Fourth Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

March 22, 2020

 

Lessons:

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

Psalm 23

 

Click here to watch and listen to the sermon.

 

Jesus heard that they had driven the man out, and when Jesus found him, he said,

Do you believe in the Son of Man?

The man answered,

And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.

Jesus said to him,

You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.

He said,

Lord,

I believe.

This year in Lent, the lectionary – the schedule of readings that we follow across the year – gives us a series of questions posed to Jesus. Two weeks ago, Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark, in the night, and asked:

How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?

One week ago, the unnamed woman at the well came to Jesus in the day, at high noon when there is most light, and asked:

Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?

Next week, as Jesus gets ready to go to Bethany, where Mary and Martha and Lazarus in his tomb await, the disciples will ask Jesus:

Rabbi, the crowd was just now trying to stone you. And are you going there again?

 And today, the disciples ask a question with which you and I may be familiar:

Whose fault is it?

Whose fault is it? being an ancient question, a question as old as human beings and as old as language. This time, whose fault is it? takes the form of a question about theology and about disability:

Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?

Given that whose fault is it? is an ancient question, given that it is wired into the human condition, I’m going to venture that every one of us knows a bunch about this question, that every one of us has asked it more than once.

I grew up in Canada and, therefore, I am constitutionally required to dream of playing professional hockey. Whose fault is it that I have neither the skill not the physique for that dream to ever come true? I spent high school secretly in love with Christy Crookall. Whose fault is it that we never went out on a date? (Well, maybe that’s a bad example. I have some idea whose fault that is.) When I started as Grace’s Rector almost five years ago, I thought that I would have access to all of these mentors, all of these elders who had been in my life for years and who had shared their wisdom and experience with me for years. But then one after another of them died: my friend Chris; my father-in-law, Bob; my teacher, Don. Whose fault it is that they died?

Or to choose the example that we are, all of us, living right now: Whose fault is it that we are enduring a global pandemic?

The disciples come to Jesus and they ask: Whose fault is it? Who sinned? And Jesus says:

Nobody sinned. Neither the man nor his parents.

And then having answered the question in with these words, Jesus goes on. He says something more and he does something more. He says:

The man was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him.

And then in a startlingly intimate gesture, one that is probably shocking in our regular, 21st-Century understanding of germ theory and that is especially shocking during these days of social distancing, Jesus makes a paste out of dirt and his own spit and massages it with his fingers onto the man’s eye. Go and wash, he says (just like past two weeks, here is water: remember Nicodemus and the water of birth, remember the Woman and the water in the well) and when the man comes back, he can see.

The end. And they lived happily ever after.

Except that isn’t the end. Unlike the Gospel of Mark, where the story tends to move on from miracle to miracle in an almost breathless way, John keeps the camera lingering on this scene. And as John does, we see that the follow-up to the man’s healing is hardship, it is scepticism and accusation. The man gets cross examined, his parents get cross examined. The religious authorities can’t believe or, maybe, they can’t tolerate that Jesus has performed an unscheduled and unauthorized miracle.

Even though there is healing, even though Jesus is present, brokenness and hurt remain. Jesus gives us something more difficult and more complicated than a happy ending.

What if.

What if we decide that this story is about us right now? We come to Jesus, and we say:

Whose fault is it?

Who sinned that there is a pandemic rewriting our economy and our lives?

And Jesus replies:

Nobody sinned. Not you, not your parents. This happened so that God’s work might be revealed.

And then he heals us.

And then, notwithstanding the revelation and the healing, things stay difficult and complicated.

What might that mean? How might that be good news?

Now, two caveats before I go on. First, there is no question that there are things our leaders could have done better, things that we as a society could be doing better right now. Our response has been too blasé and too selfish for too long. For five Senators to be briefed on COVID-19 and to use that information to sell their personal stocks – well, that is pathetic and selfish and unethical in equal measure.

Second, I don’t want to suggest that God caused this pandemic, that God dropped COVID-19 upon us like frogs onto Egypt. God does not introduce suffering into our lives. But, as Richard Rohr said just a couple of days ago, I am convinced that God does use our suffering to teach us.

Those two caveats named, this whole thing is no one’s fault. As far as we know, there is no Pandora who found a can labelled COVID-19 with big red letters on the top that read, Do not open, and said to herself: I wonder what happens if I open this?

Nobody sinned, not you nor your parents.

Here is how, maybe, Jesus is healing us and will heal us, how God’s work is and will be revealed in this time of crisis, and how things will remain messy and complicated anyway. I’m going to focus on five heavily overlapping categories. Let’s call them justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath.

Justice. As with so many crises – think of the hurricane that hit New Orleans fifteen years ago – the crisis that is COVID-19 is most magnified for those whom Jesus calls the least of these, our siblings. To have access to health care is a privilege. To have the kind of job, as I do, in which working remotely is possible is a privilege. To have a home and to be able to stay in it when I feel sick is a privilege. Many people have few or none of those privileges. And one of my hopes for this time is that we will remember our duty – and duty is an old-fashioned word, but it’s the one that fits right now – to those with few or no privileges.

I am enormously encouraged that, after being stalled out for 16 years, the federal government has passed legislation mandating sick leave for employees. Now, those who study legislation say that it doesn’t go far enough, that there are too many exceptions. But it remains a meaningful step closer to justice. And even if you don’t particularly care about justice, it remains a meaningful step closer to a less icky world. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be at a restaurant in which the chef is there and cooking even though they have a gastrointestinal complaint because they can’t afford to stay home.

In a similar vein, I am so heartened by the sudden and radical reduction in pollution above the factories of China, a change that we might call justice for God’s creation. What if this whole thing were a reset button and we decided that we didn’t want to go back to frantic pollution? What if this whole thing were an invitation into deeper justice, into remembering the dignity of every human being and of all creation?

Humility. As Paul famously says, there is a deep temptation to look upon those outside of our family or city or state or country, maybe even those outside of ourselves, those who aren’t me, and say to them:

I have no need of you.

I can do everything I need on my own. And by that what we generally mean is that there is credit limit enough on our Mastercards to pay our bills. And so we move through the world a little bit like gods, independent and in no way interdependent, in no way reliant on one another or on God.

A crisis like this one reveals that such a story was always high fiction, that autonomous individualism was always a God damn lie. We are here for our sojourn on this earth thanks to God’s pleasure and thanks to the cooperation and support and generosity and kindness of our neighbors.

May we humble enough to recognise that and say thanks for that.

Lament. We live in a culture that is profoundly uncomfortable with grief. That is in a mad hurry to get over loss, to get back to mandatory optimism. And there is a huge cost to living in this way. We are deprived the gifts of grief.

Our own John Hammond, who is one of the kindest and happiest and most loving people I know, describes himself as being in an apprenticeship with grief. I want to suggest that his apprenticeship correlates heavily with his kindness and his happiness and his loving nature. By giving full expression to his tears, John is able to give full expression to his joy. The two: they are inseparable. Grief is the price of admission for love.

The ancients new this. A full third of the psalms are psalms of lament. These are psalms in which people of deep, deep faith say: why? Why is the world like this? Why, God, aren’t you doing your job? What if we could express that kind of lamentation? Maybe we might discover a little bit of the joy that John knows.

Community. And this one overlaps pretty heavily with justice and humility – what if we rediscovered that we live in neighbourhoods? What if we rediscovered our vocations as neighbours? Here at Grace, we have created Circles of Caring, inviting us into to stay in community and to move deeper into community as we weather this storm. It is my hope that some of the friendships that we discover during this crisis will remain come its conclusion. And where we live, what if we found deeper relationship with the people who live next door and down the street? What if, both inside and outside of church, we asked the questions that my colleague Alissa Newton crafted and that Jeanne shared with us this past week:

  • How is the Physical Health of your Household? 
  • How is the Mental Health of your Household? 
  • What do you need? 
  • What can you offer? 

 

Sabbath. There is a beautiful poem that more than one of you have sent my way. It is by Lynn Ungar and it is called Pandemic. It begins this way:

What if you thought of it as the Jews
consider the Sabbath— the most sacred of
times?

I’ve lost track of how many people have told me across the years that some unwelcome and unchosen event – a car accident, an illness, a job loss, some other tragedy – was the first time that they had slowed down in years. I didn’t want it to happen, they say, I wish it hadn’t happened, but in a funny way, that time in the hospital bed was a gift. I was still enough, silent enough to understand things about myself and about the world andabout God.

What if this unwelcome and unchosen event were something that kind of gift, if it were something like a sabbath for our whole culture? An opportunity to be still and to know God?

So: justice, humility, lament, community, and sabbath. Five ways, maybe, that Jesus is healing us and that Jesus will heal us. Five ways, maybe, that God’s work is being and will be revealed. The messiness remains, the hurt remains. But even in Lent, Alleluia, Jesus is in the middle of it. Even in Lent, we kneel before him and say, Lord, I believe.

 

The First Sunday in Lent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Mar. 1 2020

Lessons:

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Psalm 32

This is the story of the man, the woman, the snake, and God.

God has set up this garden, this paradise. In it, there is everything a human being could need, everything that a human being could want. The weather is so pleasant and the conditions otherwise so favourable that it doesn’t even occur to anyone to wear clothes. And the food! If you want a carrot, just pull it out of the ground. If you want a smoothie, pluck a mango and turn on the geothermic-steam-powered blender. If you want a BLT, go to the bacon bush.

But God says: Do not do one thing. Everything but this one tree you may touch. This tree, you must leave alone.

But our heroes can’t do it, won’t do it. In what is officially a staple of folk tales and horror movies – don’t look in the room in the back of the house, don’t open the box, don’t read out loud from that alarming leather-bound book that you found in the cabin’s basement – the delay between God’s command and humanity’s breaking of that command is measured in minutes.

The serpent shows up and says: God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, to eat of it, because God knows how awesome it is. And God doesn’t want to share that awesomeness with you. Which is totally selfish of God.

To which the woman replies,

But God said that if we ate of that tree, we would die.

The serpent smiles in a serpent-like way. You aren’t going to die.

You’re just going to know things.

And so the woman eats. And she gives the fruit to the man and he eats.

Thanks to oil paintings, this is the moment in the scene when we maybe hear the crunch of apples. But actually, the text just says fruit tree. If you want to imagine the man and the woman peeling oranges or the juices of cherries running down their chins, you totally can.

They finish eating. They look at one another. And everything changes.

The serpent was telling the truth. But he wasn’t telling the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Our heroes do indeed know things now. And they don’t die, not this instant. But they do know about death and they know that it applies to them. And this knowing itself is a kind of death. And they know as well that they are naked. And so they sew themselves clothes out leaves.

This is the beginning of fashion. It is the beginning of shame.

What is the moral of this story?

Here are three possible morals.

One. This is a story about the origins of sin.

Maybe you know how this one goes. This is the moral that you will get if you are hearing this story while sitting on Saint Augustine’s knee. In Uncle Auggie’s telling, this is when sin shows up, even though that word appears nowhere in the text. Even more specifically, this is when original sin shows up.

Things were perfect. And then through our sin we ruined it. Or if you’re feeling misogynistic (and let’s tell the truth, the institutional church knows a thing or three about misogyny), things were perfect and then the woman ruined it. Either way, God leaves this wonderful tree, this dessert, in the middle of the garden. And like a kind of crappy, passive-aggressive parent setting a test-slash-trap, God leaves the room and says:

Don’t touch the dessert.

But they do touch the dessert.

And because we are reading this story paired up, thanks to the lectionary, with Paul talking about sin and with another story in which Satan tempts Jesus, we get point and counterpoint. Adam and Eve, the dessert eaters, are the problem: Jesus is the solution.

Now, lest we be too, too hard on Augustine, there probably is something to this reading. (Not the misogyny part but the sin being loose in creation and Jesus being the solution to that part.) This world is not as it ought to be. Most of us, maybe all of us, sense that. I was in a waiting room on Thursday morning and I glanced at a newspaper, the headline of which announced that there were children fleeing Syria who were freezing to death in refugee camps.

That kind of horror: it ought not to exist.

And maybe we need a story that explains how the selfishness and violence that makes that horror possible came into being. Augustine has an answer for us: the very first people broke things and their very first sin is still echoing through the world.

Whether or not we need that explanation, we assuredly need to know that Jesus is present in that refugee camp with those children. We assuredly need to know that Jesus is, indeed, the solution, that as Jesus’ hands and feet in this hurting world, we can change things. There is something unexpectedly and profoundly moving about that old icon in which Jesus, who has descended to the dead just like the creed says, is grabbing Adam and Eve by the wrists and pulling them, like two people on the verge of drowning, out of death and into life.

But.

But let’s also acknowledge that this reading is a huge trip hazard for a whole lot of folks, that for many people this is the reading that makes Christianity incoherent. Why did God put this tree in the garden which, as the text tells us, the man and the woman desire? And what does it mean that once they eat they discover nakedness? Throw into the mix Augustine’s understanding of sin, and many people’s understanding of sin, which is to say that sin overlaps heavily with sex, and you can see how God and God’s church don’t come out of this story looking very good.

As the wonderful singer-songwriter Josh Ritter puts it:

Eve ate the apple because the apple was sweet

What kind of god would keep a girl from getting what she needs?

That’s a fair enough question. And if Augustine’s moral is right, it may be a question that proves the antitheists right when they say that we should shake off the handcuffs that are belief in God so that we can get on with enjoying our lives and enjoying our sexuality in particular.

Two. This is a story about God, about the one whom Jesus will one day call Father, acting like the most loving of parents.

There is probably nowhere in the Bible where God is more like a human being than God is at the beginning of Genesis. Later on in the Bible, God is a pillar of cloud, a burning bush, a whirlwind, a still small voice, a sound from the sky that might be words and might be thunder. But at the beginning of Genesis, in one of the most beautiful images to be found anywhere in scripture, God walks through the garden in the cool of the day, just the way that you or I might. God is enjoying God’s creation, with all of its beauty and wonder.

And God, for reasons that make sense to God and may or may not make sense to us, God has allowed danger into creation, evil into creation. And into this world, God has brought children.

To bring children into the world is to have no fewer than two goals in tension with one another. The one is that you want your children to have a good and a complete life, full of love, meaningful challenge, friends, learning, and so on. We want, in other words, our children to know the world, know themselves, know God. The other goal, the one in tension with the first, is you don’t want your kids to get hurt, whether hurt means the bruising of their bodies or the bruising of their hearts.

And so we try to insulate our kids from hurt or, at a minimum, to delay as long as possible the time when hurt will come. We try to see if we can postpone the day of disillusionment or disappointment. That’s because we know that, when that day comes, something breaks. When the day comes, for instance, when a child understands that their parent cannot solve every problem there is, it is the end of a kind of beautiful innocence.

What if that is what God is doing when God says, Don’t touch that tree, the one that will tell you about death? What if God is saying to the man and the woman, I just want childhood, your childhood with its fleeting, fragile innocence, to go on a little longer?

Three. This is a story about the importance, the holiness even, of accepting boundaries and limitations.

Earlier, we talked about how the man and the woman desired the tree – or, in the strange, passive voice that the New Revised Standard Version gives us, that the tree was to be desired. But here’s the problem with reading stuff in translation. The very best translatuins give us, maybe, 85% of the sense of the original text. The English translation of this story doesn’t let us know that the Hebrew is full of puns, so that this story in origin has a whimsical, playful feel to it. And other nuance gets lost: the word that the NRSV renders as desire in this passage, nehmad, is precisely the same word that in the final of the ten commandments, it renders covet. As in:

You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s spouse, nor their servants, nor their animals, nor anything that belongs to your neighbour.

You shall not nehmad these things.

The tree was nehmad.

So, if we are going to use the same translation here in Genesis as in the tenth commandment, the tree was coveted. Or, in less awkward English, maybe something like: The man and the woman coveted the tree.

God says to the human beings: Here is paradise. Here is abundance. Here is enough.

And then God adds: But if paradise is going to work, if you and everything else are going to thrive, you must be content with enough. You must not take too much. You must not cross the boundary into covetousness. You must not nehmad.

Suddenly, this is a story for our time. For you and me, right now. Because there is enough on this earth for everyone to live, for everyone to thrive. Be content with that, says God. Be happy with that. Because what there is not are the resources for everyone to have too much. Do not nehmad more than you need. Or you will bring death into this world.

But the snake, who these days goes by the name consumerism, smiles and says: God is just kidding. God knows how much fun it is to nehmad. And God doesn’t want you in on that fun. Go ahead and eat. And if you break the tree or something else in the process, never mind. You can always buy another one. It might even be covered by warranty.

And we have eaten. And we have brought death into this world by doing so. We are perilously near to breaking this earth and breaking ourselves. It is not too late to make a different choice. But it is dangerously close.

Three possibilities. A story about sin, a story about love, a story about healthy limitation. Probably a story about still other things. Assuredly a story about us. A story about how God has given us paradise and said, This one tree you must not touch or you will die. A story that offers us a choice between the advice of God and the advice of a snake. A story that asks you and me the question, whose advice will we take?

 

The Last Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 23, 2020

Lessons:

Exodus 24:12-18

2 Peter 1:16-21

Matthew 17:1-9

 Psalm 99

The mountain is one of those places where the real and the metaphorical intersect. You climb towards the summit, sometimes the switchbacks taking you back and forth, sometimes the path leading you straight up, the rocks and the dirt skating under your feet. With every step you get a little higher and the valley and the daily life that it holds moves a little further away. If you want food, you must carry it with you. If you want sunscreen, you must carry it with you. If you want a change of clothes, you must carry them with you. With the exception of the occasional ski chalet, the mountaintop is a place that Starbucks and Target have yet to conquer.

Eventually, if the mountain is tall enough, you reach what is called the tree line. This is the altitude above which the trees do not, cannot grow: the air is too thin or too cold, the birds and bugs and worms that make a forest possible too far away. Often, but not always, the tree line is also where the snow begins. Even in the summer, there it lies, white, still, dangerous, and beautiful on the rock. In a pinch, the snow can turn into water for you to drink: manna from heaven. But it can also be what sends your feet shooting out from underneath you, so that you land hard and start to slide.

On somewhere other than the mountain, this much rock and this few trees would mean that everything would be loud. The hard surface would take the sounds of cars and machinery and voices on mobile phones and slap them back at you. But on the mountain, all of that is gone. And the rock is quiet but for crunch of your boots and the panting of your breath and the lonely song of the wind.

At a certain point, the summit comes into sight. Almost there, you say, and even though your calves are burning, you push on. This is the part of the climb when you sometimes actually start exhorting your legs to lift your boots off the ground: Come on. Come on. You are almost there.

Except that you aren’t almost there. On the mountain there is an illusion whereby the peak looks to be 500 yards away and so you climb 500 yards and you discover that the peak remains 500 yards away. This experience is strange and exasperating and it repeats more than once.

You remember being a child in a car: Are we there yet? You remember that in movies and comic books and the old stories, the mountaintop is where you will find the guru or the dragon or the mysterious monastery within which Bruce Wayne will become Batman. And you understand why. The training, the discipline, the answer to the question, the thing that will change you has begun even before you reach the summit.

And then at last, you are there. The peak, the summit, the mountaintop. Way back when, before the airplane and the hot air balloon and Google earth, the summit was as high as a human being could get. Icarus and the guys who built the tower of Babel maybe got higher. But things didn’t work out well for them. For most of human history, the only solid thing that can get you this high and safely back again was put there by God.

On the mountaintop, if the day is clear and the mountain high enough, you can see.

You can see.

You can see so much and so far. Over other mountains, maybe over multiple other mountains. And down. Sometimes, impossibly, what you are looking down on are clouds – clouds being things that you always look up to see. You squint to see if angels are visible standing upon them. Down still further are the places that we call civilization.

You look at the houses, the cars, the roads. And from up here, maybe, your taxes don’t seem that important, your conflict with your coworker doesn’t seem that important, the way that the person with whom you live rolls their eyes doesn’t seem that important. In the old stories, the gods look upon from a place like this. And on the mountaintop, it makes sense that they do.

Is there clarity on this summit? Maybe even healing on this summit? Do you understand things that you didn’t or couldn’t down below? The psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke of this place, of the mountaintop, when talking about certain moments of joy and connectivity.

A peak experience.

A peak experience is when you understand something about eternity, something about God. In Maslow’s words, here at the summit you are, “simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than [you ever were] before.” This too makes a kind of sense.

The mountain, the place where the real and the metaphorical meet: this is where Jesus takes his closest friends as his journey to Jerusalem and journey to the cross nears. Peter and John and James follow Jesus, breathing hard as they climb towards their moment of power and helplessness. For the three of them, this moment will look like watching Jesus as he face starts to shine, the way that Moses’ face shone when he talked to God all of those years ago. It will look like watching as Jesus’ clothes shine. In the inimitable words of the King James version:

And his raiment became shining, exceeding white as snow; so as no fuller on earth can white them.

And then it will look like watching as Jesus, whose ministry in many ways has been one long conversation with Moses and Elijah, one long amplification of and argument with the two old prophets, is suddenly talking with the two men. The text doesn’t say how John and Peter and James recognise Moses and Elijah – there are no photographs of them. They just know.

And then it looks like the heavens speaking, a cloud repeating the words of Jesus’ baptism:

This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

Listen to him.

And John and James and Peter fall down then. They fall down on the mountain. Because, well, what else can they do?

But Jesus touches them. And his touch, it always brings healing.

Get up,

he says,

Get up and do not be afraid.

And when they look around and Moses and Elijah are gone and the sky is quiet.

One of the things that you forget when you are climbing and even when you are at the summit is that going down, it too is a journey. By halfway down, your knees are screaming. And notwithstanding bags of ice and trips to the hot tub, it will be days before they stop telling the story of the mountain.

It is on the way back down that Jesus says to his friends, Don’t tell anyone about this until after the cross, until after the tomb, until after you see me again. And maybe, as you descend, you get why he says this. Because the mountaintop, what you see there, you can’t really tell anyone that experience to anyone, at least not in a way that makes sense. If you are to understand God’s mountain, you must climb it and see for yourself.

The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Feb. 16, 2020

Lessons:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Matthew 5:21-37
Psalm 119:1-8

It is very near the end of the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness, very near the end of the forty years that the twelve tribes have spent wandering and searching, now lost and now found, always somehow guided by God. And the aged Moses, 120 years old and near death but, the story tells us, his vigour unabated, gathers the tribes together. Within sight of the promised land, the land that they have longed for all of these years, Moses speaks to them on behalf of God.

I have set before you today life and death. Blessings and curses.

And then, maybe because the Israelites hesitate, pausing in uncertainty like a contestant on a game show invited to choose between two doors, Moses goes on:

Choose life.

This scene is beautiful and awe inspiring. But is it also just a little absurd? Is there an element of ridiculousness to it? Because surely the old man’s question, Would you prefer life or would you prefer death? is not one that the Israelites or anyone else should need to think about for very long.

Would you prefer an envelope full of cash or would you prefer to be pushed off the roof of a building?

Would you prefer a new pair of shoes, comfortable and fashionable in equal measure, or would you prefer botulism?

Would you prefer curried rice with asparagus, squash, and a garden salad on the side or would you prefer mayonnaise-flavoured ice cream?

Would you prefer life or death?

Of course you are going to choose life.

But maybe the absurdity, the stark obviousness of the choice that Moses offers God’s people is precisely what makes this story powerful. Maybe it is precisely how it tells us the truth.

Because life is the obvious choice.

And we don’t always choose it.

We all know people – maybe some of us here this morning have been people – who chose booze or pot or gambling or sex or whatever over their marriages, over their jobs, over their children, over God, over everything else. There is a dark joke that goes something like this:

There is no such thing as addiction. There are only things that we like doing more than being alive.

In a similar vein, we all know people – and here I will remove the maybe and say that we all, 100% of us, have been people – who have chosen selfishness over life.

When I take an inventory my life so far, one of the things that I have done or left undone that I might be most ashamed of, that I kind of don’t want to tell you about, came sometime late in my adolescence or early in my adulthood. It was Hallowe’en. And my folks were away. I don’t remember where or why but I do know that I was, like an aged Macaulay Culkin, home alone. But because my Mom was and is a meticulous planner, she had laid in bags and bags of miniature candy bars.

As the joke goes, I had one job. It was my job to open the door and praise the children in their costumes and drop candy bars into their bags.

But did I do my job?

I did not.

What I did was to turn off all of the lights in the house, go down to the basement, and watch Star Wars on VHS.

While eating all of the candy myself.

When I think of the word pathetic, I remember that moment in the basement.

Now, maybe what I’ve just shared with you is a moral triviality. Nobody got hurt, the few children who came and knocked on the door of our dark house and shouted Trick or Treat may have felt some fleeting disappointment. But I imagine that they then went on with their night and filled up their bags and everything was fine. It is likely that I am the only one who remembers that, on Hallowe’en circa 1990, the lights were turned off at 3824 West 1st Avenue.

But I remember. And maybe I feel as ashamed as I do by that memory because what I did that night feels like a parable, a parable for choosing something other than community, other than life.

When you and I live in a city in which, notwithstanding our manifest wealth, we tolerate human beings having nowhere but the pavement on which to sleep, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When you and I tolerate a scenario in which refugees on our southern border fleeing the worst kind of violence are met in the Land of the Free with cruelty, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off. When I and you tolerate more and more extreme weather and console ourselves that the stock market is booming, we are doing something like eating candy in the basement with the lights off.

In these moments, we are choosing that which is not life. The choice between life and death may be obvious, comically so. But that doesn’t mean that we choose life. Because curses and death are familiar and predictable, addiction and selfishness are familiar and predictable. We know how they work, we know the rewards that they hold. We don’t know anything about the new land that waits across the Jordan. We know nothing. Except that God has told us that it is full of life.

And we’re not sure that we trust God’s word.

We are closing in on Lent. Ash Wednesday is in one and a half weeks. And it is that time of year when talk about giving stuff up and when we talk about sin.

Both of these things – giving stuff up and sin – are pretty significant and pretty regular sources of shame.

Giving stuff up is a source of shame because it swerves so easily out of spiritual practice and into that suspicious category that we call self-help. It is common, for instance, to give up some kind of treat during Lent. And maybe that practice would be okay, maybe it would be edifying. Except that a whole lot of us have baggage around food. And so this Lenten practice turns pretty easily into a diet, with all of the sad baggage that diets entail. As a friend of mine said in one of those jokes that tells the truth:

I’m so glad that Lent comes before swimsuit season. Maybe I can lose a few pounds.

Sin is often a source of shame because we regularly understand sin – or, and I want to insist on this, we regularly misunderstand sin – as being about self-loathing, often locating that self-loathing around our bodies and our sexuality. For the record, if anyone here this morning needs to hear it, masturbation and other healthy and loving expressions of sexuality are not and never were sins. Being gay is not and never was a sin. Being trans is not and never was a sin. Having a body that will not get you onto the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue or Men’s Health – having a body that, in other words, is normal – is not and never was a sin. We could keep on going.

But what if we don’t need to define either of those practices – either giving stuff up or sin – in such a screwed-up way? What if they both could have good and life-giving meanings?

What if giving stuff up – or in the language of the Bible, fasting – is just what we heard God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, said it was just last week:

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?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

What if that is what a fast looks like? What if that is what giving stuff up looks like?

And what if sin is just an ancient word that means selfishness?

What if therefore, when we speak of repenting from sin and when we speak of giving stuff up what we mean is that we are repenting of and we are giving up alienation, giving up indifference, giving up apathy, giving up selfishness, giving up sitting by ourselves in a dark basement eating candy? In doing so we are choosing community, we are choosing service, we are choosing love, we are choosing God. We are choosing life.

Now here’s the gospel, the amazing news: coming out of the basement isn’t just good for the people knocking on our door. It’s good for us. On that night thirty years ago, coming out of the basement not only would have given some costumed children a little more delight, but it would have given me so much more delight. I would have had a way, way better night if I had encountered those children’s happiness and wonder. And if I wouldn’t have had the sad tummy that came of eating all of that candy by myself. Repenting of sin, giving stuff up: what if the secret is that these things aren’t shame-filled sacrifices but, rather, they are joys?

Here we are. Here we are, gathered with Moses, looking across the Jordan and into new land, a land of uncertainty and possibility. I set before you life and death, the old man who is speaking on God’s behalf says. And then, because this never was a test, because this never was a trick question, because God never wanted us to fail, Moses opens up the teacher’s edition. He shows us the page with the answers written on it.

Choose life.

Moses and God whisper together,

Choose life.

Choose life.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 19, 2020

Lessons:

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Psalm 40:1-12

If you have ever taken an acting class – maybe in high school, maybe in university, maybe somewhere else – then you will likely have done the exercise of selecting a short line of text and seeing how many different ways that you can say it. The line might be something that your teacher made up or it might be a famous line from a famous play. For the sake of exploration, let’s say that the line in question is what might be the most famous line ever spoken on the stage.

To be or not to be. That is the question.

How many ways could we say these words that Shakespeare gives to Hamlet?

Well, maybe we could lean hard into To be and then go soft on the rest of the line:

TO BE

(or not to be). That is the question.

Maybe we could borrow the technique of the late German actor, Bruno Ganz, who according to lore said:

To be

and then paused and paused and paused, waiting, legend has it, for more than two minutes of silence before concluding…

or not to be. That is the question.

Or maybe the first sentence with its contrasting choices isn’t as important as what comes next. How about:

(To be or not to be.)

THAT is the question.

We could keep on going as long as we wanted, as long as our imaginations lasted.

Scripture, like Shakespeare, doesn’t contain a lot of stage directions or other descriptions. Most of the time, folks in the Bible just say stuff. Their words are generally not followed by, “…she said, angrily” or “…he told them, with tears in his eyes and shaking hands.” The text does not volunteer whether their eyebrows are raised, whether they are speaking through gritted teeth, Clint Eastwood style, whether they are slurring their words, whether they are giggling as they talk.

And so here is my question for this morning. We are in the Gospel of John, right near its beginning. Jesus has just been baptised. And then the very first words that Jesus speaks go like this:

What are you looking for?

How shall we read Jesus’ words?

Let’s try out a few possibilities.

What are you looking for?

So, this is a Jesus who is aggressive, accusatory, and maybe wary. This is a Jesus who sees you glancing his way on the street and says, “What do you think you’re looking at?”

Now, stay with me here. Because we are so accustomed to Serene Jesus that we may want to reflexively rule out the possibility of Cranky Jesus. But I want to suggest that this is a thoroughly plausible reading of these words.

Because John the Baptist has just seen Jesus and announced to Andrew and his friend:

There goes the Lamb of God.

And what do we know about lambs? Well, we know that, as the old expression has it, they are led with some regularity to the slaughter. This is particularly true in Jesus’ time, where the sacrifice of animals is woven into the life of the temple. John is saying a lot of things when he announces that Jesus is the Lamb of God – there is a theological complexity to this statement that could and has filled up a few books. But one of the most basic things that it means is:

There is the one who is going to die in the service of the Lord.

Before Jesus predicts his own death – and as we know, Jesus predicts his dying early and often – John the Baptist predicts it.

And so we can understand why Jesus might speak with hostility, why he might say to Andrew and his friend:

What are you looking for?

Are you two here to watch me die? Are you like the people who slow down going past the car accident, equal parts horrified and titillated, both fearing and hoping that you will see blood on the asphalt?

Are you staring because I am a dead man walking?

What are you looking for?

Let’s try another possibility:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus as the guru with the big beard on the mountaintop, this is Jesus as Yoda. Jesus is asking a question to which he already knows the answer. The purpose of the question is not for Jesus to learn anything, not for Jesus to find anything out. The purpose of the question is for the one being questioned to learn, for the seeker to learn. For you to learn.

This is maybe the Jesus with whom we are most familiar. And I can understand why: in a lot of ways, this is a reassuring Jesus: the Messiah who is in control, who is stable and powerful, who has something like superpowers.

Jesus asking the question in this way is like a guide on a journey. He knows the path on which we walk backwards and forwards, he cannot get lost. While he is on the journey with us, he shares in none of our discovery and none of our uncertainty. When we wander off of the way and into the briars or the poison ivy, he does not follow us. He stays on the path and asks his question: What are you looking for?

When Jesus ask his question, he is really saying: I know what you are looking for. Do you know what you are looking for?

Maybe there is a trace of a smile on his face as he speaks.

One more.

What are you looking for?

So, this is Jesus as genuinely curious. Not angry and challenging but not all-knowing either. This is the Son of God, shortly after his baptism, the day after the dove has descended and the voice of the one whom he calls Father has said:

This is my Son, the Beloved. In whom I delight.

This is Jesus wandering around in stunned wonder, standing in the wake of this profound mystical experience and not sure what is supposed to happen next. In the Synoptic Gospels (so, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this is the moment when the Spirit drives or maybe leads Jesus out into the wilderness. Here in the Fourth Gospel, this is the moment when Jesus notices that two people have left John’s side and begun to follow him.

Picture him, blinking in the sunlight, his clothes maybe not entirely dry from that day before, the silt of the Jordan still in his hair. He looks at Andrew and his friend and says:

What are you looking for?

This is Jesus who is, himself, not sure what he is looking for. This is the Jesus who shares with us in our search. We are lost and hoping to be found. And so is Jesus.

Which reading is right? Which one is true? Is it one of these three or still another?­ How does Jesus sound when he looks at you and he says:

What are you looking for?

The Second Sunday after Christmas by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Jan. 5, 2020

Lessons:

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a

Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Psalm 84

A remarkable number of Christmas carols and Christmas songs and Christmas hymns have a wistful, melancholic, plain-old sad side to them.

In the Bleak Midwinter and The Little Drummer Boy are both sung in the voice of one who knows poverty: What can I give him, poor as I am? and I am a poor boy, too – pa rum pum pum-pum.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas speaks of finitude and randomness: Through the years we all will be together…

…if the fates allow…

and of troubles which, achingly, beautifully, the singer hopes and longs will now be miles away.

And even We Need a Little Christmas from the musical Mame:

We need a little Christmas, right this very minute!

Words that are almost impossible to sing without putting on your Angela Lansbury voice, a number as toe-tapping and danceable a Christmas song there is, tells us:

I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

I bet that we could think of still more examples.

What’s going on? Why are so many pages of the Christmas song book stained with tears?

Some of it probably has to do with the time of the year. These short days are taxing and it is easy to feel out of gas. Some of it probably flows out of the dissonance that shows up when, in a season when you are kind of expected or even required to be happy, you realise that you are not: if Christmas sits for you in the shadow of loss or grief or loneliness and the world around you appears to be full-time joy and friendship and merriment and Christmas cards filled with success and success and winning and winning, that’s hard. And some of it is probably due to just having time off: if you, like me, are the sort of person whose preferred drug is not so much booze as it is busyness, getting a break from work or projects or school simply allows you the time to be sad.

And some of it has to do with Christmas itself – not the contemporary holiday, but the ancient story of the birth of Jesus. Sorrow is woven right into this tale, it is right there beside the joy. Here is a family living in poverty – remember in the Gospel of Luke that, when the holy family goes to the temple to make a sacrifice to the Lord in Jesus’ name, the family buys a pair of turtledoves and two pigeons, the cheapest possible animals available, a marker that tells you that their wallets are close to empty. Here is a family living with the indignity and fear of occupation – Mary must give birth on the road because that Empire commands them to travel. And here is a family who, shortly after Jesus’ birth, become refugees, who flee to Egypt, because Empire’s violence is coming for them.

Those of you who have been hanging around church for a while will know that, three days after the Feast of Christmas, there comes another Feast. This is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a day that keeps the memory all of the children under the age of two whom King Herod orders to be murdered in the hopes that Jesus will be among them.

The story of those murders, the story of what, beginning in the twentieth century, we would call a crime against humanity, is one that we probably ought to tell not just on December 28th but on this Sunday as well. Except, because of a curious choice made by the folks who framed the lectionary (i.e., the schedule of readings that we follow from one Sunday to the next), we just skip past it. Here is Matthew Chapter 2, Verses 13-15, in which Joseph is warned in a dream and flees with his family to Egypt. And then we pop ahead to Verse 19, which begins, “When Herod died,” and it is safe for the family to come home.

And they lived happily ever after! This is almost a Disney story.

Except missing from what we just read together are verses 16 through 18:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.

The Magi, in art and in nativity sets, are often these jovial, kind, harmless figures, gift-wrapped boxes in their hands. But what this story in its fullness tells us is that they are also tragic figures, sorrow-filled figures. They choose to trust Herod, choose to trust the King, someone who ought to be trustworthy, with the amazing good news that the Messiah has been born. And in so doing, they unwittingly invite Herod’s violence into Jesus’ life and Joseph and Mary’s lives and into the lives of who knows how many innocent and unnamed children.

Children who, now, will never get to grow up.

So. I have some distressing news to share with you. Over the last number of weeks, you may have received warning notice from Grace letting you know that there is a scammer or, maybe, multiple scammers hopping onto email pretending to be Jeanne or me or a parishioner here at Grace. And I’m really sorry to let you know that no fewer than two parishioners have been defrauded of money by this scam. One parishioner was defrauded of about $300. More recently, a second parishioner was defrauded of $1300.

Now, I want to be clear. I have just transitioned from the murder of children to the stealing of money, and I want to emphasise that the two are not the moral equivalent of one another. Of course they are not. What I am arguing, I guess, is that thefts such as these are microcosms, small versions, of other, bigger kinds of violence. Violence such as Herod inflicts, violence such as we hear about today in synagogues and churches.

Because in both cases, the violence is against trust, against community. We come to church or synagogue or other places of worship because we trust that we are going to find healing, belonging, and meaning in these places, we trust that we are going to find goodness and love in them, we trust that we are going to find safety in them, we trust that we are going to find God in them. These are places, we reckon, where we are home, where we are allowed to let down our guards.

And when someone takes advantage of that trust and pretends to be a member of the community asking for help or, far worse, brings a gun or a knife a machete into the community, it feels like an especially big violation. And it demands the question: how shall we respond?

Is church too going to be place where we must be on guard at all times?

For some of our fellow people of faith, the answer is “yes.” As you likely know, a recent shooting at a church in Texas was stopped and who knows how many murders prevented because several church goers were armed and one of them was able to shoot and kill the perpetrator. This is the famous “good guy with a gun,” except in real life. Is the takeaway that we at Grace should do the same, that acolytes and choir members ought to have pistols under their robes and keep a machine gun stowed in the pulpit? Microcosmically, do the recent scams mean that the trust that is so much part of this good place is something that we ought to regard with scepticism and suspicion?

Maybe a sensible answer, a street-smart answer, would be “yes.” But that’s not the answer that I want to give. And if Jesus is telling the truth when, in Gethsemane he tells his disciple to put away the sword, when he pushes back when that the disciples want to engage in violence, when, even on the cross, he chooses to forgive, then I don’t think that it is the answer that Jesus wants us to give either.

Maybe it is naïve or foolish or reckless. But I believe that Jesus, the child laying in the manger even as the soldiers draw near, wants us to keep on trusting in goodness and love, keep on hoping for goodness and love, keep on working for goodness and love.

Because I think Jesus’ trust, Jesus’ trust in humanity in spite of everything, is built right into Christmas. Theologians will sometimes say of the incarnation, of the Kingdom, of the Gospel, that these things have an already and a not yet quality. The kingdom is already here, Jesus is already among us. The church is already the body of Christ. And yet silly power struggles and hurt feelings remain. And scams remain. And the worst kind of violence remains.

And in a way, the not yet makes the already even more amazing, Here is all of this brokenness. And here is Jesus, here is God, showing up anyway. That is the best news.

Already and not yet is the paradox built into his paradoxical time of year, a time of year in which we sing paradoxical songs: songs of joy and glad tidings and loneliness and grief. Songs of hope, that Jesus is here among all of the hurt and that Jesus is coming and that Jesus will change everything. That is hope that I need, for which I long.

For we’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older

We need a little Christmas. Now.

 

The Third Sunday after Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

 

December 15, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

 Canticle 15 

 

In 1989 I obtained my driver’s license. And then then partway through the next year, I became a full-time bicycle commuter.

These two changes – the driver’s license and the vastly expanded understanding of where all a bike might take me; suddenly my bike was suddenly taking me everywhere – brought with them two things into my life. The first was a profound freedom. Up until then I had been kind of limited, depending on the bus or my feet or the kindness of my parents and their car to get around. Now, I could more or less go where I wanted when I wanted.

The second thing was a new kind of anger. It is an anger that you may know about, an anger that in its extremer form actually has a name: Road rage. There is something uniquely aggravating about getting around on the modern system of streets. I don’t know if that is because it is dangerous – the bent metal of two cars meeting or, worse yet, a car and a bike meeting can send you to the hospital right now or to the morgue right now, and maybe that danger touches the reptilian parts of our brains, the fight or flight parts of our brains. Or maybe there is just something about travelling on asphalt that is plain-old frustrating. I’m curious if our ancestors getting around in buggies pulled by horses had this kind of rage. I’m guessing – and maybe I’m mistaken – that they did not, that there were rarely people hopping off of one horse to kick someone on another horse.

Regardless of the reason, I am glad that smartphones did not exist back then and the camcorders were uncommon, glad that (as far as I know) there are no videos of me on the streets of Vancouver with spit and profanity and fury flying out of my mouth. I blew my stack with some regularity. And looking back on Younger Me, I guess that some of my anger was reasonable: here were people taking stop signs as suggestions and merging across lanes and opening doors without any idea that the shoulder check had ever been invented.

Justified or not, reasonable or not, I rarely achieve that level of anger on the road today. Some of that has to do with aging, I’m sure – the years have rounded off my edges, much as the ocean rounds off the edges of broken glass. But some of it is also a choice.

Be patient, says James. Be patient for the coming of the Lord.

Be patient like the farmer is patient with the earth.

Be patient and do not grumble, lest you be judged.

The Lord is coming soon.

I don’t know if how we behave in traffic is a trivial example, a silly example; there are so many things to get angry about that matter way more than how and where someone merges on the highway. I do know that it’s a real example, an everyday example. And maybe how we meet others on the road is a kind of sacrament – a kind of outward and visible sign – of how we meet our neighbours in general.

I wonder if part of what James means by this entreaty to patience is that grumbling, that rage does nothing to make the Kingdom get here any sooner. And that sometimes it might even slow it down.

Because choosing to be patient – well, it doesn’t mean being morally lazy, acting as though nothing is right and nothing is wrong. Rather, I want to suggest that patience, holy patience, means allowing that your neighbour is as complex as you, as contradictory as you, as well-intended as you, as fallible and broken as you, as loved by God as you.

These days, I still do speak to people who run stop signs or don’t shoulder check. But I speak to them way differently than I did in 1990. Because what I noticed over the years is that when folks swore at me or yelled at me or sent sarcasm or accusation my way, I become all but completely unable to listen to what they had to say. I get closed off like a turtle, all of my energy reflexively going into defending myself.

These days I will say something like, Shoulder check, please! Or That’s a stop sign. I don’t know my patience changes anyone’s behaviour – there is no scientist to interview these folks and to measure their reactions. I do know, if absolutely nothing else, this way of being in the world changes me. To encounter my neighbour with patience – well, my blood pressure is lower, I am happier, I am more generous.

I trust that this practice matters. And I wonder what it would be like if I and we could find a way of practicing this kind of patience not just on the roads but more broadly. What if we met folks who lived differently or voted differently with holy patience? Again, not shrugging at our excusing injustice, but encountering injustice with the assumption that even those who perpetuate it are as complex as we are, as beloved of God as we are? That might change us. That might change everything.

To move around a major city such as Portland, whether it be by car or by bicycle or by foot or by something else, is to have abundant opportunities to lose your temper. There are so many people out there making choices that you just would not make: folks regarding stop signs as suggestions; folks merging or opening doors without any sense that the shoulder check has ever been invented; folks driving in the highway’s leftmost lane who are moving so epically slowly that they are very nearly going backwards; and of course folks so absorbed by their phones that they have no idea that the light changed several weeks ago.

I’ve been a bicycle commuter for very nearly thirty years, going back to my days at the University of British Columbia. And I’ve done my fair share of temper losing, my fair share of getting red in the face of and shouting words that you aren’t allowed to say in church at my fellow commuters.

And looking back on Younger Me, I guess I can understand why he blew his stack as often and as enthusiastically as he did. To be on a bike in traffic – remember that in the early nineties bike lanes essentially did not exist – is to be profoundly vulnerable, vulnerable not an emotional or psychic sense but in an “I might go to the hospital or to the morgue” kind of sense. And when someone in a truck or a car makes a choice that puts you in danger, that old cocktail of adrenaline and fear and anger is not far away. Yelling is maybe reasonable.

But reasonable or not, understandable or not, I don’t yell much on my bike anymore. It isn’t just that I am embarrassed by some of the stuff that I shouted on the streets of Vancouver all the years ago (although I am embarrassed – I hope that there are no video records of me with bulging eyes and pointing figures and spit flying out of my mouth) but more than I came to believe that my yelling wasn’t helping anyone to become a better driver. And it certainly wasn’t helping me.

Now, let me pause here and say that I am in no way advocating for shrugging in the face of injustice. Certain things are wrong and we have a duty as moral people and as disciples to say as much. Rather, I mean something more like this: even as we name what is wrong or unfair or unjust, even as we act in response, is there a way we can do so while also remembering and honoring the dignity and humanity of the one with whom we speak? Is there a way that we can remember that they are contradictory and complex, just like us, that they sometimes make bad decisions, just like us, that most of the time they are trying their best, just like us.

Imagine what politics in this country would be like if we chose to act that way. Rather than assuming that our neighbour is being awful on purpose, destructive on purpose, selfish on purpose.

These days I still do sometimes talk to other folks on the road. But I talk to them really differently than I did in 1990. If someone makes a merge without shoulder checking – and that, as you likely know, is a scary experience on a bike – I’ve gotten to the point where I am able to say, “Could you please shoulder check?”

The First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Dec. 1, 2019

Lessons:

Isaiah 2:1-5

Romans 13:11-14

Matthew 24:36-44

Psalm 122

Many of you, most of you, will know the famous prose-poem or, if you prefer, the famous confession by the Lutheran Pastor, Martin Niemöller. It’s about his time in Nazi Germany, and it goes like this:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

There are certain ideas that just hang out in our cultural waters. Even if you have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy (and I am appalled to think that there may be people who have never seen the original Star Wars trilogy), you know the broad arc of its tale: if someone puts on their James Earl Jones voice and says, “Luke, I am your father,” you probably know what they are talking about. Even if you have neither read Treasure Island nor seen Pirates of the Caribbean, you probably have a mental image of someone with a peg leg, a parrot, and an inexplicable fondness for prefacing sentences with the word arr.

And even if you have never read the Left Behind series, even if you have never hung out in a church that has something Left Behind-ish as part of its theology, you probably know about the rapture. And as a consequence, Left Behind probably shapes how you hear Jesus’ words today, it certainly shapes how I hear them:

Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.

Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

Thanks to Left Behind, what do we know about what Jesus is teaching us here?

Well, first, to be taken is something supernatural. One minute you are standing there and the next – Pop! – you are not. Maybe you just vanish or maybe an angel come and gets you or maybe you are sucked into the sky. Julianne Moore was in a movie that came out maybe 15 years ago that featured people getting sucked into sky. Folks flew up, up, and away out of the frame as though on an invisible bungee cord. The movie was okay. But that effect was amazing.

The second thing that we know from Left Behind, that we know about the rapture, is that to be taken is good. You want to be taken, to be taken means that you are good with God. If you suddenly find yourself alone in a field when, just a moment ago, your co-worker was standing beside you, that is not good news. To be the one saying, “I have been left behind” or, as they express it in French, “Je suis gauche derrière,” means either that God has found out who is naughty and who is nice and you are in the wrong column or, at a minimum, it means that God has a seriously difficult task waiting for you.

Either way, being left behind in the field sucks.

Here is my thesis for this morning – or at least the first part of my thesis. I want to suggest that if you and I were to learn Aramaic and then hop into our time machines and hang out with the crowds following Jesus, and if we were to stand up on a rock and announce these two assumptions – to be taken is a supernatural event and to be taken is good – both the crowd around us and Jesus himself would be utterly gobsmacked.

Because what Jesus and his friends living under empire know is the same thing Martin Niemöller knew. And that is that there ain’t nothing supernatural about being taken. And there sure ain’t anything good about it.

If you are working in the fields and one of you is taken it is because the men in uniforms have come. If you are grinding meal and one of you is taken it is because those same men have just kicked the door off of its hinges. If you are taken, you are not going to heaven, at least not directly. You are going to a cage or to a box car or to a place remote enough that no one will hear either the screams or the gunshots.

My father is 94 years old. And like Martin Niemöller, he lived through Nazism, although Dad was a generation younger. And Dad has stories of people being taken. People who criticised the government or complained about the wrong thing of the wrong public figure. Usually the disappeared were never seen again. Although Dad does tell the story of one person who had been taken returning to their village. All of this man’s teeth had been kicked out. And no one, no one, dared to ask him:

What happened to you?

Taking people is how empire functions. Rome had its famous peace, the Nazis at the height of their power were able to occupy huge amounts of land without a whole lot of soldiers keeping an eye on things because everybody knew that to cross empire was to risk being taken and to risk the ones whom you loved being taken.

In a sense, therefore, there were and there are two ways of being taken by empire’s violence. The first is the obvious one, this is the scenario in which the soldier’s come and grab you. This is what happens to John the Baptist and to Saint Stephen and to the folks in my father’s hometown and to Jesus himself. Jesus is taken by the soldiers to the cross. But there is a second way of being taken, and that is the way that Niemöller talks about in his poem, in his confession. This is when we are taken up and into empire’s violence by witnessing and doing nothing.

I am not a communist, so I will not speak out.

I am not a homosexual, so I will not speak out.

I am not a Jew, so I will not speak out.

I am not black in America, so I will not speak out.

I am not transgender, so I will not speak out.

I am not an undocumented immigrant, so I will not speak out.

And while in this second scenario, in this second kind of taking, we may not be taken away in chains, our liberty is nonetheless taken from us, our consciences are taken from us, a part of our humanity is taken from us. Here is Peter, near the end of the story, denying that he knows Jesus.

And so while, a moment ago, I said that Jesus is taken by the soldiers, there is a sense in which Jesus is never taken at all. Because Jesus is the one who, up until the very end of his earthly life, refuses to be taken up into empire’s hatred or into violence. Remember what we read last week: as he hangs on the cross, Jesus could be excused for cursing the soldiers, he could be excused for cursing the thieves who mock him. What he says is forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing. What Jesus says is Today you will be with me in paradise.

And maybe this is the choice that all of us as Jesus’ followers must make. When empire and its violence comes, will we be silent, will we allow ourselves to be taken? Or will we do something hard and good, something Christ-like, and choose to be left behind?

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

 

Nov. 24, 2019

Lessons:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11-20
Luke 23:33-43

It is the end of the church year and, as is always the case, we bring these liturgical 365 days to a close with the Feast of Christ the King. Now, what is unusual about this particular Feast Day, about this particular “always,” is that in this case “always” doesn’t actually mean that all that long. Christ the King is a Feast that was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925. Originally the Pope had Roman Catholics celebrating Christ the King on the final Sunday in October and then, in 1969 or 1970, depending on which part of the internet you ask, the Feast got moved to the last day of the church year.

It is not clear when the Episcopal Church started keeping the Feast of Christ the King. Indeed, if Scott Gunn, the editor of Forward Day by Day and one of the creators of Lenten Madness is to believed, the answer to that question is “never.” Gunn says that the Episcopal Church has never officially adopted this Feast at all and, therefore, what all real Episcopalians know is that what we are actually celebrating today is the Last Day of the Season of Pentecost.

Now maybe that is a lot of insider baseball. But I am bringing it up because I want to suggest the history of this Feast and the intention behind it may have some things to teach us.

Cast your mind back to 1925. Most of us here this morning had not yet finished college by then. But see if you can remember what was happening in the world at that time and, in particular, what was happening in and around Rome where the Vatican is located.

1925 was the year that Benito Mussolini came to power, that he became Prime Minister of Italy. So it was a time of rising nationalism and, still more specifically, of rising fascism. And one of the things that fascism looked and maybe still looks like is a leader, a human being, having this God-like status. Mussolini was someone who bordered on all-powerful, all-knowing. Whose will it was wrong to question, whose will it was maybe even impious to question. To question or to challenge Mussolini was very nearly to question or to challenge God.

Mussolini was Lord of Lords and King of Kings.

And it is in response to this understanding of the world, to this theocracy, to the model in which the leader overlaps with God, that Pope Pius says No. There is one King, there is one Lord, and he ain’t somebody goose stepping around Italy in brown pants.

This Feast, in other words, is explicitly political in nature. It declares that our faith as a Christians, as followers of Jesus, places profound demands on how we engage with the world of politics.

And if we want, we can regard Pius’ decision cynically. We can conclude that Pope Pius was lamenting the erosion of power by the Vatican and by the Pope in particular, that he was longing for centuries gone by in which the Pope was something pretty close to a monarch or a god himself.

And maybe that cynicism would be fair. But here is one of the things that I trust about God: God can and does take things human actions that maybe did not have the best motivations and find a way of making them holy. And no matter how pure or impure the intention behind this Feast may be, it has something important to say.

I think I have told you before about my late friend, Barbara. Barbara was well into her nineties by the time that I met her. She was full of years and full of wisdom. And Barbara said something to me that I think about often. She said:

We need to be careful about what we worship.

Because we will worship something.

To put Barbara’s thought another way, notwithstanding the hand-wringing that sometimes goes on in churches about a perceived decline in religious participation, in fact there has been no decline in religiosity whatsoever. To this day, 100% of human beings are religious, 100% of us our giving our lives, our attention, our hearts to something that is irrational or, if you prefer, transrational.

Virtually all of us, for instance – including virtually all of us here in church this morning – are worshipping early and often in the religion called consumerism. Consumerism is the promise that we will find healing, belonging, and meaning in stuff, that we will find transformation, in the accumulation of stuff. This is a religion that we keep on worshipping in even though it lets us down every single time. As Jeanne shared with us a couple of weeks ago, no matter how many shoes you accumulate, you will not satisfy your deep longings.

Some of us worship in the religion that is booze. It is our own Gary Tuck who pointed out to me that many bars feature row upon row of beautifully arranged and beautifully lit hard liquor, a setup that Gary calls An altar to alcohol. Some of us worship in the religion that is called work, boasting to our friends about how many hours we work and how little sleep we get, answering the question How are you? with the words I’m so busy. And some of us, as in the days of Mussolini, worship a public figure, a celebrity or a politician.

There are way, way more examples that we could find. And so our question is not, Am I religious? but rather it is something more like:

Have I chosen my religion critically and wisely and lovingly? and

Does my religion give life to me, life to my neighbour, life to God’s creation?

Maybe we could use the language of the Bible here and phrase those questions a different way:

Am I worshipping that which is joyous and true? Or am I worshipping a false idol?

Now, I want to stop here and emphasise that when I speak of idolatry, when I speak of bad religion, I am not speaking of other expressions of what we typically call faith. I am not the least bit troubled that someone is a Hindu or a Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. To the contrary, I am glad that those folks have a practice that invites them into conversation with the divine, I trust that, at some level beyond human understanding, those folks and you and I are talking about the same ultimate reality, about the same God.

No. When I speak of idolatry or bad religion, I am talking about that stuff that promises to fill the God-shaped hole that all of us have in our hearts and that fails spectacularly over and over again.

It is in response to this bad religion that comes the Feast of Christ the King. In response to the promises of Mussolini and his contemporary descendants, in response to the promise that you will find your salvation in iPhones and shoes, in response to the promise that you will find freedom in booze, in response to all of these idols, Christ the King says no. Here are religions that invite us into selfishness and apathy and maybe even self-destruction and hatred, and here is title of King, a title that belongs to the patriarchy and to the world of power and violence.

Here is given to a peasant who is murdered for telling too many people that all they really need to do is love God and to love neighbour.

Crown him with many crowns goes the old hymn. And this is the mystery of this Feast day, this is the mystery of our faith. That when all of the false idols gather together, when the bad religion that is empire takes Jesus, takes God, and nails him to a tree, there God reveals the futility and brokenness of empire’s violence once and for all. In God’s suffering on the cross, which God does in solidarity with every human being who suffers and with the suffering of the earth, we discover the staggering truth that Jesus Christ is King.

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

Nov. 17, 2019

Lessons:

Malachi 4:1-2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

 

 

One of the themes that recurs throughout Jesus’ teaching is:

Be ready.

You don’t know when the bridegroom is coming, you don’t know when the owner of the house is coming, you don’t know when the thief is coming. So stay awake. Have your lamps filled with oil, build your house on solid rock, slaughter the fatted calf and make sure that you have dinner in the oven.

Jesus is a bit like the motivational speaker who tells us:

If you fail to plan, then plan to fail.

That’s how Jesus talks.

Except when he doesn’t.

Except on days like today when he says:

Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;

for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.

Is this just Jesus trying to keep us on our toes? That’s entirely possible; I’m not going to rule it out. Jesus absolutely has the capacity to take the steering wheel and turn it hard, so that just when you are sure that a parable or a teaching is going one way it is suddenly skidding hard and facing back where it came from. But here’s what I’m wondering about this morning: what if when Jesus says that hard times are coming and that you and I aren’t to prepare our defence ahead of time, his instruction isn’t contradictory to those times when he says that we are to be ready but, rather, it is complementary?

Here we are in church. And what we are doing here together is a practice. We are practicing being Christians, we are practicing being in community, as Brené Brown says, we are practicing coming to the communion rail with people whom we would sometimes like to choke. We are practicing following Jesus. We’re not here because we have everything figured out, because we know with perfect clarity what we believe, because God has explained everything to us. Quite the opposite. We’re here because we do have doubts and because there are questions that don’t make much sense to us.

We are here because we sense that we need to practice.

And like every practice – like practicing scales on the piano, like practicing your lines for a play, like practicing your baseball swing, like practicing driving (what else belongs on this list?), maybe like practicing law or practicing medicine, the practice that we call church is sometimes exciting and sometimes beautiful and sometimes weird and sometimes aggravating and sometimes boring.

But we trust – I trust, anyway, and I’m guessing that you are here because you do as well – that all of the practice matters, including the hard and boring stuff, maybe even especially the hard and boring stuff. Because my understanding from folks who have gotten really good at something, let’s say folks who have gotten really good at playing the piano, is that they have gotten near to mastery because they have put in the kind of boring but kind of vital work that is doing stuff like playing scales.

And maybe Sunday morning in the Episcopal way has some things in common with playing scales. The liturgy – the order of service that we follow across this morning – is remarkably predictable across the year. We sing different hymns, we wear different colours, we say some different prayers. But a sermon such as this is almost always followed by the creed which is almost always followed by the prayers of the people which, unless it is Easter, are almost always followed by the confession and absolution, which is almost always followed by the peace.

Our practice takes us on this well-worn path. And while there is some variation on what we do on the path – some weeks there is a puddle on the path that we need to walk around – the path itself remains the same.

Walking this path is part of how we obey Jesus when he says, Be ready. Practicing is big part of how we get ready.

But having practiced there are times when we get to or, maybe, when we have to put down the structure of scales or Sunday liturgy and improvise. There are times when we have to make up our minds not to prepare.

So. One of the things that most folks who want to get ordained do is to spend a stretch of time, maybe ten weeks or so, functioning as an apprentice chaplain in a hospital. This time of apprenticeship is known as clinical pastoral education, or CPE. CPE is kind of legendary among ordinands. During CPE you have the privilege, the wonderful and the terrifying experience, of walking into the hospital rooms of strangers.

And I think that those of us who came to CPE having practiced church a lot, those of us who came out of structured traditions such as this one, often wanted to bring our structure with us into the hospital room. The Book of Common Prayer is a kind of security blanket. And I guess that we reckoned that, if we prayed with people in hospital beds using the official prayers within it, then we couldn’t go too wrong.

Except that sometimes, oftentimes, the set prayers of the BCP could prevent us from really listening and really being present with the folks in those rooms.

And so we got an instruction from our mentor, Will Hocker. Will said:

If you must bring a Prayer Book with you into a hospital room, make it a small one.

And leave it in your pocket the whole time.

Having prepared, having obeyed Jesus’ command to practice, to get ready, it was now time for us to obey his command not to prepare. Doing all those scales, if you like, had gotten us ready for a place where it was a good and holy thing not to be prepared.

I wonder how many other parts of our lives are the same? It is kind of a commonplace to say that we live in alienated society, but it’s a commonplace because it’s true. A great many of us are mystified by our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. A great many of us do not even interact with our neighbours who do not think or act or vote like us. We don’t encounter those folks except on Twitter or, maybe, over an excruciating Thanksgiving dinner. And at dinner, over the turkey, we either ignore that which divides us or we engage it with anger and even contempt.

We have in our hands our prepared talking points, our prepared jabs and jokes, our prepared data, our prepared tweets. And these things will earn us likes and high fives from people who already think like us. And they will do nothing, nothing to open our hearts or minds or to open the hearts or minds of our neighbours.

Now, let me stop here and emphasise that I am not championing some uncritical moral relativism where everyone is entitled to their opinion and all opinions are equaled valid. No. There is an objective wrong and an objective right, I insist on that, some opinions are far, far better than others. What I am saying is that, if it is our hope to be the best and most moral people that we can be, if it is our hope to follow Jesus as completely as possible, sometimes we need to set down our prepared everything and get curious.

I had an experience a few weeks back that I have been thinking about a bunch. There is a public figure out there whom I do not admire. As you think about my experience, I’ll invite you to imagine a public figure whom you do not admire. And I friend and I were talking about that public figure when my friend caught me utterly off guard by expressing their deep admiration for that public figure.

I was so startled that I didn’t say anything. Which is probably just as well, because if I had said something, it would have been:

Why do you like that guy? He’s a total wiener.

Looking back, I wish that I had gotten curious. I wish I had said:

Tell me. What is it that you admire about this public figure? What is it that you think that they are doing great?

And maybe that is what Jesus is doing in his teaching this morning. When he says, for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict, I’ve always heard his teaching as something like a revenge fantasy. With the Holy Spirit’s help, I am going to be able to turn the tables on my opponents, I am going am going to humiliate the people who have humiliated me, this will be like the last scene in an action movie where the villain gets what they deserve.

But what if what Jesus means is that, when you encounter violence and contempt, you do something amazing and keep on remembering the full humanity of the one who is turning that violence on you? What if you respond with curiosity, with generosity, and love?

Here’s the hard part. Jesus is really clear that this may not work. Even more, he is clear that it probably won’t work. He lists off all of these calamities, all of this suffering. And then he says, Make up your minds not to prepare. And then he goes right back into calamities and suffering. Jesus may well be saying that there is a one in ten chance of an open heart changing a situation that is filled with hate, maybe a one in a hundred chance.

But he says,

Do it anyway.

It is worth the chance that the wily Holy Spirit will move in their hearts and in yours. And something will change.

This is the holy naivete of the Gospel.

Jesus’ disciples have prepared and prepared. They have followed Jesus and listened to Jesus and imitated Jesus. And now with all of that preparation done, it is time not to prepare at all. It is time to go towards that which they fear and to make up their minds not to be ready. And as they meet their neighbour who maybe wishes them harm, as they meet their neighbour with their hands empty and their prayer books in their pockets and their phones turned off and their hearts full, maybe their neighbour will notice just a little of the love of Jesus that they are carrying with them.

And maybe that love will prove to be something that no one, no one, is able to withstand or to contradict.