Sunday, October 26, 2008

Proper 25

Matthew 22
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

May 24, 1738

If you remember nothing else from this sermon, I want you to remember May 24, 1738. What’s that date?

Back in April Carmen and I engaged in that unusual ritual called “the honeymoon.” That’s the ritual where two exhausted and largely broke individuals visit faraway places and learn how to travel together, often for the first time, and hope to make it home.

On the day in question we were on our way to Westminster Abbey, location of every coronation since King Harold, and stumbled on Methodist Central Hall, located just across the street. The Chapel is noteworthy for a few things: built entirely by individual subscription, hosted the first meeting of the UN General Assembly, and home to one very tiny statue.

Tiny statue is a little misleading, because it is actually a life-size statue of a somewhat tiny man. It turns out that soon after his death, friends of John Wesley decided to have accurate likeness made, one that they could then present to Westminster Abbey. The Abbey, you see, is part church and part memorial to great Britons through the ages. What better place to remember a leading light in the history of Christianity. The Abbey refused to take it. It bounded around from church to church for a couple of centuries before finally finding a place at Central Hall, right across the street from the Abbey.

Maybe in your mind’s eye you can picture a life-size Wesley with Carmen posed beside him, a full foot and a half taller than the great man.

The most important date in his life was, of course, May 24, 1738. It was on that day John Wesley had his conversion experience, his heart was “strangely warmed.” But that is jumping ahead. He was an ordained Anglican priest, a former missionary to the Americas, and someone that endured hardship and the peril of ocean travel to serve God.

It was, in fact, on his trip to colonial America that he had the most powerful lesson in self-understanding. The storm-tossed ship was in peril, and John feared for his life. As he faced the prospect of death, he felt only terror, unsure that he had done enough to earn his place in heaven. Meanwhile, on the same voyage was a group of Moravians, a sect under the direction of Count Zinzendorf (not important to the story, I just like saying Zinzendorf) who weathered the storm with prayer and the singing of hymns and a general sense of contentment in the face of death. John knew he was on the wrong track.

Returning to England, he set about to reform his own faith, to overcome his fear of death and his self-professed fear of God. It led to a visit to Moravian meeting on Aldersgate Street on the evening of May 24, 1738 where he heard read Luther’s introduction to Epistle to the Romans. Then, at about 8.45, he felt his “strangely warmed.” His life was never the same. He preached more than 40,000 sermons and traveled a quarter of a million miles on horseback, founded a worldwide movement, and some say saved the UK from same revolutionary chaos that overtook France.

All of this based on a simple idea found in scripture: the righteous live by faith. It first appears in an obscure little book that is also fun to say: Habakkuk. St. Paul repeats it in Romans, in the first chapter. Luther reads it 1,500 years later and writes a single word in the margin of his bible: “sola.” And this word, meaning “only,” becomes the foundation of the Protestant Reformation we mark today. Wesley had everything he needed to save a nation except one thing: the abiding sense that God loved him. This sense, and the sense that his salvation depended on love alone, meant the difference between being a little man with a little life and being a little man who changed everything.


The quote from Habakkuk and Paul, “the righteous live by faith” is what we call a “bible inside the bible.” There are a few of these, and since we are thinking about memorization, who can give me John 3.16?

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

You memorized this precisely because someone long ago recognized that this described the very heart of our faith. It is a summary that manages to highlight in 25 words what many a theologian has spent a lifetime trying to say. It reminds us that Jesus’ presence in our midst is a gift of love; that he is begotten (of God) and not separate from God; that belief is the most important part of following Jesus; and that the goal of the Christian life is eternity with God.

The same “bible inside the bible” idea is found in Matthew 22:

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

You’ll remember back in September that I drew a parallel between the Ten Commandments and Jesus’ summary of the law. In general terms, commandments one through five concern the “love God” command and six through ten concern love of neighbour. Some might say one to four and five to ten, but you can think of this argument as homework, of something to solve over lunch. All you need to two commands and ten fingers.

Others argue that it is really only one command, and that love of neighbour is what naturally occurs when you keep the command to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Conflating the two makes our United Church hearts happy, because we have been committed to the cause of loving our neighbour for so long it has become second nature for us. We are the archetypal “neighbour lovers” from before the United Church began. Minister and future politician J.S. Woodsworth wrote about the slubs in North Winnipeg in 1911 and called his book “My Neighbour.” In 1930 the Toronto Conference of the United Church voted to abolish capitalism because it was an inhuman system that caused too much suffering in the world. If anyone says the church has become radical, you can tell them that, in fact, we have mellowed over the years.

So we have the neighbour thing down. We nailed it. But how about the love command? Let me go full circle on Reformation Sunday and quote the Westminster Shorter Catechism, a founding document of our Presbyterian tradition. Apologizing for the archaic language in advance, it begins with this:

Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.

Now, if you’re at the watercooler tomorrow morning, and someone says to you “so why do you go to church anyway?” I don’t know if it will help explain yourself to say “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” You might want to reword it. But there, made plain in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is the heart of what we do and who we are. We love the love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all your mind. We glorify God by making God the centre of our life. We enjoy God.

How often do we tell people that we enjoy God? The Catechism passed though Parliament (hence Westminster) in 1648, and maybe we haven’t been describing our relationship in these terms much since then.

What would happen if we enjoyed God, truly enjoyed God rather than simply revered God or acknowledged God or flattered God with our fine prayers and bright hymns? What would happen if we imagined that God is a source of joy in our life, a joyful presence that warms the heart and brings a smile to our face. We gather and we laugh at ourselves and the humour of being human and God laughs with us, knowing full well that our chief aim is to never stop enjoying God.

What was that date?
And what time?

Remind me and I’ll tell you about Luther’s great pledge “Here I stand, I can do no other” memorable for the force of his conviction, but also because he said it at a meeting called the “Diet of Worms.” Who said history can’t be fun?

It can be fun, and joyful, as our faith is meant to be joyful. We are called to love God with every fibre of ourselves, to glorify God and to enjoy God everyday. The list of believers who made the journey from fear to love to joy is long: St. Paul, St. Augustine, Luther, Wesley: all of them feared God and lived lives defined by this fear until they met God in scripture and through the gift of the Spirit and found love and with it great joy. This is Good News for today, Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proper 24

Matthew 22
15Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said. 16So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. 17Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” 18But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? 19Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. 20Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.

It starts at the crack of dawn with the Globe.
Homepage set to
Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and (best of all) John King with his magic map through the evening
Election “tweets” at about one per second on
The interactive Electoral College tracker at and the daily “poll of polls”
Saturday Night Live with Fey as Palin and Palin as Palin (watched on Youtube, since SNL is past my bedtime)
Sirius satellite radio in the car set to CNN (TV on the radio is always a little disappointing)
And did I mention that I drove by Obama’s house in the summer? (we didn’t ring the bell)

And did I further mention that I started in political science before I switched into religious studies? My sadness when the current political season ends will only be matched by my wife’s happiness. You see, she backed Hillary, and so everything after the Superdelegates weighed in has been a bitter reminder that my candidate won and her candidate lost. We may have been the only newlyweds wandering through Paris arguing whether experience beats eloquence and whether it is healthy for democracy to have four presidents in a row named Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton.

And so I wonder: I wonder what CNN and the Globe will report on when all this is done. I wonder what will happen to John King’s magic map. And I wonder if living on the edge of the American empire and watching imperial politics was anything like sitting on the edge of the Roman empire and watching imperial politics in the time of Jesus. And Matthew provides the answer:

“Tell us Jesus, is it lawful to pay Caesar’s GST?”
“Why do you test me? Show me a coin – whose head is this?”
“Caesar’s, of course.”
“Then render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

Their collective “whoa” was likely more a “whoa” of “what on earth did he just say” rather than a “whoa” of “that was really profound.” Matthew leaves it to us to understand just how profound this is, but not without some effort. This passage, you see, is one of those places where Jesus is sounding more like a near-eastern Buddha than a Semitic sage. He is pointing to an issue far beyond any discussion with Pharisees and Herodians. He is pointing to a universal question.

From the very first moment someone affiliates with God, they put themselves on a watchlist. God demands loyalty, something that every despot and dictator in history has understood. If you make a public declaration for God, you have already indicated that your loyalty is divided. To be a Christian and a citizen may be simple enough in a liberal democracy, but in any other form of government it usually borders on treason. This was no different on the day of Jesus’ conversation.

If Jesus agreed to pay Caesar’s tax, the Pharisees would call it treason against God. If he refused to pay the tax, the Herodians would call it treason against Rome. With their trap set, the unholy alliance between religious establishment and political establishment waited for Jesus to fall in. It was not to be. Jesus spent much of his public ministry avoiding traps, and this day was like the rest.

Ultimately his answer is about as satisfying as Solomon’s advice to cut the baby in half. It is really a non-answer that forces you to ponder a bigger question rather than walk away with the final answer. And the bigger question is this: how will you live a double life? How will you serve Elizabeth, Queen of Canada and Jesus, King of Heaven? How will you make your worldview the same “on earth as it is in heaven?” Can this even be done? And if it can be done, then how?

I think the clue is in the text. Jesus asks “who’s image is on this coin?” And the answer, of course, is Caesar. The unspoken question, the one that does not appear in the text might go something like this: “And whose image, my friends, are you?” Or better yet, in whose image do you appear, or in whose image are you made? And the answer?

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

If my favourite Hebrew scholar were here, she would tell us that this is akin to a small poem in the middle of all that creation. It is as if God pauses to sing to the creature he crowns with consciousness, sings to the creature who exists with likeness and will be forever given the task of reflecting God’s glory. This orderly rollout of creation concludes with you and me: the actors on this human stage meant to star in God’s own play.

In the end we can “render unto Caesar” what belongs to Caesar so long as we give to God what belongs to God: and that would be us. Made in the very image of God, we return to God in our prayer and in our praise and we never lose sight of who we are and to whom we belong. We can pay tax and vote and watch CNN and all the other things we do as earthlings, but our real work is as Godlings, reflecting the glory and finding the glory in others.


Found long ago, carved in marble, are these words:

Whereas Providence…has adorned our lives with the highest good…and granted us and those who come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease…and signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…

It might sound like I’m reciting an early Christmas reading but I’m not. The marble inscription is describing Augustus Caesar, the one whose image would have adorned half the coins in the empire. This was the same Caesar who wanted to be known as “the illustrious one” or “the supreme head.” Never satisfied, he also wanted to be called “the son of God.” He got his wish, and the coin in Jesus hand would have had this little bit of idolatry inscribed on it too. Even in death he was petulant, his followers giving him a month of equal length of his late adopted father, August following July in nomenclature we have been stuck with ever since.

But we live in another time. July/Julius and August/Augustus may roll around once a year, but we belong to God’s time. That coin in your hand still bears a sovereign likeness, but our likeness is the likeness of God alone. We live in the world, and we do worldly things, but there is only one illustrious one, only one supreme head and only, only one Son of God. Politics and politicians will return to the dust, Caesars will be no more, but we will remain in the image of God, and of God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

Sunday, October 12, 2008


Deuteronomy 8
12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Pollsters are worried. It seems that our friends who begin every sentence with “If the vote were held today…” are deeply worried about Thanksgiving. You see, rarely does the vote follow a family holiday in such close proximity. Rarely does the entire electorate adjourn from their regular lives and gather in family groupings: young and old, rural and urban, left and right.

Pollsters are worried such an electoral “mash-up” will skew all their hard work. According to conventional wisdom, opinions are getting close to set at this point in the race. Anyone tuning in now is simply trying to confirm the decision they have already made. Imagine the potent mixture of genuine family debate with a mixed demographic and a giant flightless bird.

So I began to wonder about the fairness of this meal. Is it fair that so much of the meal is green and orange? Do carrots and green beans amount to undue influence? Does the absence of tradition blue food hurt anyone’s chances on election day? And where is the red food, and will this party cry foul? (sorry)

My only advice for this interregional, intergenerational, intercultural melange is to ask questions. What do the others at the table have to teach you? What perspective do they bring to the task of voting? And how does the notion of thankfulness enter electoral politics?


Thanksgiving, I can say with some confidence, was an Israelite invention. Living so close to the land, living as they did with the endless cycles of seedtime and harvest, rain and drought, want and plenty, the Israelites paid particular attention to the need to give thanks. They developed layers of thanksgiving, finding different ways to express and convey a response to all of God’s gifts. One way was in verse:

You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

The poet imagines that even the natural world turns to poetry to express thanks to the Maker of All. Valley and meadow, singing in a loud voice, express gratitude for the flock and the grain, for the opportunity to be the vessel of plenty, and the host of such gracious gifts. The song continues, of course, as we break bread and surround ourselves with others, knowing that hill and pasture will never be silent in the presence of the Living God.


Prose generally finds a voice after poetry, so it should not surprise that the Hebrew Bible has extended sections on the need to give thanks. In fact, fully one hundred of 613 traditional Jewish laws concern “sacrifice and offering.” And thankfulness, extended beyond sacrifice and offering, can be found throughout the canon of biblical law. We found it this morning in Deuteronomy 8:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land…you shall eat your fill and bless the LORD your God for the good land that he has given you.

Established in the land, the correct posture is to bless the Lord. The blessing, however, is always more than “thank you” and “let’s eat.” To bless the Lord is to remain ever mindful of the obligations that come with belonging to God:

Take care that you do not forget the LORD your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today.

It is never enough to simply give thanks, because thankfulness means keeping the Law and demonstrating a grateful response. Hence a hundred laws that govern the rituals of sacrifice and offering. It goes further: After the first forty or so laws that describe how to revere the Maker of All, the need for Torah, and the need for fellowship, there are another twenty that describe the need to care for the widow, the orphan and the alien. Immediately after the need to love your brother and sister give thanks for each meal is an entire set of laws dedicated to those on the very edge of society, those most vulnerable and in need of care. And this too is found in our reading for today:

12When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery 15who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions.

Remembering, in this sense, is an act of solidarity precisely because God once heard the cries of suffering of his people in Egypt and liberated them with an outstretched arm and power and brought them through the desert into a good land. As God remembered the Israelites in their time of suffering and need, so too must the Israelites remember the people in great need in their midst each day.

And while all of this is written on our spiritual DNA, and we can’t help but nod our heads at the idea of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It is interesting that these weeks of financial uncertainly have recalled so many stories of the past. Older people recalling a parent giving out a meal at the back door in the midst of the Great Depression, great public works projects and a grateful population desperate for work. Time and time again the storytellers say “I experienced generosity and therefore I must be generous too.”

There is, however, a further dimension to this discussion that goes beyond giving back because we received. It is found in the text, from the mouth of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves:

17Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.

The greatest temptation in plenty is to thank ourselves before we thank God. The greatest temptation in plenty is to say “aren’t I clever” and forget that the Maker of All and the Source of All is truly the source of all that bounty. It is a great gift of self-control to stop yourself before you utter the words “my money” or “my power” and consider the real source of wealth and potential and power.

Related to this, and related to the past week that looms so large in our imaginations, is a wonderful quote from Walter Rauschenbusch. Writing during an economic crisis 101 years ago, he recorded these words, a quote from the wall of a prison: "The worst day of a man's life is the day he decides he can earn a day's wage without doing a day's worth of work." Don’t you want to take some sidewalk chalk and write it on Bay Street, Wall Street or the other streets I can’t even name?

"The worst day of a man's life is the day he decides he can earn a day's wage without doing a day's worth of work." Maybe we can call this our Thanksgiving motto for 2008. Giving thanks is not only acknowledging the gifts of God but also giving thanks for meaningful participation in these gifts. We give thanks for the harvest, but we also give thanks for meaningful work, and for the ability to be partners in all that bounty.


Peter Abelard, writing over 900 years ago, said that the very telling of the story of the cross of Jesus would change hearts. He said that as we hear the details of the story, and as we experience again and again the sacrifice and his willingness to lay down his life for us, we would be so overcome with thankfulness and praise that our hearts of stone would be transformed to hearts of flesh: hearts of flesh beating for God alone.

Abelard argued that thankfulness changes us, makes us whole, makes us more likely to live for God and others and less for ourselves. Abelard said that giving thanks would alter our very being, drawing us to God once more. In his version of atonement, we are released from bondage as the Israelites were: we are released from the bondage of self-love and self-importance to see the true meaning of gift: that Jesus would take to himself all the hurt and the sin and accept death so that we might be free, so that we might have new hearts, so that we can give thanks.

This is good news for us today, Amen.