29 April 2018

"New Beginnings" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
April 29, 2018
Scripture:  Acts 8:26-40

I’ve spent some time thinking back this week, on my first Sunday here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry 8 months ago.  I remember standing right here on the first Sunday in September, only knowing a handful of your names, and only knowing a few bits and pieces of the story of Chetwynd Shared Ministry.  I think that I confessed to you how nervous I was – nervous that you might not like my style of preaching; nervous about whether the Holy Spirit would give me words to preach week after week; nervous because what an awesome responsibility it to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

And here we are, 8 months later.  Fortunately the Holy Spirit showed up most weeks to give me the words to string together into a sermon.  We have shared countless cups and pots of tea and coffee in the hall here at the church, in your homes, and in various restaurants around town.  I have felt honoured to be invited into your lives for this short period of time; and it has been a privilege to be entrusted with your stories.  We have laughed together, cried together, encouraged one another, learned from each other, and helped one another out.  We have broken bread together as companions on this journey; and now we have come to the end of this stage of the journey.

I was glad when I saw the reading from the Acts of the Apostles that is assigned to this Sunday – the story of Philip and the nameless Ethiopian eunuch.  This is the story about two people who are brought together for a specific purpose, for a specific period of time.  Both of them were changed by the encounter; and after journeying together for a certain period, they parted ways, each to continue in their assigned ministry in their own location.

Now Philip is an interesting character.  His primary calling was as a Deacon – a ministry of service – of feeding the poor and serving the community of disciples.  But God knew that he was the one who was needed to preach to the Ethiopian eunuch.  And so God sent a messenger, an angel, to Philip, telling him where to go.  Now fortunately Philip listened to the message he was given, and he headed south from Jerusalem.  He got up and went, as the reading tells us.

Now when Philip arrived at the appointed place, there was a carriage traveling along – a carriage from the Ethiopian court, carrying the official who was in charge of the entire Ethiopian treasury.  In modern terms, here is one of the top cabinet ministers in the Ethiopian government.  And what does Philip do?  He runs up along side the carriage, and starts up a conversation.

When I try to imagine the scene, I usually end up somewhere close to laughter.  Here is the fancy carriage, with the high-up official; and alongside it, Philip is running – the street preacher from the back country.

And yet, despite the obvious difference in status, the Ethiopian court official invites Philip to join him in the carriage.  Then as they travel along, Philip tells the Ethiopian about the good news of Jesus Christ, who was crucified and then rose from the dead.  The Ethiopian comes to believe in, to put his trust in Jesus Christ; and he asks to be baptized.  And there, in a small pool of water in the middle of the desert wilderness, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, and he is reborn in Jesus Christ.

And if you were to look closely, you would see that both of them were changed by the encounter.  The Ethiopian’s conversion experience is maybe more obvious.  He comes to find new life in Jesus Christ through his baptism.  But you might need to look deeper to see how Philip is changed.  In the world in which Philip lived, a eunuch was someone who would normally be excluded from worshipping God.  Because of the genital mutilation, a eunuch couldn’t be a part of the covenant that was marked by circumcision; and a eunuch was not allowed to worship with the others.

And yet Philip was able to see this man’s faith.  Philip was able to see how this man, who, in Philip’s world view should have been excluded from faith, was actually in possession of a very deep faith.  And so when the eunuch asked Philip to baptize him, they both went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  Philip’s understanding of God’s love, and who was included in God’s love was expanded that day there in the wilderness.

Now I see a very strong connection between this story, and our time journeying together here at Chetwynd Shared Ministry.  I do believe that the Holy Spirit acts through our denominations and meetings and committees; and so I believe that the Holy Spirit was acting at the meeting last June when I was matched up with Chetwynd Shared Ministry for this 8-month internship.  God knew that we needed to be brought together for this specific period of time, and for a specific purpose – namely for me to learn about how to be a Minister, and to provide leadership for the ministry of Chetwynd Shared Ministry.

Now I can’t speak for all of you, but I know that I have been changed by this encounter.  I have learned what it means for a church to really BE the church – holding each other up, and making Christ present here in Chetwynd.  I have learned what it is, not just to do ministry but to BE a Minister.  I have been changed and transformed by all of the worship services, celebrations, and study sessions that we have shared together; and I have been changed by conversations with the Lay Supervision Team, and with Marilyn, my supervisor.  And I hope and I pray that some of you might have experienced some sort of transformation too, in our time together.

But then we come to the end of the story from Acts that we read this morning.  We read that “when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing trough the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

Even though it had been a very powerful and transformative interaction, these two didn’t stay together.  They each went their own way, and continued their ministry where they found themselves.

Now I don’t think that the Spirit of the Lord is going to snatch me away on Tuesday, the day after my internship here is over.  I fully expect to have to drive all the way across Canada again, over many days.  But our time together here has come to an end.  I am going to be leaving, and I will be continuing my ministry with the people of Two Rivers Pastoral Charge in New Brunswick; but I will take comfort in knowing that you all will be continuing your ministry as Chetwynd Shared Ministry.  You will continue to be a part of the Body of Christ, continuing with God’s mission right here.

And we can all take comfort in knowing that wherever we are, and whatever our ministry looks like, God is with us.  God is always guiding us, and always transforming us, through the Holy Spirit, into the image and likeness of Christ.  And so let us, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, go on our way rejoicing!

“God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.”[1]

Let us pray:
God of all times and all places,
            and of this time and this place;
We know that you are present in our beginnings,
            and in our endings,
            and in our new beginnings.
Help us to celebrate this period of time that we have shared
            as we have journeyed together;
and comfort us by knowing that you are present,
            and that we can continue to be your people
                        in this moment of new beginnings.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            in whose resurrection we find our hope
for all new beginnings.

[1] “A New Creed,” The United Church of Canada, http://www.united-church.ca/community-faith/welcome-united-church-canada/new-creed.

(The Stained Glass door in the church building - a witness to the
mission of Chetwynd Shared Ministry in this community.)

22 April 2018

"Shepherd and Sheep" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
April 22, 2018
Scriptures:  John 10:11-18 and Psalm 23

So in listening to this morning’s readings and songs and prayers, you may have noticed a bit of a theme running through them.  The fourth Sunday of the season of Easter is traditionally recognized as “Good Shepherd Sunday” and that is the focus of the readings assigned to today.

But if I’m being completely honest with you, the image or metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is not one of my favourites.  Please don’t hate me if it is one that you love!  I know a lot of people love the idea of a Good Shepherd and find comfort in the idea of a shepherd; and there are loads of churches that are named Good Shepherd Church.  It’s just an image that I have trouble getting in to, possibly because the image of the Good Shepherd has been so sentimentalized by the church over the centuries that the metaphor has lost its power for me.

But I wonder what Jesus might have been trying to say when he said that he is the Good Shepherd?

What image comes in to your mind when you think of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?  I know for me, the image that pops up first is the picture that decorates the wall of Sunday School rooms across the country – you know the one.  Pretty Jesus wearing a robe of white or blue, light brown or blonde hair, blue eyes, surrounded by clean fluffy white sheep.  Maybe he is cradling a lamb in his arms, or maybe he has a lamb draped over his shoulders.  It is a peaceful, pastoral scene.

The thing is though, it isn’t historically accurate.  In Jesus’ world, shepherds were people who lived on the margins of society.  They lived far away from people or towns, and often far away from their families.  They didn’t have the social graces that would allow them to fit in to polite society.  They were out, exposed to the elements, fighting off danger, likely sunburnt, wind-blown, and dirty.  They smelled like the sheep that they looked after.  When they came in to towns, they would have been the sort of people who might have made you feel uncomfortable – who might make you cross over to the other side of the street if you were passing them.  They were itinerant, always on the move, keeping their flock together and always moving towards fresh pasture.

I read one commentary this week that suggested that if we were to translate the good shepherd metaphor into contemporary times, it is as if Jesus is saying to his listeners, “I am the good migrant farm worker.”[1]

And so I wonder if, in one layer of meaning, Jesus might be saying to his followers that he identifies with anyone who is on the margins of society, anyone who is rejected by society.  How would this change our understanding of who Jesus is?


I wonder what else Jesus might have been trying to say when he said the he is the Good Shepherd?

Jesus lived as a Jewish man in first century Palestine, and the scriptures that he would have known were what we call today the Old Testament.  And the Old Testament is full of shepherd imagery.  We read the 23rd Psalm today, and this may be the best-known shepherd-image in the whole bible.  The psalm writer compares God to a shepherd – a shepherd who gives us food and keeps us safe from all danger.  In addition to the well-known 23rd, there are also many other psalms that compare God to a shepherd, including Psalm 28, Psalm 77, Psalm 80, and the list goes on.

Then in chapter 40 of Isaiah, written to a people who were about to leave exile and return home, Isaiah writes, “God will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”  As the people were preparing to make the long and dangerous journey back to the home that none of them had known, they could be comforted by knowing that God was with them, guiding them and keeping them safe the way that a shepherd does.

And so when he says that he is the Good Shepherd, I wonder if another layer of meaning might be that Jesus is God.  Jesus will lead and protect us in the same way that God led and protected the people, because Jesus is God.


I wonder what else Jesus might have been trying to say when he said the he is the Good Shepherd?

I was really struck by the comparison in the reading from John between the Good Shepherd and the Hired Hand.  Because what would have been the difference between a shepherd and the hired hand?  It is unlikely that either one was the actual owner of the sheep.  Think of the most famous shepherd in the Old Testament – the boy who would become King David.  He was tending the sheep of his father that would some day be inherited by his older brother; and yet he is still considered the shepherd.  So it doesn’t seem to be a matter of ownership.

Instead, I think that the difference might come down, not to title, and not to ownership of the sheep, but rather intention towards the sheep.  Does the human want what is best for the sheep, or are they in it just for the salary that they are earning?

Again, the books or scrolls of the Old Testament were the scriptures that Jesus was intimately familiar with, and if you were to turn to Chapter 34 of Ezekiel, you would find a very vivid description of two different types of shepherds – they are both called shepherds here.  But the so-called False Shepherds are in it only for what they can get from the sheep – the meat and the wool.  They don’t ensure that the sheep have food to eat; they don’t care for the sheep when they are injured; they don’t protect the sheep from the wild animals.  In this parable, the God’s people are the sheep, but the False Shepherds are the corrupt leaders of the land.  In contrast with this, God is named as the True Shepherd.  God seeks out the sheep when they are lost, protects them from their enemies, and leads them to good pasture-land for grazing.

If we turn to that famous 23rd Psalm again, the final verse is often translated, “For surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life”; but an alternative translation to this reads:  “For I am chased down by goodness, pursued by mercy every day of my life.”  The Good Shepherd, God-in-Jesus, not only looks after us in a passive way, but actively chases us down with all of the goodness that is God!

And so I wonder if yet another layer of meaning to Jesus as the Good Shepherd is this relentless pursuit and care of us, even when we turn away.  God loves us, each and every one of us, not because of anything that we have done or haven’t done, and not because of anything that God could get out of the bargain because isn’t that a laughable idea; but God loves us simply because we are ourselves and God is a God of love.


I wonder what else Jesus might have been trying to say when he said the he is the Good Shepherd?

Often when we speak about Jesus as the Good Shepherd, the metaphor implies that we must then be the sheep.  But I wonder if that’s all there is.

Not that I have anything against sheep!  I admittedly haven’t spent much time with sheep, but everything that I have read about them tells me that they are very intelligent creatures.  But I’ve always chafed a bit at being called a sheep.  Sheep follow, unquestioningly.  In a herd of sheep, each one may seem the same.  And, quite frankly, I would prefer to be a human being than a sheep!

But when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, the Greek word that is almost always translated as “good” – kalos – actually means something more along the lines of “model,” “ideal,” or “proper.”  And so if Jesus is the Model Shepherd, whom is he modeling it for?  Who is called to follow the model of Jesus?

I think that the answer to that question is… all of us.  We are all called to tend to one another and tend to everyone in the world in the same way that Jesus tends his flock as the Good Shepherd.  By virtue of our calling to be children of God and the body of Christ, we are all called to look after all who are vulnerable, we are all called to look after anyone who is sick or injured, we are all called to make sure that everyone has enough food to eat.

And today, April 22, is also celebrated as Earth Day, a day when we celebrate all of God’s creation.  We are, as humans, called to be stewards of all of creation, and I see a strong connection between being stewards and being shepherds.  We are to consider all of creation and celebrate it for its creator.  We are placed in a position that carries the responsibility to care for all of creation.  We are, in that sense, shepherds of all of creation.

And so I wonder if another layer of meaning to this story is that Jesus is the model for us to follow of how we are all to be shepherds to the world – both the human world and the non-human world.


I wonder what else Jesus might have been trying to say when he said the he is the Good Shepherd?

One final layer of meaning that I see in this image of a Good Shepherd is when I hold this image up with one of Jesus’ other titles – Lamb of God.  Jesus is the Shepherd, but Jesus is also the sheep, the lamb, who is destined to die.  As Jesus says in our reading today, “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.”

This is a Jesus who knows that he is going to die; but who knows that resurrection will follow death, and that this resurrection will be the hope for the world.

And so yes, we are called to be shepherds to the world, modeling ourselves after Jesus; but I believe that we are also called to be sheep – sheep who listen to the voice of our Shepherd, sheep who trust in the one who leads us.  I don’t think that we are called to lay down our lives in the way that Jesus was called – after all, the work of Easter is already done; but I do think that we are sheep in the sense that we listen for and follow our shepherd, and trust that our Shepherd will lead us safely, even when the path doesn’t seem to make sense to us.

And so I wonder if we can be both shepherds and sheep, just as Jesus was the Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God


And so, while the Good Shepherd image may not be my favourite metaphor for Jesus, by digging into it, I’m able to find some meaning and relevance for the world today.

I’m still probably not going to buy that Sunday School print of pretty, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus to hang on my office wall; but when I think of Jesus the Good Shepherd, I can think of those shepherds living on the fringes of society; I can think of how they sacrificed comfort and company, and their own safety in order to take care of their sheep; I can think about how it was those shepherds living on the margins who were the first ones to hear the good news of the birth of Jesus; I can think about how Jesus, the Shepherd, is also the lamb; and I can think of how we are called to be like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, our model for shepherding.

Let us pray:
Holy God, who is the Shepherd of all people,
            help us to trust in the guidance of our Good Shepherd,
                        and empower us,
                                    by your Holy Spirit,
                                                to be shepherds of the world;
                        so that your love and care might spread
                                    into every corner of creation.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the Good Shepherd.

[1] Nancy R. Blakely, “Pastoral Perspective,” from Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 450.

“The Shepherd”
© Neha iitb / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

15 April 2018

"The Peace of Christ" (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
April 15, 2018
Scripture:  Luke 24:36-48

May the peace of Christ be always with you.

I want to talk a bit today about Passing the Peace – a tradition that is part of the worship in this congregation and in many other congregations across denominations.  But first, I invite you to turn to the person next to you, and in groups of 2 or 3, share what it means to you when we pass the peace as a part of worship.  Is it something that is meaningful to you?  Do you understand why we do it?  Feel free to be honest with one another!

(Pause for discussion)

Is anyone comfortable sharing your thoughts and opinions with the congregation?

(Pause for responses)

So why do we share the peace of Christ with one another when we worship?  When we share the peace of Christ, we are participating in an ancient practice in the church, likely going back for as long as there has been the church.  It’s more than just a social time; it’s more than just a time for conversations with one another (though I have to confess that sometimes I have been guilty of using the opportunity to pass a message along that I didn’t have a chance to do before we started worship…).  If you look at where in the order of worship we share the peace with one another, it happens right after we have confessed our sins and heard the words assuring us that we have been forgiven.  And then we turn and offer the peace of Christ to one another.  We recognize that not only have we been forgiven, but our neighbours have also been forgiven.  We have been forgiven by God, and this is an opportunity to forgive one another for any wrongs that have taken place – it is an opportunity to be reconciled with one another.  For if we ourselves have been forgiven for all of the wrongs that we know that we have done; we have this opportunity to let the forgiveness and reconciliation spread.  It is an opportunity to put aside any differences or disagreements we might have had in the past, and to start over in our relationship with each other.

It’s a bit like after a hockey game or soccer game or any other sports game.  The two teams have played hard, they have competed against one another in an attempt to beat the other team.  No one goes in to a game planning to lose.  And yet when the game is over, the fight is over, the two teams line up, and they shake each other’s hands.  They are acknowledging that the fight is over, that they don’t carry any hard feelings forward with them.  The two teams are reconciled.

May the peace of Christ be always with you.

Have you ever noticed that almost every time after the resurrection, when the risen Christ appears to his followers, his opening line is, “Peace be with you”?  We see it in today’s reading; we saw it three times last week when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples who were hiding behind locked doors.  It’s almost like it might be an important message or something…

When Jesus talks about peace, he is talking about the peace that comes as a gift from God.  The world that Jesus lived in was ruled by the Roman Empire; and there was a “pax romana” or Roman Peace all across the Roman Empire.  Now this peace was defined as the absence of war or conflict or highway robbery.  It was a peace that was enforced by military might – there was peace only because the Roman army was stronger than any of their opponents.  It was a peace that was intertwined with fear.

But in contrast with this, Jesus offers his followers a different kind of peace – a peace that instead of being intertwined with fear is actually the opposite of fear.  If you are experiencing this peace, then fear will no longer rule your life.  In John’s gospel, Jesus said to his followers in his final conversation with them before he is arrested, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

In the reading from Luke’s gospel, the risen Christ appears to his disciples who begin the reading in a state of fear.  They weren’t able to see Jesus for who he was.  They weren’t able to trust the joy of the resurrection.  Instead they assume that it must be a ghost standing before them.

But Jesus says to them, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus invites them to experience the peace that he offers, so that they no longer need to be led by fear.  This is the peace that we offer to each other every Sunday morning when we say, “May the Peace of Christ be with you.”  We are inviting each other to put aside the fears and anxieties that we carry inside us, so that we no longer need to let fear guide our actions.  If you move to the end of today’s reading, you will see that the disciples were able to open their minds to what the scriptures were saying, and that Jesus ends by sending them out into the world to carry the message of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.  They were to carry this message out into the world, and share this gift of the peace of Christ with everyone whom they met.

May the peace of Christ be always with you.

I also think that it is significant that after he offers peace to his disciples, that Jesus eats the fish that they give to him.  Now the scripture doesn’t give very many details, but I doubt if Jesus was eating alone here.  That would have been awkward – Jesus sitting there eating a piece of broiled fish with the disciples standing around him, watching.  Instead, I suspect that they shared a meal together, passing each other pieces of the grilled fish, and maybe some bread and some wine to go with it.

Eating together is significant.  The root meaning of the word “companion” has to do with breaking bread together.  When we eat together, we are companions.  Our relationship grows, and we grow closer together.  I know that I’ve said it often, but Chetwynd Shared Ministry is a congregation that eats well together.  There is a potluck meal at least once a month – any excuse to eat together is what I’ve heard!  And not only that, but we eat together at least one other time each month when we celebrate the communion meal together.  We break bread together frequently.

And I think that it is important that we share the peace of Christ with one another before we eat together.  We hear the words in worship that we are forgiven by God; we offer the Peace of Christ to one another as we share the peace that we have received; we are reconciled to one another; and then we break bread together, either at the communion table or the potluck table.

May the peace of Christ be always with you.

And in doing so, we build community – and there’s a word that is related to communion.  In community, we are in communion with one another; and when we share in communion, we strengthen our community.  And the community that we are in with one another is the community that is the church.  As the church, we can show each other love and forgiveness.  As the church, we can share each other’s joys and we can help to carry each other’s sorrows.  As the church, we can be vulnerable together.  As the church, we can wrestle with challenging questions that we share in our humanity.  As the church, we can be honest together, we can be authentic together, we can value each other, we can treasure each other’s humanness.

And it all begins by knowing that we are forgiven, offering that forgiveness to others, being reconciled by the peace of Christ, and by breaking bread together.

May the peace of Christ be always with you.

Let us pray:
God of reconciliation,
            surround us with your love and peace
                        so that we know that we are forgiven
                        and that we are your beloved children;
            and help us to offer that love and peace to one another,
                        so that we are drawn together as your family
                                    and as the body of Christ.
I pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            who offers us his peace.

Breaking Bread Together
Photo Credit:  Richard Little

8 April 2018

"Doubting Thomas? Or..." (sermon)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
April 8, 2018
Scripture:  John 20:19-31

So let’s talk for a few minutes about those disciples of Jesus – especially that inner circle of twelve that accompanied him on all of his journeys.  They got to see first-hand all of the miracles that Jesus did, they got to hear all of the sermons that Jesus preached, and they also got to hear extra teachings that were for the disciples’ ears only.

So… bible quiz time.  What do you think of when I mention the following disciples:
Bartholomew?  Nothing?  then how about:
Phillip?  Nothing again?  then what about:
James, son of Alpheus?  Still nothing?  let’s try an easier one:
Judas Iscariot?  OK, now we’re getting somewhere.
Simon Peter?
What about Thomas?

Poor old Doubting Thomas.  With all that he did in his life, both before and after Jesus died, he will be forever remembered for that one sentence:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  I’ve heard it suggested that if we forever call Thomas by Doubting Thomas, maybe we should also name Peter Denying Peter or Sinking Peter.

But Thomas was so much more that just that one sentence.  I almost want to re-name him Courageous Thomas.  At the beginning of the story that we read today, we’ve gone back in time by a week.  It’s the evening after the discovery of the empty tomb.  It’s only 3 days after Jesus was arrested and 2 days after he was put to death.  We’re told that the disciples have locked themselves in a house, for fear of the Jewish leaders – these same leaders who had had Jesus arrested.  They were likely terrified that if they were found to be Jesus’ disciples, they would face the same fate.

But when Jesus appears to them the first time behind those locked doors, Thomas isn’t with them.  I wonder where Thomas has gone.  He was from Galilee in the north, not from Jerusalem, so he couldn’t have been hiding in his own home.  Maybe the other disciples had sent him out to pick up food for their evening meal.  Maybe they knew that Thomas was the only one who wasn’t afraid to go out into the streets.  Courageous Thomas.

And if we go back earlier in John’s gospel, back to Chapter 11, this is just before Jesus makes his final journey to Jerusalem.  Jesus’ friend Lazarus lived near to Jerusalem, and Jesus got word that he was sick.  Jesus tells his disciples that he wants to go to Lazarus, but most of them protest that it is too dangerous.  They remind Jesus that last time he was in Jerusalem, the people tried to stone him.  Only Thomas stands with Jesus.  It’s Thomas who tells the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  It’s only Thomas who has the courage to go with Jesus into danger, despite his fears.  Courageous Thomas.

And finally, Thomas is the first person in the gospels to name Jesus as God.  In our reading today, when Jesus appears to Thomas, Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”  So not only Courageous Thomas, but Insightful Thomas.

And the tradition of the church holds that Thomas continued his life as a disciple or apostle of Jesus after the story in the gospels ended.  Even though the stories of Thomas are not written in the scripture, the tradition of the church says that 20 years later, around the time when Peter was heading up the church in Jerusalem, around the time when Paul was spreading the Christian faith all over western Asia and southern Europe, around this time Thomas traveled east until he landed in southern India.  Thomas is believed to have been the first missionary to India, where he preached the Christian message among the small Jewish community that was in the state of Kerala at the time, and among the non-Jewish people of India.  Even today, there is the St. Thomas Christian Community in India that traces its roots right back to this same Thomas that we read about today.

So… having hopefully redeemed Thomas somewhat from that one blundering sentence that he made when he was in a moment when he was feeling overwhelmed and grief-stricken, and maybe even feeling a bit left out having missed Jesus’ appearance, what can we make of this story?

First of all, I think that we need to consider that Thomas was feeling overwhelmed and grief-stricken.  He had given up his home, his family, his livelihood, in order to follow Jesus.  He had been committed to Jesus’ mission – we can see this commitment in his willingness to follow Jesus to Jerusalem despite the danger.  And now Jesus, the one for whom he had given up everything, had been crucified.  Their little group was left without a leader, and in danger themselves.  Emotions were running high in these days shortly after the crucifixion.

And then, in a moment when Thomas had left the house, Jesus appeared to everyone else.  I can relate to how Thomas might have felt in that moment.  There’s a party and it seems as though everyone else is invited but I didn’t get an invitation.  There’s some news going around the family and everyone else seems to have heard, but I am the last person to find out.  I find Thomas’ situation to be totally relatable.  No wonder his reaction seems to be a bit of, “No fair.  You guys all got to see Jesus but I didn’t.  I don’t believe it really happened, and I won’t believe it until I can see Jesus for myself.”

And the thing about Jesus is that he never condemns Thomas for these words.  Jesus doesn’t rebuke Thomas.  Instead, Jesus meets Thomas where he is.  Jesus knows what Thomas needs in that moment.  Jesus says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe.”  Jesus welcomes Thomas’ questions, and then gives Thomas exactly what he needs.

The words that Jesus ends with have often been used to put down people who dare to question their faith; but as those of you who have been coming to our bible study groups already know, I am all about questioning our faith.  To me, a faith that can’t stand up to our questions is a faith that isn’t worth having.  So how about Curious Thomas or Questioning Thomas instead of Doubting Thomas. 

And if you look closely at the words of Jesus, you will see that he doesn’t condemn Thomas for his questions or for his doubts.  Jesus merely says “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  He’s not saying, “More blessed are those who have not seen.”  He’s not saying, “You’re a better person if you can believe without seeing.”  Instead, Jesus is offering a blessing for everyone who believes, including those who have been given the gift of believing without seeing.

I think that our doubts and our questions are a very real part of our faith.  I once heard one of my favourite writers, Anne Lamott, interviewed on CBC’s Tapestry, and she said, “The opposite of faith isn’t doubt.  The opposite of faith is certainty.”  As soon as we are certain of something, it is no longer faith.  As the writer of Hebrews said, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things unseen.”  Once we can see something, it isn’t faith.  In that moment when Thomas stood before the risen Christ, his belief wasn’t grounded in faith – it was grounded in someone that he could see and touch; but in all of the moments that came before this one, and in all of the moments that came after it, Thomas was acting on faith.

When we question something, when we have doubts, when we wrestle with something, these are all opportunities to strengthen our faith.  These are all opportunities to encounter Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.  God welcomes our questions and our doubts.

So Jesus met Thomas where he was, and gave Thomas what he needed to believe.  So too, Jesus meets us where we are at.  God knows what we need in order to believe; and our faith is a gift from God.  Even when our doubts and our questions can seem to crowd out any hope or any grace; even when grief or anger or fear are so loud that no other voices can be heard – Jesus meets us where we are at.

We might not be able to recognize God at first, when God meets us in the middle of our doubts or fear or grief or anger.  Even Thomas, standing before the risen Christ, didn’t recognize him right away.  Jesus first offered his peace to the disciples, and then invited Thomas to touch his wounds; and only then does Thomas cry out, “My Lord and my God!”  Jesus is recognized in the peace that he brings to any situation; and Jesus is also recognized in the woundedness, in the vulnerability, in the honest pain that we experience.  That is where Christ is.

One of my favourite books is A Winkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle, and it has recently been turned in to a movie.  I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I still re-read the book every couple of years.  And not only is it one of my favourite books, but the main character, Meg, is one of my favourite characters in all of fiction.  In the book, Meg is a teenage girl; highly intelligent, awkward in her own skin, stubborn, angry, mis-trustful of authority, who questions everything.  She doesn’t accept anything just because someone says so.  11-year-old Kate really related with her; and adult Kate still relates with her a lot of the time.

Now there is one scene towards the end of the book where Meg is about to head back in to the darkness to try to rescue her father and her brother from the evil that is holding them captive.  As she is heading back in, other characters offer Meg gifts, and one of the characters says to her, “I give you your faults.”  Meg doesn’t understand this gift at first – after all, she has spent her life trying to get rid of her so-called faults.  But when she heads back in to the darkness, it is precisely her stubbornness and her questioning of authority that allow her to rescue her father and brother by love, which had been the gift from another character.  By questioning, Meg’s love was able to grow.

And so as we move through the season of Easter, the 50 days between last Sunday and Pentecost, and as we encounter the risen Christ in the world we live in, I encourage you to keep asking questions.  Dig deeper into your questions and your doubts.  For it is in doing this that you will give your faith an opportunity to grow.

Let us pray:
God of resurrection,
Give us the faith to know
            that you meet us where we are;
Give us the courage
            to ask difficult questions,
            and to acknowledge our doubts;
And help us to grow in faith,
            knowing that you welcome our questions.
We pray this in the name of the resurrected one,
            Jesus Christ.

(This is the same cover as my copy of the book -
except mine is a wee bit more battered-looking due to frequent re-reading!)

1 April 2018

"Christ is Risen" (Sermon for Easter)

Chetwynd Shared Ministry
April 1, 2018 - Easter Day
Scripture:  Mark 16:1-8

Hallelujah!  Christ is risen!
         He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

Christ is risen indeed, but I have to ask – isn’t that a very strange ending to the gospel reading we just read together?  And it becomes even more strange when you realize that this is actually the original ending to the Gospel of Mark.  Mark doesn’t give us any stories about the appearances of the resurrected Christ.  Instead we have the empty tomb, and the women fleeing in terror and dread.

If you open your bibles when you get home and take a look at the end of Mark’s gospel, you will probably find more words coming after verse 8, but you will also probably find footnotes telling you that these are the “Shorter Ending of Mark” and the “Longer Ending of Mark.”  Because the very oldest manuscripts in existence have Mark’s gospel ending here at verse 8.  Apparently the early church also didn’t like this ending that leaves everything up in the air, and so they added new endings on to what Mark had written.

But I have to confess that I love the ending of Mark’s gospel – in fact, I think that Mark is my favourite out of all the gospels – partly because the ending ties back to the very beginning of the gospel.  If you were to flip back to the beginning, right back to chapter 1, verse 1, the opening words of the gospel act like a title for the whole book:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The good news only begins with the words that are printed on the page.  The good news continues on after the women run away from the empty tomb in fear.  The good news continues through decades and centuries right through to today, and it will continue tomorrow too.  The words in this book are only the beginning of the good news, of the gospel of Jesus Christ!

But what about those women?  What about Mary and Mary and Salome?  They had been with Jesus through his ministry in Galilee – Mark tells us that they had helped to finance Jesus’ ministry.  They had been with Jesus when he was crucified, watching from a distance.  They had watched Jesus’ body be carried in to a tomb  after he had died, and had watched a large stone being rolled across the entrance to the tomb, sealing his body in.

Jesus died on a Friday afternoon, the day of Preparation, the day before the Sabbath.  He was laid in a tomb, and nothing happened the next day.  From sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday is the Sabbath for the Jewish people – a day of rest, a day when no work is done.  For those who had witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion, it was also likely a day of mourning, a day of waiting in fear, a day of waiting to be able to do something, anything.

But now the Sabbath is over.  And the three women, Mary, Mary, and Salome, are finally able to do something.  And they decided to take spices to Jesus’ tomb so that they can anoint his body.  They are so desperate to do something, anything for Jesus, that they decide to tend his body.  They are caring for their body even though they are likely afraid of the officials who had put Jesus to death.  They are caring for his body, even though the Jewish faith forbids contact with corpses.  They are willing to risk their lives, and they are willing to become ritually unclean in order to show their love and care for Jesus.

Mark tells us that they were asking one another how they would move the stone that they had seen seal the tomb, but I imagine that most of the walk to the tomb was in silence.  When I think about times when I have been grieving, I don’t want to fill the air with meaningless babble, with words that won’t change anything.

Can you imagine their surprise then, when they arrived at the tomb and saw that the stone had already been rolled back, away from the door of the tomb?  Now I tend to be a logical thinker – if I were in their shoes, I would probably start looking for reasons right away.  Did the Romans who crucified Jesus take his body and put it somewhere else, worried that his tomb would become a symbol of resistance?  Did wild animals drag his body away for dinner?  Maybe someone else had died, and the tomb had been opened up so that another body could be placed there.  So I imagine that their first reaction might have been confusion or curiosity.

But then they step in to the tomb.  And where the body was supposed to be – the body that they had come to tend – there was nothing.  All of their worst fears had come true.

But there, there on the right-hand side of the tomb was a young man.  Was he an angel, a messenger from God?  He was a messenger of some sort, and he had an important message for the women who had come to tend to the dead.  He told them that Jesus of Nazareth, the same Jesus who had been crucified has been raised.  He is not here, for he is risen.

Hallelujah!  Christ is risen!
         He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

I wonder how long it took for the women’s fear to turn to joyful Hallelujahs?  Even though Mark’s gospel leaves them in a state of terror and amazement, we know that they can’t have kept silent forever.  If they had, we wouldn’t know the gospel today.  The women who had come to the tomb to care for the dead eventually came to spread the good news of resurrection and new life.

And with the resurrection, with the new life, the world will never, can never be the same again.  It’s like the moment in the movie version of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy arrives in Oz and the world changes from black-and-white to full Technicolor.  The world has been transformed.  The same God who created the world in the beginning has now re-created the world, giving us a hint of the glorious time that is coming when God will be fully present with and in all of creation.

And this resurrection, this time when God broke in to creation and raised Jesus from the dead, is the source of all of our hope for resurrection and new life; for if Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified has been raised from the dead, anything is possible!

Hallelujah!  Christ is risen!
         He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

The resurrection is our eternal source for all of our hope.  Our hope for new beginnings; our hope for new life; our hope that the winter will end and spring will come again; our hope that God’s kingdom is coming.  This is not an empty hope or wishful thinking – this is confidence that what God has done in the past, God will do again.  All of our hope is solidly grounded in the resurrection.

One of my professors at school used to tell a story with the punch-line, “What better place for dancing than the church?!”  I would add to that, what better time for dancing than Easter?!”  The cross is empty, the tomb is empty, new life is here!  God has played a giant cosmic April Fool’s joke on death itself, and death has lost its power!  We can sing, we can dance, we can shout it from the rooftops:

Hallelujah!  Christ is risen!
         He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

Remember that the words on the page of Mark’s gospel are only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ – we today, in Chetwynd in 2018, continue on with the good news of Jesus Christ.  We are in line with all those who carried the news before us.  So what do we do with it now?  Where do we take it now?

I think that we can learn from the women in today’s reading – from Mary and Mary and Salome.  They came to the tomb to tend the dead, to hang on to what was dead and gone; but instead they were given a message of new life.  Do we cling to what is past, or do we search for new life?

Because new life is all around us.  We can see this in the small things – a couple of my house plants didn’t do well with my move to Chetwynd, but in the past week, my shamrock plant has put out flowers for the first time since I got here.  And have you noticed how the tree branches are thickening and changing colour in anticipation of the spring coming?

And we can also see new life in the big things.  I heard last summer about a Presbyterian church in a big city in the US that realized that they weren’t going to be able to survive in the form that they were.  And so they realized that hanging on to their money until it all ran out or they all died wasn’t going to do anything towards God’s mission in their city.  So instead, they made a decision to sell their church building, and put all of their money towards funding full-time chaplains at three different senior’s and nursing homes in their city.  The church has died, but the church is risen, thanks to people who refused to fight the resurrection.

The thing about resurrection is that what is resurrected doesn’t necessarily look like what came before.  Death has lost its power, but the resurrection has the power to transform.  Even though Mark doesn’t give us any stories about the resurrected Christ, the other gospels tell us that when Jesus’ closest disciples met him after the resurrection, they often didn’t recognize him.  He had been changed by God into a new creation.

So how can we carry the good news of Jesus Christ, who was crucified but who is risen into the world?  How can we too proclaim the hope of resurrection in our world?  How can we too search for new life instead of lingering with death?

Hallelujah!  Christ is risen!
         He is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

Let us pray:
God of the Easter resurrection,
Fill our hearts with joy today,
            and with the hope that new life is always possible.
Open our hearts to the possibility of resurrection;
and help us to look for you,
not in what has come before,
            but in the newness of
                        new life,
                        new beginnings,
                        new hope,
and new possibilities.
We pray this in the name of the Resurrected One,
            Jesus Christ.

Our "Decorating Elves" filled the church with flowers today
Photo Credit:  Richard Little