Second Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Corbet Clark

Feb. 25, 2018

Lessons:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Romans 4:13-25

Mark 8:31-38

Psalm 22:22-30

 

Is suffering necessary?

Is suffering redemptive?

The human experience is that suffering is inevitable. We have all experienced pain and suffering, from illness or injury, or the indignities of aging, from failure and setbacks in school or in work, from community disasters, from losses of family and friends. Our suffering is not all the same, but we all experience at least the everyday suffering of things gone wrong.

Human beings are remarkably resilient. Resiliency is that ability to cope with failures and disasters large and small, to confront them, to move through them and emerge from them, often in positive ways. We know that resiliency is an essential skill for navigating adult life, and most of us learn the skills, usually through bitter experience.

Resiliency has become a hot topic among educators. We know that it’s essential for young people, as they grow up, to develop these skills, and most young people are able to do that. But in recent years there has been an increasing number of young people, from adolescents to young adults, who don’t seem to be able to cope with even modest personal challenges, who seem overwhelmed by setbacks and disappointments. In my work with high school students at school we have seen an increasing number of young people experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, or depression that prevents them from functioning in daily life. Why is this? And how do young people develop the ability to bounce back from personal challenges?

Resiliency seems to be like a muscle – it needs to be constantly exercised in order to gain strength. We all want to protect our children from terrible things happening to them, but the paradox is that when we as adults intervene too frequently or forcefully in their lives, we may be preventing them from developing the resiliency they need. When kids get into trouble and parents step in to fix the problem for them, when students fail at school and parents intercede with teachers or principals on their behalf, when young people experience disastrous social relationships, and adults try to manage that, we are probably doing our children no favors and may actually be keeping them from learning the hard lessons and gaining the confidence in themselves that they need to be mature, resilient adults.

What does resiliency look like? What are the skills we need to learn? Resilient people are able to draw on people around them to provide support and encouragement – not people who will solve their problems, but who will stand beside them and encourage them to solve their own problems. Resilient people are flexible and are able to adapt to changed circumstances, to alter their course when they face a dead end. “My major didn’t work out, so I switched to a different one.” “This relationship wasn’t going anywhere, so I re-thought my priorities and made a change.” “I lost my job, so I decided to pursue a completely different career.”

And resilient people are able to re-write their life narratives in ways that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. We all have a life narrative, a story about our own lives that gives our lives a sense of coherence and ideally a sense of meaning. So that our story is not just “This happened and then this happened and then this happened,” but more like “this happened, and it was hard, but it set me on a new path that has been very fulfilling.” For example, “I had a hard time my freshman year in college and decided to drop out. I spent a year working in the wilderness and came back from that with a new sense of what I wanted to do with my life.” We are constantly revising our life stories, as new things happen to us and as we make new life choices, and resilient people are able to find meaning even in the sharpest setbacks and failures, giving them strength to move forward in life.

This, I think, is exactly what Jesus is doing with his disciples – trying to instill in them the skills to cope with failure. The disciples are going up to Jerusalem with Jesus full of the expectation that this will be a moment of triumph. God’s reign is going to be established and Jesus will make it happen. When Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer and die,” he’s telling them it’s not going to be like that. He is going to suffer and die because he is human, and it is the lot of all humans to suffer and die – there’s no escape from that for any of them. When he tells them to pick up their cross, he’s telling them that by confronting the suffering that is to come, they will find the purpose that God has for them – if they accept it and deal with it, they will find meaning in it. God will show them the way.

Christianity is a very resilient religion. Think about it: Jesus’s followers expected imminent triumph and instead Jesus was arrested, tortured and executed, and his followers were scattered. That should have destroyed the Jesus movement, but somehow they managed to carry on. The found strength in their community and in supporting one another, they were able to re-frame their mission – how and why they were going to move forward. And most importantly, they rewrote their narrative. They took the cross – a symbol of defeat and death – and they made it into a symbol of hope and new life. And Christians have been doing the same ever since.

I came to my school, OES, thirty years ago. Just before I arrived the school had experienced a catastrophic disaster, when nine members of the school, both students and faculty, were killed in a mountaineering accident on Mount Hood. It could have meant the end of the school, but somehow it survived. People found strength and comfort in one another, not to make the pain and loss disappear, but to bear the pain together. And the school rewrote its own narrative, to incorporate that terrible loss and to reshape the school’s mission to one of care for the whole student and service to the larger community, which had offered the school care in a time of crisis.

I think the same kind of thing is happening now in South Florida. In the midst of the incredible pain and grief of this human catastrophe, the community is finding ways to be resilient. They are drawing together to support one another. They are bearing one another’s pain. And they are rewriting their narrative by taking on a new mission: working together with others to make change in our society to stop the violence associated with guns. In the process they are giving themselves hope in the midst of despair and a sense of meaning and purpose, so that the loss of those children will not have been in vain. We don’t know how that will come out, but it’s a sign of great hope.

How do we cope with suffering? How do we develop those skills of resiliency, as individuals and as a community? We commit to supporting one another when we are in pain. We practice compassion, whose root meaning is to “suffer with,” for those in crisis. When we confront failure, we adapt to new circumstances. If our mission is failing, we don’t dwell on that failure but seek out new ways to move forward. And we continue to rewrite our life narratives, as individuals and as a community, to find new meaning and purpose in the midst of defeat and failure. We take up our own cross, confronting hardship and pain directly and finding in it God’s purpose for us, so that the cross of defeat and death becomes the cross of hope and new life.

Amen

 

 

First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 18, 2018

Lessons:

Genesis 9:8-17

1 Peter 3:18-22

Mark 1:9-15

Psalm 25:1-9

This is a Gospel story. It is a Gospel story that takes place in an apartment building.

My friend Darcy is a residential property manager. His job takes him all across Canada, to apartment buildings in the North of British Columbia and in the South of Ontario. At these apartments, Darcy works with his staff of local building managers – with what another generation called superintendents – to make decisions about maintenance and renovations and interactions with the city and about the thousand and one other things that make a building into a place that people want to live. And at these apartments, Darcy meets with those especially attention-getting residents whom the building managers have saved just for him.

One of these residents was something of a legend. He was the source of constant complaints from his neighbours: the thumping music and the shouting at his almost nightly parties kept the whole building up well into the wee hours of the morning. He was selling drugs out of his apartment. And he and his many guests had damaged the building on several occasions, pulling doors off of hinges and kicking holes into drywall, although no one could say if the damage was a consequence of something as deliberate as vandalism or, rather, if it flowed out of plain-old drunken carelessness.

As many of you know, eviction is really hard. It is an expensive and time-consuming pain. That made Darcy wonder if there was another way. And so he decided that what he was going to do was to metaphorically “stand beside” this tenant. He wanted to see what would happen if the two of them could look at the horizon from the same perspective, if there was a way that they could discern a path that they could walk on together.

Looking at the world from his tenant’s perspective, Darcy immediately saw that this man’s goal was pretty clear: he wanted to party all the time. Darcy said, “I don’t understand that. I can’t understand that. And I don’t have to understand that. What I have to do is to reconcile his goal to party all the time with my goal that the party happens somewhere else.”

And so Darcy got on the internet and found a house for rent, all by itself at the end of a lane, perfect for parties. Then he went to a couple of contractors who were working on the apartment – they had a truck, now empty of the lumber and other equipment that they had installed – and he said to them, “If I keep you on the clock, would you mind helping someone to move?” The contractors said, “You bet!” And then Darcy knocked on tenant’s door. And he said:

“I’ve found you a place to live, I’ve got a truck and a couple of guys ready to move you. If I give you $300, will you move out right now?”

The guy said, “Okay.” And, just like that, he was gone.

Now, that story kind of amazes me. I think I’m amazed because most of us – myself included – when confronted with someone who was behaving like that tenant would probably say: That son of a gun. I’m going to fight this guy. I’m going to win. He’s not going to get a nickel out of me. I’m going to teach him a lesson. 

But Darcy didn’t do that. Instead, he took an action that saved him a heap of time and his investors several thousand dollars. Think of the cost of eviction, the rent that the tenant might have defaulted on during a protracted legal battle, the damage that he and his friends might have continued to do to the building, the ill-will that another three or five months of all-night parties would have created with the other tenants, the stable tenants who would have refused to move in when they heard that the apartment was party central For $300 and a couple of hours of overtime, Darcy solved his problem. That was an extraordinarily shrewd entrepreneurial move. But, more than that – and this is why I’m telling you this story this morning – it was a Gospel move, it was a Kingdom of heaven move.

Notice. Notice that Darcy’s interaction with the tenant was not predicated on win/lose model. When the tenant said “yes” and moved out, nobody lost. Everybody won: Darcy got a quiet apartment in which the doors stayed on their hinges and the drywall stayed undented and the tenant got a new venue and enough money for several kegs of beer. Notice that this “yes” flowed out of empathy. Darcy stood beside his tenant and looked with him at possibility. Notice that the empathy that Darcy extended was unilateral. And notice that his empathy was one step ahead of where the tenant was.

It is that unilateral and one step ahead empathy that really gets into Gospel territory. Darcy somehow figured out how to let go of all of the complaints of the playground: It’s not fair; He started it; Everybody thinks that he’s mean; I’ll only say I’m sorry after he says that he’s sorry. Darcy decided that, even if his tenant wasn’t going to move an inch towards reconciliation and a common solution on his own, Darcy was going to move towards him.

So. It is the end of the flood and Noah and his family step out of the ark and onto the miracle of dry land. We tend to concentrate on the earlier part of this story. And we tend to tell that story to children: countless picture books feature a boat overflowing with cute animals. In many ways, that is a strange choice. The flood is a hard story, a disturbing story, a story that demands that we ask: does a tale that features God killing everyone tell us something true and real about God?

But that’s another sermon.

Today, I’d like to focus on what we might call the moral of the story, the moment when God places his bow in the sky. This is not a cutesy rainbow, not a rainbow that has a bowl of Lucky Charms at its end or features My Little Pony dancing across it. This is the bow that is part of God’s bow and arrow – it is a weapon, like a sword or a dagger or a club. God places it in the sky, God hangs it on its rack like a rifle, in order to announce: I will never turn violence on humanity again.

What is extraordinary about God putting away the bow is that humanity doesn’t have to do anything to get God to behave this way. Humanity doesn’t have to apologise, to make a sacrifice, to go church, to write a cheque, anything. God’s mercy, God’s compassion, God’s empathy is unilateral and it is a step ahead of humanity.

God hopes that we will respond with empathy of our own. God wants us to respond with empathy of our own. God calls us to respond with empathy of our own. But God is going to give us this gift, God is going to hang up that bow, God is going to engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy whether we reciprocate or not.  

God knows that extending this kind of empathy is a risk. Sometimes, when God unilaterally extends empathy to us, we don’t respond – or we respond with hostility. We remain as selfish as ever. And sometimes when you and I unilaterally extend empathy to another, we are greeted with cynicism or apathy or anger.

The story of Jesus’ life is that of unilateral, of radical empathy. And the story tells us that this empathy will not always be welcomed, that sometimes it will be greeted with violence. That violence comes because those who are invested in the status quo, those who like things pretty well the way that they are, find unilateral empathy to be profoundly threatening. In God’s empathy, all of the labourers in the vineyard received the same wage no matter when they begin their workday and the first are last and the last first and prodigals are welcomed home with parties.

To participate in the Gospel empathy is a risk. But the promise of the Gospel is that the risk is worth it.

Darcy’s story has an epilogue. I don’t think that it is an epilogue that he ever expected.

Months after he found his tenant a new home and, thereby, found quiet in the apartment building, Darcy ran into someone who knew the tenant. “Have you heard about Mark?” the mutual acquaintance asked, “You know Mark, the guy you got to move out?” Darcy said he hadn’t heard anything about him.

“Well,” the mutual friend said, “When you got him to leave, something changed for him. Mark was shocked, I think: no one had ever talked to him the way that you di before.

“Mark has stopped drinking. He’s stopped dealing drugs. He’s got a honest job doing roofing.

“He’s going to church now.”

We can’t know. When we engage in unilateral, one step ahead empathy, we can’t know what seeds we might be planting. We can’t know what new covenant we might be inviting into being. The Gospel tells us that this empathy might lead us to the cross. And it promises us that it will lead to resurrection.

Palm Sunday & Sunday of the Passion by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew:
Matthew 26:14- 27:66

 

 

When my wife, Phoebe, goes out of town, I often take the opportunity to go see horror films. A week ago, Phoebe and our three children were in Victoria, British Columbia for spring break, and so I went over to the Hollywood Theater to watch the horror/comedy movie Get Out.

I enjoy being surprised by art – by movies, by plays, by paintings – and so I chose to go to Get Out entirely based on its genre, based on a broad understanding of its subject matter or plot, and based on the recommendation of a friend whose opinion I really respect who simply told me:

Go see this movie.

And so I didn’t watch the trailer or anything – trailers tend to give away way too much. I just went.

I’d like to preserve the surprise for you as much as I can. This will be a sermon as much as possible without spoilers: if you are thinking of buying a ticket to Get Out – and I would totally encourage you to go see it, it’s actually the kind of horror movie that even Phoebe would probably like – you don’t need to plug your ears or recuse yourself from the church.

What I’d like to talk with you about this morning are two broad, spoiler-free elements characteristics of this movie that caught my attention. The first is something that I have been fascinated with for a while, and that is the use of horror to talk about a serious subject. And the second – and I’m less sure how to categorise this idea – is about how audience reaction completes a work of art, about how an artist might plan for that reaction and actually build that reaction it into her art.

First, horror as a vehicle for talking about something important. Horror – and I hope that I won’t shock or offend anyone by saying this – is an intrinsically silly genre. We are drawn to horror in part because it is a safe way of encountering something dangerous, of exploring our primal fears of death and of the dark and of decay. But we are drawn to horror as well to because of its marvellous, over-the-top absurdity. Monsters in their lairs and people jumping out of closets and guys wearing masks running around with hatchets are equal parts fearsome and ridiculous.

Because of horror’s absurd element, I was surprised and fascinated when I first realised that a lot of artists have used horror to talk about really serious subjects. The 2005 movie, The Descent, is about the aftermath of trauma; the more recent Australian film, The Babadook, is about grief; and Stephen King has long used his books to explore alcoholism, faith, loneliness, healing, parenting, aging, and so on. To paraphrase the movie reviewer Glenn Kenny, there is a lot of horror out there that is using its ridiculousness in a remarkably purposeful way.

Get Out is part of this unexpectedly serious tradition. In many ways, it is firmly rooted in the “dangerous cabin in the woods” tradition: young people leave the city and go into the woods and there they encounter fear. But Get Out uses the trope of the dangerous trip into the countryside to explore the thoroughly serious subject of race.

Get Out is about being black in America. Its primary character is an African American man in his mid-twenties, the sort of person whom we know is disproportionately likely to have a bad experience with the police, to go to prison, to be turned down for a job interview. The film’s director and writer, Jordan Peele, has said that Get Out had its genesis in his childhood, in a public school experience in which he was required to fill out a standardised form and check a box indicating his race. And he understood that the box that he was checking marked him as an outsider.

As is typical in horror, the Get Out begins in a fairly realistic or naturalistic place – the racism and micro-aggressions that the young man encounters in the movie are based on reality, on a tragically commonplace story – and then the film accelerates into something more magnified or exaggerated or intense.

Because horror movies – like adventure movies and romantic comedies – invite you and me as audience members to identify really heavily with the protagonist, the overwhelmingly white crowd around me in the Hollywood Theater had the singular experience of accepting Jordan Peele’s invitation to spend two hours looking at the world through the eyes of a young African American man.

From the safety of our seats in the Hollywood Theatre, my fellow white people and I got to have the horror of racism directed at us.

And that leads me to the second thing that caught my attention in Get Out, and that is how audience reaction completes a work of art. Jordan Peele is a really smart filmmaker. And my suspicion is that, in this movie, he is using our heavy identification with the lead character to turn a mirror upon us. Yes, through this film, Peele hopes to build up empathy between white folks and people of colour. But I suspect that Peele is simultaneously interested in obliging white folks to examine the ways that we carry ourselves in the world, the way that we think, the way that we act, the stories that we tell about the world and about ourselves.

Get Out presents white people with a deep temptation. Having spent two hours having this intense vicarious or simulated experience of being black, the temptation is to say: I understand what it is to be black in America. The temptation is to say that, because I cheered for the hero, because in a way I was the hero, I am absolved of my complicity of racism in America.

Peele makes particularly effective use of the tropes or the rules of horror in shaping audience reaction. In many ways, Get Out follows the narrative arc or rules of horror really closely, including ending the movie with cathartic violence, with the satisfaction of revenge. And Peele seriously tempts the audience into assuming our pre-assigned horror role of cheering for this violence, of celebrating as the hero with whom we identify engages in violence. During the screening that I attended, there was actually applause during a moment of violence, during a moment when one of the villainous white characters was killed. I saw an interview with one of the actors in the film who said that this kind of cheering is commonplace during screenings of Get Out. Somehow, our absolution is tied up with our approval of the onscreen violence.

These are the moments when Peele turns the mirror on us hard, when challenges his audience, when he challenges us to ask ourselves:

Who am I watching this movie?

Who am I to imagine that two hours with a bag of popcorn in my lap somehow has allowed me to understand the African American experience and that it has absolved me of my participation in racism? I am walking out of the theatre as white as ever, as free from anxiety about being pulled over as I drive home as ever. Who am I to cheer for violence? Do I really think that redemption or justice looks like turning violence away from one person and onto another? Yes, Get Out flips the script from the movies of an earlier era, wherein the violence is initially perpetrated by a person of colour – think about Westerns, about Cowboys and Indians – and then the audience satisfaction comes when the white folks get revenge. In this case, it is the person of colour who gets revenge.

But does that reversal make the violence better? Does that make the violence okay? Is violence good or holy provided that the right person, the member of the right group, is its victim?

Maybe the reason that I am so drawn to this film, is that it seems to me that a lot of the strategies that Jordan Peele uses in creating Get Out are the very same strategies that Jesus uses in the last week of his life, that Jesus uses beginning today as her rides into Jerusalem.

So. Jesus is a member of an occupied and an oppressed people. He is almost assuredly poor – his parents can’t afford a room or a crib when he is born, his friends are predominantly subsistence labourers, fishers, and farmers, and tradition has it that Jesus himself has followed his Dad into the carpentry business. Jesus is a person of colour and the occupying soldiers are white people. The Son of God, in other words, lives on the margins.

But as he enters Jerusalem today, Jesus takes on the role of king, he – and could we think of Jesus as artist or director, in this moment? – he performs the role of king. His entrance into Jerusalem is an imitation of a royal procession, maybe a satire of a royal procession, in which a peasant rides into the city like a conquering hero. Jesus is seated not on top of a stallion – the budget won’t allow for Jesus to get one of those – but on top of a donkey or a colt or maybe, somehow, a donkey and a colt at the same time.

And you and I: Jesus’ audience. We stand on the side of the road and we shout Hosanna, we shout our adulation. Somehow, this brown-skinned peasant, this impoverished member of an occupied people has become the hero of our story. On this day, it is easy to see the world through his eyes. It is easy to imagine ourselves elevated high into the air, seated on the donkey above the crowd.

In less than a week, Jesus will be elevated high into the air again.

This time as he is nailed to the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus will be sent to the cross by another crowd, a crowd that is hungry for blood, a crowd the celebrates violence, a crowd that shouts Crucify him!

Scripture doesn’t tell us how many people are in both crowds, how many of us shout both Hosanna and Crucify him! But my guess is that a good number of us, to our shame, are in both places.

And through his action, through his sacrifice, Jesus invites us, challenges us, to ask ourselves:

Who am I watching all of this? Who am I participating in all of this?

What does it mean to see the world, however fleetingly, through the eyes of one on the margins? What does it mean to be passive when violence is done to that marginalised person? Maybe even to facilitate and to benefit from the systems that do violence to that marginalised person? What does it mean when, as Jesus tells us in this story and throughout actions and his parables, the one on the margins, the one to whom the violence is done, is the Christ himself?

Great stories change us. A movie like Get Out changes us. And the greatest story of them all, the story of the Gospel, changes us. These stories of solidarity with those on the outside, with those who endure violence, change us not because the two hours of Get Out or the 28 chapters of Matthew magically eradicate our privilege and make us completely understand what it is to be black or poor or gay or live under occupation.

That’s way too simple, way to neat, way too easy.

These stories change us because they show us injustice. Because they invite us into empathy for and solidarity with the one to whom the injustice is done. Because they turn a mirror on us and show us our passivity or our complicity in injustice. Because they invite us to have the deep and humble curiosity to ask: Who am I watching all of this? Because they invite us to change. To participate with Jesus in grace and love and hope and life. To participate in resurrection.

Fourth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:
Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

 

This is the second of three Sundays on which we encounter a reading from the Gospel of John that the church has long associated with Lent and, in particular, that the church has long associated with the catechumenate: with that period of preparation for baptism or, if you are already baptised, with that period of deepening our encounter with God and with neighbour. This trio of readings began last week with Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, they continue this week with Jesus healing the man born blind, and they wrap up next week with the raising of Lazarus.

The Johannine scholar, Sandra Schneiders, whose work has profoundly shaped my understanding of the Gospel of John and, in particular, whose work has profoundly shaped what I am going to share with you this morning, describes these three readings as Archetypal New Testament stories, each of which could be synopsised with a single word. As Jesus comes to the well, we discover Water. As Jesus heals the blind man, we discover Light. As Jesus raises Lazarus, we encounter Life.

Water, Life, and Light.

These three, Water, Life, and Light are the central images of baptism – Schneiders suggests that we could also express them as Washing, Illumination, and finally Initiation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today we sit with the middle of these three stories: Light or Illumination or, if you prefer, just plain old Seeing. This is an unusual story within the Gospel of John insofar as it has parallels in the Synoptic Gospels, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Most of the time, the individual or the community that wrote the Gospel of John drew from its own tradition of stories about Jesus and, outside of the Passion narrative, that tradition doesn’t overlap a whole lot with the other three Gospels. Today’s story is among the exceptions to that rule. All four Gospels tell us about the healing of a blind person. John and Mark even share the extraordinarily earthy detail that Jesus heals the blind man by using his saliva, by pressing his spit into the man’s eyes.

Because of the shared nature of the story, we have the opportunity to do something that we don’t get to do all that often, and that is to contrast the themes that John underlines with the themes highlighted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

Let’s begin with a question: what is the general structure of a healing miracle in the Synoptic Gospels? In broad terms (and there a lots of exceptions to this rule), we could say that these miracles tend to have four or five acts. First, someone in need of healing seeks out Jesus: the women with the hemorrhage grasps his garment; the man on the stretcher, with his friends’ help, gets lowered through the roof; the blind man – or, in some cases, the blind men – call out to Jesus, Have mercy on me! Second, Jesus heals the person or people, usually through physical touch, through his hands. (That part is the same as what happens in our story today.) Third, there is some kind of dialogue between Jesus and the healed person. Fourth, the gathered crowd is amazed. And fifth, Jesus will often tell the crowd or the healed person or the disciples to tell no one about what has happened.

Now consider today’s story.

Notice that the man whom Jesus heals does not call out to Jesus or seek Jesus. When the blind man or men call out to Jesus in the other stories, they inform those of us hearing the story that they know that Jesus heals, that they know who Jesus is. John’s blind man, by contrast, is almost passive in this interaction. Jesus is walking along the road. Jesus sees the blind man. And then Jesus initiates the healing. Both the seeing and the seeking, in other words, are reversed. The blind man – and this is one the many places in scripture where the boundary between the literal and the metaphorical vanishes – doesn’t see Jesus. That is a literal, physical reality: the man’s eyes don’t work, they haven’t since he was born. And nor does he see or understand Jesus spiritually. He begins the story blind in every sense.

Notice as well – and this is where I am going to spend some more time – the forensic or courtroom nature of John’s telling of this miracle. This reading is full of argument, some of it aggressive, most of it heavy with irony and double meaning. As soon as this passage begins, Jesus’ disciples present him with a theological question that borders on being a legal question: Whose fault is it that this man was born blind, the man or his parents? Jesus says that it neither he nor his parents are at fault. Then Jesus heals him. And the real argument begins.

The players in these arguments include the formerly blind man himself, the man’s neighbours, the man’s parents, the religious authorities, and finally Jesus himself. Even though everyone but Jesus and the healed man are part of a larger group, from a dramatic perspective there are never more than two characters on stage at any given time. That’s because the neighbours and the parents and the religious authorities all function in more or less the same way as Greek chorus: these groups speak together, there are no individuals whom we encounter. Each of them see – or not – in their own way.

The neighbours simply can’t believe what they have witnessed. At one level they see just fine: there is no question that the blind man is healed. But at another level, they don’t see at all. In a lot of ways, these folks are like many of us today: scepticism runs deep in our culture – we often speak of it as though it were a kind of intellectual virtue – and the upshot is that when we encounter something mysterious or miraculous we reflexively dismiss it. That just can’t be true. Even though the healed man is the same person whom the neighbours have know for years – his healing doesn’t change his appearance, after all – the neighbours say, “It can’t be him. It must be someone like him.”

The man’s parents cannot make a similar mistake or engage in a similar rationalisation – if you are a parent, there is no being unsure of whether or not someone is your child. The parents see that the miracle has happened but, because of their fear of the religious authorities (a fear that may be pretty darn reasonable – I want to be careful that we don’t get smug in our piety and judge these folks), they won’t name what they have seen out loud. When the religious authorities come to them, they say, “Go ask our son.”

And then there are the religious authorities and the healed man. These two characters (again, I’m conceptualising the authorities Greek chorus-style, so as effectively a single entity) have kind of mirror image one another over the course of the story. The man understands and articulates more and more about who Jesus is as the passage wears on: he initially refers to him as “the man called Jesus”; in his next conversation, he identifies Jesus as prophet; in his third conversation with the authorities he identifies Jesus as being from God; and in his final conversation – this one with Jesus himself – he sees. He confesses that Jesus is Lord and he worships him.

The religious authorities, by contrast, begin in a place wherein we might give them the benefit of the doubt, wherein we might assume that they are genuinely searching out the truth. But as the truth mounts, as the truth becomes increasingly incompatible with their world perspective, they become more and more hostile. When the man born blind proves to be an unsatisfactory witness – when he doesn’t give them the testimony that they want, the testimony that says Jesus is a charlatan or a phony – they declare the man to be a criminal himself, to be hopelessly lost in sin, and they drive him out.

Both the man and the religious authorities get a final conversation with Jesus. Jesus says to the one whom he has healed: you have seen. You have seen the Son of Man. By the story’s end, all of his blindness, real and metaphorical, is gone. He is healed in every way.

The religious authorities, by contrast, end in almost the opposite place. They had a glimpse of the truth, of the light. But they made a heroic effort to close their eyes. But John leaves a glimmer of hope at the story’s end. Because the authorities, at the very end, have this little burst of humility, this fleeting instant of holy doubt in which they say to Jesus:

We’re not blind –

Are we?

And the story ends with the possibility that they, too, will be healed. They too will see.

Jesus sometimes tells parables. And in encounters such as this one, he lives parables. This is a parable about how God sees us and seeks us. It declares the good news that, even when we can’t or won’t take a step towards God, even when we are resisting or rejecting God, God is still looking for us and loving us.

And this is a parable about seeing that, in a funny way, is also a parable about the necessity of becoming blind first. The religious authorities can’t see because they have convinced themselves that they have seen already. There is a cautionary tale here for all of us who spend a lot of time reading about Jesus and thinking about Jesus: we are always at risk of making Jesus into an object of study rather than someone with whom we have a lived encounter.

Somehow, in order to have the openness to meet Jesus, to be transformed by Jesus, to be healed by Jesus, we need to begin by acknowledging our blindness. We need to begin by acknowledging that we don’t see. Amazingly, it is in our blindness that Jesus seeks us, that Jesus touches us, that Jesus heals us. That Jesus leaves us blinking with surprise and wonder as, for the first time, we see the light of the Son.

First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Ken Powell

Lessons:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

 

 

 

Good morning friends,

For some irresistible reason, I can’t stop myself from wishing you all a “Happy Lent” as well as a Holy Lent. I know it is contrary to what we may have heard about this somber season of repentance and fasting and sacrifice… but as I have grown in the faith I have become ever more thankful and even joyful for this time and encouragement to be deeply honest with myself about who I have been, who I am now and who I hope to become. Perhaps, this season of reflection and preparation can serve you in the same way.

I don’t suppose any of us can remember precisely when the word “sin” was first spoken in our presence or had any real grasp of what it might mean at that point. For your sake, I hope it was in a healthy loving way of truth telling although I know very well that is not always the case. I remember as a child a kind of dawning awareness that the people who were using the word seemed to be accusing me of crimes I had never committed; were telling me that I was defective in some profound way and that there was nothing I could do about it because someone in the dim past had eaten an apple they weren’t supposed to eat.

Well, I discovered that I could, in fact, reject and resent the whole concept. It just seemed ridiculous as if it didn’t apply to me in any way. Though I didn’t understand the implications very well at the time, it proved to be the first step on a long walk apart from the life and teachings of the church as I knew it…so you might have some idea about how amazed I am to find myself standing here preaching on the subject.

Looking back, I have the impression that in the church of my childhood it was just “sin, sin, sin” all the time… and then finally Jesus on the Cross looking down at the wretched sinners. It was like a perpetual Lenten mood without either the Epiphany or the Resurrection of Christ to guide us on this fragile journey of discovery and transformation. And that, as I see it now, was the problem.

It’s not hard to understand why repentance has such a bad name in our day. I found a list of 172 synonyms for the word in a thesaurus such as contrition, regret, remorse, guilt, self-reproach, and shame. Who really wants to dwell on such things if that’s all there is?

Somehow, by God’s grace, I was led back to a church tradition that taught that forgiveness follows repentance- repentance understood as a change of mind and heart that is both a turning from sin and a turning toward God. If the season of Lent in our life is about giving anything up that might cause us grief and suffering it is also about preparing to receive the gift of forgiveness, of healing and the clarity and strength to accept a better way of life…and that is ultimately a source of thanksgiving and joy not lamentation.

It can be quite illuminating in this light to read again the familiar stories of scripture that speak to this issue and seem to come with readymade, off the shelf interpretations. Take the account of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden, for instance.

Most Bible’s today introduce the passage with a kind of superscript title such as “The First Sin and its Punishment” or “The Fall of Man” so that we are relieved of the burden of having to decide for ourselves what we are reading. As a further aid to our comprehension we have centuries of commentary drawing out the meaning for us under the head of “Original Sin” with a kind of Cliff’s Note version telling us in brief summary- “it’s Eve’s fault”.

Leaving aside any consideration of the devastating impact that such a dogmatic teaching has had on women over the ages let me just say that Adam and his spiritual descendants are never going to wriggle their way off the hook of culpability until they repent of their primary responsibility for the harm and injustice done on their behalf and then work to redress it.

Nevertheless, we still must recognize that any thought or recognition for what has been properly called our “Original Blessing” is- in that old Original Sin framework – cast altogether out of the picture, out of sight, out of mind even though it is the entire basis for our hope in Christ that we may recover our identity as the People of God.

Just imagine what it could mean if we recognized and recovered a living sense of our foundational story as originating in the blessing of all life and not upon the fall from grace or the curse that soon followed. After all isn’t our whole quest from paradise to heaven somehow rooted and nourished by the revelation that we are all, male and female, created in the image of God?

This story of the first family is certainly among the most ancient of the memories of the Hebrew people. I imagine it being told around the campfires on their forty-year journey in the wilderness while trying to come to terms with what it means to be a human being in God’s sight. It’s not so much about assigning blame to either Adam or Eve it seems to me as it is a deep intuition that “Once upon a Time” a Man and a Woman opened their eyes and knew that they were naked before God and each other. When the “other” came into being they were fully exposed -physically, emotionally, and psychologically vulnerable-and so they were afraid and tried to hide. In short, they became self-conscious and everything they knew began to change. There are still unplumbed depths to this story I am sure but to my mind this is a message that speaks poignantly to our time and place.

There is no human being in this room or on this planet past the age of five who hasn’t lived their lives with the consequences and the burden and the power and the responsibility of such a god-like awareness that is unique among all that lives. Knowing good and evil comes at a heavy price. Something died in us on that day. Perhaps our innocence, certainly our ignorance. But from the day of disobedience in Adam the Spirit of God has moved steadily, faithfully to the birth of the New Adam as St. Paul so clearly teaches to the One who was obedient in all things, even unto death- Jesus of Nazareth.

It is ordinarily and authoritatively taught that the Coming of Christ into the world was a sort of corrective plan B to offset the original sins of Adam and Eve or maybe even a plan C considering the fate of Noah’s generation but I wonder. Isn’t it curious that one of God’s own creatures was cunning enough to whisper in Eve’s ear the very thing that she would find most tempting. Does that make God complicit in the first sin? Could it mean that God didn’t know or couldn’t prevent the outcome? Simply allowing it isn’t much better. But what if, as some of us are beginning to wonder, the Coming of Christ into the world as He did was always the one and only Plan A. It is something to think about. More of God’s mysteries are yet to be revealed for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.

What we do know for certain is that Jesus accepted the baptism of repentance from John and turned to God in a way that opened his entire being to the love of God in body, mind and soul and was received and revealed as the Son of God when the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove.

Then another remarkable thing happened. Whereas Jesus taught us to pray that we would not be led “into temptation” but rather “delivered from evil” the same Spirit that had just descended on Jesus led him into the wilderness to confront the Tempter who spoke in the same beguiling voice that Eve heard only now telling Him of the things that He in His majesty would find most tempting. And just as everything began to change when Adam and Eve said “Yes” so everything began to change when Jesus said “No”.

When we are tempted, when the beguiling voice of the tempter comes whispering in our ear, or assaults our sense of touch or taste or sight, when even the scent of some reckless desire comes close we can draw strength from Jesus’ example and the Spirit of God to confront the tempter ourselves for the knowledge of what is good abides in us as well. More than this-when fear and anger, terrible sorrow or grave injustice tempt us to do harm to ourselves or others let us turn to God and each other for help and companionship as we pray for the courage and conviction to follow Jesus to the Cross, to the empty tomb and to the resurrected life. What a joy it will be to lay our sins and our sorrows at his feet at last. Happy Lent everyone!

Ash Wednesday by the Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:
Joel 2:1-2,12-17
Psalm 103:8-14
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

 

 

As a child, I was fascinated with ash. My parents had a home with a fireplace, one of those incredibly inefficient brick boxes built into the wall that doesn’t so much generate heat as it sucks the air that the furnace has heated out of the house. And I loved sitting before it. I loved watching paper and then kindling and then wood turn into ash. Sometimes, depending on the intensity of the flames and their heat, the ash would resemble what it had been before the fire came, so that the blackened remnants of a log or, magically, a piece of paper would sit in the fireplace. Sometimes the paper would even have text or an image still visible upon its darkened surface.

It was almost unchanged.

Except what I knew was that the paper was changed, and that it was changed irrevocably.

Once or twice I tried to pick up one of these charred notes or drawings, to hold it in my hands and read it the way that I could’ve done before the fire. But the instant that my hand arrived, the paper turned into dust, black and grey dust that permeated my fingers, so that my hands suddenly told the story of soot, and I had to be careful not to touch the carpet or my clothes or the curtains, lest I spread that story everywhere.

Over the course of a winter, the fireplace would fill up with ash, with the legacy of fire. And so my father would empty it out, spooning the ash with an old and beaten shovel into a bucket. My father was a composter – he remains a composter, even today in his 92nd year. Long before the city began delivering green bins to our homes, my father had an enclosure made of salvaged wood in the corner of our yard into which went banana peels and carrot shavings and forgotten bowls of cereal. Across the wet of the Pacific Northwest winter, the compost would be strangely warm in the cold. And then, early in the spring, my father would dig up the garden bed and pour in the compost. On top of the compost, around it, he would pour in the buckets of ash. And then he would return the soil to the top and the ash and the compost would rest in the darkness.

The sun would return and my mother would plant the seeds. And out of the compost and the ash would come new life.

Around the same time that I was gazing into the fireplace, I was also going to school. And there I learned about the food chain: about the stack of things that eat other things. So, plankton or worms or grass are eaten my small animals which are eaten by larger animals which are eaten by still larger animals which are eaten by human beings (or, as the textbooks called human beings back in the 70’s and 80’s, man). At the top of the diagram, at the top of this buffet provided by nature, stands the human being, proud and free.

Except that what the ash and the garden told me was that the food chain was a fiction, that humanity’s independence from the food chain was a fiction.

There is a moment, just after a person dies, when you stand beside their bedside and someone says: it’s almost they are sleeping. And in a way, that is true: sometimes there is peace on a dead person’s face that you seen for months or years. But in another way, it isn’t true at all: even if you don’t check that person’s pulse or listen for their breathing, you know that they have gone, that they has stepped out of their body, irrevocably.

On this occasion, on Ash Wednesday, we remind one another that we are going to die, that the day when our bodies lay still and empty is coming for us all. On that day, we will step down from the top of the food chain. Notwithstanding the best efforts of the most expensive morticians in the world – no matter how much formaldehyde is poured into our now still veins, no matter how thick the walls of the coffin in which we are laid may be – we will return to the earth.

Like the first humans in scripture, like the ones we call Adam and Eve, we were created by God out of the earth. In a very real, very literal sense, our bodies are crafted out of everything we have ever eaten and all the air that we have ever breathed and all of the sun that has ever landed on our skin. And at the end of our lives, we will return everything. Everything that we have borrowed from God. And it will turn into something new, into new life.

On Sundays, when we say the creed together, we proclaim that we believe in the resurrection of the body. Those are awesome words. What do they mean? Part of what we are saying is that we have caught a glimpse of a mystery. Through our experience and through our tradition, we have caught a glimpse of the promise that, when our bodies lie still, our life somehow continue. In death, as the Prayer Book proclaims in the funeral service, life is changed, not ended.

Today I am wondering if, when we speak of the resurrection of the body, we are also speaking of an everyday mystery, of the beautiful promise that, when we need our bodies no longer, our bodies will feed life and become life and participate in life. The elements in our bodies were thousands of things and creatures before they were us. And after we let them go, they shall be thousands of things and creatures again.

At the end of our sojourn on this earth, our bodies shall be like the paper in the hearth after the fire. Maybe some of our story will even be visible on our faces. But we, we will be gone. And when the hands reach down to lift us up, we will be already turning back into dust from which we came.

Fifth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8
Psalm 126

 

Do you have a favourite smell? An odour that just delights you when it makes it to your nose?

I have several smells that I really like. I love the smell that the earth makes when rain falls upon it on a hot day, the smell of warmth and fecundity: that smell makes me think of being ten and the wild freedom of summer vacation. I love the rich, fermented smell of olives sitting in a dish: that smell makes me think of the days when Phoebe and I were first married and we stocked our pantry at a nearby delicatessen. I love the smell of used bookstores. Does that smell even have a name? The smell of musty old words. That smell makes me think of curiosity and discovery and imagination. I even like some smells that aren’t all that pleasant in and of themselves because of what they evoke. There is a certain brand of cat litter, for instance, that smells just like the basement of my childhood friend. That smell makes me think of the many happy afternoons that I spent at his house after school.

What about a least favourite smell? A smell that you just can’t stand?

I don’t like the smell of ammonia: that was the smell of my great grandmother’s nursing home, the smell of its angry staff and its terrifyingly clean floors. I don’t like the smell of smoky rooms, even if nobody is smoking in them right now: the history of a thousand and one of cigarettes is just soaked into the walls; those rooms smell the way that a wheezy cough sounds. I don’t like the iron smell of blood: it holds the echoes of wipe outs on bikes and skinned knees and accidents with carving knives.

All of these smells, the ones that I have named and, perhaps, the ones that you have thought of – and forgive me if this is obvious, but I think we need to name this out loud before we go any further – are powerful not just for what they trigger in our noses but for what they trigger in our memories. Smell, maybe more than anything else, is a gateway to the past. As Vladimir Nabokov writes, “Smells are surer than sights or sounds to make your heartstrings crack.”[1]

The readings that the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next) gives us this morning are as full of smell as anything that scripture has to offer, they are an olfactory delight. Here is Isaiah telling us of the sea: the smell of which proclaims the story of salt and life and danger. Here is the Psalm telling us of joyously bringing in the sheaves: the bundles of cereal plants on the workers’ backs, the air so thick with the smell of pollen that you can almost reach out and hold it in your hand. Here is Paul telling us of rubbish, of the almost overpowering smell of forgotten clothes and yesterday’s food.

And here in the Gospel, here is John telling us of a room filled with the smell of perfume.

The perfume in question is nard or, sometimes, spikenard. It was imported into the Ancient Near East from India, Nepal, or China, likely travelling along one of the routes that we know by the name The Silk Road. Nard, being an import in the years before FedEx was open for business, was staggeringly expensive. The 300 denarii at which Judas Iscariot appraises Mary’s jar of nard is about how much a typical worker would have made in a year. If you mentally translate 300 denarii as 45 or 50 thousand dollars, you’re probably in the ballpark.

Nard had a remarkable variety of uses in Jesus’ day. Sometimes it was an ingredient in perfumes, sometimes it functioned as incense in religious rituals, sometimes it was even used in the flavoring of food – you might encounter its smell coming from a frying pan. And sometimes – as we witness in the curious and awesome scene that John recounts today – it was used in the preparation of corpses for burial. Except that, today, in this room, Jesus’ body isn’t a corpse.

Jesus comes to the table, perhaps sitting on the floor, perhaps reclining against a low table (there are some scholars who figure that, in the Ancient Near East) people ate while almost laying almost horizontally, their elbows on the table and their feet pointing away. And Mary comes to him.

She takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and, in a staggering act of service and intimacy and discipleship and vulnerability, she anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair.

And the house is filled – filled –with the fragrance of the perfume.

What does that room smell like? Some folks who have smelled nard describe it as having a sweet, spicy, and musky smell, as having the smell of the earth.[2] Others speak of mustiness, of the smell of leather.[3]

As the room fills up with this smell, the smell of a glorious old cellar filled with fermentation and moisture and beautiful decay, what memories come to the people who sit around the table? What memories come to Jesus?

Perhaps he remembers his childhood, that time that sits at the fringes of his recollection. Back when his father and his mother told the story of the Magi who came to visit him when he was an infant and the strange gifts that they brought including the jar of myrrh, perhaps a more bitter perfume than nard, but similar in many ways. There are common notes in the scent of each, and both are used in preparing the bodies dead. Ever since Jesus’ birth, people have been preparing for his death.

Perhaps Jesus remembers the party that began his ministry, the wedding feast at Cana at which his Mom challenged him to step out of his shell and into his calling. Does the nard smell at all like wine or the sweat or the people on the dance floor or the electric sensuality of new love, like the young, just-married couple at the centre of the festivities who can barely keep their hands off of one another?

Perhaps Jesus remembers the many meals that he has shared, the bread that he has broken with everyone, everyone who wants to eat with him. Meals with the wealthiest tax collectors and priests, most of whom bathe regularly and smell fantastic. And meals with the poorest of street people and lepers and prostitutes, most of whom rarely bathe and have an almost paralyzing cone or body odour surrounding them, the biting smell of dirt and urine and old skin.

Perhaps Jesus remembers the thousand and one acts of service that he and his friends have done together, the thousand and one people whom they have touched – not figuratively touched, but literally held in their hands. (Remember the deaf man whom Jesus heals by putting his fingers right into his ears.) The smell of flesh, the smell of being alive.

Perhaps Jesus remembers the smells that perfumes such as nard are used to cover up. Remember that Jesus lives in a time before sewers and consistent protocols for disposing of dead bodies: unlike most of us in this room, he is no stranger to the smell of putrefaction, to an odour that one contemporary pathologist refers to as overwhelming and vile.[4] And remember that this story takes place in John immediately after the raising of Lazarus, so the stink of death is fresh in his nose.

And perhaps (Is this a paradox? Let’s run with it and see.) Jesus remembers what is soon to come. In some way the thick smell of nard that fills the room triggers in his memory a picture of what is to come for him. He imagines that day, startling soon, when Nicodemus will bring the spices and he and Joseph of Arimathea will prepare Jesus’ crucified body for burial, as they will get it ready for the tomb.

As the nard fills the room, as Mary pours it upon his feet and washes it with her hair, what this mustiness of this scent calls into the memories of Jesus and his friends is the story of life itself. The remembrance of birth and death and everything in between, the remembrance of meals and friends and strangers and confusion and grief and discovery and love. The smell of nard brings the remembrance of the glorious, hard, wonderful, joyful, messiness of being alive.

 

 

[1] I am indebted to a couple of online commentators for sending my reflections in the direction of smell and for the Nabokov quote in particular: Jannie Swart – gladlylistening.wordpress.com/tag/smells/ – and Karoline M. Lewis – workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4554.

[2] When I entered this question into Google (what did we do before the internet?), I found a sermon by a preacher who used to be a sommelier, a wine expert, someone who relied on his nose for his living. He is the source of this description. thereligiousleft.org/2012/04/scent-of-god.html

[3] basenotes.net/threads/291557-Spikenard-smells-like-Feet

[4] leelofland.com/wordpress/jonathan-hayes-notes-on-forensic-medicine-smell/