Sunday, June 11, 2017

Trinity Sunday

Matthew 28
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”


1,800 preachers in a room, and what do you say?

This is the challenge that faces each of the presenters at the annual Festival of Homiletics—homiletics being just a highbrow way to say ‘preaching.’ The festival gathers each May, and a couple of dozen people—mostly preachers and professors—are tasked with addressing this troublesome lot.

I say troublesome, because when we hear a presentation or a sermon, we tend to be critical. Share that sermon or presentation near the end of the church year, and troublesome becomes tired and cranky, so God bless anyone brave enough to stand up and speak.

Some presenters seem to understand, and offer collective pastoral care. Nadia Bolz-Weber and Barbara Brown Taylor (do all presenters have three names?) were gentle with us, pastors to the pastors, or “pastrix” as Nadia Bolz-Weber describes herself in her New York Times bestselling book.

Some presenters—like Rob Bell—made us laugh, knowing that humour is always a balm for the weak and weary. Others, like Walter Brueggemann toss out ideas like homiletical bouillon cubes, crammed into pockets for later use. And some even tackle readings that will come up in the weeks between the festival and summer holidays, like life-preservers thrown to shipwrecked preachers.

Others are less helpful. Like the minister of the very-large-pulpit in Manhattan who brought along a sack of “shoulds and oughts,” way too much super-ego for me. Or the former evangelical superstar who recently discovered social justice preaching, selling it to a crowd of mainline pastors who have been doing it for decades. Or the megachurch pastor who suggested we take a film-crew with us the next time we travel to Israel, because thousands of your parishioners will want to watch.

Then, thankfully, there is Will Willimon. Preaching professor and retired bishop, Dr. Willimon is a storyteller from Alabama, who evokes laughter and tears as he to moves from homespun warmth to cutting wit. And in preaching to preachers he can be more than a little mischievous. Take for example, his rewriting of the end of our passage:

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, (he sounds just like Jeff Sessions) baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always (and I am quoting) “to damn-well make sure that you do it.”

So why is Jesus with us always? According to Dr. Willimon, it’s to make sure we follow through on everything we were commanded to do, particularly to make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the proper way. Now, the good doctor was being a little facetious, but generally trying to underline that this was not a case of creating a movement and pushing the “go” button, it was (and is) a case of active supervision.

So how does this work? Well, first of all, as the church we become the “body of Christ,” literally his hands and feet as we care for others. The presence of Christ surrounds us, in the sacraments and in the ministry we each undertake. And today—Trinity Sunday—we believe that God’s presence, and the Risen Christ, and the Holy Spirit are one—leading and guiding us as we do the work of the divine.

So it’s active supervision, and partnership (Psalm 8 calls us “little less than angels”) and even mutual accountability as we call on God to continue to bless us and hear our prayers. That’s what it is. What it’s not, is some sort of divine ‘office of compliance’ or heavenly auditor at keeps track of nations and baptisms. God allows that we will do the best we can with our limited resources and built-in human limitations, limitations that come to the fore far too often.

So speaking of limitations, we can take as an example Matthew 28.16ff (and following). The command to make disciples of all nations (the Great Commission) is considered by many scholars to be a later addition to the text, an add-on, and (in the opinion of these scholars) unlikely to be the words of Jesus. So we have a problem.

But before we get into the problem, we have to enter a debate. On one hand, there is the (relentless) search for the authentic Jesus, words and deeds that are most likely his. This is the basis for modern biblical scholarship, and a foundation of the liberal church. But on the other hand, there is the idea of canon, and the Spirit-driven work of recording and authorizing the words contained in scripture. If scripture is divinely-inspired, and blessed by the church through the ages, we should take it seriously, even if we are unwilling to take it literally.

So you have heard the debate, and now the problem. Whenever your professor tells you that something might be an addition, or an add-on, you have a tendency to put it in a different category, with a different weighting. So we have the Great Commandment (love God and love neighbour) which everyone agrees Jesus said and we have the Great Commission (make disciples of all nations) which some label an add-on, maybe a case of scribal enthusiasm. So which one will we emphasize?

Naturally, the former. And being the liberal church, we love the idea of the ethical Jesus giving us instructions on how to be better believers, how to meet the world and make it a better place. And that’s awesome, as awesome any purpose-driven-divinely-sanctioned-world-bettering program we can imagine. But the Great Commission is scripture too. So what do we do?

Well, we’re a persistent lot, us liberal Christians, so the next move is point to context and history and say “too much harm has come from the application of the Great Commission ‘all nations’ command” and therefore we should set it aside. And it’s a good argument, even as it’s hard to hear.

For you see, here, on the traditional lands of the Mississauga’s of the New Credit, we live with a legacy of taking a colonial project and missionary zeal and applying them with an enthusiasm that led to great damage. As the text of the United Church apology to First Nations says:

In our zeal to tell you of the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality. We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ. We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

The statement that the Very Rev. Bob Smith read 31 years ago, concludes by asking for forgiveness, something that we hope may come in time. And part of asking for forgiveness is assessing and reassessing our tradition, setting aside some things and reimagining others.

So converting people was largely set aside. We still try to convert people to the latest issue the church takes up, but that’s another sermon. By-in-large, the liberal church decided that trying to actively convert people was something to be abandoned, along with the Great Commission of Jesus from Matthew 28.

But I’m going to argue we need to take it up again, and I have three groups in mind, three groups that are ripe for conversion, done in the most humble way possible.

The first group is people to are immersed in a culture of success, acquisition, quid pro quo and self-preservation. Spend an evening watching television and you will discover that life is a competition with winners and losers—those who will themselves to success and those who are the authors of their own misfortune. Jesus’ massage of forgiveness and grace, and compassion in the face of suffering is needed in the public square now more than ever. That is the first group.

The second group is other Christians. Too many Christians feel that their faith is an excuse to hate and divide, to impose their will on others, and generally condemn a majority of people to a fiery hell. They are ripe for reconversion to the message that you should get the log out of your own eye before you reach for the speck in the eye of others.

The final group for conversion is us. As you have heard again and again from this pulpit, we are great doers and lousy be-ers. We love our neighbours until we wear ourselves (and them) out, but we struggle to confess our love for God, our delight in God’s word, and our view that God is still at work in the world, making miracles each day. We need to reconvert to glorify God each day.

This was supposed to be a short beginning-of-summer sermon, and something happened, so I will leave off, trusting that you will sense God’s presence each blessed day of the summer, that you will walk with Christ where ever you go, and you will be open to the Spirit and the Spirit’s urging. Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Pentecost

1 Corinthians 12
No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,[a] and to still another the interpretation of tongues.[b] 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[c] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.


If you plan to travel to a new place, it’s good to learn a phrase or two.

Take the internet for example. If you are traveling online or on your smart phone, and someone says LOL, it’s not a sign of affection. They are laughing, most likely with you, but maybe just at you. A quick way to recover would be to type “LOL, I thought LOL meant something else. Okay, LOL.” There, you did it again.

So if you come across IMO, you’ll soon discover it means “in my opinion.” Likewise all the variations: IMHO (humble) and IMNSHO (not-so-humble). Or how about AFAIK? Once you crack the most common version (as far as I know) you will have an easy time with AFAICT (can tell) and AFAICS (can see).

And I discovered a new one this week, in an online forum discussing the future impeachment of you-know-who. Someone began a sentence with IANAL, and after a few minutes of careful pondering realized “I am not a lawyer” is common enough to become an online initialism.

(Just as an aside, our local scribe uses BIRT in her minutes, which I have since learned comes high school and college debating teams. So, be it resolved that Taye admit she was on the debating team.)

So a new language develops and we try to learn. And like technological infants, we begin one word at a time, until our vocabulary begins to fill out. Soon we think about proper usage, and how this strange language is constructed, and some day we master it. The first step, of course, is to understand that this language exists—to know it when we see it.

So too on the day of Pentecost, when wind and flame transformed followers into a church, and the message was shared in such a way that all could understand:

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,[b] 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?” 13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter says “no, friends,” this is not inebriation, this is intoxication with the Holy Spirit, a day first described by the prophet Joel, when God’s spirit will be poured out on all flesh, when the young will see visions and the old will dream dreams. Signs and wonders will unite heaven and earth, and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

So the first sign, the miracle of translation, has these Galileans—fishers and farmers, tax collectors and sinners—greeting the diverse crowd in their own tongues, in a list that has caused many a lay-reader to run screaming from the lectern. You have to take it slowly, and visualize, and pause to marvel at the one anomaly hidden in the text—the appearance of time-travellers.

For you see, the people of the once great empire called Medes were witnesses on that day, hearing God’s massage in their own language, as the text tells us. But these are people that 500 years earlier had passed into history, a people who sadly left no texts, no inscriptions, no grammar: only a couple of chunks of cuneiform in Old Persian that might, might be a scrap of the Median language. But it might just be Old Persian.

So hidden in the miracle of tongues and translation is another miracle—the erasure of time. It doesn’t matter that your civilization is extinct, because the Spirit of the Living God can transcend time and space and circumstance to bring a message of new life. It doesn’t matter that any list of civilizations is also a list of friends and enemies and conflicting interests, because the vision and the dream of Pentecost is that all may be one.

So what’s underneath this vision, this unity that struggles to be a church? The answer comes from St. Paul:

No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Wisdom, knowledge, healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues and the interpreting of tongues, all gifts, all given by the same Spirit to drink. And why, beyond the desire to declare God’s glory? Paul has an answer for that too: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

Clearly Paul has been reading his Aristotle, and since we’re talking about time-travel, maybe he’s reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau too. The sudden and unexpected appearance of some political philosophy in the shape of something called the “common good” may be Paul’s point after all.

The common good, you see, is more than a well-worn phrase that we seem to leave untended. The common good is Aristotle’s belief in something only a society can achieve together, but can be shared among it’s members. The common good is Rousseau’s belief that the only moral society is one that works together for the good of all. And the common good is Paul’s belief that when we build a community together—each of us given a unique gift to share.

So we seek the common good, and we never shy from naming it as our goal. It is both the heart of Christian ethics and the most practical way to demonstrate our love for God and for those around us. It is something we strive for, but it is also something that we seek to name in the world around us. God is busy, through the Spirit, pursuing the common good in ways that we can only begin to see:

Muslims and Jews praying together in Manchester, for the victims, and for a world at peace.
An MP from Quebec who came to realize that since his riding is on traditional Mohawk territory, perhaps he should learn to speak the language as an expression of reconciliation.
200,000 people will march in Tel Aviv's Pride Parade next week, when nearby states continue to regard homosexuality as a capital crime.
And even Michael Bloomberg, heartbroken that his country would renege on the millions promised to the UN to fight climate change, pledged to pay it himself.

And that’s just in the last week. The Spirit of Pentecost is still moving among us, in the church, and far beyond these walls. The Spirit of Pentecost is speaking in tongues and times that are unexpected and always new. The Spirit of Pentecost is urging us to use our gifts to further the work of the Kingdom, to pursue the common God, and always give to God the glory.

Wisdom, knowledge, healing, prophecy, discernment, tongues and the interpreting of tongues, all gifts, all present in our fellowship and among those who seek the common good. IMHO (in my humble opinion) it is the task of the church to identify and celebrate the places where the Spirit of Pentecost is at work, to align ourselves with the people and the work they do, and to never stop praising God for the gifts of the Spirit, Amen.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Acts 1
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with[a] water, but in a few days you will be baptized with[b] the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”


If you send me a text message that begins “Dear Michael” (comma, space) then “something something something something” and “sincerely yours” (comma, space) and your name, you may belong to another age.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, and I applaud your formality, but times have changed. Even the act of calling someone and telling them who’s calling has been ruined by technology. You carefully rehearse how you will identify yourself on the phone and then they pick up and say “oh, hello you.”

Now some will argue that formality never goes out of style, and that the art of letter writing—even by text—has dignity all it’s own. There is a form to follow, conventions to observe, traditions that began long before us that may likely survive the present technological age. They do evolve over time, but the basics are there.

So, for example, the reading begins as any ancient letter might: a sentence that identifies the intended recipient and the purpose of the letter:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.

The formal “Dear so-and-so” would develop some time later, but the intent is the same. Luke is picking up the story where the last letter left off, and will now describe what happens next.

He’s writing a letter, but he’s also creating a history of important events. The letter itself will come to be called the “Acts of the Apostles” and give us an outline of the days that followed the ministry of Jesus. In some ways, it acts as a bridge, between the earliest means of Christian expression and what will follow.

So, for example, we know that the story for our faith begins in memory, sayings and poetry that lived in and among believers. Passages like that found in Philippians 2 (“rather, he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant”) form the earliest record of the expression of our faith.

Next are Paul’s letters, some written for a wider sharing, but some reading as specific correspondence to address very specific issues. Then comes Mark, with the style of a hasty recording of events that ought not to be forgotten. And finally on to Luke-Acts, the details of a life and the recording of important history set in the context of a formal telling.

What we are witnessing, it seems, is the development of a self-conscious community intent on telling its story. It is finding the means to record events that in another context might just turn to a proper historian. But that would be reserved for the important and the powerful (from the world’s perspective) and not some upstart religious movement on the edge of the empire.

So we have Luke. And after getting the formalities out of the way, he wastes no further parchment:

3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

So we have a storyteller and a theme—the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear that this is the topic going forward, and that what the world will need is a vision of the Kingdom to help them see God.

But the disciples, of course, are impatient and and demand to know more: “Lord,” they asked him on one occasion, “are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” This is the scriptural equivalent of “are we there yet?” and Jesus handles it as any annoyed parent might:

7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Note the advanced warning, in our case just one week away: the day of Pentecost is coming, with the formal transfer of power that only the Holy Spirit can confer. The power of the Spirit will come over them, and the truly important work of transmission will begin.

So we have an increasingly self-conscious community emerging, we have a refined message about the coming Kingdom, and we have a mandate to take this message to the ends of the earth. What else could we possibly need to make this work, to carry out the instructions so carefully set before us? The answer is hidden in plain view, in verse nine:

9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

He had to leave them. It was the act of ascending to God that allows the story to continue, that allows the disciples (and others) to carry this work forward. It’s a necessary step, perhaps as important as the gift of the Spirit that will come in a few short days—to leave them and allow them to become the church.

In other words, the period between the first appearance that night in the upper room, and the moment that Jesus ascends to God, is about the same as hiring a babysitter and then sitting in the car in the driveway. The growth, the development as a community independent of an every day with the physical Jesus, will not happen until he stops appearing.

Yes, he will make some famous interventions—Paul on the Road to Damascus comes to mind—but the daily routine of advice and teaching will need to conclude for this story to continue. It is in the absence of Jesus (in the most direct sense) that will lead to the church that continues down to today.

Why is this important? First, it will force the disciples to become responsible for what they learned. It will fall to the disciples to safeguard the kingdom message of Jesus, to tell his story, and and to integrate this story into the unfolding story of the church.

Next, it will set a pattern, one that follow down to today. We have the Risen Christ present in the church (each other) and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us, but we do not have Jesus giving new commands to each new situation we face. We already have all the commands we need: loving God and loving neighbour, forgiving seven times seventy, and building a world that will bring together heaven and earth at the last. Jesus did not leave us orphaned, but we’re not being coddled either. We can’t look over our shoulder to see the instructor’s reaction—we have to have the confidence of someone who already knows what to do.

Finally, we have to take this to “the ends of earth.” To my mind that does not mean some far off place, but the whole world, beginning one step outside our door. It means that we need to apply the kingdom vision to every person and situation we meet, to every tragic event, to every marginalized group, to every example of injustice, to every needy person who doesn’t even know they are needy.

It means listening to the bidding of the Spirit to find the next place God would have us go, the places where we will discover that God is already busy making things new. It means remaining a self-conscious community able to tell our story, and a confident community willing to risk rejection when we try to tell our story. And it means remaining together, the body of Christ, now and always, amen.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 14
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”


It used to be a celebration of Britishness and Empire.

And if—like me—you were born in Canada before 1977, you still have a tenuous connection to the original May 24 holiday meaning, having been born a British Subject. It didn’t mean much, it conferred no rights, and those after ’77 were designated Commonwealth Citizens. Again, nice for Victoria Day, something to ponder at the cottage (unless you’re flooded out) but more symbolic than anything else.

Now, those who are truly British can tune out for a minute for two, as I attempt to explain to a room of mostly British Subjects and Commonwealth Citizens what British means. Or perhaps listen to see if I get it right, and chide me later in the most politely British way possible.

Imagine some circles, starting with an inner circle that contains England and Wales. Both describe themselves as countries, but they are not. Ask me later. Draw a circle around the first circle and add Scotland to the outer circle and you have Great Britain. Still, not a country, but an Olympic Team. Now, ignore the first circle in a circle and create another circle beside it called Ireland. Inside the circle add Ireland (the country) and Northern Ireland (which has been described as a country, a province, a region or just part of the UK). Basically, you have two separate circles, and if you draw a larger circle that contains the Great Britain circle and half of the Ireland circle, you have the United Kingdom. That’s a country. By the way, if you draw a circle around everything, and throw in the Isle of Man, you have the British Isles, but not the Channel Islands.

In some churches they have PowerPoint, while we have imaginations. Pity those poor other churches.

What we created, the moment we started making imaginary circles, was a Venn diagram. See we’re moving from incomprehensible geography to the new math—isn’t long weekend preaching fun. The Venn diagram is something kids and grandkids seem to know about, but is mostly new to the rest of us. It’s basically a set of overlapping circles, describing the relationship between things. The moment we drew a circle around Great Britain and through half of Ireland, we made a Venn diagram.

Another example might be two circles, one for Halloween and one for Thanksgiving. If you list—within each circle—what makes these celebrations (candy and costumes in one, turkey and funny hats in the other) you will have a section that overlaps around pumpkin. The overlap is the point of the Venn diagram, finding the common element.*

Now how about our reading? Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” It’s a Venn diagram! One circle is God, the other circle is you and me, and where the circles overlap is Jesus. “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

There is actually another Venn diagram in the passage, which is really a whole other sermon, but worth mentioning nonetheless—”The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” In one circle is the world, the other Jesus, and where they overlap is you. “But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”

Over lunch you might say, “I think he thought that after 27 years it was time for a math sermon.” And you might be right. But mostly I want to explore the overlap, because I think that while God is everywhere, we are more likely to find God in the overlap. So, for example, if one circle is God and the other circle is you, where they overlap might be the vulnerable. When Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the meek,” it was a blessing on the overlap between God’s heart and a hurting world.

Now, at the risk of taxing your imagination, there is yet another Venn diagram in the passage. Listen to verse 21: “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” In other words, the overlap between loving Jesus and being loved by God in Jesus is keeping his commandments. Whenever we love the Lord our God and love our neighbour we are in the overlap that allows us to see Jesus, just as he promised when he said “I will love them and show myself to them.”

This might be the moment to step back and ponder this suddenly very introspective Jesus—introspective and somewhat mathematical at the same time. What’s happening that we suddenly have all this overlapping concern for life and life in the God? In the context of John’s Gospel, the passion has begun.

Two chapters earlier, Jesus is anointed by Mary at Bethany and he triumphantly enters the Holy City. One chapter earlier, he washes the feet of his disciples and gives them a new commandment to love one another. And beginning in chapter 14 we enter what scholars call the “farewell discourse,” as Jesus promises the Holy Spirit, describes the challenges ahead, and prays for his disciples. His arrest will follow.

Jesus promises the Holy Spirit and describes the challenges ahead, but he also want to locate us in the overlap between God’s gift of Jesus and the world that is largely indifferent to the gift. The passage from triumphant entry to death on a cross is about the world’s disappointment that this is not the strongman the world expected. God was not going to overthrow the kingdoms of this world and assume some sort of direct control.

So between God’s gift and the world’s disappointment is the cross, the overlap (more like a collision) between God’s desire to lead and our very human desire to be ruled. We wanted God to resume direct control over human affairs, but God already give us free will, the ability to choose our own path. God did not leave us without a roadmap—giving us the law and a gospel and God’s own presence in Jesus—but we turned away.

Still, in the cold light of that first morning, memories began to form, and thoughts appeared, and soon the disciples realized that all that introspection and that prayer in the days leading up Good Friday were gift. Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.”

If you think you’re seeing yet another Venn diagram in the eye-of-your-mind, you’re right. So, if one circle is the world and the other circle is Jesus, the overlap is you and me, because “the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me.” Again, God is in the overlap with us, as we are busy keeping commandments and caring for the most vulnerable, God is there.

And, of course, it would be unfair to fail to point out one final diagram, one last place in seven short verses that we find God in the overlap. Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live.” If the first circle is the death of Jesus, and the second circle in our own death, the overlap is life eternal: “Because I live, you also will live.”

“In life, in death, in life beyond death” is the creedal statement of the same image, God’s desire to be with us through the most vulnerable moment of all, the moment of death. The cross is the end of death, and the promise is new life with God. It is a gift freely given, since God is always present in the overlap between our need and God’s desire to save, our mortality and God’s eternity.

May we continue to live in the overlap, with poor in spirit, and the meek, and everyone who shares this life. Amen.


*http://robsanderswrites.blogspot.ca/2011/11/two-in-tow-using-venn-diagram.html

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 2
2 Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, 3 now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
4 As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— 5 you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house[a] to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For in Scripture it says:
“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”[b]
7 Now to you who believe, this stone is precious.
But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”[c]
8 and, “A stone that causes people to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”[d]
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


Sometimes you regret the words even as they leave your mouth.

Some years ago, I was visiting with my dear friends Ted and Caroline and I was busy trying to illustrate some point in conversation when I said something like: “Just last week, I was saying to someone at the National—the yacht club where I belong...”

“Wait a minute,” Caroline said, with the pleasure reserved for watching someone make a foolish verbal misstep, “you belong there?”

“Yes, the National...” I said, and then I realized what I did.

Ted chimed in: “Yes, Michael, tell us more about this yacht club where you belong.”

They had me. As a matter of fact, I don’t think a year goes by without some reminder, a kind of perpetual homage to the power of saying something foolish in a pretentious kind of way. I also learned that even passing reference to yacht clubs, yacht racing, even saying the word “yacht” is considered pretentious by some. Makes no sense to me, but there it is.

Of course, the concept of the club has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, with the spirit of the age leaning heavily away from this idea of membership and belonging, insiders and outsiders, membership requirements and the rest. There has been a steady stream of people leaving clubs and similar organizations, something that we also see in the church.

Robert Putnam—not our Robert Putnam, the other Robert Putnam, the author of the book Bowling Alone—has detailed the decline of the culture that created clubs and civic organizations, looking at all the various factors that may have led to this trend.

Oddly, it falls under the category of “misery loves company” as he describes the wide range of civic organizations that have declined in recent decades: fraternal organizations like Lions and Masons, labour unions, scouting groups, benevolent organizations like Shriners or Knights of Columbus, parent-teacher organizations, bowling leagues (hence the title) and, of course, religious groups. Even what we once called the “family restaurant” is disappearing, replaced by chains.

And along with these disappearing clubs and groups comes a corresponding decrease in “social capital,” the good that comes when people gather they enhance their community in some way. Even the outward marks of civic engagement—such as voting—have decreased, with sometimes disastrous results (I’m looking at you, the 95 million Americans who neglected to vote in November).

Now some in the church—appropriately—have made the argument that we shouldn’t be lumped in with these other civic organizations. Yes, we have experienced the same decline since the high-water mark of the 1960’s, but a religion is not a club, or even an institution in the traditional sense. We’re a movement, something the author of 1 Peter tries to convey in a number of ways:

9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

No where in this litany do we find articles of incorporation, or club rules, or an org chart. There is no committee structure or congregational constitution. There is only an impulse—God’s impulse—to create a new people. And while we see the tension between institution and movement down through the ages—beginning even in the Bible—the intention was a gathered community with a distinct identity and a common purpose, a movement.

Now, when someone leaves their dissertation laying around the house, one is sometimes tempted to pick it up, and today I did. In the first chapter of “Converts at Qumran: The Ger in the Dead Sea Scrolls as an Indicator of Mutable Ethnicity,” Palmer—I think that’s how you’re supposed to refer to the author—argues that the Greeks and Greek thought are at the root of the idea of conversion and religious identity. Beginning in the second century (BCE) the idea took hold that you could somehow become Greek by acting in a Greek manner. In other words, by adhering to the idea of the rule of law, or generally not being a barbarian, you could become Greek.

Applied to a religious context, people began to consider this idea of conversion for the first time. As religious movements spread in and between these newly mobile societies, the idea that you could choose your religion took hold. And once choosing your religion took hold, the issue of a criteria soon followed. How do you join a religion that was previously closed to people not born into it? Or how do you join a new religion, one without an established tradition like the older religions?

The author of 1 Peter has some answers, found in the reading Taye shared with us today. The first response to these questions of membership begins with the idea of newness. “Like newborn babies,” the author says, “crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

There is never an sense that you come to this fully-formed, or with all the answers at the beginning of a faith journey. We begin as spiritual sucklings, craving the mother’s milk of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that guides us and forms us as we continue together. The idea that you come to this with answers or insight is false, as we are reminded that we always begin at the beginning.

So we have a beginning, in the most humble sense, and then we build: It says “you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house.” A couple of things to note here. First, we are still becoming—being built—as stone is set upon stone toward the spiritual house of faith. A foundation is being laid, and that foundation times time.

The secondary lesson here is living stones belong together. You cannot build this spiritual house with a single stone—that can never be a dwelling place. It takes a vast collection of stones together to make a spiritual house, each adding strength to the structure and each playing a unique role in the overall plan.

And this, of course, leads to the most important stone in the structure, as the author of 1 Peter reaches back to Isaiah to understand the foundation of our faith:

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”

This is the stone that the builders rejected just a few short weeks ago, but is now the head of the corner, the stone that allows us to transform from no people to God’s people, a holy nation, and God’s special possession.

***

When I was a lad of just two or three my parents discovered boating, and appropriate to the times, joined the Canadian Power Squadron, a rather pretentious name for a boating club. It brought them community, and rules, and some cool flags, and it was important to them for a time.

When I was still a boy, after my father had a stroke, the doctors cautioned about the risk of being on the water and taking ill again, so we became campers, and joined a camping club—long lines of RV’s annoying other motorists as we travelled the province. Once again, it was rules and organization, camper politics and teenagers behaving badly.

Later still, losing the allure of the open road, my parents discovered the church, a different kind of place, a place that was based more on forgiveness than fraternity, more on giving than ground rules, more on the needs of a specific community than the community of the club. And it was based on a common commitment to Jesus. The church became the vessel and the journey, not a club, but a movement.

The movement continues, even with the challenges of the present age, because living stones like Olivia, Emma and Madelyn continue to form this structure, this movement that never ends. We are formed with them today, more complete, better built because they are here and made promises to seek God and follow Jesus and speak through the Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe[d] came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.


Yes, I was a summertime trucker.

Just for a summer, I was living the dream of the open road. I worked for three summers making whirlpool bathtubs. A summer shining chrome nameplates for Buick. Roofer (for a day), gas bar attendant, and I spent a summer scraping concrete off dirty beams. All these jobs were interesting in their way, but nothing compared to delivering pizza.

It was in the era of “33 or free,” the clever marketing strategy that meant from the moment you hung up the phone, the pizza team had 33 minutes to get the pizza to your door. We frequently failed. And when we failed, the driver (me) was required to enter the house and phone the manager. Only with the manager’s blessing, could the pizza be given away.

On one of the more memorable evenings, I was late (again) and the customer met me at the door demanding a free pizza. No problem, I said, and I asked to use the phone. As I entered, two little kids, maybe three or four, ran by in what we might call “birthday suits,” obviously ready for an evening bath. It was then that I noticed that both mom and dad were wearing only bathrobes, which seemed a little odd.

As I lifted the receiver of the wallphone in the kitchen (ask me later if you don’t know what a wallphone is) as I lifted the receiver (ask me later if you don’t know what a receiver is) as I lifted the receiver I looked up at a very large poster with more birthday suit people and some inane phase about the beauty of the human body.

Now I can be a little slow sometimes, but I was starting to put two-and-two together. I begged my manager to give away this pizza, and sped away wondering if intense blushing could be fatal.

I share this story because this may be the ultimate example of “what we do at home, we don’t do other places.” You could add double-dipping in the salsa or talking in funny accents, but I expect my pizza story remains the best example.

Another example of something we do in the house but not out there was in the reading Jenny shared a moment ago:

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.

We could call this the internal economy of the church, holding things in common, supporting one another through the sale of unnecessary possessions, things superfluous to the common life of believers. It’s a wonderful vision, and a vision we continue to uphold, albeit in a modified form.

So another story: I frequently meet new people when we sail, and I’m almost always the first minister (or even the first churchgoer) that these people have met. It’s a relaxed environment, and we’re trapped on a boat, so people frequently ask me questions. “Can you get married“ is a common one, or “is that a full-time job” or “who pays your salary” or even “does the government pay your salary?” I love that last one. “No,” I say, “the kindest and most generous collection of people I know pay my salary” and they smile and look pleased.

And when they honestly look like they want to know more, I describe what we do as a sort of co-op, pooling our resources to have a church home and staff and all the rest. People find this very interesting, and surprising, since they seem to assume that anything as large and complex as a church must certainly be paid for by the government. But it’s not. It is created in the very same manner as the early church—holding things in common and sharing what we have for the good of the whole.

That’s the internal economy. The external economy, our support for the people beyond these walls (or beneath this floor) is best summed up in the reading you heard last week, also apropos to learning about The Bridge. Beyond “I was sick or in prison and you visited me” there is also this: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me” and so on.

This is the external economy, where we use our excess to care for the most vulnerable, both here and abroad. We take these words literally to mean that we need to look for the vulnerable—seek them out—and find ways to share what we have. The church, in this sense, was the first charity, where people ponder their priorities and give for the sake of others. We now compete with a range of other charities, most doing work that we can’t do—still partners in seeking the common good.

Now, my resident Hebrew scholar would furrow her brow at this point and say “really, the first charity? What about gleaning laws found in Leviticus, just as one example?” As of course she’s right, since Jesus command to “love thy neighbour” came from a close reading of the same book, Leviticus. From God’s heart to Jesus lips and on to our collective mission.

So yes, perhaps the earliest charity was found in a farmer’s field, with the corners of the field unharvested and left for the needy. It was a reflection of the same charity God provided in the desert: manna and quail to eat, water from a rock to drink. God provided, and we in turn provide, always a grateful response to the great gifts we have received.

Yet some disagree. A remarkable exchange took place in the Congress of the neighbours to the south, when a representative of MAZON, a Jewish food charity, made reference to the gleaning laws in Leviticus. (Just as an aside, the drop-in receives funding from MAZON, and we are grateful for their support). Back to the story, Josh Protas from MAZON was making a case for increased funding to food programs for the hungry when a member of the House felt compelled to make this comment:

"I did hear Mr. Protas, your opening remarks, where you quoted Leviticus, I believe—and I think that’s a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives," the congressman said. "But there’s also, you know...in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10...‘for even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: if a man will not work, he shall not eat.’ And then he goes on to say ‘we hear that some among you are idle'...I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements." [1]

In other words, if you can’t work you don’t eat. Somehow I think the congressman missed the part about charity, or is caught up in the troubling idea that there are deserving poor and undeserving poor. It turns out that the program under discussion, something called SNAP is used mostly by children and the disabled, but no matter, an improper reading of scripture says the idle should go hungry.

Again, we are back to the distinction between the internal and external economy of the church. The passage from 2 Thessalonians is about a conflict within the church—some members were showing up to the potluck and never bringing a dish, no chicken casserole, no jellied salad, no tiny crustless sandwiches, nothing. And the next verse is the real giveaway, saying these same people “were not busy, but busybodies.” Ouch. They weren’t invited to the next potluck. Harsh perhaps, but part of the internal life of the church, not something to effect government assistance to the poor twenty centuries later.

Even Matthew 25 has been misinterpreted by some, making the same internal-external mistake. One Bible professor wrote that Matthew 25 isn’t really about helping “the least of these” but about Christians who are persecuted while trying to do good—making the suggestion that the person who refuses to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple is, in fact, the “least of these.” This mind-boggling leap of logic is really just intentional ignorance regarding the need to care for neighbours—which we define as widely as possible.[2]

Internal or external, the economy of God is defined by generosity and openness, the desire to help others while looking past their obvious and not-so-obvious flaws. It’s about seeing a neighbour in the least likely people you meet, even people you would sooner avoid. The economy of God begins as we share with one another and continues far beyond these walls, to everyone in the world God made. Amen.

[1]https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/03/31/gop-lawmaker-the-bible-says-the-unemployed-shall-not-eat/?utm_term=.53c5e2ef804d
[2]http://www.theblaze.com/news/2015/05/28/if-everything-you-thought-you-knew-about-this-popular-bible-verse-wrong/

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Second Sunday of Easter

1 Peter 1
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.


Sometimes it’s good to inherit, and other times it’s not.

Take Agatha Christie, for example. There is a point in the story—usually the mid-point—when the will is read. An in the course of listening to the ‘reading of the will’ the chief suspect is usually revealed, the person to inherit.

It’s an odd thing, really. Everyone in the room a suspect, a name is revealed, and all eyes fall upon the potentially guilty party. Wouldn’t it be better to be on a train out of town? Or why commit such a ghastly crime in the first place, knowing that some solicitor is going to read your name out loud? Of course, the writer is only trying to throw us off the scent, knowing full well that the person to inherit is usually clever enough to not commit the crime.

It could, of course, just be part of the polite world of the murder mystery. In the same way everyone helpfully gathers for the reading of the will, everyone returns for moment that our intrepid detective reveals the identity of the murderer. They listen carefully as the detective summarizes the entire story—and they seldom interrupt as potential blame is cast. Then, when the final evidence falls into place and the guilty party revealed—they immediately concede. Yes, the gallows await, but let nothing stand in the way of British politeness or the desire to never make a fuss.

But this is not the kind of inheritance Carol described as she shared from 1 Peter. Instead we have “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you.” It cannot be taken away because Poirot reveals your guilt, it cannot spoil like shares in Nortel or fade like a house that’s falling down. This is a very different kind of inheritance, one that resides with God.

So what is the inheritance like, precisely? Let’s look at the full summary again: “In an act of great mercy, God has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” New birth into a living hope in the resurrection. New birth into a living hope.

And all of this, of course, is only a week old. As hard as it is to believe, Easter was only a week ago. And in that week, we tend to dwell on the simple message of new life, and the experience of joy that comes with spring and the end of Lent. They are meant to be conflated—new season and new life—and it is comfortable to simply dwell here a little while.

Soon, however, we look for meaning, and the implications of all this new life around us. What does it mean to experience ‘new birth into a living hope’ and how do we apply this to the world around us? Or more simply, what is it, and what is it not?

To begin, the commentators* remind us that the selection of this passage on the second Sunday of Easter is prompted by the story of doubting Thomas. You may recall that every year the reading for the Sunday to follow Easter is that fearful gathering, when the disciples are hold up in a locked room and Jesus appears to them.

Thomas is missing, and after uttering the famous words “unless I see the wounds I will not believe” he is rewarded with just such a visit. He gets his visit, but he also gets a rebuke from the Risen Lord ‘you have seen me and believe—how blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe?’ Those last words are for us—as every good preacher will tell you—both as an assurance and as a challenge to continue to believe even when we fail to see.

“And though you have not seen him,” the author of 1 Peter says, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, 9 for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” That’s the connection between our reading and the Thomas story, keeping us grounded in the unfolding narrative, but also highlighting another problem in the realm of belief.

The problem is this: If you add a contemporary lens to the end of the reading, you might be tempted to imagine it’s about you alone. Of course it’s about you—”for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls”—but it’s not about you. Maybe I should explain.

Over time, over a very long time, we became a collection of individuals. We weren’t always a collection of individuals, this happened over time. There are endless debates about how and why this transition took place, but agreement that before we were you and me, we were simply us. So when we read ”for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” we have to resist the idea that you or me (or you and not me) are going to get some individual reward, like going to heaven.

Yes, there is a heaven, and yes heaven is a goal, but not in the sense that heaven is prize that some will get and others will not. That’s a distortion of the Christian goal. The Christian goal—which is first God’s goal—is this: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” That’s not my summary, that belongs to Bishop N.T. Wright, and it’s only partly his summary, since he found it when he prayed “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Jesus isn’t a conduit to somehow escape this world into a better world, Jesus is the bridge that brings this world and that better world together. Of course it’s not here yet, recalling that it’s “thy will BE done on earth as it is in heaven” as in future tense. So it is our future hope that this coming together will occur, that this coming together at the last will be reality for all people, not just a few, and not just as individuals, but for everyone.

So heaven and earth have yet to be drawn together, but we have experienced a “new birth into a living hope in the resurrection.” Easter is the first and best sign that this consummation has begun (Wright), that this living hope is real and possible, and that an end to death means that the line between heaven and earth is beginning to blur. It is a hopeful time, but it’s not the full story.

The middle of the passage Carol shared also says this: “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith” may be revealed. In other words, this is never linear. The joy of Easter will give way to all sorts of setbacks, suffering and sorrow, some imposed and some self-inflicted.

In part, the author of 1 Peter is talking about persecution, but he is also talking about the challenges of being a new community. On the first, we know that this is really low-grade persecution, the initial tension that comes as church and synagogue begin to part ways. 1 Peter is most likely written in the 80’s, and the era that we call persecution has yet be begin. On the second—trying to live together—we know that the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts give us ample evidence of the kind of conflict that follows when people try to create something new. Being ‘in the world but not of the world’ means we are still human, in spite of the best advice.

In other words, we have experienced a “new birth into a living hope in the resurrection” but we are still our old sinful selves. God entered the world in Jesus to reveal that ways of heaven, Jesus gave us the way to follow and taught us to pray for heaven and earth to come together, but the world is still as it is. We do our best, in this collective we call church, but we can’t bring heaven and earth together ourselves—this is God’s work. We can help, but it always remains the work of heaven.

Our primary task, as inheritors, is to share the message of “new birth into a living hope.” This is the true message that follows the reading of the will: that we have witnessed the beginning of that final consummation, that time when heaven and earth will come together, and we a living hope in Christ Jesus. That the way of heaven, as revealed in Jesus, will someday come once and for all—quite literally once and for all—and that Easter is just the beginning. Thanks be to God, Amen.

*Texts for Preaching, Year A