Saturday, August 21, 2010

Summer Snapshots and Their Captions

RCL Proper 21C
22 August 2010

Saint Barnabas Anglican Church
New Westminster BC

Propers:  Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17

     During this part of the liturgical year our lectionary gives us three independent strands in the readings for Sundays.  One strand is the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures with its accompanying Psalm, another our second reading and the third the Gospel.  Sometimes a preacher can find a thread that connects all three, but that is a matter of divine serendipity.

     Today I want to honour the three strands by offering you three summer snapshots with a caption for each. 

Snapshot 1:  What does Shanghai have to do with Judah?

     Picture in your mind’s eye a distinguished gentleman wearing the typical clothing of a well-educated and prosperous late 19th- or early 20th century Westerner.  Picture his full beard, dark brown or almost black as a younger man, now white with grey streaks.  Now you have a mental picture of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky, an Anglican missionary in southern China from 1859 to 1884 and Bishop of Shanghai from 1877 to 1884.

     He was born in Lithuania in 1831 and destined by his family to become a rabbi.  However, a chance encounter with the New Testament in Hebrew led eventually to his decision to become a Christian, first a Baptist, then a Presbyterian and, finally, an Episcopalian.  After his ordination to the diaconate in 1859 the American Episcopal Church sent him off to China.  He learned the rudiments of Mandarin on the voyage and hit the ground running when the ship arrived in China.

     While there is more to this incredible man’s life than I can tell you here, what I want you to remember is his life after he developed Parkinson’s disease and was forced to resign his office as Bishop of Shanghai and retire to Tokyo.  He continued his translation of the Bible into Wenli, the classical style of Chinese calligraphy, even though he had the use of only one finger.

     Close to the end of his life he said, “I have sat in this chair for over twenty years.  It seemed very hard at first.  But God knew best.  He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”

     Now picture another man from an even more distant past.  He too probably sported a beard, but his clothing was that of a Jew living in the southern kingdom of Judah during the close of the seventh century before the common era.  He was the son of a priest and, no doubt, a young man familiar with the privileges of life in the priestly class of Judean society.  He was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

     His times, however, were troubled ones.  To the north the kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians and was presently under the control of the Babylonians, the successors to the Assyrian empire.  To the east Babylon was growing in power and imposing its will on its smaller and weaker western neighbour.  When Jeremiah was in his late twenties, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and a portion of the ruling class was exiled to Babylon.  A later revolt by the Judeans resulted in the destruction of the Temple in 586 and the exile of the remaining members of the ruling class.

     Instead of the life of a priest Jeremiah hears God’s call to the vocation of a prophet, the other pole of the religious life of his people during this time.  Prophets disrupt the status quo and cause no end of turmoil to those who wish to maintain their power and their prestige.  What well-educated, well-bred and comfortable young man wishes to hear these words spoken with authority:  “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant”? [Jeremiah 1.10]  But this is the vocation to which Jeremiah is called.

     Two men, one an old crippled man struggling with one finger to complete his life’s work, the other a younger man called from a life of prestige and power to a life of opposition to and judgement of prestige and power.

     One caption:  Sometimes we do not get the job we wish but the job that God believes we are best suited to perform.

Snapshot 2:  What are you looking for?

     In 1993 I was priest-in-charge of Saint Anselm’s on the University Endowment Lands.  One afternoon I was working in the church when a gentleman with his wife and two teenagers came into the building.  “Do you mind if we have a look around?” he asked me.  “No,” I said, “be my guest.  I hope that you don’t mind if I keep puttering around for a bit.”  With his wife and children the man spent a good twenty minutes walking throughout the nave, the aisles and the sanctuary.  By that time I was in the office.  He stopped by the office and said to me, “I grew up here.  It’s just the way that I remember it.”  I wished him well and kept my thoughts to myself.

     The irony was that we had just re-modelled the sanctuary.  When he was a boy, the font was at the head of the north aisle of the church, invisible to most of the congregation.  Now it was located on the south side of the sanctuary platform.  When he was a boy, there was a over-sized pulpit on the north side of the sanctuary and a lectern on the south side.  Now there was only an appropriately sized lectern on the north side that served both readers and preachers.  When he was a boy, the altar was firmly against the east wall of the sanctuary.  Now it was free-standing, permitting movement on all sides.  Not the way it was but only the way he remembered.

     We sometimes forget that our vision is both a physical and a mental activity.  What our eyes transmit to our brains is interpreted by that brain and organized into a comprehensible picture.  Despite the physical differences between the St Anselm’s of his boyhood and the St Anselm’s of the present, this man constructed a picture of an unchanging world.

     The author of the letter to the Hebrews is writing to a community whose minds and hearts are having a hard time dealing with the physical facts of their present time.  His community is a Christian one with deep ties to the Jewish roots of the Christian movement.  It is possible that they maintain their links to Jewish ritual and continue to attach deep meaning to the Jerusalem Temple and its rituals.

     But they now live in a world in which the Temple has been destroyed.  Just as the destruction of the Temple was a catastrophe for the majority of Jews living at that time, so was it a catastrophe for many of the Christians who valued their Jewish roots.  For these Christians the question might well have been, “How can we be Christians without the Temple and its sacrifices?”

     To these worried people the writer of the letter to the Hebrews sends a message of hope and a way of re-visioning their religious world-view.  For this early Christian writer the earthly Jerusalem has been replaced by a heavenly one where Roman imperial power cannot interrupt the sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving continually offered by the saints and where Roman imperial power cannot profane the sacred presence of God enshrined in the Holy of Holies:  “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” [Hebrews 12.22-24]

     Two men, one man trying to recover his own past, the other man trying to reshape the future of his community.

     One caption to both:  Be careful how you look at the world because that is the way it is.

Snapshot 3:  So, by whose rules are we playing?

     My younger son, Owen, began to play rugby in the autumn of his grade 8 year and he continues to play to this day.  Rugby was virtually unknown in the United States when I was growing up, so these past eight years have been an education.  I admit that I am not only a rugby dad but a rugby fan.  One of the happiest moments of my life was when Telus added Setanta, the channel that carries rugby, to its services!

     In rugby we do not speak of the ‘rules’ but of the ‘laws’.  The word ‘laws’ brings with it the sense that interpretation is an important part of both playing and refereeing the game.  While the role of the referee is sacrosanct in rugby, unlike soccer or hockey, it is not unusual to watch two games played by the same two teams where the ‘laws’ seem to be interpreted differently.  This has given rise to a commonly-heard saying on the rugby pitch, “Play to the ref.”  There is no point in rugby in jumping up and down and screaming at the referee, actions that are more than likely to draw a yellow card and the player’s departure from the game for ten minutes while her or his team play fourteen against fifteen.  Part of the first twenty minutes or so of every game is learning how the referee is going to interpret the laws.

     What I love about the game is this wonderful combination of reliability and interpretation.  Two teams, one referee and perhaps two additional officials, all combining to bring about a unique moment in the history of the game.  History is not irrelevant, but it is this moment where the laws and the game intersect.  It is this group of thirty or more people who will define what happens according to the circumstances they meet.

     In the classical Jewish tradition there are six hundred and thirty-two laws commanded by God and found in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.  These laws are God’s words to the people and any authentic Jewish life is shaped by them.  And so today we have the picture of a woman crippled by an unknown ailment who comes into contact with Jesus as he is teaching in a synagogue.  His reaction is one that we have come to expect when Jesus encounters a person in need:  “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’  When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” [Luke 13.12-13]

     What follows is predictable:  Jesus’ action leads to a debate about what the ‘law’ means about keeping the Sabbath.  On the one side, we have the rector’s warden who has a strict interpretation of the law.  On the other side, we have the visiting preacher who has a more liberal interpretation of the law.  Which ref shall we play to?

     Two men, one concerned with the integrity of the law, the other with the immediate application of the law.

     One caption:  Sometimes you honour the spirit of the game by playing loose with its regulations.

Snapshot 4:  What do you mean ‘homework’?

     Although I am a ‘retired’ professor, I am still a professor with a desire to send you from this gathering with some homework to do, just three simple questions for you to consider.  There are no wrong answers, only your answers.
  • Is there some vocation that you sense God is calling you to undertake that seems to lead you on an unexpected journey?
  • Do you need to look at the world differently in order to undertake this vocation?
  • Are you going to have to play a little loose with the rules in order to undertake this vocation?

     Three questions with one purpose.  I hope to hear some of your answers to my questions.  But you’ll have to come next week to hear what I think that purpose is.  Amen.


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