Sermon: Second Sunday of Advent: 9 December 2018

Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Luke 3.5a).

This, of course, is a metaphor, an image of a deeper reality. It’s about big changes in the landscape, revolution. John the Baptist, “the prophet of the Most High,” is delivering a message both personal and political, a public baptism of repentance for forgiveness. The proud have a chance to be humbled, the humble to be lifted up. This is a major theme of Luke’s Gospel, who pushes us to see that God in Christ brings more than inner change for Christians, but change in how we arrange our public life as well.

We’ll use an anonymous, true story from the not-too-distant past to illustrate.

The setting: a high school classroom discussion

The topic: discrimination and racial injustice

Here’s what happens: a white student, grade 12, smart enough to understand the issues, offers an opinion: “slavery and residential schools are in the past. People should just get over it. Stop whining.”

Besides the obvious insensitivity of the remark (with a black student in the room, no less), it adds to some suspicions that this student might be developing extreme attitudes toward minorities and other vulnerable people.

When confronted (calmly and gently, outside class), the student claims not to be an extremist, but rather a centrist, rejecting extreme claims on both the right and left. While right-wing extremists advocate harm to minorities, he claims, left-wing extremists advocate harm and even elimination of white people, men in particular. He thinks his own approach is a middle path. He doesn’t hate minorities, but thinks it unfair that he’s expected to coddle them (i.e. to treat them with special care because of past injustice). They should just get over the past and stop blaming living people for the cruelties of those who are now long-dead.

But the fact is that the past will not stay in the past for them. Black people, First Nations people, Inuit and Métis, continue to suffer the effects of past injustice. We know a lot now about cycles of poverty, abuse, addiction and trauma. We know about ongoing discrimination and barriers. We know it’s basically impossible to pull oneself up by one’s own bootstraps to make a better life. Privileged people do love those heart-warming rags-to-riches stories: people born into squalor, through hard work and dedication, earn their way to prosperity. But this is a fantasy, an outcome that almost never materializes for the poor, no matter how hard-working and dedicated they try to be. This is the case for all who are born into poverty, but it’s even more so for those who are also members of historically oppressed groups. The deck is stacked against them.

The flip-side of that coin is even more challenging for our outspoken high school student: white people almost everywhere continue to enjoy privileges gained through past injustice. Whether we intend it or not we are part of the ongoing problem. Not only are black and indigenous people born into poverty and discrimination today because of oppression in the past; white people are born into comparative wealth, quality education, respectability, good health and other privilege today because it was passed down to us from oppressors of the past. This is not only a family affair. There’s no need to attempt to trace direct lineage to slave-owners. This imbalance of wealth and education, of respect and health and privilege is passed down culturally, through the structures of our society, through ingrained attitudes and perceptions.

Our white high school student, like all of us gathered here this morning, enjoys all kinds of privilege that he did not earn, that he also takes for granted. In fact, this privilege was never earned at all, even by our predecessors, but was rather taken by force.

A clear example is in the land that many of us think we own. We do, in a sense, own it. That’s what the deed says, anyway. We may have bought it with our hard-earned wages, or had it passed down to us by family who paid for it. But who were the first owners of that land? “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it” (Ps. 24.1), as the psalmist confesses. So who decided it could be parcelled up, bought and sold to begin with? Was this done through peaceful agreement between those who were using the land? Or was it simply taken, expropriated, stolen through deception or at gun-point or with other violence? What injustice lies in the background of our supposed ownership of land that used to be seen simply as a trust from the Creator to those who used it with respect and care? Now we put up fences and walls, surveillance cameras and “no trespassing” signs.

It’s time to acknowledge the land on which we meet, on which this church is built. It should have been acknowledged from the start. We are in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) people first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.

It seems pretty clear that we have broken these treaties. May we find ways to make it right. May the valleys of injustice be filled in and the mountains of privilege brought low, that we might all walk on level ground. This means first of all humility on the part of us all. When we say grace at meals, we acknowledge that all that we have comes from God, the creator of all. How often do we acknowledge that much of what we have was not received gratefully but grasped forcefully, wrenched from the hands of others, or produced by means that are careless about their effects on nature or on other people? Lord, have mercy.

Instead of continuing to clamber for the top of the mountain, grasping for our earned and unearned privileges, may we learn humility to lay ourselves down in the valley, to give up privileges, to hand them back to those from whom they were stolen, even before any of us was born. What a powerful way to participate in the gospel of salvation to all people!

To quote from Jennifer Henry, Executive Director, KAIROS, Canada Day (2015):

“… we believe that transformation is possible.  We see hope every day. In young Indigenous leaders who claim their voice and pull us, all of us, towards a more just future.  In non-Indigenous children who refuse to tolerate inequity and are committed to bring about tangible change.  In elders who against all odds are passing on language, culture, teachings and spirituality.  In Indigenous people of the South uniting with Indigenous people in Canada, helping us to understand that the struggle is global and that solidarity can flow in many directions.   In new immigrants embracing treaty responsibilities and refusing to perpetuate myths and stereotypes.  In settler Canadians craving education and change.  …

“… we believe that transformation is possible, because we have faith, and we can see hope made real.  We believe transformation is possible because we are seeing it happen […] We are seeing old relationships change and in so doing become stronger, and new ones being formed.  One by one.”1

That’s a beautiful vision.

Valleys filled and mountains brought low. Holy revolution. If centrism means defending the status quo, being happy to live with the benefits of past wrongs, it would seem that Christ does indeed call us to revolution.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.




Sermon: First Sunday of Advent: 2 December 2018

[Service intro: As we begin our Advent journey toward Christmas, the scriptures challenge us to enter a time of longing and expectation for the kingdom of God that we believe Christ brings. We do this through a backward movement through time for a little while. We start at the end. Today, we allow ourselves to long for Christ’s final appearing on earth to make everything right. Next, we will remember John the Baptist, waiting expectantly for the Christ to appear as an adult at the River Jordan, to make himself known to his people. Then we’ll move further back in time, to join Mary and all those who were longing with her for the world to be turned upside down for the sake of all those at the bottom of the heap. Finally, we’ll start moving ahead again. We will celebrate the birth of Christ as the first fulfillment of all these longings. We will remind ourselves that, when God entered human flesh, we began to be stitched back into that good and beautiful and true image of God that we were meant to be.]

Jesus said, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with… the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly” (Luke 21.34).

Or try these simpler words from a modern-day guru: “When I was a [child] and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” These are oft-quoted words of the beloved Mr Rogers, who kept kids like me company when we were small and now inspires parents like me as we raise our own kids.

Like these inspired words by the mother of Fred Rogers, today’s text from Luke is about learning to watch closely and to see differently. Notice that neither one tells us to turn off the news, to look away or to pretend the bad things aren’t happening. Quite the opposite. Of course, children should be shielded from too much bad news when possible. But the church must also have the courage to see the terrible things in the world for what they are. Then we’ll be able to see how powerful in their midst are the quiet forces of good. But we have to learn to look differently, to notice those quiet forces of good and their surprising power.

In Luke’s Gospel, Christ has just finished rehearsing a list of terrible news that his disciples can expect (and which Luke’s first readers, some 50 years later, have probably already witnessed): the temple destroyed, persecution of Christians including some put to death, Jerusalem surrounded by armies, refugees including pregnant and nursing mothers, earthquakes, famines, plagues, floods, terrifying signs in the sun and moon and stars – the knocking off-balance of everything people ever relied on or took for granted.

Last time we gathered in this place, I rehearsed a list of terrible news that quite probably awaits those of my generation and younger (most of you are likely to escape by dying first, but there’s no guarantee of easy years until then for you either). We don’t need to rehearse it again. Suffice it to say, globally, things look quite bad.

Last time, we tried to hang onto Mark’s reminder that “the end is still to come.” In the midst of destruction, the hope was that evil would never have the last word, because that honour belongs always and only to love. No matter how badly things are going, it is always possible to love – and thank God for so many examples of this truth to inspire us.

This time, we have Luke’s possibly more surprising words of comfort in the midst of terror: “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (21.28). When all these terrible and terrifying things start to happen, stand tall, chin up, expectant, full of hope, because these terrible things are the very signs of redemption at hand. ! But this is the opposite of what we expect! We look for good things to be signs that more good is to come. Bad things give us the impression that more bad is to come. In Luke, Christ pushes us to see it differently. It’s always darkest before the dawn, he might have said.

But Luke like’s to challenge expectations. He is the evangelist whose great insight is that Christ’s gospel is about turning the world upside down. Luke’s is the Gospel in which both a virgin and a post-menopausal woman give birth, and Mary sings about kings being brought low and the poor being lifted up. In Luke, a hated Samaritan becomes a hero of mercy while the devoutly religious turn a cold shoulder to the one in need. Luke’s is the Gospel in which an ungrateful and wayward son is celebrated and welcomed home rather than punished, and so many other upside-down stories celebrate God’s determination to revolutionize the world to bring it back into line with the good image implanted at creation.

And now, near the end of the Gospel, Luke is telling us that, because of Christ, every unjust crucifixion, every war and natural disaster, every destructive and desperate situation, becomes a sign of redemption drawing near. Because redemption is the world upside-down. Yes, look for the helpers. Also, be the helper. Or be the one helped. Have mercy on those caught up in disaster. Expect new life to spring up from death. Let your heart break for the destruction of the earth, for the displacement of peoples, for the separation of families, for the fear and suspicion and hatred that keep people fighting. Be on guard, stay alert to see these things, and then keep looking to see the kingdom of God in these things. See where the Spirit is inspiring courage, generosity, trust, hope and love. Look with longing. Look in expectation.

In Luke’s Gospel, the kingdom of God is come fully in Christ; it is also very near, right on the doorstep, but not quite here yet; and it is also far off, the thing for which we long with all our hearts. It seems a bundle of contradictions, but it’s true to our experience. There are days when all seems well in the world and days when all seems lost, and then there are those days when we can feel we’re right on the verge of a breakthrough. Christ is in all these days; we just need to keep alert, remembering to look with a trained eye, to notice that quiet power that isn’t so obvious at first – whether far off or near at hand, or so close that we have to go cross-eyed to see it. Just like the helpers, Christ’s Spirit is always there. Our redemption is always drawing near. May we keep alert to see it coming in all its glory. And may the Lord, when he comes, find us watching and waiting.

Come, Lord Jesus, come.



Sermon: Last Sunday after Pentecost (The Reign of Christ, Proper 34): 25 November 2018

Jesus said, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice” (John 18.37c).

Today, we celebrate The Reign of Christ, or “The Feast of Christ the King,” as it’s known in many churches. It points to an ancient truth, that Jesus Christ has authority over all of creation, and we believe that this ancient truth will be fully known and manifested at the end of all things. But it’s a surprisingly new celebration, less than 100 years old. It makes sense to celebrate it here, at the end of the church year, since it points us to what we believe is the end of all things, the goal of the whole creation, to find perfect fulfilment in Christ the King.

But from another perspective, it’s a bit odd that we should be celebrating it at all in this day and age, at least in a society so steeped in democracy and individualism. Kings are far-off figures to us, with authority that we can’t really imagine. Our elected officials don’t hold that kind of power. Even our own monarch is little more than a figurehead. (We don’t much care what she thinks, unless we happen to agree with her, and then we think she’s great.) In fact, we’re at least a little embarrassed about the whole monarchy thing anyway, if we’re honest. We don’t tend to think that any one person should hold ultimate authority in any realm. What would then happen to freedom of conscience? Or freedom at all? So to call someone a king is not exactly flattering from our perspective.

So what if we switch to our church’s preferred name for this day, “The Reign of Christ?” Does that improve the situation any? It’s more gender-neutral, which is nice, but it really doesn’t get away from any of the strange and objectionable aspects of kingship. To reign is to govern like a king or queen, with absolute authority and power. The whole concept is kind of lost on us.

But then along comes this little snippet from John’s Gospel, in which the Roman governor, Pilate, and Jesus go around in circles on this whole question of kingship: “Are you a king?” “Good question. What do you think?” “How should I know? What did you do to make your people so angry?” “My kingdom’s not of this world.” “Oh, so you are a king?” “You said it! But I was born to tell the truth, and whoever belongs to the truth listens to me” (See John 18.33-37).

This is what royal authority looks like for Christ. He was born to testify to the truth. He has authority because he has the truth. In fact, he is the truth. Everything he says and does is true. There is no arguing with him – not because he will lock up or execute anyone who disagrees with him, but simply because disagreeing with him makes a person wrong. So that’s a pretty serious kind of authority. We’re free to disagree, even to defy or to fight against him – but then we’d be wrong. If we want to be right, he is there to show the way and to help us along it.

And we do want to be right. Even the worst among us, even on our worst days, there is something deep within us (let’s call it the image of God) that wants to be right – right with the world and right with ourselves. We want to believe that we’ve done the best we could with what we were given. We want to believe that our intentions are good, that there’s love in our hearts. The question is, how much do we deceive ourselves about our own goodness and rightness? This is what’s going on in Revelation (1.4-8), where the image has Christ coming with the clouds of heaven and all the tribes are wailing, or mourning, at the sight of him. Seeing Christ for who he is is to see ourselves for who we are, in the stark light of truth. And the truth of how wrong we’ve been, how uncaring, how selfish, how violent and hurtful, is enough to make us weep and wail. There will be a lot to regret when the final truth comes clearly for all to see.

Perhaps all it means, at the end of the day, to belong to the truth is to want to find our way to the truth, to have the humility to submit to correction, to be ready to follow, to be ready, after a good cry, to try again. This now comes closer to the kind of authority that we, in our society, still understand. We might call it moral authority. When we hear someone speak words that ring true, that convince us because of their integrity and graciousness, we see that person’s authority. We want to believe what they say. When we see someone living in such a way that we’re inspired to be more like them, we see that person’s authority. When someone else’s actions are so pure and selfless that they put us to shame, we see that person’s authority. This is the sort of thing it means to acknowledge the reign of Christ.

Now, maybe a bit surprisingly, the other way to see Christ’s authority is to see how others were threatened by him, offended and frightened enough to condemn him to death. When they saw truth itself living and teaching in human form, they saw that they would be forced to change their own lives and their own teaching or else find themselves in the wrong. They saw an authority that was deeper and stronger than their own, and they faced a choice: to give up their own claim to authority or to destroy him and keep their authority. Of course, there’s only one right choice in that case. Some choose wrong.

The reign of Christ means the reality of Christ. If we want to live in fantasies of our own making, our life a charade, a lie, a denial of who we were meant to be, that’s a choice we’re free to make. But Christ’s reality is reality. If we want to live a life of integrity, true to our identity as children of God, Christ’s reality needs to become our own. We don’t get there by force or coercion. Only love will get us there. And thank God that, while Christ is the truth and rules according to truth, Christ is also the perfect love that alone can bring us to that truth in the end.



Sermon: Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 33): 18 November 2018

Jesus said, “... do not be alarmed… This is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (Mark 13.7-8).

Phew! That’s a relief! Birth pangs sound a lot more hopeful than wars and famines, earthquakes and destruction. Lucky thing Christ concludes this little speech on such a hopeful note, or we might be left worrying or even despairing.

But wait! There’s more! The little speech actually carries on for the rest of the chapter, with a lot more scary content than comfort: persecution of Christians, betrayal by family members, sudden forced evacuation, deception and a final, terrifying breakdown of the whole universe. Oh yeah, and then the angels come to take us home – as long as we’ve stayed awake and watchful through it all, and haven’t been led astray with those many others. Piece of cake. No harder than giving birth, right?

Well, children do have a pretty profound effect on the homes we live in. And Christ did say that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed. The house of God, strong and mighty, would collapse. And this is part of those early labour pains – like the way a new child totally changes a home, even before it arrives.

Now, not many of us tear down the old house to make room for a baby, but some of us (who can afford it) do move out of the old place and go bigger. Many clear out a room to prepare a nursery. Others make room for the child to share with her parents – that’s a real destruction of the old order! No matter the physical arrangements, life is never the same. Sleep lost is never regained. Privacy is lost or redefined. Social connections become harder to sustain.

Whether we count on it or not, bringing new life into a family always means the loss and destruction of the way things used to be. Now, with children, this loss and destruction doesn’t always seem very hard to bear. The fact that these changes happen out of deep love and care for this new life makes them feel easier. Oh, we complain about the challenges, but then (usually) we admit that we wouldn’t have it any other way. Simply put, it’s worth it.

Is this perhaps what Christ is getting at when he compares what sounds like the end of the world to birth pangs? Is he trying to say that all the pain and suffering will be worth it because of the beautiful new life that comes out of it – life that couldn’t carry on except for so many sacrifices of the way things used to be?

Bear that in mind as we zoom back out to consider the global destruction we seem to be facing today. So, it does look like the world is coming to an end in a pretty serious way. It looks fairly unlikely that I’ll have a chance to retire. By the time I reach that age – if I do – global temperatures will likely have risen by several degrees Celsius. Sea levels will be up high enough to displace people from most major cities in the world. God knows where whatever surviving population will find a home. (My little plot of land in the wilderness of the South Mountain could be a bustling metropolis!) Food will likely be scarce and difficult to produce. My pension will have dried up for sure. Many stones and buildings will have been thrown down. My generation and those after me will have no choice but to sacrifice whatever temples we now take for granted. Will that be the end? Or will we still say with Christ, “the end is still to come” (13.7)? As long as there is love left to give, the end will still be to come.

There is a beautiful historical novel intended for young adult readers called The Librarian of Auschwitz. It tells the heartbreaking but inspiring story of Dita, a young Jewish teen from Eastern Europe, who survives Auschwitz as well as a handful of other concentration camps over the final couple years of WWII. What she endures and witnesses is nothing short of devastating. It might as well have been the end of the world. Yet for Dita, the end is always still to come. She risks her life to care for a library of seven books, so that the hundred or so children who have been spared the gas chambers for a while can have something to inspire them and to help them learn. Even though she herself has less than nothing to live on, she sacrifices what she can for the sake of others. She refuses to be reduced to selfish scrounging and deception, like so many others are. And those others can be forgiven for becoming petty in their fight for survival. Who wouldn’t, after having their humanity so violently torn away? Well, not Dita. For her, the end is still to come. She will love, come hell or high water, right to the end.

[L]et us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds… encouraging one another, and all the more as we see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10.24-25). The writer to the Hebrews is talking about times of hardship and suffering. These are the moments when love and good deeds can really shine. But for that to happen, we need to have a vision of something heavenly, beyond these stones, even beyond the whole of visible creation. When the temple is destroyed, our worship of God is forced to find a new focal point. We no longer meet God in a building, but in the love, kind actions and encouragement that spring to life between us when we meet together in Christ’s name.

As we consider the destruction and devastation that quite likely awaits this earth God has made, may we have the courage and vision to say, “the end is still to come” because we are not done loving. As we face the fact that our own collective selfishness and complacency have brought this destruction so close, may we have the humility and repentance to say, “the end is still to come” because we still need to give the love we’ve been holding back. Global devastation can yet be avoided if we are willing, in love, to give up the temples and treasures to which we cling for the sake of the earth and all the life it’s still struggling to sustain. And if, as it seems, the end is right on our doorstep, may we yet have the faith to know that when we (with Christ) are ready to give our very lives out of love, even the end will only be the beginning of labour pains for a new and beautiful life, arising with Christ from death.



Sermon: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 32): 11 November 2018

[Jesus said,] “all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12.44).

She has given everything. A profound act of generosity, of faith, of simplicity. An act impossible for anyone other than the extremely poor. A sign perhaps that she has learned the secret of being content without possessions, even without security of food or body, vulnerable to everything and everyone. Or maybe she’s discovered that a life is only worth living if it has something to give.

It’s no mistake that Mark has placed this episode with the poor widow right after Jesus has finished denouncing the scribes who devour widows’ houses. We are meant to see this woman as their victim. They abuse their authority and influence, their education and skill, taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable. This woman’s house has been devoured by the very system that now accepts her last two coins. She is indeed a victim. But she doesn’t let that take away her humanity. She will not accept what looks like the obvious fact that she has nothing left to give. And through this stubborn defiance, she ensures that she will never run out of things worth giving. That’s a lot more than many of us wealthy people can say.

So often, we think of giving as an obligation. “If we don’t give to the poor, to the church, to international aid groups, then how will they carry on?” Perhaps today’s widow teaches us the opposite: if we don’t give of ourselves, how can we carry on? How can we live with ourselves, how can we know our own humanity, how can our lives be worth living if they are lived only for ourselves. Our deepest in-born need is to love, and to love means to give.

The widow gives everything. She loves completely. She is fully human.

In this consumer-driven age, we need this liberating reminder that we are not first of all consumers. Insofar as we are human, we are first of all givers. But we have lost sight of our humanity, and our consumption is destroying both our earth and our souls. To save both, we need to become poor – as poor as this widow, if we can – to claim nothing for ourselves, buy nothing, consume nothing so that we can give everything, even as Christ gives everything for us and is himself fully alive.



Sermon: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 29): 21 October 2018

Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10.45a).

Christ did not come to be served. Let that sink in for a moment. Christ, the Son of Man, did not come to be served. Then why, we might ask, have Christians spent so much energy on serving Christ? What I mean is, when we Christians go around trying to defend Christ’s honour, to uphold Christ’s rights in society, to enforce what we think are Christ’s commandments.

One example: Christians in Canada have long been lamenting the disappearance of religion from schools and other public spaces. We used to say the Lord’s Prayer every morning in school, some remember fondly. We used to have Christmas concerts instead of holiday concerts. We used to be allowed to say Merry Christmas, but now we have to say happy holidays or season’s greetings. At least that’s what some have claimed.

Some of us simply complain, worried that Christ is not served well by these changes. We wonder if the alleged disappearance of Christmas trees from some shopping mall or airport in the US is the first step toward persecuting Christians. Some of us aren’t happy just to complain or worry, so we argue long and loud on social media, “serving Christ” by explaining patiently why these changes mark the beginning of the collapse of Canadian society as we know it, which we claim was always built on the foundation of Christian faith. Some of us lobby governments and write petitions to keep Christ’s symbols in public places. What will become of our children if they are not exposed to these icons of Christ in their daily lives?

But “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Christ does not claim his rights in the public sphere. On the contrary, he lays them down. He does not fight for himself, he does not complain that he’s being mistreated. He gives his life. And he calls his disciples not to serve him, but to follow him, to become like him in his courageous, uncompromising self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, whether the Lord’s Prayer is said in schools or not. Prayer without faith is meaningless. What matters is that Christian parents and Christian children learn to serve others, to give their lives out of love for those they encounter, to look with compassion on those who are lost or struggling to cope and to make sacrifices for their sake.

It doesn’t matter if we have Christmas concerts or Christmas trees. It doesn’t matter if Christmas becomes a banned word in public. It doesn’t even matter whether schools like NGES continue to allow Christian groups to come in and teach Bible stories and Christian faith after school. This, after all, is just one opportunity to serve children. Such opportunities will never disappear. We have only to look around our neighbourhoods to see how many needs are there to serve. In fact, we might do better to put less effort into making Christianity publicly visible, and more into making it privately visible, without using the word Christ or Christian or Christmas, but simply, quietly, without ceremony, making sacrifices for the sake of others.

In our Gospel passage today, James and John come to Jesus, looking for the seats of honour when his moment of glory comes. What the lectionary leaves out is that this conversation happens on the road leading up to Jerusalem. The disciples and the crowd are amazed and afraid as Jesus walks on ahead of them, up toward the seat of power and authority. Jesus tells them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”

This is the third time Jesus has told them about his approaching death and resurrection, and it’s also the third time they fail to understand. They can see that something momentous is about to happen. They believe that Jesus, as the Messiah, is about to take his rightful seat of power and authority and glory in Jerusalem. They don’t know how, and they can’t work out where betrayal and death fit into the picture. If he’s going to die, then obviously he’ll have to take his seat on the throne first, no? That makes it all the more urgent to get the seating plan down now, before it’s too late.

But the seating plan is set. And when Jesus comes to his moment of glory, the one on his right and the one on his left are not disciples, but two bandits, crucified with him for crimes against the Roman state. Jesus was crucified because he dared to live like love was the only relevant power and authority. As I said last week, following Christ makes a person dangerous to worldly powers. “There is nothing more threatening to corrupt power than a life devoted to Christ and free from wealth. In baptism, we [with Christ] become a threat to those who seek power and control.”

Christ assures James and John that they will drink his cup and undergo his baptism. Indeed James is to be martyred, “killed by the sword” at the command of Herod. John, tradition tells us, underwent a sort of living martyrdom. He was thrown into a vat of boiling oil, but miraculously emerged unharmed and was then sent to the Island of Patmos to live out his days in exile. But before becoming martyrs – ultimate witnesses to the good news – they first had to learn to follow Christ by denying themselves and becoming servant and slave to all.

In this Holy Eucharist, as we take in Christ’s body and blood, may we take in his spirit of self-giving service to all. May we be changed from within, ready to let go of things that have meant a lot to us, to let go of public proof of Christ’s power in the world, and instead to offer ourselves as a sacrifice in service of all those whom God loves.



Sermon: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27): 7 October 2018

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10.14b).

Let the little children come to Christ, and more than this – let them be our example of how to receive God’s new reality even as adults. But it’s a bit odd when you think about it: what is it about children that should serve as our example? There is a long tradition of making it about the sweet, mild innocence and trust of childhood. But this is unfair to what it’s really like to be a child: sometimes sweet and sometimes sour, going from mild to wild – and mercifully back again, often naively trusting, but then at times needlessly suspicious. Children are complex and ever-changing, and we shouldn’t imagine that Christ was ignorant of their reality. Still, there was something about children that he wanted to hold up as an example to his disciples.

One thing that’s clear from this little story is that the children are not in charge of their coming to Christ. They are brought there by others. They are (briefly) prevented by the disciples, but then Christ opens the way again for them to come. In all this, the children are dependent on the care and welcome of others – and they’re vulnerable to rejection or lack of concern by those same others. But Christ meets them in their dependence and vulnerability.

The disciples, on the other hand, have set themselves up (again!) as gate-keepers to the kingdom of God. But the truth is that they are only there to begin with through their own dependence on Christ and on one another. The more they try to take charge, the more they move to the edges of that kingdom; but the more they let go and let themselves be vulnerable and dependent, the closer they can be drawn into the arms of Christ, who freely embraces children of every age.

Let the little children come to me; do not stop them.” It’s interesting how, as soon as we forget that we too are children, we get into the business of stopping children, of getting in their way. Mark doesn’t say why the disciples spoke sternly to those who were bringing little children to Jesus. We’re left to make our own assumptions about that. Maybe they were annoyed by the chaos and distractions that come with little children. Maybe they considered Christ’s teaching too advanced for little children and thought they should go off to Sunday School to learn kid-friendly versions of Bible stories. Maybe they were all too aware of the adult content of the discussion they were just having and thought that little children should be shielded from such complex and sensitive subjects. They were, after all, talking about marriage, sex, divorce and unfaithfulness – tough subjects for kids, no? Better to shoo them away?

This is a fairly common attitude today, of course, as displayed in Ontario’s ongoing controversy over sex education in schools. And we don’t have to pay much attention to the news to know which side of the debate the loudly religious take. But too often, arguments about children not being ready for this or that topic of discussion are really about hiding our own discomfort, our own fears and our own confusion about things we think (or wish) would be simple. We say we want to protect children from these scary and confusing subjects, but it really comes down to protecting ourselves. Kids are already facing these issues in everyday life, in their families and amongst their friends. The best we can do is to learn to talk about them in honest, straightforward (but not simplistic) ways.

Simply put, this adult conversation we heard from Mark’s Gospel is about love relationships, about people being committed to each other in love and then struggling to keep up that commitment. Actually, the Pharisees want it to be about rules and judgements, about deciding who’s right and who’s wrong, about justifying some actions and condemning others. And too easily, we read Christ’s response along these same lines. But if we read more carefully, both here and throughout the New Testament, we see that Christ refuses to play that game. He does not condemn, but he does acknowledge that divorce brings pain.

When Christ says that leaving one marriage for another is adultery, he’s pointing out that a broken marriage means broken trust, loss of identity and of orientation, disappointment and abandonment. And these feelings can be felt in different ways by anyone connected to the situation. The Greek verb here is actually not active like our “commits adultery.” It’s in the passive or middle voice, suggesting that the adultery that comes with divorce might be both something we do and something that happens to us. Sometimes we are both victims and offenders at once.

But it’s not about law or judgement. Christ brings it back to who we are as humans and what it means to live and to love. He brings it back to creation, to the basics of what we’re made of. He uses the image of Adam and Eve to point out that, at the very heart of what it means to be human is to be in relationship, dependent on others and depended on by others. From the very beginning of who we are, we were not meant to be alone.

To be blunt, the image of Adam and Eve is an image of heterosexual sex: the two (male and female) become one flesh – literally. Certainly today, we are beginning to understand that there is much more than male and female in the great diversity of God’s creation. There are many (creative) ways to become one flesh, and there are many more ways to be intimate and lovingly dependent than to have sex. Many unmarried and celibate people have experienced such intimacy. Indeed, the Bible is full of examples. Still there is something beautifully simple in the imagery of two complementary bodies fitting together. So Adam and Eve are not the “be all and end all” of committed human relationships but they serve as an image to help us understand that we’re made to fit together with others, in mutual love and dependence and commitment.

For much of our lives, this means dependence on parents and other caregivers. These days, a person leaves mother and father to be joined not yet to a spouse, but to a circle of close friends who depend on each other for years. Sometimes, it shifts again to a marriage, and often, eventually, it shifts again. But dependence on others is always there. No person is an island.

This weekend we celebrate Harvest Thanksgiving. We use the harvest as a symbol for all the good things we have to be thankful for, but when we sit down to make our lists of gratitude, the most important items are always about relationship. We’re thankful for dear friends, who never write us off no matter how we think we’ve failed them. We’re grateful for family, who show us every day the beauty and challenge of needing and being needed. We’re thankful for all those other connections in our lives, which help us to know what it is to be fully human. To be grateful is to understand that we are dependent – much like a little child.

This Thanksgiving, when we think about our relationships and our commitments, whether we keep working to hold them together or become convinced in our hearts that it’s best to let them come apart, may our thoughts be sprinkled with gratitude for the very human connections of dependence that we’ve had. They’ve helped make us who we are. May we be thankful to recognize that, like children, we are deeply vulnerable and dependent not only on God but also on the love of those people to whom God has joined us in so many ways. From such love, may we never be separated.



Sermon: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25): 23 September 2018

Jesus said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mark 9.37a).

This is true greatness, and the one who does this is the greatest. We should notice that Christ doesn’t rebuke them here for desiring greatness or arguing about who is greatest. Like a good teacher of young children, he notices what’s good in their childish behaviour and he redirects. Ah, so you want to be great? Good, I’ll tell you how.

Of course, Jesus has already been teaching them about greatness. Last week, we read about the first time he revealed to his disciples that he was headed for suffering, death and resurrection. There, he taught them that greatness comes only through self-denial and willing self-sacrifice. But they’ve decided that he is the Messiah, and this teaching about suffering just doesn’t connect with their picture of a saviour. They don’t understand. Still, he’s hit a nerve. They thought they knew what greatness was, but now they can’t agree amongst themselves. Are Peter, James and John the greatest because they were chosen to witness the glory of Christ’s transfiguration? Or maybe it was Andrew or one of the others who more humbly stayed in the background as helpers. They all want to be great, but who among them sets the best example for greatness?

We like to look at this episode as petty. We’d like to say to the disciples, “Stop arguing about who’s the greatest and just focus on following and learning from Christ.” And James seems to agree in today’s reading from his epistle: “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (3.16). We assume that an argument about who is the greatest stems from selfish ambition and envy. But not every ambition is selfish, not all desire is envy. So the writer of Hebrews says: about running the race with perseverance … Or Paul somewhere writes that we should run in such a way as to win the prize… and he tells the Corinthians “eagerly [to] desire the greater gifts” of the Spirit. There is a kind of holy ambition that we can all nurture without envy or selfishness. This is the teaching to which Christ turns when he sits down to teach his disciples.

You want to be great? Then be a servant. Whom have each of us served this week? Our goal is to be a servant to everyone, but small steps are often helpful. Whom can we each serve this week (preferably outside our normal circle of care)?

You want to embrace God’s greatness? You want to welcome God? Then welcome a child, embrace someone vulnerable and needy, take the hand of someone that you and others have forgotten. Pay attention to someone who’s been ignored. You won’t get much out of it. You might feel that you’ve wasted your time. Children often do not listen, often frustrate our plans. Those who are needy can make us feel drained in trying to meet their needs. We may not be able to meet them at all. But still, our embrace of them is an embrace of Christ himself. Those who are ignored are often difficult to tolerate, pushed to the margins because they make us uncomfortable. But when we allow them to come close and discomfit us, we are touched by the uncomfortable presence of God, and we are changed – slowly, imperceptibly – to be more like God, more fully alive.

When we picture this scene from Mark’s Gospel, and other scenes like it, it’s too easy to imagine the child as picture-perfect, seen and not heard, meek and humble, sweetly appreciative of the attention showed by Jesus. And such moments are always possible, but a true and full welcome of a child means being attentive and responsive to the child’s quickly changing needs. It means letting go of the things they disrupt. It means refusing to see them as distractions, but rather as messengers of truths we are (unconsciously) trying to ignore.

But Christ is not only found in children. There are many other vulnerable people in whom we must welcome God. True welcome and embrace of other vulnerable people in our midst means embracing behaviour and speech that make us uncomfortable. It means accepting words and smells that offend us, and looking for the beauty of Christ under the surface. It means allowing unexpected people to teach us something new about true greatness, and to give us unexpected answers to our arguments about who is the greatest.

This is all the task of the church. This is why we are trying to welcome children into the liturgical action of our services. We need to learn to embrace them so we can discover what true greatness is, so we can know what it truly is to welcome God in Christ into our midst. For too long, we’ve been trying to do it without them. It’s now clear, both from experience and from the scriptures, that we can’t.

May we now hear the voice of Christ calling to us: “The kingdom of heaven has come near; repent, and believe the good news!” “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”



Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 24): 16 September 2018

But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.29a).

We must pay attention to how we answer, because titles aren’t enough, as Peter’s example makes clear. Messiah? Saviour? Lord? One-word answers won’t carry us far. But who do you say that I am? So much depends on our own answer – our very life, it turns out. And we must pay attention to how we answer because our answer reveals at least as much about us as it does about him. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, after all. Who do you say that I am?

Peter says he’s the Messiah, the Christ, and we call that Peter’s Great Confession. We think it’s a breakthrough for Peter’s understanding about his teacher, and that’s partly because Matthew’s Gospel paints it that way. But Mark has a different take on it, and our translation doesn’t quite do it justice. In Mark, Peter gets it wrong. Oh, the title is right. Sure. We know that already from the opening of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1). Jesus is the Christ. And still, Peter gets it wrong.

We (the readers) find out there’s something wrong about Peter’s view because of how he ends up trying to stand between Christ and the cross. But in Mark’s Gospel at least, Christ seems to know it already, as soon as the words come out of Peter’s mouth. He says that Jesus is the Messiah, and then immediately, Jesus scolds him. Our translation says, “he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” But those are really Matthew’s words. In Mark’s version, the Greek says “he scolded them” for this answer or “rebuked them” – the same word used a bit later when Peter rebukes Jesus for all his talk of suffering and rejection and death, and the same word used when Jesus rebukes Peter and calls him Satan. All in all, this has been a very heated discussion on the road to Caesarea Philippi.

But what our translation also obscures is that the heat is already there at the start. Jesus is grilling his disciples on this question of who people say he is. He’s put some pressure on them to come up with answers. He asks them what they’ve been saying about him, and when he hears their answer, he scolds them and orders them to say nothing. The parallels in the Greek are quite stunning. You’ve been saying what? Then say nothing at all.

This seems to go beyond trying to keep a secret until it’s time for the “big reveal.” It’s more like, in this version, Jesus has already seen beyond Peter’s words to the misunderstanding behind them. He knows that Peter doesn’t have sacrifice in mind when he thinks “Messiah.” “You are the Christ,” says Peter, and he means winner. Messiah, anointed one, king, champion, conqueror, chosen one of God. Peter says “Christ” and he means “glory.”

And why not? Peter and his fellow disciples have seen many amazing things that Jesus has done: miraculous healings, the feeding of thousands with just a handful of loaves and fishes, walking on water, not to mention wise and powerful preaching that stands up to the challenges of the powers that be. As Mark makes clear, the disciples are constantly slow to “get the point” of all these amazing things they witness, and so it can seem like quite a breakthrough to hear this confession from Peter: “You are the Messiah.” But no. By now, Peter and the others know just enough to be dangerous. Even this technically true statement has missed the mark, and so Jesus scolds them all and tells them to keep quiet about what they think they know.

There is a saying that “all publicity is good publicity.” This attitude seems to be getting a lot of mileage today in politics and in sales. But in Mark’s Gospel, Christ takes the opposite view. He’s concerned that there is too much talk, too much publicity. And we do know another, good saying: “talk is cheap.” Jesus doesn’t ask the disciples what they believe about him, but what they are saying. And this might be the key to understanding why he scolds them. He knows that people are talking about him. He knows there’s a lot of hype. What else could be drawing the crowds? The disciples have been talking him up. Could this be the Messiah? The people have been waiting for a saviour, for God’s anointed one, to lead them to victory over their enemies, to freedom from oppression. They have not been looking for someone to lead them into self-denial and suffering, and neither have the disciples. They have not yet understood.

So, it’s time for Jesus to explain to them who he truly is, to describe what lies at the heart of all his amazing and powerful words and actions. The power of his actions is sacrifice. The wisdom of his words is in suffering. The Son of Man must endure great suffering, says Jesus. (He doesn’t call himself the Christ at all, but the Son of Man, the son of humanity.) He is here to share our lot in life, to suffer. He must. If he doesn’t do this, he can do none of the good that God has sent him to do.

We believe that we are each made in God’s image, and Jesus is that image. When we look at Jesus Christ, do we see a righteous person who puts his opponents to shame? That might explain why we’re so eager to win our own arguments rather than rejoice when our opponents win. When we look at Christ, do we see someone so powerful that no trouble can touch him? Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to run from trouble, so sure to judge those who find themselves in trouble, and so envious of those whose lives seem carefree.

Or, when we look at Christ, do we see someone so full of love that he lets down his guard and opens wide his arms to let all the world’s troubles come crashing in to his embrace? Maybe then we would find the deep joy of being made again in that image – unpopular as it might be. Maybe then we would find in us the quiet power of his love to absorb all the pain of life and transform it into the seeds of eternal life.

Who do you say that I am? Say nothing. But take up your cross and follow.

Almighty God, whose Son was crucified yet entered into glory, may we, walking in the way of the cross, find it is for us the way of life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.



Sermon: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22): 2 September 2018

Jesus said, “… the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1.15b).

These are the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, and they should echo in our minds whenever we read from Mark. They are the summary of everything Christ will go on to do and say, including the series of interactions of which we sort of overhear snippets today.

The lectionary blends them together, but Christ really has three distinct conversations here: the first one with the Pharisees and scribes, the next one with “the crowd” and finally, one with his disciples. The first group is openly hostile to Christ and his gospel, the second group is curious but uncommitted and the third group is devoted and actively trying to learn. All three groups are given a version of the gospel proclamation: to repent and believe the good news because heaven has come near. But each is given the message according to their ability to hear.

Speaking of ability to hear, this is perhaps a good time to acknowledge that the misuse of a few words we’ve already heard today has done a lot of damage. Anyone who has been wounded by accusations of defilement or uncleanness, especially because of sexual orientation or of sexual violence against them, should not today or ever hear such accusation in the words of Christ. Christ does not condemn you. This is far from what this text even implies. The word “defile” here is more of a ritual term to describe when something that was considered holy, or separated for sacred use, becomes ordinary, or no longer set aside as sacred. It is not a good thing, for sure, but it is a very broad term, and we’ll look at a hopefully more helpful way of reading it in a minute.

Getting back to the three conversations we have before us, let’s assume for now that we who are gathered here this morning mostly fit into that third group: devoted, active learners – disciples. Here’s what we need to hear (and we missed some of this earlier, because of the shortened lectionary text): “[Jesus] said to [his disciples], ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ […] ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice [that’s greed], wickedness, deceit, licentiousness [that’s doing whatever you feel like or acting without restraint], envy, slander [that’s talking badly of others], pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

So, that’s a bit uncomfortable to read and to hear, and a bit of an awkward way to end a conversation too, but that’s really where this episode ends. The very next verse, Jesus is leaving the region already. So these are the words that his disciples – and we – are left to ponder in awkward silence… “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

And we could certainly benefit from sitting silently with this list before us, reflecting on the ways in which we have habits of thought and action that defile us – that make us profane, common, unhallowed – that move us away from the love that is God. Deceit, pride, acting without restraint, slander, envy… We can only apply the list to ourselves, of course, because to apply it to anyone else is first of all pride, then slander and also folly – bringing it back around to us in the end. But we can courageously apply this list to ourselves because Christ’s mercy gives us the freedom to examine ourselves honestly, to allow God’s Spirit to search us out, to light up dark corners and give us the tools we need to clean things out, to become undefiled, sacred, even divine.

But these vices of the heart really do need to be cleaned out for our own sake as children of God and bearers of God’s image. The point of listing these things is not that God happens to consider them bad, and so if we can cross them all off, God will be happy with us. Not at all. These vices of the heart are all rooted in the self-destructive selfishness from which God in Christ has set out to save us. The heart that produces these actions is captive to desires over which it has no control. It wants, so it takes – sex, possessions, a life, a reputation, wealth, excitement, control. It takes and is never satisfied. It takes in all the vain things of the world and chokes out the compassion and intimacy of love for which we were made – the very substance of a life worth living.

As Christians, as disciples of the risen and ascended Christ, we must not consider ourselves beyond the self-examination to which Christ’s gospel calls us. In fact, we are just at the start. We are saved by grace, and it is in that same grace that we can continue to work out the salvation that is already ours by faith, through baptism and the Eucharist. Since we have already tasted the goodness of salvation, of freedom from sin and self, of fullness of life in love, we can even be eager to press on in rooting out our sin, to see the completion of the good thing that was begun in us. In our eagerness, we may not even think to wash our hands while we press forward to take in the words of Christ as food for our souls.

That all assumes that we fit more or less into the third group, the disciples. But we may not. If we find we can’t get past a preoccupation with “hand-washing,” we may need to hear the gospel proclaimed differently. When we gather around Christ and his disciples, if we can’t get past whether the music is new or old, whether the language is traditional or modern, whether it’s BAS or BCP, whether people are dressed respectfully or shabbily, whether they are smiling or grumpy, whether the sermon is long or short, whether the service is in this building or that one – if we can’t put aside all these distractions and see the miracle of heaven come near, right down to earth for people to touch and embrace and learn from and enter into – then we, like the Pharisees and scribes, have missed the point. We need to find our way (back) to the beginning, to put aside the distractions of both old traditions and new patterns, of “I like this” and “why can’t we try that,” and simply to listen again with joy to the simple proclamation with which Jesus Christ, the son of God began: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”



Sermon: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21): 26 August 2018

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6.56).

Abide in me, and I in you. That is, dwell – stay – remain – live in me, and I in you. The second half of this verse is so beautiful, that it’s almost possible to miss the apparent violence of the first half: eat my flesh and drink my blood. Ew.

But actually, there is a lot of violence lurking in our readings today: conflict between good and evil, between flesh and spirit, between the house of the Lord and the tents of the wicked. This whole sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, from which we love to pluck inspirational little snippets, is in fact a chapter of struggle. We might have preferred to skip the conflict and to stop reading three weeks ago, when we heard those oh-so-comforting words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6.35). That little gem is, of course, already a bit hard to digest. Never be hungry? Really? Never be thirsty? Is that possible? It seems too much to hope, but we can go along with the metaphor anyway and continue to wait (in somewhat doubtful longing) for our hunger to be satisfied and our thirst to be quenched. We can fairly easily hear these words as words of comfort or inspiration or hope.

But this seems to miss the point of what Christ intends here. The context makes clear that he intends these words as words of challenge and provocation, even as words of conflict. We are not allowed to stop at being inspired or even comforted. This is not enough, Christ says. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (6.53). “Them be fightin’ words,” as they say. And today we hear how this particular conflict plays out. Disciples are divided. Some walk away, disillusioned. Some are perplexed but cling in desperation. “To whom can we go?” Peter confesses. Aha! Victory! This is the point to which Christ has been driving his disciples. Clinging in desperation! (Did we know that was the life into which we were baptized?) “For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room” (Ps 84.9a), and better to cling desperately to your perplexing words than to stand confidently in my own strength.

This has been the point of the whole “bread of life discourse,” through which we’ve plodded for most of the summer: desperate, wholehearted commitment – not to an idea or philosophy, not to a moral code of right and wrong, not to an explanation of the universe or a vision of what it could be – but a commitment of soul and body and spirit to the care of this Holy One of God, giving our whole selves over to the control of this one who has promised to transform whoever will feed on him.

We should remember that the disciples in this chapter have been following Jesus around, looking for bread. Not that they’re all necessarily that hungry (though they might be), but they had witnessed a miracle of bread (the feeding of the 5000) and they wanted to see more. And who wouldn’t? But this is the “useless” flesh that Christ describes: to want to get something from God (even something good), to have something, to see or touch something, to experience or understand something, even to be inspired. It’s all useless. It’s all stuff that remains outside us, stuff that comes and goes, that satisfies us for a little while and then leaves us empty again. Yes, even miracles can be useless flesh if they do not point us to something deeper – to the spirit.

The flesh is useless. But Christ wants us to take in his flesh. This is an unmistakeable pointing ahead to the cross – to Christ’s sacrifice of flesh and blood for the sake of the world. Whenever we eat Christ’s body and drink his blood – whenever we take in his sacrificial gift of life – we dwell in the life of which he is made. We become what we eat and drink. We put into our own flesh and blood the sacrificial life of the love of God. The flesh we take in is spirit; the blood we consume is life. This holy communion then transforms our flesh into spirit. Through this holy communion, we no longer receive something from Christ, but we abide in him and he in us; we become the life of Christ that fills us.

The remembering that we do in the Eucharist is truly a re-membering – a putting back together in our own bodies and in the body of the Church – the sacrificial body and blood of Christ, the body broken for others, the blood poured out for love’s sake. We re-member Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to sin and self – and rising to God. We chew Christ’s broken body and find ourselves broken before God. We drink Christ’s flowing blood and find our own life poured out before God for the sake of love. And it is only in this brokenness and pouring-out that we find ourselves fully alive, fully who we were created to be.

Indeed, “This teaching is difficult,” but “to whom [else] can we go?” We gather here in church week after week because we have at least some inkling that there’s nowhere else really to go. “This teaching is difficult,” but life is difficult. There is so much emptiness, so much pain and despair, so much struggle and futility in what the world has to offer, even in its most optimistic moments. But in this place we declare that none of this has the last word, that even for this futile world, there is more, there is hope and there is life.

The words of eternal life are in the Christ who meets us and transforms us – in the Eucharist, in the waters of baptism, in the community gathered and in the word proclaimed. When it all seems too difficult, may we cling in desperate trust to this holy one of God. When we leave this place, may we still abide in Christ and know our lives transformed by the life of his body and blood.



Sermon: Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9): 3 June 2018

Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2.27).

The sabbath was made for humankind. Well, that’s a breath of fresh air for those living in a society where strict codes of conduct plus strict enforcement make the sabbath feel like a chore rather than a day of rest and refreshment. One group is so busy enforcing the rules and pronouncing judgements on sabbath-rule-breakers that they are missing the very rest they are trying to enforce; the other group is so busy looking over their shoulders, trying to keep out of trouble while still taking care of needs the other group can’t even begin to understand, that their enforced rest is not very refreshing either. But “the sabbath was made for humankind.” What a relief this announcement would have brought.

And then there’s our (very different) society… well, we might be ill-equipped to hear the relief that comes with these words. For we have turned “the sabbath was made for humankind” into “the sabbath was useful for humankind for a while, but now we don’t need it anymore – and even if we sometimes think we might need it, there’s no time for it anyway.” How far from the truth we have come! The pendulum has swung to the other extreme. And our sabbath-less world is just as enslaved to expectations, just as worn down by the lack of sabbath as first century Jews were worn down by a strict sabbath.

But “the sabbath was made for humankind.” The sabbath came into being to help humankind in its task of bearing the image of God – the God who rested on the seventh day from all the work of creation. The sabbath was made for the sake of preserving the space humans need to flourish in doing good, in loving God and loving neighbour.

Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” It seems there is no middle ground. “Do nothing” is not an option. But isn’t that what the sabbath commandment was: to do nothing? No. The commandment was to rest. So it seems that to rest – really to rest - is already to do good. But why? What good does a sabbath rest do?

If we look back at the origins and development of the sabbath in the Old Testament, we see a few major themes:

  • The sabbath provides an opportunity to express (and dwell on) gratitude for the abundance received in the other six days. It’s a time to celebrate. During their desert wanderings, the Hebrew people received a double-portion of manna on day six, giving them lots of supplies for their Day Seven celebrations.

  • Later on, sabbath gratitude turns to sabbath compassion, since taking a rest from working the fields also left a chance for the poor, for foreigners and even for animals to gather what remained. And so sabbath becomes an occasion for pulling our heads out of our own… preoccupations long enough to see those in need and those on the margins, and to share with them (even giving them a chance to work for themselves on everyone else’s day off!).

  • Even beyond care for other people, care for nature is also built into the sabbath. In the Old Testament, sabbaths did not only come one day a week; they also came one year in seven! Fields were to be left uncultivated for a year to give the land a chance to rest and recover from all its work of production (Lev. 26).

  • Of course, the sabbath is first of all a gift, a gift of rest! A sign of God’s favour, grace and provision. To receive the gift is an act of faith. To share the gift is an act of love, of participating in God’s grace, welcoming others into moments and days of rest, letting go of demands on their time and energy to let them recover, remembering how exhausting it is to be a slave to the demands of others, like the Hebrews were in Egypt (Deut. 5).

  • But the final theme is a reminder that sabbath is also a discipline. It is a gift that takes courage and faith to receive, because it involves self-denial (Lev. 16.31). To observe sabbath is to place restraint on our personal interests and ambitions (Is. 58). – Sabbaths are meant to be inconvenient! They require us to say, “there, I’ve done what I can do this week, and the rest will have to wait.” This is not an easy attitude to maintain when all the voices within and without shout that there’s always more we should be doing. It takes both conviction and humility to admit that we need a rest. It can be uncomfortable, even annoying, but these are not to be avoided when they are the path to true sabbath rest.

A true sabbath then, is one that not only makes us feel well-rested, but that also enlarges our vision beyond our own interests, tones down our ambitions for greater productivity or achievement, lets us see others with compassion and grace, leads us to give rest to the earth and draws us closer to the God of rest, in gratitude and celebration, in trust and humility, knowing that love is Lord of the sabbath also.

Col. 2.16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing … sabbaths. 17These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 

For Christians, the sabbath is not only one day; the sabbath is “now” (Heb. 4), every moment, whether at work or at play, awake or asleep. Having entered into Christ through baptism and Holy Eucharist, we have entered into the eternal sabbath rest of God. Through this Holy Eucharist and through the community we have with one another and with all the saints, may we abide in that rest which was made for us.



Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Easter: 29 April 2018

(On the occasion of a joint parish service of the New Germany area Lutheran, Anglican and United Churches together at Epworth United Church, New Germany)

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! … For there the Lord has ordained his blessing, life forevermore” (Ps 133.1, 3b).

Life forevermore! Found here! Wherever God’s people live together in unity! Not when we sit at home and do things our way, (when we pull up the preachers we like on TV or You Tube), but when we gather together and do the hard work of living into the unity for which God made us. “It is not good for man to be alone,” God said. Indeed, the tragic consequences of loneliness and isolation are so obvious in our hyper-individualized age! God made humankind in God’s own image, male and female – to fit together, to be together – in all the diversity that nature could produce and sustain – and God saw that it was very good. It was good for humankind to live together in unity.

But unity is not just to gather in the same place and smile and shake hands and put up with each other’s quirks, knowing that it’s only temporary. Unity demands honesty, vulnerability, humility. Unity comes through the many inconveniences of having to wait patiently for one another to learn, and realizing that we try the patience of others too. Unity means sharing resources rather than splurging to get our own because it’s easier that way. Unity is hard.

But the new life of unity is also what that first Easter inspired in Christ’s followers. Christ let himself be lifted high on the cross in order to draw all people to himself – that all people might dwell in unity under him, the head that once was crowned with thorns but is now anointed with the oil of eternal life, running down upon his beard and collar and onto us, his one body. May God draw us closer and closer in – to Christ, our head – until the oil of life reaches every member of his body.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Sermon: Fourth Sunday of Easter: 22 April 2018

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

I have power to lay [my life] down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father” (John 10.18 b, c).

Or, a more accurate translation might be: “I took up this command from my father.” The verb, λαμβάνω (to take), is used in both cases in this verse. He takes up the command, and in the power of that command, he lays down his life, and he takes it up again. The command is with him through it all.

It sounds strange to our ears, because, well, who in their right mind “takes up” a command? That’s not how we do things. We like to make our own decisions, and if someone in authority over us commands us to do something, that’s fine, we’re capable of receiving commands and carrying them out within reason, but nobody goes around taking up commands. Even if a subordinate or employee is looking for direction, he might say, “what would you like me to do, ma’am?” But he still waits to receive the command. He doesn’t take it himself – unless, say, the subordinate and the boss are one and the same person (which now sounds even more strange).

But this is the kind of thing we experience when we talk about listening to our conscience or about acting with integrity in the face of opposition. When everyone seems against us, but we feel compelled to stand firm (“God help me, I can do no other”), we know what it means to take up a command, to make it part of who we are and what matters most to us. When, for example, our protest to protect some part of the environment – God’s creation – has been declared illegal, and we can see that charges and prison time are real possibilities, we find out pretty quickly what integrity commands and whether we take up the command or not. When our spouse or child turns out to need us more completely than we ever imagined, and is incapable of offering us any of the help or encouragement we had come to expect or depend on, we find out pretty quickly what our conscience commands. When we see anyone in need and realize that we are the person best positioned to meet that need, we find out pretty quickly what integrity commands and whether we are one with the good shepherd who takes up that command.

The command is, of course, none other than the command to love:

  • the command that the Hebrew people long knew as “the greatest,” to love God and the neighbour as oneself;

  • the “new commandment” Jesus gave his disciples, to love one another as he had loved them;

  • the command he took up from the Father, to lay down his life and take it up again;

these are all pieces of the one love of God, God’s integrity, God’s conscience, the driving force behind every act of God, from first creation to final consummation of all things. All is love.

From the very beginning, God’s love has also meant God’s self-giving sacrifice. Consider what it means for God, who fills all space and time and eternity, to create anything at all. It should have been impossible. There would be no “somewhere else” to put a new creation. God could only create by carving out some kind of “space” within God’s self to make room. This is already self-denial. God loves into being something that is not God. Through God’s self denial, all that is not God has room to exist, to live and grow, to learn, to make mistakes, to change and thrive, to discover God and God’s creation. From the beginning, God has been laying God’s own life down and taking it up again for the sake of love. God the Son takes up this command and brings it right into creation itself, lives it out, shows its light and calls us all to take up that same command of self-giving love, a command that leads us back to the heart of love that made us.

This is why Christ is the good shepherd. It’s not just that he’s brave when faced with a threatening wolf, not just that he’s trustworthy and responsible with the sheep that have been entrusted to him. He knows his sheep and his sheep know him, because really, he gave them birth. Like a mother who makes room in herself to allow another human being to grow to life, Christ our God has made room in himself for us and all creation to grown and have life. Through creation, Christ laid his divine life down for us, so that we could exist; in redemption, he lays his divine-human life down for us, so that we could not only exist but have fullness of life in joyful union with the God who loved us into being.

Today is Earth Day. It’s easy to see how the earth proceeds from the sacrificially loving heart of God. The earth is always giving of itself, laying down its life for the sake of others – mostly for our sake, it seems. That’s love. Nothing God created was created without love. Nothing God created can be sustained without love. Of course, God loves all that God has made, but if we also loved God and God’s creation, we would take up the command to love, to lay down our life for the sake of the earth. (This is huge. A monumental task, daunting, impossible to do alone.) If we loved the earth like a good shepherd loves his flock, we would take up the command to lay down our life for the sake of the earth, knowing that we will then be able to take it up again, renewed and perfected with Christ. (Clearly, this goes beyond “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Without love, no ecological strategy can work.)

It takes power to be able to lay down one’s life, no less than is needed to take it up again. When Christ, the good shepherd, leads us into the one flock he is gathering from throughout the earth, he makes us one with him and gives us that power of sacrificial love, along with the command to carry it out. Here in this Eucharist, we take it up – may we know what we take up! – the life-giving command to love, to learn to lay our life down and to raise it with Christ’s in love.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Sermon: Second Sunday of Easter: 8 April 2018

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20.21).

He has just shown them his war wounds, battle scars. Now he’s sending them to go and get their own.

We all have them, of course, the marks on our bodies that show where we’ve been, what we’ve suffered, how brave and tough we’ve been, what we’ve risked for the people and things we love. They’re not fun to get, but once the pain has subsided and the fear fades into memory, we often cherish the scars that remain. We use them to help tell stories of our love, to make sense of what we’ve lived.

(Today I make an exception to my own rule not to talk about myself in sermons.) I want to tell you about one of my battle scars. When I was giving birth to my daughter, it turned out that my body wasn’t able to deliver her in the usual way. Or at least, it wasn’t looking good. We made a decision. We agreed to deliver by c-section. It felt like something of a failure. It was definitely a wound: a 4-inch gash across my abdomen (pretty small, all things considered) and a lingering doubt that things might have gone differently if I had better prepared myself. But now we have a strong, healthy, inquisitive and caring little girl, a child whose entry into this world left a scar. I tell her about how she was born. I show her the scar. I tell her that the doctor had to cut me open to get her out and then stitched me back up again. I always feel a little sad as I tell the story, regretful of maybe never knowing what it’s supposed to be like to deliver a baby. But I made a choice, to risk a wound, to save the new life that was coming into the world. Here is this new life. And there is the scar. She loves that scar. It is part of the story of how she was loved into the world. Through that love, the wound is transformed into a beautiful scar, a sign of new and redemptive life.

As it turns out, mothers’ bodies are full of the scars of new life: stretch marks, sagging breasts, sore backs, worry-creases, grey hairs, circles under sleep-deprived eyes. Come to think of it, fathers have many of these same scars too. Men and women both have other battle scars: from injuries sustained while trying to help others, from accidents at work and at home, on the road or playing sports, from the violence or neglect of ourselves or others.

There’s nothing necessarily beautiful about many of these scars, nothing necessarily redemptive or life-giving. Many of them we carry around as wounds still, rather than as scars. They continue to hurt, to feed our regret, to sustain our bitterness. But they all have potential to be transformed into post-resurrection scars, testifying to the power of God in Christ to bring new life out of death, love out of hate and peace out of terror.

Christ tells his fearful disciples that he is sending them just “as the Father has sent” him – that is, to be wounded for his sake and for the sake of the world, to allow those wounds to be transfigured into beautiful, awe-inspiring scars of battle – scars that prove it is worth risking everything in the struggle for peace over violence, love over hate, and life over death.

And this, he tells them, is how the battle is won: through forgiveness. “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20.22b-23). The Holy Spirit is the spirit of Christ, the spirit that gives us the grace to be wounded by the sins of others (and by our own sins) and to let that go, to forgive, to release the power of condemnation, to disregard the sin, to send it away. We can do this by the Spirit, because it is the same Spirit that teaches us that new and lasting life comes as a gift from God, not by our own striving. It is the same Spirit that teaches us that laying down our life is the only way to receive eternal life.

This past week saw the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr., who powerfully preached that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” But in a world of darkness, light can be snuffed out; in a world of hate, love will be wounded, even killed.

When we live by the Spirit of Christ, striving against forces of darkness and death to bring Christ’s new life into the world, we will be wounded. There is no question. The question is: will we let our wounds be joined to Christ’s? Will we let him transform them into resurrection scars, into the beautiful and glorious scars of the battle for good? Will we cherish our scars, show them as testimony to the ever-new life of Christ in which we live? Will we allow others to touch those wounds, to see and believe that it is God who is at work in us, that it is no trick, no performance, no deception?

In John’s Gospel, the resurrected Christ is hard to recognize. He doesn’t seem to look like himself – except for the scars. Even so, the church, as Christ’s body, will not always look the same to physical eyes, but it will always bear his scars. May we have confidence to bear those battle scars in this body, knowing that this is how Christ will be seen in us.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Sermon: Easter Day: 1 April 2018

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. (John 20.1).

The stone is rolled away and we are freed from the tomb. Yes, it is we who are freed when the stone is rolled back, not Christ; he was already raised, already freed. His resurrected body had become spirit and could move wherever he willed. But us, we needed the stone rolled away.

Of course, the stone for us is a metaphor. The stone is the finality of physical death. As St Paul writes, death no longer has dominion over us. We believe in and proclaim the resurrection of the dead. The stone of death is rolled away, and we are raised with Christ forever. This is part of our hope.

But the stone is also (and first of all) the weight of the soul’s death – the expectations and judgements of the world that trap us, our own selfishness and pride that smother the love within us, the busyness of social and economic climbing that we unconsciously buy into, distracting us from the life that is truly life. With the resurrection of Christ, this stone is rolled away and we are set free. Christ is risen. Death is defeated. Life is restored. Love wins.

Make no mistake; the resurrection is more than a way to make life continue indefinitely; it’s not about bringing us back after we die to the same life we now live. The resurrection begins with Christ, and it’s specifically the life of Christ that’s restored. His resurrection is a vindication of everything that he said and did, his whole way of living and teaching and dying. It is the perfect proof that we can refuse to be trapped by the world’s judgements and expectations, because Christ refused to compromise, refused to stop loving, in the face of the worst judgement the world could dish out. Christ faced that judgement, defied all expectations and was vindicated.

His resurrection is proof that we can safely stop living for ourselves, because Christ gave everything up and ultimately lost nothing. It is proof that we can stop climbing and striving for more – more money, more power, more recognition, more opportunities and experiences, more “stuff,” because Christ lived more simply than we can imagine and yet lives more fully than we dare to dream.

This courageous, loving, simple life of Christ is what was restored on that first Easter morning. It is this same life of Christ that is restored in us when we enter eternal life. The life of Christ is restored in us – courageous, loving and simple – when we are baptized, when we celebrate the Eucharist, and when we pray and read the scriptures, allowing God to transform us through them.

When we enter the resurrection, it is not our life in this world that is raised; it is our life transformed through Christ. Will we even recognize ourselves when the stone is rolled away? Can we now even imagine what we will be like when God has rolled away everything that stifles the life of Christ in us? Do we want to recognize ourselves when we arrive fully in the resurrection? We may have a chance to if we allow the new life to take shape in us now, if we make room – and time – for our resurrection to start now. This means entering the tomb by way of the cross, denying ourselves, letting go of the desire to fulfil expectations and escape judgement, letting go of our pride and selfishness, letting go of our busyness and striving for more, and simply resting in the story of Christ – the story of our liberation. We can’t now imagine what God in Christ will make us into when we have the grace to let go of our own, death-defined life and to say yes to the transforming, liberating life of Christ. But looking back, we won’t want to imagine it any other way. The stone is rolled away and we are freed.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Sermon: Easter Vigil: 31 March 2018

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid (Mark 16.8b).

It’s a great ending, because we know that it can’t possibly be the end. If that were the end of the story, we wouldn’t be here in this church tonight. It’s a lot like the very first verse of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The whole Gospel is just the beginning. This final verse is just the last verse of the beginning. We know that these women went on to tell others. We know that some of those others also had encounters with angels and with the risen Christ himself, and that they too went on to tell others. We know that fear turned to hope just as grief turned to joy. But here, in the last verse of the beginning of the good news, even though Christ is already raised, the transformation of his disciples has barely begun. They are bewildered and they are afraid.

Very often, we in the church get bogged down with expectations, with thoughts of how we’re “supposed” to be as Christians. In light of the good news we proclaim, we think we’re “supposed” to be joyful; we’re “supposed” to be lively, full of hope and peace and kindness. And of course, these are some of the wonderful gifts we receive from God through the Holy Spirit Christ sent to be with us after he had ascended to the Father. But they are fruits – the end result of a long process, not things that show up right at the beginning.

As Christians, we proclaim that Christ has set us free. One of the things from which he frees us is just these sorts of expectations. When Christ was raised, the first thing that his disciples noticed was his absence. He was not there. Even his body was gone. That absence leaves quite the space – space to begin the long process of bearing fruit. Often, that process begins with fear – fear of the unknown when all you know is that everything you thought you knew no longer applies. Even resurrection can be scary when it means that the world doesn’t work the way you had thought. If even death is no longer final, then can anything be? Fear is a normal reaction. The resurrected Christ leaves space for that.

Confusion is normal. Even grief is normal, as we come to terms with the loss of Christ as we had always known him and start to learn how to move on in a completely different kind of relationship. Doubt is normal. Maybe Christ has not been raised; maybe we’ve just gone crazy, lost our grip on reality. The resurrected Christ leaves space for all of that.

Like the first disciples, like these women who first came upon the empty tomb, we, the church, beginning with baptism, are undergoing a long process of growth and change toward the bearing of fruit that will last. This fruit is not the same “joy” or “hope” that we think we’re “supposed” to display. It is the true joy and hope and love and peace and patience and gentleness and self-control that are completely beyond our own power to produce in us. The risen Christ gives us the space to grow and to have that fruit grown in us, until it is perfected, until expectation is irrelevant, because we are completely free to let the new life of the risen Christ be our own life.

When we pre-empt the process and try to replicate what we expect the slow-growing fruit is “supposed” to be like, the best we can produce will be a mere imitation. If, however, we remember that we are only the branches and Christ is the vine, we will know that it’s no use trying to produce the fruit. In fact, we only have the faintest inkling of what that fruit should ultimately look like.

If we remember that we can do nothing to produce the fruit, we will know too that the only way to let it grow in us is to open ourselves to the life moving through the vine, by staying with him, by repeatedly going back to encounter him, as did these women on that first Easter. They went back to where they last encountered Christ. He had been dead, and they expected him still to be dead, but still they went back. We must keep going back to where we last encountered Christ, even when that last encounter was filled with grief, sorrow, pain and disappointment. We must entrust him with all these, and let him take the time that’s needed to grow in us the fruit of a joy and peace that in our current state, we can’t even imagine.

This is part of why we have this Easter Vigil service. We gather in darkness, in the shadow of the cross, reading and reminding ourselves of God’s love to us and to all creation through old, familiar stories. This is a way of clinging to a thread of hope in the midst of grief. We do not deny our grief, but we expose it to the good news of God’s love for us in Christ, and we allow that love to transform our grief slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, but unfailingly into the Easter joy that is the long, slow, gentle fruit of Christ’s resurrection power.

We are still in many ways just at the beginning of the good news, but that too is good news. And being at the beginning, we know there is much more to come than we even realize. And so, whether we say it in frail hope or in holy joy, we here proclaim the Easter faith.

Alleluia! Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!



Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Lent: 11 March 2018

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already” (John 3.18 a,b).

Condemned already. Or “judged already” is another good translation; the word κρίνω doesn’t always mean condemn, but can mean any kind of judgement, good or bad (it can even mean “approve” or “prefer!”). Christ didn’t come to judge the world; the world is already full of judgement. Who can deny that the natural state of this world is judgement? People and communities and nations are trapped in cycles of judgement and the condemnation that so often goes with it. We judge one another; we judge ourselves. Every teenager feels the terrible weight of it; every outsider to a community knows the feeling of being trapped beyond its walls; every nation at war is held in its grip. In that judgement, we, the world, are condemned already.

But God so loved the world – the whole damned, condemned world, the world that loves to judge, the world that loves the darkness of sin rather than the light of life, the world that is dead in the trespasses and sins in which it lives (Eph. 2.1) and is happy to stay there (thank you very much). God so loved the whole tight-fisted world, the world that speaks of all its many blessings (from God?) but then turns around and judges others unworthy of the blessings: the poor, the refugees and even the indigenous peoples; and tells them to go away and find their own blessings and leave ours alone. God so loved.

God so loved the whole corrupt and complicit world, the world that talks and prays solemnly about peace but judges it wise to keep producing tanks and bombs and guns and selling them to those at war because “our economy depends on it.” God so loved.

God so loved the whole self-obsessed world, the world that scrambles for the latest and greatest and newest, most efficient way to isolate ourselves in digital worlds made in our own image and just for us, while we shake our heads and wonder what happened to caring and community and common human decency. God so loved.

God so loved the whole judgemental world, the world that is so addicted to judging that it can’t stop at judging people’s failures and mistakes, but insists on judging vulnerability and gentleness, innocence and mercy – even Christ, the source of love and life itself. God so loved this judgemental world, which God knew would bring its terrible judgement to bear on God’s only begotten Son.

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (v.17). The world might be saved – not that I might be saved, and you, and she and he – but that the whole damned world might be saved. Because that world is already condemned, dead in trespasses and sins, in darkness and evil, in the judgement in which it loves to wallow. But Christ came to save.

A quick look at our reading from Numbers 21 helps to illuminate what’s meant here. The venomous snakes that appear and attack are the very visible effect of the people’s sin. In their frustration with the long, winding, pointless-seeming journey through the wilderness, the Israelites forget that they are only alive thanks to the miraculous provision of manna (and quails and water) in the desert. They detest the “miserable food” that’s keeping them alive, and they forget the love of God that sustains them and offers them hope. They reject the light and embrace the darkness. The snakes represent their sin, which brings death. When Moses lifts up the bronze serpent, the message is: “Look at what your sin has done! Look it square in the face and you will live.”

In the same way, John’s Gospel tells us, on Good Friday, when Christ lets himself be lifted high on the cross, the message again is: “Look at what your sin has done! Look it square in the face and you will live.” Christ crucified exposes what our sin has done; his mistreatment makes plain that our love of sin and judgement has brought us to crucify unjustly the only one who can save us from judgement – the one who made us for goodness and mercy. We can avoid the light; we can avoid facing the harsh truth of what our sin of judgement has done, but then we have already judged and condemned ourselves.

When, instead of avoiding it, we look upon that cross and believe – and trust that this vulnerable embrace of the whole damned world can set the world free – then we are free indeed. Then judgement no longer touches us. Judgement becomes irrelevant, because Christ takes our judgement upon himself. Whatever evil we do, he absorbs on the cross – while transforming us through his mercy. Whatever good we do is a work of his grace – wrought in God (as the old KJ Version puts it) – “prepared [by God] beforehand to be our way of life” (Eph. 2.10) – and ultimately accomplished through the cross. Indeed, whoever trusts in Christ crucified not only escapes judgement, but removes judgement from the world by no longer participating in that judgement. There is no condemnation in Christ.

We in this parish are drawing very near to our observance of Holy Week, of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. This is the holiest of Christian observances, the foundation of everything we do and believe and proclaim through the church. Too often, we have been encouraged to see it as the story of our personal salvation, of the legal price paid for our personal sins, buying us eternal security and life in heaven after we die. This is a misunderstanding, and a distortion of what it means for God to love the world – the whole damned world.

As we draw near to the light of Christ crucified, may we instead have faith to see his passion as the story of the salvation of the world, the whole damned, judgement-loving world. May we, in our lives, testify that Christ has not come to judge, but to take our judgement upon himself, to expose the damage of our judgement, and, by exposing it to the light, to save the world from its own judgement and self-condemnation. May we believe not only in theory but in practice, by entrusting our own judgements to the one who doesn’t judge, the one who takes all judgement with him to the cross and the tomb and leaves it behind when he rises again.



Sermon: Third Sunday in Lent: 4 March 2018

God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1.25).

It’s tempting to understand this last verse of our Epistle in terms of some kind of a comparison chart: human strength can range from that of a newborn baby to that of a world-class weightlifter; God’s strength, if it has a range between weakness and strength, still is always a lot stronger than that weightlifter, because – God. Same thing with wisdom: even the wisest, most educated and clear-thinking theologian on earth isn’t as wise as God is first thing in the morning, with a head still drowsy from sleep. Of course, we know that God doesn’t have strong days and weak days, wise moments and foolish moments because God is constantly perfect. But the point, in this case, would simply be that, no matter how strong or wise a person can become, God is always stronger and wiser. Fine. True enough. But that would miss the larger point of this passage, which came right at the beginning (v. 18):

The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” The cross of Christ makes no sense from a human perspective. It is foolishness. The message about the cross is that, in order to win over God’s enemies (sinful humanity), God did not wage war or show powerful signs that would compel people to believe; God did not even reason with us to show the innate rationality of repenting and believing the good news. Instead, God became weak and suffered and died for those enemies. As Christians, this foolish approach to conflict must become our own. In Christ, we believe that victory comes through defeat. When we find ourselves in a struggle, the path to victory is found in becoming weak through love, and letting the enemy win, so that love can win the enemy.

St Paul is writing this to a church full of conflict – we might say “a parish” full of conflict, the “parish” of Corinth. Just a few verses earlier, he writes of his dismay at hearing reports of division in the church. Factions of parishioners have formed around different figureheads, representing different interpretations of the gospel or different practices, different approaches to church life. The factions claimed allegiance to such influential names as St Peter, St Paul, and even Christ himself, to lend the weight of authority and legitimacy to their particular claims. Each group considered themselves wise and the others fools.

In response, Paul writes that all Christians have a common foundation in baptism into Christ – and Christ is undivided. The surprising part is that this common foundation is a foundation of foolishness and weakness (from a human perspective), not wisdom and strength – our usual strategies for winning an argument. Our common foundation is Christ crucified. When we disagree with one another as to the best interpretation of the faith or the best approach to liturgy or the core elements of the life of the church, the human way is to battle it out; Christ’s approach is to go to the cross, to die for those who set themselves up as his enemies. Foolishness! But this is God’s wisdom.

This doesn’t mean that we should seek always and only to appease others, that we shouldn’t take a stand on anything, or that we should take the path of least resistance in our common life. Au contraire! In the Gospels, Christ is constantly in conflict with the religious authorities. Sometimes taking up our cross means confronting those we love, and being willing to suffer rejection at their hands. But let’s not be mistaken: if we confront others before we have learned to love them, we are not on the path of Christ.

Other times, taking up our cross means suffering a very different pain of giving up things that have become dear to us – things that are not bad in themselves but that have become idols we cling to as substitutes for God, things that are bound to come into conflict with God’s claim on our life.

Like the temple marketplace, which evolved as a useful tool for those coming to worship at the temple, there are customs and practices and even beliefs that have been good as tools of devotion, but are terrible substitutes for the God to whom our devotion is due. When we hear ourselves saying, “I was always taught that” this is the right way to do things, we should ask ourselves whether we are clinging to an idol. If we are judging others on standards that we can’t explain with reference to the gospel, but only with reference to tradition or custom or figures of authority, we are in danger of idolatry, of making the church about us – or about our ancestors in the faith – instead of about Christ.

When conflicts arise in the church, it’s important to discern and stand up for the things that are central to the proclamation of Christ crucified – and to lay down (even sacrifice) those things that are rather about us. Deny yourself. Weakness! Take up your cross. Foolishness!

In John’s Gospel (John 2.13-22), when Christ makes a whip and disrupts the temple market, he is already taking up his cross – not by being meek and mild, but by standing up for the heart of God’s love for humanity, even to the point of making himself a fool and a target of those who are threatened by this kind of action. He hasn’t changed anything. The market will be back in place tomorrow; don’t worry. It’s an act of weakness and foolishness. But he has taken a stand against a system that pretends to give people access to God through the exchange of goods. He takes a stand for true relationship with God through prayer and humility, and through the person of Christ himself.

While the temple market seemed to facilitate the religious life of pilgrims, it actually missed the point about temple worship and devotion entirely. It reinforced a view of prayer as instrumental, of devotion as something that can be measured by external transactions. But these transactions warped the meaning of the sacrifices and offerings; contrary to the 3rd commandment (Exodus 20.7), they misused God’s name. The sacrifices should have been about acknowledging dependence on God, about giving thanks for undeserved gifts, about repentance, devotion, prayer and praise. The market makes it instead about payment for services, a system of earnings, in which giving praise to God becomes just as easy (or just as difficult) as spending a day’s pay on a cow or an hour’s pay on a dove – just as easy or as difficult as spending an hour in church every Sunday, or helping with the church potluck or giving some percentage of income to the church – all external things that threaten to obscure the real thing: the submission of our whole life to God in Christ. When Christ substitutes his body for the temple, he restores the humanity that is lost in the transactions, the soul that is lost in external observances. He makes it personal again.

We are the body of Christ. May Christ give us the courage and confidence to lay down our life with him, knowing that the new life we receive will be unimaginably better than the one to which we now cling. Through the spirit, we are baptized into one body. May we be inspired to discern when to stand up for Jesus and when to lie down out of love for others and for the sake of his church.



Sermon: Second Sunday in Lent: 25 February 2018

[Jesus] called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8.34).

May of us are by now singing that old hymn in our heads: “Take up your cross, the saviour said, if you would my disciple be.” But aren’t we already Christ’s disciples? And yet we sing this hymn to and amongst ourselves: “if you would my disciple be.” And in a way, it’s good, because we’re calling and reminding ourselves to live up to our identity as Christ’s disciples. But the message isn’t only for us. Here, in Mark’s Gospel, we read that Jesus called the crowd, along with his disciples! This message is not only for those who are already following. Instead, it’s for any who “want to become” his followers. Mark’s is the only Gospel to include the crowd explicitly in this teaching.

It’s interesting how the audience keeps shifting, and Mark is very deliberate in describing who the audience is in each instance. The setting is a trip waaaaay up north, into Caesarea Philippi, a strongly Roman and gentile area of Palestine. One gets the sense that, once again, Christ is trying to get away from the crowds that follow him everywhere in hopes of finding healing and inspiration. But away from the crowds, he has initiated an intimate conversation with his disciples about his own identity: “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. And Peter speaks the exciting but terrifying and almost unbelievable truth: “You are the Messiah,” the one who is foretold to save Israel from oppression.

It is right here, after Christ sternly orders the disciples to tell no one about his identity, that our passage begins. Now that the disciples know the secret of who Christ is, they are ready to begin to hear the unexpected implications: that precisely because he is the Messiah, he must suffer, be rejected and killed by his own people, and then rise from the dead. Except…

They’re not completely ready to hear this. Peter thinks the Messiah has misunderstood his destiny. Perhaps he thinks Jesus is just depressed, letting all the questioning and opposition and disbelief get him down. Perhaps he meant to follow up his rebuke with a pep-talk. At any rate, Peter is trying to have this little chat in private, to put a lid on all the pessimism and to focus on the exciting part, the part about Israel finally having a saviour.

But “those who want to save their life will lose it.” Christ turns away from Peter, who wants to proclaim salvation. And looking at his disciples, Christ proclaims sacrifice instead. They have entrusted themselves to him, and he will not lead them astray down the path of glory. Then he calls even the crowd that Mark had let us forget was always following close by. He calls the crowd, who have heard nothing of this talk about the Messiah, and he deliberately skips that part. Without explaining who he is at all, beyond what they have seen him do and heard him teach in cryptic parables, he simply says, “If you want to follow me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow. Don’t try to save your life. In fact, you should deliberately set out to lose your life.” “To destroy it,” translates the Greek more literally. “The more you give up your life, the more abundant it will be; the more you try to build up your life, the emptier it will be.”

How desperately do the crowds of our own day need to hear this message! In an age where all the media proclaim messages of self-fulfillment and self-improvement, where all the forces of the market are bent on training us to fill ourselves up, to buy the latest and greatest, to make sure that our families lack nothing that money can buy, to be embarrassed at our failure to keep up with the latest measures of fulfillment or at our failure to provide adequately for ourselves and our families, in an age in which we really are destroying our lives by living mainly for ourselves (and those we hold dear), how desperately does the church need to proclaim Christ: not that he is the Messiah, but that he calls us to follow him by denying ourselves, by giving up our lives, by foregoing self-fulfillment and self-improvement in favour of losing our lives for the sake of the gospel – the kingdom of God come near.

With all the talk of mission going around, do we dare to see Christ’s mission as inviting people to give it all up? Are we worried that we will scare people off? If we tell them that following Christ means giving up their life, do we risk seeing them walk away? But if we don’t tell them, who will? Who will show them the way to save their life if even the church is too afraid of Peter’s rebuke to tell the truth? At some point, we need to come to terms with the reality that those who want to save their life will not come to Christ until they are ready to let that go.

But caution: there must be no hint of judgement in our proclamation. We must understand that Christ’s call to take up the cross does not end when we enter the church. If anything, it intensifies. In this passage, Christ is speaking to the disciples as well as the crowd. We must indeed keep singing the hymn to ourselves: “Take up your cross, the saviour said, if you would my disciple be.” We in the church know too well the pull of glory, the promise of self-improvement, the lure of satisfaction through material things, the temptation to fix ourselves before reaching out to help others.

Of course, we do have our own internal work to do, but it is not to fix ourselves, to improve ourselves, to heal ourselves, to feed ourselves, to satisfy ourselves. The one work we all have to do for ourselves is to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and to follow. In this, we can call to others, to those in the crowd, to join us in forsaking all the promise of the world, and in allowing Christ our God to fill us instead with his true life. We can ask others to join with us in a task that is extremely hard, but is worth more than even the greatest effort we can muster.

This is the mission of the church when we gather. This is the mission of the church when we leave. May we never forget this, our task, and may we not be ashamed of it before others. When we invite others to church, may we not try to sell it to them like so many other products of self-fulfillment out there: “the music’s pretty good, the preaching is thought-provoking, the building’s nice, the people are kind, the atmosphere is peaceful and inspiring, it fills me up, I get so much out of it.” Instead, may we have courage to invite them with Christ’s own words: “it’s a place where we can learn to lay ourselves aside and find the life we never knew we were made for."



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.



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.



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.



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.



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.”



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.



1

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.




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.




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.



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.