Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ 2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’* 3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’ 4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’ 5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ 6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’

Coming to a theatre near you:

Born of a god but raised as a man, Perseus is helpless to save his family from Hades, vengeful god of the underworld. With nothing left to lose, Perseus volunteers to lead a dangerous mission to defeat Hades before he can seize power from Zeus and unleash hell on earth.

The first question is ‘can you improve on the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans?’ Really, can you outdo Sir Laurence Olivier as Zeus or Ursula Andress as Aphrodite? Sure, I look forward to seeing Ralph Fiennes/Lord Voldemort play Hades, but can all the 3-D in the world replace Burgess Meredith as the poet Ammon. Replace the Penquin? Can’t be done.

I have to say I like the Greeks. And I’m not talking about my friends on the Danforth, though I like them too. I’m talking about the mythmakers, the writers and poets that gave us the Greek pantheon and a way to frustrate children in Grade 9 ever since. I’m not even sure they teach this stuff anymore, but I have to say that meeting Zeus and Company added a lot to the beginning of high school.

Not only do the Greeks know how to construct a good story, but they never settle for subtlety. Icarus, Sisyphus and Prometheus all suffer (falling, pushing, the liver thing) for various wrongs (hubris, trickery, theft) and could never be accused of understatement. There is nothing quite like a giant eagle and the liver thing to scare any Grade 9 student from stealing fire from the gods.

The God of the Hebrews is generally more subtle. Sure there are a few dramatic moments and a few divine outbursts, but by in large, God interacts with humans in a quieter and gentler fashion. Most often these interactions come in the form of a conversation, or a dream, or a stranger. And most often, a complete understanding of the interaction comes only in hindsight. Our passage from Genesis 15 is a case-in-point: Appearing in a vision, God restates the covenant, hears a concern, and then reassures Abraham with a look to the stars. There are no giant eagles and no livers are damaged.

Going further into the Hebrew understanding of how God and humanity interact, the claim is made that anytime someone encounters God and describes the encounter, they become a prophet. A look at the “prophet” page on Wikipedia will yield a list of most of the main characters in the Bible, and not the limited list we generally regard as prophets. This expanded list, and expanded understanding, means that the prophet Abraham (first called Abram) will have a series of conversations with God, some fruitful and some frustrating. It means that the prophets Abraham and Sarah will pursue a long journey from promise to fulfillment, will encounter doubt and adversity, and will end life as founders of a great nation and no less than three of the world’s great religions. Not bad for a couple of herders from Ur.

Throughout the extended story of these two, we begin to see that the path from covenant to ‘great nation’ is a convoluted one. On two occasions, Abraham must lie and suggest that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife. He argues with God to save a city, he makes a false start with his handmaiden, he tries to sacrifice his son Isaac. There is a continuous movement back and forth from travail to renewed promise, and very late in life comes to see God’s promise fulfilled.


One of the great Jewish scholars of the last century was Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Dr. Heschel’s life was remarkable: escaped from Nazi Germany, represented American Jews at the Second Vatican Council, and marched with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. Later he said, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Rabbi Heschel devoted much of academic career to the topic of prophecy, and the extent to which we can encounter God. He insisted that God is continually “turning toward humanity,” seeking a relationship with us and feeling what we feel. He wrote on spirituality and philosophy, and always grounded these in the reality of human suffering. In his book The Prophets he wrote these words:

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man.

It is one such crossing point that we encounter as we journey thought Lent. Like Abraham and Sarah, the journey we follow may be circuitous, it may have highs and lows, but it is the journey that God would have us take. It is a moment when we become prophets, giving voice to the pain and the peril we see, and speaking for God in the midst of it.


Lent, of course, has but one direction. The Gospel reading this morning is a second half of any discussion on prophets. In spite of our commission to speak for God, we mostly remain unprepared to find our inner prophet or hear the prophetic voice of others. Jesus said:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

There is a progression here, a development within the prophetic tradition that begins with covenant-making and ends in Jerusalem. Abraham and Sarah are prophets, insofar as they report their conversations with God the manifold promises God makes. God is looking for loyalty, and this first family follows.

Later, with the gift of the Law, God asks for obedience, and makes a similar set of promises in return. Soon we fail, and “the voice that God has lent to the silent agony” is heard, in prophets major and minor, and in the ordinary believer who understands that we often live contrary to God’s desire. Then Jesus laments, speaking over the so-called “holy city,” that claims God as her own but brings violence to those who speak for God.

Then Jesus walks. He understands the progression from conversation to understanding to speaking out and to violence, but still he walks. He walks up to Jerusalem and into her gates knowing full well what happens to prophets. He walks though temple and garden and palace and the message is the same: God hears the cries of the voiceless and is willing to surrender everything for their sake. God is still making a path for salvation in spite of human failing, and God still has a “crossing point” where the divine voice will be heard.

As we journey to that place, may God bless us, and speak to us, each day. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Don’t you miss the Cold War just a little?

Friday night was lovely and all, nation after nation entering BC Place to the stirring sounds of a First Nations welcome, but something was different. Flag after flag was paraded into the crowded space, with the excitement of young athletes ready to amaze, but something was off. A vast array of nations came, some familiar, some I’m unable to place on a map, but where was the theme of my youth, where was the ideological struggle?

Sure, the games have always been pitched as peaceful competition, a source of hope for a world too often given to strife. But the real competition, the one that didn’t have a tally in the official medal count, was Us versus Them.

In those days, the parade of nations had tension, as the Soviet Union and East Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc entered and we fought down the urge to hiss. A few chemically altered young people entered the stadium, but what we saw was a group of dastardly villains, ready to tie a damsel to the tracks, fully aware that the express was on it’s way.

Yes, you might argue, we still have North Korea and China. I suppose, but the first has become a caricature of a caricature and the other is the nation that everyone is stumbling over to please, which is hardly the stuff of a good rivalry. Maybe the games have become about peaceful competition between nations after all, which sounds a tad dull, but better than what’s normally on the television.

Somehow the world changed. One day it was the Soviets, then the Commonwealth of Independent States (that was weird) and now the Russian Federation. Nations that longed for liberation parade on their own now, and we struggle to remember that Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were once captive nations. The world changed and we seem to quickly forget the great transformation that occurred, the great events that may define our time.

Maybe it’s the lack of an obvious moment, or maybe it’s the long shadow of 9-11, but for whatever reason we tend to forget the end of the Cold War, and the great transformation that occurred. Hinge moments are sometimes hard to identify, or only later become obvious, or take time to comprehend. This is not a new phenomenon:

30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Bathed in light, a new reality appeared. Ignore the fact that Peter and company miss the point of this experience. They will have time to catch up. Bathed in light, we the reader know that this is a significant turning point in the story of Jesus. This is a “mountaintop experience” that will inform most of the rest of the earthly ministry of Jesus as he “sets his face” Jerusalem.

Yet how are we to understand this event? What did the disciples see that day and how can we avoid the trap they fell in, which is to stop too long. In their desire to erect monuments they saw an endpoint, a conclusion, when in fact it was just a sign. It was a sign and a waypoint that led up another mount, to the Holy City and the cross.

The clue to understanding this passage is cleverly hidden in the unfolding conversation. In verse 31 we read that Moses, Elijah and Jesus “were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Now, for Peter, James and John, only recently introduced to the idea of Jesus’ death, this would have made little sense. They would not have twinned the idea of a violent death with an “accomplishment” in Jerusalem. They were confused. We, however, have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, and know where this is headed.

But the is more: hidden is the Greek original is another clue as what is really happening here. The words “speaking of his departure” translate literally “speaking of his exodus.” Jesus is having a conversation with Moses on the mountaintop, and Luke says they were speaking of Jesus’ “exodus.” No wonder the translators replaced “exodus” with “departure,” because we’re stacking symbol upon symbol here, and I suppose they were trying to keep it simple.

Translated properly, however, we’re speaking about something much larger than a departure, we are speaking about an exodus: and that means we’re speaking about liberation, freedom from bondage, and the powerful activity of God in human history. Not bad for adding a single word through mistranslation.

So transfiguration is much more than simply being overwhelmed by light and receiving a blessing. It is more than a rest before the journey to Jerusalem begins. These words belong to Walter Wink:

Transfiguration is living by vision: standing foursquare in the midst of the broken, tortured, oppressed, starving, dehumanizing reality, yet seeing the invisible, calling it to come, behaving as if it is on the way, sustained by elements that have come already, within and among us.

In other words, it is standing near cross. As we prepare to enter the season of Lent, we are asked to prepare for Holy Week: prepare for Last Supper, betrayal, death, waiting, Resurrection and glory. It is a journey we make, pausing for each station and reflecting on the meaning for our lives. At this moment we are begin stretched to look backward and forward and make a connection between suffering and liberation.

The light of transfiguration shines on the suffering in this world, as it shone on the suffering of the Israelites long ago. The people were enslaved, and cried out to God to release them from their plight. The moment Moses understood he could help God to free his people there was transfiguration. When Moses understood that he could speak to power and work to defeat Pharaoh, there was transfiguration. And when people dropped their tools and began walking east there was transfiguration. Freedom was not immediate—there were many trials ahead—but the people were transformed and ready for what lay ahead. From Walter Wink:

In those moments when people are healed, transformed, freed from addictions, obsessions, destructiveness…or when groups or communities or even, rarely, whole nations glimpse the light of the transcendent in their midst, there the New Creation has come upon us. The world for one brief moment is transfigured. The beyond shines in our midst—on the way to the cross.

This week, I was alarmed to learn that twenty years have passed since the release of Nelson Mandela. Twenty years since the seemingly impossible became possible, and his quarter-century incarceration came to an end. Twenty years since the beginning of the end for white minority rule in South Africa and twenty years since the beginning of a series of remarkable events that culminated in a prisoner becoming president.

Like the fall of the Iron Curtain, too little time has passed for us to fully appreciate the scope of what happened. It will take another generation or two for people to see the modern Moses that walked away from Robbins Island that day. It was a transcendent moment—a transfiguration—that was soon overshadowed by the reality of everyday living.

What we are left with, I think, is local transfigurations to be recognized and marked. Nations rise and fall, but the local reality of struggle and liberation is ongoing. The important moments in history may not seem obvious, but the reality of poverty and oppression in the neighbourhood, doesn’t require the perspective of history to see.

And this is the local meaning of transfiguration: that a light is shining on the need for liberation, that the Christ-light of that day long ago continues to shine on everyone in need. All we need are the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Transfiguration is Exodus, the desire to walk away from Pharaoh and into the wonderful uncertainty of freedom.

Thanks be to God, amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 5
Once while Jesus* was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, 2he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. 3He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. 4When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.’ 5Simon answered, ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ 6When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. 7So they signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. 8But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’ 9For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; 10and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’ 11When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

It’s not always obvious how news becomes news. Sure the technical aspects of news gathering are obvious: journalist ‘discovers’ story, journalist pitches story and story is shared. Simple enough. But lately it’s a little more complex. A guy takes a photo of a sleeping TTC employee, the photo goes ‘viral’ (meaning all over the internet, email, blogs, etc.) and the media can’t ignore the story. It has a life of it’s own. Same with the TTC banking machine story and the TTC bathroom-break-at-three-in-the-morning story, although that one is a little more tricky. Was the TTC bathroom-break-at-three-in-the-morning story news for news sake, or because the media wanted to keep the TTC under scrutiny, and this was the vehicle (no pun intended).

Either way, there seems to be a sense that if something goes viral it is news. Or maybe it not that simple. A Facebook group formed this week with the provocative name (really a question) “Can this Onion Ring get more [Facebook] fans than Stephen Harper?” Apparently, the answer is yes. Stephen Harper has just over 30,000 fans, and that tasty looking onion ring? 106,258 as of 7 am this morning. Isn’t this news? Clearly the people have spoken. Maybe the onion ring has spoken too. But where is the extensive media coverage? Bob Stanfield fumbled the football, Joe Clark lost his luggage, Gille Duceppe wore a hairnet, and all of these stories led the news. But the onion ring gets no respect.

This past week the CBC “broke” the story of suspended drivers continuing to drive. I’m going to say more about this later, but first, how did something that has been obvious for years become news? Was it the fact that a camera followed these people from the courtroom to the car and then filmed them driving off? Was it simply a slow news day? Numerous people have been injured or worse by drivers ignoring a license suspension, but suddenly it becomes a story, seemingly based on an editorial decision to make it news. Suddenly the integrity of the news becomes a question-mark, when news is news because we are told it is news.

The news this morning in the Galilee Post reads something like this: Itinerant Preacher Disrupts Local Fishing Industry. Late yesterday, a local teacher talked his way onto an idle fishing boat and spoke to the crowd. Moments later, and for no obvious reason, the teacher insisted the nets be lowered. Despite the recent downturn in the catch, and in the face of some protest by the boat’s owner, a man named Simon, the nets were lowered and the result was a record catch. In the midst of this sudden reversal, Mr. Simon seemed to fall to his knees and say something about his inadequacy as a fisherman. This statement was confirmed back on shore, as Mr. Simon and all his companions left their record catch and walked off with the teacher. There was initial concern from wharf officials about fish being left to rot, but the growing crowd soon helped themselves. Local people are already calling it the “miracle of the tidy wharf.”

The media gets it wrong again. Or did they? We give this story the headline “Jesus calls the first disciples,” despite of the details of the story. Maybe it should be “Jesus and the record catch” or “Jesus and the final catch” or “Simon is a sinful man.” Now, news is always a matter of emphasis, and in the case of my last example, Simon’s confession is seldom the story. We make it an aside, an honest response to the power of God, but rarely the point of the story.

The lectionary makers, the men and women who assembled our three-year cycle of readings, seem to lean in the direction to Simon’s confession. Why else would they twin it with the call of Isaiah: with winged seraphim, a nearly verbatim confession, and a burning coal to the lips of the prophet. "Woe is me!” Isaiah said, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" The link may seem to be his call, or the beginning of a unique ministry, or it may simply be a confession in the face of the Living God.

“I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips” and “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” seem to have the same essence in the face of God’s power, and maybe the only word that fits here is fear. They seem afraid that their inadequacy has been revealed, they are unmasked in the face of God, that there is no way for them to hide or deny who they are. So they cry out: “Woe is me!” and “Go away from me,” because the reality of human failure is too large a contrast to the glory and the power of God. And this is not a new theme:

"The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love"(147:11).
"The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever"(19:9).
"As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him"(103:13).

And a final one, a small poem that says far more than four short lines: (Psalm 86:11)

Teach me your way, O LORD,
and I will walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart,
that I may fear your name.

It seems that fearing God has fallen out of fashion, that somehow being a God-fearing person is scary or crazy or belongs to Sarah Palin. But read in a poem, like Psalm 86, it is really a form of awe, a kind of reverence that is sadly missing in much of our contemporary experience. Do we really approach anything with reverence? Are we too smart or too clever to hold anything in awe anymore?

Maybe this is why the cult of children is growing, where the little ones are coddled and spoiled and run amok, because they are the last place where we place a sincere form of awe. It seems to be the last place people can gush and be effusive without feeling self-conscious. And the last place you can gush without the danger of a counter-argument. I know you’re tempted to say to new parents “you know she’ll cost you a quarter million before you’re done” but I wouldn’t. We fear the new parents like they fear (and feel awe) for the mystery of birth.

So we’re too clever for awe and God-fearing is for Tea Partiers, so what about good old-fashioned respect? I’m not so sure about respect either. Imagine we create a elaborate system of testing and licensing, enforcement and demerit points, courts and penalties, and 200,000 suspended drivers just keep driving. Ontario is not a big place, and among a handful of millions of drivers, 200,000 simply choose to ignore the entire system of justice and drive anyway?

I kept turning the number over and over in my mind this week, and looking twice at some of the lunatics on the road. The question “how did they get a license?” may no longer apply to the idiot who just cut me off, because there is a good chance they don’t have one, or had one and it is now suspended.

As I calm down, there is a mental tendency (some might say defect) known as “exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism is the abiding belief that the normal rules don’t apply to you. The guy who walks past the line-up and says “I’m in a hurry” is likely suffering from exceptionalism. Earl Jones, Bernie Madoff and everyone who lied to their shareholders before the big meltdown suffers from exceptionalism: because they acted like the normal rules do not apply to them.

But 200,000 people? There this more here than simple exceptionalism, because I like to believe it is still somewhat rare. 200,000 illegal drivers sounds like garden variety sinfulness to me. I don’t think it’s a syndrome or a mental defect, rather, I think that every one of us is a potential suspended driver, or a cheat, or a fudger, or a teller of tiny lies, or a self-deceiver, or someone quick to judge, or unable to see our own faults as quickly and we see the faults of others. In other words, a sinner. We are sinners, in need of redemption. There, I said it, in a United Church no less, and the walls didn’t fall down.

Maybe I’ve told you the story of my dear friend Jimmy and the end of every funeral service. There is a commendation that goes something like this: A sheep of your fold, a lamb of your flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” So Jimmy says, “hey man, we don’t say sinner anymore, we say friend of your own redeeming.” (We still talk like it’s the 70’s). Well, hey man, I still say sinner because at the end of life the balance sheet is always mixed, and people need to know that sins are forgiven and sinners are redeemed.

So, I’m making a case for fear, meaning fear as reverence or fear as respect. I’m making a case for fear of God as the basis for an entire way of life, an entire system where fear and reverence mean people will obey the law when the state takes away their license to drive, but be willing to break the law when the law oppresses people and causes them. I’m making a case for the God who sent a son to teach us and lead us, a son who said he did not come to end the law but to fulfill it. But then he broke it: he healed on the Sabbath and gathered food on the Sabbath because he knew being sick and hungry on the Sabbath was an offence to God. He feared God, feared in the sense that he knew what offended God and would never do anything to offend the Father he loved so much.

May we be strengthened to love and fear God, to make the right choices and set aside sin in our lives, and may we live daily with Christ at our side, willing to follow in his way. Amen.