Sunday, November 26, 2006

Reign of Christ Sunday

John 18
33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Time to be candid and reveal the inner life of the preacher. The truth is, we’re mostly snobs. And I can prove it. Preachers, like the rest of the population, spend time, sometimes hours at a time, watching the infernal box we call television. Most claim otherwise. “I’m far too busy for television,” they will claim, “I have meetings in the evening.”

Now the truth. I have a colleague that claims his entire upbringing and much of his worldview is defined by the program “Trailer Park Boys.” I like to call him the Rev. Bubbles. I have sat though several conversations among ministers debating the accuracy of the series “Six Feet Under,” a candid look at the funeral business. One of my classmates in Chicago, Shawnthea Monroe-Mueller, took this to the next level and wrote a book about her favourite TV show. Her book is called “Not-So-Desperate: Fantasy, Fact, and Faith on Wisteria Lane.” It’s published by Chalice Press in case you’re interested.

For the most part we watch it, and then deny it. We quote films, poems, great works of fiction, but seldom television. I don’t remember the day an instructor said “and for God’s sake don’t quote television” but it seems to be a message we all received.

More truth. Recently I’ve been watching the first season of the HBO series “Rome.” Episode by episode I’m working my way through the somewhat complicated story of the emergence of Empire and the ascendancy of Julius Caesar. We even get to see young Octavius come of age, knowing that we are watching Caesar Augustus as a boy: learning to fight, mistreat slaves and cope with an overbearing mother. It’s compelling stuff, not simply because of my interest in all things Roman, but because Octavius and his family rule the empire at the same moment that Jesus lived and died under Roman occupation.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is the extent to which they portray religion in the everyday fabric of characters’ lives. In nearly every scene someone prays to some deity, makes an offering, expresses gratitude or fear, or argues the wisdom of some course of action based on their knowledge of the divine pantheon. And it happens across the classes: peasants, soldiers, nobles and right up to Caesar are showing examples of Roman piety. I was even reminded of an interesting little tidbit that I had long forgotten: one of the most important titles of the Roman Emperor was given by the religious elite, that of "Supreme Pontiff." That familiar sounding title was adopted, of course, by another set of Roman rulers and continues to be used.

If it seems odd that the Gospel reading for today is also a Good Friday reading, we would do well to think of the collision that is coming in the next few weeks and imagine that the Gospel reading is one more way to understand this collision. The collision that is coming is between the Roman lad played so well by Max Pirkis (also starred in Master and Commander) and a Jewish lad that will be born of Mary.

One last bit of Roman trivia before we move on: Within two years of his assassination, Julius Caesar was declared “The Divine Julius,” a new god in the imperial religion. About this time, having consolidated his grip on power, the new Emperor, Octavius, (Caesar Augustus) took the title “Son of God.” The collision that was coming, the collision that Pilate was trying to navigate that day in Jerusalem, was the collision between two men who wore the title “Son of God.” Earth was too crowded for both.


“My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.

The earth is too crowded and my kingdom is not from here. Pilate must be one of the most thoroughly misunderstood figures in the Bible, or in history for that matter. Poor Pilate, by the early part of the last century most scholars had come to believe that maybe he didn’t exist at all, just a literary creation of the Gospel writers who needed some random Roman to carry out the death sentence that the Jewish leaders could not. All of that changed in 1961 when an inscription in limestone was found near Tel Aviv that mentions the governor Pilate during the reign of Tiberius. So, real once more, we have a conversation between the Son of God, and the local representative of the “son of god” in Rome.

And what did they talk about? Not religion. The Romans were surprisingly tolerant in the area of religion. In an empire of so many peoples and religions, it made more sense to allow local religions to continue than to try to convert them. Besides, the appeal of Roman deities was self evident, and so why waste time trying to defeat local beliefs? Roman religion was also practical. If they met a local god they liked, and they thought he or she would be at home in Rome, they would carry that belief back with them and set up a temple. This is one instance where some in the past had a much more meaningful approach to religious pluralism.

The role of the local ruler such as Pilate was to assess and confront threats to the empire. So in the area of religion, Jesus was clearly not a threat. What about the claim to kingship? Now this was a threat to take seriously. Local kings existed all over the empire, but they needed to pledge their loyalty to Caesar. Any new person claiming kingship in a local setting would need to be vetted and allowed to make their pledge. This explains the very first question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

The answer also explains the outcome. Jesus quickly corrects any misunderstanding or any suggestion that he is a threat to the local political situation. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says, “my kingdom is not from here.” Confused, or maybe beginning to understand, Pilate asks again: “So you are a king?” And the answer, after much prodding, is yes: “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

But Pilate doesn’t care about that. He said as much when he asked the rhetorical question “What is truth?” He was bored by this point, or maybe too busy keeping order to enter a philosophical discussion. With this, the narrative moves on, political questions settled, threat assessed, and religious questions passed over by a busy bureaucrat on the edge of empire. “So what if he’s the son of god?” Pilate was thinking, “at least he’s not threat to Rome or the throne of the son of god found by the Tiber.


So who did he threaten? First up is the religious leaders, who John inappropriately calls “the Jews,” inappropriate considering that Jesus and his followers were also Jews and no separation existed yet, except in the mind of John writing sixty years later. The religious leaders were looking for a king, a new Solomon, a wise leader and pious king who would make them great once more in the eyes of the nations. They were not looking for someone who surrounded himself with unclean losers and the formerly infirm. Next it’s the people, looking for a new David to lead them to freedom on the field of battle. They were not looking for some who preached peace and the year of jubilee. Finally, his own followers, looking for Elijah, who could defeat false prophets and rain down God’s power for all to see. They were not looking for someone who promised the kingdom to widows and children and poor people.

All of them, too busy looking for their own version of the truth, missed the truth that stood before them:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

How does that truth translate to today?

The earth is too crowded and my kingdom is not from here. We too live in a time where governments spend most of their time assessing threat. Call it the “new world order” after 9-11, or call it life in wartime, but the truth is governments have always been in the business of securing and maintaining power. Ask Mr. Juballah, imprisoned here in Toronto for five years, still waiting to be charged with a crime. Or ask anyone who can’t work and gets $530 a month to live in Toronto, one of the wealthiest cities on the planet. Or ask anyone who has been “downsized” or “rightsized” by a corporation that gets shameful tax breaks from the same government that claims to want to create jobs for Canadians. No, the role of government, and new “kingdom” of this world is to secure and maintain power. Exhibit “A” is the leadership race largely devoid of issues. Why talk issues when the real issue is getting power?

The other “Son of God,” the son of God that doesn’t seek power, took flesh and walked among us for a few brief moments. He walked a path of with no power, save the power of God heal and forgive and talk about the world as it should be.

He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.

We are God’s children, and our Kingdom is not of this world. We’re going to talk about it, we’re going to bring as much of it to this place as we can, we’re going to cast a vision for all to see: but we will continue to live in both, with glimpses of glory and the truth of God’s love. Amen.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

In my quest to understand the true nature of children, I turned to the wisdom of the ages as presented in nursery rhymes. Let’s begin with the girls:

Mary Mary quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

This doesn’t tell us much. Apparently the Mary in the poem is Mary Tutor, a.k.a. Bloody Mary and “silver bells and cockle shells” were instruments of torture used on Protestants. This may not help us.

Let’s turn to the boys:

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie;
Kissed the girls and made them cry.
When the boys came out to play,
Georgie Porgie ran away.

Hmmmm. In this case, the Georgie in question is George, the Duke of Buckingham, who had a weakness for the wives of other noblemen. Hence, “when the boys came out to play, Georgie Porgie ran away. Again, not very helpful in understanding the nature of children.

What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice, and everything nice:
That what little girls are made of.
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails, and puppy dog's tails,
That's what little boys are made of.

Perhaps this is not the most helpful source of information. In our lesson this morning Jesus says “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” If this is our starting point, than we need to figure out what it means to “receive the Kingdom like a little child.” Are their special qualities we can adopt? Is there a previous state we can reenter?

One commentator cautioned against creating a list of supposed of child virtues and expecting people to live them out. What would we put on such a list? Openness, trust, innocence…several words spring to mind, and all of them can be questioned based on our experience. As a parent, and having worked as a daycare cook, I can tell you that things aren’t as rosy as we’d like to believe. Recall the toddler who has discovered the word “no” and then eat your words about kids being all sweet and open and innocent.

We do know that children are largely powerless. If they set out to earn their place in the Kingdom of God, they have little or no leverage to do so. And in this sense we can see the context of Jesus’ statement. If you approach the Kingdom as something that cannot be earned or won, as a child would, then you are on the right path. If you recall the disciples argument regarding greatness and who would sit at the right hand of Jesus in the life to come, we can see the need to approach this question in a different way. Children do not have the strength or power or connections an adult may have and can only offer themselves to the Kingdom. (Craddock, p. 204)


On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton went into the city near his monastic home to do a little shopping. He wrote these words:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.

It was a remarkable event in a remarkable life. We need to admire first his candor, sharing a discovery of his common humanity after years of study and contemplation. It almost seems odd that he needed to re-enter society to see this, knowing that as a man of letters and a student of religion that he would be well versed in the concept of our equality before God. On the other hand, perhaps his revelation came precisely out of his time in isolation. He continues:

It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.

He confesses that in taking vows as a monk he and his friends had begun to imagine themselves as “a different species of being, [or] pseudo-angels.” (Merton, p. 90) When he rediscovered his common humanity with the shoppers at the corner of Fourth and Walnut his entire outlook changed. He quickly became “a monk for peace,” calling for sanity in one of the most intense times of the Cold War.


The author of Hebrews wrote:

Yes, by God's grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone in all the world. 10And it was only right that God--who made everything and for whom everything was made--should bring his many children into glory. Through the suffering of Jesus, God made him a perfect leader, one fit to bring them into their salvation. (Ch. 2)

By God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone in all the world: the pious and sinful, the powerful and weak, the Jews and non-Jews, men and women and so on. Even as he began to surrender to death he forgave everyone: the friends who denied and fled, the soldiers, the religious elite, and the common people who cried out for his death. They did not know what they were doing and forgave them. Through his death, and through the end of death, a broken world was opened to a new reality, a reality based on forgiveness and God’s continuing desire to walk among us through the Risen Christ.

Child-like, we empty ourselves of any notion that we are wise enough or powerful enough to earn God’s favour. We cannot. Our place in the Kingdom is promised based purely on our humanity and God’s desire to be with us. “We are already one,” Thomas Merton said, “but we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.” (p. 140) When we internalize this reality we begin to understand ourselves and our place in the world quite differently. We cannot separate ourselves and enjoy some private relationship with the Maker of all when God is clearly the Maker of all. Instead we stand with others, mindful of God’s grace, and remember “we are already one” in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Wondercafe Presentation 2

Here is the link. The file is quite large (10 meg). I had to convert it to .pdf in order to reduce it from the original 24 meg. Thanks for attending workshop 2!



D.Min Project Sermon Two

2 Kings 22
3After Josiah had been king for eighteen years, he told Shaphan, [a] one of his highest officials: Go to the LORD's temple 4and ask Hilkiah the high priest to collect from the guards all the money that the people have donated. 5Have Hilkiah give it to the men supervising the repairs to the temple. They can use some of the money to pay 6the workers, and with the rest of it they can buy wood and stone for the repair work. 7They are honest, so we won't ask them to keep track of the money.
8While Shaphan was at the temple, Hilkiah handed him a book and said, "Look what I found here in the temple--The Book of God's Law."
Shaphan read it, 9then went back to Josiah and reported, "Your officials collected the money in the temple and gave it to the men supervising the repairs. 10But there's something else, Your Majesty. The priest Hilkiah gave me this book." Then Shaphan read it out loud.
11When Josiah heard what was in The Book of God's Law, he tore his clothes in sorrow. 12At once he called together [those closest to him] and said, 13"The LORD must be furious with me and everyone else in Judah, because our ancestors did not obey the laws written in this book. Go find out what the LORD wants us to do."

The first step in getting help is admitting you have a problem. My son and I have a serious film problem, one that finds us most Wednesdays in a darkened theatre somewhere in Scarborough. To help wade through the vast number of films currently in theatre, I have invented the mini-review:

An Inconvenient Truth: A timely and deeply disturbing look at climate change.
Death Of A President: A controversial and disturbing film about the hypothetical assassination of the President.
Man Of The Year: Satirical and disturbingly accurate look at contemporary politics.
Marie Antoinette: Political intrigue and disturbing opulence in 18th century France.
The Queen: A disturbing look back at the events surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

If you can spot the trend, you might think we’re disturbed (by the films we see). My son and I favour films with social or political commentary, films that reframe events or pose a challenge to conventional thinking. I want to say a word about only two of these films: If you haven’t seen Al Gore’s documentary on climate change, don’t despair. I’m planning an evening once the DVD hits the stores to watch the film and discuss it. While the film may not resurrect his political career, it will certainly alter popular opinion on global warming.

The second film is The Queen. If you are interested the recent history of the royal family, see it. Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth is remarkable. And as I said above, it recounts an almost hour-by-hour look at the events surrounding Diana’s death and the aftermath. Director Stephen Frears shows us the interplay between the royal family, the media and Prime Minister Tony Blair. Some of the participants in the unfolding story come out looking good, some really good, and some down right awful. I won’t spoil the film, but I think you can guess who is who. I will give away some: only to say that Tony Blair is essentially the hero of the film, portrayed as the one who saves the monarchy from themselves. I found it disturbing. It was hard not to feel manipulated by a film that casts a now unpopular Prime Minister, so dangerously out of touch with his people on Iraq, as the true hero of contemporary British politics. I never like to leave the theatre feeling manipulated.

I also couldn’t help but notice that all the films I mentioned are about royalty or royal power, whether on some European throne or in the White House. Stories of royalty and royal power fascinate us, they draw our attention and always have. Who has power? Who is losing power? How are they using power? How does it affect the rest of us? These are timeless questions, questions that began the first time someone said, “I will be your King” and continue down to last Tuesday when the imperial throne began to vanish in Washington.


11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders to those present. 13 "Go and inquire of the LORD for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the LORD's anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us."

How is it that it took a major renovation of the temple to uncover a copy of the Bible? What was happening there before the work started if they didn’t have a copy of the Book of the Law? A quick walk through Second Kings will reveal the answer: Almost without exception, the kings did “what was evil in the sight of the LORD.” Almost without exception, the kings forgot about covenant promises and gave themselves over to foreign gods. The signs were everywhere: the sacred poles, the alters to Baal, Asherah and Molech, and all the other players on a all-star team of pagan gods.

Josiah, the good king, had other ideas. Like an ancient St. Francis, Josiah decided to literally rebuild the faith of his fathers stone-by-stone. He instructed his bureaucrats to provide for the workers and spare no expense. The work was extensive, and as always happens when you renovate, there were surprises. But, rather than finding a sinkhole as we did, the workers found a scroll.

What they found, scholars suggest, is Deuteronomy. Josiah, the good king, finds the words of the scroll so disturbing that he tears his clothing and sends for his leading prophet to read the rest of the scroll and find some meaning. God must be angry, he decides, and being the good king there will need to be reform.

What did he read? As they unroll this dry and dusty document, they glanced upon words that were wildly out of step with the day-to-day life of Josiah’s court. Was it the Ten Commandments? Was it the Shema?

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

In other words, surround yourself with the Book of the Law. Be sure that it is visible wherever you look, because the temptations that the Promised Land will present will require constant reminders of God’s presence and God’s law. Now, I remember reading somewhere that owning a lot of Bibles doesn’t make you a Bible-reader. It certainly made me look twice at my bookshelf. So maybe Josiah didn’t hear some general instruction (that was probably committed to memory anyway), but something more specific, maybe something especially for him. Maybe the scroll fell open a little further and he heard this:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me’, you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. (Deuteronomy 17)

Good, long-tern advice, and set somewhere in the middle of all of that was a footnote that said “and don’t take a lot of wives and don’t surround yourself with silver and gold.” If Josiah the good king was in a panic, we can certainly imagine why.

Now, the story of a good king is far less interesting unless we contrast it with a bad king, in this case Josiah’s own son. Like a Shakespearean drama, the stories of Josiah and Jehoiakim unfold and we are left to make our own judgement, perhaps calling out from the audience “Read the Scroll” or “No Romeo, she’s not really dead!” In this case, Jehoiakim gets his own scroll, ink still fresh, with the kind of warning wayward people always fail to heed. What I love about Jehoiakim though, is the way he receives it:

Then the king sent Jehudi [his aide]to get the scroll, and he took it from the chamber of Elishama the secretary; and Jehudi read it to the king and all the officials who stood beside the king. Now the king was sitting in his winter apartment (it was the ninth month), and there was a fire burning in the brazier before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a penknife and throw them into the fire in the brazier, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the brazier. Yet neither the king, nor any of his servants who heard all these words, was alarmed, nor did they tear their garments. (Jeremiah 36.20ff)

I want to tell you that the responses of father and son resulted in a different fate for the people of Judah, but that is not the case. Neither being a good king nor a bad king had any bearing on the eventual fate that we know meant capture and captivity when the nation was overrun by Babylonians. Josiah’s own prophetess, Huldah said as much, warning the good king that all his last minute cramming for the finals would not avert destruction, only ensure that Josiah would die in his own land.

Before I leave these two kings, I have to admit that I’m drawn to Jehoiakim and his penknife and his flaming brazier. As much as we have given him the surname of “bad king,” you have to admit he knows who he is and he acts with some consistency. Villains are compelling because they are who they are and they usually don’t care. Three columns, four columns, and into the fire.

The “good king” designation falls to Josiah because he begins all sorts of reforms. He too had a fire, and burned everything from Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He smashed pagan shrines and burned sacred poles and demanded that all the sacrifice and all the offerings happen in the Temple in Jerusalem, the temple that he controlled, the temple of the court of King Josiah, the “good king.” Suddenly, in the spirit of reform, the coffers of the king begin to grow. Is this a pious response to waywardness or a cynical means to enrich the temple treasury and the court of the king. Would a leader manipulate the people using religion and gain greater power? Would a leader co-opt the heartfelt convictions of his religious citizens to further a political agenda? See the problem? Everything old is new again as certain leaders find certain religious groups and they push through a political agenda that is less about faith and more about safeguarding wealth and position. I was hoping to draw some lessons from the contrast between good king and bad king but instead I left the theatre of Judean politics feeling manipulated. Maybe we need to look elsewhere.


Last week I gathered with my Parish Project Group, the brave folks who are walking with me on this learning path, and we sat right here in the nearly completed chancel in the partly completed church and we pondered the story of Josiah the king. We searched for meaning amid the half-built walls and the broken piles of masonry and we found a thing or two. We didn’t find any scrolls (although Cathy reminded us about the racoon skeleton), nor did we find anything that said “this way to faithfulness” or “this way to ruin.” What we found instead (in good United Church fashion) were questions:

What makes this building different from other public buildings?
What makes this a temple?

I guess the answer to the first question may be another question: Why was it built? What did the good folks of the Congregational Church here in Birchcliff expect would happen in this place? How was it dedicated? What words were spoken, what verses recited that would set this place on a path of faithfulness? If we cracked open the cornerstone and uncovered a treasure trove, what would we see? Looking upon a dedication, perhaps we would find something like the most famous dedication of all: the day Solomon dedicated the temple. Let’s listen in:

27 "But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! 28 Yet give attention to your servant's prayer and his plea for mercy, O LORD my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. 29 May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, 'My Name shall be there,' so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. 30 Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive. (1 Kings 8)

What makes this place different? God is here, but God is not here. God is all around us, but even the highest heaven cannot contain God. What matters is that this is a place of prayer. This is the place where we lift up our hope, where we lift up our cry, where we seek forgiveness and reconciliation and the reassurance that God cares. This is never a place where the Book of the Law slips from view or the words of scripture are not repeated. This is never a place where status or station or ability to pay dictate your place, nor a place where a monopoly on spiritual matters is declared. This is never a place for the powerful to reign, for official religion to operate or for leaders to seek legitimacy.

This is God’s house, and it belongs to those who need it most: those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, to the merciful and those who seek mercy, the pure in heart and those who mourn, and the poor, to whom the Kingdom belongs. The temple Jesus spoke of was his body. Forty-six years to build, but raised in three short days. What makes this building different from other public buildings? Built in 1923, rebuilt in 1959, and still being built today, it is a three-day project: it is the project of the one who hears our prayers and intercedes for us. It is the project of the one that made his body this church. It is the project of reconciling love that fills this and everyday with hope. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 12
41Jesus went over to the collection box in the Temple and sat and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. 42Then a poor widow came and dropped in two pennies. 43He called his disciples to him and said, "I assure you, this poor widow has given more than all the others have given. 44For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has."

In his introduction to the book Mr. Lincoln's Army, Bruce Catton recalls his boyhood impressions of the veterans of a conflict fifty years past:

A generation grew up in the shadow of war which, because of its distance, somehow had lost all resemblance to everyday reality. To a generation which knew the war only by hearsay, it seemed that these aged veterans had been privileged to know the greatest experience a man could have. (p.xii)

Through the lens of fifty years of peace, the conflict developed an aura that seemed almost legendary, and for a young man, romantic. As a scholar, he draws a different conclusion: "War, obviously, is the least romantic of all man's activities, and it contains elements which veterans do not describe to children." Perhaps legends develop best in silence, and as the voice of experience grows ever more silent, we need to pause to heed and remember.

With only three Canadian veterans of the Great War remaining, (Victor Clemett, Gladys Powers and Percy Wilson) we begin to feel the scope of loss that comes when first hand experience passes on. Soon no one will be able to describe Passchendaele or Vimy Ridge, and for this we will be greatly diminished. Stories of valour and sacrifice need to be recounted, lest we forget. From Catton: "Those men are all gone now and they have left forever unsaid the things they might have told us, and no one can now speak for them." (p. xiii)


41Jesus went over to the collection box in the Temple and sat and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. 42Then a poor widow came and dropped in two pennies. 43He called his disciples to him and said, "I assure you, this poor widow has given more than all the others have given. 44For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has."

Temple sacrifice was a highly regimented system of personal piety. The proscribed rates, broken down by class, were set to ensure observance caused no hardship. Recall the baby Jesus was presented in the temple with the appropriate offering for poor Nazarenes: "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons." (Luke 2.24) The widow then, in her two small coins, gives beyond all expecting, even beyond understanding.

A practical observer would ask "why, with two coins remaining, would she give both? Surely giving half of all she had would be sacrifice enough to please God." And the answer is most certainly yes. God does not demand we embrace destitution in order to be faithful, only that we look beyond ourselves to see the needs of others. The irony of God is that the demands on us are both great and small. Becoming a disciple of Jesus must require some sacrifice in order to be meaningful. And so we give: we set aside time or money or our own agenda to fellow in his way. Yet many fail, and give little or nothing, and God continues to reach out to them, holding them in their unwillingness or fear.

Paul, of course, picks up the same theme of generosity and applies it to Jesus:

For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Corinthians 8.9)

Jesus had life, and the Light of the World chose to surrender that life so that we might have life. Perhaps the second mite was the difference between living with Jesus and dying with Jesus. Perhaps the second mite was cruciform in shape, given willingly to an ungrateful world. Perhaps the second mite represents the life Jesus could have saved (his own) but decided instead to spend on you and me.

From Fr. Joseph Donders:

When he took his bread
That last evening of his life,
When he took his cup and said:
"This is my body,
this is my blood,"
he must have been thinking
of that [widow in the temple].

Jesus' decision to give everything, to sacrifice the earthy life that he treasured with every fiber of his being, unfolds throughout the Gospels. The clues are there, and the words are clear, when the lens of Calvary is applied to the stories and sayings shared. Here is one from John 1:

"He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him."

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word knew that the world wouldn't accept a word of what was said. They couldn't then and we struggle to today. "'Count the cost,' Jesus said, giving fair warning to any who dared follow him." (Yancey, p. 96)

To give and give, and give again,
What God hath given thee;
To spend thyself nor count the cost;
To serve right gloriously
The God who gave all worlds that are,
And all that are to be. (Geoffrey A. Studdert-Kennedy)


To the many who did count the cost, and dared to live and die for others, we dedicate our worship today. To many who continue to count the cost daily, in Afghanistan and on peacekeeping missions around the world, we dedicate our worship today. We live under a great debt, one that will never be repaid, one that allows us to pursue justice for all peoples, living in freedom and peace. Next week I will mark a ballot for the second time this year (and there may be a third), and if I feel inconvenienced or annoyed, and if I can't find a parking space, or I end up in the wrong line, I will look for a poppy, and I will remember that freedom comes with a terrible cost.