Sending the Sacred

SENDING the SACRED
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Sunday, November 19, 2017  

Text: Jeremiah 29:1-14

Today was our last Sunday service at 74 Frederick, our site for 111 years.  Next Sunday, we gather at the doors, and parade to 54 Benton, ‘Trinity on Church’.  Many of us have long memories of important times in our lives, marked here.  There may have been more tears than laughter in worship today.

We did celebrate, relishing the old hymn tunes with the great organ swells.  When the choir ended a medley arrangement of hymns, a child cried ‘yay!’  ‘Festooning’ the choir in stoles, the people with ribbons, and the worship furniture and dishes with bright clothes marked with children’s handprints, lifted our mouths and spirits a bit.  It caught many be surprise, to be moved by this.

United Church people are not good at recognizing, naming and celebrating the sacred in church worship.  We do better at ‘rocks, trees, and water’ spirituality.  What – and who – has been made sacred in your worship space?  What – and who – has been transformed from the mundane to the sublime?   What – and who – has been consecrated and commissioned, blessed to be a blessing?

A young guy with a local start-up bought a Maserati, the most important thing in his life, a sign of what mattered to him, and he realized this was sacred.

Parking at St Mary’s in downtown Kitchener, he asked the priest ‘Father, will you bless my Maserati?’  The priest, being unworldly, with a vow of poverty, said ‘certainly – what’s a Maserati?’  The young man knew the priest didn’t get it. 

Driving out to the edge of town, by the Creekside which he knew from TV broadcasts, he asked the evangelist ‘Pastor, will you bless my Maserati?’  ‘Absolutely, just donate a tithe, 10% of the value of the car, and God will shower prosperity!’  The young man had no money left, after a down-payment.

Idling at a little United Church, he asked the young minister ‘Miss, will you bless my Maserati?’  ‘Sure!’ she said.  ‘Only…. What’s a blessing?’

What is sacred, blessed, and consecrated here, that we will send three blocks? We sang ‘The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord’, and ‘I am the church, you are the church’ and ‘The church is wherever God’s people are praising, helping, serving’, providing ‘ear worms’ to remember all week.   Jotting notes during the sermon, you offered people and things as ‘sending the sacred’.

We’re hearing from Jeremiah during this move.  We are not leaving slavery with Moses, or invading a new land with Joshua.  We might be living through a change of empires, and feeling some exile from the ‘good old days’.  Last week Jeremiah mourned the inevitable loss of the Temple and lamented.  Today, he sends a letter from Jerusalem to the first group of exiles in Babylon/Iraq.  

Jeremiah saw that conquest by Babylon, en route to plunder Egypt, as inevitable and advised not to fight back in futility.  The northern kingdom of Israel, weakened by abuse of power by the rich, was defeated in 750BCE by Assyria. Turks and Syrians were scary, but Iraqis even scarier, and he warned the elites.

The elite called that treason or sedition, and locked Jeremiah up.  The first Temple of David and Solomon had stood 500 years, as symbol of stable society and values.  But Jeremiah was right, and it was razed and the literate, top layer of elite exiled, to Babylon on the Euphrates, bookkeepers to the empire.  

Some in exile were proposing a prison camp escape, to return to Israel.  Others planned to take over Babylon and rule it as a New Jerusalem.  Jeremiah writes a letter from Jerusalem, saying ‘don’t listen to them, the radical pietists or the ambitious politicians.  Neither kind of fanaticism was called for by God.

Jeremiah advises the exiles in the first and second deportations, both refugee waves, the best and the brightest of the lost nation, to settle down in Babylon. Doesn’t that sound like our immigration policy, creaming the educated and economically useful for Canada, multiplying the trouble in their homelands?

But seek the welfare of the city
where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare
you will find your welfare.

The prophet does not commend revolt or revolution, but assimilation, or at least peaceful coexistence, with the empire of Babylon.   In due course, another generation will be freed by Persia/Iran, and return home after 500BCE to build a new temple doubling just before Jesus, only to be levelled in 70CE, after Jesus. 

Charles Manson is in hospital in his 80’s, serving life for telling his ‘family’ to kill those of ‘Babylon’ for their pornography.  David Koresh and Branch Davidians are ashes in Waco, after opposing ‘Babylon’ the ATF of the USA.  Both radicals have fans among the ‘alt-right’ variations on puritanical piety.  

The Moral Majority, ‘law and order’, ‘tough on crime’, ‘Tea Party’ politicians claim the religious right to rule the continent, no more faithful nor successful.  Our tradition, my tradition, Jeremiah’s tradition, resists blessing the empires, but also resists extremist attempts to arrive tomorrow in God’s reign instead. 

Jeremiah didn’t know that he’d be murdered in Egypt, or that a second temple would stand 500 years, or that Jesus was coming, and 2000 more years of no nation-state of Israel or Jerusalem Temple.  God knows what’s ahead for each of us, for our movement now in decline, seeking reinvention. God didn’t tell me.

‘Seek the welfare of the city…. for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’  What if we disappeared, not only from 74 Frederick, but from this city - would the city notice?  Would it be worse for it?  If we survived – would it matter, or make a difference? Would the city be the better for our presence?

Babylon changed Judaism.  The Hebrew bible took form there, for the scattered, ‘diaspora’ Jewish people outnumbering those in Palestine.  The Babylonian Talmud, the ‘oral Torah’, rabbinic synagogue Judaism, was invented there, not tied to either temple, or a Jewish nation-state.

‘Seek the welfare of the city.’  Not by revolution, violent opposition – holy war. Nor by posturing as ‘the conscience of nation’, converting the government.  Probably, Jeremiah meant ‘pray for them’, as Jesus told us in turn to ‘pray for your enemies’.  To ask what’s best for them is the key to what’s best for you.

Augustine did it in the 5th century CE, in Hippo, our Libya, as the Vandals besieged the city, and the Visigoths pillaged Rome.  He wrote about the City of God, in tension with the City of the World.  In turn, Maimonides did it in the 12th century CE, from Spain to Morocco to Egypt, living within Islamic empire. 

How might we transform the city of the world, to be more like an idealized City of God?  We would neither surrender Babylon to evil, nor claim too much for our own purity. Like Reinhold Niebuhr in his Christian realism in the last century, we would recognize that ‘our institutions do our sinning for us’ even in reform: 

There’s so much good in the worst of us
So much bad in the best of us
Its hard to know which of us
Should reform the rest of us

What lies ahead for each of us, and for Trinity as a congregation?  I don’t know, but I know that ‘Trinity on Church’ is just one step along the way.  ‘Sending the sacred’ to the new site is a first step, then ‘seek the welfare of the city’. 

I think I ended with a bit from Thomas Carlyle, very popular among our subculture in the late 1800’s, the early years of this congregation on its original high ground, to which we are returning next week.  Here’s a longer version of what he wrote in Sartor Resartus:

The Situation which has not its Duty, its Ideal,
was never occupied by man…

Fool! The Ideal is in thyself, 
the impediment too is in thyself,
Thy condition is but the stuff
thou art to shape that same Ideal out of,
What matters
 whether such stuff be of this sort or that,
so the Form thou give it be heroic, be poetic…

Do the Duty
which lies nearest thee,
Which thou knowest to be a Duty!
Thy second Duty
will already have become clearer….

What duty is proposed in Jeremiah today?

But seek the welfare of the city
where I have sent you into exile,
and pray to the LORD on its behalf,
for in its welfare you will find your welfare….

And what’s the promise repeated by Jeremiah?

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, 
plans for your welfare and not for harm, 
to give you a future with hope. 

12Then when you call upon me
and come and pray to me, 
I will hear you. 

13When you search for me, 
you will find me; 
if you seek me with all your heart, 
I will let you find me. 

Lamenting A Last Supper

LAMENTING A LAST SUPPER
Notes from www.billbrucewords.com
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Trinity UC Kitchener

Text: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Imagine the generations that have come before us, and those who will follow. On this last communion Sunday at 74 Frederick St, I recognize that buildings come and go, expanded and renovated, then levelled.  Ministers, too, come and go, and specific members of choir and congregation – but the people of God keep going, as we have done for millennia. 

Trinity are returning to high ground our Methodist congregation claimed 176 years ago, 3 blocks west. We will be tenants of a congregation to whom we sold another building 120 years ago. The last time we were ‘between buildings’ we worshiped in the Opera House for a couple of years. We’re moving, again!

Berlin was an agricultural market town, and homesteaders along the Grand River, recently appropriated by the Crown and denied to the first nations despite repeated promises during the American Revolution and War of 1812. My own refugee ancestor Bill Bruce homesteaded just upriver, as I told you last month.

Railways overlaid the rivers and roads of Queens Bush, and Berlin boomed. We made everything a farmer needed: boots and farm implements and furniture. We exported to the new western provinces through confederation of a new nation. The ‘Methodist Mafia’, centred in Toronto, thrived in those days.

Twentieth century industries developed into Bauer skates, Kaufman boots, Beatty appliances, Budd Automotive, Electrohome – and of course, munitions. Fortunately, late capitalism also brought us jobs in a booming insurance industry here, and post-industrial late century universities saved our bacon.

In the 21st century, there are 750,000 in the Waterloo-Wellington LIHN, and a third to a half of us were born outside Canada and are visible, racialized minorities. German is no longer the second language to English but Mandarin. RIM, Google, Shopify, and myriad start-ups dominate digital age Kitchener life.

Empires rise and fall. China’s ‘One Belt’ circles the world, as Trump’s vision narrows, and Free Trade yields to national and ‘Fair Trade’ agendas. The people of God, people of the book, Abrahamic faiths are thriving, with more than half of global Christians south of the equator. Does Trinity look like our world, as our Methodist forebears reflected agricultural and industrial times? No.

Our Methodist and United Church forebears increased social mobility, improved distribution of income and opportunity, widened universal access to health care, social service, and education.  We are the proud legacy of the ‘civic generation’ of the last mid-century. We, their barbarian narcissist offspring, observe increased income disparity, reductions in collective goods in favour of individual freedoms, and complain at our waning influence as ‘digital immigrants’, strangers in our own land.  We used to make stuff. Now, what is our legacy? 

Individually or collectively, we wonder why God lets bad stuff happen. Is some angry wrathful vengeful god punishing people? Self-centred and self-serving, we are blind and deaf to our complicity. Our ancestors found their place, as Methodist Mafia in the 19th century, and United Church civic leaders in the 20th. Perhaps God wonders why we in our time just whine about the bad stuff, instead of asking: ‘what side of the fence are you on and who’s there with you?’

What’s your God like? Is divinity a big, tough guy, masculine, scary, bearded? Guys are like that, in our subculture. We mostly seem angry, even when we are sad, or even glad. People who appear like that may fit assumptions that God punishes in order to teach. Worse, we privileged may do the same to the weaker one, even accept abuse from the stronger. That’s not my God.

What if your God wept at what folks make of their freedoms, at the bad choices we make, and at the consequences that follow, individually, and collectively? What if God rues our ways, our end of our relationships with each other and with what is holy, and wishes we’d just try to be less bad, not to merit better consequences, but to ask and offer the cutting of some slack? That’s my God.

That’s how I read the prophet Jeremiah this morning. As boom times changed to bust, as political games of elites playing fast and loose with alliances with Egypt and Assyria in turn, along came the Babylonians, and death, destruction and exile to those who had been so proud. Jeremiah dreamed of what God intended, and what God hoped, and realized that God did not rage in punishing wrath, but that God wept at the consequences.

Let’s re-view a wider vision of the roots of our religious tradition, over millennia. More than 3000 years ago, a movement of some ‘hapiru’, refugees in the eastern Mediterranean and Nile Delta, were on the move. Another movement came from the Tigris-Euphrates (our Iran/Iraq) to Asia Minor (our Turkey/Syria). We tell a story of Abram and Sarai, told by God ‘lech lecha’, ‘get up and go’.

Later in that 3rd millennium BCE (before common era), another wave of nomads and agriculturalists wash or seep into that same holy land from the deserts to the south, and some east, to mix with the nations already in the land, in conflict, integration and assimilation. We tell a story of Moses and Miriam, ‘let me people go’ from bondage in Egypt, into a full generation of wandering as displaced people in the desert.

Finally, 1,000 years before Jesus, David and Solomon cobble together a united monarchy of 12 tribes, Israel in the north, Judah in the south, centred in Jerusalem with a first temple there competing with northern shrines in the frontier where David started as a guerrilla. Rags to riches to rags in three generations, the nation split in two, and by 750, the Assyrians rule the north.

When Jeremiah the prophet comes from his farm near Bethlehem to the city, Jerusalem, he doesn’t know he’s halfway between those origin stories and the crisis times of Jesus. He just knows that up north in Israel, with Ahab and Jezebel, the rich got richer and pretended to be global players, and got crushed between Assyria and Egypt. He sees the next wave coming from Babylon, already conquering Assyria and cruising down the seacoast to rich Egypt.

Jeremiah warns the elite in Jerusalem, and encourages those who try reform. He says the tides of Babylonian empire are too big, and Jerusalem and Judah too weak for a fair fight. He tells them to let Egypt and Babylon war, and accept the fallout at home. They mock him, lock him up, and ignore him.

We know how the story ends. Babylon beats Egypt, levels the temple in Jerusalem, and exiles the literate elite to the mid-Euphrates (Iraq) leaving the ‘people in the land’ who will be Samaritans by Jesus’ time. Jeremiah is left in Jerusalem, as a political prisoner, then moved to Egypt who liked his words, just as the exiles had found them seditious. He gets murdered in Egypt anyhow.

The exiles will rewrite their religion in exile, and come back under Persia (Iran) rule to build a second temple starting around 500 BCE, desecrated under Greek rule, and expanded under Roman rule before Jesus comes along. The second temple in turn gets levelled in a revolt a generation after Jesus. Jeremiah does not know that – just as we don’t know our future. What’s his legacy, and ours?

Jeremiah’s God wept at the decline and fall of Judah and Jerusalem, and at the exile to Babylon. The legacy of generations that came before inspired pride, making many things less bad, or better. Weep for those good things being lost. The legacy of the privileged who would not listen to Jeremiah, to reform to avoid the predictable preventable fall like Israel to Assyria before them? Shame.

Our God does not punish in wrath. However, our God is not the liberal fool trying to give us self-esteem by protecting us from consequences and affirming our bad choices, nor a helicopter parent hovering to protect us from any harm. We get to manage our end of relationships with what is holy, and with each other. We live and learn. As a result, God weeps a lot. Jeremiah voices it.

We were lamenting today at a last supper. The church supper the night before was more fun, with more people attending, and bigger portions of food than communion today.  The point is not always fun. People say they want a funeral to be a ‘celebration of life’, but if you loved one you lose, you weep in pride for all that’s good in what they shared with you. You weep in shame and regret for what you didn’t think, or say, or do, when it was possible.

This is not a maudlin indulgence and refusal to celebrate, this ‘last supper’, this memorial meal expression of the sacrament. This is a sober second thought, preparing us for the next chapter, where we may better recognize the predictable preventable pains, and suffer them together with mutual care.

When a couple comes for a wedding, I do say they don’t know what’s coming. God knows, and isn’t telling me. If they knew it all, they would never wed. Instead, we face it a day at a time, with enough for the day. So with the next years of Trinity: we’re in the middle of this story, not at the end, nor perhaps even the end of the beginning. God knows, and isn’t telling me. 

Life is not a problem to be fixed. God knows we have enough managerial skill at Trinity, and reports since 1978, now posted on our website, offer solutions that we did not apply. In the inexorable passing of an industrial age, the rise and fall of empires, our people of God are not in charge. What is our legacy, in making life better, proudly, or in resisting our loss of privilege, shamefully?

Life is a mystery to be suffered and celebrated with passion and compassion.  That includes taking time to lament, but not to wallow. We recognize the legacy that we are given, lamenting our losses with pride and regret – so that we can get on with creating our own legacy in our turn, with more pride, and less regret for the part we played in this community.

So we came to the table, for our last supper at 74 Frederick, surrounded by a host of witnesses. We remembered other ‘last supper’ moments, in Egypt at Passover before Exodus, in an Upper Room before Good Friday and Easter – and with Jeremiah, before the Babylonian conquest and exile. May God equip us to build upon their legacy of passion and compassion, to re-present the people of God in our time and place. 

God of Jeremiah
Who loves us through good times and bad
Who remains ours in boom and bust
Whose relationship is one of tears and laughter
Remind us once more who we are, and whose we are
What you have entrusted to us, and what we have made of it

Then assure us once more
Of your grace and favour toward us, 
of your mercy and forbearance
That you do not rage and threaten,
 but weep and mourn, with us and for us,
in the face of all our choices
Individually, each of us, 
and collectively, all of us.

Lord, you know we’ve been reaping – 
more than we planted, more than we earned,
In fields our elders prepared for us, 
filling storehouses our children will need
These have been boom times,
 and yet we can already feel the fear of fall:

“The harvest is past,
The summer is ended,
And we are not saved”

Lord, you know how we’ve been sharing
What we’ve hoarded in fear, 
whom we’ve rejected in terror
How we’ve claimed our anger
as if it were yours
In the face of others’ needs, 
even in our good times, 
let alone in our hard times
God, forgive us – 
and teach us to forgive others

Assure us that you are not mad – 
but remind us that you are not glad
Show us that you are sad
in the face of our choices
and of their consequences
Not the wrath of God, 
but surely, the balm in Gilead…

We’re waiting on you now.. 
give us ears to hear
Amen


Prophet: Jeremiah 8:18-22

18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
  my heart is sick.

19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
  from far and wide in the land:

‘Is the LORD not in Zion?
  Is her King not in her?’

(‘Why have they provoked me to anger
with their images,
          with their foreign idols?’)

20 ‘The harvest is past,
the summer is ended,
          and we are not saved.’

21 For the hurt of my poor people
I am hurt,

  I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me.

22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
          Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people
          not been restored?

*O that my head were a spring of water,
  and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night
  for the slain of my poor people!


Poetic paraphrase…
The World, The Wound of God
Daniel Berrigan

Jeremiah:
sorrow beyond healing,
heart faint within me.
hear it, an exile’s cry:
abandoned I am, my God
far, far as clouds that brood
anarchic, unmoored
in a blameless sky!

Ring-around, season and season
in sweet ordaining;
planting, scything, sheathing,
harvests abundant.

Our portion – famine.
nettles, grubs, wasting hungers.
is there in Gilead
no balm?
What of our wounds, where
in the world, that
wounded Healer?

 

Taboo on Halloween

We worried a bit when the new guy proposed a memorial service, just a week before Remembrance, and our last month in our 175-year-old location and building.  Would it be maudlin, or hurtful to sensitive people?  What about children, getting bad dreams – isn’t Halloween dangerous enough, and banned in many schools these days?

Some had joined 200 people Saturday, for a wedding of Vi and John, 2 people in their 80’s:  ‘just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace’!  Later this Sunday, another dozen of us celebrated the life, and mourned the death, of Lorna, who very nearly reached age 95.   We seniors remember death daily – and yet we live!

I live next to the bells of St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, and hear the bells every hour, as I wake, as I end my day, and as worship services begin.  Like John Donne from his sickbed in 1623, though without his gender exclusive language, I wonder what individual person, or community, is marked and announced, invited and called, by those bells:

No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know
for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.

Many of us learned this as young people, removed from its context in Meditation XVII in a book of Devotions written by the dean, or designated preacher, of St Paul’s church London in 1623.  I have printed the whole meditation at the end of this post, and encourage you to read it through, as a more mature person – and to read the whole book, in light of your experience of life, and of death.

Death is a taboo topic in our culture, and in our church.  Not long ago, sex was taboo in a similar way: we didn’t talk about it, and were sure that our parents had no experience of it.  We broke the sex taboo, at some significant price, for some significant benefit.  Perhaps it is time to do the same with death.  It turns out, like sex, to be a universal human experience, even for our parents. 

Today, we were invited to come light candles, during the opening and closing hymns in worship.  Those tea-lights became symbols of our bereavements, each one re-presenting a life we have lost, which we celebrate and mourn.   As we learned at a retreat yesterday, led by Betty Pries, there is an intention in each person lighting a candle, an act, and a meaning received.  It helps if you ask a person who lit a candle, who they lost, and better, to tell you more about it.

We tend to tell our stories of living and dying as a set of problems to be solved, not as mysteries to be suffered and shared.  We problematize, pathologize, catastrophize, as if each brush with death ends all.  The coward dies a thousand deaths, and our cowardly cultural taboo about death condemns many to live with anxiety and depression in response to imminent, unspeakable risks.

Torah does not share our cultural taboo.  The whole of Genesis is built on toledot, the ‘begatitudes’ or generations of summarized lives and deaths.    The next book, Exodus, takes 32 chapters to tell the story of Moses, then recounts his death with a matter-of fact recital: then he died, was buried, but nobody knows exactly where.  Sure, he is lionized as a hero, but not as a superhero, or an immortal.  He died in the desert, without reaching the Promised Land, just as every person who left Egypt died in the wilderness, short of the goal.

Deuteronomy will put words in Moses’ mouth about what he saw from the top of Mount Pisgah, overlooking the Promised Land, seeing beyond the Jordan River that he had not crossed.    Martin Luther King Jr. will preach on that speech, ‘I Have a Dream’ – but even that martyr dies without reaching his goal.  We are surrounded by a host of witnesses.  I have a list of over 3000 members of Trinity who worshipped in this place, and I know many thousands more were visitors in this building, soon to be demolished.  They leave us a legacy.

Too often, we think of ‘legacy’ in financial terms, particular at Trinity where we provide excellent care for Legacy I and soon, Legacy II, funds.  The terms means more, though it is inextricable from mortality, death, and succession.   What are you proud of, and what brings you shame, from our heritage?  We’ve borne some blame  and begun to acknowledge out regret about ‘good old days’  not equally shared, and we carry justifiable pride about what we have shared.  

As you remember today, and honour and hallow those for whom we lit candles, who and what are you celebrating?  Re-present them, with show-and-tell time, so that others know the intentions you bring in prayers of mourning.  As you remember, what are your regrets, provoked by those we remember?  What did we say, or not say?  What did we do, or not do?  How can we repent, or change in our own time and generation, so that their legacy makes a difference to us?

We tend to tell the stories of our living and dying as problems to be solve, and some of you leapt on my references to celebration and mourning specifics with concrete suggestions.  If life is ‘nasty, brutish, short, and then you die, we wish we could do something to relieve the pain.  But we do well to simply sit with it, as the candle burns, celebrating lives, and mourning deaths. 

We don’t understand a Jesus who does not share our cultural taboo, or out compulsive need to fix everything.  We don’t understand when the gospel says that death is not the end, this crisis is not the centre of the universe, but an opportunity to look through and beyond to the glory of God. We can’t believe
that there is something bigger and greater than today’s crisis. John Donne did.

So, according to the gospel of John, Jesus won’t drop everything  and run away like the Roadrunner, when he heard news of Lazarus dying.  Instead, he spends another 2 days beyond the Jordan, where John was baptized, in the wilderness,
before he sets out for the West Bank – into the mess and murderous threats - from sanctuary into crucible. 

By the time Jesus gets to Bethany, Lazarus has been dead 4 days.  He was in a grave beginning to decompose, in the cultural practice of the time, ‘purification by putrefaction’ as Crossan called it, till the flesh fell off the bones, and the remains could be fit into an ossuary.  

Martha comes to greet Jesus, and says: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.  But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.’  After all, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were close friends of Jesus, and Jesus would not let his real friends suffer, would he?  I have a T-shirt in my office from one of our kids: ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favourite’.

We all recognize Martha’s voice, in variations of our own, and others we have heard.  Jesus assures her, ‘Your brother will rise again’, and she offers a conventional, ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’  Sure, sure, in the sweet hereafter, pie in the sky when we die style heaven.

Pollsters tell us 95% of Canadians ‘believe in God’, and almost as many, believe in heaven and life after death. The remaining minority are mostly members of the United Church. Even more pray regularly, except for UCC clergy.  Lots of us belong to that majority, and like to hear the choir sing about it, if we don’t have to say it out loud or defend it to our peers.  It is reassuring to conclude that someday, after death, somewhere, call it heaven, we’ll meet all whom we lost.
 
Jesus is quoted here in very different terms. ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’  That is an affirmation about us, here, now.  It’s now a vague assurance about them, there, then.  It ends, even worse, with a challenge: are you onside?  Trust me!

I did say on Sunday – it’s on the digital audio recording posted by Trinity – I do not think Jesus said this, or any of the ‘I am’ statements in the Fourth Gospel.  The ‘I am’ statements make sense to me as restatements of a community of believers, closer to the end of the first century, as a corrective to the postponing tendencies of the more popular form: ‘the kingdom of heaven will be like this’. 

We’re with Martha: ‘I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day’, since the kingdom of heaven is going to be like that – with Lazarus in it.  Safely postponed and relocated, it’s an easy affirmation.   Life after death, immortality in heaven is fine.  Does that give mortal life here ultimate meaning, the mundane touching the sublime, a present time with ultimate consequences?  

“‘I am the resurrection and the life.”   If you believe that, there is continuity  between this life and the next: death is less final, crises have different context, and we might have life now that matters. Taking that further, sharing an “I am” perspective in and among our community, may construe ‘here, now, with us’ as ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’ , in which living and believing steamrollers right through death.  Do you believe this? Could you trust that? Act as if it were so?

Martha says ‘yes’ to Jesus, just as the choir anthem sang today.  She buys in, naming him Messiah, Son of God, the one coming into the world. This only makes sense as a present tense affirmation of Jesus, there and then with her, retold by a community making the same claim for themselves.  This only makes sense as a denial of alternatives: that Jesus confirmed the ‘happily ever after, 
or might one day prove to be the predicted sweet bye’n’bye.  Which one prepares us to suffer bread for today, hoping for pie in the sky when we die.

Can we say yes to that: God is here, now, with us?  Look at the tea-lights. Yes.

John Donne
Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions
MEDITATION XVII.
NUNC LENTO SONITU DICUNT, MORIERIS.
Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die

PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness. 

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world? 

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
 
Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security. 
 

Peace-Making Authority

Texts: Isaiah 45, Matthew 22

Our denomination recognizes Peace Sunday, each year a few weeks before Remembrance Day.  For most of us raised in the last century, ‘peace’ was what followed great wars after our fathers won, the absence of armed conflict.  Later in the century, we prided ourselves on the blue helmets of United Nations peace-keepers, through Pearson a largely Canadian wrinkle in that status quo.

This century has faced a new wave of armed conflict, the terrorist violence less amenable to conventional warfare or peace-keeping.  It’s less a narrative of command-and-control by good guy nations against rogue tyrannies, than of preemptive intervention by ‘special forces’, and ‘homeland security’.  Recent posturing by Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump were unfamiliar throwbacks.

We will celebrate our heroes and sacrifices in a couple of weeks. We do it well.  However, my heroes of the 20th century also include some contrarians:

 

  • Ernie Best, conscientious objector in the 1940’s teaching children in Japanese internment camps in BC, before returning to teach Hebrew prophets to a generation of UCC pastors, then at Princeton
  • George Grant, grandson of the founder of Queen’s in Kingston, Rhodes Scholar in 1939 and conscientious objector serving through the Blitz in London driving ambulances, before teaching universities here for decades
  • James Endicott, UCC overseas mission staff in China, arguing that Mao Zedong’s communism might be an expression of love and justice worth Canadian respect – the UCC threw him out, then apologized 50 years later
  • Marion Best, lay woman moderator of the UCC steering us through the hot conflicts of the late 1980’s about sexual orientation, lifestyles and ministry, then defending our choice, ahead of its time, to heated opponents

In our time, and in our congregation’s transition ministry time, we do well to reflect on peacemaking other than vanquishing tyrants by force, and consider the more complex arts of influence, of making a difference, even when vindication is much deferred and delayed.  I suggested that the legacy of mothers might offer clues to this kind of peace-making authority.  Who taught you to choose between “A or B”, and beyond, to ‘neither’, ‘both’, and ‘C’?

How?

Sure, I awkwardly tried this on in the ‘Big Idea’ time.  My mother would present us choices between ‘bath then tooth brushing, or tooth brushing then bath’, or between ‘beans or peas’, or ‘apple or banana with lunch’.  We did mature to resistance:  ‘neither’, ‘both’, or ‘TV, carrots, cookies’.  She raised two lawyers, two teachers, and a preacher, all preferring negotiation as a conflict style. 

My next attempt this morning to introduce the theme was by pointing out my robes, this week a Geneva gown, academic hood, clergy collar and tabs.  That was normal garb at Trinity on Frederick, and many UCC pulpits, through the middle of the 20th century.  The outfit, not coincidentally, looked a lot like what lawyers wore across the street, or academics at convocations. 

We can thank Calvin and Knox for this dress, signaling the importance of reason and education in resolving disputes, with both church and state expected to obey the word of God.  Methodists, 200 years later, subverted the Puritan garb, as the rich got richer and dressed fancier, and we went with black, and backwards collars.  My hood of pink silk and white fur is legitimate, but as wry.

 Our subculture respected reason, and a learned clergy – but did not confuse academic credentials with education.  We were a big literacy movement, lifting up local lay preachers, and ordaining many without university degrees.  We are ‘non-conformists’ in British terms, familiar with the importance of adversarial (not antagonistic) pursuit of truth and justice.  How will face a ‘post-truth’ age?

Media tell us that we live in a post-truth age, of binary polarized choices being proposed by passionate demagogues regardless of facts, and accepted by devoted followers in mutual isolation, regardless of evidence.  Faced with ultimatums to choose ‘A or B’, I find myself assuming my childhood postures: hands on hips ‘neither’, cruciform extended hands ‘both’, or pointing to ‘C’.

There are many things about which reasonable and faithful people may differ. The solution is not just to avoid conflict, to murmur ‘peace, peace’, when there is no peace.  We have adopted in recent decades a ‘gospel of nice’.  ‘If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.’ Silence follows. We acquiesce to what is said in a room, though friends outside would be hurt to hear it.

We think ‘eirenic’ is the only true spirituality, the only way of being that is godly.  (The word comes from the Greek word for peace.)  We resist militant religious extremists who don’t seem placid and serene.  But the Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’, meaning a fullness and balance of competing elements to coexist as God intended and as God promised, not simply blessed as current status quo.

Our tradition includes a feistier spirituality, a militant (not violent), activist one of turning to God more humbly, not simply ‘calling in airstrikes’ from God, telling her what to do.  We confess that we don’t comprehend it all, and learn to be receptive to what God is showing and telling us, often through others – even surprising others who are our opponents.  We listen, and change each others’ minds and hearts through reason, experience, tradition, and scripture. 

‘Getting to Yes’ was a popular 1981 book from the Harvard Negotiation Program, by Roger Fisher and William Ury.  They taught ‘principled negotiation’ and dispute resolution to a wide range of pro’s, from family mediators to labour negotiators to international relations diplomats.   They encouraged naming of interests, not positions, and objective criteria, openly shared information, if not open strategy and tactics. There is a price to ‘yes’ – and to ‘not yet yes’.

William Ury wrote a sequel to ‘Getting to Yes’, in 1999: ‘Getting to Peace’.  Renamed as ‘The Third Side’ in 2000, the book lays out three phases of responses to conflicts that present themselves as binary, polarizing conflicts:  prevent, resolve, and contain.  In turn, he breaks out ten problems, and ten related roles that can be assumed beyond being a partisan or advocate for one or the other of the two opposing sides in a zero-sum win-lose binary conflict. 

Today I promised to append them to these online notes (see the end, below).  Does any of this sound like women you know, making sense of the world, taking on roles in the world, and ‘speaking truth to power’ amidst conflicts? It does to me, and it offers a way into hearing today’s scriptures again, as if for the first time.  I managed to stop speaking after 15 minutes this week, instead of 20, but it did require leaving a lot of details to you, and to the footnotes!

Isaiah 45 comes from the second generation of the voice we call Isaiah.  Just as second and fifth generation Methodists may call their kids ‘Wesley’, or ‘Calvin’, so those living in exile echoed a pre-exile prophet.  Isaiah warned Jerusalem and Judah before the Babylonians exiled their elite to our Iraq.  The children in those camps on the Euphrates continued his spirit, his ‘voice’.

‘Second Isaiah’, in chapter 45, points to Cyrus, the rising ruler of the Persia we call Iran.  The prophetic voice says that Cyrus is God’s Messiah, even though Cyrus doesn’t know Yahweh or believe Torah.  God, over all, can use Cyrus to beat the current tyranny, Babylon, and that’s good news for Israel and Judah! 

The idea is not to join either empire’s armies, but to wait and watch for change.  It’s a bit like being a CO in 1939, respecting Mao in the 1940’s, affirming gay Christians in the 1980’s, or embracing AIDS sufferers in those early days.

The gospel reading today appears to be about paying taxes.  An unpopular government was raising taxes, partly to pay for the massive expansions to the Second Temple in Herod’s rule, just before Jesus, and partly to pay Romans a tribute and the costs of their occupation of Palestine.  Matthew’s editor, 40 years later, is the ‘big tent’ Christian, the ‘spin-doctor’ trying to ease fears that we were a radical revolutionary sect. Opponents try to bait Jesus, and Matthew.

Pharisees, and Herodians, partisans of the establishment in the Temple and in the growing public sector, disingenuously ask Jesus if he pays the temple tax.  It’s a simple choice, ‘A or B’.  Do you support the occupiers, or resistance?  Jesus, in my reading today, declines to answer ‘A’ or ‘B’.  He asks to see the coin, and says ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s’.  Whether that means ‘neither’, ‘both’, or ‘C’, it disrupts the binary polarization.

Today, I wore the garb of our Reformed tradition, tied to Enlightenment and the increased authority of reason rather than tradition or the fiat of leadership.  It was a Scot, David Hume, who wrote that ‘reason is and ought only to be a slave to the passions’, and appealed to empirical proofs in moral discourse, while acknowledging the limits of the role of reason.

In our post-truth times, it is American business ethicist Jonathan Haidt who popularized the image of a person riding an elephant, to visualize the role of reason claiming to control passions.  However, I’ve enjoyed the rejoinder from Canadian ethicist Joseph Heath who suggests that the rider get off the elephant, change the environment and context, then remount the elephant which will respond differently than before!

Why did I waste your time, on this second Sunday of preaching of a very few months of transitional ministry, with this complex discourse about ‘peace-making authority’?  I hope that you’ll remember the repeated shorthand as we continue to make choices as ‘Trinity on Church’ this year. ‘A or B’? Faced with polarizing binary choices quickly shaped as ‘us or them’, I hope we remember:  hands on hips with Liam say ‘neither’.  Hands outstretched, reaching out and holding on to friends of ours who may not be friends to each other, say ‘both’.  Finger pointing to a lateral thinking third way, or a compromise, say ‘C’.

Trinity has been blessed for decades with good planning reports, which presented choices, which were deferred, or changed, or chosen.  I hope you can tell me why and how we chose each time.   As I conceded, who wants the right answer to the wrong question?  Sometimes, it’s better to be kind than to be right.  Often, it’s not yet time to choose, but to hold on in a Christian, cruciform position, to our friends as long as we can, till ‘C’ appears.

As the old Harry Emerson Fosdick hymn sings it: ‘Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour’.

Here are Ury’s ten tactics, within 3 strategies, offering a way to think about our roles as peace-makers, reminding us of what our mothers taught us and showed us:

 

Prevent the Conditions for Conflicts

1.
Frustrated needs?
Be the Provider:
‘What’s needed here?’

2.
Poor skills?
Be the Teacher:
‘Here’s another way’

3.
Weak relationships?
Be the Bridge Builder:
‘‘I’d like to introduce you to…

Resolve the Heat of Conflicts

4.
Conflicting interests?
Be the Mediator:
‘Let’s work it out’

5.
Disputed rights?
Be the Arbiter:
‘What’s fair here is…’

6.
Unequal power?
Be the Equalizer:
‘Let’s level the playing field’

7.
Injured relationships?
Be the Healer:
‘Let’s make amends’

Contain the Consequences of Conflicts

8.
No attention?
Be the Witness:
‘Hey! Look what they are doing!’

9.
No limitation?
Be the Referee:
‘No knives! No guns!’

10.
No protection?
Be the Peacekeeper:
‘OK! Break it up!’

What word do you have for our hearts, O God?
What are you showing us, and telling us?
Open our eyes to see, our ears to hear, our hearts to feel –
Your presence and your purpose here…
Amen