Telling the Truth about Terrible Things: A Sermon for Good Friday 2023

The following sermon was preached on Friday April 7, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.

 

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

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.

Welcome to Good Friday.

I have been going to church since before I was born and during the first half or so of my life I went to churches that did not celebrate Good Friday.

I mean, there was a service on the Friday before Easter Sunday, but it was almost exactly the same as the Easter Sunday service. In both the Friday and the Sunday services we would quickly acknowledge that Jesus had died and then move to focus on celebrating the resurrection. Both services felt the same.

And without even realizing it, I picked up the message that this was how I was supposed to deal with hard things in my own life too – acknowledge them briefly and then move quickly to the resurrection, to the lesson, to the silver lining.

There is a fancy term for this – spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassing is when a person uses spiritual language to avoid dealing with difficult things. It’s a way of minimizing or distancing ourselves from real and difficult things in order to feel better in the short term. It may provide short term relief, but it doesn’t make the problems go away and it prevents us from doing the hard work we need to do to actually deal with what is happening.

It sounds very holy, but it isn’t. It sounds like:

Oh sure, the systems around me are crumbling and I can’t trust my leaders but I don’t have to worry, and I don’t have to do anything because “God must have a plan!”

Oh sure, our trans and indigenous siblings live with the very real fear that they will be killed just for being who God created them to be, but let’s not talk about it, let’s focus on the positive.
Oh sure my life is absolutely falling apart right now and I am mired in a grief that makes it almost impossible to breathe but you know, “everything happens for a reason!”

It sounds like pretending every day is Easter Sunday.

And that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I did not allow myself to be a Good Friday person, even on Good Friday.

The first time I went to a Good Friday service at an Anglican Church I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. The church was pretty bare. There were no flowers or decorations and we didn’t hear the whole Easter story. At the end of the service, Jesus had not risen from the dead.

At the end of the service, Jesus was still dead.

At that Good Friday liturgy we were asked to stay in the Good Friday part of the story. We were asked to leave the church in silence. We were asked to sit in that space of grief and loss and unknowing until we returned on Sunday morning.

I LOVED IT.

It was one of the things that made me decide to join the Anglican church, a church which is far from perfect, but I loved that liturgy could invite us to acknowledge the whole range of human emotions and the whole story of Holy Week.

I loved that there was a liturgy that gave us permission to sit in a hard place and didn’t rescue us or force us to pretend we were feeling victorious by the closing hymn.

And this is what we are all being invited to do today.

There was no formal dismissal at the end of last night’s service and there won’t be one at the end of today’s service either. There is no dismissal because all of our gatherings from Maundy Thursday through Easter Sunday are considered one continuous liturgy that take place over several days as we watch, wait and celebrate the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Our Thursday and Friday services end not with a “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” but with a “To be continued…”

In a stunning sermon from a number of 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 – [left her] 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.”

Fear can divide and separate us and there is a lot of fear in the Good Friday story, but some people in this story act bravely despite their fear and the very real danger their actions put them in.

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 – Salome, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James and Joses. (15: 40) Mark tells us that there were also “many other women,” who stayed to bear witness to Jesus’ suffering. (41)

I imagine that at least some of the bystanders were there out of morbid curiosity or simply as 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.

They can’t change what is going to happen, but they’re not going to ignore it either. They are not going to leave Jesus alone as he suffers and dies.

Thankfully I have never experienced the agonizing pain of death by crucifixion, but I have experienced pain. And in those times, I have needed people who weren’t afraid to see me in pain, who were willing to sit with me in a Good Friday space. I needed people who were willing to let me be in that Good Friday space for as long as I needed to be there.

One of my favourite books is “Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved” by Kate Bowler.

Kate’s from Winnipeg, I met her a few times, I preached regularly at her parent’s church, and then one day I found out she had cancer…. the really bad kind. She was probably going to die.

Not long after that I also found out that Kate and I had both been selected to attend a retreat for writers. She wrote most of “Everything Happens” at that retreat.

I remember watching her, smoke flying from the keys as she wrote as if her life depended on it and I wondered if she would live to finish the book.

I didn’t care about the book actually, Kate had very quickly become someone I loved, someone very dear to me, and I couldn’t imagine that she might die.

But there was nothing I could do, except participate in the retreat and try to be a friend. A cancer diagnosis isn’t something I have any power to do anything about.

Kate’s story is an Easter story. She published that book and she’s still here. But her experiences have really taught her how to stay present in Good Friday situations.

Kate taught me that when everything comes apart and we are in pain, we need people who are willing to stay with us in that pain and say one thing, “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 “look” 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 this is 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.

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.

At the end of the service, when we will all leave in silence, I would encourage you to come and spend a moment at the cross before you go. Don’t be afraid to touch it either. And when you leave, don’t be afraid to sit in this Good Friday space, and don’t forget to come back on Sunday to hear the rest of the story.

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


On Palms and Ponies: A Sermon for Sunday April 2, 2023

The following sermon was preached on Sunday April 2, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash

 

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

A few years ago I went to San Francisco to attend a conference and to spend some time at a church that is very important to me, St Gregory of Nyssa.

At St. Gregory’s when they prepare to read the gospel, the Bible is carried from one side of the room to the other, but not in the reader’s hands, they rest it on their right shoulder instead. It’s sort of like giving the Bible a piggy back ride… but holy.

Why?

Roman emperors used to be carried on people’s shoulders. Early Christians chose to carry the Bible on their shoulder in worship as a way of saying, “Christ is the only king we serve.”

Which is pretty amazing symbolism, if you ask me, but as we generally don’t carry our political leaders around on people’s shoulders anymore, it’s also a symbol that is completely divorced of any cultural significance and it only makes sense if someone helps you decode it.

The story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is a story that is filled with symbolism. It’s theatrical not just in its scale, but in the attention to detail, details that given how different our culture is from the one in these stories, may also need to be decoded. Things that would have been very clear to the people experiencing this event first hand no longer make sense to us.

When Jesus enters Jerusalem he is following a pilgrimage path that many others had already followed and would continue to follow. By the Middle Ages, people making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem were referred to as “palmers” because they often carried a palm branch home as a symbol of their pilgrimage.

Holy Week is a pilgrimage, a sacred path that we travel together as we re-tell ancient stories.

Usually we wave palm branches and take home palm crosses to tuck in a safe place throughout the year, only to return them to the church next year to be burnt and turned into ashes to be used on Ash Wednesday so that this whole process of remembering can begin again.

This year, however, you’ll notice we don’t have a lot of palms. Turns out that there was a frost at the palm farm and so they weren’t available this year. We were fortunate that Sharon was able to find some pre-made crosses so everyone can take one home.

Holy Week is a time rich with symbolism and tradition, and as such it can be deeply meaningful or dry and lifeless. I know people who struggle to find meaning in this season and others who really look forward to Holy Week because it is “their favourite time of year.”

Where do you fit on that spectrum? Are you more “what’s the point?” or “it’s the most wonderful time of the year?”

When Jesus enters Jerusalem, we are told he is riding on a “colt that has never been ridden.” (22:30)

That’s an interesting choice.

I am definitely not an expert on horses, but I have ridden a few times - at summer camps or while on vacation, and every time I have done so, I have chosen a horse that was an expert. In fact, probably due to a combination of care for their customers and the threat of lawsuits, expert horses were the only kind available to me. Horses that would calmly follow the assigned trail regardless of what the rider chose to do.

That’s just smart right? When you’re going to do something new or dangerous, go with an expert.

But Jesus chooses a “colt that has never been ridden.”

In movies and church re-enactments I’ve only ever seen Jesus riding an animal that was more reflective of the ones I road at summer camp – calmly plodding although despite the crowds of shouting people and palm branches and cloaks with a heavy human perched uncomfortably on top of their back.

But it’s just as likely that this colt – who has never had a human being climb on their back before - would have been wide eyed, filled with panic, and seeking to buck Jesus off at every turn in order to turn around and run back home.

Or at the very least, surely Jesus wouldn’t have been able to calmly wave to the crowd from atop this animal, rather he’d be working hard to control both the direction the animal was walking and working to avoid being bucked off and trampled on the ground.

A colt that has never been ridden.

It’s a weird choice.

It’s weird, but Jesus’ choice to ride an inexperienced colt tells me something about the nature of God.

God doesn’t need experts or perfect people. In fact, God often purposely chooses the untried and the unexpected. The people who are wide eyed and anxious and fully aware that they have no idea what they are doing. The people who want nothing more than to run from the limelight they have sudden been thrust into and run straight back to the safety of their homes.

That’s who God chooses, and that sounds like good news to me.

The various gospels describe the animal that Jesus road in different ways.

Mark and Luke say Jesus chose a colt that had never been ridden (11:2), John says it was a “young donkey,”(12:14) and Matthew says it was a “donkey and a colt.” (21:4)

A donkey AND a colt? Was it some kind of a tag team situation where Jesus rode one for a little bit and then the other?

Or was he riding both at the same time like a circus stunt rider? One leg on each of these animals? Have we just moved from the bizarre – choosing a colt that doesn’t know what it’s doing to the - well I don’t even know what the word for that kind of spectacle would be.

I can’t be certain, but I don’t think that Jesus rode into Jerusalem like a stunt rider with one foot on a donkey and one on a colt, but I do think that he may have taken both animals with him.

One of the reasons Matthew references both animals is because he wants us to see that Jesus’ actions are the fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah. A prophecy that said:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (9:9)

I wonder if this scene looked less like a circus, and more like those trail rides I took at camp – with the mother donkey leading the way and her child – the colt that had never been ridden - following behind her with Jesus on its back.

The colt knowing that as long as they followed their mother, they would be just fine.

Just like if this is your first time here, a little later in the service as we move through the space for communion, as long as you follow the person in front of you, you’ll be just fine.

And actually, you’ll be fine if you don’t follow too. We’re a pretty laid back bunch… right?

We don’t have to travel this pilgrim path alone. We just have to keep an eye on our loving mother who is always just a few steps ahead of us.
And that definitely sounds like good news to me.

But why ride any kind of donkey at all? Why not walk? Or ride a horse or a chariot?

It’s not an accident, it’s all part of the spectacle.

Jesus is a king, but not like any king the people have seen before. Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom noted: "[Jesus] is not drawn in a chariot like other kings, not demanding a tribute. Nor surrounded by officers and guards. Then the people ask: 'What king has ever entered Jerusalem riding upon an ass?'"

With each choice Jesus makes he is communicating that his kingdom will not be like any kingdom they have ever known or imagined.

In Matthew, Jesus says, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave…” (20:25-27)

Jesus is a king, but not a tyrant who will “lord it over them.” Jesus will be different. In Zechariah it says:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
and the war-horse from Jerusalem;
and the battle bow shall be cut off,
and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth. (9:10)

“The chariot and war horse are instruments and symbols of war. The new king banishes both. [Jesus] proclaims peace to the nations.” (Korban)

If anyone in the crowd is reading the symbols correctly, they will recognize that Jesus is a king. A king who comes in peace but a king none the less. And having never had a king like Jesus before, there is no way that they can fully comprehend what’s happening.

But that lack of comprehension does not stop the people in the crowd from getting caught up in the excitement of the moment. It does not stop them from waving their branches and shouting “Hosanna!”

Hosanna literally means “please save us” or “save us now.” It’s a cry for help, a desperate plea.

I doubt that all of the people who are shouting for Jesus to save them understand what they are saying. I suspect that at least a percentage of them just happened upon this spectacle, heard others shouting and joined in without really thinking too much about it.

And Jesus is a king who has come to save them but his kingdom will be very different from anything they have ever seen before.

As people of faith our lives and our leaders and our institutions should look different too. A diocese is not a Walmart, a parish is not a Tim Horton’s. Even if coffee is really important to us.

In the past couple of years I have been very disappointed in my earthly leaders. Perhaps you have been too.

I’m disappointed in my leaders. I disappointed by people who seem to care more about power and safety and money than about people’s lives.

And I’m longing for something different.

I’m longing for leaders who look a little more like a powerful, but humble man riding on an untried colt. A colt that is patiently following its mother through a crowd on a pilgrim path. I’m longing for leaders whose actions are rooted and grounded in the power of self-giving love.

I’m longing for leaders who look well, who look like Jesus.

The Jesus who inspires me and gives me hope. The Jesus who reminds me that it’s OK to be disappointed in my earthly leaders but also asks me to examine my own heart and my own actions rather than simply complaining about other people.

The Jesus we will encounter as we remember and re-enact these sacred stories throughout the coming week.

And I hope you’ll join us when we do. Amen.


A Resurrection Story: A Sermon for Sunday March 26, 2023

The following sermon was preached on Sunday March 26, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo credit: The Raising of Lazarus by Sadao Watanabe.

 

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

Today is the last Sunday in the season of Lent before Holy Week. Holy Week begins next Sunday with our Palm Sunday service. Lent is not over today, however, depending on who you ask, Lent either ends on Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday so you still have a little less than two weeks of your Lenten practice to go.

Our Lenten series has a more definite end point, our final session will take place this Wednesday at 2pm and everyone is welcome to attend, even if this session will be your first one.

Today’s gospel reading is another long one and even though we are still in Lent, we are given a resurrection story.

Jesus receives a message that Lazarus is ill. The wording of the message is interesting, it says, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” (3)

It doesn’t say, “Hey Jesus, we know you love everyone equally but we wanted you to know Lazarus is ill.” The wording implies a special relationship between these two.

The passage implies a special relationship between four people actually, Jesus, Lazarus and Lazarus’ two sisters – Mary and Martha. Later John will also tell us that Jesus loved the sisters as well. (5) There are a lot of stories about Marys in the Bible and a few about Marthas and these may be the same women that are in some of those other stories, but they also may not be the same women. Mary and Martha were pretty common names.

But what we do know is this is a family that Jesus knows and cares about. The gospel writer also tells us that this is the Mary who will anoint Jesus with perfume. I’m familiar with that story, when I was preparing for this sermon I realized that this information is actually foreshadowing. The story where Mary anoints Jesus’ feet happens after this story, not before.

Which means it’s possible that the events of today’s story are at least part of why she was motivated to anoint Jesus.

Jesus loves Lazarus and Lazarus is ill but Jesus doesn’t rush to be with his friend. Rather he says that Lazarus will not die and that his illness will be used to the glory of God and he waits two more days before going to see his sick friend. (4-5)

Now this is hard because you have likely heard this story many times before and you know what is going to happen, but try to imagine what it would be like to have been standing next to Jesus when he learns his friend is ill and then watching him choose to just hang around for two extra days. Try to imagine what it would be like to be Mary and Martha.

I don’t know about you but if I witnessed Jesus learning that a beloved friend was ill and then choosing to wait two full unnecessary days to go visit, my thoughts would be the opposite of thoughts that “glorified God.”

Especially if Lazarus was my brother.

And when Jesus finally arrived, I would be very tempted to give him a piece of my mind.

Jesus has made a deliberate choice to wait before going to see Lazarus and the text makes it clear that he knows Lazarus has died. (13) But it’s not as if traveling to see his friend would have been an easy thing.

When Jesus is finally ready to go see Lazarus, the disciples point out that this trip requires them to return to a place where Jesus might be killed. They say that the people were, “just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (8)

This is a dangerous trip. We know that’s not why Jesus didn’t rush off to see his friend, but that doesn’t make this fact any less true. And it doesn’t make the trip any less dangerous or scary for the disciples who will go with him.

And it was probably even scarier when they were close to Mary and Martha’s home and the disciples could see that a lot of people were there to support the grieving sisters. Bethany is only about two miles from Jerusalem so a large group of people have travelled to be with the sisters and to mourn with them. (18)

And none of these people were likely to have a favourable opinion of Jesus at that moment.

When they can see Jesus and his disciples in the distance, Mary stays home and Martha goes out to meet him.

Martha and Jesus have a conversation and we learn that Lazarus has already been dead for four days. This is an important number because this means that we can be sure that he is truly dead. They haven’t just missed his vital signs, he isn’t just sleeping, he is dead.

And even more importantly, Jewish people at this time believed that the soul left the body on the fourth day. This is the deadest a person can be which makes what happens later in a story a real miracle to all who observe it. Jesus doesn’t just resuscitate Lazarus, he resurrects him.

By this time in his ministry, Jesus has a reputation of healing people, and even on occasion resurrecting someone who has very recently died, but this is different.

So we learn in this conversation between Martha and Jesus that Lazarus is really and truly dead, but we learn a few other things as well.

Mainly we learn, that despite everything, Martha still believes in Jesus. She believes that if Jesus has shown up on time then Lazarus would not have died, she believes in a future time when the dead will be resurrected, and she believes that Jesus is the, “Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (23-27)

Jesus stays where he is, some distance from the house and Martha returns to have a private conversation with her sister. She tells Mary, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” (28) John tells us that Mary gets up “quickly” to go see Jesus. The people who have gathered to mourn notice and follow her. (29-31)

Mary and Jesus also have a conversation where she affirms that she believes her brother would not have died if Jesus had come sooner and this exchange is filled with emotion. We are told that when she meets Jesus she falls at his feet, weeping. (34)

Keep in mind that many of the people who have gathered to mourn Lazarus and comfort the sisters are watching this exchange and John tells us that they were also crying.

When Jesus first hears that Lazarus is ill he seems to be able to calmly state that this will all be used for God’s glory and he feels comfortable waiting a few days before doing anything, but now, surrounded by grief, we are told he was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.”

Jesus also began to cry. (35)

Some of the people who saw Jesus crying commented on his deep love for Lazarus. Others questioned why Jesus had not come to save him. (36-37)

They go to the tomb and Jesus tells them to remove the stone.

Remember I told you that at this time Jewish people believed that the soul left the body on the fourth day so we can be sure that Lazarus was really and truly dead at this point. Well, in case that wasn’t enough, John gives us another piece of evidence.

You could smell that he was dead. Martha says, “there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.”

But they do what Jesus asks and remove the stone and Jesus looks up and says, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you have sent me.” (42)

And then Jesus says with a “loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!” (43)

And he does.

John tells us that as a result of this miracle many of the people who were there believed in Jesus.

And that is roughly where our lectionary reading ends, but the next part of the story is really important.

Many believe, but not everyone believes.

Some of the people who witness Lazarus’ resurrection return to Jerusalem where they report what happened to their religious leaders.

They see Jesus as a threat to their safety and way of being saying, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (48)

Jesus is a threat and this is when they decide that he has to die. (53)

I mentioned earlier that when they went to see Mary and Martha the disciples were concerned their personal safety, but they were also able to travel unharmed. That has all changed now.

The religious leaders in Jerusalem give orders that anyone who knows where Jesus is should tell them so that he can be arrested. (58)

John tells us that, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with his disciples.” (54)

John also tells us that all of this is happening near the time of the celebration of Passover. People are speculating among themselves, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” (57)

Which is a question we will answer next week when we celebrate Palm Sunday.

Next week is Holy Week and we have a number of special services to help us walk through this final chapter in Jesus’ ministry starting next Sunday with Palm Sunday. All of that information can be found on the website and I hope you’ll join us as we walk through the rest of the story together.

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


Leave it Behind: A Sermon for Sunday March 12, 2023

The following sermon was preached on Sunday March 12, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo by Yana Hurskaya on Unsplash

 

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

Our gospel reading begins with the word, “so” which tells me that we’re starting in the middle of a story. Any time that happens, I always want to go back and see what happened beforehand.

Context matters.

In the verses just before today’s reading it says, “Now when Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard, “Jesus is making and baptizing more disciples than John’… he left Judea and started back to Galilee. But he had to go to Samaria.” (1-4)

He had to go to Samaria.

Did he? Really?

That all depends on how you look at it.

Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries would have argued that he most certainly did not have to go through Samaria. They would have said that Samaria was to be avoided at all costs and they had lots of alternate routes to prove it.

There was more than one way for Jesus to get where he was going and he really did not need to go through Samaria.

Except maybe he did. Not for reasons of geography, but maybe he needed to go through Samaria to fulfill his mission.

Last week we looked at John 3:16 and that verse begins, “For God so loved the world that he sent his son…”

Jesus came to save the world, and the world includes Samaria. Choosing to go to a place traditionally avoided by Jewish people broke boundaries and that sent a message about who Jesus was to Jesus’ community about who Jesus was.

And it sent a message to the people of Samaria as well.

In Jesus’ kingdom, salvation is always about belonging, and in Jesus’ kingdom, everyone belongs.

Why didn’t the Jewish people and the Samaritan people get along?

Let me answer that in a bit of a round about way. Once upon a time there were Christians, a single united group, and then the Christians began to disagree and argue with each other and before you knew it, there were Roman Catholics and Anglicans and Mennonites and … too many groups to count.

Samaritans are like Anglicans. Originally part of the Jewish family, still claiming their Jewish identity, but not always recognized by Mom and Dad.

One key area of disagreement between the Jewish and Samaritan peoples was over the correct place to worship. Jewish people worshipped in Jerusalem, and Samaritans on Mount Gerizim. A detail that will become important a bit later in our story.

Samaria is the last place a good Jewish boy should go, and yet Jesus chooses to go there.

Jesus goes to Samaria and he stops at a famous landmark, Jacob’s well. (6) While I have just highlighted the differences between the two groups, the fact that Jacob’s well is in Samaria highlights their shared history. They are all descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel.

In her commentary on John, Karoline Lewis points out that this well was also a popular place for people to get engaged. Jacob and Rachel (Gen. 29), Moses and Zipporah (Ex. 2:18-22) and Isaac and Rebekah (Gen 24) all got engaged at Jacob’s well.

And now this important place in Jewish history is in a part of the country that Jewish people avoid.

Jesus is tired and he stops to rest. John tells us that it is about noon. The hottest part of the day.

While he is resting a Samaritan woman comes to draw water. Already anyone who was listening to this story would have some questions about this woman. Why is she coming, by herself, at the hottest least practical time of the day to get water?

Maybe she ran out of water and so she has no choice but to come at this illogical time.

Perhaps she comes at the least practical time because she wants to be alone. Perhaps she’s an introvert and socializing with her neighbours at the well when it’s busy exhausts her and she is willing to go to the well at the hottest time of day to avoid that.

Or perhaps, as Karoline Lewis suggests, the time of day is more symbolic. It is the lightest time of the day, and we are about to hear a story where the light of truth will shine.

Whatever the case, I imagine that meeting a strange man at the well was not something she was hoping for.

She approaches and Jesus says, “Give me a drink.”

I always find it interesting that the Bible gives us a lot of dialogue, but we have to imagine the tone.

How did Jesus ask this question – did he sound grumpy, demanding, playful, polite?

We don’t know.

We don’t know what the woman’s tone was either, but I like to imagine that even if she was afraid of this strange man at the well – her well – that she hid it and there was some sass in her response to Jesus when she asks, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (9)
Whatever her tone, she does not cower. She does not jump to fulfill his request. She asks questions and expects answers.

Most of this story is a theological conversation between this woman and Jesus.

There are three key points in that discussion that I want to highlight today:

First, Jesus knows things about this woman he has never met that he should not know. He knows that she has been married 5 times and that she is currently living with a man she is not married too.

We read this story in church every three years and it’s possible that you have heard this detail – the fact that she had been married 5 times and was currently in a relationship but not married – used to disparage this woman, to imply that she had loose morals or was a bad wife, but that is not what is going on here because that’s not really how marriage worked at this time.

A woman couldn’t just choose to marry and divorce and marry and divorce again. Women didn’t choose to marry at all, this decision was made for them.

Here is what Karoline Lewis says about this:

“’I have no husband.’ Her brief statement is heartrending. It is not only a statement about her marital status but an assertion about her marginalized status. She is a woman, a Samaritan woman, without a name, who has been married five times. To have been married five times in ancient Palestine would be evidence of circumstances completely beyond the control of any woman at that time. Likely widowed or divorced, the fact alone of having had five husbands would have indicated some sort of curse against her family. What on earth did she do, or her ancestors, that she would be subject to such destitution?

In order to survive, it was necessary for a woman to be married, thus the numerous injunctions to care for widows. To have had five husbands could also mean that the woman had been divorced, often for trivial matters, but more likely because she was barren. If she was barren, that would mean that she would not have family to turn to in the case of being widowed, which would further exacerbate her dependent status.
The fact that she is currently living with a man not her husband does not correspond to a modern day ‘shacking up’ or “living in sin.’ Rather, her situation was probably a levirate marriage. By law (Deut 25:5-10), the brother of the dead husband was obliged to take in his dead brother’s wife, either by formal marriage or by living arrangements of some kind.” (60-61)

This is a woman who has had a very hard life for reasons beyond her control. Perhaps the reason she goes to the well in the middle of the day is because she knows her neighbours all feel sorry for her and she wants to avoid their pitying looks.

The details of this woman’s life aren’t what really matter in the story. What matters is that Jesus knows something about her that he should not be able to know, and this is how she knows he is a prophet. (19)

Jesus’s ability to know what he should not be able to know means he is someone worth listening too.

2) Having recognized Jesus as a prophet, she begins to engage Jesus in a theological discussion about the correct place to worship – remember I said this was a key disagreement between Jewish and Samaritan people – and about the coming Messiah.

She engages Jesus in a theological discussion and Jesus actively participates in the conversation.

At the end of this conversation, Jesus says that he is the Messiah the woman and her people are waiting for. (26)

At this point in the story they are interrupted by disciples, who had gone off to try and find food. The disciples’ return and the woman leaves but she doesn’t disappear from the story. (27-28) We know that she goes home and tells everyone about her conversation with Jesus and encourages them all to “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!” (29).

And the people listen to her and go to see Jesus. (30)

John tells us that, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, ‘He told me everything I have ever done.’ So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.” (39-42)

The Samaritan woman, therefore, is one of the very first evangelists.

There are a lot of other things we could talk about in this story – we haven’t even touched on the image of living water for example – but the final piece of the story I want to highlight is this: when the woman returns home to tell her community about Jesus, she leaves her water jug behind at the well.

It’s an unusual detail for Mark to include and I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

Maybe she knew she was coming back and she didn’t want the jug to slow her down as she went to tell people about Jesus. Maybe she was so excited she forgot.

Whatever the case, this woman has an unexpected encounter with Jesus that day and she let it change both her plan for her day, and her whole life.

How often am I so fixated on my own plans, on my own expectations, that I miss Jesus even when Jesus is standing right in front of me?

What do I need to let go of, and leave behind, in order to follow Jesus?

I don’t know for sure, but Lent, a season where we traditionally give something up or let something go is a great time to experiment and explore these kinds of questions.

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


Look Up: A Sermon for Sunday March 5, 2023

The following sermon was preached on Sunday March 5, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo by Eunice Lituañas on Unsplash

 

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

In one of my former parishes there was a woman who slept through every sermon I ever preached. Every single one. That same woman would shake my hand and thank me for the sermon after every service.

She may have been legitimately grateful for the best sleep she had all week, I’m not sure, but what I am sure of is that if she had ever stayed awake long enough to look up while I was preaching, she might have realized that we could see each other. She might have realized that I could see she was sleeping.

But I don’t think she ever did look up. Every Sunday she looked down and fell asleep. And every Sunday she shook my hand and thanked me for the sermon.

It can be hard to concentrate in church, even the best churches. It can be hard to pay attention to everything that is being said, especially when the lectionary gives us a really long readings, like it has today.

It can be hard to catch everything that was said.

We prayed words from Psalm 121 together today. The author of the psalm is in need of help. The help is available, the question is, will the psalmist notice it?

The psalm isn’t suspenseful, the question is actually answered in the first two lines, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

The psalmist chooses to stop looking down, lift up their eyes, and in doing so they are able to see not only that help is available, but the source of that help as well.

If they had chosen to keep looking down, they might have missed it entirely.

What we focus on determines both what we see, and what we miss.

Jesus says a lot of weird things in today’s gospel reading, but one of the weirdest is this, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”(14-15)

Excuse me Jesus, what was that you just said about Moses handling snakes?

When exactly did Moses lift up a snake?

He did it a couple of times actually. One time God turned Moses’ walking stick into a snake and then back into a stick again, but that’s not the story Jesus is referencing here.

Jesus is referencing a story found in Numbers. (Numbers 21: 1-9) Moses and the Israelites are wandering in the desert and scripture tells us they, “became impatient on the way.”

And in their impatience they begin to complain, blaming both God and Moses for their unfortunate situation saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.”

So which is it? Is there no food and no water, or there IS food and water, they just didn’t like it? It can’t be both.

But people who are in the mood to complain rarely spend time checking if their complaints are logical and they really dislike it when you point that out.

The people also know the answer to the question, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt?” It’s because they were enslaved in Egypt and they wanted to be free.

It’s comforting to me, actually, to know that human beings have been this short sighted and self-centered since the very beginning. It is really easy to trade gratitude for self pity.

And we should all be grateful that, at least to the best of my knowledge, God has never responded to anyone in this room who was complaining in the same way he responded to the people in this story.

Because in this story, God doesn’t counter their complaining with logic, pointing out that it’s impossible to have no food AND food you don’t like at the same time OR reminding them about how much they hated being enslaved and how long and how loudly they had begged to be set free.

No, God doesn’t talk to them at all, instead God sends poisonous snakes whose bite will kill them.

And guess what happens? The people quickly stop complaining, realize that they have made a serious mistake and say to Moses, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you, pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (6)

But God doesn’t get rid of the snakes, instead God tells Moses to make a statute of a snake out of bronze. God then tells him to put the snake on a pole and put it where the people can see it. Anyone who has been bitten only needs to look at the snake on the pole and they will live.

Huh.

Well that’s certainly one way to handle the situation. Not one I would have thought of, but it seems to have worked.

It’s a bizarre story, but as I’ve been mulling it over in preparation for this sermon, it occurred to me just how hard I would find it if there were literal poisonous snakes slithering around my feet to focus on anything other than the snakes. Even if I knew looking up would save me, I’m not sure I would do it.

Because snakes are terrifying.

At best my eyes would dart up and down from the snakes on the ground to the snake on the pole and back to the snakes on the ground again.

Which honestly reflects how I treat a lot of things that I intellectually know are good for me, like drinking enough water and filing my taxes on time. I know they’re good for me, I know I’ll be grateful in the long run, I still don’t do them.

2 fun facts before we go any further. Fact 1: The modern symbol for medicine includes a snake wrapped around a pole. Fact 2: We reference this story from Numbers, and several other similar stories, every year in our Good Friday liturgy. In that liturgy, the things the people were complaining about – wandering in the desert, the quality of the food – become reasons to crucify Jesus.

In that liturgy we pray through a series of questions and answers that includes:

O my people, what have I done to you, or in what have I offended you? Answer me.

Because you led us out of the land of bondage. We have prepared a cross for our Saviour.

And then a little later: Because you led us out through the desert forty years, and fed us with manna, and brought us into a very good land, we have prepared a cross for our Saviour.

What you focus on determines what you see, and what you miss.

The Israelites became so focused on their grumbling that they missed the good things they had. Things were tough, but they were no longer slaves. Manna every day may feel repetitive, but they always had enough to eat.

Not only did they forget how good they had it, they forgot that things could get worse. An infestation of poisonous snakes kind of worse.

I wonder how many Israelites remained so focused on the snakes, that they neglected to look up long enough to see the snake on the pole and be healed?

I wonder how often we do the same? How often do we get so focused on the particular story we have chosen to tell about our lives, about our circumstances, that we don’t realize that there may be another, better way to look at things.
And I don’t mean this in some kind of naïve fairy tale kind of way, if you are surrounded by poisonous snakes the last thing you need to hear is “look on the bright side, they could be poisonous alligators” but if you are surrounded by both poisonous snakes and an actual cure, you want to make sure you notice the cure.

What we focus on determines what we see, and what we miss.

The psalmist needed to look up, past their own pain and struggles, to the hills where help was available. The Israelites need to have the courage to stop looking at the snakes at their feet and look up to the snake on the pole to be healed, and Jesus is telling us that we need to look up too.

In our gospel reading, one of the things Jesus says to Nicodemus is, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. (14)

Jesus is using this historical reference, one Nicodemus would have been familiar with, to talk about his own death. He is comparing himself to a snake on a pole.

He is saying that his body will be put on a cross and lifted above the earth.

And he is saying that this is all part of God’s plan to redeem the world.

Jesus follows this comparison with what has probably become the most famous verse in the entire Bible, John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

It’s utterly bizarre to me but even people who don’t know what the verse says, know its address from having seen it on signs at concerts and sporting events.

I think it’s probably the first verse I was encouraged to memorize as a child, and I was told that I should memorize it because it summarized Jesus’ entire message.

And I believed that, and I memorized it.

But if Jesus’ entire message could be summed up in one single verse, why do we need the rest of the Bible?

Because it doesn’t sum up his entire message. In fact, all you need to do is read one additional verse in John’s gospel, the very next verse, John 3:17 and you will realize that if all you do is focus on John 3:16, you miss the important point being made by Jesus. Verse 17 says:

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but
in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Without this verse it is all too easy to turn John 3:16 into a verse that suggests that God’s plan was to condemn the world, but he also created an individualistic escape clause in Jesus. And that’s what way too many people have come to believe.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

What you focus on determines what you see, and what you miss.

Lent is a season that encourages us to shift our focus and see things differently.

What are you noticing as you move through this season? Are the things you’ve chosen to give up or take on helping you to see things in a different way? Pay attention to the shifts, especially the subtle ones.

What stories do you tend to tell about your life, about your work, your family, your parish? Is there a way to see these things differently? What might happen if you looked up and saw the situation from a different angle?

God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world may be saved through him.”

What we focus on determines what we see, and what we miss. May we all tune our gaze to what God is up to in our lives and in the lives of those around us this week. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 


Die, Death, Dead: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2023

The following sermon was preached on Ash Wednesday, February 22 2023, at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo by Thays Orrico on Unsplash

 

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

The liturgical year is designed to help us reflect in ritual ways on a wide variety of human experiences. There are many liturgies that focus on the life of Christ, but there are also liturgies to celebrate rites of passage in the life of an individual like baptism, marriage, and funerals. We have Candlemas – a liturgy designed to celebrate light. We have All Saints and All Souls – liturgies designed to help us remember capital “S” saints and also all the saints, all the people who have died, and in particular the ones we remember with love. We even have a liturgy to celebrate our pets – the Feast of Saint Francis.

Today is Ash Wednesday and today we are called to remember one specific thing: We are all going to die. Every single one of us. No one can escape it.

And the church in its wisdom says, “So you better not ignore it either.”

Generally speaking people don’t really like to talk about death. We go out of our way to ignore the subject or soften it by using euphemisms.

My mother passed…. 5 years ago we lost our father…. My brother is no longer with us…

All of these are ways of talking about death without talking about death.

When I was doing some of my pastoral training we were taught to speak very clearly and specifically about death, especially if you were going to be the first person to inform someone that a loved one had died.

Hearing that someone has died is a really hard thing to process and those euphemisms can make it even more confusing.

“I’m sorry, but we’ve lost your Father.”

“Well then hurry up and go find him!”

You can see the sort of confusion and unnecessary pain this kind of language can cause.

Ash Wednesday does not let us sink into euphemisms. A little later in the service, if you choose to participate, you will come forward, and Beverley and I will look you in the eyes and tell you you are going to die and then we will mark your forehead with ashes as a further and physical reminder of that fact.

Over the years I have said these words to very senior people and to tiny, tiny babies. I have said these words to friends and family members.

I always leave this service feeling very awe struck and humbled by the experience.

Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Remember you are going to die.

It is an important truth that the church calls us to reflect on this day. It can be a really good and healthy thing to develop a comfort in talking about death, to think about your own death and to make some preparations even. To create a will, to think about the hymns or readings you’d like at your funeral service.

In my experience it is always a good thing to find ways to talk about hard things like death, to normalize those kinds of conversations.

Because in my experience the things we avoid talking about, the things we hide or repress…. those are the things that get weird. Those are the things that very quickly become unhealthy.

Surely it is possible to swing to the other extreme and instead of avoiding conversations about death to fixate on it to an unhealthy degree, but most people are no where near that end of the spectrum.

And the church encourages us to normalize conversations about death, but most of our liturgies focus on life and living life to the full.

There is a good and healthy balance built into the liturgical year. Not every Wednesday is Ash Wednesday.

Today’s liturgy also has a focus on sin and repentance as we move into the season of Lent. A focus on all the little deaths we experience every day. The ways we do not live fully into who we were created by God to be.

Today we are given a space to remember that we will die, to reflect on our sin and to repent because new life is also always available to us.

We will all die, but death is not the end. This season in the church year begins with Ash Wednesday, but it ends with Easter Sunday.

It ends with resurrection.

And this rhythm, this balance, this call to acknowledge both death and life, sin and repentance, this call to acknowledge the fullness of what it means to be human in the presence of a God and loving God…. this sounds like good news to me.

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


Mountain Top Moments: A Sermon for Sunday February 19, 2023

The following sermon was preached on February 19, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

 

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

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about climbing mountains. Partly because two of today’s readings take place on mountains and partly because I keep finding myself in situations where lessons I learned climbing mountains still apply.

In 2015 I walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The Camino is an ancient pilgrimage route that people have been walking since about the 9th century. The Camino begins when you step out of your front door with intention and ends at the supposed burial place of the James who features in today’s gospel reading.

I walked about 800 kilometers across Spain that spring, and a lot of the path was on mountains.

Having climbed a few mountains in my life now, I have learned some things about them. First, unlike what most kindergarten drawings will tell you, mountains aren’t giant triangles where you go straight up one side and then straight down the other.

Mountains are more complicated than that. It’s not uncommon that in order to climb up a mountain you have to go up a little bit and then down a little bit and then up a little bit again, switching back and forth to gradually reach the top.

And while you are doing that, you often have no idea how far you’ve gone. It’s rare to be able to actually see the top of the mountain as you are climbing because trees or fog or simply the scale of the endeavor obscures your view.

I once climbed a mountain in Banff in foggy conditions, and the only reason I knew I had made it to the top was because Parks Canada had posted a sign that said so.

And there was a gift shop.

Today’s gospel reading begins, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain…” (17)

So immediately, I want to know what happened six days earlier.

Six days earlier, Jesus explained to his disciples that he was going to go to Jerusalem where he would suffer, die, and then three days later come back to life and if they really want to follow him, the disciples are going to have to pick up a cross and be prepared to die as well.

This revelation was so startling and unsettling that the gospel tells us that Peter rebuked Jesus for suggesting such a thing was possible and Jesus responded with equal force saying to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (16: 21-23)

That’s what happened six days before today’s story. That’s a lot of information for the disciples to take in and a lot of complicated emotions to sort through and process. Relationships don’t often bounce back from a sharp rebuke like, “Get behind me Satan.”

At bare minimum things would feel really awkward for quite some time.

So I imagine that things are feeling pretty tense, and pretty heavy as the four men begin to climb that mountain. They are carrying a lot more than just whatever the Bible times equivalent of a backpack would have been.

What you carry, determines how you walk. This is true in all aspects of life. Your gate changes if you are carrying a football, or a baby, or a bowl full of hot soup or some disappointing news. In fact, not just what you are carrying, but how you carry it can make a big difference.

If you’re climbing a mountain, it’s easier to carry a heavy weight on your back, then in your hands. It’s also easier if that weight is evenly distributed, if you don’t have something sharp poking you in the small of your back.

It’s even easier is the weight is consistent.

When I was walking the Camino I once put an orange in my bag in the morning and spent most of the afternoon marveling at how much easier it was to walk after I had eaten that orange for lunch.

An orange.

Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, and Lent is a really great season to reflect on all the things you carry with you every day.

Sometimes people use the season of Lent to let something go. To stop carrying something they normally hold on to. It could be chocolate or coffee, but it could also be a particular habit, or an attitude. One year I gave up going to Starbucks – not coffee entirely, no one wants to see me give up coffee - just Starbucks. And I was surprised to discover how I had gradually and unthinkingly formed patterns of moving through the day that included stopping at Starbucks, whether I really wanted a latte or not. I had to give it up, to notice that.

And then when Lent was over I did start going back to Starbucks, but no where near as often.

Sometimes people use the season of Lent to pick something up that they don’t normally carry. It might be collecting money for a charity or adopting a new prayer practice. A few years ago I decided to pick up reading the Rule of Benedict over Lent, and since I’ve been doing that for 5 or 6 years not I guess it’s now a tradition.

What are you carrying? Is there something you need to put down, or pick up, or just rearrange a bit? Lent can be a great opportunity to do just that.

The disciples are carrying a lot of heavy feelings as they climb that mountain. And when they finally arrive at the top, Matthew tells us that Jesus was, “transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. (2-3)

Now as a quick Biblical refresher, both Moses and Elijah died a long time before this story took place. Or, actually Moses died a long time before this story took place, Elijah didn’t actually die at all, he road straight into heaven in a horse driven chariot made of fire, but that’s a story for another time.
Moses and Elijah are not the disciples’ contemporaries. They are heroes from the past, men they have read stories about. More symbols that people. Their presence alone would have been disorienting.

So the disciples climbed the mountain feeling out of sorts and now they are witnessing a conversation between two men from the history books and Jesus looking nothing like the Jesus they are used to.

Jesus’ face is shining like the sun and his clothes are dazzling white.

Which seems scary and disorienting to me and I think I’d have been tempted to say, “OK, I’m out,” and start back down the mountain on my own or to cower behind a bush in fear, but that’s not how the disciples react.

Peter says, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” (4). Peter looks around at what is happening and declares that it is good.

So good, in fact, that he offers to make three dwellings one each for Jesus, Moses and Elijah. (4)

Or at least he starts to make this offer, because we are told that he didn’t even get to finish his thought, “While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him.” (5)

And now, the disciples are afraid. “Overcome by fear” they fall on the ground. (6)
The disciples are face down on the ground quaking in fear, having just heard God say that they should listen to Jesus.

And what is the first thing they hear Jesus say? “Get up and do not be afraid.” (7)
But Jesus doesn’t just stand at a distance shouting at them to smarten up and stop being so afraid, no Jesus approaches them, touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (7)

Before they hear his words, they feel his reassuring touch. And they do as they are told.
Sometimes the gospel writers casually just slip in these amazing little details that are so easy to miss. Jesus touched them. He saw they were afraid, he came right up beside them, touched them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.”

It’s beautiful.

Now I want to invite you to engage in a little speculative imagining with me.
I don’t think that the disciples were focusing on the beautiful scenery that surrounded them as they climbed that mountain. Rather I suspect they were focused on trying to wrap their heads around everything Jesus had told them or perhaps on how to make an uncomfortable situation a little more comfortable.

When they arrived at the mountain top, I don’t think it was the panoramic view that held their attention. Rather I suspect that they were so focused on the amazing sight of Jesus transformed and the two men who joined him that that was all they could see.

And then when God came and spoke declaring Jesus was beloved, I think they focused on the dirt at their feet as they fell to the ground. If their eyes were open at all, that dirt was all they could see.

But now after having seen all the things they have seen and experiencing Jesus’ gentle touch and reassurance that they do not have to be afraid, I wonder if they were finally able to stand up, look out, and take in the view.

Which is something I want us all to do together today as well. Stop long enough to take in the view.

I imagine the disciples stopping to take in the view. To take a deep breath and look around and then, to begin the journey down the mountain.

Jesus and the disciples will not stay on the mountain top, they will walk down the mountain and continue walking until they reach Jerusalem. The things Jesus said would happen will indeed happen. He will die.

And we’re being invited to come down the mountain and walk alongside them.
Lent is a season where we remember and focus on difficult things. Beginning on Ash Wednesday with a reminder that we are all dust and to dust we will all return, we’ll enter a desert season moving us gradually closer to Christ’s death on a cross.

But before we leave the mountain and enter the wilderness, let’s take a look at all we can see from the top of this mountain. Because from here we can see the entire story, from here we can see Jesus resurrected on Easter Sunday. From here we can see that Christ’s glorious transformation on this particular mountain top is not the end, but only a part of the entire story.

So stop, take it all in, and then, when you’re ready, take a deep breath and begin the climb back down the mountain into Lent.

And know that when you do, Jesus is walking right beside you.

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


Choose Life: A Sermon for Sunday February 13, 2023

The following sermon was preached on February 12, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo credit: dominik hofbauer on Unsplash

 

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

Today’s first reading was from Deuteronomy and in that reading we are challenged to “choose life.”

Which at least at first seems like an odd thing to have to tell someone.

This passage is the concluding section of a speech given by Moses to the people of Israel and Moses thinks that the people need to be reminded to choose life. He has laid out his arguments in the preceding chapters and then he says, “See I have set before you life and prosperity, death and adversity…. Choose life…” (15)

The people are being given a choice but is seems like a bit of an odd choice to me. Who would anyone choose death and adversity when life and prosperity was also an option?

But I suspect we are all aware of ways we often choose to make things harder than they need to be – for ourselves and others. Sometimes we do choose adversity over prosperity.

And this is also true for the people Moses is speaking to. So how do we choose life and prosperity instead of death and adversity?

Moses tells us that, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, they you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you…”

If we walk the path God has set before us, if we follow God’s rules, prosperity will follow.

Seems simple enough doesn’t it?

Except we likely all know of situations in our lives and the lives of people around us where this didn’t seem to work. We have all known people who walked the path, followed the rules, and something horrible happened to them.
Taking a passage like this and trying to turn it into a simple formula of cause and effect resulted in one of the most popular, and in my opinion, most dangerous theologies in our modern world, the prosperity gospel.

This is a theology that takes this scripture and applies it literally and individualistically – follow God’s rules, you will be prosperous. Don’t follow God’s rules, and you will suffer.

Which means that if you become ill, or lose your job, live in a place that is experiencing a natural disaster or face any kind of adversity, it’s your fault. You must not be doing exactly what God wants you do to.

And many, many good people believe this, and many, many people have suffered because of this system of beliefs.

Julianna Claassens explains that this passage reflects on “what makes life possible: life individually and also life together.” She notes that it follows a long list of blessings and curses in the previous two chapters and is essentially the concluding paragraph for that list.

Taken on its own, we can see how theologies like the prosperity gospel can develop for today’s passage, but within the broader context of scripture we see that things are not always that simple.

We have the lament Psalms, the book of Job and Lamentations for example.

Claassens writes that in those books, “one finds how people started to challenge the basic operating principles encapsulated in this text. Yes, it is true that to do good, work hard, and focus on God leads to life. But not always? Just as wicked people prosper, bad things happen more often than not to good people: The poor do not deserve to be poor. Infertile couples have done nothing to deserve the hardships of reproductive loss. Cells go haywire when people get cancer; accidents, and natural disasters due to human fault (or malice) happen. And to place blame then on people who already suffer due to whatever circumstances have robbed them of life is to add insult to injury…”

So why do we have this passage in Scripture at all? Why do we keep reading it? Does it have anything to say to us today?

First, it may be helpful to go back and look at the context of the passage. Context is almost always the key that unlocks the truth of a passage.

This passage is still in the early part of the Hebrew Scriptures. It’s not that long after the people of Israel have been freed from slavery and they need to figure out how to live in an entirely new way.

They have to choose how they will live both as individuals and as a community. They have to choose how they will treat one another.

One of the first things that God does for the people is give them a set of basic guiding principles on which to structure their new community life. We call these principles the 10 commandments.

Which can make them sound harsh, and rigid, but they were meant to help the people of Israel live well in community.

They were meant to help the people choose life.

And generally speaking, most people today still agree that they are a pretty good set of guidelines for healthy community life – don’t cheat, steal or kill. All pretty good ideas.

There is one commandment in the list that the people found the most difficult to follow, and it’s the one most people today also seem to find the most difficult to follow and so more often than not, modern day Christians don’t even try to follow it. It’s like this is a list of 9 commandments, and one suggestion.

The suggestion: Have a Sabbath day. Take a day off where you do not work, a day where you rest.

That’s the one that from the time it was given until now, people seem to have the most difficult time with.

The Israelites have just been released from their lives as slaves in Egypt where their days had been completely controlled by the work schedules dictated to them by their Egyptian masters who have literally been working them to death for generations. In the 10 Commandments, God establishes a new national identity for the people which includes a 6 days of work, and 1 day of rest pattern that has guided Judaism ever since.

Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat, which means, “to cease” or “to stop.” Israel’s neighbors knew nothing of a day of rest per week –no other people group worshipped a god who commanded them to take one day off a week to rest. The Sabbath made the Israelites, and the God they served, stand out.
There literally was no other god, like their God.

The commandment to keep a Sabbath could only be given by a God who loved the people they created and God’s desire to remind the Israelites to keep the Sabbath is an especially loving gesture to a people who have just recently
escaped the seven-day per week drudgery of slavery in Egypt.

Now you’d think, that the Israelites would have graciously accepted the gift of the Sabbath but they didn’t. People have had difficulty honouring the Sabbath since the very beginning. In fact, Old Testament prophets refer to this commandment more than any other because the people are having a hard time with it.

And it can be easy to fall into a legalism with something like the 10 Commandments or the Sabbath, or the things Moses is talking about in today’s passage but remember the purpose of the sabbath – it was meant to be a gift and not a burden. Moses words and warnings are meant to be a gift as well.

I could talk about Sabbath all day long but instead of doing that today let’s stick to the assigned passage. The context is still very much the same – Moses is trying to help the people develop ways of living together that are a gift and not a burden. Try to hear Moses’ words as words of liberation and life, and not of legalism and law.

Picture the scene where the words from our passage were first spoken. The people of Israel, who can still very much remember what it was like to live as slaves and are slowly beginning to unlearn that way of being are in the wilderness beyond the Jordan listening to Moses given an impassioned speech about the kind of people they are and the kind of people they can become if they choose to.

At the beginning of this sermon I asked why would people choose death and adversity when life and prosperity were available to them.

Well in the case of the people of Israel, they are often tempted to make those choices, to return to slavery in Egypt for example, because that life is familiar and predictable and that sense of predictability seems better than a hypothetical positive future.

The people are scared, they are tired and the familiar past – even a past marked by slavery – seems better to them than this future they can’t quite see yet. Over and over they complain and beg to go back to the way things were. To go back to a life of enslavement. (See, for example, Exodus 16:2-4)

And it’s Moses’ job to lead these people. This is not a moment for nuance. The shades of grey? Those will come later as we have already discussed. This is a moment to lay out in the broadest terms the choice the people are facing – will they choose life, or death?

And Moses implores them to choose life.

Carolyn J. Sharp says that the “radical hope of Deuteronomy is that God’s redeemed people should not go back to Egypt.” Literal Egypt and figurative Egypt. Moses is trying to inspire the people to choose ways of being together in community that lead to freedom and not oppression. He does not want the new community they are building together to become a metaphorical Egypt, a new kind of enslavement that they bring on themselves.

Moses isn’t focused in this passage on how an individual’s choice might affect that individual, rather he is focused on how an individual’s choice will affect not only the community in the present day, but future generations as well.

Our choices do not only impact us, they impact the people around us and the people that will come after us. Moses is encouraging the people to make choices that will be lifegiving for generations to come. He says, “Choose life so that you and your descendants will live…”

Moses is asking us to consider the big picture and take all of that into account.
And he’s also trying to paint a picture of a good, but as yet unknown future to inspire the people to do so.

He wants them to choose life not only for themselves, not only for their neighbours, but for future generations as well.

Each of us, in our individual lives, have to live with the choices made by our ancestors, by our parents and past generations whose choices shaped the world we live in now.

All of us, collectively as a parish also have to live with the choices made by past generations as well.

And future generations will have to live with our choices.

Sometimes those choices have set us up for success and sometimes they can feel like traps we can never escape.

It can be easy to focus all of our energy on lamenting the past or trying to figure out who to blame for our current set of circumstances but ultimately that is energy that does not take us to a productive place.

There is a famous prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr that I suspect is spoken in this building at least three times a week when the AA groups meet and it goes like this, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

As we go forward navigating our individual lives and our collective life as St George’s this is the kind of wisdom I wish for all of us – to accept the things that we can’t change, to courageously change what we can, and to have the wisdom of discernment to know which is which.

And in all things, to do exactly what Moses is challenging us to do and “Choose life.”

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


Defiant Hope: A Sermon for Sunday February 5, 2023

The following sermon was preached on February 5, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo: Candles waiting to be blessed at St George's Transcona.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And not just how weird it sounds to our modern ears to sacrifice an animal at all, think about how weird it is that a king’s parents are so poor, that they need to take the charitable option at a ritual connected to celebrating the new king’s life.
Over and over again in Jesus’ story we see a king who will not be like any other king, a human being, who will not be like anyone else who ever lived. It should be a reminder to us every time we try to make Jesus in our own image, every time we try to model the church on the world, that we are in very real danger of missing the point, of missing the real Jesus.

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

One of those encounters was with Anna.

Anna was 84 years old and a prophet. Luke tells us that “She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” (36-37)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.” (25-32)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love Candlemas but a lot of churches don’t celebrate it anymore. As a result, I’ve only been able to participate in a Candlemas service a half a dozen times in my life.

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

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

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

Especially in the coldest part of winter, I was inspired by Kathleen’s desire to seize hold of any bit of hope she could find.

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s what makes it beautiful.

Will all of our lives change today because we blessed some candles? Probably not. But I hope that over the next little while you’ll take some defiant hope with you an that whenever you see a candle, or turn on a light, that hope will continue to flicker and grow.

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

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

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


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

The following sermon was preached on January 29, 2023 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

Photo credit: Randy Tarampi on Unsplash

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And God loves each one of us.

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

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

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

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

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

Remember that you are beloved.

Remember that you are beloved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or do we?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We bless you, who have spelt your blessings out,

And set this lovely lantern on a hill

Lightening darkness and dispelling doubt

By lifting for a little while the veil.

For longing is the veil of satisfaction

And grief the veil of future happiness

We glimpse beneath the veil of persecution

The coming kingdom’s overflowing bliss

Oh make us pure of heart and help us see

Amongst the shadows and amidst the mourning

The promised Comforter, alive and free,

The kingdom coming and the Son returning,

That even in this pre-dawn dark we might

At once reveal and revel in your light.

Amen.