Archive for March, 2022

“Change the damned narrative,” (Sermon, Lent 3 2022)

Scriptural citation:

Luke 13:1-9

Last Thursday, after I don’t even know how long, I received the sacrament of reconciliation. This is the Anglican version of the rite of confession (yes, we have it!) It’s different from how it looks in the Catholic Church, though – less formal, more conversational, with a bit of ritual at either end. If you’re interested in exploring it during Lent, I can offer it to you, or you can ask any of the other priests here at the Cathedral or in the wider diocese.

The first couple of times I did reconciliation, it was with random clergy I happened to connect with. This time, I managed to find someone outside the diocese who was willing to be a regular confessor. He’s a beautiful soul.

I sat in my office on the Zoom call and he guided me through the rite. When we’d read the first few prescribed lines, we got to the part where I have the opportunity to name my sins, and the confessor may offer “words of comfort and counsel.”

My confessor asked, “Do you recognize any patterns in the sins you named?”

I had, in a sense. The first couple of times I did this rite, my sins had mostly been directed toward myself. Lack of self-compassion, impatience, anger, shame. I did still have a bit of that, but after hard work my inner monologue has become more compassionate over the years. The sins that came up this time were things I don’t think I had the courage to name before: the spitefulness, impatience, and anger I’d felt toward others.

When my confessor asked me what had changed, I said I was maturing in my self-awareness. He agreed this was likely true, but added that it is only when we are able to feel compassion toward ourselves that we truly feel compassion and love toward others.

As humans, we’re story-makers, and we get into a groove, don’t we? We slip into a habit, and the habit becomes a narrative, and the groove gets deeper. The more we buy into the narrative, the more it reinforces itself. The wheels keep sinking into the ruts that are already there.

The work of choosing a new narrative takes time. It’s one thing to watch your wheels carefully and make sure they only roll outside the ruts. That takes real skill and concentration. And it’s a whole other thing to decide to just pick a different road altogether!

Jesus is speaking to a crowd. Just before the passage we heard, he says, “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” He goes on to make a rather radical statement: that instead of participating in their current justice system, those listening should work out their problems among themselves before ever getting to court. Judging on the context of the previous chapter, this is not merely an encouragement to be nice to one another. It’s a deeply prophetic posture he’s encouraging. Don’t depend on the mechanisms of this world for justice or wholeness. You won’t find them in those systems. Work it out together.

Choose a new narrative.

The very strange verses that follow make a bit more sense in that light. The people start to ask questions about divine justice. But Jesus heads them off at the pass. He doesn’t want them to accept that narrative either: the narrative of just-world theory, the notion that everything that happens is part of some divine plan and that all suffering is deserved. He pretty clearly shuts down that narrative.

But then he goes on to say, “You still have to repent, or the same thing will happen to you.”

That word repent has a lot of baggage – talk about a narrative! But even that word deserves the new story treatment. The Greek word for ‘repent’ is metaoneo, and it means changing one’s mind or purpose.

Change your mind – or you’ll die like them.

So…stuck in a narrative? You will make it happen, you will create it around you, because the more committed you are to it, the more you will interpret the world around you as fitting into it, and the more stubbornly you will cling to it. Anyone who drives into the same ruts as you will look normal. Anyone who drives outside of them will look like a complete weirdo.

It’s not a sin to be a story-maker. Not all ruts are bad! But some ruts just clog up your wheels and grind you down. If your narrative is poisoning you, making you question your beloved-ness and the beloved-ness of the world around you, change the damned narrative – literally, change the damned narrative.

Then Jesus tells a parable. The classic understanding would be that the owner of the vineyard is God, and Jesus is the gardener, and God comes over and says, “Oh this cheeky vine never produces fruit! It’s been three whole years and not a one! I’ma cut the whole thing down!” And Jesus saves us from that mean old vineyard owner. Isn’t it always the case that our buddy Jesus saves us from mean old God who only wants us to get what we deserve?

You’re smart folks. We can tell just from hearing it that that’s a simplistic understanding.

How does that narrative hold up when we learn the fact that fig trees don’t produce fruit until three to five years after being planted? And how does it hold up when the text is murky about who planted the tree? Both the English and the Greek suggest that the owner had the tree planted, and didn’t do it himself.

It’s therefore presumptuous to suggest that this owner, who may not have planted the tree and certainly doesn’t seem to understand how fig trees work, symbolizes God. And indeed, it’s presumptuous to think that the more patient gardener only stands in for Jesus. After all, humans were created in Genesis as gardeners.

So maybe Jesus is giving all of us a chance to disrupt this narrative. To drive out of the ruts, or even choose a whole different road.

And maybe I’ll make use of some wisdom Omid Safi, one of my Sufi teachers, taught me, and invite us to see each of these characters as different aspects of ourselves.

Image description: My hands opening a small yellowish-brown pod to display tiny yellow seeds. Taken by a friend in El Salvador, 2014.

So…who is the owner: the part of us who oversees the earth of our hearts and judges the fruit and flowering of what is planted there; the part of us that parachutes in and criticizes, without having contributed to the planting and nurturing; the part of us that’s impatient even when what’s planted is behaving as it should, and wants to enjoy the fruit without the labour and the waiting; the part of us that wants to get the best use out of that heart-earth, and urges us to only make space for the most productive plants?

Who is the gardener: the part of us skilled in the art of planting and nurturing; who has seen many growing seasons and knows the language of earth and crop; who encourages patience and is willing to get their hands dirty; who still recognizes the futility of the sunk cost fallacy and understands that things which do not produce good fruit despite hard work should sometimes be cleared for more productive things?

And what is the tree: the part of us which needs time and nourishment from human and divine sources; which might be cared for deeply and skillfully but might be struggling in a dry season, or flooded, or beset by pests – none of which is our fault; the part of us that needs time to ripen; the part of us that, if the circumstances are right, will go from merely receiving nourishment to giving it back?

Take the time to think deep. Fill the ruts with soil and plant some stuff in there!

Then, when you and your trees are ready, in the words of Debie Thomas:

“Go fight for the justice you long to see.  Go confront evil where it needs confronting. Go learn the art of patient, hope-filled tending. Go cultivate beautiful things. Go look your own sin in the eye and repent of it while you can.

In short: imagine a deeper story. Ask a better question. Live a better answer. Time is running short. The season to bear fruit has come. Repent. Do it now.”

Sermon begins at 26:34

“The Devil made me do it,” (Sermon, Lent 1 2022)

Scriptural citations:

Deuteronomy 26: 1-11

Luke 4: 1-13

When I was a little kid, my mum’s friend had a pile of comic strip compilations, and one of them was Garfield at Large.

In one strip, Garfield has pulled himself up onto the dining table and is playing with Jon’s soup – batting at it at first, but eventually putting his paws fully into it and splashing it around. When Jon sees the mess and shouts, Garfield responds, “The Devil made me do it.”

I was intrigued by the concept. I was only four or five years old and I was from a mainline Anglican home. We didn’t talk about the Devil much outside of reading about him in children’s Bible stories. It’s kind of amazing considering I grew up during the Satanic Panic.

Come to think of it, that joke might have been the first time I considered that the Devil could make you do something. Even at that age, I knew it was just an excuse. Garfield had already spent multiple pages scratching the furniture, beating up the hapless Odie, and stealing Jon’s lasagna. Garfield clearly liked doing these things. He didn’t need the Devil to make him do anything bad. That’s the joke!

And that was comedian Flip Wilson’s point when he invented it. I watched one of his old routines on the Ed Sullivan show. It was pretty funny – he tells a story about a minister and his wife, who claims that the Devil forced her to buy a new dress that they can’t afford, despite her best efforts. Actually, three new dresses in a week. Also, the Devil is the one who made her drive the car into the outer wall of the church by grabbing the steering wheel. When the minister asks her why she didn’t put her foot on the brake, well, she couldn’t because she was too busy trying to kick the Devil.

Not her fault. Not Garfield’s fault.

The Devil made them do it.

I think a lot of people still see the Devil this way, as a tempter who convinces us to do things we shouldn’t but really, secretly, want to do. For those of us who are uncreative in the work of malice, it’s little things, like taking the last cupcake or stealing a parking spot.

For the rest, though, it might be bigger things. Embezzlement. Abuse. War crimes.

The Devil made me do it.

This year, I set myself a goal of preaching more on the Hebrew Bible, what’s sometimes called the Old Testament, with help from a Jewish study Bible. And it’s especially interesting to take a look at Luke’s temptation account in light of who the ancient Jews thought Satan was.

Some of you might know that “Satan” is not a personal name but a title. In Hebrew, ha-satan means “the Accuser.” OG Satan was an angelic figure in the heavenly court, acting under God’s instructions. He’s, without irony, God’s prosecuting attorney. We might remember him from the story of poor Job. Please note that he is not named as the serpent in the actual text of Genesis. That is a much later addition.

Satan has a very specific duty in ancient Jewish tradition, which is not only to act as prosecuting attorney, but, in the words of Jewish biblical scholar Amy-Jill Levine, “to test the righteous.” It makes perfect sense that he would show up in this story, as Jesus prepares for his Galilean ministry.

And what does he do? Well, there’s a standard laundry list of temptations he offers, ones we might be familiar with enough at this point that they lose some of their potency.

Here’s where it’s helpful to read the Deuteronomy passage alongside Luke. Now, if you’re anything like me, you were scratching your head hardcore when you heard that. What the heck do instructions about how to handle the first fruits of the land have to do with Satan or temptation OR LENT FOR THAT MATTER? (Happy Lent, by the way). But there’s some good stuff in here! Let’s dive in.

The Deuteronomy passage is part of a much longer list of legal requirements for the Israelites, and in fact is the linchpin for a pretty significant turning point in the text. Up until this point, the instructions have been rules for the people to follow in order to be in covenant with God. And we have this beautiful passage that begins with the command for the Israelites to remember where they came from, not just by naming themselves as former refugees and slaves, but by offering their bounty to the Levites and the “aliens” or “strangers” that reside among them. Offering first fruits is an act of humility, and humility is to be followed by an act of solidarity. This is underlined in the following verses which require a third-year tithing of one’s produce to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows – not so that they can just scrape by but so that “they may eat their fill,” says the text – as well as making a verbal promise to God, a sacred vow, that nothing has been held back.

Again, solidarity.

So here we learn that the covenant between God and Their people, which is what Deuteronomy is concerned with laying out in exhaustive and transparent detail, involves a sort of reorientation. The former refugees and slaves have been given the land of promise. It is a gift. They did not earn it. They must therefore act in solidarity with the marginalized. The fact that the writers of Deuteronomy sometimes seem to get mixed up about this does not negate the power of this act of worship for us today. To paraphrase Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, “With the freedom and privilege offered in the Promised Land come obligations.”

If this connection with the Luke story seems fanciful, note that the biblical quotes Jesus gives here are mostly from Deuteronomy.

So while Satan’s status as a tester of the righteous means he might offer Jesus things Jesus might want, from basic needs like food to more complex desires like political or supernatural power, that’s not all he’s offering Jesus.

Satan’s offering a different orientation, one that’s in line with what the world expects of us, one counter to the more radical and honest story Jesus wants to live – I’m sure none of us knows what that feels like – one that encourages Jesus to look out for Number One rather than practicing solidarity with the poor working people among whom he has ‘pitched his tent,’ as John the Evangelist so lyrically puts it.

Here, at the pinnacle of the Temple, Satan even employs Scripture to his purposes, as the saying goes. And yet in quoting it he undermines the real truth of that passage, which is supposed to offer comfort during times of sorrow and oppression, the polar opposite of what he encourages here: reckless misuse of trust and privilege, in a sense.

Jesus doesn’t fall for it. He accomplishes the task and goes on to begin his ministry, and Satan departs until “an opportune time.” Insert spooky string section interlude here.

Okay but what does that mean for us, just inside the threshold of Lent 2022?

Well, maybe Satan was never the voice that told us to indulge in one more cupcake or put off calling Aunt Gertrude or insert whatever kindergarten sins here. Maybe Satan is that prosecutorial mindset – the one that assumes the worst of us, that tells us to say, “F you, I got mine,” that says, “There is no covenant so you better hustle or you’ll be in the gutter by Thursday,” that says, “God can’t stand the sight of you and none of those holy promises of love and salvation are for you.”

Maybe sometimes Satan says, “Why don’t you try being God?” And maybe sometimes he says, “You’re too despicable to even speak God’s name.”

And if that’s the case, maybe Lent isn’t about saying, “Dang, Satan, you’re right,” and crawling into a dung hill of sorrow.

Maybe Lent is about saying, “I am not God, but I am a beloved child of God, and there is a covenant, and it is for me, and the only terms are love and solidarity.”

And then doing those things.

Sermon begins at 25:46