God, tragedy, and second chances

Scripture: Luke 13: 1-9; 1 Corinthians 10: 1-13

Today’s Gospel links the concepts of God, tragedy, and second chances.   Jesus commented on what look like a couple of local news items. I’ll focus on the second one, because it is more relevant to today’s world.

A tower had fallen down, killing eighteen people. Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you think that the victims were worse sinners than other people living in Jerusalem?” He answered, “Of course not.” I would like to imagine him adding that it was the luck of the draw.

We have seen numerous tragedies in the news recently. A building collapsed in Lagos, Nigeria; it crushed innocent schoolchildren. There was a plane crash in Ethiopia; a shooting in New Zealand. We inevitably ask questions like, “Why did God let that happen?” Or, “Why did some people at the Al Noor mosque die and others survive?” “Where was God in the midst of those tragedies?”

We ask these questions to try to make sense of the world

Jesus’s questioners thought that God must have picked out the people who died in the tower collapse because they had sinned. We met this problem last fall when the lectionary included the Book of Job.  The Book of Job addresses why righteous people are just as likely to suffer as unrighteous ones. Thus, in the mosque shooting a week ago, God did not select some of the worshippers to die, and save others.

In reality, the questions posed above are the wrong questions to ask.  They do not move us forward out of the tragic event that happened.  Perhaps a better approach is to say, “Something tragic happened in my life.  I can’t make it ‘un-happen’. Now what am I going to do about it to make my life move forward?”

Two statements about God’s role in the world

First, God is all-powerful and responsible for everything that happens in the world.  We use that idea in prayers that begin, “Almighty God …” That version of God would be utterly in charge. The downside would be that we would have no free will whatsoever. God would wind us up like the clockwork toys that were common when I was young – before everything was electronic!  In such a world, God would ensure that buildings and planes never had flaws. People either never had murderous intentions and actions, or God punished them there and then for what they had done.

Second, God rewards the righteous and punishes the unrighteous. Later Biblical writers wrestled with this problem. Besides the Book of Job, many psalms lament the writer’s unhappiness and ask why God does not set wrongs to rights. These writers typically concluded that it is up the God, not us,  to decide who gets punished, and when and where.

But in today’s Gospel, Jesus comes up with an even more unsettling observation – some things just happen by chance. And that is just as true of good luck as of bad luck. Two flights involving 737Max8 aircraft have crashed; most didn’t. You were unlucky if you travelled on the former, but lucky if you travelled on the latter. In last week’s mosque attack, it was random that some people died and some didn’t. It’s an uncomfortable thought. We can neither blame  God nor thank God for killing or saving a particular individual.

Why should we believe in God if tragedies just happen by chance?

Again, we have been here before. Theodicy is the word that we use to explain why we should believe in God even in the face of disaster.  The writer of Psalm 23 assures us that God rejoices with us in good times, and comforts us when we must walk through life’s dark valleys. God does not offer insurance policies that nothing bad will happen to the faithful, even in the face of evil and unfairness.

Perhaps in a future Judgement Day God will give everyone the rewards and punishments they deserve for their actions. But we cannot know the answer in this life.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus deflected the question about fault. He simply said that we must repent for our sins if we are to attain the eternal life that he promises.

God of the second chance

The second part of the reading links to the first. Jesus had just told the disciples to repent of their misdeeds.  Now he told them a parable about second chances. He used a farming or gardening metaphor that everyone could relate to. A man had a fig tree that didn’t produce any fruit. He told his gardener, “This tree is wasting space. We should cut it down.” The gardener replied, “Let me give it another chance. I’ll give it a good dressing of manure. If it doesn’t have fruit next year, that’s when I will cut it down.”

Here we have the image of God as a gardener. It’s the same image as in the Creation story of the Garden of Eden.

Scripture offers us many metaphors for God – Father, Mother hen, Rock, Shepherd, Judge, and (here) Gardener. Today’s gardener is the opposite of the judgemental God of Exodus who promises to “visit the father’s sins on the children of the third and the fourth generation …” No second chances from that God!

The gardener gives the fig tree a second chance. That’s also different from the recent tendency for lawmakers to make judges hand down mandatory minimum sentences. Ex-convicts rarely get second chances because employers won’t hire them. Yet almost all parents are like the gardener of the fig tree. We forgive our children’s mistakes over and over again.

The parable of the fig tree is at the heart of how Anglicans understand God

In the Calvinist theology of predestination, the gardener decided ahead of time which fig trees would be fruitful, and which should be cut down. But our Anglican understanding is that we are given second, third, fourth, and more chances. Every week, our liturgy contains a Confession and Absolution. This is not to see ourselves as incorrigibly sinful. However, we do not score a goal every time we have the puck, or hit a home run for every at-bat.  Absolution is God’s forgiveness of our mistakes.  It is like God putting manure around the fig tree, and saying, “Maybe next week you’ll do better.” I believe that Confession and Absolution are meant to encourage us, not make us feel horrible and unworthy.

Heaven, hell, and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

Last Saturday’s Globe & Mail carried an article about the reality of the Devil and Hell. I just want to comment about “going to Heaven” versus “going to Hell”. This either/or distinction is a problem for me. I don’t think that many people are so irredeemably evil that they must suffer torment for ever. Scripture and Church doctrine tell us that we “get to heaven” through belief in Jesus Christ and God’s grace.  But I also wonder how many of us really deserve heavenly bliss for ever.  I  have to put another “Don’t know” on this one, like I did about Judgement Day. I won’t find out the answer until I die and leave this world.

In our reading from first Corinthians, Paul seems to disagree with what Jesus says in today’s Gospel.  Paul referred to the Israelites’ forty years in the wilderness. He explained that many of them did not survive the journey because they complained and lacked faith. That looks to me like “no second chances.”  Paul then proposed – simplistically in my opinion – that God never tests anyone beyond their strength. That must be cold comfort to people who suffer mental breakdowns because of the stresses in their lives – or to the loved ones of people whose burdens were so overwhelming that they took their own lives.

A hopeful summary: God, tragedy, and second chances

In Jesus’ parable, the gardener gives the fig tree manure, and it lives on for another season.   I hope that the fig tree had a good crop the next year, so that it didn’t get cut down. I also hope that the same thing applies to our parish!

Entitlement through social status

Luke 7: 36-50; Genesis 15: 1-12; 17-18

Entitlement: the theme of today’s readings

In today’s Gospel, a Pharisee with a well-developed sense of entitlement invited Jesus to dinner. A woman from the city was also there, but she wasn’t an invited guest. We don’t know who she was or how she got in. Luke identifies her as a sinner. Many writers have claimed that she was a prostitute, but we don’t know that. She bathed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and then rubbed oil into them.

The Pharisee was scandalized. He was a respectable man, probably a leader of his local synagogue. Heaven knows what the neighbours or the rabbi might say. “Will they think that I’m running some kind of bawdy house? Doesn’t Jesus realize what kind of woman she is?”

Jesus’ parable about entitlement and forgiving sins

Jesus told a parable.  He compared  forgiving a large versus a small debt with forgiving a large versus a small sin.  “Look”, he said to Simon the host, “you invited me to dinner, but you did not greet me warmly (with a kiss) or wash my feet (a normal courtesy because everywhere was dusty). Yet this woman kissed and bathed my feet, and anointed them. Whatever sort of person she is or was, she has shown me love.  You did not even show me ordinary courtesy.” Then Jesus told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven; go in peace.”

Luke tells the story in an exaggerated way

The woman’s tears flow so freely that they wash Jesus’ feet; her hair is long enough to dry them. Luke contrasts the Pharisee, upright and proper, but lacking in human kindness, with the woman, a sinner, the lowest of the low, who showed love.  And she showed more hospitality to Jesus than Simon the Pharisee, who was the host!

Entitlement today

I began by saying that the story spoke to me about entitlement. The Pharisee thought that his position entitled him to sneer at the woman – a mere low-life. The human condition seems to be hard-wired to entitlement. Fans of Downton Abbey can’t help but notice how Lord Grantham and his family treat the servants with entitlement; the servants exist simply for the comfort and convenience of the family.

In real life, the #MeToo movement has called attention to powerful men (they are usually men) who believe that their position entitles them to prey on subservient women. Just this week the Australian Cardinal Archbishop George Pell got six years in prison for child abuse – another person of high rank with an out-sized sense of entitlement.

We should not be smug

It’s all too easy for us to feel superior – and even an entitlement to feel that way – about people who are different from, or less fortunate, than ourselves. I have commented before that the expression ‘Check your white privilege’ is ugly and deliberately offensive. But it has an underlying truth that we are privileged in many ways.

We have privilege by birth, which we can do nothing about, but which was completely unmerited.  Most of us have nice homes, jobs, or pensions. We may well have worked hard all our lives, but we had luck along the way.  We have privilege because we live in Canada – think of the comments Donald Trump has made about African countries.  Or because we are Christian, if we think that Christianity and our sacred Scriptures make us superior to people who do not worship Jesus Christ.

If you forgive only little, you love only little

The New Testament has much to say about love: in John’s Gospel, Jesus gives the disciples a new commandment to love one another. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reminds us that love is kind and patient, not boastful, conceited or rude. But the point of our story today is that love can be found in unlikely places, and shown by unlikely people.

There are three characters in the Gospel story – Jesus, the Pharisee, and the woman. The woman shows unexpected and extravagant love to Jesus. Jesus shows love to the woman by forgiving her the sins that we do not know about. They contrast with the Pharisee, who cannot show love. His sense of entitlement is the source of his hardness of heart.

The hymn My song is love unknown has the line, ‘love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be.’ Jesus showed love to the sinful woman, an outsider, almost a definition of ‘loveless’. She became lovely herself by showing extravagant love to Jesus.

A connection between entitlement and today’s reading from Genesis

Abram (who will later be called Abraham) laments that he and Sarai are childless. It’s a disaster for them.  Abram is a wealthy farmer. It gnaws at him emotionally that without children, his death will erase his name and lineage from the history of Israel. Everything that he worked for – all his lands, his flocks and herds – will not go to a descendant. Eliezer, his household steward and distant relative, will inherit them instead.

I found it significant that Abram doesn’t seem to care about children for their own sake.  He’s mainly interested in his legacy. Abram displays entitlement when he says, “O Lord, what will you give me …?”

Infertility causes  sadness and loss for modern-day Ontarians, just as it did for Abram and Sarai three thousand years ago. That is why couples who are infertile petitioned the provincial government so hard to provide OHIP funding for in vitro fertilization. It raises the question of whether everyone has an entitlement to have children.

However, the story of Abram and Sarai made me think about a different kind of barrenness. The past few years have been barren times for our so-called main-line Protestant churches with continuing declines in membership.

Abram and Sarai looked into a future where they saw their lineage wiped out.  Many parishes, including St. George’s, stare into a similar future; a lineage stretching back through the generations might come to an end. One challenge is to ask how to make St. George’s healthy and fruitful in an environment where many parishes will disappear. Another is to realize that we have no entitlement to continue for ever,

The question is, “Is there anything we can do?”

God  rescued Abram and Sarai from childlessness. Abram had taken action in the way that was appropriate to his time and his culture – he made a sacrifice of animals. In return, God made a covenant with him.

What about parishes? What action must we take? Part of the answer is what is often called visioning – trying to imagine our parish five years or more down the road. But there is a catch. A vision sets goals but does not tell us how to reach them.  A vision is like a concept car at the Detroit Auto Show.  By definition, concept cars are different from the models already in production.  Their engineering drawings incorporate new ideas and new technologies. But the concept remains just a dream unless the new technologies are practical.

What we are doing

Our Corporation has put some possible ideas for the future to Bishop Susan for consideration. We hope that some of these new ideas will  be practical. Then, like Abram, we have to trust in God that everything will work out all right. But that will need hard work, rather than relying on entitlement.

In the 1940s, Archbishop Temple famously said that the Christian Church is an organization that exists principally for the benefit of those who are not – or not yet – its members.  Any parish that feels a sense of entitlement is nothing more than a comfortable country club.

It’s time to say goodbye to Original Sin

Scripture: Genesis Chapters 2-3; Matthew 6: 5-15

Each year,  we begin the season of Lent with prayers that call us to, “observe a holy Lent by self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving …”  We also read Psalm 51.  Together they make Lent begin  with a very gloomy feel. A few weeks ago,  Todd Townshend was the speaker at our Clergy Day.  Even in Lent, he said, clergy should proclaim the good news of the Gospel.  So this week I want to set aside  gloom, and proclaim Good News by rejecting Original Sin.

This Sunday, Lent 1, we usually read about Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. However, we already studied that passage right after Jesus’ baptism.  His time alone prepared Jesus for his public ministry.  Instead, I used Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reading. I combined it with the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [Genesis Chapter 3]. That reading does not appear at all in the regular cycle of Scripture readings.  This is surprising, given the enormous influence of Original Sin on Christian thought and doctrine (Church teaching).

The Fall of Adam and Eve

God told the mythical first people that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden, except from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God.  They ate the forbidden fruit, so God banished them from the garden for ever. The doctrine of Original Sin is that Adam’s disobedience to God made all his descendants sinful. This doctrine has made countless generations of people consider themselves unworthy and incorrigibly sinful.  That is the opposite of ‘very good’ that God declared in the other (first) Creation story [Genesis 1:31].

Original Sin and Paul’s theology of justification

Original Sin comes from St. Paul, not the Gospels. Paul took literally the story that Adam is everyone’s ancestor.  He struggled to understand the meaning and purpose of Christ’s death. One man (Adam), Paul wrote, brought sin into the world.  Another man’s (Christ’s) obedience to God made possible justification for all [Romans 5: 12 and 18-19]. Paul was previously a Pharisee.  That’s why he used the legalistic term justification. That word means that God can mercifully set aside the punishment that our sins deserve — but only if we have faith in Jesus Christ [Romans 3: 21-25].

Augustine, concupiscence, and original guilt

In the 5th century CE, St. Augustine extended Paul’s theology.  He used the word concupiscence, which means that humanity has an ardent desire to sin.  Augustine linked our desire to sin with sexual desire. A faulty understanding of human reproduction led him to conclude that all Adam’s descendants are born ‘infected’ by sin. Original Sin is thus essentially a sexually transmitted disease.

Augustine also introduced the concept of inherited guilt.  We are all eternally damned from birth unless and until we become justified through faith in Jesus Christ.

Original Sin is not part of Jesus’ teaching, nor of his own religion, Judaism. In Judaism, reconciliation with God is always possible through repentance, which literally means ‘turning your life around’. Judaism sees infants as born innocent because they cannot understand right and wrong. That was irrelevant to Augustine.

Protestant interpretation of Original Sin

Original Sin ,as understood by Augustine, is a doctrine that we find only in Western Christianity.  Protestant churches embrace its most extreme form. For example, Martin Luther agreed with Augustine, as we see in these words from the Augsburg Confession, Article II: “… this inborn sickness and hereditary sin … condemns to the eternal wrath of God all those who are not born again through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”

Hard-line Protestant thinkers went further. John Calvin termed our inherently sinful nature as ‘total depravity’.  This separates us from God so completely that we cannot possibly reconcile with God through our own efforts. I need to note that Original Sin remains an official doctrine of the Anglican Church of Canada (Book of Common Prayer, 1962, p. 702; Article of Religion IX).

Pelagius’ rebuttal of Original Sin

Augustine’s perspective has reigned supreme in western Christianity for 1500 years.  But in his own day it was the subject of vigorous debate. His best-known opponent was the Welsh monk Pelagius.  His writings on sin and forgiveness blend Jewish theology with Paul’s. ‘By granting us the wonderful gift of freedom, God gave us the capacity to do evil as well as good. Indeed, we would not be free unless God had given us this ability’ [Letters of Pelagius, trans. Robert van der Weyer, Little Giddings Books, 1995, p. 6].  Pelagius makes clear that in the Genesis story, God gave Adam (and us) the freedom to choose to disobey. We had to learn the difference between right and wrong for ourselves. Banishment from the garden symbolizes that doing wrong can have unfortunate consequences.

Augustine wrote that Pelagius claimed that people do not need God’s grace for forgiveness.  However, Pelagius was clear about this. ‘God forgives all sins. His grace can discharge you from all the wrongs you have committed … Yet in his mercy God will set aside all punishment’ [ibid., p. 39].

Augustine was a prominent bishop.  Pelagius was just a monk.  So the Church sided with Augustine and declared Pelagius heretical. We got lumbered with Original Sin because of Church politics!

Original Sin negates the Good News of the Gospels

The Good News is that the Gospel calls us to love one another.  That is the New Commandment that Jesus gave his disciples [John 15: 12]. We are imperfect creatures, so we will not always achieve that goal. We can be petty or mean-spirited, instead of loving and respectful. Sometimes we discriminate against other people unfairly.

But the Gospel is clear.  The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13) tells us that God  will forgive our own sins.  It also reminds us to pray for the grace to forgive other people who hurt us.  Forgiveness is the point of the message of John the Baptist, concerning repentance.  Turn your life around and God will forgive you [Mark 1: 4].

Both Paul and Pelagius argued that only God can forgive sins. But Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the compilers of the Book of Common Prayer were wrong. They burdened humanity with the curse that it is impossible to escape being born into the unworthiness and guilt of Original Sin. I believe that it’s time that our Church said goodbye to this pernicious teaching.

The Gospel Jesus preached Good News. Original Sin is not a doctrine of good news. The Church has foisted it on ordinary people for 1600 years. It’s time to let it go.

Jesus’s “plain sayings”: conventional wisdom or the heart of the Christian message?

Scripture: Luke 6: 39-49

Are the sayings in this Scripture passage just disconnected pieces of conventional wisdom?

This is the first time since my ordination that we have had enough Sundays of Epiphany to read all three sections of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain.  We read the blessings and woes two weeks ago. Last week and this, we have several sayings of Jesus. My Bible’s section headings identify last week’s sayings as ‘Love for enemies’ and ‘Judging others’.  This week we have a continuation of ‘Judging others’ along with ‘A Tree and its fruits’ and ‘Two foundations’. At first glance, these four sets of sayings look almost like a ragbag — disconnected pieces of conventional wisdom.   “Treat others as you want them to treat you”. “If you won’t forgive others they are unlikely to forgive you.” Sure, what else do you expect?

Because I’ve had to wrestle with this whole section of Luke’s Gospel, I came to see more clearly that this apparent ragbag of conventional wisdom actually lies at the heart of the Christian message — and more than that, of the Christian way of life.  They are deceptively simple ideas. Today, I want to pick out and comment on specific examples of those pieces of conventional wisdom (but not in the order we read them).

Saying and doing; secure and shaky foundations

The last shall be first, as Jesus often said.  In the final section (Two foundations) Jesus links two ideas together.  (1) Saying versus doing. (2) Houses built on a good foundations versus shaky foundations.  The second one is obvious. The house built on a secure foundation stands up to winds (even the ones like last weekend) and floods; the one built on sand (as Matthew told the story) gets swept away.

 To digress, as I am found of doing, I have always been interested in the history of WWII. The historian Gerald Reitlinger borrowed from the Gospel the title of his history of Hitler’s Russian campaign in 1941: The House built on Sand.  Expecting a quick victory from a surprise attack, Hitler’s army was insufficiently equipped and provisioned to withstand the Russian winter.

Actions don’t speak louder than words 

Jesus, to note it again, linked the metaphor of the buildings with good and poor foundations to what people say and what they do.  People often say things like, ‘It’s not what you say that matters, but what you do,’ or ‘Actions speak louder than words.’

Jesus took exactly the opposite tack.  Our words tell others what kinds of people we are. As Christians — that is, disciples of Jesus — we must expect to model Christian behaviour and values in a world that behaves very differently.

We live in an age of fake news, outright lies, and coarseness of discourse. In his homily last Sunday evening at our retreat, Bishop Michael Pryse recalled the trucker in Ottawa a few days before who had said that anyone who did not agree with pipelines should be run over.  That is typical of the level of discourse in North America today.  Maybe that trucker believes himself to be a kind and generous person.  But his words speak the opposite. They are the foundations of what he is truly like.

It’s easy to fall back into old bad habits

Whenever we say something or tell a joke that is derogatory or belittling about someone of a different group, we fail to model Christ; in fact, we model something utterly different.   It has taken me a long time to realize this, and even now I fall back into bad habits all too easily.  If the building of our discipleship is built on poor foundations it will get swept away in the hurly-burly of life.  But at least I now realize that words speak equally as loudly as actions, and sometimes even louder. Words lead to actions.  That is why I don’t think that Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council, was exaggerating when he feared that someone might get shot if the words spoken in the coming federal election campaign are excessively negative.

 The image of God as a rock

There’s something else in that piece of conventional wisdom that we might not notice at first glance.  I thought about why Jesus used the metaphor of foundations. Matthew tells the story as a man who built on a rock. There’s significance in that. Jesus was talking to Jewish people, whose hymn book was the psalms. With just a quick scan, I found that at least ten psalms refer to God as ‘my rock’.  These ten psalms, and others, speak of God as a stronghold or a fortress to keep me safe. Think of Martin Luther’s famous hymn, A safe stronghold our God is still, from Psalm 46.  Jesus didn’t choose that analogy by accident, I’m sure.  Good foundation or rock = God = one who hears Jesus’s words and acts on them appropriately.

There are many aspects of our lives that need good foundations.   Friendships, marriages, upbringing, faith … there will be times when the storms come, and we have to trust that those buildings were made with strong foundations.  Of course, preachers like to dwell on the foundations of our Christian faith. We try to give our children good foundations for living their lives. For all the broken people we meet, there is some aspect of their being whose foundations were ricketty.  This is much more than conventional wisdom. What Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel is that each of us models good behaviour by both words and actions for those in our care — and I define ‘those in our care’ very broadly.

 Specks (motes), logs, and vision problems

The other saying that I want to comment on is the one about specks, logs, and eyes.  Very obviously, Jesus exaggerated on purpose. I’m sure that we have all heard sermons that see this as mere conventional wisdom, and say, “Look at your own faults and correct them first, before you start criticizing the faults of other people.”  However, Jesus is pretty tough on us. He calls us hypocrites, when we focus on the faults of other people and ignore our own. He says that we are only pretending to be Christians. The word hypocrite comes from a Greek word (remember, the New Testament was written in Greek) hypokrites, meaning a stage actor, someone who literally pretends to be someone else.

But I got a different perspective from something by Fred Craddock that I read this week.  Craddock identified this saying as evidence of moral superiority combined with a lack of self-critical ability.  Even people who are sincere and who act with good motivation can fall into this trap. “Let me help you remove that speck from your eye” is not always altruistic.  It can be a way of hiding one’s faults from oneself by always keeping the focus on other people. I had not really thought much about that aspect of the equation before.  Something to think about more deeply. As Craddock wrote, “Our speech reveals who we are, and whether the Holy Spirit is present” [when we speak].

What is God doing? Today? in my life? in our congregation?

I recently heard someone say that theology can be thought of as, ‘What is God doing?’  This week, what God did was force me to think about how these apparently trite pieces of conventional wisdom are relevant to my own life.  That led me to ask these two follow up questions. What is God doing at the moment in our congregation? What is God doing at the moment in each of your individual lives?

As I thought about how to tie this homily back to the idea of God as our rock, a verse from last week’s psalm came to my mind.  “Delight thou in the Lord and he shall give thee thy heart’s desires.” But no matter how much you delight in the Lord, that probably doesn’t mean that you will win one of the cars next time you “Roll up the rim” at Tim Horton’s.

 

God comes to us in the ordinary

Scripture: Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 37: 1-12; Luke 6: 27-38

Today’s Gospel follows on from last week, when the Blessings and Woes showed that life will throw us bad times along with good times.  Now, Luke continues sayings of Jesus from his ‘Sermon on the Plain’. We should treat other people, not only our friends, as we want them to treat us.  Here, Jesus reminds us that God comes to us in the ordinary events of our lives.

Jeremiah at the potter’s studio

Today’s Scriptures offer various contrasting viewpoints. We begin with the prophet Jeremiah’s visit to potter’s studio. The potter’s craft has scarcely changed in the past 3000 years. Jeremiah watched the potter throw a lump of wet clay onto his wheel to make a jar, but the result was not perfect. So the potter scrunched the clay up and threw it on the wheel again, until he was satisfied with the result. To Jeremiah, it seemed that the Word of the Lord was commenting on what the potter was doing. The jar that the potter was making was no good. He could destroy it and make something new and better with the clay. God could be dissatisfied with Israel in just the same way.

The context was that the leaders of Judean society had become corrupt. Much of Jeremiah’s book tells how Jeremiah preached that Israel must turn away from evil ways. Israel’s leaders needed to shape up. Otherwise, he said, it was inevitable that God would punish them.  Jeremiah did not believe that disaster was inevitable. In his vision, God could behave like the potter, and rework Israel like the potter’s clay into something better.  The passage ends, ‘Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter devising a plan against you. So turn away from your evil way; amend your way of life.’

Jeremiah lived in tumultuous times

Judah, the part of Israel based on Jerusalem as its capital, was a tiny country surrounded by powerful neighbours – Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Babylon was the rising power; Assyria was declining; King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had recently defeated Egypt militarily.  Judah was the meat in the sandwich.  The situation was similar to that of Canada, a small nation caught between the policies of China and the USA in the context of Huawei’s telecoms equipment and the extradition case against Meng Wanzhou.

Is there divine punishment, or do bad deeds catch up with you?

Jeremiah’s vision in the potter’s studio happened in this way: ‘Can I [God] not do to the House of Israel what the potter has done to the clay?’  Ancient Israel was a theocracy.  Its leaders believed that God would reward or punish Israel very explicitly for the nation’s good or bad behaviour. Israel was behaving like an imperfect pot. The leaders had two choices – to continue as poor work, or remake themselves into something better. The passage ends, ‘Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter devising a plan against you. So turn away from your evil way; amend your way of life.’ Of course, that did not happen. Nothing changed in Israel. Babylon defeated Judea militarily, and the Jewish leadership went into exile in Babylon.

Many modern Canadian Christians don’t say that God interferes so directly in human affairs. But we can think about Jeremiah’s doom-laden prophesies another way: actions have consequences. Jeremiah’s equation was, “If you kings of Israel rule corruptly, God will punish you.” I would put it slightly differently, in the words the prophet Micah told his people. They should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God. If we don’t behave properly, the consequences will eventually catch up with us. We are seeing exactly this play out in the SNC-Lavalin scandal.  For years, there have been allegations that the  company gained contracts through bribery and corruption. Jeremiah’s explanation would be divine retribution for ungodly behaviour. We would probably say that their bad behaviour had caught up with them. Same idea, different words.

The tie-in between the Jeremiah story and Psalm 37

The psalm begins with these words. “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away.”  Instead, “Put your trust in the Lord and do good … who will give you your heart’s desire.”

Perhaps the psalmist was a little blasé. It is very hard not to fret (be angry) about other peoples’ wrongdoing when it puts you at a disadvantage. It can take an awfully long time before the evildoers eventually get cut down like the grass. The competitors of SNC-Lavalin must have really gnashed their teeth at the idea that their rival was getting contracts illegitimately. The psalmist was trying, it seems, to pour soothing ointment into the wounds of those unjustly treated. “In a little while the wicked shall be no more; you shall search out their place, but they will not be there.  But the lowly shall possess the land; they will delight in abundance of peace.”

Psalm 37 also comments on today’s Gospel sayings of Jesus

Jesus tells us to do the difficult thing – to love our enemies, to treat them with respect. Above all, to treat them the way that we wish that they would treat us. That’s harder than what the psalmist recommends – hoping and waiting for our enemies to be cut down like the grass. In the same way, if we rush to judgement on other people, we can expect the same behaviour from them. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It all seems to be one of a piece. The Hebrew Scriptures are often keen on vengeance – an eye for an eye, etc. Jesus models something different for us: a compassionate God – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

God comes to us in the ordinary, but we often don’t notice

For me, a fascinating aspect of the story of Jeremiah and the potter’s clay was that Jeremiah found God speaking to him in very ordinary circumstances. A potter’s studio doesn’t seem like the obvious place to encounter God. Yet that is where Jeremiah had his vision. Many – perhaps most – of us, miss seeing God in life’s ordinary moments. We are too busy to notice.

A tiny example: a couple of Sundays ago, I saw 21 turkeys in the cemetery. That glimpse of beauty was for me a moment of ‘There’s God’s creation; isn’t that wonderful?’  That doesn’t mean that God put on that show especially for me. The ‘God-moment’ was that I took the time to notice what was there.  Yes indeed, God comes to us in the ordinary occasions and moments of life.

Brother Lawrence, a man of great wisdom

I have spoken before about my great admiration for the illiterate monk Brother Lawrence. He was a lay brother of the so-called Barefoot Carmelite order in Paris. Lawrence had the most menial jobs in his 17th century monastery, but he could recognize even tasks like scrubbing floors and peeling vegetables as God’s work. He was one of those unusual people who had great wisdom without the benefit of formal education.  He recognized that God comes to us in the ordinary activities of life.  An educated colleague wrote down many of his sayings and published them as a book with the title ‘The Practice of the Presence of God‘.

Most of our lives exist far from the executive suites of large engineering firms. We do not have the prophesying abilities of Jeremiah. But I believe that we can be open to God – and doing God’s work – in our everyday activities, like Brother Lawrence. It is holy work to cook the dinner, or to sweep the floors, for our families, so long as we view it that way.

Perhaps I can wrap up this rather rambling homily about Jesus, Jeremiah’s potter, SNC-Lavalin, Psalm 37, and Brother Lawrence into one package through the words of an old hymn, “Teach me my God and king, in all things thee to see, and what I do in anything to do it as for thee.”

What must we do to follow Jesus

Scripture: Luke 5: 1-11; Jeremiah 1: 4-10

Today’s Gospel raised the question for me: “What must we do to follow Jesus?” Luke describes the call of the first disciples differently from Matthew and Mark.

As Matthew and Mark describe the event, Jesus was walking along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, when he saw fishermen. He said to them, “Follow me.” Immediately they left their nets and followed Jesus.

One of the verses of the old hymn, Jesus calls us; o’er the tumult of our life’s wild restless sea, puts that version of the ‘call’ very well: As of old St. Andrew heard it by the Galilean lake; turned from home and toil and kindred, leaving all for his dear sake.

I have often asked myself why anyone would leave their job, their home, and their family just because someone called out, “Follow me.” In most sermons on this Scripture, the preacher points to the amazing faith of those first fishermen-disciples, then urges us to give our all to Christ, just like them.

Put out into the deeper water and let down your nets again

Luke tells the story differently.  Jesus was preaching to the crowd from Simon Peter’s boat, which was a little way off-shore. After Jesus finished speaking, he told Simon, “Put out into the deeper water and let down your nets again.”

The disciples-to-be had spent the night fishing, but they had no success. When they agreed to do what Jesus asked, they got a stupendous catch of fish. Simon Peter recognized that he had witnessed a miracle. That was why Peter, James, and John decided to follow Jesus. Though the Gospel story doesn’t explain what happened to the great catch of fish!

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke tells us why those first disciples left everything behind (not just the fish). They had witnessed a miracle. As we have seen all along so far in Luke’s Gospel, the author consistently presents Jesus as Messiah-like. Here is a man who clearly came from God. But it leaves us with the question, “Do I have to give up absolutely everything in order to be an authentic follower of Jesus?”

What must we do to follow Jesus?

This is a fundamental question for us, and for Christians everywhere. Certainly, some people have done so. Missionaries often travel to far off lands to spread the Gospel, leaving their homes and families, and ignoring privation and danger. Others have given up life or liberty for the sake of the Gospel – think of Oscar Romero, killed because he spoke out against a murderous regime in El Salvador. Last year, Amnesty International reported that four Iranian Christians received prison sentences totalling 45 years because they refused to renounce their Christian faith.

Some hard-liners quote these examples of great courage to say that we Canadians merely play at being Christians, because we do not give up everything to follow Jesus. But sometimes we might have to choose between our beliefs and family, or home, or career. If last Friday’s Globe & Mail story is correct, Jody Wilson-Raybould put her duty as Attorney-General over job security rather than interfere in the SNC-Lavalin corruption investigation https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-trudeaus-non-denial-denial-only-muddies-the-waters-in-the-snc/.

Fortunately, most Canadians do not have to make great sacrifices. We do not suffer persecution. We work at ordinary jobs, and act as ordinary parents, friends, and colleagues. Perhaps we are more like the group of women who supported Jesus and his first disciples as they travelled round Galilee. [Luke 8: 1-3]. They acted out their faith in a less spectacular way, according to the gifts that God had given them. Our own mundane activities pay for the upkeep of our church, and support our outreach mission, such as food donations for St. Matthew’s House https://www.stmatthewshouse.ca/donate-food/.

Jeremiah’s call to ministry

However, we never know when we might be called on to make a bigger and more risky contribution. That’s what happened to Jeremiah, in our other reading. His call to ministry is typical of ‘call’ stories in the Bible. When God calls someone for a particular task, their first reaction is to try and wriggle out of the invitation. Jeremiah had a vision in which God called him to be a prophet. His excuse is that he was only a boy and didn’t know what to say.

God didn’t accept that excuse. He told Jeremiah that he will put the right words into Jeremiah’s mouth, so get on and do what I tell you.

Jeremiah’s excuse seems a bit like our own and that of many churches like ours today, faced with small numbers, and difficulty attracting new disciples. Our attempts to make new disciples have been unsuccessful. Our numbers remain resolutely small. We feel like Jesus’ disciples, out fishing all night, working hard, but catching nothing. No-one ever said that it is easy to follow Christ.  What must we do to follow Jesus authentically?  God tells us, like Jeremiah, that he will put the right words in our mouths. After all, it’s part of our baptismal covenant – to proclaim the good news of Christ by word and example.

But what must we do to follow Jesus in Canada today?

But – and there is a ‘but’. St. George’s is not and cannot be just a comfortable club where we meet our friends each week. Our baptismal promises call on us to do things that are hard, even unnatural. For example, just how easy is it to respect the dignity of every human being? How easy is it not to discriminate? I don’t mean overt discrimination. Rather, I am thinking of the subtle ways in which we prefer to associated with people like ourselves rather than with people who are different. How many of us, for example, have a close friend – not just an acquaintance – who is (take your pick) gay? Aboriginal? Black? Living in social housing?

Care for God’s Creation in the face of plastics waste

Likewise, how easy is it to be truly caring of God’s Creation so that our descendants will enjoy the same natural wonders that we do? Michelle and I visited the exhibition Anthropocene at the Art Gallery of Ontario last fall. It was depressing to see the myriad ways in which human activity despoils large chunks of this wonderful planet.

Yet there are tiny glimmers of hope. For example, last month, Chemical and Engineering News carried an article about a waste initiative by the chemical industry to commit $1.5 billion over five years to recycle river-borne plastic waste. The new program will focus initially on the ten major river systems in Asia that – according to a 2017 study – contribute about 90% of all plastic waste reaching the oceans.

Some environmentalists claim that an anticipated 40% increase in plastic production by 2030 will overwhelm recycling efforts. It’s almost impossible for us not to be part of the problem. Think laundry detergent in one-trip plastic jugs; half a dozen screws or two light bulbs in blister packs. It is not so long ago that products were dispensed in refillable containers. We buy beer in reusable bottles. Why not have reusable containers for pop and bottled water?  There was another hopeful idea in the Globe & Mail this week [February 4, p. B5]. Next year, a so-far unidentified retail chain plans to introduce reusable containers as a pilot project in the Toronto area.

So what must we do to follow Jesus in our world today?

In all these aspects of our life as Christians, Jesus says, “Don’t give up when things don’t go well. Try again. Put out into the deeper water and let down your nets again.” Those words apply equally to those hard-to-keep baptismal promises, and to our disciple-making efforts. So let’s not give up. Try again. Put out into the deeper water and let down our nets again.

Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?

Scripture: Luke 4: 22-30; 1 Corinthians Chapter 13

The main takeaway from today’s Gospel reading is essentially,’Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?’ You may recall that Jesus had just read from the scroll in his local synagogue. He recognized that ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me‘ .  Everyone was impressed by the ‘gracious words that came from his mouth.’ Yet now they questioned his authority. ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ Joseph was a mere carpenter. Most scholars assume that the young Jesus worked in his father’s shop. That didn’t seem to qualify him as Messiah-material.  In other words, ‘Who does this guy think he is? He can’t be the Messiah. He’s just a carpenter’s son. We’ve known him all his life!’

Jesus’ neighbours went from love-in to anger

It went beyond, ‘Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?’ They added sarcastically, ‘We’ve heard that you’ve been doing miracles in Capernaum.  How about doing some here?’ At first, everyone spoke well about Jesus, but then they started criticizing. It’s an unfortunate trait of human nature.  It’s typical of the ‘tall poppy’ syndrome. ‘We know this guy Jesus.  He’s got a cheek to say, ‘Today the Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’’

The people of Nazareth were taken aback by Jesus’ proclamation. It felt to them as if I read the Gospel and then announced that I am the Messiah. They had to cut down the tall poppy. This Jesus guy had got a swollen head.

Then Jesus threw back this challenge, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own home town.” Things got so nasty that Jesus had to make a quick exit from the synagogue and leave town.

‘All spoke well of him’ and ‘Isn’t this  just the carpenter’s son?’: two reactions to the same person

When we elect a new political, business, or church leader, we expect them to fix everyone’s problems. Four years ago, the majority in Canada elected Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister.  He seemed like a breath of youthful fresh air after the somewhat dour Stephen Harper. No longer. Like every Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau has made decisions that not everyone agreed with. He bought an oil pipeline, wore the wrong clothes in India, and fired the ambassador to China. After four years, the bloom is off the rose.

The same thing happened to Jesus.  First, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Then, all too quickly, “Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?”

That jibe, ‘Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?’ must have really stung Jesus. It was a put-down of both Jesus himself and his family origin.

The Gospel Jesus wasn’t always easy to get along with

Jesus chided his neighbours by telling them that no prophet is accepted in his home town.  Then he quoted two Old Testament stories in a way that really got to them.  During a great famine in Israel, the prophet Elijah had saved a widow in modern day Lebanon from starvation.  Elijah’s successor Elisha had cured a Syrian army commander Namaan of his leprosy.  The Hebrew Scriptures present these stories as acts of compassion to outsiders by Elijah and Elisha.

 

 

 

 

The way that Jesus’ told it, it sounded as if the prophets had helped foreigners at the expense of Israelites suffering from hunger and leprosy.  That really angered the folks in Nazareth. The implication was, ‘If you won’t accept me as the Messiah, screw you. I’ll take my message to other people.’ The people in the synagogue were so angry that Jesus had to make a fast exit.  They were threatening to throw him off a cliff!

From then on, Jesus’ ministry took place beyond the synagogue

Jesus didn’t abandon Judaism, even though we never again meet him in an ‘official’ synagogue capacity.  He still visited the Jerusalem Temple for religious festivals like Passover.  But he preached and taught in the towns and villages of Galilee, far from Jerusalem.   He ministered to blind people, lepers, people with mental illnesses (then called demons), and prostitutes.  Others included a Samaritan woman and a poor widow with just two copper coins. These people were the ones spoken about in the Scripture that Jesus had read at Nazareth. 

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Isaiah and upon Jesus – to bring good news to the poor, to bring recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free.  Jesus proclaimed his ministry from the holy scrolls and then acted on it. He took his ministry to those outside the synagogue; they did not go there to meet him. In fact, Jesus consistently faced opposition from the Pharisees, who were the leaders of the synagogue movement.

Although Jesus was snippy with the folks in Nazareth, he spoke an important truth

Most people who need to hear a Gospel of hope, peace, joy and love are outside the church. Our own church community here at St. George’s is wonderful at providing help and comfort to our members who are in trouble. But Jesus tells us that our ministry also lies with people in the wider community.  Some people do not have a friend to talk to when a serious illness scares them. Others have lost their jobs and feel shame because they cannot support their families.  Yet other people are lonely because of broken relationships.

Paul’s wonderful exposition on love

There is a very different message in today’s other Scripture, St. Paul’s great essay on love, from First Corinthians.  Paul tells us that love is not arrogant or rude. Instead, it is patient and kind. But most of all, Paul insists that it means nothing if we act without love, even if we seem to be generous and compassionate people. How is that? we ask. I suspect that Paul meant that sometimes we practise outwardly altruistic behaviour, yet in reality have an ulterior motive. I would not be acting out of love if I gave very generously to charity just to let other people see what a great guy I am.  That would make me what Paul called a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal, no matter how generous I seemed. That’s why he wrote, ‘If I give away all my possessions but do not have love, I am nothing.’

Four kinds of love

We often hear this passage about love at weddings.  The bride and groom gaze rapturously at each other.  Romantic love is in the air.  However, the English word ‘love’ has to cover a whole lot of territory. Paul wrote in Greek, which has four different words for love. Besides eros (romance), there are philia (friendship) and storgé (familial love, as between parents and children). Finally, there is agapé (translated as compassion, kindness, or respect). This is almost always what love means in the Scriptures.  This is the baptismal promise we make when we assent to the question, “Will you respect the dignity of every human being?” Agapé is the hardest of the four types of love, because it is the most free of self-interest.  It is outward-looking, whereas eros, philia, and storgé all anticipate reciprocity.

Today’s Gospel passage shows a lack of agapé love

The people of the Nazareth synagogue lacked compassion towards Jesus. I’m sure it was hard to believe that the Messiah had appeared among them. Surely the Messiah would come from the priestly class. But ‘Isn’t this just the carpenter’s son?’ seems to be a rather demeaning reaction. Agapé love is not arrogant or rude.

But Luke doesn’t seem to portray Jesus any better. He could have left his response at ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their home town.” The way he talked about the widow that Elijah helped, or the soldier whose leprosy Elisha cured, seems unnecessarily provocative. It certainly did nothing to defuse an awkward situation.

Today’s Gospel seems to be an object lesson in how not to behave. But it also shows how easily we can fail to act with love and respect towards people we disagree with.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

Scripture: Luke 4: 14-21;  1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a

Jesus’ call to his ministry: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me

Jesus must have felt the sense of ‘call’ when he read today’s Scripture at the Nazareth synagogue. He had just returned from his ‘post-Baptism retreat’ in the wilderness. That experience had filled him with the power of the Holy Spirit [Luke 4: 14].  He had read these words from the prophet Isaiah [61: 1-2]. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … and recovery of sight to the blind. To set at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaim the acceptable day of the Lord.”When he finished reading, he said, “Today you have heard this Scripture fulfilled.”

Have you ever had the experience of feeling a call to change your life? I have had two such events in my own life. In high school, I had a revelation that I was more than ‘just interested’ in chemistry. Much later, I had a vivid dream that changed the direction of my life.  It led me to enrol in the divinity program at Trinity College, University of Toronto.

We are at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry

Jesus was reading from the sacred scroll at his home synagogue in Nazareth. Just as at St. George’s, I’m sure that unannounced visitors didn’t get to read Scripture.  Luke reminds us once again that Jesus was Jewish. He was a regular member at his local synagogue.

What the Spirit of the Lord seems to have meant to Jesus that day

Jesus must have felt that the Isaiah of the Hebrew Scriptures was speaking to him directly.  Like Isaiah long before him, he felt the Spirit of the Lord upon him. Isaiah’s words parallel those words of the prophet Micah [6:8]. “What does the Lord require of you? That you should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” The words of both these prophets represent an ongoing theme of the Hebrew Scriptures – Jesus’ own Bible. These concepts informed much of Jesus’ subsequent ministry. Jesus did indeed preach good news to the poor and the oppressed. Likewise, he restored sight to both the spiritually and physically blind.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me …” The one that God has anointed was the Messiah, so when Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was really saying, “Folks, I am the Messiah.” This reading fits with the season of Epiphany, because Jesus’ own words attest to his Messiahship.  Of course, he saw himself as the Jewish Messiah; the idea of Christianity was a long way in the future.

Both Mark and Luke understood God’s Kingdom, and Jesus’ Messiahship, as present events

Those words, “Today you have heard this Scripture fulfilled,” reminded me of Jesus’ first words in Mark’s Gospel, “The Kingdom of God has drawn near.” The idea that the Messiah would bring in God’s righteous rule very soon seems to look for perfection or utopia.  Many Christians look for God’s Kingdom in the same way. They expect to find God’s Kingdom in the afterlife; in heaven. No, says Jesus, it is coming “Today!”  We have not yet achieved perfection, but it’s what we have to deal with right now.

The social gospel

So Jesus’ saying, “Today you have heard Isaiah’s prophesy fulfilled,” is a challenge to us all. It isn’t a call to help the oppressed, the poor, or the spiritually blind at some convenient time in the future, when we get around to it. We must do so today, and with a passion for the task. That’s what it means to have the Spirit of the Lord upon us.  The people who give out sleeping bags to the homeless in our cities do so “today” whenever today is cold. There’s little point in collecting sleeping bags to distribute in July and August when the need is ‘Today’ in January and February.

Isaiah’s words “to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the oppressed free” are at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. They also complement the social gospel of Christianity. However, few of us are possessed – or blessed – with Jesus’ well-defined sense of mission. I suspect that most of us find the sense of mission to be much more ambiguous.  We have to wait for God to whisper in our ears how to help us to be the Christ figures that we profess.

Combining ‘head’ with ‘heart’

What’s more, today’s Scripture seems to be head-oriented rather than heart oriented. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me/God has anointed me/Today this Scripture was fulfilled.” You have to know your Old Testament theology to appreciate it. But in reality it is a call to action. It was for Jesus; it is for us. It’s like how the chorus of the hymn “Shine, Jesus shine” includes these words “Shine, Jesus shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit blaze, set our hearts on fire.” In other words, it packs an emotional punch.

Think about St. Paul. He never met the earthly Jesus, but his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus likewise packed an emotional punch. That encounter changed his life. It set his heart on fire — another way of saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him. From being just a tent-maker, he devoted the rest of his life to founding churches and writing letters to keep in touch with them.

The Spirit of the Lord inspires us to feed the hungry

I brought St. Paul into the argument because we also read today from his First Letter to the church in Corinth. He compared the parts of the human body to the Body of Christ. Most of us have heard that passage many times. However, I want to reflect on how it fits with the Gospel, and how it fits in with today’s other activity – blessing the food we collected for St. Matthew’s House food bank.

As I look at the food we have collected in recent months, I realize how much more there is than when I first came to the parish. Our hearts have been much more on fire lately. We have found a way to be the Body of Christ in this place, despite difficulties with our location. Last week, Paul told us that “Some are teachers, some are healers, etc., but the same Holy Spirit inspires us all.” St. Paul didn’t single out food collectors as one of the types of Spirit-led people in his church in Corinth. However, he might well have done so if he were writing to us at St. George’s. Last year, our small parish collected over two tons of food for St. Matthew’s House.

Jubilee: the ‘acceptable day of the Lord’

Isaiah had proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favour, the “acceptable day of the Lord,” when society would care for the poor and the oppressed. Ancient Judaism proclaimed every 50th year as a Jubilee year [Leviticus 25: 8-17]. The Jubilee reduced inequality through redistribution of wealth and land, and forgiveness of debts. That has a very contemporary ring, given the increasing inequality of our own society.

In a truly ‘acceptable day of the Lord’ we would not need food banks in Canada, because everyone would have enough food for their families. But the reality is that perfection – the acceptable day of the Lord – has not yet arrived. Yet, because we have made the effort to help the poor and the hungry, even in a small way, we too can say, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me …’

As with Jesus, God has chosen (or anointed) us for this particular ministry. As we bless our donation of food, we make real – again, in only a small way – Isaiah’s dream.  In our own sight, we are bringing good news to the poor. We have heard God’s call, and we are trying to respond – today, here in this place, because people are hungry now, ‘not in some heaven light years away’ as we sang last week. Hence, we are an arm or a leg or whatever part of the Body of Christ you’d like to imagine in southwestern Ontario.

Sacrifice means to make holy, just as to make holy is to be a sacrifice

Scripture: Luke 3: 1-22

As we meet Jesus at his baptism, I want to consider this as a sacrifice.  Sacrifice means to make holy.

Today we return to Luke’s account of the origins and life of Jesus. Personally, I have appreciated this season’s sequential readings through Luke’s Gospel more than, I think, I ever have before. They have allowed me to focus on the care that Luke when he built up the story. To tell the truth, last week’s Epiphany detour into Matthew’s Gospel was an intrusion for me. It interrupted Luke, while it failed to include Matthew’s poignant tale of the Holy Family’s time as refugees in Egypt. That will have to wait till next year, when we will read from Matthew.

How Luke edited Mark’s version of Mark’s version of today’s Scripture

Most scholars believe that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a template for his own narrative about the life and teachings of Jesus.  Typically, Luke added some details to add colour to Mark’s narrative. Thus, Luke tells us that the events took place in the 15th year of Tiberius’ reign. He amplifies John’s call to repentance (You brood of vipers, etc), as also does Matthew. Luke also gives much more detail about what repentance meant for the people John preached to. Tax collectors must not rake in more money than the amount of the taxes. Soldiers must not use threats and false accusations to extort money in the form of bribes.

The big difference between Luke and Mark is that Mark showed no interest in Jesus’ origins or early life. Mark’s Jesus ‘strides onto the stage’ after the proclamation of his coming by John the Baptist.

Immediately next comes his baptism and the words of the heavenly voice, “You are my beloved Son.” This makes Mark’s Gospel consistent with many early Christians’ belief that Jesus was an ordinary man whom God ‘adopted’ at his baptism.  Then he returned to ordinary human status on the Cross when he despairingly cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Luke stressed from the outset of his narrative that Jesus was the Messiah

You cannot possibly take the message that God only ‘adopted’ Jesus when you read Luke’s Gospel. There were heavenly interventions in the births of Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. Luke identified both of them as descendants of King David. A whole series of people recognized Jesus as Messiah – the shepherds, the Temple Jews Simeon and Anna, and Jesus himself when he was twelve years old. Now, finally, God’s own voice authenticated his mission. “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.”

All these events testify to the holiness of Jesus. That is why I want to take what seems like a detour to talk about sacrifice. “Sacrifice?” you say. “Surely that’s about what happened at the Crucifixion?” Bear with me …

To sacrifice means to make holy

The word ‘sacrifice’ came into the English language in the 13th century from the Latin word sacrificium.  That word combines the elements sacri- (from ‘sacer’ meaning holy) with -fic- (from the verb ‘facere’, to make or do). Therefore, sacrifice means to make holy. It does not necessarily have anything to do with killing.

However, killing is the context of the animal sacrifices that  the ancient world’s temples carried out.  Both Jewish and pagan priests made ordinary animals holy by saying prayers as they killed them. That made the meat holy, and acceptable for the priest to offer it to the temple god. Grace before meals is the same concept. We give thanks for the animals and plants that we sacrificed – in the sense of killing – to nourish our bodies. By blessing the food, we make it holy.

In a similar way to what happened in ancient temples, we make a sacrificial offering of the bread and wine at Communion. We say special prayers to sacrifice (make holy) ordinary bread and wine. Therefore we must then treat the consecrated bread and wine with respect. We do not throw any leftovers in the garbage or down the drain. But notice: ordinary bread and wine are not innately holy. Nor were the animals in the sacrifices of ancient temples. We make them holy by our actions.

Sacrifice does not have to imply death

Nevertheless, the word sacrifice has become inextricably bound up with death, especially the deaths of soldiers killed in wartime. Prior to WW I, soldiers merely ‘died’ in battle. The soldiers who died fighting for or against Napoleon were just indentured pawns who had to fight for their king or emperor. There were no war memorials. In the 20th century, the soldier’s role changed. World Wars I and II gave those who perished a noble status; they sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. Therefore the pointless deaths of Canadian soldiers at the Somme became sacrifices. In that sense they did not just die; they became holy. The soldier fought for a worthy cause such as the German Fatherland, La France, or the British Empire; later, to save the world from Nazism or Communism.

Traditional Christian terminology views Christ’s death on the Cross as a sacrifice in the greater cause of defeating human sin – the theology of atonement. That idea does not come from the Gospels. It originates in Paul’s letter to the Romans. “All have sinned …. they are now justified by [God’s] grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood” [Romans 3:24-25]. This deliberate sacrifice for a greater good has the same meaning as in chess, when one player deliberately loses a piece in order to advance the game. As in, “White sacrificed his queen, which led to Black’s checkmate in three moves.”

Praise and worship are sacrificial offerings

But I want to return to less negative uses of the word sacrifice. In some of our Eucharistic prayers we offer ourselves as ‘a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ [BCP and BAS Prayer 3]. That means that we make ourselves holy because we offer praise and thanksgiving to God. It has nothing to do with death. BAS Prayer 1 makes this abundantly clear: “Send your Holy Spirit upon us … that all who eat and drink at this table may be … a living sacrifice in Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

Those words take us back directly to the Baptism of Jesus. The voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” God attested to Jesus’ holiness, just as Gabriel, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna had done previously. All of them had made Jesus holy — a living sacrifice.

Our work as Christians makes us holy — that is, a sacrifice

I have belaboured this point for two reasons. First, I want to dispel the negative perception of many Christians about the word sacrifice. As I have stated, it does not have to imply death. It simply means “to make holy.’ Second, I would like everyone here to see themselves in the same way that God saw Jesus at his baptism – holy; a living sacrifice.

Jesus’ mission of preaching and teaching was possible because God had affirmed him as holy – a living sacrifice. That is why we will reaffirm our own baptismal covenant this morning. It is not so that we can re-enact what happened two thousand years ago at the River Jordan. It is instead to reconfirm that we are God’s people living and working in our ordinary, secular world. Call it evangelism; call it mission. Those are just fancy words for doing our best to be the face of Christ to the people we meet. Our baptismal covenant tells us how to do it. Continue to gather together as a parish. Respect other people, no matter who they are. Care for God’s Creation. Then each of us will be a living sacrifice – people made holy.

Gifts of Epiphany, old and new, tangible and intangible

Scripture: Matthew 2: 1-12

Today we take time away from Luke’s Gospel to celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, as told by Matthew.  Today, the Church remembers the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Epiphany is special to me because it is the anniversary of the date when Bishop Ralph ordained me as priest.  The ordination ceremony took place at St James’ Fergus, where I was curate.  It was incredibly exciting for the parish.  I was their first curate ever, and it was also their first ordination ceremony ever.

What does ‘Epiphany’ mean?

‘Epiphany’ comes from a Greek word that means an appearance, especially the making apparent (manifestation) of a god. In Christian tradition, the Magi were the first Gentiles – the first people outside the Jewish family – to recognize the divinity of the baby Jesus. You might say that in bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the Magi were guests at Jesus’ baby shower. But it wasn’t really like that at all.

How many wise men were there and how did they travel?

Let’s think about the old carol, We Three Kings, and Matthew’s story of the visit of the wise men.  Matthew does not say that there were three wise men, only that they brought three gifts. We just assume that they brought one gift each.  Now “everyone knows”, from Christmas cards and Christmas pageants as long back as they can remember, that the wise men arrived on camels.  But the Gospel story doesn’t actually tell us how the wise men got to Bethlehem.

Does this mean that we should tear up all the Christmas cards that we receive that show three kings on camels? I don’t think so. These additions are just part of the charming way that we have embroidered the story to make it more alive to us.  We learnt the story as children from the tableaux of Christmas pageants rather than from the exact words of Scripture.  Christmas pageants cheerfully mix together the shepherds and angels of Luke’s Christmas story with Matthew’s Magi. The new story is our present-day mythology.  Mythology invites us to look at the meaning of the stories in the Bible rather than focus only on the superficial details.

All this should alert us to the fact that the visit of the Magi may not have happened precisely as Matthew wrote it, either. Matthew wrote his Gospel about 80 years after Jesus was born.  People had told and retold the story by word of mouth before it reached Matthew.  They had almost certainly embellished and elaborated it by the time that Matthew heard it.

The message of the Christmas season

The Scriptures we have read over the Christmas season all convey the same message — people who discovered that they were in the presence of the holy. The shepherds on Christmas Eve; Simeon and Jesus’ parents last week; today the Magi.  We do not know whether the Magi arrived right after Jesus’ birth. Matthew says only that, “they saw the child with Mary his mother. And they knelt down and paid him homage. …” In other words, it could have happened after the Holy Family returned home to Nazareth from their meeting with Simeon in the Temple

We don’t know exactly who were these people call the Magi.  Maybe they were astrologers.   The important thing to know is that they were people seeking God. And that is what they found.

The Magi were of high status, yet they came to offer gifts to a mere baby, born to a poor peasant teenager. They brought expensive gifts – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The hymn We Three Kings reminds us that the gifts were symbolic – gold for power and wealth; incense for holiness; myrrh predicting Jesus’ death. Yet when they looked into the eyes of that tiny baby, they saw the Christ – that is, divinity – looking back.  That was the gift that they received in exchange.

When is a gift not really a gift?

It seems to me that the word ‘gift’ implies no requirement nor expectation for reciprocity.  That’s not the way that many of us exchange gifts at Christmas.  If I buy a gift for Uncle Albert, I may feel upset if he does not give me a gift, too.  There was a good article on that subject in Saturday’s Globe & Mail (January 5).   Drug company ‘reps’ often give small gifts to doctors.  Ostensibly these gifts have little value — pens, coffee, sandwiches.  But the drug companies know that human beings have a powerful urge to reciprocate.  Doctors, being human, are more likely to prescribe the drugs made by the company that gave them such ‘treats’ than similar products made by competitors.

Christ invites us to be the modern Magi

Because we should not get hung up on the details of the Epiphany story, we ask ourselves what the story means to us today, here in Milton at the beginning of a new year 2019. The Magi came from the East with their gifts for exactly the same reason that we have all come to church this morning. All of you here today are the Magi of the year 2019, for you have come to pay your own homage to the Christ-child.  But more than that, who are the Magi in our lives and what gifts do they bring us? Conversely, who are the people to whom we are the Magi, and what gifts are we carrying for them?

Messages of hope

Like the New Year, the stories of Christmas and Epiphany express hope.  That is why the New Year is often depicted like a newborn child.  It is a symbol of a new year as a new start.  As Christians, we believe that the birth of Jesus was a fresh start in the relationship between God and humanity. People make New Year resolutions in that same spirit – the hope that 2019 will better than 2018. I’ll resolve to lose weight, I’ll be nicer to my in-laws, I’ll come to church more regularly, or whatever. Therefore New Year resolutions are a bit like gardening or farming.  When we plant our flowers, vegetables, or crops each spring, it expresses our hope and expectation that this will be the perfect summer.  There will be just the right amount of rain and just the right warm temperatures.

O. Henry’s story The visit of the Magi

Today I want to repeat something I recounted several years ago at Epiphany.  It is O. Henry’s charming story of love  The visit of the Magi.  I first encountered it as read by the late Alan Maitland in his role as Fireside Al on the CBC program As it Happens.

Jim and Della were a poor young couple who had no money to buy each other Christmas presents. Jim’s most treasured possession was his gold watch, and Della’s was her long brown tresses. Jim longed to buy Della a set of tortoiseshell combs for her beautiful hair.  Della longed to buy Jim a gold strap for his cherished watch. In the story, Jim sold his watch to buy Della the tortoiseshell combs. Della sold her hair to buy Jim the gold strap for his watch. But when they exchanged their gifts on Christmas morning, Jim had no watch to hang on the strap, and Della had no long hair through which to run the combs.

The last paragraph of O. Henry’s story

“The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they, are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” So may we at St. George’s be Magi in this place!