Sunday, June 14, 2020

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 9.35ff
35 Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

7 As you go, he said, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[a] drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

If you ever lay awake at night wondering what’s the most popular hymn, then lay awake no more.

For you see, the good folks at the Hymn Society have created a sort of CHUM chart of popular hymns, both “most popular” and “trending hymns.” It’s not entirely clear what the difference is, but I can tell you that “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!” tops them both, owing—it seems—to the fact that it appeals to the most number of Christian denominations. Seems “Holy, Holy, Holy!” is the one thing we can all agree on.

(Just as an aside, if you don’t know what the CHUM chart is, you’re going to need to ask someone over 50.)

The other thing to note is that on the top fifteen list of most popular hymns, only one author appears twice, and that would be Charles Wesley. Now some may argue that he had an unfair advantage: that when you write 6,000 hymns, two of them are bound to appear in the top 15, and that may be so. But when you look at his “best of” list it’s hard not to be impressed:

"Christ the Lord Is Risen Today"
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"
"Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending"
"Love Divine, All Loves Excelling"
"O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

Nevertheless, Charles never achieves the universal agreeableness of a “Holy, Holy, Holy!” because of his tendency toward the idea of Christian perfection. Wesley believed, along with the many Methodists he inspired, that you could achieve a measure of perfection in this life—sanctification being the term they used. In fact, if you dig around in the archives, the old Methodist class books would (on rare occasions) include an “S” beside a name, indicating that the class member had become sanctified.

Now those of us who feel we are equal parts Presbyterian and Methodist immediately start scratching our heads. “Who decides?” is the first and obvious question, along with “how long?” and followed by “then what?” I hope the Methodist class teacher was writing in pencil, since our capacity to sin—including the sin of pride—generally takes over, and leads to the disappearance of that rare “S” notation.

Back to hymns, hymnbook editors generally find a way to adapt hymns to make them more acceptable. An example is “Love Divine, all loves excelling” (number 10 in the top 15) and the original line “pure and sinless let us be.” Apparently, even brother John thought Charles went too far, by suggesting that we could somehow become sinless like Christ. So the line was changed to “pure and spotless let us be.” See, fixed. Spotless is like the kitchen floor that will be dirty again tomorrow, while sinless moves us into territory we don’t belong (and will likely never achieve).

Having fixed the hymn, it remains one of the best expressions of the Christian hope. Charles concludes the first verse with these lines:

Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
Pure, unbounded love Thou art;
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

I may be guilty of quoting these four lines too frequently, but they seem to say what Charles meant to say when he drifted into Christian perfection. Jesus has compassion on us, meeting us with a love that is pure and unbounded, and may enter our heart—and every heart—trembling for salvation through him. We are saved then, rather than sanctified, and “perfectly restored” in Christ Jesus.

I share all this because I suspect that Matthew 9.35 and following was in his mind while Charles wrote these words. “When he saw the crowds,” Matthew tells us, “he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” That’s where Jesus finds us. In fact, even after Jesus finds us, we can feel “harassed and hopeless,” and only able to go on, knowing that his compassion never ends. The Good Shepherd will tend us, and restore us to the fold.

Further, Jesus sends the twelve out into the world saying, “tell them this: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” This can be read in a variety of ways, but once again Charles is here to help. “Visit us with Thy salvation, enter every trembling heart” is just another way of saying ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ It’s as near as your heart, where the kingdom will enter in and the will of the Most High will be done. Jesus said as much when he was arguing with the Pharisees. “When will the kingdom come?” they asked, and Jesus said ‘stop looking for signs, and ignore everyone who says “over here!” or “over there!” because the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17.21). It has already entered your trembling heart.

The kingdom is within us
it has entered our hearts.
The Compassionate One walks beside us
and restores us to our place with him.
We are surrounded by the harassed and helpless
and remind them the Shepherd is here.

May God bless us and fill our hearts with unbounded love. May we freely love others, as Christ has so freely loved us. And may the Spirit move within, and help us find the kingdom there. Amen.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Trinity Sunday

Genesis 1
26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.

28 God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

The Voyager 1 space probe had already been travelling away from earth for a dozen years when Carl Sagan approached NASA with an idea. Since the probes “photo assignment” included shots of the sun and the planets, why not spin around for a moment and take a picture of the earth?

So on February 14, 1990, as “the spacecraft left our planetary neighbourhood for the fringes of the solar system,” the probe came about, looked back four billion miles, and took a photo. Sagan described it as a “pale blue dot,” just 0.12 pixels in size, there amid the light rays cast by the sun.* Even the colourblind can see that it’s blue, and very small, almost lost in the vastness of space.

“What are we mortals,” the psalmist asks, “that you should be mindful of us? Mere human beings, that you should care for us?” Indeed, in the vastness of the heavens, among two trillion galaxies, averaging 100 billion stars per galaxy, you might suggest we are lost in space. And without opening a debate that includes little green men or saucers that fly, it remains safe to assume that we’re lonely in our little corner of space. Maybe not alone, but certainly lonely when the measure is in lightyears.

The psalmist then answers the question for us: “a little less than angels you made us, and crowned us with glory and honour. You have made us rulers over all your creation, and put all things under our feet.” So we are unique, with a unique role in the unfolding of creation. How do you think we’re doing? Before we get to that, we should spend a moment more on our semi-divine status, our position just shy of the angels. Again, how do you think we’re doing?

Well, the answer is mixed. Anyone looking in on us just now might question our near angelness, so we need to approach the question in a different way. I want to begin at the beginning, and for that we need to travel to Africa. Imagine for a moment that we’ve spent millions of years evolving. The earth is old, but humans are not, and there was a moment in time when one or two or more people developed consciousness. One moment this tiny band was like every other living thing that moved upon the earth, and then in the next moment everything changed.

Now, I don’t want to move us into the garden too quickly, so I’m going to stay with consciousness and the birth of our humanity. When it was just a handful of self-aware people and their Maker, things were simple. I’m sure there was conflict—it is one of our defining characteristics—but the danger was small. As consciousness spread, and the number of “humans” increased, we discovered our differences. Band A had a better diet than Band B. Band B. had better music than Band A, and so on. All the human emotions came into play: pride, envy, anger, distrust, and the rest. Every possible difference was explored, and our humanity began to show.

You can imagine this grieved (and grieves) our Maker. We were made in God’s image, the marker of our common humanity, but we see only differences. So God sent plagues to convince Pharaoh that the Israelites were human. God sent prophets to convince the Israelites that their neighbours were human. God sent Jesus to convince all of humanity that we’re human. Yet here we are. There is no easy answer to this problem, our focus on differences, but we can start with where God would have us start: rereading the stories of exodus, exile, and the one we call Emmanuel. And we might listen to other voices too, like Professor Alice Roberts who shared some truth this week:

We're all members of a young species...
wherever we've ended up, all over the world,
we're Africans under the skin. And
uncovering that story, retracing the steps of
our ancestors, has given me a profound
sense of our common humanity: our shared
past, and our shared future"

And what about our other question, our rule over creation? The creation narrative (delightfully read), is one of those earth-positive readings that demands to be heard. Same for Psalm 104, and Job 38 (a very unique celebration of creation), and all the places in scripture that describe the way the earth feeds us. We have dominion, which sounds an awful lot like domination, but means more like “supreme authority.” In the nuclear age, our authority became more supreme, with the power to keep or destroy. And with that in mind, I would suggest dominion is really just a form of extreme stewardship. The earth is ours to keep or destroy.

There were a number of stories in April about the environment and the pause that came through the pandemic. Birds sang, smog cleared, and animals cautiously entered places that humans appeared to vacate. It was a powerful moment. It’s obvious that we can’t shut down human industry, but the pause was a reminder that we can help the earth, that nothing we do is set in stone, and that change is possible. It’s a hard way to learn, but that doesn’t negate the lesson.

Every crisis reminds us that we have more to learn, more to fix, and more to grieve. Every crisis reminds us that God knows us better than we know ourselves, and that God will hold us through our learning—and lack of learning. Every crisis reminds us that we need God: to remake is in God’s own image, to redeem us through the abiding presence of Jesus Christ, and to sustain us for whatever comes next, through the power of the Holy Spirit.