It's... a lot: A Sermon for Sunday February 14, 2021

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on February 14, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

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

If you were in a class I was teaching, and I told you that your next assignment was to write an essay describing God, what would you write? What kinds of words would you use to describe God? What sources would you reference? What stories would you tell?

Who do you think God is?

I don’t know what you would write, but I do know that my comments on your paper would most likely reflect two major themes.

  • I am so sorry that your life experiences and the people around you have taught you that God is like that. God is not like that, God is so much more loving and compassionate, and wonderful than that.
  • Your description of God was fairly accurate. God is like that, but God is also so much more than that. God is more powerful, more loving, more merciful, more well… more than what you have written in your essay.

My essay would look the same. Some of the ways I perceive God require healing because people have done some truly awful things to me in God’s name and those experiences negatively shape my image of God.

Some of the ways I understand who God is are more accurate, you can find them in a theology textbook, back them up with scripture and personal experience, but they are also not entirely accurate.

At saint ben’s we regularly refer to God as being able to do more “than we can ask or imagine.” God can do more than we can ask or imagine because God is more than we can imagine.

Which is important to remember.  You can always get to know God better, but you will never fully know God. There will always be more to discover.

Tonight’s gospel reading is the story of the transfiguration. We always get this story on the Sunday before Lent.  Lent begins on Wednesday, and if you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to check out the Feasts and Fasts section of our website. In particular, there are posts about Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday which both happen this week.  I also hope you’ll join us online on Wednesday at 5pm and 7pm respectively for Evening Prayer and our Ash Wednesday service.

I’m going to talk about Lent a little later in this sermon, but not only do we get this story every year on the Sunday before Lent begins, we will also get it again in August when we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration.

Which means that if you are the kind of preacher who preaches every single week, you could wind up preaching on this story twice a year, every single year of your preaching life.

It’s a challenge to not simply repeat yourself, many preachers struggle, but we do it.  We look to this story for something, not necessarily brand new, but for something important or timely to say about God and this story, and we find it.

Everytime you approach the story and think, there can’t possibly be any more that this story has to teach me about God, you find out that there is.

Here’s a quick recap of the story and its context. Our reading begins with the phrase “six days later.”

Six days prior Jesus had shared that he was about to undergo great suffering and rejection. He told his disciples that he was going to be killed and rise again in three days.  (8:31)

Peter didn’t take it well and decided to rebuke Jesus resulting in a counter-rebuke where Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (33)

Jesus then tells all of them that if they want to continue to follow him they will have to take up a cross, an instrument of torture and execution.  If they want to follow him, they will have to be willing to lose their lives. (34-36)

It’s a lot.

Most friendships don’t come with the promise of torture and death.

Six days is not a very long time, so Jesus and the disciples are likely still actively processing what Jesus has told them, Peter’s response, Jesus’ response, their own responses. The disciples are probably still trying to make sense of what Jesus said, and I imagine Jesus is feeling fairly vulnerable. He’s shared something deeply personal and he’s still not entirely sure of the disciples’ response.

Will they understand? Should he have trusted them with that piece of his story? Maybe he should have just kept it all to himself?

They’re carrying all of that with them while they are hiking up to the top of a high mountain. When they reach the top, Jesus is transfigured, Elijah and Moses appear from out of nowhere, and the voice of God speaks from within a cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him!”  And just as suddenly as all these things occur, they stop, and Jesus and the disciples are alone on the mountain top again.

It’s… a lot.

It’s important to note that Jesus was transfigured, not transformed.  Jesus didn’t change, he didn’t transform from one thing into another.  Jesus stayed the same, he just revealed something that had always been true about himself.  He didn’t change, but for the first time he allowed the disciples to see a part of himself he had never shown them before.[1]

Have you ever had a moment where you decided to trust another person enough to reveal something private about yourself to them?   Have you ever trusted someone enough to appear transfigured before them? To say, you may never had noticed this before, but it’s true of me.

Think about how you felt in those moments leading up to deciding to trust this person.  Think about how you felt as you were sharing this truth about yourself. Think about how you felt in that moment of silence after they heard what you had told them but before you knew how they were going to respond.

How did you feel? Scared? Hopeful?  Vulnerable? Most likely you felt vulnerable. At this moment you have entrusted another human being with something precious, a truth about yourself, and you don’t yet know how they are going to handle that gift.

For it is a gift. You are a gift. Being brave and bold enough to share more of yourself with another human being is a gift.

What’s hard – what is so very hard - is that it’s not always treated like a gift.

If a memory of a time when you were vulnerable and shared a part of yourself with another person and they did not treat you and your story like a gift is surfacing for you, be gentle with yourself.

Jesus understands that experience. He lived it over and over. The disciples don’t have a good track record of being able to handle these sorts of situations well. They have a track record of completely missing the point. Jesus is taking a huge risk here.

This time, the disciples do a little bit better. I mean, at least Peter doesn’t try and rebuke the transfigured Jesus.

They do better, but better still isn’t best.

The disciples are terrified and Peter tries to manage his fear by talking. We’re told that, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” (6)

It’s a good idea when you don’t know what to stay to stop for a moment to think about what to say, but that’s not what Peter does, he just starts talking without thinking about what he’s saying. He suggests that they build shelters and stay on the top of the mountain. Spoiler alert: This is not a good idea and it’s not what happens. They will descend the mountain and continue their journey.

Lent is a season that lasts for 40 days. If Advent helps us prepare for Christmas, Lent helps us prepare for Easter. In Lent we are invited to consider fasting from something or taking on something new. The idea is to choose something that can help you engage the season and prepare for Easter, but even more importantly, the purpose of Lent is to see what new truth you can discover about yourself and about God by changing your regular patterns of behavior.

Where are you operating on autopilot, and what might you discover if you changed up the route?

It’s good to choose something, to fast from something or to take something new on, but whatever you chose, it’s also important to be mindful that the point is to choose something that will help you to explore something new about God, about yourself, about your relationship.

The point is not to lose 10 pounds.

If you haven’t already decided how you will be observing Lent this year I encourage you to take some time over the next few days to think about it.  Think about it prayerfully and allow yourself to be surprised by what you choose.

One of the key ways you know that God is at work in your life is if you’re pleasantly surprised. That sense of delight is a good indicator that God is at work both because God is good, and because it suggests that it’s not something you could have come up with on our own.

This year may be the year to give up chocolate, or screen time or to take on a new prayer practice.  There are no limits to what you can choose. I find it helpful to sort out my Lenten practice with the help of my spiritual director.  In doing so, I both have someone who can keep me accountable and a greater sense of confidence that I’m picking the right thing, and not the safe or easy thing.

One year, in consultation with my spiritual director, I gave up being nice. That Lent was a tremendous journey of discovery.

This may also be the year to say, “I’ve given up more than enough this year,” in Lent I will make space to grieve and lament those losses.

Or “I’ve given up more than enough this year, I’m giving up giving up for Lent.”

Lent is a season to be embraced freely and with curiosity, not with guilt or a heavy sense of obligation.

One final note. I have found that when I have chosen to share openly and vulnerably people do not always treat that like the gift it is. It’s incredibly painful when this happens. But I have also noticed, that when people hurt me in this way, God has a way of showing up somewhere else to show me that I am not alone, that I am in fact gift.

In the same week where someone will betray my trust, someone else who has no idea what I’ve been going through will send me a note of encouragement, or I will experience a moment of peace on a walk where I know that the betrayal was not my fault, or I’ll just get this deep sense that I am not alone.

God also does this for Jesus in our passage.  Jesus is moving towards one of the most difficult phases in his ministry, he’s moving towards humiliation, torture, and death.  The people he is surrounded by aren’t fully equipped to understand everything that is happening, let alone adequately support him.

And knowing all this, God appears in a cloud and declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

That’s a message for the disciples to be sure, but it’s also a message for Jesus. A reminder of his identity, a reminder that he is beloved.

May you have a good and holy Lent and however you choose to engage, or not engage with this practice, may you come to realize in new and surprising ways just how much God loves you.

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

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/transfiguration-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-mark-92-9-5

 

 


Speak Lord: A Sermon for Sunday January 17, 2021

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on January 17, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

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

It’s not always possible, or even necessary, to find a common theme in our lectionary readings, but today there does seem to be a fairly obvious one – both readings are call stories - stories of people who God tasks with a specific role to fulfill. The lectionary is actually going to have us revisit the story of Jesus calling his disciples several more times over the next few months so we’ll get to those, but tonight we’re going to do a deep dive into Samuel’s story.

Samuel’s story begins, “Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli.” (1)

This is a classic Sunday School story. It appears in most children’s bibles and that makes so much sense. Here we have a story about a kid, a kid who learns to listen when God talks to him. It’s a perfect fit, if you only read that part of the story.

Like so many bible stories, we skip over the tricky bits when we tell stories to children and tonight, the lectionary skips them too.

Tonight’s reading tells the story of the first time God spoke to Samuel, but ends right before we learn what God actually said to Samuel. It also doesn’t tell us how it is that Samuel came to be in Eli’s house in the first place.

The book of 1 Samuel is set in a time when the people of Israel are beginning to shift from people governed by judges to people governed by kings. They haven’t had a king yet, Samuel will grow up to be their last judge and will appoint their first king but in tonight’s reading he is still a young boy. Transitions are often difficult especially when you are slowly moving from a system you are not satisfied with to one you have never tried before. This is a time of unrest and uncertainty.

The book begins by telling us about two families. The family of Elkanah, which includes his two wives Peninnah and Hannah, and the family of Eli which includes his two songs Hophni and Phinehas.

Eli and his sons serve as priests in Shiloh where Elkanah and his family regularly go to offer sacrifices to God.

Eli is a complicated figure, but his sons are not.

The Inclusive Bible translation, which I’ll be using this evening, pulls no punches in its description of Eli’s sons: “Eli’s sons were thugs. They had no regard either for YHWH or for the duties of the priests toward the people.” (2:12). Not exactly an ideal description for two priests.

1 Samuel then goes on to explains that when a person sacrificed an animal to God, a portion of that sacrifice was given to the priests. The fat of the animal belonged entirely to God and was burned, then while the remaining meat was boiling, the priest’s attendant could come and jab a fork into the pot and whatever they fished out belonged to the priest.

This is what was supposed to happen, but Eli’s sons would send their attendant out before all of this had occurred and demand the raw meat with the fat still attached. If people refused, they would take it by force.

In doing so, they thought only of their own stomachs, abused their positions of authority to take what did not belong to them, mistreated the people and treated sacrifices to God and by extension God with contempt.

Their contempt also extended to the “women who served at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting” who they were known to assault, and to their father Eli whose warnings that they should repent and change their ways were ignored. (22-25)

This is where Hannah and her family have come to worship God. This is where Hannah meets Eli.

The first recorded encounter between Eli and Hannah occurs when she is praying to God in a manner that seems normal enough to me, but was clearly unusual at the time. She’s moving her lips, but she’s not making any noise. Her later description also suggests she may have been quite emotional. This leads Eli to assume she is drunk and to greet her with a lecture.
But Hannah pushes back and says, “Oh no! It isn’t that! I am a woman with a broken heart! I have drunk neither wine nor liquor. But I have been pouring out my heart before YHWH. Don’t judge me a terrible person. I am simply pouring out my feelings of grief and misery. (1:15-16)

I love that Hannah does not crumble when lectured by this priest. I love that she trusts the power of her own relationship with God, her own prayer, her own way of praying.

And Eli believes her, and without even asking her what she has been asking God for he tells her that he hopes God will give her what she wants. (17). Eli doesn’t try to determine if her request is worthy and neither of them suggest that it would be better if Eli, a man and a priest, offered prayers on her behalf.

If Eli had asked, he would have learned that Hannah has been asking God for a son. When the first audience would have heard this story, they would have known that this son will replace Eli’s corrupt sons as leader of the people. Hannah is praying for a son who will be the end of the house of Eli, an end to his sons, their lineage, and their power. A little later, Hannah will sing a beautiful song, a song which we can see echoes of in the Magnificat. A song of praise to a God who is powerful and just. Here’s just a small piece of it:

It is YHWH who both humbles and exalts.
YHWH lifts the weak from the refuse dump
and raises the poor from the cesspool,
to place them among the mighty
and promotes them to seats of honour.” (8)

This description of God is not reflected in the behaviour of God’s priests, Eli’s sons, but they will not be priests for much longer, and Hannah’s son will have a role to play in their demise.

God gives Hannah a child and Hannah keeps the promise she made to God. When Samuel is still very young, she returns to Shiloh and releases Samuel into Eli’s care so that he can be trained into God’s service.

Which is an amazing thing to do. To beg for a child, have him with you for a very short time, and then return him to God.

I don’t want to undercut the difficulty of Hannah’s sacrifice, handing your child into someone else’s care is an incredibly difficult thing to do and even though Hannah has been planning this from the very beginning it still must have broken her heart. But Hannah knows that Samuel needs to be where he can learn how to be a priest and a leader and that is not in Hannah’s own household. In order for Samuel to become all that Hannah dreams for him he needs to be with Eli.

Eli is a complicated figure. If you had seen his son’s behaviour, would you have given your child into his care?

Some theologians want to dismiss Eli as a bumbling old man. Not dangerous, but not someone to admire or emulate. Just, you know, old and therefore unimportant. Others, like Cory Driver will argue that the blame for all of Israel’s problems are to be laid at Eli’s feet. He says, “Eli is a terrible leader. He mistakes Hannah’s silent prayer of deep devotion for drunkenness (1 Samuel 1:13). Nowhere in Scripture is Eli, the leading priestly and prophetic figure of his time, said to hear from God…The worst crime of Eli was that he did not control his sons, who were also his subordinate priests.”

Terrible leader. Doesn’t hear from God. Worst crime. Those are some pretty harsh accusations, and I don’t think they’re fair as we will see as we move deeper into the story.

I’m uncomfortable with any interpretation that suggests that Eli is to be dismissed simply because he is old. That’s smacks of an ageism that I often see reflected in our culture, but not in scripture. I’m also uncomfortable with the idea that Eli is responsible for his adult son’s bad choices. Perhaps, as their priestly superior, upon learning of their behaviour he could have suspended their right to serve as priests, but as a parent, he is not responsible for his adult children’s choices.

Additionally, in tonight’s story, Eli is depicted as a wise and skilled mentor. His life experience is a gift, not a liability.
The last thing that is recorded to have happened before tonight’s reading is that Eli receives a prophecy that his sons will die and that God will replace them with a faithful priest from a different household. (34-35). It doesn’t say, but I suspect that Eli knows this new priest is likely to be Samuel, the young boy who lives with him, who Eli himself is training for the priesthood.

One night, Samuel hears a voice calling to him. Assuming its Eli, Samuel goes to him but Eli says he has not called out and tells Samuel to go back to bed. (4-5) The same thing happens a second time. The third time it happens, Eli realizes that it must be God who is speaking and, as any good mentor should, he tells Samuel what to do. Samuel should go back to bed, but if he hears the voice again he is to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel does what Eli tells him to do. Our reading ends with Samuel, having heard the voice again saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Which is quite a cliffhanger.

But fortunately, we can read further than what the lectionary has set out for us this evening.
God says, “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears it tingle.” (11, NRSV). Not just one ear, both ears. What is God up to?
God tells Samuel that the prophecy that has already been delivered to Eli will come true. His sons will die, his lineage will end, and there is nothing, no sacrifice, no offering, that can change things. (13-14).
God delivers this message and then we are told, “Samuel lay there until morning…” (15) Which is impressive because I think I would be tempted to hide or at least pace the floor. The first time Samuel hears God speak, he hears a message about the destruction of his mentor’s family. A message he is expected to deliver to Eli.

God really didn’t let Samuel ease into his prophetic calling. If Eli becomes angry Samuel stands to lose his home, his livelihood, his relationship with both a mentor and a father figure. That’s a lot to expect of a young boy delivering his first message from God.
But Eli will respond to Samuel in a way that shows that he is in fact a good mentor who we should not dismiss because of his age or his children’s actions. I imagine Eli also lying awake, perhaps hoping for good news, a reversal of the earlier prophecy, but also reminding himself that whatever news God is delivering, it is not Samuel’s fault and he needs to behave appropriately.
Eli makes it as easy as possible for Samuel to deliver this difficult news. Eli calls Samuel saying, “Samuel, my son…” (16) Eli reminds Samuel that he is like a son to him. He listens to all that Samuel has to say and he accepts the truth of God’s message. He does not punish or reject Samuel.
And all that God said will come true. Eli’s sons will die. Samuel will become a leader of the people, trying to keep the people in line with God’s dream for them.
Callie Plunket-Brewton writes, the message Samuel will grow up to proclaim “and the message of his mother, is still, sadly, pertinent. The poor and powerless are still at the mercy of the strong. Human appetite still destroys lives and livelihood. The task of the church is twofold: (1) to cry out against injustice and the abuse of power in the world, and (2) to hear and respond with humility to the message of judgment that challenges our own practices…
She continues - There are many voices competing for our attention and how many of us can say that we really know God well enough to recognize a word as being from God or someone else? There is one thing we can know, however. The overwhelming witness of the prophets is that God has no tolerance for those who prey on the weak, who abuse their power, or who eat their fill while others are hungry. Perhaps the difficulty of this message is how easily it can apply to us. Are we in the position of Eli or, worse, his sons, eating our fill and denying both God and our neighbors their share?”

Although we like to imagine we are Samuel, or Eli, far too often we are more like Eli’s sons and if we don’t admit that, it will be easy to rest in our self-righteousness and assume that the world’s problems are not our problems, not our responsibility. It’s not hard to see our world is rife with problems, will we explain them away as someone else’s fault, someone else’s responsibility?

Or will we choose to seek the guidance of wise mentors who can help show us the way, to learn to tune out the world’s noise and tune in to God’s voice. Will we learn to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” I hope so. I hope we learn to hear clearly what God is saying to us, what God wants us to do, and do just that.

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


Home by Another Road: A Sermon for Sunday January 3, 2021

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on January 3, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

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

Merry Christmas everyone!  We are still in the 12 days of Christmas for a little bit longer.

The Feast of the Epiphany actually falls on Wednesday and marks the end of the Christmas season, but tonight we are following a common church practice and moving the feast to this evening so we can celebrate together.

So if you were planning to wait to take your decorations down until after Epiphany you still have a few more days to enjoy them. Personally, mine are staying up for another month until Candlemas. I’m hanging on to that extra light for as long as I can.

Tonight we are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany, a feast which features the story of magi who travelled from the east in search of Jesus.

Maybe the magi literally came from east of Jerusalem but the word used in the original  (plural anatolai, singular antole) also has another meaning.  The word we have translated as “east” means “the rising” as in the rising of the sun.[1]

Matthew’s original audience would have heard multiple meanings in this description:  east as a geographical location and also the image of the sun rising in the morning which they would have connected to the idea of salvation.  Jesus Christ, the light of the world, has come.

Our reading from Isaiah also picks up this theme beginning “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” (1)

Isaiah then goes on to describe a time when nations and kings, sons and daughters will come together and gather around, all drawn by this light. (3-4) And Isaiah tells us that when the people come, they will not come emptyhanded but rather will bring  “the wealth of the nations” which will include gold, frankincense, and also, rather fancifully, a promise that the subject of this passage will be covered with a “multitude of camels.” (5-6)  Apparently that’s a good thing.

Why will all these people gather and bring these gifts?  To “proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (6)

OK it’s time for a pop quiz:  How many kings are in today’s gospel reading?

Two.

Jesus and Herod.

The magi, sometimes referred to as kings, aren’t kings at all.

The word used to describe them in the original Greek (plural of the Greek magoi) does not mean “king.”  This word could be used to describe magicians or diviners or could refer directly to Zoroastrian priests from Persia. These priests were known to pay particular attention to the movements of the stars and planets.

They are not kings, they are astrologers who can “interpret the movement of the stars.”  The Collegeville Commentary explains that, “Magi were often associated with sorcery and magic, and were not always held in high regard (e.g. the magicians of Pharaoh, Exodus 7-8). Matthew, however, portrays them very favorably.” (11)

Whoever the magi were, they were not kings, not locals, and they were not Jewish.  Matthew is pointing us to the fact that Jesus’ birth has universal impact and significance.

We also have no idea how many of them there were. We do know that they brought three gifts, but that doesn’t mean there were only three of them. These could just as easily have been group gifts not individual ones.

Our group of  pilgrims are not necessarily even all men. New Testament scholar Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder argues that it’s “doubtful” that there were only men in this group because it was common for caravans travelling from Persia to include women practitioners as well. “Yet, Matthew clues the reader into the patriarchal context that often privileges male voice, male characters, and male presence.”[2] Just because women aren’t explicitly mentioned doesn’t mean they weren’t there.

In our gospel reading the magi are not kings, the number of people in their group isn’t mentioned, and there are also no camels.  Kings and camels are, however, mentioned in the passage from Isaiah we read tonight and it’s possible that some of these details are an extrapolation from that passage.

The magi are outsiders from another place who practice another religion and yet they seek to find Jesus so they can worship him or “pay him homage.”  Their motives are sincere and when they find Jesus they follow through. Matthew tells us that “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (10-11) Gold and frankincense were also mentioned in the Isaiah passage.

Matthew’s gospel has a lovely circularity to it. It begins with magi who represent nations other than Israel coming to worship Jesus, and it ends with a call for Jesus’ disciples to go out to all the nations (Matthew 28:19).  At no point in this story is Jesus depicted as the leader of an exclusive club.

Although not explicitly described in the actual gospel text, it’s interesting how throughout history our art and  traditions have tried to reflect this idea. Not only have we historically turned this band of travelers into three kings, we often depict them as kings from different parts of the world as if one travelled from what is now Africa, one Asia, and one Europe. It’s not factual, it’s sometimes done in cringeworthy and racist ways, but this practice is seeking to capture the same truth that Matthew is trying to get at. Jesus is for everyone.

While we certainly don’t have time for this this evening, it is interesting to compare Jesus’ origin story in each of the four gospels – examining what each writer viewed as important.

For example, tonight’s reading is from Matthew and Matthew doesn’t include any details about Jesus’ birth. That’s not what interests him. What interests Matthew is the way various people react to Jesus’ birth.

The magi are sincere in their desire to worship this new king and they are willing to make sacrifices in order to do so - traveling a great distance, enduring hardships along the way, endangering their own lives.

Herod, on the other hand, responds in fear and self-interest. Matthew tells us that when Herod learns that the magi believe the Messiah has been born he was “frightened.” He views a new king – even one that is still a small child - as a direct threat to his authority and that’s not a threat he takes lightly.

First he calls his own team of experts who confirm the magi’s story and state that the child will be in Bethlehem. Then Herod arranges to meet the magi in secret, informs them of this location, encourages them to search “diligently” for the child and to report back to Herod with the child’s exact location.

Herod claims he also wants to worship this new king but what he really wants to do is find and eliminate this new threat to his authority.  Three times in this story, (2:3, 2:8, 2:11)  Matthew uses a term we translate as “pay homage.” (proskeneo). The wise men pay homage to Jesus, Herod claims he wants to. To pay homage is to fall on your knees or prostrate on the ground before someone with more power than you have. It also carries the implication of submitting to political authority.[3] Herod is claiming he is willing to submit to Jesus’ authority, but it’s a lie.

We don’t get this part of the story in tonight’s reading, but when Herod realizes that he will not get the child’s location from the magi he orders that all of the children “in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under” are to be killed.  (16). We refer to this part of the story as the “slaughter of the innocents.”  That story deserves to be given more attention at another time, but for tonight, I’ll just highlight a few key details.

First, although we often think of the events of these Christmas stories as happening in short succession from the arrival of Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem to the appearance of the magi, they likely took place in a span of about two years, as indicated by the age range of the children Herod arranged to murder.

Second, when an unhealthy and fearful person in a place of power and authority believes they will have to give up that authority, there is no end to the amount of damage they are willing to inflict on others to try and maintain that power. This is as true now as it was then.

You also need to choose your king, and choose wisely.  The magi travelled in order to worship a king. Herod was a king, and as an adult with an established kingdom he appears to be infinitely more powerful than a child from a poor family in Bethlehem. It would have made sense for the magi to either return home and continue to serve their own rulers, or to serve Herod.

But they don’t.  They disobey Herod’s direct orders and pay homage to Jesus. We all have to choose who we are going to serve, whose authority we are going to submit to.

Choose wisely.

After the magi have found and worshipped Jesus, Matthew tells us that “warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (12)

This is actually one of my favourite lines in all of scripture. The specific details aren’t important, but about 15 years ago I was struggling with a challenging situation where I had thought things would go a certain way, and they didn’t. My goals had not changed, but it was clear that my plans to achieve those goals were never going to work.

When I was telling all of this to my spiritual director, she suggested that I spend some time meditating on this story, and specifically on this line, “they left for their own country by another road.”

What I learned from that process was that there is often more than one path to our destination and sometimes it’s OK, or even necessary to take another road.

If 2020 taught me anything it’s that it’s not possible to predict the future. I have no idea what 2021 will hold but I am hopeful that things will change for the better.  Someone said that the changes that are possible in 2021 will not be like turning on a light switch but will be more like slowing turning up a dimmer switch. If we all make good choices, the change will be real, but gradual.

I suspect when the magi returned home they discovered that life had not simply stood still while they were away, their home was still their home, but it had also changed. The people had changed. Things at home were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar.

I think this will be true for us as well in 2021. We are traveling towards a time when things we miss deeply will be both restored to us and changed forever.  The ways we are used to doing things, the roads we are used to traveling to get where we want to go may no longer serve us.

We can get where we want to go by a different road. An unfamiliar road. But maybe also, a better road.  A lot of our old familiar roads were built on self-interest, economic injustice, racism and misogyny.  We can all choose to travel a better road going forward.

May we all learn to travel it together.

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

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-5

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/authors/stephanie-buckhanon-crowder

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/epiphany-of-our-lord/commentary-on-matthew-21-12-9


My Most Memorable Memory: A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Christmas Eve 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

 

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

Merry Christmas everyone!  It’s so good to be with you this evening.

This fall I took a film course taught by Gareth Higgins and Kathleen Norris.  It was a great opportunity that would not have been available to me if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.

One of the films we discussed was After Life by Hirokazu Kore-eda which is available on Youtube.[1]  The premise of the film is that after you die, you are given three days to choose one memory from your life. That memory will be the only thing you are allowed to take with you into your afterlife.

As I watched the film, I couldn’t help wondering what memory I would pick if I was ever in that situation. Should I choose the moment where I felt the happiest? What would that even be? Maybe I should pick a milestone like my wedding or my ordination in order to be able to include the maximum number of loved ones in a single memory. But I wouldn’t be able to include everyone, and the nature of those events tends to be that while you are glad that everyone is there, you’re so busy with the ceremonial aspect of celebrating a milestone that is no time for a sustained meaningful conversation with anyone.   Maybe it would be better to focus on a feeling – when have I feel the most contented, or at peace?

I thought about this for quite some time, long after the movie ended and I just couldn’t decide. So then I thought, OK, if you can’t figure out what single memory you’d choose from your entire life, how about just thinking about Christmas. If you had to pick a single Christmas memory, what would it be?

Christmas is a season filled with memories that are built on the power of repeated rituals.  Every year at Christmas I… you can fill in the blanks.  This year – in what is a truly unusual Christmas I will actually still be able to do many of those things – my home is decorated with the same decorations, I will eat the same foods, watch the same movies, and connect with all the same people – albeit this year over Zoom.

These are good memories and also good things to do again this year.  But I think if I had to pick one memory, one thing I wanted to remember about Christmas forever, it would be a memory that took place in this building.

It would start with bundling up to head into the cold to try and get here, to this church building,  to get here early enough to get a good seat and then spreading out my coat to save space for my parents to join us. It would include the comforting feeling of siting in the near dark while looking at the warm glow of the lights from the Christmas tree and the choir stalls finally all lit up after four weeks of waiting through Advent.  It would be the way that the space would gradually fill with the sound of other people quietly trying to take their seats until there were no seats left.

And then there would be the whooshing noise as we all stood up, and Jamie would come carrying a candle and walk up the center aisle of the church stopping at each pew to light the first person’s candle who would then turn to their neighbour to light their candle and the warm glow would spread throughout the room.

And we’d all be singing Silent Night.

That’s it, that would be the memory. Standing in the middle of this building surrounded by all of you and the comforting safety of the dark and the warm glow of the candles singing Silent Night.

If I could only have one Christmas memory, that would be it.

What would yours be?

What memory do you suppose Mary would choose? Or Joseph? The Shepherds? Jesus?  If they could only choose one memory, would it be a memory connected to Jesus’ birth or something else?

I think Mary would like this question but like me she’d also have a hard time picking just one memory. Scripture tells us that she was the kind of person who liked to reflect on the events of her life. “But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)

Would she choose the moment when she was minding her own business and an angel appeared to tell her that God had a plan that would change her life forever?  The wave of fear, and then awe, and then resolve as she listened and then consented to be a part of that plan?

Would it be a quiet moment not recorded in the gospels? The first time she felt Jesus kick? A conversation with her own mother? The feeling of excitement as she gathered swaddling clothes and other things this new life would need?

Perhaps it would be the feel of the warm glow of the fire as she and Elizabeth spent yet another night staying up late and sharing their hopes and dreams for their unborn children.

Or maybe it would be the look on Joseph’s face when he came to tell her he finally understood and accepted what was happening. That he loved her and this child and would be with them no matter what happened.

How about the first time she held her son and he wrapped his pudgy fingers around hers? His shaky first steps?

Or maybe Mary would choose a memory that took place late in the evening after Jesus had fallen asleep and she and Joseph would quietly talk about their days.

 What would Joseph choose?  The feeling of love and pride that swelled up until he thought his heart would burst as Mary gave birth to their son?  Teaching Jesus how to look carefully at a piece of wood, to notice the grooves and the grain, and then to transform it into something beautiful?  The sound of Jesus’ peals of laughter when they had a tickle fight?

How about the shepherds?  Imagine it. There you were, just a lady minding your own business. And yes, despite what you have been led to believe by Nativity sets and Christmas specials and church pageants,  shepherding was a family job so there were women and children tasked with taking care of the sheep. So there you were, just a lady minding your own business, maybe struggling to stay warm or stay awake and suddenly an angel appears and you feel yourself wrapped in the blanket of God’s glory and you have never been more awake or more terrified in your entire life. And then you hear the angel say:

“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom [God] favors!”   (10-14)

And you and your fellow shepherds rush off to find Mary, Joseph and this child and you don’t really understand what is happening but you can tell that with the birth of this child a new way of being has been ushered in the world because this child, who was heralded by God’s angels not to the powerful and the wealthy but to you and your family, this child lying in a humble place, a place that looks a lot more like where you live than where a king lives. This child is a king like no king you have ever known.  Something is changing, more than just a child has been born this night.

And the joy and the awe and the excitement burst forth as you tell everyone you meet about what you have seen that night.

A night you would never, ever forget.

And Jesus, what about Jesus?  I’m not sure I want to try and guess what one memory Jesus would choose if he had to pick a single one, but I was recently reading a lovely children’s book called Jesus Grows Up and it got me thinking about the impact of Jesus’ childhood on his earthly ministry as an adult.[2]

In this story, the young Jesus watches his father Joseph light a lamp each evening, and he notices that Joseph doesn’t hide the lamp, but rather places it up high in a prominent position so the light can fill the whole room.

Jesus watches his mother make bread and observes how the yeast makes the dough rise so that the bread becomes light and fluffy and tastes delicious.

He watches how the shepherds all around Nazareth care for their sheep, even going so far as to leave 99 of their sheep to find one that has been lost.

He watches farmers sewing seed in their fields and later noticed how some seeds grow, and some do not.

He discovers how fun it can be when the whole village gathers together to share a feast, and how that feast is so much better when everyone is included.

All of these experiences helped to shape him and he took those memories with him when he ventured out into the world. And he turned those memories into the parables he shared with the people who slowly began to follow him wherever he went.

Those memories shaped Jesus. Our memories shape us too. I suspect Christmas 2020 is one we will always remember.  I’ve heard some people say that Christmas this year is a write off or it’s been cancelled but that’s not the case.

Our celebrations look different this year but the reason for those celebrations is still the same. The Christmas story is all about how God loved each one of us so much that they wanted to be near us, they wanted to be with us and nothing could stop them.  God’s love is unstoppable. God’s love cannot be cancelled.

Years from now I hope we will sit around our Christmas trees and say, “Remember Christmas 2020? Such a strange year that was! But we still found ways to remember that Jesus, Immanuel, God with Us was born.  We still found ways to celebrate, to reach out, to show love.”

Merry Christmas everyone.  Jesus is born. God is here.  We have much to be thankful for, much to celebrate, and much to ponder for years to come.

In the name of the Triune God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7rk1HFC60e0

[2] Jesus Grows Up by Pilar Paris, Josep M Lozano and Maria Rius


Enoughness: A Sermon for Sunday December 21, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 21, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

 

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

Our first reading tonight came from 2 Samuel.  The people of Israel are no longer enslaved in Egypt, no longer wandering in the wilderness, no longer a loose federation of tribes. They are starting to settle down and transition into a single nation with a monarchical system of government.  This emerging form of government and way of being God’s people are both very new.

Here is how the Collegeville Commentary describes this period. It may sound vaguely familiar:

“The certainties of the old ways have been giving way to an uncertain future. The old ways were not ideal: change is needed to save the people from injustice and oppression. Yet there are aspects of the old ways that must not be left behind: the fundamental nature of the covenant society must be retrieved and represented in the new order.” (439)

Things are changing. The Israelites are sifting and sorting from their past – what to keep, what to leave behind – and all this without being certain what the future will bring.

It’s a description that could also accurately describe our own moment in time, 2020.  We have all been changed and our future is uncertain. What do we need to leave behind, what do we need to keep, and what new things are waiting to be born?

It’s a description that could also be used to describe the work we began as a community through our Advent Retreat which invited us to begin to explore the question, “Who do we – as saint benedict’s table - want to be when we grow up?”

I hope that like Israel we want to be a people who follow God but I also hope we don’t decide we want to be a monarchy.

The people of Israel want to be a people who follow God. That relationship had long been symbolized by the ark – the physical representation of God’s presence with the people. The ark had been captured by the Philistines and was being held as spoils of war. In the events leading up to tonight’s reading, David leads the people into battle, defeats the Philistines and recovers the ark.

Our reading from 2 Samuel begins, “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies…” (7:1)

David is “settled in his house” but he is also unsettled about something. Looking around his house he cannot ignore the fact that his house is nicer than God’s. He calls the prophet Nathan and says, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” (2)

Nathan, understanding that David wants to build God a house and encourages him to do just that, even going so far as to tell him that God approves.  It seems like this plan to build God a house is such an obviously good idea that both men forget to actually check to see what God thinks about it.

And God does not think it’s a great idea. Or at least God doesn’t think it’s a good idea for David to be the one to build God’s house.

That night, God talks to Nathan and says, “Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? … Did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, who I commanded to shepherd my people Israel saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” (7)

Basically God is saying, “Have I ever, even once, told you that this is something I wanted you to do? No, no I have not.”

God is saying, “David, it is not your job to build me a house.”

And what’s more, God tells Nathan to remind David that God doesn’t need to live in a house. God cannot be confined to a building; God goes wherever God wants to go and God always wants to be wherever the people are.

One of the ways our community is shifting right now is that some of you who are worshipping with us tonight miss this building, but some of you have never been here and probably never will. That doesn’t make you any less a part of this community. It’s a relatively new thing for us to think of our community as much larger than just the folks who – when we are not in the midst of a pandemic – are able to make it to this building on a regular basis, but it’s a good thing, an exciting thing.  We are so glad that you have joined us.

Many of us miss being gathered together in this space. I miss it too. There is something beautiful and irreplaceable about what happens when there are people gathered together in this space.

But God doesn’t live here. We don’t have to be inside this building to be a community, and I know that God is present with each and every one of us right now. That’s just who God is.

God cannot and will not be contained by a building.

It’s not David’s job to build God a house but God wants to build a house out of David.

The lectionary does some editing with this story, having us read up to verse 11 and then skip to verse 16.  In those skipped verses, God tells David that his ancestors, the house of David, will have an important and lasting legacy. God promises that, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” (16)

One of the amazing things about this promise is that it’s not conditional on David or his ancestors’ behaviour.  God doesn’t say, “If you obey my commandments I will make you a house,” God just says, “I will make you a house.”

God will build a house out of David – which is not something David has to do anything to make happen. God will make it happen.

David’s job is not to keep doing more and more for God. David’s job is not to constantly strive to build bigger and better.

Bigger is not, in fact, better.

Sometimes, oftentimes in fact, the simple things are good enough.  Sometimes, oftentimes in fact, what we already have is all that we actually need.

David doesn’t need to build God a house or earn God’s promise. Can we also lower our expectations of ourselves and of each other? Not everything is ours to do.

David did not need to keep doing more and more for God, and neither do we. It’s OK to say we can’t be all things to all people. It’s OK if this Christmas looks simpler than last. It’s OK for us all to lower our expectations.

In fact, I think it might be essential. I can’t speak to the individual situation of every single person who is participating in this worship service, but on the whole, as a society we are doing too much, pushing too hard and it needs to stop.

It can be so hard to know how to slow down, to stop, to say “that’s not mine to do,” but my dream is that saint ben’s will be a community that learns to value and model “enoughness.”  A community that creates space for people to discover their enoughness in a world that screams that they are never enough.

It’s my dream that we will be a community that learns to embrace and then proclaim the good news:

You are enough. Exactly as you are. You don’t need to do a single thing to prove your worth to God. God loves you, exactly as you are and, like David,  you do not need to do anything to prove you are worthy of God’s love.

This Christmas season – the whole twelve days of it – and on into Epiphanytide and beyond it’s my hope that we won’t feel driven to constantly have to take things to the next level.

Many of us were overworked and overburdened before living through ten months of a global pandemic and we’re weary. The last thing we need is to feel pressure to make this the “best Christmas ever” or to race into 2021 living our “best life now.”

As God firmly reminds David not everything is ours to do.  We need to “slow down and let God build us – dwell in us – in humble, simple” everyday ordinary ways. (Thornburg Sigmon)

As Casey Thornburg Sigmon writes, “God takes the covenant to the next level (not us). That’s the awe of Christmas... When did I ever demand a temple from you? I go where you go. I am with you.”[1]

 God’s promise to build David a house is fulfilled when Mary recognizes what is hers to do and says yes to God. Yes to being the one who will be the mother of God.  This child who will be God with us, will also be from David’s house.

Unlike David, Mary doesn’t strive to do more and more for God. Mary doesn’t make plans to do things without even stopping to check if they are things God wants her to do, but when God makes this huge, unimaginable ask of Mary, she says yes.

And it’s not easy, and it has real consequences for her.

Realizing that angels haven’t also been sent to every single person in her town

to let them know that the changes in Mary’s body that will soon be visible are part of God’s plan and not a reason to treat her with scorn and ostracize her from their community, scripture tells us she leaves “with haste”  to go and visit Elizabeth.(39)

When she arrives Elizabeth greets her with words that let Mary know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is safe and not only is she welcome in Elizabeth’s home, she is wanted. [2]

Mary’s presence is not an inconvenience Elizabeth will endure out of duty, she wants Mary to be there.

And Mary will stay with her for three months. Long enough for her to have some time to wrap her head around all that is happening. Long enough for her to spend time swapping pregnancy stories and bits of advice with Elizabeth. Long enough to prepare and begin to feel as ready as any human being could possibly be to be the mother of the son of God.

The mother of Jesus. Of God with Us.  The God who cannot be contained in a house. The God who loves us and came to save us and to be with us.

What a gift. And what wisdom.

Unlike David, who seems driven by a need to rush from one accomplishment to another, Mary will take her one – admittedly awe inspiring – task from God and do it well.

She will take the time she needs, she will seek out the people she needs to help her on her journey – Elizabeth, Joseph, Bethlehem’s midwives.

And in a year, when Jesus is approaching his first birthday, she won’t waste time wondering how she can outdo herself this year, what new and amazing thing she can do to top giving birth to the son of God. She will know that she is already doing what she is called to do, and that it is enough.

May we all learn to discern what is and what is not ours to do. May we reach out and seek the help and the companions we need on that road. And may we be those sorts of companions to each other.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5

[2] The idea of being not merely welcomed, but wanted, comes from the Evolving Faith Conference.


Ain't No Mountain High Enough: A Sermon for Sunday December 7, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 6, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

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

When I open my Bible to the beginning of the gospel of Mark, the first thing I read is the title, “The Proclamation of John the Baptist,” followed by this opening sentence: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1)

As opening sentences go, it’s not the best one I have ever read, it’s not even in the top 10.  It’s actually a little confusing given that I’ve just been told I am about to read the proclamation of John the Baptist only to then have read several more sentences before John is even mentioned.

But that’s not Mark’s fault. He couldn’t have known that a future editor would see the need to add the title about John and turn the title he had written into a first sentence.

Mark is writing “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” that’s the title.  The next few sentences are the introduction:

 

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

 

For Mark, the story of the good news of Jesus Christ begins with Isaiah’s prophecy that a messenger will be sent to prepare the way. A messenger who will cry out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (3)

This prophecy should seem at least vaguely familiar to all of us because the lectionary had us read a longer section of it as our first reading.  In that first passage from Isaiah, not only is a path to be made straight, but the mountains are to be made low and the valleys raised so that God’s glory can be revealed to all the people.

Mark Allan Powell says that God in this text reminds him of Diana Ross singing, “Ain’t no mountain high enough.”[1] If you’re familiar with the song you’ll know that Ross sings about her love with a passion and a conviction that requires her to use every cell in her body.

By comparing God to Diana Ross in this way, Powell shows us a God who is so in love and so desperate to get to her people that she will not let anything stand in her way. “Ain't no mountain high enough, Ain't no valley low enough, Ain't no river wide enough, To keep me from you.”

I will never be able hear that song without thinking of this interpretation. And I’ve added it to my Advent playlist.

The good news in the gospel of Mark begins with a God who is so desperately in love with us that nothing will stand in her way. Nothing will keep her from getting to us – not the highest mountain, not the lowest valley, not the widest river. This is the story Mark wants to share with us.

God is coming, whether we want her to or not. Whether we are ready for her or not. There is nothing we can do to stop her.

So, what should we do?

Prepare.

Get ready.

Anticipate God’s arrival.

This is what both of our readings are pointing to this evening – the need to prepare for God’s arrival, not because there is anything we can do that would either encourage or prevent God from coming - God is coming. We prepare because the preparation is beneficial. It is good to be ready when God arrives.

Advent is a funny season. It’s my favourite season, but it is also rather bizarre that we spend so much time preparing for an event that already happened.  The story we will remember and celebrate on Christmas Eve already happened.   It’s old news.

But it’s also good news and, in some ways, new news.  It seems to me that every year during Advent as I prepare to remember something that already happened a long time ago, God also finds a new way to break through and be born all over again.  I can’t explain it, I definitely don’t understand it, but it is true.

I usually learn something new in the preparation as well. It doesn’t matter that I know how the story ends, Advent always has something new to teach me.

I’m not going to do this conversation justice here, but yesterday as part of our Advent retreat, several folks pointed out that it’s not always helpful to think of time as a linear thing with a singular starting point and ending point. Time is often circular. Our liturgical calendar is circular, as soon as we end we begin again.

Every day is Advent and Christmas and Lent and Easter and Ordinary Time and also we suspend our disbelief to lean into these particular seasons and stories and ideas at particular times because the church has learned throughout its history that there is a deep wisdom in doing so.

This spring, summer and fall have felt in many ways like a perpetual Advent as we wait, not for just for Jesus, but for a vaccine, for an end to this pandemic, for an end to so much sickness, suffering and death.

Advent waiting has a particular heaviness to it this year.  One of the key features of traditional Advent waiting is that we can rest safe in the knowledge that we are waiting for a fixed period of time and that Jesus will be born on December 25th.  That is still true this year, but this year we are also in a season of waiting that lacks a clear horizon, a clear end date.  We do not know when this pandemic will end. We don’t know how much longer we are going to have to wait.

What might we learn, what might be illuminated if we fully embrace Advent in 2020?

We won’t know, unless we try.

But we also need to feel the freedom to be discerning in how we practice Advent. Some of you have decided that there has been enough Advent waiting this year and you now need an extra dose of cheer so in your home there are lights and decorations and Christmas carols on repeat.

Which is great.  There is a defiance and a willingness to take your mental health seriously in that decision which I really appreciate.

And as a community we will hold tight to many of our traditions, even as we innovate to take into account our current reality.  We will have a Christmas Eve service in this livestream format, and we will invite you all to eat treats and sip sherry together after the service, but we’ll use Zoom to gather.

And as a community, we’ve also decided that despite being in a season of waiting, there is something that we have all waited for long enough and there is no need to wait for any longer –

Eucharist.

We have not celebrated Eucharist together as a community since March. That’s longer than the liturgical seasons of Lent and Advent combined.

That’s too long.

And so our wait will end next week on the third Sunday of Advent.

If you’re wondering what took so long, there were a host of factors at play that for tonight I will simply summarize this way – this was a decision not entered into lightly and was not one that Jamie or I could simply make on our own. It took time. If you want to hear a bit more about how this process unfolded,  we released a podcast[2] about it last week and there are also a series of other articles and resources available on our website.[3]

If you’re wondering HOW we’re going to be able to do this in in the middle of a global pandemic in a city that is currently in Code Red, the short answer is right where you currently are, in your own home, participating in this online gathering.

Next week’s liturgy will include the eucharist.  It’s Jamie’s turn to preside so as part of the service he will stand at the table for the first time in a very long time and the rest of us will gather in our own homes and together we will speak the words of the prayers, bread and wine will be blessed, and we will all be invited to consume “the body of Christ, broken for each one of us.”

You’ve likely never done this before. I’ve only done it once before as part of an online conference, but I did learn a few things in that process that I want to share with you to help you prepare.

First, just as my experience of Christmas is always deeper and richer when I fully engage in Advent, my experience of participating in an online eucharist was deeper and richer because of how I prepared for it.

It was deeper and richer because I took time to prepare, to think about my surroundings, to think about the elements I was going to use.

I set up my computer on the same plastic table I’ve been using almost non-stop since this pandemic began for Zoom calls and livestreams, but I also found a runner that my grandmother had embroidered and covered the table with that.

I used the same kind of bread we use here at saint benedict’s table and poured wine into a pottery cup similar to the ones we use here as well.

I also used incense. Lots of it.

I took a picture of my set up and texted friends who were also participating. They did the same. We told each other we were so happy to be able to do this together. We reminded each other that we were not alone.

It was not the same as a eucharist service with all of you in this building, but it was good, and Jesus was present and, just like with Advent, the experience was enhanced because I took the time to prepare.

A I mentioned earlier, we’ve put together a page of resources for you. One of those resources is the bread recipe that we typically use here.

If it appeals to you, I’d encourage you to take a look and try your hand at baking some this week as part of your own preparation.

But you don’t have to.  You don’t even have to participate in the eucharistic portion of the service if you don’t want to.  As we have regularly said here at saint ben’s, all are welcome, but no one should feel obligated.

You are all welcome, but you are certainly not obligated to participate.

If you do choose to participate, I strongly encourage you to engage in some thoughtful preparation this week. I encourage you to prepare, but I can’t tell you exactly what that should look like, just like I will never tell you that you should not have your Christmas tree up before December 25th. These things always require some personal discernment and an understanding of your own context.

I shared the example of my participation in an online eucharist as precisely that, one example. The takeaway is not that you also need to find a runner your grandmother embroidered or use the saint ben’s bread recipe in order to participate.

The takeaway should be that there is a benefit in thoughtfully preparing.

Perhaps the idea of preparing bread using the saint ben’s recipe is energizing to you. If it is, please do so.

But perhaps that fills you with a sense of obligation or panic. Groceries are hard enough to get right now and you don’t have those ingredients in your house.

But you do have some crackers. Would those crackers be OK?

Absolutely. Use the crackers.

Perhaps you need to eat gluten free. Well then our bread recipe definitely won’t be helpful for you.  Find something that you can eat.

And here is one final thing I want to encourage you all to consider doing.  We will not be the first people to celebrate the eucharist in this way but it is a fairly new practice, particularly in the Anglican church, and people are going to be interested in our experience.

In fact, we have a unique opportunity to share what we are learning through this practice for the benefit of the broader church.   Early this week we’ll be posting a series of reflection questions that you are invited, but again not obligated, to engage with. They will appear on the same page as the other online eucharist resources. Those questions will invite you to think about your own experience and understanding of the eucharist right now before we begin and then to reflect on your experience of this online practice over the next few months.

You may want to engage with those questions on your own as part of your personal spiritual practice or, if you feel comfortable, we’d love to have you share some of those reflections with us and the broader church.

God is coming, there is nothing we can do to stop her. God is already here – whether we notice her presence or not.

Nothing, not the highest mountain, not the lowest valley, not a global pandemic that keeps us physically separate from one another, absolutely nothing will stop God from coming.

That is how much God loves us.

In the last verse of our reading from Isaiah we are told that Christ when he comes will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” (11)

He will gather us, and he will feed us.

So let us anticipate his arrival and prepare the way.

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

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-mark-11-8-3

[2] https://www.stbenedictstable.ca/blog/online-eucharist-conversation

[3] https://www.stbenedictstable.ca/sunday-online-eucharist


That's Not Our Job: A Sermon for Sunday November 22, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 22, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

 

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

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.” (31-33)

This story really isn’t suitable for young children, and yet I was taught it as a child in part through a pithy little song:

 

“I just wanna be a sheep baa baa baa baa.”

First verse:  “I don’t want to be a hypocrite, ‘cause they’re not hip with it! I just wanna be a sheep.”

 

There are more verses, each one more anti-Semitic than the last. What were all my well-meaning Sunday School teachers and camp counsellors thinking?

I can’t be sure, but I do know that I absorbed two key lessons from this song and others like it. First I learned that it’s fun to be in the in crowd and to feel superior over everyone who isn’t. I just wanna be a sheep because anyone who is not a sheep is … a loser. The baa baa baa baa refrain might as well be “na nana na na.”

Second, I developed a sense of terror that maybe I wasn’t a sheep. Maybe I was a hypocrite or one of the other groups we were making fun of and so for years I prayed every single night that Jesus would forgive me and make me a sheep.

I can’t remember but it’s possible that my fear also led me to sing the songs at church even louder, to make sure everyone saw my well used Bible secured in its zippered pouch, and to enact other performative signs of belonging.  I just wanted to be a sheep, and if I couldn’t be completely sure I was one, I sure could act like the sheepiest sheep to ever sheep.

It was a dangerous mix of moral superiority and fear.

It was not good news.

Binaries rarely are.

The second you hear that there are two groups of people – one that will be rewarded and one punished – you want to do everything you can to make sure that you are in the right group and oftentimes we do that by distancing ourselves from anyone we’re afraid might be in the wrong group.  And we teach our kids to do the same thing.

I think Jesus understood this impulse. I think Jesus was well aware of our capacity to misapply this story and so he included several big clues to help us avoid doing just that.

First, he made it clear that we’re not the ones who get to decide who is a sheep and who is a goat. That’s not our job, it’s Jesus’ job.  So we should all just stop trying to put Jesus out of a job when it comes to judging people.

Second, Jesus makes it clear what our job is.  It’s right there in the story. Our job is to provide food for people who are hungry, clothing for people who are naked, to care for the sick, and to visit people who are in prison.  That’s our job.

And I will talk more about our job tonight, but first, my colleague Scott Sharman had something interesting to say about sheep and goats this week that I wanted to share with you:

“Goats largely get a pretty bad rap in some places in the bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures, for example, they often represent sins, even being symbolically driven out from the people to cast away evil. The well-known vision in Matthew chapter 25 about the great end-time separation of the sheep from the goats is another such passage. Sheep receive praise and goats get judgment from the eschatological herder-King.

The meaning of that Gospel text changed for me  immensely when I stopped reading it as a who is who or an either/or. In my view, the line between the sheep and the goats is far less a line that runs between me and another person, and far more a line that runs down the centre of every human heart. I have some sheep tendencies and some goat tendencies, and both need sorting out and proper directing as I am brought towards communion with God.

Scott continues - And, what's more, I think there's reason to believe that even the goats are not entirely without hope. After all, Jesus, who we are accustomed to thinking of as the Passover lamb, also takes the place of the first covenant's scapegoat in his incarnate life and death so as to deliver us from the cycle of evil. If that's true, perhaps the lifegiving and redeeming power of Christ's resurrection can extend even to those 'goat parts' of me, of you, and of all things.”

No one, not even the goats are entirely without hope.

Now back to the subject of our job – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit people in prison.

Preaching is an interesting artform. You have a text firmly rooted in the historical context in which it was written and also an expectation that is has something to say to you and your community in the present day.  The text doesn’t change, but the application invariably does based on our context.

I could preach a sermon today about how there is so much more we should be doing, how our goat side is winning and we need to do better, do more, do different and maybe next time I preach on this text I will, but not today.

This week someone commented that the last few weeks of readings have been real downers and they hoped we were getting a more hopeful passage this week. They expressed a sense that what we needed right now when the number of people who are sick and dying of this disease just continue to increase was not a smarten up and work harder sermon, but a little hope, a little encouragement, a little reminder that sometimes we do get it right.

Because while we do have goat like qualities as a community, while it is true that there is much to be done and we could be doing more, it’s also true that as a community we are doing some pretty wonderful things.

And today feels like a day to spend some time focusing on those.

In his Rule, St Benedict quotes Jesus’ words and then instructs his followers that they are to welcome all as Christ.  Basically, Christ is in everyone you meet, treat them as such, learn to see Christ in them.

That’s the basic hallmark of the Benedictine way of following Jesus.

You all are doing this in so many different ways, people in this community volunteer for a wide range of organizations, many of you work for non-profits, you are checking in on neighbours, dropping off meals, writing notes of encouragement praying for people.

These are such good things.

Sometimes, maybe even oftentimes right now, you are recognizing that you also bear Christ’s image and you’re giving yourself permission to not do all of those things and rather to do the basics of taking care of yourself – eating regularly, drinking water, and resting.

These are also good and important things to be doing right now.

This community of saint benedict’s table would not exist if we all also didn’t choose to pool some of our money into a collective pot we call the church budget. That money makes our common life possible. It makes it possible to rent space in this building, to have equipment and people to lead worship on this livestream, to host events, to create podcasts. All of this happens because we all give a portion of our individual incomes to make it happen.

And we could have just stopped there and said, “That’s fine, that’s enough,” but ten or so years ago we were challenged to do more and we rose to that challenge. Now every year we calculate 10 percent of our church’s budget and we set that aside. We set it aside for work done outside of our community. We set it aside for work we don’t get to control.  We set it aside to support groups that feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit people who are in prison.

We could just choose to decrease the amount of money we give to the church by 10% and not do that.

We could choose to dramatically increase our budget and try to do all of that work in house, where we could control it and ensure it was all done “our way.”

But we don’t, we give more so that collectively we can do more. And we release control to other organizations precisely because we know that that sort of control isn’t actually effective. That they can do a better job with our money than we can.

This year, we gave away over 20 000 to 14 organizations that are doing good work here in Winnipeg and around the world. You can read more about them on the church’s website.[1]

And it’s not just money. After reading about these organizations in previous years, many of you have chosen to volunteer at them and the Mission Fund is always looking for other ways that we can work more directly with the groups we support financially.

We can always also decide to give more so that we can both do more as a community and give more away – that’s a great conversation to have when we look at next year’s budget, but if you want a quick, simple, low cost way to provide additional support to these organizations follow them on social media, comment and share their posts.  Learn more about that they’re doing and cheer them on.

Can you imagine the boost of encouragement it would be if each one of these groups suddenly saw a bump of a few hundred followers tomorrow?

I imagine that if Jesus was to appear right now and we were to ask the question from tonight’s reading, “Lord, when was it that we saw you in need and met that need,” that Jesus might repeat his reply that, “whenever you fed someone or clothed someone or visited someone that someone was me.” I think he would say, “Well done good and faithful servants.”

Well done.

And now for a but, it’s a sermon you knew there would be a but right?

But as I said earlier, context is key. We are in the middle of a health care crisis and so in addition to “Well done” I also think Jesus would say, “and when I was immunocompromised you stayed home as much as possible, maintained a two meter distance, washed your hands, and wore your mask,” and “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”[2] (40)

We are living through a difficult crisis. Be ever so gentle with yourself. It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed and helpless. Stay home, wash your hands, wear your mask when you need to go out, keep 2 meters from others.

We need to do this for each other, we need to do this for the people in our city who are sick, and we need to do this for our health care workers because right now they are doing their very best and their best is literally not good enough.  There are simply more sick people than they could care for if they had all just come back from a month’s vacation in the tropics let alone when they are exhausted and severely under resourced.   We are asking too much of them already, we all need to do our part.

Stay home. Wash your hands, wear your mask, keep 2 meters apart. Check in with each other, join us for prayer at 5pm when you can. We are all in this together, even when we feel so far apart.

Each and every person, including each and every one of you has stamped within them the image of Christ. May we all, as both Jesus and Benedict have told us to do, learn to see Christ in each other and treat each other accordingly.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

[1] https://www.stbenedictstable.ca/mission-fund-grants

[2] Thanks to Robin Shugart for this take on Jesus’ words.

 


The Other Side of the Door: A Sermon for Sunday November 8, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 8, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

 

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

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” (1) Five of these women are foolish, five wise. Five had extra oil, five didn’t.

This is not a news story depicting actual events, it’s a fictional story told by Jesus in order to teach us something, or perhaps to teach us many things. Oftentimes, when people read a story like this, they treat it like an allegory or a code that needs to be cracked. The bridegroom isn’t really a bridegroom, the oil isn’t really oil. They both point to something else and the point of the story is to crack the code.

But if that is true, then it’s rather mean of Jesus to make us do all that extra work just to figure out what’s going on.  If all that we need to do to understand the story is  crack the code and then swap out the terms –  the oil is clearly our good deeds, or our faith or maybe it’s a specific set of right beliefs - if that’s all we need to do, then why not just report the facts?

And let’s just say for a moment that it is a code,  our own biases often get in the way of reading the code correctly. We listen to the story, determine who the hero is, and then decide that that is either who we already are, or who we want to become.  Clearly, everyone who is listening to this sermon is a wise bridesmaid right?

I don’t think the reason Jesus told stories is because he’s mean or because he wants us to jump through unnecessary hoops in order to get his message. I also don’t think he’s an elitist who only wants people who are smart enough to crack the code to know what he is talking about.  I think Jesus told stories because he knew that stories can expand our imaginations and that we would learn more from stories than from news reports especially if we chose to engage with stories as stories, not as codes to be cracked.

So the kingdom of heaven is not ten women waiting for a bridegroom, but there is something about that scenario that is like the kingdom of heaven.

Today I am going to pick three images from the story to explore : the bridegroom, the door, and the oil. Not to try and crack a code, but to see what we can discover by playing with these images.

So first let’s quickly recap the story.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids who take lamps and go to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish, five are wise.   The foolish women bring lamps, but no extra oil, the wise bring flasks of oil.

The bridegroom is late. The women fall asleep waiting for him.  Finally they hear a shout, “The bridegroom is coming.”  They all wake up and light their lamps.  The so called foolish women realize that their lamps will soon run out of oil and ask the so called wise women to share.  The so called wise women refuse and tell them to go buy more oil instead.  In doing so, they miss the bridegroom’s arrival and when they return they find the door is locked and they miss out on the party.

So first, I want to point out that while it may be true that some of these women are wise and some are foolish, none of this would have happened if the bridegroom had just showed up on time.

This whole mess is his fault, and it bothers me that throughout history we’ve focused on calling out women in this story for their foolishness instead of calling out the bridegroom for his poor time management.

He shows up late and instead of apologizing, he whisks everyone who is present into the party and then shuts the door on anyone other than himself who has the nerve to show up late.

It doesn’t strike me as an overly compassionate or self-aware move – the man who is late punishing others for being late.

And it’s especially unsettling if this story is a code and in that code, the bridegroom is Jesus.

Is that really what this parable is meant to teach us about Jesus? That Jesus is like a bridegroom who punishes people because he is late?

I don’t think so.

But before I try to do some damage control on his image here, let’s talk a bit about being made to wait.

Advent is just a few weeks away and in Advent we’ll get four weeks dedicated to thinking about waiting – the beauty of waiting, the benefit of waiting, the challenges of waiting.  All of those ideas will get plenty of airtime.

However, not everything is improved by waiting.

Wine improves with age, French fries do not.

Lots of things are better right away: being told you did a good job, medical diagnosis and treatment plans, vaccines, vote counts.

It’s true that in some of those scenarios you don’t want people to rush and do a poor job – you want a vaccine that’s been tested and proven to be effective – but once that vaccine exists you don’t want the scientist to say, now let’s just let it age on the shelf for a few years, you want them to roll it out right away.

You want every vote to be counted, but you also want them to be counted as quickly as possible.

You want your doctor to carefully review the details of your medical history, but you also want to start feeling better right away.

You want to eat your French fries as soon as possible because they are just better than way.

Waiting doesn’t always make things better.  Sometimes it’s just better if the food, or the medical results or the bridegroom shows up on time.

But here is something else we should be honest about, the concept of “on time,” is a pretty subjective one.

The bridegroom in today’s story is late, but we have no idea why. Is he actually a thoughtless jerk or was the delay beyond his control?   It seems to me that delays are predicable at weddings, they are to be expected.

Who gets to decide when the bridegroom is supposed to arrive? Things always take longer than you think they will at weddings and none of the bridesmaids guess correctly either. They all think the groom will arrive sooner than he does.  They all fall asleep.

So perhaps, everything would have gone a lot more smoothly if the bridesmaids didn’t assume that they could predict when the bridegroom would arrive. And maybe that’s something we all need to learn too – don’t expect the election results on November 3rd, don’t try to predict when the pandemic will end or when a vaccine will be available, and whatever you do, don’t try to read the Bible like a code you can crack so that you can circle a date and write “Jesus returns” in that square.

Nothing is gained in trying to predict the future in this way, but perhaps, there is a lot to be gained in resisting that temptation, in admitting we have no idea when any of those things are going to happen and learning to live within that tension.

When the pandemic began I predicted that it would be over by spring. Why did I do that? This is literally my first pandemic. I’m not a pandemic expert. I don’t know anything about pandemics. But I still decided I could make an accurate prediction about this pandemic’s timeline. I planned accordingly agreeing to do things and working at a pace that was only sustainable if my timeline was correct.

I was wrong. My assumptions had consequences that could have been avoided by not making assumptions.

This is the kind of mistake Jesus is warning us of in this story. Don’t think you can predict the future. Don’t assume you know when the bridegroom is going to arrive. It’s going to take longer than you think it will.  Remember the warning at the end of the story, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (13)

You know neither the day nor the hour and it’s not helpful to keep pretending that we do.

I want to thank Sharon Cadigan for this next image which I have found really helpful this week.

In our story, the bridesmaids are waiting to be let into a party.  They are waiting on one side of a closed door, longing to be on the other side of that door.

What, are you waiting for? What are you longing for? What is currently on the other side of a shut door that you cannot open right now?

Perhaps it’s being in this space sharing bread and wine and singing at the top of your lungs, maybe it’s inviting people over to your own home and sharing a meal, maybe it’s hugging your parents, or your grandchildren. Maybe it’s being in a crowded movie theater or hopping on a plane.

Right now, there are so many good things that we can’t access because that door is locked up tight and we can’t open it. Many of us willingly placed those things, those people, on the other side of the door because we understand it is the right thing to do when we’re experiencing a global pandemic.  But when we did, we didn’t realize how long that door was going to remain closed, we didn’t realize how hard it would be to wait.

In our story,  the bridegroom does eventually show up and open the door. The people who are still there waiting get in, the people who left do not – at least not within the timeframe of our story.

The women who are left outside of the party are not punished for sleeping, everyone falls asleep in this story.  They are not punished for running out of oil. That’s never mentioned. They miss the party because they leave.

This waiting, this longing to be on the other side of the door is so incredibly, painfully hard, but don’t give up, don’t leave, because you don’t want to miss this party.

Now what about the oil?  What is it meant to represent? It doesn’t have to be just one thing. Today let’s say that it represents the things you need in order to stay at the door.  Do you have enough? Do you have extra? Are you running low and need more?

I can’t answer that question for you, and the last thing I ever want to do is turn a sermon into a lecture, but I would encourage you to think carefully about how much oil you have.

I, for one, keep having a difficult time judging how much oil I even need – the amount has changed since the pandemic begin. Things that used to be easy and took only a little bit of oil, now take a lot.  I need more than I used to and that change has been really hard to adjust to.

It’s been good to have people in my life that I can go to and say, “I’m running low, can you please help me?”

If you have enough oil. I’d encourage you to take a moment to express gratitude that that is the case.   If you’re running low, I hope that when you ask for help you encounter a much more generous response than the women in today’s story.  I hope you have people in your life that when you say “I’m running low, can you please help,” that the answer will be “yes.” I hope we can be those kinds of people for each other.

And if you have more than you need, share. As with so many stories in the Bible, and in our world, there was enough oil for everyone in this story if only those who had too much, who had more than they needed, had chosen to share it instead of hoarding it.

May we all seek to be people who look out for each other, who share what we have, and who can support each other as we continue to wait for the bridegroom to arrive and the door to the party to open.

And that’s not a party I want any of us to miss.

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


The Place Where God Just Was: A Sermon for October 18, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 18, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

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

Last week we talked about the people of Israel’s decision to create and worship a golden calf. Today, we see some of the consequences of their choice.

After the events we covered last week, Moses descended the mountain, saw the people’s ill advised behaviour for himself and he reacts in anger, destroying the tablets containing the covenant. The NRSV translation says that, “As soon as he came near the camp, and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they have made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. (32: 19-20)

And if you think that sounds bad, it gets worse. But I’ll let you read the rest of chapter 32 on your own.

God’s relationship with the people changes after this incident with the golden calf. In particular, the way God is present to the Israelites changes. God doesn’t abandon them, but gone are the days filled with stories of people walking with God in the garden of Eden, sitting down to eat with God and wrestling with God in a form they can see and touch. It is going to take some getting used to.

God commands the people to leave Sinai and continue their journey to the land they have been promised but on this next stretch of the journey God also says, “I will not go up among you.” (33:1-5)

God will not destroy the people, as they threatened in last week’s story, and God will not abandon them either, but God will not be with the people in the same way that they have been with them before.

If you’ve ever done something that deeply disappointed someone you love you probably can imagine how Moses and the Israelites are feeling right now. Guilty perhaps. Ashamed. But also shaky, tentative, unsure of what to do next. Fearful that they may have lost something, someone, who is very important to them. Their foolish choices have damaged the most important relationship they have, will the Israelites ever be able to repair that damage?

In today’s reading, Moses once again approaches God to advocate for the people. Basically, he says, “Hey God, you’ve told me to lead this people to the land you’ve promised which is fine, but we can’t do this alone. We need you to be with us just as you have been so far. These are not my people, they’re yours, you can’t leave us.”

In the translation we read tonight, God’s response is, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (13). Numerous biblical scholars I consulted this week agree that this is a poor translation – there is no “with you” in the original Hebrew, it’s been added. A more accurate translation is simply, “My presence will go and I will give you rest.”

That’s pretty vague, where exactly will God’s presence go? Away? In front of the people? With the people as the NRSV assumes? It’s not clear and Moses wants a clear answer, so he continues to argue with God saying, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (16)

Moses pleads with God to provide a tangible sign to the people of Israel and to the people they will encounter on this journey. A tangible sign that the Israelites are God’s people, that God is with them.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on Moses’ first encounter with God. In that first story, when God appeared in a burning bush, Moses wasn’t even sure who God is. Now he seems to be reminding God of God’s identity. “Hey God, these are your people, you chose us, don’t abandon us now.”

Being argumentative is a core part of Moses’ identity. When Moses first encounters God in the burning bush and God tells him to go free the Israelites Moses doesn’t say, “Sure, whatever you want God.” Moses argues with God, certain that someone else, anyone else, could do a much better job.

Moses regularly argues with God but the nature of their arguments change as their relationship deepens over time. Last week, God offered Moses an out – he would no longer have to lead the Israelites and could become a powerful patriarch – but Moses refuses. That’s a big change for a man who once begged God to give him an out.

Now, rather than begging God to give the job of leader to someone else, Moses acts the way I want my own leaders to act: Moses advocates for the people, demanding God treat them well and give them what they need.

I wonder if this is part of what fuels Moses’s anger when he sees for himself how the people are behaving around the golden calf. Does he perhaps think, “These are the people I was defending before God? What was I thinking?”

But if Moses did think that, it was a thought that didn’t last, because in today’s story he continues to advocate for his people; demanding that God remain with them.

That’s tremendous growth, and I think God notices, but I wonder if Moses does? Last week I said that God was baiting Moses into an argument and I suspect God was delighted to see Moses acting like a true leader by defending the people. Was Moses equally delighted at just how far he’d come since he tried to refuse this job? It’s anyone’s guess, the text doesn’t tell us.

It’s very likely that you also have grown over time in ways you haven’t noticed. It can be a very good practice to look back and see just how far you’ve come.

Moses boldly argues with God, and God agrees to do what Moses asks. God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.” (17)

And maybe Moses should have stopped there, at least long enough to say thank you, but he doesn’t, he keeps pushing saying, “Show me your glory, I pray.” (18)

And God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… but, [] you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (19)

Which is confusing because up until this point that does not seem to be true. People have seen God before. Is this a new thing? Part of the changing relationship between God and the people? A consequence of the choice to worship a golden calf?

Adam and Eve saw God and lived. Hagar, who I preached about earlier in this Old Testament series, saw God and lived. After she first encounters God in the wilderness, the encounter where she also gives God the name, “The God who sees,” Hagar says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive…?” (Genesis16:13) Yes, Hagar, yes you have.

But now, God says Moses can see God, but not God’s face. I wonder if part of what God is saying is, “Moses, you can argue with me, you can make requests of me, but you cannot control me. You are not God, I am.”

God says, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

Since March a group of us have been praying together everyday day at 5pm on FB live. You’re all welcome to join us whether you can come every day or from time to time. Additionally, the videos stay on our FB page so you can pray “with” us even if you can’t make it at 5pm.

As part of those prayers, we read the readings for the upcoming Sunday. This week I told people I was working hard to get all my giggles out before Sunday so I could preach about God’s backside with a straight face. One family who was participating gave me permission to share this story:

One of our youngest prayers asked their Mom what was so funny about God’s backside? Does God have a funny butt? After some conversation they concluded that God’s backside was probably pretty cute actually.

Kids are awesome.

But is that really what this passage is about? Is this really a story where God says, you can’t see my face but you can see my butt?

Maybe, God does say you’re not going to see my face, you can see my back afterall. And I think that God doesn’t have any of the same sort of shame about bodies and bodily functions that so many of us do – God is more like a kid in that way - so maybe this is really a story where God chooses to show their backside to Moses.

But I also read a really interesting interpretation this week by Rick Morley that I hadn’t thought of before.

Morley explains that “Our English texts usually say that Moses could “see [God’s] back,” but that’s an inaccurate translation. Moses caught no sight of the “body” of God. He saw the place where God just was.”

Think about how the scene is described. God says to Moses, “I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take my hand away, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

So God places Moses safely in the cleft of the rock, covers Moses with their hand, passes by Moses, and then removes their hand.

So the first thing Moses would see when God removes their hand is indeed the place where God just was.

Morley argues that this is not only more textually accurate, but it also makes more sense to him because it matches with how he experiences God’s presence. He rarely notices it in the moment but, Morley explains:

“I’ve used the practice of a nightly examen for quite some time now. Examen is a prayer, usually prayed at the end of a day, where you intentionally recall your own failures, but also God’s little gifts of grace through the day. Sometimes I forget to pray it. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of it.

But, never have I prayed the examen and not seen God’s Hand, God’s Presence, or the place where God just was in my day.

Here’s the thing, though: if I don’t take the time to look, I almost always miss it. Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

That’s true for me as well. Although I have had moments in my life where I have felt God’s presence so strongly it almost took my breath away, those moments have been rare. Most of the time, if you ask me to identify where God is in the moment, I won’t be able to answer. But when I look back, I can often see where God has been present. In the peace I felt about a tough decision, in the kind words from a friend at just the right moment, in an unexpected offer of help.

Knowing that God has been present in the past helps me to trust that God is with me in the present moment, even when I can’t see it, or feel it.

This might be a good week for you to take some time to reflect on your life and, like Moses, see where you have grown. It may also be a great week to “Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

And may those memories help you and comfort on the days when life if hard and God seems absent.

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

 


On Idols and Altars: A Sermon for Sunday October 11, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 11, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


 

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

Today’s gospel reading is… rough. I’m not going to preach on it but it doesn’t seem right to just read those words in our service and then ignore them. When the sermon text goes up on the website tomorrow it’ll include a link to a helpful commentary on the passage that points out that it is neither necessary, nor helpful, to assume that anytime a gospel story includes a king, that that king is God.[1]Sometimes an earthly king is just an earthly king.

For our second reading, the lectionary still has us working our way through Exodus.  If you’re ever tried to read the Bible like an ordinary book from start to finish, we’ve reached the section where it’s very common to give up because the text shifts from stories to a seemingly endless list of instructions.

In this section of Exodus, God not only establishes the 10 Commandments, they also establish a detailed covenant with the people of Israel.  Unlike the 10 Commandments, if this entire covenant were to be memorialized as a statue in Kildonan Park, it might take up the entire park. It’s very long, and very detailed.

One of the longest lists of instructions focusses on how to build the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, where God will meet with the people. The tent itself and each item that it will contain is described in exquisite detail. If you are a creator or an artist, this section speaks to how highly God values beauty and artistic expression.

This covenant was established between God, Moses, and a collection of leaders of the Israelite people on Mount Sinai and after that process is completed, Moses goes even higher up the mountain to be alone with God, and the other leaders descend the mountain to be with the people.

Moses stays on the mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus 24:18). Sometimes numbers in the Bible are literal, and sometimes they are figurative and we don’t always know which is which. The number 40 can mean 40 literal days or it can be used to signify a very long time.

Moses is alone with God for a very long time, what are the people doing during that time?

Tonight’s reading begins, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…”

In Everett Fox’s translation, he notes that the Hebrew verb translated here as “delayed” has the connotation of “causing shame or embarrassment.” He translates the open sentence this way:

“Now when the people saw that Moshe – that Moses – was shamefully-late in coming down from for the mountain, the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will god before us, for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (32:1)

I feel sorry for Aaron. Moses, the person who really should be in charge is shamefully late, the people are angry and now they have “assembled against” him and are making demands. This is not a position any leader wants to be in.

What is Aaron supposed to do?  He could tell the people they need to be patient and wait for Moses, or he could remind them that it’s a bad idea to make an idol instead of following the one true God. Those would actually be wise choices to make as a leader, but they’re not popular ones.   They are likely to make the people even more anxious and angry and you know that anger is going to be directed at you. So do you do the thing you believe is right, or the thing that will make you popular with the people?

Dr. Michael Osterholm is an American epidemiologist whose work I follow, he has a weekly podcast and has been advising the Lutheran Church in America on how to respond to the pandemic. He pointed out recently that we are beginning to see a shift from pandemic fatigue to pandemic anger.   First people were tired of the pandemic, and now they are increasingly angry at all the ways the pandemic is negatively affecting their lives.  It’s hard to get angry at something as abstract as a pandemic so instead people are directing their anger at their leaders,  at grocery store clerks, at family members.

This seems to be what is happening with the Israelites. They had a sense of how long they thought Moses should remain on the mountain and at first they were willing to wait, but now they are angry, and they are looking for a quick fix.

The quick fix, in this case, is to build their own god out of gold. And Aaron does what the people want him to do.  He tells them to take all of their gold rings and earrings – which both men and women were wearing at the time -  so that he can melt them down and create a golden calf. (32: 2-4)

I was wondering why they chose to use their jewelry in this process and I suspect it’s because all of the other gold that they had plundered when they left Egypt has already been used in the creation of the tent of meeting.

When the people saw the golden calf, they declared, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (32: 4) A feast day is declared and the people, “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (6)

The word “revel” has sexual connotations. This was a wild party, not a sedate worship service.

And God is not pleased:

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;  they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (7-10)

The first thing I want to point out about God’s reaction is that it’s funny.  It’s terrifying, but it’s also funny.

This is a classic trope in comedy.  When the kid or the dog or the coworker is doing a good job, they’re ours.  But when they misbehave, they belong to someone else. My dog has perfect manners. My dog never poops in the house or chews up my slippers, Mike’s does.[2]  “Mike! Come here and see what your dog has done!”

We’ve just gone through pages and pages of stories and covenant building where God claims the people of Israel as their own and now that the people have built a golden calf, suddenly these are Moses’ people.

When Moses responds to God, he will assert that these are not his people, they are God’s people.  Again, comedy gold.

The second thing I want to highlight in God’s response is based on the work of Everett Fox. Fox notes that the language of the original text implies that God is baiting Moses here. God wants Moses to argue with and defend the people. This is also implied by how quickly God seems to change their mind.  This is a test, and Moses passes. (439)

So once again, we see in scripture, that it’s OK to argue with God.  More than that, it’s something God wants us to do.

This test is not simply, will Moses choose to defend the Israelites and argue with God?  That would be tough enough, but God adds a further temptation into the mix.

But before we look at that, let me refresh your memory on the nature of Moses’ relationship with the people of Israel at this time.

It’s not great.

From the time Moses chose to leave his family and the life he had built for himself in Midian to free the people from enslavement and lead them to the promise land, we have seen story after story after story of Moses working hard, doing what he promised to do, only to receive harsh criticism and complaints from the people. There are so many of these stories that biblical scholars have created a category for them, they’re called the complaint narratives.

I’m sure that more than once by this point Moses has thought, “Well if you don’t like my leadership, fine, I quit.”

And here is God offering him an out.  God is going to destroy the people which means Moses won’t have to lead them anymore.  God will give Moses the very thing he has wished for.

But Moses digs deeper than those very real but ultimately surface type feelings that emerge when you feel unappreciated to a deeper place where his love for the people resides and he argues passionately on their behalf.

Which is amazing in and of itself, but I haven’t even mentioned the additional temptation that God has placed before Moses. God says, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (10)

Moses will no longer be the leader of a stiff necked people. Moses will be the patriarch of a great nation blessed by God.

That had to be rather tempting.

But instead of taking the bait, Moses defends the people and argues with God, explicitly reminding them of the covenant with Abraham and God changes their mind.

I wonder if Moses, as he is walking down the mountain from this encounter thought, “Wow, I had no idea until God threatened them, how much I actually care for these people. I didn’t know how much I love them until I said it out loud.”

If you read ahead, you’ll see that the people will be punished for creating the golden calf.  It’s a dark and difficult story, but they will not be wiped from the face of the earth, and Moses will continue to lead them.

When I was a kid, I asked my grandmother why we, as Mennonites, didn’t wear gold crosses around our necks like some of my friends from other denominations did.

She explained that if it took a piece of jewelry to identify ourselves as Christians, then we were doing something wrong. Our faith should be obvious from the way we lived our lives.

She may even have pointed to this story to show that it’s wrong to create idols or reminded me that we also kept our worship spaces free of imagery so that we could not fall into sin and could keep our focus solely on God, but I don’t actually remember her saying any of that.

Her explanation made sense and I lived most of my life following that advice.

But now I think it is fascinating that the story of the golden calf comes right after pages and pages of detailed descriptions of God’s blueprints for how to create beautiful things to use in the worship of God at the tent of meeting.

It seems to point to a “middle way” for thinking about the objects we create and use in worship.

Idols? Bad. Don’t make them, don’t worship them.

The use of beauty and beautiful things to help point us to God?  Good.  Do make them, do use them, do delight in the ways they help us connect with the God who created us and all the earth.

This fall we have a group of people who are meeting regularly both to study a book together but also to explore the idea that God is everywhere and can be found everywhere if only we pay attention.  The book is called “An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor.

This week I’ve been thinking about the idea of creating an altar in our homes, and I want to encourage you to think about this too.  I’m going to give you some examples, but this isn’t a one size fits all project. It’s an invitation to think about your own unique space, and your own unique needs.

Although I never thought about it as an altar until this week, in my home I usually sit in the same chair when I pray the daily office. Next to that chair is a table that contains a candle, incense, prayer beads, and my hand held labyrinth.  My Bible and prayer book are also within easy reach.

I can pray anywhere at any time, but there is something about the way I have created this space that helps me enter into those times of focused prayer in a particular way.

Do you have a space like that? How does it impact your prayer?  If you don’t have a space like that, what might it take to create one?  It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.   Although I usually pray in the same chair, I also use that chair for other things to. I can’t afford to have a chair that’s only for prayer.

Similarly, at the start of this service, we invite you to light a candle with us.  Do you already, or have you ever thought about preparing the space where you join us for worship on Sundays?   What might change in your experience if you thought about preparing yourself and your space for worship.

What might change if you thought about what you are wearing – and here cozy pjs might just be the perfect choice – or where you are sitting, or what you have nearby – a candle, or a good cup of tea. How might being intentional about these things impact this experience for you?

If these questions create any sense of guilt or obligation in you, please ignore them. Guilt is such a waste of time.  But if they create a sense of curiosity and play, then play! Experiment this week and see what you discover.

And I hope you’ll let me know about it when you do.

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

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4613

[2] Our dog actually is actually perfect, I’m using artistic license to make a point. 8)