Sunday, September 30, 2012

Proper 21

Mark 9
38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.
50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

Come lunch time, when you say ‘pass the salt,’ ponder the importance of this common substance.

Salt (sodium chloride) is essential to life, and both as a means to regulate the fluid balance in your body, and as basic component of taste. But you can get too much of a good thing: salt contributes to high blood pressure and stroke.

Salt had been mined and refined for thousands of years, including a saltworks in China that dates back to 6,000 BC. The word ‘salary’ comes for the root for salt, owing to an early Roman practice of paying soldiers in salt.

Salt is political too. Mahatma Gandhi led thousands to the sea to make salt in defiance of British law, a key step in Indian independence. And some argue that one of the factors in the outcome of the US Civil War was Northern control of salt mines, and the abundant supply found around Syracuse, NY, then known as ‘The Salt City.’

Salt can be manipulated for good. The worldwide struggle against iodine deficiency has been largely addressed though iodized salt. Countries such as France add fluoride to salt, since water fluoridation is not practiced. Here in Canada, our largest salt company (Windsor) adds inverted maple syrup to their salt, but it’s not clear why. Maybe it’s meant to differentiate them from their hated rivals over at Sifto.

Opening your Bible, you will also find salt. In Genesis 19 we meet poor old Lot’s wife, who becomes a pillar of salt when she looks back at the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Judges 9, the judge Abimelech conquered Shechem and salted the surrounding fields to make the place uninhabitable, something the Roman General Scipio did to Carthage during the Third Punic War.

Jesus calls his followers the ‘salt of the earth,’ St. Paul says ‘let your conversation be full of grace and seasoned with salt,’ and remembering from earlier this month, James says that a brackish spring is useless, and not really a spring at all.

Finally, Jesus has an extended conversation with the disciples in Mark 9, telling them to forget about who might be greatest, instructing them to lob off various body parts to avoid being disobedient, and reminding them that “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again?” Like Paul he says “Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

So what has salt taught us, aside from the fact that your minister has deep affection for Wikipedia? The overall lesson seems to be that salt is a good thing, but like all good things, you can have too much of a good thing. Salt is both essential to living and potentially dangerous.

But for Jesus and Paul, metaphorical salt is only good. Being the ‘salt of the earth’ was high praise then and remains so today. The phrase follows on the Sermon on the Mount, and as Jesus is describing those blessed--the peacemakers, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness--we get a real sense of who deserves the honourific ‘salt.’

Now while Jesus was the Son of God, he was no scientist. It seems there is a lively debate whether it is true that salt can lose its saltiness. Sodium chloride is a mineral, and chemically stable as a result, and therefore cannot ‘lose’ its saltiness, its essential nature as salt.

Of course, just when one scientist decides he is clever, another steps in an says ‘not so fast.’ Salt in Jesus’ day was rock salt, a mix of sodium chloride and other components. Exposed to humidity, the sodium chloride would be removed, leaving only the non-salty component parts. It would look and feel like salt, minus the saltiness. Thank you, science. Or, take that, science! I’m confused.

So leaving behind science and looking instead at linguistics, our metaphorical salt speaks to who we truly are. If we are to remain ‘salt of the earth,’ and seasoning our speaking with salt, we need to hone in on that this means to our identity as believers. We need to find our inner salt, the good kind, not the kind that Dr. Jim will warn you about.

I can think of no better place to begin than baptism. Marked as God’s own, we are baptized and put on Christ. We are baptized into his death, Paul says, because baptism into a death like his will surely result in a resurrection like his (Roman 6). We are cleansed in the waters of baptism (1 Peter 3) and saved though the power of Christ to transform us.

It was the great Martin Luther who said “Remember your baptism and be glad,” an idea that strengthens us but also poses a great challenge. Being literal, few believers--in Luther’s day or now---can remember their baptism. Some came to Christ later, but the majority appeared at the font as infants and literally cannot remember.

But let’s not be literal today, instead using a symbolic remembering befitting the symbolic action that took place at this font a few moments ago. We can remember our baptism and be glad much in the way we celebrate with Baby Bentley today and express gladness that God has send him (and all children) as a gift among us. He is newly marked as Christ’s own, and helps remind us that we too are so marked.

Unless we forget. Not a literal forgetting, since we get periodic reminders in the shape of babies and toddlers. But a symbolic forgetting, where we begin to dismiss baptism from our consciousness or caring. And just why does this matter?

Why indeed. In fact, the answer is why, meaning the why question, the one that appears from time to time when we go about being good.

You refuse to accept too much change at the check-out, and the first question is ‘why?’
You drive your friend to an appointment, then another, and still another, and your other friend asks ‘why?’
You spend 15 years giving a warm meal to hungry people in Weston, and someone is bound to ask ‘why?’

Why? The first and ready answer is usually something like “it’s the right thing to do.” Fair enough. You might lift up the persistent stereotype and say “we’re Canadian, a nation of self-effacing do-gooders.” Ouch. Or maybe you’ve get all new-agey and say something about paying-it-forward, a good movie title, but not really enough to create a personal philosophy from.

Seldom do we say “because of my baptism.” Or because at baptism “I put on Christ” and he lives in me. Or that beneath the waters of baptism “I died to self” and emerged from the waters a new person.

Now, you are thinking, “you sir are a so-called theologian, and have the benefit of all that highfalutin learning and the bloated library and spouse who seems addicted to school. I’m just a humble believer, without the above.”

UK broadcaster Richard Coles described an argument he had with a friend who insisted that it is necessary to develop a system of universal ethics that doesn’t have religion at it’s root. Okay, Richard said, go ahead: define a universal ethic that doesn’t have religion at it’s root. Fine, his friend said, I will: “Do unto other as you would have them do unto you.”

So when the non-believers can mistakenly quote Jesus, we can certainly do it on purpose. How could we not, since after all, we are salt of the earth. Amen.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Proper 20

Mark 9
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Hands up if you were the kind of kid who always put your hand up in class?

Did you see what I did there? I set a trap, and sure enough the ‘hand-up-first’ kids fell right into it. Now, hands up if you never put your hands up in class. No one? How is that even possible?

There was always a little peril involved in knowing the answer. There was even more peril in thinking you knew the answer. Be that as it may, there were the genuinely clever people who tended to have the answer each time, and those who were willing to try, for a time.

For you see, the ones who thought they might have the answer, but were uncertain, gave it a sporting try on a handful of occasions, until they learned better. Maybe this phenomenon was limited to Mount Albert, but having the wrong answer, and maybe a few times in a row, didn’t end well.

So some of you stopped putting your hand up. I’m going to assume it was the too-clever-and-wanted-to-give-others-the-chance reason and not that you didn’t know the answer. Either way, there was a moment that hands tended to stay down than never really made it up again.

And it turns out you are in good company. Jonathan read Mark 9, and there, in the middle, is a sure sign that the kids in Galilee Public School were just like you and me. “The disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying,” Mark says, “and were afraid to ask him.”

Now, they argue that a smaller class size creates an atmosphere of greater trust and comfort among the students, but this class of twelve seems like every other class in history. They were confused, they didn’t fully understand, and at some moment simply stopped asking.

Before I go on, I need to highlight that there is a pastoral issue here that we should at least acknowledge. Jesus, referring to himself, says that the Son of Man will be betrayed, then killed, then rise again. This was hard to hear. So hard to hear, in fact, that you could make the argument that the twelve were incapable of hearing it. Some truths are like that. The twelve are simply unable to imagine a moment when their beloved teacher would be gone, either in death or a some other hard-to-comprehend way.

All of which makes the next turn more surprizing. Few of us, if we think back to those tender days, would avoid putting up our hand in class and then head for the school yard and engage in a campaign to persuaded everyone else that we are the greatest. But this is precisely what happens in Mark 9. On the heels of all that uncertainty comes an absurd debate about which disciple is the greatest. No one wins.

No one wins because the teacher steps in the middle of the absurd little debate to offer the last word on greatness: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then, in the greatest object lesson in human history, he takes a little child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Now, I would argue that there are two audiences for this short lesson. The first, I will call it Part A, is the truth that ‘whoever wants to first must be last of all and servant of all.‘ This is for the disciples. It comes from their debate, but it also serves to clarify something that Jesus was fond of saying. Again and again we speaks of what we call a ‘great reversal,’ that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. And that’s all well and good, and certainly rolls off the tongue, but what does it mean? It means (according to this definitive rendering) that the first in the Kingdom is the last and the servant of all.

And cleverly, you just thought “wait, that’s Jesus!” First in the kingdom, servant of all. And it is, but it can also be any of the disciples if they put their mind to it and stopped having foolish arguments.

Now Part B, the second lesson in the passage, has a completely different audience, and that would be you and me. Jesus takes a child and says ‘embrace this little one, and you embrace me--and the one who sent me too.’ It’s unlikely that the disciples needed this kind of an object lesson. Jesus, “friend of little children,” was constantly honouring children, helping those in need, befriending the friendless, doing all the things that made him Jesus. So the hug and the lesson was not for the those who already knew about his love for the vulnerable, it was for us.

And weirdly, it is a lesson the church tends to forget over and over. Throughout our history, the Christian church has needed to be reminded that all are welcome, that no one stands alone, that there is room in this place for the very people that the world counts as least and last and unworthy. So we are given an object lesson, and then we’re given it again.

Back to the disciples, arguing on the road, and the question becomes ‘what should they have been doing?‘ At the very least, anything other than arguing about who is the greatest. At best, following the instruction found in Psalm 1: ‘Delight in the law of the LORD, and on God’s law meditate day and night.‘ Because, the Psalmist says, that those who delight in the law, and meditate on the law are like trees planted beside Lake Ontario, which produce apples in season, that later become jelly-jam. It says it right there in the Bible.

Now, perhaps were are expecting too much from these disciples, as foolish as they seem at times. But maybe not, since the instruction to meditate day and night on the law is not what it seems. It may prove to more onerous in the end, but for now, meditating day and night does not need to be an impossible goal.

And as always, it is Jesus who gives us the answer. And without preaching a future sermon, November 4th in fact, Jesus gives us the answer in Mark 12: Another teacher came to Jesus and asked what command in the law is the most important? He gave two answers, ‘love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind and soul; and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The man agreed, and Jesus said to him, ‘you are not far from the Kingdom of God.’

So it’s not 613 laws in the Torah, as important as they were and remain, and it’s not even the big ten that we still lift up whenever we can, it is only two, loving God and loving neighbour that we need meditate on day and night. Suddenly half the struggle is gone: If the question is ‘what law?’ then Jesus and his wise friend point to the answer. And if the struggle is doing it day and night, then at least the topic for meditation is clear. The day and night part requires lifelong practice, and may take many forms.

Like mindfulness. Do we try to think of God throughout the day, continually present to us? Are we mindful of others? Do we think ‘this person is neighbour to me’ and respond accordingly. How do we live into the challenge to love even when the world tries to lead us in other directions?

Or practice. Are there waypoints in the day we can set up that will help us meditate? Thanks before each meal is an excellent place to begin. It is a simple way to glorify the source of all that is. And on the more practical side? Since loving your neighbour is the cornerstone of Christian ethics, what decisions will we face today that require meditation? The answer may be all, or most, since we are continually faced with complexity and things that conflict with even our most basic ethics of extending care and seeking justice.

Or surrender. When we do a ‘genealogy of faith‘ we discover that we are directly descended from the twelve, with all their foolishness, and reticence, and all their potential too. So we surrender knowing that we can be foolish, and surrender knowing that we’re unlikely to raise our hand, and surrender knowing that God will use us in the same way God used the twelve, as the best hope for a hurting world. Amen.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Proper 19

James 3
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 2For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle. 3If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. 4Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! 6And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. 7For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, 8but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. 10From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 11Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? 12Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh.

To preach means never wanting to be tongue-tied, or commit a slip-of-the-tongue. Nor search for something on the tip-of-the-tongue. Better to be silver-tongued, but not a silver-tongued devil, as some are known. Tongue-in-cheek is acceptable, in moderation, but to speak with a forked-tongue is not (and it may be politically incorrect even to mention it).

The proverbs seem to have a lot to say about the tongue:

A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin. (26.28)
Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. (12.18)
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly. (15.2)
The tongue of the righteous is choice silver, but the heart of the wicked is of little value. (10.20)
Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues. (17.28)
Like a north wind that brings unexpected rain is a sly tongue—which provokes a horrified look. (25.23)

I would say the overall picture of the tongue is not good. The best advice seems to not use it, which considering the din that surrounds humanity, is a tall order. But that would be jumping ahead. Proverbs has high praise for the wise tongue, but the wise tongue seems in short supply if we”re counting references.

And then there is James. Officially the Epistle of James, it is one of those little books at the back that are hard to find in a hurry. And it doesn’t get a lot of respect either. From the beginning some of the church fathers doubted that it belonged in the Bible (“the canon”) and the great Martin Luther called it an “epistle of straw.” The fact that the central idea of the book is in direct contradiction to Luther’s most cherished idea (salvation by faith alone) may have had something to do with it.

Our reading from James 3 seems to be an updating of Proverbs, with some simile and metaphor thrown in for good measure. Teachers will be judged strictly, and the perfect ones are like a horse with a bridle. The tongue is like a rudder guiding a ship; a small fire that consumes the forest; a stain on the whole body.

Then there is a shift. While every creature can be tamed by humans, we cannot tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the same mouth we can bless some and curse others, and this ought not be so. The spring that delivers both fresh and brackish water has no value, and is not really a spring at all.

Following the verdict then of both Proverbs and the Epistle of James, the tongue is of limited value to the body. Several psalms agree, as does our old friend Job, tormented as he was by the tongues of his so-called comforters.

But as an interesting counter-point, St. Paul doesn’t describe the tongue as a danger. Famously, he said “if I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” But he doesn’t specifically condemn the tongue. Nor does Jesus. When Jesus constructs his “hard sayings” about the body he says ‘cut off the hand that causes you to sin’ and the same for the eye, but says nothing about the tongue. Tongues are loosed, as we learned last week, but are not condemned.

There are moments, of course, when Jesus listens in on what the disciples are saying and tells them how foolish they are, so perhaps he too would agree with Proverbs and James.

It is rare that the lesson of the day and the events of the week speak to each other so directly. The crisis in the Middle East, and death of American diplomatic staff, seems to be a perfect example of what a reckless tongue can cause. The debate over free speech will rage on in the western world, but the tangible results of such speech are only beginning to be known.

Free speech, for us, is an inalienable right. From the first Bill of Rights presented to William and Mary, to the French Revolution, to the First Amendment to the US Constitution, to our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms, free speech is either first on the list or very near the top.

So, to place limits on free speech, such as banning a book or censoring a film has come to seem contrary to our way of life. We practice a form of avoidance instead, choosing to ignore what we find repugnant or inflammatory rather than insisting somehow it be banned.

The right to free speech, however, does have limits. In perhaps the most famous case on the topic, the US Supreme Court ruled that free speech can be limited when it presents a “clear and present danger” to the function of the state (and you thought it was just a cool name for a film).

The author of the ruling, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., went one better in the memorable phrase department when he said that the right to free speech “would not protect a man from shouting fire in a crowded theatre.” In other words, if free speech needlessly causes grave harm, the state can place limits on it.

And all of this might be part of a society-wide consensus, were not our neighbours to the south in the midst of an election. In an election, it seems, consensus disappears, and the politicians enter a mode whereby they look for the slightest indication that founding principles are being violated or human rights are being breached.

So we are near the end of the first week of a spreading crisis and the video that provoked all this violence remains in place on Youtube. The very large corporation (US based) that runs the site may well be debating the question of removing the video, but it remains in place: owing, I assume, to the principle of free speech.

And this issue is hardly distant from us, and I can give you a personal example. In the weeks before I departed Scarborough for the heavenly reward of serving in Weston, I received an email from a local minister of another denomination. In his email, he expressed delight that a very inflammatory Dutch video was still available online. The video, he said, showed the “truth” about Islam and could prove an excellent tool to convert Muslims in Scarborough.

I wrote back. I didn’t use ALL CAPS as angry people do, but I was tempted. I expressed shock that such and email would arrive in this day and age. I told him that the only route to peace in this world is learning to respect each other, and that Muslims worship the same God and have the same ancestor in Abraham. I told him that my little theological college (Queen’s) was the first theological college to appoint a Muslim board member, and that Dr. Bayoumi is one of the finest people I know.

The first principle in preaching is never make yourself the hero of the sermon, and while I may have said all the right things, I’m sure it had little effect. Like the idiot in Florida who threatened and then finally burned the Koran, all the arguments will not persuade, any more that promoting a hateful film or putting the Prophet on trial will deter me from offering Islam the respect it deserves.

So it seems James was right, the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. He concludes that the tongue, unbridled, cannot product anything of value.

The alternative, then, is silence. And that may prove the most faithful way forward. Think of all the great troubles in the world, think of all the mistakes and all the foolishness, and think of everything we have done and have come to regret later. Then imagine if we had opted for silence instead. It is not just the old adage that if everyone is speaking then no one is listening. It is a call for silence, and reflection, and intentional pause, things that are in short supply in the world and even in the church.

Remember Psalm 17.28? “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues.” (17.28) I’ll stop talking now.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Proper 18

Mark 7
31 Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis.[a] 32 There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him.
33 After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then he spit and touched the man’s tongue. 34 He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means “Be opened!”). 35 At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.
36 Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. 37 People were overwhelmed with amazement. “He has done everything well,” they said. “He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”

Handy thing, having your own personal linguist.

I can quiz Carmen on the meaning and context of certain words, and more often than not she knows, without even looking it up! And then, every once in a while she will say something like, “You took Hebrew. Surely you remember the past participle in the passive voice?”

Past participle in the passive voice. You know that blank stare people give when you might as well be speaking another language to them? Well, two things are happening here. First, someone in the Ontario government decided around 1970 to stop teaching grammar to the children. Too boring? Too complicated? So not only did I learn Hebrew and Greek twenty-five years ago, and the content kind of came out of left field for me, even the idea that grammar existed was a new concept. Wait, there are parts of speech?

(By the way, an example of the past participle in the passive voice would be something like, “The chicken was eaten.”)

And so while I remember next to nothing about these biblical languages and the attendant grammar that surrounds them, I can at least remember the name of my Greek textbook, the aptly titled “Greek to Me.” It was fun, actually, with little cartoon characters and bits of wordplay, that the authors (Story and Story) thought might aid in long term retention.

I do remember one tiny bit, or a snippit, whatever is smaller, and that is the verb luo, meaning “I loose.” Now, I’m told that the people who write these books fall into a pattern, and will often use the same examples as a sort of tradition, or perhaps a homage to those who went before. Whatever the reason, this bit of Greek is lodged in my head: luo, meaning “I loose.” The rest of it, lueis, luei, luomen, and the rest I had to look up.

So you can imagine my excitement when I read Mark 7.35: “At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.” I can read that. I can read that! Okay, not really.

One of the things that always puzzled me was using ‘loosed’ as a common example, when it seems ‘loosed’ is anything but common. How often do you use loosed in a conversation? However, it seems loosed is common in the Bible, appearing dozens of times in various and sometimes surprizing places. When the disciples get the donkey just prior to the palm parade, the animal is loosed! When Jesus, through his tears, calls Lazarus from the tomb, he demands that his grave clothes be loosed. And Jesus teaches that whatever the disciples bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever they loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

(Sounds like homework: I challenge you to use the word loosed in a conversation this week.)

So loosed is more than speaking plainly as reported in Mark 7, it is also about untying things, and unbinding things, and releasing the dead to live again. There is much more to loosed than meets the eye, one small word that can do so many things!

Back to Mark 7, Jesus has entered the early fame section of his ministry. In a land without walk-in clinics, ER’s and Dr. Jim’s, the people stuggle to find healing. Some things could be attended to at home, and you hoped for the best, and other things required the kind of care that simply did not exist. When people heard that a powerful healer was about, they raced to see if it was true.

Before I say more, I should mention that St. Mark is writing before the invention of sociology. One of the disturbing aspects of this passage, and a reason why few will preach it this morning, is the shift in understanding that came about in the 1960’s and 1970’s regarding disability. Under the social model of disability, theorists demanded that we look less at the disabled individual and more at the society that surrounds the individual. What barriers do we erect? What misaprehensions do we possess? And to what extent do we regard disability as an illness that we expect might cure? So there was a definite shift in understading, and it has a direct impact on Mark 7.

Clearly the deaf man’s friends were operating out of the older model, and Jesus being Jesus had the power of heaven at his disposal, and so a transformation takes place. I hesitate to even use the word ‘healing,’ since that harkens back to the ‘disability as illness’ model, so I will use transformation. The power of God is fully present in Jesus, he touches the man, and everything changes.

Newly loosed, the man began to speak plainly. And here again we see an onging theme in the gospels, or at least the first three gospels, whereby Jesus performs some miracle and then demands that no one be told. Does it work? Of course not. How could the sick be healed and storm be stilled and the dead be raised and no one tell the story? How could Jesus possible expect a loosed tongue repress the good news that demanded to be shared?

Even Jesus seemed to know that this was impossible. Luke 19: Some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” But He answered and said to them, “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” Matthew 10: “What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the rooftops.” And in Mark 10, Bartimaeus begins shouting before he is healed, so much so that the crowd turns on him and demands he be quiet. Yet still he shouts the words “Son of David, have mercy on me” and Jesus hears.

So there is lots of loosing and lots of shouting and lots of healing. Recalling that what is loosed on earth is also loosed in heaven (Matthew 16) we can begin to construct a bit of mission here, whereby the God of loosing is looking in on our lives and imagining the many ways and place we could use some loosing too. Some are bound, and need loosing.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, is bound by addiction or habit and needs loosing.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, can’t let go of a decades old hurt that is as real now as then.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, has a house that is filling and filling with stuff and may be full before long.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, can’t begin the day without checking their bank balance and can’t say why.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, is bound by a false sense of self, a sense of self that would suprise most if they knew.

Someone nearby, maybe even here, is wanting to be unbound, wanting to be loosed through the power of God present in Jesus the Christ, and is stuggling to find the words that are already known in heaven.

Jesus refused to rebuke his followers, the ones who shouted “Glory to God in the highest. Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” knowing full well that if they stopped shouting, if their tongues were no longer loosed, then on that day, on that very day, the stones themselves would shout. May the shouting continue even now, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Proper 17

Mark 7
14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.” [16] [f] 20 He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. 21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23 All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

The sleepy long weekend continues: what better time to spice things up with a little sin. Really, we can talk about a variety of sins, some A-list sins and some a little more garden variety sins.

And lists! I love lists, especially lists that seem to disagree or at least take a different tack on a common theme. And without venturing down the Greek traslations path I foreswore a couple of weeks ago, we can still compare and contrast between some translations, both ancient and modern.

At 401 years of age, the Authorized Version (we also know it as the King James Version) is always the best place to begin. Now, we have a family rule about correcting people willy-nilly, but I have to say they one of my pet peeves is people who insist on call it the St. James Version of the Bible. King James was no saint, you can trust me on that. He appears a few times on the naughty list in Mark 7, let’s just leave it at that.

So here is KJV of Mark 7.21-22:

21 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, 22 Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.
I’m sure you are familiar with all of these (the meaning of the words, of course) with the possible exception of lasciviousness. Good word, lasciviousness. To be lacivious means you are wanton, or lewd, like most late-night comics, or too many of the shows on television. Look, I’m preaching already, but it’s too soon. Back to King James.

I know I promised you no Greek, but now I can’t help myself. Our list, according to King James includes “an evil eye,” which I have to say I find rathery puzzling. The Greek word for eye, ophthalmos, with the qualifier evil (poneros) usually gets translated as envy, which we will see in a moment. But how does “an evil eye” become envy? I lived in Greektown for a whole lot of years, and over there an evil eye is an evil eye.

Not wanting to leave you hanging on this question, I turned to google, and sure enough, the evil eye, something feared in many Mediterranean countries, is related to envy. People seem to cast an evil eye on someone with things they covert, hence all the little glass baubles to protect you. All of this, of course, is unrelated to ‘stink eye’ (disapproval) or my favourite, ‘the hairy eyeball,’ which means about the same.

So on to the New International Version, which we heard this morning:

21 For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, 22 adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.
So covetousness has become greed, wickedness to malice, then the two I already mentioned, blasphemy becomes slander, pride to arrogance and foolishness to folly. Hard to believe that Bible translations provide this much wiggle room, something I’m going to have to ask about over lunch with my private biblical scholar.

The one that just leaps off the page here is going from blasphemy to slander. I don’t really put these two together, since one seems to be unfair words against God and the other is untruthful words against someone else. Then I read Matthew 12.31. In a nutshell, Jesus says that slander is a forgivable sin, but slander against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable. So they go together after all.

Now let’s look at the most scholarly, and recent of the translations I want to highlight, the New Revised Standard Version:

For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
Now we really get to test our word power. Notice that lasciviousness became lewdness in the NIV, and now it’s licentiousness. I won’t tire you with the Greek, but all the other places this word appears in the New Testament have to do with sex. So the NRSV is just getting fancy on us, and using yet another five dollar word to express that to be lewd is bad.

Or have they? Licentiousness does mean to be sexually unrestrained, or lewd, but it also has a couple of wider meanings to note: unrestrained by law or general morality; going beyond customary or proper bounds or limits; disregarding rules. Well, that just changes everything. Making a rude or suggestive statement is one thing, but the latest translation wants to expand it to include on the great curses of or time: exceptionalism.

What is it? Exceptionalism, is the abiding sense that the regular rules don’t apply to you. I’m sure you’ve met these people. They jump the queue at the supermarket. They have more than eight items in the express line. They make that u-turn north of the 401 on Weston Road (wait, that’s me). Regardless, those cursed with exceptionalism have gained a place among the terrible sins listed in Mark 7, all because the some scholars want to inprove our vocabulary. All because licentiousness is on the list.

There is one word on the list I want to take issue with, but before I do it I must stop ignoring the context of the list itself (sloth?). Jesus and his disciples have stopped doing the handwashing required under the law, and some of the religious leaders take note. Jesus then calls them hypocrites, something he did often, and cited a fairly complex point in law involving a specific offering that meant you didn’t need to support needy parents. Needless to say, the conversation ends there, and Jesus proceeds to make his summary to the disciples, and that summary includes our list.

His overall theme is defilement, that being rendered unclean has less to do with the state of your hands are more to do with the state of your heart. Yes, pollution could enter the body in a variety of ways, but the real pollution is what leaves the mouth. For from the mouth can come all sorts of evil, evil that betrays the true state of our heart, the seat of who we truly are.

The word I take umbridge with (that’s umbridge as in suspicion, not Prof. Umbridge of Harry Potter fame) is folly. Two of three versions settle on folly instead of foolishness, but I think I reject the word altogether. Here Jesus is highlighting the heart of what makes us human, that is our foolishness.

Maybe it’s time for some quotes:

Albert Einstein: Before God we are all equally wise--and equally foolish.
William Shakespeare: Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
Tiger Woods: Money and fame made me believe I was entitled. I was wrong and foolish.

Thanks, Tiger, for making my point about exceptionalism.

So if Einstein is right, that we are all equally wise and foolish before God, then Jesus has planted a giant trap for all of us. You see, we can read such a list and think to ourselves, nope, nope, not really, nope, no more than others, definitely no, not since noon, and so on. We don’t really see ourselves in the list. And so it would seem Jesus is talking about some other people, the people we don’t hang out with much anyway.

Then along comes foolishness. Specifically our foolishness, the foolishness that just now you are picturing in your mind’s eye and thinking “what an idiot, what was I thinking?” And if you are human, and reside of this planet, that likely descibes your every day. Say something foolish, do something foolish, have foolish thoughts, and the pattern repeats. We cannot escape our foolishness, beginning with the sense that we don’t belong on the naughty list. Because we do.

Call it the great equalizer. We begin to create a space between the people over there who are a great disappointment to God, and ourselves, the ones God loves. Then Jesus says wait, if you are foolish, and you are foolish, then don’t be so quick to condemn the others. If you want to be quick, be quick to forgive, because God is quick to forgive, even when we can’t.

And for that, we say thanks be to God. Amen.