Sunday, January 27, 2019
Trinity United Church, Beamsville
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
“ And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep .” (Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a (The Message)
You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ. By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which he has the final say in everything. (This is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) Each of us is now a part of his resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive. I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, limpid and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it. But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair? The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance. You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything. You’re familiar with some of the parts that God has formed in God’s church, which is God’s “body”:
those who pray in tongues.
But it’s obvious by now, isn’t it, that Christ’s church is a complete Body and not a gigantic, unidimensional Part? It’s not all Apostle, not all Prophet, not all Miracle Worker, not all Healer, not all Prayer in Tongues, not all Interpreter of Tongues. And yet some of you keep competing for so-called “important” parts. But now I want to lay out a far better way for you.
“Stopping by Woods, with Robert Frost”
The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz
This wintry weather has played a little bit of havoc on the nice plan we had for these Epiphany Sundays. There’s a sermon series of sorts underway… really just a following through on the primary themes of this season of clarifying identity – both the identity of Jesus and our identity/our collective identity as followers of Jesus. This is traditionally a time of seeing more clearly what that means; and for the sake of this series, working to let go of that which prevents the clarity. I hope that makes sense. Last week, our snow day, you were to hear Scott preach on the first half of 1 Corinthians 12; and then today me, on the second half. Consider that plan turned upside down, but in retrospect maybe for the better. Today, we’re going to consider what Paul said to what was then a very divided community; a very human group of unique individuals who were having some trouble living into the Jesus-like way of community in the sense of common-unity. Next week, with Scott at the helm, we’ll explore more of what that means for each individual, especially today. That said, let’s start with this week’s focus. And let’s start with a mental scan of how many times you think you might have heard this text from 1 Corinthians 12. I’m aware that’s not likely something you keep precise stats on in your head, but I suspect that if you have heard these verses expounded upon once before or more, there’s a good chance you heard them used as a preaching springboard into affirmation of each of our uniquely gifted lives. The first half of chapter 12 is often used as a foundation and then the second half as application, but very often the message is the same: God has gifted you. God has gifted the person beside you. Like a beautifully intricate and trusting whole, like the human body itself, Paul says and preachers repeat, all this works together for great and God-honouring things for people far beyond us. That makes for a great sermon – except when it doesn’t; when it doesn’t fit with reality, to be more precise. There’s the wonderful and great possibility of the beautifully intricate and trusting whole body of Christ, aka the church community; and then there’s the complex day to day reality of messy human relationships, drawn and bound together by the dream of sorting it all out into something closer to beautiful. Sometimes we get that very right. Sometimes we are wildly off course. Here’s one of the suggestions about why that is: We can be very hard on each other. There’s no other way to say it. By ‘we’, I mean the broad and diverse global community, and also the much smaller, still diverse, but more tangibly close community known right here in this church family. Please note that my virtual interchange of the words community and church family is intentional, and often rather accurate. This is a chosen family rather than biological, but it functions very much like a household. That includes the squabbles and the bickering siblings. Sometimes the ones who love us the most and defend us most loyally, most fiercely, are also the ones who take us to task most swiftly… and in the process, forgetting most quickly that so often that which we critique in another is: that which we struggle most to reconcile about ourselves OR that which we long to be true about ourselves OR that which we assume to be true about others. In the context of the Christians at Corinth, learning to get past assumptions was a huge part of their journey together. The community to whom Paul was writing was not an easy bunch. In that regard, I love Rembrandt’s depiction of Paul, in his piece simply called Saint Paul , in which Paul seems to be nursing a headache. This is how I picture him putting together some of his letters; particularly this one. In terms of what he was writing into, in late December of 2017, Douglas A. Campbell (a New Testament prof at Duke Divinity School) wrote a great summary piece for Christian Century magazine, in which he said: “Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, now lost, in the fall of 50 CE. The Corinthians pushed back quite hard. They wrote a reply to Paul with a number of questions. In the spring of 51 CE he wrote a long letter back, our 1 Corinthians. This is where we start to build up a more detailed picture of the community, and it is not a pretty sight. The church at Corinth was a mess. …Underlying this mess, there were four main difficulties: a basic failure in relating to one another in love; a dramatic failure of the local church leaders to act considerately in the face of their competition for status and influence; arrogant theological reasoning that denied the importance of the body (which we might call “Christian intellectualism”); and tensions arising from the pressures that Paul’s teaching …placed on his converts. Each of these problems would have been bad enough, but when they were all present together, the combination was toxic.” You still with me? Good. Because here’s where Campbell gets to the phrase I’d like you to hang on to. Campbell finishes this intro to Corinth and Paul and says: “When we take a step back from all the ins and outs of the issues in the letter, we can see that Paul is urging something simple on the Corinthians. A great deal of what he says can be summed up in the phrase “appropriate relating”. Appropriate relating. As in, relating in kindness. Relating in trust. Relating with the core understanding that we rely on each other to be kind to one another. Far more than a theologically expounded moment from Mr. Rogers’, Paul sets up mutual trust, mutual reaching out for one another, as a core principle to avoid and/or overcome factionalism; partisanship; competitiveness; cliques, even. And here’s one more piece from Douglas Campbell that I don’t want to overlook: an old theological term for a virtue known as condescension. Yes, condescension, as a virtue. Campbell points out that condescension, the word we now use with freighted connotations of superiority and haughtiness, was once understood and used to describe the belief that our inclusive and gentle God, who values everyone, is especially concerned about and eager to reach those most despised and marginalized; the looked down upon and the overly, eagerly critiqued. This was lifted by Paul all throughout 1 Corinthians, and particularly built upon in his treatise of chapter 12. In God’s community, there is common unity that takes the radically countercultural leadership position of reaching for the sake of lifting; of engaging comparison only and ever for the sake of drawing out our places of parity, of equality, of shared love-ability, even and especially when we are at our least love-able. In the midst of it all, Paul writes with repeated emphasis, may we live with the patient reminder that so often we know so little of the ones around us. Sometimes that becomes overrated praise for the wrong qualities. Sometimes it becomes underestimated dismissal of the right qualities. Always, it is the assumptions that trip us up. Here’s one small example, from the poetic world: If I say to you, Robert Frost, you might say to yourself: aaahhhh, Robert Frost. Famous, renowned master of words. Linguistic genius such that generations of school children have memorized verses of his creation. “Whose words these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here To watch his woods filling up with snow.” …and on it goes until it ends with the oft quoted lines, “and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep”. Those are opening and closing excerpts from ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, from the inimitable Robert Frost; the Robert Frost who was often quoted by John F. Kennedy, completing many of his campaign speeches with the closing lines of the poem; the same Robert Frost who, at JFK’s invitation, began the tradition of a poet reading verse at presidential inaugurations. The whole truth is, however, that this same Robert Frost penned his most widely acclaimed verse in the throes of writer’s block. He did not stand above it. The story goes that Frost was working on something that would not feel right, so he crumpled up everything and walked away. Then, while standing on a porch, staring out across the landscape, seeking inspiration, something simple struck him and in 20 minutes or less, Frost crafted what was soon called a masterpiece, with the assumption that he had crafted it painstakingly. In fact, though, it is heralded most for its simplicity. It was and is heralded for Frost being his most natural self… and, with great vulnerability, letting the world be there with him. No more and no less than anyone else, but simply him alongside each of us. I have no idea if there’s a poetic bone in your body. I don’t care, to be frank. I mean, I do, but I don’t, because I don’t believe that God cares. I believe that God cares that you are you, and that you let the world be there with you, in your truest self. I believe that God cares that you would call me to account if ever I sit in the place of wondering how you ought to measure up to me. Through Jesus, God said and says so clearly that we are not each other’s standard. We are each other’s champions, supporters, friends, confidantes, allies, and partners in the holiest of crimes. Thoroughly ignoring any misplaced social laws that try to drive us to judgmental comparison, we are defy-ers and breakers of harmful ways. For each other, for the sake of all others, we follow in the footsteps of Paul who wanted so badly to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. We dip our theological toes back into the truest sense of condescension and comparison, in their fullest, simplest, yet most powerful practices of assisting another to rise and stand at their fullest; of seeking out all the spaces and ways we are alike and akin; of holding our words and actions accountable always to inclusion and equality. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. Each of us is both of those. Each of us carries all of that. Thank God that we are not defined by either. We are defined instead by who God knows us to be… with, we pray, miles to go before we sleep. May we be part of saying for certain that same grace is here to pour forth on all whom we encounter on this incredible journey.
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Trinity United Church, Beamsville
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
“On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, “Life will never be the same.”
(Nancy Tillman, ‘On the Night You Were Born’)
Scripture Luke 3: 15-17, 21-22 (NRSV)
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“Standing on the Riverbank, with Susan Cottrell”
The Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz
If you happen to be one who sometimes catches CBC Radio One out of Toronto, you, too might have heard the afternoon commute show taking and playing requests all week – specifically seeking their listeners’ wisdom on which songs will help to keep you motivated to keep your New Year resolutions.
On day 3 of hearing this, I thought I should send a note to say that some of us don’t make resolutions; we set Goals – which is maybe just a snooty way of saying resolutions.
At any rate, Goals for 2019 are what I have before me, divided into 3 primary categories: Deeper, Wider, Stronger.
The inspiration for the categories is borrowed entirely from David Cain, who has made a name for himself by exploring life ideas in the form of experiment (like washing dishes by hand for a month, just to see what it transforms in him and his life). While he does these things, he keeps a blog called ‘Getting Better at Being Human’; and that’s where he wrote about dedicating an entire year to “Go Deeper, Not Wider”. It is to be a year of not acquiring any new ‘stuff’ AND not starting any new hobbies. It’s a year of completing projects. It’s a year of going deeper into what is already before you instead of trying something new. I listened to him talk about all this with Mary Hines of Tapestry, and I started thinking of how wonderful that could be in our house… until he got to the part about not buying any new books; about ensuring you read all the books on your shelf before you take in anything new. Ouch. He just wiped out a good chunk of the pretty books I like to look at.
Think a little more, I tell myself. Well, no, that’s still an excellent idea. In the spirit of Marie Kondo; and in the wisdom of David Cain…No more new books, I declared to Michael. Not even library books. I shall read again or even for the first time all that I already have, I declared to Michael. And it was incorporated into my 2019 Goals.
And then I stepped into the local bookstore – which is a little bit your fault, as you/the M&P Committee on your behalf gave me a gift card for said local bookstore. It would be wrong to waste that. I say honestly that I fully went in with the intention of buying a cookbook to support another of my 2019 goals for clean eating. However, the self-help section was blocking my way into the store; and I am a sucker for interesting titles. Before I knew it, I’d read the first 7 pages of Sarah Wilson’s newest work; and then I walked to the cashier with a cookbook and Sarah Wilson’s book, and I shattered that Goal in the first 10 days of 2019.
Let me continue this feeble defense with a little bit about Sarah Wilson’s text. Better yet, let’s start with the title: ‘first, we make the beast beautiful’ – which she explains is from a Chinese proverb. Second, the front graphic: an almost smiling octopus – which she identifies as a complicated and powerful beast made more beautiful through a deeper understanding of them and their desire to communicate with humans. And third (the piece that really held me there at the display) is the subtitle: a new journey through anxiety. This was and is a ‘self-help’ book for millions of Canadians; and also for me. Anxiety is a beast that I am learning to make beautiful; or at least not to let its beastly-ness shadow the beauty God intends for and has instilled in me.
We are a culture consumed with self-help; and there can be good in that – except for the part where it is usually and generously fueled by a belief that our frailties are the sum of our existence, rather than an honest part of our existence. And so we have dozens and dozens of designer plans, with thousands and thousands of books that may carry wisdom, but they may also carry a false justification for whatever we believe is insufficient. There is a fine but important line between self-awareness that leads to self-improvement to honour the gift of life we’ve been given; and self-critique that leads to self-dislike and punishing the gift of purpose we’ve been given.
That was an extremely long way ‘round, but hopefully not a way around the text, the book with which we began this morning. To be sure, there are similarities to name – or at least similarities in their treatment in society. The Bible as a whole, the Gospel according to Luke, and many portions of almost all Scriptural books have been taken apart and put back together on the premise of affirming humanity’s wayward ways. Text after text have been lifted out across time, to wag a finger and give a lecture on the deficiencies of God’s people. Sin and sinful have been elevated to almost venomous, certainly beastly stature, hurled by many a preacher far scarier than John the Baptist. In too many times and too many places, Christian principles for ethical living have been used to not just draw lines but build cement walls in the sand, intent on separating those deemed faithful from those deemed not; all under the guise of protecting the innocent from those who are not. Who’s in and who’s out? Well, that depends on which beast is in fashion for dismantling – and it may or may not have anything to do with the Love we were shown in Jesus… wading into the river in humility, kneeling with the most reviled in compassion, holding the most rejected in prayer, expanding the boundaries of God’s mercy to where we ought not to see boundaries at all.
Jesus never came to say we’re perfect. And yet he did. He didn’t wade into the Jordan to make a point about all things and all choices being okay. We are imperfect beings. We live with circumstances beyond our control. We live with circumstances well within our control. And we spend a good deal of our earthly existence trying to sort out the difference between the two. But all along the way, we are enough. Maybe not for those who insist on judging, but most certainly for God.
John tries to make the claim that he is not good enough to baptize Jesus; that the roles should be reversed because God knows John has stepped out of line a few times. And yet Jesus will have none of it. In choosing John, he chooses to say – to all who witness and all who witness to what they witness – that John is enough. He has a part to play in God’s ever-unfolding story and self-limiting constructs do not.
Jesus steps into the water for reasons that have been theologically dissected ever since. But in the words of James Ravenscroft and Barry Peters, maybe we ought to spend less time worrying about why he went into the water than what happened because and after he emerged from it. In the words of Christine Hallenbeck Ask, Jesus’ baptism was a cosmic event… not just because the heaven was opened to speak his name, but because it began Jesus’ ministry to speak each of our names. Jesus’ baptism is “a particular promise with a cosmic call” – that cannot be confined or bound by words of not good enough. It is a moment of naming, of confirming a choosing. God chooses Jesus. God chooses you. You are a particular promise with a cosmic call.
At the edge of each day, we are invited to stand at the edge of this holy river. Sunrise to sundown, before and beyond, we are invited to stand and make choices about how far we will wade into the sometimes uncomfortable waters of who we are. For one mother named Susan Cottrell, that daily return came to its painful peak on the day she took a phone call from her daughter. Susan and her husband were immersed in the evangelical church where they’d raised their 5 children; and now as a young adult away from home, her daughter was wrestling with and learning to say out loud that she was not who her church expected her to be. ‘Mom’ she said. ‘I’m attracted to women’. And so began a journey in which Susan and her husband were told they had to choose – between their church dogma and their child. They chose their child. Life would never be the same.
A decade and more later, the Cottrells support thousands of Christians and beyond in their support network called freedhearts.org. You can hear plenty more of their story in Susan’s TED talk – at which you will find her to be a rather soft-spoken woman; almost a little terrified at standing in such public waters and telling her story. But tell it she does; live it she does – because she knows this isn’t just for her or her daughter. It is for all of God’s children, of every age and stage, who wonder not only how to make the beast beautiful, but who are too often told that they themselves are the beast.
Susan claims the love of Jesus that she sees in the Jordan, at Bethany, in Gethsemane, on a hill called Calvary, and at the sea of Tiberias. She claims a love that claims us first and last, and stays with us for all the length of our journey. She claims this Love, and then she gives it away. She accepts the promise and the cosmic call to embrace all God’s people in the same. She wades into the waters of who her daughter is, who she herself is; she is held in the clasp of One who will not let her go; and then she rises again, perhaps breathless for a moment, but rises she does and then she emerges out into the world, where life will never be the same.
It is the simplest thing she might ever have done. It is arguably also the hardest. It is decidedly the most beautiful.
And now, it can be our turn.
To God alone be the glory!
1 January 6, 2019
Text: Matthew 2:1-12
One of my friends I spent time with over the holiday was bragging about how last New Year’s Eve she was in bed by 10pm. She is a wise woman. I am envious of her. Of course, I have spent a New Year’s Eve in this very same friend’s basement. This was the same New Years Eve that we freaked out her parents when they heard cult-like chanting coming from downstairs, but perhaps that is a story for another time… or maybe never. In completely unrelated circumstances this is also the year in which a number of pictures were posted to Facebook of many of my group of friends on the basement carpet in exorcist-like positions. But that may also be a story for another time. Accidental cultic behavior is but one of the many memories I have of NYE, even if I would prefer to be in bed.
Staying up for the New Year has never been my favourite, but I feel obligated to spend it with friends or family and usually have a good time in spite of myself. Thankfully, being so tired on New Years Day this year actually helped me repair my fractured post-vacation sleep schedule, and that is a true miracle. God did not set the calendar or the clock but is still certainly watching out for me and that’s a Good Thing. So, on this day that has been assigned the start of a new year, in this year we assume is about two thousand and nineteen years since it happened, let us look at a story of another miracle. This miracle features wise men, people who probably stayed up past their bedtime travelling, reading, and sharing ideas, and maybe we can travel with them for a while.
The central characters in this text are Jesus and Mary (we know them: cool), King Herod (trash), and the wise men (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar). It is these wise men whom we follow in this story though. They are figuring out their own journey, driven by a purpose of finding a Messiah they had read about and set out to find. King Herod is on a journey of his own, driven by a desire to protect his own power. And these are the two forces that are attempting to find Jesus with very different intentions. I think I can safely assume that few people think that Herod is the good guy in this story. So, turning to the wise men perhaps there are a few things to take away from how they act to direct us in this New Year.
The wise men are curious. They embrace curiosity about what they read and what they have seen. There is a tradition that the wise men were Zoroastrian, but we have reason to believe that they were not Jewish, but were aware and possessed Jewish prophetic texts. Wherever the kings are from, they have prophecy about another place and choose to both believe and understand its importance not only for the “Jews” but for all people. SO when they see the star and make the connection, they do not just acknowledge its meaning but then choose to journey out to follow it. Wisdom is continually being curious. It is knowing some things but always wishing to learn more. Wisdom does not end with a fact but continually begins anew with another question.
The wise men seek justice. They respect authority when it is reasonable, and confront it when it is not. When they enter the land of Israel they seek out Herod, in part to make their job easier but also because they ought to do so: they are coming into a country and it seems almost polite to make their presence known and to keep the ruler in the land informed of what is happening. This is respect for authority and leadership and decorum. Civility. HOWEVER, once they learn from their dream that Herod has bad intentions, they no longer pay him the favour of returning to relay their information. It is clear that they no longer want Herod to know of where they have gone and where they are going. Herod gives up his authority after these bad actions and the wise men leave Israel when their work is done by another road. Wisdom is knowing and understanding the status quo, why it exists and why it benefits the world. But wisdom also questions and resists the systems that are unjust and dangerous, never understanding something to be good, sure, and certain simply because of its status. Wisdom makes room for grey areas, and the opportunity to change opinion. Wisdom does not end with a fact, but makes room for a new set of facts.
The wise men accept surprises. They accept what they find as right and correct when it is not what they were expecting. The wise men set out on a journey to find a king, and bring the kinds of gifts one might offer to a king. So when they find a child, it is a different kind of king. But they don’t just leave. They do what they set out to do: they’re like “cool, whatever have some gold,” kneel before a child and let it be what it will be. Wisdom does not end with a fact, it starts something that we could never imagine.
But all this curiosity and flexibility has to mean more than that, right? Because if it was that easy, everybody would do it. We would all work hard to be open to the world around us, use what we know to make informed decisions, and have the flexibility to adapt. We try to do that, but maybe we don’t always succeed. Maybe some of us shy away from wisdom because it feels like a lofty description that we are not worthy to accept. Maybe it seems like wisdom exists in a bygone time before everything can be looked up my computers we carry in our pockets. Wisdom is elusive.
[It feels strange as a young person to be talking about wisdom to a community older than I am. Wisdom is a virtue that is said to be related to age and experience. Knowledge only becomes wisdom when there has been time to reflect on past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future. But it is something to work towards. It’s personal value to myself and my life was affirmed when a minister I once had praised me for my wisdom. I was filling-in as the church administrator at the time. She had come to me with a situation to do with ordering items in the service and told me about an inter-professional issue she was dealing with. I weighed in on both, offering what I thought was a clear answer. When she thanked me “for my wisdom” it was a weird moment. I felt that initial rejection of the word (“me, wise? couldn’t be) but really appreciated it. Because when we are described as wise, our thoughts and opinions and perspectives are valued. And that feels good. It doesn’t mean we should use it lightly, but I think we need to reintroduce wisdom and wise people back into our culture. Wisdom comes from the people who have taken the time to reflect on what they have learned from past experiences to turn them into useful lessons for the future.
But why bother? Because wisdom helps. Wisdom does not sit back and exist for its own sake, wisdom helps people. It is knowledge mobilized, turned outward, and connected to others—it demands to be shared. Wisdom calls us to create a culture in which ideas are valued so that we can come into a place where we can, as a community, come up great things together. Though great in isolation, there are some things that will come more quickly if we listen to each other and value our unique perspectives.
The wise men of this scripture text are a traditional sort of wisdom, maybe what we think of when we think of wisdom at first. They were scholars, who took the time to read, know, and understand the prophecy and all else they needed to know to make the journey that they did. Though wisdom requires knowledge and reflection which a scholar makes their life’s work, that does not mean that only scholars are wise. To that end, I would like to tell you of two people, two women, who’s wisdom has had an impact on my life and how I approach the world and the search for wisdom myself.
The first is a professor I had during my undergraduate degree. She was a professor of British history, originally from the UK and exceptionally brilliant. She was an older woman, maybe a little small in stature. She always wore these black suits, really well tailored and put together. But when she stood at the front of a room to lecture, she commanded attention. She was in a room with a group of young students, but you could tell that she was the kind of woman who when she entered a room, she was going to be the one with the most knowledge in that place.
But it wasn’t baseless. I had the opportunity to take a seminar class with her on the Tudor and Stuart monarchs of England and I can remember in particular I meeting I had with her in her office. I was explaining to her what I was planning to present for my seminar presentation, and she really let me fully explain what I was trying to get at. She asked me a few clarifying questions, which I realize now were her way of trying to get me to move in the right direction. She wrote down a list of a few books that she thought would be helpful and that was that.
I think why this stuck with me was the way that this professor employed wisdom. She knows the answers, she knows the topics all her students are doing inside out. But she never pushed me in one direction or another, she used all she knew in order to assist me in doing my own learning. It was a demonstration of how wisdom goes beyond knowledge, beyond the facts, to meet the situation at hand. This professor turned curiosity and flexibility into tools for teaching, using wisdom to direct me along my own journey towards greater knowledge.
The second person I want to talk about is someone my own age. She is a friend I have known for more than ten years now. The wisdom that she has is not built upon years of scholarship or life experience. But it is built upon the experience she does have. She has a way of seeing people when they are upset, isolated, and withdrawn. She has a way of reaching out to those people, knowing how to engage with them in a way that lifts them up and connects them back with the world where that connection is lost. She is able to do this because of her own life experience. She has had many moments of feeling this same distress, isolation, and withdrawal. But what she does so well is take those experiences and makes use of them. In talking with her about these things, she does not realize how wise she is. When she looks at her action, she seems them as natural. But when I see them, I see how she has taken the knowledge she has gleaned from her life and formed into the wisdom of how to meet people where they are and be a light for them. When she enters a room, you see her because she is a light, and she is illuminated by the wisdom of her experiences.
Sage, professor, colleague, friend—wisdom springs from all places. It is within me. And it is within you. Wisdom is not clear all the time where it works, it is subtle. But when I think of how wisdom works I think also of God. I think of how God works in ways that are sometimes strange to us, and other times in ways that sit clearly in front of us as the most obvious thing in the world. God can be subtle, and works within us great things for us to provide to the world. God is in wisdom. This is because wisdom comes from God, and is God, as are all things of the world from the Creator and Mother of this universe.
But wisdom is also Jesus.
The wise men of scripture are not the central part of the story. Their presence is not for their glory or benefit. Their place in the narrative is to help us to understand the importance of Jesus. These wise people took a long journey to reach Jesus and honoured him with their praise and their gifts. This story tells us that Christ, even as a child, before he did anything extraordinary himself, should be looked at as important because these wise men, these important figures have demonstrated that it is so.
This story comes from Matthew’s gospel. There are no heavenly host of shepherds to demonstrate the divine impact of this birth. That role is filled by the magi, the wise men. Their coming affirms the message that Mary and Joseph receive before their son is born: that he is a savior for their people and is also the son of God. Wisdom approaches the child Jesus and kneels down before him and offers itself up to Jesus for him to use at the appropriate time.
Other gospels approach this in other ways: Mark shows how the Holy Spirit enters into Jesus at this Baptism, empowering him to begin his teaching. John in the first chapter says that Jesus is the Word, something that was with God at the time of time of creation but was sent to earth in the form of Jesus. Luke details the episode where Jesus, as a child is in the temple and conversing with teachers of the scriptures at an astonishing level.
Christ and wisdom are intertwined. They cannot be separated out. The gospel writers want you, in this time, to know this: the things that Jesus will say over the course of his life are not just new ideas thrown haphazardly to the wind. These are things that have been reflected upon, that are in touch with and bound to divine intention for humanity. They are wise teachings that all who hear them should consider. That is the way to best honor them.
If you take anything away from all of what I have said, I hope that it is these two things. First, I hope that you remember all of the wisdom that you have received over the course of your life and all of the wise people who have passed through you life and left a part of themselves in you. I hope that you feel uplifted and surrounded in those experiences and that you can experience all over again and the care and compassion that came with it. Second, I hope that you hear me when I say that the same root of wisdom that is in the wise men, that is in Christ, is inside of you. You have wisdom to give to world, and I pray that in your journey you come to a place where you can continue to share the precious gift of your light with the world.
The Winnowing Fork of Christmas?
December 16 2018
When you think of Joy, what do you think about? Probably not this scripture passage, because in terms of happiness the ratio is pretty low. Armed with a pitchfork and unquenchable fire Jesus is coming to chop us down and burn us up because we are all snakes. So maybe we can start somewhere else. I think growing up, for me the joy of Christmas was in the presents. There are other components: there are decorations and music and family and all of those kinds of things that really defined the season for me: things of beauty and things that called back to a tradition that made me feel like I was part of something larger, whether that be my family unit, my Christian faith, or my place in a greater human community of love and generosity. But the gifts are inexplicably part of those memories. But I won’t be too hard on myself: that is what Christmas was and I was in a position to take those kinds of things for granted.
Christmas tree decorating maybe gives you the best picture of Christmas in my house growing up. The tree was always set up in the room with the piano, in a bay window looking into the backyard. My dad would put on the lights when the tree went in. The colours varied: I can remember a number of years where the lights were multi-coloured and we had to go through the string to find the burnt out bulbs, replacing them with the same colour to maintain the order of them. In later years, in a post LCD world, we had blue lights some years and white lights on others. But there was always a colour pallet to consider. On the evening we decorated the tree, we would gather in the living room, plastic bins of decorations neatly laid out, a set of our standard Christmas albums on the stereo (the Rankin sisters, Jewel, the Cambridge children’s choir, and Rosie O’Donnell’s “Another Rosie Christmas”) and set to work. The first thing to go on was a set of coloured glass Christmas balls that each came on a hook. Some years it was blue and silver, other years it was gold and red. But never a different combination: that was part of the pallet. Then, each of the five of us had a freezer bag of our own ornaments, collected over our lifetime from various places. Many of them were really nice ones we got as gifts and we still had construction paper and macaroni “art” we made as kids in our early school days. The system was laid out, the nicest ornaments went towards the front of the tree, and the… less fortunate looking ornaments would still be hung, but around the back side so they couldn’t be seen so well from inside. When I remember Christmas traditions and joy, I think about this scene. It was a time of beauty and music but it was also a time of organization and administration. Which isn’t joyful on the surface but I think we can agree that growing up can be chaotic and sometimes pretty difficult. These kinds of Christmas traditions, knowing that there was going to be certain things happening and a certain time to celebrate the season was a source of joy for me. It is not the obvious place to find it but I found it.
So what about the brood of vipers? Can there be joy in that? John the Baptist doesn’t play around. People often talk about Jesus as fulfilling the role of the Good Shepherd. But Jesus didn’t tell us about the Bad Shepherd: he goes out and finds the lost lamb and then brings it home and yells at all the sheep and calls them snakes. He’s doing good work, trying to give good guidance to the people, shepherding them along before Christ arrives on the scene, but it isn’t quite what we are used to hearing out of the Gospels. He uses this violent imagery because it is the easiest way to get across what he is trying to say. When he refers to the people listening as a brood of vipers, that’s going to catch you off guard a little bit and maybe put you on the defensive. It may even turn you off, make it difficult to hear anything good that John has to say. But that’s why this is such an interesting strategy: because John’s promise of a powerful savior draws us in. People get caught in this tension where they want to accept what John is saying about the coming Messiah, it is still a message of hope, but are also faced with what John is saying about their own imperfection, their insignificance in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and the promise of divine judgment.
A perfect, lighthearted tone for this Christmas season.
The question is whether these troubling parts are doing anything to help us. In a way it seems like a distraction. We’re trying to talk about joy here, and talk about Christmas. That is, the birth of Christ whose teaching is not disagreeing with things that John in preaching, but has a very different tactic. But looking as John’s message for what it is, there is something there. It’s reality that people are not always kind or good, and it’s reality that people need to be told not to extort money or share with the less fortunate. Because what John is up against is a culture that is being affected by Roman imperial influence, and a Jewish interpretation of the law that favours control of authority rather than the things that Jesus was going to bring forward. In this kind of environment, when you’re preparing the way for an imminent arrival of a Messiah for your people, what is one supposed to do but try to snap them out of their stupor into a new way of seeing the world and imagining their circumstance.
This is a pretty rosy perception of a tactic that is everywhere nowadays. We live in a time where the issue is not introducing a new mindset, as it was for John, but instead we are faced with too many new ideas. So people who are about sharing their message, corporations, political groups, and important people, have gotten good at getting your attention. It takes incredible amounts of trial and error, but in this media environment you’ve got billions of eyes for doing this testing and great technology for keeping track of results. The result is that we get messaging that knows exactly how to access your brain through your emotions: the entryways that work best and the ones to avoid.
John hasn’t reached that level yet. He’s still working out the best way for his message to reach people. But it’s not like he’s going at this with no strategy at all. It just isn’t as honed as what we are used to in this age.
Of course, we all know the unfortunate nature of this optimized clickbait strategy. This past week The United States House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing to question CEO Sundar Pichai. One thing to come out of that event was a question about how YouTube’s algorithms seem to promote content in a way that becomes increasingly extreme with every video clicked. Because of the nature of the YouTube algorithm, which has the goal of extending the amount of time each user spends on the site, and thereby maximizing ad revenue, the videos it is most likely to show to a particular user are ones that evoke an emotional response that draws one to click and watch. Political conspiracy theories were on the mind of Congress in this case but it is possible to show how doing an inane search with a person’s name could end up somewhere far removed from that in terms of what is suggested. And it only gets more targeted as Google learns about you more based on your viewing history and your web history in general.
But all this is to say that we live in a John the Baptist world. In some ways that’s a world of discomfort and mixed messages and trying to figure out what can be taken away. It is a world where it becomes hard to trust in what you read because you can’t be sure if it is the truth or if it’s
AND YET, a John the Baptist world is exactly the kind of world that we should be living in. Because John the Baptist makes an impression, makes you uncomfortable, and makes you confront the fact that God has directives for humanity that are going to make it better.
People do not like to feel uncomfortable. It is not the preferred posture, it is easier to avoid the harsh realities that challenge our sense of self and our sense of our own existence. It threatens our physical, mental, and emotional safety to engage with issues that throw us into a new place.
I think it is the most tricky to negotiate for us because we aren’t bad people. I think our Christian identity and context in the United Church attracts people who are open minded, who want to learn from diverse perspectives and work for justice for the marginalized. So then it hurts more when we feel called out for not being perfect. It begins to feel like we are being blamed when it is brought up with ways that we can improve. We can respond with getting defensive. I think one of the more troubling moments for me was when I found this defensive response welling up inside of me. In a paper I wrote in seminary a few years ago I referred to accents as being a communication barrier. The way I phrased it, a professor remarked, sounded like I was saying that other people have accents and that the North American accent is the default.
Maybe you are thinking now “that’s not that big a deal.” And I don’t think my professor was suggesting that it was. But my guard immediately went up. I knew that was not what I was implying, I know that everyone has an accent, I was not trying to play into this Western-centric view of the world that I felt was being put upon me by this outside viewpoint.
It took me a while to really separate myself out from that immediate reaction and see it for what this challenge was. It may not have been what I intended, but phrasing matters. If something that you say or do is misconstrued, that can have consequences and lead to disagreement that was not intended. For someone going into a community-building career in ministry, my professor was clearly trying to point out the ease with which this can happen if something becomes unclear. Suppose I was working with someone with a different accent and made it seem like I though that they were lesser, or less deserving, or less Canadian. What would someone who overheard that think of me, and what doors might be closed or made more complicated in my ministry if that happens? But that wisdom was not clear to me in the moment of first reading that feedback I was given. I was defensive and I was losing the important message that was hidden beneath the hard shell of my own making.
Maybe it is a bit harsh to just cast down my lot as part of the brood of snakes that John calls the people but in a sense it isn’t wrong. We all can get defensive and make mistakes and do things that we are not proud of later. It doesn’t mean that we’re bad people, it just means that we aren’t perfect. When John says that we are not special, that if we are not living by God’s laws that we do not have to be the ones to receive God’s grace, that we can be cut down easily because the axe is readily available by our roots, that perspective has some merit.
My favourite part of this passage, though, is the ending: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” It calls upon a harvest metaphor that I had to go and look up because I grew up in the city and in a technological age. In the harvest of wheat, the grain itself has to be separated out from the chaff, which is the outer casing. So first the wheat is “threshed” by crushing and then “winnowed” which involved throwing the crushed grain into the air, allowing the lighter chaff to be blown away by the wind and the heavier grain to fall straight down. There are videos online that show the process being done by hand.
The Message translates this passage differently: it talks about the true being separated out from the false and being preserved. And that is what I see being the best interpretation of this passage. On Wednesday in the study group we were talking about the sheep and the goats, a passage in which Jesus implies that there are good people and there are bad people that are going to be separated out and only the good people are going to receive divine salvation. But this passage always strikes me as being different, even though it is also about sorting the unwanted things from the important things. We are wheat people, not grain and chaff. Both of those parts are part of us as a whole. What is done through Jesus is the act of winnowing, separating out the rough and hard parts to reveal the goodness, the truth that is inside. We are products of our environment. We live in a world that causes us to have these shells of falsehood. Even though we are thoughtfully and meaningfully made by God, our society and the world we have made with God is not and still rests in the systems of power that John was reacting to in his day.
Winnowing cannot always be done in a single step. You can’t get all of the chaff in a single pass through. It can take work, and multiple attempts to break out all of the falsehood that hold us back. But Jesus is patient. Jesus isn’t going to stop working on grain that isn’t ready for the granary on the first try. Jesus will toss you up into the air again so that the wind can have another go at you. It’s going to be uncomfortable and distressing and it may not be clear where things are going, but I think we can trust that Jesus is taking care of all of that.
Hidden within the discomfort is the potential for joy. Joy isn’t easy. In a world like this one, joy is hard. It is a grain wrapped in a hard shell that has to be crushed and thrown around to get off. Because joy means more when it is hard-won. It means more when what comes out of your work was not easy. There are many ways to decorate a Christmas tree, but the process that I remember, that brings me the most joy, was involved and resisted simplicity and maybe a bit intense. But it was full of heart and joy and it is one of the most precious things that comes to my memory in this season. John the Baptist resists simplicity and calls us to do the same. Joy still exists in a world that is less than rosy. It can still exist in the regimented justice-making and the calling-to-account of all of humanity. Underneath it is the promise that God through Christ is coming to be with us on Earth, and is never going to give up on us.
John brings to us a challenge: do all you can to live up to the grace that God is giving to you. Be flexible, be willing to shake off all the bad stuff and the lies and the biases to see the good at the heart of it all; we need to be willing to see ourselves as imperfect creatures but that we have the potential to be more than we are and get at the joy that Christ offers to us. It is the winnowing fork of Christmas: the promise that Jesus is working in our hearts in this time and in all time. And that is a precious gift. I’m not planning of sticking a pitchfork on the top of my tree anytime soon, but I appreciate John the Baptist for trying. Maybe next year.