Advent 2: A Sermon for Sunday December 4, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

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

The image actually begins in the previous chapter of Isaiah:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two things have been.

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

They were helpful.

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

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

And that concept gave me hope.

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

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

Sometimes things need to end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But they don’t help me.

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

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

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

Why wait?

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

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

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

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

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


Advent 1: A Sermon for Sunday November 27, 2022

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a helpful and a hopeful practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which it is not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Jesus will be with us when we do.

Which is good news.

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

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

[2] Collegeville Commentary


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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah?

Let’s unpack that a little more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saints Every One of Us: A Sermon for Sunday November 6, 2022

The following sermon was preached on November 6, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.

Photo:  A gravestone in the cemetery at St Andrew's on the Red.

 

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

This past week the church celebrated a series of holy days – Monday was All Hallows Eve – which has become known as Halloween, Tuesday the feast of All Saints, and then Wednesday was the Feast of All Souls.

Because we don’t typically meet on those days we have followed the common practice of moving the feast and celebrating All Saints today.

All Saints is a day to remember all the saints, all of them, not just the famous ones who get stained glass windows and other sorts of fancy memorials. Today is a day to remember every single person who makes up the body of Christ – the living and the dead.  It’s a day to remember that we are a part of a community that is much bigger than the group of people gathered in this building.

And although it is a day to remember the living and the dead, a day to remind yourself that you are also a saint, it’s also a day when we tend to remember the saints that we are missing in a particular way because they died recently. We will do that a little later in this service.

In our gospel reading, some religious leaders approach Jesus and ask him a question. They ask him a series of questions, actually, but we only get one of them in today’s reading:

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

Finally indeed.

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

It’s a patriarchal, heteronormative question asked not because the questioner genuinely wants to know the answer, but because they want to know how Jesus will answer.  There is no real woman who had to marry seven brothers.

And the men asking the question don’t even believe in the resurrection.  But they do believe in debate as a way of understanding, and they do know that a true teacher of the faith won’t be threatened by this kind of questioning.  So if Jesus answers well, he just might be who he says he is, but if he doesn’t….

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

No one’s.

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

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

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

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

We can do better.

If you read a little bit further than the passage given to us by the lectionary, you will discover that after Jesus answers their questions, the men say, “Teacher you have spoken well.” (39)

Jesus passed the test. They recognize him as a teacher, they acknowledge he spoke well.  Jesus gave answers that were so solid the men no longer wanted to debate with him. In fact, it says that they “no longer dared to ask him a question.” (40)

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

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

A full life is not an easy, happy life, it’s … well it’s full.  The life Jesus came to bring is one where we will feel fully alive, fully ourselves at all times. Whenever you feel like that, whenever this parish feels like that, it’s a sign that we are living into who we were created to be.

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

Paul is not my favourite writer. His words have been used to hurt me and many people I love very deeply.  But Paul is also a writer I can’t simply dismiss unless I also want to dismiss a large portion of the scriptures.

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

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

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

Oh, no.

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

This was sounding irritatingly familiar.” (142)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In November the lectionary always throws the weirdest most difficult readings at us and today is no exception. It may be hard to find yourself in these stories about fairly abstract ideas from the earliest days of the church but I suspect that we all can identify times in our lives when we’ve felt shaken to our core. When it wouldn’t have surprised us at all to discover that we had lived through a literal earthquake.  When everything we thought made sense, everything we thought we could trust, everything we thought was a firm foundation crumbled under our feet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Celebrating St George's: A Sermon for Sunday October 23, 2022

The following sermon was preached on October 23, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.

 

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

After our service today you’re all invited to join us downstairs where we will enjoy a good lunch and a chance to tell stories about our experiences of being a part of St George’s. You are welcome if you’ve been coming to St George’s since before you were born or if this is your first Sunday or anywhere in between.

The story of St George’s begins a very long time ago, in the time of our scripture readings and this morning I am going to offer you a very quick trip through church history.

So here we go.   Jesus came, lived on earth, was crucified, rose again and went to heaven.   The stories of his life are recorded in the first four books of the New Testament called the gospels.  We read a selection from the gospel stories every single week in our Sunday services.

The events of Jesus’ life on earth take us through the first 35 years or so of the period in history we call the Common Era which is given the shorthand, CE or sometimes A.D. for “In the year of our lord.”

The next book in the New Testament is Acts which tells the story of the first group of people who tried to follow Jesus after he had returned to heaven.  Their stories are inspiring and instructive, but those early followers were far from perfect.  Most of the rest of the New Testament is filled with letters that tell the stories of people stumbling and bumbling in their attempt to follow Jesus.

The Jesus movement began to spread quickly which is amazing as in this early period Christianity was illegal and Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith.  The movement grew even though joining it meant you were likely to die.

But it did continue to grow and to spread despite the fact that joining was a practically a death sentence and then after about 300 years a man named Constantine(306-337) became Emperor of Rome and everything began to change.

Under Constantine it was no longer illegal to be a Christian. In fact, Constantine believed that the Christian church would be the cement that would hold his empire together. But Christians weren’t unified and they weren’t organized.  Until this time they had been a movement that met mostly in secret to avoid persecution so they weren’t exactly having annual conventions.

Constantine used his power to force Christians to come to agreement on certain issues. He never told them what to agree on, he just insisted that they come to an agreement -any agreement - on certain issues and that they make some things more official.

This is how we move from a general understanding of which texts are sacred to having an “official” New Testament.  Constantine didn’t tell them which books to include, but he did tell them to pick some and stick to that decision.  Prior to this, books like the gospels were recognized as sacred, but this process finalized which books and letters were “in” and which were “out.”

We also get the creation of the creeds -short, simple statements outlining the core beliefs of the Christian faith.  We still say one of these creeds  - typically the Apostle’s Creed – at most services.

One thing that I find really interesting about the creeds is that they tell us which ideas were controversial at the time and which were not.  If the church leaders tasked with creating the creeds were in general agreement, then a huge and complicated theological idea will get only a simple mention.

I believe in the resurrection of the body, for example.

One line – no explanation of what on earth that actually means.

But when there were ideas where they perhaps didn’t all agree or there was more room for error, you get more words.  When we say the creed a little later in the service, look at what gets little to no description, and what ideas they thought required more detail.

And for those of you who thought the debates at Synod over a single word were intense, just be glad we weren’t trying to create a creed!

One of the positive things that happened when Constantine began to view Christianity favourably was that Christians were no longer persecuted and didn’t have to fear for their lives.  The church also moved from being an outsider fringe group to being a socially acceptable organization. Because the Emperor supported the church, if you wanted to get on the Emperor’s good side it was a good idea to support the church as well.

This led to the inclusion of many upper class converts and also a significant increase in funds.

In short, in this period the church became increasingly institutionalized, it because socially acceptable, and it became rich.

What this a good thing?

It really depends on your point of view.

If you read the writings of Christian leaders from this period, you’ll see a fair bit of anxiety about these changes and a deep concern for the future of the church.  These were dramatic changes and not everyone embraced them fully.

For example, theologians were seriously asking questions like, “Is it possible for a Christian to be rich?” or “Can the Christian faith be socially acceptable without being diluted and deformed?” Isn’t it necessary for the true expression of the faith that it remain on the fringes of “acceptable society?”

While I’m not an expert and I haven’t read as deeply as I would like, I find this period and many of its writers to be fascinating because they are people whose lives demonstrate a clear commitment to following Jesus - in some cases to their deaths – and they think that a wealthy and socially acceptable church might be directly opposed to the basic values Jesus came to teach us.

Which is interesting for a host of reasons but one of which is we are part of the Anglican church – a church that was once rich and very socially acceptable – but is no longer that way. We are a church in decline in terms of funds, numbers and social status.  And even though right now that can feel like a very hard thing, what if it might actually be a good thing?  What if by shedding those things we are actually becoming closer to the kind of community that Jesus wanted us to be in the first place?

In this early part of church history, people of faith decided what was important to uphold and what was not. They accepted some things and rejected others.  And about every 500 years or so they would do a major sort and have a garage sale.   They didn’t put it in their day planner or anything, it just seems to be a natural part of the evolution of the church that every 500 years or so we have a giant garage sale where we decide what we are going to keep, and what we are going to get rid of.  This happens at all levels of church life, from international institutions to individual parishes.  It happens about every 500 years or so and it’s happening right now.[1]

By around 1500 we were ready for our third garage sale.  We no longer had one unified Christian church united under a Roman emperor, but instead we have three main streams:  Eastern or Greek Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, and Western Christianity. [i]

All three of those streams are important, but as we’re sitting in an Anglican Church today with limited time, let’s focus on the one we come from, the Western church.

In the 1500s it was time to do some more sifting and sorting and have a garage sale. This is when Martin Luther comes on the scene, and when he does, the Western church doesn’t really split, it begins to splinter.  Imagine hammering a spike into a frozen lake and all the ice around it begins to splinter and crack and the once smooth surface now looks like a series of veins – some large, some small.  Just think of how many different types of churches we have today. This is where most of that began.

The driving of that spike happened on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ideas for church reform to the door of a church in Germany.

17 years later, an English King named Henry wanted to get divorced and the pope refused to grant the request so Henry went off in a huff and started the Church of England.

Or did he?  Those things did happen, but given the reforming spirit that was in the air, it’s highly likely that a new church would have developed in England even if Henry hadn’t wanted to get re-married.

The same reforming ideas that led to the creation of other new expressions of Christianity like the Lutheran church were also present in England and those ideas were highly influential in what the Church of England, or the Anglican church would become.

So the church in England has a garage sale –  they kept some things from the Roman Catholic Church, added some things from the new reform movements,  and got rid of some things as well and in doing so they created the Anglican church.

One other thing that influenced the creation of the Anglican church was colonialism.  Despite being created as a state church for English people, English people had a habit of leaving England and settling in other places, and when they did, they brought their faith with them, and gradually as places like Canada became home, local expressions of the Anglican Church developed as well.

It is important to note that this colonizing endeavor caused harm to many people, especially the indigenous folks who lived in the places that British people later claimed as their own. This history is worth exploring and should not be forgotten, even if it is not our main focus today.

A key part of the creation of the country of Canada was the creation of a railroad that allowed people and goods to travel all across the country.

In 1907, the Canadian Pacific company built a rail line that separated South Transcona from the area that would become Transcona.

In 1908 the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad chose the area that we now call Transcona to build its railway shops.  They purchased 800 acres of land and named the area Transcona.  Trans as in Transcontinental, and ‘cona’ from Lord Strathcona who hammered the last spike for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

In 1910 there was a census. Transcona was made up of eight men, three women and 15 dogs. By the time that Transcona was incorporated as a town in 1912 – only two years later - the population was 1,600.  The actual population was much higher, however, because there were a lot of itinerant workers not included in those numbers like the Italian men who came in the summer to work on the railway and returned home to Italy for the winter.  Many of them would eventually bring their families and settle in Transcona.

On September 11, 1911, the Anglicans of Transcona held their first service in Campbell’s Hall and on the same day, they decided to build a church and rectory.  So they got to work, built a church in about three months and had their first service on December 7th!

The new church, located at 6 Kern Dr., was built using materials from another church building no longer in use including an organ.  Receiving items like an organ without having to have them shipped in certainly helped speed up the process but I honestly can’t decide if I think it would have been easier to take a church apart to build a new one or to start with fresh materials.

Either way it was an impressive accomplishment.

The rectory would take a few more years and was completed in 1913 and on February 11, 1928 the parish officially paid off the mortgage.

The mortgage was retired but the church was still in debt. In fact, the first time the parish was ever debt free was 1939!   Maybe even the only time?  Debts and deficits have been a common part of this parish’s story to this very day.

This may explain why it took a further twenty years for the church to be consecrated by Archbishop Sherman on June 26th, 1949.  You don’t typically consecrate a church when it’s not in good financial shape and might not make it.

By 1961 the church had 425 families on the rolls and plans began to build a bigger space to accommodate all those people. Over the next few years land was purchased to build a new church but building costs had soared and the parish found itself unable to afford the new building.

What to do?

The church continued to grow and the church continued to be unable to afford to build a new worship space so they began to think creatively.

In 1967 a confirmation service was held in the much larger Blessed Sacrament Church, a Roman Catholic parish.   A little while later, the priest from St George’s (Tom Maxwell) had coffee with the priest at Blessed Sacrament (Oliver Valcourt).  St George’s was invited to use Blessed Sacrament’s facilities.   Our parish began meeting at Blessed Sacrament on September 7th, 1969 and continued to do so for 31 years.

In 2000, St George’s purchased the building we are worshipping in today.  It was renovated to add a kitchen and stained glass windows, some from our original parish church, were also added.

The 22 years in this building are familiar to many people in attendance today and I’m looking forward to hearing your stories and reflections on your experiences here over lunch at our story telling event.

A lot of things have changed over the years, and especially in the past 3 or so. Over COVID you weren’t able to meet regularly in this building,  Helen Kennedy, who had been with you for almost 15 years left to become a Bishop and I joined you as your interim priest.

Additionally in those 22 years some of you also joined the parish or celebrated a key milestone here – baptisms, weddings, funerals and endless conversations over cups of coffee in the hall.

And it’s garage sale time – for the church around the world and for this parish. It’s a time of sifting and sorting. What to keep? What do we need to let go of?

There is much to be thankful for, and there are also a lot of things to be curious about.   As St George’s enters this new chapter in our life, what is God calling us to do? Who is God calling us to be?

I don’t have answers for you today, those are things we have to discern together, but I do believe that the faithful, ecumenical and outside the box thinking that has been demonstrated through the life of the parish are a strong foundation on which to begin this new chapter.

Which is good news.

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

 

[1] For an excellent description of this process, see The Great Emergence by Phyllis Tickle

[i] Eastern Orthodoxy (also called Greek Orthodoxy) - which traditionally is thought of as existing primarily in Greece, Asia Minor, Eastern Europe and Russia but today has a firm and increasingly secure footing in North America, China, Finland, and Japan

 

Oriental Orthodoxy (Oriental Orthodox Church depending on one's point of view ) which is in our time also growing in strength and is usually subtitled as Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, or Syrian Christianity.)

 

Western Christianity- which at the opening of the 20th century is comprised largely of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism

 


Just Keep Fighting: A Sermon for Sunday October 16, 2022

The following sermon was preached on October 16, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Image credit: Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

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

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

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

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

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

On February 7, 2017, the U.S Senate was debating the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General.[1]  Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the confirmation and spoke critically of Session’s record on civil rights.

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

But she didn’t stop.

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

But she didn’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

I know this in part because I received all sorts of things that say “Nevertheless she persisted” when I was ordained.  People knew it had not been an easy experience.

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

Nevertheless she persisted.

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

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

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

“In the ancient Jewish law court… If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: “vindication” or “justification” here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour.

This word “justification” which we see a lot in Paul ‘s writing but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one’s favour at the end of the case.”  (212)

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ve fostered a number of dogs lately for the Winnipeg Humane Society and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries and establish good behaviours with puppies.  Even if you know you’re right, even if you know that you need to help them establish good behaviours to avoid future problems, it doesn’t take that long to feel completely worn down to the point that you’re willing to do whatever it is the puppy wants you to do so long as he just stops whining and gives you a moment of peace.

Puppies have two speeds – full speed and fast asleep.  When they are awake they want constant attention, cuddles, belly rubs and treats.  They are persistent and if you ignore them, something is going to get chewed up or peed on.

Persistence can be exhausting, it makes you do things you never thought you’d do – like trying to make a bargain with a 7 week old puppy who definitely does not speak English.

Look, I will play with you in an hour OK? Just play with this toy quietly so I can have a nap. Please?

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

Amy-Jill Levine[2] explains that the original Greek uses a boxing metaphor, so what we have translated as, “so she may not wear me out by continually coming” would be better translated as, “so that she will not give me a black eye.”  (v5, Levine 243)

So who is this widow with the boxing gloves anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this parable reinforce this idea?

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

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

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

I spend a fair amount of time talking to people about prayer. Together we try to figure out what prayer is and how it fits into our lives.  One of the most common things we have to work through is our tendency to have a narrow view of prayer.
We tend to think that prayer is a thing that only happens when we are on our knees with our hands folded, or in church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you know what that feels like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

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

[1] Paraphrased from Wikipedia

[2] Amy-Jill Levine’s chapter on this story in her book “short stories by jesus” is excellent and shaped a lot of my thinking about this parable.  The whole book is well worth reading.

 


Reading the Church: A Sermon for Sunday October 9, 2022

The following sermon was preached on October 9, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.

 

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

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

For example, this building tells us that we are a people shaped by stories, the stained glass that lines the sides of the church depict keys stories from the life of Christ, St Francis and this parish. The stained glass behind me also tells a story – the story of a parish that has not always been in this building and values its past.

There are also plaques and framed items on the walls, each with its own story to tell and additional decorations, like the rocks, Bibles and slingshot that remind us of the work recently done in this parish around the story of David and Goliath. We may be small, but we are mighty so woe to any Goliath who tries to get in our way.

Another way we can read what’s happening in this space is through colour. With some basic knowledge of the church calendar, you can walk into this space and know what season we are celebrating, based on the colour of the veils on the altar, the hanging on the lectern, and the colour of the stoles that the deacon and I are wearing.

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

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

I don’t know why each colour was chosen for each season. Some seem kind of obvious – red to celebrate a saint who was a martyr and the flames of Pentecost but it’s not always that straightforward. We used to use purple for both Lent AND Advent because they are both considered penitential seasons, seasons to express regret and remorse for all the various ways we miss the mark, all the ways we sin.

Purple then represents ideas of sin, repentance, and judgment. During Advent we are looking towards Christ’s birth but also the fact that he will return a second time and when he comes the second time some of what he’ll be up to includes divine judgment.

During the weeks leading up to Advent you’ll see that we get a lot of wacky passages that give me a headache when I am trying to write sermons. Passages that are filled with ideas of judgment and repentance. Passages that have often been misused by the church. Advent marks the beginning of the liturgical year and begins roughly the last week of November to the first week of December depending on the year so that makes late October to early November the end of the liturgical year and the lectionary saves the toughest passages for that time period.

So purple was traditionally the colour for Advent but in the 70s and 80s people wanted to draw a greater distinction between Lent and Advent so they changed the colour of Advent to blue to reflect one of the most important Advent themes – waiting. The blue is meant to remind us of a “waiting night sky.” To think perhaps of the sky that the shepherds and the wise men would look up into and eventually see signs of Christ’s arrival.

So blue became the popular choice for Advent and you know who was particularly delighted? Companies that sell vestments – because now they had a whole new market opened up to them, churches in need of blue vestments!

But if you ever go to a church and see that they are using purple and not blue for Advent and you think to yourself, “Well they’ve got that wrong,” they haven’t. They are making a choice. A choice that tells you something about what they believe about Advent and you may prefer blue, but it’s not wrong to use purple.

It’s also, believe it or not, not wrong to use pink on some Sundays and white for Lent!

Rose or pink vestments can be worn on one Sunday in Advent and one in Lent, both towards the end of those seasons (Gaudete in Advent, and Laetare in Lent). They represent a moment of joy to remind us that the time of penitence and preparation is coming to a close and the feast we are anticipating will be here soon.

Lenten array is a style of vestment and church decoration made of unbleached linen, often embroidered with very simple symbols.

The simplicity of Lenten array reminds us that it’s a time to strip back, to simplify, to give something up.

And it’s OK to use Lenten array instead of purple, if that’s what your parish decides, because there are actually no official rules or canons about what colour is right for what season.

There is common accepted practice, but no actual rules.

So if Bishop Geoff wanted to, he could send us all a letter telling us that in October the liturgical colour is now pumpkin spice orange, and that would become true in this diocese.

Or 20, 30 years ago you and your priest could have decided to use yellow for every fifth Sunday and then over time that would become the right colour to use here.

And again, this would also delight those companies who sell vestments who may be scratching their heads at your choices, but would still be happy to figure out how to sell you something to help make it happen.

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

Another thing you can read in this space are our clothes. People who come to this parish on Sundays wear a wide range of types of clothing – from jeans to some of the fanciest suits and headpieces I have ever seen. What I hope that tells you is that this is a space where you can come exactly as you are. That you are free to be yourself here.

Then there are some people who will be wearing those types of street clothes, but with a white robe over top, sometimes with a rope for a belt, sometimes not. These people will be helping with some sort of leadership role in the service. But there will also be people providing leadership in the service who aren’t wearing a robe like that – more on this later.

You’ll also normally see a few people – Dan, myself, and, God willing, Beverly before too long, in a black shirt with a white collar before and after the service, and then in several additional layers of clothing once the service starts.

I’ve had lots of conversations with people about this clothing over the years and one way that people tend to read this clothing is that it signifies that the people in the collars and the robes are the fanciest, more important people in the room and the person in the fanciest robes – which is usually me – must be the fanciest of the fancy people.

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

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

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

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

You could tell what kind of job a person had or how wealthy they were by what they wore. In modern times, that’s harder to tell. Are those $10 jeans from Superstore or did you pay an extra couple of hundred dollars to have them professionally ripped at the knee by a designer? Who can say?

The lines about what a person’s clothing can tell you about them have become fuzzier with time. However, one clear constant is that men can consistently expect that they will be able to buy pants with pockets. Women, not so much.

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

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

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

Or maybe I’d just buy one with fewer buttons, they do exist!

So even though I don’t wear my cassock everyday, I could, but there would always be a few extra layers I would put if we were having a service.

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

The white robe that servers and lay readers sometimes wear in our services is called an Alb and it is white for the same reason my surplice is, to remind us of our baptism, and to remind us that our service in the church is a reflection of our baptismal vows. In all the variations of liturgical dress there is always a white garment to symbolize baptism.

The last thing I put on before worship is this fancy scarf thing, called a stole. The stole itself signifies that I’m an ordained person. You can tell that I am a priest because I wear it around my neck. A deacon also wears a stole, but it is draped over their left shoulder.

The way a deacon wears a stole is meant to copy the clothing of a servant who would wear a stole like that and use the loose ends at their hip to dry your feet after they washed them.

See, it’s not supposed to be fancy, it’s for washing feet!

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

But over the years vestments have also become a way to reflect a love of beauty in the church and they have become beautiful which is great because beauty is a wonderful thing, but also not so great because people – including the people who wear this clothing – can sometimes forget it is the clothing of a servant, not a dictator.

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

Which includes saying it’s OK if you want to serve but you don’t want to wear an alb. Wear what makes you comfortable. Wear what fits!

When I first started wearing vestments I had second hand ones that didn’t fit me properly. I had to pick them up so I didn’t trip on them when I walked up stairs and my hands disappeared when I held that at my sides because the sleeves were so long. People said I looked uncomfortable and some people assumed I was uncomfortable leading the liturgy but that wasn’t it, the clothes didn’t fit me. Once I had clothing that fit, I felt a lot better.

We have albs and if you wanted to you could buy your own and make it fit you, but if we don’t have something that makes you feel comfortable, don’t’ wear it. Vestments have symbolic and historical meaning, but they also should not get in the way of the work we are gathered to do together.

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

I have spent over 20 years standing in front of congregations like this talking to groups of people but a lot of that time was spent in churches that didn’t use vestments. Once I began to wear vestments I discovered that I could focus solely on my job and NOT on my clothes. I’m not wondering if you think my skirt is too short or panicking that I wore the wrong shirt and now I have to keep my hands down at my side because if I raise them too high you’ll see some skin. Or that at coffee time you’ll spend more time talking to me about my outfit than my sermon. I don’t have to worry about where to put a mic pack.

Because my cassock has pockets!

Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 


Size Doesn't Matter: A Sermon for Sunday October 2, 2022.

The following sermon was preached on October 2, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Joshua Lanzarini 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.

If you’re been listening to me preach for awhile it shouldn’t surprise you to know that I often have questions about the choices made by the creators of our cycle of readings called the lectionary.

Today my question is: Why did they start our gospel reading at verse 5?  It’s a confusing enough reading as it is, but even more so if you don’t have the first four verses for context.

So let’s back up and look at both the overall context of Luke’s gospel and also those four verses.

Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem. He is not alone, there are disciples and apostles (which Luke sometimes suggests are different types of people) travelling with him, and there are also crowds of people who gather wherever Jesus is. Along the way, Jesus teaches and heals, challenges and comforts.

And this chapter of the gospel begins “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come...” (17:1)

Jesus understands that we’re not robots programmed for perfect behaviour at all times, we are going to stumble and that’s just normal.

This idea is reflected in our baptismal liturgy.  Last week, and at every baptism, the baptismal candidates and everyone else in attendance are invited to say some pretty audacious things.  We’re asked to renounce Satan and evil powers, we’re asked to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being.

And everytime I asked one of those questions last week, y’all responded, “I will” or “I will, with God’s help.”

At baptism we are asked to commit to a lot of things, admirable, lofty, maybe even impossible things. Impossible at least if we’re supposed to do this perfectly for the rest of our lives.

But we all committed publicly to do them.

And so I love that one of our most common responses to those questions at a baptism is, “I will, with God’s help.”  These are not commitments it is possible for us to make on our own and we’re not expected to.

At a baptism we’re also asked the following: Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

It’s not, will you persevere in resisting evil and do so perfectly.  It’s not, will you persevere in resisting evil and on the off chance you fail….   Rather we’re asked, “Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you fall into sin…

Whenever you fall… falling is assumed, and so is God’s forgiveness.

That is true in our baptismal liturgy and in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus says, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to those by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” (1-2)

So Jesus begins with a pretty low bar – perfection is not expected, we will have many opportunities to stumble and we will in fact stumble.  What a relief!  But then he shifts halfway through the sentence and says, “but woe!”

Suddenly I am feeling nervous again.   Because although this is a warning for all of us, it’s a particular warning for those of us who teach or lead others to be very careful with our words and our actions.   Stumbling may be normal, but causing other people to stumble is something to be avoided at all costs.

The passage continues with a series of seemingly unconnected warnings and suggestions, like someone gathered up a little buffet of random things Jesus said and plunked them into this section of the gospel.

Audrey West explains that this passage, “constitutes the second half of a four-part series of loosely connected teachings related to discipleship, which may be summarized thus: (1) Don’t be the cause of another’s sin (Greek skandalon, stumble); (2) Forgive, again; (3) Miniscule faith is sufficient; (4) Discipleship is not about reward: Just do it!”[1]

Miniscule faith is sufficient. Really?

The apostles say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” and Jesus replies, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (5-6)

What is Jesus saying? When I first read this it sounded like an insult. It sounded like Jesus was saying that a small amount of faith can do big things, but the apostles don’t even have that tiny bit of faith.

Insulting or shaming people for asking for more faith doesn’t seem like something Jesus would do.   If the apostles are self aware enough to know that they don’t have enough faith and are asking for more, shouldn’t Jesus be pleased and happy to encourage them to grow their faith?

And I can’t read Jesus’ mind so I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that Jesus is trying to shame them for making a dumb request or for lacking faith.

I think Jesus is trying to tell them they don’t need more faith, they already have more than enough. What they need to do is use the faith they have.

I read a lot. I also buy a lot of books. I buy waaaaay more books than I read. Sometimes I wonder which I like better, reading books or buying books.

It’s a question I don’t have an easy answer to.

What I do know, however, is that I don’t benefit from the content of the books I don’t read. They might be fun to buy or look good on the shelf, but they don’t do me much good if I don’t read them.

I don’t really need to buy more books, I don’t need to increase my book collection, I need to read the books I already have.

Similarly, it is possible to have faith that is powerful enough that you could make a tree jump into the sea and not know it because you never tried.

It’s not how much faith you have that’s the issue, it’s how you use the faith that you have.

It’s not uncommon when we are facing a challenge or a struggle to focus on what we think we are lacking – if only we had more money or if only we were stronger or if only we had powerful friends in the right places.   We look at what we have and we are sure it just couldn’t possibly be enough. It couldn’t possibly be all we need to meet the challenge at hand.

And this is what the disciples do as well.  Following Jesus is challenging, and when Jesus reminds the disciples of this they ask for more faith.

But Jesus is telling them they don’t need more. Faith the size of a small mustard seed is enough to do more than they can even imagine.

At least to the best of my knowledge they weren’t going around making trees jump into lakes on a regular basis.

To the best of my knowledge they never did that.

They could, with even a small amount of faith, but they had never tried.

And is the disciples’ faith really as small as a mustard seed?   Jesus doesn’t say that they have mustard seed faith, he just describes what a mustard seed sized faith is capable of.

I suspect the disciples have even more faith, and therefore even more power than a mustard seed.

Audrey West notes that “throughout Luke’s Gospel, the closest followers of Jesus reveal their own “mixed” level of faith. On one hand, they have left homes and jobs and families in order to follow Jesus. It has not been easy, as they have encountered hostility from many who oppose Jesus (Luke 11:53; 13:31; 16:14). Still they have stuck around, even for this final journey toward Jerusalem, and even when they have received a warning of what is to come (Luke 9:22).

Rather than focusing on what we lack, could we perhaps ask, how are we using what we already have?

What if, we met challenging situations with the same confidence we express at a baptism?

Will you do this seemingly difficult or impossible thing?

I will, with God’s help.

What would change if we had that mindset?

What seemingly impossible things would be able to accomplish?

I don’t know, because I have never really tried.

But I would really like to find out.

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

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-3/commentary-on-luke-175-10-2


Some Thoughts on Baptism: A Sermon for Sunday, September 25, 2022

The following sermon was preached on September 25, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here.  Photo credit: Josh Eckstein 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 is a special day in the life of this parish as we are gathered to celebrate the baptism of Sally Latta.

Almost all of our services – like Morning Prayer, Eucharist, and also services like baptisms, funerals and weddings are all found in the prayer books of the Anglican Church of Canada.

The green prayer book – which you can find copies of in the foyer – also contains a section that explains each of these services, so if you’re interested in learning more about why we do what we do at a baptism or an ordination or a funeral, you can find a couple of pages on each service in that book.

That green book is called the Book of Alternative Services or the BAS for short. If you want to know why it’s called that, we can chat after the service.

The section on baptism begins, “Baptism is the sign of new life in Christ. Baptism unites Christ with his people. That union is both individual and corporate. Christians are, it is true, baptized one by one, but to be a Christian is to be part of a new creation which rises from the dark waters of Christ’s death into the dawn of his risen life. Christians are not just baptized individuals; they are a new humanity.” (146)

So today is a really special day for both Sally as an individual, and all of us as a parish, and in fact, for the entire Christian church throughout the world.

But why is it special? Why do we do this?

When I began planning this service I decided to change the readings and preach specifically about baptism.

It seemed like the right thing to do and it also seemed like it would be… easy? I mean I’m a priest, so surely I know how to talk about baptism right?

And maybe I should, but I found this sermon was really hard to write. On more than one occasion when I re-read a paragraph I thought, “Now Rachel, I know what you mean but when you word it like that it’s a heresy.”

Baptism is a sacrament, and a celebration, and a mystery. It is both incredibly simple to understand, and also impossible to understand all at the same time.

We’re not supposed to fully understand it, that’s why we call it a mystery.

But that does make it a challenge to talk about – I need to be very careful with my words.

We baptize and are baptized mainly because Jesus told us to, but Jesus didn’t invent baptism, you may recall that John the Baptist was already baptizing people before Jesus began his earthly ministry and that John even baptized Jesus.

Baptism is a sacrament that uses water and water has always been important to human beings. We literally can’t live without it.

Water is life giving, and water is also cleansing.

Baptism as a practice doesn’t appear in the Old Testament but the Hebrew Scriptures do include many stories and instructions about the importance of staying clean and using water for ritual purification.

At some point in the history of the Jewish people, baptism became a way for Gentiles to convert and become Jewish.  It also became a way to repent and be cleansed of sins.  By the time Jesus arrives on the scene his baptism by John is also the fulfillment of a prophecy.

In the portion of Mark that we read this morning, John the Baptist says,

“As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”

Jesus is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. And although John resists, preferring to be baptized BY Jesus and not to baptize Jesus he eventually relents.

By the time of the early church, baptism had become a way to join the Christian community, and it still has that function to this very day.

Baptism is a sacrament and a sacrament is defined as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

So basically a sacrament is a practice or action that we can all see, that points to something that is real, but invisible.

Malcolm Guite explains that the old English word for baptism is “Christened. When a person is christened, they are enChristed – they are made part of Christ and he part of them. Another frequent image for the significance of baptism is the image of new birth. The Christian emerges from the waters of baptism born again, this time not merely a child of their earthly parents but a child of God.”[1]

But there is a paradox here, because we are all children of God, regardless of whether are not we have been baptized. We are all loved deeply by the God who created us and cares for us whether or not we have been baptized.  This act of baptism points to something that is already true, it is an act of obedience and faith on our part to acknowledge that truth by choosing to be baptized or by baptizing our children.

It is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.

 

It is pretty common in churches that one of the very first things you see when you enter is a baptismal font and often – especially before COVID – those fonts would contain water that you could dip your fingers into and cross yourself with. A tangible reminder of your baptism.

And because it is the first thing you see, it is also a tangible reminder that the Christian life begins with baptism.

Unless it doesn’t.

In our reading from Ephesians we heard these words, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

One Lord, one faith, one baptism.

One baptism.  I believe that that is true, and yet I also know that it is definitely not true.

Because Christians have a very diverse ranges of practices around baptism. We don’t do this in just one way.

In Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, we baptize people of all ages, although infant baptism is pretty common.

This means that if baptism marks our entrance into the church we can enter at a very young age. But that’s not true in all churches.

In the Mennonite church I grew up in, my ancestors believed that people should understand what they were doing before they were baptized so they only baptized adults – and in the early years of the church many of them were tortured or burned at the stake to defend this belief.

So I wasn’t baptized until I was 15, but I was still part of the church prior to my baptism.

The Salvation Army is a Christian Church that does not practice baptism – they do have a process of formation and initiation into the Christian life but it doesn’t involve water.

Clearly, there is not one baptism.

Except, scripture says there is, and I believe there is, and not because I believe that some of the practices listed above are fake baptisms, but because I believe that God is big enough and baptism is mysterious enough that God can somehow sort out all those differences and make them into one thing.

So I believe there is one baptism, while knowing that Christians have diverse baptism practices.

I don’t have to understand it to believe that it’s true. It’s a mystery beyond my understanding, but not beyond God’s.

Baptism is also not always the way people entire into the Christian faith.  As I mentioned earlier, sometimes baptism happens after a person has been a faithful Christian for a very long time, perhaps even most of their life.

And sometimes a person dies before they can be baptized.  To imply that they are not a beloved child of God or part of God’s family because they did not participate in this ritual in a church building is to miss the point of who God is and what God desires for us.

God is love. We are God’s beloved children.   Full stop.

Our psalm speaks of God’s steadfast love. Steadfast – it is not fickle.  God will not be separated from the people they love because of a technicality.

And still, when we can, we should baptize and be baptized. We should celebrate when someone takes this step and welcome them into the family.

We are gathered today to celebrate a baptism. It is an event worthy of celebration.

One final note before we move to the baptism itself.   If you have not been baptized and are interested in doing so, talk to me.   If you have not been confirmed – an additional practice we have in the Anglican church – talk to me.

Later this fall we will also be including a reaffirmation of baptism in one of our Sunday services.  This is a brief but beautiful opportunity to say, “Yes, right now, just as I am, I affirm that my baptism matters to me and this faith matter to me.”

You can also talk to me about this of course and more information will be available shortly.

But first, we need to celebrate Sally’s baptism!

In the strong name of the holy and undivided Trinity. Amen.

[1] What Christians Believe, pg 80


Don't Miss the Party: A Sermon for Sunday September 11, 2022

The following sermon was preached on September 11, 2022 at St George's Transcona. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here

 

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

About 15 years ago, I organized a workshop in my home.  I’d invited a great guest speaker and had a good turnout but partway through the workshop I noticed that one participant was texting on her phone. And then I couldn’t stop noticing it and I also couldn’t stop noticing that our speaker was noticing it and finding it very distracting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does Jesus bother to associate with them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is not what would have happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a logical thing to do.

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

No shepherd in her right mind would do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what on earth is Jesus getting at?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jesus does.

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

May we hear and accept Jesus’ invitation. May we work to restore those who are missing from the flock, and may we celebrate when this happens. Because it’s a shame to miss a good party.

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

 

 

[1] Thanks for NT Wright for this image.