Taking Rides from Strangers: A Sermon for Sunday, September 4, 2022

The following sermon was preached on September 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 credit: https://www.sleeping-in-slav-2.sankofatravelher.com/page?pgid=isj1h80f-02fccf44-757d-4e1e-8c7c-ef031f098309

 

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

Usually when we read scripture together in church, we read a small portion of a larger book. But today, we read almost the entire book of Philemon – the lectionary only cuts out the last few verses.

Philemon is a letter. Most likely written by Paul and, you might reasonably assume because of its title, written to a man named Philemon, but there you’d be wrong.

The letter is addressed, “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house…” (1-2) This letter was written to a house church, a group of men and women who will gather together in Philemon’s home to hear the letter read aloud and to discuss its contents.

Much of the content is addressed directly to Philemon but the letter is meant to be read by the entire church community.

The letter focusses on the relationship between Paul, Philemon, and a man Philemon has enslaved named Onesimus.

Slavery is abhorrent. It is wrong. But it also has, in many places and at many times throughout history, been normal.  So normal that people couldn’t imagine there was any other way to structure a society.

And Paul doesn’t do what I want him to do in this letter.   I just want one sentence. Just one that says, “As we all know, slavery is sinful, stop enslaving human beings.” I want him to have written that. It’s one of the three sentences Paul never wrote that I wish he did. Feel free to ask me about the other two after the service.

But Paul didn’t write that sentence. And he doesn’t write one suggesting that this newly formed Christian community should overthrow the entire political, economic and social system they live under either but I do think that he does clearly say that slavery should not exist in Christian communities. He just does it using a particular rhetorical style that may not be obvious to us on a first reading.

Spoiler alert:  This may be the most sarcastic piece of writing in the entire Bible.[1]

In the opening address Philemon is describes as Paul’s “dear friend and co-worker.” (1)

Paul and Philemon are friends, but they are also partners in God’s work. They have a job to do – to spread the gospel and grow the church – and if they are going to be successful, they need to be able to work closely together.

The letter continues with a form common in Paul’s letters, “When I remember you in my prayers…” (4). Whenever you hear those words, look carefully at what Paul says he is praying for, because it usually functions as the thesis statement for the entire letter. In this case, Paul prays that, “the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.”

Paul is either suggesting that Philemon’s work is not effective, or that it is not as effective as it could be because he is not seeing things as clearly as Paul does.

Paul continues, “For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love…” (8-9)

They are co-workers in this venture, but make no mistake about it, Paul has more power than Philemon.  Paul has the power to simply command that Philemon do his duty, but Paul is saying he prefers the “catch more flies with honey” approach.  And by honey I mean words that are dripping with sarcasm.

So what is Philemon’s duty? What it is that Paul wants him to do?

Paul writes, “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” (9)

A couple of things to note here.  Onesimus was a pretty common name to give an enslaved person. It means “useful.”

In saying that Onesimus is his child, Paul is both invoking and subverting the traditional paterfamilias structure that governed households.  In this system, one man was the head of the household with complete authority over all the people and possessions of that household.  A slave would be a possession, not a person.

Paul is using this imagery to say two things: One, in this Christian family, Paul is paterfamilias, not Philemon. He can simply command that Philemon do his duty.

Two: Paul is saying that for Philemon’s work on behalf of the gospel to be effective, he needs to change the way he thinks about and treats Onesimus.

Paul describes Onesimus as his child, and then later, he says that Philemon should treat him as a brother. Basically, Paul is saying that both Philemon and Onesimus are his children. They are equals, which by extension means that Philemon needs to treat Onesimus as a person, not property.

Paul is writing this letter from prison.  Onesimus is with him, although he is not imprisoned. How did he come to be there?

It’s not clear.

People in prison in this time period had to rely on people outside of the prison to provide for their daily needs and its possible that Philemon has sent Onesimus to Paul to make sure he has food and other basic necessities of life.

Onesimus may also have run away.  But this was an offence punishable by crucifixion so it seems odd that he’d come out of hiding to help Paul.   Although, perhaps he did run away and realized that there was no safe place for an escaped slave to live so he is appealing to Paul to help him smooth over the situation with Philemon so he can return to that household.

It isn’t clear how he came to be with Paul, but it is clear that this letter is intended to repair the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus.

Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon’s household, and he wants Philemon to accept him when he does.

Playing with the meaning of Onesimus’ name Paul says that although Philemon thinks Onesimus is useless, he is in fact, useful to both of them.

So useful, in fact, that even though Paul would prefer to have Onesimus stay with him, he is sending him back to Philemon. And listen to the words Paul uses, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me … but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” (13-14)

When Paul who has already stated he has the power to just command you to do your duty sends a request in a letter that will be read by your entire community recommending you do something voluntarily instead of by force, how much wiggle room do you think you actually have?

And not only does Paul want Philemon to accept Onesimus back into his household, listen to how he expects Onesimus to be treated, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother – especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” (16)

Onesimus is not property. He is Paul’s own heart.  Paul expects Philemon to receive him as his beloved brother.

The letter continues, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this in my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self…. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do ever more than I say.” (Emphasis mine)

And if Paul isn’t laying it on thick enough with this choice of words, he employs another one of his favourite rhetorical devices. Although the bulk of this letter has been dictated to a scribe, this section was so important he wrote it in his own hand. Make no mistake, he is saying, I mean what I say.

And that’s where our reading ended. Now if you’ve been wondering why the creators of the lectionary decided to leave out the last few verses, I don’t have an answer, but I can tell you what those verses contain.

The very last few verses are just a list of other people who send greetings. Kind of like a P.S.  I’d probably cut those too.   But I would have extended the passage we did read by one verse.

That verse reads, “One thing more – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.”  (22)

Paul is planning to come for a visit and therefore will know if Philemon has done what he is supposed to do.

This seems to me to be the Pauline version of a mic drop.

This is my best effort at providing you with an accurate reading of Philemon, but I do want you to know that it has often been interpreted very differently.

Some commentators don’t see sarcasm in Paul’s words. They see someone writing very carefully so as not to hurt the feelings of a rich and powerful man.  Which changes the tone, but not the meaning, of the letter.

This letter has also been used in countries like the United States to justify the forcible return of enslaved people who have run away.  That changes the tone and the meaning. I also think it’s a willful misreading of the text.

A number of years ago I went to Durham, North Carolina for a conference and, as I often do, I added a day to the trip to see the sites.

There was really only one place I wanted to visit:  Stagville Plantation has been turned into a historic site that includes original buildings where enslaved people once lived.

I wanted to see those buildings for myself.  It wasn’t that I doubted that slavery existed but I knew that at least in some way, it existed for me as story.

I had a sense that somehow if I could stand in a place where this had actually happened, then the truth of this horrible system would sink more deeply into my consciousness.

But first I had to get there.

The Stagville Plantation was only about 20 kilometers from my hotel but it was outside the city limits so I wanted to make sure that not only would I be able to get a taxi to take me there, that I could also get one to bring me back again.

The nice white girl at the hotel desk was confused by my request. A lifelong resident of Durham, she’d never even heard of Stagville.  There was no glossy brochure in the rack behind her desk either.

But she googled it and called a cab company that assured me a round trip.

The taxi driver was African American. He had heard of Stagville but had never been there and couldn’t understand why I’d want to go.  Didn’t I want to go to the shopping center or some other more typical tourist spot?

Nope.  Take me to the plantation please.

After we’d driven for about 30 minutes I began to wonder if something was wrong. After we’d driven about 45 minutes, I knew something was wrong because my driver was clearly panicking and eventually pulled the car over on the side of the road praying, “Help me Jesus. Help me Jesus,” under his breath.

He’d gotten lost. And he was scared.

And I knew right away that his fear didn’t simply come from having taken a few wrong turns.  It came from having made a few wrong turns on deserted country roads with a white lady for a passenger.

We were strangers, but the evil legacies of slavery and racism were impacting our relationship.  His fear was reasonable,and rooted in experience.

Eventually we were able to sort out the situation. I assured him I had no where important to be and that this was simply an adventure and so he figured out the directions.  We had another 45 minutes or so to drive.

But now, he relaxed a bit and began to show me around.  The little country church where his grandfather had been a preacher, the huge menacing prison where he quipped, clearly more relaxed now, “Are you sure you don’t just want to visit that plantation instead?” and finally Stagville.

As he took me up the long winding driveway, he muttered.  “This place feels bad, it’s a bad, bad place.”  He refused my offer of a ticket, opting to wait for me in the car.

I bought my ticket and joined a tour that was already in progress.

I’d only been there about 10 minutes when the tour guide started giving us driving directions.  It turned out that the slave quarters were a couple miles up the road – which suggests the size of the original plantation and also presented me with a problem.

So I put up my hand and said, “Hi, so I’m from Canada and I took a taxi here and I didn’t know we had to drive to another location and so… would someone mind giving me a ride?”

And you know what happened right? Because of course it did.

This nice older couple said, “We’re from Canada too and not only would we be happy to give you a ride but if you’re willing to visit a few additional tourist sites with us today, we’ll drive you back to town too.”

I thanked them, ran over to pay and thank the taxi driver and release him from the misery of waiting for me at the plantation and then, while offering a silent apology to my parents, accepted a ride from strangers.

There are a lot of things that I could tell you about seeing buildings that enslaved people once lived in, but here are just two.

The first is that these particular buildings were still standing because they were built in an era where people who enslaved other people began to realize that if they provided slightly better accommodations then their slaves would not get sick so easily and could work harder and produce more.  That’s just good economic sense.

The second is that I was allowed to touch the fingerprints embedded in the bricks that enslaved people had made to form the chimney, and some of those fingerprints definitely belonged to small children.

Paul was challenging Philemon to think differently about human relationships and reject the dehumanizing institution of slavery in any form.

I think he is challenging us to do the same.

May we listen. May we act.

In the name of the triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] For a delightful extended discussion of Paul’s sarcasm I recommend you listen to episode on Philemon of the podcast “Two Feminists Annotate the Bible.”


Let No One's Heart Fail: A Sermon for Sunday August 21, 2022

The following sermon was preached on August 21, 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 Dan Gold on Unsplash

 

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

Today’s first reading is one of the most well known stories in the Old Testament, the tale of David and Goliath.  Our reading starts in the middle, so let’s back up a bit in the story to get some context.

The armies of the Philistines and the Israelites have gathered near each other prepared for battle.  Scripture says that, “the Philistines stood on the mountain on the one side, and Israel stood on the mountain on the other side, with a valley between them.” (3)

They are all waiting and wondering who will make the next move, and then a Philistine named Goliath emerges and begins to taunt the Israelites saying, “Choose a man for yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us...When Saul and all Israel heard these words of the Philistine, they were dismayed and greatly afraid.” (9-11)

I’m definitely not a person who possesses any military knowledge, but based only on what I have said so far this doesn’t seem like that bad of a deal.  Instead of a war between two entire armies, only two people will fight. How efficient. And how many lives will be saved in the process?

Except, even with only the information I have shared so far, I know that it’s probably not a good deal, because a person would only offer a deal of this nature if they were sure they were going to win.

And Goliath is sure he is going to win…. because Goliath isn’t just any man, he’s a giant of a man.

Goliath was huge, and anyone who tried to fight him was guaranteed to lose.

And every day that Goliath utters this challenge the Israelite army feel a little less confident, a little less hopeful, and a lot more afraid.

But there was an Israelite man named Jesse who had eight sons- the three oldest have joined the Israelite army, and the youngest one, David, stayed home to look after the family’s sheep.  (12-14)

Jesse tells David to go visit his older brothers to see how they are doing and to bring them some food. (17)

David goes, and when he does, he hears Goliath taunting the Israelite army. Unlike the men in the army, who have been worn down by the war and Goliath’s threats, David doesn’t shrink from the challenge. David is indignant at this insult and frustrated by the fear he sees all around him.

David asks, “who is this Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” (26)

I can imagine the Israelites who are listening thinking, “Um, have you seen him?”

David goes to King Saul and offers to fight Goliath saying, “let no one’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.” (32)

Saul looks at David and sees an arrogant boy making an unrealistic offer and responds, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” (33)

And then David begins to recite his resume, in his role as a shepherd, he has killed lions, and bears, he has grabbed these animals by the jaw, pulled the sheep from their mouths, and killed them.

Goliath is no match for him, David says, not because of his skill as a fighter, but because God is on his side. (33-37) “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (37)

And Saul gives up and agrees to let David fight the giant, but first, he is going to make sure David has everything he needs to be successful - a helmet, armor, and Saul’s own sword. (38-39)

Saul may feel a bit better seeing David dressed this way, but David isn’t. David says, “I cannot walk with these…”   If he can’t even walk, how is he going to fight?

So David removes the armor and begins to prepare for battle wearing his everyday clothing.

While none of us have likely every met a literal giant named Goliath, we have all faced Goliaths in our lives – challenges so large that we feel doomed to fail before we even start.

The past few years have been filled with Goliaths.  You have had your own unique challenges, and as a parish you have also faced a number of Goliaths together.

Through no fault of your own, you have had to battle the Goliath that is the Covid-19 pandemic.  That’s a fight that has already lasted over two years and the battle is not yet won.     You have had to say good-bye to Helen.  You have had to deal with the cultural realities that people don’t attend church in the same ways that they used to, and the Goliath that is a church institution that moves a lot more slowly than the culture.

And that’s not all – the church’s finances are also a Goliath.  Everyday there is more money that needs to go out to support the work of the parish than is coming in.  Which is simply not sustainable.

It’s a lot and when you think about it, I am sure that you can sympathize with the Israelite army. None of them feel up to the fight, and they are only dealing with one Goliath.  You are dealing with a small army of them.

Maybe you feel like them, discouraged, beaten down, hopeless.

Maybe you feel like it’s an impossible battle so it’s not even worth trying.

Now I want to be clear that it is not necessary for you to fight every battle.  Sometimes it is a healthy decision to say, “this isn’t mine to fight,” or “I am not in a place where I can fight.”

And if that’s you, that’s OK.

But if you do feel it’s your place to begin to battle against these giants, it’s also possible that you think you need to armor up to do so.  You might be weighed down by old ideas or tools that would be helpful to someone else or were useful in the past, but you don’t actually need them.

There are, for example, a lot of assumptions from the past about what it means to be a parish that may no longer serve you.  You need to discern what it important to keep, and what to let go of.

I used to assume that the only way to have a Sunday service was to gather people together in a building and now I know that’s not true. It’s possible to have a service online. It’s important even, because there are people who – for a variety of reasons - can’t come to a building on Sunday morning.

The pandemic taught me to shed the armor of believing there was only one right way to have a service.

Saul’s armor was useful to Saul, but it was no help to David.  If you’re going to go into battle, don’t let yourself be weighed down by unnecessary armor.

So David removes Saul’s armor, picks up his own staff and goes out to select five smooth stones.  He takes the stones, and his sling, and goes out to face Goliath.

And long story short, David kills Goliath with a single stone.

About two weeks ago, vestry met for a day long retreat and we used this David and Goliath story to shape our conversations.

We talked about the Goliaths facing the parish.  They are some very real challenges facing us that can’t be ignored. Vestry will continue to talk about these things and share that information with you on a regular basis.  We are meeting again this week to create a financial update, for example, that will be sent to you shortly.

We touched on the idea that maybe we think we need things that we don’t actually need. Maybe there are some spots where we are being weighed down by unnecessary armor.

Our main focus, however, was to talk about all resources, gifts, and strengths that St George’s has – our 5 stones if you will.

The conversations flowed and lists were generated that made it clear that this parish has more than just five stones. This is an image we are going to keep working with and you will continue to hear more about it, but here are some things I heard that day:

It’s a strength that this parish is located in Transcona.  Partly because Transcona is a wonderful place to live. When people come to Transcona, they tend to stay in Transcona.

It’s also a strength because if you were to look at a map of Winnipeg, there are some areas that have a lot of Anglican churches, more than is necessary for the number of people who attend services, but you are the only Anglican church in this area.  That’s a strength.

Another strength is that so many of you either live in Transcona or grew up in Transcona so you understand the values and culture of this place.   So many churches struggle with the fact that the people who come to church on Sundays drive in from other neighbourhoods and are very different than the people who live near the church.   In those kinds of situations, when someone from the neighbourhood comes to church they might feel very out of place.   That’s not true here and that’s a strength.

This building is also a strength – it is beautiful and well maintained.  If you’re ever had a chance to be here on your own and just sit quietly you know if can feel like a little piece of heaven.  It can feel like that when it’s full of people too.

The building makes it possible for us to gather like we are today.  The building made is possible for us to provide care to the friends and family of Diane Ross  yesterday by hosting her funeral.

The building makes it possible for you to reach out into the community and invite other groups to use this space. This is such an incredible ministry of St George’s – if you only every come here on Sundays, you might not realize that the building is used by all sorts of community groups throughout the week, making the important work that they do possible.

So many churches leave their buildings empty all week and only use it for an hour on Sundays, but not St George’s.

It's impressive, it really it.

In addition to inviting groups into the building, many of you also go out into the community to serve – by being involved with L’Arche, or Thelma Wynne or the local food bank or helping with the Christmas hamper and I could go on.

The pandemics has meant that a lot of these sorts of things had to shut down, but with a little planning and creativity there are plenty of opportunities to reach out and support the good work that is already happening in the community.

Another strength of this church is the high quality of leadership you have had over the years.  And I don’t mean your priests!

Priests are human, they can’t all have been great fits, which means sometimes the parish thrived with the help of the priest, and sometimes despite them.

When I say you have had exceptional leadership I mean all the various ways that people take ownership and make sure things happen here.  From the obvious roles like priests and deacons and wardens and vestry, to the quieter things like taking care of the garden outside or serving in the kitchen at a funeral.

You might not know this, because you’re so used to it, but this is rather unusual. There are a lot of churches where this kind of quality engagement and participation just don’t happen.

I mean, I have been at churches where at the end of a funeral everyone left and I was stuck washing the dishes and locking up by myself, but not here!

Yesterday I got sent home with a packed lunch and a firm reminder that the volunteer team had everything in hand and my services were no longer needed.

Which leads me to the final strength, the final stone I want to mention today and, really in a lot of ways, the four I have already mentioned also encompass this last one, and that’s the people.

The people of the parish of St George’s are its greatest strength.   Without you, St George’s is just a lovely building in a great part of town.

In fact, without you it’s not even a lovely building, because it takes people to cover the bills and maintain the space.

Without you, there is no St George’s.

There are a lot of things I could say about you but we don’t need to have a 20 minute sermon today, so let me just focus on one thing.

You are a lot like David.   You’re not the biggest parish in the diocese, the one that is the most obvious choice perhaps to fight a Goliath, but you know that bigger isn’t always better.  You are tough and scrappy and resilient and when the going gets tough you grab your sling shot and aim for the giant’s forehead.

You are a gift, and I am so grateful for each one of you.

There are real challenges facing this parish and we can’t ignore them, but I also believe if you choose to step up to the challenge, then God will provide what you need.  You may have to let go of your particular vision for the future in order to step into God’s good plan, but if you chose to do so, you already have everything you need.

Because remember, David had 5 stones, but in the end he won the battle with only one. He had more than he needed to succeed, and you do to.

When David told Saul he was going to fight Goliath he said, “Let no one’s heart fail..”(31) and that is my prayer and my challenge to each one of you.  Have courage, don’t let your heart fail, because with God on your side you have everything you need to win.

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

 


Daughter of Abraham: A Sermon for Sunday August 14, 2022

The following sermon was preached on August 14, 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 Jonny Gios 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.

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about for a very long time:  Jesus can heal people. So, why doesn’t Jesus heal everyone? Why does he seemingly pick and choose who he is going to heal? Why didn’t he just walk through the crowds of people who tended to form whenever he was around with his hands outstretched and just zap everyone in the crowd with his healing power?

Isn’t that more efficient? Isn’t that more compassionate?

I don’t know why Jesus didn’t just heal everyone, but I do have a few hunches.

The first, is that Jesus values consent.  I didn’t do an exhaustive search of every healing narrative this week but as best I can remember, Jesus never heals anyone who doesn’t wish to be healed.  They either come to him asking to be healed, or he directly asked them if they wish to be healed.

There is no consent in a practice of just walking through a crowd zapping people, and so Jesus doesn’t do that.

Consent matters.

Hunch number two: I think that when Jesus looks at people, he sees them very differently than I do.

If Jesus and I walked through a crowd together and counted the number of people who required healing, I think that my number would be a lot higher than his because even though I know in my head this is not true, I still have a tendency to think that every person who is deaf wants to hear, and every person who thinks or moves or looks different than the standard I have internalized wants desperately to conform to that standard.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, and I’m working on getting better, but I still tend to think that the ideal for humanity looks a lot like a Ken doll and a Barbie doll.  And if you don’t look like that, then there is something wrong with you, and you know it, and you want to be transformed so you can conform to that standard.

A standard I don’t conform to. A standard no one conforms to.

But God’s standards and my warped standards are not the same. Thanks be to God.

God’s vision of what is means to be human is infinitely more diverse than Barbie and Ken. Humanity is more complex and beautiful than anything I have ever tried to reduce it to.

And we need the diversity. We need people who move and think and look and love differently than we do. That diversity enriches and deepens community.

Healing isn’t about making us all the same.  Healing is a way of saying, you are not currently living the life you were created to live, and I want to help you with that.

The woman in today’s story is in need of healing.  We are told that a spirit has been crippling her for eighteen years, bending her down towards the ground, and making it impossible for her to stand up straight. (v.11)

This is not how she wants to live or was meant to live.

Being freed of this crippling spirit would dramatically improve her life.

And we’ll get to her in a moment, but first, let’s look at the circumstances that frame her story.

Today’s gospel begins with Jesus teaching a crowd in a synagogue. This means he must have impressed the leader of the synagogue, who allowed him to teach, and the people of the area, who have gathered to hear him speak.

The synagogue leader’s positive impression of Jesus will change, however, when Jesus chooses to heal on the Sabbath.  Healing is work, and you’re not supposed to work on the Sabbath day.

The idea of Sabbath is one of the most powerful and precious gifts we have ever been given. One that we’ve largely forgotten and desperately need to reclaim.  Sabbath has both individual and communal implications, and today’s story focusses on the communal.

Sabbath was a gift that God gave to the people of Israel after they had been enslaved for generations in Egypt.  When the people spent a day without working, it was meant to remind them that once they were slaves, but now they were free. It was a day that was always meant to be about freedom, not legalism.

Luke’s gospel is carefully structured and so when we read this story of Jesus teaching in a synagogue, it’s helpful to remember an earlier story of Jesus teaching in another synagogue. In that earlier story, Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Sabbath is about freedom and liberation.  When he heals the woman he says she is to be “set free” and “released” from her “bond.”  (apoluo, v. 12; luo v.16, desmos v. 16). Jesus also draws directly from the 10 Commandments where Sabbath is directly linked to Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt when he debates with the synagogue leader.  (Deut. 5:12-15).

Jesus therefore sees the Sabbath as a day to both remember and celebrate freedom from slavery so actions which liberate Israelites in the present day are in keeping with the spirit of the Sabbath.

Which is why Jesus argues that his decision to heal the woman and restore her to full participation in her community is in keeping with the tenants of Sabbath.  She also deserves to be free and so Jesus frees her.

Additionally, given that his contemporaries had found a work around to their strict “no work on the Sabbath” practices that allowed them to care for animals, then surely it was also OK to provide care for a human being?

Or was that perhaps part of the problem. Did the people actually need to be reminded that this woman was a human being?

Jeannine K Brown imagines the woman’s story in this way: “She had gotten used to looking at people out of the corner of her eye, by looking up and sideways.

After eighteen years, she could hardly remember any other way of seeing the world.

On this particular Sabbath, there was a special excitement at the synagogue, where she regularly went to worship. A Galilean preacher and prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, had arrived in town and would be teaching there. She and the others in town had heard reports about Jesus--how he talked about God's reign arriving soon and how he healed sick people.

She was not sure how many of the rumours to believe, but she was trying not to get her hopes up. Her life already had too many disappointments to count.

When she entered the synagogue, the place was abuzz. As Jesus began to teach, however, the room was hushed. Moments later, his words turned from teaching to invitation. He had caught her eye--no mean feat, given that he had to lean over and incline his head to do so. "Come here," he said to her. She slowly made her way to the front of the assembly.

What happened next amazed the whole congregation. "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When this man, Jesus, spoke those words and put his hands on her broken, bent body, she felt power surge through her. Without hesitation, she straightened her once crooked back. She stood tall and praised her God . . .”

Imagine being this woman. Because of your distinctive bent posture, people can spot you from a mile away. Plus, in a small town everyone knows everyone else’s business, so everyone knows yours. You can’t blend in or hide so you’re always visible. But your posture also makes people uncomfortable so they ignore you, ostracize you, making you simultaneously overly visible, and invisible.

It’s a lonely way to live.

In his article, Disability and Healing: A Rereading Based on the Synoptic Gospels, Cuban theologian Rolando Mauro Verdecia Ávila takes this further by explaining that at this time, in order to be understood to be human, you had to conform to certain standards and one of the key standards was the ability to be in an upright position, a position that would allow you to look up at the sky, to look up to where God was believed to live.  This was one of the key criteria that distinguished a human being from an animal.

So when her neighbours saw her, shuffling bent over through the streets, they did not see a human being, they saw someone who was inferior, an animal, and therefore, they saw no reason to treat her with respect, no reason to include her, no reason, really, to notice her at all.

And so, when Jesus heals her, he does not simply straighten her back.  The healing begins when he notices her, takes an interest in her, touches her, and it continues when he gives her the dignity of a name and a place within the context of that community.

She is not just healed of a physical ailment.  She is liberated from societal isolation, she is liberated from the forces that have enslaved her.

Rolando observes that “Jesus reinterprets the physical illness in terms of oppression and slavery. But, as if that were not enough, he also has the boldness to highlight the identity and dignity of that woman by calling her daughter of Abraham. (v.16) acknowledging that she has always been a legitimate member of her people, and not just now that she is no longer a person with a disability.

So all those affirmative actions, together with the controversy with the head of the synagogue, who opposed the fact that the healing occurred on the Sabbath day (vv.14-16) become, on the one hand, an indisputable denunciation of the hypocrisy and injustice of those who place institutions and traditions above the value of the life and wellbeing of person, and on the other hand, a radical and integral liberation for all the social, economic, cultural and religious burdens that weighted heavily on the back and on the life of that woman and kept her oppressed and enslaved.”[1]

Jesus does more than simply heal this woman’s bent back.  He restores her to the community that has rejected her.  He provides her with dignity and a name, calling her “daughter of Abraham,” a phrase that does not occur anywhere else in the entire Bible.  This name emphasizes that this woman is a member of the community and even more than that, that she always has been.  She does not receive this name because she has been healed, it is a name that has always belonged to her. Even if many people have forgotten it.

When Jesus heals the Daughter of Abraham the first thing she does is praise God. When the people hear Jesus’ argument that if animals can be lead to water than can’t a woman be set free from eighteen years of bondage on the Sabbath Day they also realize that he is right and Luke tells us “the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that [Jesus] was doing.” (17)

They too were set free in that moment. Set free from a legalistic way of thinking.  Which is certainly something to celebrate.

In what ways have you been bent out of shape? It is a series of poor choices? Institutional systems that have not been designed with you in mind? Patriarchal forces? Old, hurtful stories or lies from your past?

What unnecessary burdens are you carrying? Where have you been bent out of shape and are in need of healing?

Today’s gospel is a story of individual healing but also of a person being restored to her community. What kind of community do we want to be? Do our religious traditions help or hinder us in that process?  If a “daughter of Abraham” joined us today, would she find welcome or condemnation? And if condemnation, what do we plan to do about that?

Because when someone is being oppressed, when someone is being bent down towards the ground, we need to do something to lift them up.

This past week Vestry spent the day on Tuesday in retreat, praying and dreaming about the next steps in the life of this parish. There will be more to share with you over the coming days, weeks, and months but one thing I want to tell you today is that we spent part of that day talking about accessibility. Specifically, about how we as a parish can remove barriers to participation so that anyone who wants to come to St George’s, can come to St George’s.

Some of that looks like having spent time in the past year developing an accessibility policy which you can find on the website. And on Tuesday, we also took some time to learn about some of the things we’re already doing and thinking about what more we can do.

Did you know, for example, that there is a first aid kit and a defibrillator right next to the main entrance. I hope we never need them, but it’s good to know they are there.  And we also have a lift that can assist people who find stairs difficult to manage and now, everyone on vestry knows how to use it and can assist folks who need the lift.

All good things. We have a lot to be grateful for.

May we always be a community of freedom and liberation that inspires people to live fully into being who they were created to be.

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

 

 

[1] Disability and Healing: A Rereading Based on the Synoptic Gospels by Rolando Mauro Verdecia Ávila , 18.

 


Plead for the Window: A Sermon for Sunday August 7, 2022

The following sermon was preached on August 7, 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 Element5 Digital 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.

As part of my job as a sessional instructor I often have to mark papers, and I hate marking papers. One of the things that makes the task bearable is the sheer nerdy delight I feel when I find an unexpectedly funny typo.

My favourite typo was the paper that opened with the emphatic statement, complete with an explanation point, “God has a massage for us!”

I mean, sounds pretty good doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to read that paper?  Sadly, it wasn’t a paper about God’s skills as a masseuse, but rather a paper about God’s message for us.

Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah is a tough one, but it always makes me chuckle because it contains my second favourite student paper typo.

I once had a student make a very impassioned argument about how much God wants us to care for others using this Isaiah passage as evidence. Unfortunately, instead of saying that God calls us to plead for justice for the widow, they kept using the word “window.” And instead of the word “rescue” they kept using “recuse.”

“God wants us to recuse the oppressed and plead for the window.”

Maybe God does care about windows, but not as much as this student was implying.  I don’t think windows are Her top priority.

Widows, however, God does care for them. God cares a lot.

I was grateful for the chuckle when I first reviewed the readings for the week because the majority of this reading is… rough.

Today’s Old Testament reading opens with the explanation that these words are a vision given to Isaiah by God about Judah and Jerusalem.  As we review the content of this reading, remember that these are words spoken by a prophet, Isaiah, whose name literally means, “the Lord saves.”

We are going to hear some hard things, but that isn’t the full story and we need to be patient and hang in there or we’ll miss the good stuff.

The reading begins, “hear the words of the Lord…” and then moves into a series of questions. (10)

God is tired of sacrifices and rituals.  God is tired of the people’s festivals and even their prayers.  God speaks through Isaiah using phrases like, “I have had enough… I do not delight… I cannot endure… and even “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” (11-14)

Wow. That’s… a lot.  Why is God so upset and burdened? Why is God so tired?

Let’s back up a bit in search of an answer.  The lectionary did a bit of cut and paste with this reading, we heard verse one and then jumped to verse 10 skipping over a series of verses that provide some helpful context. In these skipped verses, Isaiah uses imagery describing God as a parent and Israel as a child and then later also compares Israel to beasts of burden.

In their discussion of verses 2-9 The Collegeville Commentary explains that Isaiah’s “words begin with a poignant cry of betrayal. That the prophet identifies God as the parent betrayed and Israel as God’s guilty children implies that judgment will not be God’s last word to Israel. Like the love of parents for their children, God’s love for Israel does not fail because of Israel’s failures. The second comparison, likening Israel with beasts of burden, suggest that Israel acted out of ignorance, not appreciating the nature of its relationship with God. This also suggests some mitigation of Israel’s guilt. Still, this will not prevent Israel from experiencing God’s judgment for its infidelity. Its infidelity continued until its cities were destroyed, its land desolate, and Jerusalem abandoned. Still, God did not allow Israel to destroy itself, but keeps a few survivors alive. These survivors have accepted their situation as the Lord’s doing and they recognize the miracles that God worked in keeping them alive.” (Collegeville 1260)

So a few things are true then. First, Israel has actually behaved in ways that displease God and there have been serious consequences. This isn’t just random anger and disappointment, it’s justified. Secondly, God’s disappointment will not be God’s final word on the subject.   The people of Israel can always decide to make better choices.

Another thing we need to keep in mind is that we are reading a written text with a particular structure. The first people to hear these words or read this text would have understood the format and known what to expect. They would have known that just because we start in a negative place, that doesn’t mean we’re going to end there.

When I mark a paper, one of the things I am required to do is point out all the ways that the paper falls short of what is expected. Typos are sometimes funny, but they’re also errors that the student should have caught before submitting the paper. I laugh, but I also deduct points.

I deduct points for all sorts of things, but the main question I am asking when I mark a paper is, “Does this assignment meant the required criteria?”  Or in other words, did the student do what I told them to do?   You can give me the most brilliant paper ever written on the history of the classical guitar in modern folk music, but if what I asked for was a paper on this passage from Isaiah, you’re going to fail.

And the students expect this. They understand the process of submitting a paper and receiving this kind of feedback.  The wise ones review what I have said and use it to submit a better paper next time.

And it doesn’t help the student if I ignore all the things they did that don’t meet the criteria of the assignment. If I don’t point out things they can improve for next time it’s highly unlikely that they will learn and – improve - next time.   It’s all part of the learning process, and they know it. (Even if they don’t love it.)

Isaiah’s message from God begins with a litany of the ways that Israel has failed to live up to God’s expectations and the negative ways their choices have impacted that relationship.  The language is blunt, the message clear.  If this was a paper, they’re getting a failing grade.

It’s hard for me to read this kind of language, especially because I understand it to be language coming from God. God is love right? Is this what love looks like?

Maybe, because it’s honest. Would I prefer it if God really felt this way but lied about it?

I don’t think so.  I want to hear the truth, even if it’s hard.

And would Israel learn if God didn’t speak this way? Maybe not. These hard words may be the exact wake up call they needed.

In the past few weeks the Christian church has made the news in a number of ways – Anglican Bishops gathering for the Lambeth conference, the Pope visiting Canada.

Although my general impression is that some Bishops have behaved very badly at Lambeth and that God’s heart breaks at some of their choices, I’m mostly choosing to ignore the day to day news that leaks out and wait until the end of the conference when hopefully we will have fuller coverage and a clearer picture of what happened.   Bishop Geoff has said on Facebook that we have reasons to be encouraged, and I want to believe him, even when I’m not seeing those reasons myself just now.  I need to wait to hear the full story.

I also have mixed feelings about the Pope’s visit.  Here is what I wanted: I wanted the Pope to sound a little more like our gospel passage. I wanted him to clearly repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. To say that these ideas are and have always been sinful, that they hurt people, and that he is sorry.   I wanted him to say similar things about colonialism and residential schools.

He said some of those things, and I am grateful for that, but he did not say all of them.

At least in the coverage I saw of the Pope’s words, however, he did speak clearly like our Isaiah passage. He left some key things out in my opinion, like the Doctrine of Discovery, but when he said something was wrong, he said it was wrong. He didn’t hide behind wishy washy language. He didn’t minimize the damage.

Which was an important thing for him to do.

Because you can’t offer an effective apology if you don’t fully acknowledge that what you did was wrong. You can’t authentically repent if you don’t really think there was anything to repent of.

And acknowledging what was wrong, apologizing and pledging to do better going forward are essential components of the healing process.

The people of Israel, Bishops, Popes, they can all drift off course, but so can we. What are the ways where you may also have gotten off course? Where have we as a parish gotten off course?

These are important questions to chew on, but don’t get stuck there. Remember that being honest about the hard stuff is just the first step in a process that leads to better choices and new life. Don’t lose hope.

So we’ve heard the hard part, God is not happy with Israel, so what is Israel supposed to do now? What are we supposed to do now?

What comes next?

Once God, speaking through Isaiah, has clearly laid out the nature of the problem, has clearly explained all the ways that Israel has fallen short and the negative impact of their choices, God now can shift to do two things:

  • Call the people to repent and change their ways
  • Forgive

So what is God calling them to do?

God is calling them to stop doing a number of things. To stop putting all their energy into religious festivals and sacrifices.  These can be good things, but they have stopped being good things because Israel has forgotten to do the most important things. They have forgotten to work to ensure that their society is a just one. And, “without justice, Israel’s worship of the Lord is an empty shell.” (Collegeville, 1260)

This, according to Isaiah, is what God really cares about and expects of the people who follow God:

cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.

Learn to do good. Seek justice. Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Care for the people in society most in need of care.

This is what pleases God.

As I mentioned earlier, this passage is a specific type of literature with a structure and format that the people would have understood and expected.  It’s prophecy, and prophecy is a tradition of calling the people of God back to their covenant with God by pointing out where they are currently not living into that covenant.[1]

It's easy to lose our way and get off course. God knows this, God expects it, God doesn’t love it, but God is always there to welcome us when we return to the path.

God will welcome us again and again and again.

Our gospel passage begins like this, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom,” (32)

These words are good news for us today. Not matter how you feel, no matter how far you have strayed from the path, no matter how far we as a parish may have gone off course, this is Christ’s message to all of us: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (32)

We have no reason to be afraid. God is with us and desires only good things for us.

Which is good news indeed.

Amen.

[1] Thanks Jordan of 2Fab for this description.


Resolve Face: A Sermon for Sunday June 26, 2022

The following sermon was preached on June 26, 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 or redeemer. Amen.

The memories feature on Facebook is a funny thing. Sometimes a photo or happy memory from a few years ago pops up and you feel happy, sometimes whatever appears can feel more like a punch in the stomach, a photo of a beloved person who died for example.

In May and June, Facebook likes to remind me that in 2015 I was in Spain, walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

A pilgrimage can be a literal journey to a physical place, but it is also common to use the idea of pilgrimage as a metaphor to describe our daily lives. People casually talk about their lives as a journey and we devour stories like The Lord of the Rings and the Wizard of Oz.

There are lots of references to pilgrimages in the Bible as well. You could even say it’s one of the main themes in the Bible, it’s that common.  It’s there, but it’s subtle, one of those themes you can easily overlook. I’ve been reading the Bible my whole life and I never really noticed all the references to pilgrimages, until I did notice them, and then I couldn’t believe it took me so long to see something that now seems so obvious.

For example, scholars note that Luke frames his entire gospel narrative in the context of a pilgrimage. NT Wright observes that, “Travelling in obedience to God’s call is one of Luke’s central pictures for what it means to be a Christian. Following Jesus is what it’s all about.” (NT 117-118)

Jesus’ contemporaries would also have been familiar with the stories of the pilgrimages of their ancestors. Stories like the ones found in Exodus when their ancestors travelled from Egypt to the Promised Land.

They would have known the story of Ruth and Naomi’s pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

They would have sung the series of psalms (120-134) that speak directly to the idea that our lives are a journey and are commonly referred to today as the pilgrim psalms.

They would also likely have had their own personal experience of pilgrimage. Jewish people who lived in Galilee regularly went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. A journey that would take about three to four days.

A lot of the action in Luke occurs as Jesus and his followers are on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Neil Elliot has observed that, “All that Jesus teaches about justice, about the right use of wealth, about prayer and steadfastness in his cause, he teaches as he leads his followers toward a final confrontation in Jerusalem."  (People’s Bible)

Our reading from Luke begins, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (51)

Jesus has his game face on, his do not mess with me face, his nothing is going to get in my way face.

I have a friend whose face gets like that when she decides it’s her turn to pay for dinner. When that happens, there is no point in arguing with her. I let her pay.

Jesus is going to go to Jerusalem by way of Samaria. That’s an odd choice given that Jews and Samaritans aren’t supposed to get along. Most Jewish people in Galilee would have avoided going through Samaria by walking along the Jordan Valley and beginning the ascent to Jerusalem at Jericho.

By the way, have you ever noticed that a lot of older churches are built in such a way that you often have to climb a set of stairs to get inside and then another series of stairs to get to the altar? The purpose of this design choice isn’t simply to frustrate folks with mobility issues – although I am sure it does frustrate them – it’s designed to mimic the fact that in order to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you had to climb up a hill.

Jesus is determined, he has set his face towards Jerusalem and nothing is going to get in his way.

Well, some things may get in his way.  Luke tells us that Jesus sent scouts ahead of him who went to a Samaritan village to prepare things for his arrival but “they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” (53)

Now our gospel reading doesn’t make this clear, but it’s possible that Jesus has been spending time and gaining a following in Samaria. He may not simply be passing through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem, he may have already been in Samaria for quite some time.

This is suggested by the story in John of the Samaritan woman at the well. (4:4-41)

In that story, Jesus and a woman from Samaria have an in-depth theological discussion and one of the things that the Samaritan woman discusses with Jesus is the correct location for worship. Samaritans believed it was Mount Gerizim while Jewish people believed it was the temple in Jerusalem. Jesus explains that this debate no longer matters because he has come to bring about a new way of worshipping God that is not dependent on location. The Samaritan woman believes this is truly good news and she becomes one of the first evangelists, sharing the gospel with her neighbors.

If people in Samaria have begun to hear and believe this good news, Jesus’ choice to go to Jerusalem would be confusing.  “Hey Jesus, after years of hearing our Jewish neighbours say that Jerusalem is better that Mount Gerizim, you came along and said that location doesn’t matter and we believed you but now, now you’re going to privilege Jerusalem by traveling there?”

This pilgrimage to Jerusalem might seem like a betrayal. It might very well be why they are now angry enough that they would refuse to offer Jesus hospitality.

Whatever the reason, the villages won’t receive Jesus and James and John are not impressed. They turn to Jesus and say, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (54)

Sooo… I have a couple of questions for the disciples, but the first one is: What makes James and John so sure that they are capable of calling down fire from heaven?

We don’t have any stories that indicate this is something they have ever been able to do. Calling down fire from heaven to destroy a village isn’t even something we’ve seen Jesus do, let alone one of his followers. But James and John offer to do just that as if they are sure that they can and as if they believe that Jesus will appreciate this offer. As if they are doing Jesus a favour.

It’s like they are saying, “Step aside Jesus and let us handle this one. We’ve been waiting our whole lives for a chance to smite some Samaritans.”

Where does this sort of profound confidence – overconfidence? – come from?

But there will be no burned villages or villagers this day. Jesus rebukes James and John, and their pilgrimage continues.

Incidentally, if you decide to walk the Camino de Santiago, the way of St James, it is this James’ burial space you are purported to be walking to.  He may seem like a bit of a mess now, but James does learn along the way and eventually becomes a man worthy of admiration.

As Jesus and his disciples continue their journey to Jerusalem, Luke describes a series of encounters with three different people along the way (57-62).

Now before we look at those interactions, there are a couple of things I think we need to keep in mind. Firstly, these three people are three individual people and when Jesus interacts with them, he is interacting with them as unique individuals at a unique point in his earthly ministry.

Remember that Jesus has “set his face towards Jerusalem.” He is a man with a mission that will require all of his focus and concentration. There is no time for anything or anyone who will try and distract him from doing what he knows he needs to do.

And if we want to follow him on this road, we need to be willing to be equally focused.

I had a lot of great adventures on the Camino, but I also turned down an equally large number of them because I needed to be in Santiago by a particular date. By saying “yes” to the Camino, I had to say “no” to other things.  I had to say “no” to good things, important things even, because those things conflicted with the thing I had said “yes” to.

When Jesus meets these three people along the way, they all say they want to follow him, but Jesus tests them to make sure that their “yes” is really a “yes.”  Do they understand what they will have to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to Jesus?

The first man Jesus meets says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Which is a pretty audacious statement. You’ve got to admire this guy’s confidence. Over confidence?

I mean really, you’re going to follow Jesus wherever he goes? How can you even say such a thing when you have absolutely no idea where he is going? This journey will end with death on a cross. Are you sure you’re prepared to go that far?

We make these kinds of audacious statements all the time, when we sign leases or job contracts, in church services when we say things like the creed, in marriage liturgies, ordinations….

And while it is impossible to fully understand what we are agreeing to in those moments, in a healthy process the person who we are pledging such unfailing loyalty to should do their best to let us know something of what we are getting ourselves into.

And Jesus does just that, he says to this man, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (58)

These are some of the conditions of following Jesus.  Saying “yes” to following Jesus on this pilgrim road is also saying “no” to security, safety, and stability.

Jesus directly asks the next person he meets to follow him, and this man is willing to do so, on one condition. “First let me go and bury my father.” (59)

But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (60)

That’s pretty harsh don’t you think?

Now it’s not clear what the man meant by “let me go and bury my father.” Has his father literally just died and is about to be buried?  Is he near death? Or does the man simply mean that he won’t be able to follow Jesus until some unspecified point in the future when his father is no longer living?

We don’t know.  What we do know is that it was a sacred Jewish obligation to make your father’s burial your top priority.  It was more important than even saying your daily prayers.  So Jesus’ statement that the man should let the dead bury the dead would certainly have caught people’s attention.

The man’s willingness to follow Jesus is conditional and that just doesn’t work anymore.  You can’t put something or someone ahead of Jesus. You can’t say, “My first priority is to bury my father and then I’ll follow you.”

And I think this issue, this idea of priorities is what Jesus is speaking to rather than literally condemning the importance of burying a family member.  And church tradition seems to agree.  Some of our most beautiful liturgies are our funeral liturgies.

Jesus is on an urgent, time sensitive mission.  He can’t be distracted or allow anything to get in his way, and he needs the people around him to be similarly focused.

In times like this, our priorities need to shift and some things that are normally highly valued need to be put on the back burner.

A friend of mine once said to me, “I mean, Sabbath is truly important and we should all practice it, but if your house catches fire on the Sabbath you need to stop resting and get to work getting everyone out of the house.”

Then a third person comes forward wanting to conditionally follow Jesus. “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”

I will follow you, but first let me bury my father. I will follow you, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.

Again there is a desire to follow Jesus, but not to make following Jesus the top priority.

And Jesus uses an interesting metaphor to explain why this just doesn’t work.

“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (61-62)

I’m not sure if anyone in this room has ever tried to plow a field by hand. I certainly haven’t, but basically, it’s a task that requires you to focus on where you are going, not on where you have been.  If you focus on a spot ahead of you where you intend to wind up, you can create a fairly straight row.  If you keep looking behind you, you won’t. You have to choose to keep looking forward in order to be effective.

Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem. There is no looking back, and he needs the people who will join him on this pilgrimage to have the same level of focus.

There are times to look behind you, there are times to rest and to care for your family, and there are times to set your face towards Jerusalem and make sure that nothing distracts you from that purpose.

Whenever you say “yes” to something you are inevitably saying “no” to something else.  It’s interesting to me that the only people who receives a rebuke from Jesus in this passage are the disciples who want to bring down judgement on others whose choices differ from theirs. It’s also interesting that Luke doesn’t tell us what the three men decide to do.  Do they return home to their families? Do they bury their father? Do they follow Jesus on this road to Jerusalem?

What are the things you are saying a conscious “yes” and “no” to in your life? What are you saying “yes” and “no” to without being fully aware you are doing so? Does any of that need to shift? If so how?

May you be gentle with yourself as you reflect, curious about what you discover, and inspired to say “yes”  and “no” fully and without conditions.

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

Amen.


A Sermon for Trinity Sunday: June 12, 2022

The following sermon was preached on June 12, 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 Trinity Sunday. The day when preachers all over the world say an extra prayer that they will somehow manage to avoid saying something either incomprehensible or heretical in their sermon so I thought it would be fitting to begin with a literal prayer of protection from the opening stanzas of a song written by Gayle Salmund and made popular by Steve Bell.

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

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

Amen.[1]

 

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

Father. Son. Holy Spirit.

Creator. Redeemer. Sustainer.

The three in one.

Holy and undivided.

The Trinity.

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

I still don’t really understand the Trinity, and that’s partly because the Trinity is a mystery.  You’re not supposed to be able to fully understand it, and fortunately, you don’t need to fully understand it to believe in it or appreciate it.

So many things in life come in threes.

There is the classic three point sermon. There were three Bronte Sisters, three Stooges, and three little pigs. Poutine is made up of cheese, gravy, and French Fries.

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

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

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

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

Our passage from Romans begins with the word “Therefore,” which is a clue that in order to understand what comes next, we really should look at what came before. In the section just before our reading, Paul talks about bodies, Abraham’s aging body, and Jesus’s resurrected body.

Paul concludes this discussion by saying at the start of our reading, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1). Which sounds amazing, but then Paul quickly shifts to tell us we will also suffer – it is natural and to be expected – but we can also expect that our suffering will produce good fruit like endurance, character, hope.Which sounds like good news to me, but we need to be really careful how we use passages like this from scripture, because it is so easy to take this good news and turn it into a weapon, into bad news.

If you know someone is suffering, it’s not the time to say, “Hey you’re so lucky to be suffering because it’s going to produce all kinds of good things!”

If you know you someone who is suffering, you need to either do what you can to alleviate that suffering or sit with them in that suffering.  We need to avoid adding to someone’s suffering by claiming it is good for them.

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

The Spirit helps us to begin to see as God sees.

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

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

Community can be scary, and it has the potential to make us feel both very comfortable and very uncomfortable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many of you have been part of this parish for a very long time, and I suspect that in 2019, many of you felt very comfortable here. If asked, many of you would have said that St George’s was definitely in your comfort zone.

But since that time, I know of at least two major things have caused you to shift, at least some of the time, from experiencing St George’s as a comfort zone to a slightly uncomfortable zone.

The first was the pandemic.  By March 2020, it was no longer possible for you to do all of things you normally did, the things that made you so comfortable.  Everything shifted and changed and it was, at bare minimum, pretty uncomfortable.  You weren’t even allowed to come into this building for a long time.

The second big changed occurred when Helen left to become a Bishop. She had been a part of this parish for such a long time and I suspect it felt really comfortable having her here.

But she did leave, and that might have felt… uncomfortable. And I came, and that may have felt uncomfortable as well.  And you know I will be leaving again and someone else will come and maybe that feels uncomfortable too.

Each of you would have had your own reasons for feeling uncomfortable and I can’t read all of your minds but some of you may have been uncomfortable because both the pandemic and the news that Helen was leaving meant that things would change, and change in uncomfortable.

Some of you might have felt uncomfortable when you learned that Helen was leaving because you have conflicting feelings about the situation. You were happy for her, but sad for you, sad for the parish.

Changes that make us uncomfortable, like a pandemic or saying goodbye to a priest and a friend can be really hard, and I don’t want to pretend that’s not true.

They can be so, so hard.

But, because they also move you from your comfort zone to your uncomfortable zone, they can also be really exciting, because this is sweet spot where there is tremendous opportunity to stretch and grow.  This is where there is tremendous opportunity to learn new things, to try new things, and to dream new beautiful dreams.

It can be hard, but it can also be really exciting.

It’s important to acknowledge the discomfort, the pain, and the grief that can come with an uncomfortable change.  You don’t have to pretend you are doing better than you are.

It’s also really important to pay attention to the things the change is teaching you – what new questions, new ideas, new hopes and dreams are rising up in you as you navigate through this time of transition?

And where is God in all of that? Because the God who is relationship and who desires relationship with each one of us if surely right in the middle of all of this.

God who desires good things for you and for this parish is here and is a part of all that is happening, evening the parts that currently feel uncomfortable.

Let’s circle back to our passage from Romans for a moment. Paul says that we can hope and “hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (5)

Which is such good news.

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

 

[1] https://stevebell.com/feast-of-st-patrick/


Inside Out: A Sermon for Sunday June 5, 2022

The following sermon was preached on June 5, 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 Cullan Smith 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.

There a number of funny things that happen to you when you become a pastor. First of all, you suddenly become the only person in any room who can pray out loud. Even when your pretty much a saint who has been praying her whole life grandmother is in the room.  Even then, you’ll be the one asked to say the blessing over dinner.

People also often think they have to apologize if they swear around you.

Even if you know you swear WAY more than they do.

Language is such a funny thing isn’t it?   Technically a word is just a combination of meaningless symbols and sounds. They shouldn’t have any power. It shouldn’t be possible to say that some words are bad and some are good.

But words do have tremendous power.  Words can be used to uplift, to empower, to wound, to demean. Words can used to include or exclude.

There is a reason why we need to think carefully about the words we use.

Today’s reading from Acts is one of those readings that anyone who has ever volunteered to read the Bible in public dreads.  It contains a rather impressive string of unpronounceable place names.

The reading begins, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” (1)

Pentecost was not originally a Christian holiday.  It’s a Jewish One. Pentecost is an agricultural festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It was the day when people offered the first of their crops to God, partly as an expression of gratitude, and partly as a hope that the rest of the crops will grow well so they could feed their family for the rest of the year.

Pentecost is more than just an agricultural festival.   It’s also the day that Jewish people remembered that their ancestors were once enslaved in Egypt and then were finally freed only to wander for fifty days in the wilderness before they came to Mount Sinai where Moses would speak to God directly and receive the law. The law that became a framework for the way of life that many people have been trying to follow ever since.

If you were there on the particular Pentecost that our reading from Acts describes, or if you heard that story afterwards, you would see all of these earlier stories and symbols bubbling up and colouring this experience.

I think it would still have seemed pretty bizarre. Terrifying.  Less Pentecost and more Pente-chaos.[1]

Now if you’ve been following along with the lectionary readings from Acts in the past little while you are probably noticing themes of inclusion. Story after story shows how groups of people who were once excluded are now included.  Story after story shows the early followers of Jesus beginning to become emboldened by this new way of living.

But today’s reading takes us back to an earlier time in the story, when things are a little more raw, unsettled, unclear.

Jesus had left his people in a dramatic way twice in the past little while. The first when he died and then rose again, and then, even more recently when he ascended to heaven.  Will he come back again in a few days? What is going to happen now?  No one knows and so they have all gathered together.

It’s likely that everyone is gathered in one place because there is safety in numbers. It’s likely that everyone is gathered in one place because this group of Christ followers are afraid for their lives.

But it’s also likely, that they are gathered together because rituals and traditions are powerful ways of infusing a sense of stability, a sense of normalcy into turbulent times.

And so they gather together to celebrate Pentecost, just as their ancestors had done for generations.

But they are in for a surprise.

A sound comes from heaven like the rush of a violent wind which moves and fills the entire house.  Tongues like fire appear and rest on everyone present. They are filled with the Holy Spirit and develop the ability to speak in multiple languages. (1-4)

These events were loud enough that people came from throughout Jerusalem to the house to see what had happened and pretty soon a large crowd had gathered. And each person in that crowd was shocked to discover that there was someone in the house who was able to speak to them... in their own language.  (5-8)

It made no sense.

They weren’t all suddenly able to speak the same language. They weren’t suddenly all able to speak the same language as the people inside the house. Rather, all of the insiders were given the ability to speak all of the different languages of each person in the crowd who have assembled outside the house to find out what’s going on.

This gift. This ability to speak multiple languages was given to those first followers of Jesus, but it wasn’t for them.

God was calling God’s people into a new way of living, into a new way of being.

Amy Oden explains that “This gift of the Holy Spirit that marks the birth of the church is a gift expressly for those outside the Jesus movement, those who had lived displaced in a language-world not their own. We cannot miss this! It is a spiritual gift given not for the disciples themselves, but for the outsiders listening. God’s gift reaches outward to those outside of this immediate circle of Jesus followers. It seems that one mark of the Holy Spirit’s gifting is that it empowers us to connect to others.”

One mark of the Holy Spirit is that we are empowered to connect with others, not by expecting them to learn our language and customs, but by learning theirs.

Somewhere in our history, the church lost this message. We forgot that our job is to speak in ways that other people can understand. Ways that invite them in.  Somewhere along the lines, we forgot this gift and began to believe that our beliefs, our cultural practices, and even our languages were superior to everyone else’s.  We lost this Holy Spirit mindset in favour of a colonial one.

Seven years ago I spent a couple of months in Spain and I came to love the lispy lilting sounds of the particular type of Spanish that is spoken there.

But when I came back to Canada and began to study the language with a teacher from Mexico, I realized that the sounds that were so comforting to me, were a reminder of colonial oppression to him.  When the Spanish explorers first came to his country they came to dominate it, and the Christian religion and the Spanish language were two of their most powerful tools of oppression. The colonial enterprise was successful – like most other people from Mexico he speaks Spanish - but his accent is not the accent of colonial Spain and his feelings about that country are infinitely more complicated than mine.

The same thing happened here in Canada, as indigenous people were forbidden to speak their own languages and forced to learn English and French.

Which is the exact opposite of what happens in our reading.  The outsiders who rush to the house to find out what’s happening don’t first have to learn the insider’s language in order to do so. Instead, the insiders are given the ability to speak to everyone in their own languages.

And when they are caught up in the work of the spirit, they naturally turn outward, to those who have not yet been formally included and begin to share this good news in languages they can understand.  It is the work of the insider to translate and speak in a way that can be understood, not the other way around.” (Amy Oden)

A gift given for the sake of others is an odd thing, a threatening thing even, and not everyone who witnesses these events celebrates them.

Luke writes, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” (12-13)

Whenever we encounter something new, something we cannot understand, we face a strong temptation to judge.  To restore our sense of comfort and stability by saying that there is something wrong with this new thing.

Those who sneered and said, “They’re drunk,” could walk away riding the high of smug self-righteousness.  But in doing so, they lost out on the chance to be transformed by this new thing.

Lost out at least for that moment, because the welcoming work of the Spirit means there is always time for a second, third, or three hundredth chance.

Judgement shuts down communication. It shuts down learning. It’s a barrier to relationship and community.

A better way to respond is to resist judgement and lean into curiosity instead. To ask good, open ended questions. Questions like, “What does this mean?”

The people were not drunk. God was doing a new thing. Those who were curious enough to ask would begin to discover just what that was.

Pentecost is sometimes called the birthday of the church - we don’t, but some churches will even wheel out a birthday cake and sing happy birthday to the church today.

Today is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, but the church that was birthed on this day had a particular character of openness and inclusion. Sadly the church has not always lived up to those values.

So when some people have decided that the people gathered are drunk, others ask, “What does it mean?”  and to this question, Peter replies: “Indeed these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning.” (15)

Which is a fantastic detail if you ask me.

I also think it’s sad that this is a detail of our story that we haven’t chosen to commemorate liturgically.  Can you imagine it?  What if we celebrated the birthday of the church by making sure we’re all out in public at 9:00 in the morning engaging in acts of barrier breaking love for people we do not know that the most logical thing that people witnessing the spectacle can conclude is that we’re drunk?

So Peter explains, “They’re not drunk,” and then he quotes from the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.

The Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, everyone is to be included – young and old, women and men, slave and free.  Everyone will prophesy, everyone will speak God’s word into being.  Peter wants everyone to know that on that day, the things Joel said would happen are in fact happening.

On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit’s arrival declared in no uncertain terms that anyone who wants to follow Jesus can follow Jesus. Just as they are. The Spirit came to break down barriers, not to build them.

Vance Morgan writes, “God wants human beings to cooperate and communicate effectively. Furthermore, our ability to do so is a divine gift. Whenever we overcome the vast differences that separate us, differences too many to count, the divine is present. Whenever human beings connect, not by eliminating differences but rather by finding commonality, enhanced and deepened by our diverse perspectives and experiences, God is there. The divine strategy, culminating in Pentecost, is simple and profound…

Pentecost also tells us that the divine solution to our failure to understand each other is not conformity, getting everyone on the same page and believing the same thing. Everyone did not miraculously start speaking the same language at Pentecost, as humans did at the start of the Babel story. Each person retained their language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in their own tongue. God met everyone exactly where they were, as the divine continues to do.”

God desires to meet us where we are at and God desires that we, empowered by the Spirit, would do the same for others.

May it be so. In the name of our God who creates, redeems, and sustains.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Thanks for Nadia Bolz Weber for this term.


Always Room for More: A Sermon for Sunday May 8, 2022

The following sermon was preached on May 8, 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.

Today is the fourth Sunday in the Easter season and this Sunday is commonly referred to as Good Shepherd Sunday.  All of today’s readings focus on the image of Christ as the Good Shepherd.

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

Psalm 23 paints a beautiful picture of God’s abundance.

We lie down in green pastures, we walk beside quiet waters.   Our heads are anointed with oil, our souls are refreshed, our cup overflows and we feast at a table lovingly prepared for us.

We can walk through the darkest valley without fear, and proclaim confidently that “surely goodness and mercy will follow [us] all the days of our [lives.]

This is a beautiful picture of life with the Good Shepherd.

But what happens if we’re not sure who the shepherd is?  What happens if we’re not sure who the sheep are?

The psalmist confidently proclaims, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Cool. But is that an exclusionary claim?  Can Christ be my shepherd and your shepherd too?”

The psalmist doesn’t answer that question, but Jesus does.  Throughout the gospels, Jesus describes himself as a shepherd and whenever he talks about sheep it’s pretty clear that it’s not a hard club to get into. Anyone who wants to be a sheep, can be a sheep.

In the section just before today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells the people he is speaking to that all it takes to be a sheep is the decision to follow. Anyone who wants to can be a sheep. And in fact, there are more sheep than they can even imagine, including some they haven’t met yet. Sheep that Jesus intends to collect and bring back to the sheepfold so that they will all be one sheepfold under one shepherd. (10:16)

The idea of a more diverse, integrated sheepfold leads to a variety of responses from the crowd.   Some people believe. Some people speculate that Jesus might be mad or demon possessed. (19)

This is the context for today’s gospel reading which begins, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter,  and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” (22-23) The festival of the Dedication was established to commemorate the rededication of the Second Temple and is still celebrated today, although you may know it as Hanukah.

People began to gather around Jesus and impatiently ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.  (24-25)

I hear an edge of frustration in Jesus’ voice.  Tell you plainly? Tell you plainly?  I have told you plainly and you didn’t listen.  I have also done things in my Father’s name that make it clear who I am and you still don’t believe me. The debate you are having amongst yourselves about my identity will not end because of anything I say or do this day. Why should I try again?

But then, instead of walking off in disgust like I would, he tries again.

Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (28)

I used to have a dog named Oliver and when Oliver was a puppy, I would take him 4 or 5 times a week to Little Mountain Dog Park.  We both loved it, he could run and play with other dogs and I could walk at a leisurely pace through the woods and then return home with a tired puppy.  It felt holy and miraculous every time.

The paths through the woods were often fairly solitary but at various points they would open up into larger fields where we’d sometimes come upon dozens of dogs and dog owners.

Oliver would race off to play and I’d stand on the edge of the field with the other humans.  It was a loud, boisterous environment, but I was always amazed how his ears would perk up when I whistled or shouted a command.

He knew my voice.

He didn’t always listened to it, if he was having fun playing my shout of “come” was taken as more of a suggestion than anything else, but I could always tell he heard me, even if he didn’t obey.

I love that in the passage, Jesus says, My sheep hear my voice” not “My sheep listen to my voice” or “my sheep obey my voice.”  (27)

Oliver also rarely, if ever, walked beside me at the dog park.

But even though he was not attached to me by a physical leash, I often marvelled that he seemed to have an innate sense of an invisible leash, of an acceptable distance to be from me.  He would trot happily ahead of me at that distance for as long as I would let him, but if he got a bit further ahead than that, he would look behind himself and stop until I came a bit closer.

And on more than one occasion on our walks, I thought about today’s gospel reading.

And I thought about how, just like my dog, I rarely walk lock step with Jesus, I like to run ahead and explore, and like my dog, I don’t always listen when I hear Christ’s voice.

Sometimes, I choose to trust that my sense of what is good and fair and right is better than Jesus’.

I do it, but I don’t recommend it.

It’s not always out of sheer defiance. Unlike my dog who seemed to be very adept at distinguishing my whistle from other whistles, I’m often unsure of whether or not the voice I am hearing actually belongs to God.

Everyday I am bombarded by thousands of messages about how to live “my best life.”  There are so many voices that claim to speak for God.

They tell me that I will be worthy when I believe the right things and behave in the right ways.  And they tell me exactly what to believe and how to behave to earn their favour.

But as Elisabeth Johnson observes, that’s just not how Jesus works.

“… the Good Shepherd tells us that everything depends on belonging to him. Never does our status before God depend on how we feel, on having the right experience, on being free of doubt, or on what we accomplish. It depends on one thing only: that we are known by the shepherd: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish” (John 10:28).

The voice of the Good Shepherd is a voice that liberates rather than oppresses. It does not say, “Do this, and then maybe you will be good enough to be one of my sheep.” It says, “You belong to me already. No one can snatch you out of my hand.”

You belong to God already. No one can snatch you out of God’s hand. No one. (28)

I love imagining myself sitting in the palm of God’s hand. It’s beautiful and it’s comforting, but as far as I can tell, it’s also deeply threatening to some people.

I mean, it’s logical, isn’t it, to view the space in God’s hand as finite. There is only so much room to go around and so if there is going to be enough room for me, then someone else is going to have to be excluded.

So maybe I should try and push other people out of God’s hand to make sure there is enough room for me.  And if I can’t push them out, then at least I can push those folks as far away as possible. Right out to the margins. Right out to the tips of God’s fingers.

But that’s not how God’s economy works. We don’t have to fight for space. We all fit with room to spare.

We all fit in God’s hand, but folks who are locked into this scarcity mentality can do a tremendously good job of pushing other people out of earthly institutions, out of churches.

If you don’t look, think, act, or love in ways that make them comfortable, then you aren’t welcome.

It is human beings who are obsessed with determine who is in and who is out, who is excluded and who is included. God is only every interested in including people.

After years of regular visits to the sacred space of the dog park, Oliver and I stopped going because we had some bad experiences.  One that required us to rush off to the vet for a surgery that left him with a long scar. My anxiety that it might happen again was just as real, if less visible.

We stopped viewing the dog park as a place to make friends. We both began to view it as a place where we had been hurt, and might be hurt again. So we stopped going.

Now it’s not a perfect metaphor – a church is not a dog park - but think about what it must feel like to be a person who – for whatever reason – has been made to feel unwelcome in the church.    Some of you don’t have to imagine it, you know exactly what it feels like.

But hear this good news.  Hear it as encouragement if you feel excluded. Hear is as a challenge to all the ways we exclude others.

Human beings can push people to the margins, we can make them feel so unwelcome in our churches that they never come back, but we can never, ever snatch them out of Christ’s hand.

On May 4th, 2019, one of my heroes, Rachel Held Evans, died suddenly. I think about her fairly regularly, but especially around the anniversary of her death.

She courageously and unequivocally declared that God’s love included everyone. Everyone.

She had been a model evangelical Christian for most of her early life before leaving the church entirely only to discover that no matter how far away she ran, she was still in God’s hand.  When she eventually returned to her faith and to the church she insisted that the folks she had met on the margins – the people who doubted, the women who believed God has called them to lead, people of colour and folks in the LGBTQ+ community – she insisted they were welcome to come with her.

Rachel helped to curate a series of conferences and invited people who couldn’t shake Jesus’ voice but also had been made to feel unwelcome in the institutional church to come together and discover they were not alone and in doing so, they became a community.  I went to every single one of those conferences.

Rachel’s legacy lives on in her writing, in the communities of faith she created, and in her family.  It brought tears to my eyes when I realized that this year and every year her two young children celebrate Mother’s Day without their Mom.

But I know that while her children will almost undoubtedly be lonely, they will not be alone, because the community of faith that she worked so tirelessly to create surrounds them.   They are safe in God’s hands.

I want to end with one of the most popular and most powerful things that Rachel ever said:

“This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”

In a few minutes we will gather around Christ’s table.  Christ sets the guest list and declares that everyone, everyone is welcome.

There is always room for more. So come.

Amen.


The Worst Thing You Ever Did: A Sermon for Sunday May 1, 2022

The following sermon was preached on May 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 Benjamin DeYoung on Unsplash

 

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

Today’s gospel reading is from the last chapter of John’s gospel. In this chapter, John expects you to remember a lot of details about things that have happened earlier in the story.

For example, this story takes place in Cana. The same place as Jesus’ first miracle. We are ending where we began.

There are a lot of other recurring themes, like fishing, not catching any fish and then catching more fish than anyone could possibly need.  The abundance of fish also reminds us of the abundance of wine in Jesus’ first miracle in Cana.

So in some ways this story feels familiar but not necessarily predictable. We see common places and common themes we’ve encountered before in the gospels but it’s also common for Jesus to subvert our expectations.

At the start of the story, the disciples have returned to the things of their ordinary pre-Jesus lives, like fishing.

The fear that left them hiding in locked rooms seems to have dissipated, and they are trying to figure out how to exist in this new normal.

The scene feels humorous to me.  After all of the extraordinary events of Holy Week, after hiding in a locked room, after seeing Jesus resurrected, Peter looks around and says, “Might as well go fishing.” (paraphrase, 3)

So they go fishing, and Jesus appears on the shore and begins to talk to them but they don’t recognize him right away. Jesus asks if they have caught any fish, they say no, and then Jesus tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  They obey and their nets become so full of fish they can’t even pull them into the boat.

Then John, who is still referring to himself as “the disciple who Jesus loved” turns to Peter and says, “It is the Lord!” (7)

In her commentary on the gospel of John, Karoline Lewis notes that John uses imagery of nighttime to symbolize unbelief, and daytime to symbolize belief. So it is interesting that this story begins in the dark of night, and ends in the early morning light.  (254).

As the scene moves from darkness to light, from unbelief, to belief, Peter realizes that Jesus is on the shore and then he behaves in ways that we have come to expect from Peter – he is impulsive, exuberant.

First of all, he has been fishing naked and then he decides to put clothes on to jump in the water. (8) Both feel like unusual choices to me.

I would want to meet Jesus fully clothed and I would be excited to see him but I would also want to be dry so I might take a more practical approach and stay in the boat until we could get to shore.

But if you have been following the gospel story this far then you know that Peter is an impulsive person. He sees Jesus and he’s going to rush to see him as quickly as possible - even if that means jumping into the water and swimming the hundred yards or so to shore.

We aren’t told but I suspect that at least one of the other men in the boat was annoyed that Peter wasn’t helping them as they made the responsible choice to bring the boat and the net full of fish to shore. (8)

A little later we will learn that they caught 153 fish. (11).  This large number of fish is a symbol of abundance and a reminder that abundance is always a sign of Christ’s presence.  Where Christ is, there is always more than enough.

When they arrive on shore Jesus has bread and a fire started where he is grilling fish. Where he got these particular fish is unclear. (9) It seems he has already started cooking them before the disciples arrive on shore with their catch.

Jesus invites them to join him for breakfast and we are told that, “none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. Then Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.” (12-14)

Now I don’t know about you, but I think it’s interesting which things from Jesus’ life that the church has chosen to remember and incorporate into modern worship practices. On Maundy Thursday we wash each other’s feet because Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.   We share bread and wine because Jesus shared bread and wine.

But I have never been to a church service where I was served bread and grilled fish.

Have you?

What do you think? Should we try wine and fish sticks next Sunday?

After breakfast, Jesus turns to Peter and begins a conversation. In order to understand this conversation it’s important to be familiar with some events that occurred earlier in the story.

Earlier in John’s gospel there is a story where, shortly after Jesus is arrested,  Peter and another disciple go with Jesus to the courtyard of the high priest. (18:15)   We are told that there is a charcoal fire in the courtyard and as Peter is standing near it warming himself he will be asked the same question three times:  Are you one of Jesus’ disciples?

And three times Peter will give the same answer: “No I am not.”

I wonder how many times this scene has rolled around in Peter’s mind since it happened? I wonder how much shame he has been feeling for his choice to deny Jesus not just once, but three times.

I imagine that every time Peter has seen Jesus since he was resurrected, this shame has bubbled up. I imagine he is afraid of what Jesus must think of him. I imagine he feels confused about what he should say and what he should do.

The shame puts a barrier between Peter and Jesus.

But now here they are eating breakfast together, and Jesus wants to talk.

And John wants us to know that they are sitting around a charcoal fire.

The only two events in this entire gospel that occur around a charcoal fire are Peter’s denial of Jesus and this conversation.  John links these two stories and we are supposed to look for connections.

In the first story, Peter is repeatedly asked if he is a follower of Jesus, and he repeatedly denies it.  In today’s story, Peter’s loyalty to Jesus will once again be questioned, but this time by Jesus himself.

Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” (15)

And Peter responds, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”

And then Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.”

We’re not told how much time passes after Jesus says this. Is there a long stretch of silence or does Jesus launch in immediately to ask a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (16)

Jesus will ask Peter this same question three times, “Do you love me?” and each time Peter will reply, “you know I love you.”

Jesus asks three times, which mirrors the three times that Peter denied Jesus.

Last time Peter denied Jesus, but this time he says again and again and again, “I love you.”

And three times after Peter’s response Jesus will ask Peter to do something – the request varies slightly – feed my lambs, tend my sheep, feed my sheep – but the meaning is the same.  Jesus – the great shepherd – is asking Peter to be an active participant in the care of the flock.

Prior to Jesus’ death, Peter thought he understood what it meant to follow Jesus. Prior to Jesus’ death following Jesus was something Peter wanted to do and something he felt he was capable of doing.

But when Jesus was arrested, fear overtook him, and a drive towards self protection took over and Peter denied that he even knew who Jesus was.

In this conversation, Jesus is making sure that Peter knows that he is forgiven, that the denial does not disqualify Peter from service.  Jesus still wants Peter to be one of his disciples.

This would be a beautiful place to end the reading, it would be a story of redemption, of restored relationships, of Jesus’ deep and powerful love, but it’s not the end of today’s reading or this story.

Jesus is asking Peter if he still wants to be one of his disciples, while also making it clear what that really means – are you willing to do whatever it takes to follow me, even if it means you will lose your own life?

Prior to his death and resurrection this may have felt like an abstract question, something that probably wouldn’t really happen, something it was relatively easy for Peter to agree to.

But things have changed, recent events have made it clear to Peter that the choice to follow Jesus could mean he too will be crucified.

And now Jesus will tell Peter that this is not just a possibility, it is exactly what Peter can expect will happen if he chooses to continue to follow Jesus.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (18)

John tells us that Jesus said this so that Peter would know, “the kind of death by which he would glorify God.” (19)

The last line of the reading is, “After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

Which is exactly what Peter does. Peter will continue to follow Jesus until his death.  Christian tradition says that Peter was crucified upside-down because he didn’t want to be killed in the exact manner that Jesus was.

This story raises a lot of great questions that are worth spending time thinking about. Questions like, “In the light of this story, how do I understand what it means to follow Jesus today?” or “Would I be willing to die for what I believe?”

Good questions, but the part of the story I have spent a lot of time thinking about this week is connected to the fact that Jesus didn’t think that Peter’s choice to deny him disqualified him from service.

Jesus looked at Peter, knew everything he has ever done, and still said, “feed my lambs.”

That gives me a lot of hope.  Because if only perfect people can serve God then there is no hope for me.

None of us are as bad as the worst thing we have ever done, and in God’s economy there is always room for hope, forgiveness and new life.

And that’s good news.

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


Just Breathe: A Sermon for Sunday April 24, 2022

The following sermon was preached on April 24, 2022 at St George's Transcona's service for Easter Sunday. You can learn more about St George's and find links to their YouTube channel by clicking here. Photo by Nick Nice on Unsplash

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

Today’s gospel passage opens with the description of some very anxious individuals.

The story begins on the evening of Easter Sunday.  Jesus has risen, some of the disciples have seen him but they are still filled with fear, doubts, and anxious thoughts.

They are so scared, in fact, that they are hiding in a locked room terrified that there are people preparing crosses for them at that very moment.

It is easy for us to judge the disciples at this point in the story because we know how it all turns out. But try to put yourself in their position for a moment.  Imagine living through the events we commemorate during Holy Week with no real certainty of how things will turn out. Imagine living through those events with a strong sense that if the leaders of the day could crucify Jesus, then surely they would have no problem killing you as well.

I’d like to believe I’d be courageous and steadfast but the truth is I’d probably be anxiously locked in that room with the rest of the group. And like Thomas, I would need to see Jesus with my own eyes and touch him with my own hands.

John tells us, “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” (19)

Think about that for a minute. It doesn’t say that they heard a knock at the door and when they opened it Jesus was there. It says that the disciples were in a locked room because they were afraid and Jesus just.. appeared. One minute Jesus was absent and in the next “poof” he’s standing in front of them.

It’s fair to imagine that the tired, beleaguered, anxious disciples can now add shocked to the list of emotions they are experiencing.  This kind of shock would be enough to take your breath away.

Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. “ (19b-22)

One of my favourite definitions of a priest’s role is that they are to seek to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. This is exactly what Jesus embodies in this moment.  When he says, “Peace be with you,” I imagine the subtext is “calm down, I am really here and all is well.”

Peace be with you.

John tells us that Jesus’ presence fills the disciples with joy - Jesus’ presence transforms their fear and anxiety into joy and peace.

Jesus’ presence transformed their fear and anxiety into joy and peace, but it wasn’t a permanent transformation.  Some of these disciples had seen Jesus on Easter Sunday, but they were still fearful enough to be hiding in a locked room.  Jesus appears to them in that locked room and tells them to be at peace, but eight days later, they are still hiding out in that room. (26)

A single encounter with Jesus can change a life forever, and I have no doubt that these disciples were changed by all of these events. But an encounter with Jesus doesn’t erase our humanity and so doubt and fear can easily creep back in. This is one of the reasons that spiritual disciplines like prayer and meeting for worship are so important – they continually call us back to Jesus.

Why does Jesus breathe on the disciples? Doesn’t that seem like a rather odd thing to do?

I find the intimacy of this astonishing – breathtaking even. In some Christian traditions, people have modeled this behavior in their worship practices by breathing on each other. Can you imagine if instead of a handshake we breathed peace on one another during worship?

I couldn’t imagine this before COVID, and I definitely can’t imagine it now!

It’s an amazingly intimate action. Jesus, who had drawn his last breath in the presence of John and the female disciples, Jesus whose lifeless breathless body was laid in a tomb for several days, has been brought back to life.  Jesus who breathed his last on the cross is now alive and breathing again. And this resurrected living and breathing Jesus comes and breathes on the disciples.

Breathing is something we spend an inordinate amount of time doing- we breathe approximately 23 000 times a day.

Breathing is something we spend a lot of time doing but very little time thinking about.  Maybe we think about it more now that we are living with COVID, but certainly we don’t think about breathing as often as we actually need to breathe.

Some Christians even get anxious if we begin to talk about breathing because it seems like a new age or un-Christian thing to focus on.

And yet breathing is a major focus in the scriptures. If you want to engage in an interesting exercise this week, do a search and go through all of the passages in Scripture that talk about breath or breathing -you’ll have more than enough material to keep you busy all week.

It is, however, a tricky assignment because it is difficult to accurately count all the references to breath in the Bible.  The Greek word for breath is “pneuma.”  Our English word “pneumonia” – a sickness that affects your ability to breathe – comes from the same root word.

Pneuma can also mean wind or spirit.  The same is also true in Hebrew.

The same Hebrew word (ruach) means wind, breath, and spirit.

Now it may sound confusing to have one word that can mean three different things, but the ideas of wind, breath, and spirit were also interconnected and interchangeable. They didn’t draw clear distinctions between these ideas like we do today.

In our passage, pneuma is translated as “receive the Holy spirit”, but when John wrote those words he knew that the people he was writing to would hear all of the possible meanings in that one word. (22)

They would hear, “Receive the holy spirit” and “Receive the holy wind,” and “Receive the holy breath.” The concepts of breath, wind and Holy Spirit were that closely linked for John’s original audience.

Later in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit will come in a windstorm. (Acts 2:1)

God breathing into the world is a powerful, important image. God breathes life in creation as recorded in Genesis, and God breathes and resurrects life in Ezekiel. The Holy Breath, the Holy Wind, the Holy Spirit. The breath that comes to the breathless. And here again in John, breathing is the way new life comes. This time it’s Jesus breathing into the disciples so that they receive the Holy Spirit.

Henri Nouwen wrote, "When we speak about the Holy Spirit, we speak about the breath of God, breathing in us."

When we breathe – a largely unconscious action -, we are at the most basic level acknowledging the life-giving presence of God with us. God who is as near to us as our next breath. Every breath we take is an opportunity to connect us with God. Every breath we take can be a prayer.

Breathing may seem like a ridiculous focus for prayer. Yet scripture presents breath as the fundamental metaphor for the spirit of God.

For a number of years during Advent, I engaged in a prayer practice that required me to stop, breathe and acknowledge God’s presence every time I find myself waiting. Waiting in line at the grocery store, at a stop light, waiting for a computer program to load. Advent is a season of waiting, and I always find plenty of opportunities to engage in this practice throughout the season.

Although that Advent exercise is over, I am still trying to incorporate an awareness of breathing in my prayer life. There are a lot of different ways to do this and time won’t allow us to get into them, but I am trying to remember that God is breath, that God gives breath and is breath, to remember that God breathes through me, sustains me with breath, and that I somehow am participating in that sustaining with God.

How many of you have houses that aren’t as dry as you’d like them to be today?

Me too.

Last night I heard the drip drip drip of water coming from the ceiling and instantly I sprang into full panic mode.  My whole body tensed up and I began running around and my mind launched into full on anxiety thinking: How much damage will this cause? Is the whole roof leaking? Where are the other leaks? Is the house going to fall down? I can’t handle this! How will I pay for this!

And then suddenly I stopped, sat down, and made myself breath deeply. I sat like that for only maybe 30 seconds or so but it was enough to calm me down and help me regroup.

I will be OK.  This may be hard but I can handle it.  Now go get the towels and the recycling bin and get to work.

I am sure that that pause, that time of deep breathing actually meant I was not only able to respond to the situation more effectively, but also my response was faster and more efficient than my initial reactivity.

Another important thing to realize about today’s gospel story is that Jesus breathes on the disciples together – as a group. The Spirit is given to the community of believers.  I think each of these people has the choice to consent – to believe or not believe, but the gift is given to everyone at once. This is not happening in isolation, this is part of a bigger picture. The Holy Spirit isn’t just being given to Jesus’ favourite disciple or a select few, Jesus breathes the Spirit into all of them.

The same is true today. In today’s gospel text,  in the Book of Acts, and in our present day the Holy Spirit is given to all of us together, not just select individuals.

How do we collectively breathe in the Holy Spirit? Maybe it’s a process that happens when two or three or thirty are gathered together in Jesus’ name. Maybe even as we’ve been sitting here we are breathing in the Holy Spirit, maybe the Spirit is filling our lungs with life at this very moment. Jesus permeating every particle of us. Jesus being incorporated into us, being transformed into energy. Jesus coming out of our very fingertips. Maybe we’ve been doing this all along without even realizing it.

Here’s another important thing to remember. Have you ever tried to hold your breath? You can be successful for a short period of time, but eventually your body takes over and you have exhale.

We can’t simply breathe in God’s presence. We also need to breath God back out again. We can’t keep this all for ourselves but rather breathing out God’s love to everyone we meet needs to become a natural as breathing in God’s love.

I’m not sure where your growth edge is on this. Some of us find it easier to show love to others than to accept that God also loves us. Some of us try to hold God’s love in – afraid that if we share it with others there might not be enough for us.

Ultimately health and balance come from doing both. From breathing God’s love in and out with equal measure. Breathing deeply, without fear that we will ever run out of air. Trusting that in God’s economy there is always more than enough.

Let’s pray:

Lord hear us breathing together.

We are breathing in your peace.

Lord, hear us breathing together.

Help us to breathe out your peace this week.

Amen.