We are the Church: A Sermon for Sunday, March 22, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, March 22, 2020.  This was the first Sunday we live-streamed our service from an empty building to our congregation self isolating in their homes because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday for Evening Prayer at 5pm or catch the livestream of our Sunday liturgies on the church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

If you’ve been part of any church for even a short time you know that we often struggle with the phrase “going to church.” We say it, but we also know that “You can’t go to church because the church is not a building, the church is the people.”

We know this and yet for the sake of convenience, most of us still talk about going to church.

Today I am feeling the difference between a building and a community of people in a way I never have before. It was so strange to come and set up for a service without making coffee, pouring wine, setting out bread.  It was strange to sit here and not watch you all walk through the doors and take your seats.

And so a few of us are here in this building, and most of us are watching from home and together we are still the church. This building is not the church, it never was. Even if it’s convenient to refer to it that way.

The people in this room and each and every one of you watching from home or listening on the podcast – together, we are the church.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus encounters a blind man. He spits on the ground, massages the dirt until it becomes mud, puts that mud on the man’s eyes and then tells him to go and wash in a public pool.  (5-7)

My personal experiences, my social location, and my mood all impact how I read any gospel story.  For most of my life I’ve read this story and thought, “Seriously Jesus? That’s gross.”

That’s an awful lot of germs.  And for what? We know that Jesus doesn’t need to make spit mud in order to heal people.  There are lots of stories where he just commands people to get better and they do.

But today, all those germs and people touching each other fills me with a kind of melancholy and a deep wish that I could return to a time and place where it was OK to be physically close enough to a stranger that I could rub spit mud on their eyes.

Not that I would rub spit mud in someone else’s eyes, but suddenly it would be so wonderful to know I could.

What a difference a week can make.

We are living in a time when the best way we can show love for each other and for our neighbours is by staying physically separated.  Physically distant, but never socially isolated.

The man born blind was socially isolated. From the moment as a young child people realized he was blind, this man would have been a social outcast. Instead of being integrated into a community that would ensure his economic stability and social well-being, his blindness sentenced him to a life of poverty on the margins of society.

It would have been a difficult, lonely life.

The assumption at the time was that his blindness was caused by sin – either his or his parents.

We see this in the questions asked by the religious leaders: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (2)

Jesus’ responds, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned…” (3)

Jesus makes it clear: blindness isn’t a punishment for sin.

No disability, no sickness, not even COVID-19 is a punishment for sin.

This situation is revealing some seriously broken structures in our society, but God isn’t sitting in the sky zapping people with a virus because of sinful choices.

Osvaldo Vena observes, “… the man was a social outcast on the assumption that his physical and social conditions were the consequence of his or his parents’ sin. He was put in this position by a culture that did not give him enough opportunities to support himself in a dignified manner. But Jesus is about to change all that with a miracle that speaks of the healing power of the marginalized. Both Jesus and the man were considered sinners by popular culture (9:2, 24,34) and yet they are the protagonists of a liberating event.”

No sooner is the man healed than an interrogation begins.  We’re told that this healing is a first, people have never experienced anything like this before and they’re trying to make sense of it.

Today’s gospel passage is filled with questions.  It’s a long passage, and almost every second sentence is a question. Who sinned? Who healed you? How did he heal you?  All asked in a tone that seems to imply, “How dare you both disrupt the social order by healing and being healed!”

We’re not asking the same questions, but this has certainly been a week filled with questions, many of which we don’t have answers for. What is COVID-19?  Which activities are safe and which aren’t? Can I go outside? Pet my neighbour’s dog? Will my family and loved ones be OK? Will I be OK?

We know that the best way we can show love to our neighbours is by staying physically distant from them and by staying at home as much as possible.   We know it’s important to find creative ways to stay socially connected even when we are physically distant.

But we don’t know a lot more than that. Most of us have way more questions than answers. And it’s hard.

I don’t have a lot of answers either. I have a lot of hope, but not a lot of answers.

It’s OK to have questions, it’s natural to have questions but in the context of this gospel story, the nature of the questions being asked robbed everyone of something important, something beautiful.

Everyone in this story is focused on questions, either because they are asking them, or because they are being forced to answer them.

Additionally,  a lot of these questions aren’t actually questions. They aren’t curious, they are accusatory or sarcastic.  When the man who was born blind asks, “Do you also want to become his disciples,” he knows that’s the last thing they want to do.

And in all of this they miss the most beautiful thing.

The chance to celebrate together.

In the story of the prodigal son, when the younger son is restored to his family, is restored to his community, the father throws a huge party. Everyone is invited to join in the celebration. Not everyone chose to celebrate, but everyone is invited.

That’s how tonight’s story should have played out. There should have been a party. The man born blind can see! It’s no longer possible to simply label him a sinner and cast him to the margins of society. He doesn’t have to be alone anymore! He now has the chance to fully participate in the life of his community.

There should have been a party, but instead of a celebration, this man goes straight from the pool of Siloam to a hostile interrogation.

The members of his community are so focused on trying to figure out the source of the sin they are sure caused his blindness, or the trick being played on them by either this man, or Jesus, or both, that everyone misses that there is something to celebrate.

The restoration of this man’s sight means he can fully participate in the life of his community. He has the chance to live a better life. He doesn’t have to be alone anymore.

That’s worth a party.

We are in the midst of challenging times. It’s going to be easy to focus on finger pointing and finding others to blame – the government, the people whose fear led them to buy too much toilet paper, our friends and family who aren’t taking this situation as seriously as they should.

We can’t ignore those situations and we need to be honest about our feelings, but let’s all try to make sure that we don’t become so focused on those things that we miss the good and beautiful things. The things worth celebrating.

It is beautiful to see the many ways people are stepping up and asking, how can I be helpful at this time? What can I do? We should celebrate the health care workers who are caring tirelessly for people who are sick.  We should celebrate the grocery store employees and food service workers who are trying to switch their business models overnight to make sure people get the basic supplies that they need.

It is beautiful to see people being creative and generous with their talents. We’ve seen people put together free livestream concerts, celebrities are recording themselves reading story books to kids, neighbourhoods are gathering on porches and balconies to sing together and stay connected. My neighbours are checking in on Facebook and reducing the number of people in stores by running errands for each other. It’s beautiful.

This is a challenging time, and there is much that is ugly and awful and hard, and we need to be honest about that, but in doing so, let’s not overlook the beautiful moments, the things we need to celebrate.

The church is not this building, it never was. We are the church.

We are going to be OK. We are in this together and we are going to look out for one another.  This is a hard thing, but we can do hard things.

But oh, oh, how I look forward to that day when we are all here in this space together again.  Can you imagine how loud we are going to sing? We might just blow the roof right off the joint.

Until that time, we will continue to be socially close while physically distant. We will continue to look out for each other and be the church.

Stay safe everyone, stay healthy, and when you see a beautiful thing, no matter how small, celebrate. And when we are finally together again, know we will celebrate together with every fiber of our beings.

We, all of us, are the church, and we know how to party.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 


Snakes on a Pole: A Sermon for Sunday March 8, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, March 8, 2020. 

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In my former church, there was a woman who slept through every sermon I ever preached.  Every single one. That same woman would shake my hand and thank me for the sermon after every service.

She may have been legitimately grateful for the best sleep she had all week, I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that if she had ever stayed awake long enough to look up while I was preaching, she might have realized that we could see each other. She might have realized that I could see she was sleeping.

But I don’t think she ever did look up.  Every Sunday she looked down and fell asleep. And every Sunday she shook my hand and thanked me for the sermon.

It can be hard to concentrate in church, even the best churches. It can be hard to pay attention to everything that is being said, especially when the lectionary gives us a really long readings, like it has today.

It can be hard to catch everything that was said.

In our first reading from Psalm 121, the author of the psalm is in need of help. The help is available, the question is, will the psalmist notice it?

The psalm isn’t suspenseful, the question is actually answered in the first two lines, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The psalmist chooses to stop looking down, lift up their eyes, and in doing so they are able to see not only that help is available, but the source of that help as well.

If they had chosen to keep looking down, they might have missed it entirely.

What we focus on determines both what we see, and what we miss.[1]

Jesus says a lot of weird things in today’s gospel reading, but one of the weirdest is this, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.(14-15)

Excuse me Jesus, what was that you just said about Moses handling snakes?

When exactly did Moses lift up a snake?

He did it a couple of times actually. One time God turned Moses’ walking stick into a snake and then back into a stick again, but that’s not the story Jesus is referencing here.

Jesus is referencing a story found in Numbers. (Numbers 21: 1-9) Moses and the Israelites are wandering in the desert and scripture tells us they, “became impatient on the way.”

And in their impatience they begin to complain, blaming both God and Moses for their unfortunate situation saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

So which is it? Is there no food and no water, or there IS food and water, they just didn’t like it? It can’t be both.

But people who are in the mood to complain rarely spend time checking if their complaints are logical and they really dislike in when you try to.

The people also know the answer to the question, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?”   It’s because they were slaves in Egypt and they wanted to leave.

It’s comforting to me, actually, to know that human beings have been this short sighted and self-centered since the very beginning.  How easy it is for all of us to trade gratitude for self pity.

And we should all be grateful that, at least to the best of my knowledge, God has never responded to anyone in this room who was complaining in the same way he responded to the people in this story.

Because in this story, God doesn’t counter their complaining with logic, pointing out that it’s impossible to have no food AND food you don’t like at the same time OR reminding them about how much they hated being slaves and how long and how loudly they had begged to be set free.

No, God doesn’t talk to them at all,  instead God sends poisonous snakes whose bite will kill them.

And guess what happens? The people quickly stop complaining, realize that they have made a serious mistake and say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you, pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (6)

But God doesn’t get rid of the snakes, instead God tells Moses to make a statute of a snake out of bronze. God then tells him to put the snake on a pole and put it where the people can see it. Anyone who has been bitten only needs to look at the snake on the pole and they will live.

Huh.

Well that’s certainly one way to handle the situation. Not one I would have thought of, but it seems to have worked.

It’s a bizarre story, but as I’ve been mulling it over in preparation for this sermon, it occurred to me just how hard I would find it if there were literal poisonous snakes slithering around my feet to focus on anything other than the snakes. Even if I knew looking up would save me, I’m not sure I would do it.

Because snakes are terrifying.

At best my eyes would dart up and down from the snakes on the ground to the snake on the pole and back to the snakes on the ground again.

Which honestly reflects how I treat a lot of things that I intellectually know are good for me, like drinking enough water and filing my taxes on time. I know they’re good for me, I know I’ll be grateful in the long run, I still don’t do them.

2 fun facts before we go any further:  The modern symbol for medicine includes a snake wrapped around a pole, and we reference this story from Numbers, and several other similar stories, every year in our Good Friday liturgy.  In that liturgy, the things the people were complaining about – wandering in the desert, the quality of the food – become reasons to crucify Jesus.

In that liturgy we pray through a series of questions and answers that includes:

O my people, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me.

Because you led us out of the land of bondage. We have prepared a cross for our Saviour.

And then a little later: Because you led us out through the desert forty years, and fed us with manna, and brought us into a very good land, we have prepared a cross for our Saviour.

What you focus on determines what you see, and what you miss.

The Israelites became so focused on their grumbling that they missed the good things they had. Things were tough, but they were no longer slaves. Manna every day may feel repetitive, but they always had enough to eat.

Not only did they forget how good they had it, they forgot that things could get worse.  An infestation of poisonous snakes kind of worse.

I wonder how many Israelites remained so focused on the snakes, that they neglected to look up long enough to see the snake on the pole and be healed?

I wonder how often we do the same?  How often do we get so focused on the particular story we have chosen to tell about our lives, about our circumstances, that we don’t realize that there may be another, better way to look at things.

And I don’t mean this in some kind of naïve fairy tale kind of way, if you are surrounded by poisonous snakes the last thing you need to hear is “look on the bright side, they could be poisonous alligators” but if you are surrounded by both poisonous snakes and an actual cure, you want to make sure you notice the cure.

What we focus on determines what we see, and what we miss.

The psalmist needed to look up, past their own pain and struggles, to the hills where help was available.  The Israelites need to have the courage to stop looking at the snakes at their feet and look up to the snake on the pole to be healed, and Jesus is also telling us that we need to look up.

In our gospel reading, one of the things Jesus says to Nicodemus is, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (14)

Jesus is using this historical reference, one Nicodemus would have been familiar with, to talk about his own death.   He is comparing himself to a snake on a pole.

He is saying that his body will be put on a cross and lifted above the earth.

And he is saying that this is all part of God’s plan to redeem the world.

Jesus follows this comparison with what has perhaps become the most famous verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It’s utterly bizarre to me but even people who don’t know what the verse says, know its address from having seen it on signs at concerts and sporting events.

I think it’s probably the first verse I was encouraged to memorize as a child, and I was told that I should memorize it because it summarized Jesus’ entire message.

And I believed that, and I memorized it.

But if Jesus’ entire message could be summed up in one single verse, why do we need the rest of the Bible?

Because it doesn’t sum up his entire message.  In fact, all you need to do is read one additional verse in John’s gospel, the very next verse, John 3:17 and you will realize that if all you do is focus on John 3:16, you miss the important point being made by Jesus in John 3:17:

 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Without this verse it is all too easy to turn John 3:16 into a verse that suggests that God’s plan was to condemn the world, but he also created an individualistic escape clause in Jesus.  And that’s what way too many people have come to believe.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What you focus on determines what you see, and what you miss.

Lent is a season that encourages us to shift our focus and see things differently.

What are you noticing as you move through this season? Are the things you’ve chosen to give up or take on helping you to see things in a different way? Pay attention to the shifts, especially the subtle ones.

In addition to being the second Sunday in Lent, and the day we all struggle with the time change, today is also International Women’s Day, a day that invites us to pay attention to women, to their achievements and their struggles in a particular way.

Achievements and struggles that have, for far too long, gone unnoticed.  It’s an all too common thing for women to feel invisible in their homes, in their workplaces, and in their churches.

I’m hopeful though that this is going to change – perhaps too slowly for my liking – but it is going to change.  When a friend’s daughter discovered this was International Women’s Day she said, “what do you mean Women’s Day? Shouldn’t we get half the days?”

I know what it is like to feel invisible, and to feel seen in the church. I like one infinitely better than the other. It is my hope that we all will work to see each other and to always ask the questions: Who is missing? How can we learn to see them too?

May it be so.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

[1] I believe that credit for this idea comes from Brian McLaren and Suzanne Stabile.

 


Making Ash: A peek behind the scenes

About a year ago I was having some painting done in my house and I had the following conversation with my painter:

"So, I'm just going to run out to the back yard for a little while, if you see smoke and fire, don't worry about it."

"Um, OK."

"You see, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday and I need to burn these palms in order to make ashes so that tomorrow I can smear them on people's foreheads, look them in the eye, and remind them they are going to die."

Short pause.

"Your job is really weird.  Good. But weird."

 

My job is weird. Good. But weird.

There are all sorts of traditions and practices connected to Lent and Holy Week in the Anglican Church but today I thought I'd walk you through the life cycle of a palm.

First, there is an entire part of this story that I don't really know anything about. For those of us who live in parts of the world where we can't easily grow palms we rely on someone else to grow them and ship them to us.  We buy ours from a local church supply shop, but a friend of mine in North Carolina told me that her church just heads out into the brush behind the church and cuts down as many as they need.

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, members from the two church congregations that share the building gather together to fold palms. (saint benedict's table rents space in All Saints' Anglican Church. We are two separate congregations but we look to work together whenever it makes sense to do so.)

At this point the palms are green and wet and relatively easy to fold.  Every year I need to re-learn the process but gradually muscle memory kicks in and I can fold the palms without really thinking too much about it.

At our church we fold the palms into simple crosses, but a google search will show you palms transformed into amazing works of art.

 

 

But why do we fold palms in the first place?

One way to answer the question is to point out that when Jesus entered Jerusalem people waved palm branches and we remember this event in his life on Palm Sunday.   (Click here to read last year's Palm Sunday sermon for more details.)

But for me, folding palms goes deeper than a simple commemoration of an event.  You can easily have a Palm Sunday service without spending time and money folding palms.

I have spent my whole life in churches and, while I never heard anyone say this using these exact words, the churches I was raised in believed it was much more important to ensure I had Jesus in my head than my heart.

Being a Christian meant I needed to learn a series of ideas and agree that I believed they were true. It was all about my head.

And those ideas were reflective of a particular way of understanding who Jesus was - a Jesus who was seen through the lens of white, colonial, heteronormative patriarchy.

I'm only just now beginning to come to see just how damaging that was.

One of the ways that this  "inviting Jesus into my head" form of Christianity has been damaging is it ignores the diverse experiences of the people God created.  God created people who are nonverbal, people who will never be able to read or process complex Statements of Faith, people whose first language and ways of connection is through dance and their bodies or the visual arts and surely God wants to be in relationship with these people too.

Which means that there have to be more ways to connect with God than the methods that the churches I grew up in privileged.

So now I try to find as many ways as possible to help people connect. Touching, smelling, and folding palms connects us to God.  Holding them in our hands during the Palm Sunday service as we move our bodies, sing, speak, and listen amplifies that connection.

After the service people will take those crosses home and tuck them in a prayer book, or the corner of a picture frame or a window sill.  They will quickly shrivel and dry as we move through the early days of Holy Week but they'll remain in those spots through the year until we are all reminded a week or two before Ash Wednesday to return them to church to be burned.

The year I was shown how to turn palms into ashes I was overtaken by geeky joy, but this year I almost missed the beauty of the moment in my busyness. I was about to just try and quickly burn the palms before rushing off to the next thing on my to do list when I was overtaken with the difference a few short years could make on my attitude.

So I stopped, collected myself and entered prayerfully into the process. I collected all my supplies - dried palms, several metal bowls, a lighter, a spoon, and a sieve.  This year I also experimented with cutting the palms into smaller pieces before I began.   When the flame hits long curly palm branches the fire can become unruly and hard to control.

 

I went outside and placed the bowl with the palm pieces in the snow on top of my raised vegetable garden.  My garden is in its own Lenten season - dormant and dead, but in a few short months it too will be filled with new life.

As I watched the smoke billow out of the bowl I thought of all the people who had folded, saved, and returned those palms. I thought of the people who would come to our Ash Wednesday liturgies and a feeling of gratitude enveloped me that was thicker than the smoke.

 

Once burned, the palms need to be pressed through a sieve to break up any larger pieces and make them suitable for marking people's foreheads with a tangible sign of their mortality.

"Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."

 

The first ashes, however, were dispersed earlier then they should be.  It happens every year but I always forget to watch for an unexpected gust of wind that will appear out of nowhere as I pass the ashes through the sieve, disbursing them throughout my neighborhood.

Which is as it should be.


Take in the View: A Sermon for Sunday, February 23, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, February 23, 2020. 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about climbing mountains.  Partly because both of tonight’s readings take place on mountains, but mostly because at the end of April I’ll be travelling back to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route that people have been walking since about the 9th century.  The Camino begins when you step out of your front door with intention and ends at the supposed burial place of the James who features in today’s gospel reading.

The Camino contains a lot of mountains.

People sometimes ask me how I am training for the walk and I laugh because how on earth do you train to walk huge mountains in 30 plus degree weather in Manitoba in February? I mean, where could you possibly go to simulate those conditions.

You can’t.

Having climbed a few mountains in my life now, I have learned some things about them.  First, unlike what most kindergarten drawings will tell you, mountains aren’t giant triangles where you go straight up one side and then straight down the other.

Mountains are more complicated than that.  It’s not uncommon that in order to climb up a mountain you have to go up a little bit and then down a little bit and then up a little bit again, switching back and forth to gradually reach the top.

And while you are doing that, you often have no idea how far you’ve gone.  It’s rare to be able to actually see the top of the mountain as you are climbing because trees or fog or simply the scale of the endeavor obscures your view.

I once climbed a mountain in Banff in foggy conditions, and the only reason I knew I had made it to the top was because Parks Canada had posted a sign that said so.

And there was a gift shop.

Today’s gospel reading begins, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain…” (17)

So immediately, I want to know what happened six days earlier.

Six days earlier, Jesus explained to his disciples that he was going to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die, and then three days later come back to life and if they really want to follow him, the disciples are going to have to pick up a cross and be prepared to die as well.

This revelation was so startling and unsettling that the gospel tells us that Peter rebuked Jesus for suggesting such a thing was possible and Jesus responded with equal force saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (16: 21-23)

That’s what happened six days before today’s story.  That’s a lot of information for the disciples to take in and a lot of complicated emotions to sort through and process. Relationships don’t often bounce back from a sharp rebuke like, “Get behind me Satan.”

At bare minimum things would feel really awkward for quite some time.

So I imagine that things are feeling pretty tense, and pretty heavy as the four men begin to climb that mountain.  They are carrying a lot more than just whatever the Bible times equivalent of a backpack would have been.

What you carry, determines how you walk. This is true in all aspects of life. Your gate changes if you are carrying a football, or a baby, or a bowl full of hot soup or some disappointing news. In fact, not just what you are carrying, but how you carry it can make a big difference.

If you’re climbing a mountain, it’s easier to carry a heavy weight on your back, then in your hands.  It’s also easier if that weight is evenly distributed, if you don’t have something sharp poking you in the small of your back.

It’s even easier is the weight is consistent.

I once put an orange in my bag in the morning and spent most of the afternoon marveling at how much easier it was to walk after I had eaten that orange for lunch.

An orange.

Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and Lent is a really great season to reflect on all the things you carry with you every day.

Sometimes people use the season of Lent to let something go. To stop carrying something they normally hold on to.  It could be chocolate or coffee, but it could also be a particular habit, or an attitude.  One year I gave up going to Starbucks – not coffee entirely, no one wants to see me give up coffee - just Starbucks. And I was surprised to discover how I had gradually and unthinkingly formed patterns of moving through the day that included stopping at Starbucks, whether I really wanted a latte or not.  I had to give it up, to notice that.

And then when Lent was over I did start going back to Starbucks, but no where near as often.

Sometimes people use the season of Lent to pick something up that they don’t normally carry. It might be collecting money for a charity or adopting a new prayer practice.  A few years ago I decided to pick up reading the Rule of Benedict over Lent, and as this is the third year in a row I plan to do that, I guess it’s now a tradition.

What are you carrying? Is there something you need to put down, or pick up, or just rearrange a bit? Lent can be a great opportunity to do just that.

The disciples are carrying a lot of heavy feelings as they climb that mountain. And when they finally arrive at the top, Matthew tells us that Jesus was, “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (2-3)

Now as a quick Biblical refresher, both Moses and Elijah died a long time before this story took place. Or actually, Moses died a long time before this story took place, Elijah didn’t actually die at all:, he road straight into heaven in a horse driven chariot made of fire, but that’s a story for another time.

Moses and Elijah are not the disciples’ contemporaries. They are heroes from the past, men they have read stories about. More symbols that people. Their presence alone would have been disorienting.

So the disciples climbed the mountain feeling out of sorts and now they are witnessing a conversation between two men from the history books and Jesus looking nothing like the Jesus they are used to.

Jesus’ face is shining like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white.

Which seems scary and disorienting to me and I think I’d have been tempted to say, “OK, I’m out,” and start back down the mountain on my own or to cower behind a bush in fear, but that’s not how the disciples react.

Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (4).  Peter looks around at what is happening and declares that it is good.

So good, in fact, that he offers to make three dwellings one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. (4)

Or at least he starts to make this offer, because we are told that he didn’t even get to finish his thought, “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (5)

And now, the disciples are afraid.  “Overcome by fear” they fall on the ground. (6)

The disciples are face down on the ground quaking in fear, having just heard God say that they should listen to Jesus.

And what is the first thing they hear Jesus say? “Get up and do not be afraid.” (7)

But Jesus doesn’t just stand at a distance shouting at them to smarten up and stop being so afraid, no Jesus approaches them, touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (7)

Before they hear his words, they feel his reassuring touch. And they do as they are told.

Sometimes the gospel writers casually just slip in these amazing little details that are so easy to miss. Jesus touched them. He saw they were afraid, he came right up beside them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

It’s beautiful.

Now I want to invite you to engage in a little speculative imagining with me.

I don’t think that the disciples were focusing on the beautiful scenery that surrounded them as they climbed that mountain. Rather I suspect they were focused on trying to wrap their heads around everything Jesus had told them or perhaps on how to make an uncomfortable situation a little more comfortable.

When they arrived at the mountain top, I don’t think it was the panoramic view that held their attention. Rather I suspect that they were so focused on the amazing sight of Jesus transformed and the two men who joined him that that was all they could see.

And then when God came and spoke declaring Jesus was beloved, I think they focused on the dirt at their feet as they fell to the ground.  If their eyes were open at all, that dirt was all they could see.

But now after having seen all the things they have seen and experiencing Jesus’ gentle touch and reassurance that they do not have to be afraid, I wonder if they were finally able to stand up, look out, and take in the view.

Which is something I want us all to do together tonight as well.  Jesus and the disciples will not stay on the mountain top, they will walk down the mountain and continue walking until they reach Jerusalem.  The things Jesus said would happen will indeed happen. He will die.

And we’re being invited to come down the mountain and walk alongside them.

Lent is a season where we remember and focus on difficult things.  Beginning on Ash Wednesday with a reminder that we are all dust and to dust we will all return, we’ll enter a desert season moving us gradually closer to Christ’s death on a cross.

But before we leave the mountain and enter the wilderness, let’s take a look at all we can see from the top of this mountain. Because from here we can see the entire story, from here we can see Jesus resurrected on Easter Sunday.   From here we can see that Christ’s glorious transformation on this particular mountain top is not the end, but only a part of the entire story.

So stop, take it all in, and then, when you’re ready, take a deep breath and begin the climb back down the mountain into Lent.

And know that when you do, Jesus is walking right beside you.

In the name of our glorious God who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains.

Amen.


Waiting for the Light: A Sermon for Candlemas (Feb 2, 2020)

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, February 2, 2020. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

One of my favourite days of the year is the day in late fall when, after having successfully completed all the tasks required to winterize my yard,  the snow starts to slowly fall. After all the pressure I feel to complete all those winterizing tasks in time, I look forward to that first gentle snowfall that signifies the start of a new season, a season that tends to find me spending a lot more time inside, a lot more time reading. It’s a slower, gentler season and usually by the time it arrives, I’m exhausted and I’m looking forward to a different pace of life.

By now, by February, I am completely done with winter. I’m tired of snow, I’m tired of spending so much time inside, I’m tired of feeling cold all the time, and I’m tired of how the long dark nights make me feel less safe, less free to go out whenever I want to.  I’m ready for light, for gardening catalogues, for being able to go outside whenever I want without fear and without having to put on multiple layers of clothing.

I am done with winter, but winter is not done with me. It’s not done with any of us. Literal winter, and for many of us, spiritual winter are here for awhile yet.  Our moods tend to match the seasons, and many people find the long dark months of winter to be particularly difficult ones.

Which, I suspect,  is at least partly why the church is its wisdom decided that February 2nd, which marks the halfway point of winter, would be the day the church would set aside to celebrate light.

Traditionally, today is the day that churches bless all the candles they intend to use in worship throughout the coming year. This has been happening since the Middle Ages which, as you can imagine, was a time when a church used a lot more candles in the average year than we do now – and we still manage to use a fair number of candles in any given year.

Tonight we are celebrating Candlemas, a mass with a special focus on candles. Although it’s a long standing tradition in the Christian church, I am guessing that for many of you this will be your first time participating in the celebration. Welcome.

Our gospel reading for this evening is traditionally read on Candlemas and while the connection between the story of Jesus’ family visiting the temple and the blessing of candles may not be readily obvious, it’s there, so let’s look more closely at that story.

Tonight’s gospel reading begins, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (22-24)

In addition to being called Candlemas, today is also sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Presentation or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  It’s also sometimes called Superbowl Sunday or Groundhog Day, but that’s an entirely different story.

It is sometimes called the Feast of the Purification of Mary in part because according to the law, only Mary required purification after Jesus’ birth, but when Luke describes what is happening in his gospel he doesn’t single Mary out. Rather he says, “When the time came for their purification…”. Their purification. This is a family affair.

Well done Luke.

There is a lot going on in these first few verses – we see that Mary are Joseph are faithful, law abiding Jews who will raise Jesus within the context of the covenant relationship God has with the people of Israel.

Additionally, we learn that Mary and Joseph are poor because the law requires a lamb be used as an offering but makes the provision to sacrifice turtledoves or pigeons if the people can’t afford a lamb.

Mary and Joseph are too poor to afford to buy the proper animal for this sacrifice. Think about how weird that is for a moment.

And not just how weird it sounds to our modern ears to sacrifice an animal at all, think about how weird it is that a king’s parents are so poor, that they need to take the charitable option at a ritual connected to celebrating the new king’s life.

Over and over again in Jesus’ story we are seeing a king, who will not be like any other king, a human being, who will not be like anyone else who ever lived. It should be a reminder to us every time we try to make Jesus in our own image, every time we try to model the church on the world, that we are in very real danger of missing the point, of missing the real Jesus.

Luke also tells us about two encounters that Jesus and his family had while they were at the temple.

One of those encounters was with Anna.

Luke tells us that Anna was a prophet of a “great age… She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (36-37)

This faithful prophet recognizes who the tiny baby is and not only does she praise God, but Luke tells us that she spoke “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”   (38)

And so, Anna becomes one of the first, if not the first evangelist.  The first to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ.

But remember, that before she could do that, she had to spend her entire life, 84 years, waiting with a patient hope. A hope that she had no practical reason to believe would be realized.  A lifetime of waiting in the dark, hoping for the light.

Now Anna wasn’t the only person waiting with patient hope that Jesus and his family met in Jerusalem, they also met Simeon.

Luke tells us that Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (25-26)

On the day that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, the Holy Spirit guides Simeon to go there as well.

When he sees Jesus, he takes the child in his arms and begins to praise God saying,

 

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”  (25-32)

 

Luke’s gospel is full of songs that have been woven into the prayer life of the church. From Mary’s Magnificat to this song from Simeon.  Simeon’s canticle (Nunc dimitiis) is typically sung at Compline, the final prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Simeon’s song is also where we get the connection between this story and the blessing of candles. Simeon tells us that Jesus will be a “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Jesus is the light of the world.  So tonight when the world feels so very dark, we celebrate this milestone in his young life, being presented at the temple, by blessing candles.

Simeon’s joy at seeing Jesus isn’t a naïve joy. He can see the path ahead will be a difficult one. After blessing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, he says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (34-35)

Jesus will suffer, and so will those who love him.

This is a story of patient hope and resilience, but it is also a story about suffering, a suffering that can’t be ignored.

N.T. Wright says that  “Simeon is waiting for God to comfort Israel. Anna is in touch with the people who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. They are both living in a world of patient hope, where suffering has become a way of life. It now appears that God’s appointed redeemer will deal with this suffering by sharing it himself. Simeon speaks darks words about opposition, and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart as well.

So this, Luke is saying, is what happens when the kingdom of God confronts the kingdom of the world. Luke invites us to watch, throughout the story, as the prophecies come true. Mary will look on in dismay as her son is rejected by the very city to which he offered the way of peace, by the very people he had come to rescue. Finally the child who is, as Simeon says, ‘placed here to make many in Israel fall and rise again’ himself passes through death and into resurrection, taking with him the hopes and fears of the city, the nation and the world.” (35-26)

These things are coming, and as we move closer to Lent and Easter we will begin to reflect on those stories, but they are not here yet.  Today we have a story of patient hope rewarded, and of two young parents holding a tiny baby.

A tiny baby, that Luke tells us will, after the family returns to their hometown of Nazareth,  “[grow] and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God [will be] upon him.” (40)

I’ve only participated in Candlemas celebrations a few times myself, the first time was in 2016 when I spent several months on sabbatical at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  One of my main goals on that sabbatical was to participate regularly in the liturgical life of the St John’s community and I was particularly excited that I would be able to participate in their celebration of Candlemas.

This was in large part because Kathleen Norris had written so eloquently about her own experience of that celebration with the monks in her book “The Cloister Walk.”  Here is what she wrote:

“Today the monks are doing something that seems futile, and a bit foolish. They are blessing candles, all the candles they’ll use during worship for the coming year. It’s good to think of the light hidden inside those new candles; walking to prayer each morning in the bitter cold, I know that the light comes earlier now. I can feel the change, the hours of daylight increasing. The ground has been covered by snow since Thanksgiving; in this climate, I’ll seize hold of any bit of hope, even if it’s monks saying prayers over candles.

The reading from Karl Rahner, at morning prayer, came as a shock. To hear so esteem a theologian cry out, “I have still to become a Christian” was humbling. The words have stayed with me all day. I wonder if one of the reasons I love the Benedictines so much is that they seldom make big noises about being Christians. Though they live with the Bible more intimately than most people, they don’t thump on it, or with it, the way gorillas thump on their chests to remind anyone within earshot of who they are. Benedictines remind me more of the disciples of Jesus, who are revealed in the gospel accounts as people who were not afraid to admit their doubts, their needs, their lack of faith. ‘Lord, increase our faith, they say, “teach us to pray.” They kept getting the theology wrong, and Jesus, more or less patiently, kept trying to set them straight. Except for Peter, the disciples were not even certain who Jesus was: “Have I been with you all this time, and still you do not know me?” Jesus asks in the Gospel of John, not long before he’s arrested and sentenced to death.

Maybe because it’s the heart of winter, and the air is so cold that it hurts to breathe, the image of the sword from Luke’s gospel comes to mind as I walk back home after vespers. We’ve heard it twice today, at morning prayer and at mass. I wonder if Mary is the mother of [the prayer practice ]lectio, because as she pondered her life and the life of her son, she kept Simeon’s hard prophecy in her heart. So much that came easily in the fall has become a struggle this winter. I still walk to morning prayer – it seems necessary to do – but it requires more effort now. Still I know that it is nothing I do that matters, but what I am, what I will become. Maybe Mary’s story, and this feast, tell us that if the scriptures don’t sometimes pierce us like a sword, we’re not paying close enough attention.” (114-115)

Like Kathleen, I have had many profound moments of prayer at St John’s Abbey, moments where scripture did indeed pierce my heart. Moments where staring into the flame of a candle I came to realize deep truths about myself I had been unable or unwilling to acknowledge until those very moments. I have so many stories I can tell.

But none of those stories happened on Candlemas.

On February 2nd, 2016 I , like Kathleen Norris and so many others before me, put on layer upon layer of winter clothing and trudged through the snow in the dark to prayer.  I grimaced as my wet boots squeaked on the floor amplified by the acoustics of the church – the only noise in the seemingly silent building.

I marveled at the stacks of candles – simple, but beautifully made by the monks from beeswax harvested on the property.

Perhaps, because it had been so built up in my mind I expected that the liturgy would have some extra flair to it, but it didn’t.  Just their regular evening prayer that incorporated a blessing of those candles.

I basked in the warm glow of the candles and prayed the words of the liturgy.  No profound transformation took place. No new insight into the words I was praying took hold of me that night.

But as I trudged back in the dark to my apartment I did have a sense that this was exactly as it should be. Not every moment in the spiritual journey is a profound one.  Blessing candles may in fact be, as Kathleen Norris suggests, a foolish thing to do.

And that’s what makes is beautiful.

Candlemas also marks the halfway point of winter.  Winter is halfway over folks! That is worth celebrating. That is worth marking with a defiant gesture – like the blessing of light.  A light we still can’t quite see but know is coming.  A light that represents our own hope in what is yet to come.

May these candles that we bless this evening be a sign of hope to you whenever you are experiencing dark times.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen

 

Here is the full quote Kathleen Norris references:

“The darkness is still with us, O Lord. You are still hidden and the world which you have made does not want to know you or receive you… You are still the hidden child in a world grown old… You are still obscured by the veils of this world’s history, you are still destined not to be acknowledged in the scandal of your death on the cross… But I, O hidden Lord of all things, boldly affirm my faith in you. In confessing you, I take my stand with you.. If I make this avowal of faith, it must pierce the depths of my heart like a sword, I must bend my knee before you, saying, I must alter my life. I have still to become a Christian.” Karl Rahner, Prayers for Meditation.


Come and See: A Sermon for Sunday January 19, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, January 19, 2020. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

With the weather we’ve been having this weekend – and with the photos my friends in Newfoundland have been posting – I am particularly grateful that I have a home. A warm, safe place that I can go to at anytime.   I’m grateful that I have family, friends, and this church community – which also feels like home to me and provides me with a sense of security and rootedness.  I am grateful to have these things, and troubled that not everyone does.

And I don’t always know what to do when I feel troubled like that. It can be easy just to shut down or avoid feeling overwhelmed by doing whatever I can to pretend that this problem doesn’t exist.   It’s at times like this that I need a prophet. Someone who can help me to see that a better way is possible, someone who inspires me to hope, someone who inspires me to act.

Someone who inspires me to act in large ways, and in small ones.  It’s a small thing, but putting some socks and warm winter gear in those baskets at the back of the church is one simple way I can resist the temptation to sit back and do nothing. It’s a small way that I can say, there is a better way for all of us.

In tonight’s reading from Isaiah,  God’s people are feeling hopeless in large part because they are homeless.  All of the safety and security that a home and a homeland can provide have been taken from them.

They “have been defeated, their temple destroyed. They are taken in chains to Babylon, alienated from their land and their God. This exile is a crisis of identity and faith. Are they still God’s people? How can they worship in this foreign land?”[1]

What would you say? What would you write to people experiencing these sorts of circumstances?

Isaiah focuses on hope. He doesn’t try to downplay the severity of the current situation. He doesn’t tell the people their feelings aren’t valid or to “cheer up.” Rather he encourages the people to not lose hope, because better days are coming.

Someone is coming, sent by God, who will make the wrong things right.  The things that have been lost – their homeland, their temple, their sense of stability and pride as a people – all of these things will be restored to them.

But not only will these things be restored to them, God has much more than that in mind. The one who is coming will not just restore the status quo, the one who is coming will make all things better than they were before.

The speaker in today’s reading is not identified by name and is often referred to simply as “the servant.”  This reading is taken from a section of Isaiah that is sometimes referred to as the “Servant Songs.”

If this passage had been written today, it would probably have been written in all caps. The servant begins with a shout, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away.” (1a)     This message is not just for the people of Israel,  this is a message for the whole world.   And it’s not the servant’s message, this is a message from God.   Although he is currently hidden away, the servant is coming and when he comes, God will be glorified.

“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (1b-3)

The servant knows who he is, knows who made him, understands his calling and vocation and even so, he also experiences moments of doubt.

And he shares these struggles with us as well admitting that when God said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified,” that his first response was not to say, “Cool! I can’t wait.” No, his first response was to doubt, and to question.

The servant says, “ I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”. (4)

It’s a pretty gutsy thing to question God, but don’t ever let anyone tell you not to do so.  It’s normal, God expects it. I think God might even like it when we question, it shows we’re awake. It shows we’re engaged.

On Friday night, Mike and I went to see the movie Just Mercy.  The film is based on the life and work of Bryan Stevenson. If you haven’t seen the movie, perhaps you’ve read the book of the same name or seen Bryan interviewed on television about his work.

Bryan grew up in rural Delaware in the 60's. Although segregation was no longer legal, practically speaking segregation was still in full force.[2]  White kids didn’t play with black kids, when visiting the doctor’s office, white people used the front door, and black people used the back door.  They didn’t swim together, hang out together, or worship together.

In an interview, Bryan told the story of how his mother protested the day the black children from town lined up at the back door of the polio vaccination station to receive their shots, waiting hours while the white children went in through the front door and were treated first.

Bryan received a full scholarship and earned his law degree from Harvard University. That’s pretty much the most prestigious law degree a person can get. After he graduated, instead of taking a high paying job at a fancy law firm, he chose to move to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that, at it’s very beginning, was just Bryan and a single volunteer determined to do whatever they could do to help people who had been wrongly convicted and were waiting to die on death row.

Racism is never compartmentalized.  If you think it’s OK to allow a group of people to receive a second class education, inadequate health care, housing and overall poor treatment in general, then you’re probably not going to be overly concerned with whether or not they receive a proper trial either.  In the US, as in Canada, the quality of the justice you receive is all too often tied both to your race, and the amount of money in your bank account.  Bryan notes that the criminal justice system treats people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.

I wasn’t able to attend the panel discussion at the Museum for Human Rights on Friday but perhaps some of you did or you followed the news coverage afterwards. The panel consisted of 5 people who had been wrongfully convicted in Canada and had collectively spent 73 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.  So this is definitely not just an American problem.

Since beginning this work, Bryan and his colleagues have been harassed. They’ve received death threats, they’ve worked countless hours of overtime for less pay then they would receive if they had chosen to practice a different kind of law, and, as of August 2016 – the last statistic I could find – they had saved 125 men who’d been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

125 men who were wrongfully convicted and condemned to die had those sentences overturned.  But that’s not all, Bryan and his team have also represented people who are poor, defended people on appeal, overturned wrongful convictions, fought to ensure that children are not placed in adult facilities and have worked to help alleviate the significant bias that infects the criminal justice system in the United States.

Stevenson grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and that community has had a profound influence on him. In particular, it was there that he learned the power of “standing up after having fallen down” and where he developed his belief that “each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

When I thinking about the film this weekend, I couldn’t help but see Bryan as a modern example of the servant Isaiah writes about.  Prison is a place of exile. It’s a place filled with hopeless people, especially on death row.  And it is in exactly that place, that Bryan chose to go and bring hope.

And not hope like a wish, not hope like “Well your situation is truly awful and this is the way our society has functioned for hundreds of years but I hope things get better for you someday.”   No, Bryan brings a hope that says, “Do not give up, things are dark now, but they are going to get better.  And here is how I know that is true, and here is what I am going to do to bring that better day about.”

It may be obvious to us now that Bryan is an amazing man doing important work, but that’s only in hindsight.  It doesn’t make sense that a man born in Delaware with the intelligence and drive to graduate from Harvard Law School would move to Alabama to fight to overturn death penalty cases. A form of law that by its very nature means his clients will likely never be able to actually pay him for his services. It’s the opposite of obvious.

But God loves to use the most unlikely people.  Think of Rahab, or Samuel.  Think of Mary and Joseph.  Think of yourself.

We are all servants, created and raised up by God.  We all have a calling and work to do, even if, like the servant in Isaiah, the nature of that work is currently unclear, or feels hopeless.  Even if, especially if, that work is quiet, or behind the scenes, the sort of thing no one will ever make a Hollywood movie about.

There is at least one whole other sermon that I could preach about our gospel text this evening, and I’m not going to do that, but I would encourage you to read back over that passage sometime this week and just note how many times it talks about the importance of seeing.

When John is questioned he will admit that when Jesus first came to be baptized he didn’t know who he was. It was only after seeing and talking to Jesus that he was able to say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (34)

When the disciples approach Jesus filled with questions about who Jesus is and what he plans to do, Jesus invites them to “Come and see.”

Prophets are people who are able to see what the world could be. They are able to look ahead and say,  “Yes, things are hard now, but there is a better way to live, and a better world to come, so let’s get busy bringing it about.”

The world needs prophets, but just as much as we need prophets, we need people who are willing to “come and see.” People who catch the vision of the better way that is possible and then take the time to bring their own unique gifts to the mix.

Bryan Stevenson has done some truly amazing things to make our world a better place and to bring hope to people who have no reason to hope.  Funnily enough, that can make it easy for us to dismiss him.   Not everyone can be so special. Not everyone can be a prophet like the servant in Isaiah or Bryan and so, we have a tendency to be grateful to them for doing their special, special work and then to think there is nothing left for us to do.

But I don’t believe that is true.  Bryan’s story is simply the story of a man who took the gifts he was given seriously.  He has a heart for people and a mind for the law and he uses them every single day.

We all have a similar story. We all have a role to play, the trick is to figure out what yours is without comparing yourself to others.  Woven into Bryan’s story are countless other stories of people who took their own unique gifts to build into Bryan and the work he was doing.   Someone makes sure he is fed. Someone prays for him. Someone answers the phone in his law office. Many, many people make sure the work he is doing is funded. Without all those people using their own gifts, there is no Bryan Stevenson, there is no Equal Justice Initiative and 125 men sentenced to die on death row would not have had those convictions overturned.

Prophets see things that most of us can’t see and they invite us into the vision of a better world.  May we all be inspired to see the world in a new way this week, and to act on what we are seeing.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] Amy G. Oden.

[2] Taken largely from Wikipedia


Surprisingly Low Standards: A Sermon for January 12, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, January 12, 2020. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

I firmly believe that there are two kinds of people in this world. People who know that surprise parties are a bad idea, and monsters.

I’m not a fan of surprise parties or surprises in general.

I like things that I can control and understand.  I like to know what I can expect.

It makes me feel safe.

Surprises, however, are a part of life.

Sometimes, people surprise me by stepping outside of societal expectations and behaving in ways I never would have imagined they would.

Sometimes this is horrifying – think of the stories this week of politicians behaving in ways that resulted in death and threats of war.

But sometimes it’s delightful – think of Harry and Megan announcing that they are going to chart their own paths and no longer live according to the rules set out for members of the British royal family.

And sometimes these sorts of disappointments and delights happen on a much quieter level as well, I am disappointed by the hurtful words of a friend, I am surprised by the extreme generosity of a stranger.

I like to think I can control things in ways that allow me to predict the future but I can’t.

So it’s a good thing that it’s not my job to predict the future.

It was Isaiah’s job though.  It was a large part of John the Baptist’s too. Both of them spoke of things that were going to happen in the future, with no scientifically measurable way of proving that they were indeed correct.

And I think both of them were right in their predictions, and, both of them were surprised by how things turned out.  Jesus was exactly who John the Baptist said he was, and Jesus was nothing like what John the Baptist expected.

Isaiah and John saw some of what was to come and did their best to tell the people about it, but they didn’t see everything.

In the chapters leading up to today’s gospel reading in Matthew we get the stories of Jesus’ birth and very early years and then by chapter 3 Jesus is an adult. A huge swath of his life has gone by and the stories of what happened are not recorded.

Chapter 3 opens with John the Baptist doing what he does best, shouting prophecies and predictions about the future at everyone he meets.  Just before our reading begins he says,

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (11-12)

John doesn’t say, “I think, it’s possible, Jesus might,” he doesn’t hedge his bets at all.   One who is more powerful than I is coming.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

N.T Wright invites us to imagine this scene as if we were attending a huge rock concert and John is the concert manager “whipping us into excitement at the soloist who is going to appear. ‘He’s coming!’ ‘He’s more powerful than me!’ ‘He will give you God’s wind and God’s fire, not just water! He’ll sort you out – he’ll clean out the mess – he’ll clean out God’s farm so only the good wheat is left.’ We’re all on our feet expecting a great leader, perhaps the living God himself, sweeping into the hall with a great explosion, a blaze of light and colour, transforming everything with a single blow.” (21)

John is so certain. His vision of the future is so clear.  And he’s right. And yet, when he meets Jesus, he is also utterly surprised.

When John meets Jesus, Jesus has come to be baptized. This makes no sense. John is surprised and so he questions Jesus saying “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work, you should baptize me.”  But Jesus says “No, my kingdom doesn’t work exactly the way you thought it would.  I want you to baptize me.”

And so John consents. He knows who Jesus is, and he is beginning to see that Jesus will always be full of surprises.

Now this is a favourite story of mine so some of you will have heard it before, but I hope you don’t mind hearing it again. A friend of mine had the amazing opportunity to take a graduate course taught by Archbishop Desmund Tutu at Candler School of Theology.

The Archbishop began the course by addressing the students in a very respectful manner saying, “Welcome, I greet you and want to acknowledge the level of training and experience that you all bring into this room as senior students. You’ve all had your theology, biblical studies, exegesis, ethics, pastoral care and so on. I really want to honour that. But I also want to tell you right now at the beginning of the course, that you know nothing.”

And there was this long pause. As an accomplished public speaker, Desmond Tutu knows the power of a pause.  And then he said, “You know nothing, if you do not know that you are beloved. If you do not know that you are beloved of God, in your bone marrow, then you have nothing to offer your people. If you don’t hear your name spoken as beloved and you don’t soak in that, then you have nothing of real value to offer people.”

Then the Arch – because that’s what they called him – the Arch continued, “I am going to spend the next 14 weeks telling you stories of how I was named as beloved and how God loved me into life and how God loved me into ministry and how that experience empowered me.” And as my friend listened he had the sense that he was standing on holy ground. Now, I have never had the opportunity to hear Archbishop Tutu speak, but I have been told that it is a powerful experience because he speaks out of the core of his soul.

Then the Archbishop said, “I just want you to know that this is not a sentimental thing, we’re not talking about love and being beloved as a sentimental thing, we’re talking about a force that can change the world.”

In Desmond Tutu’s case, understanding he was God’s beloved gave him the strength to help overturn apartheid in South Africa. There is nothing wishy washy or sentimental about that.

You know nothing if you do not know that you are beloved of God, in your bone marrow, in the very core of who you are, and if you know this, you can change the world.

At his baptism, God publicly declares that Jesus’ name is beloved child. Jesus, hears that, claims that identity, and that may be one of the first clues in the gospels that Jesus is not like the rest of us.

Because most of us struggle to claim the truth that we are also God’s beloved. We’ve been given so many other names – names like failure, not good enough, or unloveable.  We’ve been given so many negative names that it can be almost impossible to hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.”

It’s true. Each one of us is God’s beloved child, but be gentle with yourself if that’s difficult to hear and claim as true.

Not everyone who was in the class that day with my friend heard the Arch’s words and knew they were true either. One young woman put up her hand and asked, “but what about sin, and personal responsibility and all that kind of stuff? Surely that impacts how God feels about us?”

And Tutu smiled at her compassionately and said, “My dear, you have no idea how low God’s standards actually are.”

Years later, I was in a conference room at the U of W listening to James Finley and he was speaking on similar things. Some of you may be familiar with his work because Alana Levandoski has done several collaborations with him.

James said that coming to understand that we are God’s beloved children is one of the more important and difficult things that we can do but when we do come to understand ourselves as beloved, we will naturally begin to look around us at all the hurting and struggling people in the world and we will refuse to allow any of them to be left behind. We will want everyone to know that they are God’s beloved as well.

The beloved of God isn’t an exclusive club that only a few of us get to join.  There’s no roped off VIP section in God’s community. We’re all invited to the party, we just don’t all know it yet. Or we know we’ve been invited but for a whole host of reasons we can’t believe it’s true.

But a lot of people do treat it like an exclusive club.  Once they realize they’re in, they suddenly want to create all sorts of lists of who’s out. As if, as a guest at God’s party, they have the right to edit the guest list.  I think James Finley would suggest that this is because they have caught a glimpse of their own belovedness, but it hasn’t fully sunk into their bone marrow.

Because God says everyone who wants to come is welcome to come in. It’s God’s party and so it’s not our place as guests to keep anyone who wants to come from joining in the fun.  In fact, we should model God’s hospitality by inviting people to join the party. We should want anyone to be left out.

This call to refuse to leave anyone out can be found in the words of the baptismal vows of the Anglican church of Canada.

During the baptismal liturgy, the person being baptized is asked a number of questions. Two of those questions really stuck with me this week.

The first is, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

This week, when the world is filled with stories of “us vs them” and talk of war, may we all seek to be people who work for justice and peace among all people. And may we learn to respect the dignity of every human being. Every human being. No one is left out, no one excluded.

No one.

And the second question is this: Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and respect, sustain, and renew the life of the earth?

This week, with fires raging in Australia that are causing intense damage to the physical landscape and the people and animals that live on that land,  I admit that I feel both overwhelmed and helpless. But I also feel a sense of renewed resolve that I need to find ways to reach out and help those who are suffering and also to acknowledge that climate change is real, that my daily choices play a role in what’s happening, and that I can make changes that are in line with those baptismal vows. Changes that will help me to do a better job of safeguarding the integrity of God’s creation.

I want to say a couple more things about these baptismal vows.

The first, is that if you’re at all interested in learning more about baptism or confirmation then I’d really love for you to come talk to me.

The second, is that while I have highlighted two of the vows that are important to me, I haven’t actually told you my favourite part of the liturgy.

After each one of those questions, the candidate for baptism needs to provide an answer.  And the answer, if they want to be baptized is this:

“I will, with God’s help.”

Embedded right in the liturgy is the understanding that all of these promises are impossible to fulfill on our own. Embedded right in the liturgy is the understanding that none of us are perfect.

In fact, there is a question included in the liturgy about sin that says, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

Whenever you fall into sin. Failure is expected.

That’s a pretty low standard indeed.

Which you may find surprising, but I believe that’s exactly how God works.  Because God understands how human beings work, and God loves us.

Which is really good news.

In the name of our God who names and claims each one of us as beloved. Amen.


Intricately Woven: A Sermon for Sunday December 29, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 29, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Last Sunday we had a reading from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and today we get one from the beginning of John’s.  I think it is safe to assume that both writers put a fair bit of thought into how they were going to begin their gospels, and, as I mentioned last week, both wouldn’t have wanted to waste words or paper in ways that are commonplace now.  When they finally decided to write these words down, they chose them very carefully.

It seems to me that both men thought, “the most logical place to begin is the beginning.”  For Matthew that meant opening with Jesus’ genealogy. For John, that literally means beginning with the words, “In the beginning…”

John waits until the end of his gospel to tell us why he wrote it. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (20:30-31)

In deciding what he will write down and what he won’t, John’s focus is on convincing us that Jesus is the Son of God, but not simply so we will have accurate information. Rather, John wrote his gospel so that “through believing you may have life in his name.”

Belief and life are two key themes in John’s gospel. The word “believe” appears as a verb 98 times. It never appears as a noun. Jaime Clark- Soles observes that for John, “Believing is a verb. He tells you that he left out numerous details but that he has provided all that is necessary for you to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing leads to life. Abundant Life, Embodied Life, Eternal Life, Precious Life. The Fourth Gospel is concerned with nothing but Life: how we get it, how we lose it, how we find it again, or, better yet, how we get found by it.”

The entire Bible in its current form begins with the words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)  John is intentionally referencing the story of creation found in Genesis so it’s good for us to have that in mind when we read the rest of what he has to say.

John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (1-3)

God is a being that creates. God is an inherently creative being.  Just look at the platypus.  Just look at the people gathered in this room.

All things, every single thing that exists “came into being” because of our trinitarian God.  Jesus did not simply come into existence when he was born as a human being.  Jesus was a part of God from the very beginning.

Although it sounds fairly abstract at first, John is repeating and reframing the Genesis creation story.  He is saying that everything on earth comes from God. Jaime Clark-Soles explains that John is saying that: “Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.

For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (see chapter 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (see chapters 3,4,7,19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds – all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (chapter 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (see chapter 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first-person using earth.”

But if you were just sitting and reading the opening chapters of John you might be surprised that, for a guy who seems to think it’s important to start the story from the very beginning, that after his “in the beginning was the word section,” John doesn’t give us any details of Jesus’ birth or early years.  Jesus will appear a little bit further into the first chapter, but he is already a grown man.

Which is a pretty big chunk of time to skip over.

I suspect that John felt that the details of Jesus’ adult ministry were the most important ones to include. The ones that would help him achieve his stated aim of persuading us to believe in Jesus Christ.  So he included those stories and skipped over Jesus’ entire childhood.

But it’s also possible that he did think those early stories from Jesus’ life were important, but as the last of the four gospel writers to complete his work, he would have known that those stories had already been written down. No need to repeat them, he could get right to the parts of the story he felt were the most important.

He begins by reminding us of God’s role in the creation of the entire world.

The Genesis creation story, or stories - there are two of them - have been the source of a lot of debate and discussion over the years but personally I’ve never gotten overly excited about the details.  I honestly don’t care how it all happened.

What matters to me is that in the big picture of things, we are not cosmic accidents.

We were created.

Each and every one of us is a unique combination of DNA and experiences and that is no accident.

The Bible is not a medical or a scientific textbook so we don’t find those sorts of descriptions of what happened “in the beginning” but throughout the scriptures, including in today’s gospel reading, we see creation described through metaphors and poetry. And let’s stay with the poetry this evening and leave the science for individual conversations throughout the coming week.

What does it mean to say we are created? What are the implications of that?

I think that one thing that is implied is that it’s important for us to be curious about who we are and how we have been wired up.  Why do we love the things we love? Hate the things we hate?  Why do some things come easily to us while others are a struggle? What does all of that mean?

Clark- Soles again: “John is interested in creation. He has a brief litmus test for what is Christian and what isn't: if it is life-giving, if it promotes the flourishing of all creation, then it is Christian; if it is death-dealing, it may be real, but it is not ultimate and it is certainly not Christian: [One saying of Jesus that John chooses to include is:] "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I  - Jesus -came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).”

Jesus came that each one of us might have life, and life to the full. A full life, not necessarily an easy life, there are no promises that you will be happy all the time.  Using John’s litmus test, a simple way of deciding if you are living into who God created you to be is – does it make you feel alive?

Last year over Lent, we invited several people from the church to tell their stories as part of our Communities of Calling vocation project.  Lois Ward framed her story using metaphors of weaving. She spoke of the various threads of her life – the things she experienced, the people she met, and how God wove them all together. Looking back, she could see various patterns and themes that had emerged as well.

Lois isn’t the first person to use weaving as a metaphor for life. In Psalm 139, the psalmist writes:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  (13-15)

Each one of us was “intricately woven” by God.  Which is pretty amazing.

Now sometimes, we have ways of describing who God is – the bread of life, for example, and we make them concrete. Every week we gather together and we eat actual bread.  But other times, for a variety of reasons, we hear these sorts of metaphors and we just let them stay as metaphors.  But what could we learn if we explored their more literal meanings?

What could we learn, for example, if instead of just viewing the phrase “intricately woven” as a poetic way to describe our creation, we literally wove something?

Not long after I heard Lois speak, I travelled to San Francisco to attend a conference and visit St Gregory of Nyssa Church.  The community at St Gregory’s has been influential in my own journey but this was the first time I ever stepped foot in their building.  While I was there, I noticed that they had looms set up throughout the worship space and people of all ages, including toddlers could weave throughout the service.

I came home and had conversations which numerous people, including Carolyn Mount, and the idea for our weaving project was born.

Throughout the coming year, you will find a loom set up at the back of the church. Carolyn is advising us from afar and although she is away visiting family this week, Sam will be at the back of the church most Sundays to lend a hand and help you get the hang of the project.

And the beautiful thing about a project like this is that you can’t mess it up, because even if your weaving isn’t perfect, we will learn something from that too.

Last week, for example, I wove a few rows and on my third row something went wrong and I managed to get everything all tangled up.  I could tell there was a problem but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it on my own.

Sam was able to point out where I had gone wrong and show me how to correct the mistake.

Which actually reminded me of the value of spiritual direction.  So often I know that something in my life has gotten tangled, but I can’t quite figure out just how it got tangled up or how to untangle it.  Talking through the situation with a wise and patient guide usually helps me to figure out where I got off track and what I need to do to get back on track.

Similarly, sometimes I don’t feel tangled up, sometimes I feel like I’m “at loose ends” which, is another way we’ve picked up weaving imagery in our everyday speech.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to weave a few rows each week and perhaps reflect on a question like, “What has the pattern of my life been like this week?”  Did the thread of this week pass smoothly through, or did it become tangled, or do I feel stuck and at “loose ends?”

Or if not that, then I hope you’ll take a look and see how the work in unfolding each week and ask a question of your own.

We’ll be weaving together throughout the liturgical year, changing colours to reflect the seasons as we go.

And we’ll be talking more about the project and how weaving can be used as a metaphor for our lives as well – there are some fascinating instances of weaving as a metaphor in scripture and Carolyn Mount, who is a masterful weaver, will be joining us on our retreat day on February 15th to help us explore this imagery more deeply as well.

So save the date, come participate in the weaving project on Sunday nights, and as we continue to walk through the Christmas season together, take some time to reflect on the wonder of creation.  Your own, those around you, and our God who chose to take on flesh and become one of us.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Joseph's Decision- an origin story: A Sermon for Sunday December 22, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 22, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Our gospel reading for this evening is taken from partway through the first chapter of Matthew. That chapter opens with a long list of names tracing the genealogy of Jesus. At saint ben’s we use a standardized cycle of scripture readings called a lectionary, and although most of scripture is included in the lectionary, there are some sections that have been left out. Genealogies usually don’t make the cut and this one is no exception.

Now you may be thinking, thank goodness! Who wants to read a long boring list of impossible to pronounce names anyway, but the original writers of the scriptures thought differently. The gospels weren’t composed on computers or in a world where paper was cheap and easily accessible. Writers like Matthew were careful not to waste a single word. These names weren’t included as filler, they were considered to be very important. They were included for a reason.

In this section of the gospel, Mathew is giving us Jesus’ origin story, and for Matthew, that means letting you know who Jesus’ ancestors were. It’s essential information for understanding who Jesus is.

Jesus’ genealogy lets us know who he is by telling us who he is related to. Jesus is related to a lot of traditionally important figures, like King David, but he’s also related to a lot of colourful characters who didn’t always adhere to societal conventions in Israel’s history. Matthew includes them all.

The authors of the Collegeville Bible Commentary describe it this way:

“The linear progression of thirty-nine male ancestors is broken at four points by the names of women. They are not the ones who would immediately come to mind as great figures of Israel’s past. Each has an unusual twist to her story.

Tamar (v.3). after being widowed, took decisive action to coerce her father-in-law, Judah, to provide an heir for her. (Gen 38) She conceived Perez and Zerah, who continued the Davidic line. Tamar is the only woman in the Hebrew Scriptures who is called righteous (Gen 38:26) a term that is of central importance to Matthew. Rahab (v.5), a prostitute in Jericho (Josh 2), risked disobeying the orders of the king of Jericho and sheltered spies from Jericho to reconnoiter the land. She subsequently gave birth to Boaz, the great grandfather of David. Ruth (v. 5) a Moabite woman, returned with her mother-in-law Naomi, to Bethlehem, rather than stay with her own people after her husband Mahlon died. In Bethlehem, Ruth presented herself to Boaz at the threshing floor and conceived Obed, who carried forth the Davidic line. Finally, [Bathsheba], the wife of Uriah (v. 6) is the one who bore David’s son Solomon after David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Sam 11)

Each story speaks of how women took bold actions outside the bounds of regular patriarchal marriage to enable God’s purposes to be brought to fruition in unexpected ways. Not only were the circumstances unusual, but some of these women were also outsiders to Israel. Remembering their stories prepares us for the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the salvation he will ultimately extend to those outside Israel (28:19). The women’s presence in the midst of the male ancestors of Jesus also signals the integral role that women disciples play in the community of Jesus’ followers. They remind the reader that women are not marginal to the history of Israel or of Christianity.” (Collegeville 8-9)

At the time of our gospel story, however, Jesus has not been born and therefore hasn’t been added to the list, the last name on this genealogy is Joseph.

Joseph whose life has just been turned upside-down by some unexpected news. Joseph who needs to make a decision about what to do next.

Tonight’s gospel reading began, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (18)

This was not part of the deal. Mary should not have been pregnant at all, but if she did become pregnant, then Joseph should have been the father.

And Joseph was educated enough to know how babies are made and that if the Holy Spirit was involved, she was involved in an abstract way, a human male was also required. This was definitely not his baby and Mary’s story about the Holy Spirit seemed sketchy at best.

So what do to.

First, you might be thinking, well, this is a tough situation but it’s not really a big deal. They weren’t married after all, they were only engaged. People break off engagements all the time.

And while it may be more common now to break off an engagement than it was in Joseph’s day, that doesn’t make it any less painful for the people involved.

Additionally, our understanding of what an engagement is has changed over time. The dating scene in first-century Palestine looked a lot different than it does today.

The patriarchs of two families would come together and make an agreement that their children would be married. After that agreement was reached, a marriage was a two-step process.

The first step included a legally binding ceremony that took place in front of witnesses. This step is sometimes translated into English as an “engagement.”

The bride would return to her father’s home for another year or so and then another ceremony would take place when she formally transferred from her father’s care to her husband’s.

How romantic.

Tonight’s story takes place in between these two stages. Although they don’t live together yet, Mary and Joseph are legally married and everyone knows it.

Joseph can’t simply break off an engagement. If he wants to end his relationship with Mary, he needs to divorce her.

Divorce has never been an easy or simple thing, but it was different in Joseph’s time than in ours.

If Joseph divorces Mary, there will be judging eyes and wagging tongues. His life will not be easy and he will likely be the subject of gossip and social isolation, at least for a period of time.

But the road will be a lot harder for Mary. And Joseph knows this and he has compassion for her. As a righteous man who wants to remain faithful to what he understands to be God’s law, he must divorce Mary. But if he does, that same law says that Mary must die. (Deut 22:23-27)

The law is clear. Mary is pregnant and Joseph is not the father; therefore she has committed adultery, therefore, she must die.

And Joseph doesn’t want that to happen. He doesn’t want to be married to her anymore, but he doesn’t want her to die.

But his choices are limited and so Joseph decides that he will divorce Mary “quietly.” He can’t divorce her secretly, people already know they are married and two witnesses are required for a divorce to be legally recognized. But he can divorce her and refuse to give a reason why. There won’t be a trial and Mary and her child will be allowed to live. She will most certainly be socially ostracized but she and her child will be allowed to live. (Deut 24:1, Num 5:11-31)

The only way for Mary and her child to avoid public shame would be for Joseph to complete the second step of the marriage and adopt Mary’s unborn child.

And even then, there will be talk. Most people are able to do some basic math and the dates of their marriage and the birth date of this child will not add up to a respectable number.

And Joseph is not prepared to remain in this marriage. He is not prepared to adopt Mary’s child.

But before we judge him too harshly, think back to the genealogy that Matthew opens this chapter with.

Forget everything you know about our modern blended families – how beautiful they can be, how they prove that it takes more than biology to create a family. Forget all of this and try to imagine a time when family meant something different.

Imagine a time when a genealogy was so important that you would use precious and limited resources to write it down. A time when you assumed people would think that a list of names was important enough that they would want to read it. A time when who you were was determined by who your father was.

Try to imagine Joseph, a man soaked in that culture, a man who wanted to do the right thing, imagine him coming to terms with the idea that everything he had hoped for, had planned for, had worked for is now gone in an instant because of someone else’s choices.

He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s not his fault that Mary is pregnant. And that pregnancy will change his entire life, no matter what he decides to do.

Because now he can never be “Joseph that righteous and respectable man with the perfect family.” From now on he will either be “Joseph whose first marriage failed,” or “Joseph who adopted that bastard child.”

He had not planned on any of this.

He had planned on a life with Mary that would have included a biological son whose name would appear after his in the family genealogy.

This is so important. Joseph lives in a patriarchal culture where it was incredibly important to have a first-born son. The first-born son inherited your property. The first-born son carried on your family line. It was their name that would appear in a genealogy after yours.

And while Matthew shows us that Jesus’ family tree will include a wide cast of characters, Joseph isn’t likely thinking that way at this particular moment. He likely doesn’t want to stand out, he probably wants to blend in.

Quietly divorcing Mary was the most sensible and compassionate thing he could do in order to try and get his life back on track.

But then, life throws Joseph another surprise.

After having made his decision to quietly divorce Mary, an angel appears to him in a dream. (v 19)

The angel assures Joseph that the impossible is indeed possible. Mary is blameless and her child is from God.

There is no need to fear. There is no need to divorce. Yes it is unusual, yes there will be some difficult times ahead, and yes, the neighbours will probably whisper behind his back for years to come.

But the angel makes it clear that Joseph is not out of step with God’s plan if he remains with Mary and adopts her child. In fact, this is exactly what God wants him to do.

And Joseph does as he is told. He honours his marriage commitment, and he adopts Mary’s son as his own.

Tonight we’re looking closely at Joseph’s story, but over the next few weeks as we continue to walk through Jesus’ origin story in more detail, notice how many of those stories include people whose plans are interrupted by unexpected circumstances.

When was the last time you were sure you knew how something in your life was going to turn out, only to be surprised by an unexpected sequence of events that changed everything.

What was that like? How did you respond? What did you learn from the experience?

At the risk of tying this story into a neat little bow, I like to imagine that one thing Joseph learned from this story is that the safe and respectable road is not always the best road to follow. Joseph is a background figure from here on in the gospel story, but I like to imagine that his life with Mary was a happy one, that he loved Jesus as if he was he own son, and that he continued to care more about what God thought of him than what his neighbours thought of him.

One final thing I want to make note of. If you’ve been coming to saint ben’s for any length of time, you’ll know that we take the practice of Advent very seriously. In simple terms, Advent is a way of slowing down the story of Jesus’ birth. We take 4 weeks to focus on waiting for his arrival, the manger is empty, we don’t sing Christmas carols because we are not going to acknowledge that Jesus has been born until Christmas Eve.

So did tonight’s gospel reading strike you as odd? Did you notice that we’ve cheated a little bit?

I mean, the reading begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..” and ends with “until she had born a son, and he named him Jesus. (18, 25)

And we just read it and I’ve be preaching about it like it was Christmas Eve or something.

What is going on?

OK, so we cheated a little bit, but I think we can get away with it both because it’s really important to hear Joseph’s story, and because Matthew really buries the lead in his account of Jesus’ birth. Although the story begins, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way…” Matthew literally does not include a single actual detail about Jesus’ birth. We hear about his genealogy, we hear about Joseph’s decision-making process, and then we hear that at some point, in some way, Jesus was in fact born.

Matthew cares about who Jesus is, the details of his birth are unimportant.

Well, they are unimportant to Matthew. Scripture does contain more details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and in a few days on Christmas Eve we will all gather again to re-tell that ancient story together.

And I hope you’ll join us when we do.

In the name of our loving God who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains. Amen.


The Power of Hopelessness: A Sermon for Sunday December 8, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 8, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Gord Johnson’s “Jesse Tree” is one of my favourite songs.  In tonight’s reading from Isaiah, we get the verse that Gord based that song on: “ A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (1)

The image of the shoot that will grow out of a dead stump is a beautiful one. It is such an amazing, defiant image of hope. A shoot, a living thing, will grow out of a dead thing.

We love images like this. Just do a google search for flowers growing out of concrete sidewalks.

The image actually begins in the previous chapter of Isaiah:

“See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
will lop off the boughs with great power.

The lofty trees will be felled,
the tall ones will be brought low.

 He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax;
Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.”  (10:33-34)

A forest full of lofty trees has been cut down. All that remains, are stumps.

 

Things really should not grow out of stumps, a stump is what is left when you kill a tree by cutting it down.  Jesse’s family tree, that was once large and majestic, that contained kings, has been cut down.  It no longer resembles its former glory. It’s a dead, useless stump.

Some people take great pleasure in trying to connect imagery like this to specific events, past or present, Jamie mentioned an example of prophetic predictions gone wrong a few weeks ago.  But even if you wanted to, it’s hard to pin this image to a specific event because Israel had multiple experiences that could be described in this way.  They were cut down and began again multiple times.

New life can come from death.  This was something they would have known from experience.

Our text from Isaiah is not describing a present reality, it is pointing to a hopeful future.  At the time these words were written the new life was not yet visible.  They were written when all that could be seen were the dead stumps. They are words pointing to a hope-filled future that has not yet become a reality.

The new life that the people are hoping for will come in the form of a person. Michael J Chan explains that this person will embody “the best of Israel’s traditions: He is wise and understanding (2), powerful and effective in war (2,4), able to judge for the benefit of the poor (verse 3-4), and obedient to God ( verse 2,5).  [He] will rule the world in such a way that the poor are treated righteously, the meek are given a fair hearing, and the wicked are killed. So glorious is this reign that he is literally clothed in righteousness and faithfulness (verse 5).”

His reign will upend the natural order of things. Isaiah tells us that:

 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (6-7).

 

Isaiah is saying, “Look! The mighty forest was decimated and became a field of stumps but out of one of those stumps grew a beautiful and mighty tree!  And look at all of the good and wonderful things that it will be able to accomplish. It may seem like all around you is death and destruction but pay attention and don’t lose hope. New life is coming!”

And sometimes, when we are experiencing challenging times, this is exactly the kind of defiant hopeful promise we need to help us keep going.

And this is exactly the kind of message that John the Baptist was preaching.

John is one of the more colourful characters we encounter in scripture.  I’m grateful that even though it would be an incredibly theologically sound choice, the church didn’t choose to model vestments on John’s wardrobe and we don’t have a single feast day in the liturgical calendar where his regular diet is on the menu.

No camel hair for the priests, and no locusts dipped in honey for the feast.

Thanks be to God.

John was a fiery character who passionately proclaimed his message to the people, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Have you ever stopped to wonder for a moment just how one goes about making a path straight?

Well, one way would be to cut down any trees or growth that is in the way.  Later in the passage John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (8-10)

If it’s in the way, don’t save it, don’t tell a false story about it, cut it down and throw it into the fire.

There’s not a lot of wiggle room, or grey, in John’s message. None really.

Have you ever wondered how John felt when he finally met Jesus? When he finally met the Messiah and began to understand just how Jesus’ ministry was going to unfold?

I wonder if he was disappointed.  I suspect that he was disappointed.

I suspect that Jesus did not look or act like John hoped he would act.

And so, in order for John to embrace the actual Messiah, he had to let his dream of what the Messiah would be die.

He had to lose hope in his idea of what the Messiah would be like in order to embrace the actual Messiah.

Which is a hard thing to do with any person, but with the Saviour of the world? The Saviour you have dedicated your entire life to?

But John does. He cuts it down, throws it into the fire, and embraces the real Jesus.

I was out for breakfast a little while ago and I have to confess that I spent more time eavesdropping on the conversation that was happening at the table next to mine than I did actually participating in the conversation that was happening at my own table.

At this other table, a group of people were generating ideas for their church’s adult Sunday School program and one person at that table said something like this, “The church needs to teach us how to end things. We never learn how to do this or do it well.  Friendships, jobs, romantic relationships, they all end, but I’ve never been taught about a faithful way to end things. I’ve only ever been taught about the importance of having hope and not giving up.”

The past few months have been really tough for me. And a lot of people have reached out to try and help.  They’ve reached out in a lot of different ways, but one common way has been to try and manufacture a Jesse Tree for me.  Not a legitimate one, but a quick and easy one.  They’ve seen the difficult things and tried to jump to a promise of new life – the bright side, the good thing that will come from the bad.

And honestly, it hasn’t been even a little bit helpful.

Two things have been.

The people who let me just sit in the difficulty. The people who acknowledged the situation with no attempts to promise a better time yet to come, and who resisted the temptation to gloss things over by trying to graft a potted plant from the grocery store on my dead stump.

The second helpful thing was a book a friend gave me.  They actually gave it to me over 2 years ago and I just couldn’t bring myself to read it until recently.  In that book, Necessary Endings, author Henry Cloud talks about the importance of hopelessness.

And that concept gave me hope.

You see, while the shoot that grows out of the stump is a beautiful, powerful, and true image, sometimes  a stump remains a stump.

And more importantly, sometimes a stump is supposed to remain a stump.

Sometimes things need to end.

And in order for that to happen, and happen well, we need to resist the temptation to live in false hope and instead live in the reality of hopelessness.

Some stumps will never bring forth new life no matter how much hope you have or water you give them.

Imagine your life is a forest.  There are healthy trees that are doing just fine.  There are trees that could use a bit of pruning, and there are dead trees that need to be cut down and, as John says, burned.  Some of those stumps will remain stumps, some may develop new shoots.

It can be difficult to tell which is which. It can be tempting to pretend that everything is just fine as it is and avoid the difficult tasks that require you to take an ax to some of those trees and that’s where it’s important to have good friends, or a counsellor, or spiritual director to help you sift and sort.

Advent is a season that teaches us two opposing truths.   The first is that we should never lose our ability to embrace a defiant hope that says, sure that’s a dead tree stump and no life will ever come from it and yet, look!  A shoot. A tree.  New life, new hope. Don’t give up.

But Advent is also a season that can teach us to let the dead things stay dead.

I know in this room there are people who embrace the season of Advent in a wide variety of ways. I take it fairly seriously and so it’s not uncommon for me to have conversations with folks whose practice is different from mine in which they assume I’m going to judge them.

I have had my tree up and I’ve been listening to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album since October, they’ll say sheepishly. Don’t judge me.

And I don’t, I really don’t, but I am curious about how those choices are helping them. If they are, great!

But they don’t help me.

For me, one of the key things I like about Advent is that it puts my practices at odds with the culture around me.  While other people are anxiously rushing through the mall, I choose not to. While other people are listening to Christmas music, I choose not to.

And by the time they are all sick to death of the decorations and the music, I’m getting ready to fully enjoy those things for 12 days. And it is good. And it is enough.

There is a story being told by our culture at this time of year that the key to happiness is found in consumption. In more and more and more. If Christmas music is great for one month, then how much better is it for three? If Christmas decorations are great in December, then how much better are they if you put them up in October?  If giving gifts helps us love and be loved, then why not just buy more and more and more.  The credit card bills can be sorted out in January.

Why wait?

I see no hope in that story. I see no new life. I see only a dead stump. Advent is a practice that helps me to see that story as hopeless and resist the temptation to live into false hope.  Advent helps me to let that story die.

By embracing Advent I learn to have less. I learn what the waiting and watching have to teach me.

And in the death of one thing, in the acknowledgment that it is truly hopeless, I find the space to embrace a new thing, and a new hope.   By clearing out all the dead and dying trees, I am able to notice when a small green shoot, despite all of the odds, begins to grow on one of those stumps.

May you, in your own way, do the same.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.