Nevertheless She Persisted: A Sermon for Sunday October 20, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, October 20, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

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

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

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

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

Be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable.

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

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

But she didn’t stop.

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

But she didn’t stop.

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

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

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

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

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

I know this in part because I received all sorts of things that say “Nevertheless she persisted” last year as ordination gifts.

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

Nevertheless she persisted.

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

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

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

“In the ancient Jewish law court… If someone had stolen from you, you had to bring a charge against them; you couldn’t get the police to do it for you. If someone had murdered a relative of yours, the same would be true. So every legal case in Jesus’ day was a matter of a judge deciding to vindicate one party or the other: “vindication” or “justification” here means upholding their side of the story, deciding in their favour. This word “justification” which we meet a lot in Paul but hardly ever in the gospels, means exactly this: that the judge finds in one’s favour at the end of the case.” (212)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike and I recently got a puppy, and it’s incredibly difficult to maintain boundaries and establish good behaviours when you’re confronted by persistent whining and begging. Even if you know you’re right, even if you know that giving in to that whining will set a really bad precedent that will only create more problems in the future, it doesn’t take that long to feel completely worn down to the point that you’re willing to do whatever it is the puppy wants you to do so long as he just stops whining and gives you a moment of peace.

Usually he wants belly rubs or treats, not justice in a court of law, but still, persistent whining will make you do things you wouldn’t normally do.

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

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

So who is this widow with the boxing gloves anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How does this parable reinforce this idea?

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

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

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

I spend a fair amount of time talking to people about prayer. Together we try to figure out what prayer is and how it fits into our lives. One of the most common things we have to work through is our tendency to have a narrow view of prayer.

We tend to think that prayer is a thing that only happens when we are on our knees with our hands folded, or in church.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you know what that feels like.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So don’t lose heart. Just keep fighting.

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

Missing, Finding, Partying: A Sermon for Sunday September 15, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 8, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why does Jesus bother to associate with them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is not what would have happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a logical thing to do.

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

No shepherd in her right mind would do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what on earth is Jesus getting at?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Jesus does.

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

May we hear and accept Jesus’ invitation. Because it’s a shame to miss a good party.

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


[1]Thanks for NT Wright for this image.

One Thing More: A Sermon for Sunday September 8, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 8, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of 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 tonight, 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, “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 on 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.

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.

As I mentioned last week, 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 wrong 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)

As 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 couple 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 including 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 was also aware 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 legacy of slavery and racism were impacting our relationship.  His fear was reasonable, and routed 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 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.

And 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.

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.

Let Mutual Love Continue: A Sermon for Sunday September 1, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, September 1, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

Sex, power, money, suffering, and Jesus. These are some of the key themes in today’s reading from Hebrews. Oh, and hospitality. Hospitality is definitely in there as well. Hospitality is also a key theme in our gospel reading. As it is throughout the entire Bible.

The Greek word that is usually translated into English as “hospitality” (philoxenia)literally means “love of the strange,” which is a lot more challenging than the definition I suspect most North Americans think of when they hear the word “hospitality”: this event will have coffee and doughnuts.

Hospitality is a practice that opens us up to “love the strange,” to love people and things that are different than the people and things we are used to, and our reading from Hebrews contains a number of examples of how to practice hospitality.

And I do mean practice. Hospitality isn’t a theory, or a value, or an abstract idea. It’s a practice. Something you do.

The reading begins, “Let mutual love continue,” and then the writer of Hebrews provides us with a list of ways to do just that. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it includes a call to love strangers, to care for prisoners, to honour marriage, and to resist the temptation to fall in love with money.  (1-4)

Timothy L Adkins -Jones notes that the common theme in this list is the importance of “building solidarity in relationships. Mutual love means sharing power. Following a Saviour has been defined throughout [Hebrews] by the sacrifice that [Jesus] represents for us all, we are called then to join in the sacrifice of our own position in order to build relationships. The host must put themselves on the same level as those that they host, seeing to the needs of those that enter their home before their own. Those that are free must put themselves in the position of those that are imprisoned.”

And not just to make sure the needs of people who are in prison are provided for as a tasteless chore you can perform at a distance and then check off your to do list.  The writer of Hebrews challenges us to remember people who are in prison as if we were in prison too. It’s a call to empathy, to feel their pain as if it was our own and then to act.

Roman prisons were more like detention centers where people who had been accused of actions worthy of punishment waited until their fate was determined. Oftentimes, they were not provided with the basic necessities required to survive while they waited – food, clothing etc.  They had to rely on people’s hospitality in order to survive.

It would be wonderful if we could simply say that that was then and this is now, but we know that these sorts of practices are happening at this very moment. People who have been accused of a crime often wait incredibly long amounts of time before their trial and the news has been full of horrific accounts of people and children – children – being housed in cages at the U.S. border without access to basic hygiene and other necessities of life.

And it’s not just in the United States, recently at Theology by the Glass we discussed an article that looked at the Canadian prison system and some of the ways we also fail to provide people who are incarcerated with the basic things they need to live as well.

The writer of Hebrews is calling us to express mutual love for people in prison.  To care for them as we would want to be cared for. As if we were caring for ourselves.

It’s easier to look away, to pretend these things aren’t happening. It’s easy to try and distance ourselves by making blanket statements about “those people” or suggesting “they all deserve it” but in doing do, we are suggesting that some lives matter more than others, and we are missing out on the strange and difficult but heartbreakingly beautiful things that happen when we “let mutual love continue.”

Show hospitality. Care for prisoners. Respect marriage.

What does the writer of Hebrews mean when they say, “Let marriage be held in honour by all?”

They probably meant a lot of things, but there are two I want to mention tonight.

The first, is that in a patriarchal heteronormative culture the call that marriage is to be honoured “by all” is a radical statement that levels the hierarchical nature of traditional relationships between men and women.  This verse is in a list of calls to action that began with the words, “Let mutual love continue.” Mutual love. Men are being called to honour women and women to honour men. Equally. That is a huge deal.

Secondly, we are told that God will judge those who do not honour marriage. God will judge. It’s God job, and we should be wary of any attempts, by ourselves or others, to take on that role for ourselves.

And the work of mutual love, of showing hospitality, caring for prisoners, respecting relationships, those really should keep us busy enough that we should be delighted that we don’t also have to bear the burden of judgement, we should be happy that this task has been delegated to God because we have enough on our plates as it is.

And we haven’t even gotten through the entire list yet.

The list continues, “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have…” (5)

Loving God and loving people instead of loving money is always good advice. The phrasing, “keep your lives free from the love of money” points to what we experience when we love money – we are no long free, we are enslaved.

The call to “be content with what you have,” is also good advice. Our society’s drive that nothing is ever good enough is exhausting and unhealthy and also enslaves us.  The drive for more status and more money and more stuff is killing us and our planet.

But in our unequal system one person’s love of money typically also enslaves other people and in that context, the meaning of these verses can be twisted in an attempt to maintain that inequality.

In a consumer society most of us can learn to be more content with what we have, but this call to “be content with what you have,” has also been used to tell enslaved people that they should not fight for freedom, or women who make less than their male colleagues that they should not demand equal pay, or people who work in sweatshops to take whatever they are given without complaining and in those contexts, it is perfectly acceptable to say, “No, I am not content because what is happening to me is not right.”

It’s easy, when we don’t consider relationships, when we don’t “let mutual love continue,” to think only about how our choices benefit us. I mean, shouldn’t we simply buy the cheapest coffee we can find or the coffee we think tastes best? Do we really need to worry about the working conditions of the people who are growing that coffee or the effects it is having on the environment?

Those are questions that are much easier to ask so long as our products are made in places far away that we will never visit by faceless, nameless people we will never meet. But what if we did meet them? Would we be able to look the poorest of the poor in the eyes and tell them, “be content with what you have?” Would we see the way they live and still be able to go back to our own consumptive lifestyles.

American writer and activist Christopher Heuertz tells the following story in a book he co-wrote with Christine Pohl called “Friendship at the Margins:”

Christopher had travelled to South India and was enjoying lunch with a family he had first met about fifteen years previous when he was doing development work in the area.  He used to play with the children and was often invited to join the family for a meal or to share a cup of tea on the dirt floor of their home. Gradually, he began to feel like he was a part of their family.

On this particular return visit, the oldest daughter in the family, Sujana, noticed the shirt Christopher was wearing, a red button down he had purchased at the Gap.   “I think I made that,” she said and sure enough, the label read, “Made in India.”

Sujana was very proud of her work and asked how much Christopher had paid for the shirt.  “My heart sank,” he wrote, “I felt ashamed and uncomfortable. I knew that the forty dollars I had paid for that shirt was more than she earns in an entire month… Sujana and her sisters work for pennies an hour to clothe folks who can spend between $40 and $120 on a shirt… The global economics are complicated, but it is not hard to see that the overall system is still dependent on plundering the poorest.”

Christopher had come to love that family, but he could see that many of his spending choices were not reflective of that love.  Was there anything that he could do to “let mutual love continue?”

Like more than one billion of our global neighbours, Sujana and her family live on less than a dollar a day.  Christopher reflected that he found it hard “to comprehend their precarious economic situation. They are so hospitable, gracious and strong while they are also desperately poor.”

And somehow, when it’s a billion people, it’s easy to distance ourselves from the situation, but when Christopher was sitting with a child he loved who proudly proclaimed that she had made his shirt, he could no longer look away.

I think this is why the writer of Hebrews challenges us to do things like care for prisoners as if we were in prison ourselves, we need to break down the barriers of distance that allow us to dehumanize other people.

What Chris chose to do in order to live in “mutual love” with Sujana and her family is intriguing and encouraging.  He didn’t start sewing all of his own clothes, he did try a few things that failed. He bought stock in the Gap hoping to give the profits to Sujana and her family but the stock actually lost money.

Then on a subsequent trip to India, he asked Sujana and her sisters about their jobs.   Sujana and her sister Bhindu had been working at the garment factory at that point for ten years, they worked ten hours a day, six days a week and made roughly the equivalent of  twenty-six cents an hour. One of their younger sisters, who had only been working at the factory for about four years, made twenty two cents an hour. They didn’t just make clothes for the Gap, but for a long list of major retailers, so the solution wasn’t just to boycott the Gap and shop elsewhere either.

The girls were also grateful for those jobs since even that meager pay is more than they would make doing just about anything else.  So trying to convince the girls to try and find work elsewhere or attempting to get the factory to close down weren’t solutions either.

So he kept shopping at the Gap and other similar stores, but he also reconsidered just how many shirts he actually needed and bought less. He went to thrift stores and purchased things second hand more regularly, and, he decided to do something that he described as “small and personal.”

He created a Personal Retail Equality Tax.  Every time he shopped at a store that purchases clothes from the factory the girls worked in he decided to charge himself a 12% tax on those items and at the end of the year, he cashes out the fund and sends the money to Sujana’s family.

He sees it as more than just sending money to a poor family. He sees it as a way of continuing to build a relationship with folks who have become his family. He sees it as a way of making a direct connection between how he lives, what he consumes, and what his lifestyle and consumption costs other people. He knows it’s an awkward way to make sure that one family comes closer to having a living wage, but he also knows it will make a difference from them, and for him.

Christopher says, “When we get to know people who are vulnerable, we are challenged to take more seriously the power and opportunities we have. We might need to rethink our vocations in light of God’s purposes for the world. Can we more consistently use our training and skills for human good? Can we use our leisure time in ways that more fully reflect our love for Jesus and his friends? Friendships with people who are poor make our lives bigger and invites us to enlarge our circle of responsibility. They remind us that our small lifestyle decisions matter – they matter to God, to our spiritual identities and to our friends.”

In our gospel reading we are told that we should never sit in the place of honour because someone who is more distinguished than us might arrive and put us in the embarrassing situation of having to move to a seat of lower honour to accommodate them.  How much better is it, the gospel writer asks, to take a lower seat and then to be told, “Friend, move up higher.” (10)

And that does feel good, and it’s a practical way to avoid feeling embarrassed in public but how much better might it feel to intentionally choose a sit of lower privilege so that you can turn to someone else and say, “Friend, I have chosen to have less so that you can have more, please, move up higher.”

Christopher’s decision to tax his clothing purchases and give that money to Sujana’s family is one way to choose that lower position in order to say, “Sujana, friend, move up higher.” I don’t expect that we all will walk out of this room with the commitment to create own own personal clothing tax but I do hope we feel challenged to think creatively about ways that we too, in our own lives can find ways that are appropriate to our own situations to resist the temptation to hold tight to our privileged positions, to release some of that privilege and move down a few seats so that you someone else can hear those wonderful words, “Friend, move up higher.”

May we all seek to let mutual love continue.

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

The Shape of Freedom: A Sermon for Sunday August 25, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 25, 2019. You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

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?

Well, as I thought about this throughout the week, I came up with a couple of 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 healed so that 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 also 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; luov.16, desmosv. 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 rumors 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.

May we always be a community of freedom and liberation that inspires each other to live fully into being who we 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.


Fruits and Goods: A Sermon for Sunday August 11, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday, August 11, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

When I was reading tonight’s passages in preparation for this sermon my first thought was OK… so my choices are money or sex. Money or sex. Hmmm…. I’m going with money.  Little did I know at that time that in addition to money I was also going to need to say something about guns.

Tonight’s gospel reading contains a conversation and a parable.

Someone in the crowd calls out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”

Jesus’ response makes it clear that this person has misunderstood Jesus’ mission. Jesus did not come in order to be a legal expert who would settle disputes between people through his wise analysis of legal code.

And Jesus doesn’t see this conflict as a conflict simply about who is right and who is wrong according to the law of the land.  Rather, he sees it as a conflict about greed and scarcity.

So rather than a clever legal analysis, Jesus gives a warning: “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” (15)

If both brothers were willing to let go of the belief that there was never enough, then the one would be more inclined to share and the other less inclined to believe that he was being cheated.

Jesus’ warning should be seen as good news by both brothers, because if they heed his warning, no one loses. They both win.

The parable that follows this conversation illustrates the point.

This parable is one that always jumps out at me because it is tied to a specific memory.  Several times while I was in university I had the opportunity to see Bruce Kuhn perform his one man show “The Gospel of Luke,” in which he acts out the entire King James’ Version of the Gospel of Luke word for word.

And in his portrayal of this story, this rich man is Scottish.  And oh, how I wish I could do a half decent Scottish accent for you right now so you could get a sense of just what that does to this story.

But even without the accent, it’s just a wonderfully crafted little story.

“The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.”

It’s theatrical.  That lovely line, “And I will say to my soul, Soul…” Fantastic.

It’s lovely, but we are meant to see this man as a fool. At no point does he credit or thank God for his abundant harvest.  He assumes that everything his fields have produced belongs to him and him alone and his only responsibility is to store his wealth, not to share it.

Which takes me to the news of latest mass shootings in the United States.

While I am largely at a loss for what to say about the tsunami of gun violence overtaking the United States, I do have a few thoughts to share with you today.

First, in the first 219 days of 2019, there were 250 mass shootings in the United States. That is 250 too many.

Second, we need to be very careful about any sense of superiority we might feel about the fact that this is happening in a foreign country, not only because that superiority doesn’t help anyone, but also because the attitudes and beliefs that lead to that sort of unimaginable horror are very present in our own country and in our own lives.  Don’t let a sense of false superiority drown out that reality.

Third, while I do not have all of the answers, or any answers really, I do believe that the attitudes and beliefs we see reflected in this parable are also at the root of why so many people are buying guns and killing people.

Sadly, it doesn’t require too much of an imagination to add a few lines to this parable that would read,  “I will build barns to store all of my possessions, and I will buy guns to protect those possessions, and I will live in fear that at any moment a person – most likely a person whose skin colour is different from my own – will try to take those possessions so I will place all of my sense of safety and security in my ability to shoot them if they try.”

Lord have mercy.

This rich man believes that his ability to lead a good life is bound up in his ability to obtain and securely store a vast amount of goods for his own personal use, and, as a result, he winds up being a total loser.

Because he will not, in fact, simply “eat, drink, and be merry,” because God says to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (20-21)

What does it mean to be rich towards God? What are we supposed to do with our fruits and goods?

Our fruits and goods are not just reflected in our bank balances, but today I do want to spend some time focusing on money.

Talking about money can be a tricky thing, which doesn’t mean we should avoid doing it, it just means that we tend to avoid doing it, and as a result we’re often not really good at talking about money so we need to be prepared to feel awkward, and to make mistakes, and to apologize when we do.

One of the trickiest things about talking about money is that, in our culture, money is one of those things that it’s very difficult to generalize about and as such, especially in a context like this where I am speaking to a large room full of individuals and then also to our podcast audience something that hits one of you as good news may feel like condemnation to someone else.


Although it’s hard to generalize about money, here is one thing I believe is true of all of us. For each one of us there is some area of our relationship with our money and with our stuff that can be challenged. Some area where there is room for growth.  It won’t be the same for everyone, but it’s there.

So what I want to do now is tell you a series of stories of places that I have seen people push into the growth edge of their relationship with money and with stuff, in the hopes that it might spark your own imagination.

When we moved into our house, the former owner left a ladder in the back yard. The kind that is perfect for cleaning out eavestroughs.  I suppose it is our ladder now, but it doesn’t really feel that way because all of our neighbours use it too. It just sits in our back yard and they come and get it whenever they need it. And better yet, sometimes groups of neighbours come by and go from house to house cleaning out each other’s eavestroughs together.  And we borrow other things from each other as well because it just seems silly that everyone on the block would have their own ladder – a tool we all only need about twice a year – when we can share.


There is someone in this congregation – and don’t worry I’m not going to out you – who pays careful attention to the times when I need to be at church for extended periods of time – Holy Week or Sundays when we have both a 4 and 7 o’clock service or when Jamie’s away and they’ll text me to see if I need help and they’ll often slip me a Power Bar because they know perfectly well I haven’t had supper. It’s a generous and thoughtful act.  The kind that easily goes unnoticed. The kind that makes all the difference.


I have a friend who spent most of his life on social assistance. He spent a decent portion of his life living on the streets and in homeless shelters as well. When he turned 65 he moved off of social assistance and began collecting Canada Pension.

Suddenly he felt like his was rich because although Canada Pension is not a lot of money, it’s still higher than what a person receives on social assistance.

And not long after that, I noticed two things. One, he began going to Tim Horton’s almost every morning for a coffee, and two, every time we invited him to do things like go to a movie, his automatic response was “I can’t afford to.”  He didn’t pause, he didn’t think, he just said, “I can’t afford to.”

And after a while we had a conversation, the kind I wouldn’t recommend you have with just anyone, but the kind that made sense within the context of the trust we’d built in our relationship.

I pointed out that I noticed he always turned down our offers to go out by saying, “I can’t afford it,” and yet, it seemed to me, that he probably could afford it because he was spending at least the same amount as a movie ticket each week on coffee at Tim Hortons and if he chose to make coffee at home instead he could come with us.

Well, to summarize a fairly long conversation, we uncovered a few things that day.  The first, was that he didn’t really like going to movies but he did love the ritual of getting up, going for a walk, and chatting with people at Tim Horton’s.  It wasn’t just about the coffee, it was about community, it was about an experience. An experience he couldn’t simply replicate by making coffee at home.

The second was, that it was a choice.  And this was revolutionary. For the first time in a very long time he had a small amount of disposable income and he could choose how to spend it. He realized that he whenever we had asked him to go to the movies he had become so used to not being able to afford things like that that his response “I can’t afford it” was an automatic one. He never stopped to think if he wanted to go to a movie or if he could in fact afford it.

The realization that he had the power to choose was incredibly important and life giving even though his choices weren’t that expansive. Even though there would always be many things he actually could not afford. But he could choose what he did with what he had.



Since I graduated from university I have never worked in the for-profit sector. I have always worked for not-for-profits – charities and churches – and this has taught me an awful lot about money.  I could talk for a loooong time about scarcity and abundance and control in the finances of non-profits, but I’ll save that for another time and just share a few things I’ve learned with you today.

At the first church I worked at, the church’s bookkeeper taught me a lot about church finances and one of the key lessons I learned from her was this, “Everyone tends to think that churches like ours exist because a few very rich people give a large amount of money, but that’s just not true.  Our church exists because a lot of people with modest incomes each give a small amount of money. Our average donation is about $20 not $20 000.”

This inspired me because I realized that I thought my offering, which was rather small at the time, couldn’t possibly matter to the church. It didn’t inspire me to give more than I was already giving – I couldn’t afford to give more – but it did encourage me to think differently as I dropped my envelope in the collection plate. Since then, as I have continued to give to causes I care about, I have come to see just how important giving it, not simply because of how that money can be used by the charities I support to help other people, but how it changes me.  How it helps me to feel like I am part of making the world a better place, how it helps me to trust that I can live on less than I earn.

Later when I found myself running a small charity I saw that this principle was true there as well – we sometimes got bigger donations, but we relied on the faithful people who gave $10 or $20 a month to keep the lights on. I suspect it’s true of most churches and charities actually.  I wanted to highlight this reality and so I began to talk about our donors by describing a fictious donor who was a reflection of our actual donors. “Oma Schmidt from Plum Collee.” Oma who prayed for us regularly and faithfully sent $10 or $20 a month from her modest pension.

When we’d purchase something we needed we’d say, “Thanks Oma,” and when I asked people if they wanted to go for coffee with me they’d often ask cagily, “That depends, is Oma paying?”  Sometimes she did, sometimes we split the cheque.


Oftentimes, when people donate money to charity they try and control what the charity does with that money by designating what the charity can do with that money and usually by saying that they can’t use that money for their operating budget or salaries or admin costs.  It’s difficult, because a charity’s operating budget generally describes the things they need in order to do the work they were created to do. And paper for the photocopier might not seem like the most exciting thing to spend money on, but if you don’t give your people the tools they need to do the work, how can you expect them to do the work?

One time, however, I received a donation that came with a lovely note of encouragement and this line, “Use this money however you see fit.”

I had just discovered that we needed to treat a house that seven people lived in for bedbugs.  Now I just said the word “bedbugs” and at least about half of you shuddered, imagine living through it.

And so I used that donation to hire an exterminator but the tremendous freedom I felt I had been given by the line “use this money however you see fit” also allowed me to use that money to buy slurpees.

Now I feel reasonably certain that if I had sent out a fundraising letter requesting money for slurpees that I wouldn’t have had donors beating down my door to meet that request – even here in the Slurpee capital of Canada. But I can tell you that beyond a shadow of a doubt, when you are working with people who are living through one of the most stressful things a person can live through, that sometimes a break from the chaos and a little bit of sugar water are exactly what is needed.

I never met that donor, I’m not sure I ever will, but I will always be grateful for their choice to both be generous with their resources, and to release control of them as well.


Clearly, we are entering a new phase in this life of this particular church building, but for years, All Saints has operated under the belief that the things they have are not simply for their own personal use and as a result, this church was, until recently, the home of 3 church congregations and multiple charities like Agape Table. These buildings were used so regularly and so well that the church hall became so tired it literally needed to be torn down.

And I think it would have been so much easier for All Saints to simply tear it down and build a parking lot for the benefit of its members, or to generate some rental income but they had a much bigger and more expansive imagination than that – a 12 story apartment building sized imagination.

So what about us? What about saint benedict’s table?  What can we do with the fruits and goods we have?

What could happen if we each – in a way that makes sense to our particular situation – chose to release control of some of our own personal resources. Choose to believe that we, as a community, could do more with those resources by working together than each of us could do individually?

Well, currently, it looks like being able to meet together regularly for worship, to explore fringe theater or big ideas and then have meaningful conversations.

It means that last year, as in year’s past, we also gave away almost $18 000 to groups like Agape Table, Hand in Hand with Haiti, the Good Food Club, Bell Tower Community Café, and Art City to name just a few. We gave also money to help a hospital in Mali and migrant caravans in Mexico.   We told them all “use this money however you see fit.”

What are your “fruits and goods” and what are you going to do with them?   What are our “fruits and goods” and what are we going to do with them? How can we continue to lean into abundance and resist the myth of scarcity?

I can’t wait to find out.

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


It doesn't mean what you think it means: A Sermon For Sunday July 21, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday July 21, 2019.  You can also listen to the podcast version by clicking the link below or searching for it wherever you typically listen to podcasts.



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.

Not long before my great-grandmother died, I travelled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to visit her. Most of the time we talked about the weather or what my dad was like as a young child, but we also kept returning to the subject of my schooling. At first, I thought this was a random topic she chose to generate conversation but toward the end of the visit I realized it was much more than that.

My great-grandmother was the oldest child in a large American family. Although she was whip smart, she’d had to leave school at an early age because her parents couldn’t afford to send all of their children to school. In that time and place, it made sense to send the younger boys to school and have her stay home and help out around the house.

What was a girl going to do with an education anyway?

I’m not sure I love anything more than I love learning new things. It’s been a while since I was enrolled in a formal degree program and every year I look wistfully at the store shelves when they are stocked with school supplies. Does anything smell better than a brand-new box of pencil crayons?

So as I listened to my great-grandmother I tried to imagine how I would have felt if my parents had made the same decision for me, if I’d had to leave school so my brother could go—my brother who will readily admit that I loved school way more than he did. What would it have felt like to look out the kitchen window every day, a dish cloth in my hand, as he left for school?

As my great-grandmother told her story, I could imagine a different life, a life she could have lived if she’d been given the chance to continue with her studies. She was glad my life would be different than hers. I had so many more choices than she did. I had the power to choose my own destiny in a way she never did. Her story was a pain filled story, but it made me feel grateful for the choices and opportunities I’d been given. I promised her I would graduate from university and wouldn’t take any of it for granted.

Not long after she died, I had the chance to spend a week in England. When I wandered around the various colleges in Oxford I imagined what it would be like if I could study there. I tried to come up with scenarios that would make it possible and had almost convinced myself to pick up an application when, on my second day in Oxford, I took a guided tour of some of the colleges and came face to face with a harsh reality.   As a tourist in the early 2000s, I could enter the main doors of those colleges and wander the lawns imagining what it would be like to study there. I could even pick up that application, change my entire life and study there. It was all within the realm of possibility.

But each of those colleges had two doors. A front door which the students and teachers could stride confidently through on their ways to lectures, and a small back door through which the servants could enter to cook the meals and clean the rooms used by those students and teachers.

And through most of Oxford’s history, the servant’s door was the only door I would have been allowed to enter those hallowed halls of learning through.

It wasn’t until 1920 that some colleges at Oxford began to allow women to earn a degree.

For most of its history, Oxford had clearly established boundaries. Men could learn, women could cook and clean.[1]

NT Wright, referencing both last week’s story about the Good Samaritan and this week’s gospel about Mary and Martha, notes that Luke is using these stories to “alert us to something special about Jesus’ work. Not only was he redrawing the boundaries of God’s people, sending out a clear message about how the gospel would reach to those outside the traditional borders. He was redrawing the boundaries between men and women within Israel, blurring lines which had been clearly laid down.” (130)

So what boundaries are being blurred in today’s gospel story, and what does that tell us about Jesus and his kingdom?

And spoiler alert: Despite the fact that this story is often taught as if it’s about the difference between action and contemplation – Mary sat, Martha worked – that’s not what I think is happening here.

In our gospel reading, Jesus and the disciples arrive in a village and Martha welcomes them into her home. Her home. Interesting.

Martha has a sister named Mary, and Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens as he talks.

Which was an incredibly daring and unconventional thing to do.

In that time, to sit at someone’s feet was literally to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi like Jesus was not only an expression of the desire to learn. To sit at the feet of a rabbi was to say, “I want to become a rabbi too.” As N.T. Wright observes, by sitting at Jesus’ feet, “Mary has quietly taken her place as a would-be preacher and teacher in the kingdom of God.” (131)

This is not a story about contemplation versus action. Mary isn’t a contemplative, at least not based on this story. Mary is a student. Mary want to learn. To learn to be a rabbi.

And that’s just not something a woman was, and in many parts of the church to this very day, is supposed to do.

Now the only person in this story who questions whether or not Mary should be sitting at Jesus’ feet is Martha, and we will get to her soon enough, but when Martha challenges Mary’s behavior Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (42)

Learning. Sitting at the feet of Jesus. Declaring her intention to become a rabbi. Jesus declares that this is good and furthermore says that it “will not be taken away from her.”

It will not be taken away from her.

But education, the right to learn, the possibility of becoming a church leader would be taken away from so many other women.

And at least in the context of the church, the person who usually gets most of the blame for this is Paul. Which is fair enough, he wrote multiple verses saying women should be silent and submissive and didn’t include even one sentence like, “Let me be clear, of course women can be church leaders.

So, he’s not my favourite person, but I’m about to say some nice things about him anyway. Nice things I learned from George Schillington who deserves most of the credit for what I’m about to tell you.

So Jesus came and ushered in this new kingdom. A kingdom where the various hierarchies and categories that people used to separate themselves no longer had any meaning. Paul tells us that in this new kingdom, which is here and is not yet here, there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Greek. (Galatians 3:28)

Those categories no longer mattered.

But I wonder if, in his more private frustrated moments, Paul vented and said, “Sure, that’s wonderful for you to say, Jesus, but I’m the guy who has to help people figure out how to actually live in this new way when they have only ever known the old way. Thanks a lot!”

So imagine it for a moment. One day you go to bed and the lives of men and women are very different – they have different and distinct roles, they have different and distinct expectations placed upon them – and the next day you wake up and “poof” none of those things are supposed to matter anymore.

It would be messy, and confusing, and it would definitely take some getting used to.

So imagine, you’re a Jewish woman, and for your entire life, religious life has been strictly segregated and suddenly you’re allowed to worship with the men.

There is no way you would automatically know what you were supposed to do, and it’s likely that you’d have a lot of questions.

Now, imagine a church service where 50 percent of the people have been worshiping in a particular way for their entire lives and sitting next to them are their wives, their mothers, their sisters who have never worshipped in this way in their entire lives.

And imagine all of those women turning to all of those men at roughly the same time and whispering their questions, “Why are we doing that, what does that mean etc. etc. etc.”

This in the context into which Paul writes, “Let a woman learn in silence…” (1 Timothy 2:11)

For waaaaaay too long, the church has focused on the word “silence” and ignored the verb “learn.”

If women are indeed to keep silent, then it’s not silence for the sake of silence, it’s silence for the sake of learning.

Let a woman learn.

Paul expects women to learn. That learning should be done in an appropriate manner that doesn’t disrupt public worship but they are supposed to learn.

It wasn’t enough to simply say that men and women were equal and then – poof! – women suddenly knew everything men did, they needed to learn.

And so, at first, men would need to be the teachers and the leaders while women caught up. But what should happen when the society got to the point where women were equally as educated and experienced as their male counterparts?

They could lead.

George Schillington notes that, “The learning will equalize both genders for the work of the ministry of the churchThe women, through their diligent, peaceable learning will come to know as much as the men in due course. If that is the outcome, as indeed it must be, then the learned women will qualify to lead in church with equal grace and equal insights and equal gifts.” (52)

Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus doesn’t tell her to leave. He says that she has chosen the better part and asserts that it will not be taken from her.

Which for so many people sounds like dangerous, world view shifting news. News they will fight to ignore and bury, but for me, for me, it sounds like such good news.

Now what about Martha?

We are told that Martha has invited Jesus and his disciples into her home and that she is “distracted by her many tasks; so she came to [Jesus] and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” (40)

To which Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things…”

Now I’ve been going to church and listening to sermons about this passage my entire life, and I’ve never heard a preacher actually wonder what these “many things were.” In every sermon I have ever heard, Martha is only ever distracted by one thing.

With the exception of a truly disturbing interpretation where Martha is in love with Jesus and jealous of Mary, somehow, Martha is always stuck in the kitchen worrying about preparing supper. Supper is the one thing. The text doesn’t say she is in the kitchen and it doesn’t say she’s making supper, but that’s how I have almost always heard this preached.

As if supper is literally the only thing she’d need to worry about when she’s suddenly found herself with at least 13 extra people in her home. I’ve never heard a sermon where she’s busily trying to make beds or wash dirty feet or …. Any of the other myriad things she could be attending to.

Nope. She’s always in the kitchen making supper.

And the solution that the preachers I’ve heard always seem to find for Martha’s problem fall into one of two categories:

They either try to find some strange way of saying that Martha’s work in the kitchen is indeed valuable, which it totally is, although this is a strange story with which to make that point, or…

They say that the problem isn’t that she legitimately has a lot of work to do and could use some help, the problem is that she’s too uptight. She should just relax and throw together some sandwiches and come and join the party.

As if sandwiches for at least 15 hungry people on short notice was an easy task in and of itself. Skip the Dishes didn’t exist yet.

This sort of reading is simplistic and belittles the hard work of hospitality. It dismisses Martha and the essential work of hospitality by turning her into a caricature.

And so, I wonder if, while it is certainly possible that Martha would like some additional help, I wonder if when she asks Jesus to tell Mary to come and help her that there is something else going on underneath the surface of that question and that Jesus gets it, and responds accordingly.

Have you ever gone to a party and before you get there you turn to your roommate, friend, or spouse and say, “OK, so I’m not sure this party is going to be any fun and so if it’s not, I’m going to talk about pickles and that’s your signal to suddenly get a head ache so we can go home.”

What if what’s happening looks a little bit more like that?

What if Martha views her job as making sure her guests are comfortable in her home and she sees her sister doing something that should make any man of that time profoundly uncomfortable. What if she looks at her sister at Jesus’ feet and thinks, “Poor Jesus, Mary is up to her old tricks again, transgressing every single boundary our society has for women, and he’s just too nice to tell her to go away. I’ll give him an excuse to send her away without having to look like the bad guy.”

Because, as NT Wright says, “The real problem between Mary and Martha wasn’t the workload that Martha had in the kitchen. That, no doubt, was real enough but it wasn’t the main thing that was upsetting to Martha…No: The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she were a man…” (130)

And what if Jesus knows exactly what Martha is doing and so his words, “Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” are less of a rebuke and more of an invitation?   What if those words are not only good news for Mary, but for Martha as well?

Martha, Mary can learn to lead in the new kingdom I am bringing about and, what’s more, you can too.”

Which is very, very good news indeed.

Let the women learn. And when they have learned, let them lead.

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

[1] To say nothing of the additional challenges you might face if you were poor or a person of colour.

Not What You're Expecting: A Sermon for Sunday July 14, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday July 14, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

Tonight we’re celebrating the feast of St Benedict, the man this church is named after.

Benedict was born near Rome around 480 CE. His family was wealthy enough to be able to send him to Rome to be educated but he never quite fit in and so he left the city and eventually found a cave in an isolated spot in the wilderness where he lived for three years.

One day, Benedict was visited by an entire monastic community.  Their abbot had recently died, and they wanted Benedict to become their new leader.  He refused, warning them that that his leadership style was different from what they were expecting, but they persisted and eventually they wore him down and Benedict agreed to become their new abbot.

As he had predicted, Benedict was indeed not what they’d been expecting and the very monks who had begged him to lead them now plotted to kill him by poisoning his wine. They were unsuccessful in their attempt but when Benedict realized that they had tried to kill him he gathered the community together and said, “Look, I told you. I told you I wasn’t the kind of leader you were expecting and you begged me to lead you anyway.” Then he left the community and returned to the wilderness.

It wouldn’t be the last time someone tried to poison Benedict. In another instance, a jealous priest will send Benedict a poisoned loaf of bread. Again, Benedict will not be fooled and he will command his pet raven to get rid of the poisoned loaf.  Benedict is often depicted in art with a cup, a loaf of bread, and a raven because of these stories.

You might think that if the first community you try to lead attempts to kill you, to say nothing of multiple murder attempts, that you might not be cut out for leadership, but that was not the case for Benedict.  Eventually Benedict would form his own monastery, and then another, and then another.

Benedict would go on to write down the basic guidelines by which he organized these communities and those guidelines, called “The Rule of Benedict,” are still used by both members of monastic communities and individuals like myself to organize their daily lives.

The Rule is a short but fascinating little book that describes in great detail what you can expect if you choose to live in a Benedictine community. One of its most revolutionary aspects is the way Benedict chose to radically restructure cultural norms and hierarchies in the creation of his communities.

Benedict lived in a very hierarchical social structure in which people were given respect and power by virtue of their wealth and their family name. But all of that ended when you entered into a Benedictine monastery.

There was still a hierarchy, but the hierarchy was based on when you first entered the monastery, nothing else.  If the poorest man in the kingdom entered the monastery one minute before the king himself, then the first man would always be of higher rank than the king.

Additionally, Benedict counselled that whenever the leader of a monastic community needed to make a decision that they should seek the counsel of the lowest ranking member of the community and consider their advice.

Benedict structured his communities in these radical and counter cultural ways because he saw these sorts of values modelled throughout the Bible and in the life of Christ.

Now, Benedict didn’t ever write a direct commentary on tonight’s Old Testament reading, but a lot of his insight and wisdom about how to live a good life can be seen at play in that story.

In our Old Testament reading, we learn about a man who had leprosy named Naaman.   The Hebrew word translated as “leprosy” (tzara‘ath) refers to a range of skin conditions that would make a person ritually unclean.

Anyone who touched a person with leprosy would also become ritually unclean so, not wanting to become unclean themselves, people avoided them.  Lepers were marginalized and excluded from mainstream Israelite society and they weren’t popular in other cultures either.

Naaman wasn’t Jewish. He was Syrian. He was a successful military leader who was held in high regard by the king.  The combination of his high-status position and his low status disease seems to have resulted in a kind of mid-level status for Naaman.  He may have lost some of his social capital, but he wasn’t completely marginalized.

Naaman had all of the trappings of a successful military man.  Including enslaved people.  Enslaved Israelite people.

Naaman’s armies had conquered the Israelite armies and, as was common practice at the time, the winner took some of the losers as slaves.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be someone’s slave, someone’s property.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to be viewed not as a person, but as property.

It’s horrifying.

The enslaved girl in this story is of the lowest social standing – she’s not just a slave, she’s female, she’s young, and she’s a foreigner. She isn’t even really considered to be a person, she is Naaman’s property, not even worthy of a name.

If I was in that position, I think I’d keep my mouth shut and chuckle gleefully to myself when I saw my captor suffer.  Or if I wasn’t that vindictive, I’d at the very least choose to keep my mouth shut because not saying anything was the probably the safest thing to do.

And besides that, who was going to listen to me anyway?  Slaves listen to their masters. Masters don’t listen to their slaves.

And so it is utterly amazing to me that she would choose to speak up and try to help Naaman.  That’s a bizarre and risky and brave choice.

She has compassion for Naaman and takes a leap of faith. I mean, even if she was certain that Elisha could heal Naaman, how could she be certain that he would heal someone from an enemy country?

It’s a risk, and she takes it.

And that’s shocking, but it’s equally shocking to me that anyone bothers to listen to her.  You tell a slave what to do, you don’t go to slaves for advice.

This young girl tells Naaman’s wife that Elisha is capable of curing Naaman’s leprosy.

And for whatever reason, Naaman decides to give Elisha a chance.

I suspect that Naaman’s decision to listen to a slave isn’t an act of wisdom, it’s an act of desperation.   Despite all of his wealth and power, he can’t control his own health.  He wants to healed, and, at least at this moment, he’s open to suggestions from the most unlikely sources.

Anyone who has ever had to face the reality of their own vulnerability, the fact that they cannot control everything in their lives, will know just how scary and unsettling that can be.  Naaman’s entire career is based on his ability to command and control other people, but he can’t control his own body.

So Elisha might be able to help him, but he can’t just go knock on Elisha’s door.   He is a soldier from an enemy army. So political wrangling will be needed in order to avoid starting a new war.

But his king is willing to let him try telling Naaman, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.

So Naaman rolls up to Elisha’s house like the high-status man he is – bringing with him all the trappings of wealth and power – ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.  His entourage includes horses and chariots.

Naaman is a powerful man who is used to giving orders. He is used to getting what he wants.  If Elisha really is capable of healing him, then Naaman expects to be healed, and to be healed with style.

But I think Elisha sees that Naaman is also a vulnerable man. A scared man.  His disease has made him realize that all of his wealth and power can’t protect him from everything. His disease has made him realize that there are some things he can’t control.

And that’s terrifying.

It must have been terrifying to realize that the only person who might have the power to heal him was a man from a foreign country. I suspect Naaman’s outward signs of wealth and power are a way of protecting himself from the terrifying realization of just how truly vulnerable he is.  It’s another form of armour.

Power and status have served him well in the past, and he hopes they will serve him well again.

But Elisha is like a wise spiritual director who sees the vulnerable spot that the armour is trying to hide and gently points to the weak spot saying, “That armour is pretty cool, but what’s going on over here?”

Elisha is not impressed with Naaman’s power and social status and goes out of his way to show it.  If Naaman wants to be healed, he is going to have to shed his protective armour and access that part of himself that was humble enough to listen to a servant girl.

Elisha doesn’t honour Naaman by coming to greet him in person. He sends a messenger instead.  And the humiliation continues. Elisha isn’t going to meet with Naaman at all. There won’t be a feast or a fancy healing ritual worthy of a man of Naaman’s status.  If Naaman wants to be healed, he’s going to have to take a DIY approach.

He will need to go and wash himself in the Jordan river seven times.

This is not what he was expecting.

Elisha has asked him to strip off every single layer of power and wealth and status and do something that makes absolutely no sense.  He’s not even allowed to use a high-end body of water.

Naaman is furious and storms off saying, “I thought that for me – for me – he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” (11-12)

Naaman had arrived at Elisha’s home with very clear expectations.  He thought his power and status would earn him not only a cure, but a cure suited to someone of his station.  But instead he gets a second hand message about a DIY cure in an “off-brand river.”[1]

But all is not lost, because despite his rage, Naaman still has within him a willingness to put aside his expectations and listen to his own servants who try to calm him down by saying, “Sure it’s a weird thing to suggest but isn’t it worth a try? What’s the worst that can happen?”

And Naaman listens. And he realized that the potential humiliation of smelling like a third-rate river is worth risking on the chance that he might be healed.

So he takes off his expectations, he takes off the armour of wealth and power and social status.  He shifts from a man who commands others and gives orders and become a man who listens and does what he is told.

And his is healed.

It is a truly terrifying thing to strip away our armour and be vulnerable. It’s a risky thing to admit we don’t have it all together and to ask others for help, but it is the only thing that can truly save us.

When Benedict invited people to leave mainstream society and form monastic communities, he knew that they would only be successful if they didn’t hide who they were.  He knew that they needed to take off the various forms of armour they used to protect themselves and to be the people they were created to be, not merely the people they were pretending to be, in order for the community to thrive.

And he knew that they needed to not only break down social barriers but be willing to really listen to one another as well.

Over and over again in Naaman’s story, the wise people are the ones who society teaches us are the easiest to ignore – the women, the foreigner, the enslaved person.

Status and wealth do not automatically confer wisdom and the people who society teaches us that it’s OK to ignore have much to teach us, if we are willing to listen.

Earlier this year, Kyle Mason challenged us at Idea Exchange to think about who we are listening to. He pointed out that if you only listen to music and read books or get your news from members of the dominant culture then you are missing out on a wide range of other perspectives, other stories, other ways of seeing.

So I’ve taken some small steps to diversify who I listen to and it’s been fascinating, for example, to listen to the perspectives of indigenous and latinx people this past week as we celebrated both Canada Day and the Fourth of July.

If Naaman had only listened to fellow soldiers of a similar rank to his own, he would never have been healed.

If Benedict had allowed people to maintain the same rank and social standing inside the monastery that they had once held outside of it, then those communities would not have been the revolutionary force for change that they have been for over 1500 years.

What might we learn if we removed our own armour and listened, really listened, to people whose experiences and opinions are different from our own?

We’ll never know, unless we try.

But it we try then perhaps, like Naaman, we will experience healing.

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


[1] Thanks to Nadia Bolz Weber for this descriptor.

Pilgrim Road: A Sermon for Sunday June 30, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 30, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.

Before we move into the readings I want to take a moment to thank you all for all the ways you have supported and encouraged me as I went through the ordination process.  It’s been an eventful five years and I am endlessly grateful for each one of you.

Most of you will know that I was ordained as a priest about two weeks ago but what you may not know is that June 17th was already an important date for me.  Five years ago on that day I completed the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route across Northern Spain.

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.”

Jesus’ contemporaries would also have been familiar with the stories of the pilgrimages of their ancestors. Stories like the 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?  All Saints is built like that. 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 neighbours.

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 there 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, marriage liturgies, ordinations….

Will you obey your bishop?

I will.

And I mean it. And I have no idea what that means.

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.

Kalyn Falk 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” fully and without conditions.

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


What does it mean? A Sermon for Sunday June 9, 2019

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday June 9, 2019.  You can also listen to the live recording or subscribe to our podcast. Just click here.


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

So I was talking to a friend of mine about my upcoming ordination to the priesthood and trying to explain what it all means, and when I had finished talking she thought for a little while and then said, “Oh, so you’ll be kind of like Nadia Bolz Weber, but with less tattoos and less swearing.”

And I thought about that and said, “Well, you’re right about the tattoos part.”

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.

Tonight’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. Well done Paul.

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

If you were a Jewish person in the first century, you would know that Pentecost is an agricultural festival celebrated on the fiftieth day after Passover. It’s the day when you offer the first of your crops to God, partly as an expression of gratitude, and partly as a hope that the rest of the crops will grow well so you can feed your family.

You’d also know that Pentecost is more than just an agricultural festival.  It’s also the day that you remember that your 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 you and your ancestors 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 tonight’s reading takes us back to an earlier time in the story, when things are a little more raw, unsettled, unclear.

Jesus has left his people for a second time – first when he died and then we he ascended to heaven – and no one knows what is going to happen next 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 indigenous languages. (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 the crowd of outsiders 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.

Four 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.

So today is sometimes referred to as the birthday of the church, but the church that was birthed on this day had a particular character. One the institution known as the church has not always managed to reflect.

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.

Also I 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 is 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 his or her language and was divinely enabled to hear the good news in his or her 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.