Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 9
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

Time for a quiz! In the Bible, yes or no?

Never cast pearls before swine (Mt 7.6)
A house divided against itself shall not stand. (Mt 12.25)
Charity begins at home. (Sir Thomas Browne)
Moderation in all things. (Aristotle)
To thine own self be true. (Shakespeare)
God helps those who help themselves. (Benjamin Franklin)
Money is the root of all evil. (1 Tim 6.10)
Can the leopard change his spots? (Jer 13.23)
Cleanliness is next to godliness. (Wesley)
This too shall pass. (ANE proverb)
God works in mysterious ways. (Cowper)
The eye is the window to the soul. (Shakespeare)
Let the dead bury the dead. (Lk 9.59)

I’m trying not to judge you, but it’s kinda what I do for a living. But never mind that, focus instead on the proverbial Jesus. Clearly in Luke 9 Jesus is in a mood, or else he wouldn’t be so terribly oblique, vague, or cryptic. Where else can you find gems such as “let the dead bury the dead,” or “foxes have holes and birds nests,” or my favourite of the bunch: “No one who puts hand-to-plough and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

Actually, the last one is more folk-wisdom than proverb. At first glance it seems cryptic, until you imagine yourself on a plough, fastened to a powerful team ready to drag you, and have your head in the wrong place. You’re going to make a mess, and likely become a laughing stock. No one is going to come and say ‘this too shall pass’ if your field looks like something Picasso did.

In fact, you might argue that Jesus was being more prophetic than proverbial, channeling both Hosea and Isaiah to explain what it means to have a duty to the Kingdom of God. So let’s begin with Hosea—perhaps the most interesting prophet we find in the Bible—and see what he has to say about ploughing.

First, like George Stroumboulopoulos, I need to give you his biography. Hosea, like all prophets, is particularly attuned to God’s Word for humanity. He repeats the words God would have us hear, but he goes a step further: demonstrating in his life the way God and God’s people are getting along. And in a word, it’s not well.

Hosea marries a prostitute named Gomer, and she is meant to represent both Israel’s constant infidelity with other gods and God ongoing willingness to forgive. So he married a symbol. And he and his symbol had three kids, and the names of the kids also speak to the troubled relationship between God and Israel.

The eldest, a boy, is called Jezreel, named for the valley where Israel will suffer defeat. The next, a girl, is called Lo-ruhamah, which roughly translated means “receive no mercy.” This reflects how God will deal with a disobedient Israel. The last kid, another boy, is called Lo-ammi, meaning “not my people,” and this is the clearest message yet about how God truly feels. Despite this, just one verse after this alarming family portrait God says:

“Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’

No one said God would be consistent. Nevertheless, the real point of sharing Hosea’s bio is what comes when the prophet turns his attention to farming. And it sounds vaguely familiar:

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes
and showers his righteousness on you.

So this is more farming-as-metaphor, but this time we get an actual lesson in ancient near-eastern farm practice. First, the farmer would break up the soil, then put hand to plow to create furrows, and then seeds are sown. We get an even better description in Isaiah 28:

Listen and hear my voice;
pay attention and hear what I say.
When a farmer plows for planting, does he plow continually?
Does he keep on breaking up and working the soil?
When he has levelled the surface,
does he not sow caraway and scatter cumin?
Does he not plant wheat in its place,[c]
barley in its plot,[d]
and spelt in its field?
God instructs him
and teaches him the right way. (Isaiah 28.23-26)

So we glean two lessons from our brief look at farming in the Bible: You reap what you sow, and God will teach you the right way to sow so you can live. This all seems rather pleasant and perhaps even a little obvious, until we go back to our friend Hosea:

But you have planted wickedness,
you have reaped evil,
you have eaten the fruit of deception. (Hosea 10.11-13)

It turns out that this metaphor is more common than we thought, appearing in the Book of Job, in Proverbs, in Micah and Jeremiah too. In fact, the Hebrew verb “to plough” can also mean “to devise,” more in the sense of plotting rather than planning. When people put hand-to-plough they are doing far more than simply readying the soil for planting, they are also demonstrating their intention to work for good or for ill, to follow God’s instructions, or follow their own way.

Now, what Jesus describes as a violation of Kingdom readiness or Kingdom intention hardly seems evil. ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ Looks back, how? With evil intent? That doesn’t seem likely, given the context. If the dead should bury the dead and the Son of Man has no home in this world, we seem to be talking about priorities, and looking forward and not back, hardly the stuff of evil intent.

But let’s stretch it a little to imagine that ploughing is planning and you always look back. That’s hardly forward planning, is it? If you look to the past for your ideas going forward, where will you end up? Messy furrows and furrowed brows that only come when we have failed to look ahead rather than back.

In the article I read* that led to this line of thinking, the author suggests Hosea wants to show us that an incorrect perception of reality can lead to doom. And this idea seems to fit precisely with Jesus-in-a-mood who says ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’

If we think the answers to the complex problems facing the church lie in the past, we are sadly mistaken, and our incorrect perception of reality will lead to doom.

Let me give you an example. In the past, when we wanted to attract more people, we simply added more programs. More programs, more people: the formula seemed to work. Then something happened. People said ‘I can’t come through the week, I’m too busy, but if you make Sunday morning more engaging, I could at least come once a week.’ But that doesn’t fit with our assumption that only by offering mid-week programs can we call ourselves an active church. So we judge these people instead, and question their commitment. We’re looking back, and trying to plough ahead at the same time.

Let me give you another. At one time the General Council office was our go-to source for all things related to social justice. We operated on a top-down ‘this is what your should be thinking about this year’ model that seemed to serve us well in the past. Then it didn’t. The first problem was that the topic of congregational renewal, the thing that keeps the whole church operating, was never really addressed with any passion. The second problem was increased media reporting on issues related to social justice and greater connectedness through social media, which meant that clearer and more connected voices emerged. General Council was simply eclipsed by better and more compelling sources of information.

So the denomination is currently engaging in another soul-searching exercise, trying to find purpose amid the seeming indifference of the society around us. People look to us to be a religious organization and our leaders say ‘what can we boycott next?’

So the plough is moving forward, pulled by the strong oxen of societal change and spiritual need, and we look back to the ‘so-called’ glory days of the church. For us the Kingdom seems to mean a reconstructed society of people who come to agree with our issues, rather than a generation of people who look to God for comfort rather than the television.

In other words, we need to set aside our need to be right and focus instead on a need to be connected. The ploughing and sowing we do should be directed to those who yearn for God, and not the people who already think like us.

Finally, the lesson of Hosea and Isaiah and Jesus is that we are called to do our best, to be obedient to the Kingdom by preparing the land for the harvest to come. And after we have done our best, we need to let God be God and do the things only God can do: provide the miracle of growth, turn the heart to pray, and speak to our imaginations through dreams and visions.

This is Good News for today, thanks be to God. Amen.

*Wisdom in Ancient Israel, edited by John Day

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 8
26Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. 32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned. 34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

This past April marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most memorable nights in the history of rock ‘n roll. Four lads from Liverpool, recently arrived in London, dropped in to hear a local group perform. It seems they shared a common love for American sounds such as rhythm and blues, as well as sharing an ambition to become truly famous bands.

What began as a long night talking and spinning records, became the kernel of a friendly rivalry that lasts down to this day. Deciding between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is almost like a personality test, or for some, a choice between good and evil.

And this was no accident. Just a year after the lads met in a rundown apartment in Chelsea, the Stone’s were featured in the weekly Melody Maker in an article called “Would You Let Your Sister Go With A Stone?” Eight thousand kids showed up at their next gig.* The die was cast, and producers and publicists would cultivate this bad boy image—in contrast to the other lads—and make millions.

You have probably figured out by now that I’m going to talk about “Sympathy for the Devil,” written early in 1968, mostly by Sir Mick with some help from Keith. Mick says he was inspired by the writing of Baudelaire and a newly released Russian novel by Mikhail Bulgakov called “The Master and Margarita.”

In the novel, the devil visits the Soviet Union and has various encounters with bureaucrats and authors, including an author trying to get a book published on Pontius Pilate and the trial of Jesus.

And suddenly the song “Sympathy for the Devil” starts to makes sense. Sir Mick takes us on musical first-person journey through time, beginning with Pilate, then the European wars of religion, then the Russian Revolution, then World War Two, and finally the death of the Kennedy’s. It is sad to note that when he wrote the song only JFK had been killed—he had to rewrite the last vers after the death of Bobby.

And it’s the last verse that demonstrates a theological sophistication generally not known among rock musicians: “I shouted out ‘who killed the Kennedy’s?’ When after all it was you and me.” The basis for every good Good Friday sermon is the assumption that we killed Jesus, you and me, and not the Romans or the Jews.

So the devil can speak, and construct a good argument, and the proof is in Luke’s Gospel. We see this first in chapter four, when Jesus is tempted in the desert. “If you are the Son of Man,” the devil says, “turn this bread to stone.” He already knows that Jesus is the Son of Man, and he likely already knew he was not to be tempted, but I guess the questions had to be asked anyway.

Next it’s the demons, first in the synagogue in Capernaum, saying “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Later on the same day Jesus is in Peter’s mother-in-law’s house, healing a crowd of people. One-by-one, people receive a healing touch, and one-by-one the demons depart from them and say “You are the son of God!” These are talkative devils, and insightful too.

It’s not until chapter five that Jesus heals someone who is not demon-possessed, and the group of little devils seem to have retreated from view until we come upon them again in chapter eight. This time they’ve formed a kind-of demon co-op, and adopted a name, and this time they seem to have a plan.

First they speak through the poor fellow: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me.” Jesus demands to know their name: it’s Legion, no doubt owning to the fact that there are suddenly so many. They beg Jesus to spare them from the abyss—presumably that’s where retired demons go—and make a play for the pigs instead. They get their wish and we discover pigs can’t swim.

This might be the moment in our sermon to take a United Church sponsored break and ask the very mainline Protestant question “surely, you don’t actually believe in demons?” And my answer, just after I say ‘don’t call me Shirley’ is I don’t know. I guess I do and I don’t. ‘Is there evil in the world?’ Of course, look at Bashar al-Assed, who laughed as he explained to Barbara Walters that he doesn’t control the Syrian Army. ‘Is evil organized?’ Well, 93,000 killed in Syria so far, so that the laughing dictator can keep his job. ‘Yes, but does that mean there is a devil?’ And I would say ‘watch the interview.’ Since the world began, it has given us comfort to believe that evil is really just a collection of really bad mistakes: when a quick glance of human history suggests something else. Everyone has to decide for themselves.

So back to our extremely chatty demons on the hillside. What have we learned from the devil in the wilderness, and the demon in the synagogue, and the demons in the home of Peter’s mother-in-law, and demons who long only to live as pigs?

First, they have no doubt whatsoever about the the identity of Jesus. In fact, the demons figure it out long before most people. They are quick to proclaim Jesus son-of-the-Most-High, not as a confession of faith, but as a means of self-protection. They know precisely who they’re dealing with, and what’s at stake for them, and they even know that the abyss awaits if they fail to thwart the Son of Man.

Next, they seem to be in a constant negotiation with Jesus, and not just in the wilderness as bread and power and safety are debated. He engages with them: they make an argument for a certain course of action, and they even seem to flatter Jesus in the hope of better treatment. All of this would indicate that Jesus lives with angels and demons on a full-time basis, engaging other realms of existence that we can only wonder at.

Finally, Jesus has sympathy for the devil, something Luke understood long before Keith and Sir Mick. When Jesus meets demons they often beg, they make a case for mercy, they develop plans (even if they seem half-baked and never kosher) and Jesus relents. Jesus has mercy on the demons who seem caught up somehow in the evil they perpetuate, and want only to be released to somewhere other than that purposely undefined abyss.

I generally hesitate to give the moral of the story, wanting instead to have you chew over the sermon through lunch an come to your own conclusions. And so at the risk of short circuiting that process, I will give you one conclusion. If Jesus can feel sympathy and extend mercy to even the demons, how much more mercy will he have for you and me? If Jesus can act tenderly toward a tormenting legion, how much more mercy will he have for the mistakes we make in our shortsighted collective known as humanity?

May we engage our demons, the chatty ones and the ones who silently live with us, and may we experience God’s mercy and extend that mercy to others, now and always, Amen.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 21
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ 7His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’

8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ 11The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’

15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ 16As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules* in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’

20 Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, 21I will bring disaster on you;

So what did I miss?

Is it true that if you find yourself ninety-grand in the hole you simply call the Prime Minister’s office and they’ve got your back?

Is it true that people who what to learn how to finally and completely erase troublesome emails should contact the office of the Premier?

Is it true that the Mayor has been in the news?

So many strange and absurd stories in the news, so many missed opportunities. Preachers lay awake at night worrying that all the good stories will come and go and there will be nothing left to preach.

Luckily, these stories “have legs” as journalists like to say, and therefore will remain in our midst for a while longer. These stories will continue to entertain, engage and enrage us for some time, so they were never really missed opportunities after all.

In a democracy, we are supposed to be particularly attuned to stories of the abuse and misuse of power. We have a form of government that should always function for the benefit of the people. And when that doesn’t happen—when governments serve themselves instead—we have every right to be offended.

But what about abuse that happens outside a democratic government? Can that be regarded as equally offensive? Or does it simply follow that autocrats—people who rule alone—will always misuse power since all the power is concentrated in their hands? These are tough questions, the kind of tough questions best given to the Bible, since the Bible deals with many of these timeless questions.

The story of King Ahab and that little vineyard he has his eye on is perhaps the second most famous ‘abuse of power’ story in the Bible. First place always goes to King David, who caught sight of Bathsheba in her bath and managed to get her husband killed in battle. Ahab’s story is similar, with one important difference: Jezebel.

Now, if your mind is wandering to Bette Davis’ 1938 film of the same name, you have the wrong story. There is a Hollywood legend that the role was created for her when she failed to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara, but it’s just a legend. Nevertheless, the film has nothing to do with Jezebel, Queen of Israel.

If there was a film made about Jezebel, Queen of Israel, it wouldn’t be about tramp or someone who wears too much make-up, it would be about an extremely powerful woman, one who knows how to get what she wants and one who commands the respect of all the weaker people around her.

It would be about a princess who grows up the the court of her father, Ethbaal, and is given in marriage to Ahad in the kind of dynastic alliance that remained common until the late middle-ages. It would be about a Queen who brought her religion with her to the northern kingdom of Israel—the worship of Baal—and did all she could to promote that religion.

Her movie might include the most famous duel in the Bible, when Jezebel and 450 priests of Baal take on Elijah, both parties trying to get their respective gods to show themselves. I’ll leave you to read 1 Kings 18, one of my favourite chapters in the Bible, which may be the best argument why you should never play with fire.

And her movie would include the famous vineyard incident, the defining moment of her reign. I say ‘her reign’ because it quickly becomes clear that she is no mere consort, but the really power in the land, and really the prototype for the idea of ‘the power behind the throne.’

I won’t recount the story, because we’ve heard it, and because it’s a story that repeats again and again throughout history:

Weak leader expresses a desire and can’t see how to get it.
Power behind the throne utters words like ‘have you forgotten who you are?’
Action occurs that leads to the desired outcome.
The story is revealed and judgement swiftly follows.

Anglophiles will immediately think of Henry II, who famously said “who will rid me of this troublesome priest,” referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this case the power behind the throne was four knights on four fast horses who made their way to Canterbury and killed Thomas a Becket in his cathedral. Soon the entire world knew the story, with Thomas becoming St. Thomas and Henry becoming one of histories great villains.

So what are the clues that a leader isn’t really a leader, that you have a King Ahab instead? If you call 9-1-1 and demand the police come and defend you from the media using words like ‘do you know who I am?’ you might be a King Ahab. I might argue that anyone who asks the rhetorical question ‘do you know who I am’ is a King Ahab. Notice that Jezebel simply turns this around and says ‘are you the king or not?’

I will retell the end of the story, because God appears, and we learn what God really thinks of tyrants. Ahab is off enjoying his new vineyard/garden when we are introduced to a certain Tishbite named Elijah, who is instructed to go to Ahad and confront him. Elijah goes and gives the prophet’s word to the disobedient, always recognizable with the opening phrase ‘thus says the Lord.’

‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’

It is the beginning of the end for Ahab and Jezebel: the priests of Baal will be humiliated, Ahab will die, his sons will die, and Jezebel will finally fall. The moral of the story: if you look over the fence and desire your neighbour’s garden, bad things will follow.

Or is it? Is this story just an elaborate way to illustrate the tenth commandment (quick, what is it?) or is there something else happening here?

You will recall the ten-year argument I have been having with my colleague, known simply as ‘the Jimmy,” the same colleague who erroneously believes that people are basically good and simply make bad choices. But enough about that. As we were discussing Ahab and Jezebel this week (I know, we should get a life) it was Jimmy who challenged me to find the grace in a somewhat long and convoluted story. ‘Where’s the grace’ is the preacher’s equivalent to ‘where’s the beef?’ and it’s a good question. You never want to send people to lunch without some hope, or at least the possibility that their imaginations will supply the hope as they reflect on the message they heard.

So, where’s the grace? I’m going to go with the Tishbite, because the prophet Elijah seems to bring the grace, carefully hidden in the words of condemnation he shares. Consider this: We worship a God who cares enough about human affairs to get really mad when people in power abuse it. In other words, the story may remain the same, with kings and despots saying ‘who will rid me of this troublesome (blank), and the outcome is the same too: God is mad when the innocent suffer.

And so here is the challenge to our theological worldview: can a statement of God’s grace begin with the words “God is mad when...” I hope it can. And I hope it remains ever so. I hope that anywhere trust is violated and people suffer someone can say ‘thus says the LORD’ because God will react the same way whenever tyrants abuse the people God loves.

So maybe I didn’t miss much after all. Money was misspent, someone tried to cover-up, someone else said ‘that’s ridiculous!’ and the world just kept turning. But power-problems are not the only constant in our world, the world that is governed by frail humans. The other constant is love, the love that takes notice, the love that is willing to get mad, the love that speaks power and says “thus says the LORD.” Amen.