Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds. That’s the amount of daylight we get today, often given the misnomer of the “Shortest Day of the Year” when it should be “The Day with the Least Amount of Daylight,” but who am I to quibble. Nine hours, four minutes and thirty-seven seconds is not much sunlight no matter how you parse it out.
Phil LaBelle (c) 2017.
It’s the time when we sit in a great darkness. And even though it’s supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, sometimes it just isn’t. Sometimes circumstances rock our boats as if a storm has kicked up, and the waves are beginning to crash over the hull of the boat, and fear sets in. The loss of a job, hardship in a relationship, a painful diagnosis, the death of someone you love, addiction, trouble with a family member, a huge misunderstanding, infidelity. Oh that list can go on and on, and I’ve known many a Christmas seasons of my own that fit those bleak descriptions. Like the one Christmas when doctors found multiple spots on my Dad’s lungs. Or the year we moved and nothing felt right. That Christmastide when the company I worked for shuttered its doors the very week Melissa and I got married. The years my mom’s depression overshadowed Christmas during my childhood.
So which are you? A sheep? Or a goat?
I didn’t notice many of you carefully choosing up sides this morning when you came in. And if you did, I suspect you had to go over in your head a few times as to which side of the church was the one you really wanted to be on. It’s the Son of Man’s left and right, but if he’s standing in front looking at us, then it’s reversed for the crowd. You have to go left if you want to be on his right.
Sometimes we’ve heard Scriptures so often that we don’t really hear them. We tune out. We think we know it, so we just keep right on going, and the power of the words to transform us gets left in the dust. The Beatitudes are that entirely. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of God,” we hear but it could just as well have been “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” stealing a line from Monty Python. Some more recent versions of Scripture change it up by using the word “Happy,” for “Blessed,” but that falls completely flat when you read, “Happy are you when you mourn.”
Biblical scholar Earl F. Palmer suggests using Psalm 1 for a lens since it begins with the Hebrew equivalent of being “blessed” when you do not walk in the way of the wicked but center your life on God’s law. Palmer tells us that the Hebrew word for “blessing” ’ashar “means in the literal sense ‘to find the right road’.” To be on the right path. “You’re on the right road when you are poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of God.”
Matthew begins our lesson by spilling the beans of the plot all at once. Thanks to the internet meme—and those famous words uttered in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi—I hear it in Admiral Ackbar’s voice. (He’s that amphibious salmon-colored character with a head that’s a cross between a squid and a catfish.) “It’s a trap!” he proclaims as the Rebellion fleet cruises in to take down the Empire’s second Death Star. And so it is with Jesus today. “The Pharisees plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said,” Matthew writes before laying out the story, inviting us to watch over Jesus’ shoulder to see if the trap springs back on his questioners.
They begin by buttering him up. “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” You can almost hear them licking their chops as they circle tighter and tighter. “So tell us what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not?”
It’s a trap!
So two years after my mom passed away, my dad got married again. This was nine years ago now—and my dad himself has since died—but that was an interesting time in my life. The woman he married was his brother’s widow, my aunt. At the time I described our family as going from zero to Jerry Springer in one fell swoop. And when my cousin came out after the service starting to say that now this made her both my cousin and my step-sister, I cut her off before she could utter the words.
The wedding took place in Michigan where I grew up, at a church I was unfamiliar with, and a pastor who obviously thought the best part was that the bride would still have the same married name. After the ceremony, my siblings and I dutifully made our way to the reception only to discover that two of my cousins-now-step-siblings had changed into shorts and t-shirts over the course of the ten minute car ride. “It’s their mother’s wedding,” I muttered to my brothers and sisters. “You’d think they’d make more of an effort to look even partially presentable out of respect for her.” We shook our heads and tut-tutted to each other as we tried to enjoy a beverage and wondered what the future held.
I have to begin today with some background in order to help us understand our gospel. Matthew almost certainly writes to a Jewish Christian audience living in or near Palestine, and that these early Jewish believers were experiencing intense persecution from the Jewish religious authorities. A number of aspects in the gospel point to this audience, including the focus on the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures—along with a number of symbols and allusions to Jewish history. Jesus can be seen throughout the gospel as partaking in the tradition of Moses, and Jesus’ teachings and miracles keep hearkening back to that leader of the Exodus.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
However, Matthew’s Jesus also often gets very confrontational with the religious leaders, likely because his readers are also experiencing that conflict. Jesus has been in their sight for some time, and now it’s reaching its climax. It’s the Monday of Holy Week in our reading. The day before, Jesus rode on that donkey, and was hailed with praises and waving branches. On this Monday, he comes into the temple and has been asked by whose authority he teaches. The leaders are trying to trap him, of course. But Jesus is a bit tricksy himself, and asks them an unanswerable question too. He then tells a parable that those religious types know casts them in a bad light, and they can’t say anything. Our reading this morning is how Jesus continues speaking to these leaders.
Over the course of my sabbatical, I spent 40 nights camping in a tent. While that has a nice Biblical ring to it, I didn’t plan it initially that way and until about two weeks ago thought I’d hit 39. The longest consecutive stretch of sliding into a sleeping bag was 12 days while on our family car camping trip as we made our way up the Rockies with stops at Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Glacier and Banff National Parks. I additionally had a seven day stretch on the hills of Kilimanjaro, and six days in a row while in the vast wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota and Ontario. Out of those 40 nights, most were not in the same location, but rather setting up camp for a day or two and then moving on to a new place.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
Some of the sites were breathtaking, like the one at the Signal Mountain area of the Grand Tetons. We looked out from our tent over Jackson Lake with the entire jagged range of those mountains just beyond. We sat entranced that first day by the immense beauty. But not all was rosy even there as we had not one but two nights of gusty winds that kicked up for an hour or so after bedtime with the stiff breeze coming down hard from the mountains and over the lake. The wind had nothing to stop it before it hit the side of our enormous eight man tent which acted just like a sail. The four of us stood with our backs against the poles, holding hands, trying to not have our tent take flight and waiting for the storm to pass. On other nights at places so remote I could hear only the call of a loon, that plaintive wail it made as it tried to locate other birds nearby. One night I heard the sound of trucks rushing by and then hitting their brakes on the interstate that the campground backed up to. I never really knew what I would get.
The sea was angry that day, my friends. Seriously angry. Waves pounding the rocks at Schoodic Point in Acadia, remnants of Hurricane Jose.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I—and many others—sat transfixed by the constant crashing of saltwater. Some had even brought beach chairs to enjoy the show, eating peanuts while taking it all in.
I’m down to just a few more days in my sabbatical. I saw a few parishioners around town and in the parking lot last week as I was home with my family (who has returned to full school year mode). This week I’m tenting at a campsite near Acadia National Park, soaking in a last few days of the outdoors at a time when I’m usually in full getting things done mode at our parish with a return to an active schedule.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
There’s a light rain today; I’m sitting under a tarp at the picnic table. I’ve been reading a book this morning on wilderness spirituality as a drank my coffee.
Last week I paddled with two other men in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) in Minnesota and Canada. I traveled with Renewal in the Wilderness—an organization that hopes to bring refreshment to those in helping professions like clergy, social workers and teachers by having them get out into the wilderness. Over the course of seven days we canoed in a dozen different lakes with ten portages from about 100 feet to three quarters of a mile. All told we traveled thirty miles.
Watching the moonrise from our campsite. Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I’ve never been in a place like the BWCA before. After the first two lakes, no motor boats were allowed. Additionally, local aircraft cannot fly over the designated wilderness area. Campsites dot the lakes and are limited to a single group. The week after Labor Day brings fewer people—and fewer mosquitoes—along with the beginnings of a Fall chill. While we saw other paddlers from time to time, we generally were alone breathing in the pine scented air and listening to the slight wish of the paddles.