Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

The pews at Cliffcrest in Scarborough were that light oak colour favoured in the 1950’s. A very large and very simple cross dominated the chancel. The communion table was likely too large for the space, and noteworthy for its utter simplicity. And the pulpit, with its concave shape and equally oversized dimensions, spoke to the style and confidence of the era. Think Mad Men minus the Lucky Strikes and a tumbler of rye.

The most amazing feature of the pulpit, and completely hidden from view, was a secret massage meant for the eyes of the preacher alone. There, along the inner edge of the wide pulpit was a carefully painted quote from John 12: “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

No pressure, huh? The lettering was the same as the lettering that appeared on the face of the communion table, printed with the familiar Eucharistic words “Do this in remembrance of me.” Oriented to the congregation, these words were a reminder to the gathered community that the Lord’s Supper belongs to Jesus, head of the church. But the pulpit message was a private one, colleague to colleague, preacher to preacher, that there was a sacred trust involved in standing in that spot, never to be taken lightly.

The setting of the quote is a visit from some Greeks, who have followed Jesus and seek an audience. They find Philip, utter their famous request (“Sir, we would see Jesus”) and John decides to indulge in a little detail that leaves the reader puzzled. Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus, and Jesus’ response seems to have absolutely nothing to do with visiting Greeks and a desire to talk. “The hour has come,” Jesus said, “for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.”

And just as you think these poor Greeks were left out in the cold, the setting shifts again, and what seems a private conversation between Jesus, Philip and Andrew is really for the crowd, as Jesus explains his coming passion and the need to walk in the light of God.

You might say the Greeks are too late. John’s Gospel, really just and extended passion story with a few signs thrown in for good measure, has already begun its ascent into Jerusalem. The time for conversation is nearly over, the last teachings are being shared, and the only new participants that will enter the story have a direct connection to the trial and its aftermath.

You might say the Greeks are unneeded. John’s Gospel already has two of the most extended conversations in scripture: He explains to Nicodemus the meaning of being born again, and he challenges the Samaritan woman to drink his living water. He has healed the sick, turned water into wine, and accepted anointing. Maybe another encounter just wouldn’t add to the narrative.

You might say the Greeks are out of place. As early as next week Jesus will enter the Holy City and be proclaimed the King of the Jews. He will come to fulfil the ancient prophecy of Zechariah, the prophecy that defines the means and the message of this triumphant entry:

9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Do Daughter Zion and Daughter Jerusalem have any needs of Greeks? Should Greeks be involved in an internal matter in the life of God’s chosen people? The answer, it would seem, is no. A Messiah is needed, come to save Israel, come to bring victory from the jaws of defeat, come to restore this nation so recently diminished by Rome, and before that Persia, and before that Assyria, and so on back through time. The need remained constant, and the answer had come, and no Greeks need apply.

So why do they appear? What can this little passage mean? And who are the Greeks anyway?

Greeks, it seems, represent wisdom. From the wise owl appearing on ancient coins, to the naming of their first city for Athena, goddess of wisdom, to their invention and adherence to philosophy, literally philo-sophia, love of wisdom. Socrates and his student Plato promote the philosopher-king, ruling through wisdom, down to Plato’s student Aristotle, who offers the essential definition of wisdom: understanding why things are the way they are, not simply how or what they are.

So if Greeks represent wisdom, and Jesus has no time to converse, what possible meaning can we glean from this? Surely Jesus is not repudiating wisdom, when he himself is the source of such wise words? Yes, you might argue, his wisdom comes from an otherworldly source, and ought not to be confused with the wisdom of Greeks, the wisdom of the world. That argument, of course, only holds up if you ignore the fact the Greek wisdom is foundational to the birth of the Christian church, through St. Paul, and also comes through much of the Old Testament, largely marinated in Greek thought.

The answer to this question, Jesus seeming refusal to enter into conversation with these Greeks, might come further along in the Bible, in words written by St. Paul, but actually composed before John’s Gospel and this famous non-encounter with Greeks. St. Paul has a lot to say about wisdom, maybe best expressed in 1 Corinthian 1:

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

The Greeks were too early, the Greeks came before the unfolding of God’s wisdom could begin. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.” This is the wisdom of God, the wisdom that would have seemed foolish to this second set of wise men seeking Jesus. They wanted to know why the world worked as it did, not the how or the what. But the why was yet to be answered, the why that said a grain must die entombed in the earth to break free of the soil in newness of life.

No one would understand this wisdom from God: not his disciples, not the crowd, not the Roman occupiers and certainly not the religious elite with so much to lose. No, the wisdom of God was yet to be revealed, is yet to be revealed, as much then as now. We need to enter the Holy City, and join with the impatient crowd and shout for his end and claim we don’t know him and watch him die on a tree and only then, maybe then, will the wisdom of God become clear.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Ephesians 2
But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

If you’re going to engage in time travel, don’t go unblemished.

The ancients, it seems, had a thing for the unblemished. If you are well fed, with nice nails, no scars on your hands and feet, maybe a little product in your hair, then don’t set the time machine to northern Europe, say 2,000 years back.

For the ancients, you see, life was pretty tense. The cycle of famine and plenty was well established, neighbouring tribes were seldom friendly, and even small ailments could be fatal. Overall, life was hard.

At some point, some clever ancient discovered cause and effect. Gather these seeds, plant them carefully, and later you enjoy some more seeds. Eat the little red berries, and you will get sick. Eat too many of the blueberries, and you know the rest. Cause and effect was the governing rule of the day, a discovery right up there with fire, and an important route to survival.

Someone, at some point, made a connection between the mood of the gods and the situation on earth. Perform some ritual and things go well, fail to perform it and suffer the consequences. And the idea really took off. Soon there was a pantheon of gods engaged in all sorts of activities and tied to a variety of outcomes.

All of this, of course, tied in nicely with another quirk of human living, the hopeful outcome. I call it the frog-prince paradigm, where we continually imagine that every frog is a potential prince. And we will kiss a lot of them before it becomes clear that a frog is just a frog. If you need a more modern example, think of the last few shiny gizmos you have bought, and all the excitement they bring, and the idea that this gizmo will change everything, and the feeling you get six months later when you see it under the couch covered in dust.

We seem to have an inexhaustible supply of hope when it comes to outcomes. And this too is a survival technique. If we become convinced that everything will end in disappointment, then life becomes a bit of a pointless exercise. But in my experience this seldom happens. Even in the most grim moments we seem to have the capacity for hope, the abiding sense that things will get better.

So twin the idea of cause and effect with the idea that things can always get better and you have human sacrifice. It may not seem like an A+B=C kind of leap, but it really is. Doing something is always better than doing nothing, and doing something may make the situation better, so do something. Like an ongoing hostage situation, someone somewhere finally said, “look, just give the gods what they want, and this will end. By the way, what do the gods want?”

Back to my time travelling caution, it seems the gods wanted unblemished. And again, the logic seems unassailable: if sacrifice is good, how about human sacrifice? If human sacrifice is good, why not someone unblemished? Remember that ancient living was hard on the body. People were all beat up, cuts healed badly, fractures seldom set, teeth were not so good. You might think the unblemished were hard to find.

Somehow, all over northern Europe, we have examples of “bog people ” who were laid to rest in bogs and swamps and were somehow preserved. They have names like Croghan Man and Clonycavan Man, most often named for the bog where they were found. And a surprising number of these bog people were unblemished, just as I cautioned before, with the features of someone not engaged in everyday living, but somehow set apart for a special task.

Now let’s travel south, about a thousand miles, and listen in as St. Paul weighs in on the topic at hand:

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. (Romans 12)

And then he goes on in Romans 12 to define a living sacrifice and a renewed mind: a life marked by humility, service, forgiveness. Notice, however, that he doesn’t say ‘do these things to earn salvation,’ rather these are a grateful response, a new way of being that comes with the recognition found in Ephesians 2. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

In just a few sentences Paul has shattered those assumptions that made the ancient world work. He put an end to divine cause and effect, declaring that we cannot earn our salvation through works alone, and that only a living sacrifice will work: God wants us alive to serve God, not off in some distant bog.


As a young lad, Patricius would have known about rituals of sacrifice. While he and his family set aside all forms of sacrifice, being Christian, he would likely have known neighbours and friends tied to the old ways, the few Romans in Britain who would make sacrifices to the Roman gods. Some minor deity might require some milk or fruit: Janus required a ram, and Mars, god of war, preferred an ox.

But not too far away, to the north and to the west, over the Irish sea, Patricius would have heard more ominous tales of sacrifice. And when he was abducted, and carried off to the land across the sea, he would have witnessed these things first hand, just one more introduction to the harsh life in pre-Christian Europe.

Eventually he escaped his captors, after six long years, and somehow managed to return home to his family. In his own account of the tale, the young man we know as Patrick, was restless at home, until a man he knew back in Ireland appeared to him in a dream and said ‘vox hibericum,’ return to us and speak to the Irish.

And return he did. At Slane he set a fire to mark Easter morning, even though the High King at Tara had forbidden it. Arrested, like so many holy people before and since, he converted those who detained him and brought the light of Christ to the powerful.

His first message, and his most important message, was no longer do you need to sacrifice the unblemished ones in an effort to gain favour with God. No, that sacrifice has already taken place, once and for all, when Jesus died on the cross. “For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism,” St. Paul said, “And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.” (Romans 6.4)

This is the living sacrifice—holy and pleasing to God—that allows us to break from the patterns of this world and offer ourselves in humility, service and forgiveness that Paul argues in Romans.

Just as Patrick did. He could have displaced the High King at Tara. As a man of obvious power and influence over others, Patrick could have used his position to acquire great wealth or taken revenge on those who took him captive in his youth. But he did none of these. Instead he brought a simple and utterly transforming message to a people who needed hope. He told them the simple message that God has already saved them, that nothing is required to earn salvation, it is a gift from God, freely given.

I urge you, on the day after the big day, to become like Patrick. Find the people who are busy trying to earn things: the respect of others, some sort of worldly status, or even trying to earn love. And tell them the same message Patrick shared and St. Paul shared: No longer do you need to sacrifice your dignity or your energy or your integrity to earn your place in the world, it is already given. You are a child of God, uniquely loved, who no longer needs to be conformed to the patterns of this world. Accept the grace of God, and give thanks, Amen.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Second Sunday in Lent

Mark 8
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words* in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.’

The season of Lent doesn’t pull any punches.

Here we are, in week two, and already things are falling apart. Jesus is speaking frankly, Peter is upset, and the crowd is simply trying to keep up. “Pick up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said, and “What would it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” People have barely finished their pancakes and those delightful little sausages and already Lent is a matter of life and death.

“What would it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” The church has always had issue with the rich. In the beginning, according to the Acts of the Apostles, believers held everything in common, selling worldly things for the sake of the greater good. It didn’t last. Becoming tolerated, then a state religion, Christianity entered a period of sustained compromise with the world. By the time Martin Luther added his ideas to the medieval version of Facebook, the church had become little more than a spiritual RRSP, adding funds for a secure a future.

The reformers tried various ways to purify the church. Wealth was tolerated, because everyone needs wealthy friends, but no one was made to feel good about their wealth. Giving it away was the best option, according to the church, a concept we have found quite durable.

No where was this tension felt more than in the Methodist church. Methodists in Upper Canada were simple folk, farmers and labourers, who were purposely excluded from power and considered generally suspect. And leading the way were the Primitive Methodists, a kind of protest within a protest, a church that began in Yorkshire convinced that even the Methodists were too worldly. From their base in the village of Brampton, lay preachers fanned our across the colony preaching a return to the first principles of the Methodist movement. It didn’t last.

Eventually everyone got a little wealthier, build bigger and bigger churches, and when mainstream. By the turn of the last century the riches families in Toronto were Methodist, the Masseys and and the Eatons, and there were so many newly build Methodist churches that Toronto was nicknamed “the Methodist Rome.”

We have been considerably humbled since then. Drive by a big church these days, and there’s a good chance you’re looking at a condo. People seem to like the look of big churches, enough to some want to live in them, but that’s about all. Just this past week the good folks of Wesley-Mimico United Church floated the idea of redeveloping their church for greater mission and the neighbours turned out to protest. They are worried about the streetscape, and want to preserve the church just as it is, but obviously not worried enough to go to church.

So the church has been humbled, but the wealthy have not. A condo in Yorkville was listed this week for a cool $30 million, setting a new record. It’s a bit of a jump from Rochdale College and all those rooming houses, and the same gentrification is spreading. I wouldn’t look for a $30 million condo in Weston quite yet, but we are joining the ranks of neighbourhoods that average people can’t really afford.

In 1992, a social scientist named Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled, “The End of History and the Last Man.” In it, he argued that the end of the cold war marked triumph of Western-style liberal democracy, and it would become the final form of human government. Now it’s easy to dismiss the book based on all that has happened since then, particularly the so-called “War on Terror,” but his thesis seems to stand. A free market, the conjoined twin of liberal democracy, is certainly looking ascendant. Even with half of Europe on the edge, no one is questioning the overall structure of the world economy. In fact, the other shocking story this week was the meeting of the National People’s Congress, where China’s leaders will gather in the Great Hall of the People, with the top 60 leaders controlling an average wealth of $1.5 billion each. Somewhere Chairman Mao is weeping.

“What would it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

One of the most curious things about the Gospels is the omission of Sepporis. Sepporis was a Roman city, barely 5 miles from Nazareth, and an important source of wealth for the whole region. And Jesus, as a tradesman, would have spent much of working years in direct contact with the best customers in the Galilee, making objects and gaining a greater appreciation for how the world works. The city is omitted, but the lessons are not.

And Jesus had a lot to say about wealth. The rich young man was told to unburden himself of wealth if he wanted to follow in the way. A fictional rich man was told that he could’t warm his brothers of the torment he was enduring in the afterlife, having ignored the poor Lazarus at his door. Jesus famously said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go to heaven. And tax collectors were warned to collect only what was due to them, and no more, if they wanted to pursue the way of righteousness.

Chapter after chapter, book after book Jesus spoke about money and wealth and the way it destroys the soul and we have moved on. Republican candidates outdo each other in trying to be the most Christian of the group, but mostly concern themselves with women’s reproductive freedom, a topic on which Jesus had nothing to say. Wealth seldom comes up, except to say that taxing the rich is somehow a form of class warfare.

Back in the 18th century, the idiom “an embarrassment of riches” entered our language, meaning the point at which you have too much of something and you become self-conscious. Apparently this no longer happens. Coincidentally, on of my favourite books has the title “An Embarrassment of Riches” and concerns the Dutch Golden Age, the age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. On the cover is a wonderful painting by Jan Steen called “The Burgher of Delft and his Daughter.” The work is noteworthy because the portrait of the burgher and his daughter includes an old woman begging, with the burgher looking at her with some sympathy while the daughter stares ahead. Clearly the burgher was proud of his station, and his wealth, but was also aware that some were less fortunate.

The sub-title of The Burgher of Delft and his daughter could very well be “What would it profit someone to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” My summary of the painting doesn’t do justice to the tension it produces, feeling at a visceral level the divide between these characters and knowing that the tension remains unresolved. We have little doubt that the burgher was a good parent and a good man, but he was clearly anxious about being wealthy. He may have even worried for the life of his soul.

Pick up your cross, the other message of the passage, can be taken to mean enter the tension inherent in following Christ. You give up safety, you give up easy answers, and you give up the assumption that the ordering of the world is as it should be. You are challenged to enter the tension that exists in our world, between we who have so much and those who have so little, and how to resolve it. Pick up your cross means see the world differently, see it from the cross itself, where suffering is more apparent but salvation is obvious too, in Jesus Christ alone, Amen.