone in the busy port city of Hippo Regius.

You can imagine the pace of life in Hippo, the restlessness that surrounded everyone. The wealthy seeking more wealth, the poor seeking basic needs each day, the sick seeking relief. The early church stood in the centre of all this activity and tried to reach everyone. And finally, it took Augustine, with wisdom from God, to find the words, words that echo Mark 6 and Matthew 11 and offer a word to all the seekers of Hippo. He said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

However restless you feel today, and whatever burden you face, may you find rest in God, in this and every age. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 14

One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. 2 There in front of him was a man suffering from abnormal swelling of his body. 3 Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him on his way.

5 Then he asked them, “If one of you has a child[a] or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull it out?” 6 And they had nothing to say.

7 When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. 9 If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. 11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

12 Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

It seems unnatural to part with a book. A book is like an old friend. A book is like an engaging conversational partner. A book is like a member of the family. Alas, you can’t keep every book you read, or intend to read, or read then stop when some other book demands to be read. This week I thought long and hard about giving away Robert Putnam’s book. Not that Robert Putman, the other Robert Putnam, the one who wrote “Bowling Alone.”

So while I ponder the fate of my well-worn copy of Bowling Alone, maybe I’ll tell you about it as I try to decide. In a nutshell, it’s a book about social trends in the United States, and in particular the state of community or “social capital.” These things are measured and studied in depth, but Putnam has assembled all the studies and surveys into a single volume. Here are a few examples—apropos to our reading—on the topic of eating:

In the last two decades of the last century, the amount of entertaining at home dropped by 45 percent. The decline was so sharp, that if the trend holds, the entire practice of entertaining at home will cease. The evening meal? Down by a third in the same period. So, you wonder, if people are eating at home less, and entertaining at home less, perhaps there’s a shift to restaurants. Not based on statistics. Between 1980 and 2000, the number of “full-service” restaurants in America dropped by 25 percent, the number of bars and luncheonettes by 50 percent. People were not having picnics either: they are off by 60 percent (pp. 98-102).

After reading the first hundred pages or so, it all seems rather grim. The ties that bind people to each other are declining and ending, and I wish I could assure you that it is limited to south of the border, but I cannot. Still, it’s a book worth reading, because once you get past the bad news at the beginning, you get the part that he revealed in the sub-title of the book: “The Collapse and Revival of American Community.”

Eating, of course, is at the centre of our experience of being human. We think about food all the time, at least three times a day. If we’re not actually eating a meal, we’re just as likely to be planning a meal, or thinking back to a meal we’ve enjoyed. Some of us have others to feed, while others feed only themselves. Alone or with others, we cannot avoid the need to eat.

Taking the long view, eating has always been a primary preoccupation of humans, and most agree that it is the very foundation of society. Years ago I read a very convincing article that suggested that the foundational impulse of agriculture was the production of beer. The discovery of beer was the push needed to get our forebears in the Nile Delta to get it together and cooperate on farming. Now, whether you can accept the “beer theory” of human development or not, it seems clear that at some point food production (and the eating that followed) became a key factor in the formation of human society.

Key enough, that the study of eating unlocks much of what we can know about societies in general. From a couple of anthropologists named Farb and Armelogos, we get this:

In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…Once the anthropologists finds out where, when and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members (Crossan, p. 68).

Looking back at “Bowling Alone” for a minute, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of the fact that at the same moment family meals and conventional restaurants were in sharp decline, the number of fast food places doubled. Hold that thought.

Jesus, the first and best anthropologist, said this:

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

He was describing what future scholars would call food exchanges, “a series of obligations to give, receive and repay” (p. 69). As anyone who has ever planned a significant meal or event will tell you, there are layers and layers of thinking involved:

Should we invite them? We were invited to their party. Where should we seat them? Can we put the second and third cousins at the back? We can’t serve chicken; everyone serves chicken. Where should we seat the minister? Surely someone on the list must go to church…we’ll put him with them.

You get the picture. Jesus understood the politics of food and meal planning and knew that the primary motive for issuing invitations was quid pro quo. We become obligated. We seek to create obligation with certain people, and avoid it with others. We tend to share our table with people just like us. The United States was 125 years old before an African-American was invited to dine at the White House. 36 years after the end of slavery, Booker T. Washington, leader and former slave, was invited to dine with then-president Theodore Roosevelt. The house itself, built by slaves, was standing for over 100 years before an African-American was invited to dine there.

When we imagine the people with whom we want to share a meal, we naturally begin with family, and then neighbours (usually our economic equals). Jesus takes this further and adds the people better off, and more likely to repay in style. Call him cynical, but as first and best anthropologist, Jesus knew that our selfish impulses usually win out. This might go some way to explain his waning popularity as the Gospel progresses. Jesus knew that comfort and selfish desire win over generosity and selflessness every time.

But he was persistent. And maybe even a little rude. He is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (a social promotion for a humble Nazarene) and decides that this is the moment to share a couple of parables that would condemn most of the people at the party. “Thanks for the invite” he said, “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

Not only does he suggest we reject the principle of “inviting up,” he goes much further and suggests that we invite the least desirable people in society, the people that his hosts thought were rejected by God. Remember the question “who sinned, this man or his parents that he be born blind?” There is an entire theological worldview in this one simple question. God punishes sin, according to this view, and the secret to understanding any misfortune is simply determining the source of the sin. Jesus couldn’t disagree more.

God’s kingdom, and the table in that kingdom, is long and eclectic, populated by exactly the people Jesus describes. God doesn’t enumerate sinners and bar the door: God opens the table to everyone, casting aside both the idea of desirable and undesirable and severing the link between misfortune and sin. God’s blessing is extended to those who model their table after the divine table, making invitations precisely because the people invited are in no position to repay.

Way back in time, some 13 years ago, some very dedicated elders received a resume from a minister who listed “daycare cook” as the first item under work experience. I expect that gave me the edge, since I soon learned that my hard-earned skill from the daycare would be needed at Central. As an aside, there is no greater character building exercise than cooking for preschoolers. I still have no adequate response to the words “Ewwww, what’s that?”

Of course, Tuesday night dinner is just the beginning of the story of Central and food. Eventually WKNC added more meals, groceries, and takeaway meals, and then our dear friends from WAES appeared on the scene, taking food distribution to the next level. Even Shakespeare in Action has been helping distribute food during the pandemic, illustrating the size and scale of the heavenly banquet happening at 1 King Street. And that’s without looking south to Mount Dennis, where we created an entire community ministry dedicated to food security.

In every way we can, we have been reversing the trends that disconnect people from their food, and underling the ways in which sharing a meal is at the heart of being human. We have made the last first, and in doing so, we helped bring the Kingdom to this community. May this banquet persist, and may we always find ourselves among the people with needs greater than our own. Amen.

Sunday, July 04, 2021

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

 Mark 6

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph,[a] Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. 7 Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

8 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9 Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

Most often, preachers are just preachin’ to themselves.

Take the lesson about travelling light. As the boxes pile up, and the donation guy at the Value Village becomes my new best friend, I hear the instruction to travel light. You read “no bread, no bag, no money” and I hear “no books, no nick-nacks, and no electronic gewgaws.” Clearly, when they say “the Bible speaks,” it’s speaking to me.

A colleague once told me that early on her possessions were limited to what she could fit in her Pinto. As a student she moved frequently, and often across the country, and so decided to limit herself to the contents of a car, neatly packed, but not so neatly packed that the Pinto would not move. Her life had defined limits in terms of what she would allow herself to possess, and as she recounted the story, it was obvious she looked on those days with some satisfaction.

So Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

Permitted: a staff, sandals, and one tunic.

Not permitted: bread, knapsack, money, extra tunic.

And this got me thinking about ancient lists, and a particular passage from John Dominic Crossan:

The Cynic would not appear anywhere without his knapsack, staff, and cloak, which must invariably be dirty and ragged and worn so as to leave the right shoulder bare. He never wore shoes and his hair and beard were long and unkempt. (Jesus, p. 115)

Permitted: a staff, knapsack, and one dirty tunic.

Not permitted: shoes (sandals) and apparently personal hygiene.

The reason I share these lists is to illustrate that each movement (in this case being a disciple of Jesus or being a Cynic) had a set of standards with regard to lifestyle. And apart from a few variables, the lists seem fairly similar. The key difference (aside from personal hygiene, which the Gospel doesn’t mention) is the use of a knapsack. In the case of a Cynic, the knapsack was an important symbol of all that you need to travel through life. So setting aside the modern definition of the term, essentially a Cynic was a person committed to travelling lightly and possessing few things.

Cicero tells the story of an encounter between Diogenes, the central thinker among the Cynics and Alexander the Great:

But Diogenes, certainly, was more outspoken in his quality of Cynic, when Alexander (the Great) asked him to name anything he wanted: “Just now, Diogenes said, “stand a bit away from the sun.” Alexander apparently had interfered with his basking in the sun.

The most powerful man in the ancient world offered him anything he wanted, all he wanted was a better tan. In many ways, this story best describes the Cynics’ beliefs: a desire to step outside cultural norms and embrace the freedom that comes without property and a raft of possessions. Hence the knapsack. A Cynic had to be free to travel through life with only the things he could carry in his bag.

Now recall that Jesus didn’t permit his followers even a knapsack. No bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic: only a staff and a sturdy pair of sandals. The message of new life in Christ required no possessions, only the things that would make walking safe. In all things, the disciples were to be totally dependent on God and on the generosity of others.

And this, it seems, is the key contrast between the Cynics and the followers of Jesus: one achieved freedom through self-dependence (everything needed was in one bag) and the others achieved freedom through complete dependence. They were to trust in God to provide what they needed through the people they met on the way.

It would be impossible to have a discussion on possessions and Pintos without talking about the Desert Fathers and Mothers. By about the beginning of the fourth century, the desert began to fill up with monks and would-be monks who attempted to follow the example of St. Anthony. They made their homes in caves and abandoned buildings and practiced the most severe form of aestheticism: living without possessions and living completely on the generosity of others.

We learn about the fathers and mothers by the stories recorded by their many followers and admirers. They formed a collection of “sayings” that are told and retold down to our day. This retelling comes from Thomas Merton:

One of the brothers asked an elder saying: “Would it be all right if I kept two coins in my possession, in case I should get sick?”

The elder, seeing his thoughts, and that he wanted to keep them, said: “Keep them.”

The brother, going back to his cell, began to wrestle with his own thoughts, saying: “I wonder if the Father gave me his blessing or not? Rising up, he went back to the Father, inquiring of him and saying, “in God’s name, tell me the truth, because I am all upset over these two coins.”

The elder said to him, “since I saw your thoughts and your desire to keep them, I told you to keep them. But it is not good to keep more than we need for our body. Now these two coins are your hope. If they should be lost, would not God take care of you? Cast your care on the Lord, then, for he will take care of us.”

At some point a possession becomes more than a possession and becomes a hope. At some point it takes on qualities beyond its utility and is given some power of position that it does not deserve. An RRSP becomes a symbol of “freedom” rather than simply a reasonable approach to retirement. A certain car may seem to make you cooler, when in fact, through a strict application of the rules of the road, every vehicle will get you from A to B in about the same time.

Now, rather than giving you several more examples and adding to the self-indictment nature of this sermon, it might be more interesting to go back to the beginning, and try to understand the DNA of this dependence on God we are called to. We need look no further than Exodus 20.

It is Commandment One that we should have no other gods beside the One True God. In the Ancient Near East, this commandment was a little more tangible. Your neighbours, the tribe just over the hill, likely had a God for everything. Fertility problems? Try Min of Eqypt. Trouble with your tomatoes? Osiris. Heading to war? Horus (weirdly also the god of childbirth). Thing’s a little chaotic? Try Seth (actually, I think he brought chaos, but the page I looked at is not clear).

Imagine how unfair it must have seemed to the Israelites to be surrounded by people with a god for every occasion and be left with only One God. As a rule, whenever someone offers you the “one solution” to all your problems we should become appropriately suspicious. It just seems more practical to twin specific problems with specific solutions rather than imagine that one thing is going to be able to do it for us. The first commandment, however, is the reminder that in the world of God, we are meant to travel light.

So just as the twelve were sent out with no bread, no bag, no money, and no extra tunic, they were also sent out without Baal, Min, Horus and the rest. They were to be totally dependent on the One True God, not a Swiss Army Knife of divinities to keep them from harm.

As messages go, “be dependent” may be the toughest one to sell in this society. We spend childhood moving from dependence to independence, we hear the message from every side to forge your own path and set your own goals and be your own person. But here, within these walls, the message is quite different: be the person God wants you to be, follow in the way of Jesus Christ, let the Spirit guide you. This is what it means to be dependent on God—not helpless—but open: open to the idea that God will give you what you need to make your way in the world.

So find a staff, some sturdy sandals, put on your best Sunday tunic and go with God! Amen.