29 September 2019

"Where is Lazarus?" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
January 29, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 16:19-31

This month, we’ve been reading a bunch of the parables that Jesus told to his followers – these short stories that use everyday people and situations that are designed to teach people about God.  Some of the parables would fall into what I would consider to be “happy parables” – like the lost sheep and the lost coin that we read at the picnic.  Other parables have been much harder to understand and to learn from, like the unfaithful steward that we read last week – the story that I re-named as The Manager who Switched Sides.

This week, we’ve got another parable – the Rich Man and Lazarus – and this one seems to be pretty straight-forward on the surface.  We have Lazarus, a poor man, covered in wounds, lying just outside the gate of a very wealthy man.  Did you know that out of all of the parables that Jesus told, Lazarus is the only character to have a name?  Right from the beginning of this short story, we’re being set up to cheer for Lazarus – he has a name, something that we can grab on to and identify him with.  But as the story progresses, did you notice that Lazarus doesn’t say anything or do anything?  Lazarus is named, but most of the story that Jesus is telling consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham.

Lazarus begins the story lying outside of the gates of the rich man, covered in wounds which would have made him ritually impure in the eyes of religious and cultural norms; and his wounds are being licked by stray dogs which make him doubly impure.  When I read this story this week, it made me think of a news piece that I heard on CBC radio earlier in the week, talking about the increase in crystal meth use in Saint John, and one of the symptoms of crystal meth is open sores.  And so reading about Lazarus, my brain made a quick connection to those who are living on the margins in our time and place.

And Lazarus dies, and is carried off by the angels to the place of the dead where he rests with the ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah.  The rich man also dies, and is buried in what was likely a lavish funeral, and he goes to the place of the dead where he faces torment. We aren’t told the exact nature of the torment, but it is hinted that this involved flames and thirst.

At this point, this story illustrates perfectly that thing that Jesus repeats again and again – the last shall be first and the first shall be last.  The one who enjoyed luxury and comfort on this side of death is now being tormented; while the one who lay in pain and poverty in life is now being comforted after death.  A total reversal of fortunes.

Now the rich man, he still doesn’t get it.  He calls out to the ancestors, to Abraham, begging him to send Lazarus to him to relieve his suffering.  When Abraham points out that this is impossible, the rich man pleads with him to send Lazarus to his siblings to warn them to change their ways, and again Abraham says that this won’t work.

The rich man still doesn’t get it.  In life, he didn’t do anything to relieve Lazarus’ suffering; and even after death, he still sees Lazarus as a person to be ordered around according to his whims.  He still doesn’t see Lazarus as an equal, let alone more deserving of comfort.  He still doesn’t get it.

We can leave it at that – an example story of don’t be like the rich man – but if we were to dig just below the surface, it can become a very disturbing parable indeed.  Because we have to ask ourselves, even though we are cheering for Lazarus, in our day-to-day life are we more like Lazarus or are we more like the unnamed rich man?

This week, I came across a website that allows you to enter your income, and it tells you where you fall in terms of wealth on a global scale (www.givingwhatwecan.org).  Now ministers are not the highest wage-earners in Canada, but when I punched in my annual salary after tax, my salary puts me in the top 5% of people in the world.  Even when I knocked off the 10% offering that I give to the church, I still fell into the top 6% of people in the world.

And so when I look at where I fit in economically, on a global scale, I am sitting in a position much closer to the rich man in today’s parable than I am to Lazarus, and this thought is terrifying.  And so I have to go deeper into this parable; I can’t just stay on the surface.

And so I ask, what was the rich man’s crime in Jesus’ story?  Why, when he reached the place of the dead, was he subjected to torment?  Because if he was deserving of the torment simply for having much while Lazarus had little, well, then, I think that we are all probably in the same boat as he was.  There are so many people – close to home and around the world – who are living as Lazarus did, on the margins of existence, while we are living in relative comfort, knowing where our next meal will come from, and confident that we will have a roof over our head tonight.

So what else might have been the rich man’s crime?  Was it that he wanted to help, but he didn’t see Lazarus lying there?  But we know that not only did he see Lazarus lying there, he even knew Lazarus’ name.  In the place of the dead, the rich man cries out to Abraham, asking him to send Lazarus specifically to cool his thirst and warn his brothers.

And so where does that leave us?  That leaves us with a rich man who knew that Lazarus was there; who knew Lazarus by name; and yet who chose not to do anything to help Lazarus.  And I think that this was where he went wrong; this was his crime.

We don’t have to look very far to see the Lazaruses in our world.  We can look on the TV or the computer and see images from places in the world with famine and drought, we can see people fleeing from war, we can see economic refugees risking their lives to cross borders.

But there are Lazaruses closer to home too.  Bette could tell you how many people are sleeping under the viaduct in Saint John, even in the dead of winter.  How many people get their only meal through Outflow or the Romero Van.  How many people are sleeping in the shelters, and how many people are turned away because the shelters are full.  How many people are couch-surfing, unsure of where they will be sleeping the next night or the next week.  And this parable calls on us to do something.

This parable calls us to share out of our abundance with the Lazaruses in the world.  This parable calls us to advocate for changes to the systems that keep some people in poverty.  I even think that this parable calls us to consider the Lazaruses of the world when we are choosing who we are going to vote for in next month’s election.

And we can do all of this out of fear of eternal torment like the rich man in the parable; or we can do it because God’s Holy Spirit is always transforming us more and more into the Body of Christ.  And as the Body of Christ, we are called to spread God’s love in the whole world, wherever we find ourselves.

Can you imagine how the parable might have ended if, instead of lying outside the gate of the rich man, Lazarus was lying at the feet of Jesus?  Can you imagine Jesus gathering Lazarus up in his arms, cleaning his wounds, putting clean clothes on him, and feeding him with good, healthy food?  Can you imagine Jesus calling Lazarus “Brother,” and treating him with dignity and respect so that Lazarus knew that he was loved?

And if we are the Body of Christ in the world, the hands and feet and heart of Christ, are we not called to do likewise?

"With God, the world is turned upside down..." 

22 September 2019

"The Manager Who Switched Sides" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 22, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 16:1-13
Preacher:  Kate Jones

Jesus, the one whom we follow, was many things.  He was a teacher – think of his great sermons, like the Sermon on the Mount or the smaller scale teaching he did with the people who traveled with him.  He was a healer – think of the people that he healed from leprosy, from arthritis, from demon possession, from death itself.  He was a miracle worker – think of how he walked on water, how he changed water into wine at a wedding, how he fed a crowd of thousands of people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish.  And he reveals God to us, he is God in human form – remember how the narrator of John’s gospel tells us that God’s Word became flesh and dwelled among us.

Today’s reading, however, focuses on Jesus the teacher.  At this point in Luke’s gospel, Jesus and his followers are traveling towards Jerusalem, traveling towards Good Friday and the cross, and Jesus doesn’t seem to be in a huge hurry.  Along the way, he stops and teaches anyone who will listen.  Just before the passage that we just heard, Jesus told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son to the Pharisees and Scribes who were complaining about the company that he was keeping.  And then we come to today’s reading where Jesus is teaching his disciples, that group of people following him to Jerusalem, using the parable of the Dishonest Manager.

Parables are an interesting type of story.  They are usually stories with multiple layers of interpretation.  They are stories that are used as teaching devices that used everyday objects and people that would have been very familiar to the original audience to tell a story, to teach a lesson.  And even the parables that seem to be easy to understand and easy to accept on the surface – stories like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan – even these parables present some challenges when we dig a little bit deeper to see what Jesus is really trying to tell us.

We don’t have to dig very far into today’s parable of the Dishonest Manager to run into challenges – in my opinion, it is one of the more challenging parables that Jesus told in all of scripture.  For me, the two biggest questions that I have for Jesus with respect to this parable are:
1)    Why does the rich man praise his employee for giving away his wealth?  And,
2)    Why does Jesus seem to be telling us to buy friends for ourselves?

One of the challenges is that we are living 2000 years and half a world away from the original setting of this parable.  There are so many pieces of context that we are missing.  In order for this parable to make sense, we would have to know that the rich man was probably an absentee landlord.  We would have to know that the manager was hired by the rich man to manage his property on his behalf.  We would have to know that there were complex unwritten cultural rules about giving honour and prestige to the wealthy, in exchange for being given material favours.

For this parable to make sense, we would also have to understand that Jesus’ original audience was not the landowners – we would have to understand that Jesus was talking to peasants, farmers and fishers, who were living in a society where they were on the bottom rung.  Jesus’ original audience would not have been cheering for either the rich man or his manager.

For fun, I wondered what this parable might look like if Jesus were telling it in Canada in 2019, and this is what I came up with.

“Once, there was a very wealthy business owner.  He owned companies and businesses all over the country and the world.  He had his own jets, several mansions – he even owned an island in the Caribbean where he could retreat to when life got too busy.

“Because he couldn’t oversee the day-to-day workings of each of the companies that he owned, each company had a boss, a puppet CEO.  These bosses knew that their primary job was to make even more money for the wealthy man.

“Now one of these bosses, she was a bit of a climber.  She had worked her way up to this position through several middle-management positions, and she felt quite smug in her situation.  She often thought to herself, ‘If I can make even more money for the wealthy man, maybe I’ll be promoted.  Maybe some day I’ll be able to travel in the same circles as he does.  Maybe some day I’ll be able to own my own jet and my own island in the Caribbean.’

“But it was not to be.  The wealthy man came to the boss and said to her, ‘This company is not making enough money for me – you’ve been mis-managing it all these years.  Pack up your office and move along – someone else in charge will be able to squeeze more money out of it.’

“Well, you can imaging how she felt, hearing this.  All of these years she had put in to the company, only to be let go.  All of the pay raises she had refused to the workers, all of the benefits that she had slashed, all of the strikes she had squashed, all to make sure that more money stayed with the wealthy man, only to hear this?!  That she hadn’t been able to squeeze enough money out of the workers below her.

“And so what did she do?  She threw her hands up in the air and said, ‘Forget it!  The wealthy man will never consider me to be anything.  Before I’m escorted from the premises, I’m going to do what I can to help those workers I’ve been oppressing for all these years.’  And so she gathered up all of the employee contracts, gave all of the workers in the company a 25% raise in their salary and a generous benefit package, and had a lawyer make sure that the contracts were airtight even under her successor before she went home that evening.”

So when I read this parable of Jesus, I don’t read it as a story about a dishonest manager – I read it as a story of a manger who switched sides.  A person who went from serving the wealthy and elite of the world to a person who served the poor and oppressed.  A person who used the power he had to make an improvement in the lives of others.

So with this reading of the parable, I don’t think that Jesus is telling us to buy friends for ourselves – instead I think that he is telling us to use the resources that we have at our disposal to help and serve others.

As for the other question I had for this parable – why the rich man praised the manager for giving away his money – I wonder if we are missing out on a bit of wordplay in the original Greek that doesn’t translate to English.  In the original Greek, the person who praises the manager is his kyrios,” which might be translated as “master” but that can also be translated as “Lord.”  It is a word that is often used with respect to Jesus.  So as well as the wealthy man praising the manager who cheated him out of his money, it is also Jesus who is praising the man for helping the people around him.

The reading ends with a pithy saying from Jesus:  “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”  You can only have one top priority in your life.  Jesus isn’t saying that wealth in and of itself is a bad thing – instead as we see in the parable of the manager who switched sides, wealth can be a tool that we can use to serve God and to serve others.  Instead, Jesus is warning us that wealth – the acquisition and spending of money – isn’t something that we should worship.

At our Official Board meeting last Tuesday, we had an interesting conversation about money and the church.  It is often said that if you want to see where a person’s priorities are, look at their bank account.  What things are valued enough to spend money on?  Within the church, we talked about the church budget – as Two Rivers Pastoral Charge, what are the things that we value enough that we are willing to spend our money on.  We talked about Mission and Service giving, we talked about how our UCW gave money to the local schools, we talked about our music program and our youth program.

And we can also go through the same exercise on a personal level.  If you look at your bank account over the course of a month, what are the things that you value enough to spend your money on?  Does your bank account reflect the things that you think that you value in life?  Or, like the manager in today’s parable, are there other ways that you can use the resources at your disposal to serve others.

Like the manager, the things that we have in life don’t really belong to us – they all come from God and we are given the job to be stewards, looking after them on God’s behalf.  What can you do with the things that you have, so that your kyrios,” your Lord, your master praises you for what you have done?

And may it be so.  Amen.

All sculptures by Tom Otterness 

"The Real World" 1992
photo by rocor
CC BY-NC 2.0

"Life Underground" 2001
photo by rocor
CC BY-NC 2.0

photo by Brian Burch
CC BY-NC 2.0

16 September 2019

"The Kingdom of God is Like a Church Picnic" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday September 15, 2019 – Church Picnic
Scripture:  Luke 15:1-10
Preacher:  Kate Jones

At a funeral, when there is a graveside service, either on its own or following a full funeral, one of the pieces of scripture that I usually include is the 23rd Psalm.  That beautiful piece of poetry that begins, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters, he restores my soul…”

And what I’ve observed is that as I begin to read this psalm, the semi-circle of people who are gathered there around the open grave will often start reciting it along with me.  Even when it isn’t the funeral of someone who attended church regularly; even when the mourners aren’t regular church attenders, this is a piece of scripture that people know by heart.  There, in the presence of death, people take comfort in believing that God, like a shepherd cares for and protects all of us.

As we get on towards the end of the 23rd Psalm, the last verse reads, (and feel free to join in if you know it), “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

The interesting thing about this verse though, is that the original Hebrew word that is translated here as “follow” is actually a much more active verb.  Instead of goodness and mercy passively trailing along after us, the original word means something more like pursuing, or chasing down.  “For surely God’s goodness and God’s mercy chase after me every day of my life.”  Even if we try to escape God, goodness and mercy are already there.

Which I see as a connection to the parables that Ida just read for us – often known as the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

In a flock of 100 sheep, one of them wanders away, becomes lost.  Instead of letting it go, the shepherd goes after it.  This isn’t as neglectful as it might appear at first glance since the shepherds worked together.  The 99 were not in need of that shepherd’s immediate attention at that moment – the one who wandered away was.  But the 99 were still cared for in his absence.  And the shepherd searches and searches – looking behind rocks and down crevices until he finds the sheep and brings it back to the flock.  And what happens then?  A party to celebrate that what was lost has been found again!

Or a woman with 10 coins loses one.  The coin didn’t choose to be lost, it just isn’t where it is supposed to be.  And the woman searches and searches – turning over couch cushions, moving cupboards to look behind, checking to see if it has rolled between the floorboards.  On Friday at Sobey’s I dropped my debit card after I had finished paying for my groceries, and believe me, the cashier and I didn’t stop looking until she found it where it had slipped between and under the counters at the checkout!  And when the woman finds her coin, what happens then?  Well, she invites the neighbours in for a party!  What had been lost was found again and we have to celebrate!

And Jesus is telling his listeners including us that God is like that shepherd, like that woman.  When we wander away from God, God doesn’t just sit back and wait for us to wander back again.  No!  God chases after us, pursues us, tracks us down, pulls us out of whatever crevice we have fallen down, pulls us out from whatever cupboard we have rolled behind.

And what comes next?  Why, a party of course!  God cries out, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the one who was lost!  Let there be joy in heaven, let there be joy in the presence of the angels, let there be joy in everyone who has gathered!”

I can’t help but wonder if the kingdom of God might be like a church picnic.  Diverse people of every generation gathering from all over the place – gathering to worship God, gathering to break bread together, gathering to care for one another, gathering to catch up with old friends, gathering in remembrance that we are in Christ’s presence, in remembrance that Christ is our host at the table, in remembrance that God is present by the Holy Spirit in the bread, in the water, in the faces of everyone who is gathered.

God calls us in our baptism; God sustains us in the communion feast; and God is always chasing after us, bringing us home, drawing us into the celebration that is the kingdom of God!

Thanks be to God!

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge Picnic 2019
(Photo Credit:  Margaret Stackhouse)

13 September 2019

Election Campaign Slogans - What would Jesus think?

(Note that all opinions expressed below are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the official stance of the United Church of Canada.  Kate.)

On Wednesday morning, just after 11:00 Atlantic time, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, accompanied by Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, paid a call on Julie Payette, the Governor General of Canada.  When he walked out of Rideau Hall a short time later, parliament had been dissolved and Canada had entered our next federal election.

And now we are facing 40 days of being tempted in the wilderness.  When we emerge from the other side, we Canadians will have collectively discerned the direction that we want our country to go for the next 4 years (give or take).  This election does not come as a surprise – we have known that it was coming this fall for the past 4 years.  The political parties have been gearing up towards this for the past months, releasing platforms and slogans, and announcing candidates in the various ridings across the country.

The one whom I believe reveals God to us, Jesus Christ, said that the two most important things that we have to do are:
1)    To love God with all our heart, all our being, all our strength, and all our mind
2)    To love our neighbour as ourselves.
(Matthew 22:37-39, Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:27-28)

And so I would like to examine the campaign slogans of the various political parties through this lens of loving God and loving our neighbour.  In alphabetical order, with no party names attached, here we go!

“Choose forward”
Forward is good, but my question for this party would be who is moving forward?  If I love my neighbour as myself, any forward movement has to include all of my neighbours, not just the ones who look like me and sound like me and pray like me etc. (see The Good Samaritan Luke 10:25-37).  This forward movement has to include my neighbour who is sleeping under the viaduct in Saint John; it has to include my neighbours who are living on remote reserves in northern Ontario; it has to include my neighbours who have recently moved to Canada and who are struggling to learn English and/or French and adapt to life in a new country.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “Choose forward for everyone.”

“In it for you”
OK, but what if I don’t want you to be in it only for me?  What if I believe that what is best for my neighbour is equally important to what is best for me?  (see Matthew 22:39)  We are communal beings – our lives are interconnected with one another – our well-being is dependent on our interdependence.  I want you to be in it not only for me, but for my neighbour who is struggling with addiction, my neighbour who is currently unable to access appropriate health care, my neighbour who is unemployed or under-employed.  I want you to be especially in it for any vulnerable or marginalized person in this country.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “In it for ALL Canadians.”

“It’s time for you to get ahead”
Nope.  Just nope.  It is not time for me to get ahead.  As a person with white skin, who speaks English, who has an excellent education, who has stable employment in my chosen field, who owns her own house (well, the bank still owns a good chunk of it, but I was in a position to be given a mortgage), who has the freedom to travel, it is NOT time for me to get ahead.  My privilege means that I am already ahead.  Again, getting back to that whole “love your neighbour as yourself” thing (and note that Jesus didn’t make this up himself – he was quoting the Hebrew scriptures – see Leviticus 19:9-18), instead I want my neighbour – all of my neighbours – to have the same advantages as I enjoy.  Maybe it is even time for me to take a step backwards in order to allow someone with less privilege to take a step forwards.  If I were to re-write this slogan in light of Jesus’ double-love commandment, it might say something like, “It’s time for Canada’s marginalized people to get ahead.”

“Not left.  Not right.  Forward together.”
I find this slogan harder to analyze – possibly because of the mixed metaphors it incorporates!  I can’t look at it outside of context – in order for it to make any sense, I have to know that the “left” and “right” refer to political leanings, while the “forward” refers to progress.  Clever wordplay; nonsensical without context!  But of all of the slogans, this might be the only one that acknowledges that I am to love my neighbours as I love myself.  It is the only slogan that hints that we are interdependent and that I can’t move forward without my neighbour.  In order for anyone to benefit, we all must benefit.  If I were to tweak it at all, I might try to include the first half of the Jesus’ double love commandment – maybe something like, “Not left. Not right. Forward together towards God's vision.”  (Though I know that this would never fly in secular Canada!)

“Strong and Free”
So this slogan is an intentional reference to the Canadian National Anthem – “with glowing hearts we see thee rise / the True North strong and free!”  And therefore, I know that this slogan was crafted to inspire patriotism in everyone who hears it.  Yet Jesus’ double-love commandment doesn’t include anything about loving your country.  In fact, Jesus’ ministry as a whole tended to be subversive with respect to the political powers and authorities.  Last Sunday’s sermon hinted at the dangers that can arise when nationalism becomes the most important thing in a person’s life.  Jesus is quite clear that loving God and loving our neighbour are to be the most important thing in our lives.  Re-writing this slogan in light of his double-love commandment, I would probably have to change it completely to move away from the nationalism it promotes.  How about, “Love God; love your neighbour!” instead?

Image borrowed from the World Communion of Reformed
Churches - Justice and Witness Facebook page

8 September 2019

"You want me to do what?!" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday September 8, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 14:25-33

One day, as Jesus was travelling to Jerusalem, he turned and said to the crowd that was following him, “If you want to be my disciple, it’s easy – there are just three things that you have to do.  If you want to be my disciple, all you have to do is hate your family, give away all of your possessions, and embrace the cross, that thing that will bring death to your body.  If you don’t do these three things, then you can’t be my disciple, you can’t be my follower.”

This is the part of Luke’s gospel that the hosts of the Pulpit Fiction Podcast refer to as “Jesus’ terrible marketing campaign”![1]  After all, who would want to follow someone who is giving such challenging instructions?  Jesus isn’t making it very easy for anyone to just flirt with a relationship with him – you’ve got to be all-in or nothing.  It’s almost like he doesn’t want any followers!

In preaching classes and seminars, you are often told that the best way to prepare a sermon is to find a point of tension in the reading – something that doesn’t sit comfortably, something that is troubling, something that doesn’t make sense.  And then once you have found this point of tension, lean into it, and see where that gets you.

Well, this reading from Luke’s gospel makes a preacher’s job really easy since that point of tension is right there on the surface.  “If you want to be my follower, all you have to do is hate your family, give away all of your possessions, and embrace the cross, that thing that will bring death to your body.”  What is more challenging is to see the place of grace, the place of love in this reading.

According to Jesus, it’s a costly thing, this discipleship.  But how do we measure the cost of something?  At its most basic definition, the cost of something is what we are willing to give up in exchange for that thing.  Let’s say that the grocery story has a loaf of bread advertised for $2.  If you are willing to give up $2 to acquire that loaf of bread, then the cost of the loaf of bread is $2.

If a loaf of bread costs $2, what does it cost to follow Jesus?  Jesus says in today’s reading that it costs us our families, our money and possessions, and even life itself.  So what we receive in exchange must be more precious, more desirable than all of these things put together!

This reading is one that is very challenging to me.  I remember when I first began this whole “follower of Jesus” thing 20 years ago; it was readings like this that I found the hardest to accept, especially the bit about hating my family.  Yes, I loved Jesus, but I also loved my family.  I didn’t want to have to give up my family in order to follow Jesus.  I would read passages like this with my fingers crossed – I will say it, but I don’t really mean it.

I’ve come to realize though, that Jesus is the champion of hyperbole and exaggeration, not just in this reading but throughout the gospels.  When he says that you are to cut your eye out if it leads you astray, he is exaggerating to make a point – he isn’t handing out knives to his listeners as he says it.  And when he says that you are to tie a heavy stone around your ankle and jump into the deep water if you cause another person to stumble in their walk – more exaggeration; he’s not going around handing out stones; Jesus is exaggerating to make a point about how serious he is.

And so I believe that this reading too, is hyperbole or exaggeration.  Jesus uses the words “hate” and “take up your cross” and “all of your possessions” to grab his listeners’ attention, just as it grabbed our attention this morning.  He wants to challenge his listeners, including us, to dig down and examine our priorities.  What are our priorities in life?

Theologian Paul Tillich has an interesting approach when he writes about faith – he calls faith our Ultimate Concern, and he says that everyone has an Ultimate Concern, even if they say that they don’t have faith.[2]  Your Ultimate Concern is that thing that you prioritize above all other things – the thing that you are willing to give your time and your energy and your money to; the thing that you are willing to serve; the thing that demands your devotion and promises you fulfillment.  Your Ultimate Concern is the thing that you consider worthy of giving all of this to; it is the thing that you consider to be holy or sacred.

Having lived in Germany in the 1930s, Tillich observed the problems that arise when nationalism becomes the Ultimate Concern of a group of people – in fact, he was fired from his position as a theology professor by the Nazi government, and had to leave Germany shortly thereafter.  Looking around the world today, I can’t help but wonder if nationalism is once again becoming the Ultimate Concern of more and more people.  But there are other examples of Ultimate Concerns that we can see as well.

An amusing example might be the ultra-fan of a sports team – someone who spends all of their free time and all of their money cheering on a team.  They give up weekends with their family to travel all around following their team, and the team’s success or failure affects the super-fan’s emotional state.  Cheering on a sports team, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; but when that sports team becomes your Ultimate Concern, then it becomes a problem.

Another example of Ultimate Concern that we see in today’s world might be Wellness Culture.  People who spend all of their free time reading health and wellness articles online, who spend all of their money on stranger and stranger wellness products, who are so concerned about what they eat that they can’t extend or receive mealtime hospitality.  Again, being concerned about your health isn’t a bad thing; caring for and loving the bodies that God gave us is a good thing; but when wellness becomes the most important thing in your life, when wellness becomes your Ultimate Concern, then it becomes a problem.

So I think that maybe what Jesus is trying to say in today’s reading is that he wants to be our Ultimate Concern.  Jesus wants to be our top priority, the thing that we give our time and energy towards, the thing that we consider to be worthy of everything that we give.

And this is where that harsh teaching from Jesus starts to make sense.  He doesn’t want us to actually hate our family, he just wants this path of following him to be more important.  Jesus doesn’t want us to go out and seek to be nailed to a cross – but we are to follow Jesus even when that means some sort of risk to our comfort.  Jesus doesn’t want us to give up all of our possessions, but he also doesn’t want our possessions and the pursuit of money to become more important than our relationship with God.

From the comfort of these pews, it can become a bit of a hypothetical mind game – if I were in a situation where I had to choose between my safety and Jesus, what would I choose?  If I had to choose between my possessions and Jesus, what would I choose?  And Jesus is very clear in what he wants our answer to be.  We are to hold very loosely our attachment to our things in the world, things that were given to us from God, and things that are, in the end, transient.  We are to hold them loosely enough that we can put God first if and when they were to ever come into conflict with one another.

It’s not always hypothetical – these situations do arise.  When I was at AST, I did research into bi-vocational ministers – ministers with more than one vocational calling – and how this affected their identity.  One of the things that I found was that when the two vocations were in synch with one another, that was when they were most comfortable in their identity.  However, when they were in their job outside of churchland and found themselves in a situation where they were expected to act in a way that wasn’t in keeping with their identity as either a minister or as a follower of Jesus – that was when they felt very uncomfortable and pulled apart; but in the end, in order to continue to walk through the world as a follower of Jesus, that is the choice that they had to make.

And so I invite you to consider – what is the object of your Ultimate Concern?  When the rubber hits the road, when you have to make a choice, where do your priorities lie? 

[1] https://www.pulpitfiction.com/notes/proper18c
[2] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: HarperOne, 1957), 1-4.

"Jesus said to the crowd..."
(JESUS MAFA, "The Mission to the World"

1 September 2019

"In the Belly of a Whale" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
September 1, 2019

Has anyone read Michael Crummey’s book, Galore?  One of the key events in this novel is when the body of a whale washes up on the beach in outport Newfoundland, the people cut open the whale and find the body of a man in its stomach. They go to bury him, but before they can do so, they discover that he’s alive, even though he can’t speak and the stink of the whale’s belly never leaves him, no matter how much he bathes.  It’s a modern-day Jonah story – or at least a reference to the story of Jonah set in the 18th Century and written in the current century.

And the pop culture references to Jonah don’t stop with this book!  As a fan of the writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery, I think of the time when Anne Shirley had a “Jonah Day” – a day when absolutely nothing went right for her, a day filled with one disaster after another.  You have Pinocchio and his father being swallowed by a whale.  There was a VeggieTales movie made of the story.  The image of being in the belly of the whale, where you can’t see anything, you can’t do anything, and you are between one situation and another is part of the Jungian psychoanalysis collection of images.

Isn’t it amazing how far these ancient biblical stories have reached into how we see and understand the world?

And yet… and yet digging into the story, I can’t help but think that maybe being in the belly of the whale or the belly of a big fish isn’t as significant to Jonah’s story as it is to pop culture.

The book of Jonah is only 4 chapters long – we read most of the story this morning.  Chapter 1 is heavy on the action.  Jonah is called by God to go to Nineveh – one of the biggest cities in the ancient world, located in what is northern Iraq on today’s maps, near the modern city of Mosul.  But Jonah doesn’t want to go – God’s message is unlikely to be received well, and his life will be in danger when his message isn’t welcomed.  So instead of heading east towards Nineveh, Jonah heads west, towards the Mediterranean Sea, and hops on a boat going to the other side.  A storm comes up, lives are in danger, the superstitious sailors try to figure out whose gods have been angered so that they can figure out how to escape the storm, Jonah’s guilty conscience leads him to confess, he tells the sailors to throw him overboard, the sailors try to return him to dry land but the storm is too strong, in desperation they throw Jonah overboard, and God sends a big fish to swallow Jonah before he can drown.  And this is just chapter 1!

Chapter 2 opens with Jonah in the belly of the fish – we have to set aside our knowledge of modern science here, science that tells us that neither whales nor sharks nor any other sea-dwelling creature is able to physiologically swallow a human, and accept the story for what it is.  Jonah is in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights – who else do we know who spent three days in the land of shadows and death?  And while Jonah is there, he doesn’t rage against God, he doesn’t blame God for what has happened.  Instead, Jonah sings a song of praise to the God who brought him to this situation.  This tells us that Jonah was a person who knew God, who walked with God.  He would have known the scriptures, including the psalms, including Psalm 139, which we adapted for our call to worship this morning.  Jonah knew that there was nowhere that he could go to flee from God, even to the farthest reaches of the sea.  He knew, deep down, that hopping on that ship going the opposite direction from Nineveh was futile – there’s really no way to escape God.

"Jonah" by John August Swanson

Chapter 2 ends with Jonah being vomited out onto dry land; and in Chapter 3, God tries again to send Jonah to Nineveh.  This time Jonah goes.  He goes and preaches a short sermon, as he wanders the streets.  8 words in our English translation; only 5 words in the original Hebrew.  “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the amazing thing – it works!  The bible is full of stories of prophets who try to point people back to God, and who are ignored, abused, and killed for their efforts.  But here we have Jonah, the reluctant prophet, convincing an entire city to turn towards God, the creator of the heavens and the earth.  It is almost comedic, the extremes that Chapter 3 presents to us.  The people fast and put on garments of sackcloth to signal their repentance.  The king dresses himself in sackcloth and sits in an ash heap – acts of repentance that mirror the story of Job.  The king declares that the entire city – both humans and livestock – participate in this massive act of repentance, and here I picture those poor cows, not quite sure of what is going on, being draped in sackcloth.  And God sees their repentance, and God chooses not to destroy the city.

We didn’t read Chapter 4 today, but it includes a curious epilogue to the story of Jonah.  When Jonah sees that God has chosen not to destroy the city, Jonah doesn’t celebrate, but instead resents this decision.  If God wasn’t going to destroy the city, why was he, Jonah, put through so much trouble to go there?  To which God replies with an object lesson telling Jonah, “Can’t I choose to extend grace – that unearned gift – wherever I choose?”

And so I see the story of Jonah as the story of someone who was called by God for a specific task; a story of trying to run away from that call, but being unable to escape God.  I see it as a story of God’s persistence, and a story of God’s grace.

And believe me, I can relate to Jonah.  I’ve shared a bit about my own story of being called to ministry with you before, but my call to ministry felt like an itch.  And I tried to run away from it – I tried all sorts of different things to scratch that itch that was God’s calling – anything that would mean that I wouldn’t have to go to Nineveh (I mean, start the path towards ordination in the United Church of Canada)!  I became active in the official board at my home congregation, I not only participated in but led bible study groups, I became a Licenced Lay Worship Leader, I became a Presbytery Rep.

Fortunately I didn’t end up in the belly of a whale, but with each of my attempts to escape God’s calling, God persisted, and the itch just became itchier!  When I started the formal discernment process, I told my discernment committee that their job was to stop me from becoming a minister.  But God persisted, and a year later I was beginning my Master of Divinity at AST in Halifax.  And I was probably about 6 weeks into that degree, completely overwhelmed by the volume and difficulty of the schoolwork, when I realized that the itch was gone.  Like Jonah, I had finally turned in the direction that God wanted me to go, and it was going to be OK.

So like I said, I can relate to Jonah!

And the thing about God and God’s calling is that God doesn’t just call prophets and ministers – God calls all of us.  God’s work in the world requires the gifts and skills of every single one of us.  God calls all of us to different vocations – some of us are to be teachers, some of us are to be nurses, some of us are to be lab techs, some of us are to be parents, some of us are to be grandparents or great-grandparents, and yes, some of us are even called to be ministers.  God needs people in every corner of society, loving God and loving your neighbour wherever you find yourself.

And we also see a diversity of callings in the church – God calls some people to a ministry of prayer, some people to a ministry of music, some people to a ministry of visiting, some people to a ministry of outreach, some people to a ministry of fellowship and community.

And God’s call can change from time to time or from decade to decade.  God didn’t call me to ministry when I was 20 years old, the way that God called some of my classmates.  God waited until both God and I were ready for this call for it to happen.

If we try to run away from our call like Jonah did, not only will you be uncomfortable in the belly of whatever whale you end up in, but so will the people where you were supposed to be.  If Jonah had continued to run away from God, if Jonah hadn’t gone to Nineveh, would the people of Nineveh ever come to know God’s love and God’s grace?

Through the month of September, we’re going to be looking a bit more at stewardship, and most people think that stewardship is mostly about money.  But really, it’s so much more than that.  Stewardship is about how we look after the things that God has given to us to look after; and one of those things that God has given us to look after are our skills and talents.  What gifts has God given to you?  How is God calling you to use these gifts on God’s behalf; both in the church and in the world?

This weekend is Labour Day Weekend – a time when many of us pause to think about, to consider, labour and work.  I encourage you to take a couple of extra minutes this weekend to consider your labour through the lens of God’s call.  Where is God calling you?  What is God calling you to do?  It doesn’t matter if you are retired, or in school, or somewhere in between, God can use you, just as God used Jonah, if you are in the place where God calls you.

How are you being called to spread God’s love in the world?