Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15
9I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me. So remain faithful to my love for you. 10If you obey me, I will keep loving you, just as my Father keeps loving me, because I have obeyed him.
11I have told you this to make you as completely happy as I am. 12Now I tell you to love each other, as I have loved you. 13The greatest way to show love for friends is to die for them. 14And you are my friends, if you obey me. 15Servants don't know what their master is doing, and so I don't speak to you as my servants. I speak to you as my friends, and I have told you everything that my Father has told me.
16You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name. [a] 17So I command you to love each other.

I enjoy long lines at the supermarket. How else will I get to enjoy magazines? It's not that I'm too cheap to buy them. And I'm certainly not counseling you to read and not buy. It's just that I have an abiding interest in the types of tests that appear in a certain genre of magazine. Suddenly you are thinking "Michael would like to read Cosmopolitan, but he's not brave enough to buy it." Maybe so, but tell me that you can resist articles with titles such as "I think my boyfriend is a moron: Take the Test."

To satisfy your desire for tests, (and to save time at the supermarket) I give you, self-described as "the world's largest testing centre." Every type of test imaginable is there, ready to burn away the hours as you discover endless things about yourself and the people around you. In the spirit of John's gospel, and following our theme of love, I give you a few test examples:

Emotional IQ Test
Jealousy Test
Love Diagnostic Test
Relationship Satisfaction Test
Self Disclosure Test for Couples
Commitment Readiness Test
Giver-Taker Profile Test
Do I Need Therapy Test
Procrastination Test - Abridged

I love the last one. It makes sense that the procrastination test be an abridged test. Clearly too much time was spend wasting time for the procrastinators to have a full test.

At the end of most tests is the scoring portion. You know the drill: you tally your responses (a, b, c...) and add the assigned numbers and voila! Every question is now answered. "Yes, your boyfriend is a moron," or "Maybe you should give him one more chance" and so on.

Sometimes authors will describe places to find yourself on some sort of spectrum without giving you the test. They will introduce a range of possibilities and the challenge is to see yourself (and others) on the list. For today's purposes, I want to share just such a list by M. Scott Peck, author of The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

According to Peck, there are four stages of human spiritual development:

* Stage I is chaotic, disordered, and reckless. Very young children are in Stage I. They tend to defy and disobey, and are unwilling to accept a will greater than their own. Many criminals are people who have never grown out of Stage I.
* Stage II is the stage at which a person has blind faith. Once children learn to obey their parents, they reach Stage II. They tend to follow authority without question. The majority of good law abiding citizens never move out of Stage II.
* Stage III is the stage of scientific skepticism. A Stage III person does not accept things on faith but only accepts them if convinced logically. Many people working in scientific and technological research are in Stage III.
* Stage IV is the stage where an individual starts enjoying the mystery and beauty of nature. While retaining skepticism, he starts perceiving grand patterns in nature. His religiousness and spirituality differ significantly from that of a Stage II person, in the sense that he does not accept things through blind faith but does so because of genuine belief.

Like all good theories, this one needs time to rattle around in your sub-conscious mind for a while. Rattle at will.


I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me.

You did not choose me. I chose you and sent you out to produce fruit, the kind of fruit that will last. Then my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name. So I command you to love each other.

Reading John is a bit like eating the juice concentrate without adding the water. Some of us prefer it with three cans of water and some of us with four, but this is concentrated ideas one atop another until we risk losing sight of the very thing we want to know. For the preacher, every verse in John is a sermon begging to be preached, every collection of verses too much to take in.

Standing back a bit, verses begin to speak to one another and patters appear: "I have loved you, just as my father has loved me." And a few verses later: "You did not choose me. I chose you." Love and chosenness go hand in hand here: The disciples did not pursue Jesus and ask to be loved, it happened in quite the opposite way. Jesus' love extended to all people and he chose the twelve as the first ones to have the most direct experience of his love. This was part of an overall plan to create a lineage of love: First the twelve, then those they witnessed to directly, and the churches they founded, down through the ages. I have always been intrigued by the idea of a Christian genealogy, and the possibility of tracing my Christian lineage back to Jesus through the lives of 20 centuries of faithful people.

As intriguing as this idea is, it remains unnecessary when we imagine that the church continues to be animated by the Holy Spirit and continues to embody the Risen Christ. In this sense, Jesus' love for us is direct and immediate, and we continue to be chosen: to be his friends and those with whom he wishes to walk on the way.


Let's look back at Scott Peck's stages of human spiritual development and try to describe some people on the various stages of development:

Stage one people imagine that faith and religion are attempts to control them or subvert their will. They imagine that all churches and all ministers are by definition corrupt and add nothing to the fabric of society. Like toddlers, there are moments when these people are hard to love.

Stage two actually describes most religious people. They have a "blind faith" and show marked disinterest in questioning the received tradition. They prefer answers to questions, and fear that a slight crack in the facade of their faith may cause the whole thing to crumble. They are interested in correct-thinking and protecting themselves and others from dangerous ideas.

Stage three people have a really hard time with mystery and the unscientific elements of the tradition. They "demythologize" and "deconstruct" and struggle to know where this process ends. For many stage three people, the question "how can we know" leads to the end of their faith.

Stage four people understand faith as a way of life. They have moved beyond the idea of correct belief and the need to know with absolute certainly and have settled in a region with some mystery. Peck called these people "mystics," recognizing that mystery and genuine belief travel together in a mature faith.

It is hard to examine the various stages of spiritual development without sounding judgmental. Certainly there is an element of this, particularly in world challenged by fundamentalism and the problem of "blind faith." Peck would argue, I think, that all of us travel through the various stages and will hopefully reach the last and most mature stage. We are all in a process of becoming. It leads me to one of my favourite passages of scripture, one that is frequently read at funerals:

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. (1 John 3.2ff)

Like children, we develop at different ages and stages and work toward the same goal: to be faithful to the call to love God with all our heart and love our neighbour as ourselves. Henri Nouwen pondered all these things on the way to becoming one of the most widely read Christian authors and a true mystic. "The real 'work' of prayer," he said, "is to become silent and listen to the voice that says good things about me." He learned what it meant to be loved my God and chosen for the task of loving others. He learned to dwell less on what he achieved and what people said about him and more on what it meant to be a child of God. Filled with God's loving presence as he ate and talked and worked and went day by day, he become a blessing to others and showed God to others.

May each of us find the same silence and be blessed. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Fifth Sunday of Easter

John 15
1Jesus said to his disciples: I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts away every branch of mine that doesn't produce fruit. But he trims clean every branch that does produce fruit, so that it will produce even more fruit. 3You are already clean because of what I have said to you.
4Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. 5I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me. 6If you don't stay joined to me, you will be thrown away. You will be like dry branches that are gathered up and burned in a fire.
7Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. 8When you become fruitful disciples of mine, my Father will be honored.

At one time my neighbourhood was described as the realm of "Irish cops and TTC motormen." In time it became an Italian neighbourhood, a secret unknown to many who now know it as "Greektown." I imagine it is because the Italian period was relatively short, and the Greek presence so pervasive, that my little stretch of the Danforth never enjoyed the designation of "little Italy."

The first house I owned had all the telltale signs of what we came to call the Italian Renaissance. Every outside surface was concrete: porch, path, parking pad. There was a generous amount of wrought iron and (the most telling trait) a giant fireplace in the basement suitable for cooking. I recall the house inspector's glee as he went on and on about the concrete porch: "Do you know why there are no termites on this block?" he asked. "No where does wood touch the soil. I just love this porch." He was alone. We called it the bomb shelter.

The other telltale sign was the grapevine. Planted just beyond the patio (concrete!) were four large vines, supported by a rusting trellis we soon replaced. Judging by the thickness of vine at the ground, these were mature vines with high production potential. We soon discovered just how high. The trick with grape is pruning. If you want to encourage new branches, then prune back as far as you can and watch the vine put all it's energy into filling the area with new growth. Neglect to prune, or prune conservatively, and the vine goes into fruit mode, with a single vine producing hundreds of clusters of grapes. With four grapevines, cleverly connected to the house with wires to direct the growth, there were times I worried that the sheer weight of fruit would bring down the house.

For my neighbour Yanni, fascination with grapevine had long ago turned to hate. According to Wikipedia: "grapevines are often considered a nuisance weed, as they cover other plants with their rather aggressive growth." Yanni's grapevine emerged from a small hole in his concrete walkway and threatened to take down his fence. First he tried cutting it off at the ground. Then he tried cutting it off below the ground. Then he tried chemicals. Next he cut it off, mixed up his own batch of concrete and put a cap over the hole. Every time the grapevine would return, even pushing out the concrete cap in an effort to live. If you have any doubt about the potential for life and nature's desire to continue, call Yanni. Or drop in. Look for the fence with the grapevine.


I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.

In the world of metaphor, some meaning is painfully obvious. John wrote his Gospel at a particularly troubled moment in the early church. The tension was between the new Jesus movement and the Jewish community, who until that time had been the most fruitful source of new affiliates. You can see the tension most glaringly in the passion narrative. Matthew, Mark and Luke are content to describe "crowds of people" gathering or demanding the death of Jesus while John alters this language and blames "the Jews." It is an odd thing to read these constant references to the Jews when, in fact, everyone in the story except the Romans were Jewish. The first three Gospels are written in an earlier context, before the real tension began, while John comes to us from a context of competition and mutual disregard.

The great thing about metaphor is that there is always more than one meaning. While we acknowledge the anti-Judaic nature of the text, we can look beyond this to find greater meaning, meaning that will give life to our community of faith. We can focus instead on any number of vine-related ideas and tease meaning from the text. Remaining connected the vine (Jesus) is the only way to ensure growth and the production of fruit. Parts of our life together may need to be pruned in order for our fellowship to grow. An example would be trying to do too many things rather than focusing our energy on one or two things we do really well. Maybe it means pruning the parts of ourselves we regret in order to become more faithful disciples. Metaphor, the preacher's best friend, can lead us in any number of directions.


What about quantum physics? What if Jesus was talking about the quantum view of the world, just slightly ahead of his time? Before I say more, I want to quote some scientists to set the mood:

"The quantum world is weird, even to scientist" (Wheatley)
"Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it." (Bohr)
"I don't like it and I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with it." (Shroedinger)

I will try, in a nutshell, to begin to give you a glimpse of something I barely understand. Help me out, scientists, if I appear to be getting it wrong. Basically, we used to understand the world as filled with little particles we could measure. Scientists were concerned with size and speed and how one thing would predictably act on another thing. Then someone discovered waves. It turns out that all matter is basically made up of particles and energy in the form of waves. Scientists discovered (much to their chagrin) that while you can measure particles and you can measure energy in the form of waves, you can't measure both at the same time. The more you try, the harder it gets.

At the risk of giving myself a headache, I continue. It may be, as Leonard Sweet once said, that "matter doesn't matter." What matters is the relationship between these things: particles, energy, mass, momentum, waves -- the relationships are the reality, not the things we try to measure and explain. (Wheatley, p. 34)


Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.

The primary aspect of the Christian life is relationships. It is not the program. It is not the preacher. It is not the building. The centre of the Christian life is relationships: between us and God, between each other, between us and the surrounding neighbourhood. Program, preacher and building have an impact on the life of the church, but they are not the church. The church is the sum of all the interconnections and the quality of the relationships we possess. There is much about our life together that doesn't really matter: but relationships always matter: they are all there really is.

The most common and most dangerous way to treat the vine metaphor is to imagine that Jesus is talking about troublesome people. We need to ignore what seems like the most obvious interpretation and focus instead on the quality of relationships. As soon as we begin to prune people from our midst, we have tuned our backs on God. I want to quote William Countryman who begins his quote with part of 1 John 4:

'This is what love consists of, not that we have loved God, but that God loved us.' God's love is not conditional on anything. It is expressed in forgiveness. You can ignore or oppose God, if you really want to. It will probably do you no great good, but it won't deprive you of God's love either. (Resources, p. 136)

The seven most painful words a pastor can hear are: "I used to go to your church." I have heard it since I arrived here, and (I'm sad to say) more often than I expected. It appears we have alumni, and whenever a church is confronted by the presence of former members, we are faced with a stark choice. The simplest and most common response is to say "it is their choice." We continue, they have moved on. But have they? I call the seven painful words a cry for help -- a cry for connection. The onus always falls to the continuing fellowship to say "come home."

The lesson of the grapevine is the inexhaustible desire for life. People want to grow, they want to be connected, they want to bear fruit. It is the past and it is failed relationships that get in the way. Where we have failed, we need to seek forgiveness. If we have spend to much time looking in, now is the time to change. Past doesn't matter, circumstance doesn't matter, matter doesn't matter -- only relationships matter: you, me, God, our neighbours, vine, branches, vinedresser and the love that connects us all. Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Fourth Sunday of Easter

John 10
11"I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."

1 John 3
16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
17 How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Parents are more sensitive to the sound of a crying baby. Drivers (perhaps I should say good drivers) are trained to search for the source of a siren and decide if they must pull over. Cell phone users, it now appears, are equally sensitive to the sound of their distinctive ring and never want to miss that familiar sound.

The news this week* revealed what sound engineers and audiologist have long suspected: just as a vigilant parent will mistakenly imagine the babies cry and try to react, a regular cell phone user will mistakenly hear their ring in a variety of sounds and reach for their phone.

The people who study such things have given this phenomenon the name "phantom phone rings" or my favourite "fauxcellarm" and have labeled this the latest malaise to befall us moderns. To be truly honest, I thought I was losing my mind. Every time I put on my bathroom fan I can hear my cell phone ring. It hardly makes for a relaxing time. Now, rather than question my sanity, I can take comfort in knowing that I'm a hapless victim of the high tech world we live in.

Now that I've reestablished my sanity, however, I'm going to sound a little paranoid when I tell you that this phenomenon called "fauxcellarm" is frequently happening during radio and television advertising. Listening to such as ad, something triggers the auditory sensation I have described and suddenly the cell user is holding said cell phone in their hand. And, just life Pavlov and his dogs, most of us are more likely to make a call if we suddenly find ourselves holding the phone.

The less conspiratorial of our researchers would disagree with my theory. They would argue that it is simply a coincidence, and that the auditory location of siren, baby and cell phone (around 1000 hertz) is simply a "sweet spot" where these types of mistakes are likely to happen. I think I'll stick to my conspiracy. If you think I'm right, or hear anything new, call me on my cell.


"I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd."

One could argue that the images of shepherd and sheep are the most familiar and most beloved among biblical images. People completely unfamiliar with church or Christian worship will ask for Psalm 23 by name, or will give me enough of a fragment that it is obvious that they know they want "green pastures" and "still waters" as part of a service.

The downside of familiarity, however, is a loss of power. The words lose their edge, their power to engage or surprise and what you are left with is a well-known passage recited by rote. The same could be said for the Lord's Prayer, and probably 1 Corinthians 13. The very same things that led to their place in our hearts (meaning and repetition) also robbed them of their power. For regular churchgoers you could add even more passages to this list: certainly the Ten Commandments and maybe even the Sermon on the Mount.

Things become familiar when we hear them frequently. We develop an "ear" for certain phrases or ideas. The tenth chapter of John is all about hearing:

The sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice.

Sheep and shepherd are bound through the power of voice. The same Jesus who said "If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear" spoke of the power of sound in creating a bond. The relationship between sheep and shepherd, the ultimate pastoral relationship, begins and ends with voice recognition best described as intimate. This is not a case of "sounds like," but rather the intimate connection as mother begins speaking to baby in utero or child's cry triggers a distinctive emotional response. When Jesus used the phrase "ears to hear" he did it most often in connection with parables, words that point to the Kingdom. And the Kingdom is God's desire for a unique relationship: shepherd and sheep, parent and child, Creator and creature.


Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar, would take us in a somewhat different direction, arguing that "the term shepherd is political in the Bible. It means king, sovereign, lord, authority, the one who directs, to whom I am answerable, whom I trust and serve."** "The Lord is my shepherd" is a political statement, an affirmation against Pharaoh's God-like illusions and all the other idolatry that seems to creep into the minds of the powerful. "I shall not want" for other Lords or shepherds, claiming instead the utter sovereignty of God in the face of all other claimants.

In the history of Israel, as the people adopted the rule of kings to mimic their neighbours, the kings quickly took on the role of shepherd. As the Lord was shepherd, they too became shepherd to the sheep, God's trusted representatives on earth. You know what happened next. The prophet Ezekiel, bound to explain the reason for judgment and exile, used these words:

1 The word of the LORD came to me: 2 "Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. (ch. 34)

Like every corrupt government before and since, the Kings of Israel neglected their shepherdly duty to care for the most vulnerable. By refusing to strengthen the weak or heal the sick or bound up the injured the shepherds condemned themselves and invited their downfall. They ignored the "job description" of king outlined in Psalm 72, the very same Psalm that is the source of Canada's motto "sea unto sea."

[The King] will deliver the needy when he cries for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.

The root, it seems, is a lack of intimacy. The king can only deliver the needy if he can hear their "cries for help," the very same sound that the shepherd must be attuned to in order to care for the sheep. When the voice of the needy is ignored, when the cries are of the vulnerable are not heard, then king and government have lost all credibility and can rule no more.

The season of Easter is about implications. It is the "so what" of the death and resurrection cycle that we live year-by-year. We mine the scriptures for words that describe how we could respond to the themes of suffering, sacrifice and new life, and God's Word delivers. Listen to 1 John 3:

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
17 How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

This is a question for kings and governments and people who enjoy God's gifts and them listen to the voice of others: "How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" This is the question that our food bank asks, by simply being there Thursday after Thursday. And this is the question for those who hear the voice of the suffering ones but tune it out, like a phantom cell phone, thinking instead that it is the voice or moral failure or an unwillingness to work hard.

The model we hold up, the model we cling to, is the shepherd of the sheep. The shepherd strengthens the weak and heals the sick and seeks the lost and insists that we do too. The shepherd speaks and guides us but also listens for cries for help. Intimately bound, we listen too, and are led in "paths of righteousness for his name's sake." May goodness and mercy follow us, as we dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.

(*National Post, Friday, May 5, 2006)
(**Resources for Preaching and Worship, p. 135)