Sunday, November 19, 2017

Proper 28

Matthew 25
24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. 25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’
26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.
28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’


You’re richer than you think.

And if by rich I mean blessed, then you are richer than you think. Surrounded by friends and family, giving ourselves to prayer and praise on a Sunday morning, warm and dry in a place created for us by so many saints, and comforted in the knowledge that we have meaningful work to do in the community.

Somewhere in your mind’s eye you’re still puzzling over ‘you’re richer than you think.’ “Is that one of the blue banks? Or one of the red ones? Not the dark red (don’t ask me, I’m colourblind) but the red red one. And what about that other bank—does it ever have a colour? Green, of course! You’re richer than you think...yup, I’m gonna say red—the one that’s red red.”

There’s a lot of interior monologue, so just to anticipate the obvious place your imagination will go next: yes, each bank has an equally inane slogan. (I should ask, are there any bank-slogan writers in the house?) So, let’s start with the green one, who recently ditched the leather chair (“Banking can be this comfortable”) and opted for “Ready for you.” As bad as this is, it’s still an improvement over two slogans ago: “Open earlier, open later. Even Sunday.” Whatever shame big business felt about opening Sunday is long gone.

Light blue says “Making money make sense,” which once commentator translated to mean ‘you’re not smart enough to handle your own money so leave it to us.’* So that’s a fail. Dark red (what is that, maroon?) promises “Banking that fits your life.” And just as you reflexively are tempted to ask ‘what do you know of my life?’ they delight you with Percy the Penquin. I’m not making this up—his name is Percy. So cute.

Needless to say, I think I prefer my own application of “You richer than you think,” with the added bonus of reminding me of It’s a Wonderful Life. Remember the toast at the end, after Harry Bailey flies through a blizzard to help out? He says, “to my big brother, George. The
richest man in town!” And just as you start sobbing (okay, I start sobbing) George picks up the book and reads the inscription from the angel Clarence: “Dear George, remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

So, having convinced you and your inner monologue that there is a better way to apply “you’re richer than you think,” I’m going to suggest that it’s the bank’s meaning that Jesus would have us apply to the Parable of the Talents, also known as the Parable of the Bags of Gold (NIV) or the Parable of the Valuable Coins (CEB). The name is the give away: this is a story about money.

Now, scholars seem to have a lot of time on their hands (I can only say this while Carmen is away) and calculated that a talent is about 15 years wages for a low-income worker. From the top then, the owner leaves town and entrusts the first servant with a million-and-a-half, the next with six-hundred-grand and the last with three-hundred.

The master returns and wants to know the state of his portfolio, so he summons his servants to give an accounting. Servants one and two have each doubled their money, likely on camel futures or some such, since we get the impression that the master wasn’t gone long. Compound interest is a miracle, but not that much of a miracle. However they did it, they get high praise: ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’

Servant three is a very different case. He’s timid. He’s risk-averse, and he makes his confession: ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you didn’t sow, and gathering where you didn’t scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

And just to add to his humiliation, the master gives him some obvious advice: ‘Well, you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.’ And then the conclusion, the part with the tense music and the concerned glances as we wonder who will be off the show: “So take the talent from him,” the master says, “and give it to the one with the ten talents.”

Now, if the next part was your favourite part, I’m going to try to disappoint you. You’ve already been introduced to the idea of ‘scribal exuberance’ and the extent to which someone, at some time, may have tried to underline the point of the parable with a little oomph. Listen again:

29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

We don’t have time for a proper trial, but imagine the first servant—in addition to his fear—has taken the advice of Jesus in Matthew 6: ‘Don’t store up treasures on earth, where moths destroy and thieves will steal, but collect treasures in heaven.’ Or ‘don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear, your Father in heaven will look after these things.’ Instead, “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” It practically sings! This is the Jesus we know and love, not the ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ and certainly not the guy who says, ‘from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

On the other hand—and to make this trial fair—Jesus is certainly in a mood in Matthew 25. Last week it’s the wise and foolish virgins, the latter with empty lamps, seeking oil in the night, then knocking in vain as the bridegroom says ‘I don’t even know you.‘ Next week’s passage is the judgement on the nations, where the unrighteous will ask ‘when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison?‘ And the answer—the part we usually don’t read—is ‘as you failed to do this for the least of my brothers and sisters, you didn’t do if for me.‘

I will leave it for you to decide if the timid servant deserves “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” or if Jesus is even capable of such a sentence. This is a parable about risk, and the extent to which we believe that “you’re richer than you think.” Let me explain.

The hole the ground, the one where the last servant hid his lonely talent, is little more than an inverted basket. And we know the parable of the wicker basket:

14 You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your God who is in heaven. (Matthew 5)

The context is the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus is saying that anyone who hungers and thirst after righteousness, anyone who is merciful, anyone who is pure in heart, anyone who tries to be a peacemaker—ought not to hide this from the world. The light of righteousness, mercy, and peace needs to seen in this world—the richness of our work—and we need to encourage each other to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!

Yet even then, amid the encouragement and the challenge, Jesus has a word for the last servant, seemingly condemned in one place—or at the very least admonished—but still in the realm of his grace: “Blessed are the meek,” Jesus says, “for they shall inherit the earth.”

It’s been a tough week here at the church, with terrible violence on our doorstep, and even now more questions than answers about the cause of this crime. There is an obvious temptation to shrink from the streets that surround the church, to bolt the doors and give into the fear of each other that often follows such an event.

Somehow, with the courage that only faith brings, we need to remain people of righteousness, mercy, and peace. We need to remain the pure of heart, with doors open to all the hurt and rage that the world gives. And we need to trust in the Spirit, that even now is calling us to take risks, in Jesus‘ name. Amen.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Remembrance Sunday

1 Thessalonians 2
9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.


Before the internet, and even before television, there was rhetoric.

Rhetoric is one of these words we commonly misuse, or at least apply a bias that need not exist. So, for example, if I say “that speech was filled with empty rhetoric” you might assume (appropriately) that the speaker was trying impress or move people, but really had little to say.

It’s too bad, really, because rhetoric is just a form of speech—a neutral term—meant to describe the art of trying to persuade. We can call to mind the great speeches of the past—such as Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech—and appreciate the extent to which rhetoric can change hearts and minds.

Cicero said that the purpose of a good speech was to teach, persuade and delight—an idea that Augustine stole and applied to preaching. So here I stand, with Cicero on one shoulder and Augustine on the other, compelled to speak to you in a manner that might teach, persuade and delight.

And the Greeks, who spent that time before television perfecting the art of rhetoric, gave it some theory. And then they argued over the theory, developed schools of thought, master confronted pupil and vice versa, and eventually the whole thing ended up on Wikipedia.

For this morning, I want to share just one type of rhetoric, the one that St. Paul used in his first letter to the Thessalonians, and used in more-or-less all his letters. Call this your five dollar word of the day: epideictic (epi-dyke-tic). Aristotle called it one of the three main species of rhetoric—sometimes called ceremonial speech, or even praise-and blame speech.

Epideictic speech is called ceremonial speech because that’s where it’s most commonly used. If you have ever attended a graduation, and heard the valedictorian speak, you have likely heard some epideictic speech. The purpose is to remind you who you are, or what you’ve done—or in some cases—what you have failed to do. This speech is laden with virtues, praising the best in human behaviour and encouraging us to live up to this standard.

The modern master of this type of speech is President Obama, someone that even his opponents admit is a great speaker. Here’s a quote, just to remind you what presidents sound like:

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Ahhhh. It’s like a tonic, or a balm. Or a flu shot for the mind. And you can see what he does in just a few words: add a little gentle critique, point to human nature, then remind people that they are better than that, that they can overcome themselves to be something more. It’s what leaders do.

So listen again to part of Paul’s letter, but think of it as ceremonial speech, something shared after an important time together, something to mark the moment:

9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.

There’s another element in this form of speech I should mention, and that’s self-display. Paul uses it frequently in his letters, and some find it problematic, but it’s an important part of his rhetorical toolbox. Self-display means lifting something you (or we) have done in order to further the argument. Politicians use this all the time, and it even works if they really have something to brag about.

But if you’re not a successful politician or St. Paul, it’s generally worth avoiding. Michael’s first rule of preaching—learn more in our upcoming Lenten study—is only mention yourself in a sermon if you do something foolish or learn a bitter lesson. Funny, in framing it as my first rule in preaching—which makes a lot of sense—I may have just broken my first rule. Forgive me.

But Paul is Paul, and as missionary and architect of the the Christian faith he has every reason to remind people what he has done. He and his companions worked hard, they entered the community without adding to the burden of everyday life. They were upright, setting an example for others to follow, and avoiding the blame that opponents might cast. And then he gives them a simple image to ponder:

11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.

And like an address inside an address, Paul describes what the best parental rhetoric looks like, the best way for fathers or mothers deal with children: encouraging, comforting, urging faithfulness. We might even call it Paul’s variation of Cicero and Augustine for parents: ‘teach, inspire and delight’ becomes encourage, comfort and urge your children to live lives worthy of God.

And we know that Paul took his role as ‘father’ of the churches and ‘father’ of the faith very seriously. Taking this mandate—encouraging, comforting and urging them to live lives worthy of God—we can hear it in letter after letter:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12.2)

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3.28)

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13.4-7)

Perhaps it’s the last one that best demonstrates the heights of Paul’s epideictic (epi-dyke-tic) power. This is the rhetoric that sets a high bar for love—and has therefore become the staple of weddings. And this, of course, is almost too bad, because anything that becomes too familiar runs the risk of losing the power to convince.

Remembering Paul’s mandate—encouraging, comforting and urging us to live lives worthy of God—the “love passage” is for everyone who is called upon to set aside the ordinary and the day-to-day and demonstrate a higher calling: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

As we continue to remember the fallen, we recall that their sacrifice came from a place that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Those who served demonstrated a mixture of forbearance, belief, hope and endurance that will continue to inspire and prompt others to act.

One of the enduring places of memory and action is the Menin Gate, a memorial to over 50,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Great War and whose bodies were never recovered. Audrey, Jack and I have a cousin listed among the dead, Pte. Norman Southorn, who fell near Ypres on June 3, 1916.

Belgians and the people of Ypres continue to honour the fallen every day with the Last Post every evening at 8 pm, something they have been doing since 1927. They were forced to stop during the Second World War, when the city was under occupation, but even then—some say—the Last Post was whistled in private in the town. They continued through the 60s and 70s, when it was often just two buglers and a couple of cops standing by. And they continue now, closing the street where a crowd forms every night, and the remembering continues. The dead speak, encouraging, comforting and urging us to live lives worthy of God

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Reformation Sunday

Romans 6
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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 live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.


When that time machine finally comes online, I’m going to have a hard time deciding where to go first.

Amsterdam in 1635 perhaps, to meet Rembrandt and Saskia, spend time in the studio, maybe suggest he spend less and save a few guilders for later on.

Perhaps London, 1560 and the court of Elizabeth I. Watch her turn away dukes and princes who, in seeking her hand, thought she might share power with a man.

Or London in 1755, to meet Dr. Johnson in a pub or a coffee shop and talk about his new dictionary. Perhaps he could share some of his more clever definitions, like ‘Oatmeal, a food suitable for horses and the Scottish.’

Or maybe my time travel plans could be more modest, say going back two weeks, to the glorious height of second summer, not two months ago to the sad excuse for a summer.

And this week, of course, travel to Wittenberg in 1517, to meet a 34 year-old professor of theology from a small regional university who was about to change history with a list of 95 complaints. I might travel to his trial in 1521, known to historians as the Diet of Worms, but that’s just gross.

Pity the poor preachers this week. Only some of us are endlessly fascinated by church history, and the rest are struggling today to say something about Martin Luther and the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Some are dipping into old textbooks, some have read and reread Wikipedia, and some have opted to sing all the verses of “A Mighty Fortress” and eliminate the sermon all together.

Here, of course, we’re trying to do three Sundays at once, with the sacrament of baptism, and our 196th anniversary, and that 500 thing people are marking this week. So how do you bring these three Sunday sermons together in a single 45 minute sermon? (sorry, that should read 15 minute sermon). You preach Paul.

St. Paul, who inspired Luther to write the word sola (alone) in the margin of his Bible (“The righteous shall live by faith alone”) was both architect of the Christian faith and the place reformers whenever they needed inspiration and meaning.

You will recall that when John Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed (on May 24, 1738 at about 8.45 pm) he was listening to someone read aloud Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. In other words, Paul inspires Luther, who inspires Wesley, who inspires the Methodists, who inspire the good people of Weston to build a log church on this spot 196 years ago. And thank God they did.

So what was Paul saying that changed young Martin and led to the revolution we mark today? Aside from the famous marginalia and the righteous living by faith alone (1.17), Romans provides ample guidance for those like Luther who make the transition from fearing God and God’s judgment, to recognizing God’s desire to save us from ourselves. And the reasoning begins with baptism:

3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Death and new life. Rebirth at baptism and raised to new life in Christ. Reading Paul, it sometimes seems he makes things unnecessarily complicated. In fact, when you break it down into smaller, bite-sized pieces, the clarity and the logic of his argument comes through.

At baptism, you (symbolically) go beneath the water and die with Christ.
Emerging from the water, you are raised with Christ, just as Christ was raised at this resurrection.
When we died with Christ, we died to sin, we’re no longer slaves to sin, and we are set free from sin.

And Luther, making his own summary, takes a far more personal approach. He wrote: “Drown me and throttle me, dear Lord, and henceforth I will gladly die to sin with thy dear son.” And why was he so anxious to welcome this death to sin, and embrace God’s grace? Because, he said, it’s the “death of death, the sin of sin, the poison of poison, and the imprisoning of imprisonment.” (Barth, Romans, p. 194)

The intensity of these words help us remember that behind the reformer, behind the small-town professor willing to challenge the power of Rome, is a (formerly) troubled soul who had to be reconciled to God before the rest of the story could unfold.

And like Wesley, it was a near-death experience that reinforced this fear of God, and his sense of inadequacy when compared to the saints of the church. It would take the urging of a mentor, and his own close reading of Paul and the Gospels to rediscover that his life wasn’t defined by every sin and slight, and he wasn’t being monitored by an angry God intent on cataloging every sin committed. Rather, he learned (and then taught) that true repentance didn’t come through penance and punishment, but a change of heart. It led him to write these words, words that Wesley heard that night at Aldersgate:

Faith is a living, unshakeable confidence in God's grace; it is so certain, that someone would die a thousand times for it. This kind of trust in and knowledge of God's grace makes a person joyful, confident, and happy with regard to God and all creatures. This is what the Holy Spirit does by faith. Through faith, a person will do good to everyone without coercion, willingly and happily; he will serve everyone, suffer everything for the love and praise of God, who has shown him such grace.

***

I would end here, but I think we still have time to recall what will surely go down as the most boring children’s moment in the history of children’s moments, the tree-legged stool. Shouldn’t kids be excited to learn that the Reformation is like a three-legged stool? Shouldn’t we get out our imaginary three-legged stools every October and rehearse how nimble they are, how the three-legged stool serves in both the milking barn and the theological college as a means to save yourself in a time of trouble?

You see, the three-legged stool of the Reformation defines us, constitutes our ecclesiastical DNA, and remains the place we return whenever we seem to be losing our way. The first leg is there in Romans 1, “the righteous shall live my faith” to which Luther added “alone.” We can’t earn our salvation, it is a gift, freely given.

The second leg is the priesthood of all believers, another Lutheran gift, that I’m not in the intermediary or the intercessor, or some kind of conduit to the Most High. We are all priests, meaning we all have to take faith seriously and we all have a direct relationship to the loving God we serve. From our Presbyterian tradition I’m the teaching elder, in a congregation with many elders.

The final leg, the one we point to on our own anniversary, is the freedom and the independence of the kirk (meaning the congregation). This church, and the elders that lead the church, are responsible for the spiritual direction of this place, the leaders we choose, the form that worship takes, and (most importantly) the spiritual formation of the next generation of believers in the place.

It is a blessing to worship freely, to serve one another as priests and pastors, and to know that we are saved by the grace of God alone. May the grace of Christ, the saving acts of God, and the power of the Spirit continue to surround us, now and ever, Amen.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Proper 24

Matthew 22
15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax[a] to Caesar or not?”
18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax.” They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


As movie tropes go, this is a good one.

A trope is a familiar theme or device that the author will insert into a story—something we recognize and enjoy—like fictional comfort food. So, take as an example, a dispute over jurisdiction. Cop group A will arrive at a crime scene and begin investigating, only to have cop group B come and claim jurisdiction. Some examples:

In that Canadian classic Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) the body is literally laying over the Quebec/Ontario border, which means our heroes must cooperate or the RCMP will swoop in and claim jurisdiction.

Or that Christmas classic Die Hard (1988) where the evil genius Hans Gruber knows that the FBI will claim jurisdiction over the LAPD in a hostage situation, buying him more time to steal $640 million in bearer bonds, whatever they are.

Or the rare case where claiming jurisdiction is a good thing, in The Fugitive (1993). Assuming that no one could survive the terrible wreck that frees Dr. Kimble, the local sheriff gives up. It then falls to the U.S. Marshals to claim jurisdiction and make the call:

What I want...is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area.

I have waited decades to quote that line in a sermon.

And the word itself has multiple meanings. From the Latin, jurisdiction literally means “what the law says.” It can describe who is responsible over what kind of case, both in law enforcement and the courts, but it can also mean who maintains law and order in a certain place. Think Smokey and the Bandit (1977) racing to the state line with Sally Field and 400 cases of Coors. But we’re done with movies for today.

It seems jurisdiction is at the heart of the very familiar passage John shared this morning. The Pharisees and the Herodians have set a trap, asking Jesus if it is lawful for a person of faith to pay the imperial Roman tax. Israel lies within the jurisdiction of Roman, making the tax a requirement—yet some resist. Pay the tax and you are committing treason to the faith, refuse to pay the tax and you are committing treason to Rome. In other words, it’s a trap.

So Jesus sets a kind of jurisdictional trap of his own, asking the gathered group to give him a coin. “Whose image is this?” he asks, “and whose inscription?” The answer is Caesar, and so Jesus makes his iconic and mostly misunderstood statement: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.”

If we are required to render unto both, then, it becomes a question of jurisdiction. Somewhere between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction there is a border, and we need to decide where to live. Put another way, there is line between Caesar’s jurisdiction and God’s jurisdiction, and we need to decide where to draw the line in our own lives (Cousar).

And the clue to where to draw the line is hidden there in the text. For Jesus asks “who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on the coin?” and he could have very well have asked the follow-up question “and who’s image (εἰκὼν) is on you?” And the answer, of course is God’s.

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them (Gen 1.27).

Created, as we are in the image (εἰκὼν) of God, we seem to be predestined to inhabit God’s realm, on God’s side of the jurisdictional dispute. We can render the things the state demands—assuming the state is legitimate—always mindful that we belong to God. It doesn’t mean we live separate lives in separate realms, but that we live in one and visit the other.

Before I venture into a very tangible example of how this works, I have a confession: I’m a monarchist. If there’s a toast, it’s to “Elizabeth, Queen of Canada.” If I have a choice of stamps (you remember stamps) it’s the Queen every time. Like Macdonald, I say “a British subject I was born and a British subject I shall die.” And when I say subject, I mean loyal subject.

And it’s not just because Elizabeth, Queen of Canada is so awesome, it’s because of what she represents and what she doesn’t. As the embodiment of the crown, she represents the stability that comes when the head of state exists outside politics. Governments serve at her pleasure, though in reality we elect them (or more accurately we throw the other bums out). In other words, we can be loyal to the crown and not the government. You might like the government, or the value of good hair, but your loyalty is to something beyond politics.

Cross the border, and there is no crown. And without a crown, people try to imbue the same significance to items like the flag, the anthem, the presidency, the pledge of allegiance, and so on. The constitution seems to approach the idea of the crown in terms of neutrality, but it’s a document, so it’s always subject to interpretation.

Where I’m heading is this: when national symbols are given too much meaning, too much significance, you end up with conflicts such as the controversy about standing for the national anthem.

The “take a knee” controversy, where black players protest the treatment of black people in the criminal justice system, is a really good example of the tension Jesus is pointing too. The faithful response to injustice is protest, even if it means that people will question your loyalty to the state. We can debate the cause that is being highlighted, but at it’s core this is a story about higher loyalty—to an anthem and a flag, or a person’s sense of what’s right.

Another obvious example is unfolding in Quebec right now. The state (the Quebec government) is willing to undermine freedom of religion for reasons that keep shifting. One day it’s about public safety, another day it’s about assimilation, another day it’s about the presumption that women who choose to exercise their religion must somehow be oppressed. All these shifts tell me that it’s about discomfort with “the other” and they are willing to misuse the power of the state to make them something else. This is a moment when it seems religionists (all who value faith) should stand together and resist the state that no longer upholds the freedom of religion.

In the world, but not of the world. This is perhaps the most vexing thing a believer tries to do. It is about our fundamental identity as Christians, our ability to exercise our faith in a society that is increasingly secular, and our ability to use governments to further the common good. And while we have moved beyond the divine right of kings, we can still believe that the state is a vehicle for the betterment of humanity, and that God intends us to work together (through the state) to seek justice and resist evil.

All of this through a simple coin. In our hand is a coin that represents earthly power, and the state, and the women and men who struggle to govern us, most often doing their very best. But the hand that holds the coin, that’s part of you, made in the image of God and holy. A little less than angels God made us, in God’s own image, pronounced good in God’s sight.

The hand that holds the coin that’s part of you that’s made in the image of God—is also one of the hands of Christ, busy on the border between this realm and God’s realm, doing the work and worship that God demands and God deserves. We are imperfect vessels, Paul will say, but we are given righteousness through faith (Rom 3) to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Proper 23

Philippians 4
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


It’s not about all the palace intrigue: who’s in and who’s out and who called who what and how many people heard it.
It’s not about Russian meddling or anything else dismissed as fake news.
It’s not about emoluments or any other obscure 18th century constitutional concept we’ve been forced to learn this year.
It’s not about 688 lies told since January 20 (as of Thursday) according to the Toronto Star.
It’s not about an utter disregard for treaties, agreements, or long-standing international obligations.
It’s not about threats and intimidation aimed at the courts, the media, other branches of government.
It’s not about the latest tweet storm or twitter tantrum.

It’s about the death of civility, and the extent to which public discourse may never recover from this era of name-calling, disrespect and the shattering of every norm that defines true leadership. Almost everything I mentioned a moment ago can be mended, reversed, or impeached. But civility, decency and ‘the better angels’ of our nature are always at risk.

Before we continue, I want to acknowledge my valiant effort not to preach about this stuff week-by-week. It has more-or-less been killing me not to address each new outrage and each new threat to us from this pulpit. In many ways, it’s a mental game: reminding myself that this is happening in another country. Recalling that preaching starts with the Bible and not the newspaper. Trying to let this place remain a sanctuary from the profane and the absurd.

The truth is that those of us who like to drink our news straight from the hose are struggling to manage the firehose that is current events in 2017. Articles have begun to appear that caution the constant news reader about the risk of anger and despair—so even the news is warning about the danger of following the news. You will forgive me then a mid-October foray into the topic I have been generally avoiding—because on this day, the Bible has something to say:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

This is the very definition of civility, a Bible-mandated approach to the world around us. St. Paul is arguing that our first thought should be to truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, admiration, excellence and praiseworthiness. If we’re going to meditate on anything, begin with this list—because in doing so, we enter the very mind of God.

Instead, 2017 has taken us on a tour of the opposite. Study the speeches and the tweets, the obscene post-election rallies and you have heard whatever is false, whatever is crass, whatever is wrong, whatever is impure, whatever is regrettable, anything that is poor and does not deserve praise—and we have been forced to think about these things.

So it’s easy enough to see how we got to this place. In our desire to be entertained, we allowed ‘reality-based’ programming into our homes, only to learn that some were willing to extend this crass medium to public life. As early as the summer of 2016 it was becoming obvious that there was less interest in what was being said, and more interest in how it was being said. People were being entertained. All the other ‘career politicians’ were swept away not by the failure of their ideas, but by their failure to entertain.

It’s hard not to look back to Rome and the poet Juvenal who famously said ‘that the people desire only two things—bread and circuses.’ This is the very same era in which Paul is writing. The nobility of the Roman Republic (in the mind of the poet) had been replaced by free food and the staging of ever more elaborate spectacles. And Claudius, emperor when Paul begins his missionary work, is famous for expanding the games and turning gladiators into the rock stars of the first century.

And so, this is the context in which Paul writes. The passage Sylvia shared begins with a disagreement—which is fortuitous—since it prompts Paul’s remarkable description of proper Christian thinking. Two of the leading elders of the church at Philippi have been fighting, and Paul wants them to stop.

It’s important to note that these leaders were women, something the church would downplay and ignore later. But for Paul (authentic Paul) there was nothing extraordinary for this congregation to be led by women. They were respected leaders, from the same congregation that produced the first convert in Europe, a woman named Lydia, a well-known merchant.

So Paul wants them to stop fighting, and uses an interesting turn-of-phrase to appeal to them to make peace. “Help these women,” Paul says, “since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” Scholars note that “contended at my side” is a phrase borrowed from the gladiatorial games, as in gladiators fighting side-by-side against a common foe. So although Paul is arguing for peace and civility in the community, he still can’t help himself from using a phrase from the circus that public life in the Roman empire has become.*

But it’s all good. We can assume that this conflict in the congregation was solved by Paul’s intervention, and we are left with the words he used to bring peace. These are perhaps best known:

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We are meant to dwell in the peace of God. Even when the world gives us conflict, we are encouraged to keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge of the love of God. This is the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that will allow us to transcend whatever strife or struggle will come. It is the way we are meant to cope.

Yes, you will say, that is all well and good, trying not to be anxious—but what about tomorrow’s paper, and this week’s census of lies, and the very dark place the world seems headed. Will Paul’s assurance be enough? Will truth, nobility, righteousness and the rest carry is through?

I think it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before. Looking back to Paul’s day, it is striking to see the parallels. Claudius was regarded as weak, leading to conflict with the senate and what would earlier have been called the republican establishment. He used the military to look more imperial, conquering Britain to strengthen his position. His infrastructure projects were meant to appeal to his base.

Despite this, Paul won. The Julio-Claudian dynasty was swept away, along with all the other emperors of Rome, but the way of gentleness described by Paul remains. We know the names and the dates of empire, but the appeal to truth, nobility, righteousness, purity, loveliness, admiration, excellence and praiseworthiness are eternal, described in a letter once and lifted up for all of time.

This the way we can save ourselves and save civility in the present age: Let your gentleness be evident to all. Guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Practice the array of virtues that will bring the peace of God. And rejoice in the Lord always.

There will be struggle. There will be conflict. There are some who will pay a steep price for the sake of the future we long to see. But through it all God will contend with us and remain at our side, seeking the good, in Jesus name, Amen.

*Hawthorne 1983:180

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Thanksgiving

Deuteronomy 8

10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. 12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.


You know something is important if there are lots words for it.

Take, for example, a memento. A quick look at Merriam-Webster will reveal synonyms that include souvenir, keepsake, reminder, remembrance, token, memorial, trophy, relic and even bomboniere. If you are confused about the last one, think tiny box with an ancient bit of wedding cake, hopefully in the freezer and not in a drawer. It’s an English word, bomboniere—meaning bomboniere.

And we tend to surround ourselves with them. Looking around the room where this sermon began life, I can see a handful of mementos from my Oma, objects that she treasured and I treasure in turn. There are two clocks, including (appropriately) a grandmother clock. There is a small porcelain creamer, which is actually a souvenir of the 1928 Olympics held in Amsterdam. And there is a painting of the family home in Voorburg, the last home before coming to Canada.

There were other objects, of course, including the ones that no one can quite recall where they ended up. And there then were the things that she saved (and we discarded) that never made sense: countless bags—paper and plastic—neatly wrapped and stored, and an ancient tin of salmon that she had obviously kept for years.

Why did she keep it? She could certainly afford to eat it and buy another. A good tin of salmon is not the cheapest item in the aisle, but not so expensive that you would buy it and never bring yourself to eat it. No, there was clearly more to it—more likely that the tin of salmon was a symbol for her.

Was it a symbol of her new home? Even now you can find salmon in the ‘Souvenirs of Canada’ section at various Pearson shops, for the last-minute memento shoppers. You will find salmon there, tucked in between the little Mounties and the overpriced maple syrup. Now the salmon is smoked and packed in some kind of golden ziplock, but it remains a national symbol.

I’m guessing it was a symbol of her new home—not in the souvenir-sense—but something more, more a reminder of plenty that followed seasons of want. Maybe it’s the same impulse as the one recorded in a sister-passage to the one Douglas read this morning:

Moses said to Aaron, “Take a jar and put an omer of manna in it. Then place it before the Lord to be kept for the generations to come.” [So] Aaron put the manna with the tablets of the covenant law, so that it might be preserved. (Exodus 16.33-34)

That jar is lost, of course, along with the lost ark of the covenant—and the tablets inside—but for a time the jar would have been an treasured object for those who lived through the wilderness experience, those who remembered days and nights of hunger. It would have been a treasured object, but with a complex meaning as described in Deuteronomy 8:

When you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. 16 He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.

Suddenly that jar of manna, tucked into the corner of the ark of the covenant has a deeper meaning than simply ‘remember that some food appeared when you were hungry.‘ That simple jar represented the very human tendency to forget our dependence (and even helplessness) and think instead that we achieved something on our own.

The passage records the very outcome that God wished for God’s people: homes and herds, security and material possessions that never again should people experience the privations of the wilderness or the nightmare of bondage. But the passage also records the turn that follows every advance—’your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God.’

Think of the jar of manna as a downpayment, a daily allotment of the good things that will follow in the promised land. There is a sub-theme about being satisfied and taking only what you need, but the main meaning of manna is ‘you will enjoy a future that only God can provide.’ All we are asked in return is a grateful response: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.”

If Linus were here, he would say “and that’s what Thanksgiving is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Taking a step back, it might be ironic that we’re talking about souvenirs, keepsakes, reminders and relics in the October of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. After indulgences—the ability to purchase a better outcome in the next life—relics were the cause célèbre that drove the Reformation forward.

And without giving away too much of our study set for the end of the month, the proliferation of relics—the bones of saints, pieces of the true cross, and so on—and the vast sums spent on them gave fuel to the reformers’ fire. Absurdities abounded and the result was a turned away from sacred objects (and images) that made the Protestant movement what it is.

We became ‘people of the Word,’ giving all our attention to scripture and setting aside all other forms of veneration. Even our relationship with the natural world become confused, convinced that everything we needed to understand God was contained in the pages of a book.

But I would argue that the book itself points to places and objects that deepen our faith. Time and time again places are given names and meaning that represent an event in the story of the people of God. Places of testing, or trial, or places where someone met God face-to-face. Or sacred items: the tablets, the jar of manna, and the Temple that would eventually house these sacred objects.

And of course, the myriad of objects that draw us closer to Jesus. Even strict reformers couldn’t abandon the cross, though our cross became a resurrection symbol at the same time it reminded us of Jesus’ death. We still need loaves and wine, and the font that becomes a symbol of our new life in Christ.

We make meaning from objects, but we do so without the historical and moral problem of trying to determine what’s real relic and what’s not. Instead we make meaning from things that point to the story of our faith—like a simple cross—and the common objects that surround us. We give things meaning, and that meaning can strengthen our faith or remind us of important lessons—like the jar of manna.

So blessings on Thanksgiving. And “when you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land God has given you.” Perhaps you can make your own jar of manna, tin of salmon, or maybe that wishbone or some other relic of a special meal. Whatever the object, or memento, or memory, may it point the the many gifts God has given us, Amen.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Proper 21

Matthew 21
28 “What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’
29 “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
30 “Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.
31 “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
“The first,” they answered.
Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.


Sometimes, you just want a do-over.

You know, a do-over: a second chance, an opportunity to erase the past a start over. Take, for example, the 95 million people who neglected to vote on November 8 of last year. I bet they want a do-over.

Or that time you loaded some software and suddenly you computer stopped working, or slowed down to a crawl. My computer has something called Time Machine, that freezes a moment in time and allows you to travel back there, pretending that everything that happened in the meantime never happened. When will that function appear in real life?

Even golf has a do-over, famously called a mulligan. While I haven’t played since high school, I can recall with some relief my mates saying ‘you’ll never find that ball—take a mulligan.’ Oddly, the opposite of mulligan is gilligan, whereby someone may demand that you redo the most amazing shot of your life, just to prove you can. This only applies to informal play, it seems, and if agreed in advance. Then there’s a “gimme,” something I have no time to explain, and ironically is meant to save time.

Whether it’s a do-over, a mulligan, or a fresh start, there are elements that are common to any new beginning. First, there has to be a set of rules (even informal rules) that govern the do-over. Everyone involved should agreed to how and when these things happen, with the understand that they are uncommon and not an everyday occurrence. Like the get-out-of-jail-free card, there must be few of them, or what’s the point of having that jail in the corner of the board?

And there has to be some acknowledgment of wrong-doing. You can’t claim the opportunity for a fresh start if you don’t at least understand what happened. When your teenager is grounded for life (obviously in the heat of the moment) there will be a moment when it’s best for everyone to offer a fresh start. But unless there’s some remorse that follows whatever offence occurred, you might just have a teenager with you into old age.

And the do-over has to serve some higher purpose, or there is little point in the first place. It should demonstrate compassion, for forgiveness, or the well-being of a group. It should be a way to build character or model future behaviour, and not just a quick way to get on with your day.

The Bible, of course, is filled with do-overs. Noah’s Ark is the most obvious example, with the interesting twist that the story is an incomplete do-over. God’s first instinct is to utterly destroy humanity, but decides that might be too humiliating, having created these creatures in the first place. So it’s a modified do-over, with one family surviving, along with animals two-by-two, followed by future toymakers and cartoonists following closely behind.

The story of the exodus is a series of do-overs, with (once again) God’s periodic desire to let these troublesome people perish in the desert, followed by all sorts of items to allow them to continue, from water to manna to quail.

Then, of course, there is the exile. As a punishment for disobedience that would make Noah and Mrs. Noah blush, the people are carried off into exile, with little or no hope of return. Luckily for us, and those who follow the other Abrahamic faiths, the exiles used the time to reflect on their life with God, to codify their beliefs, and renew themselves. The return from exile is a do-ver, with God switching from anger to comfort right there in the middle of Isaiah (39-40).

Finally, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a gospel of do-over for the forgiveness of sins. He called the gospel of do-over repentance, the desire to renounce sin and embrace the promised One of God. Sins would be forgiven, Christ would come, and the ultimate do-over would follow, both in the presence of God-in-Jesus and the do-over that would happen at Calvary. With the destruction of death itself, we might say all of creation was subject to do-over, the past done and new life come.

But it was never that simple. It was simple insofar as God truly did make all things new, but less simple because some could not accept it. Couldn’t accept it and couldn’t begin at the beginning of the whole process: the need to repent.

Let me interrupt this sermon to offer you a penitential get-out-of-jail-free card. Repentance is hard work. It requires self-awareness, some humility, and the desire to look candidly at your situation and the people around you. And it requires confidence. Those who lack confidence will say “it’s not my fault” or “I didn’t intend for that to happen” or “I can’t afford to be blamed.” It takes depth of character and practice to say “I did it, and I wish I could do it differently again.”

So, back to our regularly schedule sermon. The interaction between Jesus and the elders of the people, and the parable that follows, are about John’s message and how it was received. The chief priests and the elders question Jesus’ authority, namely the authority by which he is forgiving sins and continuing John’s ministry of calling people to repent.

He sets a bit of a trap for them: He asks them about John’s baptism—a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins—and whether it was divinely or humanly inspired. What follows is some rather desperate dialogue:

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

It is obvious from their tortured comments that they didn’t follow John, or spend time in the desert, or repent of their sins. They were the excessively righteous ones that Jesus continually railed against—unwilling to repent and unwilling to accept that Jesus could forgive that things that people were repenting. But it was the first sin—unwilling to repent—that was the most troubling for Jesus, as becomes obvious through his parable:

Two sons, a vineyard, and a simple question that every parent asks: ‘My child, today will you do your chores?’ The first son says “nah, can’t today. See you later, I’m off to (unintelligible).” But, somehow he does it. The second son says ‘sure I can, no problem, you can count on me, I’m your guy...’ then does nothing. Jesus asks ‘which one did what the father wanted?’

‘The first,’ they reasoned, as they fell into the trap Jesus carefully laid for them:

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. 32 For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.”

The way of righteousness begins in repentance. Get a pen and write it on your hand, get a tattoo, or hire a plane to travel around the neighbourhood with a rather lengthy banner that says “The way of righteousness begins in repentance.” These words are trustworthy and true. If you want to be righteous (meaning you want to follow God) you need to practice repentance. There is no other way.

So what is it and what is it not? Starting in reverse, it’s not constant self-denigration or an unending ‘woe is me, a sinner.’ And it’s certainly not helping others to see their sin, like we’re doing them some sort of spiritual favour that they will thank us for later. And it’s not meant to make you loath yourself, doubt yourself, or count yourself as unworthy of God’s love.

Instead, it’s a discipline. It’s the capacity to say “I wonder if I made this situation worse in some way?” Or “given the chance to do this again, how would I do it differently?” Or simply “that was screw-up—I’m really sorry.” Repentance is rejecting the world’s desire to appear blameless and our human tendency to point the finger in any other direction.

Repentance is standing with all the other screw-ups and ne'er-do-wells, all who need a do-overs and everyone who needs a second or a third chance. That’s where Jesus is standing too—listening, understanding, forgiving, and loving us even when we need more mulligans than the course allows. Amen.