Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: 4 February 2018

Jesus answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1.38).

Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced and full of action. Mark constantly describes events as taking place “right away,” one after another, and Christ seems constantly on the move. And each place he visits says something about his purpose. We’re still in chapter one, but he has already gone from Galilee to the wilderness, to the sea shore to a town, into the synagogue and back out, into a home and then out into the wilderness again, and now into more towns and synagogues. He’s been baptized and tempted by the devil, he’s proclaimed the good news, gathered disciples, cast out demons and unclean spirits, healed the sick and prayed – all in fulfillment of his purpose: to “… proclaim the message… for that is what I came out to do.”

It’s so easy to forget Christ’s central purpose when the action of the story seems to center on miracles, healings and exorcisms. But these spectacular signs are not the point. They are, rather, meant to point to the message. And this message remains the same as at first: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1.15).

The kingdom of God has come near! The reign of God: where illness and fever are no more, where the demons that haunt us have no place, where people live together in true community, not casting each other out for fear of disability or difference, but embracing one another and taking one another by the hand to be raised to new life in the power of God. This reign of God has come near – so close that all it takes to enter that new reality is to repent: to change one’s mind and to desire that reality. (Perhaps easier said than done?)

The reign of God comes first of all near to Galilee, to people who are used to having to look elsewhere for God, to people who have been taught that God’s reign on earth is centred in a fairly distant city, to which one must travel at special times and where educated holy men speak for God. The reign of God comes near to those who have resigned themselves to believing that God will always be far away.

Later it will come to those holy men and to that holy city, where people have been used to thinking that God is among them, that they live in the heart of God’s care and concern, that they know and understand what God wants and can speak for God about how others should behave and what their priorities should be. The reign of God will come near to those who thought God was already theirs. We know how that will go down: not very well. For this “in” group will see the approaching reign of God as a threat to their own comfort, power and security.

For both these groups, Christ proclaims that the nearness of God’s reign demands repentance. We know that repentance involves being sorry for wrongs and resolving to do right. We know repentance involves our emotions and our will; it also involves our mind and even our point of view. It involves seeing things in a new light; it involves turning around.

For the Galileans, repentance involves turning around to see that God is not far away in the temple in Jerusalem, but right there in their midst. So far, they seem to be taking serious notice. (So far, so good.) For the people of Jerusalem, repentance will involve turning around the other way, to see that God is not contained safely in the temple in their midst, but is moving about freely “out there,” even in Galilee, beyond their realm of control and influence, breaking all the rules they think they are enforcing on God’s behalf. Of course, this reign of God in Christ is also prepared to come even nearer to them, to touch and heal them and to restore them to life and community with God and with all God’s people, but as we know and will see before Easter, they are not willing. They are not willing to repent, and so they cannot see how near to them that reign of God really is.

These are the religious insiders of first century Palestine. We are the religious insiders of our own time and place. We should be very careful not to fall into their trap. Very often, Christians speak about “being the presence of Christ” in the world and in our communities. Indeed, we in this parish have spoken this way recently. Our Gospel today suggests that we should perhaps speak more about “seeing the presence of Christ” in the world and in our communities. This is not quite the same as “seeing where God is at work and joining in.” It is more like “seeing where God is at work and accepting that this work doesn’t depend on us or even often make sense to us – seeing the presence of Christ ‘out there,’ beyond our sphere of influence, beyond our familiar territory.” We could consider it an act of repentance, of turning around, to see and admit that God’s reign does not rest safely in the confines of this church or in the understanding of the people who worship here and study the Bible and do all the things we think God has called us to do.

Like Christ in Mark’s Gospel, the reign of God is constantly moving from place to place, touching and healing the ill, freeing people from their demons and restoring people to communities of love and life. And God is not doing any of this by our rules. If we can see and accept this, laying aside our own sense of control, repenting of our self-concern and desire to be near the centre of it all, we can also find ourselves open to the coming near of that same reign of healing, freedom and loving embrace. Like the disciples, who hunt Christ down, at first hoping to bring him back to what they had already come to know, we might find ourselves instead drawn along with him into the neighbouring towns. And yes, we might also find ourselves the occasional agents through whom Christ our God comes near to those who are clamouring to come near to him.

As we celebrate the sacrament of Christ’s presence here in the church, may his life within us open our eyes to see his presence in the lives of so many unfamiliar people and communities out there in the world. Then we will indeed be able to celebrate that the kingdom of God has come near.

 

Amen.


Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Epiphany: 4 February 2018

Jesus answered, “Let us go on to the neighbouring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1.38).

Mark’s Gospel is fast-paced and full of action. Mark constantly describes events as taking place “right away,” one after another, and Christ seems constantly on the move. And each place he visits says something about his purpose. We’re still in chapter one, but he has already gone from Galilee to the wilderness, to the sea shore to a town, into the synagogue and back out, into a home and then out into the wilderness again, and now into more towns and synagogues. He’s been baptized and tempted by the devil, he’s proclaimed the good news, gathered disciples, cast out demons and unclean spirits, healed the sick and prayed – all in fulfillment of his purpose: to “… proclaim the message… for that is what I came out to do.”

It’s so easy to forget Christ’s central purpose when the action of the story seems to center on miracles, healings and exorcisms. But these spectacular signs are not the point. They are, rather, meant to point to the message. And this message remains the same as at first: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1.15).

The kingdom of God has come near! The reign of God: where illness and fever are no more, where the demons that haunt us have no place, where people live together in true community, not casting each other out for fear of disability or difference, but embracing one another and taking one another by the hand to be raised to new life in the power of God. This reign of God has come near – so close that all it takes to enter that new reality is to repent: to change one’s mind and to desire that reality. (Perhaps easier said than done?)

The reign of God comes first of all near to Galilee, to people who are used to having to look elsewhere for God, to people who have been taught that God’s reign on earth is centred in a fairly distant city, to which one must travel at special times and where educated holy men speak for God. The reign of God comes near to those who have resigned themselves to believing that God will always be far away.

Later it will come to those holy men and to that holy city, where people have been used to thinking that God is among them, that they live in the heart of God’s care and concern, that they know and understand what God wants and can speak for God about how others should behave and what their priorities should be. The reign of God will come near to those who thought God was already theirs. We know how that will go down: not very well. For this “in” group will see the approaching reign of God as a threat to their own comfort, power and security.

For both these groups, Christ proclaims that the nearness of God’s reign demands repentance. We know that repentance involves being sorry for wrongs and resolving to do right. We know repentance involves our emotions and our will; it also involves our mind and even our point of view. It involves seeing things in a new light; it involves turning around.

For the Galileans, repentance involves turning around to see that God is not far away in the temple in Jerusalem, but right there in their midst. So far, they seem to be taking serious notice. (So far, so good.) For the people of Jerusalem, repentance will involve turning around the other way, to see that God is not contained safely in the temple in their midst, but is moving about freely “out there,” even in Galilee, beyond their realm of control and influence, breaking all the rules they think they are enforcing on God’s behalf. Of course, this reign of God in Christ is also prepared to come even nearer to them, to touch and heal them and to restore them to life and community with God and with all God’s people, but as we know and will see before Easter, they are not willing. They are not willing to repent, and so they cannot see how near to them that reign of God really is.

These are the religious insiders of first century Palestine. We are the religious insiders of our own time and place. We should be very careful not to fall into their trap. Very often, Christians speak about “being the presence of Christ” in the world and in our communities. Indeed, we in this parish have spoken this way recently. Our Gospel today suggests that we should perhaps speak more about “seeing the presence of Christ” in the world and in our communities. This is not quite the same as “seeing where God is at work and joining in.” It is more like “seeing where God is at work and accepting that this work doesn’t depend on us or even often make sense to us – seeing the presence of Christ ‘out there,’ beyond our sphere of influence, beyond our familiar territory.” We could consider it an act of repentance, of turning around, to see and admit that God’s reign does not rest safely in the confines of this church or in the understanding of the people who worship here and study the Bible and do all the things we think God has called us to do.

Like Christ in Mark’s Gospel, the reign of God is constantly moving from place to place, touching and healing the ill, freeing people from their demons and restoring people to communities of love and life. And God is not doing any of this by our rules. If we can see and accept this, laying aside our own sense of control, repenting of our self-concern and desire to be near the centre of it all, we can also find ourselves open to the coming near of that same reign of healing, freedom and loving embrace. Like the disciples, who hunt Christ down, at first hoping to bring him back to what they had already come to know, we might find ourselves instead drawn along with him into the neighbouring towns. And yes, we might also find ourselves the occasional agents through whom Christ our God comes near to those who are clamouring to come near to him.

As we celebrate the sacrament of Christ’s presence here in the church, may his life within us open our eyes to see his presence in the lives of so many unfamiliar people and communities out there in the world. Then we will indeed be able to celebrate that the kingdom of God has come near.

 

Amen.


Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: 28 January 2018

But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1.25).

And so Christ separates a man from the spirit he thinks is his own. “Have you come to destroy us?” the man asks, and the convulsions and scream he emits suggest that it might have felt like destruction to have the spirit torn out of him.

There is an old expression we’ve all heard, about being “like a fish out of water.” Indeed, we’ve probably all felt it before too. We use the expression to describe what it feels like to be completely out of our element, in unfamiliar surroundings, amongst people of unfamiliar customs or expectations, when we’re not sure how to behave or what to say or who to talk to or where to sit or how to begin to feel comfortable at all. Like a fish out of water, we would do pretty much anything to get out of the situation and back into our old, familiar, comfortable water.

But of course, there’s something a bit over-the-top and melodramatic, about this expression, since in concrete terms, an actual fish out of water isn’t just uncomfortable; it’s either dead or dying. It just can’t breathe the air up here.

Well, last Sunday, we read the Gospel passage just before this one, in which Christ calls two pairs of fishermen to follow him, promising that he will make them become “fishers of people.” If we forget for a moment how familiar this expression is, if we forget for a moment what we think we know it means, we might admit that it’s a very strange image, and even a little disturbing. Fishermen catch fish in order to turn them into food. Once out of water, one way or another, these fish will die and be eaten. And now Christ is calling disciples to go and do that to other people? That would be truly disturbing.

Ok, but what if we put the killing part aside for a moment, since that’s obviously not what Christ means? What if we imagine that the disciples are to fish for people so that they can catch them humanely and then move them to more pleasant waters – like a sort of “catch and release” program designed to prevent a species from dying out due to an outbreak of disease in their water? Perhaps this is closer to what the Gospel image means: fishing people out of the waters of chaos, sin and death, and restoring them to waters of nurture, goodness and life. That sounds much better, though it doesn’t really make the process feel any better to the one being caught. At least for a little while, there will be the extreme discomfort, and even terror, of being a fish out of water.

At any rate, Christ has just promised to train his new followers to become people-fishers and now he shows them what that means, in the synagogue at Capernaum, where they encounter a person literally “in” an unclean spirit – someone who has become so at home in unholy waters that he thinks he’s one with those waters, one with the spirit that in fact traps him, possesses him and makes him say and do things he would not otherwise do. Christ has come to fish him out of those waters, to bring him out of the unholy spirit and into God’s spirit of freedom and life. But this man sees only the terror of being taken from familiar waters, of becoming a fish out of water. He thinks this separation will destroy him.

Like the possessed man in the story, we too find ourselves “in” spirits that trap us and even seem to consume us. Often, we are at least partly aware of our predicament. We chafe against the often cruel and unfair world we’re forced to live in. We struggle to live the life we believe to be good and right in contexts that seem to work against all our best intentions. Often we feel trapped in the spirit of our age. But sometimes, like the possessed man in the story, we don’t even know we’re trapped; we are so entwined with these spirits that we think they are part of us and we a part of them. It takes Christ’s word of authority to shake us, to show the split between the two, and finally to separate us from these, our false homes.

We’re not made for these waters. But as if through a process of evolution, we’ve adapted ourselves to unholy waters. We’ve made our peace with the spirit of the age – with the consumerism that keeps our economy more or less going; with the ambition that keeps us competing with our neighbours as enemies rather than cooperating with them as allies; with the individualism and isolationism that keep us looking out for our own interests and oblivious to the interests of others (and to the fullness of life we could experience by being in true community). We’ve adapted. And we think we’re at home and in our native waters. But Christ comes with authority to proclaim that we have another home, a better and truer home. If we manage to hear his voice from above the surface, it will draw us up as with a net, out of the chaotic waters that have come to feel so comfortable.

Current pop psychology talks about learning to be true to ourselves, encouraging us to stop trying to live up to the demands and expectations of others and instead to look within to find what’s truly meaningful and fulfilling for our truest inner self. There is something very appealing to this message. It carries the promise of freedom from anxiety and rest from all our vain striving for approval. But this is not the same as what Christ proclaims. It is not the same as the liberation pictured here by the man separated from the oppressive spirit that filled him and held him captive.

When Christ fishes us out of these waters that have become so familiar, he plunges us into our true home, the Holy Spirit. This is not a home that is to be found by looking within. It is only found by letting go of all that we think we are and allowing Christ to give us the true self that is so long forgotten as to seem strange and unfamiliar and even frightening.

St Paul writes, “Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge, but anyone who loves God is known by [God]” (1 Cor. 8.2-3). The Gospel is not about digging deeper to find out who we truly are, it is about loosening our grip on ourselves, giving up on defining ourselves, opening our hearts to love for God and allowing God’s perfect knowledge of us to give us the true self that we can never find as long as we remain submerged down here in these cozy, familiar waters.

The voice of Christ calls us, and it is just when that voice sounds most frightening that we are on the verge of finding ourselves torn from these familiar waters and brought into a whole new existence. Once we catch our breath, we will find that we are indeed in our true home, filled with our true self: the very life and spirit of Christ our God.

 

Amen.


Sermon: The Baptism of the Lord: 7 January 2018

And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (Mark 1.10).

But why? The Son of God submits to a baptism of repentance and the heavens are torn apart. What’s the connection? What is it about this outwardly simple act of a certain person being dunked in a river that compels the God of heaven and earth to tear open the divide that’s usually so carefully and firmly in place between the two?

When we looked at this passage in Advent, as we were preparing for Christ’s coming at Christmas, we stopped reading just before this bit, where Jesus comes to be baptised. We also started reading a few verses earlier, where Mark declares that what he writes is “the beginning of the good news.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah. “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

We considered that the good new begins with a call to preparation, to repentance, with tears of grief and sorrow for wrongs that we long to see made right. We considered that the good news begins with admitting our own unworthiness, like John’s, even to be the servant of the Christ for whom we wait.

 

Well, now the Christ has come, not just to earth as a baby, but all the way to the river Jordan, to his own beginning as an adult, all the way to the repentance where we all had to begin – and where we all have to begin again, whenever a new beginning is needed. Christ has come to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Christ, the saviour, “the Son of God,” comes to repent – not for any sins of his own, as later theologians will hurry to clarify, but still he comes to repent. This Son of God and Son of Man so fully identifies with the people he came to save that the weight of our sin hangs from his shoulders, the stain of sin clings to his flesh, the shame and regret, the grief and sorrow and pain of sin all swirl around him. These and the longing for his people’s salvation drive him out into the wilderness, to John’s baptism of repentance for forgiveness, to the beginning of the good news.

It is not just ritual or theoretical; Christ carries our sin and all its effects in his body to the river. And this is why the heavens are torn open – why they have to be torn open. The baptism of Christ is a work of our salvation; all of God has to be present and involved, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But it seems the Father and Spirit are also moved by the Son’s actions – perhaps by his humility, his compassion, his determination and longing for the restoration of his people. Spirit and Father are moved to embrace and affirm the first bold steps of their beloved in their common mission for the world.

 

This baptism is the beginning for Jesus Christ, his deliberate entry into the saving work that God has prepared for him to do. We know from St Paul that baptism is a form of death to sin and self and a rising to new life. By undergoing John’s baptism of repentance, Christ’s ultimate saving act is prefigured. The cross is already here, in the waters of baptism. In baptism, Christ is buried in the water under the weight of our sin. In his rising out of the water, he brings our whole forgiven humanity up with him to be embraced by the holy dove and to hear the words of the Father’s acceptance and pleasure: “You are my [child,] the Beloved.”

And this is why Christian baptism is more than just the baptism of John – of repentance for forgiveness of sins. It is also a baptism of adoption as God’s children, brothers and sisters with Christ, sealed with the Holy Spirit, inheritors of eternal life. Because of Christ’s baptism, we too rise from the waters of baptism to these words of acceptance and pleasure: “You are my child, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Not because of any good thing we’ve done, not because of our inherent goodness, but because Christ has identified with us so that we can identify with him. In Christ, the divine became human so that humans might become divine. In our baptism, this miracle is begun; in Eucharist, it continues. God tears open the heavens and unites us in Christ with God. We are a new creation, formed out of the new waters of baptism. This is the beginning of the good news.

 

Amen.


Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Advent: 24 December 2017

Mary said [to the angel…] “Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1.38b).

But before she speaks these words of faith, Mary has an important question: how can this be? Behind this question lie not only curiosity but also confusion and fear, and perhaps a tinge of defiance. The angel’s announcement is not only impossible; it is unwelcome. In her betrothal to Joseph, in her visions of the future, this is not at all how Mary expected to serve God, not at all her idea of good news.

This isn’t the first miraculous birth story in the Bible. There have been many before it, in fact. But there’s something different here. In the other accounts, the would-be parents are longing for that impossible birth. Like John the Baptist’s parents, they are elderly, the mother beyond natural child-bearing years. They would do anything to have the child they are beyond hope of conceiving. Mary, on the other hand, is not even considering children yet.

In all her youthful innocence, Mary wrestles with God. It’s not her place to ask questions, but she’s bold enough to challenge even a heavenly messenger. And Mary is perhaps the only one of the miracle-parents to refuse to help God along with the miracle. “I am a virgin,” she says. Actually, what she says is, “I do not know a man,” or in today’s language, “I’m not sexually active.” There’s an edge of defiance in her statement. If she were like Abraham – or David, for example – she would have said “ok,” and then thought up a way to make the prophecy happen: She wasn’t sexually active, but that could easily change. And why not – if God’s saving work in the world is at stake? But Mary doesn’t even consider that option. “I do not know a man,” she says firmly, and so God will need to work out another way to make this birth happen. As with the prophecy we heard spoken to David (2 Sam 7), God will need to be the one to build the house.

And of course, God has another way in mind all along. God is, after all, the one who will be born, and so no man can make this happen. God will be the one to enter Mary’s womb, to grow within her, to let her care for and nourish and grow the miracle child. Only God can make this happen. But Mary needs to say yes.

But Mary wasn’t looking for this pregnancy, not looking for this child, not now. Saying yes to the angel means saying no to all the plans and expectations she had for her life. Saying yes to the angel means saying no to herself. It means grieving over the life she might have had. It means letting her hopes and dreams die so that new ones can spring to life and grow. It means emptying herself to make room for someone completely other. As with every major loss, this is a painful process. Her response: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

This must be where her Son would later learn his own response to God’s call, as he wrestles with God in the garden of Gethsemane, in agony over the death that awaits him on the cross: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22.42). “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary must renounce her own life, her own will, her own ambitions in order to become the bearer of God into the world. There is no higher and no harder calling. For Christians, there is no other calling. Mary is our example. This is how we too, in our own bodies, in our own griefs, bring God into the world – by laying ourselves aside and making room for what God chooses to plant in us – something completely other than what we had in mind.

God comes and declares that God will come to earth, and will use our bodies –female and male (and intersex), young and old, healthy and broken – will use our bodies to do it. God will enter you. God will grow in you. You will nurture the divine life within you, give it shape and bring it to birth. When God is born from your body, you will raise that divine child and help it to find its way in the world. What comes forth from your body will be called great. “How can this be?” It can only be because God chooses to come and because we let the painful grief and emptiness in us – all the things that might have been but now will never be – become a nourishing womb and a loving embrace to welcome Christ our God. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

 

Amen.


Sermon: Second Sunday of Advent: 10 December 2017

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1.1).

The beginning of the gospel. Mark’s Gospel starts at the beginning (he says so himself). Mark’s is also the earliest Gospel to be written, but Mark’s narrative starts at a later point in Christ’s life than all the rest. Mark knows no baby Jesus, no genealogies or birth announcements, no shepherds or magi, no angelic host proclaiming peace on earth, and certainly no eternal Word of the Father become flesh. What Mark knows is that Christ came as a man, and just before him came another man to prepare his way. “[T]he voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” This is where the good news starts. This is where it must start. It starts with repentance.

Christ comes to earth; Christ comes to us all. But Christ enters hearts prepared to receive, by paths that have been made straight. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed…” (Isa. 40.4-5). This is not your run-of-the-mill infrastructure renewal project, not just a new highway to shorten the trip to the city by raising the speed limits. This is a revolution, an overturning of reality as we’ve known it. Like last week’s Gospel, it is a throwing down of stars and a shaking of the powers.

In fact, the Gospels are full of this theme of revolution: scattering the proud, bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty, gathering the outcast, dining with sinners, challenging educated teachers and calling uneducated labourers to preach and teach the gospel. “The way things are” is constantly being overturned. Jesus Christ was and is a true revolutionary.

But here, at the beginning of it all in Mark’s Gospel, it is personal. Here, with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, preparing a straight path for the Lord means internal revolution. It means bringing down the lofty heights of pride and self-satisfaction and lifting up the shadowy valleys of humiliation and defeat. It means forgetting and even despising our accomplishments and abilities and learning to love our failures and frailties and disabilities, because these are the places where we can encounter the God of grace. Here at the start of the good news, repentance is the only preparation for Christ, the only way to make his paths straight.

Very often, the “nice” kind of Christianity, which we progressive Anglicans like to own, seeks to soften the rough edges of this revolutionary beginning of the gospel. John came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and we say that repentance just means to turn around, to change course, to see a better way and to take it. We make it sound easy. We say that sin only means to miss the mark, to make a mistake even though we’re (of course) just trying our best. We make it sound like forgiveness is a matter of course, almost like we deserve it because, after all, everyone deserves a second chance, right?

And of course, there are some helpful aspects to these images and explanations, but we must be careful that our softening of the edges does not turn this straight proclamation of repentance and forgiveness into a long and winding road through self-improvement to self-justification instead.

Reflecting on this passage in light of a fast-approaching Christmas, Nancy Rockwell writes that, in a way, John the Baptist “knows the way to Bethlehem.”

Bethlehem lies beyond the trail of tears. Our tears. And it arises in mystical time, in a moment that is forever available, and never easy to find.

The riven heart, the beseeching eye, the wail that comes from our own darkness, these are the only directions we are given, these are the GPS bearings that will get you to Bethlehem.

We will find our way to that rough hewn cradle when we can pour out the shame we have been hiding in ourselves. And that requires us to cease being the moral monitors of others’ hearts, and to look honestly into our own, where we have been hiding a collection of false idols:

The perfect Voice of God [for instance]. The true mentor will never offend us, never challenge our detailed comfort zone, never name the territory of our sins as sinful, never sound snarky to our ears, but always respect what we have done as a part of our searching, not our folly, and certainly not our idolatry. The perfect mentor will make us feel wonderful, always.

Surely, the [messenger] will make us feel beloved. Is that not what God is about?

Biblically speaking, no.” Rockwell concludes. “That is not what God is about,”1

Let us confess that Christ, the true revolutionary, comes first to make us uncomfortable, giving us space and permission to face (with John) our own unworthiness. At the end of the day – or even better at the beginning – we must all give ear to that wildly earnest voice calling out in the wilderness of our own souls, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” repent and let your sins be forgiven: sorrow over self-deception that considers self more worthy than the rest, weep over self-protective callousness at the suffering of others, wretch over complicity in violence committed against people and nature, sob over inability to change for the better. Then, in weakness, reach out in the darkness, in hope, for the only one who can enter into all the darkness we have wrapped around ourselves and the world and who can make it bright and make it right again. Let self fall, silent, buried, in the baptismal waters of death until no other desire remains but to burst forth and cry out, “come, Lord Jesus, come!” Then will the path be straight for the coming of the Lord at Christmas. Then will we recognize the Lord for whom we wait, the one whom we proclaim in the breaking of the bread.

Amen.

 

1 Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/angel-camel-skin/#zzmQ8ODFYkkiOs5z.99


Sermon: First Sunday of Advent: 3 December 2017

“…the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13.25).

Over the last several weeks, we’ve witnessed a lot of falling stars. And this has been a sign of great hope. Of course, I’m not talking about a meteor shower, but about the seemingly daily reports of prominent men (“stars”) being dismissed from high-profile positions because of allegations of sexual assault or sexual harassment. It seems that, for once, the well-being and dignity of women is generally being seen as more important than the money-making power of charismatic celebrities. Some have dared to see in all this the signs of the end of an age and the hope of a new way of the world, a new culture, in which mutual respect is the key to success rather than abusive power and narcissistic self-advancement. The falling of stars and the shaking of powers – it just goes to show how the same event can be terrifying for some and full of hopeful possibility for others.

And so… Happy New Year! Today, we officially begin the season of Advent, a season of preparation. But what is it we’re preparing for anyway? If we were preparing for the birth of the baby Jesus, wouldn’t we begin the season by reading about Mary and Joseph as they find out they’re going to have a baby?

But the truth is we’re not preparing for Jesus’ birth. That would be impossible anyway, since we’d be about 2000 years too late to get the nursery ready. It’s true, of course, that we’re preparing to remember and celebrate that long-ago birth, but our preparations are incomplete if we forget to prepare for Christ’s coming in the future. In fact, unless we expect to welcome Christ in the future, there’s really no point in celebrating his birth; that birth in the past then has no meaning for us. And so Advent is a season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but to prepare in such a way that we will also be ready to celebrate on that unknown day when he comes again. Hence the apocalyptic passage to kick off this season of preparation.

Like a lot of apocalyptic writings, this passage from Mark is pretty ominous. The end of the world is not all sunshine and lollipops, not all ploughshares and pruning hooks. It’s things like the extinguishing of the Sun and the passing away of heaven and earth. Before this passage opens, Christ has already mentioned things like the temple’s destruction, persecution, wars, false prophets and a great suffering that will send people out as refugees into the hills.

But the language of apocalypse is the language of metaphor. We must be careful not to interpret this passage literally, as some have done. Those of us who have come across the “Left Behind” series of books and movies, or who are acquainted with the theology they’re based on, need to be extra careful not to see this passage as the basis for any timeline of events for the “end-times”. The emphasis in this case should be on Christ’s statement that “no one knows” “about that day or hour.”

Yet Christ does warn his followers to be ready. But it’s still not very clear exactly what we should be ready for, and so it’s hard to know how to prepare. It’s clear from the broader passage that the coming of the Son of Man is code for the end of the world. But what does it even mean for the world to end?

Since the beginning of creation until now, the truth is that the world has already come to an end for billions of people. Every person who dies has come to the end of the world for them. And so at least part of being ready for Christ’s coming again is acknowledging the fact that life is precarious, that nobody knows how many days or years we have left to live. We make plans based on what’s typical in our experience of others’ lives and on our own state of health, but anything could happen. How does that acknowledgement affect how we live and plan? Perhaps it helps us to focus on what really matters in life – love, joy, truth, beauty, justice and caring. And perhaps it helps us to let go of some of those things we so easily get wrapped up in when we forget about the fragility of this gift called life.

Beyond this, for those of us who hold power in our own communities, who are respected, looked up to, even obeyed (or at least taken very seriously), the apocalyptic vision is a vision of the end of our own status and power and authority. It’s a reminder that every created power is subject to being shaken and thrown down to make way for the coming of Christ.

And so, the other aspect of being ready is the expectation and the watchful waiting that goes with it. Christ’s coming means the end of the world or the end of our life or influence on earth, but it also means just what it says: the coming of Christ into the world. As we prepare for Christmas, we bring into focus what it means for Christ to come into the world.

Christ brings with him peace, hope, joy and love. We recite these things in church, but what does it mean to watch with expectation for these things in the world? Too often, we tame these revolutionary gifts into things that can be portrayed with a heart-warming scene on a greeting card. But the truth is much more dramatic. When Christ brings peace, he shakes and brings down the old order that is based on violence. When Christ brings hope, he knocks down the old regime of oppression that crushes hopes. When Christ brings joy, he shatters the old ways of shallow, self-serving consumption. When Christ brings love, he dismantles the old culture (and even the “old boys’ club”) of sexual gratification and abuse. And all this is what we’re to expect from that helpless little baby in a manger.

When we testify to Christ’s coming into the world in this revolutionary way, by seeing it, by naming it, by rejoicing in it, we also make ourselves ready to welcome and celebrate that final coming of the Son of Man, which comes to us all at an unexpected hour. As we take Christ into our bodies with this Eucharist, may we also receive in our souls a hopeful expectation of more stars to fall and more powers to be shaken.

 

Amen.


Sermon:

Sermon: 15th Sunday after Pentecost 17 September 2017 Proper 24

St Andrews 160th Anniversary

 

Genesis 50:15-21 Psalm 103: (1-7)8-13 Romans 14:1-12 Matthew 18:21-35

 

Heavenly Father, we bow in your presence. May your word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.1

 

A man named John Oglethorpe, in talking to John Wesley, once made the comment, “I never forgive.” Mr. Wesley wisely replied, “Then, Sir, I hope that you never sin.”2

 

Last week we heard how Jesus addressed dealing with conflict within a congregation. We learned about the gift of community, of relationships, of reconciliation. There is a relationship between reconciliation and forgiveness, which Matthew makes clear in our Gospel reading today. Our passage starts where we stopped last week. Then Peter came and said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? Peter narrows the context to individual conflict. What if someone does something wrong to me?

 

Peter has hung around Jesus long enough to know that a higher standard will apply. So he suggests forgiving up to 7 times. After all, someone might get a 2nd chance, but 7 chances, well, that is pretty generous. Jesus says, no, you must forgive 77 times, or 7 times 70. In any case it is a lot. Immeasurable. Peter tried, he raised the ante by 133 percent, but he is still thinking of measurable mercy, not unlimited grace. Jesus’ answer is telling us that forgiveness is not to be measured, it is limitless. We are not to keep track. If we put a limit on it, we will be waiting for a line to be crossed and then – poof - no more forgiveness. If you are keeping track, it is not forgiveness.

 

Then Jesus does what he often did, proceeds to tell a parable to illustrate his point. A story full of exaggerations. And starts with, the kingdom heaven of heaven can be compared to….

 

A king is calling in the debts from his servants. A man is brought to him that owes 10,000 talents – equivalent to about 150,000 years of a labourers’ wage. A ridiculous amount. Gazillions. Impossible to repay. Well, says the king, then you and your family will have to be sold so I can get some of my money back. Oh, no, please, no, just give me some time and I will pay it all back. Please! Well, the king had pity on him, and, instead of giving him more time to pay, he forgave the whole debt! Wrote it off and the man was let go.

 

What did the man do in gratitude? Well, he ran into a fellow servant who owed him 100 denarii – about 100 days wages – and ordered him to repay the debt. Not only did he demand it, he physically assaulted the man. The fellow servant, said, please, just give me some more time and I will pay it all back. No way, and the man was thrown into jail. There were witnesses to this and they reported back to their master. The unforgiving man is hauled back up in front of the king and called out on his conduct. He didn’t pay it forward, in today’s parlance. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant as I had mercy on you? And he is thrown into jail to be tortured until he repays his debt, a debt impossible to pay. Jesus says the same will happen to everyone who does not forgive from the heart. Harsh? Yes. But in his Sermon on the Mount, which took place before this conversation, Jesus also said, for if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

 

What does it mean to forgive from the heart? How can we possibly guarantee that our forgiveness will be from the heart? God is a God of grace. Like the king in the story, he has compassion on our human failures, and like the king, acts more graciously than we could ever expect. The servant who owed an impossible debt simply asked for more time to pay but the king compassionately, and graciously, forgave the debt. When we experience such grace, truly, we are transformed in gratitude. Grace that is experienced as grace in turn begets grace.

 

If God’s grace has affected our lives, we will live differently in relation to others. This transformation through the experience of grace is not something mechanical or mathematical, rather it comes ‘from the heart.’

 

Joseph was terribly wronged by his brothers – sold into slavery because they despised him. He had a choice whether or not to forgive them. But over the years, despite all the hardships, he was transformed by God’s grace. Joseph forgave his brothers, to their utter amazement! Grace begets grace.

 

The relatives of the shooting victims in the South Carolina church forgave the man who killed nine people. Why? The relatives said that they lived in love. We have no room for hating, they said, so we have to forgive.

 

The father of the student shot in Taber, Alberta in 1999 forgave the assailant. Why? He recently said that if they hadn’t gone to the place of forgiveness, then they would be stuck in the place of bitterness, anger, resentment, and all that does is damage more people.

 

If Paul had preached judgement instead of understanding and harmony, would the new church have grown?

 

We are celebrating 160 years of worship in this place. This far by faith. For a good part of those 160 years, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterians and United congregations shared this building. They shared the cleaning, the maintenance, the expenses, the gifts, the problems and disputes. They came this far by understanding and harmony.

 

The path of forgiveness can be hard but a path without forgiveness is harder still. Pope Francis recently visited Columbia, a country under armed rebellion for 50 years. 250,000 people dead. 60,000 missing and millions more displaced. The government and rebels signed a peace accord a year ago but the Columbians are badly divided over the accord. In an appeal to the Columbians to begin the process of reconciliation, he quoted the country’s Nobel laureate: The solitude of being at loggerheads has been familiar for decades and its smell has lingered for a hundred years. Pope Francis then appealed to the young people to take the lead in promoting forgiveness, because they are more able than adults to leave behind what has hurt them and to look to the future without hatred. Commit yourselves to heal wounds, build bridges and support one another, he said. We don’t want any type of violence whatsoever to restrict or destroy one more life.

 

10,000 talents – an incalculable debt. So was the debt Jesus paid for with his life - for all of the sins - of all believers - in all the world - through all time. Each of us is the servant who was forgiven much but refuses to forgive little. It is not easy to forgive without condition, without limit. Forgiveness has to come from the heart. It means giving up our rightful resentment, surrendering our right to get even. Every time we fail to forgive from the heart, we pile up our debt. We are forgiven because God loves us. Failing to do so challenges the king to reverse his grace. If God’s grace has affected our lives, we are transformed and we will live differently in relation to others.

 

Joseph wept as his brothers begged for mercy. Forgiveness lifts the burdens we carry, whether guilt… or… grievance. It isn’t easy. When we have been wronged, we really take it personally. Grudges hurt. They hurt us, they hurt those around us. They hurt people we aren’t aware we are hurting. We have to find it in our hearts to forgive. We must not be like the forgiven servant who somehow put the king’s mercy aside, who gave no thought to extending a small mercy to someone else. Maybe he thought it didn’t apply to him? Well it applies to all of us. Think about it. Think about a lingering grudge with a friend. Think about that hurtful encounter with a family member. Think about forgiving.

 

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

 

We don’t have to do it alone. Christ has promised to be with us, to support us, to lift our burdens. We are forgiven children of God. When we truly see that, truly believe that….. we will forgive from the heart.

 

We are called to be the presence of Christ in this world. We have no choice but to forgive.

 

Thanks be to God.

 

1 Excellent Preaching, Logos, p67, prayer before preaching by John Stott.

 

2 Michael P. Green, ed., Illustrations for Biblical Preaching: Over 1500 Sermon Illustrations Arranged by Topic and Indexed Exhaustively, Revised edition of: The expositor’s illustration file. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1989).


Sermon: Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: 2 July 2017 (Proper 13)

Jesus said, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward” (Matthew 10.42).

This is how Christ concludes his instructions to the twelve disciples as he sends them out on a mission. As we’ve been reading through this passage in recent weeks, we looked first at how Christ’s mission calls us to see the world around us with his eyes of compassion. We saw that giving love freely to everyone in need is the only way for love to grow; the more we use it, the more we have. Last week, we considered how this love must sometimes lead us into conflict even with our own families, as Christ calls us to stand up for the harassed and helpless. Now we conclude with a theme that’s been running through the whole passage, but which really comes together here at the end: vulnerability. Christ’s mission for his disciples requires them to seek the hospitality of others, to become vulnerable to those they are seeking to help.

Because, “whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” When he sent them out, Christ sent them not to gather the harvest but to give it away. Now, having warned them about all the dangers of this mission, he concludes with the rewards that others can expect to receive as a result of the apostles’ courage and hard work.

As we heard him say in those opening remarks, “You received without payment; give without payment” (10.8). Even the reward for all their labours is to go to others. “Give without payment” indeed. But this explicitly does not mean that they should refuse the support and hospitality of those they are working to help. On the contrary: in order for those people to receive the full benefit of this mission, including this final reward, the disciples need to allow them the opportunity to help them, to welcome them, to support them, to give them a drink when they’re thirsty. Accepting assistance is actually part of the mission.

He calls the disciples “these little ones,” as if they were helpless little children. Indeed, that’s just how he wants them to go out, “like sheep into the midst of wolves” (10.16a) – helpless, not in how they preach or help others, but with respect to their own needs. In a section of the passage that we skipped over, Christ tells the disciples not to bring money, a bag, a change of clothes, sandals or a staff to take the weight off their feet. He tells them simply to look for hospitable homes along the way, where locals will see to their needs. They aren’t equipped to take care of even their most basic needs. Like children, they’ll need to rely on others to take care of them. They’ll need to accept true hospitality. And in doing so, they’ll offer others a chance to receive the reward that comes from taking care of the vulnerable.

So basically, Christ is asking his disciples to be vulnerable to those they are trying to help. How different this is from our own approach to helping! Christ is sending them to the “lost sheep” of their own people, sheep without a shepherd, harassed and helpless – the poor, the sick, the lonely, the abused. And he is asking them to make themselves vulnerable to these helpless ones, to seek the help of those who cannot help themselves. And he promises that, as these helpless ones find it in them to welcome and help a disciple, they will receive a fitting reward – the very presence of God.

Yet we are hard pressed even to accept help from our own friends and family, from those who are far from helpless. We fear becoming a “burden” to others and so we refuse to undertake anything that we can’t complete with our own resources. And in doing so, we deny others the reward that comes from helping and hospitality. (It’s not that God hands out prizes, like money for passing the school year or a box of chocolates for being the biggest fundraiser.) God’s rewards are not rewards that could also be won some other way or that saved up money could buy. The rewards for hospitality and helping are in the acts themselves.

When we talked about “paying it forward,” we saw that the more we love, the more love we have and the more love there is to go around. Well, the same thing applies to receiving love, as we do when we accept help and hospitality. In allowing others to welcome and support us, we make room for love to grow in them as well as in us. When, on the other hand, we proudly seek to be self-sufficient, when we do everything to help others but refuse to accept any help ourselves, we stifle the love that is in others and make them less equipped to share that love in the future.

What’s at the root of our inability to take care of the vulnerable? Is it our lack of experience in being vulnerable? Do we have less empathy because of our self-sufficiency? Do we not see the humanity of the poor and helpless because we’ve so rarely had to receive even the modest hospitality they’re able to provide – a cup of cold water, for example? (We give to the food bank, but would we let its customers serve us a home-cooked meal?)

If we are to enter into God’s mission to the world in Christ, we need to let go of our self-reliance, our illusions that we can fulfil all our needs through our own energies, through the things we make, or through the families we create. God creates us to live and thrive in community, in interdependence with other people and with all of creation. Our children and families are training grounds for this, but that’s just the start.

In this Eucharist, Christ makes himself vulnerable to us. He becomes our guest as his body and blood make their home within us. As we learn to welcome him more and more, may we also learn how to follow him in becoming the guests of others. So, as we continue to look around us for the harassed and helpless, may Christ’s compassion for them also humble us to accept their help in carrying out his mission in our world.

 

Amen


 

Sermon: Third Sunday after Pentecost: 25 June 2017 (Proper 12)

Jesus said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10.34).

What’s your conflict style?” This is a question that couples are often asked when preparing for marriage or when receiving counselling for their relationship. “Are you a competitor?” (It’s your way or the highway. You know when you’re right, and others would do best to admit it and fall into line.) Or, “are you a doormat?” (You’ve got your own opinions, but you don’t want to rock the boat, so you’re happy just to go along with what others think is right. Their opinion might be better than yours anyway.) Then there’s the compromiser, who’s happy to give and take a little; the avoider, who’d rather just ignore the conflict and hope it goes away; and the collaborator, who thinks that, with enough hard work, we can come up with a solution in which everyone gets what they want.

Of course, most people will try different ways to resolve conflict depending on the situation, and each of these approaches has its uses. But serious problems can arise when the wrong style is applied, or when a person always resorts to one approach to conflict, no matter the situation. And not only individuals, but whole groups can settle into a pattern in which only one approach to conflict is allowed, or where certain approaches are completely out of bounds.

Families can easily fall into this kind of pattern. Very often, keeping the peace becomes the cardinal virtue, and everything else is dispensable. We even tell ourselves that this is the Christian approach, that God desires “peace on earth, goodwill toward all,” and so conflict is something we should avoid or smooth over at all costs. To keep the peace, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael out into the desert where they will likely die, even managing to convince himself that God told him it was ok, that it was most important for him to keep the peace with his wife.

But then we come to this passage. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In the Epistle to the Hebrews, we read that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4.12). It is this sword that Christ has come to bring: courage and confidence to stand up for what’s right, to intervene on behalf of the abused and outcast, to love those whom it is dangerous to love, even when family loyalty seems to demand otherwise.

Family is a complicated thing. For most of us, family is where we first know love, where we learn right from wrong, where we’re taught to treat others with dignity and respect. For most of us, it’s also where we first encounter hypocrisy, where we find out that people don’t always practise what they preach, where we first grapple with the uncomfortable reality that good people can say and do some spectacularly selfish and hurtful things.

We also learn that family sticks together, that family protects family, that family tolerates each other’s faults and even softens the consequences of bad behaviour. This can be good. There are good evolutionary reasons for family loyalty. There are even good, theological reasons for helping one another through mistakes and wrong turns, out of love. But there’s a dark side too. Family loyalty can too easily make us accomplices to one another’s hatred, disdain and neglect of outsiders. In the name of family loyalty, racism and prejudice has gone unchallenged, revenge has been perpetrated, assistance has been withheld from needy people, innumerable injustices, big and small, have become entrenched as trans-generational habits.

In contrast to this, last Sunday, we examined what it means to look at the world through Christ’s eyes of compassion. We considered what it would mean for us to see who around us is poor and helpless, vulnerable or hopeless, and to work at harvesting God’s blessings for them. We considered what it would mean for us to give God’s love freely as we have freely received it, without trying to figure out who is worthy of it, without budgeting it only for our nearest and dearest, without measuring how much we can afford to give. What we discovered is that, the more freely we give love, the more of it we have to give. This is beautiful and true and inspiring.

Lest we get too caught up in the beauty though, today’s passage follows shortly after last Sunday’s, and it brings with it a sobering reminder: not everyone will see the free distribution of God’s love as a good thing. In fact many people will see it as a threat. Our structures of family, tribe, community and nation too often rely on the oppression and exclusion of some and the privilege and authority of others. We’ve cynically learned the importance of knowing who’s in and who’s out, and of guarding the gate ruthlessly. Christ’s mission to lift up the poor and downtrodden is a dangerous and threatening mission. It rocks the boat; it destabilizes the structures we have built to protect ourselves and those who matter most to us.

An example that may hit close to home: This year, we are celebrating what we’re calling Canada 150: 150 years since Confederation, Canada’s 150th “birthday.” Well, some of us are celebrating. But others are asking, “150 years of what?” For most of this country’s indigenous people, it’s been 150 years of oppression, of neglect, of abuse and cultural genocide. Even the celebration of this milestone as Canada’s “birthday” is more than a bit insulting to people whose history on this land goes back thousands of years.

Knowing all this, do we, as Christians, have the courage to resist celebrating a country whose many blessings come at the expense of people whose existence we’d rather ignore? Do we have the determination to proclaim God’s love and justice for abused and neglected indigenous people until it becomes reality? What is our conflict style? Do we have the strength to speak up for these hurting and vulnerable people, without worrying that it might ruin the family birthday party?

Christ’s love for all people calls us to exactly these kinds of challenges, and his cross gives us the courage to face them without fear. For, as we heard in the Epistle reading, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rom. 6.8).

What is our conflict style? Is it strong enough to stand up for others and gentle enough to lay down our own lives while we’re at it? Through this Eucharist, may we receive the grace to do just that, following where Christ himself has gone before.

 

Amen


Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost: 18 June 2017 (Proper 11)

You received without payment; give without payment” (Matthew 10.8b).

With these words, Christ sends his disciples as labourers into the harvest. Unusual directions for harvesters, no? “Give without payment?” Don’t harvesters expect to be gathering rather than giving? And the image of harvest early in the passage is so powerful – even for us non-farmers – that we end up reading the whole passage as instructions for gathering souls, for making converts to Christianity. But then this later detail easily slips by unnoticed: as he sends them out to work this harvest, Christ tells his disciples, they must “give without payment.” But what can that mean? What kind of a harvest are we dealing with if it’s gathered in by giving freely? What exactly are we harvesting and for whom?

To make sense of this, we need to think back a bit in the passage to what started this whole train of thought. “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9.36). The crowds are the poor, the marginalized, the sick in mind and body, the emotionally and spiritually abused and neglected, those who hunger and thirst for justice – yes, it’s right to hear some echoes of the beatitudes here. Christ sees these crowds of God’s blessed ones and is filled with compassion, with gut-wrenching sadness and pity for people who are unfairly starved of the good things for which God created them.

Then he [says] to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’” (9.37). He’s not talking about gathering the poor crowds of people as a harvest for God; this is about gathering God’s abundant blessings as a harvest for these people. Christ is moved with compassion for the poor crowds, but he also has hope for them because he knows that God’s goodness is a plentiful harvest, enough for all, only waiting to be distributed to those in need.

The harvest is plentiful.” This is a hard outlook for us to adopt. We are so used to living with an outlook of scarcity: there’s only so much wealth to go around, after all; there’s only so much time in a day, only so much energy available. But God’s economy works differently. In God’s economy, there’s always enough for everyone; we only need to be willing to gather it up and hand it out. That’s because God’s economy is an economy of love. And unlike money, unlike products, even unlike time, love is not used up when it is used. In fact, the only way to use up love is to try and save it up: to store it away, to keep it safe or to budget it. But the more freely we love and the more freely we give it away, the more we have of it to give and the more there is to go around.

So Christ sends his disciples to the crowds of “lost sheep” with instructions to distribute God’s harvest of love, which is the kingdom of heaven come near.

Several years back, a movie came out called Pay it Forward, with a mostly forgettable plot but an inspiring idea. If, instead of paying back kindness as a debt to the person who has helped us, we were to pay the kindness “forward” to three others whom we find to be in need like we were, deeds of kindness and caring could spread like wildfire and make the world a better place. This seems like one good way to break out of our economy of scarcity and to test out God’s economy of abundance: “you received without payment; give without payment.” “Pay it forward” offers at least a picture of what it can be like for love to grow the more it is given.

To see the opposite image, of how love can shrink when it is stored away, budgeted and kept “safe” only for those who deserve it, we don’t have to spend much time paying attention to the news. Last week in England, Grenfell Tower, a 24-story apartment building went up in flames, killing dozens of people – they’re still trying to figure out exactly how many and who. As if tragedy weren’t enough, it turns out that the building was a public housing unit; that fire safety had been an ongoing, unaddressed concern of residents; that a sprinkler system was not installed – perhaps partly because of the cost; that the siding was flammable and not recommended for buildings of that height, but might have been installed partly to make it nicer for more wealthy neighbours to look at. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When [Christ] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”

Or then there’s the unending footage of refugees trying desperately to cross into Europe. They walk for weeks; they allow themselves to be packed into suffocating cargo containers; if they survive the journey, they crowd into refugee camps. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching are the images of over-loaded rubber dinghies barely floating on the waves of the Mediterranean, certain to go under sooner or later, less certain to be rescued – filled with men and women of all ages, but it is the children that always set the tears flowing. Lost sheep without a shepherd. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.”

There are so many crowds of these lost sheep. Our instinct is to pull back, to tell ourselves we don’t have enough resources to help them all, to budget and ration our love. But Christ tells his disciples, “the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (9.37-38).

By now, we should know that, like the first disciples, we ourselves are the labourers we’re praying for. We have freely received; we must freely give God’s love to all who are in need. To that end, we must look with the eyes of Christ to see with compassion the crowds around us.

In this passage, Christ sends his disciples specifically to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and to no one else. He limits their mission to those who are most like them – in religion, culture, language and geography. Later on, after his resurrection, he will send them into “all the world,” but here, he starts them out with a smaller field of mission. Maybe it’s because these are people to whom they can already relate, to make it easier for them to start to see others with his eyes of compassion.

How can we practise seeing with Christ’s eyes of compassion? Where are the Grenfell Towers of our neighbourhoods, where people are living in danger simply because they are poor? Where in our communities are the “boats” of desperate people trying to cross from despair into hope, but looking in vain for labourers to reach out a helping hand to draw them to safety? “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” May we have courage to be sent as labourers in God’s harvest of love.

 

Amen