Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

John 1
43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe[a] because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you,[b] you[c] will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’[d] the Son of Man.”

It’s a mystery worthy of a Dan Brown novel.

And I think by saying that, I mean that it’s a sort of minor mystery, told in a way that makes it seem somewhat more dramatic that it really is, with a sub-plot or two thrown in, with seemingly authoritative voices added to the narrative to give it an air of realism. Add a compelling title, and you have all the makings of a bestseller.

Let’s call it the “Nathanael Code” or maybe “The Nathanael Prophecy,” and try to unpack what’s really happening here at the end of the first chapter of John. Who is he? And what happens to him? And what are the secret symbols in the narrative that only Tom Hanks as Dr. Langdon could identify?

Well, let’s start with Nathanael himself. We know three things for sure: He’s a friend of Philip, who first tells him about Jesus. He receives some of the earliest and best praise from Jesus, described as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” And he is fond of a certain fig tree, which seems to have more meaning than simply a shady spot to rest.

And that’s about all we know. He appears here as the disciples are being called, but he’s not on the list of disciples. He receives high praise and seems to accept the invitation to follow Jesus, but disappears from the story until the very end of John’s Gospel, when he is named as among the group who make the miraculous catch of fish. There he’s named as Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, as in the water-to-wine Cana.

In between, he doesn’t appear, and those who have been thinking about this from the earliest days came up with a simple fix: Nathanael is really Bartholomew. Like Simon Peter, Nathanael is set among those with two names used interchangeably. The evidence for this is pretty thin, so you have to decide for yourself. You see, Philip introduces Nathanael to Jesus, making them friends. And every other reference to Philip includes Bartholomew, making them a pair. And that’s it.

Okay, so maybe it’s not a future Dan Brown novel, but it does underline an important point in the story: it’s not the details of their story that matter, or what happens to them later on, but their interaction with Jesus. The early church used up a great deal of parchment trying to fill in the story of the twelve, trying to give each a meaningful middle and end, when in fact we know very little. If Nathanael is Bartholomew, he may have travelled to India, he may have ended up in Armenia, he may have been martyred by being beheaded, or crucified upside down, or some other means that would change this sermon from PG-13 to R.

In the same way we don’t know the details of his story we don’t know why he is patron saint of bookbinders, butchers or Florentine cheesemakers, but he is. In many ways, we can call this a gift of the Holy Spirit: that someone for whom so little is known can inspire countless believers over time. But it is his interaction with Jesus—his interaction as under the name Nathanael—that stands out. We pick up the story at verse 47:

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

In the same manner that ancient writers were spilling ink to develop traditions around the disciples, scholars try to find symbolic meaning in the text. Here we have the phrase “under the fig tree” which seems to have deeper meaning in the story. If the answer to the question “how do you know me” is “I saw you under the fig tree,” then maybe we need to look at the fig tree.

Some argue that “under the fig tree” is coded language for study, the shade of the fig tree being a preferred place for prayer and contemplation. Others argue that the fig tree is a symbol for peace and prosperity, suggested by Micah 4, and that Nathanael’s presence under the fig tree is a symbol of the age to come. Still others point to the fig tree in other great religions: the Buddha achieved enlightenment under a fig tree, and Mohammed wished to see a fig tree in paradise.

Or maybe it’s just a fig tree. And Nathanael is just someone Jesus called, who traveled with Jesus, who may not have been in the first twelve, but certainly in the next twelve. At the very least, he can be placeholder for the countless people over time to whom Jesus might say “Here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.”

But before we talk about that, we should talk about placeholders. Do you know about placeholders? When I was a kid there were a handful of things always worth waiting for: the bread truck, heavy-laden with those little sugary donuts, the occasional trip to the dump to look for treasures, and anything that came in the mail from the Perfect Pen & Stationary Company.

You see, my dad was a small-business owner, and we received sample promotional items from Perfect Pen on a regular basis. Appropriate to the name, we received mostly pens, and they most often included a placeholder printed on the side: “Your name here.” You Name Here was useful in that it allowed you to see what the printing looked like—how it appeared on the pen.

So a placeholder is a temporary substitute for something permanent, a way to indicate that a place has been reserved for something that will follow. And even saying these words out loud leads me to wonder about Nathanael and all the other early followers that we know so little about. What if they are simply placeholders, names that hold a place until someone else comes along?

Imagine this: You are invited to come to church, invited to explore a life of faith, not because your life is a wreck, but because you already do the kinds of things church people do. You help your neighbours, you give to charity, you canvass for worthy causes, you drive your friends to shop or see the doctor, you stand up for people who are being treated unfairly, you try to be kind to the less fortunate, you never want to gain from the mistakes of others. You have no deceit. You are Nathanael.

And you’re not that rare. You’re special, in that you do all the things I mentioned, but you have lots of friends who are just like you, so not that rare. Like Nathanael, you are the kind of person that Jesus might point to and say “here’s someone righteous, you should follow me.” Yesterday it was Nathanael, today it’s you, and tomorrow it will be someone else.

In other words, a placeholder. This is not meant to somehow diminish Nathanael or all the other people listed around Jesus. It’s just that when someone near the centre is so vaguely drawn, so ill-defined, it gives us an opportunity to see ourselves in the story, or better yet, to see others in the story who have only a passing knowledge of Jesus and his love.

So perhaps there is no mystery around Nathanael at all. Maybe the fig tree is just a fig tree, to misquote Sigmund Freud. Nathanael is just a placeholder name for all the future Nathanaels who will lean in when someone says “the meaning you’re looking for, the glue that will hold things together, I think you will find in Jesus the Christ.” He’s the source of the compassion you already show, the author of the love you know, the maker of all that is good and treasured—come and follow, come and follow.

May we find the courage to make the invitation that we first received. May we see Nathanaels all around us, and may God give us the words to share. Amen.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

First Sunday after the Epiphany

Mark 1
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with[a] water, but he will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

There are early adapters and there are early adapters.

And when an engineer marries an engineer, there is some guarantee that the household will fall under the category of early adaptors. My brother and sister-in-law, ever ready to test the latest gadgets, introduced us to the newest addition to their home, Alexa.

She’s not a person, she’s a personal assistant, ready to try to meet a narrowly defined set of needs whenever you call out her name. “Alexa, what’s the weather like?” or “Alexa, what time is it?” Of course you could simply open the front door or look at your watch, but that would somehow violate the code of the early adapter.

And watching the family interact with their new robot was always going to be cause for comment and gentle mocking. Why is little Annie always going up to Alexa and whispering things? What are they plotting, the new robot and not-quite-four-year-old Annie? I know that she’s not shopping online, since that feature has been wisely disabled. Something about her older brother’s strong temptation to order all the LEGO sets, especially that 4,000 piece LEGO death star.

And of course, when you mock people, they get their revenge, since they gave me my own version of Alexa for Christmas. To avoid confusion, I’ve renamed mine Computer (giving it a Star Trek vibe) and I have to say that the beginning of our relationship has been a bit rocky. I know the time and the weather, so I decided to start with unanswerable questions to try to get the upper hand early: “Computer, what were you thinking?” No response.

Other things I’ve discovered by accident. I tried “Computer, heads or tails?” and she will flip a coin for me. Now we’re getting into truly useful territory. Some times there are no coins handy. Or “Computer, give me a random number between one and ten.” And she does! She will tell you a joke, play some music, and she even knows that she’s only two years old.

Of course, I felt compelled to test her religious knowledge, so I asked her to recite the Shema, the centrepiece of Jewish prayer. She knew it. Then I asked for the Shahada, the first pillar of Islam, and she knew that too! Then I asked her to say the Lord’s Prayer, and told me that I need to download the Bible app to hear scripture. Clearly, she needs some work.

But she will learn, at least according to the user manual, and so we carry on. “Computer, how will the preacher connect the robotic personal assistant to the readings for the day—the baptism of Jesus?” Long pause, and then she might say something like: “That’s easy: John’s baptism is all about learning from our mistakes, and becoming a better personal assistant to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.” Thank you, computer. Soon I’ll have her writing my sermons.

And while we don’t specifically practice John’s baptism any longer, it is a dimension of the One Baptism that remains the only rite of initiation into the Christian church. We go beneath the waters of baptism and die to our old sinful selves, then emerge from the water made new through Christ. The baptism of repentance continues, as one part of a larger story.

Immediately, of course, we have at least two problems. The first (and obvious) problem is baby Norah’s near perfection. She played the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, for heaven’s sake! She hasn’t really had the opportunity to develop a list of faults, let alone committed any sins. However—the theologians will tell you—she has lots of potential. Not wanting to shatter any illusions, but she’ll suffer the same temptation to order all the LEGO or whatever toy strikes her fancy, and when a fleet of UPS trucks line the street, she will be just as likely as any child to say “I didn’t do it.”

The second problem also relates to the baby Jesus in the Christmas play, in the sense that we’re fresh from celebrating Jesus as God’s incarnation, God’s willingness to enter our world. The tender babe is now fully grown, and ready to embark on a three-year ministry that will made sense of the incarnation, showing us the ways of God in the teaching and healing to come. But he’s still God’s incarnation, even fully grown.

So we can see the outline of a problem. God-with-us, Emmanuel, the son of the Most High, has come our into the wilderness seeking a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. To quote John the Baptism, "I’m the one who needs to be baptized by you—so why are you coming to me?" On one level, we can just let the problem lie. The Embarrassment Theory tells us that anything that that might be embarrassing to the tradition, yet remains in the scriptural record, is regarded a uniquely true.

In other words, Jesus really needed baptism, or at least really needed us to see him baptized, even if the reasoning is mysterious. Both scripture and tradition tell us that Jesus was without sin, and therefore there has to be another purpose, another reason for accepting John’s baptism. Was he modelling for us? It seems the most likely reason, his willingness to get into the muck of the Jordan and the muck of our humanity, and be cleansed, needed or not. In this sense, it was an act of solidarity, something we never stop needing amid all our sin and sorrow.

So Jesus didn’t need it, and babies don’t need it—so why do we do it? Why not wait, like they do in other traditions, give the kid the chance to really get some serious sinning under their belt? Get them on Facebook, or Twitter—the new go-to place for human stupidity (someone call it “weapons-grade stupid”). We could wait, and sometimes we do, but the effect is the same: in Christ you are a new creation, the past is done, and new life has come.

In other words, age doesn’t matter, actual sin-level doesn’t matter, even which social media ruins you doesn’t matter. What matters is what Christ does at baptism, or rather what we do with Christ at baptism, without any reference to age or stage. St Paul said “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 God, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6)

Baptism is resurrection, new life through water and the Spirit, one with Christ and one with everyone in the body of Christ. Norah can no longer play the baby Jesus, she has become one with the baby Jesus, as we each did at the moment of our baptism. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3.28)

So what do we do with all this oneness, and newness, and Christ-like risen-ness? Well, I think you already know the answer. A quick glance at the newspaper or the latest tweet will remind you that baptism isn’t like being laminated somehow or shielded from our humanity. We don’t become faithful robots protected from ourselves. I haven’t asked the computer for a confession (“Computer, how have you sinned?”) but there would be no point. The computer has no free will and no opportunity for real living, so no opportunity to screw up. Even mishearing isn’t the computer’s fault, it was just me mumbling when I should ANNUNCIATE.

We humans, however, have every opportunity to fall short of the Maker’s desire for our lives, and—in turn—every opportunity to make it right. We read the story of the baptism of Jesus as one episode, when in fact, it was ongoing. Jesus may have only visited the Jordan once, but I imagine the crowds that followed John returned again and again. He was offering a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and since people keep doing it, I imagine they kept going back.

In the same manner, we too keep going back. Our actual baptism happens once, but week-by-week we make our confession, and participate once more in a version of John’s baptism. “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” There is a direct link between then and now, our servuce today and the many services John led by the riverside.

May our baptism be ongoing. May we continue to seek to be reconciled, and may we never forget our oneness in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

First Sunday after Christmas

Psalm 148
Praise God from the heavens; give praise in the heights!
Give praise, all you angels; praise God, all you hosts!
Praise God, sun and moon; give praise, stars and lights!
Praise God, farthest heavens,
and all waters beyond heaven! R
Let all things praise the Holy One at whose command
they were created,
who established them for all time,
setting bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise God from the earth,
great sea creatures and ocean depths,
lightning and hail, snow and frost,
gales that obey God's decree,
all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars,
wild animals and cattle, creatures winged and earth-bound,
sovereigns who rule earth and its people,
all who govern and judge this world,
young men and women alike,
old people and children together! R
Let all things praise the name of God,
the name above every other,
whose splendour covers heaven and earth.
You give strength to your people,
songs of praise to your faithful,
to Israel, the people dear to your heart. R

Days later, it feels like a distant dream.

That thing you imagined, planned, prepared—it seems over before it even began. Even now, while I’m driving to and fro, a thought flashes through my mind: “Do I have everything I need? Do I need anything from there?” Anything that takes a long time to prepare will have a sort of half-life, living in our consciousness in the days and weeks that follow.

And then there is the actual event itself. Anyone who has prepared the big meal will tell you that there is a moment—just a moment—when you think “are you just gonna eat it? Can’t we just linger over the presentation, the way these things look in their bowls, the herculean task of having everything ready at the same moment?” Again, it’s a fleeting thought, but it’s there.

Or the utter randomness of gift-giving. The item that you thought would be a hit remains unopened, while that last-minute item becomes a source of fascination and joy. Or children that insist on tarrying over the first item, when you know there are bigger things in store. Or the end of the afternoon, when the kids are more interested in the empty boxes and the mound of discarded wrapping paper than the things formerly contained inside.

What I’m pointing at—beyond perhaps a mild case of post-holiday let-down—is that pesky thing God gave us, namely free will. We make a plan and events unfold—and seldom do these agree. In many ways, that is part of the magic, not knowing what will steal the show. But it also underlines the limits of planning—since people will decide for themselves.

And the passage that provoked this somewhat philosophical post-holiday reflection—Psalm 148—has all the elements of this movement from planning to implementation. It also goes from big to small, the larger picture of God’s creation to the hearts of the creatures given to praise.

And when I say big, I’m mean cosmologically big! If it’s a movement from macro to micro, then what’s bigger than farthest heavens?

Praise God from the heavens; give praise in the heights!
Give praise, all you angels; praise God, all you hosts!
Praise God, sun and moon; give praise, stars and lights!
Praise God, farthest heavens,
and all waters beyond heaven!

Now, the scholars say this is precise description of the way ancient minds saw the universe: there was a dome above our heads, resting on the earth below, all of it surrounded by a primordial sea. God set these boundaries—the limits of sky and sea, the depths of the oceans, the vastness of the heavens—to provide order, that we might find our place. And in finding our place, we also see we are part of a larger whole:

Praise God from the earth, great sea creatures and ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and frost, gales that obey God's decree, all mountains and hills, all fruit trees and cedars, wild animals and cattle, creatures winged and earth-bound, sovereigns who rule earth and its people, all who govern and judge this world, young men and women alike, old people and children together!

Again, we find our place. And in finding place, we strive to reflect the glory seen in the whole. The psalmist ends this part of the litany with the word “together,” to underline that all the created order belongs to God and each element belongs to the others. We cannot be separated from the rest of God’s creation—each part praises and is worthy of praise!

And so if “together” is underlined to add meaning to the whole, the final section completes the thought, adding yet another dimension to our meditation on the order of creation. In this case, it requires a bit of cross-interpretation, to find the full meaning of the words. I’m going to share what you might read in your pew Bibles, a slightly less poetic rendering of the last two verses:

Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for his name alone is exalted;
his splendour is above the earth and the heavens.
And he has raised up for his people a horn,
the praise of all his faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to his heart.

It’s that last part that’s a bit of a head-scratcher, going from the NIV “he has raised up for his people a horn,” to the hymnbooks more poetic “you give strength to your people.” Now, my resident Hebrew scholar (selfishly) left town to see her family, so I had to turn other scholars to understand how ‘giving a horn’ becomes ‘giving strength’ to the people. They suggested looking at Psalm 18:

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield[b] and the horn[c] of my salvation,
my stronghold. (v. 2)

So all of this, rock, refuge, shield, “horn of salvation,” and stronghold suggests we need saving. I know this seems obvious, but the implications are worth noting. Everything that the Psalmist points to up until the part about the horn seems to suggest that God is fully in control. And there is some comfort in the assumption. We want (and we need) God to be in control of creation, the limits of sky and sea, the order of creatures and peoples, the sovereigns who rule the earth.

But then the caveat. In raising up the horn of salvation, it reminds us that everything human is subject to free will. As soon as we were created, we had a mind of our own. It was an important design parameter, made with hearts and minds free to love and serve the one who made us. With freedom, we became the true companions to the God who made us, free to give to God the glory God so richly deserves.

But there is, of course, the shadow side of freedom, where choices for God and God’s way can be turned aside. There are moments when we reflect the glory of the Creator and times we do not. We each have a selfish gene, made to ensure our survival and regulated by “the law” that God imprinted on our hearts. And there seem to be times when the gene and the law are in balance, and times when the opposite happens.

2017, it would seem, has been a masterclass in free will. Choosing “alternative facts” over objective truth, giving voice to ideas long-banished from the public square, pursuing brazen self-interest and naming it a virtue—these and many more examples underline the extent to which history revolves rather than automatically advancing to some better future. Suddenly free will seems like a really bad idea.

But free will, like gravity, is only a bad idea if you are falling down. Mostly free will just “is,” allowing us to be our best selves when we choose to make the world a better place, and other times becoming a cautionary tale when we fall down.

And that’s where the horn of salvation comes in. God wouldn’t choose to come to earth without free will. God wouldn’t show us a better way to live if we didn’t need the example or the encouragement. God wouldn’t send us a Saviour if we didn’t need saving.

I’m going to give the last word to old Simeon, that ever patient prophet who waited in the Temple for some sure sign of God’s strength, only to be rewarded when the baby Jesus is presented. He says:

For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

May the light ever shine, and may the glory of the people every reign in our hearts. Amen.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

Luke 2
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Don’t tell my brother, but I’m reading the book I’m giving him for Christmas.

How could I resist? Let’s begin with the title, and oh, what a title: “National Geographic London Book of Lists: The City's Best, Worst, Oldest, Greatest, and Quirkiest.” And just in case that title doesn’t light up every factoid receptor in your brain, they added a second sub-title: “Fascinating Facts, Little-Known Oddities & Unique Places to Visit.” The book practically screams “read me”—even if it’s not mine to read.

So how is it a Christmas book? Aside from the fact that it will appear under the tree in a few short hours, the topic of the big day comes up from time to time, most particularly in the section called “Menu Items at a Medieval Royal Feast.” The section begins “somewhere between the food orgies of the Romans and the all-you-can-eat buffets of Las Vegas stand the gluttonous feasts of Henry VIII and other late medieval monarchs.” (p. 58)

Roasted meats (beef, lamb, venison) consumed without vegetables (considered too lower-class); peacock, feathers plucked then replaced after cooking; roasted swan, or baby swan pie; various sea creatures, from herring to eel and even whale; and of course, offal, that aptly named ingredient that appears in various recipes. And if you want all the ick minus the bits, you could simply select blood sausage, a perennial holiday favourite.

But it was the medieval showstopper that everyone waited for, the star of the meal (especially if peacocks were in short supply): the head of a wild boar. Elaborately garnished, he (or she) was given pride of place at the centre of the table. It may be too late now to find the boar’s head needed to complete the family meal, but there is always next year. “Siri, where can I find the head of a wild boar?”

If all of this sounds familiar, it may be because the other night you set aside Die Hard (1988) and all the other well-known Christmas movies and switched over to TVO to see Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas. Listen to the teaser: “Ruth, Peter and Tom...make Tudor decorations, engage in festive [revelry] and prepare feasting delights such as boar's head, shred pies and Christmas pudding.” There’s that boar’s head again.

Near the end of the episode we meet Dr. Ronald Hutton, to explain the medieval tradition of the “lord of misrule.” Selected at random, often with a dried pea hidden in some cake, the lord of misrule would take over from the actual lord for the evening, ordering people around, directing the party, and generally subverting the social order. It may have been based on a Roman tradition, or some other source, but it remained popular throughout the age: in the manor, in monasteries, and even in the royal court.

Some have argued that it functioned as a bit of a release valve, reversing the social order to correct whatever build-up tension existed between master and serf. Others saw it as a reminder that the social hierarchy that exists in this world is temporary, and all will be equal in the next. Whatever the purpose, it certainly underlined the world-altering nature of Christmas, when God arrives in our midst in the most vulnerable form possible, and earthly kings kneel to adore him.

But I think the image goes further: The Christ-child becomes the Lord of Misrule when we reflect on the words of Mary we heard just a few short days ago:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

These are the words of a revolutionary, a “subversive element” they might say in some of the troubled places in our world. Mary understands that God is doing a new thing, refusing to bless the existing order and practising misrule instead. Simeon the prophet said the same thing when Jesus was dedicated in the Temple: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many people.”

So what is the exact nature of this misrule, aside from making a baby the Lord of All? As we’ve already noted, some of the changes will be political. When the author of love and the source of mercy becomes the Lord of All, it becomes an immediate commentary on anyone who holds power in our world. Getting and keeping power will no longer justify itself, it must reflect the compassion and grace revealed in Jesus.

And then there is the manifesto of misrule, when Jesus called “blessed” the least and the last in his time and ours: blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who persecuted in the pursuit of righteousness.

And finally, there is the handbook of misrule, when the Son of Man gathers the nations and separates the sheep from the goats. To the sheep he says “inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: I was hungry and you have me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick or in prison and you visited me.” The quizzical sheep respond, asking ‘when did we do these things?’ And the answer? “When you did them for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it also for me.”

So we have the politics of misrule, and a manifesto of misrule, and even a handbook of misrule, but how do we make it personal, how do we make it local? One way is to look back at the year that was. We did all the things we are known for, housing vulnerable seniors, feeding the hungry, offering support and two community spaces for people to gather. We did all these things together, but we also did something that seems counter to the what the world (or at least Fox News) might have us do: we got involved in refugee sponsorship.

On the topic of refugees, worldly voices might say ‘it’s not our problem, or we have our own problems’ (without ever really addressing them). They might say ‘how can we know it’s safe?‘ or ‘they’re not even Christian—why would a church do that?‘ The answer is misrule, doing the opposite of what the world might do because the compassionate example of Jesus demands we do it.

So let me conclude with a story, fitting—I think—for the week of baby Adam’s birth. Months ago, at one of our gatherings, one of our dear volunteers asked Suheir if she knew what she was having. And without missing a beat, Suheir said “We’re having a Canadian.”

Each birth is sign of hope, of new beginnings and a fresh start. And on this night, it’s also a sign of misrule, where we set aside the way things are, and lift up the way things could be. Tonight may you sleep and dream in heavenly peace, dreaming of a world made new. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Advent I

Mark 13
24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.
28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
32 “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Be on guard! Be alert[c]! You do not know when that time will come. 34 It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35 “Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”

I want to begin by reminding you that time travel is dangerous and ill-advised.

Having been sufficiently warned, I should also remind you that things are different in the past, and you ought to be prepared. As soon as next week we may find ourselves transported to Bethlehem, so there are a few things about the past we ought to note.

Take time, for example. The passage Taye shared describes the division of time in the Bible, with evening, midnight, when the rooster crows, and at dawn. The shiny watch on your wrist will cause alarm, so you will need to get used the seeming vagueness of time.

The days of the week are a little more precise, but no less confusing. Only three days per month had an actual names back then: calends, the first of the month, nones, eight days before the ides, and the ides, that fell in the middle of the month. So forget Sunday—today would be called Five Days before the Nones of December. After the ides (the 13th or the 15th, depending on the month) things get silly. Christmas is no longer the 25th, but Eight Days before the Calends of January. It hardly rolls off the tongue. The thing to remember here is that we count the days, while Romans counted down.

Finally, the year was divided into twelve months, but counted from the beginning of the Roman calendar in March. So September is named for the Latin word for seven (septem) and December for ten (decem). Other months are named for various rituals (February is named for purification) or for gods or god-emperors like July and August.

Remarkably, it was Julius Caesar who standardized the calendar to 365 days plus an additional day every four years. Even with this seeming precision, his calendar adds three days every four hundred years, meaning that the Julian calendar is currently off by 13 days. Again, you only need to worry about this if you are time-traveling, or joining your Greek friends for Christmas or Easter.

To recap: Christmas is December 25th here, and January 7th on the Danforth, Eight Days before the Calends of January for Joseph and Mary, and just 22 days away. But we can’t think about that yet, since today is the First Sunday of Advent, and there is a whole liturgical season between us and the big day.

And just to underline that we are in the Not Yet, the reading for the day is about as far from Yule as you could possibly get:

24 “But in those days, following that distress,
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’[a]
26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

You will no doubt recall that we begin every Advent with a variation on this theme—the world-ending and time-defying completion of all that is. We seem to begin at the end of the Christian story, and not the beginning—that thing we are anxious to mark in a few short days.

Of course, the return of Christ is something we think about throughout the year, but for Advent I it takes centre stage. Other times we reference it in different ways. In communion, for example, in the memorial acclamation, an ancient verse we say together:

Christ has died,
Christ has risen,
Christ will come again.

And some have suggested we point to this every week when we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it in heaven.” This is more that just a hope for mirroring—that somehow we’ll make earth more like heaven—but that earth and heaven become one in the fullness of time.

In many ways, it’s a tough sell. We love Christmas, and we love Easter, but the end of time just doesn’t bring out the crowds. There is no well-loved canon of end-of-the-world hymns, we don’t name our churches for it, and on the list of top five Christian doctrines it might be number six.

We can’t even seem to agree in what to call it. Some cling to the Greek and go with parousia or eschaton, some make it more dramatic and call it the apocalypse, and some simply say the Second Coming. It does appear in the creeds of the church, particularly the Apostles and the Nicene Creed, which says: “He ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

But look what happens with A New Creed, the expression of faith we use in the United Church, written in the 1960s to sum up who we are. It describes the work of the church, culminating in the call to “seek justice and resist evil, and finally “to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope.” You can hear an echo of “judge the living and the dead” found at the end of time, but that’s about it.

I think we’re resistant to the overall concept of the end of time, and I think we’re resistant for a couple of reasons—one obvious and one unexpected. So we begin with the obvious. There is a bumper sticker that reads “Lord Jesus, please save me from your followers.” The followers in question are currently getting set to vote in a special election in Alabama and some (if not all) are convinced that the world could end any minute.

And while this idea is rather neutral, the implications for some Christians are problematic. Some feel compelled to quickly convert everyone else before the end. Some are completely indifferent to the natural world that they see as time-limited anyway. And some have supported Israel not for their right to exist but rather as the location of the opening act of armageddon. That’s the obvious reasons.

The unexpected reason for downplaying the end-of-time is our own hesitation, based mostly on a love for the present age. We’re invested in the time we inhabit, we made it, we’re making it right now, and we hope to continue to make it into the future. And that’s an understatement.

Imagine everything you love—your community, your family, the things you do day-by-day—somehow overwhelmed by the completion of all things. We don’t even have adequate language to describe this mystery, and even if we shy away from the dramatic and the apocalyptic, it is still deeply unsettling. If “heaven and earth will pass away” as Jesus promises, what will happen to us, and everything we know?

So we tend to set this aside. We set it aside because it has been terribly misused, because of our own fear of loss, and because we are invested in the present age. And this is as it should be. St. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians when he says: “Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1.7-8)

Paul’s idea of blamelessness is all the work that we’re doing in the meantime. All the “loving and serving others” and all the “seeking justice and resisting evil” is the work we do while we wait. Part of the instruction to “keep watch” is to remain faithful even in the face of an uncertain end. If we are look for a new reality, “on earth, as it is in heaven,” then we have to follow the rest of the prayer too: sharing our daily bread, avoiding temptation, and forgiving trespasses. Being delivered for evil, it would seem, belongs to the end of time.

And so I encourage you to dwell in the Not Yet. Allow time to pause or just slow a little as you ponder God’s desire for us and all things. Don’t dwell on the end of time, but the completion of time. Like the Romans we count down, not to the end of days, but the culmination of God’s hopes and dreams for us:

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore, the sun shall not strike them, no any scorching heat. For the lamb in the midst of throne will be their shepherd, and lead them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Amen.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reign of Christ

If I told you “scientia potentia (sap-ee-en-sha po-ten-sha) est,” you would likely reply in two ways.

First, I expect you would concur that nothing is quite as cool as quoting Latin, and then you would agree that indeed, as the famous phrase says, “knowledge is power.” There’s lots of debate about who said to first, but most agree that in the realm of understanding, the more you know, the more power you possess.

Perhaps that’s why my doctor recently gave me a flu shot and a book during the same visit. (I should clarify, the flu shot is mine to keep—the book I need to return when I’m done with it). So I departed, fortified in mind and body, ready to overcome a couple of nasties with the innocuous names A/Michigan and B/Brisbane, and temporarily armed with Kurt Andersen’s new book called Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

Appropriate to the weekend, I’ve already learned how my Pilgrim forbears came to these shores seeking religious freedom, and then inadvertently created “a nation where every individual is gloriously free to construct any version of reality” he or she believes to be true.* Barely three-dozen pages in, and I can already see the seeds of “fake news” and “alternative facts.” I’m gonna get a flu shot more often.

Back to “knowledge is power,” I now realize that while I was busy at school reading the Germans—Bultmann, Buber and Barth—the kids down the hall were reading French post-structuralists with names like Derrida and Foucault (FOO-koh). It just sounds cooler—reading post-structuralists—and cooler still when I learned that if you call a post-structuralist a post-structuralist they get really mad—preferring instead to be called post-phenomenologists, which just makes me think of the Muppets.

I share all this because St. Paul has give us his own version of “knowledge is power” in Ephesians 1, and because the post-structuralists (easier than calling them post-phenomenologists) have kicked over the chair of knowledge and offered another perspective on “knowledge is power.”

So St. Paul. Paul’s version of knowledge is power is a little longer, a little more involved, and intimately tied up in the power of God. Here is his version:

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe.

The rule with Paul is you have to break it down a little, so let’s hear it again but with an overall goal (“that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened”) and three ways this enlightening might happen: 1) to know the hope we’ve been called to, 2) to understand the riches we inherit as God’s people, 3) and to appreciate the great power we possess as believers.

In other words, as hopeful inheritors, we possess far more power than we comprehend, and it’s Paul’s wish that “the eyes of our heart” be enlightened. It’s a marvellous metaphor—eyes of the heart—and it points to something else Paul would have us remember: that we are part of the body of Christ.

The theme of Ephesians, the theme of this stage of Paul’s ministry, is the unity of the body of Christ. He’s already told us that we’re “all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3) and “the body is not made up of one part but of many” (I Corinthians 12). All of us, gentile, Jew, slave or free, are all given one Spirit to drink and all belong to the same body.

But Ephesians, or rather Paul in Ephesians takes this further still, combining the image of the body of Christ with Christ as the head of the church. These are familiar images, but it’s here that the head and the body are fully joined** and the power of God is revealed:

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

So back to our metaphor—the eyes of the heart—Paul is joining heart and mind, giving us the ability to see as God sees. With Christ as the head of the church, and church as the body, we are together able to move about and embody the fulness of God in the world.

In other words, knowledge is power. Knowledge is power both in terms of understanding and insight, but also in training the eyes of the heart on the world around us. Like the well-loved hymn, it’s asking God to become “a channel of your peace,” in hatred bringing love, to injury pardon, to doubt true faith, despair to hope, sadness to joy and so on. (St. Francis)

But there is more, and this is where our post-structuralist friends reappear. While we are busy seeing as God sees, understanding human need, embodying Christ’s compassion, we also need to understand the forces that make this difficult to do. We need to see what we’re up against.

Beginning in the 1960s, people like Michel Foucault were taking a second look at ideas such as “knowledge is power” and exploring the shadow side. In his thesis, Madness and Civilization, Foucault explored how mental illness has been regarded over the centuries, and came to the conclusion that well-meaning elites were redefining the topic to suit their own purposes.

Thus began an extended conversation about the nature of power and the degree to which we are conditioned to accept certain ideas as true because it makes for a well-functioning society. And from this, we see the seeds of our current situation. One group of kids were reading Foucault and saying “ban the bomb” and “make love not war” convinced that they could no longer depend on their leaders to tell them the truth.

Meanwhile, a second group were absorbing the same lessons about well-meaning elites redefining truth to suit their own purposes and founded organizations like the Moral Majority. The name of the organization was the giveaway: their view that liberal elites in the media and the academy were taking society in one direction while the “moral majority” would sooner go in the opposite direction.

I think you can see there this leads. A well-known personage I won’t name says “I’m not a big believer in man-made climate change” and we are left shaking our heads until it hurts. Knowledge is power, which should mean we have diagnosed a global threat and can now turn our attention to solving it. Instead, some are suggesting that knowledge is power and therefore they won’t be manipulated by the Chinese solar-panel makers who are somehow trying to rip us off.

So you see, it’s hard to be faithful when we can’t even agree that a problem exists. And it’s doubly difficult when the body of Christ is divided between left and right, unable to agree on a full-range of topics or even the biblical basis that led to these conclusions. It would be easy to blame the French post-structuralists for this, but the divide began long ago, certainly as far back as Plymouth Rock, and maybe farther.

Despite the divide, we need to stick with the goal St. Paul describes—that we “open the eyes of our heart” and see what God sees in the community that surrounds us. That we avoid getting drawn in to pointless debates and focus instead on the power to see deep need—poverty, hunger, homelessness, right-relations, troubled youth, meaninglessness and more.

And maybe—just maybe—this focus on the most vulnerable will be a bridge over the divisions that plague us. Maybe it will draw us outside ourselves and help us to see what God sees—no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, rich or poor, left or right—but one body made up of all God’s children. Amen.

*p. 35
**Martin, Interpretation

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.