Sunday, May 25, 2008

Proper 3

Matthew 6
24“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

A small sample of this week’s headlines:

Food costs a major worry for consumers
Study: Worry increases men's heart attack odds
Cloud of worry gathers over wireless health risks
Should we worry about John McCain's temper?
Should we worry about soya in our food?
Space-Age Balls Worry Bowling Purists
Don't Worry, Mariah Has a Prenup
Gas prices cause worry, but habits change little
Gas prices worry Americans more than terrorism
And You Thought Oil Was A Worry

This might be the moment, then, to worry about the effectiveness of a sermon about worry. We call this pre-worry: worried that things won’t go well. You could argue, however, that this is just garden-variety worry, because the sermon has started, and there is little I can do now. Later, of course, I’ll worry how it went, creating the perfect storm of worry, a kind of worry-melange where past, present and future come together to really stress me out.


We may be the least receptive generation to the message ‘don’t worry.’ With a 24-hour news cycle, online coverage and a mitt full of communication tools, we have more information than anyone ever had before and therefore more cause to worry. It was reported this week that micro-bloggers broke the news about the recent earthquake first because they were blogging about it while it happened. You may ask why someone would continue typing rather than dive under the desk, but then you might be accused of being out of step with this modern age.

If we had the time, I might like to set up a little debate here, with the general question, “More cause to worry: Yes or No?” The historically minded among you could argue that our age has less to worry about than the past. Taking first-century Palestine as our point of comparison, we might be tempted to think that a small agrarian society produced less worries, the cycles of seedtime and harvest, the absence of clocks, the pleasant sameness of each passing day.

Then we would need to look closer. That small nick you received in the carpenter’s shop could get infected, and then usual outcome was death. Seasons of drought brought widespread hunger, some fell into debt, some ended up slaves. Palestine was a training ground for conquest, the place to begin any campaign for near-eastern dominance. Between debt, disease and death, and the constant threat of war, it may turn out that our day is almost worry-free by comparison.

Suddenly the message ‘don’t worry’ has new currency, profoundly counter-cultural words in a first-century world of worry. Place this beside our own sense that we are the champions of worry, and a good conversation is inevitable. Jesus’ meditation on worry fell on deeply skeptical ears, much in the same way we hear the words and allow for that little voice that enters our head:

Sure he can say don’t worry about what you will eat: he could feed the five thousand.
Sure he can say don’t worry about your body, but he could heal people and raise the dead.
Sure he can say don’t worry about what you will wear, but he was an itinerant preacher with a single article of clothing.
Sure he could preach against money, but he didn’t have a vineyard full of workers to pay or kids running off to the big city to spend half the family fortune.

The advice ‘don’t worry’ only makes sense, then, if we make the primary audience the disciples. The crowd was listening, but there is a single and conclusive clue that this was a message for the closet followers of Jesus and not the crowd: he said “ye of little faith.” This was the reprimand Jesus reserved for the disciples, his constant companions and twelve guys who seemed to frequently miss the point. It was an ongoing tutorial on the Kingdom of God, and these twelve were struggling to keep up. It’s also the companion to another set of instructions given to the disciples:

"Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. 9Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. 10Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you…” (Mark 6)

Determining that the message of Matthew 6 was specific to the twelve may seem, then, to let us off the hook. A couple of minutes of biblical interpretation and ‘presto’ no more worries about worry. It was the Simon and Co. that needed to give up worry, and so we can now worry with abandon. Think of it as worry-free worry.

Not so fast. The whole point of recording the instructions to the twelve is so that we will follow them too: we who are the heirs to the disciples, the successors to the twelve that (with proper records) could trace our way back to the same “ye’s” who had so little faith. Whenever we see the word “disciple” we are meant to read ourselves into the text: going into the world to make disciples, messing up in Good Friday, and running to the tomb on Sunday.

So how do we translate the message “don’t worry” to our fellowship two-thousand years on? What worries can we shed as we imagine our life together and the state of the church? This may be harder than you think.

It would be an understatement to say we have entered an anxious age. The church is suffering decline by most measures, morale is low, clergy are in short supply, we are property rich and people poor, one-size-fits-all solutions abound, most in contradiction, and all of this is met with seaming indifference by the society that surrounds us. Do you agree?

I try to take heart, of course, and look for the little signs that point to a brighter future. Yesterday was the beginning of “Doors Open Toronto,” the opportunity to see inside 150 buildings in the city. There are the usual attractions like the Lower Bay subway station, and this year the addition of 50 or so places of worship, along the theme of “sacred spaces.” At first I was excited by the interest, then I had second thoughts. You see, back in my day you went to church in order to see inside a church. Now you can see 50 churches (and temples and mosques) in a weekend without the hassle of worshipping the maker of all.

Back in worry mode, we have spent two years and a bunch of money advertising and retooling, honing our welcoming skills and rethinking the way we approach newcomers. There are two issues:

The first issue is the assumption that we can open the hearts of people in the neighbourhood with a few well-placed ads and a hearty welcome. And the truth is we cannot. Yes, we can get our churches ready for newcomers, maybe make the bathrooms cleaner and the nursery prettier, but only God can open a heart to pray. Yes, we can prepare better brochures and blinking websites, but only God can open a heart to the wonder of God’s world. Yes, we can identify appropriate mission for this time and this place, but only God can open a heart to see suffering in the world God loves so much.

We must do all the technical welcoming things that Emerging Spirit has taught us, then we need to leave room for God to move through our streets and neighbourhoods and touch the hearts of those who need to hear the message we share. In other words, don’t worry.

The second issue is something we can worry about, mostly because I couldn’t leave you empty handed. Thank goodness, you will say over lunch, he gave us something to worry about.

Jesus gave advice, he gave instructions, and he gave commands. Again, the majority of his commands were directed at the twelve, and therefore we need to take them really seriously. The companion to ‘don’t worry” is found in John 15 (and plenty of other places): ‘Love one another.’ He was emphatic:

“This I command you, that you love one another.” This was a command given specifically to the twelve, who were given to squabbling, but also to each new disciple in turn down to today. And this, of course, means long-time disciple and disciple made yesterday, or a minute ago. We are called to welcome people and to love them as one of us. There is no probationary period, no cooling off time, only the command to love one another whatever the circumstances. This means overcoming conflict, abandoning pride-of-place, and defending whatever crazy ideas new people bring when they arrive.

‘Don’t worry’ and ‘love one another.’ Simple but hard. Both happen through the help of the Holy Spirit, and both are vital to the life of any congregation. May God bless you and this fellowship, today and always. May you reach out beyond these walls to share to love of God, the grace of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Acts 2
When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Reading scripture on Pentecost may constitute cruel and unusual punishment. It is the scripture reader’s nightmare to be confronted with a list of unpronounceable place names and be expected to make sense of them. We applaud our brave reader.

If I was truly cruel, I would call on my favourite biblical scholar (Carmen) and ask her to clarify pronunciation, and maybe share a few words on the etymology of place names in Greek. But, I’m not cruel. The best I could do with my 20 year-old rusty Greek was ignore the pronunciation and satisfy my curiousity about the modern locations about these various places. Here is what I discovered:

Parthia (Iran)
Medes (Kurdistan and parts of Iran)
Elam (mostly Iraq)
Mesopotamia (Iraq, parts of Syria and Turkey)
Judea (Southern Israel)
Cappadocia (Turkey)
Pontus (Turkey)
Phrygia (Turkey)
Pamphylia (Turkey)
Cyrene (Libya)
Crete (Greece)
Arabia (Saudi Arabia)

The traditional take on this Pentecost gathering is people from everywhere were present for the birth of the church. And while this is certainly true—and we can then speak of the worldwide spread of the nascent church—it might be more helpful to take a step back and try to understand what else the author may be trying to tell us.

Tip O’Neill famously said: “All politics is local.” Luke, who famously wrote both Luke and Acts, may have said: “All religion is local.” What we are tempted to read as “everywhere” is, in fact, more like “your place, and your place, and your place over there.” This is local religion, not in the tribal or parochial sense, but in the intimate sense that it belongs as much on my street as yours.

Yesterday, I was listening to a call-in travel show on the topic of Rome. The caller was planning a trip to Rome with her 14 year-old son and wanted examples of interesting places to see. The expert immediately rhymed off the name of a church and said here is why: You enter a 12th century church at street level and then go downstairs. One level below is a fourth century church, well-preserved, and below that is a first century house church, which began as a typical Roman home. Three layers and two thousand years of Roman history in a single stop. I wanted to pull over and book a flight.

With the tongues and wind and flames the message began. From the waters of baptism the church was born, and the message was carried not to far off lands and hard-to-pronounce places, but to a house in Rome. A community formed and met in that house. The community expanded, and knocked down a wall or two, making the circle wider. Walls were reshaped into a primitive form we might call church, as kitchen table became altar and cup became chalice.

The journey from kitchen table to high altar, 20 centuries and perhaps 30 feet up, is not about the passage of time and the human effect on topography, but about the locality of our faith. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm but right here, at 33 East Road, where the communion table faces east to Jerusalem and makes a direct line from the day to Pentecost to today. It doesn’t happen in some far-off spiritual realm, but in your favourite chair when you close your eyes to pray. It belongs in kitchens and cubicles and neighbourhood churches; our faith belongs wherever breath is felt and language is spoken and love is made known.


But there is more. The message that these woman and men carried home, the message of death and resurrection, the message of a world made-new, was neatly summarized by Peter that day: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The conclusion of the dreamed dreams and the clearest visions, the surest signs and loudest prophecy is the simple truth that God saves.

It points to another prophecy, this one found in Zechariah. The angel of the Lord comes to the prophet and shares this wonderful verse:

Not by might, nor by power,
but by my spirit, says the Lord.

It has a musical quality to it, and this is not an accident. God wants the prophet to make no mistake about the source of human transformation, about the source of change in a hurting world, about the presence of God in the midst of adversity. I commend it to you, the kind of verse that reminds us that we are never alone, and that the presence of the Spirit is ever near.

Not by might, nor by power,
but by my spirit, says the Lord.


The last word belongs to Jesus. In the moments after the betrayer has left, and Jesus has reminded Peter that he too is human like the rest of us, Jesus leans in and shares these words:

15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, [the Spirit] to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

Today the Advocate has come. The Advocate has come to your home and mine, to this place, and the many places like it. The Advocate has come to hearts broken and minds confused, and to troubled places: to Burma and Tibet, to Oklahoma and Beirut.

The Advocate, the Spirit, is proving that power and might will not save us, only the Spirit of the Living God. The Advocate is speaking through the least and the last, speaking through unsteady voice and faintest whisper, speaking and saying “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Thanks be to God.