Sermon for October 15, 2017

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Text: Matthew 22:1–14
Audio available here.

So is anyone else feeling a little uncomfortable after hearing that reading from the gospel this morning?? That stuff about burning cities and kicking people out into darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth…  

Yeah…. That doesn’t sit very well does it? 

 I don’t know what you do, but one of the first things I do when I come across an uncomfortable reading like this one – a reading that I can’t avoid because I’m assigned to preach – one of the first things I do is step back and read what comes before and what comes after the selection assigned for the day, because sometimes putting it in context can help. 

And because it is worth reminding ourselves that the small selections we hear read aloud each week are a part of a bigger story – not only within the narrative of each book within the Bible, but within the entire Biblical narrative as well.  

 So where are we here, this morning? 

This is the part of the gospel of Matthew that happens after Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem. It is a part of the series of events that the writer of Matthew places between the Triumphal Entry, what we call Palm Sunday, and Good Friday and Easter morning. 

When we get to this parable, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and gone straight to the temple, overturned some tables, and cleared it of people taking financial advantage of worshippers at the temple. Jesus then does a few things that embarrass the authorities and tells some stories that make them out to be the bad guys. So at this point, his level of endearment of himself to the authorities in Jerusalem is pretty low. 

We know he hasn’t endeared himself to the authorities because pretty much the next thing that happens is opposing factions within the religious authorities come together to plot together to entrap Jesus.  

 So what happened in this parable that upset the authorities so much that the next thing we see is these opposing factions working together to bring Jesus down? I think that it has to do with entitlement and God’s grace. 

 Lets unpack what I mean with that by going through the parable again… 

 Jesus is standing in the temple with the chief priests, the Pharisees, the elders of the people, and a huge crowd of random temple-goers. Presumably the disciples are there too, since they seem to be around all of the time. 

The chief priests and elders ask Jesus a question and, as he usually does in the gospels, Jesus responds with a question of his own before launching into a series of parables that basically accuse the religious leaders and authorities of getting their priorities wrong. This is the third in that series and it expands on the previous two. 

The kingdom of heaven is like a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 

A wedding banquet – this is like Christmas, Easter, and an invitation to the swankiest party you’ve ever imagined all rolled into one. It is a big deal. 

He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited 

Everyone who got the “Save the Date” and the “Invitation” is now being summoned: the party is ready! 

But they would not come… 

So the king tries again. He sends another round of people to everyone who has already been invited. Look! The feast is ready! The decorations are up! The fairy lights are on! Come to the wedding banquet! 

But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized the king’s slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. 

So the king responds to this violence with violence and burns the city of the folks who killed his slaves. 

This is where, if you are trying to identify God with the king, things get tough. Is the God we worship a God of retribution and violence? No. Is there judgement? Yes… but maybe not in the way you are thinking. 

So far this parable is following the narrative and worldview of the Hebrew people to whom Matthew was writing. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we read story after story of God sending prophets to call the people back to God and story after story of those prophets being mistreated or killed. The result of this, according to the Hebrew Scriptures, is that the people of Israel are conquered by foreigners, scattered, exiled, and in some cases killed. So in one sense, Jesus is playing into that narrative and worldview: the first round of invitations has gone out, and people refused. 

So what does the king do? He sends his people out into the main streets, saying invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet … both good and bad … so that the wedding hall will be filled with guests. Invite EVERYONE. The bad and the good.  

This is such a hallmark of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom. The bad stuff isn’t a problem for the kingdom of heaven – everyone is invited. Judgement isn’t about keeping people out. 

Invite everyone to the wedding banquet because we are going to have a PARTY and it isn’t a party without everyone there, is what the king is saying. So that is what happens. The hall is filled. Everyone is invited and this time everyone shows up. 

And because it is such a mix of people and the king wants things to be festive and for no one to feel left out, everyone who comes in is given a wedding robe. A special outfit to wear so that everyone knows they belong at the party.  

And then the king comes in to survey his party… 

But when he came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless.
Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen… 

Hang on there… doesn’t this fly in the face of “everyone being invited” and bringing in the good and the bad?? Why, then, is Jesus making such a big deal about this guy’s clothes?? 

Remember what I said at the beginning about how I thought this parable was all about entitlement versus God’s grace? I think that is what this is saying. 

God’s throwing a party, the best party and the biggest party – and every single person is invited. In fact, every single person is already there, in the door, at the party. It is a gift – the free gift of God’s grace to every single person. 

But this one guy decides to come in his own clothes, to cast off the gift of grace. Because what he already has is good enough for the party.  

My clothes, that I bought and paid for and put on all by myself, are special and I deserve to be recognized for that.  I don’t need the wedding clothes because I am already good enough AND there is no way I want to be associated with the riff raff who NEED the special wedding clothes.  

“Nope” says Jesus. 

Go into the main streets and invite EVERYONE to the wedding banquet, both good and bad. 

God’s grace is that everyone is called to the wedding banquet. Everyone is invited, and everyone is given the “right clothes” to wear.  

There is none of that “my clothes are nicer than your clothes” or “my behaviour is better than your behaviour” or “I lived a holier life” stuff. 

We don’t like the idea of judgement. But Jesus isn’t telling a parable where judgement is “who is out versus who is in” – Jesus is telling an expansive story of everyone being in… and the only ones who end up out are the ones who think they’re good enough refuse to put on the clothes that God has gifted them. 

Even that last line, For many are called, but few are chosen is infused with God’s grace. Don’t think of “chosen” as the means by which we are invited in to the wedding banquet. Think of “chosen” as referring to the end result, a state of being – the simple fact of being present at the wedding banquet. 

One scholar translates the last line of the parable God calls all peoples, but the weakest God loves above all. (Schotroff)  

If we remove the value judgement often associated with the word “weak,” I wonder if we can instead read that sentence as God calls all peoples, but the weakest, who understand that they have to take on God’s grace rather than their own “good works,” are the ones who can actually experience God’s love. 

Our state of being is at the wedding feast, dwelling in God’s grace and and God’s love. Thanks be to God for the gift of grace and may we have the courage to put on that garment every day. 

Amen. 

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Sermon for October 1, 2017

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Text: Exodus 17:1-7
Audio available here.

Is the Lord among us or not?

These words ended our reading from the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Scriptures this morning.

Is the Lord among us or not?

It is pretty hard to see the presence of God when you are literally dying of thirst on a long march through the desert at temperatures upwards of 30 degrees Celsius. Did I mention doing this while carrying tents? Other belongings? Small children and livestock?

No water. Again.  Last week it was no food. Before that it was no water. When will it end?

Is the Lord among us or not?

I mean, at least we had water in Egypt! Water is a basic human need and now we don’t have it.

Is the Lord among us or not?

The people of Israel were pretty right to complain to, contend with, and test their God. We would be doing it too.

Is the Lord among us or not?

If God was with me, why did I get sick? If God was with us, why did our friend die? If God were with us, why is work so hard right now? Why can’t I be happy with my courses at school? Is God with us or not?

How do we cope when God is absent, or at least seems to be absent? And how do we sit with others when they are – or when a community is – going through that pain?

Is the Lord among us or not?

Sometimes it is really hard to tell, and there is no easy answer.

I don’t have the answers, either, to that question of why it sometimes seems like God is absent. I’ve felt it too. What I can do is look at what Moses did in our reading today.

Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with these people?” … The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.”

Take some people with you, Moses. Take the elders because of the stories and wisdom they carry … and take a group because you can’t do it alone.

We aren’t meant to walk this journey alone – whether it be through the wilderness without water when we wonder if God is among us or not – or whether it be in the Promised Land when things are going well. We are meant to journey with others.

Look around you –  There are some here who carry stories and wisdom of times when God has been abundantly present and stories and wisdom from times when they have been able to carry on even when God seemed absent. And there are some who have energy to carry those who cannot walk on their own. And there are some who can sit beside us and just be present when sitting is all we can do. Any journey is never about the actions of one single person. It is about God working in and through us as we hold and carry the hope of us all… We journey with others.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.”

Moses, see that staff in your hand? Yes, the same staff that you use to keep your footing as you trek through the desert, that same, ordinary staff that you used so many times when you were working as a shepherd. Yes, that same staff that you had in your hand the last time you were at Horeb, when you saw a burning bush and knew you were in the presence of God. That same staff you had in your hand when I used you to work wonders in Egypt… That same staff that you had in your hand when the seas were parted…

Take THAT staff and go to Horeb. I am there. Return to that place where you found me before. Use that ordinary staff that you have in your hand. Strike the rock, and there will be water. There will be life.

Look at your hands …. Feel your feet on the ground … If we are the hands and feet of God, what is in our hands and where can our feet take us that seems ordinary but is so much more? That pen that we pick up in our hands to use to write notes of encouragement to people on a weekly basis. The dough that our hands lovingly knead into loaves to bake for nourishment for this community as we gather around the table here on a Sunday morning. The keys to our car in our hand as we visit a friend across town or take someone in for a doctor’s appointment. Our hands, folded on our lap or holding the hand of another person as God uses our very selves as we are present with someone in silence, in laughter, to play games, to read books, to pray

Is the Lord among us or not? 

Sometimes God is abundantly visible, like in a burning bush. Sometimes God is hidden, like standing on a rock that has not yet brought forth living water. Sometimes, I cannot see God but you can, and you can make God known to me. Sometimes you cannot see God, but the person beside you can, and they can make God known to you.

That is why we are here. A community of people. Ordinary people who gather together each week to say together, on behalf of those amongst us right now who cannot: We believe in God. And we believe that God is among us now.

Amen.

Sermon for September 10, 2017

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Readings: Romans 13:8-14 & Matthew 18:15-20

The year is around 55 or 56 CE. A man named Paul, who is currently staying in Greece, is preparing to write a letter. He is writing to a group of people he has never met but who he hopes to visit. That group of people are in Rome, a bit of a ways from Greece, but not as far as they are from Jerusalem. And it is Jerusalem that Paul says he must visit first before travelling on to Rome to meet that growing community of Christians there, and then, he hopes to continue on to Spain to start Christian churches there.

As he prepares to write, Paul reflects on what he knows about the group of Christians in Rome:

The tensions between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians are growing.

The Jewish Christians in Rome have only just been allowed to return home after having been kicked out of Rome by the last emperor, and they are feeling unsettled.

On top of that, Paul has heard grumbles from Jewish Christians – criticism that in preaching to Gentiles that he is turning his back on his own people – that he is rejecting the Jews and even preaching that God has also rejected them. And while this couldn’t be further from Paul’s motivation, it is amazing how people will talk…

Paul needs support for his mission to Spain and is counting on the Roman Christians to help… but he is concerned that the fractures in their community and the Jewish Christian’s general mistrust of Paul, will impede the reception of the gospel of Jesus Christ and will prevent it being spread further abroad.

And so he dictates this letter that we read a portion of this morning – possibly his last letter as he ends up being imprisoned in Jerusalem and only able to meet this letter’s recipients when he is brought to Rome as a prisoner.

 

Lets move forward about 30 years to roughly 80 or 85 CE.

A man probably living in Antioch in Syria, the third largest city in the Roman Empire yet located far from the centre of power in Rome, sits down to write an account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth to share with his community of believers. The community is made up of primarily Jewish Christians and they’re struggling with conflicts between the religion they were taught and grew up with and the teachings of Jesus.

They’re struggling in part because the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship of God and the visible manifestation of God’s presence with them and God’s favour of them, has been destroyed within the last decade or so. Not only that, but they kind of expected that Jesus would have returned by now. But he hasn’t and that is causing some problems for some people. So there is a lot of uncertainty and a lot of questions: Does God still like us? Who is this Jesus of Nazareth and how does that fit into things? What on earth are we supposed to do now??

So this man we know as Matthew sets out to write an account of the life of Jesus that extends back into the lives and proclamations of the prophets and looks forward to the expansion of a new reality that is bigger than any one people group.

 

There are so many things going on here:

A community at odds with each other because of not insignificant differences in heritage, or religion…

A community struggling to know how to live in the aftermath of their entire way of life being destroyed or the things they have always known and found comforting being turned upside down.

 

It isn’t only something that happens in the communities of the first century. It isn’t only something that happens in the past.

It has happened throughout history and it is happening now in big ways and in small ways. In newsworthy ways and in ways that sometimes go unnoticed:

 

Communities being torn apart by racial violence and hate.

Communities dealing with every building on their Island being destroyed by 300km/hr winds.

A church struggling to come to grips with how it responds to and repents from atrocities like sexual abuse or cultural genocide.

A church mourning the “church that was” when they were younger and there were dozens of children running around and every pew was full every day.

Christians grappling with how to respond to an opioid crisis that has spilled out onto every street and into our garden.

Christians continually relearning how to live with each other with all of our humanity – our individual quirks and mannerisms that both delight and annoy.

It is so difficult!

And into those situations speak words written by two different men, to two different communities, two millennia ago.

Not that we can take each and every word as the definitive roadmap for how things must be right now: Matthew was speaking into a very specific situation where the rhetoric against Judaism made sense in the context of the tensions that existed in his day but have since been used as justification for attempted genocide.

And the letter to the Romans as a whole is not meant as a systematic presentation of the theology of the gospel, but a selective and contextual argument rooted in the good news for the purpose of encouragement to live a life that reflects the reconciliation effected by the incarnate God in Christ.

 

This is important. The scriptures were contextual 2000 years ago, and are still contextual now.

The proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ has to land in real space and time.[1]

 

Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another, says Paul.

Owe nothing to anyone, except love.

Here Paul isn’t talking about some sort of divine balance sheet of “love in / love out” where we can account for the love given and received.

In the Roman cultural narrative, “owing” or obligation was the system by which all interpersonal interactions were conducted. Obligation was related to position, status, authority and so on. It defined the livelihood of life and citizenship in first century Rome:

  • One “owed” honour and allegiance to the Emperor
  • Money, possessions, and honour were owed to benefactors and patrons – a common relationship in this context
  • Slaves owed service and their lives to their owners
  • And wives owed submission to their husbands.

The language of “owing” or obligation was incredibly common and the way every interaction was conducted in the first century.

Hear then the utterly counter cultural and revolutionary words of Paul: Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Owe NOTHING except love. Those culturally derived conceptions of obligation are being dismissed in light of the obligation to love one another.[2]

Paul is busting up all of those oppressive or divisive relationships and re-centering everything on one thing and one thing only: the action of love.

The one who loves another has fulfilled the law, says Paul. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

 

Isn’t that also what we are seeing in our gospel reading this morning? The community of Christians for whom Matthew was writing his gospel account were coming to grips with a new reality. Not only was there the lingering shock of the destruction of the temple and a way of life they’d known their whole lives, but they were slowly realizing that Jesus might not return before they died and they might need to set up a community for the long haul.

We often read Matthew 18 as an instruction in church discipline: how do we resolve conflicts and figure out who is in and who is out of our community. But if we think about the underlying context of what was going on when this was written, it becomes so much more.

It is about building the kind of relationships that make community possible.[3] It is about how we relate to each other and to God. Not building barriers to being in or out of relationship, but understanding that our actions on earth have broader consequences and how we treat each other matters.

And if we look deeper than the steps laid out, doesn’t it come down to the same thing as Romans? That we love and care for each other?

Last week, in his sermon, Bill landed on love. He talked about Jesus’ words in the gospel, challenging us to daily take up our cross and follow him. Bill suggested to us that daily taking up our cross is not a call to self-flagellation, but a call for us to daily take up the work of love.

Daily take up the work of love.

Not to make another entry on the balance sheet, but that love is our ultimate reaction to the gospel.

To owe nothing to one another except love forces us to own the reality that we are entirely dependant on God’s grace – on Jesus’ love for us – for our very existence, and that this love completely reframes how we relate to each other and makes us able to continue to relate to each other for the long haul.

Love as understood through the lens of the cross means giving up our claim to ourselves and each other, especially the claims that are based on our own cultural narratives of “right” and “just”

It forces us to consider how we daily take up the work of love when we experience communities being torn apart by racial violence and hate.

How we daily take up the work of love when we see communities dealing with every building on their Island being destroyed by 300km/hr winds.

How we daily take up the work of love when we are part of a church that is struggling to come to grips with how it responds to and repents following Residential Schools.

How we daily take up the work of love when we are mourning the “church that was” when we were younger.

How we daily take up the work of love when we are grappling with how to respond to the opioid crisis that has spilled even into our gardens.

How we daily take up the work of love when we are continually having to relearn how to live with each other with all of our humanity – our individual quirks and mannerisms that both delight and annoy.

Because in doing this, we have, in the words of Paul, “put on Christ”, living in the light, and living with genuine love.

Amen.

 

[1] This is quoted and paraphrased from Kyle Fever, “Commentary on Romans 13:8-14” from Working Preacher – Preaching this Week (RCL).

[2] Drawn from the same as #1.

[3] Herb O’Driscoll’s Year A Commentary

 

Sermon for August 27, 2017

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria
Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

North of the Lake of Galilee, in the foothills near the Lebanese border, is the headwaters of the Jordan River. This lush area with rivers and waterfalls is a National Park that is a popular weekend destination for families and hikers.

The Romans called the area Caesarea Philippi. The Roman army used the area for R&R and it was a centre for worship of the god Pan. Shrines to Roman gods, especially Pan, dot the hillsides.

It is likely that Caesarea Philippi was about as far away from “normal” for the disciples as was possible. Miles away from their homes and comfortable surroundings, and in the middle of a Roman army centre and hub for the worship of Roman gods, being here might well have blown the disciples minds. I wonder if that was what Jesus intended?

Isn’t it interesting how Jesus brings the disciples to this secular and foreign area before pausing and posing a question that forces them to stop and examine their very being. He turns to them and says, Who do you say that I am? The first time that Jesus asks it, it’s the easy version of the question: Who do people say that the Son of Man is? What are people saying about me?

Here, the disciples are the eager students in the classroom:
Some say John the Baptist, says Philip. Others say Elijah, interjects James. Andrew jumps in with, still others are saying Jeremiah. Don’t forget all of the prophets – everyone is choosing a different prophet, shouts Bartholomew from the back.

Jesus turns to face them, slowly looking each one in the eye, one by one: But…   Who do YOU say that I am?

There is a pause.

Every single one of them swallows, shuffles their feet, looks away… This question requires something else. Something more. It requires them to stop and decide whether to stay silent, hoping someone else will answer, or to put themselves on the line. It’s a hard question. It is a direct question.

Who do YOU say that I am?

No more can we hide behind confessions or statements of faith written by others. No more can we absent-mindedly recite the Creed, even if we are crossing our fingers at the parts we aren’t sure about. No more can we simply parrot back what we learned in Sunday School or what our parents taught us.

When it is just you and Jesus, the answering the question requires vulnerability. Stepping out, despite the fact that it might feel really uncomfortable, to give our answer.

Who do YOU say that I am?

In the awkward group of disciples, Peter steps out and speaks up, presumably for all of them, but out of his own understanding and experience of who Jesus is. Yes, he has had time following Jesus to reflect and to gather information, but this is the first time he has had this question posed directly and it requires a response.

That is usually how it is. There is no perfect timing. The question cannot be put off or ignored until it is the “right moment,” the politically opportune moment, the moment that best suits our needs. There is no more time to gather facts, weigh consequences, or check all possible outcomes.

Having heard the question, there must be a decision to courageously answer or to stay silent and let the moment pass by. Martin Luther King Jr. in Letter from a Birmingham Jail warns, “All too many have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows”

When face-to-face with Jesus, with this question hanging in the space between us, what is our response?

Who do YOU say that I am?

Peter speaks boldly. To declare that Jesus is Messiah in the centre of a Roman army, a militant crowd, is a courageous action. It is an answer grounded in his identity and, had he stopped to answer only when it was safe, it is an answer that probably would have tucked remained inside of him.

Jesus responds, Blessed are you. You know who I am. God has given you this understanding and you have been courageous in speaking it. In this is the key of the kingdom and the heavens.
Whatever you imprison on the earth will be bound in the heavens
Whatever you set free on earth will be released in the heavens

Whatever we do, say, and confess in our lives has consequences. Like the concept of the Butterfly Effect, whereby one small thing in one place can have greater effects elsewhere, our response affects more than just ourselves – it affects the very heavens. I’m not talking about some place in the sky where people go after they die; I’m talking about all of humanity, our planet, the vast expanse of interstellar space, and time.

Who do YOU say that I am?

There can be no silence. What we confess on earth matters. What we do on earth matters.

How you treat the most vulnerable is how you are treating me, says Jesus. How you treat the stranger, the foreigner, those who are imprisoned, those with no homes, those who are hungry, those without clean and affordable water – how you treat these is how you treat me. If you see them and respond to them, so you are doing to me. If you do not see them and do not respond to them, you do not see me and you have stayed silent.

And on THIS rock will the church be built: on this visible statement of the truth of the identity of the Christ, the living God

On THIS rock will the church be built: a church that demonstrates belief in a living, speaking, incarnating God

On THIS rock will the church be built: a church that courageously steps out and lives its statement of belief in a God of freedom, justice, love and peace.

On THIS rock will I build my church and nothing will prevail against it.

Sermon for May 28, 2017

Preached at St John the Divine, Victoria
Readings: Acts 1:6-14 & John 17:1-11

Audio available here.

 

There is something very human about the opening words in our reading from the Book of Acts today.

Jesus is gathered together again with his friends and disciples. They have come together at the Mount of Olives – that hill overlooking Jerusalem: the place where Jesus shed tears over the city, that place that holds the garden in which Jesus prayed on the night when he was betrayed, that place from which he was arrested.

But all of those things are passed now: the men and women gathered here have seen the crucifixion of Jesus and even in their doubt and confusion about whether or if it could happen, they have all been witnesses to his rising.

They’ve spent the last 40 days with Jesus but I am sure that they still had thousands of questions to ask of him – and here, on the Mount of Olives, at the very beginning of our reading from Acts we hear one of them:

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?

It is a question that gives voice to a very human confusion, and maybe even disappointment, that continues to plague them even when looking into the face of the risen Christ. After all that they have been through, they are still seeking to have a political revolution when Jesus has patiently time and time again talked about a different sort of kingdom.

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set…. begins Jesus – probably with a sigh, and probably leaving those gathered feeling a little bit chastened….

It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set… BUT … and here it shifts… but YOU will receive power. YOU will be my witnesses!

This is not a dismissal but an expansive empowering. They are the ones who will be bringing about this kingdom!

And then, suddenly, before they have had a chance to process the words and formulate a second question, Jesus is lifted up and disappears.

 

In one of the only recorded instance of his followers actually doing what Jesus says, his followers return to Jerusalem to wait. The way the writer of Acts phrases it, it sounds like they have returned to that same upper room where they are accustomed to waiting: except this time instead of cowering behind locked doors, they have gathered together – disciples, Jesus’ family, many of the women who have been following Jesus – all gathered together to pray.

Acts says they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer.

I wonder if they had any inclination as to what was coming 10 days later on the day we now know as Pentecost?

I wonder if knowing would have changed how they prayed?

 

We, like those followers who were constantly devoting themselves to prayer while waiting in Jerusalem between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire, are living in-between.

On Thursday we celebrated Ascension Day. Next Sunday will be Pentecost.

This Sunday, we are in-between.

Between Ascension and Pentecost.

Between Jesus leaving and the birth of the church.

Between now and not yet.

Between belief and understanding.

 

In-between is an uncomfortable place to be; it is full of uncertainty and sometimes apprehension.

If we are honest, I suspect we’d agree that the disciple’s decision to hide away in a locked room between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection sometimes seems more appealing than their coming together to pray between Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost.

 

But prayer is what Jesus has modelled for them to do.

In John, we don’t get an account of the disciples asking to be taught to pray and then having Jesus give them what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Instead, the gospel of John is full of examples of Jesus praying in public, in front of his disciples and in front of anyone who would listen.

 

Think about today’s gospel from John 17.

This prayer, part of what we call the “Farewell Discourse”, comes immediately after Jesus tells his disciples that he will return to his Father and that the grief they have will eventually turn to joy. Then, while still sitting at the Last Supper table with his friends, he launches into this intimate prayer we that read this morning.

I don’t know what that would have been like, I imagine it feeling like a super awkward eavesdropping session on Jesus. But, maybe the disciples were used to it by now and took it as a glimpse into Jesus’ relationship with God and the importance of relationship in our faith journey.

Still, it is too easy to pass by this prayer thinking it just another conversation with God and not worthy of any theological consideration.

It is too easy to convince ourselves that prayer is much to personal for it to contain anything to shape what we know about God.

Prayer is incredibly intimate, and yes it is a conversation, a dialogue. But it is more than that. Think of the global Anglican church – there is no statement of faith or set of doctrines that unites us. Rather it is our prayers – the words we say and pray together in our liturgy week in and week out. That is why the words of our liturgy matter so much! It is our theology! It reveals a lot about what we think about God and what our expectations might be.

This prayer in the gospel of John is a moment for us to see what we can learn from how Jesus’ prayed for us.

Reading it that way, we might find some things that surprise us.

“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 

And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

It isn’t often that we get a straightforward definition of eternal life, especially one that doesn’t involve clouds or heaven or things like that. But here we have one: and THIS IS ETERNAL LIFE, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ who you have sent… (v3)

 

Is eternal life really that simple: to know God and know Jesus?

I wonder how that could change what we imagine in this life?

I wonder how it would affect our picture of God?

I wonder how that changes living in-between?

 

Suddenly living in-between isn’t very between, it simply is!

It is relationship with God: John’s gospel assumes that people were created by God for relationship with God, and all of our lives – the now and the not yet, the waiting and the uncertainty, the belief and understanding – flows out of that.

And we see that in the way that the gospel writer describes Jesus’ earthly ministry:

  • The Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us, as a human subject to human relationships and hurts but also as one bringing the glory of God into humanity
  • His care for human relationship that has Jesus turn water into wine at the wedding feast of his friends
  • That intimacy of conversation between Jesus and an isolated Samaritan woman at a well who describes Jesus as one who truly knows her, down to the details of her personal life with her succession of husbands, and then who discovers what it means to have living water through Jesus
  • Jesus bringing wholeness and restoration of relationship with others in their community to those who are separated by blindness or lameness
  • Vulnerably weeping at the death of his good friend Lazarus
  • Calling himself the shepherd that knows each one of his sheep so well that he can call us all by name.

 

It is no wonder that the disciples returned to prayer. Jesus had just been taken away from them and this was the way they had learned from him to continue to be in relationship while apart.

It is the way that we come together as a communion of people around the world and declare our belief and trust in God.

It is the way we are in relationship with each other and with God.

It is the way we are in eternal life, here and now, in the in-between and in the here.

All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Amen.

Sermon for April 30, 2017

Preached at St John the Divine, Victoria
Gospel: Luke 24:13-35 (The Road to Emmaus)
Audio file is available here.

 

“But we had hoped…”

There are some walks that are longer than others. The length isn’t necessarily because of the distance, or even the landscape. Sometimes it is a long walk because of what is being carried…

It had been a long day already. A long weekend, really. Huddled with friends in an upstairs room – all together since sometime on Thursday or Friday. Our hopes have been growing cold along with the body that we laid in the tomb just before the sun set and the Sabbath began.

The Sabbath came and went and finally it was Sunday and we had a little more freedom to move around. Some of the women were up at the crack of dawn to head over to the part of the garden where the graves are. The rest of us stayed put in the room, still sitting in that stunned silence that often accompanies grave disappointment. And then the women returned with the news that his body was no longer there and a story of a vision of angels who said he was alive.

But … still, no one saw him and we’ve been beginning to suspect that the whole thing has been a mistake.

So, with the disappointment still clinging like an anvil to their shoulders, two of them left to head to Emmaus, a village about seven miles away.

Not a terribly long walk – it is only slightly further than the Times Colonist 10K that hundreds of people are walking or running this morning in Victoria… yet from the sounds of it, it was a really long walk. Carrying a heavy burden will make even the shortest distance seem like an eternity.

As they were walking, a solitary walker came near and joined their party and their conversation, and he walked the seven miles with them, sharing in their conversation and discussion.

The gospel writer uses three words to describe the conversation – the first is the word from which we derive our word “homily” (but don’t worry, I don’t intend to have a seven mile walk length sermon this morning!), the second describes a rhetoric-full exchange of words, and the third, an emotional dialogue.

As drenched in disappointment as the two walkers, Cleopas and his friend, were, I imagine that it really was an incredibly emotion-full conversation for them: their despair is encapsulated in the phrase, “But we had hoped that he was the one…”

But we had hoped.

But we had hoped … to bring our baby home from the ICU.
But we had hoped … that the cancer was gone.
But we had hoped … that our relationship would work out.
But we had hoped … that this would have been a good job.
But we had hoped … that they had truly beaten their addiction this time.
But we had hoped…

All of the theology of Easter joy and hope and a dawning future cannot stop us from getting caught in that moment of deep disappointment – where the only thing that actually expresses how we feel is a painfully imperfect verb tense. But we had hoped…

This is one of the things that I love about the gospels, though: they know and express the things that we sometimes dare not say. Crucial hopes have collapsed and we are feeling overwhelmed with disappointment because of it.

It isn’t easy.
It hurts.
It blinds.

I do take some comfort in realizing that even Jesus’ earliest followers didn’t recognize him after his crucifixion and resurrection – some comfort in realizing that belief in Jesus as the risen Lord wasn’t self-evident even to them. Because Jesus walked with the two followers for nearly seven miles – walked and unpacked the scriptures with them, starting with recent events and unfolding history all the way back to Moses and the prophets – and they still didn’t recognize him.

Jesus entered into their despair and disappointment and walked alongside them, talking with them and being present with them, and they still didn’t know him.

And I don’t blame them for that – in the depths of depression, in deep disappointment, when all of our hopes are dashed, I think it is pretty normal not to recognize Jesus or know how he might – how he could possibly – be with us.

And in those moments, the grace of this story is that that our inability to see or recognize Jesus is okay. Jesus is still there, walking alongside us.

As the window in our chapel reminds us, it is in the simple things that Jesus might become known – it isn’t when he first appears on the road, it isn’t when he is walking alongside them, it isn’t even when he is expounding the scriptures and reasoning with them. It is when he sits down at the table with his friends, takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them.

And they knew Jesus.

Jesus enters our lives, not in the miraculous, but in the ordinary things: the taking, blessing, breaking, and giving.
In the hug of a friend we haven’t seen in some time.
In the joy of a new flower poking out of the garden.
In blessing a meal together.
We recognize God and know her presence with us.

But we had hoped…

What does Jesus do with dashed expectations? He enters into them and, in the breaking of the bread he reminds us that he who was himself broken lives in them too.

The body of Christ, broken for us…

 

Sermon for March 27, 2017

Preached at St Mary the Virgin, Oak Bay
Gospel: John 9. All of it.

 

I’d like to invite you to go for a walk with me …

I’m not going to ask you to get up and follow me down to Oak Bay Avenue or anything, but lets go for a walk together in our imaginations…

It is a wonderful day to be outside. Spring is in the air!

Today is a day of rest so no one is working – in fact working today is actively discouraged – and this means that the streets are full, but not overcrowded, with people outside and there is that quiet hubbub of voices filling, but not overpowering, the air around us.

You’re walking with a group of friends and one of them is the group leader. He is wise and you’ve enjoyed getting to know him these last three years. He has done some pretty incredible things over the time you’ve been walking the around countryside with him, and it always seems like there is more to learn.

As you walk along, you see a familiar-looking man up ahead. You’ve seen him around town a lot. He is memorable because he is blind, and you’ve heard that he was born that way.

Because he is blind, the man is not invited to participate in anything in society – and we see this in how the people walking down the street part so as to avoid him, being careful not to touch him lest they become contaminated by him. As if blindness is catching.

 

Thinking this might be another opportunity to learn something from the wise group leader, you and your friends pause, point to the blind man, and ask,

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

It is obvious – someone must have sinned, or else why would the man be blind? Blindness or any other kind of illness or unpleasantness is the result of sin, right?

As far as society is concerned, it is. This man needed to be kept on the margins because he must have sinned. His blindness would be secondary – the fact that he was blind was evidence of sin and therefore of a ruptured relationship between him and God which CANNOT BE HEALED

Our group leader looks at the man who is blind, and then looks back at his group of followers, saying,

Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

Or, in other words:

         Don’t look for a cause and effect between sin and sickness. There isn’t one. Look instead for what God can do here…

 

Look instead for what God can do.

And as if in demonstration of that statement, our group leader and teacher, our Rabbi, Jesus, turns and stops the man. Then he bends down and spits into the dust on the ground, stirs it around, and makes a muddy paste. He takes the paste and puts it on the man’s unseeing eyes and says,

Go and wash in the pool of Siloam.

The pool of Siloam is over in the area of the temple and so the man leaves to makes his way over there.

I wonder if he had ever been near the pool before?

Some scholars think that the pool of Siloam might have been a mikveh, a pool used for ritual cleaning before going into the temple for prayer so that one might be washed clean before entering the presence of God. It would qualify for being such a pool because it was constantly refilled with naturally flowing spring water that was always moving, always circulating. It was living water.

Living water that cleanses us before God.

But as a blind man, a man considered to be unclean and perpetually in a state of fractured relationship because of his blindness, would he have been allowed to come near the pool?

It must have taken a lot of courage to believe in a man he could not see who told him to go and wash in a place he might get in trouble for being at.

Perhaps he had a well-developed sense of hearing to compensate for his blindness, perhaps he heard something in Jesus’ voice that others did not always hear.

All we know is that he went

And washed

And could see

And in doing so he demonstrates that the relationship between him and God, between him and his neighbours, is not broken but is dramatically and visually reconciled and that he should be included in society.

Can you imagine?! Imagine the ruckus that this must have caused! Everyone all around stopping to say – Hey! I know that man! But… isn’t he blind?!?

 

Naturally, all of the commotion draws the attention of some of the religious authorities.

I mean, a blind man who can now see is noteworthy – is extraordinary. They need to find out who did it. And they need to find out NOW, because whoever it was did an unlawful action on the Sabbath and THAT is the ultimate no-no. No joy for the man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see, no remarks at his wholeness. Just anger about it happening on the Sabbath.

So they call the man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see and question him.

And they immediately start from the premise that whoever healed him is a sinner. Because obviously only sinners do things like this on the Sabbath. In a train of thought directly opposite to what Jesus has earlier said to his disciples, these religious leaders have found a cause and presumed the effect and never stopped to think about what God could do.

Not only that but they don’t believe that the man had been blind in the first place. SO they send for his parents.

His parents, understandably, are reluctant to get involved. But they do confirm that yes, he is their son and yes, he was born blind.

 

So the authorities haul back the man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see and what he sees is a group of authorities trying to back him into a corner, trying to keep him out of society…

He has found himself in a place that is uncomfortable: he is right with God but is at odds with the powerful, with the status quo, and he has the courage to say again and again that which he knows to be true.

         I was blind and now I can see. He opened my eyes. He reconciled me to my community. You say he is a sinner, but how could he do this if he was! No, this man is from God and he has brought the grace of God into my life. I believed his words and washed in living water and I am whole.

The authorities, not liking his statement, throw him out.

 

But our excitement-filled walk is not yet over.

Filled with compassion for the man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see, Jesus seeks him out to talk with him.

Do you believe in the Son of Man?

          Who is that? I want to know who he is so that I can believe!

You have heard him and you have now seen him. He is the one speaking to you.

          Lord. I believe!

 

Lord, I believe.

Believe is perhaps not quite the right word to be translated here. It needs to encompass a little more strength and a little more relationship.

The man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see doesn’t just believe in Jesus. He trusts him. He commits to Jesus. He joins his life to Jesus.

 

If that phrase “I believe” sounds a little familiar, consider the Creeds we say:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty … and in one Lord Jesus Christ … and in the Holy Ghost …

We believe in God: we trust in God. We commit to God. In saying these words we join our lives to the one whom the words are about.

And, in the manner of our gospel reading, we are making a statement about having sight and our commitment to seeing.

 

Our gospel this morning closes with a conversation between Jesus and the religious authorities that encapsulates the irony that is underlying this entire story:

The man-who-was-blind-but-now-can-see started off with unseeing eyes but with a sight that sees who Jesus really is and understands faith.

The religious leaders are proud of their seeing eyes but fail to see and understand who Jesus is and what he is doing.

The one who is blind has sight. Those who can see are blind.

 

Surely we are not blind, are we?

Look for what God can do…

Amen.