Biblical Pornography

BIBLICAL PORNOGRAPHY
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Sunday, January 14, 2018

Text: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

The lesson we read today before I spoke is one wisely avoided in the 3-year cycle of lessons appointed for the church.  Even I have ducked it for the past 12 years, and may retire before I attempt to preach it again.  The NRSV translation (below) is hard enough, but since the early 1980’s, I have offered my own developing translation (at the bottom, below).

Skim the words on the screen, or hear the echoes of their sound, celebrating how your body is a temple of the Spirit, not for fornication with prostitutes!  The marks on paper or screen, and the sounds of syllables, regardless of translation, are what they call ‘signifiers’ in the study of ‘hermeneutics’.  What, pray God, is the ‘signified’ in this text?

If there was something pornographic in the room on Sunday, did the Bible bring it?  God knows  (no, really, she knows, but hasn’t told me) what goes on between your ears, and among us, in response to these ‘signifiers’.  There was some energy and tension in the room.  Did Paul bring it, or the translators of the Authorized Version of the English Bible – or did we?

Paul writes letters to Corinth, only about 20 years after Jesus’ death. He has been there, then moved on, but writes gossip (God-talk) back and forth, in conflicts among them and with him. Paul has no great authority yet in these early religious communes, which were no longer typical synagogues, nor yet churches, all under Roman rule in Greek culture.

What religious community would need to be told to stop fornicating and paying prostitutes?
Who and what was Paul talking to? Paul’s not talking about legislating for all Corinthian residents, just the members of the religious commune. Did it have many active pimps or hookers?  Perhaps, but more likely he’s mad at a people turning freedom into license. 

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed.
In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

Can you imagine a culture, and a church, that claimed that kind of license?  Where anybody can do anything they want?  You’d have the survival of the fittest, self-harm, violence, domination in some kind of social Darwinism based on how much money you had or could borrow.  Oh, yeah.  You can imagine that.  We live in that culture and church!

Paul’s argument makes no sense to us as liberal individualists, consumers in late capitalism. Rather than repeat grammar rules about singular or collective ‘bodies’, and philological word study of the Greek original signifiers that we read as ‘prostitute’ or ‘fornication’, I just offered my own translation, and reminders of how context has shaped earlier readings.

Some of you remember the 1982 National Film Board documentary, “Not a Love Story”. Banned in Ontario when it came out, it’s now easy to download online – don’t miss it! The advent of videotape technology was bringing ‘dirty movies’ out of the shabby theatres on King Street, into video rental stores. People like Margaret Atwood wanted it stopped.

Atwood herself soon published her 1985 novel, ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, a dystopian future theocracy borrowing Christian language for misogyny and tyranny. I enjoyed demonizing her villains, in the early years of our UCC fights over homosexuality. As a ‘sensitive new age guy’ I preached this text deriding anyone whose prurient mind thought it banned prostitution.

In those days, I fixed on the Greek words porne, pornos, porneia, and porneuo, which underlay the various English attempts to make sense through ‘prostitute’, ‘fornication’, ‘immorality’, and so on. Why not draw on the one semantic field of ‘pornography’ words, instead of individual money-for-sex transactions criminalized but never stopped?

Technology advanced, and anybody with internet has access unimagined by our naïve 1980’s plan to halt the dehumanizing, objectivizing, misogynist tides.  More of you were nodding as I asked if you ever worried about your kids, grand-kids, students in schools, let alone your neighbours and peers, exercising their new freedom as license:

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say -
but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed.
In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

Margaret Atwood is still making money, and the new TV remake of Handmaid’s Tale earns more awards than the earlier movie. Why this time? Is the risk we face really totalitarian Christian tyranny of strict narrow legalism? I think it is atomized individualistic consumerism, treating other humans as demographic objects to be rated and measured. I’m not Paul.

We relaxed a bit in the room as I reminisced about Adam Nicolson’s book “God’s Secretaries”, about how the great serial monogamist Henry VIII paid a bunch of celibate men at Oxford and Cambridge to translate an Authorized Version of the bible too often called ‘St James’. These guys gave us a version of this text which is hard to unlearn, embedded in our culture

Rather than parsing the language of commercial sexual gratification, the rights of sex workers and the obligations of their customers, I stuck with re-occupying the space between your ears, and the energy among us in the room, with quotes by smarter people about the term ‘pornography’.  I think this gets us closer to Paul’s ‘signified’ in this letter to Corinth:

"Pornography is about dominance.
Erotica is about mutuality."
Gloria Steinem


 “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows far too little.”
Pope John Paul II

"Pornography is rather like trying to find out about a Beethoven symphony
by having somebody tell you about it and perhaps hum a few bars."
Robertson Davies

‘What pornography is really about,
ultimately, isn’t sex but death.’
Susan Sontag

Finally, I think that this part of the letter to Corinth is a response to licentiousness, claiming too much for ‘freedom in Christ’.  There was another set of Paul’s opponents in Corinth who pushed narrow strict legalism, to whom Atwood’s challenge applies, but in response to this culture of license, the collectivists of the far right or left offer some wisdom:

In Russia under Stalin, nothing was permitted – and everything mattered.
In America now, everything is permitted – and nothing matters.
Alexander Solzenitzyn

Where’s the pornography in the bible?  There are very few uses of the Greek words porne, pornos, porneia, and porneuo.  The men who translate them do contortions to use different words in each context, to reflect our own culture and language.  I’d say that what Paul opposes with these words is not in the book or on the page, but between our ears.

What if church were a counter-cultural commune treating people as fully human creatures?   What if we were loved and known, and knew ourselves loved and known, not as consumers or producers, on a scale of sexual attractiveness never tall, thin, blonde, or rich enough?  That’s a church where I would feel safe – if a bit crowded!


I Corinthians 6:12-20
(NRSV) p 1 of 2

“All things are lawful for me” but not all things are beneficial.

“All things are lawful for me” but I will not be dominated by anything

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.

And God will destroy both one and the other.”

The body is meant not for fornication, but for the Lord
And the Lord for the body.

And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?

Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them
members of a prostitute? Never!

Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her?

For is it said,
‘The two shall be one flesh.’
But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him’
Shun fornication!

Every sin that a person commits is outside the body But the fornicator sins
against the body itself.

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you
Which you have from God, And that you are not your own?

For you were bought with a price; Therefore glorify God in your body.

God still speaks – Thanks be to God!


I Corinthians 6:12-20
(Bill’s Version)

“I can do anything I want”, you say - but not every thing is good for me.

“I can do anything I want”, you say - but no thing will be the boss of me.

“Feed your appetites – appetites are best fed. In the long run, we’re all dead.” So you say.

The Commune is not made for Porn, but for Kyrios. And Kyrie for the Commune.

And Theos raised Kyrios and will also raise us by Theo-power.

Don’t you get how your Communes are part of Kyrios?

Do you want me to take parts of Kyrios and make them parts of Porn?
Never!

Don’t you get it? how anybody participating in Porn is part of Porn?

They say, ‘The two shall be one flesh.’ But anybody part of Kyrios shares one Pneuma, with Kyrios. Reject Porn!

Acts of sin individuals do Occur outside the Commune But acts as part of Porn
infect the Commune itself.

Or do you not know that your Commune is a shrine with Pneuma in it?
You get it from Theos, You don’t own it to wreck it!

You are bought and paid for; So show Theos off in your Commune.

God still speaks – Thanks be to God!

Beulah

BEULAH
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
New Year’s Eve Sunday, December 31, 2017
‘Trinity on Church’, Kitchener

Text: Isaiah 62

At the end of an eventful year, on the eve of a new one, I asked the faithful few 3 dozen worshipers ‘how have you been changed by church in 2017’, and then, ‘how has church been changed by you in 2017’.  Then I suggested you all break an arm, patting yourselves on the back for your part in the year now ending.

Are you passive customers of Trinity?  Are you on the mailing list, ‘alumni’, or ‘burial purposes only’ affiliates (even that offsite, with a former Trinity minister)? Did you prefer to be seated safely in the gallery, or under it at the old place, surrounded by 800 empty seats?  You can’t hide in this temporary chapel!

Are you church staff, volunteers, here when you have a job on Laurie’s roster?  Did you work so hard on one committee or another that it soured you or burnt you out?  God forbid we end next year better at making casseroles and other tasks, but still ill-equipped to pray, engage scripture, or enjoy moral reasoning!

What if you are the product of Trinity, not its customers or staff?  You are known and named as Trinity members, and as Christians.  We are not saints, angels, we’re practicing Christians, not accomplished ones - yet.  How are you changed, and who would you point to with pride and say, ‘I’m one of them’?

From GPS tracking, could we ever get ‘big data’ to show different patterns for Trinity people, or Christian people?  Where would we be found more, or less often as a statistical population?We are part of a city that needs far fewer church destinations in its downtown.

I repeated CRA tax data cited in the Globe this month, that 4 out of 5 tax-filers claim no charitable donations.  Of the 20%, half donate to religious bodies, but that same 10% of tax-filers donates a plurality of non-religious donations.  That was not a pitch for year-end impulse gift, but affirmation of your distinctiveness.

In this New Year service, we remembered our baptism, when we were named with our ‘Christian names’, and renewed our covenant as members of Trinity within the one church.  The ‘Big Idea’ was to reflect on how we have been worthy of the name in 2017, how we have been changed, and changed church.  Now, what will we do less in 2018, to make room for something more?

Forty years ago, in 1978, I was received as a candidate for UCC ministry. Church has changed, but some of us just keep repeating year one 40 times, or year 10 for 30 more times.  Read our bookshelves, physical or metaphorical, for what we kept and what we took on.  Read our calendars for what matters most.

The new pastor stops for gas, and buys a snack.  Back in the car, he sees the cashier gave him an extra $10 in change.  Did you know you gave me too much change?  Sure!  I knew you were the new pastor, and I wanted to see I you were worth listening to! People ‘read’ you, to see what ‘Trinity’ and ‘Christian’ is.

I confessed at some length today that people have not liked what they read from the church in my generation.  Waves of revelations about clergy sexual abuse of women, children harmed in scouting and church youth groups, residential schools devastating First Nations.  Our name is shamed, humbled.

We stand in the rubble of something defeated, with some exiled, and others ‘remaining in the land’ but dazed and disoriented.  We are learning what it is like to be called bad names, and have to suck it up.  Our kids and grandkids wonder why we cling to such a despised name, ‘Trinity’ or ‘Christian’.

The prophet today in the church’s lectionary is Isaiah 62.  Remember, if Isaiah was the original voice during the decline and fall of Judah to Babylon, (c.1-39) and Second Isaiah was a later generation of that voice in exile (c.40-55), then the last 10 chapters are a voice in a time of new freedom to rebuild (c.56-65).

Just because Cyrus of Persia (Iran) give permission to go home to Jerusalem in 500 BCE, and rebuild something of an ethnic cultural clubhouse, not a nation, does not mean it then happened.  It takes a generation to rebuild, and centuries to bulk up the Second Temple, right up to Herod’s time – then it’s leveled 70CE. 

A shamed, humbled people, given some permission for modest renewal of something formerly great, needs a new message.  More than scolding the mistakes that led to a fall, more than ‘comfort my people’. Now what, in the no-longer but not-yet?  We do know something about what Isaiah 62 addresses!

I wore my new Christmas tie today, a Bruce County tartan, adding blue lines for Lake Huron to the traditional Bruce.  The motto of the Bruce clan is fuimus, or ‘we have been’.  We are ‘has-beens’, clan of Robert the Bruce, and proud of it.  Perhaps that culture, reinvented in Victorian days, has a connection here too.

What’s our vision?  How will we reclaim our good reputation, our good name? It’s ironic that our offer of ‘sanctuary’ has been found unsafe by the world!  What if it’s not a failed sanctuary, but a crucible, with transforming effect, where catalyst are added, and we are regenerated, our change affirmed?

You shall be called no longer ‘Forsaken’ – ‘Azubah’
Your land named no more ‘Desolate’ - ‘Deserted Wife’- ‘Shemimah’

You will be known as ‘My Delight is in Her’  ‘Hephzibah’
Your land will now be known as ‘Married’ – ‘Beulah’

Arriving among you in October, I told you of Bill Bruce homesteaders up by Yatton in the 1840’s.  My great-grandfather, William Milton Bruce, born on the homestead, was schooled in Listowel after his father died, before moving to Toronto as a dentist, with sons Ernest, Noble and Manly. Aspirational names.

When your parents named you, and baptized you, what were their aspirations? How would you grow into your name – your Christian name, your family name, and your identifying names like as your vocation, your city, your Canadian citizenship, and in turn, your name as parent or grandparent?  Imagine!

The eldest child, of William Milton and Sarah, however, was a daughter, Beulah. Isaiah 62 in the King James Bible says Beulah means ‘Married’. Now if that’s all my family aspired to for great-aunt Beulah, then it was a cruel irony. Beulah was born in 1881, and died in 1954.  She was unmarried all her life.

Beulah lived with her parents, taking care of her little brothers. William died in 1918, Sarah in 1937. A block away in 1933, the Christie Pits riots showed the ugly Irish mobs with swastikas beating Jews.  Yes, my people were among the bigots who resisted immigration generally, and Jews in Kensington and Harbord. 

Beulah was not a thug.  She studied piano at the nearby Royal Conservatory, taught piano, and was a member in good standing at Bathurst Methodist, then United Church, until her death. Her last address before her death in 1954 was in rooms across from St Mary Magdalene, where Healy Willan played organ.

My people take a lot of fair criticism for our assimilationist ‘None is Too Many’ opposition to diversity in the 1930’s.  Beulah’s Bathurst UC was an exception, advocating for Jewish refugees in the 1930’s, and conscientious objectors and Japanese in the 1940’s.  How did a spinster pianist fit the names given or denied her, and her brothers and neighbours? 

Did Beulah fail against her parents’ aspirations at baptism? Methodists dreamed and sang of Beulah-land of settled ‘married’ beauty, code for ‘heaven’.

Beulah lived through early feminism: suffrage, and the ‘person’s case’.  Was Beulah a person, neither wife nor mother?  She only got the vote in her 40’s.
Two years before Beulah was born, in 1879, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play, “The Doll’s House”, exchange between a husband and wife:

Helmer: Remember – before all else you are a wife and mother
Nora: I don’t believe that anymore. I believe that before all else I am a human being, just as you are.

Remember your own Beulah.  At any given time, how many of us are not yet, or no longer married? How many of us are not well wed? In our Protestant tradition, marriage is not a sacrament, merely an instrumental good, which can and does serve the greater good, the glory of God, human beings, fully alive.

But when it is not working, or currently our state, it’s not the only good thing. Many women, at many times, are not known, not named, not beloved, and not precious – or rather they are wrongly named, wrongly named, wrongly loved, and not treated as precious. The majority are not now married at this New Year.

A woman without a man
Is like a fish without a bicycle

That’s attributed to Gloria Steinem, but she denies coining the phrase. It sounds more like Mary Daly, a theologian who taught at Boston College, until she refused to permit men to attend her classes. She thought we’d had enough years chatting amongst ourselves, and women deserved their turn.  She named:

“…an astonishing contrast between, on the one hand, the teachings concerning the value and dignity of the human person and, on the other hand, all-pervasive misogynism and downgrading of women as persons…”

I also reminded you of Rosemary Radford Reuther, liberation theologian, and Carter Heyward, one of the ‘Philadelphia 11’ women ordained in 1974 as Episcopalian priests.  That generation came long after Beulah, but before us – and has enough changed within and among us? Have we changed things? No.

Marriage will survive American feminism, and so will the church.
All 3 institutions have a high tolerance level for criticism, heresy, and desertion,
as well as hatred, mockery, and the awful insolence of being ignored.

That last is a quote from ‘Marriage: The Savage Sacrament’, a book of essays from Roman Catholic women in the early 1980’s.  As I remembered Beulah, and 20th century ‘first-wave’ feminists, so you remembered your Beulah, to echo the scripture lesson of this day, at the end of 2017, on the brink of 2018.

The people addressed by Isaiah 62 felt forsaken or deserted. The analogy of a woman not properly known, named and loved was a pretty powerful way of understanding a people and a land who were not currently the most powerful and successful. Who better to teach them, or us, how to survive and thrive?

We know how bad it can be, the slurs and insults directed to the less powerful. Can we imagine and articulate what it would be like to be known, named, and loved right? Sure we can – it’s like a good marriage, or any ‘right relations’. That’s not compulsory heterosexuality, but knowing, naming, loving others truly!

Today we remembered our baptism, where we were given our Christian names, claimed the name ‘Christian’ in one congregation, part of the one church.  Today we reaffirmed that be want to belong, to believe, and to behave as if it were so.  In 2018, we get to grow into a new name, ‘Trinity on Church’. 

What if our watch on these ruined walls, pitching our tent in a rented chapel, turns out to be worth doing to remind God and others of what we want to conserve and preserve what was good in our heritage?  Re-presenting our case and our cause to God and to the world, we get past shame to pride again.

What would it mean if our ‘grain and grapes’ were not appropriated by others?  Perhaps in our time, it’s like Tim Horton’s trading on the ‘warm fuzzy’ of summer camp for kids.  The UCC built that goodwill, that moral capital, and the retail franchise commodified it into a brand moneymaker, identifying with it through a couple of camps, a tenth the size of the real summer camp movement still!

What will our public witness be in 2018?  As ‘Trinity on Church’ in Kitchener, what will our name mean?  That need not be reduced to charitable service, or social service.  It certainly need not be slavishly loyal to the conclusory political partisanship of Kairos or those who purport to speak for the national UCC!

In this New Year service, we remembered our baptism, when we were named with our ‘Christian names’, and renewed our covenant as members of Trinity within the one church.  The ‘Big Idea’ was to reflect on how we have been worthy of the name in 2017, how we have been changed, and changed church.  Now, what will we do less in 2018, to make room for something more?

Love & Struggle

LOVE and STRUGGLE
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
4th Sunday of Advent, December 24, 2017
‘Trinity on Church’, Kitchener

Text: 2 Samuel 7

I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car.

Through my trials and tribulations, I have travelled cross the nation,
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

Today was the big import/export Sunday of the season, as many regulars travelled to gather with family elsewhere, and others came home to parents’ homes here.  Many of us were in the new small rental space ‘Trinity on Church’ for the first time, and meeting me as the ‘new temp guy’ for the first time.

Yes, I got to church easily through the snow, after years north of Flin Flon, and for the past 5 Christmases in Calgary.  People were more worried that I’d visited home on Lake Huron this week, where some were snowed in.  So I began by singing ‘Plastic Jesus’, from the old movie ‘Cool Hand Luke’.

Don Cupitt, one of my preferred contemporary theologians these days, calls Christmas the “Disney-fication of Christianity”.  We risk more than trivial or commercialized versions of the feast. Branding, in a post-industrial consumer culture, sentimentalizes to monetize, re-construing our world to a commodity.

The dean at U of Winnipeg wrote ‘Love & Struggle in Mao’s Thought,’ signed my copy, and said I was the first person he had met who had bought and read it.  Too bad, since Mao, and our UCC overseas staff, had good critiques of how colonial imperial capitalism served China through liberal ‘love’ and ‘freedom’. 

The ecumenical lectionary told us all to read this text from a “Former Prophet”, so I didn’t get to the ‘Baby Jesus’ story till the later services of the day.  This less familiar story promised better opportunity to resist the power branding, and some chance that the gospel of infant incarnation might reach us again.

The ‘Big Idea’ today was ‘Love’: not quid pro quo, or sentiment without action – nor frenetic action without purpose.  ‘Love’ is incommensurable, mutual vulnerability, reliance upon the other doing their part in a relationship, despite plenty of evidence of the risk that they won’t.  

Gift-giving at Christmas illustrate the utilitarian exchange or reciprocity relations, or frantic over-reaction. We give and get gifts that are too much or too little, offend more than they excite.  If it’s the thought that counts, it’s often missing.

We paused, to consider this ‘Baby Jesus’ thing – to practice considering others.  Imagine the vulnerability of God, the risk by God, in action with purpose beyond sentiment or reason.  We prefer our Jesus as a ‘great teacher’, a ‘wise prophet’, or even a ‘miracle worker’ superhero. ‘Baby Jesus’ can’t talk yet, or do much, except soil the swaddling cloths, since he’s incontinent.  Help him.  That’s faith.

‘The Samuels’  is a pair of books, originally one, spinning out the epic story of how a wee group of tribes became a ‘United Kingdom’. (Then ‘The Kings’ tells of the decline and fall, and it’s all retold in Chronicles and again in wisdom books).  The tribes among other tribes operated in ideal anarchy, raising up ‘judges’ when threatened by outside forces, otherwise only cooperating if necessary. 

The tribes whined to God ‘why can’t we have a king like other nations?’  Despite divine warnings to ‘be careful what you ask for; you might get it’,  Samuel finds Saul, who gets the king role wrong, then David, who starts heroically and then through fatal tragic moral flaws of pride, and abuse of power, falters. 

David in I Samuel is a guerilla fighter, running a protection racket in the Hebron hills, part of an ongoing insurgency or civil war with Saul’s petty tyranny.  Public relations for David claim he was a shepherd boy, a musician, playmate of Saul’s boy Jonathon, slayer of Goliath, to balance what we all knew of his early career.   

2 Samuel begins like a Godfather 2: David has made it, Saul is dead, and after 7 years in the north, David begins 33 years of rule over the united kingdom from Jerusalem, in a palace of cedar panels. He’s ready for ‘happily ever after’, to show off his power with a bit of philanthropy, as he muses aloud:

‘I live in a house of cedar, but God’s ark is in a tent’.

David says to Nathan the prophet, let’s “make it right”, like Mike Holmes in the Canadian home repair TV show.  From my plenty, let me give God a bit. God should have a nice house too, more like mine.  We know the feeling, having spent so much money on our own homes.  Mine is bigger than this one, this year (not my ‘garret’ in the city, but my ‘beach house’ on Lake Huron’)

Nathan says ‘Sure’.  Why look a gift horse in the mouth?  Who talks back to David anymore?  What clergy resists a big donor?  But Nathan can’t sleep that night, with second thoughts, courtesy of God. This temple idea is not David’s to choose, but God’s to give, and for Solomon to build. Nathan scratches that itch.

God has been doing fine in a tent, through all those years since Egypt. God will be faithful, but not fitting in to David’s script. You build a house for me? I build a house for you, says God. It may not be bricks – but legacy, a family, a people.

God wants so much less - and offers so much more - than ‘happily ever after’. 
Our mortgage is paid, our pension secure, our business or career through its early scrambles, and we are in our middling ages, in the middling classes, in ‘Trinity on Church’.  Is it all just ‘happily ever after’ now, with a philanthropic tip for God? See Rabbi Kushner’s book ‘When All You Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough’.

Many of us know what it’s like to become somebody’s parent or grandparent, rather than the star of our family show. Who wrote the script for your family Christmas 40 years ago, or 20, or last year?  Who will write it soon, and what will be your part in the next remake of your ‘Christmas special’?

Scripture expresses and informs not just the tales of the ‘power and glory’ of self-made men in their prime like David. It also recounts the subversive stories of succession and legacy, the rise and fall.  What if we’re the supporting cast, or even the back story? Crazy old Saul, David in turn in his senility, teach wordlessly, as do their infant successors. What if it’s not all about us?

‘I live in a house of cedar, while God is living in a tent.’ 

One generation begins and builds, immigrants, hustlers, the Methodist Mafia, the Orange Lodge. The next generation builds, consolidates, as the elders forget being scrappy partisans and politicians, and become wise statesmen. But is it to be rags to riches to rags in three generations, for any of us, or all of us? 

 What was the point, when we set out together, to find better ways of living together, and loving together? When all you ever wanted is not enough, then what? Life, and church, is not happily ever after. Don’t run it all like annuities and pensions.  We build and grow, or we decline and fall and die. 

I keep describing how we are running our churches and denominations into the ground. We’re so scared of dying that we are killing ourselves. We bury talents in the ground, in fear, wait too long to share too little. Some call me a ‘one-trick pony’, or a broken record, after crying out for at least 30 years that we need to close half our outlets yesterday, to redeploy our assets more faithfully.

That’s not a call for an estate plan, or a restructuring proposal for insolvency.  What we’ve got is not the curse of David’s doomed early success, but the promise of Solomon’s start-up capital. Are we ready to recognize ‘Baby Jesus’, and respond with nurture and care for that potential?  We are equipped to help.

I closed with bits from T.S.Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’, (here, ‘East Coker’ excerpts) begun in 1939, published in 1943, when Eliot was in his mid-50’s, American born English bank employee, by then moderately well known for his poetry:

 In my beginning is my end.

 In succession Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended, 
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place is an open field, 
or a factory, or a by-pass. 
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires, 
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces, 
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf. 

 Houses live and die: 
there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break
the loosened pane
 And to shake the wainscot
where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras
woven with a silent motto…. 

 So here I am, in the middle way, 
having had twenty years— 
Twenty years largely wasted, 
the years of ‘l'entre deux guerres’ 

 Trying to use words, 
and every attempt
 Is a wholly new start, 
and a different kind of failure

 Because one has only learnt
to get the better of words

 For the thing one no longer has to say,
 or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.

 And so each venture
 Is a new beginning,

 a raid on the inarticulate
 

En-Joy Christmas

EN-JOY CHRISTMAS
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
‘Trinity on Church’ Kitchener
Advent 3, December 17, 2017

Text: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Who and what gives you joy, and how? Holding your left hand quietly palm up, think about those ways that en-joyment flows into you filling heart and mind.  Again: to whom, in what situations and way, do you give en-joyment, and how? Holding your right hand palm down, think about those ways you release and share that gift of en-joyment with others.. We keep praying here, asking to be blessed, so that we in turn might bless God’s world. That includes a gift of joy.

The old dour Scots, my role models in the faith, had a way of describing the faith in question and answer form: the Westminster Confession. Knox, once his death sentence for heresy was lifted, imposed ‘catechism’ on every Scot, every Sunday afternoon.  For children, of ‘feebler minds’, a Shorter Catechism of only 107 questions and answers was prescribed.  In the old gender exclusive diction, the first question and answer ran like this, ever since the mid 1600’s:

Q: What is the chief aim of man?
A: The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever!

‘Enjoy’ in this old usage of the English language by the Scots, does not mean ‘please yourself’. ‘Enjoy’ means to give joy, or transmit it or make joyous as a transitive verb: give joy to God!  In turn, we practiced by giving joy to others, ‘en-joying’ them.  Today, we took time we wondered what that might look like.

Martin Luther King, in ‘Strength to Love’, draws the distinction between our excellence in what Jacques Ellul called ‘techné’, instrumental activity, and our moral confusion about what purposes are served so efficiently:

The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live.
Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power.
We have guided missiles, and misguided men.

If ‘en-joy’ means giving joy, it is less likely to be confused with self-medication, compulsive addictive behaviour, seeking novelty, and cheap thrills.  Endorphins don’t keep multiplying by frequent repetition, but taper off with habituation to any stimulus.  That’s how we are created, and evolved.  A consumer Christmas is deceptively close to en-joyment, and we spend thousands of dollars in every household in consumer goods and social recreational experiences.

Compare the thousands we spend on this consumption with the highly publicized charities of Christmas.  Every media outlet associates itself with a ‘campaign’ to make poor people’s Christmas less unlike our consumer holiday.  Many stores ask us at the till to add a $2 donation to a good cause.  We all shell out something – my partner was ringing a bell for the Salvation Army this week!

However, the CRA reports that 4 out of 5 income tax filers make no claim at all for charitable giving.  The median gift from the remaining 20%  (not the average, inflated by a few massive tax-planning donors) is $150 for the first tax bracket, and $250 for the next higher one.  Our charitable giving, en-joying God and the world, gets a big tax break – you all know that.  Do you teach others?

I’m not here to please you, to meet your consumer needs in religion, or to palliate you into death as a community of faith.  I’m here to equip the saints for your ministry, to proclaim a gospel worthy of your calling.  What ends do we serve?  Even the old technique of ‘comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable is too petty and instrumental. 

Cleophas J LaRue, Yale professor of preaching, is from East Texas, with the accent and the attitude of an evangelical Methodist or Baptist.  I’m a groupie.  Many of his students righteously say ‘I give my people what they need’, afflicting the comfortable.  LaRue says ‘I give my people what they want – that way they’re still there, when I give them what they need.’

We heard today from Isaiah 61, ‘Third Isaiah’.  Remember, the ‘First’ Isaiah lived through the decline and fall of Judah to Babylon, like Jeremiah, warning the leaders, in chapters 1-39 of our book.  Last week, we heard from ‘Second Isaiah’, a second generation, after a century in exile, moving from ‘told you so’ to ‘comfort my people’, the image of a ‘suffering servant’ vindicated in 40-55.  This is ‘Third Isaiah’, likely written even later:

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
 because the LORD has anointed me;
God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

That’s what Jesus will read, according to Luke, to sum up his own ministry. as fulfillment of traditional hopes.  It’s a good summary of en-joyment, isn’t it?  Ask the oppressed, the broken-hearted, the captives, the prisoners!  Recalling moments of joy, how many are relief from burdens, limits, and suffering?

Jubilee is a tradition from Leviticus 25.  What if every 50 years (7X7 plus 1), all land and capital of Israel (tribe by tribe, clan by clan) is redistributed, and we all get a fresh and equal start?  That’s good news for some whose kids have failed, and an obligation of others who succeeded to share.  The world church relied on this tradition to lobby early this century for debt relief to Africa.  Mennonite communities often resist loans with interest among themselves.  Imagine that!

If you’re having trouble imagining oppression or bondage – ask your deeply indebted neighbours, facing interest rate rises at long last in 2018, however small!  Ask a younger generation of millennials, suffering from our boomer preference to hold on to our generational gains without sharing.  Jubilee, redistributive justice to offer everybody a fresh start, is a provocative proposal.

The ‘day of the Lord’, or the day of vengeance, is even less familiar among us. Tradition tells us ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’.  It’s not your job to judge and impose punishment – leave it to God.  Ultimately, we may all rely upon mercy, and be glad we showed grace.  But what if one day God did deliver a measure of justice?  To whom would that be bad news?  Remember the old Marxist aphorism, behind every great fortune is a greater crime’.

In our zeal to be blameless, we destroy out kids.

That’s the Rev Dr Jack Shaver, my supervisor 35 years ago.  His 5 kids were grown up, and he was near retirement.  I was a kid, who wrote down his statement, but didn’t get it for years. Jack didn’t anticipate ‘helicopter parents’. He said we were already out of line in smothering kids.  Let them get their own credit and blame, grow up.  Raise them the same, they turn out different! Don’t let them blame their parents, or surrender credit to their ancestry, for the outcomes in their lives.  The perfect parent destroys her kids.

Barenaked Ladies, Stephen Page and Ed Robertson, sang it this way in 1992:

When I was born, they looked at me and said
What a good boy, what a smart boy, what a strong boy

And when you were born, they looked at you and said
What a good girl, what a smart girl, what a pretty girl

We've got these chains, hanging 'round our necks
People want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath

Afraid of change, afraid of staying the same
When temptation calls we just look away

Who and what gives you joy, and how? Holding your left hand quietly palm up, think about those ways that en-joyment flows into you filling heart and mind.  Again: to whom, in what situations and way, do you give en-joyment, and how? Holding your right hand palm down, think about those ways you release and share that gift of en-joyment with others.. We keep praying here, asking to be blessed, so that we in turn might bless God’s world. That includes a gift of joy.

Remember those moments of joy – go there – it’s like a United Church version of meditation.  New MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) brain science experiments confirm that our brains ‘light up’ in meditative states.  When you know en-joyment, you want to repeat it, for yourself and with others.  En-joy!

My guess it that your moments of joy are not limited to sex, self-medication, (numbing or stimulating).   You don’t just remember the ‘thrill of the kill’, but the ‘flow state’ of ‘stalking the spirit’.  The choir musicians were nodding – we recall the moment of the great performance, when it all came together, but we also know that ‘flow state’ of discipline and practice.  

Others of us, of my age and older, nodded at my recitation of Wordsworth’s “Ode. Intimations of Immortality”:

O joy! That in our embers
Is something that doth live,
That nature yet remembers
What was so fugitive!
The thought of our past years in me doth breed
Perpetual benediction.

So I wish you lots of en-joyment this Christmas.  I hope that you will be open to God’s gift, through others who en-joy you.  I know that you will recognize some opportunities to en-joy others.  If all you do is meditate a moment between the busy moments of indulgence and self-medication, that will be good too.

Q: What is the chief aim of man?
A: The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever!