In today’s gospel story of breakfast on the beach, we enter further into the Easter season, and the work of Easter: working out what it means to have Resurrection set loose in the world, in the church, and in our lives.
One of the oddest experiences of Easter is that it can feel empty, after the graphic realities of Holy Week: bread broken, feet washed, thorns pressed into Jesus’ scalp, crosses raised, a body laid in a newly hewn grave. Easter, by contrast, is about an absence: the body is no longer in the tomb; and we are left to work out what that means.
Today’s story makes it clear that one of the functions of Resurrection life is restoration of relationship, and deep forgiveness.
How do you feel about extravagance? Extravagant gifts, extravagant gestures? Lent may seem like an odd time to talk about extravagance, but really, isn’t Lent about extravagance in the other direction? In Lent we are called to an extra level of self-abnegation – to more intentional prayer and fasting, to giving our attention to God, and our physical lives, our time, our talent and our treasure, to the needs of the world around us. In Lent, we are called, in fact, into extravagance.
Last Sunday morning before the service began, Paula asked me how I was doing. And I told her that I had been feeling sad because in these times of the church year when I most wish for time and space to be quiet and contemplative, I am instead most busy. Probably I am fooling myself that if I didn’t have tasks to perform or events to attend during the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent that I would spend more time meditating on the Word or in quiet contemplation and prayer. But I do feel longing at these times for those practices.
What is Lent for? I was trying to imagine what the cultural understanding of Lent looks like these days. I think if you asked most people outside of the Church what Lent was, they wouldn’t have heard of it at all. Those who have might talk about giving up chocolate or meat, eating fish on Fridays. Maybe if they are really informed, they might talk about giving alms or acts of service.
Classical economic theory tells us that, if left to their own devices, markets will balance themselves out — supply meeting demand — because the humans in those markets are rational beings who will behave in their own self-interest by making decisions based on reason. It amazes me that anyone who has actually met another human being could espouse such a theory in good conscience and with a straight face, but somehow or other this idea has managed to hang on more or less up until the present age.
In my opinion, classical economic theory is more useful as a model you can hold up against actual economies to see just how far off the mark you are about people acting rationally. Personally, I’m much more interested in behavioural economics, as developed in the 60s and 70s by Israeli psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Tversky and Kahneman developed a number of concepts that describe the ways in which people make irrational choices. The availability heuristic, for example, says that people tend to believe things they’ve heard stories about are more common than they really are. Like if you hear a story about a shark attack, it sticks in your mind, and you think shark attacks must happen all the time. But you’re not stacking up the story you heard against the thousands of people who go into the ocean every day and aren’t attacked by sharks. We are much more moved by a good story than by data.
Jesus in Luke chapter 6 is giving us his speech as the chief economist of the Kingdom of God. If rationality states that when someone punches you in the eye, the fair thing is for them to stand still while you return the favour, the economy Jesus is describing here is based on a principle of abundance, not balanced ledgers. “Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn to them the other also.” I ask you, is this rational? Is this an example of supply balancing with demand?
Well, I won’t pretend this is ideal. Doing church this way, through a computer screen, has borne home to me how disconnected I feel from all of you. How are you? Are you doing okay? Have you got anyone asking you those questions face to face these days? All of the distance the pandemic has created between us has also made me think about how profoundly true it is that one person cannot be all things to all people. You know, when Claude is here, I tend to be content to let him try and fill that role. Claude was the conduit for me to all important information about what was going on in people’s lives. That’s how I found out who was sick; whose relative had died; who had a new grand-baby. The rest I could fill in when I saw you on Sunday mornings. But now, Claude’s not here, and neither are you, except through a computer screen.
But the pandemic is only one factor in my sense of disconnection from all of you. After all, I could pick up the phone, couldn’t I? Don’t think I haven’t thought of it numerous times over the last two years. The reasons I mostly haven’t done that are personal failings I cannot, unfortunately, blame on a virus. Inertia is one. It is, after all, much easier not to do something! Another other is energy. On the introvert/extrovert spectrum, I’m in the 90th percentile on the introvert side. Literally, conversations exhaust me. Which gets twisted up with how much I love you and want to know about your life. Result: inertia. The third reason is depression, which either causes or is caused by the other two; I’m not sure which. But man: it is January. It’s dark, it’s cold. I am so over this pandemic. And so depression has set in. And that just coats inertia and exhaustion with a nice brain fog.
So the result is that while I think about you all the time, and I’m worried about how you’re coping with the dumpster fire that is our lives these days, I am wholly inadequate to do anything about it. But thankfully for me and for all of you, that is not how being brothers and sisters in Christ works.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he gives what is, in my opinion, the most useful metaphor about what Jesus’ Church is. It is a body, full of distinct parts. Eugene Peterson said about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When people become Christians, they don’t at the same moment become nice. This always [seems to] come as something of a surprise. Conversion to Christ and his ways doesn’t automatically furnish a person with impeccable manners and suitable morals.
In Advent, we look back to the first coming of Jesus into our fallen world, and we look forward to his second coming to establish his Kingdom once and for all. Advent, then, becomes a time where we contemplate our relationship with God, and our place in the Kingdom. Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke’s Gospel, addresses these questions of relationship with God and place in God’s Kingdom.
Let us pray. Lord, have mercy upon us. I wanted to begin by asking for mercy from our king, because this Jesus we are talking about today in our readings is hard to wrap our minds around.
This is the last Sunday of the year. Did you know that? Next week, November 28th, is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the start of a new liturgical season. We will change all our colours to purple. We will hang our Advent wreath, and start singing Advent hymns. Even the canticles in Morning Prayer change. But beyond moving into a new liturgical season, we also begin the new liturgical year. Our cycle of Scripture, and prayer, and worship of our Lord Jesus Christ begins anew.
This day, the final Sunday of the old year, is known as Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King in Catholic and Lutheran churches. We have these gorgeous Scripture readings full of the majesty and glory of Jesus. In Daniel’s vision, we see the Ancient of Days, too bright to look at, like the sun, sitting in His throne room, surrounded by multitudes, and preparing to sit in judgement on the whole universe. And one like a son of man approaches the Ancient of Days and is welcomed into His presence, and he is “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His domain is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
For seven weeks through October and the beginning of November, we are making our way through the letter to the Hebrews in our New Testament lessons. You may remember such phrases as “In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them,” and “was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek,” and from today, “For the law appoints as high priests men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever.” Hebrews is not a light read. I’m not sure the creators of the lectionary do us any favours by doling it out chunk by chunk a week at a time. I mean, this month we’ve read 4 verses from chapter one, 7 verses from chapter two, 10 verses from chapter five, 6 verses from chapter 7 today, and 4 verses from chapter 9 next week. We would have had 5 more from chapter 4, except, Thanksgiving. Anyway, my point is, what are we to make of that? It occurred to me to wonder, exactly how much of Hebrews do we read in the whole 3-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary? So I looked it up. I think this is really interesting, but I’m a nerd, so your mileage may vary.
(Modified 2021-09-26: Added audio recording – sorry about the static!)
We see today in our Gospel reading what we so often encounter in the Gospels. Jesus’ disciples have some small, local concern they want him to address, but Jesus has his mind on the big picture, the cosmic picture.
John the beloved disciple, whose Gospel and letters teach us a great deal about loving one another, has a very unloving complaint. “Jesus, some dude we don’t know is going around casting out demons in your name. We told him to stop, but he won’t. Do something!”