Sunday, October 25, 2015

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 7
23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely[a] those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.
26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.

Colourful stacks of signs are back in basements and garages. Campaign “literature” has been recycled, ballots are packed away to be sent to Ottawa, where they are securely stored for 10 years (which must resemble the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark).

And we live with the results. Some are elated, some disappointed, some already planning for next time. In every case, we live happily in the knowledge that transitions happen peacefully in Canada, governments come and go, and in the end we remain ‘glorious and free.’

Elections are tricky business in the church. As a charity, we are limited by CRA rules and cannot been seen as partisan or overly political in our work. On one level this is absurd, since politics is concerned with the well-being of citizens, clearly something we care about. Even Aristotle described the practical science of politics as dedicated to noble action and the happiness of the people—again, something we share.

And since the earliest days of the United Church, we have had a foot in the political realm. Think of Stanley Knowles, David MacDonald, and until recently Bill Blaikie—ministers who served in parliament with the blessing of the church. This time around, my friend and colleague Rob Oliphant was elected, and I know there are others who failed in the attempt.

Even the Manual, the document that governs the church, has a section dedicated to what happens when your minister becomes a Member of Parliament. But don’t worry, I’m far too shy for politics, and besides, I’ve voted for a variety of parties through the years, which is poison to most partisans.

So we preach values instead. Almost all of our outreach at Central is focused on an anti-poverty agenda: two drop-ins, an apartment building, and support for the food bank. Some is charitable and some is more transformational, and all consistent with the compassionate way of Jesus Christ. Are we political? Yes and no. We colour inside the lines, but we are engaged in noble action for the happiness of others.

So what about politics in the Bible? Funny you should ask. The author of Hebrews spends the seventh chapter looking at the contrast between the High Priest of Israel and Jesus Christ, appointed as our high priest. It is a simple enough argument: the office has been transformed from one realm to another, and we (as Christians) can take heart that the key task of the High Priest (reconciliation with God) has now happened once and for all.

But this requires a deeper look, both because it is perilously close to an anti-Judaic argument, and because it assumes we understand the practice of atonement. But before we look at these things, we should take a look at the office of High Priest of Israel.

If we focus on the Second Temple period, the time between the return from exile to the destruction of the Temple (70CE), the office of High Priest looks vaguely familiar to moderns. Of course the role evolves over time, and the relationship between the High Priest and the Sanhedrin remains unclear, but the parallel to a Prime Minister would be close.

In the absence of a king, various foreign powers allowed Jews in Israel to largely govern themselves, with overlordship remaining in Babylon or Rome, and the day to day business of civil administration falling to locals. There were governors, of course, but they had concerns outside legal matters, local politics and the civic religion that ensured well-being. These fell to the Sanhedrin and the High Priest.

There is even some evidence that the High Priest was occasionally elected, with required attributes that seem strangely contemporary. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, “the high priest was expected to be superior to all other priests in physique, in wisdom, in dignity, and in material wealth.” Justin, is that you?

And all of this served the ultimate task of the High Priest, which was representing the people in the act of atonement, making the sacrifice that would symbolically reconcile to people to God. This happened on an ongoing basis, of course, but primarily on the Day of Atonement when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies and atone for the sins of the people. And being that only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies, a rope was tied around his waist, so he could be pulled out if he fainted or died in the inner sanctum.

So it had an administrative role (along with the Sanhedrin) and a public role on important days such as the Day of Atonement. Again, this seems oddly familiar, with our leaders performing a similar public role. Think of the Prime Minister making the occasional (and rare) apology on behalf of Canadians, or President Obama flying to the scene of the latest mass shooting and expressing regret in behalf of his fellow Americans.

But the clearest parallel for today, thanks to the author of Hebrews, is Jesus the new high priest. Now, care must be taken when we preach about Jesus assuming the role and function of a post that continued to exist through the New Testament period, and continues down to today in a highly modified form. Israel continues to have a Chief Rabbi (two, in fact, one Sephardi and one Ashkenasi) as does every country with a large Jewish community.

So when we speak of Jesus replacing the High Priest of Israel, we speak in metaphor, not a literal replacement, but a substitution that is truthful for us as Christians. And today, being Reformation Sunday, the image of Jesus as high priest is more important that ever.

The author Hebrews begins in a pastoral mode: High Priests come and go, but we have a high priest who is eternal, and eternally interceding on our behalf: “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”

“He is able to save completely those who come to God through him...” Already Martin Luther is smiling. The great reformer, only a week away from the 498th anniversary of nailing his ideas to the door of the church in Wittenberg, would be the first to remind us that only Jesus can save. This, of course, seems obvious—only God through Jesus can save us—until we look at the glaring alternative: our unending desire to save ourselves.

We continue, in spite of all the available evidence, to believe that we can control our destiny, and in particular our ultimate destiny, by living the right way. But Luther and the author of Hebrews say “No!” We are saved through faith alone, and all the good works, all the Sundays sitting on our conveniently padded pews, all the strict adherence to the law of God will not save you. Your salvation is freely given, you can’t earn it. You can make a grateful response to God’s mercy, but you can’t earn it.

Let’s listen again to the author of Hebrews:

Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

The cross is the intersection between our sin and God’s desire to save. Hebrews reminds us that Jesus’ death was more than simply state-sanctioned terror, more than brutal execution at the hands on an occupying force, it was the moment at which the sacrifice of one was transformed into the sacrifice for all. Somehow, in the mystery of that moment, we were reconciled to God for all time.

Over the next days and months, listen to the language of political transition. There will be potential messiahs, names floated as potential saviors of this or that party. There will be recrimination and there will be blame. And there will be scapegoats, those who are sacrificed for their sins and for the good of the whole. Through it all, be reminded that the most primitive impulses remain among us, even if they too remain in the realm of metaphor.

But we in the church—in the world but not of the world—can call to mind our high priest, he “who sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself.” He didn’t seek high office, but took the cross instead, that we were saved and saved from ourselves—free to love and serve others in the name of the Most High. Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is[b] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?”
27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

It is most often summarized as “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.” (What is Murphy’s Law?)

In large organizations, “Employees tend rise to their level of incompetence and stay there.” (What is the Peter Principle?)

It has been noted that “behind every restructuring proposal is a personnel problem.” (This one is a little unfair, since I invented Michael’s First Law. See me after for Michael’s Second Law.)

Finally, one from the internet age: "As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one." (What is Godwin’s Law, coined by Mike Godwin way back in 1990!)

And then, of course, there is Jesus’ Law: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Is this Jesus’ Law? I’ll come back to that question in a moment, but first, the reaction of the disciples. According to Mark, the disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” You almost expect them to start suggesting names, maybe rich people who were particularly good, or righteous.

Even in theology we ask this question, but usually in the reverse, and usually while proving Godwin’s Law. The conversation often goes something like this:

One: “Who then can be saved?”
Two: “God’s capacity to forgive is infinite.”
One: “Really, what about Hitler?”

And then the conversation ends. Except when the conversation is between Jesus and his disciples. Then the answer: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Maybe this is Jesus’ Law: “With God all things are possible.” Certainly it lets the rich off the hook, which in this case, is everyone of us. Just now a smirking camel is looking at you (in your mind’s eye) while you do a wealth self-assessment. “Am I rich?” you ask yourself, thinking “I’m overdrawn at the bank, my cards are maxed out, I have a mortgage...I’m not rich. Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet: those guys should heed the smirking camel.”

Okay, that’s enough interior monologue—I’m trying to preach here. The answer to the question “Am I rich?” has already been answered, in Mark 10.26: “The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, ‘Who then can be saved?’” The disciples heard the law about the rich and camels and they imagined everyone they knew, including themselves.

Incredible, really. The disciples were mostly fishermen, the maritime equivalent of a subsistence farmer. They caught what they could to feed their families—maybe their extended clan—and if there was anything left over, it might be sold. Even St. Matthew, disciple and former tax collector may not have had money, since tax collectors depended on their ability to extort money in excess of what was owed to Rome. If you were a kindly tax collector, you may have starved.

According to the disciples then, we’re all rich. Not “you’re richer than you think,” like some bank slogan, but we’re all rich when we compare ourselves to the poorest of the poor. Globally, about 20% of people live in ‘absolute poverty,’ meaning they live on less that $1.25 per day. That’s a billion and a half people largely without basic human needs: food, water, healthcare, education, and proper shelter.

So when Jesus said ‘the poor you will always have with you,’ he meant those living in absolute poverty, present in the first-century and present today. Even in Canada, nearly a million children live in poverty, something the federal government pledged to solve way back in 1990. Twenty-five years on, and in the midst of a three-month election campaign, the topic goes unmentioned.

So while I’m trying to prove a point, I’m busy disproving a point. When the disciples said “Who then can be saved” they were not thinking of the latest numbers from UNICEF or the World Bank, they were thinking of themselves. Well off enough to wonder about getting through the eye of the needle and wise enough to avoid making excuses or comparisons. They understood that everyone with a dollar would rather have two and that everyone with two dollars is likely judging the person with only one.

So they ask: “Who then can be saved.” And the answer? Potentially everyone, because with God all things are possible. And why is this Jesus’ Law and not the one about the camel? Because “what Gods says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived.”*

You might argue that this law, this pronouncement that with God all things are possible is the moment of grace in the passage Barbara read, but I think this requires a deeper look. The passage is rife with it, even in the midst of this conversation about camels and needles.

It begins when a rich young man approaches Jesus, falls to his knees, and says “Good teacher—what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Without pausing Jesus replies “why do you call me good? No one is good—except God alone.” So there it is, barely ten seconds into the conversation, and we receive grace: “No one is good—except God alone.” Stop your striving for perfection, stop your worry that somehow you are not good enough. Only God is good, allowing us to accept ourselves and accept others. We could spend the whole day on this conversational snippet alone, but the turkey is in the oven and there is more grace to find.

With this first lesson over, the Teacher continues: “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” I wish we had more time to explore this list, and what my learned partner would call “rewritten Bible.” I will note that Jesus only mentions five commandments and adds one of his own, meaning that a careless person might suddenly think it’s okay to take the Lord’s name in vain while you covet graven images of your neighbours other gods on the sabbath. Come on Jesus, be more precise!

Of course, the rich young man has kept these commandments since he was a boy, even the ones Jesus neglected to mention. And after he made this point, we get Mark’s description of the scene: “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ Jesus then said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’”

The rich young man couldn’t do this, of course, and I’m certain Jesus knew this already. With a God-like understanding of human nature, Jesus knew what we observed a moment ago: everyone with a dollar would rather have two and that everyone with two dollars is likely judging the person with only one.

But did you see what Mark observed, so subtle and so easily missed? Just before Jesus gave his prescription to this rich youngster, Mark said that Jesus “looked at him and loved him.” Let’s ponder that. What does that look like? If you ever begin to lose your faith in love, go to the arrivals section at Pearson. Watch as the opaque doors slide open and people emerge, and watch the reaction of the people who love them that are waiting on the outside. Now imagine Jesus loving this rich young person even when Jesus knew that he would cling to all he had—that’s grace.

This is not love based on the proper outcome—remember, only God is good. This is love based on the reality that Wm. Countryman so wonderfully described: “What Gods says to you in Jesus is this: You are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

*Wm. Countryman, Good News of Jesus, p. 1.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10
13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Apparently this sermon should write itself.

We’re talking about receiving the kingdom of God like a little child, so we make lists: Kids are open, kids are fun, kids forgive their parents foolishness and so on. ‘Be more like kids,” I’m supposed to say, then it’s off to lunch. Even a child could write such a sermon.

But that would be too easy. And the hot dogs aren’t ready, so we carry on. And someone might need time to raise a counter-point, get a little debate going. Not the five podiums and awkward translation kind of debate, but a look at passages that speak to our passage to find out what the Bible has to say to the Bible.

First, to recap: Jesus said “Let the little children come to me” (I actually prefer the KJV Jesus who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me”) ‘and don’t stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them.‘ And just to underline the point, he goes a step further, saying “Truly I tell you, unless you receive the kingdom like a little child, you will not be able to enter it.”

The kingdom belongs to children and unless you are child-like you cannot enter the kingdom. That’s Mark 10, and Matthew 19, and Luke 18. It’s all over the first three Gospels, though it does’t appear in John. John’s prologue says that those who welcome the light of the world become children of God, but there’s no story of embracing a little child.

Beginning, then, with rule that unless you are child-like you cannot enter the kingdom, we turn to St. Paul. And if you’ve ever attended a wedding, you may already know Paul’s counter-point to becoming like a child: “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Good word, spake. That’s five letters and 11 points for you Scrabble players.

So Paul is putting away childish things, to peer through a glass, darkly—and ponder the mystery of God. He seems to equate over-confidence in faith as somehow child-like, and worth discouraging. Instead, we ought to wait for the mysteries of God to be revealed in eternity, and put aside foolish over-confidence.

A chapter later, Paul picks up the topic once more, and seems to modify his stance: “Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults” (1 Corinthians 14:20). In other words, approach evil with child-like innocence, but in all other situations, think like adults. This seems to fit with the “shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” theme that Jesus develops in Matthew, but it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding his kingdom command.

Finally, in 1 Peter 2, we may have the answer. The author picks up this discussion and adds this bit of advice: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” Perhaps, then, we enter the kingdom like newborns, and only then do we grow into mature spiritual beings. If we follow 1 Peter, being child-like is not the terminal destination, only the only starting point for entering the kingdom.

In other words, the sermon won’t write itself. You can’t simply point to kid and say ‘everything we treasure about her is your ticket to the kingdom—here, let me make a list.’ Describing the pure, spiritual milk of human kindness might be a staring point, but the scriptural record suggests that we then mature into something more. And since our goal here is to understand Jesus before we disagree with Jesus, we need to explore further.

Maybe we should look at this idea of spiritual development, and then be able to blend the need to be child-like and the need to grow in the faith. I might begin with the work of Ram Dass, and a helpful metaphor he shared to describe our spiritual development. He argues that we all view the world through various levels of reality or “planes of consciousness.” And to get at the idea of people seeing the world through levels of reality, he uses the simple metaphor of television. He describes the channels we receive, and begins with the one or two that all of us get:

We all receive channel one. It is the view we begin with as babies, seeing the physical make-up of the people around us (young, old, light, dark, male, and female). As adults we still possess this channel and still view it with comfort.

On channel two we view the social world around us. We begin by placing our family of origin into the categories of father, mother, sibling and what these titles mean in terms of social interaction. Later we see other categories like teacher or doctor, blue collar/white collar and so on. Finally, this channel allows us to view psychological attributes like happy, sad, angry or afraid. Add to the list affiliations such as conservative or liberal, and we begin to see why this is the most watched channel and why so many people are stuck on two channels.

Channel three is little known and seldom watched. It is about the myths and roles we place on ourselves and how we understand others. If you are aware that someone is struggling because they are trying to live up to ideal they have placed on themselves then you are watching channel three. This channel asks the "why" question and tries to understand behavior as part of a larger pattern.

The fourth channel is the place where we view the people around us and we no longer see differences but only similarities. We embrace our common humanity and the connection between all people through the Spirit. We only get glimpses of this channel and some have never seen it. (Sharp, p.74)

So Ram Dass—on the surface at least—seems to be making the opposite argument to entering the kingdom as a little child. He is arguing that we begin with an awareness of human physicality and nothing more, and only later we discover non-physical attributes (role and identity) and finally some context. And having mastered all that, if we are really fortunate, we may enter the territory of mystics and seers and find the common humanity that can only be described as the kingdom of God.

And just because I love spiritual biographies, I will share one that fits our metaphor perfectly, the ‘conversion’ of Thomas Merton. Merton was the Roman Catholic monk who almost singlehandedly reintroduced mystic spirituality to North America, and he did it from a small cabin in rural Kentucky. And his conversion, like the best spiritual biographies, comes with a time and a place.

On March 18, 1958, Thomas Merton went into the city from his monastic home to do a little shopping. He wrote these words: “In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”

It was at this moment that he resolved to re-engage with the world beyond his monastery, and work for peace. He confessed that he had come to regard himself as a different sort of being from others, also a ‘pseudo-angel’ in his monastic life. But through his Fourth and Walnut experience he discovered his common humanity with others, and some might argue moved from mystic to saint.

So back to Ram Dass and his television metaphor, he describes the ‘little children’ that Jesus lifts up as little more than observers of the physical world (young/old, light/dark) and nothing else. But what he fails to note is what children do not see—and that would be the things that divide.

If you have a small child at Sunday dinner, try to guess what they think of the people at the table who oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, deficit spending or cap-and-trade. You won’t be able to guess, because like mystics and seers, little children see only people and their common humanity, not titles or roles. In effect, there is a great circle where we begin life literally unable to discriminate, we travel through a life of categories and bias, hopefully to come to some context and maybe—just maybe—a child-like sense that all-are-one.

And as I mentioned last week—in a completely non-partisan way—that some will seek to divide us, and encourage us to regard others with suspicion and fear, but we ought to look at children instead. We ought to imagine a time when distinctions didn’t matter, didn’t even occur to us, and claim our place in the kingdom of God. Amen.