Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday of Lent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Transfiguration Sunday

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

Have you ever been given a mantle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Isaiah 40
28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

25 “To whom will you compare me?
Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens:
Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one
and calls forth each of them by name.

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

And from this prayer, comes an answer:

28 Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Third Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

Scrabble is not my game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Second Sunday after Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 07, 2018

First Sunday after the Epiphany

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

There are early adapters and there are early adapters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words, age doesn’t matter, actual sin-level doesn’t matter, even which social media ruins you doesn’t matter. What matters is what Christ does at baptism, or rather what we do with Christ at baptism, without any reference to age or stage. St Paul said “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life.” (Rom 6)

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

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

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

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

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