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Foolishness, Hopelessness, and Walking Humbly with God


Homily for 4th Sunday after the Epiphany

[Photo: The Sea of Galilee from the Mount of the Beatitudes, Feb. 2016]

Sherman Hesselgrave

Readings:

Micah 6:1-8     Psalm 15       1 Corinthians 1: 18-31     Matthew 5:1-12

All of our scripture readings today have something in common. Although each is speaking to a different context, they all have something to do with the new identity that comes with becoming a permanent resident in the commonwealth of God. Micah challenges the assumptions of a religion dominated by a focus on ritual sacrifice. Jesus turns the values of the world upside down. And Paul elaborates on the theme that down is the new up.

I emailed Michael Shapcott this week to see if he would be willing to read the gospel today. He responded almost immediately, saying yes, he would be willing to read the Beatitudes, but he wanted to use the Common English Bible translation. I have a shelf in my study with at least 15 different English translations or versions of the Bible, not counting Bibles in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Swahili and Polish. But I don’t have a copy of the Common English Bible. I told Michael that I would prefer that the version in the bulletin match the version proclaimed from the lectern, and so you have it in front of you. The first thing you notice is that each beatitude begins with the word ‘happy.’ That was not a surprise, as the Jerusalem Bible did the same in 1966. The speed bump for me was the continuation of the first beatitude: “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” We are accustomed to hearing “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” aren’t we? I have to admit that I never felt I really knew what “poor in spirit” meant until I encountered this new translation. Now it makes sense. Someone who is poor in spirit is someone who is ‘dispirited,’ and someone who is dispirited is someone who has lost hope. “Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” They are permanent residents in the commonwealth of God.

Hopelessness and grief are likely to be part of everyone’s experience at some point or another. And Jesus reassures his listeners that there is life beyond hopelessness and death. Don’t allow hopelessness and grief to swallow you up and drag you under. On the other hand, humility, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, showing mercy, having pure hearts, and making peace require acts of will, and are among the hallmarks of the new identity that Jesus invites his followers to embrace. A first step to healing the cosmos is to make these beatitudes a part of our spiritual practice.

For the last year and a half the 9:00 AM Bible study has used Brian McLaren’s  book, We Make the Road by Walking, as our guide. His chapter entitled “A New Identity” is a reflection on the Beatitudes. He notes that Jesus’ words come as a surprise because “we normally play by these rules of the game:”

Do everything you can to be rich and powerful.

Toughen up and harden yourself against all feelings of loss.

Measure your success by how much of the time you are thinking only of yourself and your own happiness.

Be independent and aggressive, hungry and thirsty for higher status in the social pecking order.

Strike back quickly when others strike you, and guard your image so you’ll always be popular.

The new identity that Jesus offers, the identity that offers blessing or happiness will, as McLaren puts it, “give us a very important role in the world. As creative nonconformists, we will be difference makers, aliveness activists, catalysts for change. Like salt that brings out the best flavours in food, we will bring out the best in our community and society.”

It should come as no surprise that we find seeds of the Sermon on the Mount in the Hebrew scriptures. In Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses going up the mountain. There are parallels to events in Exodus: deliverance from a ruler who orders the death of male children, entry into covenant with God by passage through water, and a period of testing and temptation in the wilderness. In Luke, when Jesus begins his public ministry, he identifies with God’s servant in Isaiah [61], who has been sent “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; … to comfort all who mourn….”— characteristics that are echoed in the Beatitudes.

The prophet Micah challenges the religious status quo of his time. The ostensible purpose for ritual sacrifices in Judaism was to effect reconciliation with God. Micah, acting as prosecutor in a covenant lawsuit, quotes the defendant’s questions: “What shall I bring when I come before the Holy One and make my reverences to the most High? Shall I approach with burnt offerings, with yearling calves? Will Elohim be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, my children for the sin of my soul?” “None of the above” is the prophet’s response. The path to a right relationship with the Creator is simply to “do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly before your God.” The tension between a religious system that required blood sacrifices and the self-sacrifice required to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God was still around when Jesus began his ministry. While there are some who see Jesus’ crucifixion as a culmination of the system of blood sacrifice, another way of viewing it is as one of the possible consequences when one does justice, loves compassion or kindness, and walks humbly with the Creator. Paul Nuechterlein, a biblical commentator whose work I follow, puts it this way: “Jesus transformed the sacrifice of the Cross into the self-sacrifice that leads to resurrection and a life of service.

In today’s epistle, Paul, writing to the conflicted church at Corinth, states that the “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Living as we do in post-Christendom, I’m sure we are all familiar with the characterization of Christian faith as foolishness. The classic proofs for the existence of God don’t carry much weight in an age of skepticism like ours. Although, I have always thought the fact that the Church was still around after two thousand years, despite some pretty horrendous human management, was some kind of evidence of divine intervention. Often, things that don’t fit our world-view may seem foolish. But world-views can change. Copernicus and Kepler bear witness to that. And so do Micah, Jesus, and Paul.

Jesus invites us to the self-sacrificing act of taking up our own crosses and following in his steps of doing justice, living lives of compassion, and walking in God’s company with humility.

I would like to conclude by sharing a bit of Vaclav Havel’s wisdom. First, a poem entitled “It is I who Must Begin.”

It is I who must begin.

Once I begin, once I try —

here and now,

right where I am,

not excusing myself

by saying things

would be easier elsewhere,

without grand speeches and

ostentatious gestures,

but all the more persistently

— to live in harmony

with the “voice of Being,” as I

understand it within myself

— as soon as I begin that,

I suddenly discover,

to my surprise, that

I am neither the only one,

nor the first,

nor the most important one

to have set out

upon that road.

 

Whether all is really lost

or not depends entirely on

whether or not I am lost.

(Teaching With Fire, ed. by S.M. Intrator and M. Scribner)

In the scriptures we encounter people who are lost both by not knowing where they are as well as not knowing who they are. We may feel foolish or hopeless at times, but if we are doing justice, loving kindness, and walking by faith, we are assured that God will be journeying with us. Havel also observed that hope “is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Journeys to Light: An Epiphany Homily

Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6     Ephesians 3:1-12     Matthew 2:1-12

Sherman Hesselgrave, homilist

Epiphany is about revelation, disclosure, making one’s presence known, shining a light on things. In the Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany is a time when we hear the stories of God’s self-disclosure through the public ministry of Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. We will hear more about that story next week. Today’s gospel is a flashback to a kind of magical story—although I don’t suppose ‘magical’ is the correct adjective that goes with Magi, who appear from a distant eastern land in Matthew’s narrative of Jesus’ infancy, on account of their astrological reading of the stars. Continue reading Journeys to Light: An Epiphany Homily

Why are you doing this? (James Harbeck’s homily for Oct. 23rd)

Readings: Sirach 35:12–17, Psalm 84:1–7, 2 Timothy 4:6–8, 16–18, Luke 18:9–14

We don’t clap for homilies.

If you go most places other than a church – in fact, if you go to some churches, too – a person who gives a speech filled with information and insights will get applause at the end: polite at least, and thunderous if the speech is particularly inspirational. But for a homily? That would imply that the homilist was doing it for their own glory. It would acknowledge the signpost instead of the destination, the spotlight instead of the soloist. This is about god. Or for those principles that we hold in highest esteeem.

And anyway, no one likes someone who is too proud, too obviously pious. In matters spiritual we are to transcend ourselves. We want to do a good job, of course, and there is nothing wrong with feeling satisfied that we have done a good job, but the moment we place ourselves above others we’ve undone, at least within ourselves, what we were setting out to do.

Now, the truth is that we almost never do anything for just one reason. The more valuable ends we can accomplish at the same time, the better. Cook a nice meal and you provide nutrition as well as enjoyment and you get a sense of satisfaction – and you may also show off how much you can afford (or, conversely, how frugal you are), and maybe finally find a use for that jar of pickled lemons you bought a while ago, and solidify your relationship with whoever you cooked for, and…

Even just having a conversation with a friend, you’re not just exchanging information; you’re solidifying and constantly negotiating a relationship, with its attendant statuses and likes and dislikes, and you’re finding out about things that entertain you or that may help you play a role with others – now you are the receiver of information, perhaps what you learn will help you be the wise giver of information with the next person…

There is no “just saying,” after all. You’re always trying to produce some effect. If you say “I’m just saying,” that means you acknowledge that you have no right to expect the other person to act on your wishes… but of course you still want them to. Otherwise you just wouldn’t say it.

So we can see clearly enough that people who exalt themselves and emphasize their sanctity are getting something from it that is more and other than the simple act of worship. Likewise, someone who puts their name all over charitable donations is, in our view, giving the lie to the self-transcendence: they don’t want the fruit of their efforts all to go to the other person, they want some kudos. We tend not to like that. In other cultural contexts it might be seen as setting a good example for others. In ours, it suggests that their interests are at least in part for themselves, which we don’t think of as the right example.

We can sometimes be quite vigorous in calling out hypocrisy and unfairness. When we see people who on the one hand vote to criminalize abortion because they declare that they respect life, but on the other hand vote against funding for social services, so that children once born – and their parents – have much harder lives while those who have more than enough hoard their wealth, we naturally want to point it out. When the “war on drugs” results in no less drug use but a massive pipeline of poor people into prisons to enrich a few, we naturally want to do what we can to fix that. When ad campaigns and sports logos use racist stereotypes, we want to exert what pressure we can to see that fixed.

I’m on Twitter a lot. Twitter is a great place to go if you want to see people calling our wrongdoing. Boy, lemme tell ya, if you want a good argument to fight the good fight, Twitter is the place. Faults are very readily pointed out and immediate correction suggested. And people who are odious are roundly condemned. Even people who are generally on the right path but make use of a stereotype, or thoughtlessly use a casual slur, will get instant correction.

And, boy, it can be great to call someone out. To shut someone down. You’ve struck a blow for justice and fairness. And that adrenaline gets pumping. Doesn’t it feel good?

[meaningful pause]

But does it change the other person’s mind? Is it the most effective way to achieve your ends? Sometimes it is. Being nice only gets you so far. When inequalities are so entrenched that most people think they’re reasonable, the people who disrupt them will seem unreasonable. But sometimes, your reward isn’t changing other people’s minds. It’s just a lively argument that makes you feel good about fighting the good fight. It may alienate someone who was generally on your side, or cause a person on the opposite side to harden their position, but you raised the flaming banner of righteousness! But if you’re not actually changing anything, why are you doing this?

I recently read an excellent article about Derek Black, a young man whose father is a leading white nationalist in the US. Derek grew up to be an important voice in the white nationalist movement, heir apparent to his father’s leadership role, a good friend of David Duke of the KKK. But when he went to college, he went to a fairly liberal college. He kept his white nationalism under his hat so that he wouldn’t be ostracized. But eventually his writings and radio shows were outed to the campus community. Responses were quick and understandable. Many students were very angry with him and had very strong corrective things to say to him, directly or – more often – just through the indirect medium of public denunciation. Derek Black was right, after all: being known as a white nationalist was a sure way to be ostracized.

But some of the students who knew him thought that just ostracizing him wouldn’t produce the best results. One of these was an Orthodox Jewish student who had Shabbat dinners at his apartment every Friday. He always invited a bunch of friends, most of whom weren’t Jewish. He decided to invite Derek Black. Derek Black, who had always been polite to him, but Derek Black, who had written online that Jews were not white and would have to leave the US. Derek came, and he kept coming. Conversations avoided the elephant in the room for a long time and just strengthened the social bonds. Gradually questions were asked. He clarified his views. Then modified them. And as he studied more and more history, he came to find that his views had not been quite well founded. As he came to learn more and to know other students from diverse backgrounds and to understand and respect them, he eventually modified his views so much they… really weren’t white nationalist at all. Finally, in his own time and his own way, he admitted and declared publicly that he wasn’t a white nationalist at all anymore. And that he was sorry for the harm he had done.

White nationalist views – and other similarly harmful lines of thought – have to be opposed. They have to be pointed out. We can’t let people feel that they can hold them comfortably and just get along. But on the other hand, it doesn’t help if we just shout at them and make them dig in while we feel good about ourselves.

Not everybody’s mind is going to change, admittedly. In my younger years I got into a lot of arguments with people who were offensively wrong about things, and I couldn’t understand how they could fail to acknowledge obvious, clearly spelled out facts but would just shift the subject, mischaracterize others’ positions, be abusive. Finally I realized that some people don’t want to actually be right, they just want to be seen as right. To win. They just want to fight and win. When dealing with such people, first make sure you’re not one of them too. And then… cut your losses, walk away, stop trying to convince them, just work to defeat them instead. But, on the other hand, some people who seem like that actually can be engaged. Some immature, abusive, and oblivious people can grow up. Maybe they won’t change their minds right away, but, over time, they very well may. And maybe you’ll learn something too.

But whether we’re working to oppose and undo them, or to welcome them and sway them through openness, we have to keep our eyes on the task at hand. And ask ourselves, why are we doing this? What effect are we trying to produce, and how? If we do something good, of course we’re going to feel good about having done it. But if we’re about to do something that will really only achieve making us feel like we’ve fought the good fight, without actually changing anyone’s mind, well, we get our reward – that feeling of righteousness – but we could have had something better.

Loss and Recovery (Homily for September 11th)

Exodus 32:7-14   Psalm 51:1-10     1 Timothy 1:12-17     Luke 15:1-10

Sherman Hesselgrave, Homilist

Nine. Eleven. 2001. Fifteen years ago today—another date that “lives in infamy.” The horrific losses on that day pale when compared to the exponential suffering that has resulted as a direct consequence of the subsequent score-settling. Like all of history, there is nothing we can do to change the past. We can hope that the kind of thinking or believing that led to creating hell on earth for countless people might change, but the lust for power in times of political instability make it a very steep climb, indeed.

Our scripture readings today also speak of losses. But they speak too of recovery after loss, and the lost being found. The Israelites have lost faith in Yahweh who led them out of slavery in Egypt. They have been seduced by the neighbouring Baal-worshipping tribes, and taken to worshipping a golden calf. Moses mediates on their behalf, and they are given the opportunity to make a new beginning.

The writer of the pastoral letter to Timothy speaks of the recovery that can come, even to one who had been an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, through God’s abundant grace. “Grace,” Frederick Buechner writes, “is something you can never get but only be given. There is no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about any more than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth…. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it.” [Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC.  pp. 33-34]

In this third year of the lectionary cycle, the gospel we have been reading our way through in a semi-continuous fashion is the Gospel of Luke. About half way through we come to chapter 15, which begins (as we heard today):

One time the tax-collectors and other [notorious] sinners were all gathering around to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law began grumbling, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Jesus responds with the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, and a third parable, one we read on the Fourth Sunday in Lent earlier this year: the parable of the Prodigal (or Lost) Son. The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law live in a binary world where things, actions, and people are either clean or unclean. People who were ignorant of the purity code and didn’t live by it were regarded as unclean. But people like tax-collectors were in a special category as they were seen as collaborators with the oppressive Roman state. Collaborators have always been hated. Nazi collaborators in Vichy France were executed by the Resistance. In Apartheid South Africa, those who collaborated with the white regime were often “necklaced” with a tire splashed with gasoline and set afire.

The biblical scholar, Kenneth Bailey, in his book, Finding the Lost Cultural Keys to Luke 15, summarizes Jesus’ three-parable reply to his challengers in conceptual language:

Gentlemen, you accuse me of reclining to eat with the ‘am-ha-‘arets and with tax collectors! Your information is correct. This is exactly what I do. And not only do I let them in—I go out into the streets and shower them with affection, urging them to come in and eat with me!

The story of Zacchaeus, the sycamore tree-climbing tax collector whom Jesus invites to dinner a few chapters hence, is another example.

Let’s take a closer look at the two parables before us today: the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Something else Kenneth Bailey points out with regard to this passage is that, while there are numerous references in the Hebrew Scriptures to God as Israel’s shepherd, by the time we get to the encounter between Jesus and his antagonists, the occupation of ‘herdsman’ is not kosher, so to speak. Shepherds were always grazing their sheep on other people’s land, which put them in the “unclean” column. So, when Jesus begins his reply to his challengers by saying: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the ninety-nine…and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Not only is Jesus asking them to imagine they are shepherds, but he’s telling them they are BAD shepherds—for LOSING the sheep they had been given. But because the language of parables is metaphoric, Jesus is not talking about shepherds of sheep, but shepherds of people, just as earlier in his ministry, he told his first disciples that they would become “fishers of people.”

The binary universe of the purity code—clean and unclean—was not the way forward if God’s reign on earth was to be realized, and Jesus was naming names as to who was getting in the way.

When you look around the world today, people are still waging war using the clean/unclean paradigm, only the categories have different labels: believers/infidels, right race/wrong race, powerful/powerless, rich/poor, etc. In the parable, recovery is the result of being found and being brought back into the community of the whole flock.

In the second parable, Jesus likens his tormentors to a careless woman who has lost a precious coin. (Bailey notes that in “Middle Eastern culture a speaker cannot compare a male audience to a woman without giving offence.”) By making a woman the hero of the story, both Jesus and Luke affirm the intrinsic value of both sexes in God’s sovereign realm. The missing drachma represents a day’s wage for a labourer, so it would have been of significant value to the household finances. The woman knows it is somewhere in the house—perhaps it has fallen in a crack between stones in the floor, or it has rolled into a dark corner. Whatever, she doesn’t quit until it has been found.

As in the first parable, it’s not really about a lost coin, but about a lost soul, and caring for everyone who has intrinsic value as a child of God. If the angels in heaven rejoice whenever a lost soul is found, why is it impossible for the Pharisees to join in? It seems to me that they are not able to see beyond the paradigm they have constructed. Clean or unclean—that is their question, and there they are trapped.

When you stop to reflect on these parables, the ones who are lost are the ones who continually take issue with Jesus’ modelling of God’s generous grace.

Calls for justice for all God’s children continues to generate conflict today. There are   people unwilling to accept the witness of Black Lives Matter. Others aren’t convinced there’s much that can be done about missing and murdered women. Others would rather argue about which bathroom a trans person should use.

Jesus asks his harassers to imagine themselves in another’s situation. It may be only a beginning, but it could be the first step leading to recovery and reconciliation after the deep losses so many have felt.

In the Toronto Star yesterday, Tony Burman published the five lessons he has learned from the ashes of September 11, 2001. Two of them could have come from the lips of Jesus:

• Revenge as policy never works

• Terrorism doesn’t come from nowhere

If we want the future to look different from the past, then we continually have to stomp down the barriers that people keep erecting or reinforcing that divide us from one another. It is God’s will that everyone has a place at the table; all are welcome under God’s roof. And we are either part of the solution or part of the problem. We each have a choice.

Homily for June 12, 2016

Preached by Alison Kemper on June 12, 2016

The biggest concern for any organization should be when their most passionate people become quiet.

All three stories today look at the problem of who’s good enough to be in the circle of God’s love and approval. First, God gets Nathan to show David he’s being an outrageously arrogant, entitled jerk, a murderer and adulterer. Continue reading Homily for June 12, 2016