Sunday, January 29, 2017

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 5
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them. He said:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

He won so many honours in his lifetime that Wikipedia has a separate (and lengthy) page to record them. Beginning with a state funeral in St. Paul’s (usually reserved for royals) and including the offer of a dukedom, numerous orders and medals from his native UK and countries around the world, and even the Nobel Prize for Literature, you’d think that Sir Winston Churchill would have shown great promise as a child.

Well, here is a quote from his fifth grade report card:

General conduct is "very bad—is a constant trouble to everybody and is always in some scrape or another. He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere."

I’d say that’s a good thing, considering everything he would do later on. Still, it wasn’t a very promising start.

Focusing on just one of those honours, the Nobel Prize—he received it for his many books but also his speeches. And one in particular stands out, and comes with an interesting backstory. You know it:

"We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."

Historians and linguists have studied these words and concluded that he intentionally chose simple “stirring words”[1] that were all Anglo-Saxon in origin except one—a French word—surrender.

This was not meant as a slight to our French allies, just an important bit of contrast, the strong and nearly primeval Old English words that describe what we’ll do and the lone foreign word that describes what we won’t do. It’s a remarkable bit of oratory, and the exact opposite of our passage today:

Blessed are the poor in spirit...
Blessed are those who mourn...
Blessed are the meek...
Blessed are the merciful...
Blessed are the pure in heart...
Blessed are the peacemakers...
Blessed are those who are persecuted...

I make this observation not to discredit one speech and lift up another, but to highlight that the same rhetorical strategy is at work in both: developing a theme and presenting to in a way that is consistent with that theme.
Want to motivate people to strength? Name the fight in every location familiar to us, places named since before our collective memory began. What to motivate people to weakness? Name every movement and collection of people that we associate with weakness.

And Jesus does. He develops his ‘manifesto of weakness’ and names those ‘blessed of God’—those who have a special place in the Kingdom. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but before I do we need to single out part of the passage for special note. The last verses that Jenny shared we appended to this passage because in Matthew’s mind it was a perfect fit:

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

This will some day be true, but not yet. Matthew is describing the early church around the time he is writing, maybe 60 or 70 of the Common Era. Early Jesus followers were being insulted and persecuted like the prophets before them, but not at the moment Jesus was speaking on the mount.

The other clue is that in the first part of the passage everyone listed as blessed is doing something (mourning, being meek, or merciful) and everyone in the latter part of the passage is having something done to them—being insulted, persecuted, and so on. So we’ll set these words aside for a time—at least until after Easter—and focus on this ‘manifesto of weakness’ instead.

John Dominic Crossan, a theologian who never minces words, famously called Jesus’ first followers a ‘kingdom of nuisances and nobodies.’ He (correctly) points out that the movement begins among the least powerful in Roman society: slaves, ex-slaves, women, and those who aspired to become a better sort of peasant—a goal that was harder to achieve than we might imagine.

In fact, Jesus might have saved some time if he began and ended with just one clause in his manifesto: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” It’s blessing and hope, blessing and the promise of what’s to come—not some heavenly reward—but the sincere conviction the meek will some day displace the powerful. But that’s jumping ahead.

First, we need to study the crowd and see who’s there. Yes, there is Dom Crossan’s crew, the least and the last of the Near-East. But there was also the poor in spirit, those who were hungering for meaning beyond the letter of the law. There were those in mourning—always so many in mourning—when life was truly nasty, brutish and short.

And, of course, there was those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This one’s interesting, since we hear these words and think activists, those who seek justice for others. There may have been a handful in the crowd that day, but the majority who hungered and thirsted were seeking it for themselves—relief from an over-zealous tax collector or a bad neighbour, or anyone who stepped over others to save themselves. In survival mode, this could mean almost anyone. You could almost reorder them and put those persecuted here—again, this could mean almost anyone.

Continuing on with the idea that these blessed were actively doing something, we get three groups that are weak for others: the merciful, the pure at heart, and the peacemakers. There are busy tending to others, setting aside part of their field for the gleaners, settling disputes between neighbours. Their version of weakness means living for others before themselves, when the easiest (and safest) course is to not get involved. They court danger while they receive their blessing.

Why is this still relevant today? Why celebrate weakness when it’s so much easier to celebrate things like Churchillian strength? Ironically, Churchill’s call was more to sacrifice than strength. He was urging people to fight and defend what mattered most—homes, families and a way of life. So not actually that far removed from Jesus’ call to weakness.

It is relevant today because we have reentered a time when some preach a gospel of strength, where compromise and negotiation are dirty words, where winning and overcoming others is more important that helping everyone succeed. We are entering a world where nation-states are being called to compete rather than cooperate to further the human project. It tries to hide behind the strength of a Churchill or a Reagan, but it’s really about a diminished psyche and a lack of any real compassion.


Another towering figure of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi, was once asked what he thought of Western Civilization and he famously answered “I think it would be a good idea.” On another occasion he was set to meet the king at Buckingham Palace and Winston Churchill made it known that he was uneasy about Gandhi appearing in only his homespun loincloth. Later he was asked if he thought his attire was proper, Gandhi said “the king had enough [clothing on] for both of us.”

When writer Louis Fischer visited Gandhi's ashram in 1942, he noticed a picture of Jesus on the wall—the only wall decoration around—with the caption, "He is our peace."
"But you are not a Christian," he said to Gandhi.
"I am a Christian and a Hindu and a Muslim and a Jew," Gandhi answered.
"Then you are a better Christian than most Christians," Fischer thought to himself. [2]

He was a scholar of the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu scriptures, but he also mediated on the Sermon on the Mount. “Christ’s Sermon on the Mount fills me with bliss even today” he said. “Its sweet verses have even today the power to quench my agony of soul.”

Today we need to return to this message of strength through weakness, of compassion and non-violence through attention to the least and the last. We need to apply its promise to whatever agony of soul we feel, and trust that indeed, the meek will inherit the earth. Amen.

[1]Robert Lacey, "The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Matthew 4
17 From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18 As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 19 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 20 At once they left their nets and followed him.
21 Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, 22 and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.
23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

Jesus said ‘put down your nets,’ but it didn’t happen in Toronto until 1807.

1807 marks the first attempt at environmental regulation in Upper Canada, limiting the use of commercial fishing equipment at the mouth of the Humber and other rivers. You could still use a hook and line, or a spear, but no net.

It was an attempt to protect the most important native species in an around Toronto, the Atlantic Salmon. It was so abundant that it was said you could fish our rivers with a shovel or by hand to get all the salmon needed to feed your family. Yet, early on it was obvious this was a precious resource.

But human impact was not to be stopped. Stonehooking, taking river stones for construction (a Weston obsession) destroyed spawning grounds, the construction of mills (60 of them on the Humber by 1846), and the sudden and mysterious appearance of the Sea Lamprey all conspired to reduce the number of salmon in the lake. By the 1840’s stocks were down and by the 1890’s the salmon were gone.

Over the next century, there were numerous attempts to reintroduce salmon, mostly fish from B.C. This, of course, was also the peak era of industrial pollution on the lake, so efforts largely failed. It would take a generation of environmental action to clean the lake to the point that such reintroductions could succeed. And just in the last decade it has, with the annual salmon run on the Humber (late September) an event once more.

I share this because so many stories and images from the Bible are never local to us. Weston never had a lot of ‘shepherds in their fields abiding,’ and I doubt there was ever a vineyard worthy of a parable. But the one thing we had (and have once more) is fishing. And while it’s still illegal to use a net, Jesus could pass by the Humber, find some fishers, and say ‘will you come and follow me?’

So what is he really asking? One of the very striking elements of this ‘ask’ is the way in which it seems so gentle, so playful. “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” And at once they left their nets and followed him. It seems so effortless—ask and they follow—like the simplest thing in the world.

And follow they did. Maybe they thought it would be for an afternoon, something infinitely more interesting that mending nets. Maybe they were willing to give it a day or two, and see how it went. Or maybe, by some miracle, they had a sense of the real magnitude of what they are being asked—but we can’t know.

For now, there seems to be mostly openness: openness to this message that the kingdom of heaven is near, openness to the gentle invitation to follow, and openness to the project that perhaps they already knew, and is so neatly summarized at the end of our passage:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people.

And what’s not to love? Matthew gives us a thumbnail sketch of “Jesus: The Early Days” with his three part movement of teaching, proclaiming, and healing. It’s easy to imagine that this would be follow-worthy: leaving the mundane behind to watch this man begin his project. Still on the gentle invitation, the program is very easy to follow.

First, everyone wants to learn. Some may say they don’t, but even the learning averse want to know tomorrow’s weather or what the neighbours are doing. So following this teacher is intriguing, sharing new news about God and God’s way, talking about human nature and how these these things collide. Opportunities to learn were scarce, so a new teacher is very exciting.

And sharing the Good News of the Kingdom, or even trying to explain what it is, would take up a large part of Jesus time. Here, the interesting part might be watching puzzled faces, people scratching their heads as they try to get a handle on this kingdom. If every parable is an attempt to explain the kingdom, then Jesus obviously had to try and try again, and even now we struggle to understand.

And his healing ministry, the ability to cure the sick (and later raise the dead) would be the icing on the cake of following Jesus in those early days. Seeing lives utterly transformed, making new witnesses to the power of God manifest in Jesus, this is the part of his ministry that becomes the most compelling. All in all, Jesus makes it simple in the early days, and fishing for people must have seemed the easiest thing in the world.

Until it didn’t. There was likely a moment that these twelve began to sense that there was more to following Jesus than simply accepting the adulation of the crowd, congratulating the newly healed, enjoying all the bread and fish you could eat. There was likely a moment when there was more to following Jesus than debating the merit of the latest parable or keeping track of the latest example of being blessed.

Maybe the moment came from the edge of the crowd, when someone remarked about healing on the sabbath. Maybe the moment was when those most threatened by his message—teachers of the law, for example—came forward to complain. Or maybe it was one of the many references to sacrifice Jesus described: forgetting yourself, facing rejection, or the then vague idea of picking up your cross.

There could have been any of a number of moments, when the twelve began to see that following was blessing and burden, and maybe more burden, but I want to suggest one in particular. And it the moment happens when they are back in the comfort of the very familiar, their fishing boat:

23 Then he got into the boat and his disciples followed him. 24 Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. 25 The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
26 He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.
27 The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

What kind of man, indeed. Before this moment, Jesus was teacher, prophet, and healer. Wise words were shared, a new message proclaimed, and a new sort of medicine enacted—all remarkable—but nothing compared to this. Jesus demonstrated his unique relationship to the natural world and everything changed. This was the power of God present in a new way.

Here, in the liberal church, we typically stop here. Jesus can teach us, cast a vision, even practice some sort of healing in a primitive society, but we tend to stop at the wind and the waves. We are deeply ambivalent to outright dismissive when it comes to Jesus control over nature. And I don’t think we’re alone. Whether you’re pre-scientific or fully scientific, it’s hard to believe.

But I’m going to argue that belief in Jesus and his unique relationship to the natural world is a vital precisely because this is the moment the twelve go from being followers to being disciples. They witness the power of God on our behalf, and they are overwhelmed. Asking “what kind of man is this” is the moment of recognition, the moment that they become truly aware that God is at work in the world in a new way.

It’s quite distant from “come and follow me.” It’s a far cry from explaining the kingdom and arguing with Pharisees. One day it’s mending nets, and another it’s witnessing the power of God. This will lead to more than one miraculous catch, and eventually to a morning meal—when Jesus will serve them grilled fish and explain to them the resurrection. There is a long path to come, one that will test them and cause them to wonder—and we’re invited to follow too.

May God guide us, and help us believe, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
35 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. 36 When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!”
37 When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. 38 Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.”
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
40 Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. 41 The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter).

As nicknames go, you would be hard pressed to do better than “the rock.”

No, not Dwayne Johnson, but St. Peter, also known as Cephas (“the rock”) in Aramaic, Petras (“the rock”) in Greek, or Pope Peter if you lean Roman Catholic. All in all, good stuff when you consider he didn’t choose it and it could have been much worse. If you take the conventional approach—and pick an embarrassing moment to create a nickname—then he might have spent history as “the rooster.”

But no, Jesus calls him “the rock” on which he will create his church, and gives him the keys to the Kingdom, all of this despite the fact that Jesus would know that a famous denial and the rooster crowing three times. This may be another sermon, but this period of Jesus choosing the twelve feels bittersweet, knowing that—like sheep—they will scatter when the most important moment comes.

Meanwhile, Simon Peter is the Rock. Even Peter (from Petras) is a nickname, and Dan Brown fans in the crowd know he will have one more: ‘the fisherman.’ Popes are called ‘heirs to the fisherman’ and even wear a ring that makes this plain. So the fisherman becomes Cephas, Petras, Peter and finally the fisherman.

Jesus, of course, takes nicknames to the next level, with five of them in the eight verses Dave read. John calls him the Lamb of God, which your Bible will capitalize as a title, and immediately two of John’s disciples will follow Jesus. Jesus asks what they want, and in the course of answering they give him two more: Rabbi and Teacher.

The question was “where are you staying?” and the answer is “Come and you will see.” Then, about four in the afternoon Andrew finds his brother Simon and says “we have found the Messiah” (and John adds “that is, the Christ”). It is at this moment that Jesus calls Simon Cephas, knowing that he is the rock.

It has a mystical quality to it, this mutual naming and recognition, with strange time marker (“four in the afternoon”) and an inference that will take us to the cross and another to the entirety of the Christian tradition. It’s a simple narrative that reveals layers of meaning, and sets the stage for much of the Gospel that follows.

I can confess that I shortened the passage, for the sake of brevity and to spare my friend, but also to avoid repeating some of what was covered last week. John’s telling is unique—Jesus’ baptism is described to us by John the Baptist—but the compelling element is the Baptist’s introduction:

29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’

Scholars debate what Lamb of God means, but John’s description seems to take us to the Temple, where the Passover lamb would symbolize the liberation history of Israel and act as a sacrificial offering to help the nation atone in the face of God’s blessing. The ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world’ becomes a living symbol, alive to the gathering disciples and alive down to today.

In this way we are made aware—from the beginning—how the story will end. In fact, just ten verses into his prologue, John tells us where this story is headed: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” The prologue ends with a note of grace, but St. John is unique in telling the story through the lens of Christ’s passion— the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Nine years on, you no doubt have come to learn that I have a certain fondness for the prayer of confession. While other churches have set it aside (one of my colleagues called it “a bit of a downer”) I remain convinced that it is a critical part of the our approach to God.

And it’s not just here. Wedding services include a confession (marriage as an act of hope in the midst of human brokenness) and especially funerals—where confessing ‘things done and things left undone’ seems critical to healing in the face of loss. Again, when I attend a funeral and there is no confession I feel ripped off, since no human relationship exists without a bit of brokenness that I’m happy to let go of when the moment seems right.

And this, of course, takes us back to my longstanding argument with Jimmy, who believes that people are basically good but can make mistakes, while I believe the opposite. And no, I’m not saying you were born bad, like a bad baby (“you’re a bad baby”), I’m simply saying that the human constant is brokenness and failure, interrupted by moments of human progress.

And while some have labelled this a pessimistic view of the world, I would (again) argue the opposite, since we have achieved some remarkable things together despite our general selfishness and fondness for sin. We overcome ourselves and find the best in each other in so many ways, until we don’t.

I don’t really want to talk about this coming Friday, but it seems to fit the general topic of human foolishness, so here goes. But rather than talk about it through the frame of righteous indignation, it might be better to talk about the inauguration through the frame of confession:

I confess that I have been busy blaming the 95 million people who didn’t vote, without considering the context of voter suppression and the kind of malaise the might keep someone away from the polls.
I confess that I spend too much time thinking about worse-case scenarios, and I confess that much of my worry is selfish—retirement savings, the value of my house, etc.
I confess that I have failed to try to truly understand the 60 or so million people who voted for change, choosing instead to dismiss them, categorize them, or paint them as unflattering caricatures.

I spent some time in the US last week and the surprizing thing was the extent to which no one wanted to talk about it. Some are obviously still stunned, some unsure, and some may be happy and unwilling to admit it. Whatever was keeping people quiet, one thing is certain: the sense that history was on one, inevitable course has been shaken—disrupted—and will not return easily.

Part of the silence—certainly for the unhappy—seems to come from the destruction of an assumption: that human history is moving in a particular direction and cannot go back. And whether this is true or not, the sense is real. Confidence in neighbours and friends has been shaken, people are divided, worldviews tested.

The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world would have us look for signs of the Kingdom. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world would have us forgive each other as the first step to healing. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world would remind us that conflict and betrayal—even among those closest to you—can and will happen.

But the last word is forgiveness. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world will redeem us and make us new people, better equipped to love and serve others, more aware of our own limitations, and more apt to forgive as we have been forgiven.

We live in hope, knowing that the better tomorrow we seek will only come through Jesus the Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Amen.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Second Sunday after Christmas

Matthew 3
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Time to play “what are you on about?” I will give you a series of clues, and you will guess the title of of the song I’m looking for. Here we go:

This song was written in 1969.
This song was written for a popular children’s show.
This song always preceded an object lesson.
One such lesson might include showing an apple, a banana, and orange and a cookie.

Yes, since 1969 “One of These Things” has been helping children categorize things, to understand that some things are not like other things. So here is a version for Matthew 3:

John appears in the wilderness preaching “Repent! The Kingdom of God is near.”
John sees the religious ones arrive and he calls them a “brood of vipers.”
John says someone more powerful is coming who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.
John says ‘wait, I need to be baptized by you, so why do you come to me?’

I think you will appreciate that John’s bluster fits into one (seemingly endless) category, and his puzzlement in another. Or his intense confidence that one style of messiah is coming, then another appears. Or God’s chosen that is predicted to come and do something—and then needs something.

However you frame it, the story has a twist: a set of predictions and conditions that give way to something unexpected and maybe even embarrassing. At least that is the way the scholars might describe it.

You see, since the early days of biblical scholarship, we have be encouraged to look twice at the moments that are unique, unexpected, and might somehow embarrass the author, protagonist or audience. How should the early church regard this Jesus they are promoting? Why would the Son of God need baptism? Any why John? Likewise, if we assume Matthew is building some kind of case here, what is he trying to say?

And if he is building some sort of case, what clues are in the handful of verses we have? Looking over the five verses Victoria shared, the answer seems obvious and opaque at the same time. Matthew decides to make his case through a dialogue, and so the first look seems pretty clear.

Q: “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
A: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”

So not only does Matthew embed the answer in Jesus’ response to John’s questions, but he frames it as a sort of mission statement: “To fulfill all righteousness.” So if the question is ‘what kind of case is Matthew building’ then the answer is right there for us to see.

But then we need to figure out what it means. Jesus says that this baptism will “fulfill all righteousness,” and John immediately agrees. There is something in the words that is so convincing that no other words are needed—John just gets it. As I said, obvious and oblique at the same time.

So if we want to understand what it means ‘to fulfill all righteousness’ we need to look elsewhere in scripture the only surefire way to discern why these words are so compelling for John—and important to Matthew. So Matthew might be the first place to look:

Matthew uses the word righteousness more often than any of the four evangelists. Mark doesn’t use it at all, and the others use it sparingly. But Matthew wants us to really ponder the idea, and makes this clearest during the Sermon of the Mount:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (5.6)
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (5.10)
“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (5.20)

In other words, seek righteousness, expect to suffer for righteousness, and make sure your righteousness exceeds that of the religious ones that John was busy condemning in chapter three—because your future depends on it. And just as we become convinced that it’s truly important, Matthew adds this:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (6.1)

So your righteousness has to exceed the religious elite, but you can’t let it show. Without it you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but if you have it and let everyone know you have it, you can’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven, assuming that’s the reward he means in chapter six.

If you are more confused than ever about this righteousness, then join the club. It’s not even clear what it means, if we need to have it but can’t show it. So we need to look somewhere else. And since another principle of biblical scholarship is begin at the beginning, we should look back. How about a proverb:

“Gray hair is a crown of splendor; it is attained in the way of righteousness.” (Proverbs 16:31) This gray I’m cultivating around the temples will one day be part of my crown of splendor. Others are more fortunate, and obviously more righteous than me.

Maybe a better answer to the question “what are people saying about righteousness?” can be found in the Psalms. The Psalms can’t seem to say enough on the topic, so let’s listen in. Psalm 85:

10 Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
12 The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
13 Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.

Aside from the lovely imagery, we get a real sense that what we’re talking about is a mode of faithfulness, something that is evident to the righteousness that looks down from heaven to the earth below. It is a way of being, a way of peace, love, and remaining faithful. And this, of course, leads to the most famous example of righteousness, that of Abraham:

“Look up at the sky,” God said, “and count the stars—if indeed you can count them. So shall your offspring be.” And Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen 15.5-6)

So Abraham becomes the model and mode of righteousness—so much so that St. Paul will take up the conversation and add his insight: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Romans 4.13)

In other words, even before faithfulness was defined, even before the gift of the law, Abraham was righteous—because he believed in the promises of God. Jesus is baptized to fulfill all righteousness, to demonstrate that the promises of God will be realized in Christ Jesus, that the ways of God will be made known in the ministry that begins to unfold from that day in the desert.

And what is the link to you and me? At the moment of our baptism, we become heirs to the same righteousness, followers to fulfill the promises of God in our lives. We put on Christ through baptism, so that by faith we could demonstrate the righteousness of God. This doesn’t make us perfect—far from it—but marks us as God’s own.

John’s preamble—seek a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—is a necessary starting point in this journey of faith. But the real goal—to fulfill all righteousness—begins with faith, trusting in God to guide you, trusting in the presence of the Sprit, trusting in Christ’s abiding presence. In doing so, we follow in a long line that begins with Abraham and Sarah, Noah, wilderness wanderers, and the righteous ones who built this place. May the line continue, Amen.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 63
I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord,
the deeds for which he is to be praised,
according to all the Lord has done for us—
yes, the many good things
he has done for Israel,
according to his compassion and many kindnesses.
8 He said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will be true to me”;
and so he became their Savior.
9 In all their distress he too was distressed,
and the angel of his presence saved them.[a]
In his love and mercy he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them
all the days of old.

In the same way owning a bunch of brooms doesn’t make your house clean, owning a bunch of Bibles doesn’t make you religious. There’s always some follow-up required, sweeping or reading.

Gazing upon the bookshelf in the dining room, I see an NAS, CEV, NEB, three NLTs (I guess I went though an NLT phase), a GNB and something called “Das Neue Testament.” That one’s not mine, ‘cause if you said ‘sprechen (spray-shan) sie Deutsch’ I would have to say no.

So as I noted a moment ago, religious enough, but not based on the number of Bibles on the shelf. Still, it’s handy to have a few versions at hand, even if and others have made owning multiple versions of the Bible somewhat redundant.

Back in my day, we had a Cruden’s Complete Concordance for searching words, Smith’s Bible Dictionary for learning what the words meant, and (for the truly posh scholar) Throckmorton’s Gospel Parallels, with four Gospels presented side-by-side. Add a Bible in Hebrew and and a Bible in Greek (that’s for the Queen’s grads only) and you were set for life, or until someone invented the World Wide Web.

So over at Bible Gateway we are confronted with a serious translation problem, one that we should at least acknowledge—even if we can’t solve it. In the absence of our local biblical scholar, we are on our own and somewhat helpless, but we can try.

So, I’m going to read you part of two versions of Isaiah 63.9, one from the Revised Standard Version and one from the New Revised Standard Version, and you will see the issue straight away:

and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

That’s the RSV. Now the NRSV, the translation currently favoured by scholarly types:

It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;

So which is it? Did the angel of his presence save them? Or was it that “no messenger or angel, but his presence that saved them? Angel or no angel?

Considering the season—according to Walter Brueggemann—we should maybe opt for angels. It’s not a bad argument, since this is the eighth day of Christmas (eight maids a milking!) and we have been overrun with angel visitations of late.

But I might take the opposite view. It is God alone who does the saving, there is no intermediary. God’s direct presence with Israel meant that ‘in God’s love and pity God redeemed them.” Full stop. This is the God who saves, who never fails to redeem the people even when the people don’t deserve redeeming. This is the God we serve.

And there is another bit “under the hood” that we should note, that underlines our redemption, and gives us an new word to ponder and perhaps adopt as our own: hesed. Before I say more, listen to 63.7:

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.

The key phrase at the beginning (“gracious deeds”) is hesed. The key phrase at the end (“steadfast love”) is hesed. Some translate hesed to mean loving-kindness, grace, compassion, mercy, and at least one political theorist says hesed means “loving covenant obligation.” (Daniel Elazar)

So let’s go with the political theorist for a moment and retranslate verse seven:

I will recount the loving covenant obligation of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of God,
Because of all that God has done for us,
and the great favour to the house of Israel
that God has shown them according to God’s mercy,
according to the abundance of his loving covenant obligation.

Taken in this new and slightly redundant sounding formulation, God is keeping the covenant—and doing praiseworthy things—that demonstrate favour for Israel, mercy, and an abundance of loving covenant keeping.

This kind of steadfast love is more than simple loyalty, more that keeping a promise made: this is an determined effort to underline the nature and activity that defines God. Who is God? What is God like? In a word, hesed. The God who acts faithfully, who maintains covenantal fidelity, who only ever meets Israel with loving-kindness, this is the God we love and serve.

Now, if a parent describes some aspect of their parenting, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine what their kid is like. If I say that I’m very patient, you have kid that would make anyone impatient. If I say I’m very forgiving, there is likely lots to forgive, and so on.

So this God who describes a parenting style with hesed—steadfast, loving, showing mercy—it easy enough to imaging what the kids are like: unfaithful, not loving, in need or mercy. And isn’t that just the way.

Barely a week old, and the new King of the Jews (Jesus) is being pursued by the old King of the Jews (Herod) and what follows (infanticide, genocide) is so shocking that I can’t even bring myself to have it read in church. The one that was hailed as the Prince of Peace just a week ago is already dealing with the reality of human sin, sin that will take the boy from Bethlehem to Egypt to Nazareth to Galilee to Jerusalem and the cross.

The reason God is so determined to show hesed is we need it. The short path from Christmas to Easter will take us through hesitation, misunderstanding, disbelief, scorn, anger and eventually deicide. Yet even when we commit the ultimate act of betrayal—killing God—we are met with hesed. “Forgive them, father, they know not what they do.” Even from the cross, God speaks hesed, loving covenant obligation, manifest in forgiveness and mercy.

The end of one year and the beginning of another is also hesed, redemption through the passage of time. In God’s loving-kindness we are given a new year and a fresh start each and every year. God knows we don’t deserve it, but it comes anyway. As 2016 ends and 2017 begins we reflect on what we want to leave behind and what we want to embrace going forward. It’s the hesed of time, the mercy that comes with a fresh start.

To be fair to 2016, some good things happened:

Catholic and Orthodox leaders met for first time in 1,000 years.
World tiger count rises for first time in 100 years.
Volunteers in India planted a million trees in a single day.
Viola Desmond and Harriet Tubman were selected to appear on currency in their respective countries.
The Americas became measles-free.
Colombia and FARC hammered out peace deal after 50 years of war.*
A solar-powered airplane flew around the world.

So we remind ourselves of the good stuff, we remain conscious of the bad stuff, and we trust in God. We remember that hesed, God’s covenantal loving-kindness in the face of undeserved mercy follows us from one year to the next. Like Israel’s children wandering in the desert, God is with us. Like those who weep beside the rivers of Babylon, God is with us. And like those who take up the invitation to follow Jesus, God is with us, steadfast and determined, Amen.