Sunday, September 24, 2017

Proper 20

Jonah 4
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

In a world of trouble, forgiveness is big news.

Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. The pope survived, and even in the early days of his recovery asked that the faithful pray for the assassin. Two years later the pope visited his would-be assassin in prison, and even advocated for a pardon.

Or Malala Yousafzai, having survived a brutal attack by a member of the Taliban, made it known that she had forgiven her attacker. She noted how young he was and how nervous he seemed, and wished him no harm.

Or Nelson Mandela, who made several gestures to further reconciliation between black and white South Africans, including dining with his former jailers, forgiving the prosecutor who sought the death penalty during his trial, and even donning the rugby jersey that was once a hated symbol of Apartheid.

These stories are famous because they involve famous people, and because they demonstrate the journalistic principle of “man bites dog.” The idea emerged sometime in the late nineteenth century and the source is uncertain, but the concept is clear: ‘When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.’

In other words, if John Paul had ignored his assailant, or Malala cursed her attacker, or if Nelson Mandela had used the office of President to pursue charges against those who persecuted him, we would nod and say ‘that makes sense’ or ‘I would do that too.’ Rather, we are confronted with surprizing and unexpected forgiveness. I say ‘confronted’ because everyone reacts differently to grace, something that becomes clear in scripture.

All of the suggested readings for today pick up this theme of suprizing forgiveness or generosity and the reaction of the people around. In Exodus, the people complain that God has liberated them only to bring them into the desert to starve. And their reward for complaining is food—not the best food—but food nonetheless. In Matthew, the vineyard owner gathers labours throughout the day, then does the unexpected—pays everyone a full days wage. Those who worked all day resent this sudden turn of generosity, even thought they received what was promised.

So how does Jonah and the whale—that classic story of running from the call of God—fall in with these other stories? It’s all about the ending. But before we get to the ending, let me recap the story we might call “fish catches man.”

It begins (as these things often do) with the word of the LORD coming to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because I can’t stand their wickedness any longer.” So Jonah got up, and set his GPS for points as far from Nineveh as he could.

His escape, of course, involved a sea voyage. And just as spring leads to summer and fake-summer leads to more summer, any time someone boards a ship a storm will surely follow. And the crew, being as superstitious as all sailors, cast lots and discovered that the cause of the storm is on the ship, sleeping peacefully below deck.

They wake him and pepper him with questions: “What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” Sifting through his answers it quickly becomes obvious that running from the Most High won’t end well—certainly not for Jonah and maybe not so well for the crew either.

But Jonah has the solution: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he says, “and the storm will end.” At this point I should brief you on the Racing Rules of Sailing, Part 1, Fundamental Rules, section 1.1, which reads:

Helping Those in Danger: A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger.

So what happens next should come as no surprize, since the Racing Rules of Sailing were in force: they did everything they could to row back to shore. It didn’t work. As the storm grew and their situation became worse they finally accepted that Jonah was right and over he went.

But God wasn’t finished with Jonah. Three days and three nights he spend in the belly of the whale, until he finally made peace with his call and prayed to the Most High. Next thing Jonah is on the beach, coughed up like a Judean furball, ready to take a message of repentance of the people of Nineveh.

It goes surprizingly well. He enters the great city—a three-day journey across—and shouts for all to hear: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Within hours of his arrival the people repent, the king repents, everyone puts on sackcloth (even the animals) and everyone is pleased. Except Jonah.

Jonah is furious. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says, “slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. So kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Well, is it? Big storm, belly of a whale, that awkward moment at the beach, shouting at people in the hot sun—it’s almost like the utter destruction of Nineveh was going to be his reward, the predetermined—and somewhat satisfying—conclusion to the story that never come to be.

Jonah felt cheated, much in they way the older brother felt cheated in the parable of the prodigal son and the daylong workers felt cheated because nothing rankles quite like unexpected generosity you witness but don’t get yourself.

My buddy Jeff tells the story of a flight he took some years ago, and an unusual request as the flight began. The pilot spoke to the passengers and requested help for two college students who were on the flight studying economics. The project was comparing the cost each passenger paid for the same type of seat on the flight.

As the students made their way through the plane, people answered their questions but also listened in to other responses. And almost no one was pleased. The prices were quite varied, and most of the people who paid more we angry. Complaints would be made, legal action threatened, all because people paid different amounts for the same service.

Strange creatures, we are. We love undeserved rewards if we are the ones getting the reward. We love forgiveness and grace and something for nothing unless someone else gets forgiveness and grace and something for nothing and we don’t. We can go from pleased to resentful in about the time it takes for all the workers to get the same wage and all the dogs and cats of Nineveh to put on their little sackcloth outfits and get spared the destruction that God never wanted to do in the first place.

And that’s the thing with this God of the storm and God of the threatened destruction. There is always one more chance. And then another. And still one more. Jonah should have figured this out when he was in his three-day tomb, the very place that God could have left him to die. Jonah gets a second chance but doesn’t want to extend the same second chance to Nineveh and their adorable animals. But God always has other plans.

In the same manner that God-in-Jesus forgives us from the cross, and turns his three-day tomb experience into the liberation of us all, Jonah learns the hard way that God is God and we are not. We keep score, even when it’s generosity extended to others, but God cannot. God IS generosity, and thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Proper 19

Exodus 14
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed[b] the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

As the film festival finally goes away for another year, we hear one of the most cinematic passages in the Bible.

By cinematic, I mean frequently appearing on film and narrated with all the action and adventure that quickens the heart of screenwriters everywhere. So, we’ll step into the Red Sea in a moment, but first we should do a bit of a survey of Egypt in film.

It all begins with The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff as the mummy, inadvertently brought back to life and determined to find his lost love. Building on the fame of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut, the story takes the myth of the Pharaoh’s curse, adds a dash of Frankenstein and drop of Dracula (pun intended) and creates the perfect vehicle for Karloff, who seems to have invented creepy.

By the 1950’s, popular interest in Egypt remains strong, but must compete with a renewed interest ancient Israel, sparked in part by the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Enter Cecil B. DeMille, whose Ten Commandments (1956) combines the spectacle of Pharaoh and his court with the pious story of Moses’ journey from Hebrew baby to Prince of Egypt to God’s liberating prophet. And all shot in VistaVision and Technicolor.

By the late 70’s, when people thought the epic filmmaking was finally over, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg took a vacation together. According to cinematic legend, the two where building a sand castle together when Spielberg mentioned he might direct a James Bond film. Lucas scoffed at the idea, and said if you want to do an action film you should take up my idea for an adventurer named Indiana Smith. “Smith? I don’t like Smith,” Spielberg says. “Okay,” Lucas says, “how about Jones?”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) truly has everything. Evil Nazi archeologists, the Ark of the Covenant used to hold the Ted Commandments, a secret chamber in the Egyptian desert, and snakes, lots of snakes.

This collision between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel remains as fascinating as ever. In part, it’s the compelling nature of the story, freed slaves and a demonstration of the power of God. It’s also our fascination with objects from the past, with some of the most famous discoveries of the 20th century being Tut’s tomb, the head of Nefertiti and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And, it’s the cinematic character of the story, Moses’ God-given ability to stretch out his arms to part the sea—the wall of water to the right and to the left as the Israelites pass through. And the Egyptians—formerly resigned to losing these slaves—decide to pursue them instead, only to have the wheels of their chariots jammed by the God of the Israelites. And then a moment of insight comes, as an Egyptian marks the climax of the story:

“Let’s get away from the Israelites!” the Egyptian says, “The Lord is fighting for them against us.”

This is one of those something-is-not-quite-right moments in scripture that causes us to pause. The Egyptian says “The Lord is fighting for them against us.” Well, what Lord? The Lord of Israel? It’s seems very unlikely that this horseman or chariot driver would worship or even acknowledge the God of the slaves that were busy making their escape. Egyptians were notorious polytheists, with various gods with various roles and interconnections much like the Greek gods.

One suggestion is that there was brief period of Egyptian monotheism, about a few years before the time we associate with Moses—so maybe this insightful Egyptian soldier was a follower of that former tradition. Some scholars have suggested that the whole idea of “one God” may have begun in the Egyptian court, with vestiges of that old tradition influencing the young Moses.

Whatever the source, there is clearly a moment in time when God takes sides. “Let’s get away from the Israelites!” the Egyptian says, “The Lord is fighting for them against us.” Why this wasn’t obvious earlier—say during the river of blood, frogs, locusts, lice, boils, hail, and the rest—is another mystery. Nonetheless, there is a moment in the story when it is clear to everyone involved that the God we call the God of Israel has chosen a side.

What this does—beyond move the story of the Israelites forward—is give birth to a theological problem. We want God to be the God of all. And we want God to be love. This God, whose “got the whole world, in his hands,” is the God we want, not the warrior God sticking sticks in chariot wheels and drowning horse and rider with such aplomb. And it’s even worse that that:

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

It has a matter-of-factness, a cold recounting, that I would suggests says more about the emotional state of the author than the nature of God. Part of this passage is catharsis, a writer who needs to give his people both triumph and vindication, needs to see Egyptians suffer in the way his people suffered under Egypt.

So there is that. But there is no denying that our very modern wish for fairness and neutrality, the well-being of all, and a happy-ending will not be met by the God of Israel. Even Jesus, when he speaks both for and as God, turns away from our wish:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'"

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Jesus takes sides against the overly-righteous, the sacrilegious, the inhospitable, those who follow the letter of the law and those that separate him or the little ones who adores. He takes the side of the oppressed: by disease or addiction, or situation, or station in life. He is defined by the company he keeps: tax collectors and sinners, and everyone that ‘the best people’ think are abandoned by God.

And notice the built in safety valve and reality check for those who follow God, and particularly God-in-Jesus. As soon as you become too proud, too self-assured that you are one of the ‘best people’ that God will adore, you run the risk of joining the overly-righteous, the inhospitable, and those that would separate God from the vulnerable ones that God adores.

Those who separate themselves from the God of Israel will suffer the fate of being separated from the God of Israel. Forgiveness is possible, and available for everyone—when the desire to no longer be separated from God has ended. Through God all things are possible, yet freewill says some will ultimately choose another path. Perhaps those who reject God are the ultimate vulnerable group—and paradoxically God’s most treasured.

May we strive to imagine the God we struggle to comprehend, and may God find us, vulnerable in our understanding, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Proper 18

Matthew 18
15 “If your brother or sister[a] sins,[b] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Never trust a politician who begins by saying “I think we can agree...”

Ditto for “let me be crystal clear” and other verbals tics that fall from the mouths of those we elect.

To be fair, being a public figure in the age of Twitter and Youtube is perilous. Comments can be misinterpreted. Mistakes can be amplified. Today’s offhand comment can become tomorrow’s hashtag. Gone are the days when a politicians “word salad” will be mended prior to publication in the newspaper of record.

And the source of all these annoying phrases and tics is simple: we expect instant answers to difficult problems, given in complete sentences, comprehensive but not dense, comprehensible but not simplistic, and including at least one “sound bite” for the 10 o’clock news.

“I think we can agree” and “let me by crystal clear” are little more than delaying tactics, an alternative to “ums” and “ahs” that allow the speaker more time to formulate that articulate answer we demand. The one exception is the politician who says “believe me” all the time (no names mentioned). In this case, don’t believe him.

Sometimes, however, “I think we can agree” is an important point to make. More than verbal filler, sometimes the speaker needs to remind his or her audience that there are some things on which we can agree. An appeal to common set of values, facts that are commonly known, even shared emotions in the face of events can be acknowledged with “I think we can agree.”

And this, of course, takes us to the oft-neglected second half of our reading. The first half, Jesus’ own conflict resolution strategy is well-known both inside and outside the Christian church. It’s a touchstone for us, but it’s also the basis for many secular policies around organizational conflict. It finds the balance between honouring the individual and protecting the organization, and has therefore stood the test of time.

So that’s the first half. The second half of our reading, three seemingly distinct ideas, is more of a challenge for those who live in pulpits and try to speak in complete sentences. Jesus has just given us a comprehensive policy in four sentences, and then this:

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The first idea—binding and loosing—is a restatement of something Jesus said in chapter 16. In that case, he first gave St. Peter the “keys to the kingdom” and told him that ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” and so on. Here, he picks up the same idea of binding and loosing and gives it to the twelve disciples (and presumably everyone listening).

This, of course, will be very familiar to Roman Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope. The papal symbol includes a set of keys—the keys referred in Matthew 16—underlining the authority of Rome to articulate binding tradition down to today. The reformers took issue with this, of course, and were more inclined to see the keys reseting with the whole church, as described in Matthew 18.

And this seems to lead to the second idea, that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” It’s hard to know the exact context of this promise, but it seems to come from some controversy in the previous chapter. Jesus heals a demon possessed boy, but only after the disciples have failed to do so. Jesus rebukes them for their failure, and suggests they lack the faith needed to do it. Truly I tell you,” he tells them, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.”

If these two ideas are linked—having faith means moving mountains and if you agree about anything it will be done—we can imagine that part of the power given to these disciples depends on internal agreement, finding a common mind. In this sense, it’s more about shared faith—faith in and through each other—than the strong faith of the individual.

And then the final idea, the one we know best: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Taken together, we begin to see a pattern. What is at first glance a set of three distinct ideas may be a single idea about the power of God in community. How would this work?

Assuming that Jesus has restated the power of binding and loosing to include all the disciples, it requires agreement. The same two that must agree, and the two or three that gather, summon the Risen Christ to their midst. In other words, the work of the church—healing, encouraging, strengthening—requires cooperation and agreement. The work of the church never falls to the individual disciple, leader, or believer—it’s a corporate effort born of achieving a common mind.

It’s a tricky thing, this idea of the power of God in community. In some ways, we almost want to invest power into leaders and individuals, if only to have someone to blame if something goes wrong. Like the politicians we trust until we grow tired of them (and toss them out) we want to be able to blame someone other than ourselves for the direction of the church and the work we do or fail to do.

Having the power of God in community means constant discernment, testing what we do against the biblical record, the urging of the Spirit, and full knowledge of the mistakes of the past. And this discernment must be based on agreement—two or three or more who can agree that what we do is faithful and just. It requires a variety of spiritual gifts—knowledge, insight, prophecy—and a conversation that applies gifts to the situation we find ourselves in.

It’s also important to note that having the power of God in community is not the same a being God. It seems self-evident, but many traditions that fall under the Christian banner are quick to condemn people and cast them into the outer darkness, when this belongs to God alone. And the fact that God is very likely unwilling to do this at all will prove a great surprize to them. Still, the power to bind and loose has more to do with the ability to forgive than the ability to condemn, something that more Christians should learn. And yes, condemning fellow Christians for condemning others is ironic, so I’ll begin to wind up.

Having the power of God in community is related to the other thing we often say, namely ‘we are the hands and feet of Christ.’ The latter is more active and less formal, more relational and less based on concept that have an uneasy relationship with—that being power. Claiming the power of God seems overwhelming and more than a little arrogant.

In truth, whenever we undertake that things we are commanded to do—forgive each other, love our neighbours, feed the hungry—we are demonstrating the power of God to transform lives. We are more than just hands and feet: we are agents of the Most High. Acting together, we bring the power of God to our community, our homes, our very selves. It’s daunting, and that is no accident. We should tremble whenever we do what God would have us do.

May our worship and work be blessed with God’s own power, in community, and in our hearts. Amen.