17 September 2018

"Who Do You Say That I Am?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Annual Worship by the River, Picnic, and Fun Fair
September 16, 2018

Reading #1:  Mark8:27-30

Reflection #1
Let me set the scene for you.  Our readings today come from about the mid-point of Mark’s gospel, and they are really a pivot-point in the whole story that Mark is telling us.  Up until this point, Jesus has been traveling in the region that surrounds the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a large fresh-water lake.  Sometimes he has ventured a bit further north, and he spent a bit of time on the east side of the lake, but for the most part he has stuck pretty close to home.

But after our reading today and continuing through the rest of Mark’s gospel, Jesus begins his journey south, heading towards Jerusalem.  When he gets to Jerusalem, we have the events that we remember every year in Holy Week and Easter – Jesus’s triumphal Palm Sunday entry into the city, his arrest, his torture, his execution, and then his resurrection.

So today’s reading really marks a turning point, if you will forgive the pun, in Mark’s gospel.  Jesus’ disciples – including the inner circle of twelve, but also likely including a larger band of women and men who had traveled with him – Jesus’ disciples had witnessed lots of things in their time with Jesus.  They had seen Jesus heal people; they had seen Jesus feed large crowds with only a few loaves of bread and a few fish; they had seen Jesus perform miracles that defied the natural world like walking on water; they had heard Jesus preach powerful sermons about how the captives were going to be released and the poor were going to be empowered.

And then we get to this moment.  Jesus asks his disciples, the ones who had been following him and who had witnessed all the things that he had done; Jesus asks them, “Who do people, who do the crowds, who do the villages say that I am?”  And the disciples answer with some of the things that they have heard.  Some people say that you are John the Baptist, even though we know that Herod has killed him.  Other people say that you are Elijah, since he didn’t die but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and promised to return.  And other people don’t give you a name, but just say that you are a prophet, someone who sees the world through God’s eyes, and speaks truth to power.

Now Jesus, he listens to their answers, but then he asks them another question.  “Who do you say that I am?”  And this stumps the disciples.  You can almost hear an awkward pause.  They were willing to pass on the things that they had heard, but weren’t quite ready to offer an opinion.  But then finally Peter speaks up.  “You are the Christ.  You are the Messiah.  You are the anointed one.”

Now Jesus’ question, even more than Peter’s answer, is a question that is still relevant to us today.  Who do we say that Jesus is?  Why is this person who lived 2000 years ago on the other side of the world still so important to us today?

I want to invite you to turn to your neighbour, and in groups of 2 or 3 or 4, take a minute or so to try and answer this question.  If Jesus asked you, “Who do you say that I am?” how would you answer him?


Is anyone willing to share your answer?

There are so many different ways that we can answer Jesus’ question.  Both the bible and the teachings of the church are so full of images or metaphors to try and describe Jesus.  And this is both challenging and powerful.

The thing about trying to talk about God is that we are human and we are not God.  We are limited by human language to try and describe something that is so holy, and so beyond, and so much more.  And so we tend to resort to images or metaphors.  Metaphors that can describe a similarity, but then reach a point where they no longer work.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus is the Messiah.  Jesus is the Great Physician.  Jesus is the Light of the World.  Jesus is the Bread of Life.  Jesus is.

And it is only when we take all of these images and metaphors together that we can get a better image, or a better answer to Jesus’ question.  Who do you say that I am?

Reading #2:  Mark 8:31-33

Reflection #2
So we talked about Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”  Let’s take a look at Peter’s answer.  Peter answered Jesus, “You are the Christ, you are the Messiah, you are God’s Anointed One.”

Now for his answer to make sense, we have to know that Christ isn’t Jesus’ last name.  It’s a title.  It literally means the Anointed one, the one who is anointed like kings of the Ancient Israelite people were anointed.  Christ is the Greek form of the word, and Messiah is the Hebrew form of the same word.

But in the time when Jesus was asking his question and Peter was providing an answer, the title of Messiah had come to take on a different meaning.  The people, who had been living under the oppression of the Roman Empire, had come to expect a powerful military leader or king who would lead them to freedom and self-rule.

So when Jesus starts saying that as the Christ, he was going to suffer and die, Peter protests.  “No – that can’t be right!  Stop saying this!  You are the Messiah – if you are going to die, how will you lead us to freedom?”

Jesus means one thing when he says Messiah; but Peter means something quite different.  It’s a bit like that moment in one of my favourite movies, The Princess Bride.  “You keep using that word – I do not think it means what you think it means.”

And today.  How often do we misunderstand the things that Jesus says.  It’s sometimes easier to point our finger at other people and groups.  We can see places and times when scripture has been interpreted and used to exclude certain groups of people; we can see places and times where scripture has been interpreted to justify wars and violence and abuse.

And yet sometimes it’s harder to look at ourselves.  Are there any ways that we as the United Church, we as Two Rivers Pastoral Charge, we as individuals are mis-understanding what Jesus says?  I think that this is always an important question to keep in our minds and ask ourselves.

Reading #3:  Mark 8:34-38

Reflection #3
 So if Jesus didn’t intend to be some sort of military leader like Peter expected the Messiah to be, what did he mean?

There are hints in here that Jesus is referring to the end of his life, to that week that we remember every year from Palm Sunday through to Easter.  Jesus talks about suffering and rejection; he talks about the cross; he talks about rising again on the third day.

Now I don’t think that Jesus wanted to die.  I don’t think that God sent God’s “only begotten Son” for the sole purpose of dying.  I don’t think that Jesus saw his death as his only purpose in life.  But I do think that at this point in his ministry, he saw it as the likely outcome.  He realized that his message of peace and justice threatened too many of the powerful people.  He realized that by heading to Jerusalem, he was going to be heading right in to the middle of a hornets’ nest of tension.  He realized that if he was perceived as a traitor, then he would likely end up on a cross.

And he warns his followers that they might face the same situation.

That phrase, “take up your cross” has been used so often to hurt people or keep people in unsafe situations.  A woman might be told to stay in an abusive relationship because “that’s her cross to bear.”  A child being bullied might be denied help.  Families might be left in poverty because “we all have a cross to bear.”  This is all harmful theology, and not true to what Jesus is saying here.

In this reading, Jesus is telling us that if we choose to stay true to his message of love and peace and justice, then we might face danger from the world around us that doesn’t want to hear this message.  But Jesus is encouraging us to stay true to him and to his message despite these dangers.  The world is not going to be all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns all the time for us just because we are followers of Jesus, because we are living in a broken world.

But the good news is that God is with us.  God became human in Jesus Christ.  God knows what it is like to be human – to live and love and laugh and suffer and cry.  God knows what it’s like to be human through Jesus Christ.  And by the Holy Spirit, we are being drawn in to the body of Christ; and through Christ, we are drawn into the life of God, the eternal dance of the Three-in-One.

God is with us.  We are with God.  This is the good news that we can cling to, even when we face challenges and difficulties.  This is the good news that we can share with others.

I want to invite you to take another couple of minutes to share with your neighbours how you have seen God’s goodness in your life.  How have you experienced God’s presence, God’s love, God’s peace.  What is this good news of God, that keeps you going?


Let us pray:
God of love,
            we thank you for you!
We thank you that you are always with us,
            and we are never alone.
We thank you for Jesus Christ,
            your Word made flesh,
            who joins our humanity with you.
We thank you for this community of faith
            who travel with us
                        as companions on the journey.
We thank you.

The view from the back of the congregation
Thank you to Shirley Myles for the picture!

10 September 2018

"Opening Up to Love" (Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 9, 2018
Scripture Reading:  Mark 7:24-37

I just want to say, the Syrophoenician woman in today’s reading is my hero.  What a fierce woman!  Her daughter is sick, and she will do anything she possibly can to make her well again.

In the eyes of the world that she was living in, she was in a very vulnerable position.  First of all, she was a woman living in a very patriarchal culture.  Women were considered to be property, and not given a voice.  Secondly, there is no mention of any husband here.  In a time and a place where a woman didn’t have her own voice, her husband would have been the one expected to speak for her.  Is she widowed?  Is she a single mother?  We don’t know these details, but from the story, she and her daughter seem to be alone in the world.  And finally, she is both ethnically and religiously “other” from the perspective of the story.  The New Testament is written from a Jewish perspective; and here is a woman who is of a different religion (Gentile), and a different ethnicity (Syrophoenician) than Jesus.

And yet, despite these multiple layers of vulnerability, our unnamed heroine of the story dares to approach Jesus and ask him, beg him, to heal her daughter.  And even when Jesus refuses, she doesn’t lose her cool.  She stays respectful, but she doesn’t give up.  She argues back.

Seriously.  This woman is my hero!

Jesus, on the other hand.  I’m not so impressed with Jesus in this story.  Not only does he refuse to heal a sick child, but he insults both her and her mother by calling them dogs.  Really Jesus, if you were going to refuse to heal her, couldn’t you at least have been polite about it, and respected their human dignity?

On one hand, Jesus is acting exactly the way his culture would have expected him to act.  A Jewish man in that time and place would be expected to have nothing to do with an unaccompanied woman, and definitely have nothing to do with someone of another ethnicity and religion.  So really I shouldn’t be surprised at his response.

But on the other hand, I expect more from Jesus.  What’s happened to our nice kind loving Jesus?  The Jesus that we like to make stained glass windows of, tell stories about in Sunday School, sing hymns about.  Jesus, Friend of Little Children.  Jesus, Lover of my Soul.  What a Friend we Have in Jesus.  Jesus, Priceless Treasure.  Jesus, Joy of Our Desiring.  Jesus Loves Me, this I know.  What’s happened to this Jesus?!  Is Jesus having a bad day here? Did he get up on the wrong side of the bed?

But then I have to remind myself that while he was fully God, Jesus was also fully human.  This is part of the mystery of our faith.  This one whom we follow wasn’t half God and half human like some sort of strange hybrid.  Jesus Christ was, at the same time, both fully God and fully human.  And in stories like the one we just read, we get to see both.

Jesus was fully human.  He was born as a baby who wet his nappies and who probably kept his mother awake at night with his crying.  He had to learn how to walk and how to talk, just like all toddlers.  He had to learn how to help his father in his carpentry business, and as the first-born child, he probably also had to learn how to take care of his younger siblings.

And even though he is grown up by the time we get to today’s story, Jesus is still human and still learning.  And we see him learning in today’s story.

When the Syrophoenician woman begs him to heal her daughter, his initial response is to refuse her and insult her.  How dare she – she who is so totally not one of us – how dare she ask for healing.

But she persisted.  She didn’t take Jesus’ first answer as his final answer.  She stayed calm and respectful, but she argued back.  And in the end, her logic won the day.

And this is the point where Jesus stops acting the way his culture would expect him to act.  In the culture where Jesus lived, the most important thing for individuals and for families was saving face.  If you lost a battle of the wits, it brought shame to you and to your family.  Nowhere else in the bible do we see Jesus losing a battle of the wits.  He argues with scholars and religious leaders, and always, always Jesus comes out as the winner of these debates.

Except here.  After a short verbal exchange with this unnamed foreign woman, Jesus concedes that she has won.  And he doesn’t hold a grudge against her – instead he repents of his earlier response.

Now repentance is a word that we sometimes like to throw around in the church.  It comes up a lot in certain parts of the Bible.  But the word repentance means more than just feeling sorry for what you have done.  It means feeling sorry, and then changing our ways, turning back to God, aligning what we do with God’s vision for the world.

And at the end of the argument with our heroine, we see Jesus, fully human, repenting of his actions.  We see Jesus opening up to a new way of thinking, a new way of doing.  Jesus’ love was opened up to include more people, become more universal.  And just as Jesus, fully human, repents of his actions, we also see Jesus, fully God, healing the woman’s daughter.

And the story doesn’t end here.  On the surface, it might seem as though the two stories in our reading from Mark are two separate stories and not connected in any way; but I see them as a continuation, one from the other.

After Jesus has opened up and expanded his understanding of love, he travels from Tyre, north of Galilee, to the region of Decapolis, the Ten Cities, to the east of the Sea of Galilee.  He’s traveling from one Gentile, or non-Jewish, region to another Gentile region.  And when he gets there, he encounters a man who was deaf and who couldn’t speak clearly.

Again, this is a person that, culturally, Jesus should have nothing to do with.  His deafness would have put him on the margins of society, and again he is from a different religious and ethnic background.

But Jesus has learned his lesson.  He doesn’t question whether or not he should heal this man.  Jesus takes the man aside, he touches his ears and his tongue, and he says, “Be opened.”

And I see so many layers of opening going on in this story.  The man in the second part of the story had his ears and his mouth opened.  Jesus had his heart opened to expand his understanding of love.  And the people who saw their friend healed had their mouths opened and their tongues loosened to proclaim praise of Jesus.  So many layers of opening up to God’s love.

And opening up to God’s love continues in our world today.  We can see it in churches like Two Rivers Pastoral Charge who open their hearts to a broader understanding of love by becoming Affirming.  We can see it in communities who open their hearts and their homes to refugees.  We can see it in people who volunteer their time and their talents to care for God’s creation – this Community of Creation that we are a part of.

So what can we learn from this story?  I think with this story, there’s no lack of things we can take away.

From the Syrophoenician woman, we can learn from her gift of prophecy.  If the job of prophets is to speak truth to power, then she is a prophet through and through.  She stood up for and spoke out about what she believed in; and even if she was quaking on the inside, she was able to keep her cool and get her message across.  From this nameless women, we receive the gift of courage to be prophets.

And the other people who were able to speak up were the crowds who watched Jesus heal their friend.  Even though they were told to keep quiet, they couldn’t keep themselves from singing God’s praises.  They were so excited about what they had seen they just couldn’t keep quiet.  From the crowd, we receive the gift of evangelism – telling others about all of the good things God has done for us.

And finally, from Jesus, we can see how he models repentance for us.  When he realized that he had done wrong, he didn’t stubbornly insist on his own way.  He admitted that he was wrong, and he changed course.  He opened up his heart to a broader understanding of love.  From Jesus in today’s story, we receive the gifts of permission to admit when we are wrong, the courage to change our course, and the opening up of our hearts to include the whole world.

Are we called to be prophets, speaking the truth to power?  Receive the gift of the Syrophoenician woman.

Are we called to be evangelists, sharing the good news of God with those closest to us?  Receive the gift of the crowds.

Are we called to repent, to change our course, to open up our hearts to the world?  Receive the gifts of Jesus.

May it be so.

Do we want our hearts to be locked up, or opened to love?

Photograph by Petar Melosevic 
CC BY-SA 4.0

5 September 2018

"Living our Love" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 2, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 7:1-8, 14-23 (with reference to James 1:22-25)

I want to invite you to take a look at your own hands.  Hold them up and really look at them.  Have you ever noticed how no two hands are alike?  Right down to your fingerprints, your hands are unique.  Your hands could tell your story.  When was the last time that your hands hugged someone?  When was the last time that your hands gave someone a pat on the back?  Who was the last person you shook hands with?  When was the last time you used your hands to cook a meal for someone that you love?  Who was the last baby that your hands held?  When was the last time that you waved to someone with your hands?  We use our hands almost every day to express love.

Now take another look at your hands.  Have your hands ever hit another person?  Have you ever used your hands to keep something away from another person?  Have your hands ever closed the door to someone, shutting them out?  Have you ever used your hands to choose a product off the shelf that was made by a person who was not earning a fair wage?  Have you ever used skin care products on your hands that destroy the earth?  Our hands tell our story.  Our hands express what is in our hearts.

The Pharisees in the reading from Mark’s gospel that we heard this morning are very focused on hands.  They were concerned that some of the followers of Jesus hadn’t completed the ritual hand washing that their tradition required before eating.

Maybe you, like me, had some issues with this.  “But Jesus,” we might say, “don’t you know that our hands are covered in germs that could make us sick if we don’t wash our hands before we eat.  I know that you lived 2000 years ago, but you were God, so surely you knew about germ theory even though it hadn’t been discovered yet!”

But this isn’t the type of hand washing in question here.  Don’t worry – Jesus is not telling us that we don’t have to wash our hands before we eat!

Instead, the Pharisees were concerned about a ritual hand washing – something that had originated through the tradition of their elders rather than in scripture.  This tradition was concerned with holiness.  At its most basic sense, holiness is a separation.  It is being different than or separate from.  God is holy because God is totally other – totally different than humans.  The various traditions of the Pharisees were concerned with holiness – rituals that were meant to separate the person who performed the ritual from the every-day things and the every-day places and the every-day behaviours.  Rituals that were meant to set aside or consecrate the person for God.  You could become holy through rituals.  And ritual hand washing before eating was one of these rituals.  If you washed your hands, if you washed your food from the market, if you washed your cooking utensils, always following the proper ritual, you could separate yourself and them from the every-day, and dedicate yourself and them for God.  You could make yourself and them holy.

And this, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing.  Taking your every day life, and making it holy or set aside for God is a good thing.  The problem arises when the rituals become exclusionary; when they are used to exclude others.  You aren’t one of us and you aren’t as good as us because you did this or because you didn’t do that.  If you are living on the margins of society, if you are focused on survival from one day to the next, then it is hard to make space for added rituals.

The Pharisees complained to Jesus that his followers hadn’t performed the required ritual, therefore their eating wasn’t made holy, wasn’t set apart for God.  Jesus’ reply has three parts.

First of all we have Angry Jesus as he addresses the Pharisees and the scribes who had complained to him..  He calls them hypocrites, he quotes scripture at them, and he tells them that they have forgotten the important things in life.  In trying to set them selves apart for God through rituals, they have forgotten the important things – loving God and loving their neighbours.  They were pushing those who were already outside of their inner circle even further into the margins.

The next part of Jesus’ reply is addressed to the crowd who was following him, and here we have Logical Jesus.  He tells the crowd that there is nothing that comes from outside of a person that can make that person un-holy or unfit to serve God; but rather it is things that come from inside of a person that can make that person un-holy.  In other words, skipping the ritual of cleaning your hands before you eat may make you sick, but it won’t prevent you from entering into a relationship with God.

And then in the final part of Jesus’ reply, he addresses his disciples – those who were closest to him; those who had been with him since the beginning of his ministry.  They ask Jesus for further clarification, here we have Blunt Jesus, who uses a bit of potty-humour to make his point.  Whatever comes from the outside, whatever goes into your body through your mouth – whether it is food or dirt or germs from unwashed hands – goes into your stomach, and eventually, one way or another, ends up in the sewer system.  This is not the part of you that impacts your relationship with God.

The bigger concern is with what originates from within a person – “for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.”  He then gives a long list of things that might make a person un-holy – things that might break the relationship between a person and God – and most of them are drawn straight from the Torah, the 10 commandments, the instructions given to the people by God.  Theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, lying, envy, slander, pride.  These are the things that separate a person from God.

What if we were to flip this list around?  Jesus gives us a list of things that separate a person from God, so if we flip it around, we might get a list of things that bring us closer to God.  Generosity.  Love.  Kindness.  Openness.  Patience.  Humbleness.  Truthfulness.  Faithfulness.

James gives us a good summary of what Jesus is teaching when he says, “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”  In other words, don’t just listen to the teachings of Jesus, but take them into your heart, into your very being.  Then, once they are there, they will shape us, they will transform us, they will guide the things that come out of our hearts.

Jesus told his listeners that it was what came out of people’s hearts that makes them either un-holy or holy.  It is the actions that originate with the intentions of our hearts that can make us holy, that can set apart our lives for God.

I’m going to invite you to look at your hands again.  How are the intentions of your heart going to be shown through your hands this week?  How are you going to use these hands this week?  How are you going to uses these hands to be doers of God’s word?  Are you holding on to any empty traditions or hurts that you need to let go of?  Will you share your gifts and talents with the world?  Will you welcome a person who would normally be excluded?  Will you share with another?  Will you reflect the image of Jesus to the world around you?  How will you love God and love your neighbour with these hands?

May all of us be not only hearers of God’s word, but also doers of God’s word.


27 August 2018

"Should Following Jesus Always be Easy?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 26, 2018
Scriptures:  Joshua 24:14-17 and John 6:60-69

I have a question that I want to invite you to consider:
Should following Jesus always be easy?

I have a story to share with you.

You can probably imagine that Germany in the 1930s was not an easy place to be.  The Nazi party came to power in January of 1933 and gradually began changing how things were done.  These changes included the church in Germany – both the Protestant church and the Roman Catholic Church.  Just as all other institutions in the country fell under the power of Hitler and the Nazi party, those in charge thought that the church should also come under the authority of the government.

I do have to say that the Roman Catholic Church generally did better at resisting these changes – after all, they considered the Pope to be the head of the church, so how could Chancellor Hitler be the head of the church.  But generally the Protestant churches tended to accept the imposed changes.  On the surface, it seemed to be a win-win situation.  From the churches’ perspective, they would still be allowed to gather to worship – as long as they preached only what the government told them that they could preach.  And from the government perspective, they now had a mouthpiece in the church to hold up their propaganda.

But as the months passed, a group of theologians and pastors came to the realization that this was not a good situation.  In May of 1934, from across denominations – Lutheran, Reformed, and United – they gathered in the town of Barmen, in western Germany near Dusseldorf and Köln.  After a very intensive couple of days of meeting including some all-nighters, they signed the Barmen Declaration.

This isn’t a very long document.  Two sides of a single page.  But it contains some very powerful and dangerous words.  It proclaimed that the church existed only for God.  It proclaimed that there is no part of our individual lives or our communal life as the church that doesn’t belong to God.  It proclaimed that the church could not be manipulated for any purpose other than God’s mission.  It proclaimed that Jesus Christ is the one true head of the church and that no other person or group could be the head of the church.

These were dangerous words in 1930s Germany.  Without naming names or specifics, those who signed the Barmen Declaration were declaring that they were going to stand firm against Hitler and the entire Nazi party.

They broke away from their established denominations who were compromising in order to survive, and formed the Confessing Church in Germany.  They founded a Pastor’s Emergency Fund to support pastors who lost their positions either due to Jewish ancestry or because they had opposed the government.  And as you might imagine, most of the people who signed the Barmen Declaration did not survive the war.

They had been faced with a difficult decision – to compromise their beliefs, or to stay true to what they believed, despite the risk.

Should following Jesus always be easy?

One theologian in a similar situation to those who signed the Barmen Declaration was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was just a little bit too young to have been involved in the meeting in Barmen, but he was also a pastor and theologian in 1930s Germany who resisted what Hitler was trying to do to the church.

One of Bonhoeffer's better-known books is The Cost of Discipleship, and in this book he argues that being a disciple of Jesus isn’t supposed to be easy.  We have to be willing to go where Christ calls us; and do what Christ calls us to do.  God’s grace is freely given, but it comes at a great cost – the death of God-in-Jesus on a cross.  If we accept this grace without being willing to be transformed into disciples, then we turn this costly grace into cheap grace.[1]

And Bonhoeffer wasn’t just writing empty words.  The Cost of Discipleship was published in 1937.  In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested, and in April 1945 he was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp, just 2 weeks before that camp was liberated and a month before Nazi Germany surrendered.  The cost of Bonhoeffer's discipleship was his life.

Should following Jesus always be easy?

We’ve been reading through Chapter 6 of John’s gospel over the past 5 weeks, and Jesus’ teachings have been getting more and more difficult as we have continued.  Remember that the chapter started with the miracle of feeding 5000 hungry people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  This was the easy part of the message.  The people liked this miracle.  They liked it so much that the followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee.  When they caught up with Jesus, he accused them of being more interested in bread for their bellies than in following Jesus who is the Bread of Life.  It didn’t take long for the teaching to get difficult.

From there, Jesus gets more and more difficult to listen to.  He claimed that he didn’t just want to feed people’s bodies, that he wanted to feed all of them and in exchange they were to follow him with body, mind, and spirit.

And then we got to last week’s reading where Jesus uses dramatic language of cannibalism to tell people that you are what you eat.  “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56).

And in today’s reading, we get the response of the crowd.  “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60), and many of his followers turned back and no longer went about with him (John 6:66).

Should following Jesus always be easy?

I think that the answer to this question has to be no.  Each one of us, individually and collectively as the church, is going to face at some point in our lives a moment when it isn’t going to be easy to be a follower of Jesus.  Hopefully our moment of decision won’t be as dramatic as it was for Bonhoeffer or for those who gathered in Barmen in 1934.  I don’t know what big moments of decision we are going to face in our lifetimes.  Some of my thoughts are that one these decision points might be around climate change, and the things that all of us do every day that contribute to the climate changes that are affecting so many people around the world.  Or maybe another decision point might revolve around reconciliation with our Indigenous siblings here in Canada.  I don’t know – I can’t predict the future.

But I do know that we will face moments when choosing to do the right thing – choosing to be a disciple or follower of Jesus is going to be difficult.

But the good news is that it isn’t a once-and-forever decision.  We are always being given a chance to choose, and if we choose wrongly today, we will have another opportunity to choose tomorrow.  Remember those well-known words from Joshua that we heard this morning – when Joshua addresses the people who have just crossed the Jordan River into the land that God had promised to them and to their ancestors after 40 years of wandering in the desert.  Joshua demands of them – “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  And tomorrow, choose this day whom you will serve.  And the next day, choose this day whom you will serve.

And may we, like Peter, answer this call.  “Lord, to whom else can we go?  You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).  And Jesus will feed us again and again with the Bread of Life, until we become what we eat.

Should following Jesus always be easy?

No; but the good news is that the God who calls us also feeds us with the Bread of Life to sustain us for the journey; and God working in us transforms us more and more into the Body of Christ so that we are able to do far more than we ever could do on our own.

Thanks be to God for the Bread of Life!

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, trans. R. H. Fuller, with the assistance of Irmgard Booth (London: SCM Press, 1959), 41-53.

 The beginning of the Barmen Declaration (in translation)

19 August 2018

"You Are What You Eat" (sermon)

Sunday August 19, 2018
Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Scripture:  John 6:51-59

CC BY-SA 4.0

In our Story for All Ages earlier in the service, we talked about what it means to say "You are what you eat."  What is the difference between eating apples and eating jellybeans?  What is the difference between drinking water or drinking Pepsi?  What might it mean if we could eat and drink Jesus?

True story:  a couple of years back when I was at the Atlantic School of Theology, I took a semester-long course on the Gospel of John.  Our homework on the first week was to read through the full gospel of John and choose a passage of 10 verses, give or take, that we were going to “adopt” and work with for the rest of the semester.  We could pick any 10 verses.  Now, since I am an auditory learner, I learn better by listening than by reading; and so I decided that instead of reading the Gospel of John, I was going to listen to the Gospel of John on the Bible app that I have on my phone.  So that week I had a long car drive, and at the beginning of the drive I plugged my phone in to my car sound system and began at Chapter 1.

When I got to Chapter 6, I listened to the story about feeding the 5000 people that we read three weeks ago; I listened to Jesus talking about how he is the Bread of Life like we’ve been reading for the past two Sundays.  And then I came to this week’s reading and I had an almost visceral, gut reaction.  Instead of the nice, metaphorical Bread of Life, we have Jesus saying four times in a row:  “Unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink his blood; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink; those who eat my flesh and drink my blood.”

This passage that we read today jumped out at me.  What – is Jesus promoting cannibalism?  How is this any different than the brain-eating zombie movies; and blood-drinking vampire books that are so popular these days.  And so this passage that we read today is the one that I chose to explore for the rest of the semester.

The most obvious interpretation that comes to mind is that this passage is teaching about the meal that we call today Holy Communion or the Eucharist.  The sacrament where we offer each other the bread and remember that Jesus said, “This is my body, given for you.  Each time you do this, remember me.”  The sacrament where we share a cup of grape juice or wine and remember that Jesus said, “This is the cup of the new promise in my blood.  Each time you do this, remember me.”

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them” – (you are what you eat) – “so whoever eats me will live because of me.”

Remember back to how Chapter 6 of John’s gospel begins – Jesus is facing a crowd of 5000 hungry people and a bunch of confused disciples, “then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (John 6:11).  Unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there is no story of the Last Supper in John’s gospel; but many people believe that this miracle of feeding 5000 people is John’s equivalent.  The wording is so similar – “Jesus took the bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples saying…” vs. “Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated.”

And if this miracle is meant to echo the meal of Holy Communion, then everything that follows in this chapter can be understood to be teaching about the meal of Holy Communion.

But if that’s the case, why does Jesus need to use such graphic language, and believe me, it’s even more graphic in the original Greek – our English translations have toned it down a bit!  In the original, the verb that is translated as “eat” doesn’t mean eat as in consume, but refers to the physical act of eating.  It might be better translated as “gnaw” or “chew.”  “Those who gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them.”

When we celebrate Holy Communion, we don’t just distribute spiritual bread and spiritual wine.  We don’t say, “Imagine that you are eating bread and remember Jesus.”  No.  We use real, physical bread.  We actually chew or gnaw on the bread that we have been given.  Communion is a physical meal.  As I said last week, God thinks that our physical selves are so important that God became a physical being, “the Word became flesh,” in the person of Jesus Christ.  Matter matters.  The physicality of our Communion meal matters.

The idea that a god would become human – not just appear to be human or pretend to be human, but actually BECOME a human is a sacrilege to many if not most religions; and then add to that the overtones of cannibalism that one of our central sacraments includes, and it is indeed a scandalous message that Christianity proclaims.  I can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, the very graphic language here in John’s gospel might reflect the early church’s attempt to define themselves against the world around them.  Maybe along the lines of, “the rest of the world considers us to be cannibals, so let’s embrace this language and use it to define ourselves.”

But I also think that there is more to this language than just the shock value or how we identify ourselves as a community.  If we turn back to the question I asked at the beginning – how is this reading or our celebration different than flesh-eating zombies or blood-drinking vampires? – I think that the answer is in the effect.  The end result of vampires and zombies is death.  The end result of eating the flesh and blood of Jesus is life.

Really, what we talked about in our Story for All Ages is the core of the message.  We are what we eat.  If we were to eat only junk food (like in that documentary that came out several years ago, Supersize Me), our bodies will eventually become junk due to the lack of nutrients.  If we eat Jesus, we become Jesus.  We are being transformed by our faith.  We are being turned into the Body of Christ – the very flesh of Christ.

Our faith isn’t just something that we can haul out on a Sunday morning then pack back up again at lunchtime.  What we do together is transformative.  We are being shaped by our worship of Word and Sacrament for everything else that we do during the week.  We are changed people.  The thing about eternal life is that it isn’t just for after we die.  The changed life, the abundant life begins in the here and now.

There is an ancient communion practice that goes back to shortly after the Gospel of John was written.  After the bread is broken, the following words are said:  “Behold what you are.  Become what you receive.”  You are what you eat.  We become what we eat.  There is more to the bread than what we can see.  Eternity is present in the here and now.  Thanks be to God for the Bread of Life!

13 August 2018

"Taste and See" (sort-of sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 12, 2018
Scripture Readings:  Psalm 34:1-8 and John 6:35, 41-51

(A quick note:  This sermon was experiential rather than word-based.  It likely won't work as well as a script, compared with experiencing it in person.  Sorry!  K.)

So here we are – the third week in a row where Jesus is talking about bread.  This week’s reading from John’s gospel begins with the same verse that we finished up on last week – “Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”  But the reading ends in a slightly different place.  Jesus says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  And that word “flesh” starts setting off all sorts of connections in my brain.  One of my favourite passages of scripture, one that we often read at Christmas time, says, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This is the mystery of the Incarnation.  The word incarnation means “enfleshment” – God’s Word becomes human flesh.  Jesus didn’t just appear to be human – Jesus was fully human.  In the person of Jesus, God was able to move and touch and see and hear and taste and smell – just like all of us.

And so God speaks to us using all of our senses.

So we’re going to be doing things a bit differently this morning.  Instead of talking about God, I want us to have the opportunity to experience God, using all of our senses.

But lets begin by reading a story.

[Read Mom Pie.[1]]

Think of the boys in the story.  Their Mom didn’t use words to tell them that she loved them – instead the boys knew that she loved them by touch and by taste and by smells.  In the same way, God is like a loving parent, and God tells us that we are loved using all of our senses.

So let's begin with our sight.

Have a close look at the picture in front of you.  Take a minute just to look at it closely.

Where is you eye drawn to in this picture?

What do you see?

Do you see hope in this picture?

Do you see joy in this picture?

Do you see peace in this picture?

Do you see goodness in this picture?

Where do you see love in this picture?

Where do you see God in this picture?


We can also experience God through our hearing.  Think of listening to waves crashing on the beach, or hearing a baby laughing, or listening to a piece of glorious music.

We’re now going to sing a song – it might be a new song to you, but it is easy to sing, and we’re going to sing it over and over several times.  As we sing, I invite you to listen to the melody.  I invite you to listen to the words.  I invite you to let the words sink in to you, so that you can hear God whispering to you – “peace.”

The song is found in More Voices 95 (words on the screen) and it is called “How Deep the Peace.”  We’ll stay sitting down as we sing.

Let us sing.


And now, let us use our touch to share God’s peace with one another.  I invite you to offer these words to one another – “May the peace of Christ be with you”; and as you do, share a handshake, or a hug, or a holy high five.  I will just ask you to respect each other’s comfort level with touch – if someone is not comfortable hugging, please don’t force a hug on them, and share a handshake or a high five instead.

“May the peace of Christ be with you.”


And finally we turn to our psalm reading which tells us, “Taste and see that the Lord is good!”  God speaks to us through our senses of taste and smell too!  We’re going to be passing around plates/baskets of bread for you to taste (and there is a gluten-free option on each plate/basket).  When you take the bread, I invite you to smell it, I invite you to taste it, I invite you to savour it as you eat it.  Taste the goodness of God who sent the sun and the rain so that the wheat and other grains could grow.  Taste the goodness of God who gave humans the creativity to turn the flour and water and salt and yeast into bread.  Taste the goodness of God who gives us different senses that allow us to experience joy in the world.

As you pass the plate/basket to your neighbour, I invite you to offer it with the words, “Taste and see that God is good!” 


And so we have a God who thinks that our humanity, our very flesh and our senses, are so important that God became human in the person of Jesus – God’s word became flesh and dwelt among us.

And so let us live in the world, noticing all of the ways that God speaks to us, and lets us know that we are loved.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Lynne Jonnell, Mom Pie, illustrated by Petra Mathers (New York: B. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001).