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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else can we learn from this story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because that seems like good news to me.

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

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

 


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even though many people have done so for many years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a subtle pairing at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


Clean your glasses: A Sermon for Sunday February 13, 2022

The following sermon was pre-recorded for St George's Transcona's service for Sunday February 13, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.   Photo credit: Charles Deluvio on Unsplash 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t surprise me, partly because of my academic training but mainly because when I read the Bible, and then read the things those white men wrote about the Bible we notice very different things.  I regularly see very different things than those men do.  I am interested in different things. I have different questions.

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

These people see things that I don’t.

These people have things to teach me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No thank you.

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

Because of my particular set of glasses, I have always imagined that when Jesus was giving this famous speech, when Jesus was listing the people who are blessed, that it looked a little bit well, it looked a little bit like what often happens in a church like this one prior to COVID.  The person who is teaching stands about where I am standing now and the rest of you sitting a respectable distance away in the pews.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few years ago I took a course on Canadian history from an indigenous perspective. It was part of the Anglican Church’s commitment to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

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

Because the differences are stunning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The church has a lot of work to do, I have a lot of work to do.

My friend and well respected Indigenous teacher Kyle Mason told me about treaties and territorial acknowledgements and how something as simple as acknowledging that treaties were once signed between diverse peoples detailing how this land was to be used, how just acknowledging those treaties, can help us all to begin to see things in a different way.  It can help us to begin to see through the glasses of reconciliation.  It’s a small but powerful thing.

Is it enough? Is it the only thing we need to do? No. There is so much more that can and should be done, but each and everything we do matters and can make a difference.

Now, here’s another thing my worldview may be obscuring in this gospel passage.

When I first studied this passage to prepare to preach on it I eventually took off my interpretive glasses, cleaned them, and looked again. I looked at the text and I looked at all the words I’d already written and I realized I was still missing something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 


If you say so: A Sermon for Sunday February 6, 2022

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

 

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

We’ve been bouncing around in the timeline of Luke’s gospel a fair bit over the past few Sundays so let’s take a moment to orient ourselves.

Today’s gospel takes place early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, not long after the time he preached in his hometown and made his neighbours want to throw him off a cliff.

He has been travelling around the region, teaching and performing miracles, and crowds of people are beginning to show up wherever he goes.

At this point in his ministry it seems that he is also doing all of this alone.

Today’s reading begins “Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret[1], and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets.  He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.” (1-3)

I used to work at a soup kitchen and one of my colleagues was a close talker with no sense of personal space. As we were talking, he would inch closer and closer and I would inch farther and farther away until I would inevitably find myself with my back pressed tight again a wall. I imagine something similar happening to Jesus. The crowd, eager to be close enough to see Jesus and to hear his every word subconsciously inches closer and closer until Jesus is right up on the water’s edge.

And then Jesus sees an opportunity.  A boat will allow him to get a little distance from the people and it will also make it easier for them to see him, and to hear him. Sounds carries really well over water.

When Jesus is finished teaching he turns to Simon and says, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” (4)

Think about the context of this part of the scene.  First of all, at the start of this story when Jesus is teaching the crowd it is already the end of the workday for these fishermen. They are washing their nets, which is one of the last things you do after a long day of fishing.  So these men, who have already worked a full day, agree to go back out on the water so Jesus can teach the crowd.

Sticking around after a long workday and letting Jesus use his boat seems generous enough to me, but now Jesus wants Simon to begin fishing again?

That’s a lot of to ask.

And Simon seems to agree that it’s a lot to ask but something about Jesus has also captured his attention because he says, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” (4-5, emphasis mine)

There is something about Jesus that makes Simon willing to do something he knows makes no sense.

And it’s not that Jesus is an expert fisherman.  Jesus was a carpenter. What does he know about catching fish?  Simon is the expert here and yet Simon goes against his own better judgement and does what Jesus asks.

I would love to know what Jesus said when he taught those crowds. I would love to know what it was about Jesus that inspired Simon to do what Jesus asked even when it made no sense.  Was it something Jesus said? What it something about the way he said it? Both?

But Luke doesn’t tell us what Jesus said, he only records Simon’s response to Jesus’ request.

At the end of a long workday when he hasn’t caught any fish, and against his better judgment based on years of experience fishing in those waters, Simon lets down his nets again.

And it works.

Luke tells us that, “When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink.” (6-7)

That’s a lot of fish. A dangerous amount even. They catch so many fish that they damage their equipment and risk their own lives as the boats begin to sink.

And not just their own boat, the second boat they signal to help is so full that it is sinking too.

And remember that Jesus didn’t just ask them to put down their nets near the shore, he specifically told them to take the boats to the “deep water” and then put down their nets.   The safety of the shore is a long way away.

The scene feels chaotic to me.  One minute they are just a few men on a boat, and the next there are two boats so full of wriggling, flopping fish that they are sinking in deep water.

This story demonstrates one of the most common themes in all of our scriptures – scarcity vs. abundance.  Human beings tend to believe in scarcity and miss the fact that God is a God of abundance.  A God of overwhelming abundance.

Over and over again in scripture we read stories of God’s provision. And more often than not when God provides, there isn’t merely enough, there is more than enough. There is abundance.  Think of the manna provided in the wilderness. There was always more than enough.  Think of stories of Jesus feeding large crowds. There was always more than enough.

These men have caught way more fish than they need. They have caught way more fish than their friends need.

They have caught more than enough fish.  They have enough fish that they can eat today. They have enough fish that they can also sell some so they can eat again tomorrow. As can the people who buy fish from them.  They have caught such an abundance of fish that they are going to have to throw many of them back overboard just to stop their boats from sinking so they can return to shore.

It’s possible that this is a miracle where Jesus added an abundance of fish to the waters so that these men to catch them, the text doesn’t tell us.

But it’s also possible that these fish were already there.  It’s possible that these men believed there were a scarcity of fish, and were living into that false reality when all along there was an abundance of fish waiting for them in those deeper waters.

Where in your own life do you believe there are scarce resources? Your health? Friendships? Your bank account? Where in the life of St George’s do you believe there are scarce resources?  Volunteers?  Newcomers?  The bank account?

I don’t know for sure, and I am aware that it can be overly simplistic and unhelpful to simply say “believe in abundance!”  But what might happen in your own life, in the life of this parish, if we were open to the possibility that there may be something more for us if went out a little deeper and then cast our nets? What might happen is we started to lean into abundance thinking instead of scarcity thinking?

Are there unexplored areas of potential, are there opportunities beyond our current perception of our limits, beyond our current perception of our available resources, talents, and energy that we might be able to tap into if we did?

Are we mistakenly believing the sea is empty when really it is so full of resources that our boats would sink with their weight?

We won’t know if we are never curious enough to ask the question. We won’t know if we never throw down our nets and try again.

If the gospel story ended here, it would be a pretty good one, but this catch of fish, this overwhelming generous abundance, is not the climax of the story.

Luke writes, “But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.” (8-11)

After the initial adrenaline rush of filling the boats with fish, Simon takes a moment to look at the scene and his response is to fall at Jesus’ feet, declare that he is sinful and tell Jesus to leave.   It’s an odd response for a number of reasons, including that they are still out in deep water in a boat that is so full of fish it is sinking. Is Jesus supposed to hop over the side? This is very early in his ministry, no one has any idea that he can actually walk on water. That hasn’t happened yet.

It’s also odd because suddenly this man we have known as Simon is called Simon Peter.  People who have read to the end of the gospel story will know that much later on Jesus will give Simon the new name Peter, but that also hasn’t happened yet.  Still Luke inserts this name in his gospel to make sure we know exactly who we are reading about.

Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of Simon Peter’s statement, he basically ignores it and simply states, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.”

Umm what? Catching people? What does that mean?  And doesn’t catching people sound a lot harder and a lot scarier than catching fish does?

We’ll get to that in a moment, but let’s stick with the story up until the end.  Jesus tells these men they will be catching people and then they bring the boats back to shore, leave everything and follow him.

They leave everything. Their homes, their families, their careers, and also the entire catch of fish and all the wealth it represents.  That’s incredible. Jesus is incredible and has a way of inspiring people to do things they never imagined they would or even could.

Now onto this detail of catching people. First of all, the word is people in the original text not men.  You may have heard the phrase “fishers of men” more often in your life but that’s a bad translation. Jesus says people. All people.

When you fish with nets, you can’t control what kind of fish you get, you catch all the fish that are in that place. It’s a truly inclusive way to fish, and this is what Jesus is talking about. His mission is for all people, he won’t exclude anyone.

But no metaphor is perfect.

Jesus is not calling us to ensnare people in nets. Jesus’ call is always an invitation. It always includes choice and consent.

Like Simon and the other men in the boats, if we choose to follow Jesus we are also called to fish for people but it’s important to note that a lot of the ways the church has chosen and continues to choose to fish for people are not in keeping with Jesus’ mission.  As we continue to walk through the gospel stories we’ll be able to see this – Jesus doesn’t coerce, manipulate or shame people into following him.  Far too often the church has done those things.

Jesus invites people to follow him and it’s an invitation that is so compelling that people freely choose to do so. That’s what fishing for people should look like – an appealing invitation, and a choice freely made to follow.

I have been with you at St George’s for only a few weeks, I certainly don’t know everything there is to know about you and the parish at this point but I have already noticed some things that are really encouraging.  First, you have people who love this place who are willing to volunteer large amounts of time to make your shared life possible.  It’s really amazing.  It is so wonderful what God can do when people are willing to use their gifts in parish life.  There are so many talented and dedicated folks working together here.  Some things are easy to spot – like the gorgeous display of candles we had last week for Candlemas or Tom’s beautiful singing voice.  Some things are less obvious, but equally important - the building is impeccably maintained and you are generous in how you allow it to be used.  The bills get paid. Reports get written and distributed.  It’s really amazing.

Next Sunday we’re holding the annual general meeting for the parish at 1pm on Zoom.  This week when you read the reports and prepare to attend, I want to encourage you to lean into the gospel mindset of abundance. Look at all that you have accomplished in the past year. Look at all the ways God has provided abundantly when it did not seem like that was possible.  When you read those reports you will see there is so much to be thankful for.

When you look over the reports and prepare to attend the meeting, I also want to encourage you to prayerfully ask, “God, where are you calling me?”  What does casting my net into deeper water look like? What does leaving my boat on the shore to follow you look like?

The answer will be as unique as each one of you – it may be to volunteer your time in a new way, or to contribute financially to the life of the parish is a new way, or to commit to a new practice of personal prayer. It might also look like saying “no” to new things because you’re already overcommitted.

Whatever it is, know that Jesus always invites, but never coerces.  The choice is always yours.  To put your boat into deeper waters or to stay on the shore.

I don’t know what the future holds but I am excited to see what God will do in the life of this parish in the coming year.  I hope you’re excited too.

In the strong name of the holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

 

[1] Also called the Sea of Galilee.  Gennesaret is from the Hebrew word “harp” which references the lake’s shape.


Longing for the Light: A Sermon for Candlemas

The following sermon was pre-recorded for St George's Transcona's service for Sunday January 30, 2022. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

 

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

One of my favourite days of the year is the day in late fall when, after having successfully completed all the tasks required to winterize my yard, the snow starts to slowly fall. After all the pressure I feel to complete all those winterizing tasks in time, I look forward to that first gentle snowfall that signifies the start of a new season, a season that tends to find me spending a lot more time inside, a lot more time reading. It’s a slower, gentler season and usually by the time it arrives, I’m exhausted and I’m looking forward to a different pace of life.

By now, in late January, I am completely done with winter. I’m tired of snow. I’m tired of shoveling and figuring out where to put all that snow.  I’m tired of spending so much time inside, I’m tired of feeling cold all the time, and I’m tired of how the long dark nights make me feel less safe, less free to go out whenever I want.  I’m ready for light, ready for gardening catalogues, ready to go outside whenever I want without fear and without having to put on multiple layers of clothing.

I am done with winter, but winter is not done with me. It’s not done with any of us. Literal winter, and for many of us, spiritual winter are here for awhile yet.  Our moods tend to match the seasons, and many people find the long dark months of winter to be particularly difficult ones.  And COVID makes an already difficult season even more difficult.

The Feast of the Presentation takes place on February 2nd, 40 days after Christmas, on the day when Jesus would have been presented at the temple.  We’ve moved that celebration to today so we can all participate together.   This feast is also called Candlemas, because traditionally churches bless all the candles they intend to use in worship throughout the coming year in this liturgy. This has been happening since the Middle Ages which was a time when a church used a lot more candles in the average year than we do now.

We might not use as many of them, but candles are still important. Light is still important.  Winter can be a hard, dark time, and so I love that the church in its wisdom chose this time of year to celebrate light. To say with defiance that the darkness will not win.

Today we are celebrating Candlemas, a mass with a special focus on candles. Although it’s a long standing tradition in the Christian church, I am guessing that for many of you this will be your first time participating in the celebration. Welcome.

Today’s gospel reading is traditionally read on Candlemas and while the connection between the story of Jesus’ family visiting the temple and the blessing of candles may not be readily obvious, it’s there, so let’s look more closely at that story.

The gospel reading begins, “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first born male shall be designated as holy to the Lord’) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” (22-24)

In addition to being called Candlemas, today is also sometimes referred to as the Feast of the Presentation or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is sometimes called the Feast of the Purification of Mary in part because according to the law, only Mary required purification after Jesus’ birth, but when Luke describes what is happening in his gospel he doesn’t single Mary out. Rather he says, “When the time came for their purification…”. Their purification. This is a family affair.

Well done Luke.

There is a lot going on in these first few verses – we see that Mary and Joseph are faithful, law abiding Jews who will raise Jesus within the context of the covenant relationship God has with the people of Israel.

Additionally, we learn that Mary and Joseph are poor because the law requires a lamb be used as an offering but makes the provision to sacrifice turtledoves or pigeons if the people can’t afford a lamb.

Mary and Joseph are too poor to afford to buy the proper animal for this sacrifice. Think about how weird that is for a moment.

And not just how weird it sounds to our modern ears to sacrifice an animal at all, think about how weird it is that a king’s parents are so poor, that they need to take the charitable option at a ritual connected to celebrating the new king’s life.

Over and over again in Jesus’ story we see a king who will not be like any other king, a human being, who will not be like anyone else who ever lived. It should be a reminder to us every time we try to make Jesus in our own image, every time we try to model the church on the world, that we are in very real danger of missing the point, of missing the real Jesus.

Luke also tells us about two encounters that Jesus and his family had while they were at the temple.

One of those encounters was with Anna.

Luke tells us that Anna was a prophet of a “great age… She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (36-37)

This faithful prophet recognizes who the tiny baby is and not only does she praise God, but Luke tells us that she spoke “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”   (38)

And so, Anna becomes one of the first evangelists.  One of the first to tell others the good news of Jesus Christ.

But remember, that before she could do that, she had to spend her entire life, 84 years, waiting with a patient hope. A hope that she had no practical reason to believe would be realized.  A lifetime of waiting in the dark, hoping for the light.

A lifetime of hope. A lifetime of patience. A lifetime of faith.

Now Anna wasn’t the only person waiting with patient hope that Jesus and his family met in Jerusalem, they also met Simeon.

Luke tells us that Simeon was “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.” (25-26)

On the day that Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple, the Holy Spirit guides Simeon to go there as well.

When he sees Jesus, he takes the child in his arms and begins to praise God saying,

 

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,

a light for revelation to the Gentiles

and for glory to your people Israel.”  (25-32)

 

Luke’s gospel is full of songs that have been woven into the prayer life of the church. From Mary’s Magnificat to this song from Simeon.  Simeon’s canticle (Nunc dimittis) is typically sung at Compline, the final prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours.

Simeon’s song is also where we get the connection between this story and the blessing of candles. Simeon tells us that Jesus will be a “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Jesus is the light of the world.  So today when the world feels so very dark, we celebrate this milestone in his young life, being presented at the temple, by blessing candles and other items that represent light to you.

Simeon’s joy at seeing Jesus isn’t a naïve joy. He is joyful even though he can see the path ahead will be a difficult one. After blessing Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, Simeon says to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (34-35)

Jesus will suffer, and so will those who love him.

This is a story of patient hope and resilience, but it is also a story about suffering, a suffering that can’t be ignored.

N.T. Wright says that “Simeon is waiting for God to comfort Israel. Anna is in touch with the people who are waiting for the redemption of Israel. They are both living in a world of patient hope, where suffering has become a way of life. It now appears that God’s appointed redeemer will deal with this suffering by sharing it himself. Simeon speaks dark words about opposition, and about a sword that will pierce Mary’s heart as well.

So this, Luke is saying, is what happens when the kingdom of God confronts the kingdom of the world. Luke invites us to watch, throughout the story, as the prophecies come true. Mary will look on in dismay as her son is rejected by the very city to which he offered the way of peace, by the very people he had come to rescue. Finally the child who is, as Simeon says, ‘placed here to make many in Israel fall and rise again’ himself passes through death and into resurrection, taking with him the hopes and fears of the city, the nation and the world.” (35-26)

These things are coming, and as we move closer to Lent and Easter we will begin to reflect on those stories, but they are not here yet.  Today we have a story of patient hope rewarded, and of two young parents holding a tiny baby.

A tiny baby, that Luke tells us will, after the family returns to their hometown of Nazareth,  “[grow] and become strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God [will be] upon him.” (40)

I’ve only participated in Candlemas celebrations a few times myself. The first time was in 2016 when I spent several months on sabbatical at St John’s Abbey in Collegeville, MN.  One of my main goals on that sabbatical was to participate regularly in the liturgical life of the St John’s community and I was particularly excited that I would be able to participate in their celebration of Candlemas.

This was in large part because Kathleen Norris had written so eloquently about her own experience of that celebration with the monks in her book, The Cloister Walk:  Here is what she wrote:

“Today the monks are doing something that seems futile, and a bit foolish. They are blessing candles, all the candles they’ll use during worship for the coming year. It’s good to think of the light hidden inside those new candles; walking to prayer each morning in the bitter cold, I know that the light comes earlier now. I can feel the change, the hours of daylight increasing. The ground has been covered by snow since Thanksgiving; in this climate, I’ll seize hold of any bit of hope, even if it’s monks saying prayers over candles…” (114-115)

Like Kathleen, I have had many profound moments of prayer at St John’s Abbey, moments where scripture did indeed pierce my heart. Moments where staring into the flame of a candle I came to realize deep truths about myself I had been unable or unwilling to acknowledge until those very moments. I have so many stories I can tell.

But none of those stories happened on Candlemas.

On February 2nd, 2016 I , like Kathleen Norris and so many others before me, put on layer upon layer of winter clothing and trudged through the snow in the dark to prayer.  I grimaced as my wet boots squeaked on the floor amplified by the acoustics of the church – the only noise in the seemingly silent building.

I marveled at the stacks of candles – simple, but beautifully made by the monks from beeswax harvested on the property.

Perhaps, because it had been so built up in my mind I expected that the liturgy would have some extra flair to it, but it didn’t.  Just their regular evening prayer that incorporated a blessing of those candles.

I basked in the warm glow of the candles and prayed the words of the liturgy.  No profound transformation took place. No new insight into the words I was praying took hold of me that night.

But as I trudged back in the dark to my apartment I did have a sense that this was exactly as it should be. Not every moment in the spiritual journey is a profound one.  Blessing candles may in fact be, as Kathleen Norris suggests, a foolish thing to do.

And that’s what makes it beautiful.

Candlemas also marks the halfway point of winter.  Winter is halfway over folks! That is worth celebrating. That is worth marking with a defiant gesture – like the blessing of light.  A light we still can’t quite see but know is coming.  A light that represents our own hope in what is yet to come.

May these candles and other items that we bless today be a sign of hope to you whenever you are experiencing dark times.

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


The Mission Begins: A Sermon for Sunday January 23, 2022

The following sermon was pre-recorded for St George's Transcona's service for Sunday January 23, 2022.  You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo credit: Valdemaras D. on Unsplash

 

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

The lectionary has us working our way through Luke for the next little while and right from the beginning of the gospel, the Holy Spirit is actively shaping and interpreting events through people like Mary (Luke 1:35, 46-55), Elizabeth (1:41-45), Zechariah (1:67-79), Simeon (2:25-32) and John (3:1-18).

Jesus also begins his public ministry “filled with the power of the Spirit.”  As he begins to travel through Galilee, preaching and performing miracles word of his ministry begins to spread and Luke tells us that Jesus was “praised by everyone.” (14-15)

This is the setting for this week’s gospel reading.  Jesus is very early in his public ministry. He is being praised everywhere he goes, and then he returns to his hometown, Nazareth. He arrives in Nazareth on the sabbath day and we’re told that he goes to the synagogue, “as was he custom.” (16) One way of getting to know who a person is and what they value is to observe the things they do on a regular basis.  Jesus has a regular practice of going to synagogue on the sabbath. That tells us a lot about him.  He is a faithful observant Jew.

Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown and he attended synagogue regularly so he’s not a stranger. The people have known him since he was a child and it’s likely that his offer to read from the scriptures isn’t unusual to them.  He’s probably read  scripture in their synagogue many times when he was growing up.

Additionally, they have been hearing the stories of Jesus’ work in the surrounding area and are probably looking forward to finally experiencing that work for themselves.  I know I would be very excited if I thought I was going to witness a miracle.

They give him the “scroll of the prophet Isaiah,” which Jesus unrolls until he finds the following words:

 

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

One of the things I like to do when I read scripture, and especially when I am preparing to preach a sermon, is ask the question, “Where is the good news in this?”  When I hear these words from the prophet Isaiah and imagine Jesus reading them, I do hear good news…. but not necessarily good news for me.

I’m not poor, captive, blind or oppressed.  Sure, maybe, sometimes I have experiences of that nature and the past few years have been incredibly hard, but it would be disingenuous for me to pretend that Isaiah is talking about me here.

I am a white person who lives in North America and I hold a tremendous amount of privilege as a result.

For me to truly hear Jesus’ words as good news, I have to acknowledge that this is not good news I get to passively receive. This is good news that is calling me to join with Jesus in the work of bringing good news to the poor, helping people who are captive find freedom, to see what they are unwilling or unable to see, and work to dismantle oppression so that we can all be free.

Which does sound like good news to me.

But it also sounds like a lot of work.

After Jesus reads these words from Isaiah we are told that he “rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (20-22).

When I was reviewing this gospel passage in preparation for today’s service, I was really tempted to follow Jesus’ example and make Jesus’ sermon my entire sermon.  To just say after the gospel reading, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and then sit back down. (21)

How do you imagine you’d respond if I did that?

I imagine some of you would approve because you like a short, short sermon.

Perhaps some of you would respond similarly to the people in the synagogue that day. Maybe you would “speak well of me” and maybe you’d even be “amazed at the gracious words that came from my mouth.”

But I suspect at least some of you might have a few questions.

And so did the people in that synagogue.

The lectionary divides this story into two sections.  The reading assigned for today ends on a positive note. Jesus has returned home, spoken in the synagogue and amazed the people.

But that’s not the actual end of the story.

Jesus was given one brief moment of affirmation by the gathered community at his hometown synagogue before they began to question him.

People began to ask, “wait, isn’t this Joseph’s son?”(22) They could be implying that Jesus is behaving beyond his station. They’ve known him since he was a kid, who is he to suggest that he is special enough to declare the fulfillment of prophecy? Who is he to suggest that he is special enough to be the fulfillment of prophecy?

Or they could mean, “wait, isn’t this Joseph’s son? We know he has been performing miracles and healing people in other towns, but he grew up here. We know him. Is this sermon all we’re going to get?  That hardly seems fair.”

We aren’t given any more dialogue from the congregation, but we are told that Jesus says “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernum.” (23)

If Jesus is accurate in his assessment of what the people are thinking, and there is no reason to think he isn’t, then essentially the people, who have heard about the various miraculous things he has been doing elsewhere, are looking for him to behave in his hometown in the same way he has behaved elsewhere. They are looking forward to some miracles.

They may even be hoping that because he is the hometown boy, that whatever he does for them will be slightly better than what he has done in other places. Shouldn’t his hometown get special treatment?

But if that is the case, they are going to be sorely disappointed.

Because Jesus isn’t going to do anything else for them.  Reading scripture and his brief sermon is the extent of his plans. No new prophecies, no signs, no wonders, no miracles, nothing.

OK that’s not exactly true. He has a little bit more to say to them, but it’s not what they want to hear. Jesus’ remaining words to his hometown are all a variation on the theme of “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” and “no, I will not be performing any miracles for you here today.” (24)

With this short speech the people shift from speaking “well of him” and being “amazed at his gracious words” to anger. (22). Luke writes that “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up and drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so they might hurl him off the cliff.” (28-29)

They were excited by Jesus’ visit, hoping to get to witness a miracle. Some in the crowd may have been hoping that they would be the recipient of the miracle. That Jesus would heal them.

And when they realize that this is not what Jesus has in mind they shift from admiration and anticipation to disappointment and murderous rage.  The man they just invited to read scriptures, a role of honour, is now the man they want to throw off a cliff.

But Jesus will disappoint them again, they are not able to throw him off the cliff because Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (30)

It seems to me that the people did witness Jesus perform a miracle but not the sort they were hoping for.  I think his ability to simply pass through the crowd and leave unharmed was a miraculous exit.

Why does Jesus do this? Why doesn’t he perform any miracles in his hometown?  I’m not sure, and I couldn’t find any scholars who are sure either, but I have a hunch.

Remember this story is an account of the start of Jesus’ public ministry and so while it might be fun to speculate on the choices that led his neighbours to want to throw him off a cliff, I think it’s much more important for us to remember the words that Jesus chose to describe his ministry, words from scripture, words from the prophet Isaiah:

 

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 

Jesus hasn’t come to give the people in his hometown special treatment. He hasn’t come to amaze people with miracles. He has come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Jesus’ mission is for everyone, but especially for people on the margins. His hometown will not receive special treatment just because he grew up there.

That’s not what his mission is about, and he makes that very clear by refusing to perform miracles in his hometown.  The normal order of things, the normal ways that power and privilege function do not interest Jesus and he will do things in his own way.

And he is not afraid to upset people in the process.

In the coming year at St George’s we’re going to be asking questions about our collective mission as a parish.  That mission will align with Jesus’ mission, but we will live it out in our own unique way.  What does it look like for St George’s to bring good news to the poor or proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour?

I’m looking forward to asking those questions and discerning the answers with you as we continue to seek to be a community called and formed by Christ and this very good news.

In the strong name of the holy and undivided Trinity.  Amen.


No Doubt: A Sermon for Sunday February 28, 2021

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on February 28, 2021.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. You can also join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

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

I spoke in some detail about our gospel reading two Sundays ago. This reading details the events that occur before Jesus and a small handful of disciples climb the mountain and see Jesus transfigured.  That sermon is available online if you want to go back and look at this passage again.

Our second reading tonight comes from Romans.  Once again the lectionary drops us right into the middle of a larger argument with no context. It feels a bit like being thrown into a cold pool – shocking, confusing. We need a bit of time to adjust to these new surroundings.

Romans is a letter, written by Paul to the people in Rome. It covers a lot of ground but essentially Paul is trying to make one single point: God’s love is for everyone. No one is to be left out. No one.

Modern bibles divide the letter into 16 chapters and tonight’s text is from partway through chapter four, so, not the beginning, but fairly early in the letter.

We enter into the text partway through the letter and also partway through a thought, the first sentence is, “For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  (13)

Abraham and his descendants have been promised an inheritance, one that comes not through law, but through “the righteousness of faith.”

The promised inheritance is the entire world and everyone in it.  Abraham and Sarah’s legacy will extend beyond biology and geography, everyone who wants to be included is included. Everyone.

This inheritance, this promise is not based in the law, it’s not based on a set of rules and how well you follow those rules. It’s based on the righteousness of faith.  So it’s pretty important to understand what Paul thinks the word “faith” means.

Listen again to how Paul describes Abraham: “He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.”  (19-22)

Just pause for a moment with me to delight in Paul’s no-nonsense writing style. Paul say that Abraham was so old that his body was “already good as dead.”  That’s a bit harsh isn’t it?  Rather blunt? That’s Paul.

Abraham was a man of faith. Nothing could weaken his faith, not the decline in his own body as he aged, not being unable to have children with Sarah, nothing.   “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God.” (20) Not one.

Because of all of this, Paul tells us that Abraham’s faith was “reckoned to him as righteousness.” (22)

So folks, there you have it. If you want to have faith, be like Abraham.

Are you overwhelmed yet or do you feel like this is a challenge you are able to meet? To never, ever waiver in your faith no matter what happens to you.

Because that’s what this passage seems to be saying right?  At least on the surface.

We need to dig a bit deeper.  If we stop here, if we don’t think more about what Paul is saying, if we don’t go back and remember key stories from Abraham’s life we are going to miss what Paul is really trying to say. And he is not saying Abraham was perfect, so we need to be perfect.  Not at all.

The text tells us that Abraham “grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.” (20-21)

So the first thing I want to point out here is that Abraham’s faith was not a static unchanging thing, it could grow. It became stronger.  Abraham’s faith could change and develop. The reason Paul praises him is because those changes and developments were usually in the direction of having more faith in God, not less.

Secondly, the term translated as “grew strong,” is an interesting one   (enedynamothe).  Adam Hearlson points out that this is a passive verb. Abraham’s faith didn’t grow in strength because of anything he did or didn’t do, it was made strong[1].

Abraham doesn’t do anything, doesn’t have to do anything, in order to make his faith grow. That’s God’s job not Abraham’s.

I think this is an important truth to hold onto especially during Lent when so many people decide they are going to give up something or take something new on as an act of faith.

It’s really important, especially as we move deeper into this season, to remain curious about our motives. Whenever we are engaging in a specific Lenten practice, what are we learning about ourselves and about God in the process?

Is the focus still even on God at all?

It’s easy for “isms” to slip in our Lenten practices – individualism, consumerism, idealism, workaholism.

It’s easy for pride to creep in if we feel things are going well –  “I choose a really tough practice and look at how successful I am. Look at how strong and how powerful and how disciplined I am.”

It’s also easy for shame and self-doubt to creep in.  “I am finding this hard, I am failing at Lent.  Look at what a loser I am.”

Be mindful to watch out for both tendencies in yourself. Neither are helpful, neither are what Lent is about.

Abraham can be a reminder for us of this.  His faith was described as strong and an example to be emulated not because of anything he did, but because of God.

And let’s look a little deeper into what Abraham’s faith was like and when we do, remember that Paul knew all of this and expected that his audience would also know all of this.  Paul isn’t forgetting these things, he’s assuming it’s common knowledge shared between himself and the recipients of the letter.

When I read Paul’s description of Abraham’s faith in Romans I feel overwhelmed – it feels like an impossible standard.   When I go back and read the stories of Abraham’s life – stories Paul and his original audience would all have been very familiar with, I feel a lot better.  That kind of faith begins to feel like an attainable goal.

Abraham has faith in God and also regularly questioned God’s plans. Abraham regularly asks God, “but how can this be?”

Having faith includes having questions.

Abraham has faith in God and also, not once, but twice, Abraham was so afraid he passed off his wife as his sister and gave her to another man.

Having faith includes experiencing fear and making bad choices.

Abraham has faith in God and also … do you remember when Abraham and Sarah were told they would have a child despite the fact that such a thing was impossible given their age and the fact that they’d never been able to before? Do you remember what Abraham did?

Probably not.   Do you remember what Sarah did? That’s more likely.   Sarah laughed and people have been making a big deal about it ever since. When Sarah learned she was going to be a first time mom at the age of ninety, she laughed.

But so did Abraham. We just don’t talk about it.

In Genesis, when God promises Abraham, who is 99 years ago, that God will make of him a great nation and that Sarah will have a child this is Abraham’s response:

“ Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (17:17)

Abraham laughed.  Abraham wondered how all of this could be possible, just like Sarah did.

Abraham doubted, and lied, and laughed and also, Paul lifts him up as an example of faith that we should all seek to emulate. And Paul does not see this as a contradiction.

Let’s go back to Romans. Working only with the English translation we read tonight, a phrase in Paul’s writing jumped out at me this week. “No distrust made him  - made Abraham -waver concerning the promise of God.” (20)

No distrust made him waver.  It doesn’t say Abraham was so full of faith and trust that he never doubted.  It couldn’t. Paul knows that’s not true. We know that’s not true.

It says that none of the ways that Abraham experienced distrust  or doubt made him waver in his overall belief that God would keep their promise.

Paul knows all of Abraham’s story.  He knows about the times Abraham questions God, he knows about all the times Abraham lied about who Sarah was. Paul knows about the time Abraham laughed at God. Paul knows all of this and still describes Abraham as an example of faith man who we should emulate.

Could Paul be saying it’s not that Abraham never felt feelings of distrust, it’s that he didn’t let them because the overarching narrative?  It’s not that Abraham never doubted or gave up, it’s that he continued to believe despite those feelings?

I like to think so.

It reminds me of another story from Mark that occurs just after the transfiguration.

Jesus is surrounded by a crowd and a man brings his son who was possessed by spirits to Jesus and says, “if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22)  Jesus replies, “If you are able! – All things can be done for the one who believes. Immediately the father of child cried out, I believe; help my unbelief!” (23-24)

I believe, help my unbelief. This is the kind of faith I resonate with. One that says “I am certain, I believe, and simultaneously, I doubt. God help me, I can’t do this alone.”

Paul does not say Abraham never doubted God. Paul says that, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God.” (20)

I believe, help my unbelief.

May you continue to have a good and holy Lent, full of curiosity, release from burdens, and continual new discoveries of just how much God loves you. Not because of anything you have done or not done, but simply because you are you.

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

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-romans-413-25-6


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

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

 

 

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

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

Who do you think God is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lot.

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

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

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

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

It’s… a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The point is not to lose 10 pounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 


Speak Lord: A Sermon for Sunday January 17, 2021

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is quite a cliffhanger.

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

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

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

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

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