First Sunday of Advent by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Jeremiah 33:14-16

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Psalm 25:1-9

 

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

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

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

What does Jesus mean?

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

Dissipation has the connotation of squandering something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t do stuff that leaves you numb. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 25, 2018

Lessons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So. You’re the King of the Jews.

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

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

Is that what it was like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just imagine.

 

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

Lessons:

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

 

 

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

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

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

This is but the beginnings of the birthpangs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he goes on:

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars?

Don’t be alarmed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

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

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

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

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

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

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

Where’s Osama?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, smiling no more, says:

You don’t know what you are asking for. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

Amos 5:6-7,10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31

 

The blogger and comedian Gaby Dunn talks about engaging in a do-it-yourself social experiment. Dunn’s experiment involved going up to strangers in coffee shops and other public contexts and saying:

Can I ask you two questions?

Most folks said “yes,” and so Dunn began. Her first question (and forgive me in advance if this is a little raunchy for church – you can plug your ears if you want, or you can plug your neighbour’s ears) was:

What is your favourite sexual position?

What Dunn discovered is that, by and large, folks responded to that question with enthusiasm, not only giving her an answer but volunteering a reason for their answer. The strangers would say to Dunn, O, my favourite position is this – and here’s why…

The first question completed – and sometimes it took a while for folks to tell Dunn everything that they wanted to share, they liked this question a lot – the strangers energetically asked Dunn:

What’s the second question?

And so Dunn asked them:

How much money is in your bank account?

This is the point at which folks became shocked and appalled. They couldn’t believe that Dunn would have the rashness, the uncouthness, the rudeness to ask such a personal question. This was the moment, if we lived in another era, in which the strangers would have slapped Dunn with a glove and said:

How dare you, Madam! I challenge you to a duel.

How fascinating.

We talk sometimes about how nothing is taboo anymore, about how we can now say or print anything, about how we can show anything on TV. But that’s not actually true. There are some taboos today that did not exist 20 or 50 years ago, and often we are richer for that. A generation or two ago, smoking was a marker of sophistication: today it is a marker of poor judgment. That’s probably mostly a good thing. And then there are other taboos – like the taboo around talking about money – that persist and remain powerful.

I’m not convinced that the taboo against talking about money is so healthy.

Here in the church we more or less mirror the culture around us when it comes to talking about money. (I would venture that virtually all of us in this room participate in this taboo to a significant extent. I tell you what: if you don’t participate in this taboo, just shout out how much money is in your bank account.) Talking about money is something we’d just rather not do. Sometimes we even feel more strongly than that, sometimes we feel like money is something we ought not to talk about.

And like a lot of taboos, the emotion that we feel around this monetary taboo is simultaneously vague and powerful. We will say, often with a bunch of intensity but usually without a whole lot explanation, I just feel like that money is something that is private. I remember a number of years ago at the Cathedral in Vancouver when a fellow parishioner, in a state of anger and annoyance and agitation said to me:

The church should not talk about money.

Ever.

I suspect that this taboo – inarticulate and powerful as it is – is the reason that so many Episcopalians kind of dread the fall financial stewardship campaign in their parishes, a campaign that we are starting here at Grace today. The campaigns are either boring because the leaders choose to honour the taboo and never end up talking about anything real. Or they feel kind of dangerous because the leaders choose not to honour the taboo, and we’re not sure what to do with that.

In case it’s not obvious, our financial campaign this year will be in the dangerous category.

However. My hope is that the campaign will also prove to be spiritually rewarding and maybe even fun.

Here’s the curious thing. We in church who participate in this taboo are disciples of Jesus, we are followers of Jesus. And Jesus, our teacher and model? Well, he doesn’t participate in this taboo at all. Jesus talks about money early and often and openly.

In Matthew 5:42, Jesus says when people want to borrow money, you should go ahead and lend it to them. Later on in the same book, Jesus says we ought not to store up riches on earth, but to store up riches in heaven. In Luke, in the story that we call the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ definition of a neighbour is the one who generously makes their resources – including all of their financial resources – available to someone in need. Elsewhere in Luke, he says that you and I cannot serve both God and money.

And here today in Mark, Jesus encounters a man. A rich guy who asks him a question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? This is a question, by the way, that for our ancient ancestors does not mean, “How do I get into heaven?” It means something more like, How do I participate with my whole life in what you are doing, Jesus? Eternal life, the age to come, is what happens, as the Lord’s Prayer has it, when things on earth are as they are in heaven.

Jesus answers the rich guy’s question:

You know the commandments.

Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t lie. Don’t defraud.

Wait a minute. “Don’t defraud”? That isn’t one of the commandments, is it? There is a verse in Leviticus that says something like “don’t defraud,” but it sure isn’t chiseled onto the stone that Moses brought with him down from the mountain. Jesus is doing some on the fly editing of scripture here.

When he does that there is usually something important going on for us to notice.

Jesus says all these things and the rich guy responds: I’ve kept all of those commandments since I was young.

And then the text says that Jesus loved him. This, by the way, is the only time in the whole Gospel of Mark that scripture says that Jesus loved anybody. Apparently, Jesus is moved in a big way by speaking to this man. So he says to him:

Sell everything you have. Give it to the poor. And follow me.

And the guy does what I would probably do and, maybe, what you would do if Jesus said the same thing me. He goes away grieving.

For he has a lot of stuff.

Then our Lord looks around at his friends and he utters what might be my favourite Jesus zinger, my favourite Jesus one-liner in all of scripture: It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the Kingdom of God.

Now, maybe I’ve just answered my own question. Maybe I have actually just explained why most American Christians, like most of the rest of our culture, don’t want to talk about money out loud. Because the way that Jesus talking right now? This is kind of squirm-inducing stuff. Jesus sure appears to be saying that being rich isn’t very good for you. Jesus’ implication sure appears to be that, just by being wealthy, by being on the rich side of what we would today call the income divide or wealth divide or, to use another contemporary economic term, by having equity that is working harder then labour, this man – and by extension you and me – are defrauding our fellow children of God. We are breaking God’s commandments, and therefore we are doing damage to our souls. 

I don’t know what we do with a message like that in America, where being rich is everything, where being a winner while other people lose is everything.

If we take this passage seriously (and a number of our fellow Christians have worked pretty hard not to take it seriously – the same folks who will tell you that 1 Timothy’s prohibition on women teaching or holding authority over a man is eternal and universal will tell you that Jesus’ instruction to the rich man is only about that rich guy, not about you or me; and even those of us who don’t make that argument are likely to rationalise that we aren’t really rich because there are other people who have more stuff than us) then what does that mean as we embark upon this year’s financial stewardship campaign?

Well, there are probably, assuredly a number of answers to that question. But I’m just going to explore two. First (and maybe this is obvious, but I think it bears saying out loud), the example of Jesus is that money is something that disciples talk about directly and honestly and in an unvarnished way. Maybe – and let’s try this idea on – one of the things that Jesus wants us to know if that money is too unimportant to be a secret. We give something big power in our lives when we refuse to discuss it. Let’s not, Jesus says, give money that kind of power.

Second – and this is where I am going to spend a little more time – Jesus’ teaching, his example, is that how we spend our money is a spiritual exercise that shapes our capacity to participate fully in the Kingdom of God.

Whether or not we reckon that Jesus’ words today are directed at you and me, whether or not we think that he is really telling you and me to sell everything and give it to the poor (and let’s be clear, there have been Christians, like St. Francis and his friends, whom we remembered a couple of weeks ago, who figured that these words absolutely did apply to them), what is clear is that the Western way of clutching on to money and stuff, of living lives of anxious scarcity as opposed to lives of holy generosity, comes at a cost to our souls.

When we clutch on to material possessions and money, when we store up treasures on earth rather than in heaven, our hands become too full and too clenched to hold the Kingdom of God. They become too full and too clenched to be Jesus’ hands and feet in this world, to participate in building the Kingdom of God.

So.

There is a thread. A thread that goes back into the past, way back to Jesus, way back before that to the beginning of time, when God created and said:

It is good. It is good. It is good.

For most of us, for all of us, the thread passes into the clouds and out of sight long, long before its beginning. Maybe as far back as we can see is 100 years or so, back to the place where people whom we know and loved walked and whose stories we have heard.

100 years or so ago at Grace, some people had a holy vision – a vision for a church building in this place. And so a woman by the name of Angeline Berry made a gift. Through that gift, she was for a while the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. In the 1980s, some folks at this parish decided to stretch their financial resources and purchase the parking lot outside. For a while, those folks were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day. Around the same time, Bobbi Anderson’s family made the gift that made this stage or platform that the altar sits on possible. How many people’s theology has been shaped by having the altar in our midst rather than way back there? For a while, Bobbi’s family were the hands and feet of Christ in this world. So many people have benefited from her ministry, we are the beneficiaries of her ministry to this day.

None of these people – let’s be clear about this – bought God’s love through their gifts. God loved them unreservedly no matter what. Rather, through their gifts, they participated in God’s love, responded to God’s love.

And then we come to here. This amazing moment that we call now. This is the moment when, if you and I want, we can be Christ’s hands and feet in this world for a while. If we want, we can, with God’s help, shape what happens further down the thread. Perhaps one day – 10 years from now, 100 years from now, further down the thread – someone will say your name and say thank you.

In a month’s time you and I will be invited to make a pledge to Grace. Between now and then, we will be engaging in a spiritual practice together, a time of discernment together. We’ll be reflecting on questions about how we have experienced God’s generosity, about how we spend and save and give money, about how we want to spend and save and give money, about being Christ’s hands and feet in this world.

On November 11th, our discernment will end as we bring our pledge cards to the altar. This year as we do so, our pledge cards will look slightly different than in years past. There will be a check box on the card that says: This is a proportional gift. That statement is deliberately ambiguous. For me, when I check that box, it will mean that our family has made a tithe to the church. I have a gross salary of approximately $80,000 a year, and so our family’s pledge will be $8,000. Phoebe has income and we tithe that as well to God’s work outside of this parish.

I am aware that the subject of tithing leaves some of you here grinding your teeth. I am aware of that because you have told me. But I would be remiss not to talk about tithing. Friends, the tithe has become one of the most rewarding parts of our family’s spiritual practice. It is a way of making sure that our first fruits go to God, it is a way, as my friend Caroline McCall puts it, to stop haggling with God about how much God’s church is worth to us. Should I give what I gave last year? Should I give three times what I give to me alma mater? That’s not discernment. As Steve Lovett, our Senior Warden says, that’s just math.

Regardless, I encourage you to find your way to a place where you can check that box. Where your gift, in a way that makes sense to you, is proportionate to your income, to your spending, to your wealth, or to something else.

If your experience is anything like mine, a proportional gift will change your relationship with God. It will help the parish, yes. Imagine what this parish could do if we all became proportional gives, let alone if we all became tithers! We could dream big. But more importantly, a proportional gift will open your hands. It will declare that your money doesn’t own you. It will free you up to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world.

Jesus is a lot like Gaby Dunn. He will talk to you directly about money. He will ask you how much money is in your bank account. This fall, may you and I discern a gift to God’s church that, when Jesus’ question comes, will allow us to go away from him not like the rich guy, not grieving but, rather, will allow us to go forth rejoicing.

 

 

  • String or thread going into the past
  • Opportunity to shape reality and to shape ourselves
  • Tithe – I’m not ashamed to ask you for one; I know this bothers some of us
  • Series of questions, encountered by lay people and by you and me
  • Done haggling with God
  • Pledge card – proportional gift
  • Relationship with money that will leave us not going away from Jesus grieving but, rather, allow us to go away rejoicing

The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Blessing of the Animals by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 30, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 22:13–16

Galatians 6:14–18

Matthew 11:25–30

Psalm 148:7–14

 

I’ve been struggling these past few days. Maybe you have been struggling too.

Watching and listening to and reading about Thursday morning’s hearings was hard. Witnessing the kind of pain we saw on Thursday morn, the kind of grief that we saw, the kind of anger that we saw, the kind of trauma that we saw; well, I think that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I know that many of us paid a price for our witness.

I am not a survivor of sexual violence. I know that there are survivors here this morning. And I know that all of us have survivors whom we love in our immediate network. I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry. As paltry as that is, I am sorry that these past few days have touched such profound wounds in so many lives.

The price that we paid for watching these hearings was magnified for me and maybe for you by the deep mistrust and even contempt that it is apparent that many of our elected officials feel for one another and that many of our fellow citizens feel for one another. The marriage researchers, John Gottman and his spouse and collaborator Julie Gottman, have learned that contempt is the most consistent and reliable predictors of a divorce. What does this kind of mutual contempt mean for our country?

I realised how much all of this was weighing on me when I got up on Friday morning in a state of amorphous anxiety and anger. I was pissed off at nothing, at everything. I felt like I had been mainlining the news, that the reports out of Washington were an IV running directly into my arm and leaving me dangerously off-balance. On Friday morning, it felt like losing my keys or stubbing my toe might be the sort of thing that would be too much, that would leave me shouting and my hands shaking.

I remembered the scene in that movie About a Boy, in which a single Mom, played by the incomparable Toni Collette, is unable to fit a dish into her kitchen cupboard. And so she just begins to sob.

What do we do with an experience like this? How do you encounter it and not feel despair? How, in particular, do we encounter it as church?

Here’s what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to regurgitate something that you have heard elsewhere, somewhere outside of church, except dressed up in religious language. There is a quip from maybe 50 years ago that the Episcopal Church was the Republican Party at prayer. Here on the West Coast in 2018, our danger is almost the opposite, our danger is in becoming the Democratic Party at prayer – and the left wing of the party at that.

That’s not any better.

When a preacher, when a Christian, takes pre-existing taking points and then proof texts them with the Bible, when they enlist Jesus to back up whatever they were already going to say – that’s something that I have probably done, that I have assuredly done – well, we fail as disciples when we do that.

Here’s what I’d like to do instead. I’d like us to notice that this is the day when the church is full of an unusual number of furry parishioners, the day when we talk about and celebrate St. Francis. On occasion of shared hurt, I’d like to wonder about what this gentle Saint from the town of Assisi might have to teach us.

Generally speaking, we don’t spend a whole lot of time remembering Saints these days. Gone is the time when Feast Days were a big part of our shared life, when an English village would turn into something like a carnival when the Feast of St. Lydia or St. Stephen or whoever came along.

But Francis remains kind of a big deal. You see his statue in a lot of places, including Grace’s own garden. And on this day, we move his readings from mid-week to a Sunday in order to specially remember him. (That practice, by the way, while widespread is authorised nowhere in the Book of Common Prayer. This is a total deviation from the rules.)

Why do we do it? Is this just kind of harmless fun?

Maybe it is that. There is something wonderful about the prayers of the people when the congregational response includes a few barks. But I think that there is more than that going on. I think that this is a day that reminds us of who God is, of what God is like, and of what God thinks about us.

Every now and again, you’ll encounter one of those bumper stickers that says Dog is my co-pilot. And I have at least one friend who finds those stickers offensive or blasphemous.

But actually, I think that they might be okay theology.

What if the love with which a dog looks at the members of its family is a lot like the love with which God looks at you and me?

I have heard folks say that what they value so much about their pets is that their pets love them unconditionally. But as a theologian observed a while back, putting the word unconditional before the word love is actually a redundant. Love that is conditional isn’t love at all: that’s just approval. Genuine love is without limit or constraint. That is the kind of love that God has for you and me. We see that love made manifest in our pets.

In this season of hurt, know that you are loved. You are loved absolutely and without reservation.

Maybe that is a platitude. But it’s also true. And Francis knew that it is a truth that, should we come to believe it, should we come to trust in it, will change everything. Imagine what the world would look like if we all knew ourselves, knew in our bones, that we are God’s beloved children, and that our neighbours are equally beloved.

Francis was not, is not, a naïve saint. He knew about suffering, he lived in poverty, he worked for justice. Late in his life, he received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ. His body bore the hardship of being alive, of risking love. But he also was and is a saint who knows that this life is so, so beautiful. And that Jesus is with us every step of the way, whispering God’s love our ears, challenging us to grow in faith and in compassion, to grow not so that God might love us, but to grow because God loves us.

We have big work to do. Big work as individuals, as a parish, as a county, as a human family, as a family of all of God’s creatures. If we are to do that work, the work of bringing justice nearer, of bringing the Kingdom of God nearer, we need the strength of God’s love. We need to voice of Jesus, which never ceases to say:

You are loved, you are loved, you are loved.

 

Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

September 23, 2018

Lessons:

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37

 

A professor emeritus from the University of British Columbia by the name of Dennis Danielson has taken on an unusual retirement project. Danielson decided to examine curricula and student handbooks from educational institutions across Canada.

Danielson reviewed these documents looking for a particular word. Late in his career, he had started noticing that this word was appearing over and over. And he had a hunch that he would find it similarly repeated across the nation. The word that he did indeed find in one context after another was the word inappropriate.

Certain conduct when writing an essay is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your fellow students is inappropriate, certain conduct when interacting with your professors is inappropriate.

Prior to his retirement, Danielson was a professor of literature. He was and is, like me and like many people in this room, someone who loves words. And he was and is, also like me and like many people in this room, someone who knows that words play a huge role in creating our understanding of reality. How we tell a story plays a huge in creating reality.

When we use the word waterboarding – waterboarding sounds like some kind of sport, like it might be fun – to describe simulated drownings that sometimes turn into actual drownings, that shapes how we think about the actions of our country. When we use the term collateral damage to talk about accidentally killing civilians in a bombing raid, that shapes how we think about war. When we talk about an allegation of sexual violence and our words focus primarily the harm that might be done to the alleged perpetrator’s future or how the incident in question happened decades in the alleged perpetrator’s past rather than on the trauma of his victim, those words shape how we think about justice.[1]

Danielson’s thesis is that the educational documents he reviewed are doing something similar, that their heavy use of inappropriate in lieu of words that would have been common a generation or two ago – words like wrong or immoral or in a church context, sin – is shaping how we think about right behaviour, about just behaviour, about loving behaviour.

Inappropriate is a word that has a bland, conditional, equivocal, punch-pulling flavour to it. “Plagiarising your essay is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “plagiarising your essay is wrong.” “Engaging in vicious gossip is inappropriate” is a seriously different and seriously weaker statement than “Engaging in vicious gossip is immoral.”

Now, I understand how we got to where we are. (I think I can safely use the word “we” here – while Danielson’s study focuses on Canadian educational contexts, but my guess is that it is not a stretch to say that American syllabi and employee manuals newspaper articles use inappropriate as early and as often as Canadian contexts.) Words like wrong and immoral and sin have a pretty long history of being used in a poisonous way, especially here within the church.

I have an acquaintance who says that it is almost impossible for her to hear the word should (as in, “you should clean up your room”) without all of the guilt of her conservative church upbringing crashing over her like a wave. That’s not an accident. These words are used by people in positions of power – people like pastors – to induce shame and the off balance state and the compliance that comes with shame.

These words are used as well to shut down debate. “Homosexuality is wrong” is a statement that doesn’t invite a whole lot of conversation. Or let’s track back a generation or five: “Women having the vote is wrong” or “Ending slavery is wrong.” How do we respond to statements like that?

I guess what I’m saying is that I get the instinct to excise these words from our vocabulary. Reaching for inappropriate early and often, by and large, is a choice that comes from a place of good intention.

However, it is also a mistake.

One of the most important things that the GLBTQ community and that other marginalised communities have taught to me is that we are not required to cede the meaning of words to anyone, including to people with power or privilege. The GLBTQ community has said, for instance, that we refuse to allow words referring to gay men to be insults or to be diagnoses. That is not and must not be cannot be what those words mean.

Inspired by my GLBTQ friends, I’ve wanted to ask the question: Do we want to cede control of church words and/or moral words to people who use them in a screwed up way? Does evangelism need to mean aggressively pushing your faith on people who just wish you would get off of their porch? What if that word meant loving Jesus so much and finding so much freedom and joy and meaning in following Jesus that you want everyone to have what you have found?

And could words like should, like wrong, like immoral (or for that matter right or moral or grace) function not as triggers for shame, not as devices for shutting down debate, not as perpetuators of patriarchy but, rather, as catalysts for moral clarity?

The problem with inappropriate and its wishy-washiness is that all but invites one of the great rejoinders of our time:

That’s just your opinion.

Whatever the moral question is that may be before us, your response to it is just your opinion, it is one opinion amongst many, all of which are equally valid. And sometimes that’s okay, I guess. But sometimes it really isn’t.

I remember vividly my professor when I was in first-year university doing a thought experiment with our class. Imagine, he said, that there are a row of babies sitting on the floor, babies of every gender, every colour, every everything. And now imagine that I walked down the row of babies, kicking each one in the head.

Would any of you think that was okay?

No! Kicking babies is wrong. It is evil. That is not just my opinion. Such an action would be categorically, unequivocally evil.

Taking children away from their parents at the border is wrong. Selling guns that meet three-quarters of the test for being assault rifles to the general public is wrong. Snipers gunning down unarmed protesters as they near the Gaza Strip border is wrong. The way that human beings treat God’s creation is wrong. Allowing people to sleep on the streets of Portland because the rest of us more or less like things how they are is wrong. Marching through the streets of America with a Nazi flag and a Tiki torch is wrong.

In his marvellous sermon last week, Corbet talked about Jesus as teacher and, in particular, about Jesus as asker of questions – sometimes a great teacher will ask a question that just opens everything up, that changes everything. This week we see Jesus using another tactic of the great teacher, and that is he employs the strong moral language that we have been talking about, accompanied by a strong moral image.

Sometimes Jesus says to us, to his students, You brood of vipers not You people who are behaving inappropriately.

So, the disciples are walking along. Jesus has just told them that following him means taking up their crosses, but they have no idea what this means. We know that they have no idea because the text says so – they did not understand what he was saying. We also know that they have no idea because, talk of the cross notwithstanding, they start arguing about which one of them is the greatest. James says to Peter: I am way more holy than you. And Peter says: Are not. To which James replies: Am so.

Are not. Am so. Are not. Am so.

And Jesus interrupts them and he says:

What are you guys talking about?

And they immediately clam up. They are like, O crap. He heard us.

Jesus, of course, knows exactly what they were talking about. And so he says:

Sit down.

They sit down and Jesus sits in the middle of them. And he says: Whoever wants to be first must be last. Not “it would be appropriate for the first to be last,” not “This is just my opinion, but maybe the first could be last.” But the first must, must be last.

And then a child runs into his arms. And the two of them sit there for a moment, in the middle of the disciples, Jesus holding the little girl or boy.

Whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.

So, whoever welcomes the one without power or status or money or fancy words, welcomes me. And this teaching is underscored by where Jesus and the child sit, here in the middle of the circle of disciples. Is this the place where the teacher sits? Maybe it is. But remember that Jesus has just been talking about the cross, so maybe the circle represents something else. Because the middle of the circle is where the one who gets stoned by the mob stands, it is where the first martyr, Stephen, will die in a few years’ time. The symbol backs up the words: I am with those on the margins, I am with those who suffer violence. If you are my disciples, you must be here too, you should be here too.

The institutional church has worked pretty hard to make words like wrong and immoral and sin refer overwhelmingly to sexuality and then to make that into a source of shame. But the example of Jesus is that sin refers to something way more important than that. Maybe we could venture that sin is another way of saying selfishness. Sin is refusing to be last, refusing to serve. Sin is when we abandon Jesus and the child in the middle of the circle. It is when we say that I am safe where I am and I’m going to stay here.

We need words that talk about our calling, about our mortal duty as disciples. These words have been used in defence of a bent theology. But we don’t need to let that bent theology own them.

It is wrong, it is immoral, it is a sin to hang back on the edge of the circle. It is right to stand with Jesus, that is something that we should do. It is right to stand with the child, to be Jesus’ arms and hands holding that child within this hurting world. And here is the good news: when we say yes to that calling, when we risk stepping into the middle of the circle with Jesus, when we risk becoming last, we will find God’s freedom not only for that child but God’s freedom for ourselves.

[1] This argument is profoundly indebted to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Sept. 9, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10-17
Mark 7:24-37

A couple of minutes ago we listened to part of a letter written by James, an epistle that today might be most famous for reputedly really annoying Martin Luther.

Those of you who know a little bit about Lutheran theology, who have hung out with Lutherans even briefly, will likely have heard about Luther’s vigorous objection to what he and other theologians called works righteousness. Works righteousness is the notion that I can buy my way into heaven, in this case not with money, but with good deeds. So, when I serve at the Friday Feast or engage in some other act of generosity or compassion, I am paying into a cosmic bank account – or, if you are into roleplaying games – I am accumulating the experience points that eventually will allow me to level up into salvation.

Luther – following in the example of Jesus – did the important work of reminding us that works righteousness isn’t and never was the Gospel. You cannot buy your way into God’s good books. Not with cash, cheques, credits cards, or bitcoins: remember from history class that the thing that got Luther into so much trouble with the institutional church was his critique of indulgences, with his insistence that you cannot pay off God. And not with good behaviour: God is not Santa Claus, God is not watching to see whether you are naughty or nice and deciding whether to reward or punish you accordingly.

The story goes that, because Luther was so on guard against works righteousness, because searching out works righteousness was a huge part of the lens that he looked through when he read the Bible or a theological commentary, when Luther got to James and this line about faith without works being dead, steam started to come out of his ears. No, no, no! Luther said (or the German 16th-Century equivalent thereof). He pounded the table and said, James is making it sound like faith and everything good and holy that flows out of it is contingent on something that human beings do. But that’s not true. It’s not about human beings. It’s about God!

In the first introduction that Luther wrote to own translation of the New Testament, he declared that James is a “really strawy epistle,” and that “it has nothing of the Gospel about it.”

What I’d like to suggest this morning is that Luther was write about the Gospel, right about Jesus – indeed, you cannot buy your way into heaven – but wrong about James. When James says that faith without works is dead, he means something different and harder and better and more freeing.

Before I go any further, I am going to ‘fess up to some of my own theology. I believe that God’s love is relentless, that God is continually seeking out our hearts, that God never gives up on inviting us to freely choose to reciprocate and to live into the love that God has for us. And I believe that God’s pursuit of our hearts does not end when we die. You will sometimes hear folks argue that if you haven’t confessed that Jesus Christ is Lord before your dying breath, you are out of luck: it’s straight to hell for you.

I have more confidence in God than that, more faith in God than that. I don’t believe that God’s power is that small or that limited, I do not believe that God is constrained by death. My guess, my faith, is that even after death, God keeps on showing us the towering, infinite goodness and love that is the Trinity. And that when we encounter that love, we will eventually choose to say yes to it. I believe that the theologians got it more or less right when they wrote that the Christian is required to believe that there is a hell – but that they are not required to believe that anyone is there.

Now, let me acknowledge that the theology I just shared has two significant problems. First, it’s kind of unfair. And second, it obligates us to ask the question: if we’re all getting into heaven anyway, then what’s the point of going to church, what’s the point of being good?

Let’s look at each for a moment. First, is everybody getting into heaven totally unfair? Yes it is. Jesus is actually quiet clear about the unfairness of God. Remember the parable about the day labourers working in the vineyard? The master (whom, I am going to venture, Jesus intends for us to understand as God) goes out and finds folks and brings them into the vineyard to work. She says to the labourers, harvest my grapes and prune my vines and rake the ground, and I’ll give you a hundred and fifty bucks. And the labourers say, Okay.

Some of the labourers start at 8am. Some of the master doesn’t find until noon. And some of them she doesn’t find until quitting time. The 5pmers have no sooner walked into the vineyard than she says, The day’s over! Time to go home!

Everybody lines up to get paid. The last are the first in line. They get a hundred and fifty bucks. And when they see this, the labourers who started work at 8am begin rubbing their hands together. There is going to be some serious overtime! But then the labourers who started at noon also get a hundred and fifty bucks. And furrows start to appear on the brows of the 8amers. When it is their turn and the master gives them the promised fee, the flip out at the master. You hosed me! they say. I was here all day, picking your stupid grapes under the stupid sun! And now, this!

And the master says: But I gave you exactly what I promised you.

The 8amers are doing something totally human and totally understandable here. They are saying: I can’t enjoy the thing promised to me unless those who are less deserving than me get less. It’s not fair.

I can’t enjoy heaven unless those who lived in a way I don’t like are kept out. It’s not fair.

And what does the master say to our It’s not fair?

She says: You’re right. Here’s your hundred and fifty bucks.

It is exasperating when God behaves like this. This is either the worst news or the best news that there is. I’m not sure which.

Here’s the second problem: If the 5pmers are getting a hundred and fifty bucks, if the adulterer and the murderer and the most selfish rich person in the world are getting into heaven – if works righteousness doesn’t work – then what’s the point of all of my efforts? Why am I in church right now? I could be reading the New York Times or sleeping or eating eggs benedict. Why should I be generous or kind or loving when, like the Prodigal Son, God is going to welcome me home no matter what?

Let’s stop for a second and do a thought experiment. Imagine the most loving person whom you have ever known. That might be the person sitting beside you right now, it might be someone far away, it might be someone whom you knew long ago, someone who is now in heaven. You receive a card telling you that this person’s birthday is coming up and that you are invited to their party. You have an opportunity to attend and to give them a present.

Now imagine that I run into you while you are looking for that person’s present. You tell me what you are doing. And so I ask you a question:

If this person is as loving as you say, then they are going to love you no matter what. So why are you bothering to get them a present, why are you wasting your time going to their party when they are going to love you even if you don’t?

Friends, I think we all know that question is absurd. I don’t give the one I love a present or spend time with them in the hopes of buying something from them. This is not a transaction. I give them a gift because the gift is a symbol, it is an outward and visible sign of the love between us, because giving them a gift brings me joy, because it somehow transforms me.

When we freely choose to say yes to discipleship, we don’t show up in church because God needs us to show up in church, we don’t give glory to God because God needs our glory, we don’t serve the Lord because the Lord needs our service. We do these things – and we are at or beyond the limits of language here – because it’s what deep freedom looks like. Remember the vision in Revelation. Heaven looks like everyone gathered around the throne of the lamb, freely and joyously offering their praise.

My guess is that Luther tripped so hard over James because he accidentally read James’ intention backwards. When James says Faith without works is dead, he doesn’t mean, Do the works and then you’ll have faith. He means, When you have faith, you will automatically choose to do works, joyfully and freely. To put that another way, James is not saying:

You do good things: therefore you know that God loves you.

James is saying:

You know that God loves you: therefore you do good things.

He means that a living faith cannot help but invite us into loving service.

We are reading James on the very day that we are welcoming new members into the church. Avril Johnson would say that is not a coincidence. Here is James’ admonition against being excited and super welcoming when one of those members looks rich. And kind of indifferent when they don’t. James’ letter is almost 2000 years old but it could have been written last week.

This is real.

I am part of the team that administrates the budget at Grace, part of the team that is responsible for keeping then lights on and the rain out. And it is a terrible temptation to look at a new member and say:

That person looks like a solid pledger – I better make sure we do a good job of welcoming them. Unlike that other person.

James says: Don’t you do that. James says: Share the love of God with the same abandon that it has been shared with you. Share the unfair love of God, the love that is not and never was a transaction, with everyone, even if they can’t pay you back, maybe especially if they can’t pay you back.

I am not saying that pledging doesn’t matter. It does. What I am saying is that we pledge not in the hopes of making God love us but because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We go to church not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy. We serve the Lord – however imperfectly – not in the hopes of making God love us because God loves us and because doing so brings us holy joy.

Maybe we could flip James’ statement around. Maybe Martin Luther would like it that way better. Instead of saying Faith without works is dead, maybe we could say:

When you have a living faith, you will do works that are full of joy, full of freedom, full of love, hull of justice, full of the Kingdom of God.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 26, 2018

Lessons:

Joshua 24:1-2a,14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?

Of all the things that the disciples say in all four of the Gospels, this one might be my favourite. It is such an unvarnished, such a direct, such a real response to a teaching by Jesus.

And it’s also kind of hilarious.

Although maybe we don’t actually have to choose between real and hilarious. Maybe the two often belong together. I have sometimes wondered if a serviceable definition of a joke is that a joke is something that tells the truth in an unexpected way.

Children often give us the gift of telling us the truth unexpectedly. Maybe that is the reason that Jesus tells us to become like the very young. My friends Jeremy and Heather tell the story of visiting a friend’s home to attend a party. Their youngest child, Theo, went to the bathroom and there he discovered that the toilet was outfitted with a bidet. Now bidets are common in Europe and in Japan, but they are unusual in our part of the world.

And so Theo came marching out of the bathroom, got the attention of everyone at the party and said, “You guys! In the bathroom they have a butt wash station!”

That’s hilarious – and it’s true. I suspect that Theo wasn’t the only one at the party who wanted to comment on the bidet, who was curious about it, who thought that it was really cool. He was just the only one who was brave enough or, maybe, unscarred enough by life to name his curiosity and delight out loud.

The disciples do something similar today. The disciples are not children. But many of them are young people. Some of them, perhaps, are what we would today call teenagers; in Jesus’ time, adulthood starts at around age 12 or 14. And, like Theo, they are brave enough or innocent enough or guileless enough or trusting enough in Jesus to listen to what he has to say (just like us here in church over the last several weeks, the disciples have been listening as Jesus says I am the bread of life and eat my flesh, drink my blood) and then to say out loud:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

One of the churchy words that we use from time to time is discipleship. Discipleship means something like being a follower of Jesus, it means saying yes to the Gospel with your life, it means being friends with Jesus. And the example of Jesus’ first friends is that a legitimate and faithful way of being alive and responding to Jesus is to say:

This is hard.

Who can accept it?

This response suggests that faith is something more complex and more beautiful and more broken than a flawless and finished piece of art that we hold in our hands, that perhaps we ask other people to admire.

Have you seen my faith? It’s perfect.

It suggests that faith is something more like a verb, it is something we do. Maybe, to borrow an image from the book of Genesis in which Jacob meets the stranger in the night underneath the stars, faith is like a wrestling match, like a struggle.

Friends, to my mind naming out loud that faith can be hard is good news and freeing news. Because I suspect that many of us – most of us? – have moments of when we wonder if we are impostors in church or impostors in life, moments when we say: I’m the only one who doesn’t get what this passage from the Bible means or why it is in the Bible at all; I’m the only one who sometimes finds the worship service confusing or weird or even boring; I’m the only one who has moments when I experience suffering or loneliness or unfairness and I don’t feel the presence of God at all.

What if we were brave enough to name those experiences out loud? What if, like Theo telling everyone about the butt wash station, we could name when discipleship is hard, when being a Christian is hard, when believing in God or believing in ourselves is hard?

I wonder what would happen if, when we did a reading in church – imagine the first reading that we heard today, a reading from the Book of Joshua, a book that sure can be read as celebrating genocide and God’s presence in genocide – imagine if we heard that reading and then the lector said:

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

and instead of us replying, “Thanks be to God,” we all said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or imagine if we said the Creed together and at the end, instead of Amen, we said,

This is hard. Who can accept it?

Or what if we had a litany? A litany like we do at the start of Lent every year, where I chant or say a prayer and we all respond in prayer. A litany that names what is hard about being a Christian and being alive. Wouldn’t it be cool if someone wrote a litany like that? Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone wrote a litany like that?

I’ve written a litany like that.

Let’s try it out:

Cantor:           The Trinity is comprised of three persons but only one God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Jesus is fully human and fully divine.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           In the Book of Kings, some boys make fun of Elisha for being bald. And so he curses them. And then two she-bears come forth from the woods and maul 42 of the boys.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our parish is discerning the possibility of a major redevelopment project, we are wondering if God’s preferred future for us will see us replacing most of the buildings on our campus.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Our holiest of books, the Bible, has been quoted to defend slavery.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           When you pray to God asking for forgiveness, even for that thing that you think might be unforgivable, before your prayer begins God has already said yes.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are made in God’s image and God has designed you for a life of joy, but that doesn’t mean that you will not get the phone call that floods your life with loss and grief.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           Sometimes when you come to communion you will kneel beside someone whom you find it hard to respect or like.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The homeless person sleeping on the street is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The woman at the border who has her baby taken out of her arms is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           The President of the United States is a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Cantor:           You are a beloved child of God.

People:           This is hard. Who can accept it?

Amen.

Maybe there is more to be added to that litany. Assuredly there is more. This thing we call discipleship is hard. This thing we call being alive is hard.

I’m always sorry when I meet someone who tells me that the reason that they don’t go to church is that they don’t know what they believe. But what if church is the perfect place to not be sure what you believe? What if the odds are high that when we come to church unsure of what we believe we will stand beside someone who, at least some of the time, is not so sure what they believe either?

In the story that we hear today, some people encounter the hardness of discipleship and they leave. We’ve all been those people. God knows I have. This is too much, too confusing, too exhausting, I have to stop. But some of them stick around. Even after they say, this is hard, maybe because they have named that this is hard, they have the strength to stay, to remain with Jesus. And maybe some of them leave and then return.

Jesus says that the truth will set you free. So let’s tell the truth.

I was at a party and they had a butt wash station; it was the most amazing thing. Someone close to me, someone I counted on, disappointed me profoundly and I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to trust people after that. Someone close to me died, and I felt like that time when I got punched in the gut on the schoolyard, I couldn’t quite breathe. Sometimes I pray and I wonder if all I am doing is whispering to an empty room. One time I was in a public space and I had something like a vision in which there were bands of light connecting everyone and illusions of separateness fell away. But I was embarrassed about the experience and so I didn’t tell anyone.

This is hard. This thing called faith is hard. This thing called life is hard. Who can accept it?

But when we keep on showing up with Jesus, we may be surprised to remember that it is also so, so beautiful.

 

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

August 19, 2018

Lessons:

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

The novelist Salman Rushdie has a line about storytelling, about crafting words, that goes like this. Rushdie says:

Good metaphors shock.

Good metaphors don’t merely surprise us or delight us or invite us into curiosity – although they certainly do most or all of those things. Good metaphors make us gasp. They are startling, almost vulgar, offensive. You listen to them and you say: what are those words, those ideas doing together?

Here’s the problem for those of us who like telling stories: much like a joke tends be a lot less funny on the second telling, metaphors tend to lose their capacity to shock through repetition. They get worn out, they die, they no longer evoke shock or, for that matter, much of anything else. Think of the popular metaphor for betraying someone, for making someone into a patsy or a fall guy when something goes wrong. What’s the metaphor for that?

They threw him under the bus.

In its beginnings, that was a shocking metaphor. Throwing someone under the bus is a metaphor about committing murder in the most gruesome and hands-on way available. Through repetition, however, we now hear it and we don’t really even blink, let alone imagine someone disappearing beneath the wheels of a public transportation device.

Those of us who read and honour the stories of Jesus and by Jesus have the same problem. Jesus uses some seriously shocking metaphors. Sometimes they are comical, sometimes earthy, sometimes hyperbolic, sometimes just weird.

You are the salt of the earth.

The Kingdom of God.

You brood of vipers!

Take the log out of your eye before complaining about the speck in your neighbour’s eye.

Or what about the metaphor that we hear in the Gospel reading today?

I am the living bread that came down from heaven: whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.

Imagine the people standing in the crowd when Jesus first speaks those words, when his words are brand new and raw, when no one has heard them a thousand times. The people look at one another and they say:

Did Jesus just use a cannibalism metaphor?

And the answer is: Yeah, he kind of did.

Jesus is upping the ante from his already shocking words Take, eat: This is my body. In case there is any ambiguity, Jesus adds the gruesome additional words: eat my flesh, drink my blood. Those who read Biblical Greek tell us that there are at least a couple of Greek verbs that mean “to eat,” and the word that Jesus uses for eating in this passage has the connotation of gnawing on bones. This is a super carnal image.

What do we do with a saying like this? If we dust off the years of repetition, if we permit Jesus’ metaphor to strike us with its full, original shocking weight, how do we respond to a Messiah who says that faith looks like a scenario in which he is our dinner?

Now, before I go any further, I want to stop for a second and do something like inserting a footnote into this sermon. (Imagine a big floating number one appearing in the air beside the word bubble coming out of my mouth, imagine it referring you to a paragraph of text down by my feet.) What I want to be clear about in this footnote is that, when I use the word “metaphor,” I don’t mean, “as opposed to something that is true or real.” Sometimes we speak of metaphors in that binary and dismissive way, sometimes we say, “That’s just a metaphor,” and what we mean by that is, “That’s just a made-up story. It’s not true.”

I don’t mean that at all. What I mean when I speak of the metaphors of Jesus is something harder to quantify. I mean that there are certain kinds of truth that are at or beyond the limits of human understanding, that are so deep into mystery that the only way that we can talk about them is by employing image and poetry and paradox. When we get super literal with these mysteries, we end up in a place that is unintentionally ridiculous. (Speaking of eating Jesus’ flesh, I know folks who were told as kids not to chew when they received communion, lest Jesus start bleeding in their mouths.)

For the purposes of our conversation this morning, what I mean by a metaphor is a symbol that points us to the truth.

Okay, that’s the end of the footnote. Back up to the word bubble.

When we hear Jesus say, “I am the bread of life,” when we hear him say, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood,” many of us think of the Eucharist. And we are right to do so – this is absolutely Eucharistic imagery. But the shocking violence of Jesus’ metaphor invites us to at least one other place as well.

That place is the cross.

It is at the foot of the cross that we encounter Jesus’ flesh and his blood most directly. He goes to the cross innocent, he is sacrificed there by empire and by the religious and economic systems that collaborate with empire. And by going to the cross innocent, he does no fewer than two things. (He assuredly does way more than two things, but these are the two that I am going to concentrate on this morning.)

The first thing that Jesus does on the cross is to reveal the total moral failure of the system that put him on the cross and that puts other people on the cross. He declares that any system which sacrifices some of its members so that others may be comfortable is engaging in evil, whether that means high priests saying “Better for one man to die”; whether it be our culture declaring that people living in tents under overpasses is an okay prince of admission for our economic structure; whether it be children being taken from their mothers at our border because we are afraid of how migrants might change us; whether it be, and think of this week’s news, Bishops covering up years and years of sexual violence by priests so as to preserve patriarchy and power.

The second thing that Jesus does on the cross is to declare his absolute and unreserved solidarity with those who suffer. On the cross he embodies what he says elsewhere: Just as you have done to the least of these, so have you done to me. When we turn violence on the least of these –economic violence, the violence of racism, the violence of nationalism, the violence of gun-worship, the violence of patriarchy, the list goes on – we are turning that violence on Jesus. On the cross we learn that it is Jesus who is living in the tent under the overpass, Jesus who is the child taken out of his mother’s arms, Jesus who is the victim of years of sexual violence from a priest.

Now, a minute ago I said that we often think of Eucharist when we hear Jesus say, Eat my flesh, drink my blood, and that we were right to do so. Yes, this is Eucharistic language. But it is Eucharistic imagery that must be understood in light of the cross.

There is a moment at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer – after we say amen, after we say the Lord’s Prayer – when the priest (today, that will be me) holds up the bread and then breaks it. One of my mentors taught me the practice of pausing in that moment, of letting the bread rest there for a beat, intact. His reading of the symbol of waiting is this: in that moment of waiting, we declare our longing that the Body of Christ could be unbroken, that Jesus’ flesh could be unbroken. But then we do break it, we accept that the wounds of Jesus are inescapable part of his story, that the breaking of the Body of Christ is an inescapable part of our story.

Once the bread is broken, we take it into our bodies.

As the old saying has it, you are what you eat. On Sunday mornings we eat the brokenness and the suffering of Jesus, we eat his radical and non-violent resistance of empire, we eat his absolute loving solidarity with the poor. May we indeed, with God’s help, become what we eat. May we come to communion, not as an intellectual concept that we must agree to, but as an encounter that might transform us.

Good metaphors shock. May the bread of life, the flesh and blood of Jesus, give us a holy shock. And may that holy shock invite us to share God’s freedom, God’s joy, God’s love. May the flesh and blood of Jesus invite us to share the bread of life across the world.