Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Central—30 March 2014—Michael Kooiman

Ephesians 5
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Single God seeking love and adoration. Likes both dogs and cats. Enjoys long walks discussing goodness, righteousness and truth. Dislikes fruitless deeds of darkness, prefers the light. Former smoter, only interested in ex-smoters. Replies to Box 316.

And there, hiding in plain sight, is one of the most vexing questions found in the Bible: “Find out what pleases the Lord.” To find out, we turn to scripture, and we quickly discover that the answer is not as simple as it would seem.

It seems fitting, on the weekend that Noah gets the star treatment once again, to begin with Genesis 8:

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. The LORD smelled the pleasing aroma; and the LORD said to Himself, “I will never again destroy every living thing, as I have done.”

In the beginning, it would seem, the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice was enough to convince God to never again destroy the earth. So far so good, then. But just when we think we’ve figured out the pleasing thing, we get a counter-point:

Hosea 6: “For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” Jesus himself makes the same point in Matthew 9: "But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice.' For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance."

So sacrifices are pleasing until they are no longer pleasing. God wants mercy instead of sacrifice. And that would seem to be the last word on the matter, until the author of Hebrews weighs in, and in effect, puts it all together: “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.”

So sacrifices are pleasing after all: the sacrifice that pleases God is sharing with others and doing good, which are really the same thing. So we will do good.

But it has to be more complex than simply sharing and doing good. After all, anyone can share stuff and do good without a thought to God, or a relationship with God. And this is where Paul comes in, and in particular the letter to the Ephesians.

The theme of the letter, as with many of the others, is the well-being of the church. Paul is concerned about the unity of believers, and the extent to which the church can truly be the body of Christ. He wants them to do good for a purpose:

“I urge you,” he says, “to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

In other words, sharing what you have and doing good is not just an approach to God, a means to get God on side, but rather part of a calling. And a calling is a relationship with purpose, a way of life rather than a set of behaviors. “Live as children of light,” Paul says, a unique identity that must be adopted—as part of this call.

Before we look further at this calling we share, Paul gives us a quote from what seems to be an ancient hymn, something that he seems to think we will know. He introduces it as something familiar, and it may well have been to the readers in Ephesus. Perhaps it was something they taught Paul, or maybe it was a popular hymn throughout the early church—we don’t know.

“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Scholars, of course, spend countless hours trying to figure out where these things come from. Is it a quote from the Bible? It doesn’t seem to be, although there are echoes of Isaiah and others. If it is an original composition there may be little to be learned, since we can’t find the original context.

And what about the purpose of these words? Wake from death and then find the light of Christ? Some have suggested that these must be baptismal words, the very thing you might say when a new believer emerges from the waters of baptism for the first time. Others disagree, saying that nothing in the surrounding passage suggests baptism.

At the very least, we know that it must have something to do with new life in Christ. “For you were once darkness,” Paul says, “but now you are light in the Lord.” The passage is about the movement from a former life to a new life in Christ, and the new believer is encouraged to ‘wake from sleep,’ an activity of darkness, and enter the light, literally allowing the light of Christ to shine on you.

And this would fit with the sense that we are describing a calling, a new life in the light, and a way of life will allow the church to move forward in unity and hope. Believers unified in a common sense of purpose, rejecting ‘fruitless deeds of darkness’ as Paul says, will live as children of the light.

So is this enough to please God? Sharing, doing good, living a life worthy of our calling?

There might be one more dimension, and this one Paul revealed in 1 Thessalonians 2: “But just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please people, but to please God who tests our hearts.”

Everything to this point has been cast in the positive: sharing what we have, doing good, living in the light. But what about saying the things the world may not want to hear? We speak, Paul says, not to please people, but to please God. If our words are designed to please people, to make them comfortable, or self-satisfied, then they will not be pleasing to God, just the opposite.

So we have license, it would seem, to say things that may confront rather than comfort, disturb rather set people at ease. More than license, it would seem that an excess of people-pleasing words is a form of idolatry, since pleasing people is replacing the desire to please God, which pretty much fits the dictionary definition of idolatry.

This fits with thinkers such as Marva Dawn and others who argue that whenever we begin to tailor our message to some hypothetical group we are trying to reach we are distorting the Gospel and (using her words) committing a form of idolatry. And plenty of churches have fallen into this trap, from seeker-sensitive worship to banning or embracing certain instruments to plugging some new theology as the only way forward.

But with license comes risk. How will we know that our confronting words are God-pleasing and not simply some hobby-horse we want to ride? The church has a comprehensive history of determining what God wants or God seek or God enjoys and being flat-out wrong. The other weekend event we can point to is a meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an example of the church saying and doing things in the name of the Gospel and getting it tragically wrong. We need some caution with our candor, and a constant look to our own history, to save us from repeating the worst kinds of mistakes.

So we live with caring and mercy, we share what we have and we try to do our best, as a form of sacrifice: everything to live the high calling of friend of God. Seeking to please God, we leave our former selves behind and embrace the light of Christ. May we live in that light, now and always, amen.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday of Lent

John 4
5 So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.[a])
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Sometimes, when you want to truly understand something, you have to break it down:

1. Dorothy's house falls on a witch.
2. Dorothy’s new friends confront a number of challenges including flying monkeys.
3. Dorothy and her dog discover ‘there’s no place like home.’

1. Scarlett loves Ashley, but Ashley marries Melanie.
2. There's a civil war and girl falls off a horse.
3. Scarlett claims she no longer loves Ashley, and Rhett doesn't give a damn.

1. George dreams of a life beyond Bedford Falls
2. Evil Mr. Potter traps George in Bedford Falls.
3. An angel convinces George that Bedford Falls isn't so bad if you have friends.

1. It turns out Harry is a wizard.
2. Strange and wonderful things happen at Hogwarts.
3. He-who-must-not-be-named is defeated by impossibly cute children.

What we’ve uncovered is narrative structure. And if you want to tell a story, you will need to pay attention to this three-act movement of set-up, conflict, and resolution. Each element is essential to storytelling, and each performs a important purpose.

Act one, the set-up, introduces the characters and the problem that they together will face. Act two is where much of the action takes place, and we see what characters are made of. In act three, things come to a head, and the story ends with some sort of resolution. Set-up, conflict, resolution.

Now what if we tried to fit this structure to the passage John read for us this morning? This extended passage records the longest conversation Jesus has in the Bible, and acts as a critical point of introduction in the overall story of Jesus as presented by John.

But if we focus just on the conversation, we see the three-act structure:

In act one, Jesus appears at Jacob’s well, he is alone and tired, and he asks a woman for a drink. She is quick to note that this is a strange and inappropriate request.
In act two, Jesus and the Samaritan woman debate the difference between water and living water, and the woman seems interested in the living water Jesus describes.
In act three, as Jesus describes details of her personal life, she accepts that he is a great prophet, albeit a Jewish one. Jesus dismisses the difference between them, insisting instead that a time is coming when all will worship in spirit and truth. He admits he is the Christ.

Now, a careful reader will note her reaction to the story and question whether there is, in fact, a resolution to the story. It seems she is very much her own person, hearing Jesus confession of messiahship but then saying to her neighbours, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?”

She remains on the fence, or at least not fully convinced, but convinced enough that she invites the others to come and decide for themselves. In this, she is the first evangelist in John’s telling, the first to invite others to experience God in a new way.

There is, of course, another character in this three-act play, and that would be you and me. The very first readers would know even before the dialogue begins that this is story with a highly unusual plot and lots of potential conflict.

Jesus is alone with a woman, and a foreign woman, something our author notes at the very beginning. So, we’re taken-aback even before Jesus asks for a drink. We’re impressed with her boldness, and the fact that she reminds him what’s appropriate in this situation.

And we, as the reader, already know the difference between the water and the living water that Jesus is offering, but enjoy her playfulness as she says “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where are going to get your living water?

But our final role in the unfolding of this story comes when she asks her final question saying “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” We are reading and nodding, and drawn to answer, for John’s ultimate purpose in telling this story in this way is to draw us in, and lead us to a place where we can say a final and definitive, ‘Yes! This is the messiah!’

So we’re convinced through the truth of the message and the strength of John’s telling that this is the Christ, and that we can worship him in spirit and truth. And that through him we will drink only living water, ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life.’ This is our hope, the message we cling to as we are confronted by the conflict life presents. It is, following the three-part movement, our eternal resolution.

Were it so for others. For two weeks, the world has been gripped by another narrative, by the tragic disappearance of an airplane. The fate of this plane and over 200 passengers remains uncertain this morning, and we pray that for the sake of the family and friends of the missing, the mystery be resolved.

The odd and almost equally troubling aspect of this story is the extent to which we can’t look away. At moments it has seemed almost voyeuristic, watching as upset became anger and despair. But other times it seems the story is less about the fate of an airplane and more about us.

This thought began with around the clock coverage (on CNN at least) with talking heads expounding on the most mind-numbing details. Most of what was being shared was speculation, supposition based on conjecture, scenarios mapped out in great detail based on almost nothing at all.

Senior reporters, one sitting in the airport in Beijing, another trapped in a flight simulator in Mississauga, and all the while Russia has invaded and annexed part of a foreign country, and we’re learning about vectors and navigation systems.

It occurred to me this week, and my pastoral care class concurred, that this is really a story about our own mortality, and the extent to which we fear death. Just as every funeral we attend becomes a rehearsal for our own (“I wonder what they will say about me”), every disaster story becomes a story about our potential demise, and the fear we bring to the idea.

Yes, you might argue that the story of MH-370 is about upper middle-class fear, the fear unique to the class of people who spend entirely too much time flying, but the story seems more universal than that. We can’t help but imagine ourselves in the story, and what every dimension of the story would be like.

And this is where the living water comes in. We have a hope that transcends the ordinary thirst that so many experience: the thirst for knowledge, the thirst for certainty, the thirst for a life without fear. We have the water that only Jesus gives, the water that means we never need thirst again, a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

We can move beyond fear, and uncertainty, and the crippling sense that we will be forgotten in death, and know instead that we drink at the well of eternity, now and always, amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday of Lent

Romans 4
What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. 3 What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.
13 It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, 15 because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. 17 As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.”[c] He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

If we had to compile a list of the most cringe-worthy moments in political history, I might begin with the Shamrock Summit.

For those of you fortunate enough to be born after 1985, and do not carry the burden of this painful episode in Canada-U.S. relations, let me recap: President Reagan and Prime Minister Mulroney met in Quebec City, on St. Patrick’s Day, and capped off a lovely day together by singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” It was the late and great Eric Kierans who said "The general impression you get, is that our prime minister invited his boss home for dinner."

The counter-point, I think, would have to be President Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Ireland, a visit that the late President described as the ‘best four days of this life.’ There, in his ancestral home in County Wexford he stepped in to sing with a boy’s choir singing a local ballad, leaving even cynical journalists in tears. Five months later he would travel to Dallas.

There seems to be something unique about Irish ancestry, something beyond the green beer and the notion that ‘everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.’ Part of the appeal is emotional, I think, with a sense of longing rooting in mass migration, the sense of connection that exists for the nearly 100 million people outside of Ireland that trace their roots back to this small country.

If we had to compile another list then, this time a list of Ireland’s greatest exports, we could certainly begin with people (5m descendants in Canada alone), we should probably add stout, and round out our list with the gift of faith. For just as St. Patrick left his home to take Christianity to the Irish, 150 years later Irish missionaries took Christianity to Britain, Europe, and to the edge of Asia.

Some say it was the simplicity of their message, presented in a way that was easily understood by the common people, while others argue it was the Celtic flavour of the message, less confrontational than Latin Christianity. Still others argue it was the example these missionaries set: walking rather than riding, looking for signs in the local context, and demonstrating a willingness to get their hands dirty, literally building a church for Christ.

Most of all, they demonstrated great faith. As the first mass missionary enterprize after St. Paul, they pointed to the hope of the Christian message, and the relevance of the message to the people they met. And they did this in the face of a well-established pagan religion: so well established that half the days on our week are named for these gods. Again, they had faith, and the so they persisted.

St. Paul, of course, provides a compelling example. Writing to the churches, he presents his argument for faith with an eye to the local religious context, with some simplicity, and is only confrontational on rare occasions. Romans 4 is a case in point:

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Here the missionary Paul is confronting a local argument about Christian identity. The church in Rome has a strong sense of itself, perhaps a common trait belonging to anything founded near the centre of power. And they were conflicted: the church began in the synagogues, but was soon attracting non-Jews in great numbers. And this opened questions that required the wisdom of Paul.

Did you need to be Jewish first in order to become a follower of Jesus? Jesus followed the law, or at least his version of the law, and therefore one could conclude that converts of Christianity ought to follow the law too. And what about circumcision, the rite that indicated this conversion? Would gentiles need to be circumcised in order to join what still seemed a sub-section of the Jewish religion?

The answer, according to Paul, rests with Abraham. And to begin, he quotes Genesis 15.6: “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham didn’t follow the law because the law didn’t exist, at least not in the Charlton Heston form that would come much later. Abraham was pre-law, and was therefore deemed faithful by following God alone.

Paul, then, is taking the community back to first principles. The faith of Abraham wasn’t based on earning anything or achieving anything: it rested solely on the relationship between a gracious God and a person of faith. And faith in this sense is not a set of rules to follow, but a hope to maintain, a promise to cherish.

And it existed in the face of overwhelming odds. Abraham and Sarah were alone as heirs to this promise, a promise that they would be the father and mother of a great nation, more than the stars in the night sky. And old age and seeming barrenness were against them, along with all the uncertainties of life in general. But God made a promise and Abraham believed, and that—for Paul—is the most compelling example of faith.

The simplicity of this message would also capture Luther and the rest of the reformers, understanding that Abraham is ‘justified’ (regarded as righteous) because of his trust in God. In other words, he is justified by faith, as we too are justified by faith alone, never earning God’s favour, but receiving God’s favour as a free gift. Our choice, like Abraham, is whether we take up this free gift.

And so, back to Paul: “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

And here we see a contemporary implication of this passage, beyond the identity of the early church and the work of the reformers. There has been careful attention paid in recent years to the common Abrahamic roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All esteem Abraham as a founder, as the true example of faith in one God, and the root that ought to bring us closer.

The letter to the Romans was written when Christianity had yet to fully emerge from Judaism, and some 700 years before Mohammed, but Paul’s point still stands: “The promise comes by faith...and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring.” Jews, Christians and Muslims.

We live in a time when extremists from all the great religions try to distort the peace and common connections that exist. And it falls to us, as moderates, to embrace people of goodwill in all the religions, but Islam in particular. We are no longer medieval competitors on the edge of empire, but co-religionists, with Abraham as our father in faith.

When Patrick went to Ireland he took with him the simple yet profound message that no longer would they need to sacrifice their own children to appease angry gods, and that the son of the one true God had died once and for all. Patrick’s followers left Ireland and took the message that no longer would a good death belong to those who died in combat—that the passage to the next life is not guarded by the fates.

No, they said, life is a gift from God, and a life of faith is a life lived with God, and it’s about as simple as that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

First Sunday of Lent

Matthew 4
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

And then the devil spoke to Jesus and said, ‘Jesus, we seem to do this temptation thing every year, about this time, and I have to say I’m finding it a little ho-hum. Stones to bread, top-of-the-temple, kingdoms of the world...I’m bored to death.’

‘Really,’ Jesus replied, somewhat taken aback. ‘You know that the generative capacity of the Word of God means that even seemingly ho-hum passages can come alive through the work of the Holy Spirit.’

‘Yes yes, I know all the tricks of you and your legion of preachers. Every time you read it the Maker of All reveals more truth, or so you claim. For now, just work with me, and let’s see of we can jazz up this tempted in the wilderness thing.’

‘Fine, you can try.’

And then the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness once more. Jesus was fasting for forty days and forty nights, and was very hungry. The devil spoke to Jesus and said, ‘I will give you a shot at a grand prize of $250,000 and your own line of President’s Choice products if you can turn some of these stones into moderately priced appetizers, entrees and desserts.’

And Jesus replied, ‘Nothing in the frozen food aisle will save you, only the word that comes from the mouth of God.’

Then the devil took him to the Air Canada Centre, near centre ice, and said, ‘if you are the Son of God, I challenge you to play without thought of injury; body checking, shots to the head, the occasional brawl. For it is written ‘the angels will protect you, and never allow you to be concussed.’ Jesus replied, ‘Do not put your Lord God to the test, and stop praying for the cup Toronto, you ask too much.’

And then the Devil showed him Youtube and said, ‘your first video will go viral, and you will get a record deal. Teenaged girls will scream and cry and follow you everywhere, calling themselves ‘believers.’ You will eventually become a bad-boy, with a DUI in Florida and other crazy antics, but your wealth and fame will only grow. And all you have to do is worship me.’

But Jesus answered, ‘Get lost, Satan. Worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone. And leave that lad from Stratford alone too.’ Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Ah, the devil, so predictable, so easily defeated. Or is he? Subjecting yourself to humiliation on television, risking life and limb for some fleeting fame in the NHL, following the inevitable path from fame to infamy—all these stories have the same script: Something will be held out before you, you know you want it with every fiber of your being (whether it is good for you or not) and you will eventually succumb. Doesn’t matter if it’s potato chips or 15 minutes on TV, it’s all the same.

Now, before I bash society too much, we should say a word about the devil. In the United Church, of course, we succumbed long ago to the temptation of believing that the devil is not real. And that seems fair enough. Too many things are blamed on the devil when we ourselves are too blame, and too many things were blamed on evil in our midst when it was just garden-variety sin. If everyone is greedy and some people starve, we can call it the work of the devil, when in fact it’s a collective decision to allow a system to continue.

The secondary problem with the devil is the way he has been used to literally demonize others, usually the people we disagree with. Picking your least favourite politician and calling him or her the devil removes their humanity and steals a little of our humanity at the same time.

In the end, the devil is just a metaphor, a way to conceive of the enemy of good. Another common name for the devil is the adversary, opposed to good, but again nothing more than a metaphor for something we can’t really know.

Now, some people of late have been critical of our use of metaphor in the church, particularly the use of metaphor that supports the mystery of faith. But this points to a misunderstanding of the role of metaphor in our lives. It is not a trick or a crutch: rather, metaphor is at the heart of what it means to be human. It expresses what we know but cannot literally explain, and that encompasses much of life itself. We know that something is opposed to good, so we call it evil. Then we give it a personality and call it the devil. Each is a metaphor, and each expresses truth: The absence of good exists and sometimes deserves a name.

So now that we’ve established that there is an adversary, and a formidable one at that, how do we protect ourselves, both during our journey through Lent and for the rest of the year as well. How do we defend ourselves—first from ourselves—and from everything that may tempt us away?

The first answer, the one that Jesus demonstrates, is the effective use of scripture. ‘We shall not live on bread alone, do not put the Lord your God to the test, worship the Lord your God, and serve God alone.’ All of these words come from the ‘it is written’ defense, a comprehensive grasp of the Bible and the truth it contains.

This is not an argument for proof-texting, something that the church is tempted to do too often, and usually for all the wrong reasons. This is an argument for a good knowledge of scripture to understand the religious context for our actions, good and bad.

Why on earth would a church like ours supply addicts with clean pipes and distilled water to smoke crack with? First of all, to protect them from hepatitis, a terrible disease that no one should be exposed to simply because they have an addiction. But primarily because Jesus tells his disciples to tend his lambs, to judge not lest you be judged, and to spend more time with the least and the last, the people Jesus loves.

So that was the good, so what about the bad? I can confess to you that there have been moments, usually on a long flight, when I have not mentioned my occupation. I gave into the temptation to remain silent on the question. I could stretch the truth, tell people I’m a motivational speaker, but that might prompt more questions. Nope, the temptation is to remain a non-pastor for a while, lest I be subjected to four hours of why someone is spiritual-and-not-religious (thanks Lillian Daniel).

When I do this I feel like Peter, who at the critical moment decided not to tell his fellow passengers that he belongs to the ultimate Pilot named Jesus the Christ. Maybe my comparison is a bit rich, but it helps me understand what I’m doing, and it helps me too to remember that by the end of the Gospel all is forgiven.

Our lenten journey begins today, and I encourage you to read your way though it. Pick your favourite Gospel and read it over the next few weeks. Time it out so you come to the passion around the time of Holy Week. And become familiar with all the ways Jesus was tempted, the disciples were tempted, and we too are tempted. Look for yourself in the Bible, and remember you are first and foremost a child of God. Amen.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction.”
13 Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God. 14 He said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we come back to you. Aaron and Hur are with you, and anyone involved in a dispute can go to them.”
15 When Moses went up on the mountain, the cloud covered it, 16 and the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai. For six days the cloud covered the mountain, and on the seventh day the Lord called to Moses from within the cloud. 17 To the Israelites the glory of the Lord looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain. 18 Then Moses entered the cloud as he went on up the mountain. And he stayed on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

You will recall that I have a number of actionable items that relate to my parents, potential lawsuits based on my dangerous childhood in the 60’s and 70’s.

So I ask, why stop at sunscreen, bike helmets and learning to walk in the back of a moving station wagon? Perhaps it is time to look at the wider context of my childhood, and the things I was denied when we moved to the woods near Mount Albert.

Taking just one obvious and painful example, my alarming lack of access to Sesame Street. First appearing on PBS in 1970, Sesame Street could have played a vital role in my educational development.

Is my ability to do math compromised without early exposure to Count von Count? Do I have a diminished sense of wonder without an eight-foot-two bird in my early life? The true value of friendship without Ernie and Bert? Can I properly compare and contrast without the hit song “One of the things is not like the others?”

Now, my parents will argue that without PBS I was actually forced to play outside, in the woods, and this means I had an enhanced set of learning opportunities that television could not provide. Clever defense, I will give them that.

My little friends with cable did, however, teach me the song “One of the things is not like the others” and it seems this simple song may be the key to understanding the reading that Joyce shared this morning.

But first, just in case you also grew up in Mount Albert without cable TV, here are the lyrics to the song:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn't belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

In the sketch, there are typically four items, three being the same or similar, and one being quite different. Think hammer, screwdriver, handsaw and running shoe. Or Moses, Joshua, Aaron and Hur. “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong.”

In this first example, Moses, Joshua, Aaron and Hur, we see the great lawgiver, the great warrior, the great priest and some guy we’ve never heard of. One of these get the picture. Or the usual Transfiguration Sunday reading, with Jesus, Moses, Elijah and three of the disciples on the mountaintop. Great prophet, great prophet, great prophet, and three guys who are at a loss for words.

We could do this all day: Forty days and nights Moses spent on the mountain, forty days and nights of rain to cover the earth, forty days and nights Jesus is tempted in the wilderness, and forty years the Israelites wander in the desert. Or six days the cloud covered the mountain, six days to create the heavens and earth, six days of labour before you rest, and three days to rebuild the temple which is Jesus’ body.

I think you see where I’m going with this. One of my professors, Dr. Carol Miles, introduced us to the idea of intertextuality, your five-dollar-word for today. Put simply, intertextuality is the interconnections and suggestions that come to mind when you read your Bible or any piece of literature. When one thing suggests another, and you are inclined to ponder the connection between them, you are investigating an intertextual link.

What does the dove of Noah’s Ark and the dove that descends at Jesus’ baptism have in common? Maybe nothing, or maybe everything, but as soon as the Spirit prompts your mind to make a connection, you are involved in a creative way to understand your Bible. And there are no right and wrong answers, only the prompting of the Holy Spirit and your imagination.

So back to Exodus 24: on the surface it’s simply the backstory to retrieving the tablets that contain the ten commandments. God instructs Moses to go up the mountain, where the transfer will take place; Aaron and others are designated to stand in for Moses in the meantime; Moses makes the journey as ‘the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai;’ and Moses enters the cloud that will be his home for the next forty days and nights.

Of course, we know that when Moses returns from the mountain his face was radiant (34.29) and the others were overwhelmed by it and didn’t know what to make of it. Likewise, in the Transfiguration story:

Six days later, (there is another six-day reference) Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.

So clearly Jesus is the new Moses: up the mountain to meet God, facing shining with a divine glow, six days and then forty days (next week Jesus will be tempted for forty days) and then there are the others who meet the situation with a mixture of confusion and fear, with a measure of awe as well.

But what does this mean, if Jesus is the new Moses? If we are being invited to see them side-by-side, how do we draw them together?

The first and most obvious way involves the law. Moses brings the law (or gathers the law) and Jesus fulfills the law (Mat 5.17). Jesus insists that not one ‘jot or tittle’ will disappear from the law until all is accomplished. He completes the law, best demonstrated in his summary, the Great Commandment:

Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mat 22.36-40)

And we could leave it there, with the law summarized and repackaged in such a way that if this was the only thing you knew about Jesus’ teaching, it would be more than enough. These words alone contain the theological and ethical program of Jesus, and represent a summation of the believer’s task.

But there is more. Moses is the great liberator, or rather the prophet of the liberation that God provides to the children of Israel. God heard their suffering, the words as they cried out in bondage, and God freed them with an outstretched arm and great wonders, and Moses led them to the promised land. Along the way, it was Moses who negotiated with God for the sake of the people, who—in spite of great hardship—landed safely on Canaan’s side.

Moses is the great liberator, but he mostly saved the people from themselves. The complaining, the disobedience, everything we call human nature: all this nearly led to a desert version of the great flood, but Moses saved the people from themselves by intervening on their behalf.

And this is the clearest way Jesus is the new Moses, saving us from ourselves. Like the Israelites in the desert, we have human nature in abundance. Just a week ago we marked the end of the Olympics with a church school parade of nations. A week later, we seem to be on the brink of a new war in Europe. Human nature makes us warlike, and we can’t seem to help ourselves.

But Jesus says ‘love God and serve others.’ And overcome all that turns the heart to aggression and discord, because God loves you wants you to be happy. But we don’t buy it.

But then he goes a step further, and is willing to die for us, in a last-ditch effort to save us from ourselves. Jesus even forgives us from the cross—because we don’t know what we’re doing—and liberates us from the sin and sorrow that we create for ourselves each day.

Moses, Jesus, the way of the cross and the way of the world: one of these things is not like the others: thank God the first three save us from the last. Amen.