Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

Mark 1
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[a] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
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!”

Okay, Rick Santorum, maybe the devil does have it in for America.

Polling first in the Republican race, and trying to prove you can never be too conservative to get noticed south of the border, Santorum must live with the parsing of everything he has said to the media in the last twenty years. A few years back he told a conservative crowd that the devil is testing the United States like no other nation on earth.

I guess I have to agree and here is the evidence: The Kardashians, NASCAR, cheese in a spray can, Jersey Shore, Dick Cheney, any diet that begins in California, the summer blockbuster, and Bud Light. The devil is alive and well and living in America. Admittedly, Rick Santorum’s list would differ from mine, but the simple idea of testing is one which we both share.

Testing has a long and storied history. God said, “make a fruit salad out of anything you find in the garden, just leave that tree over there alone.” Abraham said “come along, Isaac, and bring my lucky knife. Don’t ask questions.” Moses said “I’m going up the mountain just now and all you people need to do is avoid fashioning livestock from gold.“ David asked, “that Bathsheba, is she married?” Time and time again, from Eden to the wilderness near the Jordan, people are being tested.

Notice that both God and the devil are in the business of testing. There is even one moment, in the Book of Job, where God and the devil are in it together: “Have you seen my servant Job,” God says, “there is no one more upright in all the earth.” The devil just shrugs: “Gimme five minutes with him, and then we’ll see how upright he remains.” And the wager is on.

So, if the overall heading is testing, temptation is an important subset. Temptation is about longing and desire. It is about what we think we need, or what we deserve, or what is readily available to us. It is about wanting what we don’t have and taking what belongs to someone else. It may be neglecting something that we are bound to do, or just doing nothing, which may be the strongest temptation of all.

One of the rules of thumb that we take to the Bible is that when a detail or a story is embarrassing or out of place with the overall narrative, it is more likely to be authentic. The story of David and Bathsheba—Israel’s greatest king engineering the death of his loyal general in order to steal his wife—is one of those so-embarrassing-it-must-be-true stories. The author of 2 Samuel could easily have omitted the story (as the author of Chronicles did) but decided to leave it in. Perhaps in his anger and disappointment he left it in, or maybe it was more abstract that that, simply ensuring that history has a balanced view on King David, the so-called greatest king.

So Jesus temptation in the wilderness, just two short verses in Mark, is a unique moment in the story that shocks some and puzzles others. In his perfection, Jesus would seem to be beyond temptation. But in his humanity, the same humanity that drives you and me, he couldn’t avoid being tempted, particularly in the cusp of all the celebrity he would soon face.

In many ways, the temptation story is there for every one of us. First, because we all face it, we can therefore relate to Jesus more readily. And secondly, because Mark adds no details, we can insert our own temptations, again making it something we can relate to and even unique to ourselves. We add ourselves to the story, and make it our own: Jesus tempted by shiny electronic devices, or anything malted, or anything that has a keel.

Now, this is annual meeting Sunday, and the topic is church, so maybe the temptation list should be more specific to the United Church of Canada circa 2012. Maybe the temptations should be more forward looking, with the things we seem unwilling to face or unwilling to admit even to ourselves as the life of the church unfolds. Now I have your attention.

First up, we are tempted to ignore reality. By at least one estimate, this one by a highly-placed church bureaucrat, where there are currently 90 United Churches in the City of Toronto, there will someday be as few as 15. And while I am certain that Central will be one of the remaining 15, we will be surrounded by the kind of change unseen in the history of the church in Canada. It will not be on the scale of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, once a large national organization, now little more than a memory, but it will be dramatic and it will seem quick.

We are tempted to ignore that all the mainline Protestant churches are in free-fall. That young people are even less interested in church than their baby-boomer parents, and that this national church we have so carefully positioned on the left of the political spectrum appeals to no one except the same people on the left who think religion is the root of all evil.

We are tempted, then, to turn inward. We are tempted to look after our own and focus on our own survival as a congregation at the precise moment when our neighbours need us most. The strongest urge in this new age of church closing will be becoming a denomination of one, to forget that we are part of a national church and imagine that the decline and fall of the United Church will not effect us as long as we look after ourselves.

We are tempted to turn inward even as the wider church becomes more bureaucratic, takes positions that seem like a parody of ourselves, and do the very same ignoring and turning inward that happens at a local level. I have been to General Council five times, and each time the topic under discussion was more disconnected from the reality on the ground. Denial is like a disease you catch, and the role of the local church is to make sure that the conversations that happen at the highest level of the church reflect what is truly happening in communities.

We are tempted to admit defeat. We are tempted to throw up our hands and say that if no one is interested in the message we have to share, that maybe we should shelve the message. Some will argue in favour of a vague humanism, a kind of “stone soup” theology that suggests we already have everything we need to live well and live together. Some will want a kind of “church-lite,” where we eviscerate our own tradition and remove the essential elements of what it means to worship God. And some will simply stay home, the future of the church seeming too hard to bear.

Finally, we are tempted to feel a little smug. When you one of the last congregations in the city with a Sunday School, and a healthy endowment, and younger people in leadership, you can tend to feel a little smug. You can imagine that you have done something right, when in fact, the thing that led to all this success may have happened long ago. The strategic location decision, for example, is 190 years old. Good luck taking credit for that.

So don’t ignore reality, don’t turn inward, don’t admit defeat, don’t feel smug and the list goes on. But don’t be too shy about telling the Central story (not the same as being smug) and don’t forget to always give God the glory for all that we do here.

As early as next week we will begin to take in people who have lost their church. In this, we have an opportunity to do some pastoral care, to try to understand the scope of this loss, and make some new friends. And there will be others. Churches will close, people will be adrift, and some will come to Central. We need to express, with one voice, that God’s mission is bigger than individual congregations and that we are merely a vehicle for people to remain faithful.

May God guide us as we enter this new time. May the Spirit speak through us as we share Christ’s message of compassion and new life. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Mark 9
2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
5 Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” 6 (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
8 Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

In the Maltese Falcon (1941), detective Sam Spade deals with “three unscrupulous adventurers who compete to obtain a fabulous jewel-encrusted statuette of a falcon.” Skip Casablanca and see this instead.

In Sunset Boulevard (1950), screenwriter Joe Gillis tries to manage Norma Desmond, “a faded silent movie star who draws him into her fantasy world of making a triumphant return.” Gloria Swanson’s Norma is perhaps the greatest performance in all of film.

In Chinatown (1974), detective Jake Gittes embarks on what seems a simple case of cheating to discover that people will kill to bring fresh water to L.A. Note: this is the greatest film every made.

In Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) the studio hires detective Eddie Valiant to follow femme fatale Jessica Rabbit and he uncovers a vast plot to eliminate streetcars and replace them with freeways. The Toronto update goes from streetcars to subways.

Four films, and four examples of film noir, Hollywood’s best contribution to film, and the genre that has successfully reinvented itself decade after decade.

Film noir most often involves a cynical or world-weary protagonist who usually sees the truth before it becomes obvious to everyone else. There is a femme fatale, a woman with some element of mystery who may or may not pose a risk to our hero. There are crooked cops and corrupt politicians, worthy adversaries who drive the plot forward. Many characters in film noir seem doomed, even our protagonist at times, and they serve to reinforce the sense of hopelessness in the story. And there is generally betrayal, someone turns on our hero to help produce an ambiguous ending.

If all this sounds familiar, perhaps you have seen one of countless examples of the genre, or maybe you’ve been reading your Bible. Even a passing glance at the Gospels will produce to sense that this genre was predicted in the past, maybe even formed in the unfolding story of the Jesus.

The cynical overlay begins early. John the Baptist, in pure noir narration (another feature) greets the people with “Who told you to flee from the wrath to come?” Nathanael hasn’t even met Jesus yet, and already he says “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Even Jesus seems to have a cynical moment when he asks the Caananite woman “is it good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs?”

There is at least one obvious femme fatale in the Gospels, although much of this understanding may be owing to medieval misinterpretation. All scholars agree that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, but her role among the disciples is at least suggestive. There seems to some kind of unique bond to Jesus, beginning when he casts out seven demons from her, and ending at the passion when she becomes the chief mourner.

Of crooked cops and corrupt politicians, I need only point to the Pharisees, the religious cops of the day, and their constant attempts to set a trap for Jesus. They misinterpret his words and actions, and happily spread misinformation to further their campaign against Jesus. As for corrupt politicians, look no further than Pontius Pilate, who finds nothing treasonable in Jesus' actions, yet washes his hands of the whole situation and sends Jesus to his death.

There are a number of people who seemed doomed, who pass through the Gospels as human wreckage. The rich young man who cannot surrender his wealth to follow Jesus, ungrateful lepers, and demoniacs who attempt to flee away at the sight of Jesus. His parables also describe those who become their own worst enemy: the rich man with Lazarus, the older brother, and those who cannot feed or clothe or visit those in great need.

And of course, betrayal. In the most noir moment in the Gospel, Judas comes to Jesus by night and betrays him with a kiss. Jesus is arrested, and the betrayer makes off with 30 pieces of silver, the first and most notorious example of blood money. But like all good film noir, the act is ambigious, since some claim that Jesus puts Judas up to it, that Jesus trusted Judas above all the others to carry through with the act that would lead to the cross, and ultimately the foundation of our faith.

I don’t know what else I can add to convince you that the Gospels are an early and fine example of film noir, worthy of Sam Spade and Eddie Valiant. But maybe I can’t in the end, because the Gospel writers add one element that on it’s own inoculates the Jesus story against noir: The Transfiguration.

But before I say more about transfiguration, I want to remind you of part of the cynical overlay found in the beginning of John’s Gospel. The narrative begins with the most dramatic cosmic flourish, the Word present at creation’s birth, then dramatically falls to earth:

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders[c] in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”
21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the Prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

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.

The cynics are looking for a new Elijah and a new Moses, and they will suspend judgment on this Jesus until they see whether he is a prophet worthy of the two greatest prophets in the history of their faith. Back to noir, with rapid-fire dialogue and a world-weary edge, these people are going to cling to the belief that Moses and Elijah may never return. How could they, against such a sinful generation and the power of Rome?

2 After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. 3 His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. 4 And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.
7 Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

The light is whiter that any known bleach, a dazzling light that arrests the imagination and overcomes even the most cynical follower. Amid the equally white cloud comes a voice, blessing this son that God loves, but issuing the command to listen. Is there any other way to defeat a cynic? Only the voice of God will convince the most hardened cynic, and God provides.

But is it enough to say that the Gospels were never really noir in the first place? Or to say they have elements of noir, but the pure light of God defeats it in the end?

Just a week after Jesus’ resurrection, arguably the most hope-filled week in human history, when word of the end of death is spreading among all those who were caught up in trial and cross, we hear these words: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

And film noir begins again. So maybe the premise of all that I have said this morning is wrong. Maybe it is not the Gospels presented in perfect noir, but all of human living. Perhaps the suspension of disbelief requires no suspension at all, since we are living the cinema every day. We are world-weary protagonists, with corrupt public officials and a cynical population, looking for the smallest ray of hope in an ambiguous and often dangerous world.

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” The cloud remains, and the light is often dimmed, but the message is eternal, if we only listen to him.

This is good news, thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
40 A man with leprosy[a] came to him and begged him on his knees, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.”
41 Jesus was indignant.[b] He reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed.
43 Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: 44 “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” 45 Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Imaging the relief when I tell wedding couples that they only have to remember one thing. Just one thing, two words actually, and a stress-free wedding day can be yours. Everything else is scripted, guided, whispered, or just plain obvious, so all they have to remember is “I will.”

“Will you take this man/woman to be your husband/wife?” And the answer, committed to memory, is “I will.”

This is where the wedding trivia gets fun. Under Ontario law, there are only three legal requirements, three things that form the essential parts of the day, excluding awkward speeches and dress you will never wear again. First is the “I will” question, which simply establishes that you are there of your own free will. Very important.

Next is the “just cause” question, which I like to say very slowly, but will say quickly now for the sake of time: “If anyone here can show just cause why these two persons may not lawfully be married now is the time to declare it.” Then, a really long pause. C’mon, you have to add a little drama to the day.

Finally, the third and last legal requirement, the one that makes clergy feel more important than we really are, is the solemn declaration that the couple is now husband and wife.

And that’s it. You don’t need vows, you don’t need “Ava Maria,” you just need to express a willingness to be there, promise that there are no impediments, and let me say that thing that really makes it feel like my special day. I’ll even say that to the bride: “You know, I’m the minister, so really it’s my special day.” Then watch a remarkable mix of emotions until they realize I’m just having a bit of fun.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Mark’s telling of the healing of the man with leprosy is less about healing and leprosy and more about the interaction between this man and Jesus. A question is asked, Jesus gets mad, the question is answered, a man is healed, a man is warned, and the man ignores the warning. Jesus gets mobbed.

Now, if this story was told anywhere else in the Gospels, it might make less sense. But here, at the beginning, we get a sense that Jesus always knew what was coming. Baptism by John, that was a small affair. Temptation in the wilderness, that happened in private. Calling the disciples, that was one-on-one. But healing a man of a dreaded disease, removing from him the stigma of being unclean, allowing him rejoin society: that was going to get out.

So the initial reaction is anger. The NIV prefers ‘indignation,’ part of an age-old debate whether Jesus, in his perfection, could even get angry. Whatever it is—annoyance, anger, indignation—Jesus had a strong reaction to the request. But he did it anyway, he healed the man, even thought he knew that after the healing everything would change.

And how could it not change? Who doesn’t have an ailment to take to the miracle man appearing suddenly in their midst? Jesus I’m colourblind, can you heal me. Jesus my neck is stiff, Jesus my doctor says drop 10 pounds, can you help me out. Everyone had something, and in a society without proper medicine was going to search for this miracle man in order to get better.

This is the first theory, then, that Jesus is outed as a healer, and now knows he will never rest until everyone in Israel is healed. But I have another theory, and this one relates to sales: Commonly known by salesmen and manipulative children and anyone trying to get what they want is to create a culture of yes.

Are you enjoying this weather? Yes.
Are you from around here? Yes.
Wanna buy a car? Yes.

The theory here is we are naturally led in the direction of that eventual yes, the yes that will seal the deal. The next time someone calls you to offer you mortgage insurance or duct cleaning, notice that they are creating the culture of yes the minute you pick up the phone.

Children try this too. Sometimes it’s a bit obvious, like “I want you to say ‘yes’ to the next thing I ask you.” I won’t fall for that one again. But sometimes it’s truly subtle, starting with some kind of willingness statement like “If you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow the car.” Immediately, even before we get to the meat of the question, we are thinking “why would I mind?” And what follows is usually a yes.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Manipulation or not, Jesus was willing, is willing, to heal us and make us whole. Even before we ask the question, Jesus is willing, and maybe that’s why he finds the question so annoying. Jesus is God’s great YES to humanity, the answer to every question:

Yes, I will make you my own.
Yes, I will liberate you from Pharaoh.
Yes, I will redeem you from exile.
Yes, I will send you my son.
Yes, I will forgive you for what you did to my son.
Yes, I will hear your prayers.
Yes, I will answer.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Logical or not, God is willing to walk with us even in our limitations and failures. From our earliest days we are trying to sell something. Yes, I’m a good boy, and yes, someone else must have eaten that cookie. From our earliest days we obfuscate, aggravate, acerbate and everything else worthy of our parents anger and frustration. From our earliest days we test God’s willingness to love and forgive and it just keeps happening.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Then the willingness tests get bigger: We want to trade our dirty oil for a couple of panda bears. We want to experiment with something called ‘fracking’ the earth just to see what damage we can truly do. Dictators want to kill their own people, and we seem to want to let them. We want trash TV, and trash-talk and we want it in High Def and 3D. And we want constant assurance that we’re somehow special and not at all like all the other people who want to be special too. And somehow God is willing to put up with all of this.

If you are willing…I am willing.

Jesus says “Are you willing to take this human race and name them your own?” And to this God says “I will.”

And if God is willing to take us and name us as God’s own, then how will we respond? If God is willing to overlook all our brokenness and foolishness and still claim us, how will we respond? And if God is busy putting before us opportunities to love and serve others, to forgive others and forgive ourselves, then how will we respond?

If you are willing…I am willing. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Central United Church – 5 February 2012 – Michael Kooiman

Isaiah 40
21Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; 23who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. 24Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble. 25To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. 26Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.
27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. 29He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

The only real value of football is teaching people Roman numerals.

I have come to understand that there is some kind of championship happening today. And while I don’t follow sports, I do tune in if there is some sort of religious angle to the event. And before I join every other (male?) preacher in North America and discuss Tim Tebow, I ask your pardon for only being interested in yacht racing, and beg that you do not cast me as hopelessly elitist in saying so.

Somehow I missed out on sports. Mount Albert is well-known in East Gwillimbury and beyond for amateur athletics. Instead of a town fair we have “Sports Day.” People are physically active, if only in walking up and down the hill. And children learn at a young age that either you uphold the local athletic tradition or become clergy and leave town.

Now even people who pretend not to be elitist know about Tim Tebow. He will not be playing in Superbowl XLVI (46 for you non-Romans), but not for lack of trying. He is famous for bringing his love of Jesus to the sport, for his trademark prayer stance, and for being the target of gentle or outright mocking.

Now, if you are visiting this planet for the first time today, let me tell you a thing or two about Americans. They love Jesus, football, and tailgating, but not necessarily in that order. There are high school stadiums in Texas larger than some occupied by professional teams. And if football is religion in America, then Tim Tebow is the lead pastor, with all the glory and all the grief that comes with such a position.

Appropriate to today, Tim Tebow is a fan of our scripture lesson, and has been known to apply “Isaiah 40:31” within his “eye black,” that is the smudges of black stuff that football players like to apply under the eyes. According to the Christian Science Monitor, who devoted an article to Tim Tebow’s eye black, Isaiah 40 is not in his top five favourite passages, but he has been known to use it. I wish I as making all this up, but am not.

So you’re a member of the opposing team, you are somewhere on the line of scrimmage, and you look up and see Isaiah 40:31 under Tim’s eye and you say to yourself: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Welcome to America.

On one hand, it is easy to be dismissive. While God loves Tim Tebow, I am certain that God loves his opponents equally, and will therefore not favour “The Mile High Messiah” in any sort of match as meaningless as professional sports. Theologians spotted this problem centuries ago: when two Christian armies go to war, both praying to God for victory, God stays out of it.

On the other hand, it seems that Tim Tebow is not actively praying for victory. Back in December he allowed the broadcaster to record his prayers before the game, and he prayed for protection for himself and the other players in the game, and (naturally) for the strength to honour Jesus. Now I kind of love the guy. What’s happening to me?


Just on Thursday I told Barbara that for the humble congregation to truly understand Isaiah 40.21-31, they needed to hear it in a British accent. She usually doesn’t fall for flattery, so maybe she was just being kind to me. Before she agreed, however, she did ask two important questions: Are there any difficult words in Hebrew, and what’s the passage about? I could truthfully say ‘no’ to the first, and to the second I simply said, ‘God is big and we are small.”

God is big and we are small. Just hold that thought for a moment or two as we look at Isaiah 40.

For the musically inclined, you might think to Handel, and the words “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Isaiah 40 is a bridge, a moment in the narrative when God switches from judgment to mercy. The exile will soon end, God is promising, along with the blessing of return:

Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

If we were to summarize Isaiah then, we might simply say ‘disobedience-exile, forgiveness-return.’ It is really as simple as that, with the people suffering the consequences of their waywardness and finally experiencing God’s mercy. Simple, yet extraordinary, and always happening in the context of our smallness and God’s bigness:

21Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? 22It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.

Maybe you experience some discomfort in being compared to an insect. Maybe you have yet to get in touch with your inner grasshopper? Maybe the whole idea that God is big and we are small is somehow disconcerting, and to this I say ‘embrace you smallness.’

Consider the Book of Job. Chapter after chapter Job and his so-called ‘comforters’ debate the role of God in Job’s suffering, the extent to which it is earned by this seemingly upright man. His comforters cling to the internal logic of the wisdom system, that the good proper and the wicked fail, and say simply ‘confess’ and your torment will end. But Job is upright, and cannot confess to crimes he did not commit, and the dialogue continues back and forth and back and forth until even God has had enough and speaks from the whirlwind:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

I think Job could have legitimately told God there was not need for sarcasm just then. But God is clearly annoyed. The grasshoppers have spend a couple dozen chapters looking up from amid the vegetation to wax philosophical about the world they can barely see. As bugs are to humans, we are to God. We are small and God is big and our job is to chew and hop and ponder and understand that we will never understand.

Over a century ago, when spending summer nights at his presidential retreat on Long Island, Teddy Roosevelt would spend long evenings with this close friend Charles Beebe, and they would discuss the boundaries of human knowledge in an age of science and new discoveries. Nearing the end of the evening, it is said, they would step out in to the night and look up, up to the multitude of stars in the sky. One would inevitable take his finger and trace an imaginary line down from Polaris, through the W of the Cassiopeia constellation, and rest upon our neighbouring galaxy Andromeda. Noting that it contains a billion stars (we now know that it tops out at over a trillion) one would say to the other: “Do you think that we are small enough. Perhaps we should stop for the night.”

If the question is “do you think we are small enough,” then I fear that the answer is frequently “small—we are not small. We have circled the globe and split the atom, walked on the moon and returned. We are not small, we are masters of the earth.”

And herein lies the problem with human living. God wants us to to be great in our smallness and we want to be great in our greatness. We want to see all things and know all things and conquer all things and never admit what God set out for us as early as Genesis 3: “You are dust and to the dust you shall return.” God made us grasshoppers and dust on the one hand, and little less than angels on the other hand, but we are satisfied with neither, choosing instead to claim equality with God as the only fitting response when so self-satisfied as humans seem.

In many ways football is an apt metaphor for all that I am trying to say today. While God is doing all the hard work of forgiving and strengthening and understanding and holding us in humanness, we engage in play. We play at sports and we play at relating to others and we play at making our little patch of grass a better patch of grass but in the end we are still playful insects, imagining something beyond the grass but never able to fully comprehend. And for this we are loved, and tended, and always forgiven. Amen.