Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lent 2

Luke 13
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,* “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when* you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Tonight the red carpet is rolled out once more, and while you watch, or maybe while you watch and wonder why you are watching, I want you to meditate on a few names:

Peter O’Toole, Alfred Hitchcock, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton and Norman Jewison.

For an academy that attempts to reward excellence in film, it sure seems off that the people on this list have never won an Oscar. They were nominated (eight times for Peter O’Toole), but no bling. Some were give ‘lifetime achievement’ statuettes, but for the serious actor I’m sure that feels worse: here’s a prize that says ‘we love you, but we’ve loved others more.‘ Detailed analysis might reveal some overall pattern of bad timing or bad luck, but our time tonight might be better spend enjoying the clothing and the charming banter.

It seems “Saturday Night at the Movies” (TVO) has the same sense of outrage, choosing last night to show “In the Heat of the Night” starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and directed by Toronto’s own Norman Jewison. It tells the story of a black cop from Philadelphia who ends up in small-town Mississippi in the middle of a murder investigation. And in 1967, with racial tension at an all time high in America, it was very brave film to make. The film received a handful of Oscars, but none for Jewison.

He returned to the theme of racism in America on two more occasions (A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane), along with some much lighter films, but it seems the mantle of ‘prophetic filmmaker’ has stuck to Jewison, which somehow doesn’t please Oscar. America likes to look at itself, but might rather do it through the eyes of Forrest Gump rather than Detective Virgil Tibbs.

Now that I’ve ruined the Oscars for you, it might be time to take a deeper look at the role of prophet. First of all, the role of the prophet is more than simply saying ‘you are going to watch something tonight that you really shouldn’t enjoy.’ But that is part of it. No, the prophet is a more timeless character, appearing throughout the Bible, from Abraham and Moses all the way down to Job and with all the ‘usual suspects’ in between.

So what do prophets do? And why are they so wildly unpopular, prompting Jesus himself to say “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” At first glance it would seem that as soon as someone is reported to be speaking for God we would lean in, and we might welcome the words, being religious, and seemingly more open to what God has to say. So why are they so unpopular?

To begin, we must turn to our source of all wisdom of all matters related to the Old Testament: Walter Brueggemann. Prof. Brueggemann begins his look at prophets by saying they have “uncommon access to matters of God’s will and purpose that are hidden to other humans.” (Reverberations, 158). So far, so good. The prophets hear what we cannot hear, and the message that God shares with them, they in turn must share.

Early on, this job was easier. God says to Abraham ‘look up at the night sky and try to count the stars, so shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15.4) Seems like a message anyone can share. And even when the other half of the covenant appears, the mark that each male will bear to prove their obedience to God, it is only the adult males that might hear the message with some alarm and discomfort.

No, the real heroes of the prophetic world are the Isaiah’s of the Bible, who receive the burden of God’s words in the midst of powerful people who do the things that powerful people have always done when God has other ideas. And if you want to illustrate the kind of message that Jesus insists will get you killed in Jerusalem, look no further than Isaiah 5:

7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
8 Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
9 The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.
13 Therefore my people will go into exile
for lack of understanding;
those of high rank will die of hunger
and the common people will be parched with thirst.
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
and champions at mixing drinks,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice to the innocent.

And these writings, written when the people were already in exile, formed a kind of divine ‘I told you so’ to a the very people Isaiah was speaking to. The elite were carried off to Babylon, and there they remained and tried to remember what warnings came before and what they could have done to save themselves.

And ironically, it was precisely because they were carried off, and spent time reflecting on the heart of their religion, that they were able to record these and other words and ultimately save everything. It is in exile they discovered what being faithful means, something that Prophet Jesus will bring up 500 years later when the next disaster is set to unfold. But that would be jumping ahead, because we need to look closer to home first.

In the United Church we pride ourselves on being a prophetic voice in Canadian society, and a transformating presence in neighbourhoods, and it goes back to the very beginning. You no doubt tire of being told that Toronto Conference voted in 1930 to abolish capitalism (there, I said it again), that we ordained women in 1936 and reminded everyone in 1988 that anyone can be a member and any member can be a minister, and that sexual orientation is a gift God gave us.

We apologized to First Nations 20 years sooner than the Government of Canada, in spite of what the insurance companies were warning us, and even in the 1950‘s and 60’s—when prophecy hit a low ebb in the United Church—we were welcoming alcoholics into our basements and allowing divorced people to marry in church.

Now that I have you all puffed up with denominational pride (still a deadly sin) I’m going to go back to first principles and pop your little United Church balloons.

In the United Church we long ago began to conflate the idea of prophecy with social activism. Brueggemann mentions it too, so we know it happened to all the mainline denominations: that railing against injustice, as appropriate as that remains, became the only mode of prophecy that we could recognize, and they only one we could focus on.

Remember the wise professor said prophecy is “uncommon access to matters of God’s will and purpose that are hidden to other humans.” And then Jesus said (in a summary of his entire project “Love the Lord you God with all heart and mind and soul; and love your neighbour as yourself.” This is Jesus’ prophetic message, the ‘will and purpose’ hidden and then revealed to us.

Then what did we do? We took the party of the second part (neighbour) and called that our prophetic duty and the focus of our denominational project and began to ignore the party of the first part (God). We forgot that telling people that loving God is the key to a happy life is a prophetic message—our message—and a message that is desperately needed in the streets that surround this church. We forgot that forgiveness and mercy are deeply counter-cultural and therefore part of the prophetic ministry that we are called to do. We forgot who we are.

But God did not forget. God did not forget and decided in God’s infinite wisdom to send us a new generation of prophets, one of whom Lang and I heard speak just yesterday. The Rev. Charles Olango, minister of the Uganda Martyrs United Church, located here in Weston, thanked the presbytery for the gift of a location to gather, for having the insight to twin their congregation with Riverside-Emery, and most of all for giving them a place to glorify God.

And this is prophetic speech. There are a few of us history geeks that know that the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) begins by listing that the goal of human life is to “Glorify God and enjoy God every day,” but it became obvious yesterday that Rev. Charles and his congregation are living this everyday. Ironic that we sent missionaries to far off places so that someday believers could come from far off places and become modern-day prophets reminding us why we exist and speaking words that went out of fashion in the United Church long ago.

So we continue on to Jerusalem, with the prophet Jesus as our guide, knowing full-well that the message of glorifying God and honouring neighbour will be difficult for many to hear, and harder still to live out, yet the message remains. Amen.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Lent 1

Deuteronomy 26
4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. 6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.’ You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

It wasn’t even Lent yet, and already people were giving stuff up. Take Monday, for example. It seems you can give up being Pope for Lent, or give it up for good, something that seemed to take people by surprize.

That is, unless you are the senior Vatican-based journalist who sat though enough press briefings in Latin that she decided to learn it and in doing so got the jump on all the other reporters too lazy to do the same. People who know dead languages are feeling very smug this week, Carmen included.

Our new premier took office the same day, and was forced to give up her post-victory glow in favour of the less-than-fun job of confronting teachers, transit-advocates and everyone who is still mad about a couple of power plants. The Star—entirely too preachy—repeated the predictable line that ‘winning the leadership was the easy part.’

And at the very same moment, somewhere in the western Caribbean, the other big news story of the week was brewing, where some would begin the season of Lent giving up toilets and the little folded towel animals that the cleaning staff like to leave on the bed. If you were watching CNN, you might think this was a disaster rather than a mishap, with lawyers ready for the inevitable class-action suites and panelists suggesting everyone should get free cruises for life.

Now, to put this into perspective—which seems like a very Lenten thing to do—the World Health Organization says that around the world 2.6 billion people (that’s billion with a B) lack access to basic sanitation. But the biggest news for past week was 4,100 people didn’t get the cruise experience they paid for. To be fair, CNN did manage to find one passenger (who obviously doesn’t have a lawyer yet) who said it wasn’t really that bad on the ship.

I might even take this a step further and argue that Carnival Triumph isn’t really a cruise ship at all, it’s a metaphor. Maybe all cruise ships are metaphors, because they represent the extent to which we in the developed world float around on a sea of relative prosperity, briefly looking in on exotic (and less advanced) ports of call, and then retreat quickly to the safety of the ship for a multi-course meal and a stroll around the deck.

Now for those of you on hypocrite watch, I have taken a cruise or two in the past. But the great thing about being a minister is you can partake in worldly things and all the while be busy judging all the people around you. Of course, now that Lent has arrived I can give up judgement and hypocrisy and focus instead on who might be next pope, promised before the end of Lent.

One of the things we won’t focus on this morning is the reading from Luke, so well read, but kind of overdone. The temptation story appears every single year on this Sunday, and in many ways it’s just too easy as a Lent 1 theme. So setting aside temptation, we are left with “a wandering Aramean was my father.”

Now, I fear that Carmen has given up being helpful for Lent, because when I asked her what an Aramean was, so just give me a blank stare. To be fair, it is exam time, and all her stressed out Hebrew students obviously have her stressed out, so we will let it pass this time and turn to Wikipedia instead.

It turns out that pretty much everyone is an Aramean. The Arameans, just as Deuteronomy suggests, wander from some distant place (likely in Syria) and began to mingle with all the other nomadic peoples in the Bronze Age Ancient Near East. And while the Arameans as an identifiable people vanished, their language took off, with Aramaic becoming the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent.

So, Deuteronomy is part history, and part law review, and part preparation for entering the Promised Land. It records a series of farewell discourses from Moses, and sets out how to safeguard all the important work God has done to rescue the people from slavery in Eqypt. It contains warnings and prohibitions, and words to be recited in particular situations, such as the Shema, quoted by Jesus and close to his heart: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

The part we heard this morning, chapter 26, is part of the ritual preparation, a primer on gratitude, that gives specific words to be spoken as the offering is set before God and dedicated to God’s glory. But for the Israelites, this is more than just ritual, it’s family history, recorded in rich symbolic language:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.

And while we hear a short summary, the first listeners heard Abraham and Sarah, receiving God’s blessing in old age, and Isaac, subject of God’s greatest test of obedience, and Jacob, cleverly taking his brother’s birthright, but becoming Israel after truly wrestling with God. And Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery, only to become second to Pharaoh, but doomed by foreshadowing to become the forefather of a race enslaved by future Pharaohs.

When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

And while we hear harsh affliction, the first listenings heard the shouts of the taskmasters, and the command to make bricks without straw, and the death of boys that somehow posed a mortal threat to Pharaoh. And while it would be easy to believe that God was somehow indifferent to the cries of those who suffered in Egypt, we learn that it was just the opposite.

The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

It almost sounds easy. Once more, the poet finds a concise way to capture the Red Sea, the hunger, the gifts of manna and quail, the cloud by day and the pillar or fire by night, and the final step, entry into the land, a land that is so many things but can be always best summarized by ‘milk and honey.’


A passage about ritual gratitude seems unlikely as a reading for the beginning of Lent when we typically focus on ‘giving up’ and felling guilty. It’s become like a more troubling version of Advent, seemingly set aside to prepare for the worst while doing our best.

Yet we, like our Aramean forebears, have the benefit of knowing the end of the story. And while we understand the need to hear the whole story, to travel up to Calvary and the cross, we also know that it ends with an empty tomb and the salvation of us all. So we can make Lent 1 about gratitude if we rehearse the whole story, if we recount the more recent salvation history and make it our own once more. We have the template, and we have the story, so we have everything we need to give thanks:

A wandering Judean was my saviour. He went down to Egypt and lived briefly as an alien, but returned to Nazareth, to become a great teacher, mighty in the power of God. When those representing the new Pharoah in Rome were threatened by him, and the seemingly religious ones too, he was treated harshly and afflicted, crying out through the pain to say ‘forgive them, father, they know not why they oppress me.‘ He died and was buried, but the Lord brought him from death’s tomb with an outstretched hand, and signs and wonders, making an end to death, that each of us may know a land of milk and honey.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9
28Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” —not knowing what he said. 34While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

Your Church Council Executive met this past week, and you will be pleased to know that amid all the ‘church business’ we wrestled with some deeply theological questions.

For example, what kind of palms should we get for Palm Sunday? The bushy kind (custom gesture) or the long slender kind?

Will it be a real Palm Sunday service? (My first response: You can fake these things?) I actually had the answer, and more on that in a moment.

And perhaps the most vital question of the evening: Have we managed to secure a baby for Easter Sunday? (The answer is yes, and two Confirmands too).

And leading more to the business side, a question for the Management Committee: How do you follow the extraordinary work done on the new wall in the sanctuary? Well, by remodeling bathrooms, of course!

Now, some of you would rather ‘ignore the man behind the curtain’ (not that your Executive is pretending to be the great and powerful Oz) and simply allow the church to unfold. Generally, however, I know this is true for few at Central. With one of the best attended annual meetings here at Central, I know people are quite engaged in the unfolding administrative story of the church. Or they like a good lunch. One of those two.

Back to the question of the real or fake Palm Sunday service, I can explain. It seems that in recent years a trend has developed, based on congregational behavior, the kind that we happily don’t see here. Year by year, in other places, people skip Good Friday.

Of course, you have heard me address this topic before. Each year I encourage people to attend Good Friday service because they need to hear the whole story. You can’t understand Resurrection without at least a glimpse of crucifixion. Like Noah, narrative has an arc, and without experiencing some of the hopelessness you can’t fully appreciate the hope. Put another way, unless you meet the flying monkeys, you can’t understand that there is truly ‘no place like home.’ That may have been the last Oz reference today, but there are no guarantees.

So to remedy low or no attendance at Good Friday services, churches have tended to cancel them in favour of something called “Palm-Passion Sunday.” I have led these a few times, and I have to say they are pretty unsatisfying. You begin in the usual way, with a palm parade and the (maybe ironic) celebration of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. Then at some moment, and often quite abruptly, you do a switch and read the passion narrative, sparing none of the details. Then you send people away.

There are two problems with this approach, the first being that you do not allow Palm to be Palm, with all the celebration and all the complexity that the Sunday brings. Next, you read the passion narrative without the benefit of a sermon, the ‘interpreted Word’ that allows you to hear a torturous story and put it into the context of the work of God in the world. Unpreached, it is just a cruel story from a cruel age, but with a good Good Friday sermon, it becomes a story of redemption.

So now that you’ve seen way behind the curtain, what about the story of the day, the story before the story, the story that happens each year just as we are set to enter Lent? It begins like this:

Eight days later Jesus took Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to Jesus. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

You see why, year by year, this is the story that precedes Lent. We are about to journey up to Jerusalem, to seek the higher ground of the Holy City, to witness what happens when the itinerant phase of Jesus earthly ministry ends and he reaches the heart of Israel.

We already know how this story ends, but if you suspend that for just a moment, you can imagine the excitement the disciples must have felt knowing that Jesus was getting ‘called up to the big show,’ that he was going to take his message of a renewed faith directly to the people who could make change, and maybe demonstrate more of God’s power in a place impressive people could be truly impressed.

But that’s not what happens. Then as now, it is the very people who should be most open, the religious people, who seem most closed to the new thing God is doing in the world. And this is not a story about Jewish people refusing to see the Messiah, a point-of-view we discredited long ago. Imagine instead a story about ugly Christians with hateful placards protesting the very things that they ought to embrace. If Jesus appeared at such a protest, preaching unconditional love, a cross would surely follow.

So we know that story and how the story ends. But Transfiguration Sunday is the story before the story, and the details of the encounter tell is more. They tell us about the disciples state-of-mind in these days before Jerusalem: what they are prepared to hear and what they cannot hear.

You know how this works. Our brains seem conditioned to take in unexpected news slowly. You go to the doctor to hear some news and you are cautioned to take someone with you, to help you hear, or at least help you remember. Or the opposite: you hear something truly exciting (sadly, it’s only those foolish 6-49 commercials that come to mind) and you have left saying ‘really, is that true?’

Maybe over the last million years of so we became conditioned to temper the fight-or-flight response by having some difficulty hearing big news. If the news is ‘there is danger just outside the door to our cave’ then the flight response might lead you into further danger. See what I mean? Actually, it has been determined that cavemen didn’t actually live in caves, we just named them that because caves are the only place they left evidence of their lives.

So two things are communicated in the story of the transfiguration, one thing they can hear and one they cannot. It says ‘they were speaking of his departure, and what he would accomplish in Jerusalem’ and get nary a detail. Jesus, Moses and Elijah set out what will happen in the weeks to come, the most important weeks of God’s earthly project, and not a single detail is recorded or shared. The topic is recorded, they heard that much, but the rest is sublimated, and lost to history: until it begins to happen. So what could they hear?

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.

Amazing that the only words they can hear and record are the very same words we heard at Jesus’ baptism, the very beginning of his public ministry, the words that have been rattling around in their brains for three long years. These words they can hear. Any why? Because at this moment the three disciples seem to need some assurance, that amid all the coming uncertainly, in the bright light of the moment, this beloved one remained the same, the same blessed child of God who was their companion and guide. They needed comfort, and so only one message is retained in their memory.

But what was truly happening—and I apologize in advance for taking you back to Oz—was a look behind the curtain to see the inner workings of the Word made flesh. This dialogue between heaven and earth, between Jesus and Mose and Elijah was not a ‘one-off’ affair, it was ongoing. There was never not a moment (double negative!) that Jesus wasn’t aware of the eternal context of all that was happening to him. This was a glimpse of something they could barely grasp, and barely hear, and barely describe later.

And for one brief and literally shining moment that caught a glimpse, a glimpse of the inner workings of that other world, where the ‘saints in light’ look in on us and try to speak to us and together lean in for concern with the human way.

It is this concern that becomes our ‘takeaway’ from this story, that nevermore will we imagine ‘benign indifference’ when we glance up: instead, we can see (if only in our mind’s eye) Jesus and Moses and Elijah and the whole host of heaven urging us on to Lent and beyond, with the words “My son is with you, my chosen, who speaks words you need to hear.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Luke 4
Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

At one time, kids were sent off to study history, or geography, or mathematics, but no longer. Why study the ordinary when you can opt for extraordinary, something that will really ‘pop’ when you pass out your c.v.

So here they are, some recent examples of new majors, in no particular order:

University of Connecticut: Puppetry
Carnegie Mellon University: Bagpiping
Green Mountain College: Adventure Education
Florida Southern College: Citrus Studies
North Carolina State: Poultry Science
Cornell and Brock: Viticulture
Kansas State: Bakery Science
Michigan State: Packaging
SUNY Plattsburgh: Canadian Studies
UMassAmhurst: The Bachelor's Degree with Individual Concentration

I began to think about this a while ago when one of my son’s friends told us she was doing a minor in Diaspora Studies. Generally, when we speak of Diaspora (capital D), we are referring to the way in which Jews were dispersed throughout Asia and Europe following the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70CE. But it seems that lately the idea of diaspora has been enlarged to include the movement or migration of any peoples away from their ancestral homeland. That U of T would host this study seems to make great sense, considering the context of the city.

Another unusual major I discovered this week is Encounter Studies, sometimes called New World Studies. It seems to have begun in the Comparative Literature department, comparing and contrasting the literature of Europe after Columbus and the indigenous writing in the centuries that followed first contact.

This was then expanded, under the larger heading of humanities, to include history, economics, and other disciplines, all related to what happens when worlds collide, when cultures meet and are inevitably transformed.

So what began as an encounter between Europe and the Other, whether that meant looking west to the new world, or east to early encounters with Asian cultures, has now grown to look at any cultural exchange (or conflict) that follows contact.

And if I was going to take this new disciple to the Bible, as good a place as any to begin might be Luke 4:

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s boy?’

It seemed a good beginning, this synagogue service, with a recently returned Jesus reading the lesson of the day and declaring that Isaiah’s message of release and recovery has been fulfilled in the hearing of the gathered community. So far, so good.

‘Isn’t that so-and-so’s boy?’ is a question you still might hear in a small town like Mt. Albert or Weston, where accomplishment is acknowledged in the context of family connections and social standing. Jesus is given some credibility even as he begins to speak, because he has come home.

But then the true ‘encounter’ begins. Jesus references recent events in Capernaum, his adopted home, and suggests that the crowd might want to see some of the same signs performed in Nazareth. Then he utters something that falls under the ‘eternal truth’ category, saying ‘no prophet is welcome in his hometown.’ And then he shows them why. He tells them two encounter stories, and neither one pleases the crowd.

First it is Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, found in 1 Kings, where the exiled Elijah reaches out for help. He finds it in a most unexpected place, through this foreign woman, and the encounter generates two miracles: Feeding those present in an echo of the story of the manna in the wilderness, and eventually raising the widow’s dead son to life, the first example of such a miracle in the Bible.

Next is Naaman the Syrian, another foreigner who is the subject of a miracle, this time healed of leprosy when so many within the community were left unattended. In each of these stories, Jesus is introducing the idea that God’s favour does not rest on Israel alone, and that the stories recorded in scripture provide ample proof.

Unhappy, they attempt to march Jesus to the brow of a nearly hill, and toss him off. Somehow he ‘passed through the midst of them,’ which seems to be code for giving them the slip. The next verse finds him back in Capernaum, where they remain amazed by his teaching, and impressed that he speaks with authority.

So the first version of encounter studies is going home, something that may be less familiar for those who never left home, but even for the turtles among us, there are variations on this theme: You leave to experience something unavailable to you locally, perhaps an event or a program, and you return somehow changed.

For Jesus, it was 40 days in the wilderness, and the testing that he faced. For some it is the test of the unfamiliar, or the test of begin stretched in some way or another. Whatever it is, coming home changed is frequently unwelcome. The best advice we give young people to travel to national youth events is ‘go home and report what you learned, don’t try to tell them how it felt because they will never understand.’

So the first example of ‘an encounter’ is pretty much a failure. So what do we do with this early failure in the larger ‘encounter study’ we call incarnation? Just a month ago we were busy celebrating that God had entered our world once more. We were marking that God is now present to us in a vulnerable infant, ready to grow and learn the human way, to experience what we experience in an effort to draw closer to us.

And now it seems, things have gone terribly wrong. Even in his own village, where it should be ‘hometown lad makes good,’ it is a shocking bit of foreshadowing, where the brow of the hill and a hill near Jerusalem take on an eerie semblance.

Could it be that the ultimate encounter in our study of encounters was doomed from the beginning? It might be, but only if we fail to remember that the last words spoken from the cross were ‘forgive them, father, they don’t know what they’re doing.’ Even as we are busy rejecting God and God’s messenger, God is busy reaching out and forgiving us. Even when the encounter goes terribly wrong, the last world remains ‘forgive.’

There is, of course, one more encounter study that remains unwritten, and that would be the encounter between the people of God, those of us entrusted with the message of love and forgiveness, and the people we meet. How this encounter unfolds is not pre-determined, and may bear no resemblance to any hills near Nazareth or Jerusalem.

The first hurdle has already been overcome. I recall with some sadness the first time I visited a church that fit in the ‘one-hour a week’ category, with perfectly polished hardwood floors and an unnatural neatness that was a testament to that congregation’s desire to keep the community out, or at least only let them in in a way that made their sanctuary a sanctuary, and not in a good way.

So we’ve overcome that hurdle, and we have the charming disorder to prove it. But what about opening our doors to the people who don’t obviously need our help? How would we encounter them? What would we say to the people who seem to have things figured out, even though their version of ‘figured out’ doesn’t include God? How would that encounter go? How does our ‘world of meaning,’ the one that includes a loving and forgiving God, meet a world of meaning that says ‘our life is centered on the kids, I guess we worship them.’ Someone actually said that to me, and I have to confess I was speechless. No words at all, and more questions than answers, but the fervent hope that the Spirit will be more generous next time, because such encounters will continue, and likely grow.