Sunday, September 18, 2005

Proper 20

Matthew 20
1“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the owner of an estate who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.
3“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. 4So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. 5At noon and again around three o’clock he did the same thing. 6At five o’clock that evening he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’
7“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’”
The owner of the estate told them, ‘then go on out and join the others in my vineyard.’
8“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. 9When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10When those hired earlier came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11When they received their pay, they protested, 12‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’
13“He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14Take it and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be angry because I am kind?’
16“And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.”

Tomorrow I will sleep in. I feel like such an idiot, working in the hot sun all day. Do you have any idea how heavy a basket of grapes can be? A hand full of grapes is light. Imagine a bushel of grapes, under your arm, while you reach at some impossible angle to find another cluster of grapes in a spot you can barely reach. Now do this for an entire day.

Throughout the day workers continue to appear. Noon and three and five: suddenly the place is starting to fill up. But no matter, the harvest is great. I think to myself "about time these slackers did some real work. Late, but not so late that they won't get a taste of good, honest labour and even take home a bit of change." I begin to think of the parables I learned so well: "Hard work means prosperity; only fools idle away their time." Or another: "Work hard and become a leader; be lazy and become a slave." And a personal favourite:

10A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—11and poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.

All of that seems rather silly now. Sweating away and repeating proverbs in my head, only to end the day in utter frustration. "Didn't you agree to work all day for the usual wage?" he said. "Can I not choose how I spend my money?" he said. "Should you be offended because I am generous?" he said. Well, yes, as a matter of fact, I am offended. I didn't write the proverbs. I didn't pen the wisdom of the ages only to have it tossed on its head. Here's one, while not in the Bible, maybe should be: "A fool and his money are soon parted." Tomorrow I will sleep in.


One commentator said that this passage is so effective that it doesn't require preaching: simply read the passage and let the message settle on your listener. Now I wonder, does that mean the preacher can sleep in and still expect to get paid? Suddenly the passage is growing on me.

One of the fun things about final sermons is the ability to do crazy things that I wouldn't normally do. In this case, I'm going to quote me from the last time this passage came up in the lectionary. In this way, you will be able to say "high time he left: he ran so short on original material he resorted to quoting himself." Fair enough.

What if the Kingdom of God meant that no matter how much effort we put into our work, the reward is the same? I don’t want to put Kim on the spot, but her baptism this morning may help us to understand Jesus’ point. I was also baptised as a big person, and in the twenty years since I stood at the font in Mount Albert, I have been working tirelessly in the vineyard, with my ordination as only one of aspect of a life largely given to the church. Kim has been baptised now for…let’s see…18 minutes. Will I get a better room in heaven? Will I fly to heaven business class, with a wider seat and an unlimited supply of domestic wine?

The answer, of course, is no. The flight to heaven will be first class all the way, with equal amounts of legroom, and a feast that will break your tray-table. How do I know this? From what primary source did I gather this material? I learned it in church. Or, more precisely, I learned it at Cliffcrest.

At every moment in the life of this congregation you have been welcoming new vineyard workers. At noon and three and five they arrive, and you pay them the same respect and devotion whatever time of day they come.

I can even name names. I'm not supposed to, but being a last sermon, I will. Don and Edna came to this congregation in old age. They moved here from Thunder Bay to be closer to family. They found us and joined our fellowship, and so it began. I recall in one of our Remembrance Day services they took up the challenge of recalling life at home during a time of war and described their experience as children during the First World War.

Edna left us first, and then a few months later Don departed too. The amazing thing, the thing that fills me with wonder and awe is the extent to which they were held. The workers that arrived in our midst at five o'clock received the same wage. Visits were made, meals were cooked, drives offered and given, prayers made, passings marked, and in what seemed like a very short time after Don and Edna arrived they were gone.

When God does an audit of congregational effectiveness it will not focus on the relationship between years of service and rewards offered. The audit will follow the format of Matthew 25: "For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me...and when you did it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it also for me."


Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.

St. Paul's words for us today are but one reading in a weird traffic jam of readings for us this morning. Paul's words about standing firm in his absence is part of the lectionary for September 18. So too is the parable of the workers in the vineyard and also the story of manna from Exodus 16. We didn't even read that one, because it was just too much: two of my all-time favourite scripture passages and Paul's farewell words. There's a spirit in the air.

There is no doubt in my mind that you will continue to stand firm in one spirit, that you will live lives worthy of the Gospel and that you will strive side by side for the faith you share. There is no doubt that you will continue to teach your minister more than she or he can teach you. And there is no doubt that the people of South Scarborough will continue to be blessed by your presence.


Tomorrow I will sleep in. Not because I want to arrive late and receive the same wage, but because I can rest easy knowing that the work of the Kingdom continues, that faith will be shared, love expressed and forgiveness extended. New people will arrive and others will depart and everyone will enjoy the same gift that lives in the heart of this congregation: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Proper 19

Matthew 18
21Then Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times?”
22“No!” Jesus replied, “seventy times seven!
23“For this reason, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. 24In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. 25He couldn’t pay, so the king ordered that he, his wife, his children, and everything he had be sold to pay the debt. 26But the man fell down before the king and begged him, ‘Oh, sir, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ 27Then the king was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
28“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment. 29His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. 30But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and jailed until the debt could be paid in full.
31“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him what had happened. 32Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. 33Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ 34Then the angry king sent the man to prison until he had paid every penny.
35“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart.”

Okay, so I have a credit card. Actually, I have two. I used to have a few more, but I discovered some discomfort in my back if my wallet gets too thick. And besides, why have something that you probably shouldn't use anyway.

I remember vividly the first time I got one of those offers in the mail that said "use this card to pay off the debt of another card." My mind was racing. If I pay the balance on card one this month using card two, and pay card two the following month with card three, and continue applying for cards, I won't need to repay anything ever. Right? Perhaps not the best strategy.

It does, however, explain why, in 2003, Canadians received 190 million credit card offers, or six offers for every man, woman and child. I know someone who got so fed up with endless credit card offers that he responded to one and asked for a supplemental card for his dog. And they sent it! "Who went to Pet Smart ten times last month? Buffy?!?"

While I've never played the 'revolving credit card game," it seems others have. One survey of undergraduates at a U.S. university discovered that 66% of students admitted to using one credit card to pay off another at least once. It doesn't take a huge amount of imagination to recognize that following such a debt management strategy will not end well.


The kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. "The servant fell on his knees before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

Ten thousand talents. Imagine a lot of credit cards and an infinite number of months of rolling debt. In order to earn ten thousand talents, and average worker in Jesus' day would need to get busy for 150,000 years. Put into today's dollars, and suggesting an average yearly income for a labourer of $30,000, the debt that his man owed the king was $4.5 billion.

Now, when my mother exaggerates, she uses the number 68,000. I'm not sure why, but this has always been the case. "If I told you once, I've told you 68,000 times..." Okay, got it, you are exaggerating. Time to tune you out and go to my happy place. La La La La La. Of course there is always payback. I know a certain 14 year-old who adopts an odd, vacant look from time to time, and I'm not sure HE IS HEARING WHAT I AM SAYING.

Jesus obviously is given to exaggeration too, wanting to make his point about the debt that the first man owed. With $4.5 billion on this courtly credit card, the first man appropriately falls to his knees and begs that his debt be forgiven. "Be patient with me, your highness, I will repay it all." Suddenly we realize that the first man not only has a problem with money, but has difficulty with reality too. Nevertheless, the king is moved by the begging and the pledge to repay and forgives him.

Next, the first man meets someone who owes him money, a few bucks, and grabs this poor fellow by the throat. The second man begs, but to no avail. The first man, a forgiven man who shows no forgiveness, throws him in prison. Word of this spreads quickly, and the king, hearing of the first man's actions, reverses his decision and throws him in jail. Jesus concludes the story (or more likely some overzealous editor) with the words, "that’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters in your heart."


Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us.

Forgiveness is central to the Christian religion. The command to forgive appears throughout the gospels. And understanding that command and putting it into practice is one of the most difficult aspects of the Christian life.

Whenever I enter a serious discussion about forgiveness, there is always a moment in the conversation when we arrive at the "yeah, but what about the" stage. What about the Holocaust? What about the person who is abused? What about the, what about the...

The answer is that forgiveness is not a switch that you turn on and off, but rather a process. Forgiveness is a process whereby the person doing the forgiving must arrive at the place where this is possible. The person doing the forgiving must work through the anger and the hurt and even the challenge of facing the person who has wronged them and then and only then begin to think about forgiving them. It can take a very long time. Bear in mind that the apology that the United Church made to aboriginal people in 1986 has yet to be accepted. The reason? The elders that received the apology want to see if the United Church has really changed its behaviour before accepting the apology. How do you determine if an organization has changed its ways? You wait for a few years and watch them with great care.


Mahmoud Jaballah has been held in the Metro West Detention Centre in Rexdale since 2001. During that time he has been placed in solitary confinement for periods totaling a year. Mr. Jaballah has six children, but he doesn't really know the younger ones, having only met them on a couple of occasions.

Why is he being held? He is being held because the Egyptian government has accused him of having ties to a terrorist organization. Fair enough, we might think, to put a terrorist in prison. But wait, Mr. Jaballah has never had a trial to determine if he is guilty of anything. As a matter of fact, Mr. Jaballah has never even been charged with a crime in Canada. And yet, for four years, he has been imprisoned right here in Toronto.

When my son was engaging in some good old fashioned Bush-bashing the other day I remembered the case of Mr. Jaballah and explained how we are far from perfect ourselves, holding people in prison for years without charge simply because some judge has seen some secret evidence and thinks it's okay. Isaac's response? That can't happen here, this is Canada. It seems that at age 14 my son has a better grasp of what it means to be Canadian than the solicitor-general and the Federal Court of Appeal.

What does it mean to forgive the attacks on 9-11? Forgiveness is a process, and before we forgive the 19 hijackers or the organization that sponsored them there is a great deal of work that has to happen first. People who have committed crimes need to be caught and punished. Expressions of regret need to be articulated. Reparations need to be made. There are a lot of steps. On our side, we need to ponder the things we did that may have led to the attacks, and we need to maintain the way of life that terrorists sought to destroy.

In a few weeks we will again mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War on the day set aside for solemn remembrance. One of the phrases that we will hear repeated again and again is that sacrifices were made to safeguard our freedom. It is a very moving and appropriate response. The defeat of Fascism was a turning point in human history, because it meant an end to a system whereby the state claimed the right to control every aspect of people's lives. It was a triumph for freedom over dictatorship: a dictatorship where the dictator decided who would live or die, and who would be imprisoned (with or without trial) or remain free. Clearly, the fight for freedom never ends.


The Christian story is unique among the "big" stories that have been told over the eons. It is not a story of victory in battle or a powerful leader of men. It is not a story of ingenuity or the power of the mind. It is not a story of teamwork or overcoming impossible odds. It is a story of a God that became so powerless that he was willing to die at the hands of the very children he made. It is a story of a God that insists that the most vulnerable in our midst be protected first. It is a God that stands with slaves and outcasts and prisoners and says “what you do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you do also for me.” (Matthew 25)

Jesus, keep me near the cross;
there a precious fountain,
free to all, a healing stream,
flows from Calvary's mountain.

In the cross, in the cross,
be my glory ever,
till my raptured soul shall find
rest beyond the river.

The cross of Jesus is the beginning of forgiveness. When God became vulnerable enough to die we were imprinted with a mark of sacrifice and desire that remain to this moment. When God became vulnerable enough to die we began to see God in everyone who suffers, everyone who is cast down, and everyone who cries out for release. When God became vulnerable enough to die we entered a new world where power was inverted and will ever be so. No longer do we look to Caesar or Pharaoh or the leader of the free world for a way to live, but to the ones that live in God’s way: Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Jean Vanier, Bishop Romero, Desmond Tutu and many, many others. May it always be so. Amen

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Proper 18

Romans 13

8Pay all your debts, except the debt of love for others. You can never finish paying that! If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill all the requirements of God’s law. 9For the commandments against adultery and murder and stealing and coveting—and any other commandment—are all summed up in this one commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself."£ 10Love does no wrong to anyone, so love satisfies all of God’s requirements.

Matthew 18

15"If another believer£ sins against you, go privately and point out the fault. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17If that person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. If the church decides you are right, but the other person won’t accept it, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

I want you to imagine with me that we have left worship, we've headed home, and we are about to settle in for a sumptuous meal. The wine has been poured and we raise our glasses. What do you say?

Here are a few: Prosit (Latin, be well), Zum Wohl (German, to your well being), Op je gezondheid (Dutch, to your health), A votre sante (French, to your health), Alla tua salute (Italian, to your health), Sto lat (Polish, a hundred years), Na zdorvia (to your health), L'chaim (Hebrew, to life) (from Henri Nouwen)

When you travel the globe it seems that the least interesting of the toasts is the traditional English: "Cheers!" It is really hard to know what it means. Is it a stated hope for the mood of the gathering? Is it an invitation to cheer up? Why would the English need cheering up? Perhaps the best clue comes from one of the earliest English weather reports: "The sky here is overcast" the Roman Tacitus reported in the AD94, "with continual rain and cloud." Suddenly "cheers" makes sense.

Many of the others fall into the category of "group blessing" or a wish to strengthen the well-being of those gathered. "Be well" or "to your health" or "a hundred years" (you need to be very well to make it) all point to a fullness that can be best summarised in the Hebrew "to life!" Maybe this is where "cheers" fits in, with a wish for a happy life, surrounded by friends, in the best possible health.


8Pay all your debts, except the debt of love for others. You can never finish paying that! If you love your neighbor, you will fulfill all the requirements of God’s law. 9For the commandments against adultery and murder and stealing and coveting—and any other commandment—are all summed up in this one commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself."£ 10Love does no wrong to anyone, so love satisfies all of God’s requirements.

After a good toast, comes the challenge of living together in community. Gathered at table, we bring all of ourselves: the things that enhance the community we inhabit, and the things that cause community to break down. We each play a role. It was common in the Ancient Near East to imagine the dinner table as society in miniature form, reflecting in part that the same struggles that exist between communities and neighbours exist around the table of fellowship.

It follows that in creating a community of faith centered on the "fellowship of the table" there would need to be a good deal of thought given to the area of group building and conflict resolution. The church emerged in an era with plenty of associations and groups of common purpose, and so there was lots of experience to draw on. Most endeavors were shared, being a time when things "private" and "individual" were largely unheard of. In this sense, there was a body of wisdom concerning the most effective way to live together, and so the church had much to draw from.

Here we see the development of the keystone of our faith. St. Paul, speaking to the church at Rome, quotes Jesus and his summary of the law and prophets: "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus before him, speaking to a gathering of religious leaders, responds to the question "which is the greatest commandment?" He begins with the most familiar religious phrase in Hebrew (called the Shema) and ends with a quote from Leviticus:

"The most important commandment is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these."

Love your neighbour as yourself, then, can best be described as "received tradition." It represents a continuity of belief that has been passed down from generation to generation, continually affirmed as the best means to form and maintain community. It is multi-faceted jewel, with a richness visible from a variety of angles. It begs the obvious question that Jesus himself loved to prompt ("Who is my neighbour?") and it opens doors to an every expanding understanding of human connectedness.


The sayings and stories of the Desert Fathers, Christian monks of the fourth and fifth century, describe another tradition that, while foreign to us in many ways, still point to the inevitable challenges of living in community. This is a story of Abba (Father) Sisoes:

A brother whom another brother had wronged came to see Abba Sisoes and said to him, 'My brother has hurt me and I want to avenge myself.' The old man pleaded with him saying, 'No, my child, leave vengeance to God.' He said to him, 'I shall not rest until I have avenged myself.' The old man said, 'Brother, let us pray.' Then the old man stood up and said. 'God, we no longer need you to care for us, since we now do justice for ourselves down here.' Hearing these words, the brother fell at the old man's feet, saying, 'I will no longer seek justice from my brother, forgive me, abba.'

As we imagine loving our neighbours we are confronted by another layer of tradition, that is forgiveness. Like peeling away layers as we search for the core, the command to love is wholly dependant on our capacity to forgive. We need to understand the concept, accept it, and be willing to live it out.

Like the brother before Abba Sisoes, we rehearse the commands of our faith and live comfortably knowing that they guide us until we find ourselves estranged: from ourselves, from brother, from neighbour. It is at this moment that we return to the scriptures to find a way forward, a way to apply the command "love your neighbour" in a practical way. Matthew 18:

15"If another believer£ sins against you, go privately and point out the fault. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17If that person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. If the church decides you are right, but the other person won’t accept it, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.

This is applied neighbour loving 101. It is the central format of conflict resolution for the church, and was set down for us when Jesus still spent part of each day acting as referee between squabbling disciples. Day by day they argues about greatness, belovedness, personal power, a seat beside Jesus, and on and on. And Jesus, even without the fore-knowledge that comes from being the son of the Most High, knew that the squabbling disciples would become the squabbling leaders and the squabbling members down to today. If you've never had a disagreement in church you probably weren't listening and you certainly weren't speaking.

The scandal of forgiveness is that it's been privatized. Somehow we removed it from the context of community and placed in the realm of believer and Maker alone. We need to be reminded that this was never the plan. From William Countryman:

So I can't be the only forgiven one. God has forgiven everyone else in the same way and at the same moment as me. That's a fundamental reality I have to live with. God's forgiveness isn't available to me as a separate, private arrangement. It's available to me only as part of this big package. This reality has consequences. If I want to withhold forgiveness from my neighbour, I'm effectively withholding it from myself, too. If I am willing for God to forgive my neighbour, I'm allowing God to forgive me too. It's all or nothing, everybody or nobody. (p. 42)


Many of you may be thinking 'this is all well and good, but we've in the zone, we've nailed congregational life, we've found the way to live together effectively and following the biblical models, so why is going over this again?'

Good question. The truth is that this is the beginning of a long journey, a journey that now involves two groups of believers unaccustomed to living together. Cliffcrest and Washington have unique histories, unique ways to deal with each other, and a unique understanding of the fabric of your congregation. Words have common meaning, priorities are shared and often unspoken, and the simplest task is done a 'certain way' that has become comfortable for you.

This Sunday marks another beginning. Regular monthly worship, more joint meetings, congregational consultations: the next phase of amalgamation has arrived. This is the moment when as never before you will need to rehearse the common values of community building, conflict resolution and forgiveness. There will be tension, disagreements, misunderstanding, miscommunication, sins by commission and omission and every other word or phrase you can come up with the describe human failure in a group setting. Except in this case you are making two groups one, and the issues are compounded.

Having met many of you, and having an close relationship with many, I can depart knowing that the love I have witnessed and known will be the abiding theme of the coming years. I depart knowing that Washington and Cliffcrest are made up of neighbours and friends that are ever intent at welcoming others to the table, forgiving and being forgiven, willing to walk together in the service of our Lord Jesus Christ. May it ever be so.

I want to give the last word to the late Henri Nouwen:

Nothing is sweet or easy about community. Community is a fellowship of people who do not hide their joys and sorrows but make them visible to each other in [gestures] of hope. In community we say: "Life is full of gains and losses, joys and sorrows, ups and downs--but we do not have to live it alone. We want to drink our cup together and thus celebrate the truth that the wounds of our individual lives, which seem intolerable when lived alone, become sources of healing when we live them as part of a fellowship of mutual care." (p. 57)