Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pentecost 2020

Acts 2
5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

I expect Luke knew that his recounting of Pentecost would someday be read aloud. He may have been thinking about his words being read at some sort of public gathering—and not read into a smartphone—but I expect he knew someone would read it to others. So as we thank Jenna for her fine reading, she can thank Luke, because he put the unreadable bits together in such a way that we can save them for later. Then, of course, it falls to me to struggle through Luke’s list, which I will do now. I’ll take it from verse eight:

Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

Indeed, what does it mean? But before we get to that larger question—the meaning of Pentecost—I want to talk about diversity in the Roman world. Luke is amazed by it, and this tells me that we should be too. He recounts for us the nations represented that day, the nations with a large enough Jewish population that they deserved a mention. Looking at a map, you would see that his list takes us from Rome in the west (1,400 miles!) to Parthia in the east, and south into Africa, both Egypt and Libya. To the north is modern-day Turkey, and all those cities Paul and his companions will someday visit.

And as I began pondering this passage, thinking about the diversity of the Roman world, I remembered an interview with Professor Mary Beard, included in David Olusoga’s documentary Black in Britain.* Olusoga is also interested in the diversity of the Roman world, and how physical differences like skin colour were perceived. Dr. Beard begins with a rather long caveat (“I don’t...want to give any impression that the Romans are particularly nice or angelic about this”) but then goes on to say, “what the Romans weren't is racist in our terms, and there is no sense that skin colour is really the thing that marks you out for your position in the culture."

"When it comes to race [then],” Olusoga asks, “the Romans were more liberal than we are now?"

"Yeah,” she says, “I think we live with a kind of myth that somehow we've got less and less prejudiced over the centuries, and that's simply not true. And one of the points of looking at the Romans—one of the lessons they've got for us—is they remind us that some of the prejudices we hold haven't been held forever. There's something a bit optimistic about it because it might actually mean that we won't go on holding them one day. Who knows,” she says, “Who knows?"

I share all this at the end of a very long week, with the death of George Floyd and all the unrest that continues. 53 years ago, Dr. King said that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” He wasn’t justifying violence—his project was always non-violent—but rather explaining why systemic racism and extrajudicial violence leads to unrest. We pray for an end to violence, best resolved through reconciliation and truth-telling. As we have learned on this side of the border, the process of addressing past wrongs is long and complex, but our collective future depends on it. And as Mary Beard reminds us, race and racial inequality are learned ideas, and can hopefully be unlearned.

On the day of Pentecost, differences melted away. Religious women and men from all over the known world had a common experience of divine power, the wind and flame of the Holy Spirit. They (literally) spoke with one voice to proclaim the wonders of God, the God who saves, the God who transforms us and makes us one.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church, but it’s also the beginning of Joel’s “last days,” a new era that will lead to the “great and glorious day of the Lord.” It begins amid the Babel, erased by the power of the Holy Spirit. From this moment of unity will come a common message, and that common message will be carried back to the farthest corners of the Roman world. Soon the world will learn that “anyone who calls on the name of the Lord can be saved”—saved from meaninglessness, saved from the things that divide us, and saved from death itself.

The cornerstone of Pentecost is baptism, entering into the death and resurrection of Christ to emerge a new person. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile,” Paul will soon write, “neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Wind and flame—and the cleansing water of baptism—will sweep away what divides us, and make us one. May we ever remain Pentecostal people, alive in the Spirit, and determined in our desire for unity. Amen.


Monday, May 18, 2020

Easter VI

John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”

James Bond is one.
Harry Potter is one.
Anakin Skywalker is one (sort of).
Batman is one.
Dorothy (of Oz) is one.
Frodo Baggins is one.
Almost everyone in the Marvel Universe is one.
Anne (with an e) is one, and Little Orphan Annie too.

If you guessed orphans, well done. If you guessed orphans after hearing Little Annie’s middle name, don’t pat yourself on the back too hard. Curious, isn’t it, that all these fictional characters—mostly aimed at children—are orphans. This is worth exploring, wouldn’t you say?

Whenever I have a question that relates to comic books, or comic book characters, I call my friend Ted. He knows comic books. He may be the only minister who signed up after learning that “to seek justice and resist evil” is at the heart of our call as a church, a bit of comic book hiding in plain sight.

“Ted,” I say, “I’m calling about all those orphans in the Marvel Universe.”
“Sure, he says, “it’s all about abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal.”

Now, with any trip to the mountaintop to consult with your comic book guru, there will need to be some pondering, unpacking, maybe some reframing. But before we do that, Ted also gave me a quick illustration of the opposite. Seems that in the golden age of comic books, DC introduced a character called Mister Terrific, who was, well, terrific. Athlete, scholar, self-made millionaire, Mister Terrific had it all, then turned to helping others mostly out of boredom. Needless to say, audiences didn’t respond to the character, and he was soon retired. Superheroes need to suffer on the road to becoming superheroes, so it would seem.

Before we draw a link between John 14 and some mountaintop wisdom, let's look at the choice of the word “orphans.” One of the pivotal (and often ignored) passages in scripture is found in Mark 3 (and Mat 12, Luke 8) where Jesus’ family comes knocking, and someone in the group says ‘your mother and brothers are here, looking for you.’ He looks around the room and asks ‘who are my mother and my brothers?’ A pause, and then ‘you are my mother and my brothers, along with anyone who does what God intends.’

Clearly, the church has found this awkward through the ages. For most of our history, we have billed ourselves as ‘family-friendly,’ where we honour mothers and fathers, and seek to love our siblings, literal and metaphorical. But here, Jesus seems to reject his mother and brothers, making himself an orphan. In fact, he is redefining family, and adding to the concept rather than replacing it. Still, it is dramatic, stepping out of kin and clan and naming friends and fellow-travellers as his family as well.

Back to John 14, Jesus is busy explaining this new universe they have entered, a universe where family is redefined, where the Spirit is promised, and where the faithful are Jesus’ kin and clan. And he describes it like this: “If you love me, keep my commands.” It’s pretty simple, and it opens that other instruction, to love God and neighbour—the heart of the law. In other words, Jesus is saying “if you love me, keep the command to love God and love your neighbour.” Or in other, other words, ‘when you love me, you are loving God, and cannot help but do what God intends.’ That’s a lot packed into seven words.

He then promises an advocate, the Holy Spirit, who we know will arrive in just two weeks' time (Pentecost). He calls the Spirit the “Spirit of truth,” something the world cannot accept, and something that will live within us. Then the same promise, restated: “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” And finally, some poetry, a new psalm that expresses the heart of the gospel:

Before long,
the world will not see me no more,
but you will see me.
Because I live,
you also will live.
On that day you will realize
that I am in my Father,
and you are in me,
and I am in you.

We cannot be orphans, since death is no more. We are alive in Christ, and he is one with God. “You in me, and I in you,” the re-formed family of God.

So what about suffering, or “abandonment redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal”? All of the characters listed a moment ago began with suffering and loss, and applied that same suffering and loss to the service of others, to prevent them from being defined by the same experience. And isn’t that just another way of saying Jesus died on the cross to save us? The way it works is a mystery, but the outcome is the same: suffering redeemed for the salvation of others. “Because I live, you also will live.”

That’s the cosmic answer, the “meta-narrative” that animates the universe of Christianity. Closer to home—today—there is another answer: our sense of abandonment (in this time of COVID-19) redeemed by dedication to a higher ideal. The higher ideal is being the body of Christ, even when we’re separated by disease and the threat of death. Jesus said “you are in me, and I am in you.” Our suffering is his suffering, and his suffering is our suffering. In any part of the body, suffering is added to the great well of suffering that God keeps—as God tends to it, and holds it in our stead. We surrender it to God, trusting that we never suffer alone, nor will we ever be orphans. Amen.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Easter V

1 Peter 2
2 Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, 3 now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.
4 You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honour.
5 And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God.

You don’t need to find a good metaphor—it finds you.

In part, a good metaphor lines up with our experience, confirming something we already know. If a scientist or a politician talks about “the battle against COVID-19,” it lines up with our present experience, and it speaks to our deepest hope that the virus will be “defeated” in our collective “war” against it.

A good metaphor will also test our experience, and pose questions about the nature of our relationship to the topic. In this case, my examples are the various metaphors present in our reading from 1 Peter. I’ll share a quick list—which may not catch all of them—and suggest that one or more of them will light up for you.

Pure spiritual milk
Taste that the Lord is good
Christ the living Stone
And you, like living stones
Built into a spiritual house
You are a holy priesthood
A chosen and precious cornerstone
A chosen people
A royal priesthood
A holy nation
God’s special possession
The people of God

Maybe we should step back for a minute and hear the textbook definition of metaphor. "The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind of thing in terms of another.”* In other words, seeing things we didn’t see before because we never saw them side-by-side. I’ve read this passage many times, but the metaphor of being ‘living stones built into a spiritual house’ speaks to me in this moment. We can’t meet in our regular spiritual house, but together we are the spiritual house, as living stones—each of us.

Likewise, on Mother’s Day, this passage leaps of the page:

Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment, now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.

The metaphor tells us a number of things at once. All of us, even the most seasoned believer, need the pure spiritual milk that only God can give. Our continued growth depends on it, to fully understand our salvation. And we should cry out for it, and never imagine that we can somehow wean ourselves from this heavenly kindness.

The other thing this passage tells us is the importance of God the Mother, overshadowed in our metaphorical approach to God, but never diminished. Even at the beginning of creation, we find God brooding over the waters of creation, waiting to bring us to life (Gen 1.2). Then God lifts us to her cheek, and bends down to feed us (Hos 11.4). And “as a mother comforts her child,” God said, “so I will comfort you” (Isa 66.13). Time and again, we are being nurtured, sought, and sheltered, “gathered as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Mat 23.37).

As I said, a good metaphor finds us. It finds us in a time of deep need, it finds us in the midst of longing, it finds us when answers seem remote or absent. One of my mother’s enduring phrases was “be careful,” something she would offer as response to most situations, but mostly as a farewell. I would tease her about it from time-to-time, wondering what hidden dangers she saw lurking in my immediate future—since it remained her blanket advice to every situation.

In many ways, her perennial advice is tailor-made for the present age, with hidden danger all around us. You might even say that in the present age, all that childhood advice has finally come into its own: wash your hands, cover your mouth, don’t stay out, and usually a question about doing something foolish just because my friends were doing something foolish. All good advice, and all rooted in the brooding, sheltering, and comforting love that we need.

Back to 1 Peter, there is another message hiding in plain sight, and that is the message of adoption. The context of 1 Peter is advice to new believers, those who have found the “wonderful light” of God. Here is his summary: “Once you were no people, but now you’re God’s people.” We are God’s “special possession,” chosen by God, chosen based on our need for God and God’s love. Anyone with the same need can be adopted into the household of God: nurtured, sought and sheltered by the Mother and Father of us all.

In a time of longing, or separation, or sadness, we turn to each other—our spiritual housemates—and minister to each other. We remind each other of the taste of God’s kindness, and embody the comfort that God gives, now and always, Amen.

*Lakoff & Johnson, p. 5

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Easter IV

John 10
“Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” 6 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
7 Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. 9 I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.[a] They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Few slogans sum up a people like “keep calm and carry on.”

If you didn’t know that the slogan originated in Britain as a wartime motivational poster, you would likely guess that it did. Ironically, of the millions of posters first printed, most were never used. And it was only in 2000 that a bookshop owner found a copy and made it public. The rest, as they say, is history.

The advice, to keep calm and carry on, is part of the genesis of what is now called “emergency risk communication.” It pairs what we know about effective communication and twins it with human psychology, all in an effort to reduce risk to the general population. It is the social science behind the message, and it all feels rather familiar.

The first thing to note about the psychology of a crisis is our inability to process complex information. We have trouble hearing, understanding, and remembering. So messages have to be simple and to the point. “Stay at home” and “wash your hands” are good examples of this approach. Next, we tend to hold on to current beliefs. Early misinformation comparing the virus to a seasonal flu meant that some had a harder time adapting to the crisis.

Going a bit deeper, we tend to seek second and third opinions in a crisis, partly because we can’t take it in, and partly because we are looking for an opinion that fits our existing beliefs. The key here is listening to experts and avoiding Fox News. The final point in emergency risk management ties all these threads together: we tend to believe the first message we receive. In other words, we need to hear an accurate message from multiple sources in a timely manner.* And it needs to be memorable too, so keep calm and carry on.

It is no accident that we turn to the psalms in a time of crisis. They constitute the spiritual side of emergency risk communication, the simple and direct messages we need when we are being tested in some way. Walter Brueggemann tells us that the psalms fed the “liturgical imagination” of Israel, allowing the people to order their lives under the “the rule, guidance, and protection of Yahweh.” So whether recited in worship, or prayed at home, the psalms voice our need for God in the midst of whatever life sends our way.**

And the twenty-third psalm, perhaps most of all, captures the mood of this moment. The Divine Shepherd will lead us to a better place, a peaceful and refreshing place. The Divine Shepherd will restore us there, and keep us in the right path. Even at the height of crisis, the Divine Shepherd will protect us and comfort us. We will be anointed and fed, and even our adversaries will see. Goodness and mercy will follow us all our days, and we will dwell in God's house forever.

Again, if we are looking for the rule, guidance, and protection of God, the Divine Shepherd is the model we need. The message is simple and consistent, the path is clear, and the protection never ends. The gift of liturgical imagination is then personified, and we meet the Good Shepherd, the Word made flesh. Jesus expands the scope of the psalm, becoming shepherd and gate, the means and the destination in one.

Part of the context of John 10 is the ongoing risk posed by false-prophets. Jesus compares them to thieves and robbers, those who do not care for the sheep but only themselves. Notice the link back to messaging: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

Not so with the stranger. The stranger speaks with an alternate voice, urging us to reject the shepherd, to make our own way in the wilderness, and to neglect the needs of the rest of the flock in favour of our own needs. But Jesus calls out the stranger, exposing their lies, and points instead to the abundance that comes within the sheepfold, where our cup overflows.

As I noted in the blast on Thursday, this feels like the end of the beginning of this crisis. We are moving into the next phase, with changes coming as early as tomorrow. As expected, these changes will have little bearing on the churches, with our mature demographic and our common life based largely on gathering together. And so we wait, but we do not lose hope.

We give thanks that our church continues to be a venue for love in action, feeding the hungry in a time of need. We give thanks that God has given us the means to worship remotely, and hear the voice of the Spirit through a number of voices. And we give thanks that we can reach out to each other, and speak words of comfort.

May we shelter with the Shepherd of the Sheep, and find pasture in his presence, now and always, Amen.