Sunday, October 30, 2011

Reformation Sunday

Matthew 23
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

Marvelous thing, the Internet.

At the World Christianship Ministries you can be ordained almost immediately, and purchase ordination packages they say “are filled with authority and materials.” But wait:

Earn $ to help support yourself, family and Ministry. Begin your own Marriage Ministry from your home or apartment. CLICK HERE for more details.

And the cost! So reasonable. The basic ordination package, including a certificate and a “pocket ordination card (laminated in plastic)” is only $58. But wait! Spend $85 and the World Christianship Ministries will send you a clergy dashboard sign (yes, laminated in plastic) as well as handy resources such as wedding and baptism certificates, a booklet entitled “Preparing Your First Sermon” and another called “Ways Your Ministry Can Raise Money.”

You can choose the font of your ordination certificate. Old English, Signet, and a font oddly named Prodigal are among the choices, and you can also choose your title, including Pastor, Prophet, Preacher or even Bishop. Still not satisfied? For another $48 you can purchase an honourary Doctor of Divinity degree, and I say why not, you’ve come this far.

And at the bottom of the page: “Offerings from Canada must be in USA dollars in the form of a Postal Money Order or Bank Check or Bank Money Order. WE ARE NOT ABLE TO ACCEPT A PERSONAL CHECK FROM CANADA. That last part was in ALL CAPS. I think the Canadian branch of the church has issues. I say forget the whole thing.

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The minister sits on a padded seat behind the pulpit: therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and expect them to spend no more than five dollars; but they themselves are unwilling to make anything other than jelly-jam. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their Geneva gowns broad and their stoles long. They love to have the place of honor in the Milner Room and a second floor office with a view, and to be greeted with respect on Weston Road, and to have people call them reverend doctor.”

I don’t know who that is. But we all have to endure a little critique now and then. We all get called out from time to time, and I guess Matthew 23 is the call out for clergy.

Now, the United Church has a statement of ethical norms for clergy, and slamming our colleagues is on the list of no no’s. Even preaching this sermon could land me in trouble, so I better be careful about what I say about my brothers and sisters of the cloth. And that might extend backwards in time too, and surely includes the scribes and Pharisees, who were really just first-century clergy. This whole sermon might end early, since it looks like I’m bound ethically to say nothing.

But don’t worry, I’ll fine something to say. Why, just before I got started my favour Hebrew scholar handed me “The Works of Josephus” and said “here, you better read this.” 900 pages, 6 point font, it wasn’t going to happen. But marvelous thing, the Internet, so I found a nice summary online.

Jesus said: “They do not practice what they teach.”
Josephus said: “For they follow what the Word in its authority determines and transmits as good.”

Jesus said: “They lay heavy burdens on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.”
Josephus said: “Many have witnessed to their virtue in devoting themselves to all the best in their words and way of life.”

Jesus said: “They do all their deeds to be seen by others.”
Josephus said: “Pharisees love one another and practice consensus in their community.”

Jesus said: “They make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.”
Josephus said: “The Pharisees live thriftily, giving in to no luxury.”

Jesus said: “They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.”
Josephus said: “Out of respect, they defer to those advanced in years. Nor are they so bold as to stand in opposition to what (the elders) have proposed.”

So who was this Josephus? If he were alive today, we might call him “the most interesting man in the world.” Born the son of a priest, he became a priest, then he became a hermit for a while. He traveled to Rome to negotiate with the Emperor Nero, returned home and became a general in the revolt against Rome, lost, survived a mass suicide, became friends with Vespasian and Titus, both future emperors, tried to negotiate a way to save Jerusalem from destruction, and became a Roman citizen. He married four times, and finally settled down with an imperial pension to write three of the most important books of the age. There is no word whether he drank Dos Equis.

Now, growing up among Pharisees, and becoming a Pharisee before becoming the most interesting man in the world, we can accuse Josephus of bias. But as someone who obviously turned his back on being a Pharisee, we might imagine he could be critical too, or at least less invested in making them look good. His account of the Jewish Revolt is critical of both Jews and Romans, so we know he can show balance.

It gets messier. In the same chapter Jesus sends the disciples out to be prophets, sages and teachers, granting the very title he argued against. In the next chapter he give the Great Commission, the same one we follow, saying “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Throughout the Gospels Jesus is called both teacher and Rabbi, the very titles he spoke against.

Clearly, something else is going on here. I have no doubt that Jesus was harshly critical of the religious leaders of his day, but the way Matthew records his words point to something more. Remembering that Matthew is writing in a time when church and synagogue were competing for the hearts and minds of believers, the words he records may say more about AD60 or AD70 when Matthew writes than AD30 when Jesus expressed sentiments just like this.

Since I spoke to you about the Occupy Wall Street it is no longer ignored. The story non-story finally became mainstream news and then spread to cities here and in Europe. I think I even mentioned the “We are the 99%” notes that people were writing and posting online to describe their situation. Without saying much more on this topic, I find it interesting that a number of counter-point notes popped up, with people explaining that they got everything they have through hard work, never borrowed money from anyone, never complained, etc., etc.

Two things on this: First, if you were paying attention, you could smell a rat. One guy started out his note by saying he was responsible for his own success, describing how, and then saying he had sympathy for the 99% who could not claim the same. A day later someone cribbed his exact words, wrote them out, and wrote the opposite ending, condemning the protesters. Curiously, this person didn’t show their face.

The second thing is precisely what Jesus said: These counter-protest note-makers want “all their deeds to be seen by others; They love to have the place of honor at banquets and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces.” Why else brag that you are self-made. Yes, there is reward for hard work. Yes, you won’t get far in life if you don’t push yourself. But there is no such thing as a self-made person, just as there is no minister, priest or rabbi deserving pride of place, since all clergy are servant leaders, no less, no more.

Humility dictates that everyone of us acknowledge the real sources of our success: the parents who raised us, the school nurse who mended that gash, the first grade teacher who taught you to write good, the heavily subsidized college or university that gave you additional skills, the government that licensed your craft, and even the Internet Al Gore invented for you.

Jesus said “be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” but he he could also have said, “be humble, as your Father in heaven is humble.” God, in humility, is the author of all that is and the parent to us all, and then like a good parent retreated to allow us to discover our way in the world. We were fully prepared for life after leaving home, but then left to live that life, and not hovered over like some latter day helicopter parent. God give us all the guidance we need: to treat each other with respect, keep an eye out for hypocrites, to acknowledge the debt we owe others, and always be humble. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Proper 25

Preached on the occasion of Appleby United Church's 187th anniversary.

Matthew 22
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 44‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

If I had to sum up everything I know about Burlington, I might say “there’s a hole in the lake.”

Not a hole in the lake itself, but a hole in the wind, in the lake, just off your fair city. Imagine our surprise, sailing from Toronto to Hamilton, feeling smug that all our trim and strategy gave us a competitive position in the race, only to sail into a hole in the wind.

But it gets worse: local sailors, those blessed with knowledge of the area and the wisdom to steer clear of the hole in the wind, sailed past without so much as a wave. I’m not bitter, and my feelings about Burlington are not determined by a hole in the wind, but I do think about it.

For you see, in the realm of sailing, and in the realm of a few others areas I will look at in a moment, local knowledge is essential. Prevailing winds, the direction of the current, the location of peril hidden beneath the waves: all these fall under the broad heading of local knowledge. If you know what’s coming, or what’s typical for a particular location, or what has changed since the last time you were there, you have the racing advantage. Some might say it’s life-and-death, but again, that’s jumping ahead.

Jesus never seemed to tire of being tested. He silenced the Sadducees, according to the word on the street, and the Pharisees thought, “We need to have a go.” So they set a trap for him and asked him to name the one commandment in the law that he felt was the greatest.

So, how is this a trap? First off, the assumption here is that whatever he said, whatever he named as the greatest commandment, could be debated. The Pharisees saw an opportunity precisely because they trusted in their own ability to make a counter-argument. That was a mistake.

What they didn’t anticipate, what they couldn’t anticipate, was that Jesus would not only answer the question, but also create a two-sentence summary of a ten-point summary that would sum up all of the law. Hence the ending of the little episode, when Matthew says, “from that day on, no one dared asked anymore questions.”

Here’s how it works: Take ten fingers, and recite with me the top ten commandments. More than one scholar argues that the ten finger/ten commandment thing is no accident.

No other gods
No idols
Don’t use God’s name in vain
Keep the Sabbath
Honour parents
No killing
No adultery
No stealing
No lying (false witness)
No coveting

Now take the first five (gods, idols, vain, Sabbath, parents) and imagine how you will “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then take the second lot (murder, adultery, stealing, lying and coveting) and imagine how you will “love your neighbour as yourself.”

Like Dan Brown and a bad novel it all seems to fit. By loving God and loving your neighbour, you’re not keeping two commandments, you’re keeping 10 commandments. But not just any ten, the big ten, the same ten that are summary of the 613 laws that makes up the whole of the law. So two is ten and ten is 613 and fully half can be summarized with the simple sentence “love your neighbour as yourself.”

Before I go on, I want to you visit Youtube when you get home and search for “Stephen Colbert 10 commandments.” In this wonderful 56 second video, Stephen listens to an impassioned Georgia Congressman make the case for posting the ten commandments in every courthouse in the U.S., then Stephen asks him to name then. The congressman gets three.

So, fully half of the law can be summarized with the simple sentence “love your neighbour as yourself.” But what does that require? It requires local knowledge. It requires the kind of local knowledge that only comes from living in a place, knowing the people, and understanding their story. Local knowledge.

This year marks the 100 anniversary of J.S. Woodworth’s book “My Neighbour,” a sequel of sorts to his previous book “Strangers Within our Gates.” Woodsworth was Methodist minister, born to the manse, and went on to become the first leader of the CCF, forerunner of the NDP. And while Woodsworth didn’t invent outreach ministry, he was certainly among the first to write about it in Canada.

He wrote from the mean streets of North Winnipeg, where poverty and disease were rampant, and the church was struggling to respond. In the conclusion to a chapter called “A Challenge to the Church” he wrote, “The effort must be not merely to preach to the people, but to educate them and to improve the entire social condition.” In other words, love your neighbour as yourself.

In his six years ministering in the north-end of Winnipeg, Woodsworth became a student of place, gathering the kind of local knowledge that demanded two books be written. It was never a case of telling them what they needed (although when it became obvious, he told others), it was a case of learning the context, knowing the people, and understanding their stories. Love your neighbour.

One of the advantages of being a guest preacher is that I can say things that are really provocative and then just drive away. It seems, however, based on my chats with Tim, that the most provocative thing I can say is “keep doing what you’re doing.” Keep thinking about the needs of others, keep engaging the children, keep supporting local need. Now I can linger for coffee, having offended no one.

In many ways, the church I serve and Appleby are sister congregations. Next month we will celebrate 190 years of ministry (not that we’re competing) and we even share a connection through Edgerton Ryerson, the seventh minister to serve our congregation. We also try to keep the focus on local mission, through our drop-in and through an attached senior’s building that makes pastoral visiting a snap. And we try to look forward, imagining what it will mean to be faithful not in 10 years or 25 years, but when we’ve been at the corner of Weston Road and King for another 190 years.

When I described local knowledge in sailing as life-and-death, I was being only slightly dramatic. The old Celtic prayer goes “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” And you don’t need saltwater to experience it, you need only head that way (pointing southeast). The curvature of the earth means that you can only ever see fifteen nautical miles in any direction, and when you cross the lake there is a time when you mostly lose sight of land. A sturdy boat and all the lifejackets the regulations require never fully eliminate that feeling of vulnerability.

So we seek to gain knowledge, we never stop being students of our setting. And should we ever feel we know everything we need to know to make decisions about out life together, Jesus is calling us to head our once more and gather more local knowledge. “Love your neighbour” is a summary, and a command, but it is also a way of life. It is a way of life that assumes that the streets around us are always changing, and that the things that we did in the past are not likely to work any longer. It is a way of life that accepts that expecting change is the only constant in our lives, and remaining faithful means being prepared set aside treasured things in favour of the new need that will inevitably make itself plain. It means understanding that the decisions we make will effect the life of the community and may (for some) even be life-and-death.

If we had more time, I would spend more time on the first half of Jesus’ summary, loving God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. But you can’t preach all day, so I have to draw to close. I love Jesus’ summary, and no preacher would try to suggest a change, but I will share a restatement. The command, you see, to love God with heart and soul and mind can sound to some like a command, with even a slight note of judgment. And I don’t think that was the intention. I think a long ago group of Presbyterians made a helpful restatement, taking out the command vibe and finding the joy. Pardon the old-style language:

1. What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism has 106 more questions, which we don’t have time for, but question one pretty much sums up when we follow Jesus and keep two great commandments: They allow us to glorify God and enjoy God everyday. This is good news, may it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 09, 2011


Luke 17
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus* was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers* approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’ 14When he saw them, he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’* feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, ‘Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ 19Then he said to him, ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

“Okay, now say ‘thank you.’”
“Thank you.”
“Okay, now say it like you mean it.”
“Thank you.”
“Did you really say it like you mean it?”
“Not really—thank you.”

Have you heard this dialogue before? Or how about this one:

“No, I’m sorry.”
“No really, I’m sorry.”
“Okay, sorry.”

That one was two Canadians trying to pass in a narrow aisle. It seems some (maybe most) of us were trained up to be polite. It is one of the gifts we give our children, called politeness or perhaps the more general heading of etiquette. As I typed this I realized that I had no idea how to spell etiquette, even though I have some etiquette and have been using the word for 40 or so years now.

Thank heavens for spell check and Google then, because I can now spell it and tell you that it began life as a French word. It came into it’s own during the reign of Louis XIV, in the form of little cards scattered all over Versailles that said things like “keep off the grass.” So the French word that literally means “tag” or “memo” crossed the Channel to become rules of behaviour in polite society. So you pretend you don’t know.

Of course it starts smaller than anything you might find at Versailles. “Don’t hit mommy,” is an early example, or “share that with your sister,” or “use your napkin.” Our parents send messages, direct or indirect, on how to behave, how to react, and how to acknowledge others. We tend to learn them, but do we take them to heart?

While passing on the way, Jesus begins a period of group healing. Ten cry out, and never wanting to waste time, he healed them all. He cautions them to go to a priest, for verification and the way for ex-lepers to reenter society, and they are “healed on the way.” Ten lepers, 30 seconds of interaction, and Jesus’ work is done.

But wait. One turns back. Now he is on the ground, praising God for the gift of healing and thanking Jesus. Jesus notes the absence of the other nine, and says ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

As I was raising my now fairly polite son, I realized that while etiquette can be taught, you can’t make anyone feel it. You can create in them the automatic responses “thank you” and “here, let me get that for you” but you can’t teach gratitude. Thankfulness is a worldview—not a set of rules—and as such, cannot be taught. Maybe the message of Luke 17 is that one-in-ten will be truly grateful, a clear signal that maybe our Lord was a little tired the day he met ten lepers on the road.

Now Jesus, being Jesus, did not retract the gift of healing on the nine ungrateful ones. Grace is grace, and whatever the nine failed to do did not warrant returning them to lives of pain and isolation. The only difference between the nine who fled and the one who turned back was the blessing-of-sorts that concludes the passage: ‘Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.’

‘Get up and go on your way’ is consistent with the “now go, and tell no one” approach that Jesus brought to most of his healing ministry, and really just a restatement of the original command to see a priest to verify the healing. But the second thought, “your faith has made you well,” is both a theological conundrum and a historically regrettable statement all at once.

First, the regret: Out of context, the statement “your faith has made you well” creates the impression that degree of faithfulness and the opportunity for healing go together. For as long as there have been believers there has been the misapprehension that my ability to heal hinges on the level of faith I have somehow achieved. The shadow side of this, of course, is the sense that if I fail to heal I am somehow lacking in faith or trust or some other impossible-to-measure element.

I can say with certainty that God is a source of healing and new strength, but I cannot tell you how and I cannot tell you why some and not others. To accept this unknowing, this ultimate mystery, is my definition of faith. To remain devoted to a God I cannot fully understand takes faith, and the ongoing sense that something far beyond my level is comprehension is happening. To say “your faith has made you well” must mean something else.

Over his doorway, Karl Jung engraved the words “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” (vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit) He didn’t write it, he found it in the writings of Erasmus, who found it among Greek sayings, who said it belonged to the Spartans. Some translate it to ‘Acknowledged or unacknowledged, God is present.’ Either way, the adage recognizes something that every parent of the teenager knows: Some day they will appreciate me, acknowledge me, and understand why I do the things I do. Until then, I’m just in the way.

So God is present to ten lepers through the gift of healing, and for nine God is unbidden. For the one, fallen to the ground, God is bidden and very much present. ‘Your faith has made you well,’ says Jesus, recognizing that for one-in-ten at least, God is the source of healing. You were going to be healed anyway, but in your case, leper number ten, your faith has made you well.

Thinking way back to last week, I mentioned the myth of self-reliance and the abiding sense some possess that you create your own reality, your prosperity, even your health. One wonders about nine lepers, passing by the way, crying out for healing. Was it bad parenting that led them away? Did they somehow think that they brought about their own healing, by simply crying out? Did they doubt the veracity of the healing they received, wanting verification before making a fuss? We can’t know, we only know that one came back.

Every once and a while I will offer some feedback or make a comment about something and the person will say “can you write that down and send it to me” or “can you say more” and I get the sense that if no one offers an opinion, opinions don’t really exist. Remember the tree falling in the forest? Like the tree that no one hears, when we don’t voice something, it’s like the thought never existed. I can feel grateful, but if I don’t tell someone, it’s like I was never grateful at all.

So it is with nine lepers, undoubtedly grateful, but unable to turn back and say it. We can correctly assume that at some future date, maybe pressed by friend or family, the silent lepers will say “Jesus made me well, and everything changed.” Maybe they will give God the glory, in a future moment of reflection, then tell their story. But we didn’t receive that story, we received another one, and it forces us to ponder what it means to be truly grateful.

Sometime soon, maybe today or maybe tomorrow, Jesus will say “Get up and get your turkey, your faith has made you grateful.” Plenty of people will feel thankful, for a good land, for the harvest, and for the farmers. But only a few will say it out loud, or make a fuss, or make an extravagant prayer, and to them we can say, “your faith has made you grateful.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Proper 22

Philippians 3
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

My favourite TV personality is a tiny gecko. I get my hair cut at the Little London Barber Shop by Nigel (he’s from South London). This summer I read The Eagle of the Ninth, The Thames: A Biography, and five books by Bernard Cornwell centered around the life of Alfred the Great, who (for me) really defines what it means to be British in the ninth century. Yes, I’m an Anglophile.

My Dutch ancestors are not pleased. Four wars fought between the English and the Dutch, and maybe a fifth going on inside me now as I confess my love for all things British.

Carmen tries to help. She won’t let me watch Coronation Street when she’s home. She won’t allow me to rent the latest film version of various Bronte or Austen novels. I’m discouraged from talking like the aforementioned gecko. I don’t think she’s noticed yet that my favourite online newspaper is The Guardian.

Speaking of The Guardian, a fine newspaper, with just the right politics, they always cover international news from a unique perspective. There are few Canadian news items, of course, because not much happens here. But their US coverage, sometimes edgy, sometimes a little condescending, is usually worth a read.

The Guardian has been reporting for a few days on the Occupy Wall Street protests, which is a good thing, because the US media has mostly ignored it. At one point there were 5,000 protesters in the streets of lower Manhattan, and it might as well have been happening on another planet, or some other country. And at least one astute blogger made the point that if it was happening in another country, the mainstream media would likely have covered it.

Last week I mentioned all the social action training I received when I was an impressionable young seminarian, all that training focused on the principle of getting people to take notice. Help the media get your story out, we were told, or make it hard for them to resist, so that the news people can’t, well, resist.

But when worldviews are threatened, or narratives are challenged, the media becomes strangely silent, unable to report a story, and will turn instead to Ashton and Demi, or that thing Brad said about Jen, or an 800 lb. Pumpkin, as described this morning on

Worldviews and narratives are a powerful thing. Paul knew it, and he wrote about it, in the very letter that Jim read this morning. Paul’s narrative was this: if you are circumcised, if you honour your tribe, if you follow the law, if you show zeal in defending your faith from all adversaries, you are a great success. If you demonstrate this type of righteousness, you will receive an appropriate reward. But then he pauses, and says:

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I now consider them garbage.

Dung is a more accurate translation, according to some. So for Paul, whatever were gains to him, whatever the status, whatever satisfaction he felt is now dung. This is a change in narrative. Whatever he valued before, now has no value. Whatever gave his live meaning, now has no value, what ever he pursued with the zeal only Paul could show, now has no value. He is a new man.

Now, the traditional picture of Paul is a man struck from his horse, upbraided by a heavenly voice, temporarily blinded, and finally won to the cause of Christ. It has drama, it is the literal ‘road to Damascus experience.’ But the passage Jim read, the passage that begins with Paul’s C.V. of righteousness, is more reflective. It is a conversion in retrospect, without the flash of light, but just as profound in scope.

Profound, I would argue, because it documents this new worldview, the end of one narrative and the beginning of another, the shift from earning God’s favour to dying with Christ. Minus the flash of light, it is just as dramatic a transition.

It is the same dramatic transition that Luther made, and then Wesley made two hundred years later while listening to Luther read aloud. It is the transition from an earned righteousness to a righteousness freely given, given solely on the basis of a relationship with Christ. All the zeal in the world was for naught—
something else Luther and Wesley learned the hard way—because God’s zeal for us is freely given.

If you will permit me to go back to Wall Street for just a minute, you will see the same transition playing itself out. The great myth of our southern neighbour, some describe it as a dream, is that people who work hard and rely only on themselves will achieve material prosperity. It is the national narrative, an article of faith that is held just as tightly has Paul’s loyalty to tribe and law and the outward marks of faith.

But somehow, when people were not looking, the narrative changed. They found themselves ‘under water’ while the banks did not. They lost things, precious things like homes and self-esteem, and the banks did not. Suddenly it seemed the entire system was tilted away from the very citizens it was designed to protect, and very few noticed.

One of the remarkable aspects of the last two weeks, aside from being a story you had to actively search to find, is the personal testimony. Under the heading “We are the 99%” people have begun posting photos of themselves holding hand written notes that describe their situation: staggering student debt, unemployment, lost benefits, homelessness. The notes conclude with “I am the 99%” meaning not a member of the 1% that controls 40% of the wealth in the US.

Another article this morning, again on, is a look at the way preachers have approached the economic downturn. The title of the article is “Preachers confront 'last taboo': Condemning greed amid the Great Recession.” More than one pastor argues it is always easier to preach about sex than money. Some simply avoid the topic altogether, and others preach that being more charitable is the answer. The article does mention Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the Social Gospel Movement, and his effect on government policies toward the poor 100 years ago, and even draws a link between Dr. King’s anti-poverty work and his assassination. The last word: “There just aren’t that many prophets left.”

Paul said: “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” Notice the lack of hubris in his words, the new humility that he finds even as he is busy being the architect of this new faith. He wants to participate in the suffering of Christ, crucified for speaking truth the world that could not hear, in the hope that he could somehow attain Christ’s resurrection.

He is willing to suffer (and his letters record he did) because his worldview has changed. He no longer seeks for a life of comfort, the life he felt was owed him for his righteous zeal. He seeks to be faithful to Christ, enduring whatever comes from describing Christ and following in his way. He is willing to put on Christ, to be his ambassador, even at the cost of this own safety and eventually his life.

To follow Christ means having new goals. It is no longer seeking individual reward for good deeds, it is the way of the cross, and the way of loving and serving others wherever it leads. It is no longer standing up for tribe and creed, but standing up for whom ever follows in the way of mercy and compassion. It is no longer accepting that this is all there is and this is where we seek rewards, but rather understanding that there is always much more than we can see and the reward is always a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God, amen.