Selected sermons given by Victor C. Gavino at The Kensington Presbyterian Church, 6225 Godfrey Avenue, NDG, Montreal.
- 2022 21 August – “The Search for Happiness: Until the End of Days” (Part three of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
- 2022 July 24 – “The Search for Happiness: God’s Action” (Part two of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
- 2022 July 17 – “The Search for Happiness: Our Predicament” (Part one of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
- 2017 January 29 – “Why God? Why, God?”
- 2016 August 07 – “Extravagant Love” (Luke 15:11-32)
- 2016 July 17 – “Moving Forward in Faith ” – Matthew 25:14-30
- 2016 July 07 – “My enemy, my friend” – Luke 10:25-37
- 2016 June 12 – “Thrust Outside the Box” – Acts 11:1-18
- 2016 May 01 – “The In-Between” – Acts 1:1-11
- 2015 September 05 – “Table fellowship with Christ” – 1Corinthians 10:1-17
- 2015 August 16 – “Crossing the Bar – with apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson” – John 6:17-21
2022 21 August – “The Search for Happiness: Until the End of Days” (Part three of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
Intro to the reading: Ecclesiastes 11:1 – 12:8, 13-14
This is the third and last part of our series on Ecclesiastes. It is a fitting end in that our text today…
Sermon: “The Search for Happiness: Until the End of Days”
What is the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe and everything?”
You may immediately recognize this phrase from the late Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” that first broke into our consciousness in 1978 via a BBC radio comedy program.
In the story, the supercomputer “Deep Thought”came up with the answer after 7.5 million years worth of calculations. The answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe and everything: is “42.”
We laugh, but there is profundity here. This comedic story strangely links to today’s reading.
The story continues. The galactic programmers were unhappy with Deep Thought’s answer. The supercomputer countered that the programmers would understand the answer if they only knew what the question was in the first place. Deep Thought informs the programmers that it can build another supercomputer that will be able to come up with the question to the answer “42.” The new supercomputer would be called “earth.” Unfortunately, the Vogons, a destructive slow-witted race working for the Galactic Civil Service, destroyed the earth just 5 minutes shy of the 10 million years required to come up with the question. The mystery of “42” continues.
The mystery of “42” is kept alive today in “nerd culture” as the afficionados call themselves. Some of these “nerds” are heavyweights: mathematics professors many of them. Some are even convinced that “42” has mystical properties and it might truly is the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything.” Never mind that the author Douglas Adams explained that “it was a joke… I sat at my desk, stared into the garden and thought ‘42’ will do… I typed it out… End of story.”
I tell this story because we must admit that we have asked the same question of ourselves in the privacy of our thoughts: “what is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?” We really do not know the answer if we don’t know what question to ask, and the answer is probably not “42” no matter what the nerd culture might say.
The whole point is that if we ask the question to end all questions on life, we will end up admitting that we are unable to completely understand life.
It’s all a mirage, as Qoheleth keeps repeating throughout Ecclesiastes.
The standard English translations use the word “meaningless” or “vanity” instead of mirage. The Hebrew word means breath, smoke, or a puff of wind. The word “mirage” captures the transitory or fleeting nature of breath, smoke, or a puff of air. You might have had occasion to see a mirage of a body of water ahead on a long dry road in the desert. When you finally get to it, it’s no longer there. Similarly, breath or smoke – when you try to grab it, it just dissipates into nothingness. When the text says repeatedly: “a mirage, nothing but a mirage,” it points to the reality that when we try to pin down the meaning of life, just when we think we have it, it escapes our grasp.
All the vagaries of life – we can’t really fully make sense of them.
My mother Leonor just celebrated her 100th year last month. She remains as sharp as a tack. While her hearing is no longer as good as it was, her sense of taste is acute. Her powers of recall from childhood are formidable. She loves to watch Downton Abbey. She does not miss a step discussing politics. Yet, she would ask me why God continues to keep her alive. Her husband, my father, passed away four years and seven months ago after 73 years of marriage. She misses him terribly. The wisdom of her years and the sharpness of her mind have not fully revealed to her the shifting mystery of life. Life is complex – it’s a mirage.
All the vagaries of life – we can’t really fully understand them.
In the end, Qoheleth finally offers a way to navigate life in its complexity, a way to live life fully, a way to maximize happiness attainable only under God.
“Release your bread on to the surface of the water, for in many days you will find it.”Chapter 11 verse 1.
Some have fanciful interpretations of this verse: Giving to charity, they say. The blessing you give returns to you just like karma. Some others say it’s a business principle – invest resources like money and you’ll eventually get a return. Nothing ventured, nothing gained they say.
But have you ever thrown bread on the surface of a body of water? If you have, then does it ever return intact? The bread will get waterlogged and sink and never to return to you. It’ll probably even disintegrate or be quickly eaten by the fish. The verse literally does not make sense. Expecting a return after throwing bread onto the water is at best wishful thinking.
What then does the verse mean? The second verse clarifies the riddle.
“Give your share to seven, or even eight, for you do not know what evil may happen on the earth, against the land.”Chapter 11 verse 2.
Qoheleth says that there is always risk involved in whatever you may decide to do. Risk-taking is a part of life – avoiding all risk is no way to live life. You took a risk when you moved out of the safety of your parent’s house. You took a risk when you got married, or decided to stay single. For some of us who moved here from overseas, we took a risk when we left the familiar to settle in a new land.
Life is all about risk: It’s like casting bread on the surface of the water.
Verses 3 and 4 repeat the same message. Verse 3 sets it up: the platitudes stated here are ridiculously obvious to the point of banality.
“When clouds are full, they empty rain on the earth; and whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will be.”Chapter 11 verses 3-4.
Of course when the clouds are full it will rain. Of course when a tree falls it will remain on the ground. It is like saying that when the sun sets in the west, it will be dark. How can it be more obvious?
But these silly sayings perfectly set up verse 4: “Whoever observes the wind will not sow; and whoever regards the clouds will not reap.” Those who keep looking for “the right time” end up never doing nor accomplishing anything. Verse 3 are mediocre statements. Verse 4 warns that if all we do is wait for the right time, we are in essence settling for the mediocrities in verse 3.
Verse 5 knocks the truth of God into the minds of the slow to act or those immobilized by fear of risk:
“Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.”Chapter 11 verse 5.
Many years ago a great friend once remarked of me: He said I was the type of person who prefers to line up the ducks, keep them immobile, then shoot them one by one. The problem is the ducks never want to keep still. I do not control them – they move as they wish.
The same with the human development. We don’t know everything. One can ask the philosophical question on why life even happens at all, when does it begin, how and why do these complex and intertwined chemical reactions coordinate to form a human being?
We do not know everything, but God who knows everything, makes everything possible, makes sense of everything, makes each detail come together in beautifully amazing logic, makes the whole much greater than the sum of each and every part. Where then is the place for passivity in the face of God’s glorious reality?
Thus, Qoheleth in verse 6 urges us to seize the day – carpe deum! It’s a good way to live life, he proclaims.
Verse 7: “Light is sweet” – a mixed metaphor of the visual and the sense of taste combining to bring the image of invigorating sunlight – “it is good for the eyes to see the sun.”
Qoheleth follows this image of happy days with a series of eight instructions on finding happiness in life while one has the energy to do so, before the weakness of old age sets in. We find these eight instructions in verses 8 to 11 of chapter 11, up to the first verse of chapter 12.
- Rejoice in each day of life while young, while you still live.
- Remember that there will always be challenging times in life. Enjoy life anyway as who knows what the future will hold – it is a mirage and you cannot pin it down.
- Again, rejoice and seek positivity while you have the energy.
- Listen to your conscience, your heart, and let its urgings to do good wash over you.
- Do not be legalistic but instead be creative – follow your heart, follow the good that God places before you before your very eyes.
- “Know that over all these things God will bring you into judgment” seems grim, like a wet blanket – but according to 3rd-century rabbinic teaching, it is not how we might understand it today. It actually says that God will bring you to account for refusing to delight in the things He gave you to enjoy.
- The 7th instruction also needs an explanation: our translation says “youth and black hair are a mirage!” The phrase “youth and black hair” was a metaphor for arrogance and naïve overconfidence. This youthful excesses, they count for nothing. It is a mirage. Rather, Qoheleth instructs us to meet life’s adversities with mature non-violence. Do not dwell on anger and retribution – your body can do without these twin evils. They will work against happiness.
- Lastly: Always remember who you are before God. From dust you are and to dust you will return. Keep this in mind while you still have the energy. Life on earth is finite: enjoy it while still can! For what comes next cannot be avoided. Infirmity that accompanies ageing cannot be stopped. The thrill of youth fades. The sun inevitably sets.
What follows are metaphors of the ageing process, all beginning with the phrase “when not yet.” “When not yet” declares the inevitability of increasing infirmity as years race by.
- “when the guards of the house tremble” – when the arms lose gradually lose youthful strength
- “the men of strength are bending themselves” – the legs weaken and sag at the knee
- “the women who grind cease working because they are few” – teeth are lost and it gets harder to chew
- “they keep dark when they look through the windows” – the eyes no longer see as well as they used to
- “when the doors to the street are shut” – hearing becomes difficult
- “the sound of grinding has fallen” – toothless gums no longer have the same sound as when they had teeth
- “one rise up at the sound of a bird” – more sleepless nights
- “the daughters of song are brought low” – it gets progressively difficult to hear high-pitched sounds
- “afraid of what is high and of terrors on the road” – no explanation needed here
- “the almond tree blossoms” – have you ever seen a grove of almond trees in bloom? White flowers like thick white hair
- “the locust grows fat” – needs no explanation
- “the caper berry spoils” – loss of sexual desire
At this, Qoheleth begins to speak of the inevitable – approaching death
- “when not yet plundered the silver cord” – the spine
- “the golden bowl has not yet been shattered” – the head
- “the pitcher has not yet been crushed” – the heart
- “the wheel has not yet been smashed” – the lungs
At death, the physical body returns to dust, and the spirit returns to God.
Qoheleth ends at verse 8 with his theme from the beginning:
“A mirage, nothing but a mirage; It’s all a mirage.”Chapter 12 verse 8
Life on earth is fleeting and disappears too soon like a mirage. Therefore seek to enjoy life and enjoy the goodness of God. Always do what is good in God’s name. God will hold us to account if we refuse to enjoy what God gives us to enjoy. Take risks. Seize the day. This is the way of happiness.
Back to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. After all the galactic mayhem and near-disaster zaniness, plus the frustration of not coming up with the ultimate question to which the answer is “42”, the protagonists zoomed off to have a bite to eat at the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe.” End of story. Perhaps the author, like Qoheleth, is telling us: “enjoy your meal.” Life goes on. Enjoy it as much as you can.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we have this privilege to enjoy God’s gifts to us through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us live life to the full, doing everything as an offering to God, going in faith that God will ever always have our well-being in His very heart. If God be for us, who can be against us?
To the Father, Son and Holy Spirit be all the glory.
2022 July 24 – “The Search for Happiness: God’s Action” (Part two of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
Intro to the reading: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15
Last Sunday we began a three-part series on selected passages from Ecclesiastes. Our reading was verse one of chapter one to verse twenty-six of chapter two.
Sermon: “The Search for Happiness: God’s Action”
Reading Ecclesiastes chapter three verses one to eight is akin to looking at abstract art, I will claim. The passage is at first glance a mundane list of contrasts which when taken individually do not communicate complexity. When taken all together as a group the passage acquires poetic quality. The poetic quality arises from the ambiguity or non-deterministic quality of the list itself. The beauty of pos resides in the way words interact with each other in verses and stanzas such that the whole evokes a transcendence beyond the dry technical definitions of each one. The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Similarly, the Ecclesiastes list when taken all together invites us to discover vast meaning in the text, meaning that only we upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit would discern, as shaped by our individual circumstances from day to day.
For example, the four panels on the screen, the Four Gospels, is the work of Makoto Fujimori. The art is abstract in genre, that is, the forms and colours do not have any referents to what we see in the physical world, and yet they evoke in us a sense of the material world. What’s more, the ambiguity of the art pushes us to think beyond what we see. In abstract art, we sense the transcendent, the incorporeal ideas and concepts that realistic art paradoxically veils.
An important side note: this is the principal difference between a person reading Scripture from the perspective of Christian faith, as opposed to another who reads it without faith. Said differently, when we come together like this in this worship space, it is not I delivering Biblical insights to you, it is the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit who speaks directly to your heart through the written text, all praise and honour be to our God. In a real sense, I may lead you to the waters, but it is God alone who quenches your thirst.
So, it is with our passage today: productive in its ambiguity, but unproductive when bound to a literal reading.
The very first verse:
For everything there is a season; a time there is for every matter under heaven.Ecclesiastes 3:1 (all translations from Heim, K.M. Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Volume 18. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.)
immediately should raise the question: Who controls the seasons? This is indeed a rhetorical question as the seasons are beyond human control. Who controls the time frame and sequence of every matter under heaven through the seasons? This is really a complicated question as it highlights the tension between humanity’s desire to control everything, versus the rhythm and cycles of life. We see this tension in what we consider the noble task of organizing our time: one hour for this, two hours for that, thirty minutes for the phone call, five minutes for the friendly conversation. And don’t forget gym time. This very first verse invites us to ask ourselves: Are we really in control of our time on earth?
There is a time to give birth, but there is also a time to die;Ecclesiastes 3:2a
“Give birth” does not distinguish between man or woman. It really means “beget” as in Abraham begat Isaac in the genealogical list of Matthew chapter one.
Is this therefore a general description of lifespans, the time from birth to death that is really beyond our control, notwithstanding present-day Canada’s medical-assisted-in-dying program, or MAID?
there is a time to plant, but there is also a time to uproot what has been planted.Ecclesiastes 3:2b
Does this not mean the agricultural cycle? Once more, do we control the season when we should plant, the season when the field is ready for harvesting?
The next contrast pair is extremely difficult:
There may be a time for killing, but there is also a time for healing;Ecclesiastes 3:3a
Some have said that it brings to mind the complex interconnectedness of human realities. The meaning is very opaque: is “killing” intentional or unintentional, legal, or illegal, state-mandated or murder, killing by disease or medically assisted? Are resources for healing to be dispensed as in a battlefield triage? Think of emergency rooms right now, for example. Moving away from the literalness of “killing” and “healing”, is this verse declaring the truth that an action however small always will have consequences? Does this sound like chaos theory and the so-called butterfly effect?
there may be a time for demolishing, but there is also a time for building.Ecclesiastes 3:3b
Is this not humanity’s pattern of living? We love to repair that which is broken, from toys all the way to buildings and nuclear reactors, even space telescopes.
The most accessible in the list of contrasts is perhaps:
There may be a time for weeping, but there is also a time for laughing; there may be a time for lament, but there is also a time for dancing.Ecclesiastes 3:4
This is a parallel/anti-parallel construction; Inner lament is manifested in crying, while inner joy or laughing manifests as dancing.
The next set of contrasts is probably the most enigmatic:
There is a time for throwing stones, but there is also a time for gathering stones; there is a time for embracing, but there is also a time to be far from embracing.Ecclesiastes 3:5
The simple reading is that one must first gather stones before you can throw any away. I must say that this feels too shallow and literal. What does this have to do with embracing/not embracing that follows immediately? Others opine that it has something to do with building, the gathering of stones – but again, what about embracing/not embracing? Or are these two contrasts totally unrelated one to another even if written in the same breath? Others have suggested that this pairing has something sexual about it, but we’re not going to go there this morning.
I will leave you to meditate on the last six contrasting pairs. I urge you to read them one at a time, slowly, always with a prayer to God for understanding. Let your mind be led by the text and you may reach places you might not have previously anticipated in this complex and ambiguous, artfully, and evocatively composed text.
In verse nine, Qoheleth comes back to the principal thesis of Ecclesiastes:
What success have the workers from all their hard work?Ecclesiastes 3:9
From our study last Sunday, Qoheleth’s first thought experiment gave the answer: “none.” To this we must, perhaps grudgingly, agree. In this second thought experiment, for whatever meaning they pack for you for whatever circumstances you are currently in, the list of contrasts simply drives home the point that none of us are ultimately in control of the grand scheme of life. The cycles and rhythms of life and of creation go on with or without our intervention.
What then is left to us? Where is happiness in all of these?
Verse ten heralds Qoheleth’s conclusion:
I saw the task God gave humans to tackle.Ecclesiastes 3:10
The complexities, the joys, the sorrows, the triumphs, the heartbreak – they all are from God!
And to this, we ask: Why, God? Why?
This is a heart-rending question that we so want to repress, don’t we? Yet it does break out every now and then in times of great pain and distress. Where then is happiness?
Indeed, God made everything beautiful
Everything he has made beautiful in its time – he also has put eternity into their hearts – only that no human can find out what God has done from beginning to end.Ecclesiastes 3:11
– starting with the Garden of Eden. But because of the disobedience of the man and the woman, they were driven out of paradise. God placed cherubim and a flaming sword in the Garden to prevent the man and the woman from accessing the tree of life. Why would God do this? Well, if the man and the woman expelled from Eden did not want nor intend to go back to paradisiacal garden, why would the cherubim have been necessary to prevent the way back? We must infer from this that the man and woman did want Eden back. This desire to go back to paradise, the desire for perfection and happiness, the desire for the ideal, the beautiful, the perfect – this we inherited from the man and the woman who wanted to go back to Eden but couldn’t. God “has placed eternity in our hearts” as verse eleven declares. We want the happiness that comes with the perfect and the beautiful that was Eden. Creation is still beautiful – just gaze at the mountains – the Rockies, the oceans on both coasts east and west, the multitude of stars on a really dark cloudless night. Yet, because of the disobedience of the man and the woman, we are reduced to working hard (Genesis chapter 3) to try and recreate that perfection around us. This is all a mirage, a chasing after the wind.
Qoheleth’s solution stated in verse twelve and thirteen is to continue to seek happiness and the good in life, and always see the hand of God in this ability to enjoy life which is a gift from God. This is Providence. Essentially, Qoheleth concludes that doing good brings happiness, in direct contrast to what Qoheleth found out from his first thought experiment, that happiness does not come from hard work, wisdom nor self-indulgence.
So, the question still remains: God, why does it have to be this way? Qoheleth’s short answer is this: so that humanity will fear God, verse fourteen.
I knew that everything that God does will remain for ever; nothing can be added to it; nothing can be taken away from it; and God has done this so that they will fear him.Ecclesiastes 3:14
This too needs to be unpacked, but for another time.
What is encouraging and reassuring for us now is in verse fifteen, the final verse of our reading today.
Whatever is now, it was before; and that which will be, it has been before; and God seeks out what is being pursued.Ecclesiastes 3:15
God is permanent and the life cycles and rhythms God ordained from the beginning cannot be changed. God was, God is, and God ever shall be. And while God gives us a difficult task, God also “seeks out what is being pursued by men”, that is, happiness. Qoheleth declares that God is concerned and engaged in our search for happiness. The answer to our heart-rending question is there, always present in God – we only need to open our very being to God, to Providence and continue to do good.
I will close with a 5-min video from Makoto Fujimori – his journey in Christ, and his own search for happiness that he calls the search for love, and his expression of this fundamental life question via his art.
To the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be all the glory forever and ever. Amen.
2022 July 17 – “The Search for Happiness: Our Predicament” (Part one of three based on selected passages from Ecclesiastes)
Introduction to the reading (Ecclesiastes 1:1 to 2:26)
Today, next Sunday and on August 21st, I will preach a 3-part series based on Ecclesiastes.
Sermon: “The Search for Happiness: Our Predicament”
Yunchan Lim, the 18-year-old from South Korea won this year’s Van Cliburn piano competition. Music critics and members of the jury have judged his rendition of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto as possibly the best of all time. You may be familiar with the myth that surrounds this composition, that it is by far the most fiendishly difficult of piano concertos. What distinguished Yunchan Lim from the rest of the field was his ability to effortlessly bring out the concerto’s complex intertwined melodic themes from out of its massive forest of notes and beautifully make them speak the soul of Rachmaninoff in one long pianistic statement, a true work of art.
Listening to Yunchan Lim’s artistry, I transitioned to the literary art in Ecclesiastes, its prose and poetry. Indeed, there are several layers of complexities in Ecclesiastes, some readily discerned and others veiled begging to be revealed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In reading Ecclesiastes, we let the Qoheleth’s literary and rhetorical tools stimulate our imaginative and creative minds to see the message behind the text. This book is a philosophical treatise, an essay on the fleeting nature of life and the enigma of both happiness and sadness in juxtaposition to the sovereignty and permanence of God. Ecclesiastes is indeed a masterful work of art that when read from this perspective, truly begins to speak to the soul.
The very first verse of chapter one is already an enigma.
“The words of Qoheleth, son of David, king in Jerusalem.”Ecclesiastes 1:1 (all translations from Heim, K.M. Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Volume 18. Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic.)
Who is the Qoheleth? By definition, the Qoheleth is someone who gathers people into an assembly. This is the reason our English Bibles translate Qoheleth to Ecclesiastes, the only book in the Bible with a translated title. The word “Ecclesiastes” is derived from its root “ekklesia” – literally an assembly called out from the masses. It has come down to us as “église” in French, or “iglesia” in Spanish.
The second verse is the hypothesis of Ecclesiastes – that which Qoheleth desires to put to the test. It is even more enigmatic.
‘A mirage, nothing but a mirage,’ says Qoheleth, ‘a mirage, nothing but a mirage. It’s all a mirage.’Ecclesiastes 1:2
But why use the translation “mirage?” Or “meaningless?” Or “vanity?”
The technical definition of this Hebrew word is vapour, or breath. It communicates a sense of the temporary, the fleeting, the transitory. That word in the Old Testament has been assigned multiple meanings, all metaphorical. Thus, our standard translations translate that word variably: delusion, emptiness, fraud, futile, idols, useless, worthless. Famously in Ecclesiastes, its metaphorical meaning is taken to be meaninglessness or vanity. Yet, that very same word is the very same name of the second son of Adam and Eve: Abel. Surely Abel the man was not meaningless nor mere vanity. Surely, he stood for something noble? Perhaps it might indeed be better to lay aside value judgments inherent in our choice of words and begin to read Ecclesiastes and this master key of a word repeated 30+ times in the text initially as “fleeting” – and then make our conclusions after absorbing the whole work.
Qoheleth sets out in verse three his first experiment, his first research question so to speak, to test the hypothesis that everything is a mirage:
“What profit is there for humans in all their hard work with which they work so hard under the sun?”Ecclesiastes 1:3
What follows in verses four to eleven is poetry and we must read it as such, not letting ourselves get derailed by the obvious statements on the cyclical nature of natural phenomena. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The winds may seem to turn every which way but ultimately, they come back to where they began, for example, the trade winds. The water cycle continues unabated – the streams feed the sea and the sea feeds the streams.
Some have fallen into the trap of reading these verses as a declaration of cosmic futility and therefore aimless, meaningless. I disagree with this interpretation. The reliably constant rhythms of nature are critical to life. If these rhythms were to fall apart, we will most likely all die. Take the theory of anthropological global warming for example, which if true would be a disturbance in the rhythm of nature, an anomaly that could be catastrophic. Cosmic futility as an interpretation of verses four to eleven is a red herring of an interpretation, I believe. It gains traction only if we read Ecclesiastes from the perspective of “meaninglessness” (as in Abel is “meaningless.”) It doesn’t make sense.
The key to understanding this section is in verses four and eight.
A generation goes and a generation comes; but the earth remains ever the same.Ecclesiastes 1:4
All these breathtaking things humans cannot capture with words, the eye cannot be satisfied with seeing, and the ear cannot be filled with hearing.Ecclesiastes 1:8
These verses declare that human generations come and go but nature remains ever the same. Humans are transient, but the rhythms of creation are ceaselessly constant. It is therefore a contrast between transience and permanence. Qoheleth is leading us to ask the question on what it means to confront and live with the reality of life’s impermanence, our point of reference being the permanence of the rhythms of creation. Qoheleth is leading us to realize that we are always ever tempted to place a disproportionate value in what we think we can do despite our impermanence. Indeed, verse eight declares the inability of humanity to fully understand how nature, how creation works. As a scientist by training, I fully agree. Verse eight declares that: humans are unable to describe nature fully; humans do not see everything there is to see in nature; humans are unable to fully understand how nature works. This is eerily modern, isn’t it? The obvious example today is that we are still arguing as to the origin of the strange quirky corona virus currently afflicting us the past couple of years.
Verses nine to eleven points out that this blindness to our impermanence and deficient abilities lead to self-deception that we create new things.
And I became so much greater and richer than anyone who had been in Jerusalem before me. Even so, my wisdom stood by me! And nothing my eyes desired I withheld from them; I did not deny my heart anything from all the pleasures that my heart desired from all my hard work; and that was my share from all my hard work. Then I faced all my deeds which my hands had done, and the hard work at which I had worked so hard to do – and look: it was all a mirage and chasing after wind, and there was no success under the sun.Ecclesiastes 1:9-11
Qoheleth simply states that there is nothing new under the sun. Everything repeats. We tend to reinvent the wheel so to speak. We choose not to remember the past. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana once wrote in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Eerily familiar today, is it not?
At this point, Qoheleth would have put us in our place, brought us down from our arrogance in order to ask the basic questions of life: where does happiness come from and how do we get there?
What follows is Qoheleth’s thought experiment, a case study so to speak, to test the hypothesis that everything about us is fleeting, a mirage. Qoheleth asks three questions:
First: What is the human predicament?
Second: What to us is wisdom as opposed to foolishness?
Third: Is self-indulgence a path to happiness?
I gave this three-part series the title: “The Search for Happiness.” Qoheleth intended in his first experiment to reveal what makes a person happy. I gave this first of the series the subtitle: “Our Predicament.” In chapter one verse thirteen, Qoheleth makes a very brief but highly charged statement defining humanity’s predicament:
“It is a dreadful task God gave humans to tackle!”Ecclesiastes 1:13
Qoheleth targets the manner in which persons work extraordinarily hard to achieve that which they think will give them fulfillment “under the sun” (verse fourteen). We must understand that “under the sun” in the third-century BCE could have very well been the code word for life under Egypt’s rule. The dreadful task could refer to what the Jews had to do, presumably breaking faith with their religious traditions, to attain by hard work what they hope would make them happy. This sounds so eerily modern, doesn’t it? Nothing is ever new under the sun. Shall I state it? What do we break faith with, in the hope of obtaining what we believe will bring happiness?
Allow me to highlight a few points that contribute importantly to Qoheleth’s conclusions.
Briefly stated, Qoheleth posits that it is difficult, it is a “dreadful task,” to find the happiness which we constantly seek. Astoundingly, Qoheleth claims that this human problem is from God himself. As if to rub salt into the wound, Qoheleth sates in verse fourteen that happiness is unattainable: “I considered every doing that is done under the sun – and look, everything is a mirage and a chasing after wind.” One cannot straighten what is already bent, and one cannot find that which is missing, verse fifteen.
As for the second question, wisdom versus foolishness, or essentially the question of how to make wise choices, Qoheleth states that the more wisdom you have, the more frustrated you become, verse eighteen.
For with much wisdom, much resentment; and adding knowledge adds pain.Ecclesiastes 1:18
This reminds of the strange statistic that Nobel prizes seem to be awarded for work accomplished by the scientist in his or her youth. The young tend to push beyond the box; the wiser old folk tend to see all the barriers of the box. The daring of youth begins to fade away with the wisdom of old age. Qoheleth remarks that more knowledge brings more pain. You might agree that Qoheleth makes a valid point. Why then do we seek knowledge and wisdom as a path to happiness? Is ignorance truly bliss?
As for the third question, Qoheleth assuming the wisdom and material wealth of the character of king Solomon concluded that self-indulgence brought to the highest degree is never enough to bring happiness. It is all hard work to obtain that which we think will pleasure us, and all hard work does is reveal to us that one cannot attain happiness through self-indulgence – it is a chasing after the wind.
Qoheleth then goes into his emotional response, and it is painful to read. He observes that both the wise and the foolish go to the same fate – the grave. So why favour wisdom over foolishness if the result is the same? As for hard work, Qoheleth states that all material wealth gained passes on to the heir who did not work for it. That is a great evil, Qoheleth declares! Once more, we do see this today in varied forms. Is this perhaps the reason why some of the wealthiest bequeath their fortunes to their favourite pets? Ophrah Winfrey herself will supposedly leave $30 million to her three spaniels Sophie, Solomon, and Lauren if they outlive her. So eerily modern, this Qoheleth.
Everything in this thought experiment turns finally around to Qoheleth’s verdict in verse twenty-four of chapter two. Qoheleth expresses it in the negative sense, another enigma: A person who has the necessities of life and attributes this to his own hard work – nothing is good in him. Crassly stated, patting oneself on the back never really satisfies. Deeper than this, Qoheleth’s pain expressed in verses fifteen to twenty-two of chapter two arises from the human being’s natural bent to want to be in control, to want credit for his success, to be recognized for what he does, to be remembered after he dies. Qoheleth declares that this is not the path to happiness.
What then does Qoleheth conclude from his first thought experiment as to the way to happiness?
Qoheleth observed that a person who has and by implication enjoys the necessities of life is in that state of happiness only by virtue of the providence of God. Verse twenty-six wraps it all up: the person who is not of God is condemned to believe that hard work and accumulation of material wealth brings happiness – he is mistaken and will be disappointed. The person who is of God – to him God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy.
No matter our circumstances “under the sun” – for Qoheleth under the rule of despotic Egypt, for us today, whichever government or culture we disagree with, laying aside our faith traditions for the fleeting mirage-like ways of current fads in hopes of gaining happiness, all that is a chasing after the wind. It is much better to be true to the One who was, is, and is to come. The Almighty who is the same yesterday, today and ever will be: our God revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is true happiness.
2017 January 29 – “Why God? Why, God?”
I will understand if you sense a bit of oddness to the title of the sermon today: “Why God? Why, God?”
In certain ways, this sermon is a bit odd for me as well:
- For one, this will be my last sermon as Interim Moderator at Kensington. I have enjoyed my time with you, grateful I had the opportunity. God beckons you to a bright future with your new minister, Peter Rombeek, in the ministry the Spirit has empowered you to do in the name of Christ.
- Second, I chose to follow a different path to a sermon. My approach has been to dissect and analyze the day’s Scripture text in order to extract the particular timeless truth contained in the inspired words. Today, I do the reverse, that is, I begin with an issue that touches all of us on this earth, and then reflect on Scriptural text that I believe speaks to that same issue.
- I believe the title “Why God? Why, God?” encapsulates an existential approach to the search for meaning in life, a perspective that we all embrace to varying degrees.
- We ask the question “Why God?” in the sense of why we even go to church, why we desire to associate with each other in this way, why we choose to congregate in a Christian context. What makes a Christian gathering on a Sunday worth the time and effort? Why God?
- We ask the question “Why, God?” because we see suffering all around us. We wonder: If God is so perfect and good, all-powerful and the one and only sovereign over the universe, why is there evil in this world? Faced with the question “Why, God?” we might resonate with Job’s complaint in chapter 21: “Why do the wicked grow mighty in power?” And when we consider our world today, the voice of the Psalmist is even more piercing (#73): “I saw the prosperity of the wicked. Pride is their necklace; violence is their garment. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. Therefore the people turn and praise them, and find no fault in them.”
- “Why God? Why, God?”
- Third, it will be odd this morning because I want to speak to you in the medium that I most understand: music. Specifically, through the music of Beethoven.
By all indications, Beethoven believed in God, although in a way that only Beethoven knew.
All are convinced that Beethoven was a towering genius. Most tragic, cruel, one might say, is at age 46, Beethoven became completely deaf, a bitter pill for any musician. Yet 8 years later, at 54, he finished the Ninth Symphony, from where we got the tune of our opening hymn. I believe his deafness sharpened the way he communicated his soul to us through his music. No words necessary, only pure thought in sound.
All are convinced that Beethoven was a towering genius. Most tragic, cruel, one might say, is at age forty-six, Beethoven became completely deaf, a bitter pill for any musician. Yet eight years later, at fifty-four, he finished the Ninth Symphony, from where we got the tune of our opening hymn. I believe his deafness sharpened the way he communicated his soul to us through his music. No words necessary, only pure thought in sound.
This morning, I will bring before you snippets of Beethoven’s Opus 110, the second of the last three of his great piano sonatas, written in complete deafness, at a time he was so ill he thought he would die, a mirror of the human condition. “Why, God?”
Let us first consider the human condition.
It was perfect in the beginning. Out of complete chaos, God fashioned our ordered universe and at each stage of the creative process, called it “good.”
And then, God crowned his work with the creation of human beings in God’s own image: male and female he created us, and called us “good.”
I don’t claim to understand the image of God perfectly, but what I can take away from this is: That if God is perfect, then we are made in the image of perfection – male and female. And from this arises the ideals of equality, dignity, intrinsic value of each individual, beauty, harmony, balance, peace.
Permit a little aside: Today, all know of DNA, the stuff that is the source, the code that determines our shape and our function. It is remarkable that all this complicated and seemingly inexhaustible code is based on just 4 building blocks arranged in a series of groups of three.
Remarkably, Beethoven’s Opus 110 is built on the simple interval of the fourth. Of course, Beethoven could not have known of DNA and its 4 essential components. Nevertheless, it is amazing that out of this simple interval of the fourth, Beethoven builds ground-breaking complex music that captures the human condition in its essence.
(While delivering this sermon, I was on the piano live playing the music. For this post, I will use clips of a performance by Vladimir Ashkenazy.)
Listen to the beautiful innocent and pure melody Beethoven creates in the opening of Opus 110. In the youtube clip, from the beginning to the 45-second mark.
Beethoven’s opening statement built on fourths is beautiful. The beauty of biological life is built on DNA’s series of 4 keys. Creation was beautiful. And good.
But, it was not to remain “good.”
- Imperfection invaded.
- Pain entered the scene, represented by the pain of childbirth and the pain of hard labour needed to coax the soil to produce sustenance for survival.
- Instead of equality, we now have power struggles; instead of dignity and the intrinsic value of human life, we have seen genocide; instead of beauty, we see everywhere around us the objectification of the human form; instead of harmony, we have war; instead of balance, we see segregation of peoples according to a multiplicity of walls we erect around us; instead of peace, we are engulfed by the brokenness everywhere.
- Why, God?
Beethoven’s beautiful and perfect opening takes on a tragic tone: still based on the fourth, but now dark. The theme is still present, it tries to return to its former simplicity, but it is now embroiled in surging, foreboding base tones and afterwards enveloped in turbulence.
Ever since imperfection invaded, distorting the image of God that we are, we have always wanted to return to something higher than our condition. It is as if the human being is hard-wired to always look beyond self, to forever seek that which might be better, might be more pleasing, more satisfying.
And so it is that we have seen a parade of great thinkers – our philosophers – whose craft is to understand and codify what it is that makes us tick, why we think what we think, why we do what we do. What is it that we human beings really want from life; how could we know what we really want life to be; how might we recognize that which might add meaning to our lives.
We call this the search for meaning, for significance.
I propose to you that our incessant search for meaning, for significance, springs from our hard-wired desire to rediscover and reclaim perfection, and this because we were originally created in the image of God in perfection.
If then the search for meaning, the “Why God?” question, is the desire to align with perfection, with God who is perfect, God shows the way and it is through Jesus, God’s Son, the Christ, the Messiah.
And why should we believe that Christ is the answer to our existential crisis? The simple explanation of the Bible is this: Because God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection demonstrated victory over all that which corrupts the human race. It validates God’s power to renew all things. Jesus declared: “I am the truth and the life; no one comes to Father God except through me.” And again Jesus said: “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” And the apostle Paul: “We will all be changed: in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. The body stained with imperfection grows old, catches all sorts of illness, decays. This perishable body will be changed to the imperishable: the imperfect will once again be transformed to the perfect, the mortal to the immortal.” And in that future perfection, when we will have finally rediscovered the meaning of life, can we say: “Were, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?”
I would like to close with Beethoven’s conclusion to his Opus 110, in music that I like to think communicates better than words, the transformation of despair to victory, the imperfect human condition to the perfection of God, victory over death.
What to listen for:
- In this last few pages of Opus 110, Beethoven continued to build his case with intervals of fourths.
- I begin in the middle of the last movement: Beethoven thought he was going to die from his illness. This part of the music sobs, tries to catch breath with laboured breathing, highly unstable, at the point of death. Pain all around.
- And then come 10 enigmatic repeated chords no one can explain. Was it an epiphany at the 10th hour? Who knows?
- Comes the finale which Beethoven carefully marked: “little by little with renewed vigour.” A return to strength. A rescue from death. A resurrection from the dead.
Why God? Because alignment with perfection is in the end the only element that brings meaning to life.
Why, God? While we cannot answer this question, while we cannot understand suffering and pain, God invites us through Christ and the assurance of Christ’s resurrection, to rest in the knowledge that in the end, God will prevail against all that stands against the good.
I trust that you will forgive the liberty I have taken, to express in music what I couldn’t do in words, and that is: to persevere in hope in God’s trustworthy faithful love, the confidence that all that bedevils this world is but temporary, that in the end, God will banish the imperfection, and brings back the good.
To God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory and praise.
2016 August 07 – “Extravagant Love” (Luke 15:11-32)
When it comes to forgiveness, is there a point of no return beyond which the offending individual could never again receive pardon? Is there such a thing as pure absolute evil that cannot, must not be forgiven?
Jeremy Gubbels. Have you heard of that name?
Last week, Jeremy Gubbels was sentenced to life in prison with a possibility for parole in 25 years. He murdered his mother and inflicted unspeakable acts on her lifeless body. Jeremy then waited for his father to come home and then killed him too. He then dumped his father’s body into his pickup truck, drove to London and than stopped at a restaurant to have a steak and calamari dinner washed down with martinis. There at Moxie’s restaurant the police caught up with him. He was arrested mid-meal, his dead father in his truck parked outside. The crime was so heinous, so callous, so evil, that the presiding judge, in sentencing Jeremy Gubbels to life in prison, added that in his view “this man should never be released from jail.”
At the victim impact statement phase of the trial, his sister, his only sibling, said this: “I hope you rot in jail; I hope you suffer every single day; I hope you have nightmares; You are a horrible person.”
What do you think? In time, is it at all possible that there would be room in his sister’s heart for forgiveness?
The parable of the lost son tackles the difficult question of forgiveness and reconciliation, even if it may seem that the story doesn’t go down to the same horrific level as Jeremy Gubbels.
It all began when the religious leaders began complaining that Jesus was consorting with all the shady characters of the time – even sharing meals with them! Big deal, one might say, until we bring it to our day and realize that it would be scandalous indeed if your minister were to regularly visit and have meals with people of ill-repute in the dark diners of St. Catherine Street East. Worse, if your minister were to invite them in big groups into his or her home in plain knowledge and view of the Session and you the congregation. What will you think?
In answer, Jesus gave three parables, stories that cut to the heart of the issue. The first two are short, the lost sheep and the lost coin, hammering home the message that God is interested in rescuing the lost, beyond taking care of those already safe. The third, the parable of the lost son, is more complex and multi-layered. It challenges our comprehension of love and forgiveness. This morning we will consider the third, the parable of the lost son.
First, we need to review a number of particularly pertinent details, important to know in order to recover the edginess of the story, the way it must have bit into the sensibilities of those listening to Jesus.
In those days, certain traditions governed matters of inheritance:
- The oldest son always received twice the inheritance of all the rest of his siblings. In this story, the older brother stood to inherit two-thirds of his father’s property. The younger brother, one-third.
- The heirs would have access to their share of the inheritance even while their father still lives; the one condition is that they can only liquidate inherited property after the death of the father.
- Lastly, liquidating or selling land goes against the beliefs and traditions of the Jewish people; land is a gift from God and must be kept within the family. It can be mortgaged, but must be redeemed by the owner, or by a relative – the kinsman-redeemer.
The story begins quickly with the younger son asking for the one-third due him as his inheritance from the father.
I want you to notice two things in this passage:
- First: The father agreed to the younger son’s demand and divided the property as per common practice. Two-thirds to the older brother, one-third to the younger. This also tells us that at the very outset, the older brother accepted the distribution. It was according to custom.
- Second, let’s look more closely at verse 12: “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.” Notice the two instances of the word “property” in this verse. It is not immediately evident from this English translation (NRSV) that in the original text, two different words were both translated to “property.” The first instance of “property” is translated from a word that did indeed mean “property” or “goods.” The second instance of “property” however, is translated from a word that meant “livelihood” or “life.” This second original word is best understood as “means of living” or “the means to life.” Thus, it was not just disposable property that the father gave up in favour of the younger son; the father gave up one-third of his earning capacity in order to accommodate the younger son’s demand. That I imagine involved at the very least for the father and his firstborn son, a lifestyle change, a sacrifice, a scale-back.
In just a few days, the younger son was off – gone. This was a pre-meditated move. Contrary to traditional inheritance customs, the son liquidated his one-third of his father’s property while his father was still alive. This is tantamount to saying: “My father is dead to me.” Additionally, by selling the land for cash, he in effect turned his back on his Jewish roots, ultimately turning his back on God who the Jewish people revered as the giver of all their land.
Getting the cash for the land, he spent it all on loose living somewhere out there. After all the money was gone, a famine descended on the land where he was. He was now in peril for his very life. He did find a job, but it was to tend the pigs in the fields.
It was degrading for a Jewish person to have to take care of pigs – those unclean animals. It was even more degrading to think of snitching food from the pigs to feed oneself. But there he was.
The Czech writer and philosopher, Vaclav Havel the first president of the Czech Republic wrote: “There are times when we must sink to the bottom of our misery to understand truth, just as we must descend to the bottom of a well to see the stars in broad daylight.”
And so it was that the younger son, having reached bottom, came to his senses and for his very survival decided to make his way back to his father’s estate, not as a son, but to ask to be employed as one of the servants.
I have always been taught in church school that the climax of this story is the reconciliation between the repentant son and the forgiving, loving father. This idea is highlighted in the Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son”: the repentant son kneeling before the father whose face is etched with tenderness; whose bigger and broader left hand suggests fatherhood, the gentler and more welcoming right hand that of motherhood. Motherhood and fatherhood both represented, evoking the welcome, care and protectiveness of parents towards their children.
Is the younger son’s change of heart and the father’s forgiveness and welcome the whole point of the parable? I don’t think so. This morning for us, the true climax of the story is the contrast between the father and the older brother. This is where Jesus places the tension in the narrative. This is the part that he probably wanted the religious leaders to hear.
The father is portrayed as hoping, waiting. At first sight of the wayward son on his way back, the father runs to him, embraces him, showers him with kisses. He interrupts the son’s prepared speech by ordering his servants to clothe the son, to prepare a grand celebration. This behaviour was totally contrary to what might have been expected of a middle-eastern vengeful father of the day, aggrieved by the treachery of his son. In fact, the father’s gestures of extravagant welcome – the running, the embracing, the kissing – would have all been seen as demeaning, shameful, totally beneath the dignity of a father in the patriarchal society of those days in that land. But the father, because of his extravagant love for his sons had already broken Jewish tradition and ethics by giving complete control of a third of his property to his younger child. The father didn’t care about protocol or codes of behaviour or what the neighbours might think; his love for this son transcended all that society expected that he should do.
The father’s welcome of the younger son contrasts sharply with the reaction of the older brother. In the Rembrandt, he is the stern-looking character to the right with hands crossed in judgment.
The older brother’s first words to his father was “Listen!” An exclamation of disrespect, of bitterness, of anger. What else can it be even if it were said today, son to father.
He continues: “All these years I have been working like a slave for you.” This statement oozes with accusations of injustice, of feelings of being exploited, of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. Then he embellishes his outburst with: “yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” The discontent and resentment comes out: you never loved me, you always favoured your other son. And lastly, he disowns his brother, saying: “This son of yours…”
The father does not match anger for anger, outburst for outburst. Instead, his words are full of tenderness, grace and love:
- Son, you are always with me – you will always ever be my son, meaning, I love you unconditionally.
- Second, “all that is mine is yours.” Remember, the older son was to inherit two-thirds of his father’s estate. After the younger son ran off with one-third of his father’s estate, all that remained with his father was exactly what the older brother already owned by virtue of the tradition of inheritance.
- And finally, the father gently corrects the older son: “This brother of yours…” reminding him that they are of one family. He was dead, now he is alive. He was lost and now has been found. What other response can there be but to celebrate and rejoice!
Here is the kicker: Jesus does not end the story with a reconciliation between the two brothers. Jesus lets the story hang. Does the older brother relent and join the celebration? Or does he dig in and refuse to acknowledge his younger brother? If he were to go in and join the celebration, he would have to enter into a new life, a new paradigm of forgiveness, of mercy, of reconciliation, of love. An eye-opener, a new world. If he were to remain outside of the celebration, he would continue in his own world, the way he has always understood it.
Think of it. The story was not really a condemnation of the religious leaders who were listening; rather, it was an invitation to reflect on the ways of God, an invitation to examine one’s heart and make a decision one way or another which was to go into the father’s celebration, or stay out of it.
The story leaves us hanging. Jesus didn’t conclude with what the older brother finally did. Because of this, this parable still speaks to us, should still speak to us today. What would you do if you were the older brother?
Consider Jeremy Gubbels once more. If while in prison he has a change of heart, admits the great wrong he has done and reaches out to his sister who had already consigned him to the flames of hell, what advice would you give her?
Our lives, I trust, will never be as traumatic as those connected to the Gubbels double murder. But we are an imperfect people living in imperfect societies in an imperfect world. We will be confronted with the question Jesus brought out in the parable of the lost son. The question will manifest itself in various ways in our personal lives, the lives of our friends and neighbours, our associates. Just as Jesus did not continue the story with what the older brother finally did, similarly, in the end you really are the only one who will know in your heart what you will do.
I leave you with this – If you ever find yourself in a situation similar to the theme of the story of the lost son, remember the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
To God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory and praise.
2016 July 17 – “Moving Forward in Faith ” – Matthew 25:14-30
Last Sunday we saw how radical, how controversial, how challenging the words of Jesus were to his listeners. We considered the parable of the Good Samaritan, a story which we have in our day reduced into merely a heart-warming feel-good tale of a do-gooder. Instead, we say that it was a complex social and cultural commentary that remains intensely relevant in our day, in these times of increasing violence.
Today we consider another parable of Christ, the parable of the talents, another story that we have reduced to pleasantly paltry platitudes on productivity, hiding the critique that it truly was on the religious conventions of the time.
We begin by situating the parable.
It begins in Matthew chapter 21. Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time, on the way to the cross. The religious leaders immediately confronted him with trick questions, to try and discredit his ministry. His detractors were left astounded at the authority, wisdom and power in the way Jesus taught the word of God. In turn, Jesus had the harshest of words against them: Six times in chapter 23 he called them hypocrites, as well as snakes and children of deadly poisonous vipers. He then predicted the destruction of Jerusalem: “not one stone will be left here on another stone that will not be thrown down!” he said, a statement that would later be used against him at the trial before Pilate.
The disciples, probably perplexed and disturbed by the apocalyptic words of their master, began to ask: “when will these things happen, and how will we know it is about to happen?” In answer, Jesus enumerates at least 8 portents of the destruction of Jerusalem, the end of their world as they knew it. Then he followed it up with the parable of the fig tree, the comparison with the times of Noah and the ark, the difference between the faithful and unfaithful servant. And lastly, he desribed the coming of the kingdom of God in 3 illustrations back to back: the parable of the 10 bridesmaids wise and foolish, the parable of the talents, and the separation of the sheep from the goats.
Let us now consider the parable of the talents.
I will not be surprised if from the time we were all in Sunday School, we imagined this parable as being the contrast between two industrious and productive servants versus the third lazy servant. This morning, I ask you to forget temporarily what we have may always imagined this parable was about. I ask you to set these traditions aside and look at the story anew, as if you were hearing it for the first time.
Talents: what are they? A talent was a unit of money. A talent was usually in silver in those days, and it would weigh up to 80 pounds. To know the value of a talent in today’s economy, we have to calculate the equivalent in labour costs, in manpower. One talent = 6,000 denarii. A common labourer in those days might get paid 1 denarius per day. For that ancient labourer, one talent was about 20 years’ worth of work. Today in Canada, if you were earning minimum wage full time working 8 hrs/day, 5 days/week, 48 weeks/yr, 20 years of work will be around half a million dollars, gross income. Therefore a talent today will be worth about $500,000 in manpower. To the first servant, the master entrusted 2 ½ million dollars in today’s money; to the second, a million dollars; to the third, half a million. Think about it.
Then the master goes away on a long journey. His return was the day of reckoning.
When we were young and taught this parable in Sunday School, we probably applauded the first two servants — they both doubled their investments and they were both commended by the master. “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” Perhaps we all sadly shook our heads when the master scolded the third servant for being lazy and burying the treasure instead of doing something with it. And then we might have been taught that talents represented our skills, our abilities, and we ought to use them, not sit on them.
Now that we all here have grown up and more experienced in the workplace, I ask you to consider what happened next: The master pronounced judgment: “Take the $500,000 from him and give it to him who now has 5 million dollars. Everyone who has, more will be given. The one who doesn’t have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” Wouldn’t you admit that that was adding insult to injury? Now that we have graduated from Sunday School, now that we are no longer children and know something about how the world operates, are we now perhaps just slightly bothered by this, that it seems that the Bible is teaching that it is alright that the rich should get richer and the poor, poorer?
Many commentators through the history of Bible interpretation have tried to tone down the severity of this judgment by saying that the parable is merely symbolic, that the talents do not really mean money or treasure, but that the talents represent our skills and abilities, such us the ability to play a musical instrument, or to craft works of art, or to prepare fantastic meals, even bake a cake. Today, when we say someone has talent, we don’t really mean he has 80 pounds of silver hidden away under his bed.
But consider this: even if a talent is supposed to represent a skill or an ability, not real money, don’t you sometimes think that the punishment of taking away the one talent would be rather harsh? Imagine a person with only one talent, one ability, say the ability to speak. If that one ability is taken away leaving the poor unfortunate person not able to talk, will you not have pity?
I now ask you to imagine yourself transported to AD33, listening to this story for the first time. You might have been a peasant, an outcast, probably poor, at best, ordinary. As the poor, we really would not have liked the rich, those who take advantage of us: the dishonest tax-collectors, the landowners, the nobility. All we are, are servants at best, scratching a living because the master happens to like us. We hear about the 5 talents, the two talents and the one talent. As a poor slave, farmer or peasant, I can’t even imagine being given a talent of money to keep in trust and protect — it will take me 20 years to earn this amount. If it got lost, if someone robs the talent from me, how can I ever expect to pay it back? I can’t pay it back with my wages, not in my lifetime. My family would have been sold to slavery – that’s what happens to people who can’t repay debts.
In those days, the rabbis taught that money can only be protected and made safe by burying it in the earth. Furthermore, if it happens that a thief finds and steals the buried treasure, the person who buried it will not be guilty of the loss, will not be liable, will not be required to pay it back. Burying treasure in those days was considered a responsible act. You will understand therefore that the third servant must have thought he did the responsible thing: keep his master’s money safe as the rabbis taught.
Those listening to this story would have sympathized with the third servant and understood exactly why he buried the talent. He wanted to be “responsible” by protecting the treasure for his master. It is like as if I had a billionaire employer who asks me to take care of his new Porsche 918 Spyder hybrid that goes from zero to 100 km/hr in 2 seconds. You know how much this car costs? US$850,000 — a car I will never ever be able to buy, nor would want to.
Now, because I have the car even temporarily, should I drive it around downtown Montreal pretending this $850,000 car is mine in order to impress my friends? Perhaps give a good impression to generate business? Or because my billionaire employer entrusted this car to me to keep it safe, should I keep it locked in a secure garage so it doesn’t get dinked or scratched or stolen if driven around and kept outside? What would you do? So you can just imagine the confusion for the first-time listeners when they heard what the master did when he returned. Say what?
The third servant’s last words were: “Here — you have what is yours.” Or, I give you back intact what you had asked me to keep for you. Perhaps he might have explained: I did what the rabbis teach — bury your treasure in the earth to keep it safe.
Let’s go back to the first words of the third servant, words that we should understand as very troubling. He told the master: “You are a hard man; you take for yourself that which others have worked to produce.” The master’s answer must have resonated with the listeners in that the rich were not friends of the poor. The master admitted, angrily at that, that he takes for himself what he did not work for. And then the master commands that that one talent, that treasure kept safe, be taken away from the poor third servant and given to the one who now had ten. And injury upon injury, the master fired him — threw him out. The already-rich became richer, and the poor third servant became even poorer.
If you were hearing this parable for the first time in the days of Christ and the Apostles, and you were poor, a slave, a servant, someone abused by the rich landowners, who will you side with? Where will your sympathies be? Will you not feel sorry for the third servant and hate the master?
Where is the lesson in this story? Where is the truth? Whom is the listener to trust — the third servant or the master? Was the master right? Was the third servant right? Was the master mean, selfish and cruel? Was the third servant being responsible as the rabbis would have said, or was he plain lazy and wicked the way the master accused him? Exploring and trying to answer these questions will bring us to understand and learn the lesson of this parable, and a greater understanding and appreciation of the kingdom of God. Let’s step back for a moment and try to understand the culture of the time.
Do you know what the people of God, Israel held as their joy, their treasure? The Torah. The Torah was given to the Israelites at the mountain of God as they traveled from Egypt to the promised land. The Torah is a declaration of who God is, what God is like, what God does and will do, how the people of God should respond to God. The Torah, in effect, is Israel’s very life and soul. The Torah is what sets Israel apart from all the rest. Without the Torah, Israel would have been just like one of the warring nations in that ancient land.
We therefore sympathize and understand that the response of Israel to the Torah — is to protect it, to guard it, to preserve it, and to return it to God upon death, uncontaminated, unimpaired, pure, nothing more, nothing less. The behaviour of the third servant was exactly that. The one single talent was both a treasure to protect, but also a burden to keep safe from thieves, in order that it be given back to the master upon his return, pure, nothing added, nothing taken away.
The controversial lesson for those who heard this parable the first time, one that must have been difficult for the religious leaders to take in, was that the price of protecting and preserving the Torah was: no future. The servant who thought he was protecting the master’s treasure was fired, cast outside. Because of his safe strategy, he now had no future.
Can you imagine the implications? The religious leaders in the time of Jesus saw as their life mission, the preservation of the Torah. Applied to these religious leaders, the lesson of the parable was they had no future. Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. The Romans did it in AD70.
For us today, the message of the parable is this:
- The price of trying to protect and keep to ourselves the wonderful treasure that is Christ is: no future.
- The price of playing it safe is: no future.
- The price for the church that keeps the word of God unused and at bay is: no future.
The parable of the talents teaches us how to meet, engage and claim the future which is now. The parable teaches freedom; it teaches moving forward in faith trusting that God always provides the resources to move us into spheres we might otherwise think we could never do.
- The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God practice and proclaim the treasures of Christ.
- The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God analyze, sift, internalize and externalize God’s timeless inexhaustible treasures that are found in Scripture.
- The church thrives, flourishes, when the people of God place their trust in God and walk in faith that with God, nothing is impossible.
Here at Kensington Presbyterian, you begin every worship service with lighting the candle at the communion table, declaring Jesus is the light of the world. I now say to you: do not hide that greatest of treasures that is in you – the light of Christ our Saviour. Instead, ponder His words: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew chapter 5 verse 16).
To God be all the glory.
2016 July 07 – “My enemy, my friend” – Luke 10:25-37
Sometimes when we know a Bible verse so well, when we know a passage of Scripture so well, when we know a parable of Jesus so well we can repeat it even when hardly awake, we become locked into only one way of understanding it. The Parable of the Good Samaritan is one such passage of Scripture which is so familiar, that we might have always understood to be nothing more beyond a lesson in being a good neighbour. A total stranger extending a helping hand to one in need. This is probably the way most of today’s world understand Jesus’ parable of the man who fell to thieves.
Everyone wants to identify with the Good Samaritan. We have numerous Good Samaritan Hospitals, or Good Samaritan Medical Centres. We have the Samaritan’s Purse, the Good Samaritan Society, Sisters of the Good Samaritan, Good Samaritan School for the Deaf, The Good Samaritan Trust Fund. There is even a school in Mississauga named “The Good Samaritan School for Exceptional Students.” The school self-describes as: “The Good Samaritan School offers exceptional services to students who are falling below grade level and require remedial support in an individualized environment.” It seems they understand the half-dead victim in Jesus’ parable as a metaphor for below-average students.
Even governments recognize the message of neighbourly good in Jesus’ parable. They have incorporated the Good Samaritan concept into their nations’ laws – the “Good Samaritan Law.” For example, in most of Canada, when an individual voluntarily helps a person in need, that helpful individual understood to be a Good Samaritan, would not be held liable for damages when something goes wrong.
Everyone would rather be known as a Good Samaritan than something else. To my knowledge, there is no hospital with a name like: “The Priest-who-cannot-be-bothered Hospital.” Or, “The Man Who was Robbed and Left for Dead Trust Fund.”
Most people know about the Good Samaritan, most people understand the point of the story of the Good Samaritan, and most people would like to think that they will be Good Samaritans when the need arises. Is there anything else special to learn from this parable?
The story begins when an expert in Jewish Law asked Jesus a question. The man was a lawyer who already knew the answer to his own question.
“Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answered the question with a question — as a rabbi would do.
“What does the law say, and how do you understand it?”
The lawyer then answered his own question, no surprise there. He gave the standard answer found in Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 19:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and, Love your neighbour as yourself.”
“You have answered correctly” Jesus agreed.
And this is precisely the point where the lawyer who had intended to trip Jesus became the one who ended up under the magnifying glass.
Jesus continued: “Do this and you will live.”
Now lawyers live and die on the precision and exactness of language. So it is not a surprise that he would ask: “Who is my neighbour?” The lawyer was asking: “where do I draw the line between friend and enemy?” It is a question that plagues us as individuals, communities, political parties, governments, nations, tribes, ethnic groups. Never a day goes by it seems that there isn’t a conflict somewhere in the world, where lines are drawn. You’re an enemy — or you are a friend. If you are not with me, you are with my enemy. And so it leads to horrific violence: Paris, Orlando, Baghdad, Bangladesh, Dallas; none are exempt.
There is something else that has to do with the Hebrew language and which remains enigmatic. Let me explain: ancient Hebrew script was consonantal, that is, vowels are not present. How then did anyone know how to pronounce words made up of only consonants, we can legitimately ask.
It is not that difficult.
We know how to properly read these consonants because our brains know the English language so well we can supply the vowels rather accurately. This was the same for ancient readers of ancient Hebrew. It was only in 600AD that scribes began to mark written Hebrew words with symbols as aids to pronunciation.
It is perhaps significant that in Hebrew, both the word “neighbour” and “enemy” have the same consonants. If the lawyer were to play with the same consonants of the ancient Hebrew, he might have just as well asked the question “Who is my enemy?” and the expected answer would have been the same. The lawyer was looking for the boundary line that separates friend from enemy.
This is the point where Jesus began the parable.
A man was traveling north to Jericho from Jerusalem. Along the way he was attacked by robbers, stole even his very clothes, beat him up and then left him to die. A priest came by. As soon as the priest saw the bloodied victim, he crossed to the other side of the road and went on his way without stopping. Next, a Levite came by. He too, upon spotting the unfortunate half-dead victim, crossed to the other side of the road and went on his way without stopping.
We now arrive at the rule of three, or, as we say today: “the third time’s the charm.” You hear this rule of three in stale jokes, like: There was an American, a Canadian and a Filipino in a restaurant. Then the usual: The first two will say something generic, and the third will always have the brilliant punch line.
What might have those listening to Jesus expected? Who was going the be the “third time’s the charm” hero?
Ever since the exodus from Egypt, the people of Israel usually thought of themselves belonging to one of 3 classes of people:
- First the priestly class, the highest class.
- Second, the Levites, sort of the middle class.
- And all the rest belonged to the third class, the ordinary Israelites.
There was a priest, a Levite and a… Who was going to be the brilliant punch line? The third time’s a charm hero?
The listeners, all ordinary people, Jews, would have expected that the brilliant third would be a lowly Israelite, the helpful one. What a way to poke fun at the priests and the Levites. But surprise surprise, the third one was a Samaritan. And today, we say: “so what?” We moderns and post-moderns don’t necessarily understand the terrible implications of this plot twist, a totally unexpected turn in the storyline. Let me explain.
Those listening to Jesus would have been Jews. To them, the Samaritans were enemies.
2 Chronicles 28 recounts the massacre, perpetrated in a single day against the Jews by the Samaritans of the Northern Kingdom. A hundred-twenty thousand Jewish soldiers were killed. More than that, during that skirmish, the Samaritans kidnapped two hundred thousand Jewish women and children to bring them to Samaria and to make them slaves. This was in the time of king Ahaz of Judah and King Pekah of Israel, in the mid-700s BC. It took a prophet of God named Oded to stand against the ruthless Samaritan army and convince them to relent and release the captives.
So place yourself among the Jewish people listening to Jesus, anticipating that after the priest and the Levite, an ordinary Jew was going to be the “third is the charm” man who will do the right thing. But behold, it was not an ordinary Jew… it was a Samaritan! Today, it’s like saying that the first man to ignore the victim was the St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada; the second man to ignore the victim was an elder of the same St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada. You might have hoped that the “third time’s the charm” hero to come, stop and help would be an ordinary member or even adherent of St. Andy’s Presbyterian in Sometown Canada. But behold, he turns out to be an Abu Sayaf man from the Philippines, machete in hand. Or, a masked ISIL Jihadist with knife in hand. Just as the thought of a masked jihadist coming upon a wounded helpless Christian or Yazidi would have struck fear in your heart, the audience listening to Jesus must have all stopped breathing at the audacity of his story: a Samaritan! The Samaritan is a villain! He would finish off the half-dead man!
But then, the Samaritan did something the listeners did not expect: the Samaritan took pity on the half-dead man. He dressed the victim’s wounds, brought him to an inn, instructed the innkeeper to look after the man and promised to return and pay for all costs incurred.
Just like the lawyer who had asked Jesus the question “Who is my neighbour?”, it is our nature to draw enclosing circles around us to include our friends and shut out the rest.
In ancient China, at around 500 BC, a man named Sun Zi wrote “The Art of War”, a text on military strategy and remains today a required reading for CIA officers. It is also listed among the US Marine Corps Professional Reading Program. It’s most famous dictum is: “Know your enemy.” A famous Sanskrit proverb which also appeared around 500BC teaches: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
Even the body of believers tend to be like this. We draw circles around us as Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, traditionals, progressives — and so on, thinking we are keeping ourselves pure and keeping the impure outside. The human civilization, great and small, insists on drawing lines between friend and foe, between neighbour and enemy. Friends are those who help us; enemies are those who harm us.
Jesus overturns all of this flawed human wisdom. The Samaritan whom the listeners expected to be the enemy, was the friend who helped. When those whom we think to be our enemies begin to do acts of kindness, it shatters our way of thinking and acting. When we face that enemy and see in him a fellow human being who can be a friend, that is when we will have learned the lesson of this parable.
With the title “the Good Samaritan” which never really was part of Luke’s writing, we have actually confined this parable to merely extending help to a person in need. We have placed so much emphasis on the goodness of the Good Samaritan. We have imagined the poor unfortunate victim to be people belonging to the oppressed: the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the outcasts, etc. We have never really considered placing ourselves in the role of this poor unfortunate battered victim who looked up and faced a traditional enemy, sure that this Samaritan villain was going to finish him off.
The real lesson in this parable is loving your enemies, doing good to them who hate you, what Jesus was teaching way back in Luke chapter 6. It goes both ways: we can be the helper coming to the aid of a needy person regardless of whether he is friend or enemy; we can be the needy person accepting help from someone regardless of whether he is friend or enemy. If only the descendants of those who were listening to Jesus understood and obeyed, would there not be peace in the Middle East? If only nations found ways to co-exist instead of to conquer, kill and exterminate, would there be world wars? If only we in our diversity learned to see the imprint of God in each of us, would there still be discrimination and tribal hostilities? If only we didn’t see ourselves as black, white, yellow or red would there still be the horror of mass killing in Dallas, or Iraq, or Bangladesh? If only we in our churches learned more to unite in one voice proclaiming and living out the good news of Jesus, Lord and Saviour, then wouldn’t we be bringing the kingdom of God into the world he so loves? Then will not Isaiah’s prophecy come to pass, that the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and a little child shall lead them?
At the conclusion of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer: “Which one was a friend and neighbour?” The lawyer answered: “The one who showed him mercy.” The enemy turned out to be the friend and neighbour. And Jesus said: “Go and do likewise.”
And I say to all of us: “Let us go and do likewise.”
To God be all the glory, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
2016 June 12 – “Thrust Outside the Box” – Acts 11:1-18
I first read JRR Tolkien’s trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings,” in 1977. I read it again just before the release of the first of Peter Jackson’s movie version in 2001. I am, and ever will be, a fan. Lord of the Rings is an allegory against industrialization, the brutality of the world wars and the power-hungry despots who instigated these massive bloody conflicts. Reference to the expansionist Nazi regime is thinly veiled, the men of the East whose evil was spreading inexorably to the west, that is, towards Tolkien’s England.
The good simple life, pre-industrial, innocent, is exemplified by the Hobbits who lived in the Shire. The Shire, where no one moved away, no new person moved in. The Shire, where everything was the same generation after generation, taken for granted as peace, stability, constancy, security.
But the threat spreading from the East needed to be stopped. Frodo and his loyal friend Sam were commissioned to go and destroy the source of this evil. It was a “mission that was impossible” that sapped them of their strength and threatened to claim their lives at every turn. Frodo and Sam, they derive courage and strength from the thought of going back to the Shire – to the way things were, are and forever will be. The Shire was the “box” for Frodo and Sam. It represented the way things were, the way things are, and the way things ought to be. But the quest itself was relentless in thrusting both Frodo and Sam outside of the safety of their box, which was fast becoming just a memory. In the end, peace won the day, but everything changed. The whole world was thrust outside its old box and ushered into the new.
The story of the conversion of Cornelius is one that surely fits the model of being thrown out of the box and into a much larger world. Our reading today, Acts 11, is Peter retelling the story to the religious authorities of the Jerusalem church, defending himself against accusations of having breached the norms of Jewish Christian behaviour.
To have an idea of the complicated political-religious-social mix in the world of the book of Acts, we go back to the stoning of Stephen. Stephen went against the religious power-brokers, what my generation in our youth in the 1960s would call the big bad “Establishment.” For this, Stephen was eliminated, executed. It didn’t stop there: the established religious power then proceeded to so persecute the Jewish converts to the way of Christ, that the new Jewish Christians were dispersed abroad, with the exception of the apostles who somehow were permitted to remain in Jerusalem.
The apostles established the Jerusalem Church, tolerated by the Jewish religious authorities. One can imagine the uneasy truce between them, the Jewish Christians not wanting to offend the Jewish establishment so as not to suffer the fate of so many of their brothers and sisters. Therefore, the Jewish Christians were very careful to observe and to cause the Church to observe Jewish customs and traditions, front and foremost of which is not to be stained through contact with the Gentiles, or non-Jews. We can perhaps understand their concern – consternation might be a better word – that one of the apostles, Peter himself, “consorted” with Cornelius, a Gentile, and a Roman centurion at that. Therefore, upon his return to Jerusalem, Peter was called on the carpet so to speak, to give account of his actions, to face his antagonists who accused him: “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them. What they were really saying is that Peter, in setting aside his Jewish ethic, has placed the Jerusalem church in danger with the Jewish nation. They feared that the uneasy truce would be broken, and a wave of persecution ignited once more.
But God cannot and never will be contained by the traditions of men. God is God overall of creation and humanity, not just God over the Jerusalem church, really only the small nucleus of God’s plan for the whole world.
What about Cornelius? Who was he?
From 82 BC and on, Cornelius became a very popular Roman name, a sort of the generic “John Doe” of our day. “Cornelius” was the name adopted by around 10,000 slaves who were given their freedom by the Roman general and dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. It is highly possible that the Cornelius of our story was descended from one of those freed slaves.
Our Cornelius was a Roman centurion, equivalent to a captain in our day. A centurion would have under his command from 300 to 600 soldiers. Cornelius was stationed in Caesarea, about 130 km north of northwest of Jerusalem. It was a port city upgraded to world class standards in the days of Herod the Great. Fresh water was piped in by a brick aqueduct, much of it still standing today. The city needed military protection which was why Cornelius and his men were stationed there.
We are told that Cornelius was a devout man: he and his household as well as some of his soldiers. We are told that he feared God, prayed regularly and did works of charity. Here is a picture of a man, a centurion but still an ordinary “John Doe” by virtue of his name “Cornelius”, touched by God to turn from polytheistic and pagan traditions to a monotheistic faith. For reasons we are not told, the text in Acts implies that Cornelius was a near-convert to the Jewish monotheistic faith.
Cornelius is an archetype of an ordinary human being with a very ordinary name, doing what he was employed to do, outside of the Jewish box – in fact probably despised by the Jewish nation, and called by God. He reminds me of that oft-repeated well-loved passage in Jeremiah addressing the Jewish exiles which begins with “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”
We believe that God comes close and touches the lives of people, from the first to the last, from the mighty to the most ordinary, this when anyone seeks him with all sincerity, with all of one’s being, one’s soul. All our welcome. With God, no matter one’s ethnicity or race, no matter our social status, no matter our gender – we are all invited, we are all welcome to fellowship with the Lord. This is what Peter needed to learn, not that he already had an idea of the comprehensive welcome of the Christian faith: he was staying with Simon the tanner, a profession intensely disliked by the Jewish community. Accepting the hospitality of the tanner, Peter already had a sense that God was thrusting him outside of the box he had known since birth, outside the safety of his traditions and outside into the wild and unpredictable world for which God cares so deeply. And Peter as an example to all of us, trusted the leading of the Holy Spirit and went to visit and accept the hospitality of Cornelius the Roman Gentile, breaking all the rules of his box tradition, and thus being enriched and blessed for it himself. He broke new ground!
For ourselves, do we trust God enough to willingly be led outside the safety of our boxes? What happens if God thrusts us outside our boxes?
It makes all the difference, whether we would recognize and intentionally follow the surprising twists and turns of the movement of the Spirit of God, or whether we will choose to remain within the security of boxes we make for ourselves.
The history and fate of the original Jerusalem church is instructive. Let us recap:
- Christ-followers or later, Christians, established and began the Jerusalem church.
- The Jerusalem church was governed first by the apostles, and then eventually elders under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus.
- It was composed of 2 factions: the landed Jews, or those who lived in Jerusalem, and the Hellenist or Greek Jews who came in from outside.
- After the martyrdom of Stephen, a Hellenist Jew, persecution broke out so severely and so specifically against the Hellenists that they were driven out of the Jerusalem church, and dispersed all over. Antioch became the new centre of Christianity among the Gentiles.
- The Jerusalem church became very Hebrew, with converts from among the Pharisees (Acts 6:7) who unlike Paul tried to maintain Jewish law among the believers.
This explains why the Jerusalem church was so concerned with Gentiles becoming Christians – the uncircumcised – so much so that it sent emissaries to check up on mission work in Gentile territory. Paul called them false apostles.
The Jerusalem church escaped to the Decapolis shortly before the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD70. They sort of faded away and disappeared completely in the 7th century, always rejected as apostates by their fellow Hebrews, and as heretics by the Orthodox Christians – such an inglorious end for the church that had such an earth-shaking beginning.
We observe the following:
- The Jerusalem church flourished when it comprised both Hebrews and Hellenists. It wilted when it lost the Hellenists and withdrew into its culturally uniform box.
- The Jerusalem church saw itself as the religious police, reinforcing the walls of its box with the good intention of making sure that all those who make it inside are genuine believers.
What about today?
Too long, many have seen the church as the instrument by which the new people are made to conform to Christianity as we see it. “Let them be like us” is the refrain. It is true and it is right that we proclaim and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all who come our way. But we have tended to forget that the new people among us bring with them a unique richness, a diversity, a fresh outlook that may seem foreign at first but may then prove to be the work of the Spirit.
The Spirit of God is forever extending us, challenging us, thrusting us outside of the boxes we make for ourselves. It is a bad idea to stand in the way of the movement of the Spirit. Rather, it will be a great blessing and privilege to move in the direction of the Spirit, whatever direction that might be.
Let me end with a retelling of the climax of Peter Jackson’s rereading of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings:
At the moment of truth, Frodo discovered that he himself was not strong enough to resist the temptation of descending to evil. At the moment of truth, the task that Frodo had set out to do had to be done for him by another. At this, at the moment when all was to be changed, Frodo wanted to give up, fall into the abyss and die. Sam, his faithful and loyal friend, pleaded with him with tears as one who loves: “Mr. Frodo – don’t give up.”
So permit me to repeat what you already know and sense here at Kensington Presbyterian:
You have as a congregation already faced many challenges to move outside the box. And you have done so in many ways. Even now, you face a great challenge: you are in transition, waiting on God to bring to you the persons of God’s choosing, a minister. Even now, the community you serve is ever changing in so many ways.
In all of these, you must believe and have confidence that it is the Spirit of God who ever leads his people to bigger and wider circles, leading you outside of your box and into a new place of ministry, of mission to the community. In this I pray that you will never, ever give up. Enter into God’s blessing!
All blessing and honour be to God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
2016 May 01 – “The In-Between” – Acts 1:1-11
The little boy experience
In his mid-30s, my dad, in the prime of his engineering career, began travelling back and forth from Manila to Tokyo on business trips. It was the late 1950s. I was a young boy still clad in short pants. I remember having tagged along with my mom to the airport to see my dad off, my first visit to the new international airport. The so-called “international runway” had just been built and inaugurated in 1953, the year of my birth. There was an open-air observation deck upon which well-wishers flocked to wave goodbye to friends and relatives boarding the airplanes. I remember going up there with my mom, both of us, to try and catch a glimpse of my dad walking along the tarmac to the mobile stairway and into the airplane. I remember cries of triumph and excitement on the part of those claiming to have spotted the one passenger they were seeing off, peering out of those tiny little windows from inside the plane that would soon be in the air. My three sisters must have been along as well, but I don’t remember them being there at all for all the excitement a little boy had on his first outing to see a plane lift off and into the sky. The airplane was a Lockheed Constellation, with its distinctive triple-tail design. That shape remains imprinted in my brain. I remember being impressed with the loud sound of the four propeller-engines as each one began to come to life. As the flying machine started to head for the runway, I remember the rush of wind and the smell of aviation fuel exhaust hitting my face, the plane turning in such a way that its rear end became oriented in direct line with all the people on the observation deck. For a little boy who at that point began to love and still loves flying machines, it was pure joy. And then at the far end of the runway, the engine sound that had gradually faded away with distance suddenly became louder again, more urgent. And there it was, the sleek flying machine racing faster and faster, whizzing by the observation deck, until it lifted off, leaving in its wake, four distinct trails of brown exhaust issuing from each of its four engines. I remember staying there transfixed, the plane getting smaller and smaller as it sloped upwards into the sky, its smoke trail hanging in the air. I remember straining so as not to lose my line of sight, until the shiny speck disappeared from sight.
I was a little boy and knew nothing of poor aviation safety records in those days. I had no fear, no doubt, that in a few short weeks my dad would come back the same way he left. Back at home, I remember making a sketch depicting the airplane lifting off from the runway. It was celebration time for me. In school, I bragged of the experience to others who could only imagine what it was like. I even bragged about it to my cousins who lived next door in the biggest 3-storey house in our street. They were very wealthy, we were not. But none of them have ever flown before at the time, and I felt a special delight retelling the airport experience, feeling privileged even though I knew my family were of very modest means.
I remember trekking with my mom to the airport once more, on the day my father was to return from Japan. I knew nothing of airline schedules then. All I remember was waiting at the observation deck, straining my eyes in the direction from where I was told the airplane would come. I don’t remember how long we waited, but I recall the collective excitement of the crowd as word spread that someone spotted a speck on the horizon that could be the airplane. So I strained my eyes once more, trying to locate the said speck, and watching it grow in size, until I could see the quadruple brown smoke streaks that trailed it. And then there it was, touching down, whizzing past the observation deck. My dad was back.
I suppose I can say it was a simple life of boy who had no doubt that when his dad went up in a flying machine, that he would be back just as he promised. No concept of the myriad of things that could go wrong. All that there was, was pure anticipation of a sure and certain thing, that my dad was going to walk that tarmac once more, this time from the plane to the arrival area where we would be waiting for him.
And then I began to grow up.
I attended a sectarian Christian school that emphasized the apocalyptic, the return of Christ and the resurrection of the faithful who have passed on. I was in high school when it happened. The father of a schoolmate died suddenly. The funeral was held at the high school chapel. You must understand that in my culture, as in most Asian cultures, grieving for the dead tends to be demonstrative and full of overt emotion. At the end of the service, the widow came up to the casket, embraced it face down and in between heartbroken sobs, wailed: “How long, Lord, how long?” All those present understood. I suppose I, like everyone else, was shaken. Once more the scene imprinted itself in my consciousness so much so that to this day I can still relive the whole incident that happened 50 years ago. I suppose this contributed to the erosion of faith that I thought I had. A promise to return made 2,000 years ago, a promise still to be kept. Indeed, “how long Lord, before you make good on a promise?” Or, is it all a farce? Slowly, I drifted away from the faith.
I grew up and became wise in my own eyes. And then I got older.
One doesn’t have to look too far to see that many are in need of help, many are in search of community, many are looking for the meaning of existence. The question I wrestled with was: in my desire to be helpful, to have significance, to get a glimpse of the purpose of existence, to be in community, there is open to each of us, a faith-based as well as a non-faith-based approach. Of the faith-based approach, it is obvious that there is a multiplicity of faith-based claims: different gods, different religions, different traditions. Through an interesting path that perhaps at some other time I can relate to you, I came once more into the Christian faith, a faith that the Rev. Dr. Clyde Ervine describes as both inclusive and exclusive. It is inclusive because all are invited into Christ. It is exclusive because as much as it may make some of us uncomfortable in this pluralistic age, Christ did claim that he is the only way to God. Either all that Christ said was true, or that only some of it is true. And if only some of it were true, then the falsehood part makes Christianity no better than any of the rest. Why then adhere to Christianity and not any other else? I wrestled with this thought. And what about that promise of Christ’s return? Will that every come to pass?
The very first verse of the reading in Acts sets out four fundamentals of the Christian faith and practice: (1) Christ ascended to heaven after rising from the dead; (2) Christ instructed his followers in the way of the believer; (3) Christ empowers his followers through the Holy Spirit; (4) Christ chose the apostles to whom he handed the fundamentals of the faith, and who in turn passed these truths on from one generation to the next.
The characteristic of hospitality and care are inseparable from the Christian faith. In this, Christ is inclusive because we are instructed to welcome and to care for others, particularly those the world tends to cast aside and reject. But one would say, how is this different from the ethics of a different faith tradition, or even of benevolent non-faith traditions? And the question returns; why adhere to the Christian faith, specifically?
There is the resurrection and ascension. And these two form the basis of the truth of the claims of Christ. It is said that when a court of law today receives and considers both circumstantial and eyewitness evidence for the resurrection and ascension, that it would be judged true without any reasonable doubt. These accounts circulated at a time when witnesses would have still been alive. If untrue, the gospels would have been immediately dismissed as fake. As for some who argue that the victors record history and that therefore triumphant Christianity favourably wrote its own history, we simply point to the fact that the gospels circulated at a time when identification with Christ could have meant death at the hands of the Romans. No, the account of the resurrection and ascension were not written by biased, lying, triumphant Christians, they were written under the shadow of the pain of death.
From these truth claims springs hope that is eternal. God did indeed send to us the Holy Spirit, to empower us to live the Christian ethic: truly welcoming and caring for those whom God sends our way, regardless of provenance, social status, rich or poor, healthy or ill. Christ will indeed return, our trusting confidence buttressed by the accounts of the apostles concerning the uniqueness of Christ, no matter how far removed they are in history.
My experience as young one straining to see the plane my dad was in, permits me to sense in a small way the manner by which the apostles fixed their gaze on Jesus as he ascended to heaven. What now during the in-between time, the waiting period after the ascension and the return? What does one do? Two angels had to remind the apostles that there was work to do: life goes on but now in a different way. The first thing the apostles did? They returned to Jerusalem, and in one heart and mind, one voice, prayed. And the result of their prayer? The Christian faith did extend to all Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and then to the whole world.
Would God deny the advance of the kingdom of God? No.
Would God deny the flourishing of Christ’s church? No.
Would God deny us the power of the Holy Spirit through each of us here? No.
Will God increase our faith? Yes.
Will God grant us strength to live the way of Christ? Yes.
Will Christ return? A resounding yes.
Let us therefore live as if Christ were already here, so as to show a taste of heaven to those who do not know: That the true Christian church is indeed a haven of hope, of hospitality, of care – where Christ is at the centre of all that is.
Yes, Lord, come quickly. Maranatha!
2015 September 05 – “Table fellowship with Christ” – 1Corinthians 10:1-17
When I was a young boy, my parents enrolled me one summer to boys camp ran by the YMCA. I remember a Sunday when the camp took us to a worship service at a church close by. It happened to be Holy Communion. The practice in that church was for the congregation to come up row by row to the rail and kneel to receive Communion. I knew all about this part of the worship service: I spent my childhood attending a Methodist church with my parents, and I even as a boy was allowed to receive Communion.
You can guess what happened when a group of camp kids ages 8 and 9 when up to kneel at the rail: It’s somehow related to herd mentality. We got it into our minds that it was chow time, and made sure everyone in the congregation knew what we thought, boisterous as we were. I suspect that we boys collectively decided how funny it was that the Lord’s Table, advertised as rich in blessing, offered no more but little 1-cm cubes of white bread neatly cut, one small piece per child we were told. Nothing like the more substantial chow we would have morning, noon and evening back at the camp.
What is wrong with this picture? What exactly, is Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Table or the Lord’s Supper? What does it mean? Is it really supposed to be a meal? Why do we even bother with it? I imagine that most of us who have been going to church for quite some time will say: Communion is when we remember Christ’s sacrifice, his death on the cross. Yes. But is there more to it?
If there was anything that Jesus did early in his ministry that truly annoyed the religious establishment, it was Jesus’ habit of having meals with those they considered undesirables – the riffraff.
You remember the story of Zacchaeus in Luke chapter 19? He was the hated tax collector who, because he was short, had to climb a sycamore tree to get a glimpse of Jesus passing by. Stopping underneath the tree where Zacchaeus had perched himself, Jesus invited himself to this tax collector’s home. That meant a meal. And all who saw/heard it began to grumble: “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Precisely. Jesus shared meals with those he came to save.
You remember Levi also known as Matthew, another hated tax collector, whose story is recorded in Mark chapter 2? When Jesus was having a meal chez Levi, the guest list included many other hated tax collectors and sinners. Sure enough, the religiously pure complained: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
And do you remember the woman of ill repute in Luke chapter 7 who gate-crashed a meal in order to wash the feet of Jesus with her own tears? The host of the party, a religiously pure man, snickered at Jesus and said to himself: If he only knew what kind of woman was touching him… Precisely. Jesus came to save those who needed saving: the lost, not the righteous.
Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is also about food. In this instance, Paul brings out the dark side of shared meals. He was answering a question from the Corinthians, whether it was alright to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul’s advice begins in chapter 8. Paul begins by reminding them who they are in Christ. Like Israel of old who were led by the pillar of cloud through the wilderness, the Corinthians were, as we are, under God’s protection. Like Israel of old who passed through the parted waters of the Red Sea, the Corinthians have, as we have, passed from death to life. Like Israel of old who was baptized into Moses, the Corinthians were, as we have been, baptized into Christ. And like Israel of old who ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink, the Corinthians did as we now do, enter into table fellowship with the Lord himself in Holy Communion.
What was the problem with the Corinthian Christians? What was wrong with eating with the pagans in their temples? Didn’t Jesus intentionally eat with sinners?
The key to this question is in verse 16: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?”
Paul reminded the Corinthians of the foolishness of Israel of old. In verse 7, he quotes Exodus chapter 32, when the ancient Israelites grew impatient with Moses and demanded that Aaron make them a golden calf – an idol they can see and thus worship. So Aaron made them an idol, and the people sat down to eat and drink and they rose up to play. They were using the meal celebration to spit at the face of God. Paul made a parallel to the practice of the Corinthians: that the meal celebration intended as a sign of the people accepting the invitation of Christ, the Corinthians turned into an occasion to spite the very One who saved them from sin. In verse 20 and 21, Paul wrote: “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”
Heavy stuff, all this demon talk. Applied to our modern sensibilities, it can be understood like this: we cannot claim to be in Christ and continually place God way down in our priorities. There is something curiously wrong with claiming to love God, and at the same time, being just like everyone else who reject God. We in Christ are in this world, but no longer of this world.
When Christ invites us to table fellowship at Communion, we not only remember his sacrifice, we are also swept up by the Holy Spirit to dine with him and to be united with him according to his grace, mercy and love for us. I know that this spiritual union with Christ may sound irrational to the logical mind, but when is logic ever a pre-condition to faith? If it is indeed a spiritual union with Christ, then we will see ever more clearly those who need Christ so we, like Christ, would be moved to invite them into God’s presence. If it is indeed a spiritual union with Christ, then how can we who claim to be in Christ not crave to be always with Christ?
Perhaps the boisterous boys of my memorable YMCA summer camp had wisdom to offer to the stodgy parishioners who frowned on us that day: instead of starvation rations of tiny little neat cubes of sterile white bread guaranteed to be hygienic and safe, perhaps we should think of the Lord’s Table as a figurative chow-down, one big family at a family-style meal accepting the invitation of Christ to be swept to and united with him in the Spirit in pure gratitude and joy.
To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.
2015 August 16 – “Crossing the Bar – with apologies to Alfred Lord Tennyson” – John 6:17-21
The Victorian age – the 19th century. In the Victorian era people delighted themselves in natural history – the sciences – and in the arts, as we do today. But the Victorian era is special I think, because it is the last period in world history when people really believed and wanted to believe that everything about nature made sense because God created it. A fine example of a Canadian Victorian gentleman is Sir J. William Dawson – the “Dawson” in Dawson college, principal of McGill during the last half of the 19th century, a man of God first – a Presbyterian – and also a man of science second, a noted geologist in his time.
Alfred Lord Tennyson was also a true Victorian gentleman at heart – a poet – a man of the arts. Keenly aware of the new trends in science in his time, trends that seemed to turn away from God, his later poetry centred on his firm belief that the universe is subject to the laws of the Eternal God. Perhaps his most remembered poem, a poem that I memorized in 6th grade in the Philippines, “Crossing the Bar,” speaks of the hope of meeting God face to face after death. For Tennyson, death is like putting out to sea, letting the tide carry you out – in the firm conviction that God awaits at the other shore.
Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea.
But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.
Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;
For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.
Today’s Scripture text is also about putting out to sea. But instead of an image of death as in Tennyson’s poem, this is a story about life, a story about not giving up.
Jesus had just fed a multitude of people, miraculously multiplying 5 loaves of barley bread and 2 fish into more than enough for 5,000 men not counting the women and children. After all were satisfied, there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets. The people were so excited they wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king – a political messiah who would liberate the people from Rome. Jesus would have none of this. He was not going to allow himself to be manipulated into a political problem. He left the crowd and alone went up the mountain to pray.
As evening came, his disciples got into a boat and put out to sea towards Capernaum. The English translations do not capture fully the image given by the original language in John 6:17. The English version simply says “set off” or “started across the sea.” But, the original language says something more. I will read to you two sentences. Hear and sense the difference in their meanings. The first sentence: “I started to lose weight.” The second sentence: “I tried so very hard to lose weight but I can’t seem to shed any pounds.” Do you sense the frustration in the second sentence? Another example. First: “I started to learn to play the guitar” Second, “I tried so hard to learn the guitar but my fingers wouldn’t obey what I wanted them to do!” It is not for lack of trying – it is just that try as we might, it doesn’t lead us anywhere. Similarly, the tense of that verb in verse 17 packs greater meaning in the original language than in the English translation. It means that the disciples started to row towards Capernaum, but try as hard as they could, and for as long as they had strength, they couldn’t get there. In fact, they had only gone 3 or 4 miles into sea. If the size of the Sea of Galilee then were the same size as it is today, around 7 or 8 miles wide, the disciples would have been right in the middle caught in a contrary wind. They set out in the evening, and now it was early morning according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, and they’re still in the middle of the sea!
Note, neither Matthew, Mark nor John said that the disciples were afraid. Yes the boat was being battered by the waves, yes the wind was against them and they were not getting anywhere near their destination; but these were fishermen, experienced at sea, and I am sure, not easily terrified by rough water. It was in another story when the Scriptures said they were afraid of the storm at sea – in that instance, Jesus was in the boat with them, sleeping. In this particular incident, these men did not seem to be unnerved by the rough sea – they just couldn’t get to where they wanted to go.
Then they saw it… They thought it was a ghost. Can you blame them for thinking it was a ghost? How many people have you seen walking on water? None. Who can walk on water? Must be a weightless spirit floating in air, therefore a ghost. Otherwise, if the apparition had any weight at all like a normal human being, it would have sunk. And there it is – it’s coming closer! The disciples, grown-up men that they were, unafraid of rough seas, were terrified!
I don’t think in our time here and now that we could still truly understand the terror of the disciples. We are so conditioned by yearly fake Halloween ghosts, goblins, witches and the like, that we probably wouldn’t even blink an eye if there was a real one that appeared. In contrast, in many third world countries like the Philippines where I was born, apparitions are taken seriously and feared. I remember as a young child growing up that people actually avoided using a certain street in Manila during the night because of its reputation for resident ghosts. In another part of Manila, there was a government-owned building that no one wants to buy, rent, much less use because former occupants truly believe the building is inhabited by angry spirits. It is not important whether ghosts truly exist – in that part of the world, people who think they have seen a ghost are almost always terrified beyond reason. I imagine the disciples were so afraid – so terrified – that they didn’t – couldn’t – recognize Jesus as he came near their boat. You think they would have, having spent so much time with him. Then Jesus tells them: “It is I; do not be afraid.”
“It is I.” In the original language, that sentence reads “I Am,” the same way God named Himself when he appeared to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Sinai. Jesus claimed divinity – one with the Father – to his disciples. And he proved it in at least 2 ways within less than 24 hours. First, he miraculously fed 5,000 people, just like God fed miraculous manna to his people travelling through the wilderness. Second, he showed by walking on water that he was master of nature, master of the creation, just as God showed that even the Red Sea obeyed his command as the people crossed it on foot. Furthermore, we must not miss the Hebrew understanding of the rough sea as a symbol of the primeval chaos that God tamed as He created the world. In fact, in Hebrew belief, the sea is inhabited by demons. In Matthew chapter 8 when Jesus cast out the demons from 2 men, the demons went into a herd of pigs which then rushed down a steep bank and into the sea. As Job chapter 9 declares: “God who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea” so did Jesus trample the waves of the rough Galilean sea.
Hearing the “I Am – do not be afraid” the disciples wanted to take him into the boat. The Gospel of John doesn’t mention if Jesus actually got in the boat – we assumed he did, particularly from the accounts of Mark and Matthew. What we do know from John is that as soon as the disciples just as so much change from terror to wanting Jesus to get into the boat, they arrived at their destination – immediately! From the middle of the rough Galilean Sea, to the shore – instantly!
What are the lessons for us?
Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Crossing the Bar” is about a peaceful departure from this earth and into the embrace of God. John 6:16-21, on the other hand, is not about a final farewell and peaceful setting out to sea. Instead, it is about life and all its challenges. Just like the disciples trying to cross the sea in a boat with oars, we live the business of life hanging on to some faith object – something that we think will carry us through. It could be family, money, social position, education, employment – you can name your own list.
But life can be rough. Just as the disciples began to be battered by the wind and the waves – just as they tried with all their might to get where they wanted to go but could get nowhere, so life is not always so smooth and we don’t necessarily accomplish all that we set out to do. I can name a number of instances in my own life when I wished things unfolded differently, or when I would have preferred that certain other things never happened at all. I can remember times when I cried out to God “Why did you let this happen?” or “Why are you not here when I need you to tell me it is alright?” I recall moments when hope seemed like a far distant ghost – so thin, so ethereal – so unreal. I will be so bold as to say that each one of you here would also remember similar times of difficulty.
The miracle of the Good News is that it is precisely in those times when Jesus comes alongside and repeats to us those comforting words – those words that empower us, that make us alive: “It is I, don’t be afraid.” When the disciples heard these words, they immediately wanted to take Jesus into the boat. And immediately, they landed on shore – a miracle. In times of difficulty when we hear the same words of Jesus in our hearts and souls, our response would be to want to cling to God – to Jesus, and he will carry us to shore – to where we are going. Deep down, we believe that this is true – and which is why we are here this morning, why we come back every Sunday to worship our God, gathered as a community of faith.
To God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.