Sunday, February 20, 2011

Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,* what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

I’m trying to love Kevin O’Leary, really I am. Jesus had some famous advice regarding people who are difficult to love, and so I guess I have to give it a shot.

Kevin O’Leary, billionaire, entrepreneur, and television personality seems to just be getting started on his 15-minutes of fame. With regular appearances on three CBC programs, and soon a fourth, Kevin seems poised to take over the public broadcaster.

His job, it seems, is represent the face of pure capitalism, to speak harsh and truthful words to all the voices that might want to use business for something other than making money. He hates taxes, regulation, and anything that smacks of weakness. He’s the Simon Cowell of business and Canadian television.

You could argue he’s playing a role—much in the way Don Cherry is playing a role—making an extreme argument that paves the way for some middle-ground. Or maybe he actually believes what he is saying, something I’ve begun to fear with my capitalist brother Andrew.

Either way, Jesus says love them and pray for them, which is harder than it seems, when really all I want to do is mock them and preach about them.

The trouble started a couple of weeks ago in Matthew 5. Jesus told his disciples that entry into the Kingdom required righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. To establish their religious credibility, they were required to work twice as hard as the religious leaders of the day. And they were to do the hard work without any guarantee that they would get the credit they deserved.

Continuing then, in the same vein, Jesus sets out a series of hypothetical situations: offering the other cheek, giving away your cloak, and walking a second mile. All extreme, all counter to human nature: and all alive in our imaginations. Even people who have never been in a church or picked up a Bible know about “turning the other cheek” and “walking a second mile” as examples of being counter-intuitive, doing the opposite of what’s expected.

So we’re set up to understand that being Christian has something to do with doing the unexpected, doing the last thing the world expects. Then the kicker: ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Don’t tolerate them, don’t rationalize them, don’t contextualize them: love them.

Way back in minister’s school, my professor, Dr. Hospital, taught us that these are “hard sayings,” extreme positions to be taken seriously but not literally. Just as we’re not cutting off bits or gauging things out, we’re not supposed to find the nearest centurion and say “abuse me.” It is not cards and flowers for people we hate, rather it’s a departure from the typical human response of retribution and reciprocal hate.

In other words, it is about the transformed heart. Jesus said ‘the Kingdom of God is within you’ and as such, we all carry the potential for a transformed heart, even those who make a living being heartless or at least pretending to be. The transformed heart becomes the goal of living, the goal of our interaction with others, and really the only hope for humankind.

Okay, that may seem a little strong. So let me be specific. Dalia Ziada became an activist at age 8 when she was subjected to a form of circumcision and subsequently tried to convince her father and uncles to spare the other girls in the family. This led to an interest in women’s rights, and the rights of political prisoners. She organized Egypt’s first human-rights film festival back in the fall, and when the theatre was mysteriously closed at the last minute, she rented a boat on the Nile to show the films, somehow beyond the reach of the law.

She was, of course, at the centre of things in Tahrir Square in Cairo. But being an activist in Tahrir Square is hardly news. What made news was the publication she was distributing, an Arabic translation of a comic book with the title: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story.

Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story was first published in 1958, when civil rights in the United States was still in it’s infancy, and the outcome of the struggle for racial equality was far from certain. The media was controlled by people with an interest in the status quo, and material that promoted civil rights was often intercepted and destroyed, and so a group of activists hit on the idea of a comic book.

The comic is unlike your typical superhero comic, with pictures and voices from the Montgomery bus boycott, a two-page primer on the non-violent struggle for Indian independence, and a detailed set of instructions on how to organize your movement. Page 12 includes these words:

To see your enemy as a human being, you have to stop seeing him as your enemy. Even when he does cruel, heartless things to you, he is a child of God. He is your brother, even when he hurts you.

For a generation of southern blacks eager for change, the comic was a very counter-intuitive voice. The desire to strike back, to turn to violence was natural—and expected—but not the answer. The answer, as the comic shows, was listening to Dr. King in his pulpit, seeing Mahatma Gandhi make salt at the seaside, and hearing Elizabeth Eckford of Little Rock say to the white students taunting her “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

Now imagine the same comic being passed around the crowd in Tahrir Square, with time, place and culture being collapsed into a universal expression of freedom and human rights. Dalia Ziada meets Dr. King, meets Gandhi, meets Jesus, meets the Little Rock Nine. A cultural and religious mash-up that takes “love your enemy” and frees the imagination to apply it to any time and place. And this is precisely where transformation begins. Jesus said:

46For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same? 47And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

These are challenges to the imagination, not bylaws or religious law. Jesus says picture the worst kind of people doing the most obvious kind of loving and then do the opposite: avoid the easy route of saving your love for the people who love you and the people you’ve loved all along and do the hard thing. Jesus says find the people who are really hard to love, really hard, and them imagine loving them and imagine that they too are children of God.

It would sound unrealistic and maybe a little naïve, except that it sometimes works. The theme of 2011 may well be ‘tyrants on the run,’ in largely non-violent ways that would make Gandhi and Dr. King very proud. When President Obama was sworn into office the Little Rock Nine were present, from jeers and spit to cheers and the inauguration of a black president. Hearts can be transformed, and change can happen, and it begins when we imagine a world made new. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 3
1 Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 3 You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. 7 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Richard Donner has never won an Oscar. It’s two weeks to Oscar night, and Donner hasn’t made a film in five years, so odds are it won’t happen anytime soon. He almost won in 1978 for the film “Superman” starring the late Christopher Reeve, and is widely credited for inventing the modern superhero movie.

He is also credited for reinventing the “buddy film” genre, with four little movies called “Lethal Weapon” (1, 2, 3, and 4). He even gave the world “Scrooged” starring Bill Murray, a movie that is well on the way to becoming a Christmas classic. And he made a film that is wildly underappreciated, almost in the category of a forgotten gem, 1985’s “Ladyhawke.”

Michelle Pfeiffer is lovely, Rudger Hauer so-so, but Matthew Broderick makes the film. He plays “The Mouse,” a petty thief who has unraveled the mystery of the Ladyhawke and has a habit of continually talking to God. “Lord, I’ll never pick another pocket as long as I live” he begins, and the movie unfolds from there.

This ongoing conversation with God doesn’t seem completely out of place in the Middle Ages, the setting for Ladyhawke, but would seem less likely in our time, or is it? surveyed nearly 10,000 readers, and 97 percent say that they regularly talk to God.*

Now, this in and of itself should not seem like a great surprise. A website with the mission “to help people find, and walk, a spiritual path that will bring comfort, hope and happiness” should be expected to have an audience of “spiritual people,” people predisposed to a life with God.

97 percent still seems like a remarkable figure. And the details are surprising too: Three-fourths say they talk to God in prayer, 60 percent say they talk out-loud to God, just like “The Mouse” in Ladyhawke, and most of the rest say they speak to God through some form of activity: gardening, yoga, or writing in a journal.

As I said, remarkable stuff: but it gets better. Of the 10,000 who responded to the survey, 90 percent report that God talks back. ‘God is quite the chatterbox,’ the author of the article says, with three-quarters reporting that they hear God in their thoughts, 40 percent in art and music, and at least 20 percent hearing the voice of God, including one woman who said God sounds like Denzel Washington!

And what are they talking about, all the people engaged in this ongoing conversation? A little bit of everything, it would seem: Their day-to-day lives, events unfolding in the world, and lots of questions, mostly starting with “why.” A majority responded that they had argued with God, a sure sign of a mature sense of faith, and they felt challenged in return.

Again, remarkable stuff, but the most telling number in the survey? Only 1.5 percent say that they talk to God in a house of worship and only 2.5 percent think God is somehow more accessible in a church, synagogue or mosque. This poses quite a challenge to those who like to think God and church go together like peanut butter and jelly. For a time we imagined that we owned God, or at least had first dips on all things heavenly, but it seems the world has a different view. How do we make sense of all of this? Maybe St. Paul can help:

Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 9 For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul is confronted by a church on the wrong track. Things in Corinth are not going well, with fighting and divisions around the various leaders of the church. Some cling to the founder’s vision, and name themselves followers of Paul. Some point to the next minister’s vision, and name themselves followers of Apollos. You can hear Paul’s frustration boil over:

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.

Over and over Paul has been trying to convince them that the primary relationship is between believer and God; not believer and Paul or believer and Apollos, but believer and God. In some ways it seems self-evident, that is unless you recall the human capacity for taking sides and missing the heart of the matter.

The believers in Corinth are “infants in Christ” Paul says, and as such are barely weaned and stuck in the Gerber section of the supermarket. They want to argue sides, or pick teams in the schoolyard, rather than focus on what really counts: a love-affair with God.

Now we’re getting to the Valentine’s Day good stuff. It’s all about a love-affair with God. Are you blushing yet? Last week I quoted from Jesus summary of the law: love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. But we do two things wrong. First, we tend to love our neighbours first. We love them and serve them and do all sort of things that we understand Jesus commands. As we should. But this is squarely in the realm of ‘doing,’ when part of what the law demands is ‘being.’ And that is the second thing we do wrong: we forget the command to love God, which isn’t really a command at all, it’s more like permission.

Jesus gave us permission to be effusive, to write love letters, to bring chocolate and flowers, to get down on one knee and tell God that we’re in love. Jesus gave us permission to add “in a relationship” on Facebook, send an e-card, and let all our friends know that we’re getting serious with God.

Are you blushing yet? And like all relationships, Jesus doesn’t suggest it’s going to be all sunshine and flowers. There will be arguments, there will be things neither partner can understand, and there will be petty disagreements like the cap-on-the-toothpaste or the size of our offering.

When I started doing what I do, back when I was barely weaned myself, it become obvious quickly that many of our churches no longer reflected the neighbourhoods that surrounded them. This situation has only grown, and one-by-one churches have been thinking about being intercultural their outlook, being open to other cultures and ways of being, particularly when they are right outside the front door.

Sometimes this takes the form of outreach, like the drop-in downstairs, and sometimes it means things never assuming that English is a first language. But there is a missing element to re-engaging our context, and that would be assuming that most of the people “out there” don’t already have a pre-existing and lively relationship with God. I fear that we sometimes believe that we have something to offer that people do not have, when the facts on the ground may be quite different.

Maybe Paul is speaking to us when he reminds his readers that seeds were planted and seeds were watered, but it is God who has been busy out there building a relationships with people and making that relationship grow.

So what is our role? Why are we here, if the relationship between a people and their God seems to be happening out there? The answer may be found in the survey. If three-quarters of the people responding hear God in their own thoughts, when are they really hearing God and when are they hearing what they wish God would say? The author of the article finds a Rabbi to respond:

"That people think God sounds like them is quite beautiful,” the Rabbi says, “but if you hear God and he is always telling you what you want to hear, you should be honest and say you are not listening to God, but to yourself. Part of listening to God should be to occasionally be surprised or unnerved. There should be moments of sacred surprise and growing that comes from the discomfort of not always hearing what you want to hear."

And this is where a community of faith comes in. Our task is to discern together what God is saying, to help people discern between their own thoughts and the ‘still small voice’ speaking inside. It is our job to demonstrate God’s love and model God’s forgiveness so that the feeling they have inside is make real in the world of their everyday. It is our job to read together the scriptures and see how ancient words can help understand new words and make a conversation with God even more meaningful. And our job is to encourage: to encourage ourselves and encourage everyone to stop ‘doing’ and try ‘being’ once and a while, so the God we love that be heard.

The end of the survey collected things God said to nearly 7,000 respondents and made a summary of God’s words. I give God the last word:

Listen. Stop complaining and just listen to me. Love one another. Love unconditionally. Don't worry, I will always be with you. Trust me. Be patient. I am not finished with you yet. Be at peace.


Sunday, February 06, 2011

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
13Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
15Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
17Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
18For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
19Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
20For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

I’m pretty sure I was in grade five when I received my first Bible. It was small, and red, and presented by a nice older man representing something called the Gideons. He might just as well have been an alien visitor from another planet.

Speaking as a member of the unchurched, a boy who had never been to church before, the thing that strikes me now was the lack of context. Why give every ten year-old in Mount Albert a tiny Bible? We were encouraged to read it, I remember that much, but I don’t remember much of the visit beyond that. Having never encountered a Bible before, I may have even given the first few paragraphs a go, but the book begins with the “begats” in Matthew, hardly stimulating reading for your average ten year-old.

And it turns out, the tradition continues. Outside the bigger school boards in Toronto and Ottawa, the Ontario branch of the Gideons is still busy visiting schools and handing out Bibles. The current version is still red, with a number of children’s faces on the cover, and the title “The Little Red Answer Book.”

I learned this from a recent article in the Waterloo Record, along with the surprising fact that 200,000 ten year-olds in Ontario are still getting Bibles. There have been recent objections from parents (hence the article) and a School Board vote to continue the practice in Waterloo schools.

I guess I would categorize this information under the heading “you know you have been in Toronto a long time when.” But it gets even more surprizing: According to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, in 1998, 79% of hotels surveyed said they had Bibles in the room; that figured jumped to 95% in 2006.

I have to say, however, that my favourite fun-fact related to this is the Provenance chain of hotels, based in Oregon, that decided that rather than discontinue the practice of having a Gideon Bible in the room, they would supplement it with copies of the Book of Mormon, the Bhagavad Gita and the Quran. Suddenly there is a small library of religious texts available, yet it remains unclear if they will track down others on request. One is tempted to call the front desk and demand a copy of “The God Delusion,” the new go-to guide for atheists.

Back to my little red Bible, I do remember scratching my head at the language. I had heard of Shakespeare, Mount Albert isn’t that far into the woods, and this Bible had the distinct sound of Shakespeare. You might say the Gideons were behind the times in giving out copies of the King James Version of the Bible, but you might also argue they were ahead of their time.

2011, you see, is the 400th anniversary of the first publication of the King James Bible, also known as the Authorized Version, and journalists and scholars have already started to spill ink on the topic. And if you’re looking for a good book on the topic I recommend “God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible” by Adam Nicholson.

The articles seem to breakdown into a few consistent themes:

1. The KJV is the only real version worth reading, all the others are terrible;
2. The KJV does more to develop the English language that any book before or since;
3. The 400th anniversary is a literary celebration and not a religious one since the church has turned its back on the KJV anyway.

I guess I would say ‘not really, true and true.’ The KJV is remarkable, if slightly inaccessible to the average reader, it is an anchor of the English language, and we have largely turned our backs on it. But not today. Today we turn our attention back, beginning with verse 18. First I will remind you of what Jenny read, then what she would have read if she was standing in the same place in 1887:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

I don’t know about you, but I think ‘jot and tittle’ is much more fun than ‘the smallest letter, and the least stroke of a pen.’ And this is precisely the argument that various authors have made: modern translations have sucked the poetry out of the scripture and made it too literal, too prosaic to delight or inspire.

Okay, now you’re just itching to know about ‘jot and tittle.’ Of course you are, who isn’t? First let’s get tittle out of the way, a word that has made generations of schoolboys giggle and simply means the dots on top of the letters ‘j’ and ‘i.’ There is nothing as small as a tittle, except maybe a jot.

A jot is defined as ‘a tiny amount.’ Like the smallest amount you can imagine, and therefore likely smaller that a tittle. Jot is one of the rare words that comes to English from Hebrew, having first passed through Greek. So ‘yod,’ the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet becomes ‘iota’ in Greek and eventually ‘jot’ in English. Ask Carmen nicely and she will sing you the Hebrew alphabet song, the same one that she teaches to graduate students (who suddenly feel like pre-schoolers).

William Tyndale, priest, scholar and eventual martyr, wrote about 80 percent of what would become the KJV and he phrased it this way:

One iott or one tytle of the lawe shall not [e]scape tyll all be fulfilled.

Writing 75 years before the committee that would put together the KJV, Tyndale wrote with an economy of language that was poetic and understandable at the same time. And Matthew 5.18 Is a sterling example: in both the New International and the King James the emphasis is on the law itself, and the way in which the law is fixed and cannot change. “Not the least stroke of a pen will by any means disappear from the Law” is a rather wooden way of saying that the Law is immutable, and Jesus did not come to take it away.

Tyndale’s version, however, shifts the focus from the law to the reader: “Not one jot or tittle of the law shall escape till all be fulfilled.” He chooses ‘escape,’ a word with Anglo-Norman roots, and the opposite of ‘to capture.’ In other words, he takes something static like alterations to the law and adds a strong verb instead. The entirety of the law cannot escape us, we are captive to it, and it will not let us go.

So if I’m correct, and we are captive to the law, what does this mean? Let’s try a for instance.

The pioneering women in the in the 60’s and 70’s who entered parts of the workforce dominated by men reported that they had to work twice as hard to achieve half of what the men around them could achieve. In other words, they were compelled to prove themselves at every turn, because conventional wisdom held that they couldn’t do it was well as the men could.

Back to Jesus: The disciples were considered inferior to the scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, and were continually being challenged to prove themselves, to establish their religious credibility. In other words, they had to work twice as hard to achieve half as much in the eyes of the population. They were pioneers, and as such they had something to prove.

And Jesus makes sure his disciples understand this even before they head out into the world:

For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.

Not only are the disciples captive to the law, but they have to exceed the righteousness of the other religious leaders in order to the kingdom-worthy. Except when they can’t. In that case, and in our case, they would depend on the forgiveness that Jesus freely gave, the same forgiveness he extended to the foolish disciples throughout the Gospels.

Being captive to the law does not mean giving children little red Bibles. I don’t think being captive to the law means setting up little religious libraries in hotel rooms either. No, being captive to the law means following in the way of Jesus best read in the KJV:

36Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38This is the first and great commandment. 39And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt. 22)

Being captive to the law means loving God and loving your neighbour. Do these, and not a jot or tittle will be missing. And this means being seen to love God and love your neighbour, never hiding your love under a basket. Why go to church? To love God. Why give away hamburger and clean needles? To love our neighbours. We have tended to make it seem more complicated that it need be, but Jesus is all about clarity: “14Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.” Thanks be to God. Amen.