Sunday, October 21, 2012

Proper 24

Job 38
Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:
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?
6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

There seems to be a moment when we finally realize summer is over.

Maybe surrender is more accurate: surrendering to the realization that summer has ended. It might be the frost warnings, the colourful then fallen leaves, or simply the knowledge that the sun will set tonight at 6.24 pm. Of course, it could be worse, since there will be a few days in December when the sun will set at 4.41 pm.

Maybe the best defense against such a painful realization is nostalgia: focus on the summer that has passed, some holiday time, or going to the cottage, or maybe a trip to one of the city’s beaches.

For some, this will seem like a stange idea. Toronto beaches were very popular long ago, then became something to avoid, and in recent years have once again become a popular destination in summer. The water quality is better, that helps, there seems to be more activities happening near and in the water, and summer is just too hot to stay away from the water.

Oddly, this summertime fascination with water is fairly recent. Until the Victorian era, only the rich seemed to notice that the seaside was worth a visit. The rest were working, and so the water, by extension, was a place to work. Fishing, transport, even quarrying from the waters edge were far more common than actually sitting in a chair beside the sea.

It was only late in the nineteenth century that working class people were given vacations (unpaid) to journey to the piers and palaces erected by the sea in places like Brighton and Blackpool. Suddenly miners and millworkers were given the opportunity to see what all the fuss was about, and rub shoulders with their social betters.

You might argue that before the nineteenth century, many if not most people had a form of thalassophobia, fear of the sea. And it was well-founded, with ocean travel or working on the sea amoung most dangerous things you could do. I think there is even an echo of this fear in our modern and unending fascination with Titanic, the sub-conscious fear of the open and unforgiving ocean, and wondering how we would manage in the face of such disaster.

In many ways, we have come full circle. The sea was something to be feared, then something we overcame, and now we fear again. First, our fear was well-founded, then we perfected navigation, or we simply flew over it, or made it into a holiday destination.

And all the while, while we were busy filling the atmosphere with CO2 and poisoning the oceans with chemicals and fishing the creatures to oblivion, the sea began to turn on us, and became a source of fear once more. Low-lying places will flood, island nations will disappear, and science may yet prove the link between climate change and extreme weather, something that seems perfectly intuitive.

From fear, to comfort, and back to fear: It is the same fear and hesitation that we heard in our reading this morning, even more fearful in a Barbara’s Bristish accent:

Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this.

These are God’s words, spoken to Job out of the whirlwind, a passage that is part rant, part recrimination, and some argue an entirely unique description of the creation. But before I say more, I should give you a bit of the setting of this retelling of creation.

Perhaps the result of a wager, Job suffers great loss, endures the so-called comforting of his friends, challenges God to explain his suffering, and comes to understand that there is no explanation.

I say ‘perhaps’ because some scholars have argued that the author of the book of Job has melded two stories, or a story and an arguement between friends, and turned them into one work of literature. It seems entirely possible, since the beginning (and the end, for the most part) reads like a parable, or a folktale, with God and Satan making a gentleman’s bet at the expense of poor Job.

The theological argument, however, gives the book substance, with a persistent back in forth on the nature of God and of God’s ways. Job claims his suffering is undeserved, his friends insist it cannot be. It all hinges on the classical wisdom belief that the good will prosper and the wicked will suffer. ‘Tell us,’ Job’s friends ask, ‘what evil you did to deserve all this suffering?‘ The three will not let it do, nor will Job concede any wrongdoing:

Therefore I will not keep silent;
    I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit,
    I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

God, hearing enough of this argument, gets the last word on the limits of human understanding. Where it might be enough to say “I am unknowable” or “I am God and you are not” as one author said, we instead meet the whirlwind:

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone—
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels[a] shouted for joy?

This is an angry and even snippy God, something that some find hard to face, and others reject. Yet the content of the very one-sided response should be enough to convince us that this is the voice of an unknowable God. There are unanswerable questions, and even the framing of the questions seems a great mystery. There are things larger than we can contemplate, and in such great number that we are taken-aback. God demands to be unknowable, not something easy to explain or something predictable in response, or something consistent with the pet theories of three amateur theologians named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar.

And so we see the track of human interaction with God. God was a great mystery, something (or someone) to be feared, like the sea. Then we brought God down to our size, through the rambling of Job’s ‘comforters,’ or by reducing God to a single idea (“God is love”) or by even thinking of God as some kind of ‘divine buddy.’

We refused to let God be God because we think we can understand everything and because we want to live without fear. But the fear of God that Job 38 describes is not the harmful fear that we should all live without, but the fearfulness that is better described as awe, and sense that there is something bigger than ourselves in the universe.

So we need to return to a fear of God, a healthy fear that helps us remember that we did not create ourselves, but we are part of the world God made. We need to remember that an unknowing God is far more than just love but must also be judgment, not the ‘you’re going to hell” kind of judgment but the kind of judgment that says ‘when I made the world and everything in it, it existed in a finely tuned balance--how is it now, humans?’

So when we fully understand that there is something bigger than ourselves in the universe, we will see that everything is bigger. We think we understand our planetary home and God says ‘think bigger’ and shows us more. We think know the far reaches of space with our fancy telescopes and such and God says ‘think bigger’ and shows us more. We think we understand God’s capacity to forgive us and then we prove more foolish than ever and God says ‘think bigger’ and forgives us more.

May we continually ‘think bigger,’ letting God be God and letting us be us, and sense the awe and a little fear, now and ever, Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Proper 23

Hebrews 4
12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

Four years later and everything seems the same.

There is a tight race for the White House unfolding, the incumbent it far more popular in Canada than the United States, and we sit on the sidelines scratching our heads. How could they be split so evenly? Don’t they see what we see? I’m sure the challenger and his ernest young running-mate are fine people, but win the election?

I must confess I was a little obsessed last time around. Maybe I brought this to the pulpit, I don’t know. I was my first “season” here, and in my mind’s eye I worry that all the CNN and John King’s magic map took me to the edge of the homiletical abyss. Too political, and you lose people. Too other-worldly, without reference to the present day, and you lose people. Preachers try to find the sweet spot, looking for heaven on earth, or “on earth, as it is in heaven,” or some such.

Now, if we took the idea of election, and traveled back in time to 1821, to the rough-hewn church at the corner of two muddy streets that would some day become Weston Road and King, it would have a very different meaning. Yes, some might think of the recent election, where the good people of Upper Canada elected the 8th Parliament. They may have even thought of the election with some regret, having elected the Family Compact, particularly unpopular with Methodists.

(As an aside, the leader of this Parliament was Sir John Robinson, 1st Baronet of Toronto, an effort by the Crown to add a little Downton Abbey to our humble colony).

More likely, though, the topic of election would have put them in mind of the state of their soul. For you see, election, or who is going to heaven and who will not, was generally more top-of-mind in a time when mortality was more present to people. People thought about salvation, who might have it, and who might not, a topic that we have largely pushed from view.

The reasons may be more complex than time or interest allows, but it might be enough to say that in an age of modern medicine, religious diversity, and an acute interest in fairness, we have moved away from the discussion of who is in and who is out. We tend toward universalism, demanding equality of opportunity from a God that may or may not be able to provide it. But more on that later.

Any conversation about election would likely begin with John Calvin. Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian stream of our denomination, is closely associated with the idea that only an elect few will enjoy eternity with God. The identity of the elect, according to Calvin, is unknown, or known only to God. Each of us, therefore, should live as a member of the elect, but not take it for granted. It seems a tense way to live.

Tense, perhaps, but it also points to the idea that salvation cannot be earned. The elect are simply elected, they don’t earn election, it is a gift that is freely given, apart from whatever we do or fail to do. Still, with the overall idea that there is only salvation for some, most will be left feeling unsatisfied.

Over here on the Methodist side of the street, election might begin with Calvin, but lead to Wesley. There was a sense in Methodist circles that all the emphasis on holiness and purity, and turning your life around, must lead to the opportunity for salvation. Perhaps, they argued, the elect are a self-selecting group, that by turning to Jesus for salvation people become the elect. We can choose faith or reject it, but that choice must have some bearing on the state of our soul.

One thing everyone could agree on was the importance of Hebrews 4. The passage that Kathy read comes to us in two parts: the sword that we have conveniently located there in your pew, and High Priest who uses the sword to understand our weakness. Let me explain.

The sword, according to the author of Hebrews, is the word of God. And without moving to “M for Mature,” the sword reveals what is in our soul, opening to the heart, allowing God to see deep within. It is not a pretty sight. Both sides of the street, Calvinist and Methodist, would peer into the soul and see that we are depraved.

Again, we don’t tend to use the word depravity much anymore, or at least not when referring to the state of our souls, but this would have come as second nature to our forebears. They would have freely admitted to being depraved, at least in God’s eyes, and accept that God would look beyond their depravity to offer the gift of grace.

Now, unlike the discussion of eternity that has largely vanished from our midst, the discussion of depravity has not. It seems to speak to our worldview, and you likely have a strong opinion on this question whether you want to or not. And this discussion seems to spill into the news a great deal, lurking underneath the narrative.

First a confession. I have been having the same argument with my dear friend and colleague on this question for nearly a decade. I will protect his identity, since he is wrong, and call him only “the Jimmy.” The Jimmy, you see, believes that people are basically good but will occasionally do bad things. I call this the Canadian argument. Trusting, very generous, and in my view, wrong.

I believe that people are basically bad and will occasionally do good things. Now, I can see that you are already siding with the Jimmy. I may have lost you already, but let me explain.

I’m not standing in my beautifully carved pulpit and pointing a finger at anyone in particular. I am making the argument that if you look at the long track of human history, we never learn. We endlessly repeat the same mistakes, we retrace the same foolish steps, we think it’s ‘onward and upward’ but it seldom is. If you took the lessons of the past and cleverness of the present age it would seen impossible that we could go on repeating all that we regret: but we do.

The same argument plays itself out around us every day. Take that large daily newspaper that some of you read, and that I find entirely too preachy. If you read between the lines of the newspaper, there seems to be the assumption that if would could just get people on side, to think differently, then everything would be better. The paper reveals in banner headlines the mistakes being made, but never concedes that this may be the way of the world. Each breach of trust and each crime is reported as a failure in proper thinking, the proper thinking that the editors are more than willing to provide.

But what if all the failure and all the mistakes and all the sin has nothing to do with improper thinking or a failure to educate the masses? What if it’s just the way things are? For one thing it wouldn’t sell papers, because the selling of newspapers has to do with selling the unexpected, and if we expected failure and disaster, then it wouldn’t work. The paper is written with the underlying assumption that all these terrible things that happen are news, meaning new or unexpected, when that’s not the case at all. Read today’s paper and read the paper from a century ago: the names have changed but the news has not.

If we want to see the human way, the true constant in who we are and how we act, we need only look at the second half of our reading:

Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

We are weak, but we have a high priest who can empathize with our weakness. We are tempted to fail in myriad of ways, but we are led by one who overcame temptation. We may be given to despair, but we have a high priest in Christ Jesus who intercedes for us to the Most High, convinced that we deserve a place at the throne of Grace.

This, then, is the word we need to hear most: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We are elected to stand among the saved because of God’s great generosity, we have confidence in the face of difficulty because of God’s great generosity, and we have mercy in the face of our failure because of God’s great generosity. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2012


Matthew 6
‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

I like the internet, I truly do.

I like being able to think of something (what’s tomorrow’s weather?) and having that information in the time it takes to press a few keys or fish the phone from my pocket. I like having access to a vast storehouse of information, things I wish I knew, or things I knew but have since forgotten.

I like that new things appear and others disappear in a matter of months. Remember MySpace? Or Geocities? Or Bill Gates? Then someone will refer to the “blogosphere” or the “Twitterverse” and I don’t know whether to be delighted or appalled.

And just when I am overwhelmed by this marvelous new age of information and integration, I fall upon another cat picture, or a cat and a dog together, or two cats, maybe sleeping, in the sink, with that sleeping cat face. Then I think we should scrap the whole thing, and return to a time without cat pictures. Then it hits me, an image from the most popular poster of my childhood. No, not the Farah Fawcett one, the other one, the one with the kitten hanging from a tree branch, with the words “Hang in there, baby.”

According to Wikipedia, the “Hang in there, baby” poster was first published in 1968 and was soon everywhere, even presented to Vice-President Spiro Agnew in an effort to stop him from quitting. It didn’t work. Oddly, the internet wouldn’t give me the publisher, photographer or the name of the cat. At least not in the 90 seconds I set aside for research.

This morning I’m going to argue that Jesus said “Hang in there, baby” in Matthew 6, but not in so many worlds. No, there are no cats in Matthew 6, but there are birds and lilies and a lot of anxious questions like “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”

But before I get to the hidden cat in the hidden tree in the passage, I want to point to a bit of context. The passage that Douglas read this morning is more-or-less the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. It is a sermon, and like all good sermons (so I’m told) that has three points.

The first point, found in Chapter 5, might be summarized as “live not as the world lives.” Unexpected people are called blessed, such as the poor in spirit, commandments are extended (you read ‘do not murder,’ and I say “do not be angry with your brother or sister’) and in the end we are given the hardest instruction of all, ‘love your enemies.’

The second point, most of Chapter 6 and some of 7, could be summarized as “think how it will look.” Giving, praying and fasting should all be done in the most subtle way possible, and the same with wealth, and worry, and the way you judge others. All of these are framed as ‘do these things in secret, or simply, or with an eye to how others regard you.’

And the last point, most of Chapter 7, is about entering the Kingdom, something at may as simple as knocking on the door, or as complicated as following the narrow path and doing the will of God in heaven. And when you figure it out, it is like building your house on a rock, always a good thing.

In all, it has to be the most challenging sermon in history: Reject the way the world lives and live differently, live differently but don’t make a big show of it, and remember that the path of life is narrow and the gate is a really tight squeeze. And it may be the second point, our point for today, that is most challenging of all.

The first challenge of ‘think how it will look’ or ‘don’t make a big show of it’ is the extent to which we think we should do the opposite. Shouldn’t we lead by example? Shouldn’t our life be a testimony to God in our life? Shouldn’t the outward expression of faith be a good goal in a secular world?

Yes and no. We should give to the needy, but not to build ourselves up. We should pray for others to hear, but nothing showy or wordy, just something dignified, like the Lord’s Prayer. And we should do as well as we can in life, but not to the point that mammon replaces the Maker of All. And we should worry, because the world is worrisome, but we shouldn’t turn that worry into theatre.

Wait, preacher, you may argue, the passage says pretty clearly, ‘don’t worry.’ “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Yes, that’s true. And it gets even clearer, clearer than the popular favourite ‘consider the lilies.’ It is the knockout punch of the passage, the message that you hardcore worriers should have tattooed somewhere visible: “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?”

So it’s about worry, but it also about outward appearances, meaning the way we express our worry to an anxious world. So forget the tattoo, and focus instead on giving the impression you have no worries, because that may help everyone in these anxious times.

I should tell you that every other time I have preached this passage I did it as a straight-up ‘don’t worry’ sermon. I would sing a little Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t worry, be happy”) or Bob Marley ("Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing gonna be all right.”) and even talk about hypertension, which is like being tense, but hyper about it, which is bad.

But now I see that the message ‘don’t worry’ has a context, and the context is ‘you will do these things whether I tell you to or not, so do them, but don’t make a fuss.’ Or ‘do them, but don’t appear to be doing them,’ or ‘do them, but don’t do them where anyone can see you.’

Or ‘Hang in there, baby.’ You see, the reason the kitten hanging from the branch is so timeless is that we should worry, and the kitten should worry, because it’s hanging in mid-air! But a poster with a dangerously dangling feline that says ‘don’t worry’ would make no sense. You’re in a tight spot, so we say ‘Hang in there, baby.’

Or consider the lilies. Or look at the birds of the air. Hanging there, from a branch, worry won’t save you, but lilies might, because they never worry, nor the birds of the air. You can overcome your natural inclination to worry by pondering the lily advice, even as you continue to worry.

Prof. Van Doran, famous mentor to Thomas Merton, when teaching Don Quixote, would say to his students: “One of the lessons of this book is that the way to become a knight is to act like a knight.”

And Jesus, also famous mentor to Thomas Merton, would say the way to becoming a non-worrier is to stop worrying. Or at least hang in, because there are challenges enough in life without meeting every situation with worry.

We live, of course, in an anxious age. Perhaps our age is no more anxious than any other age, but we have better worry-enhancing technology. We don’t have news, we have ‘Breaking News,’ we don’t have a snow storm, we have snowmageddon, and every crisis is the worst crisis since the we began to record crisis’s.

Can’t turn off CNN? Consider the lilies! Tempted to wrap the kids in bubblewrap? Consider the lilies! Checking your balance online every single day? Consider the lilies! Anxious you are too anxious? Consider the lilies!

So live differently, and don’t make a big show of it (worriers), and follow the narrow path, with lilies and birds, and a Kingdom to seek. Amen.