Sunday, June 21, 2009

Proper 7

Mark 4
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

Sailors are a superstitious lot. For example:

It is unlucky to depart on a Friday.
It is lucky to depart on a Sunday.
It is lucky to have children onboard.
It is unlucky to have women onboard.
An emerald will protect a sailor from the perils of sea, and a silver coin placed under the masthead ensures a successful and profitable voyage.
Flowers onboard are bad luck.
It is bad luck to carry a corpse, or to lose a mop or pail overboard.
It is bad luck to see a dolphin during calm seas, but it is good luck to see one dolphin chasing another during rough seas.
It is back luck to whistle, change the name of a boat or name a boat for anything other than a woman.
Black cats are lucky on a ship.
Cats with six fingers are lucky when sailing to America.
It is unlucky to paint your boat green or eat fish at sea.
This one is weird: According to British sailors, if your were born at sea, you automatically belong to Stepney parish in London.
Finally, sailors must avoid redheads on the way to a ship as they bring bad luck.
And one final one: it is unlucky to sail with a minister.

I could go on, but I won’t. My brother may read this sermon and never let me sail again. If you sift through the various superstitions you will begin to see the pattern: anything the reminded sailors of death or had even the loosest association was considered bad luck: flowers, clergy, even Friday with an implied link to Good Friday.

The sea, you see, is and was a dangerous place, something we tend to forget in our age of GPS and helicopter rescue. A quick glance at the past and you begin to get a sense of the source of all that superstition. He is bit of a quote for Derek Lundy’s book, The Way of the Ship:

In 1861, a reasonably typical year, 1,170 British vessels were wrecked, including 30 in one day. From 1874 to 1883, Britains maritime losses totaled 699 ships and 8,475 men. The last notable storm in the age of sail was the Great Gail of 1894. Over two days, from December 21 to 23, eighty-two British flagged sailing vessels were wrecked or foundered. In 1905, nearly 5 percent of all British ships were lost: 501 vessels (p. 85).

The sea is scary, and all who sail her had cause to be scared. And it didn’t start with Magellan or Sir Francis Drake: The very word for "sea" in Hebrew comes from the name of the evil god in the Babylonian creation story. So there, encoded in our spiritual DNA is a healthy misapprehension of the sea, a scary place where little good can happen.

There is little surprise then, when the reaction of the disciples goes from fear to anger: “He was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Apparently this is also the moment that the disciples invented sarcasm, something teenagers have been grateful ever since. The twelve find themselves confronted by their deepest fear, far from shore, in a frail craft with 13 onboard.

It helped, at this moment in the story, that Jesus had a unique relationship to the physical world. Scripture reminds us again and again that the normal limitations placed on you and me were not placed on the carpenter from Nazareth. He healed the sick and raised the dead and stilled the sea and multiplied the fish and walked the water and saved the wedding when only water remained. He was not bound by the laws of physics or time, and he had no countenance with the normal limitations of human life. Even death was not death to him, and he remains the head of this church because he had no time for what we call space and time.

Then why the fear and anger? The disciples were increasingly aware of the strange power their Master possessed, and yet they felt only fear. They knew the sea was no match for the power of the Most High, and yet they expected the worst. It seems even faith is no match for the folk wisdom of men in boats.

But there may be more here: more than superstition and a healthy fear of the sea. It may be that they were coming to expect saving, that they were ready for an intervention before they woke Jesus and demanded action. Perhaps the sarcasm was impatience: impatience that things had progressed to gale force and could get more dangerous before Jesus finished his nap.

They would not be the last to make the mistake that having a relationship with Jesus Christ will somehow protect you from harm. They would not be the last to assume that being ‘saved’ meant being saved from physical harm and instead of being saved from meaninglessness and despair.

In time the great thinkers of the church took up this question and formulated an elegant response, this one from Julian of Norwich:

He did not say,
‘You shall not be tempest-tossed,
You shall not be weary,
You shall not be discomforted.’
But he did say, ‘You shall not be overcome."

Faith does not save us from trials or temptations, and we know there is trouble everywhere: our job is to never get discouraged, knowing that Jesus is both companion and guide, true north and the brightest star. Our job is to accept that storms will come and try to be brave: brave knowing that we have each other on this journey and we have a Savior-Pilot who knows these seas.


Lake Simcoe, like the Sea of Galilee, is a round shallow lake that is given to sudden storms and treacherous conditions. My mother loves to tell people that when I was two or three and things got rough up top I would quickly retreat and most often be found hiding in the bathroom (“in the head” she would say, being very nautical). It seems I was destined to preach this sermon, well acquainted as I am with rough seas. Even a morning cruise on the Sea of Galilee, early in 1996, was cut short because a sudden storm forced us back to shore.

I continue to blog for and last week I wrote about the “elephant in the room” at Toronto Conference. There, we gathered 500 of the best and brightest in the church and said not a word about the true state of the church. We debated banning Israeli academics from visiting Canada, we debated whether we could debate a garbage dump in Tiny Township, but we didn’t debate the state of the church. The closest United Church to my house has 14 members and gets most of its revenue from a dance studio, but we didn’t make time to debate the state of the church.

So it’s one thing for the foolish disciples to cry out in the face of the storm, but we pretend there’s no storm at all. Julian says we’ll be tempest-tossed and we debate debating Tiny Township. Don’t get me wrong, I’m opposed to garbage dumped in the middle of the purest water in Ontario, but when it comes to the acknowledging the state of the United Church in Toronto, we’re sitting on the toilet down below. I don’t know this neck of the woods well enough yet to know, but I can tell you that on a really good Sunday in Scarborough, about one-half of one percent of the population is in a United Church. Surely in a city of 500,000 our message should resonate with more than 2,000 people.

It’s bad luck to pretend there is no storm at all. Add that to the list.

Next year, next church year, we’re going to put on our foul weather gear and PFD’s and head out into the storm. We’re going to acknowledge that storms are a part of life, and we’re going to skillfully navigate through the wind and sea. We’re going to trim and tack until we’re certain we’re sailing toward the mark, and then check our sails again. We’re going to sea with Jesus the Christ, confident that we shall not be overcome.

I want to give the last word to an old Hebridean saying, from a people well versed in the way of the sea:

"Round our skiff be God’s aboutness, ere she try the deeps of sea, sea-shell frail for all her stoutness, unless Thou her Helmsman be.”

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Trinity Sunday

Romans 8
12 So then, brothers and sisters,* we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

We traveled 950 years through time on Tuesday and we didn’t even break a sweat. The intrepid little group that is studying the history of the Christian church made it through the longest and most comprehensive evening without complaint, and gave every indication that they’re coming back.

Now, I never promised a chronologically balanced study. It would be tempting to divide 2000 years evenly, but it wouldn’t work: too little to say about 500 to 1000 (not much to see in the Dark Ages) and far too much to say in the last 500 years. It appears that human history unfolds in fits and starts, with long periods of ho hum followed by lots of drama.

The second evening, the 950-year odyssey from 400 to 1350 could best be described as the era where we learned a great deal and then forgot everything we learned. Important religious ideas emerged from the chaos of the early church period and the church promptly failed to live up to the promise found in these ideas. The church came to resemble the surrounding culture in a way that continues to inform how others perceive us.

The purpose of our study, and I hope all study of the history of Christianity, is to see the ways in which we have evolved beyond the past and also to point out the dangers of allowing the past to recur. Allowing American missionaries to follow the army into Iraq, as an example, demonstrates a profound ignorance of church history, and reckless disregard for the faith of others. Suddenly the bumper sticker that reads, “Please Jesus, save us from your followers” makes a lot of sense.

So why has the church has become such a tough sell in our society: one reason is clearly the sins of the past. Other reasons might include the false contest between science and religion, ambivalence toward institutions generally, another false contest between spirituality and religion and many other reasons. However you frame it, we need some better PR, or a makeover, or a reboot if we’re going to continue in a form that resembles today. The next 500 years is looking a little murky, but so is the next 50, and the next 5 for that matter.

One of the things we learned in the period of learning (before the period of forgetting) was the nature of God as revealed in scripture. Church fathers and mothers combed the Bible looking for clues as to how to understand their risen Lord. Where did Jesus fit into the vast tradition? How does he relate to God, truly? How is the church maintained, and how does the church continue to be a vessel for the truth we hold? Important questions, and questions that resemble the ones we ask today.

When we cry, ‘Abba!* Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness* with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

So here is Paul getting a head start on the debate that will continue for more than a few decades. Here Paul is trying to understand how Jesus’ own prayer reveals what we need to know about the realm we cannot see, the realm we struggle to comprehend.

First, to paraphrase: When we pray, as Jesus did, to God as a heavenly parent, we bear witness to the reality that we are God’s children. Praying together, the Spirit reveals that we are heirs to all that God has made and all that God has done. And when we pray, as Jesus did, to God as heavenly parent, we become siblings with Christ, heirs together of the great love that God shows us.

Praying Abba, we are God’s children.
Praying with Christ, he is our brother.
Praying together, we have the Spirit.

The earliest among us searched the tradition and found a way to understand God hiding in plain sight. They read and reflected and found a model for the divine that frames our fellowship and allows us to see the unseen and know the unknowable. They found in Paul and in the words of Jesus the kernel of doctrine that we call the Trinity.

Now there I did it, I dropped the “d” word, and the place didn’t fall in. We don’t preach doctrine much anymore, sad to say. Back in the day, in our Presbyterian tradition at least, the Sunday evening service (most churches had one) was the service dedicated to preaching doctrine. The Westminster Shorter Catechism had 107 questions, so there is 107 Sunday nights right there. I wonder why the Sunday evening service ended?

We don’t preach it for the same reason schools in Ontario stopped teaching grammar in the 1970’s: too boring, the people in charge thought. They’ll pick it up anyhow, they argued, so why bother to trouble the kiddies with teaching the stuff. Thank goodness I went to Queen’s, where mandatory Hebrew and Greek meant I finally learned the grammar I didn’t learn in the third grade.

So we’re going to talk Trinity, because doctrine is nothing to be scared of, and because informed Christians are better Christians, better able to take their faith into the world and do the important things we were created to do.

So we begin at the beginning: all of life is loss. It has always been so, with each day a little death, and every experience drawing to a close and becoming something new. The idea that all of life is loss should not come as a shock to you, because for all of you the growth and development you have experienced is also always loss. You were small, and now you’re not. Somewhere, in that transition, there was and is loss.

We accept the smaller losses and we struggle to accept the larger losses. We lose the things that matter most from time to time and we are often consumed by sadness and anger, and we direct that anger to the most logical places we can. The illness had a cause and the accident had a cause and the malice had a cause and we look for reasons why. But the biggest loss, the loss of our own life is the one we struggle with all our life, and the only place that seems appropriate to put that anger is on God.

So from the beginning of time, to this moment, we’re kind of mad at God and the world God made. We love our lives, the things we have and the people we love, and one day all of this will be dust. If you’re not mad about this you should be, and it’s okay to let God know because God is big and can handle it.

This anger toward God is not new. It has been a human theme as long as there have been humans, and therefore we know that at one unique moment in time God appeared in our midst and we took the chance to act. We took all that bottled up anger and resentment, all that accumulated loss and sadness and we set upon God and did the only thing that seemed appropriate at the time: we nailed God to a tree. We killed God, and in killing God we tried to end the loss that we lived with from the beginning of time.

Ironically, we succeeded. Jesus’ death on the cross meant an end to death, and an end to loss insofar as the narrow way we viewed reality came to an end. It took the death of Jesus to allow God to fully enter our experience, to know the loss we know and become fully a student of the human way. Unless God died on that cross, there is not intersection between God and us, and no communion that allows us to see God’s willingness to die.