Sunday, March 04, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent

John 2
13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts he found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[a]
18 The Jews then responded to him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?”
19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”
20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

Two weeks of preaching instruction, and I can already feel them judging me.

It’s a bit like travelling to the end of the yellow-brick road and discovering the guy behind the curtain is just a guy and not some sort of all-powerful preaching wizard.

Already, they’re thinking “that’s not where I would go with this passage—he’s ignoring the Sitz im Leben of the text, taking it way out of context, and he really should emphasize Heilsgeschichte—God’s saving acts.” My students are very clever—they practically think in High German.

Of course it’s only two weeks in, so all has not yet been revealed. Take, for example, the simple lesson that the sermon and the text should align. If the lesson is poetry, your sermon should be more poetic. If it’s a parable, the sermon should unfold like a parable—create a world, watch it sour, and then reveal some sign of the Kingdom.

And so for today, Jesus with his whip of cords angrily overturning the tables in the Temple, expect a bit of appropriate anger in the sermon, say in about six or seven minutes, the sermon mirroring the emotion in the text. To do otherwise would fail to accurately represent the authors intent, and somehow take the whole thing out of context. (“Setting watches...he’s going to mention Money Mart in six minutes”)

This middle bit of the sermon (that’s the technical term—the middle bit) will follow a suggestion Dr. Jim made near the end of the second class—refer to and do a word search. You have to know, of course, what you’re searching for, and in this case it’s doves. Our nascent preachers will tell you that you need to scan the text and see what stands out, what seems unusual, or something you’re noticing for the first time.

So doves. I’ve read this passage countless times and only now did I notice that it’s the dove sellers that really set Jesus off:

15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!”

So imagine the scene: some joker has moved a herd a cattle into the outer court of the most sacred spot in the world, and another joker (this one a shepherd) has moved a flock of sheep into the holy places, and yet another joker or set of jokers has been trading hard-earned denarii for Temple funny-money—and Jesus loses it over some doves? So what’s with the doves?

Enter But before we turn to this most-helpful-of-sites, I should say you don’t need the internet to write a sermon. Back in my day, we didn’t have Biblegateway or, we had Cruden's Complete Concordance to the Holy Scriptures, published in 1737. That’s how old I am. Cruden’s is a complete index of every word in the Bible, published by a very nice Scottish man who didn’t suffer the distraction of television.

Doves come up 46 times in the Bible. The first few mentions you know, famous as a sign that the ark is approaching dry land. Then there is the first mention of a dove as an offering—from Abram as a response to his covenant with God. And then we move into Leviticus.

The dove appears nine times in Leviticus, which makes sense since this is the source of the code that leads people to make such an offering in the Temple. The dove is an offering for poor people—something we will see again when we get to the dedication of the baby Jesus—and this regulation gets repeated again and again in the law.

Doves are mentioned in a couple of psalms, and in that book of Hebrew erotica hidden in the middle of your Bibles (“Open to me, my sister, my darling, my dove, my flawless one. My head is drenched with dew, my hair with the dampness of the night.”) Now I’m blushing.

There are a number of mentions in the prophets, mostly related to the mournful sound a dove makes—or their innocence—something that Jesus repeats when he tells us to be “shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Lastly, doves appear in all four gospels, as the Spirit descends in the form of a dove—a sign of blessing and divine sanction on God’s beloved son.

As a symbol, then, the dove comes freighted with the idea of promise, then offering (and particularly as a offering for the most vulnerable), then innocence, and then the blessing of God through the Holy Spirit. There is a lot going on in that little bird, and this alone might explain Jesus’ reaction to the sellers—a kind of desecration of a well-loved symbol.

And that might be our answer, except for another clue among our examples, this one from Leviticus 5:

If, however, they cannot afford two doves or two young pigeons, they are to bring as an offering for their sin a tenth of an ephah of the finest flour for a sin offering. They must not put olive oil or incense on it, because it is a sin offering. (5.11)

We won’t do a word study on an ephah—but since you’re wondering—an ephah is equal to ten omers. What this single verse tells us is that even below the poverty offering of two doves is small quantity of grain—a tenth of a bushel—that still allows you to maintain the covenant obligations set down in the law. And while we don’t know the precise value, a few cups of grain must have been within the means of the very poor, and even easier to access that a couple of doves, something that with a little time you could simply catch.

Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers that are taking money for something that can be sourced for free. Perhaps Jesus is reacting to the dove sellers who are offering an item more expensive than a bit of grain. Whatever the precise reason, it certainly relates to exploitation, taking advantage of the most vulnerable among the Temple visitors, those scrambling to secure an acceptable sacrifice for the Lord.

Has it been six minutes? There is a special place in hell—yeah, I said it—there is a special place in hell for those who engage in predatory loan practices, targeting the most vulnerable. The so-called payday loan is aimed at those who are short near the end of the month—hence the name payday loan. The problem is that people turn to these places when they have exhausted other sources—cards are maxed out, no line of credit, friends and family turn them away.

And when the Star looked at this issue recently and reached for a stock photo to illustrate the article, they chose—you guessed it—Weston Road looking north from Lawrence Avenue. We are payday loan central. Those of us with money are borrowing at prime-plus-one or prime-plus-two, while our poorest neighbours are playing $15 to borrow $100—an effective rate of an eye-watering 3,724% when you spread this cost over a year.

Why haven’t we simply outlawed the whole payday loan industry? Quebec did. Why would we permit this to continue when last year over 30% of bankruptcies listed payday loans as a contributing factor? Next time you see your MPP ask her about payday loans. Leave your whip of cords at home, but take the anger with you.

That tenth of an ephah the poor could bring—also called an omer—that’s the daily ration of manna that settled on the desert floor each morning, feeding the Israelites at their time of deepest need. When Jesus said “give us this day our daily bread” he was speaking of an omer, one portion, given by God, enough to meet our needs. Those who gathered more watched it rot, while those too weak to gather an omer saw their cup miraculously fill itself.

Like the dove, God has made allowances for the poor, an offering that functions as a means test and a way to allow even the poorest a way to participate in the rituals of faith. Add gleaning laws, and Jesus’ various teachings about money, and you get a picture of a God who cares deeply about the poor.

May we remain mindful of the needs of the most vulnerable, and God help us continue to help, now and always. Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent

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?

I’m not sure how often you have occasion to say “Get behind me, Satan,” but as rebukes go, it’s a good one.

It’s right up there with “I knew Jack Kennedy, and you’re no Jack Kennedy,” and certainly more effective than “No puppet—you’re a puppet.” A rebuke should bite, but it has to be clever at the same time.

Those deeply familiar with the United Church Manual—our book of by-laws—will tell you the the more interesting bits are near the back under the topic of discipline. Of course, when you hear that there is an extended set of rules around discipline in the church, you might imagine they belong to ministers, or ministers in trouble, to be more precise.

In fact, the rules that govern bad behaviour in the church also apply to you—lay members are subject to essentially the same disciplinary processes as those for ministers. The processes are the same, the remedies are similar—and now I have you really intrigued. (Just to be clear, the church laws that govern the behaviour of laypeople are like those old-timey laws—driving your sheep through town on the wrong day—and almost never used).

So you are charged with a church-related offence (let’s just say bad behaviour to keep it simple) and few layers of internal disciple kick in, culminating in a formal hearing, the church’s version of a trial. Let’s say you are found guilty of some offence, bad behaviour, and then the sentence. They have mixed up the language in the most recent Manual, but there are essentially five punishments available to the judges: to admonish, rebuke, suspend, remove or take you off the roll.

You heard me right. After every other potential penalty for your ecclesiastical misdeeds, comes the most severe: losing your membership in the church. You can be taken aside for some choice words (admonish), you can be rebuked in public, you can be suspended or removed from some high office in the church, but the real penalty is losing your spot in the roll. We don’t fool around.

I was present for a rebuke once, at a presbytery meeting, where to chair of the meeting—tasked with delivering the rebuke—was so uncomfortable that she had everyone stand so it wasn’t obvious who the words were for. In another notorious example, a presbytery chair gave the rebuke in French—to a crowd who couldn’t understand the words of the rebuke. There is obviously some discomfort with the idea of rebuking.

And the discomfort begins early. Peter doesn’t like Jesus’ thumbnail sketch of the near future and takes him aside to rebuke him. Technically, this is Jesus being admonished, but we won’t quibble. So the first rebuke is Peter’s and the second belongs to Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan,” is very clear, but only part of the message: “You do not have in mind the concerns of God,” Jesus said, “but merely human concerns.”

In many ways, the latter comment is a more stinging rebuke than simply saying “Satan, take a hike.” Peter took his role as lead disciple very seriously, seriously enough to risk Jesus’ wrath when he shared his initial rebuke. But Peter was guilty of self-interest, wanting things to work out a certain way, while Jesus knew otherwise.

And this is the second time in a couple of weeks that Peter is on the wrong side of a similar story. At the Transfiguration, Peter wants to mark the experience by setting up three monuments, essentially giving his focus to human concerns (memorializing) rather than God’s concerns (sending a sign, sharing a blessing).

In this passage, he wants Jesus to stop talking about the time to come—something Peter considered foolish talk—and focus, it would seem, on the here and now. We can’t know the exact words of the rebuke because Mark doesn’t tell us, but the intent is obvious: enough with suffering, rejection, death and the rest.

Again, Peter wants to focus on human concerns (safety, a pleasant future) and not the concerns of God (which seem to include no small amount of risk and conflict). But there must be more under the umbrella of “God’s concerns” than simply suffering, rejection and an uncertain end. If God has an agenda—an agenda that supersedes the concerns of this world—than there must be more.

And, of course, God provides. Jesus has silenced Peter with a very public rebuke and now picks up the topic for everyone with ears to hear. You need to deny yourself, pick up your cross and follow; you need to lose your life in order to save it; and consider the implications of gaining the whole world, and walk away. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?

I think what we’re supposed to see here is that in the course of becoming a follower of Jesus, you don’t actually get something—rather, you give something up. You deny yourself and the everyday concerns that consume us. You seem to get something in the act of picking up the cross, but as a symbol of sacrifice, it’s still more about giving up than getting. You need to lose your life to save your life—again, setting aside what we know in favour of the unknown life of faith. We can’t know where the Spirit will lead us, so there is loss. Opportunity, but loss.

And it’s the third of this trio of giving up—what good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul—that seems an awkward fit. Who has plans to gain the whole world anyway? Isn’t that for dot-com billionaires and stars of reality-TV? Yes, there is an element of giving up when you choose not to gain the whole world, but how does it fit the carpenter from Nazareth or the fisherman from Galilee?

Mostly, I think, Jesus is talking to himself. The only other time this business of the gaining the whole world comes up is during the time of temptation. Jesus is offered bread from stone, protection from harm, and a glimpse of the kingdoms of this world—and he rejects all three. So Jesus has taken this act of refusing the whole world and turned it onto a teaching, a self-caution of a sort.

So why a self-caution? Why does Jesus need to remind himself—and his disciples—that by gaining the whole world you give up you soul? I think we need to check the record:

In Matthew, his first miracle is lost in generalities, but the first specific miracle is healing a man who has wherewithal to say “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus says, “I am willing.”
In Mark and Luke, his very first miracle is driving out a very unhappy demon during church.
And in John, his first miracle is in response to the unusual and troubling statement, “they have no more wine.” It turns out that the one who will one day fill the cup of blessing has a miracle for that situation too.

And those are just the first: daily miracles that Peter and the others witnessed, questions about the throne of glory and who would sit at the master’s right hand, and even revolutionary thoughts—by the young zealots in the group—about overthrowing the power of Rome. You can see how witnessing Jesus’ unusual relationship with the natural world—calming the storm, healing the sick, raising the dead—would lead to the idea of claiming the whole world.

But God was never going to take over the world by force. That’s a human idea, and the mere suggestion of doing it is worthy of a rebuke from Jesus. And on some level, Jesus may be rebuking himself. The temptation to go back to temptation mount and take up that offer would be a strong one, particularly in the face of rejection and loss.

No, Jesus must follow this road wherever it leads. The very people who will reject Jesus, those who will deny knowing him, even those who remain indifferent to the presence of God in their midst, will need to be reconciled to God. Jesus knows that there is a greater miracle to follow, that even in the face of death, life will come, even death on a cross.

And so we say, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can lead us through the uncertainty and the mystery of the rest of this story,’ and to this he says, “I am willing.” Amen.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9‘As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.* 11I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.’ 12God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ 17God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’

Wherever you fall on the evolution versus creation debate, I think we can agree that the whole thing may be a failed experiment.

On one hand, we emerged from the primordial ooze as complex molecules, sprouted opposing thumbs, made tools (as the song goes) and embarked on a path that leads to mutually-assured destruction and Twitter. I don’t need to spell out the connection.

On the other hand, Adam and Eve, naked long enough to beget an entire race of humans, also begat such disobedience and wickedness that God felt compelled to end the experiment and begin a new one with one family and an ark.

Odd that the sign of both Twitter and the flood story is a single bird, but the connections seem to end there. How can I test my failed experiment hypothesis?

What I need is a sign, and I think I got one on Wednesday, pulling up to the drive-thru, passing over $1.55 and receiving that now-famous red cup in return. (Do Ontario’s distracted driver laws include rolling up the rim to win?) Nevermind, because I was given a sign that Lent has begun, and that failed experiment may not be a failed experiment after all, if we follow the signs.

The Bible, of course, is filled with signs: signs that mark an event, signs that demonstrate God’s presence, and signs that symbolize one of the many covenants between God and God’s people. Working backwards, there is the covenant with Moses and Israel, two tablets and the gift of the law. Then there is the covenant with Abraham—that he will be the father of many nations—with an obvious and painful sign to follow. Finally, there is the covenant with Noah, that never again will God destroy the earth, the sign being both that bird and the rainbow above it.

Going over the list again though, there are some important differences in the signs and the covenants they represent. On the more tangible side, Moses and Abraham have covenants that require a response, demand obedience, and always remain in the conditional. ‘Follow this and the covenant will continue’ is the message, true then and now.

But the covenant with Noah is different, and hardly seems like a covenant at all. Noah and his family didn’t do anything to receive the covenant promise (unless you count surviving the flood as doing something) and there is no means by which they can invalidate the promise. It just is. Different too is the sign of this covenant, or signs, since both bird and rainbows are ubiquitous, constant reminders that the promise continues to stand.

So how is this a Lenten passage? How does the rainbow promise tie into the beginning Lent? It relates to the traditional Gospel lesson for the first Sunday of Lent, forty days and nights of temptation and forty days and nights of rain. And that’s it. Unless we look a little deeper, pondering the signs and looking for another connection.

You recall the wilderness story: Jesus heads into the desert and is tempted by the devil, offered bread to break his fast, offer protection from danger, offered power—only to reject all three. In effect, Jesus is offered various forms of power—from hunger and peril and anonymity—and refuses to take them up.

So too with the story of the flood. God makes a promise that no longer will the power to destroy the earth be exercised. Even knowing the humans will return to the same state that existed before the flood, God will not destroy the peoples of the earth. God has power, but refuses to take it up.

So if humanity is a failed experiment, and a quick look at the newspaper seems to confirm this, then it’s an experiment that God is willing to let continue. God has the power to end the experiment, but refuses to take up it up. God seems content to see how this whole thing will play out, much like God-in-Jesus in the wilderness—not willing to end the Gospel by simply skipping to the end with all the power and all the glory.

No, the story of Lent is a journey. It begins with a redeemed planet and a fresh start. It continues with temptations resisted and a ministry launched. Soon disciples will be called, more signs will be generated, confusion will germinate, anger will grow, betrayal will be plotted, arrests made, trials held, crosses prepared, and the story will seem to reach it’s logical conclusion (in the context of our ever-failing human experiment). God has the power to save us from the way this story unfolds, but refuses to take it up.

But God will do something else, another habit that should have been obvious all along: make a covenant. Maybe this was God’s motto all along: when in doubt, make a covenant. Or, when experiments fail or are about to fail, make a covenant. In this case, it’s a new covenant in Jesus’ blood, poured out for us. A sure sign of the coming Kingdom, broken and shared, uniting us into one body.


Before I inadvertently skip Lent and head straight for Easter, I want to share will you some wisdom from the desert, that fitting sign and symbol of Lent. I want to introduce you to Father Anthony, also known as Anthony the Great, Anthony of Egypt, Anthony the Abbot, Anthony of the Desert, Anthony the Anchorite, and Anthony of Thebes. If the number of names is a measure of your importance in the Christian tradition, then Anthony deserves his place near the top of the list.

Anthony is regarded as the Father of All Monks, not the first Christian monk, but the one who sets the pattern and inspires the monastic tradition that defines our faith in the centuries that follow. His retreat to the desert is second only to the temptation story of Jesus, and written about, depicted in art, and still widely quoted.

And like the story of the temptation in the wilderness, the story of St. Anthony (another title) involves retreating to remote place, resisting the work of the adversary, wrestling with bread, danger and power to later emerge enlightened and ready to preach and teach others. And for today, the first Sunday of Lent, Anthony has a word:

"Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

Let’s break down his advice, and let it sink in. Do not trust in your own righteousness: Lent is a time for sober self-reflection, a time to let go of the need to ‘get it right’ and feel ‘in control.’ When we can look candidly at ourselves, and admit we don’t have all the answers and don’t make the right choices every time, then we are freer to be ourselves (and perhaps make better choices next time).

Do not worry about the past. This one is self-evident, even if we need to be constantly reminded. You can regret the past, make amends for the past, but eventually you need to leave the past, and the worry that this brings. “The past is done, and new life has come.”

Control your tongue and your stomach. Now this feels very Lenten. I read somewhere that a quarter of all Fish Filets at McDonalds are sold in Lent, just another version of the red cup. But Anthony says stomach and tongue—it’s not enough to give up certain foods, and maybe we should give up certain thoughts, words, ways of speaking.

"Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach."

A sure sign of the coming Kingdom is near. And as we wait, we give thanks that our failed human experiment is allowed to continue, and that God is with us. Now and always, Amen.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Transfiguration Sunday

2 Kings 2
8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” 11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Have you ever been given a mantle?

No that mantle, currently covered in Christmas cards, but the other mantle—the duty to carry something forward. So, for example, the annual preparation of a certain concoction has fallen to me: six eggs, separated, mixed with sugar, half a litre of ice cream, half a litre of half-and-half (this is where the recipe begins to sound redundant) and a cup of one ingredient and a cup of another that my Methodist forbears decreed should not be mentioned in this space.

A mantle. Something kept, or maintained, or carried forward. Mantles are usually given to you, or taken up in a sense that something will be lost unless you do. Hence the word duty, which always seems to live between something imposed or something adopted, since you could do no other. It can feel like a burden or a privilege, or both at the same time. It can be held for a time, until it’s time to pass along. And it usually requires some discernment, trying to decide who’s best to burden next.

Now, duty is an interesting concept that seems to change over time. One generation will jump at the chance to do their duty, while the next may rethink what duty means. It’s a generational stereotype to say that the GI generation were all about duty, while the generation that followed (boomers, you know who you are) decided that duty was a four-letter word, and they weren’t going to be told what to do, thank you very much.

It’s hard to pass off a mantle if the next generation doesn’t want it. So, as an example, baby boomers are far less likely to vote than their parents, falling, it seems, under the category of “don’t encourage them.” On the other hand, boomers are far more likely to challenge the status quo, particularly when it comes to an injustice, since allowing “the bad old days” to continue was never something they could abide.

Meanwhile, everyone under 55 is trying to find their own way, living in the shadow of this great contest between the generations. Maybe this younger group has found some middle ground, embracing duty such as the need to protect the earth, yet still challenging systems like their parents did, and making their own trends.

So a mantle gets passed, and the next person picks up the responsibility while inevitably making it their own. And that brings us to the reading. The passage Jenny read describes the very end of Elijah’s time on earth, the rituals that mark this momentous occasion, and the symbolic end as the great prophet is taken up.

It should be no surprize that God would send chariots of fine to retrieve Elijah. This is the prophet who defeats the priests of Baal, incinerating hundreds by calling down holy fire. This is the prophet who raises the son of the widow of Zarephath, relieving her poverty and leading her to worship the Most High. Even today, the name of the great prophet is invoked at the end of the Shabbat, as a new week begins.

So the mantle is a heavy one, and as the narrative unfolds, Elisha asks for a double portion of the prophet’s spirit. And just as the sons of Zebedee will some day ask Jesus to sit at his left and right in glory, the response from the master is open-ended. Jesus tells James and John that the spots are not his to give, and Elijah tells Elisha that this is a hard thing to ask—if you see me taken up, it will be granted.

Well, it’s granted. And while scholars continue to debate the nature of this “double portion,” it is clear that Elisha—while not equal to Elijah—is still a great prophet in his own right. He immediately purified the waters of the Jordan, giving the people clean water to drink. He healed Naaman the Syrian, part of his special regard to the military. And I should mention the odd incident with the bears, perhaps as a clue to his slightly lesser status.

Right at the end of 2 Kings 2, he is going up to Bethel when a gang of boys stops Elisha, and being boys, gives his a hard time. “Hey baldy, go away” they say, giving us a sense of how the prophet looked. So Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord, and two she-bears came out of the woods and did what angry she-bears will do to kids who tease prophets of the Lord. No one comes out of this story looking good, not the boys, not the she-bears, not the thin-skinned prophet.

Nevertheless, the mantle is passed, and the prophetic tradition continued. Scholars speak of the School of Elijah, with Elisha assuming the lead role, to be followed by others who go unnamed. And the entire history of the prophets might remain within the confines of the Jewish religion except for the event we mark today: the transfiguration of Jesus.

You recall the story: Jesus takes Peter, James and John and climbs a mountain, only to be transformed into dazzling light, accompanied by Moses and Elijah. Then a cloud appears and envelopes the scene, followed by a voice that says “this is my beloved, my son—listen to him.” Ands as soon as the episode begins it is done. When we are left with—along with Peter, James and John—is the interpretive task: what does this mean?

What does this mean? Scripture is filled with well-worn phrases that tend to blend into the narrative, yet often contain clues into the message and meaning of the Bible. And imagine Peter, James and John debating just what happened on that mountaintop when one of them sees the symbolism here: Moses (the law) and Elijah (the prophets) present to Jesus in a moment of glory, surrounding him and blessing him. The law and the prophets, the law and the prophets. Then they remember:

Matthew 5: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill them.”
Matthew 7: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”
Matthew 22: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Luke 24: Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

That same mantle, passed from prophet to prophet has now been passed to Jesus, fused in the light of the transfiguration with the law, making Jesus the new Elijah, and the new Moses, lawgiver and liberator, priest and prophet, and the beloved one, son of the Most High.

And this fusion will cast a pure light on the teaching that lives in memory and the teaching still to come. For Peter, James and John, then the others, the task is to remind others that this transfigured Jesus remains among us, the law and the prophets, healer and teacher, Saviour and Lord. It becomes an exercise in applied theology, meaning in context, making sense of Jesus in each time and place.

So I want to zero in on just one expression of this fusion, and take you back to Matthew 7, in familiar words: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; for this is the law and the prophets.” The golden rule. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Ensure that people are treated the way you wish to be treated. Apply to today.

The first contemporary situation that springs to mind is the #metoo movement, and the seismic shift that seems to be happening in our society. Beginning with the case of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, and spreading to all areas of society, it has highlighted our collective failure to follow the golden rule, our seeming longstanding inability to listen to the voices that cried out for justice.

And like all revolutions, it’s hard to predict where this movement will go next. Men will need to look within and confront our own sexist attitudes and the ways we have perpetuated this situation. Some women have called for other women to do the same. As a male preacher, it’s not really my topic to preach, except to look within and consider my own participation in this oppressive system. Again, treat others as you wish to be treated. Ensure that people are treated the way you wish to be treated.

The golden rule and the command to love your neighbour are emblazoned on the mantle passed down to each new generation of believers. And like generations X, Y and Z, it falls to us to take up this mantle and make it our own. And we begin with the knowledge that the whole of the law and the prophets are summed up in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit.

This is the mantle we inherit, and we will in turn pass to others. May it always be so. Amen.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

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.

We have a lot of things at Central, but a poet laureate is not one of them.

Sure we have poets, people who put verse to paper and share their creative work. Barbara, Bunny and Jenny immediately come to mind. But we haven’t appointed a poet laureate yet, though I might pass the idea on to the 200th anniversary committee.

Did we mention that you can pass on any random thought that springs into your head regarding the 200th anniversary—which Kathy will happily receive—when she’s not busy reading the lesson or serving up delicious mac ‘n cheese?

Poet laureate is an old tradition, beginning in the classical age, revived in the Italian Renaissance, and made famous in our language with court appointments beginning in the 17th century. John Dryden was the first, appointed by Charles II and handsomely compensated with £200 and a butt of Canary wine each year. That’s 126 gallons, if you’ve never bought a butt of wine before.

And of course, the tradition continues. Canada has a new poet laureate as of January: Georgette LeBlanc, an Acadian from Nova Scotia who writes about the history of her people. She replaces George Clarke Elliot, who writes about the history and experience of African-Canadians. He coined the term Africadian, to identify the uniqueness of Black culture in Atlantic Canada.

So the role has shifted slightly, from the largely ceremonial—writing the occasional verse at the opening of Parliament for example—to lifting up the voices and experience of people from the edges: history that we may not know, and cultural traditions that are uniquely Canadian but outside of what we may have learned the last time we studied poetry in school.

So how does this relate to Isaiah 40? I’m going to suggest that one of the ways to imagine Isaiah, especially the Isaiah of this middle section of the Book of Isaiah, is as the unofficial poet laureate of Babylon. He’s definitely a voice from the edge of Babylonian society, but there is more to it that that—his poetry becomes the strength of the Israelites in exile, and a reintroduction to the God they (and we) worship.

Isaiah is a long book, written by a major prophet (or most likely three) who translates the experience of the Israelites in the pre-and-post exilic period, moving from warning and recrimination and ending up in comfort and hope. Along the way, the prophet feels compelled to reintroduce the Israelites to their God, highlighting God’s majesty, power, and God’s ultimate desire for our lives.

Where to begin? One of the first things Isaiah does in this passage is remind us how small we are:

Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
and its people are like grasshoppers.

Seems like an odd place to begin, but entirely needed, and here’s why: We have a very natural human tendency to domesticate God, to transform God into something that suits our purposes, or at the very least our prejudices. Some (without naming names) have made God into a hateful judge, decrying what they decry, condemning what they condemn. Some turned God into a self-help guru, determined to make us rich or happy or both. And some would reduce God to a kind of cosmic buddy, spiritually present by not religious, formed to suit our needs.

So grasshoppers might seem harsh, but it illustrates the gap between the heavenly realm and our own. Our limited view of God, born of experience, mediated through scripture, guided by thinkers, is still akin to grasshoppers looking up (can they look up?) and pondering the night sky. Remember the Breton fisherman’s prayer, which President Kennedy had on his desk on the Oval Office? "O God, the sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Remember when there was some humility in that office? The next time someone asks you why God might do this or that, you need simply remind them that you are a grasshopper. A clever grasshopper, of course.

So now that we know how small we are, God turns to how ill-informed we are. In many ways it’s an echo of Job 38 (or perhaps the other way around), nevertheless reminding us of all we cannot know. Poor Job and his friends try to understand the ways of God, but cannot. And then God speaks from the whirlwind—this section on a winter theme:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow
or seen the storehouses of the hail,
which I reserve for times of trouble,
for days of war and battle?
From whose womb comes the ice?
Who gives birth to the frost from the heavens
when the waters become hard as stone,
when the surface of the deep is frozen?

Job and his friends, facetiously called “comforters,” do not know, nor do the exiles who first read Isaiah, asking some of the same questions:

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?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.

You do, O God, and we see the sun and stars on their course through the heavens and can only wonder at your glory. We admit that our knowledge of you could only be described as partial, and a generous description at that. Yet in our ignorance we seek to know more, to understand more fully, to see what your would have us see. We need your hope, and we need a glimpse of your desire for our lives.

And from this prayer, comes an answer:

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.

Isaiah’s task, like all good preachers, is to remind the people who they are and to whom they belong. To remind them that they look through a glass darkly, and now know only in part. The fullness will come, but for now we know that God is bigger than we can imagine, more apt to forgive that we deserve, and an abiding source of comfort in the time of trouble.

Even with the trouble is of our own making, even when life conspires to test us and or simply confound us, God remains our strength. And this was true for the Babylonian exiles as it continues to be true for us. The longing for home, the longing for wholeness, the longing for renewal—all these will come to those who hope in the LORD. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Who we are and to whom we belong. Like the Israelites, we are mostly exiles: exiles in a world that seeks to live farther and farther from God, exiles from the kind of society we wish existed, exiles from the divine realm we can only begin to imagine. We have a vague sense of Jerusalem, but continue to live in Babylon. But we are God’s people in exile, the very community that Isaiah addressed and continues to address even now.

May we hear and heed the prophet, trusting in God’s promise of hope and strength, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Mark 1
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.

It is considered one of the most influential books in the history of publishing.

Released in 1936, it sold a quarter-million copies in the first three months, and went on to sell 30 million copies in total. It began as a series of transcribed lectures, loosely based on the topic of public speaking, interwoven with tips and anecdotes on how to manage people and bring them around to your way of thinking.

And while Dale Carnegie didn’t invent the self-help book, he revolutionized the genre by creating a template of sorts that could be replicated on any number of topics related to self-improvement and self-actualization.

Of course, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” has received it’s fair share of critique since 1936, beginning with the charge that the book teaches how to be insincere and manipulative. It’s runaway success in Nazi Germany was an embarrassment to the publisher, and all the poor imitations within the genre didn’t help the book either.

And perhaps the most damning is the way the marketing world embraced concepts in the book, and used then (still use them) to liberate money from your wallet. Take, for example, the fifth point in the section called “Twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking.” Carnegie writes, “Start with questions to which the other person will answer yes.” The theory here is that if you ask a series of questions that prompt a yes, the person is more likely to answer yes to the last and most important question of all. When a telemarketer calls and begins with “are you having a good day?” or “are you enjoying the sunshine” then very soon you’re going to agree to having your ducts cleaned.

And then there is the third point in the section “How to make people like you.” It reads: “Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” So the exchange usually goes something like this:

Him: “Hi what’s your name?”
Me: “Michael”
Him: “Mike! Glad to know you, Mike! Mike, do you know about this product?

I share all this not because some of the most effective telemarketers seem demon-possessed, but because the first thing the demons do in our passage this morning is take a page from Dale Carnegie. It seems they can’t help themselves, and you might even say ‘the devil made them do it,’ in a Flip Wilson kind of way.

The passage begins in the typical Markan way, with little preamble, and an economy of words, heading straight into the heart of the scene. Jesus is teaching, and amazing others with the authoritative nature of his teaching, when the service is interrupted. A man possessed by an unclean spirit cries out: “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

And using the same economy of words, Mark describes what happens next: “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. A couple of things to note in this little exchange. First, Jesus is primarily interacting with the demons, and the man himself is a bit of a peripheral character in the story. He’s not really crying out, it’s the demon inside him, making this trio of participants more of a duo. The demons make their best effort to win friends and influence Jesus straight away (“What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”) but to no avail. Jesus can see right through these cheap demonic tricks and begins with that phrase every demon and telemarketer dreads to hear: “Be quiet!” and “Come out of him.”

The second thing is the extent to which this will be an ongoing dialogue, and a relationship of sorts, as Jesus sets out to rid the Galilee of demons. Rather I should say rid Galilee of demons until the word gets out, then suddenly it’s possessed people from Judea, Jerusalem and beyond the Jordan. In chapter three, people are pressing in on him, and those possessed pushed forward. Mark says, “Whenever the evil[a] spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God.’"

Or chapter five, a man that even chains could not restrain, ran to Jesus and shouted, "What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name, don’t torture me!” In this case, Jesus takes the dialogue even further, and asks the demon his name. “Legion,” comes the famous answer, “for we are many.” The story ends, of course, with the demons transferred to a herd of pigs that come to a quick end in the lake.

In each of these cases, the demons know Jesus and know who he is. Son of God, Holy One of God, Son of the Most High: the demons understand exactly who they are up against. The demons understand even as others struggle to understand, responding to Jesus with puzzlement and fear.

Time and time again, the people around Jesus ask “What kind of man is this?” like Matthew 8 overcoming the wind and the waves, another type of possession. I think I prefer the King James’ version of the same questions, asking “what manner of man is this?”

What manner of man is this? God speaks and confirms that this is God’s son. The wind and waves obey him. He demons flee even as they confess that he is the Son of the Most High. Yet people seem confounded. Some witness the very power of God on earth and still they ask “what manner of man is this?”

In a sort of time-twisted homage to Dale Carnegie, Mark is manipulating us in the best possible way. Mark is using a narration technique to draw us nearer, and draw us into the text. He’s turning us into insiders, people in the know, people who can then take this knowledge and confidence into the world.

This is how it works: every time someone in the story asks a question like “what manner of man is this?” we already have the answer. We have the answer, the demons have the answer, and a entire cast of players within the story are gradually getting the answer.

But we know from the beginning. And every time some one says “what is this?” and “Isn’t that Joe and Mary’s boy?” and “what manner of man is this?” we answer. We answer and our answers get louder until we’re practically shouting at our Bibles and people start to think we’re demon-possessed. Our knowledge causes our confidence to grow, until we can tell others what the demons declared from the start: This is the Son of God, the Holy One of God, the Son of the Most High. Worship him, and call on his name!

So what can we do, having this primer on Dale Carnegie, demon-possession, and the subtle art of winning friends and influencing people? How do we apply this to our modern scientific age? I guess I would begin by saying that demon possession continues, not in a literal “hi, my name is Legion and I’ll be your demon tonight” but in the sense that people still get caught up in things beyond their immediate control.

Some weeks ago I preached about my fear that we may somehow lose civility in our public life, that something has been unleashed as people cry “build the wall” and “lock her up.” Every day some commentator continues to wear out the word “unprecedented.” And every day we seem to slip further and further from the life we know before that fateful day a certain candidate came down a certain escalator and began talking.

Since then, all manner of seemingly rational people have acted as if they are possessed, and social-scientists and psychologist struggle to explain. But think the answer is is scripture: Who are you? We are legion, for we are many. I’m not saying the devil is in each politician that I disagree with, only that we have seldom seen a clearer example of a world quickly gone mad.

So what’s the answer? What manner of man can solve this crisis? Only the one who teaches with authority can show us God and God’s way. Only the one who teaches mercy and shows compassion and offers forgiveness (amnesty?) can show us God’s way.

Jesus didn’t avoid the possessed, and he didn’t flee the village. He extended special care to those possessed, because even in their compromised state, they remain children of God. The demons would have us hate and condemn, but Jesus only loves. He loves and forgives and never stops seeking the lost and the possessed, and thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Psalm 62
Do not trust in extortion
or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.
One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.”

1 Corinthians 7
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Scrabble is not my game.

There is something about the randomness of the little tiles, the time pressure, the constraints of that foolish board, the extent to which you depend on others to provide the venue for the perfect word, the best laid plans that go awry when someone takes that perfect venue for the perfect word—and the fact that when we play Carmen always wins.

Now, Trivial Pursuit, that’s a game! Basically, every other answer is Richard Nixon or The Beatles. Understand the era of the game-makers, and win the game—simple!

I’m not so selfishly wedded to my game not to see a good Scrabble word when it appears. So today’s ‘confound your opponents’ word is WEND, meaning “to turn, or to change.” Wend. Just now you’re thinking ‘wend, huh? I bet the past tense is went’ and at one time you would be right. Somehow (ironically?) the past tense changed from went to wended, yet another winning word for your next game.

But the irony here is double, since the word for change that my Anglo-Saxon forbears used (wend) was itself changed to the word change after the Normans appeared. If you spent any time in grade nine French wondering why French and English use the same word for change, then wonder no more. One of the characteristics of our language is a remarkable openness to change: wending (Scrabble alert!), to include words we borrow from others.

So 1066 and the Norman conquest was a time of profound wend. So profound that even the language changed, making room for borrow words that we still use. You might think this melee, and the linguistic melange that followed would cause malaise, but some find borrow-words exciting. I’ll stop there.

This meditation on change is meant to underline the inevitability of change, something that St. Paul is underlining in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. Change and the opportunity for change will inevitably occur, and how should the believer respond to such changes? Is there a unified approach to change, and what drives this approach? And what was going on in Corinth that required this much advice? So we begin.

The commentary that I dip into from time-to-time begins with this: “The seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians is hardly anyone’s favourite passage.” Well, if that doesn’t peak you interest, nothing will. Why the thumbs down? Part of the answer is that whenever Paul begins to talk about marriage, we get a little nervous, and then the preacher gets nervous, and the whole thing can go off the rails.

After a careful reading, however, I think we see Paul’s approach as rather balanced—almost modern—in the sense that whatever he suggests for one partner he also suggests for the other. Some examples:

He begins by saying don’t have sex. But if you have to have sex, only have it within marriage. And just as a wife should yield to her husband, a husband should yield to his wife. You can deny each other by mutual consent, but you should be careful, since temptation to strong. He goes on:

Widows and the unmarried should stay unmarried, unless you can’t.
If you’re married to a non-believer, stay married.
If your non-believing spouse leaves you, Que será, será (that’s the Doris Day translation)
Whatever your circumstance when you became a believer, it’s okay to remain that way. Don’t bother getting circumcised or uncircumcised, whatever that means. Slaves should seek their freedom, but it’s okay if you can’t.
Are you engaged? Go ahead and get married.
And then Paul shares the heart of his meditation, our passage for the day:

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

Again, the commentary describes this a “detached involvement,” in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world, one foot in the present and one foot in the age to come. Waiting with care, but always waiting. “For this world in its present form is passing away” and we would do well to remain mindful of this every day.

So Paul is simply reinforcing what Jesus already said, but with a twist. The Gospel reading we didn’t hear for the third Sunday after the Epiphany is another calling-the-disciples-by-the-seaside passage, but this version has a great summary beginning: "The time is fulfilled,” Jesus said, “and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

The twist that Paul adds is the “not yet.” Really, it’s an old parent’s trick when kid keeps asking “but when?” “Now yet” means it’s going to happen, and it might happen any time, but it hasn’t happened yet. “What I mean,” Paul says, “is the time is short.” The very thing we pray for, “thy kingdom come” will come, but it lives in the realm of the not yet. Or to quote the old spiritual, “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.”

But not yet. And here is the key to Paul. He has introduced the Kingdom to Corinth, he has baptized and taught the people, he has created expectation, he has instituted the greatest change these people have ever known, and they say “now what?”

I want to pause for a moment for the sake of ‘now what?‘ It’s an element of our lives that we seldom confront, but it seems to appear at the most significant times. You cross the stage, diploma in hand, and you think “now what?” You leave the church, ‘spouse and spouse’ we now say, and look at each other and say “now what?” You get home with your baby burrito all snuggled and think “now what?” You watch the aforementioned fully grown baby burrito drive away into adulthood and say “now what?” Or you pause at the end of your life and ponder the mystery of eternity with God and think “now what?” What shape will the future take—but more importantly—what do I do now?

And the good people of Corinth were asking the same question. Everything changed: all the compassion and mercy and forgiveness and grace and comfort and healing and reconciliation and concord and communion meant that everything changed. The Kingdom arrived and the Kingdom was coming to transform the earth and the answer to the most pressing questions was “not yet.”

But how do you wait? Now what? And Paul tries to answer. He tries to give practical advice to very practical problems: marriage and remarriage, going to court, rules about food—essentially telling people to wait well. While you’re waiting, be good, and live like the Kingdom is nearly here.

This might be the moment to let the psalmist weight in, since waiting and living in the not yet is so much a part of these writings too. The psalmist’s soul finds rest in God alone (“my rock and my salvation”) but still lives in the world with the rest of us. And we know this because the topic shifts to worldly concerns:

Though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.
One thing God has spoken,
two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.”

Like the people of Corinth, the psalmist’s people were living their lives, enjoying some prosperity, and needing to be reminded that the future belongs to God. Don’t set your heart on the things of this world, but remember that the power to change everything belongs to God alone. We can’t know the time or the circumstance, but we know that God is unfailing love.

May the unfailing love of God surround you, as we wait for the “soon and very soon” of the Kingdom. Amen.