Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reign of Christ

If I told you “scientia potentia (sap-ee-en-sha po-ten-sha) est,” you would likely reply in two ways.

First, I expect you would concur that nothing is quite as cool as quoting Latin, and then you would agree that indeed, as the famous phrase says, “knowledge is power.” There’s lots of debate about who said to first, but most agree that in the realm of understanding, the more you know, the more power you possess.

Perhaps that’s why my doctor recently gave me a flu shot and a book during the same visit. (I should clarify, the flu shot is mine to keep—the book I need to return when I’m done with it). So I departed, fortified in mind and body, ready to overcome a couple of nasties with the innocuous names A/Michigan and B/Brisbane, and temporarily armed with Kurt Andersen’s new book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

Appropriate to the weekend, I’ve already learned how my Pilgrim forbears came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and then inadvertently created “a nation where every individual is gloriously free to construct any version of reality” he or she believes to be true.* Barely three-dozen pages in, and I can already see the seeds of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I’m gonna get a flu shot more often.

Back to “knowledge is power,” I now realize that while I was busy at school reading the Germans—Bultmann, Buber and Barth—the kids down the hall were reading French post-structuralists with names like Derrida and Foucault (FOO-koh). It just sounds cooler—reading post-structuralists—and cooler still when I learned that if you call a post-structuralist a post-structuralist they get really mad—preferring instead to be called post-phenomenologists, which just makes me think of the Muppets.

I share all this because St. Paul has give us his own version of “knowledge is power” in Ephesians 1, and because the post-structuralists (easier than calling them post-phenomenologists) have kicked over the chair of knowledge and offered another perspective on “knowledge is power.”

So St. Paul. Paul’s version of knowledge is power is a little longer, a little more involved, and intimately tied up in the power of God. Here is his version:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

The rule with Paul is you have to break it down a little, so let’s hear it again but with an overall goal (“that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”) and three ways this enlightening might happen: 1) to know the hope we’ve been called to, 2) to understand the riches we inherit as God’s people, 3) and to appreciate the great power we possess as believers.

In other words, as hopeful inheritors, we possess far more power than we comprehend, and it’s Paul’s wish that “the eyes of our heart” be enlightened. It’s a marvellous metaphor—eyes of the heart—and it points to something else Paul would have us remember: that we are part of the body of Christ.

The theme of Ephesians, the theme of this stage of Paul’s ministry, is the unity of the body of Christ. He’s already told us that we’re “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3) and “the body is not made up of one part but of many” (I Corinthians 12). All of us, gentile, Jew, slave or free, are all given one Spirit to drink and all belong to the same body.

But Ephesians, or rather Paul in Ephesians takes this further still, combining the image of the body of Christ with Christ as the head of the church. These are familiar images, but it’s here that the head and the body are fully joined** and the power of God is revealed:

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

So back to our metaphor—the eyes of the heart—Paul is joining heart and mind, giving us the ability to see as God sees. With Christ as the head of the church, and church as the body, we are together able to move about and embody the fulness of God in the world.

In other words, knowledge is power. Knowledge is power both in terms of understanding and insight, but also in training the eyes of the heart on the world around us. Like the well-loved hymn, it’s asking God to become “a channel of your peace,” in hatred bringing love, to injury pardon, to doubt true faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and so on. (St. Francis)

But there is more, and this is where our post-structuralist friends reappear. While we are busy seeing as God sees, understanding human need, embodying Christ’s compassion, we also need to understand the forces that make this difficult to do. We need to see what we’re up against.

Beginning in the 1960s, people like Michel Foucault were taking a second look at ideas such as “knowledge is power” and exploring the shadow side. In his thesis, Madness and Civilization, Foucault explored how mental illness has been regarded over the centuries, and came to the conclusion that well-meaning elites were redefining the topic to suit their own purposes.

Thus began an extended conversation about the nature of power and the degree to which we are conditioned to accept certain ideas as true because it makes for a well-functioning society. And from this, we see the seeds of our current situation. One group of kids were reading Foucault and saying “ban the bomb” and “make love not war” convinced that they could no longer depend on their leaders to tell them the truth.

Meanwhile, a second group were absorbing the same lessons about well-meaning elites redefining truth to suit their own purposes and founded organizations like the Moral Majority. The name of the organization was the giveaway: their view that liberal elites in the media and the academy were taking society in one direction while the “moral majority” would sooner go in the opposite direction.

I think you can see there this leads. A well-known personage I won’t name says “I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change” and we are left shaking our heads until it hurts. Knowledge is power, which should mean we have diagnosed a global threat and can now turn our attention to solving it. Instead, some are suggesting that knowledge is power and therefore they won’t be manipulated by the Chinese solar-panel makers who are somehow trying to rip us off.

So you see, it’s hard to be faithful when we can’t even agree that a problem exists. And it’s doubly difficult when the body of Christ is divided between left and right, unable to agree on a full-range of topics or even the biblical basis that led to these conclusions. It would be easy to blame the French post-structuralists for this, but the divide began long ago, certainly as far back as Plymouth Rock, and maybe farther.

Despite the divide, we need to stick with the goal St. Paul describes—that we “open the eyes of our heart” and see what God sees in the community that surrounds us. That we avoid getting drawn in to pointless debates and focus instead on the power to see deep need—poverty, hunger, homelessness, right-relations, troubled youth, meaninglessness and more.

And maybe—just maybe—this focus on the most vulnerable will be a bridge over the divisions that plague us. Maybe it will draw us outside ourselves and help us to see what God sees—no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, rich or poor, left or right—but one body made up of all God’s children. Amen.

*p. 35
**Martin, Interpretation

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Proper 28

Matthew 25
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

You’re richer than you think.

And if by rich I mean blessed, then you are richer than you think. Surrounded by friends and family, giving ourselves to prayer and praise on a Sunday morning, warm and dry in a place created for us by so many saints, and comforted in the knowledge that we have meaningful work to do in the community.

Somewhere in your mind’s eye you’re still puzzling over ‘you’re richer than you think.’ “Is that one of the blue banks? Or one of the red ones? Not the dark red (don’t ask me, I’m colourblind) but the red red one. And what about that other bank—does it ever have a colour? Green, of course! You’re richer than you think...yup, I’m gonna say red—the one that’s red red.”

There’s a lot of interior monologue, so just to anticipate the obvious place your imagination will go next: yes, each bank has an equally inane slogan. (I should ask, are there any bank-slogan writers in the house?) So, let’s start with the green one, who recently ditched the leather chair (“Banking can be this comfortable”) and opted for “Ready for you.” As bad as this is, it’s still an improvement over two slogans ago: “Open earlier, open later. Even Sunday.” Whatever shame big business felt about opening Sunday is long gone.

Light blue says “Making money make sense,” which once commentator translated to mean ‘you’re not smart enough to handle your own money so leave it to us.’* So that’s a fail. Dark red (what is that, maroon?) promises “Banking that fits your life.” And just as you reflexively are tempted to ask ‘what do you know of my life?’ they delight you with Percy the Penquin. I’m not making this up—his name is Percy. So cute.

Needless to say, I think I prefer my own application of “You richer than you think,” with the added bonus of reminding me of It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the toast at the end, after Harry Bailey flies through a blizzard to help out? He says, “to my big brother, George. The
richest man in town!” And just as you start sobbing (okay, I start sobbing) George picks up the book and reads the inscription from the angel Clarence: “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

So, having convinced you and your inner monologue that there is a better way to apply “you’re richer than you think,” I’m going to suggest that it’s the bank’s meaning that Jesus would have us apply to the Parable of the Talents, also known as the Parable of the Bags of Gold (NIV) or the Parable of the Valuable Coins (CEB). The name is the give away: this is a story about money.

Now, scholars seem to have a lot of time on their hands (I can only say this while Carmen is away) and calculated that a talent is about 15 years wages for a low-income worker. From the top then, the owner leaves town and entrusts the first servant with a million-and-a-half, the next with six-hundred-grand and the last with three-hundred.

The master returns and wants to know the state of his portfolio, so he summons his servants to give an accounting. Servants one and two have each doubled their money, likely on camel futures or some such, since we get the impression that the master wasn’t gone long. Compound interest is a miracle, but not that much of a miracle. However they did it, they get high praise: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

Servant three is a very different case. He’s timid. He’s risk-averse, and he makes his confession: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you didn’t sow, and gathering where you didn’t scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

And just to add to his humiliation, the master gives him some obvious advice: ‘Well, you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.’ And then the conclusion, the part with the tense music and the concerned glances as we wonder who will be off the show: “So take the talent from him,” the master says, “and give it to the one with the ten talents.”

Now, if the next part was your favourite part, I’m going to try to disappoint you. You’ve already been introduced to the idea of ‘scribal exuberance’ and the extent to which someone, at some time, may have tried to underline the point of the parable with a little oomph. Listen again:

29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

We don’t have time for a proper trial, but imagine the first servant—in addition to his fear—has taken the advice of Jesus in Matthew 6: ‘Don’t store up treasures on earth, where moths destroy and thieves will steal, but collect treasures in heaven.’ Or ‘don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, your Father in heaven will look after these things.’ Instead, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” It practically sings! This is the Jesus we know and love, not the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ and certainly not the guy who says, ‘from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

On the other hand—and to make this trial fair—Jesus is certainly in a mood in Matthew 25. Last week it’s the wise and foolish virgins, the latter with empty lamps, seeking oil in the night, then knocking in vain as the bridegroom says ‘I don’t even know you.‘ Next week’s passage is the judgement on the nations, where the unrighteous will ask ‘when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison?‘ And the answer—the part we usually don’t read—is ‘as you failed to do this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do if for me.‘

I will leave it for you to decide if the timid servant deserves “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” or if Jesus is even capable of such a sentence. This is a parable about risk, and the extent to which we believe that “you’re richer than you think.” Let me explain.

The hole the ground, the one where the last servant hid his lonely talent, is little more than an inverted basket. And we know the parable of the wicker basket:

14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your God who is in heaven. (Matthew 5)

The context is the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is saying that anyone who hungers and thirst after righteousness, anyone who is merciful, anyone who is pure in heart, anyone who tries to be a peacemaker—ought not to hide this from the world. The light of righteousness, mercy, and peace needs to seen in this world—the richness of our work—and we need to encourage each other to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Yet even then, amid the encouragement and the challenge, Jesus has a word for the last servant, seemingly condemned in one place—or at the very least admonished—but still in the realm of his grace: “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they shall inherit the earth.”

It’s been a tough week here at the church, with terrible violence on our doorstep, and even now more questions than answers about the cause of this crime. There is an obvious temptation to shrink from the streets that surround the church, to bolt the doors and give into the fear of each other that often follows such an event.

Somehow, with the courage that only faith brings, we need to remain people of righteousness, mercy, and peace. We need to remain the pure of heart, with doors open to all the hurt and rage that the world gives. And we need to trust in the Spirit, that even now is calling us to take risks, in Jesus‘ name. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2
9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.

Before the internet, and even before television, there was rhetoric.

Rhetoric is one of these words we commonly misuse, or at least apply a bias that need not exist. So, for example, if I say “that speech was filled with empty rhetoric” you might assume (appropriately) that the speaker was trying impress or move people, but really had little to say.

It’s too bad, really, because rhetoric is just a form of speech—a neutral term—meant to describe the art of trying to persuade. We can call to mind the great speeches of the past—such as Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech—and appreciate the extent to which rhetoric can change hearts and minds.

Cicero said that the purpose of a good speech was to teach, persuade and delight—an idea that Augustine stole and applied to preaching. So here I stand, with Cicero on one shoulder and Augustine on the other, compelled to speak to you in a manner that might teach, persuade and delight.

And the Greeks, who spent that time before television perfecting the art of rhetoric, gave it some theory. And then they argued over the theory, developed schools of thought, master confronted pupil and vice versa, and eventually the whole thing ended up on Wikipedia.

For this morning, I want to share just one type of rhetoric, the one that St. Paul used in his first letter to the Thessalonians, and used in more-or-less all his letters. Call this your five dollar word of the day: epideictic (epi-dyke-tic). Aristotle called it one of the three main species of rhetoric—sometimes called ceremonial speech, or even praise-and blame speech.

Epideictic speech is called ceremonial speech because that’s where it’s most commonly used. If you have ever attended a graduation, and heard the valedictorian speak, you have likely heard some epideictic speech. The purpose is to remind you who you are, or what you’ve done—or in some cases—what you have failed to do. This speech is laden with virtues, praising the best in human behaviour and encouraging us to live up to this standard.

The modern master of this type of speech is President Obama, someone that even his opponents admit is a great speaker. Here’s a quote, just to remind you what presidents sound like:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Ahhhh. It’s like a tonic, or a balm. Or a flu shot for the mind. And you can see what he does in just a few words: add a little gentle critique, point to human nature, then remind people that they are better than that, that they can overcome themselves to be something more. It’s what leaders do.

So listen again to part of Paul’s letter, but think of it as ceremonial speech, something shared after an important time together, something to mark the moment:

9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

There’s another element in this form of speech I should mention, and that’s self-display. Paul uses it frequently in his letters, and some find it problematic, but it’s an important part of his rhetorical toolbox. Self-display means lifting something you (or we) have done in order to further the argument. Politicians use this all the time, and it even works if they really have something to brag about.

But if you’re not a successful politician or St. Paul, it’s generally worth avoiding. Michael’s first rule of preaching—learn more in our upcoming Lenten study—is only mention yourself in a sermon if you do something foolish or learn a bitter lesson. Funny, in framing it as my first rule in preaching—which makes a lot of sense—I may have just broken my first rule. Forgive me.

But Paul is Paul, and as missionary and architect of the the Christian faith he has every reason to remind people what he has done. He and his companions worked hard, they entered the community without adding to the burden of everyday life. They were upright, setting an example for others to follow, and avoiding the blame that opponents might cast. And then he gives them a simple image to ponder:

11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

And like an address inside an address, Paul describes what the best parental rhetoric looks like, the best way for fathers or mothers deal with children: encouraging, comforting, urging faithfulness. We might even call it Paul’s variation of Cicero and Augustine for parents: ‘teach, inspire and delight’ becomes encourage, comfort and urge your children to live lives worthy of God.

And we know that Paul took his role as ‘father’ of the churches and ‘father’ of the faith very seriously. Taking this mandate—encouraging, comforting and urging them to live lives worthy of God—we can hear it in letter after letter:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12.2)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)

Perhaps it’s the last one that best demonstrates the heights of Paul’s epideictic (epi-dyke-tic) power. This is the rhetoric that sets a high bar for love—and has therefore become the staple of weddings. And this, of course, is almost too bad, because anything that becomes too familiar runs the risk of losing the power to convince.

Remembering Paul’s mandate—encouraging, comforting and urging us to live lives worthy of God—the “love passage” is for everyone who is called upon to set aside the ordinary and the day-to-day and demonstrate a higher calling: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

As we continue to remember the fallen, we recall that their sacrifice came from a place that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Those who served demonstrated a mixture of forbearance, belief, hope and endurance that will continue to inspire and prompt others to act.

One of the enduring places of memory and action is the Menin Gate, a memorial to over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Great War and whose bodies were never recovered. Audrey, Jack and I have a cousin listed among the dead, Pte. Norman Southorn, who fell near Ypres on June 3, 1916.

Belgians and the people of Ypres continue to honour the fallen every day with the Last Post every evening at 8 pm, something they have been doing since 1927. They were forced to stop during the Second World War, when the city was under occupation, but even then—some say—the Last Post was whistled in private in the town. They continued through the 60s and 70s, when it was often just two buglers and a couple of cops standing by. And they continue now, closing the street where a crowd forms every night, and the remembering continues. The dead speak, encouraging, comforting and urging us to live lives worthy of God

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.