Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday

 Mark 11

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”

4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,


“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.

Jesse Owens had one. Ben Hogan had one. Amelia Earhart had two, and should have had more.

I hope I have you stumped. Theodore Roosevelt had one, as did Queen Elizabeth and the future Queen Beatrix. John Glenn had two, and the New York Yankees had too many to count. Finally, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins had one—Michael Collins the astronaut, not the Irish revolutionary.

If you guessed ticker tape parade, you would be correct. Funny thing, the ticker tape parade. Shower tons of ticker tape upon adoring crowds (and the source of their admiration), then let someone else sweep up the mess. The good news (for them) is that the work is getting scarce. In the 1950’s there were over 60 ticker tape parades in New York, but in the last decade there were only three. Maybe there is less to celebrate.

And since someone reading or listening today has no idea what ticker tape is, I suppose I should explain. Ticker tape is a continuous printout of stock prices, named (of course) for the tick-tick-tick sound of the machine that produced the tape. All over the city, businesses had these remote read-outs of the stock market in great quantity, and they in turn became a very handy way to celebrate. Think of it as long confetti.

I share this because the ticker tape parade may be one of the best modern examples of what happened that day in Jerusalem. It certainly wasn’t a parade in any sense that we might know. It wasn’t a military parade—think Red Square or Bastille Day—since those are really a show of force. It wasn’t an event parade like St. Patrick’s Day, though you could argue it became one. And it wasn’t a victory parade, since the outcome of the next few days was yet to be revealed.

The reason the ticker tape parade is a good parallel begins with design. A ticker tape parade, like our palm parade, is a planned event, carefully choreographed for maximum effect. This is not to suggest it is disingenuous somehow—it simply acknowledges that these are not spontaneous events. Jesus gives his disciples specific instructions on where to go, what to get, and what to say if anyone has questions.

Further, the ticker tape parade, like our palm parade, was held to send a message. City officials would select the people to be honoured (which by definition means others were not selected) as a way to align themselves with some triumph or celebrity. Likewise, Jesus enters on a humble beast, not some grand mount, sending the message that he would be a different kind of king, not the one they were anticipating.

Finally, the ticker tape parade, like the palm parade, belongs to the crowd as much as the planners or the people being honoured. Just as ticker tape parades would be meaningless without the celebrating crowd, the palm parade would be just an awkward entry without the palm-waving, the scattered cloaks, and the passionate shouting. “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

So the palm parade was carefully choreographed, message-laden, and dedicated to the people who stood by that day. It was a turning point, or maybe a point-of-no-return, when Jesus truly “set his face to Jerusalem.” And it was also a declaration, a declaration that Jesus’ kingship would be unique, unlike any other. So what would it be like?

It might be helpful to think about kingship before Jesus’ reinterpretation of kingship, and the momentous change God was planning that day in Jerusalem. In the distant past, it appeared that God blessed those in power. They ruled at God’s pleasure, and then they fell when the reverse was true. And then the first big change, through Moses. Remember that God, through Moses, defeated a king and freed the people. But the king (Pharaoh) remained. He did not fall, although certainly his economy was ruined. God only acted to free his people, to end their suffering, and bring them home. Moses mounted his own parade of sorts, through the Red Sea and on into the wilderness. It wasn’t a coup or a revolution, more of a parade in the form of a successful rescue mission.

Back to Jerusalem. Jesus confronted royal power that day not with a show of force or a victory parade, but rather with symbols: kingship that should humbly serve the people, kingship that was based on biblical models of faithfulness and not the sword, kingship that was located in heaven rather than on earth. It was a carefully choreographed, message-laden, and dedicated to the people who would then witness even more symbolic action: tables turned in the temple, a clarifying conversation with the high priest about kingship, and his journey to the cross.

So let me end with that clarifying conversation, the real conclusion to the palm parade, when Jesus is asked, “are you the anointed one, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14.62)

“I am,” he said. “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This was never insurrection, rather the last stage of incarnation. Jesus entered Jerusalem to promptly leave Jerusalem, changing the nature of kingship forever. Earthly kings cannot save you, and they cannot even save themselves. Rather, we wait for the Son of the Most High to save us, now and in the days to come. Amen.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Lent V

 John 12

20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. 25 Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

27 “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” 29 The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

30 Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. 31 Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

I can confess a certain passion for borrow-words.

If I told you that the melee we call the Norman invasion caused some malaise in our milieu, you might say ‘yes, but at least we gained some dandy borrow-words from the French.’ And we did. And even before the Normans, the Vikings who “visited” the land of our language left behind some helpful words: ransack and berserk, for obvious reasons; heathen and troll (the bridge kind, not the internet kind), and the more earthly words dirt, mire, and muck. All fine words, but none as evocative or enjoyable as schadenfreude, which means ‘taking pleasure in the misfortune of others.’

To be clear, I enjoy the word, not the sentiment (unless we’re talking about crossing the line ahead of the rest of the fleet). But it got me thinking about the last few weeks and whether our German friends have a word for the opposite, ‘feeling displeasure at the good fortune of others.’ More research is required. Maybe we could simply default to another borrow-word, actually a double borrow-word, (envy) that began as Latin, then French, then English.

O envy, you are so much more than one of the seven deadly sins. You appear every time someone gets something we want, and can lead to upset, frustration, and often anger. Some have learned the hard way that sharing the news of your recent vaccination can generate a variety of responses, and not all positive. Rather than a sense of relief that one more person is edging toward immunity, and therefore making all of us safer, we have witnessed upset, frustration, and even anger.

We’re simple creatures, we humans, and we frequently default to assessing worth, or value, or deservedness, rather than taking pleasure in the good fortune of others. As some medical person said this week, it’s Team Human versus Team COVID, and we should be cheering on our side rather than second-guessing who gets to score first. So the next time you’re offered the opportunity to share someone’s outrage, remind them that epidemiologically speaking, we’re all in this together. End of sermon.

Well, not really—more end of rant. But my rant does relate to the Gospel lesson for today, when Jesus says “we’re all in this together,” or rather, we should be. The heart of the passage is right in the middle: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. And my Father will honor the one who serves me.” But before we examine the heart, let’s zoom out (no pun intended) and see where these words are set.

Chapter after chapter in John, Jesus says, “my hour has not come.” His mother needs more wine, but his hour has not come. Twice they tried to arrest him, and twice he said his hour had not come. But here in chapter twelve, finally, he says his hour has come. In Luke, we famously get the phrase “he turned his face to Jerusalem,” but for John, his hour has come.

So Jesus is headed to Jerusalem, and he says “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Think about these words. Whoever serves me must follow me. We tend to conflate them—service and following him—but Jesus wants to keep these two ideas separate. We serve Jesus whenever we seek the lost, or slake the thirsty, or visit the sick—but can we also follow him? For you see, following is another thing altogether.

And it’s something Jesus tries to explain again and again. In Matthew (20) he’s confronted by the sons of Zebedee (and their mom!) about this question of who gets to sit at the right and left of Jesus in eternity. Again, Jesus famously asks “can you drink the cup I’m going to drink?” and the sons say “oh yeah!” This was not the answer the Master was looking for. But he doesn’t give up on these two (or their mom), choosing instead to restate the lesson they struggle to understand: “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Again, the difference here is between service and giving his life. Whoever serves me must follow me. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. These are hard words, words we struggle to understand, so maybe it’s time for an example.

Remember back in January, the Vancouver couple who chartered a plane to some remote part of the Yukon, got in the queue pretending to be workers at the local hotel, got the shot, then made the mistake of asking for a ride to back to the airport, proving that clever and stupid often live on the same street? They clearly love their life, and love it enough to break the law, to put an entire northern community at risk, and risk the infamy that comes when every half-baked plan fails. This is what happens when you love your life, to the exclusion of others.

Jesus would have us do the opposite, obviously. ‘Hate your life’ is meant to get your attention, but it just means doing the opposite of the excessive life-lovers, or those who are willing to risk the lives of others in order to preserve their own lives. Yes, we need to avoid doing foolish things; yes, we need to love and serve others; but we also need to follow in his way. And following in his way means loving our own lives a little less.

Back to our example, knowing that remote and northern communities are ahead in the queue should be gratifying— these places where there is no 9-1-1, or a big hospital, or an ambulance on the way. It should be gratifying to know that we are part of a society that works, giving priority to the most vulnerable, and not the people who can afford to charter a plane. It should be gratifying to set aside our own sense of urgency, knowing that we can love our own lives a little less for the safety and well-being of others.

As we get ready for our annual meeting, we can take pride in the fact that the building is filled with food, and boxes, and clean needles, and packaged meals, and clothing (sometimes on the street too). We can take pride knowing that we set aside our own comfort, we set aside the urge to find the building exactly the way we left it, and we set aside the need to control the space—for the sake of others. It’s not a small thing, even if you don’t feel directly involved.

In other words, we serve, but we also follow in his way. Amen.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Lent III

 Exodus 20

And God spoke all these words:

2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

4 “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 6 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

7 “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

12 “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

13 “You shall not murder.

14 “You shall not commit adultery.

15 “You shall not steal.

16 “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour.

17 “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”

I’ve never heard of it, and I’ve never seen it, and frankly, I don’t think I’d like it.

I’m talking about a film called The Fifth Commandment (2008), written and directed by Rick Yune, and rated by Rotten Tomatoes at 25 percent. Ouch. I’m surprized, actually, because Rick Yune is one of the best Bond villains, or rather a villain’s sidekick: the character Zao from Die Another Day (2002). Zao is famous for surviving an explosion and becoming bejeweled in the worst possible way. Let’s just say diamonds are forever.

So, I’m telling you about a film I’ve never heard of, and I’ve never seen, and frankly, I don’t think I’d like—because of the title. Being churchgoing folk, you will of course know the fifth commandment, the commandment that apparently inspired a rather uninspiring film. So what’s the fifth commandment?

Well, based on the premise of the film—an assassin who becomes the target of assassins—we would assume that the title of the film refers to the commandment “thou shalt not kill.” But we already have a problem. You see, “thou shalt not kill” is the fifth commandment for Roman Catholics and Anglicans, but not for us. Over here in reform territory, the fifth commandment is “honour thy father and mother.”

Actually, I’d like to see the director do a reformed church remake of the film, maybe making his parents a cup of tea, or driving them to the store. And maybe that’s not the most compelling idea for an action film, but it might do better than 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. So if you’re reading this Mr. Yune, get in touch—I have lots of ideas.

I also share this numerical anomaly because it has some bearing on what I really want to say this morning—and that is the nature and scope of the first commandment. Again, there is disagreement within the Christian family: with Catholics and Anglicans including making idols in the first commandment, and the reformed crowd giving idols their own separate commandment. So let’s just pretend we’re Catholic for a moment while I make the point I hope to make—and that is the length and breadth of the first commandment.

To begin, the commandment runs to 98 words. 98 words, compared to five for adultery, four for theft, and just four for murder. 98 versus five, or four, or four. Clearly, if importance was determined by word count, you wouldn’t worry so much about that bicycle you lost back-in-the-day and worry more about any idols you might have laying around the house. Or who you might be putting ahead of the Most High. But let’s leave that for a minute and listen again to the first commandment, as defined by the non-reformed:

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It’s part preface, it’s part mission statement, and it’s part dire warning. And it begins as these things often do—with reminder. And the reminder is the first strand on our collective DNA, the magna carta of our relationship with God—that is, we were redeemed. We were redeemed by God, and released from bondage, precisely because this is what God desires for all of humanity. And so, God creates the template whereby people resist bondage in whatever form it appears, whatever guise it wears.

Yet running to 98 words means that this commandment/ covenant has a “wait, there’s more” quality to it. I redeemed you, therefore you shall have no other gods but me. And furthermore, don’t make idols, because I know that having idols is the same as saying “gosh darnit” and pretending you’re not breaking the second (or third) commandment, which is about taking the Lord’s name in vain. And then there are some sub-clauses about jealousy and how long it takes God to forget.

At our study this past week, we were inevitably comparing the Old and New Testaments, and trying to find the divine line between judgement and mercy, and more-or-less deciding that it’s complicated. In the first half of Isaiah God fumes over the disobedience of these people, but in the second half of Isaiah we meet a loving God, offering comfort, and willing to make a highway in the desert of our lives. Likewise, in the first commandment, God warns about visiting the sins of the parents down the third and fourth generations, but then pledging a thousand generations of love if we can simply follow God’s ways.

Just now you’re thinking that this love feels conditional, and not the grace that we have some to expect from God, especially the God we find in Jesus. But let’s not forget that the first words Jesus said to his disciples was, “come, and follow me.” Following Jesus is conditional, insofar and many choose not to follow. Too hard, too complex, and too demanding—this need to love and serve others. Yet here we are, doing our best, trying to live with love and mercy, because Jesus invited us to do so.

So too with God. Being part of a covenant is conditional by definition, the party of the first part offering love, and the party of the second part offering devotion. Recall the old catechism, our chief aim as humans is to glorify God and enjoy God each day. So it need not be onerous. Acknowledging God as the source of all this is; praising God for the wonder of life and creation; following God through our decision to love our neighbours—all these constitute the first commandment. And then, of course, there’s the idol thing.

Idols, you see, are what we make them. Anything that tries to take the place of the God we love and serve can be an idol. In fact, even serving God can become an idol if we make serving into servitude, where we make God into some sort of harsh taskmaster like old Pharoah. So idols are what we make them and idols are everywhere. The market is an idol, made plain by the golden bull on Wall Street that everyone loves having a picture with. Our obsessions become idols, our cravings become idols, even the people we love can become idols if we forget that God loves them more.

So maybe it’s time for a little spring cleaning. Check here and there for idols, and then put them in the trash or maybe the recycling bin. Reread the covenants found in scripture: the God who redeems us and wants only our devotion and concern. And then take a walk—with Jesus, of course—through these Lenten days of pondering and reflecting, and meet God anew. Amen.