Sunday, November 14, 2010

Luke 21
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6“As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17You will be hated by all because of my name. 18But not a hair of your head will perish. 19By your endurance you will gain your souls.

I’ve lived in Toronto for half my life and I’ve only seen the Leafs once. To be fair, I’m not a huge sports fan, expect yacht racing, a sport that the Toronto Sun refuses to cover. I’m a fair weather fan, I suppose, or a play-off fan, which according to most, is the worst kind of fan there is.

When I first arrived in the big city, my local funeral home would call on occasion and offer me free tickets to a ball game. Now, nothing beats free, and the seats were usually pretty good, and so off I went. “Toronto treats her clergy well,” I would think, “free tickets, nice seats,” and never give it a second thought. Times have changed.

I’m told that clergy used to get free rail passes, and that the result was presbytery and conference boundaries organized purely on rail lines and ease of travel. Why else would Owen Sound be in Toronto Conference? The perk is gone but the boundaries remain. Still, times have changed.

When I did my first funeral, in beautiful Perth, Ontario, we drove through the town and made our way to a back road cemetery, and every car on the highway pulled over as a sign of respect. Times have changed.

Recently, I learned of a project proposal, a cooperative effort between the Toronto United Church Council and one of our local community colleges. The purpose of the project will be to track the kinds of things churches do to generate social capital: the activities, large and small, that make the community a better place. And then put a dollar value on it.

All this came about when a certain GTA municipality (that shall remain nameless) decided that there were too many new religious communities in their city. It seems that new churches and mosques discovered that vacant industrial properties could be easily converted into houses of worship, with ample parking an limited interference on a Sunday morning. And, of course, no property tax, as churches/mosques/temples are exempt.

In this nameless municipality there were some city officials that viewed religion like the majority of Canadians, with a sort of benign indifference. Except that they had calculators, and a mandate to increase city revenue, not see it disappear with the arrival of each new church/mosque/temple and the rest. So they started making noise about taxing churches, or at least taxing the parts unrelated to public worship.

Eventually meetings were held, suggestions were discussed, and a plan developed that did not involve taxing all or part of churches. The winning strategy was to convince officials that religious institutions create more value to the community that they take up in lost tax revenue. It wasn’t a difficult case to make, but the audience for the case is the unknown variable, and in this case people were initially indifferent but eventually open.

It seems a similar study (to the one proposed) was conducted in the UK, and the study discovered that on average, each place of worship created $140,000 in social value each year. That is the cost of services provided that the city would have to pay for if the individual congregation no longer existed. Imagining then that the study found the same result in the GTA, and lumping United, Anglican, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic and other “mainline” churches, say 500 congregations in total, and multiply that by $140,000, you get $70,000,000 worth of stuff churches provide every year—for free—except that we don’t pay property tax.

Essentially then, we’re planning ahead, getting local data together so that when the “gravy train” stops at the churches doorstep, we can tell the city that we do more good than harm, and that taxing us would be self-defeating and cost votes. Not a lot of votes, mind you, because of the indifference I mentioned a moment ago.

Jesus looked at the temple and said not one stone would be lift standing on another in the time to come.
Many will try to lead you astray.
There will be wars and rumours of war. Lots of bad stuff will happen.
Before this, you will be persecuted and handed over to people in power, you will be called to defend yourself, and I will give you words to do it.
You will be betrayed, some will be put to death, but somehow not one hair on your head will perish.

November is a grumpy time in churchland. Maybe the people who pick the readings are affected by the time change somehow. Whatever the cause, the final readings in “ordinary time” and the readings at the beginning of Advent are laden with “end of the world as we know it” stories and generally grim passages of scripture. The task of the preacher is to navigate these, find some contemporary meaning, and get you safely home in time for lunch.

The helpful thing, for those who faithfully explore these difficult passages, is the ample number of situations in our world that parallel the disastrous, sky-melting, world-changing events that Jesus describes. Human history is remarkably consistent, with enough natural and man-made calamity at any moment for us to say “look here” and “just like” and “the time is nign.”

On such event, an attack last week on a Christian church in Baghdad, and the death of over fifty worshippers, gives you a sense that the persecution Jesus described continues. The Vatican must appoint secret Cardinals to represent Catholics in China, a constant source of tension between the two. In countries with a significant Christian minority, such as the Sudan, persecution remains a fact of daily life.

Those of you who took my “History of the Christian Church” series will recall that in the early days of the church, only martyrs were considered saints. Martyrdom mean dying for your faith, and the whole saint-making process was informal and largely simple to administer. Saints were commemorated in the local community they served, reputations spread, examples were lifted up for others to follow, and more saints and martyrs came.

Now two things complicated the largely simple idea of sainthood. If a priest was killed for a reason other than faith (in one case, it was in a barroom brawl), then he could hardly be considered a martyr or a saint. That was the first problem. The second was the eventual end of persecution, and the end of the common experience of martyrdom. Saintmaking largely dried up, and at the some time there were lots of examples of “heroic virtue” among those who died peacefully. So a new process was born, one that hasn’t evolved much from them down to Saint Brother Andre today.

So there was martyrdom in mass numbers, then there was not.
There was a movement to take the faith to non-Christian peoples, beginning in Europe, and a few martyrs.
There was an expansion of the missionary enterprize into Asia, Africa and the Americas, a few more martyrs, but only a few.
Now there is tension in places where the church thrives, such as the Sudan, or where a church is nearly overwhelmed, such a Baghdad (where the church has existed for nearly 2,000 years).

And we fight indifference. With 85% of the population not in church this morning, we face a different type of struggle. We retrench, we close churches, we try to do with less, we apologize for the scary Christians and the embarrassing Christians and we quietly go about our business. We watch for the “signs of the times,” like the nameless municipality that wondered out loud what so many are thinking, or the fact that MPAC started sending out property valuations to churches a while ago, with a note that said ‘we realize you are tax exempt, but if we taxed you, this is what we would base it on.’

It’s hardly the stuff of a good martyrology. They won’t erect a shrine in Penetanguishene to the church tax martyrs, and it seems small to even make a comparison to the people who truly suffer for their faith. But some comparison must be made, so here goes.

If someone says to me ‘why do you help Weston’s vulnerable population? Why Central, why not leave it to others?’ First, I would argue, that if we didn’t do it, they may not be others willing to step up. Then I might say, “because it’s the right thing to do,” or “but for the grace of God go I,” and therefore we help out. I’m less likely to say “for the Bible tells me so” or “God commands it” or Jesus said love your neighbour” and “feed my sheep” and “if you do this for the least of my brothers and sisters (Jesus said) you do it also for me.”

Just last month Robert Fulford, famous man of letters and Officer of the Order of Canada wrote that no one quotes the Bible anymore and if they did they would be labeled an eccentric. He spoke at my first convocation, I have respected him for a quarter of a century, but in a sentence I was labeled and then dismissed. Or dismissed then labeled. Whatever, it wasn’t a fun time. It’s one thing to leave the mainstream, but quite another to be lumped in with people who dress like Don Cherry. I’m hardly a martyr, but the sting is real.

Still stinging, dismissed and labeled, maybe what I lack is trust. Jesus said: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.” This not crisis, it is opportunity. When you become irrelevant or outside the mainstream, you get to reinvent yourself, or define a new narrative, or surprize people with the new you. We don’t need to sell ourselves, or justify ourselves, we just need to be our true selves, caring for the vulnerable and talking about forgiveness and grace and all those other counter-cultural ideas. And we don’t need to create a script, or plan a careful justification, because Jesus promised to give us all the words we need.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Proper 27

Luke 20
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
34 Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

In heaven, you can eat all the Philadelphia cream cheese you desire, surrounded by muscular but seemingly dim-witted men.

In heaven, St. Joseph and the angels endlessly debate wing acquisition, and seem to favour credit unions over banks.

In heaven, a mistake like premature soul retrieval will never get in the way of Warren Beatty winning the Superbowl.

In heaven, there is a good bet you will find yourself in a line behind a minister, a priest and a rabbi.

But the Sadducees, they don’t believe in heaven. That’s why they’re “sad, you see.” (groan)

There is no trope like a heavenly trope, no familiar set-up like a heavenly set-up, with halos, wings, pearly gates and the ever-present St. Peter. Insert any of these elements, and like a well-worn pair of slippers we put on the heavenly trope and know precisely where we stand.

And this is far from new, for as long as creature has stepped out of cave to look up at the heavens, there has been a heavenly vision. So, what is heaven like? I used to think that heaven was a vast storehouse of knowledge where all would be revealed and every question answered. Then came Wikipedia. So much for heavenly longing. I could switch to Philly, or chocolate cake, but I’ll settle for resting in the bosom of Abraham, unless he should decide I’m too wealthy for such a reward. Stay tuned.

Heaven is the best known of the least known things on earth. It is hotly debated, and remains the best test to discern what style of faith you possess. Just last week, my neighbour brought me a chicken pot pie (We live in a rowhouse, we seem to share food for some reason) and said, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, ‘do you believe in heaven and hell.’” After giving her an hour of my best guess, we agreed that the chicken pot pie was heavenly and left it at that.

So heaven is a familiar trope, an endless debate, and a staple of dinner conversation everywhere. It has always been so. This week we listen in on just such a debate, as Jesus is tested once more. He takes on a familiar debating team and wins, and just like another time of testing, he uses scripture to defeat scripture like any good rabbi would.

The Sadducees, beyond the bad pun, were one of two main rival groups among the priestly class. The other was the Pharisees, and together they provide much of the context needed for Jesus to present his own view of religious life. He clashed with both, but there were moments when he was simply caught between them. And like any good scholarly debate, both the Pharisees and the Sadducess try to enlist Jesus to their cause, or at least determine to what extend he was a fellow traveller.

Once again, Luke defines the debate from the beginning: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him a question.” The question, it would seem, was one of those wildly hypothetical questions that come up in debate, best summarized as “seven brothers for one bride.” A man dies. Following the Levirate marriage law from Deuteronomy 25:5, he is required to marry his late brothers widow, to ensure that his name and line continue. He dies. Marriage three, more death, as so on, and so on, down to the unfortunate brother number seven. So when do you call the RCMP here? Just a thought.

The obvious question (for a Sadducee) is how does this mess get untangled in the life to come, if you believe in such a thing? They have used the classic bafflement argument here, suggesting that heaven is false simply because human life is too messy to allow for an orderly place like heaven to exist. You have to admit they make a pretty good case. But before we explore Jesus’ answer and the equally obvious truth that one should never argue with the Son of God, I want to take a detour through the number seven.

The Sabbath is the 7th day of the week.
The Menorah in the Temple had 7 branches.
There are 7 holidays in the Jewish year: Rosh Hashana, Yom
Kippur, Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim, Passover, and Shavuot.
There are 7 Noachide Laws pertaining to all humanity.
The first verse in the Torah contains 7 words (and 28
Moses was the 7th generation after Abraham.
Each plague in Egypt lasted 7 days.
In Pharaoh's dreams there were 7 cows and 7 stalks of
grain. (Genesis 41)
Joshua led the Jewish People around the walls of Jericho 7
times before the walls fell. (Joshua 6:15)
Jacob worked for Laban for 7 years (twice) in order to
marry his daughters. (Genesis 29:27)

Rabbi Salomon has 40 more, so I could go on.* Another rabbi, Rabbi Simmons, has a few thoughts about seven and why it figures so prominently in the tradition, and settles on Genesis 1. He argues that every aspect of time that humans measure is rooted in the natural world, mostly in the stars and the moon. Days, months and years pass, written in the sky above, but the week has no basis in the natural world: it was invented by God. Therefore, he argues, the week is a sacred measure, seven days of creation—and always ends in rest. Seven, then, is the number of completion, that number that God commends to us as both commandment and gift.

So the Sadducees seem to choose seven because it means completion, the end their scenario and the fullness of a really good argument. But there seems to be more, something else missing here, and I think we can blame the British and Foreign Bible Society. You see, way back in 1826, they decided to omit the Apocrypha from the newest version of the Bible, and in doing so created another gulf between Catholic and Protestant that continues to this day.

In a tale almost worthy of Dan Brown, the British and Foreign Bible Society decided that books such as Tobit, Judith, and 1st and 2nd Maccabees had no place in the newest version of the King James Bible. Until 1826 it was included, in a separate section call the Apocrypha, in a kind of biblical “no man’s land” between canonical and non-canonical. Then it was gone.

Missing, then is the story of seven martyred brothers, and “mother courage” who encourages the seven to stay true to their faith rather than turn away. I will let you read it for yourself. There is a good chance the story is the origin of the phrase “from the frying pan into the fire” and that is all I will say. It is rated M for Mature.

I tell you all this because in the Roman Catholic readings for today, the story of the seven martyred brothers from 2 Maccabees 7 is included alongside the Luke passage, and they are allowed to have a conversation, something that is missing from the mainline Protestant lectionary we use. So what is the substance of this conversation?

It is reliably true that the questions we ask may reveal more about the questioner than whatever answers are being sought. In other words, listen to the substance of the question to get a glimpse of what’s happening in the mind of the person asking the question. And for the Sadducees, this meant tension.

It seems to me that they do not ask the question of seven brothers out of idol curiosity or to settle some abstract debate, but rather to answer the nagging question of what happens to those who die a martyr’s death, those who die as a result of their convictions. Pharisee, Sadducee, Zealot, disciple of Jesus: everyone engaged in the religious debates of the day was taking a big risk, the risk the occupying power might construe belief as a threat to Rome. And a threat to Rome, however vague or firmly grounded was treason, punishable by death. So we look in on a debate and see a bit of an abstraction, but both Jesus and the Sadducees knew that Mother Courage and her seven sons were real, as real as sword, and fire and the cross itself.

And isn’t it just as real a question in Kandahar today, and on a beach in Normandy, and in a trench near the Somme? One by one the seven Maccabean brothers were asked to renounce firmly held conviction, to set aside belief and tradition, to betray the very thing they were fighting for, and they would not. And it falls to the fourth brother to speak most eloquently for them all:

When he was near death, he said,
"It is my choice to die at the hands of men
with the hope God gives of being raised up by God alone.”

Jesus said that the age to come will be different than the age we know, and “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age…cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God.” They (and we) are children of the resurrection, and those who find sleep peacefully and those who suffer for belief will all find a place in the age to come.

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the seven martyrs, and the honoured dead we lift up today, all walk together with the God of the living. And I am certain that even the Sadducees themselves, so convinced of heaven’s absence, will be there among the faithful, because the mercy of God is always infinite and wonderfully ironic. This is Good News for today, thanks be to God, Amen.