Which One Are You?: A Sermon for Sunday August 9, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 9, 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’s reading from Genesis ended with a cliff hanger: Jacob made elaborate preparations to meet his brother Esau, a brother he hasn’t seen in over twenty years. A brother who wanted to kill him, but the reading stops before we find out if their reunion was positive, or deadly.

Today’s reading opens with “Jacob settled in the land where his father lived...” so clearly we’ve skipped over some of the story. (37:1).  First of all, you may recall that Jacob received a new name in last week’s reading, Israel, but here he is referred to as Jacob.  Both names will be used interchangeably in the next few chapters.

A lot happens in the chapters the lectionary skips over. When Jacob and Esau meet, it turns out that Esau’s anger has cooled and Jacob is welcomed home.  We also get stories of the birth of Jacob’s youngest son, the deaths of Rachel and Isaac, and two difficult stories about rape.

They are hard stories, and the lectionary skips over them but scripture itself includes them. Genesis doesn’t hide from us the fact that Jacob’s family is one filled with conflict and disfunction. Bilhah receives only a few sentences but Dinah’s story has an entire chapter dedicated to it. It’s a chapter that should contain a trigger warning but it’s also a chapter that allows many, many women to see their own experiences reflected in scripture.

But we are going to stick fairly close to the lectionary today. And when today’s passage opens, Jacob’s family has settled in Canaan.

Jacob does not treat all of his children equally, which is interesting.  Jacob’s parents played favourites, Jacob was his mother’s favourite, Esau his father’s. He knows the damage this can cause and yet he repeats the pattern. He makes it clear he has a favourite, Joseph, and to make sure that everyone knows that Joseph is his favourite he buys him a special coat.

We all know about this coat right?   Joseph’s amazing, technicolour dream coat?

“It was red and yellow and green and brown
And scarlet and black and ochre and peach
And ruby and olive and violet and fawn.. and so on.”

Or was it.  A coat of many colours is a great prop for a Broadway musical, but that’s not how it’s actually described in Genesis. The translation we read from tonight just says, “a long robe with sleeves.” (3)

The Collegeville Commentary says, “the actual meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain: translations include a long-sleeved garment, one with many colours or special ornamentation, and one that reaches to the floor. (115)

So what do Biblical scholars do when they are not sure what a word means? They try to determine the meaning based on context and they also look to see if the word is used elsewhere and if that can provide some contextual clues.

Biblical scholar Austen Hartke[1] found that the word used to describe Joseph’s special garment (ketonet passim)  is also used in 2 Samuel 13:18.  In that verse, Tamar’s clothing is described using the same word as Joseph’s but 2 Samuel also includes a description of the garment.  We are told that Tamar is dressed this way because, “this is how the virgin daughters of the kings were clothed in earlier times.”

Wait. So Jacob gave Joseph a piece of clothing that was typically worn by the virgin daughter of a king? A garment tied to a specific gender and economic status?

Austen explains, “So what are we to make of the fact that this garment, the ketonet passim, is worn by only two people in the Bible: Joseph and Princess Tamar?  Theologians have been chewing this one over for hundreds of years and coming up with all kinds of answers. Some believe that the outfit must really be a gender-neutral children’s garment (but how do we understand the gender and status explanation in Tamar’s story then?), while others think that maybe men’s and women’s robes were so similar as to be indistinguishable (but then why the fuss over properly gendered clothing in Deut. 22:5?) In the end, all we know for sure is that this apparently beautiful and luxurious garment that serves as a mark of distinction for the virgin daughters of the king is the same garment with which the patriarch vested his favourite son.  If this is the case, the alienation and abuse Joseph receives at the hands of his brothers makes even more sense. As a person assigned male at birth, but who dresses in clothes associated with women, Joseph fails to measure up to expected gender expressions.” (68-69)

I suspect that Jacob’s children always knew that Joseph was their father’s favourite, and maybe they also always knew he was different but the coat made it impossible to ignore these things. The coat made what was implicit, explicit.  And we’re told that, “when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (4)

It’s not Joseph’s fault that he’s the favourite, but he doesn’t do himself any favours either.  He’s a tattle tale. We’re told that he went out with his brothers to care for the animals and returned home and gave Jacob a “bad report” about them. (2)

And that’s not all, Joseph keeps telling his brothers about his dreams – not his hopes and plans – his literal dreams, in a time and place where people took dreams seriously. Dreams which are fairly easy to interpret as saying Joseph is better than his brothers and will one day rule over them. (5-10) Our reading tonight jumped over these verses, but essentially, in addition to being their Dad’s clear favorite, and tattling on them, Joseph keeps telling his brothers that, according to his dreams, he will one day rule over them.

It’s almost like Joseph wants his brothers to hate him.

And hate him they do.

So Joseph stays home with his father and the rest of the brothers go to Shechem where they “pasture their father’s flock.” (12-13)  Jacob asks Joseph to go and check on his brothers, and Joseph agrees.

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

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

Reuben however suggests a slightly different plan. Instead of killing Joseph, they could just throw him into a pit. And leave him.  It seems to me that the end result would still be the same -Joseph will die - and so I’m not sure why the brothers agree to this plan.

Perhaps they prefer the emotional distance that allowing their brother to die in a pit rather than killing him with their own hands allows. Or perhaps, in their anger, they prefer the additional pain and suffering this plan would cause Joseph. Not only would he die slowly, alone in a pit, he would also be denied a proper burial.

But whatever the reason, they agree to Reuben’s plan.

Reuben doesn’t want to kill Joseph. He only suggests this plan to buy Joseph some time. It seems that Reuben knows that he can’t stop his brothers from killing Joseph, 2 against 10 are really bad odds but he does think he’s capable of sneaking away from the group and getting Joseph out of the pit.

So Joseph meets up with his brothers, they strip his special coat off of him and throw him into a pit. We are given the additional details that this pit was empty and contained no water. (24)

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

It’s not clear where Reuben was during the time it took for Joseph to meet his brothers, be thrown into the pit and then sold into slavery, but when Reuben returns to try and rescue Joseph he discovers he is too late. (29)

Reuben tears his clothes in grief and returns to his brothers where he learns what happened to Joseph. He then resolves to keep the secret and participates in the rest of the plan with his brothers.

They kill a goat and take Joseph’s coat – the special one given to him by his father -  and dip it in the blood.  They return home and show the coat to Jacob, who recognizes it and assumes Joseph has been killed by a wild animal. (31-33)

Then the theme of torn clothing is repeated a third time as Jacob tears his own clothing, puts on sackcloth and we are told he “mourned his son for many days” and “refused to be comforted.” (34-35).

In the Ignatian tradition, there is a classic prayer practice called the prayer of imagination. This pray invites you to hear a Biblical story and imagine yourself as one of the characters.  It could be a main character, like Joseph, or a someone else, a figure in the crowd watching the events, one of the merchants who buys Joseph. Anyone. The idea is to enter prayerfully and imaginatively into the story and to encounter God in the process.

Can you find yourself in this story, and if so, where? Can you identify with Joseph? A seventeen year old kid who doesn’t fit in with his family? A family who hates his difference so much they do not care whether he lives or dies as long as they don’t have to deal with him anymore?

Can you find yourself in what it feels like to be alone in a pit? Feeling helpless, and hopeless?

Can you find yourself in Reuben, trying to save your brother while also avoiding conflict and failing at both? Or in that sense of having arrived a little too late to make a difference?  In that deep sense of “if only?”

Can you find yourself in Jacob’s grief at the loss of his beloved son?

Can you find yourself in the brothers’ fear of people who are different than you? Can you find yourself in their desires to wield their power and privilege in order to re-assert societal norms and the status quo?  In their desire to make themselves comfortable at the expense of someone else’s life?

This is where I find myself in the story today. Not in the voice of the brothers who came up with this plan or spoke loudly in favour of it, but rather in the brother who was too afraid to speak up and in their silence they implied that they agreed with the plan and in doing so, they allowed their brother Joseph to be sold into slavery.

This week I have been thinking about the ways I harm others with my silence. I have been thinking about my reluctance to speak up for what I know is right.  I have been thinking about all the times I disagreed with someone, but didn’t tell them, and so they were reasonably able to assume I agreed with their position.

It is scary to speak up. It is scary to be in a crowd and say “I disagree. This is wrong.” But it’s worth doing. Necessary even and so I’m beginning to gather my courage because ultimately, I want to be actively engaged in helping other people thrive, and I cannot do that if I stay silent when I know something is wrong.

Wherever you find yourself in this story as you mull over it this week, be curious about what God might be trying to show you, be gentle when this process touches wounds or deep pain, and be ready to be changed by what you discover.

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

 

[1] Austen Hartke’s book “transforming” is exceptional both for its quality scholarship and his clear easy to follow writing style.  I highly recommend it.

 


A Blessing and a Limp: A Sermon for Sunday August 3, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 2, 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.

We are continuing our Genesis series this evening but the lectionary picks and chooses which pieces of the story to highlight so I’m going to start by filling in some of those blanks.

Last week we had the story of how Jacob married Leah and Rachel. This is followed by the stories of how his family continued to grow to include enslaved people, children, and livestock.  By the time we get to tonight’s reading, Jacob has become a wealthy man.

As his wealth and power increase, his relationship with his father in law Laban becomes more contentious and Jacob decides it is time to move.

These stories take place over about 20 years. Although we don’t get a long interior monologue detailing Jacob’s thoughts,  we know that he hasn’t forgotten his family of origin and in particular, his brother Esau.  Jacob chooses to return home, but he knows he cannot assume his return will be viewed as a good thing.

Nevertheless, Jacob decides to pack up his household and go home. This is not a simple journey or a simple reunion. Jacob left his home – fled actually – because his brother Esau has threatened to kill him. (27:41)  And Esau had good reason to want Jacob dead. Jacob had tricked him, stolen from him, and then fled.  Has Esau’s hurt and anger cooled over the course of those two decades? Or has it increased? Jacob has no way of knowing.  And now Jacob has to consider not only his own personal safety, but the safety of his entire household.

Amy Merrill Willis points out that pilgrimage stories, stories about journeys, are often stories of character transformation. Stories where the pilgrim is changed by the pilgrimage. How does Jacob change in this story? Does Jacob change in this story?

Jacob’s preparations to meet his brother Esau can be divided into four steps. At first we don’t see clear signs of transformation, we see signs of a man who is skilled in deceit and manipulation using those skills to protect himself.  But a hint of a change can be seen in the fact that Jacob is preparing to return home at all, he is moving towards conflict, not away from it.

First Jacob sends messengers to tell Esau of his plans to return and when the messengers return they inform Jacob that Esau is coming and he is not alone, he has four hundred men with him. Four hundred men. Esau is coming with an army. (6)

Upon hearing this news we are told that Jacob was “greatly afraid and distressed” which makes a lot of sense to me. (7) If I was Jacob hearing that Esau was coming with an army my anxiety would be through the roof. This sounds like all his worst fears are coming true, and Jacob begins to prepare for the worst case scenario.

Jacob divides his household into two groups in the hopes that at least one group will survive. (7-8)

Then he prays to God saying, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.  Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’”  (9-12)

I am always interested when a person’s prayers are recorded in scripture because they provide insight into that person’s relationship with God.

In this prayer, Jacob reminds God of the promises God has made.  You are the God of my family. You are the God who told me to return home. You are the God who said “I will surely do you good…” You are the God who made these promises to me and my family. Do not forget them, do not let me down.

Jacob also tells God that he is not worthy of God’s love and these blessings. He confesses that he is afraid and asks God to protect him and his entire household.

Jacob seems to understand that God’s promises and blessings are not contingent on how good a person Jacob has chosen to be. Jacob, a man who has both deceived others and been deceived, may feel shaky in his own worthiness, but he still has the confidence to ask God to keep God’s promises.

Jacob also seems to understand that God’s promises are not a force field that will automatically protect him from harm.  It is possible that God can keep these promises and that Esau will kill Jacob.  Jacob is afraid and he does not hide his fear from God.

After he prays,  Jacob selects an extravagant number of livestock and has some of his enslaved people take them to Esau as a gift in advance of his arrival.  (13-16) This is a gift meant to soften Esau’s anger but it’s not just a gift it’s a tactic. Jacob orders his enslaved people to divide the animals into groups with space in between each group and to take the animals out ahead of the rest of the household. They are like a series of shields. If Esau does not accept these gifts and still wants to kill Jacob, he will have to hack his way through all of those people and animals first.

After making all these preparations, Jacob sends his household ahead of him across the Jabbok, which marks their entry into Jacob’s homeland. He stays behind planning to spend the night alone.  (4-22)

Or at least I think his plan was to spend the night alone, but, as we learned in today’s reading, that’s not what happens.

But before we look at what happened to Jacob that night, I want to point out that Jacob’s decision to include a night of solitude and preparation is a wise practice, one that is good for us to emulate.

Too often we can get so wrapped up in the busyness of our lives, in the excitement and energy of preparing for an event, that we forget to prepare our own hearts. We forget to stop long enough to reflect on what has happened.

Too often we rush from one experience to the next without taking the time to stop and reflect on our experience. To internalize it, to learn from it, and to take that hard earned wisdom with us as we continue on our journey.

Building in time to stop and reflect is a good practice, but it won’t just happen. You have to work to intentionally build time to pause and reflect into your life.

In Jacob’s prayer that I referenced earlier, he says “for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies.”  “Two companies” refers to the two groups he has divided his household into in the hopes if one group is attacked, the other will be able to flee.

So much has happened since Jacob fled his home and first came to this place. Rather than rushing ahead, Jacob hits the pause button to reflect on all those experiences.

It is a good thing to do, but that’s not how Jacob winds up spending this night.

Rather than spending a quiet night alone preparing to meet his brother, Jacob encounters a stranger – the man is not identified – and the two wrestle until dawn.

We are not told who the person is, how he came to be there, or why he chooses to wrestle with Jacob.

Eventually, when he realizes he cannot defeat Jacob, the man damages Jacob’s hip and asks to be released from Jacob’s grip. Jacob has had a stubborn streak and a strong grip his entire life. You may recall that Esau and Jacob were twins and Jacob, who was born second, came into the world holding onto his brother’s heel. His name actually means “heel grabber.”

But Jacob’s stubborn choice to wrestle this man throughout the night, to grab hold and refuse to let go also strikes me as a sign of character growth.  Jacob has not typically chosen to deal with difficult things directly.  His tendency has been to avoid them by running away  or to deal with them in a deceitful way, approaching problems from the side instead of head on.

Jacob agrees to let go, but only if the man agrees to give him a blessing.

Then the man renames Jacob Israel.   The heel grabber has become “the one who wrestles with God.”  This new name, Israel,  is the name that one of the great nations promised to Abraham will use to identify themselves. They will become the “people of Israel” or “the Israelites.”

Then Jacob turns to this man who has wrestled with him all night, damaged his hip, and given him a new name and asks ever so politely, “Please tell me your name.” (29)

The man does not tell Jacob, now Israel, his name, but gives him a blessing instead and disappears.

Israel then names this place Peniel which means “the face of God” revealing that he knows that the person he wrestled with all night was God.

It’s an odd little story but it has so many resonances with our own lives.  I suspect that most, if not all of us, know what it is like to spend a sleepless night wrestling with a problem or wrestling with God.

Or maybe you were taught that it’s not OK to wrestle with God. Maybe you were taught to believe that your job was to submissively obey God without question. Be gentle with yourself if that’s how you were raised, but I hope you see in this story the good news that it is OK to wrestle with God and to refuse to let go until God gives you a blessing.

Amy Merrill Willis explains that, “The character of Jacob and the character of God are both remarkably displayed in this passage. God does not punish Jacob’s conflictive character, but challenges it and reshapes it so that Jacob is able to live into his promised destiny as Israel, which according to verse 29 means “one who strives with God and humans.” Jacob’s story is a much-needed reminder that in the life of faith, there is no one model to which we must conform and submit. God entertains all kinds of characters and personalities, even those who appear to be unconventional or irreverent by our standards.

Finally – Merrill Willis continues -, the story also challenges any attempt to domesticate God and make the deity fit into some easy mold, whether that is “the wrathful God” or the “God who meets my needs.” Jacob came away from the encounter with unbounded blessings, but he also walked away limping—a man permanently marked. It attests to the complex reality of a God who is intimately engaged with humans, who seeks them out, and blesses them, even it reminds us that this God is wily, unpredictable, and dangerous.”

What are you wrestling with this week? What blessing do you want to receive from God?  It is good to wrestle with God, it is good to refuse to let go until you receive a blessing.

But as you do be prepared to be changed. You cannot wrestle with God and stay the same. You will emerge from those encounters a different person – perhaps a person with a new name and a blessing, but also a limp.

Jacob now Israel limps away from this encounter with God a changed man. But those are stories for another time.

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


The God Who Sees: A Sermon for Sunday June 21, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 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.

Last week Jamie noted that over the summer the lectionary has us reading a number of stories from Genesis and that it is his intention to focus on those stories when he preaches. I reserve the right to change my mind, but that’s my plan too.

He also called today’s reading from Genesis a “doozy,” which it is, and which might just be why I love it so much.

We can’t cover all the stories found in Genesis over the next couple of months, so I would encourage you to take some time to fill in the blanks by reading through the book on your own.  Even with just one character like Hagar, there is so much more to explore than what I am going to have time to say today.

Let’s start by highlighting a few things from earlier chapters of Genesis that I think provide some important context, starting at the very beginning.

Genesis 1:1 – “In the beginning God created…”

I don’t think it’s important to get bogged down in the hows of creation, but I do think it is important to regularly remind ourselves that this world and everything in it, including each one of us, was created by a good and loving God.

That basic understanding should be the foundation of all of our beliefs and our actions.

We are not cosmic accidents, we are God’s creation.

And so is everyone else.

It’s important and healthy to realize that you are unique and special in God’s eyes.

It is dangerous and unhealthy to think other people need to be considered less special as a result.

God’s economy doesn’t work that way. God’s economy is so much bigger than that.

And we see that reflected in today’s story.

Whenever I hear people say that they want a traditional Biblical marriage, I think of marriages like Abraham and Sarah’s and I think, “Really?”

Because that’s not a relationship I would ever want to emulate.

Let’s talk about Sarah for a few minutes. In that time and place,  Sarah would have found her sense of self and identity in her relationship to other people and in particular, in her relationship to her husband, and her children.

Her relationship with her husband is complicated.  Throughout their marriage, Sarah comes to learn that she is expendable and so she can’t just relax and trust that her position is stable. She can’t trust that she is safe.

Abraham has a bad habit of throwing Sarah under the bus, or under the nearest Pharaoh.  On several occasions, Abraham senses danger and his solution is to treat Sarah like a commodity.

She is more of a chess piece than a life partner. She is expendable.

Abraham’s abusive treatment of Sarah is traumatic and we see some of the manifestations of that trauma in her treatment of Hagar.

In that time in that culture you ideally wanted to have a large number of children. Children were a part of your workforce and helped ensure economic stability. If you didn’t have a large number of kids, you at least needed one son to be your heir. That was the bare minimum.

And for most of her life, Sarah has failed to provide that heir. She’s a failure.

Well, she is not actually a failure and if you don’t have children, you are not a failure either.

Society will constantly make you feel like a failure even to this day, but you are not a failure.

For most of Sarah’s life she does not have children and so for most of Sarah’s life she will be viewed by everyone around her as a failure. They will stare, gossip, and offer pitying looks.

They will say ignorant and hurtful things.

And Sarah will know. She will know that they think she’s a failure. She might even, having been formed by that society’s norms and expectations, agree with them.

So towards the end of her life Sarah makes a plan. A plan that may seem odd to us, but a plan that was perfectly acceptable in her time.

She finds an enslaved woman, named Hagar, and forces her to have a child with Abraham. A child Sarah can claim as her own.

This was a common practice, the biological child of an enslaved person was also the property of the slave owner. So Hagar’s child could actually become Sarah’s child.  Hagar is not meant to be this child’s mother, she is merely the container used to achieve Sarah’s dream.

If you have read the book or watched the HBO series, this is the root of the story of The Handmaid’s Tale.

Women and children tend to be treated like commodities in Genesis. It’s one of the most problematic aspects of the book. It doesn’t end with Genesis – think of the book of Job, in that book, all of Job’s children are killed towards the beginning of the story and by the end, he is given a bunch of new kids -  as if children are simply replaceable.

Everything goes according to Sarah’s plan – at least at the beginning. Hagar has a son, so now Abraham has a male heir.

And then the impossible happens, Sarah gives birth to a son and Sarah no longer views Hagar’s son as her own, rather she begins to see Hagar and her son as a threat.

Abraham decides to hold a feast to celebrate Isaac and Sarah’s insecurities begin to surface. She goes to Abraham and says, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (10)

Abraham is “distressed,” but God tells him to do what Sarah wants and God promises Abraham that although his lineage will be traced through Isaac, Ishmael will also be blessed as the founder of a great nation. (13-14)

So Abraham sends Hagar and their son away into the wilderness.

Hagar carries Ishmael on her back  - which calls to mind modern day images of refugees fleeing persecution – and they travel until they run out of water. Then Hagar stops and, assuming they are both going to die, she puts Ishmael under some bushes and goes “about the distance of a bowshot” away from him so she would not have to watch him die. Then she “lifted up her voice and wept.” (17)

And while she is weeping she hears a voice saying, “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.  Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up… He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (17-21)

God was with the boy.  God does not abandon Hagar or her son. God[1] remains with them.

Here is one more story about Hagar from earlier in Genesis.

Names are important. They shape how we see ourselves and each other.  Abraham and Sarah both received new names at one point in their lives – shifting from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah.

People continue to change their names to this day for a variety of reasons, and the church has acknowledged this reality by creating a liturgy to bless a new name. If that is something that you would be interested in exploring, I would love to talk to you about it.

Hagar in our story isn’t just Hagar, she is alternately Hagar the Egyptian or “the slave.”  These names mark Hagar as both a foreigner and as Sarah’s property.

And so perhaps, Hagar, more than any person in this story understands the power of a name. She knows how being marked by her ethnicity and status in Abraham’s household has hurt both her and her child. She knows the dignity of the right name, and the damage of the wrong one.

Hagar and Sarah had a contentious relationship long before the events in today’s reading. Things became so bad when Hagar was pregnant that she ran away.

While she is alone in the wilderness, Hagar had a life changing encounter with a supernatural being.

Dr Wilda Gafney explains that “This messenger of God is a supernatural being. But there is more to this messenger; in 16:7, the messenger [] functions as God in disguise, or perhaps better, God in (human) drag. The holy messenger uses the first person in 16:10, speaking as God, and in 16:13 Hagar realizes she has seen God. (Womanist Midrash, 42)

During this encounter, God promises Hagar that she will be the mother of a great nation and tells her to return to the home of Abraham and Sarah.

After this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: The God Who Sees (16:13) and in doing so, she becomes the only person in the Bible to give God a name.

People in the Bible name other people and places and things, but only Hagar gives God a name.

Only Hagar.

What does it mean to be seen by God? What does it mean to be chosen by God?

Well first of all, here is what is does NOT mean.

It does not mean that because we are special other groups of people are less special. It does not give us the right to expect to be treated well at the expense of others. It does not mean that we don’t need to listen to other people or consider their needs and their perspectives when making decisions.

It’s pretty easy to find stories of people who want to proclaim that they are special and that their specialness implies that other groups of people are well, not special.

You could find examples of this in stories this week of some Manitoba churches who want to be exempt from current public health guidelines and in stories of an American president who chose to ignore local health guidelines in order to hold a rally.  You can see it in some of the unhealthier views of middle eastern politics.

The God Who Sees sees things very differently than we do. The God Who Sees is a God of abundance. The God Who Sees is a God who can declare a covenant with one group of people - calling them special and chosen - and simultaneously declare that others are special as well.  In God’s economy both Sarah and Hagar become matriarchs of great nations.

And because the God Who Sees is God, the math all adds up.  It doesn’t have to make sense to us, it just has to make sense to God.

Hagar’s story serves as a reminder to us to resist the false narrative that we are special and other people are not.

Hagar’s story is a reminder, a warning, a corrective.

This story should have been considered an embarrassing but ultimately unimportant one and it should have been edited out.

But the God Who Sees, saw Hagar, saw Ishmael, sees all the people who most of us refuse to see, refuse to listen to. The God Who Sees Hagar declares that her story matters. The story of an enslaved woman from Egypt matters. It will not be forgotten.

The Bible will continue to trace the story of a particular people who were chosen by God, the Israelite people, but that does not mean that those people, who we as Christians tend to think of as “our people,” have an exclusive claim on God’s love. It doesn’t mean that we can claim that God cares more for us or loves us more than God loves anyone else. God’s love is not limited, it never runs out.

God makes the same promise to Ishmael and to Isaac, and God keeps both promises. Both men become great nations. Both men experience God’s presence and blessing. (Amanda Benckhusen.)

Towards the end of today’s reading it says, “God was with the boy.” (20). God was with Ishmael.  God’s care and provision did not end when Hagar and Ishmael were cast out of Abraham’s family.

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker encourages us to pause and consider what Ishmael’s story tells us about God’s care and providence noting that there is a beautiful old hymn that reminds us of this truth, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” “We cannot limit God’s mercy,” she says, “God hears the cry of the abandoned. God hears the cry of the outcast, and God saves.”

May we learn to see as the God Who Sees sees. May we try, in all that we do, to live into God’s wide, wide mercy and may it shape both our thoughts, and our actions.

In the name of our loving God Who Sees who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Amen.

[1] I was shocked when I heard the podcast of this sermon that I said “He” here as I work very hard to stop doing that. I don’t believe God is a “he” but the tapes of referring to God as “he” are clearly still there and impacting my choices. The work continues.


All the Children of the World: A Sermon for June 7, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 7, 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.

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

This is what the faith communities that raised me taught me about race:  Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.

Those faith communities also taught me that my job was to be like Jesus, so while I don’t remember them every saying so explicitly,  to follow Jesus meant to love people, regardless of their skin colour.

Jesus loves everyone, so I am supposed to love everyone. Sounds simple enough, except it isn’t.

The faith communities that raised me never taught me HOW to love all the children of the world and sometimes, implicitly or explicitly, they taught me that Jesus might love all the children of the world, but he also loved me just a little bit more than the red, yellow and black kids.

And it wasn’t just those faith communities that taught me this. Colonial thinking and white supremacy were everywhere I went – my school, my  TV, the institutions that governed my life. It was the air I breathed, and so I didn’t notice it.  It felt normal.

It felt normal to think that my point of view was the best point of view – as long as a white man didn’t have a different one. Race is one piece of a complicated puzzle. It felt comfortable to think that my ideas were the best ideas and if I thought it was helpful and loving… well then it was.  I didn’t need to ask the people who were the recipients of my help what they thought, I just needed to sit back and bask in their gratitude.

It felt normal, but it wasn’t true. My worldview was rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.

Growing up thinking I could abstractly love other people without learning how to do so practically has hurt me and others.

It’s Trinity Sunday 2020 and a lot is going on right now. It’s tricky to preach on a Sunday dedicated to a doctrine and not a story from the life of Jesus, but I think that if ever there was a time to declare that we believe in a God who is both a mystery and a relationship, that time is now.

There are three plants that many indigenous people describe as three sisters: corn, beans, and squash. These plants share a lot in common: they all require sunlight, soil and water to grow, but they are also very different, with distinct qualities and strengths – it is easy to identify which plant is corn, which are beans, and which is squash.

You can plant each separately, but if you plant them together, they grow interdependently – the corn serves as a strong, solid base and also as a trellis for the beans. The beans fix nitrogen in the soil that the corn needs to grow, and the squash surrounds both plants acting as a ground cover to help retain moisture and protect against weeds

If you grow them together they become strong, interconnected plants and yet they never become the same plant –the beans retain all of their beaniness, the squash its squashiness, and the corn retains all of its corniness.  They remain separate, yet deeply inter-connected, things – each growing stronger, and healthier because of their connection with each other. They do not lose their individuality, and yet they are connected to each other in a profound way, and they make each other better.

That’s not a perfect image for the Trinity - there is the whif of heresy in it – God is one and three, not just three, but it is a good image for how we should model our lives on the relationship God has with themself.

We are all unique individuals, made in the image of the triune God, and we are at our best when give of our best, for the betterment of others.

I don’t always give my best for the betterment of others. Oftentimes, I get more than my share and do nothing about it. I benefit from a racist system and I am a recovering racist.  I have a lot of work to do.

But rather than offer an extended confession here or tell you about all of that work, I’m going to tell you three stories in the hope that they may spark good questions and good conversations as we go forward together.

There is an excellent documentary on Netflix about Toni Morrison called “The Pieces I Am,” and in it Toni talks about her interest in asking the questions, “How does a child learn self-loathing? Where does it come from? Who enables it? How does it affect us? And what might be the consequences?”

She said she wanted to read a book about that and no one was writing books like that so she needed to write the book that she wanted to read.

That book was “The Bluest Eye” and the idea for that book began with a story from her own childhood.

She was walking down the street with a close friend talking about whether or not God existed.  Toni said God did exist, the friend disagreed, and not only did she disagree, she had proof that God didn’t exist!

Toni’s friend said that she’s been praying to God for two years for blue eyes but God didn’t answer her prayer, so obviously God did not exist.

Toni says she remembers looking at her friend who was very, very black and very, very beautiful and thinking, “How painful. Can you imagine that kind of pain? About that, about colour? So I wanted to say, you know, this kind of racism hurts. This is not lynchings and murders and drownings, this is interior pain, so deep for an 11 year old girl to believe that if she only had some characteristic of the white world, she would be OK.”

Toni talks about a master narrative that’s imposed by people in authority on everybody else. As an example, she pointed out that the most prized gift a little girl could receive for Christmas was a doll with white skin and blue eyes . There’s a story there, a story that tells little black girls, “This is beautiful, this is lovely, and you’re not it.”

 

***

 

About 10 years ago I volunteered at the first event held by the Truth and Reconciliation commission here in Winnipeg. I did a number of things, but my main job was to provide support to elders at the press tent.  There were lots of places where survivors could tell their story away from the media cameras but it was understood that if you came into this particular tent, you would be filmed, interviewed etc.

I held shells and feathers and purses. I got water bottles and chairs when they were needed but mostly I stood silently and listened to people tell their stories.

Most people who spoke shared from places of deep pain. I will never forget the sound of them keening and wailing.

I won’t forget the anger either.

It all made me uncomfortable and it would have been easy to say, “I will listen when you calm down, are less emotional, behave in ways that make me feel more comfortable,” but I understood that the expressions of pain, and of anger are essential to the healing process and it was not their job to try and make me feel comfortable.

One story in particular has stayed with me.

An older man came forward and began to talk about what is was like to be taken from his family at a very young age, as he spoke, he seemed to become that child. He talked about the strangeness of the school and how at that school he learned that there was a God who both loved him, and hated every single thing about him – his skin colour, his language, his way of being in the world.

He was allowed to go home for the summer but at the end of the summer, the officials came to take him back to school.

He told us that he dropped to his knees and began praying fervently to God. “Please Jesus,” he begged, “if you let me stay with my family I will be a good boy. I will do everything you want me to do just please Jesus, please, let me stay with my family.”

It didn’t work, he was sent back to school.

 

***

 

About 10 years ago or so I attended a workshop with the goal of helping settler people and aboriginal people become better neighbours.  It was mostly led by indigenous people and the participants were largely white church leaders.

In one session, we began to talk about the possibility of including some elements of indigenous spirituality in our church services – what if we included smudging for example? Was that a good idea or not? How would that work? How would we explain it to people? There was a buzz of excitement in the air as people began to discuss the possibilities until one of our teachers, who was also a pastor, called us to silence and said, “Back off. These are not your questions to answer. They’re ours as indigenous Christians and we need to be given the space to answer them ourselves.  For too long, we have been trained to view the white person in the room as the expert and to defer to their opinions. For too long, you have been trained to believe you are the expert in any room you enter.  It needs to stop. Back off.”

God is a mystery. God is a relationship.  We call this mysterious relationship the Trinity. My colleague Scott Sharman wrote such a succinct summary of doctrine of the Trinity that I am going to quote him at length.

“One of the mysteries we are invited to learn from the concept of Trinity is about the coinherence -- the overlap, so to speak -- of persons. The three persons of the Godhead share one and the same essence. We can say, therefore, that Divinity is so perfected in love that the three persons are not in fact able to be divided from one another at all, even if they are still rightly able to be distinguished.

From this it follows that if we, as human beings, are created in THIS image, we have the basis for some pretty radical conclusions about social justice: We are called to be persons who come to understand ourselves to be so deeply interconnected with all others that the idea of using someone's race (or gender, or sexuality, or anything else) as a reason to hate or exclude them from us becomes nothing less than a form of theo-anthropological heresy.

Another principle we can receive from Trinitarian thought is that the persons of God are mutually kenotic. In other words, they exist to give themselves over entirely for the sake of the good and glorification of the others, even at personal cost.

Here again, if we, as human beings, bear THIS Divine mark in us, than our lives ought also be marked by a willingness to give ourselves away in compassion for everyone else; especially those who are neglected, excluded, and oppressed; even when facing up to this reality is hard.

I think it comes down to this – Scott says -: One of the best ways to honour the great mystery of the Triune God is to put it into creaturely actions -- to tell the truth about racism in our midst (and all the other isms that keep people apart), and to pour ourselves out to dismantle systemic abuses...”

God is three in one, one in three, an interconnected, indivisible relationship.

We are made in the image of God, and we can be like that, but all too often we are not like that.  The events of the past little while, from the pandemic which has exposed a myriad of inequalities, to the violent and unnecessary deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Chantel Moore, and many others.   We are interconnected, but those interconnections are not always for our mutual good and glory.  Too often some of us rise by pushing others down.

And it’s making us all sick.

The faith communities of my childhood taught me that Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world, they did not teach me how to love them too.  They didn’t teach me to listen, to learn, to ask, “What do you actually need?”

That’s the work I am trying to do now, in relationship, with our God and with each one of you. Because there is a better, more beautiful, more God-honouring way to live, and we all have a role to play.

May we all take the next necessary step, and then the one after that.

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


Repeat as Often as Necessary: A Sermon for Sunday May 24, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, May 24, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me 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 our sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

On Thursday we celebrated the feast of the Ascension.  If you’re a linear thinker and have been following the lectionary, you have experienced some whiplash when you heard today’s gospel reading. On Thursday, we remembered the story in Acts when Jesus ascends to heaven, and then today, we jump back in time to just before the crucifixion.

For those of you who might need a brief refresher, the story of Jesus’ ascension is found at the beginning of the book of Acts. Jesus has been resurrected and reunited with his disciples and has spent forty days with them.  This is why we celebrated Ascension Day on Thursday not today.  I find it hard to believe, but this past Thursday was forty days after Easter.

So Jesus has been with his disciples for forty days and now they ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

The text doesn’t say this, but I wonder if Jesus’ heart sank as he realized they still didn’t understand. Did he feel like a failure? Did he wonder if he should hang around a bit longer and try to explain everyone one more time?

Because it seems to me that every time Jesus tries to explain what he is planning to accomplish, the disciples listen, nod their heads and then go right back to their original paradigm.  “That’s all really cool Jesus, but now we’re going to take back our kingdom, right?”

We can only guess what Jesus is feeling based on what he says which is something like, “Stop obsessing over dates and times, that’s God’s job, not yours,” and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  (8)

And then, we are told, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (9)

Jesus disappears and now all the disciples are staring up into the sky unable to believe what has just happened. Then two men in white robes appear and ask, “what are you doing staring up into the sky?”

I imagine it was actually a terrifying and confusing moment to experience, but as a reader, I find it hilarious to imagine all these men with shocked looks on their faces staring up into an empty sky, and then, startled by the question from the men in white, trying to explain what they’ve just experienced.

We know that gradually the disciples did begin to make sense of all of these experiences, but it didn’t happen right away.

And that may be in part because of all the ways their lives keep changing over a short period of time.  Constant change is exhausting, disorienting, disheartening. We don’t tend to do our best thinking in those sorts of circumstances.

From the time they first met Jesus they began to develop a set of expectations – a set of expectations we see in their question to Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Those expectations were dashed when Jesus was crucified. Jesus was gone, dead, and before they could even really wrap their head around that reality, Jesus was alive again. And through the next 40 days they began to hope again, began to imagine a future with Jesus again, and then, in a moment, he’s gone.

They had developed a sense of what it meant to be a follower of a physically present Jesus, but they did not yet understand what it would mean to follow Jesus without actually being physically present with Jesus.

It was possible that the whole movement would fall apart at that moment, but it doesn’t. In fact, as they begin to figure out what it means to follow Jesus Christ without the physical presence of Jesus Christ the movement strengthens and grows rapidly.

When he was physically present with them, Jesus kept trying to explain things to his followers and they kept missing the point. It was only after he ascended that they began to reflect on all the things he had said and began to make sense of them.

I wonder why they didn’t do that work when Jesus was present but I suspect that oftentimes, we avoid difficult questions until we have no choice but to answer them.

Right now, we’re all having to figure out what life looks like without what was once a central focus of our lives of faith – gathering in this building.  What does it mean to live a faithful life without that experience?

What might we have been missing, what tough questions, or God filled experiences might we all have been avoiding when we had public worship gatherings readily available?

Jesus has never needed a Sunday worship experience in order to connect with his people.  We’ve always known this; we haven’t always practiced it.  We have vast riches of ways to connect with God from walking outdoors, to journaling, to the rhythms of contemplative prayer practices like the examen or evening prayer.

What might we discover – or - rediscover in this time so that not only are we able to feed our souls now, but, when public worship does resume again, that we will see it as a beautiful addition to an already full banquet table, instead of the only thing on the menu?

I wouldn’t have wished a pandemic on anyone, and the possibility of new fruit doesn’t diminish how bone shatteringly hard this experience has been and continues to be but I hope we will continue to ask the questions anyway.

The disciples and the stories of the early Jesus movement that we find in Acts give me hope that if we choose to engage this time with curiosity, we may emerge with a richer and deeper and more balanced understanding of what it means to be followers of Christ.

Engaging this time with curiosity doesn’t have to mean doing more, it doesn’t have to look like productivity, it doesn’t have to look like adding 10 new contemplative practices to your day.

But it could mean stopping to notice what you’re feeling, what you’re experiencing, and to say, “Huh, that’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about.”

So that was Thursday and today is Sunday and the lectionary jumps back to an event that happens before the crucifixion.

As part of our daily 5pm online prayer service, we read the gospel for the coming Sunday and through that I am reminded of how different it is to read silently and to read something aloud. I am hearing the cadences of John’s gospel in a new way as I try to wrap my tongue around his words on a daily basis.  It’s one of my “huh, that’s interesting discoveries.”

John’s writing style is very different from say Mark’s. John’s writing style is particularly difficult to read aloud – if he’d invited me to edit his gospel I would have said, “John, you are way too wordy.  Try to say what you mean in a single sentence, instead of repeating it with only slight variations over three or four sentences.”

But he did not ask me.

And it seems that the creators of our lectionary also thought John could use an editor because they made the rather unusual choice to end our reading less than halfway through Jesus’ prayer. I wonder if they looked at the second half of the prayer and thought “this is all rather repetitive. Let’s just end it partway through.”

The prayer is 25 verses long, but our reading ends at verse 11.

Chapters 14-17 of John’s gospel are known as Jesus’ farewell discourse. In these chapters we see Jesus spending time with his disciples trying to prepare them for his death.

Which is no easy task.

In one of my favourite scenes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two characters are talking about the death of their mothers.  One character asks the other, “Was it sudden?” And the response is, “No, and yes. It’s always sudden.”

Death, even one you think you are prepared for, is always sudden.

But Jesus is trying to prepare them. He is doing his best to make sure they have everything they need to walk through the dark and confusing times they are about to encounter.

And as part of that process, Jesus prays.

Jesus was a person of prayer and so it’s only natural that he would end these discourses with prayer. This prayer is, as prayer always is, a conversation between the pray-er and God.

But Jesus is also aware that he has an audience and so this prayer works on two levels – as a conversation with God, and as good news for the disciples.

Later, when they begin to think back on this time and remember what Jesus told them, they would also remember the words of this prayer.  A prayer that says things like, “They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” (6)

In dark moments, when they begin to doubt, they can remember Jesus’s affirmation that they belong to God and have been faithful to God.

This idea repeats throughout the prayer, the disciples belong to God.

God didn’t really need this reminder, but how comforting this repeated idea must have been for the disciples in moments of dark and doubt. May it be a comfort to us as well – we are God’s people too.  We belong to God.

I said earlier that this prayer is repetitive, but I think that is part of its brilliance.  In its repetitiveness it begins to take on the cadence of a chant or a mantra or a Taizé song.

There are some things we need to be told more than once – especially during hard times.  I need to be told over and over and over again that I belong, that I matter, that I am loved.

And this is what Jesus does, he says the same thing, with only slight variations over and over again – you belong to God.

I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter this week, read it as a prayer, read it more than once.

The entire prayer ends, “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (26)

This is my prayer for all of us this week. May each one of us know that we are filled with God’s love, and may that love pour out of each one of us throughout the coming week.

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


Sifting and Sorting: A Sermon for Sunday May 10, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, May 10, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday 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.

Psalms tend to be relational. That’s part of their appeal for use in prayer. Tonight’s psalm, Psalm 139, describes a particularly intimate relationship between God and the psalmist. God is addressed as Yahweh, which was Israel’s personal name for God. (1,4)  In just the first six verses, God is addressed as “you” ten times – “you have searched,” “you know,” and so on and the psalmist also refers to themself thirteen times, “when I sit down and when I rise up,” “my thoughts,” “my path.”   (Nancy deClaisse-Walford)

Walter Brueggemann has observed that, “The Psalms are prayers addressed to a known, named, identifiable You. This is the most stunning and decisive factor in the prayers of the Psalter.”  In Psalm 139, as in many others, there is both a “known, named, identifiable You,” and a known, identifiable “I.”

This is not a song about abstract ideas.  This psalm is inherently relational, describing the relationship between the You and the I, between God and the writer of the psalm.

About halfway through Psalm 139 the psalmist asks a question, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”

The answer?

Nowhere, because God is everywhere.  The imagery used – heaven, Sheol, etc. is meant to tell us that no matter how high, or how low, or how far away the psalmist travels, there is nowhere that God is not present.  Even if the psalmist were to “take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,” God is there. (9). God is present in the light of day and the dark of night. God is everywhere.

In another psalm, Psalm 121, this idea reappears when the psalmist says “the One who keeps watch over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” (St Helena’s translation)

Many of us have come to find this idea really comforting thanks in large part to Alana Levandoski’s song setting “God who watches over you.”

About 10 years ago now, I was part of a community that purchased a large home in the hope of being able to provide housing for people who were experiencing homelessness.

As part of that process we gutted the attic to create additional bedrooms and before we put up the drywall,  we prayed together in that space and then we went around writing blessings all over the beams.  One person wrote, “He who watches over you will never slumber nor sleep” over all the spaces where we knew beds would eventually go.”

The experience and the choice of that scripture passage were so beautiful to me that I posted the pictures on Facebook and showed them to friends.

One friend, commenting on a photo of a framed-out bedroom asked me why anyone would have chosen to put that particular phrase over someone’s bed. I tried to explain what a comfort the idea was and how we were trying to prepare these spaces to be a place of safety for people.

She listened and she said, “Well I guess, given your explanation, it could be comforting, but I think the idea of someone watching me the whole time I’m sleeping is incredibly creepy. I guess it all depends on who’s watching.”

Fair point. Context is everything.

If we understand God as good and loving, then knowing God will always watch over us is a comfort.  If we view God as judgmental, always watching in order to zap us when we misbehave, then it’s more than creepy, it’s downright terrifying.

The psalmist doesn’t portray God as creepy or terrifying, instead the psalmist indicates that knowing that God is everywhere inspires a sense of awe.  They say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” (6)

They can’t explain it, but they believe it. They’ve experienced the inescapable presence of God and it fills them with awe.

The Psalmist also tells us that God isn’t simply always present watching us dispassionately and trying to guess what we’re thinking, always trying to determine our motivations from our actions.  God is also not watching, somewhat bored, because God already knows exactly what is going to happen. Rather, God is engaged in an active process of searching, and knowing.

The Psalm opens:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.

The Hebrew verb translated as “you discern,” (zrh) is the same word used to describe sifting wheat from chaff.  (New International Biblical Commentary)

I’ve never sifted wheat from chaff, but I have sometimes sorted rice or lentils or beans. I love the feeling of sticking my hands deep into the bucket and seeing what I pull up.  It’s an active and ever-changing process. Just when you think you’re done, you dig a little deeper and discover there is still more sorting to be done. Similarly, God’s knowledge of us is not static, it is an active process.

Through this process God knows us so well that God knows what we’re going to do and say before we do and say anything.

The psalmist continues:

You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.

When you hear, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” How does that make you feel?  Do you feel protected or stifled?  Do you imagine God’s hands feel comforting, or oppressive?  Does it feel like a weighted blanket that provides comfort and helps you sleep soundly, or does it feel claustrophobic, like you have no room to move or breathe or be.

Being known is a vulnerable thing, especially if we aren’t sure we can trust the other person.

The Psalmist believes that ultimately God can be trusted, that God is worthy of knowing and being known by.  They express a sense of comfort that no matter where they go God’s “hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (10)

I agree that God can be trusted and is worth getting to know, but I also understand that many, many people have been taught such an unhealthy understanding of who God is that they won’t be able to make that leap.  I also know that sometimes, what I believe in my head has a hard time sinking down into the rest of my body.  My brain may say “God is trustworthy,” and yet I still hesitate and doubt.  My brain may say, “God loves you,” but my heart says, “That can’t be true, you are fundamentally unlovable.”

Be gentle with yourself if that is your experience.

Understanding who God really is is a process that takes a lifetime. It is a process of learning and unlearning but I do believe that ultimately the process and hard work will be worth it. Finding someone you trust to help you sift and sort your understanding of who God is an invaluable part of this process. Send me a message if you’d like some help figuring out how to begin.

And don’t expect to figure it all out right away.  In fact, don’t expect to figure it out. Be very wary of people who believe they have everything figured out, who believe they have nothing new to learn about God.

Just a God is described as continually getting to know us by sifting and sorting, this is also how we get to know God.  If we actively engage in the process, if we dig our hands in the wheat, then our understanding of God’s character will continue to change and grow.  God doesn’t actually change, but our understanding will.

It won’t necessarily look like a radical shift but it will shift. There is always something new we can learn about God.

It’s hard though, and our own perceptions and expectations often get in the way. That’s at least in part what’s happening in today’s gospel reading. The disciples have such a fixed idea of who they think God is, that they fail to recognize God even when God is sitting right next to them.

Thomas and Philip and many others spent extended periods of time with Jesus and yet they were still confused about who he is.

At one point Philip says to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied,” to which Jesus replies, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (8-9)

Jesus goes on to explain that to know Jesus is to know God, they are indivisible, interconnected, they are one and the same.

Can you picture the disciples scratching their heads while trying to understand what Jesus is saying? These are the sorts of mysteries that take a long time to sink into our understanding and even then, the best we can usually do is say, “It’s a mystery, I don’t have to be able to explain everything about it in order to know that it is true.”

Jesus then moves on to explain how to identify a person who believes that Jesus is who he says he is.  Jesus followers will not be identified by their ideas, they will not be identified by their ability to correctly rattle of a list of doctrines or dogmas. The sign that a person knows Jesus, is not what they believe, it’s how they behave.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (12)

To believe in Jesus is to behave like Jesus. Take for example the parable of the two sons in Matthew.  In that story, one son says he will do what his father asks of him, and doesn’t. The other son says he will not do what his father asks him to do, but then he does.  Which one does Jesus say did God’s will?  The one with the right words or the one with the right actions? (Matthew 21:28-32)

The one with the right actions. “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these…”

How does our behaviour demonstrate what we actually believe?  Where are there consistencies, and inconsistencies.

First, I want to suggest that one of the primary behaviours someone who wants to follow Jesus needs to adopt is the ability to admit when they have missed the mark. There is a reason that in our prayer of confession we say, “the people we can’t quite manage to be.”  Because we’re going to mess up.  Perfection is not the goal, humility and awareness are. We are trying to model our actions on Jesus’, but we won’t always get it right, and we should freely and humbly apologize whenever we miss the mark.

I think our current times provide us with an opportunity to better align our beliefs and our behaviour in a particular way.

We can, like the psalmist, develop a greater awareness of God’s constant, consistent presence in our day to day lives.

I know technically we’re in the season Easter but it still feels very much like Lent to me.  Lent is a season that encourages us to ask, ‘What can I learn about myself and about God by removing something from my life?”

A lot of things have been removed from our lives lately, it hasn’t entirely been by choice, it’s sort of a forced Lent, but we can still learn from it.

This building and the gatherings we hold inside it have never been the only places that we could encounter God.  How might we continue to exercise our ability to encounter God in all things and all places in this time when we cannot gather to experience God’s presence in this space?

I know many of you are asking these questions already and it’s been delightful to hear stories of how you are encountering God in your day to day lives. In caring for each other, in quiet times, in nature, in preparing food.

I hope you’ll continue to do this or be inspired to try.  Like with our physical muscles, the more you practice awareness, the stronger your ability to be aware will become.

And as always, be gentle when yourself when God feels far away or entirely absent. Sometimes we just can’t access that sense of God’s presence even when we believe deeply that God is indeed present.

God is always present whether we know it or not, whether we can access that sense of awareness or not. Be gentle with yourself in those times when you just can’t sense that God is there and savour the moments when God feels so nearby that you can God hand on your shoulder.

May you seek and find God in unexpected places this week.

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


Made Known to Us in the Making of the Bread: A Sermon for April 26, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, April 26, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday 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.

We’re learned a lot of new terms and phrases since the beginning of this pandemic: sheltering in place, social distancing and so on. Lately the one that has struck me as odd is “opening the economy,” because while I understand what people mean by that phrase, I would have picked a different term. The entire economy hasn’t closed, we haven’t stopped exchanging money for goods and or services. Sections of the economy are closed, but other sections are booming.

Toilet paper. Lysol products. Hand sanitizer. They are almost consistently sold out. So is flour and yeast because suddenly baking bread is North America’s number one past time.

You know what else has been selling really well and as a result have become difficult to find? Puzzles.

Just go online and try to buy one, it’s almost impossible.

I have been doing puzzles since before it was cool and I love how the picture begins to take shape as I slowly fit in piece after piece.

Sometimes when a puzzle wasn’t created very well, it’s possible to put the same piece in multiple places. You can put a piece in a space it’s not meant to go.

I hate that.

Othertimes, I know I need a particular piece and I look and I look and I sift and I sort and I just can’t seem to find it. I know I need an orange piece with three outies and one innie and it’s got to be in the box but I just can’t find it.

Until suddenly I realize I’ve been staring at the piece I needed the whole time, I just hadn’t recognized it.

Our gospel story begins, “Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all the things that had happened.” (13-14)

Seven miles is a little over 11 kilometers so this is a decent walk. More than long enough to have a rich detailed conversation, if you’re so inclined.

So, two of them are walking, which two? One is a man named Cleopas, he is named in the text, and N.T. Wright speculates that the second person is his wife, Mary. There is a story in the gospel of John about a married couple with those names and Wright believes that it is likely that these are the same people. (John 19:25).

So if Wright is correct, Mary and her husband Cleopas are walking to Emmaus talking about current events, and there would have been a lot to talk about. There hadn’t been a slow news day in quite some time. First Jesus was arrested, then tried, then crucified and then well, the next part of the story was rather puzzling.

Beyond current events, we don’t know exactly what they were talking about but whatever the content of the conversation, the purpose of the conversation was most likely to try and make meaning out of everything that had happened. To try and wrap their heads around all of the ways their lives had been turned on their heads in such a short period of time. To try and make sense of things and to try and decide what they should believe, how they should feel, what they should do next.

I suspect we all can relate to this unsettled feeling. The events are different, and each one of us is having a different experience of this pandemic, but all of our lives changed in a very short period of time when it became clear that we needed to begin to shelter in place to protect each other by limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Did you have exciting plans over the next few months? Well, odds are they are cancelled. And you can’t really make a lot of new plans either. Pretty much everything that hasn’t been turned into a Zoom meeting is in a holding pattern right now.

This is not how I thought my spring would unfold.

I never thought I’d spend so much time at home. I never thought I’d sing into a computer. I never thought I’d wear a mask at the grocery store. I never thought I’d watch TV and shout, “stop touching your face!” and “Why are you standing so close together?” and seriously people, STOP TOUCHING YOUR FACES!

And I certainly never thought I wouldn’t be able to hug my family whenever I wanted to.

Life has changed, we will never go back to the way things were, but we can, and we will go forward. (Deborah Frances-White)
But right now, we are like Mary and Cleopas, walking on the road, trying to make sense of things that make no sense.

It is at this point, that Jesus appears and joins them on their walk, but they don’t realize that it is Jesus. (15)

It’s not that Jesus was automatically unrecognizable, the text tells us that, “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” (16). Jesus approaches them and asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” (17)

After Jesus asks the question, we’re told, “They stood still, looking sad.” (17)

Have you had a chance to stand still since this pandemic began? Have you been able to make space for your grief?

Everyone is having a different experience of this pandemic. Some people are finding themselves with not enough to do. Some people are finding new ways to fill their time. And some people are working more than they ever have before.
But I believe we are all, in our own ways, grieving. And I hope, we will all find space to stand still and acknowledge the truth of what we are feeling.

I hope we will learn to be honest and gentle with ourselves. Knowing that whatever we are feeling is OK, and whatever we need to do to get through this pandemic is exactly what we need to do.

No judgement, only curiosity. No condemnation, only gentleness.

Jesus has asked them a question, “What are you talking about?” and now Cleopas and Mary have a choice to make – will they tell the truth to this stranger, or will they lie? Will they admit that they are talking about Jesus? Will they admit that they are also follows of Jesus?

It’s a difficult decision to make, this man is a stranger and they have no reason to trust him, they have no reason to trust that if they tell this stranger that they are followers of Jesus Christ that they won’t be reported to the authorities.

And yet, that is what they choose to do.

Even though it was dangerous, they not only tell Jesus the basic details of recent events, they boldly make it clear that they were among Jesus’ followers. They don’t say, “Jesus of Nazareth who some people thought was a prophet,” they say, “Jesus of Nazareth who was a prophet, mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” (19)

Of this they are confident, Jesus was a prophet. But then, as they continue to tell the story, their confidence wavers. “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” (21)

“We had hoped,” they said.

Now those hopes are gone. They had believed that Jesus was a prophet, but more than that, that he was the Messiah. The one who would save Israel. And now they’re not sure.

Jesus died, which logically means he couldn’t have been the Messiah. Or at least, that’s what they’d thought for the past few days, but now, some members of their company have claimed to have seen Jesus alive so… what are they supposed to believe?

I believed a lot of things two months ago that I don’t believe now. They are smaller, more mundane things than whether or not Jesus is the Messiah, but I understand the unsettling feeling of discovering that things you were sure were true, aren’t true. I understand how it can make even the ground underneath your feet begin to feel unstable.

I have different hopes as well. Two months ago, I hoped for many things that just aren’t going to happen now. And now, while I still have hope, my sense of the future, of what I can look forward to feels cloudy, feels a bit like what I imagine Mary and Cleopas are feeling as they tell their story to Jesus.

N.T. Wright notes that, “Cleopas’s puzzled statement only needs the slightest twist to turn it into a joyful statement of early Christian faith: ‘They crucified him – but we had hoped he would redeem Israel” would shortly become “They crucified him – and that was how he did redeem Israel. But before they could begin to understand what had just happened they had to be prepared. They, like everybody else in Israel, had been reading the Bible through the wrong end of the telescope. They had been seeing it as the long story of how God would redeem Israel from suffering, but it was instead the story of how God would redeem Israel through suffering...” (N.T. Wright)

Jesus listens to Mary and Cleopas, even though he actually knows the whole story. Never underestimate the value of listening to someone else’s story. Even if you already know the basic details, there is power in letting someone talk and listening when they do.

And after he listens, Jesus says, “You’ve got everything you need to understand what is going on, you’ve just got the puzzle pieces all mixed up. Here, let me sort it out for you.”

And then, Luke tells us that, beginning with the stories of Moses and all the prophets, Jesus beings to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. Without revealing his own identity, he fits all the details of scripture and current events together to show who the Messiah is and why he had to die. (25-27)

He doesn’t finish the puzzle though, he saves the final piece for later in the story.

When their destination is in sight, Mary and Cleopas invite Jesus to stay with them and he agrees. They eat a meal together and during that meal, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to them. It’s the final piece of the puzzle, the imagine suddenly clicks into focus.

Luke tells us, “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (30-32)

They were so excited, that they leave their home and go all the way back to Jerusalem, another seven miles, so that they can tell the other disciples what has happened. When they find them and told them everything that had happened they said, “he was made known to us in the breaking of the bread.” (33-35)
For the time being, in order to show love to each other and to our neighbours, we cannot gather together, we cannot break bread in this building, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus will not be made known to us.

Although we are often quick to point out the parallels between this story of Jesus breaking bread and our eucharistic practice, that moment actually has a lot more in common with an everyday meal in your home. Gathering for eucharist is so valuable and I long to be able to do it again, but it is not the only way we can encounter the risen Christ.

May you encounter the risen Christ when you go for a walk outside.

May you encounter the risen Christ when go online.

May you encounter the risen Christ whenever you sit down to eat.

And if you’re one of the lucky people who has flour, and yeast, and the time and inclination to bake your own bread, then I pray that Jesus will make himself known to you in the baking of that bread.

May you encounter the risen Christ throughout each day, whatever it holds.

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


Daring to Hope for Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter Sunday 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. During these unusual times, you can join me Monday-Saturday 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.

Matthew’s description of the resurrection is dramatic – Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” arrive at the tomb when “suddenly there was a great earthquake” as an angel who looks like lightening descends from heaven, rolls back the stone and takes a seat. (1-2)

Earthquakes and other worldly beings that look like lightening. Is it any wonder that the men guarding the tomb first shook with fear and then “became like dead men?”

Surely sheer terror is the most reasonable feeling to experience under the circumstances.

The angel says, as angels always need to say, “Do not be afraid.”  Fear is a natural, but apparently unnecessary, thing to feel in the presence of an angel.

The earthquake, the appearance of the angel, the stone rolling away from the tomb. Each one of these would be terrifying on its own but the angel is only just getting warmed up. He’s about to tell the two women that the impossible is in fact possible. That the world as they knew it has been changed forever. Life will never be the same.

The angel tells the two Marys that Jesus is no longer dead and shows them the empty tomb as proof. He then instructs the women to go and inform the other disciples that not only has Jesus risen from the dead, he has also gone to meet them in Galilee.

And the two women leave the empty tomb but they don’t have to wait until they have told the other disciples and travelled to Galilee to see Jesus because “suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” (9)

Why did they touch his feet? I suspect there were a few reasons. The first, is that despite having been told over and over again not to be afraid, the sight of Jesus has terrified them and they fall to the ground.  Jesus’ feet might be all they can manage to see until they catch their breath and their hearts begin to beat normally again.

Second, I think they touch his feet because they want to know that Jesus is really there, that’s he’s not appearing as vision or as a ghost or that they aren’t in the middle of a really intense hallucination.

When they touch his feet, when they feel his human body, they know he is really there. That he is really alive. That he is real.

Jesus then repeats the instructions the women have already received from the angel, “Do not be afraid, go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (10)

These women have been chosen and commissioned by Jesus himself to be the first witnesses to his resurrection and the first people to tell others the good news.

The resurrection of Jesus is a dramatic event that leads to heightened emotions -naturally, people are afraid. Naturally they are confused.  Naturally, upon seeing Jesus they flip from the deepest despair to the most profound joy in an instant.

It’s a time to feel all the feelings, and to feel them intensely.

Normally as we walk through Holy Week, our liturgies make intentional choices to guide us through a series of emotions. On Good Friday, even though we know that Easter is coming, we resist the temptation to tell that part of the story. We sit in the pain and the confusion and the sorrow of Christ’s death. On Saturday we push even deeper into those feelings, and then, normally, on Easter Sunday we lean deeply into the joy, the celebration, the victory of Christ’s resurrection. We pack this church and shout at the top of our lungs “Christ is risen, He is risen indeed!” Not only do we feast on bread and wine and each other’s company, but we take it one step further and pop huge bottles of sparkling wine and lay out giant bowls of chocolate.

Not this year.

Christ has risen,  the story hasn’t changed. But this year, I want to remind us all that on that first Easter, the women who went to the tomb didn’t march there in Easter bonnets intent on a joyous celebration.  They were in mourning, and they were afraid.

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

A few weeks ago, Susanna Singer preached at St Gregory of Nyssa church and I thought, “that’s my Easter sermon.”  In her sermon she asked the question, “Am I just looking for resuscitation or do I dare to hope from resurrection?”

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

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

The pandemic will end, we will be able to leave our homes, we will be able to gather in this space again, but life will never return to the way it was, and I don’t want it to.  I want resurrection, not resuscitation.

Because a lot of my old ways, a lot of our collective ways, weren’t working.  Sometimes we pretended they were working, especially if they were working for us.  If we did acknowledge they were broken, we believed that that was just the way it was, that change was impossible. That a new resurrected life was impossible.

But we were wrong.

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

You haven’t let anyone down;  you don’t need to be ashamed. In fact, this manic drive to be endlessly productive has been kept alive on life support for way too long. It’s time to pull the plug and let it die.

Whatever gets your through these days, provided it doesn’t harm you or others, whatever gets you through is what you need to do… or don’t do.  Have an extra nap, have an extra cookie, turn off your phone, turn off your TV or put in an extra workout, learn a new low-calorie recipe, binge watch that show, write that novel.

Whatever gets you through.

I have a ham defrosting in my fridge right now. I’m going to cook it tomorrow. I’ve been meaning to cook it for awhile, in fact, based on the date on the package, I’ve been meaning to cook it since 2016.

It wasn’t an impulse purchase either, I specially ordered that ham from a local farm. It was an intentional choice. 2016 me wanted to be the kind of person who invited people over for a ham dinner.

But I never did.

And I didn’t just forget about it either. Every time I opened my freezer and I saw that ham it made me feel guilty.

It made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough, that if I was really trying I would just work a little harder and pull of that dinner party already.

So tomorrow, and frankly for quite a few days after that, we’ll be eating ham, and then the ham will be gone and hopefully the guilt will be gone.  But what kind of person will I choose to become?

I’m not sure right now which false idea of myself needs to die, that I am the kind of person who has people over for ham suppers, or that I am OK with the other choices I make that mean I am not that person. I’m not sure which one needs to die and I’m not going to push myself to come up with a quick answer.

But leaving that ham in the freezer was artificial resuscitation of an ideal, of a person I could never quite manage to be, and it needs to die. I don’t want artificial resuscitation anymore, I am longing for resurrection.

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

I’ve spent a large portion of my life working in food banks and soup kitchens feeding hungry people or working to help house people without homes. I am intimately familiar with the ways many our systems are broken. The ways we as a society say that some people matter more than others.

But do you know what I also used to believe?  That our broken systems would always be broken. Trying to fix them is just too complicated, the political will simply isn’t there, any change that is going to happen will be slow, incremental. Glacial.

I don’t believe that anymore. That idea has been on life support for way too long and, at least for me, it’s dead, never to be resuscitated again.

Because suddenly, all over the world, cities, including ours, have found housing for people who need it overnight.

It’s not perfect and it doesn’t solve every problem.  The issues that lead those people to be homeless still remain but what has become perfectly clear to me is that the issue has never been a lack of housing, the issue has always been our priorities.

When we want to house people, we house them. And we do it quickly.

Resurrection looks like safe, affordable housing for everyone.  Right here, right now.

Over 25 years ago I first learned about the idea of a guaranteed national income. It made a lot of sense to me. It seemed easier and way more effective than our current system.

A system that means that more than once in my life I’ve sat with someone crunched the numbers and said, “I know you want to work, but I think you need to stay on social assistance.”

Because the second you start working is not the same as the moment you have money in the bank.  As soon as you start working you’ll need to spend money on different clothes, on bus tickets, on childcare, on all sorts of things.

And the moment you start working, not only will you be cut off of social assistance, you’ll also lose you extended health care coverage.  And even if you managed to find a job that offers health care, there will probably be a waiting period.

And your kid needs new glasses.

Unless a person can leap from unemployment to a six-figure salary, our current system tends to punish people who try to work.

But a national guaranteed income is no longer a pipe dream for idealists. We’ve just put a version of it into action in this country – albeit for the short term because of COVID-19.

It didn’t roll out perfectly but is sure did roll out quickly.

So no one will ever be able to tell me that it’s not possible or that “these things take time,” ever again.

When we want to make sure people have enough money to cover the basic necessities of life, we make it happen.

Poverty as a complex problem that can only be solved somewhere off in an idealized future is an idea that has been given artificial resuscitation for far too long. It needs to die.

Resurrection looks like a country that ensures that all of its citizens have their basic needs met, regardless of their ability to work.

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

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

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

Amen


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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a difference a week can make.

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

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

It would have been a difficult, lonely life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The chance to celebrate together.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s worth a party.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 


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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

It can be hard to catch everything that was said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When exactly did Moses lift up a snake?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh.

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

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

Because snakes are terrifying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I believed that, and I memorized it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.

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

 

 

 

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