13 September 2019

Election Campaign Slogans - What would Jesus think?

(Note that all opinions expressed below are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of the United Church of Canada.  Kate.)

On Wednesday morning, just after 11:00 Atlantic time, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, accompanied by Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, paid a call on Julie Payette, the Governor General of Canada.  When he walked out of Rideau Hall a short time later, parliament had been dissolved and Canada had entered our next federal election.

And now we are facing 40 days of being tempted in the wilderness.  When we emerge from the other side, we Canadians will have collectively discerned the direction that we want our country to go for the next 4 years (give or take).  This election does not come as a surprise – we have known that it was coming this fall for the past 4 years.  The political parties have been gearing up towards this for the past months, releasing platforms and slogans, and announcing candidates in the various ridings across the country.

The one whom I believe reveals God to us, Jesus Christ, said that the two most important things that we have to do are:
1)    To love God with all our heart, all our being, all our strength, and all our mind
2)    To love our neighbour as ourselves.
(Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:27-28)

And so I would like to examine the campaign slogans of the various political parties through this lens of loving God and loving our neighbour.  In alphabetical order, with no party names attached, here we go!

“Choose forward”
Forward is good, but my question for this party would be who is moving forward?  If I love my neighbour as myself, any forward movement has to include all of my neighbours, not just the ones who look like me and sound like me and pray like me etc. (see The Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37).  This forward movement has to include my neighbour who is sleeping under the viaduct in Saint John; it has to include my neighbours who are living on remote reserves in northern Ontario; it has to include my neighbours who have recently moved to Canada and who are struggling to learn English and/or French and adapt to life in a new country.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “Choose forward for everyone.”

“In it for you”
OK, but what if I don’t want you to be in it only for me?  What if I believe that what is best for my neighbour is equally important to what is best for me?  (see Matthew 22:39)  We are communal beings – our lives are interconnected with one another – our well-being is dependent on our interdependence.  I want you to be in it not only for me, but for my neighbour who is struggling with addiction, my neighbour who is currently unable to access appropriate health care, my neighbour who is unemployed or under-employed.  I want you to be especially in it for any vulnerable or marginalized person in this country.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “In it for ALL Canadians.”

“It’s time for you to get ahead”
Nope.  Just nope.  It is not time for me to get ahead.  As a person with white skin, who speaks English, who has an excellent education, who has stable employment in my chosen field, who owns her own house (well, the bank still owns a good chunk of it, but I was in a position to be given a mortgage), who has the freedom to travel, it is NOT time for me to get ahead.  My privilege means that I am already ahead.  Again, getting back to that whole “love your neighbour as yourself” thing (and note that Jesus didn’t make this up himself – he was quoting the Hebrew scriptures – see Leviticus 19:9-18), instead I want my neighbour – all of my neighbours – to have the same advantages as I enjoy.  Maybe it is even time for me to take a step backwards in order to allow someone with less privilege to take a step forwards.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “It’s time for Canada’s marginalized people to get ahead.”

“Not left.  Not right.  Forward together.”
I find this slogan harder to analyze – possibly because of the mixed metaphors it incorporates!  I can’t look at it outside of context – in order for it to make any sense, I have to know that the “left” and “right” refer to political leanings, while the “forward” refers to progress.  Clever wordplay; nonsensical without context!  But of all of the slogans, this might be the only one that acknowledges that I am to love my neighbours as I love myself.  It is the only slogan that hints that we are interdependent and that I can’t move forward without my neighbour.  In order for anyone to benefit, we all must benefit.  If I were to tweak it at all, I might try to include the first half of the Jesus’ double love commandment – maybe something like, “Not left. Not right. Forward together towards God's vision.”  (Though I know that this would never fly in secular Canada!)

“Strong and Free”
So this slogan is an intentional reference to the Canadian National Anthem – “with glowing hearts we see thee rise / the True North strong and free!”  And therefore, I know that this slogan was crafted to inspire patriotism in everyone who hears it.  Yet Jesus’ double-love commandment doesn’t include anything about loving your country.  In fact, Jesus’ ministry as a whole tended to be subversive with respect to the political powers and authorities.  Last Sunday’s sermon hinted at the dangers that can arise when nationalism becomes the most important thing in a person’s life.  Jesus is quite clear that loving God and loving our neighbour are to be the most important thing in our lives.  Re-writing this slogan in light of his double-love commandment, I would probably have to change it completely to move away from the nationalism it promotes.  How about, “Love God; love your neighbour!” instead?

Image borrowed from the World Communion of Reformed
Churches - Justice and Witness Facebook page

8 September 2019

"You want me to do what?!" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday September 8, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 14:25-33

One day, as Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem, he turned and said to the crowd that was following him, “If you want to be my disciple, it’s easy – there are just three things that you have to do.  If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is hate your family, give away all of your possessions, and embrace the cross, that thing that will bring death to your body.  If you don’t do these three things, then you can’t be my disciple, you can’t be my follower.”

This is the part of Luke’s gospel that the hosts of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast refer to as “Jesus’ terrible marketing campaign”![1]  After all, who would want to follow someone who is giving such challenging instructions?  Jesus isn’t making it very easy for anyone to just flirt with a relationship with him – you’ve got to be all-in or nothing.  It’s almost like he doesn’t want any followers!

In preaching classes and seminars, you are often told that the best way to prepare a sermon is to find a point of tension in the reading – something that doesn’t sit comfortably, something that is troubling, something that doesn’t make sense.  And then once you have found this point of tension, lean into it, and see where that gets you.

Well, this reading from Luke’s gospel makes a preacher’s job really easy since that point of tension is right there on the surface.  “If you want to be my follower, all you have to do is hate your family, give away all of your possessions, and embrace the cross, that thing that will bring death to your body.”  What is more challenging is to see the place of grace, the place of love in this reading.

According to Jesus, it’s a costly thing, this discipleship.  But how do we measure the cost of something?  At its most basic definition, the cost of something is what we are willing to give up in exchange for that thing.  Let’s say that the grocery story has a loaf of bread advertised for $2.  If you are willing to give up $2 to acquire that loaf of bread, then the cost of the loaf of bread is $2.

If a loaf of bread costs $2, what does it cost to follow Jesus?  Jesus says in today’s reading that it costs us our families, our money and possessions, and even life itself.  So what we receive in exchange must be more precious, more desirable than all of these things put together!

This reading is one that is very challenging to me.  I remember when I first began this whole “follower of Jesus” thing 20 years ago; it was readings like this that I found the hardest to accept, especially the bit about hating my family.  Yes, I loved Jesus, but I also loved my family.  I didn’t want to have to give up my family in order to follow Jesus.  I would read passages like this with my fingers crossed – I will say it, but I don’t really mean it.

I’ve come to realize though, that Jesus is the champion of hyperbole and exaggeration, not just in this reading but throughout the gospels.  When he says that you are to cut your eye out if it leads you astray, he is exaggerating to make a point – he isn’t handing out knives to his listeners as he says it.  And when he says that you are to tie a heavy stone around your ankle and jump into the deep water if you cause another person to stumble in their walk – more exaggeration; he’s not going around handing out stones; Jesus is exaggerating to make a point about how serious he is.

And so I believe that this reading too, is hyperbole or exaggeration.  Jesus uses the words “hate” and “take up your cross” and “all of your possessions” to grab his listeners’ attention, just as it grabbed our attention this morning.  He wants to challenge his listeners, including us, to dig down and examine our priorities.  What are our priorities in life?

Theologian Paul Tillich has an interesting approach when he writes about faith – he calls faith our Ultimate Concern, and he says that everyone has an Ultimate Concern, even if they say that they don’t have faith.[2]  Your Ultimate Concern is that thing that you prioritize above all other things – the thing that you are willing to give your time and your energy and your money to; the thing that you are willing to serve; the thing that demands your devotion and promises you fulfillment.  Your Ultimate Concern is the thing that you consider worthy of giving all of this to; it is the thing that you consider to be holy or sacred.

Having lived in Germany in the 1930s, Tillich observed the problems that arise when nationalism becomes the Ultimate Concern of a group of people – in fact, he was fired from his position as a theology professor by the Nazi government, and had to leave Germany shortly thereafter.  Looking around the world today, I can’t help but wonder if nationalism is once again becoming the Ultimate Concern of more and more people.  But there are other examples of Ultimate Concerns that we can see as well.

An amusing example might be the ultra-fan of a sports team – someone who spends all of their free time and all of their money cheering on a team.  They give up weekends with their family to travel all around following their team, and the team’s success or failure affects the super-fan’s emotional state.  Cheering on a sports team, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; but when that sports team becomes your Ultimate Concern, then it becomes a problem.

Another example of Ultimate Concern that we see in today’s world might be Wellness Culture.  People who spend all of their free time reading health and wellness articles online, who spend all of their money on stranger and stranger wellness products, who are so concerned about what they eat that they can’t extend or receive mealtime hospitality.  Again, being concerned about your health isn’t a bad thing; caring for and loving the bodies that God gave us is a good thing; but when wellness becomes the most important thing in your life, when wellness becomes your Ultimate Concern, then it becomes a problem.

So I think that maybe what Jesus is trying to say in today’s reading is that he wants to be our Ultimate Concern.  Jesus wants to be our top priority, the thing that we give our time and energy towards, the thing that we consider to be worthy of everything that we give.

And this is where that harsh teaching from Jesus starts to make sense.  He doesn’t want us to actually hate our family, he just wants this path of following him to be more important.  Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and seek to be nailed to a cross – but we are to follow Jesus even when that means some sort of risk to our comfort.  Jesus doesn’t want us to give up all of our possessions, but he also doesn’t want our possessions and the pursuit of money to become more important than our relationship with God.

From the comfort of these pews, it can become a bit of a hypothetical mind game – if I were in a situation where I had to choose between my safety and Jesus, what would I choose?  If I had to choose between my possessions and Jesus, what would I choose?  And Jesus is very clear in what he wants our answer to be.  We are to hold very loosely our attachment to our things in the world, things that were given to us from God, and things that are, in the end, transient.  We are to hold them loosely enough that we can put God first if and when they were to ever come into conflict with one another.

It’s not always hypothetical – these situations do arise.  When I was at AST, I did research into bi-vocational ministers – ministers with more than one vocational calling – and how this affected their identity.  One of the things that I found was that when the two vocations were in synch with one another, that was when they were most comfortable in their identity.  However, when they were in their job outside of churchland and found themselves in a situation where they were expected to act in a way that wasn’t in keeping with their identity as either a minister or as a follower of Jesus – that was when they felt very uncomfortable and pulled apart; but in the end, in order to continue to walk through the world as a follower of Jesus, that is the choice that they had to make.

And so I invite you to consider – what is the object of your Ultimate Concern?  When the rubber hits the road, when you have to make a choice, where do your priorities lie? 

[1] https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/proper18c
[2] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 1957), 1-4.

"Jesus said to the crowd..."
(JESUS MAFA, "The Mission to the World"

1 September 2019

"In the Belly of a Whale" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 1, 2019

Has anyone read Michael Crummey’s book, Galore?  One of the key events in this novel is when the body of a whale washes up on the beach in outport Newfoundland, the people cut open the whale and find the body of a man in its stomach. They go to bury him, but before they can do so, they discover that he’s alive, even though he can’t speak and the stink of the whale’s belly never leaves him, no matter how much he bathes.  It’s a modern-day Jonah story – or at least a reference to the story of Jonah set in the 18th Century and written in the current century.

And the pop culture references to Jonah don’t stop with this book!  As a fan of the writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery, I think of the time when Anne Shirley had a “Jonah Day” – a day when absolutely nothing went right for her, a day filled with one disaster after another.  You have Pinocchio and his father being swallowed by a whale.  There was a VeggieTales movie made of the story.  The image of being in the belly of the whale, where you can’t see anything, you can’t do anything, and you are between one situation and another is part of the Jungian psychoanalysis collection of images.

Isn’t it amazing how far these ancient biblical stories have reached into how we see and understand the world?

And yet… and yet digging into the story, I can’t help but think that maybe being in the belly of the whale or the belly of a big fish isn’t as significant to Jonah’s story as it is to pop culture.

The book of Jonah is only 4 chapters long – we read most of the story this morning.  Chapter 1 is heavy on the action.  Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh – one of the biggest cities in the ancient world, located in what is northern Iraq on today’s maps, near the modern city of Mosul.  But Jonah doesn’t want to go – God’s message is unlikely to be received well, and his life will be in danger when his message isn’t welcomed.  So instead of heading east towards Nineveh, Jonah heads west, towards the Mediterranean Sea, and hops on a boat going to the other side.  A storm comes up, lives are in danger, the superstitious sailors try to figure out whose gods have been angered so that they can figure out how to escape the storm, Jonah’s guilty conscience leads him to confess, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard, the sailors try to return him to dry land but the storm is too strong, in desperation they throw Jonah overboard, and God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah before he can drown.  And this is just chapter 1!

Chapter 2 opens with Jonah in the belly of the fish – we have to set aside our knowledge of modern science here, science that tells us that neither whales nor sharks nor any other sea-dwelling creature is able to physiologically swallow a human, and accept the story for what it is.  Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights – who else do we know who spent three days in the land of shadows and death?  And while Jonah is there, he doesn’t rage against God, he doesn’t blame God for what has happened.  Instead, Jonah sings a song of praise to the God who brought him to this situation.  This tells us that Jonah was a person who knew God, who walked with God.  He would have known the scriptures, including the psalms, including Psalm 139, which we adapted for our call to worship this morning.  Jonah knew that there was nowhere that he could go to flee from God, even to the farthest reaches of the sea.  He knew, deep down, that hopping on that ship going the opposite direction from Nineveh was futile – there’s really no way to escape God.

"Jonah" by John August Swanson

Chapter 2 ends with Jonah being vomited out onto dry land; and in Chapter 3, God tries again to send Jonah to Nineveh.  This time Jonah goes.  He goes and preaches a short sermon, as he wanders the streets.  8 words in our English translation; only 5 words in the original Hebrew.  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the amazing thing – it works!  The bible is full of stories of prophets who try to point people back to God, and who are ignored, abused, and killed for their efforts.  But here we have Jonah, the reluctant prophet, convincing an entire city to turn towards God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.  It is almost comedic, the extremes that Chapter 3 presents to us.  The people fast and put on garments of sackcloth to signal their repentance.  The king dresses himself in sackcloth and sits in an ash heap – acts of repentance that mirror the story of Job.  The king declares that the entire city – both humans and livestock – participate in this massive act of repentance, and here I picture those poor cows, not quite sure of what is going on, being draped in sackcloth.  And God sees their repentance, and God chooses not to destroy the city.

We didn’t read Chapter 4 today, but it includes a curious epilogue to the story of Jonah.  When Jonah sees that God has chosen not to destroy the city, Jonah doesn’t celebrate, but instead resents this decision.  If God wasn’t going to destroy the city, why was he, Jonah, put through so much trouble to go there?  To which God replies with an object lesson telling Jonah, “Can’t I choose to extend grace – that unearned gift – wherever I choose?”

And so I see the story of Jonah as the story of someone who was called by God for a specific task; a story of trying to run away from that call, but being unable to escape God.  I see it as a story of God’s persistence, and a story of God’s grace.

And believe me, I can relate to Jonah.  I’ve shared a bit about my own story of being called to ministry with you before, but my call to ministry felt like an itch.  And I tried to run away from it – I tried all sorts of different things to scratch that itch that was God’s calling – anything that would mean that I wouldn’t have to go to Nineveh (I mean, start the path towards ordination in the United Church of Canada)!  I became active in the official board at my home congregation, I not only participated in but led bible study groups, I became a Licenced Lay Worship Leader, I became a Presbytery Rep.

Fortunately I didn’t end up in the belly of a whale, but with each of my attempts to escape God’s calling, God persisted, and the itch just became itchier!  When I started the formal discernment process, I told my discernment committee that their job was to stop me from becoming a minister.  But God persisted, and a year later I was beginning my Master of Divinity at AST in Halifax.  And I was probably about 6 weeks into that degree, completely overwhelmed by the volume and difficulty of the schoolwork, when I realized that the itch was gone.  Like Jonah, I had finally turned in the direction that God wanted me to go, and it was going to be OK.

So like I said, I can relate to Jonah!

And the thing about God and God’s calling is that God doesn’t just call prophets and ministers – God calls all of us.  God’s work in the world requires the gifts and skills of every single one of us.  God calls all of us to different vocations – some of us are to be teachers, some of us are to be nurses, some of us are to be lab techs, some of us are to be parents, some of us are to be grandparents or great-grandparents, and yes, some of us are even called to be ministers.  God needs people in every corner of society, loving God and loving your neighbour wherever you find yourself.

And we also see a diversity of callings in the church – God calls some people to a ministry of prayer, some people to a ministry of music, some people to a ministry of visiting, some people to a ministry of outreach, some people to a ministry of fellowship and community.

And God’s call can change from time to time or from decade to decade.  God didn’t call me to ministry when I was 20 years old, the way that God called some of my classmates.  God waited until both God and I were ready for this call for it to happen.

If we try to run away from our call like Jonah did, not only will you be uncomfortable in the belly of whatever whale you end up in, but so will the people where you were supposed to be.  If Jonah had continued to run away from God, if Jonah hadn’t gone to Nineveh, would the people of Nineveh ever come to know God’s love and God’s grace?

Through the month of September, we’re going to be looking a bit more at stewardship, and most people think that stewardship is mostly about money.  But really, it’s so much more than that.  Stewardship is about how we look after the things that God has given to us to look after; and one of those things that God has given us to look after are our skills and talents.  What gifts has God given to you?  How is God calling you to use these gifts on God’s behalf; both in the church and in the world?

This weekend is Labour Day Weekend – a time when many of us pause to think about, to consider, labour and work.  I encourage you to take a couple of extra minutes this weekend to consider your labour through the lens of God’s call.  Where is God calling you?  What is God calling you to do?  It doesn’t matter if you are retired, or in school, or somewhere in between, God can use you, just as God used Jonah, if you are in the place where God calls you.

How are you being called to spread God’s love in the world?

25 August 2019

"Don't Be Afraid" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday August 25, 2019

David and Goliath.  The classic story of the underdog defeating the obvious choice.  It is such a classic story that it is the prototype for anyone facing overwhelming circumstances – you hear the media referring to a “David and Goliath Situation.”  The small but mighty hero saves the day.

I want to invite you to imagine yourself into David’s shoes for a moment.  You are the youngest son to a farmer in Bethlehem, out on the fringes of society.  And as the youngest, you are given the job of tending the sheep, meaning that you are away from the comforts of home and human companionship for weeks or months at a time.

Then one day a prophet named Samuel shows up in your father’s home, announcing that the next king would be one of his sons.  But you aren’t related to the current king, Saul.  The prophet looks at each of your brothers in turn, and decides that they aren’t the one who will be king, and it’s only then that they remember that they have another brother, one who is out in the distant fields with the sheep.  They send a messenger to fetch you, and when you get home, this prophet announces that some day you are going to be king, and he pours expensive oil over your head, anointing you as if you were already a king.  How must that feel, being told that you are a king, while the old king is still alive?

And then the summons arrives.  The king has heard that you are a musician, and he needs someone to play the harp for him, to soothe his heart.  How must that feel to enter the king’s household as a young boy, knowing that a prophet has announced that you are the rightful king?

And then we come to the war with the Philistines.  They are a more powerful army, and are likely going to win the war, but to minimize the potential loss of soldiers, they issue a one-on-one challenge.  Really, the king or one of his top soldiers should be the one to take up the challenge, but everyone is afraid.  Sure Goliath is massive, with huge muscles, but he can’t move very quickly so that should even the odds a bit.

You see how he can be defeated, by exploiting his slowness to move, and so you tell the king that you will take him on.  After all, a young musician and shepherd boy is better than nobody at all, and if nobody steps forward, then your side will lose by default.

The king tries to dress you up in fancy armour, and give you the best weapons that his army has, but as soon as you put them on, you know that this will take away any advantage that you have.  After all, wearing this armour, you will be as slow as Goliath, and you won’t have any of his strength to compensate.

You insist on heading in to the combat armed with just your slingshot and five smooth stones – the same weapon that you have used to protect your father’s flock all these years.  After all, there’s not much else to do on the hillside other than practice your harp and practice your marksmanship.

I wonder if anyone tries to talk you out of it, on your way down the hill to meet Goliath.  If someone does try to talk you out of it, if someone points out just how massively huge Goliath is, and how strong his muscles are, and how sharp his sword is – if someone does try to talk you out of it, are you tempted to turn around and head back to your father’s sheep?  There’s no glory there, but there are no giants either!

But you don’t turn around, and when you get within a stones throw from Goliath, your muscle memory kicks in – after all, it’s no different than trying to do away with a wolf or a lion who is threatening your sheep.

How does it feel when you see your stone hit its mark?  Do you feel triumphant?  Do you feel empty?  Do you feel proud?  Did you catch a glimpse of the surprise in Goliath’s eyes when he realized that this fight wasn’t going to go the way he thought it would?

Now let’s step out of David’s shoes, and examine the story from the perspective of Saul, the king.

Saul was the first king of the Israelite people.  When they had crossed the Jordan River after 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness and entered the Promised Land, they initially lived as tribes – each tribe descended from one of the sons of Jacob – each tribe governed by wise judges.  But the people wanted a king – they saw the powerful empires of their neighbours, and they cried out to God, “We want a king!”  God replied, “No you don’t,” but the people persisted, “We want a king!”  And finally God relented, and the prophet Samuel anointed you, one of the members of the tribe of Benjamin, as king.

You did your best.  It’s hard to be the king of a people who aren’t used to having a king.  You tried your best to balance out doing what God told you to do through the prophets with doing what the people wanted you to do.  And eventually the pressure got to you, and you weren’t able to do it all.

And then the prophet Samuel, the same one who had anointed you as king, told you that you weren’t good enough, told you that God had chosen another king instead.  How does it feel to hear this?  Do you feel cheated? betrayed? set up to fail?

And through all of this, the threat from the neighbouring tribes and kingdoms never lets up.  The newest threat comes from the Philistines, this sea-faring nation that settled the Mediterranean coast and is trying to make their way inland.  And now they have issued a challenge – send your best warrior to enter one-on-one combat with Goliath, a giant and the secret to their success in battle.

What are you to do?  If you refuse the challenge, you will lose by default, and you will lose the land that God gave to your ancestors.  And yet who are you going to send?  If you go yourself, you will likely be killed, and then that pronouncement by Samuel that there is a new king will come true.  And yet you don’t have any soldiers in your army who can match Goliath’s size and strength.

It’s no wonder that you have stress in your life and you aren’t able to sleep.  Honestly, who in their right mind would want to be a king?!

And then this boy, this child who entered your household as a musician to help to soothe your heart and mind in the middle of all of the stress, this boy steps forward and offers to fight the giant.

How does this feel to you?  Are you ashamed of your actions, watching this boy step forward to do what is, by all rights, your job?  Are you afraid for him, afraid for the outcome, afraid that the land will be lost for all of your people?

Or maybe a rumour has reached your ear that the Prophet Samuel has visited the farmer Jesse, and has anointed this boy David as the next king.  Maybe the thought of David going into battle against the giant fills you with relief because if he is killed, you will be the only anointed king in the land.

And how do you feel, watching this boy without armour, without weapons, defeat the giant that you assumed was undefeatable?

It is a complex story – one filled with intrigue and plotting.  I was trying to think of a good contemporary situation that is similar – and in many ways I think that this is the story of David and Saul, rather than David and Goliath – and the person who came to mind is Greta Thunberg.  Last year, when she was 15, she began a “school strike for the climate” which has now spread around the world.  Led by Greta, the students of the world are trying to reach us adults and convince us that we need to change the way that the world runs.  Are we Saul in this story, letting a young girl do what we should be doing?  Thunberg has gone on to address the United Nations climate change summit, the World Economic Forum, the EU Parliament, and she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emissions boat to address the United Nations again.  One person, a David, doing what she is able to do using the gifts she has been given, to approach the Goliaths of the world powers.

Greta Thunberg, addressing the European Parliament
CC-BY 2.0

I have to ask though, where is God in the story of David and Goliath?  I don’t see God acting through war and violence and killing and political intrigue.  But David knows that God is with him.  David knows that God is with him, and that he doesn’t need to be led by his fears.  David knows that God doesn’t want him to be afraid, doesn’t want him to be paralyzed by fear the way that Saul was.

And isn’t that true for all of us?  If we trust that God is with us, then we don’t need to be led by our fears.  It’s OK to be afraid, but if we let that fear take over, then it’s as if we are saying that whatever it is that we’re afraid of is stronger than God.  If we trust that God is with us, and that God is stronger than our fears, then we can keep taking one step after the other as we follow God.

This week, the world has been flooded pictures of the rainforests burning in Brazil, and it is good that we are afraid.  After all, these forests are the lungs of the earth that God created.  If we don’t have trees, then nothing will be able to breathe.  But if we allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear and overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge, then things will only get worse.

Whatever Goliath you are facing in the world, be like David and remember that God is with you.  God is stronger than our fears, and God’s love is stronger than anything it is that you are afraid of.

And remember that God is always saying to you,
            My love is stronger than your fears.
            Don’t be afraid.  My love is stronger.
            And I have promised, promised to be always near.”[1]

May it be so.


[1] John L. Bell and Graham Maule, “Don’t Be Afraid,” music by John L. Bell, More Voices, 90.

18 August 2019

"Where is the Good News?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 18, 2019
Scripture:  Joshua 6:1-27
Preacher:  Kate Jones

Our exploration of favourite Sunday School Stories continues this week with the Battle of Jericho.  This is a story that is probably more familiar because of the song I just played and VBS re-enactments than it is from sermons.  Did you know that in the Revised Common Lectionary, the 3-year cycle of readings that we usually follow on Sunday morning, the book of Joshua only appears three times in the whole three year cycle, and the story that we just read is not included?

And what a story it is!  Can you imagine the Sunday School or VBS re-enactment of it?  Half of the army marching towards the city, followed 7 priests blowing trumpets, followed by more priests carrying the ark of the covenant – that gold and jewel-encrusted box which was the home of God, followed by the other half of the army.  On the first day, they process around the city once.  On the second day, they process around the city again.  On the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth days, they process around the city once a day, all those people and the trumpets blowing all of the time.

I don’t know if anyone else is a soccer fan, but I’m imagining that it must have sounded something like the 2010 World Cup in South Africa with all of the vuvuzelas blowing!

And then on the seventh day, the Sabbath day, they process around the city seven times in total beginning at sunrise, and slowly circling around again and again.  And after the seventh time around is finished, Joshua gives the signal, all of the people begin to shout, those thousands of voices; and at the sound of the shouting, the city walls of Jericho fall to the ground.

It is a pretty dramatic and memorable story on its own; but let’s take a step back from it just for a minute to see how it fits into the overall story arc of the Old Testament.

Two weeks ago, we read about how the Israelite people ended up in Egypt following a drought and famine; then last week, we read about how the descendants of Jacob, the Israelite people ended up in slavery in Egypt, and we read about the birth of Moses.  Well, that baby who was born in last week’s story would grow up to hear God speaking to him from a burning bush, he would go to Pharaoh and demand that he release the people from slavery.  Eventually, the Israelite people were able to escape, Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea for them to pass through to safety, and then Moses led the people for 40 years as they wandered through the desert wilderness.

Eventually, the people reach the banks of the Jordan River, but before they could cross over into the land that God had promised to them and to their families, Moses died at the ripe old age of 120, and, as we’re told at the end of the book of Deuteronomy, “his sight was unimpaired and his vigour had not abated.”  (Deut. 34:7)

Enter Joshua.  He had been Moses’ apprentice, and he became the leader of the Israelite people after Moses’ death – the “New Moses” so to speak.  And so Joshua leads the people across the Jordan River and into the land of the Canaanites, and the waters of the river parted in front of Joshua and the people, just as the waters of the sea had parted in front of Moses and the people.

Jericho was the first city on the western side of the river that they would have encountered.  Joshua sent out spies to scope it out, and they collaborated with Rahab, mentioned in today’s reading, who helped them get in and out of the city.  And then all of the Israelite people marched around the city walls, and the walls came tumbling down.  And then the Israelite people killed all of the Canaanite people and livestock living in the city.  And then they would go on to attack and take over the other cities in the region, and kill all of their inhabitants too.

Which makes this a very challenging reading if you go beyond the surface pageantry.  There is more than one side to every story; and as my father always told us, “History is written by the winners.”  What if we were to tell this story from the perspective of the Canaanite people?

From the perspective of the people who were already living in Jericho, it becomes a story of invaders coming from afar, convinced that God was giving them a new land.  From the perspective of the Indigenous people of Canaan, they are quietly living their lives, not attacking, not being the aggressor, when all of a sudden this foreign army comes in, razes the city, and kills all of the inhabitants.

And this story is a story that was used by European colonizers crossing the Atlantic to the New World.  They were convinced that God was giving them a new land, just as the Israelite people were convinced.  They crossed the water, just as the Israelite people had crossed the water.  They were convinced that God was with them and on their side, just as the Israelite people were.  And they killed and oppressed the people that they found living there, and stole the resources of the land, just as the Israelite people had.

Which makes this a very troubling story indeed.  Because I don’t think that I can worship a God who collaborates with people to kill people and destroy a city.  My understanding is that God is love, and I have trouble reconciling this story with my understanding of love.

And yet here I am this week, trying to craft a sermon out of a story that gives me so much difficulty.  Where can I find the good news in this story?  Where is the good news?

And this story raises deeper questions too.  How do we understand the nature of God?  Do we believe that God sides with the powerful oppressors?  And how do we understand scripture?  First Timothy tells us that all scripture is inspired by God, is “God-breathed” but what do we mean when we say “inspired by God”?  Did God dictate the bible, and the people who wrote it down were like scribes or typewriters, transcribing what they heard?  Or do we mean something different?  And what happens when we come across parts of scripture that contradict each other?  God is love on one hand / God destroys a city on the other.

Personally, when I think of scripture being inspired by God, I think of all of the men (and probably some women too) who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write down their experiences of God through generations and generations.   As we say each Sunday after our scripture reading, “this is the witness, the testimony, of God’s people.”  And as they wrote of their experiences of God, their human biases were also able to slip in.  And so if a person believed that God does choose sides, that God does give victory in battle, then that person might write that belief into their story.

And so whenever we are reading scripture, it is important for us to know what lens we are looking at it through.  What lens are we using to interpret scripture, to figure out what it might mean?  For me, my lens for reading and interpreting scripture is Jesus’ summary of all of the teachings:  that we are to love God with our whole selves, and we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  Looking through that lens, I can try to figure out the rest of scripture, even when it seems to contradict itself.

And so getting back to today’s story, I have trouble finding the good news in this story to preach about.  The more “traditional” interpretation of this story is that it is about obedience – that the Israelite people were obedient to God, and so God gave them victory over Jericho.  But that doesn’t sit well with me because, as I said earlier, I don’t think that I can worship a God who collaborates to bring about death and destruction.

And so finally I had to conclude that there is no good news in today’s scripture story.  I have to read it as a story of violence and destruction, rather than a story about the God who is love.

In order to find good news this week, I had to look outside of our scripture story; I had to look forward through time to the cross of Jesus.  In the person of Jesus, God became human, the second person of the Trinity.  In the person of Jesus, God chose to embrace love, and to embrace the vulnerability that comes with love.  In the person of Jesus, God chose to embrace vulnerability, and the risk of suffering.  And in the person of Jesus, God suffered pain and abandonment and rejection and death.  And so God is with everyone who suffers, because God has been there before.

In the Jewish tradition, there exists a practice called “Midrash” which is the practice of telling stories to interpret the stories that we find in scripture.  There is a Midrash that goes, not with this story of Jericho, but with the story of Moses parting the waters of the Sea and leading the Israelite people to safety on the other side, when the water rushed back and drowned all of their Egyptian pursuers.

And this Midrash says that when the people reached the safety of the other side, and when Miriam had taken out her drum to lead the people in a song and dance of celebration, that the angels up in heaven joined in.  And in the middle of the celebration they looked over and noticed that God wasn’t joining in to the celebration.  And one of the angels asked God, “Why aren’t you celebrating?  After all, your children have reached safety and freedom on the other side of the sea!”  And God replied, “How can I celebrate when my children have been drowned in the sea?”

God is with us when we suffer; God is present in suffering; God weeps with us when we weep; God was with the people of Jericho in their suffering as they were killed; God is with all people in the world, suffering with us through oppression and violence and fear.  God is a God who chooses the path of love and vulnerability and compassion.

Thanks be to God.

"White Crucifixion" - Marc Chagall
God is present in all suffering

11 August 2019

"Courage" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 11, 2019
Scripture:  Exodus 1:8-2:10

Back in the spring, when I asked for people’s favourite bible story from their Sunday School days, the most popular answer was “Moses in the Bulrushes.”  I wonder why that is?  Maybe because there is a baby and his sister – children can relate to stories about other children.  Maybe because it is a story that can be easily acted out, or colour pictures of.  Maybe because it is a good story, filled with action and intrigue.  But when I was figuring out where to begin and end the scripture reading this week, I wanted to give some of the background to the story from before Moses is born and placed in a basket, because the story of Moses in the Bulrushes doesn’t make any sense unless you know the context in which it is happening.

And the first thing that I noticed when I stepped back from the story is that Moses himself doesn’t do very much here, other than being born – and even then, I think that it was his mother and the midwives who did most of the work!

Possibly the most dramatic character in the story is Pharaoh.  Here we have an unstable ruler, someone with absolute power who is terrified of losing it.  Last week when we read the story of Joseph, we read about how Joseph and his father Jacob and his brothers came to be living in Egypt – Joseph had been sold into slavery by his brothers, and had been brought to Egypt by the slave traders; then Jacob and his other sons migrated there in search of food during a famine.  Joseph was in a position of power and authority in Egypt, and so his family was pretty comfortably situated there.  Our story today picks up several generations later, and an unspecified number of kings later.  And our story begins with a new king in Egypt, one who did not know Joseph.  And so instead of being in a position of favour and privilege, these descendants of Jacob are now in a position of slavery.

And this new king, this new Pharaoh, is terrified of losing his power, afraid that his slaves might steal it from them.  And so he treats them ever more cruelly.  Which, from the perspective of history, is a pretty silly plan.  If you look at the major revolutions in history – the French Revolution or the Russian Revolution, for example – they have usually been precipitated by an escalation of oppression by the elite.  But fear combined with a thirst for power can make people act in illogical ways.

And when he sees that slavery isn’t enough to supress his fears, the Pharaoh escalates his plan against the descendants of Jacob, who was also named Israel.  First he commands the midwives to the Israelite women to kill all of the male babies at birth, and when that plan fails, he tells all of the people of Egypt that if they see any boys who have been born to the Israelite people, they are to steal the babies and drown them in the Nile river.

This heartbreaking, gut-wrenching cruelty has been repeated so many times throughout history around the world.  Cruelty says that if you can control the children, you can control the whole people.  Look at the number of children who died in the gas chambers and experimentation labs in the Second World War.  Look at the camps currently in place on the US/Mexico border where children are separated from their parents, locked in cages like animals, and many of them have died.  Closer to home, look at our history of Residential Schools, some of which were run by our United Church of Canada, where the stated aim was to “train the Indian out of the child,” and where so many children died or were permanently separated from their families and communities.

Imagine, if you dare, the wails of the Israelite parents as their newborns were ripped from their arms and drowned in the Nile.  Imagine, if you dare, the wails of the migrant parents at the US border, as their children are ripped from their arms.  Imagine, if you dare, the wails of Indigenous parents as their children were ripped from their arms and stolen away to the unknown.

One image that haunts me was shared with me by an Anishinaabe woman in northern Ontario.  A week after her mother died, the floatplane arrived in her community, and she and her 4 siblings were bundled off to the residential school.  She describes her father standing at the end of the dock, forlorn, having lost his wife and all of his children in the space of a week.

But despite the grief and the heartbreak of the story, I don’t think that Pharaoh and his cruelty are the main characters here.  They provide background to the story, but they aren’t the star.

So if Moses isn’t the star of the story, and if Pharaoh isn’t the star of the story, who is?

I think that it’s the women in the story who are the heroes of this story, and there are five of them whom I want to highlight.

Let’s begin with the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  When Pharaoh ordered them to kill all of the male babies, they didn’t say anything, they just refused to carry out these orders.  And when Pharaoh eventually noticed that there were still Israelite boy babies, they used his own prejudices against him and lied, telling them that they weren’t able to get to the births fast enough.

Imagine the courage that these two women must have had to openly defy a cruel and unjust king.  Imagine the meetings that they must have had with the other midwives, encouraging them in their defiance.  Imagine how their actions would have inspired and given hope to the rest of the Israelite people in slavery.

Moses, one of the babies who was born in this period of time, would eventually deliver the people out of slavery and in to freedom; but Moses would not have been able to deliver the people, if the midwives hadn’t first delivered Moses.

And history has been kind to the midwives.  Thousands of years later, we still remember their names – Shiphrah and Puah – we still remember their names even though historians have not been able to figure out which Pharaoh was ruling over Egypt in the time of Moses.

As well as the courage of the midwives, we also have the courage of his mother – we don’t learn her name here, but if we were to read forward in the book of Exodus, we can learn that her name was Jochebed.  Jochebed gave birth to a baby boy, and even though she knew that the orders had been given to drown all baby boys, she refused to give in.  She nursed her baby for three months to give him a head-start in life, and when she realized that she wasn’t going to be able to hide him any longer, she didn’t wait for him to be snatched from her – she crafted a basket for him and made it waterproof, and she laid her baby in the basket and nestled it in the reeds on the bank of the river in an area away from the crocodiles and where he was likely to be discovered by a sympathetic person.  She was going to fight for every opportunity for her baby to live.

And then we have Jochebed’s daughter.  Again, she isn’t named in this passage, but we learn later that her name is Miriam, and she was likely 10 years old or so when this story takes place.  Miriam sees her mother hiding her baby brother, and she watches over him to see what would happen.  And when an Egyptian princess comes along and picks up the basket, she swallows her fear and approaches her.  Imagine Miriam, the 10-year-old daughter of slaves, approaching a princess to offer her advice.  And it works.  Miriam is able to manipulate the Pharaoh’s daughter into not only keeping the baby, but hiring his own mother to continue to nurse him.

And our fifth woman in this story is the Pharaoh’s daughter.  Her name, like the name of her father, has been lost to the sands of time.  She must have known about her father’s orders to kill the babies of the Israelite slaves.  And she must have figured out that this baby who is lying is a basket nestled at the edge of the river is one of the babies that her father wants to kill.  But she takes him home anyways.  She adopts him as her own.  She recognizes that her father’s orders are wrong, and so not only does she defy him by not killing the baby, but she brings this baby into her father’s very household.  She uses the power that she has as the daughter of a king to help a family who was marginalized and oppressed, even though she didn’t have the power to change the whole system.

And this baby that she takes into her house and her heart , she names him Moses – he would grow up to be the same Moses who encountered God in the burning bush; the same Moses who stands before Pharaoh and demands that he “let my people go”; the same Moses who would part the waters of the Red Sea and lead the people to freedom on the other side; the same Moses who would ascend Mount Sinai and receive the Ten Commandments from God; the same Moses who would lead the people through 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness.

But our story today – I don’t read it as a story about Moses, and I don’t read it as a story about Pharaoh and his cruelty.  I read it as a story of the courage of the women – the courage that they had to do what they knew was right, even in the face of oppression and cruelty; the courage to defy the unjust powers of the world; the courage to do what they were able to do in the situation in which they found themselves to make the world a slightly better place.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” and I believe this to be true.  I believe that God has a plan for the world – a plan where the world is ruled only by goodness and love and justice and mercy.  Sometimes it feels like this plan, this dream, this vision is taking a long time to get here.  But we can take heart from and be inspired by stories like the one that we read today – stories where the actions of ordinary people, doing what they are able to do in the situation in which they find themselves, can shift the narrative in small or big ways towards love.

In the middle of despair, we can find hope.
In the middle of fear, we can find courage.
In the middle of death, we can find new life.
Thanks be to God!