Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Mark 11
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

If I told you that the average temperature for the first week of spring was minus one, what would you call it?

Unfair comes to mind, sad (with an exclamation mark) might work, or someone brave might say it’s ironic. The problem with describing this turn-of-events as ironic, of course, is that a debate will immediately ensue. Is it ironic? Or is that just unfortunate? Or is it just cold?

One of the things I neglected to mention in our recent Lenten study on preaching is the appropriate use of poetry—it illustrate a point or raise the tenor of the preaching event. So perhaps something from a well-known Canadian poet will help:

It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
Who would've thought... it figures

Of course, the gift that our famous poet gave us is now 23 years of debate on the nature of irony. Bad luck is not really irony—it is said. Misfortune is not really irony, nor is sarcasm, though the debate still rages on the last one. Generous amounts of ink has been spilled on whether Alanis Morrisette was describing irony or something else, and all we’re left with is another ear-worm that will haunt us through lunch.

So what is irony, really? When what is said or intended is opposite to the outcome or the reality, it’s ironic. So, if you have ever shouted at someone saying, “I’m not angry!” then you have fallen into irony. Or that time the fire station in Mount Albert burned to the ground. I think you get the picture.

A closer look will tell you that there are three types of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic—and that all three happen in the reading Joyce shared this morning. But before we get back to the loud hosannas (palms wave) we should get our examples straight.

The first kind, verbal irony, begins with the “I’m not angry” example, with intended meaning and actual meaning falling apart. And this is where sarcasm enters the mix, and another debate we don’t have time to explore. If you can see your keys inside your locked car and you say “Oh, that’s just great,” it may or may not be ironic. If you have forgotten the spare key you left in the bottom of your bag as you stare into the locked car, that’s ironic.

Situational irony seems the most straightforward, with the fire station example, or “unsinkable” liner that left Southhampton and sailed the north Atlantic in April. Or the three characters that spend the whole film looking for a wizard to bestow courage, brains and heart, only to discover they possessed these things all along.

And dramatic irony, of course, requires a spoiler alert, because it’s all about the audience knowing things that the characters in the drama do not. So Juliet’s plan was clever but she forgot to tell Romeo, and bad things happen, but it’s the audience that’s all torn up because we can see exactly what happens when the best laid plan goes awry.

So how is Palm Sunday ironic? I guess we can begin by imagining a military parade, with a conquering hero entering the city, flanked by an excited crowd. People sing and shout, and celebrate the exploits of this general or strongman, a give him names like Africanus or Germanicus, places conquered or subdued. Instead, we hear this:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

So it seems ironic to use the form and circumstance of a military parade to shout hosanna—God, save us—to cry out for liberation in a setting that usually means victory. Unless you imagine that the victory is already won, and that the coming Kingdom has already arrived in the person of Jesus the Christ, perhaps a kind of double-irony. So that’s the verbal part.

The situational irony is like the first: using the familiar form of a military parade to welcome the Prince of Peace, and to call for the coming kingdom of David that will, in fact, be a spiritual kingdom. It’s using the form of conquest to usher in a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom that Jesus tells us already exists within us.

And the dramatic irony—that seems to be happening on a few layers. The first belongs to us, the audience for this unfolding drama. We already know what awaits Jesus—because he told us—and because we already know the end of the story. Even the first readers of this text would know the end of the story, most often introduced to Jesus through his death and resurrection.

So it’s dramatic irony in the sense that we know the outcome even as those shouting and waving palm leaves do not. We know, and Jesus knows, and together we can only shake our heads at the bystanders and the disciples who think this is real. Like poor Romeo, the disciples thought this was real, when in fact it was staged to make a point: the coming kingdom is unlike anything you know, and the coming conquest is unlike anything you know.

The theologian Tom Wright begins each talk with some variation of these words: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” The Christian story was never about saving souls or imposing some sort of religious agenda, but about the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm become one.

The first step in this project is the incarnation, God entering our world in a new way—in an ironic way—in the form of a baby. The next step was a variety of teachings, all counter-cultural and designed to disarm even the most jaded—blessed are the meek, and the poor, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Love your neighbour, and forgive seven times seventy.

The next step is this bit of theatre, mocking all the conquering heroes by adapting this form for the coming kingdom. And the final step—the step that will take us closest to drawing heaven and earth together at the last—is Jesus death on a cross. In perhaps the greatest example of irony yet known, Jesus forgives the very people who placed him on the cross, and began the mystery of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our faith.

As we enter Holy Week and the most ironically-named Good Friday, I encourage you to live the entire story. Wait with us in the Upper Room. Approach the cross and the mystery set to unfold. And then come Sunday for a celebration, as something empty becomes filled with the promise of new life. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

Our Lenten study on preaching is nearly finished, only the Great Canadian Preach-Off remains, along with a handful of random bits of content that come to mind between now and Thursday. One of those, which I will demonstrate this morning is recycling, where a paragraph or two is taken from one context (say, a preaching study) and recycled for another (a sermon, for example).

You can’t plagiarize yourself, but you can tire your first audience, so for those present for evening two, the next moments are time to go to your happy place, maybe plan out your own two-minute sermon, or simply sit back.

I begin, then, in the pulpit of the former Cliffcrest United Church, a congregation I was blessed to serve for a number of years. The sanctuary was built in 1954, and reflected the assumptions and aspirations of the post-war period—in the church and society at large. The oddest feature was the long corduroy wall of brick facing Kingston Road. This windowless wall was meant to block the sound of traffic, since Kingston Road was much like the 401 in 1954, a highway that was still on the drawing board. On the opposite wall, facing inward, was a long wall of clear glass windows, the legend being that they were salvaged from a demolished factory.

The architecture seemed to say two things at once: we are a shelter from the busy world passing our door, and we are a lantern, shining the clear light of the Gospel upon the neighbourhood that surrounds us. I think it achieved both.

Meanwhile, in the chancel, the outsized table shared the space with an equally outsized pulpit, the latter being a wide curved affair that the preacher could easily hide behind if need be. The table was inscribed with a traditional message for the congregation (“Do this in remembrance of me” if I recall correctly). Meanwhile, the pulpit was inscribed with an interior message—a message for the preacher alone—that said “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Ignoring the erroneous assumption that everyone standing behind the pulpit should be addressed as “Sir,” the interior message functioned as a perpetual reminder, and a sort of moral imperative—that the congregation, like those Greek visitors long ago, are there to see Jesus.

It’s an odd little episode—Greek visitors take one of the disciples aside and ask to see Jesus—but it seems to send the signal that Jesus’ fame will spread beyond Israel and Judah. We’re not told why they wanted to see him or even if this backstage pass was granted. And as quickly as they arrive, our Greek friends disappear again.

What we’re left with—what we’re always left with—is context, and the place we find this passage in the larger picture of John’s Gospel. The immediate context, the passage that precedes this one, is the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a story will visit next week. This alone might explain the request to see Jesus—with foreign visitors in the capitol witnessing the parade to mark Jesus’ arrival.

But the larger context is worth noting too, since the story that takes us to the edge of Jerusalem—the raising of Lazarus—casts a shadow over what is to come. The eleventh chapter recounts the story in great detail: the news of Lazarus’ death reaching Jesus, visiting his sisters and the recrimination that comes, moving to the tomb and the skepticism that follows, and finally releasing him with the words “Lazarus, come out!” and “unbind him and let him go.”

It is the remarkable nature of this resuscitation—including the controversy it generates—that may have caused word to reach these Greek visitors to Jerusalem. The city was abuzz with both excitement and concern, from those who wanted to see the wonder worker that everyone was talking about, to the religious officials and their well-founded fear of disturbing the Roman occupiers.

And that too is an important bit of context, as the story of Lazarus ends with a meeting of the religious council, and the decision to arrest Jesus. Note that we are at the midpoint of John’s Gospel—that the last of seven signs is complete with the raising of Lazarus and the book then turns of Jesus’ passion. Fully half the gospel will be consumed by it, and the outcome predicted at the beginning of chapter one will come to pass: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (v.10)

And the shape of that prediction is now coming fully into view. The request to see Jesus may or may not have been met, but it prompts a response from Jesus, one of those statements that would grow in significance in the weeks to come:

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

This is what the Greek visitors will see—if they hang in a week or two longer—and perhaps they too will become the seeds of this new movement. At the very least they will see that this was never about a wonder worker and the crowds that inevitably seek out spectacle, but about the seed of faith that will grow in the most unlikely of ways—from cross to tomb to final glory.

In the meantime, we are learning about a new way of seeing, a lens that takes us back to that hidden pulpit message and the imperative to allow people to see Jesus. In effect, the Greeks are still speaking, still seeking to see, and the request that begins behind the pulpit extends to the rest of the disciples and beyond.

And what will they see? The gospels, as they develop, provide us with a template: it begins simply, with words of invitation, usually along the line of “come and see.” And then there are wonders to behold—a healing or a demon displace—and the words “you will see greater wonders than this.” He will speak to a woman at the well, and recount for her what troubles, and she will say “come and see this man who truly knows me.” The disciples will ask to see God and he will remind them that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” And when he finally makes plain all that will unfold he says “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

What Jesus has introduced is a new way of seeing—that everything from invitation to teaching to healing grows this new sight, leading to the conclusion that St. Paul makes in Colossians: “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God.” The Greeks came to see Jesus, but they ended up seeing God instead.

Of course it will be later, in the locked room, on the beach, on the road to Emmaus, that all of this seeing will come together. The words will finally make sense, and the events will meld to form a complete narrative. Only upon reflection, and in the telling and retelling, that the disciples will finally see. Only then will they come to understand that what so many cannot see—the light of the world—they can see in each other.

Like so many churches, this place is meant to be both shelter from the busy world and a lantern, casting light on a weary world. It is always reflected light: the light of Christ, the light that we have been blessed to see, cast from this place into the streets that surround us. We carry this light wherever we go—from seeing—to seen by all. Amen.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent

John 2
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[a]
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Two weeks of preaching instruction, and I can already feel them judging me.

It’s a bit like travelling to the end of the yellow-brick road and discovering the guy behind the curtain is just a guy and not some sort of all-powerful preaching wizard.

Already, they’re thinking “that’s not where I would go with this passage—he’s ignoring the Sitz im Leben of the text, taking it way out of context, and he really should emphasize Heilsgeschichte—God’s saving acts.” My students are very clever—they practically think in High German.

Of course it’s only two weeks in, so all has not yet been revealed. Take, for example, the simple lesson that the sermon and the text should align. If the lesson is poetry, your sermon should be more poetic. If it’s a parable, the sermon should unfold like a parable—create a world, watch it sour, and then reveal some sign of the Kingdom.

And so for today, Jesus with his whip of cords angrily overturning the tables in the Temple, expect a bit of appropriate anger in the sermon, say in about six or seven minutes, the sermon mirroring the emotion in the text. To do otherwise would fail to accurately represent the authors intent, and somehow take the whole thing out of context. (“Setting watches...he’s going to mention Money Mart in six minutes”)

This middle bit of the sermon (that’s the technical term—the middle bit) will follow a suggestion Dr. Jim made near the end of the second class—refer to and do a word search. You have to know, of course, what you’re searching for, and in this case it’s doves. Our nascent preachers will tell you that you need to scan the text and see what stands out, what seems unusual, or something you’re noticing for the first time.

So doves. I’ve read this passage countless times and only now did I notice that it’s the dove sellers that really set Jesus off:

15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

So imagine the scene: some joker has moved a herd a cattle into the outer court of the most sacred spot in the world, and another joker (this one a shepherd) has moved a flock of sheep into the holy places, and yet another joker or set of jokers has been trading hard-earned denarii for Temple funny-money—and Jesus loses it over some doves? So what’s with the doves?

Enter But before we turn to this most-helpful-of-sites, I should say you don’t need the internet to write a sermon. Back in my day, we didn’t have Biblegateway or, we had Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, published in 1737. That’s how old I am. Cruden’s is a complete index of every word in the Bible, published by a very nice Scottish man who didn’t suffer the distraction of television.

Doves come up 46 times in the Bible. The first few mentions you know, famous as a sign that the ark is approaching dry land. Then there is the first mention of a dove as an offering—from Abram as a response to his covenant with God. And then we move into Leviticus.

The dove appears nine times in Leviticus, which makes sense since this is the source of the code that leads people to make such an offering in the Temple. The dove is an offering for poor people—something we will see again when we get to the dedication of the baby Jesus—and this regulation gets repeated again and again in the law.

Doves are mentioned in a couple of psalms, and in that book of Hebrew erotica hidden in the middle of your Bibles (“Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”) Now I’m blushing.

There are a number of mentions in the prophets, mostly related to the mournful sound a dove makes—or their innocence—something that Jesus repeats when he tells us to be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Lastly, doves appear in all four gospels, as the Spirit descends in the form of a dove—a sign of blessing and divine sanction on God’s beloved son.

As a symbol, then, the dove comes freighted with the idea of promise, then offering (and particularly as a offering for the most vulnerable), then innocence, and then the blessing of God through the Holy Spirit. There is a lot going on in that little bird, and this alone might explain Jesus’ reaction to the sellers—a kind of desecration of a well-loved symbol.

And that might be our answer, except for another clue among our examples, this one from Leviticus 5:

If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. (5.11)

We won’t do a word study on an ephah—but since you’re wondering—an ephah is equal to ten omers. What this single verse tells us is that even below the poverty offering of two doves is small quantity of grain—a tenth of a bushel—that still allows you to maintain the covenant obligations set down in the law. And while we don’t know the precise value, a few cups of grain must have been within the means of the very poor, and even easier to access that a couple of doves, something that with a little time you could simply catch.

Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers that are taking money for something that can be sourced for free. Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers who are offering an item more expensive than a bit of grain. Whatever the precise reason, it certainly relates to exploitation, taking advantage of the most vulnerable among the Temple visitors, those scrambling to secure an acceptable sacrifice for the Lord.

Has it been six minutes? There is a special place in hell—yeah, I said it—there is a special place in hell for those who engage in predatory loan practices, targeting the most vulnerable. The so-called payday loan is aimed at those who are short near the end of the month—hence the name payday loan. The problem is that people turn to these places when they have exhausted other sources—cards are maxed out, no line of credit, friends and family turn them away.

And when the Star looked at this issue recently and reached for a stock photo to illustrate the article, they chose—you guessed it—Weston Road looking north from Lawrence Avenue. We are payday loan central. Those of us with money are borrowing at prime-plus-one or prime-plus-two, while our poorest neighbours are playing $15 to borrow $100—an effective rate of an eye-watering 3,724% when you spread this cost over a year.

Why haven’t we simply outlawed the whole payday loan industry? Quebec did. Why would we permit this to continue when last year over 30% of bankruptcies listed payday loans as a contributing factor? Next time you see your MPP ask her about payday loans. Leave your whip of cords at home, but take the anger with you.

That tenth of an ephah the poor could bring—also called an omer—that’s the daily ration of manna that settled on the desert floor each morning, feeding the Israelites at their time of deepest need. When Jesus said “give us this day our daily bread” he was speaking of an omer, one portion, given by God, enough to meet our needs. Those who gathered more watched it rot, while those too weak to gather an omer saw their cup miraculously fill itself.

Like the dove, God has made allowances for the poor, an offering that functions as a means test and a way to allow even the poorest a way to participate in the rituals of faith. Add gleaning laws, and Jesus’ various teachings about money, and you get a picture of a God who cares deeply about the poor.

May we remain mindful of the needs of the most vulnerable, and God help us continue to help, now and always. Amen.