I occasionally preach at our Anglican church, usually when the priest is on holidays and no other person is available. I am a lay reader, so I lead Morning Prayer (Matins). Being able to preach is a privilege. It's also an opportunity to explore my ideas and beliefs in a way I couldn't do otherwise. I'll post sermons that have received positive comments, or that matter to me personally, which isn't always the same.

Why Give Up Something for Lent?

     I grew up Lutheran in Austria, a Catholic country. Most Austrians, Catholic and Lutheran, gave up something for Lent. Giving up chocolate was popular. I don’t think it was really much of a sacrifice, because chocolate was expensive, so you never had much. Giving up something you can hardly ever enjoy is not a great sacrifice. But it was the symbolism that counted. Giving up something reminded you of the pain and suffering of Our Lord, who gave up his life for us. In medieval times, this custom could be tough. If you gave up meat, for example, you in effect went on a near-starvation diet. The phrase “a Lenten feast” meant a meal with just the basics, and not much of those.
     Giving up something for Lent is a custom that some people still honour. But in a world where we have and enjoy so much more than our ancestors did, giving up chocolate is at best a token sacrifice. There are so many other treats and snacks, you’ll hardly miss chocolate. It’s no real hardship. Besides, you can lay in a stock of chocolate easter eggs while you’re waiting, and binge on Easter Sunday.
     It might be harder to give up video games, though. For some people, anyhow. And imagine going without TV or Netflix for weeks on end.
     I think it’s worthwhile thinking about Lenten sacrifice. It requires not only doing without something you like, it requires self-control. It’s that aspect that interests me. Self-control relates to freedom. Long ago I came across the idea that true freedom isn’t being able to do what you want to do whenever you want to do it. That kind of freedom is beyond your control, since nature and other people can prevent you from doing what you want.
     True freedom is living within your own control. But the only control you have is to either do or not do what you desire to do. So true freedom is being able to not do what you want to do, or to do what you don’t want to do. It’s being able to say No to yourself.
     This is ancient wisdom, found in all the great traditions of religion and philosophy. It’s tied in with the ability to endure pain and suffering. “Suffering builds character,” they say. That’s another version of this same idea. The idea also shows up in the philosophy of martial arts, which teach not merely the skills of fighting, but the mindset of focussing on the moment, of ignoring the fear of pain, and the fear of defeat, which in many ways is worse.
     Jesus knew this principle of self-control, as did Paul. Paul says, That which I would, that I do not; and that which I would not, that I do. In other words, he needs help controlling his desires and wishes, and so do we all. Jesus’s version is more nuanced: He that would save his life shall lose it; but he that loses his life for my sake, he shall save it. A paradox: How can you lose your life by saving it, and vice versa?
     The most immediate solution to the paradox might well apply to those who face the choice of denying their faith or being killed if they don’t. This has happened throughout history, and still happens today. Sadly, Christians have persecuted each other in the same way. We humans don’t like people who question our beliefs. “Shoot the messenger” is the standard method of getting rid of disagreeable ideas and facts.
     But I think there’s more to Jesus’s paradox than the reminder that one may have to give up this earthly life in order to gain eternal life. I think it connects to the baptismal vows, and to self-control, and to freedom. The Anglican baptismal rite asks, Do you renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil?  In other words, Do you renounce all the rewards of this earthly life? The answer is I renounce them.
     That is, you will let go of earthly goals like status and power and wealth. You will learn to say No to yourself. You will gain control over the old Adam. You will become a servant of God, and his service is perfect freedom. You will do all this not by your own reason and strength, but by the grace of God.
     Let us pray.
O God Creator, Redeemer, and Comforter, by your grace grant us the ability to give up the things of this world, both now in the season of Lent and in our lives thereafter, that we may enter into your service and do what you would have us do; and that by so doing we may preach both in our words and in our actions the Good News, which is the coming of your Kingdom. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who gave up his life for us, and who rules with you the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

(ICC 2018-02-28)

A few thoughts about Taxes

     Jesus had a reputation as a teacher, as an interpreter of the law and the prophets. The Temple authorities didn’t like his teachings, so they tried to trap him. Teacher, they asked, is it lawful to pay taxes to the Romans? Many Jews believed that the only lawful taxes were for the upkeep of the Temple, so if Jesus’s answer was a simple Yes it could upset a lot of people. Bring me a coin, answered Jesus. Whose image do you see on it? It was of course Caesar’s image. Then pay to God what belongs to God, and pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, said Jesus.
     And like so many of Jesus’s answers, it raises more questions. Here, the questions are, What belongs to God? And what belongs to Caesar? Jesus leaves it up to us to figure it out. Like a Zen Master, Jesus wants us to think for ourselves.
     It seems to me the obvious answer is, Everything belongs to God, including Caesar and his Empire. But this answer is a puzzle too. For if it’s true, what does it mean to say This belongs to me? And That belongs to you? What is ownership, anyhow?
     We humans have developed a lot of rules and customs around ownership. There’s the negative rule, Don’t steal. That is, don’t take what does not belong to you. You need the owner’s permission to take that thing; for example, he may be willing to trade.
     There’s also the positive rule, Share what you have. Again, every society we know of has complicated rules and customs around that. You are supposed to give things away, but not just anything, and not just anytime. The rules of gift giving are mostly unwritten, and they constantly change. But as with buying and selling, we expect something in return, if not now, then later, and if not from the one we give it to, then from someone else.
     Oh, yes, ownership is a complicated business. So what looks like a simple answer is really a complicated one.
     Basically, ownership is a specific kind of control over the use of some thing or other. In trade and gift-giving, we expect things to balance out, to be fair. Give to God what belongs to God, and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. That’s nicely balanced advice. Sounds fair, right?
     But what if it’s not really ours to give? If everything is a gift from God, it’s not really ours, is it? William Howe wrote a hymn about that: We give Thee but Thine own, Whate'er the gift may be; All that we have is Thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from Thee.
     Note that word “trust”. It reminds me of the parable of the talents. The master gave his servants money to take care of for him. Two were rewarded for investing the money and making a profit. One was punished. He did nothing with his capital.
     I came across a saying some time ago which goes like this: What we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.  There’s the same idea as in the parable. We must invest what God has given us so that we may return it to him showing a profit. How do we do that? By living according to his law, which is to love him and love our neighbour. We each have different talents, so we each have different ways of fulfilling the law.
     And oddly enough, when we do that we also render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. For Caesar too has a gift to invest, the gift of power and authority. Government is one of the methods we use to love our neighbour. We do this by keeping the peace, regulating trade, providing for public needs and wants, defending against those who would harm us, and so on. That’s what those taxes are supposed to be for.
     Lord God, show us how to use our treasure, talents, and skills to do the work of love you have given us to do. In Jesus’s name. Amen

 Love 5th Sunday of Easter 2 May 2010 [John 13:31-35]
     Love one another. That was Jesus’ last command to the disciples. Love one another as I have loved you, he said.
     I wish we would. I wish we could.
     What’s love anyway? Everybody knows that the word “love” refers to many things. What comes to mind when you hear the word? What does “I love you” mean to you? The Summary of the Law says you should love God and love your neighbour as yourself. What do you think that means? How do you imagine doing that? How do you imagine feeling about yourself? How do you imagine feeling about your neighbour?
     These are not easy questions to answer, but we have to start somewhere. So here are some random thoughts about love, which I may be able to tie up in a nice neat bundle at the end. Or not, as the case may be.
     James Thurber said that love is what you’ve been through with somebody. Someone who loves chocolate may have that in mind when they decide to have another piece. Or not, as the case may be.
     One thing is for sure. Love, however you define it, is risky. Tina Turner has a song What’s Love Got to Do with it? It’s a lover’s lament, a very common kind of love song, especially in country music. Lovin’ hurts. The love Tina sings about is painful:

What's love got to do, got to do with it?
What's love, but a sweet old-fashioned notion?
What's love got to do, got to do with it?
Who needs a heart, when a heart can be broken

     Leonard Cohen has a song about the pain of love, too:

There ain't no cure for love, there ain't no cure for love,
All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky,
The holy books are open wide, the doctors working day and night,
But they'll never ever find that cure for love.
There ain't no drink, no drug, ah, tell them, angels,
There's nothing pure enough to be a cure for love.

     If pain is a sign and symptom of love, then love is a disease. Or not, as the case may be.
I've been reading Gwynne Dyer's book about war. He wrote it in 1982, basing it on a television series on war that he made for the CBC and PBS. It's a gloomy and depressing subject, but anyone who wants to understand how the world works has to take account of war. Dyer’s thesis is that civilisation and war were both born of the agricultural revolution in neolithic times, around 10 to 15,000 years ago. That change in food production led to an increasing human population, and eventually to the invention of cities. Cities have to be defended, so humans invented war. War and wealth accelerated developments of technology and science, and now war has become a suicidal institution.
     One thing is for sure: war is not an expression of love between nations. Maybe if nations could love each other the way people love each other, war might come to and end. Or not, as the case may be.
     Love can cause strife. Jealousy is a twisted, possessive form of love in which the lover cannot accept that his beloved may have a focus other than himself. He can’t tolerate the thought that someone or something else matters to his beloved
     Well, we could go on, but I don’t think we would find an answer to help us understand what Jesus is commanding us to do. The reason is simple: all the notions of love that I’ve touched on so far can’t be commanded. Love as understood in these examples is a condition, it’s a state of mind or emotion, it’s an attitude towards someone else, it’s a need or desire. You can’t command these, because they are not actions. You can command people to do something, but it’s pointless to command them to feel good about it.
     That’s the first insight: that love is an active verb. What Jesus is telling us is to do something, to perform certain kinds of acts, to make things happen.
     So what is he telling us to do? The fact is that the desires and feelings mentioned earlier do make us behave in certain ways. When we feel love for someone, we want to do things for them and with them. Do any of these desired actions fit what Jesus wants us to do? Maybe they do. But to answer the question, we have to understand somewhat better what we mean by the word “love.”
     C S Lewis wrote a book called The Four Loves. In it, he discusses what people refer to when they say “I love”. He ignores the casual use of the word in expressions such as “I love chocolate”, because what we really mean is “I like chocolate a lot.” He talks about four kinds of love between and for other people.
     The first is affection, that good feeling we have towards people in our social and family circle. It’s affection that makes us happy to see them, and grieve when they are in trouble. It helps us get along with each other, it forms the bonds that make us into communities. Affection enables us to overlook and tolerate the minor flaws and quirks that would otherwise annoy us. It’s basic, and human, and starts and ends with familiarity. It’s that basic good feeling that grows out of living together in a family or community. It strengthens those ties, and that’s what makes it valuable. But we feel affection only towards those whom we know. Affection depends on physical presence; affection for someone you don’t know is impossible.
     Many of us think of affection as the basis of friendship, but Lewis says friendship goes further. Lewis was a great befriender. He knew that friendship can be a source of pleasure, joy, and satisfaction. He says that friends have in common a love for something outside themselves. You discover that someone else shares your pleasure in some activity, some aspect of the natural or human world, and that’s where your friendship starts. You like the same books, you meet on the golf course, you are both quilters or hunters, something draws you together. Friendship consists of doing things together, but the focus is outside yourself. That external focus makes friendship selfless in way that affection is not.
     A stronger love is eros, or being in love. That’s the love that Tina Turner and Leonard Cohen sing about. Lewis knows perfectly well that this love can be extreme or twisted or too self-centred, that it may be no more than an attraction to or a desire for an imaginary person, an ideal that we’ve formed. When we are first in love, we see the beloved not as she or he is, but as we want them to be. But at its best, eros changes into something stronger and more lasting than this fantasy attraction. It can make us aware of another person as a person. We love him or her because of who and what they are, with all their flaws and weaknesses, even despite their flaws and weaknesses.
     This love is powerful. Merely being in the beloved’s presence may be enough to make a bad day good. Eros may move us to sacrifice ourselves for the happiness of the beloved. Like friendship, eros may be selfless.
     The fourth love is charity. Lewis does not mean simply writing a cheque or dropping a toonie in the Sally Ann’s Christmas basket, although these actions may be valuable and necessary. He means love for other people just because they are people.
     And at this point action does become important. Charity is above all doing things for others. That’s why we think of charitable organisations as helping people, and automatically think of volunteers. You donate to the Cancer Society to help them help cancer patients and support research. You help out at Community Days. You volunteer to serve food at a parish supper. And so on. You do these things not because you like the people that will be helped, although you may in fact like them a lot. You do these things even if you do not know the people you are helping. And if you do know them, you may not like them, you may think they aren’t good or respectable enough, they aren’t your kind of people. This makes it difficult to help them. But you help anyhow. It’s what Jesus would do. It’s what Jesus actually did.
     And one of the odd things is that when you perform these acts of loving kindness, you may well develop affection or fondness for the people you help. You may even begin to see them as persons, not just as recipients of your charity. That’s why personal acts of charity are so important.
And of course, charitable work is rewarding. People feel good about themselves when they see the good they’ve done for other people.
     These four kinds of love and loving and all their variations do feel good. Affection, friendship, eros, charity –  these all can and do make us feel very good. Life is better when we love. I think it’s this good feeling that makes it easy to think of love as simply a feeling. It’s also this good feeling which makes us seek love. But that good feeling may shift our focus from the person we love to the good feeling of loving. We may do what we do less for the sake of the other person, and more for the sake of ourselves. That’s when we discover that the good feelings of love don’t last, and we say that love doesn’t last, that our hearts can be broken.
     But what really happened is that we thought those feedings were the whole of it, the point of the game, what love is all about. We failed to see that love is what we do, not what we feel.
So we come to the love of God, which in Greek is called agape  (ah-gap-eh), selfless love. The word agape is used in John 3:16, For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. It’s used in the Gospel we heard today.
     In the Christian context, agape refers to God’s love for us. That love is in itself an action. God’s love is seen in the act of creation. It’s seen in his gift of free will. It’s seen in his self-sacrifice when we misused that free will.
     We can aspire to return that love by loving each other with a selfless love. It’s not easy. It’s hard to feel affection for a person who is unlovable, and so it’s hard to do things for them. But that’s exactly what Jesus wants us to do. It’s not only here, as he takes leave of his disciples, that he says so. He has already said, Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you, turn the other cheek, if someone needs your coat give him your shirt too, love your neighbour as yourself.
     Those are hard sayings, they go against our natural inclinations and then some. But we can try to do as Jesus has commanded. Start with little things. Practice the virtues of love. Patience is one. When someone for the 3,027th time does one of those little things that irritate you so much, bite your tongue, and say nothing.
     Kindness is another. Hold the door for someone who’s carrying two large bags of groceries. Better yet, carry them for her. Or him, as the case may be.
     Be generous. When the Kidney Foundation canvasser comes to the door, and you haven’t got a five dollar bill, give her a ten. If you have a fight with a family member, don’t insist on being right, but try to understand why they are angry. Plan how you will avoid causing that anger again.
     We could take all day sharing little nuggets of advice like these. But really, what have I said that you didn’t already know? We all know what to do. We learned it in kindergarten. We just need the will and the strength to do it. For that we need help. Jesus will provide that help, we only have to ask. We won’t change into perfect examples of loving kindness overnight, or even by the end of our lives. But we can and will do better.
     Jesus commands us to love each other as he loved us, selflessly, not because it feels good, not because it raises our self esteem, not because it’s rewarding, not because it’s fun, not because we like someone, but because it’s the right thing to do.

Let us pray.

Lord God, loving Father, Brother, and Friend: help us learn our failings, that we may correct them; and by your grace strengthen and guide us in the works of love that you have commanded us to do, that by our actions we may show your love and glorify your name. Amen.


Repentance [2nd Sunday of Lent, 21st February, 2016, Luke 13:31-35]
     Today’s Gospel story is one of the more difficult ones. Jesus says, O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her! how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her own brood under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
     That’s not exactly a happy speech. It’s one of Jesus’s harshest sayings. It sounds very much as of he’s writing off Jerusalem, and I suppose in a way he is. However, looking at it in terms of the Passion of Christ, there is what looks like a smidgen of hope:  and I say unto you, Ye shall not see me, until ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord. When Jesus returns to Jerusalem, the people will welcome him with just those words. But a few days later they will shout Crucify him! Crucify him!
     What’s going on here?
     When I read the Bible, I never stop with just the facts of the story. Any story about some specific people is also a story about us, about you and me. Every story shows us something about what it means to be human, about how people behave, about what matters to them, about the choices they make and why they make them. What makes the stories in the Bible so believable is that the stories show us all these things. And that means that every story in the Bible has some meaning beyond itself. Usually, the easiest of these meanings is how the story applies to us, here and now.
     So I will talk about how this incident in Jesus’s ministry applies to us.
     But Bible stories aren’t just about humans. They are also about God. Every story shows us something about how we relate to God, about how God relates to us, and how this relationship affects and shapes the way we relate to each other. I take it for granted that understanding the Bible means understanding these aspects of the Biblical story too.
     Let’s start with the story itself.
     Jesus was expanding his ministry, and that was causing trouble. People came and listened to him, and they wanted to know what they could or should do to enter the Kingdom of God. In chapter 13, Luke includes several parables. There’s the one about the fig tree, in which the keeper of the orchard asks for one more chance to fertilise the ground so that the tree might bear fruit. If it fails, it will be uprooted and burned.
     There’s the comparisons of the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, and to yeast. You are the yeast, he tells his disciples. You need yeast to make bread. And the one about the house shut against those who claim a right to enter it, but the door is barred against them. There will be weeping and wailing among those who are on the wrong side of the door.
     There’s a healing, too. A woman has suffered for eighteen years, bent double with what we would call severe arthritis. Jesus healed her. But he healed her on the Sabbath, which annoyed the rulers of the synagogue, who complained that Jesus broke the law. Whereupon Jesus pointed out that necessary work, such as watering one’s animals, was permitted, so why not the work of healing?
     There’s also one of the most famous of Jesus’s sayings, The last shall be first and the first shall be last. There’s no way around its meaning: What we think of as being important does not match what God wants.
     One of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel is that the established order of things will be overturned. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and the Kingdom of God is not, as Jesus says, “of this world.” It’s not organised the way this world is organised. It’s not based on the values of this world. It’s not one in which it’s enough to obey the law and be respectable and behave like everybody else and not cause trouble. It’s not a Kingdom in which the great movers and shakers will rule, as they do in this world. It’s not a world in which power and wealth matter.
     It’s radically different.
     Over and over again, in his parables and in his sermons, Jesus condemned power and wealth. Over and over again, in his talk and in his actions, Jesus warned against mistaking the outward show of piety and moral worth for the real thing. Over and over again, Jesus said that to seek the Kingdom of God means giving up the things that bring success in this world.
     And that’s why the authorities were more than a little annoyed at him. That’s why Herod wanted to get rid of him. A man who preaches radical moral and personal change preaches radical political and economic change, too. Radical change in one aspect of your life requires radical change in all aspects of your life. It’s all or nothing. Scary, really, to commit yourself to radical change. But that’s what Jesus expects of us.
     Some of the Pharisees were sympathetic to Jesus’s teachings, so they warned him about Herod’s plans, and for a while he escaped the danger. Some time later Jesus will return to Jerusalem, the crowds will welcome him with shouts of Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of God. And then he will be arrested, charged with blasphemy, convicted, and executed.
     But now, as he leaves Jerusalem, he says that he wished Jerusalem would hear his message. He wants to gather her in, he says, like a hen that gathers her chicks under her wings to protect them. He wants to save Jerusalem from itself, but it will not listen. It continues on its way, seeking wealth and power and worldly fame. He foresees that Jerusalem will be left desolate. Because it plays the game of power, it will be destroyed by people who play a stronger game. That is indeed what happened to Jerusalem more than once in its history. Just as it happened to every city or nation that has played the power game.
     What does this mean for us?
     Well, I think we can see here several messages. Personal ones, that apply to how we choose to live our lives. Communal ones, about how we live and work and play together. Political ones, about how we do, and how we should, use power.
     But most of all, a warning: Choices have consequences. That’s obvious, but we keep trying to avoid those consequences. We sometimes say, But I had no choice. What we really mean is that the other choice was just too hard. And sometimes it is. But too often it was merely unpleasant or inconvenient. Or, like taking your medicine, it tastes bitter, but you need it. Children have a hard time accepting that. I trust that we grownups will take our medicine without complaining.
     It’s hard enough to accept that choices have consequences we may not like. It’s harder to accept that we have bad reasons for our choices. Ideas have consequences too, because ideas govern our choices. We choose what we choose because we believe some things are worth having. We justify our beliefs in all kinds of ways, with arguments, with appeals to habits, with excuses of one kind or another.
     And here is where it gets tricky. It gets up close up and personal. Because when we make a bad choice, we then try to excuse ourselves. Or we give an apology in which we claim that we take full responsibility, and do nothing. Or we blame someone or something else. We may even attack the accuser. Kill the messenger of bad news, and the bad news goes away, right?
     No, it doesn’t.
     We like to think of Jesus as meek and mild. Charles Wesley wrote a poem to this effect:
          Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
          Look upon a little child;
          Pity my simplicity,
          Suffer me to come to Thee.

     But as Luke reminds us, Jesus was often the messenger of bad news. Like John the Baptist before him, he reminded people that they had made the wrong choices. Powerful people don’t like to be told they are doing bad things. Neither do we, the less than powerful people. If we can’t ignore the messenger, we turn on him:  O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killeth the prophets, and stoneth them that are sent unto her.
     Lent is the time the Church has traditionally set aside for us to contemplate the bad news, that we make bad choices, that we fail to love each other, that we resist the reminder that we have sinned and need to repent. Gloomy and dark, right? Well, it’s not completely gloomy and dark. Tied up inside that bad news is the good news: that by God’s grace we may repent, and so enter into the Kingdom. Jesus does not condemn the sinner. He warns the sinner. He offers a way out: Repent!
     I’ll end with a few thoughts about repentance.
     It’s not enough to feel guilty. For that matter, feeling guilty is merely a kind of shame. It doesn’t get you very far. When Jesus says Repent! he doesn’t mean “I want you to feel bad, because you did something bad”. The grammar teacher in me reminds you that “Repent!” is a verb in the imperative mood. It’s a command. You can’t command someone to feel a certain way. You can only command someone to act, to do something.
     So what is it that we should do when we repent?
     We should change the way we make choices. We should examine our reasons, our beliefs, our values, and when these tend to lead to bad choices, we should drop them or change them. We should put a lower value on our own convenience and pleasure, and a higher value on what’s good for us, and what’s good for other people. We should think not in terms of Will I like it? but in terms of Is it the right thing to do? We should ask Is it necessary? and not Do I want it?
     In short, we should shift our perspective, our point of view, our way of looking at things. We should try to look at other people and the world as creatures of God, and therefore worthy of our nurture, our support, our protection, and our love.
     When we take the command to repent seriously, we accept another command: To love God, and to love our neighbour.
     Let us pray.
     Lord God, you created us, you saved us, you help us. Grant us the grace of repentance, that we may think and speak and act in accordance with your will. Show us how serve you by serving each other, so that our present life may be a foretaste of your Kingdom. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.

Money 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2015, John 2:13-22

     Today’s Gospel is St John’s version of the Cleansing of the Temple. St John tells us that Jesus made a whip, and drove the money changers and the sellers of sacrificial animals from the temple. It’s told in a few verses in each of the four Gospels.
     It’s an exciting story. Many artists have painted the scene. Imagine, Jesus wielding a whip, overturning tables, shouting at people, using harsh language: Take these things away. Do not make my Father’s house a place of merchandise. In another Gospel, Jesus is quoted as saying My Father’s house is a house of prayer, you have made it a den of thieves.
     Considering how few words are used to tell the story, it has attracted a lot of attention.
     Why is this? I think that it’s not just the drama of the event. I think it’s that this event touches on many questions which all relate to the single most basic one: What is life for? It does so in two ways. It shows us that money and wealth can be serious problems. And it symbolises the radical reorganisation of life, the universe , and everything, which Jesus offered in his ministry, and which culminates in his death on the cross.
     Let’s have a closer look at the core of this event. Why did Jesus cleanse the Temple?  The simple answer is that he was deeply offended by the focus on doing business in the Temple. Sure, people needed to buy sacrificial animals, but trading in them was not what the Temple was for. Doing business was not the business of the Temple.
     Does Jesus say anything about money and wealth anywhere else? He sure does. He points out how the widow who donates one dollar gives a much larger proportion of her wealth than does the Pharisee who gives a hundred. He tells the young lawyer that he should sell everything he has, give the proceeds to the poor, and become a disciple. He tells a parable about a man who has filled his storehouses with wealth and plans to lead a leisurely life of retirement, except that he will die that night.  He says that we cannot serve both God and Mammon. He holds up a coin and says, Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. And so on.
     Jesus has a lot to say about money and wealth. So do the writers of the Epistles. So does the Old Testament.
     And that leads to the obvious question: What does the Bible teach us about how to think about money and wealth?
     Some people will no doubt say that the Bible is not an economics textbook. That’s true, if you think of economics as being all about the numbers. But the economy isn’t just about the numbers. In fact, the numbers are the least of it. The economy is the way we’ve organised our community life so as to produce and share the goods and services that we need. That’s all.
     So what’s the role of money? Money is a method for making the exchange of goods and services easier. Sure, we can use it for many other purposes. We can use it track the costs of production and distribution. We can use it to account for debt. We can use it to calculate how much each partner contributes to a common enterprise. We can even use it to save for the future. Instead of storing actual wheat in actual storehouses for future use, we can create a money debt so that we have a claim on wheat that’s grown years later, when we need it.
     Money is one of the great inventions of humankind. I put it right up there with the wheel. By the time the books of the Bible were written down, money was already important. It was so important that the Old Testament has many rules about fair wages and fair prices and fair measures, and how to handle debt, and how to deal with people who don’t follow these rules. And every seven years you were supposed to cancel all debts.
     By the time Jesus came up to the Temple and attacked the money changers, money was already taken for granted as the main medium of exchange among strangers. The Temple was important because it was the only place at which the Jews could perform the sacrifices according to the law. The temple forecourt was where money and religious observance came together.
     To perform a sacrifice you had to give an unblemished dove or lamb or other animal to the priests, who performed the actual sacrifice. Most people bought the sacrificial animal in the Temple forecourt. For this, you needed coinage without stamped portraits of emperors and such. Those are graven images, using them to buy a sacrifice would be blasphemy. Hence the need for money changers.
     There was a lot of money changing hands, and the Temple authorities got a cut of the proceeds. When Jesus tossed out the money changers, the Temple authorities were of course annoyed. How dare this upstart wandering preacher interfere with their business?
     Let’s take a little side trip and think about money. Money makes the world go around, so they say. That’s an odd idea, when you think about it for a while. You can’t eat money, you can’t breathe it, you can’t drink it. You can’t drive it from here to there, you can’t plow it and grow wheat in it, you can’t do much of anything that you need to live, or that you like to do to make life more pleasant.
     In fact, it’s pretty useless in itself. It’s only useful when you spend it. Then you can eat or drink something, or you can put some gas in the car and get from here to there. Or you can get a tractor and a plow and a seed drill and plow your patch of ground and plant wheat in it.
     So why do we think money is so important? Because we’ve created an economic system in which we need money to buy and sell. Money makes trading very convenient, which is certainly a good thing. It makes trading so convenient that we’ve built the most complicated economic system the world has ever seen. Most of the things we buy are made and brought to us by people we will never meet face to face. Amazing, when you realise that. Imagine: dozens, possibly hundreds of people do their jobs day in and day out, and the result is that you can buy a pen for a dollar or less.
     So money is very, very convenient. But that convenience comes at a price. The price is our ideas about and attitudes towards wealth. Money shapes our notions of what’s important. Money is a number, so we confuse price and value. We need money to buy what we need and want, so money distracts us from what makes life worth living. And money buys power, so it distorts our politics.
     We take money for granted. About the only time most of us think about money is when something goes wrong with the economy. And then we have at best confused ideas about what money is, and too often we have wrong ones. Worse, many, perhaps most people, become frightened when the money economy begins to fail. The worst effect of this fear is hyperinflation. That’s when people no longer trust what money means, so they want more and more money, and eventually a wheelbarrow full of banknotes will just barely buy a loaf of bread.
     Yes, no doubt about it. Money is important in our lives. But everything the Bible says about money and wealth elaborates on three themes. First, that we should share the wealth. Second, that trading requires justice. And third, that our relationship with money is problematic, to put it politely. Paul’s words are harsher: in his first letter to Timothy we read that The love of money is the root of all evil.
     In short, the Biblical record, in both Testaments, reminds us that ethics are at the heart of economics. An economic system that doesn’t promote ethical dealing and fair sharing of wealth is a bad one. If there are few or no incentives to deal ethically and fairly with each other, then something is seriously wrong.
     There was something seriously wrong with the system for providing sacrifices for the worshippers who came to the Temple. Doves were the cheapest sacrifices, sold for dollar or two in our money, and supplied because poor people couldn’t afford lambs and goats and young bullocks. No problem with that. But as I said before, the Temple authorities got a cut of every sale. I think that’s the main reason Jesus was annoyed. The Temple authorities no longer saw the trade in doves and other animals as a necessary and useful service for the worshippers, they saw it as a way of making money. It had become a lucrative business. It was now a profit centre.
     Trade is good. It makes life better for everybody. That is its purpose. But the traders and money changers and Temple authorities used trade as a way to enrich themselves. In economic language, they used trade to transfer wealth from other people to themselves. They did not simply exchange of wealth for wealth.  Jesus called that robbery.
     Jesus makes it quite clear that he disapproves of enriching oneself at the expense of others. Transfer of wealth isn’t what the economy is about. Sharing the wealth is what it’s about. Money is just a method for making that easier, and if used rightly, it makes sharing the wealth fairer.
     So what’s the lesson for us?
     Should we stop using money? Of course not. It makes trade easier.
     Should we stop doing business? Of course not. Our way of doing business ensures that we have enough of what we need and what we like.
     Should we stop making a profit? Of course not. Profit is on the one hand the seller’s income, his wage. And on the other hand, profit is an efficient way of pooling resources so that we can do things together that no one of us could do on their own.
     Then what should we do?
     And here’s where the symbolism of cleansing of the Temple comes in. What does Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple mean? It means that the Kingdom of God is not about doing business. That life is not about making money. That making a living is not the purpose of living. That these things are methods, not purposes. We need to do them so that we are have the time and the energy to do what really matters.
     How do we apply this lesson to economics? The answer is simple. We should do business the same way we should do everything else: as a way of relating to each other in mutual service and love. Prices should reflect actual value. Contracts should be equitable, and not give one side an advantage. Profit should be enough for you to stay in business, and if possible improve the quality of what you offer. Wages should be sufficient for a decent life. Promises to pay should be kept. And so on. Any code of ethics will fill in the details.
     Most of all, we should keep in mind that there are vastly more important things in life than making money.
     There’s time spent with family and friends. Playing games, enjoying meals together, celebrating birthdays, hanging out at Timmy’s chatting about whatever comes to mind. There’s doing things that give you deep satisfaction, whether it’s reading a book, going fishing, playing a fiddle, building a table, growing vegetables, even organising and neatening up your house. Or just going for a walk and breathing fresh air and seeing how the sun makes the landscape glow. There are so many good things that we can do, so many things that bring us joy.
     And there are needs to be met wherever we look, for the world doesn’t run on Jesus’s economics. People are cheated out of wages. They aren’t paid enough to enjoy a decent standard of living. Fraudsters trick people out of their life savings. Random accidents and illness make it impossible for people to work for a living.
     Most of all, fear for our own future makes us selfish and unwilling to share what we have. No one will help us when we need help, we must look out for number one. And when everyone looks out for number one, none of us looks out for each other.
     We are fortunate in this town. Most of us have enough income to live a good life. Jesus calls us to share what we have. His economic theory is simple: Share the wealth, and everyone will have enough. That’s the Economics 101 version of his command to Love one another as I have loved you.
     Let us pray.
     Lord God, give us grace so to trust in your promise of more abundant life that we may in this life share the abundance that you have provided of your bountiful goodness; and that in the life to come, we may share in the joys of your Kingdom. We pray in the name of him who gave his life that we might have life, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen

    The Leper   6th Sunday after Epiphany, 15th February, 2015, Mark 1:40-45
     The Gospel of Mark doesn’t shilly-shally. It’s short and to the point. It starts in the middle of the action, and it moves fast, wasting no words. In the first chapter, just a page and half in a typical bible, this is what we get:
     John the Baptist preaches in the desert;
     John baptises Jesus;
     The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus;
     Jesus announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand;
     Jesus calls four disciples to follow him;
     Jesus teaches in the synagogue at Capernaum;
     Jesus casts out an unclean spirit from a sick man;
     Jesus heals Simon’s mother-in-law;
     Jesus heals many other people;
     Jesus goes into the desert to pray;
     Jesus preaches in other synagogues in Galilee;
     Jesus heals a leper;
     Jesus withdraws into the desert to escape the crowds.

     That’s quite a list. Mark doesn’t give us much in the way of dates and times; he wasn’t writing an essay for a history course. But it’s clear that this first chapter covers a lot of ground and time, many miles, and many days if not weeks.
     Mark also doesn’t give us much in the way of help about how to understand the stories of Jesus’s ministry that he has chosen to tell us. He simply tells us what happened, sometimes saying it was the next day, sometimes not. For example, he mentions in passing that John was put in prison. We are left to infer that some time must have passed between Jesus’s baptism and this event.
     Then there’s Mark’s narrative method. In some places he uses dialogue to move the story along, for example when Jesus tells Simon and Andrew he will make them fishers of men. In other places, he uses dialogue to slow down the story, so that we will dwell on that event a little longer, as in the healing of the leper. And many things are merely mentioned, such as the teaching and preaching in the synagogues. Jesus did that, but Mark doesn’t tell us Jesus said. In many ways, Mark’s Gospel is more of a chronicle than a history. History deals not only with what happened, but with why, with people’s motives and desires and goals, how they achieved their goals, or not. And so on.
   Mark usually just tells us “This happened, then this happened, then that happened.”

     So we have to pick up every hint of meaning that we can. There are two here that I noticed among many. First, in the second half of this chapter, Jesus’s ministry consists of preaching and healing. Second, there are references to his growing fame. People were talking. People were talking a lot. And Jesus wasn’t exactly happy about that.
     What are the lessons can we draw from this first chapter of Mark?
     Let’s start with the leper. Leprosy is a nasty disease. It can be cured with antibiotics these days, but it can still cause disfigurement. In Jesus’s time, its causes weren’t understood, and there was no cure. Lepers were outcasts, they were homeless. They were allowed to beg by the roadside, but they were not allowed to live in town. No one touched them, no one even handed food to them. They had to leave their bowls by the side of the road, then go away while someone came by to bring food.
     Imagine being told you have to leave home because of your illness. Imagine people being afraid of you because of your illness. Imagine people not even looking at you when they give you a coin.
     Jesus heals the leper, and he tells him, “Don’t talk to anybody; but show yourself to the priest, and perform the sacrifices according to the law.”
     So the leper dances off. Well, I think of him as dancing off, I mean wouldn’t you dance if you’d just been healed of a horrible disease that made you an outcast? He dances off, shows himself to the priest, and starts talking to everybody whose ears are close enough about this wonderful thing that’s happened to him, and who did it. So much so, that Jesus was recognised everywhere he went, and had to go to less populated places. Yet still people came to see and hear him.
     By curing him, Jesus gave the leper his life back. He could once again be a part of his family and community. No wonder he told everybody about the wonderful thing Jesus had done. Wouldn’t you?

     Why then did Jesus tell the leper to keep it quiet? Jesus had no qualms about preaching and teaching in the synagogues. He didn’t object when people admired his insights into the Torah and the Commentaries. Mark tells us that he went all over Galilee preaching and casting out devils, and healing people of diverse diseases.
     To understand Jesus’s unwillingness to have the leper talk about his healing we have to look further. Jesus makes the same request of some other people he healed. And most significantly, he complains that people want him to perform signs and wonders.  He doesn’t want people to believe his message just because they see him doing miracles. He wants them to understand his message and apply it to their own lives. Miracles can be a distraction.

     If we consider the miracles that Jesus did, we can see a pattern, a pattern that reinforces Jesus’s message to us. The miracles weren’t merely tricks that demonstrated his power. They weren’t designed to amaze us. They weren’t even proofs that he was the Son of God. The disciples performed miracles, too. So did Elijah. Magicians do things that seem impossible. In both Jesus’s day and ours, most magicians made a living entertaining people, and some made a living deceiving people. Why would Jesus want to compete with them?
     Well, he didn’t. All of Jesus’s miracles helped people. He cured their diseases. He filled their bellies. He calmed their fears. In his very first miracle he turned water into wine at a wedding. He turned what could have been a failed celebration into a better feast than the groom had planned. His miracles all remove pain, the pain of illness, the pangs of hunger, the anguish of fear, the misery of social disgrace.
     In short, Jesus’ miracles made life better for people. That’s the first lesson for today.

     The second lesson comes from an earlier part of this first chapter of Mark: “The kingdom of God is at hand”, says Jesus. That’s the framework, the context, the purpose of Jesus’s ministry. “Repent, and believe the good news”, he says. The good news is that he’s come to make our lives better in every way, physically, socially, spiritually. And Mark’s focus throughout his account is on how Jesus does just that. This first chapter sets up two major themes of Mark’s Gospel: That the Kingdom of God is at hand, and that Jesus heals us.

     The healing of the leper touches on both of these themes. It touches on healing directly, and on the presence of the Kingdom of God indirectly. The healing of the leper is the healing of an outcast. We aren’t likely to get leprosy these days, and we no longer have rules and regulations that would make us homeless if we do get it. But there are many ways in which we can be outcasts, or feel like one.
     It’s terrible to feel outcast, to be an outsider because other people don’t want you. In my first draft of this meditation, I had a long passage about mental illness and homelessness, and the helplessness we feel when someone we love suffers from an illness, any illness at all. It was quite a downer, so I’ve decide to focus on how today’s Gospel story reassures us.
     It reassures us that Jesus will heal us, that he will be there when healing is needed. The leper faced a lifetime of slowly increasing pain and ugliness, and of being shunned by his people. His future looked dark, and looked to be getting darker. Jesus changed that. He changed that because the leper asked him for healing. “Make me clean,” he said, “I know you can do it.” And Jesus did.

     When we are so far down that we think there’s no way up, we too can ask Jesus to heal us. And one way or another, Jesus will do that. He may help us change the way we see ourselves and our situation so that we can see a way out. He may help us trust friends and family to support us as the body and the mind heal. He may give us the confidence to hang in there until things get better. He may lead us to a healer, a spirit guide, a doctor, who will use their gifts to bring us out of the darkness. He may grant us a vision of himself that will energise us so that we can move on and up, away from depths that threaten to drown us.
     For you see the story of the leper is also a story about the power of prayer. If you pray with faith, your prayer will be answered. Prayer is not a magic spell. Prayer is a way of connecting with the Spirit, and that Spirit will enable us to recognise what has been there all along, the healing power of faith and trust in the One who embodied love.
     Accept that love when it’s offered.
     Offer that love when it’s needed.
     Let us pray.
     Lord God, who made us, redeemed us, and keeps us, grant us so to trust you that we will pray for your healing power. Give use the humility to recognise that healing when it is offered, and the confidence to offer that healing when we see the need. We ask this in the name of the One who healed us all by his death on the Cross. Amen.


  Jesus's Advice  6th Sunday after Epiphany 6th Sunday after Epiphany, 16 February 2014

     Think back to when you were a child.
     Remember that sometimes you were clumsy, and accidents happened. Maybe you bumped into a table and the flower vase on it crashed to the ground and shattered. Bits of crockery, water, and flowers all over the carpet. Oh, but Mom was unhappy about that!
     Maybe you reached for the jam and pushed the milk jug over. A pint of white liquid all over the table cloth, soaking into the toast, splashed into the butter and jam dishes. Oh, everybody was mad about that!
     Maybe you rushed through a door and slammed it shut just as your little sister followed you, and there was a nosebleed. Blood on her face, blood on her sweater, blood dripping onto the floor. Plus her screams of pain. Oh, but that made you feel awful!
     Or maybe something much worse happened, which you’d rather not remember ever again.
     Do you remember how you excused yourself? You said I didn’t mean it! Even as a child you knew that intending to do something bad was wrong. Doing it was worse. Causing harm was bad, but it was worse if you wanted to do it. Causing harm that you did not want wasn’t as bad as causing harm that you wanted. When we do something bad by accident, we excuse ourselves by saying, But we didn’t mean it!
     On the other hand, when we feel like doing something bad, but don’t do it, we pat ourselves on the back and think, But I didn’t do anything! Apparently, not doing something bad that we wanted to do is a Good Thing. It’s Resisting Temptation, after all. It proves we know right from wrong. It proves we can choose the right.
     Looks to me like what we see here is kind of having it both ways. Not intending harm reduces the guilt of the action. On the other hand, not acting reduces the guilt of the intention. We choose the rule that makes us look good.
     And that is what today’s Gospel is about: it’s about intentions, it’s about attitudes, it’s about motives and desires. It’s about what is sometimes called moral philosophy or ethics. It’s about righteousness, about moral responsibility. These are heavy topics, they’re not easy to analyse, nor is it easy to agree. It’s fairly easy to agree on general principles, but it can get very complicated when we try to apply these principles. What Jesus says is, I think, very helpful here. He is quite clear about one point: intentions, attitudes, feelings, these all matter, even when they do not lead to actions:
     You know the commandment Thou shalt not kill, and whoever kills is in danger of judgement, says Jesus. But I say to you that if you are angry with your brother, you will be in danger of judgement; if you say to your brother, You are worthless, you will be brought before the council; and if you say to your brother, You fool, you will be in danger of hellfire.
     This is serious stuff. Jesus ups the ante: it’s not enough to refrain from acting, he says. You have to refrain from wanting to act. More than that, you must not even express an wrongful desire or attitude. He has no patience with the old saying, Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That’s what a victim of bullying says to comfort himself. But we all know it’s not true.
     So let’s think for a while about actions and intentions.
     I’ll start with ethics. Many organisations and businesses have a code of ethics. They spell out the principles people should apply when doing their work. These principles put limits on actions. For example, it’s OK to try to get the best price for the car you’re selling, but it’s not OK to promise services you know you can’t deliver. It’s OK to talk only about the car’s good features, but it’s not OK to exaggerate them, and it’s definitely wrong to lie about shortcomings if the customer asks about them. And so on.
     Ethical behaviour is so important that we’ve invented so-called civil law to deal with unethical behaviour. Most lawsuits are about alleged breaches of ethics. The law states what the ethical rules are, and when you go to court, you are basically saying that someone else behaved unethically towards you. Or vice versa, if someone sues you. Anyone who’s followed civil law cases knows that, as the saying goes, there are arguments on both sides. If there weren’t two sides to the question, we wouldn’t go to court.
     Ethics are also personal. What limits do you put on your own behaviour? Here’s where things get tough, because we dearly want to think of ourselves as good people. We want to believe that our standards are the right ones. We want to reassure ourselves that what we want out of life is OK, or more than OK. We all want to believe that other people respect us as good, upstanding citizens who can do no wrong. And that when we do wrong, it was just a mistake.
     In short, we hunger for righteousness. But since we know that we harbour motives that we don’t care to make public, we’ll settle for respectability. Respectability consists of acting according to the rules
    Or rather, respectability consists of being seen to act according to the rules. Jesus had a lot to say about this kind of visible righteousness, and it got him into trouble with the Pharisees and Sadducees, who were eminently respectable people. Most of them were no doubt sincere in their attempts to do the right thing. That’s why they followed the rules, and got so annoyed with Jesus when he said it wasn’t enough.
     Rules are pretty easy to make and to follow. The thing about rules is that you don’t have to think much about whether what you are doing is the right thing to do. Just follow the rules, and you’ll be OK. I was just following the rules is an excuse many people have used when it turned out they were doing bad things. In fact, we raise following the rules to the status of doing your duty. And doing your duty is a good thing, right?
     Well, it is and it isn’t. I’ve just finished reading a book about Adolf Hitler, and it reminded me once again that if your leader commands you to do evil things, then doing your duty means doing evil things. I’m just doing my job is no excuse. It’s shifting the blame to someone else, the one who told you what to do. But by shifting the blame you show that you knew what you were doing, and that it was bad. So why did you do it? Because it was easier to follow the rules, to follow orders, to just be a cog in the machine. It’s much harder to take responsibility for your actions. It’s always dangerous. It could be lethal.
     I think that’s what Jesus’s discussion of motives and feelings and attitudes is really about. It’s about taking moral responsibility for your actions, and that begins with taking moral responsibility for your feelings.
     Desiring someone’s death while in a rage is just an impulsive second away from deciding to kill. Many people with a gun handy have profoundly regretted yielding to that impulse.
    Thinking of someone as worthless implies indifference or contempt. Indifference or contempt often leads to withholding help to those that need it.
    Calling someone a fool expresses hate, and hate can lead to a lot more than name-calling.
    Attitudes and feelings matter because all decisions ultimately arise from attitudes and feelings. We flatter ourselves by calling our species homo sapiens, the wise man. We believe that we base our decisions on reason, on thinking things through. But you can reason all week, and think things through for months, and if you don’t want one thing more than another thing, you will never decide what to do. Only how you feel, only your attitudes, only your desires will prompt you to make a choice.
     That’s elementary psychology. It’s human nature. It’s how we operate.
     And Jesus understood human nature from the inside out, after all. He was a fully human being, so he knew what he was talking about. That makes his practical advice about morality, about ethical action, about righteousness all the more valuable.
     And that advice is very practical: psychologists have demonstrated that if you make people feel good, they will make kinder choices. If you make them feel bad, they will make crueller choices. In other words, psychology experiments merely prove that Jesus was right. Feelings, intentions, attitudes matter.
     But deep down we already knew that. That’s why Jesus’s reminders annoyed the rule-followers of his time, and that’s why they annoy us today. Because it’s hard, very hard, to follow Jesus’s advice.
     Jesus knew that. That’s why he not only tells us about what matters in our quest to live a virtuous life, he also offers help. He not only tells us about the bad attitudes we should avoid, he lists the good ones we should cultivate. The passage we read today is part of his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s account, the advice on bad attitudes follows immediately after the advice on good ones. Jesus said, Be merciful. Be a peacemaker. Be meek. Humble yourself. Hunger and thirst after righteousness.
     We can’t stop feeling a bad attitude by trying to stop feeling it. But we can replace it with a good attitude. As more than one thoughtful person has said, sometimes the best solution to a problem is to avoid it. Cultivating the good attitudes means avoiding the bad ones.
     It’s hard to do that, though. We need help. Jesus has promised to provide it. How do we get that help? By asking for it. By trusting that we will get it. By accepting that no matter how often we fail, if we trust in Jesus’s promises, we can try again, and do better next time.
     So let’s cultivate those positive attitudes. Let’s focus on what’s good about each other, our gifts, our quirks, our virtues. Let’s expect a good time instead of a bad time. Let’s expect the best results even though we make plans for when things go wrong.
     Above let’s remember the first and great and only commandment, which fulfills all the others: Love God will all your soul, mind, heart, and strength; and your neighbour as yourself. Amen.


WWJD? What Would Jesus Do? 7th Sunday of Easter, 12 May 2013

What would Jesus do? A few years ago, asking that question became something of a fad. There were even bumper-stickers emblazoned with a large “WWJD question mark”. Asking this question was supposed to make you think. Thinking would lead to more thoughtful decisions.
     There is sound psychology behind this claim. Our immediate first reactions are quick, they are made without thought. We rely on our gut feelings. Much of the time, quick responses, quick decisions are good enough or even better. But sometimes, too often perhaps, quick responses are less than wise. They may be dangerous to ourselves or to other people. They may be cruel. They may simply be stupid. One thing’s for sure. If you rely on your gut feelings, you will sooner or later make a really bad decision. It’s just a matter of time.
     So what would Jesus do? Asking this question should save people from making a cruel or unkind decision. I’m sure that for many people asking the question did have that effect. But the problem is that it works only if you remember to ask it.
     Suppose you’re walking from the theatre to the subway in Toronto. You see a beggar sitting on the sidewalk, a Tim Horton’s coffee cup in front of him, head bowed, waiting for change to be dropped into the empty cup. You see him from far enough away that you can decide what to do. Drop a loonie in the cup? Pretend that you didn’t see him? What would Jesus do? If you ask that question, you’ll probably scrabble for some change in your pocket. If you don’t ask that question, you’ll probably walk on past. That’s what almost everybody does.
    So maybe you should make a habit of asking that question. But the trouble with a habit is that it’s a trained behaviour. Trained behaviours are always tied to a context. They are linked to some situation. That situation triggers the behaviour. It’s what a driving instructor wants to create in you so that your driving habits are safe. When you get into the car, the safe driving habits are supposed to kick in. You shouldn’t even notice that you’ve switched to safe driving mode. If you’re well trained, that’s what will happen. The psychologists will tell you that you’ve been conditioned to behave in a certain way when you drive. You can see that it’s a good thing to have strongly ingrained safe-driving habits.
     So what about WWJD? Asking that question should be a habit. In what situations should you be asking it? Well, that’s not so easy to answer. Should you ask it every time you have to make a choice? Of course not. It would be silly to ask what flavour of ice cream Jesus would choose on a hot summer afternoon. He’d choose the same as you, whatever he fancies. It might even be the same as yours.
     But what about the beggar on that Toronto street? It seems to me that asking the question once should be enough. The answer should guide you every time you see a beggar. You can’t help every beggar, but you can help this one. Maybe you should arm yourself with a pocket full of loonies and toonies, so you can help several beggars. Lord knows you’ll see quite a few in downtown Toronto.
     But what about other situations?
     I think what we’ve bumped into here is the difference between a habit, which is something you do in familiar situations, and an attitude, which is what guides your behaviour in new situations. Thinking about that difference should help us understand how to ask that question, What Would Jesus Do? I think that it’s not really about how to behave, about what to do. It’s really about how to decide what to do. It’s a question about the attitudes we have towards other people. It’s a reminder that we need to understand, or try to understand, what our relationship with each other should be.
     If you think about it, the question What Would Jesus Do is actually another question. The question is, How can we be like Jesus in our relationship with each other?
     Hearing the question this way implies that our relationship with others should be like the one that Jesus has with us, with each one of us.
     Hearing the question this way implies that we need to understand, or try to understand, what Jesus’ relationship with us actually is.
     Today’s Gospel tells us what that relationship is.
     Today’s Gospel is a prayer by Jesus to God the Father. The setting is the time immediately before he was arrested and tried and crucified. He’s been talking with his disciples, summarising his teachings, giving them one last word before his ministry comes to an end. He ends with a prayer to God the Father, and today’s reading is part of that prayer:  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.
     Let me digress for a moment. The Gospel of John is the most theological of the four Gospels. It was written after the other three, and probably even after the Revelation, around 95AD. It was written to present a theory of God, an explanation of what the concept of “God” should mean to a Christian. For a follower of Christ, for someone who was baptised into the community of Christians as defined by Paul, for that person the Gospel of John helped him or her understand what was meant by saying Jesus was the Son of God, or that Jesus proclaimed the Good News, or that trust in Jesus meant a new relationship with God, or that Jesus was the Messiah, the Chosen One of God. And so on.
     By the time the various writings that were circulating among the Christian churches were examined, discussed, compared with each other,  and selected for inclusion in the list of books that became the New Testament, these questions and many like them had become a reason for strife and discord and mutual distrust. The Church had passed on the traditions they had received from the Apostles, and this passing on had resulted in variations and differences.
     The Church had to settle these differences. It called together several Councils, that is meetings of the bishops from the different places, to decide what the New Testament should include. However, from the beginning, the New Testament included the Gospel of John. One reason, I’m sure, was that it gave answers to people who were trying to understand who Jesus was, and what his Good News meant as a guide to life. We can state the central question at least three ways.
     One,  How does knowing Jesus as the Son of God define my relationship with other Christians?
     Two, How does knowing Jesus as the Son of God define my relationship with all other people?
     Three, How does knowing Jesus as the Son of God define my relationship with the world God made?
     I think we know the answer. Jesus told us that the most important commandment was to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and to love our neighbours as ourselves. So what more do we need to know?
     Well, no matter what we say or think about God, about our relationship with each other, about what we believe about Jesus, our words and thoughts and ideas are inadequate and incomplete. There’s always more to be said, more testimony to be given, more experience to be shared. Even repetition matters. What we think we meant when we said “I believe” last year isn’t the same as what we think we mean when we say it this year. The life of faith, the path to enlightenment, the journey we all travel, requires language, even though language is not enough. It requires action, even though action is not enough. It requires silence, even though silence is not enough.
     So let’s focus for a few minutes on these words of Jesus:
     I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.
     I have made you known to them, Jesus says. He has made God known to his disciples, to us. He did this by the way he lived, the miracles he performed, the stories that he told. The God that he made known to his disciples is a God of love, the One who created the world, and who loves his creation. This is a God who wants us to embody his love in our lives.
     Jesus was present to his disciples, but he is also present to us. That’s what he promises, when he says, I will continue to make you known to them.
     The traditions passed on to us, the Gospels, the letters of Paul and other disciples, these are all ways of continuing to make God known to us. That implies careful study, meditation on what we read, weighing other people’s views, talking about what we think and believe. These are all ways in which God continues to reveal himself to us.
     But talking is not enough. Thinking is not enough. Talking and thinking must be translated into action. That is why the next phrase in Jesus prayer tells us the purpose of making God known to us. It is order that the love you have for me may be in them...
     Here we come to the heart of the matter. The relationship between the Son and the Father is love. That love is shown in the healing and other miracles performed by Jesus. The miracles are not what you might call parlour tricks designed to show the power of God. In fact, Jesus repeatedly expresses irritation when people see his miracles as being merely demonstrations of divine power. His miracles are almost all examples of service to others. The very first one, the conversion of water into wine at the wedding in Cana, saved the bridegroom from ridicule, in fact it caused the bridegroom to be praised. The ultimate miracle is Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.
     But Jesus adds one more thing, something that puts a new perspective on the relationship between Jesus and us, and therefore on the relationship with each other: ... and that I myself may be in them.
     Elsewhere Jesus said he would be with us till the end of the world. This is how he will do it: he will be, he is, he has always been, within us.
     Now that’s perhaps a bit of a stretch. How can Jesus be within us? Well, one way to explain this is to say that since Jesus is God, Jesus means that the divine is a part of us, that we are spirit as well as flesh. In baptism, we are said be born again of water and the Spirit. Sounds logical, right? I don’t know about you, but to me this kind of logic is true enough as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. More accurately, it doesn’t get us very far. It deflects us from the more important question, which is, How can Jesus-within-me affect the way I live?
     Hugely, I’d say. For if Jesus is truly within me, then everything I think and do and say and feel will be conditioned by his Presence. And if he’s within me, he’s also within you, and him, and her. He’s within all of us. In some thoroughly non-logical sense, we, each one of us, become one with him. And that insight illuminates some of Jesus other sayings, such as the one that anything we do or do not to each other, we do to him. It also makes crystal clear why love is at the heart of his message. Love binds us together. It makes us one.
     How do we know this? How can we know this? By being silent, and listening for the inner voice that says, You are loved. You are a creature of God. God made you, he loves you, he wants you to make plain his love for all the world. He will be with you, within you, and you will be able to love all that is.
     Which in a roundabout way brings us back to where we started. What Would Jesus Do? He would make his decisions based on love. And Jesus’ kind of love is action. Jesus-within-me is love in action, it’s what I do. It’s recognising that we are all of the family of God, even, or maybe especially, when it doesn’t look like it.
     So when you see that beggar on the street, give him a loonie, or whatever change you have. Not because he deserves it according to whatever standards of judgment you think are appropriate, but because he too has Jesus within him.


Remembrance Day 11th November, 2012

     We all know the story of the widow’s mite, and Jesus’s praise of her offering to the Temple treasury. Jesus said, For [the rich] did cast in of their abundance; but she of her need did cast in all that she had, even all her living. (Mark12:44) There are many lessons in this single sentence, and we have no doubt heard most of them.
     We’ve certainly heard sermons using this incident as a model for our own giving to the Church. We do need such a model. Our own parish is always living on the edge of financial failure. And we are not alone. Every level of Church organisation is just barely scraping by. Even churches that we think of as doing well are seeing dark financial weather on the horizon. Attendance is falling as younger people disengage from organised religion. The congregations of every denomination are aging, and with age comes restricted income and limited ability to support the Church. I could go on, but you get the picture.
     We’ve also no doubt all heard sermons that contrast the apparent generosity of the rich, who have so much, with the real generosity of the poor, who have so little. As a matter of fact, Revenue Canada’s tax records show that Jesus’ observation is true even today. Their records show that middle- and lower-income tax payers give a larger proportion of their income to charity than the upper-middle- and upper-income tax payers do. And like the rich man in the story, the rich donors expect recognition: they want colleges, buildings, parks and so on named after them. I could go on, but you get the picture.
     However, instead of rehashing the arguments for giving more, I want to focus on an aspect of this story that is not named as such. This aspect underlies Jesus’ remark. It underlies all the most common discussions of the widow’s mite. Without it, exhortations to give until it hurts make no sense. It’s the concept of sacrifice: but she of her need did cast in all that she had, even all her living.
     The widow gave everything she had. She gave her life.
     Today we remember those whom we sent into war on our behalf, and who gave everything they had. They gave their lives. I want to think about that sacrifice, and what our remembering should inspire us to do. For it does no good to feel sad about those who died in war if our remembrance ends with those feelings. Our duty is not only to remember what the fallen soldiers have done for us, but also to act so that their deaths will have meaning.  
     I am old enough to remember the last years of the war and its aftermath. When someone of my age refers to the war, it means the Second World War, the one that started on the German-Polish border in September 1939 and ended in Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Just how many people died in that war will never be known for sure. The best estimates average out at about 23 million soldiers and 45 million civilians. That’s more than twice today’s population of Canada.
     But those are mere statistics. If you want to know what war is like, talk with those who lived through it. Soldiers who saw combat very rarely talk about it. But you can see how their memories affect them when you watch their faces as they stand at attention at the Cenotaph during the Remembrance Day ceremonies. My father talked about it once only, when he thought the time was right for his grandchildren to learn something of what to them was only history in books.
     Those who didn’t see combat are more likely to tell stories, but they too avoid talking about the fighting that they knew indirectly, through the death and wounding of their friends. The civilians who endured bombing, flight from the front, refugee camps, starvation, invasion and counter invasion, the oppression of occupation and foreign rule, they sometimes talk about it. But they leave out a lot.
     I don’t remember much. We lived in a small town by a lake, far from the battle fronts. Bombers flew over on their way to bomb the cities and the railway yards. The sun glinted on them, they were like little silver fish high up in the blue air. The sound of their engines came from everywhere, from one side of the sky to the other. When the bombs fell on the railway yards ten kilometres away, we felt it in our bellies and the soles of our feet. A few times I saw black mushrooms grow on the horizon. Most of the time, the air-raid sirens chased us into the cellar, where we were dressed in several layers of clothing. It was a guarantee that we would have something to wear if the house was destroyed. The woolly underwear itched. There was a candle lit, and others ready to be lit if the power went out. When the bombs fell, we heard a dull thump, very far away, and dust trickled down from the ceiling. We crowded close to Mummy, and felt safe.
     I  hate war. I can’t tell you how much I hate it. And yet I know that war will come again.
     It will come because we fear those who are different, and that gives an opening to those who want to exploit that fear for their own ends.
     It will come because those who have power and wealth want to wage war for their own purposes.
     It will come because we leave too much up to the politicians that we elect to do the boring business of government for us.
     It will come because as long as we have something like a good life, we leave things up to the scribes, which love to go in long clothing, and love salutations in the marketplaces, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and the uppermost rooms at feasts: Which devour widows' houses, and for a pretence make long prayers: these shall receive greater damnation (Mark 12:38-40)
     It’s not pleasant to think about these things.
     It’s not pleasant to think about war, or the poor, or the damage we’re doing to our planet.
     It’s not pleasant because it reminds us that we, each of us and all of us together, have a responsibility.
     But today, on Remembrance Day, we have before us the example of those whom we sent to war, who placed their bodies between us and the enemy, who gave everything they had. I know and you know that they had many different reasons for putting on the uniform. But whatever their reasons, they went.
     And too many of them died.
     We owe them.
     The last stanza of In Flanders Fields calls us to this duty:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
   In Flanders fields.

    The foe is not the enemy soldier. He died as our soldiers died,. His family grieved as our families grieved. Those who survived suffered the rest of their lives. The memories of war cannot be erased.
     No, the foe is us. We are the ones who wage war. The soldier is merely an instrument of war. He’s just another weapon that we, the wagers of war, use to fight our battles.
     We must change our attitudes, our feelings, our thoughts. We must replace fear with hope, hate with love, indifference with caring. It sounds like tall order, but it can be done.
     If you look at the advice that Jesus gives us, one thing stands out: he doesn’t talk about systems. He doesn’t talk about governments, or politics, or businesses, or enterprises, or organisations. He doesn’t talk about methods or processes or procedures. He doesn’t talk about checklists, or seven habits of successful people, or how to make every minute count.
     He talks about forgiveness. He talks about faith. He talks about love.
     The rich young man asks, What must I do to be saved? Sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and come and follow me, Jesus answered.
     The disciples bicker about who will be first in the Kingdom. Jesus tells them, The first in this world shall be last in the next, and the last in this world shall be first.
     What must we do to enter into the Kingdom? we ask. He that would save his life must lose it for my sake, says Jesus.
     By what rule should we live our lives? Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength; and your neighbour as yourself. That’s Jesus’ answer.
     In short, we must change. We must change the way we think, the way we feel, the way we act. We must think of all humans as being People Like Us. We must feel that every person we meet is a member of our family. We must do whatever we can to make life better for other people, just as we do whatever we can to make life better for ourselves.
     A tall order indeed. It means giving up the notion that we are the centre of the universe. It means giving up what makes us comfortable. It means giving up our lives in service. It means sacrifice. The kind of sacrifice that Jesus saw in the widow’s offering. The kind of sacrifice that we remember today. The kind of sacrifice that Jesus himself made, when he gave up his life that we might trust in his forgiveness and be free.
     Let us pray.
     Lord God, you made us, you gave yourself for us, you sustain us. By your grace give us the mind and heart and will to serve you in all that we do, and to offer ourselves in service to others. Make us truly aware of the sacrifice that sets us free to serve you by loving each other as you have loved us. Make us thankful for those who gave their lives in defending us from the enemy, and those whose lives were taken in those wars. Forgive us for making war, and help us to so change our understanding of ourselves and others that we may see that all human beings are your children, and therefore are our brothers and sisters. Grant us a change of heart, that hate may be replaced by love, fear may be replaced by joy, and indifference by caring. Grant us these our petitions for the sake of Jesus Christ, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.


Babies and Hope
The following was preached on the occasion of a baptism. Our priest had been away at meetings all week, and was unable to prepare a sermon for this occasion. Advent 4, 2012

     We all like babies. Well, we like them when they’re cute and smiling and freshly diapered. Not so much when they’re grumpy and crying and smelly. Then we hand them over to their mothers or fathers to take care of them, so they’ll again be the smiley, sweet-smelling little creatures that we love.
     But even when babies are not at their best, we want to keep them.
     I think babies are amazing. I love the way they stare at everything. I love the way they smile back at you. I love they way they want to figure things out. You can almost hear their brains going click-click-click as the synapses snap together. They’re always figuring things out.
     Everything is new and fresh for them. Everything is interesting. Babies are learning machines, that’s what they are born to do, and wow, do they ever learn. They start from almost nothing. They can express pleasure and irritation. We love it when they express their pleasure. We run and try to help them when we hear them cry. We are programmed to look after them, and most of us, most of the time, we do a pretty good job of it.
     Babies are born with just a few skills. They’re born with a preference for looking at faces. Within days they know who’s family. A little later, they know who’s a stranger, and they gaze at you trying to figure out why you look different.
     They like to listen to language. Within weeks, they are trying to make language-type noises when you speak to them.  Within a few months, they start babbling to themselves. By the time they’re two or three years old, they have learned the language, they can tell you what they want, they can ask questions, they can express their opinions.
     By the time children are 5 or 6 years old, they have learned most of what they will ever learn. School is mostly filling in the gaps and connecting the dots.
     Well, today we welcome a new baby into our church family. We’re happy about that. We will gather round the baby and the mother, and make googly eyes and googly noises and smile.
     Babies are wonderful, no question.
     Why do we make such a fuss about babies and small children? Why do we take such care to protect them? Why do we feel such grief when a baby or young child dies?
     A baby is our future. In a very real sense, we live on in our children. They carry our genes. In the olden days, people talked about blood and bloodlines, but the idea is the same: our children are our future. If we have no children of our own, we may see our siblings’ children as our children. This tendency is so strong that in some societies the mother’s brother is more important in a child’s life than the father. Even cousin’s children matter, especially nowadays when we have small families.
     It seems that our sense of who is our child expands outward from our own. That’s why we may volunteer to assist organisations, or help plan events for children. At this time of year, many charities successfully beg for money to give poor children some Christmas joy. In many places, there are special parties for children. Volunteers at children’s hospitals make an extra effort. We may grumble about taxes, but we support our schools anyway. We raise money for field trips, or to buy equipment for sports and music, or even basic classroom supplies, because the anti-tax whiners don’t want to pay more.
     In short, individually and collectively we take raising and caring for and educating our children very seriously. We do this because our children represent our hope for the future.
     Hope. A short word, a small word, a simple word, but it has large and complicated meanings. When we say we hope for something, we are saying that we want something to happen, but we know it’s not guaranteed. Compare hope to expectation. We expect what we are sure will happen. We hope for what we are not sure will happen.
     Hope is one of those concepts that has probability built into it. When we start out on a path towards a hoped-for goal, we are betting that things will turn out the way we want. Life’s a gamble which we want to win. That’s the reason we like stories about long and difficult and dangerous journeys. The success of the hero reassures us that we too may hope for success.
     There can be reasonable hopes and unreasonable ones. For example, this past Thursday, we hoped that the worst of the winter storm would be over by Friday morning so that we could drive to Sudbury to pick up our son at the bus station. We knew that a storm is often not as bad as forecast. Hoping for a milder, shorter storm is reasonable: the odds are pretty good, even if they are against you. And in fact, the worst of the storm was over, and the highways were clear.
     Hope. It keeps us going.
     But we also hope for a good outcome when the odds are against us. The worse the odds, the stronger our hope. The strongest hope comes when we have no way of figuring the odds, or when the odds are very bad. Like the student who looks at the exam questions and realises he hasn’t any idea of how to answer them. But he starts writing anyhow, hoping that the answers will somehow come to him. And anyhow, the prof may give some marks for effort. It’s an unreasonable hope, but that doesn’t stop the student from trying.
     Hope. It keeps us going.
     It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that most of the time the best we can do is figure the odds. Luck, good and bad, plays a major role in our lives. When we are faced with an unexpected opportunity, we have to make a decision. We learn early in life that we often make a decision that’s not the best. So every time we face a new opportunity, we hope we’ll make the right choice. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t.
     Hope. It keeps us going.
     Hope keeps us going in the face of what our reason tells us is almost certain defeat. Hope gives us the courage to try again. Or maybe hope makes us stubborn. We will not give up; maybe this time we’ll succeed.
     Hope. It keeps us going.
     When we look at our children, we hope that they will do a better job than we did. We hope that they will learn from our mistakes. We hope that this time, we’ll get it right. We will teach our children, and they will succeed where we failed. That’s one of the reasons, one of the more important reasons, that we make such a fuss about babies. They are the future that we hope will turn out better.
     For us Christians, hope has a human face. Hope was born in a human being. He was and is the hope for all humankind. That’s what we will celebrate on Christmas Day.
     The gospel reading today tells us about the Annunciation, when the angel came to Mary. He came with an announcement filled with hope. He told Mary she would bear a son, and that she should name him Jesus, and that he would be called the Son of the Most High, and that he would sit on the throne of David, and that he would reign over the house of Jacob forever. In short, her son would fulfill the hopes of his people.
     Well, as we know, actually Jesus was not a political success. In the long run, the Jews lost their homeland. A few decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, the Israelites rebelled against the rule of Rome. The rebellion was cruelly crushed, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were massacred. The temple was destroyed. That was the end of Israel as a player in the game of politics.
     Jesus certainly did not fulfill the political hopes of his people. So what hopes could Jesus fulfill? We Christians claim that Jesus is the hope of the world, that he will bring peace when he establishes his kingdom. But when we look around us, things don’t look good, and they sure seem to be getting worse.
     A large part of that feeling that the world is heading downhill, fast, is really just our increasing awareness of what’s going on around us. When we were young, we just didn’t know or care or notice what grown-ups did. We had far more important things to do. As we got older, we began to take a more active role in our community, and we began to realise that things often turn out badly. In those situations, we may try to mend the damage or prevent it. We hope that what we do will turn out well.
     There’s hope again. It keeps us going.
     What does Jesus have to do with all this? He failed as a political leader. He didn’t really offer very much in the way of becoming a success. No tips about how to grow your market. No advice on how to live your dreams. No five or seven or eleven rules for successful people. No workshops about time management, or about how to get rid of the stuff in your closets, or about how to focus on a goal and achieve it. No instruction about how to keep the poisonous stuff out of your body, or boost the immune system, or adjust the energy flow in your body to achieve a balanced metabolism. No classes in self-fulfillment, or emotional healing, or finding the inner child. No phone-ins where Jesus tells the callers how to solve their problems.
     Jesus’ advice was not the kind you can buy in a book or watch on TV or hear on the radio.
     Jesus’ advice can be summed up in three sentences:
     Love God.
     Love everybody.
     Love yourself.
     Doesn’t sound very practical, does it? So if Jesus doesn’t give us practical advice, what’s the chance living the good life we want to live? How can we keep going if there is no practical way of living our lives so that pain and suffering  and evil will stay away from us?
     The answer is hope. Or better, the answer is what hope becomes when we make God the background of our lives. When we rely on God when there doesn’t seem to be any hope left. When we ask God to stand by us when despair threatens to drown us.
     I said a few moments ago that for us, hope has a human face, that hope was born in a human being, that hope came into the world as a baby. Because of Jesus’ birth as a human being, because in Jesus the Creator and the Creature become one, because through Jesus we become children of God, because of these mysteries, hope transforms into faith. Faith is trusting that nothing can defeat us, or destroy us, or break us. It’s trusting that, because God is always there for us, we will prevail.
     There can be no greater hope than this. Today’s Gospel reminds us of this: “And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
     Let us pray.
     Lord God, give us the grace to trust in your promises, that the hope born in your Son may become for us the staff that supports us as we journey through this life. We give you thanks that in the birth of our own children you remind us of the birth of your Son. Give us grace that we so care for our children that they too will come to know you. We rejoice that in this earthly life we may see signs and images of that eternal life that you have promised us; and we pray that in our service to each other we may bear witness to the love that you made manifest in your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.


Bread August 2012

     These last few Sundays we have heard passages from John's Gospel that deal with the bread of life. This, says Jesus, is the bread that comes from heaven. He that eats of it shall live for ever.
     Later, at the last Seder that Jesus celebrated with his disciples, he said the bread was his body and the wine was his blood, broken and shed for us. These passages in John relate to the mystery of the Eucharist, of Holy Communion.
     Now, I'm not going to go into a long and detailed explanation of the doctrines of Holy Communion. For one thing, it's been a long time since I studied them. I've forgotten most of what I once thought I knew. I would surely get things wrong and leave things out and make misleading statements. Instead, I want to muse about what this ceremony, this ritual, this sacrament could mean. If some of what I say makes sense to you, give thanks to the Spirit for leading us another step closer to the Light.
     There are so many meanings in this symbol of the bread and the broken body that it's hard to know where to begin. They all somehow relate to the Eucharist, the Holy Meal that we share here at this table. People have argued about the meaning of the bread and the wine for centuries.
     They've disagreed about what Jesus meant when he said This is my Body, This is my Blood.
     They've disagreed about what words to use to explain the mystery. They've disagreed what those words mean. What's more, our ancestors killed each other because of those disagreements. So what's the point of raking up this issue again? Leave well enough alone, and let people think what they will about the Eucharist.
     Well, that's a reasonable attitude to take. Arguments about things we cannot know objectively can break relationships. That's not a good thing. But we can share what we think and feel about the mystery. We can share our experience. Our thoughts and feelings are clues to the experience, and that experience is the heart of the mystery. That's because, somehow, we experience the Presence of Jesus when we receive the bread and the wine. Or perhaps we can say that this sacrament makes us more aware of the Presence of God in all things.
     So I'll share some of my thoughts about the bread and the wine.
     John's Gospel begins by saying that that Jesus is the source of life, of true life. Bread is often called the staff of life. Just as we use a staff to support a weary body, so bread supports our lives. Wine is water made safe to drink. In the days before water treatment plants and municipal water supplies, water could kill you. Wine was much safer.
     Without food and drink we die. It's very suitable indeed that the Seder meal focuses on bread and wine, and that Jesus made these substances symbols of his life-giving Presence. Without spiritual food, we die in the spirit. Our lives become empty and pointless. Despair knocks on the door, sits next to us on the couch, taps us on the shoulder and says, "There's no deed worth doing, no thing worth wanting, no one worth loving."
     But Jesus says, I am the Life that will never die. Trust in me, and you will live abundantly. When you receive the bread and the wine in an attitude of trust, you will find comfort and joy. The background, the foundation of your life will be the certainty that no matter how bad things seem to be, no matter how little you understand what's going on, it does have meaning and purpose. You will be able to focus on what you can do, and you will be able to do it well. That's all you need.
     Let's turn in another direction. Being an English teacher, I turned to poetry. Here's a poem by Dylan Thomas. He was very popular in the 1950s and  60s. This poem is about the bread and the wine, the grain and the grape, the blood and the body. It's  about the Spirit that makes these substances become the true Presence of Jesus at the Table of the Lord.
     As you listen to it, think of it as an expanded version of This is my body, this is my blood. Dylan Thomas imagines Jesus speaking to us about the bread and the wine. The first verse makes the connection, and reminds us of the Crucifixion:

This bread I break was once the oat,
This wine upon a foreign tree
Plunged in its fruit;
Man in the day or wine at night
Laid the crops low, broke the grape's joy.

     The second verse repeats this theme, and focuses more closely on our role in Crucifixion, which Thomas imagines as the destruction of the Light and the Spirit of God:

Once in this wind the summer blood
Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
Once in this bread
The oat was merry in the wind;
Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

   In the last verse, Jesus identifies bread with body and wine with blood

This flesh you break, this blood you let
Make desolation in the vein,
Were oat and grape
Born of the sensual root and sap;
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

     Not exactly an easy poem to grasp on first hearing or reading, so I'll read it again.

This bread I break was once the oat,
My wine you drink, my bread you snap.

     Thomas wasn't concerned with the head's understanding of the mystery. The poem expresses his insight that in Holy Communion we are in communion with both the natural and the spiritual world. Jesus combines them, he makes flesh and spirit one. The Eucharist is a re-enactment of the Incarnation, when God took on human flesh and became a man. The barrier between the creature and the creator is breached: Jesus is both. And because Jesus is both, we may share in his life. Jesus can, as we say, come into our hearts.
     Jesus identified the grain and the grape as his body and blood. This may remind us that our life depends on plants. Being animals we rely on other living things to give us life. Without plants we wouldn't be here. They supply us with the oxygen we need to survive. They supply our food, directly when we eat grains and fruit and vegetables, and indirectly when we eat meat from animals that have eaten plants. Their life is a gift to us.
     Yet we rarely pay attention to this gift of life. The other night we were watching a short documentary about the Slave River. There was lots of information about the species that live in its delta: dozens of species of animals, birds and fish, we were told, make their homes in the wetlands fed by the river. But there wasn't any talk about the dozens of species of plants that live there, and without which there would be no animals, birds, or fish.
     We are a terribly self-centred species. We not only ignore the very foundation of our life, we ignore pretty well everything that doesn't have an immediate and obvious connection to us. We forget that without the natural, non-human world around us we could not survive. We think that our jobs are more important than the habitats of wild creatures, the wetlands and oceans, the forests and plains. We think that our jobs are more important even than the earth, the air, the water. Yet without those things there would be no economy, no jobs, none of the things that we think make life worth living.
     And that thought leads to another one: What does make life worth living? Right now, it seems we are all worried about debts and deficits and the economy. Money occupies our minds and hearts. Anxiety about not having enough makes us hard-hearted and cruel: we want to reduce welfare payments, spending on schools, on roads, on parks. We know bridges and waterlines need repair and replacement, but we are afraid to spend the money. We talk about finding efficiencies in healthcare, in environmental services, in care for the aged and infirm. That's code for spending less, even as costs rise.
     But we are willing to spend more on weapons, because we afraid.
     In short, we think of ourselves as individuals who are up against it. The world isn't fair or kind, and we must fight for every advantage we can get for ourselves and our children. We must protect ourselves. Let other people take care of themselves as best as they can.
     That thinking is not what Jesus taught. Throughout his ministry he emphasises inclusion and mutual service. What we do or not do for each other, we do or not do for him. We are to be one in his Spirit. We are to love one another as he loved us. Holy Communion is the sacrament that brings us together in his body, the one body that is the community of believers.
     Of course that's not easy. It's hard to give up worries and anxieties. It's hard to believe that we have more than we need, and can share what we have. It's hard to understand that "love" is a verb, not a feeling. When Jesus said "Love one another", he didn't mean "Feel nice and warm and welcoming about each other." He meant "Do what needs to be done to keep each other well and happy and contented and safe. And do it joyfully, for my service is easy and my yoke is light."
     So this is where I've come to in my meditations on the Bread of Life:
     By receiving that Bread, our  life becomes more abundant.
     By receiving that Bread, we become capable of sharing the life we have, and of sharing the wealth that sustains that life.
     By receiving that Bread, we share in the Life of Jesus, and he shares his life with us. We become one in the Spirit.
     Let us pray.
     Jesus, thou Bread of Life, nourish us that we may be strengthened to serve you by serving each other. Nourish us that we may live life more abundantly. Nourish us that we may taste the joy of  communion with you. Bring us to the Father, with whom and the Holy Spirit you reign forever. Amen.

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