Sunday, July 21, 2019

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Simple question: are you a beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe?

One of these creatures is suddenly living in your imagination, and while you ponder that, I’ll tell you what I’m on about. For a few years now, I have had the privilege of training internship supervisors, the brave few who are willing to assist student ministers reflect on their practical training.

When we get to the module on learning styles, we begin by inviting them to move into groups: beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. And like a moment ago, we pose the question out-of-the-blue, with little time for second guessing or overthinking the exercise. We hope people will just know.

So having arrived in their groups—beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe—we further invite them to describe themselves: how they learn, how they relate to others as they learn, and the kinds of things that can get in the way of learning. This is usually the moment we have to tell the monkeys to be more serious, maybe stop grooming and self-grooming, and the lesson begins.

I’m going to suggest that the story of Mary and Martha is akin to beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe. There are two sisters with very different roles in the story, and I expect you can somehow identify with one or the other. Leaving aside some of what seems like judgment in the passage (more on that later), which character can you best relate to? Where would you find yourself? Serving or sitting? Doing or being? Beaver or giraffe?

Remembering that we have set aside the judgment for a moment, we find ourselves in one or the other character. So then, like beaver, monkey, fox, or giraffe, there is no correct answer. There is only the nagging awareness that we do tend to one sister or the other: listening at the Master’s feet, or busy serving everyone else.

I said “nagging awareness” because I’m not sure many are happy in the self-awareness that they are Mary or Martha. Maybe it’s the binary choice you reject, or maybe the truth is a little uncomfortable, or maybe it’s one of those compromise situations when no one is happy with their choice—making it a good comparison.

The church, the mainline-Protestant-present day church where we sit, is filled with doers. This is not judgement—remember we set it aside for the time being—it is simply the recognition that many of us will choose action over reflection, doing over being, activity over contemplation. Not that we’re averse to reflection or contemplation, it’s just that we like to DO something—the more meaningful the better.

We could spend the afternoon debating the so-called Protestant Work Ethic, but Weber was clearly on to something, maybe best summarized by John Wesley (founder of Methodism) who said “earn all you can, save all you can, and give away all you can.” Keeping busy is imprinted on our DNA, and it needs to be balanced with the ability to stop once in a while and ponder.

In an earlier time, and in a much different context, St. Benedict was busy drafting his outline of monastic life. The summary, his summary, is captured in the Latin phrase “Ora et Labora,” meaning “prayer and work,” the model of life in community. People drawn to holy orders were naturally drawn to a life of contemplation, and needed to be reminded, it would seem, that prayer must be balanced with work.

We seem to be drifting into judgment, but before we arrive there, I would point out something else about our passage. Jesus does bless Mary and the contemplative life she is leading, but he is also doing something else: he is blowing up gender norms along the way. To explain, I give you Luke 4.38 and following, one of those ‘so-true-it-makes-you-laugh’ passages that only a man could write:

38 Now [Jesus] arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made a request of [Jesus] concerning her. 39 So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.

I’m sure she was healed for the sake of healing, and not because they were waiting for tea and scones. Forward to Luke 10, and the tea and scones are on their way, but there is Mary, sitting at the Master’s feet, adopting the role of student or acolyte, fostering her own small revolution in religious practice. This passage has lost the power to shock, since we know both Marys and Marthas, but to the first reader, this was an extraordinary turn-of-events.

But hardly a surprise in the context of the early church. Paul’s first convert in Europe is a woman, and many of the leaders he cites in his letters are women. Even the pseudo-Paul instruction that women should remain silent in church presupposes that women were not previously silent. They may have been silenced by the church that lost its way for a few centuries, but we know that silence was never the original plan. Christianity was a ‘religion from below,’ made up of women, slaves, ex-slaves, people at the bottom of the social ladder who truly understood (that in God’s mind) the last shall be first, and the least shall be the greatest of all.

My resident bible scholar tells me that women began to lose their place as leaders when the church moved from homes into purpose-built churches. Our passage marks the beginning of the previous phase, when student-minister Mary is receiving the training required to lead a house church, and her sister Martha is struggling to understand what is happening.

(If you will allow me a topical aside, it is no accident that the four members of the United States Congress being singled out for torment are women. Being women of colour adds a racist overtone to the story, but the first scandal in the minds of many is that these women have forgotten their place. Their strength and moral clarity are a threat to many who cling to an outdated way of thinking.)

It seems we have arrived at the judgment phase of the sermon. Looking over the short passage we have been given this morning, on turn of phrase leaps of the page for me and that is this: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Maybe Jesus meant to say ‘she has chosen what is better for her,’ toning down the either-or of the passage, but he is very clear at the end of this remarks: It will not be taken away from her. Student, contemplative, revolutionary—it will not be taken away from her.

In the end, we all get to be Mary or Martha, and like the opening exercise, there really isn’t a right or wrong answer. We can be either, and we need to be both. Like ora et labora, we need to be dedicated to prayer and work, being and doing, action and reflection.

Prayer and study feeds our service and serving must be grounded in prayer and study. It’s not binary, it’s mutually-dependent. Like our friends in Mount Dennis, it’s the church of St. Mary and St. Martha, and may it always be so, Amen.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[e] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

If you have a question related to human behaviour, there is a good chance someone has done a study.

Case in point are Ekman and Friesen (1986), who discovered that happy people smile everywhere in the world. And sad people frown, angry people look angry, and so on. Maybe it seems self-evident, but good to know in case you worry that you might encounter some happy-looking mad person in some far-off land.

Or how about Festinger and Carlsmith (1959), who discovered that the more you pay someone to do a menial task, the less happy they become. They were able to prove that poorly-paid participants were better able to trick themselves into thinking that the work wasn’t so bad, where the better paid person was less able to this. Good luck explaining this to the kid who wants $20 to cut your lawn (“Honestly, you’ll be happier if I give you five”).

Or the study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) that demonstrated that people can describe how they feel without fully understanding why. One group watched a movie with distracting noise outside, and reported that they disliked the film, while the group without the noises found the movie quite enjoyable. When the first group were asked why they disliked the film, not a single person mentioned the annoying noise.*

So how does this relate the Parable of the Good Samaritan, one of the most familiar stories in scripture? Well, since it seems there is very little that has escaped the attention of psychologists, I can tell you that the parable is the subject of a study too.

This one came in 1973, when psychologists Darley and Batson decided to recreate the parable with theology students. It was John Darley that identified the “bystander effect” in the aftermath of an infamous New York City murder, when several people heard screams but didn't do anything to help.

The Good Samaritan study began with a two-part assignment given to a number of theology students, with a trip across campus in the middle of the experiment. One group was assigned the task of talking about seminary jobs and the other group prepared to talk about the parable of the Good Samaritan. Some of each group were told to hurry, and some were told not to rush.

As individual theology students made their way across campus, they came upon a man on the ground, groaning and obviously in some sort of distress. The experimenters were nearby to chart student reactions, everything from failing to notice altogether to stopping to help the man and staying with him until help arrived.

I would like to report that they all stopped to help, since the entire group were students of theology. I would like to report that the theology students who had just prepared a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan were the most likely to stop, but they were not. In fact, the variable that determined whether they stopped to help or not was time: those told to hurry were the subjects that by-in-large did not stop. One student was in such a hurry he literally stepped over the “victim.” The theology students in less of a rush were more likely to help.

Looking for something positive to say, they certainly proved the parable. Jesus said that the religious “professionals” were the least likely to help the injured man and the research backed it up. Theology students, keen ministers-in-training should be the first to help, or so it would seem. The reality is quite different, proving that seminarians and ministers are human after all, just in case you were wondering.

It certainly takes the wind out of the sails of those who preach this parable as an illustration of Jewish failure. For centuries, preachers have said that a Jewish priest and a high priest did not stop, and this reflected on the quality of their religion. The Samaritan became a sort of stand-in for the early Christian church, illustrating a proper religious response where the Jews had failed.

It took a couple of psychologists to disprove that one too, and point out that being religious does not automatically translate into being good. Goodness seems to have some other source, although Darley and Batson seem to settle on the luxury of time as one of the key ingredients to being willing to help.

I want to come back to this point in a minute, but first I want to look at a bit of context, specifically how the parable comes about. The first answer is in response to the question “who is my neighbour,” which itself appears because we hear the Great Commandment. But there is more to it than that, because Luke has a different approach to the Great Commandment —something worth noting.

In Matthew and Mark, it’s a question of asked and answered: someone wants to understand the heart of the law and Jesus tells them: love the Lord your God with all you heart, and all your soul, and all your mind; and love your neighbour as yourself. In Luke it’s inverted: Jesus is asking the question, and someone clever shares to Great Commandment to great praise. And in the midst of this praise, the clever person says “but wait, who is my neighbour?” What follows is the parable.

I share this because Luke wants to remind us that we already know the Great Commandment, we just need to learn how to apply it. Like the subjects of some elaborate psychological test, we already know that the very best we can do is to love God and love our neighbours, we just have to learn how. And maybe we think we know, but the story of seminarians running across campus tells us that knowing and doing are two different things.

So taking the commandments in reverse, how we love our neighbour? Well, in this case, Jesus prompts the answer to this question too, and the clever person says “by showing mercy.” In other words, we can’t simply insist we love our neighbour and then do nothing about it. It’s not an abstract emotional response God is looking for, it’s mercy. And mercy can take many forms, everything from nursing the victim in our parable to just being more understanding. It includes demanding that the vulnerable be treated fairly, and reminding others that your ‘neighbour’ ranges from next door, to the next country, and even the earth itself.

Next up, how do you love God? On the surface, it seems rather simple—even obvious—until you consider some of the baggage we carry. It was Jack Miles in his book “Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God” who pointed out that our default approach to God is often far from loving. Life is short, trouble comes, people suffer, and the mortality rate among humans is consistently running at 100 percent—and for all these reasons it’s hard not to be angry. Even the most saintly among us will think about blaming God for the seeming raw deal we get in life: so much to treasure and celebrate in life—a life that is always finite.

Jack Miles then applies this to the Christian story: people harbour anger toward God, then suddenly God appears in their midst. People should be grateful for the opportunity to dwell in God’s presence but they do the opposite: they conspire to kill God on a cross. Yet even as God is dying, even as these frail humans seek their revenge, God is busy loving them and forgiving them and dying to save them (and us, from ourselves).

Amazing how parables work. The first time we hear it, we naturally imagine that we’re the Samaritan, loving our neighbour, showing mercy, enjoying all that praise. But if you listen to Jack Miles, we seem to become the robber instead, acting out in anger even if can never fully understand ourselves. The great irony in the passage is that the robber is quickly forgotten in the story, even if there is a slight chance the robber is us. But wait, maybe it’s double irony, because the watchword is mercy—and some time later we meet another robber (or the same robber?) who is on the cross beside Jesus, promised that day to see paradise.

May we show mercy as we have been shown mercy, and may we make mercy the grateful response that defines us. Now and always, Amen.


Sunday, July 07, 2019

Update of 8 June 2008

Matthew 9
9As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. 10And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”

One of my crew mates described the first half of last month as “Junuary.” Then, as if mother nature remembered the very large thermostat on the wall, we entered summer. By mid-month the news was reporting the great national imbalance: too dry in the west and too wet in the east. If only we could get it together.

And on the theme of getting it together, much of the news these days is framed as a debate: 'going too far' versus 'not far enough.' The same newscast that described the ‘great national imbalance’ also reported on those who welcome pipelines, and those that don’t (another sort of national divide) and a federal government that seems intent of trying to please both.

It sort of defines a no-win situation, made worse by headlines such as this one: “Canada fourth-worst climate sinner, study finds.” Comparing emissions, emission reductions and public policy, the study put us in the bottom five along with Saudi Arabia, the United States, Australia and Luxembourg. Yes, I said Luxembourg. What they lack in size, they make up in climate inaction.

Funny headline, using the word ‘sinner.’ At one time it played a starring role in our fellowship, though not so much in the last couple of generations. There was a time, however, when church folk would gather and sing hymns like Wesley’s “Come, ye weary sinners, come” and never think twice. Here are a few others:

Jesus, Friend of sinner, hear
Would Jesus have the sinner die?
Come, sinners, to the gospel feast
How can we sinners know?

I think you get the picture. And just to illustrate how far we’ve come, I give you Voices United #266: Amazing Grace. Amazing Grace made a comeback of sorts, excluded from the 1971 hymnbook, but still very much in the canon of well-loved hymns. So the editors of Voiced United brought it back, but with a minor suggestion. There, in the words, you will see a tiny asterisk, suggesting “and strengthened” as a substitute for the original.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved and strengthened me.

Doesn’t really work, does it? I can imagine the committee meeting into the wee hours debating whether to footnote the original “wretch” or leave it in. They left it in. Perhaps they knew they were already in trouble for omitting a certain hymn that begins with the word “Onward.” Whatever the reasoning, the asterisk indicates discomfort, a discomfort felt in some quarters around sin, sinfulness, wretchedness, and all the other ways we describe the human condition.

The ironic thing here is the original is not the original. When John Newton, clergyman and former-slave trader, penned the original, he used the word “worm,” as in “saved a worm like me,” fully befitting the man who wrote the most famous Christian hymn long before he denounced the slave trade. He wrote “worm” because it was the most apt description—he felt like a worm. Later generations couldn’t face this, so first he become a wretch, then later, the self-judgement was gone altogether.

Another example: In the funeral liturgy I use, there is a very famous commendation near the end, the part of the service that sums up what we have done and prepares the congregation for the final words. It goes like this:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we humbly pray, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive him into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.

Someone I know, and I won’t reveal that it’s my wife said, “Oh no, we don’t say that anymore, we say ‘sister or brother’ of your own redeeming.” My best friend Jimmy, he says, “No way, man (we talk like we’re still in the 70’s) no way, man, we say ‘friend’ of your own redeeming.”

So let me get this straight: we don’t say sinner anymore, but the CBC can say ‘sinner’ when reporting on climate change. We become redeemed “brothers” or “friends” but it’s okay to call the people of Luxembourg a bunch of lousy sinners. Something is going on, and I aim to find out.

As Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

The little commentary I turn to pointed out that the location for all of this eating and drinking was Jesus’ house. I did a bit of a double-take. I was acquainted with the idea that Jesus lived in Capernaum before he began his itinerant ministry, but somehow I missed the detail that his house was party central. It adds another layer to the story, doesn’t it? What did the neighbours think? A young guy, continually hosting parties with the least desirable people, the recycling bin filled with heaven-knows what, the loud flute sounds at midnight, neighbourhood cats in the garbage.

And who did he invite? (Sinners!)

Back in the olden days, preachers loved allegory. They would open their bibles and try to piece together the meaning of the stories inside, and often they did it by assigning characters:

The storm represents God’s anger, the whale is Jonah’s conversion, a book of Hebrew love poetry is really about God’s love for the church.

Google “bible” and “allegory” and you will discover that some people still look for allegorical meaning, but they now tend to be the people looking for the devil in their SIN number or some such thing. Preaching biblical allegory fell out of fashion, or so it would seem.

Instead of allegory, preachers began a process of translation. Instead of supplying a list of characters to represent the story, preachers translate one variety of people into another. It works like this:

Someone preaching the same passage might tell the congregation that “tax collectors and sinners” represent “outsiders,” people who were unwelcome in homes and synagogues. The same preacher will tell the congregation to spend the week looking for the modern version of the tax collector and sinner, and welcome them in. There may be some well-meaning suggestions, like the homeless, or people on welfare, and the congregation will retreat to coffee after affirming the “nice message.”

This morning I want you to become momentary biblical literalists. Forget the allegory, forget the translation, and imagine our Lord hosting a party for genuine, grade “A” sinners. Imagine Jesus’ house filled with actual first-century, near-eastern sinners. Who did he invite? (sinners!) Fun to say, isn’t it? These were sinners who roughed people up to collect the tax, these are people who were cast out by family for any variety sins, who committed crimes or disrespected religion.

So rather than translate, I suggest you update, and imagine the sins that you find personally repulsive, the sinners you would avoid or condemn, or the people intentionally out-of-step with the times. Maybe the sinners are those who adore the candidate who puts kids in cages, or who call climate change a hoax, or someone trying to steal your identity online.

When we translate the passage and make it safe, we have robbed the passage of its power to convert. It would be too easy to name these “sinners” as “outsiders” and feel good about all the work we are already doing in the community. But that’s not preaching, not really, when the purpose of preaching is to reveal our sin and remind us that God forgives.

Reveal and remind. I may be overstating this a wee bit, but the established purpose of preaching is to remind people that the world needs saving and assure them that God saves. It’s not to explain the Bible and make it safe, it’s not to reassure people that they are already doing enough, and it’s not to denounce remote or far-off sin—when we know most sin is local.

It all begins at Jesus’ house, a house where everyone is welcome, where sinners are given the best seats, where the very presence of the living God is felt, in the warmth, and the comfort of Jesus the Christ. Amen.