New beginnings — Resurrection and Baptism

Scripture: John 10: 1-18

New beginnings: Gardens

Easter is a season of new beginnings.  The Bible begins in a garden – the Garden of Eden. It also ends in a garden, where the river of life flows through the city of God, with fruit trees on either side [Revelation 22]. In Christian doctrine, the Resurrection opens up a new world. Like the first Creation, this new world begins in a garden.

New beginnings: Resurrection

Of the four descriptions of the first Easter, it is no wonder that John’s is the most popular. John tells the story in a poetic and almost dream-like way, although the bones of the story are much the same as in the other Gospels. In John’s version, Mary Magdalene was the first person to visit the tomb where some disciples laid Jesus after he died. Mary was surprised to find that someone had rolled the stone away.

Mary went to tell Peter and another disciple. They ran to the tomb but the body was missing. Then they left Mary Magdalene and went home.After that, Mary was the first person to experience the Risen Christ. First, she saw two men in white. In tears, she asked them where they had taken the body. Then she turned round and saw someone whom she did not recognize. She asked the same question. “If you know where they have taken him, please tell me.” The person called her name and she recognized him as Jesus. Then she went to tell the other disciples what she had experienced.

The Gospel writer John repeatedly emphasized that Jesus was and is divine. He even tells us that he wrote the book so that the reader would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God [John 20:31].

At first, Mary thought that the person she had seen was a gardener. I suppose that the Gospel writer conceived that particular gardener as one of the many images of God. These include Father, shepherd, and judge, but also gardener. So when Mary had a vision of a gardener, she saw the face of God.

New beginnings: Springtime

Easter happens in springtime. at the time of the Jewish Passover, when Jesus was in Jerusalem and ate his Last Supper with his disciples. In ancient Israel, Passover celebrated to the Israelites’ escape from slavery in Egypt. It was also the time for planting the spring barley crop. All around us this morning, we see signs of spring – the grass greening up, the first flowers, tree buds swelling, fields and gardens being readied for planting. When I kept sheep, this was lambing season. These signs of renewed life merge Easter with older symbols of fertility – eggs and bunnies. But the overarching Christian symbol of Resurrection is a new beginning: the promise of eternal, spiritual life that supercedes our finite life on this planet.

New Beginnings: Baptism

Easter! What an ideal day to have a baptism! A new life; a new follower of Jesus Christ. In the early tradition, Easter was not just an ideal day. It was the ideal day. Candidates for baptism back then had a long and rigorous period of training before they were baptized. Baptism was a very big deal. No pouring water on the forehead. It was total immersion, fully naked, held under the water till you almost drowned. It symbolized death to the old life and the new beginning of life in Christ.

Mary Magdalene is central to the Resurrection story

Mary Magdalene has a central role in all four Gospels at the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This icon of Mary Magdalene was painted (the technical term is ‘written’) by Michelle Normandin.  Icons are stylized images that are used and revered as devotional objects, especially by the Eastern Church. This one shows Mary Magdalene holding a red egg. This comes from an early legend.  Mary went to the Roman Emperor to proclaim Jesus’ Resurrection. She held out an egg and said that Christ changing from earthly to spiritual form is like an egg changing to a chick. The Emperor laughed. He said that Jesus had no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. At once, the egg turned red as a sign from God.

We are like that legendary Roman Emperor. Of all the Gospel stories about Jesus, the Resurrection must surely be the hardest for 21st century Canadians to swallow. It flies in the face of everything logical in our scientific world. We can hardly help asking questions like, “Was it really Jesus in the flesh?” “Why didn’t Mary recognize him?” “Was it just a vision?” The New Testament writers lived in a different world. They did not ask, “How could that possibly have happened?” They realized, “Only God could have done this amazing thing.”

Icons.  New beginnings in prayer

An icon of Mary Magdalene might help us answer this question. “Exactly what does the Resurrection of Jesus mean to each of us here in church at St George’s today?” The icon makes a sort of parallel with the Resurrected Jesus that Mary encountered in the garden. She did not recognize him because he was now a spiritual being. An icon, such as the one of Mary Magdalene, takes us to different reality. There we can allow the spiritual to intrude for a moment upon our modern and intellectual 21st century way of thinking. Praying through – not praying to – her icon allows us to enter St. John’s dreamlike account of that first Easter morning – maybe even a vision of the Risen Christ through Mary’s eyes.

The Resurrection through Mary’s eyes

“After Peter and the other disciple left me, I was in tears because someone had taken Jesus’ body away. I looked inside the tomb once more. Through my tears I saw two figures dressed in white. They were standing where the head and feet of Jesus should have been. Now I look back, I suppose that they must have been angels. They asked me why I was crying. So I told them, “Someone has taken away Jesus’ body but I don’t know where they’ve taken it. I need to go and anoint him properly for his burial.” They just seemed to stare right through me.  It gave me the sensation that there was something or someone behind me.

“So I looked round. There was someone, but I didn’t recognize who it was at first. I thought maybe it was a gardener. He said the same thing to me, “Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” So I told him that I was looking for Jesus’ body. Then he said my name, “Mary,” and I recognized who it was. I ran to put my arms around him, but he told me not to, because he had not yet ascended to be with God. Then he told me to go and tell the other disciples what had happened and what I had seen. I have never forgotten what happened that morning. It changed my life for ever.”

New beginnings, new life

I wonder what kind of faith Julia will grow up to have as she begins her journey with Jesus this morning. It isn’t easy. In today’s secular world it isn’t even very popular to try. Her parents and family will promise to raise her to know the main aspects of Christian faith. But more than faith statements, or doctrine, we pray that they will love her and promise to help her show love and respect other people and to care for all of God’s Creation. We pray that God will bless her along life’s journey, and will be with her to help her steer a right course as she confronts life’s challenges.

As we listen to the Easter story we can’t help but be perplexed because the words of Scripture are so far from our own experience and world-view. I do not believe that there is only one way to interpret the Resurrection. Some people believe that it all happened just as John recorded. Others look for a paranormal explanation of Mary Magdalene’s experience. Still others see it in entirely mythic terms. They find their faith by seeking its underlying truth, not by focussing on the literal words. So this morning, I ask you to set aside your rational, post-Enlightenment ways of thinking. Simply let the Resurrection story wash over you and permeate you, rather than trying to pick it apart. Go to the garden, and hear the gardener call your name, in the same way that he called Mary Magdalene long ago, and calls Julia by name this morning.

Last Supper, New Passover

Scripture: Luke 22: 14-20

Today we begin Holy Week. Instead of talking about Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem in triumph, I want to look ahead to Thursday and Jesus’ Last Supper. We are so familiar with taking Communion together that it is easy to miss just what was going on.

Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish

In the book Jesus and the Jewish roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre, the author begins by saying, as I have often said, that Jesus and the disciples were all Jewish. Therefore to understand the Gospels (and specifically the Last Supper) we have to try to see the Last Supper through 1st century Jewish eyes, not 21st century Christian eyes. Pitre’s book aims to interpret the Last Supper as a New Passover leading to a New Exodus to a New Promised Land.

The Passover in Scripture

The Last Supper was a Passover meal, a “perpetual remembrance” of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt. That was when God “passed over” the homes of the Israelites and spared their firstborn children from death. It began their journey through the wilderness for forty years, led by Moses, and culminated with their entry into the Promised Land.

In the early days, each family slaughtered its own Passover lamb, drained its blood, and cooked it.  Later, only the priestly class (Levites) performed animal sacrifices. Therefore families had to take their Passover lambs to the Temple for slaughter. The priests ritually dashed the blood on the altar. Then the family brought the lamb home to cook. I find it curious that none of of the Scriptural accounts of the Last Supper mention the lamb itself . However, Paul repeatedly makes the connection that Jesus is the new Paschal (Passover) Lamb that underwent sacrifice for us. Likewise, the author of Revelation saw a heavenly vision of the Lamb, not a human-like Jesus [Revelation 5: 6].

“This is my body … this is my blood.”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke (and also Paul) describe the “words of institution” at the Last Supper: , “This is my body … this is my blood.” Jesus discusses the Eucharist in detail in the Bread of Life discourse [John 6: 26-69], which follows the Feeding of the 5000. The words of institution are contentious for Jews and Christians alike – though not for Protestants, who regard the link between (bread and wine) and (Body and Blood) as symbolic.

It is hard to avoid the implication of cannibalism for those who believe in transubstantiation. For Jews, the issue is even harder, because of the absolute prohibition of drinking blood [Genesis 9: 3-4], which the Hebrew Scriptures equate to the life of the animal [Leviticus 17: 10-12]. Even Jesus’ own followers considered his description of consuming flesh and blood as “a hard saying.” His teaching about eating flesh and drinking blood repelled some of them so much that they abandoned him completely [John 6: 66].

A Messiah for a new age

In the ancient world, Heaven was as real as the tangible Earth.  Earthly societies (king, emperor, chief, surrounded by courtiers and advisors) reflected the arrangement of Heaven (God, angels, cherubim), not the other way round. By the time of Jesus, the Jewish people looked for a Messiah, who would introduce a new age of God’s righteousness. First century Jews expected the New Exodus to start in Jerusalem, most likely on an anniversary of the first Passover.  They expected the Messiah to introduce a new Exodus to a spiritual heaven (a new Promised Land). Jesus proclaimed in his ministry and at the Last Supper that he was that person.

Three images link ‘bread’ to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper

1. The Manna

Jesus made a parallel between the manna received during the Exodus (the bread from heaven) [John 6: 32 and 49] and the bread of eternal life. Moses gave the manna, but the Israelites died natural deaths. Jesus, the new and greater Moses, gives the bread of life, which is eternal. So we have bread // life. The manna was miraculous yet impermanent; Jesus gives eternal spiritual bread.

2. The Lord’s Prayer

Pitre also connects the miraculous bread to the Lord’s Prayer. He explains why it is, ‘Give us this day our daily bread?’ The second ‘daily’ is a Greek word epiousios, which Pitre translates as ‘substance (ousios) from above (epi)’. That implies that when we pray, we do not ask merely for breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day. We ask instead to receive the ‘new manna’, the new spiritual bread  from above, every day (hence the Roman Catholic practice of daily mass).

3. The Bread of the Presence

Many 1st century Jewish people would have connected the bread of the Eucharist and the ‘Bread of the Presence’   This was kept in the Holy of Holies at the Ark of the Covenant between God and the Israelites. This bread was literally, the “Bread of the Face of God”.

Mosaic Law permitted only priests to eat it.  However, King David, who was not a priest, commandeered it when his army was hungry. Jesus, the one of ‘David’s line’ (i.e, the greater King David) gave his body as the ‘Face of God’ – i.e., proof that he was the Messiah.

We keep a form of Bread of the Presence as Reserved Sacrament at St. George’s. We will remove it from the church on Maundy Thursday to signify that Christ’s Body is not in the building from then till Easter.

Concerning the wine, Pitre stresses the idea that blood = life.  Therefore wine = life = blood. Luke’s account of the Last Supper is different from Matthew, Mark, and Paul. Luke records the disciples drinking two cups of wine. A typical Passover meal (Seder) involves drinking four cups of wine. One at the beginning; one when the Exodus story is read; one to begin the meal. The assembly drinks the final cup after singing the Great Hallel (Psalms 115-118). Luke’s first cup mentioned could be the first or the second of the Seder. The second cup mentioned by Luke is the new covenant between God.  It parallels the one at the original Passover. It is most likely the third cup of the Seder.

None of the Gospels mention the fourth cup of wine of the Seder

Jesus then said, “I will not drink the fruit of the vine again till I drink it in the Kingdom of God” Luke 22:18]. Matthew [26:30] and Mark [14: 26] both mention ‘singing the hymn’ (the Great Hallel) after supper, but none of them mention the fourth cup of wine.

Pitre points out, however, that Jesus does take a cup of sour wine when he is on the Cross. This, he says, can be considered as the fourth cup that completes the New Passover meal.  It seems significant that when Jesus prays in Gethsemane, he asks God that “this cup may pass from me, but not what I will but what you will.”

Christ’s death represents the beginning of the Exodus to the heavenly new Promised Land. In that metaphor, we earthlings continue our journeys through the wilderness on this earth until the final Judgement Day when the souls of the righteous ones will enter the heavenly Promised Land.

The Last Supper is more than a special Passover meal

Overall, the Last Supper is more than a special Passover meal. It is a miracle, that parallels the Feeding of the 5000. In both cases, the timing of the meal is sunset; the attendees sit or recline; Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, gives thanks, and shares it. In the feeding miracle he leaves 12 baskets of leftover breads; at the Last Supper, he leaves behind 12 disciples, who also represent the 12 tribes of Israel. They were, we are, priesthoods of believers, like the heads of families at the first Passover.

I like the spirituality of considering the Last Supper as a New Passover that begins a New Exodus. Pitre unravels much of the symbolism around the Eucharist that is difficult to dig out. Yet to me, he fails in one critical aspect. We are still left with the difficulty in the words of institution; the meaning of “This is my body … This is my Blood.” Just as it was 2000 years ago, it remains “a hard saying.”

Structure of the Eucharist: how and why

Scripture; John 12: 1-8

I decided not to say much about today’s Gospel, because we read a similar story very recently. Then, an unnamed sinful woman bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears.  She anointed his feet with precious ointment. Today, Mary does something very similar. I assume that Luke’s and John’s communities received different versions of the same story. Luke identified the woman as a sinner, who gate-crashed a dinner given by a Pharisee. John identified her as Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. He also put the story into the context of the coming events of Holy Week, with Judas as the one who will betray Jesus.

Structure of the Eucharist: what we do, and why

Some of this material comes from an excellent Introduction to the Eucharist in the Book of Alternative Services (BAS), pp. 172-184. I’ll also describe where and why we at St. George’s deviate from following the BAS exactly.

The liturgy has three main parts. These are Gathering of the Community, Proclamation of the Word, and Celebration of the Eucharist. Most Western churches now follow a common structure for the Eucharist. That is a result of the commitment to ecumenism that occurred in the 1960s.

Gathering of the Community

This consists of a greeting, then an act of praise and the collect (prayer) of the day. The intention is to keep it simple. The normal greeting is the “Grace”.  The collect for purity cmes next, as an option. The BAS act of praise is the formal Glory to God in the highest. We replace it with a simple sung version (We sing of your glory), except in Advent and Lent, when we use Gather us in.

There are two problems. (1) Where do we put the Announcements? Some congregations put them immediately before the Eucharist.  To me, that is a terrible choice. It cuts secular concerns into the spirituality of the liturgy.  But if you leave the announcements to the end, people want to leave. So we put them before the liturgy starts.

(2) How do we include the children? There is a problem with having the children’s time at the end.  The inevitable question: “What did you learn in Sunday School today?” simply embarrasses the children. So we have the children’s time right after the greeting. Then we use the act of praise as a regathering hymn while the children leave for Sunday School.

Other minor deviations from the liturgy set out in the book

(1) We exchange the Peace as part of the children’s time, in order to include them. The BAS places it after Confession (because then we are ‘in love and charity with our neighbours’ — to use the old words). The Peace is our gift to each other, not just “Nice to see you.” It parallels the story in which Jesus sent the disciples out to preach on their own (Luke 10: 5).

(2) We all say the collect for the day (and, later, the prayers over the communion gifts and after communion) together, not just the priest.

(3) We use the “trial collects” put out by the national Church because the language is lighter and gender inclusive.

Proclamation of the Word

This is the first major part of the service — from the Scripture readings through to the Confession.  We use the Revised Common Lectionary for the readings.  This is a three year cycle. The full RCL comprises four pieces of Scripture (Old Testament, psalm, non-Gospel New Testament, and Gospel). At St. George’s, we usually omit either the Old Testament or the non-Gospel New Testament reading. We use the gender-inclusive trial settings of the psalms.

The homily

The BAS describes the homily or sermon as “the application of the Word of God to the pastoral needs of the particular community at the particular time and place.” We always relate the homily to the day’s Scriptures.  Although I would call them “Bible-based”, that term does not mean the same thing to everyone. Some preachers understand it as “putting Jesus into your heart.” Others emphasize sin and the need for salvation to avoid God’s judgement. Yet others stress taking the Bible literally, with emphasis on what God commands us to do and not do.

To me, an advantage of using a set lectionary is that it forces me to grapple with pieces of Scripture that I might otherwise avoid. One of my seminary professors was explicit: he said that if the Scripture is difficult, you must preach on it, otherwise you imply to your congregation that you agree with it.

The Proclamation of the Word concludes with one of the Creeds, the Prayers of the People, and the Confession and Absolution. For the first and the last of these, at St. George’s we take advantage of where the BAS says, “using these or similar words.” Thus we usually use a Trinitarian Affirmation of Faith rather than the specific words of the Creed. We often replace the formal Confession with other prayers of repentance. As I said recently, I see the confession as an encouragement to do better rather than to burden us with sinfulness. The various prayer leaders at St. George’s have different styles that bring richness to the Prayers of the People.

Celebration of the Eucharist

This is the other major part of the Eucharistic liturgy.  If “Word” is the intellectual part, then “Sacrament” is the experiential part.  The Eucharistic celebration begins with the Prayer over the Gifts. We offer (sacrifice, make holy) ourselves, the bread and wine, and the money for the work of the Church and the upkeep of the church building.

The Eucharistic Prayer

The Eucharistic Prayer is called the Great Thanksgiving. The first part remembers God’s greatness and God’s saving acts up to and including Jesus coming into the world. After the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy …), the focus switches to Jesus. In modern Eucharistic prayers, the images of Christ’s suffering and divine deliverance are divorced from the medieval and Reformation themes of substitutionary atonement (Jesus died as a payment to God for my sins). We offer ourselves as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.  Unlike in older liturgies, we give thanks that we are worthy to stand before God.

All modern Eucharistic prayers include the remembrance of the Last Supper (anamnesis) and the calling down of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis). Their language is loose enough to accommodate a variety of interpretations of the meaning of the Communion.  Some people consider the consecrated bread and wine as a memorial (retelling of the Last Supper).  Others subscribe to a theology of transubstantiation, in which the read and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ. Most Anglican scholars take an intermediate position called “Real Presence”.  This affirms that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, but without specifying details. The placement of the Lord’s Prayer right after the Eucharistic Prayer draws attention to the parallel between daily bread and the Eucharistic meal. In some seasons we at St. George’s place it instead as the culmination of the Prayers of the People.

Communion and after

At Communion, I always add words, seasonal where appropriate, to “The Body of Christ”.  My aim is to make the receipt of the bread more personal and not rushed (God’s fine dining not God’s cafeteria). I also pour enough wine that you can actually drink some rather than just letting it wet your lips.

The service ends quickly, with a prayer after Communion. (We always use the variable prayer rather than the longer set-piece.) The Doxology deliberately allows the children to participate (noisily) with percussion instruments such as tambourines.

The priests’s blessing is optional because we have already been abundantly blessed by receiving Communion. I like to include it because I have always found it very meaningful to receive the blessed by the priest. Finally, we are sent out into the world as ambassadors for Christ.

God’s Lost and Found: feeding pigs or home at a party

Scripture: Luke 15: 1-32

God’s Lost and Found area must be very different from the one at the school where Michelle and I go square dancing. The school’s Lost and Found is a long row of hooks in the main corridor. They start off empty each Fall. By now, every hook is overflowing with unclaimed clothing, from gloves and mittens to coats and snow pants. Clothing is now so cheap and disposable that I assume that the parents exert little pressure for the kids to look for missing items. They just go out and buy new.  No consequences.

It made me think of the contrast with the nursery rhyme about the three little kittens who lost their mittens. They couldn’t have their pie until they found the mittens again.

Three little kittens lost their mittens, and they began to cry,
Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear our mittens we have lost
What? Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!  Then you shall have no pie.

The three little kittens found their mittens, and they began to smile,
Oh, mother dear, see here, see here, our mittens we have found
What? Found your mittens, then you’re good kittens, so you shall have some pie.

Three parables about God’s Lost and Found

Luke recounts three parables that Jesus told about things lost and then found – a sheep, a coin, and a son. They all seem similar – something valuable was lost, and there was much rejoicing when it was found. The first two represent worldly wealth. A shepherd lost one of his 100 sheep; a widow lost one of her ten silver coins. Jesus then compared something owned that was found (sheep or money) with a soul. He said that heaven will rejoice more over one sinner who repents than over all those who were not sinners and did not need repentance.

Jesus’ stories were parables, not real life, so they exaggerate. Would a shepherd really leave 99 sheep unprotected on the hillside, and go off to look for one that was missing? He might return to find the whole flock scattered. Would a widow really blow the value of the coin she had lost then found to throw a party for the neighbours? Don’t nit-pick. The point of these stories is God’s joy when a lost soul returns.

Something even more precious – a lost son

Sunday School interpretations of this story simply liken it to the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. God is the father in the story. The younger son represents sinners, people like us. We go off, figuratively, to the far-off land, and don’t give God a thought. One day, spiritually and emotionally bankrupt, we bottom out. So we turn back to God, our Father. God welcomes us back with open arms. It’s all nice and cuddly.

Perhaps in an extension of the story, all our lapsed Anglicans realize that they have become spiritually bankrupt. They all come back to St. George’s, and we welcome them home with our version of the fatted calf – extra cake and cookies after the service. Dream on.

We are not Jewish. So it is hard to imagine the shameful situation of the younger son. He had to take a job tending pigs. That made him ritually unclean, like the pigs. All his fellow Jews would have shunned him. He had shamed the whole family. So when he went home, he could only hope for some menial job on his father’s estate. But when he arrived, his father was simply glad that he was home safely. He ignored the shame that his son had brought on the family, and threw a party.

The Sunday School interpretation gives no role to the older brother

The older brother is the stereotype of a dutiful first-born. He didn’t get any party. He just busted his buns working on the family homestead. No wonder he felt resentful. It’s bad enough that Dad threw a party for his spoiled brother. He felt worse when Dad soft soaped him by saying that he’s always had the security of home and that he still has his share of the inheritance coming to him.  For all he knows, Dad will change his will and cut his younger brother in again. In that next interpretation of this parable, the older brother gets criticized for being petty and complaining. Yet from his point of view, life seems unfair.

Don’t make God’s Lost and Found all about what has been lost

We usually call our three parables lost sheep, coins and sons.  That makes God’s “Lost and Found” all about what has been lost, like the lost clothing at the local school. I began Lent by saying that we must look for the good news of the Gospel even in this season. We have to turn our theological telescopes round to see the good news. Then our parables become about found sheep, coins, and sons. Jesus says that the shepherd looked for the missing sheep until he found it. The woman searched for her coin until she found it. The father rejoiced because his son returned home. He had probably searched for news about his son and worried that he was dead. In the words of the parable, “He was dead and came to life …” Jesus tells us that those who find God become alive spiritually.

In this third interpretation, Luke wants us to view the parable in terms of finding abundance – God’s abundant grace – rather than loss and scarcity. Abundant grace allows God to throw a spiritual party when the sinner, the wanderer, returns and becomes spiritually alive again. Luke leaves the story hanging, so we don’t know whether the older son understood what his father was saying.  We don’t know whether he decided to join the party after all.

There are mothers as well as fathers in God’s Lost and Found

Only Luke tells the parables of the found coin and the found son. Matthew gives the story of the sheep and the shepherd, but his version focuses on the loss. Matthew imagines that there’s rejoicing in God’s Lost and Found area only if the sheep is found. For Luke, it isn’t if it’s found, but when.

Jesus (or Luke) juxtaposes stories about a male shepherd and a female widow. But the parable of the found son is very male-oriented. The three characters are all men.  They behave in very masculine ways. I can identify easily with all of them. The younger son wanted to make his mark in the world, even though he failed. The older son sulked when his playboy brother got the royal treatment. Dad’s reaction to his son’s return was, “Let’s have a party! Kill the fatted calf!” All very male.

That made me wonder what the mother of the two boys might have thought. She’s not mentioned in the parable.  I also remembered a newspaper story from several years ago, that stuck in my mind. A young Indigenous woman had disappeared on the streets of Vancouver. Her mother said that all she wanted was for her daughter to return home.

A brave admission to make publicly

The daughter had left home to find fame and fortune. She had brought shame on the family by becoming a prostitute, just like the Prodigal Son brought shame on himself and his family by having to tend the pigs. The young woman’s mother simply wanted was to have her daughter back. Unlike the father in the parable, she did not plan to kill a fatted calf or have a great big party. Just let me have my daughter home and safe.  That would be enough.

Which brings me back to the Sunday School interpretation of the parable. The father of the parable portrays a very masculine face of God. But God is Mother to us as well as Father. I see the Mother side of God welcoming both prodigal sons and daughters home with tears of joy streaming down her face – equally welcoming, but with a different way of showing it.

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.”

Poor, Rich or Middle Class in the 21st century?

I don’t want to be poor

Well, Jesus really is turning our world upside down again with this teaching.  I don’t want to be poor, hungry, even if it supposedly makes me blessed, or happy. Nor I expect do you. But, on the other hand, I want enough to each and a comfortable life without waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop and have it all taken away.  Is this what Jesus is telling his followers and us? Or is this Jesus’new middle class value system?

Jesus teaching

Let’s clear up a couple of common misapprehensions first. This was not a choice for the crowd listening to Jesus, who were almost entirely the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us to choose.  It’s a fact of life that for most of us that our economic status is a result of where, when and to whom we were born. Secondly, this is not a promise of how God will treat us. It’s not a judgemental passage promising heaven or hell.

A language lesson – blessings and woes

Blessed and woe are words we only use these days in areligious connotation.  They hang on because there doesn’t seem to be an exact correlation in modern English. Blessed is often translates as Happy; but in English, Blessed has the sense of being made happy by God, or being consecrated. However, the word used in the Greek (according to Internet sources) is closer to happy, and is often translated happy.  Woe on the other hand is a word we only find in the Bible nowadays. It is an exclamation of grief of distress, a stronger form of alas, another archaic word. Other Bible versions translated it as how miserable for you; or oh, the sorrows that await the rich; or how terrible for you. No judgement, only sadness.

God has sent me to preach good news to the poor.

Luke is continuing here the theme of Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue which we heard a few weeks ago, when he read from Isaiah: God has sent me to preach good news to the poor. Jesus is addressing the social order, describing the situation as it was then, and as it still is today with the gap between rich and poor widening.

His words here are definitely addressing social inequalities rich vs poor and hungry vs filled.   There is no wiggle room for “the poor in spirit” or “hunger and thirst for righteousness” as in Matthew’s beatitudes.  We’re talking physical poverty and hunger here, not spiritual! And his hearers were poor. They were both Jews and Gentiles who had come from far and near to hear his message and to be healed of their illnesses. These weren’t the rich people. I imagine Jesus speaking with compassion both to the poor and even to the rich, if there were any in the crowd.

Happy are the poor?

How happy are you, the poor...’ We can imagine the gentleness of the words, the warmth and softness of the delivery. This is not a promise for the afterlife. Yours is the Kingdom of God, now; the kingdom that has come near in the person of Jesus. Jesus knows poverty and the struggle of living and has compassion.  How terrible for you rich…” Again, we can imagine the warmth, the knowing lilt in the voice, the aching love in the words. Jesus knows that life can change on a dime.  I hear Jesus saying that he is one of us, with us and loves us. He knows our struggles and shares our life. Rich or poor. These are not words of judgement, but a recognition that riches alone cannot bring happiness

 Woe to the rich?

Only the top 1% of people earn more than $20,000 a year

“Alas for you the rich!”  Who were the rich? Who are the rich today? It’s all relative. The poverty line for a single person in Ontario is $ $19,930 which puts them in the top 7% of income earners in the worldwide.  For a family of 4, the poverty line is, $41,568 and this income put the wage earner  in the top 1% in the world.  We may be rich compared to the total world population, but here most of us consider ourselves middle class. Do we need  a new middle class value system?

Back in Jesus day, there was no large middle class like today. For the most part, people were rich or poor, and most of them were poor.  It was a fact of life that the rich taxed the poor and lived off the work they did.

The common wisdom of the day, however, was that wealth was a sign of a good person, of God’s blessing..  Not so for Jesus.  He criticizes the rich in a very hard and direct manner: You rich have had your easy life and will go hungry at some time. Nothing lasts. Your fortunes can be reversed later on.  If you set your heart on what the world values, that’s all you will get. This is not the fury of a vengeful person, but the sadness of a loving, compassionate one. Alas, if your values are the world’s values, your heart is not open to the blessings God wants to give you.

Never satisfied

I have known people, and you probably have too, who have a lovely house, well furnished, two cars – but it’s not enough. They “need” a more, maybe a swimming pool or a cottage … you name it. And when they get all these wants satisfied, they need something else, maybe a boat to use at cottage. So they work, scramble up the corporate ladder, join the dog eat dog world – and have no time to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Alas for you rich. You have what you think you want, but it’s never enough.  How sad it is to never have enough, to always want more. These people just can’t be filled. They will feel impoverished because none of it satisfies what they are looking for. People who are impossible to satisfy are just that. Impossible to satisfy.

A new middle class value system

For Jesus poverty is neither a sign of sinfulness, nor something to be proud of, it just is. It may be the fruit of unjust enrichment on the part of others.  How are the poor, the hungry and the sorrowful happy? I wish Jesus had expounded on this and told us. We can only draw conclusions from the way Jesus lived and what he taught. What he had, little though it was, was, enough to satisfy him.

Jesus’ well off friends

What do these words say to us today? We have to look at them in the light of the whole New Testament and the life Jesus lived, all of his teaching.  When we do this, we are not led to conclude that being comfortably off or even wealthy is, in and of itself, bad or sinful.  Rather, we find a new middle class value system for life here on in this world.

Joseph of Arimathea

Jesus himself had friends who were not poor – the women like Joanna who looked after the needs of the disciples, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus who could entertain Jesus and his disciples in their own house;  Matthew described Joseph of Arimathea  as wealthy and as a disciple of Jesus;  Peter had a house in Capernaum and his family had a thriving fishing business. I’d say they were comfortably off.  What is the difference between these friends and followers of Jesus and the rich he is lamenting over in the passage we just heard? They are sharing their good fortune; they are not getting rich on the backs of their fellows; I would hazard a guess that they were satisfied with what they had or they wouldn’t have been so generous.

Mary and Martha share their home and food with Jesus and his followers

A new middle class value system

The kind of wealth that brings woe is wealth that has been acquired at the expense of others or without due care for the environment.  A few examples of Jesus’ new middle class value system.

. We have come to expect cheap food in our supermarkets, but do we consider the downside of this? Are farm workers, especially migrants, paid fairly? how do the fertilizers used to make the land overproduce vegetables and animal feed affect the soil and water? How much greenhouse gas do farm animals produce?  Is the server at our local restaurant paid a living wage? Do we tip well to compensate? Do we try to evade paying taxes which will provide services for all members of society, especially the poorer ones?

We also need to do what we can to support equitable economic relations globally.  We in first world countries currently enjoy many unfair advantages in global trade.  To do what we can to counteract this, we need to be aware of sourcing, make an effort to purchase fair trade products, boycott companies until their overseas workers are treated properly, and so forth.  This means an investment in awareness and a commitment to action in response to what we learn.

Need vs Greed

Gandhi famously said that there is enough on Earth for everybody’s need, but not enough for everybody’s greed. The world is hitting global limits in its use of resources. We are feeling the shocks each day in catastrophic floods, droughts, and storms.

It is the greed principle, with the rich doing everything to get richer that is fueling the growing resource crisis, which will lead to a widening divide between the rich and the poor – and quite possibly to an increasingly violent struggle for survival. If we don’t address these issues now, if we don’r adopt Jesus new middle class value system,  maybe this is how we will learn that nothing lasts, especially our comfortable way of life