Sunday, October 22, 2017

Proper 24

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

As movie tropes go, this is a good one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Proper 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Hawthorne 1983:180

Sunday, October 08, 2017


Deuteronomy 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Proper 21

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

Sometimes, you just want a do-over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Proper 20

Jonah 4
But to Jonah this seemed very wrong, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4 But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

In a world of trouble, forgiveness is big news.

Perhaps the most famous example in recent years is the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. The pope survived, and even in the early days of his recovery asked that the faithful pray for the assassin. Two years later the pope visited his would-be assassin in prison, and even advocated for a pardon.

Or Malala Yousafzai, having survived a brutal attack by a member of the Taliban, made it known that she had forgiven her attacker. She noted how young he was and how nervous he seemed, and wished him no harm.

Or Nelson Mandela, who made several gestures to further reconciliation between black and white South Africans, including dining with his former jailers, forgiving the prosecutor who sought the death penalty during his trial, and even donning the rugby jersey that was once a hated symbol of Apartheid.

These stories are famous because they involve famous people, and because they demonstrate the journalistic principle of “man bites dog.” The idea emerged sometime in the late nineteenth century and the source is uncertain, but the concept is clear: ‘When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog that is news.’

In other words, if John Paul had ignored his assailant, or Malala cursed her attacker, or if Nelson Mandela had used the office of President to pursue charges against those who persecuted him, we would nod and say ‘that makes sense’ or ‘I would do that too.’ Rather, we are confronted with surprizing and unexpected forgiveness. I say ‘confronted’ because everyone reacts differently to grace, something that becomes clear in scripture.

All of the suggested readings for today pick up this theme of suprizing forgiveness or generosity and the reaction of the people around. In Exodus, the people complain that God has liberated them only to bring them into the desert to starve. And their reward for complaining is food—not the best food—but food nonetheless. In Matthew, the vineyard owner gathers labours throughout the day, then does the unexpected—pays everyone a full days wage. Those who worked all day resent this sudden turn of generosity, even thought they received what was promised.

So how does Jonah and the whale—that classic story of running from the call of God—fall in with these other stories? It’s all about the ending. But before we get to the ending, let me recap the story we might call “fish catches man.”

It begins (as these things often do) with the word of the LORD coming to Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because I can’t stand their wickedness any longer.” So Jonah got up, and set his GPS for points as far from Nineveh as he could.

His escape, of course, involved a sea voyage. And just as spring leads to summer and fake-summer leads to more summer, any time someone boards a ship a storm will surely follow. And the crew, being as superstitious as all sailors, cast lots and discovered that the cause of the storm is on the ship, sleeping peacefully below deck.

They wake him and pepper him with questions: “What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” Sifting through his answers it quickly becomes obvious that running from the Most High won’t end well—certainly not for Jonah and maybe not so well for the crew either.

But Jonah has the solution: “Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he says, “and the storm will end.” At this point I should brief you on the Racing Rules of Sailing, Part 1, Fundamental Rules, section 1.1, which reads:

Helping Those in Danger: A boat or competitor shall give all possible help to any person or vessel in danger.

So what happens next should come as no surprize, since the Racing Rules of Sailing were in force: they did everything they could to row back to shore. It didn’t work. As the storm grew and their situation became worse they finally accepted that Jonah was right and over he went.

But God wasn’t finished with Jonah. Three days and three nights he spend in the belly of the whale, until he finally made peace with his call and prayed to the Most High. Next thing Jonah is on the beach, coughed up like a Judean furball, ready to take a message of repentance of the people of Nineveh.

It goes surprizingly well. He enters the great city—a three-day journey across—and shouts for all to hear: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Within hours of his arrival the people repent, the king repents, everyone puts on sackcloth (even the animals) and everyone is pleased. Except Jonah.

Jonah is furious. “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God,” he says, “slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. So kill me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Well, is it? Big storm, belly of a whale, that awkward moment at the beach, shouting at people in the hot sun—it’s almost like the utter destruction of Nineveh was going to be his reward, the predetermined—and somewhat satisfying—conclusion to the story that never come to be.

Jonah felt cheated, much in they way the older brother felt cheated in the parable of the prodigal son and the daylong workers felt cheated because nothing rankles quite like unexpected generosity you witness but don’t get yourself.

My buddy Jeff tells the story of a flight he took some years ago, and an unusual request as the flight began. The pilot spoke to the passengers and requested help for two college students who were on the flight studying economics. The project was comparing the cost each passenger paid for the same type of seat on the flight.

As the students made their way through the plane, people answered their questions but also listened in to other responses. And almost no one was pleased. The prices were quite varied, and most of the people who paid more we angry. Complaints would be made, legal action threatened, all because people paid different amounts for the same service.

Strange creatures, we are. We love undeserved rewards if we are the ones getting the reward. We love forgiveness and grace and something for nothing unless someone else gets forgiveness and grace and something for nothing and we don’t. We can go from pleased to resentful in about the time it takes for all the workers to get the same wage and all the dogs and cats of Nineveh to put on their little sackcloth outfits and get spared the destruction that God never wanted to do in the first place.

And that’s the thing with this God of the storm and God of the threatened destruction. There is always one more chance. And then another. And still one more. Jonah should have figured this out when he was in his three-day tomb, the very place that God could have left him to die. Jonah gets a second chance but doesn’t want to extend the same second chance to Nineveh and their adorable animals. But God always has other plans.

In the same manner that God-in-Jesus forgives us from the cross, and turns his three-day tomb experience into the liberation of us all, Jonah learns the hard way that God is God and we are not. We keep score, even when it’s generosity extended to others, but God cannot. God IS generosity, and thank God for that. Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Proper 19

Exodus 14
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed[b] the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

As the film festival finally goes away for another year, we hear one of the most cinematic passages in the Bible.

By cinematic, I mean frequently appearing on film and narrated with all the action and adventure that quickens the heart of screenwriters everywhere. So, we’ll step into the Red Sea in a moment, but first we should do a bit of a survey of Egypt in film.

It all begins with The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff as the mummy, inadvertently brought back to life and determined to find his lost love. Building on the fame of Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut, the story takes the myth of the Pharaoh’s curse, adds a dash of Frankenstein and drop of Dracula (pun intended) and creates the perfect vehicle for Karloff, who seems to have invented creepy.

By the 1950’s, popular interest in Egypt remains strong, but must compete with a renewed interest ancient Israel, sparked in part by the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Enter Cecil B. DeMille, whose Ten Commandments (1956) combines the spectacle of Pharaoh and his court with the pious story of Moses’ journey from Hebrew baby to Prince of Egypt to God’s liberating prophet. And all shot in VistaVision and Technicolor.

By the late 70’s, when people thought the epic filmmaking was finally over, George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg took a vacation together. According to cinematic legend, the two where building a sand castle together when Spielberg mentioned he might direct a James Bond film. Lucas scoffed at the idea, and said if you want to do an action film you should take up my idea for an adventurer named Indiana Smith. “Smith? I don’t like Smith,” Spielberg says. “Okay,” Lucas says, “how about Jones?”

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) truly has everything. Evil Nazi archeologists, the Ark of the Covenant used to hold the Ted Commandments, a secret chamber in the Egyptian desert, and snakes, lots of snakes.

This collision between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel remains as fascinating as ever. In part, it’s the compelling nature of the story, freed slaves and a demonstration of the power of God. It’s also our fascination with objects from the past, with some of the most famous discoveries of the 20th century being Tut’s tomb, the head of Nefertiti and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

And, it’s the cinematic character of the story, Moses’ God-given ability to stretch out his arms to part the sea—the wall of water to the right and to the left as the Israelites pass through. And the Egyptians—formerly resigned to losing these slaves—decide to pursue them instead, only to have the wheels of their chariots jammed by the God of the Israelites. And then a moment of insight comes, as an Egyptian marks the climax of the story:

“Let’s get away from the Israelites!” the Egyptian says, “The Lord is fighting for them against us.”

This is one of those something-is-not-quite-right moments in scripture that causes us to pause. The Egyptian says “The Lord is fighting for them against us.” Well, what Lord? The Lord of Israel? It’s seems very unlikely that this horseman or chariot driver would worship or even acknowledge the God of the slaves that were busy making their escape. Egyptians were notorious polytheists, with various gods with various roles and interconnections much like the Greek gods.

One suggestion is that there was brief period of Egyptian monotheism, about a few years before the time we associate with Moses—so maybe this insightful Egyptian soldier was a follower of that former tradition. Some scholars have suggested that the whole idea of “one God” may have begun in the Egyptian court, with vestiges of that old tradition influencing the young Moses.

Whatever the source, there is clearly a moment in time when God takes sides. “Let’s get away from the Israelites!” the Egyptian says, “The Lord is fighting for them against us.” Why this wasn’t obvious earlier—say during the river of blood, frogs, locusts, lice, boils, hail, and the rest—is another mystery. Nonetheless, there is a moment in the story when it is clear to everyone involved that the God we call the God of Israel has chosen a side.

What this does—beyond move the story of the Israelites forward—is give birth to a theological problem. We want God to be the God of all. And we want God to be love. This God, whose “got the whole world, in his hands,” is the God we want, not the warrior God sticking sticks in chariot wheels and drowning horse and rider with such aplomb. And it’s even worse that that:

Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing toward[c] it, and the Lord swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.

It has a matter-of-factness, a cold recounting, that I would suggests says more about the emotional state of the author than the nature of God. Part of this passage is catharsis, a writer who needs to give his people both triumph and vindication, needs to see Egyptians suffer in the way his people suffered under Egypt.

So there is that. But there is no denying that our very modern wish for fairness and neutrality, the well-being of all, and a happy-ending will not be met by the God of Israel. Even Jesus, when he speaks both for and as God, turns away from our wish:

"It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it 'a den of robbers.'"

If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. 15 Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

Jesus takes sides against the overly-righteous, the sacrilegious, the inhospitable, those who follow the letter of the law and those that separate him or the little ones who adores. He takes the side of the oppressed: by disease or addiction, or situation, or station in life. He is defined by the company he keeps: tax collectors and sinners, and everyone that ‘the best people’ think are abandoned by God.

And notice the built in safety valve and reality check for those who follow God, and particularly God-in-Jesus. As soon as you become too proud, too self-assured that you are one of the ‘best people’ that God will adore, you run the risk of joining the overly-righteous, the inhospitable, and those that would separate God from the vulnerable ones that God adores.

Those who separate themselves from the God of Israel will suffer the fate of being separated from the God of Israel. Forgiveness is possible, and available for everyone—when the desire to no longer be separated from God has ended. Through God all things are possible, yet freewill says some will ultimately choose another path. Perhaps those who reject God are the ultimate vulnerable group—and paradoxically God’s most treasured.

May we strive to imagine the God we struggle to comprehend, and may God find us, vulnerable in our understanding, now and always, Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Proper 18

Matthew 18
15 “If your brother or sister[a] sins,[b] go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Never trust a politician who begins by saying “I think we can agree...”

Ditto for “let me be crystal clear” and other verbals tics that fall from the mouths of those we elect.

To be fair, being a public figure in the age of Twitter and Youtube is perilous. Comments can be misinterpreted. Mistakes can be amplified. Today’s offhand comment can become tomorrow’s hashtag. Gone are the days when a politicians “word salad” will be mended prior to publication in the newspaper of record.

And the source of all these annoying phrases and tics is simple: we expect instant answers to difficult problems, given in complete sentences, comprehensive but not dense, comprehensible but not simplistic, and including at least one “sound bite” for the 10 o’clock news.

“I think we can agree” and “let me by crystal clear” are little more than delaying tactics, an alternative to “ums” and “ahs” that allow the speaker more time to formulate that articulate answer we demand. The one exception is the politician who says “believe me” all the time (no names mentioned). In this case, don’t believe him.

Sometimes, however, “I think we can agree” is an important point to make. More than verbal filler, sometimes the speaker needs to remind his or her audience that there are some things on which we can agree. An appeal to common set of values, facts that are commonly known, even shared emotions in the face of events can be acknowledged with “I think we can agree.”

And this, of course, takes us to the oft-neglected second half of our reading. The first half, Jesus’ own conflict resolution strategy is well-known both inside and outside the Christian church. It’s a touchstone for us, but it’s also the basis for many secular policies around organizational conflict. It finds the balance between honouring the individual and protecting the organization, and has therefore stood the test of time.

So that’s the first half. The second half of our reading, three seemingly distinct ideas, is more of a challenge for those who live in pulpits and try to speak in complete sentences. Jesus has just given us a comprehensive policy in four sentences, and then this:

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be[e] loosed in heaven.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

The first idea—binding and loosing—is a restatement of something Jesus said in chapter 16. In that case, he first gave St. Peter the “keys to the kingdom” and told him that ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven” and so on. Here, he picks up the same idea of binding and loosing and gives it to the twelve disciples (and presumably everyone listening).

This, of course, will be very familiar to Roman Catholics, who regard Peter as the first pope. The papal symbol includes a set of keys—the keys referred in Matthew 16—underlining the authority of Rome to articulate binding tradition down to today. The reformers took issue with this, of course, and were more inclined to see the keys reseting with the whole church, as described in Matthew 18.

And this seems to lead to the second idea, that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” It’s hard to know the exact context of this promise, but it seems to come from some controversy in the previous chapter. Jesus heals a demon possessed boy, but only after the disciples have failed to do so. Jesus rebukes them for their failure, and suggests they lack the faith needed to do it. Truly I tell you,” he tells them, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move.”

If these two ideas are linked—having faith means moving mountains and if you agree about anything it will be done—we can imagine that part of the power given to these disciples depends on internal agreement, finding a common mind. In this sense, it’s more about shared faith—faith in and through each other—than the strong faith of the individual.

And then the final idea, the one we know best: “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” Taken together, we begin to see a pattern. What is at first glance a set of three distinct ideas may be a single idea about the power of God in community. How would this work?

Assuming that Jesus has restated the power of binding and loosing to include all the disciples, it requires agreement. The same two that must agree, and the two or three that gather, summon the Risen Christ to their midst. In other words, the work of the church—healing, encouraging, strengthening—requires cooperation and agreement. The work of the church never falls to the individual disciple, leader, or believer—it’s a corporate effort born of achieving a common mind.

It’s a tricky thing, this idea of the power of God in community. In some ways, we almost want to invest power into leaders and individuals, if only to have someone to blame if something goes wrong. Like the politicians we trust until we grow tired of them (and toss them out) we want to be able to blame someone other than ourselves for the direction of the church and the work we do or fail to do.

Having the power of God in community means constant discernment, testing what we do against the biblical record, the urging of the Spirit, and full knowledge of the mistakes of the past. And this discernment must be based on agreement—two or three or more who can agree that what we do is faithful and just. It requires a variety of spiritual gifts—knowledge, insight, prophecy—and a conversation that applies gifts to the situation we find ourselves in.

It’s also important to note that having the power of God in community is not the same a being God. It seems self-evident, but many traditions that fall under the Christian banner are quick to condemn people and cast them into the outer darkness, when this belongs to God alone. And the fact that God is very likely unwilling to do this at all will prove a great surprize to them. Still, the power to bind and loose has more to do with the ability to forgive than the ability to condemn, something that more Christians should learn. And yes, condemning fellow Christians for condemning others is ironic, so I’ll begin to wind up.

Having the power of God in community is related to the other thing we often say, namely ‘we are the hands and feet of Christ.’ The latter is more active and less formal, more relational and less based on concept that have an uneasy relationship with—that being power. Claiming the power of God seems overwhelming and more than a little arrogant.

In truth, whenever we undertake that things we are commanded to do—forgive each other, love our neighbours, feed the hungry—we are demonstrating the power of God to transform lives. We are more than just hands and feet: we are agents of the Most High. Acting together, we bring the power of God to our community, our homes, our very selves. It’s daunting, and that is no accident. We should tremble whenever we do what God would have us do.

May our worship and work be blessed with God’s own power, in community, and in our hearts. Amen.