Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

Romans 5
Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Imagine going to church four times a day for a week. With lectures in between. And 2,000 pastors by your side. With singing!

Of course, it’s the middle of May, so most of the pastors are tired, maybe a little cranky, and need the blessed assurance that can only come through going to church four times a day, for a week, with lecture in between.

Or beer. But that’s not the answer. So it’s church four times a day, for a week, with lectures in between. And all of this happens somewhere in America, with a church large enough for 2,000 pastors, surrounded by reasonably priced accommodation and reasonably priced food.

This time it was Atlanta, and the organizers of what one speaker described as “Woodstock for preachers” provide a theme and a slate of twenty or so presenters. Walter Brueggemann was there, and Anna Carter Florence, and Otis Moss III, famous for being Oprah’s pastor in South Chicago.

This year the theme was “Prophetic Preaching in Times of Change.” The theme was obviously set many months ago, but remarkably prescient in anticipating the surge of anger and fear that has dominated the body politic of our neighbours to the south.

And as Canadians looking in—there are usually a couple hundred of us, when the dollar isn’t too scary—as Canadians looking in we have the task of translating to our context or simply enjoying the ride. Yet many of the ideas expressed, and the occasional shout-out to Canada, remind us that we’re not as different as we like to think we are.

Of course Donald Trump came up. In the very first lecture, Leonard Pitts—Pulitzer Prize winning journalist with the Miami Herald—suggested this may be the angriest time in US history. With the middle class angriest of all—in a time that by almost every measure things are better than ever before. Trump, he argues, by displaying such “lavish anger” has tapped into something that is alive in the land.

And all this is happening in a country where the vast majority of the population claims to be Christian, a faith and tradition that still counts anger as a deadly sin. All this is happening in a country that claims to be “one nation under God” but has decided to follow the path of anger rather than grace.

And all that anger is very far from the foundational text Liana read this morning. St. Paul provides what amounts to a manifesto for the Christian life, when he writes his letter to the Romans:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Peace and grace through Christ, and an end to fear, knowing that we are reconciled to God through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. It’s a wonderful vision of new life in Christ, but it gets lost somehow when so many indulge in anger and fear.

So why all the anger and fear? What makes generally well-meaning and well-adjusted people give into the anger that fills the public conversation? Is it the persistence of the message? Or is it something deeper, more profound?

We know that change and a sense of loss that goes with change can manifest itself in fear and anger. So we can take the two leading slogans and test them against this hypothesis. A candidate claims that he wants to “make American great again” and we hear loss. Ironically, when said candidate was asked to name that time that American was great—the time that we might imitate—he couldn’t do it. His answer was “when I’m President.”

Or that other slogan, “time to take our country back,” again implying loss. If you’ve lost something, you try to take it back—that part seems clear. What’s less clear is ‘take it back from whom?’ So with an African-American in the White House, when a majority white movement starts saying ‘take our country back’ it begins to seem a little clearer what’s implied in the rhetoric.

Back in Atlanta, more than one speaker confronted some variation on this theme. Brueggemann addressed it head on when he said “take our country back” means taking back advantage, taking back the privilege that we think we’ve somehow lost. He spoke of the white, western advantage that many of us pastors in the audience enjoy, and then reminded us that the scriptures afford us no such advantage.

“God,” he said, “begins with advantage and then moves against advantage” as the story unfolds. We begin as God’s chosen people (advantage) but through disobedience find ourselves in exile (disadvantage). We imagine that we are somehow unique as followers of Christ (advantage) but then discover that “In Christ there is neither Jew not Greek, slave or free, male nor female (disadvantage). Even at Pentecost the Spirit creates the church in a rush of wind and flame (advantage) and then days later Peter has a vision and speaks saying:

“I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Acts 10.34-35)

So the task of the church, then, is to imagine what it would mean to live beyond advantage and recognize that disadvantage is more in line with the story of our faith. So, as an example, when someone forwards an email that complains about not being able to say “Merry Christmas” anymore, I’m going to look at in terms of loss of advantage. Of course the premise is wrong, since in a free society we are still free to say “Merry Christmas” until we’re blue in the face, but there is a sense that we lost the advantage of being in society where everyone was Christian and “Merry Christmas” was what everyone always said.

In other words, the church has moved from the centre of the nation to the edge of the nation and we sense loss. We moved from being the chosen institution that defined much of moral agenda of the nation, to what now feels like exile. We moved from being a so-called Christian nation to one where there is no favoritism—only the common good that binds us together.

And we can even go a step further, again with some help from our old friend Walter Brueggemann. In the lecture that followed his sermon he suggested that an excessive sense of chosenness will inevitably lead to violence, citing Joshua’s various campaigns as the Israelites entered the promised land. But he wasn’t finished. In another example of chosenness that leads to violence he said “is there anyone here from the Anglican Church of Canada? According to your own Truth and Reconciliation Commission, your denomination is guilty of having committed cultural genocide through running First Nations residential schools. Anglicans, in Canada.”

Those of us from the United Church were busy looking at our shoes, knowing that we too were found guilty. And so it is that when the church claims a place at the centre of society we tend to adopt whatever the government of the day wants rather than what God wants, an excessive sense of chosenness that led to violence.

I want to end with a story of giving up advantage, taking the first step toward reconciliation and new life. Few of us traveling to Sudbury in ’86 had a sense of the momentous decision before the court, or the extent to which offering that first apology to Canada’s First Nations would transform our denomination’s sense of itself.

And almost equally momentous was the process to get to the apology, for the Moderator and the other leaders suggested the decision be reached by consensus, rather than voting. Seems simple enough in theory, of course: take a group of people, discuss a matter at length, ask them throughout the day ‘can you live with this?‘ until everyone is on side.

It made perfect sense to begin this journey of reconciliation with a decision-making method given to church by the very people that we were seeking to apologize to, and it displayed remarkable optimism to imagine it could be done with 350 people in the room.

By the end of a very long day, a long day of the Moderator asking and re-asking if the Commissioners could live with the decision, there were only three holdouts, three of 350 who couldn’t get there by consensus and couldn’t let go. The court moved to a vote, and it was at that moment that our First Nations sisters and brothers decided to leave the meeting, and leave Commissioners to the up or down vote that comes when consensus fails.

All stood as our friends left, and in the silence and the sadness of that moment, someone—off in the corner of the room—started to hum “Amazing Grace.” One by one others joined in—humming and not singing—until the sound filled the room. Commissioners voted through tears to make an apology.

That day we began to give up advantage in favour of God’s amazing grace. We moved against advantage and tried on humility instead. And for us, and others, it was the beginning of new life, in Christ. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Psalm 139
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

If you have elaborate travel plans for the summer, try to stay within the law. I give you this advice because your Canadian habit of seeking out a good lawyer won’t work in other countries.

So in the UK, for example, you’ll need a solicitor. They’ll get things straightened out, unless you end up in court, and then you’ll need a barrister. In South Africa, you’ll need an attorney, which is the same as an English solicitor, but not a barrister. In the United States, an attorney is more-or-less both, yet may choose to call themselves a lawyer. But watch out, because in the US anyone who graduates from law school is considered a lawyer and may not belong to the bar, and therefore cannot represent you—but they can still give you advice. In Ireland, you’ll need a counsellor, but only after you’ve seen a solicitor.

And just to add another layer to the confusion, in much of Europe you should seek out an advocate, which generally means someone to stand in for you, but it’s an actual class of lawyer. Curiously, becoming an advocate in Scotland is called devilling, which only seems to play into the stereotype.

Best advice: stay out of trouble, it’s just too confusing.

Pondering all this, listen again to the words Barbara shared from John 14: “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” This is part of the rationale of Pentecost, the background that explains what the wind and flame and tongues seek to achieve.

So the first task of the Spirit is to teach. The Spirit can show us things and direct us to things that will aid us in learning. For St. Paul, it was dramatic—literally a road to Damascus experience that changed everything. For Peter the Spirit speaks through a dream, the things that God creates cannot be considered unclean. For Mary, the Spirit magnified her soul, and gave her a vision of a world made new through the child within her.

So the first task of the Spirit is to teach. The next task is to recall, to remind us of everything Jesus said and did in is time on earth. This begins, of course, with the disciples who call to mind the words and events and pass them on to the evangelists. The evangelists—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John—record them for us even as they acknowledge that this record in incomplete. At the end of his Gospel John says:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

And so implied in these words is the third task of the Spirit: to generate new meaning. Just as the unrecorded deeds of Jesus could fill endless volumes of scripture, the Spirit takes the scripture we do have and generates new understandings and new meaning for every time and place. This “generative capacity” is a gift of the Spirit, revealing truth through each page.

Just as an aside, there is a phenomenon that most preachers will describe, whereby someone during the week may say something like “on Sunday, you said...” What’s curious about this phenomenon is that often the words recalled didn’t actually pass the preacher’s lips: they simply arrived at the ears of the person recounting the words. This too is part of the generative capacity of scripture and the Word proclaimed in worship. The Spirit can speak quite apart from whatever words we share.

So the Spirit is teaching us, helping us remember, and generating new meaning. That’s a lot, but it only begins to describe the work of the Holy Spirit. Next, we need to look at John 14 once more. Jesus said:

“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.

This seems closer to the meaning of advocate that we began with. Jesus gave us a specific set of instructions (at this moment simply “keep my commands”) and acted as an advocate as we tried to follow. And what does an advocate do? Offers advice (“love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind and soul”), provides a way forward (“love your neighbour as yourself”) and a way to maintain all that he has given us (“feed my sheep”).

Jesus the advocate argues that the Kingdom of God includes tax collectors and sinners, the sick, those possessed by demons and the those crucified by his side. It belongs to the least and the last and even those of us reading centuries on who fit in all or none of these categories.

So sending “another advocate” means that the Spirit is doing everything Jesus did in life, everything that we expect, having spent time with Jesus in the scriptures. But my sense is that this vision of another advocate may be too small, and we need to look father afield to truly understand this role of advocate. And the farther afield was also in the words Barbara shared this morning, from Psalm 139:

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.

This advocate is tireless, seeking us in all the places we find ourselves. From highest heaven to the depths of Sheol, the Spirit is seeking us yet. To the ends of the earth and everywhere in between, the Spirit searches. Even when we run and hide—if only from ourselves—the Spirit is searching for us. The Spirit as advocate will not leave us, but stand by our side.

And at the last, when human living begins to resemble a courtroom drama, we will still have an advocate standing by our side.

And as every argument is met with an equal and compelling counter-argument, the advocate is still beside us.

And as the evidence mounts and direction of our case seems hopeless, the advocate will hang in to the end.

And when the conviction is finally rendered, and the world has found against us, the most remarkable thing will happen: the advocate, the one who has stood beside us all this time will take our place, and pay the penalty that belongs to us.

From teaching to recalling to generating new meaning, and even following us to the end of the earth, our advocate completes the sentence that allows us to remain free—free to love and serve others, free to seek justice and resist evil, and free to proclaim Jesus—crucified and risen. May the advocate remain by our side, now and always. Amen.