27 October 2019

"No Pecking Order in Grace" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 27, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 18:9-14
Preacher:  Kate Jones

So Jesus has been throwing some pretty tough parables our way, and this week is no exception!  Today we have a parable about two people going to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee seems to have a pretty high opinion of himself, and he prays, “Thank you, God, for not making me like those guys over there.  Thank you for making me a good and holy person.  Not only do I do all of the things that you want me to, but I go above and beyond in how I pray and in what I give to the poor.”

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, hides away in a corner.  He keeps his eyes turned downward, afraid to look up in case he accidentally made eye contact with God, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

I invite you to consider, digging deep into your heart – in your life, do you relate more to the Pharisee, or more to the Tax Collector?

For me, on first reading, I really don’t like the Pharisee.  I don’t like the tone of self-satisfaction in his voice; I don’t like his smugness; I don’t like the way that he looks at the people around him as being less worthy, less human.  The tax collector, on the other hand, he seems to be able to see himself with clarity.  He knows where he stands in relation to God.  On first reading, this is the guy that I can get behind.

But what if we were to dig a bit deeper into who these people are, who are praying in the temple.  The Pharisees, no matter what impression we might get of them from the gospels, weren’t necessarily the bad guys.  The Pharisees as a group made faith accessible to everyone.  Anyone could make themselves holy, anyone could come into relationship with God through how they lived their lives.  And so maybe there is a bit of a heartfelt prayer of gratitude mixed in with the smug self-satisfaction.  “Thank you, God, for giving me the means to draw close to you.”

Then there is the humble Tax Collector who prays for mercy from God.  And believe me, the Tax Collectors needed mercy from God.  In this world system, Tax Collectors were agents of the Roman Empire.  Rome required a certain amount of money to be extracted, I mean collected, from the local population, and so they would contract out the work.  And without a doubt, it was lucrative work!  Because if the Tax Collector could squeeze more money out of the people than he needed to pass along to Rome, then he got to keep the excess for himself.  He wasn’t paid a salary by Rome, but he got to demand from the people whatever amount of money he thought that he deserved.

And so from the perspective of the people of the day, Tax Collectors were the lowest of the low.  Not only were they agents of the invading and oppressive Roman Empire, but they were also usually scoundrels getting rich off of the backs of their own people, because who but a scoundrel would want to be in this line of work?!

Two people praying very different prayers in the temple, but interestingly enough, they are both praying from the Psalms, the ancient prayers and songs of the Israelite people.  The Pharisee’s prayer echoes Psalm 17:
            If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
            if you test me;
            you will find no wickedness in me;
            my mouth does not transgress.
            As for what others do, by the words of your lips
            I have avoided the ways of the violent.
            My steps have held fast to your paths;
            my feet have not slipped.  (Psalm 17:3-5)

The Tax Collector’s prayer, on the other hand, echoes Psalm 51:
            Have mercy on me, O God,
            according to your steadfast love;
            according to your abundant mercy
            blot out my transgressions.
            Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
            and cleanse me from my sin.  (Psalm 51:1-2)

So maybe there are more layers of complication to this story than there appears to be at first glance.  A good person giving thanks for what God has given to him; and a scoundrel and a thief praying to God for mercy.  Maybe I need to reconsider who I relate more with.  Maybe I can relate more to the Pharisee in this story?

I find that both of the characters in this short story that Jesus tells to be complicated people.  With the Tax Collector, his wrongdoings are obvious on the surface – he cheats and exploits people on behalf of the Empire in order to get ahead himself, but he has good self-awareness and recognizes that he his nothing next to God.  The Pharisee on the other hand – he is living a good life, worshipping God and giving to charity; but he seems to lack insight into himself – he doesn’t seem to understand that he isn’t God!

I think that I mentioned last week that as humans, we tend to like judging, and that is exactly what my tendency is to do with this story.  I am trying to judge which of these two people is worse; I’m trying to figure out which one I want to associate with, and which one I want to condemn.

A story has been told about a preacher who preached on this parable, preaching about the awfulness of the Pharisee – about his lack of compassion for his neighbour, about his smugness, about his inflated ego.  And when the sermon was over, the preacher turned to the congregation and said, “Let us pray.”  And the preacher’s pray began, “Oh God, I thank you that I am not like the Pharisee in this story…” And as soon as his prayer began, this preacher was guilty of the same sin he was accusing the Pharisee of.[1]

I wonder what this parable would look like if we were to view it through the lens of grace rather than the lens of judgement?  What if, instead of trying judge, instead of trying to figure out which of these two people was the worse sinner, we were to see them as God’s beloved children, whom God has forgiven, and whom God loves unconditionally, not because of anything that they have done or anything that they haven’t done, but simply because they are beloved?

At the end of this parable, Jesus tells us that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”  Jesus doesn’t say that the Tax Collector is a good person, worthy of love and forgiveness, who will be raised up above the Pharisee.  And at the same time, Jesus isn’t saying that the Pharisee is a vile and evil person who is going to be knocked down below the Tax Collector.

I read this verse instead as a great leveller.  Yes, the proud are going to be knocked off their high horse, and yes, the humble are going to be raised up, but that brings both of them to the same place in relation to God.  We are all human.  None of us is God.  Only God is God.  And God loves everyone equally, with God’s whole heart.  More love for you doesn’t mean less love for me – it isn’t a zero-sum game.  We are all God’s beloved children, whether we relate more to the Pharisee or the Tax Collector in today’s story.

To quote the Pulpit Fiction Podcast this week, “to place grace in a pecking order is to not understand grace.” In God’s world, there aren’t some who are more beloved than others.

None of us is perfect – we are all human and we all fall short at times.  To quote the perhaps infamous words of Paul writing to the church in Rome, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)  No one in the history of the world has been able to fully love God and fully love our neighbour 100% of the time.

But in God’s eyes, that doesn’t matter.  We are all God’s beloved children.  There is no pecking order in grace because there is enough love to go around.  If we were to finish that quote from the Apostle Paul, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; but they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  (Romans 3:23-24).

God loves you.  The grace that was extended to both the Pharisee and the Tax Collector is extended to each one of us here.  We are all human – none of us is God – but God loves each one of us, and calls us beloved child.

Thanks be to God!

[1] Justo L. González, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 213.

"The Pharisee and the Publican" - JESUS MAFA

20 October 2019

"The Persistent Widow" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 20, 2019
Scripture:  Luke 18:1-8
Preacher:  Kate Jones

So was anyone else here a fan of the TV show, The Big Bang Theory?
*knock, knock, knock* “Penny”
*knock, knock, knock* “Penny”
*knock, knock, knock* “Penny”

Today we read the story of a persistent widow.  She believes that she is owed justice, and so she returns again and again to the house of a judge to plead her case.  And eventually she wears him down, just as Sheldon wears down Penny in The Big Bang Theory, and the judge gives in.
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey judge!”
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey judge!”
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey judge!”

Jesus tells us that this is a parable about prayer, and on the surface, it seems as though we are to be like the persistent widow, pestering God with our prayers, wearing God down until we get what we want.
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey God!”
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey God!”
*knock, knock, knock* “Hey God!”

I’ve got a couple of problems with this interpretation, with this reading of the parable.  First of all, there’s the depiction of the judge.  Jesus describes him as a person who neither respects God nor respects people.  Remembering that Jesus tells us that the two most important things are to love God and to love our neighbours, this judge is almost being set up as an anti-Jesus – the one who does the opposite of what Jesus wants us to do.  And so right off the bat, I’m troubled by the idea of comparing God to this unjust judge.

Problem #2 comes in how prayer is presented in this parable.  If we think of the widow’s persistence in pestering the judge as being how we are to pester God in prayer, then are we supposed to be continually presenting our wish list and arguing for why we should get it?

Those of us who took part in the Pastoral Visiting Workshop watched a video about prayer a couple of weeks ago (Content Warning:  mild language).  In this video, Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is talking about prayer, and she refers to this type of prayer, making requests and expecting God to fulfill them, as the Santa Claus model.  “Please, Santa Claus God, give me this.  I’ve been such a good girl this year!”

And so not only do I have trouble with God being compared to an unjust judge, I also have trouble accepting prayer as a constant stream of requests to a Santa Claus-like god.

So if that reading of the parable doesn’t work for me, how else might be approach it?

Some scholars suggest that a different way of approaching it might be to see it as a parable that teaches us what we should pray for.  Remember that in the parable, what the widow is asking for from the judge is justice.  We don’t know any of the details about where she’s coming from; we don’t know any of the details of exactly what sort of justice she is asking for; we just know that she wants the judge to do what she knows is the right thing.  Therefore this parable teaches us to pray for justice, rather than presenting a personal wish list.

And there might be something in that.  After all, praying for justice is part of our prayers.  We know that God has a vision for the world – a vision of a world that is governed only by love and by peace; a vision of a world where the whole community of creation is in harmony; a vision of a world where there is no more pain, no more tears; a vision of a world where all of God’s children live with dignity, and where there is an abundance for all.

And when we pray, we plead with God that this vision might be fulfilled soon.  We pray for justice and for peace and for love that reaches to every corner of the world.  Like the widow, we are pleading with God for this vision to be fulfilled.

And this reading sits a bit better with me than the first one.  I’d rather see us pleading for justice, pleading for God’s vision to be made real, instead of presenting our Christmas wish list to God.

But it still isn’t a reading that I’m 100% comfortable with, because it implies that God, like the unjust judge, isn’t going to do justice unless we wear God down with our pleading.  But I believe in a God who truly desires this vision of justice and peace and love.  I believe that God can’t do or be anything other than justice and peace and love.

So where does that leave us with this parable?

I wonder what would happen if we were to completely flip this parable upside down?  What if, instead of identifying ourselves with the persistent widow, we were to identify ourselves with the unjust judge?  After all, we as humans do tend to like judging others; and we don’t always love God and love our neighbours in the way that God wants us to.

And if we were to identify ourselves with the unjust judge, that means that God is like the persistent widow.  God is continually pestering us to do justice.  As we sang at the start of the service, God calls us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.  God isn’t going to stop pestering us until we truly listen.

Have you ever had an earworm – a song that embeds itself in your brain and won’t leave you alone?  I usually end up with several every week – in fact, that opening hymn is one of my common earworms, so I’ll probably be humming and whistling it for a couple of days now.

And I think that God’s voice might be a bit like an earworm.  That nagging voice we can’t get rid of; that persistent widow pestering us, that voice telling us to do justice, to love our neighbour, to be in harmony with one another and with all of creation.

And that is where I see this parable as a parable about prayer.  When we are in prayer continually, the ears of our heart become attuned to listening for God’s voice.  When we pray, we are training our heart to listen for and to pay attention to God’s voice.

If you watch that video that I mentioned earlier – the one where Nadia Bolz-Weber talks about prayer – she describes prayer as being like a silken thread connecting us all.  When we pray for others, we become connected to them by this invisible gossamer thread.  When we pray, we become more and more connected to God by these invisible gossamer threads.  And the more we pray, the more we can’t help but hear God pleading with us to live well in the world, and spread God’s love in the world.

God is pleading with us, like the persistent widow.  Do justice.  Love God.  Love your neighbour.

Will we have ears to listen?

The Persistent Widow is knocking -
will we have ears to listen and a heart to do justice?
Photo: flickr.com CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

13 October 2019

"Choosing Gratitude" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
Sunday October 13, 2019 (Thanksgiving Weekend)
Scripture:  Philippians 4:4-9

It’s Thanksgiving Weekend.  A weekend when many of us set aside a bit of time to say “thank you.”  A weekend that usually involves turkey at some point.  A weekend that usually involves some sort of gathering with biological family or with chosen family or with friends.  A weekend when hopefully the fall colours are at their peak and we can reflect on the beauty and glory of God’s creation.

The question I want to ask though, is who are we giving thanks to, and why?

For some things, we might be giving thanks to God – thank you for the beauty of creation; thank you for my family and loved ones; thank you for making the crops and gardens to grow this year so that we can enjoy this feast.

We might also take time to say “thank you” to the significant people in our lives.  Thank you for your friendship; thank you for inviting me over for dinner; thank you for helping me out when I came home from hospital.

And when things are good, it is easy to say thank you.  When we have full bellies, when we have good health, when we are surrounded by beloved friends and family members, it is easy to give thanks.  But what about the other times in our lives?  How must Thanksgiving feel when we are grieving, when we are facing a serious illness, when we are barely hanging on by a fingernail?  How can we be asked to give thanks when it doesn’t feel like there is anything to give thanks for?

And we all go through periods of time in our life like this, for different reasons.  For me, it was the months after my mother died – a time when I couldn’t pray and I couldn’t sense God’s presence. If I had been told to give thanks for everything that I had and for all of God’s blessings, my response probably would have been something along the lines of “Why? I just want my mother back.  How can I feel thankful when what is going on sucks.”

This is a time when clichés and platitudes just don’t work.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Well, if you know the reason why don’t you enlighten me because I sure can’t see why this is happening.
“God brought you to it, so God will bring you through it.”
Well, I don’t think that I want to worship a god who would make such a horrible thing happen.
“God needed another angel.”
Well, I’d rather have her back here on earth.
“Well, at least you can be thankful that you had so many years with her.”
But I wanted more.

It is so hard to be expected to give thanks when it feels like there is nothing to give thanks for.

But then I turn to the Apostle Paul.  Paul, who never met Jesus when Jesus was alive, but who encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus.  Paul who was converted from a persecutor of the early church to one of it’s chief evangelists.  Paul, whose story is written in the Book of Acts.  Paul, who wrote so many of the books of the New Testament that we call the Epistles, the Letters – Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Philippians and others.  Paul, whose name was so famous in the early church that other Epistles or Letters written by other people were attributed to him in order to give the words authority such as Ephesians, First Timothy, and Second Timothy.

Paul didn’t have an easy life.  He turned away from his family and community of birth after his conversion; and yet he was never fully accepted by the church people either since he had previously been one of the primary people persecuting the early church – almost like they didn’t quite trust him.  Paul made several journeys, each one lasting many years, through southern Europe – modern-day Turkey, Macedonia, Greece, and Italy.  When his message wasn’t well received, he was sometimes run out of town and sometimes thrown into prison; all the while being asked to account for his activities to church headquarters back in Jerusalem.

The letters that we have from Paul that are contained in the New Testament are letters that he wrote to the churches that he had started.  As he traveled around, he would search out people who were sympathetic to his message of resurrection and hope, he would teach, he would organize a gathering of Jesus-followers who would often meet in the home of one of their number, and when the group was well-established, he would move on to the next community, wherever the Holy Spirit led him.

But he would continue to correspond with the churches that he had founded.  Today we heard part of his letter to the church in Philippi, a bustling Roman city located in what is modern-day Greece.  Paul had founded this church on one of his voyages in the home of Lydia, a prominent trader in purple cloth.

Now at the time when Paul was writing this letter, he was in prison.  The dating of this letter is a bit uncertain so we don’t know which imprisonment it was written in – possibly from an imprisonment on one of his journeys, or possibly from his final imprisonment in Rome before he was killed.  But no matter when or where, Paul was writing from a place of uncertainty.  He was in prison, and he didn’t know what was going to happen next.  Maybe he was going to be released, or maybe he was going to be killed, all because people felt threatened by the message of hope and love and peace and resurrection that he was preaching.

Can you imagine yourself into Paul’s shoes?  You know that you are in prison because of what you have been preaching; you know that you couldn’t have done anything any differently; you know that you were in the place where God sent you by the Holy Spirit; but now you might not live to leave your prison, or to preach again.  If it were me, I would probably be angry at God, I would probably be afraid for my life, I would probably be wishing that I had never taken that road to Damascus so that maybe Jesus wouldn’t have been able to find me in the first place.  Why me?!

But as we read today from Paul’s letter from prison, that’s not the attitude that he takes.  Instead, from the precarious place of uncertainty, Paul is able to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  The Lord is near.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I sometimes have trouble feeling thankful; and there is Paul, in prison, uncertain if he will live to see tomorrow, writing these words – rejoice, thanksgiving, peace.  How can he do it?  How can he be so… joyful… when I can’t even feel gratitude for everything that I have?

I have to wonder though – I wonder if gratitude, if thanksgiving, is a choice rather than a feeling.  I wonder if it is a choice to focus on all of the things that God has given to us – things that we haven’t earned, things that we don’t deserve – rather than focusing on the things that we have lost or the things that we don’t have.

I can’t make a seed out of nothing.  I can’t make the small hard thing that I put into the ground sprout roots and sprout a stem that reaches up towards the sunshine.  I can’t make rain fall from the sky.  I can’t keep the planets in motion so that the sun rises in the morning, warming the earth.  These are all things that God has given to us, free gifts to sustain life.

I can’t speak creation in to being in the way that God does in the book of Genesis – “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light”; “‘Let the earth put forth vegetation:  plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of very kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ And it was so”; “‘Let us create humankind in our image, according to our likeness.” So God created humankind in the image of God.”  And God saw that it was good.

Even the very best surgeon can’t create life where there was none, or restore life after it is gone.  Everything that we have, and everything that we are, is a free gift from God.  And so even when we can’t feel thankful, even when we feel angry or sad or frustrated or lonely – even then, like Paul, we can choose gratitude.  We can choose to thank God for all of these things.

Once we realize that we don’t inherently deserve anything that we have, then the gratitude can pour out of us.  We can thank God for the air we breathe and for the breath of life with each breath that we take – we can’t create life, and so we choose gratitude.  We can thank our neighbour or our brother for the cup of tea that they bring to us – we aren’t entitled to it, and so we choose gratitude.  We can thank our family member for the Thanksgiving meal that they prepared – it isn’t our right to be invited for dinner, and so we choose gratitude.

Gratitude is more than a feeling – it’s a choice.  And so my challenge to you today is to continue to choose gratitude, even when Thanksgiving weekend is long past.  Let gratitude flow from you, even when you don’t feel it.  And in doing so, we will be living in God, we will be living in the love that is God, we will be living in the flow of grace, that free unmerited gift, we will be living in the peace that surpasses all understanding that comes only from God.

And may it be so.  Amen.

The Autumnal Colours this week, looking up Milkish Creek
(Kingston Peninsula, New Brunswick)

6 October 2019

"Signs of Hope" (sermon)

Two Rivers Pastoral Charge
October 6, 2019 – Worldwide Communion Sunday
Scripture:  Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Preacher:  Kate Jones

Have you ever heard it said that the world is going crazy, or falling to pieces?  Or maybe you’ve said or thought it yourself?  After all, you’ve got climate change which is changing the weather patterns, causing sea levels to rise, causing floods and droughts where they never happened before.  And then you’ve got countries around the world shifting towards so-called “populist governments” – politicians that promote a me-first way of thinking.  There are the conspiracy theories, theories of collusion and back-room deals, social media that makes online life and relationships more real than in-real-life relationships.  There is gun violence, mass shootings, and a culture of fear that seems to be spreading.  Add to that the nuclear threat from different corners of the world, and it’s no wonder that people long for the so-called “good old days” of 50 or 60 years ago!  (Though I would argue that the “good old days” were only good if you were a white, straight male.)

I think that it must be part of the human condition to long for something that is past; to long for the way that things used to be.  Listen to this quote from the New York Times:  “American Life is too fast. It is the day of the fleeting vision.  Concentration, thoroughness, the quiet reflection that ripens judgement are more difficult than ever.” This was written in 1923.  I know that many of us are fans of the TV series (and now movie) Downton Abbey – think of how the characters of this program set 100 years ago are always longing for the days when they were able to have a full compliment of servants and run the manor the way that it was supposed to be run.

It goes back further than that though.  If we turn to the New Testament, we have the apostle Paul writing almost 2000 years ago about how the church need to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.”  (Philippians 2:15).

And we can turn back even further to the Old Testament.  The prophet Habakkuk was writing almost 3000 years ago to a people who were being taken over by the Babylonian army, on the brink of being sent into exile from the Promised Land.  And the people, they lament.  They cry out to God, “Why are you ignoring us?!  Why are you allowing the invaders to bring violence to our land?!  Why can’t things go back to the good old days, the way they were before the Babylonians showed up???”

And God lets them lament, and God listens to their lament.  But then God steps in and tells them that instead of looking backwards, they should be looking forwards instead.  God reminds them that there is a vision for the time that is coming, and that this vision is trustworthy.  It may seem like it’s taking a long time getting here, but it will surely come.

The ancient Israelite people had to wait two generations after Habakkuk proclaimed his lament to see the fulfillment of their hope.  Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the people were taken into exile; but a time did come when they were able to return to the Promised Land; a time did come when they were able to re-build the city and the temple.  God’s promises proved to be trustworthy.

It has sometimes been said that hope is only possible when everything is hopeless.  When life is good and everything is easy, we don’t need hope.  It’s when the world seems to be falling apart around us and it feels like we can’t depend on anything at all – that is when we have to cling to hope and trust in the promises of God’s vision for the world.

And as we wait for the fulfillment of God’s vision, we can look for hints of what is coming.  Even in this season when the leaves are changing colours and the world is preparing for a long winter, at the same time we know that the seeds are planted and the roots and bulbs are preparing themselves to burst into new growth in the spring.  Even as a climate disaster seems inevitable, we can look around us and catch glimpses of hope that things are changing – the young people of the world leading us with the climate strike might be one example; we can also look at countries like Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Portugal who are able to meet their energy needs with renewable sources like wind and geothermal.  Hope is all around us!

In a few minutes, we are going to be gathering at the communion table to share a simple meal of bread and grape juice, but as we do so, we are sharing in an act of radical hope.  Especially today, on Worldwide Communion Sunday – we know that Christ’s table stretches around the world, and when we share the bread and the cup, we are sharing not only with our Siblings in Christ in this congregation but with our Siblings in Christ around the world.  Together we are saying that the way that the world around us seems to work doesn’t have to be the only way.  Together we are saying that we proclaim a different way of being – a way of being that is based on peace and love.  Together we are saying that even when everything seems hopeless, we are choosing to cling to hope; we are choosing to trust in God’s vision for the world.

Jesus told his followers that if they had just the tiniest amount of faith, no bigger than a mustard seed, then they would be able to do amazing things.  Today I am inviting you to take that mustard-seed-sized faith and run with it.  Choose to throw off our tendency to look backwards, and choose to listen to God telling us to look forwards instead – to look forwards to a time when all of God’s promises will come true.

For God says, “There is a vision for the appointed time, and the vision is trustworthy.  It will surely come!”

And may it be so.  Amen.

Signs of Hope