Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jonah 3
Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

We don’t cook a lot of fish at home these days.

The aquarium is in the kitchen, and the approximately 17 fish are very sensitive. And on the rare occasion that I bake some salmon or open a can of tuna, I can see them looking at me—judging me—and it doesn’t feel good.

I try to talk to them, and praise them, but this seems to backfire too. I’ll say something like “you fish are so sweet, so tender,” and then they’re looking at me again with deep suspicion. Maybe we need to find a new place for the aquarium.

I share this because the story of Jonah features perhaps the most famous fish of them all. The poor fish, compelled to eat a prophet, and listen to his muttering for three long days, and then forced to spit him out on the beach. He didn’t even get a decent meal out of it.

But the story begins long before Jonah become fish food: it begins—as these things often do—with the call of God. God has noticed the great wickedness of the people of Nineveh (more on that in a moment) and commands Jonah to go and prophesy to them.

And you recall his response: Jonah heads to the coast to find a ship heading in precisely the opposite direction. At Jaffa he finds a ship bound for Tarshish (likely in modern day Sardinia, about as far from Nineveh as you could possibly travel) and begins his escape.

Of course, God has other ideas. A great storm comes up, and the sailors decide that someone on board must be to blame. They draw lots, and the lot naturally falls to Jonah. First, they do everything they can to save the ship without throwing poor Jonah overboard, but eventually they relent. Our fish friend is waiting.

By the time he ends up on the beach, Jonah has resigned himself to the task God has appointed for him, and his journey to Nineveh begins. It would be easy enough to label Jonah a shirker or a coward, or someone not up to the important job of prophet, until you consider what he was called to do.

Nineveh, at that time, was most likely the largest city in the world. Located on a major trade route that linked east with west, and situated on the banks of the mighty Tigris, Nineveh flourished and became the capitol of the Assyrian empire. Think of it as the London or New York of the 8th Century BCE.

The city covered seven square kilometers. The Bible’s description, and the city uncovered by archeologists, seem to match. The population is estimated around 150,000, twice the size of Babylon. The king’s palace had eighty rooms adorned with beautiful relief sculptures (now in the British Museum), resting on a foundation made up of 160 million bricks. This was the centre of the world.

And their wickedness? Well, the city was the centre of the worship of Ishtar (not the bad film) who was an Akkadian goddess (no, not those Acadians). She was the goddess of a number of things, and these things either fit perfectly together in your view or seem completely random (like a personality test). The main four were fertility, love, war and sex. People and animals fell under her spell, but she was regarded as a fickle goddess (according to Gilgamesh) and even other gods seduced by Ishtar came to great harm.

So it was time for an intervention. The people of Nineveh needed to be convinced to set aside their love for Ishtar and embrace the One True God. Jonah was hand-picked for the job, and it now seems entirely reasonable that he might try to run away.

Now, it’s important to remember that we are not the first generation to practice the art of cynicism. Being cynical is as old as Nineveh, or Eden (also on the Tigris) and so it seems entirely likely that Jonah was proclaiming a message that he cynically believed the people of Ninevah would not embrace.

For three days, we are told, he travelled the breadth of the city shouting “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.” It’s hard to know how this message was received. “In forty days Nineveh shall be overthrown.” Were people angry? Did they ignore him, assume he was demon-possessed? Could they even hear him over the din? And then something incredible happened:

5 The people of Nineveh believed in God, and they declared a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat on ashes. 7 He issued a proclamation and said, “In Nineveh, by the decree of the king and his nobles: No human or animal, cattle or sheep, is to taste anything; they must not eat and they must not drink water. 8 Every person and animal must put on sackcloth and must cry earnestly to God, and everyone must turn from their evil way of living and from the violence that they do. 9 Who knows? Perhaps God might be willing to change his mind and relent and turn from his fierce anger so that we might not die.”

I just want to pause for a minute and allow you to picture the whole city in sackcloth, the king, the leading nobles, ordinary folk, their livestock, their pets—all wearing sackcloth. Imagine all animals from the little beagles, to the Bernese Mountain dogs, and even the proud Cavalier King Charles Spaniels covered in sackcloth. How could God say ‘no’ to beagles in sackcloth?

And of course God couldn’t. But poor Jonah, voice still hoarse from three days of shouting, still smelling vaguely of the inside of a fish, was unimpressed by small dogs in sackcloth. Even the king sitting in ashes failed to move him, owing I expect, to his feelings about their former devotion to Ishtar. Or was it something else? Could it be based somehow on the circuitous emotional route that brought Jonah to Nineveh. Consider this:

Your kid’s room is a mess. Clothing strewn everywhere, dishes missing, and some obviously still covered in rotting food and hidden in the room. You have spent weeks saying ‘clean your room, clean your room, I can’t believe I’m asking you again to clean your room.’ Then the moment arrives when you decide you are at the end of your rope. Maybe you’re in the car, or sitting somewhere else in house without rotting food under the bed. You head upstairs, because you’ve finally had enough. You have the words you will say well rehearsed in your mind, and you’ve already created brilliant counter-arguments for the fight to come. Then you open the door, and the room is clean. A smiling child is standing by, waiting for your approval and praise. What do you say? I can tell you Jonah said:

“Oh, Lord, this is just what I thought would happen when I was in my own country. This is what I tried to prevent by attempting to escape to Tarshish!—because I knew that you are gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in mercy, and one who relents concerning threatened judgment. 3 So now, Lord, kill me instead, because I would rather die than live!”

It’s obviously easier to stay angry, because nothing is quite as annoying as a God who forgives people 120,000 at a time. Like the most famous older brother in history, Jonah was pretty invested in being angry, and uniquely unimpressed with all that forgiving. I’m not saying he wanted Nineveh to burn, but he certainly didn’t want all to be forgiven so quickly.

To quote moral theologian and country singer Lyle Lovett:

God does, but I don't
And God will, but I won't
That's the difference between God and me.

And here is one of those occasions when we need to let God be God and allow ourselves to not be God. Try your best, forgive where you can, but don’t expect to outdo God in the forgiveness department. We’re always more Jonah than God. More older brother than gracious father, more in need of forgiveness than the forgiving people we aspire to be.

In the end, God gives Jonah a bit of an object lesson and some last words. We don’t get Jonah’s response, but it’s safe to say that perhaps by then the fight was finally out of him. And then God says something that sounds vaguely familiar, the last word on Nineveh that needs to be said:

Should I not be even more concerned about Nineveh, this enormous city? There are more than one hundred twenty thousand people in it who do not know right from wrong, as well as many animals!”

Forgive them, for they know not what they do. Amen.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

To be honest, I didn’t know there were so many ways to lie.

While conducting extensive research for this sermon (visiting Wikipedia), I learned that there are, in fact, at least thirty different types of lies. Taken in alphabetical order, they range from the Bad Faith Lie (Jean-Paul Sartre called this ‘lying to yourself’) all the way to the famous White Lie (“Really, I love your new shoes and I totally understand why you need one more pair of shoes that essentially looks like every other pair you own”).

In between, the lies range from fanciful lies to garden variety lies, and so it seems unfair to bring up such an interesting topic and not give you a few other examples:

The Butler Lie: Related to the Polite Lie (“We’re really busy this weekend”), the Butler Lie means describing something by phone or text that isn’t true yet (“Okay, I gotta go now, my lunch is here.”)

The lie called Puffery: If you have ever wondered how every restaurant in New York could have “the world’s best coffee” then you already know about puffery.

Or the Jocose Lie: If you have heard the same story about catching the same fish several times and you notice that the day gets longer and the fish gets bigger, you have experiences the Jocose Lie. The same goes for your lengthy walk to school: the fun of this lie is knowing it’s not completely true.

So why are we talking about lying? Well, with at least thirty different types of lies to choose from, there is obviously a lot of lying going on. I think most of us can describe moments that we have clearly been lied to, and if we’re completely candid, we can name the times we have told a fib or two ourselves.

Even the Bible has some famous examples to share, with Abraham lying to say is wife is actually his sister, Sarah lying when she insists she didn’t laugh at the suggestion she would have a child in old age, and the sons of Jacob taking that beautiful coat and dipping it in a little animal blood and saying “Uh-oh, I think something happened to Joseph.”

And then there is the passage Faith read this morning.

Now, before we discuss the possibility that Jesus might tell a lie, I am fully aware of the properties of lightning, that it doesn’t always travel in a straight line, and that lightning traveling through the front door, across the narthex, up the ramp, through the back doors, up the aisle and into the pulpit is not inconceivable.

So here goes: The story begins simply enough. Jesus finds Philip and says “Follow me,” followed by Philip’s invitation to Nathanael, followed by Nathanael’s famous question “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It appears that Nathanael will need some extra convincing, so the heart of the story begins:

47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (RSV)

Jesus counters with, ‘That’s it? Because I said I saw you under a fig tree you believed? Wait until you see the rest.’ In a Gospel filled with signs, this is only the first.

So you’re not seeing the lightning bolt, and perhaps you’re not seeing the lie either. Maybe that’s because I didn’t tell you about Lie #23, which goes by the name Dissembling.

Essentially the same as misleading, dissembling involves saying something that is true to cover something else that may or may not be true. If you ask me if I like your new hat and I tell you that yellow is one of my favourite colours, I’ve been doing a little dissembling. I answered with a truthful statement, I just didn’t answer your question. But I’m sure it’s a nice hat.

Likewise, Nathanael (in whom there is no guile) asks “how do you know me?” and Jesus says “I saw you under the fig tree.” This is classic dissembling. The real answer to the question “how do you know me” might be more accurately answered with Jesus saying “Because I read your heart.”

So why not just say it? Why describe the fig tree when it seems perfectly obvious that he knows that Nathanael has no guile precisely because Jesus can read hearts? Why the dissembling? This, then, might be the moment to misquote Col. Jessep and say “You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth!”

In this case, at the beginning of the Gospel, maybe it’s too soon for Jesus to reveal that he can read hearts. The reader will soon know, because it will be obvious, and because John will say as much in chapter two: Jesus “knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” (24b, 25)

And Matthew 12: Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, "Every kingdom divided against itself will fall.” (25) And Luke 9: Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. (47)

Time and time again we will be reminded that Jesus knew (and knows) what happens within the human heart, but he can’t reveal this knowledge too soon, for fear that he will have no disciples at all. Imagine the job interview where you tell the job applicant that everything will seem great at the beginning, ‘then I’ll suffer, and then I’ll die, then you’ll suffer, and then you’ll die.’ And ‘at every moment I’ll be able to read your mind and read your heart, even when I’m not immediately at hand.’ No, far better to say ‘follow me and I will make you fishers of people.’

And what about us? What would we do with this knowledge? Or how would we react if it were revealed at the beginning?

‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, the son (who can already read your heart), and the Holy Spirit.’

‘We call this meeting to order in the name of Jesus Christ, the head of the church (who can read all of your hearts, even in a meeting)’
“Jesus Christ, cup of blessing, bread of heaven (reader of hearts).’

Maybe it’s just too much to bear, this knowledge that Jesus can read hearts. Maybe we don’t want to be reminded, in the same way that poor Nathanael may have shied away from the job of disciple if he immediately knew how much heart reading was going to happen. You want the truth, you can’t handle the truth.

Remember the time before the Beer Store found new meaning in life, and you would put the wine bottles in the bottom of the blue bin and the Pepsi cans on top? Surely I’m not the only one who worried what the neighbours might think, and assumed that there was such a thing as householder-garbage collector confidentiality?

Jesus capacity to read hearts is only matched by our capacity to obfuscate and conceal. But though it all Jesus continues to call disciples, continues to lead people in his way, and continues to redeem everything he touches. At the beginning of another Gospel Jesus said "Healthy people don't need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners." Even Nathanael, the one without guile.

May God speak to our hearts, so easily read, and so precious in God’s sight. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of Jesus

Acts 19
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

Week two of 2015, and you’re already feeling the pressure.

The tree is still up, Christmas cards might better be described as New Year’s cards, calls need to be made or returned. Clearly, what you need is a fresh set of excuses. And for that, we need only turn to scripture.

And you don’t need to look very hard. God said to Eve ‘what have you done?’ and Eve said ‘it wasn’t me, it was the talking snake.’ A timeless classic that still works in the right setting. Of course, Adam isn’t quite as creative, so he just blames poor Eve.

Or Moses, when you have nothing to say: ‘But I am not eloquent—I am slow of speech and of tongue.’ Or Jeremiah: ‘I am too young and cannot speak.’ That only works for a while.

Or try multiple excuses at once, following Luke 14: ‘I just bought a field and have to go look at it; I’ve just bought five yoke of oxen and have to go look at them; I just married a wife.’ These will work in most situations.

Or Acts 19: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
“No,” they said, “we haven’t even heard that there’s a Holy Spirit.”

So you see how this works: start with the basics (it wasn’t me, I can’t say, I gotta go, I didn’t know) and simply add details. Try not to be too specific, particularly in the area of livestock acquisition, but don’t be afraid to blame others, especially snakes that talk.

Acts 19 is an odd little passage. It begins with a reasonable enough question (“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”) and concludes with twelve fresh baptisms. Along the way we learn how things can go off the rails, how things that seem obvious are easily missed, and how quick corrective measures can set everything right.

And the confusion is easy to understand. If the imperative is ‘accept baptism and begin your new life’ then there might not be an opportunity to clarify which baptism. John was well known in the nascent church, his baptism was popular, and a community that lacked a complete outline of the story could easily be confused.

But it ends well: they learn the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism, they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit—that they only just discovered—comes upon them and causes them to prophesy.

If only things were so neat and tidy, and so easily resolved. If only things could be cleared up with a quick visit from a traveling expert. If only the answer to every vexing question was so simple and quick to implement.

This has been another difficult week for those who follow the news, with a new set of tragic circumstances and a new set of outstanding questions. We have been asked, once again, to define terrorism, to consider the implications of radicalized young people in our midst, and to try to integrate all of this with our faith and our sense of what to means to live in a free society. There are many large questions, and some of them touch religion, and therefore cannot easily be ignored.

First and foremost, is the question of religious tolerance and free speech. Since Wednesday there has been considerable debate about the nature of satire and the role of provocative images in this terrible story. Newspapers around the world have debated whether to reprint them, underlining how important they are to the story. We cannot blame the victims, and violence is never acceptable or justified, but the desire to intentionally provoke others is part of the story.

So are cartoons of the prophet Mohammed part of a satirical look at world events, and a way to bring about change, or are they part of a racist undercurrent that has always existed in France and exists in our society as well? A hundred years ago it was acceptable to depict Jews with a large hook nose, or the Chinese with buck teeth and round glasses, but no longer. How are cartoons that stereotype Muslims, or the most revered person in the Muslim tradition, any more acceptable than the other depictions we have set aside and deemed unacceptable?

Freedom of speech is usually the answer that follows, but there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. When others are harmed, or there is a risk that the person speaking will bring harm to themselves, we curtail freedom of speech for the sake of the whole society. US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes famously said that freedom of speech does not include the ability to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Laws that govern hate speech are another example, along with laws that require truth in advertising. We regulate free speech all the time, but have a hard time deciding what to do with things that offend some but not all.

In many ways, this is a clash between our values as Christians and the values of the society we inhabit. We try to preach tolerance and understanding, standing with the oppressed, loving our neighbour as ourselves. Compare this with the societal value (misattributed to Voltaire): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Allowing people to say anything or insult anyone is a societal value that is hard to reconcile with the values we espouse in this place.

But none of this is new. We in the church have always put limits of what people can and cannot do, despite the “free society” idea that we cling to. You can’t join the church unless you are baptized, you can’t become a minister without being a member, you can’t become a minister without being in essential agreement with the Basis of Union (or agreeing to join the pension plan).

In other words, we discriminate in a way that may offend some. But our freedom of religion has precedence over the right to be free from discrimination. IBM can’t ask you in a job interview if you believe in God, but we can, and we do. And this, of course, means that we have more in common with religions that also discriminate than we do with secular employers who cannot. And it unsettles our sense that we are just like everyone else, just like a free and open society, when in many ways we are not. Add to that the fact that we don’t pay property tax—something that offends more and more people all the time.

So we discover that we have much in common with our co-religionists (and sometimes more in common) than we have with the the world out there. We also understand that the success of interfaith dialogue and cooperation is being both respectful of others and confident in our own faith. In other words, we not only try to get along, but we try to defend religion and religious people. And this is very hard to do.

If you listen carefully to the reporting and the commentary, there is a subtle debate happening about the nature of Islam, and the nature of religion itself, and whether we (as religious people) are at the root of the world’s problems. ‘But wait,’ we say, ‘we’re not like those other religions, or even like those other Christians. We’re special, and just like everyone else in Canada.’

Except we aren’t. As I’ve tried to show, we’re really more like religious people than secular people, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the Observer or talking to many of my colleagues. We are increasingly uncomfortable as representatives of the Christian religion, or religion generally, when that is precisely what we are. We can pretend to be different, but that’s not how we’re seen. Ask an atheist if they think liberal Christians are better or different than other Christians, and the answer will be ‘absolutely not.’

The lesson of Acts 19 is both having the correct belief and knowing who you are. It is knowing who you are and to whom you belong. Paul wants them to understand that baptism in Jesus Christ is the source of their new life, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit will allow them to prophesy and share the message of their new religion. This message was true then and it remains true now. We need to understand ourselves, and what makes us both unique and what makes us similar to the other people who seek after God. May the Holy Spirit help us, Amen.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Second Sunday after Christmas

Ephesians 1
11 In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, would be to the praise of his glory. 13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.

There’s a good chance it’s the first thing you ever inherited.

You turned up a card to see the rather bewildered expression of Mr. Monopoly, arms raised, with the message, “You inherit $100.” And when you saw it—whatever age you were—the sum likely seemed strange. If you get $200 for simply passing GO, why would you get excited about inheriting half that amount?

And what about the odd suggestions illustrated on the card? Pressed toward Mr. Monopoly are three cards with the words Buy a Yacht, World Tour and Rolls Royce. I may not have been the brightest kid in Mount Albert, but even I knew that $100 in depression-era America would not buy a yacht, a world tour or a Rolls Royce.

And what about this Mr. Monopoly, what’s his deal? One minute he's striding toward GO, then he's on crutches, then he's being carried off to jail, and the next thing you know he's sprouted wings and he's getting out of jail free.

And would you be surprized to learn that this former jailbird’s name isn’t even Mr. Monopoly? That’s right! In 1946 he appeared in another Parker Brother’s game, this one called Rich Uncle. It was then revealed that his name is Rich Uncle Pennybags. It turns out he’s the 6th riches fictional character in the world—according to Forbes Magazine—right between Jed Clampett and Bruce Wayne. Ask me later who tops the list.

Two more surprizing things about Monopoly before I get back to whatever’s supposed to happen up here: There actually was a Community Chest in the 1930’s—it’s now known as The United Way—and the game itself is considered highly ethical. In one of the better bits of irony, the game appears in the list of ethical gift suggestions owing to the fact that it’s union made in an American factory. I’m not sure what Rich Uncle Pennybags would make of this.

So now you’re thinking back fondly to the time you inherited $100. Maybe you’ve inherited more that $100, or some non-monetary items, and I think you will agree that whatever is inherited is usually a mixed blessing. Maybe it’s an item that was passed in to you and you must maintain it to pass it on to the next generation. Maybe it’s something less tangible, like a trait—colourblindness or crooked teeth—that you wish you had never inherited at all.

Through it all, an inheritance is a metaphor: something we receive from others. But even that doesn’t fully define it. It is something we receive with unique intent, the intent that it will somehow have meaning to us, or enrich us in some way.

I share all this with St. Paul in mind, who reminds us that faith is something we inherit:

13 And when you heard the word of truth (the gospel of your salvation)—when you believed in Christ—you were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the down payment of our inheritance, until the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of his glory.

I’m never sure if Paul makes these things convoluted, or the translators make them convoluted. I can tell you that after reviewing half-a-dozen translations I wasn’t further ahead in trying to understand this passage. The best way, it would seem, is to break it down.

1. You heard the word of truth
2. (the gospel of your salvation)
3. when you believed in Christ.
4. You were marked by the Spirit,
5. the down payment of our inheritance,
6. to return to God’s possession.

Or to put even more simply: hearing and believing, the Spirit marked your return to God. This, then, is our inheritance: life in the Spirit as a sign of belonging to God, now and always. And the response: to praise God’s glory.

Three times in this short passage we are reminded to praise God. Maybe reminded to not strong enough: we are implored to praise God. At the beginning of the passage he uses another metaphor—adoption—and insists we were selected by God from the foundation of the world. The obvious response is to praise God’s glory.

Next, a reminder that we were predestined to believe—though the unfolding of God’s plan—and for this we should praise God’s glory. And then the end of the passage, which I shared a moment ago: marked by the Holy Spirit as God’s very own, we ought to be moved to offer praise to God’s glory.

It is important to note the extent to which offering praise to God is a counter-cultural act. When we get the two-part summary (and Great Commandment) that says ‘love God (etc, etc) and love your neighbour as yourself’ it is the latter part that makes sense to the world. Even if you are not predisposed to love your neighbour, it makes sense. Religions are by their very nature ethical, and even the most irreligious person can understand that faith should require people to do something, and often something they might not naturally do, like love their neighbour.

The former, praising God’s glory, is harder to understand. And this lack of understanding usually comes in two sizes: the need and the purpose. So let’s start with the need. People often say something like ‘why does God need all that praising? Isn’t God big enough or powerful enough to get by without our praise?’ The first answer is ‘we can’t know.’ The Bible provides a rather mixed picture on the question of whether God needs our praise, but is pretty clear that God deserves our praise. The author of all that is, the source of every blessing, the source of mercy and compassion: God clearly deserves our praise.

So what’s the purpose? What good will it do? And this is a frustratingly simple answer: There is no real purpose. It will not bribe or compel God, it will not redirect or thwart God, it will not earn us a thing. In the very eloquent words of Dr. Marva Dawn, praising God is a “royal waste of time,” something she meant in the best possible way.

What she means is that praising God has no practical value in the world’s eyes. It won’t do anything that makes sense to the world out there: it is simply something that we feel compelled to do. We are richly blessed: praise God. We are bowed by not broken: praise God. We have the gift of companions on this journey: praise God. We have a world of hurt when we chose to walk with others this earthy way: praise God.

Our greatest inheritance is a community of faith where we gather to praise God. We have found each other, we encourage each other, and we prompt each other to continue praising God in this place. We can do no other.

When this street was little more than a portage people were praising God. When all of this returns to dust people will be praising God. We received it and we pass it on. Faith is something we receive with unique intent: the intention that we will praise God and pass it on.

A couple of days ago, the Globe featured an interview with Emily White, the author of the book “Count Me In: How I Stepped Off the Sidelines, Created Connection, and Built a Fuller, Richer, More Lived-in Life.” Read the title and maybe you’ve read the book. Her thesis is simple: The world says ‘be more self-reliant’ when we learn again and again that human’s need each other, we need to connect.

She says: “I’m not sure any generation before ours has encountered, or been forced to accept, the same level of aloneness as us. Sometimes the aloneness is glamorized...and other times it’s deplored...but either way, it’s not challenged. There’s not a whole lot in our culture urging us to join together in real, in-person ways. We can tweet, but we’re not encouraged to meet.”*

In her book, she give herself the “belongingness challenge” of finding others. She joined an animal welfare group, took up community gardening and went to church. She then describes how her life was changed by engaging with others outside the private realm.

Notice that two of the three things she joins (worship, community gardening) are part of our life at Central. In another counter-cultural act, we have been busy joining together in real, in-person ways all along. The urge to gather makes us human, makes us whole, makes us God’s heirs: inheriting the redemption that comes when we find God and find each other, and to God be the praise. Amen.