Sunday, October 29, 2006

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah 31

7For thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people,
the remnant of Israel.”
8See, I am going to bring them
from the land of the north,
and gather them from the
farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.

Our third month of exile is complete. For those of us who usually spend time through the week in this building, the experience of being out of the building has been unique to say the least. For the food bank volunteers and the clients, the dislocation has been particularly difficult, with a considerable shift in routine and a reduction of programme. It’s the soup and sandwiches I miss, having discovered in retrospect how much I enjoyed my status as a honorary volunteer and lunch recipient.

I think each of us has felt some level of dislocation. For the people who like to “drop in” and visit, or simply take a stroll around, the renovation has been an anxious time. It’s hard not to wonder what exactly is happening behind the big tarp, and to see some of the changes that happen day by day.

Take heart. Your time in exile is nearly complete. Work proceeds, and all the key players continue to look us in the eye when they say the project will be done on time. As any renovator will tell you, the “optics” of a project happen in a predictable fashion: destruction, utter chaos, sudden progress, long periods of imperceptible change (usually twinned with the unexpected disappearance of contractors) and finally a period of slow but steady progress toward an inevitable end. Things are taking shape.

The theme of exile, and the end of exile, is the subject of Jeremiah 31. It is a hopeful passage, a poem that anticipates the return to Israel and describes the “great company” on their way home. I want to walk with them in a moment or two, but only after we look again at exile and the experience of dislocation.


Walter Brueggemann describes exile as “a community of faith living a peculiar identity in an indifferent or hostile environment” (Reverberations, p. 71). The Israelites fell victim to the geopolitical intrigue of the seventh century BC and were not only a conquered people but also a people removed from Judah and the holiest places. They struggled in Babylon to maintain their identity and their relationship with God and at the same time remain hopeful. Much of the Old Testament was written, edited, or collected in this period, one more way to safeguard the unique identity of this people.

“A community of faith living a peculiar identity in an indifferent or hostile environment.” Brueggemann had other things on his mind. Any thoughts?

The official launch of Emerging Spirit (rebranded “Wondercafe”) will happen in a week or so and the first magazine advertisements will appear in the December issue of several popular Canadian magazines (and will also appear in the next week or so…a little trick publishers like to play). The basic hope is this: people will see the ads and be drawn to a website called and join a discussion or read more about the United Church. This will pave the way for an eventual visit to a local congregation, where we will do our best to welcome them and live out the kinds of things that are being said about the United Church of Canada. More on that later.

The groundwork for Emerging Spirit included surveys and focus groups led by companies (such as Environics) that specialize in such things. These experts polled and interviewed people outside the church began to discover that makes them tick. What are their core values? What gives them the most meaning in their lives? How do they perceive organized religion? Have they heard of the United Church? Did they believe that such a church actually exists? The professionals returned a lot of data.

It turns out that the values of the non-church people are similar to our values and the values of most Canadians: they value family and community, they want to make meaningful connections, they want to enhance the quality of their neighbourhood or community. They are looking for deeper meaning, but are highly doubtful that they can find it in a church. They were surprised to hear our description of what the United Church is like, and many were skeptical that such a place could exist. If it did, then 77% of respondents were interested in knowing more.

“A community of faith living a peculiar identity in an indifferent or hostile environment.” That sounds like us. The only difference between us and the Israelites is that they had to leave town to experience exile, and we have it right here. Somehow, while we looked away, society changed around us, and we in the church became exiles in our own land. But as we know, we are not alone.

Brueggemann takes this one step further to include the increasing number of “internal exiles” that exist in our society: poor, unemployed and underemployed, the marginalized, the disabled. Anyone who does not participate in our community or our economy is in exile. In a society that is increasingly dedicated to consumption and the accumulation of wealth, there is a growing underclass of people who simply cannot participate. Anger, dislocation and resentment grows while fewer and fewer people seem to notice the divide.

Finally, the “age of terror” that we live in is a kind of exile. We can try as hard as we can to ignore a certain president of a certain county as he drones on and on about September 11, 2001, but the fact remains that our lives have changed. We have a new reference point, a new moment in time that defines much of our public discourse. Individually, we are continually being reminded of a changed reality. Imagine my frustration on a sunny day in August: at the airport with my son, set to throw out every toiletry he owns, wondering how on earth a bottle of foot powder could possibly be a threat to our way of life.


8See, I am going to bring them
from the land of the north,
and gather them from the
farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.

The prophet Jeremiah was one of the few that remained after most of the Israelites were carried off. He continued to speak for God to anyone who would listen. Eventually he too was sent into exile, in his case to Egypt, and from there we hear no more from the prophet or even know his fate. What he left behind, the true legacy of his life amid such chaos, is a set of reflections, warnings, and eventually promises.

In the only plausible way for the Israelites to fathom what was happening around them, exile was the work of God and God’s desire to punish Israel for failing to remain faithful. No other explanation fit. Foreign kings and armies were the “divine hand” at work in the world and exile was the price a nation paid for failing to keep the covenant made long ago. This response seems both understandable and oddly foreign. On one hand, the impulse to imagine divine retribution is very human and timeless. Time and again people ask, “what did I do to deserve this?” On the other hand, the willingness to take personal and corporate responsibility for an unfolding disaster seems to belong to another age. Not a day goes by without some politician, business leader or public official saying “it was not my responsibility.” No wonder the Bible seems so foreign.

Jeremiah was trying to do several things at once: explain how world events were tied to the ongoing relationship between God and God’s people, call for continued repentance, and offer a word of hope.

9With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.

God’s relationship with Israel has changed. Suddenly the conversation has shifted from judgement to love:

4You are precious to me,
and so I will rebuild your nation.
Once again you will dance for joy
and play your tambourines.
5You will plant vineyards
on the hills of Samaria and enjoy the grapes.
6Someday those who guard the hill country of Ephraim
will shout, "Let's go to Zion and worship the LORD our God."

It is God’s desire that we return home, that we are no longer stranger in this land, that our time of exile end. It is pure gift that the response of forgiveness and love leads the way, that we open ourselves once more to the love that surrounds us. The God who came to us in Jesus, healing us, forgiving us, setting us free is the God that is present in prayer and song, present in those around us, and present in the people we have yet to meet. “We are the hand and feet of Christ,” so the poem says, and we also meet Christ in the vulnerable people to enter this place seeking hope.

A word of caution. People who have experienced exile together seem to develop a strong bond. Daydreaming about the success of Emerging Spirit and Wondercafe, I can’t help but worry about the underlying reaction to the new people:

We were here remaining faithful and keeping the doors open, where were you?
We understand church and all it means and have nothing to learn from you Johnny-come-lately’s.

How can I trust you to stay and not take off like all the others?

Do you see the pattern? We can follow all the tips and tricks that come with a welcoming campaign, we can create a coffee station and call it Wondercafe, we can blanket the neighbourhood with “branded” and professionally created flyers, but if our inner voice says “where were you guys?” then we are in deep trouble.

The other way, the way of the exile, is to understand that in the same way we experienced a kind of exile, the nameless/faceless newcomers waiting to join us are in exile too. They are in exile from a community of faith, they are in exile from a place of structured meaning, they are in exile from the God proclaimed as Word and praised within a collection of believers. We welcome them as fellow travelers.

We also welcome them in the way God welcomes all returning exiles, the way the father welcomes the prodigal, the way God sets aside all that has been and all that has happened and can only say “you are precious to me.” This is the message for all exiles, inside and outside the church: God loves you, God calls you precious, come home. Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, will you do us a favor?"
36Jesus asked them what they wanted, 37and they answered, "When you come into your glory, please let one of us sit at your right side and the other at your left." [a]
38Jesus told them, "You don't really know what you're asking! Are you able to drink from the cup [b] that I must soon drink from or be baptized as I must be baptized?" [c]
39"Yes, we are!" James and John answered.
Then Jesus replied, "You certainly will drink from the cup from which I must drink. And you will be baptized just as I must! 40But it isn't for me to say who will sit at my right side and at my left. That is for God to decide."
41When the ten other disciples heard this, they were angry with James and John. 42But Jesus called the disciples together and said:
You know that those foreigners who call themselves kings like to order their people around. And their great leaders have full power over the people they rule. 43But don't act like them. If you want to be great, you must be the servant of all the others. 44And if you want to be first, you must be everyone's slave. 45The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue [d] many people.

If anyone questions the idea that Canada is ruled by a small political elite, you need only cite the fact that the two front runners in the current Liberal leadership race were roommates in college. While most roommates were fighting about who bought the beer or who last took out the trash, Bob and Michael were apparently arguing (in perfect French) whether Quebec should be described as a ‘nation.’

Leadership races are complex things. The nature of the race is tied to the recent history of the party, but also includes perennial features that no race can avoid. As a party out of power, you look for an outsider, someone who has some distance on the recently punished regime. But not too much distance, of course, because the party continues to be made up of people who were loyal to the former leader and may still have tender feelings. Then there is the traditions: every other leader must come from Quebec, while any leader you choose must have enough French to eloquently take on separatists in Quebec because they have brilliant French.

Finally, the aspiring leader must insist they can represent the long tradition of the party while pointing out all the ways in which the party must change. They need to seem “leader-like” without appearing power-hungry. You have to give off the vibe that you are doing everyone a favour by running, and that it was hardly your idea in the first place. At the same time you need to make sure everyone knows that failing to choose you will lead to disaster.

“Teacher,” they said, “we’ve been rivals since college and we need to know: who will get to be leader and who will be deputy-leader when the seats of glory are handed out?”

“Now wait a minute,” Jesus said, “can you drink from the cup I will drink or undergo the baptism I will undergo?

And of course they said yes, naively unaware that the cup was the cup of suffering and the baptism was a baptism that meant death and only then new life. Meanwhile, the other leadership hopefuls, the fringe candidates and the ones with imperfect French began to get mad. They too wanted a shot at the seats of glory, imagining that all this desert wandering had to lead somewhere, and that if Jesus was indeed the King of Glory, then anything was possible.

Jesus answered all of them like this: we’re not like other parties. We don’t elect leaders that act like kings and rule the party like the head of an Alberta think-tank. We elect servant-leaders. If you want to be leader, you must be everyone’s servant first. Follow my lead, Jesus said, I didn’t come to assume the leadership of the party, but rather to be the first to give up everything for the sake of all people.


Imagine teaching a new idea that is really a very old idea and knowing that the people listening will bristle at the suggestion and find all sorts of ways to avoid the thought. Imagine that the suggestion runs counter to the “ways of the world” and may prove to be so unpopular that it would drive away the very people you hope to attract.

On Thursday evening, the Rev. Anthony Robinson, author and leadership theorist, spend some time describing a recent book and recounting some of the ways the book has been received. His book is called “What’s Theology Got to Do with It? It concerns the role of theological understanding in developing vital congregations. But before I talk about the theological idea that links Anthony Robinson and Mark 10, I need illuminate a bit of a divide.

If you gathered a group of church leaders, clergy and lay, and asked them to assemble a tool kit for transforming congregations, they would throw in any number of items: demographics and social analysis, for understanding our neighbourhood; a glance at pop culture to discover what engages people or what music they enjoy; a crash-course in welcoming to make sure we don’t blow the few chances we get at meeting new people brave enough to enter the building; a general toning-down of whatever may seem unsettling (get your minister to stop preaching against the banks).

Nowhere did you hear “explain complex theological ideas” or “teach people about the tradition” or “remind people that discipleship is costly and meant to be unpleasant at times.” You don’t hear it from the pews and you rarely hear it from the pulpit. It is easier to remind you to be good people and get you home by lunchtime.

At one of Rev. Robinson’s public lectures, a woman in the audience asked, “what about the idea of submission, no one ever talks about submission anymore.” You can imagine the uncomfortable silence. Imagine it first at some unspecified gathering and the words of the questioner lingering in air and then imagine it again at Ebenezer on Thursday night and the same question hanging in air as we waited to see how our guest answered the questioner.

“Submission to God,” he said, “means we submit to no other earthly authority.”

It was a tough sell. It was a tough sell precisely because teachers and leaders have spent the last forty years making Christianity more “user-friendly.” Less theology, fewer creeds, few rules, little or no certainty. We made ourselves distinct by lowering the bar to participation to the point where very few people participate. We made ourselves distinct by claiming to have more questions than answers and then one by one no longer posing the difficult questions. If the rule of thumb is that greater expectation leads to greater commitment, we took the opposite tack. And I can tell you from personal experience what happens when you pick the wrong tack. You watch the others sail away.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret: we went to theological college to learn the things we could not no longer say with certainty. Don’t tell anyone I told you. It is our little secret. We also went to theological college to learn about congregations as “systems” to be adjusted or manipulated in order to get the best possible outcome. I must be in a truth-telling mood. Maybe I should stop. We also learned that congregational failure was most likely the failure of the congregation and that ministers were “set apart” and could only be expected to do so much with the raw material they are given.

“Submission to God,” Anthony Robinson said, “means we submit to no other earthly authority.”
Jesus was trying to teach the disciples about God’s way. God’s way had nothing to do with hierarchy and status and everything to do with following God’s will. It has to do with serving others as a means to serve God. It has to do with submitting to God’s desire for our lives rather than submitting to the desire that the world has for us. It was to do with being servant of all rather than being a leader over all.

Ultimately Jesus asked James and John to explain where on earth they got the idea that being a disciple meant getting some reward. Where did they get the idea that they were the top two of twelve and deserved the best seats at he banquet? And how on earth did they miss the lesson that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Jesus said it often enough, so they had to have heard it. Submission to God means that we reject the world’s desire to label everything greatest, first and best. Submission to God means we serve God before we serve the marketplace, or popular opinion, or the way things have always been done. Submission to God means we belong to God alone, and all other relationships are subordinate to the one we share with the source of all life.

If we’re going to make this thing work, and if we’re going to submit to God’s desire for this congregation, then we will need to start by working together. We toil in this vineyard together, and no one has all the answers. Ministers need to let go of a desire to “fix” congregations and look to them instead as a source of wisdom and learning. Congregations need to stop expecting ministers to “fix” things and discover the wisdom and knowledge they already possess. Together they need to do some theology. What does it mean to submit to God? Can we say that Jesus is the Lord of our lives and the Head of this church? What if we never took our eye off the cup we must share and the baptism we must experience? May God bless us as we answer these questions together. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10

20"Teacher," the man replied, "I've obeyed all these commandments since I was a child."
21Jesus felt genuine love for this man as he looked at him. "You lack only one thing," he told him. "Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22At this, the man's face fell, and he went sadly away because he had many possessions.

It seems clear to me that there is a connection between architecture and the human spirit. As a recovering York grad, I can admit openly that while I treasure the education I received, I do not have fond memories of the main campus. For those unfamiliar with York, much of it was constructed in the early 1960’s, almost completely of concrete. It was the unhappy meeting of rapid construction (new space was desperately needed) and the emerging use of concrete as the material of choice. The biggest complaint was the lack of a clearly defined “front door” to the university. The Ross Building, the centre of campus, was dominated by a large ramp that seemed to go no where. They rumour was that the ramp was constructed as an easy means to quell student riots.

Moving downtown, I want to compare a couple of buildings to further my thesis that about the connection between what we build and the human spirit. The first one is Eaton’s College Park (1928). College Park is a “low-rise” building, with access at street level. The architect still couldn’t resist the use of stairs, but had the good sense to put them inside, thus making the entrance more inviting.

The second building is Robarts Library, U of T (1968): As a very good example of “Brutalism,” it is constructed in cast concrete. If you have seen it, you will know that it is offensive from every angle, unfriendly and apparently impenetrable. Students variously describe it as Fort Book, the Bunker, and the Turkey.

One building causes the spirit to soar, the other does not.

Put another way, the outward guards the inward. While College Park was designed to invite you in (to sell merchandise), Robarts seems to be designed to ward you off, signaling that the books are off-limits (and maybe they are). The outward guards the inward and sends signals for the world to receive. Campus architecture in the 1960’s and 70’s said, “we have a tradition to protect and if we make it seem scary and inaccessible, perhaps a few less people will try to get at it. The outward guards the inward.


Jesus felt genuine love for this man as he looked at him. “You lack only one thing,” he told him. “Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this, the man’s face fell, and he went sadly away because he had many possessions.

The idea that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ was not a popular one in the Ancient Near East. It would be obvious that outward appearance was your best way to determine whatever you needed to know about someone. This, in turn, led to theological assumptions, and an entire worldview fell into place. For example, wealth (and the appearance of wealth) meant that you were blessed by God, and the reverse was assumed as well: the poor were cursed and had somehow lost favour with God. It was one of those ‘shorthand’ ideas that people carried around with them, like assuming that clouds bring rain.

And the disciples, who represent the bridge between our flawed human understanding and the Kingdom vision of Jesus, could only see that wealth, blessing, and salvation were all tied up together. They wouldn’t see how the rich young man could do more than continue to keep the commandments and “look good for God” because he obviously enjoyed God’s blessing.

But, the outward guards the inward. Keeping the commandments and being blessed with material possessions did nothing to help the soul of this man. His soul needed to divest and unmask. He needed to take an inward journey.

Esther Armstong and Dale Stitt:

Inward journey brings us deeper into an intimate relationship with God, ourselves and others. Inward journey is about discovering our true self, who we are at the core. It is out of this search for truth and a deep relationship with God that we discover our call, our mission, where we are to invest our life energy.

The inward journey, for this young man, would begin when he could set aside the outward appearance that protected him and gave him meaning. The inward journey would bring him in contact with the things that he might sooner not see, but it would change everything. Vulnerable for once, and without the outward appearance of blessing, the young man would be “naked before God.” It is this kind openness that Jesus suggests, a willingness to explore the hidden depths that are most often obscured by the image we present to the world around us.

Esther Armstong and Dale Stitt:

When people live out of this deeper place, their depths, something profound happens to them. They are transformed. They become more authentic. They become persons of healing. They are good news. Hope, energy, peace, flows from them to others. And while such people who live from a deeper place still have issues to address, challenges to meet, and problems to face, there is something different about them. There is a presence with them. A peace. A centeredness…And we know they are not born this way…all of them have been on a long, intentional, difficult, and sometimes lonely inner journey. They know they will be on this inner journey for the rest of their lives.


There is one other lesson we can draw from this passage, a lesson that is often overlooked when the imagination is confronted by camels slipping through the eye of a needle. It is one of those simple details that, under the right circumstances, will shout at us as we try to read through and see the “big picture.” It comes in verse 21:

Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

This Kingdom vision, this vision of equality and justice and care for the vulnerable has one other characteristic that we too often overlook: love. Jesus loved this young man. Despite the trappings of wealth, despite the misconception about the meaning of faithfulness, despite Jesus’ intuitive knowledge that this man and his wealth were not going to be separated: Jesus loved this young man.

Jesus didn’t love him in the hope he would change.
Jesus didn’t love him for the commandments he kept.
Jesus didn’t love him to out-love the disciples.
Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

This love was neither a carrot nor a stick, it didn’t show anything or prove anything or even lead to anything. It just was and it just is.

Imagine if we took all the lessons and all the sermons and set them aside and centered our minds on the only modern Bible translation that matters:

Jesus, looking at you, loves you.

How would you feel? Would you be free to be you? Would you take more risks knowing that at the end of everyday you can rest in Jesus love for you? What if we’ve made this whole business of faith far more complicated than it needs to be?

Back in the day when religion still loomed large in the popular imagination, Karl Barth met the press when the final volume of his comprehensive look at Christian theology was complete. And journalist, even after the pithy quote said, “Dr. Barth, can you sum up your works in a single sentence? He thought for a moment and said this:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 6.25-33

‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

It seems high time to compile a worry list. So, go on, give us your worries:

(anxious congregation speaks out)

In my notes I’ve included the words “anxious congregation speaks out.” And speak out you did. You guys are really stressed out. But don’t worry, by the end of this sermon I’ll have you singing that somewhat annoying little song. Can you name it?

A really fun website if you are bored is “” calls itself the “Urban Legends Reference Page” and details all those rumours and legends that get passed around by email these days. Regarding Bobby McFarrin, they say this:

The 1988 feel-good anthem "Don't Worry, Be Happy" transformed a talented artist into a household name, garnering Grammy honors as song of the year and record of the year, and winning the "best pop vocal, male" award for Bobby McFerrin. It also served to spawn a long-lived rumor: As early as 1992, whispers were afoot that the man who had composed and sung this bouncy little ditty had failed to heed his own advice and had taken his own life instead.

Now why would someone cook up such a rumour? Could it be that the message was too upbeat for the prevailing mood of the time, a message best defeated by such an ironic rumour? Whatever lay at the heart of such a rumour, I say “don’t worry, be happy” because Bobby McFarrin is still with us and recently recorded an album with Wynton Marsalis.

The one rumour I can confirm is that worry is bad for you. It seems that both the Gospel lesson and the above mentioned song are not just good advice, but good for you. Indulging in worry may have serious consequences:

Every system in your body is affected by worry. In addition to raising blood pressure and increasing blood clotting, worry can prompt your liver to produce more cholesterol, all of which can raise your risk of heart attack and stroke. Muscle tension can give rise to headaches, back pain, and other body aches. Worry can also trigger an increase in stomach acid and either slow or speed up muscle contractions in your intestines, which can lead to stomach aches, constipation, diarrhea, gas or heartburn.

Now I’m really worried. I’m worried that worry-related illness will affect all of us worried people. There is practical advice for worriers. Dr. Dorothy McCoy suggests a few things: talk to someone and talk it through; switch gears and so some activity that helps you relax; exercise; avoid “comfort food” and excessive amounts of alcohol (


‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

To put more simply, you might sum up this passage with these words: Acknowledge God and live differently.* On the face of it this seems to be more than a Gospel-based prescription to deal with worry, but a summary of the entire Christian life. Surely to acknowledge God and live differently is at the heart of any profession of faith, of any creed recited and any goal of faith we may choose to set. But it is deeper than all of these.

To acknowledge God and live differently is not a command or a goal that in failing to accomplish will create greater worry. To acknowledge God and live differently means to adopt a different worldview, to see things in a new way, to imagine yourself in your life in a different way. In other words, one way to understand the message “stop worrying” is as advice to change your behavior: “Don’t worry, be happy.” The other way, the way Jesus shared in the Sermon on the Mount, is to change your character.

But how? And is it even possible to change our character? Isn’t character one of those things “set” in advance, the kind of defining characteristic that is revealed in the things we do?

Look at it this way: anyone can change their behaviour. Anyone can repent of a certain set of actions and adopt a new set. In many ways this is the primary goal of parenting: to encourage certain behaviours and encourage others until the kid “gets it” and can live well on their own. But character is a different kettle of fish. Character defines us, as I said a moment ago, and tends to have greater permanence than the way we choose to act at a certain moment.

It is important to note that much of the instruction in Matthew 6 is directed at the disciples. The crowds were there, leaning in no doubt, but the primary audience for these words was the twelve. And it is here we find the biggest clue to understand Jesus’ goal: the disciples were not merely being instructed, they were being formed. They were called to follow Jesus and follow in his “way.” And to follow in his way mean to live as he lived, love as he loved, and begin to understand in the most intimate way what it meant to be a child of God. Discipleship training was (and is) about adopting a new self, dying to old ways of living and being reborn in the image of Christ.

“Look at the birds of the air” and “consider the lilies.” Do they need to exercise more and talk it through? No, because within the character of birds and flowers is an inability to worry. They can’t do it. They have mastered the art of careless disregard for the worries of the world, and we are called to do likewise.

Now hold on a minute. Cathy is going to suddenly stop worrying about contractors and the next sinkhole? Marg is going to stop worrying about next month’s readers and greeters? Gail and Heather are going to stop worrying about hundreds of hungry people? The finance committee is going to stop worrying about paying the bills? (You can pay the bills, right?)

It’s one thing for an itinerant preacher and his friends to wander around from village to village and adopt such a “no-worry” worldview, but we live in the real world. I can say just two words and send shivers up the spines of most moderns: Visa and Mastercard. Worked, didn’t it? Now you’re worrying. I’ve got you all stressed out.

Time for some Thomas Merton:

In our age everything has to be a “problem.” Ours is a time of anxiety because we have willed it to be so. Our anxiety is not imposed on us by force from outside. We impost it on our world and upon one another from within ourselves.

We live in an anxious age. It is contagious. For Merton the goal is live a kind of contradiction where we strive to leave anxiety behind while remaining engaged in an anxious world. For Merton, the contemplative, part of the answer is silence:

Contradictions have always existed in the human soul. But it is only when we prefer [being anxious] to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them and rise above them and see them in the light of exterior and objective values that make them trivial by comparison.**

And so, we worry about feeding the many hungry people who live in this neighbourhood, and we also recall the ways we try to live our Christ’s call to compassion. We worry about our children, and we remember the way we know unconditional love in our relationship with them. We worry about the state of the world and we know that God desires peace and justice to reign in the world. Immersed in the light of compassion, grace, peace and justice the layers of worry peel away and we begin to transform ourselves and our approach to the world around us. We are made new.

This weekend, I encourage you to live in two worlds: the world of worry and the world of thankfulness. But I also encourage you to have a conversation between worlds, where you can acknowledge the things that trouble you and then acknowledge God and live differently. Twin every worry with a Kingdom goal and trust in God to help you find a way though. Amen.

*Brueggemann et al, Texts for Preaching A, p. 155
**Merton, Resources A, p. 80

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11.4ff
The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

Mark 9.38ff
John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Some of the best cooking involves searching the cupboards for whatever you have and creating something tasty. My grandmother, I am told, did this on an even larger scale when she was the cook at a company cafeteria. The most anticipated meal was Friday’s meat pie, a wonderful melange in a tasty crush. It was only after my father married my mother that he learned that his mother-in-law the cook simply threw all the leftovers for the week together to create the filling for the delicious pie. I’m sure there’s some important moral to be drawn from this story, but I’m probably too close to see it.

Now, with the power of the internet, you can go to any number of websites, enter the ingredients you have on hand, and presto, you have a recipe! The reason I share all this is the exciting list of ingredients found in Numbers 11. The Israelites are wandering in the desert and given to complaining. “Manna, again?” is the familiar refrain as the people remember happier times around the “fleshpots” of Egypt. “Manna, always manna…there is nothing to look at but this manna.” But at least one of the writers of Numbers had a culinary arts diploma on her resume. You can hear it in the wonderful but completely extraneous explanation of manna:

Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its colour was like the colour of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.

It almost reads like a defense for manna. Who could refuse “cakes baked in oil”? But refuse they did. Instead they recited the ingredient list of the so-called happier times in Egypt when their diet was fish, cucumbers, melons, onions, leeks and garlic. Sounds delicious, right? Is it cruel to preach about food right before lunch? Back to the power of the internet, I added the list to my online recipe generator and came up with “Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper.” No wonder they were pining for the old days back in Egypt. Who wouldn’t trade their freedom for Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper. If I was the kind of minister who did sermon titles, you can bet I would call this one “Aunt Mary’s Alabama Baked Red Snapper.”

But I don’t do sermon titles. But I will try to link manna, red snapper, the exodus, casting out demons, liberation, lepers, communion and my grandmother’s cooking in the next ten minutes. Here we go.


John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

Healing is liberation. If you have ever had the experience of overcoming some debilitating condition, you will know the relief and the sense of release that comes with it. While the most common metaphor for facing illness is “fighting,” the most common way to express healing is the language of freedom. Freedom from pain, freedom from stigma, freedom from the compromises that illness brings. Jesus brought healing but he also brought freedom.

Freedom, of course, is infectious. As soon as people became aware that Jesus was healing in the name of God, they wanted to get in on it. And the disciples, in their usual role of having to ask the dumb questions, say ‘should we stop the others who are casting out demons in your name?’ The answer was ‘no.’ Those who do good in the name of Jesus cannot be stopped, and cannot deny Jesus. In fact, “whoever is not against us is for us.”

Whoever is not against us is for us

Sound familiar? Almost. If you take the inverse, “whoever is not for us is against us,” you have the Bush Doctrine, the justification for making war on so-called terrorist states. Notice how Jesus has turned this ancient idea (Bush didn’t think it up) on its head: Whoever is not against us is for us. Jesus takes the classic formula for defining enemies and creates a formula for finding friends. His formula is completely open-ended: anyone who follows in my way and seeks what I seek can only be defined as friend.

In other words, anyone else who seeks to promote liberation from illness and the life-denying effects of illness is a fellow traveler on the road. Anyone who shares the goal of releasing others from bondage is my friend.

Freedom is infectious but freedom is also costly. You cannot be liberated without some change in how you perceive yourself. Remember the ten lepers? Jesus healed ten lepers on the road one day and only one returned to say thank you. Usually this story is preached around the topic of gratitude, but it may also be a sermon about dislocation, and the enormous change in self-perception that comes with healing. We assume that the nine were so caught up in being former lepers and adjusting to their new freedom that it never occurred to them to return and thank the God that brought the healing. Rather than condemn them, we need to try to understand them.

The same can be said for ex-slaves. Imagine you know only dependence. Imagine that one day you find yourself liberated and discover that the freedom you sought was really only the transfer of dependence: dependence on Pharaoh to dependence on God. Of course we immediately think ‘how wonderful’ be liberated, and ask ‘how could they be so ungrateful?’ Now, think like a slave. To a slave, dependence is dependence. Being transferred from one god (Pharaoh) to another (YHWH) would be wonderful if there was some tangible evidence that this was an improvement. Sure, it was great to see Pharaoh get his, but next thing you know the tribe is wandering in the desert: thirsty, hungry, attacked by snakes and wild beasts, and altogether convinced that the “devil you know’ has to be better than the one you don’t out here in the desert.

The reason that the desert wandering took a full generation was partly to extinguish the direct experience of fish, cucumber, leeks, onion, garlic and melon that made bondage bearable. Better to enter the Promised Land with no direct experience of that former life and prepare the masses for the “milk and honey” to come.

Back to the topic of bread from heaven, St. Paul had this to say:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5)

St. Paul had a talent for mixing metaphors and making something simple seem really complex, so I’ll take a go at trying to explain. At the Passover celebration (the early version) the family would gather to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle the blood ever the doorpost to commemorate the time that the spirit of death “passed over” the households of the Hebrew people. They also ate unleavened bread, the bread that remained unleavened when they left Egypt in such great haste.

In traditional Christian belief, the Passover or “Paschal” lamb is Jesus, sacrificed for us that we too be spared from death. The “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is most present to us at the Lord’s supper, when “a new Passover” banquet is celebrated. Liberation from bondage, liberation from sin and liberation from death are all entwined in the joyous meal. The “cup of blessing” and the “bread of heaven” become not only reminders of the new life God provides, but a celebration of the freedom we receive in Christ Jesus.

So, if manna is bread from heaven, and the bread we share is the bread of heaven, and if Jesus brings liberation from illness and despair, and Jesus brings liberation from sin and death, what is the message we hear for today? How do ancient stories and ancient rituals speak to our time?

Like Woodward and Bernstein and the advice to “follow the money,” I say follow the bondage. Who is enslaved? Who needs to be liberated? Who needs hope?

Quickly google “manna” and you will discover several food banks that chose the name “Manna.” It seems perfectly appropriate: for the poor that rely on a community based food program, it must seem like “manna from heaven.” But then the name gets tricky. We have already this morning been talking about how tired the people were to receive manna, how bored they were, and how they complained to God knowing that back in Egypt there were still people who were enjoying fish and cucumber and leeks and melon. Gail could tell us if people complain about lack of variety and make comparisons to what non-food bank people get to eat. At any rate, the manna reference is more than a little problematic.

The link does, however, highlight something else. The people who received manna were dependent on God in a way that people who lived with abundance were not. We have the freedom to eat whatever we want, the people to use food banks have freedom from starvation. Who would have a greater sense of what it means to be dependent on God? Do we always remember to give thanks for the abundance we have? How could someone who uses the food bank possibly forget that they depend on generosity outside themselves?

How can we live with abundance and imagine that we are dependent on God? Can it be done?

I believe it begins at the table. Jesus said “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Whoever shares the Kingdom goals of compassion and sharing, healing and wholeness could never be against us, whoever they are. All are welcome at this table precisely because it us a source of hope for all who are seeking. It is a place of liberation, where to power of death is defeated and the Lamb of God brings new life. It is a place where all are equally dependent before God, and all are known as God’s children. It is a place where “bread from heaven” frees us from the sinful systems that create inequality and division.

This table is more than a meal, it is a proclamation against hunger (actual and spiritual), poverty (actual and existential) and the forces of death that cannot see God’s intention for this us. This table is a place of liberation, where hurts are healed, sadness turns to joy, and God makes an end to death.