Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Luke 15
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Our parable begins in the belly of the whale.

(Just now you’re thinking that perhaps I dropped my Bible, maybe some pages came loose, and maybe I put them back in the wrong place.) It didn’t happen—not this time at least. Hear me out as I try to understand how Jesus came upon the parable of the prodigal son, because I’m certain it began in the belly of a whale.

Jonah lists his occupation as prophet, but you would hardly know it from the beginning of the story. He receives a call from God—a command really—to go to Nineveh and prophesy against them. God has taken note of their great wickedness, and prophet’s job is to give them one last chance.

Jonah gets this call, and even as he’s hanging up the phone, he’s already slipping on his coat and running out the door. But it’s not toward Nineveh, the great city overcome by great wickedness—it’s in the exact opposite direction. Our Jonah’s on his way to Jaffa, to catch a ship, with a one-way ticket to Tarshish, which I’m told is lovely this time of year.

But I don’t think Jonah was really interested in Tarshish, he was only interested in getting away, and so must have breathed a deep sigh of relief once on board, sailing west, away from trouble—until trouble found him. A great storm came up, maybe the perfect storm, and the crew begin to panic. They cast lots to determine who was to blame, but they could simply have noted a rather sheepish looking prophet hiding away. You see, God was now angry at Jonah too, squandering his prophetic inheritance, and you could see it in the wind and the waves.

Obviously the lot fell to Jonah, but the crew did something unexpected: they resisted throwing this fugitive overboard. Even today, you can be disqualified for throwing someone overboard, evidence that suggests they were racing on a yacht. So whether it was racing rules or just common decency, they continued to resist until they could continue no more. And over Jonah went.

But the story doesn’t end there, because God still had plans for Jonah. And like that day you realize that the pigs are having a happier time—eating their pig pods—Jonah come to see the same thing, or rather feel the same thing, in the darkness, in the belly of the whale. It’s a well-known fact that prophets cause indigestion, so Jonah is regurgitated on to a beach, to mend his ways, and finally go to Nineveh.

Now Nineveh is big—three days across—and Jonah spent those three days doing what prophets do, saying “Forty days more, and Nineveh will be destroyed.” Obviously he did something right, because everyone in Nineveh put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes, from the king in his regal sackcloth and this throne of ashes, to the ordinary folk, and the children, and even family dog.

God is overjoyed. So overjoyed that God forgave the people of Nineveh, trading their sackcloth robes for some finer robes, celebrating with them the repentance they so thoroughly embraced.

But Jonah was not celebrating. He stood at a distance and refused to celebrate the good fortune of Nineveh. “This!” he prayed to God, this is why I ran to the coast! I knew that you’re a compassionate God, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love...a God who relents from sending calamity. When this wicked city shows a little remorse, and puts the beagle in sackcloth, you throw a forgiveness party instead of smoting them as you ought!”

And then the Lord said to Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry? We should celebrate with all these people, foolish as they are, because they were lost, and now they are found!”

Do you see that Jesus did there? How did Jonah and the Whale become a parable, a window on the Kingdom? Jesus did it the only way that makes sense: turn Jonah into two people, two brothers, and set the story on dry land, which is always safer. And so he did:

Early Jonah, maritime Jonah, is profligate with his prophetic gift, and the younger brother is profligate (note that word) with half his inheritance. Jonah discovers the error of his ways in the belly of a whale, and the younger brother makes this same discovery in a pigpen, I’m not sure which would smell worse. Then we meet later Jonah, born-again prophetic Jonah, who judges Nineveh harshly and hopes they get what they deserve. He can’t stomach all this forgiveness and understanding, all this slow anger and steadfast love. He came for the smoting, and all he got was a lousy sackcloth t-shirt.

Funny word, profligate. I used it once to describe my own son, and he pretended that he didn’t know what it means. “You know, profligate, like one more broken cell phone, smashed to bits or soaked in water.” Why does everyone under 30 have a cracked screen, or a cell phone drying out in a bag of rice? But I digress.

Profligate means “recklessly extravagant or wasteful in the use of resources.” And who might that be? Running across the field to greet his lost son, fitting him with the finest robe, killing the fatted calf, forgiving 120,000 Ninevites (God is very precise about this number), and generally being profligate with all that grace. Forgiveness would seem to be a finite resource, at least it is in human terms, but God is profligate—recklessly extravagant with forgiveness and steadfast love.

So why does Jesus remake the story, making one prophet into two brothers? Well, maybe the answer is vocational, found in the role of the prophet, the role Jesus knew well. Take Isaiah for example. In chapter 39 he’s saying to the old king, “look around at everything you have, because one day it will all be carried off to Babylon,” and just a few verses later it’s all “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people...He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart.”

In other words, prophets—people of faith—need to tell forth, “Forty days more, and Weston-Mount Dennis may be destroyed,” AND forgive, as God forgives. But Jesus gave a thought to his audience, primarily his disciples, and knew that a simple telling was better. One prophet becomes two brothers, dividing one conflicted person into two stereotypical siblings, with a forgiving father, profligate with his love.

Of course, Jesus had another motive, beyond adapting this story for landlubbers: Jesus wanted to highlight what happens to the righteous when they cross over into self-righteousness. You don’t need to have an older brother to know the older brother because churches are filled with them—except this church, of course. In fact, we all have a little older brother in us, imaging that our younger siblings-in-the-faith have it easier than we did, and generally resenting that fact that everyone is equal in God’s eyes, lifelong members and the people here for the first time today.

May you know this profligate God, reckless in mercy and steadfast in love. And may you be profligate in your love for others, Amen.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Third Sunday of Lent

Luke 13
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4 Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

It’s either a giant nothingburger, or the biggest scandal since the Pacific Scandal of 1873.

What’s really fun is trying to describe the latest scandal in Ottawa, or getting other people to describe it: it’s sort of like standing around an abstract painting and trying to agree on what you see. And on this, the so-called “Mueller Day” weekend, and the weekend that may well see the end of Prime Minister May, our controversy seems pale by comparison.

Generally, scandal is what politicians fear most. Losing an election, as humiliating as that may seem, is really just the consequence of letting the voters decide. The peaceful transition from one government to the next, the end of a long tenure in government, even if it’s a case of ‘voting the bums out’—these can all be spun as positives.

Scandal, however, that’s another story. Scandal defines people, it creates the kind of historical shorthand that all politicians dread. Sometimes it’s a single word, too often ending in ‘gate.’ Sometimes it’s the name of a person, or a place, Lewinsky or Benghazi. And sometimes we resort to short phrases or quotes to sum up a scandal, like ‘kids in cages on the southern border’ or ‘very fine people on both sides.’

And none of this is new. The passage Kathy read, which begins with a short burst of headlines, also smacks of scandal: ‘Some were present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them.’ It might as well say “Prefect Pilate Pollutes Plasma,” or “Meet the 18 Who Didn’t Have to Die.”

The scandal involving Pontius Pilate leaps off this page this week, the same week we will be taking an indepth look at Pilate in our Lenten Study. Interestingly, among all the things we know about Pontius Pilate, among all the things recorded by Josephus and Philo, there is no contemporaneous source for the incident involving Galileans and their blood. That’s not to say it didn’t happen—Pilate was Judean prefect for a decade after all—so maybe it’s just one more outrage among many.

But to does fit a pattern. Pilate (without spoiling Thursday evenings study) was notoriously careless about Jewish sensibilities, apparently never missing an opportunity to offend the people he governed. And this will have some bearing on the most famous evening of all, and the second part of a trial that we relive year-by-year, but that’s all I can say until Thursday.

Sadly, these misused Galileans and the unlucky people of Siloam are just a vehicle for a larger conversation, an object lesson of-a-sort to illustrate something Jesus wants us to understand. And you can see it in the way these things are structured. It begins with “Do you think” followed by some outrage or misfortune. It continues with the question of deserved suffering, the very human response to every calamity. And it concludes with the same lesson each time: “I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

So let’s slow down for a moment and unpack these two things— the response that makes us human and the lesson that seems initially hard to hear. The human response to death is to search for reasons. People will find very creative ways to ask it, but it always comes back to ‘how did they die?’ Once in a while it’s morbid curiosity, but usually it’s an exercise in establishing some context—a reason or a cause—because nothing is more unsettling than random and inexplicable.

And it’s not just death: any kind of misfortune is met with the same kind of response. Think of John 9:

As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

I remember the first time I read this passage, and immediately thinking ‘what kind of God is this?’ But then I read it again, slowly, and realized that it’s not about the man born blind at all— it’s about the question we ask every time we confront misfortune. And so, in the courtroom dynamic of ‘asked and answered,’ Jesus gives us a firm “No.” Yes, he was healed by Jesus and yes, it displayed the awesome power of God present in the Son of the Most High. But that’s not what the passage is about. The passage is about the firm “no” that Jesus gives when the topic of deserved suffering appears, a no for the Galileans, for the people of Siloam, and for the man born blind. No, no, and still no.

So Jesus says “I tell you, no!” And them this: “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Well, this one is interesting. You know that the current mortality rate among the human species is 100 percent? Even if you are among the super-rich and have plans to be flash-frozen right at the end, you’re still dead. So the “you too will all perish part” of the saying is a tad redundant. The Galileans, the Siloam 18, even poor Lazarus—raised from the dead in the miracle to likely got Jesus killed—even poor Lazarus eventually returned to the land of the dead.

So setting aside the idea that your repenting will prevent your departing—since mortality is running at 100 percent—there must be a deeper meaning here, likely hiding in plain sight. If the context is sudden and inexplicable death, then we’re really looking at a time question, meaning ‘when will you repent?’ or ‘if not now, when?’ And the clue is in the end of the passage:

6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

If the question is ‘if not now, when?’ then maybe the answer is ‘one more year.’ The world says ‘cut down that unproductive fruit tree, it’s just taking up space,’ and God says ‘one more year.’ The world considers your return on investment or EBITDA margin, and God says ‘one more year.’ The world wants an answer today, or by yesterday, but God says ‘one more year.’

In effect, Jesus is reminding us that we live in the ambiguity of ‘one more year’ while an unfortunate few do not. Their misfortune is is only the result of misfortune, but for the rest us us, we have the blessing of ‘one more year.’ And how will we use it, this one more year held out to us one year at a time?

Well, repentance is a big topic when you only have a minute or two left in a 12 minute window. So, of course, I head for my Oxford and this time it seems less than helpful. Repentance is defined as ‘The action of repenting.’ Okay, say more: ‘sincere regret or remorse.’ Again, less than helpful, so it’s back to the Bible. This past week we looked at Roman soldiers in the gospels, and we heard this little exchange between John the Baptist and those seeking his baptism:

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

So, two things here. First, the hated tax collectors and the even-more-hated-occupiers have a route to repentance, literally through John’s ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ And second, see how specific the advice is going forward: collect the correct amount owing, or don’t run a protection racket, or you could simply say ‘do your job.’

In other words, use the moment of silence provided to do some tangible and realistic self-assessment. If you are a tax collector or a member of Pilate’s auxiliary, you already have your answer, but for the rest of us, it’s going to require some thinking. What part of my work, my relationships, my personality needs a tidy up? It’s unlikely to rise to the level of scandal, and it won’t be called something ending in ‘gate,’ but we can repent nevertheless.

After all, God says ‘one more year,’ so we have the time. Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 15
After this, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram.
I am your shield,[a]
your very great reward.[b]”
2 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit[c] my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
4 Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.”
6 Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
7 He also said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.”
8 But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”
9 So the Lord said to him, “Bring me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.”
10 Abram brought all these to him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half. 11 Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away.

It was called the Great Famine, the Great Hunger, or simply Black ‘47.

Outside Ireland it was known as the Irish Potato Famine, and it resulted in the greatest crisis the island ever faced. One million dead, one million leaving the island: a loss of a quarter of the population in a handful of years. Canada welcomed thousands, with 38,000 Irish passing though Toronto alone, then a town of just 30,000.

Of the 2,000 who remained in Toronto, and the many that would follow, life was was extremely hard. The vast majority were Roman Catholic, and this was the first mark against them. George Brown, founder of the Globe newspaper, gave voice to popular opinion. "Rome means tyranny,” he said, “and has for its mission the subversion of the civil and religious liberty.” But he wasn’t done, calling the Irish “a curse on the land,” suggesting they would soon "sink down into the sloth to which they had been accustomed at home."

It didn’t help that the Irish had few opportunities in their new city. Even into the next century, it was common to see signs in shop windows that said “No Dogs, No Irish.” This cycle of few jobs and continuing poverty was held against them too. Again, George Brown was the leading voice through his Globe: “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor,” read one particularly notorious column from the time. “They are lazy...and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”[1]

Tensions were often high, in a town ruled by the Orange Lodge. An estimated 22 riots or clashes occurred the early years, most often on St. Patrick’s Day or the 12th of July. In an eerie echo of recent events, in 1858 an Orangeman drove his carriage into a group of St. Patrick’s Day marchers, and in the melee that followed one Irish Catholic man was killed.

Over time, of course, tensions decreased. Economic fortunes changed, Cupid intervened (as one historian said) as intermarriage increased, and anti-immigrant focus shifted to the next waves that followed: Jews from Eastern Europe, former African-American slaves, and Chinese workers following the completion of the CPR. Nothing provides cover like hatred shifting to the next group of immigrants. In the 1950’s my father was called a “lousy DP” and invited to go back to where he came from—intolerance that continued until the next wave arrived, this time from the Caribbean.

I think you see where I’m going with all this. Migrants are international and intolerance is local. Racism is a learned response, often existing under the surface, and occasionally boiling over through unfolding events or a change in popular opinion. Sometimes anti-immigrant sentiment is bolstered by politicians and leaders who see opportunity in dividing people and blaming outsiders for domestic problems. Hate is unleashed, and people who are open to hatred feel encouraged to act.

The terrible attacks in Christchurch are part of an increasing pattern: attacking people during worship, literally invading the “sanctuary” of mosques, synagogues and churches. Three religions and one motive: to attack people during the most peaceful of activities and spread terror. Call it white supremacy, ethnic nationalism or just garden-variety racism—we all have a role in calling it out.

You might think it’s difficult to find a link to our reading, but if we scan the rest of chapter 15, we can find the connection. Partly we cut the last few verses as an act of mercy for lay readers, and partly because these verses have been used by extremists to push a dangerous agenda. Here are the verses:

18 On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates— 19 the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, 20 Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, 21 Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.”

Obviously we don’t have the entire afternoon to do a survey of the conflict in the Middle East, but these four verses have been misused by advocates of a so-called Greater Israel to justify annexation of the West Bank and Gaza, and for a crazy few, to expand the borders of Israel into neighbouring countries. And while these are considered fringe ideas in Israel, and widely discounted, they still provide some with permission to construct illegal settlements and ignore Palestinian aspirations.

And there is more. We read the narrative and the lists of nations that we struggle to pronounce and we imagine that these nations were displaced, and that somehow the land was empty when they entered it. As we learned in our study last week, this was far from the case. In fact, the scriptures themselves reveal (along with lots of archaeology) that the land continued to be inhabited, and that the Israelites lived side-by-side with these nations. Many Israelite laws began as Canaanite laws, borrowed because they already fit the context, and because borrowing a law is about as neighbourly as borrowing a cup of sugar.

So what we are left with is a couple of herders from Ur. Simple folk who trusted God enough to follow a promise—compelling, but a little vague all at the same time:

“Go from your country,” God said, “your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

But just three chapters later, the promise seems tenuous. The journey has continued, the couple are aging, and the constant wandering has taken its toll. When God appears to renew the promise, Abram is confused. “Lord, you say my reward will be great, but yet we remain childless. And my only heir—who I am sure is a fine fellow—is Eliezer of Damascus.” I added the fine fellow part, because Abram has no specific complaint about Eliezer—just that unfulfilled elephant-in-the-room promise.

And then God gives him something unexpected: God took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then God said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

They wavered for a moment, but they didn’t stop believing in God, in God’s goodness, and the goal of this long journey. God chose Abraham and Sarah for their righteousness, and the pilgrim spirit led then from Ur into a wilderness of the unknown. Like modern migrants, they took a chance knowing that the thing God wants for all people—security, prosperity, well-being—would be at the end of the journey. They were willing to take the risk, for themselves, and for generations to follow.

At the end of every tough week, we hold loved ones close, we ponder the values we treasure, and we recommit to a way-of-life that is open and welcoming. We recall that like the children of Abraham and Sarah, we too are descended from wanderers. We enjoy the reward and the responsibility that comes when the people before us took a big risk to find us a home. And for this we give thanks, in this place, Amen.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

First Sunday of Lent

Central—10 March 2019—Michael Kooiman

Luke 4
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry.
3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’[b]”
5 The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. 7 If you worship me, it will all be yours.”
8 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’[c]”
9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you
to guard you carefully;
11 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[d]”
12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[e]”
13 When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.

It’s time for a game of Bible trivia, so if you know the answer, just shout it out.

Who tried to put all the breadmakers out of business on a single day?
Who is the son of the most famous stepfather in history?
Who was not above using a little spit and dirt to heal others?
Who was seldom angry, but frequently righteously indignant?
Who preferred to wear baby clothes that swaddled?
Who’s favourite number was seven times seventy?
Who wept?

I would like to tell you that the idea of a quiz game where every question has the same answer is mine, but it’s not. Some years ago, someone published a beer quiz where the answer to every question was beer. You think that sounds boring, but questions can have much to teach. Can you name a famous Galilean who drank wine instead of beer? Jesus, of course.

I share this because the reading Bob shared isn’t really about temptation so much as dueling Bible verses, proving the old adage that even the devil can quote scripture. And not only can the devil quote it, he can use it to try to pervert the course of salvation, which is similar to obstruction, and has nothing to do with collusion.

So we begin. The devil starts with an extraordinary trick, quoting Jesus in the future, who said: “Who among you, if your son asked for bread, would give him a stone.” (Mt 7.9) Which the devil adapts to say, “If you are the Son of God, turn this stone into bread.” Jesus, however, knows his Deuteronomy, and says “People don’t live by bread alone,” and could have added the rest of the verse, “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Take that, devil.

Next, the devil takes a couple of verses from Daniel and twists them to his purposes. Here’s the passage:

Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.’ (7.27)

Obviously Jesus knows this passage, where the evil tenth king (or was it the 45th?) was cast aside by the God who will appoint a righteous ruler instead. But Jesus takes the point that matters, another quote from his favourite Deuteronomy, saying “Worship the Lord your God and serve God alone.” (6.13)

Clearly, the devil is being bested, so he takes a more direct approach, this time inviting Jesus to leap off the roof of the Temple, quoting our Psalm of the day about the guardian angel who will keep Jesus from being harmed. So how did he counter that? If you guessed Deuteronomy, you would be right. Jesus said ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ (Deut 6.16)

What do we make of all of this, aside from learning that if you want to understand Jesus you might begin by reading Deuteronomy? Well, maybe that was the whole point from the beginning. Maybe it’s less about Jesus besting the devil (as if the outcome was ever in doubt) and more about asserting a program, releasing a mission statement, sending a memo to everyone who has ears to hear.

Deuteronomy is Moses’ own sermon on the plain, actually three sermons, preached from the plains of Moab to some spiritually-hungry Israelites. Deuteronomy literally means “second law,” a retelling in sermon form, a restatement of all that God expects of these people. But Moses doesn’t start with statues, or shalts, or shalt nots, but with a story—the story of a people wandering in the desert some forty years.

That’s the first sermon. The next sermon begins with the Ten Commandments and then transposes them for living in the land. Laws around sacrifice, and avoiding other gods, and mercy toward the widow, the orphan and the alien. And then the conclusion, the final sermon, that presupposes the people will fail, but reminds them that even in the face of failure, if they turn to God again, their fortunes will be restored.

But I think there is more here, more than Jesus the new Moses, author of liberation, renewing the law and caring for the most vulnerable. I think there is more here than learning to be faithful while surrounded by Canaanites, or Romans, or modern people who are indifferent to a life of faith. The more seems to be hiding in plain sight, as Jesus thwarts the devil by quoting from the same chapter of Deuteronomy twice, the sixth chapter, the same chapter than give us this:

A scribe asked Jesus which commandment was the first of all, and this is what he said: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

So let’s recap, and remember—that anytime the devil troubles or hope flees, these are the words you need:

Worship and serve God alone.
Don’t test God, it won’t work.
Remember the Lord is one.
Give God your heart, your soul, your mind, and even all your strength.
And end where Jesus ends, looking beyond Deuteronomy for a moment, searching the farthest reaches of scripture, even to an obscure verse in Leviticus, to crown his message: Love your neighbour as yourself.

Well, it’s all well and good to have a program, and to have a really good backstory, but what do we do now? And why does this reading open Lent, and what is Lent, really? One of the better summaries I can find comes from a Reformed Church liturgy:

We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance
and our need for the love and forgiveness shown to us in Jesus Christ.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a Holy Lent,
by self-examination and penitence,
by prayer and fasting,
by practicing works of love,
and by reading and reflecting on God's Holy Word.

Forty days in the wilderness and forty days of Lent. Forty years of desert wandering, and forty days Moses spend with God on Mt. Sinai. Forty days and nights of rain to cleanse the earth, and forty hours Jesus spent in the tomb, harrowing hell and preparing for the resurrection. It may be easier to launch a rocket then calculate the date of Easter, but we know what we can do for forty days before Easter:

Ask ourselves: do we worship God alone? What else do we worship, and how does that twist our faith or our sense of self?
Ask ourselves: have we been testing God? Have you caught yourself saying “if-you-do this-then-I’ll-do-that-Lord”? Does it ever work?
Ask ourselves: do we truly believe that God is one? What other gods have we erected, the market? The existing order? The past?
Ask ourselves: Can we give God our heart, soul, mind and strength? Is it asking too much? And what does it mean, for me? For you?
Ask ourselves: Who is my neighbour? Is it one door down? The next street, all of Weston, Ford Nation? What about neighbouring countries?

Implied in the program that Jesus found in Deuteronomy and made his own is self-examination, prayer, works of love, and a desire to reflect on God’s Word. And while I don’t normally assign homework, I would encourage you to read the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, one of those anchor chapters that helps hold the Bible together. One of the things you will read might be a good place to end, encouragement as you join the Lenten journey. It comes immediately after the beginning of the Great Commandment:

6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

And may God bless you each day.


Sunday, March 03, 2019

Transfiguration Sunday

Luke 9
28 About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. 30 Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. 31 They spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. 32 Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. 33 As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)
34 While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” 36 When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

Built in 3200 BC, this neolithic site predates both Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza.

The site is Newgrange, in County Meath, Ireland, in the northeast of the country, about 30 kilometers south of the border that’s not meant to be a hard border. It’s a large, circular mound, nearly 300 feet across, with an inner passageway that leads about a third of the way into the monument, and chambers inside. Scholars calculate that the mound is made up of 200,000 tonnes of rock, some quarried from the shore of the nearby Boyne, and some carried from as far as 50 km away.

The purpose of the mound was a matter of speculation for centuries. In Irish folklore, it was the home of The Dagda, the chieftain-god, and his son Aengus, the god of love, youth and poetic inspiration. In art, Aengus is depicted with singing birds circling his head, sort of awkward and charming all at the same time.

When archaeologists finally began to study the site, it’s amazing purpose became clear. Build into the ceiling of the long passageway is a roofbox—like a vent for light—designed to flood the innermost chamber with light during sunrise on the winter solstice. But don’t book your holiday just yet: the lucky few who get to experience the flood of light on the morning of the solstice have won a national lottery for the opportunity to be there, never more than twenty people per year.

Of course, when we were there, the floodlight installed at the entrance to the roofbox created the same effect, making to December 21 at the flip of a switch. Yet even with the somewhat cheesy-sounding demonstration, the effect is remarkable. What began as a darkened cave is suddenly glowing, illuminated by a distant bulb and filled with light.

And as with any remarkable thing created by the ancients, it raises a number of questions. How could they align the structure so perfectly? How did they manage to construct something that still fulfills its original purpose over 5,000 years later? And why the solstice? What need was being met?

I guess if we were honest, we might say the solstice is a bit of a let down. Psychologically, the knowledge that the light has begun to return, and that the shortest day of the year has passed, gives us a bit of a boost. Ironically, the worst of winter is yet to come, but the return of the light seems like an important yearly marker. It always takes weeks before you can notice the lengthening of days, but on the solstice we’re told it’s happening, and that’s often good enough.

The ancients, however, weren’t satisfied with being told about the solstice—they wanted something tangible, something dramatic—and they therefore created Newgrange and countless other neolithic sites aligned with the annual event. And somehow prehistoric engineers found a way.

Our passage for today, the transfiguration, is a solstice of sorts, a sudden illumination that marks a significant shift in the story of Jesus. And it seems to have both the dramatic appearance of a shift like Newgrange, and the subtle-yet-obvious sense that something is happening in the story. Let me explain.

In the previous chapter of Luke (8), Jesus is hitting his stride, teaching and healing, raising the dead, and calming a storm. It’s mid-ministry, demonstrating the power of God in healing and also demonstrating Jesus’ unique relationship with the natural world. Then, as now, we struggle to understand. But we can understand the outline of his important work, and lessons shared only reinforce the movement underway.

And then the transfiguration happens. Suddenly the supernatural and the symbolic meet, as Jesus is illuminated in the presence of Moses and Elijah. And as if overwhelmed by the event, the three disciples are drowsy, then suddenly awake, and anxious to build monuments to this moment. Then there is cloud, and an affirming voice, and Jesus is once again alone with his friends. It ends as quickly as it began, and his ministry resumes.

The dramatic elements are obvious, the illumination and the appearances, Jesus the new Moses perhaps, to liberate us from sin and sorrow, and Jesus the new Elijah, defending God from the priests of Baal, in whatever form they now appear. But there are subtle signs too, more-or-less hidden amid the light and the drama: Luke records that Jesus and his famous companions were having a conversation, saying “they spoke about his departure,[a] which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.”

They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. The Greek for departure is exodos, with an O, which sounds suspiciously like the theme of our old friend Moses. But that seems to be a coincidence, and the word is really related to the theatre. In the theatre, the exodos is the closing scene, after the chorus has made some sort of summation, and our hero departs.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Jesus, Moses and Elijah were discussing Greek theatre, rather they were having a conversation with the outline of a Greek tragedy. And for that, we need a dictionary. According to Collins, a Greek tragedy is “a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.”

So let’s see how this fits. Jesus predicts his death twice in the ninth chapter of Luke, once before the transfiguration and once after. In the first instance, Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Lord’s Messiah, and Jesus says ‘tell no one.’ And then he says “this is gonna get me killed. I will be rejected by religious people, I will be murdered, but on the third day I will rise again.” The disciples are obviously stunned into silence.

After the transfiguration, the same story:

While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, 44 “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.

So we can see the importance of the sidebar between Jesus, Moses and Elijah. Jesus self-understanding has matured to the place where we understands the coming tragedy, but what can he do with this knowledge? The disciples can’t talk about it. In one instance they are stunned into silence, in the other, they start arguing about which one is the greatest. If Jesus wants to discuss the events that will soon unfold in Jerusalem, he’s going to need more sophisticated conversational partners than the twelve disciples.

So is it a tragedy, in the Greek sense? Jesus is a person of “person of importance and outstanding personal qualities,” and he certainly falls into disaster, but then the definition becomes an open question. Yes, he is caught up in circumstances with which we cannot deal, namely the people who actively plotting his destruction. But what about personal failing? Jesus is without sin, but is he without personal failing?

I would argue that anyone willing to take on the sins of the world is flirting with a personal failing. Like loving too much or giving too much, “all our sins and griefs to bear” seems foolhardy in scale. Read a paper, grab a history book, ask anyone to speak candidly about their regrets, and you will scratch the surface of the indescribable burden Jesus is willing to bear. It’s tragic that we generate so much trouble, and a double-tragedy that Jesus is there to save us from ourselves.

But that’s grace, the unconditional love that we can’t fathom and largely don’t deserve. But grace abounds, grace upon grace, beginning at Calvary and ending with an empty tomb, the reminder that death is destroyed and new life follows for each of us. No wonder the twelve met Jesus with silence then bickering: heaven opened and they couldn't see a thing.

We, of course, have the illumination of scripture and the Light of the World to guide us. We can move past stunned silence and occasional bickering to see the whole story, to understand the context of Jesus’ life and teaching, to see the end of the story, the exodos, and his departure to be with God. We know that Jesus intercedes for us, hears our prayers, lights our path, and we know that our “sins and griefs” are covered too.

Transfiguration is our spiritual solstice, both a burst of light and the beginning of a subtle movement down to Holy Week and Easter. Next week is Lent One, and our preparation for the crown of the year will begin in earnest. For today, we can bask in this divine light, aware that it lights our path to salvation, and the grace that abounds. Amen.