Wednesday, 4 October 2017

You shall not murder.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 22 - Year A
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

The Ten Commandments appear in the first reading on Sunday and this week our eye is, of course, drawn to the sixth of them, namely:  You shall not murder.  We'd resent it if our pastor treated the mass shooting in Las Vegas last week as something which wasn’t noteworthy.  And so, for our part this Sunday, we will publicly remember those who were lost and rejoice in the strength and courage of those who demonstrated the good attributes of humanity amid terrible circumstances.

There’s something else which vicars do at times like this, though.  You might even find it grating.  The fellow up there at the front of the church dressed like a Christmas decoration could pause in the middle of his sermon and say something along the lines of:

“We’re all a little bit like murderers, aren’t we?”

Oh Father!   Why do you clergy do that? you ask.  Is this something you learned  at seminary - to generalize everything? We are not bitter and twisted individuals who pour out rage, fanaticism or illness on others in dramatic ways.  

On the face of it, yes, you are not that person.  It ought to be possible for a member of Christ Church Clermont-Ferrand to finish his three-score-years-and-ten without having transgressed any of the Ten Commandments and, certainly, not to be guilty of culpable homicide.  

We’re the good guys.  

Give some thought, however, to what Jesus says to those who believe the bad guys to be over there and the good guys here with us on the right side of the fence.  In the verses (Matthew 5:21-30) which follow the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses those who believe that they have passed and will pass their years without ever being guilty of – and here he chooses two quite dramatic commandments: adultery and murder.  

Jesus sharpens the commandment on adultery to include lustful thoughts

He sharpens the commandment on murder to include anger.  

Of murder he says:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. ’But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ (meaning - you are empty or worthless!) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.”

Notorious violence is when, with sharpened motives and powerful means, the content of sinful and ordinary human hearts crosses the threshold from thought into act.  Whatever it is which generates the headlines and deprives families of their loved ones, issues from the very same stuff that has made our home life painful, our relationships strained, our children bullied at school, our workplaces a nightmare and those who differ from us isolated and uncared for.   

This is stuff we know inside of ourselves.  

Jesus makes sinners of all of us.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

A penny a day

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 20 - Year A
Matthew 20:1-16

Try this one on for size: A landowner hires workers at nine in the morning. They are told to expect payment of one silver penny – a denarius – for their day’s work. Additional workers are hired at three in the afternoon. Still others are hired towards the end of the day to reap the last corner of the field before the sun goes down. With the field finally harvested, they all line up in front of the paymaster – some of them dog-tired and dusty with blistered fingers, and some of them barely having broken out in a sweat. Each receives the same silver penny in his pay envelope. “It’s not fair”, say some of them. The response from the boss is the following: It’s my money – may I not spend it in the manner I want? The agreement was as follows: work/penny. I have adequately fulfilled my promise. Quit your griping.

Don’t try to develop pay scales for a company based on this parable, please. At the same time, give a thought to the good things which can be said about adequacy. Adequacy is under-rated. I’d have liked to have said at the end of my life that I had achieved something excellent and to have been rewarded somehow for that. Now – two thirds of the way through the slog – I’m beginning to say that I quite desperately hope to have been an adequate husband, father, Christian, priest, pastor, preacher, writer. Unless we are Chaucer or King Tut, we’re going to be forgotten a hundred years after our demise, aren’t we? And so, other matters – matters pertaining to basic adequacy – become more important. Will I die in some state of grace? Will I have loved and been loved?  Will I still be in conversation with my children? Am I reconciled with my heavenly Father and in communion with the fellowship of his saints? 

If the priest, who visits me at my bedside, asks me the question “Have you had enough?” – he or she may not be asking me whether I’m fed up with the chemo or ready to make my departure. The priest may be asking me whether I’ve "had enough" - whether I have received the adequate things of this world – the promised silver penny - things which people less educated than me, born in more straitened conditions than I have ever had to endure, with shorter lives and fewer resources than me, have nonetheless managed to acquire: a sense of peace, a thankful heart, a place in human community and an assurance of God’s love and favour.

As you might have guessed, the background of this parable is very specific. Jesus asks whether the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the Law, are any better off than those lapsed Jews who, late in life, have come back into God’s graces through the ministry of Jesus. It may well even look forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the covenant promises of God at a point which is late in time. The answer which Jesus gives to this question, however, is what I have explained without making recourse to the particular background of the parable.  It's this:

There is one task. There is one reward.

If you are bothered by the hints of mortality here, and the possibility that you won’t amount to all you imagine, or that the time is somehow short - then I am sorry. Strive to excel in whatever your calling is—fill your boots! 

Remember, though, that "all flesh is grass". 

We will not neglect the tasks of faith and love—faith, which unites men and women to God through Christ and love, which lifts others up into his light. These tasks are your required and achievable labour and the simple coin received at the end of the day, your only and greatest reward.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Losing sight of Jethro's sheep: Moses in Midian

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17 - Year A
Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was doing his best to lose the Egyptian accent that people had remarked on when he first landed in Midian (Exodus 2:18-19).

It was an accent worth losing.  First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian.  He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a dirty secret in the heart of the Egyptian court.  Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds.  The child became a man back in Egypt.  His identity crisis sharpened and caused him to snap.  He’d killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice. 

But Moses dodged the murder charge.   He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian.  He married the daughter of a prominent local family and began to work on his pension.   

Did he have nightmares?  Did the ghosts of Egypt haunt his sleep?  There’s no evidence of this.  This Sunday’s reading show Moses following the flocks as he would have done seasonally - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent.  Everything is on track.

The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what every new parolee needs to do upon his release from prison.  He needs to keep his eyes forward and to follow the path and to seize the opportunity at hand.  When you’re given a fresh start and limited time, you stick to the straight and narrow.  It’s the same at the tail-end of the world’s worst divorce or a personal bankruptcy or a war or a natural disaster.   One foot goes in front of the other.   Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all.  Nothing else.

But that's not how our story ends, is it?  Moses’ eyes stray.  The commissioning of Moses and the whole story of the Exodus doesn’t begin with God’s words from the burning bush.  It begins a few lines earlier when Moses, still comfortably at the tail end of Jethro’s flocks and with everything to gain by staying the course, says to himself:

"I must turn aside and look at this great sight, 
and see why the bush is not burned up."

Curiosity may kill the cat and displease the parole officer but it also ushers in new epochs in history.  From one cover of your Bible to the other, and throughout the history of the Church, God upsets the settled and recommended paths of prophets, patriarchs, disciples and saints.  Before they were ever useful to God and to his Kingdom by being resolute and unshakable, they proved their worth because they were quite the opposite - capable of being distracted from their day jobs and unstuck from all their several necessary trajectories.  

God could depend on them to shift their gaze from their desks and direct it out the window.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Stay tuned! God is faithful.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, 
who did not know Joseph....

How quickly we forget.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, human beings carry around nearly all the information necessary to be a member of their species in their stories and not in their genes.  Activities which we perform by reflex or at the bidding of our hormones are precious few.   Instead, our children go to school.  They learn at their parents’ or grandparents’ knee.  They read from books.  Stories may be supple or rigid.  Stories can evolve and merge with the stories of neighbours.  They can be transformed in the retelling.  Rigid stories tend to be fragile.  National myths can be destructive.  And yet, civilizations can and do collapse when the cultural contents of the human story are forgotten.  Skip a generation and you will take a step way back into time.

The scenario described at the beginning of the stories concerns the new Egyptian king who, by malevolence or ignorance, “forgets” the role which God, Joseph and the Hebrews had played in the preservation of Egypt during the years of famine.  By intention or accident, the story of Egypt has a chapter ripped from its book.   Fellow citizens – artisans and laborers – established residents of great Egyptian cities became, in a moment, a despised minority.  We don’t need to look much beyond the 20th and 21st centuries to find analogs for this process within living memory. 

For the readers of the Book of Exodus, be they Christian or Jewish, there can be no question as to the outcome.  The descendants of Abraham living in Egypt have a purpose and a destiny that will not be cut off.   They are part of a larger and more important narrative than the one by which Pharaoh hopes to purify his kingdom.  At issue, here again, is the overarching question:

How will God remain faithful to his promises to Abraham
to bless his descendants and, through them, the entire world?

There is no other question in Exodus.   Frankly, there is no other question in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles.  We remain glued to the page because the risks are many and, as is the case throughout the Old and New Testaments, human agents are used to propel the Promise through the ages.  Patriarchs, prophets and saints need to say “yes” and we don’t know if they will.  The promise may even need to be placed within a little basket of reeds daubed with pitch and bitumen and set out into the reedy edges of a great river.  And yes – it all must matter to you, who are praying for your little churches and saying “yes” to your part in the story, who pray that your children remain part of the same narrative, who wonder how God’s people will ever find their voice in a world grown suddenly more unstable and chaotic.  

Stay tuned!  Hold on to the handrails!  You are part of this story.  It's never been one for the faint-hearted.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

It's not over until......

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 - Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

A book called The Joseph Cycle was written by Simon Sim in 2004 and used Joseph’s dream (Genesis 41:25-30), as recounted to Pharaoh, as the basis for a theory about markets waxing and waning in seven-year increments.  People buy Sim’s book because they want to make money.   Spoiler alert:  If you want to make money, then it’s off to Amazon with you.  Buy Simon Sim’s book. You’re not going to make any money reading this. 

For a student of the Scriptures, the Joseph Cycle is a series of stories from the Book of Genesis about Joseph.  That it is referred to as a Cycle and not merely a Story means that the whole narrative has bits to it, ups and downs, highs and lows.  It doesn’t begin and end in a single chapter or reach its conclusion in a single episode.

Your bicycle has wheels.  When you run your finger along the end of them you come back to your starting point.  Joseph stands blessed amongst his brothers at the beginning of the story (Genesis 37) in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, and he will stand blessed in the midst of those same brothers at the end of the story (Genesis 45).  Between these two points many events have taken place – many of them points of utter collapse and desolation.  If Joseph prayed to God to be protected by him -

·        So that his brothers might not throw him in to a pit and tell his father Jacob that he had been savaged by a wild beast and killed;
·        So that he might not be sold to a band of wandering Midianites;
·        So that he might not be resold as a slave by them to the Ishmaelites;
·        That he might be protected from the wandering eye of his master Potiphar’s wife, and;
·        So that he would not be cast into prison.

- the answer from God would have appeared to him as an unequivocal “No”.   Let that sink in for a moment. 

Do you have a sense of your own vocation, and of the fact that God loves you and that nothing transpires outside of his will and care?    Joseph did.  God gave him dreams.  He knows that God has a use for him and yet, when he prays to God for what seems like the most basic matters of freedom from peril, even these are denied.

Herein is the difference between a cycle and a simple story.  You need to wait until the end.  You will not see the sense of things until the circle is complete.   The episodes by which you judge yourself, by which you judge God’s faithfulness – this or that failure or success, this or that child’s misadventure or your failure in relationships or ventures – no matter how it feels in the moment – needs to be seen in the light of the story which God is telling over decades.  Be faithful enough to actively wait it out – patient enough (with yourself and with God) to see things to their yet-unknown conclusion.

Friday, 14 July 2017

What do you intend to do about it?

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 – Year A
Matthew 13:1-9,  18-23               

The old archdeacon I was apprenticed to in the early 80’s was critical of sermons preached by students and young clergy.   Too few of them, he complained, ended with a clear task that men and women could get up from their pew and immediately do afterwards.  Folks, he said, needed to hear an instruction – some practical ending to what would otherwise be an overlong and rambling sermon.  Get up.  Do this.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching from a boat a short distance from shore.  He tells a story which we all know well, about the sower who went out to sow his seed in the field.  Some of it landed on stony ground and withered away, some landed amongst thorns and the young plants were smothered by the weeds and some seed landed on good ground where it eventually grew and bore an enormous harvest. 

Pay attention, says Jesus.  And that, really, is the only command.

Sunday school or Lunch Bunch teachers amongst you may correct me but the children’s lesson on this generally has an implied command in it: “So go and be good ground”.  If you read carefully though, especially the intervening part between the parable and explanation which the lectionary left out of our Sunday reading (Matthew 13:10-17), Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that people change the sort of ground they are.   He wants to find good ground.  He wants to find those who will listen and accept and seems willing to leave to one side those who will not.  It seems harsh but there is, in fact, no Get up or Do this anywhere in the parable.  

It is perfectly okay for you to be bothered by this.  You wouldn’t be the first.

It’s precisely this anger that the congregation in Nazareth feels when they hear from Jesus that God has always presented his promise to whomever was willing to accept it and run with it, even if they prove not to be you who are sitting here in the synagogue at Nazareth – even if you end up being left on the side-lines (Lk 4:25-27).  

It’s what the Pharisees and the religious leadership, with steadily rising anger, heard him saying as well – that the publicans and the harlots were getting into the Kingdom before them (Matt 21:31), and that God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if he wanted to (Matt 3:9).  

It’s what Nicodemus heard Jesus saying about the wind of the Spirit “blow(ing) where it will” (John 3:8).

The Church remembered the parable of the Sower—this parable-without-a-command.  The reason it’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke is that the Church is here being given an instruction to go forth and present the Gospel to those who will listen.  It points the Church out beyond those for whom the promise of salvation is one of a number of lifestyle options, or a bit of family or national inheritance, to those for whom it will become very life and very hope. 

The anger of the Nazareth synagogue, at the stark reminder that Good News is for those who will receive it, leads them to strike out against Jesus.   That same starkness, on the other hand, which Nicodemus perceives about the very same content, leads him to show his hand and enquire of Jesus - desperately even - in the dead of night. 

So yes – in the long run I suppose we have some choice to make about what we will do with the starkness of the parable and its sometimes frightening content.   

If this parable of Jesus angers you – 
if it frightens you – 
then you have indeed heard it.

Now what exactly do you intend to do about it?

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Sunday Sermon

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

I’m quite taken by the family’s blessing of Rebekah from the Genesis reading – the reading which Sheryl read to us this morning.

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads

A young person stands at the threshold of a life which is rich and open.  There’s something appealing here – I would like my life to be that rich and that open.  I regret the parts of it which may over time have become stunted or locked up.  Lucky Rebekah.  She was young and she must have been in the right place at the right time.

There’s a moment in the first reading when Rebekah slips down the side of her camel, veils herself and prepares to meet the man she will spend her life with.  In our story, this is the happy result.  Go back a bit though.  It follows from an earlier moment after the servant explained how God had led him to Rebekah at the well when her family turns to the young woman and asks – so what do you think?  Will you go with this man?  I refer to these as “moments” by the way because they are powerful little self-contained units which communicate their contents well.  I can imagine the film scene.  I can imagine the painting which some Flemish artist might have painted.  If Caireen were up here telling you the story she would no doubt tell it with all the different voices – including the camel’s voice.

When we gather again in greater numbers at the beginning of September, someone will ask you at coffee time:  So how was your holiday with your family?  

 It had its moments – might be the reply. 

Ah, you say, let me pour myself a coffee and you can tell me about it

We are not expecting to hear about a holiday that had its minutes, are we?  We don’t care that it lasted exactly one or two or three weeks, we are expecting to hear about a holiday which had its moments – we are more concerned about its contents – either good or bad – eventful – joyful – painful. 

We use the word moment and the word minute quite interchangeably.  Take a minute to think before you answer we say to people who are about to take an exam or testify in a court case.  We could have said take a moment to think because we never meant that they should count to sixty.    The first use of the word had nothing to do with time at all – it described a unit of force.  Archimedes used the term to describe the action of levers of various lengths upon their fulcrums.  We might use the word “torque” in its place.  That alternate current meaning of the word moment should have something to do with forces of various kinds – the force necessary to overcome inertia, electrical energy or somesuch.   And even if you’re not an engineer we still use the word Momentum and the adjective Momentous which give us some sense of the difference between a minute and a moment.

And because I’m old and boring I’m going to further illustrate by relating to you a minute of my childhood.

I am ten years old and walking to school.  I walk down the path from our house and turn right on Transit Road.  I carry on to the first stop sign where I intend to turn left.  If I’m walking at my normal rate it takes me just more than a minute to reach that stop sign.    

Let me tell you about a moment from my childhood.

I am ten years old and going to school in Victoria B.C. from my house which is 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.   I walk out the front door and down the path to the street into fog as thick as pea soup.  The foghorn on Trial Island – just off shore - is sounding its deep two-note blast.  Somebody on our street is burning oak leaves and the air is rich with the smell.  It’s also low tide and mingled in with the smell of the burning leaves is the smell of the seaweed rotting on the beach. The short trip to the first stop sign takes a little longer than a minute because I keep stopping to listen to the sounds and smell the air.  That’s a moment.   You could write a poem about it, it has a shape, it has substance.  Three unrelated worlds weave together into a fabric.  The burning leaves and the smelly beach have nothing to do with the fog or with each other, the foghorn has nothing to do with a small boy’s trip to school but the reason small boys are so often late for school and don’t get the gold star on the chart is that they stop to look at stuff along the way – at the way worlds which are them and worlds which are not them weave together at their intersection into a moment.

Being small one tends to be hit by moments – they happen to you – small people and adults who retain their sense of wonder even in their riper years – are struck by their moments.  They have little authorship over them.  They are lucky to have them. 

Let’s nail this down.  Are you one of those who would like to be fruitful and are not – to be myriads and are not – who would love to rediscover the openness, the beauty and the complexity of life and are not there today.   Doesn’t it seem a little bit cruel simply to say you should stand around until you are struck by something.    That’s no gift.  It would be a bit like saying that on behalf of the Anglican tradition we sincerely hope your lucky number comes up. 

I am compelled tell you another story.

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence.  There must, surely, have been a bit of a pause - an awkward moment.   

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters presumably were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman – not as an accident or a happy exception or blind luck - but as the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family, they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which simply are or which “must be” (either by God’s command or by Abraham’s will) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy – you see - goes into the equation from two sides.  

The question is asked.  The answer is “yes”.  The door to a world opens. 

I hope you’ll give some thought to where you are right now.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but you may have some sadness at the thought that you will never see an open door in front of you, or a new horizon, or be better and bigger than you are now.  Is any of this remotely important to you?  Does it hit a nerve with anyone?  Are you disappointed that you may never see the moment when you slip down the side of your camel into blessing or get from where you are now to that fruitful and hopeful place? 

Our key story this morning concerns much more than lucky cards or lucky stars.  Her moment is as much about the word “yes” issuing from Rebekah’s lips as it was about Abraham’s servant having discerned that she was the one.   Our engagement allows and even creates moments.  The weaving together of worlds happens because we want it and because we do it.  By our affirmation, by way of our curiosity and because of our willingness - by the word “yes” which we utter.  Few of us stand on ground so sloped in the right downward direction that entry and discovery are something that we merely fall into by the power of gravity or the weight of events.  Nor are our decisions ever so distilled in pure forms, apart from the ordinary particularity of our lives and families, that the choice is merely obvious. 

Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures ever found in fields by nameless characters in Jesus’ parables, and - yes - the very thing which you – men and women, boys and girls - want or need - these are to be found by seekers.  

Will you go with this man?  Will you engage with this community?  There is something you can do.  You’ll do it if you want it enough.  It requires engagement and risk - undertaking tasks which extend beyond your pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is proven to be safe. For that matter, even beyond the bounds of what is generally considered polite conversation.