Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 7
36 When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii,[c] and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It was perhaps the greatest collection of European art ever assembled in Britain.

The collection was acquired by Sir Peter Walpole, first Prime Minister of Great Britain, and proudly displayed at Houghton Hall, a house—it is said—that was purpose built to show the collection. If you can picture Buckingham Palace, Houghton Hall is a smaller version, built 120 years earlier.

The problem with great houses, of course, is they need to be maintained. And since the wealthy American heiress had yet to be invented (sorry Downton Abbey fans), Sir Peter’s grandson came up with another idea. He offered the collection—paintings by Van Dyck, Rubins, Rembrandt—to the nation, in a effort to save the house. The nation refused, and in stepped Catherine the Great, Czarina of Russia, with £40,550.

206 works traveled to the St. Petersburg, never to return. Catherine’s bid to make Russia more European got a handy boost, and the Walpole’s bought themselves a few more years at home. Briatain’s loss was Russia’s gain.

I share this sorry tale because among the paintings was one entitled “Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee” by Peter Paul Rubins. Painted around 1620, it shows a table surrounded by various characters—the woman at Jesus’ feet in the foreground, Jesus and three disciples at the right, and a number of Pharisees at the left, with servers and others behind. There is a strange central figure who seems to have traveled into the painting from 17th century Flanders, maybe the painter or someone he knows. The Hermitage describes the scene thus:

“the left side of the composition, occupied by Simon the Pharisee, is full of swirling movement and is marked by the uneven rhythm of small, broken forms; the right side, dominated by the figure of Christ, is composed of calm lines and large areas of colour.”

Seems an apt description, with Jesus gesturing toward to young woman, clearing pronouncing the lesson of the passage: “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”

Now, curators in large Russian museums are not expected to be theologians, but that didn’t stop the author of the painting’s summary from trying to explain the meaning behind the painting. Just after describing the structure of the composition we get this:

“Rubens conceives the painting as a dramatic conflict between the Pharisees and Christ. The Pharisees' world of material values and religious dogmatism is opposed to the Christian world of sublime ideas and noble acts, a world of sympathy, charity and goodness.”*

Well, we’ll give them an E for effort. The painting does give us a snapshot of Jesus confronting “religious dogmatism,” an abiding passion of Jesus, but I’m going to draw the line at “sublime ideas and noble acts” and I’ll tell you why: the parable.

A parable, as told by Jesus, is always about life in the Kingdom. The unspoken (or sometimes spoken) lesson is ‘the Kingdom of God is like...” But there is more. Parables describe a small fictional world created for the sake of the parable—which then sours—and a new world is described. Sometimes the lesson is self-evident, and sometimes—like this parable—it’s resolve in dialogue.

So Jesus creates a world, usually one that we can relate to easily. In this case, really easily: “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.” Think Cash Money and their stupid payday loan mascot seemingly named Cash-a-Roo. But we know payday loans are evil and not at all cute and friendly.

So the parable creates a world, which then sours: “Neither of them had the money to pay him back.” We think we know this will end badly, until the twist: “so he forgave the debts of both.”

Now this is one of those parables resolved in dialogue, so Jesus poses a question: “Now which of them will love him more?”

Simon [the Pharisee] replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.

And then we get the lengthy contrast between the woman and Simon the Pharisee.

Now, the tricky thing about parables is they are for us, and our job is locate ourselves in the story. Are you the older brother, the prodigal or the father who forgives? When we hear it, we are supposed to enter the story and find our character, and it’s most often an “ouch.”

So with the Parable of the Two Debtors we need to locate ourselves in the parable. Are we the ones with more to forgive, or less? I’m gonna give you a minute. Of course, as good church folk, we are the ones with less debt to forgive—after all, we’re good church folk. So do we love less, having been forgiven less? But wait, it gets worse.

In the stock characters found in the Bible, we can usually find ourselves. So when the disciples are being foolish, say arguing about who is the greatest, we see ourselves. When the disciples are being passive, and Jesus is taking on religious elites such as the Pharisees, we see ourselves. Don’t think you’re not the religious elite, because you’re good church folk.

Loving God less because we have less to forgive. Hey, Jesus, that hurts. We love you God, we truly do, but you seem to think the broken and the sad and the sinful love you more.

“Now which of them will love him more?”
“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”

“Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.”

Christianity is less about “sublime ideas and noble acts” and more about redeemed sinners. It is about locating ourselves in the parables and then accepting the forgiveness we need. It is about overcoming our desire to be ‘good church folk’ and recognizing that we are in need of forgiveness as much as that remarkable woman at Jesus’ feet. It is about being convicted at the very moment we are released.

Soon we will gather near the table, where the bigger debt is forgiven, and the love we feel is shown. We gather in mutual need, where bread is broken and wine is poured, and we are reconciled to the God who never stops loving, amen.


Sunday, June 05, 2016

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 1
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. 12 I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.
13 For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. 17 I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas[b] and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.
21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me.

Summer movie season will soon be upon us, and I think it’s important to understand the difference between a remake, a reboot, a sequel, and a homage.

Starting with the most simple, there is the humble sequel. If the title has two in it, or any other number bordering the absurd that Hollywood will go to milk a franchise, there is a good bet it’s a sequel. Sequels continue the story. The rule of thumb is that unless its The Godfather, Part II (1974), sequels are dreadful.

A remake is a little trickier. The Italian Job (2003) is a remake of The Italian Job (1969), minus the charm, intelligence, an talent of the original. It’s an abomination and we’ll never speak of it again. Good remakes include Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and No Way Out (1987).

A reboot is relatively recent phenomenon, where you take an existing movie franchise and give it new life. For Star Trek (2009) this means recasting the original characters and retelling the beginning of the story. With Casino Royale (2006) we get a new, angrier Bond revealing the beginning of his career. This is not to be confused with Casino Royale (1967), a brilliant comedy that Time called ‘incoherent and vulgar.’

A homage is more of a cinematic device, where the director will create a scene reminiscent of a scene in a classic film. The first scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) looks a lot like the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan (1998) which looks a lot like any number of classic Second World War movies.

You could argue that all of The Force Awakens is a homage to A New Hope (1977) and I wouldn’t disagree. Unless you think it’s pastiche (an imitation that celebrates a previous work), but that’s a longer conversation. See me at the picnic.

I share all this because St. Paul is describing himself in such a way that it’s hard not to think of Moses. Is he a remake, reboot, homage? Is this pastiche? Let’s take a look.

First, a word about Galatians. Paul is writing around 50 CE, to churches in the region of Galacia, the exact location of these churches being a bit of a mystery to scholars. His overall theme is conversion, and the way in which Gentiles join what was a church made up mostly Jewish Christians. Did Gentiles need to follow the law to become Christian, and did they need to be circumcised? The temptation to say something clever at this moment is strong, but I will resist. See me at the picnic.

But first, Paul recalls his story, and we hear some familiar ideas. He begins with the point he most wants to make, that he did not receive the Gospel from ‘human hands.’ He wasn’t taught it, he didn’t receive from anyone—it was revealed to him by Christ Jesus. He confesses he tried to destroy the church, and in doing so bolster his own tradition.

He continues the same theme: “But when God...was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being.” Instead of Jerusalem, he went to Arabia, and stayed there some three years. He finally went to the Holy City, but even then he only met two apostles. Soon he was on the road again, and as he entered new cities he was embraced, the former persecutor now ‘preaching the faith he sought to destroy.‘ The rest is history.

So what about the Prince of Egypt? In spite of his carefully hidden heritage, he persecutes the Hebrews insofar as he grows up at the top of an slave owning dynasty. Like Paul he is true to his class and clan, until he is not. Rather than being blinded in a flash of light, Moses has a flash of anger and kills a particularly cruel taskmaster, his own road to Damascus experience.

Like Paul, Moses must flee. Paul must flee an angry mob in Damascus, unhappy with this conversion, and is lowered in basket in the night to escape. Moses is a suddenly a wanted man, and must flee from Egypt and find refuge in the wilderness of Midian. Moses’ own basket is much earlier in the narrative.

Both men encounter God in the supernatural. For Paul it’s a flash of light and a question: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Moses gets the inverse, “Moses, Moses, I have heard the cries of my people, persecuted by the slave drivers of Egypt.” Both are in exile (Paul three years and Moses forty) and in that time they live with God, and learn the ways of God.

And this is perhaps the most important parallel in our homage—neither submitted to instruction, neither received from the hands of another—both gained faith though a direct encounter with the living God. And both come to God with the same foundational question, as the tutorial begins. Paul is knocked down, and his first question is “Who are you, Lord?” Likewise, Moses is facing the bush that burns but is not consumed and the voice that has enlisted him and he says:
“Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

In effect it’s one and the same. Moses hears “I am has sent you” and Paul hears “I am Jesus, the one whom you are persecuting.” The great I AM continues to speak.

So, is it a sequel, Exodus 2: I AM Returns? Sequels continue the narrative, and the liberation that Moses leads is the same liberation the Paul reveals in Jesus, where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female. Moses leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land where they become free people, and Paul picks up the theme in Galatians 5:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Is it a remake or a reboot? Moses shares the law, revealed to him at Mt. Sinai and described in various forms. There is the Covenant Code, including the Ten Commandments, and still more revealed in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. And as we just heard, Paul thinks the whole of the law is fulfilled when we love our neighbours as ourselves. Any good remake will share the same values as the original while updating the story for contemporary times.

Is it a homage, or the more sophisticated pastiche, that imitation that celebrates the original? It is insofar as it credits God with the power to transform. Human activity can help God, particularly as the law is kept and the neighbour is honoured, but the theme of both stories is the unequalled power of God is disrupt our lives when we least expect it.

And it happens in many ways. Paul and Moses show us two, and together they give us and range of possibilities for encountering God. For Paul, the act of being thrown to the ground, either on foot or the decidedly more thrown-from-a-horse is a prototype for many. Many report having a well-planned life only to be confronted by God. Sometimes it’s an urge to turn away from something, but more often it’s a case of “that’s a nice plan, but this is what I really had in mind for you...”

For Moses, it’s a less dramatic encounter, in the context of more dramatic circumstances. Moses must draw near to God, seek out the bush that burns but is not consumed, and only then does the partnership begin. Moses must do something to bring about the conversion, he must open himself to the miraculous nature of this God. There is no question God is busy disrupting his otherwise happy life in Midian, but he has a role.

Both describe sudden disruption: one in a flash of light and one in a burning bush. Both take people out of themselves into the life of God. Both seek to save others, to bring a message of new life to those who need it most. And both continue to remain open to this miraculous God, open to the transmission of the Word, open to share, and open to the next thing God intends to do for us. May the disruption continue, now and always, amen.