Monday, August 5, 2019

Pulpitations: "Gifted"

Sometimes stringing together a sermon with a coherent message or theme from proscribed lectionary readings can be a bit of a chore. At other times, the common element might hit you a bit obliquely. as it did for me in trying to distill a message from Psalm 85 and Luke 11:1-13.

The latter is fairly familiar - it's the one where Jesus teaches the followers His (i.e. the  Lord's Prayer), but the bits afterward (seek and you shall find, ask and you shall be given, knock and the door shall be opened) strongly reminded me of some of the Zen readings I had encountered.

I'm not precisely sure how one is supposed to reconcile eastern Buddhism with the tenets of Christianity, but I took a swing at it and worked in a little bit of Professor X and James T. Kirk for good measure. (The readings are pasted in below if you're curious.)


Did you ever get a gift you perhaps didn’t appreciate at first? I mean, no one really likes tearing into a present under the Christmas tree and finding out it’s socks or underwear. On the other hand though, some of us reach a stage where we see that familiar Stanfields logo and think, “cool; now I don’t have to go out and buy these myself!”

What about a gag gift? Hey, peanuts, awesome! Let’s get into -AAH SWEET CHRISTMAS A SNAKE Happy birthday, sucker! Sure, you’re scared at the moment, and maybe a bit angry, and perhaps you need some bathroom time, but then you’re laughing, and the next thing you know, you’ve left the joke can in plain view on a shelf where you know snacky guests are likely to tear into it.

Or maybe your spouse buys you something indeterminately self-serving, like a bread machine or a snowblower. Your initial impulse might be to see the underlying message as “make me some bread now please!” or “that sidewalk ain’t gonna clear itself.” But when you are in the kitchen a week later smelling delicious fresh-baked bread that you added some dill to thanks to a recipe your sister found online, or outside in a blizzard wearing multiple layers of winter clothing and thinking how this machine is probably saving you from a back injury or some kind of cardiac incident, I bet your attitude has shifted in the interim.

The best and worst thing about gifts is this: it’s that you have no control over them. You can’t say for sure if you will be gifted, when you will be gifted, or what you might be gifted with.

The term gifted itself always reminds me of a certain place from the comic books. I’d be super pleased if someone could guess what it is.

1407 Greymalkin Lane, in Salem Center, Westchester County, New York. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Home of the X-Men in both the comics and the movies, even if in the comics it is continually getting destroyed, renamed or dimensionally shifted. Currently it is called the Xavier Institute for Mutant Education and Outreach, but that doesn’t tie in to my theme very well, so I’ll stick with the School for Gifted Youngsters.

All the students at Xavier’s school are “gifted” because they are mutants, possessing special traits or abilities that set them apart from the rest of humanity. Some of these gifts are benign or simply amusing, others are potentially devastating in their capacity for harm. Some of the gifted students are distinct, or even monstrous in their appearance, others are indistinguishable. They are all considered gifted, but you can be sure that many of them are not happy with these gifts.

The premise is that students, these mutants, can come to Xavier’s school and learn how best to use their abilities, under the tutelage of more experienced and powerful mutants. It’s a brilliant paradigm for spinning adventure yarns, but also for telling stories about prejudice, coming to grips with what sets one apart and the power of personal choice. Some students leave the school and take up ordinary lives, while others succumb to the temptation to use their powers for personal gain, or to lash out at their oppressors, real or perceived. Still others aspire to join the X-Men- mutant superheroes who, in the words of the comic itself, “use their powers to protect a world that hates and fears them.” As Professor Xavier says, “What you do with your gift is entirely up to you.”

This lesson applies not only to these fictional homo superiors, but to us homo sapiens as well, and for the record, I’m not talking about snowblowers and underwear here.

Take our New Testament reading today: a disciple asks Jesus for a simple gift - how to pray. Jesus delivers, brilliantly, but then rolls into some anecdotes about late night requests for baked goods and the wisdom of not giving children venomous animals to handle at snacktime.

But even before he offhandedly calls his disciples “evil” Jesus gives us a lot to unpack in a very succinct passage, something I feel is one of the greatest and most surprising gifts he gives to his followers. After all, everyone knows how to pray, right? It’s practically instinctual; if you turn onto a rainy sidestreet and see a pair of headlights rushing towards you, or open the washroom door at a national park only to have a perturbed cougar snarl at you, I am willing to bet good money that one of your next three words will be the name of the Almighty or his Son. And possibly the Son’s foster parents, especially if you are Irish or a Newfoundlander.

But that’s not what is being asked, is it? “Teach us to pray, as John did his disciples.” We don’t know how John taught his followers to pray, only that he did. The disciples in both instances are looking for guidance, an acknowledgement from an authority as to what God most wants to hear.

Father, hallowed be your name. - acknowledge God first and foremost

Your kingdom come - may the world become more like His vision of it

Give us each day our daily bread - only here do we come to a physical need

And forgive us our sins - we know we've done wrong, but forgive us, not just me

For we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us - well, we’d sure like to, wouldn’t we?

And do not bring us to the time of trial - save us from judgement, because it is unlikely we will ever be truly ready

Luke’s version here sounds like the Reader’s Digest Condensed version compared to what we get in Matthew, which adds “in heaven” after “Our Father,” “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” plus it changes “sins” to “trespasses” and wraps up with “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Hey, did you know that the Pope is looking to change that last part? In June he said, “It is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation. I am the one who falls. It’s not Him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department.”

I think this illustrates the limitations of translation, as well as the value of the various paraphrases of the Lord’s Prayer we like to use - and there’s a new one coming up later in the service as a matter of fact - because it is easy to get hung up on the words and lose the meaning or feeling behind them. It’s like Bruce Lee tells his student in Enter the Dragon: “Don’t think- feel! It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!”

Frankly, unless you know Greek, and I certainly don’t, I suppose they are all paraphrases, aren’t they? And Jesus didn’t even speak Greek, he spoke Aramaic. Plus the New Testament has been translated into over 1,500 languages and who knows how many different versions in English, so what does that tell you about the precision of words?

At any rate, regardless of which particular words we use to pray as Jesus taught, some of the themes are hard to miss: once we have what we need -not want, but need - we need to start looking after others around us. If we want forgiveness, we must be prepared to forgive. God will give us the things we need, and as Jesus says afterwards, other things we ask for, the gifts we don’t have yet and maybe don’t even know we need. But God has long term goals and needs us to bring his Kingdom around.

And that Kingdom, what might that be like? Maybe Psalm 85 is telling us:

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;

righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,

and righteousness will look down from the sky.

What beautiful imagery!

Thanks to something called “parallelism” in the Psalms, this particular bit of phrasing also tells us that

Love = Righteousness


Faithfulness = Peace

In addition to this, there is an alternative translation for faithfulness - it’s “truth.”

In God’s Kingdom, truth will spring up from the ground, while righteousness, or justice, if you will, looks down from the sky. That covers just about everything, doesn’t it? Well, everything except the “how” of it, which brings us back to the Prayer of Jesus, or, rather, the bit that comes after.

So Jesus teaches everyone how to pray, then tells a story about late night bakery requests which is all about the persistence of prayer, or, put another way, not giving up. He underscores this by making it crystal clear that what we need, God has, and He will provide it to those who ask:

Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

I may have mentioned this before, but the Zen monk Gasan, having this passage read to him, replied, “That is excellent. Whoever said that is not far from Buddhahood.” To me, this speaks to the universality of what Jesus is saying here, the capital-T Truth of it.

So what about that last part, you may be asking yourself, where he calls his disciples “evil”?

(And despite all the truth and wisdom contained in the words Jesus shares here, you know, you just know, deep in your bones, that some of those disciples walked away not thinking about the prayer, or fetching bread in the dead of night, or asking and searching and knocking. No, they walked away muttering under their breath about following some wanna-be rabbi all across Judea and just who in the name of Jehovah is he to call me evil? The nerve of that guy!)

So, here’s the thing.

I’ve struggled with defining evil for much of my life, and as much as I would love to tell you that it’s due to reading Proust or Plato or whomever at a precocious age, it just isn’t true. It most likely started when I was eight years old and saw that episode of Star Trek where Kirk gets split into two people, one hard and one soft. The inclination is to call the hard side, the ruthless side, evil, but as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the softer, more compassionate self can’t be an effective leader without those elements of his personality.

Years of thought, and lots of comic books and other entertainments that try to address fundamental questions about good and evil, and sure, the occasional philosophical treatise not he topic, have brought me to a point where I finally feel ready to take a stab at what defines evil.

I think evil is selfishness. Unrestrained selfishness. The discounting of others to benefit ourselves.

I know we don’t talk a lot about sin in our theology, but humour me - look at the Seven Deadly Sins (which aren’t actually from the bible but do show up in Shazam!): pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. Me first, it’s all mine, you’re mine, they can’t have you, I don’t need that but I’m taking it, look at my anger, and I don’t want to do anything. Selfishness.

Like Kirk in that Star Trek episode, The Enemy Within, we all have those selfish tendencies in us. We need them, sometimes, in order to survive; it’s instinctual. Take the sweetest person in the world, put them on a set of stairs and watch what happens when they lose their balance. They flail out grabbing anything or anyone to help them stay upright, even if it’s their own frail granny. It’s not fair to judge people on this behaviour, but it is foolhardy to deny our intrinsically selfish nature. When Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,” it’s not meant as a slight, just a gentle reminder that we are earthly beings, not divine ones.

But even we, base creatures that we are, know how to give good gifts to our children, which tells us that God, who does not share our human imperfections, has even better gifts for those who ask Him!

For me, this whole passage in Luke breaks down like this: We, the disciples, ask Jesus to teach us how to pray, and he does.

He also tells us why.

Then he explains how looking out for one another should be second nature, like looking after our children is supposed to be.

But we are working for change, both within ourselves, and in the world around us. And change is hard, and it’s easy to get discouraged. So Jesus tells us not to give up, and ask for the things we need in prayer, so we can help others.

Jesus gives us a fundamentally non-intuitive way to look at the world, and God’s gifts to us in it, and asks us to focus less on the getting, and more on the giving. And not the kind of giving you do in hopes of getting later on like some kind of generosity pyramid scheme, but true, selfless giving, like the naked monk who gives his clothes to a thief and wishes he could give more. Or the ‘ungrateful’ teacher who reminds a wealthy benefactor that it is the giver who should be grateful.

I know this is all starting to sound like an extended stewardship pitch, but it isn’t. Well, not directly, anyways. There are all sorts of ways to give, because we have received all sorts of gifts. Sometimes they are a mixed blessing, or a bit double-sided, like in the X-Men. “You’ve a lovely voice, I bet you’ll be joining the choir at some point, won’t you?” “Oh, it’s so rare to find someone who deals with children so effectively. Say, have you met our Sunday School coordinator?”

There are other gifts too, gifts that we need sometimes but don’t have, and Jesus tells us we can pray for those. Not gifts like wings or optic blasts or healing factors, although those would be nifty, wouldn’t they? No, these are gifts like patience. Eloquence. Persuasion. Understanding. Clarity.

Ask and it shall be given. “Change what needs to be changed.” In Latin, that’s "Mutatis mutandis," and I’m not mentioning that to show off, but because it’s the motto of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

And we’re getting it right when we take those gifts, even the ones we didn’t really like at first, and we use it, not just for ourselves, but for each other, and for strangers, and for the wider world, and that, my friends, is what the glory of God, what the Kingdom of God, is all about.

“The Lord will give what is good,

and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness will go before him,

and will make a path for his steps.”

Truly, this is what it means to be gifted.



Psalm 85 (NRSV)

Prayer for the Restoration of God’s Favor
To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin. Selah

You withdrew all your wrath;
    you turned from your hot anger.
Restore us again, O God of our salvation,
    and put away your indignation toward us.
Will you be angry with us forever?
    Will you prolong your anger to all generations?
Will you not revive us again,
    so that your people may rejoice in you?

Show us your steadfast love, O Lord,
    and grant us your salvation.
Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

Luke 11:1-13

The Lord’s Prayer
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name.
    Your kingdom come.
    Give us each day our daily bread.
    And forgive us our sins,
        for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
    And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Two Stories from "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones," compiled by Paul Reps.

9. The Moon Cannot be Stolen
Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to stea1.

Ryokan returned and caught him. 'You may have come a long way to visit me,' he told the prowler, 'and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.’

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. 'Poor fellow,' he mused, 'I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.'

53. The Giver Should be Thankful
While Seisetsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umezu Seibei, a merchant of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

Seisetsu said: 'All right. I will take it.'

Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

'In that sack are five hundred ryo,' hinted Umezu.

"You told me that before,' replied Seisetsu.

'Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,' said Umezu.

‘Do you want me to thank you for it?' asked Seisetsu.

"You ought to,' replied Umezu.

'Why should I?' inquired Seisetsu. ‘The giver should be thankful.'

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