Now and Not Yet: A Sermon for Sunday January 29, 2023

The following sermon was preached on January 30, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo credit: Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

 

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

In today’s sermon I will be relying heavily on insights from Paul Fromberg, Herb Kopp, and Mark Scandrette.

The lectionary has us hanging out in the book of Matthew for the next little while. Matthew opens his gospel by carefully introducing us to Jesus – giving us Jesus’ genealogy and telling us the stories of Christ’s birth, baptism, temptation and early ministry.

Now, in chapter 5 he shifts from telling us stories about Jesus, to recording Jesus’ words, with very little commentary. In this section of the gospel, Jesus will lay out his message, his mission, and his call to all of us as his disciples.

What was the world like at this time?  It was a world that was anchored in politics and people’s lives were controlled by a political reality over which they had little or no control.

It was a world where politics, economics, and religion were all intertwined into a single system. It was a world dominated by the Roman Empire, an empire that viewed human beings as commodities.

This was a time marked by bad news.  Poverty was rampant and people were hungering for good news and starving for literal food.

It is in this context that Jesus boldly proclaims the gospel, the good news, that there is a kingdom that is more powerful than Caesar’s.  And not only that, but that kingdom, God’s kingdom is already here.

In Jesus’ time, as in ours, there are stories that dominate the way we think.  Jesus came to say that the way we have always looked at the world and the way we have always done things is not the only way. In fact, there is a much better way. Jesus challenges the dominant narratives both of his day and of ours.

So one of the reasons we need to keep telling, and re-telling these gospel stories, is because we need to be reminded that we are a people who are part of a better and more beautiful story than the one the world is telling.

We need to tell the sacred stories again and again because they reinforce this better story and inspire us to dream bigger dreams and to think creatively about our lives and our choices. These sacred stories help us to remember that we are not subjects in Caesar’s empire, we are members of God’s Kingdom, a kingdom that is based on love, justice, mercy, and grace.

I don’t know about you, but I get tripped up by the word kingdom – kingdoms seem like something out of a fairy story or an ancient patriarchal system of government.  I heard Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I have a dream speech” multiple times recently and I have found some resonance this week in thinking of God’s Kingdom as God’s dream coming true.

Our hope is not found in the political structures and systems of this world, our hope is found in God’s dream. Jesus is here to proclaim the good news that God’s dream isn’t just something we hope for in the future, it has already come true.

It has already come true. It is here, and it also isn’t here. This is one of those paradoxes that we are called to believe in the Christian faith. This is a faith that asks us to embrace mystery and the unknown.

In order for us to fully live into God’s dream, we’re going to have to make some changes. We’re going to have to repent – which literally means to turn away from our old narratives, our old habits, and our old ways of doing things. We are going to have to turn from those old stories and old habits in order to embrace something new.

We are going to be hearing a lot of Matthew in the coming months and we should all pay careful attention because Mathew has a lot to teach us about God. The message of the gospel is as simple as it is complex:  God is love. God is good. God brings life into darkness, God brings life to the dead, God fulfills God’s promises, God keeps God’s word, God is the source of love, healing, compassion, mercy and forgiveness.

And God loves each one of us.

God’s dream is rooted and grounded in love. And not love as some wishy washy or sentimental feeling either.  God’s dream is rooted and grounded in a love that has the power to change the world.

God’s dream for our world looks very different than our earthly political systems. It looks different than our empires.  The point is not to make our earthly political systems look more like God’s dream by declaring we live in a Christian nation or insisting that politicians say “Merry Christmas,” AND the point is not to simply withdraw from all of the systems of the world and live separately waiting for Jesus to come again, the point is to recognize the signs of God’s dream and to work to help them flourish whenever we do.

Sound good? Should I just lay out all the signs of God’s dream for you all and then we can roll up our sleeves and get to work?

Well, to do that is to miss an essential step.

Because before we can get to work we need to know who we are and why we are doing this work.  We need to start by remembering that we are God’s beloved, we need to remember that we have worth, and value, and dignity not because we think we do, not because other people think we do, but because the God who created the universe and each one of us declares that we do.

Remember that you are beloved.

Remember that you are beloved.

Remember that you are beloved and then we can start looking for signs of God’s kingdom.

Remember that you are beloved and then we can begin to know what is means to be called “blessed.”

Our text today is part of a larger passage commonly referred to as “The Sermon on the Mount” because Matthew begins this section by telling us that Jesus went up onto the mountainside and ends it with Jesus coming back down off the mountain.

Today’s gospel reading is commonly referred to as the “Beatitudes” It is a collection of eight poetic statements following a set literary form. A beatitude begins with the declaration of blessing, followed by the naming of a virtue, followed by an appropriate reward.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Beatitudes are found throughout the Old and New Testament and in all types of Biblical writings.  There are beatitudes in Deuteronomy, in Psalms, and in Revelation.

It is significant that the Sermon on the Mount opens with beatitudes. These blessings are grounded in God’s dream for the world which runs counter to the ways of this world. These blessings set the stage for Jesus’ message that he has come to bring about a new way of being in the world. One that is both here, and not yet here. Jesus, by speaking these words of blessing is setting the stage for a new way of seeing things, for a new way of being in the world.

The beatitudes name our aches and longings and let us know that God meets us in the struggles of our lives.  Remember the original context in which Jesus was speaking – Israel was occupied by Rome and it was a very difficult time filled with political upheaval, with conflict, and with economic uncertainly. People were uncertain of how to respond to an occupying government that did not seem to have their best interests at heart, many of them were afraid, many of them were discouraged, and many of them were angry.  Sound familiar?

And it is into that context that Jesus speaks these blessings. Jesus is saying – no one is left out of God’s blessing, no matter who you are or what you have done.

The beatitudes name the illusions and distortions that multiply pain in our lives – the broken systems and structures that are built on these deceptions. We do not live in a world that is characterized by peace and agape love, rather we live in a world that tends to be characterized by greed, selfishness, arrogance and individualism.

Or do we?

Jesus speaks into our reality saying “You think you live in a world of scarcity where you have to be greedy and miserly with your possessions but you don’t, you live in a world of abundance.

You think you live in a world where pain is too hard to face and so you have to run away from it and Jesus is saying no, I will meet you in the pain and if you sit with it you’ll find the care and comfort that you need.”

Jesus challenges the reigning assumptions most of us hold. Jesus is saying, there is a different way of seeing things, and if you learn to see the world the way I see it, you will learn to respond to those situations in a different way.  You will learn to live into my dream for the world. A dream that has already and is continuing to come true each day.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Poverty means not having enough – not having the things you need to survive.  Throughout scripture, we see that God has a soft spot for people who are materially poor, people who lack the basics things required for survival.  In this verse, however, Jesus also tells us that, in addition to care for those who experience material poverty, God also cares for those who experience poverty of spirit.

Where in your life do you feel like you don’t have enough or you are not enough?  Is it in your bank balance? Do you fear you don’t have enough money to both survive and share generously with others?  Is it in your relationships? Do you fear that if people knew who you really are you’d face rejection? Is it in your sense of political advocacy? Are you feeling discouraged by current events while also feeling powerless to do anything about them?

When we don’t feel like we have enough, our tendency is to shut down and close ourselves off from other people. To hoard what we have. Our sense of not having enough can lead us to be fearful, greedy, and anxious.

But with this beatitude Jesus is asking us to embrace the truth that we are cared for by an abundant provider.  To unclench our hands, to take the bars off our hearts, and to lean into a new way of thinking that says, “I am beloved. I have enough and I am enough.”

To believe this requires that we let go of control, it requires us to trust. It is not an easy thing to do.  For most of us it’s not something we can do instantly either. Our old patterns and ways of seeing things are deeply entrenched. Many of us have good reasons to be fearful, to believe in scarcity, and to resist the idea of letting go of control in order to trust in God.   And that’s OK, we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others and we need to be honest about our reasons and our fears because it we don’t, any change we make won’t be authentic.

You may not be ready to make a complete 180 degree turn right now, but perhaps you can lean slightly in this new direction.

Jesus declares, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Lord, help us lean into postures of trust and abundance.

The beatitudes are meant to challenge us and encourage us, to comfort us and convict us.  They show us the paradox of living in two worlds at the same time and they show us that whenever we pray – as we do here each week in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven,” just what that should look like.

The beatitudes encourage us to trust in God’s love and the future God has prepared for us but they also challenge us to be careful not to create that future in our own image.  What we think is best, what we are most comfortable for us may not be what God has in mind.  God’s plan will be a good and loving plan, but it may also cause us to have to let go of our own ideas, and to sit in the discomfort of uncertainty for a time.

Malcolm Guite describes the beatitudes as a lifting of the veil between this world and the world Christ came to bring.  So let’s close by listening to the words of his poem Beatitudes:

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

Amen.

 

 


Hope for A Better Future: A Sermon for Sunday January 15, 2023

The following sermon was preached on January 15, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

 

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

I used to work directly with people who were experiencing homelessness and sometimes I feel guilty that I am no longer directly involved in helping to alleviate the suffering and injustice we have created by structuring our society in ways that mean some people don’t have a home.  The lack of housing is an injustice everywhere it happens, but in Manitoba, where people can die if they are outside for even a short period of time, it seems particularly cruel.

It was hard to see that injustice and suffering everyday, and it troubles me how easy it is for me to forget that reality when I am safe in my warm home or worshipping with you all.

And I don’t always know what to do when I feel troubled like that. It can be easy to just shut down or avoid feeling overwhelmed by doing whatever I can to pretend that this problem doesn’t exist.   It’s at times like this that I need a prophet. Someone who can help me to see that a better way is possible, someone who inspires me to hope, someone who inspires me to act.

Someone who inspires me to act in large ways, and in small ones.  Someone who helps me resist the temptation to sit back and do nothing. Someone who reminds me that I can’t do everything, but I can do something and encourages me to figure out what that something is.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, God’s people are feeling hopeless in large part because they are homeless.  All of the safety and security that a home and a homeland can provide have been taken from them.

They “have been defeated, their temple destroyed. They are taken in chains to Babylon, alienated from their land and their God. This exile is a crisis of identity and faith. Are they still God’s people? How can they worship in this foreign land?”[1]

What would you say? What would you write to people experiencing these sorts of circumstances?

Isaiah focuses on hope. He doesn’t try to downplay the severity of the current situation. He doesn’t tell the people their feelings aren’t valid or to “cheer up.” Rather he encourages the people to not lose hope, because better days are coming.

Someone is coming, sent by God, who will make the wrong things right.  The things that have been lost – their homeland, their temple, their sense of stability and pride as a people – all of these things will be restored to them.

But not only will these things be restored to them, God has much more than that in mind. The one who is coming will not just restore the status quo, the one who is coming will make all things better than they were before.

The speaker in today’s reading is not identified by name and is often referred to simply as “the servant.”  This reading is taken from a section of Isaiah that is sometimes referred to as the “Servant Songs.”

If this passage had been written today, it would probably have been written in all caps. The servant begins with a shout, “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention you peoples from far away.” (1a) This message is not just for the people of Israel, this is a message for the whole world.   And it’s not the servant’s message, this is a message from God.   Although they are currently hidden away, the servant is coming and when they come, God will be glorified.

The servant says that “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” (1b-3)

The servant knows who they are, knows who made them. The servant understands their calling and vocation and even so, they also experience moments of doubt.

And the servant shares these struggles with us as well admitting that when God said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified,” that their first response was not to say, “Cool! I can’t wait.” No, their first response was to doubt, and to question.

The servant says, “ I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity…”. (4)

It’s a pretty gutsy thing to question God, but don’t ever let anyone tell you not to do so.  It’s normal, God expects it. I think God might even like it when we question, it shows we’re awake. It shows we’re engaged.

I teach a course every year at Booth University College and one of my textbooks is by Bryan Stevenson.  Bryan’s book “Just Mercy” has also been made into an excellent movie and both the book and the movie are well worth your time.

Bryan grew up in rural Delaware in the 60's. Although segregation was no longer legal, practically speaking segregation was still in full force.[2]  White kids didn’t play with black kids, when visiting the doctor’s office, white people used the front door, and black people used the back door.  They didn’t swim together, hang out together, or worship together.

In an interview, Bryan told the story of how his mother protested the day the black children from town lined up at the back door of the polio vaccination station to receive their shots, waiting hours while the white children went in through the front door and were treated first.

Bryan received a full scholarship and earned his law degree from Harvard University. That’s pretty much the most prestigious law degree a person can get. After he graduated, instead of taking a high paying job at a fancy law firm, he chose to move to Alabama to start the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization that, at it’s very beginning, was just Bryan and a single volunteer determined to do whatever they could do to help people who had been wrongly convicted and were waiting to die on death row.

Racism is never compartmentalized.  If you think it’s OK to allow a group of people to receive a second class education, inadequate health care, housing and overall poor treatment in general, then you’re probably not going to be overly concerned with whether or not they receive a proper trial either.  In the US, as in Canada, the quality of the justice you receive is all too often tied both to your race, and the amount of money in your bank account.  Bryan notes that the criminal justice system treats people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.

Since beginning this work, Bryan and his colleagues have been harassed. They’ve received death threats, they’ve worked countless hours of overtime for less pay then they would receive if they had chosen to practice a different kind of law, and, as of August 2016 – the last statistic I could find – they had saved 125 men who’d been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.

125 men who were wrongfully convicted and condemned to die had those sentences overturned.  But that’s not all, Bryan and his team have also represented people who are poor, defended people on appeal, overturned wrongful convictions, fought to ensure that children are not placed in adult facilities and have worked to help alleviate the significant bias that infects the criminal justice system in the United States.

Stevenson grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and that community has had a profound influence on him. In particular, it was there that he learned the power of “standing up after having fallen down” and where he developed his belief that “each person in our society is more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”

I think Bryan is a modern example of the servant in Isaiah, a modern example of a prophet. Prison is a place of exile. It’s a place filled with hopeless people, especially on death row.  And it is in exactly that place, that Bryan chose to go and bring hope.

And not hope like a wish, not hope like “Well your situation is truly awful and this is the way our society has functioned for hundreds of years but I hope things get better for you someday.”   No, Bryan brings a hope that says, “Do not give up, things are dark now, but they are going to get better.  And here is how I know that is true, and here is what I am going to do to bring that better day about.”

It may be obvious to us now that Bryan is an amazing man doing important work, but that’s only in hindsight.  It doesn’t make sense that a man born in Delaware with the intelligence and drive to graduate from Harvard Law School would move to Alabama to fight to overturn death penalty cases. A form of law that by its very nature means his clients will likely never be able to actually pay him for his services. It’s the opposite of obvious.

But God loves to use the most unlikely people.  Think of Rahab, or Samuel.  Think of Mary and Joseph.  Think of yourself.

We are all servants, created and raised up by God.  We all have a calling and work to do, even if, like the servant in Isaiah, the nature of that work is currently unclear, or feels hopeless.  Even if, especially if, that work is quiet, or behind the scenes, the sort of thing no one will ever make a Hollywood movie about.

Have you ever stopped to think about all the things it takes to make this church service possible?  There are so many people doing so many things behind the scenes, quietly and invisibly and unfortunately that means it’s easy for us to forget about all of that work and think these services just sort of happen… by magic.

I am very grateful for all of those people, but also concerned because oftentimes there is more work to do than people to do it. If you are interested in finding ways to help out and lighten that load, let me or the wardens know. We’d be more than happy to help you find a place to serve.

There is at least one whole other sermon that I could preach about our gospel text today, and I’m not going to do that, but I would encourage you to read back over that passage sometime this week and just note how many times it talks about the importance of seeing.

When John is questioned he admits that when Jesus first came to be baptized he didn’t know who he was. It was only after seeing and talking to Jesus that he was able to say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (34)

When the disciples approach Jesus filled with questions about who Jesus is and what he plans to do, Jesus invites them to “Come and see.”

Prophets are people who are able to see what the world could be. They are able to look ahead and say, “Yes, things are hard now, but there is a better way to live, and a better world to come, so let’s get busy bringing it about.”

The world needs prophets, but just as much as we need prophets, we need people who are willing to “come and see.” People who catch the vision of the better way that is possible and then take the time to bring their own unique gifts to the mix.

Pointing to the better way and being willing to come and see are important, essential tasks, but they are rarely comfortable ones.  The new better future requires change and it requires you to live in the discomfort of uncertainly.

It is very understandable why some people resist the vision of a prophet or prefer to hide like a turtle instead of being open to “come and see.”  However, this is almost always short term comfort followed by long term discomfort because the things that prophets point to don’t go away, and the longer you avoid them, the harder they are to deal with.

Bryan Stevenson has done some truly amazing things to make our world a better place and to bring hope to people who have no reason to hope.  Funnily enough, that can make it easy for us to dismiss him.   Not everyone can be so special. Not everyone can be a prophet like the servant in Isaiah or Bryan and so, we have a tendency to be grateful to them for doing their special, special work and then to think there is nothing left for us to do.

But I don’t believe that is true.  Bryan’s story is simply the story of a man who took the gifts he was given seriously.  He has a heart for people and a mind for the law and he uses them every single day.

We all have a similar story. We all have a role to play, the trick is to figure out what yours is without comparing yourself to others.  Woven into Bryan’s story are countless other stories of people who took their own unique gifts to build into Bryan and the work he was doing.   Someone makes sure he is fed. Someone prays for him. Someone answers the phone in his law office. Many, many people make sure the work he is doing is funded. Without all those people using their own gifts, there is no Bryan Stevenson, there is no Equal Justice Initiative and 125 men sentenced to die on death row would not have had those convictions overturned.

Prophets see things that most of us can’t see and they invite us into the vision of a better world.  May we all be inspired to see the world in a new way this week, and to act on what we are seeing.

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

[1] Amy G. Oden.

[2] Taken largely from Wikipedia

 


Home By Another Road: A Sermon for Sunday January 8, 2023

The following sermon was preached on January 8, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

 

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

Merry Christmas everyone! Today we are celebrating the feast of the Epiphany which is usually considered to be the last day of the Christmas season.

Officially, the feast takes place on Friday, January 6th, but we’ve moved it to today so we could celebrate together. This also means that instead of 12 days of Christmas, we’re getting 15. That’s 12 days of Christmas plus Epiphany plus the two extra days added to celebrate today.

Maybe you packed up all your Christmas decorations on December 26th. Maybe you follow the custom of waiting until Epiphany, which means it’s time to take them down now. Personally, mine are staying up for another month until Candlemas. I’m hanging on to that extra light for as long as I can.

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently that’s a good thing.

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

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

Two.

Jesus and Herod.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose wisely.

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

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

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

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

If 2022 taught me anything it’s that it’s not possible to predict the future. I have no idea what 2023 will hold but I am hopeful that things will change for the better.

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

I think this will be true for us as well in 2023. We are travelling towards a time when things we miss deeply are both being restored to us but also have been changed forever. The ways we are used to doing things, the roads we are used to travelling to get where we want to go may no longer serve us.

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

May we all learn to travel it together.

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


Singing the Seasons Songs: A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2022

The following sermon was preached on December 24, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

 

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

Merry Christmas everyone!

It feels so good to be with you in this space this evening. When I was preparing this sermon I realized that the last time I was at an in person Christmas Eve service was three years ago. Last year I was prepared to celebrate with you all, but then we were shut down at the very last minute and we shifted to a recorded service instead.

So as it’s been so long since I’ve gotten to do this, let me say it again, “Merry Christmas!”

Ok, so I know that you can’t see my footnotes when I’m speaking and 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.”

There has been a lot of things that have been incredibly hard about the past number of years, but one of the hardest things for me was the point in the pandemic when I learned that it was dangerous to sing with other people.  Having to tell my community that was already suffering that we couldn’t sing together is something I hope I will never have to do again.

I love music, but I have a special place in my heart for musicals.  I listen to them all the time and when I got to go to New York to the actual Broadway this fall, I cried the first time I entered a theater. I couldn’t believe I was really there.

Some people claim they don’t like musicals, but I don’t really believe them. I think they’ve probably just seen a bad musical and if they could see a really good one they’d change their mind.

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 to two songs per day.

They’re not good, no one is buying tickets to hear me sing about how I forgot to buy milk again but singing makes me happy, so I keep singing.

Breaking out into song is 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.”

It’s hard for me to just read the words from Isaiah that we heard tonight because whenever I hear those words I also hear the music of Handel’s Messiah. I don’t want to read them, I want to sing them.

The Book of Luke, where tonight’s gospel text is taken from, is filled with people bursting into song. There are four songs in the early part of Luke’s gospel that are still prayed regularly today. Whenever we sing “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. All of these songs are taken from Luke.

Maybe the gospel of Luke is actually a musical and that’s why I like it so much.

The Christmas story begins when the angel Gabriel is sent to Mary’s home in a small town in 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 already sorted. Don’t worry about it. And you know what else? Your relative Elizabeth, who is waaaaay too 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.”

After this meeting with Gabriel, and after Mary has had some time to think, she visits Elizabeth and that meeting inspires 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.”

Mary’s song goes like this:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name;
50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham, Sarah and their children forever.”

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 as if the good news she bears is already accomplished, as if the powerful have already been removed from their thrones. As if the lowly have already been lifted up.

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. That’s who God is, and Mary knows it, and she can’t help but sing. (106)

As many of you know I take Advent very seriously and it’s a practice that I have developed a deep appreciation of over the past fifteen years or so.  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 love Advent music or maybe it’s because I spent so many years working in retail but I know that listening to Christmas music for two solid months is just not for me. Starting to listen to it today and then listening for the full 12 days of Christmas is the perfect amount of time for me.

But there are some songs in Luke, that I need to hear every day. And the song Mary sings as a response to her pregnancy is one of them. The Magnificat is 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.

My friend Jaylene Johnson is an incredibly talented musician. She wrote a version of Mary’s Magnificat called “Amazing Love” and it contains this line, “My soul sings, God is great, and my spirit lets down her weight.”

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.  Singing with other people amplifies those things.

I am so grateful that we are able to sing together again.

Singing allows our spirits to let down their weight.

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 tonight we are gathered to hear an ancient story. We are gathered to feast on bread and wine.  We are gathered to sing.

We are gathered to sing songs about hope in the face of despair. Songs about peace, joy, and hope and love coming into the world. We will sing about “Joy to the World” and “tidings of comfort and joy.”

We will sing with Mary, with the angels, with the shepherds who I also imagine couldn’t help but break out into song as a response to all they were experiencing.

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? Are you perhaps afraid to sing because admitting you long for something opens you to the possibility of being hurt? Have you forgotten how to listen to and sing your own song?

It 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 Christmas?

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, I hope you’ll find time over this next year to literally sing with other people, to sing with us.

And may that singing allow you to put down some of the weight your soul is carrying and experience true peace and joy.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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

 

 


Dreaming of a Blue Christmas: A Sermon for When the Holidays are Hard

The following sermon was preached on December 18, 2022 at Sherwood Park Lutheran Church. Sherwood Park and St George's collaborated to created this Blue Christmas service. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Laura Hope on Unsplash

 

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

The lectionary passage that I preached on this morning was about Joseph so I have had Joseph on my mind this week.  In that passage, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him that what is happening to Mary is all part of God’s plan and there is no reason he can’t marry her. (Matt 1:20)

There are a lot of stories about dreams in the Bible.  Google tells me there are 21 Bible stories about dreams. Joseph dreams four of them.[1]

 Joseph’s dreams represent one sort of dreaming but we use the word “dream” to mean a lot of different things.

Dreams are the images, visions and stories that come to us when we sleep.  They often have something to teach us, even if that message isn’t as clear and direct as the ones that Joseph received.

Then there are the hopes and desires we have for our future.

When this second kind of dream becomes a reality, when something we have hoped would happen happens, we call it a “dream come true.”

When we see someone fully living into who they were created to be, someone just having a wonderful time we say they are “living the dream.”

But sometimes, our dreams do not come true. The things we hope for do not happen, but we don’t tend to call this, “living the nightmare.”

We don’t tend to say anything actually.

All too often when we are in pain our instinct is to hide. All too often when we see people who are in pain our instinct is to withdraw, to avoid, to pretend we don’t see what’s going on.

If we’re not careful we can all become trapped in a game of “Let’s pretend everyone is always doing well every minute of every day.”  If we’re not careful we can start to believe that everyone is doing well every minute of the day, everyone that is, except us.

One of the popular songs of the season, which you’ve likely already heard a few times at the mall or when you’ve been getting your groceries, begins with the singer stating emphatically “It’s the most wonderful time of year!” and in the next verse, “it’s the hap-happiest season of all.”

There is no room for nuance, for difference, in this proclamation. Christmas is the most wonderful, hap-happiest season of all.

Which implies that if you aren’t feeling your most wonderful, hap-happiest then there is something wrong with you.

The problem isn’t Christmas. The problem isn’t the way society chooses to represent the season.

The problem is you.

And as I mentioned earlier, when we are feeling bad, our tendency is to hide, to pretend we’re OK. To try and make everyone else feel comfortable even though we may feel like we’re slowly dying inside.

And our tendency to do that in the hap-happiest season of all can be even stronger.

And that can lead us to believe the lie that the problem is with us, and not with the way Christmas is being observed.

But the message that Christmas is the most wonderful, hap-happiest time of the year is a pipe dream, a fantasy.  While it is true that some people will indeed have a lovely time this Christmas, the implication that that is everyone’s experience is just false.

And it is so important to name that.

Many people struggle with this time of year. With all the ways their lived experience falls short of the expectations of what Christmas should be like.

If Christmas is a hard time of year for you, you are not alone.

Many people will have a perfectly OK Christmas, with some rough moments that don’t match up to the expectations of the songs and the movies.

If your Christmas isn’t going to be perfect you are not alone.

Many people will have a lovely Christmas, that looks very much like the idealized version we see in films, with a beautiful meal and a table full of family and even then, even then, from time to time something will catch in their throat and a pain with pierce their heart, because when they look out over the table filled with loved ones, they will notice the person who isn’t there, the loved one who died or could not or would not attend, the person who is dearly missed.

If your Christmas looks like that, you are not alone.

The message that Christmas is the most wonderful, hap-happiest time of the year isn’t a realistic message, and it isn’t a gospel message. It isn’t good news. These words that we read tonight from the gospel of Matthew tonight are good news:

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Are you feeling weary? Are your carrying a heavy burden?

You are not alone. And God sees you, loves you, and cares for you.

God invites each one of us to come, and find the rest and the peace that sinks deep into our souls that only they can provide.

In Advent we prepare for Emmanuel, for God with Us to come. We prepare for a baby who will become a king like no other.

And God doesn’t wait until we have it all together, until we are all perfect to arrive. God has no expectation of a most wonderful, hap-happiest season or perfect people. God doesn’t want any one of us to hide when things are hard or to pretend or to slap on a smile when we are crying inside.

God has abundant love and a deep, pure desire to be with us and bids each one of us to come, just as we are.

Which is very good news.

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

 

[1] There is the dream I mention and then in Matthew 2, Joseph will be told in three separate dreams to take the family to Egypt, then to return to Israel and final NOT to go to Judea.

 

 


Joseph's Family Tree: A Sermon for Sunday December 18, 2022

The following sermon was preached on December 18, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo by Flávia Gava on Unsplash

 

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

Today’s gospel reading is taken from partway through the first chapter of Matthew.  That chapter opens with a long list of names tracing the genealogy of Jesus.  Genealogies, those long lists of names, many of which can be hard to pronounce, are usually not included in our lectionary readings and today is no exception.

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

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

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

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

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

Tamar (v.3). after being widowed, took decisive action to coerce her father-in-law, Judah, to provide an heir for her. (Gen 38) She conceived Perez and Zerah, who continued the Davidic line. Tamar is the only woman in the Hebrew Scriptures who is called righteous (Gen 38:26) a term that is of central importance to Matthew.

Rahab (v.5), a prostitute in Jericho (Josh 2), risked disobeying the orders of the king of Jericho and sheltered spies from Jericho to reconnoiter the land. She subsequently gave birth to Boaz, the great grandfather of David.

Ruth (v. 5) a Moabite woman, returned with her mother-in-law Naomi, to Bethlehem, rather than stay with her own people after her husband Mahlon died. In Bethlehem, Ruth presented herself to Boaz at the threshing floor and conceived Obed, who carried forth the Davidic line.

Finally, [Bathsheba], the wife of Uriah (v. 6) is the one who bore David’s son Solomon after David arranged to have Uriah killed in battle (2 Sam 11)

Each story speaks of how women took bold actions outside the bounds of regular patriarchal marriage to enable God’s purposes to be brought to fruition in unexpected ways. Not only were the circumstances unusual, but some of these women were also outsiders to Israel. Remembering their stories prepares us for the extraordinary circumstances of Jesus’ birth and the salvation he will ultimately extend to those outside Israel (28:19)

The women’s presence in the midst of the male ancestors of Jesus also signals the integral role that women disciples play in the community of Jesus’ followers. They remind the reader that women are not marginal to the history of Israel or of Christianity.” (Collegeville 8-9)

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

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

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

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

Joseph was educated enough to know how babies are made.  Mary couldn’t become pregnant all by herself, a human male was required. This was definitely not his baby and Mary’s story about the Holy Spirit seemed sketchy at best.

So what do to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How romantic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had not planned on any of this.

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

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

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

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

But then, life throws Joseph another surprise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One final thing I want to make note of.  We are in the season of Advent, and during that season the church and the lectionary are supposed to be encouraging us to stay in the season of Advent, to not rush straight to the Christmas story.

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

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

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

What is going on?

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

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

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

And I hope you’ll join us when we do.

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

 


Advent 2: A Sermon for Sunday December 4, 2022

The following sermon was preached on December 4, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by AmirHadi Manavi on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

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

The image actually begins in the previous chapter of Isaiah:

“See, the Lord, the Lord Almighty,
will lop off the boughs with great power.
The lofty trees will be felled,
the tall ones will be brought low.

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

 

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

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

We don’t know exactly which event in their life this passage refers to because Israel had multiple experiences that could be described in this way.  They were cut down and began again multiple times.

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

But at the moment when this text of hope was written, when the shoot that would come from the dead stump was being described, it wasn’t real yet. At that time, all they had was a lifeless stump, and hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have to confess that sometimes when I go out to a restaurant I can find myself spending more time eavesdropping on the conversation that is happening at the table next to mine than I do actually participating in the conversation that was happening at my own table.

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

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

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

Two things have been.

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

They were helpful.

The second helpful thing was a book a friend gave me about 5 years ago. He gave it to me and then it sat on my shelf for several years before I finally read it.

In that book, Necessary Endings, author Henry Cloud talks about the importance of hopelessness.

And that concept gave me hope.

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

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

Sometimes things need to end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they don’t help me.

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

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

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

Why wait?

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

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

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

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

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


Advent 1: A Sermon for Sunday November 27, 2022

The following sermon was preached on November 27, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by lasse bergqvist on Unsplash

 

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

Happy new year everyone! Today is the first Sunday of Advent and also the first Sunday of the new liturgical year.

I heard a story this week about a man who, when he was in college, got a Christmas tree to decorate with his roommate.  They set up the tree, plugged in the lights and… it was pretty underwhelming. So they went out and bought more lights and still… not great.

But they were college students on a limited budget and they couldn’t afford more lights so instead they just shrugged in disappointment and went about their day.

And then that night, when they returned to their dorm room and turned on the tree they were shocked to realize how bright it was. How well lit it was. How… beautiful it was.

The lights on the tree didn’t show that well in broad daylight, but when the room was dark, the tree shone as brightly as they had hoped when they first began setting it up.

Advent can have that same kind of an effect if you choose to practice it.  By focusing on the themes and practices of Advent, the noise and the distractions of the world can fade into the background letting the things that Advent has to teach you shine bright.

Advent is my favourite liturgical season and most years I celebrate it in a particular way and encourage others to consider the benefits of being intentional in their celebration of the season as well. There’s a post on the church website with more information if you’re stuck for ideas.[1]

Most years my celebration of Advent looks like resisting the temptation to rush into Christmas – the tree, the carols, and all of those things can wait until it’s really Christmas. They can wait until December 24th and then they can be enjoyed with full force for the entire 12 days of Christmas.

It has been a helpful and a hopeful practice.

But this year, most of my decorations are up already because a search for some of my resource books and materials to prepare our upcoming liturgies caused me to unpack most of my decorations as well and it just seemed silly to pack them all back up again.

My house looks like it’s already Christmas and not Advent, and that’s OK this year. I will still keep practices like daily candle lighting, prayer and contemplative time and the Christmas playlist won’t come out until the 24th.

Oh and I definitely have all the characters in my nativity scene spread out throughout my house and have hidden baby Jesus.  Let’s all hope I remember on Christmas Eve which cupboard I popped him into.

Keep the season however makes the most sense for you, engage with curiousity and challenge yourself, but don’t get stuck thinking you have to conform to someone else’s ideas of the right way to practice Advent. Figure out what makes sense for you – which may mean returning to a treasured regular practice or trying something new.

Whatever you do, I would encourage you to think of Advent as a different season than Christmas in some way. By lighting Advent candles, getting an Advent devotional or just thinking about what it means to wait and to prepare for the return of the King, the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.

In the Anglican church, and many other denominations as well, we use a cycle of readings called the lectionary. The lectionary is a three year cycle of readings that allows us to cover large portions of the Bible every year.   It’s a three year cycle, but there are four gospels, four books that focus on the story of Jesus’ life on earth, so we don’t read only one gospel every year – over the course of the next year you will hear readings from all four gospels -but each year there is one that gets highlighted and this year it is Matthew’s time to shine.

Each gospel was written by a different person and the writer’s personality comes through in their work.

We’re not actually positive who wrote this gospel, but to keep things simple, we usually call the author Matthew.

It’s just a lot easier for me to say, “Matthew says,” then “the unknown and disputed author of the gospel known as Matthew says.”

Each gospel was written by a different person with a distinct personality. Each gospel was also written with a distinct message to a distinct audience.

Most scholars think that the gospel of Matthew was written in a time period where there were people who were following Jesus, but there wasn’t yet a clear distinction between what it meant to be Jewish and what it meant to be Christian.

There were Jewish people who didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah who chose to remain Jewish. There were Jewish people who did believe that Jesus was the Messiah and so I suppose you could call them Christians, but they were also still very much Jewish.  And then there were Gentile people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but they definitely weren’t Jewish.

And all of these people had to figure out how to get along.

Mathew’s focus, however, is not on trying to ensure that these three groups of people get along.  He’s not even writing to all three groups. He focusses on Jewish people who believe that Jesus is the Messiah. His focus is on helping these people understand that they are not betraying their Jewish roots by believing in Jesus. His goal is to help them to see that it makes sense to be a Jew who follows Jesus.

It's not that Matthew doesn’t think that it’s important for all of these groups to get along, he’s just smart enough to know his limits.

Matthew’s gospel focusses on the Jewishness of Jesus. He wants to show that Jesus’ life and ministry are a clear fulfilment of the Hebrew scriptures. The assurance that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” frames the whole gospel. (1:23; 28:20)”.[2]

At the same time, Matthew is trying to walk a fine line. Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” but the “us” isn’t only the Jewish people that are his primary audience, the “us” is everybody.  Everyone is welcome to join this newly forming Jesus movement, not just Jewish people.

Matthew’s Gospel tries to defend and define Jewish Christianity, on the one hand, and unity with Gentile Christians on the other. It validates the community’s continuity with the past promises to Israel, while at the same time justifies their new allegiance to the person of Christ and his mission.”

The lectionary will have us focusing on Matthew over the coming year, but another thing the lectionary likes to do is bounce around within the featured gospel so we’re not starting this new year at the beginning, rather today’s reading is from near the end of the gospel and it’s a text that is focussed on endings, not beginnings.

It starts, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, not the Son, but only the Father.” (36)

If the sentence “But about that day and hour” sounds like we’re beginning in the middle of a thought, that’s because we are. Our reading comes towards the end of a longer section, a longer speech, where Jesus is talking about the future, about the second time he will come to earth.

So this year Advent, a season when we are called to prepare and remember the first time Jesus came to earth, we are also being called to remember and prepare for the fact that he will also come again a second time.

But when?  Jesus makes it clear that we can’t know when this will happen. Only God the Father knows.

As a kid, I found this verse very comforting and freeing.  I was not capable of figuring out when Jesus was going to return so there was no point in trying. It was one big thing I could simply not bother worrying about trying to predict.

But many, many, many people have felt differently and have spent a tremendous amount of time trying to predict when Jesus will return.  People have made it their life’s work and there are TV programs and countless books all focused on trying to predict when Jesus will return.

Even though only God knows. And none of those people guessing are God.

And there were also people who decided not to try and figure out when Jesus would return but rather to figure out what it will be like when that happens.

They used today’s readings and a big pinch of imagination to create a theory called the rapture, and again there are countless books, TV shows, and even a movie starring Kurt Cameron that explore this idea as if it was a gospel truth.

Which it is not.

So we can’t predict when Jesus will come and we can’t use these verses to construct a picture of what it will be like when he returns, so what can we do?

As a kid I thought it was comforting to know that I didn’t have to worry about predicting when Jesus was going to return, but I also knew that didn’t mean I got to just make a blanket fort in my bedroom and hang out until he came.

And that’s still true today, even though there are many days when I wish I really could just hang out in a blanket fort and not pay any attention to what is going on in the world.

Advent and our gospel passage remind me that I’m not supposed to rush the waiting. I am not supposed to jump straight to Christmas before the actual season of Christmas. I am supposed to stay in Advent for the entire season.

Advent and our gospel passage also remind me that I’m not supposed to just hide out in my blanket fort either.  Every day I need to get up and pay attention to what is going on and ask, “What is my next most faithful step? What am I being called to do today?”

Your wardens and vestry have been doing this kind of Advent work in an intentional way over the past year.  They can’t predict the future, but they have been alert and watchful and attentive to what is going on in the world and in the parish.

And they are asking, “What is St George’s next most faithful step?”

It just so happens, that this parish is at a point where we can see that there is a four way stop just up ahead on the path and while we don’t have to make a decision today, we are approaching the day where the next most faithful step will be a pretty big one.  Should you turn right? Or left?  Which way is God calling you to go?

Today after church we’re having an important meeting, and it’s an Advent type meeting. It’s a time to share some information that will help you be alert and pay attention to what is happening so that you can pray and prepare for the time when you’ll need to make a decision.

Part of being watchful is being hopeful. We can’t predict the future but we can still prepare for it with a hope that whatever is coming, God will be with us.  Because God is good. And God loves each one of us.

Jesus is not asking us to predict the future, in fact he is explicitly telling us that it’s not possible to do so.

But Jesus is telling us to stay awake, to pay attention to what is happening around us so that will know what our next most faithful step is. Jesus is calling us to have the faith and the hope and the courage to take that next step, and then the one after that, and the one after that.

And Jesus will be with us when we do.

Which is good news.

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

[1] https://www.stgeorgesanglicantranscona.ca/news/preparing-for-advent

[2] Collegeville Commentary


Remember Your Baptism: A Sermon for Sunday November 20th, 2022

The following sermon was preached on November 20, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

 

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

In Kingston, Ontario, there is a church called The Church of the Good Thief.[1]  It no longer functions as a worship space and plans for a revisioning of the space have been complicated by COVID.  I’ll include a link with information about the building with my sermon notes.

The Church of the Good Thief gets its name from two sources. The first, is from the gospel story we read today, where one of the criminals who is crucified along with Jesus believes and is promised that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (43)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If our gospel and New Testament readings were the script for a film and I was the director, my production notes would look something like this:

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

Scene Two:   Crane shot. Make sure the production assistant finds the biggest crane in existence. The shot pans up higher, higher, as high as we can possibly go away from the earth and then, a chorus of disembodied angelic voices sing the ancient hymn we read this morning from Colossians.

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

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

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

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

Yeah?

Let’s unpack that a little more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This particular film that began with a story from the end of Jesus’ life on earth will end with one from the beginning of his life. The story of his birth. A story designed to emphasize his humanity and to remind us that this is not an ordinary story or an ordinary man. This is a man who will change everything.

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

And the story does continue.  Liturgically it will continue next week with the season of Advent, but it also continues to this very day when we gather here to worship and to re-affirm our baptismal vows.  If you are here and you haven’t been baptized, you are still very welcome and we are glad you’re here. If you have questions or want to learn more about baptism, please speak to me after the service

After this sermon, we’ll all turn our attention to the back of the room where the baptismal font it.  We’ll give thanks for water, for baptism, and we’ll renew the vows that were made at our baptism.

Oh, and we’ll participate in an ancient Christian ritual called asperges too. Asperges is just a fancy was of saying Beverley and I are going to walk around flicking water on y’all.

As we say the words of the renewal and as the water falls on you, I invite you to reflect on why you are here today and what all of this means to you. What does it mean for you to remember your baptism?

Christ is King, and Christ invites each of us into this story. Baptism is a key act of invitation. Surely this is good news.

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

[1] https://heritagedowntowns.com/church-of-the-good-thief-kingston-ontario/


A Prayer for the Transgender Day Of Remembrance: November 20, 2022

Sharing this prayer I offered for the Transgender Day of Remembrance:

 

We praise You, Holy One, for the gift of life,

precious, stubborn, fragile, and beautiful;

we are grateful for the time we have to live upon the earth,

to love, to grow, and to be.

 

We give thanks for the will to live and for our capacity to live fully all of the days that we are given;

We remember those who have been taken by the devastation of violence used upon them. We remember them and claim the opportunity to build lives of wholeness in their honour.

We give You thanks for partners, friends, allies, and families who have been steadfast in their love. We thank you for the people who have devoted their life’s work to the prevention of violence, making transitioning and living a full authentic life possible.

We give You thanks for the diligent science, brilliant ideas, and insights that have led to new life-giving procedures, for those in leadership who have acted to provide health care for people who are in transition.

We give thanks for those whose prejudice and judgement have yielded to understanding, for those who have overcome fear, indifference, or burnout to embrace a life of caring compassion.

 We praise You, Eternal One, for those who have loved enough that their hearts have broken, who cherish the memories of those we have lost, and for those who console the grieving.

God, grant us the love, courage, tenacity, and the will to continue to make a difference in a world that all too often is filled with hate, fear, and violence.

Inspire us to challenge and stand strong against the forces that allow needless harm and violence to continue – prejudice, unjust laws, repression, stigma and fear.

 

Into Your care, we trust and lift up the hundreds of souls who have been tortured and murdered.

We lift up to You our dreams of a world where all are cared for,

Our dreams of wholeness,

Our dreams of a world where all are accepted and respected,

 A dream we know You share. Amen. [1]

 

[1] I made minor edits to the original prayer written by Rabbi Denise L. Eger in the excellent book“Where Pride Dwells: A Celebration of LGBTQ Jewish Life and Ritual”.  Photo credit: Photo by Lena Balk on Unsplash