Sunday, September 24, 2006

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9.30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

Hands up if you think you are the most humble person here.

Ah, the humility trap, an old favourite. Seems a little odd to imagine that people might compete to be the most humble, but in many ways this is exactly what happened in the desert in Egypt in the third century. Men and women fled the cities to join monastic communities and to try to purify themselves and live apart from the world. They would live near great teachers and exchange wise ‘sayings’ to reinforce their way of life. Humility was a key theme of their life together.

Quoting the desert fathers and mothers, it is customary to begin with Anthony:

Abba Anthony said, ‘I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, "What can I get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, “Humility.”’ (Ward 1975, 3)

Many of the young monks left homes and security, some great wealth, to live an impoverished lifestyle, usually dwelling in caves. They left behind status and expectations for a life of mostly solitude and silence. Another story, this one from Abba Macarius:

A brother came to see Abba Macarius the Egyptian, and said to him, "Abba, give me a word, that I may be saved." So the old man said, "Go to the cemetery and insult the dead." The brother went there, abused them and threw stones at them; then he returned and told the old man about it. The latter said to him, "Didn't they say anything to you?" He replied, "No." The old man said, "Go back tomorrow and praise them." So the brother went away and praised them, calling them, "Apostles, saints, and righteous men." He returned to the old man and said to him, "I have complimented them." And the old man said to him, "You know how you insulted them and they did not reply, and how you praised them and they did not speak. So you too, if you wish to be saved, must do the same and become a dead man. Like the dead, take no account of either the scorn of men or their praises, and you can be saved." (Ward 1975, 132)

It is a lesson we try to teach our kids, around not listening to what others think, although we usually stop at scorn and forget to mention the part about listening to excessive praise. One might argue that the ‘way of humility’ has gone out of fashion in the seventeen hundred years since Anthony and others thought so much about it. But I would argue that as a biblical theme, and as theme at the heart of Jesus’ way, it remains near the centre of who we seek to be.

Just before I move on, I have to share another favourite, this time a blessing from Abba Euprepius, a blessing you won’t hear in church but one that points to the great difference between then and now. His blessing went like this: “May fear, humility, lack of food and anxious misgivings be with you.” Perhaps we can see why people eventually left the desert, but more than a kernel of truth remains for us to ponder and compare to the teachings of Jesus.


Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’

With so many fans of Dickens in this congregation, perhaps you can tell me what life was like for children in Victorian England.

Most children in Victorian England had no childhood at all. They were mining coal or sweeping chimneys or cleaning houses. The children that were not working we not playing either, but were regarded as “smaller adults” and expected to act accordingly. Children were introduced early to the same activities that the adults we doing, needlecraft, hunting or fighting in war. One of the remarkable things about the “Master and Commander” stories of Patrick O’Brian is the accurate portrayal of children in the Royal Navy. Lord Nelson, greatest hero in the Royal Navy pantheon, began his career at the age of twelve.

Look farther back to Roman Palestine and you find a society where the father of the clan has absolute power to accept or reject newborn babies. Girls were frequently rejected, but even boys when patrimony was in doubt and so the father had the power of life and death. Some scholars argue that the inclusion of the famous hug in Mark 9 was part of an unfolding debate in the early church whether they had an obligation to rescue abandoned infants and raise them or whether they should simply accept the traditional approach or discarding unwanted children.

I will leave the question of Mark’s intention regarding infanticide and focus instead of the immediate lesson for the disciples. There was no better way to illustrate the idea that ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’ than to point to a child. Quoting Dom Crossan, children were nobodies and the disciples were called to enter a “Kingdom of nobodies” and accept the new status that came with being his disciples. This was not a zero-sum game where one would beat the others in a kind of “Survivor Galilee” but rather a complete reorientation away from the values of the world to the values of humility and service found in Jesus. (Crossan 1994, 64)

So how do we travel through time, through ancient Palestine and Victorian England and end up here at this moment? Before we create too much distance, we need to point out a few similarities. Children still live under military occupation in Palestine. Children worldwide are engaged in work to provide the products that we purchase and give to our children, the children who most often lack for nothing. Babies, especially baby girls, are still abandoned in China and India where government polity or social custom favour male children over female children. It seems we haven’t traveled far from Roman Palestine to today.


From Richard Niebuhr:

The humility of Christ is not the moderation of keeping one’s exact place in the scale of being, but rather that of absolute dependence on God and absolute trust in him, with the consequent ability to move mountains. The secret of the meekness and the gentleness of Christ lies in his relationship to God. (Ward and Wild 2002, 226)

Jesus said “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, unless you adopt the status of children in his context, that is unless you become nobodies, you cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. What an amazingly counter-cultural idea--the world shouts at us that we are supposed to be a “somebody,” we are supposed to feel special, we are supposed to separate ourselves from the pack, we are supposed to pursue Freedom 55 and all the other self-serving messages that surround us daily. What are we to do?

Trust in God. Trust in God’s way. Trust that embracing meekness and service are the secrets to successful living and not having the biggest RRSP at the end.

Pride alert: We are going to have a wonderful new building. We are going swell with pride over the success of amalgamation and the creative use of proceeds and the wonderful new chancel but let us never forget who all of this is for:

Somewhere in our community a mother has already checked her pantry twice this morning worried that the food won’t last until Thursday morning food bank day.

Somewhere in our community a young couple is surrounded by shiny new toys and designer furnishings and feel only despair. A day after they buy something new they have nothing left to talk about and the distance between them grows.

Somewhere in this community someone has been getting the signal that material success is a mark of God’s blessing and that the way to succeed is to overcome others.

God became vulnerable and entered our world as an infant. God led Jesus in the way of humility through a hurting world all the way down to the cross. His relationship with God was one of utter humility. May God help us to humbly surrender this place to the people who need it the most, the people who yearn for God and surrender themselves to God’s care. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

First Preaching Project Sermon

Luke 14

25Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26"If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. 27And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

28"Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? 29For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, 30saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'

31"Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.

34"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? 35It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Imagine a preacher wants to write a sermon. Wouldn’t he begin with all the necessary tools for such an endeavor? Wouldn’t he gather a Bible, laptop, commentaries, some book learning, and perhaps the advice of a few clever people? Otherwise he might screw-up on the very day that his every word and gesture is being recorded for some far-away professor of preaching.

Said preacher would do well to invite some fellow travelers, in the spirit of the day, to try their hand at writing their own parables, and maybe share one or two with the gathered congregation. I am fortunate to have something called a Parish Project Group, and this an example of their work:

Suppose you decide to renovate your Church. Won’t you first decide what you want to change or add, what utilities you require and put it in writing in order to obtain three quotes? Because if don’t you could end up with a lovely new food bank room with no electrical outlets for fridges and freezers which would mean a lot less food for the needy each week. The co-ordinator of the food bank program will be very upset and wonder how you could possibly miss this detail.

I love the confessional tone of this parable. The author, perhaps someone vaguely associated with the big building project, is offering an olive branch and at the same moment demonstrating new ways to express the point of today’s Gospel lesson. The confessions continue:

Suppose you leave your house in the morning planning to be home later in the day. Wouldn’t you be wise to be sure to take your keys with you so that you can get back in the house if no one else is home? Imagine what the Police will think when they arrive at the request of a neighbour who believes someone is breaking into your house. This woman forgot to take her keys with her when she left in the morning, and she hasn’t hidden a key in a safe spot outside the house for days like this.

Clearly this parable writing thing is fun. And good for you too, if it helps mend fences and help you remember your keys in the morning. Let me try:

Suppose you want to be a disciple of Jesus. Wouldn’t you begin by counting the cost of discipleship? Discipleship, a kind of “duel citizenship” between the world and God’s Kingdom, requires commitment and a desire to live in a new way. Things change. You begin to perceive family and friends differently. Jesus said we must hate friends and family to be his disciple. Maybe “hate” is a strong word, but at the very least we are called to set aside blind loyalty to those close to us and focus instead on our relationship with God. A member of my Parish Project Group put it this way:

Many people wished to follow Jesus, but did not understand the huge commitment and dedication required of them. Jesus said to them “If you cannot put aside your family, your life and everything that means so much to you, then you cannot be my disciple.”

Someone described the “family values” of Jesus as hard sayings. Like the instruction to cast out an eye that causes you to sin, these sayings that encourage us to hate family are not literal advice so much as necessary correctives to the values that surround us. For Jesus, the “tribal” approach to community life was at the heart of much that was wrong with his society. People chose tribe over neighbour, tribe over needy, tribe over non-violence and tribe over knowing in your heart of hearts that God loves the vulnerable. Remember duel citizenship: born to one family and adopted to another.


Malcolm Muggeridge encourages us to imagine a world where “All happenings, great and small, are parables whereby God speaks.” In his view, “the art of life is to get the message.” In this world of parables, we are the interpreters, we are the ones dedicated to unlocking the secret’s of God’s Kingdom revealed in each and every parable, each and every event. These happenings may teach us great truths about God’s way and God’s will for us or they may teach us the bitter truth of human living. Here’s an example:

Imagine a society trying to come to terms with a terrible act of violence. Listen as commentators struggle to assess blame or at least understand the meaning of a story where a young man chooses to take the lives of others and finally his own life. Hear a litany of reasons suggested and discussed: bullying, “Goth” culture, internet chat rooms, gun registration, youth alienation, racism and on and on. What we didn’t hear was the reality of human sin.

Within each human heart lies the potential for great good or great evil. This, you might say, is too simplistic to be at the centre of such madness. But I would urge you to compare two people we have now come to know in death. The young woman who died, Stacy DeSousa, was dedicated to her studies and worked hard to overcome a learning disability. She could have given up, she could have lashed out in anger at her situation but chose instead to enter a learning community and do her best. The young man, obsessed with violence and “taking others with him” when he ended his life, made an entirely different set of choices.

This “parable of the tragic week” is about receiving the love and support of others, having a comfortable home and material support and then choosing how to respond to these blessings. For one it was a stable base from which to make a life and for another it was a place to hide and nurse perceived anger. We find ourselves in situations and we choose how to respond.

“All happenings, great and small, are parables whereby God speaks. The art of life is to get the message.”


Suppose you want to be a disciple of Jesus. You hear the message “count the cost,” but rather than focus on things to give up, you choose to focus on the resources you have to build this project called the Kingdom of God. You would begin by doing an inventory of all the spiritual gifts God has given you, all the opportunities and all unique things you bring to a life of faith. You might then look around at the other builders, and begin to see the collective gifts you possess for the project of Kingdom building. Wouldn’t it be wise to count the many resources available before you set to work? What if you found we have limitless potential for doing good?

What if we discovered that we are like living parables, communicating the secret of God’s desire for humankind in each act of compassion we do. What if we discovered that in the midst of all that collective potential was the Risen Christ walking with us, guiding us, and providing strength for the journey?

These words are attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words.” Your life is a sermon. It may not be eloquent, but it is a sermon nonetheless. The purpose of your life, the sermon, is to communicate the truth of Kingdom living: to love and serve others, to share the Good News of Christ’s compassion, to reflect God’s glory in all you do. Your life, the sermon, will recount the cost of living as duel citizens, the cost of commitment and dedication to God. But you won’t stop there.

As a sermon, your life will list an inventory of the many gifts you have received for this work. You will recount the many ways in which God has enabled you to live out these gifts. Your life the sermon will encourage others to count what they have, and perhaps add them to the cause as well.

Preach the Gospel at all times and if necessary use words. May God bless you and strengthen you for this blessed work.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 7. 24-37

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

How was your summer?

It’s curious that people seldom ask, “how was your winter?” I guess because the answer would be sharply negative or accompanied with bad words we just don’t ask. But the summer question, that one comes with great regularity.

I often wonder if people from other cultures find it strange that Canada shuts down for July and August. Some continue to go to work, but it is a different kind of work in both quantity and quality. “Summer hours” and a relaxed pace, vacation absences and long weekends make it difficult to sustain the seriousness of the rest of the year.

And of course, you have to give people something: even if the only response involves sitting on your porch and trying to find a breeze, we feel compelled to come up with some summer story. Let me give it a shot, for those who were poised to ask. This was the summer of my first broach. To broach, according to, is a verb that means, “to veer to windward.” So much for a great summer story. Let me try again, this time using Merrian-Webster Online: broach, verb, “to veer or yaw dangerously so as to lie broadside to the waves.”

Sailing is a sport for learning. Every other evening we race we have newcomers onboard who are somewhere on a steep leaning curve. We get the same questions: Is it safe when the boat leans over like this? Can the boat tip over? Will we die tonight? The answers: Yes, no, and not likely. Heeling, with two “E’s”, moving forward at a slight angle is the most effective way to achieve boat speed. When the boat is on it’s side, and crewmembers are either hanging in air or in the water, you have failed the boat speed test.

The line between sailor and non-sailor is in the way this story is recounted. One says “it was amazing” and the other says something less effusive. Danger is part of the fun, and one learns quickly if they prefer a “tippy” boat to solid ground. I suppose you could say sailing is not for everyone, along with all other recreational activities. The most important this is that we each get a chance to do the summer activities we love, even laying broadside to the waves.

I made the mistake a few years ago of using the phrase “the National, the club where I belong.” Friends Ted and Caroline, good United Church folks that they are, have never let me forget. “What is the name of that club where you belong, Michael?” they will ask. Or, “where do you belong, I’ve forgotten?” There are some who believe sailing is elitist, (I know, shocking) and in some ways they are likely correct. In others, they are wrong. Wrong, first of all, because sailing is free. Boats need crew (eight for my brother’s boat) and so anyone with a willingness to work hard and learn is welcome on board. I don’t think golf or curling can make the same claim.

They are somewhat correct in the sense that sailing seems to attract a particular crowd. Despite being free for the interested, it seems to attract a professional crowd, university educated, often higher income, divided between those who own boats and those who dream of owning them, likely when the time is right. Sounds like a working definition of elitist, I suppose. It may, however, simply be an unfair stereotype, in a society that seems to relish in them.


Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

It seems we are not the first society to relish stereotypes. Preachers have always has some difficulty with this passage, because it seems to portray Jesus as one more person perpetuating the stereotype that gentiles in his time are little better than dogs and therefore do not deserve a seat at the table. Watch the preacher do all sorts of leaps and jumps to avoid the notion that Jesus has a bias. He was just testing her is one, which still doesn’t explain how he could be so rude to the poor woman. It was a lesson for the disciples some claim, that he was repeating the normal point-of-view to then show the disciples the true way. However you try to avoid the suggestion that Jesus had limitations, it doesn’t ring true.

One of the rules of thumb with regard to biblical interpretation is that if it sounds irregular or inconsistent with traditional understanding, it is likely true. If something problematic is left in the story, it is because the writer was struggling with it as we struggle but did not have the heart to edit the material out of the story. They story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is a case in point. It is more likely a true story because it is hard to explain and may make Jesus look bad.

If we set aside our desire to make Jesus perfect (he was human and divine) then suddenly there is room to grow. It fits better our theology, I think, that we too can be filled with the indwelling of God and make mistakes, live out prejudice, and need to grow. Only God is perfect, I continue to remind the little perfectionists that happen to be my children. Jesus belongs to a time and a place too, and in his culture the most important activity was deciding who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was unclean, who was Israel and who was not, and so on.

Jesus, of course, was ninety-nine percent Kingdom-certified, and the passage we read is the one percent of growth required to be consistent with the parables and lessons that constituted Jesus near-complete understanding of God’s realm. We already know from the passage that he wanted to be alone, to have a little rest, and this alone may explain the lapse. “Don’t psychologize Jesus” was one of the lessons of preaching class, but in this instance I think it is fair to suggest that an exhausted teacher may well forget his lesson, even if the lesson is the Kingdom extends to all people: male, female, slave, free, Jew, Greek, clean, unclean, sinful, and even those who claim to be without sin.


The human constant is trying to decide who is in and who is out. The Syrophoenician woman reminds us that she’s in, even when everyone else says she is not. The human constant didn’t end with this wonderful passage and the reminder that Jesus embraces. The human constant of in and out persists.

Case in point: I want to introduce you to the latest controversy that will soon befall the church. But before I do, I want to declare my conflict-of-interest in this controversy, as someone who will be involved in training congregations to prepare for the national advertising campaign called Emerging Spirit. In a nutshell, the church intends to spend ten million dollars over three years to reach people between the ages of 30 and 45. This will happen through magazine ads, direct mailing, and something called internet-based “viral videos.” There will be training for congregations on how to welcome potential newcomers from this demographic, with nearly 40 percent of the money spend helping congregations get ready.

The immediate controversy comes whenever you use the phrase “the church intends to spend ten million dollars.” It is a lot of money. It is a lot of money for something may or may not work. Some argue that we have to try, while others say that the money would be better spend on mission and things that will reflect our commitment to social justice. Some argue that we should do both, but remain anxious about the amount of money.

The real controversy, however, will come when the first ads are rolled out in the next few months. I won’t spoil it for you, but I guarantee that some of them will make the newspaper and be described as cheeky, inappropriate, or even rude. The ads, of course, are meant for an audience between the ages of 30 and 45, the single most missing group of people across the church. People within the church may be alarmed or bewildered, but that is precisely because we are here and they are not.

The other critique is that the money for direct to home advertising is going to target mostly middle-class suburban and exurban neighborhoods, the very places that researchers have told us we will have the best chance to succeed.

Do people here know about the exurbs? If I say the name “Wisteria Lane,” what am I talking about? I can honestly say I have never watched Desperate Housewives, but most of the sources I consulted as I was looking at this idea of the exurbs mentioned the show. The exurbs are the regions beyond the suburbs where new development surrounds existing towns in an attempt to live beyond the city while still having access to jobs and culture. Here is what the critics say:

Many environmentalists, architects, and urban planners consider exurbs to be manifestations of poor or distorted planning. Extremely low densities - often featuring large lots and "McMansions" - create heavy car dependency (a very deliberate design choice). This also makes the construction of municipal infrastructure and deployment of services unusually costly and inefficient. Such communities typically include big box stores and large shopping malls, but lack amenities such as parks and cultural institutions. Nevertheless, relatively cheap land and low taxes fuel rapid economic and population growth in many exurbs. Middle class families with children are attracted to the ample space and low costs found in these areas.

The growth of the United Church in Scarborough in the 1950’s and 60’s happened because of a high concentration of middle class families with children seeking a place to gather and worship God. We made mistakes (we built too many churches, we largely ignored the are north of the 401) but for a generation we effectively lived out the call to make disciples. Families found us, children received religious instruction, mission projects were undertaken, and we baptised, married and buried people from the surrounding streets in a way that was open and welcoming almost without exception.

Now the church is struggling to connect with the children of this earlier boom. Most have no experience of church. Some came as children has long ago lapsed. But when asked about trying out a church like the United Church, 77 percent indicated that they were interested or somewhat interested in knowing more. Hence Emerging Spirit.

I think much of the critique comes from those (myself included) who do not understand or condone the desire to live in the exurbs. I don’t understand monster homes and big box stores, let alone desire to live in the place where they are found. But they exist and they are filled with people who need God.

In an arrogant moment, I might say to the critics of Emerging Spirit “I have it on good authority that God loves 30 to 45 year olds too, and God even love people in McMansions. But that would likely be less than helpful. What I would say instead is that the Syrophoenician woman was the original “desperate housewife.” She was desperate to have her child healed. She was desperate to make a connection to God through God’s son. She was desperate to claim her place at the table, even if it was to claim only a crumb. And she was desperate to know God, to know God cared, and to know that the life of her child was precious in God’s sight, and it was.

Call it the mission to the desperate housewives, and their families, precisely the people who are looking for meaning, looking for certainly, looking for a connection, looking for a way forward in a confusing and challenging time of life. May God bless our effort to reach out. Amen.