Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Numbers 11
10 Moses heard the people of every family wailing at the entrance to their tents. The Lord became exceedingly angry, and Moses was troubled. 11 He asked the Lord, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me? 12 Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do you tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land you promised on oath to their ancestors? 13 Where can I get meat for all these people? They keep wailing to me, ‘Give us meat to eat!’ 14 I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If this is how you are going to treat me, please go ahead and kill me—if I have found favor in your eyes—and do not let me face my own ruin.”

According to the latest polling data from Nanos/EKOS/Ipsos Reid, Israelites in the desert listed fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic as the most frequently missed foods, 19 times out of 20, accurate within two foods. In the “most hated food category,” manna was rejected by the majority, with a small minority reporting that it was okay if you added cheese sauce.

Reading this Numbers 11 poll, I took the liberty of adding these ingredients to the recipe search page at, a very helpful resource if you are confronted by a fridge full of random items and no clue what to make. It seems some lists can be too random, since SuperCook made only two suggestions: Grilled Sweet Maui Onion and Summer Medley Salad—obviously served with fish.

So back to our poll results. While a vocal minority (called “the rabble”) were busy generating food lists and trashing the government's manna programme, a representative from each family were heard wailing at the entrance of their tents. This riding by riding expression of discontent was far more troubling to the Moses Government than random food lists, forcing Moses to confer with the Most High.

Sources close to Moses report that the famous liberator questioned the Most High on the poll results, wondering if he had failed God in some way—even questioning the fairness of burdening him with these infantile Israelites. He admitted his inability to meet their incessant demands for meat, and was reported to have uttered the now famous phrase “Lord, kill me now.”

Finally, a settlement was reached whereby God offered to appoint 70 elders over the complaining Israelites, with the power to ignore their demands. A transfer of the Holy Spirit was reported, with Moses and his deputy leader Joshua left to work out the details.

Now, like all media reporting, something is inevitably left out. If you look back at your bulletin, you will notice that poor Bob was assigned a bit of a hodge-podge: 4-6, 10-16, 24-29. This, of course, is common enough in the three-year table of Bible readings we call the lectionary: take a longer reading and edit it to illustrate a theme or convey a story. Sometimes, like manna, you can get too much of a good thing, and you need to edit it make it more manageable.

Unless you’re hiding something. And then the edited lectionary can serve to highlight an acceptable theme while downplaying or eliminating an unacceptable one. And Numbers 11 is a case-in-point. So here is a breakdown of the chapter, alternating between the missing bits and the bits that are present. Beginning at verse one, we start with what’s missing:

Tired out by the constant complaining of the Israelites, God is already busy burning the edges of the camp (missing). Their complaining includes specific foods, largely a summary of the Egyptian diet (present). Manna is explained, including how to prepare it and what it tastes like (missing). A comparison is made between the Israelites and infants, along with the famous “Lord, kill me now” (present). The Lord promises an abundance of meat (surprisingly missing, more on that in a moment), and the seventy elders are appointed, with a transfer of the Spirit (present).

Before I continue, I don’t want you to think that the good people who maintain the Revised Common Lectionary are secreted away in a room somewhere thinking of ways to deceive us. Quite the contrary, they are mostly trying to make the themes of the various readings line up, and open up the Bible so that preachers and congregations address most of the Bible and not simply the half-dozen readings that the minister loves.

Having said that, we can acknowledge that there are occasions (like this one) where the editors will look past the fires and the smoting and give us a somewhat neutral theme instead, like sharing the Holy Spirit. In other words, rather than face God’s anger head on, we are given an edited passage that fits with the Gospel lesson of the day (unread) that anyone who is doing good in God’s name is a friend of God. Hence the transfer of the Holy Spirit to the 70, appointed to do good in God’s name.

But what about the anger? If we had the time, we would get Bob back up here, and he would share one of the missing bits—one of the most powerful passages in the story of Moses. Here it is:

[God says] “Tell the people: ‘Consecrate yourselves in preparation for tomorrow, when you will eat meat. The Lord heard you when you wailed, “If only we had meat to eat! We were better off in Egypt!” Now the Lord will give you meat, and you will eat it. 19 You will not eat it for just one day, or two days, or five, ten or twenty days, 20 but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and you loathe it—because you have rejected the Lord, who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’”

If we were going to add another deadly sin to the list of seven deadly sins, I might suggest ingratitude. This is the God who heard the cries of God’s people, found a prophet (a prince of Egypt!) to lead then, sent plagues, defeated Pharaoh, parted the sea, set them on a path, gave them food, gave them the law, and did everything in God’s power to make good on ancient promises of posterity, fidelity and a land (Clines).

And the Israelite response? “We want meat! We want meat!” I’d love to see the Nanos/EKOS/Ipsos Reid numbers on God’s favourability numbers at that moment, because I’m sure the vast majority of onlookers would choose the righteous anger of a just God over the selfish demands of a bunch of ungrateful wanderers.

And why is God just? God is just because God keeps promises. Even in the face of disobedience and utter foolishness, God keeps promises. God promised Abraham and Sarah innumerable descendants, and now nearly four billion people belong to an Abrahamic faith—Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. God promised fidelity, maintaining the covenants that define us from the rule-of-law to freewill. And God promised a land—a promised land—which for us is all around.

So why the ingratitude? Why the cry for meat? Think of meat as a metaphor for everything we wish we had beyond everything we have already. We are the envy of the world: with prosperity, security, and a generosity of spirit that defines us. If, however, you listen to our leaders, they will tell you that we need more prosperity, that our security is constantly at risk, and that maybe we’ve been too generous, generous to the point of being duped by bad actors.

“Give us this day our daily bread.”

We say it a lot, but do we reflect on it’s meaning? Remembering that our faith exists outside of time, and that Abraham, Moses and the Most High were fully present to Jesus the day he prayed that prayer, we understand that ‘our daily bread’ is one omer of manna, no less and no more.

New every morning manna would appear, six days a week, with a double portion before the sabbath. Collect too much and rot sets in. Collect too little, and the pots were made equal, because no one was going to starve under God’s government. And this, then, is the heart of Jesus’ prayer: give us our daily bread, give us what we need—not what we want—give us what we need.

The Israelites, as foolish as they were, understood that they lived in the tension between the promises of a generous God and the anger of a continually disappointed God. We might do well to walk with them.

As we ponder the future of our country, the choices we make and the directions we take, we should be thinking how to be faithful, how to respond to God’s fidelity, and how to live knowing that we have already entered the promised land. Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 9
30 They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, 31 because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.
33 They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” 34 But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest.
35 Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.”
36 He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

You wake up only to realize TIFF is over and you didn’t see a single film, celebrity, or posh hotel.

Sad really, since the world of cinema only had eyes for Toronto over the last ten days. The good news for those who didn’t make it downtown is that some films will be the cineplex soon enough, some will appear on TVO or Doc Zone, and still others will eventually make it on to regular TV.

Then, of course, it will fall to some clever person to summarize the film for the sake of the TV listings—something that remains a bit of an art in-and-of-itself. How do you give a description that is at once brief, accurate, and appealing? You have to say enough to pique interest, but not so much that you spoil the film.

Here are some examples from our friends at Turner Classic Movies, and some attempts to make them more interesting:

The African Queen: “A grizzled skipper and a spirited missionary take on the Germans in Africa during World War I.” I might suggest “This is a better film about two people in love clinging to a sinking ship.”

“Classic tale of Scarlett O'Hara's battle to save her beloved Tara and find love during the Civil War” might become “Scarlett loves Ashley but marries Rhett then eats a radish.”

“A Kansas farm girl dreams herself into a magical land where she must fight a wicked witch to escape.” This description actually appeared in the LA Times in 1998: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets, then teams up with three complete strangers to kill again.”

I share this, of course, because the passage Joyce read actually contains the biblical version of a movie description, one that tries to be brief, accurate and appealing (in the sense) that it will lodge in the minds of the disciples. This version is both summary and explanation, and—as we learn in the next verse—is completely incomprehensible to the disciples. They don’t understand, and Mark tells us they are too afraid to admit it. The confounding summary?

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

Seems straight forward enough. And, in fact, this is the second time they have heard this prediction, the first time being just last week:

“He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” (8.31)

And this description ended with a rebuke for poor Peter, so it seems the inability to understand is part of a trend. To be fair, however, these descriptions come at the mid-point of Mark’s Gospel, with very little in the way of any kind of lead-in. Here is everything that has happened so far:

Jesus is baptized and tempted.
Jesus calls the disciples.
Jesus heals some sick people.
Jesus begins to teach.
Jesus calms the storm, heals some more, goes to Nazareth, learns of the death of his cousin, feeds the five thousand and the four thousand (this crowd is often forgotten) and has his first real confrontation with the Pharisees. Then he gives his summary, twice.

So we can forgive the disciples for their confusion and their silence if there is very little in the way of context for what they hear. So far there has been little in the way of organized opposition to his work, and very little to suggest that something as exciting as healing and feeding people might cause his death.

One suggestion may be that Jesus reveals too much, that it’s simply too much to take in, and that he might better feed them a few details at a time. Like a good movie description, he needed to keep them engaged without giving away the entire plot, because the entire plot was too much to comprehend.

And this theory (or excuse) for the disciples inability to take it in might work if they understood the narrative in the end. But of course, they did’t. Mary mistakes Jesus for the gardener, Thomas needs to see the wounds on his hands and his side, and later they will fail to see him on the road, and on the beach.

So even with the entire story, they struggle to understand that the promises made on Mark 8 and Mark 9 were true, that the threefold movement of trial-death-resurrection was a reality, and that were were witnesses to all of it.

And just as I enter the territory where I seem to be terribly unfair to the disciples, I’m going to take it a step further and look at us, the heirs of the disciples, and take a measure of how well we comprehend the summary of events as described by Jesus.

But before I do it, I want to introduce you to the late Michael Martin, a professor who taught at Boston University and wrote a famous (infamous?) book called “The Case Against Christianity.”

Ironically, one of the things he does in the book is provide perhaps the most helpful answer to the question ‘what is a Christian?” He begins:

“A Basic Christian...believes that a theistic God exists, that Jesus lived at the time of Pilate, that Jesus is the Incarnation of God, that one is saved through faith in Jesus, and that Jesus is the model for ethical behavior.”

So far so good. He then goes a step further, and adds what he calls the Orthodox Christian, beginning with the Basic Christian and adding the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the Second Coming.

Finally, to be inclusive, he defines the Liberal Christian, saying simply “belief in a theistic God and the acceptance of Jesus as a model of ethical behavior.” He does note that there is a further form of Liberal Christian, resting solely on Jesus as the model for ethical behavior, then notes that many Christians do not consider either type of Liberal Christianity to be Christianity at all (p. 12).

We can quibble, of course, with his lists, but what he provides in an interesting spectrum of belief that defines us and guides us. I assume that we can all find ourselves in his description, and celebrate the diversity that makes up the Christian community. And learning this may assure us or it may act as a sort of aspirational challenge, and it may even explain the silence of the disciples.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”

The disciples lived each day with the ethical teaching of Jesus. They came to see that he was the incarnation of God, so filled with God that he disrupted the natural world. They no doubt saw him as a source of salvation, with the description of this new life in Christ being “followers of the Way.”

Then the hard part began. Comprehending his death, his resurrection, his coming again—what Michael Martin labels “orthodox” belief—challenged the disciples in the same way it challenges us today. From the earliest days of the church, this appears in liturgy and prayer (“Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”) as an affirmation but also a reminder. This is the stuff that even the disciples struggled with, and you will too.

The challenge for us, is to discover what the block is. Maybe you are one of the fortunate ones who can see the great truths of our faith with clarity and conviction, or you are more like the twelve, confused, questioning, silent. Either way, God is with you, and either way, you have a home. May God continue to bless us wherever we find ourselves on this journey of faith. Amen.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 8
27 Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”
28 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”
29 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”
30 Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

Bored on the internet? May I suggest Google Search Suggestions, a fun way to pass the hours.

Here’s how it works: Go to and enter a partial question or phrase, and let Google do the rest. Some examples:

I typed in “Canada is...” and got “Canada is how old? (everyone knows that one: 148), “Canada is a corporation” (some parties treat us like one), and “Canada is in which country?” (insert comment here about the teaching of geography in US schools).

Then I tried “Canadians are...” and got only one result: “Canadians are weird.” Seems a tad unfair, but maybe true. Trying others I got “Americans are...rude” then “the French are...rude” and “the British are...coming!” You should have seen that one coming!

Since we’re in church, I tried “the United Church of Canada is...” and got the following: “the United Church of Canada is...dying” (sadly, that was the first result), then “the United Church of Canada and Israel” (obviously something the internet is thinking about) and then a couple of random results where Google tuned it into a question with “is the United Church of Canada Christian?” and “is the United Church of Canada a cult?” (ouch)

All of this, of course, was prompted by Mark 8.29, when Jesus asks “but who do you say that I am?” So I asked Google but typing “Jesus Christ is...” and got “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” followed by “Jesus Christ is Risen Today lyrics.” A lot of us church secretaries use the internet to do our work. The final two results are closer to what I expected: “Jesus Christ is the Way” (cool!) and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (which is a quote from Hebrews 13).

Never satisfied to leave a good thing, I tried “Jesus is...” and found “Jesus is a friend of mine” (lovely) “Jesus is the answer” (true), “Jesus is Lord” (preach it, Google!) and finally “Jesus is just alright with me,” proving that hippies have found a place on the internet.

“But who do you say that I am?”

The exchange begins with a conversation on the road: Jesus and his disciples are on the way to Caesarea Philippi when Jesus does the ancient equivalent of googling himself and asks “who do people say I am?”

“Some say John the Baptist,” they begin, “others say Elijah, and still others say you are one of the prophets.” And then he makes it personal: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter hardly misses a beat: “You are the messiah” (Matthew adds: “the Son of the Living God”). Then Jesus warns them not to tell anyone.

What follows is a precise description of Jesus’ passion, a very famous rebuke (“get behind me, Satan”) and a collection of sayings that our version of the Bible summarizes as “The Way of the Cross.” Pick up your cross and follow me; whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it; what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? These ‘collected sayings’ give us a concise summary of the self-sacrifice Jesus commends to us, and a summary of what we was willing do on our behalf. And all of it begins with “and who do you say that I am?”

So we have been listening in to a revealing conversation, but what about the context? What prompted the question in the first place? One theory is the setting: Jesus and his disciples are nearing Caesarea Philippi, named for Caesar Augustus and for Herod’s son Philip, who ruled in the area in the time of Jesus. Caesar Augustus also enjoyed the title “son of god,” something that might have been on their minds as they neared the town.

Another theory is also based on the setting, as Caesarea Philippi was renowned for her temple to the god Pan. You have no doubt seen images of Pan: half-goat, half-man, often pictured with his flute, worshipped in antiquity as the god of the wild, shepherds, their flocks, goats (naturally), wooded places, and the theatre. He is also associated with sexuality, owing—I expect—to the pan flute and CD collections sold on TV.

So, beyond the whole son-of-god problem, we have Jesus and his disciples entering an area consumed by themes (except sexuality) that belong to Jesus: the Good Shepherd, leading his flock, separating the sheep from the goats, even overcoming the wild in the temptation narrative. I’m not suggesting that Jesus was somehow threatened by titles and god-like associations, only that the setting prompted him to test the way in which he was being perceived.

And this, of course, remains an ongoing question, as each generation must answer the same question “and who do you say that I am?” To find the answer, we might first turn to a theologian—the late Marcus Borg—who provides a snapshot of the Jesus who walked with the disciples that day:

He was a peasant, which tells us about his social class. Clearly, he was brilliant. His use of language was remarkable and poetic, filled with images and stories. He had a metaphoric mind. He was not an ascetic, but world-affirming, with a zest for life.

There was a social-political passion to him. Like a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King, he challenged the domination system of his day. He was a religious ecstatic, a Jewish mystic, if you will, for whom God was an experiential reality. As such, he was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of St. Francis or the Dalai Lama.

And I suggest that, as a figure of history, he was an ambiguous figure. You could experience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric, or that he was a dangerous threat, or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of God.

It’s a remarkable snapshot, one that begs for a summary, perhaps the very summary that Peter provides when he says “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And seeing, as they could, the complete outline of the poetic, world-affirming, liberation-seeking, mystical-healer God they loved, they couldn’t help but draw their conclusions about the nature and identity of Jesus.

And this work doesn’t end. You may recall I shared the famous tweet from from comedian John Fugelsang, a quote that quickly began to appear on placards and t-shirts: He said, “Obama is not a brown-skinned, anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare. You're thinking of Jesus.” Another fine summary, one that brings us full circle. The activities remain the same: they are simply given new names. Again, each generation will the question “and who do you say that I am?” somewhat differently, based on changing need, and changing circumstances.

Ironic, then, that the final part of the context of this passage is Jesus entering Syria. Caesarea Philippi, still accessible to pilgrims when I visited in 1992, is located in the Golan Heights, and was a popular place for its Roman ruins and as one of the sources of the River Jordan. It’s largely off the beaten path these days, with the Syrian civil war being fought in the vicinity and increased tension that comes when the side that controls the Syrian side of the border keeps changing.

As Jesus prepares to enter Syria, then, it is hard not to ponder what he would make of the current refugee crisis, and how he would have us respond. He might first remind us that he was a refugee, fleeing the evil Herod and traveling to Egypt at the beginning of the Gospels. He might describe the Israelites in the desert, wandering forty years in search of their promised land. He might call to mind the exile, the experiences of being strangers in a strange land, weeping by the rivers of Babylon, singing the songs of Zion.

And then, in a moment of complete candor, he might describe that moment on the cross, when he felt utterly forsaken, and the moment that followed when he (and God) forgave us because we didn’t know what were doing.

And then he might say to Canada and her leaders “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” All of you (with one notable exception) came to this land for a better life, many fleeing persecution and war. What do you forfeit when you deny the same to others?

May God in Jesus continue to speak to every age and every people, and may we find the Risen Christ in everyone we meet, and everyone we seek to help. Amen.