Surprisingly Low Standards: A Sermon for January 12, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, January 12, 2020. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

I firmly believe that there are two kinds of people in this world. People who know that surprise parties are a bad idea, and monsters.

I’m not a fan of surprise parties or surprises in general.

I like things that I can control and understand.  I like to know what I can expect.

It makes me feel safe.

Surprises, however, are a part of life.

Sometimes, people surprise me by stepping outside of societal expectations and behaving in ways I never would have imagined they would.

Sometimes this is horrifying – think of the stories this week of politicians behaving in ways that resulted in death and threats of war.

But sometimes it’s delightful – think of Harry and Megan announcing that they are going to chart their own paths and no longer live according to the rules set out for members of the British royal family.

And sometimes these sorts of disappointments and delights happen on a much quieter level as well, I am disappointed by the hurtful words of a friend, I am surprised by the extreme generosity of a stranger.

I like to think I can control things in ways that allow me to predict the future but I can’t.

So it’s a good thing that it’s not my job to predict the future.

It was Isaiah’s job though.  It was a large part of John the Baptist’s too. Both of them spoke of things that were going to happen in the future, with no scientifically measurable way of proving that they were indeed correct.

And I think both of them were right in their predictions, and, both of them were surprised by how things turned out.  Jesus was exactly who John the Baptist said he was, and Jesus was nothing like what John the Baptist expected.

Isaiah and John saw some of what was to come and did their best to tell the people about it, but they didn’t see everything.

In the chapters leading up to today’s gospel reading in Matthew we get the stories of Jesus’ birth and very early years and then by chapter 3 Jesus is an adult. A huge swath of his life has gone by and the stories of what happened are not recorded.

Chapter 3 opens with John the Baptist doing what he does best, shouting prophecies and predictions about the future at everyone he meets.  Just before our reading begins he says,

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (11-12)

John doesn’t say, “I think, it’s possible, Jesus might,” he doesn’t hedge his bets at all.   One who is more powerful than I is coming.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

N.T Wright invites us to imagine this scene as if we were attending a huge rock concert and John is the concert manager “whipping us into excitement at the soloist who is going to appear. ‘He’s coming!’ ‘He’s more powerful than me!’ ‘He will give you God’s wind and God’s fire, not just water! He’ll sort you out – he’ll clean out the mess – he’ll clean out God’s farm so only the good wheat is left.’ We’re all on our feet expecting a great leader, perhaps the living God himself, sweeping into the hall with a great explosion, a blaze of light and colour, transforming everything with a single blow.” (21)

John is so certain. His vision of the future is so clear.  And he’s right. And yet, when he meets Jesus, he is also utterly surprised.

When John meets Jesus, Jesus has come to be baptized. This makes no sense. John is surprised and so he questions Jesus saying “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to work, you should baptize me.”  But Jesus says “No, my kingdom doesn’t work exactly the way you thought it would.  I want you to baptize me.”

And so John consents. He knows who Jesus is, and he is beginning to see that Jesus will always be full of surprises.

Now this is a favourite story of mine so some of you will have heard it before, but I hope you don’t mind hearing it again. 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 knows 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 have never had the opportunity to hear Archbishop Tutu speak, but I have been told that it is a powerful experience because he speaks 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 that may be one of the first clues in the gospels that Jesus is not like the rest of us.

Because most of us struggle to claim the truth that we are also God’s beloved. We’ve been given so many other names – names like failure, not good enough, or unloveable.  We’ve been given so many negative names that it can be almost impossible to hear God’s voice saying, “You are my beloved child and in you I am well pleased.”

It’s true. Each one of us is God’s beloved child, but be gentle with yourself if that’s difficult to hear and claim as true.

Not everyone who was in the class that day with my friend heard the Arch’s words and knew they were true either. One young woman put up her hand and asked, “but what about sin, and personal responsibility and all that kind of stuff? Surely that impacts how God feels about us?”

And Tutu smiled at her compassionately and said, “My dear, you have no idea how low God’s standards actually are.”

Years later, I was in a conference room at the U of W listening to James Finley and he was speaking on similar things. Some of you may be familiar with his work because Alana Levandoski has done several collaborations with him.

James said that coming to understand that we are God’s beloved children is one of the more important and difficult things that we can do but when we do come to understand ourselves as beloved, we will naturally begin to look around us at all the hurting and struggling people in the world and we will refuse to allow any of them to be left behind. We will want everyone to know that they are God’s beloved as well.

The beloved of God isn’t an exclusive club that only a few of us get to join.  There’s no roped off VIP section in God’s community. We’re all invited to the party, we just don’t all know it yet. Or we know we’ve been invited but for a whole host of reasons we can’t believe it’s true.

But a lot of people do treat it like an exclusive club.  Once they realize they’re in, they suddenly want to create all sorts of lists of who’s out. As if, as a guest at God’s party, they have the right to edit the guest list.  I think James Finley would suggest that this is because they have caught a glimpse of their own belovedness, but it hasn’t fully sunk into their bone marrow.

Because God says everyone who wants to come is welcome to come in. It’s God’s party and so it’s not our place as guests to keep anyone who wants to come from joining in the fun.  In fact, we should model God’s hospitality by inviting people to join the party. We should want anyone to be left out.

This call to refuse to leave anyone out can be found in the words of the baptismal vows of the Anglican church of Canada.

During the baptismal liturgy, the person being baptized is asked a number of questions. Two of those questions really stuck with me this week.

The first is, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

This week, when the world is filled with stories of “us vs them” and talk of war, may we all seek to be people who work for justice and peace among all people. And may we learn to respect the dignity of every human being. Every human being. No one is left out, no one excluded.

No one.

And the second question is this: Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation and respect, sustain, and renew the life of the earth?

This week, with fires raging in Australia that are causing intense damage to the physical landscape and the people and animals that live on that land,  I admit that I feel both overwhelmed and helpless. But I also feel a sense of renewed resolve that I need to find ways to reach out and help those who are suffering and also to acknowledge that climate change is real, that my daily choices play a role in what’s happening, and that I can make changes that are in line with those baptismal vows. Changes that will help me to do a better job of safeguarding the integrity of God’s creation.

I want to say a couple more things about these baptismal vows.

The first, is that if you’re at all interested in learning more about baptism or confirmation then I’d really love for you to come talk to me.

The second, is that while I have highlighted two of the vows that are important to me, I haven’t actually told you my favourite part of the liturgy.

After each one of those questions, the candidate for baptism needs to provide an answer.  And the answer, if they want to be baptized is this:

“I will, with God’s help.”

Embedded right in the liturgy is the understanding that all of these promises are impossible to fulfill on our own. Embedded right in the liturgy is the understanding that none of us are perfect.

In fact, there is a question included in the liturgy about sin that says, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

Whenever you fall into sin. Failure is expected.

That’s a pretty low standard indeed.

Which you may find surprising, but I believe that’s exactly how God works.  Because God understands how human beings work, and God loves us.

Which is really good news.

In the name of our God who names and claims each one of us as beloved. Amen.


Intricately Woven: A Sermon for Sunday December 29, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 29, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Merry Christmas everyone!

Last Sunday we had a reading from the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and today we get one from the beginning of John’s.  I think it is safe to assume that both writers put a fair bit of thought into how they were going to begin their gospels, and, as I mentioned last week, both wouldn’t have wanted to waste words or paper in ways that are commonplace now.  When they finally decided to write these words down, they chose them very carefully.

It seems to me that both men thought, “the most logical place to begin is the beginning.”  For Matthew that meant opening with Jesus’ genealogy. For John, that literally means beginning with the words, “In the beginning…”

John waits until the end of his gospel to tell us why he wrote it. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (20:30-31)

In deciding what he will write down and what he won’t, John’s focus is on convincing us that Jesus is the Son of God, but not simply so we will have accurate information. Rather, John wrote his gospel so that “through believing you may have life in his name.”

Belief and life are two key themes in John’s gospel. The word “believe” appears as a verb 98 times. It never appears as a noun. Jaime Clark- Soles observes that for John, “Believing is a verb. He tells you that he left out numerous details but that he has provided all that is necessary for you to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that believing leads to life. Abundant Life, Embodied Life, Eternal Life, Precious Life. The Fourth Gospel is concerned with nothing but Life: how we get it, how we lose it, how we find it again, or, better yet, how we get found by it.”

The entire Bible in its current form begins with the words: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1)  John is intentionally referencing the story of creation found in Genesis so it’s good for us to have that in mind when we read the rest of what he has to say.

John’s gospel begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (1-3)

God is a being that creates. God is an inherently creative being.  Just look at the platypus.  Just look at the people gathered in this room.

All things, every single thing that exists “came into being” because of our trinitarian God.  Jesus did not simply come into existence when he was born as a human being.  Jesus was a part of God from the very beginning.

Although it sounds fairly abstract at first, John is repeating and reframing the Genesis creation story.  He is saying that everything on earth comes from God. Jaime Clark-Soles explains that John is saying that: “Not a single thing that has been created was created apart from God. It all came from God, it all belongs to God, and it all testifies to and reveals God. In that way, creation itself is a sacrament, a means of grace.

For John, with the Incarnation, God becoming flesh, bread is no longer just bread (see chapter 6); flesh is no longer just flesh, water is no longer just water (see chapters 3,4,7,19); vines, branches, sheep, shepherds – all of them reveal the nature of God and identity of Christ. No wonder, then, that in healing the blind man (chapter 9), Jesus takes the dirt and mixes it with saliva and puts it on the man’s eyes. Surely Jesus could have skipped all the messy, dirty parts and just healed the guy, as he does elsewhere (see chapter 5). But the use of the earth and the spit should remind us of the creation as told by Genesis, where God creates the first-person using earth.”

But if you were just sitting and reading the opening chapters of John you might be surprised that, for a guy who seems to think it’s important to start the story from the very beginning, that after his “in the beginning was the word section,” John doesn’t give us any details of Jesus’ birth or early years.  Jesus will appear a little bit further into the first chapter, but he is already a grown man.

Which is a pretty big chunk of time to skip over.

I suspect that John felt that the details of Jesus’ adult ministry were the most important ones to include. The ones that would help him achieve his stated aim of persuading us to believe in Jesus Christ.  So he included those stories and skipped over Jesus’ entire childhood.

But it’s also possible that he did think those early stories from Jesus’ life were important, but as the last of the four gospel writers to complete his work, he would have known that those stories had already been written down. No need to repeat them, he could get right to the parts of the story he felt were the most important.

He begins by reminding us of God’s role in the creation of the entire world.

The Genesis creation story, or stories - there are two of them - have been the source of a lot of debate and discussion over the years but personally I’ve never gotten overly excited about the details.  I honestly don’t care how it all happened.

What matters to me is that in the big picture of things, we are not cosmic accidents.

We were created.

Each and every one of us is a unique combination of DNA and experiences and that is no accident.

The Bible is not a medical or a scientific textbook so we don’t find those sorts of descriptions of what happened “in the beginning” but throughout the scriptures, including in today’s gospel reading, we see creation described through metaphors and poetry. And let’s stay with the poetry this evening and leave the science for individual conversations throughout the coming week.

What does it mean to say we are created? What are the implications of that?

I think that one thing that is implied is that it’s important for us to be curious about who we are and how we have been wired up.  Why do we love the things we love? Hate the things we hate?  Why do some things come easily to us while others are a struggle? What does all of that mean?

Clark- Soles again: “John is interested in creation. He has a brief litmus test for what is Christian and what isn't: if it is life-giving, if it promotes the flourishing of all creation, then it is Christian; if it is death-dealing, it may be real, but it is not ultimate and it is certainly not Christian: [One saying of Jesus that John chooses to include is:] "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I  - Jesus -came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).”

Jesus came that each one of us might have life, and life to the full. A full life, not necessarily an easy life, there are no promises that you will be happy all the time.  Using John’s litmus test, a simple way of deciding if you are living into who God created you to be is – does it make you feel alive?

Last year over Lent, we invited several people from the church to tell their stories as part of our Communities of Calling vocation project.  Lois Ward framed her story using metaphors of weaving. She spoke of the various threads of her life – the things she experienced, the people she met, and how God wove them all together. Looking back, she could see various patterns and themes that had emerged as well.

Lois isn’t the first person to use weaving as a metaphor for life. In Psalm 139, the psalmist writes:

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.

My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  (13-15)

Each one of us was “intricately woven” by God.  Which is pretty amazing.

Now sometimes, we have ways of describing who God is – the bread of life, for example, and we make them concrete. Every week we gather together and we eat actual bread.  But other times, for a variety of reasons, we hear these sorts of metaphors and we just let them stay as metaphors.  But what could we learn if we explored their more literal meanings?

What could we learn, for example, if instead of just viewing the phrase “intricately woven” as a poetic way to describe our creation, we literally wove something?

Not long after I heard Lois speak, I travelled to San Francisco to attend a conference and visit St Gregory of Nyssa Church.  The community at St Gregory’s has been influential in my own journey but this was the first time I ever stepped foot in their building.  While I was there, I noticed that they had looms set up throughout the worship space and people of all ages, including toddlers could weave throughout the service.

I came home and had conversations which numerous people, including Carolyn Mount, and the idea for our weaving project was born.

Throughout the coming year, you will find a loom set up at the back of the church. Carolyn is advising us from afar and although she is away visiting family this week, Sam will be at the back of the church most Sundays to lend a hand and help you get the hang of the project.

And the beautiful thing about a project like this is that you can’t mess it up, because even if your weaving isn’t perfect, we will learn something from that too.

Last week, for example, I wove a few rows and on my third row something went wrong and I managed to get everything all tangled up.  I could tell there was a problem but I couldn’t figure out how to fix it on my own.

Sam was able to point out where I had gone wrong and show me how to correct the mistake.

Which actually reminded me of the value of spiritual direction.  So often I know that something in my life has gotten tangled, but I can’t quite figure out just how it got tangled up or how to untangle it.  Talking through the situation with a wise and patient guide usually helps me to figure out where I got off track and what I need to do to get back on track.

Similarly, sometimes I don’t feel tangled up, sometimes I feel like I’m “at loose ends” which, is another way we’ve picked up weaving imagery in our everyday speech.

I hope you’ll feel inspired to weave a few rows each week and perhaps reflect on a question like, “What has the pattern of my life been like this week?”  Did the thread of this week pass smoothly through, or did it become tangled, or do I feel stuck and at “loose ends?”

Or if not that, then I hope you’ll take a look and see how the work in unfolding each week and ask a question of your own.

We’ll be weaving together throughout the liturgical year, changing colours to reflect the seasons as we go.

And we’ll be talking more about the project and how weaving can be used as a metaphor for our lives as well – there are some fascinating instances of weaving as a metaphor in scripture and Carolyn Mount, who is a masterful weaver, will be joining us on our retreat day on February 15th to help us explore this imagery more deeply as well.

So save the date, come participate in the weaving project on Sunday nights, and as we continue to walk through the Christmas season together, take some time to reflect on the wonder of creation.  Your own, those around you, and our God who chose to take on flesh and become one of us.

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


Joseph's Decision- an origin story: A Sermon for Sunday December 22, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 22, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Our gospel reading for this evening is taken from partway through the first chapter of Matthew. That chapter opens with a long list of names tracing the genealogy of Jesus. At saint ben’s we use a standardized cycle of scripture readings called a lectionary, and although most of scripture is included in the lectionary, there are some sections that have been left out. Genealogies usually don’t make the cut and this one is no exception.

Now you may be thinking, thank goodness! Who wants to read a long boring list of impossible to pronounce names anyway, but the original writers of the scriptures thought differently. The gospels weren’t composed on computers or in a world where paper was cheap and easily accessible. Writers like Matthew were careful not to waste a single word. These names weren’t included as filler, they were considered to be very important. They were included for a reason.

In this section of the gospel, Mathew is giving us Jesus’ origin story, and for Matthew, that means letting you know who Jesus’ ancestors were. It’s essential information for understanding who Jesus is.

Jesus’ genealogy lets us know who he is by telling us who he is related to. Jesus is related to a lot of traditionally important figures, like King David, but he’s also related to a lot of colourful characters who didn’t always adhere to societal conventions in Israel’s history. Matthew includes them all.

The authors of the Collegeville Bible Commentary describe it this way:

“The linear progression of thirty-nine male ancestors is broken at four points by the names of women. They are not the ones who would immediately come to mind as great figures of Israel’s past. Each has an unusual twist to her story.

Tamar (v.3). after being widowed, took decisive action to coerce her father-in-law, Judah, to provide an heir for her. (Gen 38) She conceived Perez and Zerah, who continued the Davidic line. Tamar is the only woman in the Hebrew Scriptures who is called righteous (Gen 38:26) a term that is of central importance to Matthew. Rahab (v.5), a prostitute in Jericho (Josh 2), risked disobeying the orders of the king of Jericho and sheltered spies from Jericho to reconnoiter the land. She subsequently gave birth to Boaz, the great grandfather of David. Ruth (v. 5) a Moabite woman, returned with her mother-in-law Naomi, to Bethlehem, rather than stay with her own people after her husband Mahlon died. In Bethlehem, Ruth presented herself to Boaz at the threshing floor and conceived Obed, who carried forth the Davidic line. Finally, [Bathsheba], the wife of Uriah (v. 6) is the one who bore David’s son Solomon after David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Sam 11)

Each story speaks of how women took bold actions outside the bounds of regular patriarchal marriage to enable God’s purposes to be brought to fruition in unexpected ways. Not only were the circumstances unusual, but some of these women were also outsiders to Israel. Remembering their stories prepares us for the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the salvation he will ultimately extend to those outside Israel (28:19). The women’s presence in the midst of the male ancestors of Jesus also signals the integral role that women disciples play in the community of Jesus’ followers. They remind the reader that women are not marginal to the history of Israel or of Christianity.” (Collegeville 8-9)

At the time of our gospel story, however, Jesus has not been born and therefore hasn’t been added to the list, the last name on this genealogy is Joseph.

Joseph whose life has just been turned upside-down by some unexpected news. Joseph who needs to make a decision about what to do next.

Tonight’s gospel reading began, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (18)

This was not part of the deal. Mary should not have been pregnant at all, but if she did become pregnant, then Joseph should have been the father.

And Joseph was educated enough to know how babies are made and that if the Holy Spirit was involved, she was involved in an abstract way, a human male was also required. This was definitely not his baby and Mary’s story about the Holy Spirit seemed sketchy at best.

So what do to.

First, you might be thinking, well, this is a tough situation but it’s not really a big deal. They weren’t married after all, they were only engaged. People break off engagements all the time.

And while it may be more common now to break off an engagement than it was in Joseph’s day, that doesn’t make it any less painful for the people involved.

Additionally, our understanding of what an engagement is has changed over time. The dating scene in first-century Palestine looked a lot different than it does today.

The patriarchs of two families would come together and make an agreement that their children would be married. After that agreement was reached, a marriage was a two-step process.

The first step included a legally binding ceremony that took place in front of witnesses. This step is sometimes translated into English as an “engagement.”

The bride would return to her father’s home for another year or so and then another ceremony would take place when she formally transferred from her father’s care to her husband’s.

How romantic.

Tonight’s story takes place in between these two stages. Although they don’t live together yet, Mary and Joseph are legally married and everyone knows it.

Joseph can’t simply break off an engagement. If he wants to end his relationship with Mary, he needs to divorce her.

Divorce has never been an easy or simple thing, but it was different in Joseph’s time than in ours.

If Joseph divorces Mary, there will be judging eyes and wagging tongues. His life will not be easy and he will likely be the subject of gossip and social isolation, at least for a period of time.

But the road will be a lot harder for Mary. And Joseph knows this and he has compassion for her. As a righteous man who wants to remain faithful to what he understands to be God’s law, he must divorce Mary. But if he does, that same law says that Mary must die. (Deut 22:23-27)

The law is clear. Mary is pregnant and Joseph is not the father; therefore she has committed adultery, therefore, she must die.

And Joseph doesn’t want that to happen. He doesn’t want to be married to her anymore, but he doesn’t want her to die.

But his choices are limited and so Joseph decides that he will divorce Mary “quietly.” He can’t divorce her secretly, people already know they are married and two witnesses are required for a divorce to be legally recognized. But he can divorce her and refuse to give a reason why. There won’t be a trial and Mary and her child will be allowed to live. She will most certainly be socially ostracized but she and her child will be allowed to live. (Deut 24:1, Num 5:11-31)

The only way for Mary and her child to avoid public shame would be for Joseph to complete the second step of the marriage and adopt Mary’s unborn child.

And even then, there will be talk. Most people are able to do some basic math and the dates of their marriage and the birth date of this child will not add up to a respectable number.

And Joseph is not prepared to remain in this marriage. He is not prepared to adopt Mary’s child.

But before we judge him too harshly, think back to the genealogy that Matthew opens this chapter with.

Forget everything you know about our modern blended families – how beautiful they can be, how they prove that it takes more than biology to create a family. Forget all of this and try to imagine a time when family meant something different.

Imagine a time when a genealogy was so important that you would use precious and limited resources to write it down. A time when you assumed people would think that a list of names was important enough that they would want to read it. A time when who you were was determined by who your father was.

Try to imagine Joseph, a man soaked in that culture, a man who wanted to do the right thing, imagine him coming to terms with the idea that everything he had hoped for, had planned for, had worked for is now gone in an instant because of someone else’s choices.

He knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s not his fault that Mary is pregnant. And that pregnancy will change his entire life, no matter what he decides to do.

Because now he can never be “Joseph that righteous and respectable man with the perfect family.” From now on he will either be “Joseph whose first marriage failed,” or “Joseph who adopted that bastard child.”

He had not planned on any of this.

He had planned on a life with Mary that would have included a biological son whose name would appear after his in the family genealogy.

This is so important. Joseph lives in a patriarchal culture where it was incredibly important to have a first-born son. The first-born son inherited your property. The first-born son carried on your family line. It was their name that would appear in a genealogy after yours.

And while Matthew shows us that Jesus’ family tree will include a wide cast of characters, Joseph isn’t likely thinking that way at this particular moment. He likely doesn’t want to stand out, he probably wants to blend in.

Quietly divorcing Mary was the most sensible and compassionate thing he could do in order to try and get his life back on track.

But then, life throws Joseph another surprise.

After having made his decision to quietly divorce Mary, an angel appears to him in a dream. (v 19)

The angel assures Joseph that the impossible is indeed possible. Mary is blameless and her child is from God.

There is no need to fear. There is no need to divorce. Yes it is unusual, yes there will be some difficult times ahead, and yes, the neighbours will probably whisper behind his back for years to come.

But the angel makes it clear that Joseph is not out of step with God’s plan if he remains with Mary and adopts her child. In fact, this is exactly what God wants him to do.

And Joseph does as he is told. He honours his marriage commitment, and he adopts Mary’s son as his own.

Tonight we’re looking closely at Joseph’s story, but over the next few weeks as we continue to walk through Jesus’ origin story in more detail, notice how many of those stories include people whose plans are interrupted by unexpected circumstances.

When was the last time you were sure you knew how something in your life was going to turn out, only to be surprised by an unexpected sequence of events that changed everything.

What was that like? How did you respond? What did you learn from the experience?

At the risk of tying this story into a neat little bow, I like to imagine that one thing Joseph learned from this story is that the safe and respectable road is not always the best road to follow. Joseph is a background figure from here on in the gospel story, but I like to imagine that his life with Mary was a happy one, that he loved Jesus as if he was he own son, and that he continued to care more about what God thought of him than what his neighbours thought of him.

One final thing I want to make note of. If you’ve been coming to saint ben’s for any length of time, you’ll know that we take the practice of Advent very seriously. In simple terms, Advent is a way of slowing down the story of Jesus’ birth. We take 4 weeks to focus on waiting for his arrival, the manger is empty, we don’t sing Christmas carols because we are not going to acknowledge that Jesus has been born until Christmas Eve.

So did tonight’s gospel reading strike you as odd? Did you notice that we’ve cheated a little bit?

I mean, the reading begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way..” and ends with “until she had born a son, and he named him Jesus. (18, 25)

And we just read it and I’ve be preaching about it like it was Christmas Eve or something.

What is going on?

OK, so we cheated a little bit, but I think we can get away with it both because it’s really important to hear Joseph’s story, and because Matthew really buries the lead in his account of Jesus’ birth. Although the story begins, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way…” Matthew literally does not include a single actual detail about Jesus’ birth. We hear about his genealogy, we hear about Joseph’s decision-making process, and then we hear that at some point, in some way, Jesus was in fact born.

Matthew cares about who Jesus is, the details of his birth are unimportant.

Well, they are unimportant to Matthew. Scripture does contain more details about the events surrounding Jesus’ birth and in a few days on Christmas Eve we will all gather again to re-tell that ancient story together.

And I hope you’ll join us when we do.

In the name of our loving God who Creates, Redeems, and Sustains. Amen.


The Power of Hopelessness: A Sermon for Sunday December 8, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, December 8, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Gord Johnson’s “Jesse Tree” is one of my favourite songs.  In tonight’s reading from Isaiah, we get the verse that Gord based that song on: “ A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” (1)

The image of the shoot that will grow out of a dead stump is a beautiful one. It is such an amazing, defiant image of hope. A shoot, a living thing, will grow out of a dead thing.

We love images like this. Just do a google search for flowers growing out of concrete sidewalks.

The image actually begins in the previous chapter of Isaiah:

“See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
will lop off the boughs with great power.

The lofty trees will be felled,
the tall ones will be brought low.

 He will cut down the forest thickets with an ax;
Lebanon will fall before the Mighty One.”  (10:33-34)

A forest full of lofty trees has been cut down. All that remains, are stumps.

 

Things really should not grow out of stumps, a stump is what is left when you kill a tree by cutting it down.  Jesse’s family tree, that was once large and majestic, that contained kings, has been cut down.  It no longer resembles its former glory. It’s a dead, useless stump.

Some people take great pleasure in trying to connect imagery like this to specific events, past or present, Jamie mentioned an example of prophetic predictions gone wrong a few weeks ago.  But even if you wanted to, it’s hard to pin this image to a specific event because Israel had multiple experiences that could be described in this way.  They were cut down and began again multiple times.

New life can come from death.  This was something they would have known from experience.

Our text from Isaiah is not describing a present reality, it is pointing to a hopeful future.  At the time these words were written the new life was not yet visible.  They were written when all that could be seen were the dead stumps. They are words pointing to a hope-filled future that has not yet become a reality.

The new life that the people are hoping for will come in the form of a person. Michael J Chan explains that this person will embody “the best of Israel’s traditions: He is wise and understanding (2), powerful and effective in war (2,4), able to judge for the benefit of the poor (verse 3-4), and obedient to God ( verse 2,5).  [He] will rule the world in such a way that the poor are treated righteously, the meek are given a fair hearing, and the wicked are killed. So glorious is this reign that he is literally clothed in righteousness and faithfulness (verse 5).”

His reign will upend the natural order of things. Isaiah tells us that:

 

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox (6-7).

 

Isaiah is saying, “Look! The mighty forest was decimated and became a field of stumps but out of one of those stumps grew a beautiful and mighty tree!  And look at all of the good and wonderful things that it will be able to accomplish. It may seem like all around you is death and destruction but pay attention and don’t lose hope. New life is coming!”

And sometimes, when we are experiencing challenging times, this is exactly the kind of defiant hopeful promise we need to help us keep going.

And this is exactly the kind of message that John the Baptist was preaching.

John is one of the more colourful characters we encounter in scripture.  I’m grateful that even though it would be an incredibly theologically sound choice, the church didn’t choose to model vestments on John’s wardrobe and we don’t have a single feast day in the liturgical calendar where his regular diet is on the menu.

No camel hair for the priests, and no locusts dipped in honey for the feast.

Thanks be to God.

John was a fiery character who passionately proclaimed his message to the people, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Have you ever stopped to wonder for a moment just how one goes about making a path straight?

Well, one way would be to cut down any trees or growth that is in the way.  Later in the passage John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (8-10)

If it’s in the way, don’t save it, don’t tell a false story about it, cut it down and throw it into the fire.

There’s not a lot of wiggle room, or grey, in John’s message. None really.

Have you ever wondered how John felt when he finally met Jesus? When he finally met the Messiah and began to understand just how Jesus’ ministry was going to unfold?

I wonder if he was disappointed.  I suspect that he was disappointed.

I suspect that Jesus did not look or act like John hoped he would act.

And so, in order for John to embrace the actual Messiah, he had to let his dream of what the Messiah would be die.

He had to lose hope in his idea of what the Messiah would be like in order to embrace the actual Messiah.

Which is a hard thing to do with any person, but with the Saviour of the world? The Saviour you have dedicated your entire life to?

But John does. He cuts it down, throws it into the fire, and embraces the real Jesus.

I was out for breakfast a little while ago and I have to confess that I spent more time eavesdropping on the conversation that was happening at the table next to mine than I did actually participating in the conversation that was happening at my own table.

At this other table, a group of people were generating ideas for their church’s adult Sunday School program and one person at that table said something like this, “The church needs to teach us how to end things. We never learn how to do this or do it well.  Friendships, jobs, romantic relationships, they all end, but I’ve never been taught about a faithful way to end things. I’ve only ever been taught about the importance of having hope and not giving up.”

The past few months have been really tough for me. And a lot of people have reached out to try and help.  They’ve reached out in a lot of different ways, but one common way has been to try and manufacture a Jesse Tree for me.  Not a legitimate one, but a quick and easy one.  They’ve seen the difficult things and tried to jump to a promise of new life – the bright side, the good thing that will come from the bad.

And honestly, it hasn’t been even a little bit helpful.

Two things have been.

The people who let me just sit in the difficulty. The people who acknowledged the situation with no attempts to promise a better time yet to come, and who resisted the temptation to gloss things over by trying to graft a potted plant from the grocery store on my dead stump.

The second helpful thing was a book a friend gave me.  They actually gave it to me over 2 years ago and I just couldn’t bring myself to read it until recently.  In that book, Necessary Endings, author Henry Cloud talks about the importance of hopelessness.

And that concept gave me hope.

You see, while the shoot that grows out of the stump is a beautiful, powerful, and true image, sometimes  a stump remains a stump.

And more importantly, sometimes a stump is supposed to remain a stump.

Sometimes things need to end.

And in order for that to happen, and happen well, we need to resist the temptation to live in false hope and instead live in the reality of hopelessness.

Some stumps will never bring forth new life no matter how much hope you have or water you give them.

Imagine your life is a forest.  There are healthy trees that are doing just fine.  There are trees that could use a bit of pruning, and there are dead trees that need to be cut down and, as John says, burned.  Some of those stumps will remain stumps, some may develop new shoots.

It can be difficult to tell which is which. It can be tempting to pretend that everything is just fine as it is and avoid the difficult tasks that require you to take an ax to some of those trees and that’s where it’s important to have good friends, or a counsellor, or spiritual director to help you sift and sort.

Advent is a season that teaches us two opposing truths.   The first is that we should never lose our ability to embrace a defiant hope that says, sure that’s a dead tree stump and no life will ever come from it and yet, look!  A shoot. A tree.  New life, new hope. Don’t give up.

But Advent is also a season that can teach us to let the dead things stay dead.

I know in this room there are people who embrace the season of Advent in a wide variety of ways. I take it fairly seriously and so it’s not uncommon for me to have conversations with folks whose practice is different from mine in which they assume I’m going to judge them.

I have had my tree up and I’ve been listening to Mariah Carey’s Christmas album since October, they’ll say sheepishly. Don’t judge me.

And I don’t, I really don’t, but I am curious about how those choices are helping them. If they are, great!

But they don’t help me.

For me, one of the key things I like about Advent is that it puts my practices at odds with the culture around me.  While other people are anxiously rushing through the mall, I choose not to. While other people are listening to Christmas music, I choose not to.

And by the time they are all sick to death of the decorations and the music, I’m getting ready to fully enjoy those things for 12 days. And it is good. And it is enough.

There is a story being told by our culture at this time of year that the key to happiness is found in consumption. In more and more and more. If Christmas music is great for one month, then how much better is it for three? If Christmas decorations are great in December, then how much better are they if you put them up in October?  If giving gifts helps us love and be loved, then why not just buy more and more and more.  The credit card bills can be sorted out in January.

Why wait?

I see no hope in that story. I see no new life. I see only a dead stump. Advent is a practice that helps me to see that story as hopeless and resist the temptation to live into false hope.  Advent helps me to let that story die.

By embracing Advent I learn to have less. I learn what the waiting and watching have to teach me.

And in the death of one thing, in the acknowledgment that it is truly hopeless, I find the space to embrace a new thing, and a new hope.   By clearing out all the dead and dying trees, I am able to notice when a small green shoot, despite all of the odds, begins to grow on one of those stumps.

May you, in your own way, do the same.

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

 

 


Invited into the story: A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 24, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  

In this sermon I reference Alana Levandoski's song "Cosmic Canticle." Alana is an amazing artist and all around wonderful human being. You can find "Cosmic Canticle" and her other music 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.

In Kingston, Ontario, there is a church called The Church of the Good Thief.  It no longer functions as a worship space, but instead it holds the regional archives of the Roman Catholic Church.  It gets its name from two sources. The first, is from the gospel story we read tonight, where one of the criminals who is crucified along with Jesus believes and is promised that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (43)

The second reason it’s called the Church of the Good Thief is that it was built by men who were incarcerated at the nearby Kingston Penitentiary. They quarried, carried, and placed each piece of limestone that makes up the building.

They weren’t allowed out of the prison to worship there though.

Then as now, our theological logic is rarely rock solid.

Tonight is the last Sunday in the liturgical year, next Sunday a new year begins and we enter into Advent.  The church calendar isn’t linear, it doesn’t begin and end with major feasts celebrating Jesus’ birth and resurrection, but it usually has some internal logic to it.

Tonight is the last Sunday of the church year, often referred to as the Reign of Christ Sunday or Christ the King Sunday.  Tonight’s gospel reading is a story that takes place towards the end of Jesus’ time on earth. It’s a story that shows us that Christ is a king with the power to grant entry into paradise, but Christ is also a very unusual king, dying as a criminal on a cross.

Jesus is complicated. And people have a lot of different ways of managing that complexity.  But usually we manage it by focusing on some details and ignoring others. We just can’t see to hold the whole of who Jesus is at any one time. So sometimes we focus on his humanity, and neglect his divinity and sometimes we do the opposite.

We do this with a lot of different things in our lives, which is how it is possible to have criminals build a church, then name that church in memory of a criminal, and then not allow criminals to worship there.

Or to choose to follow Jesus, but then pick and choose which parts of his message you’re actually going to follow.

If this was a film and I was the director, my production notes would look something like this:

Scene One:  We open on three men nailed to three crosses. Starting with a wide shot, we pan in until we have a close up of the three men’s faces. Their humanity is emphasized by the visible pain on their dirty, sweat covered faces. The scene is brief, the emotion high, and it provides context for everything that is going to happen next.

Scene Two:   Crane shot. Make sure the production assistant finds the biggest crane in existence. The one sitting outside at All Saints is way too small.   The shot pans up higher, higher, as high as we can possibly go away from the earth and then, a chorus of disembodied angelic voices sings the ancient hymn found in Colossians.

See if we can get permission to use Alana Levandoski’s version. Better yet, see if she’ll agree to sing it too.

There are more scenes to come, but first, let’s look at this one in a bit more detail.

Our first reading tonight was from a letter to the church in Colossae.  This group of Christ followers were experiencing persecution because of their faith. Our reading acknowledges this abuse and seeks to provide encouragement to carry on and not give up because God will give them the strength to endure these difficult experiences with patience.

The author of the letter writes, May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.”  (11-12)

So here is the good news? Following Christ will lead to persecution, but God will give us the strength to manage it.

Yeah?

Let’s unpack that a little more.

First of all, it is true that the decision to follow Jesus is not a guarantee of a simple, easy, pain-free life. Christians are not exempt from suffering and difficulty and, in fact, we can expect a degree of suffering and difficulty simply for choosing to follow Jesus.

And the letter to the Colossians is speaking about this specific type of suffering, suffering because of the choice to follow Jesus.

Not every kind of suffering fits into that category, and therefore, what the writer says in the rest of the letter does not apply to every single situation.

If you’re in an abusive situation, it’s OK to leave. It’s important to leave actually.  It’s absolutely OK to make changes in your life that eliminate abuse.

And on the flip side, if you feel you are being mistreated, it’s not an automatic sign that you are suffering because you are a Christian.  Sometimes, it’s a sign that you’re behaving like a jerk.

In this, as in so many situations, discernment is key.

It’s important to keep in mind that this letter was written to people who were experiencing real persecution because of their faith and we should be careful not to water down what the writer is saying by downplaying their experience.

The writing style changes dramatically in the second half of tonight’s reading. It no longer sounds like a letter, it sounds more like a poem, or a creed.  The author of this letter may have written it or they may be referencing an outside source. It’s unclear.

Some theologians suspect that these verses may have been used as a baptismal hymn so it’s fitting that we’re looking at them on a Sunday when we’re also going to be celebrating a baptism.  As Sally A. Brown explains, “Baptism reveals our true destiny and identity. Whatever our life stories may turn out to be, their inconsistencies will be reconciled and their coherence revealed in the reigning, cosmic, visible God for whom we were made.”

These verses paint a grand picture of who Jesus is – the image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, the head of the body, the beginning, the one in whom “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and so on.

These are big, sweeping statements, each one of which could take an entire sermon or even a sermon series to try and unpack.

So instead of trying to do that, I just want to point out a few things.  But first, let’s listen to this hymn one more time:

“15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”

The hymn begins, “He is the image of the invisible God….” (15) If you spend too long trying to figure out how an invisible God can also be visible you might give yourself a headache, but the poetry of the line reminds us that God is in fact a paradox. Invisible and yet visible. Human and divine. Knowable and yet unknowable.

We can never see God, and yet, in Jesus, we can see God.

Christ is God, all powerful, all knowing, entirely other from you and me. The King.

But Christ was also human,  lived among us, and died on a cross, as our gospel passage reminds us.

N.T. Wright explains that although it’s not obvious in our English translations, in the original text, the author is playing with the various meanings of the word “head,” which in English we have translated as “ firstborn, supreme, head, and beginning.”

But he also notes that, “Now all of this is fascinating simply as an exercise in clever writing…Part of growing up as a Christian is learning to take delight in the way in which God’s truth, whether in physics or theology or whatever, has a poetic beauty about it. But of course Paul isn’t writing this poem just to show off his clever intellectual fireworks, or to provide a sophisticated literary entertainment.  He’s writing this (or, if the poem was originally written by someone else, quoting it) in order to tell the Colossians something that they badly need to know. What is it?

What they need to know above all, if they are to grow as Christians, increasing in wisdom, power, patience and thanksgiving is the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. The more they get to know, and know about, Jesus Christ, the more they will understand who the true God is and what [God’s] done; who they are as a result; and what it means to live in and for [God.] Much of the rest of the letter, in fact, is an exploration of the meaning of the poem. Look on to 2:3, for instance, where Paul declares that all the treasures wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ himself.”

Wright continues “…Christianity isn’t simply about a particular way of being religious. It isn’t about a particular system of how to be saved here and hereafter. It isn’t simply a different way of holiness. Christianity is about Jesus Christ; and this poem, one of the earliest Christian poems ever written, is as good a place to start exploring it as any. This is what the Colossians needed to know and we today need to rediscover it.” (150)

Now, back to our movie.  We began with a reminder of Jesus’ humanity followed by a quick cut to a crane shot that hurtled us up into the cosmos where an angelic choir sang a hymn that remind us of Jesus’ divinity.

Fully human, fully divine. It makes no sense.  And yet Christians have claimed it as one of the key truths of their faith since the very beginning of the church.

And now the camera pans slowly back to earth and the films’ pacing slows down dramatically.  There will be no major action sequences or montages set to a rocking soundtrack. Instead, there will be an invitation to slow down, to wait, to not rush to conclusions or an ending to this story.

This particular film will end with a story from Jesus’ life to bookend the opening scene. A story designed to emphasize his humanity and to remind us that this is not an ordinary story or an ordinary child. This is a child who will change everything.

For the final scene, the camera zooms in slowly, slowly on the baby’s face and then the scene fades to black as the words “To be continued” appear on the screen.

And the story does continue. It continues to this very night in this very church where, in a few moments, we will welcome Edmund McKenzie Newsom into this story through baptism.

We’re going to sing shortly, and as we sing, the baptismal party, friends, and members of the family are invited to join us at the back of the church.

Christ is King, and Christ invites each of us into this story. Surely this is good news.

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

 


Stand Firm: A Sermon For Sunday November 10, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 10, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  Please, however, read the correction posted below before you listen.

 

Correction: In my sermon I get some dates wrong but I am including the text here as I preached it. Transgender Awareness Week begins on November 13th.   The Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20th.  I am deeply sorry for the error and apologize for any hurt that it may have caused.

 

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.

So some religious leaders approach Jesus and ask him a question:

There are seven brothers. One gets married and then dies. As is our custom, another brother marries his widow. He also dies.  This happens seven times and then, to quote directly from verse 32, “Finally the woman also died.”

Finally indeed.

So that’s the context, and here’s the question: “Whose property will she be in the life to come?”

It’s a patriarchal, heteronormative question asked not because the questioner genuinely wants to know the answer, but because they want to trip Jesus up. The group of men asking this question are identified as people who do not believe in the resurrection. They are asking what they know is a ridiculous hypothetical question because they assume Jesus’ answer will prove just how ridiculous it is to believe in the resurrection.  And, by extension, how ridiculous it is to believe in Jesus.

Whose property will this poor, tired woman be when she finally dies?

No one’s.

Jesus says that the norms and practices of this world are not the norms and practices of the resurrected life.   This woman will not be anyone’s property. She will no longer be a wife, she will be like an angel, she will be a child of God, a child of the resurrection. (36)

Jesus is saying, as Jesus says so very often, my ways are not your ways.  If you want to follow me, you will have set aside your assumptions and learn to see the world in a new way.

For example, since the world that Jesus has come to bring about does not include a system that treats women as property, maybe we can also re-think our earthly systems that to this very day still tend to treat women this way?

Maybe we can apologize for all the ways we  - in the world and in the church – have privileged heterosexual marriage with children as the golden standard of Godly living and begin to celebrate a greater diversity of ways of living.   If you don’t happen to be a single person, take some time sometime to listen to the experiences of single people because I fully expect that it will break your heart when you discover all the ways, subtle, and not so subtle, that they are told that they don’t quite measure up.

We can do better.

Jesus answers their question, in the life to come women are not property, and then he says something that I find strikingly beautiful. “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (38)

Over and over again in scripture, we are told that the way of Jesus is the way of life.  In John 10:10 we’re told that Jesus came to bring life and life to the full.

This is an idea we will be exploring in more detail this November in our Wednesday night series on vocation. We’re going to drill down into the question “What would it look like if each of us was fully alive? If each of us lived fully into who God created us to be?”

I hope you’ll join us.

In our gospel reading, we have a group of people questioning Jesus about the resurrection, and in our reading from Thessalonians, we find Paul trying to correct false teachings about the life to come.

Paul is not my favourite writer. His words have been used to hurt me and many people I love very deeply. There is a new trend on social media where people are beginning to post publicly the hate mail and death threats they receive and it’s shocking to see how much hate and ugliness comes from people who claim to follow Jesus.  It’s shocking how often they use Paul’s words to justify their cruelty.

Tomorrow we will remember all the people who died because of war and we will say “Never again,” and on Wednesday, in services around the world, the names of transgender people who were killed in the past year because of bigotry and hate will be read aloud – and those lists will be long – and we will once again say, “Never again.”

Tonight is not the time to unpack all the ways that Paul’s words have wounded people and the myriad of ways he has been misunderstood – often willfully misunderstood – but we can look in more depth at tonight’s reading to discover a man who seems genuinely distressed that his teachings are being misinterpreted.

In her excellent book, “One Coin Found,” Reverend Emmy Kegler, who as a queer woman with a call to the priesthood has had her own struggles with Paul, imagines his life and his work in this way:

“I began to retrace Paul’s backstory. A young man, convicted in faith, watching the stoning of a seeming heretic. A righteous man on the warpath for the Lord. Well trained in scriptural interpretation and overly confident in his application.

Oh, no.

A perfectionist who pursued God with zeal but got knocked off his high horse and had to change everything he understood about faith? Explaining what God had done in his life, blending his experience with philosophy and Scriptures? Periodically horrified by what other so-called Christians were up to? Periodically his opinions on how everyone else should think and act were totally wrong?

This was sounding irritatingly familiar.” (142)

Later she writes, “I was coming to know him not as my opposition but as my brother, as flawed as I was but as hopeful too.

I heard his hope in the letters he wrote to his communities. He planted churches and then moved on, trusting in the work of the Spirit to move them more toward Christ, only to receive letters with questions that could not be answered. Scholars consider his letter to the church in Thessalonika – the letter we read from tonight – the first written words of the New Testament (predating the gospels). Our best guess, given the content of his letter, is that his new church was confused: he had promised the return of Jesus, to gather the faithful and transform the world, but instead Jesus had not yet returned, and faithful members of the community had died. Death was supposed to be conquered; Christ was supposed to be victorious. How could this have happened? [Emmy imagines] Paul pacing his tent, dictating to his scribe: Do not grieve as those to who have no hope. Death is not the end of the story, those who have gone on before us will not be away from us for long. I [am?] comforted in Paul’s promise of Jesus, both powerful enough to resurrect the dead and humble enough to take on flesh.” (150)

Like Emmy, I can imagine Paul full of energy, unable to stay still, pacing around in his tent and dictating this letter to a scribe – Paul rarely wrote anything himself.

The section we read tonight starts, “As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you…”

I tend to think of Paul as exhorting, correcting, challenging, but begging? This must be serious stuff.

“…we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…”

Mariam Kamell explains that the word we have translated as “shaken” implies a “violent movement, like an earthquake.”   “What is occurring in this church is not a mild questioning about how things might work out but an earthquake of theological doubt that is leaving vast destruction in its wake. Likewise, the word for being “alarmed” is the fear caused by surprise. Having begun in one direction based on the teaching of Paul while he was with them, they have been surprised by this new teaching and their fear is that of having their foundation pulled out from underneath them. They are paralyzed, scared, uncertain about what to believe and, from that, how to act.”

And Paul knows how scared and shaken they are and that is why he writes with such urgency.

The people are shaken and alarmed because they have heard conflicting teachings about what is going to happen next.  When is Jesus returning? Has he already returned? Did they he leave them behind?

Paul, after begging them not to be deceived by false teachings, reminds the church in Thessalonika  of what he has taught them before saying, “Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?” (5)

I wonder what Paul would think about all the ways his words have been twisted and misused throughout the history of the church. I suspect it would break his heart. Here he was in his lifetime having to counter false teachings from others, imagine what he would think if he discovered that his own words have been deformed into false teachings in our present day.

The community in Thessalonika, once solidly committed to Paul’s teachings, are now unsettled by false teachings that are coming from all sorts of sources. Paul says these false teachings may arrive “by spirit – by which he means something other than the Holy Spirit - or by word or by letter, as though from us…” (2)   That’s how false teachings spread, once they begin to take root in a community it can be almost impossible to trace them back to their original source.

Many people, from Paul’s day to today, have been very interested in trying to predict the future. Entire industries have been created where people try to match up current events with biblical prophecies and they can be really convincing and it is easy to get sucked in, but Paul is begging us not to be deceived.

If you want to have a discussion over a beer after church about what all of these things might mean that can be a fun academic exercise. If you want to, like the men in tonight’s gospel reading, explore a hypothetical question about relationships in the life to come, go for it.  But don’t take these things so seriously that you can become obsessed or deceived by them. There are way better ways to spend your time.

But what I do think we should take seriously, is Paul’s desire that we resist being “quickly shaken in mind or alarmed…”

In November the lectionary always throws the weirdest most difficult readings at us and tonight is no exception. It may be hard to find yourself in these stories about fairly abstract ideas – what will happen in the life to come? – that are rooted in very specific historical circumstances – the last days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the earliest days of the church.

But I suspect that we all can identify times in our lives when we’ve felt shaken to our core. When it wouldn’t have surprised us at all to discover that we had lived through a literal earthquake.  When everything we thought made sense, everything we thought we could trust, everything we thought was a firm foundation crumbled under our feet.

I suspect we can all identify times when nothing seems stable, nothing seems secure, times when you are desperately looking around from something – anything – solid to grab on to but you can’t seem to find anything at all.

I’m not entirely sure why, but when I look back at my life, October is so often an earthquake month for me. Things just seem to happen in October that shake everything up. It happened to me again this year and I’m still nowhere near feeling settled.

I can’t identify with the specific issues the church in Thessalonika was dealing with, but I can identify, acutely, with that feeling of being shaken.

And so, I also take comfort in Paul’s counsel to those early Christ followers. Sometimes I believe him with all my heart, sometimes I need to grab onto his words with the defiant hope that even if I don’t believe them today, I might believe them tomorrow.

Sometimes a defiant hope in the possibility that I might believe is all I have.

Paul ends this section of the letter with words of encouragement.  He reminds the people that they are God’s beloved, that God’s love for them is solid and trustworthy.  (13)  God’s love is the foundation that will allow them to, as Paul writes in verse 15, “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.

And isn’t this exactly what we need to hear when we’re feeling shaken? Especially if we feel like God has forgotten us as the church in Thessalonika did? When we have been shaken and feel abandoned, we need to be reminded of this foundational truth: We are God’s beloved. God will never, ever abandon us.

And then Paul closes the section of this letter with a beautiful blessing. May it be an encouragement to each one of us today and in the days to come:

“Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and work.” (16-17)

May it be so. In the name of our steadfast God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

 


On priests, power, and pockets: A Sermon for Sunday October 27, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, October 27, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.  From time to time at saint benedict's table we depart from the lectionary and use the sermon time as an opportunity to talk a little bit about why we do what we do.  This year my colleague Jamie Howison and I shared this task. Jamie spoke about how the space in which we meet impacts our worship and then I shared the following reflection. Both are available at the link posted above.

 

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

 

* Open with thanks to Jamie for helping us “read” the space and for his words on the peace.

 

It’s so fascinating to me how much thought goes into the design not only of a church building but of the worship space in particular.   In a sense these sorts of buildings can be read, if you’ve been taught how to read them, and you can tell a lot about what is going on and what the community values by reading the space.

For example, this building tells us that we are a people shaped by stories, the stained glass that lines the sides of the church depict keys stories from the life of Christ and the community that he formed.  Higher up, are pictures of key historical figures in the life of the community and each of those images is filled with coded with imagery that can tell you all about that person’s life if you know how to read it.  There are also plaques filling up almost every single other bit of wall space each with its own story to tell.

Another way we can read what’s happening in this space is through colour. Now we use colour sparingly, but with some basic knowledge of the church calendar, you can walk into this space and know what season we are celebrating, based on the colour of the hangings on the pulpit and lectern and the colour of the stoles Jamie and I are wearing.

If you’ve only been coming recently, you may just think that green is our favourite colour because we’ve been decked out in green for a VERY long time but we’re about to shift into a time when you’ll see us in red, and blue, and white. Each colour symbolizing a different season in the church year.

Green is for ordinary time, the longest season of the church year. Blue for Advent. White for Christmas. Purple for Lent, and Red for Pentecost. Red and white can also be used at a service honouring a martyr – red – or a saint - white. And white is also used for special services like baptisms, marriages, and funerals.

The fact that the church celebrates liturgical seasons is one of the most powerful and helpful gifts the tradition has to offer us.  Not only do I find it helpful to literally move through the church seasons and to notice how the practice impacts my faith – to wait in Advent, to fast in Lent, to celebrate and feast for the full 12 days of Christmas –  I have come to find embracing the concept of unique seasons with unique practices has had a serious impact on my life in general.   It can be helpful when things are particularly difficult to remind myself that this is a season – it hasn’t always been like this, and it won’t always be like this.  Or when something particularly lovely has happened to remind myself that good things should be celebrated and to take the time to do so.   We are coming up on the anniversary of my ordination, for example, and I have spent some time thinking through how I want to mark that occasion.

Another thing you can read in this space are our clothes. On most Sundays, you’ll find a handful of people wearing ties and suit jackets or really smashing wraps and you’ll also see people in jeans and t-shirts.  What I hope that tells you is that this is a space where you can come exactly as you are. That you are free to be yourself here.

You’ll also normally see two people, Jamie and me, in a black shirt with a white collar before and after the service, and then in several additional layers of clothing once the service starts.

I’ve had lots of conversations with people about this clothing over the past year and one way that people tend to read this clothing is that it signifies that Jamie and I are the fanciest, most important people in the room.

Spoiler alert: We’re not. And our clothes are supposed to tell you we’re not. They’re supposed to tell you we have a particular role to play in this gathering and to help you to easily identify us, not to signify that we’re the most important people here.

We’re not the most important people in the room, but it’s understandable why you might think that given our distinctive dress.  Vestments are an example of a symbol whose meaning has shifted over time.

Clothing used to be a fixed symbol that clearly communicated who a person was and how they fit into society – their gender, occupation, economic status were all indicated by their clothing. At many points in history, there have been laws dictating what a person could and could not wear.   Unisex clothing wasn’t really a thing. Dressing down wasn’t really a thing. Men wore certain things and women wore other things.

Certain fabrics and colours could only be worn by people of particular economic classes.  Different jobs had different uniforms.

There are still pieces of this in our modern-day society, but the lines are a lot fuzzier.  One thing that remains the same, however, men can consistently expect that they will be able to buy pants with pockets. Women, not so much.

Jamie and I are wearing clothing that was modelled on the clothing of Roman servants. So the clothing that now can seem like the fanciest in the room, was once the most basic in the room signifying that a priest is a servant of the people.

This black thing I’m wearing is called as cassock and it used to be everyday wear for a priest.  Everyday you’d get up and get dressed and put on your collared shirt and before you stepped out the door you’d button up your cassock – whether you were heading to church or just to do some shopping.

Now there are some variations on how cassocks are designed, but if I was going to wear mine every single day, I’d have to allot enough time to make sure all 39 buttons were buttoned up before I left the house.  1 button for each of the 39 Articles of Religion – the document that at one time in our history, outlined the basic tenants of what it meant to be an Anglican.

So even though I don’t wear my cassock everyday, you will still notice that, while I may wear it before the service begins, there are a few extra layers I put on right before we start.

This white thing I’m wearing is called a surplice. It’s not everyday wear. I only wear it when we have a service. White clothing has a long history of symbolizing baptism and Christ’s goodness and my surplice is a reminder of that.

The last thing I put on before worship is this fancy scarf thing, called a stole.  The stole itself signifies that I’m an ordained person. You may recall that for most of the past year I wore it diagonally, draped over my left shoulder. That signified that I was a deacon. And although it may have made me seem extra fancy, it’s meant to copy the clothing of a servant who would wear a stole like this and use the lose ends at their hip to dry your feet after they washed them.

Now, I wear the stole around my neck.  It’s meant to remind us of the yoke that a team of oxen would wear. Or in this case, the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service. It may look fancy, but it’s meant to be a symbol of humility.

And there are lots of other garments that Anglicans wear – from choir robes to the Bishop’s fancy hat – but generally at saint ben’s we like to keep things simple.

But symbolism and historic meaning aside, personally I love  being able to wear vestments because of how I feel in them.  When I put these clothes on I’m reminded of the job I am here to do. They help focus and center me. I am much less distracted in vestments.

I have spent almost 20 years standing in front of congregations like this talking to groups of people and for the first time, I feel like I can focus solely on my job and NOT on my clothes.  I’m not wondering if you think my skirt is too short or panicking that I wore the wrong shirt and now I have to keep my hands down at my side because if I raise them too high you’ll see some skin.

And… I have pockets!

Thanks be to God.  Amen.


Nevertheless She Persisted: A Sermon for Sunday October 20, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, October 20, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Both of tonight’s readings are set in contexts where the people of God are having a difficult time. Things are going from bad to worse, and they need to find a way to maintain their focus, their energy, and their sense of purpose.

Both readings speak of the need for persistence. In 2 Timothy we heard this line, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable... (4:1-2, emphasis mine.)

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “persistent” as “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

On February 7, 2017, the U.S Senate was debating the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General. Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the confirmation and spoke critically of Session’s record on civil rights.

While Warren was stating her objections, she was interrupted multiple times and told to stop talking.

But she didn’t stop.

A series of fancy political maneuvers occurred in an attempt to silence Senator Warren.

But she didn’t stop.

When he tried to sum up what had happened, Senator Mitch McConnell, looking truly bewildered said, “Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

And women everywhere, regardless of their political affiliations, stopped for a moment and said, “Yeah she did.”

Even if they disagreed with her politics, many women found Warren’s persistence to be inspiring.

The line, “Nevertheless she persisted,” which was meant to be a condemnation of Senator Warren, went viral and became a rallying cry for women to persist despite the many attempts to silence or ignore them.

If you google it, you can find endless social media posts containing the hashtag #neverthelessshepersisted, countless photos of people’s tattoos of the quotation, and a wide array of merchandise.

I know this in part because I received all sorts of things that say “Nevertheless she persisted” last year as ordination gifts.

Nevertheless she continued “firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

Nevertheless she persisted.

Today’s gospel reading is a short parable that’s set in the context of the legal system.

Most people have a general sense of how our modern legal system functions. It may not be an entirely accurate sense, it may be based more on TV crime dramas than reality, but still, we get the general idea of how it’s supposed to work. People do bad things, the police arrest them and charge them with a crime, they go to court and so on.

In Jesus’ day, things were a bit different. N.T. Wright explains that:

“In the ancient Jewish law court… If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: “vindication” or “justification” here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour. This word “justification” which we meet a lot in Paul but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one’s favour at the end of the case.” (212)

Although there may very well have been more people present, there are two main characters in this story, a judge and a widow.

We are told that the judge “neither feared God nor had respect for people”– that is actually what the text says – he “neither feared God nor had respect for people” – so right away we know he’s a problematic character. (2)

The story is told entirely from the judge’s point of view. The widow never speaks, we only hear the judge’s internal monologue about her.

Through that monologue, we learn that the widow keeps coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” (3) She doesn’t stop coming, the verb tense in the original Greek implies a continuous action without a break or reprieve. Even though the judge consistently refuses to grant her request she never stops coming.

This patterns continues: she makes her request, he refuses, she makes it again, until finally the judge thinks, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.” (4-5)

We aren’t supposed to view the judge as the hero in this story, but I do have some sympathy for him. Because for all the reasons I admire persistence, it can also be really, really annoying.

Mike and I recently got a puppy, and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries and establish good behaviours when you’re confronted by persistent whining and begging. Even if you know you’re right, even if you know that giving in to that whining will set a really bad precedent that will only create more problems in the future, it doesn’t take that long to feel completely worn down to the point that you’re willing to do whatever it is the puppy wants you to do so long as he just stops whining and gives you a moment of peace.

Usually he wants belly rubs or treats, not justice in a court of law, but still, persistent whining will make you do things you wouldn’t normally do.

And the translation we read tonight really softens the original’s description of just how persistent this widow was.

Amy-Jill Levine explains that the original Greek uses a boxing metaphor, so what we have translated as, “so she may not wear me out by continually coming” would be better translated as, “so that she will not give me a black eye.” (v5, Levine 243)

So who is this widow with the boxing gloves anyway?

Widows are interesting characters in scripture. As a group, we know that they are vulnerable and lack power. They are regularly included in lists of people who the dominant society needs to remember to care for. As such, we tend to think of them as people we should want to help, not people we want to be.

And certainly not people who might give us a black eye.

But being a part of an oppressed or marginalized group isn’t the same as being weak. And widows in scripture prove this over and over again.

Levine notes: “Biblical widows are the most unconventional of conventional figures. Expected to be weak, they move mountains; expected to be poor, they prove savvy managers; expected to be exploited, they take advantage where they find it.” Tamar, Naomi, Ruth, Opah, Abigail, the wise woman of Tekoa, the widow of Zerepath, Judith] – all of these woman “manifest agency, and all defy the convention of the poor and dependent woman. The [widow in tonight’s gospel reading] similarly shatters stereotype, even as she epitomizes the strength, cleverness, and very problematic motives of many of her predecessors.” (239-240)

As a group, widows were vulnerable, but like the other women I just listed, the widow in this parable does not passively allow herself to be exploited. Like a fighter in a boxing ring, she fights for her rights. She persists, willing to give the judge a black eye if that’s what it takes.

So is the moral of the story that a faithful Christian life should pack a punch?

We are told in the opening of today’s gospel text, that Jesus chose to tell this story because the people “need to pray always and not lose heart.” (1)

How does this parable reinforce this idea?

What does the story of a persistent woman capable of making a judge fear her and her fists to the point that he is willing to do whatever she asks of him teach us about prayer?

First, one of the things this parable is trying to tell us about prayer is that, while we will encounter unjust judges, God is not an unjust judge. God, we are told, is the opposite of the unjust judge. We do not need to pace the ring and threaten God with a black eye in order to be heard.

Second, this parable is telling us that prayer might not always look like what we think it should look like.

I spend a fair amount of time talking to people about prayer. Together we try to figure out what prayer is and how it fits into our lives. One of the most common things we have to work through is our tendency to have a narrow view of prayer.

We tend to think that prayer is a thing that only happens when we are on our knees with our hands folded, or in church.

We tend to think prayer is a quiet thing, it’s a passive thing, it’s a safe thing.

But in 1 Thessalonians we are told to “pray without ceasing,” and I don’t know about you but I can’t kneel with my hands folded talking to God 24 hours a day seven days a week. (5:17) Eventually I need to eat, or sleep, or go to the bathroom.

Which must mean that when we define prayer as something we can only do kneeling with our hands folded we are defining it too narrowly. Certainly prayer can look like that, but it can also look like a walk in the woods, or a nap, or cooking nutritious food or a fierce boxing match against injustice.

Because in today’s parable there is a comparison being made between prayer and a persistent woman who can make a man who has “no fear of God and no respect for anyone,” do exactly what she wants him to do. (4)

That’s not passive, that’s not safe. That’s prayer.

Earlier in this sermon I told you that the Oxford dictionary defines “persistence” as “continuing firmly or obstinately in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”

At the beginning of this parable, Jesus says that this parable is about the “need to pray always and not lose heart.”

Maybe that’s a better definition of what it means to persist. Pray always. Don’t lose heart.

I’m not sure how many people in this room know what it’s like to feel like the widow in the story. To fight and to fight and to fight and to never give up until one day, the judge grants your request.

I hope you know what that feels like.

But I suspect all of us know what it feels like to be in the ring and to get knocked down. To feel someone else’s knuckles connect with your nose, to lose your balance, and to crash onto the floor.

With this parable, Jesus is telling us that we live in a world filled with injustice. We’re all going to be in the ring for a very long time, and we’re all going to get knocked down.

Jesus is encouraging us to persist. To get back up again. To wipe the tears and the sweat and the blood out of our faces and to just keep fighting.

And he says it like this, “don’t lose heart.”

When you encounter systemic injustice and oppression. Don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When the reality of climate change seems overwhelming and you don’t know where to begin, don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When you’ve tried and tried and tried to make a change for the better in your life and it just doesn’t seem to be working, don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

When… whatever it is that you struggle with…. Don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

But remember, that sometimes fighting looks like treating yourself with compassion. Even world class boxers regularly need to go sit in the corner of the ring to take a break and let their coach take care of them. That’s not giving up, that’s an essential part of the fight.

Persistence may look like having a nap. Walking in the woods. Sitting in silence. Having fun with a friend.

So don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

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


Missing, Finding, Partying: A Sermon for Sunday September 15, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 8, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

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

Ten or so years ago, I organized a workshop in my home. We had a good speaker and a good turnout but partway through the workshop I noticed that one participant was texting on her phone. And then I couldn’t stop noticing it and I also couldn’t stop noticing that our speaker was noticing it  and finding it very distracting.

And I don’t really remember much of what the speaker shared with us that day but I do remember how annoyed I was and how harshly I judged that woman for being so rude as to text throughout the workshop.

I mean the nerve of her. Who did she think she was?

After the session, I talked to Ms. Texts-a-lot and she told me that she hadn’t been texting at all, she’d actually be deeply focused on what the speaker was saying and had been taking notes.

Well, it sure would have been helpful to have that information before the workshop began. It would have changed my entire experience of the event!

In today’s gospel reading, a group of religious leaders are annoyed that Jesus is partying with the wrong people and Jesus uses a series of parables which are intended to say, “You don’t have all the information, if you knew why we were partying, you’d want to join in and party too.”[1]

But from outside appearances, Jesus is hanging out with all the wrong sorts of people – tax collectors and sinners.

Generally speaking, most people don’t really like people who collect taxes.  But in Jesus’ day, this was particularly true. I can at least rationalize that my taxes are going to pay for things I care about like universal health care and education but at that time the money was likely going to either Herod or the Romans and nobody thought that was a good idea.

Except maybe Herod and the Romans, they probably thought it was a great idea, but most likely no one who was paying taxes thought it was a good idea.

N.T. Wright posits that the people described here as “sinners” may actually have been people who were too poor to either know the law or to be able to afford to keep it properly.

Which is not always what is meant by the word “sinner,” of course. We also read a passage from 1 Timothy this evening and I think that author has a different definition in mind when he describes himself as the  “the foremost of all sinners.”

But whoever the sinners in Jesus’ parable were, the impression we are given is that they were people who the religious leaders saw as kind of hopeless. Irredeemable. Not the sort of people you should spend your time or share a meal with.

So why does Jesus bother to associate with them?

Jesus tells a series of stories in response to that question.

Luke records three stories, but tonight we only heard two of them. The third one is often called the story of the prodigal son.

Tonight’s stories are often called the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” and the “Parable of the Lost Coin.”

Which is weird, because that’s not really what the stories are about. Sheep can certainly wander and becomes lost, but coins can’t, someone has to lose them. And neither story is told from the perspective of the sheep or the coin.

Additionally, in our context, the word “lost” implies a permanent condition, a hopeless state but what would happen, if instead of thinking of them as “lost,” we thought of them as “missing?”  I we do that, I think we’d start to get a better sense of what Jesus is doing with these stories.

If we really want to give these stories titles, it might be more helpful to think of them as the “Parable of the Shepherd Who is Missing a Sheep,” and the “Woman Who is Missing a Coin.”  Or the parable of the shepherd who finds her missing sheep and throws a party and the parable of the woman who finds her missing coin and throws a party.

At least several times a year, preachers pretend to be experts on the care and feeding of sheep, despite the fact that most of us have never even seen a sheep up close, let alone been responsible for their well-being.  Suddenly we need to know all about sheep.

Today is one of those Sundays so… here we go.

Almost everything I know about sheep I have learned from two sources: sermons, and Sunday School room art.

For as long as I can remember, this first story was the story of a blonde haired, blue eyed man who had 100 sheep and, after putting 99 of them into a fenced in compound where they are safe and sound, he sets off in search of the one that has gone missing.

Which is not what would have happened.

First of all, the people gathered listening to Jesus would never have pictured a blonde haired, blue eyed male shepherd.

The shepherd’s skin tone and colouring would have matched their own, and the shepherd they imagined would very likely have been a woman.

Although the NRSV uses masculine pronouns, the Greek word used to describe the shepherd is a gender neutral term.

Both in Jesus’ day and in ours, shepherds in that region tend to be women and children – girls and boys.  Rachel was a shepherd, David was a shepherd when he was a young boy.

The answer to Jesus’ question, “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until she finds it,” was probably, “Not one of us. No one would do that. It’s a bad idea.”  (v.4)

Today we tend to contain animals in fields surrounded by electric fences and barns that lock securely but sheepherding was more of a free range situation at in Jesus’ time.

Sheep didn’t get locked up safely in a barn overnight, so if you left the 99 to go and find the 1, odds are the 99 would have all wandered off or been eaten by wolves by the time you located the one.

It’s not a logical thing to do.

I mean, it’s sad to lose one sheep, but it would be ridiculous to gain that one and lose the other 99 who wandered off while you were searching.

No shepherd in her right mind would do that.

It kind of reminds me of my vegetable garden.  This year I grew a lot of tomatoes, but I don’t expect that I’m actually going to eat every single one of them, I have to tithe at least a portion of them to the neighbourhood squirrel population.

Those filthy, irritating animals who insist on taking at least one or two tomatoes every single day, taking one bite out of them, and then depositing the rest of the tomato on top of my fence.

I could try to fight this tomato tax, but I know it’s a losing battle. Instead I assume that a certain percentage of the tomatoes I grow will be lost in this manner.

And that’s likely what a sheep herder would have thought in Jesus’ day as well. Sure she wouldn’t want to lose any of her sheep but a certain amount of loss was inevitable, it’s just part of the business.

I will inevitably lose a percentage of my tomato harvest and no sheepherd would go off after just one sheep, but perhaps we’d all search more carefully for a lost coin?

Well, that also depends on how much we value this coin.   Not long ago it was relatively common for people to simply throw pennies away and some people have more change just sitting in their car or their couch cushions than they do in their wallets.

And I for one have never been invited to a lost change party.

Now the coin in the parable was worth more than modern-day pocket change - it was probably about a day’s wages for a labourer – but I’ve never been invited to a lost day’s wages party either.  And spending money is an odd way to celebrate finding money.

So what on earth is Jesus getting at?

Stories like this are rich for interpretation and at different points in our lives different things will resonate more strongly with us than others.

In his book, “Transforming,” Biblical scholar Austen Hartke uses this story to reflect on the various reasons a sheep might have been separated from the herd.

He writes, “It’s incredibly comforting to imagine yourself as the lost sheep, riding back home on Jesus’ shoulders after an exciting but ill-advised adventure. There are times when this story is exactly the gospel message we need – when we need to hear that we are worthy of God’s love, and that God will risk anything to have us back home again.

But what if we imagined this story a different way? What is the lost sheep didn’t wander away from the safety and goodness of the shepherd? What is it was just trying to escape the cruelty of the flock? Sheep will occasionally pick out a flock member who doesn’t fit in – maybe because of an injury or a strange marking – and they’ll chase that individual away. There are times when I think Christians need to see ourselves more in the ninety-nine sheep who stayed put, and ask ourselves if we may have been part of the reason the lost sheep got lost in the first place.”

Austen continues, “I don’t mean to lay on the guilt too heavily here – in reality, we all have lost-sheep days and flock sheep days – but I think the metaphor holds up… what’s at stake for Jesus in this situation isn’t just that one single lost sheep, and it’s not just the ninety-nine back home. It’s the integrity of the flock as a whole. Saving just the main group or just the individual wouldn’t do any good, because the flock is more than just the sum of its parts. When Jesus goes after that lost sheep, what he’s telling the flock – what he’s telling us – is that we’re not complete without each other. ” (167-168)

Remember the context in which Jesus is telling this story.  A group of religious leaders is upset that Jesus is hanging out with the wrong sort of people.  And Jesus is saying there’s no such thing as the wrong sort of people. That he would go to extravagant lengths to restore even one person who was missing.

There are all sorts of people who, for all sorts of reasons have been told that they don’t belong in the flock.  Their economic status or their skin colour or their sexuality or their gender are different and so they are told, in subtle and not so subtle ways that they don’t belong.  They might think differently or act differently or move differently and so they are told in subtle and not so subtle ways that they don’t belong.

And so they are pushed to the edges of the flock and eventually, out of the flock entirely and they wander alone.  And the flock doesn’t even notice they’re missing.

But Jesus does.

And he’s inviting everyone, the religious leaders, the tax collectors and the sinners to notice that there are people who are missing, and to rejoice and join in the party when the one who was missing is restored to the flock.

May we hear and accept Jesus’ invitation. Because it’s a shame to miss a good party.

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

 

[1]Thanks for NT Wright for this image.


One Thing More: A Sermon for Sunday September 8, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 8, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

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

Usually when we read scripture together in church, we read a small portion of a larger book. But tonight, we read almost the entire book of Philemon – the lectionary only cuts out the last few verses.

Philemon is a letter. Most likely written by Paul and, you might reasonably assume because of its title, written to a man named Philemon, but there you’d be wrong.

The letter is addressed to, “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…” (1-2)  This letter was written to a house church, a group of men and women who will gather together in Philemon’s home to hear the letter read aloud and to discuss its contents.

Much of the content is addressed directly to Philemon but the letter is meant to be read by the entire church community.

The letter focusses on the relationship between Paul, Philemon, and a man Philemon has enslaved named Onesimus.

Slavery is abhorrent. It is wrong. But it also has, in many places and at many times throughout history, been normal.  So normal that people couldn’t imagine there was any other way to structure a society.

And Paul doesn’t do what I want him to do in this letter.   I just want one sentence. Just one that says, “As we all know, slavery is sinful, stop enslaving human beings.” I want him to have written that. It’s one of the three sentences Paul never wrote that I wish he did. Feel free to ask me about the other two after the service.

But Paul didn’t write that sentence. And he doesn’t write on suggesting that

This newly formed Christian community should overthrow the entire political, economic and social system they live under either but I do think that he does clearly say that slavery should not exist in Christian communities. He just does it using a particular rhetorical style that may not be obvious to us on a first reading.

Spoiler alert:  This may be the most sarcastic piece of writing in the entire Bible.

In the opening address Philemon is describes as Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker.” (1)

Paul and Philemon are friends, but they are also partners in God’s work. They have a job to do – to spread the gospel and grow the church – and if they are going to be successful, they need to be able to work closely together.

The letter continues with a form common in Paul’s letters, “When I remember you in my prayers…” (4). Whenever you hear those words, look carefully at what Paul says he is praying for, because it usually functions as the thesis statement for the entire letter. In this case, Paul prays that, “the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

Paul is either suggesting that Philemon’s work is not effective, or that it is not as effective as it could be because he is not seeing things as clearly as Paul does.

Paul continues, “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…” (8-9)

They are co-workers in this venture, but make no mistake about it, Paul has more power than Philemon.  Paul has the power to simply command that Philemon do his duty, but Paul is saying he prefers the “catch more flies with honey” approach.  And by honey I mean words that are dripping with sarcasm.

So what is Philemon’s duty? What it is that Paul wants him to do?

Paul writes, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (9)

A couple of things to note here.  Onesimus was a pretty common name to give an enslaved person. It means “useful.”

In saying that Onesimus is his child, Paul is both invoking and subverting the traditional paterfamilias structure that governed households.  In this system, one man was the head of the household with complete authority over all the people and possessions of that household. A slave would be a possession, not a person.

Paul is using this imagery to say two things: One, in this Christian family, Paul is paterfamilias, not Philemon. He can simply command that Philemon do his duty.

Two: Paul is saying that for Philemon’s work on behalf of the gospel to be effective, he needs to change the way he thinks about and treats Onesimus.

Paul describes Onesimus as his child,  and then later, he says that Philemon should treat him as a brother. Basically, Paul is saying that both Philemon and Onesimus are his children. They are equals, which by extension means that Philemon needs to treat Onesimus as a person, not property.

Paul is writing this letter from prison.  Onesimus is with him, although he is not imprisoned. How did he come to be there?

It’s not clear.

As I mentioned last week, people in prison in this time period had to rely on people outside of the prison to provide for their daily needs and its possible that Philemon has sent Onesimus to Paul to make sure he has food and other basic necessities of life.

Onesimus may also have run away.  But this was an offence punishable by crucifixion so it seems odd that he’d come out of hiding to help Paul.   Although, perhaps he did run away and realized that there was no safe place for an escaped slave to live so he is appealing to Paul to help him smooth over the situation with Philemon so he can return to that household.

It isn’t clear how he came to be with Paul, but it is clear that this letter is intended to repair the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon’s household, and he wants Philemon to accept him when he does.

Playing with the meaning of Onesimus’ name Paul says that although Philemon thinks Onesimus is useless, he is in fact, useful to both of them.

So useful, in fact, that even though Paul would prefer to have Onesimus stay with him, he is sending him back to Philemon. And listen to the words Paul uses, “ I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me … but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (13-14)

When Paul who has already stated he has the power to just command you to do your duty sends a request in a letter that will be read by your entire community recommending you do something voluntarily instead of by force, how much wiggle room do you think you actually have?

And not only does Paul want Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, listen to how he expects Onesimus to be treated, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16)

Onesimus is not property. He is Paul’s own heart.  Paul expects Philemon to receive him as his beloved brother.

The letter continues, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wrong you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this in my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self…. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do ever more than I say.” (Emphasis mine)

As if Paul isn’t laying it on thick enough with this choice of words, he employs another one of his favourite rhetorical devices. Although the bulk of this letter has been dictated to a scribe, this section was so important he wrote it in his own hand. Make no mistake, he is saying, I mean what I say.

And that’s where our reading ended. Now if you’ve been wondering why the creators of the lectionary decided to leave out the last few verses, I don’t have an answer, but I can tell you what those verses contain.

The very last few verses are just a list of other people who send greetings. Kind of like a P.S.  I’d probably cut those too. But I would have extended the passage we did read by one verse.

That verse reads, “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.”  (22)

Paul is planning to come for a visit and therefore will know if Philemon has done what he is supposed to do.

This seems to me to be the Pauline version of a mic drop.

This is my best effort at providing you with an accurate reading of Philemon, but I do want you to know that it has often been interpreted very differently.

Some commentators don’t see sarcasm in Paul’s words. They see someone writing very carefully so as not to hurt the feelings of a rich and powerful man.  Which changes the tone, but not the meaning, of the letter.

This letter has also been used in countries like the United States to justify the forcible return of enslaved people who have run away.  That changes the tone and the meaning. I also think it’s a willful misreading of the text.

A couple of years ago I went to Durham, North Carolina for a conference and, as I often do, I added a day to the trip to see the sites.

There was really only one place I wanted to visit:  Stagville Plantation has been turned into a historic site that including original buildings where enslaved people once lived.

I wanted to see those buildings for myself.  It wasn’t that I doubted that slavery existed but I was also aware that at least in some way, it existed for me as story.

I had a sense that somehow if I could stand in a place where this had actually happened, then the truth of this horrible system would sink more deeply into my consciousness.

But first I had to get there.

The Stagville Plantation was only about 20 kilometers from my hotel but it was outside the city limits so I wanted to make sure that not only would I be able to get a taxi to take me there, that I could also get one to bring me back again.

The nice white girl at the hotel desk was confused by my request. A lifelong resident of Durham, she’d never even heard of Stagville.  There was no glossy brochure in the rack behind her desk either.

But she googled it and called a cab company that assured me a round trip.

The taxi driver was African American. He had heard of Stagville but had never been there and couldn’t understand why I’d want to go.  Didn’t I want to go to the shopping center or some other more typical tourist spot?

Nope.  Take me to the plantation please.

After we’d driven for about 30 minutes I began to wonder if something was wrong. After we’d driven about 45 minutes, I knew something was wrong because my driver was clearly panicking and eventually pulled the car over on the side of the road praying, “Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus,” under his breath.

He’d gotten lost. And he was scared.

And I knew right away that his fear didn’t simply come from having taken a few wrong turns.  It came from having made a few wrong turns on deserted country roads with a white lady for a passenger.

We were strangers, but the evil legacy of slavery and racism were impacting our relationship.  His fear was reasonable, and routed in experience.

Eventually we were able to sort out the situation. I assured him I had no where important to be and that this was simply an adventure and he figured out the directions.  We had another 45 minutes or so to drive.

But now, he relaxed a bit and began to show me around.  The little country church where his grandfather had been a preacher,  the huge menacing prison where he quipped, clearly more relaxed now, “Are you sure you don’t just want to visit that plantation instead?” and finally Stagville.

As he took me up the long winding driveway, he muttered.  “This place feels bad, it’s a bad, bad place.” He refused my offer of a ticket, opting to wait for me in the car.

I bought my ticket and joined a tour that was already in progress.

I’d only been there about 10 minutes when the tour guide started giving us driving directions.  It turned out that the slave quarters were a couple miles up the road – which suggests the size of the original plantation and also presented me with a problem.

So I put up my hand and said, “Hi, so I’m from Canada and I took a taxi here and I didn’t know we had to drive to another location and so… would someone mind giving me a ride?”

And you know what happened right? Because of course it did.

This nice older couple said, “We’re from Canada too and not only would we be happy to give you a ride but if you’re willing to visit a few additional tourist sites with us today, we’ll drive you back to town too.”

I thanked them, ran over to pay and thank the taxi driver and release him from the misery of waiting for me at the plantation and then, while offering a silent apology to my parents, accepted a ride from strangers.

There are a lot of things that I could tell you about seeing buildings that enslaved people once lived in, but here are just two.

The first is, that these particular buildings were still standing because they were built in an era where people who enslaved other people began to realize that if they provided slightly better accommodations then their slaves would not get sick so easily and could work harder and produce more.  That’s just good economic sense.

And the second is, that I was allowed to touch the fingerprints embedded in the bricks that enslaved people had made to form the chimney, and some of those fingerprints definitely belonged to small children.

Paul was challenging Philemon to think differently about human relationships and reject the dehumanizing institution of slavery.

I think he is challenging us to do the same.

May we listen. May we act.

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