Sunday, January 29, 2012

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

If we were going to talk about the boiler at Central United Church, I might say there is a ‘sweet spot.’

Actually, I might say there is the opposite of a sweet spot, whatever that is. In an all-off or all-on kind of place, it’s the day between minus five and plus five that leads to the subtle feeling that you’re a rotisserie chicken at the Swiss Chalet.

But it could be worse. You laugh, but on my settlement charge, way back in time, it was worse. At the littlest church, six members, the congregation huddled around the wood stove in the centre of the church while the pulpit resembled a giant Popsicle. At the next biggest church, seven members, the same story, with the added bonus of being on a windy hilltop.

Finally, at the big church, twenty-five members, they opted for the kind of thermal heaters you find at a hockey rink. Now, you’re thinking, hockey rink, aren’t the ceilings usually a little higher? Yup. The church was like a giant tanning salon from the waist up, while legs and feet remained frozen.

I mention my settlement charge, Althorpe, Bolingbroke and Calvin United Churches, not simply to illustrate that it could worse, but to point to a phenomenon related to the lesson of the day. You see, back in my day (meaning before last year), ministers were sent out to very forgiving churches in the hinterland to make numerous mistakes, learn from said mistakes, then return to larger places ready to appear largely competent.

Ask any minister ordained or commissioned prior to the end of the settlement requirement and they will regale you will stories of Newfoundland or Saskatchewan or that empty space on the map near Sharbot Lake and all the crazy mistakes they made. And in doing so, they will be living examples of something Malcolm Gladwell described in his book The Outliers, “The 10,000 Hour Rule.”

The 10,000 hour rule actually belongs to a Swedish psychologist named Anders Ericsson, and simply suggests that to become an expert at anything, you need to practice it for 10,000 hours. Gladwell cites a few examples, the Beatles in Hamburg, playing all day, every day in clubs for four years before achieving stardom. He points to a couple of entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who came of age at the same time as a build-it-yourself computer came on the market, spending their 10,000 hours tinkering and programming before doing what they did.

So if you are busy doing the mental math, let me help. At forty hours a week, it will take you five years to become an expert in your field. Back to settlement, expected length of three years, means you are still getting people in a process of becoming experts, still a little wet behind the ears. But this is a practical problem, generally met with a little patience, and not a theological problem, as found in Mark 1.

They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

Remember this is Mark 1. Jesus may be the Galilean number one with a bullet, but he is still new. So he’s begun this seemingly new ministry of teaching and casting out demons, demonstrates authority that astounds the local population and even the demons themselves, but has no where near his 10,000 hours. So you invoke the Son of God rule.

But now, you see, there is a problem. To simply say “yes, but he is the Son of God” and assume that it explains everything is getting pretty close to the heresy I mentioned at the beginning of the month, Docetism. Recall, there were some that believed that Jesus was ‘just visiting,’ a God in human form, and not really human at all. The 10,000 hour rule goes out the window, assuming it only applies to humans, and not God.

But since we are not Docetists, and there is not a heretic among us (at least I don’t think there is), we have to imagine that the very human Jesus spent those early years that go undescribed practicing his craft. 10,000 hours in practice teaching. 10,000 hours--in various ways--confronting demons. 10,000 hours healing the sick. And 10,000 hours crafting a Gospel message that would someday become our own.

I’m not sure if the idea of the practicing Jesus is comforting or oddly disconcerting. Early failures, mistakes made in theology and practice might undermine our confidence rather than build it. Instead we have a single story, the twelve year-old Jesus in the Temple, separated from his parents and then discovered in deep discussion with the elders, clearly wise beyond his years. It seems he was already busy working on his 10,000 hours, impressing people at twelve and ready to spend those next anonymous years becoming the Jesus we meet again by the seaside in Mark 1.

Now, maybe you are still stuck back at Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and thinking about your RIM stock. How does that fit with the 10,000 hour rule? What if you are the tech darlings that everyone points to as a model of success then something else begins to happen? Maybe 10,000 hours is not enough to guarantee success. More than one commentator this week pointed to the lean years at Apple when the end seemed near and suggested the same thing may happen in Waterloo.

And this is where you can finally point to the Son of God argument. As Son of God, Jesus is in the process of becoming, but only in one direction. There is a growing sense of his divinity, a growing sense that he is completely filled with God, enough that we can eventually say that Jesus is God too. By the time we pick up the story in Capernaum Jesus is fully human and fully divine, having overcome that final encounter with the adversary in the desert and now ready to embark of a journey of new life for each of us.

And this is where you can point to the other side of the Son of God argument. Jesus’ primary role, the role that he honed over 10,000 hours, the role that truly speaks to his authority, is forgiveness. The people are amazed, the demons obey him, but mostly he meets us where we are, far short of our 10,000 hours, and forgives. Call this the RIM amendment, where our lives are filled with successes and setbacks, the accumulation of hours followed by a string of failures, and yet we are forgiven.

Expert in human terms means better and better at everything we try, punctuated by the limitations built into the very fabric of being human. Expert in Jesus’ terms means godlier and godlier until being God, ready to enjoy our successes, forgive our failures, and hold us each day. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

If you want a glimpse of the future of work, I give you

Back in my day, if you had a lawn mover or a snow-shovel, you saw every neighbour as a potential revenue source. “Cut your lawn, Mr. Smith?” It was win-win, really. Mr. Smith gets a chore out of the way, you have a couple of extra bucks in your pocket, and someone else pays for the gas (a kid can’t be expected to buy gas!)

Some clever person took this same concept to the internet in the form of Under the byline “The place for people to share things they're willing to do for $5” the site appears only limited by the imagination of the sellers. A few examples:

I will write a Shakespearean sonnet for $5
I will give you relationship advice for $5
I will have an uncomfortable conversation on your behalf for $5
I will help you apologize with a song for $5
I will be your girlfriend at facebook for 10 days for $5
I will proofread any document up to 5 pages double spaced for $5
I will translate your tattoo to Hebrew for $5

Thank good it belongs to the future, because it doesn’t translate well in the past:

I will follow an itinerant preacher around the Galilee for $5
I will tidy the nets you cast aside in your haste for $5
I will replace you in the boat with Papa Zebedee for $5

It doesn’t work in a subsistence economy where no one had $5 to blow on a Shakespearean sonnet, and it doesn’t work when the new system Jesus introduces revolves around trusting in the generosity of others. The message is free, the invitation is free, and the life of a disciple is seemingly free. Or is it?

In fact, the costs begin to mount almost immediately. Four young men removed from the community in as many verses. We don’t know who Simon and Andrew supported through their fishing, but the first person to make a sacrifice to this endeavor is named: Zebedee, father of James and John. That two sons are gone means more men to be hired. The initial ridicule he would face at allowing his sons to wander off may have been offset by the growing fame this little band received. Eventually there is the sting felt at the martyrdom of his son James, perhaps made easier by the long life of his son John, and the knowledge that John was closest to Jesus.

Clearly the life is not free: discipleship promised years of travel and adventure, but also constant danger and (in the early days) a violent end for most. So we could say the cost was large for everyone involved, a cost not reflected in almost casual invitation “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.”

But how else could Jesus frame it? On one hand you could argue that Jesus was unaware of the full extent of his ministry, or at least unaware of the violence that would come. I’m not sure that works for someone who was present on the first day of creation, and I don’t think it works for someone who understood the true nature of humanity and the length we would go to remove God from our midst, given half a chance.

So I’m willing to argue that Jesus was aware of what was coming, understood that initial excitement would turn to rejection when it became clear that Jesus was not here to overthrow Rome, at least not following the timetable they would prefer. Jesus understood the way of the crowd, and the path of least resistance, and the extent to which the call to repent becomes unwelcome pretty fast considering how deeply Jesus wants us to go.

So you start small, or slow, or both, when you are trying to attract followers. You don’t list the cost up front, or you will frighten people away. I’m sure no one said “leave your comfortable parish and someday you will be Chair of the Board.” Or “marry Barb, move to Weston and someday you will be Chair of the Trustees.” Or “join a youth choir and someday get trapped in a wooden box with pedals.”

And the ongoing invitation is no different. When I was back in minister’s school they insisted we should put everyone through membership classes, with lists of expectations, how much money you will give, which committees you will join, how much study you will put into this new endeavor you are volunteering to undertake. Basically, the idea was tell them up front that discipleship is costly, and weed out the weak ones. We were trained in vetting: decide who was worthy of baptism, who was worthy of membership, who was worthy of marriage, and so on. Never were we told to follow the example of Jesus, who simply said “follow me,” walk with us for a time, see of this is the place for you.

The one costly thing I will set before you, the one thing that may make you squirm in your pew and risk slivers is the very work that Jesus began. Jesus said “follow me” and we are meant to say it too. He didn’t say read my blog, look for my ad in the York Guardian, he said: “come with me.” A personal invitation is the only way to grow a fellowship. Advertising doesn’t work, congregational visioning doesn’t work, putting on a shiny new roof apparently doesn’t work, only the personal invitation where each of us says to someone else “let me take you to my church.”

1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
4 Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. 6 The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us so that we will not perish.”
9 He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”
12 “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”

That’s one way to avoid God’s call. So what would you rather, invite someone to church or end up in the belly of a whale. Those are really your only two choices. Okay, go ahead and pick the whale, but I’ve got to warn you, it’s easier going in than coming out.

So Jonah accepts his call. He goes to Nineveh, and spends three days crossing the vast city shouting a message of repentance. He has been running, he has the ultimate gastronomical experience, he has shouted until his voice is hoarse, and then, just like that, they repent. ‘Okay,’ they say, ‘we can do that, sorry.’ And now Jonah is just mad. He wanted God to call down fire. He wanted the shock and awe. He wanted to see the people punished, not for their misbehavior, but because he worked so hard to see something happen. Then, it’s all sackcloth and forgiveness.

If we ask the question “did Jonah even want them to repent?” then the answer seems more no than yes. He was clearly unhappy, and the source of his frustration seems to be all his suffering while the people of Nineveh were so easily spared. They are all relieved and happy and Jonah still smells like the inside of a whale.

If we ask the question “do we really want to add people to our fellowship, to grow the church?” a truthful answer might be “I’m not sure.” More people would be nice, to be sure, but more people brings more problems: more people to get to know, more people who will share their brokenness, more people with quirks and strange ideas and the sense that everything could change because they’re not tied to any kind of status quo. You might say new people are more trouble than they are worth, and you might get an insight into the state of the United Church of Canada from sea to sea.

Too often the message at the door (unstated) is come on in, but don’t expect us to change, and make sure you are willing to undertake the projects we want you to do, and worship the way we like to do, and express your faith in the way the rest of us do.

Jesus said “follow me” but he didn’t say “follow me and stop being you.” Did he know that he would someday weep at the grave of Lazarus, his heart broken for the pain his friends were feeling? The disciples are as much a part of the story as Jesus himself, engaging in conversation, demanding explanations, no doubt challenging Jesus and maybe even changing Jesus’ mind from time to time. Having followers is messy, having companions of the road is messy, being a congregation is messy, but it is the call we follow, even through the belly of a whale. Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

It was the late Tip O’Neill that said “all politics is local.”

Now, as political quotes go, it might not have the charm of “Where’s the beef” (Walter Mondale), or “I’m no crook” (Richard Nixon), or my all time favourite “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy” (Lloyd Bentson). But if the sole criteria was profound simplicity, “All politics is local” would be the hands-down winner.

What O’Neill was suggesting, and what has become conventional wisdom in the political realm, is that the most important thing for a politician to consider is what truly matters to his or her constituents. If you fail on this measure, if you get caught up in issues that do not matter to the people who elected you, then they will employ that other great political cliché and “send you a message,” meaning choose not to re-elect you.

Religion, too, is profoundly local. A leading example would be the Reformation principle that the religion of the ruler determines the religion of the people (cuius regio, eius religio). This idea became the best means to end the wars that plagued the middle of the 16th Century, and determined the course of much of European history. Another example would be that in spite of the best efforts of a century and a half of missionary activity, the best indicator of your adherence to one of the world’s great religions is the location of your birth.

The passage Joyce read this morning picks up this theme, with locality, and the setting of the narrative, taking centre stage in the story:

Jesus decided to leave for Galilee
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida
“Nazareth!” Nathanael says, “Can anything good come from there?”

Even the names of the disciples tend to geography. Nathanael is about as Hebrew as you can get, the literal meaning of his name being “gift from God.” Philip, on the other hand, is about as Greek as you can get, likely named for Philip of Macedonia, a king and general second only in rank to his son, Alexander the Great. If you are looking for an early hint that Jesus’ ministry is meant to include everyone than we see a beginning in the call of the disciples.

So Jesus appears at the seaside and begins to pick disciples. And the heart of this passage, the call of Nathanael, tells us at least three things about the nature of call: It is individual, it is gift-based, and it tends to our learning needs.

The invitation that begins the passage, “follow me,” is the prototype for the invitation extended to every believer down through time. I think you could successfully argue that there are no more important words uttered by Jesus, or perhaps second only to “your sins are forgiven.” Follow me defines the nature of our faith as followers, it is a personal invitation extended to all people, and it disarms us in it’s simplicity. It is really all Jesus asks of us, that we follow in his way.

But the call of Nathanael takes a different turn. His invitation is individual and based in his character: When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

I hope you can glean the playfulness in this exchange. If there is one aspect of Jesus character that is most often missed, it is his playfulness. Great swaths of scripture are most often read with the dourness that defines too many preachers and too many sermons and misses that Jesus was likely being playful.

So Jesus engages Nathanael in a playful way, but also in a way that identifies and lifts up his leading virtue: he is without deceit. More than a little disarmed by the comment, Nathanael becomes quickly convinced that this is no ordinary teacher, that this is the Son of the Most High. He lets him know, and even suggest Jesus is the King of Israel, then the conversation turns.

Jesus, it seems, has no time for flattery. Jesus provides a correction, maybe even a rebuke, and Nathanael stands corrected:

50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

Here is where the learning appears. Jesus is primarily a teacher, send to show and tell the ways of God. And in this situation he can immediately discerns something about Nathanael that may prove a barrier to his faith development—being too easily impressed—and he seeks to correct it. Mere seconds into this relationship Jesus has already guided him to greater maturity in the faith: don’t be easily impressed, wait and see, and be open to the real miracles that are coming.

It’s in our hymn, the same three themes, that make “Jesus calls us over the tumult,” a sermon in a song:

The call is individual, calling us by the name that belong to each of us: “Christian, follow Me!” The call lifts up the best in us, as it describes the best in St. Andrew: “Turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for Jesus’ sake.” And the call is a call to learn and grow into discipleship, beginning with one that we all struggle with: “From each idol that would keep us, saying, “Christian, love Me more!”

For many of us, and at most times, call is an interior journey. We are not necessarily blessed with the kind of direct encounter that the disciples experienced, or some believers have described through the centuries. Instead, we experience a more internal conversation, where we open our hearts to the still, small voice calling our name. We pray that we can be open and hear, that we can name and affirm the very strengths that God sees in us, and we can hear encouragement in the words of others, urging us on to greater faithfulness.

Appropriate to today, Martin Luther King Day, I conclude with words from one of the hymns sung at his memorial, April 8, 1968:

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you and for me;
See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching,
Watching for you and for me.

Come home, come home,
You who are weary, come home;
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Baptism of Jesus

Acts 19
1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when[a] you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues[b] and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

In the ongoing war against heresy, I give you the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. With the self-appointed mandate to “equip Christians with the truth, to expose the error of false religious systems, evolution, to teach apologetics,” CARM makes it easy to spot the heretics in your backyard.

The first way they make it easy is by presenting a handy list, right there on the front page of their website, with all the biggies:

Arianism: Jesus was a lesser, created being.
Docetism: Jesus was divine, but only seemed to be human.
Donatism: Validity of sacraments depends on character of the minister (more on this later).
Gnosticism: Dualism of good and bad and special knowledge for salvation (modern publishers love this one).
Nestorianism: Jesus was two persons (Church of the East).
Patripassionism: The Father suffered on the cross (I preached this just last April).
Pelagianism: Man is unaffected by the fall and can keep all of God's laws.
Semi-Pelagianism: Man and God cooperate to achieve man's salvation.

Now, before you heretics begin heading for the door, I have to mention a couple of things that can allow you to stay. The first is the United Church reluctance to uphold specific statements as critical to membership. We are decidedly non-doctrinal in our approach, though we do have some doctrine. And while other traditions focus on systematic belief (you might call them catechetical) the United Church does not.

So while you imagine yourself at Timmy’s tomorrow bragging about belong to a non-catechetical tradition, there is another important element that separates us from other traditions. (“Convivial, not catechetical”) When I was ordained, long ago, I made a pledge that I was in “essential agreement” with the 20 articles of the Basis of Union. There is no need to cross your fingers behind your back, or do that sideways head-shake that has become so popular, only pledge “essential agreement” and voila, you get a pulpit.

Following the reformation assumption that we are all priests now, we can also claim to be equally subject to the idea of essential agreement. This means that if you want to indulge in a little Semi-Pelagianism, then go ahead. You are not alone, since the United Church was born of the Social Gospel, the idea that we can work to bring about the Kingdom of God, locating heresy in our very DNA. And since we’re “convivial, not catechetical,” we place more value in being “United” than being right all the time.

Now, if you already woke up this morning with heresy on your mind, you might have done a double-take when Jim read Acts 19. Essentially, the passage describes re-baptism, forbidden under the rules as described a moment ago. Donatism, this idea that the validity of the sacraments depends on the character of the minister, was an early debate that was settled when one point of view was labeled incorrect.

The Donatist controversy developed like this: Entire branches of the early church would fall into error, be deemed heretical, repent, then return to the fold. If you failed to do the last part, the repenting and the returning, you were deemed a persistent heretic and cast out. Now the problem comes when the church had a population of believers baptized by these leaders deemed heretical. Is there baptism still valid? Should they be re-baptized by leaders who are non-heretical? The answer was no, there was to be no re-baptism, since the poor believer might be continually soaked if they had the unfortunate luck of being baptized by a string on people given to error.

Armed with your heresy list, you can now see how Jim’s reading seems suspect. Paul gives them a baptism quiz, discovers that they were not baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and promptly baptizes them again. Or does he? There is no re-baptism if the first baptism was done incorrectly, and therefore the Donatist issue does not apply.

But it does lead us to another matter, not covered by the reading, but related to the theme of the day. We call this Baptism of Jesus Sunday, the day in the Christian year when I highlight the congregation’s failure to produce babies in a timely manner. It is also the Sunday when we recount Jesus’ baptism by John, the very same baptism that Paul is now calling inadequate.

So Jesus submits to the Baptism of John, a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and begins his ministry. So, is it valid? You could correctly argue that Jesus couldn’t be baptized in the name of himself (redundant) but you would be left with another problem. According to orthodox belief, Jesus is without sin, and would therefore have no reason to attend a baptism of repentance. Sounds like another sermon to me. We may not be able to solve all this today.

It might be enough to say that the gift of the Holy Spirit is confirmed in our baptism, a baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Acts 19 is an early (and gentle) example to confronting incorrect belief and setting it right for the sake of the health of the whole church. Of course, this confronting would not always go so smoothly or gently.

Without recounting the entire and sorry history of the Christian church confronting heresy, suffice it to say that our ongoing obsession with heresy was often resolved with violence. And history records that the last person convicted and executed for heresy was Thomas Aikenhead, back in 1697. When I say “last person,” I mean under our legal system and in our religious tradition. After 1697, the people of Britain and Protestants generally have lost their appetite for destroying heretics.

But this hasn’t decreased our interest in heresy. Or maybe I should say “heretical thinking” and to illustrate this we need look no further than climate change. Now, before I say more, I want to be clear that I believe that we are cooking the planet with our greenhouse gases and need to ramp it back. Using one unit of energy to produce 1.1 units of energy (as we are doing in the tar sands of Alberta) is just stupid. Add to that list “fracking” and so-called “ethical oil” and you see a pattern of foolishness that oil makes.

However, I also don’t like ‘groupthink” and the extent to which religious orthodoxy has been pushed aside and picked up by others, most particularly people in the scientific community. The best example happened in the UK, with the airing of a program called “The Great Global Warming Swindle” by filmmaker Martin Durkin.

“The Great Global Warming Swindle” was shown on Channel 4, famous for shows like “Countdown” and “How to Look Good Naked” and something called “8 out of 10 Cats.” The Great Global Warming Swindle was an effort to add another voice to the debate on climate change, or at least challenge those who have determined that the debate is now settled.

Hauled before Ofcom, the government regulator for public broadcasting in the UK, Channel 4 was required to demonstrate how this program fit broadcast rules and in the end they could not. In effect, they were found guilty of failing to present the orthodox view that climate change is manmade when discussing how governments should respond to it. The fact that the whole point of the show was to question the idea in the first place seemed lost on the regulator.

So it seems the human urge to define correct thinking and make people adhere to it never when away at all. We just stopped worrying about correct religious belief and migrated the same human tendency over to the region of science. We claim to hold up freedom of expression as a high value, then get caught in trying to make people think the correct way all over again.

Heretics or not, we turn to the Holy Spirit for direction, for the sense that we are all broken and in need of redemption. We try to avoid telling people what to think, since our own thinking is a reflection of our limitations and occasion foolishness. And mostly we try to forgive: forgive ourselves for judging others, forgive others for judging us, and forgive God for making us less than perfect in the first place. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

First Sunday after Christmas

Luke 2
22 When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”[a]), 24 and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”[b]
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
29 “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss[c] your servant in peace.
30 For my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
36 There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.[d] She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
39 When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him.

I tried to be a pagan for a while, but it didn’t work out.

Well, not precisely pagan, more old Norse, and really just in name only. You see, back in the summer I was reading Bernard Cornhill’s Saxon Stories, a series of books (now six) that tell the story of Uhtred Uhtredson. Uhtred is a Saxon boy, captured by Danes, and grows to live in these two worlds, who also happen to be fighting for the future of Britain.

I tend to get caught up in my reading, and since I do most of it at the cottage, I thought I might slip in a phrase or two and see who notices. Hit my thumb with the hammer and I might exclaim something like: “Odin and all the gods, that hurt.” No real response. Waiting to go into town, I might say: “For the love of Thor, what’s taking you people?” Nothing.

Briefly, I began to believe that no one listens to me. I’m still working on that theory, but mostly I became convinced that by employing the standard formula (god/exclamation) that we’ve been using for a few thousand years, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. That, or no one listens to me.

I started thinking about the old gods, especially Wodin, Thor and Freya, and doing a little side reading to my reading, and realized their echo is never far away. In fact, the end of the week, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, are really Wodin’s Day, Thor’s Day and Freya’s Day, making us all more than a little pagan as the weekend nears.

And it gets worse. While Mary and Joseph were busy enacting the purification ritual at the Temple in Jerusalem, the nearby Romans were busy too. Just steps from the Temple, in the Antonia Fortress, the Romans were toasting the god Janus, the god of two faces.

It seems Janus was prefect for the occasion, the end of one year and the beginning of another, looking forward and looking back. Appropriate to this, Romans would make resolutions for the new year, looking forward and looking back, trying to remedy the mistakes of the old year by pledging to do better in the new. Sound familiar? And Janus, beginning of the year, as in January?

Add to that March for Mars the god of war, and July and August for a couple of Roman Emperors, and I would say we’re pretty much stuck in a pagan past. Thank goodness for Mary and Joseph, enacting a different kind of ritual, and showing us another way.

Anna and Simeon, waiting patiently in the Temple, are recorded in the New Testament but seem to belong to the Old. They are prophets, of the old school variety, waiting for a sigh of God’s promise to return. Simeon speaks first, and gives thanks that he was witness to the advent of this new hope, “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.”

I want to look at this phrase for just a moment as we ponder the more difficult aspects of the season we are in. It is hard to spend so much time on the idea of fulfilled promise, with our liberal use of the word Messiah, and not mention that for Jews, Messiah has not come. The “consolation of Israel” that Simeon seeks was not found in Jesus for the vast majority of Jews, and to simply suggest that we are right while they are wrong is to perpetuate a mistake that has tainted Christianity for two thousand years. It took the Holocaust and a repentant Pope (John XXIII) to help us see that suggesting Jews are mistaken at Christmas or guilty on Good Friday is both unjust and dangerous.

Looking to Simeon, his phrase may hold a way forward, with “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel” mirroring a very modern understanding of these two religions, Judaism and Christianity. Our religion, it turns out, was and is primarily a “revelation to the Gentiles,” the largest audience and the largest body of converts. Judaism quietly carried on, but does get recognition as the “older brother,” the root of three great faiths, and to echo Simeon, “the glory of the people Israel.”

Looking to Anna, she takes prophecy in a different direction, from consolation to the “redemption of Jerusalem.” Again, the more literal understanding would be that all everyone in the Holy City would be redeemed by Christ, and this did not happen. The Jewish population remained Jewish, many remaining in the city intermittently down to today. But shift from the Temple to the Fortress, and we begin to see Anna’s prophecy come true. For indeed it was Romans in the garrison who were partly responsible for carrying this message to the rest of the known world, ensuring that this early redemption of Jerusalem would have far reaching consequences.

So Anna and Simeon are right, but not in the most literal or commonly held way. They witness the beginning of something world-altering, but not in the way they might expect. But the clues are there, hidden in the text.

The first clue is the station of these young parents. They give the offering of people who live in poverty, the gift of birds rather than the traditional lamb. Considering that the vast majority were poor, but still managed to make the customary offering, we know that Mary and Joseph were very poor. Yet God chose to come to this household, not the governor’s palace, not the rich merchant’s house, and not the Imperial palace in Rome. God came to be with all people, and began among the most humble.

The second sign to something unexpected is happening can be found in Simeon’s summary words:

Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

The advent of Messiah was sure to generate conflict, to cause the falling and rising of many, and spark a debate that may never end. But the sword that would pierce Mary’s heart is unexpected, and foreshadows the ending we already know. Little did Simeon know that birth and death would be so intertwined, that it is the cross that becomes the mysterious way of redemption, and that the story would end with a lamb: the lamb of God.

As with so many things in life, hope and sadness come together, yet the final word is hope. The prophets of old see comfort for those who suffer, and the great reversals that bring glory to the most humble and humility to the powerful. Words spoken in the Temple have the greatest impact just a few paces away in the fortress, where the might of Rome will soon meet the lamb of God, and everything will change, Amen.