Sunday, June 25, 2017

Proper 7

Matthew 10
26 “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. 27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. 28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; 33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Summer driving makes me judgy.

Yes, judgy is a word. According to Oxford, ‘judgy’ means “overly critical” and “judgemental,” which I think is unfair to all the people who are judgy. So whether you are a driver, passenger or pedestrian, you might recognize some of these summer drivers.

You’re going to the cottage at 150 km/h. How is that relaxing?
You have your windows down and the tunes cranked. No song should have that much bass.
Your motorhome is pulling an SUV, dirt bikes, bicycles and an armada of small boats. No one can manage that much recreation at one go.
A small car and a big canoe. How can we be certain you can see where you’re going? And when you get to the lake, do you just flip the whole thing over?
Your car is full of gear, children, dogs, inflatable bric-a-brac and things you couldn’t possibly do without for 48 hours of weekend. You know you’ve forgotten something, right?

Maybe we should add cranky to judgy. But it shouldn’t be this way. Summer is time to re-create, re-lax, re-new. You shouldn’t be disgruntled, you should be gruntled! Yes, gruntled is a word, meaning ‘pleased, satisfied and contented.’ Gruntled. So that’s our summer challenge, to end the warm months thoroughly gruntled, and ready to enter the fall.

Meanwhile, we meet Jesus in Matthew 10, and he sounds far from gruntled. You might even say he sounds judgy:

37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

You get the sense that he could have went on. Already by chapter ten Jesus feels the need to confront divided loyalties, and the extent to which people are willing to follow within a narrowly defined set of parameters. Jesus wants his followers to be “all in,” but there seems to be a lot of bargaining implied in his comments. So it’s Jesus first—we get that—but does it have to sound so harsh?

In many ways he is simply acting as predicted. Way back in chapter three, our old friend John the Baptist gave his summary of the time to follow, a summary we tend to overlook or dismiss:

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming...he will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Of course you know it, but if it sounds like something we have heard recently, you’re right. It’s the gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent, that last preaching opportunity before Christmas, before the preacher gets preempted by the Sunday School and the Senior Choir. However, it’s just as well—the tone is decidedly harsh for the time leading up to the big day.

Some might even argue that John the Baptist is wrong. The Jesus he predicts in Matthew 3 seems to be replaced by the Jesus of Matthew 5, blessing the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart. Barely a harsh word passes his lips, or so it seems. But look closer, and you see glimpses of John’s Jesus—maybe not with fire, but more than a little judgement:

5.29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.
5.30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.
6.24 No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and mammon.
7.1 Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.

The last one seems a little ironic. Judge and you will be judged. Judged to be judgy and the judgy one will judge you. Suddenly my summer driving rant takes on a new dimension, where judgement begets judgement and some sort of loop ensures. So I’m going to take the whole thing back and suggest that I should get the Douglas Fir out of my own eye before I reach for the sliver in the eye of others.

Having stumbled on the famous command “don’t judge, so you may not be judged,” it occurs to me that this might be the key to unlock the meaning of one of the most vexing parts of the reading Taye shared. It’s back to Jesus and the family, a series of verses that I find particularly troubling:

35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Some have argued that this a reference to future conflict, conflict between church and synagogue, where literal and metaphorical families will be divided as the Jewish-Christian movement separates from the Jewish tradition. This may be the case, but Jesus is also speaking of his immediate followers, those who will try (for the first time) to embrace this vision of the Kingdom Jesus sets out—those who try to live as he lived.

It would be an understatement to say judgement begins at home. Those we grew up with, those we lived with from the beginning, those who continue to live with us as the generations move forward—these are the people we tend to judge first and most. Why did mom and dad let him away with that? Why did she do that? What are they doing now? Why won’t you leave me alone? Or one of my favourite lines from It’s a Wonderful Life: “Why do we have to have all these kids?”

Does any of this sound familiar? Into that caldron of judgement called family, Jesus injects this: “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.” So suddenly a man and his father, a daughter and her mother, a daughter-in-law and her mother-in-law are not only judging each other but judging each other for judging each other. See the problem? Jesus has added a dimension of inter-filial conflict that didn’t exist before—the sin of excessive judgement and the judgement it brings upon us.

Obviously, we need a way out of this loop. And Jesus seems to be pointing to a way forward on this too: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” In other words, only by spreading this message of non-judgement, can we hope to end the never-ending loop of judgement.

Christians in particular have to tone down the judgemental rhetoric, since that seems to be the stereotype that defines us in the popular imagination. And even as we begin to protest and insist that judgment is the purview of those Christians over there (or anywhere else), we fall into the very same trap.

The missing part of this equation, of course, is the very thing we proclaim (in the United Church) when we recite our new creed: “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” Judgement is necessary and desirable when God in Jesus is doing the judging. When the ethical program of Jesus is the yardstick by which we measure human behaviour, judgement moves from that sinful thing humans do to the faithful thing believers do. But it has to be thoughtful, and prayerful, and done in the context of the Jesus who is “all compassion,” and “pure, unbounded love” (Wesley).

So, go gently back into your summer Sunday, and be kind to the people you meet, even on the highway, judging less than our human nature demands, and open to the one who “works in us and others by the Spirit.” Now and always, Amen.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

1,800 preachers in a room, and what do you say?

This is the challenge that faces each of the presenters at the annual Festival of Homiletics—homiletics being just a highbrow way to say ‘preaching.’ The festival gathers each May, and a couple of dozen people—mostly preachers and professors—are tasked with addressing this troublesome lot.

I say troublesome, because when we hear a presentation or a sermon, we tend to be critical. Share that sermon or presentation near the end of the church year, and troublesome becomes tired and cranky, so God bless anyone brave enough to stand up and speak.

Some presenters seem to understand, and offer collective pastoral care. Nadia Bolz-Weber and Barbara Brown Taylor (do all presenters have three names?) were gentle with us, pastors to the pastors, or “pastrix” as Nadia Bolz-Weber describes herself in her New York Times bestselling book.

Some presenters—like Rob Bell—made us laugh, knowing that humour is always a balm for the weak and weary. Others, like Walter Brueggemann toss out ideas like homiletical bouillon cubes, crammed into pockets for later use. And some even tackle readings that will come up in the weeks between the festival and summer holidays, like life-preservers thrown to shipwrecked preachers.

Others are less helpful. Like the minister of the very-large-pulpit in Manhattan who brought along a sack of “shoulds and oughts,” way too much super-ego for me. Or the former evangelical superstar who recently discovered social justice preaching, selling it to a crowd of mainline pastors who have been doing it for decades. Or the megachurch pastor who suggested we take a film-crew with us the next time we travel to Israel, because thousands of your parishioners will want to watch.

Then, thankfully, there is Will Willimon. Preaching professor and retired bishop, Dr. Willimon is a storyteller from Alabama, who evokes laughter and tears as he to moves from homespun warmth to cutting wit. And in preaching to preachers he can be more than a little mischievous. Take for example, his rewriting of the end of our passage:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, (he sounds just like Jeff Sessions) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always (and I am quoting) “to damn-well make sure that you do it.”

So why is Jesus with us always? According to Dr. Willimon, it’s to make sure we follow through on everything we were commanded to do, particularly to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the proper way. Now, the good doctor was being a little facetious, but generally trying to underline that this was not a case of creating a movement and pushing the “go” button, it was (and is) a case of active supervision.

So how does this work? Well, first of all, as the church we become the “body of Christ,” literally his hands and feet as we care for others. The presence of Christ surrounds us, in the sacraments and in the ministry we each undertake. And today—Trinity Sunday—we believe that God’s presence, and the Risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit are one—leading and guiding us as we do the work of the divine.

So it’s active supervision, and partnership (Psalm 8 calls us “little less than angels”) and even mutual accountability as we call on God to continue to bless us and hear our prayers. That’s what it is. What it’s not, is some sort of divine ‘office of compliance’ or heavenly auditor at keeps track of nations and baptisms. God allows that we will do the best we can with our limited resources and built-in human limitations, limitations that come to the fore far too often.

So speaking of limitations, we can take as an example Matthew 28.16ff (and following). The command to make disciples of all nations (the Great Commission) is considered by many scholars to be a later addition to the text, an add-on, and (in the opinion of these scholars) unlikely to be the words of Jesus. So we have a problem.

But before we get into the problem, we have to enter a debate. On one hand, there is the (relentless) search for the authentic Jesus, words and deeds that are most likely his. This is the basis for modern biblical scholarship, and a foundation of the liberal church. But on the other hand, there is the idea of canon, and the Spirit-driven work of recording and authorizing the words contained in scripture. If scripture is divinely-inspired, and blessed by the church through the ages, we should take it seriously, even if we are unwilling to take it literally.

So you have heard the debate, and now the problem. Whenever your professor tells you that something might be an addition, or an add-on, you have a tendency to put it in a different category, with a different weighting. So we have the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbour) which everyone agrees Jesus said and we have the Great Commission (make disciples of all nations) which some label an add-on, maybe a case of scribal enthusiasm. So which one will we emphasize?

Naturally, the former. And being the liberal church, we love the idea of the ethical Jesus giving us instructions on how to be better believers, how to meet the world and make it a better place. And that’s awesome, as awesome any purpose-driven-divinely-sanctioned-world-bettering program we can imagine. But the Great Commission is scripture too. So what do we do?

Well, we’re a persistent lot, us liberal Christians, so the next move is point to context and history and say “too much harm has come from the application of the Great Commission ‘all nations’ command” and therefore we should set it aside. And it’s a good argument, even as it’s hard to hear.

For you see, here, on the traditional lands of the Mississauga’s of the New Credit, we live with a legacy of taking a colonial project and missionary zeal and applying them with an enthusiasm that led to great damage. As the text of the United Church apology to First Nations says:

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

The statement that the Very Rev. Bob Smith read 31 years ago, concludes by asking for forgiveness, something that we hope may come in time. And part of asking for forgiveness is assessing and reassessing our tradition, setting aside some things and reimagining others.

So converting people was largely set aside. We still try to convert people to the latest issue the church takes up, but that’s another sermon. By-in-large, the liberal church decided that trying to actively convert people was something to be abandoned, along with the Great Commission of Jesus from Matthew 28.

But I’m going to argue we need to take it up again, and I have three groups in mind, three groups that are ripe for conversion, done in the most humble way possible.

The first group is people to are immersed in a culture of success, acquisition, quid pro quo and self-preservation. Spend an evening watching television and you will discover that life is a competition with winners and losers—those who will themselves to success and those who are the authors of their own misfortune. Jesus’ massage of forgiveness and grace, and compassion in the face of suffering is needed in the public square now more than ever. That is the first group.

The second group is other Christians. Too many Christians feel that their faith is an excuse to hate and divide, to impose their will on others, and generally condemn a majority of people to a fiery hell. They are ripe for reconversion to the message that you should get the log out of your own eye before you reach for the speck in the eye of others.

The final group for conversion is us. As you have heard again and again from this pulpit, we are great doers and lousy be-ers. We love our neighbours until we wear ourselves (and them) out, but we struggle to confess our love for God, our delight in God’s word, and our view that God is still at work in the world, making miracles each day. We need to reconvert to glorify God each day.

This was supposed to be a short beginning-of-summer sermon, and something happened, so I will leave off, trusting that you will sense God’s presence each blessed day of the summer, that you will walk with Christ where ever you go, and you will be open to the Spirit and the Spirit’s urging. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017


1 Corinthians 12
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

If you plan to travel to a new place, it’s good to learn a phrase or two.

Take the internet for example. If you are traveling online or on your smart phone, and someone says LOL, it’s not a sign of affection. They are laughing, most likely with you, but maybe just at you. A quick way to recover would be to type “LOL, I thought LOL meant something else. Okay, LOL.” There, you did it again.

So if you come across IMO, you’ll soon discover it means “in my opinion.” Likewise all the variations: IMHO (humble) and IMNSHO (not-so-humble). Or how about AFAIK? Once you crack the most common version (as far as I know) you will have an easy time with AFAICT (can tell) and AFAICS (can see).

And I discovered a new one this week, in an online forum discussing the future impeachment of you-know-who. Someone began a sentence with IANAL, and after a few minutes of careful pondering realized “I am not a lawyer” is common enough to become an online initialism.

(Just as an aside, our local scribe uses BIRT in her minutes, which I have since learned comes high school and college debating teams. So, be it resolved that Taye admit she was on the debating team.)

So a new language develops and we try to learn. And like technological infants, we begin one word at a time, until our vocabulary begins to fill out. Soon we think about proper usage, and how this strange language is constructed, and some day we master it. The first step, of course, is to understand that this language exists—to know it when we see it.

So too on the day of Pentecost, when wind and flame transformed followers into a church, and the message was shared in such a way that all could understand:

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter says “no, friends,” this is not inebriation, this is intoxication with the Holy Spirit, a day first described by the prophet Joel, when God’s spirit will be poured out on all flesh, when the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams. Signs and wonders will unite heaven and earth, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

So the first sign, the miracle of translation, has these Galileans—fishers and farmers, tax collectors and sinners—greeting the diverse crowd in their own tongues, in a list that has caused many a lay-reader to run screaming from the lectern. You have to take it slowly, and visualize, and pause to marvel at the one anomaly hidden in the text—the appearance of time-travellers.

For you see, the people of the once great empire called Medes were witnesses on that day, hearing God’s massage in their own language, as the text tells us. But these are people that 500 years earlier had passed into history, a people who sadly left no texts, no inscriptions, no grammar: only a couple of chunks of cuneiform in Old Persian that might, might be a scrap of the Median language. But it might just be Old Persian.

So hidden in the miracle of tongues and translation is another miracle—the erasure of time. It doesn’t matter that your civilization is extinct, because the Spirit of the Living God can transcend time and space and circumstance to bring a message of new life. It doesn’t matter that any list of civilizations is also a list of friends and enemies and conflicting interests, because the vision and the dream of Pentecost is that all may be one.

So what’s underneath this vision, this unity that struggles to be a church? The answer comes from St. Paul:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Wisdom, knowledge, healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues and the interpreting of tongues, all gifts, all given by the same Spirit to drink. And why, beyond the desire to declare God’s glory? Paul has an answer for that too: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

Clearly Paul has been reading his Aristotle, and since we’re talking about time-travel, maybe he’s reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau too. The sudden and unexpected appearance of some political philosophy in the shape of something called the “common good” may be Paul’s point after all.

The common good, you see, is more than a well-worn phrase that we seem to leave untended. The common good is Aristotle’s belief in something only a society can achieve together, but can be shared among it’s members. The common good is Rousseau’s belief that the only moral society is one that works together for the good of all. And the common good is Paul’s belief that when we build a community together—each of us given a unique gift to share.

So we seek the common good, and we never shy from naming it as our goal. It is both the heart of Christian ethics and the most practical way to demonstrate our love for God and for those around us. It is something we strive for, but it is also something that we seek to name in the world around us. God is busy, through the Spirit, pursuing the common good in ways that we can only begin to see:

Muslims and Jews praying together in Manchester, for the victims, and for a world at peace.
An MP from Quebec who came to realize that since his riding is on traditional Mohawk territory, perhaps he should learn to speak the language as an expression of reconciliation.
200,000 people will march in Tel Aviv's Pride Parade next week, when nearby states continue to regard homosexuality as a capital crime.
And even Michael Bloomberg, heartbroken that his country would renege on the millions promised to the UN to fight climate change, pledged to pay it himself.

And that’s just in the last week. The Spirit of Pentecost is still moving among us, in the church, and far beyond these walls. The Spirit of Pentecost is speaking in tongues and times that are unexpected and always new. The Spirit of Pentecost is urging us to use our gifts to further the work of the Kingdom, to pursue the common God, and always give to God the glory.

Wisdom, knowledge, healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues and the interpreting of tongues, all gifts, all present in our fellowship and among those who seek the common good. IMHO (in my humble opinion) it is the task of the church to identify and celebrate the places where the Spirit of Pentecost is at work, to align ourselves with the people and the work they do, and to never stop praising God for the gifts of the Spirit, Amen.