Texts: Exodus 32:1-14,
It was presumptuous to open the service by saying ‘Welcome!’ Some of you were coming to Trinity before I was born! It was a reminder that we are all hosts, and we are all guests, here and everywhere. Is God always host? What if she were guest here, the woman by the back door nobody knows? Six weeks from now, we will be ‘Trinity on Church’, out of this building, guests in another.
It was presumptuous to open the service by echoing Tina’s words of last week:
‘We gather on the traditional territories of the Haudenesaunee, Anishanawbe and Neutral Peoples. May we live with respect on this land, and live in peace and harmony with its people.’ Who’s this old white guy, talking to people who look just like him, to say that? I’m ‘a person of unclean lips’, not a holy scolder.
Immediately I put my foot in it, ad-libbing that if you think the committee that hired me was imprudent, you could blame them. But I said ‘lynch’ them, and some of you didn’t hear another word from me. Making light of racial crimes is like finding humour in domestic violence. ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’ is a recent book from African-American theologian James Cone. I apologize.
I’m Bill, the new guy. You called – I came. You need a minister. I need a job.
Is that divine providence? Is that human prudence? I hope so – and you do too! As we prayed with the children, “Thank God. No, really, thank God! Because we’re blessed, and we’re grateful. Graceful for Grace, when we get more rewards than we deserve. Grateful for Mercy, when we get less bad consequences than we deserve. So we thank God for Grace and Mercy.”
I’m now the Transition Minister at Trinity. I promise not to stay too long. Neither try to keep me, nor to get rid of me – I’m a temp. Focus on what to conserve among Trinity and rediscover around Trinity. 20 weeks ago, Rev Tiina gave notice she was leaving, and 6 weeks ago, you said goodbye to her. 20 weeks ago, you voted to sell this building, and 6 weeks from now, we leave here and pitch our tent on Church St, guests of St Matthew’s Lutheran.
Tell me about Trinity: our place, our people, our purpose, our contribution to mending the world so far. ‘Mending the World’ was a UCC report late last century, quoting a Hasidic saying: “When God gets up in the morning, the Holy One says ‘where does my world need mending today – and who can help?’” Where does Trinity fit in that frame? What did you help mend? What’s next?
Last night I had supper here, celebrating 2 years in Canada for a Syrian refugee family, with a few of you who know them well. I may be new here, but my Bruce ancestors homesteaded nearby, near the Conestogo River, north of Wallenstein. My ancestors, evicted from Scotland onto plantations in Ulster in the 1700’s, came here to escape the Irish Potato Famine. Who gets to tell whom ‘Go back where you came from’? Not me.
We got ‘Crown Patents’ in the ‘Queen’s Bush’, on land promised to Six Nations, earlier residents of territories stretching far south, for their alliance in the face of the American Revolution. The Queen was reneging on promises to 6 Nations, made to secure allies vs US. The promises were renewed in the face of the American Civil War, Tecumseh’s diplomacy finding alliances south to Florida. John A. McDonald’s confederation project again reneged on royal promises.
My settler family were not smug imperialists set on oppressing everybody else. They were ‘Ulster Scots’, displaced people for over 2 centuries. They found in Peel Township that a majority of their neighbours were black, escaped slaves from the south. They marked their land titles and census forms with an ‘X’, illiterate to start, but told officials we were Wesleyan Methodists, baptized a son ‘William Milton Bruce’, to send him to the new public schools of Egerton Ryerson.
When we gather, we are not just a club changing clubhouse and staff. 20 weeks ago, the Reformed Churches signed on to an earlier accord between the Roman Catholic and Lutheran movements, agreeing about the essentials of ‘justification’. After 500 years of shunning and killing each other with slogans about ‘faith, grace, and works’, that’s big news! Did you notice a lot of press?
We don’t just gather as a religious club, but as partners with anybody willing to help mend the world. 20 weeks ago, the United Nations passes a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. Where was Canada? We took the day off, and did not vote. Will Canada approve and ratify the treaty? No. Last week ICAN, an abolition group, got a Nobel Prize. The World Council of Churches praise them. We used to be active about this as a church. The threat didn’t go away.
We are colonial and postcolonial Christians. Our lives span industrial, post-industrial, technological eras. Most of us in the room today were ‘digital immigrants’, born over 40 years ago. We didn’t have to move – our ‘old world’ left us, and we got a new one, digitalized, with smarter-than-me phones for every person. Remember, all who set out from Egypt with Moses died before entering the Promised Land. So will we. But as Thomas Berrigan, the American Jesuit, famous for Vietnam protests, who kept teaching till he died in 2016, wrote:
The real effort, really never done with,
is to discern what Christ is saying to us
from within the real world…
All else is a mortician’s job, or a child’s game.
The story today from Exodus 32 is an interruption to the story of Mount Sinai and the Torah. Moses stays up the mountain too long, and the people complain to Aaron, the Transition Minister, the temp, the substitute pastor, ‘Give us a new focal point, eh?’ Kirker and Ambrose have been gone too long. Sure, there was the parted sea, pillars of cloud and fire, manna and quails, but as Dave said at the Investment Committee, ‘what has he done for us lately’?
People always want a relevant, effective religion, the power of positive thinking. We covet big growth, like Creekside, or Joel Osteen on TV. Give me something to work with, they tell the minister. So Aaron asks for their jewelry, and melts it together to make a beautiful gold statue of a calf to shine up their worship life.
We hear today that it made God made angry. These people are ungrateful and impatient, after all God did for them! God proposes to wipe them out, and start again with just Moses, despite the rainbow promise to Noah. Moses cajoles God, pointing our the public relations nightmare when other nations say God played Israel like a cat with a mouse, letting them escape, but not all the way.
The Torah editors in Babylon, living as a minority in a sophisticatedmulticultural world, knew there was more than their one religious option. They were no more imperialist than my Methodist settler ancestors, but they knew the goyim watched, to see how Israel’s religion worked out. William James lectured in 1902, at the end of the Gilded Age and high Victorian Empire. With Durkheim and Troeltsch, he opened the fields of psychology and sociology of religion to popular culture. What if religion is all about opinion and belief, rather than blind loyalty to absolute unquestionable unitary truth?
A century later, at the turn of this century, Canadian Charles Taylor was invited to deliver the same Gifford Lectures. He called his ‘Varieties of Religion Today’. Taylor says our religion is ‘post-Durkheimian’, since nobody can live now without knowledge of the existence of alternative religious truth, cultures or behaviours. The day of religious hegemony over a submissive ignorant people is past. Taylor is a Montrealer in retirement, on Quebec commission on Accommodation.
Is our vision, mission, big enough? Is our place in it modest enough to share?
Cautionary stories like the golden calf remind us of a bigger picture, when our vision is framed too small. God gave the people of Israel a promise, and a mission to show the nations what it would look like to have a deal with God. Is your sense of ‘my call’ and ‘our call’ framed right yet? Is our response to providence prudent? Who called? Who came?
The story today from Matthew, our lectionary gospel for the past year, is a ‘show-and-tell’ gospel, with 5 big discourses of teaching, sandwiched with action sections. You know the first discourse, ‘Sermon on the Mount’, and how it uses ‘kingdom of God’ to talk about what would it be like of God were in power, instead of Caesar. Most of us spiritualize that into ‘heaven’, somewhere after death, above the clouds, in our minds, or somewhere similarly safely distant.
Imagine this: a wedding. A big wedding. I came back to Kitchener for my nephew’s wedding a month ago, and met your committee after. You get an invitation, you plan to go, or at least send a gift, in our subculture. As our children and grandchildren marry into other subcultures, we get closer to the biblical story. Think of a potlatch, giving everything away, yet, building bonds of mutual or patronage obligations. Fellowship Club heard of a South Asian family wedding attended by 50,000 guests. Small towns all come out to cheer.
In the Big Idea time with the children, we talked about being invited to play, or eat, or sleepover at somebody else’s house. We mentioned being invited to join a game at recess or lunchtime, or just to be a friend. We acknowledged that even if one calls, the other may not come. Invitation is powerful, and so is refusal and rejection. Ungrateful acceptance may be worse. The children knew about somebody checking their phone to see if a more interesting person calls.
I cannot come, I cannot come to the banquet, don’t trouble me now.
I have married a wife, I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments, that cost a pretty sum,
Pray hold me excused, I cannot come.
In this version of the story, the king invites everybody, but when the time comes, they are too busy to come, citing family and business concerns. The king sends out for anybody to help eat the feast, and fills the room. One such guest is badly dressed, ungrateful again, and the king kicks him out, angry.
In the mouth of Jesus, what would such a story mean? It’s a mashal, a parable, a thing that sets cognitive dissonance, not an allegory or a fable with a moral! Sometimes, it’s true, particularly in Matthew’s versions, Jesus then tells a few people a second version of the story as an allegory – but not here. I claimed that this story, in Jesus’ mouth, is about ‘you call, I come’. It’s about attitude, coming with bells on, ready to play, ‘let the games begin’!
In the hands of Matthew’s community, in Syria 40 years after Jesus’ death, why did this story, of many, make the cut to be included here, in this form? I claim that there were other Jewish synagogues in town with Matthew’s, and they didn’t agree on interpreting Torah. Matthew’s community is accusing the others of having too-small gods, penultimate priorities, losing track of the big promise. Matthew is pitching a ‘big tent’ Christianity. Come – but not half-heartedly!
2000 years of Christian history of interpretation is sad here. People applied their assumptions that ‘The Jews killed Jesus, God replaced the old bad religion with a good new and improved Christian one, and all should join us’. That had genocidal consequences – and twisted our religion to fear being replaced in turn by Islam or Bahai, or at least improved by Joseph Smith’s Mormon faith.
What if the reign of God, asan alternative to the reign of the ‘powers that be’, were like a wedding, a feast, a party. Lots are invited, lots decline to join in, citing the competing goods and gods of the day. The invitation is extended regardless of worthiness. But don’t show up unless you’re ready to party, as if this were an inferior thing to do until something better appears on your phone! That’s as much ingratitude for grace and mercy as refusing altogether.
We don’t like the idea of an angry, vindictive God. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, father and warrior, we have too many models of poorly managed anger among human models, most recently in North Korea and the USA. But a God who restrains herself, and likes a good game and a good party, and created us to freely choose relationships with her and each other – surely that’s more like when a mother gets angry in disappointment with her kids?
Trinity does not have a management problem to fix. You are genius managers, ‘scary smart’ people. You should scare me – but I trust you instead. We have an opportunity to clarify, to refocus our call and our response, perhaps to refine and refocus it smaller, or to recognize that it’s time to step up bigger, prudently, in terms of the vision, if modestly, in terms of our role as a partner. Where does God’s world need mending today, and who can help?
We enjoyed the ‘tyranny of successful habits’ for a long time in mid-century postwar boom, as a ‘mainline’ church in a stable socio-economic ecology. Even as it changed, we we enjoyed what wasn’t broke, and didn’t need fixing. But we were scavenging off the accumulated financial, moral, and political capital of our ancestors, and stealing it from our children. Maybe we need new habits.
What might we find in this still-new century, not only conserving the best of our boom, but remembering our deeper roots, and rediscovering our wider context? Welcome! Thank you for your welcome to me, over a month through your hiring committee, and through a week here on Frederick. I will try to be a good guest – and a good host – and trust that you will do the same.
We address our Sublime Maker here
Bringing all into being and meaning,
While we sleep and when we wake,
Out of sleep, into waking life:
And we’ve come
We address our Divine Guest here:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock
If anyone hear my voice, & open the door
I will come in & sup with ‘em & they with me:
And we’ve come
We address a Living Word here:
For you made us for yourself
And our hearts are restless,
Until they find their rest in you:
And we’ve come