Sunday, June 20, 2010

Proper 7

Luke 8
26They sailed to the region of the Gerasenes,[a] which is across the lake from Galilee. 27When Jesus stepped ashore, he was met by a demon-possessed man from the town. For a long time this man had not worn clothes or lived in a house, but had lived in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he cried out and fell at his feet, shouting at the top of his voice, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, don't torture me!" 29For Jesus had commanded the evil[b] spirit to come out of the man. Many times it had seized him, and though he was chained hand and foot and kept under guard, he had broken his chains and had been driven by the demon into solitary places.

30Jesus asked him, "What is your name?"

"Legion," he replied, because many demons had gone into him. 31And they begged him repeatedly not to order them to go into the Abyss.

32A large herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside. The demons begged Jesus to let them go into them, and he gave them permission. 33When the demons came out of the man, they went into the pigs, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34When those tending the pigs saw what had happened, they ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, 35and the people went out to see what had happened. When they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone out, sitting at Jesus' feet, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told the people how the demon-possessed man had been cured. 37Then all the people of the region of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them, because they were overcome with fear. So he got into the boat and left.

38The man from whom the demons had gone out begged to go with him, but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39"Return home and tell how much God has done for you." So the man went away and told all over town how much Jesus had done for him.

Teenagers are either aliens from another planet or the only modern example of demon possession.

Okay, teenagers are an easy target: one day you have kids and everything is fun and nice and the next day this strange creature is in your house, eating your food, and occupying your child’s room.

If they are aliens, their planet is far away. Sleeping all the time can only indicate traveling many light years to reach our world. Or maybe it’s coming from some alien time zone, if aliens even have time zones.

If it’s demon possession, you might get the occasional glimpse of the actual child, because even demons need a break now and then. Demon union rules. Maybe there will be a candid moment when the child says “I don’t know what got into me,” and your search for the truth is getting closer. Or maybe they will do a Flip Wilson (without knowing who Flip Wilson is) and finally tip their hand by saying, “the devil made me do it.” You have all the proof you need.

But then they grow up, and you wonder if you imagined the whole thing.


I’m never quite sure what to do with demons in scripture.

It’s tough to know what to say. It’s tough to preach something that has moved from the spiritual realm to the scientific realm, never to return. Nowadays we have Wikipedia, and a quick look at the entry for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (standard reference of the American Psychiatric Association) led to a page on ‘psychosis’ which led in turn to a page on ‘hallucinations’ which led to this definition:

Hallucinations may [include]…more meaningful experiences such as seeing and interacting with fully formed animals and people, hearing voices, and having complex tactile sensations.

30 seconds, no medical degree, and I’ve diagnosed the Gerasene demoniac.

Which brings us a measure to comfort. It brings us a measure of comfort to take everything that hints at Jesus’ unusual relationship to the natural world and set it aside. It moves into the category of archaic belief, along with the ‘flat earth theory’ and the quest for alchemy.

And this is progress, I suppose, but the kind of progress that makes me feel a little sad, and the text a little diminished. It not that I want to return to a flat earth, or ascribe to God the things that we now know properly belong to us. It just seems a little sad.

We are left with other options. We could go with allegory instead, imagining that the passage has symbolic meaning—if we can find it. Maybe the demon possession represents the human condition, or some kind of profound loneliness. Maybe the demons represent some long neglected need that is seeking to get out and be heard. Or maybe not.

We could go with Karl Marx and an economic interpretation: the demoniac is actually a ‘wage slave’ alienated from meaningful work, and maybe the loss of all those pigs represents Jesus triumph over the ‘owners of the means of production.’ Or maybe not.

We could look at an inter-religious angle, with Jesus’ journey into Gentile territory ending in a mixed way. Targeting the pigs, and allowing them to drown, reminds us that Jesus was Jewish and carried his Jewish assumptions with him on this early mission trip. It would take a few decades of negotiation before any sort of compromise comes regarding unclean things and the early church.

There may more ways, but none of the above seem to capture the passage and allow it to speak.


Speaking of teenagers, you may have discovered the one effective way to break through the alien/demon mystery and truly understand your child: and that is through conversation. It might sound a little sneaky, but I have discovered that if you talk to them long enough, they let things slip. A word here, a tone there, a bit of information divulged even before they know they’ve said it. Sometimes it’s just in the topics they bring up, and the kinds of things they are thinking about, that give you a window on their alien/demon world.

So too in scripture. Jesus loved to have extended conversations. And we are blessed with several of these recorded in scripture: the woman at the well, with the adversary in the desert, and here with the Gerasene. In each case, the conversation reveals much about the life of the person before Jesus, the nature of Jesus ministry, and the needs of those looking in.

The first and most startling is the question of Jesus’ identity. The demoniac recoils in terrors and says “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” How is it that the disciples struggle to understand Jesus, the crowds struggle to understand Jesus, but the demons get it. Here are a couple more:

Mark 1.24b: “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!"
Mark 3.11: Whenever the evil spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, "You are the Son of God."

However you conceptualize the demons, whether they are allegory or symbol or motif, they understand Jesus as a mortal threat, the very opposite of whatever purpose they have in the world.

The next conversational lesson speaks to compassion. Confronted by demon voices, Jesus begins with the question, “What is your name?” Only Jesus would undertake this mission of casting out demons and try to get to know them. Luke says, “The demons begged Jesus to let them enter [the swine], so he gave them permission.” Again, to the demons Jesus is a mortal threat, but to Jesus, the demons deserve some understanding, some compassion, and even the opportunity to perish as pigs rather than return to the abyss.

The final part of the conversation, the ‘next steps’ part of the conversation, follows the very understandable desire to stay with Jesus. The new former demoniac wants to join the growing crowd of disciples and followers, leave this place, and begin a new life. But Jesus has another purpose in mind for him: “Return to your home,” Jesus says, “and declare how much God has done for you.”

There is a little twinge of the unfair feeling here, the culmination of dramatic encounter that would seem to logically end in setting aside whatever life he had to follow Jesus. To the Garasenes, this man was a terrible nuisance, escaping his chains and having to be captured again and again. It stands to reason that would want to make a new life.

But God has another plan for the former demoniac. This man’s very existence is a testimony to the things God is doing through Jesus, and ‘taking him on the road’ would make him little more than a footnote in the annals of a healing ministry. He could follow from town to town, telling people that he was formerly possessed, and some may even believe it. But back home, in the very region where he was tormented, his life becomes an ongoing message.

And here is where the conversation continues. Most of us, and I hope all of us, can name things God has done in our lives, and things God is doing each day. The Spirit moves among us and reminds us of all the things God has done to create this community of faith, to strengthen our life together, to give us comfort and hope. But we don’t take it on the road. We remain here, in this town, to declare to the people of Weston what God has done for us.

God invites us to make our lives an extended conversation: to pray and praise God, to talk with Jesus each day, and give voice to the Spirit of hope and compassion, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Proper 6

Luke 7
40Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you."
"Tell me, teacher," he said.
41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[a] and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?"
43Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled."
"You have judged correctly," Jesus said.
44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little."

People who can barely drive
People who fail to poop and scoop
People who yell at their kids in the supermarket
People who pollute
People who pollute and ride in corporate jets
People dumb enough to make a fake lake
People who judge others
(Wait, that last one is me)

The reading this morning is one of those busy, multi-layered passages that tries to do a lot. Luke has a knack for complex structure: a setting, some players, a tension, a short parable, some interpretation, and a conclusion. For those of us who enjoy our scripture in tiny, bite-sized pieces, this mornings passage poses a bit of a challenge.

Preachers who complain about preaching.

There’s another for the list. But I’m not complaining, so much as “highlighting” the unique struggle of the contemporary preacher to bring the Word in these complex, post-modern times. To cut through the din of ten thousand vuvuzela to make oneself heard.

People who blow the vuvuzela
People who only follow sports during international events
People who don’t cheer for my teams, which are in order of DNA, Holland, England, and Ghana. Okay, so I have no real Ghanaian DNA, only loyalty to my friends.

Judgement, it seems, has a strange circular element to it. The moment we start judging, we inevitable end up looking at ourselves. “Judge not,” Jesus said, “that ye be not judged.” (Mt 7.1) Notice the ‘ye’ makes it sound more convincing, something moralists have long known.


The reading is all about judging, some hidden and some not so hidden. We’ll go from obvious to less obvious.

Everyone is judging this poor woman, over-wrought, making a display of her devotion, wasting ointment (again), and (one would assume) making the teacher uncomfortable.

Everyone is thinking what Simon the Pharisee is thinking, that if Jesus had any idea who was touching him at this moment, he would make her stop. Surely his prophetic powers extend to detecting the common sinner.

Now everyone is thinking “finally, an explanation.” Jesus will make us see what on earth he’s doing. "Simon,” Jesus says, “I have something to say to you."

"Teacher," Simon replied, "Speak."

The parable is a classic. It involves money, it involves people entrusted with money that fail to live up to their responsibility, and it involves forgiveness. But the classic element is the emotional journey we take as we listen in:

Two people owe a debt to a moneylender: The first owes a year-and-a-half salary and another a couple of months. (Significant amounts, we think, even for the second guy)

The debts are forgiven (who is this moneylender, and what was he thinking, that’s very generous!)

Which one will love the moneylender more? (the answer is obvious)

Simon says, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled."

Remember the pattern of parables, the pattern that makes them work. The parable creates a world, which then sours, and then creates a new world, most often shining with the light the Kingdom.

Simon understands that he is the lesser debtor. Whatever sins he has managed are minor. He is a member of a religious party, and leading citizen, someone adept at following the Law. Even if he’s a not-so-nice guy, he would still imagine himself as good, and therefore the lesser debtor.

Simon knows (without even being told) that human nature is such that he loves less because he has been forgiven less. He can’t summon the extravagant display of gratitude even though he knew that his sins (whether great or little) were forgiven too. And notice that he doesn’t object to the forgiving, as the others do, only the scale of sin Jesus chooses to forgive.

But there is more: an entire other layer of judging, this time judging us. The clue is in the first line of the passage: “One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table.”

Immediately there is a little voice inside saying either “no, Jesus, it’s a trap!” or “Jesus, what are you thinking, eating and drinking with a Pharisee?” The judgement begins even before the story begins, because we have been hardwired to read Pharisee and imagine a maiden on the tracks and plenty of mustache fiddling.

But we can read into the text that they are friends. They are on a first name basis, Simon calls him “teacher,” a name of great respect. Jesus takes Simon seriously enough to share a parable, and Jesus is comfortable enough with Simon to offer a gentle rebuke. There is no great confrontation recorded at the end of the passage, only the mumbling of others.

Like a funhouse mirror, the judgment is reflected all over, the cause and the appropriateness is distorted, and we end up looking in the mirror at ourselves. Jesus is a Jew, with religious friends, who often disagree, but care for each other nonetheless. Imagine how the history of Christian-Jewish relations would have unfolded if this were more fully understood.


All this judgement is making me tired, and a little hungry, so I’ll stop now.

For you fans of new country, you might recognize these lines:

God will, but I won’t
God does, but I don’t
And that the difference
Between God and me.

While not noted as a theologian, Lyle Lovett hits the nail on the head. God’s business is forgiveness, and we dabble. God’s primary way of meeting us frail creatures is through forgiving our frailty: and we struggle to keep up. What God says in Jesus is this: you are forgiven, nothing more, nothing less. (Wm. Countryman)

We might be leaving our tears on the dusty feet of the Saviour, or we might be scratching our head like Simon, or we might be in the murmuring crowd, or we might be late for the party. Either way, or whatever way we meet Jesus, the message is the same, then as now: "Your sins are forgiven."

Sunday, June 06, 2010

85th Anniversary Service

John 17
17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.
20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us,* so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

I could tell you my son’s first word, but it would be impolite.

Suffice it to say it rhymes with ‘mitt’ and it remains a mystery how this came about. I was doing a lot of renovating during his formative years, but hammer didn’t fall on thumb often enough to create such a turn of events. You imagine what might make a suitable first word, maybe ‘please’ or ‘thank you,’ or ‘I love you, daddy,’ but never something mildly profane and fecal.

A few years later (Isaac would have been a lad of maybe 7) it was a Sunday and invited the kids to come forward for the children’s moment. Now, I should say it is a mixed blessing to have your own child at the front, among the other children, particularly one intent of making your life a difficult as possible.

On this Sunday I invited the children to think of an early memory, something from the past, maybe even their first memory if they could call it to mind. Isaac didn’t skip a beat: “I don’t know about my first memory,” he said, “but my first word was…”

Do you know that moment when something really bad is about to happen, and you know the kid is going to say something he shouldn’t, and the whole scene unfolds in slow motion as you try to get your hand over the kid’s mouth before he says what you know he is going to say? I was too late.

He wasn't speaking into the microphone, but pew by pew the laughter spread from the front of the church all the way to the back. I hung my head in my hands and thought to myself, “Please Lord, kill me now!”

This, however, is the United Church, so I wasn’t fired for having a boy with a potty mouth or for creating such a badly conceived children’s moment. This is why I love the United Church.


I could describe the planning meeting that led to this service, but it would be impolite. It’s not that we’re potty mouth clergy, although I’m sure the odd impolite word must leave our lips, particularly among the sailors in the group. It’s that whenever ministers gather the conversation tends toward what’s wrong with the church, meaning the United Church of Canada, not the fine churches we all serve.

And so there was an inevitable moment in the conversation when one of my insightful colleagues said ‘what, exactly, are we hoping to celebrate at this anniversary service?’ And a paradox was born. The paradox, or maybe the tension, is how to celebrate the mixed picture that is the church at this moment in history. One of our neighbouring churches will soon close their doors after 50 years of ministry, the national church is planning yet another round of cuts, and our new presbytery can best be described as a confused mess.

So, there is a temptation to simply celebrate the past. For a few days I racked my brain trying to come up with fun-facts that might best highlight our history. I’ll share just two:

In 1930, the Toronto Conference voted to abolish capitalism, denouncing it as a cruel system incompatible with the Gospels. Save that for the next time someone say the United Church is getting too radical.

Also in 1930, Nellie McClung and Louise McKinney, members of the Alberta Legislature, and active members of the United Church, joined with three others to form the Famous Five. These five women took the Canadian government to court to prove that women were ‘persons’ under the law and they won. If you have a $50 bill in your pocket, you can see a picture of Famous Five, along with a quote from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the same quote that appears in a mural downstairs in the Weston King Neighbourhood Centre. If that’s not a sign regarding where that $50 should go, I don’t know what is…

If we had stopped being the United Church as early as 1930, we still would have had a remarkable impact on Canadian life. But we didn’t stop in 1930, we carried on for another eighty years of transformative ministry in the name of Jesus the Christ. We carried on amid the tension and the conflict, through the years when our barns were full and on to the days when our barns seem more that a little thin. We carried on to celebrate new beginnings and comfort through sad endings, to speak for the vulnerable and apologize when we failed to do so. We carried on to take a unique reading of faith and life to the public square and accept both darts and laurels in return. We carried on down to today.

We may be no closer to answering that insightful question, ‘what, exactly, are we hoping to celebrate at this anniversary?’ But I’m certain that the answer, as it most often is, can be found in the Bible. Jesus said, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one: I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.” If there is one thing we can celebrate, it is our continuing life together, our unity, ties that bind us one to another.

You could call John’s Gospel ‘the long goodbye.’ It’s a passion narrative with a lengthy introduction, a books of signs pointing to the sign of the cross. From very near the beginning, the twelve are being prepared for the time to come. Prepared for the time when Jesus would not longer walk among them, interceding for the church and speaking through the Holy Spirit.

And here is the moment the Spirit called to mind: the essential characteristic of the Christian community is unity, the capacity to love one another, forgive one another when we fail, and pray together for these gifts when they seem in short supply. You might say this essential characteristic has been hiding in plain sight: with the word “United” printed outside each and every one of our congregations, we are already marked with the goal.

How curious that we forget. How soon a name simply becomes a name and not a goal, a mission, a purpose for being. When was the last time you heard the church argue for unity among believers? For the first fifty years of our history we loved to call ourselves “United and uniting,” a phrase that has sadly left our denominational conversation.

So we celebrate unity, the unity that drew us to today, the unity that translates to common joys and common struggles, and the unity that links each congregation to the community we serve. And this we celebrate most: that every church, in it’s own unique way, works to maintain a unity between the congregation and the neighbourhood that surrounds it. From shiny towers to farmer’s fields, and everything in between, we try to reflect the gift of glory set upon each of us. We reflect the glory and we see it in the people who come to our door: with needs, and things to share, seeking to add glory to glory.

I could tell you my father’s first word in English, but it would be impolite.

Dad arrived in Canada with a few dollars in his pocket, a good trade, and no English whatsoever. Within a few days he found work, and the guys in the shop set about teaching him all the words he should know to master the English language (and cannot be repeated outside the shop). He took it all in good humour, learned a few more words and met my mom.

Time passed, and these two decided to get married. My mother, a lapsed Baptist from Mount Dennis, and my father, a Dutchman with no faith at all, set out to find a church. It was Rexdale United Church that answered 'yes' to this unlikely couple, married them, and as often happens, never saw them again.

Years later, when I was still a lad, my father had a stroke. We worried that we might lose him, but he slowly recovered. He never lost the ability to read a set of plans, or operate the big machines: the only thing he lost was his ability to speak, something we were assured would come back in time.

I could tell you which words came back first, but it would be impolite.

So we were at home, across the parking lot, listening by intercom to my father work away all day, the constant whirring of the machines and the odd moment of silence. On occasion, Dad would wreck a part, or cut himself, and the low muttering of a word I cannot mention would come over the intercom. Mom would grab her coat, head over to the shop, and care for Dad while my brother and I listened in.

The stroke changed a lot of things, but mostly there was a new look at priorities and the sense that something was missing. Such a life change seemed to open up a sense of longing: that there were larger things in life to be explored beyond hard work and trying to keep a business going. They decided to look for a church.

25 years is a long time to wait, from marriage to that first appearance back in church, but wait they did. And when they made their way to Mount Albert United Church that first day the church was waiting too: waiting to welcome these weary wanderers home, waiting to embrace a very-lapsed Baptist and a Dutchman who struggles at times to make himself understood.

Today we celebrate and we wait. We celebrate our unity, and our desire to be unified with weary wanderers, potty mouth people and the neighbours we have yet to meet. We celebrate and wait, giving God the glory and never losing sight that God has placed longing in every human heart, to bless us and make us one. Amen.