Sunday, January 18, 2009

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1:43-51
43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ 46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you,* you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

It starts on Tuesday morning when Peter Parker—taking inauguration photos for the Daily Bugle—notices that there are two President-elect Obamas. Something is amiss! Peter realizes “the future president’s gonna need Spider-Man” and quickly becomes his famous alterego. Using the best tool possible to determine the fake Obama (basketball!) the imposter is unmasked and apprehended. If you managed to get a first-edition copy of Marvel Comic's Amazing Spider-Man #583, hold on to it. You may be able to retire on the proceeds some day.

If there is a way to measure excess hype and unrealistic expectations, we’ve surpassed it. If there is a way to determine star power and emerging celebrity, we’re way beyond that now. The President-elect has entered uncharted waters where even the help of superheroes may not be enough to manage the expectations of a waiting world. Thank goodness for the flying prowess of Sully Sullenberger, saving the day over the skies of Gotham and allowing Obama a few moments out of the spotlight.

All the excitement over Tuesday (and the choruses of “na-na-hey-hey-goodbye”) seems to have overshadowed the real accomplishment of the last few months. Never before has a politician mobilized 3.1 million donors and ten million email subscribers toward support on election day. Never before has someone ignored public election money in favour of five and ten dollar donations from people of every walk of life. Again and again the signs point to a distinction that needs to be made: The President-elect wasn’t running a campaign, he was launching a movement.

How can you tell the difference? What turns a campaign into a movement when every politician must ask “will you vote for me?” I think the difference is something like this: In a campaign the candidate says “vote for me and I will do my best to address your particular concern or issue.” In a movement, the candidate says “vote for me and join my team. We don’t know where this thing is headed, but together we can get there.” Campaigns speak to self-interest, movements speak to service. Listen carefully on Tuesday for movement language, at a time when no President (perhaps since Lincoln) has a greater need to get everyone moving together in the same direction.


The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’

The difference between a campaign and a movement can be found in those two little words “follow me.” The ancient Near-East was filled with proselytizers. Ever street corner had a prophet or a seer trying to win people over to a point of view. The man with the “end is nigh” sign that launched a thousand New Yorker cartoons is close to the mark in the period we’re looking at.

So this battle for “hearts and minds” is not new. Much of the moral architecture of the Jewish faith was based on adherence to the Law of Moses: the ability to get the people of God to live according to God’s own direction. Priest or prophet would call people to live differently. Unfortunately, there were different opinions on how to live differently, and the issue became adherence to particular ideas rather than anything else.

Even in the early church we read the same tendency slip into the emerging fellowship: ‘I belong to Paul’ says one. ‘I’m in the Apollo camp’ says another. ‘Count me with Cephas’ says a third. Finally, an exasperated Paul says ‘have we divided the body of Christ into little bits?’ (1 Cor 1.13) He says he was not sent to dazzle people with his particular wisdom on this or that subject, but to lift up the cross of Jesus and point to it’s power (v. 17).

To all of these characters, standing on street corners and arguing in synagogues, Jesus says ‘follow me.’ To everyone who pondered an idea and wondered about making a pledge, Jesus says ‘follow me.’ To all the people casting about for the next big thing, the next big idea, or the next big person, Jesus says ‘follow me.’ It’s not a campaign he’s started, it’s a movement: a movement with only one direction, but more on that later.


Doug Pagitt, pastor of a church called Solomon’s Porch, began to notice a pattern some time ago that seems to speak to our topic today. In his travels, Doug began to see that various Christian traditions tend to be fluid and easygoing in some ways and quite ridged in others. So, for example, within the more evangelical churches there seems to be less stress over the music and the shape of the service and the credentials of the pastor and more stress over defending a precise definition of truth. On the other hand, among the more mainline churches there seems to be a lot of latitude regarding what you believe and the creeds you are willing to repeat and very little latitude regarding the order of service or how ministers are trained.

I would say Solomon’s Porch, like the Obama campaign, is a movement. It is less about following a set or rules or furthering a single issue and more about belonging to something. It is less about maintaining a distinct character and more about becoming something that reflects the people inside. It is less about people meeting the needs of a particular institution and more about the need to love and serve others. I’m not suggesting we become a Solomon’s Porch, although I do like that they replaced the pews with old couches and LazyBoy recliners. I lift them up as an example of the transition from church to movement that I think every congregation will need to make as the institutional church begins to slip into history.


Someone built the biggest mall, but people wanted more.
Someone built the biggest investment bank, but people wanted more.
Someone built the biggest bailout, but people wanted more.
Someone built the biggest megachurch, but people wanted more.
The more people wanted, the less they seemed to get.

The more people wanted, the less satisfied they were with the biggest and the best and the newest. What they really wanted, what they have always wanted, even though they frequently forget, is a connection. They want to be connected, one to another, in something that is beyond need or greed. They want to be part of something larger than themselves, because individual glory is fleeting, and greater glory is calling them.

Jesus made the invitation in a number of ways: One time it was “Follow me and become fishers of men and woman.” Another time it was “Come down from that tree, I’m coming to your house for tea.” In today’s lesson it was simply “follow me.” What he didn’t say at that moment, but implied in every word he spoke, was ‘follow me to the cross.’ Follow me to the cross where human sin and God’s infinite capacity to forgive meet. Follow me to the cross and witness an end to death. Follow me to the cross and join a movement of cross people, redeemed by the death of Jesus, forgiven through the power of the cross, and delivered a new people, new in Christ Jesus, new for all time. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of Jesus

Mark 1

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

This river is the dividing line between east and West. It inspires poetry and great works of literature: from “Ol’ Man River” to the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It is a river but it is also a theme: the new frontier, adventure, escape and freedom. It is the canvas on which bridge builders practice their art and where engineers struggle to maintain her banks.

Another river enters history as Romulus and Remus are throw in and subsequently rescued by a She-wolf. It too acted as a boundary, until the conquering ways of her people united both banks. In spite of this, or maybe because of this, the area “across the river” (Trastevere) remains proudly distinct. The river is considered sacred (and symbolic) whereby an Anglican converting to the Roman Catholic faith is said to be “swimming the Tiber.” The reverse, of course, is “swimming the Thames.”

A final river is also a boundary line with sacred associations, a source of poetry and prose as water emerges in the north and flows through the desert places down to the saltwater sea. “Crossing over” can mean entering the Promised Land and can mean entering into death. It appears and reappears in sacred verse: it represents a promise fulfilled, liberation and a new land.

Three rivers, the Mississippi, the Tiber and the Jordan, each exist in the literal and the figural. Each river inspires meaning beyond a water channel through dry land. And each represents some form of beginning: the beginning of freedom, the beginning of history and the beginning of new life. The passage through or over has meaning, as does the act of entering the river. Huck’s raft is swamped by a passing riverboat, and he must try to carry on without his new friend Jim. Romulus and Remus are saved by being set adrift in the river (a familiar story) only to be resaved and nursed by that famous she-wolf. Jesus enters the river at the urging of John the Baptizer, and emerges with a blessing and the name above all names: son of the Most High.


John the Baptist finds a place on both sides of Christmas. He is the New Testament prophet, calling us to repent in the time of preparation before Jesus’ birth. He is not the light, we are told, but a witness to the light. He was called to testify concerning the light, and make a path in the wilderness for his coming. In John’s gospel we are given poetry as the light appears, but in Mark only prose, and thin prose at that: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Mark is in such a hurry that he almost leaves it at that, but not quite: A voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.”

There are some that argue that certain words carry eternity: certain words convey meaning of a level we struggle to understand. Compare sun, sea and sky to puddle, yard and shrub. There are words that engage the imagination and words that do not. There are words that evoke powerful associations and those that do not. Granted some words stand out because they describe vast things or formerly scary things, but at the end of they day they all describe things.

Some might argue that these “larger” words benefit from former sacred associations. There was a moon god in almost every ancient culture: the same cannot be said for shrubs. The sea is by definition infinite, since we can only ever see 15 nautical miles to the edge of the horizon (unless you have a crowsnest). A shrubs is finite and almost foolish when compared to his cousin the tree. Vastness and danger seem to be a factor then, and whatever words the ancients twinned with mystery.

Down by the river, then, Jesus came to be baptized. He comes to participate in the sacred associations of this special river, a river that meant crossing from wandering to a promised home, from bondage to freedom, and the uncertainty of life without their leader Moses. For Moses, Jordan means the end of a journey, and the transition to another reality. This will also find resonance in his baptism, as later writers will mark baptism as a little death, one that forms a boundary between an old life and the new life that begins after baptism. More on that later.

Part of the resonance of the Jordan is also very current. The right to inhabit this land is disputed: Some point to the same sacred associations and justify aggression in the name of security. Others point to different associations, and enlist the help of rogue nations to undermine the international order. At the end of the day the entire conflict seems tribal, small groups fighting over small places, a variation on cold war where Washington and Tehran are content to allow others to do the heavy lifting while the people suffer. From the left or the right I think we can agree that neither Israel nor Hamas care about the people of Gaza. The world looks on in horror.

And not to downplay the horror, but some of the same associations are driving this conflict. Israel-Palestine is tiny: we drove the length of it in an afternoon, but the resonance is powerful. Sacred to three religions, we look on with concern. But worldwide, there are many conflicts with more horror and more death that carry on unnoticed. Are we concerned because we are concerned or are we concerned because the media suggests we be concerned? Either way, we pray for peace.


The most powerful association at the riverbank is renewal. Primitive ancestors realized quickly that stagnant is bad and flowing is good. Rivers serve up life in the form of water, when we are wise enough to not soil our own water source. Look for the core of every great city and you will find a river: providing water, bringing trade, powering industry. The river is a source of life and nourishment and beginning and therefore the first choice for baptism: we go down to the river to leave our old selves behind, and emerge from the water a new person. We die with Christ and emerge from the water a new person altogether.

The riverside is also the place where life begins. Jesus’ vocation begins with baptism, hearing a divine affirmation and beginning an earthly ministry that remains active today. Baptism, then, is also a place of sacred vocation, where we emerge from the water to undertake our ministry, the unique way we each serve God. As a congregation, we look in, remembering our baptism and making a recommitment to our discipleship. This begins by helping little Sydney find her sacred vocation, and guiding her in a life of faith. But there is more: remembering our baptism, we are called to leave the riverside once more and retrace our steps as believers. We are called to reassess and reconsider our life with Christ and continue to honour him in our lives.

We go down to the river to pray: and witness the rebirth that comes from the waters of baptism, opening a way to new life. Amen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Second Sunday after Christmas

Do you ever feel litigious? Do you ever want just sue someone? Other people do it, why not me? Maybe it’s just post-holiday stress, but maybe it’s high time we started making lists.

Now, I love my parents: they are fine people. And I wouldn’t want to single them out for the array of lawsuits I have planned, for a couple of reasons. First, it makes more sense to sue the wealthy, so they catch a break. Second, the stuff I’m thinking of belongs to all parents of the 60’s: a much larger pool of respondents. So hear goes:

My mother fondly remembers turning back to watch me take my first steps in the back of the family wagon during a long trip through the Adirondacks. You hear a heartwarming story: I hear lawsuit. Did you know that child restraint seats were invented in 1921, to coincide with the introduction of the Model-T Ford. Granted the ‘restraint’ was a bag tied to the seat, but the safety feature existed, and I call that grounds to proceed. Who’s with me?

It gets worse. The bicycle helmet? Did you know that the bicycle helmet has existed in some form or another since the early seventies? Sure you had to be a Tour de France racer, but they existed. My mother frequently says, “you boys were so careless on your bikes.” See the subtle shifting of blame here?

The toboggan: You know the toboggan. Thin strips of wood conveying children downhill at great speed. Sick Kids Hospital has produced some ‘common sense’ guidelines for toboggan use, and I gotta say, I smell lawsuit:

Select a hill with a no greater than 30 percent incline (that’s not Mt. Albert, let me tell you).
Have the supervising parent check the hill for dangers such as rocks and trees.
Never lie down on the toboggan, kneeling only.
Always wear a helmet when tobogganing.

Maybe these are interconnected lawsuits? I could keep going, but my mother reads these things online and I don’t want to tip her off. She might warn all the other parents of the 60’s and our cause will be lost. And I understand there may be a counter-suit coming regarding a grandchild quota or some such nonsense, so I better leave off for now.


St. Paul was not a lawyer, but he knew the law. He wrote as someone who understood the law and the nature of mutual obligation that comes when you enter into a covenant. He even writes like a lawyer, a problem that can only be solved when you break it down and go slow. So, beginning at verse 13:

In him, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance towards redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

Upon hearing the truth of God’s desire for our salvation, we had, in effect, become a party to a covenant agreement, with an imaginary seal set upon us. The seal is significant, and points to something more than an ordinary contract. As it developed in common law, the seal indicated something extraordinary was happening here, that something beyond the normal exchange of benefit and consideration.

The seal pointed to the importance of the promises: that the very character of the parties here was at stake here. Failure to honour the integrity of the seal was much more than a simple breach of contract, it was breaking faith with your partners. In the era before the ubiquitous lawsuit, people worried less about exposure and worried more about their reputation. The seal upon a covenant was serious business, made decidedly more serious when the covenant partner was God.

Covenants still exist in law, but are becoming less and less common. They have enjoyed a bit of a revival in the era of the monster home and the gated community, as property developers looked for ways to crack down on garden gnomes or those wooden profile pictures of someone bending over. Restrictive covenants were created to reign in individual expression, based on the assumption that a uniform looking neighbourhood has a higher resale value.

Biblical covenants are a different animal. They do have some variety in expression, but by-in-large they deal with mutual obligation and a promise to keep covenant. Some are very simple: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Exodus 6.7). Some are much more complex. The Mosaic covenant comes with specific rules (commandments) but remains in the realm of mutual obligation and the need to keep promises.


Many of us have a hard time accepting gifts. Children love getting presents, and adults too, but there also seems to be a moment when it becomes harder and harder for us to accept gifts. We fear we can’t somehow repay; maybe we don’t feel deserving; maybe we don’t like the idea of becoming indebted in some way. However this works, there comes a time when gifts are not the easygoing things they once were. They have meaning, if only in our minds, and therefore receiving gifts is more complicated than before.

St. Paul and others got this. They understood that the great gifts we have received: life, forgiveness, redemption, deliverance—all these gifts—are impossible to repay. God has saved us, and we can’t repay the favour. Jesus died on the cross, and we can’t reciprocate no matter how hard we try. God gives us the gift of each day, and unless we can create more heavens and more earth, we can’t begin to repay on the scale we have received. So what to do?

We can live well. This is not the point of my sermon, but needs to be said. One way to respond to a great gift is to live in a manner that would please the giver. In the eighty plus years of being the United Church we have largely succeeded in honouring God by being better people. But that is only one response.

The primary response, the response that we tend to put in the backseat of this station wagon called the United Church is praise. We are called to praise God, to honour God’s holy name, to sing God’s praise from waking to sleeping, to never cease to praise the One who made us and saved us and makes us one. Remember the Westminster Larger Catechism? Question one: What is the chief aim of human life? “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Do we spend enough time glorifying God? Do we spend enough time enjoying God? Can we even begin to know what that means?

Here’s a New Year’s resolution, one without danger or risk of a lawsuit. Glorify God and enjoy God forever. Step one may be learning what this means. Or, at the very least, becoming open to the idea that this is the chief aim of human life, something few of us spend a lot of time contemplating. We have received so much, we have grace upon grace, gift upon gift, and God deserves our praise. We can live well too, but first, and foremost, God deserves our praise. Amen.