What's Your Name?: A Sermon for February 18, 2018

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

The last time I preached here, and if I’m honest, often when I preach here, I tell you that I don’t really like the passage or I have serious issues with the passage, or I should have checked the lectionary before agreeing to preach on such a difficult passage. Something along those lines. Today, however, we have one of my all time favourite passages. In fact, if I could only preach on one gospel text for the rest of my life, this passage would be my second choice.

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

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

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

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

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

Last night at Hear the Silence, Jamie read a quotation from Frederick Buechner’s book “Whistling in the Dark,” that began like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting go of false names and claiming true ones is difficult and takes time. It’s not something to simply add to a list of “things I have to do that I will likely fail at.”  If anything, Lent should teach us this as we will likely fail to keep our Lenten resolutions as often as we succeed. And those failures have just as much to teach us as the successes.

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

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 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 then immediately that identity is challenged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the past few weeks I’ve noticed a lot names being used in various news stories. Misogynistic names for women who are finding the courage to tell their stories of abuse. Ugly racist names to describe a young man who was killed in Saskatchewan.  Derogatory and dismissive terms to describe mental illness in misguided attempts to understand why a country that makes guns so readily accessible to its citizens also sees so many people of its people killed by those guns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


The Sacred Art of Sandwich Making: A Sermon For Sunday February 4, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday February 4, 2018.  

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

When you combine last week’s gospel reading with this week’s you have roughly a 24-hour time period starting on the Sabbath and ending on a Sunday morning. Combined they give us “a day in the life” of Jesus and his first disciples.

On this particular day, we see Jesus performing miracles by healing one person of demon possession and another of an ordinary fever.  We see Jesus at work in the public setting of the synagogue and the private setting of the disciples’ home. We see him interacting with men and with women, with individuals and with crowds, and then, thankfully, we see him taking some private time to himself to regroup and to pray. And, in typical Mark fashion, most of these things happen “immediately.”

Immediately Jesus goes to the synagogue, the disciples tell Jesus about Simon’s mother in law “immediately” and so on.

Because these readings are early in Mark’s gospel, we are also witnessing a lot of “firsts.”  This is the first exorcism, and the first healing of a physical ailment recorded by Mark.

Today’s gospel also gives us a glimpse into the home life of some of the disciples. Simon and Andrew live in the same house, for example, and Simon has a mother in law so he must have gotten married at some point.  Although there is no mention of his wife in this passage, thereisa passage in 1 Corinthians that infers that in his later life Simon may have taken his wife with him on some of his missionary journeys. (1 Corinthians 9:5)

Now it’s confession time everybody. How many people snorted or thought something sarcastic when you listened to the gospel Gladiola read tonight? Specifically when she read the sentence directly after the description of Jesus healing Simon’s mother in law, “Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

Anyone else snort? Or think something really sarcastic?

“Nice job Jesus, you healed her just in time to make supper!”

Anyone else?

Oh good, I didn’t think I could possibly have been the only person here to have that reaction.

What is going on in this story?

I haven’t read every single commentary ever written on this passage, but in the dozen or so I did page through, I noticed some themes. There seem to be two main ways to interpret this passage.

The first, and by far the most common, is to largely ignore Simon’s mother in law and to pay very little attention to this story of healing.  To maybe note that given how early this is in the gospel that the point of this story is to demonstrate Jesus’ power and ability to heal. It shows the breadth and depth of Jesus’ power, and there is nothing else left to say about it. The point, in this school of interpretation, is that Jesus is able to heal people. The point is not to think about the types of people Jesus heals or how that healing might impact their lives.

The reason, therefore, that we are told in the gospel that Simon’s unnamed mother in law gets up from her bed and begins to serve them is simply to prove that Jesus has in fact healed her and she is well enough to do so.

In the second school of interpretation, the focus is less on Jesus’ ability to heal and more on the people being healed.  If we read the gospel in this way, we will look carefully at the impact that Jesus’ healing had on Simon’s mother in law.  The person who was healed and the impact of that healing on their life, not just the act of healing itself come into focus.

Jesus heals her and immediately she gets up and begins to serve him.

What did she serve him? A sandwich?

How did she serve him? Willingly? Grudgingly? Was there something about being healed that transformed her service?

There may have been. It’s possible that Simon’s mother in law rose from her bed and made Jesus a sandwich. It’s also possible that she arose from her sick bed  - healed both of her fever and the demands of the patriarchal culture she lived in -and took her rightful place at Jesus’ side as a disciple.

It all depends on how you understand the word that is translated into English as “serve.”

The word that is translated here as “serve” is also the same root word as our word “deacon” and it is used in a few other places in Mark’s gospel to describe the actions of the angels who “serve” Jesus in the desert, and the women who “serve” Jesus by following him to Jerusalem.  It’s also a word that Jesus will use to describe himself when he says, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” (10:45) So it might be less about making sandwiches in the kitchen and more about work in the public sphere.

Scholars also point out that this is the first in a series of incidents in Mark’s gospel in which a woman’s actions are praised as an example of a right response to an encounter with Jesus. (poor widow, woman with the ointment, women at the cross and at the tomb) In contrast, the male disciples actions will often, although not always, be shown to be examples of a wrong response – bickering over who gets the best seats in heaven, for example.

This text can therefore be seen as the early stages of an argument that will be developed throughout the gospel of Mark, that a person whose life has been transformed by an encounter with Jesus will be a person who lives a life in service to others. A person who will humbly put others first, rather than being concerned about things like rank and station.

If this is true, then Simon’s unnamed mother-in-law is really a model of Christian discipleship, and not just a model for other women, a model for everyone who wants to follow Jesus.

Simon’s mother in law can be seen as the embodiment of the type of discipleship that Jesus will embody in his own life and ministry, and which he will call his disciples to emulate.  A type of service, that his male disciples will often fail to live up to.

One commentator goes so far as to say, “both at the outset and at the conclusion of Mark’s gospel, women, in a society which devalued them, are identified as the true disciples…. Mark is serving notice that patriarchal theology and the devaluation of women will be overturned.”  (Mark and Empire, 52-53)

I like this reading, I like it a lot. It sits well with that initial feeling I had that caused me to snort and think sarcastic thoughts.  It sits well with my strong desire to see someone who looks like me in the gospel narratives.

And yet, just as with the first school of interpretation, something about this second way of reading the gospel didn’t sit right with me this week.

Something that made it impossible for me to simply present this interpretation as gospel truth to you this evening.

And it’s this.

Why is it so important to me that Simon’s mother in law didn’t make Jesus a sandwich? Why would I prefer that the text clearly articulate that she took on some sort of leadership role among the disciples while some other unnamed person was in the kitchen making dinner. Does that, perhaps, say more about me than it does about this story?

In addition to preparing this sermon, here are a few other things that happened to me this past week.  I officiated a funeral service last weekend – for someone outside the saint ben’s community – and it got me thinking about my Grandmother, who also died this past year.

It is true to say that my Grandmother and I loved each other and we knew we loved each other. It is equally true to say that we didn’t really understand each other’s life choices. We both believed it was important to love and serve God, but we had very different views on what that service should – and even could look like.

My grandmother was a pastor’s wife. I’m a pastor.

Once, when I was in university I was visiting my Grandmother and we spent an afternoon looking through photo albums. As she thumbed through the pages of neatly organized photos and other memorabilia – mother day cards, wedding invitations - she told me story after story. I remember being so impressed by her quiet life of service and the care she had taken in preserving those memories.

I also realized, that in that household, there was no pastor, without a pastor’s wife. My grandfather’s service was more public, more noticeable, much easier to acknowledge and praise, but he only preached, taught, counseled and did all the things he did because when he went on a preaching trip, my grandmother washed and ironed his shirts and packed his suitcase.  And she managed the house and looked after the kids when he was away. And when he came home, she fed him. And not just sandwiches either.

They both served in very different ways, but to imply that one way of being was better than the other is to miss the point.  There are valid questions around the choices my Grandmother had and what she may had done if she’d had more options, but that is not the same as saying that the person who serves in a public way is doing something more important than the person who serves behind the scenes.

So perhaps, the challenge of this gospel isn’t simply to identify which side of  a black and white debate we side with.  Perhaps the question is not did Simon’s mother in law arise from her sick bed and make Jesus a sandwich or did she arise and take her place with the disciples. Perhaps she did both. Perhaps she arose from her bed, healed, a disciple of Jesus equal in his sight to all the other disciples… and then she made him a sandwich.

Perhaps, given that this is not the only example of service in the gospels, and it’s not even the only example of service performed by a woman in the gospels, perhaps there is no reason to infer from this passage that because one woman made a sandwich, all women have to make sandwiches. Maybe we can simply say, “sandwich making is a valid form of service.”  “

This is not to erase all the problematic questions the text raises such as “why does Mark identify this woman only by her relationship to Simon and not tell us her name?” or “given the patriarchal nature of the culture was she really free to choose the public sphere over the private one or was the kitchen really her only option?”  “Was sandwich making a choice or her only option?” Those are all good and valid questions.

But in asking them, and I am often guilty of this, we need to be careful not to rush to privilege some forms of service over others.

We need to work to remove barriers to some kinds of service – like the priesthood – so that more people can freely exercise their call to that form of ministry, while also being careful not to invalidate or create new types of barriers around other forms of service like ironing linens or baking communion bread, both essential acts of service that can sometimes be thought of as “women’s work,” that are currently being done by men in our community.

I’m a pastor, but I don’t have a wife. I will never be able to pastor in the way my Grandfather did, and that’s OK.  I’m a woman, but while I value the work by Grandmother did, I don’t want to be a pastor’s wife either.

Right now, in my basement on my drying rack, you’ll find tea towels I use in my kitchen, and some of the linens we use for communion hanging side by side. And there is something really beautiful and holy about that and it has something to teach me, if I’ll let it.

Kathleen Norris talks about this in her book, The Quotidian Mysteries.

She begins by describing her first experience  attending mass in a Roman Catholic church. The whole process felt strange and alien to her until she nudged her husband and said, “Look.,… look at that! The priest is cleaning up! He’s doing the dishes!”

She says that this realization, “brought the mass home to me and gave it meaning. It welcomed me, a stranger, someone who did not know the responses of the mass, or even the words of the sanctus. After the experience of the liturgy that had left me feeling disoriented, eating and drinking were something I could understand. That and the housework. This was my first image of the mass, my door in, as it were, and it has served me well for years.” (3)

I think it is good to challenge gospel texts and ask hard questions. If something makes us snort out loud, it’s especially good to wrestle with that.

But with this text in particular, I think we would be missing the point if we take it to mean that ways of serving that have sometimes been called “women’s work,” are either things that only women can do, or are things that are of lesser importance to other ways of serving.

Because not everyone loves writing sermons, and sometimes what a person really needs is a sandwich.  Thank God that we have people who can do both.

By the way, the details of our Lenten series are now up on the website and this year we are going to be exploring what Kathleen Norris calls “quotidian mysteries-” which is basically the fanciest way to say “ordinary things” I’ve ever heard.  We’re going to be exploring the various ways that some members of our community have found something beautiful and holy in the ordinary.  I’m really looking forward to it, and I hope you’ll be able to join us.

Amen.

 

 

 

 


Singing the Season's Songs: A Sermon for Sunday December 17, 2017

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 17, 2017.  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.

Because I know that you can’t see my footnotes when I’m speaking, I want you to know that large portions of what I’m going to share with you tonight come from Paul Fromberg’s excellent book, The Art of Transformation.

So our gospel story this evening is a familiar story.  The angel Gabriel is sent to Mary’s home in small town Galilee with a message.  “Greetings favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

And Mary thought, “That’s an odd way to greet someone, I wonder what’s going on?”

And Gabriel continued, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

And Mary said, “Cool. But that’s weird because I know how babies are made, and what you’re describing doesn’t match with anything I’ve ever heard before.”

And Gabriel says, “You’re right, it’s totally weird, but God likes weird and all the details are sorted. Don’t worry about it. And you know what else? Your relative Elizabeth, who is waaaaay to old to have a baby, is also pregnant. It’s all part of God’s plan to turn the world on its head.”

And Mary said, “Cool. Let’s do this.”

And they did.

After this meeting with Gabriel, and after Mary has had some time to think, she visits Elizabeth, a meeting that will inspire Mary to burst into song.  A song that we still sing to this day. A song that we have given the fancy name, “The Magnificat.”

This week I packed up a parcel to send to my Goddaughter.  It contains Christmas presents for her and her brother, a stack of CDs, and a note explaining that CDs are an ancient technology used to store music and I hope someone in her home still owns a machine old enough to play them.

I’ve sent her my collection of musicals because it turns out that this is something we have in common. Finding a particular musical, learning everything we can about it, learning every single word, and then moving on to the next one.  We both love musicals, and I want to share some of my favourites with her.

Some people claim they don’t like musicals, I’m married to such a person. Some people claim they don’t like musicals, but I suspect they are lying, I am married to such a person.

The most common reason I’ve heard for disliking musicals is that they are “so unrealistic, I mean, people don’t just go around breaking into song all the time.”

Which, I think is really sad, because personally, I break into song all the time. I even compose my own at a rate of about one- two songs per day.

Mike and I have the same conversation at least a few times a week. At some point he will pause, look at me very seriously and say, “Do you think anyone other than me has any idea how weird you are?”

And I say, “No, but go ahead and tell them.”

To which he replies, “There’s no point. No one would ever believe me.”

This usually occurs after he’s caught me singing my song of the day.

So maybe it’s weird to break out into song, but it’s also very, very Biblical.

People in the Bible break into song all the time. Cross over the red sea? Sing a song.  Sitting by the shores of Babylon? Sing a song.  Happy, angry, sad? Sing a song. Frustrated, joy-filled, mistreated by the ruling powers of the day? Sing a song.

There are about as many types of songs in the Bible as there are people willing to sing them. These songs express the whole range of human emotions and experiences. There’s even a whole book of really sexy songs, that we rarely use in church, called rather poetically, the “Song of Songs.”

The Book of Luke, where tonight’s gospel text is taken from, is also filled with people bursting into song. There are four in the early part of the book that are still prayed regularly today. Whenever we say “Glory to God” we’re echoing the angels’ song to the shepherds.  If you pray morning and evening prayer, you’ll likely pray with songs by Mary, Simeon, and Zachariah – or as we’re calling him at our 4pm service, “Mr. Z.” All of these songs are taken from Luke.

Maybe the gospel of Luke is actually a musical.

Shortly after the events detailed in tonight’s gospel passage, Mary decides to pay her cousin Elizabeth a visit and Paul Fromberg observes that “Mary arrives, unannounced and pregnant, at the home of her cousin Elizabeth and the scene ends in song: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’

In the next scene, Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, takes the stage to praise God’s strong, stick-by-you love to the people at the birth of their son, John: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, looking favorably on us and redeeming us.” After Jesus is born, the angels tear heaven open and sing their heads off about the glory of God that is crashing into our world: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” And then old Simeon will creak through his song of mercy spreading from the light of the baby Jesus: ‘My eyes have seen your salvation.’

When people come to the limits of their lives, they sing. People sing in these liminal spaces because singing is the only thing that makes sense when you’re faced with a mystery.

Mary’s song is particularly powerful in the face of the mystery she bears in her body. She sings it as if the good news she bears is already accomplished: “You cast down the might from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”

She recognizes something about God that we still have trouble getting: God is siding with all of the beaten and excluded people that have dared to sing in the face of suffering and subjugation. Ever since there have been people who were denied their essential dignity, God has been right there, right next to them, preparing a way out of all that darkness. God has always been like this, and the ones like Mary, the ones who see that truth plainly, finally have all of the world’s power; that is worth singing.” (106)

As many of you know we take Advent very seriously around here and it’s a practice that I have developed a deep appreciation of over the past ten years or so that I’ve been coming here.  One of the major objections I’ve heard from people who are skeptical of the practice is that they love Christmas carols so much they can’t imagine having to wait to sing them until the 25th of December.  They could get behind Advent if it had a better soundtrack.

Well, maybe it’s because I spent so many years working in retail, or maybe it’s because I think some of the most beautiful music this community has ever composed is Advent music, but I can’t think of a better way to ruin the beauty of either season, then listening to what our society calls “Christmas music” for two solid months.  I had to run into the post office the other day and that 15 minutes of music was more than enough for me.

That music – which contained a mix of songs about Rudolph and the Baby Jesus – demanded nothing of me other than a sort of  “sentimental nostalgia” for a time when all will be calm, and all will be bright, and everyone will be happy because it’s Christmas.

It’s a tempting kind of music, it can tend to stick in our heads, but it does not satisfy. It’s a song that tells us that we are not enough, that we will never be enough. It is not good news.

But we can sing, right along with Mary, a very different kind of song. A song filled with good news. A song that invites us to image a different way of being, a song that invites us to participate in the re-creation and redemption of this world.

Personally, I love the fact that when everyone around me seems to be getting more and more stressed out trying to arrange for a “perfect” Christmas, this community calls me into the waiting of Advent. And then, when everyone around me has grown tired of the carols and their Christmas trees have lost all their needles, I can settle in for 12 whole days of Christmas – complete with an Itunes playlist containing multiple versions of all my favourite carols.

Seven years ago this community released a book called “Beautiful Mercy” which I have to admit that until recently has been gathering dust on the shelf but I’m rediscovering it now and it’s a really stunning piece of work.

It includes a CD of music written by people in this community, including a version of Mary’s song by Jaylene Johnson.  It’s a song filled with good news of, as the title suggests, “Amazing Love.”

My favourite line in this version is “My soul sings, God is great, and my spirit lets down her weight.”

Singing does this for me. It helps me realize what is weighing me down and it helps me set down that weight, even if I know I will soon need to pick it back up again. Even when I know that my words of praise are less an accurate reflection of how I am feeling in that moment and more of an act of defiance.   I don’t always sing about peace, joy, hope, and love because I am feeling those things. Sometimes as I am singing my soul is heavy with a longing to feel them.

Singing can be an act of comfort, an act of praise, an act of defiant hope.

“[When we sing, we] claim the right that God gives us to pay attention to the Good News, and sing in the face of the bad news. Singing lifts us out of the world where the weak are dominated by the powerful, and the shame of the ashamed is increased. Singing helps us see the world the way that God sees it: always filled with the potential for transformation and beauty.” (107)

Singing allows our spirits to let down their weight.

“When we take up Mary’s counter-cultural song, we can actually sing out our lives not for what they are now, but for what God promises: a life full of courage, freedom, and love that imitates the same stick-by-youness that is the very definition of God’s love. The God of whom Mary sings is the God who delights in what is small and insignificant in the estimation of all the big deals and power brokers in the world. It is God’s delight to take the most insignificant people imaginable and give them the power to do extraordinary things. That is God’s promise.” (107)

To gather together on a cold dark December evening to sing together “may seem like a small thing in the face of the worries of this present darkness. But it has always been from such small things that greater light spreads across the world.” (107)

So let’s sing. Let’s sing songs of hope in the face of despair during Advent.  Let’s sing of peace, joy, hope and love coming from the root of Jesse. Let’s sing songs of “Joy to the World” and “Tidings of Great Joy” during the Christmas season.  Let’s sing Mary’s defiant song of a world turned upsidedown by God’s amazing love to magnify the greatness of our God.

And when we sing, may we sing like we really mean the words we’re singing – whether that’s because we believe each word with all our heart, our because we’re holding out a defiant kind of hope that, despite the fact that we can’t believe today, we may be able to believe tomorrow.

May our singing be filled with a longing for beauty, for a better world than the one we experienced today. May our singing let others know that they are welcome to join in the song. May our singing be free from the shame that we’ve been taught to connect to the quality of our voices.

What is your song like these days? I don’t necessarily mean, what is the song that when you hear it you turn up the volume proclaiming, “It’s my song!” I mean, what is capturing your attention? What is closest to your heart?

Is it a hymn of praise? of lament? of wonder? of impatience? Have you perhaps become so busy that you’re not even sure? Have you forgotten how to listen to and sing your own song?

It’s can be a very worthwhile exercise to reflect on the songs that impact you deeply – those from scripture, popular culture, and the ones you write for yourself.

Where have you experienced moments of pure joy or wonder? When was the last time you let yourself play or embrace a childlike sense of wonder without worrying if other people might think you’re weird?

What are the things you hold closest to your heart? The things you might be hesitant to share with other people. The things that make you tear up when you try to express them.  What are you longing for this Advent?

If you have stopped singing. If you feel so tired and wounded that you don’t even feel up to a song of lament, be gentle with yourself and ask these questions: When was the last time you sang? Why did you stop? What would it take to begin to sing again?

Whatever your song is, I hope you find time to sing it. Whatever your song is, I hope you can honour the feelings and the emotions that it expresses.

And I hope you’ll find time not just to sing that metaphorical song, but I hope you’ll find time over this next year to literally sing with other people, to sing with us.

In our current culture, it’s a weird thing to sing with other people, it’s a weird thing to defiantly declare that those on the margins of society are loved, and valued, it’s a weird things to proclaim that this world isn’t all there is and that better things are coming and then to get excited to work towards those changes.

So let’s keep the weird in the season, let’s sing our songs whatever they may be, and let’s listen to the songs of those around us lend our voices.

Amen.


Trimmed and Burning: A Sermon for Sunday November 12, 2017

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 12, 2017.  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.

When I was in grade 9 I made a plan for my life. I knew exactly where I wanted to go to school after high school and I knew exactly what it would take to make that possible. Every decision I made over the next couple of years was a part of my plan. I did all the right things – took advanced classes, agonized over every grade, and participated in as many extra curricular activities as was humanly possible… and then I did a few more.

And then I wasn’t accepted to my dream school, I didn’t even make the short list, and I had no idea what to do next. It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be accepted and so I had never thought about what I would do if that happened.

I was surprised, and I don’t like being surprised, and I was hurt, and I don’t like to be hurt, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do next. And, while I hope I am getting better at this, I REALLY don’t like not knowing what to do next.

I’ve always found that the best way for me to sort out my feelings is by walking and so after I got the news that my life wasn’t going to work out the way I had planned, I took a lot of long walks in the woods behind our house. Just me, my dog, and my thoughts.

I didn’t literally walk around with the psalms in my pocket, but Psalm 43 is a pretty decent paraphrase of what I was thinking as I walked and walked and walked.

“Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause… why had you cast me off? Why must I walk about mournfully because of the oppression of the enemy?”

That’s how I felt, cast off, rejected, and oppressed, with the depth of feeling that perhaps only a sixteen year old can really understand.

This Wednesday night at our Anglicanism 101 series, I’m going to talk in more depth about my daily practice of praying the psalms, but tonight I’ll just highlight how grateful I am for the inclusion of psalms like this one that speak exactly to the condition of feeling let down, attacked, and rejected. Sometimes when I pray a psalm like this it is an exact reflection of how I am feeling and the psalms help provide words when I have none.

But sometimes, when I get up and pray with psalms like this one they don’t resonate with how I am feeling at all. Thankfully, I don’t wake up every single day feeling oppressed. I wake up every single day feeling grumpy, I am not a morning person, annoyed yes, but not oppressed. And on those days if I’m paying attention, I know that there is someone who is feeling oppressed and I can pray these words on their behalf, or I know that I have certainly felt that way before and I feel grateful that I do not feel that way in the present moment.

Psalm 43 ends this way: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.”

I love that the Psalmist doesn’t expect us to move to the place of praise by the end of the Psalm, the psalmist merely asks us to have hope that the way we are currently feeling is not the way we will always feel. We may feel there is no reason to praise God in this particular moment, and we don’t have to pretend that we do, rather, we can be honest about how we are feeling, holding on to the hope that we will not always feel this way.

 Despite my carefully crafted plans and best efforts, life isn’t something that can be predicted or controlled. We can set a goal, put everything we have into meeting that goal, and not achieve it. We can apply for the dream job, and not get it. We can think we know what’s going to happen next, and we can be utterly surprised by the way things actually turn out.

It hurt to find out I wasn’t going to go to my dream school and it left me shaken for a time. Thankfully, the experience hasn’t stopped me from dreaming big and putting myself out there. Sometimes I am successful, sometimes I am not. I hope I am getting better at realizing that my value and my worth are not tied up in whether or not I am indeed successful.

I hope, that like the psalmist, when it seems that everyone is out to get me, I am able to honour that reality, be gentle with myself, and hold onto the hope that there are better days yet to come.

Our gospel reading for tonight could be described as a story of 5 successful and five unsuccessful bridesmaids.

This story is, a story, a parable meant to make a point. Jesus isn’t reporting the events of an actual wedding he’s attended recently, he is making up a story in order to make a point.

It’s a story about a wedding. A wedding that has some different customs than the ones we are used to.

10 bridesmaids are invited to be a part of this wedding and as part of their role as bridesmaids they are expected to wait at a specific place with lit lamps with the bridegroom arrives.

And all 10 bridesmaids are ready to fulfill their role. They all show up at the appointed time and place with lamps filled with oil.

But something unexpected happens, the groom is delayed, he does not arrive on time and so the 10 women need to wait longer than expected, they need to wait long into the night for his arrival.

And here is where we find out what distinguishes the bridesmaids that Jesus describes as wise, from the ones Jesus describes as foolish.

5 of the women bring extra oil and Jesus says they were wise to do so and 5 don’t bring any extra oil. Jesus calls them foolish.

At first glance, it seems that the 5 women who bring the extra oil aren’t wise, they are lucky. Or even uptight. Even though the groom has taken much longer to arrive than anyone expected and they have been forced to wait for him late into the night – all the lamps are still burning, they are running out of oil, but they are still burning. This implies that under normal circumstances, the lamps held enough oil for the wedding procession. It wasn’t necessary to bring any extra along.

The women whose lamps are burning out ask the women with the extra oil to share with them but they refuse to help, so the foolish women leave to try and buy some oil.

And while they are out shopping, the groom arrives, and everyone heads into the wedding feast and they shut the door behind them.

The foolish women – who under normal circumstances would have had enough oil and would have had no need to leave to purchase more –are late to the party.

Now remember that Jesus is telling this story in order to explain something about the Kingdom of God.

When something is too large, too complicated, or too mysterious for us to comprehend, we often try to explain it by comparing it to something else. “My love is like a red, red rose…” for example. We know that my love is NOT actually a red rose, but rather there is something about our shared understanding of red roses that provides an insight into the nature of my love.

In the same way, when we read this parable we know that the kingdom of heaven must be like the wedding celebration Jesus is describing but it is not a one for one comparison. – the kingdom of heaven is NOT a wedding with 10 Bridesmaids, it is LIKE a wedding with 10 bridesmaids. The parable is meant to tell us something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it doesn’t tell us everything about it.

A seminary professor of mine liked to say, “all metaphors limp.” Or in the case of today’s gospel passage, “all similes limp.” The nature of similes is that in order to highlight one element of the thing they mean to explain, they often hide or muddle other elements.

For example, my love may be like a red red rose in that it is beautiful like a rose or precious like a rose, but I probably don’t mean that my love is like a red, red rose – full of thorns that will make you bleed, and likely to die in a short period of time. If my goal is to swear my undying love to you then the simile about a rose is helpful, but it also limps.

So what element of the kingdom of heaven is this parable trying to highlight, and what elements of the kingdom of heaven is it obscuring?

10 women are invited to be part of a wedding and they all arrive at the appointed place with lamps filled with oil to fulfill their role as bridesmaids. 5 have a clear idea of how long a wedding is supposed to take and so they plan accordingly – filling their lamps with oil. 5 are prepared for the possibility that things may take much longer than expected, and bring extra oil.

Why would some women bring one lamp’s worth of oil and others would bring enough to refill their lamps?

I wonder, if the foolish women were foolish simply because they thought they had an understanding of how weddings were supposed to work, they thought they knew how long a wedding was supposed to take and they planned accordingly.

What is so foolish about that? What is foolish about having a good understanding of how a wedding is supposed to work and planning accordingly?

I wonder if the point that Jesus is trying to make is this – be prepared to be surprised. Don’t think you know how all of this is going to work out. Don’t make plans according to how you expect things will happen. Because things may not happen the way you expect them to, they may take longer than you think.

You may think you know exactly how your life is supposed to turn out, you may think you know exactly what university you’re supposed to go to and just what it will take to be accepted, and you might not get in.

Be prepared to be surprised.

The bible is full of stories of people who are surprised by Jesus. People who think they know what a Messiah will be like.

And Jesus is not what they are expecting.

Some are willing to be surprised and they see Jesus for who he is. Some remain so locked in their preconceived notions of what a Messiah should be that they don’t recognize Jesus as all.

In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there are people who think they have the timeline figured out. They think they know what’s going to happen next.

And they are not prepared to be surprised.

This happened when Jesus was alive, and it happened in the time period when these gospel narratives were being written down and it continues to happen today.

In the time when the gospels were being written down, people were starting to realize that perhaps Jesus wasn’t going to return in the next couple of days and they might need to rethink a few things. They might need to start writing these stories about Jesus down before the people who remembered them were too old to keep telling them.

They might need to start doing some long term planning.

They might need to begin to settle in for the long haul of history.

They might need some extra oil.

They might need to be prepared to be surprised.

We might need that too.

Now what are we going to do with those troubling final verses? The verses where the foolish women pound on the door crying, “Lord, lord, open to us” and the response they receive is, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Followed by Jesus’ warning in verse 13, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Verses like this make me squirm, they are some of the first ones I’d cut out of the bible if I could.

You see I know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in at a party I want to be at but haven’t been invited to. And I’m sure that many of you have had the same experience. It’s not a good feeling, and I don’t want to have any part if making other people feel that way if I can help it.

So if I could just cut these verses out, I would. This week as I was preparing I thought, maybe I just won’t mention this last bit.

But then I wondered, what would happen if I let this text surprise me?

And I started asking questions.

What if the foolish women had decided to stick around even though their lamps were burning out? What if they had decided that just their presence was enough? What if they had decided that being present when the Bridegroom arrived was more important than having it all together?

I’d like to think that they would have been welcomed, burnt out lamps and all. I think there is a decent amount of Biblical evidence that they would have been welcomed into that party, just as they were.

Because I don’t know if it’s OK to go to a party without enough oil for your lamp, but I know it’s impossible to go to a party if you don’t show up.

Jesus is using this story to try and explain something about the nature of the kingdom of heaven but it is not a stand-alone story. It needs to be read in context.   It needs to be read in the context of stories where Jesus says God is like a shepherd who gets 99 sheep safely into the pen and is not content until he also goes and finds the one sheep that is still missing. (Matthew 18:12) And that God is like a women who hunts for a lost coin until she finds it and when she does, she wants to celebrate with everyone she knows.

And this gospel needs to be read in the context of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 7:7-8 “Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you…”

 And the foolish women are knocking.

Maybe this isn’t the end of the story.

Maybe the foolish women need to have a little more confidence in the Bridegroom.

Maybe the foolish women need to keep knocking.

We can take a passage like today’s gospel text and wrestle with it and be prepared to be changed by the process of wrestling with it, not with the discovery of an easy answer.

We can be prepared to be surprised. We can keep knocking. We can pack a little extra oil for the journey.

And we can remember that one of the things that Jesus is trying to tell us in today’s gospel reading is that the kingdom of heaven is like a party.

And it would be such a shame if anyone for any reason thought they weren’t invited to the party.

Because we are all invited, and it’s a party worth attending.

So keep knocking, pack a little extra oil for the journey, and be prepared to be surprised along the way. Amen.


Making Room at the Table: A Sermon for Sunday October 9, 2017

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 9, 2017.  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 of our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

First of all, my apologies to all of you, and especially to the folks listening to this in podcast land, I will do my best to keep the sniffles to a minimum, but I have a horrible cold.

The lectionary has had us hanging out in the gospel of Matthew for quite some time now and this week I got the sense that I was becoming so fixated on the details of some of these individual stories that I was losing track of the big picture.  So yesterday I decided to read the whole gospel straight through.

And this may say a whole lot more about me than the actual gospel but the word I would use to describe my experience of reading the gospel of Matthew yesterday is “intense.” This is no leisurely romp through a life story.

Jesus is born, grows up, heals all sorts of people and then he spends a good portion of the gospel engaging in something like an extended job interview that is being conducted by a panel of people who don’t seem to realize that Jesus already has the job, and that they were never asked to be part of the “who will be the messiah” hiring committee in the first place.  It’s test after test after trick question after test.

That faux hiring committee then arranges to have Jesus killed, he dies, and then comes back to life.

And Matthew’s gospel tells this entire story in the space of a typical book chapter rather than say, the more leisurely pace of the entire Harry Potter series.

It’s intense.

Today’s gospel reading begins with the words, ‘Listen to another parable…”  We’re still right in the middle of this extended job interview that’s not really a job interview and we’re going to see a repetition of a number of the same themes that Jamie has been identifying over the past few weeks – questions of authority and issues of scarcity and abundance.

In today’s parable we have a landowner who plants a vineyard, digs a wine press, builds a fence and a watchtower.  He then leases the operation out to some tenants and leaves for another country.

When the grapes are ripe and ready to be harvested, the landowner sends his slaves to the tenants to collect his share of the produce. But what ensues is not some idyllic Thanksgiving scene where a meal is prepared and everyone sits down to give thanks for the harvest and eat waaay too much pie and drink waaaay too much wine.

Instead, the tenants are anything but grateful for the arrival of the landowner’s slaves. They seize them, beat them, and kill several of them. The landlord then sends more of his slaves and finally his own son, and they all receive the same treatment at the hands of the tenants.

So then Jesus asks the chief priests and Pharisees a question, “What will the owner of the vineyard do to these tenants? (40)

And they reply, not only should these tenants be put to death, it should be a miserable death. (41)

Then, in verse 42 Jesus says, “Have you never read in the scriptures, the stone the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone…?”

Suddenly Jesus switches from parable to prophecy, from agriculture to architecture and from murder and death to new life.  The death and resurrection of Jesus lurks in the background of the parable but the foreground is occupied by the drama of privilege taken from one group and given to another.  More on this later.  (I found this lovely turn of phrase in some old notes. I’m sure they are not original to me, but I’m not sure who deserves the credit.)

Sometimes, I need to step back and take in the bigger picture – read the entire gospel, but sometimes, I find it is equally helpful to zoom in and focus on a specific detail in the story.

And this week I spent a fair amount of time thinking about cornerstones.

I’ve never built a building or laid a cornerstone, but as I understand it, the cornerstone is a stone, placed at the corner of the foundation of a new building and every other stone is then placed in relation to that stone. It’s the reference point for the rest of the structure.

Sometimes on important buildings, a date or inscription will be engraved on the cornerstone and they’ll even have a special gathering when they lay that particular stone.

And in this parable Jesus is telling us that he is the cornerstone.  He is this stone that is laid at the corner of a building to make sure that everything else is built properly.

And I have to say that I can’t think of a duller, less inspiring image to use to describe Jesus, the Son of God who was sent to save the world.  Jesus is the stone that makes sure things are built nice and square. He’s a stone that we commemorate with a fancy inscription and maybe a photo op followed by tea and cookies. He keeps things neat, and orderly and in their proper place. He spruces up the joint a bit with all that fancy lettering, but ultimately he doesn’t really do all that much.

There has to be more to this Jesus is the cornerstone business than that.

So yesterday I walked around the church and found the cornerstone and rather than a moment of clarity I had a moment of incredulity.

When Jesus describes himself as the cornerstone, he is quoting from the Psalms (Psalm 118:22).   He tells us that the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone and that anyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces and that it will crush anyone on whom it falls.

The cornerstone of this church has a fancy inscription on it – you can go for a walk sometime and find it for yourselves – but when I looked at it I thought, how important could this stone really be? I mean I doubt if I was able to pull it out like a jenga block that the entire church would topple over, and it doesn’t seem big or powerful enough to break me to pieces if I tripped over it and, given that it sits at about knee height I also don’t feel like I’m any real danger of having it crush me if it were to fall on me. I mean, it might do some serious damage to my toes but overall I’d come off unscathed.

Now I know that it is usually a huge mistake to try to use modern day practices to understand a biblical image, so I did some research and I came across a different image of a cornerstone that was well, way more inspiring.

When you build a wall around a city, you also need to build openings so people can come in and out.  If you’ve ever had a chance to look at one of these arched openings you’ll see that the bricks curve slightly as you get to the top of the arch where they will meet at a single brick – the keystone. Now if you take that one stone out of the structure, the whole thing falls apart and if you happened to be standing underneath is, you would be crushed. That stone is, in fact, key to the integrity of the entire structure.

Jesus isn’t simply a stone you should stick in the corner of your life to make sure everything lines up nicely. An ornamental object you dust from time to time but ultimately don’t spend too much time thinking about, Jesus is the stone that supports everything else in your life. The stone that, if removed, sends everything else toppling to the ground.

Now that’s a pretty important stone.

But the scripture that Jesus is quoting pushes that image even further by stating that the cornerstone, despite its importance, won’t be the very best stone the builders can possibly find, it will be a stone taken from the reject pile.

Which is the kind of stone we usually like to ignore, not engrave with dates and fancy words or build our entire lives around. What is Jesus up to?

The chief priests and Pharisees would like Jesus to stay in the reject pile. They realize with this parable Jesus is saying that they are the bad tenants and they are none too happy about it.  Jesus will need to be dealt with, but not today when he is surrounded by so many of his supporters.

So they didn’t like the parable, but how does it sit with us today? What’s your reaction?

One possible response is to heave a sigh of relief that there is nothing in this parable that challenges you or your way of life.  The Pharisees are clearly the bad guys in the story, and well, we’re not the Pharisees right?  We’re the good tenants who will be given the vineyard after the Pharisees are thrown out and killed. Right?

I think we are often too quick to put ourselves in the role of the hero in parables like this and it can cause all sorts of problems. If we are already the good guys, where is the challenge or opportunity for growth? If we are already the good guys, how easy is it for us to slip into the same self-righteous judgment as the chief priests and Pharisees?

I don’t think this story was included in Mathew’s gospel so that we could feel smug and receive a pat on the back, I think it’s included to give us a kick in the pants.

Because even if it is a correct interpretation to say that this parable shows that the followers of Jesus Christ would become the new tenants in God’s vineyard, how quickly did those new tenants start acting just like the chief priests and Pharisees?

So let’s take some time tonight to reflect on the things we may have in common with the bad tenants.

First, the tenants are acting as if they are the owners of the vineyard. As if they are the only people who have the rights to be on that land and enjoy the harvest it produces.  They are acting like owners, not renters.

Too often we have treated this world like something we own, something we can do with as we please, and where has that gotten us?  Climate change, strip mining, pollution and a host of other environment challenges that stem from a mindset that we can do whatever we want with this earth.

How do you in your daily life interact with the natural world? Do you view it as a commodity that you can use however you choose? Do you see it as a gift to be cared for, protected, and nurtured?

Second, the tenants seem to be locked into a scarcity mentality. There is nothing in the parable to suggest that after the landowner took his share of the profits that there wouldn’t also be more than enough for the tenants to live comfortably.  But rather than accepting that there is more than enough to go around, they are holding onto everything for themselves.

I can’t even begin to wrap my mind around the shooting in Las Vegas earlier this week. I can’t even begin to reconcile the fact that an event of that nature has become almost routine. I have no idea why that man chose to do what he did.

But I do know, that a lot of the rhetoric I have heard surrounding this and other tragedies like it comes from a scarcity mentality.  People who, for far too long, have been taking up too much room at the table are afraid that they are going to lose their place. They’re afraid, and they are making decisions –dangerous and violent decisions -out of that fear.

They don’t realize that making room at the table will require them to make some adjustments, but it doesn’t have to mean there won’t be a seat for them.

Realizing you have privilege and learning to let go of some of that privilege can be incredibly difficult and does require some sacrifice but it isn’t something we need to fear.

Because the truth is that in God’s economy there is always more room at the table, room enough for everyone. And the meal is more pleasant when everyone has a seat.

Where are the places in your own life that you lean more into the lie of scarcity than into the truth of God’s abundance? What are you afraid to let go of for fear that there won’t be enough? Money? Food? Love?  What would happen if you began to let go of some of that scarcity mentality and lean into God’s abundance? What would you discover is you scooted over and room for someone else at the table?

Lastly, the tenants are not willing to make room for other people in the vineyard.

When Europeans first came to North America they came both with a belief that they could be the owners of any land they found, and with a scarcity mentality that said there wasn’t enough resources for everyone. Just like those wicked tenants, they wanted to keep everything for themselves and they were willing to kill anyone who challenged that way of life.

We are still dealing with the wounds created by that mentality and in many ways we are still living in a system that upholds that mentality.

It can feel like such a small thing, but every time I attend a gathering and I hear a territorial acknowledgement, I am reminded that there is a different and better way for me to think about my relationship to this land and to the various people who call it home.  It’s a small, but powerful reminder that there is a different, better way to live.

Where are the places in your life where you may be taking up too much room? Where could you make space for other people in the vineyard?

Over the past year we’ve had a number of different voices speaking from this music stand and the only reason that could happen is because Jamie chose to make room. If he had said, “I am the preacher and you’re going to have to pry this music stand out of my cold, dead hands,” then we never would have heard from those other voices and you wouldn’t be hearing from me tonight.

He made room.

Thanks Jamie. I am so grateful that you did make room not just for me, but for other voices as well.  And now I need to be aware that I have the choice to hang onto my piece of this music stand until my knuckles turn white. I can lean into they myth of scarcity, believing that I have taken up the last possible inch of available space or I can lean into abundance and look for ways to make room for others as well.

Where else can we make room? How can we be more attentive to the barriers that are keeping people from full participation in the life of our city and of the life of this church community and help to make some more room?  Because the truth is there is always more room at the table.

We are tenants on this earth, and it is a good place to call home. Harvest and thanksgiving give us such tangible examples of God’s love and abundance. May we truly celebrate these good things, and may we continue to find ways to make room for others at the table.

 

Amen.


Sniffing Out the Good News: A Sermon for Sunday September 10, 2017

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 10, 2017.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

At a church I used to pastor, we had these big log books where we would record important events in the life of the community – baptisms, marriages, and deaths. The first time I baptized someone, the church’s administrative assistant got the books out of the safe for me to update. In a world where almost everything is computerized, I was fascinated by these big old volumes so I decided to spend a little bit of time flipping through the pages, reading the names and running my fingers along the dates and the details.

Jane Doe, baptized, July 23, 1952.   John Smith, baptized, August 15th, 1952 and so on.

And then I found a section where the pages began to tell a different kind of story. John Doe, baptized November 2nd, excommunicated May 18th. Jane Smith, baptized, October 9th, excommunicated, January 16th.      As I ran my fingers over the names and the word “excommunicated” next to entry after entry I couldn’t help but think, there is a story behind each one of these entries. A difficult story. Stories that are still impacting the life of this church, even if we never talk about them.

Theologian and pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says that excommunication is just a fancy way of talking about kicking people out of the church and my former church’s record book told the story of people who were welcomed into the community through baptism, and people who had been kicked out of that community through excommunication.

A person whose story includes being kicked out of a church or having a loved one kicked out of a church is going to bring that experience to this passage – whether it was a formal excommunication process, or the strong sense that because of who they are they are no longer welcome or would never be welcome. That experience impacts how they hear this gospel passage. No one comes to a text as a blank slate.

Context matters. Experience matters. Our story matters.

But despite the diverse nature of this congregation and the wealth of experiences you all bring with you, I believe that this passage contains good news for all of us, and that part of my job is to try and help us to see it.

So where is the good news in this passage for this community? For you as an individual? For myself?

What I’d like to do tonight is offer a few hunches. I spent the week acting like a dog hunting for a bone, sniffing out the good news. And I hope you will do the same tonight. Give each of these ideas the sniff test. Do they smell like good news to you?[1]

[1] Thanks to Kalyn Falk for this image.

I hope so, but it’s OK if they don’t.  And I’m open to further conversation with any of you about any of these things throughout the week, just get in touch with me.

I believe that the first piece of good news in Matthew 18:15-20 is this: sin and conflict exist. They are a natural part of life, and while we shouldn’t run headlong into these sorts of behaviours, we can’t pretend that we will never experience them.

So when you sin, and when you find yourself in conflict with another person you can say to yourself, “Hallelujah! I’m totally normal!”

Which is good news right?

I think it would be great news if we could all lean into having a more positive attitude towards conflict because a lot of what can get weird when we are in conflict with someone else comes from our sense that it is wrong to simply be in conflict.  If we view conflict as abnormal, the fact that a conflict exists means we are already doing something wrong and that makes us uncomfortable.

But the presence of conflict doesn’t mean we’re abnormal, it means we’re human.

The second piece of good news in this passage is that when sin and conflict occur, there are things we can do about them. We aren’t helpless. We don’t just have to suffer under their weight; we can act, change, and grow.

Matthew 18 is not directly applicable to every form of conflict, and it has been misused, but it does provide us with a framework for handling situations when someone in the church has hurt us.

But does this framework contain any good news for us today?

Verse 15 says, “ “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

So a couple of things to note here. First of all, this is a plan that has a context, the context of Christian community. Although these steps may be applicable to other situations and relationships, this plan assumes that the people involved have a relationship, that they care about each other, and that their relationship is based in part on their shared membership in the church.  There is a base upon which to build.

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to figure out just what the phrase, “sinned against you” means, but I think it is less important to make a list of sins or to work to define what exactly it means to be “sinned against,” then it is to note that this text is showing us that the result of sin is a breach in relationship. There is a breach in the relationship, there is a wound, and that wound needs to be healed. This particular passage is not focussed on every consequence of sin, it is focussed on the way sin impacts human relationships.

So if someone has sinned against you, if a breach has been created in the relationship, then Jesus is telling us to go and talk to the person about it in private.  Choosing to deal with the matter one on one in private allows the person to hear what you have to say with minimal shame. Which is a good thing, because shame makes us behave in weird and unhelpful ways.

Jesus is setting up a process that focuses not on the sin itself, but on the impact of that sin on the relationship.  Jesus is aware that we will tend to experience shame in these kinds of situations and is sensitive enough to minimize that potential. That sounds like good news to me too.

The passage is also saying that when someone hurts you, you shouldn’t simply ignore it.  Which also means that Jesus is acknowledging that sin hurts us and that hurt should be taken seriously.   I don’t know about you but too often in my life I’ve been encouraged to minimize situations where I have been hurt, or to ignore them entirely.  Today it feels like good news to imagine Jesus standing before me and saying,  “No, that did hurt you, and that hurt has impacted your life. You don’t have to pretend that it didn’t just to make other people feel more comfortable.”

So let’s review the process: If someone sins against you, the hurt is real. The wound is real. It may be a small scratch or something life threatening, but it exists.   And when that happens, you need to acknowledge the wound and go and talk to the person who hurt you in private, and if they hear you, if they realize they have indeed wounded you and they seek to repair that wound, great! The two of you can continue to work together to heal that wound and deepen your relationship.

But if they don’t, bring a second person with you, and if that doesn’t work, bring another member of the community, and if that doesn’t work, involve the rest of the community. Involve the church. And if that doesn’t work, treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector.

Now I have had some really good experiences with this process. Experiences where someone has come to me and let me know that I hurt them and how that impacted them and I was able to apologise and correct my mistake and we remain in relationship. And I’m grateful that they didn’t just cut me out of their life or complain about me for hours to their friends but instead gave me a chance to make it right.

These positive experiences have become a part of my story, and they have helped me to develop the confidence to engage in bigger, more challenging conflicts because they taught me that engaging in a challenging conversation can have good results. Even if it’s really hard at the time.

I’ve also had some harder experiences with this process. Experiences where people used the form of the process to tell me they were unhappy with something I’d done without also using the spirit of the process – with its focus on healing a relationship.  They came, quoted these verses, informed me I had “sinned against them,” dropped the mic, and walked away. There was no dialogue, no chance to process, no chance to heal the breach in the relationship. In these experiences Matthew 18 felt more like a weapon than a tool of reconciliation.

And I’ve also had the experience of going to someone and saying, “You have hurt me,” and they weren’t wiling to listen. And so I brought someone else with me and again I said, “You have hurt me,” and … nothing. And I have gone all the way to the end of this Matthew 18 process and still there was no movement on their part. So now, this person is to me like “a Gentile or a tax collector.”

And I grieved that, and I’m still grieving that.

And I don’t think it is sugar coating things in any way to say that in that grief there is also good news.

Because while it is painful and it is not a learning process I would wish on anyone else, I think my grief is teaching me what is means to treat someone as a Gentile or a tax collector. I think it is teaching me how God wants us to think about people that we can’t be in a healthy relationship with. I think there is some good news in there, even if I don’t always see it.

And I’m going to unpack that a little bit more in a minute, but there is something I want to say first.

It is really important for me to emphasize that there is an essential first step that you have to practice if you’re ever going to engage someone in a Matthew 18 style conversation, and it’s a step that is often missed.  It’s also the essential first step if you want to practice forgiveness, which is a related, but different practice we don’t have time to get into in detail tonight.

Sometimes when someone hurts us it’s a tiny scratch. Sometimes it’s a bite, and sometimes it can be life threatening. Sin always hurts, but some of the ways that we sin against each other are more damaging than others.

So if you want to, on one hand, work through a process of healing a relationship or forgiving someone who has hurt you.[2] If your right hand is going to walk through these steps, then before you can do that, your left hand needs to go up and say, “No more abuse.” Sometimes, because the hurt is minor and the relationship strong, that’s an easy thing to do. You can hold up your left hand and say “No more abuse,” freeing your right hand to work through the steps of the Matthew 18 process. But sometimes, it may take all of your strength just to hold up that one hand that says, “No more abuse,” and that will be all you can handle. And that’s OK. The other hand can wait.

[2] Thanks to Fr. Matt Linn for this illustration.

Sometimes, holding up that hand that says, “No more abuse,” will be even more than you can handle and that’s OK too. You may need to enlist the help of friends you trust, or the authorities, or both.

To often verses like Matthew 18 have been used to send people back into abusive situations and I want to say as clearly as I possible can that that is wrong.

So step one: No more abuse.

That is the starting point. And I hope that sounds like good news.

There is one final piece of good news I’d like to highlight from this passage tonight.  I think it is good news that we are supposed to treat people that we can’t be in a healthy relationship with as if they are Gentile and tax collectors.

So with the hand of “no more abuse” always firmly in place, what does it mean to treat someone like a Gentile or a tax collector?

Too often, I think we have made the mistake of treating these sorts of people the way the world treats Gentiles and tax collectors.   We’ve shunned them, reviled them, ridiculed them. We have declared that they are not welcome.

But that’s not how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors. And Matthew, who this gospel is named after knew that all too well because before Jesus chose him to be a disciple Matthew was a tax collector. [3]  And it seems to me that Matthew was never able to shake the fact that Jesus chose him, a tax collector, to be a disciple.

[3] This explanation of the gospel of Matthew’s view of tax collectors comes from Timothy J. Geddert’s book “Double Take: New Meanings From Old Stories.”

And I think that’ s the point.  I don’t think tax collectors are used as an example here by accident.

The book of Matthew places a unique emphasis on tax collectors. In chapter 9, we hear the story of Matthew’s decision to leave his work as a tax collector, when Jesus asks Matthew to follow him. In chapter 10 Matthew lists the names of all 12 disciples but he only includes the profession of one of them, “Simon, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Mathew, the tax collector, and so on…  It’s like he still can’t quite believe that he has been included in Jesus’ inner circle.

In chapter 11 Matthew Jesus responds to his critics who accuse him of being a  “friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Of course they think they are discrediting Jesus but Jesus quotes them as if to say, “Yes! You’ve got it! That’s exactly who I am!” And Matthew records the incident as if to say, “A friend to sinners and tax collectors? You bet he is!”

So what does it mean to treat someone like a tax collector?  Well, if Jesus is our guide in this, it means to love them, to care for them, to want to be in relationship with them.  And, if a relationship isn’t possible at this time, to hope and work for a day when one might be possible in the future.

It means to make sure we always keep up the hand that says, “No more abuse,” while also working to avoid turning our other hand into a fist. It means resisting the temptation to wound as we have been wounded. It means keeping our hand open to the possibility of reconciliation in the future.

And because I just can’t resist, here is some more good news. You are God’s beloved, no matter who you are, no matter what you have done, no matter how much money you have in your pockets, no matter what colour your skin is, no matter who you love.  You are God’s beloved even if you are a Gentile or a tax collector.

You are beloved.

And you are welcome.  God always stands with open arms of welcome waiting to embrace you.

And in a few minutes we’re going to move to the communion table, to Christ’s table, and you are welcome there too. You are always welcome.

You are beloved, and you are welcome.

And that’s good news. Amen.


You're Asking the Wrong Question: A Sermon for Sunday November 6, 2016

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 6, 2016.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

Before we begin to look at tonight’s gospel text, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that a little over two months ago, Kalyn Falk and I stood right here at the front of the church and this community blessed us as we stepped into new roles as lay pastors to this community for a six month term.

Since that time many of you have been praying for us, have offered us words of encouragement, and have offered to help in any way possible as we dove into this new work.  Your support has been so wonderful and Kalyn and I want you all to know how much we appreciate being held and supported by our community in this new season of ministry.

Thank you all so very much.

Let’s pray:

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

Tonight’s reading is taken from the end of chapter 20 of Luke’s gospel, a chapter the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible has helpfully titled, “The Authority of Jesus is Questioned.”  Tonight’s reading describes the last in a series of questions posed to Jesus by various groups who are seeking to challenge his authority and it begins like this: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question.”

As soon as I began reading today’s gospel in order to prepare to preach this evening, I was reminded that I am not, in fact, doing very well in my life long quest to be like Jesus because I would have approached this situation very differently than Jesus does.

One group of people asking me questions I could handle, two I might be able to deal with if I really stretched, but a third group? No way. By the time the Sadducees arrived on the scene I would either have had a meltdown, or left, or both.

But not Jesus, Jesus sticks around to listen to, and answer, the Sadducees’ question. Which is this:

“Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally, the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

A few things to note about this question before we go any further. First, the Sadducees are describing a hypothetical situation.  There is no actual woman who has recently died who they are concerned about.  They’ve made her up to prove a point.

This was an important thing for me to keep in mind as I have been chewing on this passage over this past week because it is easy for me to get fixated on this fictional woman and her fictional life.  Because, while this story may be based on a fictional family the situation described is also based on an actual practice known as “levirate marriage,” which is described in the book of Deuteronomy.  (Deut. 25:5-6)

If a woman’s husband died and she didn’t have any children, she was in serious trouble. There is a reason that the Bible regularly calls us to care for widows and orphans – these were the most vulnerable people, the ones most in need of care.

On a good day, I would describe levirate marriage as a way of protecting this woman.  This is a provision that ensures that someone – namely the dead man’s brother – is responsible to provide for her.  This is a law that could literally save her life.

On a bad day, I might point out that it’s also a system that treats women like property and ensures that property stays in a particular family – the woman, her land, and all the dead man’s possessions are simply goods to be transferred from the brother who has died to the living brother. It’s a simple and efficient system for transferring property – unless, of course, you happen to be that property.

I have a lot of questions about this system. And I am so very grateful to live in a day and age where our beliefs about marriage, while far from perfect, have evolved to the point where if I imagined the death of my spouse, my worst fear would be missing him, not fearing that now that I was destitute I would slowly starve to death. I am grateful to live in a time where no one would ever even suggest that I am my spouse’s property… at least not if they know what is good for them.

But Jesus doesn’t address these issues because Jesus knows both that this is a hypothetical family and that the Sadducees aren’t looking for a discussion on laws concerning marriage.

So remember, the people in the Sadducees’ story do not exist – there aren’t seven men in heaven wondering whose wife this poor, tired woman will be, and don’t forget that we’ve been told right at the beginning of the passage that the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection.  They are asking a question about what happens to made up people in a place they also believe is made up.

So why are the Sadducees asking this question?  Let’s think about that for a little bit…

Actually, we don’t need to think about it for very long, this is baiting pure and simple.

This woman doesn’t exist. The Sadducees don’t believe heaven exists and lest anyone doubt what they are trying to do, they create a ridiculous story to prove their point.  They could have asked the exact same question by using a hypothetical story of a woman who had been married twice. It makes the same point, she’s had two husbands, who will be her husband in the life to come?  But they add not one, not two, but five extra husbands for a total of seven – seven husbands -to the story in an attempt to show how ridiculous the notion of life after death is.

They are using a ridiculous example because they believe the idea of resurrection is ridiculous and they expect that Jesus will be unable to give a reasonable answer thus showing that both resurrection and taking Jesus seriously are ridiculous.

And I believe Jesus knows this and he could have just said, “stop being ridiculous!”

But he doesn’t.

Jesus responds to the question rather than the attitude prompting the question.  In other words, even though he knows this is a question meant to trap him he treats it seriously and says,

“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

None of these men would be the woman’s husband, because marriage does not exist in the age to come.

And that’s good news.

In other words, Jesus is saying your question is based on the assumption that the expectations and practices that apply in this life will apply in the next, and that’s false.  Resurrected life, in fact, transcends this life.  Just because something exists here, doesn’t mean it will exist in the age to come.

So there will not be marriage in the age to come, but there IS an age to come, despite what the Sadducees believe.

The next thing Jesus does is construct a clever argument using the Sadducees own scriptures to prove that there is actually a life after this one.  If you enjoy an academically inclined theological argument, you’ll probably love going through this one in great detail, but here are the basics:

Jesus knows that the Sadducees are playing a game and he has several options in how to respond.  He can complain that the rules of the game are unfair, he can flip over the board, walk away and refuse to play, or he can beat them at their own game.

I would probably choose option 1, Jesus chooses option 3.

The Sadducees believed that only the Pentateuch, the first five books of our modern day Bible, were authoritative.  So, using only examples from those five books, Jesus shows that it is possible to conclude that there is a life after this one. (Them: Deut 25:5-18, JC: Ext. 3:6)

Jesus’ argument is impeccable.  Remember that this interaction is part of a larger story where Jesus is being questioned by various groups of people on a variety of theological subjects, but his answer to the Sadducees’ question ends the interrogation.  In verses 39-40 we read, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher you have spoken well. For they no longer dared to ask him another question.”

If he’d been holding a mic and was so inclined, Jesus could have dropped it. Jesus has silenced all of his critics.

But Jesus isn’t looking to drop a microphone and strut away victoriously.  That sort of behavior seeks to set one person over and against another, it seeks to exclude, and Jesus consistently seeks to include.

I would LOVE to believe that, in similar circumstances, I would have behaved like Jesus does. That I would be able to see past the motives of the Sadducees and respond with a graceful, articulate answer. That I would not feel the need to complain about the unfair rules, or toss over the game board, or prove I was better than they were. I want to believe I would value a potential relationship over a right answer.

Except… and now it’s time for another confession.

Sometimes, when I meet someone for the first time, I engage in a little stalking – nothing too intense or worthy of jail time, I just check out their Facebook profile.

And I begin to form an opinion of that person based on what I find slowly, and subconsciously categorizing the information into “pass” and “fail.”

  • Likes Buffy the vampire slayer – pass.
  • Posts a lot of photos of cats – fail.
  • Seems to share my stance on key political or theological issues – pass
  • Really likes Tim Horton’s?

Unfriend. This is never going to work out.

We all have certain questions we use to judge others.  Does this person have good taste in music? Do we have similar theological beliefs? Are they safe? Can I share openly with them about my struggles? My sexual identity? My hopes for the future? My doubts?  If I am honest about who I am, will they reject me?

We all do this, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously and on the basis of people’s answers we choose to either dismiss or include them.  We choose to let them into our lives, or we wall ourselves off.

Sometimes we have good reasons for doing this. Some of us have been deeply wounded by other people and so we engage in a constant process of monitoring who is safe, and who isn’t.

And sometimes we have less than honorable reasons for doing so – we are looking not to understand or include, we are looking for reasons to reject anyone who disagrees with us. We are looking to enjoy the brief and fleeing rush of feeling superior.

And this is what the Sadducees are doing. They have already decided Jesus is profoundly unsafe because he doesn’t share their views, and they are looking to publicly shame him and call him out.

They want to use a ridiculous hypothetical story and their debate skills to show everyone present that Jesus is someone they should all dismiss.

But they lose. Jesus can’t be so easily dismissed.

The Sadducees are trying to say that anyone who disagrees with them can be dismissed, but Jesus says the opposite. Jesus calls us into this mysterious process of trying to live life with the very people we would most like to reject.  Jesus calls us to include, not exclude.

This is what is so mysterious and radical to me about Christ’s table – everyone is included.

Later in our service, Allison is going to invite us all to the table, and the words she uses will make it clear that everyone is invited. EVERYONE. We don’t have a say in the guest list.

Because this isn’t our table, it’s Jesus’, and Jesus says everyone is welcome.

Which means that I can’t choose to exclude any of you because you drink Tim Hortons’ coffee, vote for a different political party than I do, hold theological views I disagree with or just because I’m in a bad mood and don’t like the look of you.

And it means you don’t get to exclude me either.

Jesus looks at all of us with love and says, “come, you are welcome at my table. Come.”

Which can be scary, and more than a little uncomfortable, but I think it’s also what makes the table good news, what makes it the gospel, and it’s why I keep coming back to the table, again, and again, and again.

Amen.


Bearing God: A Sermon For Sunday December 20, 2015

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 20, 2015.  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.

This sermon is strongly influenced by the book “The God Bearing Life” by Kenda Creasey Dean, which I highly recommend.

This is a poem entitled “Virgin” from the excellent collection God Birthby Sam Gutierrez:

 

It seems that everyone

wants at least three to five years of experience.

Except God, that is.

[God] looks for the one willing to try something new.

 

Today’s gospel reading begins with these words, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…”

Although Mary’s story is a relatively familiar one, I think her decision to take a trip deserves some context so I’m going to back up about 10 verses to the point in the story where the angel Gabriel first appears.

Gabriel begins as he always begins, as God always begins -since this is really God’s message, not Gabriel’s - with the affirmation that all that God has created is good. “Greetings, favoured one!” Gabriel proclaims to Mary. “The Lord is with you!” Before she hears anything else, God wants Mary to hear this: She is favoured and God is with her.

As a young girl, Mary hasn’t had any time to “find herself.” She hasn’t taken a backpacking trip across Europe or enrolled in a course that changed her life or whatever the correct historical equivalent of those events might be.  Her identity is a gift, bestowed upon her by God alone.

Mary may wonder, “Who am I?” but God’s answer is clear, “You are my favoured one, beloved and beautiful to me.”

It is unlikely that Mary would have ever had an opportunity to develop a distinctive identity apart from the one given to her by God. She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity. She is too poor to purchase her place in society.

Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.

All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which may just be why God chooses her. Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favour.

So Gabriel begins by affirming God’s love for Mary and continues, as angels speaking to human beings tend to do, by telling her there is no need to fear.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”

God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation. Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favour in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her. It is an astonishing plan: the angel in the living room, the impossible conception, the fact that her child will grow up to be a king.

The child’s name must have caught Mary’s attention. Jesus, a derivation of the Hebrew name Joshua, means “God save us.” Something revolutionary is happening here: God has just asked a teenage girl to help save the world.

The text doesn’t say how long it took Mary to respond to Gabriel’s message – seconds, minutes, hours, days. It just tells us that when she did respond she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 Young people are capable of an extraordinary commitment to someone who believes in them and of an almost ridiculous loyalty to a cause worthy of their total commitment.  Young people are amazing and we often take them for granted, but God never does. God did not choose a teenager by accident.  Who else would agree to such a crazy plan? I know I wouldn’t have.

God’s plan puts Mary in significant danger. Gabriel has come to share this news with Mary and Mary alone at this point. He didn’t call a town meeting to make sure that everyone around Mary would understand how she came to be pregnant before getting married. That would have been a classy touch, but instead, Gabriel leaves Mary to break the news to the people in her life. Will people believe her? Will she be judged? Ridiculed? Rejected? How on earth is she supposed to explain this to her parents, to her fiancé?

So it in not surprising that Mary decides that now is a good time to take a trip.  At the beginning of today’s gospel reading (Luke1:39) we are told that shortly after Gabriel’s visit Mary hastily departs her hometown and travels to the home of her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth.  When she arrives, she greets Elizabeth who says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” (41-45)

There are a lot of important things going on in this passage. This is an exchange between two Godly women with some insider knowledge about God’s plan to save the world and they theologize and speak with authority about what God is up to.

I imagine that Elizabeth’s words were a tremendous comfort to Mary.  I suspect that as she travelled Mary prayed that her relatives would be understanding and not turn her away. I imagine she rehearsed some sort of speech or story to explain to Elizabeth why she was there and what had happened, but Elizabeth’s words made any such explanation unnecessary. Elizabeth already understands and affirms both Mary and her secret- what a relief, what a blessing that must have been!

Elizabeth’s words to Mary heap affirmation upon affirmation.  Blessed are you among women Mary. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed are you because you believed what the angel told you.

So it’s not surprising that a few verses later Mary breaks into the joy-filled song we call the Magnificat that begins: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for [God] has looked with favour on the lowliness of [God’s] servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is [God’s] name.” (46-49)

I believe that this praise stems from more than just God’s choice to have Mary bear the son of God. I believe it is also the overflowing of gratitude she feels for the affirmations she has received along the way. Having given a very young girl such incredible news and such an important role to play in God’s plan to save the world, our loving God directs Mary to a supportive community of faith. In the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary will be surrounded by people with mutual experiences, mutual faith, and mutual hope.

Elizabeth’s initial response to Mary also shows the beginning of the redefinition of social realities that Jesus will bring about on earth.  Here is a story where the key players are women.  Joseph is absent and the priestly Zechariah maybe present, but he has been silenced because of his own disbelief. The social constructs of the time are beginning to shift.

Of the two women, Elizabeth is the more mature and as the wife of a priest she has a higher social status than Mary but it is Mary’s child who will become a king.

Elizabeth’s son John will have priestly credentials but the commoner Mary will bear the king, the Son of David, who rules over the priesthood.

Jerusalem, the exalted center of Christian worship, ought to trump humble Nazareth of Galilee; but the order of sacred geography is also being upended.

And this is just the beginning.

This redefinition of the social order is a key theme in the Magnificat.  The first three verses are Mary’s expression of praise to God for the great things God has done for her and then Mary transitions to more universal themes singing these words to God:

Your mercy is for those who fear you

From generation to generation

You have shown strength with your arm

And have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones

And lifted up the lowly;

You have filled the hungry with good things,

And sent the rich away empty.

You, O God, have helped your servant Israel,

In remembrance of your mercy

And to the promise you made to our ancestors,

To Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary’s song begins with the praise to God because of the things God has done for her personally and then moves into praise for God’s goodness to the rest of the world – it is praise for the way that God turns the expected on its head – the proud are made low, the humble exalted. The hungry will be full and the rich turned away empty.

The Magnificat is an amazing piece of scripture and so it is not surprising that it has become one of the most famous, most repeated passages in the Bible. I, however, have a real soft spot for the underdog, and so I’d like to highlight a verse that I think it also quite lovely. A verse the lectionary leaves out, but that we have reclaimed this evening. Verse 56 says,  “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”

Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months.The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened during those three months, but imagine with me for a moment what that might have been like. I imagine that it was a wonderful time for a young woman like Mary to spend such concentrated time with an older and wiser woman.

By now Mary’s body will have begun to change as her pregnancy progresses and her role in God’s plan will be something she can no longer hide from judgmental eyes.  But when this happens, she will have Elizabeth to turn to for support.

I think this tells us a lot about the nature of God. God is asking an awful lot of Mary. Being the Mother of God will be an unusually difficult job, but God will be with her and God will provide for her in lavish and unexpected ways.

Mary met God’s affirmation with a “yes” of her own. “Let it be with me according to your word.”  Her “yes” changes her life forever and because of her, the world is also transformed. Mary is actively involved in this transformation, undergoing all of the metamorphoses that occur during pregnancy plus a few that undoubtedly go along with being the mother of God’s son.   By saying yes, Mary becomes the means by which Jesus comes into the world.

While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God also invites all of us to become God bearers.  Just as Mary had the choice to say yes to God’s plan, so can we. The moment we say yes to God, we also become God bearers. This is what Elizabeth did for Mary in those three months they spent together.  She reminded Mary of the prophecies, she reminded Mary of God’s promises, she reminded Mary of God’s goodness, and she reminded Mary of God’s love. I image they laughed together, cried together, and marveled at the ways their bodies were changing together.  As Mary was preparing to bear God for the whole world, Elizabeth also bore God to Mary.

In his book Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer speaks a universal truth using regrettably exclusive language. Here is my paraphrase of those words:

“the Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to them. The Christian needs that other Christian again and again when they become uncertain and discouraged…They need their brothers and sisters in Christ as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.” (23)

Mary bore God, the savior of the world, for each and every one of us. Elizabeth bore God for Mary, and all of you, have in your own way, been a God bearer for me.

I am so grateful for the many ways that this community has been a community of God bearers for me.  In the eight or so years that I have been coming here, you have been a tangible reminder to be of God’s love. When you say hello, or shake my hand, or hand me a piece of bread and a cup filled with wine, when you pray when I have lost the words, when you say God can be trusted when I’m not sure it’s true, when you say God loves me when I can’t imagine why anyone would - in all these ways and more, you have been God bearers to me.

I hope you have experienced that here as well. I hope this is something we keep doing for each other.  I hope you have come to see just how loved, and valuable you are to God and to us.

And I thank you for being God bearers for me.

Amen.