Neighbours: Learning Time for Sunday, July 24, 2022

“Neighbours”

The word “neighbour” often makes me think of Mr. Rogers, and his song about a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, who encouraged whole generations to be neighbourly. That was his ministry.

In 1969, there was tremendous uproar in many American communities after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled swimming pools could no longer be segregated by race. Fred Rogers invited an African American actor named Francois Clemmons to come on his show, in the role of a uniformed police officer. Mr. Clemmons was reluctant, because where he grew up, police were seen as the most dangerous people in the neighbourhood.

Fred Rogers convinced him to do a scene set on a hot summer day. Mr. Rogers had his feet in a wading pool and invited Officer Clemmons to join him. The police officer became a recurring character.

Years later, Francois Clemmons reflected on his first appearance on the show.

Speaking of that moment when Mr. Rogers offered him a seat, a place for his feet in the wading pool,  and a towel, Clemmons said, “My God, those were powerful words. It was transformative to sit there with him, thinking to myself, ‘Oh, something wonderful is happening here. This is not what it looks like. It’s much bigger.'”

He continued: “Many people, as I’ve traveled around the country, share with me what that particular moment meant to them because he was telling them, ‘You cannot be a racist.’ And one guy … I’ll never forget, said to me, ‘When that program came on, we were actually discussing the fact that black people were inferior. And Mister Rogers cut right through it.’ … He said essentially that scene ended that argument.”

Mr. Rogers invited his friend to join him in the pleasurable act of soaking hot and tired feet in a wading pool, and in a very low key, everyday sort of way, put a story out into the world that still gets told today. A story that will need to be told, and re-created, over and over again, until it doesn’t.

The image of the two men with their feet in the pool, and one handing the other a towel reminded me of the time Jesus washed the feet of his friends.

This morning we re-created the story of the Good Samaritan.

Very often, when we hear the words “Good Samaritan”, it is in connection with someone coming to the rescue or doing a good deed. In many jurisdictions there are Good Samaritan laws, that provide legal protection to those who try to help someone- so they can’t be held responsible if they cause harm. The laws are meant to encourage people to be helpful, especially when someone’s well-being or life are at risk.

The name of these laws comes from the story Jesus told. It’s a good story, and it was a really good thing that the Samaritan in the story helped the person who’d been beaten and robbed. But the point of the story is not that we should help others. That’s an excellent moral, and a good teaching, but it’s only tangentially related to the reason Jesus told the story.

Jesus had been challenged, twice, by a teacher of the Jewish religious law. The First Nations Version we heard this morning calls him a scroll keeper, which I love.

“Wisdomkeeper,” he said. “What path must I walk to have the life of the world to come that never fades away, full of beauty and harmony?”

He answered him, “What is written in our tribal law about this? Tell me, how do you see it?”

The scroll keeper spoke from the words of the law, “You must love the Great Spirit from deep within, with the strength of your arms, the thoughts of your mind, and the courage of your heart, and you must love your fellow human beings in the same way you love yourselves.”

“You have answered well,” Creator Sets Free (Jesus) said back to him. “If you walk this path you will live.”

But the scroll keeper, wanting to look good to others, asked him, “Who are my fellow human beings?”

Creator Sets Free (Jesus) answered him with a story.

The first challenge to Jesus by the Scroll-keeper was, “do you know the letter of the law?”

Jesus answered the legal question, by inviting the scroll keeper to quote the law.

The second challenge, “who is my neighbour?”, was about the spirit, or deeper meaning of the law.

It called for a story, a parable. We who’ve listened to, and wrestled with Jesus’ parables know they are sneaky, dangerous, subversive stories, that don’t settle for illustrating a simple moral like be good or help others. The parables make us wonder, make us question, and if we allow them, they upend our worldview.

There are only a few characters in the story.

There is the victim of violence. That’s the person we identify with first, because we meet them first, and our hearts go out to the under-dog.

Then we meet the perpetrators of violence, the anonymous robbers, who prey on vulnerable travellers, and leave them for dead. They represent the overt, or obvious cruelty and evil in the world.

There are two religious figures, who represent the upright, and proper, and virtuous temple folks, who follow the letter of the law. If you draw a circle, they are the insiders, right near the centre, shining under the light of respectability.

The two so-called holy men are symbols of a more subtle, more insidious kind of evil at work in the world. We see it in our own lives, in our own time, when it is possible to be popular, polite, acceptable in society, and still be indifferent to the suffering of others.

The two who walk by without stopping represent the voice of “What can I do, it’s a hard world. There are winners and losers, and I can’t possibly get involved.”

The last character in the story is the Samaritan. The people of Samaria exist far outside the circle of approval and favour. The Samaritans are culturally related to the insiders, but lost their respectability because of issues of race, and language, and ethnicity. The Samaritans were descendants of Jewish ancestors who inter-married with folks from other tribes, other religions.

We call this the story of the Good Samaritan, which is its own kind of irony, because it’s unlikely that anyone in Jesus’ original audience would see anything good about a Samaritan.

I wondered about a contemporary parallel and realized it depends on how you were raised to see the world, and whether or not my biases about people line up with yours. The Jews in Jesus time were taught to hate the Samaritans.

In the time when Mr. Rogers got his feet wet with Officer Clemmons, for a lot of people, a “good Negro” would have fit the bill. That’s the polite version of the word that might have been used. More recently it might be a good Russian if we re-created this story in Ukraine.

Who were you taught to hate, or at least to fear, or be suspicious of? Take a moment and be honest with yourself. I’m not asking you say it out loud. Just think about it. Most all of us have been taught biases against someone, some group, someone other than those in our small circle.

When I was growing up, the categories of people we were taught to fear, or at least not trust, included First Nations people, although we called them Indians, and homosexuals, and we would have used different words for them as well.

Whichever group of people you were taught were furthest outside the circle of respectable neighbours, they are the people that Jesus wants to surprise us with and shine his light of love on. His story tells us the people we despise the most, are right there in the circle with us.

In fact, what Jesus is saying, is forget about the circle.  There is no them and us, no bad and good. We are all capable of amazing goodness, and of every kind of evil. Seen the way Jesus is teasing us to see, with this story, from God’s perspective, there are no in or out, there are only people.

That’s the story Jesus told, and that’s the story we are called to keep telling, to keep re-creating, by our words, by our actions, with our lives, and with all the loving we do in God’s name. Amen

Learning Time about the Golden Rule, July 10, 2022

Gospel Lesson: Luke 6:46-49

“Why do you call out, ‘Rabbi, Rabbi,’ but don’t put into practice what I teach you?  Those who come to me and hear my words and put them into practice—I’ll show you who they’re like:  they are like the person who, in building a house, dug deeply and laid the foundation on a rock. When a flood arose, the torrent rushed against the house, but failed to shake it because of its solid foundation.  On the other hand, anyone who has heard my words, but has not put them into practice, is like the person who built a house on sand, without any foundation. When the torrent rushed upon it, the house immediately collapsed and was completely destroyed.”

Learning Time: “Thoughts about the Golden Rule”

According to the King in the old Wizard of Id comic strip, that would be “Whoever has the gold, makes the rules.” We know how that usually works out.

We also know how much better things are when we work together, and find common ground, and remember to treat others as we would wish to be treated.

In Canada we have rich and diverse spiritual and religious traditions that inform how we live together. I looked up the most recent census data to identify the traditions most represented, and then I found their versions of the Golden Rule. They were read this morning during the Essex Fun Fest Service by Mayor Richard Meloche and some of the town councilors. Because I assigned the readings, I was in the interesting position of putting words into the mouths of some local politicians, and in a municipal election year, no less.

The Golden Rule in Christianity:

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

The Golden Rule in Islam:

Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others
what you wish for yourself.

The Golden Rule in Hinduism: 

This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.

The Golden Rule in Buddhism: 

Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.

The Golden Rule in Sikhism:

I am a stranger to no one; and no one is a stranger to me.

Indeed, I am a friend to all.

The Golden Rule in Judaism:

What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour. This is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.

The Golden Rule Indigenous in Spirituality:

We are as much alive as we keep the earth alive.

Two things I have been thinking about, about the Golden Rule. The first is that many of the expressions of it that are found around the world, appeared before the time Jesus walked the earth. So this teaching has been part of human wisdom for a very long time. This suggests to me that the Spirit of God has been working in humans, well, always.

The other thing that catches my attention is that all these different faiths, around the world, teach kindness to others, and that in most places, we humans do not always remember to be kind to each other, to treat others with the compassion and respect we would like to receive from others.

As a religion, Christianity has not always remembered to be kind to other religions, and show the basic respect we would want. There have been, and still are, groups within Christianity who seem to forget how Jesus teaches us to be with others, and they choose to be mean, judgmental, and disrespectful of other people, other religions, even though Jesus never did that.

Jesus never asked anyone to change religions. He invited them into a closer relationship with God, who he taught us we could call Abba, which in his language was more like Daddy, than Father, with all the intimate, personal, kind tones that come through with that word.

Jesus was interested in each person, how they were doing. He taught his followers to build a life based on their close connection to God. If your sense of who you are is built on the foundation of your relationship to God, there is no need to try to put anyone else down, or prove you are better than anyone else. You don’t have to have the best clothes, house, car, kids, job, education, even religion. All you really need is that God connection, and to be loving and kind- you know, to treat others the way you like to be treated. Amen

Learning Time for July 3, 2022

Audio recording of Scripture reading and Learning Time

Gospel Reading:  Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 (The Inclusive Bible) 

Jesus appointed seventy-two others, and sent them on ahead in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit.  He said to them, “The harvest is rich, but the workers are few; therefore, ask the overseer to send workers to the harvest.

 “Be on your way, and remember: I am sending you as lambs in the midst of wolves.  Don’t carry a walking stick or knapsack; wear no sandals and greet no one along the way.  And whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be upon this house!’  If the people live peaceably there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will come back to you.  Stay in that house, eating and drinking what they give you, for the laborer is worth a wage. Don’t keep moving from house to house.

“And whatever city you enter, after they welcome you, eat what they set before you and heal those who are sick in that town. Say to them, ‘The reign of God has drawn near to you.’  If the people of any town you enter don’t welcome you, go into its streets and say,  ‘We shake the dust of this town from our feet as testimony against you. But know that the reign of God has drawn near.’

“Anyone who listens to you, listens to me. Anyone who rejects you, rejects me; and those who reject me, reject the One who sent me.”  The seventy-two disciples returned with joy, saying, “Rabbi, even the demons obey us in your name!”  Jesus replied, “I watched Satan fall from the sky like lightning.  Look: I’ve given you the power to tread on snakes and scorpions—even all the forces of the enemy—and nothing will ever injure you.  Nevertheless, don’t rejoice in the fact that the spirits obey you so much as that your names are inscribed in heaven.”

Learning Time: “What is our Mission?”

Our daughter Naomi just graduated from her Master’s program in Library and Information Sciences from Western. She was not able to attend the ceremony since she’s moved to Halifax for a job at their new central library.

Our family had a Zoom celebration in her honour. Naomi and her partner Max, and Joel in Waterloo, and his girlfriend in Vaughn, and Lexie and I in Kingsville all ordered sushi, and we ate together, with purple and white decorations all around us.

Lexie reached out to some of Naomi’s friends, relatives, and co-workers, and asked them to send memories, best wishes, and words of advice. Here are some of my favourites:

Take the opportunity to travel (or maybe even live) internationally if you can. That was from a family friend who currently lives in Egypt.

Be sure to find room for joy. Invest in loving relationships. Seek out genuine community.

Know that you are amazing.

Let happiness be the great surprise of your life, rather than a daily goal.

If you ever have leftover cake, try making French toast out of it!

Lexie reminded me of advice I have always given our kids, and almost anyone else who asks, which is “make your world big”. By that I mean stretch beyond convention, push boundaries, take risks, and work to have a wide range of interests and relationships in your life. That way if one area in your life is not going well, you have other sources of confidence, affirmation, meaning for your life.

What we heard in the gospel story was Jesus giving the 72 he sent out, some words of advice before they hit the road.

They were sent out in pairs to every town and place Jesus intended to visit. It’s a good strategy. Send out advance scouts so you know what kind of reception your larger group may expect. They could also cultivate relationships, so when Jesus and his whole group arrived, they would have an idea about what kind of hospitality, and support might be there.

Jesus encouraged his missionaries to embrace the adventure but be smart about how they travelled. He told them he was sending them out as lambs in the midst of wolves. I am grateful no one said that to Naomi!

Jesus told them to travel in pairs, which was safer than going alone. They were to carry nothing of value, like a walking stick or a bag, or even sandals. The roads they walked were hunting grounds for bandits. Remember the situation described in the parable of the Good Samaritan?

Jesus encouraged them to make friends and accept hospitality when they arrived at a village or town. He specifically told them to eat or drink what they were offered. It could be that a host would offer something outside of what was normal for Jesus’ followers. They were to open their minds, their hearts, and their mouths. Set aside scrupulous adherence to the dietary laws of their faith, just be grateful. Set aside their misgivings about new foods, and just dig in.

Right after the first mention of food, Jesus told his missionaries not to keep moving from house to house. I wonder if that was a way of saying- don’t go looking for meals you are used to, just accept what is given. Don’t worry so much about doing things the way you’ve always done them.

Jesus also said to tell the people in each new place the reign of God has drawn near to them, and to heal those who are sick. 

They had real work to do, helping people along the way. They weren’t only advance scouts, they were part of the Jesus movement.

They were to teach people, by word and deed, about God’s love, and how love could change how they connected to God, what they believed about themselves, and how they treated one another.

Did the missionaries ever wonder how they could live up to the role, of representing the love of God? Did they feel up to it? Did they see themselves as part of the reign of God, the Jesus movement spreading from town to town?

Even so, and likely because they were the real deal, Jesus warned them they would face opposition. He said,

“If the people of any town you enter don’t welcome you, go into its streets and say,  ‘We shake the dust of this town from our feet as testimony against you. But know that the reign of God has drawn near.’

It’s beautiful language, that may inspire each of us to remember moments when we have felt drawn near to the reign of God, when God, and God’s love have felt real in our lives, and that has made a difference.

We are all gathered here this morning because in some way, we have heard the call of God’s love, through the message of Jesus. Someone in our life first brought us to this church, or another one, or taught us about the love of God, maybe at their house, or out on a tractor, or beside a lake, or out in a backyard under a blanket of stars. Somehow, we got the message, and we joined the movement.

It matters enough to us that we come here, even on a hot, sunny Sunday on a holiday weekend. Maybe we come out of habit. Maybe we come because we crave community. Maybe we come to get our spiritual batteries recharged. Maybe we come to be reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

We are part of the Jesus movement, that has the job of loving the world in God’s name. Jesus keeps inviting us in, and sending us out again, to spread the word. Amen

With great power comes great responsibility: Learning time about Freedom. June 26, 2022

Scripture Reading: Galatians 5:1,13-16, 22-26 (The Inclusive Bible)

When Christ freed us, we were meant to remain free. Stand firm, therefore, and don’t submit to the yoke of slavery a second time!

My sisters and brothers, you were called to freedom; but be careful, or this freedom will provide an opening for self-indulgence. Rather, serve one another in works of love,  since the whole of the Law is summarized in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you go on snapping at one another and tearing each other to pieces, be careful, or you may end up destroying the whole community.  Let me put it this way: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will be in no danger of yielding to self-indulgence.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against these sorts of things there is no law!  Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their ego, with its passions and desires.  So since we live by the Spirit, let us follow her lead.  We must stop being conceited, contentious and envious.

Learning Time: “Freedom and Limits”

I want to speak briefly today about freedom. There have been enough words about freedom spoken and printed lately to fill whole convoys.

The word came up pretty often during the recent provincial election, and we may hear it again, when the municipal vote happens in the fall.

You might wonder if there is anything left to say.

A lot of what gets said about freedom in popular rhetoric also involves another word we hear a lot, which is rights. Our rights and freedoms.

What worries me is the emphasis on individual rights and freedoms without a corresponding awareness of at least two things.

The first is there are limits, and conditions on our rights, and our freedoms.

My rights, my freedom to do, or not do what I please, ends somewhere before I cause harm to someone else, or deprive them of a necessary good.

The classic example is I may have the right to make a fist, and swing it in your direction. But if you are in range of that fist, or have reason to fear it may hurt you, your right to be safe trumps my right to swing my fist.

We don’t actually have the right to do things that cause harm or represent the threat of harm to others.

The second thing I feel we need to remember is that “rights language” is not all that helpful in communicating our basic human responsibility to be decent with each other.

The rights and freedoms we have here in Canada are considerable. When you also consider the access we have to education, and information, and travel, and the capacity to buy or rent or borrow practically anything, and compared to most people in the world, we are incredibly powerful.

Do you know this phrase? “With great power, come great responsibility.” Do you know what Gospel it’s from?

It’s pretty close to a line from the parable of the faithful servant in Luke: From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.

It’s also known as the Parker, or Peter Parker principle, because it’s the moral guide of the Marvel Comics hero Spiderman. He learned the hard way, when someone close to him died when he failed to do the right thing, that our actions, and our inactions, have consequences. We have responsibility.

Our lives are inextricably, and beautifully wound up with each other. God has set things up so that none of us can actually live our lives without each other. That’s a good thing. We need each other, and our human-ness is defined, determined to some degree, by our connectedness.

In the children’s time I used the example of a soccer field with no boundary lines. Without agreed upon limits to where and how you can move on the field, the game becomes un-playable. The lines on the edges of the field are like the outer edge of the arc my fist can travel. It can only go so far, before we have a problem.

I may want to play the game my way, and kick the ball across the line, run with it, and then bop back on the playing field close to the goal, but that’s not playing the game. That’s self-indulgent behaviour.

So we need the rules. Otherwise we’d be just a bunch of aimless individuals on a grassy field, unable to work together, even to play a game.

The rules of soccer developed over many years. They are arbitrary, and also subject to local variation, and change.

I think one of the functions of sport is to teach us how to work within a set of rules that govern behaviour.

It’s also good to know that games are just games, and rules are just rules. They can change over time. The laws that govern a society change over time, and that’s a good thing- because the humans that create them are subject to human frailty, imperfection, and self-interest.

I have thought a lot about the tension between rights and responsibilities as it applies to the gun problem in the United States. It seems like our American neighbours have painted themselves into a corner. The emphasis on the right to bear arms has made it so difficult for them to even talk about scaling back, voluntarily limiting their rights, reining in the arc of their swinging fists, in order to protect the lives of their most vulnerable people.

It’s good we have higher standards, by which to examine and judge our own behaviour, and the agreed upon rules, and laws.

We heard some excellent higher standards in the Galatians passage, where they were called fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

I am especially grateful for the mention of that last one, self-control, as a reminder that for the sake of other people, and for the sake of love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, we place limits on ourselves.

We restrict ourselves, as best we can, to do things that help others. We stop ourselves from doing things that would cause harm to others, and we open our hearts, and eyes, and look for ways to exercise our freedom to do good. Amen

Learning Time for May 29, 2022 at Harrow United Church

How do we see God at work in our own lives?

Audio file of learning time

The link to the video of the service is below.

In some sectors of the job market, the pool of qualified candidates is very small. There are times an applicant knows who else might be in the running. It happened last week to someone I know. They were one of two offered interviews. They received an email from the other candidate, who had a scheduling conflict, and asked if they might trade interview times.

They are competing for a great job. What would you do?

One option would be to politely decline, and tell yourself, “I need to take care of my future. I am within my rights to say no. It’s a tough world, and I need to be tough.”

Another option would be to do what the hero in this ongoing, true story did. They thought about what they hope the other person would do if roles were reversed. They took to heart the teaching of doing unto others as you’d have others do to you. They agreed to trade interview slots.

If this was a movie the payoff would be the potential boss hears about the good heart of the hero and decides that’s the kind of person they want in their company. That hasn’t happened. The interviews are next week. Honestly, the happy ending for me is that this person remembered to think about the other person, and be kind.

There are sad and terrible stories in the world right now. Are there more bad things happening, or do we just hear about them faster and more often, because of all the ways the world is connected?

We have two good stories today from the Book of Acts. The first is about a strange encounter between the Apostle Paul and a woman held as a slave. Her owners made a lot of money exploiting her ability to tell fortunes.

The story says the woman was possessed. It’s hard for us to know what that means, as we look through the lens of the ancient world. Anything not understood could be called magic. It wasn’t a big leap from calling something magic, to naming it as demonic.

The woman had an unusual capacity to read people, and tell truths about them, for which her owners charged big money. The woman herself did not share in the profits, as she was property of the household- she was owned as a slave. We don’t know her name.

This unnamed woman with the strange gift saw something powerful when she looked at Paul, the travelling missionary. She began to follow him, and his companion Silas. She’d call out after them, “These are faithful followers of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation!”

The woman did this for many days, and it annoyed Paul. He lost his temper, turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to leave this woman!”

The spirit left her that moment. That was the end of the profitable business for the slaveowners. The story suggests Paul cast out a demon. The Gospels described Jesus doing similar things. The point may be that Paul did things that Jesus did. God was with him in ways similar to the way God was with Jesus.

I’d love to know more about the unnamed woman. What happened to her after she was no longer a money-maker for her owners? We don’t get the rest of her story, which is so often the case with women in the Bible.

Her owners were upset with Paul and his friend Silas. They grabbed them, and dragged them before the magistrates, who held court in the marketplace. They said, “These people are Jews and are disturbing the peace by advocating practices which are unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

This feels like an echo of the Good Friday story. The writer, who has already shown Paul doing a Jesus-style exorcism, now has Paul and his friend brought before a Roman authority, accused of religious crimes.

The crowd turned on the accused. Perhaps as much to appease and calm the crowd as to see justice done, the magistrate had Paul and Silas stripped, flogged, whipped and thrown in jail. The magistrate warned the warden to carefully watch the prisoners.

The warden threw them into the innermost cell of the prison and chained their feet to a stake. About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened.  Suddenly a severe earthquake shook the place, rocking the prison to its foundation. Immediately all the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains were pulled loose. When the jailer woke up and found the doors wide open, he drew a sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

What a great story! After the earthquake, which miraculously broke open the prison doors and pulled loose the chains, Paul and Silas could easily have led all the prisoners out of the jail to freedom.

The jailer must have thought that was exactly what happened. They were on the verge of committing suicide, rather than facing the consequences of losing all the prisoners.

This was the ancient world. There were no photo i.d’s or fingerprints. If a prisoner escaped custody, they could literally disappear. Just leave town, go somewhere your face had not been seen.

So why didn’t Paul and Silas take off? They lived in a hard world. They had no reason to expect fair treatment from the Roman legal system. The answer lies in what Paul said to the jailer: “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all still here.”

Paul recognized if he fled the jail, the consequences for the jailer would be terrible. Paul set aside self-concern and thought about the fate of the jailer. Do unto others.

The jailer, who knew Paul and Silas had been arrested, stripped and beaten for their missionary work, was that night converted to their faith, and became a follower of the way of Jesus.

Paul and Silas helped the jailer. They refused the opportunity to escape. The story ends with the jailer doing things to help Paul and Silas. The jailer took them into his home, bathed their wounds- they’d been flogged after all. After another kind of bathing, in which the jailer and his family were baptized, the jailer invited them to his table, and they shared in a feast.

When Paul and Silas were put in jail, they spent their time before the earthquake singing hymns and praying, and talking to fellow prisoners about the Jesus Way. The jailer would have heard all those words, spoken and sung.

But it wasn’t the singing and praying that impressed the jailer and made him want to be a follower of the Jesus Way. This is good for preachers to notice. It wasn’t the preaching, praying, or even the singing- even though the singing probably helped the prisoners keep their spirits up.

What caught the jailer’s attention was that Paul cared about him and helped him. Paul gave up the chance of escaping the jail- he limited his own freedom, out of compassion for the jailer.

We’re hearing more details this week of yet another horrific mass shooting in the United States, this time of children and adults at an elementary school in Texas. There’s a powerful faction of American society that believes so much in their God-given, and constitutional right to bear arms, that they block any efforts to limit that right. Their rights are so very important to them. Freedom as they understand it, is so important to them.

When another mass shooting happens, and it will, we will hear again how many of the people who block efforts to restrict access to deadly weapons, are praying for the victims and their families.

Here is a link to my recent opinion piece for the Kingsville Observer on this issue: https://www.kingsvilleobserver.com/post/compassion-courage-needed-to-end-u-s-gun-violence

In the Paul and Silas story, the jailer was not convinced, or converted, by the prayers he heard. He was impressed by what Paul and Silas did, to protect him from harm.

I believe words are important. I hope they are. I am in the word business. I get paid to stand up and say these words, and to lead prayers. But if words and prayers are in no way connected to our actions, they may not be meaningless, but they will actually, mean less, than they could. Amen

“Heaven’s Above?” Learning Time for May 22, 2022 at Harrow United Church

What do you imagine when I say the word heaven? I’d hazard a guess that many our images of heaven come from things we’ve seen in movies, tv programs, even commercials. Remember the one for Philadelphia cream cheese, with angels eating bagels while they float on clouds?

There was no mention of clouds, or even cream cheese, in our reading from the Book of Revelations. Cream cheese wasn’t invented until 1563, at least 1500 years after the Book of Revelations was written.

In the ancient world, if someone mentioned heaven, people would immediately look up. Heaven had a location, at least in people’s imagination. People back then had an image of earth, and the universe, very different from ours. The world was kind of like the middle portion of a layer cake, and the whole cake was inside something like an enormous snow globe.

As I mentioned, people lived on the middle layer. Below was the underworld. It had different names, depending on the culture. Sheol, Hades, Hell, the other place. The world of the dead.

The underworld was surrounded by rock, but there could be fissures and cracks that opened a way down. Some religions, and some mythologies have stories about heros going down to the world of the dead, and rescuing souls trapped there. In at least one ancient Christian creed, Jesus is described as making that journey.

All of this rock was supported by the pillars of the earth, which themselves sank into a vast ocean- the waters of the deep. The drawings, that look like old maps, don’t show exactly what, if anything, the pillars were anchored in. The drawings make it appear that the layer cake sits on water and there is water above it and on all sides. It’s like an enormous snow globe, or perhaps a cosmic womb. That image appears in some ancient myths and poetry, of the whole world within a huge womb, or a big cosmic egg. A modern take on it might be that it looks a bit like a single-celled creature, or one cell of a larger being.

Above the underworld was the place humans lived, terra firma, Earth. Directly above that was the sky.

We look up and see clouds. In the imagination of the Ancient World, above the clouds were the sun, the moon, the stars and planets, all floating between the clouds, and just below something called the dome of the sky, or the firmament, which separated the sky from the waters above the sky. Beyond the waters of the firmament, was the heaven of heavens, which was the home of the gods, or if you were part of a monotheistic faith, where the one true God lived. The Christian version populated this heaven with angels, but other faiths also had angelic figures.

If you could poke a hole in the dome, and make your way through the waters, you might be able to reach God. That reminds me of John Magee’s poem High Flight, which we often hear at funerals for pilots and air force veterans. It describes the joy of slipping the surly bonds of Earth, to trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, to put out a hand and touch the face of God.

There are a handful of Bible stories about individuals, Jesus being one of them, being bodily lifted into the sky, and carried up to heaven.

We often see in movies or cartoons the idea that people who die, become angels in heaven. That evolution from human to angel is not found in the Bible, or in the mythology of ancient cultures, who described angels as a separate race of beings, above humans, but below God in the hierarchy of beings.

Back to the layer cake. I use the image of a layer cake when I talk about this model, but it might also be a pancake, because Earth needs to be flat and round, so the sun, moon and stars can travel in circles above it. The circular movement allows the light of sun to move to make it day in a certain area for a while, then circle away to let it be night, when the sky is lit by the moon and stars.  

There is a story in the Old Testament Book of Joshua about a battle in which the Israelites needed to defeat the Amorites, and Joshua asked God to make the sun stand still, to prolong the day, to give Israel more time to win. That story reflects the belief that the sun is small compared to the flat earth, and could be stopped in its circular path, to extend the period of daylight over that part of the pancake.

The waters of the deep splash up around all the edges of the pancake. In Hindu mythology, the earth we walk on is supported on the back of a huge turtle- which kind of reminds me of the First Nations name for North America, Turtle Island.

This ancient view of a flat earth surrounded all the way around by water, supported by the pillars of the earth, is the underlying picture of the world as described in the Bible. Re-read the story of Noah and the Ark. It depends totally on this view of the world. The waters of the deep rise to flood the whole world, then recede at the end of the story, to reveal dry land.

When scientists began to question the idea that the earth was flat, they were told to shush, because their theories contradicted the way the church authorities read the Bible. Galileo was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church for promoting the theory the earth revolved around the sun, rather than the sun tracking a circular route above the earth.

Back then, just as in our world today, there were biblical literalists, fundamentalists, who could not tolerate any deviation from how they saw things. Back then, as today, the symptoms of fundamentalism included the absence of humility, a need to be right about basically everything, a need to control the thoughts of others, a lack of any sense of humour, and an inability to cope with metaphor, or analogy, or poetry in general.

When we read one of Jesus’ parables, we’re able to listen for truth in the story, without needing the story to be literally true. We can see that Jesus, who was a person of the Ancient World, was comfortable with symbolism, and spoke fluent metaphor, and poetry.

I think that people in the Ancient World were far more comfortable with poetry and imagination, with dreams and symbols than some folks in our time, or the church officials were in Galileo’s time.

I suspect that for many in the Ancient World, the question, is Hell literally above us, and Heaven literally below us, might have been met with confusion.  They would look at us like we were missing the point of the stories.

In the Ancient World, great truths about life, and death, and the gods, or God of your choice were communicated in story, song and poetry. The Ancients could not send a rocket into orbit, but they knew that the earth, the moon, the sun and the stars were wondrous, and they believed they were lovingly and purposefully created, and that God was in a place where God could see it all and love it all.

The ancients also had the sense that although God could see us, our view of God was often obscured. Our vision could be clouded, and God could seem very far away.

Some of the most detailed, and beautiful descriptions of heaven in the Bible are in the Book of Revelations, which we heard from this morning. Not a lot is actually known about who wrote this book. It was traditionally attributed to John, disciple of Jesus, but the chronology is a bit off.

The names of cities in the Roman Empire and references to what was happening to Jesus followers under Roman Rule suggest a period around 70 years after the time of Jesus. It’s unlikely that a disciple of Jesus could have lived that long.

In the Ancient World there were no copyright concerns. Saying a famous figure wrote a particular work was sometimes a way of paying tribute, to the person, or to the worthiness of the book.

There’s a classic gospel blues song about John the Revelator, so we might call the author the Revelator, because of what they revealed.

Short video of “John the Revelator”

Scholars say the Revelator was a poet, because although the text often refers to Hebrew Scripture, it never quotes it. Instead it uses ideas and images found in earlier writings to inspire new phrases.

Scholars say the Revelator a mystic, because of the dream-like and symbol-laden imagery in the book. Golden bowls and shining white gowns, flying beasts and magical horns, and great flowing rivers, and trees that are trees but not just trees. The writer employs imagery and poetry to share with their audience experiences of things that are actually mysterious and beyond literal description. We do it all the time. Dolly Parton wrote, “Love is like a butterfly.” We get it, and we know that actually, that’s a simile, comparing one thing to another, to tell us something.

Has anyone here read the Book of Revelations? I may have mentioned before that it was one of the last books to be officially included in the New Testament, and to this day, some Christian denominations leave it out. It’s a hard book to work with, especially if you try to read it literally, as some prominent, and scary preachers have. Those who have tried to use it as a map of the future, and claim it’s about the world ending next Tuesday at 3:15 pm have always been wrong, and I think, really missed the point.

I think the Revelator wrote to followers of Jesus in a few cities in the Roman Empire who were having a very bad time of it, under Roman rule, around the year 100 AD. They were being persecuted for their faith, and many feared that life in this world would never get better for them. I think Revelations was the writer’s efforts to share  with those people what they had come to know, trust, rely on, believe about God.

The Revelator had powerful experiences, perhaps a series of visions, like dreams, during which they felt they were in God’s presence. God showed them that all kinds of terrible things can happen in this life, but the terrible things would not be the end of the story. There was more to God’s story. There is more to life, and to all that God has created, and is creating, than we can see on a regular day, with our normal vision.

There is the promise that beyond this life, which can at times be sad and painful, there is a reality where there is no more pain, and no more sadness, only love, and light, and God’s embrace. There is the assurance that those we love, who have died, are held safely with God. There is the reminder that God is with us, and we are with God, at the beginning, all during, and even beyond the end of our earthly lives. We may not be able to pin down where that is, or what it looks like, but it sounds heavenly. Amen

Learning Time for May 1st at Harrow United Church

Learning Time: The possibility of new life

The Man’s Prayer from The Red Green Show
Audio file of learning time

The video of the worship service for May 1:

That clip was from the end of an episode of the Red Green show, which dates me, and anyone else who remembers it. Steve Smith created the show as a parody of home improvementdo-it-yourself, and outdoors shows. I don’t think for a minute that in real life he’s anything like the character he played. Red Green was crafted to poke fun at certain attitudes, not to glorify them.

I don’t buy into the idea that only men have the problem pointed to in the prayer: “I’m a man, I can change, if I have to, I guess.”

It’s actually a basic human problem. We all struggle with changing ourselves, even and perhaps especially when we know it needs to happen. It’s humbling to admit we’ve been off track and need a course correction.

In many churches there has been, and still is, a lot of talk about sin, and sinners. These are words I tend to stay away from, largely because I am not a big fan of name calling. I don’t want to be called a sinner, and I don’t find it helpful to throw that word at anyone else.

When you put a label on someone, whether you mean it as a compliment, a complaint, or a diagnosis, it suggests you have them all figured out, that you know all about them, and are qualified to judge. It also suggests you have special knowledge of their identity, their value, and their potential.

My nephew is a police officer. I think he’s probably a good one. He has a big heart and has always been a helpful kind of guy. He was raised to be careful in the world, but to always look for the best in people. Not long after he graduated, and went to work as a constable, he told me something that stuck with him from his training.

When he interacts with someone on the job, he remembers two things. The first is that usually, when the police are called, the people involved are not having their best day. The second is he tries not to judge a person based on what’s happening for them right then. Can you really understand who a person is based on their worst 15 minutes, or 15 seconds?

We are in the church season of Easter, so we are still hearing stories about resurrection. Today’s story is actually as much about Peter as it is about Jesus.

We may remember Peter from the Good Friday story. He was one of the inner circle with Jesus in the garden where he went to pray.  Judas led a group of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to the garden to arrest Jesus. Peter drew a sword, struck someone, and cut off their right ear. I have always wondered, since when did the disciples carry swords?

Jesus rebuked Peter and told him to sheath his sword.  Then Jesus was arrested and led away. At least one disciple followed Jesus, but Peter separated himself from that group. Three times in the next few paragraphs, Peter was recognized, and asked if he was with Jesus. Peter denied it.

Peter could not have known for sure, that Jesus’ arrest would lead to his death. He could not have known for sure that the last time he saw Jesus alive, he would be acting so poorly, wielding a sword to defend someone who did not want violence done in his name.

How would he have felt when he learned his friend and teacher Jesus was killed on the same day that Peter slipped away from his closest friends, and acted like he did not know him?

It seems to me that he would feel a mixture of guilt and shame, powered by overwhelming grief. How would he live with himself, with the memory of having turned away from what had been so important to him?

We know that Judas, the other disciple who turned away from Jesus that night was not able to go on, could not live with what he’d done, and how it turned out, and he completed suicide.

Peter did not lead the troops to Jesus, but in his own way, in his own heart, Peter betrayed his friend. How did he get past that? How did he make the transformation from the one who heard the cock crow, and realized what he’d done, to becoming a leader in the Jesus movement?

The next time he appears in John’s Gospel, Peter is back with the other disciples. He was there when the women who had been to the tomb ran to them, and reported the tomb was empty. Peter and another disciple then ran to the tomb, to see for themselves.

Peter was also part of the group who went fishing and had the final encounter with the Risen Christ recorded in John’s Gospel.

The writer of John’s Gospel does not tell us how Peter changed from being someone who left the group, and repeatedly denied knowing Jesus, to someone who was back in the inner circle. That seems a huge leap. A major change of heart. Something must have happened.

I have an idea about this. You may have heard me say the four Gospels in the New Testament were each written long after the events described, perhaps as much as 75-100 years after. The writers worked from stories passed down in the local communities of Jesus’ followers.

The only way that I can think that John’s Gospel could include the story of Peter denying Jesus three times, then hearing the cock crow, would be if Peter himself had told the story.

My imagination goes to a scene in which a tearful Peter returns to his friends and tells them whatg he did the night Jesus was arrested.  His regrettable choice to draw a sword, and cut off someone’s ear. His skulking off into the darkness as Jesus was taken away. His being recognized as one of the Galileans who were close to Jesus, and his choice to deny it. His denying it two more times before the night was over. The sound of the cock crowing, that pierced his heart.

So how would the other disciples respond to Peter’s confession? Would it stretch their compassion? How would you and I react?

What do we do, when someone we love tells us about a time when they went off the rails, and maybe forget who they are for a while? Do we judge the whole person based on the worst 15 minutes of their life? Do we find a way to invite the person back into community, back into family, and help them find their way back to themselves?

I think that is the real work of reconciliation, helping a person finding their way back to a loving relationship with themselves, with others, and with God.

Would it be easy for the disciples, still shaken from having seen Jesus die, to welcome Peter bac?  He had turned away from Jesus, and from them, at the worst possible time. Peter broke faith, not just with Jesus, but with the other disciples.

What do we think Jesus would do? Would Jesus believe that Peter had the capacity to change, to get back on track?  The other disciples must have thought so because Peter was back into the fold, and he went with the disciples on their fishing excursion. To me, that is a sign of the difference between forgiveness in theory, and grace lived out in community. Peter was welcomed back.

This is a resurrection story, a story about the possibility of new life. It strikes me the new life was as much for Peter, as it was for Jesus. Peter was given a chance to start again. After cooking a meal for all the disciples, Jesus had a private moment with Peter. Again, I think the only way this could be part of the Gospel record, was for Peter to tell his story to the rest of the community. 

In the conversation with Jesus, Peter has the opportunity to say yes three times. It parallels the Good Friday story, in which he says no three times, when he’s asked if he’s part of the Jesus group.

When they had eaten their meal, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon ben-John, do you love me more than these?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus put the question, “Simon ben-John, do you love me?”

Peter said, “Yes, Rabbi, you know that I’m your friend.”

Jesus replied, “Tend my sheep.”

A third time Jesus asked him, “Simon ben-John, do you love me as a friend would?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” a third time. So he said, “You know everything, Rabbi. You know that I am your friend.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

In the Gospels, maybe especially in John’s Gospel, a shared meal is always a symbolic event. Jesus fed people in more than one way. The sharing of food is about meeting a basic human need. Jesus would eat with anyone, even those rejected by the world, and by religious authorities. The meal represents unconditional acceptance, grace, forgiveness, a chance to get back on track, the possibility of new life.

It’s significant that Jesus’ questions for Peter are all about love, the answer Peter gives is always, “Yes, Jesus I love you,” and Jesus always responds, then get out there and live it. Feed the lambs, tend the sheep, feed the sheep.

The new life offered to Peter was one in which he got back out into the world, and fed the souls of others, showed them God’s love, and invited them to the table. The best response to being offered another chance, a fresh start, is to spread the word that this is how it works, for all of us. Amen

Learning time for Easter Sunday, 2022

Audio File for the Learning Time. The video of the whole service, including the baptism, will be posted here as it becomes available.

video of worship service

Matthew 28:1-10

After the Sabbath, as the first light of the new week dawned, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to keep vigil at the tomb. Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.

The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.

“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”

 The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”

Learning Time: “In the light of day”

Isla is a beautiful, and beloved embodiment of new life, which is what we celebrate here today, on Easter morning. It is good we have blessed her and baptized her and welcomed her into this community of faith. It is good we have promised to continue to be a community of faith, and to offer her mom and dad, and her family our prayerful support.

Emily and Josh have so much ahead of them, and my sense is that they are both wise enough to know that they do not undertake this great loving work, the raising of a child, on their own. They need help, and they have it.

They have promised to raise their daughter in a faithful way, and we have promised to help them as we can.

I am speaking now especially to the members and leaders of this church. We cannot take lightly our promise to be there for this young family. They need us to be here, doing what we do, ready to help them as they do what they need to do.

Our world needs faith communities. Our world needs us to keep the faith alive.

Isla, thank God, doesn’t yet know yet, what we know, that life can be hard. She doesn’t yet know about mean people, or pandemics, or the invasion of Ukraine. She doesn’t yet know how complicated life is, or how it feels to face all the mysteries, all the challenges, all the scary parts.

Isla has good people in her life, to shelter and love her, and insulate her from the perils.

There are children born into this world, who do not have what Isla has. There are children who learn, at far too early an age, to be afraid, and to expect mostly terrible things from life.  There are little ones who do not have reliable, faithful, big people in their lives.

There are children born in situations, and places, where it is hard to have faith that life can be good, and that love is real. It is truly a miracle that children born into these situations survive to grow up. It can be so hard for them to develop faith and trust in life, because of what they have seen, and experienced, and been taught.

For many of these kids, born into difficulty, it may not be until they leave the place of hardship and find a safe and reliable community, that they will learn to trust that life is not all bad.

Isla has so much ahead of her. I hope and pray she falls in love with life, and has many good people in her life, and excessive amounts of joy. I pray this, and I also know that it won’t all be like that. I hope for Isla, as I hope for my own kids, now grown and busy in the world, that life is mostly about joy and happiness, and love.

As Isla connects with people, grows to know and love them, she will experience the hard parts of life. Things will not always go well. People will let her down. People she trusts and adores will die.

Isla will, one day, reach the stage of life at which it registers with her that nothing, not even the best things of this world last forever. She will have to find her way to come to terms with life in all its dimensions, including death.

As a parent, I have felt such a deep desire to shield my kids from having to know about the hard stuff. I have also felt the desire to equip them to navigate the mysteries of life and death.

I have wanted my children to have faith, and I have also recognized there is only so much a parent can do to nurture their kids faith. Kids also have to see it in other people.

The parents in this room know kids get the good lessons in life not only from us, but from other reliable folks.

We’ve heard the phrase “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child”. It’s an Igbo and Yoruba proverb that speaks to the value, the necessity, and the responsibility of community.

I am grateful my daughter and son grew up with access to a community of faith, and have each developed a spiritually based view of life, that serves them in times of joy, and in times of sadness.

This morning we heard Matthew’s version of the story of the first Easter. Another day I will talk about how each Gospel writer puts their own spin on the tale.

Two women, both named Mary went to the tomb where Jesus’ body was placed. They left their dwellings before the sun was up, to keep vigil.

One of these women was Mary Magdalene. The other Mary might be Martha and Lazarus’ sister, the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with precious perfume, after washing his feet with her tears, and drying them with her hair. That tells you about the intimacy, the closeness they felt to Jesus.

These women are often described as having come from the wrong side of town. They were not respectable women. In Jesus’ time, respectable women stayed home and took care of things for their husband, or father, or their brother. They didn’t venture out in the dark, on their own.

Mary and Mary were part of Jesus’ inner circle. They were probably disciples, although the men who wrote down the stories hesitated to spell that out.

We can only imagine the hardships, indignities, discrimination and abuse these women suffered, that made it hard for them to love life. But they met Jesus, and had, when they were with him, experiences of love, of being valued, respected, known.

They found, when they were with Jesus, hearing his words, seeing him in action, just sitting in his presence, that they were part of something bigger. They were aware of the presence, and the source of all the goodness and love in the universe. They felt close to and connected to God.

How devastating it must have been for them to see him die. They were losing, not only such an amazing friend, but their connection to all that is holy and good.

The story says that as the first light of the new week dawned, the Marys kept vigil at the tomb.

“Suddenly the earth reeled and rocked under their feet as God’s angel came down from heaven, came right up to where they were standing. He rolled back the stone and then sat on it. Shafts of lightning blazed from him. His garments shimmered snow-white. The guards at the tomb were scared to death. They were so frightened, they couldn’t move.

The angel spoke to the women: “There is nothing to fear here. I know you’re looking for Jesus, the One they nailed to the cross. He is not here. He was raised, just as he said. Come and look at the place where he was placed.

“Now, get on your way quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He is risen from the dead. He is going on ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there.’ That’s the message.”

 The women, deep in wonder and full of joy, lost no time in leaving the tomb. They ran to tell the disciples. Then Jesus met them, stopping them in their tracks. “Good morning!” he said. They fell to their knees, embraced his feet, and worshiped him. Jesus said, “You’re holding on to me for dear life! Don’t be frightened like that. Go tell my brothers that they are to go to Galilee, and that I’ll meet them there.”

It’s like a scene from a movie, with all the special effects of an earthquake, blazing lightning, and first an angel, then Jesus himself appearing to the women. Matthew is the only gospel writer who gives us all these spectacular details, and his story was written at least a couple of generations, perhaps as late as 75-100 years after the first Easter. It’s hard to know what he may have heard, and what he added for effect.

We know that Matthew wasn’t there. I think he used words and images to try to describe the indescribable. In defiance of cruelty, and violence, and death, and despite the fact that they had been at the cross, and watched Jesus die, these two Marys had an experience that morning, that re-connected them with all the love, and hope, and possibility they had known with Jesus. They were connected to God, and it renewed their courage and strength.

It wasn’t long before Mary and Mary, and the other followers of Jesus were back out in the world, doing what Jesus had done for them. They taught others about God’s love, showed respect and care for suffering people, and they founded and supported communities in which love was lived out, and the connection to God was felt. They went out and kept the faith alive, as we must. Amen

If Only- Learning Time for Sunday, April 3, 2022 at Harrow United Church

“If only”

Audio recording of the Learning Time
Video of the Worship Service for April 3, 2022

The video of this worship service will be added to this post when available.

Two of the saddest words in the English language are “if only”. 

In our daily existence with family and friends, and Facebook, we encounter these words all too often. There are so many stories of regret.

If only we’d known Covid was coming. Maybe we wouldn’t have placed Mom in the nursing home, where she was locked down, and we couldn’t get in to see her.

If only we’d known what was really going on with our niece. We would have tried harder, offered her parents more support. 

If only we’d noticed sooner what was happening with our dog. We might have got him into the vet earlier, and maybe they would have caught it.

If only the guy had known when he was or 35, or 40 what he knows now about work/life balance. There were all those moments he missed with the kids. He looks at the photos now, most of which he’s not in, and for what? To help build the company’s bottom line?

“If only” are the first words in many sad stories, many laments. If only we’d known, done, listened, paid closer attention. We could’ve, should’ve done something different.

We are at the tail end of Lent. Next week is Palm Sunday. The Jesus story as we re-tell it is leading us closer and closer to Jerusalem, and what looks to us like the inevitable clash with both the religious authorities, and the Roman rulers. Rome ran Israel as a colony, bleeding it of all the resources, staple foods, and tax revenue it could get.

The Romans, who’d become experts at exploiting colonies, (because that’s exactly what every Empire has ever done, with every colony ever claimed) appointed their own puppet king, who in turn kept the leaders of the Temple in line. Temple leaders were allowed to run their little local religion so long as they discouraged the rabble from challenging the Roman rulers.

Jesus had become a popular teacher and preacher, and drew large crowds from amongst the poor, the slaves, and even some of the well-off locals who collaborated with Rome. His teaching challenged the hard-line legalism of the temple, and encouraged people at the bottom of the economic and social ladders to dare to think more of themselves than the way their culture and religion defined them.

Of course, Jesus was headed on a collision course with trouble. We can see it, partly because the church has had 2000 years to interpret the Gospel stories and read the clues. But did the people in Jesus’ inner circle see it as clearly as we can?

The old saying is hindsight is 20/20. Things are often easier to understand, after the fact.

The four gospels as we have them were all written long after the events they describe. They were edited and arranged by people who’d heard Jesus stories in their communities. They recorded them to make sure they were passed along, but many who would read what was eventually written already knew the broad strokes. They would have heard local versions of the story in the meetings of Jesus followers in their hometowns.

Scholars of the Bible talk about the “oral tradition”. Stories passed along from teller to hearer, in cultures in which the ability to read and write, and the materials needed would be rare. The individual gospels, letters, and other literature of the church did not circulate in written form until at least 75-100 years after the events they describe. That couldn’t happen until enough people with wealth and education became part of the early Jesus movement.

Until then, stories were kept in local communities, and treasured. Most people in that time, unless they were working for the Empire, or traveling to trade commodities or goods, didn’t venture very far at all from where they were born. Stories well known in one place might sound different 3 villages over.

It’s not surprising that the four gospels tell different versions of the Jesus story. The one we heard today from John’s Gospel, about Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointing Jesus, is told differently in the other Gospels.

In Mark, and in Matthew, the story has a different cast of characters. It happens not at the home of Lazarus, but that of someone called Simon the Leper. The woman who anoints Jesus does not get a name- but since it’s not at Lazarus’ s house, it’s not likely to be his sister Mary. Mark and Matthew agree with John’s version that this event happened only a few miles outside of Jerusalem, and just days before Passover.

Luke’s Gospel takes the same story but moves it to a much earlier time in Jesus’ ministry, well before his final entry into Jerusalem. It happened at the home of a Pharisee, one of the religious leaders with whom Jesus would later clash. This Pharisee has the same name as Simon the Leper- but there’s no way someone with leprosy could be a Pharisee. Lepers were, according to the laws the Pharisees taught, considered unclean. 

In Luke’s version the woman who did the anointing and foot-washing still doesn’t have a name, but we learn that because of her actions, her many sins have been forgiven. This detail about “many sins” has often led people to speculate she was a prostitute.

In that culture any woman not attached to a man was suspect and seen as a dangerous temptation. If she had the money to buy the expensive perfume to anoint Jesus, people would wonder where she got it. Women couldn’t hold jobs, own property, or do any kind of legitimate business without the protection of a husband or male relative. In law they were not actually people, but property.

Luke saved the characters of Mary and Martha for a story a couple of chapters later. In Luke’s version there is no mention of a brother named Lazarus- that’s only in John’s Gospel. Luke describes Martha complaining that she’s done all the work to host Jesus, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening to his teaching.

In each of these stories, the woman at Jesus’ feet gets in trouble, and in each case Jesus defends them. This is very interesting, provocative even, because the act of a woman sitting at the feet of a man is more than a little scandalous. It is suggestive of something more than listening to a story. It is often a euphemism for intimacy. 

In the Book of Ruth, in the Old Testament, Ruth is a widow, who was counseled by her mother-in-law, her dead husband’s mother, to seek the attention and protection of a distant male relative. During the celebration of a successful harvest, Ruth ends up spending the night “at the feet” of this man, called Boaz, who later takes her as his wife. 

The story in John’s Gospel hints at the discomfort of the male disciples around the incredibly intimate act that appears in these stories, of a woman bathing a man’s feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and then anointing his feet with perfumed oil. 

Judas condemned Mary’s actions as inappropriate. The reason he gave had to do with the cost of the perfume, which could have gone to help the poor. 

The writer of John’s Gospel steps in here with the editorial comment that Judas was lying, and actually wanted the money for himself. That takes the listener, the reader off in the direction of thinking about Judas the villain. It also distracts from the beauty and the emotional power of the moment.

Mary was in tears, lavishing her attention and an expensive gift on Jesus. We can look back now and see how the anointing is a bit like the preparation done in those days before a dead body was buried. It was washed, and anointed with expensive, aromatic oils, if the family had the means.

Maybe it was easier for the male followers of Jesus to focus on Judas as the bad guy in the story, than to think about how they might all may have acted differently, had they realized how close they all were, to the end of Jesus’ earthly life.

They couldn’t know what we know, reading the story told later, that in less than a week, Jesus would ride into Jerusalem on the donkey, and end up arrested, put on trial, and sentenced to a painful death.

If only these guys had just let Mary do her thing, and not let Judas put her down for showing her love for Jesus.

Judas acted poorly, but Jesus was the only one who called him on it. The rest of just let it happen. 

Since the Oscars, the internet has been full of speculation and judgment about Will Smith running up on stage, and attacking the comedian Chris Rock, because he didn’t appreciate a joke he told. There has been lots of talk about whether Will Smith was justified, or whether he should have let it go. No talk at all about the hundreds of people in the room who acted like nothing was going on, and watched, or took videos, or selfies, while one man beat up on another. 

If only someone had the good sense to intervene, or at least point out it’s not okay to hit someone because they told a bad joke. It’s much easier to pick out the villain in the story, and ignore the inaction, the complicity of everyone else in the room. Interesting that he wasn’t removed from the scene of his assault. Common sense would suggest he be escorted out of the building.

If only someone had stopped Will Smith. If only someone had told Judas to chill out, and let Mary do this very tender thing for her friend Jesus.

If only. There are different morals, or lessons we can draw from the story of Mary, and Jesus, and Judas. One for today is to not shy away from the things in our lives that are hard to deal with, hard to talk about, hard to admit, hard to forgive, hard to get over. If only Jesus’ other friends had been as honest and demonstrative of their feelings as Mary was. It may not have changed the outcome, but it would have mattered.

I think of stories I’ve heard over the years, of people who missed the chance, on the last time they saw someone before they died, to tell them they loved them. 

I mentioned earlier the people who realized only after the time had passed, the moments they’d missed with their kids as they grew up.

 I know of people who go on vacation to a really beautiful, distant locale, and spend their time in front of the tv in their hotel room, or in the bar, and don’t take the opportunity to see or experience anything different or new. You might wonder why they have traveled and realize that in their soul they haven’t. They’ve remained stuck somewhere else in time.

Instead of being where they are, they look back and miss where they were, or gaze ahead to some place they’d rather be. There’s no “here” for them, even when they could be right “here”.

Mary, who was looked down upon, and left undefended, unsupported by everyone in the room except Jesus, was being exactly where she was, and offering a gift of love, with the whole of her body, mind and soul. If only we can be more like her. Amen