Sunday, October 27, 2013

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

All I really need to know I learned in a cave.

Or perhaps, all I really need to know my ancient ancestors learned while living in a cave. Well, that’s not quite true either. Fun fact for today: our ancestors didn’t actually live in caves, it just happens that caves better preserved some of the things our ancestors left behind, including bones of themselves. There you have it, a halloween reference.

So let’s listen in while our forebears become the proud cavepeople who developed righteousness, but were not quite evolved enough to stop using the sexist term ‘cavemen.’

“Wait a minute, look at these fantastic berries!”
“No, no, those are bad berries.”
“Bad berries? How could they be bad? Look at them!”

“Yes, very bad. Imagine eating them and then spending the afternoon in a small room that hasn’t been invented yet.”
“Steady on! (ancestors were British) How do you know they’re bad?”
“Everyone knows they’re bad berries. Feeding these bad berries to your family makes you a bed person. Village rule says ‘only evildoers touch the berries of badness.’”
“Makes sense to me.”

Righteous, we learned as recently as this past week in our book study, is an important part of being human. Jonathan Haidt argues it is part of our evolutionary design: that righteousness developed in order to help us survive. And if you don’t like thinking about the latest ideas in moral psychology, you can go old school, because that works too. Listen in:

“Did God really say ‘eat any of the delicious fruit you find in the garden, except for the apple tree over there?”
“Yes, snake, he did. And if we eat it, we will surely die.”
“You’re not going to die, Eve my dear. You’ll actually gain righteousness, the knowledge of right and wrong. And then there was something about childbirth, but I can’t remember just now.”

So you see, whether you are a Darwinist or a Creationist, the need to be righteous was pre-planned, and an aid to our survival, from both bad berries and talking snakes. And if righteousness is good, then it must follow that self-righteousness is good too. But first, a definition:

According to, self-righteous is an adjective that means, “confident of one's own righteousness,” (so far so good), “especially when smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” Again, we say ‘steady on,’ but it gets worse. goes on to give us a couple of synonyms: sanctimonious and pharisaical.

Presuming you’ve left your tablet at home, sanctimonious means “making a hypocritical show of religious devotion” and pharisaical means “practicing or advocating strict observance of external forms and ceremonies of religion or conduct without regard to the spirit.” Who knew that could simply write a sermon for you?

Needless to say, we dictionary readers may not want to appear self-righteous. What logic tells us might be a good thing, Jesus and the dictionary tell us is as bad as the berries from cave days. I’m going to posit a theory that the dictionary authors must have been hanging out in the worst kind of churches, but first Luke 18:

Jesus tells a tale of two men, one a religious authority and the other a tax collector: they go to the temple to pray. The religious one prays: “Thank God I’m not like this tax collector and all the other sinners; I fast and I tithe.” Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the tax collector won’t even look up to face God and says “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus gives a summary, but we already know which one is truly righteous.

Or do we? You see, if we could add a third character to the parable, let’s call him ‘the preacher,’ you might see him running down the centre aisle shouting ‘wait, reader, it’s a trap!’ And he would be right. We might smile and nod and understand that we are the truly righteous ones like the tax collector, but the minute we do it we run the risk of becoming the Pharisee.

To recap: by judging, we are judged. By not judging and feeling good about it we are judged. Judging or not judging, we have fallen into a trap whereby the moral place we find ourselves begins to resemble a funhouse mirror rather than the certainty we crave. And we’re not the only ones who are confused, if you look back at

Whenever you read “smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others” or “making a hypocritical show of religious devotion” you might just be reading someone who’s been to church. Not this church, of course, but some other church where the worst excesses of self-righteousness are present.

Imagine the only family reunion we’ve had since the last big funeral, and my cousin (one of the religious ones) is avoiding me all weekend long until the very end of the last day when she comes to me and says: “You’re United Church, aren’t you?” Yes I am. “And your church ordains gay people, doesn’t it?” Yes, we do. “I thought so,” and she walks off without another word.

Now you see, I’ve fallen into the very same trap. Convinced of my cousin’s destructive self-righteousness, convinced of the correctness of my church’s position, and just now convinced that righteousness does more dividing than bringing together. Is there another way?

The answer, as always, is Jesus. Jesus gives the most important words to the tax collector who says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

We think we must be the friendliest church in the village: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We must be doing the most effective outreach and helping the most people: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

We must have the very best denomination with all the best official positions: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

Luckily for us, God is merciful and overlooks that very human tendency to feeling smug about ourselves and the people we hang out with. God is willing to overlook the very human tendency to create tribes and tell everyone our tribe is the best. And God is especially willing to overlook these tendencies amount the most religious, because we just can’t seem to help ourselves.

Back in the day when the United Church was preparing for a major ad campaign under the banner of Emerging Spirit, the organizers began by polling people to discover how they perceived the church and church people.

The answer was clear and overwhelming: church people are self-righteous, intolerant, think they have all the truth, and generally not-so-nice people. The next question? Have you actually ever been to church? The answer, for the majority, was no. See, I’m doing it again, always judging, but at least this time I’m doing with the help of scientific poll data.

I’m supposed to let you chew over all of this over lunch and not give you ‘the bottom line,’ but I guess I just can’t help myself. Blame the talking snake. We are burdened with the knowledge of good and evil and we have to live with it whether we like it or not. But we must always live gently with this knowledge, both because we may sometimes be wrong, and because we may sometimes be right. Wrong makes us foolish and right makes us self-righteous, and neither is good. God help us. Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Thanksgiving Sunday

Luke 17
11 On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten men with skin diseases approached him. Keeping their distance from him, 13 they raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, show us mercy!”
14 When Jesus saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” As they left, they were cleansed. 15 One of them, when he saw that he had been healed, returned and praised God with a loud voice. 16 He fell on his face at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. 17 Jesus replied, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?” 19 Then Jesus said to him, “Get up and go. Your faith has healed you.”

I think we all know the magic word.

So, who decided that ‘please’ is the magic word? How magic can it be if kids are continually needing to be prompted to use it? Is it magic because it allows things to happen that wouldn’t otherwise happen unless the magic word is employed? That just sounds like quid pro quo: I’ll give you the magic word and you give me what I want. No magic there, kids.

And what about the coda on this little exchange, the well-worn phrase ‘you know what to say...’ or 'what do you say...?' Clearly, being a kid should come with some sort of handbook, or at least a cue card, because the first time I say ‘you know what to say’ the kid just might not know what to say.

It might be fun to mess with the kids some time and add a new one, something like: ‘You know what to do next...‘ Poor kid. ‘What, go to bed? Wash my hands, get the mail, walk the dog, do my homework, get a job?‘ I suppose there would need to be some parental convention of agreed upon and largely vague questions before you can add another.

There is another one, and it’s always the saddest moment of the day, because inevitably some parent is going to say ‘what time is it now?‘ And of course, there is only one answer to that question: Bedtime. I used to tell Isaac that some day he would look forward to bedtime, like me, and it won’t seem like cruel and unusual punishment. At 22, he remains unconvinced.

For today, it’s the second question that becomes our focus, the nature and tradition of saying thanks. It’s the theme of our reading, quite by coincidence, and it also the theme of the day, with our ‘horn of plenty’ here and the bird that’s been taking up too much space in your fridge.

Now, some will try to convince you that Thanksgiving as we know has strictly Canadian roots. ‘Look to Samuel de Champlain,’ they will say, ‘and his Order of Good Cheer.’ Poppycock. I think we’re mature enough to accept the fact that our ancestors who walked away from the republican madness south of the border crossed the Niagara River one day and brought Thanksgiving with them. Canadian turkeys may never forgive us.

But if we look further back, before colonies and pilgrims, we see a rich tradition of giving thanks. The Romans did it four times a year, with the autumn festival specifically geared to the grape harvest, and everything good that comes from that. Then these festivals were ‘baptized’ (or stolen) by the early church, and by the time St. Augustine arrives in Canterbury (597) a fully-formed tradition of ‘Ember Days’ was ready for sharing.

Ironically, the name ‘Ymber’ seems to have Anglo-Saxon roots, and may predate both Augustine and his Christianity. Either way, by the Middle Ages the good people of England are alternating between fasting and eating ember pies and giving thanks for the harvest. It even came with it’s own little rhyme:

Fasting days and Emberings be
Lent, Whitsun, Holyrood, and Lucie.

Okay, so it wasn’t every kids favourite nursery rhyme, but I’m sure they loved the pies, which look suspiciously like quiche, which is fine by me.

Of course, I will be in the doghouse with a certain OT scholar if I don’t tell you that the earliest Thanksgiving tradition can be found in Deuteronomy 27, Leviticus 7, a bunch of Psalms, 2 Samuel 22, 1 & 2 Chronicles, and so on. The Hebrew Bible is filled with words and rituals that surround the need to give God thanks. And parallel to the North American experience, it centres on giving thanks after you enter a new land, a promised land, with the double irony of also entering a land inhabited by others. And of course there is the triple irony that both over there and over here we are still working out how to share the land.

Moving from the Hebrew to the Greek, we also move from the macro concern of giving thanks for all that God has done for the people of Israel, to the micro concern of those who give thanks after meeting Jesus. Our story is just such a moment, a moment repeated throughout the Gospels, but told no more simply than in Luke 17.

Ten men appear and ask for mercy, relief from the pain and isolation of a dreaded disease of the skin. Even before he heals them, he directs them the local priest that he confirm what will soon happen. As they moved away they are healed, and one turns back to give thanks. He was a Samaritan, estranged from a Judaea Jesus, but thankful nonetheless. Jesus then asks three incredulous questions and sends him on his way. The questions:

Weren’t ten cleansed?
Where are the other nine?
No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?

Hear the eerie similarity to where we began this rambling journey?

What’s the magic word?
What do you say?

You might imagine that the ratio might be a little better. Seriously, only one turned back? I can see one ingrate in ten, or two at the most, or three on a really cloudy day, but nine out of ten? In a kind of weird echo of the parable of the lost sheep—the one where the shepherd leaves ninety-nine to fend for themselves for the sake of the one that was lost—here Jesus has lost nine-of-ten but receives thanks from one.

So maybe this is a coded message, a kind of antiquarian survey of thankfulness, that says ‘here, this is typical of my day, what’s it like in yours?’ Well, how are we on the thankfulness scale? Do we rate better than a one-out-of-ten?

I’m just not sure. We are known worldwide for our ability to apologize, but what about saying thanks? I might argue that both as individuals and as a nation we’re pretty self-satisfied, perhaps a little too convinced that we did all this on our own, that we are somehow the authors of our own good fortune, and not the grateful children of the living God.

Argue with me over cookies, but I meet lots of people who will credit their hard work, their cleverness, their ability to carry on while others failed, and neglect to mention the Maker of All. Now maybe they’re just not in church, so God isn’t top-of-mind, but even here we tend to imagine that we’re the faithful ones, when in fact it’s God that’s faithful to us.

This, then, brings us full circle to the question: does God need our thanks, or the thanks of the nine-of-ten who would rather see the priest and grab a beer then say a simple thanks to Jesus?

Notice that the healing happens anyway. There are apparently no ‘take-backs’ when it comes to healing lepers, and the nine seem to live out their lives in the same way they would have if they had bothered to say thanks.

But now we’re in the territory of another famous parable, this time the parable of the lost son, mostly known as the prodigal son. Suddenly we’re cast in the role of the older brother, constantly giving thanks (or staying home with the father) while the other brother just walks away. They get the fatted calf, and newly smooth skin, and we just get whatever we had before.

If there is no reward for saying thanks, no punishment for the nine-of-ten, then why bother at all? Well, just as prayer has the most profound effect on the pray-er, so too with giving thanks. Thanking someone may lighten their day, or give them a sense of worth, but the most profound effect is on the thanker.

When we thank God, or thank others, we are acknowledging a connection, a link to God, or the fact of our common humanity, or both. Being thankful is act of connection, tying together the threads of our being to a wider being and to Ultimate Being to create a new fabric—knit together for the betterment of all. May we embody that fabric, and be made new, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 17
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
6 He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.
7 “Suppose one of you has a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Will he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? 8 Won’t he rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? 9 Will he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? 10 So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

I wouldn’t say I was a bad Boy Scout, I just wasn’t very good at it.

All the kids were unruly, the scouters appeared to be on the cusp of a nervous breakdown, and every other kid seemed to have more badges than me. Fires wouldn’t start, knots came untied, uniform disheveled: if I could blame someone else I would, but I can’t.

I do, however, retain a vague memory that I promised to do my duty, and after some careful research I can report that I promised this:

On my honour I promise that I will do my best—

To do my duty to God and the Queen

To help other people at all times and

To obey the Scout Law.

Naturally the promise has changed somewhat over time—now they promise to obey the spirit of the scout law—but the text is relatively unchanged since Baden-Powell wrote it in 1908. Curiously, he included very specific directions on taking the vow—right hand raised level with his shoulder, palm to the front, thumb resting on the nail of the digitus minimus—and then described it as a secret sign. Not much of secret if you publish it in a book.

In other countries, of course, they varied the wording based on local need. The Swedes made their promise IKEA-like in its simplicity: “I promise to do my best to keep the Scout law.” The Americans? Well, they changed it to “God and country,” having lost their king in brawl, and they just couldn’t resist the urge to embellish it, adding: “To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.”

Maybe the solution to the whole government shutdown situation is to replace the lot with some boy scouts and girl guides and maybe then someone will do their duty to God and country and make it work.

Meanwhile, here is churchworld, we have some of the same challenges around duty. At one time, we could say to people ‘you have a duty to come to church, make an offering, serve on a committee, baptize your kids, take communion, give generously, etcetera.’ And then that stopped working. Part of it is generational change: there remains a generation in our midst whose earliest days were defined by duty and the need to defend others. They, then, were followed by a generation who felt a duty to question everything and defy the generation that and perhaps spent too much time focused on duty. And the generations that follow, everyone under age 48, simply watches this generational struggle unfold and tries to keep out of the way. This may explain why so many people under 48 are missing.

The Gospel lesson, with it’s apparent focus on duty, is not immediately helpful in settling any outstanding question about the place of duty in our life together. First, Jesus must endure more foolishness from his disciples, this time they demand that Jesus somehow increase their faith. And Jesus being Jesus, doesn’t give them the straight ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that another boss might give, but gives instead something so cryptic that we still struggle to understand.

He does begin with a helpful simile, reminding them that something as small as a mustard seed can uproot a tree if it’s planted nearby. So far so good. But then it’s off to the unclear, where servants can’t expect thanks for doing their work, and disciples should be quick to say ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’

All of this, it would seem, relates back to Luke 9. We’ll call it the Luke 9 problem, even though it occurs throughout the Gospels. But in Luke 9 things are out of hand as the disciples argue back in forth about who is the greatest among them; they offer to call down fire on a local village (as if they could) and they even commit the cardinal sin of pretending to understand the things Jesus has said. They are a mess. And so, but Luke 17 Jesus has plainly had enough, and he let’s them know: Stop bickering and do your job. (Note to politicians everywhere: Jesus says ‘stop bickering and do your jobs’)

I think it also explains the statement ‘we are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty.’ The disciples want to be spiritual super-stars, and we know for certain that they will someday achieve this, but for now they’re just kids in the back seat who can’t get along. Jesus is reminding them that it’s not about pride-of-place, or being deemed somehow more worthy than others, but rather just doing your duty, meaning doing your work.

This passage, and my trip down memory lane at the beginning got me thinking about a church promise. Why don’t we have a church promise like the scouts or the guides? We could have a not-so-secret hand-thing, a few lines to commit to memory, maybe something we could recite every time we get together. Yes, we have promises at baptism, but most of us were sleeping or crying through those. So what would we recite, thumb holding digitus minimus?

It them occurred to me that many of our hymns serve this function:

Take my life and let it be, consecrated Lord to thee.

I’m gonna live so, God can use me, anywhere Lord, any time.

Open my eyes that I may see, glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

Again, we’re not asking to be spiritual giants, just a collection of believers who do their duty: lives consecrated to God, useful to God, open to truth, dedicated to others, willing to serve, humble as possible, never demanding more than God is able to give.

But there’s more. Duty is seldom heroic or life-threatening or even that interesting. The saints displayed ‘heroic virtue’ and lives worthy of eternal fame, but we’re not being called to sainthood, only service. The argument Jesus makes for his disciples is this: in the simple, in the everyday, and in the smallest act of dedication to each other—that is where your duty lies.

And think about all the small acts of kindness and mercy that happen each day. People of faith doing the seemingly ordinary in the service of an extraordinary God. People of faith planting single seeds that become a forest of goodness. People of faith who have a duty to God, a duty to each other, and a duty to the people they have yet to meet. Amen.