9 October 2018

"Blame God?" (sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
October 7, 2018
Thanksgiving Weekend and Worldwide Communion Sunday
Scripture Reading:  Joel 2:21-27


The reading from the Old Testament that we heard this morning, comes from one of the prophets that we don’t get to hear from very much – Joel.  I have to confess that this is one of the books of the bible that I can’t flip to very easily – it’s one that I always have to look up in the table of contents in order to find it.

If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary, our 3-year cycle of readings that are used across many denominations around the world, the only times we get to hear from Joel are on Ash Wednesday each year; Thanksgiving weekend once every 3 years, and in the middle of September once every 3 years.  We tend to be much more familiar with some of the other prophets like Isaiah or Jeremiah.

My Old Testament professor, Dr. Susan Slater, likes to say that “Prophets are on the side of noticing.”  Prophets are people who are able to see the world, to really see the world, and to see where the world is not running according to God’s plan for the world.  Prophets then point people back to God; they point us back to living the way that God wants us to live.

Now we don’t know much about the prophet Joel – we don’t even know for sure what century he was living in.  But from the writings that we have, we can assume that in the place and time where he was living, there had been a long drought, and a plague of locusts – insects that had destroyed any crops that had been able to grow during the drought.

And so here we have Joel, seeing the world as God sees it, telling us not to be afraid, telling us to be glad and rejoice.  The soil is not to fear for God is sending rain; the animals are not to fear because the pastures will be green again; and God’s children are not to fear because the harvest will be abundant and the store rooms will be full.

But then we come to the verse that troubles me.  Joel tells us that all of this abundant harvest is God’s way of repaying the people for the locusts that God sent like an army against the people.  “Here – I sent you a plague of insects that destroyed your crops, but don’t worry, I will send you a better harvest next year.”

And this troubles me.  How could a God who is love choose to destroy the crops that will feed animals of the field and humans?  How could a God who is love choose to destroy God’s own creation?

But then I remember that Joel has just lived through a drought and a famine along with all of his neighbours.  He has just coming through a traumatic time.  And when we face difficult times and trauma in our lives, isn’t it a very human thing to do to blame God?

The common belief in the world seems to be that when bad things happen, either God has left the room, or that God is some sort of cruel sadist who chooses to inflict suffering.  But none of this fits with my understanding of a God who is, by God’s very nature, love.

But we humans are very good at messing things up.  Our fossil fuel dependency contributes to climate change that leads to floods and droughts and famines around the world.  Our fear of not having enough leads us to hoard resources, keeping them away from those who truly need them.  Our self-sufficiency leads us to trust in human-made systems rather than trusting in God’s promises of peace, and when these human-made systems fail, we then blame God.

There is a meme that I have seen on Facebook a couple of times – a person is sitting on a bench with Jesus, and the person asks, “Why do you allow suffering, poverty, hunger, wars to exist?” and Jesus replies, “Funny, I was just about to ask you the same question.”

  
And so when things go wrong, we tend to want to blame God.  And that is natural – we can see Joel doing just that in our reading today.  But then I think that it is important to move beyond this blame and to remember God’s promises.  In our reading from Joel, we hear God promising that those who are hungry will eat and be satisfied; we hear God promising that people who have been put down, abused, humiliated in this world will never more be put to shame; we hear God promising to be present with God’s people.

God hears our cries and our laments for all of the pain in the world; and God reminds us that the world won’t have the final say.  God has a vision for the world where the hungry are fed, and there is no more pain and suffering, and asks us to trust this vision, and to work for this vision.

And so on this Thanksgiving weekend, I invite you to join with the prophets and notice the world with God’s eyes.  Look for all of the love and goodness in the world – love and goodness that comes from God.  Join with God’s people all around the world in giving thanks for everything that God has given to us.

And this year, Worldwide Communion Sunday happens to fall on the same weekend as Thanksgiving.  In a few minutes, we will be gathering at this table, invited by Christ, our host.  We know that we gather with our siblings in Christ from congregations and denominations around the world.  And as we gather here, at Two Rivers, in the middle of the abundance of the harvest season, we are also called to remember everyone who does not have this abundance, everyone who is living through times of drought and famine like Joel was; and we are called to work for a world that anticipates God’s plan for the world.

And as we gather at this table, I invite you to eat the bread and drink the juice together with our siblings around the world as a sign, as a symbol of our hope, of our trust, of our confidence that God’s vision for a world of peace, a world of love, a world of justice, is going to come.

May it be so.

Amen.

1 October 2018

"Gringleyhops" (Sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 30, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 9:38-50

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in a village that was too small to be found on any map, there was a bakery.  Now one day, a stranger came in to the village, and went in to the bakery, and told the baker, “I’m going to teach you how to make gringleyhops.  Nobody else here knows how to make them, but they will be the most delicious thing that you’ve ever had.”

And so the stranger taught the baker how to make gringleyhops, and wouldn’t you know, it didn’t take very long before they were the most popular thing in his bakery.  People were lined up out the door and down the road to try and buy them before they ran out each day.

People could see that there weren’t enough to go around, but the baker was keeping the recipe as a closely guarded secret.  He wouldn’t share it with anyone.  But a couple of people with some mad baking skills got together, and they took a gringleyhop and worked on reverse engineering a recipe.  It took them several tries to get it right, but in the end, they were able to recreate a perfect gringleyhop.

Now the baker, he wasn’t happy with this turn of events.  He did everything that he could think of to stop these upstart bakers from making his gringleyhops.  He tried stealing their firewood so they couldn’t heat up their ovens; he tried barricading their door with thick planks and nails; he even tried setting fire to the upstart bakery, but fortunately the fire didn’t take.

Don’t get me wrong – the baker still had plenty of customers and still sold out of gringleyhops every day.  Maybe the line down the street was a bit shorter, but there was no impact on the baker’s bottom line.

A year later, the stranger came back to the village, and the baker ran up to her and cried out, “You have to stop these upstarts!  You gave the gringleyhop recipe to me!  Help me to keep the recipe to myself!”

Now the stranger just shook her head and said, “I gave you the recipe for gringleyhops so that everyone in the village might have them.  Why are you jealous because your neighbour is helping you?”

(pause)

In our gospel reading, Jesus’ disciples are behaving a bit like the jealous baker in the story.  Someone else is healing on Jesus’ behalf, in Jesus’ name, and they want to stop him because he isn’t part of the in-crowd.  But Jesus stops them.  Jesus says, if this other person isn’t acting against us, they must be acting for us.

God’s love and God’s mercy isn’t limited to some sort of inner circle.  There is more than enough to go around.  It isn’t some sort of zero-sum game that they are playing.  Just because there is love and healing and mercy for our neighbour doesn’t mean that there is less for us.  God’s love really is limitless – we don’t have to play by the rules of scarcity that the world tries to teach us.

Let’s try another version of the story:

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in a village that was too small to be found on any map, there was a bakery.  Now one day, a stranger came in to the village, and went in to the bakery, and told the baker, “I’m going to teach you how to make gringleyhops.  Nobody else here knows how to make them, but they will be the most delicious thing that you’ve ever had.”

And so the stranger taught the baker how to make gringleyhops, and wouldn’t you know, it didn’t take very long before they were the most popular thing in his bakery.  People were lined up out the door and down the road to try and buy them before they ran out each day.

The baker quickly realized that he couldn’t keep up to the demand by himself, and so he said to himself, maybe I should expand.  Maybe I can hire some other workers to help out.  I can be the supervisor, and have others working under me.

And so the baker put up a help-wanted poster, and the next day people were lined up looking for work rather than for gringleyhops.  And the baker went down the line of people and eliminated them one by one.  One elderly man he didn’t want because he was too old.  Any women were also eliminated from the line because the baker said that they wouldn’t have the strength for the work.  A young man with a limp was excluded by the same reasoning.  And another young man, hoping to find work to feed his family who often went hungry was also excluded – the baker said that his clothes were too raggedy and wouldn’t give a good impression of the bakery.

And so the baker soon had a crew of healthy young men working for him, and they made gringleyhops to sell to the village.

A year later, the stranger came back to the village to see how the gringleyhop project was getting along.  The baker was very proud of his work.  He said that he had raised prices on the gringleyhops, and with an efficient crew he was making so much of a profit that he was soon going to shut down his bakery and move to the city.

Now the stranger just shook her head and said, “I gave you the recipe for gringleyhops so that everyone in the village might have them.  And now you have raised the prices so that not everyone can afford them; you have taken work away from people who needed it, and soon you will be leaving the village so there will be no gringleyhops once again.”

(pause)

Getting back to Jesus and his disciples, if you go back a few verses from the passage we read today, you will see that the disciples were arguing about which one of them was the greatest, the very best disciple of all.  Jesus took a child, the most vulnerable and powerless person in his society, and says that if you want to be a good disciple, you are to welcome the poor and the vulnerable and the powerless as if you were welcoming Jesus.

Jesus must still have the child with him, because in our reading today, he tells us, using very graphic images, that if any of us cause one of these little ones, these vulnerable ones, these powerless ones to stumble, then we are better off dead.

These words of Jesus really struck a nerve with me in a week that has seen a very publicized hearing in the courts of power in our neighbours in the US.  A woman who may have been violently assaulted stood before those in power, and was subjected to intimidation and questions about the assault, and was then made more vulnerable and powerless by those who refuse to believe her.

Jesus said, "If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones, these vulnerable ones, these powerless ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea."

Let’s try one more version of our story:

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, in a village that was too small to be found on any map, there was a bakery.  Now one day, a stranger came in to the village, and went in to the bakery, and told the baker, “I’m going to teach you how to make gringleyhops.  Nobody else here knows how to make them, but they will be the most delicious thing that you’ve ever had.”

And so the stranger taught the baker how to make gringleyhops, and wouldn’t you know, it didn’t take very long before they were the most popular thing in his bakery.  People were lined up out the door and down the road to try and buy them before they ran out each day.

The baker quickly realized that he couldn’t keep up to the demand by himself, and so he said to himself, “Why don’t I start up a cooperative for the people of the village.  Anyone in need of employment can come and gain valuable job skills, as well as a salary.  Each one can be given tasks appropriate for their abilities, and together we can make gringleyhops to feed the village.”

And the baker did as he had planned; and a year later, when the stranger returned to the village to check in on the gringleyhops project, she saw a village where everyone was well fed and where neighbours helped out neighbours.  And the stranger smiled.

(pause)

May we all trust in God’s message of abundance.  May we do our part to spread God’s love and mercy in the world.  May we protect the vulnerable, and empower the powerless.  May we be at peace with God, at peace with one another, and at peace with ourselves.

Amen.


Preparing the Gringleyhops?
(Image:  Public Domain)

25 September 2018

"Who Do We Value?" (sermon)


Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 23, 2018
Scripture Reading:  Mark 9:30-37
 

So this week, we have a story about Jesus and a little child – there are several stories about Jesus and children scattered through the gospels.  And who doesn’t like a good story about children!  My Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of pictures of my friends’ children – especially a couple of weeks ago when everyone was taking First-Day-of-School pictures.  Last month, I was delighted when my sisters came from Ontario to visit me, but I was even more excited to see my niece and nephews.  And we love to ooh and aah when children say cute things in church.  When my sisters were here, one of them even offered to have her baby laugh on cue if I wanted some baby laughter during our worship service!

And the image of Jesus with children has inspired so many artists over the years.  When you think of Jesus with the children, what do you think of?  Maybe a favourite stained glass window image like this:

Or maybe “Sunday School Jesus” surrounded by cute children like this:

Or maybe a peaceful rural scene like this one:


But I wonder if you could imagine a scene like this associated with the story we just heard?


In case you don’t recognize this scene, these pictures were taken last spring, in a detention center on the US-Mexico boarder where children were separated from their parents and detained in cages.  “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

In order for us to get the full impact of Jesus’ teaching, we have to understand that in the time and place where he lived, children were not understood in the same way that they are today.  Children in Jesus’ world were not sentimentalized.  They were not considered to be people yet.  They were more like not-yet-people, or potential people; and any value that children had was related to what they might be able to contribute to the household in the future, if they lived to adulthood.

The result of this was that children, as not-yet-people, were outside even the margins of society, along with others who were considered not-people like slaves, or those with illnesses that made them ritually unclean.  They were vulnerable, just as children in our time and place are vulnerable; but they were beyond vulnerable because they were not considered to have any value by the society in which they lived.

And yet Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

I do think that any society should be judged, not in how well it treats the wealthy and powerful in that society, but in how well it treats those on the margins of society; those who are not valued by the wider world, those who have no power.  In Jesus’ time and place, that list would have included children, and slaves, and anyone who was ritually unclean.

Who are the vulnerable and powerless ones in our society today?  I would suggest that children are still vulnerable in our society, even though we value children more in our time and place.  But who in our society – here in New Brunswick in 2018 – would be right on the margins our outside of the margins of society.  Who is powerless and vulnerable in our world?  Go ahead – shout them out!

(If needed – fill in with suggestions:  refugees, immigrants, prisoners, Transgender people, people with addictions and mental illnesses, people who are homeless, people who depend on social security, people with disabilities, people with dementia…)

I find it serendipitous that this reading falls not only on the first day of Sunday School here at Two Rivers Pastoral Charge; but also on the day before election day here in New Brunswick.

Because our faith is political.  Now I’m not talking party politics here – no party politics from the pulpit!  But with readings like the one we had today in Mark’s gospel, we are called to be engaged politically.

The question that Jesus’ disciples were debating was which one of them was the greatest, the most important, the most powerful.  I can almost see Jesus shaking his head and saying, “Guys… C’mon here… you’re missing the whole point.”  Jesus says that it’s not about us, that it’s not about personal power, that it’s not about what is best for us.  Instead, Jesus says that if you want to be the greatest, the best disciple, you must serve others.  It’s not about puffing ourselves up – it’s about what we can do for others.

And then to drive his point home, he says that it’s not just anyone that we are to serve.  It is the most vulnerable, the most powerless people that we are to serve.  Jesus draws the most powerless, most vulnerable person to him and says, “Whoever welcomes this vulnerable and powerless one in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s almost like Jesus is telling us to flip the current power structures in the world upside down.  Those of us who are in positions of power in the world are to give up our power and become like servants; and those who are powerless and vulnerable are to be welcomed as if we were welcoming Jesus.

Jesus calls us to care.  Jesus calls us to care for those who are powerless, those who are marginalized, those who are vulnerable.  Jesus calls us to serve and to welcome those on the margins.

Choosing not to vote in an election is an act of not caring.  It is saying that I don’t care what happens to my neighbours in this province.  When we vote, we are saying that we care.  We care what happens to the vulnerable in our society.  We care what happens to our neighbours.  We care what happens to the weak and marginalized.

And so if you have already voted in the advance polling – thank you.  Thank you for caring.  If you didn’t have a chance to vote at the advanced polls, tomorrow is election day!  If you are still unsure, copies of our “Provincial Election Toolkit” can be found at the back of the church.  Our faith is political because it calls us to care for others.

And so political engagement is one way that we can live the gospel in the world, but how about closer to home, in our church?  How can we as the church not only welcome but value people who are vulnerable, marginalized, or powerless?  A year and a half ago, Two Rivers Pastoral Charge made the decision to become an Affirming Pastoral Charge, to publicly affirm that all people are not only welcome, but are fully included in the life of our pastoral charge.  While the outward focus of this process is usually on people of different sexual orientations and gender identities; and yes it includes this, but in reality it goes beyond.

How do we value all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, age, race, economic status, and differing abilities both physical and mental in our church?  This goes deeper than putting up a rainbow flag, and building a ramp in to our sanctuary, though both of these are important.  This involves more than dropping food off for the Food Bank or clothing off at the Clothing Bank and patting ourselves on the back for helping out.  This goes beyond smiling at the cuteness of the children in the congregation then shuffling them off to Sunday School.

When we welcome and when we include those whom society pushes to the margins, we are welcoming Jesus; and when we welcome Jesus, we are welcoming the God who sends Jesus.

Let us pray:
God of endless love,
            your love is not only endless,
            but it is all-encompassing.
Help us to know that we are included in your love,
            and let your love flow through us
                        so that the whole world knows
                                    that they are included in your love.
Turn the world upside down,
            so that those who are on the margins
                        are welcomed in your name;
            and those of us who have power
                        become servants of all.
I pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ
            who proclaims to us the message
                        of your topsy-turvy kingdom.
Amen.

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?

(break)

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?

(break)

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.
Amen.


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.
Amen.


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

Photograph by Petar Melosevic 
CC BY-SA 4.0
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Love_padlocks_on_the_Butchers%27_Bridge_(Ljubljana).jpg

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.
Amen.