I Hate the Mall

 

How do you celebrate Advent?

Advent is one of my favorite seasons in the church year. I love how it allows me to slow down and live in ways that are out of step with the culture during a season that can be particularly fraught with anxiety and busyness. I hate the mall at the best of times, but especially in December.

A number of years ago my church produced a book of readings and a series of podcasts for Advent.  As I was preparing to preach yesterday I was reminded of that experience.  It was the first time I'd ever been in a sound booth or experienced what it was like to be produced by a professional sound engineer.  I hope you enjoy them.

 

Click here to listen to the podcast.

Click here to purchase our Advent e-book.

 


Invited into the story: A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 24, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  

In this sermon I reference Alana Levandoski's song "Cosmic Canticle." Alana is an amazing artist and all around wonderful human being. You can find "Cosmic Canticle" and her other music by clicking 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.

In Kingston, Ontario, there is a church called The Church of the Good Thief.  It no longer functions as a worship space, but instead it holds the regional archives of the Roman Catholic Church.  It gets its name from two sources. The first, is from the gospel story we read tonight, where one of the criminals who is crucified along with Jesus believes and is promised that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (43)

The second reason it’s called the Church of the Good Thief is that it was built by men who were incarcerated at the nearby Kingston Penitentiary. They quarried, carried, and placed each piece of limestone that makes up the building.

They weren’t allowed out of the prison to worship there though.

Then as now, our theological logic is rarely rock solid.

Tonight is the last Sunday in the liturgical year, next Sunday a new year begins and we enter into Advent.  The church calendar isn’t linear, it doesn’t begin and end with major feasts celebrating Jesus’ birth and resurrection, but it usually has some internal logic to it.

Tonight is the last Sunday of the church year, often referred to as the Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday.  Tonight’s gospel reading is a story that takes place towards the end of Jesus’ time on earth. It’s a story that shows us that Christ is a king with the power to grant entry into paradise, but Christ is also a very unusual king, dying as a criminal on a cross.

Jesus is complicated. And people have a lot of different ways of managing that complexity.  But usually we manage it by focusing on some details and ignoring others. We just can’t see to hold the whole of who Jesus is at any one time. So sometimes we focus on his humanity, and neglect his divinity and sometimes we do the opposite.

We do this with a lot of different things in our lives, which is how it is possible to have criminals build a church, then name that church in memory of a criminal, and then not allow criminals to worship there.

Or to choose to follow Jesus, but then pick and choose which parts of his message you’re actually going to follow.

If this was a film and I was the director, my production notes would look something like this:

Scene One:  We open on three men nailed to three crosses. Starting with a wide shot, we pan in until we have a close up of the three men’s faces. Their humanity is emphasized by the visible pain on their dirty, sweat covered faces. The scene is brief, the emotion high, and it provides context for everything that is going to happen next.

Scene Two:   Crane shot. Make sure the production assistant finds the biggest crane in existence. The one sitting outside at All Saints is way too small.   The shot pans up higher, higher, as high as we can possibly go away from the earth and then, a chorus of disembodied angelic voices sings the ancient hymn found in Colossians.

See if we can get permission to use Alana Levandoski’s version. Better yet, see if she’ll agree to sing it too.

There are more scenes to come, but first, let’s look at this one in a bit more detail.

Our first reading tonight was from a letter to the church in Colossae.  This group of Christ followers were experiencing persecution because of their faith. Our reading acknowledges this abuse and seeks to provide encouragement to carry on and not give up because God will give them the strength to endure these difficult experiences with patience.

The author of the letter writes, May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”  (11-12)

So here is the good news? Following Christ will lead to persecution, but God will give us the strength to manage it.

Yeah?

Let’s unpack that a little more.

First of all, it is true that the decision to follow Jesus is not a guarantee of a simple, easy, pain-free life. Christians are not exempt from suffering and difficulty and, in fact, we can expect a degree of suffering and difficulty simply for choosing to follow Jesus.

And the letter to the Colossians is speaking about this specific type of suffering, suffering because of the choice to follow Jesus.

Not every kind of suffering fits into that category, and therefore, what the writer says in the rest of the letter does not apply to every single situation.

If you’re in an abusive situation, it’s OK to leave. It’s important to leave actually.  It’s absolutely OK to make changes in your life that eliminate abuse.

And on the flip side, if you feel you are being mistreated, it’s not an automatic sign that you are suffering because you are a Christian.  Sometimes, it’s a sign that you’re behaving like a jerk.

In this, as in so many situations, discernment is key.

It’s important to keep in mind that this letter was written to people who were experiencing real persecution because of their faith and we should be careful not to water down what the writer is saying by downplaying their experience.

The writing style changes dramatically in the second half of tonight’s reading. It no longer sounds like a letter, it sounds more like a poem, or a creed.  The author of this letter may have written it or they may be referencing an outside source. It’s unclear.

Some theologians suspect that these verses may have been used as a baptismal hymn so it’s fitting that we’re looking at them on a Sunday when we’re also going to be celebrating a baptism.  As Sally A. Brown explains, “Baptism reveals our true destiny and identity. Whatever our life stories may turn out to be, their inconsistencies will be reconciled and their coherence revealed in the reigning, cosmic, visible God for whom we were made.”

These verses paint a grand picture of who Jesus is – the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, the head of the body, the beginning, the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and so on.

These are big, sweeping statements, each one of which could take an entire sermon or even a sermon series to try and unpack.

So instead of trying to do that, I just want to point out a few things.  But first, let’s listen to this hymn one more time:

“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The hymn begins, “He is the image of the invisible God….” (15) If you spend too long trying to figure out how an invisible God can also be visible you might give yourself a headache, but the poetry of the line reminds us that God is in fact a paradox. Invisible and yet visible. Human and divine. Knowable and yet unknowable.

We can never see God, and yet, in Jesus, we can see God.

Christ is God, all powerful, all knowing, entirely other from you and me. The King.

But Christ was also human,  lived among us, and died on a cross, as our gospel passage reminds us.

N.T. Wright explains that although it’s not obvious in our English translations, in the original text, the author is playing with the various meanings of the word “head,” which in English we have translated as “ firstborn, supreme, head, and beginning.”

But he also notes that, “Now all of this is fascinating simply as an exercise in clever writing…Part of growing up as a Christian is learning to take delight in the way in which God’s truth, whether in physics or theology or whatever, has a poetic beauty about it. But of course Paul isn’t writing this poem just to show off his clever intellectual fireworks, or to provide a sophisticated literary entertainment.  He’s writing this (or, if the poem was originally written by someone else, quoting it) in order to tell the Colossians something that they badly need to know. What is it?

What they need to know above all, if they are to grow as Christians, increasing in wisdom, power, patience and thanksgiving is the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The more they get to know, and know about, Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is and what [God’s] done; who they are as a result; and what it means to live in and for [God.] Much of the rest of the letter, in fact, is an exploration of the meaning of the poem. Look on to 2:3, for instance, where Paul declares that all the treasures wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ himself.”

Wright continues “…Christianity isn’t simply about a particular way of being religious. It isn’t about a particular system of how to be saved here and hereafter. It isn’t simply a different way of holiness. Christianity is about Jesus Christ; and this poem, one of the earliest Christian poems ever written, is as good a place to start exploring it as any. This is what the Colossians needed to know and we today need to rediscover it.” (150)

Now, back to our movie.  We began with a reminder of Jesus’ humanity followed by a quick cut to a crane shot that hurtled us up into the cosmos where an angelic choir sang a hymn that remind us of Jesus’ divinity.

Fully human, fully divine. It makes no sense.  And yet Christians have claimed it as one of the key truths of their faith since the very beginning of the church.

And now the camera pans slowly back to earth and the films’ pacing slows down dramatically.  There will be no major action sequences or montages set to a rocking soundtrack. Instead, there will be an invitation to slow down, to wait, to not rush to conclusions or an ending to this story.

This particular film will end with a story from Jesus’ life to bookend the opening scene. A story designed to emphasize his humanity and to remind us that this is not an ordinary story or an ordinary child. This is a child who will change everything.

For the final scene, the camera zooms in slowly, slowly on the baby’s face and then the scene fades to black as the words “To be continued” appear on the screen.

And the story does continue. It continues to this very night in this very church where, in a few moments, we will welcome Edmund McKenzie Newsom into this story through baptism.

We’re going to sing shortly, and as we sing, the baptismal party, friends, and members of the family are invited to join us at the back of the church.

Christ is King, and Christ invites each of us into this story. Surely this is good news.

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

 


Stand Firm: A Sermon For Sunday November 10, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 10, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  Please, however, read the correction posted below before you listen.

 

Correction: In my sermon I get some dates wrong but I am including the text here as I preached it. Transgender Awareness Week begins on November 13th.   The Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th.  I am deeply sorry for the error and apologize for any hurt that it may have caused.

 

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.

So some religious leaders approach Jesus and ask him a question:

There are seven brothers. One gets married and then dies. As is our custom, another brother marries his widow. He also dies.  This happens seven times and then, to quote directly from verse 32, “Finally the woman also died.”

Finally indeed.

So that’s the context, and here’s the question: “Whose property will she be in the life to come?”

It’s a patriarchal, heteronormative question asked not because the questioner genuinely wants to know the answer, but because they want to trip Jesus up. The group of men asking this question are identified as people who do not believe in the resurrection. They are asking what they know is a ridiculous hypothetical question because they assume Jesus’ answer will prove just how ridiculous it is to believe in the resurrection.  And, by extension, how ridiculous it is to believe in Jesus.

Whose property will this poor, tired woman be when she finally dies?

No one’s.

Jesus says that the norms and practices of this world are not the norms and practices of the resurrected life.   This woman will not be anyone’s property. She will no longer be a wife, she will be like an angel, she will be a child of God, a child of the resurrection. (36)

Jesus is saying, as Jesus says so very often, my ways are not your ways.  If you want to follow me, you will have set aside your assumptions and learn to see the world in a new way.

For example, since the world that Jesus has come to bring about does not include a system that treats women as property, maybe we can also re-think our earthly systems that to this very day still tend to treat women this way?

Maybe we can apologize for all the ways we  - in the world and in the church – have privileged heterosexual marriage with children as the golden standard of Godly living and begin to celebrate a greater diversity of ways of living.   If you don’t happen to be a single person, take some time sometime to listen to the experiences of single people because I fully expect that it will break your heart when you discover all the ways, subtle, and not so subtle, that they are told that they don’t quite measure up.

We can do better.

Jesus answers their question, in the life to come women are not property, and then he says something that I find strikingly beautiful. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (38)

Over and over again in scripture, we are told that the way of Jesus is the way of life.  In John 10:10 we’re told that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

This is an idea we will be exploring in more detail this November in our Wednesday night series on vocation. We’re going to drill down into the question “What would it look like if each of us was fully alive? If each of us lived fully into who God created us to be?”

I hope you’ll join us.

In our gospel reading, we have a group of people questioning Jesus about the resurrection, and in our reading from Thessalonians, we find Paul trying to correct false teachings about the life to come.

Paul is not my favourite writer. His words have been used to hurt me and many people I love very deeply. There is a new trend on social media where people are beginning to post publicly the hate mail and death threats they receive and it’s shocking to see how much hate and ugliness comes from people who claim to follow Jesus.  It’s shocking how often they use Paul’s words to justify their cruelty.

Tomorrow we will remember all the people who died because of war and we will say “Never again,” and on Wednesday, in services around the world, the names of transgender people who were killed in the past year because of bigotry and hate will be read aloud – and those lists will be long – and we will once again say, “Never again.”

Tonight is not the time to unpack all the ways that Paul’s words have wounded people and the myriad of ways he has been misunderstood – often willfully misunderstood – but we can look in more depth at tonight’s reading to discover a man who seems genuinely distressed that his teachings are being misinterpreted.

In her excellent book, “One Coin Found,” Reverend Emmy Kegler, who as a queer woman with a call to the priesthood has had her own struggles with Paul, imagines his life and his work in this way:

“I began to retrace Paul’s backstory. A young man, convicted in faith, watching the stoning of a seeming heretic. A righteous man on the warpath for the Lord. Well trained in scriptural interpretation and overly confident in his application.

Oh, no.

A perfectionist who pursued God with zeal but got knocked off his high horse and had to change everything he understood about faith? Explaining what God had done in his life, blending his experience with philosophy and Scriptures? Periodically horrified by what other so-called Christians were up to? Periodically his opinions on how everyone else should think and act were totally wrong?

This was sounding irritatingly familiar.” (142)

Later she writes, “I was coming to know him not as my opposition but as my brother, as flawed as I was but as hopeful too.

I heard his hope in the letters he wrote to his communities. He planted churches and then moved on, trusting in the work of the Spirit to move them more toward Christ, only to receive letters with questions that could not be answered. Scholars consider his letter to the church in Thessalonika – the letter we read from tonight – the first written words of the New Testament (predating the gospels). Our best guess, given the content of his letter, is that his new church was confused: he had promised the return of Jesus, to gather the faithful and transform the world, but instead Jesus had not yet returned, and faithful members of the community had died. Death was supposed to be conquered; Christ was supposed to be victorious. How could this have happened? [Emmy imagines] Paul pacing his tent, dictating to his scribe: Do not grieve as those to who have no hope. Death is not the end of the story, those who have gone on before us will not be away from us for long. I [am?] comforted in Paul’s promise of Jesus, both powerful enough to resurrect the dead and humble enough to take on flesh.” (150)

Like Emmy, I can imagine Paul full of energy, unable to stay still, pacing around in his tent and dictating this letter to a scribe – Paul rarely wrote anything himself.

The section we read tonight starts, “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you…”

I tend to think of Paul as exhorting, correcting, challenging, but begging? This must be serious stuff.

“…we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…”

Mariam Kamell explains that the word we have translated as “shaken” implies a “violent movement, like an earthquake.”   “What is occurring in this church is not a mild questioning about how things might work out but an earthquake of theological doubt that is leaving vast destruction in its wake. Likewise, the word for being “alarmed” is the fear caused by surprise. Having begun in one direction based on the teaching of Paul while he was with them, they have been surprised by this new teaching and their fear is that of having their foundation pulled out from underneath them. They are paralyzed, scared, uncertain about what to believe and, from that, how to act.”

And Paul knows how scared and shaken they are and that is why he writes with such urgency.

The people are shaken and alarmed because they have heard conflicting teachings about what is going to happen next.  When is Jesus returning? Has he already returned? Did they he leave them behind?

Paul, after begging them not to be deceived by false teachings, reminds the church in Thessalonika  of what he has taught them before saying, “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?” (5)

I wonder what Paul would think about all the ways his words have been twisted and misused throughout the history of the church. I suspect it would break his heart. Here he was in his lifetime having to counter false teachings from others, imagine what he would think if he discovered that his own words have been deformed into false teachings in our present day.

The community in Thessalonika, once solidly committed to Paul’s teachings, are now unsettled by false teachings that are coming from all sorts of sources. Paul says these false teachings may arrive “by spirit – by which he means something other than the Holy Spirit - or by word or by letter, as though from us…” (2)   That’s how false teachings spread, once they begin to take root in a community it can be almost impossible to trace them back to their original source.

Many people, from Paul’s day to today, have been very interested in trying to predict the future. Entire industries have been created where people try to match up current events with biblical prophecies and they can be really convincing and it is easy to get sucked in, but Paul is begging us not to be deceived.

If you want to have a discussion over a beer after church about what all of these things might mean that can be a fun academic exercise. If you want to, like the men in tonight’s gospel reading, explore a hypothetical question about relationships in the life to come, go for it.  But don’t take these things so seriously that you can become obsessed or deceived by them. There are way better ways to spend your time.

But what I do think we should take seriously, is Paul’s desire that we resist being “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…”

In November the lectionary always throws the weirdest most difficult readings at us and tonight is no exception. It may be hard to find yourself in these stories about fairly abstract ideas – what will happen in the life to come? – that are rooted in very specific historical circumstances – the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the earliest days of the church.

But I suspect that we all can identify times in our lives when we’ve felt shaken to our core. When it wouldn’t have surprised us at all to discover that we had lived through a literal earthquake.  When everything we thought made sense, everything we thought we could trust, everything we thought was a firm foundation crumbled under our feet.

I suspect we can all identify times when nothing seems stable, nothing seems secure, times when you are desperately looking around from something – anything – solid to grab on to but you can’t seem to find anything at all.

I’m not entirely sure why, but when I look back at my life, October is so often an earthquake month for me. Things just seem to happen in October that shake everything up. It happened to me again this year and I’m still nowhere near feeling settled.

I can’t identify with the specific issues the church in Thessalonika was dealing with, but I can identify, acutely, with that feeling of being shaken.

And so, I also take comfort in Paul’s counsel to those early Christ followers. Sometimes I believe him with all my heart, sometimes I need to grab onto his words with the defiant hope that even if I don’t believe them today, I might believe them tomorrow.

Sometimes a defiant hope in the possibility that I might believe is all I have.

Paul ends this section of the letter with words of encouragement.  He reminds the people that they are God’s beloved, that God’s love for them is solid and trustworthy.  (13)  God’s love is the foundation that will allow them to, as Paul writes in verse 15, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

And isn’t this exactly what we need to hear when we’re feeling shaken? Especially if we feel like God has forgotten us as the church in Thessalonika did? When we have been shaken and feel abandoned, we need to be reminded of this foundational truth: We are God’s beloved. God will never, ever abandon us.

And then Paul closes the section of this letter with a beautiful blessing. May it be an encouragement to each one of us today and in the days to come:

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and work.” (16-17)

May it be so. In the name of our steadfast God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

 


On priests, power, and pockets: A Sermon for Sunday October 27, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, October 27, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  From time to time at saint benedict's table we depart from the lectionary and use the sermon time as an opportunity to talk a little bit about why we do what we do.  This year my colleague Jamie Howison and I shared this task. Jamie spoke about how the space in which we meet impacts our worship and then I shared the following reflection. Both are available at the link posted above.

 

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

 

* Open with thanks to Jamie for helping us “read” the space and for his words on the peace.

 

It’s so fascinating to me how much thought goes into the design not only of a church building but of the worship space in particular.   In a sense these sorts of buildings can be read, if you’ve been taught how to read them, and you can tell a lot about what is going on and what the community values by reading the space.

For example, this building tells us that we are a people shaped by stories, the stained glass that lines the sides of the church depict keys stories from the life of Christ and the community that he formed.  Higher up, are pictures of key historical figures in the life of the community and each of those images is filled with coded with imagery that can tell you all about that person’s life if you know how to read it.  There are also plaques filling up almost every single other bit of wall space each with its own story to tell.

Another way we can read what’s happening in this space is through colour. Now we use colour sparingly, but with some basic knowledge of the church calendar, you can walk into this space and know what season we are celebrating, based on the colour of the hangings on the pulpit and lectern and the colour of the stoles Jamie and I are wearing.

If you’ve only been coming recently, you may just think that green is our favourite colour because we’ve been decked out in green for a VERY long time but we’re about to shift into a time when you’ll see us in red, and blue, and white. Each colour symbolizing a different season in the church year.

Green is for ordinary time, the longest season of the church year. Blue for Advent. White for Christmas. Purple for Lent, and Red for Pentecost. Red and white can also be used at a service honouring a martyr – red – or a saint - white. And white is also used for special services like baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

The fact that the church celebrates liturgical seasons is one of the most powerful and helpful gifts the tradition has to offer us.  Not only do I find it helpful to literally move through the church seasons and to notice how the practice impacts my faith – to wait in Advent, to fast in Lent, to celebrate and feast for the full 12 days of Christmas –  I have come to find embracing the concept of unique seasons with unique practices has had a serious impact on my life in general.   It can be helpful when things are particularly difficult to remind myself that this is a season – it hasn’t always been like this, and it won’t always be like this.  Or when something particularly lovely has happened to remind myself that good things should be celebrated and to take the time to do so.   We are coming up on the anniversary of my ordination, for example, and I have spent some time thinking through how I want to mark that occasion.

Another thing you can read in this space are our clothes. On most Sundays, you’ll find a handful of people wearing ties and suit jackets or really smashing wraps and you’ll also see people in jeans and t-shirts.  What I hope that tells you is that this is a space where you can come exactly as you are. That you are free to be yourself here.

You’ll also normally see two people, Jamie and me, in a black shirt with a white collar before and after the service, and then in several additional layers of clothing once the service starts.

I’ve had lots of conversations with people about this clothing over the past year and one way that people tend to read this clothing is that it signifies that Jamie and I are the fanciest, most important people in the room.

Spoiler alert: We’re not. And our clothes are supposed to tell you we’re not. They’re supposed to tell you we have a particular role to play in this gathering and to help you to easily identify us, not to signify that we’re the most important people here.

We’re not the most important people in the room, but it’s understandable why you might think that given our distinctive dress.  Vestments are an example of a symbol whose meaning has shifted over time.

Clothing used to be a fixed symbol that clearly communicated who a person was and how they fit into society – their gender, occupation, economic status were all indicated by their clothing. At many points in history, there have been laws dictating what a person could and could not wear.   Unisex clothing wasn’t really a thing. Dressing down wasn’t really a thing. Men wore certain things and women wore other things.

Certain fabrics and colours could only be worn by people of particular economic classes.  Different jobs had different uniforms.

There are still pieces of this in our modern-day society, but the lines are a lot fuzzier.  One thing that remains the same, however, men can consistently expect that they will be able to buy pants with pockets. Women, not so much.

Jamie and I are wearing clothing that was modelled on the clothing of Roman servants. So the clothing that now can seem like the fanciest in the room, was once the most basic in the room signifying that a priest is a servant of the people.

This black thing I’m wearing is called as cassock and it used to be everyday wear for a priest.  Everyday you’d get up and get dressed and put on your collared shirt and before you stepped out the door you’d button up your cassock – whether you were heading to church or just to do some shopping.

Now there are some variations on how cassocks are designed, but if I was going to wear mine every single day, I’d have to allot enough time to make sure all 39 buttons were buttoned up before I left the house.  1 button for each of the 39 Articles of Religion – the document that at one time in our history, outlined the basic tenants of what it meant to be an Anglican.

So even though I don’t wear my cassock everyday, you will still notice that, while I may wear it before the service begins, there are a few extra layers I put on right before we start.

This white thing I’m wearing is called a surplice. It’s not everyday wear. I only wear it when we have a service. White clothing has a long history of symbolizing baptism and Christ’s goodness and my surplice is a reminder of that.

The last thing I put on before worship is this fancy scarf thing, called a stole.  The stole itself signifies that I’m an ordained person. You may recall that for most of the past year I wore it diagonally, draped over my left shoulder. That signified that I was a deacon. And although it may have made me seem extra fancy, it’s meant to copy the clothing of a servant who would wear a stole like this and use the lose ends at their hip to dry your feet after they washed them.

Now, I wear the stole around my neck.  It’s meant to remind us of the yoke that a team of oxen would wear. Or in this case, the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service. It may look fancy, but it’s meant to be a symbol of humility.

And there are lots of other garments that Anglicans wear – from choir robes to the Bishop’s fancy hat – but generally at saint ben’s we like to keep things simple.

But symbolism and historic meaning aside, personally I love  being able to wear vestments because of how I feel in them.  When I put these clothes on I’m reminded of the job I am here to do. They help focus and center me. I am much less distracted in vestments.

I have spent almost 20 years standing in front of congregations like this talking to groups of people and for the first time, I feel like I can focus solely on my job and NOT on my clothes.  I’m not wondering if you think my skirt is too short or panicking that I wore the wrong shirt and now I have to keep my hands down at my side because if I raise them too high you’ll see some skin.

And… I have pockets!

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Nevertheless She Persisted: A Sermon for Sunday October 20, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, October 20, 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.

Both of tonight’s readings are set in contexts where the people of God are having a difficult time. Things are going from bad to worse, and they need to find a way to maintain their focus, their energy, and their sense of purpose.

Both readings speak of the need for persistence. In 2 Timothy we heard this line, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable... (4:1-2, emphasis mine.)

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “persistent” as “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

On February 7, 2017, the U.S Senate was debating the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General. Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the confirmation and spoke critically of Session’s record on civil rights.

While Warren was stating her objections, she was interrupted multiple times and told to stop talking.

But she didn’t stop.

A series of fancy political maneuvers occurred in an attempt to silence Senator Warren.

But she didn’t stop.

When he tried to sum up what had happened, Senator Mitch McConnell, looking truly bewildered said, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

And women everywhere, regardless of their political affiliations, stopped for a moment and said, “Yeah she did.”

Even if they disagreed with her politics, many women found Warren’s persistence to be inspiring.

The line, “Nevertheless she persisted,” which was meant to be a condemnation of Senator Warren, went viral and became a rallying cry for women to persist despite the many attempts to silence or ignore them.

If you google it, you can find endless social media posts containing the hashtag #neverthelessshepersisted, countless photos of people’s tattoos of the quotation, and a wide array of merchandise.

I know this in part because I received all sorts of things that say “Nevertheless she persisted” last year as ordination gifts.

Nevertheless she continued “firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

Nevertheless she persisted.

Today’s gospel reading is a short parable that’s set in the context of the legal system.

Most people have a general sense of how our modern legal system functions. It may not be an entirely accurate sense, it may be based more on TV crime dramas than reality, but still, we get the general idea of how it’s supposed to work. People do bad things, the police arrest them and charge them with a crime, they go to court and so on.

In Jesus’ day, things were a bit different. N.T. Wright explains that:

“In the ancient Jewish law court… If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: “vindication” or “justification” here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour. This word “justification” which we meet a lot in Paul but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one’s favour at the end of the case.” (212)

Although there may very well have been more people present, there are two main characters in this story, a judge and a widow.

We are told that the judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people”– that is actually what the text says – he “neither feared God nor had respect for people” – so right away we know he’s a problematic character. (2)

The story is told entirely from the judge’s point of view. The widow never speaks, we only hear the judge’s internal monologue about her.

Through that monologue, we learn that the widow keeps coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” (3) She doesn’t stop coming, the verb tense in the original Greek implies a continuous action without a break or reprieve. Even though the judge consistently refuses to grant her request she never stops coming.

This patterns continues: she makes her request, he refuses, she makes it again, until finally the judge thinks, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (4-5)

We aren’t supposed to view the judge as the hero in this story, but I do have some sympathy for him. Because for all the reasons I admire persistence, it can also be really, really annoying.

Mike and I recently got a puppy, and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries and establish good behaviours when you’re confronted by persistent whining and begging. Even if you know you’re right, even if you know that giving in to that whining will set a really bad precedent that will only create more problems in the future, it doesn’t take that long to feel completely worn down to the point that you’re willing to do whatever it is the puppy wants you to do so long as he just stops whining and gives you a moment of peace.

Usually he wants belly rubs or treats, not justice in a court of law, but still, persistent whining will make you do things you wouldn’t normally do.

And the translation we read tonight really softens the original’s description of just how persistent this widow was.

Amy-Jill Levine explains that the original Greek uses a boxing metaphor, so what we have translated as, “so she may not wear me out by continually coming” would be better translated as, “so that she will not give me a black eye.” (v5, Levine 243)

So who is this widow with the boxing gloves anyway?

Widows are interesting characters in scripture. As a group, we know that they are vulnerable and lack power. They are regularly included in lists of people who the dominant society needs to remember to care for. As such, we tend to think of them as people we should want to help, not people we want to be.

And certainly not people who might give us a black eye.

But being a part of an oppressed or marginalized group isn’t the same as being weak. And widows in scripture prove this over and over again.

Levine notes: “Biblical widows are the most unconventional of conventional figures. Expected to be weak, they move mountains; expected to be poor, they prove savvy managers; expected to be exploited, they take advantage where they find it.” Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Opah, Abigail, the wise woman of Tekoa, the widow of Zerepath, Judith] – all of these woman “manifest agency, and all defy the convention of the poor and dependent woman. The [widow in tonight’s gospel reading] similarly shatters stereotype, even as she epitomizes the strength, cleverness, and very problematic motives of many of her predecessors.” (239-240)

As a group, widows were vulnerable, but like the other women I just listed, the widow in this parable does not passively allow herself to be exploited. Like a fighter in a boxing ring, she fights for her rights. She persists, willing to give the judge a black eye if that’s what it takes.

So is the moral of the story that a faithful Christian life should pack a punch?

We are told in the opening of today’s gospel text, that Jesus chose to tell this story because the people “need to pray always and not lose heart.” (1)

How does this parable reinforce this idea?

What does the story of a persistent woman capable of making a judge fear her and her fists to the point that he is willing to do whatever she asks of him teach us about prayer?

First, one of the things this parable is trying to tell us about prayer is that, while we will encounter unjust judges, God is not an unjust judge. God, we are told, is the opposite of the unjust judge. We do not need to pace the ring and threaten God with a black eye in order to be heard.

Second, this parable is telling us that prayer might not always look like what we think it should look like.

I spend a fair amount of time talking to people about prayer. Together we try to figure out what prayer is and how it fits into our lives. One of the most common things we have to work through is our tendency to have a narrow view of prayer.

We tend to think that prayer is a thing that only happens when we are on our knees with our hands folded, or in church.

We tend to think prayer is a quiet thing, it’s a passive thing, it’s a safe thing.

But in 1 Thessalonians we are told to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t know about you but I can’t kneel with my hands folded talking to God 24 hours a day seven days a week. (5:17) Eventually I need to eat, or sleep, or go to the bathroom.

Which must mean that when we define prayer as something we can only do kneeling with our hands folded we are defining it too narrowly. Certainly prayer can look like that, but it can also look like a walk in the woods, or a nap, or cooking nutritious food or a fierce boxing match against injustice.

Because in today’s parable there is a comparison being made between prayer and a persistent woman who can make a man who has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” do exactly what she wants him to do. (4)

That’s not passive, that’s not safe. That’s prayer.

Earlier in this sermon I told you that the Oxford dictionary defines “persistence” as “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

At the beginning of this parable, Jesus says that this parable is about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.”

Maybe that’s a better definition of what it means to persist. Pray always. Don’t lose heart.

I’m not sure how many people in this room know what it’s like to feel like the widow in the story. To fight and to fight and to fight and to never give up until one day, the judge grants your request.

I hope you know what that feels like.

But I suspect all of us know what it feels like to be in the ring and to get knocked down. To feel someone else’s knuckles connect with your nose, to lose your balance, and to crash onto the floor.

With this parable, Jesus is telling us that we live in a world filled with injustice. We’re all going to be in the ring for a very long time, and we’re all going to get knocked down.

Jesus is encouraging us to persist. To get back up again. To wipe the tears and the sweat and the blood out of our faces and to just keep fighting.

And he says it like this, “don’t lose heart.”

When you encounter systemic injustice and oppression. Don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When the reality of climate change seems overwhelming and you don’t know where to begin, don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When you’ve tried and tried and tried to make a change for the better in your life and it just doesn’t seem to be working, don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When… whatever it is that you struggle with…. Don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

But remember, that sometimes fighting looks like treating yourself with compassion. Even world class boxers regularly need to go sit in the corner of the ring to take a break and let their coach take care of them. That’s not giving up, that’s an essential part of the fight.

Persistence may look like having a nap. Walking in the woods. Sitting in silence. Having fun with a friend.

So don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

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


Take the Doughnut

I’m not exactly sure when I first read Amanda Palmer’s book,The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, but it was likely during the winter of 2015.

I blogged about the book in the spring of 2015 when I was delighted to come across a street performer dressed as a bride on the streets of Paris a few days before I headed out to walk the Camino de Santiago.

I re-read it about once a year.

And by “read” I actually mean listen, because I prefer the audiobook to the physical one.

Amanda’s voice infuses the text with warmth and humour and she periodically breaks into song. Plus her Neil Gaiman impression is delightful.

I re-listen to the book about once a year because I think it’s one of the best books on pastoral ministry I’ve ever read.

If you know anything about Amanda that may surprise you, it might surprise her even, but that doesn’t make it any less accurate.

In the book, she talks about Henry David Thoreau and the myth of the independent artist.

You may, like me, be most familiar with Thoreau’s work because it’s quoted in the film Dead Poet’s Society. He’s Mr. “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

He’s also famous for writing about his choice to withdraw from society and live alone on the banks of Walden Pond.

But do you know the truth?

He wasn’t all that independent.

He borrowed the land from a rich neighbour. His friends had him over for dinner regularly and the women in his life delivered freshly baked goods every Sunday.

His mother and his sister brought him food every Sunday, including freshly baked doughnuts.

Doughnuts.

Mr. “I went to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life…” may have written those worlds while munching on a freshly baked doughnut.  A doughnut he didn’t make or even leave his desk to go buy.  It was delivered right to him.

Amanda then makes a strong and impassioned case that we should all learn to take the doughnuts.

People want to help, she argues. So learn to ask.  And learn to accept help when it’s offered.

Take the doughnut.

As I am writing this I am also sitting next to a body of water but I’m no more independent than Thoreau.

The cabin belongs to friends, and my mom delivered a care package full of food to my home just before I left to come here.  (No doughnuts, but there was a package labelled “spinach brownies.” If you think I am funny, you should meet my mom. She’s hilarious.)

I took the help that was offered.  It’s not easy, but I’m learning.

You may not know it, but you actually have a doughnut and I’m asking you to share it with me.

I have written 1.23 books, neither of which are published. You can read more about the first book here.

People who know about these things say that they’re good. Publishable. Worth reading.

But in the modern publishing world, that’s not enough.  Publishers also need to know that there is a critical mass of people who want to buy a book before they will be willing to publish that book.

And here’s where you come in.

I need to build the biggest list of potential readers that I possibly can.

You can be one of those readers.

I’m asking you to go to my website and sign up for my email list.

You’ll get periodic updates and I’ll never share your information with anyone.

This is the single more effective way to support my work.   It’s not just any doughnut, it’s a doughnut with sprinkles on top.

And I’m asking you to share it with me.


Pastoring While Female: Right Gifts, Wrong Package

The monk with the kind eyes…

Stop it.

The monk with the kind eyes…

Seriously, that’s enough.

The monk with the kind eyes…

 This is NOT funny.

The monk with the kind eyes…

Fine.  I give up. I’ll write the story of the monk with the kind eyes. The monk who, by asking one innocent question,  unveiled multiple layers of trauma and changed the trajectory of my life forever.

In the winter of 2016, I spent a few months as a short term scholar at the Collegeville Institute researching and writing about the varied ways that Benedictine spirituality has influenced my life and work.

As part of that process I committed to praying the Daily Office with the monastic community at St John’s Abbey.  2-3 times a day I put down whatever I was doing, put on layers and layers of winter clothing and trudged up the hill to the church.

I loved praying with the community, and I miss it to this day, but I also hold them responsible for inspiring me to write a book I definitely didn’t want to write.

We’d pray and I’ve leave to go back to my apartment to resume work on my project but instead of lines from the psalms or a new research question,  I would find myself mulling over the same line again and again and again: “The monk with the kind eyes…”

I made a valiant effort to shake off that line and the accompanying story from my own life, but finally it because clear that the only way to get the story out of my head was to put in onto the page.

I had no idea that it would become my book Pastoring While Female: Right Gifts, Wrong Package.

But it did. And I’m looking forward to being able to share this book with as many people as possible.

Pastoring While Female: Right Gifts, Wrong Package is a work of narrative nonfiction which, as the title suggests, tells the story of how I first became a pastor in a denomination that didn’t believe women could be pastors and then later found my way to the Anglican Church. In the specifics of my story are the universal experiences of many women whose lives take them outside of the expectations of traditional gender roles.

As a kid, I could imagine travelling to far-off kingdoms like the heroes in my favourite fantasy novels, but I could never have imagined becoming a pastor. Growing up in the Mennonite Brethren Church, a denomination that historically has not allowed women to be pastors, I simply wanted to love Jesus and help people. I’m not sure who was more surprised, me or my denomination, when I wound up serving as a pastor for almost 17 years before eventually leaving to pursue ordination in the Anglican Church of Canada.

This work of creative nonfiction tells the story of my unfolding understanding of my vocation and the challenges I’ve faced along the way as I’ve encountered people and institutions that were either unprepared or unwilling to accept that a woman could be a pastor. The narrative is supported with pilgrimage experiences—I travel to a Winnipeg monastery, where I learn about labyrinths; the Puye Cliffs and Chimayo in Santa Fe, New Mexico; St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota; the Camino de Santiago; and to Banff and Calgary—and these pilgrimages help me process my vocational questions. The book is also quirky and humorous, featuring pop culture references throughout.

Although the book is finished I am now navigating the world of publishing and that takes time and patience. In the meantime, I’m also working on a second book.

If you sign up for my email list you’ll be the first to learn of any new developments on the publishing front and you’ll also be helping make it possible for me to find a publisher. Publishers want to know that there are people who are actually interested in buying a book and so the bigger my email list, the more likely it is that the book will be published.

And in the meantime, I will continue to work on my new book and will share snippets of that work and other related content. I’m looking forward to the conversations it will spark and the community that will develop in the process.

 


Missing, Finding, Partying: A Sermon for Sunday September 15, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 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 Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Ten or so years ago, I organized a workshop in my home. We had a good speaker and a good turnout but partway through the workshop I noticed that one participant was texting on her phone. And then I couldn’t stop noticing it and I also couldn’t stop noticing that our speaker was noticing it  and finding it very distracting.

And I don’t really remember much of what the speaker shared with us that day but I do remember how annoyed I was and how harshly I judged that woman for being so rude as to text throughout the workshop.

I mean the nerve of her. Who did she think she was?

After the session, I talked to Ms. Texts-a-lot and she told me that she hadn’t been texting at all, she’d actually be deeply focused on what the speaker was saying and had been taking notes.

Well, it sure would have been helpful to have that information before the workshop began. It would have changed my entire experience of the event!

In today’s gospel reading, a group of religious leaders are annoyed that Jesus is partying with the wrong people and Jesus uses a series of parables which are intended to say, “You don’t have all the information, if you knew why we were partying, you’d want to join in and party too.”[1]

But from outside appearances, Jesus is hanging out with all the wrong sorts of people – tax collectors and sinners.

Generally speaking, most people don’t really like people who collect taxes.  But in Jesus’ day, this was particularly true. I can at least rationalize that my taxes are going to pay for things I care about like universal health care and education but at that time the money was likely going to either Herod or the Romans and nobody thought that was a good idea.

Except maybe Herod and the Romans, they probably thought it was a great idea, but most likely no one who was paying taxes thought it was a good idea.

N.T. Wright posits that the people described here as “sinners” may actually have been people who were too poor to either know the law or to be able to afford to keep it properly.

Which is not always what is meant by the word “sinner,” of course. We also read a passage from 1 Timothy this evening and I think that author has a different definition in mind when he describes himself as the  “the foremost of all sinners.”

But whoever the sinners in Jesus’ parable were, the impression we are given is that they were people who the religious leaders saw as kind of hopeless. Irredeemable. Not the sort of people you should spend your time or share a meal with.

So why does Jesus bother to associate with them?

Jesus tells a series of stories in response to that question.

Luke records three stories, but tonight we only heard two of them. The third one is often called the story of the prodigal son.

Tonight’s stories are often called the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and the “Parable of the Lost Coin.”

Which is weird, because that’s not really what the stories are about. Sheep can certainly wander and becomes lost, but coins can’t, someone has to lose them. And neither story is told from the perspective of the sheep or the coin.

Additionally, in our context, the word “lost” implies a permanent condition, a hopeless state but what would happen, if instead of thinking of them as “lost,” we thought of them as “missing?”  I we do that, I think we’d start to get a better sense of what Jesus is doing with these stories.

If we really want to give these stories titles, it might be more helpful to think of them as the “Parable of the Shepherd Who is Missing a Sheep,” and the “Woman Who is Missing a Coin.”  Or the parable of the shepherd who finds her missing sheep and throws a party and the parable of the woman who finds her missing coin and throws a party.

At least several times a year, preachers pretend to be experts on the care and feeding of sheep, despite the fact that most of us have never even seen a sheep up close, let alone been responsible for their well-being.  Suddenly we need to know all about sheep.

Today is one of those Sundays so… here we go.

Almost everything I know about sheep I have learned from two sources: sermons, and Sunday School room art.

For as long as I can remember, this first story was the story of a blonde haired, blue eyed man who had 100 sheep and, after putting 99 of them into a fenced in compound where they are safe and sound, he sets off in search of the one that has gone missing.

Which is not what would have happened.

First of all, the people gathered listening to Jesus would never have pictured a blonde haired, blue eyed male shepherd.

The shepherd’s skin tone and colouring would have matched their own, and the shepherd they imagined would very likely have been a woman.

Although the NRSV uses masculine pronouns, the Greek word used to describe the shepherd is a gender neutral term.

Both in Jesus’ day and in ours, shepherds in that region tend to be women and children – girls and boys.  Rachel was a shepherd, David was a shepherd when he was a young boy.

The answer to Jesus’ question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until she finds it,” was probably, “Not one of us. No one would do that. It’s a bad idea.”  (v.4)

Today we tend to contain animals in fields surrounded by electric fences and barns that lock securely but sheepherding was more of a free range situation at in Jesus’ time.

Sheep didn’t get locked up safely in a barn overnight, so if you left the 99 to go and find the 1, odds are the 99 would have all wandered off or been eaten by wolves by the time you located the one.

It’s not a logical thing to do.

I mean, it’s sad to lose one sheep, but it would be ridiculous to gain that one and lose the other 99 who wandered off while you were searching.

No shepherd in her right mind would do that.

It kind of reminds me of my vegetable garden.  This year I grew a lot of tomatoes, but I don’t expect that I’m actually going to eat every single one of them, I have to tithe at least a portion of them to the neighbourhood squirrel population.

Those filthy, irritating animals who insist on taking at least one or two tomatoes every single day, taking one bite out of them, and then depositing the rest of the tomato on top of my fence.

I could try to fight this tomato tax, but I know it’s a losing battle. Instead I assume that a certain percentage of the tomatoes I grow will be lost in this manner.

And that’s likely what a sheep herder would have thought in Jesus’ day as well. Sure she wouldn’t want to lose any of her sheep but a certain amount of loss was inevitable, it’s just part of the business.

I will inevitably lose a percentage of my tomato harvest and no sheepherd would go off after just one sheep, but perhaps we’d all search more carefully for a lost coin?

Well, that also depends on how much we value this coin.   Not long ago it was relatively common for people to simply throw pennies away and some people have more change just sitting in their car or their couch cushions than they do in their wallets.

And I for one have never been invited to a lost change party.

Now the coin in the parable was worth more than modern-day pocket change - it was probably about a day’s wages for a labourer – but I’ve never been invited to a lost day’s wages party either.  And spending money is an odd way to celebrate finding money.

So what on earth is Jesus getting at?

Stories like this are rich for interpretation and at different points in our lives different things will resonate more strongly with us than others.

In his book, “Transforming,” Biblical scholar Austen Hartke uses this story to reflect on the various reasons a sheep might have been separated from the herd.

He writes, “It’s incredibly comforting to imagine yourself as the lost sheep, riding back home on Jesus’ shoulders after an exciting but ill-advised adventure. There are times when this story is exactly the gospel message we need – when we need to hear that we are worthy of God’s love, and that God will risk anything to have us back home again.

But what if we imagined this story a different way? What is the lost sheep didn’t wander away from the safety and goodness of the shepherd? What is it was just trying to escape the cruelty of the flock? Sheep will occasionally pick out a flock member who doesn’t fit in – maybe because of an injury or a strange marking – and they’ll chase that individual away. There are times when I think Christians need to see ourselves more in the ninety-nine sheep who stayed put, and ask ourselves if we may have been part of the reason the lost sheep got lost in the first place.”

Austen continues, “I don’t mean to lay on the guilt too heavily here – in reality, we all have lost-sheep days and flock sheep days – but I think the metaphor holds up… what’s at stake for Jesus in this situation isn’t just that one single lost sheep, and it’s not just the ninety-nine back home. It’s the integrity of the flock as a whole. Saving just the main group or just the individual wouldn’t do any good, because the flock is more than just the sum of its parts. When Jesus goes after that lost sheep, what he’s telling the flock – what he’s telling us – is that we’re not complete without each other. ” (167-168)

Remember the context in which Jesus is telling this story.  A group of religious leaders is upset that Jesus is hanging out with the wrong sort of people.  And Jesus is saying there’s no such thing as the wrong sort of people. That he would go to extravagant lengths to restore even one person who was missing.

There are all sorts of people who, for all sorts of reasons have been told that they don’t belong in the flock.  Their economic status or their skin colour or their sexuality or their gender are different and so they are told, in subtle and not so subtle ways that they don’t belong.  They might think differently or act differently or move differently and so they are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that they don’t belong.

And so they are pushed to the edges of the flock and eventually, out of the flock entirely and they wander alone.  And the flock doesn’t even notice they’re missing.

But Jesus does.

And he’s inviting everyone, the religious leaders, the tax collectors and the sinners to notice that there are people who are missing, and to rejoice and join in the party when the one who was missing is restored to the flock.

May we hear and accept Jesus’ invitation. Because it’s a shame to miss a good party.

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

 

[1]Thanks for NT Wright for this image.


Where have all my footnotes gone?

Hello folks,

I've been hard at work this week uploading content to the website and it seems that in some of my sermons the footnotes have disappeared. It's important to me to properly acknowledge other people's work so I'm hoping to be able to add them back in over the next few weeks.

In the meantime, if you find something I reference and you want to know how to find it, let me know.

 


One Thing More: A Sermon for Sunday September 8, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 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 our all hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Usually when we read scripture together in church, we read a small portion of a larger book. But tonight, we read almost the entire book of Philemon – the lectionary only cuts out the last few verses.

Philemon is a letter. Most likely written by Paul and, you might reasonably assume because of its title, written to a man named Philemon, but there you’d be wrong.

The letter is addressed to, “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…” (1-2)  This letter was written to a house church, a group of men and women who will gather together in Philemon’s home to hear the letter read aloud and to discuss its contents.

Much of the content is addressed directly to Philemon but the letter is meant to be read by the entire church community.

The letter focusses on the relationship between Paul, Philemon, and a man Philemon has enslaved named Onesimus.

Slavery is abhorrent. It is wrong. But it also has, in many places and at many times throughout history, been normal.  So normal that people couldn’t imagine there was any other way to structure a society.

And Paul doesn’t do what I want him to do in this letter.   I just want one sentence. Just one that says, “As we all know, slavery is sinful, stop enslaving human beings.” I want him to have written that. It’s one of the three sentences Paul never wrote that I wish he did. Feel free to ask me about the other two after the service.

But Paul didn’t write that sentence. And he doesn’t write on suggesting that

This newly formed Christian community should overthrow the entire political, economic and social system they live under either but I do think that he does clearly say that slavery should not exist in Christian communities. He just does it using a particular rhetorical style that may not be obvious to us on a first reading.

Spoiler alert:  This may be the most sarcastic piece of writing in the entire Bible.

In the opening address Philemon is describes as Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker.” (1)

Paul and Philemon are friends, but they are also partners in God’s work. They have a job to do – to spread the gospel and grow the church – and if they are going to be successful, they need to be able to work closely together.

The letter continues with a form common in Paul’s letters, “When I remember you in my prayers…” (4). Whenever you hear those words, look carefully at what Paul says he is praying for, because it usually functions as the thesis statement for the entire letter. In this case, Paul prays that, “the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

Paul is either suggesting that Philemon’s work is not effective, or that it is not as effective as it could be because he is not seeing things as clearly as Paul does.

Paul continues, “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…” (8-9)

They are co-workers in this venture, but make no mistake about it, Paul has more power than Philemon.  Paul has the power to simply command that Philemon do his duty, but Paul is saying he prefers the “catch more flies with honey” approach.  And by honey I mean words that are dripping with sarcasm.

So what is Philemon’s duty? What it is that Paul wants him to do?

Paul writes, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (9)

A couple of things to note here.  Onesimus was a pretty common name to give an enslaved person. It means “useful.”

In saying that Onesimus is his child, Paul is both invoking and subverting the traditional paterfamilias structure that governed households.  In this system, one man was the head of the household with complete authority over all the people and possessions of that household. A slave would be a possession, not a person.

Paul is using this imagery to say two things: One, in this Christian family, Paul is paterfamilias, not Philemon. He can simply command that Philemon do his duty.

Two: Paul is saying that for Philemon’s work on behalf of the gospel to be effective, he needs to change the way he thinks about and treats Onesimus.

Paul describes Onesimus as his child,  and then later, he says that Philemon should treat him as a brother. Basically, Paul is saying that both Philemon and Onesimus are his children. They are equals, which by extension means that Philemon needs to treat Onesimus as a person, not property.

Paul is writing this letter from prison.  Onesimus is with him, although he is not imprisoned. How did he come to be there?

It’s not clear.

As I mentioned last week, people in prison in this time period had to rely on people outside of the prison to provide for their daily needs and its possible that Philemon has sent Onesimus to Paul to make sure he has food and other basic necessities of life.

Onesimus may also have run away.  But this was an offence punishable by crucifixion so it seems odd that he’d come out of hiding to help Paul.   Although, perhaps he did run away and realized that there was no safe place for an escaped slave to live so he is appealing to Paul to help him smooth over the situation with Philemon so he can return to that household.

It isn’t clear how he came to be with Paul, but it is clear that this letter is intended to repair the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon’s household, and he wants Philemon to accept him when he does.

Playing with the meaning of Onesimus’ name Paul says that although Philemon thinks Onesimus is useless, he is in fact, useful to both of them.

So useful, in fact, that even though Paul would prefer to have Onesimus stay with him, he is sending him back to Philemon. And listen to the words Paul uses, “ I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me … but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (13-14)

When Paul who has already stated he has the power to just command you to do your duty sends a request in a letter that will be read by your entire community recommending you do something voluntarily instead of by force, how much wiggle room do you think you actually have?

And not only does Paul want Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, listen to how he expects Onesimus to be treated, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16)

Onesimus is not property. He is Paul’s own heart.  Paul expects Philemon to receive him as his beloved brother.

The letter continues, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wrong you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this in my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self…. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do ever more than I say.” (Emphasis mine)

As if Paul isn’t laying it on thick enough with this choice of words, he employs another one of his favourite rhetorical devices. Although the bulk of this letter has been dictated to a scribe, this section was so important he wrote it in his own hand. Make no mistake, he is saying, I mean what I say.

And that’s where our reading ended. Now if you’ve been wondering why the creators of the lectionary decided to leave out the last few verses, I don’t have an answer, but I can tell you what those verses contain.

The very last few verses are just a list of other people who send greetings. Kind of like a P.S.  I’d probably cut those too. But I would have extended the passage we did read by one verse.

That verse reads, “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.”  (22)

Paul is planning to come for a visit and therefore will know if Philemon has done what he is supposed to do.

This seems to me to be the Pauline version of a mic drop.

This is my best effort at providing you with an accurate reading of Philemon, but I do want you to know that it has often been interpreted very differently.

Some commentators don’t see sarcasm in Paul’s words. They see someone writing very carefully so as not to hurt the feelings of a rich and powerful man.  Which changes the tone, but not the meaning, of the letter.

This letter has also been used in countries like the United States to justify the forcible return of enslaved people who have run away.  That changes the tone and the meaning. I also think it’s a willful misreading of the text.

A couple of years ago I went to Durham, North Carolina for a conference and, as I often do, I added a day to the trip to see the sites.

There was really only one place I wanted to visit:  Stagville Plantation has been turned into a historic site that including original buildings where enslaved people once lived.

I wanted to see those buildings for myself.  It wasn’t that I doubted that slavery existed but I was also aware that at least in some way, it existed for me as story.

I had a sense that somehow if I could stand in a place where this had actually happened, then the truth of this horrible system would sink more deeply into my consciousness.

But first I had to get there.

The Stagville Plantation was only about 20 kilometers from my hotel but it was outside the city limits so I wanted to make sure that not only would I be able to get a taxi to take me there, that I could also get one to bring me back again.

The nice white girl at the hotel desk was confused by my request. A lifelong resident of Durham, she’d never even heard of Stagville.  There was no glossy brochure in the rack behind her desk either.

But she googled it and called a cab company that assured me a round trip.

The taxi driver was African American. He had heard of Stagville but had never been there and couldn’t understand why I’d want to go.  Didn’t I want to go to the shopping center or some other more typical tourist spot?

Nope.  Take me to the plantation please.

After we’d driven for about 30 minutes I began to wonder if something was wrong. After we’d driven about 45 minutes, I knew something was wrong because my driver was clearly panicking and eventually pulled the car over on the side of the road praying, “Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus,” under his breath.

He’d gotten lost. And he was scared.

And I knew right away that his fear didn’t simply come from having taken a few wrong turns.  It came from having made a few wrong turns on deserted country roads with a white lady for a passenger.

We were strangers, but the evil legacy of slavery and racism were impacting our relationship.  His fear was reasonable, and routed in experience.

Eventually we were able to sort out the situation. I assured him I had no where important to be and that this was simply an adventure and he figured out the directions.  We had another 45 minutes or so to drive.

But now, he relaxed a bit and began to show me around.  The little country church where his grandfather had been a preacher,  the huge menacing prison where he quipped, clearly more relaxed now, “Are you sure you don’t just want to visit that plantation instead?” and finally Stagville.

As he took me up the long winding driveway, he muttered.  “This place feels bad, it’s a bad, bad place.” He refused my offer of a ticket, opting to wait for me in the car.

I bought my ticket and joined a tour that was already in progress.

I’d only been there about 10 minutes when the tour guide started giving us driving directions.  It turned out that the slave quarters were a couple miles up the road – which suggests the size of the original plantation and also presented me with a problem.

So I put up my hand and said, “Hi, so I’m from Canada and I took a taxi here and I didn’t know we had to drive to another location and so… would someone mind giving me a ride?”

And you know what happened right? Because of course it did.

This nice older couple said, “We’re from Canada too and not only would we be happy to give you a ride but if you’re willing to visit a few additional tourist sites with us today, we’ll drive you back to town too.”

I thanked them, ran over to pay and thank the taxi driver and release him from the misery of waiting for me at the plantation and then, while offering a silent apology to my parents, accepted a ride from strangers.

There are a lot of things that I could tell you about seeing buildings that enslaved people once lived in, but here are just two.

The first is, that these particular buildings were still standing because they were built in an era where people who enslaved other people began to realize that if they provided slightly better accommodations then their slaves would not get sick so easily and could work harder and produce more.  That’s just good economic sense.

And the second is, that I was allowed to touch the fingerprints embedded in the bricks that enslaved people had made to form the chimney, and some of those fingerprints definitely belonged to small children.

Paul was challenging Philemon to think differently about human relationships and reject the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

I think he is challenging us to do the same.

May we listen. May we act.

In the name of the triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.