Sunday, July 23, 2006

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

2 Samuel 7:1-14a
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’
But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.

Conflict, Complication, Reversal, Resolution

For the students of literature out there, you will recognize these four words as the basic outline of the narrative form. Way back in grade nine, we learned the same lesson and called it plot: introduction, rising action, climax and denouement. Denouement, of course, is a French word that means denouement.

Looking back, I’m sure you were compelled to create a summary that went something like this:

1. Despite their feuding families, a couple of crazy kids named Romeo and Juliet meet and fall in love.
2. They marry in secret, and Juliet comes up with a scheme whereby she will pretend to be dead, escape her family and run away with Romeo
3. Romeo, of course, doesn’t get the memo and finds his love supposedly dead and ends his life while Juliet awakes and does the same.
4. The families discover the young lovers and decide to end their feud.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at my third class in Chicago and was transported back in time to those early lessons about plot. The assignment was to illustrate the narrative style of sermon by creating a four-sentence sermon. Never one to shrink from a challenge, I wrote three:

1. The earth was corrupt in the days of Noah and was filled with violence.
2. God told Noah that God intended to make an end of all flesh.
3. But, God said, I am going to save your family and two of every living creature.
4. Finally, the waters receded, and God promised to never again end all human life.

1. Women make 75% of what men make.
2. To make matters worse, while men’s wages have remained stable, women’s wages have started shrinking for the first time since the early 1990’s.
3. In the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Jesus introduces workers to the story at nine, and noon, and late in the day and in the end they are all paid the same wage.
4. Thank God the Kingdom vision of Jesus never ends and leads our lives and not the vision of corporate America.

1. Genesis 6 describes the wickedness of humankind.
2. Imagine my shock to learn that demigods came to earth and slept with human women.
3. The text goes on to report that this new race died out.
4. Therefore you can forget that you ever read Genesis 6.

For those you who are keeping track, you have heard three sermons so far this morning and we’re barely into the fourth.

I share all of this to show you that in fact I was working hard in Chicago and not spending all my time at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap (famous, by the way, as the pub where the late theologian Paul Tillich used to hang out). I also share all of this to illustrate the perfect narrative structure of today’s lesson from 2 Samuel:

1. David decides that God needs a house.
2. God tells the prophet Nathan that David is not the one to build it.
3. God doesn’t want a house, but he will make a royal “house” of David’s line.
4. Solomon, the next member of that “house” will get to build God’s house.

At first glance, this is a story about God’s unfolding relationship with David. David, as we know, will find himself in trouble in the next few chapters as he abuses his power to seduce Bathsheba and murder her husband. The child of this union will die, and David will bear this guilt as he remains King. Like Moses unable to enter the Promised Land, David can do many great things as king, but he cannot be the one to build a temple to the LORD.

At first glance, this is a subtle morality tale and not a story about the nature of kingship. But we need to look again. Hidden in the narrative is promise that David will be the father of a royal line, an unconditional pledge that a member of David’s line will always be king. It is this same line that Matthew is careful to describe in the first chapter of his Gospel.

Since I had my mind on Shakespeare and the use of narrative, this might be the moment to mention Richard III. Every August 22nd someone puts an “In Memoriam” notice in the Globe that reads something like this:

PLANTAGENET -- Richard, great king and true friend of the rights of man, died at Bosworth Field on August 22, 1485. Murdered by traitors and maligned by knaves, he merits our devoted remembrance.

It always gives me a chuckle to know that 520 years after the fact Richard’s friends are still trying to set the record straight. One of the “knaves” referred to in the ad is William Shakespeare, who wrote Richard III as a bit of propaganda to flatter his Tutor patrons. Google “Richard III” and you will find all sorts of historical societies dedicated to undoing the damage that a skillfully written play can inflict on someone’s reputation.

Reading about David and thinking about Shakespeare it becomes obviously quickly that this part of 2 Samuel is mostly propaganda. There was an ongoing struggle to legitimize the “house” of David and strengthen his line. Other claimants to royal power, named and unnamed, did not write the official record of David’s reign recorded in 2 Samuel. The version we get, in addition to recording the events of the day, also add in a dose of royal theology that is hard to ignore.

If we were to do a narrative analysis of this sermon, it would likely look like this:

1. Michael introduces the 2 Samuel 7 and grounds it in the narrative tradition.
2. Next, he describes the royal theology found there and, following Brueggemann, calls it “propaganda.”
3. Michael reveals the real meaning of these verses and points to God.
4. He makes a tidy conclusion and people still get to go home early.

Did you notice that we’re really only at number three? Now you’re getting worried, I can tell.

The real meaning, the one that we can read through the royal theology, is the nature of God’s promise. It comes in verses 15 and 16:

But I will never put an end to my agreement with him, as I put an end to my agreement with Saul, who was king before you. I will make sure that one of your descendants will always be king.

The real shift here is from the conditional to the unconditional. No longer will the characters in the unfolding story be subject to destruction for some misdeed. Punishment, perhaps, but never destruction. The line of David will persist in a way that the line of Saul could not. The shift is in the promises of God, and God’s desire to bless them and forgive them their wrongdoing.

The other meaning, or the meaning in the meaning is found in Isaiah 11:

1 A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
2 The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD -

Or Jeremiah 33:

14 'The days are coming,' declares the LORD, 'when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah.
15 'In those days and at that time
I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line;
he will do what is just and right in the land.
16 In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
This is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD Our Righteousness.'

We search our hearts and we realize that the “righteous branch” is King of Kings, the newborn king, born the king of angels, born a child and yet a king, and the king of love my shepherd is. We search our hearts and we find the righteous branch and the true vine are one and the same. We search our hearts and find the royal line that chose to enter our world not with power but as the most vulnerable. We search our hearts and know that the unconditional promise to David finds full flower in the unconditional love of the one willing to die on the cross that we might live. We search our hearts and find the risen Christ, loving, forgiving, and Lord of all. Amen.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Amos 7.7-15

This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

On the whole, people do not tour my neighbourhood. I'm not saying anything negative about Olde East York, except to say that it is neither a popular tourist destination nor a place worthy of a guided tour. When I lived in historic Sydenham Ward in Kingston, with it's ghost tour, trolley tour and endless tourists peering into the garden, you began to get a sense of what it might be like to be an animal at the zoo. But in East York, we are free of such hassle.

Imagine my surprise the day I arrived home to find a teacher and ten or so students at my sidewalk taking pictures of my house. I smiled a vague kind of smile and said "Hi, can I help you?"

Without skipping a beat, the teacher pointed to one of the youngsters and said "read it." He read:

This is an example of an early East York home in the tenement style. This house was constructed in the 1920's for a working class family. The rowhouse style and small size indicate housing for a labourer or someone of modest means.

After a few nervous chuckles from the kids, I told them that indeed the house had been build around 1925 and was one of the older homes on the street. I told them that the house is approximately 550 square feet in size, a fact that didn't impress the kids but left the teacher a little wide-eyed: "You're kidding, right?"

"Nope," I said. "Take a look." With this I gave the group a quick peek in the front door, showed them my prized map of the neighbourhood (circa 1910) and they were on their way. I'm thinking it's time to find a curator for my own museum of tiny East York homes.

I love old houses. This is the third old house that I have renovated since I found my way to Toronto and my love for these old places only grows. They have character. They pose unique problems that challenge the mind and test your patience. They are (for the most part) solidly constructed and make a solid base from which to begin a renovation. And they are home. When I think of Toronto I think of the tens of thousands of homes build in the first twenty-five years of the last century that define the character of the city.

Among the great challenges of renovating an old house is finding something level or square. Houses settle and houses sag. Houses endure the renovation attempts of both the professional and amateur. Houses sustain damage or age in such a way that what was once build with perfect right angles and level surfaces is no more.

This is enough to drive most handy people to the suburbs. Drywall is square, flooring is square, tools are square, but the house in not square. If it's not level or square you need to improvise and make do. Think of it as Jazz renovating: the starting place is commonly understood but then you need to improvise to truly make the sound.


This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb-line, with a plumb-line in his hand. And the Lord said to me, ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A plumb-line.’ Then the Lord said,
‘See, I am setting a plumb-line
in the midst of my people Israel;
I will never again pass them by;
the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate,
and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste,
and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.’

You can't argue with a plumb line. You can look at the line and look at the wall and think "this can't be right" when in fact it is. Gravity does not lie, something the ancients were aware of long before Sir Isaac Newton and the falling apple. The plumb line was being set in the midst of Israel, to test them, to test the extend to which they were "upright" on the vertical or "on the level" on the horizontal.

It is a fun trick (and handy when you can't find your level) to establish the vertical using a plumb line and then make yourself a little triangle to establish level. Any triangle that measures three-by-four-by-five has a prefect right angle. Apply it to your plumb line and voila! you have found level.

The Israelites were busy building in the days of Amos. Houses were getting bigger, farmland was disappearing, and what farmland that was left was being transferred to agribusiness. Peasant farmers were being forced to convert their plots from basic subsistence farming to crops for export including grapes and olives. The gap between landowner and farmer was widening, and more and more people were struggling to feed their families. Listen to Amos:

11Therefore because you impose heavy rent on the poor
And exact a tribute of grain from them,
Though you have built houses of well-hewn stone,
Yet you will not live in them;
You have planted pleasant vineyards, yet you will not drink their wine.
12For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great,
You who distress the righteous and accept bribes
And turn aside the poor in the gate.

Some call the time of Amos the apex of the Israelite period before the Babylonian exile of 587 BC. Prosperity was up and religious observance was down. Career and safeguarding the prosperity of the family was more important that clan and neighbour. The Lord reminded the people through Amos that the nations will be judged according to the perfect law set down by Moses, and that no nation, not even Israel, will be exempt from the critical eye of judgement.


You can't argue with a plumb line. Like all good basic building tools, it still works today. It may be made of bronze and sculpted in the usual way, but in the utility of God any heavy object on a string can serve.

There is little doubt that Amos would understand our time. He would understand gentrification and sprawl and monster homes and agribusiness and unemployment and food banks and the threat of judgement. I'm not going to connect the dots because they are already firmly connected. In the same manner that we recalled a few weeks ago that J.S. Woodsworth was arrested for quoting Isaiah, Amos is timeless and hard to ignore.


What I want to explore is also rooted in the art of the physical, and comes to us through Luke from Isaiah:

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This was John, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He set out a vision, found first in Isaiah 40, of a new measure, where the very geography is transformed in the forgiving love of God. It is God's desire that after judgement comes the forgiving love that levels the topography of human sin and straightens the most convoluted paths of human experience. The plumb line shifts from the wall of judgement to the newly leveled ground of forgiveness, showing us in the most concrete way that God's desire is for a closer walk with us on the new ground of reconciliation.

We often say "if these walls could talk, they would have much to say." It seems fitting that as some of these walls are set to come down, we listen a moment or two for some speaking.

First off, we could draw our plumb line near for just a moment to acknowledge that the walls are not square and the floor is not level and that every congregation falls short of the glory of the Most High. Having done this, we set down our tool and we listen for the words spoken in God's name, the Word proclaimed and the Word received.

We hear words of kindness and generosity
and we hear words of reconciling love.
We hear care extended and the peace of Christ made known.
We hear welcoming words and words of comfort.
We hear words that speak for the voiceless,
and we hear words that challenge the injustice
that exist right outside these walls.
We hear words of gratitude for our work,
and words of relief when more recently there was only despair. We hear words that speak of hope and the coming Kingdom,
and we hear words of compassion from the lips
of the Author of compassion, Jesus the Christ.

May the echo of old walls so fill new walls that the sound of love is deafening in this place. And may we continue to bless each other. Amen.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 6:7-13

He 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. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

They are easy to spot. They are people who regularly attend the Toronto International Film Festival. The most common indicator is the knapsack -- standard equipment for the serious festival attendee. In the bag you will find the following: festival guide (large book, describes every film), festival schedule, book(s) to be read in line, bottled water, protein rich snack in a non-crinkle bag (in case you miss a meal, and in place of popcorn...which festival goers never eat), and (for me) sunscreen for the hours spent in line. Think of it as a survival kit for those with a serious film addiction. While not absolutely required to attend, it does provide some helpful things to survive ten days standing in line and sitting in darkened theatres.

A friend once told me that at one time her possessions were limited to what she could fit in her Pinto. As a student she moved frequently, and often across 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.


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.

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 the a few variables, the lists seem fairly similar. The key difference (aside from personal hygiene, which the Gospel does not 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 (not unlike the film festival). And unlike the modern definition of the term, 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 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, 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 knapsack.

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 required no possessions, only the things that would make the walking safe. In all things, the disciples were to be totally dependent on God and 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 twocoins 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 it's 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 will may seem make you cooler or more desirable -- 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.

Since it becomes very boring very quickly to preach against possessions, I'm going to take this a step further. How do congregations fall into the trap of allowing possessions to become a source of hope?

It seems to me, we do this in a variety of ways. The building is the most obvious, and I will return to it in a moment. But imagine with me everything we put our hope in that is not God: Newcomers? Young families? A positive bank balance? The minister? Anything that we give "saving power" that is not God is a form of idolatry.

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). Things 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 us the "one solution" to all our problems we become appropriately suspicious. It just seems more practical to twin specific problems with specific solutions rather that 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, it is all about the One Big Fix.

Ask congregations to describe themselves and they usually go one of two routes: there is the behavioural route and the possession route. On the behavioural side we have words like "we are very friendly" or "everyone is like family here." On the possession side, "we have an eighty year-old Casavant organ" or "our church is newly renovated and it only cost $619,000." That last speaker was me, by-the-way, just in case you wondered if ministers fall into this trap too.

In the next few months we will be in a transformed space. My caution, however, is that within a transformed space we will not be a transformed people. It might make us more comfortable. It might make us a little smug. It might make us better able to meet our mission as a congregation. But it will not make us a better people. We will be the same, with the same strengths and limitations that we had before.

I love the first commandment, not because it steers me away from other gods and goddesses, but because it reminds me that I am utterly dependent on God.

We may be surrounded by idols,
but we're dependent on God.
We may fail or succeed,
but we're dependent on God.
We may fill our homes with shiny new things,
but we're dependent on God.
We may turn to others,
but we're dependent on God.
We may love this building,
but we're dependent on God.
We may love each other,
but we're dependent on God.

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 required no possessions, only the things that would make the walking safe. In all things, the disciples were to be totally dependent on God.

I want you to consider being totally dependent on God a gift. Imagine the relief when someone asks you about this congregation and you say "we are a church that worships God." We are a church that knows God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we are a church that is filled with gifts of the Spirit, we are the church filled with people made in the wonderful human diversity of God's image, we are a church that lives out the compassionate message of Jesus and gives it legs, we are the church that is the wind and flame of Pentecost, we are the church that is utterly dependent on God for meaning and purpose and saving. We're dependent on God. Amen.