Sunday, September 26, 2010

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 16
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

Based on advice from our lawyers, everything I say today about the existence of Hell may be incorrect, and may result in the preacher spending time in the aforementioned place.

No animals were harmed in the making of this sermon.
Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Professional preacher on closed course: do not try this yourself.
The beverage you will enjoy after church may be extremely hot.

Now that the lawyers are satisfied, I can tell you that today’s sermon is about warnings. Luke is warning everyone who will listen that life is about consequences. The rich man wants a warning sent to his brothers, saving them the torment he endures. And Jesus is warning us that since we already have Moses and the prophets, we might as well read them.

One more warning: While this passage is a parable, and therefore a work of fiction, it nonetheless contains essential truth regarding socio-economics and access to scripture.

Warnings are at the heart of parenting. Don’t touch that, it’s hot. Don’t put you tongue on that, it’s cold. We’re like an almanac of do’s and don’ts, and it never seems to end. There seems to be a shining moment, early in childhood, when children heed warnings. Then you’re just talking to yourself. Over time, the warnings become increasingly vague, like “be careful” or “be good.” These serve mostly as ammunition later, when you get to the “I told you so” phase of child rearing.

So we give warnings, but we have the nagging sense that they will go unheeded. This could be a fine summary of Luke 16.

Jesus has constructed a familiar scenario with a very specific ending. Think of every joke you have ever heard that starts with “standing at the pearly gates, St. Peter says…” In Jesus time there was no St. Peter, only Peter in his pre-saintly state, and so we learn that the convention was pearly gates and Abraham.

Two men die: a rich man (unnamed) and a poor man (Lazarus). Lazarus finds a comfortable reward in the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is across a deep chasm in fiery torment. The rich man calls across the divide to Abraham, seeking some relief. Discovering that this is not possible, the rich man asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” comes the reply, the assumption being that the scriptures provide all the warning anyone will need.

So let’s start there: what warning? What does Moses say, and how specific is it to this story? Maybe the best example is from Deuteronomy 15:

7“But if there are any poor people in your towns when you arrive in the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward them. 8Instead, be generous and lend them whatever they need. 9Do not be mean-spirited and refuse someone a loan because the year of release is close at hand. If you refuse to make the loan and the needy person cries out to the Lord, you will be considered guilty of sin. 10Give freely without begrudging it, and the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do. 11There will always be some among you who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share your resources freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need.

Maybe I should just call for the offering now. Moses would be pleased. Notice how this one, short passage distills a number of teachings about generosity and the poor: refusing to lend is a sin; give freely and the Lord will bless you; the poor will always be with you; sharing your resources with the poor is good and good for you, but it is also a command.

And just in case the reader still doesn’t get it, just in case the case Moses made is not enough to convince, he adds a coda. One day you will release an indentured servant, and give him his freedom:

13 But when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. 14 Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.

This is the biblical equivalent to “I’m you mother, why don’t you call me.” Remember that you were once a slave, you were once helpless, you were once poor, and I freed you from all of that with power and an outstretched arm. As they suffer, you once suffered, so be generous with all the things I have given you.

Maybe I should just call for the offering now. Not quite yet.

The rich man ignored these warnings, warnings that were will known to everyone in the ancient near east. Like today, there was some social security in the land, with laws regarding alms for the poor and setting aside the corners of your fields so that poor gleaners could pass by and be fed. The need to care for the poor was a commonly held assumption, but the rich man stepped over Lazarus on his way out the door.

Now, you could argue that the poor rich man has suffered enough. He is in fiery torment, even if he is only a fictional character. He has suffered in this literary Hell for what seems an eternity, and will continue to suffer as long as this passage is preached. He commits the sin of indifference, neglecting the poor right under his nose. But who am I to judge?

I don’t dress in purple and fine linen, and I don’t feast sumptuously every day, but I have enough, and it’s a rare day that I don’t have a few coins rattling in the bottom of my pocket. When someone asks for a dollar, I seldom refuse, but I don’t like the guy at Lakeshore and Leslie, who goes from to window to window asking for change. And I don’t give to the guy at my local LCBO, I find him too aggressive, though the store manager says he’s harmless. So where does that put me in the life to come?

Luckily, I don’t believe in Hell, in good United Church fashion, although I know the price will be steep if I’m wrong. I did enjoy reading the book “Who in Hell,” essentially an updated version of Dante’s Inferno, with a catalogue of people known to have committed mortal sins and reside in the hot place. They even take a poke at the living, suggesting that some are walking around while their souls are in Hell. Ask me later.

Even the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes that theologians are divided on the location of Hell, and some suggest it may be here on earth. Maybe sitting in traffic on Black Creek Drive. Even Popes disagree. John Paul II said it was less a place and more a state of being, separated from God. Benedict XVI (no surprize) said ‘oh no, it’s real.’ If Popes can’t agree, you have every right to be undecided.

The next time you drive to Sudbury, take note of the signs that warn about moose. Early on, when the lights of Barrie are still behind you, the moose on the sign look placid, almost friendly. Drive on, brave traveler. By the time you hit the French River, the moose look manic, maybe psychopathic. The danger is more than a garden variety “please note,” it is a full on “watch out, we’re not fooling around anymore.”

Reenter the Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus is running out of ways to explain compassion. The disciples are a foolish and self-centered lot, the people come and go, the religious elite are openly hostile. Jesus knows they know all they need to know about caring for the most vulnerable, showing mercy, being generous. But why do they need constant reminding? Why do we need constant reminding? Ultimately, I’m not sure, we just do.

So the story that begins like one more pearly gate story ends with a lesson: A generous God has generously given us ample warning. And the Highway 69 moose look meaner all the time. This is not judgement, this is warning. God is continually erecting one more sighs, one more story, one more sermon: all we need to do is drive with caution, and care for the poor. Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Proper 4

Luke 7
1When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2There a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, "This man deserves to have you do this, 5because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." 6So Jesus went with them.
     He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: "Lord, don't trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."
9When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, "I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel." 10Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

A Pennsylvania man found an envelope stuffed with $3,600 and returned it to the newlyweds who lost it after their wedding reception.  The couple had mistakenly driven off with their wedding album on top of the trunk of their car Sunday. The money had been tucked inside.

A man who is identified only as a "Good Samaritan," found $5,000 in cash inside a bank deposit pouch in a grocery cart outside a Food 4 Less store in Anaheim and used the deposit slip to track down the owner.

Eli Estrada found the bag of money on a street in Cerritos, near Anaheim.  A Brinks Armored truck had picked up the money at a Bank of America and a guard left the bag on the truck's bumper.  The bay contained $140,000.  Brinks rewarded Estrada $2,000 for turning in the money.

Jerry Mika of Draper, Utah, received a check for $2,245,342 that the State of Utah had sent him in error.  He returned the money.

It is said that Diogenes wandered around Athens with a lamp in daylight saying that he was looking for an honest man.  I guess he should have traveled to Anaheim.

The reason these stories make the news can be summed up with simple three words: man bites dog.  Anytime we hear something that is completely opposite to what we expect, it becomes a ‘man bites dog’ story and it bears repeating.  And the news is full of them.  Watch The National tonight and I can pretty well guarantee you that there will be one.  People love the counter-intuitive.

But why do people love the counter-intuitive?  Blame evolution.   We are a pattern-seeking species, our brains are wired to see and recall patterns in the world around us.  Those little red berries will make you puke.  My neighbour ate those mushrooms and he didn’t leave his cave for a week.  Try the blue berries, they rock.  We develop a sense of caution or ease depending on our experience of like objects and behaviours.  

We then translate these behaviors into a kind of global shorthand called ‘human nature.’  If $20 blows by, you might look around for a careless person nearby or you may simply slip it into your pocket and say to yourself, ‘cool, pizza tonight.’  That would seem to be human nature.  Look for an advantage, don’t work too hard to undo other people’s misfortune, order pizza.  We’re human, after all.  

Now you can get all self-righteous and say ‘I would put an ad in the Guardian and ask people to claim their twenty bucks.’  Human nature tells me you might get lots of sincere-sounding people who want to come between you and your pizza money.  


When Jesus entered Capernaum, word came that a centurion's servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, "This man deserves to have you do this, 5because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue." 6So Jesus went with them.

A Roman soldier cared about the health and well-being of a slave.  Man bites dog.

The centurion was aware of Jesus, heard that Jesus had the power to heal the sick, and asked for him.  Man bites dog.

The centurion had friends among the local Jewish leadership, enough that they were willing to plead with Jesus for help.  Man bites dog.

They praised the centurion, and insisted that not only was he a friend of the Jewish nation, but that he had personally paid for the construction of the local synagogue.  Man bites dog.

Jesus went with them.  Of course he did.  Who wouldn’t rush to meet the centurion who loved his slave, knew about Jesus, believed in his capacity to heal, was well-liked by the people under occupation, loved the Jewish nation, and built a synagogue.  Who was that guy?

He was, a ger toshav, translated to mean “resident alien.”  He was a gentile, a non-Jew who had respect for the Jewish religion but had not converted and wasn’t obligated to follow all 613 laws.  The ger toshav lived in Israel, observed ‘highlights’ of Judaism, but were not Jewish.  And while they had a unique status and were given respect, they were definitely at the bottom of the social hierarchy.  Here is Deuteronomy 5.14:

But the seventh day is the sabbath  of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates.

So Jesus was intrigued, the locals loved this guy, and everyone wanted to help.  Man bites dog.

The story takes a twist, of course, since all good stories take a twist, as the centurion has second thoughts about troubling Jesus.  ‘Lord,’ he sends in a very long message, ‘don’t trouble yourself, I’m not worthy to stand in your presence.  However, I believe you can heal without seeing me or my servant.’  And then he adds one more thought:

“For I myself am a man under authority,” he says, “with soldiers under me. I tell this one, 'Go,' and he goes; and that one, 'Come,' and he comes. I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it."

He is so bold as to draw a parallel between himself and Jesus, not in a presumptuous way, but in a charming way, to say ‘I understand what it means to have power (of a worldly kind) and I see that you have such power in a realm beyond this one.’  The slave is healed.

But two more things are happening here in the realm of ‘man bites dog.’  We learn what the future holds for the church and we see an extraordinary group of people begin to form.  First the future: No one writing in the first century of the Christian era expected that the world would continue beyond their generation or the next.  There was a widely held assumption that Jesus would return and usher in a new age.  

But this passage anticipates another reality, the reality that came to pass when decade by decade and century by century passed without the world-ending return of Jesus.  Everyone who calls on the name of Jesus, everyone who falls on their knees in prayer, everyone who feels the life-altering reality of the relationship with Jesus must do so from afar.  They (we) must do so without seeing Jesus, without meeting him on the street or in a home.  And this may not change any time soon.  For this reason, the centurion stands in for all of us, with faith ‘beyond touch and sight.’  He is a pioneer, and he clears a path for all of us who look to Jesus without his immediate physical presence.

The second extraordinary thing we witness in this passage is the people: Jesus and his disciples, Jews who admire the centurion, friends of the centurion who bring a message (they were certainly gentiles like the centurion, and maybe even ger toshav themselves).  The crowd itself is a foretaste of the cloud of witnesses that would one day form a church, that would someday gather around the healing, teaching, loving presence of Jesus, and glorify his name.  The crowd is you and me, gathered in prayer and praise, living the compassion and mercy that was abundant that day long ago.  Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Timothy 1
12 I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.* Amen.

To quote a famous American philosopher, “It's not easy being green.”

And while I'm hardly green, I am an ordained pastor, in a week dominated by the foolishness of another ordained pastor, the Rev. Terry Jones. Terry Jones, if you're just back from two weeks in the deep woods, is the Florida pastor infamous for threatening to burn several copies of the Koran on the ninth anniversary of the 9-11 attacks. The story has a see-saw quality to it, with claims and counter-claims about the threat, lots of international coverage, and even a well-timed intervention by the White House.

Setting all that aside, there is the underlying assumption in the minds of many that the problem is less Terry Jones and more religion in general. To the vast unchurched population, every Christian is a zealot, and a potential Koran-burner, just as every Roman Catholic priest is burdened with the misdeeds of a very sick few.

In this sense, then, I can expand Kermit's lament to each and every one of us, believers in a world that increasingly can't see the difference between Catholic and Protestant, mainline and conservative, tolerant or otherwise. And even those that do understand the difference are not above condemning the whole based on a part.

Our response, within the United Church, seems to happen in one of two directions. The first is to educate, to highlight the differences between a well-structured mainline Canadian church and an independent “ministry” based on the leadership of an individual. I have pointed to these differences each time the headlines appear: disgraced televangelists, Waco, Texas, and the latest news from Gainsville, FL.

The second response within our tradition seems to downplay the entire religious enterprise in favour of the more understandable and defensible parts of our life together. We speak of outreach ministry, social justice, and community-based activities, morphing in the United Way or a alternate version of the NDP. At one time we bragged about being non-doctrinal, and now we seem to brag about being something other than a church.

This trend away from a classic religious stance makes Timothy a less than popular fellow. He was a favourite of St. Paul, a convert to the faith, a leader in the nascent church, and self-declared “redeemed sinner.” He brags about the grace that flowed in his direction, the new life he received in Jesus. He is an archetype within the early church: sinner and skeptic, a persecutor of the church, who finds forgiveness and acceptance within the church he tormented.

Tertullian, great father of the early church, said “Christians are made, not born.” In other words, Christianity is a convert's religion, a tradition marked by the journey of Paul, Timothy, and the countless millions that set aside a former way of living and chose to follow in the way of Jesus Christ.

So what happens to the tradition when Tertullian's wisdom is no longer the case? Using less than scientific methodology, I have discovered that the “converts” in our midst account for little more than one percent of the United Church. If the question is “did you walk in, or were you carried?” the answer is almost always carried.

Does it make a difference? Are there differences between the people who grew up in the faith and those that came to Christianity as adults? The first answer is no. There is no hierarchy of believers, no elite group of super-Christians. Martin Luther helped us figure that one out long ago. The second answer, the answer I expect Timothy might make is yes, it does make a difference.

If God has been present in you life since the beginning of your consciousness, you may regard this as the greatest gift of all: a life with the ongoing presence of a merciful and loving God. If God came into your life at some later moment in your story, following a time of meaninglessness for example, or if God came into your life after a life of foolishness or great sin, the relationship takes on a unique quality. Redemption has unequaled power, or as Timothy would say, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me.”

Again, I am not arguing that the experience of the convert is somehow more valid, or forms some super-expression of the Christian religion, only that it is becoming increasingly rare in our tradition and this ultimately has consequences for how we meet the world.

Recently Matthew Mendelsohn, a professor at the U of T, spoke about the concept of “agency.” Agency, in simple terms, means the belief that I can influence the world around me, rather than simply being a passive recipient of what the world sends my way. I can effect the lives of others, or as Mendelsohn described it, I can effect the unfolding of institutions that I interact with in a day-to-day basis.

Part of agency, then, is the belief that I will be heard, that institutions will somehow mirror my concerns or do what I expect them to do. And this happens on a mass scale too. We expect that the government will protect us, that hospitals will mend us, and that schools will educate us.

Mendelsohn then looks at the shadow side of agency: leaders in institutions that have difficulty meeting the needs of the public, and seem to have a natural tendency to focus on their own concerns first. A disconnect forms, and reform then becomes needed. An example would be the Toronto Humane Society, with the community belief that ending suffering was the highest priority until we learned it was not. The leadership had an alternate agenda, or an alternate understanding of the primary objective, and conflict (and charges) were the result.

If I close the circle here, an bring agency to the church, I think I could fairly suggest that public assumes the church will “be religious.” If the point of religion is mercy, then burning the Koran is hardly appropriate. The community rightly expects that when we sing “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me” that we mean it. The public expects more Dr. King and less Ian Paisley. More Gandhi and less Khomeini.

In the end, however, it becomes too easy to poke Terry Jones with a stick. We need to look at the Douglas Fur in our own eye before we go reaching for the sliver in his. If the public expects the church to “be religious,” then we have a long way to go to recapture our credibility as a denomination.

Some of the problem is in the realm of language. We have an extensive vocabulary for outreach, with tangible activities and things that are easy to describe. We can master the language of social justice simply by reading the right newspaper, or tuning to the right station, and a vocabulary is there to claim. Follow this up with “it’s the right thing for the church to do” and you have a narrative.

The language of Timothy, the language of sin and redemption, of God’s mercy and forgiveness lives less comfortable on our tongues. And the people who do seem comfortable using this language remind us of Florida pastors and all the issues that come with them. It is hard to “be religious” in this sense, and reclaim a language, when the language is being misused and misappropriated at every turn.

The answer, I think, is with Timothy. Notice that Timothy only speaks of his experience, he makes no generalizations, save that God is merciful. He doesn’t instruct others so much as set an example: he speaks about being a convert, the new life he knows, and hopes he can be an example to others. He acknowledges the past and gives God the glory for such a dramatic change.

The challenge, then, and the gift, is to describe to others this Timothy faith, our own experience of mercy and redemption. To mine our past for those moments when God was most present and offered opportunities for new life, when mercies, no matter how small, were set before us.


At the end of It's not easy being green, Kermit begins to accept his greenness. "It's beautiful! And it's what I want to be,” he says, because green is a fine colour and lots of wonderful things are green. What some mistakenly label a song of lament is really a song about rediscovering who he really is, a small, very green frog.

There are moments when it seems appropriate to feel shame in the company certain Christians. This week I was reminded of the bumper sticker that reads, “Dear Jesus, save me from your followers.” And I was reminded that all I can do, aside from singing “It’s not easy being green” is tell our story, the story of Jesus’ compassion, his mercy, and with each of us, his patience. Amen.