Sunday, April 01, 2018

Easter Sunday

Mark 16
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


To begin, it has to be plausible, something people will believe. And it has to be well-developed, to give the overall sense of being real. But there has to be a giveaway, some element that makes it obvious to someone with a keen eye that this is a hoax.

So, as an example, in 1977 the Guardian published a seven-page travel supplement about San Serriffe, an island nation dominated by two large islands, Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse. That should have been the giveaway. That, or the seemingly accurate map that showed two islands shaped like a semi-colon. But otherwise, it had all the hallmarks of a real holiday destination: Ads by Kodak and Guinness (describing how the freak barley crop of ’56 turned the beer upside-down) and glowing profile of president-for-life General Pica.

Amazingly (or perhaps not amazingly) many people bought it, and the Guardian received several complaints from airlines and travel companies, troubled by customers who refused to believe it was a hoax. Most got it, of course, and some played along, including the reader who sent a letter on behalf of the San Serriffe Liberation Front complaining about the pro-government slant of the supplement.

Sadly, most April Fools’ efforts lack the commitment of the Guardian in 1977. Some are fun—Microsoft promised to release a mobile version of MS-DOS some years back—but designed to be clever rather than truly deceptive. And that seems to be the key: for a moment at least, you need to think “wow, really?” until you discover the truth.

Ironically, celebrating the empty tomb on April 1st tends to highlight all the elements that strain belief. At the end of our reading today, the women tell no one, fearful—we can assume—of not being believed. We get the same reaction from Thomas, forever burdened with the name “Doubting” because he told his friends he wouldn’t believe unless he himself saw the wounds.

And perhaps most tellingly, the end of Matthew’s gospel addresses this issue head-on, describing a plot among the chief priests and the Roman guards (28.11ff) to forge a report that Jesus’ friends retrieved his body in the night, making the whole thing a hoax. “The Passover Plot” (1965) both book and film picks up this notion, casting Jesus as frustrated intellectual who draws in a group of twelve co-conspirators to creates an elaborate plan that includes a staged crucifixion (using the same near-death drug as Romeo and Juliet) and an escaped tomb.

It’s little wonder then that St. Paul gets the last word when he says: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1) And with a rhetorical flourish he continues: “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

The resounding answer is “yes.” By framing the entire story in such a way that it beggars belief, God is busy pranking everyone who is committed to the finality of death. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,” Paul says, “and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

And the great Tertullian takes it a step further: "The Son of God was crucified: there is no shame, because it is shameful. And the Son of God died: it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And, buried, He rose again: it is certain, because impossible." Credo quia absurdum.

Of course, we can’t talk about the absurdity of belief without stumbling into a bit of a conversation about the age in which we find ourselves. Clearly the impulse to label things we are unable or unwilling to believe a conspiracy, a deep-state plot, or simply fake news has been given new life in recent months.

And I don’t think it’s just a failing of the far-right. The success of “weaponized” misinformation on Facebook and other platforms is that we tend to “like” the things that echo our worldview and ignore the things that do not. As someone cleverly pointed out, we’re not the customer in the story, we’re the product—trained to generate and select the content that can then be sold on to others.

That’s enough of that. As I told my preaching students, you have to mix in a little judgment with all that grace, and remind people that we’re all redeemed sinners, we’re all in need of God’s abundant mercy. And right on cue, that takes us back to Paul:

26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Jesus gather to himself a few fisherman, a tax collector, people with “interesting” backgrounds or no background at all. He started in the Galilee, a backward region in an backward province, among the poorest of the poor, clearly the “least and the last.” He attended to lepers and the demon-possessed, in a contest for most reviled and most ignored.

He taught in parables, tiny riddles of the kingdom that left these followers scratching their heads and arguing amongst themselves. He spoke to everyone, drank with everyone, forgave everyone. And when he died, he didn’t lash out at the people to betrayed him or crucified him, he demonstrated God’s great foolishness by comforting others from the cross. “This day,” he said, “you will be with me in paradise.”

And on that first morning, the day hope was born, he didn’t appear to the governor or the ruling council, or the nobles or the chief priests—he appeared to no one. “He is not here,” the angel said, “he is risen!” And following our theme, he made foolish the men in a patriarchal society by sharing the news first with women—first witnesses to the resurrection.

And it’s here that I want to share a quote from Nadia Bolz-Weber, who gets book title of the year for her recent book called “Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint.” Here is her quote:

"The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of [our] culture, is really about death and resurrection. It's about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small."

I think you can see how resurrection—while never a myth—is always a metaphor for the new life that surrounds us. Even in the midst of the most vexing moments, the most troubling times, the most grievous setbacks, God foolishly offers hope. God can do no other. Hope is hardwired into the unfolding of the human story, because it would otherwise be unbearable. Those graves we (as individuals) and we (as a collective) insist on digging for ourselves generate the same type of response: from an empty tomb to sprinkling of baptismal water to the fellowship that surrounds us just now.

Paul said “we are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ.” May your Christ-wisdom lighten your every day, and shine on everyone you meet. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Palm Sunday

Mark 11
As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 3 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.’”
4 They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, 5 some people standing there asked, “What are you doing, untying that colt?” 6 They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. 7 When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. 8 Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. 9 Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,
“Hosanna![a]”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”[b]
10 “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
11 Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.


If I told you that the average temperature for the first week of spring was minus one, what would you call it?

Unfair comes to mind, sad (with an exclamation mark) might work, or someone brave might say it’s ironic. The problem with describing this turn-of-events as ironic, of course, is that a debate will immediately ensue. Is it ironic? Or is that just unfortunate? Or is it just cold?

One of the things I neglected to mention in our recent Lenten study on preaching is the appropriate use of poetry—it illustrate a point or raise the tenor of the preaching event. So perhaps something from a well-known Canadian poet will help:

It's like rain on your wedding day
It's a free ride when you've already paid
It's the good advice that you just didn't take
Who would've thought... it figures

Of course, the gift that our famous poet gave us is now 23 years of debate on the nature of irony. Bad luck is not really irony—it is said. Misfortune is not really irony, nor is sarcasm, though the debate still rages on the last one. Generous amounts of ink has been spilled on whether Alanis Morrisette was describing irony or something else, and all we’re left with is another ear-worm that will haunt us through lunch.

So what is irony, really? When what is said or intended is opposite to the outcome or the reality, it’s ironic. So, if you have ever shouted at someone saying, “I’m not angry!” then you have fallen into irony. Or that time the fire station in Mount Albert burned to the ground. I think you get the picture.

A closer look will tell you that there are three types of irony—verbal, situational, and dramatic—and that all three happen in the reading Joyce shared this morning. But before we get back to the loud hosannas (palms wave) we should get our examples straight.

The first kind, verbal irony, begins with the “I’m not angry” example, with intended meaning and actual meaning falling apart. And this is where sarcasm enters the mix, and another debate we don’t have time to explore. If you can see your keys inside your locked car and you say “Oh, that’s just great,” it may or may not be ironic. If you have forgotten the spare key you left in the bottom of your bag as you stare into the locked car, that’s ironic.

Situational irony seems the most straightforward, with the fire station example, or “unsinkable” liner that left Southhampton and sailed the north Atlantic in April. Or the three characters that spend the whole film looking for a wizard to bestow courage, brains and heart, only to discover they possessed these things all along.

And dramatic irony, of course, requires a spoiler alert, because it’s all about the audience knowing things that the characters in the drama do not. So Juliet’s plan was clever but she forgot to tell Romeo, and bad things happen, but it’s the audience that’s all torn up because we can see exactly what happens when the best laid plan goes awry.

So how is Palm Sunday ironic? I guess we can begin by imagining a military parade, with a conquering hero entering the city, flanked by an excited crowd. People sing and shout, and celebrate the exploits of this general or strongman, a give him names like Africanus or Germanicus, places conquered or subdued. Instead, we hear this:

“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

So it seems ironic to use the form and circumstance of a military parade to shout hosanna—God, save us—to cry out for liberation in a setting that usually means victory. Unless you imagine that the victory is already won, and that the coming Kingdom has already arrived in the person of Jesus the Christ, perhaps a kind of double-irony. So that’s the verbal part.

The situational irony is like the first: using the familiar form of a military parade to welcome the Prince of Peace, and to call for the coming kingdom of David that will, in fact, be a spiritual kingdom. It’s using the form of conquest to usher in a kingdom of mercy and justice, a kingdom that Jesus tells us already exists within us.

And the dramatic irony—that seems to be happening on a few layers. The first belongs to us, the audience for this unfolding drama. We already know what awaits Jesus—because he told us—and because we already know the end of the story. Even the first readers of this text would know the end of the story, most often introduced to Jesus through his death and resurrection.

So it’s dramatic irony in the sense that we know the outcome even as those shouting and waving palm leaves do not. We know, and Jesus knows, and together we can only shake our heads at the bystanders and the disciples who think this is real. Like poor Romeo, the disciples thought this was real, when in fact it was staged to make a point: the coming kingdom is unlike anything you know, and the coming conquest is unlike anything you know.

The theologian Tom Wright begins each talk with some variation of these words: “The God who made heaven and earth intends to draw them together at the last.” The Christian story was never about saving souls or imposing some sort of religious agenda, but about the creation of a new Jerusalem here on earth. When Jesus said “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” he was expressing his entire project, that God’s realm and our realm become one.

The first step in this project is the incarnation, God entering our world in a new way—in an ironic way—in the form of a baby. The next step was a variety of teachings, all counter-cultural and designed to disarm even the most jaded—blessed are the meek, and the poor, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Love your neighbour, and forgive seven times seventy.

The next step is this bit of theatre, mocking all the conquering heroes by adapting this form for the coming kingdom. And the final step—the step that will take us closest to drawing heaven and earth together at the last—is Jesus death on a cross. In perhaps the greatest example of irony yet known, Jesus forgives the very people who placed him on the cross, and began the mystery of reconciliation that lies at the heart of our faith.

As we enter Holy Week and the most ironically-named Good Friday, I encourage you to live the entire story. Wait with us in the Upper Room. Approach the cross and the mystery set to unfold. And then come Sunday for a celebration, as something empty becomes filled with the promise of new life. Amen.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent

John 12
20 Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.
23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.


Our Lenten study on preaching is nearly finished, only the Great Canadian Preach-Off remains, along with a handful of random bits of content that come to mind between now and Thursday. One of those, which I will demonstrate this morning is recycling, where a paragraph or two is taken from one context (say, a preaching study) and recycled for another (a sermon, for example).

You can’t plagiarize yourself, but you can tire your first audience, so for those present for evening two, the next moments are time to go to your happy place, maybe plan out your own two-minute sermon, or simply sit back.

I begin, then, in the pulpit of the former Cliffcrest United Church, a congregation I was blessed to serve for a number of years. The sanctuary was built in 1954, and reflected the assumptions and aspirations of the post-war period—in the church and society at large. The oddest feature was the long corduroy wall of brick facing Kingston Road. This windowless wall was meant to block the sound of traffic, since Kingston Road was much like the 401 in 1954, a highway that was still on the drawing board. On the opposite wall, facing inward, was a long wall of clear glass windows, the legend being that they were salvaged from a demolished factory.

The architecture seemed to say two things at once: we are a shelter from the busy world passing our door, and we are a lantern, shining the clear light of the Gospel upon the neighbourhood that surrounds us. I think it achieved both.

Meanwhile, in the chancel, the outsized table shared the space with an equally outsized pulpit, the latter being a wide curved affair that the preacher could easily hide behind if need be. The table was inscribed with a traditional message for the congregation (“Do this in remembrance of me” if I recall correctly). Meanwhile, the pulpit was inscribed with an interior message—a message for the preacher alone—that said “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Ignoring the erroneous assumption that everyone standing behind the pulpit should be addressed as “Sir,” the interior message functioned as a perpetual reminder, and a sort of moral imperative—that the congregation, like those Greek visitors long ago, are there to see Jesus.

It’s an odd little episode—Greek visitors take one of the disciples aside and ask to see Jesus—but it seems to send the signal that Jesus’ fame will spread beyond Israel and Judah. We’re not told why they wanted to see him or even if this backstage pass was granted. And as quickly as they arrive, our Greek friends disappear again.

What we’re left with—what we’re always left with—is context, and the place we find this passage in the larger picture of John’s Gospel. The immediate context, the passage that precedes this one, is the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, a story will visit next week. This alone might explain the request to see Jesus—with foreign visitors in the capitol witnessing the parade to mark Jesus’ arrival.

But the larger context is worth noting too, since the story that takes us to the edge of Jerusalem—the raising of Lazarus—casts a shadow over what is to come. The eleventh chapter recounts the story in great detail: the news of Lazarus’ death reaching Jesus, visiting his sisters and the recrimination that comes, moving to the tomb and the skepticism that follows, and finally releasing him with the words “Lazarus, come out!” and “unbind him and let him go.”

It is the remarkable nature of this resuscitation—including the controversy it generates—that may have caused word to reach these Greek visitors to Jerusalem. The city was abuzz with both excitement and concern, from those who wanted to see the wonder worker that everyone was talking about, to the religious officials and their well-founded fear of disturbing the Roman occupiers.

And that too is an important bit of context, as the story of Lazarus ends with a meeting of the religious council, and the decision to arrest Jesus. Note that we are at the midpoint of John’s Gospel—that the last of seven signs is complete with the raising of Lazarus and the book then turns of Jesus’ passion. Fully half the gospel will be consumed by it, and the outcome predicted at the beginning of chapter one will come to pass: “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.” (v.10)

And the shape of that prediction is now coming fully into view. The request to see Jesus may or may not have been met, but it prompts a response from Jesus, one of those statements that would grow in significance in the weeks to come:

23 Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.

This is what the Greek visitors will see—if they hang in a week or two longer—and perhaps they too will become the seeds of this new movement. At the very least they will see that this was never about a wonder worker and the crowds that inevitably seek out spectacle, but about the seed of faith that will grow in the most unlikely of ways—from cross to tomb to final glory.

In the meantime, we are learning about a new way of seeing, a lens that takes us back to that hidden pulpit message and the imperative to allow people to see Jesus. In effect, the Greeks are still speaking, still seeking to see, and the request that begins behind the pulpit extends to the rest of the disciples and beyond.

And what will they see? The gospels, as they develop, provide us with a template: it begins simply, with words of invitation, usually along the line of “come and see.” And then there are wonders to behold—a healing or a demon displace—and the words “you will see greater wonders than this.” He will speak to a woman at the well, and recount for her what troubles, and she will say “come and see this man who truly knows me.” The disciples will ask to see God and he will remind them that “anyone who has seen me has seen the father.” And when he finally makes plain all that will unfold he says “Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

What Jesus has introduced is a new way of seeing—that everything from invitation to teaching to healing grows this new sight, leading to the conclusion that St. Paul makes in Colossians: “Jesus is the visible image of an invisible God.” The Greeks came to see Jesus, but they ended up seeing God instead.

Of course it will be later, in the locked room, on the beach, on the road to Emmaus, that all of this seeing will come together. The words will finally make sense, and the events will meld to form a complete narrative. Only upon reflection, and in the telling and retelling, that the disciples will finally see. Only then will they come to understand that what so many cannot see—the light of the world—they can see in each other.

Like so many churches, this place is meant to be both shelter from the busy world and a lantern, casting light on a weary world. It is always reflected light: the light of Christ, the light that we have been blessed to see, cast from this place into the streets that surround us. We carry this light wherever we go—from seeing—to seen by all. Amen.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Second Sunday of Lent

Mark 8
31 He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. 32 He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.
33 But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
34 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For whoever wants to save their life[a] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. 36 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Transfiguration Sunday

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


Have you ever been given a mantle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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