Sunday, September 25, 2011

Proper 21

Matthew 21
23 Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”
24 Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 25 John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”
They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”
27 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”
Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.

I like to torment Americans.

Back when I was studying in Chicago, I had no greater pleasure than tormenting my American classmates. Talk about free healthcare for a few minutes, and watch then wither. Or the dollar: at the beginning of the program we endured all the jokes (“dinner is $10, thats $20 Canadian”) but by my second year we were briefly at $1.10. We mostly swaggered.

The real fun was in describing a Canadian theological education. Watching their eyes bug out when I told them that I had a half-course on the virtues of communist Cuba, including a visit to the workers’ paradise. Or when I mentioned that I had another half-course on how to lead a successful protest. For the final project my group detailed an action called “Pigs on Parliament,” which included releasing pigs on Parliament Hill. I got an A.

All in all, it was helpful to reinforce how odd we truly are, on this side of the border, and remind them that we are not Americans.

Looking back on all that social action training, my favourite story remains a man named Bob, I think he was an architect during the day, but at night, and on weekends, his thing was getting arrested. He visited the class and told us the story of ARMEX, an exhibit of military hardware held at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa.

Bob knew he couldn’t stop the show, but he figured out a clever way to disrupt it. He put on a light blue shirt and black pants, he held a clipboard, and he started directing traffic. Well, redirecting traffic might be more to the point, because by the end of the day he had caused traffic chaos throughout the area. There were people who tried to see tanks and guns for sale that day, but just couldn’t get to the show.

So Bob discovered the two essential ingredients to a successful action. One, establish yourself as some sort of an authority figure, preferably with something easily regognizable such as a blue shirt and a clipboard, and two, create unavoidable chaos. After that, it was mission accomplished. He didn’t have to break anything, or set anything on fire, he just had to convince a couple of bus drivers that they needed to back up.

“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked Jesus. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus is teaching and healing, making a stir, and generally disrupting the natural flow of things. He speaks for God, always a dangerous thing to do, and he is bold enough to forgive sins. All in all, he makes life uncomfortable for the clergy of the day, the professional types who are content with their diplomas and their offices with ensuite and their mid-size sedans.

And so they ask the question—a good question—about what authority Jesus can point to that allows him to do all he does. But Jesus won’t answer, at least not directly, and certainly not before he gives them a quick lesson in the ways of the Kingdom. He challenges them with a question and he shares a parable.

The question is a question about John the Baptist, recently martyred and very much on the minds of the people. Did his authority to baptize come from heaven or earth? Smelling a trap, the religious ones do not answer. ‘Quid pro quo then,’ Jesus says, ‘I will not answer you. But I will tell you a parable.’ Which, of course, is something that he would have done anyway.

Two sons are told to get to work. One refuses, but eventually goes, and the other agrees readily, but never shows up. Who does the will of the father? It is the first, everyone agrees, much in the way tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of troublesome clergy. Jesus added that part.

By what authority does Jesus teach and heal? Who gave him authority? It would have been easy enough to point heavenward and leave it at that. John’s Jesus, the Jesus found in John’s Gospel, seems to have had an easier time saying ‘I am the way, the truth, the light’ and just leave it at that. And I’m certainly there may have been times—maybe at the end of a long day—that John’s recollected Jesus may have simply said ‘I am’ or ‘I have’ or ‘I’m the authority.’ But in Matthew he’s more quixotic, telling stories and being idealistic and a little impractical with his words.

By being a little vague, almost evasive, he leaves it to the listener to see that you recognize authority when you need something. The first son needed to help his father, maybe needed to please his father, and in spite of his initial reaction to the question, he finally helped. Not so with the second son. Easier to say ‘sure mom, I’ll do the dishes’ and get her out from between the controller and the television than to actually get up and do the dishes. The second son sees no authority, and wants to please no one, and so plays in uninterrupted.

The same, Jesus tells us, for those given to sin—tax collectors, prostitutes, anyone in need of forgiveness—may push back at the beginning, may deny at first that they need anything, but will eventually come around. The self-righteous, the self-satisfied, those who think they got it right the first time: they tend to have a harder time recognizing the authority of the one sent to forgive sins.

All this seems to lead to the question: Do we need God? Do we need the authority that forgives our sin, encourages us on the way, and does all the other things we ascribe to God. Do we need God?

At first glance, we might say ‘yes,’ the people in here need God and the people out there not so much. Maybe that seems harsh, and maybe you disagree, or maybe you want to go a step further and say actually, there seem to be a lot of people in church who don’t seem to need God either. Now that’s harsh. And I’m sure you don’t mean this church, specifically.

Ultimately, I think both church and society are a mixture of people who need God and those who don’t know they need God. Notice that Jesus says ‘tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you,’ not ‘in place of you.’ We all get there eventually, he insists, and the people who don’t know they need God will eventually figure it out, as surely as autumn follows summer.

But let’s take a closer look at the idea of need. One theory about the United States, a much more religious country where more churches grow, even mainline churches grow, is that the need is greater. Churches comfort and help the sick, many of whom have no health care. Churches run food banks and drop-ins, but do it in a country where 45 million people live below the poverty line (that’s more than one in seven!). The need is real, the stakes are higher, and the ethos of self-reliance means more people turn to the church for help.

For the United States, it would seem, more people need God, or at least God’s church. Back in the 1950’s, before the full-flower of the welfare state, the church in Canada had libraries, gymnasiums, daycares, and even bowling alleys to meet local need. When the state moved in and began to provide for all these things, the role of the church at the centre of the community came to an end. We were no longer needed.

Or maybe we were no longer needed in a physical sense. Maybe the provision of community resources was an easy way to meet the community, when what they really needed was something else. Maybe they needed someone with authority.

Back to our definition: you recognize authority when you need something, and the church of the past had it. We provided community resources (including a handy place to dump the kids for a couple of hours on Sunday) and people gave us pride of place at the centre of the community. City or province begins to replace us, right down to organized sports on Sunday, and we lose authority. So we had it, and lost it, but maybe it wasn’t real in the first place.

This may seem like an aside, but there is wonderful quote for Prof. Elizabeth Warren, that addressed the idea of needing others:

There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there—good for you! But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.

In other words, the self-reliant, the people who think they made it on their own are just wrong. The imagine they don’t need government, or label government the enemy, when in fact no one can prosper without the authority called government.

So how do we regain our authority, how do we convince people that we are on a path to God that can represent the ultimate authority in their lives? By telling them. We are very much the first son, falling down on our duty to describe the role that God plays in our lives, but showing through our actions the wonderful role God plays in our lives. We protest ‘no, I’m not that kind of Christian’ when faith comes up at work, but we fail to fill in the rest, to describe just what type of Christian we are, and by what authority we love and serve others. May God give us the words, to speak with authority, and give thanks, amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Proper 20

Exodus 16
The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. 3The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.’
4 Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. 5On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.’ 6So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, ‘In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, 7and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?’
13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. 14When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. 15When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’* For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

I looked for you in my neighbourhood.

Every year, a million people come to the Danforth, and I wander around looking for people I know. Simple math, right? Two-and-a-half million people in the city, a million come to my street, I’m gonna see you and say ‘hi.’ Maybe you were saving yourself for a taste of Poland, which continues this afternoon. Maybe the beer is better.

Having welcomed a million friends to the neighbourhood over the years, you begin to see changes. When I first went to Taste of the Danforth, they didn’t even close the street to traffic, adding some excitement to your traditional souvlaki. Then the premise seemed to change, going from cheap samples to an obvious attempt to make money, from a dollar for that burnt pork stick to $3.75.

Some changes are good, of course. Corn-on-the-cob was a nice addition, and watermelon too. But some just leave you scratching your head, like the first time I saw quail. Before I go on, I should confirm there are no quail farmers out there, no one who has written the definitive quail cookbook, or anyone keeping a quail as a pet?

Good, because they seem like foolish food. I did my research, and it turns out they are lazy little things, flying only when they absolutely need too, and otherwise just hiding in the long grass. And they’re dangerous, not like ‘quails attack’ but dangerous in that they can become poisonous depending on what poisons they eat while migrating. Even Aristotle, as early as the 4th century BC, said ‘watch out for that little bird.’

There is even a warning in the Bible, in Numbers 11, a warning that quails can kill. I would give it to you to read as homework, but it’s too pressing to ignore, so we better look at it while we can.

When Doug read Exodus 16, you were likely thinking ‘I know this…fleshpots…manna from heaven…gather what you need…quail in the evening…nice to have a little meat.’ All very familiar. But what about the uncensored version, the version of the story that doesn’t give it the nice polish, the version that the writer of Exodus would rather you didn’t read? For that, we have Numbers 11.

In Numbers 11, they are already tired of the gift of manna. ‘The rabble began to crave other foods,’ it says, and then they make a list: ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!’

Now Moses hears all the grumbling, and he begins to grumble too, not because he wants meat, but because he’s in charge, and is getting more than a little tired of all the complaints. ‘God,’ he says, ‘did I make you angry? Is that why you’ve given me this burden? I didn’t conceive all these people, I didn’t give birth to them, so why me? Where on earth will I get meat for this crowd? If this is how you’re going to treat me LORD, then just kill me now. (that’s verse 15, if you decide to quote it while dealing with teenagers)

So the Spirit of the LORD came upon Moses, and give him words to speak: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The LORD heard you when you complained. Now the LORD will give you meat, and you will eat it. 19 You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it.’

Before I continue, I want to say that whenever something arrives with ‘you’re gonna eat it until it comes out your nose and you’re going to be sick of it,’ you might want to reconsider the whole thing.

So a wind came up, and drove in a flock of quail from the direction of the sea, and the quail were piled high in every direction, and the people gathered all they could manage. More barbecues appeared than a NASCAR weekend, and they finally had what they wanted. We pick up the story at verse 33:

33 But while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the LORD burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague. 34 Therefore the place was named Kibroth Hattaavah, because there they buried the people who had craved other food.

It’s not really suitable for Sunday School. A little too edgy for the kids, poison quail and Kibroth Hattaavah, which literally means ‘graves of craving.’ But we’re all adults here, and we can spot a warning when we see one. And while God may have stopped the whole business of killing with quail, it does serve as a tidy reminder to be satisfied with what you have.

So how do we respond to this unedited story of longing and woe? How do we internalize all the anger and the disappointment? How do we integrate what we’ve learned with what we do? We want our quail.

In 1950, the average house was 800 square feet, by 1970 it nearly doubled, and today it is four times the size. We want our quail.

In Canada, greenhouse gas emissions, chemicals like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide are four times the world average, better than Australia, but worse than the U.S. We want our quail.

In the U.S., 70% of all economic activity is based on some form of consumption, buying and using stuff, and just before you begin to feel all smug, Canada is not far behind at 60%. We want our quail.

There are 72 million credit cards in Canadian wallets owing together a staggering 72 billion dollars, up from 50 billion in 2004. We want our quail.

We want our quail. We want our quail and eat it too, and it even gets worse: we want money for nothing too.

Doug also read the story of the workers in the vineyard, a personal favourite, and also a story that if read alongside the story of the prodigal son, pretty much tells you all you can know about human nature and God’s inexhaustible grace. To recap:

A vineyard owner went to the market at six and hired some workers for his vineyard, promising them the usual daily wage. He hired more at nine, and noon, and at three o’clock. At five, he found a few more, and said ‘still standing around and no one has hired you yet? Get to my vineyard.’

Evening came, and the owner told the foreman ‘pay the wages now, but start with those hired last.’ So the foreman turned to those hired at five and gave them the usual daily wage. By the time those hired early in the morning stepped forward, they were expecting a far greater wage for a long day in the sun, but they too got the usual daily wage. They shouted in anger, but the owner said, ‘have I not paid you what we agreed? Can I not spend my money as I choose? Why should my generosity make you so angry?

Well, because we want our quail. The Israelites were promised the usual daily wage of one omer of manna, no less, no more, but they wanted quail. The workers in the vineyard agreed to work for the usual daily wage, but when they saw what some others got it without breaking a sweat, they wanted more, they wanted some quail.

So is this an Israelite problem? Or a problem for the Matthean brotherhood of vineyard workers, local 20? No, it seems to be a human problem, a problem without beginning or end, stretching from Sinai to Galilee to oil-soaked Alberta and even self-righteous Ontario. We want our quail.

And if God is no longer putting a little poison in our quail, just to get our attention, how will we learn the way of contentment and the need to be satisfied with what we already have? How will we learn to say, ‘quail, no thanks, I’m already full’? How will we learn to accept the usual daily wage, without always longing for more?

The first answer, this one from Jesus himself, is pray. ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ he taught them, which was never a prayer about getting bread, but about getting a daily portion, like an omer of manna, and feeling satisfied. There is more wisdom about overcoming the urge to consume in those seven short words than any others I know.

The second answer, also from Jesus, is found at table. Indicating the cup and the bread he said, ‘take this and share it among yourselves,’ and taking the bread, he broke it, and said ‘this is my body broken for you, every time you break bread, remember me.’ Broken and shared, the communion is Christ himself, redeeming the whole world, where no one gets a greater share.

The final answer is from God: The God who is generous beyond measure, even to point that the generosity makes us angry, remains generous. We can rail against it, we can demand less for some and demand more for ourselves, or more for others and less for ourselves, but the daily portion remains, grace upon grace, love that knows no end and forgiveness that never fails, amen.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Proper 19

Exodus 15
3 The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.[b]
5 The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
6 Your right hand, LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, LORD,
shattered the enemy.

21 Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.”

Matthew 18
21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church* sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven* times.

Where else, other than TIFF, can you see a movie at 9 am? Attending films through the years, some stand out more than others, and the film Buffalo Soldiers is in that group.

Now, I tend to follow two simple rules when selecting a film for the film festival. The first is to avoid films that will be released widely in the weeks that follow the festival. The current price is in the neighbourhood of twenty-five bucks a ticket, so why see it at the festival when it will come out at ten bucks in the near future. The second rule, choose short films, follows from the first. If I’m paying nearly twenty-five dollars, why not see six or eight films instead. Call it the Scottish-Dutch approach, I won’t be offended.

Back the film Buffalo Soldiers, I broke both rules, or so it seemed, by choosing a film starring Joaquin Phoenix and Ed Harris. I guess I couldn’t wait. The film is set in West Germany, circa 1989, and follows a US Army Specialist (played by Phoenix) as he overcomes Cold War boredom through a combination of theft, black-marketeering and the production of various opiates.

After the movie, my brother and I retreated to the nearest restaurant to share a bite and discuss the film. Before eating, I stepped out to wash my hands and heard on the radio that all domestic flights in North America have been cancelled and all overseas flights forced to land. When I sat down a moment later I said to Andrew ‘what could possibly happen to shut down North American airspace?’ The person next to us leaned in and said ‘you haven’t heard?’

I recall telling Andrew, either the next day, or the day after, that Buffalo Soldiers, and it’s negative portrayal of the US military, would never see the light of day. Sure enough, the release came two years later, on a very limited number of screens.

Ten years is a long time, and as we reflect on the anniversary of the 9-11 attacks, it is hard to separate out the original events and all the subsequent events down to the recent killing of Osama Bin Laden and the ‘credible threat’ on New York today.

And I’m not the only one trying to do this from the pulpit. CNN featured a story on Friday that looked at pastors trying to prepare sermons for September 11th. And just to prove that the US is a far more religious country, the article even referred to the lectionary readings for Sunday, Jesus saying forgive seventy-seven times, and the irony that such a motif would appear on the anniversary of the attacks.

What the article didn’t mention was the full tension built into the readings for the day, readings that end with forgiving seventy-seven times, but begin with Exodus 15:

3 The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.
4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.[b]
5 The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone.
6 Your right hand, LORD,
was majestic in power.
Your right hand, LORD,
shattered the enemy.

21 Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.”

Few Sunday readings, and few Sundays, live with such tension. The Lord is a warrior, shattering the enemy, while God says, in Jesus, that when someone sins against you, the appropriate response is to forgive them not seven times, but seventy-seven times. And we are left to sort it out. We enter the tension, not to resolve it, (since it may never be resolved) but to live in it, and allow it to speak to our life together.

Let’s take another look at Exodus 15. It describes the key moment in the liberation of the Hebrew people. Pharaoh has suffered various plagues, including the death of his first born, and in his great despair decides to release the Hebrew enslaved in Egypt. Moses and his people march away, and the scriptures tell us that God hardens the heart of Pharaoh and compels him to change his mind.

The pursuit begins, and the Hebrew people cry out to Moses ‘were there not enough graves in Egypt that you have brought us out here to die?’ But Moses cries out to God on their behalf, and God instructs Moses to part the sea and lead the people to freedom. Of course it follows that the sea returns over the army of Pharoah, and every one of them drowns. The passage, our passage for today, concludes with the Song of Myriam:

“Sing to the LORD,
for he is highly exalted.
Both horse and driver
he has hurled into the sea.”

Some scholars have suggested that this may in fact be the oldest verse in the Bible, and certainly among the oldest, a song that records the liberation of God’s people and the celebration that follows. And once again, it creates tension.

The tension it creates is in the celebration of the death of Pharaoh’s army. We, in our day, are accustomed to celebration of victory in way, but we moderate it to remember the lives lost the sacrifice of so many young lives. We might mark a particular battle like Vimy Ridge or the cessation of conflict, such as VE Day or VJ Day, but we don’t sing about the death of our enemies. We don’t describe the details of their death, horse and driver hurled into the sea, an enemy shattered by the right hand of God.

So we’re uncomfortable, but the Exodus remains at the heart of our story, the story of the people saved by God and set on a path that would lead to the full-flower of the Jewish religion and the eventual birth of Christianity. The liberation is our story, because we cling to the idea that God will save those who cry out, and God will hear the suffering of God people, and God will act to redeem them.

We could be bold and say Jesus is the new Moses, leading us to freedom from sin and death, redeeming our sinfulness and setting on a path to new life through him. In troubled places around the world, believers imagine that their suffering is the suffering of Jesus, that Christians persecuted in places like North Korea are on the cross with Christ, waiting for a release from suffering and death. They await liberation, and turn to the stories of the Exodus and Calvary as proof that God hears their suffering and will respond.

This is the very same warrior God that Myriam celebrates, and the very same God that says in Jesus “forgive seventy-seven times.”

So which God do we turn to on the tenth anniversary of 9-11? Which God do we call on, or heed, as we enter the tension between seeking victory or following the way of radical forgiveness? And what would the latter mean, anyway? Why all that forgiveness?

It is Peter who makes the suggestion that maybe sevens times is adequate when the question of forgiving the transgression of the fellow believer comes up. Not seven, Jesus says, but seventy-seven, or some translations seven times seventy, or even seventy-seven times seven. Either way, forgive a lot. And to make this lesson perfectly clear Jesus shares a parable, painting a Kingdom lesson on a canvas large enough for the twelve to understand.

A king wants to settle his accounts. He calls his first servant, the manager of a vast fortune, and discovers a shortfall. Immediately he orders that the servant and his family be sold into slavery, which leads the servant to fall on his knees and beg for mercy. Feeling compassion, the king cancels the debt and the man leaves. Just then, another man passes by, a man that owes the newly forgiven manager a small sum. He grabs the man by the throat and demands repayment. The king is alerted to this act of ingratitude, and punishment follows.

It is really the story of every believer. God has forgiven our sins, and we can respond by “paying forward” this forgiveness or operating like that forgiveness we received was somehow deserved while the forgiveness we might extend is not. In some ways it is a restatement of Matthew 5, ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ God loves us when we are at our most unlovable, and we are called to extend this same love to those we find unlovable too.

Someone is thinking ‘yes, preacher, but we live in the real world.’ We live in the world of ‘credible threats’ and the ‘war on terror’ and have been told by no less than the Prime Minister himself that we have definable enemies and we need to remain on our guard. We want to imagine that nearly ten years of war in Afghanistan was worthwhile, and that the fallen Canadians we mourn died to overcome an enemy and did not die in vain.

It seems the tension between the liberating God and the God of radical forgiveness cannot be resolved. Maybe the only way we can come close to a resolution is to add to the list, to add to the list of things God is doing in our midst and give thanks.

God continues to hear the cries of those who suffer, those who cry our in grief and those who suffer.
God continues to act in history, to comfort those who suffer under repressive regimes, to urge on those who struggle for change.
God continues to insist that we forgive, not just those closest to us, but also our enemies, and in doing so to reflect on why we imagine them enemies, and maybe change our mind.
God continues to walk with us each day, to guide our thoughts and prayers, to help us live in the tension that lies at the very heart of every believer, Amen.