Check Your Status: A Sermon for Sunday September 23, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 23, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

From time to time when I’m shopping I will see a kid have a complete meltdown.  Maybe they are tired, or hungry, or bored or maybe they just really, really want the toy that their parent has said they can’t have. Whatever the reason, they are done, and they express their feelings with tears, loud cries, and flailing limbs.

And usually when I witness this sort of meltdown, one of my main thoughts is, “Wow. I wish it was still socially acceptable for me to behave like that.”

Because I still feel like that sometimes – done. At the end of my rope. And I wonder if I might just feel a lot better if instead of using the more “adult” coping mechanisms the world has insisted I develop as I’ve gotten older, I just had a full on meltdown and then dusted myself off instead.

I wonder about it, but I’ve never had the courage to test the theory out.

At least not in public.

In our reading from James we learn that wisdom that comes from God, and not the world, will lead to mature behaviour, and that the same is true if we decide to be friends with God, instead of with the world. So, perhaps, it’s not that I’m too afraid to see what would happen if I had a public meltdown, perhaps I’m actually a wise friend of God.

This morning I was preaching at the church that I attended when I was 17. I haven’t been back since then, and it was a bit disconcerting to imagine a group of people who, if they remembered me at all, remembered me at 17.  It had me thinking a lot this week about growth and maturity.

I also re-read a sermon series I wrote on James about 15 years ago thinking I could re-cycle some of that material, only to find that I couldn’t.  The way I preach has changed a lot since then.

Feel free to thank me after the service for the fact that my average sermon clocks in at about 14 minutes these days, not 45.

Today’s lengthy passage from James and our gospel reading from Mark both contain themes of wisdom, growth and understanding.  James asks “Who is wise and understanding among you?” and Mark tells us yet another story of Jesus trying to teach the disciples, and the disciples not understanding what he is trying to tell them.

Is it wisdom that keeps me from throwing myself on the grocery store floor crying, “I have had a horrible day and now they are out of my favourite kind of chips? Whhhhhy?”

Maybe.

Or maybe I don’t have temper tantrums in grocery stores because I have found other ways to deal with those feelings.

Because as cathartic as screaming in a grocery store might be, I can also just log into one of my social media accounts and update my status.

I can post my temper tantrum online and get instant gratification.

People will click “like” and write kind words and I’ll feel so much better.

My status will determine my mood.

In our gospel reading, the disciples are also discussing how their status will affect them. Not their Facebook status, of course, but their status in the new kingdom that Jesus is going to bring about.

Jesus and the disciples are traveling through Galilee and Jesus is explaining to them that he is going to be betrayed, die, and three days later, rise again.

He isn’t speaking in riddles or parables this time either; he is laying out the facts as clearly as he can.

And they still don’t get it.

And they argue about which one of them will have the most privileged positions in the new kingdom.

Jesus is trying to teach them what true greatness looks in the counter cultural kingdom he has come to bring about.

He is beginning to challenge their notions of greatness, of what kind of Messiah he is, of what kind of kingdom he has come to usher in. He is teaching them about how this new kingdom will be established and extended.

These are challenging teachings. The disciples don’t get it. Years later, the people who James is writing to still haven’t fully grasped them, and when I look around the world today, I don’t think we have fully grasped them either.

Although it is not always the case, on this day, the disciples are afraid to ask Jesus questions so they argue about status, about which one of them is the greatest instead.

Do you ever do this? You encounter something troubling and rather than deal with it directly you change the subject. Or you hear something you don’t understand, but you’re afraid to ask a question? Possibly because you do not want to look dumb in front of someone you admire. Possibly because you’re also afraid what the answer to your question may be.

Just this week I heard a story about a person who lived for over a decade as if they had HIV/AIDS because they were so afraid that they might have it, that they didn’t want to go to a doctor.  It was just too scary to think about.

I also talked to someone else, who, when faced with a serious problem, will quickly and subconsciously scan the situation for the piece they feel the most comfortable with and focus exclusively on that.  Their boat is sinking and the latch holding the cabin door in place is coming loose? Time to bail water or jump ship? Nope. Time to grab a screwdriver and fix that latch.

Maybe it’s easier to argue about who will be the greatest in the new kingdom Jesus has come to bring about than to think about all of the things that will have to happen in order to establish that kingdom, including the death of someone they love.

At the end of the day, Jesus and the disciples are inside a house and Jesus asks them what they had been arguing about on the road, and they are silent. (33-34)

This is the silence of shame. The silence of a kid who has been caught with their hand in the cookie jar.

It seems like the disciples know that they should be embarrassed about arguing about their relative status, even if they might not be able to fully articulate why that is.  Their silence seem to indicate that they know their talk of greatness is out of step with who Jesus is, with where he is going, and with where he wants to take them.

When they argued about who was the greatest, they were still thinking about worldly categories of greatness. They were still thinking as the world thinks, valuing what the world values.

We can see this in the fact that they are setting themselves up for greatness through self-promotion.  Presumably when they are arguing about greatness, they are setting themselves up as the greatest. It’s not clear, but I suspect that their argument on the road didn’t look like Matthew arguing passionately that Peter was the greatest and Peter arguing with equal vehemence that, “No, no, Matthew, I’m not the greatest, you are!”  I don’t think it looked like that. I suspect it looked more like self-promotion. Like boasting.

And what felt right and natural as they were walking during the day feels uncomfortable when Jesus questions them about it and so they fall silent.

Jesus doesn’t chastise or rebuke them, rather he continues to teach them about his definition of greatness, a greatness that is not reflective of the world’s values.

In the world’s eyes, greatness is often determined by how high up you are on the chain of command. If you have more people serving you than you have to serve, you are on the road to greatness.  If you don’t need to serve anyone and everyone is required to serve you, you have achieved true worldly greatness.

But Jesus says that in his kingdom, that order is reversed and greatness is determined by how many people you serve. Greatness is shown in humble, self-sacrificial service to others.

James will put this in the context of a binary. You can either be friends with God or the world, not both. (4:4) You can either choose earthly wisdom or the wisdom that comes from above, not both. Earthly wisdom leads to envy, selfish ambition, disorder and wickedness of every kind. (3:15) Wisdom from above is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. (16)

The disciples fall silent at Jesus’ question. And then Jesus takes a child from the margins of the group and moves that child not only to the center, but into his arms as well saying “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (37)

Three years ago when Jamie preached on this same passage, he noted noted: “A child in that world had no status, no rights, really no claim on a role until they hit the age of 13 when the moved into adulthood – as sons or daughters of the Torah.

Yet Jesus takes the status-less child – property of the parents – and he says “now treat this child with dignity, welcome this child in its full humanity and when you do that you are welcoming me, and not only me, but the God who sent me.

Live that way, do that, see people that way and the lie of selfish ambition and self absorbed striving is unveiled.” (Jamie Howison)

I think I have heard this part of the story and seen images of a gentle blonde Jesus surrounded by rosy-cheeked children so many times that it’s easy for me to just gloss over this story.  Jesus loves sweet obedient children, this I now, for the Bible tells me so. I should try my best to behave like one.

I have heard this so many times that it doesn’t have a lot of impact anymore and so this week I have tried to imagine the story from a few different angles to see if there is something new it might have to teach me.

I would, for example, love to know what this experience was like for the child in question. One minute you’re playing quietly in the corner, and the next minute your parents’ houseguest has picked you up and plunked you on his lap in the middle of the assembled adults.  What did that feel like?

Last week at our 4pm service Jonny was telling the story and lovingly holding his son throughout and then, Jonny suggested that maybe Jesus gave that child didn’t just lovingly hold that child, maybe Jesus was also a bit more playful and gave him a noogie.

That’s also a spin on the story I’d never thought of before and it got me thinking more about that child’s actual experience and less about their role as passive object in an object lesson.

So what if, what if, that child hadn’t been playing peacefully in the corner? What if part of the reason Jesus picked up that child was because the child had started to throw a full on temper tantrum and it had distracted Jesus?

What if the child Jesus has chosen as an illustration of greatness is actually a sobbing, snotty nosed kid mid meltdown?

What does that do to our understanding of this story?

Does it, perhaps, say to the disciples that they don’t have to get stuck in a shame cycle or worry about asking foolish questions of Jesus because greatness can sometimes look like a bit of a mess?

Does it open up an invitation to help us realize that what Jesus is calling the disciples to– and by extension each one of us to – is full participation? It’s a call to bring all of who we are, and not just the nice, well behaved bits.

Does it help us to recognize that while, perhaps we shouldn’t throw temper tantrums in grocery stores we also shouldn’t push past the thoughts and feelings that make us uncomfortable?  We don’t need to repress them or be afraid to bring them to Jesus?

Maybe. I hope so. It did for me this week.

It was also helpful to be chewing on these ideas from Mark while also reading James’ call to grow and mature by making wise choices.

Because, when it comes down to it, I don’t think I actually want to throw temper tantrums in public. I like to think I have matured past that type of behavior, but I also want to find ways to healthily acknowledge the sorts of feelings that could lead to a public meltdown.  To honour them, not just repress them or feel ashamed of them. That’s what I’m actually looking for.

I’m likely not going to get it right on the first try, but I know I’m in good company. The people James is writing to and the disciples usually follow a pattern of trial and error and error as well. In the next chapter of Mark the disciples will be turn away little children who are being brought to Jesus (10: 13) and James and John, still focused on earthly status, will pull Jesus aside to ask if they can sit at his right and left hand. (10:37)

Even with Jesus’ patient and consistent teaching, it is hard for the disciples to let go of their worldly paradigm. It’s hard for them to begin to think and act differently than they have been taught to think and act their entire lives.

I do believe that some of Jesus’ message is starting to sink in, but it’s sinking in very, very slowly and it will result in slow change, not instantaneous transformation.

Which is encouraging.

Jesus is trying to tell the disciples, and by extension each one of us, to welcome those who do not have any status in our culture.  People who, like the child on his lap, have no status, nothing to offer, nothing to bring to the party. Why should we waste our time on people like that?

Because in God’s kingdom all are valued and are valuable.  (Paul White)

And that goes for each one of us. Later Jesus will tell us not only to welcome children, but to be like children. (10:15)

And when Jesus is calling us to be like a child – he doesn’t just mean the nice bits of being a child. Jesus is calling all of us.

The quarrelling, squabbling versions of us that James is finding so frustrating. The continually missing the point and wondering who is going to be the most important bits of us.

The too afraid to ask the questions parts of us.

Jesus welcomes all of us, sees us, loves us, embraces us.

May we learn to do the same – for ourselves, and for others.

Amen.


Lean into the things that make you feel most alive: A Sermon for Sunday August 19, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 19, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

“Be careful how you live,” that’s how our reading from Ephesians begins.  Life is a theme in both of tonight’s readings. The word “life” or variations like “live” and “living” occur ten times in these two relatively short passages.

In the gospel reading, Jesus says he is the “living bread that came down from heaven… and those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life…. those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Which is a pretty weird thing to say.

Most of us in this room have probably heard these words, or variations of them, only to consume a bit of bread and a mouthful of wine often enough that we forget how shocking they could be.

I have a friend who worked on a Masters thesis on the various ways that the early Christians responded to accusations of cannibalism based on their neighbour’s fairly reasonable assumption that the new fringe group who have arrived on the scene and say they eat human flesh and drink human blood, actually do.

In our time, people may still think Christians are pretty scary, but it’s for very different reasons.

I read Jesus’ words about the life giving properties of his flesh and blood with a sense of relief not horror, because they remind me that the focus of Christ’s message is life, life that is available as a gift, free of charge.

Later in John, Jesus will further expand on this theme by stating that he came so that we “may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10b) Others translations say “that we might have life and life to the full.”

On Wednesday I went to see the movie “Christopher Robin” with my niece. The film, which is really more for adults than kids, is set in the world of the Winnie the Pooh stories and imagines what might have happened to Christopher Robin when he grew up.

And it isn’t pretty.

After leaving his friends behind in the Hundred Acre Woods, Christopher Robin experiences the trauma of living in a boarding school and fighting in a war. He gets married, has a child, and works very hard at a job he doesn’t seem to enjoy.

He works so hard, in fact, that he is hardly ever home and rarely sees his family. He works so hard that he forgets how to play.

In one scene, his wife is upset to learn that he is going to miss yet another family holiday because of a work emergency and Christopher Robin tries to reason with her saying something like, “I just have to work very hard now, for the next few years, and then, then I’ll have made enough money that I can relax and enjoy life.”

And she replies, “Christopher, this is your life, it is happening right now and you are missing it.”

A lot of people, when they hear Jesus’ words about the bread of life and the promise that anyone who eats that bread will never die, make the same mistake that Christopher Robin does: they get so excited about the idea of eternal life, they get so wrapped up in imaging what might happen next, that they miss the fact that Jesus’ words also have something to say about this life right now.  They begin to live like Christopher Robin thinking, “I just have to suffer through this life, but the next life, well, the next life will be glorious!”

We all have a tendency to fall into this sort of either/or thinking, this scarcity mentality – I can either be happy now or in the future, not both. But God is always calling us to think bigger, to accept both/and thinking. Jesus has come to give us life now and in the future. We can have both.

Our reading from Ephesians opens by saying that we need to “[make] the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (v.15)

A day can’t literally be evil can it?  Time is a neutral construct. But a day can feel evil or contain evil.  I can’t count the number of times this week that someone referred to our current weather conditions as “unsettling” or “apocalyptic.”  The days felt evil.

The news didn’t help much either – horrifying stories about child abuse in the church, the death of a beloved icon, and really, any news story that began with the words “The president tweeted…”

It doesn’t take much to get the sense that, just as in Paul’s time, our days are evil too.

I spent a lot of time this week trying to puzzle out why Paul chose to make this argument about time by saying the days are evil.  He could have said, “Make the most of the time because time is a gift from our good and loving God,” or “Make the most of the time because life is precious and you don’t want to miss out on any of it.” You know, something that’s got a positive tone to it that I could easily back up with a massive pile of scripture.

But no, Paul chooses to be a bit of a downer. Make the most of the time because the days are evil.

At least, Paul may seem like a downer if you only read this one small section of the letter. We’re over halfway through Ephesians at this point, and Paul spent the first half of the letter laying the groundwork for the advice his offers in the second half.

In the first chapter, he tells us that God’s goal (telos) for the world is to bring all things together in Christ. (1:10) In the third we learn that God wants the church to be the embodiment of that promise on earth. (3:10) Paul is calling the Ephesians to be wise and align their lives with that goal.

Ephesians is also a letter that contains beautiful expressions of how much God loves us like, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (3:18-19) There’s some pretty upbeat stuff in this letter.

But this is also a letter about wisdom, and it would be unwise – foolish even – to pretend that evil isn’t real.  It is. So if the days are evil, then Paul needs to say that the days are evil. But we also need to remember that this small fragment from Ephesians doesn’t tell the whole story.  The days may be evil, but we also know that the whole world is God’s good creation and we are called to play a part in celebrating that which is good, and redeeming that which is evil. (2:10)

Paul’s words are a call to a realistic sort of hope that is honest about the state of things, including the evil of the day.

While it is an interesting academic exercise to try and determine just why Paul chose to describe the days as evil, I think the important point to glean from his words is this: we need to choose wisely and make the most of the time that we have been given.

And that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world to wait for a better time to come in the future. And that doesn’t mean ignoring the life that we are actively living in this very moment to focus on a life that will be ours in the future.

I also don’t think that either Jesus or Paul are suggesting that if we eat the bread of life that we will be guaranteed a fat bank account, perfect health, or a choice parking spot.  Jesus’ promise was to give us “life to the full,” not merely, “all the things you wished for.”

I think Paul’s challenge to us is to pay attention to our lives, to be aware of what is going on, to be fully alive, rather than just coasting through life on autopilot.

Has this ever happened to you? Someone stops you on Monday morning and asks you how your weekend was and you realize you can’t answer because you can’t actually remember what you did on the weekend?

That’s life on autopilot, and I find it really easy to fall into that way of living, but I’ve also found that there is a simple but powerful prayer that can shake me out of it. A prayer that can help me be more careful with my time.

As a young man, St Ignatius of Loyola was so bored that he became a Christian.   Confined to a bed after an injury with nothing to read but a few spiritual classics that he didn’t really want to read, he read them, became a changed man.

In addition to founding the Jesuit order, Ignatius left two gifts to the Christian community: the “spiritual exercises,” an intensive discernment process that takes at least four weeks to complete, and the awareness examen, which can take as little as a few minutes to complete.

Ignatius believed that the awareness examen was the single most important spiritual exercise we can practice. He felt that the examen needed to be done regularly because it “exercises” or develops a discerning heart.  He believed that every life experience is accompanied by a movement in your heart and the examen is a practice that helps you to recognize that movement. He prayed this prayer twice a day and encouraged others to do the same.

In fact, he told the monks in his order that if they were in a crisis or too busy to do any other practices, if they were too busy to read scripture or to pray, they could skip everything – every other discipline – except the awareness examen.

It is based on Jesus’s words about coming to give us life to the full and it’s designed to help us make careful use of our time by choosing to lean into the things that make us feel fully alive, and away from the things that don’t.

To practice this prayer you need to take some time every day to review that day and reflect on these questions, “Where did I feel most fully alive today, and where did I feel least alive?’

And that’s pretty much it.  Ideally, you follow up on the awareness you gleaned from those questions by choosing to lean into the things that made you feel most alive, and away from the ones that made you feel least alive.  It is that leaning into life, that makes this simple prayer so profound.

Living life to the full, feeling fully alive, living the sort of live that Jesus wants us to have, doesn’t mean we will always be happy. Happiness is not necessarily the goal. It’s – sniff – that. Whatever the word for that feeling is. That sense that you are living in a way that is fully how you were created to be.

The examen helps us to notice the good and the bad in our lives and to acknowledge that God is with us in both. Earlier I teased Paul for being a bit of a downer, but truthfully, I am grateful that he was honest and didn’t try to sugar coat his message. If the days are evil, then we need to name them as such.

And when things are good, we need to acknowledge that too. I can sometimes fixate on the bad to the point that I don’t notice the good. Similarly, other people can so repress the bad that they don’t notice the house is burning down around them. The examen provides a balance between the two and helps us to see that God is always with us in both.

In his book Practice Resurrection, Eugene Peterson says, “It is because of God’s way with us as Spirit that we know that everything in and about God is livable – God bringing us into participation with God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely truths to be learned and believed. They are to be lived. The church is not primarily a place for education. It is a place, a playing field if you will, to practice God, practice resurrection.” (Practice Resurrection, 204)

This past week at our day camp, I saw a group of people who were practicing resurrection. The kids at the camp were consistently being encouraged to explore different activities and ideas in order to discover which ones made them feel most fully alive – even if it wasn’t always explicitly put that way.  “Just try it” was a value that was infused into every part of the day. Not sure that you can run up a wall? Try it. Act in a silly skit? Try it. Get a piece of chocolate from your forehead to your mouth without using your hands? Try it. Didn’t succeed the first time? Try again!

Through all of these things those kids were exploring who they were created to be in a safe environment that reinforced the fact that they were loved.  You could see that through the sweat and the scraped knees that they were experiencing that fully alive feeling. It’s such a good thing and I know those kids will remember and be shaped by those experiences throughout their lives.

We are also called to pay attention to our lives, to how we use our time, and to the things that make us feel most fully alive. It can feel a bit silly or scary at first, but it has a transformative power that it worth some initial discomfort.

And when we begin to pay attention to our lives, when we begin to live into the things that make us feel fully alive, we will also experience a deep sense of gratitude. Gratitude to the God who created us in a unique and beautiful way, and gratitude for the chance to experience the moments of being fully alive.

Giving thanks is a sign that we are filled with the Spirit.  This doesn’t mean we are to give thanks for evil or pretend it doesn’t exist, but rather we are to dig deeper into gratitude and call attention to the things that we can honestly be grateful for, even in tough times.

Amen.


Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign: A Sermon for Sunday August 5, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 5, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Our gospel text opens in the middle of a scene in which a crowd is looking for Jesus. Not having been able to find him, they return to Capernaum to look for him there.

When they finally find Jesus, he tells them that he knows they have been looking for him “not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” (v26) This is in reference to the story we read last week where Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and two fish.

A few weeks ago at Theology by the Glass we were discussing the influence that music can have on us and one of the songs we talked about was “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band. The chorus to that song begins, “Signs, signs everywhere a sign,” and that’s an apt description of the events that lead up to tonight’s gospel reading.

At the beginning of chapter six, we are told that, “A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.”  Tonight’s passage is less than halfway through the chapter and already Jesus has healed people, walked on water, and fed a huge crowd. Signs, signs, everywhere a sign.

Just one of these signs would have been more than enough to make me want to follow Jesus around wondering, “what’s he going to do next?” But Jesus says that the people have been looking for him not because they “saw signs, but because [they] ate [their] fill of the loaves.”

The people, it seems, have bread on the brain.

If you go to Hildegard’s Bakery for bread, and I highly recommend that you do, you may find yourself in a conversation about the many different varieties of bread available. You can’t just walk up to the counter and say “I’d like some bread please,” you have to specify what kind of bread you want. Do you prefer something more dense or airy? Flavoured or plain? Sour dough? Pan bread? Maybe a pizza?

This week I picked up a fabulous sour dough which is my personal favourite and, “whatever is shaped best to fit into the slots of a toaster,” for Mike. Both were delicious.

Next time I go back, I’ll try something different. I love talking to the staff and learning more about bread.

And I hope you all enjoy talking about bread as much as I do, because the lectionary currently has us in a multi-week cycle of Gospel readings called the “Bread of Life” discourses. It can be a nightmare for a preacher – six weeks of finding something original to say about bread.  It can be a bit of a nightmare for a congregation. Six weeks of listening to their preacher try to find something original to say about bread.

But of all the miraculous things that Jesus did in this chapter of John’s gospel alone, it was bread that inspired the people to follow him. Bread that was created through a miracle. Bread that was so abundant that everyone was able to eat as much as they wanted.

And, as my friend and fellow pastor Jodi pointed out earlier today, if we have to overemphasize anything in this day and age, “let it be that the whole world is a feast.” I couldn’t agree more.

The people in our story participated in a feast. They had eaten their fill, but that full feeling won’t last forever, they will get hungry again. And they know it. And they are beginning to wonder, if Jesus could transform a small amount of food into a feast, then maybe he could do it again. And again. Maybe they would never have to be hungry again.

And maybe they would no longer have to be subject to an empire that controls their food supply.

Paul Fromberg explains that, “In Jesus’ world the empire was in control of all access to food. The empire used that control to keep people in line. The only people who had access to this power were cultural elites who had control of all the resources including food. Most of the people living on the land, who are the people that Jesus is teaching this day, suffered from a perpetual lack of food. Hunger was the way that most of the people experienced the crushing power of the empire. It’s also one of the many reasons that so many people suffered from sickness. Inadequate nutrition obviously caused epidemics among the people. Which is one of the reasons why so much of the Bible’s imagery about God’s kingdom is about a banquet with plenty to eat. So the people who gathered to hear Jesus teach [in last week’s story] were hungry and they lived under the threat of starvation and sickness and Jesus just bypasses the power of the empire to give them food and make them whole.”

But most of this vision of a new way of doing things still exists mainly in Jesus’ mind. The people who are standing right in front of him haven’t had a couple thousand years to think through the implications of these stories.  They have never participated in the Eucharist. They are hearing and experiencing these things for the first time. They may have been able to connect some of the dots between Jesus’ ability to bypass the laws of the empire and the natural world in order to allow them to eat their fill, but they assume that this means that Jesus is an ideal candidate, not to eradicate the earthy political structures, but to simply replace the current rulers of those structures.

They are looking to Jesus as someone who can satisfy their physical hunger and possibly also their political aspirations.

After Jesus multiplied the loaves, we are told that, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is come into the world.” (v.14) Then they planned to take Jesus by force and make him their king, but Jesus slips away before they can do so.

Which is why they were looking for him at the beginning of tonight’s reading. He’d given them the slip. But now that they have found him, Jesus uses strong language to try and help them realize that, while he may be the one they are looking for, he has no intention of becoming their earthly king.

NT Wright says, “At first, Jesus’ warning seems churlish. He has done something remarkable; they are excited and come to him wanting more; and he all but rebukes them for having the wrong motivation. What else could you expect from them? But underneath the warning of verses 26 and 27 is the recognition that after the feeding in the wilderness they were only a moment away from making him king (v.15) – and they would have meant him to be a king like other kings, a strong this-worldly figure who would lead them in their strong this-worldly agendas. Jesus is indeed king, but the type and manner of his kingship will be very different from what the crowds expected or wanted…”  (N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, 79)

Having been found by the people he was trying to avoid, Jesus is confronted with an urgent need to define his terms. He’s using the word “king” to describe himself, but he is a very different kind of king than what the people are expecting.  He is using the word “bread,” but he is not using it in a way they have ever heard it used before.

Initially, the crowd has two main frames of reference for the word “bread.” The kind of bread they have recently been served by Jesus, the kind of bread they eat on a regular basis and the bread they know about from the stories of their ancestors, the bread that came down from heaven and fed the Israelites in the wilderness, manna. Both are types of bread that are used to satisfy physical hunger.

Jesus is essentially saying “Look, I don’t want to talk to you about the kind of bread we ate the other day, and I don’t want to talk to you about the kind of bread your ancestors ate in the past, I want to talk to you about an entirely different kind of bread.”

Jesus has their attention and while they don’t fully understand what he is talking about, they are interested in getting some of this new kind of bread, and so they ask how they can acquire it and how much this new special bread will cost.

They are still assuming an earthly system where they will have to give something, in order to get something. They want to reduce what Jesus is talking about to a simple formula, but Jesus won’t let them. Instead, he rejects their request for a transactional exchange and replaces it with an invitation to believe. There is only one thing they have to do if they want this new bread, believe.

Jesus describes this new bread by saying, “the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” a description which inspires the people to say, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (v.33-34)

Soon, as Jesus continues to explain what he means many will begin to question him, many will doubt, many will decide they don’t want this bread after all, but those are stories for the next couple of weeks.

For now, the people are hungry for more. More bread to feed their bellies and, now that they know that such a thing may be possible, the bread of life as well.

I worked for years in a number of charities that focussed on feeding people who are poor and the most common question I would receive when sharing about my work with church folks was, “Well it’s all well and good that you’re feeding their bodies, but are you feeding their souls?” The implication was always that souls were infinitely more important than bodies. That telling people about Jesus was infinitely more important than giving them bread. I can imagine those church people saying something similar to Jesus, “Well, feeding us with that bread and that fish was nice enough, but what are you going to do for our souls?”

It’s a shift from the way that first crowd of people approached the subject, and it’s a shift from the way Jesus approached the subject as well. In this particular gospel passage Jesus is indeed focussing on the bread of life because its important for the people to know about it, not because he doesn’t value the importance of bread for the body.  He’s already clearly demonstrated that feeding people’s bodies is important to him. It’s not an either or situation.

But in my church experience it was often made to seem as it is was. Feed people’s bodies? Eh, that’s OK.  Feed people’s souls? Well that’s the only work that truly matters.

That’s a shift, but there is also another shift that has happened that makes our world different than the one described in the gospels: we have a very different relationship to bread. Any kind of bread. At least here in North America, it is no longer the staple of our diets that it once was.  The symbolism has shifted.

Paul Fromberg, who I quoted earlier, is an Anglican priest in San Francisco and he told me a story about a time when he was serving communion, and one of the first people he approached was someone he didn’t recognise, someone who was new to the church. As Paul approached him with the bread, the young man got a panicked look in his eyes, held out his hands to refuse the bread and said, “I don’t do carbs.”

Needless to say, Paul was stunned. In all his years of serving communion, he had never had anyone respond in that manner.

For many people, bread has shifted from a daily staple in a healthy diet, to a food to eat as a treat or a guilty pleasure, or, for people with celiac or gluten allergies, a food to be avoided entirely if they don’t want to get sick.

For many people, bread is now something to be avoided – either by choice or necessity. It is no longer a universal symbol of a basic food staple that gives everyone life in the way that it once was.

Some of us may need to cut bread out of our diets entirely, but we can still look to these passages to understand that if we want to live, we have to eat. Maybe not bread, but we have to eat something.

You can’t ignore your body and focus solely on your spirit. And we can’t expect people who are poor to do that either. If a person is hungry they need food, and no one should ever be hungry.

We also need the bread of life, Jesus, to sustain our spirits, and that is an important and valuable thing.

We need to value both and keep both in mind, if we place more emphasis on one and ignore the other; we are missing something fundamentally important.

Which is why I love the way, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, we place an emphasis on both by bringing baskets of food to share with Agape Table and the Bread of Life to share with everyone who choses to come and join us. I love seeing both of those things sharing priority of place around the table.

With Agape Table’s move to a new location we may need to re-think just what we bring to fill these baskets, but I hope we keep finding ways to remember the importance of bread for bellies and bread from heaven. Bringing something to put in those baskets each week is a small thing, it’s an example of offering our lunch like Jamie spoke about last week.

It’s a small thing, but it’s an important thing. It’s important as much, if not more, for us as for the folks at Agape Table.

Our baskets contain items that will help people, but they are also a sign. A sign of the importance of remembering and caring for our neighbours. A sign of our intention to extend the abundance of this table and the abundance of God’s love that it represents with others.

And it’s something I am grateful for.

Amen.


On Mustard Seeds and Storms at Sea: A Sermon for Sunday June 21, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 21, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

In the section preceding tonight’s gospel, Jesus has been doing a fair bit of teaching about the Kingdom of God using agricultural metaphors. Brian McLaren has suggested that because Kings and Queens and Kingdoms seem so distant from our present day reality that a better way to translate this term might be “God’s dream for the world.” God’s dream for the world that has begun to take shape and is moving steadily towards its final goal.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus teaches that God’s dream for the world may be “as vulnerable as seeds thrown on a path, on rocks, among thorns (4:1-20); it may be hidden now (4:21-22); its beginnings may be as small as a mustard seed (4:30-32) and its growth as mysterious as growing crops (4:26,27). But nothing can prevent the great future harvest, the light from shining, the mustard shrub from providing shelter and shade. The Kingdom will succeed, [God’s dream will come true], no matter what setbacks there might be along the way. And in case the disciples should have missed the intended meanings, Jesus explained the parables to them in private (4:33-34).”

Today’s gospel passage begins in the evening. Jesus has spent the day floating in a boat and speaking to crowds of people. Some on the shore, some in other boats.  Now he suggests to the disciples that they leave the crowds behind and they do.

There are two details I find particularly interesting in this part of the story. First, when the disciples leave in the boat to go with Jesus, they aren’t alone. Other boats are also there with them.  (v. 36) Who is in those boats? What is their experience of the rest of this story? We simply don’t know.

The second detail I find interesting is the phrase that has been translated “just as he was.”  The verse reads, “And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was.” (v. 36)

Many commentators suggest that this phrase means that Jesus was already in the boat when he asked the disciples to join him and go to the other side.  That may very well be, but it does tickle my funny bone a bit to imagine the scene. It’s funny enough to me to imagine Jesus floating in a boat on the water while people stand on shore and listen to him teach, but it’s even funnier to imagine him, tired and noticing that it’s started to get dark, stopping, directly addressing his disciples while everyone else can still hear him, telling them it’s time to leave. The disciples then wade into the water, scramble into the boat and sail away, leaving no time for handshakes, autographs, or selfies with the people who are standing on the shore watching them sail away.

Talk about a dramatic exit.

But Jesus doesn’t stop teaching when they sail away. Rather, as Tim Geddert notes, the boat becomes the classroom, and the lesson plan shifts from metaphors to lived experience.  It will soon be time for the disciples to apply what they have been learning in a practical situation.

I have always been a city girl, but when I was in junior high and high school, I lived in St John’s NL, an city on an island surrounded by water and I quickly learned that I was living with people whose culture, who entire way of life was shaped by their relationship to the sea.

Just in case I didn’t pick that up by osmosis, almost every single book I read in my high school literature class were stories of the sea.  We read Robinson Crusoe, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies and the Newfoundland classics, Death on the Ice and Bartlett the Great Explorer.

And that’s just the books. We studied poetry, drama, and short stories too.

People who live by water learn very quickly that not everything in life is black and white.  The ocean is beautiful, it can provide you with a livelihood and food to feed your family, it can be the place that you feel most truly at peace and at home.  But the ocean can change in a split second and cause you to experience great terror and suffering. The sea can give life, and just as easily, the sea can take it away.

The setting for tonight’s gospel passage, the Sea of Galilee, is no different. In his book Jesus: A Pilgrimage, James Martin writes: “Even today storms suddenly stir up the Sea of Galilee, the result of dramatic differences in temperatures between the shoreline (680 feet below sea level) and the surrounding hills (which can reach 2000 feet). The strong winds that funnel through the hills easily whip up waves in the relatively shallow waters (only two hundred feet deep). … It’s important to remember the terror that storms held for those in Jesus’ day as well as the rich religious symbolism of water. In ancient times water was a symbol for life and a means of purification, but it also held out the potential for death and was an occasion of danger, as in the story of the flood or the story of Jonah. The Psalms speak of God’s power over the seas and also use water as a symbol of peril: ‘Save me, O God,’ says the psalmist, ‘for the waters have come up to my neck.’ Raging seas and howling storms would have represented to Jesus’ contemporaries chaos and danger. Jewish belief was that the sea could also be the abode of demonic forces. On a less theological level, [- Martins continues -] sea voyages were simply dangerous, as St Paul would attest. A storm at sea could be frightening even for experienced fishermen. Far worse is the storm at sea at night.” (228-9)

Mark tells us that on this particular evening, “a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already swamped.”

Try to imagine how terrifying this would be.  It’s dark, the wind is howling and whipping everything around you. You are wet, you are cold, you can’t see anything because your eyes are stinging and full of water.  Nothing around you feels stable, because nothing around you is stable. The boat is pitching and heaving and you know that the boat is also taking on water because you can feel it steadily rising past your toes to your ankles and now its inching up your calves.

This is a pretty good time to freak out.  It’s a better time to grab the ropes holding the sails, or an oar, or a bucket and get to work. Try to gain some control of the movement of the boat or, at the very least, try to make sure that there is more water outside the boat, than in it.

And everyone agrees with you. Everyone is feeling and doing the same things you are and then… and then…

You notice that one person is behaving very differently.  You frantically try to wipe the water from your eyes, certain they must be playing tricks on you, but no, you are seeing correctly.

Jesus isn’t panicking. Jesus isn’t helping. Jesus is asleep. Jesus is sleeping on a cushion. A cushion? I love Mark’s addition of this little detail.  The storm is raging, the boat is pitching and heaving, and Jesus is sleeping on a cushion.

I’m not sure how this would make you feel, but I know that it would make me really angry.  The storm is a crisis that requires all hands on deck and Jesus – who should be modelling impeccable servant leadership – is slacking off.  He’s asleep! On a cushion!

The next section of the story contains 4 questions.

The disciples ask two of them. During the storm, they ask, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing.”  Later, when Jesus has calmed the storm they ask, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?

The second question suggests that the disciples did not expect that Jesus could stop the storm. Jesus’ ability to command that the wind and sea obey him surprises them. It wasn’t what they were expecting.

So what did they expect Jesus to do when they woke him up?”  Grab a bucket and bail? Say something comforting?

Or did they not actually expect him to be able to do anything, they were just shocked that anyone could possibly sleep through a storm.  Were they waking him up less to say, “save us” and more to say “what is wrong with you?”

That would be my question. Jesus, your behaviour seems extremely selfish and inappropriate.  Don’t you care that we are dying? The text doesn’t say “might perish,” it says “are perishing.” Jesus, we are actively dying, how can you possibly be sleeping at a time like this?

Jesus’ response is to stop the storm, and ask the a few questions of his own. “Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?”

On first reading, Jesus’ question seems a tad insensitive to me. I don’t think I’d given him top marks in a pastoral care course for this one.  It seems obvious that almost dying in a storm and then seeing a man stand up, speak some words that stop a fierce storm in its tracks would be terrifying.  Why ask the obvious?

How you interpret these questions will depend largely on the way you imagine Jesus asked these questions. The text doesn’t give us Jesus’ tone, we add that in ourselves. Is he angry? Judgemental? Sad?

I wonder if, having just calmed the storm with seemingly little difficulty, Jesus is now moving on to the more difficult task of calming the disciples. (Geddert 65)  The storm may be over, but the disciples are still filled with fear – not awe as the NRSV suggests – they have just confronted their own human mortality and then witnessed Jesus doing the unimaginable. The fear hasn’t left, it’s intensified.

I wonder if Jesus is asking these questions, because he is a good spiritual director. That’s the tone I hear in his questions.

Jesus is asking the disciples to think through and articulate the whys behind their feelings.  The wording of the question suggests that he isn’t asking why they were afraid during the storm, but why they are afraid right now after the storm has passed.

I think, there is reason to suggest that the disciples are actually more afraid, or at bare minimum differently afraid, after the storm has subsided than during it.  Fear of dying in a storm at sea would have been something they understood, it was likely something they had experienced before. They had a framework for understanding that fear.  The revelation of just how powerful Jesus might be – that he can even make the wind and waves obey him – wasn’t something they had a frame of reference for. It wasn’t even close to something they had a frame of reference for.

And that’s terrifying.

And it would be helpful for the disciples to understand not only that they are afraid, but why they are afraid.

Jesus also asks, “Have you still no faith?”

The text doesn’t tell us and I don’t know if the disciples have “no faith.” I suspect that they did have some faith, but it’s a growing and developing faith.

I worked for years with people who were exploring the practice of living in intentional communities and we’d often bump up against the difference between their expectation of what community would be, and what it actually was.  They’d read about community and talk about community and then they would live in community and after a few weeks, or a few months, they would begin to realize that they were only really just beginning to discover what that word actually means.

It is very different to talk about community than to live in one. I think the disciples would understand that. It has been one thing to listen and nod in agreement as Jesus compares God’s dream for the world to a mustard shrub, it’s an entirely different thing to watch Jesus wake up, rise to his full height, command that the storm be still and… it listens.

They have been observing and listening to Jesus and each one of Jesus’s stories, each experience they have with him stretches and changes their understanding of who Jesus is.  It isn’t necessarily a change from no faith to faith, but from faith to an ever expanding and deepening faith.

Like Newfoundland, England is a land surrounded by water and that has shaped their culture. It has also shaped the Anglican Church.

If you look up, you’ll notice that the church is shaped like the hull of a boat.  The Book of Common Prayer contains an entire section of prayers to be said at sea, including a prayer service to be used when encountering a storm at sea.  These prayers are often a beautiful combination of theological and psychological reflection. Perhaps because they are designed to be used in crisis, they are particularly honest about the ways human beings react in difficult times.

There is the classic bargaining that tends to occur when we encounter crisis. One in particular, begs that God will save our lives while also reminding God that “The living, the living shall praise thee!”

In other words, don’t let us die in this storm or we won’t be able to praise you!

And here’s the part I think is particularly fascinating:

“We confess, when we have been safe, and seen all things quiet about us, we have forgot thee our God, and refused to hearken to the still voice of thy word, and to obey thy commandments: But now we see how terrible thou art in all thy great works of wonder; the great God to be feared above all.”

I’ve sometimes heard people preach about this gospel story and say that the point of the story is that Jesus can calm all the storms in our lives. That if you just have enough faith, your life will be smooth sailing.

I don’t think that’s the point of the story at all.  I’m not sure any gospel story has a single point, but the thing I am noticing in a particular way today is that there is always more we can learn about God. God is always bigger than we think.  You can’t just read the story about the mustard shrub and think you’ve got it all figured out. You can’t just have one encounter with Jesus and believe you know all there is to know.

The storm expanded the disciples understanding of who Jesus is. Our experiences, all our experiences can do the same, if we let them. If we resist the temptation reflected in that prayer from the prayer book to forget God when things are quiet.   Because there are insights to be gleaned about who God is from meditating on mustard seeds and storms at sea, and we don’t want to miss out on any of them.

Amen.


Huh, that's interesting: A Sermon for Sunday May 27, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday May 27, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

I bind unto myself today
The gift to call on the Trinity
The saving faith where I can say
Come three in one, o one in three

Be above me, as high as the noonday sun
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right
Be behind me, oh circle me with Your truth and light

Amen.

 

It’s Trinity Sunday. The day when preachers all over the world say an extra prayer that they will somehow manage to avoid saying something either incomprehensible or heretical in their sermon so I thought it would be fitting to begin with a literal prayer of protection from the opening stanzas of a song written by Gayle Salmund and made popular by Steve Bell.

“I bind until myself today the gift to call on the Trinity.”

Father. Son. Holy Spirit.

Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer.

The three in one.

The Trinity.

The first theology course I ever took in university was an upper level course on Trinitarian theology.  Partway through the term a friend asked me how I was finding the class and I said, “I think I only understand about a third of what we’re discussing, but I have come to the conclusion that the Trinity is really important.”

I still don’t think I fully comprehend the Trinity, and that’s partly because the Trinity is a mystery.  If you think you fully understand it, you are probably missing something, and fortunately, you don’t need to fully understand it to believe in it or appreciate it.

This week I spent a fair amount of time thinking about the many things in life that come in threes.

There is the classic three point sermon.  There are three steps to the high altar behind me.  There were three Bronte Sisters, three Stooges, and three little pigs. Poutine is made up of cheese, gravy, and French Fries.

None of these perfectly describe what we mean when we say we worship one God, who is also three persons.

In contemporary culture, we say that human beings are made up of body, mind, and spirit. But even when we throw those terms around, we often don’t see them as equally important.

I have a friend who refers to her body as a meat sack, another who says that his body is the “container that carries his brain around,” and another who recently told me that her body is “a bunch of goo held together by skin.”

We tend to have complicated relationships with our bodies.  I do. But I also know that God created each one of us with a body, sees those bodies as good, and even willingly took on a human body at one point.

Which leads me to our passage from Romans which begins:

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.  (Romans 8:12-13)

This text reminds me that not only do I have a complicated relationship with my body, I have a complicated relationship with Paul, the author of Romans.

So we are not supposed to live according to our flesh and need to put to death the deeds of our bodies. Does that mean that our bodies are just the containers that carry the really important parts of ourselves around? Is that what Paul is getting at?

Tonight’s reading begins with the words “So then,” which tells us that these ideas are tied with the ideas that come before them.

NT Wright explains that earlier in Romans when Paul begins to unpack what he means by “the flesh” he is not talking about our bodies. Wright explains that:

“The word we translate, here and elsewhere, as ‘flesh’ refers to people or things who share the corruptibility and mortality of the world, and, often enough and certainly here, the rebellion of the world. ‘Flesh’ is a negative term. For Paul as a Jew the created order, the physical world, was good in itself. Only its wrong use and its corruption and defacing are bad. Flesh highlights that wrong use, that corruption and decay.” (Paul For Everyone: Romans Part One, 140)

So to live by the spirit instead of the flesh is not to pray all the time and ignore your body.  Rather, it is to align everything you are – body, mind, and spirit – with God’s way of seeing the world.

In tonight’s gospel passage, Jesus tells the disciples to expect the coming of the Spirit of truth.  NT Wright tells us that the Spirit’s role is to “prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment all three of which are aspects of the world’s rejection of Jesus…The world judges incorrectly by refusing to recognize Jesus as being sent from the Father and by its inability to penetrate beyond external appearances.”

The point is not to ignore our bodies or to believe that everything about our bodies is wrong, the point it to align our whole being with God’s values and not the values we see in the world which means we have to move past superficial judgments of ourselves, and of others.

One of the key things that the doctrine of the Trinity shows us about how God sees the world, is that God sees everything in the context of relationships. Even God’s relationship to God’s self is relational.  God is a community and not an individual, and God keeps inviting us into that communal experience. In our increasingly individualistic world, God calls us into community.

Community is difficult, and it’s dangerous.  Community involves putting ourselves into situations where other people may not think or act like we do. It opens us up to vulnerability and to judgment – our own and the judgments of the people we are in community with.

So it’s not surprising that Paul is going to jump from talking about the need to align ourselves with God’s way of seeing and God’s values, to a discussion of fear.

Paul writes “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (15)

We are not slaves, we are beloved children of God. God, who is inherently relational, has adopted us. We do not need to fear. And yet, I suspect that each person in this room has spent at least a portion of this past week feeling afraid. Because fear is also pretty normal.

There is another set of three that I have come to find really helpful. I use them a lot in my retreat and spiritual direction work. I didn’t make this up, but I can’t remember the original source either.

Imagine a series of three concentric circles. In the middle, you have your comfort zone.  For most of my life I’ve been taught that a comfort zone is a bad thing, something I needed to get out of, but the truth is, there is nothing inherently wrong with a comfort zone. It’s, well, comfortable. It makes us feel good and warm and safe.  We all need to spend at least some of our time existing in this sort of space.

The outer most ring is the exact opposite of your comfort zone, it’s your extreme discomfort zone.  In this zone you feel so uncomfortable that it is life threatening. You become so focused on staying alive that you don’t have the energy to focus on anything else.

Although the comfort zone and the extreme discomfort zone are opposites, they do have one important thing in common.

You won’t learn or grow in either space.  In one because you are too comfortable to be motivated to change or question anything, and in the other because you are too uncomfortable to be able to change or question anything. That’s what we need the middle circle for.

The middle circle is the “slightly uncomfortable zone.” A space in which you are both not entirely comfortable and not concerned for your personal safety.  Something about the situation is motivating you to change and to question, but you have enough of a sense of safety to actually question and change.

I was reflecting on the nature of the trinity on Wednesday when I was waiting for the noon Eucharist to begin. Barbara Schoomski, one of the priests at All Saints, came by and we started to talk about the tent city that has sprung up on the lawn and the new dynamic that it brings to this property.  And as we were chatting I realized that there are now three main groups of people using the three main spaces on this property. There are those of us who are part of worshipping congregations who primarily use the sanctuary, there are the folks at Agape Table who use the hall, and there are the people sleeping outside who currently call the front lawn home.

A holy trinity of sorts.

It’s not a perfect metaphor, however. With a few exceptions, we tend to function more like three in three – three distinct groups in three distinct spaces – rather than three in one and one in three.

We all have our comfort zone.

Personally, having worshipped here for almost eleven years and having volunteered at Agape for almost eight, I am fairly comfortable in those two spaces, but this new space on the lawn is more challenging for me.

It’s not because the people make me uncomfortable.  The few times I’ve chatted with folks out on the lawn have been pleasant enough. It’s not the people.  Perhaps some of you have chosen to join us tonight. If so, welcome here.

You don’t make me uncomfortable, but what your presence represents to me does.

Last year I was chatting to someone about a similar situation and I said, “What concerns me is that the average person in Winnipeg seems to think that the problem is simply one of information.  They seem to think that our city is just bursting with resources designed to help folks who are homeless, and the challenge is simply to connect the folks who need the resources with those resources.”

But that’s not the case. Those resources either don’t exist or are already overburdened. There are a lot of reasons why a tent city can spring up on our lawn, but the solution isn’t as simple as handing out some telephone numbers or email addresses.  It’s not as simple as asking these folks to move either, moving the people only moves the people, it doesn’t solve the problems associated with our broken housing, mental health, and economic systems.

I’m like a problem I can fix. A question I know the answer to.  Tent city doesn’t provide me with either of those things, and that makes me uncomfortable and because I see it almost every day, it won’t let me just ignore the situation and slip back into my comfort zone either.

When I use the model of the three rings with people, I point out that there are typically two reactions when move from our comfort zone to our slightly uncomfortable zone:

1) We may discover that this new thing is actually quite comfortable and we simply expand our zone of comfort.

2) We may discover that the new thing is not immediately comfortable and we move quickly to judge it.  It makes us uncomfortable, so it must be bad.

But rather than judging this new thing or experience as either good or bad, there is a third posture we can hold.  Rather than saying it is good, or bad, we can say “Huh, that’s interesting.”

“Huh, I’m noticing that I find spending a whole day in silence really tough. That’s interesting.”

“Huh, I’m noticing that when I talk about my childhood I get really angry. That’s interesting.”

“Huh, I’m noticing that when I see the tent city on the church lawn I experience a range of complicated thoughts and feelings. That’s interesting.”

Now I don’t know what your personal reaction has been to the folks on the lawn – fear, sadness, a sense of pride to come to worship in such a countercultural space – but I suspect that whatever your reaction is, it says more about you than it does about the people living on the lawn.

I can’t tell you what to do, I don’t know what you should do, what we should do.

What I can say is that if you hold your reactions without judgment, if you view them as interesting instead of merely right or wrong, you are more likely to discover what it is you should do.

It may be to pray, to write a cheque or a note of encouragement to All Saints’, to choose to walk through the garden into the church instead of circling around it, to take your coffee outside after church and say “Hi” to someone, always respecting their right to not say “hi” back. It may be to talk with someone you trust to help you sort out your feelings.

Whatever it is, I hope we can, as Paul says, work to align ourselves, more closely with God’s way of seeing, than with the world’s. To realize that because God loves us enough to adopt us, that we do not need to be slaves to fear and to look to extend that freedom to others. Because God doesn’t long to be in relationship only with Godself, or with those of us who are gathered here tonight, God longs to be in relationship with everyone.

And that’s worth celebrating.

Amen.


First. Only. Different.: A Sermon for Sunday April 29, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday April 29, 2018.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

Before we dive in I have some recommendations for further reflection. While I certainly don’t remember every sermon I have ever heard, I remember the sermon Jamie preached here three years ago on tonight’s passage from Acts.  I remember what I was doing when I heard first heard it on our podcast – chopping vegetables, I must have missed church that week. I remember saying out loud, “Wait, what?” and I remember that my tears had nothing to do with onions. Check it out.

And then while you’re at it, check out Austen Hartke’s new book “Transforming.” It provides the basis for a lot of what I am going to say tonight.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

In John’s gospel, Jesus creates this metaphor where he is a vine, we are the branches and God is the master gardener carefully tending to the plant and pruning each branch so that we produce more fruit.  Elsewhere we are told that the fruit we are to produce is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Good stuff.

What is our role in this process? We are to abide. We are to remain connected to the vine.

My spiritual director recently retired, and I miss her because she is a no-nonsense type of person who managed to make it clear that I was safe and loved, while going straight for my weak spots.

Every single month she would ask these two questions, “How have you wasted time with God this month?” and “How’s the sitting still going?”

Two pointed ways of asking me roughly the same thing, “Are you abiding in the vine?”

She knew that if she asked me how was I being active in my spiritual life, how was the action going I’d have more than enough to talk about.

She also knew that the honest answer to her question would regularly be, “not well,” or something similar to what I tell the dental hygienist about flossing my teeth: “the two days before I see you and the two days after are great.”

It is hard to abide.

In this gospel passage, Jesus is sharing an important truth with us, he is the vine, we are the branches, and God is the master gardener, but how does a person get to become a branch in the first place? Do you have to be born onto the vine? Can new branches be grafted on? If new branches can be added, what would the selection process be for those new branches? What sort of pruning is required to keep the plant healthy and producing good fruit?

These are the questions that the early Christians were wrestling with in the book of Acts.

And in Acts it rapidly becomes clear that the answer to the question, “Can new branches be grafted on,” is “yes!”   3000 new branches were grafted on in one day in one instance and 5000 in an afternoon in another. (Acts 2:41, 4:4)

The selection process for new branches is a bit more confusing. It’ll take them awhile to sort that one out and they, like us, will mess up time and time again as they keep assuming that they, and not God, are in charge of creating the criteria for inclusion.

And the pruning? Well, it turns out circumcision will not be required for these new branches.  And neither will traditional Jewish dietary restrictions. And there will be gentile branches, and Samaritan branches and all kinds of other unexpected branches.

What this early Jesus movement is learning, over and over again, is that God doesn’t care about the same categories that they care about, that we care about.

But we’re not there yet. The stories that lead those early followers to reach most of those conclusions occur after tonight’s story. When Philip responds to the angel’s call to go into the wilderness things like circumcision and who can be included are still very much up for debate.

But the hints of where this whole Jesus adventure is going to take them are becoming clearer – it’s going to take them into new and unusual territory.

Shonda Rhimes is the creative force behind shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal. If you watch TV on a Thursday night, the odds are good that you are watching something she created. Odds are, I’m watching too. In her book, “Year of Yes,” she talks about the experience of being an F.O.D. :

I am what I have come to call an F.O.D. – First. Only. Different. We are a very select club, but there are more of us out there than you’d think. We know one another on sight.  We all have the same weary look in our eyes… (138)

It takes a lot of work to be an F.O.D. You’re constantly scanning the horizon for danger, constantly asking the question “Am I welcome here?” “Will I be safe here?”  In many settings, you’re also constantly, whether you want to or not, teaching other people how to treat F.O.D.s – which pronouns to use, what considerations need to be taken into account when designing events or public spaces, what kinds of questions are, or are not, appropriate to ask.  Being an F.O.D. can be exhausting.

Many of us in this room have had the experience of being an F.O.D.  It could be for a host of reasons from your skin colour to your sexuality to the fact that you’re the first person in your family to go to university. Whatever your thing is, you know that in certain situations if people were to sing that Sesame Street song, “One of these things is not like the others,” you’re that thing.

In many ways, the book of Acts tells the story of a First. Only. Different. religious movement trying to figure out how they relate not only to the world around them, but to people who also happen to be F.O.D.s who want to join them.

Tonight’s passage from Acts begins with the word “then.” This story takes place after a story in which Philip has been spending time in Samaria inviting people who were previously unwelcome into the new community.  That’s an F.O.D. experience.

The old boundaries are falling away.  A good Jewish boy would avoid Samaritans, and now Philip is worshipping alongside them.

And then, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to go and travel south on a wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, and he does and as he is walking, he sees a eunuch from Ethiopia coming toward him.

My knowledge of eunuchs is limited to Bible stories and episodes of Game of Thrones, so I did a little more research this week.

Although the practice was forbidden in Jewish culture, it was fairly common for their neighbours in what became Assyria, Babylon, and Persia to use castration to punish criminals, to identify someone as a slave, or to create people who could safely transgress gender norms. Eunuchs were considered to be neither male nor female and as such they could move easily between gendered spaces.  A eunuch could spend their days guarding a King’s harem or work in close contact with a Queen without raising anyone’s eyebrows.

This is probably what happened to the eunuch in today’s story. As a child he may have been identified as a person with “potential,” as someone whose intelligence and demeanor would be of benefit to the royal household so he was made into a eunuch. “He” became a “they.”

And whether or not this was something they would have chosen for themselves, they did indeed have potential. Not only does this eunuch work for the Queen, they are her chief finance minister – a high position indeed.

When Philip sees the eunuch from Ethiopia approaching, the Spirit tells him to join them and Philip starts running. I love that detail. Philip doesn’t walk, he runs.

Hearing that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah, Philips asks “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the eunuch responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

And so Philip and the eunuch dive into an impromptu study of a passage from Isaiah that we commonly call the Suffering Servant song. (Isaiah 53:7-8)

Only two verses are quoted, but I like to think that perhaps they read on a bit further than this as well. And if they didn’t, I think it’s fair to assume that Philip was familiar with the next couple of chapters. So let’s wade in some speculative territory for a few minutes. Three chapters after the section quoted in Acts, we read this in Isaiah:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  (Isaiah 56:3-5)

This seems to be a pretty unequivocal call for eunuch inclusion, but it was never put into practice.  The Jewish community grabbed the pruning shears out of God’s hands and made a few cuts. So, when the Eunuch travelled to Jerusalem they would not have been allowed to convert to Judaism or participate fully in temple worship.  Their gender transgressive identity ensured they would never be included.

So now on the trip home, it makes sense to me that the eunuch is searching the scriptures. It makes sense to me that the eunuch has a few questions.

And Philip may have had to explain the interesting case of the Jewish eunuchs.

As I mentioned earlier, around the time that Isaiah was being written, Israel’s neighbours had a habit of castrating slaves and the Israelites had a habit of becoming those slaves.

And as castration is not reversible, but slavery can be, when they are no longer enslaved and in exile, the Israelites had to figure out what to do with the eunuchs in their community.  They also needed to figure out what to do with people of mixed race or in mixed marriages, another by-product of their time in exile. Their clean categories were being challenged by their lived experience.

It is in this context that God says  “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.  (Isaiah 56:3-5)

God, the master gardener, seems pretty determined to graft foreigners and eunuchs onto the vine.  But what about the Jewish people? It seems they were less eager, and this injunction was never implemented – and less we get a superior feeling, our track record in this area has been pretty awful as well.

So the eunuch may actually be asking two questions when they say, “Is there anything preventing me from being baptized?”  Anything God’s says? Anything the church says? Anything you Philip will say?

It is not enough to know that God will include them, I suspect the eunuch was very aware of our human tendency to want to grab the pruning shears and put God the gardener out of a job.

And in the context of a human community, it’s not enough to know that God’s welcomes you, you need to know that the people welcome you too.

Look, the eunuch says, there is water here and I want to be baptized.

Is there anything that prevents me from being baptized? Does my race prevent me? Does being a eunuch prevent me? Does anything about me prevent me from being baptized?

Philip’s answer is to baptize the eunuch.

After baptizing the eunuch, Phillip is “snatched away” by the Spirit of the Lord – another great little detail that is never fully explained – and the eunuch from Ethiopia, who never sees Philip again, goes on their way “rejoicing.”

This week I had a conversation with a member of this community that I’m going to take some artistic license with. It went something like this:

“If I live fully into my identity as an F.O.D., will you excommunicate me?”

They were fully aware that I do not have the power to excommunicate anyone, and the question was asked at least in part as a joke, but it’s still a question I want to take seriously.

Remember our gospel passage? I am not the gardener, and neither are you. God decides who gets grafted onto Jesus the vine, I don’t. And you don’t either.

So when someone asks the same question as the eunuch in our story, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized, from being included?” I want to respond just like Jesus does, just like Philip does, and just like the church in Acts will increasingly do by saying that the thing or things that makes you the First. Or the Only. Or the Different.  Whatever those things are, they are not valid reasons to exclude you.

You are welcome here. All of you is welcome here.  So bring all of who you are to this space, to this community, and, in a few minutes, to this table.

Being baptized, being included, causes the eunuch to rejoice, and church tradition tells us that their joy was so contagious that it became the seed of the church in Ethiopia. That’s some pretty impressive fruit.

Just imagine what kind of beautiful fruit we could produce if we were to follow their example.

Amen.


Welcome to Good Friday: A Sermon for Friday March 29, 2018

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 8, 2019.  It was a three part sermon where I preached part 1 and 2  and my colleague Jamie Howison preached part 2.

 

Part 1:

Last Sunday we waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna.” Last night we ate with Jesus and he washed our feet, and then we fell asleep while he prayed in the garden.  Today we gather together at the foot of his cross. [1]

Welcome to Good Friday.

Today’s gospel begins with a scene in which Jesus is handed over to Pilate.

I really wasn’t sure what I was going to say about this story. I was feeling really stuck actually, and then yesterday, someone yelled at me.

Now don’t look around, he’s not here and he’s not connected to this church.

But when I say he yelled at me, I mean it. His voice was raised, his body shook with anger, and ugly words poured out of his mouth.

And then the room got really small and eerily quiet and everyone turned to stare at me.  I could feel all of their eyes on me and knew they were all wondering how I was going to respond and I knew they were all asking essentially the same question, “Is she going to make this situation more uncomfortable for us or less uncomfortable?”

Only they can really say which one it was.  The meeting ended, and then I went home to write this sermon.

And even though I tried to put my experience in a box on the shelf and focus on this passage, I kept coming back again and again to the same observation.

This gospel scene is full of really angry people. In fact, still vibrating from my own experience, it was all I could see.

The chief priests, the elders, the scribes, and the whole council are so angry at Jesus that they bind him up and hand him over to Pilate.

I suspect that Pilate was already annoyed when they showed up with Jesus and their demands. On a list of ways Pilate wanted to spend that day, this was surely near the bottom, and rather than help him out of this difficult situation, Jesus is refusing to be a team player. Jesus has the power to make this situation more uncomfortable or less uncomfortable for Pilate and he chooses less comfortable. If I was Pilate, that would probably make me angry.

Scripture tells us that “the chief priests accused Jesus of many things.” So many, that Pilate asks him in amazement, “Have you no answers? See how many charges they bring against you.”   Say something, Pilate seems to be saying, anything, that can help me, help you.

But Jesus doesn’t help Pilate help him. No parables, no well crafted arguments, no evidence of his innocence.  Not even a politically crafty answer to help Pilate out, to help Pilate to be able to declare that Jesus is innocent of the charges and does not need to be punished.

All of this made more work, deeply unpleasant work, politically dangerous work for Pilate.

I’m sure Pilate was angry.

The crowds who shout that Jesus should be crucified, they’re angry too.

Everywhere I look in this story, I see angry faces and bodies shaking with rage. Some people are actually angry at Jesus. Some are angry and looking for an outlet, any outlet, for their own rage. So many angry faces.

Everywhere I look in this story, I know there are also people who are bearing witness to that anger.  Some people, are shrinking back with fear and discomfort into the shadows and others are allowing themselves to be swept along with the angry crowd to avoid the possibility that that anger will also be turned on them. They’re scared, and they have every reason to be.

I don’t think that anger is an inherently bad thing and you can ask me more about that at some other time, but I also know that anger is something that tends to make people uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to make anger the focus of this sermon.

So I took a break from writing this sermon by scrolling Facebook and you know what I saw? A whole lot of anger and a whole range of responses to anger. I saw parallels between this scene in the life of Jesus and our modern day reality. I saw some things that inspired me and gave me hope, and others that scared me, and others that made me angry too.

And it reminded me that I could so very easily have been one of the chief priests, or Pilate, or a woman in that crowd shouting “Crucify him!”

In a stunning sermon from a few years ago, Sara Miles said that, “I’d like to pretend that Good Friday, the murder of God by the people of God, is a one-time historical event. That it took place far away, in another country, safely in the past. That someone very different from me – a Jew, most probably, or some crazy rogue solider – was responsible for the crucifixion… and Good Friday just means another day in a church with beautiful music.

Crucifixion is always an act of terror, meant to carry a message to the entire population that the rulers of the world are all-powerful, and can crush anyone they choose. In Jesus’ time, the cross meant not just punishment for criminals and troublemakers, but shame for their families, who were marked forever by the scandal… The mere threat of death on the empire’s cross led people to betray each other; it kept them in their places, separated and afraid to offer solidarity.

And it still does, evoking our deepest fears of being cast out, mocked, hurt or violently erased, stigmatized by association with the wrong people. Today’s forms of crucifixion – Sara said - leave me afraid to care for the imprisoned, afraid to challenge the violent, too busy or guilty or helpless to even stand next to the families of the dead and weep.”[2]

Easter will come, but today is Good Friday, and today we live into this place, this deeply uncomfortable place that says that we can’t pretend that we would have done differently than the chief priests, or the crowd, or Pilate. This place that reminds us that we so often out of fear, and our own wounds, and our wish to “satisfy the crowd” prepare a cross for our Saviour.  Amen.

 

Part 3:

 

Where you there when they crucified my Lord?

The gospel writers tell us that Jesus was not alone when he was crucified. In addition to the various people responsible to ensure the crucifixion was properly carried out like the Centurion, there were other people who came to see what was happening.

Mark names some of these people - Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James and Joses and Salome. He tells us that there were also “many other women,” who stayed to bear witness to Jesus’ suffering.

I imagine that at least some of the bystanders were there out of morbid curiosity or as simply a way to pass the time. We know that at least some of them thought that perhaps Elijah would come and remove Jesus from the cross.  I suppose that if you had nothing else to do in a culture where public executions are the norm, the possibility of seeing Elijah would be worth sticking around for.

We know that no one was there to try and stop the crucifixion. That impulse that had led Peter to pull out a sword in the garden doesn’t seem to be anywhere in sight at the foot of the cross.

Which means that, the people who are present are resigned to the fact that unless supernatural forces intervene, Jesus is going to suffer and die, and they have chosen to be there when that happens.

Suffering is a difficult and mysterious thing. Many preachers and theologians and artists and mystics and ordinary people have spent a lot of time reflecting on Jesus’ suffering.

But today, I wanted to spend some time thinking about what it means to bear witness to another person’s suffering. What does it mean to sit at the foot of the cross watching someone you love who is in pain, knowing that you cannot take that pain away?

This year on Ash Wednesday, there was a school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Four days later, students who survived that shooting announced that they were planning a march in Washington, a march they called the “March for our Lives.” That march, and over 800 sibling marches took place last weekend, on the eve of Holy Week.

At the march one of the young women who survived the Parkland school shooting gave a particularly powerful speech.  Placing a timer on the podium, Emma Gonzalez spoke about her friends and fellow students who had died and the things they would never again be able to do and then she stood in silence.

She was not stoic. She vibrated with pain. Tears fell from her eyes.  The microphone picked up the sound of her breathing and she only spoke again when the timer beeped, letting everyone know that the length of the speech was the length of time it had taken for one boy with one gun to kill 17 people, wound 15 more, and change countless other lives, forever.

It was a powerful speech and it was incredibly difficult to watch.

If you watch the footage you’ll notice that people really don’t know what to do with that silence, with that pain. At various points in time people begin cheering or try to start up chants.  You hear pockets of awkward laughter. An organizer comes up and whispers in her ear. People are doing anything they can to break the discomfort they are feeling by seeing a person so openly and vulnerably asking them to bear witness to her pain.

And the silence wins. The chants die out, the organizer walks away, and the crowd becomes quiet. Some looking awkwardly at the ground or their phones. But many people also looked directly at Emma’s tear stained face. Some raise their hands curled into fists or into peace signs and look straight at her. Many people refuse to turn away from her pain.

Anyone who has ever experience pain knows that this is exactly what we need people to do. We don’t need people who will fix or rationalize or explain away or silence our pain, we need people who will sit with us in it.

Many of us have been reading Kate Bowler’s book “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” and I think this is at the heart of her story as well.  When everything comes apart and we are in pain, we need people who are willing to stay with us in that pain and say what Kate has taught us to say, “Oh, sweetie, this is just so hard.”

This is what the named women and other bystanders are doing for Jesus, sitting with him in his pain. Bearing witness.  You will notice in the scripture and in the music for this service that words like “watch” and “see” and “behold” are prevalent.  This is no accident.

On this day we claim the truth that this is all we can do, and all we are called to do in this moment. To stay at the foot of the cross and bear witness to Christ’s pain.

And I hope, that on this day, and on all the Good Friday type days we will experience in our own lives and bear witness to in the lives of those we love, that we will learn to embrace our discomfort and hold back the temptation to make ourselves feel better by fixing or blaming or muting another person’s pain.

It’s hard work, but there is healing power in correctly naming the terrible things as terrible things.

There is healing power in sitting at the foot of the cross when someone you love is suffering and refusing to look away.

Amen.

[1]http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/04/a-devastating-good-friday-sermon-from-my-friend-sara-miles/

[2]http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2015/04/a-devastating-good-friday-sermon-from-my-friend-sara-miles/


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone else snort? Or think something really sarcastic?

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

Anyone else?

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

What is going on in this story?

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

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

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

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

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

What did she serve him? A sandwich?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

 

 


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

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday December 17, 2017.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Mary said, “Cool. Let’s do this.”

And they did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe the gospel of Luke is actually a musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Singing allows our spirits to let down their weight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.