Follow Me: A Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday April 17, 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.

Most of you will be aware that I was in San Francisco last week – I have the post travel cold to prove it.  You could call it a vacation, or professional development, but for me it was a pilgrimage – an intentional journey to a holy site. I’ve been trying to figure out how to get to San Francisco for about ten years.

More specifically, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get to St Gregory of Nyssa Church for about ten years.  So if you’re not already tired of “at St Gregory’s they…” stories, don’t worry, you soon will be.

So at St. Gregory’s when they read the gospel the Bible is carried from one side of the room to the other and unlike in some churches you may have been to where the reader holds the book carefully and reverently up in front of them, at St Gregory’s the person carrying the gospel rests the book on their right shoulder.

Why?

Roman emperors used to be carried on people’s shoulders. Early Christians chose to carry the Bible on their shoulder in worship as a way of saying, “Christ is the only king we serve.”

Which is pretty amazing symbolism, if you ask me, but as we generally don’t carry our political leaders around on people’s shoulders anymore, it’s also a symbol that is completely divorced of any cultural significance and it only makes sense if someone helps you decode it.

The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a story that is filled with symbolism. It’s theatrical not just in its scale, but in the attention to detail, details that given how different our culture is from the one in these stories, may also need to be decoded.  Things that would have been very clear to the people experiencing this event first hand no longer make sense to us.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem he is following a pilgrimage path that many others had already followed and would continue to follow.  By the Middle Ages, people making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem were referred to as “palmers” because they often carried a palm branch home as a symbol of their pilgrimage.

Later in history, Shakespeare would have Romeo angle for a kiss from Juliet by referring to his lips as pilgrims and encouraging her to kiss them as “holy palmer’s kiss.”

And we are still celebrating Palm Sunday to this very day, waving branches and taking home palm crosses to tuck in a safe place as a reminder throughout the year, only to return them to the church next year to be burnt and turned into ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday so that this whole process of remembering can begin again.

Holy Week is a pilgrimage, a sacred path that we travel together as we re-tell ancient stories.

It’s a time rich with symbolism and tradition, and as such it can be deeply meaningful or dry and lifeless.  I was talking to someone recently who said, “I just don’t get the point of Easter anymore.” The same day I spoke to another person who said they were really looking forward to Holy Week because it’s “their favourite time of year.”

Where do you fit on that spectrum?  Are you more “what’s the point?” or “it’s the most wonderful time of the year?”

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, we are told he is riding on a “colt that has never been ridden.”  (22:30)

That’s an interesting choice.

I am definitely not an expert on horses, but I have ridden a few times – at summer camps or while on vacation, and every time I have done so, I have chosen a horse that was an expert. In fact, probably due to a combination of care for their customers and the threat of lawsuits, expert horses were the only kind available to me.  Horses that would calmly follow the assigned trail regardless of what the rider chose to do.

That’s just smart right? When you’re going to do something new or dangerous, go with an expert.

But Jesus chooses a “colt that has never been ridden.”

In movies and church re-enactments I’ve only ever seen Jesus riding an animal that was more reflective of the ones I road at summer camp – calmly plodding although despite the crowds of shouting people and palm branches and cloaks with a heavy human perched uncomfortably on top of their back.

But it’s just as likely that this unridden colt would have been wide eyed, filled with panic, and seeking to buck Jesus off at every turn in order to turn around and run back home.

Or at the very least, surely Jesus wouldn’t have been able to calmly wave to the crowd from atop this animal, rather he’d be working hard to control both the direction the animal was walking and working to avoid being bucked off and trampled on the ground.

A colt that has never been ridden.

It’s a weird choice.

It’s weird, but Jesus’ choice to ride an inexperienced colt is teaching me something about the nature of God.

God doesn’t need experts or perfect people. In fact, God often purposely chooses the untried and the unexpected. The people who are wide eyed and anxious and fully aware that they have no idea what they are doing.  The people who want nothing more than to run from the limelight they have sudden been thrust into and run straight back to the safety of their homes.

That’s who God chooses, and that sounds like good news to me.

The various gospels describe the animal that Jesus road in different ways.

Mark and Luke say Jesus chose a colt that had never been ridden (11:2), John says it was a “young donkey,”(12:14) and Matthew says it was a “donkey and a colt.” (21:4)

A donkey AND a colt? Was it some kind of a tag team situation where Jesus rode one for a little bit and then the other?

Or was he riding both at the same time like a circus stunt rider? One leg on each of these animals?  Have we just moved from the bizarre – choosing a colt that doesn’t know what it’s doing to the – well I don’t even know what the word for that kind of spectacle would be.

So at St Gregory’s they move throughout their worship space for different parts of the service – the sermon is in one spot, Eucharist in another, and when I said they move from one space to another, I should have said, they dance from one space to another.  Which could be incredibly overwhelming for a first timer, except that they’ve thought it through, and before you can panic, someone from the church will look you in the eye and say, “welcome friend, put your hand on my shoulder and follow me, and as long as you follow, you’ll be OK.”

I can’t be certain, but I don’t think that Jesus rode into Jerusalem like a stunt rider with one foot on a donkey and one on a colt, but I do think that he may have taken both animals with him.

One of the reasons Matthew references both animals is because he wants us to see that Jesus’ actions are the fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah. A prophecy that said:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  (9:9)

I wonder if this scene looked less like a circus, and more like those trail rides I took at camp – with the mother donkey leading the way and her child – the colt that had never been ridden – following behind her with Jesus on its back.

The colt knowing that as long as they followed their mother, they would be just fine.

Just like last week at St Gregory’s as long as I followed the person in front of me, I was just fine.

We don’t have to travel this pilgrim path alone. We just have to keep an eye on our loving mother who is always just a few steps ahead of us.

And that definitely sounds like good news to me.

But why ride any kind of donkey at all? Why not walk? Or ride a horse or a chariot?

It’s not an accident, it’s all part of the spectacle.

Jesus is a king, but not like any king the people have seen before. Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom noted: “[Jesus] is not drawn in a chariot like other kings, not demanding a tribute. Nor surrounded by officers and guards. Then the people ask: ‘What king has ever entered Jerusalem riding upon an ass?'”

With each choice Jesus makes he is communicating that his kingdom will not be like any kingdom they have ever known or imagined.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave…” (20:25-27)

Jesus is a king, but not a tyrant who will “lord it over them.” Jesus will be different.   In Zechariah it says:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim

and the war-horse from Jerusalem;

and the battle bow shall be cut off,

and he shall command peace to the nations;

his dominion shall be from sea to sea,

and from the River to the ends of the earth. (9:10)

“The chariot and war horse are instruments and symbols of war. The new king banishes both. [Jesus] proclaims peace to the nations.”

If anyone in the crowd is reading the symbols correctly, they will recognize that Jesus is a king. A king who comes in peace but a king none of the less. And having never had a king like Jesus before, there is no way that they can fully comprehend what’s happening.

But that lack of comprehension does not stop the people in the crowd from getting caught up in the excitement of the moment. It does not stop them from waving their branches and shouting “Hosanna!”

I have a vague understanding that lately in our city there has been some important “sportsing” going on.  I don’t understand it, but I know it’s happening. And it’s more than likely that if I happened to find myself downtown on a particular day and there were crowds of people filling the streets and shouting excitedly that I might find myself being swept up by the enthusiasm and joining in.

I’d have no idea what I was saying, but even I might be inspired to shoue “Go Jets Go!”

Similarly, the people waving their branches and shouting “Hosanna,” which literally means “please save” or “save us now,” probably don’t fully understand what’s happening.  They are right that Jesus has come to save them, while being wrong about how he will save them.

This week I’ve spent a lot of time being disappointed in earthly leaders. I’ve watched my friends fight funding cuts made by the Ontario government that directly impact my godson’s ability to thrive.  I’ve watched bill C-262 – a bill that asks us to treat indigenous people with dignity – I’ve watched that bill languish in the Senate, and I’ve watched leaders in the Anglican communion make decisions that seem to be based more in fear than in love.

I’m disappointed by my leaders.  I disappointed by people who seem to care more about power and safety and money than about people’s lives.

And I’m longing for something different.

I’m longing for someone who looks a little more like a powerful, but humble man riding on an untried colt. A colt that is patiently following its mother through a crowd on a pilgrim path.  I’m longing for someone whose actions are rooted and grounded in the power of self-giving love.

I’m longing for someone who looks well, who looks like Jesus.

The Jesus we will encounter as we remember and re-enact these stories throughout the coming week. And I hope you’ll join us when we do.

Amen.


Shiny Skin and Shrieking Demons: A Sermon for Sunday March 6, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday March 6, 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.

In our reading from Corinthians Paul references a story from Exodus.  When Moses returns from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments, his skin was shining and it was so bright that people were actually afraid to approach him. (34:29-30) He visits God several more times and every time he returns he face is glowing. Moses’ shiny skin terrified the people and so he began to wear a veil whenever he was with them (34-35).

If you’ve ever wondering why Moses is sometimes depicted in art with shiny horns on his head it’s because of a mistranslation of this story. In the medieval period the word for “veil” was mistranslated as “horns,” and while an image of Moses wearing a veil may strike you as odd, images of Moses with horns can also be very confusing… and very creepy. In the window at the back of the church, Moses isn’t depicted with literal horns, but he does have horns of light coming out of the top of his head.

In Corinthians, Paul uses this story in order to help the people realize that they, like Moses, have seen God and they, like Moses have shiny skin.

But their shiny skin doesn’t need to be covered with a veil, rather they can act with hope, freedom, and great boldness. (13-15) They can see the glory of God reflected in their own shiny skin, and in the glowing faces of others. (18)

Paul writes, “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (18).”

We also have shiny skin. We are all also being transformed, from one degree of glory to another.

The first line in our gospel reading begins, “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” (28)

Right away I want to know, eight days after what?

Eight days earlier, Jesus spent some time praying and talking with his disciples. He asked them questions about his identity – who do the people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? There isn’t a clear consensus. Some think he is John, others Elijah, but Peter believes that Jesus is the promised Messiah.  Jesus doesn’t dispute this, but he orders them to keep it secret and then, Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer, be rejected by religious leaders, die and three days later be raised from the dead.

Which is a lot to take in, but wait, there’s more! Jesus continues by saying, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (9:18-23)

Our gospel reading begins eight days after Jesus has said all these things. Eight days is not a very long time and I would definitely still be processing Jesus’ words. I would definitely still have an awful lot of questions.

And I am pretty sure that most of my questions would revolve around trying to find a way to avoid all the things that Jesus is saying are going to happen. To avoid watching Jesus die, to avoid dying myself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “When Christ calls a [person] to come and follow, [Christ] bids [them] come and die.” That is, after all, what “taking up your cross” meant to people under the rule of the Roman Empire. It meant you were going to die the slow, horrible, painful and embarrassing death that is crucifixion.  Christ bids us come and die. In many ways, this week’s Ash Wednesday service is a reminder of Christ’s call.

It is not an easy thing to pick up your cross, daily, and follow Jesus. Jesus never promised us an easy life. But when you do decide to pick up a cross, make sure it’s yours.

There are verses that make me a bit jumpy because I have seen how the church has taken the life-giving transformational message of God and deformed it into something else, and this call to take up our cross is certainly one of those verses.

Jesus will die on a literal cross and he is calling each one of us to take up our own crosses if we want to follow him.  There is no interpretive dance I can do to get us out of that one, but time and time again, people in the church have misused this verse to justify or encourage another person’s suffering, and that’s just plain wrong.

The only person who gets to tell you which cross to pick up, is Jesus. Anyone else who tries to do so, is out of line.

If you are in an abusive relationship, you don’t have to stay. That’s not your cross. If you are being mistreated at work, you can say something about it.   And if you see a place where people are suffering because of their race, economic status, sexuality or any other thing, you can not simply turn a blind eye and say, “Well, Christ calls us to suffer.”

Because those are all profound misuses of this text.  Jesus can call us to pick up our cross – ours, not the one someone else wants us to pick up, ours – and wise and trusted mentors can help us figure out exactly what that might look like, but when we see a person who is suffering, our call is to help alleviate that suffering, not to the additional weight of our own judgments.

Jesus is getting ready to go to Jerusalem and take up a literal cross but before he does, he takes three of his disciples to the top of a mountain to pray.

The choice to take only three of his disciples – Peter, John, and James – is the second thing that jumps out at me from that opening verse.   Why is Jesus singling these three out? Are they his favourites? The ones most in need of some remedial work? Is there so much important work to be done  that Jesus can’t spare all twelve disciples, he can only take three?

At this point in the story, who do you most associate with? Jesus? The three on the mountain? The nine who have been left behind? Someone else entirely?

When Jesus and the three disciples arrive at the top of the mountain Jesus spends time in prayer, and “the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (29) Moses and Elijah appear and they begin to talk about what will happen when Jesus goes to Jerusalem.

People whose Greek is way better than mine – because mine is non-existent – tell me that the best way to translate the word used in this gospel to describe what happens to Jesus isn’t “transfigured” or even “transformed,” but “othered.”   It’s not the transfiguration of Jesus but the “otherification” of Jesus. Jesus literally becomes “other” as in, utterly unlike us.

Jesus is othered, but he is not alone. He is transformed within the context of community, and within the context of tradition. These aren’t just random angels who have appeared to talk with Jesus – if there ever was a Jewish Leader’s Hall of Fame Moses and Elijah would certainly have had prominent places in it.

When community is unhealthy, it has the power to deform, but when community is healthy it can accomplish amazing transformations.

Seeing all of this, Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. (33)

Peter can see that Jesus has been transformed, he can identify that this is a good thing, but beyond those initial impressions, he really doesn’t have any idea what is going on and rather than taking a moment to pause and consider his response, he reacts and just blurts out the first thing that comes to mind without any real awareness of what he’s saying. A typical Peter maneuver.

It also seems that Peter – still not fully comprehending Christ’s mission on earth – wants to keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem. “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here!” Peter is saying, “This is a good place to be – so let’s just stay here.”  Surely this is better than following you to Jerusalem where you will be killed! Surely it’s better than having to take up my own cross in order to follow you! He is still resisting what Jesus has said must happen next.

I can understand the urge to stay on the mountain.  The desire to keep Jesus safe by staying on the mountain also makes sense.  What I’m curious about is the fact that the text gives us no indication that Peter thinks it might also be a good idea to go get the other nine disciples before camping out on the mountain.  Is Peter really so selfish that he wants to maintain this mountain top as an exclusive experience for a chosen few? So exclusive in fact, that not even all 12 disciples will be included?

Maybe. After all, it’s not an uncommon impulse. The news is often filled with stories of people trying to construct walls, or barriers, to determine who is included and who is excluded – governments do it, businesses do it, and churches do it too.

Peter hasn’t thought about what he is doing, he is acting purely on instinct, but those instincts are telling.

Like so many of us, when Peter encounters the glory of God he tries to hold on to it, to enshrine it, to frame it in a way that makes sense to him. To make the experience smaller than it actually is.  Peter has just had an encounter with Jesus in all his glory, and he doesn’t want to leave, he wants to stay put and build a building.

But God does not reveal all that God is so that we will build shelters and live on mountaintops.  Jesus may have gone with the disciples to the top of a mountain but he has no intention of staying there, and if they want to follow him, neither can they.

And neither can we.

I mean, it is wonderful to be here this evening, but we are not supposed to stay here all week.

Don’t forget that the glory revealed on this mountain is inseparably connected to the glory revealed on another mountain – Golgotha, the Mount of Calvary.

In today’s gospel reading we see Jesus transformed by the power and glory of God and yet this is not the moment we choose as the greatest moment in human history. Rather we firmly, we recklessly, believe that Christ’s death and resurrection were the most glorious moments in the history of human kind.

Peter, having seen Jesus transformed, tries to control the situation and tell Jesus what he should do – let’s build three shelters! Let’s stay right here! But when he is doing this, God literally interrupts him, affirms Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved and tells Peter to “listen to Jesus.” (35)

The grammatical structure of the phrase translated into English as “Listen to him,” indicates continued action as in, “keep on listening to him.”  As in slow down, stop being reactive, stop talking, and listen. And when you think you are done listening, listen some more. Keep on listening to him.

And what will Peter hear if he chooses to listen to Jesus? If he chooses to take up his cross and follow?

He will learn that while mountaintop experiences are valid, we are not called to try and contain them, we are called to climb back down the mountain.

Despite how wonderful it was to be on the mountaintop, Jesus doesn’t stay there, and neither do the disciples.

I have actually climbed a few literal mountains myself and one of the things I have learned from those experiences is that it is significantly harder to climb down a mountain than it is to climb up.  It’s baffling to me that people use the phrase “it’s all downhill from here” to suggest that something will be easy.

When Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountain they are greeted by a large crowd that includes a man who begs Jesus to heal his son, a child who has been plagued with a violent shrieking demon, and Jesus will do just that. (37-43)

All the gospel writers include the story of the boy who requires healing which, to paraphrase an insight from N.T. Wright, should serve as a reminder to us that life isn’t meant to be a smooth flat walk in the prairies – however beautiful that might seem.  There will be mountains to climb up, mountaintops to enjoy, difficult descents, shrieking demons, and deep healing. It’s all part of the package.

And know this, if the characters in this story that you most identify with are the disciples who were left behind in the valley or the child possessed by a demon. If you see people trying to contain God in shelters a great distance away and they are not making any room for you, then know that while the human impulse may always be to attempt to contain and control and exclude, that this story shows that God categorically rejects that kind of thinking.  When Peter suggests that they build shelters and camp out of the mountain God interrupts him and tells him to listen to Jesus.

And Jesus doesn’t say, “Yes, that’s a great idea! Let’s build shelters and stay here forever.” Instead he goes down the mountain to where the people are waiting for him and one of the first things he does is heal a child.

Jesus will not allow himself to be contained in a shelter on a mountain. Jesus will go where the people are.

N.T Wright notes, “The disciples were overwhelmed by the transfiguration, and blurted out things they didn’t mean… They were unable to understand how it was that the glory they had glimpsed on the mountain, the glory of God’s chosen son, the servant who was carrying in himself the promise of redemption, would finally be unveiled on a very different hill, an ugly little hill outside Jerusalem.

We, too, often find it completely bewildering to know how to understand all that God is doing and saying, both in our times of great joy and our times of great sadness. But the word that comes to us, leading us on to follow Jesus even when we haven’t a clue what’s going on, is the word that came from the cloud on that strange day in Galilee, “This is my son, my chosen one.  Listen to him.” (N.T. Wright)

Amen.

Thanks to friend Dave Henson and the conversations he initiated on Facebook about the gospel reading for sparking my imagination this week.


Putting Things Right-Side-Up: A Sermon for Sunday February 19, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday February 19, 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.

When I was in university studying English literature one of the key skills we learned was how to apply different interpretive approaches to a single text.   These approaches were kind of like reading glasses that allowed us to see different things.

Say, for example, you wanted to read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You could imagine spreading all those glasses out on the desk in front of you and then picking them up and putting them on one by one.  You could then read that sonnet wearing the glasses of historical critical interpretation, or Freudian interpretation, or structural, or feminist, or, or, or.

You could even be really fancy and wear a couple of different pairs at the same time.

Each pair of glasses provided a unique way of seeing that sonnet and opened up new ideas and interpretations.

Each pair of glasses obscured elements in that sonnet making them difficult, or even impossible to see.

When I was a child, one of the first books I was taught to read was the Bible and no one ever mentioned to me that I would never be able to read the Bible objectively, I would always read it wearing a very specific set of glasses that I could never take off.

No one told me I was reading the Bible wearing the glasses of a white, middle class girl.

And those glasses were going to help me see some things, and they were going to obscure some things as well.

Even though I now know I’m wearing them, I still can’t take them off, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as I don’t ever forget that I’m wearing those glasses. As long as I don’t start to believe that the way I see things is the only way to see them. As long as I don’t start to think that every single person who has ever read the Bible has read it wearing the exact same glasses that I am wearing.

No one has ever read the Bible objectively, but throughout history most of the people who have publicly interpreted the Bible for us – by preaching or writing theological textbooks  – have been middleclass white men and they tend to forget that they are reading the Bible with white middleclass man glasses on. And, not only did they forget, pretty much everyone else forgot too. Their interpretations became the only interpretations.

That doesn’t surprise me, partly because of my academic training and partly because the fact that we are wearing different sets of glasses often becomes crystal clear to me simply because when I read the Bible, I often see very different things than those men do.

But that doesn’t mean they are mistaken and I am correct.  Their viewpoint is valid, it’s just not the only one. And I am just as likely to forget that my perspective isn’t the only perspective as they have been. I am just as likely to be taken by surprise when I realize that other people read the Bible looking through a very different set of glasses – the glasses of poverty, or environmentalism, or indigeneity or a combination of all three.

These people see things that I don’t.

These people have things to teach me.

One of my best experiences of studying the Bible was doing so with a diverse group of people, including an older Mennonite man who’d worked as a farmer for his entire life.  He was able to pick out and explain all the imagery connected to farming and growing things that I had always just glossed over. He could see things, I couldn’t.

In our gospel reading, Jesus is trying to tell people that the glasses through which they are used to looking at the world, are not the glasses through which he looks at the world.

We sometimes refer to this as Jesus’ upside-down kingdom, noting that Jesus came to turn our norms and expectations upside-down, but I like N.T. Wright’s insistence that Jesus’ way of seeing is in fact right side up, and it is ours that is up side down.

For example, we tend to see scarcity everywhere we look, whereas Jesus sees abundance.

I think it’s a good idea to regularly view the things we think of as “normal” with suspicion, because if we don’t, it’s likely we’ll live into upside-down thinking. The very kind of thinking Jesus came to challenge and to put right-side up.

Today’s gospel reading opens by telling us that Jesus is with a “great multitude of people” who come from a wide range of places.  Some we might recognize like Judea and Jerusalem, and some which might not, like the pagan seaports of Tyre and Sidon.

These people have come from a wide range of places to this “level place” to listen to Jesus and to be healed of their diseases and unclean spirits. (18-19) And they’re not waiting patiently in a line to be healed either, Luke tells us that “All in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out of him and healed all of them.” (19)

I do not envy Jesus at this moment.  This is an entirely unappealing scenario to me – to be in the middle of a crowd where everyone is jostling and trying to touch me.

No thank you.

And when does this crowding and touching stop? It’s not clear.  Are people crowding in and jostling each other for a chance to touch Jesus the entire time he is speaking?

Because of my particular set of glasses, I have always imagined that when Jesus was giving this famous speech, when Jesus was listing the people who are blessed, that it looked a little bit well, it looked a little bit like what is happening right now in church.

I imagined that Jesus was standing at the front of the crowd looking at them because that is the position I expect a teacher to be in.  I also assumed that there was a reasonable amount of personal space between him and the people, and they were calmly listening to him as he spoke.

But that might not be what was happening at all. It’s entirely possible that the entire time Jesus is trying to talk with his disciples about who is blessed, people are pushing into him, jostling each other, talking, making noise, and totally ignoring what he is saying because all they really want is to touch him and be healed.

It might very well be a grittier, more chaotic scene than the one I have always imagined.

And in case it’s not perfectly obvious, it can sometimes be difficult enough for me to get coherent thoughts out when we do have this sort of structure, when I stand here and you sit quietly there, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to continue to preach this sermon if you all decided to start rushing the front and touching me.

And let’s all agree to never find out.

And so as the crowd is pushing and reaching out to touch Jesus and be healed, what is Jesus trying to tell his disciples?

He’s telling them the same thing that Mary sang about in the Magnificat – the poor will inherit the kingdom, the hungry will be satisfied, those who are weeping will laugh.

God’s way is not our way. If we want to see the world the way God sees it, we need a new pair of glasses.

Our way of thinking is upside-down; God wants us to put it right.

This winter, on Thursday nights, I’m taking a course on Canadian history from an indigenous perspective. It’s part of the Anglican Church’s commitment to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

And if ever there was an experience that can emphasize that the glasses through which you see the world dramatically influence your perspective, comparing the way I was taught Canadian history in high school to how I’m learning it now is a pretty good one.

Because the differences are stunning.

For one thing, I honestly believed when I was studying history in high school that almost all of the indigenous people in Canada died not long after they first made contact with European explorers and the few that may have survived peacefully assimilated into Canadian society.

Now I know that around the time that European settlers were first coming to Canada, the Christian church was enmeshed in some pretty upside-down thinking. They’d forgotten Jesus’ message in tonight’s gospel reading and replaced it with a series of upside-down messages that said:

“Blessed is European culture, blessed are our values, blessed are our methods of governance and ways of organizing society, blessed is our white skin, for God is on our side.

And woe to anyone who looks, or thinks, or acts differently than us.

And if when exploring the world we find land, we can take it, for God wants us to and the Pope has assured us of this through the Doctrine of Discovery.

And if when exploring we find land and it has people on it, but the people do not look and act like us or use the land in the ways that we use land, then we can still take it. Because God wants people to look and act like us, and anyone who does not use the land in the ways that we use land is just wasting it anyway.”

And the people who thought and acted in these ways didn’t realize that they were mixing up the glasses of colonialism with the glasses of Christ’s teachings and not only did this cause tremendous damage, it continues to do so, and it will take a long time and a lot of effort to begin to heal these distorted ways of thinking and damaged relationships.

When Kyle Mason spoke at our last Idea Exchange event – which was recorded and is available as a podcast – he spoke about treaties and territorial acknowledgements and how something as simple as acknowledging that treaties were once signed between diverse peoples detailing how this land was to be used, how just acknowledging those treaties, can help us all to begin to see things in a different way.  It can help us to begin to see through the glasses of reconciliation. It’s a small but powerful thing.

There is so much more that can be done, but each and everything we do matters and can make a difference.

Now, here’s another thing my worldview may be obscuring in this gospel passage.  After sitting with it all week and thinking about what to say to you, I took off my interpretive glasses, cleaned them, and looked again. I looked at the text and I looked at all the words I’d already written and I realized I was still missing something.

Earlier I told you that I’d made an assumption about where Jesus was standing and the distance between him and the rest of the people, assuming it was similar to the way we’re situated right now and I told you that wasn’t what the text actually says.

But even after having written that, I still looked at what Luke says Jesus said, and I assumed a sermon – the kind of sermon where people are placed into various categories and some are good and some are bad, and everyone generally just needs to try a little bit harder.

But now I’m not so sure that that’s what was actually happening.  What if instead of giving a speech, Jesus is looking at the people who are clamoring for his attention, and he is simply blessing them?

What if as they are reaching out to touch him for healing, he is reaching back to offer a blessing?  What is when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, he isn’t thinking about an abstract group of people who will receive a blessing in the future, but he is looking at people who are actually poor and is actively blessing them right then and there?

And what if the same is true of that list of woes?  What if while he is blessing the people who are desperately trying to get close enough to touch him, he sees other people who are stading a little bit further off. People who think they have it all together. Who think their riches or their happiness or their full bellies are things they have earned and deserve and will last forever. People who think they are independent and don’t need anyone, including God.    What if Jesus see those people and wants to warn them that they are deceiving themselves?

What if blessing really looks like the realization that we need God, and woe looks like fooling ourselves into thinking we are God?

Jesus is doing a lot of things in this gospel reading and we certainly can’t cover them all tonight, but one thing he is doing is warning us about our capacity to deceive ourselves. When the church is more reflective of the list of woes than the list of blessings, then we are surely missing the point.

For the many places we have missed the point in the past, we need to repent and seek forgiveness, for all the ways we have the capacity to mess up again in the future, we need to do our best to see not as the world sees, but as Jesus sees, because that is the only way we will every turn our upside-down thinking and our upside-down world, right-side up again.

But we never have to do anything without first asking for and receiving Christ’s blessing.  A blessing that is always freely and willingly given. We just have to ask.

Amen.


Tasting Notes: A Sermon for Sunday January 21, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday January 21, 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.

Growing up we didn’t have wine in our house. We didn’t have it in church either – for communion, we’d pass around trays of tiny shot glasses of grape juice instead.

I had a vague awareness from books and movies that wine was more of a category than a single product. It could be red or white, cheap or expensive. It could have “rich tannins” or “hints of oak.”

When I first started drinking wine, I thought it pretty much all tasted disgusting.

And then one day, some friends took me to a wine tasting and I was able to spend an evening going around with a trained sommelier who tried to teach me about wine.  She’d patiently say, “Now this one, this one is lovely with notes of cherries and cinnamon. Swirl your glass and smell. Can you smell the cherries? The cinnamon?”

No.

“How about this one, it’s more floral. Can you smell the difference? Can you taste it?”

No.

Slowly, however, I began to pick up on a few things. I began to be able to notice that one wine smelled different than another, but I definitely couldn’t accurately identify those differences. And I still can’t.

Tonight’s gospel is about transformation. It’s a story about water that becomes wine, and exceptionally good wine at that. It’s a story about people who are slowly beginning to understand who Jesus is.   They are beginning to realize that there is “something different about that kid from Nazareth,” even if they can’t identify exactly what that difference is.

It’s also the story of a mother and her son. Mary has been carefully watching and interacting with her son Jesus throughout his entire life and she’s able to pick up on all the subtle nuances of who he is and who he is becoming. She can detect the “strong notes of divinity” in him.

John’s gospel is full of “tasting notes” meant to help us identify Jesus’ character. John calls these notes “signs,” and today’s gospel reading is the first of seven signs that he writes about. Rather than simply providing us with a list of Jesus’ character traits, he gives us a series of stories that show, rather than tell, us exactly who Jesus is. Each sign helps us “taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

The reading begins, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee…”

In the first chapter of John, we read about a series of events that all begin with the phrase “the next day.” John is telling the people about Jesus and then “the next day,” he sees Jesus, and then “the next day” several of John’s followers decide to follow Jesus, and then “the next day” they go to Galilee and then, in the second chapter, instead of continuing with this particular grammatical construction, John switches to say, “on the third day.” [1]

John will use this phrase again towards the end of the gospel and I think he is purposely making a connection between this sign and Jesus’ resurrection “on the third day.”

This story has “subtle hints of Easter.”

The wedding doesn’t take place in Jesus’ hometown, it takes place in Cana. Cana is not in Judea, it’s in Galilee, and Galilee was known for it’s “thieves, rebels, and Gentiles.”[2]

The location of the wedding highlights that Jesus did not come to build walls or to shore up boundaries between countries, between religions, or between ethnic groups. He came to show that those kinds of boundaries are not relevant in God’s kingdom.

A wedding was an important community event, a celebration that likely involved everyone in the village and at least some people from neighbouring villages as well – Mary, her son, and his friends have all been invited for example.

Running out of wine at a wedding wasn’t just an unfortunate mistake. It was disgraceful: it could easily be seen as a bad omen about the future of the marriage they were all gathered to celebrate.

But even though running out of wine at a wedding was a serious problem, it still seems like an odd thing for Jesus Christ, the savior of the entire world, to concern himself with.  Surely wine at a local wedding is a job for middle management.

But he does choose to become involved, and that choice points to several other things about his character.

Firstly, Jesus is a man who listens to women. This may be the first, but it won’t be the last time a woman will change Jesus’ mind in the gospels.

I’ve been thinking about Mary all week as I have been preparing this sermon. If anyone ever tells you that the Bible isn’t funny, just show them this exchange between Jesus and his mother, because it’s hilarious.

Mary, noticing that the hosts have run out of wine, points out the situation to Jesus whose reply is basically, “How is that my problem? They should have hired a better catering company,” and Mary doesn’t even dignify his comment with a response. She just turns to the servants, instructs them to do whatever Jesus tell them to do and leaves, knowing full well that her kid is going to take care of the situation whether he wants to or not.

I love the trust and confidence that she displays in this interaction. She doesn’t need to debate or argue or plead. She just states the need and trusts that Jesus will take care of it.

She has been watching Jesus carefully for his entire life and she knows who he is and that knowing, that deep knowing, has resulted in a deep sense of safety and trust.

It’s something I admire, even if I can’t always manage to emulate it.

Jesus’s choice to get involved in the menu at a wedding is also a sign that his compassionate nature will regularly lead him to engage with people in need in surprising ways.

Not unlike a fine wine that, after you’ve swirled it around in your glass a few times begins to open up and reveal complex flavours you weren’t expecting.

And how does Jesus re-stock the wine supplies for this wedding? Does he create new wine jugs out of thin air?

No.

We know the people have consumed all the available wine, does Jesus have the servants collect those empty jugs so he can re-fill them?

No.

He doesn’t use vessels meant for wine at all, instead he chooses water jugs used for Jewish purification rites.   Here is another complex flavour in John’s account. NT Wright points out that Jesus is doing some new “within the old Jewish system, bringing purification to Israel and the world in a whole new way.” (Commentary on John, 22)

Six water jugs, each meant to hold 20-30 gallons of water filled to the brim with the best wine. Jesus’ actions are also characterized by abundance. He doesn’t create a few bottles of wine and tell the servants to make do, he creates more than enough and of the finest quality.

Jesus’ first miracle affects a large number of people, but is only noticed by a small handful. We’re not told about the panicked bride and groom tearfully yelling at their parents because not only has their poor planning ruined their wedding, it’s a bad omen over their entire marriage. We’re not given scenes of parents who are shocked and perhaps a little disgusted by guests who are guzzling wine so quickly they couldn’t possibly have predicted how much to order. We not given a scene later in the story where any of the guests realize just how good and plentiful the wine at this wedding has become.

Mary is the only person we know for sure even noticed that the wine was running out. The only recorded reaction we have about the replacement wine comes from a servant, the steward, and even he has no idea where the wine came from because none of the servants tell him. Throughout the gospels, people who would typically be the least important are the ones who consistently possess the insider knowledge of what Jesus is capable of.

This is not a flashy show of Jesus’ power performed to a large crowd, even though a large crowd was readily available. It’s a quiet miracle. Performed by servants in a back room.

I’ve said this before, but one thing I find so interesting about biblical stories, is that so much of our interpretation of a story depends on the tone of voice we choose to ascribe to individual characters. And that tone is almost always someone we have to choose to add, it’s usually not written into the text.

I’ve heard this story my entire life and always thought that when the steward says to the groom “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now,” that he is paying the groom a compliment. (11)

But it was recently pointed out to me that there is no reason to assume it’s a compliment at all. In fact, it equally likely, more likely even, that the steward is throwing some “serious shade.”[3]

People who have consumed a lot of wine don’t have the most sophisticated palates. They can’t appreciate good wine so it’s silly to serve it to them. It makes every kind of sense to serve the best wine first and move to the inferior quality product when not only are people less likely to care, there are less likely to notice.

Isn’t it a waste to give such high quality wine to people who can’t even appreciate it?

But Jesus doesn’t think like the steward, or like me for that matter. Jesus always gives us the best, not because we are worthy but in the midst of our unworthiness.

Jesus always gives us the best even when he knows we won’t be able to fully appreciate it.

God feeds us and satisfies our thirst even when we can’t fully appreciate the quality of the wine. God doesn’t wait for us to become worthy because we never will be. We’re all unworthy.

And God loves us anyway.

Unfortunately the church has a pretty terrible track record of thinking that God is more like the steward than like Jesus.

We have a vast storehouse of great wine but oftentimes, we act like all we have are empty jars or the cheapest wine.

Many of us saw a horrific example of this yesterday in video footage that exploded across social media of students from a Catholic high school who were shockingly disrespectful to an indigenous elder in Washington DC.   Young people who somehow got the message that on a field trip with their Christian school, it was a good idea to spend their time engaging in the sort of ugly behavior that builds up walls and creates divisions between people.

Their actions leave a bitter, acidic taste in my mouth. They don’t taste anything like Jesus.

That wise elder responded with a quiet dignity I can only hope I will someday have the grace and maturity to emulate. In his actions, we can taste the finest wine.

Those kids behaved in ways that make me so very sad, and angry, and in that rush of emotions I have the temptation to build my own new set of walls, to say, ‘Those kids are not welcome at Christ’s table.”

But those kids don’t need to be excluded from Christ’s table and I don’t get to make that decision. They need someone to show them that the swill they have been consuming is indeed garbage and that, in Christ Jesus, we have a story and a way of living that tastes so much better.

All are welcomed without exception at Christ’s table because it is God’s table and not our own. The table has been set with an abundant feast of the highest quality. We are all welcome at this table, no matter what we have done, no matter how unworthy we feel.

At the table we are offered a taste of what God is like.

So come, taste and see. The Lord is good.

Amen.

[1] Which means this is actually a series of 4 days, 3 that Jesus was present for.

[2] Roy Harrisville

[3] Thanks to Reagan Humber at HFASS for the image of the steward with attitude.


Ponder This: A Sermon For Sunday December 16, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 16, 2018.  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.

Sometimes, when I look at the list of readings for the coming week, I know what to expect before I even look up the verse. John 3:16? I have that one memorized.  1 Corinthians 13? The love chapter. One of the most popular texts to read at a wedding. Got it. And even if I don’t know the exact verse, I usually have a general sense of the book.

But Zephaniah?  I’m pretty sure I’ve read it before, having completed at least a few of the read through the Bible in a year programs I attempted as a kid, but when I saw it listed for this Sunday, I didn’t know what to expect.

I knew Zephaniah was a prophet and so I assumed tonight’s reading would be something challenging and apocalyptic. Something that would be difficult to preach without wagging my finger, but, as it turns out, we’re at the point in Advent where the readings begin to turn towards more positive themes. Jamie got the tough ones over the past few weeks when I was away. He got the readings that remind us that “I’m not OK and you’re not OK.”

Tonight is the third Sunday in Advent, sometimes called Gaudete, or pink, or joy Sunday.  Things are beginning to shift, to soften as we get closer to Christmas.

The third Sunday in Advent has a different tone, but not a different message.  We are not OK. The world is still a complete mess. But even though we have failed God, God will not fail us and today’s readings remind us of that.

Zephaniah is a short book, only 3 chapters long, tucked near the very end of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The first two chapters follow a pretty standard pattern in prophetic writing. The “day of the Lord” is coming, get ready!

In this case, the people of Judah have strayed from the path and are following false gods.   They smugly believe that “the day of the Lord” is the day that they will finally be given power and control. But they are wrong and Zephaniah is here to set the record straight.  When “the day of the Lord” comes, they too will be judged, and found wanting.

This message has been fleshed out in the earlier chapters, but tonight’s reading is from the end of the book and the prophet has shifted to the good news portion of the story. Having firmly established that judgment is deserved, Zephaniah begins to describe a joy-filled future:

14 Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.

The Lord has taken away the judgments against you… the Lord is in your midst, you shall fear disaster no more.

The prophet gives reason upon reason to be joyful, to sing, and to shout.

Given that I usually consider Advent to be one of the quietest seasons of the Christian year, this is a pretty loud reading. It’s more “Joy to the World” than “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.”

But Zephaniah provides ample reasons for this loud celebration.  The Lord is here. There is no longer any need to fear judgment, or disaster, or oppressors or anything else because God has taken care of everything.

It’s a time of celebration.

It’s a time of celebration but not just for the people.  God will also celebrate. When the day of the Lord comes, God and God’s people will celebrate together. Singing and shouting as loudly as they can.

Stories of people singing loud songs of praise to God make a lot of sense to me. I have, on more than one occasion felt a sense of joy well up in me that was so strong I couldn’t help but burst into song.  As someone who has gone to church her entire life, I’ve logged a lot of hours singing songs of praise to God with other people as well.

But the reverse? The idea that God would so delight in me, in us, that God would burst into song? Well, that’s not something I’ve ever really thought about.

But that’s what Zephaniah describes.  The prophet tells us that God is here, that God is rejoicing over the people with gladness, renewing them in love, and exulting over them with loud singing.  (3.17) God sings. God shouts. God rejoices.

And the people cannot help but join in and sing along.  What other response can you have when you realize just how much God loves you?  Just how much God delights in you?

It’s a common biblical metaphor to describe the relationship between God and God’s people as a love affair, as a marriage.

Can you imagine a marriage where only one partner does all the work? Well, you probably can, but then you’re not picturing a healthy marriage.  Ideally a marriage is meant to be a partnership, a relationship based on mutuality, where each person loves and care for the other.

Zephaniah is describing a time when the relationship between God and God’s people will be restored.  A time when the love between God and God’s people will be renewed.

It is so easy to think of our relationship with God as a one-way street and focus only on our role – we are to love God and sing praises.  We so easily forget that God delights in us too. But God does. God loves us so much that God can’t help but sing about it.

Another key theme that runs throughout the Bible is that God is thrilled whenever we choose to turn towards God.  God loves and delights in us.

Zephaniah describes God bursting into joyous song. In our gospel reading, Gabriel describes Mary as “favoured.” Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus talks about angels throwing a party every time a sinner repents. (Luke 15:10)

But Zephaniah goes further still.  God will not be satisfied to celebrate with the people who turn and follow. God’s love will extend even further, to the margins of society to welcome everyone to the party.

In language similar to other prophets like Micah, Zephaniah shows God, the good, good shepherd welcoming outcasts and “the lame” – those who have been marginalized because of a physical disability.  Those who have felt invisible will be made visible – they will be “renown in all the earth,” and they will be “praised among all the people of the earth.” (3:19-20) All will be welcomed, all will be seen, all will be loved and belong.

But Zephaniah is a prophet, painting a picture of the future.  The celebration will come, but not yet.

Fast forward to our gospel reading, and we see another step in God’s plan to redeem humanity: God sends the angel Gabriel to Mary with a message that will interrupt and forever change the plans she has for her life.

Gabriel begins as he always begins, as God always begins -since this is really God’s message, not Gabriel’s – with the affirmation that all that God has created is good.“Greetings, favoured one!” Gabriel proclaims to Mary. “The Lord is with you!” Before she hears anything else, God wants Mary to hear this: She is favoured and God is with her.

Mary may wonder, “Who am I?” but God’s answer is clear, “You are my favoured one, beloved and beautiful to me.”

It is unlikely that Mary would have ever had an opportunity to develop a distinctive identity apart from the one given to her by God. She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity. She is too poor to purchase her place in society.

Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.

All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which may just be why God chooses her. Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favour.

So Gabriel begins by affirming God’s love for Mary and continues, as angels speaking to human beings tend to do, by telling her there is no need to fear:

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God.  And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus… [and then] Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (30-35)

One thing that amazes me about biblical stories like this is that, even after hearing them year in and year out for my entire life, it seems that every year I learn some new detail that opens up the story for me in a new way.  Last year you may have heard me go on, and on, about the shepherds. You can ask me about that later if you didn’t. I’m still pretty excited about it.

This year, I learned about an unusual piece of medieval theology from a fantastic book called, “A Word to Live By” by Lauren Winner.

Presumably uncomfortable with the physical details of this miraculous conception story, the medieval church imagined that Jesus was conceived through Mary’s ear.  Don’t think too deeply or too literally about that, it’s just plain weird, but that’s what they taught.

Now that would perhaps have stayed as an odd piece of church trivia to bring out at parties, if it weren’t for the way Lauren continues to unpack this idea:

“To conceive means to ‘become pregnant with a child’ and it also means ‘to form an intention in the mind or heart.’ (‘Why hast though conceived this thing in thine heart?’ Peter asks the duplicitous Ananais in Acts 5:4, KJV)” Mary conceived a child through her ear, said the medievals; when I – Lauren – listen to the Scriptures in church, I might find the sounded word plants an intention in my heart. I am, in a very small way, imitating Mary, trying to find an openness to whatever God wants to root and gestate in me.” (45)

Mary is someone who listens carefully and thinks deeply about what she has heard. The word “ponder,” which means to weigh or consider the value of, is used to describe her actions more than once in scripture.  Earlier in our gospel reading it says she “pondered” Gabriel’s words of greeting. (29) Later in the story, after a visit from the shepherds in Bethlehem, we are told that “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (2:19)

She’s a thinker.  She knows the importance of taking time to quietly reflect on her experiences, to ponder them.  To weigh and consider their value before deciding what to do.

Gabriel tells Mary of God’s plan and as she listens, something is planted in her heart.

The text doesn’t say how long it took Mary to respond to Gabriel’s message – seconds, minutes, hours, days. It just tells us that when she did respond she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

This to me, is the quiet work of Advent.  What happens when I slow down long enough to listen to what God is trying to say to me? What happens when I am quiet long enough to absorb and reflect on what I have heard? To weigh its value. What will grow in this waiting that could never take root if I continue to rush?

What new and precious hope will be born?

In Zephaniah, the prophet paints a joy filled picture of what will happen if the people heed the warnings and turn to God.  But the book ends before we find out what happens. Do they listen and allow what they have heard to take root in their lives? We’re not told.

In Mary’s case we do know.  She will take in Gabriel’s news, ponder it in her heart, and later burst into a song so beautiful that many of us still sing it today.

But that’s a story for another time.

Amen.


On Kings and Kids: A Sermon for Sunday November 25, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 25, 2018.  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.

Tonight is the final Sunday in the liturgical year, the last Sunday before Advent, commonly called Christ the King Sunday.  It is a Sunday to focus on Christ’s power and authority before we shift to the themes of Advent and begin to wait for the Christ who comes as a child in a manger.

Not every denomination celebrates Christ the King Sunday.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden used to call this Sunday the Sunday of Doom, which is pretty intense.  Now they call it Return of Christ Sunday, which I think was a pretty wise decision.

In some Anglican Churches, today is also referred to as “Stir Up Sunday,” in part because the collect that used to be said at the beginning of the service began, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord…” but also because if you want to have your fancy Christmas pudding ready by December 25th, you need to stir it up today.

But here, tonight, we are celebrating Christ the King Sunday, so it’s fitting that our reading from the Psalms begins, “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.”

The Lord is king, Christ is king. What does that mean to you? When you hear the word “king,” what images come to mind?

Personally, the images that come to my mind, aren’t overly helpful.

Queen Elizabeth is my clearest association with the idea of a ruling monarch. I couldn’t come up with the name of a modern day king without the help of Google. It turns some countries still do have kings, but not ones I’m overly familiar with.

As a kid, I understood that kings were boys and I wasn’t a boy so they were never the character I was overly interested in paying attention to in books or films. But it was more than a gender issue, because almost all of the kings I can think of from films and literature are awful human beings who use their power only for personal gain, do not listen to or care for the people in their realms, and quite often behave like petulant children throwing temper tantrum after temper tantrum.   Not much to inspire in that.

It makes it difficult for me to get excited about celebrating Jesus Christ as a King.  Christ the mother hen Sunday I could get behind. Christ the social justice warrior. Christ the destroyer of hierarchy. Christ the host of great feasts.  All of these images are infinitely more exciting to me than Christ the king.

But today the lectionary says we need to talk about Christ the King.  Which is probably one of the best reasons to use a lectionary. It forces us to talk about things we would rather ignore and means that as a preacher, I can’t just cherry pick and preach only on the passages of scripture I like.

In tonight’s gospel reading, Pilate asks Jesus directly if he is a king and Jesus gives characteristically vague answers.  He never explicitly says, “I am a king,” but, in this exchange with Pilate, Jesus does describe his kingdom, saying, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (v.36)

“By explaining that his rule or kingdom is not of this world, Jesus means that its origin, values, and methods are from God rather than the world (v.36), evidenced by the refusal of the use of force and violence to defend himself.” (Collegeville Commentary 358)

Jesus may be a king, but he is not a king like any king we have ever known and so in order to understand what kind of a king he is, we have to set aside everything we think we know about kings.

About a month ago, Matthew Shepard’s remains were interred in Washington National Cathedral. The church service was broadcasted via live stream and was something to behold.

Matthew Shepard was a university student who volunteered in his local Episcopal Church. He loved his friends and family, and knew from an early age that he was gay. He died twenty years ago at the age of 21 because some people did not like the way Matthew loved. They drove him to a remote area, tied him to a fence, beat him savagely and left him to die.

His death made national news and inspired an entire generation of people to work to ensure that love is love and that no one would ever again have to feel that their life was in danger because of who God created them to be.

I watched the service at the Cathedral where Matt’s life was celebrated and his ashes were interred and I thought,  “For all the things the church gets so very, very wrong, when we get it right, it is truly beautiful.”

I watched Bishop Gene Robinson gently place the urn containing Matthew’s remains in a place of prominence at the front of the church and carefully, reverently smooth out the veil covering the urn, treating them with a care and a gentleness that Matthew did not receive in life and I thought, “This is what is means to use power and authority for all the right reasons and in all the right ways.”  To show love and care for the one that many despised. To take the one that many wanted to say did not belong, and to say not only that he belongs, but to place him in the seat of honour.

Theologian Gordon Lathrope says, “Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line. At least that is so if we are speaking of the biblical, historic Christ who eats with sinners and outsiders, who is made a curse and sin itself for us, who justifies the ungodly, and who is himself the hole in any system.” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: a Liturgical Cosmology)

Draw a line that includes us and excludes many others, and Jesus Christ is always on the other side of the line.

Jesus is a king whose power and authority is always used to erase the dividing lines we so love to draw.

Standing in a big fancy church, wearing fancy clothing, and treating Matthew’s remains and his memory with such love and respect, Bishop Gene gave me a glimpse of what it might mean in the Psalms when it says that “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength”

It looks a lot like love.

But even before I watched that service, and saw a glimpse of Christ the King in Bishop Gene, I have long considered Matthew Shepard to be a Christ-figure.

There is a song about Matthew on my favourite album by Peter, Paul, and Mary, “In These Times.” We’ll put a link to it on the website this week. (https://youtu.be/l7IA4u-eUKc)  In the song, Mary sings alone, her warm voice telling the story of Matthew’s last days on earth, and after each verse, Peter and Paul join in on the chorus that opens with the line, “Jesus, is on the wire.”

The album came out in 2004, I have listened to it countless time, and it still gets me every time.

The line works in two ways, first, because I do believe that Jesus was with Matthew that night. But also because Jesus, like Matthew, was killed because people didn’t like the way he loved. They didn’t like the way Jesus threatened the status quo, they didn’t like the kind of king Jesus came to be.

Anytime you see an image of Jesus as King that neatly matches the image you have of an earthly king, something has gotten lost in translation.  You have to look for something different to see the Christ who is king, you have to go to the margins of society, you have to look on the opposite side of any dividing line you are trying to uphold, you have to look on fence in Laramie, you have to look on a cross.

That’s a way of inhabiting kingship that stretches and challenges me to ask, who am I excluding? That’s a way of inhabiting kingship that I can get exited about and celebrate, not just on Christ the King Sunday, but everyday.

But we’re not just here tonight to celebrate Christ the King Sunday, we’re also here to celebrate the baptism of Adalynn Rose Phillips and Danica Si’ipn Phillips and you may think that there is a huge shift to make from the idea of Jesus as a very different kind of king to the baptism of two beautiful little girls, but there really isn’t. Because baptism is also about love and a countercultural narrative that says that God’s way of doing things is different from the world’s way.

Adalynn and Danica are fortunate to have been born into a family that loves them very much – their parents and siblings and extended family love them dearly.

They have two older brothers who are doing a fantastic job of being big brothers. At least when I’m around, Benjamin tends to be the quieter of the two bothers and so tonight I want to share a few things that I’ve learned from Caleb.

Before Adalynn and Danica were born, Caleb came up to me at church and said, “Do you know that we are having two babies? A girl, and a girl.”

And I’ve thought about that many times since then and I think Caleb was saying something very wise. It is really important to remember that while Adalynn and Danica are twins, they are also individuals. They are a girl, and a girl.

It will be so easy to just lump them together as “the twins,” but while that is an important part of their identity, it is not the only thing that will define them.  As they grow older they will have different interests and gifts and passions and we need to watch for and celebrate those things.

And I want to work on seeing them as a girl, and a girl as well, but I’m not quite there yet, I still can’t quite tell them apart, which is why I need to admit that this next story happened when I was holding one of the girls, but I can’t remember if it was Adalynn or Danica.  I’m going to get better at telling them apart, I promise.

On the first Sunday that Adalynn and Danica came to church, I was holding one of them and Caleb wasn’t sure this was a great idea.  He watched me very closely and made sure that I knew that this baby belonged to his family, that she was going to go home with them, that I could NOT take her home with me.

“You could give her back to me right now,” he told me, “I can hold her.”

And Caleb, you were absolutely right once again.  Adalynn and Danica belong to your family, to the Phillip’s family, and tempting as it may be, I can’t take them home with me. They will go home with you, and that’s as it should be.

But tonight, we’re going to publicly celebrate another fact, and that is that while I will never be part of the Phillips family, we are in fact, family.

Tonight through baptism, we are publicly stating that Adalynn and Danica are part of God’s family, just as I am part of God’s family. Just like each person here is part of God’s family.

It still doesn’t mean I get to take your sisters home after church, but it does mean that I have a responsibility to love them and to care for them and play a part in helping them become exactly the people that God created them to be.

I’m supposed to do the same thing for you Caleb, we all are, and you are to do the same for us.  By continuing to be exactly who you are, you are already doing a great job of reminding us of the same things that baptism reminds us of – that God made us, that God loves us, and that we are all part of God’s family. Thank you for that reminder.

And so, now I’ve talked long enough and it’s time for us to welcome Adalynn and Danica into God’s family through baptism.  We’re going to sing shortly, and as we sing, I invite the baptismal party and members of the family to join us at the back of the church. Other friends of Chantelle and David are also invited to gather around the back with us.

Let’s sing.


Crawling Camels and Closed Minds: A Sermon for Sunday October 14, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 14, 2018.  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.

This sermon is influenced by a sermon preached by Reagan Humber, the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver.

Today’s gospel passage is often referred to as the story of the rich young ruler. It’s not a title you can easily infer from our reading from Mark, but the story also appears in the gospel of Matthew, where the man is described as young, and in Luke, where he is described as a ruler.

So this man, runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees and says, “Good Teacher, what much I do to inherit eternal life?” (17) He’s basically asking Jesus to lay out a road map for eternal life.

And Jesus’ response has a bit of an edge to it. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” (18)

If I was this rich young ruler I’d be instantly confused. I might even mumble an answer like, “Um, because you ARE good or because that’s just a thing we say in this culture as a sign of respect?”

But Jesus doesn’t give him a chance to answer, rather he continues with a short list of commandments. He doesn’t even list them all. And the rich young ruler quickly dismisses the list saying, “Yes, yes, I’m already doing all of that. What else do I need to do?”

Jesus is trying to give this man good news. He is trying to say that this man already knows the way. He doesn’t have to do anything to inherit eternal life, it’s already his.

Jesus is saying, “don’t worry, you’re in good shape,” but the man doesn’t believe him. Surely it’s impossible, he can’t possibly be doing enough already. Surely he needs to do more.

And Jesus, we are told, looks at the man, and loves him. I love these details, Jesus knows and loves this man. He is looking at him, paying attention to him and it is out of that love and that knowing that Jesus speaks the words the man most needs to hear. (21)

Jesus says, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (21)

Jesus looks at a man who seemingly has it all – he is rich, young, in a position of power, and says, “You lack one thing…” He doesn’t say, “You have too much, get rid of your stuff,” rather he says, “there is something you are missing.” This isn’t about subtraction, it’s about addition.

What does the man lack?

I think, what he lacks is the imagination to believe that another way is possible. The imagination that would lead him to suspect that the way he has been taught to think since birth, might not be the only way to think.

He wants solutions – actions and reasoning that he can understand and if the truth doesn’t fit into that paradigm, he can’t recognize it as truth.

Eternal life is a free gift? There is nothing more I need to do? I’m fine just as I am? It’s unimaginable. It’s impossible. There must be a catch and the rich young ruler wants Jesus to show it to him.

Sometimes we become so locked into our old ways of thinking, that we can’t even imagine a new way is possible. There can be a solution staring us in the face, Jesus can be standing right in front of us telling us that a different, better way is possible, and we won’t be able to see him because we are blinded by our old behaviors and past experiences.

“But throughout the gospel, Jesus lays out that eternal life isn’t built on our effort, on our work, or on our deservedness. The way to eternal life is built upon God’s grace as a gift, which has nothing to do with our own goodness. But the man in the gospel can’t see this because he is blinded by a system of transactional relationships based upon effort and reward.” (RH)

My first spiritual director loved to tell stories and he had some great pithy lines that I will never forget. He once told me the story of a man who was very much like the rich young ruler in our story, and when he described the man he said, “He was one of those guys who spent his whole life earnestly trying to put Jesus out of a job.”

And yes, in case it’s not obvious, he told me this story for a reason. He told me this story because he could see that I was one of those gals who was spending her life earnestly trying to put Jesus out of a job.

And I still am sometimes, but I’m working hard to learn to ask the question, “What is mine to do?” I have a role to play to be sure, but so does Jesus. I need to do my work, and trust that Jesus will do his.

But the rich young ruler can’t imagine a life like that, at least not in the portion of his life story recorded in Mark. He is so stuck in his old way of thinking that Jesus words are shocking to him and Mark tells us that he goes away grieving. (22)

And grief is a deep, and active, and painful emotion. But grief can also be healing. It’s possible, that this man will, after that grief subsides, be willing to have his imagination expanded by Jesus’ words and do exactly what Jesus counsels him to do.

But we don’t get to hear the rest of his story and, by walking away when he does, this young man misses out on the next few things that Jesus says.

After the young man leaves, Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. (25)

People have been trying to figure out what Jesus meant by this since the moment he said it. A fairly well known interpretation goes something like this: In Jesus’ time there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Eye of the Needle.” And for whatever reason, the people who built this gate built it in such a way that it was too small for a camel to walk through. And, for whatever reason, they didn’t also build a second camel accessible gate.

In order for a camel to go through this gate, you would have to remove all the cargo the camel was carrying and then the camel would have to sink down to the ground and crawl through the gate.

But here’s the thing. “There is no evidence anywhere in the Mideast” that such a gate existed.” (Collegeville Commentary, 120) None. There is no evidence to suggest that a gate called the Eye of the Needle ever existed.

Well, you might say, we haven’t found any evidence that this gate existed, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t exist in Jesus’ time. Fair enough, except, that we still have camels, and camels can’t crawl.

Jesus is not making a reference to a literal place, he is using a form of hyperbole that is a natural part of Semitic speech.

But why then, did the understanding that there was a literal gate with literal crawling camels become so popular?

I suspect it’s because it is a more comfortable interpretation than to believe that it is utterly impossible for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.

On one hand, people, especially wealthy people, don’t want to believe that it’s impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven. This crawling camel interpretation provides them with a convenient workaround. It allows them to believe that what Jesus is saying is that it may be hard for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom, but it’s not impossible.

But it’s not only rich people, a category as North Americans we basically all fall into by the way, it’s not only rich people like us who have a hard time with this story.

The church has always had a really hard time hearing that eternal life is a gift. This literal gate/literal camel interpretation is a way of trying to erase God’s grace from the story. And while this story is our focus today, it’s certainly not the only time we have been tempted to erase grace from God’s story.

We reject grace, because we prefer a story that says if we work hard enough we can earn salvation. If we, like that mythical camel, remove all of our baggage, humble ourselves, drop down to our knees and crawl, then we can enter God’s kingdom. If we do this slow, hard, painstaking work, then we will be allowed to enter heaven on our own steam. That’s a story that most of us can wrap our minds around. That’s a story we can be comfortable with.

That’s a story that completely eliminates God’s grace.

We’re uncomfortable with any idea that suggests that we are not in control of our own destinies. We are uncomfortable with any idea that challenges the negative transactional tape in our heads that says we have to do something in order to get something.

We are uncomfortable with the Jesus who says not, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I’ll run you through an intensive salvation boot camp,” but rather says “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy burdened and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28)

The rich young ruler hears Jesus’ command to sell all he has and come follow Christ and he walks away grieving. And, as I said earlier, by leaving when he does, the young man missed the good new that Jesus shares with the disciples. He misses hearing Jesus say that, “It is impossible for a person, by the sheer force of their own will, to enter God’s kingdom, but nothing is ever impossible for God.”

Eternal life is God’s job, not ours. There are so many things that are impossible for us to do on our own, but nothing is ever impossible for God.

Stuck in his old ways of thinking, the rich young man leaves before hearing this good news. Where do you as an individual get stuck? Where do we as a community get stuck? Where do we all need to stretch our imaginations?

This past week, Jamie, Danielle and I went to Collegeville for the first session of the Communities of Calling initiative that our church will be a part of for the next 5 years. Jamie and I also returned home and dove straight into 3 days of diocesan synod so we haven’t really have time to unpack all that we heard and experienced in Collegeville just yet, but you will continue to hear more about the project as it unfolds.

What I can tell you today is that a major component of this project is an invitation for us, for all of us, to expand our imaginations and think creatively about vocation, faith, and what it means to be a church.

I’m excited for all of us to have the opportunity to discover the places where we may have fallen into crawling camel thinking and to begin to live into grace-filled God like thinking instead. I’m excited for what will happen when we allow ourselves to be stretched and challenged and inspired by the other participants in this project and by each other.

And, although I can’t imagine what all will happen as a result of this project, I do know about some of the beautiful things we have been able to do as a community when we were bold enough to stretch our imaginations. And those stories give me to confidence to risk stretching my imagination again.

For example, as a small church with a tight budget, it would be easy for us to believe that we cannot afford to be generous. Prudent even. It’s unlikely that anyone would criticize us for saying that we need every single penny that arrives in those offering baskets at the back of the church each Sunday just to keep our basic ministries running. Who would disagree with that?

Not me, that’s for sure.

And yet, in the past 11 years that I have been a part of this community I have watched people with bigger imaginations than mine utterly reject the sort of scarcity mentality that I so often cling to and say, “God is a God of abundance and God calls us to live lives of extravagant generosity.” These people in our community called us to imagine a more generous way of being church. They said, do we really believe that we can do more with 100% of our budget than God can do with 90%? And it captured our imaginations and over the years we gradually grew our budget for missions until it was 10% of our overall budget.

And that’s why, in November, our Mission Fund committee will have the extreme privilege to review your submissions and disburse those funds to people who are doing good work outside the walls of this church.

I stand here before you today saying that this is an amazing and beautiful thing that we do together that several years ago I was utterly convinced was impossible. If it had been up to me, I, like the rich young ruler, would have walked away from this idea with sadness in my heart, and a conviction that such a thing was simply impossible.

But nothing is impossible with God.

At the end of our service, we regularly say a prayer that includes the beautiful lines, “Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine….”

What could happen if we really leaned into that truth? What could happen if we all begin to both ask and imagine?

I can’t imagine all the possibilities, but I do know that nothing, nothing, is impossible with God.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 


Check Your Status: A Sermon for Sunday September 23, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 23, 2018.  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.

From time to time when I’m shopping I will see a kid have a complete meltdown.  Maybe they are tired, or hungry, or bored or maybe they just really, really want the toy that their parent has said they can’t have. Whatever the reason, they are done, and they express their feelings with tears, loud cries, and flailing limbs.

And usually when I witness this sort of meltdown, one of my main thoughts is, “Wow. I wish it was still socially acceptable for me to behave like that.”

Because I still feel like that sometimes – done. At the end of my rope. And I wonder if I might just feel a lot better if instead of using the more “adult” coping mechanisms the world has insisted I develop as I’ve gotten older, I just had a full on meltdown and then dusted myself off instead.

I wonder about it, but I’ve never had the courage to test the theory out.

At least not in public.

In our reading from James we learn that wisdom that comes from God, and not the world, will lead to mature behaviour, and that the same is true if we decide to be friends with God, instead of with the world. So, perhaps, it’s not that I’m too afraid to see what would happen if I had a public meltdown, perhaps I’m actually a wise friend of God.

This morning I was preaching at the church that I attended when I was 17. I haven’t been back since then, and it was a bit disconcerting to imagine a group of people who, if they remembered me at all, remembered me at 17.  It had me thinking a lot this week about growth and maturity.

I also re-read a sermon series I wrote on James about 15 years ago thinking I could re-cycle some of that material, only to find that I couldn’t.  The way I preach has changed a lot since then.

Feel free to thank me after the service for the fact that my average sermon clocks in at about 14 minutes these days, not 45.

Today’s lengthy passage from James and our gospel reading from Mark both contain themes of wisdom, growth and understanding.  James asks “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and Mark tells us yet another story of Jesus trying to teach the disciples, and the disciples not understanding what he is trying to tell them.

Is it wisdom that keeps me from throwing myself on the grocery store floor crying, “I have had a horrible day and now they are out of my favourite kind of chips? Whhhhhy?”

Maybe.

Or maybe I don’t have temper tantrums in grocery stores because I have found other ways to deal with those feelings.

Because as cathartic as screaming in a grocery store might be, I can also just log into one of my social media accounts and update my status.

I can post my temper tantrum online and get instant gratification.

People will click “like” and write kind words and I’ll feel so much better.

My status will determine my mood.

In our gospel reading, the disciples are also discussing how their status will affect them. Not their Facebook status, of course, but their status in the new kingdom that Jesus is going to bring about.

Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Galilee and Jesus is explaining to them that he is going to be betrayed, die, and three days later, rise again.

He isn’t speaking in riddles or parables this time either; he is laying out the facts as clearly as he can.

And they still don’t get it.

And they argue about which one of them will have the most privileged positions in the new kingdom.

Jesus is trying to teach them what true greatness looks in the counter cultural kingdom he has come to bring about.

He is beginning to challenge their notions of greatness, of what kind of Messiah he is, of what kind of kingdom he has come to usher in. He is teaching them about how this new kingdom will be established and extended.

These are challenging teachings. The disciples don’t get it. Years later, the people who James is writing to still haven’t fully grasped them, and when I look around the world today, I don’t think we have fully grasped them either.

Although it is not always the case, on this day, the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus questions so they argue about status, about which one of them is the greatest instead.

Do you ever do this? You encounter something troubling and rather than deal with it directly you change the subject. Or you hear something you don’t understand, but you’re afraid to ask a question? Possibly because you do not want to look dumb in front of someone you admire. Possibly because you’re also afraid what the answer to your question may be.

Just this week I heard a story about a person who lived for over a decade as if they had HIV/AIDS because they were so afraid that they might have it, that they didn’t want to go to a doctor.  It was just too scary to think about.

I also talked to someone else, who, when faced with a serious problem, will quickly and subconsciously scan the situation for the piece they feel the most comfortable with and focus exclusively on that.  Their boat is sinking and the latch holding the cabin door in place is coming loose? Time to bail water or jump ship? Nope. Time to grab a screwdriver and fix that latch.

Maybe it’s easier to argue about who will be the greatest in the new kingdom Jesus has come to bring about than to think about all of the things that will have to happen in order to establish that kingdom, including the death of someone they love.

At the end of the day, Jesus and the disciples are inside a house and Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about on the road, and they are silent. (33-34)

This is the silence of shame. The silence of a kid who has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It seems like the disciples know that they should be embarrassed about arguing about their relative status, even if they might not be able to fully articulate why that is.  Their silence seem to indicate that they know their talk of greatness is out of step with who Jesus is, with where he is going, and with where he wants to take them.

When they argued about who was the greatest, they were still thinking about worldly categories of greatness. They were still thinking as the world thinks, valuing what the world values.

We can see this in the fact that they are setting themselves up for greatness through self-promotion.  Presumably when they are arguing about greatness, they are setting themselves up as the greatest. It’s not clear, but I suspect that their argument on the road didn’t look like Matthew arguing passionately that Peter was the greatest and Peter arguing with equal vehemence that, “No, no, Matthew, I’m not the greatest, you are!”  I don’t think it looked like that. I suspect it looked more like self-promotion. Like boasting.

And what felt right and natural as they were walking during the day feels uncomfortable when Jesus questions them about it and so they fall silent.

Jesus doesn’t chastise or rebuke them, rather he continues to teach them about his definition of greatness, a greatness that is not reflective of the world’s values.

In the world’s eyes, greatness is often determined by how high up you are on the chain of command. If you have more people serving you than you have to serve, you are on the road to greatness.  If you don’t need to serve anyone and everyone is required to serve you, you have achieved true worldly greatness.

But Jesus says that in his kingdom, that order is reversed and greatness is determined by how many people you serve. Greatness is shown in humble, self-sacrificial service to others.

James will put this in the context of a binary. You can either be friends with God or the world, not both. (4:4) You can either choose earthly wisdom or the wisdom that comes from above, not both. Earthly wisdom leads to envy, selfish ambition, disorder and wickedness of every kind. (3:15) Wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (16)

The disciples fall silent at Jesus’ question. And then Jesus takes a child from the margins of the group and moves that child not only to the center, but into his arms as well saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (37)

Three years ago when Jamie preached on this same passage, he noted noted: “A child in that world had no status, no rights, really no claim on a role until they hit the age of 13 when the moved into adulthood – as sons or daughters of the Torah.

Yet Jesus takes the status-less child – property of the parents – and he says “now treat this child with dignity, welcome this child in its full humanity and when you do that you are welcoming me, and not only me, but the God who sent me.

Live that way, do that, see people that way and the lie of selfish ambition and self absorbed striving is unveiled.” (Jamie Howison)

I think I have heard this part of the story and seen images of a gentle blonde Jesus surrounded by rosy-cheeked children so many times that it’s easy for me to just gloss over this story.  Jesus loves sweet obedient children, this I now, for the Bible tells me so. I should try my best to behave like one.

I have heard this so many times that it doesn’t have a lot of impact anymore and so this week I have tried to imagine the story from a few different angles to see if there is something new it might have to teach me.

I would, for example, love to know what this experience was like for the child in question. One minute you’re playing quietly in the corner, and the next minute your parents’ houseguest has picked you up and plunked you on his lap in the middle of the assembled adults.  What did that feel like?

Last week at our 4pm service Jonny was telling the story and lovingly holding his son throughout and then, Jonny suggested that maybe Jesus gave that child didn’t just lovingly hold that child, maybe Jesus was also a bit more playful and gave him a noogie.

That’s also a spin on the story I’d never thought of before and it got me thinking more about that child’s actual experience and less about their role as passive object in an object lesson.

So what if, what if, that child hadn’t been playing peacefully in the corner? What if part of the reason Jesus picked up that child was because the child had started to throw a full on temper tantrum and it had distracted Jesus?

What if the child Jesus has chosen as an illustration of greatness is actually a sobbing, snotty nosed kid mid meltdown?

What does that do to our understanding of this story?

Does it, perhaps, say to the disciples that they don’t have to get stuck in a shame cycle or worry about asking foolish questions of Jesus because greatness can sometimes look like a bit of a mess?

Does it open up an invitation to help us realize that what Jesus is calling the disciples to– and by extension each one of us to – is full participation? It’s a call to bring all of who we are, and not just the nice, well behaved bits.

Does it help us to recognize that while, perhaps we shouldn’t throw temper tantrums in grocery stores we also shouldn’t push past the thoughts and feelings that make us uncomfortable?  We don’t need to repress them or be afraid to bring them to Jesus?

Maybe. I hope so. It did for me this week.

It was also helpful to be chewing on these ideas from Mark while also reading James’ call to grow and mature by making wise choices.

Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t think I actually want to throw temper tantrums in public. I like to think I have matured past that type of behavior, but I also want to find ways to healthily acknowledge the sorts of feelings that could lead to a public meltdown.  To honour them, not just repress them or feel ashamed of them. That’s what I’m actually looking for.

I’m likely not going to get it right on the first try, but I know I’m in good company. The people James is writing to and the disciples usually follow a pattern of trial and error and error as well. In the next chapter of Mark the disciples will be turn away little children who are being brought to Jesus (10: 13) and James and John, still focused on earthly status, will pull Jesus aside to ask if they can sit at his right and left hand. (10:37)

Even with Jesus’ patient and consistent teaching, it is hard for the disciples to let go of their worldly paradigm. It’s hard for them to begin to think and act differently than they have been taught to think and act their entire lives.

I do believe that some of Jesus’ message is starting to sink in, but it’s sinking in very, very slowly and it will result in slow change, not instantaneous transformation.

Which is encouraging.

Jesus is trying to tell the disciples, and by extension each one of us, to welcome those who do not have any status in our culture.  People who, like the child on his lap, have no status, nothing to offer, nothing to bring to the party. Why should we waste our time on people like that?

Because in God’s kingdom all are valued and are valuable.  (Paul White)

And that goes for each one of us. Later Jesus will tell us not only to welcome children, but to be like children. (10:15)

And when Jesus is calling us to be like a child – he doesn’t just mean the nice bits of being a child. Jesus is calling all of us.

The quarrelling, squabbling versions of us that James is finding so frustrating. The continually missing the point and wondering who is going to be the most important bits of us.

The too afraid to ask the questions parts of us.

Jesus welcomes all of us, sees us, loves us, embraces us.

May we learn to do the same – for ourselves, and for others.

Amen.


Lean into the things that make you feel most alive: A Sermon for Sunday August 19, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 19, 2018.  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.

“Be careful how you live,” that’s how our reading from Ephesians begins.  Life is a theme in both of tonight’s readings. The word “life” or variations like “live” and “living” occur ten times in these two relatively short passages.

In the gospel reading, Jesus says he is the “living bread that came down from heaven… and those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…. those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Which is a pretty weird thing to say.

Most of us in this room have probably heard these words, or variations of them, only to consume a bit of bread and a mouthful of wine often enough that we forget how shocking they could be.

I have a friend who worked on a Masters thesis on the various ways that the early Christians responded to accusations of cannibalism based on their neighbour’s fairly reasonable assumption that the new fringe group who have arrived on the scene and say they eat human flesh and drink human blood, actually do.

In our time, people may still think Christians are pretty scary, but it’s for very different reasons.

I read Jesus’ words about the life giving properties of his flesh and blood with a sense of relief not horror, because they remind me that the focus of Christ’s message is life, life that is available as a gift, free of charge.

Later in John, Jesus will further expand on this theme by stating that he came so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b) Others translations say “that we might have life and life to the full.”

On Wednesday I went to see the movie “Christopher Robin” with my niece. The film, which is really more for adults than kids, is set in the world of the Winnie the Pooh stories and imagines what might have happened to Christopher Robin when he grew up.

And it isn’t pretty.

After leaving his friends behind in the Hundred Acre Woods, Christopher Robin experiences the trauma of living in a boarding school and fighting in a war. He gets married, has a child, and works very hard at a job he doesn’t seem to enjoy.

He works so hard, in fact, that he is hardly ever home and rarely sees his family. He works so hard that he forgets how to play.

In one scene, his wife is upset to learn that he is going to miss yet another family holiday because of a work emergency and Christopher Robin tries to reason with her saying something like, “I just have to work very hard now, for the next few years, and then, then I’ll have made enough money that I can relax and enjoy life.”

And she replies, “Christopher, this is your life, it is happening right now and you are missing it.”

A lot of people, when they hear Jesus’ words about the bread of life and the promise that anyone who eats that bread will never die, make the same mistake that Christopher Robin does: they get so excited about the idea of eternal life, they get so wrapped up in imaging what might happen next, that they miss the fact that Jesus’ words also have something to say about this life right now.  They begin to live like Christopher Robin thinking, “I just have to suffer through this life, but the next life, well, the next life will be glorious!”

We all have a tendency to fall into this sort of either/or thinking, this scarcity mentality – I can either be happy now or in the future, not both. But God is always calling us to think bigger, to accept both/and thinking. Jesus has come to give us life now and in the future. We can have both.

Our reading from Ephesians opens by saying that we need to “[make] the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (v.15)

A day can’t literally be evil can it?  Time is a neutral construct. But a day can feel evil or contain evil.  I can’t count the number of times this week that someone referred to our current weather conditions as “unsettling” or “apocalyptic.”  The days felt evil.

The news didn’t help much either – horrifying stories about child abuse in the church, the death of a beloved icon, and really, any news story that began with the words “The president tweeted…”

It doesn’t take much to get the sense that, just as in Paul’s time, our days are evil too.

I spent a lot of time this week trying to puzzle out why Paul chose to make this argument about time by saying the days are evil.  He could have said, “Make the most of the time because time is a gift from our good and loving God,” or “Make the most of the time because life is precious and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.” You know, something that’s got a positive tone to it that I could easily back up with a massive pile of scripture.

But no, Paul chooses to be a bit of a downer. Make the most of the time because the days are evil.

At least, Paul may seem like a downer if you only read this one small section of the letter. We’re over halfway through Ephesians at this point, and Paul spent the first half of the letter laying the groundwork for the advice his offers in the second half.

In the first chapter, he tells us that God’s goal (telos) for the world is to bring all things together in Christ. (1:10) In the third we learn that God wants the church to be the embodiment of that promise on earth. (3:10) Paul is calling the Ephesians to be wise and align their lives with that goal.

Ephesians is also a letter that contains beautiful expressions of how much God loves us like, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:18-19) There’s some pretty upbeat stuff in this letter.

But this is also a letter about wisdom, and it would be unwise – foolish even – to pretend that evil isn’t real.  It is. So if the days are evil, then Paul needs to say that the days are evil. But we also need to remember that this small fragment from Ephesians doesn’t tell the whole story.  The days may be evil, but we also know that the whole world is God’s good creation and we are called to play a part in celebrating that which is good, and redeeming that which is evil. (2:10)

Paul’s words are a call to a realistic sort of hope that is honest about the state of things, including the evil of the day.

While it is an interesting academic exercise to try and determine just why Paul chose to describe the days as evil, I think the important point to glean from his words is this: we need to choose wisely and make the most of the time that we have been given.

And that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world to wait for a better time to come in the future. And that doesn’t mean ignoring the life that we are actively living in this very moment to focus on a life that will be ours in the future.

I also don’t think that either Jesus or Paul are suggesting that if we eat the bread of life that we will be guaranteed a fat bank account, perfect health, or a choice parking spot.  Jesus’ promise was to give us “life to the full,” not merely, “all the things you wished for.”

I think Paul’s challenge to us is to pay attention to our lives, to be aware of what is going on, to be fully alive, rather than just coasting through life on autopilot.

Has this ever happened to you? Someone stops you on Monday morning and asks you how your weekend was and you realize you can’t answer because you can’t actually remember what you did on the weekend?

That’s life on autopilot, and I find it really easy to fall into that way of living, but I’ve also found that there is a simple but powerful prayer that can shake me out of it. A prayer that can help me be more careful with my time.

As a young man, St Ignatius of Loyola was so bored that he became a Christian.   Confined to a bed after an injury with nothing to read but a few spiritual classics that he didn’t really want to read, he read them, became a changed man.

In addition to founding the Jesuit order, Ignatius left two gifts to the Christian community: the “spiritual exercises,” an intensive discernment process that takes at least four weeks to complete, and the awareness examen, which can take as little as a few minutes to complete.

Ignatius believed that the awareness examen was the single most important spiritual exercise we can practice. He felt that the examen needed to be done regularly because it “exercises” or develops a discerning heart.  He believed that every life experience is accompanied by a movement in your heart and the examen is a practice that helps you to recognize that movement. He prayed this prayer twice a day and encouraged others to do the same.

In fact, he told the monks in his order that if they were in a crisis or too busy to do any other practices, if they were too busy to read scripture or to pray, they could skip everything – every other discipline – except the awareness examen.

It is based on Jesus’s words about coming to give us life to the full and it’s designed to help us make careful use of our time by choosing to lean into the things that make us feel fully alive, and away from the things that don’t.

To practice this prayer you need to take some time every day to review that day and reflect on these questions, “Where did I feel most fully alive today, and where did I feel least alive?’

And that’s pretty much it.  Ideally, you follow up on the awareness you gleaned from those questions by choosing to lean into the things that made you feel most alive, and away from the ones that made you feel least alive.  It is that leaning into life, that makes this simple prayer so profound.

Living life to the full, feeling fully alive, living the sort of live that Jesus wants us to have, doesn’t mean we will always be happy. Happiness is not necessarily the goal. It’s – sniff – that. Whatever the word for that feeling is. That sense that you are living in a way that is fully how you were created to be.

The examen helps us to notice the good and the bad in our lives and to acknowledge that God is with us in both. Earlier I teased Paul for being a bit of a downer, but truthfully, I am grateful that he was honest and didn’t try to sugar coat his message. If the days are evil, then we need to name them as such.

And when things are good, we need to acknowledge that too. I can sometimes fixate on the bad to the point that I don’t notice the good. Similarly, other people can so repress the bad that they don’t notice the house is burning down around them. The examen provides a balance between the two and helps us to see that God is always with us in both.

In his book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson says, “It is because of God’s way with us as Spirit that we know that everything in and about God is livable – God bringing us into participation with God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely truths to be learned and believed. They are to be lived. The church is not primarily a place for education. It is a place, a playing field if you will, to practice God, practice resurrection.” (Practice Resurrection, 204)

This past week at our day camp, I saw a group of people who were practicing resurrection. The kids at the camp were consistently being encouraged to explore different activities and ideas in order to discover which ones made them feel most fully alive – even if it wasn’t always explicitly put that way.  “Just try it” was a value that was infused into every part of the day. Not sure that you can run up a wall? Try it. Act in a silly skit? Try it. Get a piece of chocolate from your forehead to your mouth without using your hands? Try it. Didn’t succeed the first time? Try again!

Through all of these things those kids were exploring who they were created to be in a safe environment that reinforced the fact that they were loved.  You could see that through the sweat and the scraped knees that they were experiencing that fully alive feeling. It’s such a good thing and I know those kids will remember and be shaped by those experiences throughout their lives.

We are also called to pay attention to our lives, to how we use our time, and to the things that make us feel most fully alive. It can feel a bit silly or scary at first, but it has a transformative power that it worth some initial discomfort.

And when we begin to pay attention to our lives, when we begin to live into the things that make us feel fully alive, we will also experience a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude to the God who created us in a unique and beautiful way, and gratitude for the chance to experience the moments of being fully alive.

Giving thanks is a sign that we are filled with the Spirit.  This doesn’t mean we are to give thanks for evil or pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather we are to dig deeper into gratitude and call attention to the things that we can honestly be grateful for, even in tough times.

Amen.


Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign: A Sermon for Sunday August 5, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 5, 2018.  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 text opens in the middle of a scene in which a crowd is looking for Jesus. Not having been able to find him, they return to Capernaum to look for him there.

When they finally find Jesus, he tells them that he knows they have been looking for him “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (v26) This is in reference to the story we read last week where Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.

A few weeks ago at Theology by the Glass we were discussing the influence that music can have on us and one of the songs we talked about was “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band. The chorus to that song begins, “Signs, signs everywhere a sign,” and that’s an apt description of the events that lead up to tonight’s gospel reading.

At the beginning of chapter six, we are told that, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”  Tonight’s passage is less than halfway through the chapter and already Jesus has healed people, walked on water, and fed a huge crowd. Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.

Just one of these signs would have been more than enough to make me want to follow Jesus around wondering, “what’s he going to do next?” But Jesus says that the people have been looking for him not because they “saw signs, but because [they] ate [their] fill of the loaves.”

The people, it seems, have bread on the brain.

If you go to Hildegard’s Bakery for bread, and I highly recommend that you do, you may find yourself in a conversation about the many different varieties of bread available. You can’t just walk up to the counter and say “I’d like some bread please,” you have to specify what kind of bread you want. Do you prefer something more dense or airy? Flavoured or plain? Sour dough? Pan bread? Maybe a pizza?

This week I picked up a fabulous sour dough which is my personal favourite and, “whatever is shaped best to fit into the slots of a toaster,” for Mike. Both were delicious.

Next time I go back, I’ll try something different. I love talking to the staff and learning more about bread.

And I hope you all enjoy talking about bread as much as I do, because the lectionary currently has us in a multi-week cycle of Gospel readings called the “Bread of Life” discourses. It can be a nightmare for a preacher – six weeks of finding something original to say about bread.  It can be a bit of a nightmare for a congregation. Six weeks of listening to their preacher try to find something original to say about bread.

But of all the miraculous things that Jesus did in this chapter of John’s gospel alone, it was bread that inspired the people to follow him. Bread that was created through a miracle. Bread that was so abundant that everyone was able to eat as much as they wanted.

And, as my friend and fellow pastor Jodi pointed out earlier today, if we have to overemphasize anything in this day and age, “let it be that the whole world is a feast.” I couldn’t agree more.

The people in our story participated in a feast. They had eaten their fill, but that full feeling won’t last forever, they will get hungry again. And they know it. And they are beginning to wonder, if Jesus could transform a small amount of food into a feast, then maybe he could do it again. And again. Maybe they would never have to be hungry again.

And maybe they would no longer have to be subject to an empire that controls their food supply.

Paul Fromberg explains that, “In Jesus’ world the empire was in control of all access to food. The empire used that control to keep people in line. The only people who had access to this power were cultural elites who had control of all the resources including food. Most of the people living on the land, who are the people that Jesus is teaching this day, suffered from a perpetual lack of food. Hunger was the way that most of the people experienced the crushing power of the empire. It’s also one of the many reasons that so many people suffered from sickness. Inadequate nutrition obviously caused epidemics among the people. Which is one of the reasons why so much of the Bible’s imagery about God’s kingdom is about a banquet with plenty to eat. So the people who gathered to hear Jesus teach [in last week’s story] were hungry and they lived under the threat of starvation and sickness and Jesus just bypasses the power of the empire to give them food and make them whole.”

But most of this vision of a new way of doing things still exists mainly in Jesus’ mind. The people who are standing right in front of him haven’t had a couple thousand years to think through the implications of these stories.  They have never participated in the Eucharist. They are hearing and experiencing these things for the first time. They may have been able to connect some of the dots between Jesus’ ability to bypass the laws of the empire and the natural world in order to allow them to eat their fill, but they assume that this means that Jesus is an ideal candidate, not to eradicate the earthy political structures, but to simply replace the current rulers of those structures.

They are looking to Jesus as someone who can satisfy their physical hunger and possibly also their political aspirations.

After Jesus multiplied the loaves, we are told that, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.” (v.14) Then they planned to take Jesus by force and make him their king, but Jesus slips away before they can do so.

Which is why they were looking for him at the beginning of tonight’s reading. He’d given them the slip. But now that they have found him, Jesus uses strong language to try and help them realize that, while he may be the one they are looking for, he has no intention of becoming their earthly king.

NT Wright says, “At first, Jesus’ warning seems churlish. He has done something remarkable; they are excited and come to him wanting more; and he all but rebukes them for having the wrong motivation. What else could you expect from them? But underneath the warning of verses 26 and 27 is the recognition that after the feeding in the wilderness they were only a moment away from making him king (v.15) – and they would have meant him to be a king like other kings, a strong this-worldly figure who would lead them in their strong this-worldly agendas. Jesus is indeed king, but the type and manner of his kingship will be very different from what the crowds expected or wanted…”  (N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, 79)

Having been found by the people he was trying to avoid, Jesus is confronted with an urgent need to define his terms. He’s using the word “king” to describe himself, but he is a very different kind of king than what the people are expecting.  He is using the word “bread,” but he is not using it in a way they have ever heard it used before.

Initially, the crowd has two main frames of reference for the word “bread.” The kind of bread they have recently been served by Jesus, the kind of bread they eat on a regular basis and the bread they know about from the stories of their ancestors, the bread that came down from heaven and fed the Israelites in the wilderness, manna. Both are types of bread that are used to satisfy physical hunger.

Jesus is essentially saying “Look, I don’t want to talk to you about the kind of bread we ate the other day, and I don’t want to talk to you about the kind of bread your ancestors ate in the past, I want to talk to you about an entirely different kind of bread.”

Jesus has their attention and while they don’t fully understand what he is talking about, they are interested in getting some of this new kind of bread, and so they ask how they can acquire it and how much this new special bread will cost.

They are still assuming an earthly system where they will have to give something, in order to get something. They want to reduce what Jesus is talking about to a simple formula, but Jesus won’t let them. Instead, he rejects their request for a transactional exchange and replaces it with an invitation to believe. There is only one thing they have to do if they want this new bread, believe.

Jesus describes this new bread by saying, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” a description which inspires the people to say, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (v.33-34)

Soon, as Jesus continues to explain what he means many will begin to question him, many will doubt, many will decide they don’t want this bread after all, but those are stories for the next couple of weeks.

For now, the people are hungry for more. More bread to feed their bellies and, now that they know that such a thing may be possible, the bread of life as well.

I worked for years in a number of charities that focussed on feeding people who are poor and the most common question I would receive when sharing about my work with church folks was, “Well it’s all well and good that you’re feeding their bodies, but are you feeding their souls?” The implication was always that souls were infinitely more important than bodies. That telling people about Jesus was infinitely more important than giving them bread. I can imagine those church people saying something similar to Jesus, “Well, feeding us with that bread and that fish was nice enough, but what are you going to do for our souls?”

It’s a shift from the way that first crowd of people approached the subject, and it’s a shift from the way Jesus approached the subject as well. In this particular gospel passage Jesus is indeed focussing on the bread of life because its important for the people to know about it, not because he doesn’t value the importance of bread for the body.  He’s already clearly demonstrated that feeding people’s bodies is important to him. It’s not an either or situation.

But in my church experience it was often made to seem as it is was. Feed people’s bodies? Eh, that’s OK.  Feed people’s souls? Well that’s the only work that truly matters.

That’s a shift, but there is also another shift that has happened that makes our world different than the one described in the gospels: we have a very different relationship to bread. Any kind of bread. At least here in North America, it is no longer the staple of our diets that it once was.  The symbolism has shifted.

Paul Fromberg, who I quoted earlier, is an Anglican priest in San Francisco and he told me a story about a time when he was serving communion, and one of the first people he approached was someone he didn’t recognise, someone who was new to the church. As Paul approached him with the bread, the young man got a panicked look in his eyes, held out his hands to refuse the bread and said, “I don’t do carbs.”

Needless to say, Paul was stunned. In all his years of serving communion, he had never had anyone respond in that manner.

For many people, bread has shifted from a daily staple in a healthy diet, to a food to eat as a treat or a guilty pleasure, or, for people with celiac or gluten allergies, a food to be avoided entirely if they don’t want to get sick.

For many people, bread is now something to be avoided – either by choice or necessity. It is no longer a universal symbol of a basic food staple that gives everyone life in the way that it once was.

Some of us may need to cut bread out of our diets entirely, but we can still look to these passages to understand that if we want to live, we have to eat. Maybe not bread, but we have to eat something.

You can’t ignore your body and focus solely on your spirit. And we can’t expect people who are poor to do that either. If a person is hungry they need food, and no one should ever be hungry.

We also need the bread of life, Jesus, to sustain our spirits, and that is an important and valuable thing.

We need to value both and keep both in mind, if we place more emphasis on one and ignore the other; we are missing something fundamentally important.

Which is why I love the way, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, we place an emphasis on both by bringing baskets of food to share with Agape Table and the Bread of Life to share with everyone who choses to come and join us. I love seeing both of those things sharing priority of place around the table.

With Agape Table’s move to a new location we may need to re-think just what we bring to fill these baskets, but I hope we keep finding ways to remember the importance of bread for bellies and bread from heaven. Bringing something to put in those baskets each week is a small thing, it’s an example of offering our lunch like Jamie spoke about last week.

It’s a small thing, but it’s an important thing. It’s important as much, if not more, for us as for the folks at Agape Table.

Our baskets contain items that will help people, but they are also a sign. A sign of the importance of remembering and caring for our neighbours. A sign of our intention to extend the abundance of this table and the abundance of God’s love that it represents with others.

And it’s something I am grateful for.

Amen.