The “Great Clean-up”

Notes for a sermon at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert, Alberta, May 22, 2022
Texts: Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 14:23-29

I bought a new phone a few weeks ago. The old one was working reasonably well, but the manufacturer was no longer providing security support, and some newer apps required a more current operating system. Transferring all my stuff to the new phone was quite easy, and then I turned to the old one, first deleting all the personal stuff I could find, and then deleting the apps. I realized afterwards I didn’t need to bother with all those deletions, because doing a factory reset would clear everything identifiable. The factory reset took a few minutes, and by the time it was done the old phone was in the same state as when I took it out of the box several years ago — just as its builder intended.

Something like this is going on in today’s lesson from the Revelation to John, a part of the great vision which concludes the book in Chapters 21 and 22. Revelation is easily the most misunderstood book of the Bible, and it has unfortunately become one of the most often-cited texts by certain kinds of Christians. The error many people make is to treat it as prophecy for these times, connecting its images and scenes to events today. These things are then interpreted as “signs of the times,” an indication that God is about to step in and wipe everything out. It is commonly seen as foretelling the end of the world. Wrong!

Revelation is the New Testament’s only example of “apocalyptic,” a genre of literature common in Jewish circles in the centuries before and after the time of Jesus. The only other example that made it into the Bible is Daniel, from which Revelation draws much of its imagery and themes. Both books were written to people of faith suffering oppression from an oppressive power. In the case of Revelation, the intended audience was Christians under the Roman Empire. Both books are written in a kind of code which would be understood by the faithful, but not by the oppressors. Both have the same message: stand firm in the faith, and the conqueror will be vanquished.

Revelation’s message is really very simple: God wins!

One of the book’s images is the “Beast,” a metaphor for the Roman Empire. The city of Rome is never mentioned by name but is referred to in another metaphor as “Babylon the Great,” another oppressor of God’s people in times past. Much of the book makes horrifying reading, but the tone shifts dramatically in Chapters 21 and 22. Instead of doom, death, and destruction we are presented with a vision of a “new heaven and a new earth”. That word “new” is perhaps a bit misleading – it should better be read as “renewed” or “re-created.”

In some video lectures (“Victory and Peace or Justice and Peace?”) I watched recently, New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan said that Revelation is not about the end of the world. Rather, he said, we should see it as God’s “Great Clean-up.” This is the reset to end all resets! At the end of this age, earth will be restored to God’s purpose, as Jesus taught us to pray:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

The book does not end with a destroyed earth, but rather a redeemed earth. In the new age, on this reborn and renewed earth, all evils and sorrows will be gone, and everything will be according to God’s will, God’s holy purposes. As Genesis tells it, the world began being broken in one garden, around one tree. God will restore it to its original purpose in a second garden, with a new tree of life and a new river flowing from the throne of God.

But that’s in the future – sometime! It’s a wonderful promise, but it has not yet been fulfilled. Just look around you to see how things are not as God would wish them to be. War, mass shootings, civil unrest, famines, pandemics… Do I need to go on?

Almost everyone is aware in their own way that “Things just ain’t right!” And almost everyone seems to have their own recipe for making things right. Politicians of various stripes will give you a variety of remedies. Raise the question with five friends over coffee (or some other libation), and you’ll get at least six answers. If you’re so inclined, you can consult your horoscope or your tea leaves. But what I often hear is this: some people are ready to give up, and some others claim to know what will fix everything. I don’t accept either of these all-too-human views.

If we only listen to human voices, all we will get is human solutions to human messes. We must look elsewhere, finding a different sort of guidance from a different source for helping to bring this world closer to the reality expressed in the Great Clean-up. Another well-known New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright, calls this activity “building for the kingdom.” In the video companion to his book “Surprised by Hope,” (HarperOne 2008) he likens it to being like a stone mason carving individual stones for the building of a great cathedral. The mason knows his task, and he also knows that if he does not do it up to standard, the piece may not fit where it is intended, and part of the big enterprise may fail. The mason is guided by the master mason, who is guided by the architect, who is guided by a higher authority.

And that’s how it is with Jesus’ people in this in-between time while we await the Great Clean-up. We are not called to sit idly by as we wait for God to get in with the push broom and the Lysol. We have a role to play, working as if it has already begun. But how do we know that what we are doing is according to God’s will, and not ours? My friends, we have a guide for our work. Jesus promised this guide to his disciples before he went to his death:

the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name,
will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

The Great Clean-up will come in God’s own time. In the meantime, amid all the troubles of this present age, we are called to work for that coming, living into it, living as if it had already happened. It’s a tall order, I know, but we are not alone.

Jesus is with us always to the end of the age, and the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, is within us – individually, and (more importantly) corporately – at all times to guide us into the peace which Jesus left us. Our job is to listen – to pray! – and then, hearing, to work for what is good and holy and peaceful and loving.

We are not alone.

Thanks be to God!

Are you saved?

Notes for a sermon at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, March 14. 2021
Texts: Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21 (Lent 4, Year B)

When I was seeking ordination, the bishop “suggested”[i] that I would benefit from some depth counselling to explore some personal issues. I took his direction, reluctantly at first, but the experience ended up being one of the milestones of my life. I have never regretted it.

Some time into the process, my counsellor said I might benefit from time in a group setting. At my first session in the group, the leader asked me as a newcomer to introduce myself and tell them why I was there. I started with my perceived calling to become an Anglican priest. When I said that, a person across the circle from me said “Are Anglican priests saved?” It stopped me dead in my tracks. Pulling myself together, I gave the only answer that I thought would make sense: “Yes.” The other person looked a bit startled, and then said “OK, then. Go on.”

“Are you saved?” is a question often heard in some other church communities, but not so much among Anglicans. My response was a simple answer to what is really a very deep question. I suspected that my questioner thought in very black-and-white terms,[ii] and a nuanced response would likely only lead to confusion, anger, or outright rejection.

As I see it, one of the problems with this question is that it does not address the issue of what is meant by “salvation,” “saved,” or “being saved.” It treats salvation as a once-and-done event, which we may pass through or not, and can become just a way of sorting out the people we meet. However…

When Paul uses salvation words, it is most frequently in a future or a progressive sense. The two instances of “you have been saved” in today’s reading from Ephesians are unusual.[iii] Salvation is a gift from God through Christ, but it’s not like a plaque we can hang on the wall but is rather an invitation into a process in which we are called to participate – an invitation into a relationship beginning when we first become aware of it to when we pass from this life to the next. Think of a High School senior who gets an acceptance letter from the University of their choice, which does not confirm them as having “made it” but invites them into a longer and more arduous process – a closer relationship with the institution. Just so with salvation.

Claiming Jesus as Saviour is not so much extolling him as the great lifeguard who has saved us from death, but as the one who continues to walk with us on our journey thereafter. The rescue is important to be sure, but the more important question is “What were you saved for?”[iv] You’re back on dry land: now what?

When we hear the word “saved,” we often add one of two words: “from” or “for.” Both have scriptural support, and we need to pay attention to both. But I believe that the “for” is more important than the “from.” The one is all about the past, which we can recall, but which we can never change. The other is all about the future, which we can only dimly anticipate, but over which we can have influence. We are participants in our own lives, with the gift of free will. As we are being saved, we have choices to make every minute of every day – and every choice may matter.[v] As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Phil 2:12-13)

We who have come to believe in Jesus have entered into eternal life. Note the past tense: eternal life, especially as proclaimed in John’s gospel, is not some future “pie in the sky” kind of promise, but a life lived in conscious relationship to our Creator – a life lived here and now, and wherever we are led in the days ahead. God’s promise to us is that God will be with us every step of the way!

And take note: people are very fond of quoting John 3:16, holding up placards at football games, and putting it on bumper stickers. But they often forget that vs. 3:17 follows immediately, proclaiming God’s intentions not just for us as individuals, but for the world:

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

If we lay claim to eternal life, we do so only as members of the whole human race, for whose good we are called to work. As we heard in Ephesians:

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Eph. 2:10)

Created for Good Works - Come to Christ

And who did God love? No individuals need be named, no groups singled out, no distinctions made. God loved the world – everything in creation, every speck of dust and every soaring mountain, every microbe and every human being, every atom and every galaxy. Nothing we can think of is beyond the scope of divine love.

Well, so what? God loves everything, so what is left for each of us to do?

Plenty, my friends! Plenty!

To live in relationship with another is to reflect the other’s being. To live in relationship with God is to reflect God’s being. And God – the God who made us and formed us for good works – God is love!

To be saved is to participate in and to reflect God’s being, to daily seek to do good in this world, not accepting it as it is, but helping to make it in every way we can just a little more like God intended.

God … loved the world. It all begins there.

Let us go forth and do likewise.
For this is what God has saved us for:
            To go and love;
            To go and serve;
            To go and live with God.

May it be so.


[i] Bishops’ suggestions may be just that, but rarely are,

[ii] I saw more evidence of this kind of thinking in the following weeks.

[iii] Some scholars question the Paul authorship of Ephesians. This usage may serve to point in that direction.

[iv] I’ve been asked similar questions by bank advisors, but with respect to money.

[v] The so-called “butterfly effect” comes to mind.

Come and see … and then go

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, St. Albert, Alberta, January 19, 2020. Text: John 1:29-42

On a cold day in January, we might forgive someone for asking us why we are here, although I sometimes wonder the same thing on a beautiful summer day.

Every one of us has made the decision to be here today. If we started asking each other about our reasons, we might well be into a long discussion. Every one of us has a unique story, and every one of those stories is worth telling and sharing—but maybe not this morning!

I once had a conversation with a person who was bothered that other parishioners didn’t seem to share their level of commitment. As we talked, the person started to disparage others’ reasons for church attendance. “He only comes because his wife doesn’t drive.” “She’s only here to hang out with her friends.” … I managed to call a halt, and then I said something that I meant with all my heart, and which I firmly believe to this day.

No matter how they might articulate their reasons, every person who walks through the doors of this (or any other) church, has been led here by the Holy Spirit.

It’s not for us to judge their motivation, but rather to give thanks that they are here, and then to seek the Spirit’s guidance about how to minister to them and with them. The act of walking through a church door, whether for the first time or the ten-thousandth, is a decision to accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come and see,” as he gave to the first disciples, and which continues to come to people today.

When Jesus invited Andrew and his companion to come and see, it did not come out of the blue, but was a vital step in a longer process. The two were already disciples – of John the Baptist. They were seeking the Messiah. They had no doubt gone to John in the hope that he was the One, but John pointed away from himself, to the one on whom he had seen the Spirit descend and remain.

John’s testimony about Jesus presents us with a full-blown doctrine of Christ: pre-existence, the Spirit remaining on him, God’s Chosen One. John knows who he is, and when he sees Jesus passing by again, he points to him and says to his disciples “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” They leave John and follow Jesus, apparently without any question.

Jesus asks them a very simple question: “What are you looking for?” to which they answer, “Rabbi (‘Teacher’), where are you staying?

This response may seem odd to our ears, but it would not have been out of place from someone seeking to follow a new teacher. To follow a teacher meant to spend time with him, not in a formal school setting, but staying or traveling with him. Today we might call it “hanging out.”

Jesus said, “Come and see.” They went, and they stayed with him for the rest of the day. We are told that it was four o’clock in the afternoon, which might mean that they stayed only a few hours, or perhaps that they stayed into the next day. Either way, they were with Jesus long enough to become convinced that he was the One whom they had been seeking. They were convinced enough to find Simon and to take him to Jesus, who then gave him the name by which we remember him, Peter.

And that’s the beginning of the story of Jesus’ disciples, as it is described in this Gospel. The story of Jesus’ disciples continues today, not written in the Bible, but in the stories of billions of followers of Jesus over two millennia. It continues here in this church today, with people who in some way have heard Jesus say, “Come and see,” who have come, who have seen, and who have believed.

It is the work of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who descended upon Jesus at his baptism – that has brought us together today. We come. We see. We believe.

The work of the Church began with people seeking God and God’s salvation, going to John for baptism, hearing John testify about Jesus, and then following Jesus at his invitation.

The work of the Church continues today with people seeking God, entering the Church through baptism, learning by word and example how others have followed Jesus, and then following – each in our own way.

Every one of us has his or her own story of how we came to follow Christ and how we continue to do so day by day. Every one of us made the decision to be in this place on this day. Every one of those decisions is one more step in our story as individual disciples and as a small part of the Body of Christ, the Church.

It has been said that the most important point of the liturgy is the dismissal. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” is not just someone telling us that it’s time to put on our coats and go home. Rather, it is a charge to go out from this place and BE the Church in the world, doing the work of God wherever it needs to be done and wherever we are able.

Andrew and his companion went out from their first time with Jesus and found Peter. They got to work spreading the news.

The Spirit of God called them to find and to follow Jesus, and then sent them out again.

The Spirit of God has led us to this place, to find Jesus once again in Word, Sacrament, and fellowship. Renewed, refreshed, and reinvigorated, may we be sent forth by the Spirit to do the work of God’s mission.

May we go in joy and peace and with love in our hearts.

Amen.

Go and tell…

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Strathcona (Edmonton) on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Dec. 15, 2019.
Texts: : Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11

The quotes from Isaiah in the text following are from the New Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation.

Last Sunday our Associate Priest posed the question: “What would it be like if I preached like John the Baptist?” Very good question! She gave us some very good ideas about what repentance and embracing God’s Kingdom is all about.

I want to continue this thought, today asking the question, “What would it be like if I preached like Jesus?”

In one respect, it would be very much like preaching like John the Baptist. We read in Matthew 4.17 that Jesus’ first public proclamation was the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” When John said this, he was pointing to the imminent arrival of the Messiah. When Jesus said it, he was pointing to the actual coming of the Kingdom in his person.

Beginnings are only beginnings, and the story goes beyond both John’s preaching and Jesus’ initial call. Jesus’ public ministry began after John had been arrested and imprisoned, but John’s disciples kept contact with their master while he was in prison. John heard about Jesus and what he was doing, and so sent some of his followers to ask Jesus if he really was the one whom they expected.

Jesus told John’s disciples: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” What they are to tell John evokes the great prophetic vision we heard from Isaiah 35:

…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.

The Kingdom of God has come near. Indeed, it is already (but not yet) here! This is the message that Jesus tells John’s disciples to take back to him: look and see what God is doing in your midst.

If I were to preach like Jesus, this is what I would say. And this IS what I say: look and see what God is doing, and then go and tell. We can’t go and tell John—he’s been gone for almost two thousand years—but we can tell everyone else.

What do we need to tell? Simply, that God is alive and active in our world, working wonders for all people.

So what’s the problem? Why aren’t we out on the streets in hordes proclaiming the mighty works of God? What’s holding us back? I believe our reading from Isaiah can give us some guidance.

Isaiah 35 comes from a time late in the exile, when there was only a faint hope of a return to Jerusalem and the restoration of the Kingdom of Judah. Few of us here have experienced exile in its literal sense. (Read Psalm 137 for an idea of what that is like.) But “exile” can serve as a metaphor for the state of the church two millennia after Christ’s death and resurrection.

Walter Brueggemann (in Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, 1997) has suggested that exile is not primarily geographical (even in the Bible) but social, moral, and cultural. “Exile” for us today may be understood as a sense of (1) loss of a structured, reliable “world” where (2) treasured symbols of meaning are mocked and dismissed.

I believe many of us today can relate to this metaphor. I grew up in a world (small-town Alberta in the 50’s and 60’s) where we assumed that everyone was a Christian, and the things of Christian faith were simply part of the culture. Not so today. People today often find that declaring their faith publicly elicits derision, hostility, or (worse!) apathy.

If we can relate to “exile” as a metaphor, then we can surely relate to the longing of the people of Judea for a return to Mount Zion from exile in Babylon.

The prophet proclaims the coming return in terms of a highway through the desert, on which healing of every kind will take place, both for those journeying and for the land through which they will travel. It is to be a direct road from Babylon to Jerusalem. This straight-line route passes through some of the most inhospitable land on the planet: hot, dry, and barren, uninhabited until oil was found there.

And yet…
this is the place where God’s people are told

Be strong, fear not;
Behold your God!
Requital is coming,
The recompense of God—
He Himself is coming to give triumph.

The fear engendered by the exile is wiped away, and God’s people are led rejoicing to their true home:

… the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
They shall attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.

I have been involved in the church in various ways for much of my life, and continuously for the last 40 years. There have been times when I have seriously wondered whether I was throwing my life away. In my first year of ordination, it seemed I had been presented with an impossible task, in a setting where I felt out of place, within a church that appeared to be in decline. I had a strong sense of exile that year.

Nevertheless…

Since that first year I have come to see in the various places where I have served and with which I have had contact, that God’s work continues. Great things are happening here at Holy Trinity, across this diocese and national church, around the world in our Communion, around our city and country, and in every place where the Good News is preached and lived.

We are still on that journey, still on that sacred way back to Zion, still working out what God’s purpose is in our midst. But while we are on that journey to the already-but-not-yet Kingdom, great things are happening, things for which we can only say “Thanks be to God!”

God was not done with the exiles in Babylon. God is not done with us. We will stream up to the altar in our liturgy recalling the redeemed of the Lord streaming to Zion. We come at the call of Holy One of Israel, and then we go as Jesus told John’s disciples – to tell what we have seen and heard.

Be joyful! Be full of gratitude! God is doing great things in our midst. Ought we do anything else than “Go and tell!” Surely this is what Jesus told us to do.

Share the good news.
Be strong, fear not.
Go and tell!

God has blessed us richly.
Let us say “Thanks be to God.”
Let us be a blessing to all whom we meet.
Let us say “Alleluia!”

And “Amen!”

The most difficult parable?

I preached today at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. I was glad to get the invitation, because their Rector is a person whom I hold in high regard, and I was aware that the parish had been going through some troubles in recent times. If I could help, I would!

However, my gladness abated a bit when I realized what the appointed Gospel was. Because of the situation of my most recent parish, I had not preached on this text for about 20 years, and I recalled struggling mightily with it in earlier years.

Following arethe notes for the sermon I preached today on Luke 16:1-13, with a nod to Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

******************

There may be no more difficult parable in the Gospels than the story of the dishonest manager (or steward, as some translations give it). Scholars have turned themselves inside out for many centuries trying to give a coherent account of what at first glance appears to be Jesus condoning dishonesty.

There are several issues here, not least how we read parables. We usually just want to know what it means, expecting a straightforward answer. A few parables allow for this kind of reading, but most of them do not. Especially not this one!

Many people try to read parables allegorically, making each aspect stand for something else. Again, some parables can work this way, but trying to make this story an allegory of anything is an exercise in frustration.

The point of a parable is (as a friend has put it) that Jesus is “messing with us.” Parables generally take well-known situations, and then give them a twist, disturbing the sense of familiarity in the rest of the story. The theologian Sally McFague said that parables open cracks in our reality, making new possibilities available. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

What is that light that gets in? When the crack has appeared in an unexpected place, the light comes from an unexpected source, often revealing an unexpected truth. We should not be surprised that the truth is at times hard to perceive. Jesus said on several occasions: Let anyone with ears to hear listen! He knew, of course, that many people would not have ears to hear.

The parable is puzzling, so we need to consider its context, both in the Gospel and in the culture of 1st-century Palestine.

First observation: it is explicitly addressed to the disciples, but the actual audience is more complex. In Ch. 14 we are told that large crowds are traveling with him, and he takes time to sort them out. The audience for the next few chapters consists of an inner circle (the disciples), a crowd, probably “people of the land,” and some scribes and Pharisees.

Although this parable is addressed to the disciples, we can be confident that the others, especially the Pharisees, are leaning in to hear what he’s saying. I believe we can be just as confident that Jesus was aware of them.

Who were these two groups? The people of the land – the ordinary folks – probably made up the bulk of Jesus’ hangers-on. They were people looking for some relief from an oppressive social situation, with rich landlords (many in league with the Romans) using their labour to amass great fortunes. This is nothing new. We heard from Jeremiah how the prophet weeps for his “poor people,” who are not saved even after the harvest has ended. And look at Isaiah 5:8, from more than a century before:

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The dominance of the “1%” is nothing new. That’s our second primary observation – the socio-economic condition of the times.

The Pharisees sought to keep the Torah to the letter. In their own way, they were also responding to the times, attempting to purify a land that they saw as defiled by foreign occupation. They were a middle-class movement. They were not associated with the ruling class, many of whom were economic sell-outs to the Romans. They were also not associated with the people of the land, who were too involved with their daily work to observe the finer points of the law or to remain ritually pure.

So… let me offer some thoughts about the parable that make sense to me.

Rich landlords hired managers (“stewards”) to keep their estates producing their profits, profiting from the labour of the people of the land. This manager has been fattening his own wallet by cheating both the people and the landowner. When he is caught, he realizes that his source of income is about to come to an end. No more skimming the profits for himself! He has lost favour with his boss, so he turns to the debtors to curry favour with them. He will no doubt lose money, but he will rise in the esteem of those whose debts he has forgiven. He is still shorting the boss but note what he has done: he has changed his priorities, from amassing wealth to building relationships.

His life before this has been devoted to building up his bank balance, using whatever means were at his disposal. What he seems to be missing is the responsibility that comes with wealth. The question for all of us is, not how much we possess, but what we do with it. Faced with the loss of income, the manager turns to the only alternative – to make friends.

Now here’s the big twist in the story: instead of damning the manager further for reducing his take, the rich man commends him for doing what he can to amend his life. This really is Jesus messing with us: any ordinary rich man would be doubly angered by being cheated once more.

The verse after our reading is this:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Maybe they did – but how did the crowds hear him?

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

God gives us people to love and things to use, not things to love and people to use…

Another quote, this one from Julian DeShazier, writing in The Christian Century:

The most important thing about money is what we do with it in our hearts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money. But there’s a lot wrong with how some people use it. As it is often said, we are blessed to “be a blessing.” The manager discovered this almost by accident and was commended for his shrewdness. The true wealth of our lives is not found in the bottom line of financial statements, but in relationships we build with other people. Through those relationships, we can build up not just ourselves, our acquaintances, or our friends and family. We can also build up the people of God, and as N.T. Wright has put it “build for the Kingdom of God.”

All that we have, all that we are, all that have been and will become, is given to us for one purpose, and one purpose alone. We are called to build up God’s people with the many and various gifts God has bestowed on us.

Together blessed, may we as God’s people live into God’s now and future kingdom.

.

Old habits…

Six years into retirement, one might think that I had lost many of the habits of the full-time cleric. Last weekend proved me wrong. While holidaying, we took the time to attend church on Sunday morning. It was a lovely little church in a charming setting, with a small but friendly congregation. So far, so good!

I was puzzled to see that the liturgy as mapped out in the bulletin that day was to be a mash-up of two different rites. Trying to please everyone? Who knows, because what happened was a reasonably straightforward use of a single rite. The priest (who I assumed had put together the day’s liturgy) blithely ignored most of what was printed in the bulletin.

Without going into a lot of detail, let’s just say that I was disappointed in the service. My spouse heard me sigh several times during the long rambling sermon. The liturgy stopped and started several times, while the celebrant appeared to be either trying to find his place or deciding what to do next.  My “trainer mode” clicked into full ON, unasked and unwanted but apparently unavoidable.

I meant this post not to criticize someone else’s work (he might just have been having a bad day), but rather to reflect on my reaction to it. Being critical this way doesn’t help the experience of worshiping, but it seems that it doesn’t take much for my critic persona to emerge. When I was in full-time ministry, it served me in good stead at times, because I was the usual object of my own criticism.

At a course on clergy self-care some years ago, the leader told us that clergy need to find their own means for spiritual feeding. The traditional triad of prayer, bible reading, and worship work well for lay-people as spiritual disciplines, but less so for clergy, because they are too closely tied to our professional lives. Since retiring, I have spent most Sundays in the choir rather than pulpit and altar. In that time, I have found it increasingly easy to worship wholeheartedly in our parish church. Even so, at times I find myself worrying about liturgical details that are Not My Problem. Also, other people’s sermons can at times trigger “trainer mode”.

Those things came back in spades last Sunday. I am left wondering: will the “professional preacher and presider” in me ever go away? will I ever really be able to relax and just participate in a service of worship in the spirit in which it is offered? We’ll see.

In the meantime, even after six years out of the saddle, I know that I haven’t quite let go of the priest-persona. The other question is, of course, whether I want to do that. But that’s a question for another day.

The Devil Quotes Scripture

Notes for a sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Brandon on February 21, 2010, the first Sunday in Lent. Texts: Luke 4:1-13; Ps 91:1-2, 9-16

As I worshiped this morning at Holy Trinity, Old Strathcona (Edmonton), I thought back to this sermon I preached nine years ago.
I believe it has continuing relevance to issues in the church today.

As many people are aware, there has been much turmoil in the Anglican Communion in recent years. If one only followed the secular press, the impression would likely be that the issues centered on sexuality, specifically same-gender relationships. While we should not ignore the significance of “the issue,” we in the church need to pay closer attention to the underlying questions that have served to make the presenting issue such a hot button. Among other issues, there are questions of “theological anthropology”—the doctrine of what it means to be human; questions of ecclesiology—the doctrine about the church; and very importantly, the matter that is my concern today, questions of our understanding and use of scripture.

As we begin the season of Lent, when the discipline of Bible reading and study is specially emphasized, we do well to take a careful look at how we approach the Bible. The first thing we need to observe is that there is no single right way to read scripture, and certainly no definitively Anglican one. The Anglican Communion has recently appointed an international commission to study Anglican use of the Bible. As one commentator noted, if we were all agreed everywhere on our use of the Bible, the commission would be unnecessary.

This morning we heard the traditional Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus’ temptations. We could spend much time with the actual temptations. What I instead want to draw our attention to today is the manner of Jesus’ response to the devil—he quotes scripture, citing two texts from Deuteronomy. The devil presents the first two temptations in his own words, but in the third, he turns Jesus’ tactics back at him. The devil quotes scripture!—the very same psalm we used this morning.

Jesus’ response to the third temptation—another text from Deuteronomy—ends the debate. Using one text to counter another shows us very clearly that simply quoting a verse from the Bible never proves anything. If you search hard enough, you should be able to find a text supporting almost any position you want to take on any given issue. Texts taken out of context can be twisted into almost any interpretation we choose, and that is not an appropriate use of scripture. That’s what the devil does in the third temptation, and although Jesus counters the challenge with another verse, what he is really doing is pointing beyond the text to what came before it—God’s own purpose, God’s own ways.

In the temptation story, both Jesus and the devil appear to use scripture in a literal fashion, but Jesus’ final response goes beyond a literal reading to find the deeper reality behind the “plain sense” of the words.

As we open our Bibles seeking to receive God’s word, we should remember that God came before the book, which is written in human language and interpreted by human minds. No language can fully encompass the reality which is God and God’s ways. No written word can ever truly express the Living Word of God. Nonetheless, we rely on “The Good Book” to guide us into a deeper understanding of who God is, and who we are before God. This understanding comes as we live into the words, making them our own, seeking to model our lives on God’s ways, revealed through the pages of scripture, and in the life, work and person of Jesus.

The great 20th-century theologian Karl Barth said that the Bible is not the Word of God, but rather becomes the Word of God when it is interpreted in a community of believers. The interpretation—the meaning of the words—is found in the lives of those who seek by God’s grace to hear the truth within and beneath them. What do our words mean? We reveal the answer in and through our lives. What is the meaning of Jesus as the Word of God? The answer is revealed in his life, death and resurrection.

However we view the Bible, from a completely literal approach to the totally metaphorical, simply reading the words is not sufficient. As we together seek to live into the words we read and pray, we come together to embody the Word of God. We take the texts off the page, and into our lives, turning the words into the Living Word—the power of the Holy Spirit enlivening and mobilizing the People of God.

Even in its diversity. Anglican tradition does have a number of “fixed points.” One is that we use the Bible a lot. Our worship has much more actual scriptural content than you will find in some churches who proclaim themselves to be “Bible-based.” We read scripture in a disciplined and detailed fashion. Furthermore, our liturgies—both BCP and BAS—are full of scriptural quotations and allusions. The big differences within Anglicanism lie in manners of interpretation. Some read the Bible as literal words of God. Others receive scripture as a unique human response to hearing the word of God. The question that divides these two positions is “Did it actually happen that way?” Those who take the first viewpoint are inclined to say “Of course it did. The Bible (i.e. God) says so.” Those who take the second viewpoint will tend to give a less definitive answer, seeking to bring other evidence (science, history, archeology, etc.) to bear on the text. And the twain shall never agree.

A question which divides is not helpful in bringing people together and building up the Body of Christ. A question that can help us come together is “What does it mean for us today?” We seek to find meaning in action, in our lives together.

The devil can quote scripture, using the written word of God to tear down God’s people like someone bashing a wall with a hammer. Let us remember: a hammer may be used to tear down, but it can also be used to build up, just as the Word of God is intended to build up, to strengthen and empower God’s people.

Scripture was the fundamental tool of Jesus’ ministry, from his time in the desert to the time of his Ascension. So may we follow his example, using the written word to help us continue to become the Living Word, as we follow the Incarnate Word of God.


Stewardship and other spiritual disciplines

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Tofield AB, June 3, 2018
Texts: 1 Sam 3:1-20; Mark 2:23-3:6

How many of you remember Sunday January 17, 1982? Not too many? I didn’t remember the exact date, but I worked it out based on one scripture reading, which we heard this morning from I Samuel, the story of Samuel’s call. It turned up in the lectionary at a time when I was wrestling with my own sense of vocation.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

These words spoke volumes to me then. They led me into the discipline of discernment through prayer: paying attention to God’s call, a practice that led eventually to seminary, ordination, and 26 years in parish ministry. Without hearing that scripture reading, I might well not be standing before you today.

Hearing the call is one thing. Following it is another. All of us are called to ministry through our baptisms, but not all follow that call. For the boy Samuel, his call was the beginning of a lifetime of serving the Lord, playing a pivotal role in the history of Israel. We remember him as the person who anointed first Saul and then David as King of Israel. We don’t know a lot about his life between hearing the call and the rise of the monarchy, except that

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

We are told that the demand for a king did not come until Samuel was old and his sons had proved unworthy. Samuel’s response to the people who wanted a king was to do what he had first begun to do so long ago: he prayed, seeking to listen to the Lord. It seems to me that this had to be the result a life-time of following the call, hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord. It was no accident, but the consequence of years of following the discipline of prayer. We can easily picture Samuel through long years of service in the holy place, attending to ritual day after day, and always taking the time to listen.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

He listened!

Discipline bears fruit. How do great musicians achieve excellence at their art? They practice. [Old joke: A man gets off the subway in NYC carrying an instrument case. He asks a bystander, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, man. Practice!”] How do great athletes become star players? Same answer! It does help if you have natural talent, but if you haven’t heard the call to disciplined exercise of your talent, your inborn gift will never flower fully. The more you practice, the more the exercise of the gift becomes second nature: it becomes truly a part of who we are.

Samuel’s calling led to years of disciplined service, and ultimately to the recognition that he was the one called to lead God’s people into a new way of being.

In our Gospel today, Jesus points to the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping, a practice commanded in the law. He is breaking the law, at least in the eyes of his opponents. They focus on the legalities, but Jesus’ interest is more on the underlying spirituality of keeping sabbath:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
 and not humankind for the sabbath.

Writing in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long recalled how as a youth he heard this saying as permission to go and do all the things he liked doing on Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by his parents and his home church. He realized as he grew older that he was mistaken, coming to understand that sabbath-keeping should be undertaken not because you must do it, but because it’s good for you. The sabbath is a gift from God, calling us to take a day of out every seven to do things that draw us closer to God and each other. In her 1989 book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn identifies four key aspects of keeping the sabbath:

(1) ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction.
(excerpt of a review on Amazon.com)

What I want to emphasize here is that keeping the sabbath takes intention and discipline. To truly keep the sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us, we need to keep practicing. That doesn’t mean just not doing stuff, like the old Sunday rules. It means taking the time every week to turn our lives over to God’s purposes: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

Finally, another spiritual discipline. I came here today because I claim to have some knowledge and experience in the matter of stewardship. Please don’t call me an “expert,” which just means someone with a briefcase more than 100 km from home!

I was glad to give your Rector some suggestions about how to approach the matter of stewardship. Will they bear fruit? I hope so, and the pledges that will be received today will begin to tell that story. But let’s be sure of this: stewardship of our possessions is not a matter of a “once and done” campaign, but rather a question of a life-long spiritual discipline.

Like Samuel’s discipline of listening to God, and Jesus’ call to sabbath-keeping among his disciples, the discipline of stewardship takes practice. Stewardship is born out of the insight that everything we have is gift, and that these gifts are stewardshipgiven for a purpose beyond our own needs. That means that stewardship is very much about money, but before it’s about money, it’s about how we use our treasure to move forward in our participation in God’s mission.

Spiritual disciplines are gifts from God, Spirit-led responses to God’s call.

We are called to discern God’s call. We respond in the Spirit by turning our hearts in prayer, seeking to know God’s desires for our lives.

We are called to turn our lives to God’s purposes. We respond in the Spirit by setting aside one day in seven to focus on those purposes—which then gives a Godly focus to the other six.

We are called to use our material gifts for the furtherance of God’s mission. We respond in the Spirit by dedicating a portion of our possessions, our time, talent, and treasure, to the work of God’s church—which then gives a holy focus on how we use what we retain.

May all our lives be lives of dedication to God’s purposes, lived out in the joy of holy discipline.

Amen.

The Sacramental World of the Bible

Originally written for “Trinity Today,” the monthly newsletter of Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona, Edmonton, Alberta

As General Synod 2016 approached, Anglicans across the country were invited to study a report entitled “This Holy Estate,” on the question of same-gender marriages. The Thursday morning study group at Holy Trinity Anglican Church spent four weeks in this undertaking. It was an illuminating time for me, not because it changed my perspective on the “big question” (it didn’t much!), but because it showed me just how broad a spectrum of viewpoints could be encompassed in a group of less than ten people, particularly with respect to the Bible and how we read it. None of us in the group read the Bible from a purely literal standpoint, but the place it occupied in our lives was very different, from a profound reverence to near-indifference.

The exercise led me to ponder how we ought to approach the holy Scriptures. I am suggesting that we take a sacramental view of the Bible, which I believe will help to open its words for us to become the living Word of God.

The Sacraments as we understand them have both a material and a spiritual reality: the material both points to and conveys the spiritual. The water of Holy Baptism points beyond itself to the reality of incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. The bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist likewise points beyond, to the reality of the presence of Christ in the gathered community and the world around us. In the same way, the words of the Holy Bible lead us beyond the printed page to the reality of God’s presence in humanity and in the world which God created, and ultimately to the redemption of the world through the death and Resurrection of Jesus.

Although Anglican tradition has always placed a high value on Scripture, let it be said here that we do not worship the Bible, but rather the God whom the Bible reveals. The great Anglican theologian Richard Hooker said that the Church – the “called-out” people of God – is founded on scripture, tradition, and reason, which has come to be known as “Hooker’s tripod.” Through the interplay of the three legs, the Church can continue to move forward in its participation in God’s mission. Clearly, Scripture has a foundational and supportive role in this mission.

From itpexels-photo-372326.jpegs beginning, Anglicanism has placed a high value on the public reading of Scripture. Besides being written in English, the first Book of Common Prayer (1549) made some important innovations in worship. Cranmer reduced the multiple monastic daily services to two, the “daily offices” of Morning and Evening Prayer, with the implied expectation that people would participate daily. A system of reading the scriptures (a “lectionary”) was provided for these services, so that anyone who attended them regularly would hear the entire Old Testament every two years, the New Testament three times a year, and the Psalms monthly. While daily attendance at the offices was the exception, the Prayer Book established the centrality of the Scripture in our worship.

More recently, we have come to understand the Eucharist as our church’s central act of worship. While the Sunday lectionary we now use is not nearly as comprehensive as the original daily lectionary, it still places a considerable portion of the Bible before worshipers on a regular basis.

Unlike some other churches of the Reformation, the Anglican church has never defined itself confessionally, by articulating core beliefs to which all members are expected to assent. We have instead tended to define ourselves as a communion through our liturgies. Our worship tells us – and others – who we are. If our worship defines us, it is no stretch to see that the importance of the Bible in our worship also helps to defines us.

So… how do we read the Bible? How do we understand what it is and what it is not? How can it speak to us today without it becoming stale? The Collect of the Day for the Sunday between Nov. 6 & 12 gives some hints about our church’s historical view of Scripture.

Eternal God,
who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning,
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

(Anglican Church of Canada, Book of Alternative Services, p. 391,
or the Book of Common Prayer, p. 97)

First, it does not say that the Bible is “God’s Word” but rather that God caused it to be written. Fallible human beings put pen to paper to write its many and varied texts, under divine guidance but not as God’s holy puppets. They saw and heard and remembered – and then wrote.

Second, it clearly asserts that the scriptures are to be used. They are given for our learning: “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.” How we do this is a matter of personal choice and habit. There is no one right or wrong way for Christians to interact with the Scriptures, except of course, not to do so at all!

Third, we see that our interaction with the scriptures is not a mind game—knowledge for the sake of knowledge—but should lead us beyond the written word to the Incarnate Word. The intended learning should change us. The goal is always a deeper relationship with God in Christ—everlasting life. We are called to become the living Word of God in the world. The Bible is not the end-point of our faith. It is the prime foundational document of the Christian faith, a faith which is not in the Bible but in the one to whom it points.

How do people use Scripture? Sometimes we may sit alone with our Bible in reading or meditation. Very often we hear Scripture proclaimed in the liturgy. At times, we may join in Bible study. In whatever way we interact with Scripture, we are invited to let the words before us change us and draw us ever deeper into a relationship with the One who caused those words to be written. This is truly sacramental – a holy action drawing us closer to God. The Word of God is thus not a static reality on a printed page, but a dynamic reality in the lives of the faithful.

I sometimes preface sermons with this prayer, which I now offer in closing:

Gracious God
Through the written word and the spoken word,
May we become your living Word,
Through him who was and is the Word made flesh,
Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Looking Through the Cross

Notes for a sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 at Holy Trinity Anglican Church (Strathcona) on Sunday, March 4, 2018.

What do we see when we look at the cross?

2000px-Coa_Illustration_Cross_Easter.svg.pngI am sure that everyone of us would answer this question in differing personal, theological, and spiritual terms. I am no less sure that we here today share something in how we behold the cross. After all, it has been the principal symbol of our faith since the 4th century. We know about Jesus’ death on the cross. We decorate many of our churches with crosses of all descriptions. Some of us make the sign of the cross. Many people wear crosses on their persons.

The cross is all around us. When a symbol is so all-pervasive, it can become a constant reminder of the reality behind it or … sad to say, it can become wallpaper. We live with it, but it rarely affects us.

When Paul came to Corinth, he did not come carrying a cross, but rather bearing “the message about the cross.” Some people received the message he proclaimed, but many others dismissed it.

Depending upon their background, they heard Paul’s message as a “stumbling block” or simply “foolishness.”

Foolishness? If you expect your God to be a mighty and victorious warrior, immortal and invincible, proclaiming the divinity of a person who died a shameful death is nonsensical. “Real” Gods don’t do that kind of thing!

Stumbling block? If you expect your Messiah to be visibly blessed and honored by God, the assertion that a victim of crucifixion is the Christ is outrageous. More than that, it is scandalous, in the Hebrew sense that it is heard as something that causes a person to sin. (Note that our word “scandal” comes from the Greek for “stumbling block” — skandalon.)

Whichever way people heard it, the actual story of the cross of Christ was clear and immediate to the people of Corinth—a city of the Roman Empire, a regime which kept the peace through violence and intimidation. Rome’s ultimate means of punishment was crucifixion, which was reserved for the worst enemies of the state. In 2018 it is an act about which we must remind ourselves, but in the year 50 in Corinth, it was a common presence in people’s lives. No one needed to be told what it meant.

And today? Can we still be scandalized by the cross? Do we ever see it as mere foolishness? I would suggest that the answer to both questions is “yes,” in the wider world to be sure, but also among folk who are seeking to follow Jesus.

Our Thursday morning study group has just read a book by the late Christopher Lind, entitled “Rumors of a Moral Economy.” Lind wrote of how contemporary society is dominated by a competition-driven economy, which when allowed to function without restraint leads to greater and greater concentration of wealth, and a diminution of the common good.

In pure competition, there are only winners and losers: a system at best indifferent to human needs. In a competition-driven world, proclaiming Christ crucified can easily be heard as exalting a loser.

Lind’s book also pointed to how a moral economy must be rooted in community and a sense of the common good. When community breaks down (as it easily does in a purely competitive situation), people become isolated, and spiritual needs often end up being expressed in questions about what God can do for us. When faith is all about meeting our own needs, nothing less than a totally divine saviour will do, and then we stumble over the idea that Jesus ended his life rejected by all. Some of them will say, “Well, Jesus really was God, so the crucifixion didn’t really matter.” This is an ancient heresy, called “Docetism,” the belief that Jesus only seemed to be human.

Make no mistake: Jesus was as human as you and me. He ate and drank, he slept, he wept, he felt all the things we do. And just as surely, he died as all of us will in our own time.

Jesus gave up his life on the cross to reveal the power and the wisdom of God—already embodied in his own person.

As Paul wrote:

… though he was in the form of God,
   (he) did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.                                       (Philippians 2:6-8)

The cross defies any ordinary human explanation. There’s no logical deduction, no “standard wisdom,” no simple text-book answer that leads us to the truth of the message Paul brought to Corinth.

God’s power and glory is revealed here, not in a mighty triumph, but in the death of one who was sinless, who gave up his life as a holy sacrifice on behalf of all of God’s people. It is the ultimate act of self-identification with us: all whom Jesus came to redeem.

So: what do we see when we look at the cross?

Let me rephrase the question: what do we see not when we look AT the cross, but when we look THROUGH it?

It is not so much the cross that should demand our attention, but the reality that lies behind and beyond it: the loving-kindness of the God who loved us into being, who loved us enough to send his Son, and who loves us and all humanity every day of our lives.

Let us then hold the cross before us.

Let us see in and through it how Jesus laid down his life for us, in the ultimate and defining act of love, in words from the 1st letter of John.

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.                                                    (1 John 3:16)

And Jesus said

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:12)

The message of the cross is the power of God, and the power of God is love. May this be our proclamation in word and deed, today and always.

Amen.