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

Palm Sunday image

Lessons:

Luke 19:28-40
Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 22:14-23:56
Psalm 31:9-16

There are moments in our lives that are more than one thing at the same time. These are the moments that are full of big feelings, intense feelings – and they are the moments in which we are surprised to realise that two feelings that we maybe think of as opposites are coexisting in the same place. To my mind, the quintessential early-life example of this mixing is when you wipe out on your bike or fall out of a tree and you find yourself moving with this easy fluidity between crying hard and laughing hard. Even as your skinned knee sings with pain and maybe with the embarrassment of having taken a huge tumble in front of an audience, another part of you is laughing at the absurdity of your predicament, of having just done a real-life pratfall.

As life moves on, here is the last day of summer camp, an occasion when you are full of joy at new friends and new experiences and newly found independence (I just had five days in a row without Mom or Dad!) and full as well of this wistful sadness that it is all at an end. When I was un the theatre business, the end of every show hung out in this same strange and blurred territory, so that we celebrated what we had just accomplished (it’s a lot of work to put on a play) even as we mourned that it was over. (It was our own John Hammond introduced me to the idea of having an apprenticeship with grief. A lot of my own apprenticeship has happened on and around stages.)

How many other examples can we come up with? Here is the day you leave for college, full of anticipation as well as of sorrow at leaving your home. Here is the day that you are present for a birth or that you give birth, and right beside the wonder is an awareness of death. Here is the day of a marriage, the day when you retire, the day when you celebrate a milestone birthday, the day when you mark the anniversary of everything changing.

To call our feelings mixed in these moments is not strong enough language. The experience in these moments is something more like two planetary bodies, both of which have a huge gravitational pull, coming near one another and bending and sculpting one another.

Grief and jubilation together, shaped by one another.

In many ways, this Sunday is one of the strangest in the church year. This is not Palm Sunday. This is not Passion Sunday. This is Palm and Passion Sunday. And maybe that is a mistake by the architects of the church year. Are we cheering for Jesus, waving our palms in triumph, as he rides into Jerusalem? Or are we on a hill outside of the city, standing gutted with grief before the cross?

But maybe this isn’t a mistake at all. Maybe this contradiction names something real in our own lives, real in the lives of Jesus and his followers.

Jesus and his friends have made this journey to Jerusalem and Jesus has told them early and often how it is going to end, that it is going to end with him dying on the cross. And they have tried their very best to talk him out of it. Peter has taken him aside and said Jesus, you have to stop talking like that. You have to quit talking about dying. But Jesus would have none of it. Get behind me, Satan, he told his best friend.

And so what is the triumphal entry like for those who have been with Jesus through it all, those who have been with him since the beginning, who have heard Jesus’ persistent warnings? All around the disciples on the street is this joyful, subversive parade. It is a glimpse of the Kingdom, a scene in which a defeated and occupied people claim, at least for a moment, their dignity and their agency, a scene in which they declare that another world is possible, one in which they do not live underneath the boots of Roman soldiers. And at the very same time inside of the disciples, there is this anticipatory grief, this knowledge that if Jesus is right about what’s coming next – and Jesus has not been wrong about much – then at the end of the parade route there is a soldier waiting with a post and a beam and a hammer and a handful of nails.

Although maybe it is not just the disciples who feel this way. Maybe a bunch of the people waving palms and shouting in triumph feel the same way too. Because they know what the Romans are like. They know how brutal they are. And even as this celebration, this protest, continues, they are thinking to themselves:

There’s going to be hell to pay for this.

And maybe some of them, like Judas, have an even more ambiguous and troubled relationship with Jesus than that. Because it’s a safe bet that more than a few of the people who are on the streets cheering today will, in less than a week, be outside of Pilate’s headquarters shouting, Crucify him!

I think it’s Nadia Bolz-Weber who said that, in Jerusalem, it isn’t a long journey from Hail him! to Nail him!

This is the first Palm Sunday that I have celebrated since my fellow pilgrims and I went to the Holy Land last year. We were there for Palm Sunday. Do you know how you sometimes build something up in your mind, maybe a movie, maybe a trip, maybe a milestone day of your life like graduation or getting a driver’s license or the first day at a new job, you reckon that it’s going to be amazing or life changing, and then it’s a let down when the day happens? The day can’t actually live up to your imagination. Prior to going to the Holy Land, I reckoned that marching in the Palm Sunday procession would be amazing.

And you know what? It was even more amazing than I expected.

The experience was a sacrament, an outward and visible of faith, of my faith and the faith of so many others. Thousands of us marched into the holy city, following the path that Jesus walked. It was a celebration, a kind of carnival or parade. We sang these high-energy, celebratory hymns in Arabic. The head singer or cantor led us by singing into this squawky little speaker mounted on a stick. I didn’t understand the words, but I joined in when we called out the name, Hosanna! Hosanna!

Hosanna being a name of adoration, an ancient word that means something like Save us, we pray.

And at the same time, in the midst of the celebration, were the soldiers. Standing on walls and peering down on us, marching through our midst, their machine guns at the ready, their heavy body armour moving in the sun. We complain, sometimes, about our country. And maybe we have reason for doing so. But here in the States we enjoy a really vigorous expectation of freedom of expression. In that procession into the city, no sooner did a Palestinian flag appear than the soldiers were wading into the crowd to take it away, no sooner did a young man lose his temper and begin to yell at the soldiers than he was in handcuffs.

It is close to two thousand later. And still there are the soldiers and still there are the people singing Jesus’ name and marching for freedom. All of it together, on this day: joy and sorrow, jubilation and grief, triumph and loss, as we march into the holy city and towards the cross.

 

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

Luke 6:17-26

Psalm 1https://gracememorialdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/elfert-sermon-february-17-2019.mp3

 

When I sit in the pews or, in our online world, when I plug in my headphones and electronically join a congregation elsewhere, I don’t mind disagreeing with the preacher. I am not among those who see critiquing sermons as a form of impiety. To the contrary, I am fully on board with my philosopher friend, John, who says that when you disagree with him, that is a sign of respect and engagement. Some of the most important sermons that I have heard over the years were ones in which I listened and said to myself, Wow, the preacher has really gotten this wrong. I appreciated those sermons because they made me think, they obligated me to challenge and to clarify my own theology.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to a sermon that she’d heard preached at her parish. I listened to it online. And it was very much in the, Wow, this guy is getting things wrong category. I had a frequently furrowed brow as I listened.

But it took me a while to figure out what was bugging me so much.

The sermon was an effort to be prophetic. (Prophetic not in the popular sense of predicting the future, but in the Biblical sense of speaking truthfully and forcefully and faithfully to the ways in which the world has become distorted, in which it has strayed from the path to the Kingdom.) It spoke to three of the great moral issues of our day, that of climate change; of income and wealth inequality; and of the dehumanisation of immigrants, people of colour, GLBTQ folks, and so on.

And on its face, I didn’t disagree with the preacher’s thesis. Climate change really is an emergency that calls for immediate action: we will deny that or ignore that at our peril. Income and wealth inequality really is a major justice issue: I have no dispute with those who argue that an individual holding a billion dollars when there are children in this country regularly missing meals in an obscenity. The violence that we do to folks who aren’t white and male and straight is appalling: I went to a workshop earlier this week in which one of my fellow participants talked about how, as a black woman in America, she felt simply exhausted.

All of the preacher’s critiques, in other words, were real and urgent. What troubled me in the sermon was the language that the preacher reached for when he spoke of those whom he reckoned were responsible for these moral crises.

He referred to the folks as the Priests of Moloch.

Moloch, as you perhaps know, is an ancient Canaanite God associated with child sacrifice. Whether or not Moloch’s followers actually engaged in child sacrifice is an open question. Some scholars reckon the accusation that the Canaanites were feeding their children to their God was an ancient exercise in propaganda or character assassination, that it was a story made up by people who didn’t like them, including the folks who wrote the books of Leviticus and Jeremiah. Regardless, Moloch and his priests are, in our popular imagination, Capital “E” evil. In Paradise Lost and in lots of books, movies, and TV shows before and since, Moloch has stood in for worst and most selfish and most terrifyingly destructive side of humanity.

And this is the language that the preacher was using to describe his fellow human beings.

Do you know the concept of the scapegoat? Today, we have the expression “scapegoating” – that’s when something goes wrong and we identify an individual or a group of people to whom we can assign all the blame. When I was first out of theatre school, I worked for a couple of productions at a semi-professional company. And the show went off the rails – it was a disaster.

The director of the company made it pretty clear that the show’s problems were my fault. I was the reason that it had gone so wrong.

I was pretty devastated about this. I was an earnest young man, I wanted to do a good job. And I was gutted to think that I had broken things so badly.

Seeing how much I was hurting, an actor who had been with that company for a while took me aside and let me in on a secret: The shows at the company always went off the rails. And someone was always blamed for that happening. “There should be a plaque on the wall,” he said, “that commemorates who was blamed for each show going wrong.” For that particular production, I was the scapegoat.

We engage in scapegoating in our families. (You’re the reason that we never have fun on vacations! You’re the reason that Dad left! You ruin everything!) We engage in it in church. We engage in it our country.

Scapegoating gets its name because, way back when, a village would take a literal goat – maybe sometimes another animal – and they would ritually assign their sins to it. They would gather around and, with the help of the priest, and they would say: This thing I did or left undone? That belongs to this goat now.

That time you manipulated your spouse to get what you wanted? Give it to the goat.

That place where you hide the booze so nobody notices just how fast the bottle is emptying? Give it to the goat.

The shared reality that we live in a city in which people sleep on the streets, human beings whom we walk around on our way to get a latte? Give it to the goat.

And then the sins transferred to this poor animal, the people would drive it out into the wilderness or stone it. Our sins have become the goat’s problem, we’ve gotten rid of the goat, and so our sins are gone. We’re absolved.

The problem is that people have never been all that hot at limiting our scapegoating to goats. We scapegoat our fellow human beings early and often.

Rene Girard, the great historian, literary critic, and philosopher, writes extensively about scapegoating. And he argues that we see the scapegoating mechanism in the cross. When we gather in the crowd and we shout crucify him, we are blaming Jesus for everything that is going wrong in our lives as individuals and as a community.

And what Girard says is that, by going to his death utterly innocent, Jesus reveals how screwed up scapegoating is. As we stand at the foot of the cross, we see our own violence reflected back at us.

I realised, after some reflection, that this is what was bugging me about the sermon from my friend’s parish. When the preacher spoke of blaming the marginalised, even though he didn’t use the language, he was talking about scapegoating. The notion that immigrants are, somehow, responsible for our country’s problems is a classic scapegoat mechanism, it is absurd and offensive.

But then, having done so, he advocated for creating a new set of scapegoats. If we stop blaming our problems on immigrants or people of colour or gay folks or whoever and, instead, start blaming our problems on the 1% or conservatives or Donald Trump, if we make these folks into the Priests of Moloch, the very embodiment of evil, have we improved things? Or have we just moved the violence around? Are we still stuck in the same busted system that got us where we are?

As long as we keep participating in scapegoating, no matter who the scapegoat may be, no matter how much it may sound like they deserve it, we are the abused child who becomes an abuser themselves, we are the exploited people who become oppressors ourselves, we are simply transmitting the violence that we have received.

Jesus on the cross says stop it. He says: Look at me. Look at my broken, dying body. Look at what the violence of scapegoating does to another human being, look at what it does to God. He doesn’t say, You need a better scapegoat, someone who is really responsible for your problems. He says: You need to burn this entire rotten system of shame and blame  down.

Today, we hear the Sermon on the Plain, the shorter and less famous answer to the Sermon on the Mount. Depending on your understanding of the Bible, this is Luke taking the same oral tradition and telling it in a different way than Matthew or, alternatively, it is evidence that Jesus, like touring lecturers everywhere, reused his material, editing or altering it to meet the needs of a particular audience.

There is a danger, a temptation, to hear the Sermon the Plain and to understand it through the lens of the scapegoat. Unlike the Beatitudes in Matthew, where we hear eight blessings, in Luke there is a quartet of blesseds followed by a quartet of woes. And the temptation is to hear the blesseds as addressed to us and the woes as addressed to those other people, as evidence of what God is going to do to the wicked.

But notice a few things.

First, notice that 100% of the blesseds and 100% of the woes are addressed to the disciples. Luke’s Beatitudes begin:

Then he looked up at his disciples and said.

100% of what Jesus says next is about you. Jesus doesn’t say, Blessed are you who are poor but woe to those people who are rich. He says Blessed are you who are poor but woe to you who are rich.

All of this is about us, not about a scapegoat somewhere else.

Second – and this comes and goes so fast that it is easy to miss it – zoom in on the first blessed, and notice that it is in the present tense. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. Is not will be. At least in part, Jesus is talking about reality in this very moment. This is not about putting up with the crushing weight of poverty in the hopes of being rewarded in heaven later – that would be the theology of the occupier or the slaveholder. Somehow this is about the Kingdom right here, right now.

And, confusing as that may be, I think part of us knows that Jesus gets this right. If you have lived any length of life, you have had the extraordinary experience of encountering loss or grief or unfairness and meeting God in that moment, of surprising yourself by saying, That experience was a blessing. And if you have lived any length of life, you have also had the experience of what we might call a real-time woe, a moment when you stray from your values and you realise that you have been diminished immediately by doing so.

And that is part and parcel of the last thing I would like us to notice, and that us that the woes are not something that God is doing. The woes just are. Jesus doesn’t say, Woe to you who are full now, for God will make you hungry. He says, Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.

I mentioned a minute ago walking past the man lying on the street to get our lattes. Why do we tend to avert our eyes, to walk fast to get past that person. Are we afraid of them? Possibly. But what if we are also afraid of the woe that we encounter in that moment?

My late friend Douglas Williams – and I’ve shared this with you before, but it made a big impression on me and I’m going to share it again – said that the problem with being a murderer isn’t just that it makes someone dead. It’s that it makes you into a murderer. And in a similar vein – and let’s acknowledge, of course, that this is not a moral scenario as extreme as murder – what if part of the problem of walking past a homeless person while averting our eyes on our way to get a latte is that it makes is into the kind of people who walk past homeless people while averting our eyes on the way to getting a latte?

Listening to the sermon that my friend sent me, I realised that what I was longing for that preacher to say was this:

After he talked about the moral necessity, the Christian duty, of building a newer world for the sake of the least of these, for the sake of immigrants and LGBTQ folks and People of Colour, after we said amen to that, I wanted him to talk about the moral necessity, of the Christian duty, of building a newer world because the 1% need it, because the conservatives need it, because Donald Trump needs it. Because you and I need it.

No more scapegoats. As seductive as it is to get on Facebook or head out to the parking lot and assign our problems to those people, Jesus says no. Stop doing that. Working for justice means naming our own part in injustice. Building the Kingdom means naming the ways that we sabotage the Kingdom’s foundation. Let’s accept that the woes are part of our lives, part of our doing, part of our responsibility. Not instead of offering moral commentary or critique or prophecy, but as part of it. Let us have the courage to stand before and with Jesus and to name our woes. Having done so, we may find that we are freed to receive our blessings.

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.