Archive for October, 2022

“Heroic Pharisees,” (‘Seed chat,’ October 23 2022)


It’s a word I’ve heard Christian people use as a slur, shorthand for a sanctimonious legalistic person with no sense of mercy, often explicitly set up as an adversary to so-called Gospel ethics.

It’s one of those very interesting terms that seems to have crossed the political divide among Christians. I’ve heard both mainliners and evangelicals use it to refer to the same sort of person as described above. Heck, I’ve even heard mainliners use it to describe evangelicals.

As hard as people try, it’s really not possible in a post-Holocaust world to speak of Pharisees like this without invoking a long history of anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic rhetoric. We have a tendency to split the God of our faith into two: the mean judgmental “Old Testament” God, and the good and kind “Daddy” God that Jesus talks about – as though Jesus was not Jewish and wasn’t firmly anchored within his own tradition. This is actually one of the first heresies recorded in the early church. It’s called Marcionism, after its first proponent Marcion of Sinope, who believed that the teachings of Jesus were incompatible with the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, and that indeed the Creator God of the Hebrew Bible was an entirely different god from the God of Jesus, who had taken no part in the creation of the world. Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome around the year 144.

If we want to be in right relationship with the Jewish people, we need to re-evaluate the way we talk about our roots and our shared Scriptures. That includes coming to a new understanding of the Pharisees.

Some scholars have argued that Jesus himself could be described as a Pharisee. There is a notion (again, low-key anti-Semitic if you think about it) that the Pharisees were all wealthy educated folks who took delight in ordering poor people around. But they weren’t. Pharisee wasn’t really a class of people so much as a lens for looking at Scripture. Pharisees stood in contrast with Sadducees who were Temple priests insisting on proper protocols for worship, which heavily privileged Jerusalem and temple sacrifice as crucial for the following of the Torah. Pharisees, by contrast, insisted that ordinary people could keep the Law and be faithful Jews whether they had the capability of accessing Jerusalem and the appropriate resources for sacrifice or not.

You can see why some would put Jesus into that camp.

It’s likely that any arguments that occurred between Jesus and the Pharisees were more of an intra-religious debate which, over the years, were interpreted as Jesus people fighting with, well, not Jesus-people – especially for the writer of Luke, who was probably not Jewish and may not have really understood the heritage of the faith.

Now, on to the parable.

Amy-Jill Levine, the Jewish New Testament scholar who deacon Alisdair quoted last week, has done a lot of work to help re-imagine the figure of the Pharisee.

I’m going to quote from her at length here. She writes,

“Some Christian readers dismiss the Pharisee as hypocritical, sanctimonious, and legalistic, and in turn identify with the tax collector, the appropriately repentant and humble sinner. However, this reading traps interpreters: to conclude (following 18.11), “God, I thank you that I am not like this Pharisee,” places the readers in the very position they condemn. Moreover, this interpretation overlooks the Pharisee’s numerous supererogatory qualities: tithing, fasting, giving thanks without asking for something in return.

Other readers presume that the tax collector stands “far off” (18.13) because other worshipers ostracize him, believing him to be ritually impure. The parable says nothing about either ostracism or impurity; to the contrary, to enter the temple a person must be ritually pure. Even were he ostracized, the cause would not be impurity but employment: he works for Rome, the occupation government.

Still other readers perceive the Temple to have become an elitist, xenophobic, misogynist, fully corrupt “domination system.” Again, the parable thwarts this stereotype, since it is in the Temple that repentance and reconciliation occur.

Finally, might we see the Pharisee as helping the tax collector. Just as the sin of one person impacts the community (hence, e.g., “forgive us our sins” [11.4] rather than “forgive me my sins”), so the merits of the righteous can benefit the community (see Gen 18.24-33; hence one view of the cross: the sacrifice of one can save the many). Perhaps the Jews who first heard this parable understood the Pharisee’s merit positively to have impacted the tax collector. This would be the parable’s shock: not only that the agent of Rome is justified but that the Pharisee’s own good works helped in that justification.”

Can the good works of one really redeem the bad works of another?

Sometimes, when I’m deeply frustrated by the hypocrisy, power-hoarding, racism, and homophobia of this institutional Anglican Church, I think of those within it who carry out the good work of God quietly, with compassion and perseverance. I think of you, doing your best to love God and your neighbour in a lonely world that demands much of us.

I’m going to sit now and welcome your stories of times where you’ve seen the good overcome the bad, where the arc of the moral universe has bent toward justice, perhaps even where your own mind has been changed by the gentleness of others.

Again, it’s something we all need to hear.

Seed chat starts 23:55

“You are enough,” (Sermon, October 16 2022)

This sermon was preached at Holy Cross parish in East Vancouver. Audio is linked at the bottom and you will notice there is an interlude in Japanese which is not included in the text version. Thank you as well to A. Nakao for recording the audio.

Good morning, Holy Cross parish. Thank you so much for having me. My name is Clare and I’m pastor to the St. Brigid’s congregation at Christ Church Cathedral.

All right, let’s do something a little different. Come along with me if you’re willing. If not, you can just listen, or take a little break if you need to. Do your shopping list. All are invited, none are compelled.

If you feel safe to, close your eyes. If you don’t, just soften your gaze. Let yourself breathe for a minute. Relax, feel yourself sturdy in the pew, breathe deep, relax any pressure points or pains.

Now, go to a beautiful place, a place that’s yours, where you’re totally safe. Maybe it’s a place you loved as a child – a house, a field, a beach, or maybe it’s just the darkness behind your eyes.

And finally, think about someone who loves you coming to meet you there. It can be someone who’s living, or someone who’s no longer on earth. Someone who knows you, with whom you have a shared vocabulary, who makes you laugh, who holds you when you cry, someone you don’t need to explain any of your weird quirks to, because they understand. Someone around whom you don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.

Let them slowly materialize in your mind’s eye. How do they look to you? What do you see on their face as they look at you? Is it a smile? Gentleness? Standing with arms held out? Seated in a chair with a lap ready for you?

Is it with invitation?

If yes, accept the invitation. Go into their arms, climb into their lap, stand close.

If not, just stand there and contemplate every part of that beloved one.

And let’s rest in the moment again.

You can come back to this moment any time you like, but now it’s time to leave. Thank the one who loves you, and become aware of your breathing. Become aware of the pew under you, of your limbs. Wiggle your fingers and toes.

You’re back here, with your friends and with me.

How did that feel?

This is how God wants it to be with us.

It might seem obvious, but I think we forget it often. Mai nichi watashitachiwa wasurete imasu.

Of course for some, God might be the only one who makes us feel that level of safety. But often, even that feels elusive and impossible, because we might think that God, knowing all of our sins and shortcomings, is more critical than our biggest critics. In the world we live in, we’re encouraged to believe that when someone knows our shortcomings, they’re just biding their time until they can use them against us.

Perhaps when Jesus tells us we should accept the Kingdom as children, that’s what he meant. Children are fully aware that they need help. They don’t fuss about it. They ask quite unselfconsciously for the things they need and want.

And yet somehow, we grow into adults who become so divorced from what they need that some die before asking for help, for support, for love.

A child will say, “Mummy, I want a hug.”

An adult will wake up one day and wonder how they ever got to be so lonely.

God begs us, pleads with us, never to lose that “Mummy, I want a hug,” relationship with God.

And yet we often exchange this relationship, which is loving but also dependent, for the perceived power that individualism promises.

The Israelites, newly born as a liberated people and sustained in the wilderness, built a kingdom, and began to struggle as all kingdoms do. Enslaved anew by empires, they heard the voices of prophets like Jeremiah speaking God’s word. God, who has deep respect for this beloved people, says through Jeremiah, “You wanted to be in right relationship, so I gave you the Torah to show you how it could and should be. Adults tell each other what they need. Why are you acting like we didn’t have that conversation?”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t get really ticked off with people I don’t care about. I only get ticked off with people I really care about. I do my best to tell the people I love the truth, because I respect them. Preserving the relationship is what’s most important, so I put the work in and have faith that they’ll listen, because they also care about the relationship.

That’s what God is like with us.

Jesus tells a parable of a woman who wears down an unjust judge with incessant self-advocacy. Jesus is not saying this is what God is like, and we should be like the woman. This woman has enough self-respect to demand justice for herself from this bored jerk and he relents. But God doesn’t have to be bullied into giving us what we need, because God loves us.

Often the Law or Torah is contrasted with the Gospel. One is hard and legalistic and one is easy and generous. This framing is wrong. It’s harmful to Jesus and Judaism. Like the 95 calls to action from the TRC, the Torah is God saying, “Do you want to be in right relationship? Do you really want that, with all your heart and soul? I’m going to take you at your word. I know you’re always saying you don’t want to offend me or get it wrong. So here it is. This is exactly what I need you to do to live in right relationship.”

That’s a huge gift.

How do we still get it wrong? The same reason I still snap at the people I love, or run late, or decide I’d rather sit around than clean my house. We’re frail. God understands that.

But to say that we don’t know what God wants from us?

Kanben shite.

We know what God wants.

We know God wants us to be kind and patient and loving.

We know God wants us to listen more than speak.

We know God does not want us to treat this planet and its many creatures, our siblings, with apathy and disdain.

We know God wants us to share with those less fortunate, and to advocate on behalf of the oppressed, and, you know, preferably not to oppress other beings in the first place.

We were taught that as children.

Why don’t we do it? We’re human. Okay.

But why do we pretend that God’s will is inscrutable?

I admit that sometimes it’s not clear what the right choice is. I’ve had times where I’ve lost sleep, where I’ve shook my fists at God and said, “How can I do the least amount of harm in this crappy situation?”

But often, it really is as easy as just choosing the good.

And if we can’t, or don’t, which, let’s face it, will be a lot of the time, it’s as easy as admitting that we know what we have to do, and we just don’t want to.

And that can just be the prayer. “God, I know what I have to do. But I really don’t want to.”

Believe me, God respects the honesty of that prayer.

Again, God does not have to be bullied and wheedled for justice or love, even when we screw up. God’s love cannot be bought or earned or stolen.

It’s offered freely, with total trust, in the same spirit as it was offered to you through that person you imagined at the beginning of the sermon.

Is that hard to believe?

Jeremiah shows us we can rest in that precious love. Remember, when the Israelites broke that first covenant, God prepared a whole new one.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

You surely know that the one who loved you has made you a better person.

That too is the same with God.

So, ganbatte ne. It is enough.

“Invasive Thanksgiving,” (‘Seed chat,’ Thanksgiving Sunday 2022)

A new practice we started some time at St. Brigid’s is called ‘seed chats,’ which are kind of like mini-sermons with space left at the end for the congregation to respond. I wasn’t going to post them because they didn’t feel like “real sermons” but then I realized that was super weird, because they still are, just shorter and often with a question or prompt at the end. So here’s the first one I did. Unfortunately the comments are not included in the text, but the video of the livestream does have them.

I realized that the Thanksgiving passage assigned for today was one we already preached on at the beginning of Lent! I was wracking my brain trying to figure out when I’d preached on this last because I knew it was recent, but it wasn’t Thanksgiving last year, so I was like, “Where did I do this?” And then I found it – Lent 1! Bizarre!

Now when I preached that sermon, I quoted Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who said, “With the freedom and privilege offered in the Promised Land come obligations.” Relationship with God means relationship with those less fortunate. The Israelites were an agrarian people, a farming people, in the stories of the Promised Land, so first fruits are not won by ingenuity and hard work. Farmers know that they can work as hard as possible and still have a bad year. Ancient farming peoples relied on weather gods – rain, sun, harvest, and hearth deities who had their own wills and whims.

The biggest difference is that as Israelite theology shifted over time, their One God became larger and more inscrutable.

In the words of Amos:

“The one who made the Pleiades and Orion,
   and turns deep darkness into the morning,
   and darkens the day into night,
who calls for the waters of the sea,
   and pours them out on the surface of the earth,
the Lord is Their name,
9 who makes destruction flash out against the strong,
   so that destruction comes upon the fortress.”

In the words of Deuteronomy:

“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labour on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

While many other gods may have acted more capriciously in the old tales, this God was a God who could not be manipulated by empty ritual. This God demanded that the people remember who they were: those who were called to a path of caring for those who dwelt among them as aliens and strangers, those called to remember their days of eating manna in the wilderness, bread of angels scattered down on the earth from heaven, those called to remember that they had been liberated because they were beloved, but sternly told that they should not believe this set them above other people. Indeed, their status meant that they should extend this empire-shattering love to all people.

And is this not also our story?

On this Thanksgiving Day we are called to remember who we are: those invited into a resurrection dance not just for Christianity or even humanity but all of creation, those given the great gift of a beautiful blue and green body held like a hazelnut in the palm of God’s loving hand, those who are taught that liberation and compassion are God’s true Law, rather than civility politics or fear or empire.

Shall we gather here tonight in thanksgiving? Yes, here and everywhere and at all times.

Shall we imagine that it is enough to say “Thank you, God, for all our gifts”? By no means. Gratitude and thanksgiving are meant to be invasive species. They are meant to overflow our cups – to overflow our tables, to come up to our knees.

What does this look like?

Every month, I attend a free online support group for caregivers for people with young-onset Alzheimer’s disease. It’s only one offering the Alzheimer’s Society of BC has given to me that has been the most incredible lifeline. I pray that when my mum’s struggle with the disease is over, I have the strength and endurance to give back to this incredible organization that brings hope to so many people. My gratitude already overflows for them and their work.

It’s your turn. Tell us a story of how thanksgiving has been invasive in your life. Tell us a story of how you might want it to be invasive. Tell us a story of witnessing it second-hand.

We need to hear it.

Seed chat starts at 21:00