24 February 2019

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

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
February 24, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 6:27-38

So shall we start with the easy part of today’s reading, or the hard part?

The easy verse is probably one of the best-known verses of scripture – a teaching that features in all major religions, and is the foundation of much interfaith dialogue.  “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”  If you read the United Church Observer, there was a recent article exploring this teaching from different religious perspectives.

And this is a key teaching from Jesus, linked with his teaching that we are to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.  And it is an important teaching for living well together.  If everyone were to treat everyone else in the way that they want to be treated, then the world would be a peaceful place indeed.

But Jesus’ teaching in today’s scripture reading doesn’t end there.  Jesus gives us some much more difficult instructions to wrestle with.  Twice in this passage, he tells us that we are to love our enemies.  He says that it’s easy to love people who love us back, but that isn’t enough.  We are also to love our enemies.

So my question to you today is, who is your enemy?

It’s a nebulous word, “enemy.”  It’s one that we can think about in the abstract, but when we try to put a face to the word, it becomes a bit more challenging.  It might mean someone that we don’t like; it might mean someone who doesn’t like us; it might mean someone who is doing something we don’t agree with, something that is cruel, something that we see as evil.

So who is your enemy?  Can you put a face to your enemy?  Can you love your enemy?

Can you love that person who votes for a different party than you, someone who votes for that party that you think is completely wrong?

Can you love that teenager who bullies their classmates, in-person and on-line?

Can you love the people who think that it’s OK to separate children from their parents and lock them into cages at the border?

Can you love the people who take advantage of those who are vulnerable; who abuse and assault people knowing that “the system” won’t do anything to stop them?

OK Jesus – how can you expect me to love these people?  How can you expect me to love people who do such horrible things?  This is a hard teaching that you are giving to us Jesus – do you really understand what you are asking us to do?

But when I think about it, Jesus does understand what he is asking us to do.  We are now less than 2 months away from Holy Week.  In just under 8 weeks, we are going to gather for our Good Friday service.  We are going to hear about how Jesus was beaten and nailed to a cross and left to die.  And we are going to hear about how Jesus, hanging there on the cross, cries out to God, “Forgive them.  They don’t know what they are doing.”

Jesus knows what it is like to love his enemies, to bless those who cursed him, to pray for those who abused him.  Jesus knows what it is like to be merciful and to forgive.  In a few short weeks, Jesus is going to live in to everything that he teaches us today.

So where does that leave us?

Because is we truly believe that we are the Body of Christ in our world, that we are the hands and feet of Christ, then we are called to live and act as Jesus did.

But the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone.  The good news is that we have the Holy Spirit living in us, always transforming us more and more into the image of Christ.  And the Holy Spirit, living in us, can help us to do things that would be impossible on our own.

As the start of Lent draws closer, our season of Epiphany is drawing to a close.  This season of Epiphany has been a time when we have looked for how Jesus was and is revealed in the world.  We’ve heard the story about how the Magi visited Jesus and recognized him as a king; the story of how Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River and a voice from heaven proclaimed that he was God’s beloved son, in whom God was well pleased; the story of how Jesus turned water into wine; the story of how Jesus called his disciples and they recognized him for who he was; stories about how he attracted crowds of people to him whenever he taught.

All through these past two months, we’ve had stories about how Christ was revealed to the world through Jesus of Nazareth.

But I believe that Christ continues to be revealed to the world today, through the Body of Christ, which includes all of us here today.  Through what we do, and through how we live, we can reveal Christ to the world around us.  Epiphany continues in the here and now.  When the world sees us forgiving others, the world sees Christ.  When the world sees us doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, the world sees Christ.  When the world sees us turning away from violence rather than reacting or retaliating, the world sees Christ.  When the world sees us loving our enemies, the world sees Christ.

Which brings us back to our original problem.  How can we love our enemies?  How can we love people who do horrible things in the world?

I have to remind myself that we aren’t told that we have to love the things that our enemies do.  In fact, so many places elsewhere we are told that we are to speak out against injustice and oppression.  But in this passage today, along with telling us to love our enemies, Jesus also tells us that we are not to judge.

I find that commandment a huge relief.  I don’t have to judge other people.  I don’t have to decide who is worthy and who is not.  I don’t have to decide who to love and who to withhold love from.  I don’t have to judge, and Jesus tells me to love everyone.

I want to end with a passage from one of my favourite books.  I love the series of books by Madeleine L’Engle that begins with A Wrinkle in Time, and think that they are so full of good theology.  In the second book, A Wind in the Door, the main character Meg is put in a situation where she has to love someone who is very unlikeable.  Mr. Jenkins is the principal at the primary school – he was unfair to Meg when she was a student there, and now he is tormenting her beloved younger brother.  He is abrupt, he doesn’t listen to others, he is apathetic towards the students, he has no confidence in himself, and he doesn’t tolerate anyone who deviates from what he thinks “normal” is.

And yet Meg has to love him.  Her first reaction is to say, “If you mean you think I have to love Mr. Jenkins, you’ve got another think coming.”

Meg then thinks about the other people in the world she loves – her parents, her brothers, her best friend.  And then she remembers seeing a kindness that Mr. Jenkins had done to her best friend.  And in the end, she is able to truly see Mr. Jenkins, beyond anything that he had done or hadn’t done, she is able to see him in his full humanity, mistakes and all, and she says, “‘the only one… who’s human enough to make as many mistakes as he does is you, Mr. Jenkins’ – suddenly she gave a startled laugh.  ‘And I do love you for it.’  Then she burst into tears of nervousness and exhaustion.”[1]

We are called to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, to pray for those who abuse us.  It isn’t easy, but Jesus doesn’t say that it will be.  We are called to see everyone in the world in their full humanity and love everyone.  And the good news is that we don’t do it alone – the Holy Spirit working within us, working to transform us into the likeness of Christ, allows us to show Christ to the world.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, A Wind in the Door (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1973).

 Agnus Day appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org

17 February 2019

"Rooted in God" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge (Westfield United Church)
Sunday February 17, 2019
Scripture:  Jeremiah 17:5-10

As we were talking about in our Story for All Ages, plants need water to live.  Houseplants, shrubs, trees, they all need water.  Even cacti, that seem to live in the desert with no water, even they need a bit of water once in a while in order to live.  And we can expand this beyond plants to all living creatures need water in order to live.

Our reading from Jeremiah uses a very striking image of a plant in the desert compared with a plant by the river. Now here in New Brunswick, where we don’t have any deserts and too much water is often a bigger problem than not enough, this imagery might not be as relevant, but I pulled this picture up to demonstrate the importance of water for life. 

Nile River Delta
© NASA – Public Domain

This is a satellite picture of the Nile River running through the Sahara desert.  Wherever the river runs, plants and trees are able to grow; and wherever the river isn’t is seemingly lifeless desert.  Water is life.  Even if no rain falls, the trees growing by the river will still have access to water and will still be able to live.  The river sustains life.

This would be the sort of image that Jeremiah had in mind as he was prophesying.  “Anyone who turns away from God, who puts their full trust in other humans, they will be like a shrub planted in the desert.  But anyone who puts their trust in God will be like a tree planted by a river; you don’t need to be afraid or anxious because even when the times of drought come, the river will sustain your life.”

I think that it’s important to note what Jeremiah isn’t saying.  He isn’t saying that if you trust in God, the drought isn’t going to come, that bad things aren’t going to happen.  No – he’s saying that if you trust in God, when the bad things happen, God will be there, sustaining you through those tough times.

And the people that Jeremiah was talking to, they knew what that was all about.  They were a people living in a small country surrounded by large empires.  The Assyrian army had already invaded and destroyed the northern part of their land, and now the Babylonians were pressing in.  Jeremiah was speaking to people who were on the very verge of being overcome and taken into exile.

And Jeremiah doesn’t come and give them nice, comforting words.  Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that the Babylonian army was going to disappear and everything would be OK.  Jeremiah doesn’t tell them that God is going to zap the Babylonians with a lightning bolt.  Jeremiah doesn’t give the people this kind of false comfort.  In fact, if you were to read through all of Jeremiah, you would find false prophets who did say this sort of thing – that since God was with them, nothing bad could happen to them – but these false prophets generally met a bad ending.

Instead, Jeremiah speaks the truth.  Bad things are going to happen in your life, even when you trust in God.  The Babylonians are going to invade.  People are going to die.  Others are going to be exiled.  The temple is going to be destroyed.

But into all of this truth-speaking, Jeremiah offers a word of hope.  Jeremiah tells the people that if they trust in God, God will sustain them, even when these bad things happen.  God will be with them, even when they are in exile from their country.  God will be with them, even when the city and temple are destroyed.  God will be with them, and they will flourish, even when the situation seems hopeless.

And I think that this message can still resonate with us today, even if the Babylonian army isn’t breathing down our necks.  But we still face the same questions and concerns as Jeremiah’s audience does.  Why do bad things happen?  If we are good people, if we go to church and believe in God, shouldn’t life become all rainbows and unicorns and sunshine?

I will be honest and say that I don’t have a good answer as to why bad things happen.  But I can affirm what Jeremiah says, that if we trust in God, then God will sustain us through these difficult times when they inevitably come.

Speaking from my own personal experience, I don’t know how I would have been able to get through those awful weeks and months after my mother died without God; without being able to dump all of my grief and anger on God.

Droughts will come, but if you are planted by the river, you will be able to get through the droughts.

We don’t need to be afraid; we don’t need to be anxious, because we know that God is always with us.  Sometimes it seems as if our world is designed to inspire fear.  How many commercials on television or radio use fear as their motivator?  And then how many politicians of all parties have a 2-step campaign strategy:  step 1 is to make us afraid of something; and step 2 is to then promise that only they can protect us from that thing.

But Jeremiah reminds us that if we are rooted in God; if we put our trust in God rather than in other humans and other institutions, then we are freed from fear and anxiety.
            “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
                        whose trust is in the Lord.
            They shall be like a tree planted by water,
                        sending out its roots by the stream.
            It shall not fear with heat comes,
                        and its leaves shall stay green;
            in the year of drought it is not anxious,
                        and it does not cease to fruit.”

So how can we ground ourselves in God, like a tree that is planted by a river?  How can we grow our roots into God, so that we can draw on that life when things are tough?

I think that it is through our regular spiritual practices that these roots grow.  By gathering together to worship, by sharing in the sacraments, the bread and the wine, by reading scripture, by prayer, by meditation, by connecting regularly with God in whatever way works for you – these are the practices that strengthen our relationship with God, that grow our roots into the river of life that is God.

And then, even when the world around us seems to be falling to pieces, we will still have our roots firmly grounded in the ever-loving life-giving waters of God.

For God is with us.  We are not alone.  Thanks be to God!