3 December 2023

"Peace Be With You" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 26, 2023 (First Sunday of Advent)
Scripture Reading:  Genesis 35:16-21

(This year, our Advent theme is focused on midwifery and birth. Each week, we will hear the story from the bible of someone who was a midwife, or who encountered a midwife. The waiting, the longing, the pain of the “not yet” – all of our Advent themes – are captured in the metaphor of a midwife, in the metaphor of birth.)



My name is Miriam, and I am a midwife in the town of Ephrath, also known as Bethlehem. I was the first-born of 8 children, and when I was a child, I watched the midwife come to our house again and again to deliver my younger siblings. When I was just 6 years old, I began to assist her, fetching her water and clean cloths. She told me about the herbs that she was using, and she had me hold my mother’s hands as my mother strained and pushed.


When my 9th sibling was being born though, my mother died, along with the baby. The midwife cried as she bundled up the wee body and covered my mother’s face with a blanket. I was only 13 years old at that point. My father didn’t know what to do with all of us, and he talked about finding a husband for me, so that I would be one less child he had to worry about.


But then the midwife came and spoke to him, and offered to take me on as an apprentice. She would put a roof over my head, and put food in my belly, and teach me everything that she knew.  I knew right away that I didn’t want to get married. I had seen what had happened to my mother, and I didn’t want babies of my own. But instead, I wanted to learn how to help other women and keep them and their babies safe.


And I did learn all this.  I learned the rhythm of labour, how it ebbs and flows.  I learned how to use different herbs to lessen the pain, to speed up the labour, to slow down the labour, to stop the blood flow.  I learned how to feel the baby in its mother’s womb, and how to use the pressure of my hands to change the position of the baby. I learned what prayers to pray to help a mother through the birth. I learned how to deliver the afterbirth, how to cut the cord, how to clean up after the messiness of birth.


I still remember the first time that a mother named her child after me. It had been a long labour, more than a day, but when her baby was safely lying on her chest, the mother smiled at me and told me that she was going to name her Miriam, so that she would never forget how I had helped.


I’m now an old woman. I’ve been working for many years now, and I have started to deliver the children of the babies I delivered when I first started out. The midwife who taught me died last year, but before she did, she told me that my skills were even greater than hers. The student has surpassed the teacher.


Last night was one of the hardest nights I’ve had to face.  I had been called out a day and a half earlier to attend a birth at a caravan that was passing through Ephrath. The woman’s name was Rachel, and her husband was Jacob.  I’ve seen some strange families in my time, but I have to say that this was one of the stranger ones. Rachel was Jacob’s favourite wife, but her sister Leah was his first wife and the one with precedence in the family. Jacob had 12 children so far – 11 boys and 1 girl. Leah, the first wife, had born 7 of the children. Rachel, the favourite wife, had only born 1 son so far. I’ve you’re doing the math so far, you know that there are 4 children left – two of them had been born by Bilhah, the slave who belonged to Rachel; and the other 2 had been born by Zilpah, the slave who belonged to Leah.


We had many hours to talk, Rachel and I, as she laboured through the long days and nights.  One of the things that we do as midwives, the first time we meet a woman, is to find out her history of childbearing. Rachel told me that childbearing didn’t come as easily to her as it did to Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah.  Even though she was the favourite wife, she hadn’t conceived a child for many, many years of marriage, and her heart broke every time she saw the birth of another child to her husband.


She also shared with me, as she rested between the contractions, that when her first son, Joseph, had been born, it hadn’t been an easy passage for either of them. It had been another long and difficult labour, and when he was born, she felt as though she was being ripped in two.  It had taken her weeks before she was able to get out of bed and move around her tent, and months before she was able to care for her new baby on her own.


This labour was also a slow one. I could see her energy waning as she entered the second night of labour.  I didn’t know if she was going to have the strength to push out this child when the time came. I kept talking to her, and encouraging her, and giving her cups of tea that would hopefully keep the labour moving forward.


And finally it was time for her to push. The pushes were weak at first, but then her body seemed to remember what to do, and the pushes became stronger.  Finally, there was a rush of fluid and blood, and I caught this tiny baby before he could land on the straw that had been laid out. He was blue at first, but I knew what to do. I rubbed his little back until he let out a cry, and then I wrapped him in a cloth and laid him on his mother’s chest so that he could feel her breathing, in and out, in and out.


Poor Rachel was exhausted, and she kept slipping in and out of sleep. I sat back to wait for the afterbirth, and I knew that I might need to wait a while after such a long and exhausting labour. There was no hurry to cut the cord until the afterbirth was delivered.


But then everything seemed to happen all at once.  Rachel gave a loud shriek which, of course, started the baby to cry. And then there was blood. So much blood, coming fast and bright red.


I kept my voice calm, and I told Rachel that she had to nurse this new baby of hers. She had to focus all of her attention on this new life that she had just brought into the world. And she did. After that first shriek, she talked quietly to her baby, despite the pain and the fear that she must have been feeling.


I tried putting pressure on her womb. I prayed every prayer that I knew. I gave her a tea of herbs that might stop the bleeding. But none of them worked this time. I could see the life fading from her eyes as her blood continued to flow out of her. The last words that she whispered before falling unconscious were to name this new child Ben-Oni or “Son of My Sorrow.”


It is hard to tell a husband that his wife has died. I remember how inconsolable my father had been when my mother and baby sister died. This time, at least, the baby had survived. I went out of the tent to search for Jacob, and found him sitting right outside. He had heard everything, and he had already guessed what had happened. I watched the tears stream down his face when he heard that his beloved Rachel was gone.


But then I was able to tell him that his son was still alive, and the most incredible peace seemed to pass through his body. I’m amazed at how, at a time of such deep grief, peace can still be given as a gift.  I placed his son in his arms, and told him that Rachel had named him Ben-Oni. Jacob said no – this child wasn’t going to carry the name of grief, and instead he was going to be called Benjamin, or Son of My Right Hand.


Rachel is going to be buried here, outside of the walls of Bethlehem, near the tent where she had died. And yet her son lives, and the cycle of life continues.


I pray that the peace that was given to Jacob that day might be the sort of peace that lives in all of our hearts – a peace that endures, no matter the circumstances that we face. May this peace be yours, today and every day. Amen.




Rachel’s Tomb, just outside Bethlehem, is now a mosque,

and is located near a checkpoint in the wall that separates

the West Bank from Israel. There are so many layers of irony

in this tourism poster near that checkpoint.
And yet the message of peace abides.

Photo Credit: James Emery on flickr

26 November 2023

"Midwives of the Future" (sermon

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 26, 2023 (First Sunday of Advent)
Scripture Reading:  Exodus 1:8-22

(This year, our Advent theme is focused on midwifery and birth. Each week, we will hear the story from the bible of someone who was a midwife, or who encountered a midwife. The waiting, the longing, the pain of the “not yet” – all of our Advent themes – are captured in the metaphor of a midwife, in the metaphor of birth.)



My name is Shiphrah, daughter of Milcah, granddaughter of Hannah, of the tribe of Naphtali. Like my mother and my grandmother before me, I am a midwife. When the time comes for a mother to birth a child, I am sent for.  I accompany a woman through the hours or through the days of labour. I encourage her. I tell her when to push and when to refrain from pushing. I remind her to continue to draw fresh air into her body. If needed, I give her the herbs I have learned how to use to speed up her labour or to stop her bleeding.  When the baby comes, I catch the baby. I am the one to place the baby on the mother’s chest. I catch the afterbirth, I cut the cord, and I wash the baby. The day after the baby is born, I come to check on the baby and the mother to make sure that all is well.


Even though I live in the land of Egypt, I am an Israelite. I am a descendant of Jacob who was called Israel.  In a time of famine, Israel’s son Joseph was able to bring our people to Egypt under the protection of the Pharoah so that we would have food in a time of hunger. But now, many generations later, there is a new Pharoah in Egypt… one who is scared of us… and he has made all of our people to be slaves.


This new Pharoah, because he is afraid of us, he treats us poorly. Our men and our women have to spend their days working in the fields and building the city. If we ever do anything that displeases an Egyptian, we are punished for it. And sometimes the punishment is doled out for no reason. It is a scary existence for us.


I work with my sister Puah. I call her my sister, even though we have no blood relationship, and yet we have the kinship of the work that we share. The two of us are busy, as it seems as though every day there are many women delivering their babies. We have trained apprentices who work with us, but Puah and I are the lead midwives.


We are respected by the Egyptians more than the other Israelites. I think that they recognize the universality of birth – that they are only alive today because a midwife attended their birth. We are generally free to move around the community unmolested, attending to our business day and night.


Last year though… last year Puah and I were summoned to appear before Pharoah. Normally we are confident as we move about the world, but I have to confess that my knees were trembling that day.  We had no idea what he wanted from us.


I told you that he was afraid of us, and his fear usually came out as cruelty. That day, he told us that any time we, or any of the other midwives, delivered a boy child, we were to kill it at the moment of birth.  We knew in that moment that we wouldn’t be able to carry out these orders. As midwives, we are bringers of life, not bringers of death.


We had to wait until we were safely away from the palace to discuss what we would do next, but later that night, Puah and I were able to talk in private.  We knew that disobeying the Pharoah would likely bring us death, but we also knew that we couldn’t be the ones to bring death to an innocent baby.


The next night we called together all of our apprentice midwives.  We told them what Pharoah had ordered. And then we told them to disobey this order.  Any midwives who weren’t comfortable disobeying Pharoah were free to stop midwifing, but those of us who brought life were not permitted to bring death as well.


Our God is a god of life, and we serve our God by bringing life. And so we continued in our work.


Six months later, the Pharoah noticed that there continued to be baby boys around our community, and we were summoned to appear before him again.  Again, my knees trembled as we went – surely he was going to know that we disobeyed him, and I didn’t expect to be able to leave the palace alive.


This brought us to our next risk:  we lied to the Pharoah. We told a lie to the person who had the power to have us killed on the spot, and we told him that the Israelite women were stronger than the Egyptian women, and that they had stopped calling the midwife to attend their labour. We told Pharoah that we were willing to carry out his orders, but that we no longer had the opportunity to do so.


And he believed us. He must not have believed that our women were fully human; he must not have believed that our women felt pain and fear as they laboured and as they delivered; he must have thought that our women dropped their babies in the field, like a horse or a cow. He didn’t believe that our women needed the support of a midwife.


And so we were free to go, but instead, Pharoah ordered his soldiers to kill all of the male babies of our people. His reign of fear continues.


Three months ago though, I delivered a beautiful baby boy to Jochebed of the tribe of Levi. She already had two beautiful children – Miriam was 9 and Aaron was just 6. Now Jochebed is determined to keep her newest baby alive. She has hidden him away in her house, and she nurses him any time he threatens to make a fuss. He is growing well, but now it is getting harder for her to keep him hidden away.


She has made a basket for him, and has made it waterproof, and she tells me that she is going to float him in his basket down the river. He may be eaten by a crocodile, but the uncertainty of that end is better than the certain death her baby will face if he is discovered.


People say that I am courageous, to disobey Pharoah the way that I have; but me, I look to Jochebed when I need hope. She trusts that this baby of hers has a future, and because she trusts in his future, she is willing to take these risks. We may be slaves now, but Jochebed trusts that one day we won’t be; and she is going to do everything that she can to keep Miriam and Aaron, and now wee baby Moses alive so that they can witness the birth of this future; so that maybe they can be midwives of this future that will be theirs.


May God give us all the hope of Jochebed. And may we be midwives too, bringing life to this future that is ours. Amen.



“Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam,

Pharoah’s Daughter, and the Infant Moses”

Mural from the Dura-Europos Synagogue, ca. 245

Used with Permission.

19 November 2023

"Still, We Hope" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 19, 2023 (Reign of Christ)
Scripture:  Matthew 25:31-46



As I mentioned earlier, the Christmas letter is at the back of the church for you to pick up on your way out if you haven’t picked it up already. I wrote this letter back in October, because Elaine needed to print it for me to sign before I went on vacation. (I told this story to the Official Board on Wednesday night, so my apologies to you if you have heard it before.) So I wrote the letter and sent it off to Elaine, but then the next time we were both at the church at the same time, she summoned me into her office. She sat me down and gave me my letter to read. A couple of minutes later she asked if I was done yet, and I said “almost.” She asked how I was feeling.  “Fine…” Apparently I wasn’t fine, and that first letter I had written was far too gloomy to be sent out as a Christmas letter.


Because I trust Elaine’s judgement, I re-wrote the Christmas letter the next day; with thanks to the Summerville quilters who offered to be my test audience – they approved version 2, which I was then able to send to Elaine who also approved version 2 and printed it so that I could sign 300 copies of it before going on vacation.


The challenge with writing the Christmas letter this year is that the world feels so full of doom and gloom at the moment.  As I was writing that first version of the letter, the fighting in Gaza was intense… well, I guess it’s still pretty intense… it was the day that the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine had happened; Covid infection rates were surging; and my list could go on and on and on. Poverty is increasing as inflation increases. This time of year brings longer nights and shorter days.


With all of this going on, it was really hard to write a cheerful Christmas letter this year!


Don’t get me wrong – the underlying message of that first letter was exactly the same as the message of the one that was printed, but apparently I spent too long in the first draft expanding on the woes of the world.


The message of both drafts of this year’s letter is that we, as the church, are in the “Business of Hope.”  We, as the church, trust that the grief and the pain and the fear of the right now isn’t the end of the story.  We trust that God dreams of a world that is radically transformed, so that all of the grief has become love, so that all of the pain has become joy, so that all of the fear has become peace.


And we trust that this dream, that this vision of God will one day be the only reality.


Which brings us to today.  Today is the day when we celebrate the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year – next week when we enter the season of Advent, we will begin a new year. As we move through the church year, we travel through Jesus’s life story – from the anticipation of his birth, to the birth itself, stories of his teachings and his actions, the story of the last week of his life, his crucifixion and death, and his resurrection. We read stories about the very early church, from its origins at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples in force.  And today – this last Sunday of the church year – this is a day dedicated to looking forward in time.  Today we look forward to that time that will come when God’s dream for the world will be complete, will be fulfilled, will be perfected.  And we trust that this transformed world is going to come some day.


As we said in our Prayer of Awareness today, we tend to want the “not yet” to be the “right now.” We want all wars to end right now. We want all poverty to end right now. We want all grief and suffering to end right now. We want the transformation of the world that began with the birth of Jesus to reach completion right now. It’s hard to be patient.


But because we trust that this transformation has begun, that the transformation began when God took on flesh and blood in the person of Jesus; and because we trust that the transformation of the world will some day reach completion, we can keep going, one step at a time.


I heard an interview earlier this week on CBC radio with two women, one Palestinian and one Israeli, both actively working towards peace by building relationships, one person at a time. When the interviewer asked how they avoided becoming despondent, one of them replied, “we have to hope.”


We have to cling to hope.  Without hope, we would be paralyzed by despair. But because we have hope, we keep on going, one step at a time, one loving act at a time.


In today’s bible reading, we heard Jesus’s very last public teaching before his crucifixion. He has some private teaching time with his disciples after this, but this is his last public teaching. And in this teaching, what does he say?  He says, in a fairly direct way (and we all know how Jesus can sometimes talk in circles, but this time his instructions are pretty concrete):  feed anyone who is hungry; give water to anyone who is thirsty; welcome strangers; give clothing to anyone who needs it; care for anyone who is sick; and visit people in prison.  And why should we do all of this? Because whenever we do this to another person, we are doing it to Jesus himself.


If Jesus were giving us concrete instructions in 2023, what might he say to us?  “For I was being bombed, and you cried out for peace. For I was a transgender student and you advocated for my rights and gave me a safe space. For I was a child in a refugee camp, and you supported my schooling by donating to Mission & Service. Truly I tell you, just as you have done it for one of the least of these siblings of mine, you have done it for me.”


Sometimes when we read stories from the bible, a good question to ask ourselves is “where to I see myself in this story?” but with this story, an even better question might be to ask, “where do I see Jesus in this story?”


Jesus is the one sitting on the seat of judgement, separating the sheep from the lambs.  Jesus is also present in anyone who is hungry, in anyone who is thirsty, in anyone without clothing, in anyone who is sick, in anyone who is in prison. In other words, Jesus is present in anyone who is vulnerable or marginalized.


But I also think that Jesus is present in the helpers in the story as well – Jesus is present in the ones giving food and water and clothing, Jesus is present in people who care for the sick and visit the incarcerated. Because when we, as the church, do these things, we are able to do them because we are the Body of Christ, carrying out God’s mission in the world.


Which brings us back to where we started.  We serve the vulnerable people in the world because the Holy Spirit is transforming us into the Body of Christ. And we keep on serving, even in the pain of this world, because we know that the world as it is right now isn’t the world that God dreams of. And we keep on serving, without falling into despair and despondency, because we have hope, because we trust, because we are confident that the world will eventually change.


We as the church – we are in the business of hope.  Everything that we do as the church should proclaim this hope to the world, especially in times like right now.


And when my hope falters, I know that your hope will carry me through. And if your hope falters, I pray that my hope might carry you through.  And together we hope.  Still, we hope.






Signing Those (Revised) Christmas Letters

(With Help from my Favourite Christmas Movie)

5 November 2023

"Outer Practices for Inner Chage" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday November 5, 2023
Scripture:  Matthew 23:1-12

Reading this part of Jesus’s story, it’s tempting to paint it as a battle between good and evil.  We’re in the last week of Jesus’s life, and Jesus is in the temple debating with the Pharisees. Tensions are running high as they engage in this battle of the wits.  Jesus has been telling pointed parables trying to reform the religious systems of his time and place, and then the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians ask Jesus a series of trick questions trying to trap him with heresy but Jesus manages to answer back to all of them.  And then we come to what we heard today – Jesus calling out the Pharisees for hypocrisy – for not practicing what they preach, for accepting the honour that their position brings them, for making showy displays of faith without any substance or actions to back it up.  It is very tempting to paint Jesus as the triumphant hero over the evil Pharisees.


And yet instead of a battle between opposing forces, this story might be better understood as an inter-religious dialogue.  Jesus and the Pharisees have a different way of living out their faith, but they hold that faith in common.  An analogy might be to gather a Roman Catholic with a rosary, a United Church person with a cross pendant, an Anglican with a communion chalice, and an Evangelical with a bible – all of them sharing why these symbols help them to live out their faith.  We all have different practices, even as we share our faith.


Jesus isn’t calling out the Pharisees for their practices.  There is nothing wrong with their practices.  The phylacteries are a little box containing a tiny scroll of scripture that is bound to their forehead, reminding them that God is always present.  The fringes on their shawls remind them to pray.  These are both good things.


What Jesus is calling them out for is when the symbols or the actions are empty – that they aren’t backed up by inner change.  Jesus wants our whole hearts to be transformed for God… the practices that we use to get there are less important.


And there are lots of different practices that we can use to get there. For some people, it is prayer. For other people, it is studying the bible. For some people, it is quiet meditation or contemplation. For some people it is through music. There are probably as many different paths to be in relationship with God as there are people seeking that relationship!


I do think that we need both practices to work on our relationship with God as well as an inner re-orientation of our hearts.  External practices without that changed heart… well, that’s what Jesus is calling out in today’s reading, with the group of religious leaders who seem pious on the outside but who lack a heart for God and for their neighbours.  And yet expecting a changed heart to happen out of the blue without seeking it… that may not happen.


We need to seek for a balance – seeking an internal transformation through our external practices.


I’m reminded here of one of my favourite bits from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he writes:  “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  It may seem like a contradiction – are we the ones working on our transformation, or is it God?  But I see it as a both/and situation. We seek relationship with God, and it is God, by the Holy Spirit, working in us. And then as we are transformed, we long more deeply for God, and God deepens our transformation. And so it goes on and on.


So is Jesus telling the Pharisees to ditch their phylacteries and prayer shawls? No! We need practices to help us connect with God, and sometimes those practices involve physical objects. But I think that Jesus is telling them that they need to open themselves up to God’s transforming power, rather than using these objects to appear more holy than their neighbour. That’s the hypocrisy that he's calling out.


And so I invite you to ponder… what practices do you have in your life that help bring you closer to God? What practices do you have in your life that empower you to love your neighbours more deeply? And do you have practices in your life that are “empty” practices – things that don’t nurture your spiritual life at this time that you can prune from your life?


And may the Holy Spirit be at work in all of us, every day, empowering us to love God with all our being, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Amen!

What practices nurture your relationship with God?
Image Credit:  bartb_pt on Flickr
Used with Permission.

29 October 2023

"Clothed with Christ" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 29, 2023
Scripture:  Matthew 22:34-46

(In our Story for All Ages, we talked about Galatians 3:27, and how we are called to “clothe ourselves with Christ” – not like a Hallowe’en costume for one day but for every day.)

I said to a couple of people this week, that this sermon is one of the harder ones I’ve had to write… not because the reading from the bible is challenging, but for the opposite reason. This teaching of Jesus is so core to my beliefs, so central to how I try to live out my faith, that there really isn’t much more I can say about it. A lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” and Jesus replies, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbour as you love yourself. All the Law and the prophets depend on these two commands.”


Love God. Love your neighbours. Love yourself. That’s it.  I really don’t have that much more to say about this teaching.


In the overall story of Jesus’s life, this teaching happens almost right at the very end of it.  We’re in the middle of Holy Week.  A couple of days ago, Jesus and his disciples entered Jerusalem in the parade that we remember each year on Palm Sunday.  If you skip ahead, Matthew tells us that we are currently two days away from Passover, so this would make it the Tuesday of Holy Week.  We are two days away from Jesus’s arrest, and three days away from Jesus’s death.


Tensions are running high.  Jesus has been saying some very pointed things at the authorities – secular authorities, yes, as they were living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, but especially pointed towards the religious authorities who were interpreting God’s laws in less-than generous ways. That’s why Matthew tells us that the Pharisees were testing Jesus with this question – maybe they will be able to catch him out on heresy and be able to punish him on those grounds.  But alas, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy with the commandment to love God with our whole selves, and then he quotes from Leviticus with the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves – a fairly orthodox answer.


I rather suspect that Jesus knew that the end of his life was drawing closer.  He knew that he was provoking the authorities with his teachings, and he seems pretty determined not to back down, no matter the consequences.  And so I wonder if he seized this opportunity to sum up all of his teachings into a small, easy-to-remember package, almost like a sound bite.  “Love God.  Love your neighbour.  Love yourself.  Even if you don’t remember anything else I’ve said, or anything else that I’ve done, remember this:  love God; love your neighbour; love yourself.”


Like I said, this passage is the foundation of our faith, but it’s a hard one to preach about, since Jesus is summarizing everything else that he has taught and everything else that he has done.  To expand on this, I would almost have to go backwards and start re-telling Jesus’s other teachings and telling the stories about the things that he has done.  I’d have to go back and repeat Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness; I’d have to re-tell the stories about the times Jesus fed a crowd of thousands of hungry people; I’d have to repeat Jesus’s teachings about sharing generously the things that we have; I’d have to re-tell the stories about the times that Jesus healed people who were sick and raised the dead.  All of these things can be summarized by “love God with your whole being; and love your neighbour as yourself.”


I wonder if I can go back even further than Jesus’s life.  Jesus was a Jewish man living almost 2000 years ago.  He seems to have been very observant of his faith, even when he had a more generous interpretation of the scriptures than some of the other religious leaders of his time and place.  And these scriptures that Jesus was steeped in – they would have been what we call the Old Testament.  Our Old Testament is the Jewish bible, which makes it Jesus’s bible as he was Jewish.


And Jesus tells us that all of the law and all of the prophets – essentially, all of the bible – can be summarized by “love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour as yourself.”  All of the laws in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – they can be summarized here.  You find laws about having no other gods other than God, laws about how to worship God… these are all of the details about how to love God with your whole being.  You find laws about how to care for orphans and widows and foreigners living your land, laws about how to provide food for people who are hungry, laws about how business people are to conduct their business fairly… these are all of the details about how to love your neighbours.  And then you have laws like keeping the Sabbath which I think straddle loving God, loving your neighbours, and loving yourself all at once.


Then when you flip past the books of the law into the prophets of the Old Testament, what is the eternal cry of the prophets?  “Look at where you’ve strayed away from God! Look at how you are causing harm to God’s children! Turn back to God by keeping God’s commands, and by doing justice and kindness to the most vulnerable among you!”  Again – love God and love your neighbours resounds in the voice of the prophets.


So I think that the whole of our bible today – all of the teachings of the Old Testament which was Jesus’s bible, and all of the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament – the whole of our bible today can be summed up in these words of Jesus – love God; love your neighbours; love yourself.


Those of you who attend bible study know that one of the things that we wrestle with as we read the bible is what to do when passages seem to contradict each other.  God says do not kill; God says enter the land and kill the people you find there.  God says that the people of Moab are evil and shouldn’t be allowed into the temple for 50 generations; God says, well, maybe I’ll make the great-grandmother of the person who built the temple come from the land of Moab.


Along a similar vein, we also struggle when we realize that a story can be interpreted in multiple ways, depending on the perspective that you bring to a story.  What is the right way to interpret the bible?


These are the sorts of things that we all have to wrestle with in our faith lives, as we read the stories in the bible, and as we talk about our faith with others… people who might question us along the lines of “how can you be a part of a church when the bible says <insert horrific teaching or story here>.”


Which brings us back to why this teaching of Jesus is so important to me.  We are always interpreting the bible as we read it. There is no such thing as truly neutral reading.  We are always choosing which teachings to emphasize and which teachings to give less importance to.  We are always making decisions about how we are going to understand the stories… both the stories we like and the stories that challenge us.  We are always interpreting the bible as we read it; and it can be very powerful to recognize the lens or the framework that we are interpreting it through.  And for me, when I read the bible and all of the stories you find in it, I am interpreting it through the lens of these words of Jesus.


Jesus replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbour as you love yourself.”


When I come across any other passage – especially the passages and the stories that challenge me; especially the teachings that I find off-putting – I ask myself, how can I interpret this story in a way that loves God and/or loves my neighbour as myself?


For me, this is the lens that I try to read the bible through; and it’s also the lens that I try to live my life through.  As I move through the world, I try to remember to ask myself, “how is this thing that I’m doing or this thing that I’m saying love God, love my neighbour, or love myself?”


I don’t always succeed.  In fact, I don’t know if I ever succeed very well at this.  But I also know that God forgives me when I stumble, and that I will always be given another chance to try again, maybe in the very next minute.  And I also trust that I’m not doing it alone – I trust that the Holy Spirit is working in me, working in all of us, transforming us slowly over time more and more into the image of Christ, so that the work of Christ can be done through us.


And really – isn’t this what it means to be a Christian?  To follow the path that Jesus shows to us… to follow the path of loving God with our whole being, and loving our neighbour as ourselves; while letting the Holy Spirit gradually transform us into who God created us to be, so that we can more perfectly reflect the image of Christ to the world around us. To “clothe ourselves with Christ” or “dress up like Christ” by loving authentically and whole-heartedly, and showing the world the face of Christ.


And may this be so in all of our lives.  Amen.



Today was the first of our “Sock it To Me” Sundays,
collecting new warm socks for the clients of the
Romero Van. Each church donated ~100 pairs of new warm
socks. In the Story for All Ages, when I asked what “clothing
 ourselves with Christ” or “dressing up like Jesus” might look like,
someone suggested that it looked like collecting socks
to Romero Van.

22 October 2023

"What Would You Do with a Million Dollars?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
October 22, 2023 (21st Sunday after Pentecost)
Scripture:  Luke 22:15-22

In our "Story for All Ages" times this fall, we have been doing different things with some chocolate coins. Today we pretended that each coin was worth $1Million (or $2Million for the coins shaped like toonies). I asked who wanted a million dollars, and gave the coins out to the congregation; then I asked a couple of questions:
- What are you going to do with your million dollars?
- What do you think that Jesus would do if he had a coin worth a million dollars?
In the church, we say that we are the "Body of Christ" - we have the opportunity to be like Jesus when we decide what we are going to do with the things that we have.

This seems like a pretty straight-forward story, and I could probably make a pretty straight-forward sermon out of it.  “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”  Jesus almost preaches a mini-sermon there for us at the end of this story.


But did you notice that he doesn’t really explain what he means by this?  Is he saying that yes, you should pay your taxes to the Emperor, because taxes are paid using coins with the Emperor’s image on them?  That meaning would make him pretty popular with half of his questioners, the Herodians, the people who supported King Herod who was essentially the Emperor’s puppet king in the region; but this answer wouldn’t make him very popular with the other half of his questioners, the Pharisees who believed that our full allegiance must belong to God.


Or instead, is Jesus saying that we should pay our taxes because the Emperor is only able to govern because God ordained the Emperor to govern?  Again, a popular answer for his Herodian questioners, and maybe a bit more acceptable to his Pharisee questioners, because this meaning to Jesus’s answer gives God the ultimate authority.


Or, instead, is Jesus saying that we shouldn’t pay our taxes because everything belongs to God including our coins?  This interpretation would be popular with the Pharisees, and probably all of the people in the land – no taxes! – but it is the wrong explanation in the eyes of the Herodians, and an answer seen as treason and deserving of immediate arrest.


Jesus never clarifies what he means here.  “Give to the Emperor the things that are the Emperor’s, and give to God the things that are God’s.”  Is it a split allegiance between God and the earthly ruler with the things of the earth belonging to the Emperor and the spiritual things belonging to God.  Or is it all things belonging to God, and the Emperor acting on God’s behalf?  Or is it all things belonging to God, full stop?  I don’t know.  Jesus doesn’t clarify.


We are told that this answer amazed his questioners and they left him alone after that.  Were they amazed at his ability to give an answer so ambiguous that all sides were happy?  Or were they ashamed at being called out for possessing a Roman coin in the temple where, technically, they should only have been carrying temple currency?


Maybe this story isn’t so simple after all.


For me, the interpretation angle that I tend to fall into is that everything belongs to God, full stop.  Even the coin in the story – it is made of metal that came from the earth that God created, so the metal in the coin belongs to God.  And the coin bears the image of the Emperor, who, in turn, is an image bearer of God; meaning that the coin bears the image of God on it.


Give to God the things that are God’s.  What belongs to God? Everything belongs to God!  All of my possessions come from God.  All of my skills and my talents are given to me by God.  The air that I breathe, the water that I drink, the words that I speak, the love that I experience – all of these come from God.


So here comes simple sermon number 2.  Give to God the things that are God’s; and since everything comes from God, we owe everything to God.


How does that thought make you feel?  The thought that everything that you are and everything that you have belongs to God?


To say “All things belong to God” may be a simple answer; but it is anything but simple when it comes to practicing it!


To me, it comes back to what we were talking about in the Story for All Ages this week – how would God want us to use the gifts that we have been given?  How can we use our gifts in ways that honour God?


All of us, as Canadians, have a certain amount of material possessions, especially when we look around the world for comparison.  Jesus summarizes all of God’s commandments into love God with your whole being and love your neighbour as yourself; and so how can we use our material possessions in a way that loves God and loves our neighbour?


One of the greatest gifts we are given is time – how do we use the time we are given in ways that love God, love our neighbours, and love ourselves?


The same goes for the talents that all of us possess (especially evident after our Time and Talent auction on Friday night!). Same question here – how can we use our talents, whether those talents be musical or culinary or public speaking or prayer or healing – how can we use our talents in ways that love God with our whole being, and that love our neighbours as ourselves?


We all have a certain amount of societal power, whether that power comes from the colour of our skin, or our nationality, or our gender, or our sexual orientation, or our class, or the language we speak, or from who we know.  How can we use this power in a way that loves God and that loves our neighbour?  This question is especially fresh on my mind this week, having spent some time learning how to use my voice and my power as a Canadian voter to advocate for change so that there is no more hunger in the world.


What belongs to God?  All that we have, and all that we are belongs to God; and I think that God cares about how we use these things.  But when we use them in ways that love God and that love our neighbour… then I think that God is pleased.


Author C. S. Lewis tells a story in his book Mere Christianity in response to a question about why God could possibly care about what we do with the resources that we’ve been given – after all, God is all-powerful, and the Creator of all, while we are merely human.


Lewis compares God to a parent.  If a child comes to their parent and asks for sixpence in order to buy a gift for that parent, the parent is going to give them the sixpence.  (Lewis was British – maybe we would say that the child asks for a $20 bill to buy the parent a gift!) The parent is going to give the child the sixpence; and when the child gives the gift to the parent, is the parent going to say, “Well, that isn’t much of a gift since it was purchased with my sixpence to begin with”?  No – the parent is going to unwrap the gift with great anticipation, and be delighted with what their child has given to them.  Everybody knows that the parent is sixpence none the richer for the exchange, but everyone also knows that the parent is delighted with what their child has done.


And so it is with us and with God.  When we use our material resources; when we use our time, when we use our skills, when we use our voices in ways that love God and that love our neighbours, God is delighted.  For then we are truly giving to God the things that are God’s.


And may this be so.  Amen.

(Note:  I did clarify later in the service that I didn’t want people to go away with the impression that I don’t think that we should pay taxes. I think that things like health care and education and foreign aid are things that make God happy!)



Our $1Million and $2Million coins

from the Story for All Ages