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.