Sunday, February 17, 2008

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 12

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 4So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

Romans 4
4 Now to one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. 5 But to one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness.

There’s nothing like a good poll to excite people or get them all bent out of shape. A recent survey says 15 percent of us would trade in our domestic vote for the opportunity to vote south of the border. In my day, we called that treason. Who are these people? Show yourselves, I say. If the number is correct, 10 of you are thinking about Obama or Hillary right now. Shame on you.

Closer to home, the first phase of the Emerging Spirit workshops are just about done, and as preparation begins on phase two, we have a chance to reflect on some of the things we learned. I learned, for example, that 99 percent of the people who took my workshop were carried into church for the very first time. Young and old, urban and rural, 99 percent of the 400 or so people I met were born to the church. From the moment they were first aware, they have been aware of the church. The same cannot be said for the majority of 30-45 year-olds that we are trying to reach. There is huge gap in experience, which I will come back to.

There are also a lot of facts and figures presented throughout the events, most of which people accept as accurate. Except one. Almost every time we share that 84% of Canadians believe in God, we get questions.

Did they ask them what they mean by ‘believe’?
Did they say what kind of God?
Was this the monotheistic God of Christianity, or some other type of God?
How recently did they ask this question?

And so on. The number comes from Decima or Environics –
I can’t recall which – and it is always a source of considerable debate. And I’m not sure why. Maybe it is the next number (19% of Canadians worship on a regular basis) that makes the first number so hard to accept. It means that 65% of Canadians can’t (or won’t) find their spiritual needs met by an organized religion. That means that nearly 20 million Canadians are thinking about their God, but choosing not to locate this thinking within tens of thousands of worshipping communities.

Suddenly we see why this particular statistic is so hard to reject. 65% of voters may vote against the Prime Minister in the next election (and he’ll still win), but at least we can understand their reasoning. When 20 million people reject us, it requires us to do some massive soul-searching. Hence all the questions about the 84% number itself. The response we are looking for, within the Emerging Spirit campaign, is a shift in thinking from the “if we build it, they will come” to “what barriers have we created to participation?” How can we change to make ourselves more open to the community? It is a big project.

It does leave me very curious about 20 million potential friends out there. How many came and then left? How many have never been? We do have one number that helps me sleep at night, a number that was checked and rechecked and became the basis for the entire Emerging Spirit campaign. 77% of Canadians between the ages of 30 and 45 said they would be interested in knowing more about a church like the United Church. 77 percent. We even have hockey jerseys with 77 on the back.

For those millions that believe in God and have never been in a church, we can hopefully describe them as pre-church. Our task is to welcome them with the assumption that a life of faith lived in community is more rewarding and more inline with God’s plan for our lives. We need each other: to support, to comfort, to teach and encourage. These are the marks of a community of faith: walking with fellow believers at every step of life’s journey. Trusting that with God, and each other, we never walk alone.

Taking this a little further, we could say they are pre-religion. Now, religion as a concept has taken a pretty big hit in recent years. People love to say “I’m spiritual, and not religious,” meaning exactly what the survey says. They have a sense of the divine without placing this in a religious context. Fair enough, but every religion is different, and has different ideas about the nature of God and God’s relationship to the world. Without at least knowledge of religion, it would be difficult to give belief some shape.

This morning we meet one such couple, Abram and Sarai, who are among the 20 million Canadians (maybe they were Canaanites) who profess belief without nesting that belief in any one religious tradition. They were definitely pre-church, and probably pre-religion too. And if we asked St. Paul, he would throw in pre-law. Maybe we could say Abram was pre-law and Sarai was pre-med, since we know she was well acquainted with gynecology. (A little Bible joke for you to share with friends)

What St. Paul means is that Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah) are faithful before Moses and the law. They are described as righteous without ever knowing about the 10 commandments or the other 600 or so laws that make up the Jewish religion. Soon they will begin to submit to what will later become part of the law (and this will be more painful for Abraham and his guy friends) but until then, they are decidedly pre-law.

Paul really puzzled over this idea, in part because he had rejected his own understanding of what it meant to be faithful. We have to tread carefully here, because the Jewish religion has been subjected to too many attacks by people trying to explain Paul. It may be enough to say that Paul was trying to reform his faith as much as he was trying to create something new. His goal was getting people to rethink their relationship to the law rather than turn away.

Back to Abraham and Sarah, Paul lifts them up precisely because the were regarded as faithful without the law as a reference point. What then, becomes the measure of faithfulness in the absence of the law? What is faith pre-law? There are at least two answers.

The first answer is trust. Abraham and Sarah trusted in God, and were willing to leave the safety of tribe and family and follow God into the unknown. They trusted God to guide them, and to fulfill the promise of a future. Their trust was not a pre-condition for a reward, it just was. They trusted in a God that was interested in a relationship. And in many ways, the beginning and end of faith is seeking a relationship with God. God called, they answered.

The second answer is righteousness, and he describes it this way:

Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation. However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. (Romans 4.4-5, NIV)

It is remarkable how often Jesus and Paul use the language of labour to make their point. In this case, a working person understands that with each passing hour the employer’s obligation grows. Friday is looming, and the credit increases as more work is completed. But this is not God’s way. God’s way is the workers in the vineyard. I’ll skip to the end of Jesus’ mediation on work, found in Matthew 20:

8"When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.'

9"The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denari. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denari. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12'These men who were hired last worked only one hour,' they said, 'and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.'

13"But he answered one of them, 'Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?'

God gives an equal wage to the guys who slept all day, and only managed to get to work by four. We were there at nine, and we spend the entire day in the hot sun, only to discover that the vineyard owner is some kind of radical. Maybe a socialist. And Paul says “to those of you who worked all day, and yet graciously accept that God loves the lazy, to you I give the name righteous.”

Righteous people expect no reward. Righteous people love the fact that God loves jerks. Righteous people know that God’s generosity is something to behold, and not something to resent.

All in all, we can imagine that Abraham and Sarah were pretty remarkable people. God saw trust and a willingness to accept God’s mysterious and wonderful and sometimes frustrating ways. God saw a couple that wanted a relationship with just such a God, and that was all that was needed. The rest is history.

In Canada, at this moment, there are up to 20 million Abrahams and Sarahs: they shovel their neighbour’s walk, they recycle, they keep the ingredients of a casserole on hand just in case, and they care deeply about their community and nation. They believe in God.

When we told them that we wanted to be known as the church that cares for the earth, the church that encourages questions, and the church that is open to change, they leaned in, but found it hard to believe we could be that church. Our task, should we choose to accept it, is to be that church and tell our story. It is far from mission impossible; maybe mission challenging, but we have God’s help. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 3
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’“ 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Having children is like getting your own laboratory to study human nature. You don’t even need to set up any experiments: kids will naturally provide all the raw data you need to draw your own conclusions.

Case in point: Few objects become real until someone else picks them up. Any old thing, sitting idly by for months, becomes an object of desire about 30 seconds after someone else in the household makes it real by touching it. Do your own experiment: put children and some random stuff in a room and time how long it takes for someone to say “can I see that?”

Perhaps I’m being unfair to the children. Maybe try it with adults at the mall. However you construct this experiment, the outcome is the same: the moment someone else has something, we want it. And while my children demonstrated this in primitive form with ordinary objects around the house, we know that the older you get the more sophisticated the desire. They have it and we want it.

Without straying too far from my sermon, I think it’s amazing that we welcomed television into our homes. The television, aka “the desire box” shows us the things we do not have, presented in such a way that we can’t live without them. At first it was shiny things, then whiter whites, and finally a glimpse at a whole new life. And all this was voluntary: we bought the box, we carried it into our houses, and we turned the thing on.

Back to our laboratory, it seems that similar experiments have been happening since the beginning of time. Create a beautiful garden, put a tree right in the middle of it, and say, “Children, do not eat the fruit of this tree.” Or, imagine you buy a case of beer and put it on the kitchen table and say, “Kids, we’re going away for the weekend, and we don’t want you to have a party.”

Ignore the talking snake (a good rule in life is always ignore the talking snake), because the moment God says, “Don’t touch,” I think we know where this story is headed.


We are drawn to the narrative quality of Genesis 2 and 3. The conversation is the best part, as Eve and the Serpent engage in a learned discussion on the nature of the tree and the merit of receiving wisdom (followed, of course, by Adam saying “cool, I’ll have some fruit”). But the conversation is merely a dramatic device to describe human wisdom and to delay the inevitable: the beginning of human disobedience.


This morning begins the season of Lent – our 40 days in the wilderness – when we are encouraged to examine ourselves and prepare for the events of Good Friday and Easter. In many ways, Lent requires setting the scene: describing our reality, describing Jesus in the clearest way, and allowing these two descriptions to met. The intersection of our reality and God’s desire is called the season of Lent.

Over five weeks, we will hear stories of forgiveness and grace. Even the dead will be raised, as the story of Lazarus becomes a foretaste of Easter morning. And set against all this forgiveness and grace will be our lives in the land east of Eden. Cast out, as we were, we live far from the first scene in this human drama. Lent, then, becomes one of the few times when we are encouraged to really examine our lives. And, what we find, we give to God: trusting in God’s unending desire to forgive.


Back to that case of beer on the kitchen table, it’s hard not to feel a little set up. Taking human disobedience as a given, why introduce the idyllic setting enjoyed by the first humans? Why is it necessary for the author of Genesis to shift the blame from the Creator who made everything in the garden (including human desire) to the poor simpletons who were the first tenants?

My guess is that the author of Genesis was trying to protect God. The author of Genesis was trying to shift the blame away from God and onto a talking snake and a couple of people who did the very thing any of us would do when confronted with words like “don’t touch this tree, it’s a special tree.”

Despite the hard work of the author of Genesis, it is hard not to feel set up. Knowing that sinfulness is a defining characteristic of human life, and knowing that God is the Author of all that is, we are left with the conclusion that there was no pre-fallen state, and no apple, and certainly no talking snake: only a race of creatures, that try as we might, will always disappoint.

Despite the hard work of the author of Genesis, it is hard not to feel angry. Why make us so frail, both in body and spirit? Why implant human desire that leads us down so many unfortunate paths? Why create a dynamic where we want the things we cannot have and take for granted the things we have? Why create the fullness of life, and then say “you are dust, and to the dust you shall return”?

The problem with making a list of reasons to be angry with God is that it is hard to know when to stop. And maybe this is the best starting point for Lent. When we acknowledge that we are angry, it is easier to begin to address this anger. Hebrew poets knew this, and created an entire genre of poetry called lament: poetry that allowed them to express their anger and heartache and know that God would listen. This is the same poetry that Jesus quotes on the cross when he says “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”


And so we begin our journey. It will take us from the “fall of man” to the salvation of the world. We will hear stories of forgiveness and grace. We will reflect and repent and give God the glory. And we will walk together, trusting that whatever thoughts we have, or words we use, God is with us, and we are not alone. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24
12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” 15Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. 17Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.

I have no doubt that some of you are feeling light deprived. This is February, and while the flip of the calendar takes us by surprize and may please us, we are still “in the bleak mid-winter.” The days are growing longer, but you would hardly know it when the skys are grey and the sun is out of reach.

Perhaps the most appropriately named condition is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, said to affect one-in-ten Canadians. It seems ironic that we hear more about light deprivation this time of year, when the days are getting longer. Perhaps it’s the weather, or maybe it illustrates the extent to which we are disconnected from sunrise and sunset. In an earlier age, the lengthening of days was obvious, beginning late in December. In the age of electric light, we put the lights on and leave them on, and may not catch on to the lengthening quite so quickly.

I have one sunrise you won’t miss: through some odd turn of events, everything has moved up this year. Wednesday is the beginning of Lent. Easter is March 23rd and Easter sunrise happens that day at 7.13 am, thirty minutes later than sunrise last year. If anyone can explain why we can have an actual sunrise service at sunrise this year, I’m all ears. Next year Easter falls on April 12th, and sunrise comes 40 minutes earlier. And sunrise will become a euphemism once again.

The season now ending, Epiphany, dates back to the fourth century in the Eastern tradition. Looking back 1600 years, the daily march of light was part of the popular consciousness, and the wily fathers of the church superimposed this season of light on the other light festivals that were far more fun. Pagans knew how to party, with ten holidays on December alone. But Christianity is a serious religion, and so the end of our pagan ways meant back to work for the masses.

Now, don’t want you to sit down to lunch later saying, ‘was Michael suggesting we should have stayed pagan?’ Or ‘google that Roman calendar, ‘cause I’m going back.’ Pagan productivity was low, sleeping late and partying all night: imagine an empire run by drunken frat boys in togas. You and I will be up at 7.13 in a few short days, feeling pious as the sun rises over the lake.

In the meantime, Epiphany continues for a little while yet. The season of light ends on a mountaintop, with Jesus, Moses and Elijah bathed in divine light. This is transfiguration, and the glory of the LORD settles on the scene as saviour, liberator and prophet join together. These three are drawn together, linked in tradition and purpose, each illuminated by the God’s own light.

This year, the reading cycle gives us Moses, set to ascend Mt. Sinai, ready to receive the tablets that contain a summary of the Law. It is a return trip, since Moses has already received the spoken version and committed it to paper. This is Coles notes, a concise version of what will eventually become known as the Ten Commandments. The important thing to remember here is that the Law has already been received, and now Moses must retrieve it cast in stone.

The story begins simply enough:

12The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God.

Then comes a little foreshadowing:

14To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.”

So what happens next? Aaron begins moonlighting as a goldsmith, and instead of acting as magistrate, Aaron collects golden earrings, and sets to work. And while our passage doesn’t mention what’s happening back at camp, the dramatic tension builds. Imagine young Jesus, in a Nazarene synagogue, listening to a lengthy reading from the second book of the bible. Three chapters of law, long since committed to memory are read, and now the tension builds as Moses and Joshua (Jesus’ namesake) have left the group with in Aaron’s charge.

The story of the golden calf, appearing in the primary texts of three of the world’s great religions, continues to hold a place in our imaginations. Stephen preaches about in the Acts of the Apostles, it is featured at length in the Quran, and becomes the centrepiece of the Exodus story.

Let’s listen in as Stephen tells the story:

38At Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; [Moses] received living oracles to give to us. 39But our ancestors were unwilling to obey him; instead, they pushed him aside, and in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, 40saying to Aaron, ‘Make gods for us who will lead the way for us; as for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’ 41At that time they made a calf, offered a sacrifice to the idol, and reveled in the works of their hands.

It seems those pagan’s never quit. Aaron is doing his level best, but when you leave you’re number three man in charge of the whole group, anything can happen. The people experience a crisis of confidence, and look back to the old ways for some help. Some argue that the calf represents Baal, the pagan god of choice, the same god that Elijah meets on the top of another mountain. Whoever the calf represents, it is not the God of Israel, and the people will soon regret their momentary lapse. In one move, Aaron and the people manage to violate number one and number two on the top ten list:

“You shall have no other gods before me.”
“You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

It seems there is something about transfiguration and idolatry. Sure enough, within minutes of seeing Jesus, Moses and Elijah bathed in light, the disciples want to set up little alters. They are immediately struck with the impulse to create something tangible to mark the spot, something to help them remember the moment, maybe even something on the mountainside to venerate. For all three, Jesus, Moses and Elijah, idolatry looms large in their story. One week from now we will wander the desert with Jesus, tempted to make bread from stone or accept dominion over the kingdoms of this world. Idolatry is everywhere, looking for facsimiles of the one true God.

Transfiguration seems an odd place to end off before Lent. Or is it? What is the cross other than the triumph of idolatry, choosing the stability of Rome over the Son of God? We will enter season of testing, where again and again we will be confronted with choices: power versus purity, stability versus justice, the Lord of this world versus the Lord of Life.

We stand, with a cloud of witnesses, as we enter this Lenten time of testing. We stand among legends, as we are set to leave the light for a time of wandering. We stand with Moses, liberator, Elijah, prophet, and Jesus, God’s own Word, as we embark on this journey. May you hold fast to these three, and the cloud that surrounds us, as you fo forward in faith. Amen.