27 August 2018

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

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

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

I have a story to share with you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should following Jesus always be easy?

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

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

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

Should following Jesus always be easy?

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

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

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

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

Should following Jesus always be easy?

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

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

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

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

Should following Jesus always be easy?

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

Thanks be to God for the Bread of Life!

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

 The beginning of the Barmen Declaration (in translation)

19 August 2018

"You Are What You Eat" (sermon)

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

CC BY-SA 4.0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 August 2018

"Taste and See" (sort-of sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

But lets begin by reading a story.

[Read Mom Pie.[1]]

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

So let's begin with our sight.

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

Where is you eye drawn to in this picture?

What do you see?

Do you see hope in this picture?

Do you see joy in this picture?

Do you see peace in this picture?

Do you see goodness in this picture?

Where do you see love in this picture?

Where do you see God in this picture?


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

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

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

Let us sing.


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

“May the peace of Christ be with you.”


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

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


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

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

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

6 August 2018

"Are you Hungry?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
August 5, 2018
Scripture Readings:  Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15 and John 6:24-35

Have you ever been hungry?  I mean really, really hungry?

The time when I think that I was the hungriest was on a canoe trip 6 years ago.  It was day 4 of what would be a 7-day canoe trip.  It was a beautiful sunny day, right about this time of year.  My friend and I got up in the morning and packed up our tent and the rest of our gear and we started paddling.  It was calm in the morning, and even though a bit of a wind picked up in the afternoon it didn’t slow us down by much.  We were paddling the length of a long lake.  At lunchtime we pulled up to a rocky ledge for our lunch and we watched a couple of loons play as we ate.  After that brief pause we hit the water again.  It was such a big lake that it took us the whole day to paddle the length of it.  We don’t wear watches when we’re canoeing so I can’t tell you how many hours we paddled for.

Towards the end of the day, we reached the end of the lake and had a short portage to carry our gear into the next river we would be traveling down, and when we got to the mouth of that river, we found a site where we would camp for the night.

I still remember the feeling that I had when we got to the campsite.  I couldn’t think straight.  I remember that I knew we had three things to do – set up the tent, make supper, and go for a swim; but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what to do first or what order to do them in.  I felt myself getting more and more frustrated – not at anything in particular but just at the world.

Eventually everything got done, and I think that the two of us wolfed down our dinner in about 2 minutes flat!  And once we had eaten, everything became easier.  I could think clearly, the frustration was gone, and the world was good again.

Later, once I got home at the end of the trip, I got a string out, and the topographical maps, and used the string to measure just how far we had traveled each day.  It turns out that we had paddled 32 km that one day.  With all of that energy spent, no wonder we were so hungry at the end of the day!

Which brings me to the story from Exodus that we just read.  Like my friend and I on our canoe trip, the Israelite people had been traveling, but instead of day 4, they were now 6 weeks into their journey.  6 weeks of traveling on foot across the desert.  Take that hunger that I just described, and multiply it by 6 weeks –  42 days.

Remember that the Israelite people had been slaves in Egypt.  Remember that God had called to Moses from a burning bush, telling him that he would be the one to set the people free.  Remember that Moses had gone to the Pharaoh and demanded, “Let my people go!”  Remember that God had parted the Red Sea so that the people could cross to safety on the other side.  And then the journey began – the journey that would eventually last 40 years.

So here we are, 6 weeks into a journey that would prove to be so long that most people who left Egypt wouldn’t still be alive when they reached the land that God had promised to them.  But of course the people didn’t know that yet.  All that they knew was that they had been traveling for 6 weeks, on foot, through the desert.  They knew that whatever food supplies they had been able to bring with them were either shrinking fast or they were gone completely.  They were able to remember back to Egypt where, yes they had been slaves, but at least they had had some food to eat.  Like me on my canoe trip, I suspect that they were getting frustrated and angry and unable to think straight.

And they came to Moses with their complaint:  “Why didn’t we stay in Egypt?!  Why have we come out here to the desert to die of starvation?  We’re hungry!  Either feed us, or take us back to slavery where at least there was food!”  We aren’t always at our best when we’re hungry.  We can’t think clearly when we’re hungry.

And the hunger of the Israelite people is echoed in this morning’s reading from John’s gospel.  This reading takes place right after the story that we read last week – the story where Jesus feeds a crowd of 5000 people with just 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish.  Right after that, Jesus and his disciples crossed over the Sea of Galilee, and then at the start of today’s story, the crowd follows them.

And Jesus questions their motives.  Jesus accuses them of following him, not because they wanted to become followers of Jesus but because they wanted more bread.

If we were to take this reading in isolation; if we were to take this accusation of Jesus out of context, we might think that Jesus didn’t care whether the people were hungry or fed.  But if we look at the broader context – if we consider that this teaching happens right after Jesus had fed a crowd of 5000 hungry people – we know that Jesus does care about our physical needs as well as our spiritual needs.

If we look back to the story from Exodus, we see again that God cares for our physical needs.  God didn’t tell the people who were traveling through the desert, “Become desert hermits, and let your physical hunger draw you closer to me.”  No – God tells the people, “I am going to feed you.  In the evenings, flocks of quails will come to where you are camping and you will have meat to eat; and in the morning, manna will fall from the sky, bread from heaven for you to eat.”  God cared that the people were hungry; and God fed them.

So getting back to Jesus, after he accuses the crowd of following him only because of their physical hunger, and not for the message that he is teaching them, the crowd answers back.  They ask Jesus, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”  And Jesus answers with what I see as the key to understanding his message.  Jesus replies, “This is the work of God, that you may believe in the one whom God has sent.”

Now when you get to know me, you will know that I am a bit of a language and grammar geek.  I think that grammar is important, and in this verse we have an example of this.  There is a little two-letter preposition in that statement of Jesus that is so important in shaping the meaning of what he is saying (and I did go back to the original Greek to make sure that it was well-translated).  Jesus doesn’t say that we must believe the one whom God sent; he says that we must believe IN the one whom God sent.

So here’s a question for you to consider.  Who do you believe in?  If your child or grandchild is going off to a sports competition, or if they have a test at school, and you tell them, “You’ve got this.  I believe in you,” what do you mean?  We are usually trying to tell the person, “I’ve got confidence in you,” or “I trust you.”

OK Jesus, I believe in you.  I’ve got confidence in you.  I trust you.  What do I mean when I say this?  What are the implications?  It means that I believe the words that come from him, but I think that it also means that I trust that my needs will be met.  My physical hunger will be fed, as well as my spiritual hunger.  It means that I trust Jesus’ message of God’s abundance more than I trust in the world’s message of fear and scarcity.  It means that I have confidence that God hears us when we pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread.”

So who do you believe in?

OK Jesus, I believe in you.

Let us pray:
God of the loaves and fish,
God who satisfies all of our hungers,
Give us this day, our daily bread.
Feed us –
            feed all of us –
                        in body and in spirit.
Help us to know that
you are the one whom we can trust,
you are the one in whom we can place our confidence,
you are the one whom we can believe in.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the Bread of Life that you send.

The campsite where we started the very hungry day -
the north end of Dryberry Lake, somewhere
between Kenora and Sioux Narrows (northwestern Ontario).
(No end of the day pictures, because of hunger!)