9 December 2018

"Wilderness" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 9, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 3:1-6

I feel as though I need to begin by apologizing to our scripture readers this morning for the great long list of names of people and places in the reading from Luke’s gospel.  I considered cutting the first verse from the reading to save our readers from needing to read most of the names; but that list of names ended up being the first thing that really caught my attention when I looked at the reading earlier in the week.

We begin with a long list of names of who held the power and where.  If we were to translate this list into 2018, it might read something like, “In the second year of the reign of President Trump, when The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was the Prime Minister of Canada and The Honourable Blaine Higgs was the Premier of New Brunswick, when Elizabeth II was the Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth…”  You see where this is going!

So our reading begins with a list of who held the power and where; but the Word of God doesn’t come to those who were in power.  The Word of God doesn’t come to the emperor or the governor or the rulers or the high priests.  Instead, the Word of God comes to John, an ordinary guy from Judea who didn’t live in a palace but instead made his home in the wilderness.

I don’t know about you, but I carry within me many memories of wilderness times.  Back in northwestern Ontario, one of my favourite things to do is a back-country canoe trip – the longer the better.  One of my friends and I like to go out for a week or two at a time.  We carry our food and our tent and our sleeping bags in our backpacks and we paddle from lake to lake and down rivers, sometimes carrying our canoe around rapids and waterfalls, or sometimes choosing to run the rapids.

It’s not an easy or a comfortable place to be.  Our canoe has capsized a couple of times.  It’s hard work, paddling and portaging all day; and then at night we sleep on the hard ground since there isn’t room for fancy air mattresses in our backpacks.  And depending on the time of year, the mosquitoes and blackflies can be something fierce!

And yet despite all of this, or maybe because of it, there’s something about being in the wilderness – away from telephones, away from the internet, away from Facebook, away from regular commitments.  There’s something about the repetitive action of paddle… paddle… repeat.  There’s something about portaging along a rough trail, canoe overhead and a heavy pack on your back, one foot in front of the other.  There’s something about being in tune with the cycle of the day from sunrise to sunset with no watch or phone to track the hours.  It seems as though each time we go out into the wilderness, either my friend or I is struggling to discern something; and by the time we get back to so-called civilization, an important decision has been reached.  There’s something special about the wilderness.

In the wilderness, we need to choose what is essential, and what we are going to leave behind.  We need to trust our companions, because it is only by working together that we will make it to the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment, alert to both the beauty and the dangers.

All of us go through periods of time in our lives that feel like wilderness times.  Times when everything that has seemed to be safe and predictable drops away from us; times that feel uncomfortable or downright scary; times that feel like it is just such hard work to get from one day to the next.

I wonder if maybe the lessons from the literal wilderness might help us to get through these wilderness times in our lives?  We need to decide what is essential, and what burdens can be left behind.  We need to choose our companions, and then work together and trust them in order to arrive safely on the other side.  We need to be fully present in the moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.

The word of God came to John in the wilderness; and God comes to us too in the wilderness times in our lives.  I wonder if maybe these wilderness times that we face in our lives open our hearts to God’s presence?  Maybe they draw us closer together, and to draw us closer to God?  The wilderness is not an easy place to be, or a comfortable place to be; but there is something about being in the wilderness.

The voice in the wilderness cries out:  “The path will be made easy since the valleys will be raised up and the hills will be lowered and the twists and turns will be straightened out!  The path of God will be prepared, and all of humanity will see and know God’s salvation!”

May it be so.


(An aerial shot of one of the rapids that tipped our canoe over in the wilderness)

"Waiting..." (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
December 2, 2018
Scripture:  Jeremiah 33:14-16

So who here has ever had to wait for anything?  Waiting to get an appointment with a specialist.  Waiting for the results of medical tests.  Waiting for a much-anticipated baby or grandbaby to be born.  Waiting for a flight to land bringing a loved one home.  Waiting with someone as they pass from this life into the next.  Waiting in line at Sobey’s.

I think that all of us have waited on more than one occasion!

Next question:  who here enjoys waiting?  It’s not always a comfortable place to be.  Often we’d rather skip over the waiting and go straight to the ending!

I have two sisters, and when we were growing up, the rule was that on Christmas morning we weren’t allowed into the living room where the stockings had been hung by the chimney with care until 7am.  Being kids though, we were usually awake at 6am (or earlier).  We would go downstairs to wait.  Usually our auntie would wait with us – making us hot chocolate and trying to entertain us until the magic hour.

That hour between waking up and being allowed at our stockings felt like the longest hour of the year.  It felt like it took at least 6 hours for the clock to move from 6 to 7.  Waiting was not fun – if given the choice, we would have much rather gone straight to the ending and opened up our presents as soon as we were awake!

Advent is a season of waiting.  We too are waiting for Christmas.  When the world around us is in full-blown Christmas by now, here in the church we are in a season of not-yet-Christmas.  We are in a season of waiting and preparing and longing for Christmas.

The people that Jeremiah was addressing were also in a season of waiting.  The ancient Israelite people lived in a small country surrounded by superpowers, and as usually happens to small countries surrounded by superpowers, they were invaded by their more powerful neighbours.  First of all, the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrian army and the people fled south for safety; and then just over a hundred years later, the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian army, Jerusalem and the first temple were destroyed, and most of the key leaders were sent into exile to Babylon.

And this is the moment that Jeremiah is prophesying in.  He is speaking to a people on the brink of exile.  It’s pretty much a given that things aren’t going to go well for the people.  With the perspective of history, we know that they are going to be exiled to Babylon for 70 years – the people who went into exile were not the same generation that would return.  It is going to be a 70-year waiting period before their descendants would be allowed to return.  Maybe next time you are waiting in line at the grocery story and it feels as though the line is moving at a snail’s pace, you can re-assure yourself by thinking, “at least it isn’t going to be a 70-year wait!”

And Jeremiah promises the people that God is with them, and God has not forgotten about them, no matter how long the wait may be.  God promises that they will return from exile, and that Jerusalem will be re-built.  “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise.”  God doesn’t say how long it will take, but the time is coming!

And so Advent is a season of waiting; but if God is with us, then waiting can be a holy time.  We are on the threshold of something new – there is something new unfolding in front of us, and God is with us as we wait and as we watch the unfolding and as we long for that which is new to be revealed.

Our Advent theme this week is hope; and our hope grows in the waiting.  Theological hope is so much more than wishful thinking – our hope is our confidence that God is with us, our confidence that God loves us, our confidence that God’s promises for all of creation will come true.

And so while our waiting feels long, our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to look for God’s presence in our lives.  Our times of waiting are times that we can set aside to see how God is working in the world.  Our times of waiting are times that we can examine our own hearts to see how they are lined up with God’s plan for the world, but also how they might be out of alignment.  This can be uncomfortable, but waiting is uncomfortable.  But it is in our discomfort that God can work on our hearts.

So rather than rushing to the ending, rather than skipping ahead to Christmas Day, I would invite you to embrace this time of holy waiting.  And whatever it is that you are waiting for in your life, whether it’s the result of medical tests, the birth of a new baby, the opportunity to see a loved one, or opening your stocking on Christmas morning, I invite you to embrace the waiting.  Sit with the discomfort.  Avoid the temptation to distract yourself from the waiting, whether the distraction be in the form of a cell phone or a whirlwind of social engagements.  Embrace the waiting, be still, and simply BE with God.  Embrace the waiting and see how God is wanting to use you and change you and prepare you for the new thing that is coming.

May we all have a holy Advent.


(Waiting for the Sunrise)

26 November 2018

"What Sort of King? What Sort of Kingdom?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
November 25, 2018
Scripture:  John 18:33-37

It feels a bit strange, perched on the threshold of Advent as we move towards Christmas, to have a reading taken straight from our Good Friday story.  In the context of our Sunday-morning readings it makes sense.  Ever since the middle of September, we have been moving with Jesus towards Jerusalem, and for the past couple of weeks we have been there in the city, hearing about the events of the last week of Jesus’ life.  And now, even though we’ve skipped from Mark’s gospel over to John’s, we still have some continuity.  We are there with Jesus standing before Pilate as the judge.  Christ is on trial.

The church year doesn’t quite follow the calendar year.  It starts with Advent and cycles through until today, which is known as the Reign of Christ, or Christ the King Sunday.  We begin in Advent which is a season of waiting and preparing, then we move through the events of Jesus’ life – his birth, his teachings, his actions, his death, and his resurrection – and then we come to today which is also a time of waiting.  We are waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled, for a time when God will fully rule or reign over all of creation.

But what does God’s reign look like?  We talk about Christ the King, but do we really want a King ruling over us?  What sorts of models of king-ship to we have in our world?

In the world that Jesus was living in, the rule was by the Roman Emperors, who were not known for their loving-kindness and generosity.  The ancient Israelite people had had their kings too, beginning with King David and stretching on for several centuries until they were defeated and sent into exile in Babylon.  But if you look at scripture, you will see that of the 43 kings, only 7 of them did good in the eyes of God, which leaves 36 of them who did evil from God’s perspective.

And then what about our examples of kingship that we have in our world today?  We have the British royal family, who gives us weddings that we can wake up at 4am to watch, and baby bumps that we can follow on social media; but aside from supporting various charities, they are a pretty benign force in the big picture of things.

And so when we call Christ our King, or when we long for the reign or rule of Christ to come, what are we really longing for?  Do we want Christ to be a king in the way that the Roman Emperors ruled?  Do we want a benign and harmless king like the British monarchy?

I’m fascinated by the contrast between Jesus and Pilate in today’s reading.  Here we have Jesus, who has been arrested like any other criminal.  His followers have left him.  Peter has just denied knowing him.  He’s stood before the High Priest, and now he’s standing before the governor of the region.  Almost immediately following the passage that we read today, he’s going to be beaten and nailed to a cross.

 We used this image in our "Story for All Ages" contrasting Pilate and Jesus
"'What is Truth?' Christ and Pilate" by N. N. Ge
Public Domain
And then we have Pilate.  Pilate was the prefect, or governor of the province of Judea.  He represented the Emperor in the region; he ruled on behalf of the Emperor; he was the ultimate political authority in the region.  He was probably dressed in fancy robes representing his status.  He was probably surrounded by servants and slaves and soldiers, ready to do his every bidding.

So when we look at these two standing together – Pilate and Jesus – which one of them appears to have the power?

And yet we dare to call Jesus our king.  We are choosing to follow a king who rode in to Jerusalem on a donkey rather than a warhorse.  We are choosing to follow a king who wears a crown of thorns rather than a crown of gold.  We are choosing to follow a king who is raised up on a cross rather than on a throne.  We are choosing to follow a king who rules by love rather than by retaliatory violence.

The feminist in me wishes that we had a good gender-inclusive word that would convey that sense of absolute authority that “king” or “lord” carries; but we are constrained by the English language here.  And the thing is, if we call Christ our King or our Lord, we are actually making a very powerful statement; because if we are subjects of Jesus Christ – if we give Christ the ultimate authority over our lives – then we can’t give that authority to anyone else.

If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then our possessions can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then our political affiliation can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then we ourselves can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then celebrity and social media culture can’t be Lord.
If God-in-Jesus is Lord over our lives, then violence and anger can’t be Lord.

When we recognize and celebrate this Sunday as the Reign of Christ Sunday, we are proclaiming that we celebrate God’s topsy-turvy, upside-down kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  We are proclaiming that we have confidence that the time is coming when this topsy-turvy, upside down kingdom will be the only kingdom across the whole earth and throughout all of creation.  We are proclaiming that we aren’t satisfied with the world as it is, because we know that something better is coming; and we are proclaiming our intention to live by the rules of God’s kingdom rather than the rules of the world around us.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live in celebration of abundance rather than fear of scarcity.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live by love and peace rather than by fear and violence.  We are proclaiming that we intend to live in community with all of creation rather than in self-centered isolation.

I mentioned at the beginning that this Sunday is the last one in the church year, and that a new church year will begin next week with the season of Advent.  Which makes today a little bit like New Year’s Eve.  And so as we sit on the threshold of a new year, I would like to invite you to take part in the time-honoured tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions.  How can we, as a church, resolve to be a community where this alternative, counter-cultural kingdom can bubble up into existence?  How can we live our allegiance to Christ the King in the world that we live in?

Let us pray:
Holy God,
            blow your Holy Spirit through our church,
                        and through our lives,
            uniting us with one another,
                        and making us one with Christ.
Help us to be a place where your kingdom can come;
            and help us to show the world
                        that there is a different way to be.
We pray this in the name of Christ the King.

19 November 2018

"Hope, Instead of Fear" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Dec. 18, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 13:1-8

When I say “apocalypse” what do you think of?  If you are anything like me, I know that my brain tends to jump straight to movies featuring zombies with blank stares, post-nuclear wastelands, and warring factions; or to books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or just about anything written by Margaret Atwood.  What seems to tie them together is a sense of pervading fear and violence, and a plot that features one person or a small group fighting against the rest of the world.

Post-apocalyptic dystopias in fiction and movies seem to have been increasing in popularity in the past decade and a half, and many people have linked this trend to what’s going on in the world around us.  Wars leading to unfathomable numbers of refugees.  Climate change leading to changing weather patterns with more powerful storms than we have known in the past.  Rapid changes in technology that is almost impossible to keep up with.  Just this week, we have been flooded with images of fires in California leaving behind landscapes that are almost impossible to imagine in their total devastation.  Is it any wonder that this apocalyptic genre resonates with us and has been gaining popularity in books and movies?

But apocalyptic literature isn’t a new genre to this century.  We find it as far back as parts of the Old and New Testament.  The best-known examples are probably the books of Daniel and Revelation; but we also find shorter passages scattered throughout, including the one that we read this morning from Mark’s gospel.

On the surface, this biblical apocalyptic literature contains some scary images.  In today’s reading from Mark, we have mention of earthquakes and famines and wars, and a prediction that the temple, the heart of the culture in which Jesus lived, was going to be destroyed.

But the origins of the word apocalypse don’t have anything to do with fear, or even with the end of the world.  It means something more like an unveiling, revealing something that has been hidden.

We see a bit of that unveiling in today’s reading.  Jesus and his disciples are leaving the temple, and one of his disciples pauses, in awe, at the sight of the temple.  And the temple was surely an awe-inspiring sight – each stone that made the walls was 12m long, 4m high, and 5½m deep.  It was by far the biggest building in Jerusalem, the biggest building that anyone had ever seen, almost impossible to fathom and as solid a building as you could imagine.  And the disciple, lost in awe, wants to share that awe with Jesus.  “What large stones, and what large buildings!”  But Jesus, looking with unveiled eyes, doesn’t see something to be in awe of.  Jesus sees a building that is built with human hands, and that will eventually crumble just as everything that humans build crumbles.  With Jesus’ unveiled eyes, the only thing that can inspire awe is God.

And I think that this is the key to reading the apocalyptic books in the bible.  We need to keep God at the centre of our reading.  We need to have our eyes unveiled so that we can keep them fixed on God.

I think that one of the things that the apocalyptic books and passages in the bible tell us is that scary things happen in every generation.  When Jesus and his disciples were standing outside the temple, they were living under the rule of the Roman Empire – a rule that didn’t allow for any questioning or opposition, or else you might end up nailed to a cross.  30 or 40 years later when the Gospel of Mark was being written down, the community that recorded these stories of Jesus’ life was still living under Roman oppression, but now they were in the middle of a full-blown war that eventually caused the destruction of Jerusalem including the temple that the disciple was in awe of.  And today?  Well, today we still have scary things in our world.  We still have wars, we have people displaced from their homes, we are destroying the world that God created.

But the thing that the apocalyptic stories in the bible give us that we don’t usually find in popular culture apocalyptic stories is the reassurance, the confidence that God is with us.  Bad things are going to happen in every generation, but God is with us.  We might be tempted to feel fear in the moment, but God is with us and so we don’t need to feel afraid.

Baptism is given to us as a sign that God is with us always.  We baptized Jack this morning, and while common sense tells us that life won’t always be smooth sailing and rainbows and unicorns for Jack and his parents; we can be assured that God is with them.  We can be confident that God is with them when things are good, and we can be confident that God is with them even when things are tough and scary.

Today’s passage from Mark’s gospel hints at this re-assurance.  As Jesus is describing wars and famines and earthquakes, Jesus tells us that this isn’t the end of the story – the end is yet to come – the end where God is fully present and all of these bad and scary things will end.  Jesus goes on to use a childbirth image.  While I have never given birth myself, I’m told that it is a painful and sometimes scary thing to go through, but at the end, a new life has begun.  And with God as midwife, what a birthing it will be as God’s vision for the world is revealed!

And this is the source of our hope.  God is with us in every generation when things are good and when things are bad; God is with us in the here and now; and God will be with us in the future when this unveiling, this revelation, this apocalypse is complete and God’s dream for the world is fully realized.

I want to end with a quote from Adrienne Maree Brown, an author and Black activist.  Two and a half years ago, in the middle of the Black Lives Matter movement, days after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile had been killed, she tweeted the following:  “things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered.  we must hold each other tight & continue to pull back the veil.”

And so when we are tempted to fear, instead let us hold each other close, and let us work together to pull back the veil so that God’s vision for the world can be revealed.

May it be so.

What popular culture associates with "apocalypse"

14 November 2018

"Who's Got the Power?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Nov. 10/11 2018
Scripture:  Mark 12:38-44

So today we have one of the well-known stories of Jesus’ ministry.  The story of a poor widow who puts all of her money – two copper coins – we might say two pennies if we still used pennies here in Canada – she put all of the money she had into the collection plate at the temple.

Now I could probably make the Stewardship committee and the Treasurers happy if I stood up here and preached a sermon on increasing our offerings to the church each week.  Just look at the widow – she was so faithful that she gave not just some but all of her money to the church of her day!  Look at how Jesus points out what she is doing!  After all, this is how this story has been interpreted so often over the centuries.

But sorry, Stewards and Treasurers.  I’m going to save my sermon about how we should all give everything that we have to the church for another day.  Instead, I’m going to invite you to look a bit more closely at this story of the widow.  If you want to flip open a bible in your pew, go for it.  If you have a close look at this story, you will see that nowhere does Jesus commend the widow for her actions.  We don’t have Jesus saying to her, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  We don’t have Jesus saying to his disciples, “Now go and do likewise.”  If you look closely at this passage, all that we have is Jesus noticing her actions and pointing it out to his disciples.

So if Jesus didn’t want to praise her for her actions, what else might be going on here?

We might jump to the opposite extreme.  Maybe, instead of commending the widow for her faithfulness and devotion and sacrifice, maybe Jesus was condemning the economic system that forced her to live in poverty and give away all of her money.

This story of the widow is found right after a powerful condemnation of those who are the opposite of humble, those who like to be the centre of attention.  Jesus tells us to beware of those who walk around in fancy clothing, those who like to be greeted with respect, those who like to have the best seats when they gather to worship where they could influence worship, those who liked to be seated at the head table at banquets, those who say long and empty prayers.  And in the middle of this list, we encounter the curious phrase, “they devour widows’ houses.”  Scholars have written pages and volumes trying to figure out what that phrase means.  It might mean that the wealthy took advantage of those who couldn’t say no; or it might mean, as some scholars have suggested, that since widows weren’t considered capable of managing their own finances, their property and possessions were managed by the Scribes which led to a system of exploitation.[1]

So coming after this powerful condemnation of the group of people who sought honour and power, what if we saw the story of the widow as a continuation of this?  What if, by pointing out that she was forced to give away all of the money she had, Jesus was continuing to condemn the systems that led to some people being rich and powerful and others being poor and hungry?  The Jesus that we see elsewhere in the gospels never supports systems and actions that make poor people even poorer, more vulnerable, and even dead by starvation if she had no money left to live on.

But what if there’s a third way?  What if this isn’t a story about money at all?  What if this isn’t about Jesus praising the woman for her generosity; and what if this isn’t a story about condemning economic systems that lead to poverty?

What if we look at this story as a story about power?  Who has more power, and who has less power?

If we take both halves of the reading together, we start with the Scribes.  They have the power in the world where they lived.  They were authorities in the Temple, like a cathedral in their culture.  They wielded religious and political influence.  They were greeted with respect in the marketplaces and they were given the seat of honour, seated at the head table at banquets.  Everyone wanted to be close to the Scribes in case some of their power and influence and prestige rubbed of.  Power by association.

And then we have the widow.  She has no power.  In a patriarchal society, a true widow had no male relative to represent her in the public sphere.  She had no voice, even by proxy.  She can’t even wield influence through her wealth, as we’re told that her entire income was 2 cents.  Even by giving away all of her money, she wouldn’t have been noticed by anyone.  She is at the very opposite end of the power spectrum from the scribes.

Now, let’s take Jesus.  Jesus had some power in the world in which he lived.  He was male, to begin with, and he was Jewish which put him as part of the dominant culture and religion.  His power was decreased somewhat because he came from the backwater of Galilee, and he came from a background of poverty rather than wealth.  But he did have the power of a voice.  He had a group of followers that would hang on to his every word.  And if we step outside of the story for a moment, from a Christian perspective, Jesus had all of the power of God.

So how did Jesus use his power?  He could have used his power to dress himself in fine robes, and get himself invited to the best banquets.  But we don’t see that happening very often in the gospels.  Instead, in todays story, we have Jesus using his power to draw attention to someone with no power.  We have Jesus noticing someone who had probably not been noticed in quite some time.  We have Jesus truly seeing her – seeing her for who she was.  We have Jesus pointing her out to his followers so that they can see her too.  Jesus used the power that he had in order to give power to another – the power of being seen.

I witnessed an example of power being used to create space for those with less power this past summer.  The General Council of the United Church of Canada meets every 3 years, and there was a meeting last summer in Ontario.  I couldn’t be there, but since they live-stream the proceedings, I was able to watch a lot of it that week.  The meeting ran from Sunday through Friday, and so late Friday afternoon the meeting was finishing up with any outstanding business before the closing worship after supper.

Throughout the week, the meeting had paused several times to allow one of the Intercultural Observers to make a short presentation.  These were people attending the meeting who brought a slightly different perspective because of their personal background.  Anyways, late on Friday afternoon, one of these Intercultural Observers, Paul Walfall, a United Church of Canada minister of Caribbean origin, was invited to share one final observation.  He stood up, and said in very clear language that he hadn’t seen himself or his background reflected in any of the meetings or any of the worship.  When he was done speaking, the room, in good United Church fashion applauded, and then the meeting resumed.

Paul Walfall addressing General Council 43
Picture from The United Church of Canada Facebook page
About 15 minutes later, two delegates at the meeting came to the microphone and said that there had been a very powerful opportunity missed in which the church could have listened to those who were marginalized.  And after a few minutes of discussion, the moderator, Jordan Cantwell, invited people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to share their stories.  And nothing happened at first.  She then asked the white people lined up and waiting at the microphones to please step away to make space.  When they only moved back a step or two, she became more blunt and told all white people to sit down and shut up.  And what followed was 2 hours of very powerful story-sharing.  People who hadn’t felt welcomed or safe at the microphone came forward and shared their stories and experiences of racism in the church.  People from every corner of the world who are now a part of our United Church came forward – some people shared positive experiences, but many of the stories were very painful.  And the rest of the meeting sat and listened.

One person, Moderator Jordan Cantwell, used her power to create a space where people who were vulnerable, people who were marginalized, people who didn’t feel safe to speak and were often overlooked were able to come forward, were able to share their stories, were able to be seen and heard.  One person used her power to empower the powerless.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to grow in our Christ-like-ness.  We open ourselves to the Holy Spirit so that we can be transformed into the image of Christ.  And so the question that I want to ask is how can we use our power to give power to those who don’t have any?  Because I would suggest that if you woke up this morning in a bed in a warm house or apartment, and if you know where your next meal is going to come from, then you have more power than many people in our world.  Who in our communities is overlooked, unseen like the widow in today’s story?  How are we called to create a space so that those who are vulnerable can be seen, and those who are powerless can be heard?

How will you use your power?

[1] See, for example, Ched Myers, “Say to This Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 165.

5 November 2018

"Love God, Love Your Neighbour" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
November 4, 2018
Scripture Reading:  Mark 12:28-34

You know how when you watch a TV show, sometimes the episodes begin with a quick recap of what happened on last week’s episode?  I almost feel like this weeks reading from Mark’s gospel needs to be prefaced with, “Here’s what you missed last week on The Bible.”

The church year begins with Advent and moves through Christmas, Epiphany, on to Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost; and then we have a great long stretch of time until we get to the last Sunday of the church year when we look forward to the Reign of Christ.  Our readings from Mark’s gospel from Christmas, through Easter and Pentecost, and on until about the middle of September were all focused on Jesus’ ministry close to home, in the region of Galilee.  We had stories about Jesus calling his disciples, and healing people, and teaching people.  And then around the middle of September, we reached the first big pivot-point in the story.  Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and then told them that he was going to die, but then would be raised back to life.

After that moment, Jesus and his disciples began their journey from Galilee, south towards Jerusalem, and Jesus’ teaching began to take on an increased urgency.

Now if you have been following our readings from week-to-week, you might have noticed that between last week and this week, we have skipped over a chapter and a half of Mark’s gospel.  In that chapter, Jesus and his followers entered the city of Jerusalem, which marks the next big pivot-point in Mark’s gospel.

We are now into the last couple of days of Jesus’ life, and his teachings are taking on an even greater sense of urgency and importance.

And here we have a scribe, one of the temple officials, asking Jesus, what is the greatest commandment of all.  Here is Jesus’ opportunity to leave his listeners with one final message.  Here is Jesus’ opportunity to sum up his entire teaching into a quick soundbite.  Maybe you want to compare it to a lawyer’s closing argument at a trial; maybe you want to compare it to a politician’s final speech before retiring; maybe you want to compare it to the last page on a book – the words that are left in your ear and in your mind once you are done.

And Jesus chooses to quote from Deuteronomy and Leviticus – two of the books of the Torah, the 5 books that are the books of the law or the teachings for all Jewish people.  These are books that the Scribe as a devout Jewish person would have been intimately familiar with; and they are books that Jesus as a devout Jewish person would have grown up hearing, and then spent his ministry teaching from.

And Jesus begins by quoting from Deuteronomy, the words of the Shema, the words of the prayer that is prayed every day by every Jewish person.  “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

And then he goes on to quote from Leviticus, which, on the surface, might appear to be a book of lists of things that you are supposed to do and not do.  But there, in the middle of chapter 19 of Leviticus, comes this summary statement:  “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  All of the dos and do-nots in the verses leading up to this one are about doing the decent thing by your neighbour; about treating your neighbour as you would want to be treated yourself.

That’s it.  Jesus’ summary of God’s commandments; Jesus’ summary of everything that he has been teaching and doing; it all comes down to this:  Love God.  Love your neighbour.  This is the core, the centre of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.

Now some of you might be thinking, and I know that I sometimes think this, but some people are so much easier to love than others.  How can I love someone that I don’t particularly like?

Believe me, we aren’t the first ones to struggle with this!  A couple of my favourite authors have addressed this very question.

Madeline L’Engle is maybe best known these days for her book A Wrinkle in Time which was made in to a movie earlier this year.  In the sequel to this book, A Wind in the Door, one of the characters, Meg, is struggling to love a character that she doesn’t really like – namely the principal at her school, Mr. Jenkins.  Meg asks, “how can I do the impossible? … How can I feel love for Mr. Jenkins?” and she is told, “Love isn’t how you feel.  It’s what you do.”[1]  Love isn’t how you feel – it’s what you do.

C. S. Lewis, well known for writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, along with the rest of the Narnia books, also wrote many theology books.  In his book Mere Christianity he suggests that the way to find love for our neighbours that aren’t particularly likeable is not “to sit trying to manufacture affectionate feelings… Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbour; act as if you did.”[2]  He goes on to suggest that the same rule applies to loving God – that we should ask ourselves, “If I were sure that I loved God, what would I do?  [and] when you have found the answer, go and do it.”[3]

So loving our neighbour or loving God comes down to how we live, and how we act towards them.  Our love is more than something that we feel – it is something that we do, something that we live.

This week, for All Saints Day, we have been remembering all of the saints of the church – all of the women and men of faith who have come before us, who have led the way in faith, who have mentored us, who have taught us, who have inspired us.  These are women and men of faith who have modeled for us how to live this love – how to live life loving God and loving neighbour.

And so we give thanks for the saints we have known, and for the saints we have heard or read about.  We give thanks for their lives and for their faith; and we pray that we too might be inspired by the Holy Spirit to live out this love that comes from God.  And we can be confident that God isn’t done with us yet – that the Holy Spirit is always transforming us more and more into the image of Christ so that we too can be drawn into the eternal dance of love that is God.

May it be so.

The "Great Cloud of Witnesses" for All Saints Day
Triptych from the chapel of the Atlantic School of Theology
Photo Credit:  Falen McNulty

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1973), 117-118.
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 130-131.
[3] Ibid., 132.

29 October 2018

"What Do You Want Me to Do for You?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 28, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

So who here likes helping other people out?  I know that I do!  And how do you feel when you help out a friend or a neighbour or a family member?  How does it feel when you lend a hand to others?  It feels pretty good – we get a bit of a boost when we help others out.  I know that I’ve only been here for a couple of months now, but my impression of Two Rivers Pastoral Charge is that it is full of people who like helping out other people.

Now what about the flip side of the coin?  How does it feel when we help someone out, and maybe they don’t react the way we expect or want them to?  Maybe we think that they aren’t sufficiently grateful; maybe it seems like they keep asking for more and more; maybe they ask for something other than what we have offered.  Not quite as good of a feeling, is it.

I remember one time when I was working in Tanzania (in East Africa) as a physiotherapist and I ran up against this.  I was working with a young man who had had a stroke.  His left arm and leg were paralyzed, and we were working on helping him get his independence back in whatever way he could.  But one day I went in to his hospital room and found his wife spoon-feeding him his lunch.

I remember feeling really upset at this.  He had no problems with his right arm or hand so surely he could be eating by himself!  After all, weren’t we working to try and help him to become more independent?!

I remember leaving his room, and going into the nurses station, and ranting to one of the doctors who was there, Dr. Lukiko.  Fortunately Dr. Lukiko is a very patient person, and he heard me out, and then gently suggested to me that for his wife, this was one of the only ways she had in that moment of expressing her love.

It was a situation where my cultural values were promoting independence, but the cultural values of the place where I was living promoted interdependence and community.  I thought that I was helping out, but I wasn’t really listening for what was actually wanted by the people I thought that I was helping.

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus, a healer, traveling along the road.  He, and his disciples, and a large crowd are leaving the town of Jericho, close to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and they are beginning the uphill journey along a road with a dangerous reputation to reach Jerusalem.  When they get to Jerusalem, in the verse immediately following the passage that we read today, they will be entering the city in a triumphant procession that we remember every year on Palm Sunday, and only a few days later Jesus will be nailed to a cross in the story that we remember every year on Good Friday.  We’re getting close to the end of Jesus’ story.

But that is all in the days ahead.  In our story today, Jesus and his followers are just setting out from Jericho.  And as they are leaving, a man named Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Now Jesus doesn’t keep on walking. He doesn’t say, “Hurry up, we have a dangerous road to walk and we can’t lose any time!” He doesn’t just wave his hand and restore Bartimaeus’ vision and keep on walking.  No, Jesus stops and he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus doesn’t assume that he knows what Bartimaeus wants.  Maybe Bartimaeus was seeking healing for his mother or father or daughter.  Maybe Bartimaeus wanted to share some food with Jesus.  Maybe Bartimaeus wanted to know that he was loved by God.  And so Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What a question this is for us to ponder.  This question gives is so many different invitations.  On one level, it invites us to hear Jesus asking us the same question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  If we open our hearts, if we look deeply into ourselves, what do we really want from God?  Do we dare to name the thing that we most deeply desire?

On another level, I wonder what would happen if the world could slow down and start listening to one another.  What if the world could start asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” and then really listen to the answers.

One of the stories that’s been in the news this week is about a caravan of people traveling north from Central America; and the immediate reaction of the country to the north has been to try and stop them, by any means possible, from crossing the border.  I wonder what would happen if the question could be asked, “What do you want us to do for you?  How do you want us to help you?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the answer was not the expected one.  Instead of looking for a new place to live, most refugees would prefer that the conditions could change so that they could stay at home.

Three years ago, when the media was flooded with pictures of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded and dangerous boats, and the picture of the body of a toddler named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach had inspired grief and outrage around the world, when all of this was happening, a Somali-British poet named Warsan Shire wrote a poem called “Home” about the refugee experience.  In it, she says,
“you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.”[1]

What do you want us to do for you?  How can we help you?

But closer to home, I think that this question also invites us to consider how we, as the church, interact with the world.  If we, as the church, are the body of Christ, I think that we are invited to ask this same question to the community around us.  If we were to ask the communities around us, “What do you want us, what do you want the church, what do you want the Body of Christ to do for you?” – if we were to ask this question of the communities around us, I wonder what sort of answer we would hear.

One of the things about Jesus’ ministry is that he never put any conditions on it.  If you were to read Mark’s gospel from beginning to end, you would never see Jesus making discipleship a condition of healing.  You will never hear Jesus saying, “Yes, I will heal you, but only if you promise to follow me.”  Some people, after being healed, decided to follow Jesus the way that Bartimaeus did in today’s reading; but other people didn’t.  It didn’t matter – Jesus healed them anyways, unconditionally.

And so I hear this story as a challenge to the church around the world.  Do we dare to ask the community around us, “What do you want us to do for you?”  Do we dare to ask this question, being willing to hear whatever the answer might be?  Do we dare to ask this question, knowing that the answer might be different than what we think?  Do we dare to ask this question as Jesus did, unconditionally, prepared to serve without expecting anything in return?

What do you want me to do for you?

Let us pray:
Holy, holy, holy God,
Help us to open our hearts to your love.
Help us to hear you asking us,
            “What do you want me to do for you?”
Help us to look deeply into our hearts
            so that we can see beyond pretence,
                        beyond artifice,
                        beyond the mask that we put on for the world,
and help us to truly see that which we are asking for.
And even as we are answering the question,
            help us to be open to asking the question.
Give us the courage to ask the world around us,
            “What do you want us to do for you?”
Blow your Holy Spirit through us
            so that we can truly be the Body of Christ
                        acting in the world;
Inspire us by your Holy Spirit
            so that we can ask the question,
                        and listen deeply to the answers that we hear.
Transform us, by your Holy Spirit,
            so that we might be more like Christ.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the one in whose name we are called.

[1] To hear the whole poem, click here.

The Front Entrance to Ndolage Hospital, Tanzania
where I worked from 2003-2006
(decorated with flowers for Christmas!)