Always Room for More: A Sermon for Sunday May 8, 2022

The following sermon was preached on May 8, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking 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.

Today is the fourth Sunday in the Easter season and this Sunday is commonly referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.  All of today’s readings focus on the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 23 paints a beautiful picture of God’s abundance.

We lie down in green pastures, we walk beside quiet waters.   Our heads are anointed with oil, our souls are refreshed, our cup overflows and we feast at a table lovingly prepared for us.

We can walk through the darkest valley without fear, and proclaim confidently that “surely goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of our [lives.]

This is a beautiful picture of life with the Good Shepherd.

But what happens if we’re not sure who the shepherd is?  What happens if we’re not sure who the sheep are?

The psalmist confidently proclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Cool. But is that an exclusionary claim?  Can Christ be my shepherd and your shepherd too?”

The psalmist doesn’t answer that question, but Jesus does.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd and whenever he talks about sheep it’s pretty clear that it’s not a hard club to get into. Anyone who wants to be a sheep, can be a sheep.

In the section just before today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the people he is speaking to that all it takes to be a sheep is the decision to follow. Anyone who wants to can be a sheep. And in fact, there are more sheep than they can even imagine, including some they haven’t met yet. Sheep that Jesus intends to collect and bring back to the sheepfold so that they will all be one sheepfold under one shepherd. (10:16)

The idea of a more diverse, integrated sheepfold leads to a variety of responses from the crowd.   Some people believe. Some people speculate that Jesus might be mad or demon possessed. (19)

This is the context for today’s gospel reading which begins, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,  and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” (22-23) The festival of the Dedication was established to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple and is still celebrated today, although you may know it as Hanukah.

People began to gather around Jesus and impatiently ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  (24-25)

I hear an edge of frustration in Jesus’ voice.  Tell you plainly? Tell you plainly?  I have told you plainly and you didn’t listen.  I have also done things in my Father’s name that make it clear who I am and you still don’t believe me. The debate you are having amongst yourselves about my identity will not end because of anything I say or do this day. Why should I try again?

But then, instead of walking off in disgust like I would, he tries again.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (28)

I used to have a dog named Oliver and when Oliver was a puppy, I would take him 4 or 5 times a week to Little Mountain Dog Park.  We both loved it, he could run and play with other dogs and I could walk at a leisurely pace through the woods and then return home with a tired puppy.  It felt holy and miraculous every time.

The paths through the woods were often fairly solitary but at various points they would open up into larger fields where we’d sometimes come upon dozens of dogs and dog owners.

Oliver would race off to play and I’d stand on the edge of the field with the other humans.  It was a loud, boisterous environment, but I was always amazed how his ears would perk up when I whistled or shouted a command.

He knew my voice.

He didn’t always listened to it, if he was having fun playing my shout of “come” was taken as more of a suggestion than anything else, but I could always tell he heard me, even if he didn’t obey.

I love that in the passage, Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice” not “My sheep listen to my voice” or “my sheep obey my voice.”  (27)

Oliver also rarely, if ever, walked beside me at the dog park.

But even though he was not attached to me by a physical leash, I often marvelled that he seemed to have an innate sense of an invisible leash, of an acceptable distance to be from me.  He would trot happily ahead of me at that distance for as long as I would let him, but if he got a bit further ahead than that, he would look behind himself and stop until I came a bit closer.

And on more than one occasion on our walks, I thought about today’s gospel reading.

And I thought about how, just like my dog, I rarely walk lock step with Jesus, I like to run ahead and explore, and like my dog, I don’t always listen when I hear Christ’s voice.

Sometimes, I choose to trust that my sense of what is good and fair and right is better than Jesus’.

I do it, but I don’t recommend it.

It’s not always out of sheer defiance. Unlike my dog who seemed to be very adept at distinguishing my whistle from other whistles, I’m often unsure of whether or not the voice I am hearing actually belongs to God.

Everyday I am bombarded by thousands of messages about how to live “my best life.”  There are so many voices that claim to speak for God.

They tell me that I will be worthy when I believe the right things and behave in the right ways.  And they tell me exactly what to believe and how to behave to earn their favour.

But as Elisabeth Johnson observes, that’s just not how Jesus works.

“… the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).

The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.”

You belong to God already. No one can snatch you out of God’s hand. No one. (28)

I love imagining myself sitting in the palm of God’s hand. It’s beautiful and it’s comforting, but as far as I can tell, it’s also deeply threatening to some people.

I mean, it’s logical, isn’t it, to view the space in God’s hand as finite. There is only so much room to go around and so if there is going to be enough room for me, then someone else is going to have to be excluded.

So maybe I should try and push other people out of God’s hand to make sure there is enough room for me.  And if I can’t push them out, then at least I can push those folks as far away as possible. Right out to the margins. Right out to the tips of God’s fingers.

But that’s not how God’s economy works. We don’t have to fight for space. We all fit with room to spare.

We all fit in God’s hand, but folks who are locked into this scarcity mentality can do a tremendously good job of pushing other people out of earthly institutions, out of churches.

If you don’t look, think, act, or love in ways that make them comfortable, then you aren’t welcome.

It is human beings who are obsessed with determine who is in and who is out, who is excluded and who is included. God is only every interested in including people.

After years of regular visits to the sacred space of the dog park, Oliver and I stopped going because we had some bad experiences.  One that required us to rush off to the vet for a surgery that left him with a long scar. My anxiety that it might happen again was just as real, if less visible.

We stopped viewing the dog park as a place to make friends. We both began to view it as a place where we had been hurt, and might be hurt again. So we stopped going.

Now it’s not a perfect metaphor – a church is not a dog park - but think about what it must feel like to be a person who – for whatever reason – has been made to feel unwelcome in the church.    Some of you don’t have to imagine it, you know exactly what it feels like.

But hear this good news.  Hear it as encouragement if you feel excluded. Hear is as a challenge to all the ways we exclude others.

Human beings can push people to the margins, we can make them feel so unwelcome in our churches that they never come back, but we can never, ever snatch them out of Christ’s hand.

On May 4th, 2019, one of my heroes, Rachel Held Evans, died suddenly. I think about her fairly regularly, but especially around the anniversary of her death.

She courageously and unequivocally declared that God’s love included everyone. Everyone.

She had been a model evangelical Christian for most of her early life before leaving the church entirely only to discover that no matter how far away she ran, she was still in God’s hand.  When she eventually returned to her faith and to the church she insisted that the folks she had met on the margins – the people who doubted, the women who believed God has called them to lead, people of colour and folks in the LGBTQ+ community – she insisted they were welcome to come with her.

Rachel helped to curate a series of conferences and invited people who couldn’t shake Jesus’ voice but also had been made to feel unwelcome in the institutional church to come together and discover they were not alone and in doing so, they became a community.  I went to every single one of those conferences.

Rachel’s legacy lives on in her writing, in the communities of faith she created, and in her family.  It brought tears to my eyes when I realized that this year and every year her two young children celebrate Mother’s Day without their Mom.

But I know that while her children will almost undoubtedly be lonely, they will not be alone, because the community of faith that she worked so tirelessly to create surrounds them.   They are safe in God’s hands.

I want to end with one of the most popular and most powerful things that Rachel ever said:

“This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”

In a few minutes we will gather around Christ’s table.  Christ sets the guest list and declares that everyone, everyone is welcome.

There is always room for more. So come.

Amen.


The Worst Thing You Ever Did: A Sermon for Sunday May 1, 2022

The following sermon was preached on May 2, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo by Benjamin DeYoung on Unsplash

 

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.

Today’s gospel reading is from the last chapter of John’s gospel. In this chapter, John expects you to remember a lot of details about things that have happened earlier in the story.

For example, this story takes place in Cana. The same place as Jesus’ first miracle. We are ending where we began.

There are a lot of other recurring themes, like fishing, not catching any fish and then catching more fish than anyone could possibly need.  The abundance of fish also reminds us of the abundance of wine in Jesus’ first miracle in Cana.

So in some ways this story feels familiar but not necessarily predictable. We see common places and common themes we’ve encountered before in the gospels but it’s also common for Jesus to subvert our expectations.

At the start of the story, the disciples have returned to the things of their ordinary pre-Jesus lives, like fishing.

The fear that left them hiding in locked rooms seems to have dissipated, and they are trying to figure out how to exist in this new normal.

The scene feels humorous to me.  After all of the extraordinary events of Holy Week, after hiding in a locked room, after seeing Jesus resurrected, Peter looks around and says, “Might as well go fishing.” (paraphrase, 3)

So they go fishing, and Jesus appears on the shore and begins to talk to them but they don’t recognize him right away. Jesus asks if they have caught any fish, they say no, and then Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  They obey and their nets become so full of fish they can’t even pull them into the boat.

Then John, who is still referring to himself as “the disciple who Jesus loved” turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord!” (7)

In her commentary on the gospel of John, Karoline Lewis notes that John uses imagery of nighttime to symbolize unbelief, and daytime to symbolize belief. So it is interesting that this story begins in the dark of night, and ends in the early morning light.  (254).

As the scene moves from darkness to light, from unbelief, to belief, Peter realizes that Jesus is on the shore and then he behaves in ways that we have come to expect from Peter – he is impulsive, exuberant.

First of all, he has been fishing naked and then he decides to put clothes on to jump in the water. (8) Both feel like unusual choices to me.

I would want to meet Jesus fully clothed and I would be excited to see him but I would also want to be dry so I might take a more practical approach and stay in the boat until we could get to shore.

But if you have been following the gospel story this far then you know that Peter is an impulsive person. He sees Jesus and he’s going to rush to see him as quickly as possible - even if that means jumping into the water and swimming the hundred yards or so to shore.

We aren’t told but I suspect that at least one of the other men in the boat was annoyed that Peter wasn’t helping them as they made the responsible choice to bring the boat and the net full of fish to shore. (8)

A little later we will learn that they caught 153 fish. (11).  This large number of fish is a symbol of abundance and a reminder that abundance is always a sign of Christ’s presence.  Where Christ is, there is always more than enough.

When they arrive on shore Jesus has bread and a fire started where he is grilling fish. Where he got these particular fish is unclear. (9) It seems he has already started cooking them before the disciples arrive on shore with their catch.

Jesus invites them to join him for breakfast and we are told that, “none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (12-14)

Now I don’t know about you, but I think it’s interesting which things from Jesus’ life that the church has chosen to remember and incorporate into modern worship practices. On Maundy Thursday we wash each other’s feet because Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.   We share bread and wine because Jesus shared bread and wine.

But I have never been to a church service where I was served bread and grilled fish.

Have you?

What do you think? Should we try wine and fish sticks next Sunday?

After breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and begins a conversation. In order to understand this conversation it’s important to be familiar with some events that occurred earlier in the story.

Earlier in John’s gospel there is a story where, shortly after Jesus is arrested,  Peter and another disciple go with Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest. (18:15)   We are told that there is a charcoal fire in the courtyard and as Peter is standing near it warming himself he will be asked the same question three times:  Are you one of Jesus’ disciples?

And three times Peter will give the same answer: “No I am not.”

I wonder how many times this scene has rolled around in Peter’s mind since it happened? I wonder how much shame he has been feeling for his choice to deny Jesus not just once, but three times.

I imagine that every time Peter has seen Jesus since he was resurrected, this shame has bubbled up. I imagine he is afraid of what Jesus must think of him. I imagine he feels confused about what he should say and what he should do.

The shame puts a barrier between Peter and Jesus.

But now here they are eating breakfast together, and Jesus wants to talk.

And John wants us to know that they are sitting around a charcoal fire.

The only two events in this entire gospel that occur around a charcoal fire are Peter’s denial of Jesus and this conversation.  John links these two stories and we are supposed to look for connections.

In the first story, Peter is repeatedly asked if he is a follower of Jesus, and he repeatedly denies it.  In today’s story, Peter’s loyalty to Jesus will once again be questioned, but this time by Jesus himself.

Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (15)

And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

And then Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.”

We’re not told how much time passes after Jesus says this. Is there a long stretch of silence or does Jesus launch in immediately to ask a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (16)

Jesus will ask Peter this same question three times, “Do you love me?” and each time Peter will reply, “you know I love you.”

Jesus asks three times, which mirrors the three times that Peter denied Jesus.

Last time Peter denied Jesus, but this time he says again and again and again, “I love you.”

And three times after Peter’s response Jesus will ask Peter to do something – the request varies slightly – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep – but the meaning is the same.  Jesus – the great shepherd – is asking Peter to be an active participant in the care of the flock.

Prior to Jesus’ death, Peter thought he understood what it meant to follow Jesus. Prior to Jesus’ death following Jesus was something Peter wanted to do and something he felt he was capable of doing.

But when Jesus was arrested, fear overtook him, and a drive towards self protection took over and Peter denied that he even knew who Jesus was.

In this conversation, Jesus is making sure that Peter knows that he is forgiven, that the denial does not disqualify Peter from service.  Jesus still wants Peter to be one of his disciples.

This would be a beautiful place to end the reading, it would be a story of redemption, of restored relationships, of Jesus’ deep and powerful love, but it’s not the end of today’s reading or this story.

Jesus is asking Peter if he still wants to be one of his disciples, while also making it clear what that really means – are you willing to do whatever it takes to follow me, even if it means you will lose your own life?

Prior to his death and resurrection this may have felt like an abstract question, something that probably wouldn’t really happen, something it was relatively easy for Peter to agree to.

But things have changed, recent events have made it clear to Peter that the choice to follow Jesus could mean he too will be crucified.

And now Jesus will tell Peter that this is not just a possibility, it is exactly what Peter can expect will happen if he chooses to continue to follow Jesus.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (18)

John tells us that Jesus said this so that Peter would know, “the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” (19)

The last line of the reading is, “After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Which is exactly what Peter does. Peter will continue to follow Jesus until his death.  Christian tradition says that Peter was crucified upside-down because he didn’t want to be killed in the exact manner that Jesus was.

This story raises a lot of great questions that are worth spending time thinking about. Questions like, “In the light of this story, how do I understand what it means to follow Jesus today?” or “Would I be willing to die for what I believe?”

Good questions, but the part of the story I have spent a lot of time thinking about this week is connected to the fact that Jesus didn’t think that Peter’s choice to deny him disqualified him from service.

Jesus looked at Peter, knew everything he has ever done, and still said, “feed my lambs.”

That gives me a lot of hope.  Because if only perfect people can serve God then there is no hope for me.

None of us are as bad as the worst thing we have ever done, and in God’s economy there is always room for hope, forgiveness and new life.

And that’s good news.

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.


Just Breathe: A Sermon for Sunday April 24, 2022

The following sermon was preached on April 24, 2022 at St George's Transcona's service for Easter Sunday. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

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.

Today’s gospel passage opens with the description of some very anxious individuals.

The story begins on the evening of Easter Sunday.  Jesus has risen, some of the disciples have seen him but they are still filled with fear, doubts, and anxious thoughts.

They are so scared, in fact, that they are hiding in a locked room terrified that there are people preparing crosses for them at that very moment.

It is easy for us to judge the disciples at this point in the story because we know how it all turns out. But try to put yourself in their position for a moment.  Imagine living through the events we commemorate during Holy Week with no real certainty of how things will turn out. Imagine living through those events with a strong sense that if the leaders of the day could crucify Jesus, then surely they would have no problem killing you as well.

I’d like to believe I’d be courageous and steadfast but the truth is I’d probably be anxiously locked in that room with the rest of the group. And like Thomas, I would need to see Jesus with my own eyes and touch him with my own hands.

John tells us, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” (19)

Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t say that they heard a knock at the door and when they opened it Jesus was there. It says that the disciples were in a locked room because they were afraid and Jesus just.. appeared. One minute Jesus was absent and in the next “poof” he’s standing in front of them.

It’s fair to imagine that the tired, beleaguered, anxious disciples can now add shocked to the list of emotions they are experiencing.  This kind of shock would be enough to take your breath away.

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “ (19b-22)

One of my favourite definitions of a priest’s role is that they are to seek to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. This is exactly what Jesus embodies in this moment.  When he says, “Peace be with you,” I imagine the subtext is “calm down, I am really here and all is well.”

Peace be with you.

John tells us that Jesus’ presence fills the disciples with joy - Jesus’ presence transforms their fear and anxiety into joy and peace.

Jesus’ presence transformed their fear and anxiety into joy and peace, but it wasn’t a permanent transformation.  Some of these disciples had seen Jesus on Easter Sunday, but they were still fearful enough to be hiding in a locked room.  Jesus appears to them in that locked room and tells them to be at peace, but eight days later, they are still hiding out in that room. (26)

A single encounter with Jesus can change a life forever, and I have no doubt that these disciples were changed by all of these events. But an encounter with Jesus doesn’t erase our humanity and so doubt and fear can easily creep back in. This is one of the reasons that spiritual disciplines like prayer and meeting for worship are so important – they continually call us back to Jesus.

Why does Jesus breathe on the disciples? Doesn’t that seem like a rather odd thing to do?

I find the intimacy of this astonishing – breathtaking even. In some Christian traditions, people have modeled this behavior in their worship practices by breathing on each other. Can you imagine if instead of a handshake we breathed peace on one another during worship?

I couldn’t imagine this before COVID, and I definitely can’t imagine it now!

It’s an amazingly intimate action. Jesus, who had drawn his last breath in the presence of John and the female disciples, Jesus whose lifeless breathless body was laid in a tomb for several days, has been brought back to life.  Jesus who breathed his last on the cross is now alive and breathing again. And this resurrected living and breathing Jesus comes and breathes on the disciples.

Breathing is something we spend an inordinate amount of time doing- we breathe approximately 23 000 times a day.

Breathing is something we spend a lot of time doing but very little time thinking about.  Maybe we think about it more now that we are living with COVID, but certainly we don’t think about breathing as often as we actually need to breathe.

Some Christians even get anxious if we begin to talk about breathing because it seems like a new age or un-Christian thing to focus on.

And yet breathing is a major focus in the scriptures. If you want to engage in an interesting exercise this week, do a search and go through all of the passages in Scripture that talk about breath or breathing -you’ll have more than enough material to keep you busy all week.

It is, however, a tricky assignment because it is difficult to accurately count all the references to breath in the Bible.  The Greek word for breath is “pneuma.”  Our English word “pneumonia” – a sickness that affects your ability to breathe – comes from the same root word.

Pneuma can also mean wind or spirit.  The same is also true in Hebrew.

The same Hebrew word (ruach) means wind, breath, and spirit.

Now it may sound confusing to have one word that can mean three different things, but the ideas of wind, breath, and spirit were also interconnected and interchangeable. They didn’t draw clear distinctions between these ideas like we do today.

In our passage, pneuma is translated as “receive the Holy spirit”, but when John wrote those words he knew that the people he was writing to would hear all of the possible meanings in that one word. (22)

They would hear, “Receive the holy spirit” and “Receive the holy wind,” and “Receive the holy breath.” The concepts of breath, wind and Holy Spirit were that closely linked for John’s original audience.

Later in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit will come in a windstorm. (Acts 2:1)

God breathing into the world is a powerful, important image. God breathes life in creation as recorded in Genesis, and God breathes and resurrects life in Ezekiel. The Holy Breath, the Holy Wind, the Holy Spirit. The breath that comes to the breathless. And here again in John, breathing is the way new life comes. This time it’s Jesus breathing into the disciples so that they receive the Holy Spirit.

Henri Nouwen wrote, "When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us."

When we breathe – a largely unconscious action -, we are at the most basic level acknowledging the life-giving presence of God with us. God who is as near to us as our next breath. Every breath we take is an opportunity to connect us with God. Every breath we take can be a prayer.

Breathing may seem like a ridiculous focus for prayer. Yet scripture presents breath as the fundamental metaphor for the spirit of God.

For a number of years during Advent, I engaged in a prayer practice that required me to stop, breathe and acknowledge God’s presence every time I find myself waiting. Waiting in line at the grocery store, at a stop light, waiting for a computer program to load. Advent is a season of waiting, and I always find plenty of opportunities to engage in this practice throughout the season.

Although that Advent exercise is over, I am still trying to incorporate an awareness of breathing in my prayer life. There are a lot of different ways to do this and time won’t allow us to get into them, but I am trying to remember that God is breath, that God gives breath and is breath, to remember that God breathes through me, sustains me with breath, and that I somehow am participating in that sustaining with God.

How many of you have houses that aren’t as dry as you’d like them to be today?

Me too.

Last night I heard the drip drip drip of water coming from the ceiling and instantly I sprang into full panic mode.  My whole body tensed up and I began running around and my mind launched into full on anxiety thinking: How much damage will this cause? Is the whole roof leaking? Where are the other leaks? Is the house going to fall down? I can’t handle this! How will I pay for this!

And then suddenly I stopped, sat down, and made myself breath deeply. I sat like that for only maybe 30 seconds or so but it was enough to calm me down and help me regroup.

I will be OK.  This may be hard but I can handle it.  Now go get the towels and the recycling bin and get to work.

I am sure that that pause, that time of deep breathing actually meant I was not only able to respond to the situation more effectively, but also my response was faster and more efficient than my initial reactivity.

Another important thing to realize about today’s gospel story is that Jesus breathes on the disciples together – as a group. The Spirit is given to the community of believers.  I think each of these people has the choice to consent – to believe or not believe, but the gift is given to everyone at once. This is not happening in isolation, this is part of a bigger picture. The Holy Spirit isn’t just being given to Jesus’ favourite disciple or a select few, Jesus breathes the Spirit into all of them.

The same is true today. In today’s gospel text,  in the Book of Acts, and in our present day the Holy Spirit is given to all of us together, not just select individuals.

How do we collectively breathe in the Holy Spirit? Maybe it’s a process that happens when two or three or thirty are gathered together in Jesus’ name. Maybe even as we’ve been sitting here we are breathing in the Holy Spirit, maybe the Spirit is filling our lungs with life at this very moment. Jesus permeating every particle of us. Jesus being incorporated into us, being transformed into energy. Jesus coming out of our very fingertips. Maybe we’ve been doing this all along without even realizing it.

Here’s another important thing to remember. Have you ever tried to hold your breath? You can be successful for a short period of time, but eventually your body takes over and you have exhale.

We can’t simply breathe in God’s presence. We also need to breath God back out again. We can’t keep this all for ourselves but rather breathing out God’s love to everyone we meet needs to become a natural as breathing in God’s love.

I’m not sure where your growth edge is on this. Some of us find it easier to show love to others than to accept that God also loves us. Some of us try to hold God’s love in – afraid that if we share it with others there might not be enough for us.

Ultimately health and balance come from doing both. From breathing God’s love in and out with equal measure. Breathing deeply, without fear that we will ever run out of air. Trusting that in God’s economy there is always more than enough.

Let’s pray:

Lord hear us breathing together.

We are breathing in your peace.

Lord, hear us breathing together.

Help us to breathe out your peace this week.

Amen.


60% Easter Joy: A Sermon for Sunday April 17, 2022

The following sermon was preached on April 17, 2022 at St George's Transcona's service for Easter Sunday. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

 

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

I have been going to church since before I was born and I’ve been part of a lot of different kinds of churches.  In the mid 90s I was part of what you might describe as an evangelical mega church – a least a thousand members, multiple services, large church building and even larger parking lot.

One Easter Sunday I arrived to discover some unusual things in the sanctuary - the table with the overhead projector and the screen were gone and in their place were even bigger screens -two of them – there was also a fancy projector and a man with a computer.  I didn’t think much of it.

The first song was peppy – lots of drums and clapping – but I was completely distracted by what I saw on the screen – in giant font there was one line of text repeated three times, “God is dead, God is dead, God is dead.”

It was like the screen was shouting a heresy at me.

I quickly turned by attention to the worship team who I was able to discern were cheerfully singing, “God is NOT dead, God is NOT dead.”

And then I turned to the poor man behind the computer, sweat on his forehead frantically trying to figure out how to fix the PowerPoint slide.

Christ is risen. God is NOT dead.

Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia.

Let’s try that again: Christ is Risen. He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia.

Normally as we walk through Holy Week, our liturgies make intentional choices to guide us through a series of emotions. On Good Friday, even though we know that Easter is coming, we resist the temptation to tell that part of the story. We sit in the pain and the confusion and the sorrow of Christ’s death. On Saturday we push even deeper into those feelings, and then, normally, on Easter Sunday we lean deeply into the joy, the celebration, the victory of Christ’s resurrection. We pack the church and shout at the top of our lungs “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!”

It's been hard, if not impossible, to do that over the past few years.  This year feels a bit better but I’m not sure we’re quite at full strength. At least to me, this year feels like a cautious Easter.

I mean I am still going to proclaim, “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!” but I’m going to do it wearing a mask.  And for most of last week, I thought I might be proclaiming it online from my home.  I’m getting there, but I’m not at 110% Easter Sunday joy just yet. Maybe like 60%?

And yet, one of the most interesting things to me about Easter is that my feelings about the story and the celebration don’t change the truth of the story and the celebration.

Christ has risen, my feeling don’t change the truth of that. So this year, I want to remind us all that on that first Easter, the women who went to the tomb didn’t march there in Easter bonnets intent on a joyous celebration either.  They were in mourning, and they were afraid.

All of the feelings were felt on that first Easter and it’s fitting that we make space for them today as well.

Our gospel reading begins in darkness. We’re told that “while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed…” (1).

It’s not Easter for Mary yet.  She has come to the tomb to grieve and care for the body of a dead loved one and instead of being able to enact those healing rituals of grief, she is punched in the gut with the shock of Christ’s missing body.

Mary runs to two of the disciples and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” (2)

Before we continue, a few details about these disciples. One is Simon Peter and the other is described as “the one whom Jesus loved. (2)” We’re meant to understand that this disciple is John, the author of this gospel.

John’s personality comes through in this story in a few interesting ways – first by choosing to describe himself as “the one whom Jesus loved,” and then in the next few lines we’re told that after hearing Mary’s awful news, the two men run to the tomb to see for themselves.  John tells us that he ran faster than Peter and beat him to the tomb.  (4)

I find it fascinating that John is cheeky enough to want us to know who the faster runner is.

The two men see the empty tomb, the linen wrappings and we are told that John “saw and believed, for as yet they did not understand the scripture that he must rise from the dead.” (9)

So what did he believe if he didn’t understand that scripture?  That Jesus was dead and his body missing?

It’s unclear.

What is clear is that these disciples are not at 110% Easter morning joy either. Maybe minus 50%?

The disciples return home, but Mary stays. (10-11)

She is weeping, and as she weeps, she looks into the tomb and sees two angels who ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” (12-13)

She tells them she is crying because someone has taken Jesus’ body and then she turns around and sees a man she does not recognize standing outside of the tomb. (14)

This man, who she thinks is a gardener, also asks her, “Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” (15)

Mary begins to beg saying “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (15)

And then Jesus calls her by name, “Mary!” (16)

And when she hears him call her name, she knows who he is. And she responds by calling him one of his names, “Teacher. (Rabbouni)” (16)

And then I imagine Mary rushing to hug and cling to Jesus in relief and joy and confusion both because I think that’s what I would do and because Jesus’ next words are, “Do not hold on to me…” (17)

And then Jesus tells her to go and tell the disciples what she has happened and she does.  When she reaches the disciples she proclaims, “I have seen the Lord!” (18)

Here, I imagine, she reaches 110% Easter joy.

Mary Magdalene is regarded as the first evangelist in the Christian church and is referred to as the apostle to the apostles because she was the first person to see the risen Jesus and then to tell others about him.

Simon Peter and John went home before they could see Jesus. Mary stayed.

A few years ago, Susanna Singer preached at St Gregory of Nyssa church  - it wasn’t Easter, but I thought, “that’s a great Easter sermon.”  In her sermon she asked the question, “Am I just looking for resuscitation or do I dare to hope for resurrection?”

I never want anyone to die. The death of a person is a tragedy and should be mourned, but I do think that there are a lot of things in my life and in this world that need to die.  Ideas, habits, ways of thinking, systems. For too long we’ve settled for artificial resuscitation instead of defiantly demanding resurrection.

Early in the pandemic during a lockdown, Comedian Sinhu Vee, reflecting on her own recovery from COVID-19, said that because we can no longer go out, we must go in. This is a time to reflect on our interior lives, on who we are, who we are becoming, and who we want to be.

The pandemic isn’t over, but we are now able to leave our homes and do things like worship together.  I hope we will never have another lockdown, but life will never return to the way it was before the pandemic began, and I don’t want it to.  I want resurrection, not resuscitation.

Because a lot of my old ways, a lot of our collective old ways, weren’t working.  Sometimes we pretended they were working, especially if they were working for us – capitalism works for a lot of us, white supremacy works for a lot of us, patriarchy  and homophobia work for a lot of us.  Before the pandemic, if we did acknowledge that our systems were broken, we often also believed that that was just the way it was, that change was impossible.  That a new resurrected life was impossible.

But we were wrong.

Resurrection is possible. Necessary even.

The first thing I believe needs to die in order to make way for resurrection, is the way our society privileges hyper productivity and frenetic busyness.  At the start of the pandemic there were all sorts of messages that said essentially, “If you don’t emerge from this pandemic with rock hard abs, the ability to speak 3 new languages, the great Canadian novel, and the world’s best sourdough bread you have let the entire human race down and you should be deeply ashamed of yourself.”

No one should ever feel ashamed of slowing down during the pandemic. Or of slowing down for any reason.

Now in this current phase of the pandemic one current theme I hear when talking to other people, and I feel this myself as well, is a rising level of anxiety that we’re going to go back to being as busy as we were in 2019.   Sure, many of us are longing for increased connection, the ability to travel and socialize with friends, but we also learned to like the slower pace, having fewer things on the calendar and we’re wondering how to balance our need for social interaction with our need for a slower pace of life.

We want resurrection – a new life filled way of being – not artificial resuscitation. We want meaningful connections with others, without the hyperbusyness that used to seem to require.  But we’re not quite sure how to get there.

If you’re feeling a resistance to an increased sense of busyness, you haven’t let anyone down; you don’t need to be ashamed. In fact, this manic drive to be endlessly productive has been kept alive on life support for way too long. It’s time to pull the plug and let it die.

Resurrection might look like a slower pace of life where we all take naps without feeling guilty, make our own food because we want to and enjoy the process, and choose not to buy things that we’ll never use or don’t really need.

Resurrection might mean saying “no” to more things in order to say “yes” to the things that really matter to us.

Which means it also might mean taking the time to be curious and explore what does really matter to us.  At St. George’s for example, we don’t have to simply pull up the 2019 church calendar and try to make the rest of 2022 and beyond look exactly like that.  There are some things I know folks have been missing that I hope we will be able to return to like consistently being able to worship in person. But we can also leave some things in the past. We can try some new things too.

So we have some work to do, some sifting and sorting before we simply fill up the calendar, but I believe that this is good and worthwhile work for us to do. It’s the work of resurrection, not resuscitation.

When Jesus died and lived again, life didn’t return to normal. It changed forever.  And while I am sure it was terrifying and confusing and unsettling on that first Easter morning, we have come to understand it as good news. Incredibly good news.

Today is a day of resurrection. May we all refuse to settle for resuscitation.

Because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

 


Good Friday: A Sermon for Friday, April 15, 2022

The following sermon was preached on April 15, 2022 at St George's Transcona's service for Good Friday. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here  Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

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

Kate Bowler is a best selling author, podcaster and a friend. You may be familiar with her book, “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve loved. To paraphrase one of my favourite things she’s ever said, I’m tired of people trying to Easter the crap out of Good Friday.

Although I have been going to church my entire life, it wasn’t until I began worshiping in the Anglican church that I began to truly celebrate Good Friday.

Prior to that I would typically attend church on Good Friday and Easter Sunday, but the services would have looked almost exactly the same.  At both services we’d quickly acknowledge that Jesus died and then spend most of our time celebrating the resurrection.

We Eastered the crap out of Good Friday.

People often try to Easter the crap of out my life too.

I had to update my personal information with a company awhile ago and my response to almost every question was, “Oh, that’s not true anymore.”  That’s no longer my phone number. No, I don’t work there anymore. Yes, I used to teach there, but I don’t anymore. And on the drive home I thought about just how many things have changed for me in the past few years.  How many things I’ve lost. How many dreams have died.

There have been Easter moments too, there has been new life and new dreams and things so good I still sometimes have to pinch myself to confirm that they are true.

But those things were born out of death.  In order to get to the Easter moments, I have to fully live into the Good Friday ones, and the Holy Saturday ones too.

And it’s been hard for me, but it’s also been difficult for the people around me. People who, with the best of intentions, have more often than not wanted to force my Good Friday into an Easter Sunday.

And my choices boiled down to pretending it was Easter Sunday to make other people more comfortable or owning the truth that for me it was still Friday and that some days, I wasn’t sure Sunday would ever come.

I don’t know why things had to be so hard – it’s more than just the pandemic, which is hard enough on its own. I don’t know why things had to be so hard but I do know that one of the key things that has saved me in this season has been a decision I made early on to be honest, to resist the temptation to please people and live into a false Easter.  The decision I made to say, “This is hard. This is not what I wanted. This did not all work out for the best.  I did not land on my feet, I smashed my face off the sidewalk. It hurts.”

I needed to sit in a Good Friday space. To acknowledge the harsh reality of death. To feel the pain of it.  To resist the temptation to pretend it was already Easter Sunday.

That saved me.  That is saving me.

And the people who were willing to sit with me at the foot of the cross. The people who didn’t need to find a silver lining.   The people who simply said, “I see how hard this it.”

They saved me.

There is no Easter Sunday without Good Friday.

A couple of years ago someone came early to attend the Good Friday service  at my former parish and with tears in their eyes said, “I hope it’s OK to be here today when I’m clearly not OK.”

Is it OK to be here today if you’re clearly not OK?

You bet it is.  It’s always OK and on this day we will acknowledge that truth in a particular way.

On Maundy Thursday we typically strip the church, removing linens and coverings and flowers and candles. When we gather for Good Friday the church is emptier, and we are emptier.

This year we’ve taken that one step further. The church is completely empty and we are gathered online.

The story of Jesus’ death is a powerful and important story that we should tell and re-tell again and again. Today is the day that we boldly and defiantly say, “It’s not Easter yet. It’s OK not to be OK.”

 On this day we have full permission to hold the empty, to sit in the meaninglessness, and to acknowledge that not everything can be resolved.

On this day we have full permission to hold space for suffering, for grief, for death.

And we call it good.

And we do this in a world full of people who want to fill the empty, to find meaning, however shallow in the meaningless, to mute suffering and grief and cloak death in euphemisms.

Christ did not pass. We did not lose him.  Christ died.

 And it was good.   It was horrible and painful and it sent everyone around him into a tailspin, but it was also good.  Wasn’t it?

 Reflecting on the horrors of WW2, German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wondered how theology could exist, how theology could speak, in the face of such overwhelming suffering.  He determined that modern theology must be developed “in earshot of the dying Christ.”[1]

 Theology, which really just means our thoughts about God, must be developed in earshot of the dying Christ.

What would we hear? What would we see if we resisted the temptation to skip straight to Easter and chose instead to sit quietly at the foot of the cross?

 We would hear the sounds of death by crucifixion. The pounding of the hammer, the crack of the wood, the grunting of the soldiers, the panting, the groans, the screams of three men as their flesh is pierced by nails.

We would hear the conversation between Jesus and those other two men. Short, raspy sentences as they all struggled to breath.

We would hear the soldiers and people in positions of leadership casting lots and mocking Jesus.

And we would hear Jesus saying again and again and again, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.

We would hear the women, loyal to the end, “beating their breasts and wailing.” Their grief too great to be contained.

And we would hear Jesus telling them to continue to weep, but not for him. We would hear Jesus telling them to weep for themselves and for their children because even more difficult days are coming.

And we might hear the wind moving through the grass as death leads to silence.

And we might begin to develop a greater humility for all the times that we have also “known not what we do.” And we might learn to hold space for those who weep. And we might condemn less and forgive more.

We might learn to pay attention and say to each other, “I see how hard this is. I can’t change it but I’m not going anywhere. We can sit in this Good Friday space for as long as you need to.”

 Dr. Sheila Cassidy drew attention to the human rights abuses of the Pinochet regime when she wrote about her own experience of being imprisoned and tortured in Chile in the 1970s.

Dr. Cassidy knows, in her very bones, what it is to suffer, what it is to hold space for the darkness and the difficulty of death.  She knows that it is only by living fully into Good Friday that we can ever hope to be an Easter people.

Listen to the words of her poem, “Starting Over – Fighting Back:”

 

And so we must begin to live again,
We of the damaged bodies
And assaulted mind.
Starting from scratch with the rubble of our lives
And picking up the dust
Of dreams once dreamt.

And we stand there, naked in our vulnerability,
Proud of starting over, fighting back,
But full of weak humility
At the awesomeness of the task.

We, without a future,
Safe, defined, delivered
Now salute you God.
Knowing that nothing is safe,
Secure, inviolable here.
Except you,
And even that eludes our minds at times.
And we hate you
As we love you,
And our anger is as strong
As our pain,
Our grief is deep as oceans,
And our need as great as mountains.

So, as we take our first few steps forward
into the abyss of the future,
We would pray for
Courage to become what we have not been before
And accept it,
And bravery to look deep within our souls to find
New ways.

We did not want it easy God,
But we did not contemplate
That it would be quite this hard,
This long, this lonely.

So, if we are to be turned inside out, and upside down,
With even our pockets shaken,
just to check what's rattling
And left behind,
We pray that you will keep faith with us,
And we with you,
Holding our hands as we weep,
Giving us strength to continue,
And showing us beacons
Along the way
To becoming new.

We are not fighting you God,
Even if it feels like it,
But we need your help and company,
As we struggle on.
Fighting back
And starting over.[2]

 

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

 

[1] My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman, 133

[2] https://blueeyedennis-siempre.blogspot.com/2012/11/good-friday-people-and-reflections-on.html

 


Palmers and Pilgrims: A Sermon for Sunday April 10, 2022

The following sermon was preached at St George's Transcona's service for Palm and Passion Sunday, April 11, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking herePhoto by Grant Whitty on Unsplash

 

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.

A few years ago I went to San Francisco to attend a conference and to spend some time at a church that is very important to me, St Gregory of Nyssa.

Here at St George’s, you’re used to have the person who reads the gospel, often our Deacon Dan, carry the Bible down into the aisle where they can be closer to you when reading.   Now that we’re also recording our services, the reader stands closer to the altar so that the people who are participating in the online version of this service can see too.  – address camera – Folks at home, we are glad you are here and want you to feel included too.

At St. Gregory’s when they prepare to read the gospel, the Bible is carried from one side of the room to the other, but not in the reader’s hands, they rest it on their right shoulder instead.  It’s sort of like giving the Bible a piggy back ride… but holy.

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.”

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

We wave branches and take 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 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.”[1]

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 colt – who has never had a human being climb on their back before - 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 when I visited St Gregory’s and knew that as long as I followed the person in front of me, I was just fine.

Just like if this is your first time here,  a little later in the service as we move through the space for communion, as long as you follow the person in front of you, you’ll be just fine.

And actually, you’ll be fine if you don’t follow too. We’re a pretty laid back bunch… right?

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. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 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.”  (Korban)

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 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 shout “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.

In the past couple of years I have been very disappointed in earthly leaders. Perhaps you have been too.

I’m disappointed in 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.

[1] Thanks for Reagan at HFASS for bringing this detail to my attention.


Don't Miss the Party: A Sermon for Sunday March 27, 2022

The following sermon was preached at St George's Transcona's service for Sunday March 27, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash 

 

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

If you’re only listening to today’s gospel passage and not reading it for yourself, it’s reasonable that you’d think that this was a single story.  But that’s not actually the case.

We began with “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  So he told them this parable:” (1-3)

But then instead of giving us the parable Jesus tells, the lectionary skips seven verses and not one, but two stories and launches into a third story, a story commonly referred to as the Prodigal Son.

All three of these stories, the ones we skipped and the one we read today are stories of loss.  The first one is about a lost sheep, the second a lost coin, and then today’s story could be described as a story of a lost son or perhaps of lost relationships.

Titles are supposed to be helpful. They’re supposed to give us a brief sense of what to expect. They can help us decide if we want to listen or read any further.

But titles can also be misleading. The title “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” was added to the story a long time after Jesus told it by the people who compiled and edited the writings that became our holy scriptures. The earliest reference we have to any title for this story comes from one of the church father’s, Jerome (347-420) who refers to this parable as a story about “prudent and prodigal sons.”

Amy-Jill Levine[1] explains that Jerome’s description is more accurate than simply calling this the story of the prodigal son, especially if you know what the word prodigal means. To our modern ears, ears that are probably familiar with both the story and the title, prodigal has at least a somewhat positive connotation. We may thing of a prodigal as someone who is “daring” or “ambitious.” A loveable scamp who messes up from time to time but who is generally harmless and will make good in the end.

When Jerome was writing, however, “prodigal” was a completely negative term, used to describe a selfish and wasteful person.  Someone who “lack[s] self restraint” and “[has] many vices simultaneously.”

There is nothing positive or redeeming about being a prodigal.   But to be prudent? That is a compliment, something to strive for.

But we’re not used to thinking of this story as one of prudent and prodigal sons. We’re used to thinking mostly about the prodigal son, largely because we’ve been conditioned to do so by the title.

So what if we gave it a different title altogether?

Imagine how the story might change for you if it was called the Parable of the Loving Father, or the Parable of the Loyal Older Son?  How would that change what we noticed in the story?

What if it was called “The Parable of the Absent or Silent Mother?”

Or what if we tried to find a name that would tie this story in with the other two Jesus just finished telling? I mean, surely there is a reason these three stories are grouped together in the gospel?   The first two are about something that was lost and then found.

What is lost and what is found in this parable? As we explore the parable I will be relying heavily on the work of Jewish scholar Amy-Jill Levine and her book “Short Stories by Jesus.”

The story begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” (11). Anyone who was familiar with the stories in the Hebrew scriptures, as many of the people listening to Jesus would have been know that they should probably pay attention and identify with the younger son because the Hebrew scriptures are filled with stories than trained them to do exactly that.

Cain and Abel. Ishmael and Isaac. Esau and Jacob.  Joseph was one of Jacob’s younger sons, and also his favourite.  David is a younger son, as is Solomon. Levine explains that, “first-century biblically literate listeners were in for a surprise, when the younger son turns out not to be the righteous Abel, faithful Isaac, clever Jacob, strategic David or wise Solomon. He turns out to be an irresponsible, self-indulgent, and probably indulged child who I would not, despite his being Jewish, be pleased to have my daughter date.” (51)

The younger son asks to receive his inheritance and the father agrees.  I have often heard this request interpreted as an unusual one, even a sinful one. I have heard it described as the equivalent of saying that this younger son wishes his father was dead but Levine and other Jewish scholars she cites disagree.

If this was an offensive or sinful request, for example, then the father should have declined to honour the request and perhaps also reprimanded his son for making such an insulting request.

But the father agrees and gives his youngest son half of all he has.

That seems fair right? Two sons, each should inherit half.  But not accordingly to Jewish law at the time.  At that time, the firstborn son should have inherited a double portion, so two-thirds of the estate.  The younger son was only entitled to a third of the estate not half.

Why is the father giving the younger son more than his fair share? It’s a mystery. The parable doesn’t explain the father’s actions.

Levine notes that, “Up to this point, no one in this family is behaving well. That first-century Jewish audience, already discomforted by their inability to identify with the overgratified son, finds itself increasingly distanced from him, even as the son increasingly distances himself for him father and his land.” (53)

Verse 13 tells us that “A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.”

I wonder what those few days were like before the younger son left home. Those few days when the older son likely learned what had happened, and likely had a lot of thoughts and feelings about it. The father would probably have had to spend at least some of this time re-structuring his finances, perhaps selling off some of his property in order to give the younger son what he had asked for.  I wonder if the younger son left as soon as he received his money in order to avoid the conflicts his request had created.

Whatever his reason for leaving, he does not make wise choices with his money and winds up with nothing, hungry, alone, and working on a pig farm where the pigs were fed better than he was. (14-17)

This detail about the pigs is interesting. It tells us that this younger son is not living in a Jewish area where pigs would be prohibited. He is not living in a place or a culture that are familiar to him. I imagine that must make him feel particularly alone.

He decides to go home, seek his father’s forgiveness and ask to be treated not as a son, but as a hired hand.  As he practices what he will say to his father he settles on “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called you son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” (18-19)

He sets out for home and his father, seeing him in the distance, is “filled with compassion” and runs out to meet his son. He embraces and kisses him.  The younger son blurts out his prepared speech but his father has a different plan:

“Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.” (23-24)

One thing to notice in this exchange is that the father is not struggling financially – even after having given the younger son half of all he had. He still has material wealth that he can use to clothe his son and throw a party.

The father also seems to be uninterested in his son’s actions or even his apologies. He cuts his son off before he can even finish his speech.  The father is simply happy to see the son he likely thought he would never see again – he describes his son as one who was “dead and is alive again” after all. (24) He is making decisions based solely on how he feels in the moment which is “moved by compassion.”

Levine wonders if at this point in the story the father and also the people who are listening to Jesus tell this story have lost count.  The father has two sons. Does anyone remember that at this point?

Well the older son probably does.  But so far in this story he has been silent. Or silenced?

Levine points out that the older brother is so forgotten in the story that no one remembers to even tell him that there’s a party going on.  The elder son has finished a day of work in the fields and hears music and dancing as he approaches the house. He asks an enslaved person what is going on and is informed that his younger brother has returned home and his father has thrown a party.

The older son does exactly what I expect I would do. We’re told he, “became angry and refused to go in.” (28).  Just imagine it, you have been the good kid all your life. You’re done as you were told, worked hard, followed the rules. You stayed and continued to care for and work for you father after your brother left home.  Work the two of you could have, should have shared, you have had to do all alone.

I would be hurt and angry as well.

Just like when the father saw his younger son in the distance and went out to meet him, the father also leaves the party to go speak to his older son.

He listens as his son vents his hurt and frustration and pleads with him to join the party. (28-31). The father says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, he was lost and he has been found.” (32)

The father listens, reassures this son that his inheritance is secure, “all that is mine is yours,” and asks him to consider that the point at this particular moment is not what is fair. The point is that someone who was lost has been found.

I have such a hard time with this story and with this response, but that’s because the details feel so close to my own life without providing me with a conclusion that validates my own behaviour.

I am the older son, the prudent one, the loyal one. I am the one who quietly keeps everything going while other people behave like that younger son.

I have been abandoned by people who should be sharing the workload with me and so I do more than I should. My work, my overwork, often goes unnoticed and unappreciated, and no one throws me a party.

I wish that this story ended with a promise that the older son would get a party too. But it doesn’t.

It’s helpful for me to be honest and honour those feelings. It’s also helpful for me to remember that this is a story. A story that is included in a series of stories about being lost and found.   There are many stories about how important it is to be faithful and loyal. To work hard. To honour your parents.  This isn’t one of those stories.

There is a reason that we don’t all love a hymn called “Amazing Fairness.”  We love a hymn called “Amazing Grace.”[2] This is a story of grace. A story about the joy that can and should be experienced when someone we have been missing is restored to us.  A story that makes it clear that in this instance the correct and natural response is to throw a party.

And I hope the older son gets a party of his own, but I also hope he is able to set aside his own sense of being unfairly treated and join in this feast.

I hope he won’t hurt himself and his community by being so trapped in his hurt and his sense of fairness that he’ll miss the party.

I hope he’ll put those feelings aside for another day and another conversation with his father and go in and celebrate.

Because it would be a shame to miss a party.

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

 

 

 

 

[1] Short Stories by Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine.

[2] Thanks to the folks at Pulpit Fiction for this insight.


Second, Third, and Fourth Chances: A Sermon for Sunday March 20, 2022

The following sermon was preached at St George's Transcona's service for Sunday March 20, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo credit: Tijana Drndarski on Unsplash.

 

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

I love Broadway musicals and Hamilton is a recent favourite -I’ve listened to the soundtrack more times than I can count. On one of my first listens I was struck by an unusual image in a line sung by George Washington in the song “One Last Time: “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”

The line puzzled me because it seemed strangely specific – why a fig tree? Why not just any old shady tree?  Figs only grow in warm climates like California. Is Washington longing to move to California when he retires?

Finally I realized that he’s quoting the Bible.  Micah 4:4 says, “but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”

Fig trees are a pretty common image in scripture – the phrase “fig tree” appears 41 times from Genesis to Revelation – but I’ve never really taken the time to think about why it’s a common image until I began to prepare this sermon.

I’m pretty sure we don’t have any fig trees in Winnipeg unless they are in a greenhouse so you might not be familiar with what they look like.

Fig trees are native to the Mediterranean and western Asia and have been “cultivated since ancient times” for the fruit they produce and for decoration[1]. The trees are quite beautiful.

Technically a fig tree is a shrub but it’s a shrub that can grow to be 7-10 meters tall. Sounds like a tree to me! And with leaves that grow from 12-25 centimeters in length, it’s also a tree that produces a decent amount of shade.

Those large leaves make these trees a shady respite from the heat, but they have also had another practical use you may be familiar with.  In Genesis 3, Adam and Eve disobey God and eat fruit from the one tree God tells them not to eat from.  Verse 7 says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

The Collegeville Commentary explains that in first-century Jewish thought, the fig tree was not only the source of the clothing that Adam and Eve create for themselves, it was also the forbidden tree. The one they were not supposed to eat from.  Additionally at this time, a fig tree in bloom was a sign of God’s kingdom and the end times.  This may be why Jesus, as he is helping his disciples to both understand and anticipate God’s kingdom, chooses to tell stories about fig trees. But more on that later.

God will punish Adam and Eve for their disobedience, expelling them from the garden and literally cursing the ground promising that producing food will be a difficult process, “cursed is the ground because of you,” God says, “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” (3:17)

In Genesis, a fig tree is the forbidden tree and the source of the first clothing but by the time we get to the book of Isaiah, the symbolism of the fig tree will be reversed so that, like in the verse from Micah quoted in Hamilton, fig trees are something to long for, a source of hope and strength.  A place of peace where people can rest under the safety of its shady leaves.   Fig trees are now a symbol of peace and prosperity.

Take 1 Kings 4:25 for example, “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of the under their vines and fig trees.”

Now let’s fast forward to today’s gospel reading.   Jesus is speaking to a crowd who have questions about a disturbing local incident.  Pilate has killed some Galilean people. What are they do make of this?  Jesus doesn’t address the specifics of these events, rather he offers a warning and a parable: “unless you repent, you will all perish…Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”  (Luke 13:5-9)

What’s happening in this parable? First, it’s important to remember it’s a parable, a story meant to get us thinking, to get us asking questions. It’s not historical fact.  Second, like many of Jesus’ parables, we are told the story but not how to interpret the story, meaning we can’t really be sure what it means or - and this is the interpretation I prefer - we are free to ascribe multiple meanings to the story.

The point isn’t to crack a code, the point is to get us thinking.

This story has two characters, a landowner and a gardener.  The landowner is frustrated because he has a fig tree on his land that is not producing fruit.  It hasn’t produced fruit in three years actually so not only does he feel like the tree isn’t living up to his expectations, it’s also stealing nutrients from the soil that the rest of his garden could benefit from.   It’s a liability, and he wants it removed.

When I used to read this story I felt like the gardener was the bad guy. How mean of him to remove this tree!  But over the past few years I’ve been doing more gardening and now I see think he’s just being a good steward of his land. Now this seems like a practical and caring decision to me.  If one plant isn’t doing what it is supposed to do, and it’s taking valuable nutrients that other plants could benefit from, then it makes practical sense to dig it up and add it to the compost pile.

But the gardener disagrees and asks that the tree be given one more chance. And not just another chance, he asks that it receive a little extra TLC too.  He’ll loosen up the soil, add some manure which will provide additional nutrients and then hopefully, next year the tree will produce as they have both hoped it will.

Who do you identify with in this story? Are you the landowner? The gardener?  Who do you suppose Jesus identifies with?  One character? Multiple characters?

I wonder, perhaps, if we’re meant to identify with the fig tree.   We’re here just taking up space and sucking up vital nutrients but we aren’t producing any fruit.  I don’t always feel that way, but if I’m honest, that describes me at least some of the time.

And even though I don’t like thinking about it all that much, I know that my calling in life is to produce good fruit, and that one day, I will have to account for my choices, the ways I either did or did not do what I was called to do.

I wonder if we can see aspects of God’s character in both the landowner and the gardener.

The landowner is practical and a good steward of resources. If something isn’t producing and is robbing other living things of nutrients, he removes it.  God is like that.

The gardener is someone who values the production of good fruit.  They are patient, willing to do whatever they can to help the fig tree do what it was created to do. They are willing to give second, third, and even fourth chances.  God is also like that.

What else can we learn from this story?

First, the fig tree’s purpose is to bear good fruit.  If it doesn’t, then it’s not doing what it was created to do.

In Galatians 5: 22-23a we read, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”  This is what good fruit looks like.  This is what we are supposed to look like.

Second, the fig tree doesn’t live in a vacuum, it’s part of a larger system and it can have a positive or negative impact on that system. When it’s doing what it was created to do, it produces fruit that helps others live.   When it’s not giving anything to others, it still takes from them, absorbing nutrients from the soil that others also need to live.

Another thing we can learn from this passage it to avoid complacency in our own lives. Just because you are still here, doesn’t mean you are producing fruit.  So don’t get complacent.  I think one of the most dangerous things about the current pace of life in North America – even during the pandemic – is that we are often so busy doing things that we never slow down long enough to ask if the things we are doing are in fact worth doing.   Do they make us feel productive or do they actually produce good fruit?

These are important lessons to learn, but none of them feel particularly… uplifting? Encouraging? Hopeful?

And that’s where the gardener comes in. I am encouraged by the gardener. The gardener is patient. The gardener is willing to work with even the most stubborn of trees – the most stubborn of us – to help us bear fruit.  They can’t force us to, but they will do everything in their power to ensure that we can bear good fruit if we choose to.

The gardener will break up the soil around our roots, add rich nutrients to help us grow, plead for patience, a little more time, a second chance to get it right.

The parable puts the idea of God’s judgement – we will all be held accountable for our actions – within the context of God’s grace.   Even the most stubborn one of us will be given every possible chance to choose to change our ways and live a life that bears good fruit.

The story of the fig tree says that we’re going to be given chance after chance after chance to get it right.  We will be tended by a good and loving gardener who will do everything short of remove our free will to help us live the best life we can.

There is good news in that for each one of us I think.

And by the way, I’m jumping ahead a few weeks here, but when Mary first sees Jesus resurrected after his crucifixion, who does she initially mistake him for?

That’s right, a gardener. (John 20:15)

I went to the grocery story this week and they were selling vegetable seeds.  The massive piles of snow in front of my house are slowly beginning to melt and the weather is getting warmer.  It is starting to feel like spring and I am starting to think about gardening.

As an amateur gardener in Winnipeg, I don’t have anything like a fig tree in my yard, something that produces fruit every year.  Rather, every year I either need to start seeds inside my house at this time of year to be planted later, or purchase plants at a greenhouse.   Some years I’ll do a mix of both.

It seems to me that many of us, and perhaps even St George’s as a parish, are in this early seed planting time.   There are seeds under the earth that we hope will bear good fruit, but we can’t even see green shoots yet, let alone enjoy fresh beans and tomatoes.

Most people and parishes – maybe even all people and parishes? – are currently in a time of transition.   We’ve lived through two years of COVID and it has changed us.  The pandemic is not over yet, and it will continue to change us, but even though it’s not over I do think we are in a time when we can begin to look around the metaphorical gardens of our individual lives and our common life as a parish  and ask,  “Which of these trees do we want to keep because they bear good fruit?”   “Which do we need to get rid of to allow other new life to grow?” and “Which trees aren’t doing so well right now but they just might thrive is we give them some extra TLC and a second chance?”  “What new things do we want to plant so that we can enjoy them in the future?”

Now is an ideal time to ask and begin to answer those questions together.  Helping you as a parish ask and answer those questions is one of the key roles of an interim priest actually.  My role is described as an intentional interim because it has intentionality baked right into the job description. I am not just here filling time until you can hire a new priest. I’m here to help you take a look at the garden you have created – to celebrate the good, to weed out the bad – and then to help you both imagine what you’d like this garden to look like in say one years’ time or five year’s time and what steps you can begin to take right now to help you get where you believe God is calling you to go.

It’s an exciting time – at least I find it exciting – but I want to caution you that, just like planting seeds, it often doesn’t feel like much is happening.   There is an incredible amount of work that goes into the creation of just a single tomato and most of it happens under the ground.  But it does happen, and the tomatoes are worth it in the end.

Lent is also a wonderful season to begin to prayerfully do this sort of work in your own life as well.  What in your life is bearing good fruit?  What should you maybe stop doing altogether?  What isn’t doing so well just now but could bear good fruit with a little extra time and TLC.

Especially at this time, after two difficult pandemic years, I imagine we all have some aspects of our lives that aren’t doing so well. The pandemic has been hard on them, but they are still worth giving a second or even a third or fourth chance to grow.

Only you know what things fit into each category in your own life, but I want us all to hold onto the image of Jesus as the good gardener who says we are worth the extra time and extra manure.  That he will be patient with us and that we can be patient with ourselves and each other as well.

Because that seems like good news to me.

In the strong name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fig

 


What's in a name?: A Sermon for Sunday, March 6, 2022

The following sermon was pre-recorded for St George's Transcona's service for Sunday March 6, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

 

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.

As we continue to get to know each other, you’ll likely notice that I often say “I really don’t want to talk about this week’s readings.” I did that two weeks ago for example.  But this week we have one of my all time favourite passages. In fact, if I could only preach on one gospel text for the rest of my life, this passage would be my second choice.

My first choice, would be the story that happens just before this one in Luke 3:21-22:

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[a] with you I am well pleased.”[b]

 “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism marks the beginning of his public ministry and God wants to remind Jesus that he is God’s beloved child at this pivotal moment. Just as his public ministry is about to begin, Jesus is named and claimed as God’s beloved child.

What happens immediately after Jesus is named as beloved? He spends 40 days in the wilderness, and is tempted by the devil, and each one of the temptations is a direct challenge to Jesus’ identity as God’s beloved.

In his book “Whistling in the Dark,” Frederick Buechner writes:

“In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year’s income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same with roughly a tenth of one year’s days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus.  During Lent, Christians are meant to ask in one way or another what it means to be themselves.” (82)

What does it mean to be yourself? What is your name?

Each one of us carries a number of names. There is the name we were given at birth and there may be nicknames or other names that were chosen for us or that we chose for ourselves as we grew older.

There are names that describe us in relationship to other people – mother, son, spouse, roommate, friend.

There are names that describe us in relation to the work we do or do not do.  Names like janitor, child care worker, or unemployed.  Our society places an incredible amount of importance on these names. “What do you do?” is often the second question we will be asked in social settings.

We have other names too. Some given to us and some placed upon us by others – smart, dumb, trouble maker, good girl.

One name that was given to me in junior high was “bad at art.” My art teacher walked by me as I was sketching, sniffed and said, “Never consider a career that requires you to draw.”

And I still hear her every time I have draw anything, even a stick figure or a simple map to my house.

That name stuck. And not because I wanted it to.

Lent can be a great time to sift and sort all of these names and ask yourself, “Which of these names do I claim as true about myself, which do I reject, and which do I want to see healed, or transformed?

Which are the names I can hug close to myself and never let go of. Which do I need to reject outright? And which ones are going to be harder to shake off? Which ones might I need a little extra time or a little extra help with before I will begin to see transformation?

Letting go of false names and claiming true ones is difficult and takes time.  You will likely fail to let go of those names many, many times as you’re trying to let go of them. But that’s OK, and Lent is a great reminder that process is more important than perfection – because we’re all likely to fail to maintain our Lenten disciples as well, and that doesn’t mean the process is meaningless.

The names that we know are not true and are damaging can be the toughest ones to let go of. When you encounter them, when they return even when you thought you had finally, finally shaken them off, be gentle with yourself.

Many years ago, a friend of mine had the amazing opportunity to take a graduate course taught by Archbishop Desmund Tutu at Candler School of Theology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At his baptism, God publicly declares that Jesus’ name is beloved child. Jesus, hears that, claims that identity, and then immediately that identity is challenged.

Henri Nouwen describes the three temptations Jesus faces as the temptation to be relevant, to be popular, and to be powerful.

In the first temptation, the devil challenges Jesus to be productive, to make something. To provide some tangible proof of his relevance. What good is it to sit around by yourself in the wilderness for 40 days? What do you have to show for this time? Turn these stones into bread! Why would anyone love you if you aren’t productive?

In the second, Jesus is being challenged to be popular. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says, “all of these people will worship you, if only you worship me.”   How can you believe you are loved, if you don’t have proof? And what better proof than to have everyone bow down and worship you?

In the third, the devil challenges Jesus to prove both how powerful he is and how much God loves him by throwing himself off of the temple.  If you really are God’s beloved, then God will save you.

In each one we can hear the tempter saying, “Are you sure you are who you say you are? Are you sure God really loves you? Don’t you want proof? Don’t you want to test that out and make sure?”

And Jesus says, “God is not to be tested.”

And the devil, realizing they have lost this battle but still may be able to win the war, leaves Jesus with the plan to return and try again at an “opportune time.”

We can be known by all sorts of names. Some are helpful and lift us up, some are deeply damaging. Some are given to us by others. Some we choose.

And sometimes it can be very difficult to distinguish which are which. This is where it is so helpful to have a trusted friend, or a spiritual director, or a pastor you can talk to who can help you to hear those false names for what they are, and can remind you of your true name, beloved child of a good and loving God.

The three ways that Jesus was tempted were legitimate temptations. Each one of the three things that the devil was calling Jesus to do could have helped Jesus to achieve his mission, and in a more efficient way than he ultimately chooses.  He could prove his relevance by producing bread to feed people.  He could prove he was popular by the number of kingdoms he had, and he could prove he was powerful by throwing himself off the temple. If he had proved all of these things, or even one of these things, he would have had people’s attention.

He would have had their attention. He would have established control. He would have made things so much easier for himself, but as Henri Nouwen points out, Jesus rejects this easy path and instead chooses “the harder task of love.”

In the past few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of names being used in various news stories.  You probably have too. Stories about Ukraine. Or truckers. Or Covid.  The world feels particularly polarized right now and calling people we disagree with names is a temptation many people are living into.

And there is a real temptation to say that surely, surely, God loves the people with the right ideas and the right words a little better than the people who don’t? Surely I can just wash my hands of the people I disagree with? Surely it’s OK to call them names other than “beloved child?”   Surely I can say that if they are using ugly names I can too? I can call them ugly names like stupid and ignorant and make fun of their bad grammar or bad hair or bad theology?

It’s tempting, but I think that even as we challenge dangerous ideas and call people to the higher ideal of love rather than hate, we need to remember we are not more beloved in God’s sight than the people who disagree with us. We need to see that the motivation for such ugly behavior is often the result of never having heard themselves named as God’s beloved.

James Findley once said that the first thing we all need to do is claim our identity as God’s beloved child, and the second is to make sure that no one gets left behind. First we come to understand our own belovedness, and then we need to help others understand theirs.

Jan Richardson is one of my favourite poets and I want to close with her poem, “Beloved is Where We Begin:

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.  (From Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons)

Amen.


Are you still listening?: A Sermon for Sunday February 20, 2022

The following sermon was pre-recorded for St George's Transcona's service for Sunday February 20, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking herePhoto by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash 

 

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.

Today’s gospel reading is a continuation of last week’s reading from Luke.  This section of the gospel is often called the Sermon on the Plain so today’s passage could be described as “Sermon on the Plain: Part 2.”[1]

To refresh your memory, part one was a series of blessings and woes such as:  “Blessed are the poor! But woe to you who are rich.”

Jesus opens Part Two by saying, “But I say to you that listen.” (27). New Testament Bible scholar Sarah Henrich notes that this phrase could also be translated as, “I say to you who are still listening.”[2]  How many people, do you suppose, have already stopped listening or left by this point?  It’s possible that the longer Jesus speaks, the smaller the crowd of people who are actually listening becomes.

Jesus knows that what he is saying is hard to hear. He knows that there will be many people who will chose not to listen.

His first hard teaching for those who are still listening is “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (27-28)

When I read those words for the first time as I was preparing this sermon my first thought was, “I really don’t want to listen to this either.”

Loving my enemies, doing good to people who hate me, blessing people who curse me and praying for people who abuse me have always been hard things to try to do.  Sometimes it’s been incredibly hard and I certainly have not always been successful or even willing to try. Sometimes I just want to hate my enemies, not love them.

Lately, it’s felt even harder to love my enemies.   The past few years have been hard on everyone and most people – including myself – are not doing our best right now.  We are all exhausted. Or whatever the word for even more tired than exhausted would be.  Our tanks of compassion, empathy and care for others are empty.

And it’s making it easier for us to see each other as enemies and to hurt each other instead of caring for each other. Even if we genuinely want to be caring, many of us have a pretty limited capacity to do so.

So I am tired. I am not doing my best and everywhere I look I seem to see people who are responding to the fact that they are exhausted and not doing their best in ways that well… in ways that make me furious.

In ways that make those people seem like they might just be my enemies. In ways that make Jesus’ words harder for me to hear than ever before.

If you feel this way as well, if you find yourself getting angry more often, or frustrated more often, or feeling mean spirited more often, or despairing and feeling completely hopeless about the state of the world more often, you are not alone.

And it’s really important to notice this in yourself and be gentle with yourself.  It is no small thing to have lived through the past few years.  It’s no small thing to know that there are still more hard times ahead. It makes sense to feel stretched way too thin and not be doing your best.

Be gentle with yourself because you deserve that kind of compassionate care. Be gentle with yourself so that you can find some space to slow down and respond to others from a place of compassion and not from a place of fear, or anger or reactivity.

Loving our enemies isn’t the only hard thing Jesus wants us to do. He also says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also … Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (27-31)

One of the reasons these teachings are so hard to hear, is because in our modern times they have often been taught not as good, if difficult news, but as justifications for abuse.

And I want to say as clearly as I possibly can.  There is never an excuse for abuse and there is not a single teaching of Jesus Christ that can appropriately be used to justify abuse.

Even though many people have done so for many years.

All of the ways Jesus is calling us to treat people well who are not behaving well are about the manner in which we treat them.  Jesus is focused on our behaviour here. The only thing we are actually in control of.

It’s never a good idea to use someone else’s bad behaviour as an excuse to behave badly yourself.  When someone is behaving badly it’s never a good idea to choose to behave just as badly but it’s also not a great idea to give them permission to keep behaving badly.

Loving our enemies certainly includes refusing to accept abusive behaviour from them. Loving our enemies includes calling out inappropriate behaviour without resorting to inappropriate behavior ourselves. Loving our enemies includes putting laws and procedures and protocols in place that prevent people from behaving badly.

Loving our enemies often mean saying, “No. What you are doing is not OK.”

More often than not, the most loving thing we can do is behave well ourselves and limit their ability to continue to behave badly.

Ultimately their behavior is their responsibility, not ours, but we don’t have to feed it and give it room to grow.

Behaving well ourselves while not feeding someone else’s bad behaviour is what it means to turn the other cheek.

In our culture we would likely feel hurt and insulted if someone slapped us, but we probably wouldn’t spend anytime analyzing the mechanics of that slap for additional meaning. People in Jesus’ time would have.

Walter Wink explains that if we lived in Jesus’ time and I was going to slap you, I would use my right hand. Not just because I actually am right handed, but because in that culture, the left hand was used for what Wink politely called “unclean purposes.”[3]  It was your bathroom hand.

So if you’re going to slap someone, you would use your right hand, and you’re most likely going to use the back of your hand because Wink explains that this gesture, slapping someone with the back of your hand, not only hurt the person when your hand connected with their face, but it was a sign that they were inferior to you.  A backhanded slap was a way of asserting authority and dominance, of saying I am superior, you are inferior.

Now think about the mechanics of this for a moment.  If I slap you with the back of my right hand, I will connect with your right cheekbone.  If you then turn your left check towards me, the most logical way for me to slap you would be to use the inside of my right hand.

Except in order to do so I have to do two things.  First, I most likely have to look you in the eye when you turn your head.  Second, I have to slap you in a way that say we are equals. With the inside of my hand, not the back.

Turning the other cheek is a choice to refuse to meet violence with violence, or a slap with another slap, while also demanding that the person treat you as an equal.

I would have loved to have been in the room listening as the people who crafted the lectionary decided which passages should be read together.  Sometimes their decisions make a lot of sense to me. Sometimes they are utterly baffling.

Today’s combination of readings just seems a little bit too on the nose to me. Really?  Jesus talks about forgiving our enemies and you pair that with a story about Joseph forgiving his brothers?

It’s not a subtle pairing at all.

Here is a quick refresher on the story of Joseph that leads up to today’s reading:

Jacob has 12 sons and Joseph is his favourite.  Jacob makes no secret of the fact that Joseph is his favourite, he buys Joseph a special coat for example.  Jacob loves Joseph, but his brothers hate him.

The 11 brothers are in Shechem where they “pasture their father’s flock.” (12-13)

Jacob asks Joseph to go and check on his brothers, and Joseph agrees.

Joseph’s brothers have been moving with the grazing animals and are further away from home than he expected. This distance will make it easier for the brothers to carry out their plans without being caught.

Joseph’s brothers spot him long before he arrives and as they are watching him approach, they decide to kill him saying, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.” (18-19)

Reuben however suggests a slightly different plan. Instead of killing Joseph, they could just throw him into a pit. And leave him.  Which may actually be worse, as he’ll likely still die of exposure or starvation.

Joseph meets up with his brothers, they strip off his special coat and throw him into a pit. (24)

And then the brothers go off to eat and while they are eating, Judah comes up with a new plan.  Why leave their brother to starve to death in a pit, when they can sell him and make a little money?  And that’s exactly what they do. They sell their brother to some passing traders for twenty pieces of silver and those traders take Joseph to Egypt. (28) This was a standard purchase price for an enslaved person between the ages of five and twenty. Joseph was seventeen.

Imagine being Joseph in that pit.  One minute you’re on a trip to see your family, the next you are naked and bruised and all alone in a pit, and then you are traveling with strangers to a strange land. Strangers who view you as property. And you know that most of your brothers wanted to kill you.  The brother who had the most compassion for you?  Even he was fine with selling you into slavery.

Joseph’s life in Egypt was also incredibly hard. He was enslaved, mistreated, assaulted, and imprisoned.  He was alone in a strange land and he was living with the knowledge of just how much his own brothers hated him.

By the time we get to the story in today’s reading, Joseph is doing much better. He has risen to a place of power and prominence in Egyptian society, but he still carries all the hurt and pain and trauma of those past experiences.

And then one day, his brothers appear. They don’t recognize Joseph at all, when they look at him, they see only a stranger who has the power to decide if they live or die.  Joseph has the power to sell them food in a famine that will keep them alive, or to refuse to do so.

Joseph sells them food, but he keeps his identity hidden for a long time, and he also puts his brothers through a series of tests. Tests to see if they have changed. Tests to see if they can be trusted.

And then in today’s story, Joseph is finally ready to tell his brothers who he is. Joseph is ready to forgive them.

Revealing his identity to his brothers also allows him to ask them a question I suspect he has wanted to ask since the moment he first saw them, “Is my father still alive?” (45:3)

He brothers are understandably terrified.  We are told that they are speechless, unable to respond. (45:3)

Actually they don’t speak in this entire reading, only Joseph does. Joseph gets to tell his story, how he has come to understand what happened, and how he has made peace with it. The brothers don’t get to interject at all, they can only listen.

One thing that I love about this story is that Joseph doesn’t minimize what his brothers did. He calls it out, “you sold me.” (45:4).

If he was still enslaved this interaction would have gone differently. It would have had to, because the first criteria of forgiveness is that the abuse ends. Full stop.   It has in this story, Joseph is no longer enslaved, and the brothers no longer have the power or the desire to hurt their brother.  Some of the tests Joseph put them through before forgiving them proved this.

It is from this space – the abuse has ended and will not continue – that Joseph offers his brothers forgiveness.

When Jesus is telling those who are still willing to listen that they need to love their enemies, he is speaking to people who would have known Joseph’s story. Stories like this and ideas of forgiveness and treating enemies with kindness were not new to them but his words would still have been hard to hear.

Not everyone was willing to listen to what he had to say. I wonder if we’re willing to listen. I wonder if I’m willing to listen. Jesus’ way isn’t an easy way, but I believe it is a good way. A way worth trying to follow.

The world is a hard place right now.  We have all been called to do so many new and unexpected hard things for such a long time and I suspect you are just as tired and stretched thin as I am.

Be gentle with yourself as you seek to live Jesus’ way.  It is hard, maybe even impossible, to love others while you are beating yourself up.

And you loved, and you are so worthy of love, including your own.

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

 

[1] Part 2 of 3.  We don’t actually get part 3 this year because of when Lent begins. Next week we get the Transfiguration instead.

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-627-38-2

[3]  Walter Wink.  Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination,