Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 3, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 1:4-10

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Psalm 71:1-6

Have you heard of the psychological phenomenon called Impostor Syndrome? Impostor Syndrome – and I mentioned this in passing a few weeks back on the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus, I’d like to go a little deeper this morning – is the fear, sometimes mild and fleeting, sometimes profound and debilitating, that sooner or later I will be exposed as an utter fraud. It is the nagging doubt that, notwithstanding my best efforts to hide my incompetence, folks will discover that I am not qualified to be a parent, to be a citizen, to be an adult, whatever.

In small doses, Impostor Syndrome might be okay. A certain amount of discontent is not a bad thing. There is some fascinating research that suggests that we may make better decisions when we are feeling a little sad or little irritated, that we may become more motivated and apply better critical thinking skills to the world around us. If that research is right, then the mild unhappiness that comes with small-dose Impostor Syndrome, kind of like small-dose physical pain, may give us a nudge be lifelong learners, to approach situations with curiosity and openness, to assume that life requires our best effort, to ask big questions.

That’s not a bad way of encountering life.

The problem shows up when we encounter Impostor Syndrome in higher doses, when it becomes our prevailing lens for encountering reality. When we are constantly living with a narrative that says that we are unworthy, unqualified, that we are faking it, that we are going to be exposed, what happens? We can end up as perfectionists, constantly trying to meet an impossible standard, and living with the emotion that inevitably comes with perfectionism, which is shame. We can end up stuck, unable to take a risk, maybe even unable to hear when God calls us to take a risk. And we can end up being kind of unpleasant to be around.

I am a reformed self-deprecator. Self-deprecation, tearing myself down, was a particularly big part of my life when I was an adolescent and a young adult. It was the primary ways that Impostor Syndrome manifested for me. (I think our teens and twenties is an age time a lot of us struggle to hold ourselves in esteem, to imagine that we are worthy or good or loveable.)

One of the ways that my self-deprecation manifested in a way that I particularly regret, for which I am sorry, was that I argued with people when they offered me praise and encouragement. I was in a lot of shows in high school, theatre is what let me survive high school, and so I got a fair bit of positive feedback. Folks would say, “I loved your performance in the play.” And often, I would respond:

Oh no, I was no good.

My guess is that, if you had asked me at 16 why I argued with affirmation, I would’ve told you that I was being humble. I no longer see it that way at all. I have come to understand arguing with praise and encouragement as an act of arrogance. When someone says, That thing you did or said was a big deal and we start refuting them, we are calling their experience into question, we are announcing that they are not experts in their own lives, that we know better than them what is important to them and what isn’t.

Sometimes people will thank you for the most unexpected or unlikely things. If you have ever visited someone, for instance, after a big loss, after a seismic grief or trauma, you may have been surprised when that person thanked you in apparent sincerity, when they told you that your visit mattered a lot. That’s a moment when someone wired like me, and maybe someone wired like you, is sorely tempted to argue. I mean, what could you possibly have said or done that would be equal to that kind of hurt?

I implore you – and I am preaching as much to myself as anyone else right now – to resist that temptation. When the urge rises up to say, I don’t see how I helped at all, push that down and instead, say:

Thank you.

If you absolutely must argue with praise, push that down until you have left the person in grief and then share your unworthiness with a trusted friend or a therapist.

Today, we hear about the young Jeremiah called by God. God comes to Jeremiah and he speaks these staggeringly beautiful words:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.

And hearing this, Jeremiah’s Impostor Syndrome kicks in right away. He starts arguing with God. He says:

You must be mistaken, God. I’m just a boy. I don’t know how to be a prophet. I barely even know how to tie my shoes.

But God is having none of it. God says: Cut that out right now. This may surprise you, Jeremiah, but I, the Lord your God, do not make very many mistakes. Do not say, “I am only a boy.”

you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,

And then God offers those words of reassurance that recur across the Bible:

Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you.

Jeremiah knows enough to stop arguing at this point.

And then God says:

Now I have put my words in your mouth.

And so Jeremiah joins the long list of folks in scripture who insist that they are underqualified to serve God and who, with God’s help, end up changing the world anyway. He joins with Moses, who says that he doesn’t know how to talk; with Sarah who says that she is too old; with Jonah who hears God’s call and just starts running. (Have any of you done that?)

I think we’ve all met folks, maybe we’ve all been folks, who kept on arguing with God until the moment of call, the moment of possibility, passed us by. God doesn’t insist. God doesn’t make us do anything. God loves us too much, God respects our freedom far too much to do that. And so, if we argue long enough and hard enough, God will say to you or to me:

Okay.

Thy will be done.

One of the saddest conversations of my life was with a childhood friend with whom I stayed in contact come adulthood. My friend, unlike me, had some athletic gifts. When we played football at the field near our houses, he was far and away the best of us. He had this long, glorious stride. I would play quarterback sometimes, and watching him go get a deep ball, fast and effortless, was beautiful.

A few years into adulthood I asked him: Given your talent, why did you never try out for a high school football team?

And in one of those moments of raw candour that sometimes show up, when the artifice falls away and we are able to tell the truth to one another, my friend said to me:

I was afraid.

I was afraid. Football was the one thing that I was really good at. And I was afraid that if I tried out and didn’t make the team, then that too would be taken away from me.

For my friend, his sense of impostorship was so pervasive, so corrosive, that it stopped him from taking a risk. Maybe he would’ve tried out for the team, maybe he wouldn’t have made it, maybe his fears would’ve been realised and he would’ve had to live with that disappointment and that grief. We can’t know. But I want to suggest that even that worst-case scenario would have been miles better than the hollowness that he lived with instead, the nagging awful sense that he was forgetting to live his life.

How do you and I keep from arguing with God? How do we keep from arguing when God offers us praise and encouragement, when God calls us? How do we prevent Impostor Syndrome from leaving us with an unlived life?

Today we hear that passage from Paul that everybody reads at their wedding. Love is patient, love is kind, love believes all things, bears all things. The greatest of these three is love. And maybe repetition has dulled these words a little, made them invisible or obvious. But I want to see if we can listen to these words with new ears. I want to suggest that we reach for these words on a big deal occasion such as a wedding with good reason. Because they tell us an awesome truth about life and about God. They tell us that, as our Presiding Bishop never tires of proclaiming, that love is the way.

And maybe they offer us an answer to, an antidote for, Impostor Syndrome.

When Phoebe and I were first dating, I remember her vividly telling me that a penny had dropped for a while back, that she had realised that Jesus’ command to love your neighbour as yourself by necessity requires you to love yourself. Now, for many of us, that command is hard. Loving others might actually be substantially easier than loving ourselves. But I want to suggest that doing our very best to keep this part of the commandment is actually a vital act of reverence. Because when we love ourselves we are declaring that God does not make junk. We are declaring that scripture is telling the truth when it says that we are made in God’s image. We are declaring that Paul is telling the truth when he says that you and I are the Body of Christ.

May you and I stop arguing when God praises us, when God encourages us, when God calls us. May we know, deep in our bones, that we are not impostors. May we know, instead, that we are made in God’s image, that we are the Body of Christ, that our bodies are covered with the holy fingerprints of God. May we know that we, just like our neighbours, are loved beyond limit. And may we live accordingly.

 

Third Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

jan272c2019

Lessons:

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Psalm 19

I’d like to start with a survey: how many of you remember the first time that you heard a story around a campfire?

For me, the memory is indelible – it is a huge part of my personal mythology. I was away at camp for the first time, sleeping in a cabin without my family for the first time. I was maybe my youngest child’s age, so about seven years old. And the whole experience felt full of joy and danger and possibility. We stayed up way later than I did at home – it was near the summer solstice and we went out at some impossibly late hour to see the stars in their ancient immensity.

And then having gazed in wonder at the sky, we sat around the campfire.

The teacher or counsellor who told the story that night was named Steve. And Steve shared with us a tale of horror. In retrospect, it was kind of a goofy tale of horror, a riff on Poe whereby this guy murders his neighbour and then he is haunted by his neighbour’s coffin as it comes thump, thump, thumping up the stairs. But when I was seven it might’ve been the greatest story that I had ever heard, it kept me on the edge of my seat or, I suppose, on the edge of my log.

The story ended, by the way, with the hopelessly hokey punchline:

The door burst open and the coffin came in and our hero thought all was lost.

But then he took out his package of Vick’s and he stopped the coffin.

A lot of years later, when I started encountering the stories of the Bible, the penny dropped for me: I realised that, in origin, around the campfire is where almost all of these stories of faith would first have been told. Before there were scrolls or books or e-readers these stories were shared from people’s memories and hearts.

Most scholars reckon that no fewer than 20 years elapsed between Jesus’ death and the first of the Gospels, Mark, being committed to paper. And unless there are older texts that got lost, unless that scholarly guess is right and there really is a lost document that predates Mark, that means that for two or more decades the story of Jesus’ birth, his life, his death, his resurrection was remembered and told by folks like Steve to people like me, sitting on the logs around the fire and listening hard for what happens next.

How is the story different when there is no physical text involved, when there is no paper but just the human voice around the fire? Well, for one physical context becomes part a way deeper of the story. When it is the night and you are under the immense beauty of the stars, when the darkness is all around you, your imagination is unlocked in a way that, maybe, it is not and cannot be inside a building with artificial light and a text on a lectern. Around the campfire, you touch something primal, and it is a little easier – a lot easier – to imagine that coffins might chase people around or that Jacob might walk away from the fire and wrestle with a stranger in the darkness.

The campfire is a place of holy possibility.

The other thing that is different around the campfire is that the story is interactive. The story happens, to borrow a phrase from the world of computers, in real time. Steve listens to our reactions and he alters the story accordingly. We ask him questions – what colour was the coffin, what did the house the guy lived in look like, how does a coffin climb stairs anyway, given that a coffin doesn’t have feet – and Steve responds. In a sense, everyone who sits around the campfire tells the story together.

When written text shows up, it changes all of this. Suddenly, you need enough light to read, and light lessens the magic and the danger. And suddenly the story is the same, it is consistent, everywhere and always. If I am reading Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World to my son before he goes to bed (which I am), it is the very same text that someone else is reading to their child across the country or across the world or even across time. Maybe I do the voices differently, maybe my pacing is different, but by and large the story is identical. I am not changing Dahl’s tale as my son says why or how or more.

Today, we hear this reading from Nehemiah. In it, Ezra the scribe has a book or, more likely, a scroll, and he gathers the people and he reads to them from the law of Moses. This scene likely takes place in the 6th or 5th century before the Common Era, so maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth. This is the time when, in much of the ancient world, the stories of faith and of life and of being human are being committed to paper on a scale and in a way that they had not been before. Plato is writing around this time, so is the Buddha, so is Confucius.

Now, there are couple of a fascinating lines in the passage that we just heard. The first one goes goes like this: Ezra reads the law to all who could hear with understanding. The second line, a little while later, says that Ezra reads the law with interpretation.

Huh.

Do these qualifications mean – and here and throughout the sermon I am drawing heavily here on the research of the wonderful scholar, Paul Nuechterlein – that the ideas are too complex for some of Ezra’s listeners to understand, that there is a theological nuance that some of his audience can’t quite track and, therefore, that he has to walk them through it? Or does it mean that we’re now living in a time in which not everyone can understand Hebrew and, therefore, Ezra has to keep on stopping to translate, that hearing this is a little like watching a movie in a language that you don’t know, so Ezra has to hit pause every couple of minutes to explain what the characters just said?

Either way, something is happening as Ezra reads from this text that doesn’t happen around the campfire – or, at least, that doesn’t happen when the storyteller is any good. Because Ezra is reading from a set text rather than telling a story or making an argument in a real-time collaboration with his listener, the mutuality that happens around the campfire is radically diminished. I suspect that we’ve all had the experience of hearing someone speak and being super engaged during the part of the speech when they are extemporaneously drawing on their own experience, but then losing our engagement, our eyes glazing over a wee bit, when the speaker starts reading from prepared remarks. The written text allows precision, but it also diminishes communion. It ramps up the likelihood that we will hear but not understand.

It seems to me that we encounter Ezra’s problem in church with some regularity. We have a set text that we read from the lectern or, if it’s the Gospel, in the middle of the aisle. Sometimes the text is confusing. If you’re like me (and I don’t know if I should admit this), that confusion comes up particularly often during the Epistle, during the second reading. That confusion can make it hard to listen. Occasionally, when I am travelling and I visit a church, I have the disquieting impression that not only do I not understand the Epistle, but neither does the person reading it. We are united in mutual incomprehension.

And sometimes the text is not so much confusing as it is hard, such as when it appears to paint a picture of God that we don’t like.

What do we do then?

Today in the Gospel, Jesus offers a possible answer to that question. And it is an answer that may be kind of shocking to us. What do you do when you are reading the Bible and you encounter something that is inconsistent with what you know about God? Well, you draw on your experience around the campfire and you edit the text.

Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. From Isaiah 61: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor. And from Isaiah 58: Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

If you know your Bible, if you know Isaiah, you will know that, in addition to stitching verses 61 and 58 together, Jesus has omitted something from 61, he has stopped reading in mid-sentence. The original passage says:

…to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor,

and the day of vengeance of our God.

The original text gives us what Nuechterlein calls the conventional messianic dream of an oppressed people. In other words, the Messiah is going to come, he is going to put things right for us, he is going to release our prisoners, he is going to heal our broken hearts. And then he is going to turn to those who have oppressed us and he is going to kick ass and take names.

And Jesus, like Steve around the campfire, knows that this line about vengeance isn’t right, it isn’t part of the story that his listeners need to hear.

And so, in his version, it is gone.

Here’s the question: Christians are called to be Christ-like, to imitate Jesus. But dare we emulate him imitate him here?

Jesus, well, he’s Jesus. He’s the Son of God, light from light, true God from true God. And if wants to edit the Word of the Lord, then he is probably qualified to do so. But could someone like you and me possibly do the same? If I just start editing the Bible, cutting out anything that I find strange or confusing or troubling, then what am I going to go except make God in my own image? This is what the scholars call eisegesis, where I project myself into the text, where I look down into a well and, without realising it, see nothing but my own reflection looking back.

And maybe that would be enough to stop the Christian from emulating Jesus when it comes to scripture. Except that, here too, maybe the campfire offers us a possibility. Because around the fire, the tale is never told alone, the editing is not done alone. The storyteller under the stars is not a novelist, putting their words into a machine and then sending them out to the world fixed permanently to the page. Rather, this storyteller is a collaborator.

If Paul is telling the truth and all of us together really are the Body of Christ, if we are Jesus’ hands and feet and voice in this hurting world, then maybe, together, we are qualified to edit this story. To shape the tradition we have received. To remind one another, as our friends in the United Church of Christ have it, that God is still speaking.

Together, maybe we can figure out how to be like Jesus. Together, maybe we can figure out which parts of the story we need to edit, to change, to add to. Together, we will proclaim the amazing story of God.

First Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

january 13, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 43:1-7

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Psalm 29

A while back I heard a short radio documentary. The feature began with a story about the reporter’s four-year-old nephew. The little boy was visiting a toy store with his mother and there he was terrified by a hideous creature, by a large statue of Frankenstein’s Monster standing by the entrance. The boy’s fear was so great that he ran deep into the toy store to hide. And that would have been an okay strategy, except that it created a logistical problem: there was only one door and, in order to leave the store again, it was necessary for him to pass the monster once more.

After a great deal of negotiating with his mother, the little boy made it clear that walking past Frankenstein’s Monster a second time was an impossibility. And so, his Mom picked him up and, his face buried in her shoulder, she carried him past the awful creature and out of the store.

For a long time thereafter, the boy was fixated on the experience, almost paralysed by it. Over and over he would say, “Mom? Remember the monster?” And he would retell the trauma of that day at the store again and again and again, much as you or I might retell the story of a car accident – such storytelling is how we wrestle with such an experience, how we make sense of it.

But one day something remarkable happened: the retelling suddenly shifted. Just at the moment in the story when the toy store monster made its shuffling evil entrance, the fear fell away from the boy’s face like a sheet of ice and it was replaced by something else. I’m going to guess that his expression was a combination of mischief and glee. (Is there a name for that look, for that mixture of emotions? There should be.) And he announced to everyone listening:

I saw the monster. And I peed all over it!

And in that instant, the monster lost its power over him. Like David letting the rock fly which fells Goliath, the little boy claimed the most improbable of victories by doing something new.

The reporter then spoke to a researcher by the name of Timothy D. Wilson who explained that the technique that her nephew had employed is what, in his research, he calls story editing. Story editing takes two major forms.

First, story editing may involve doing what the little boy did, taking a negative experience and writing a new happy ending to it. In the revised story, you have the perfect rebuttal to the guy who insulted you, you don’t drop the game-winning touchdown, you are able to defeat the monster in the store. That kind of story editing is a way of escaping from an experience which is haunting you, of gaining power over that experience. And as simple, as silly even as it may sound, Wilson told the reporter that it works.

The second kind of story is something that Wilson has focused on a lot more. It involves taking a limiting narrative in your life and reframing it. An example of such a limiting narrative might be, “I’m no good at math” or “I have a hard time making friends.” Within the church it might be – and this is a story that is often told with shame – “We’re an aging congregation.” The researcher said that he has taught this kind of story editing on a large scale with of first-year university students, with people who are often carrying the story that goes something like, “I’m out of my depth.” Wilson invites the students to take this narrative of limitation – a story that I suspect that all of us struggled with at age seventeen or eighteen, and that many of us may struggle with still – and to craft it into a new story, a story whose thesis goes like this:

“Everybody struggles at first.”

Wilson said is that, compared with a control group, he discovered measurable improvements in the outcomes of the young people who adopted the new story. That they did better on tests, on essays, on oral reports. They were happier. “Everybody fails at first” was a story that set them free.

Over these last several weeks of Advent and Christmas, we have once again walked with the holy family to Jerusalem, there to witness the Christ child’s birth. Today, we fast forward two or even three decades to Jesus’ baptism. With the exception of Luke, who gives us the awesome account of Jesus as a child teaching in the temple, we really don’t know anything about the intervening time. There is a gap in Jesus’ biography. We don’t know what history Jesus brings with him as he steps into John’s arms and the Jordan River.

We are pretty used to picturing Jesus as an almost impassive figure. Years of art have encouraged us to do so. In one painting after another, Jesus has this look of distant and holy patience on his face. Occasionally he smiles, although he almost never laughs. And, at the end of his life, he suffers. But, even then, even on the cross, the theme of impassivity remains – Jesus on Golgotha still has an otherworldly patience, a borderline terrifying serenity. And maybe artists are right to depict him that way.

What I don’t think I have ever seen is a painting us Jesus looking befuddled, looking confused, looking lost. Why not? If we take seriously scripture’s claim that Jesus was fully human and not simply an all-powerful god disguised as a human being, then, much as he shared in our pain, much as he shared in our joy, Jesus must have also shared in that sense of lostness that is sometimes part of everyone’s life. There must have been a time when Jesus was the Ancient Near East’s equivalent of a nervous first year university student.

And that makes me wonder: could the account that we just heard of Jesus’ baptism be an example of story editing?

This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.

All three of the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – begin Jesus’ ministry with some slight variation on these words of assurance. Now, I don’t doubt that God speaks these words in order for all of us, gathered with the crowd on the banks of the Jordan to eavesdrop, in order that we all might understand early on who our protagonist is. But what if God also speaks these words because he knows that Jesus needs to hear them?

What if Jesus comes to the Jordan labouring with the fears that so many of us have. The fears that say that God couldn’t have a purpose for someone like me, that God might not be able to forgive someone like me, that God might not even be able to love someone like me. And there, in John’s arms, God says to Jesus:

Let’s edit your story into something new. You do have a purpose. You are forgiven. You are good enough, you are worthy enough, you are loved enough to take on the ministry that is before you.  

Son, I’m proud of you. You are my beloved son. In you I am well pleased.

What if, in that moment, Jesus defeats the monster which has held him back? And that frees his ministry to begin, a ministry which will transform the world?

Here is the promise of the Gospel, the good news. God comes to all of us and invites us to edit our stories as well. Most of us don’t get an experience as profound as a voice speaking from heaven. Rather, most of us hear God through the voice of friends, through something we read, through an experience of beauty.

You may be lost. Everybody, God says, gets lost sometimes. Most of us get lost more than once. Sometimes we need to get lost. Sometimes it is in getting lost, in those experiences that we would never have chosen, that we learn the most about ourselves, about our neighbours, about God. You may be deep into grief. Everybody experiences grief. You may be full of doubt. Everybody experiences doubt.

These things do not define you, they are not who you are, they are not your story. Your story, God says, is:

you are loved.

First Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

december 30, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 61:10-62:3

Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7

John 1:1-18

Psalm 147

At the Yule Be Merry concert the week before last, there was an amazing moment. (Actually, there were multiple amazing moments – it was a glorious concert – but there is one amazing moment on which I am going to concentrate.) The model of the evening was to have music punctuated by poetry readings. And at about the three-quarter mark, we were treated to an excerpt from Tennyson’s epic poem In Memoriam.

Completed in 1849, In Memoriam was Tennyson’s response to the death of his great friend, Arthur Hallam. And as its name suggests, it is a meditation on grief and on resurrection, on love and on loss.

The excerpt that we heard at the concert last week was full of bells. It was about ringing out the old year and ringing in the new, about ringing out that which is dead and broken and that is full of life and possibility.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,    

writes Tennyson,

   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

And then he goes on:

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

In Memoriam was read for us by Christine, by one of two violinists in the concert. And as she read, you could see Christine’s tears building. They built the way tears do sometimes, the way that laughter does sometime, filling up like water into a reservoir until it is too much and the weeping or the laughing or both flows over the edges.

This is the line in which her weeping became too intense for her to keep going:

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Eventually, Christine handed the poem to her colleague, to the viola player, Vicki.

And then she sobbed as Vicki finished reading.

It was an awesome moment in the old-school sense of the word “awesome.”

In that instant of grief and catharsis, Christine gave us a gift. She was for a little while a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of what most of us, all of us, are experiencing, of what we all have been experiencing over the past few years as our country has sunk further and further into uncritical tribalism, into officially sanctioned bigotry, into anger and irretrievably lost tempers.

This is a moment in which so, so many of us are longing to ring out false pride in place and blood, to ring out civic slander and spite. In which we are longing to ring in the common love of good.

Tennyson’s poem is almost 170 years old. But, my God, in moments like this one, it might have been written last week.

It is the end of the year and, to mark 2018 coming to its conclusion, to mark the moment when, in the newspaper cartoon, 2018 is a bearded, old man and 2019 is a wee child toddling her way into January, the lectionary has given us one reading about hope and possibility and new life after another.

Isaiah talks about getting dressed for weddings, about new shoots pushing up through the springtime earth, about the sun rising. The Psalm talks about the Lord rebuilding Jerusalem and healing the brokenhearted. Galatians talks about being freed from slavery about the adoption papers going through and us learning that, now, we are, hallelujah, truly and officially children of God. John gives us the staggering promise that the Word has become flesh and lived among us, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not, cannot, will not overcome it.

As the year ends, here, just as in Tennyson, are stories of hope and of freedom. And here, as in Tennyson, is the knowledge, the hard promise, that hope and freedom come to us not instead of loss and grief and trauma and unfairness and brokenness but, somehow, hope and freedom come to us out of these things. Somehow these things are necessary. It is in that darkest of moments before the dawn when Jesus shows up, it is in the moment of chest-heaving grief outside of the tomb that we discover resurrection.

Christian hope is something different than optimism. Our hope is not in the facile promise, in the Hallmark theology, that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle, that what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger, that God is going to pull through and make us rich. It is rather, in the stark promise that death is real, but that God has defeated it and will defeat it again.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out our anger at our fellow citizens.

Ring out our suspicion of those with foreign passports.

Ring out our fear of those whose skin is too brown or whose bank accounts are too empty or too full or whose gender is too ambiguous.

Ring out our love affair with violence.

Ring in listening.

Ring in open hearts and open doors and open minds.

Ring in prayer in quiet and prayer in action.

The year is going, let it go:

Ring in the promise of resurrection.

Ring in the love of Jesus.

Ring in the Christ who is to come.

This, this is a poem that is worthy of our tears.

Christmas Eve by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 23, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 9:2-7

Titus 2:11-14

Luke 2:1-14(15-20)

Psalm 96

It is Christmas Eve and I would like to risk doing something with you. I would like to risk entering into what might be a heady or an intellectual exercise. Although it is a heady exercise with a purpose.

I’d like to wonder with you tonight about what scholars call Biblical hermeneutics.

(Put you hand up if you have used the word “hermeneutic” in a sentence in the last month. Good. So, most of you.)

“Hermeneutic” is a 5-dollar academic word that, like many of our words, comes to us from the Greek. And what it refers to is the method that we use for interpreting something or someone. Another way – a plainer way – of talking about hermeneutics would be to use the word “assumption”: when you and I encounter a given thing, a given person, a hermeneutic is what we assume or take for granted about the information that is coming in through our senses. Another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a lens. When I put on these glasses, I see the world differently, I am now able to see other folks facial expressions with much more clarity. Mostly that is an advantage. Occasionally not so much. Still another way would be to say that a hermeneutic is a story we tell about something.

The popular science writer, Brené Brown, even though she doesn’t use the word, is talking about hermeneutics when she asks us the question: Do you think that, generally speaking, people are doing their best? Or to phrase that question slightly differently, Do you assume good intentions in the people around you?

Brown says that the folks who respond to her question are typically divided into two binary camps. The first camp is comprised of those who say Hell no. People are not doing their best. And then there is the second camp, the folks who, kind of sheepishly say, Well, actually that is what I believe. In case it’s unclear from those responses, Hello no is the culturally dominant hermeneutic or story in our culture. Folks who assume that others are doing their best are, therefore, kind of embarrassed to admit it.

But here is what Brown’s research has found. Those folks who choose to assume that others are doing their best tend to be more effective and open leaders and they tend to have more joy in their lives. Our time together tonight won’t let me go into the leadership part. But I think that all of us know the joy part from our own experience. If someone cuts us off in traffic or if someone bumps into us on the playground, we have a choice between telling a story in which that person is deliberately being a jerk or, alternatively, telling a story in which that person made a mistake.

Which story you tell, which hermeneutic you employ about the dude in the other car or the classmate on the slide, has huge implications for your blood pressure.

I’ve been thinking a tonne about Biblical hermeneutics, about the pair of glasses that we put on when we read scripture, ever since I attended a lecture put on this past summer by my friends David Taylor and Andrew Halladay. David and Andrew are a married couple, they are both priests. And their thesis is that our hermeneutic about the Bible shape us for better or for worse.

Have any of you seen that photograph meets Photoshop composition in which we look at an iceberg from the side in such a way that we see it in its entirety, that part that is above the water and the bigger part that is below? It is an amazing and striking image. Above the water line is all of the stuff that is in the light, that we can see easily. Below the water line is the stuff that is harder to see. And the further down you go, the darker it gets.

Hard as it may be to see, the stuff below the waterline is an integral part of the iceberg, it shapes the iceberg. No matter far out of the light it is.

What I realised during David and Andrew’s lecture, what I realised thinking about it since then, is that most of us have Biblical hermeneutics that live beneath the iceberg’s waterline. Most of us have never surfaced and interrogated our stories about scripture. We’ve never named them. In my case, my stories weren’t all that far below the surface – it wasn’t hard for me to find them – but below the surface they were. Notwithstanding being an official religious person (you can tell I’m an official religious person because I am wearing a costume), I had never taken my Biblical hermeneutics up out of the water and examined them.

Before I get to what I found when I surfaced that stuff, let’s talk for a little while about the hermeneutics that our culture brings to the Bible. Let’s start the story that goes something like this:

The Bible is either literally true, it is either a collection of facts, or else it is total nonsense.

There is a reason that folks transition fairly easily and fairly often from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism. That’s because Biblical literalists and aggressive atheists – what we might call antitheists – have this hermeneutic in common. The only real disagreement between them comes when we get to the yes/no question that the hermeneutic implies. Is the Bible literally, inerrantly true? Or is it an anachronistic absurdity, a leftover from a time when humanity didn’t know any better about how the world works? If your answer is A, congratulations, you are a Biblical literalist. If your answer is B, congratulations you are antitheist, Richard Dawkins is waiting to give you a High Five.

Do we accept the binary question posed by this hermeneutic? Or is there another way of reading the Bible?

Another common contemporary hermeneutic could be expressed this way:

Being a Christian is totally congruent with consumerism, and therefore faith is best understood as a transaction in which you pay to get something from God.

This hermeneutic says the Bible is an instruction manual and it explains, among other things, that you and I are putting money into a cosmic bank account by going to church, by giving money to church, by believing correctly and uncritically. In return for your payment, God will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. If you are not healthy, wealthy, and wise, then you are doing faith wrong. If you are sick, you kind of deserve that. If you are poor, you kind of deserve that.

What do we think about that hermeneutic? Does it sounds like good news?

Still another hermeneutic – and this is the one the David and Andrew concentrated on in their presentation – goes like this:

God is terribly angry and terribly disappointed in you.

David and Andrew said that, when they talk about this stuff with folks, this is the moment when the handkerchiefs come out, when folks start to weep. Because an amazing number of us, without ever having brought it above the waterline, have been taught and have internalized this hermeneutic about the Bible and about who God is.

And it is not an exaggeration to say that this is a story about God that utterly poisons our reading of scripture. If God is like Santa, an old man on a cloud with a beard except thinner and with a bigger anger-management problem, if God is watching you to see who is naughty and who is nice and is constantly shaking his head at your screw ups, then the Bible is one passage of condemnation and contempt after another.

John 3:16 is maybe the most famous passage in scripture. God so loved the world that he gave his only son that so those who believe in him might not parish but have eternal life. Read through the lens of God’s anger and disappointment, this is terrifying news. Totally gone from the verse is God’s love. Totally gone is eternal life. Suddenly this passage is all about things it doesn’t actually say, suddenly this is about meeting God’s impossible standards or perishing, or going to hell.

Again, let’s ask: is this the lens that we want to use when talking about the Bible and, in turn, when talking about God?

A couple of minutes ago, I told you that I had started the work of bringing my own stories about the Bible above the waterline. I don’t know if these are the best stories about the Bible, I don’t know if they are right. I do know that I walk a little lighter when I look at scripture through their lens, that I encounter a little more joy. Results may vary. If they are useful to you, that’s great. If you reckon that they are wildly mistaken… that’s great. Take my mistaken hermeneutics as an invitation to craft your own hermeneutics.

Disclaimers aside, here are Martin’s Three Hermeneutics for the Bible.

One. 1John is telling the truth when it says that God is love. The word “God,” John says, is followed by an equals sign. And after that equals sign – amazingly, impossibly, wonderfully – comes the word, “Love.” That means that Richard Rohr is correct when he says that the test for discerning whether or not something is authentic revelation goes like this: if an assertion or a story about God that you are hearing, in the Bible or somewhere else, is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that is not and cannot be authentic revelation. Another way of putting that would be to say that reading the Bible through the lens of love means that an authentic reading of scripture can never lead us to violence or to exclusion.

Two. To riff just a little on the maxim popularised by Marcus Borg, we are called to take the Bible seriously but not always literally. Now, a lot of lefty Christians are good at not taking the Bible literally. But we are sometimes less good at taking it seriously. This hermeneutic says that we have a responsibility to wrestle with the Bible, to struggle with those passages that leave us confused or disoriented or irritated or whatever. If you don’t like Paul, for instance – and I hear from a lot of people who don’t like Paul – maybe get curious about that. If you don’t like the epic and sometimes violent family dramas in Genesis or Judges or Kings, maybe get curious about that. Take these passages seriously enough to ask what they might have to teach you about how our ancestors understood God, about how you understand God.

An addendum to Hermeneutic Two: If your wrestling with scripture takes you to a place of doubt, that’s okay. To borrow a line from Rob Bell: Doubt is evidence that your faith has a pulse. Looking at the Bible and wondering if these are nothing more than a bunch of stories that human beings made up, a way of explaining things, a way of whistling in the dark – that’s allowed, that is encouraged even. God created us to think, created us to question, created us to search. So God doesn’t mind when we doubt.

Third, and last of all. The Bible is about you and me right now. These stories and sayings may have been put to paper 1800 or more years ago, but God is speaking through them still. When the lector reads for us, she ends the reading by saying, “The Word of the Lord.” She doesn’t say, “The thing you just heard is the word of the Lord.” It’s broader than that, more ambiguous than that, more beautiful than that. The word of the Lord is what is happening in this room right now. It will be what happens in your heart and through your hands later on today when you are back home.

It is Christmas Eve. The child will soon be laying in the manger, the exhausted and proud Mary and Joseph looking on, the animals nearby, the shepherds and the Magi on their way.

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that tells you that this is a story about love? That it is evidence that God loved us enough to risk everything for us? Not that humanity was so broken and so sinful that God needed to come fix our problems. But that God loves us so completely that God couldn’t stay away?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through a lens that says that it is our job to struggle with this story? To ask, for instance, how God could be willing to take on all of the beauty and all of the pain of being alive? To name that it is okay to doubt? I mean, God coming to live with us on this earth, well it’s too good to be true. Isn’t it?

What would happen if you looked at this scene through that says that this story is about you and me right today? And that if we make a manger in our hearts, the Christ child will come and live with us, right now.

Third Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

December 16, 2018

Lessons:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Canticle 9

Have you ever had the experience of encountering the same words at two different times in your life and hearing them in a totally different way?

For myself, I think about the statement:

Having kids changes your life.

Before I had children, I heard those words and I nodded in agreement. I said, yes, that’s right, having kids changes your life.

And then I had kids. And I said:

Oh!

Having kids changes your life.

The words were the same, the information was he same. But my understanding of them was radically different.

A lot of theological statements are similar. I remember my wonderful Jesuit teacher, George Greiner, telling our class that there are certain statements about God and about life and about love that are true. But that you are required to do some real searching and some real struggling before you are allowed to say them with authority and with honesty. Dr. Greiner gave the example of the statement:

It is a mystery why there is suffering in the world.

Now, that statement is almost assuredly true. Maybe God understands where there is so much hurt. But as scripture says, our ways are not God’s ways. And so I can’t really disagree with those atheists who demand to know why a good and a loving God permits so much violence and so much injustice. It’s a fair and an important question. And to simply announce that suffering is a mystery is to give a flippant and way too easy response to one of the great questions of being alive.

We are morally and intellectually obligated to be more curious about the world than this, to struggle with this question, to wrestle with it like Jacob wrestles with the stranger in the night. It is after our struggle, during our struggle, that maybe we earn the right to say:

This is a mystery.

I think that the difference – and this is very similar to the example of parenting that I gave a moment ago – is that, in the first scenario, we are talking about the mystery. In the second scenario, we have experienced the mystery.

The words that we encounter in the Epistle to Philippians today are similar.

Don’t worry.

Jesus says something very similar in the Gospel. Are these words facile? Or are they profound?

Yes.

Again, the test is not in the words themselves but, rather, the test is in the one who speaks them and in the one who hears them. Have you done the work, have you lived through the hardship, that allows you to say don’t worry?

Many of you know that I used to work in the performing arts in Vancouver, BC. And I remember being out for a walk with Phoebe. We were taking our dog, then much spryer than he is now, through our neighbourhood, when we ran into a mutual colleague. Our colleague – his name is James – is an inveterate actor in Vancouver. And James was in one of those stretches that comes in the performing arts, a stretch in which he had nothing in his calendar for months to come.

I have held a calendar or day planner in my hands that looked like that. That showed January and then February and then March with not a gig in sight. It was, at least for me, an awful feeling, a sense of dull panic that hung out in my gut.

But James, who was maybe 60 at the time, was reflective about his situation. He said, I’ve been in this business for years. And things have always worked out for me. I’m going to trust that things are going to work out this time as well.

James had, over the years of being an actor, earned the right to say Don’t worry and to say it with authority.

Paul – the writer of the letter to the Philippians – has similarly earned the right to say don’t worry, to speak those words in such a way that they are not Hallmark theology but, rather, are a profound consolation, a profound promise about God. Paul, like his master Jesus, is someone who knows about suffering, who knows about being on the margins, who knows about being knocked off of his horse by God.

The words are the same. But they are not the easy words of someone who knows nothing about loss and yet is telling you that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle, that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. They are not the words of someone who is ostensibly reassuring you but is really reassuring themselves. Paul’s Don’t worry comes from one who knows all about worry, all about loss, from one who follows a crucified God, from one who has a pretty good guess that his writing and his teaching will land him in prison and in a coffin.

Paul’s words are the same. But his understanding is different. And therefore, maybe, there is freedom and hope for you and for me in hearing them. For Paul’s words are the assurance of the man who, because he has seen death, knows that there is resurrection.

First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25:1-9

 

Be on guard, Jesus says, so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.

Or that day will catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.

It is the start of Advent, the start of a new church year, the start of a year with the Gospel of Luke. And as we begin, this is Jesus’ advice to us, maybe his command to us.

What does Jesus mean?

I am familiar with two-thirds of the things that Jesus speaks against. I know what Jesus means when he speaks of drunkenness. And I know as well about the worries of this life – gosh, do we all know about the worries of this life. But I am less sure about the first item in this forbidden trinity, about dissipation. Dissipation isn’t a word that most of us reach for all that often. Dissipate – this word in verb form – we drawn on a little more regularly. Smoke dissipates, so do clouds in the sky, maybe an audience dissipates when the curtain comes down and the lights go up. But in noun form, in the form that the New Revised Standard Version translates Jesus’ word, this word doesn’t just mean things moving apart and vanishing from sight.

Dissipation has the connotation of squandering something.

The Greek word that the NRSV renders as dissipation is kraipalē, so the ancient root of our contemporary word crapulence. And to leaf through one Bible translation after another is to find that no one can entirely agree about what kraipalē means in English. Various translators, the ones who don’t reach for the word dissipation, tell us that kraipalē means a drunken headache. Others tell us that it means carousing. The King James Version, with its lovely poetic English, offers us the old-school word surfeiting. Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible called the Message, uses the word parties.

Actually, it’s worth pausing here for a second to hear Peterson’s rendition of Jesus’ sentence in its entirety. In the Message, Jesus says:

Do not let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping.

Think about that as our society enters into the lead up to Christmas, a time that is basically defined by parties and drinking and shopping.

Maybe this constellation of translational possibilities of kraipalē, maybe Peterson’s full-on sentence, get us a little closer to what Jesus means in this verse.

My sense is that we can say with some certainty that when Jesus says, Don’t let your hearts be weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and the worries of the life, Jesus doesn’t mean, “Don’t go to parties.” We know that Jesus loves partying with strangers and friends.

We can probably say as well that Jesus doesn’t mean, “No one should ever drink.”  We know that Jesus loves to eat and drink. And besides, he doesn’t say doesn’t say “don’t drink,” he says, “don’t be weighed down with drunkenness.” Alcoholism is real: there are people whom I love and respect who must not and cannot drink. And that acknowledged, enjoying wine in moderation with your friends on a Saturday night is a really different thing than polishing off a dozen beers by yourself on a couch on a Tuesday afternoon. Drinking on the one hand: being weighed down with drunkenness on other.

Jesus is not, in other words, commanding us to engage in a humourless or a puritanical life. And I’m going to go out on a limb and say that when Jesus says don’t be weighed down in the worries of the life, he doesn’t even mean that we shouldn’t worry. Jesus is fully human, and so he knows that a certain amount of worrying is part of being alive. At the end of his life, Jesus will sweat blood in the garden because of his deep and entirely understandable worry about what is to come when Judas and the soldiers arrive.

I wonder if what Jesus means in this sentence is something like this:

Don’t do stuff that leaves you numb. 

Now, the popular writer and researcher Brené Brown would be quick to jump in  here and say that absolutely everyone engages in a certain amount numbing. Pain is the price of admission being alive and we all respond to it by – what? – logging on to Facebook, eating muffins, gambling, playing video games, staying frantically busy, shopping, the list goes on.

A certain amount of numbing is permitted, it is okay. After a hard or a disappointing day, you are allowed to apologise to yourself, to give yourself a treat, by turning on Netflix and eating bonbons.

The problem comes shows up when you are still on Netflix at 3am and just vibrating with the sugar in your bloodstream.

That moment at 3am (maybe you know that moment, or maybe you have an equivalent to it in your life) is when we approach or cross the boundary between reasonably healthy numbing on one side and obsession or compulsion or even addiction on the other. This is when we are numbing instead of living our lives, numbing instead of engaging with God and creation and neighbour. This is the moment, when these activities or things that are officially pleasures – Netflix, sugar, booze, eating, whatever – end up robbing us of our joy.

Most of us sense the joy-robbing nature of deep numbing, sometimes even as we do it. I’ve had the fork holding the piece of cake partway in my mouth and said, Why am I doing this? I’m going to feel awful after eating this and the sugar and the suspicious icing hits my bloodstream. I’ve been the guy still in front of a screen in the middle of the night saying Why am I still here? This stopped being fun hours ago.

What Brown’s research has found is that when we articulate that why, whether it is in the moment or the next morning, we are naming the reality that deep numbing comes at a deep cost. That’s because human beings are wired in such a way, we are created in such a way, that we cannot numb the valleys without also numbing the peaks.

I guess I’m talking a bunch about screens this morning because they are one of the principal forms of numbing of our time. Through constant use of phone, through constantly being in front of a TV, we seek to eradicate silence and the sadness that can come with silence. The strategy works. The silence is gone and the sadness gets crowded out for a while. But what else gets crowded out when the silence is gone? Silence – in the woods, in a chair in the hum of the afternoon, even in church – is so often when joy shows up, when clarity shows up, when God shows up. When we are weighed down with kraipalē and drunkenness and worries (sometime worrying, too, is what we do instead of living, instead of paying attention to God and neighbour) the moment that matters comes and we are so far from ready that we are like someone setting off a trap.

A few days ago, I went to John Hammond’s 90th birthday celebration. There was one remarkable speech after another, one testament after another to John as teacher and as friend. At the end, John himself spoke.

This was one of the worst years of his life, John told us. This was the year that Alice died.

And then John said that, simultaneously, This was one of the best years of my life. Maybe the best year of my life.

Here are the peaks and the valleys together. Here is someone who, to use John’s own language, has chosen the hard and life-giving work of entering into an apprenticeship with his grief. John has chosen not to numb his grief. And as consequence, this thing that he did not want and would not have chosen and that he would not wish on anyone else, the decline and death of a spouse, has become an occasion for growth, for drawing nearer to God, for becoming more fully human.

Advent, like Lent, is a time of waiting, of getting ready. In the busyness and bustle of this time, may we take Jesus’ advice, may we obey his command. May we not be weighed down kraipalē and drunkenness and worry and food and shopping and screens, may we not be so numb that Jesus’ coming catches us like a trap. Or still worse, may we not be so numb that we do not even notice when the star hangs in the sky and the Christ child enters the world. May we be ready, may we pay attention, may we hold the holy and hard silence that permits us to listen for the voice of that child and to welcome him once more into our hearts and into our lives.

Last Sunday after Pentecost Christ the King by The Rev. Martin Elfert

November 25, 2018

Lessons:

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

We are in the bustle and the heat that is Jerusalem, the most distant and forgotten corner of the Roman Empire. Inside the headquarters of the occupying forces, Pontius Pilate sits at his desk. Pilate is thirty-five years old. He is a mid-level government bureaucrat here in the Middle East on a resume building exercise. He is a busy man and, when he gets back to Rome, he hopes to be an important one. In the meantime, Pilate wants things and people to proceed in a orderly and sensible manner. He doesn’t want to have to do paperwork. He doesn’t want to have to work overtime. And he wants the headache that has been building all day to stop.

On this day, Pilate has been struggling to concentrate on his work. It’s not just the headache – he has those all the time. Something else is nagging at him: an old memory. His mind is pulled back in time, skipping like a stone across the waters of his recollection, to the days of his childhood – to a time when he lived in a world of wonder and of imagination. Pilate keeps pushing the memory down, trying to bury it under the dust that coats everything. He just about succeeds.

Pilate is ready to go home. He is ready for a drink. It has been a full day of administration: of seeing prisoners, of determining who will be flogged, who will be released, who will be crucified. But there is one more interview. It’s with a carpenter and a disturber of the peace. The note on his desk says: The King of the Jews.

Pilate stands up and starts walking towards the interview that will haunt him for the rest of his life. An interview in which his atrophied imagination will entirely fail him.

And then he is in the cell with the prisoner. Pilate experiences a dim awareness, a tug, like something moving in the corner of his eye. An awareness that the man who stands before him is extraordinary. There is a gravity pulling Pilate towards this man. Pilate has the sense that, even though he holds all the power in this relationship, including the power to pronounce death, that this man, this calloused and dirty carpenter, somehow, holds all the authority. That it is as though this man were interviewing him. Pilate fights this awareness off.

A moment of heavy silence passes between them. They are alone. And Pilate can say or ask anything that he wants. He begins:

So. You’re the King of the Jews.

This is when most prisoners start to weep, or to rage, or to beg for their lives. But not this one. The serenity in his eyes is his terrifying. This man does something that no prisoner ever does. He looks right at Pilate. And he asks him a question:

Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?

Is that what it was like?

It is hard not to speculate about this scene, about one of be the most iconic exchanges in all of scripture. Pilate gets the rarest of things in all four of the Gospels: the opportunity to secure a private interview with Jesus – to secure the opportunity to talk, by himself, with God. In just about every other conversation that the Gospels record with Jesus (save, perhaps, for Nicodemus and for the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of), there is someone else hanging around – the disciples, the crowd, the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees, the centurions. Pilate, by contrast, holds Jesus alone for as long as he wants.

How tantalising is this? For the Christian, the idea of being alone with Jesus is awesome. Consider what you might ask – what you might say – you would be limited only by your imagination. What would you say to Jesus?

Now, hold those words in your mind – all the possibilities of what you might ask or what you might tell Jesus. And then consider what Pilate asks about. He asks about personal power: So, you’re a King. You have a place on the top of a hierarchy. You have money, you have property, you can tell people what to do, you determine who will serve and who will eat, you can control people’s lives.

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question the way that he often responds to questions. He poses a question of his own. John 18:34: Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? The folks who translated the New International Version of the Bible give us a lively alternative: Is that your own idea?

Through this question, Jesus is pushing Pilate to resuscitate his almost deceased imagination, to call it forth like Lazarus from the tomb. This invitation to imagine – to say “what if?” or “I wonder?” – is one that he has extended throughout his earthly ministry. He has extended this invitation by telling awesome and playful and paradoxical stories, by asking provocative and even intemperate questions such as this one, by taking actions which tossed expectations on their side, like a ship in a storm. Do you ask this on your own? Is that your own idea? This is the question on which the whole interview hinges. And Pilate refuses to answer it. He is irritated that Jesus even poses it.

I suspect this is because Pilate is a man who has been taught to hold his imagination at bay, to fend off the very thought that the world could be any different than it is, that he could be any different that he is. He has been taught to retreat into a sad world of permanence, a world predicated on power, a world in which the Roman Empire will last forever, a world in which it is impossible to imagine anyone being motivated by anything other than fear and selfishness.

This is a picture of a world in which faith is obscured, in which it is been hidden by certainty. And Jesus challenges this certainty because he knows that faith is predicated on the imagination. Faith is all about possibility; it is about the wonder of change; about the dance of beauty; about encountering something new; about trust in possibility; about reversal; about the first being last; about meeting God in the persons of the least of these, our siblings; about experiencing the Kingdom of God not as something that happens after we die but is something that, with God’s help, we can build right now.

Those times when the Kingdom has cracked through our permanence and changed this world were made possible by the imagination – by acts of faith. By individuals saying, You know, we actually could do this. This is possible! We are few years past the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, a structure that mere days before it fell, we expected to stand for generations; that we expected to stand forever. I remember seeing the images of the wall falling and saying: That’s impossible.

Before the wall, there was a time when the end of slavery was impossible, when women getting the vote was impossible, when the end of apartheid was impossible, when the remarriage of divorced people was impossible, when broader marriage equality was impossible, when contraception was impossible, when the ordination of women was impossible, when we all knew that this county would never have an African American president.

Each act of imagination falls like a snowflake onto the roof of a prison. By itself, it looks like nothing. But, as it joined by another drifting piece of imagination and then by another, the snow of possibility builds up, higher and higher. And then, in what seems like an instant, the weight is too much. And the roof is down and the prisoners climb up and out into freedom.

When you talk to someone who has lived through such a moment – especially those who were in the prison when the moment came – they will often express a thought which is equal parts gratitude and disbelief: we never thought we would live to see this moment come.

So. What is impossible today? What is unimaginable? What have you been told is never going to change? Do you think this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is it impossible that hunger will ever end, that unemployment will ever end, that there will ever be a real place of dignity for the poor in our wider society or in the church, that economic vigour could mean anything other than frantic environmental degradation, that we might understand health care as a human right, that this country might have a healthy and sensible relationship with guns, that there might be a rule of life beyond selfishness and fear?

I’m glad that folks go to football games and hold up signs proclaiming John 3:16. It’s a beautiful passage. But the passage that I want someone to hold up at the next Seahawks game is this one: John 18:34. Is this your own idea? Did you think of this on your own or did someone else tell you? Is Jesus really that small? Is the kingdom really that distant? Can we really imagine nothing else? Is this how we thought the world was going to be when were were children? Are we so busy looking for Jesus sitting on a throne and holding a scepter that we don’t notice when he stands before us as a prisoner?

Let’s imagine for a second what Pilate cannot: that the impossible has happened – that the carpenter who stood before Pilate on that day was God. That God lived with us. And, now let us imagine something even more impossible: That, after Pilate sent that carpenter to be legally executed by a perverse justice system that he was resurrected. What if that were true? What else would be possible?

And now, let’s do something that Jesus did a lot of. Let’s tell a story about reversal in which we imagine that this peasant carpenter whose life was predicated on living with, and healing, and telling stories to the most suspicious of sort people is the king. Not Pilate’s kind of king, but another kind – one who believes that, in the greatest of kingdoms, the role of the king is to serve.

And, now, imagine that this king stands with you, close enough to touch. You are alone, he looks you in the eye. And he smiles.

Just imagine.

 

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25
Mark 13:1-8

 

 

What do we do when we hear a reading like the ones that we encounter today in Daniel in and Mark? Daniel says:

Michael shall arise. There will be anguish. Many of those who sleep in the dust will awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

And then Jesus describes war and earthquakes and famines and he says:

This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.

What do we do with apocalyptic Biblical passages? There are lots of them in scripture to choose from. What do we do with passages in which the Bible sure appears to tell us that God is the catalyst for violence, that God requires violence, sometimes that God is an active participant in violence?

This question is more or less inescapable at this time of year in which the lectionary, the schedule of readings that we follow from Sunday to Sunday, gives us one apocalyptic reading after another. For many Christians in parishes such as this one, these readings are variously troubling or embarrassing to us, maybe because we associate them with the Left Behind series of books and movies, with the notion of the rapture. Although, like a lot of troubling or embarrassing things, these passages are simultaneously fascinating to us.

Well, here is one of the things I believe. When someone or something leaves me feeling troubled or off balance, repelled and fascinated, that is an invitation to pay attention. Experience has shown me, for instance, that I when I notice feelings of dislike aversion in myself for another person, that person almost always has something to teach me. I remember some years ago asking for a meeting with a former boss – some things had happened since I had left that workplace – and opening my conversation with him by saying,

I knew that I had to talk to you because I really didn’t want to.

Apocalypse is similar. If we have a reflexive “yuck” feeling about this part of the Bible, if we are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by these passages, then maybe that is an invitation to pay attention, to ask:

What does this have to teach me about God and about my neighbour and about myself?

Now, I want to say something early and explicitly: what these passages do not and cannot teach us is that God is in the violence business. The cross makes that clear and irrefutable. Jesus suffers the worst possible humiliation, he endures the greatest possible agony, and after his return he refuses to respond to this violence with violence of his own. The resurrection is not about God coming back and exacting revenge on those who killed him. It is about God bringing new life and new light into the world.

The cross tells me that Richard Rohr is right when he says that the test for an authentic understanding of scripture and, more broadly, an authentic understanding of God is this: if an interpretation, a teaching, an action is less loving than the most loving person whom you know, then that thing isn’t from God.

Jesus coming back to torture or kill all the people who have believed wrong and lived wrong? That’s kind of less loving than the most loving person I know. So that can’t be how to understand Daniel, it can’t be how to understand Jesus when he talks the way that he talks today.

The word “apocalypse” translates into English as something like “unveiling” or as “revelation.” Hence, the final book of the Bible is sometimes The Revelation of John and sometimes The Apocalypse of John. It could just as well be The Unveiling of John.

And what is being unveiled when we encounter violence in the Bible? Well, as the theologian Mark Heim puts it, violence in the Bible is unveiling the truth, it is telling the truth. It is telling the truth about the human condition, about the conditions that lead to bloodshed, and in particular about the old connection between religion and violence.

Because religion, when it gets bent, when it loses sight of God and gets distracted or seduced by what St. Paul calls the world, has ended up in the violence business early and often. Somehow, when Emperor Constantine came along, when the other kings and emperors followed him, the symbol of Jesus – the symbol of the one who is murdered by the government for telling stories of freedom and handing out free food and health care – ended up on the banners of soldiers marching into battle.

There is no way to tell the truth without unveiling these things. As Mark Hein goes on to say, when we complain that the tales of Genesis, that the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, that the fire for revenge in the Psalms, that Jesus talking about the birthpangs is too much, that these things are too sordid and too human to have any place in a book as holy as the Bible, then maybe we are admitting that these texts reveal the human condition altogether too well.

In Mark, Jesus says that the temple will be torn down, brick by brick. Peter, James, John, and Andrew ask him when this will be. And Jesus, who has elevated the non sequitur to an art form, who often answers questions with statements or stories that, at least at first, don’t appear to answer the question at all, says:

Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he,” and they will lead many astray.

And then he goes on:

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?

Don’t be alarmed.

Wars and earthquakes and famines – this stuff going to happen. It is part of the human condition. Let’s name that, let’s unveil that. But let’s also, Jesus says – and this is fascinating and maybe surprising – not be alarmed by it.

Now, “do not be alarmed” cannot mean, “do not care,” or “do not take action.” Because we know that Jesus takes action in response to suffering early and often and always, that he calls us as his disciples to do the same. Maybe, therefore, “do not be alarmed,” means, “do not attach theological significance to this stuff, do not imagine for a second that this is something that God is doing or that God wants or that God requires or that proves that God is coming.”

If that’s right, then Left Behind and the televangelists and the door-to-door religion peddlers who love to point at this passage to prove that, well, the end is nigh, have things backwards. Violence isn’t telling us anything about what God is doing or when God is coming. Violence is telling us about humanity and about how far we sometimes stray from leading the lives of grace and mercy and kindness and love and freedom that God wants for you and for me and for everyone.

There is an amazing line that shows up today in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is one of my favourite verses in all of scripture, when I last saw it printed in a bulletin or leaflet I cut it out and pasted it in my journal. It goes like this:

Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Not let us encourage one another, not let us teach one another, but let us provoke one another to love and good deeds.

Huh.

Weird as it is, maybe that line makes perfect sense. Because I think we all know about being provoked to goodness and to love. I suspect that all of us, as young people, received the difficult gift of a teacher or a parent calling us out on our behaviour, telling the truth about our behaviour, unveiling our behaviour and thereby provoking us to be better. I think that all of us, to this day, know about encountering art – several of the artists from PHAME are with us this morning and will be sharing their art with us as part of this service – that provokes us to be better. I think that all of us know about hearing someone’s story, a story of maybe searching or injustice or healing – I remember the woman who came here on a Sunday morning a couple of years ago and who told us about what it was like in Portland to try to function on minimum wage – and being provoked to being better.

And maybe that is what stories of violence in scripture, including stories – maybe especially stories? – that attribute that violence to God are doing. Those stories unveil human violence and they unveil our tendency to project human violence onto God, to make God in our own image, to say that God – who goes to the cross innocent and yet who will not make resurrection into an occasion of revenge –  somehow wants and needs our violence. Maybe these stories provoke us to say no! That isn’t and never was who God is. Maybe these stories of apocalypse and there to provoke us into following Jesus, into joining him in building a Kingdom of non-violence, of goodness, and of love.

Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

The comedian Hasan Minhaj is a second generation American. His father, like me, is an immigrant to this country. I come from Canada: Minhaj’s Dad, Najme, comes from India. Unlike me (I grew up in a stable and peaceful context in Vancouver, BC), prior to coming to the United States, Najme lived through some of the worst days on the Indian subcontinent. He saw awful violence after the departure of the British and after partition, violence that claimed north of a million lives.

Minhaj, like a lot of people of colour in America – like every person of colour in America – experienced racism growing up, he experiences racism to this day. Similarly, like many members of an immigrant  family, Minhaj did and does experience xenophobia. Minhaj tells the story, for instance, of being an adolescent shortly after the September 11th attacks and hearing a strange noise outside. He and his Dad went out to investigate what had happened and found that someone had smashed the windows of their car. Shortly thereafter the phone rang and a laughing voice on the other end demanded:

Where’s Osama?

Here’s the thing. Minhaj’s Dad had a totally different reaction to the vandalism and to the phone call that followed it than Minhaj himself. For Minhaj, as you might expect, as you could likely understand, this event was profoundly upsetting. He was shaken by it, angered by it. His Dad? Not so much. He just swept up the glass and went on with his day.

Compared to the violence that Najme had seen in India – well, this just seemed like no big deal. Getting your windows smashed occasionally, his Dad reckoned, was the price of admission for being brown and being an immigrant in America. It was a reasonable price to pay for the brutality that he had left behind and for everything that he had gained by coming to this country.

Minhaj found that this disconnect with his Dad just kept on happening, and not just in the disorienting days after September 11th. When Minhaj would experience the small and everyday acts of racism that someone who looks like him encounters in the United States, when he would endure the thousand paper cuts that we call by the name micro-aggressions (sometimes the aggressions weren’t micro at all – sometimes they were macro-aggressions), he would tell his Dad, he would relay these stories with anger and sadness. And his Dad simply couldn’t understand what Minhaj was so upset about.

No one is trying to kill you, his Dad would say to Minhaj in essence. What are you complaining about?

I heard Minhaj interviewed, I heard him telling these stories, on the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. The episode was about what psychological researchers call a human being’s Frame of Reference or, sometimes, simply their Reference Point. Our frame of reference is the perspective, the baseline against which we measure other experiences. And Najme’s baseline, his frame of reference, was of such radical suffering and injustice in post-partition India that every wrong that he encountered in America seemed kind of small and trivial by comparison.

In that interview, Minhaj is pretty deeply ambivalent about his Dad’s perspective on reality. On the one hand, Minhaj believes – rightly – that micro-aggressions are not okay, that small acts of racism, such as a clerk assuming that a brown-skinned customer is more likely to be a shoplifter than the white customer standing beside them, are wrong. On the other, he is glad for his father’s perspective. Glad for the reminder that it holds that, as much we get wrong in our country, we get a whole lot of things right. More than that, Minhaj is glad for his Dad’s reminder that life is good, glad for his Dad’s invitation into gratitude, glad for his Dad’s serenity.

Consider this: if someone smashes the window of your car and you feel neither fear nor anger, if the only cost to you if the cost of replacing the glass, well, that’s a kind of superpower.

The encounter that we witness today in the Gospel between John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and their teacher Jesus is about competing frames of references. In this conversation, the speakers apply two radically different reference points to the question: what does a good and holy and joyous life look like?

For the two brothers, for John and James, their point of reference for this conversation is worldly status and power. Growing up in the home of a modest fisherman, John and James have looked out the window and seen people with power, people who drive past their house in high-end carriages, people who are followed by servants, people who inspire not just respect in others but fear in others. And like many of us who have seen these things, maybe like you and me leafing through the catalogue of things that we can’t afford, John and James want in.

And so they go up to Jesus, full of eagerness. Their opening line is greedy and innocent at same time. Here is an echo of a pair of children trying to scam their way into the cookie jar:

Teacher: we want you to give us whatever we want.

Is Jesus smiling as he replies? What do you guys want?

And so they tell him: We want to sit on your right hand and your left in your glory.

Are he two of them are rubbing their hands in glee as they speak? Are they are dancing from one foot to another in anticipation?

Jesus, smiling no more, says:

You don’t know what you are asking for. 

That’s because Jesus’ point of reference for a good and holy and joyous life isn’t power. His point of reference is the cross.

In all four Gospels, Jesus speaks with this amazing and terrifying clarity about the cross as his future. It is an awful inevitability for him. And this knowledge, this reference point, profoundly shapes how he encounters reality.

When Jesus sees a suffering person – someone who is hungry or sick or lonely or lost or carrying a demon – because Jesus’ reference point is not money and privilege, he does not ask, “What can this person do for me?” and turn his back when the answer is “nothing.” Because his reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his hurting neighbour with the compassion and solidarity of one who knows all about hurt himself.

When Jesus sees a wealthy and unjust person, because his reference point is not worldly status, he does not ask, “How can this person help my career?” and then begin to network. Because Jesus reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his neighbour as one who knows all about what it is to endure injustice, and he challenges us and calls us to be better.

And when Jesus comes to a party – and this next part might be counterintuitive, I’m not sure, let’s run with it – because his reference point is not consumerism, where there is always something more and better waiting somewhere else, Jesus does not participate halfheartedly. Rather, because his reference point is the cross, because suffering and finitude and injustice are so clearly in his field of vision, he participates in celebration with gusto. Jesus is immune to what the kids call FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. He does not spend the party on his phone looking for something better to come along. There are an amazing number of passages in the Gospels about Jesus eating, an amazing number of passages about Jesus delighting in celebration within community. Jesus gets that this life is a fleeting gift to be lived fully right now.

Jesus tells his disciples, John and James and you and me, that following him means drinking from the same cup as him, being baptised the same way as him. That it means taking up your cross. He doesn’t warn us that grief and loss and hurt might be part of following him. He guarantees it. But here is the amazing thing: when our reference point shifts from worldly status and power and money and stuff to the cross, we may just be surprised to find that we discover not only hurt but also freedom, justice, and joy.