Saturday, 12 August 2017

It's not over until......

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 - Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

A book called The Joseph Cycle was written by Simon Sim in 2004 and used Joseph’s dream (Genesis 41:25-30), as recounted to Pharaoh, as the basis for a theory about markets waxing and waning in seven-year increments.  People buy Sim’s book because they want to make money.   Spoiler alert:  If you want to make money, then it’s off to Amazon with you.  Buy Simon Sim’s book. You’re not going to make any money reading this. 

For a student of the Scriptures, the Joseph Cycle is a series of stories from the Book of Genesis about Joseph.  That it is referred to as a Cycle and not merely a Story means that the whole narrative has bits to it, ups and downs, highs and lows.  It doesn’t begin and end in a single chapter or reach its conclusion in a single episode.

Your bicycle has wheels.  When you run your finger along the end of them you come back to your starting point.  Joseph stands blessed amongst his brothers at the beginning of the story (Genesis 37) in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, and he will stand blessed in the midst of those same brothers at the end of the story (Genesis 45).  Between these two points many events have taken place – many of them points of utter collapse and desolation.  If Joseph prayed to God to be protected by him -

·        So that his brothers might not throw him in to a pit and tell his father Jacob that he had been savaged by a wild beast and killed;
·        So that he might not be sold to a band of wandering Midianites;
·        So that he might not be resold as a slave by them to the Ishmaelites;
·        That he might be protected from the wandering eye of his master Potiphar’s wife, and;
·        So that he would not be cast into prison.

- the answer from God would have appeared to him as an unequivocal “No”.   Let that sink in for a moment. 

Do you have a sense of your own vocation, and of the fact that God loves you and that nothing transpires outside of his will and care?    Joseph did.  God gave him dreams.  He knows that God has a use for him and yet, when he prays to God for what seems like the most basic matters of freedom from peril, even these are denied.


Herein is the difference between a cycle and a simple story.  You need to wait until the end.  You will not see the sense of things until the circle is complete.   The episodes by which you judge yourself, by which you judge God’s faithfulness – this or that failure or success, this or that child’s misadventure or your failure in relationships or ventures – no matter how it feels in the moment – needs to be seen in the light of the story which God is telling over decades.  Be faithful enough to actively wait it out – patient enough (with yourself and with God) to see things to their yet-unknown conclusion.


Friday, 14 July 2017

What do you intend to do about it?

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10 – Year A
Matthew 13:1-9,  18-23               

The old archdeacon I was apprenticed to in the early 80’s was critical of sermons preached by students and young clergy.   Too few of them, he complained, ended with a clear task that men and women could get up from their pew and immediately do afterwards.  Folks, he said, needed to hear an instruction – some practical ending to what would otherwise be an overlong and rambling sermon.  Get up.  Do this.

In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is preaching from a boat a short distance from shore.  He tells a story which we all know well, about the sower who went out to sow his seed in the field.  Some of it landed on stony ground and withered away, some landed amongst thorns and the young plants were smothered by the weeds and some seed landed on good ground where it eventually grew and bore an enormous harvest. 

Pay attention, says Jesus.  And that, really, is the only command.

Sunday school or Lunch Bunch teachers amongst you may correct me but the children’s lesson on this generally has an implied command in it: “So go and be good ground”.  If you read carefully though, especially the intervening part between the parable and explanation which the lectionary left out of our Sunday reading (Matthew 13:10-17), Jesus doesn’t seem to insist that people change the sort of ground they are.   He wants to find good ground.  He wants to find those who will listen and accept and seems willing to leave to one side those who will not.  It seems harsh but there is, in fact, no Get up or Do this anywhere in the parable.  

It is perfectly okay for you to be bothered by this.  You wouldn’t be the first.

It’s precisely this anger that the congregation in Nazareth feels when they hear from Jesus that God has always presented his promise to whomever was willing to accept it and run with it, even if they prove not to be you who are sitting here in the synagogue at Nazareth – even if you end up being left on the side-lines (Lk 4:25-27).  

It’s what the Pharisees and the religious leadership, with steadily rising anger, heard him saying as well – that the publicans and the harlots were getting into the Kingdom before them (Matt 21:31), and that God could raise up children of Abraham from these stones if he wanted to (Matt 3:9).  

It’s what Nicodemus heard Jesus saying about the wind of the Spirit “blow(ing) where it will” (John 3:8).

The Church remembered the parable of the Sower—this parable-without-a-command.  The reason it’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke is that the Church is here being given an instruction to go forth and present the Gospel to those who will listen.  It points the Church out beyond those for whom the promise of salvation is one of a number of lifestyle options, or a bit of family or national inheritance, to those for whom it will become very life and very hope. 

The anger of the Nazareth synagogue, at the stark reminder that Good News is for those who will receive it, leads them to strike out against Jesus.   That same starkness, on the other hand, which Nicodemus perceives about the very same content, leads him to show his hand and enquire of Jesus - desperately even - in the dead of night. 

So yes – in the long run I suppose we have some choice to make about what we will do with the starkness of the parable and its sometimes frightening content.   

If this parable of Jesus angers you – 
if it frightens you – 
then you have indeed heard it.

Now what exactly do you intend to do about it?





Sunday, 9 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Sunday Sermon

A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67


I’m quite taken by the family’s blessing of Rebekah from the Genesis reading – the reading which Sheryl read to us this morning.

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads

A young person stands at the threshold of a life which is rich and open.  There’s something appealing here – I would like my life to be that rich and that open.  I regret the parts of it which may over time have become stunted or locked up.  Lucky Rebekah.  She was young and she must have been in the right place at the right time.

There’s a moment in the first reading when Rebekah slips down the side of her camel, veils herself and prepares to meet the man she will spend her life with.  In our story, this is the happy result.  Go back a bit though.  It follows from an earlier moment after the servant explained how God had led him to Rebekah at the well when her family turns to the young woman and asks – so what do you think?  Will you go with this man?  I refer to these as “moments” by the way because they are powerful little self-contained units which communicate their contents well.  I can imagine the film scene.  I can imagine the painting which some Flemish artist might have painted.  If Caireen were up here telling you the story she would no doubt tell it with all the different voices – including the camel’s voice.

When we gather again in greater numbers at the beginning of September, someone will ask you at coffee time:  So how was your holiday with your family?  

 It had its moments – might be the reply. 

Ah, you say, let me pour myself a coffee and you can tell me about it

We are not expecting to hear about a holiday that had its minutes, are we?  We don’t care that it lasted exactly one or two or three weeks, we are expecting to hear about a holiday which had its moments – we are more concerned about its contents – either good or bad – eventful – joyful – painful. 

We use the word moment and the word minute quite interchangeably.  Take a minute to think before you answer we say to people who are about to take an exam or testify in a court case.  We could have said take a moment to think because we never meant that they should count to sixty.    The first use of the word had nothing to do with time at all – it described a unit of force.  Archimedes used the term to describe the action of levers of various lengths upon their fulcrums.  We might use the word “torque” in its place.  That alternate current meaning of the word moment should have something to do with forces of various kinds – the force necessary to overcome inertia, electrical energy or somesuch.   And even if you’re not an engineer we still use the word Momentum and the adjective Momentous which give us some sense of the difference between a minute and a moment.

And because I’m old and boring I’m going to further illustrate by relating to you a minute of my childhood.

I am ten years old and walking to school.  I walk down the path from our house and turn right on Transit Road.  I carry on to the first stop sign where I intend to turn left.  If I’m walking at my normal rate it takes me just more than a minute to reach that stop sign.    

Let me tell you about a moment from my childhood.

I am ten years old and going to school in Victoria B.C. from my house which is 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean.   I walk out the front door and down the path to the street into fog as thick as pea soup.  The foghorn on Trial Island – just off shore - is sounding its deep two-note blast.  Somebody on our street is burning oak leaves and the air is rich with the smell.  It’s also low tide and mingled in with the smell of the burning leaves is the smell of the seaweed rotting on the beach. The short trip to the first stop sign takes a little longer than a minute because I keep stopping to listen to the sounds and smell the air.  That’s a moment.   You could write a poem about it, it has a shape, it has substance.  Three unrelated worlds weave together into a fabric.  The burning leaves and the smelly beach have nothing to do with the fog or with each other, the foghorn has nothing to do with a small boy’s trip to school but the reason small boys are so often late for school and don’t get the gold star on the chart is that they stop to look at stuff along the way – at the way worlds which are them and worlds which are not them weave together at their intersection into a moment.

Being small one tends to be hit by moments – they happen to you – small people and adults who retain their sense of wonder even in their riper years – are struck by their moments.  They have little authorship over them.  They are lucky to have them. 

Let’s nail this down.  Are you one of those who would like to be fruitful and are not – to be myriads and are not – who would love to rediscover the openness, the beauty and the complexity of life and are not there today.   Doesn’t it seem a little bit cruel simply to say you should stand around until you are struck by something.    That’s no gift.  It would be a bit like saying that on behalf of the Anglican tradition we sincerely hope your lucky number comes up. 

I am compelled tell you another story.

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence.  There must, surely, have been a bit of a pause - an awkward moment.   

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters presumably were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman – not as an accident or a happy exception or blind luck - but as the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family, they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which simply are or which “must be” (either by God’s command or by Abraham’s will) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy – you see - goes into the equation from two sides.  

The question is asked.  The answer is “yes”.  The door to a world opens. 

I hope you’ll give some thought to where you are right now.  Maybe I’m preaching to the choir but you may have some sadness at the thought that you will never see an open door in front of you, or a new horizon, or be better and bigger than you are now.  Is any of this remotely important to you?  Does it hit a nerve with anyone?  Are you disappointed that you may never see the moment when you slip down the side of your camel into blessing or get from where you are now to that fruitful and hopeful place? 

Our key story this morning concerns much more than lucky cards or lucky stars.  Her moment is as much about the word “yes” issuing from Rebekah’s lips as it was about Abraham’s servant having discerned that she was the one.   Our engagement allows and even creates moments.  The weaving together of worlds happens because we want it and because we do it.  By our affirmation, by way of our curiosity and because of our willingness - by the word “yes” which we utter.  Few of us stand on ground so sloped in the right downward direction that entry and discovery are something that we merely fall into by the power of gravity or the weight of events.  Nor are our decisions ever so distilled in pure forms, apart from the ordinary particularity of our lives and families, that the choice is merely obvious. 

Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures ever found in fields by nameless characters in Jesus’ parables, and - yes - the very thing which you – men and women, boys and girls - want or need - these are to be found by seekers.  

Will you go with this man?  Will you engage with this community?  There is something you can do.  You’ll do it if you want it enough.  It requires engagement and risk - undertaking tasks which extend beyond your pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is proven to be safe. For that matter, even beyond the bounds of what is generally considered polite conversation. 


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Becoming Myriads: The Quick Guide

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 9 – Year A
Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

The answer to the question is “yes”.  The door to a new world opens.  

Where are you right now?  How will you get from where you are to a more fruitful and hopeful place? Will it happen by accident?  Do you need to do something?

Is this remotely important to you?

There is a bit of family tradition handed down, from somebody on my mother’s side, that when my great grandfather was studying for the Presbyterian ministry at Queen’s College in Kingston Ontario at the end of the 19th Century, one of the College’s previous graduates wrote back to his friends that the work he was doing in China (on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion) was proving impossible without a wife and could somebody please help him out.  The story has it that a small group paid a visit to the missionary and deaconess’ training home in Toronto and enquired of the young women enrolled there whether any amongst them felt the vocation to marry a missionary in the field. 

I cannot imagine the story without a bit of embarrassed silence in the room.  There must, surely, have been an awkward pause.    

As it happened, the query was met with agreement by one young woman in Toronto.  Yes, she felt so inclined.  Letters were exchanged and the young woman packed her trunks and sailed to China at the beginning of a hazardous decade for foreigners (and especially missionaries) living in that country.  One man’s history weaves into the history of one woman - the fruit of risks taken by the one who asks and the one who answers.

In our first reading this Sunday, Abraham’s servant is given the task of finding a wife for Isaac from amongst his kinsfolk in Mesopotamia.  The servant prays to God for direction, establishes the criteria by which he will know God is so directing him and is subsequently led to the young woman Rebekah who is drawing water at the local well.  Later, when the servant has spoken with her family they turn to the girl. 

“Will you go with this man?” they ask.   “I will” she says. 

The young woman’s agreement leads to the family’s blessing

“May you, our sister, become thousands of myriads; may your offspring gain possession of the gates of their foes.” 

The faith of Abraham’s bonded servant intersects with a young woman’s freedom to say “yes” or “no” and the story culminates in blessing.   Our story weaves together those things which “must be” (either by God’s command or by patriarchal fiat) with what “could or could not be” due to family politics and individual choice.  Energy goes into the equation from two sides.   

Rarely do we stand on ground which is gently sloped in a downward direction for ease of entry and discovery.  Nor are our options so distilled in pure forms, unmixed with the particularity of our lives and families, that the choice becomes obvious.  Secret gardens, hidden doors, the way in and the way out of labyrinths, pearls of great price discovered amongst lesser gems, all the treasures found in fields, and - yes - the very thing the present reader wants or needs - these are to be found by seekers.   

They are the fruit of engagement and risk.   They require undertakings which extend beyond our pay-grade and beyond the bounds of what is considered safe or, for that matter, even polite.  


Saturday, 1 July 2017

The Terror of Isaac

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8 - Year A
Genesis 22:1-14


I am not alone in being defeated by this story in which God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  It’s a circle not easily squared.  It’s all made worse by the art with which the story teller in this section of Genesis relates the events.  There is tension and suspense – a long walk up Mount Moriah, a child’s innocent question about the absence of a sacrificial animal and all the detail of Abraham’s preparation of an altar and the disposition of fire and a knife.    Abraham, who once readily argued with God for the lives of any innocents who might have lived in doomed Sodom and Gomorrah, is here silent and compliant in response to God’s strange command.  He goes forth with his boy to Mount Moriah in the face of a seeming absurdity.  Am I professionally bound, as a priest,  to make this work for you?

The easy answers are those I was told in Sunday School: that God asks difficult things of those who profess faith in him and, after all, doesn’t God intervene at the very last minute to make the story right?  Colour a picture, children.  Use bright colours.  The slightly more technical answer that I was told in seminary was that this story served to express God’s    historic displeasure at the cults of child sacrifice which were not unknown in Abraham’s time and abolished them by providing a ram in the stead of the child.  None of these calms the dismay provoked by this story.  I would feel like a dangerous fanatic if I tried to make it all work out for you this Sunday.  I might seriously worry about those of you you who thought you could square this circle easily –and that you felt it was somehow all so “matter of fact”.  The rabbis struggled with this story for centuries.  Soren Kierkegaard wrote an entire book about it.  It’s not a simple story.

The rabbis of old had a “midrash” on this section of Genesis (a midrash is a traditional or legendary expansion of the central text) in which Abraham returned from Mt Moriah down one side of the slope and Isaac came down by another route and that they did not speak again.  I am further reminded of the oath which Isaac’s son Jacob later swore in Genesis 31:42 – an oath which he swore in the name of “the God of Abraham and the Terror of Isaac”.

In the sermon last Sunday, I related a curious coincidence in the similarity between this week’s story of the Binding of Isaac and last Sunday’s story about Hagar and Ishmael.  In both accounts:

·        Abraham rises early in the morning.
·        A son undertakes a long journey with a parent at God’s command.
·        The child is set aside by the parent to await a certain death.
·        God speaks and intervenes
·        The likely outcome is reversed and the child is spared.

The New Testament writers remember the shape of this story which we treat, with no little cause, as incomprehensible.  The Gospel writers let it ring out in the words of Jesus—that he “must” go to Jerusalem notwithstanding the indignant protests of his disciples that he remains safely with them.  For his part, St Paul lets the Romans and the Jewish leadership off the hook for the crucifixion.  Paul intimates that it is God who handed Christ over.  Even in the final apocalyptic vision (Revelation 5:6) which makes up our New Testament there is, at the centre of the heavenly throne, this slain sacrificial lamb which God has provided. 

The story of the Binding of Isaac appears to us here in Genesis almost in the form of “building materials” which we cannot yet conceive as being part of a finished edifice or dwelling.  They are shocking in their rawness. Until we have struggled with them and have seen them fitted into some larger structure they must remain for us highly troubling and deeply unsatisfying.   




Wednesday, 21 June 2017

On being the wrong boy.

The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 7 – Year A
Genesis 21:8-21

God was with the boy, and he grew up…

Abraham sends his servant woman Hagar and the boy Ishmael (the child they have had together) out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.  There is precious little in the story which we can point to which will make it fair and palatable. You might make a case about God being economical with his finite favour which he ultimately extends only to Isaac.  Crack on!  It won’t satisfy any natural reading of the text.   This is a story about Sarah’s will to see the “other woman” and the “other son” - both of whom have a claim on Abraham’s affection - thrown out of the tent and left to their own devices in a hot and barren land.   There is the kind of family jealousy which we might identify in our own extended family or in our own experience of blended families.  Children are sometimes banished.   It happens. They fall out of favour.  They suffer the bad luck to have been born prior to the current marriage and the favoured second batch of children.  Go through your family photo albums.  Note any blank spaces.  Ask your aunty about it when she’s had a gin or two.

You could reproach Abraham for not being able to stand up to his wife and protect the fruit of his loins.  You might even wonder that God seems to play along with Sarah in her need to throw out her competitor.  The Old Testament stories are such a mish-mash of human drama and Salvation History.  We’d do well not to divide them up.  They are what they are.

God has good peripheral vision.  He hears Hagar’s weeping and the cries of the boy sheltering in the low vegetation. 

He hears the mother. 
He sees the boy. 
He abides with him as he grows up. 

God looks sideways.  There is grace beyond the bounds and this grace-which-leaps-over-borders will find itself being worked out in the ministry of Jesus.  He started with his own but he did not end there. His commission to the saints at the end of the gospels is to take the message – that grace -  to all nations.  It’s this sideways glance and overflowing grace which Saint Paul will take with him to Antioch and to a ministry which extends beyond the chosen sons and daughters and out to the Gentiles and, through those saints, to parts of the world which were unknown.

That was a long time ago.  There is current hope in this passage for you as well who may, for any number of reasons, be outside the well-lit room and the appointed path - who must look for hope beyond the ruins of your family lives and beyond your disappointing personal histories.   You might easily list off the reasons you don’t belong in Abraham’s tent. 

Cry out.   
Make your claim for God’s love in spite of being the “wrong boy”.  
It’s the way it should be.  
It’s the way it’s always been.



Thursday, 15 June 2017

That "getting up" feeling...

2nd Sunday 
after Pentecost
Proper 6  Year A

Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7
Matthew 9:3-10:23

Paul begins the 4th chapter of Romans by asking "What then shall we say about Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh?" 

Paul thinks it's a good question. It took him the remainder of Romans 4 and most of Galatians 3 to address it.  Today we're starting small.  This Sunday at church we will begin to read the stories of the Patriarchs in the Book of Genesis and we begin right at the beginning - with Abraham - the lead actor in the first chapter of the history of salvation.

What we can say at the "get go" is that Abraham (or Abram as he was first known) “got up from a sitting position” when God's messengers approached.   It may not seem like much but it holds the key to what happens next.

Coupled with this Sunday’s Gospel reading about the Jesus sending out the twelve disciples on their first mission trip, our Sunday narrative begins to look like this:

Act one: 
God draws near to a Bedouin tent in the presence of three angels. Abram gets up from sitting at the mouth of his tent and goes out to greet them.

Act two: 
The twelve disciples are sent out by Jesus into the villages of the Galilee. They are to witness and minister to those who will welcome them gladly.

And you thought of the Bible as a book filled with God’s acts?  
Add up the human responses as well, why dont you – they’re there in droves. 

The divine initiative and the human response work in concert.  Two hands come together in prayer or applause.  Two paddles propel the canoe up the stream.  A word is spoken and there is an ear to hear that word - lips and feet and hands to put the word into action.  It takes two.   

God waits rather a lot, in the Bible, to see what the man, the woman or the young person will do.  He awaits some decision – some forward impulse which drives a person towards love, towards relationship and towards a new horizon.

We will not dwell on the negative. Jesus does not counsel the disciples to react with grief or anger (or even crippling self-criticism) in the face of villagers who spurn their ministry.  The disciples have their instructions – they are to continue to the next village and to find that “getting up feeling” in others who are not yet reached.

What do you read here which touches you?  What falls to you then - young and old - at your various crossroads?  It depends on who you are, I suppose.  Disciples of long service?   Enquirers standing at the edge of committed discipleship or, for that matter, lounging around in the shade?  Who are you in these readings?

And is there a word here that points to the possibility of your beginnings? Get up from your cushions!  Is there a word here which encourages you to continue in spite of misadventure?  Carry on to the next village!