25 March 2018

"Hosanna! Save us!" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
March 25, 2018 - Palm Sunday
Scripture:  Mark 11:1-11 (with a brief reference to Philippians 2:5-11)

Today is Palm Sunday – four days until Jesus will be betrayed, five days until he will be crucified, and one week until the celebration of the resurrection.  Throughout the season of Lent – these past 6 weeks – we’ve been journeying with Jesus towards the cross, and now we are almost there – we’ve reached the very shadow of the cross.

I want to invite you to imagine what it might have been like to have been there, to have been part of that procession that entered Jerusalem.  You can close your eyes if you want to, if you find that you can visualize things more clearly with your eyes closed.

At this time of year in Jerusalem, we are in the middle of the short spring season.  The heavy rains of winter have passed, though there might still be some showers, but we haven’t yet come to the hot, dry, dusty days of summer.  The wildflowers have started to bloom, and there are poppies blowing wildly in the wind wherever you turn; and the almond trees are blooming, filling the air with their sweetness.

We are just days away from the Passover, the major festival in the Jewish calendar.  People have traveled from all over the known world to celebrate the Passover – offering sacrifices in the temple, and sharing in the ceremonial Seder meal as they tell the story of how God had helped them to escape from slavery in Egypt.

The streets are crowded – there are normally 40,000 people living in the city, but this week there are 200,000 extra people here.  The officials are starting to get nervous with all of these people here.  They have heard rumblings of revolt – rumours that there are people who want to overthrow the Roman rulers here in Israel.  Tensions are starting to rise, so that any large gathering of people is seen as suspicious.

There is also a rumour going around that something is happening just outside of the gates of the city.  There is this preacher and healer and miracle worker named Jesus, from Galilee up there in the north, who has come to Jerusalem in time for the Passover.  People are saying that he can cast out demons, that he walks on water, and that he has even brought people back from the dead.  They’ve started calling him the Messiah, the anointed one, anointed like our kings in the past were anointed.  The rumours say that he is the one who is going to overthrow the Romans, and that he will be our king instead of them.

We make our way slowly to the gates on the eastern side of the city.  We have to move slowly because the streets are so full – everywhere you turn there are people – people on foot, people with animals, people selling things, people buying things.  It is crowded, noisy, chaotic.  A cacophony of languages fills the air from the pilgrims from every corner of the world.

When we leave the gates, we go down and across the Kidron Valley, and then up the Mount of Olives on the other side.  When we get there, we can see this Jesus, surrounded by his little band of followers, but the crowd has grown so that there are hundreds of people gathered around, maybe even a thousand people.

It’s almost like this Jesus is organizing a show for us – a bit of street theatre.  He’s sent a couple of his followers to find a donkey for him, but not just any donkey.  This is a young donkey, one that has never been ridden before, and now his followers have thrown their cloaks on its back and Jesus is climbing on.

Now there’s something to laugh at.  That donkey refuses to move!  Well, can you imagine what that poor donkey must be thinking – he’s never been ridden before, and all of a sudden here is this grown man sitting on his back, with the noise and crowd of hundreds of people standing around.  No wonder the donkey isn’t going anywhere!  I could almost hear him thinking, “Not going to, and you can’t make me!”

But now, eventually, they get the donkey moving – I didn’t see how they did that, but I suspect that there was food involved – and they are starting to move down the Mount of Olives and across the valley – past the tombs that are there, and through the Garden of Gethsemane.

As we go, the crowd is getting noisy.  They are shouting, and throwing their cloaks on the road in front of Jesus on his donkey, and waving branches that they had cut from trees nearby in the air.  It almost makes me want to laugh to see the irony of it – they are spreading their cloaks on the road as if they were welcoming a mighty leader or a king, but here was Jesus riding a donkey rather than a warhorse.  But the whole mood seems just a bit too sombre for laughter

And then a group of people starts to sing, and they are singing one of the psalms of our people – Psalm 118.  It starts with just a small group, but then more and more people join in until it is more like a shout than a song:
            Hosanna!  Save us!
            LORD, please save us!
            LORD, please let us succeed!
            The one who enters in the LORD’s name is blessed;
            we bless all of you from the LORD’s house.
            The LORD is God!
            He has shined a light on us!
            So lead the festival offering with ropes
            all the way to the horns of the alter.
            You are my God – I will give thanks to you!
            You are my God – I will lift you up high!
            Give thanks to the LORD because he is good,
            because his faithful love lasts forever.
            Hosanna!  Save us!

Slowly, slowly, we make our way through the valley and up the hill towards the gate in to Jerusalem.  People are still spreading their cloaks on the ground in front of him and waving their branches and shouting “Hosanna!  Save us!”

I wonder what they want to be saved from?

I wonder how long it will be before the authorities show up and shut this down?

I wonder what Jesus is trying to say or accomplish with this parade?

It is a celebration for sure, but it doesn’t feel quite right.  People are excited that something new is coming.  People are confident that this Jesus can save them.  People are willing to risk being part of a crowd in a time and a place where that is a dangerous thing to do, just in order to be part of this procession.  And yet there is a tension in the air, like something big is coming that we don’t quite understand yet.

Who is this Jesus whom we are following in to Jerusalem?  Is he a criminal who has been stirring up unrest around the country; and who, only today, has stolen a donkey?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a king, deserving of the cloaks spread before him and the title of Messiah, but choosing to ride a donkey instead of a warhorse?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a prophet, making people uncomfortable with the way things are, and pointing them back to God?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he a war-leader who is going to deliver us from Roman oppression, from all of the things that would come between us and God?  Is this why we are shouting “Save us!”?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he an innocent bystander, or a simple teacher who is caught up in something bigger than himself, caught in waves of turmoil in his time and his place?

Who is this Jesus?  Is he God-made-flesh, with full knowledge of what is going to happen?  As the author of Philippians writes, Christ Jesus was in the form of God, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.  A God. Who choses. To die.

Who is this Jesus?  Who are you following in to Jerusalem today?  As we follow Jesus through the gates into Jerusalem, and as we follow Jesus through the events that are going to happen this week, I invite you to consider who this is that you are following.  Why are you so captivated by his story?  What is it that keeps you following him, right up to the point of the cross and beyond?  When Jesus asks you, “Who do you say that I am?” how do you answer him?

But for today, for now, we are part of this noisy procession in to the city.  We go slowly because of the crowds and because of the donkey, so that by the time we enter in to Jerusalem, evening has fallen.

The sun has set, and the crowds slowly disappear, going back to their homes, going back to their families, going back to continue to prepare for the Passover celebration later this week.  The crowds disappear until it is only us and Jesus left standing there – even his little group of followers have left him, because he has sent them back across the valley to Bethany to return the donkey to its owners, to find a place for them to stay, and to arrange for their evening meal.

And if we follow Jesus, we can go with him to the temple.  It is late, and the daily business and rituals at the temple have finished up.  It is quiet there, standing in the late evening darkness.  Jesus looks around, seeing the places where the animals for sacrifice are sold; seeing the places where sacrifices are offered; seeing the different courtyards where different groups of people can stand; seeing the entrance to the Holy of Holies covered by a curtain – the entrance to the place where God lives.

We stand back from him as he looks around – it seems as though Jesus wants to be alone in this moment.  It is so quiet in here, compared with the noise of the parade earlier.  I wonder what Jesus is thinking about in this moment.  Is he remembering his ministry in Galilee?  Is he thinking ahead to what is going to happen this week?  Is he talking to the one whom he calls Father?  I wonder what Jesus is feeling in this moment.

But now it is late, the day has ended and the night is here, and Jesus quietly slips out of the temple, and walks back across the valley to join his friends again.

Let us pray:
            Holy God,
            As we enter in to this holiest of weeks,
                        draw us close to you.
            Help us to know that as we travel the difficult path,
                        you travel with us.
            Be with us in our shouts of “Hosanna!”
            Be with us when the crowds cry, “Crucify him!”
            Be with us when the world goes dark.
            Be with us when the light returns.
            We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
                        in whose name we are gathered.

(We call today "Palm Sunday", but did you notice that Mark doesn't mention any palms?  The scripture reading focused more on the donkey than it did on the branches - maybe we should re-name today "Donkey Sunday"?!)

22 March 2018

"The Wisdom of Trees" (poem)

March 21 is World Poetry Day, so I thought that I would share something that I have been working on recently.  This probably isn’t its final form, but this is where it is at as of today.

As I was traveling down
the narrow path between
            trees reaching up to the sky,
I came upon an old woman –
            an ancient crone, dressed
            in browns and greens of forest.
I asked her:
            Am I on the right path?
            Is this the path to my heart’s desire?
            Is this the path to God?
She looked at me
            and she smiled
            and she replied:
                        The right path is the one you are walking,
                                    not the one you long for;
                        and how you walk it
                                    is more important
                                                than where you are going;
                        for the one whom you seek
                                    is always with you –
                                                at the end of your path,
                                                your companion on the journey,
                                                and the one in your heart.
I smiled;
            I thanked her;
                        I continued on my way.
But when I looked back,
            Lady Wisdom had vanished
                        and in her place stood
                                    a single

18 March 2018

"A Grain of Wheat" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
March 18, 2018
Scripture:  John 12:20-33

This weeks reading from John’s gospel makes me think of one of my first overseas adventures, which was to El Salvador.  I was there with a group that was based out of my home congregation, but we were a very ecumenical group, including members from the United Church, Roman Catholic Church, Christian Reformed Church, and the Alliance Church.  Our little group of 12 people also included almost every decade in terms of age – from teenagers up to one participant in her 80s.

Before this trip, we had fundraised enough money to build 3 houses.  We were there in March of 2002, the year after a massive earthquake in El Salvador that had not only destroyed many houses, but had also triggered mud slides that had swept away whole villages.

So where does the reading from John’s gospel come in?  Before we traveled out to the village where we would be participating in the building project, we spent several days in the capital city of San Salvador, recovering from the travel exhaustion; acclimatizing to the very hot weather, new food, and the culture shock of landing in a new country; and touring around a bit, seeing the city and visiting different sites.

Two of the sites that we visited in San Salvador were the Divine Providence Hospital, and the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador – two sites that are linked with the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a name that some of you might recognize.

Oscar Romero was a bit of a child prodigy in the church world.  He heard his call to the priesthood as a young teenager, and he actually had to delay his ordination by a year because he finished his seminary studies when he was still a year too young to be ordained by the Roman Catholic Church.

He then made his way up through the hierarchy of the church, becoming first a priest, then a seminary chaplain, then a bishop, and finally in 1977, he was chosen as the archbishop for the whole country.  At the time, it was thought to be a safe choice.  Both the government and the church approved of him – he wouldn’t make any waves, and the church could continue to enjoy the power that it did.

Now the country of El Salvador has a troubled past.  There is a lot of poverty, as well as a huge discrepancy between the rich and the poor – a very few people hold all of the wealth, with most people living in extreme poverty.  And unfortunately, the attitude of the church in the past has been to keep the rich minority happy so that they will keep giving money to the church, and then to say to the majority living in poverty, “there, there, put up with your suffering now and you will get your reward in heaven”; rather than doing anything to address the systems that lead to poverty.

The first uprising against the government was in 1969, which the government responded to with violence, starting a decades-long civil war.

So in 1977, Oscar Romero became the archbishop and the church and the government breathed a sigh of relief.  Here was someone who was going to keep up the status quo – a few wealthy elite, and a church that comforts the poor without trying to change anything.

But 6 weeks after his election as archbishop, Romero’s theology shifted suddenly and radically.  One of his good friends, a fellow priest, was assassinated for the work that he was doing, trying to start programs to empower the poor and create self-reliance.  Romero’s theology was shaken to the core.  He came to realize that maybe God wasn’t impartial.  Maybe God did take sides; and if so, then God is always on the side of anyone who is poor, anyone who is oppressed, anyone who is powerless.

And from that time forward, Archbishop Romero used his position and the power that it gave him to start advocating for change.  He spoke out against the government and the systems of poverty and violence that they were upholding.  He spoke out against his own church, and their practices that were maintaining the status quo.  He wrote a letter to the President of the United States, asking them to stop financially supporting the Salvadoran government, since the money from the US was being used to purchase weapons that were killing the poor.  For three years, Romero preached and wrote letters and gave interviews and spoke on the radio, all advocating for an end to violence, an end to poverty, and an end to oppression.

And that wealthy minority – well they didn’t like it.  They were afraid of losing the wealth and the power that they had.  The government also didn’t like it – they didn’t want to lose their power, or the foreign money and support that they were receiving.  The church also didn’t like it – they were quite happy and did well with the current system of people depending on the reassurance of the church – the “thoughts and prayers” to use a contemporary phrase – in the midst of suffering, so why should it change?

On the evening of March 24, 1980, Archbishop Romero was preaching and presiding at mass in the chapel of Divine Providence Hospital.  The text for his homily was John, chapter 12, verses 23-26.  He spoke of the grain of wheat sacrificing itself to provide the harvest; he spoke of the hope for the future glory of the kingdom of God which should drive our actions in the here and now; and he spoke of all of us doing what we are able to do while we are living, so that the harvest might be seen, even if the harvest comes after we are gone.

As he finished speaking, he moved behind the altar to celebrate mass.  And at that moment, a car pulled up outside the chapel, an unidentified gunman ran into the chapel, and he shot Archbishop Romero in the heart, killing him within minutes.

Archbishop Romero was buried in the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador; and when our group visited his tomb in 2002, there on the wall behind his tomb was a picture of Romero, and the words of John 12:24 written in Spanish – “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

So what fruit did Romero’s life and death bear?  From a political perspective, it would be another 9 years before the peace process began in El Salvador.  But the war did end, and peace did come to the country.  There is still a discrepancy between the rich and the poor, but there is more awareness today of this discrepancy, and the government now not only allows groups and NGOs to work for the poor, but they encourage it.

The church has also shifted its position in Latin America since this time.  Rather than upholding the status quo – keeping the rich happy so that they continue to give money to the church, while reassuring the poor that they will be rewarded for their suffering when they get to heaven – instead of upholding this system, the church has come to accept the Liberation Theology promoted by Romero and others.  The church now understands God to be on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and that God desires every person to have fullness of life, not just in heaven or when God’s kingdom is fully realized, but right now, here on earth.  The fullness of life can begin in the here and now.  Instead of trying to hide Romero under the carpet as a disgrace who was not in keeping with the church, he is now celebrated not only in Latin America but around the world.  And just a week and a half ago, Pope Francis declared that all of the conditions had been met for Oscar Romero to be declared a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, an event that is likely to occur later this year.

And so whenever I read the words of John 12:24, my brain goes immediately to the tomb of Oscar Romero in San Salvador and those words painted on the wall behind it.  If you were to go there today, you wouldn’t see them, because his body was reburied in 2005 as part of the process of having him declared a saint, but the image made a very strong impression on me 16 years ago.

Which is all very well, but what does that have to do with us today?  My hope is that none of us here are called to become martyrs and to die for our faith the way that Romero did.  So what can we take away from his story, and from the gospel message?

In the context of John’s gospel, with these words about a grain of wheat, Jesus is speaking about his crucifixion and death, and the harvest of the resurrection that would follow.  But he says in the verses that follow, “those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

I don’t think that he means that we are literally hate our lives – after all, God created life and called it good, and God desires fullness of life for everyone.  But what I think that we are to turn away from is selfish individualism; that little voice inside us that tells us that we are more important than anyone else, and we should do whatever we can to put ourselves forward, no matter what that does to anyone else.

If we can put aside our ego, if we can die to that selfish individualism and look around us, then maybe we can have our eyes opened to the suffering of others, the way Romero’s eyes were opened.  If we can die to the “Look out for number one” way of living, then maybe we can contribute to the fullness of life for everyone.  If we love our selfish life, we will lose it; if we let go of our selfishness and live for others, then we will live with God eternally.

I want to end with some words from Oscar Romero’s final sermon – his sermon from March 24, 1980 on this same text; words that he spoke moments before he was assassinated.  He said:

You have just heard in Christ’s gospel that one must not love oneself so much as to avoid getting involved in the risks of life that history demands of us, and that those who try to fend off the danger will lose their lives; while those who out of love for Christ give themselves to the service of others, will live, live like the grain of wheat that dies, but only apparently. If it did not die, it would remain alone. The harvest comes about only because it dies, allowing itself to be sacrificed in the earth and destroyed. Only by undoing itself does it produce the harvest.”

And then he went on to say:

“Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with that hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something; we can all at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy … all those longings for justice, peace, and well-being that we experience on earth become realized for us if we enlighten them with Christian hope. We know that no one can go on forever, but those who have put into their work a sense of very great faith, of love of God, of hope among human beings, find it all results in the splendors of a crown that is the sure reward of those who labor thus, cultivating truth, justice, love, and goodness on earth. Such labor does not remain here below but, purified by God’s Spirit, is harvested for our reward.”[1]

We don’t do this alone.  We join with other around the world who are living so that all might have eternal life.  And we trust that God’s Spirit dwells within us, transforming us into the image of Christ so that we might die to ourselves and live for others.  May it be so.  Amen.

[1] http://www.romerotrust.org.uk/homilies-and-writings/homilies/final-homily-archbishop-romero

 Tomb of Oscar Romero - March 2002, with John 12:24 (in Spanish) on the wall
Photo Credit:  Ray and Eleanor Dunn

11 March 2018

"On Snakes and Curious Stories" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
March 11, 2018
Scriptures:  Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

So… what are your thoughts about snakes?  Personally, I don’t mind them.  My friend has pet snakes, and I don’t mind touching them or holding them.  (Though my attitude towards snakes was slightly different when I was living in a country with many species of poisonous snakes, and one made its way in to my bedroom one sunny afternoon…)  But for the most part, I think that they are interesting creatures.

One of my friends and regular canoe partner, Laura Marie, has a very different attitude towards snakes.  When we are on canoe trips together, and portaging between lakes or around waterfalls, her shriek that announces that there is a snake on the trail sounds very much like what I imagine her shriek to announce that there is a bear on the trail would sound like.  We have come to the agreement that it is better for both of our mental health if I go first along the trail so that any snakes that might be sunning themselves on the path can slither back in to the bush before Laura Marie comes along.

Then next Saturday, everyone around the world who can claim any Irish heritage will be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, and that curious story about St. Patrick driving all of the snakes out of Ireland.  This story is likely more legend than fact because, while there are no snakes in Ireland today, there is also no skeletal or fossil evidence of there ever having been snakes in Ireland.

And then we come to another curious story about snakes – today’s reading from the Old Testament book of Numbers.  Remember that the people had been slaves in Egypt; remember that Moses went to the Pharaoh and demanded of him, “Let my people go!”; remember that God worked through Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea so that the people could cross to safety on the other side.  And now we come to the desert wilderness where the people wandered for 40 years before they were able to enter into the land that God had promised to them.

Now the complaint that we hear in today’s readings, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” is heard regularly in the time in the desert wilderness.  Sometimes God responded to this complaint by causing manna and quail to fall from heaven for the people.  Sometimes God responded to this complaint by having Moses strike a rock with his staff, causing water to flow out of the rock.  But this time, the text tells us that “the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.”

Now I’m going to come right out and say that I don’t think that God sent those poisonous serpents; and I don’t believe that God wanted the people to die.  This doesn’t fit with my understanding of who God is.  By looking elsewhere in scripture, I understand God to be love; I understand that God wants us to love God and love one another; I understand God to be the source of all that is good and loving in the universe.  And when I look at Jesus, God-made-flesh, I see a God of compassion, who said that he came in order that we all might have not just life but fullness of life.

So what then are we to do with this story and the venomous snakes found in it?  My understanding of scripture is that it was written by humans about their experiences of God.  And isn’t it a very human thing to blame God when things go wrong?  When bad or tragic things happen in our lives, we tend to cry out to God – Why did you do this to me?  Why did you allow this to happen?  But my faith tells me that the God-who-is-love doesn’t cause pain and suffering – all I can do is affirm that God-who-is-love is always with us, even when we are experiencing pain and suffering.

And we can see this in the story from Numbers.  The people are suffering from the poisonous snakes and they cry out to God, and God hears their prayers.  God not only hears their prayers, but God also provided a solution to the situation – a snake made out of bronze on a pole that people could look at and be cured.  The original anti-venom!

It’s a curious ending to a curious story.  A snake on a stick that people could look at and be cured.  Remember last week, our readings included the Ten Commandments, which included the commandments that the people were to have no other gods except for the God who had led them out of slavery, and that they were not to make idols for themselves in the form or shape of anything on earth.  So could this snake be considered an idol?  And remember that other time when the people were wandering in the wilderness and they made a golden calf and started to worship it.  That story didn’t end well for them!

But here is God telling them to make this snake and put it on a pole and raise it up above the people.  But what is missing in this story is that the people weren’t worshipping the snake.  Instead, when they looked at the snake, they were reminded of God, the one who was with them, and the one who could heal them.

I would suggest that instead of an idol, this snake made of bronze functioned more like a sacrament.  The basic definition of a sacrament is a visible sign of God’s invisible grace.  A sacrament is something that we can see and touch and smell and taste, but it is always pointing beyond itself towards God.  When we gather around the communion table in a few minutes, we aren’t going to be worshipping the bread and the wine.  Instead, when we taste the bread and the wine, they are going to point us towards God, and God’s ever-faithful love.

And so I see the snake on a pole as being a sacrament like this.  The power of the snake is that it pointed the people back to God.  They were able to turn away from their complaining, and be turned back to the God who was leading them through the wilderness.

But the snake doesn’t stop here – this same snake pops up again in our reading from John’s gospel today.  The context for this gospel reading is that Nicodemus, a leader of the group of people who were persecuting Jesus, came to Jesus by night and started asking him questions.  And eventually we come to today’s reading – part of Jesus’ answers.  Jesus reminds Nicodemus of the story from Numbers – this would have been part of the scriptures that they were both familiar with as devout Jewish teachers and leaders of their era.  Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Through this season of Lent, we have been journeying with Jesus towards the cross, and here we have another foreshadowing of what is to come.  Now it’s an interesting phrase, to say that the Son of Man is to going to be lifted up.  I can see three different possible interpretations of this – remember last week when I mentioned all of the “double-talk” in John’s gospel.  First of all, Jesus’ body is going to be lifted up on a cross when he is crucified.  But then Jesus is also going to be raised up – the same Greek verb – in his resurrection.  And then the third possible meaning is that Jesus is going to be lifted up to heaven after his resurrection, to the glorification that continues today whenever we worship.

Jesus refers a couple of times to those “who believe in him”; but what does it mean to believe in Jesus?  I think that means much more than what we think, or the words that we say.  I think that it goes right down to how we live our lives and where we place our trust.  We are not to live our lives grumbling and complaining about what we have or don’t have like the people in the desert were doing.  Instead, we are to put our trust in God, we are to look at the snake on the pole, we are to “turn our eyes upon Jesus” as the old hymn says, and then we may have eternal life.

Now the thing about eternal life is that it isn’t some far-off reward for us when we die.  Just as we are to put our trust in God in the here and now in how we live our lives, so too eternal life begins in the here and now.  It isn’t a matter of quantity of life, but eternal life is a different quality of life – it is the fullness of life or abundance of life that Jesus talks about later on in Johns’ gospel.

Both of these readings, I think, are a call to repentance, a call to change our ways, a call to turn back to God.  The Israelite people were called to turn away from their grumbling and complaining to turn towards and look at the bronze snake that would point them towards God.  Jesus calls on his listeners to turn away from doing what is evil to do what is true – to choose light and to choose life.

And we too are called to look to Jesus, to trust Jesus, rather than trusting the world around us.  We are to turn away from our fears of a vengeful god who punishes us, and turn towards the God who is Love, who is with us when things are good and who is still with us when things are difficult; the God who surrounds us with love every moment of every day.

Let us pray:
God of Love,
We thank you because you are always with us.
We thank you because your love for the world never ends.
We thank you that we can turn from our fears,
            and turn towards you and your love.
Give us the faith to know
            that your love is stronger than our fears,
            and that your love is constantly surrounding us.
We pray this in the name of Jesus,
            raised up in his crucifixion,
            raised up in his resurrection,
            and raised up in his glorification;
                        the one who points us towards,
                        and who embodies
                                    your love.

© Marek Szczepanek, WikiMedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
(Snake or Sacrament???)

4 March 2018

"Where Does God Live?" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
March 4, 2018 - 3rd Sunday in Lent
Reading:  John 2:13-22

I invite you to hold your hands out, and take a good look at them.  Take a really close look at your hands.  Aren’t they amazing?!  Have you ever noticed that no two hands are alike?  They are all unique.  Some of us have scars or birthmarks on our hands.  Some of us choose to decorate our hands with rings or nailpolish.  Our fingerprints are absolutely unique to ourselves.

What have your hands done in your life?  Are you an artist?  Maybe you have used these hands to make music.  Maybe you have used these hands to paint a picture or a wall.  Maybe you have used these hands to express yourself as you danced.  Maybe you are woodworker, and you have used these hands to build something new and creative.

Are you someone who talks with your hands, gesturing wildly, or do your keep your hands at your side when you speak?  I don’t know – can any of you speak sign language where your hands become the primary medium of communication?

What else have you done with your hands?  Who was the last person that you hugged with your hands?  Who was the last baby you held with your hands?  Have you ever held the hand of someone who was sick or dying?  Have you ever hit anyone with your hands?  Have your hands ever been the tools of violence?

Our hands can tell our stories, of who we are, and of what we have done.

I wonder about Jesus’ hands.  I wonder if, when he was born, did his mother play with his fingers, marvelling at their perfection and the tiny fingernails at the tip of each one?  When Jesus was a toddler, a young boy, did his parents hold his hands when they walked to the local synagogue?  Did Jesus use his hands to hold his baby brothers and sisters?

And then when Jesus grew up, we have some stories about how he used his hands.  He laid his hands over the eyes of a blind man, and sight was restored.  Peter was walking across the water towards Jesus when he started to sink, and Jesus stretched out his hand and saved him.  Jesus used his hands to lift up a loaf of bread and break it, as he said to his disciples, “This is my body, broken for you.”  And then, in the end, nails were hammered through Jesus’ hands as he was hung on a cross.

And then we have today’s story from John’s gospel.  In today’s story, Jesus first uses his hands to make a whip out of ropes.  Then his hands brandish this whip in order to drive a bunch of animals and possibly the people who were selling them out of the temple.  And then his hands took the baskets and buckets and cash boxes of the money changers and poured out the money all over the floor of the temple.  And finally his hands took the tables that were being used for business and flipped them over.

This story has been turned in to a meme that circulates on Facebook occasionally.  Along with a picture of this scene of chaos, the caption reads, “If anyone ever asks you, ‘What Would Jesus Do?” remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the realm of possibilities.”

Jesus comes across as so very human in the first part of this story.  John’s gospel begins with God’s Word becoming flesh; and in this moment, we see the fleshy-ness, the human-ness of Jesus.  He sees something that isn’t right, something that maybe makes him angry, and he uses his flesh, his hands, to change it.  What should be the house of God, has become a house of trade.  Instead of worshipping God, people are worshipping the coins that Jesus dumps on to the floor.

But then in the last part of the reading, we come to the part that made my head spin so much that my page of rough notes as I was preparing this sermon is covered in circles.  John’s gospel is known for, maybe sometimes notorious for, double-talk.  Words and sentences and paragraphs that can be interpreted on multiple levels.

So when Jesus starts talking about the temple, on one level he is talking about the place where this story takes place.  They are in the temple in Jerusalem, the high holy place of the Jewish people, the place where God lived.  The temple was literally the home of the One whom Jesus called “Father.”  This was the second temple that had been built on this site – the first temple, the temple built by Solomon, had been destroyed when the city was conquered by the Babylonian empire; but it had been re-built when the people returned from exile.  This second temple was then destroyed by the Roman army thirty-some-odd years after Jesus died, but at the time of the gospel story, the temple was still the heart of the Jewish faith.  It was the home of God, and it was the place where people came to worship God and offer sacrifices to God.  It has never been re-built since it was destroyed in 70CE.  If you go to Jerusalem today, the only part that is left standing is the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, but it is still an important place where Jewish people go to pray, even today.

So this is the first layer of meaning when Jesus refers to destroying the temple – destruction of the physical building in which they were standing.  From the perspective of the author and the first audience of John’s gospel, the destruction of this physical temple had already happened.  John’s gospel was written 20-30 years after the temple had been destroyed.  But as Jesus was standing there, such a thing would have been almost unimaginable.

Now remember that double-talk.  There are more layers of meaning at play here.  The narrator gives us a pretty broad hint when we are told that Jesus was referring to the temple of his body.

The temple building was the home of God; but Jesus was also God-made-flesh.  The flesh and blood of Jesus was also the home of God.  Later on in John’s gospel, Jesus is going to say, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”  When we understand God to be Trinity, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Always three and always one.  So when Jesus is talking about the destruction of the temple, he is foreshadowing his own crucifixion – the time when the home of God in the flesh of Jesus would be destroyed.

But I also think that we can even take this one step further.  A couple of decades after Jesus died, the apostle Paul would write that we, the church, are the Body of Christ.  He wrote to the church in Corinth that our bodies are the temple, the home, of the Holy Spirit.  God lives in us too.

Can you see why my page of notes was covered in circles and spirals?  It makes my head spin just thinking of all of the layers of meaning!

But let’s spiral back to the start of the story – Jesus driving the animals out of the temple along with those who were selling them, then pouring out the coins and overturning the tables of the money changers.  Jesus saw that the house of God had been turned in to a house of trade or commerce.

Now if our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit, the home of God, is there anything going on in our lives that isn’t compatible with the house of God?  Lent is usually a time for self-examination, and for drawing closer to God.

And so I invite you to look at your hands again, as we spiral back to where we began.  We, together, are the Body of Christ, and your hands are part of this larger body.  Your hands are part of the dwelling place of God.

Is there anything that your hands have done, or are doing, that would make Jesus reach for his metaphorical whip?  Have your hands ever hurt another person?  Have your hands ever hurt yourself?  Have your hands ever exploited another person?  Have your hands ever closed a door, literally or metaphorically, that excluded someone?  Have your hands ever used cosmetics or cleaning products that destroy God’s creation?  Have your hands ever chosen a product off the shelf that exploits other people – that is made by people working in unsafe conditions, making less than a living wage?

Jesus taught that the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour as ourselves.  That is how we are to live and that is how we are to serve God.  That is how we are called to use our hands.  These are the things that make ourselves, our bodies, a suitable home for God.

Jesus, while fully God, was also fully human, and he used his human body, his fleshy self, his hands and his feet and his eyes and his ears in ways that served God and made his human body a suitable home for God; and we are called to do the same.  May God give us the courage for self-examination; the wisdom to see where we are not living as the Body of Christ, and may God enable us to change our ways.  Amen.

(How I felt preparing the sermon...)