Sunday, September 23, 2007

25th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
1Jesus said to his disciples: A rich man once had a manager to take care of his business. But he was told that his manager was wasting money. 2So the rich man called him in and said, "What is this I hear about you? Tell me what you have done! You are no longer going to work for me."
3The manager said to himself, "What shall I do now that my master is going to fire me? I can't dig ditches, and I'm ashamed to beg. 4I know what I'll do, so that people will welcome me into their homes after I've lost my job."
5Then one by one he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He asked the first one, "How much do you owe my master?"
6"A hundred barrels of olive oil," the man answered.
So the manager said, "Take your bill and sit down and quickly write `fifty'."
7The manager asked someone else who was in debt to his master, "How much do you owe?"
"A thousand bushels [a] of wheat," the man replied. The manager said, "Take your bill and write `eight hundred'."
8The master praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well. That's how it is! The people of this world look out for themselves better than the people who belong to the light.
9My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home. 10Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters. 11If you cannot be trusted with this wicked wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12And if you cannot be trusted with what belongs to someone else, who will give you something that will be your own? 13You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money.

It happened late in the morning on Thursday. They said it was coming, but few believed it would really happen. And while it happened for only a few minutes, we were changed. We hit par.

If you spent all of yesterday in a lineup at Fort Erie, I think we can understand why. Trading ahead of the US for the first time since 1976 can cause a momentary lapse of sanity, and may even cause us to rethink the way we see ourselves. The week was dominated by stories like “finally the world sees us as we truly are: oil reserves second only to Saudi Arabia, gold, diamonds, trees!” We felt a little taller, a little closer to centre on the world stage, and most importantly, for a moment or two, better than the Americans. Personally, I’m looking forward to Chicago next summer when my classmates will stop saying things like “hey, everyone’s going to chip in five bucks – ten bucks for you Canadians!”

[By-the-way, am I the only one that noticed that since 1976 we’ve traded below the US, AND had the world’s tallest free-standing structure: then within a week of losing the world’s tallest designation, the Canadian dollar is back. Is this what they mean by karma?]

I enjoy the Sundays when Jesus talks money, since we all seem to like to talk about it. It is one of the few constants in our lives: we all need it, we seldom have enough of it (or think we don’t) and we all have plans if we had more. We use it to measure ourselves (and each other) and have since the beginning of time.

The parable of the dishonest steward is both intriguing and confusing. Much ink has been spilled trying to come up with the proper way to interpret the story, and in spilling more today, I cannot guarantee we will be any further ahead. It is an anti-hero story, so that makes it interesting all ready, but what on earth does it mean?

A rich man comes to learn that his accounts are being mismanaged. He fires his manager, but his manager has a plan. As the manager concludes his business with the rich man, he discovers a way to ensure that he continues to be welcome among his master’s clients: one bill is discounted my 50% and another by 20%. The master returns, reviews the accounts, and surprisingly praises the manager.

My summary ends here because this is where things get muddy. We know that the gospel writers would routinely add a verse or two to parables to help make the meaning clear. In some cases, we know that later scribes would add their two cents worth too, to further clarify what they think the parable meant. Biblical scholars have made careers out of trying to determine where the parable ends and where the interpretive material begins. Sometimes it’s quite clear, and other time (like this one) it’s not.

The consensus among scholars is an abrupt ending in the middle of verse eight:

8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

This also reinforces everything we know about Jesus and parables. They are like puzzles, stories with uncertain meaning that we are supposed to take away and ponder until we can say “Aha! Now I understand what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God.” The sayings that ended up attached to the end of the parables are more like proverbs, sayings meant to make us wise in the ways of the world. It’s a whole different type of literature, and so we are best to stick to the story with the uncertain meaning.

And just to further confuse the issue, when it says “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly,” it could also mean “prudently” since the Greek has two meanings.

Prudent or shrewd, the manager certainly is clever. He manages to “write-down” what others owe his master, impress the person who just fired him, and win the loyalty of a couple of big clients. What began as a bad day ended rather well.

To try to go a little deeper into the story, I turned to the work of John Dominic Crossan, one of the rare biblical scholars who understands ancient culture as well as he understand the bible and someone who frequently looks at the bible through the lens of class. He reminds us that Jesus was a peasant living under occupation, and that much of what Jesus teaches must be understood in that context.

He also tries to relate the gospel story to the customs and worldview of the people that surrounded Jesus. In this case, he describes a society organized as patrons and clients, interconnected by the work of brokers. Much of Jesus’ world was organized like this: for the vast majority of non-slaves, everyone was involved in little pyramids of power. Each little pyramid was headed by someone with more wealth than most. We’ll call him a patron. He would naturally attract clients, who by association would become important themselves. They, in turn would attract their own set of clients, and by doing so become middlemen, or brokers. Each little pyramid would have layer upon layer of clients, all trying to better themselves or at least keep their position in the overall pyramid.

Enter our shrewd manager. We have tended to think of him in a traditional employment way (a modern concept) but instead we need to put him near the top of his little pyramid. We also need to bear in mind that there was lateral movement between pyramids, where being part of an “old boys” network would help you shift from one to another if need be. And this is exactly what is happening in the parable: our shrewd manager has found a way to keep his place in the overall structure even as he gets caught mismanaging his patron’s money.


Somewhere, lurking behind all of this, must be some kind of spiritual lesson. Jesus was certainly very knowledgeable about the ways of the world, and loved to tell stories to entertain his friends, but we are still left with the task of finding some Kingdom lesson in this passage of scripture.

I have to admit, I’m stumped.

But since I’m up here, I might as well give it a shot. I guess I would begin with all the other options our manager had: he could have ripped off the clients, lining his pockets and providing and bit of a parachute while to looked for something else to do. He wouldn’t be the first to steal from his employer on the way out the door. One of the untold stories of the great dot-com disaster was landlords returned to vacated offices to find that all the copper wires had been stripped from the building by departing employees who had lost everything.

The other option would be to become super efficacious. Get more out of these clients as a way to impress the boss, maybe he would get his job back if he was better at it. But, of course, he did neither of these things. He give large discounts, and send two big clients home happy. And his boss was happy too, and this holds the key to the meaning.

The master understood that relationships are at the heart of the whole set-up. The quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life. It’s not how much money you have, or where you appear inside your little pyramid, but the quality of your relationships that truly matters. It is true for financial managers and currency traders and cross-border shoppers and for disciples of Jesus too. The amount of money you have is always changing, both in real dollars and in relation to others. But the quality of your relationships, they can be maintained. They can be the constant in an uncertain and ever-changing world.

The disciples had each other. And Jesus spent much time trying to convince them that no one was greater than the others, and that the way they related to each other was more important than who would sit a the right hand of Jesus in the time to come. He sent them out to preach and heal without money, completely dependent on the relationships they could forge on the way.
People who study businesses have found that people who are happy at work, work harder. They have also discovered that a good relationship with co-workers will go a long way to increase job satisfaction. Good relationships, happy workers, higher productivity. How sad that many employers ignore this lesson and continue to use the tried and true method of continual layoffs and the threat of layoffs to get workers to work harder.

And people who study congregations have made some similar discoveries: congregations that focus on the quality of relationships tend to be happier and tend to grow. Congregations where people are busy blaming each other or being rude to each other tend to die.

Through all of this, God remains. At the beginning of time God was alone, unique in the universe and utterly alone. God created us so that God would no longer be alone, and could experience the joy and sorrow of relationship. God entered our world, to encounter us in the flesh and further understand what it meant to live in relationship. It ended badly. But through death came new life, and the power to form relationships with every living thing for all of time. May God continue to bless us and our relationships, one to another, now and always, amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

First DMin Project Sermon, Year Two

New! Watch this sermon online!

Luke 15
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3So he told them this parable: 4“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 8“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 9When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ 10Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

September is the month of the lost sweater. It is also the month of the lost coat, lost bag and lost shoes. All the things that kids are unaccustomed to wearing or carrying will go missing in the month of transition from summer to school. The sweater is the most common lost item, needed in the newly crisp morning air and discarded in the warmth of a late summer afternoon.

This, of course, requires a trip to the school “lost and found.” Usually no more than a large bin, the lost and found is the final resting place for the single shoe, a tattered notebook or the aforementioned sweater. So you send them in, searching in vain for something that could certainly be anywhere in the school. There will be flashes of hope: “hey, look at this!” she will say, registering surprise that other kid lose things too. As parents, we fight the temptation to lecture, or to blame, or to grab some other kids sweater that might look better on my kid anyway. The lost and found is a sort of sacred trust: not a place to shop, but rather a place of mutual last hope for the parents of careless children.

For as long as there have been things, there have been lost things. During a long afternoon wandering through a dusty archeological dig in the Galilee, I was content looking at the surrounding hillsides and the interesting vistas created by newly excavated Roman dwellings. Then the guide threw this out: “just last month,” she said, “someone on a tour found a gold coin right around here.” I never looked up again. Imagine a tour of thirty ministers, heads down, searching in vain for the next lost coin. We didn’t find it.

I am tempted to suggest that we were living out a parable, a kind of modern “lost coin” parable out there amid the Roman ruins, but as an analogy it doesn’t really work. Parables are meant to teach about the kingdom of God, and this was merely a bunch of clergy looking for a cool souvenir. And it wasn’t a coin we lost, and so the parallel is even less workable. The one place where it begins to work is in the other purpose of parables: to convict the listener and teach them something about themselves. Here, we hit gold (so to speak). The “parable of the Galilean visitors” (as I will call it) teaches that years later I wish the tour leader hadn’t said anything and I would have much more complete memory of the site we visited that day, more than my feet and the dirt below.

So we’re looking for Kingdom insights and we need to stay open to the fact that the story may be trying to teach us something about ourselves, maybe something we’re unprepared to hear. Today we heard two parables, the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin. It is part of a familiar set, with a third and final parable (which we didn’t hear today) sometimes called the parable of the lost son, but most often called the parable of the prodigal son. In each one something is lost, then found, followed by great rejoicing. We know these parables well. In fact, some would say too well: so well that they have lost some of their power.

Jumping to the lesson part, I can’t help but feel uniquely convicted by each of the parables: I don’t think I’d risk the 99 sheep for the sake of the one foolish enough to wander off. I’m not sure I would put that much effort in finding one lost coin when I still have the other nine in hand. And the rejoicing? I want to try to get excited enough about the coin to be polite, but a party to celebrate seems a tad much. And the prodigal? I want to imagine myself embracing him in the same way the father embraces him, but I know I have too much of the older brother in me to do all that forgiving.

God, of course, is shepherd and woman and long-suffering father. God is all of these, and cannot help but search and find and rejoice at every moment. And this is where we need to let God be God. The parables show us all the ways in which we are not God, and all the ways in which God is seeker and lover and companion. We can take comfort in this fact alone: that we are lost and God is seeking us yet, seeking to find us and celebrate when we are found.


Some habits are tough to break. For years, Dorothy made a point of stopping at the corner store to buy milk. It seemed that four children building better bones were like little milk sponges, and returning with a fresh quart on every return trip was the only way to keep up. Then something happened: she came home one afternoon to a fridge completely crammed with milk and the realization that Scott, Kent, Alan and Pam had grown up and left home. Something had changed and she hadn’t really noticed, something was lost and it only became obvious when she no longer had room in the fridge for a fresh quart.

Loss is like that. It sneaks up on you and catches you unaware. These kids weren’t lost, they were out having busy lives. The one experiencing loss was lost herself.


I recall mentioning from this pulpit the odd sensation of reintroducing you to your church. Renovations complete, it began with showing people how to get around the building, pointing out the new doors and stairs and almost every other space that had somehow been moved or changed in some way. There was the novelty of it, discovering new things and the excitement of the transformed space. Then there were concerns: people couldn’t find things, things were out of place or gone altogether. Routines were disrupted, tasks realigned or rendered unnecessary. Then came anger: some of you have expressed a sense of loss: lost space, lost sense of ownership, lost sense of belonging. The church with a mandate to “seek the lost” was filled with lost people already: and with this came loss of momentum and perhaps even a lost sense of purpose.

But loss is like that. It sneaks up on you and catches you unaware.

There will be other voices, of course, that play down a sense of loss. “We’ve all lost something,” they will say, stating a truism that hardly defeats the real feelings people possess. Still others will insist the good outweighs the bad, and the positive changes should more than compensate for any sense of loss. But it doesn’t work that way. Loss is loss, and while these feelings may not seen justified on the eyes of others, they are very real.

Like our parables, it may not seem completely obvious why we seek the lost. It is tempting to dismiss the lost, because it may be easier to overlook them than put a great deal of effort into finding them. This is where we need to return to the “lost and found.” In each parable we are confronted by the joy of shepherd, of the woman and the father – rejoicing that what the world may not value or even understand has been found. And this is where we can enter the parable: the joy comes from finding something profoundly important, even if it is only important to one seeker.

People who think about change and how it affects us say that most often we equate change with loss. Encouraged to “look on the bright side” of things, we hope that change will mean opportunity or hope or a sense of renewed purpose. And it can bring these things. But most often, in most situations, and for most people, change means loss. And while it may only be a transitional feeling, or something we feel while to learn to appreciate the changes, it is very real.
Through all of this, we meet the God who searches. “All we like sheep have gone astray” Isaiah says, but God drops everything to search for us one by one. Something of value is lost, and God is busy sweeping and lighting lamps and never ceasing to search. Children have wandered off, and then wander back, but God is there with a long embrace and the fatted calf to celebrate. The lost, in whatever form they take, in whatever feelings they experience are the subject of a careful and endless search: Seeking the lost, seeking the lost, Saving, redeeming at measureless cost. Amen.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

23rd Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 18

1At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“Wherever Christ is, there is water.”

Every baptism comes with a complimentary parenting tip.

Just after you have clean out every toy with lead-based paint, don’t forget to remove the excessive praise. It turns out that using phrases such as “what a smart boy” may create a falsely inflated sense of self that won’t equip your child for tough times to come. When faced with something truly difficult, the child may choose to quit rather than risk their identity as a “smart boy.” Better to praise effort, saying, “you worked really hard on that.”

Gone too are phrases such as “what a good baby,” because they assume that the inverse is also possible: a bad baby. Could we say, “there are no bad babies, only babies that make bad choices”? No, babies just are. They do baby things that are neither good nor bad. This, of course, got me thinking about all the things babies are not: There are no ambitious babies, successful babies, workaholic babies, arrogant babies, or babies trying to find an edge. Babies are not competitive, aggressive, boastful or even bold. Babies just are.


The disciples of Jesus, on the other hand, were always trying to get a leg up on each other. On several occasions Jesus finds them trying to work out some kind of internal ranking system whereby the title “greatest disciple” could be known. Jesus is very patient. Taking a child, he said, ‘friends, unless you can become like a child, you cannot enter the Kingdom. Only someone humble like a child can become the greatest in the Kingdom.’

Back to babies. It seems there is something about babies and small children that make them uniquely qualified for life in the Kingdom. Something that they have that the rest of us don’t. Something, perhaps that they didn’t lose along the way that we disciples misplaced long ago.

Babies live in the moment. Babies are trusting. Babies depend on others and in this way are completely open to gifts and resources that exist beyond themselves. They are humble. These are kingdom-virtues Jesus commends to the disciples and by extension commends to us: accept that there is a power beyond yourself and that dependence on others is virtue and not a failing.

We have often thought babies are in a kind of pre-human state of utter dependency before they develop enough to make it on their own. In fact, Jesus is arguing the opposite: in Kingdom-thinking, we begin close to what it means to be fully human and we forget as we go. Babies, then, are our teachers and mentors, demonstrating how to accept the help of others and reject the idea that we can make it on our own.


When we baptize babies we bless the very things Jesus found in that little child long ago. We bless the openness to God, the state of grace uncluttered by the cares of the world, the Kingdom-vision of a world where we look to others for support rather than ourselves.

We baptize in water: the water God provided in the desert to a wandering Israel, the river of life that flows under the city of God, and the living water Jesus offered at the well. Tertullian said, “Wherever Christ is, there is water.” Baptized in the River Jordan, teaching at the water’s edge, walking on the sea: Jesus is present to us by water. Brooding over the water of creation’s birth, healing with the water of his own spittle, and water flowing from his pierced side: Wherever Christ is, there is water.

We live with a thirst for God. From the uncluttered life of a small child to the grown-up desire for return to a state of grace, we thirst for God. It comes in glimpses: a sunset over the lake, the gentle sound of the river’s flow, the joyfulness of a summer rain. We have a mysterious connection to the water that cannot be easily explained.

As a child, I was never one for sandcastles. With Dutch DNA, I was the kid at the water’s edge trying to dig a canal protected by a sluice gate. And while my large water-diversion projects ultimately failed, I never lost a sense of the power of water to remake a landscape or preoccupy a child. In bodies that are mostly water, and on a planet that is mostly water, we are never far from it. Baptized in water, we remain connected to the source of all things and the Author of all things. This is good news for today.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

2 September 2007

Luke 14

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8"When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted." 12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

I have a rule of thumb around reading: if I see a book quoted by three or four or more authors, I read the book. The latest example is Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” a look at social trends in the United States, and in particular the state of community or “social capital.” These things are measured and studied in depth, but Putnam has assembled all the studies and surveys into a single volume. Here are a few examples on the topic of eating:

In the last two decades, the amount of entertaining at home dropped by 45 percent. The decline is so sharp, that if trends continue, the entire practice of entertaining at home will cease. The evening meal? Down by a third in the last 20 years. So, if we are eating at home less, and entertaining at home less, perhaps there has been a shift to restaurants. Not based on statistics. The number of “full-service” restaurants in America has dropped by 25 percent in 20 years, the number of bars and luncheonettes by 50 percent. People are not having picnics either: they are off by 60 percent (pp. 98-102).

After 130 pages, I have to say I’m a little depressed. The ties that bind people to each other are declining and ending, and I wish I could assure you that it is limited to south of the border, but I cannot. But I’m going to keep reading, and the subtitle of the book would indicate there is some hope coming, so stay tuned. I have joined the chorus of people quoting “Bowling Alone.”

Eating, of course, is at the centre of our experience of being human. We think about food all the time, at least three times a day. If we’re not actually eating a meal, we’re just as likely to be planning a meal, or thinking back to a meal we’ve enjoyed. Some of us have others to feed, while others feed only themselves. Alone or with others, we cannot avoid the need to eat.

Taking the long view, eating has always been a primary pre-occupation of humans, and most agree that it is the very foundation of society. Years ago I read a very convincing article that suggested that the foundational impulse of agriculture was the production of beer. The discovery of beer was the push needed to get our forebears in the Nile Delta to get it together and cooperate on farming. Now, whether you can accept the “beer theory” human development or not, it seems clear that at some point food production (and the eating that followed) became a key factor in the formation of human society.

Key enough, that the study of eating unlocks much of what we can know about a people. From a couple of anthropologists named Farb and Armelogos, we get this:

In all societies, both simple and complex, eating is the primary way of initiating and maintaining human relationships…Once the anthropologists finds out where, when and with whom the food is eaten, just about everything else can be inferred about the relations among the society’s members (Crossan, p. 68).

Looking back at “Bowling Alone” for a minute, I wonder what future anthropologists will make of the fact that at the same moment family meals and conventional restaurants were in sharp decline, the number of fast food places doubled. Hold that thought.

Jesus, the first and best anthropologist, said this:

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

He was describing what future scholars would call food exchanges, “a series of obligations to give, receives and repay (p. 69). As anyone who has ever planned a significant meal or event will tell you, there are layers and layers of thinking involved:

Should we invite them? We were invited to their party. Where should we seat them? Can we put the second and third cousins at the back? We can’t serve chicken; everyone serves chicken. Where should we seat the minister? Surely someone on the list must go to church…we’ll put him with them.

You get the picture. Jesus understood the politics of food and meal planning and knew that the primary motive for issuing invitations was quid pro quo. We become obligated. We seek to create obligation with certain people, and avoid it with others. We tend to share our table with people just like us. The United States was 125 years old before an African-American was invited to dine at the White House. The name White House seems no accident. 36 years after the end of slavery, Booker T. Washington, leader and former slave was invited to dine with then-president Theodore Roosevelt.

When we imagine the people with whom we want to share a meal, we naturally begin with family, and then neighbour (usually our economic equals). Jesus takes this further and adds the people better off, and more likely to repay in style. Call him cynical, but as first and best anthropologist Jesus knew that our selfish impulses usually in out. This might go some way to explain his waning popularity. Jesus knew that comfort and selfish desire win over generosity and selflessness every time.

But he was persistent. And maybe a little rude. He is invited to the house of a leader of the Pharisees (a social promotion for a humble Nazarene) and decides that this is the moment to share a couple of parables that would condemn most of the people at the party. “Thanks for the invite” he said, “but when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”

Not only does he suggest we reject the principle of “inviting up,” he goes much further and suggests that we invite the least desirable people in society, the people that his hosts though were rejected by God. Remember the question “who sinned, this man or his parents that he be born blind?” There is an entire theological worldview in this one simple question. God punishes sin, according to this view, and the secret to understanding any misfortune is simply determining the source of the sin. Jesus couldn’t disagree more.

God’s kingdom, and the table in that kingdom, is long and eclectic, populated by exactly the people Jesus describes. God doesn’t enumerate sinners and bar the door; God opens the table to everyone, casting aside both the idea of desirable and undesirable and severing the link between misfortune and sin. God’s blessing is extended to those who model their table after the divine table, making invitations precisely because the people invited are in no position to repay.

Most often I leave the “so what” to you. Introduce a bunch of ideas and trust that you will make the practical application part happen. For today, however, I feel compelled to look closer and think about our church home. Clearly, we are a church that serves the poor, but are we a church for the poor? What would it look like if we made such a transition? What is a “church for the poor?” Is this political, extending food help to being food activists? Is it opening the doors in a new way, extending our fellowship? Many of the people we serve are neither Protestant nor even Christian, but some are.

The table is a primary symbol of our faith, and one that requires constant discipline and contemplation. We are continually being called to open the table, and to discern what this means. May God help us as we do this work. Amen.

26 August 2007

Jeremiah 1:4-1

1:4 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
1:5 "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
1:6 Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
1:7 But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you,
1:8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
1:9 Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth.
1:10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

It is the number one fear reported by people candid enough to describe their fears. It is feared more than death, more than rattlesnakes, more than in-laws. The technical term is glossophobia, and has nothing to do with lip-gloss. According to some studies, up to three-quarters of you are affected. Guesses?

If you have this fear, I can assure you that not only are you not alone, but you are in good company. Both Barbara Streisand and Peter Gabriel suffer from glossophobia, as did the late Dusty Springfield. It manifests itself both emotionally and physically, with sufferers reporting “increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, dilated pupils, increased perspiration, stiffening of neck/upper back muscles, and dry mouth” (wikipedia).

For most glossophobes, it is enough to practice avoidance. Fewer and fewer jobs require public speaking, and there are usually enough people around who are eager to get to the microphone that a serious glossophobe can give the floor to someone else. Of course, what is avoidable for many, was inevitable for poor Jeremiah:

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD!
Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.

To be fair to Jeremiah, his complaint was less fear and more inexperience: inexperience coupled with being confronted by the LORD God and commanded to speak unpleasant truth to those in power. The lifespan of a prophet was considerable shorter than the general population, so Jeremiah had cause to object. But God wasn’t offering a choice, this was a command, and there was little Jeremiah could do. He was, after all, born to this work, a claim that begins to make more sense if we go a little deeper into the text.

According to the introduction to the book, Jeremiah is a priest from a line of priests in the region of Benjamin. He comes from a little town called Anathoth, and while it is a mere three miles from Jerusalem, it is barely mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Barely mentioned, but for one important instance. Some 400 years before Jeremiah, while King Solomon is consolidating power, a priest and his patron are accused of plotting against the king. The life of the priest is spared, but he is sent away to tiny Anathoth.

Walter Brueggemann, in describing the call of Jeremiah, insists that we cannot understand him without reference to Anathoth. When God says Jeremiah was born to do this work, we import the idea of call, the sense that he was pre-ordained a prophet and given all the tools to undertake this work. But Bruegemann takes this firther. Imagine, he says, four hundred years spent on the edge of royal power: four hundred years nursing the hurt of being sent away, four hundred years of preparing for the day when perhaps a message could be shared once more.

But there is more. The priests of Anathoth were scholars of Deuteronomy, making it their unique mission to highlight the book wherever people might listen. They recounted the story of Mt. Sinai and the giving of the law, the disobedience of the people, and God’s desire to save only the children of those who entered the desert. In Deuteronomy, Moses restates the commandments, and refines what they mean for the people that will enter the Promised Land. He takes the covenant obligations of the people and insists that they extend to the most vulnerable ones in their midst, extending beyond the community itself.

For four hundred years the priests of Anathoth have been waiting. They are minor league prophets, waiting to be called up the “the show.” For four hundred years they have been waiting and studying, seeing the hills of Jerusalem off in the distance and hoping that their day would come. In four hundred years of reading you are likely to find the heart of the matter. Read Deuteronomy often enough, says Walter Brueggemann, and you will happen on these words:

19 When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the alien, the orphan and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the alien, the orphan and the widow. 21 When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the orphan and the widow. 22 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

Spend four hundred years reading Deuteronomy and you will become well acquainted with the alien, the orphan and the widow. Read this phrase a dozen times over a handful of chapters and you will begin to discover the unique regard God has for the alien, the orphan and the widow. Sit with the priests of Anathoth in their long exile and imagine what they come to regard as the principle failing of the ones over the hill in Jerusalem.

Study power and it will lead you to the same place: power is most interested in maintaining itself. Power is dedicated to remaining at the centre. Power is least likely to concern itself with those who have lost power, and looks only to those with more power for solace and inspiration. Of those on the outside, of those who have never had power, power itself remains intentionally unaware.

Study those without power, and you will soon become acquainted with the alien, the orphan and widow. They find themselves outside the tribe. They find themselves outside the patriarchal power structure that defined theirs and every other society. And they find themselves a convenient scapegoat for all of society’s failings.

Several years ago the motel strip along Kingston Road began to fill up it homeless people. Motel owners made their properties available to a city-housing regime unable to cope with a sudden increase in homeless families. The media, seeing a good story, highlighted the fact that some of the families were refugee claimants, and gave the impression that the strip was being overrun.

When tensions began to rise, and a backlash began, housing advocates tried to communicate the facts on the ground: the majority of families were Scarborough families, local poor people who had lost their housing and were forced to find refuge in the shelter system. No one seemed to care. All the media wanted to talk about were refugees and the unfair way the federal government was burdening local taxpayers. The poor of Scarborough were ignored. Two years after the deepest cuts to welfare this province ever saw, ordinary Scarborough families found themselves out on the street, a story that largely went unreported. Fast forward 10 years and poverty in Scarborough is still ignored. Wake up Dalton, people are hungry.

Jeremiah says this of the powerful:

27Like a cage full of birds,
their houses are full of treachery;
therefore they have become great and rich,
28they have grown fat and sleek.
They know no limits in deeds of wickedness;
they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan,
to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 29Shall I not punish them for these things? says the Lord, and shall I not bring retribution on a nation such as this?

The message of Deuteronomy and the message of Jeremiah and the message of Jesus is this: the fate of a society rests on how it cares for the most vulnerable. And while you may not believe in divine retribution and you may not believe in God’s role in the exodus or the exile, I think it is reasonable to believe that God has unique regard for the broken, the outcast, the stranger, the people least likely to be embraced by those with power.

History teaches us that societies that kept slaves and denied power to the majority of their citizens eventually failed. Sadly, for every East Germany and South Africa there are numerous states that skirt the margins of injustice, that avoid the most egregious forms of oppression in favour of more subtle forms: ignoring the poor, blaming the immigrant and promoting so-called traditional families. We need to continually test whether we have become one of those societies.

In the coming weeks Jeremiah will continue to speak. He will overcome his fear, and describe timeless themes. He will speak of judgement and hope, retribution and redemption. Through it all we will see ourselves, we will see God, and we will see a vision to lead us forward. Amen.

19 August 2007

Luke 12

13Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” 14But he said to him, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” 15And he said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” 16Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

What are you reading this summer?

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Evolution’s Captain by Peter Nichol
The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake by Samuel Bawlf
Gonzo Marketing by Christopher Locke
Basilica by R.A. Scotti
Rough Crossings by Simon Schama

Summer in Canada is a time for rest and relaxation. Sure we don’t have as many weeks of holiday as the French or the Germans, but Canadians seem to make the most of the warm months. We head for water. Lakes, rivers, oceans: we have an almost primordial urge to sit by the edge of the water and relax. Reading Evolution’s Captain, it seems clear that we’re just heading home, back to the ooze that gave birth to us, back to the very spot where we sprouted legs and began the long march to the office.

We sit somewhere between the Americans and the Europeans. If you haven’t seen Michael Moore’s new movie Sicko yet, don’t wait. It is a remarkable film. For all the praise of Canada and the brief mention of Tommy Douglas, we come off looking like healthcare curmudgeons compared to the French. So we sit in between. The same goes for work and leisure. We don’t have the insatiable urge to make money that our American cousins have, but we don’t understand “the good life” in the same way that Europeans understand it. Full-time is 35 hours a week in France, with a minimum of five weeks of holiday. The US minimum is one week.


Jesus loved to talk about money. He didn’t say much about vacation days or healthcare, but he was a volunteer who did his own healing. But get him on the topic of money and he couldn’t keep quiet. Forty percent of his parables are about money, second only to the Kingdom of God, which doesn’t really count since the Kingdom is the theme of all the parables. Ask him a question, he would turn the conversation to money. He had a lot to say.

This morning we began with a plea: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Now, why this man thought that Jesus was an arbiter of estate planning disputes seems a little puzzling. But people brought lots of problems to Jesus, and this day was no different. Jesus won’t arbitrate. He will, however, use this as an occasion to tell a parable:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. 17And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ 18Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build bigger barns, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ 20But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’

Notice I didn’t include the little editorial note that Luke attached to the end of the parable: “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Luke writes to inspire us with the story of Jesus but also to instruct new believers who may be slow to get the gist of these parables. He kind of wrecks the point. Parables were meant to be puzzles, stories that make you go away and think and then suddenly get the point late at night when it’s too hot to sleep. They were never meant to be explained, and so we ignore the editorial comments.

As you can imagine, my description of how parables work runs counter to the enterprise of sermon-writing. Most often the preacher explains the parable, once again robbing you of the opportunity to figure it out yourself, and further, to be commended or convicted by it’s meaning. So I should sit down. But I won’t, because, of course, I have more to say.

Friday morning I was listening to a program called “Feeling the Heat,” prepared by Ian Hanomansing. It’s a regular look at how Canadians can be environmentalists and practical at the same moment. Apropos for a week of 30 degree plus heat.

The phrase of the day was “eco-narcissism,” a term coined to describe the people who think they can buy their way out of the environmental crisis we all face. They are the new green consumers, purchasing so-called environmentally friendly products to assuage their consciences and continue the consumerist patterns that we were all reared in. As the New York Times described it, there are some who believe the hemp-fiber sheets and $245 organic cotton Levi's will somehow same the planet. Even the humble hybrid gets it, as consumers choose greener cars over public transit. Jesus has one word for them: bigger barns. Our green saviour would wonder out loud if living with less might be the answer, rather than perpetuation the culture of consumption that is killing our planet. After all, he sent the disciples out (on foot) without GPS and without a second pair of organic cotton Levi's.

We are a security obsessed people. Long before 9-11 and global terror we lived with a constant fear of the future. Fear sells. You need a firewall to keep the past safe, an cellphone to keep the present safe and a RRSP to keep the future safe. You are continually at risk, you can’t trust anyone (least of all your neighbours) and disaster can strike at any moment (so we are told). Jesus has one word for this culture of fear: bigger barns. Storing all that excess grain will not safeguard your life, or add to it, or make it any more meaningful. It just won’t.

The key here (without explaining the parable) is security versus gratitude. One is hard to define and harder to achieve, and the other is the stance we are called to pursue. In all our striving for security we forget to stop and be grateful for all we have. Security is a pursuit that ignores others (or worse, tries to overcome others) and gratitude only opens us up to others. We are called to be those grateful people, looking beyond ourselves, and open to all that God gives us.

It is gratitude that will save the planet, it is gratitude that will overcome fear, it is gratitude that will help us truly understand the parables of our Lord. Grateful people act for others, grateful people set aside fear and grateful people know the grace of living every day with God’s many gifts. May we feel and know this blessing, today and every day, amen.

12 August 2007

Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16

11Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 2Indeed, by faith* our ancestors received approval. 3By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.*

8 By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. 9By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren--because he considered him faithful who had promised.* 12Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, 'as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.'

13 All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, 14for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. 16But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

It's summer in Canada and time to get in touch with history. This is the season of the historical tour, the time of year that families head to forts and fortresses (if you can tell me the difference, I'm all ears) and discover the past. It is also the time of year that thousands of young people are employed as re-enactors, interpreters and miscellaneous 17th and 18th century persons. My daughter spent more than one hot summer as an “upper-class girl” at Lower Fort Gary, doing needlepoint and fanning herself for the tourists.

Locally, we have a treasure called Fort York, famous for barely surviving the construction of the Gardner Expressway, and soon to be completely engulfed by condos. This summer we moored the sailboat midway between Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) and Old Fort Niagara, famous for one of the few cannon duels fought between forts in North America. Old Fort Niagara is also unique as a more-or-less intact French fort that is currently on its third owner (the Americans). To add one more, this week's various announcements around northern development reminded me of my long-held dream to visit Prince of Wales Fort, located on the shores of Hudson Bay and likely to remain a dream for some time.

I often wonder what ran through the minds of the fort builders and engineers as they constructed the hundreds of forts throughout Canada. Did they imagine that someday families would make them the centre of their vacation plans? Could they have anticipated the century and a half of peace that turned these fortifications into places of curiosity and learning? Most of us are aware that we are passing through history, but these people were making it, leaving tangible signs of their handiwork and their desire to defend something beyond themselves.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The author of Hebrews wrote it, and we can certainly affirm it all these years on. We take things “on faith,” most particularly the things that we cannot see. When we talk about our faith we can describe convictions we hold and ideas we cherish, but at its root, faith is the impulse that allows us to imagine something beyond ourselves, something outside of what we know in this life.

But there is more. Before I sit down to write I like to consult the experts, not so they can tell me what is right, or even the best way to understand a passage, but as a means to get another point of view. Perhaps I am missing something, or I have failed to make a connection to some other passage, or maybe (certainly?) because my Greek is not what it was.

The rule of thumb around preaching is to avoid the original languages. There is no better way to ruin a good sermon than drone on and on about some fine point of Greek or Hebrew grammar, thus rendering an attentive congregation into a sleeping congregation. “They don't care,” we are told, and if you have to hide behind conjugation and declensions, then you are in deep trouble. So, into trouble I head, because the other rule of thumb is you can get away with more preaching in the summer.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for...” In Greek, “faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for,” neatly translated as assurance, something we all need. Sure, we reason, faith is about assurance, the emotional state where we receive a measure of comfort knowing that things are okay or soon will be. Our scholar, Harold Attridge begs to differ. By his reading, assurance is a mistranslation of hypostasis, which would be better translated “reality.” Faith is the reality of things hoped for,” a much more pointed kind of meaning. Faith is not about feeling better; it is about what we know to be true. It is our reality. It has far more power than the thing that will make us feel more comfortable or less anxious; faith is the reality of God and God's desire for our lives.

Let's get back to our vacations. The fort builders, the men and women who laboured in the wilderness, knew that these stone structures would likely outlive them, as nearly everything would. Soldiers and settlers had no illusions about security and comfort, they were engaged in something that was dangerous and often lethal. They accepted the risk of death as part of their service. They were constructing something, if not for the ages, then certainly for the future of the nation they served.

Last week I mentioned R.A. Scotti's wonderful book Basilica, a description of the construction of St. Peter's in Rome and the artists who directed the work. Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bernini all had a hand in building the church, and all of them died long before the work was completed. And while none of them would have imagined that it would take 150 years to construct it, they certainly knew it would take longer than they could individually expect live (and makes 8 months of construction at Birchcliff Bluffs look pretty good).

Looking back even further, Abraham and Sarah were designated the father and mother of a great nation and the heirs of a great land. And while they were given the tangible gift of Isaac, they spent the rest of their days living in tents and wandering about without getting to enjoy the Promised Land and without seeing the vast clan they were promised. Their relationship with God was one based on trust. Abraham and Sarah were building for the ages, never expecting to see the literal promise fulfilled but trusting that the actions they undertook each day would lead to the promised outcome.

Now faith is the reality of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

It begs the question, of course, what are we building that will outlive us? What reality do we trust will come about? What is the goal of our fellowship and what are the steps that will take us there? For each of us there will be a different answer, as each of us has a unique role to play in the creation of the future. Each of us will need to find room in our hearts for the reality of things hoped for, because faith is something to be nurtured too. And we will need to help each other, because we never tend this creation alone.

Rather than thinking of this as a task or a set of tasks, think of it as a destination. Where do we hope to go, and how will we get there. For Abraham and Sarah, the direction came at God's direct bidding. We have to discern a little more carefully. The fellowship we enjoy is one of mutual discernment, working together to hear God's call, heed God's direction, and take the small steps required to build something beyond ourselves. May God bless us and lead us, this day and always. Amen.