29 October 2018

"What Do You Want Me to Do for You?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 28, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

So who here likes helping other people out?  I know that I do!  And how do you feel when you help out a friend or a neighbour or a family member?  How does it feel when you lend a hand to others?  It feels pretty good – we get a bit of a boost when we help others out.  I know that I’ve only been here for a couple of months now, but my impression of Two Rivers Pastoral Charge is that it is full of people who like helping out other people.

Now what about the flip side of the coin?  How does it feel when we help someone out, and maybe they don’t react the way we expect or want them to?  Maybe we think that they aren’t sufficiently grateful; maybe it seems like they keep asking for more and more; maybe they ask for something other than what we have offered.  Not quite as good of a feeling, is it.

I remember one time when I was working in Tanzania (in East Africa) as a physiotherapist and I ran up against this.  I was working with a young man who had had a stroke.  His left arm and leg were paralyzed, and we were working on helping him get his independence back in whatever way he could.  But one day I went in to his hospital room and found his wife spoon-feeding him his lunch.

I remember feeling really upset at this.  He had no problems with his right arm or hand so surely he could be eating by himself!  After all, weren’t we working to try and help him to become more independent?!

I remember leaving his room, and going into the nurses station, and ranting to one of the doctors who was there, Dr. Lukiko.  Fortunately Dr. Lukiko is a very patient person, and he heard me out, and then gently suggested to me that for his wife, this was one of the only ways she had in that moment of expressing her love.

It was a situation where my cultural values were promoting independence, but the cultural values of the place where I was living promoted interdependence and community.  I thought that I was helping out, but I wasn’t really listening for what was actually wanted by the people I thought that I was helping.

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, we find Jesus, a healer, traveling along the road.  He, and his disciples, and a large crowd are leaving the town of Jericho, close to the Jordan River and the Dead Sea, and they are beginning the uphill journey along a road with a dangerous reputation to reach Jerusalem.  When they get to Jerusalem, in the verse immediately following the passage that we read today, they will be entering the city in a triumphant procession that we remember every year on Palm Sunday, and only a few days later Jesus will be nailed to a cross in the story that we remember every year on Good Friday.  We’re getting close to the end of Jesus’ story.

But that is all in the days ahead.  In our story today, Jesus and his followers are just setting out from Jericho.  And as they are leaving, a man named Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Now Jesus doesn’t keep on walking. He doesn’t say, “Hurry up, we have a dangerous road to walk and we can’t lose any time!” He doesn’t just wave his hand and restore Bartimaeus’ vision and keep on walking.  No, Jesus stops and he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“What do you want me to do for you?”  Jesus doesn’t assume that he knows what Bartimaeus wants.  Maybe Bartimaeus was seeking healing for his mother or father or daughter.  Maybe Bartimaeus wanted to share some food with Jesus.  Maybe Bartimaeus wanted to know that he was loved by God.  And so Jesus stops and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

What a question this is for us to ponder.  This question gives is so many different invitations.  On one level, it invites us to hear Jesus asking us the same question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  If we open our hearts, if we look deeply into ourselves, what do we really want from God?  Do we dare to name the thing that we most deeply desire?

On another level, I wonder what would happen if the world could slow down and start listening to one another.  What if the world could start asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” and then really listen to the answers.

One of the stories that’s been in the news this week is about a caravan of people traveling north from Central America; and the immediate reaction of the country to the north has been to try and stop them, by any means possible, from crossing the border.  I wonder what would happen if the question could be asked, “What do you want us to do for you?  How do you want us to help you?  I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the answer was not the expected one.  Instead of looking for a new place to live, most refugees would prefer that the conditions could change so that they could stay at home.

Three years ago, when the media was flooded with pictures of refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded and dangerous boats, and the picture of the body of a toddler named Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach had inspired grief and outrage around the world, when all of this was happening, a Somali-British poet named Warsan Shire wrote a poem called “Home” about the refugee experience.  In it, she says,
“you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.”[1]

What do you want us to do for you?  How can we help you?

But closer to home, I think that this question also invites us to consider how we, as the church, interact with the world.  If we, as the church, are the body of Christ, I think that we are invited to ask this same question to the community around us.  If we were to ask the communities around us, “What do you want us, what do you want the church, what do you want the Body of Christ to do for you?” – if we were to ask this question of the communities around us, I wonder what sort of answer we would hear.

One of the things about Jesus’ ministry is that he never put any conditions on it.  If you were to read Mark’s gospel from beginning to end, you would never see Jesus making discipleship a condition of healing.  You will never hear Jesus saying, “Yes, I will heal you, but only if you promise to follow me.”  Some people, after being healed, decided to follow Jesus the way that Bartimaeus did in today’s reading; but other people didn’t.  It didn’t matter – Jesus healed them anyways, unconditionally.

And so I hear this story as a challenge to the church around the world.  Do we dare to ask the community around us, “What do you want us to do for you?”  Do we dare to ask this question, being willing to hear whatever the answer might be?  Do we dare to ask this question, knowing that the answer might be different than what we think?  Do we dare to ask this question as Jesus did, unconditionally, prepared to serve without expecting anything in return?

What do you want me to do for you?

Let us pray:
Holy, holy, holy God,
Help us to open our hearts to your love.
Help us to hear you asking us,
            “What do you want me to do for you?”
Help us to look deeply into our hearts
            so that we can see beyond pretence,
                        beyond artifice,
                        beyond the mask that we put on for the world,
and help us to truly see that which we are asking for.
And even as we are answering the question,
            help us to be open to asking the question.
Give us the courage to ask the world around us,
            “What do you want us to do for you?”
Blow your Holy Spirit through us
            so that we can truly be the Body of Christ
                        acting in the world;
Inspire us by your Holy Spirit
            so that we can ask the question,
                        and listen deeply to the answers that we hear.
Transform us, by your Holy Spirit,
            so that we might be more like Christ.
We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ,
            the one in whose name we are called.

[1] To hear the whole poem, click here.

The Front Entrance to Ndolage Hospital, Tanzania
where I worked from 2003-2006
(decorated with flowers for Christmas!) 

22 October 2018

"Stuff" (Sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
October 14, 2018
Scripture:  Mark 10:17-31

Looking at the reading from Mark this week, I couldn’t help but think that this story should make those of us with lots of “stuff” feel just a little bit uncomfortable.  That whole instruction about selling everything that you own and giving the money to the poor.

Speaking from my own experience, I tend to like my “stuff.”  I feel attached to it.  When I went out to BC to do my internship, the church there rented a furnished apartment for me, so I put my “stuff” into storage back in Nova Scotia.  Even though it was for a time limited period, I missed my “stuff.”  I missed my bed, and my piano, and my pots and pans, and my sofa.  And especially my books.  When I moved here, and the moving truck showed up, and when I was unpacking the boxes of books, it was like I was being re-united with my friends.  But these are all inanimate objects.  Why should I feel so attached to them?

A man with many possessions came to Jesus and asked him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?  What must I do to enter into God’s kingdom?  What must I do to be a part of the kinship, the community of God?”

Jesus looked at him.  Is this some sort of trick question?  You know what God wants you to do.  It’s all written down for you in scripture.  You must keep the rules that God has given to us.

But to the questioner, this answer wasn’t enough.  He had kept these rules his whole life, but he still felt like he was missing something.  So he pushed Jesus for more.  “What else must I do to be part of the abundant life that God gives?”

And this is where Jesus gives him the hard answer.  “You must sell what you own, and give the money to the poor.”

And the man heard this, he was shocked; and he was sorrowful, because he had much stuff.

And the questioner went away.  We don’t get to hear the rest of his story.  Jesus moves on to teach his disciples about wealth, and true wealth.  But the last that we hear of his questioner, he was shocked and sorrowful.

I wonder what the rest of his story looks like.

I wonder if he was so shocked at Jesus’ answer that he just stopped trying.  I wonder if he thought that since he couldn’t sell everything that he owned, maybe he should just stop trying.  Maybe he went away and stopped keeping the commandments that he had kept since he was young.

But maybe he didn’t change.  I wonder if he went away, sorrowful that he couldn’t sell everything that he owned, but figured that at least he was keeping the commandments, and that was better than nothing.  Maybe nothing in his life changed because of his encounter with Jesus, other than being a little bit sadder than before.

But I tend to be an optimist, and so I wonder if maybe he was changed by his encounter with Jesus.  I wonder if he was sorrowful because he knew that what Jesus was asking him to do was going to be hard – the most difficult thing that he had ever had to do.  But I wonder if he did go away, and sold everything that he had, just as Jesus had instructed him to do.  And once he had given all of the money to the poor, I wonder if he followed up on the invitation to come back and become a follower of Jesus.

We don’t have the end of this person’s story.  He isn’t named, and we don’t have any other references in scripture to this encounter.  But there, towards the end of Mark’s gospel, there is another unnamed man; a follower of Jesus who is with Jesus when he is arrested.  It’s a curious little incident, where this unnamed man witnesses Jesus’ arrest, and then runs off into the night, losing the linen cloth that was tied around his waist, leaving him naked.  This man who has literally nothing; I wonder if there is a connection to the man who was told by Jesus to get rid of his “stuff.”

I also wonder why Jesus told the man to sell all of his possessions and give the money to the poor.  I wonder what it was about this man and his belongings that made Jesus feel that he needed to unburden himself.  This isn’t something that Jesus told all of his followers to do.  They weren’t a rich group of travelers, Jesus and his disciples, but there is some evidence that their ministry was funded by some of his band of followers.  Somebody or somebodies fed them, and gave them places to stay; so not all of Jesus’ disciples had given away all of their possessions.

Maybe Jesus looked into the questioner’s heart, and saw that all of his possessions were separating him from God.  Maybe he had enough stuff, and was able to trust in his belongings to see him through life, rather than trusting God.  Or maybe the amount of his possessions made him blind to the needs of his neighbours.

I suspect that Jesus was able to see that his possessions were keeping this man from God.  And so Jesus, wanting to invite this man into the community of God, the kinship of God’s people, told the man that he would have to get rid of the thing that separated him.  And he was sorrowful, because this was going to be a hard thing to do.

I hear this story as an invitation to all of us – an invitation to examine our hearts and our lives to see what might be keeping us from God.  Maybe, like the questioner in the story, we are burdened by our belongings.  Maybe we don’t have to trust God completely since our stuff will see us through; maybe worrying about our possessions keeps us from worrying about our neighbours; or maybe our “stuff” numbs us to the needs in the world.

Or maybe we are separated from God by other things.  Maybe an addiction is controlling our lives; maybe a toxic or unhealthy relationship is controlling our lives; or maybe we are running from God as we try to ignore God’s call to do something specific in our lives.

Whatever might be in your life separating you from God, the first step towards making it right is always hard.  The man was shocked, and went away sorrowful because of what Jesus had asked him to do.

But the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone.  Remember that Jesus goes on to tell his disciples that even when something seems to be impossible, with God, all things are possible.  If God is calling you back into relationship with God and with God’s people, then God will make it possible, no matter how insurmountable the challenges may seem to be.

And the scripture tells us that Jesus loved the man who was questioning him, even as he was presenting a challenge.  Jesus loved him, and wanted him to be a disciple.

And God loves you too.  No matter what God is asking you to do to bring you closer to God; you are still God’s beloved child.  God wants you to be part of the family, part of the kinship of all of God’s people.  God isn’t about to let you go.

Let us pray:
Loving God –
            open our hearts to you.
Help us to hear your call to each one of us
            to follow you.
Help us to see the things that separate us from you,
            and give us the space to grieve their loss,
            and the confidence to know
                        that with you, all things are possible.
We pray this in the name of your incarnate love,
            Jesus Christ.

"Follow Me"
Photo Credit:  Kate Jones

9 October 2018

"Blame God?" (sermon)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May it be so.


1 October 2018

"Gringleyhops" (Sermon)

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

Let me tell you a story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Let’s try another version of the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Let’s try one more version of our story:

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

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

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

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


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


Preparing the Gringleyhops?
(Image:  Public Domain)