Sunday, June 17, 2012

Proper 6

Mark 4:26-34
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

The Kingdom of God is like a maple key. Dislodged from a tall maple, it whirrs and whirrs until it settles in a place within the garden. It germinates, and soon a tiny maple grows, with a miniature trunk and two adorable little leaves. You notice it one day, among the hosta and the columbine, and then you see several more, dozens in fact, and realize this simply cannot stand. You ruthlessly pluck these future giants, these proud symbols of our great land, and guilt overwhelms you. You begin to realize that you may be emotionally unprepared for gardening, so you head back in to watch television, and leave the gardening for someone else.

The Kingdom of God is like a homeowner, who sees a mouse in the kitchen and decides to practice the far more humane catch-and-release method of mitigation, over the less humane alternatives. A paint stirrer is procured, with a dab of peanut butter on the end, balanced very carefully on the edge of the counter with an open container below. Mr. Mouse falls in, and the clever homeowner walks with his new and grateful little friend all the way to the end of the driveway. Tipping the container, the grateful little guy hits the ground, looks over his shoulder, mutters something that sounds like ‘you fool,’ and runs back to the house.

The Kingdom of God is like the owner of a car, who goes in for a simple oil change only to discover that the car is filled with air filters of every kind, all of which need to be changed.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Or so says St. Mark. But I’m not sure. Yes, he frequently spoke to them in parables, but he also spoke in aphorisms, these pithy sayings that stick in the mind like “the last shall be first” or “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.”

Some times he spoke in commands, like “go and sin no more” or “get behind me Satan.” And sometimes he simply prayed, mostly for his disciples, who seemed to have trouble understanding much of what he said.

This morning I gave you three examples of do-it-yourself parables. It’s a fun exercise, maybe a way to while away those long summer days, and also a way to better understand how parables work. I shared an ‘explosive growth’ parable, then a ‘world turned upside down parable,’ and then a common misfortune parable. Think of the last type as cheap therapy, writing yourself through your misfortune, and maybe even gaining some perspective.

And perspective is really the point of parables. Some argue that all of Jesus’ parables describe the Kingdom--a lively point of debate--and certainly the majority do. And why not? According to Jesus the Kingdom is coming, is already here, is within you, will come like a thief in the night, or is coming on the clouds with great power and glory. See the issue here?

Either Jesus doesn’t understand the Kingdom (impossible), or thinks we can’t understand the Kingdom (unlikely) or just wants to keep it intentionally vague (very possible). So why vague?

The first reason is that something vague is also something broad. If the Kingdom seems to be about explosive growth and I see explosive growth in the world around me, then I see the Kingdom of God all around me. Suddenly everything becomes a sign of God’s Kingdom: The cracking corn after a summer rain, the maple keys in my garden, the kid who appears a foot taller over the summer, even those little foam dinosaurs that become large foam dinosaurs when you drop them in a little water.

Okay, you’re thinking, the seeds sown and the mustard seed demonstrate explosive growth, but why did you share a ‘world turned upside down’ example when we didn’t hear one in the reading? And I’m thinking ‘wow, this is a tough crowd, maybe it’s time to wrap up.’ And it is.

I mention the ‘world turned upside down’ type of parable for two reasons, the first being that maybe ‘explosive growth’ and ‘world turned upside down’ are one and the same. Maybe the world of the farmer is turned upside down. Just when you come to fully appreciate the remarkable growth in your field, the sickle comes out, and all that growth is destroyed on it’s way to becoming food. Or the prodigal son, a story of a world turned upside down if ever there was one, but maybe a story about explosive growth, the explosive growth of grace.

The second reason I mention ‘world turned upside down‘ is that more often than not, our world is being turned upside down. We lose a dear friend. Another begins to disappear into a growing fog. Jobs are lost and meaning is lost and friendships fade and everything is always changing. And through it all, life functions like a parable. A world is created, which sours, then a new world is born.

The people are freed from bondage to Pharaoh only to starve and complain and wander and some 40 years later find the Promised Land.
The people are carried into exile and weep bitter tears only to discover that in the songs of Zion are the words of truth that bring comfort and help them discover who they truly are.
Jesus teaches and preaches and runs afoul of many and is nailed to a tree then buried and only then can truly show us new life.

We are parables and God is the author. Our world is made, then sours--always sours--and only then can be recast by God into some semblance of the Kingdom. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, O God, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Proper 5

1 Samuel 8
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, ‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle* and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

It began life as a French song, then a Canadian added new lyrics.
Some argue it is the most covered song in recording history.
Sid Vicious did the most famous cover in 1978.
The song tells the story of an old man looking back on his life.
The singer who made the song his trademark didn’t actually like it, labeling it “self-serving and indulgent.”
Popular at funerals, at one Bishop in the UK has decreed that the song not be played.
The lyricist, Paul Anka, wrote the song specifically for Frank.

The song, of course, is “My Way,” and according to Paul Anka, he wrote it in the voice of Frank Sinatra, or at least the way Frank might express himself at the end of his life. It seems the various members of the “Rat Pack” enjoyed the company of the Las Vegas mob guys, and would frequently imitate their way of speaking. The rest, they say, is history.

And despite Frank’s feeling that the song sounds ‘self-serving and indulgent,’ it does seem to effectively express the conflict that comes when we deal with regret. To be human, and to spend some time on planet earth, means you have regrets.

Unless you don’t. In year’s past there was a lively debate in the psychology community about the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath. By the time DSM-IV was published they set aside the debate and opted instead to use the label ‘antisocial personality disorder.’ And one of the common elements of this disorder, an element that allowed them to see them as one, was an alarming lack of regret.

So setting aside that some have a disorder, people tend to feel regret. Some may feel too much regret, and the same diagnostic people included that in the DSM and called it ‘borderline personality disorder.’ But setting aside too little and too much, we are left with garden variety regret. And it comes in all sorts of forms, not just old singers looking back.

Maybe the most common, and certainly one that plagues our modern world, is a version of regret called ‘buyer’s remorse.’ It is kind of fascinating, really, since most of us experience it and yet seem powerless to stop it. If you are one of the few who don’t understand what I’m talking about, it is that sense of regret that follows the euphoria of buying something new.

Questions like ‘should I have waited for next year’s model?’ or ‘is this the right one for me?’ or ‘did I pay too much?’ quickly erode that sense of excitement and newness we once felt. And it doesn’t stop at the check-out counter either, it includes an array of decisions we make then later rethink. It even happens in the Bible.

The passage Joyce read describes one of those turning-points, a moment in time that will alter Israelite history and redefine who they are. In short, they want a king. They are tired of being unlike all the other nations around, tired of being led by judges rather than kingly rulers, and they begin to press their demand. Samuel hears their plea, offers a timely warning, and resigns himself to their desire.

You will recall that all this began with Jethro. I’m not blaming Jethro, but the story does begin with Jethro, so I’ll tell it, though I should confess I just like saying the name Jethro. Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, come to visit and sees the strain that Moses is under. From morning to night he is settling disputes in the camp, answering questions and generally wearing himself out. And his wise father-in-law, Jethro, hits upon an idea. ‘Appoint a few wise people to sit as judges in your place, the answer the simple questions. You can instruct them, and you can still take on the truly difficult questions when they arise.’

Easy-peasy. Moses goes from being the only judge among countless troublesome people to being a sort of supreme court judge, waiting for the big questions and never sweating the small stuff. Jethro may even say that: “Hey Moses, don’t sweat the small stuff.” You’ll just have to read Exodus to see for yourself.

So judges are appointed, and it seems that for a few years, at least, they do a good job. The Israelites move into the Promised Land, they fight with their neighbours, they fight among themselves, and all the while the judges are standing by. And they seem to be jack-of-all-trade kind of characters. Some are like generals, some prophets, some are actually judging. In many ways, they are like anyone we might imagine as a tribal leader. Everyday brought a new challenge, or the same old challenges, and the judges did their thing.

Until they didn’t, and then we arrive at Samuel, or rather, Samuel’s sons. It seems that wisdom and integrity that the people valued in a judge ended with Samuel. His sons were quite the opposite, and the fact that they are mentioned as the root of this problem seems to be the problem itself. You see, the office is no longer given based on having sound judgment, but has become hereditary. And wisdom, unlike colourblindness, isn’t always passed on.

So the sons and daughters of judges don’t necessarily make good judges, and the people have had enough. They don’t want a collection of tribal leaders any longer, they want a king. They want a king in the same manner that the other nations have kings, someone to lead the people in battle, someone to represent all the people. And Samuel said, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

Well first, Samuel confers with God, being a good judge and prophet, and God says, ‘Go ahead, give them what they want. Warn then, but give them what they want. They rejected me, there at the bottom of Mt. Sinai, and now they reject you.’

So Samuel gives them a solemn warning, which I won’t read again, but remains one of the most concise and insightful summaries of human government ever written. It describes the eternal conflict between the desire to be governed and the price people pay for that right. And it is just as accurate today as the day it was first spoken aloud.

Samuel, inspired by God, describes conscription, the cost of war, military hierarchy, the military-industrial complex and the attendant supply chain, domestic servitude, expropriation, taxation, serfdom and state-sanctioned slavery. In one paragraph Samuel describes the scope of governance and a catalog of abused that follow when people trade relative autonomy for authoritarian leadership. Notice I didn’t say monarchy, since this is happy-thought monarchy week, but it wasn’t always so. Life under Louis XIV and life under the ancient near eastern kings looked exactly the same.

Now, it shouldn’t come as a surprize to you that much of the Bible was written after the fact. The words of Samuel were written down long after he spoke them, and whenever that happens, stuff gets added. Maybe added is not the right word, and my resident Hebrew scholar no doubt knows the right word, but I think you get my point.

Rather than ‘added’ we might say clarified. And the driving force behind that clarification is regret. Only someone who had lived the full extent of the oppression described could write these words. Inspired by God, of course, but more inspired by God to truly see the limitations of human government, not inspired to somehow peer into the future. In other word, what we read is lived experience, and the experience of kingship is far from good.

If you ever saw the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” you will know a thing or two about Game Theory. The movie tells the story of John Nash and his lifelong struggle with mental illness: from his student days until he receives the Nobel Prize in Economics. Related to Game Theory is another discipline called Decision Theory, and within Decision Theory we meet something called ‘opportunity loss.’ Laypeople, those of us without a Nobel Prize, call it regret.

But the thing about advanced theories is they can often clarify even the simplest things. Regret is something we all experience, but at it’s heart it is opportunity loss. And opportunity loss seems to take regret out of its emotional and seemingly final form and frames it differently. There are, of course, formulas that mathematicians developed around this idea of managing opportunity loss and we can try to understand them, but it might not work out. Better to take the new perspective that this idea brings and run with it. That’s what preachers do.

And I think this is what Samuel was doing too. He was taking what seemed like a sad and rather vexing “I told you so” story and actually constructing a warning. He was describing a moment in time when the Israelites seem to make a foolish choice but he was also constructing a critique of government that people have been pointing to ever since. Samuel may have been facing an immediate crisis of transition, but he was also giving the gift of insight, an insight that has served anyone who has stood against state-sponsored oppression.

So the time of judges and prophets continue, not because the office remains, but because the ideas remain. May we, on the 82nd anniversary of the United Church, continue to be the church that offers caution to power. May we always speak for the voiceless and stand with those who need God’s help. Amen.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Trinity Sunday

Romans 8
12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.[a] And by him we cry, “Abba,[b] Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs —heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

So you just got your Visa statement in the mail and you realize that your recent habit of buying Beanie Babies on eBay has finally caught up with you. Or you can’t go another day without a J/109, and your yacht broker says it’s gonna set you back a quarter million dollars, unless you don’t want sails. Or your partner’s book buying habit has got to the point where family members take you aside and say “does she need another book about the Dead Sea Scrolls?”

If any of these situations are true for you, then I have only one name to recommend: Publius Clodius Pilcher. Poor Publius Clodius Pilcher, one of the most famous people alive in the century before Christ, and now largely forgotten. Clodius, as he was commonly known, was a politician: but that really doesn’t sum him up. He loved the limelight, so expressing his persona in modern terms might make him a cross between Rudy Guiliani, Charlie Sheen and Lady Gaga.

Clodius was extremely popular--he passed a law giving everyone free grain every month in perpetuity--but also made so powerful enemies. In order to take on his most powerful enemy Cicero, Clodius had himself adopted. In doing so, he changed from aristocrat to non-aristocrat, allowing him to become Tribune of the Plebs, more-or-less the Prime Minister of the Roman republic.

The scandal here was not the adoption, that was quite common Roman society, particularly among the upper class. The scandal was going backward in terms of social status, and also the small detail of being adopted by someone younger than himself. He was breaking new ground here, and his contemporaries were not amused.

Back to our aforementioned problems, your Beanie Babies, my dream yacht and someone’s book buying habit, I have come up with what I call the Zuckerberg solution. Sure Mark’s 28 years old and I’m 47, but Clodius cleared the way through that small problem. And if wouldn’t even offend my parents, since Roman adoption was seen as making alliances and improving your clans situation, not rejecting some poor people from Mount Albert. Maybe I’ll send them some free grain.

Just now you’re thinking ‘the reading is from Romans and Michael is talking about Romans but something doesn’t seem right.’ Fear not.

St. Paul was citizen of Rome. Or at least we think he was a citizen of Rome, but the jury is still out. My resident Hebrew scholar will tell you that the evidence is mixed, based primarily on his brushes with the law, and the types of punishment suitable for Roman and non-Roman people. A lot of ink has been spilled on this question, but we can certainly say that Paul understood the Roman way and had Roman pretensions.

Thinking like a Roman, adopting Roman customs, taking advantage of the freedom to travel afforded by Roman peace, Paul become a missionary. He visited synagogues throughout the Eastern half of the empire, traveling as far as Rome itself. Paul took advantage of the ease with which Romans could move around and engage in trade. In his case he was trading in ideas, and conversion, but it fit the pattern of trade nonetheless.

When talking to Romans, as he did in the letter to the Romans, he spoke to them and used ideas with which they were already familiar. In Athens, he visited the Areopagus and made reference to a pagan statue. He observed the law while in the company of fellows Jews, and set it aside when with gentiles. In 1 Corinthians 9 he summed it up this way: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

So, thinking about Paul and thinking about his Roman ways, and thinking about the extent to which he could be all things to all people (in a good way), listen again to Romans 8:

15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves...rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship...The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs —heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.

Like good Romans, we have been adopted into the family of God. We don’t turn our back on our real family, quite the contrary. When Romans were adopted, usually the eldest sons, the connections between families increased and succession issues were resolved. Adoption brought peace to the community, and a greater sense of well-being, based on the assumption that everyone was becoming related in a new way.
So too with the Christian church. Adopted by God, Christ becomes our brother, and we all become heirs to the wonders that God gives. We received grace, grace upon grace as John says, and it is our inheritance, something we can share with others. We receive forgiveness, another inheritance we can share, the same forgiveness that brother Christ spoke and lived.

But there is another dimension here, one that Paul highlights too: “We share in his sufferings,” Paul says, “in order that we may also share in his glory.” Here is the other dimension of Roman adoption that Paul can’t ignore. When you link yourself to another clan through adoption, whether it’s to secure succession or make an alliance, trouble may also follow. And indeed, when the plebeian Fonteius got mixed up in Clodius’ feud with Cicero, it became his feud too. That fact that twenty-one centuries on he is known to us as the guy willing to adopt the older Clodius means that he really took on a world of hurt, forever.

We are God’s adopted children, but that doesn’t save us from pain. It doesn’t insulate us from suffering, protect us from loss, or any other way you can say the obvious truth: we have no extra protection, just better perspective. Suffering and pain and loss still come, but they happen in the context of a God that feels our pain, knows our loss, and suffers when we suffer, having suffered first on the cross.

There is a popular meme going around, where someone who has suffered some misfortune is asked the question “where is your God now?” It may have started when Chief Wiggum arrested Mr. Flanders and said “Where is your messiah now, Flanders?” And kids being kids, it has spread as a turn of phrase. My irreverent son said it to me on Friday when I called him to say that our race was cancelled due to too much wind. Ironies abound, I know.

The real origin of the “Where is your God now” meme is Psalm 42, and Psalm 115, and Matthew 27, when the others mocked Jesus and said “save yourself, you saved others.” They didn’t say ‘where is your God now,’ but they didn’t have to. The meaning was plain. And whenever misfortune comes, when there is a shooting, or some terrible tragedy, some will wonder about the seeming lack of protection afforded by belief. People pray, but misfortune comes. People believe, but tragedy strikes. People practice the rituals of religion, but the worst still happens.

Again, back to adoption. Being a child of God, being adopted by God, does not make us God. God remains God, we are God’s children. The rules of mortality and harm do not stop simply because we enjoy a closer walk with God.

What we do get, what all adopted children get, is wantedness. God wants to be in a relationship with us, wants to offer us comfort and support, wants to forgive us all our shortcomings, not as some distant deity, but as a parent. We are wanted, not because we are cleverer or better in some way. We are just wanted for who we are, God’s very own children. Amen.