Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1:40-45
40 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ 41Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ 42Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44saying to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.’ 45But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

Here are a few headlines I found online regarding the topic of the day:

Restaurants reach out to smokers treated as 'lepers'
We're beginning to feel like lepers, say Toronto residents
Sex offenders: Virginia's new lepers?
Turning Legal Gun Owners into Social Lepers

Asked to generalize about these headlines, a few things would come to mind first: Each of the headlines I highlighted appears to be metaphor, using leprosy to represent something else. And without identifying the newspapers, there are clues in each of the headlines that would lead you to conclude that these stories concern developed places, North America to be exact.

You might also notice that in all but one of the headlines, the use of leper is really a synonym: using ‘leper’ in place of ‘social outcast’ or just plain old ‘outcast.’ The exception is the second headline: “We’re beginning to feel like lepers, say Toronto residents.” The story was about a man who tried to book a cruise during the SARS crisis, only to be rejected the moment the booking agent discovered he was from Toronto. This is not really a metaphor. The sting of injustice the man felt is closely aligned with the other entire set of newspaper headlines I discovered and did not share Mostly from India and involving the continuing scourge of leprosy.

So the first insight here is that with good healthcare, something as tragic as leprosy can become a metaphor. Removed from the realm of everyday medical concern, leprosy was freed to represent something else. Somehow those of us who use the language were unwilling to set this word aside, deciding instead to adopt it for other uses. The same cannot be said for rickets, however, a disease related to poverty and a critical absence of Vitamin D that is gone from our part of the world but still stalks the developing world.

So immediately we have an issue: why did leprosy transform into metaphor while rickets did not? All those foods fortified with 14 essential nutrients drove away childhood rickets from our shores, but no one stopped to create a ricket metaphor. The answer might be in the Bible. Stories about lepers have been in the popular consciousness from centuries, and therefore had a much greater change to become metaphor. It is like a linguistic popularity contest.

The other answer lies in the headlines themselves. Notice that the metaphorical lepers (smokers, sex offenders and gun owners) were responsible for their situation. Having rickets is a calamity, but not a choice (unless you are a college kid living on Pop Tarts). All of our metaphorical lepers made the choice to smoke or own guns, and therefore became the outcasts they are today.

I can see in your eyes that you are worried about apples and oranges. Or you are wishing I didn’t write a DMin thesis on metaphor. Either way, this would be the appropriate moment to begin to wonder about the association between leprosy and personal failing. How is it that a terrible disease that no one would choose to have is so readily transformed into a metaphor about choosing to become an outcast. The answer is in the Bible.

One of the most famous question in the Bible is found in John 9:

Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that caused him to be born blind?"

Talk about your loaded questions. And without preaching the wrong sermon, the question itself tells us more than any answer ever could. At the time, you see, someone was to blame. Any calamity, any disease, any deformity was a punishment for something. The disciples thought so (they asked the question). The population thought so (they shunned the sick and the lame) and the religious authorities certainly thought so. It was a generally held assumption that lepers were not only sick but also culpable.

So the healing unfolds. The sick man began “If you choose, Sir, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, the text says, Jesus reached over and made him well. He said “I chose to make you clean” and he was made clean. Jesus issued a stern “tell no one” (more on that in a minute) and sent the man for an examination before the one who determines ritual cleanliness. On the way he told everyone.

My heart goes out to the people trying to learn to speak English. When I say “You could help me if you want to” you may discern that I am saying much more than I need a little help. “You could help me if you want to” is the kind of thing you say last, or next to last, when anger and frustration have come. “You could help me if you want to” says you could help me if you were different from everyone else, or less inclined to run with the crowd. It says that I will hold out the possibility that you will be different, but I don’t really believe it. It is amazing how much you can say in eight short words.

Jesus, of course, could read all of this. And Jesus was different from the rest. “Friend of outcast and sinner” was printed on his business card, right below his name and just above his P.O. box in Capernaum. “Friend of outcast and sinner” was more or less his own personal mission statement, right up there “The truth will set you free” and “All you need is love” (or something close). The man in our story had the good fortune of meeting not only the local source of God’s own healing love, but also the local source for solidarity. “I help the people who need help” Jesus said on another occasion, “and not the people who don’t need my help.”

I remain curious about this tendency we have to make lepers. It seems that we love the metaphor so much that we can spend all sorts of time extending it to anyone who has fallen on hard times and seems to have role in their misfortune. Smokers, drug-users, people with HIV-AIDS, the poor, dropouts, and on and on: we could spend the day making lists and feeling smug. Maybe the only bright side to the current economic disaster is that people are forced to rethink their view on the jobless. In good times, we tend to judge. In bad times, we tend to sympathize, knowing full well that we may be next.

I don’t normally dig into the original languages, but since my wife Carmen is here, I’ll throw in a little Greek for the biblical scholar. The Greek verb in our passage (splagchnizomai) is normally translated ‘moved with pity’ as in, “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him.” It seems to sum up our sense of the situation rather well. But there is a problem. It seems that splagchnizomai can also be translated “moved to anger,” a version that put a whole new spin on the story. Suddenly the preacher has something explain, since anger in the text is something that is awfully hard to ignore. Luckily, there is always a scholar to the rescue. The same person who highlighted the issue give us her own translation: that splagchnizomai literally means “his intestines turned,” the kind of reaction that comes with great distress.

To say Jesus had pity would be an understatement. It would be much bigger than an understatement, but I don’t have a word for that. Jesus was moved to the point of symptoms of physical illness when he discovered the plight of this poor man. His sense of solidarity was visceral, literally “in his gut.” His sense of solidarity was sometimes playful (“Come down Zacchaeus”) and dramatic (“Who touched me”) and always real, so real he could feel it in his gut.

The work of disciples is to do our own occasional ‘gut check’ and figure out who needs our help. It happens downstairs, and it happens in the many other places we volunteer our time. It happens when we try to understand rather than judge, and it happens when we reach out rather than turn away.

The ultimate ‘gut check’ is coming too, when we begin the slow climb up to Jerusalem. It will be most plain in the garden at Gethsemane, and in the Upper Room, and on the narrow street pilgrims now walk. The ‘gut check’ Jesus does, in the weeks leading up to what we call Holy Week is this: In his gut he knows that rejection will come. That he too will become a leper among friends, that he too will be an outcast on a lonely hill: that he too will be cast out all the way to the cross. That turning sensation is solidarity for a man with leprosy, but it may also be a turning in his gut for himself. He and that leper are brothers, and their brotherhood will become most obvious very soon.

Jesus died to save us: leper, outcast, sinner, smoker, user, and every one of us in need of healing. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 9:16-23
16If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! 17For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. 18What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
19 For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. 20To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. 21To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. 22To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. 23I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

In Ben Hur (1959) we see everything from nativity to crucifixion, all told from the ever popular Roman point-of-view. In The Ten Commandments (1956), everything is numbered: two tablets, Ten Commandments, 11 Oscars and the fifth highest gross of all time (adjusted for inflation). In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) audiences disagreed, ending an era and sending all those centurion costumes into storage.

The era, of course, is the Heroic Age of Judeo-Christian filmmaking. Other names might be the Heston Age or the Christendom Age: and age when the religious certainty of audiences was reflected in the films made. These films, and the churches that sent viewers were larger-than-life, a moment in the history that never really happened before and will likely never return.

Leaping over the long-haired VW bus era of Christian film, we arrive at the Skeptical Age. Life of Brian (1979), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Jesus of Montreal (1989) all typify the Skeptical Age, where doubt, reinterpretation and mockery are the order of the day. All fine films, but a long way from the triumphal certainty of an earlier age. Think of it as Jesus for Baby Boomers, rejecting the religion of their parents and highlighting the humanity of Jesus once more.

Finally, we have reached the Atheist Age of film, with The Da Vinci Code (2006) questioning the legitimacy of the entire enterprise, and poking the Vatican just for fun. Stay tuned for Angels & Demons (2009) and more of the same, with the added science vs. religion debate that popular culture loves. The one anomaly here is The Passion of the Christ (2004): a film I would not recommend. In the film we learn more about Mel Gibson’s extremist Catholic views then we do the story itself. And don’t even get me started on the post 9-11 revival of torture in film (another sermon altogether).

The Atheist Age in advertising began in the UK very recently, with the appearance of a bus ad that read “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The press had a field day with it, owing in part to the fact that the initiator is young and attractive, but also owing to the fact that much of the population of London was tired of seeing months of the “Wages of sin is death” ads on public transit. In many ways, the atheist ads were simply a relief.

The United Church of Canada has received lots of free press this week, with the launch of our point-counter-point ad with the original text and then a second one saying "There's probably a God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life." The response has been overwhelmingly positive, with thousands rushing to our site to join the discussion. The site is described as “the home of open-minded discussion and exploration of spiritual topics, moral issues and life's big questions.” It became a wonderful note to end the campaign, scheduled to conclude this summer.


St. Paul said “I have become all things to all people.” To the weak, I became weak. To those who live under the law, I became as one who lives under the law. For those who do not, I did the same. I did all of this to proclaim the Gospel, and to share in its blessings.

Paul knew, as we do too, that the power of the Gospel is in relationship. We do not hear the Gospel message of forgiveness and reconciliation in order to accept rhetorical constructs, or creedal pronouncements, or doctrinal accords: we hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ to give ourselves to him. We do not hear the Gospel message to master correct belief: we do it join a community of believers dedicated to walking his way and living as he lived.

There are some who decry “open-minded discussion and exploration of spiritual topics, moral issues and life's big questions” a credo of defeat. They would argue that certainty is the only way forward, that theological questions are settled for all time and that we need only lift them up. Nonsense. Theological debates were settled by consensus, or sometimes at the point of a sword, and it would be an insult to Jesus and his love of conversation to say we cannot be a people of theological debate.

We live, you see, in the Post-modern Age of Post-Christian values. President Obama includes non-believers in his list of Americans, giving them a legitimate voice in the country that was supposed to be the inventor and champion of the separation of church and state. In a post-modern age, I can enjoy my truth without being offended by your truth. A rival truth claim can be always taken in context, and should never threaten unless you are somehow unsure about your own belief.

Let’s take a non-religious example. Apparently America is the greatest nation on earth and the last hope for humanity: Obama said so himself. Now, I could get all bent out of shape every time he says it, or I could consider the context. From his vantage point, it may well be true. From my vantage point, I see something else. Here in the land of the beaver and the maple tree (both pests, by the way) we are clearly the best. These rival truth claims are frequently tested and measured, and you know who mostly comes out on top. But this, of course, doesn’t make the view from Washington wrong.

Immediately you will say “wait a minute, Michael, you’re comparing apples and oranges. Patriotic fervor and religious truth are two distinct things: Religion is an ultimate concern, and surely we can and should be able to settle the matter of sacred truth.” You had a lot to say. Let me try to answer.

Most of us, over a certain age, were raised with “modern” assumptions. In the modern age, everything could be discovered, analyzed and understood. You remember that everything had a hypothesis and a solution. And when this method was applied to religion, people fell away in droves. God cannot be proved, or the effectiveness of prayer, or the words and deeds of Jesus. It didn’t stop people from trying, but ultimately the scientific method did not help religion and the modern age coexist.

So in the Heston Age, or the Age of Certainty, people were told to simply believe. Faith became accepting a set of ideas without reservation. The message of the age was “shut up and enjoy the film. Look, the sea is parting!” In the Skeptical Age, we were invited to explore other possibilities. Monty Python told us that it was all rather silly, so lets have some fun with it. Serious filmmakers like Martin Scorsese said “consider this reinterpretation of the message, previous films got it wrong.” Interesting to be sure, but ultimately unsatisfying.

It would be simple, as I recount all of this, to say that the world changed. But the truth is we changed. We tired of being told to shut up and believe, we tired of the weak and pathetic Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, we tired of mockery even if it was clever and British. We moved through those first two ages to the age we are currently in because (I hope) we became more confident in our belief and less threatened by others. So re-enter Paul.

Paul began his ministry in an age not unlike our own. He understood power, but he wasn’t really part of it. He represented a small religion, in a sea of other faiths and non-believers. He entered into conversation with others, confidant in his beliefs, but respectful of the people he addressed. He used the best tools at his disposal, even if it meant talking about things that were not part of his faith. He was willing to be all things to all people, not in the negative way we imagine this phrase, but in the positive way: meaning that having the conversation was more important that controlling the outcome. In this he was a true follower of Jesus: willing to tell anyone with ears to hear the message of forgiveness and love.

So here in the Atheist Age, we have little cause for concern. There are plenty of people that might check the box that says “There’s probably no God” and visit Wondercafe anyway. That’s the magic of conversation and modern technology. Will they change their minds immediately and rush to Central? No likely. But while they’re at Wondercafe, and while they are involved in some “open-minded discussion” they may make some surprising discoveries: we’re not trying to convert then, we are more concerned with justice than we are with “truth,” we care about fabric of our community, and we are more interested in having a good conversation than being right all the time.

Maybe someone should make a film about that.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Deuteronomy 18.15-20
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16This is what you requested of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: ‘If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die.’ 17Then the Lord replied to me: ‘They are right in what they have said. 18I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.’

Caucus and primaries
Nomination and campaign
Victory and transition

I guess I had the sense it would someday matter less, or at least fade into my day-to-day as every other President’s activity. I could switch away from Sirius Satellite CNN (never fun without the pictures) and go back to “Totally 70’s” or “Radio Margaritaville” or “Hip Hop Nation.”

I guess I had the sense that my “uncommon interest” in all things Obama would recede as politics in Canada became less mind-numbing, or at least departed from a self-imposed coma. Call it misplaced patriotism, wanting to look to Ottawa for something engaging, even for a moment. It was not to be.

The next malicious trick of Sirius Satellite CNN is something called the daily White House Press Briefing. The Press Secretary appears on my little radio every afternoon and describes what the President has been up to. These things have certain sameness:

“Can you tell us what the President is thinking?”
“I can’t tell you what is in the mind of the President.”
“Can you tell us what the President will do next?”
“I can’t predict what the President will do next.”
“What will you do if the worst happens?”
“I can’t talk in hypotheticals, so I can’t say.”

I could do this job. It wouldn’t be as fulfilling as life at Central, and there wouldn’t be an endless supply of tiny crustless sandwiches, so I’ll just stay put. Besides, the love-in on the Potomac can’t last, and someday the Press Secretary will regret speaking for the President.

The task of speaking for someone else has a long pedigree. Who could forget the first Mt. Sinai press briefing, with dancing, golden livestock and tablets thrown in anger? Not as effective as tossing your shoe, but just as memorable. Moses, then, becomes the model for God’s press secretary: sitting in on the key discussions, engaging in a little back and forth on the big decisions, and announcing the outcome to an anxious population.

And as we sit in on what amounts to Moses final press briefing, he makes some summary observations that will help the community move forward and prepare for a time when new voices begin to speak for God. Let’s listen in:

Of course God will appoint a new voice to speak, a prophet worth listening to. Remember, you asked for this, when you decided that direct contact with God was too scary. And God agreed, saying ‘it is better to appoint someone to speak for me, and I will put my words in their mouth.’ ‘Ignore the prophet,’ God said, ‘and I’ll know…and just in case anyone gets the bright idea to speak false words on my behalf, trust me, it won’t end well for you.’

So we know that the role won’t be retired with Moses. Clearly the need to communicate God’s intentions is ongoing. And so the role of principle spokesperson is institutionalized in the role of prophet. And like the daily briefing, God’s desire to communicate is comprehensive and ongoing. It will occur among the ordinary people and before the seats of power. It will be met as welcome advice or it will be violently rejected. However it is met, the role remains the primary way God will speak to God’s people.


Every year, about this time, a handful of people in each region of the church will head in for ordination interviews. Now, it’s a small church, and so year-by-year we tend to know someone who’s going to be on the hot seat, someone who will be questioned one last time on their suitability for ministry in the United Church. A team will assemble, and nervous candidates will be asked the same questions that generations before have been asked.

“Are you willing to join the pension plan”
“Can we send you somewhere no one else wants to go?”

These are the standards. All-in-all, these interviews seem to be asking the same “do you know what the heck you’re getting yourself into” question, asked in a variety of ways. One of the perennial favourites goes something like this:

“Ministers take on a variety of roles: priestly, prophetic and pastoral. What role do you find most engaging?”

As always, there is no correct answer. Saying “Gee whiz, I never thought of that” over and over might amount to the wrong answer, but in general terms, there are no wrong answers. The role of a question like this one is to get a sense of the person, to draw them out and learn what they think about the vocation they hope to assume. And by setting up three roles: priestly, prophetic and pastoral, the interviewers can check that this potential minister is aware of all three.

The ‘priestly’ role puts us behind the table, or at the font, or saying farewell to friends at the graveside. The ‘pastoral’ role finds us at the hospital, or at Timmy’s, or wherever people are feeling lost or alone. And the ‘prophetic’ role might find us at City Hall, or chained to a tree, or pounding this pulpit to test how well it’s built. Of course, we do more, but priestly, prophetic and pastoral provide perhaps a perfect precis. We’re told you love alliteration too.

It is the prophetic, of course, that remains the most vexing. Overstep, and you will alienate the very people you are charged to reach. Understep, and your ministry lacks the critical edge that says ‘I understand the way of the world and it’s just not right.’ We need to be able to find the gap between the way of the world and God’s intention for the world and tell others. We need to be able to name the powerful forces at work in the world and the ways in which they do not represent the Maker’s plan. And we need discernment.

One of the quirky and ultimately unhelpful parts of our passage from Deuteronomy 18 is the “false-prophet” detector mechanism built into the whole scheme. Make up some prophetic utterance: you die. Decide to speak for any pagan god-de-jour: you die. Say anything for God that God doesn’t want said: you die.

Imagine doing a new JNAC and a new search every time some careless pulpit-pounding minister misspoke. All that smoting would start to wear on you after a while. It would, however, make the whole issue of authenticity very clear. We could instantly tell who was being fair and accurate and who won’t get the chance to try again. In this way the heavy lifting belongs to someone else, and the small matter of discernment need not trouble our minds.

Since our automatic false-prophet detector seems broken, we are left with the onerous task of deciding for ourselves. People continue to speak for God, both in an official capacity and as a function of being a person of faith, and it falls to us to decide if what they say and what they do seems consistent with the God we know. It falls to us to compare the words of the prophet to the biblical record, to the tradition of the church, to the gift of reason, and to our very own experience of God and decide if the prophet speaks for God or for someone else.


There’s a twist here, as is usually the way, a twist that begins simply with the words “Jesus was teaching and speaking from town to town on down to Jerusalem.” Here is the prophet, lifting up the sick and the broken-hearted, casting out demons and trying to explain the ways of mercy and forgiveness. And looking on, he sees the gated splendor and holy places and must speak out:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, just as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not have it!

The demons cry out in the face of their destruction, but the real destruction is the destruction of the Great Prophet, the Son of the Most High, the one who would cry out on that holy hill and say “forgive.” When God no longer killed prophets we filled the void. And the voice on the cross said “forgive.” And when God entered the fullness of human experience, even death on the cross, the single word was and remains “forgive.”

The task of speaking for God falls to each of us now, the task understanding what makes the world work, what is scandal in God’s eye’s, what word we could say to further God’s way. We listen to the urging of the Spirit, seek out saints and sages, and we read our Bibles: then as now, a single word appears to end conflict, to end bitterness, and to reconcile the hardest of hearts: and that word is “forgive.”