Sunday, February 28, 2021

Lent II

Mark 8

31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? 37 Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 38 If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

A Lenten study by Zoom? It must be 2021.

First of all, I want to thank our intrepid learners, braving a virtual wilderness in Lent, confronted by muting and unmuting and the awkwardness of the PDF screenshare. If you don’t have a hot clue what this means, don’t feel badly—there will be a bright moment when we study in-person once more.

Evening two of this particular study is a personal favourite. Normally, I get to haul ten pounds of books from my office: Greek and Hebrew Bibles, Bibles in translation, interlinear Bibles, parallel Bibles, study Bibles, Bible dictionaries, Bible commentaries, and at least one exhaustive concordance (that’s the title, not the result of all the heavy lifting). This time we had to make do with pictures of the books, and the confession that all these books have been rendered useless by one or two websites.

One tradition we did not lose was the awkward photocopy, the reproduction of a vital page from one of these resources. In the real world—as any teacher will tell you—these handouts are often copies of copies, with each successive generation of copy less legible than the last. In the best of the worst, you will have annoying dark borders, or even a photocopy of someone’s fingers. And through the miracle of technology, I was able to recreate the experience by showing my Zoom friends just one such handout.

The handout is called “The Growth of the Jesus Movement,” and it appears in a book called The Five Gospels, written by Funk, Hoover, et al. In this one handy chart, we see how the contents of the New Testament emerge over time, with books and sources neatly mapped out, and arrows to indicate lineage of the material. It shows us, for example, that Mark supplies material to Matthew and Luke, but Matthew and Luke do not reciprocate. This, then, tells us that Mark was written before the others, and served as a source.

Another handy part of this handout is a backdrop of cross-hatching, showing the types of material that went into the writing. One section is the parables and aphorisms of Jesus (aphorisms are his short, pithy statements, like “no prophet is welcome in his hometown”). Another section is stories about Jesus, circulated among his followers, and the final section is called “Primitive Christian Gospel,” falling mostly upon John, but touching each of the rest of the Gospels.

So what is it? What is this “primitive Christian Gospel” that lies behind most of the New Testament? I guess we should start by setting aside our 21st century understanding of the word primitive, which we take to mean crude, simple, or basic. Whenever I tell people that my great-great-great-great grandpappy was a Primitive Methodist lay preacher, they give me that look that says “primitive huh? I can see it.” For our purposes today, and in the realm of biblical study, primitive means ancient, earliest, or original. So the primitive Christian Gospel is the Gospel as it was first introduced, or first shared.

And I share all this because our passage comes pretty close to giving us a glimpse of this Primitive Christian Gospel:

34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

Before we go further, it should be noted that this passage is among the most misused parts of the Bible. Too many were led to believe that “denying themselves” meant giving power to others, particularly unscrupulous leaders. It is important to underline that any self-denial we engage in is for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, not leaders or churches. It should also be noted that you can only give things up if you have them in the first place, meaning extra caution is required when preaching self-denial among the most vulnerable.*

The first primitive element to this passage is the ideal of aligning our lives with Christ and the Gospel. St. Paul tells us that through baptism we “put on Christ,” or “clothe ourselves in Christ.” (Gal 3.27) And then Paul takes this a step further when he urges us to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” (Col 3.12) So this is the first part of this primitive Gospel, to deny ourselves the opposite of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience and follow the way of Jesus instead. That’s the first part.

The second part of this primitive Gospel also begins in baptism and finds voice through St. Paul. In Romans he uses that “you better listen” voice when he says “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6.3) Now he has our attention, he shares the Good News:

We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may walk in newness of life.

Maybe this is where primitive goes from “ancient” back to our more familiar meaning, which is simple. I’m not saying that following Christ is simple—in fact, following Christ makes our lives much more complicated. Living for others, being intentional, being righteous, all of these complicate our lives rather than making our lives simpler. What makes the primitive Gospel simple is the way it appears in our lives.

At baptism, you put on Christ, and were dedicated to follow in his way. Likewise, at baptism you experienced death and resurrection with him, raised that you might walk in newness of life. In other words, the challenge given to the disciples—deny yourselves, pick up your cross, lose your life for me—all these happened at baptism. The moment we were marked as God’s alone, we lost our lives for Christ and the Gospel and were saved.

I share all this, in part, to help us recapture the primitive (original) Gospel that changed the world. People learned that Jesus set aside his life for the sake of others and were transformed. Peter Abelard said that simply hearing the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection could turn hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, dedicated to God alone. And the message is just as vital today as it was 2,000 years ago. People are searching for meaning, for connection, for something to give themselves to, and God is standing by, ready to show them newness of life in Christ Jesus. All we need to do is share the story.

Part of the reason we study the Bible is precisely because it is a long and complex document. And we tend to reread the parts we like and set aside the rest. But study, the most helpful study, will simplify our understanding and remind us of the primitive meaning, the meaning that is ancient and earliest, the meaning that first led countless souls to the faith. It led countless souls to the faith, and through faith to salvation, walking each day in newness of life. Amen.

*Tests For Preaching B, p. 210

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Lent I

Mark 1

9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

It feels like the longest Lent ever.

If we mark time according to the liturgical calendar, Lent ended on April 5th of last year—then Holy Week, then Easter, and so on. If you mark time by an emotional calendar, then maybe Lent never ended. Let me explain.

We begin the season of Lent with Jesus’ retreat into the desert, a symbol or metaphor for this 40-day season of withdrawal and solitude. Observing the season should include simplicity and self-discipline, and it should be reflective, which by its very nature should end up being penitential. I think you see the connection: The last year or so has been a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. Even extra time to reflect remains a feature, with lots of “if onlys” and “I wish I’d known” thrown in for good measure. As I said, the longest Lent ever.

Of course, I should also note some of the good things. Walking is up, local travel (and spending) is up, time spent with immediate family is up, even creativity is up, from baking to mending to making do. One of the things I have come to treasure is talking with my father. He’s never been a phone guy, but now we spend time each day chatting and discovering new things about each other.

I don’t think he’ll mind if I give you one example, in this case a question that never occurred to me. There were a number of stories in the news about kids out of the classroom and the potential effect this might have on them, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know whether dad went to school while living under occupation. He was eleven by the time Holland was liberated, meaning these were critical years in his development. Anyway, he said that yes, they went to school through most of these years, except in times of crisis.

“Okay,” I said, “I have to stop you there. The country was occupied for over five years…how can you tell what’s a crisis in the middle of a crisis?”

Then he patiently explained the difference to me. And as he talked, it occurred to me that this also finds parallels in our experience. At times you settle into the routine of a new normal, maybe things ease or appear better, and then you are suddenly thrown into a new stage of the same crisis. Once it was a crisis, and now it seems a series of crises within a crisis.

Back to Lent—this Lent. We are barely a dozen verses into Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus finds himself in a crisis. Newly baptized, the Spirit sends him into the desert, where he faces the adversary. Mark, a man of few words, then tells us wild animals were with Jesus, and the angels tended to him. And that’s it. But we’ve read other accounts, by evangelists with less commitment to brevity, so we know the makeup of these temptations. Hungry, the devil brings bread; lonely, the devil offers crowds; uncertain, the devil offers him protection from harm. One writer says the devil bested God twice before this moment (see the garden, see Job) and it wasn’t going to happen again.* I’ll let Luke finish the story:

When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time. (4.13)

So the crisis is past, but as Luke foreshadows, there are more on the way. We could spend much of the next 40 days debating the opportune time Luke is alluding to, and all the ways the adversary enters the passage up to Jerusalem. And maybe we will. Whatever we conclude, it seems obvious that God’s desire to be with us has moved from gift to crisis in a matter of weeks, and we are left to reflect. And we are left to prepare.

Early on in this crisis I remember seeing a cartoon of a man in a tiny rowboat in the middle of a great storm. The caption is the man shouting into the storm, “I guess I finally have time to finish that novel!” Is funny because it’s absurd or is it funny because it’s true? Both, I suppose. So here we are, nearly a year into the crisis, entering a Lent within a Lent once more. Part of my job is to guide you through the season, so let me begin by saying that this is not the Lent you will sit down to write the great Lenten novel. And I’ll tell you why:

Very early in the pandemic the Italian newspaper Repubblica published an article by Dr. Paolo Legranzi, professor of psychology at the University of Venice. The title of the article (“Why I can’t read a novel while in confinement”) explains the problem. You see, in times of crisis, the human brain is designed to do one thing at a time. You can’t focus on a novel when you’re waiting for Dr. Tam to speak, or waiting for the latest numbers to drop.

But there’s more. Dr. Legranzi also points to the disconnect between the world of the novel (unless it’s a novel about pandemics) and the world we currently live in. I’ll let the doctor speak, strangely clear for something translated from Italian to French to English:

“Page 21 of the novel we are reading: the protagonist stands up and prepares to shake hands with his future great friend, but just then our reading instincts prevail and burst out like a cry: ‘Don’t do it, respect the social distancing rule, we can’t touch each other anymore!’”**

I recall spending weeks trying to push similar thoughts aside as we roamed Netflix and Amazon Prime. Seeing a crowd was jarring, or a hug, or even a simple handshake. It’s amazing how many shows are set in bars or restaurants, or around impossibly large dining room tables, or on crowded streets. When your brain can only do one thing at a time in a crisis, even watching television becomes a challenge.

Back to Lent, we’re already living a time of withdrawal from others, with solitude, and forced simplicity, and the ongoing need for self-discipline. So maybe this Lent we should simply spend more time thinking of others. Thinking of others as a form of prayer. Thinking of everyone who is suffering, both the people who are experiencing what we experience, and those who are having a very different experience—something we know we can barely understand. Let’s make Lent a time of solidarity and compassion, taken one at a time, of course.

May God be with you in this wilderness time, and may the wild beasts of worry be kept a bay, as you let the angels minister to you, Amen.

*Jack Miles

** and

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday

 2 Kings 2

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

3 The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so be quiet.”

4 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

5 The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so be quiet.”

You know about TLC and PDA, but do you know about BPR?

In case you’re not up on acronyms vaguely related to Valentine’s Day, the first two are “tender loving care” and “public displays of affection.” We all need a little of the first, and we can probably live without the second. But what’s BPR, and how did it get on our list?

BPR stands for “benign positive regard,” a phrase first coined by researchers looking at religious attitudes among teens. Conventional wisdom suggests that when young people drift away from religious practice, it’s likely a case of teenage rebellion, doing the opposite of whatever their parents are doing. What they found instead is that teenager’s attitudes toward religion actually mirrors what the parents are doing—in this case, benign positive regard.

So what is BPR? Let’s just say that if your sweetheart sends you a card professing benign positive regard, he’s just not that into you. Benign positive regard is how most people feel about—say—post-it notes: helpful, even clever, but few people write poems about post-it notes. Maybe a haiku.

Post-it in my book

Marks the page I am reading

So helpful I guess

The puzzle with benign positive regard among religious people of all ages is the extent to which it’s at odds with the faith itself. The story of God is a story of passionate love, creating us out of dust and placing us among the wonders of creation. Liberating us in times of peril, saving us from ourselves, entering the world to walk beside us, even dying to free us from the power of death.

Kendra Dean, the researcher who popularized benign positive regard, wants us to think instead about passion. She argues that our faith should act as an external authority in our lives, it should make compelling claims on our time and attention, it should challenge us to grow in ways we might not want to grow. Listen as Dr. Dean makes her case:

Passion is the truest love there is, a love worthy of sacrifice, a love so rare, so life-changing that it is the stuff of legends. It is Jack and Rose in Titanic. It is Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King. It is Sam and Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Passion is “to die for.”

If she was writing on Transfiguration Sunday, I expect she would add Elijah and Elisha. And then maybe Ruth and Naomi, because their love is the same:

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind…Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

Oddly, we learn very little about Elisha before this episode. God appoints him as Elijah’s successor, Elijah retrieves the lad and “adopts” him, and then Elijah’s larger-than-life ministry continues with Elisha in the background. But today’s passage, recounting Elijah’s last moments on this earth, we learn everything we need to know about their relationship.

Like Ruth’s famous “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay,” Elisha pledges that he will not leave Elijah’s side. Each time he is confronted with the inevitable, we get the same reaction: “Yes, I know, so be quiet.” Can you hear the translator’s dilemma, trying to find a polite way to say “shut-up”? Poor Elisha, set to lose the one he loves.

No doubt seeing the toll that this is taking on Elisha, Elijah asks, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” At this moment Elisha asks the seemingly impossible—a double-portion of Elijah’s spirit. You wonder if asking the seemingly impossible is a way to delay his departure, or create a rift that may make it easier to part, but Elijah says “we’ll see…if you see me depart, it will be yours.”

Elisha does see him depart, in a chariot of fire no less, and gains that double-portion that will be important for Elisha going forward. The chariot ascends, Elisha cries out, and tears his cloak in grief.

We share this passage on Transfiguration Sunday because it gives some of the background for the event itself. Peter, James, and John follow Jesus up the mountain, where he is transformed, transfigured in a blaze of light, flanked to the left and to the right by Moses and Elijah. God speaks, blessing Jesus as he approaches his passion, and the scene ends.

Generally, we read the Elijah story today because he is mentioned in the passage. And that might be reason enough, except that is a parallel here to the mantle being passed, with three of the twelve witnesses to the glory that Jesus will soon experience. The light, the blessing, the company— all point to Jesus’ return to God.

There is, however, one more element to the transfiguration worth noting: the symbolism of the figures, one on the right and one on the left. Moses is the liberator, the first and most powerful prophet, who used God’s might to free his people. Elijah is also a prophet, but even more, since he represents the passionate activity of God in the world: raising the dead, calling down fire to defeat the priests of Baal, riding a chariot of fire to eternity.

Jesus, then, is both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, he is our liberator, freeing us from sin and sorrow, and defeating death itself so that we might be free. And like Elijah, Jesus is God’s passionate presence in the world, raising the dead, defeating the forces of despair, and returning to God in glory. Today is dedicated to freedom and passion, and a world transformed.

You may have noticed that there are very few Transfiguration Sunday hymns, an enduring mystery, except perhaps that it’s hard to describe in verse something so unusual. Likewise, there are few hymns to describe Elijah and his chariot of fire, with one notable exception: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.

Written by Wallis Willis around the time of the American Civil War, it describes the hope of being carried home, with a band of angels and a sweet chariot sent for the task. And as with many African-American spirituals of this era, there is often a hidden message, encouraging those enslaved to escape, even giving coded directions.

In the case of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, some have suggested that we’ve received a “public” version of the song, when the private (coded) version may have been sung “swing low, sweet Harriet,” for Harriet Tubman. Harriet Tubman escaped slavery, but then returned to the south to lead others to freedom. During at least 13 missions she led over 70 people to freedom, earning the nickname Moses. Soon, she will claim her rightful place on the US $20 bill.

Passionate love, and a desire for freedom, these are the hallmarks of Transfiguration. This is the opposite of BPR. Allowing our faith to direct us in ways larger than ourselves, giving time and attention to our passion, and growing in love—for God and each other—these are the marks of new life in Christ. May God bless us and surround us with enduring love, Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2021

Epiphany V

 Isaiah 40

28 Do you not know?

Have you not heard?

The Lord is the everlasting God,

the Creator of the ends of the earth.

He will not grow tired or weary,

and his understanding no one can fathom.

29 He gives strength to the weary

and increases the power of the weak.

30 Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

31 but those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

Often called the king of all birds, we might better say the eagle is the king of all symbols.

If we begin in the middle of the story, we arrive in Rome, where the symbol of the eagle is second only to a certain shewolf and a couple of hungry lads. Rome’s legions took the eagle on campaign, where it became symbolic of both the might of Rome and the fate of individual legions. This would be the moment to recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s wonderful book The Eagle of the Ninth, exciting interest in Roman Britain since 1954.

After Rome, the eagle remains a symbol of empire, with various royal houses sporting the bird, wings outstretched, sometimes adding an extra head or two for effect. This, of course, crosses the Atlantic, where our pretentious neighbour to the south adopts the eagle as their own. To be fair, they were trying to recreate the Roman Republic in America, so the eagle makes a lot of sense.

That’s the forward view, how about looking back in time? Among Canada’s First Nations, the eagle is considered a messenger to the Creator, lifting prayers to the Spirit world, providing courage and strength. It was no accident that Elijah Harper held an eagle feather while defending the rights of his people back in 1990, a moment that is considered a turning point for Indigenous people in Canada.**

Within the Christian church, the eagle is most often associated with St. John the Evangelist. Beginning in the second century of the Common Era, thinkers such as Irenaeus made the connection between John’s homily to the Word (found in John 1) and the eagle, symbolizing “the gift of the Spirit hovering with his wings over the church.” We’ll have to leave Matthew (a man), Mark (a lion) and Luke (an ox) for another day.

In the Hebrew Bible, the eagle is a symbol of swiftness (often related to conquest), nurture (offering shelter), and renewal. It is this last attribute that takes us to the reading Marlene shared today. But before we look at Isaiah 40, there appears to be one passage where swift rescue, shelter, and renewal happen all at once. From Mt. Sinai, the LORD spoke to Moses: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself’ (Ex 19). The Lord then asks for faithfulness, and a willingness to keep the covenant God made.

On to Isaiah 40, where we heard what is the second most familiar part of this remarkable chapter. The first most familiar of is best shared in the language that G. F. Handel knew:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

So the context of Isaiah 40 is forgiveness, an end to exile, and a return to the land. And without jumping to the end of the story, we already know that the renewing spirit of the eagle is for those returning from exile, those charged with rebuilding the holy places. This, then, is the context for those who first heard these words:

Even youths grow tired and weary,

and young men stumble and fall;

But those who hope in the Lord

will renew their strength.

They will soar on wings like eagles;

they will run and not grow weary,

they will walk and not be faint.

This is the moment that the preacher encourages you to make your own homily, connecting our time to the anguish of exile, the desire for return, and the need for strength. I’m not saying these sermons write themselves, but we live in a time when the need for shelter and renewal has never been greater. Likewise, our need to trust in God has never been greater, but it is this trust that cries out for greater understanding, as much as connecting exile to our time. For a place to start, I might recommend Proverbs 9.10:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

The first dimension of trusting God is acknowledging that we can’t fully understand God. In this case, fear seems more a case of bewilderment, or confusion, which is always the starting point for gaining wisdom. To say you don’t understand something, or you need to learn something, is the first step on the journey to gaining wisdom. And this takes us back to the middle section of Isaiah 40:

25 “To whom will you compare me?

Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:

Who created all these?

Those who love the Book of Job will immediately hear God speaking from the whirlwind, reminding Job that God is God and Job is not. To be fair to poor Job, he was simply talking to his mates when the Most High finally had enough of their ignorance. And the question they asked—why do people suffer?—remains a question for all time. Where is God in the midst of plague and disaster? Is God cause or cure? Or both? (Spoiler alert: I do not believe that God sent COVID or caused it to happen).

But I know I’m not the first to imagine—if only for a moment—that COVID is some form of punishment for our misdeeds. Climate change, loss of habitat, unsustainable farming practices: all these trends have a hand in zoonotic diseases, those moving from animal to human. And the spread of the disease, more active under populist and authoritarian regimes, just adds another layer to this question of human foolishness.

Back to the Book of Job, we know that there is no connection between wickedness and suffering, yet we also know that God remains unsearchable. We can never fully understand the ways of God, but we can trust that God will bring rescue, shelter, and renewal in the midst of crisis. We can trust that God will bring comfort and forgiveness in the midst of our foolishness. And we can trust that God will give us new strength, to soar on wings like eagles, to run and not grow weary, to walk and not faint.

In John’s extended description of the Last Supper, Jesus offered comfort to his disciples, he washed their feet, and he promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. “Soon,” he said, “the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you and remind you of all that I have said to you.” This is not a promise to reveal the unknowable mysteries of the Most High. This is a promise to help us remember everything Jesus said and did. It is a promise to send the sustaining power of the Spirit upon the church, and it is a promise to send the Spirit of the eagle—so that rescue, shelter, and renewal will come to us, now and always, Amen.