A Sermon for January 21, 2018

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20 – Epiphany 2.

 

These last few weeks, we have re-entered the ordinary.

I love this season – the season after Epiphany – not because it is a small season of Ordinary Time in our church’s calendar – but because it is an ordinary that isn’t ordinary.

It is the ordinal-ed time, the numbered season where we count the weeks from Epiphany – that wonderful feast where we see Jesus made manifest as the Saviour for all – to Lent – where we travel with Jesus towards his death and then his glorious resurrection at Easter.

We visibly show it through changing our church colours to a life-giving green … but that green might be best thought of as a translucent green mixed with white: ordinary time mixed with holy days.

I think that is a good summary of what this season is all about: watching for the holy, for Jesus made manifest in the midst of our daily life.

But what is ordinary?

Some of my psychologist friends would suggest that ordinary, like normal, is really only found as a cycle on the washing machine…

And that is very likely true. Ordinary is only ordinary in a context – my ordinary is certainly different from yours which is certainly different from that of the four men named in today’s gospel reading.

For Simon, Andrew, James, and John, an ordinary day seems to include fishing. For they are fishermen.

They live along the Sea of Galilee – a large freshwater lake about 7miles across and 13 miles long – large enough that it really can feel like the Sea…

The shoreline of the Sea of Galilee is dotted with villages that exist mainly because of the fishing industry. This fishing industry is one of the primary sources of income in the area and it is largely operated through family-run cooperatives that have somehow been able to obtain a fishing licence from the authorities.

From the overseeing Roman Empire that has decided that they can make more money if they take every last fish caught by these fisherfolk and salt and dry them or turn them into fish sauce and export it all for a huge profit to drive the wheel of the ever-expanding empire and provide immense wealth for those at the top.

For these poor, colonized fishing families, having a fish leftover to eat for dinner is a rarity and their once staple is now gone to feed the belly of an Empire.

It sounds a lot like their ordinary is a struggle.

Against institution. Against an oppressive system. A disheartening existence. One day at a time.

Struggling to make a go of it. And probably also afraid to dream that there might be something different, something better.

Which is both like and unlike our ordinary, I suspect.

It is like our ordinary because I am sure that every single one of us has felt disheartened or alone or like things are a constant struggle – at some point or another. Or have wondered where God is or why the things that are happening are happening.

And are some of us struggling against different institutions that seek to oppress us? Absolutely. Though at the same time, most of us have at least some degree of privilege that makes it hard for us to fully locate ourselves in the sandals of the colonized fishermen of the gospel reading.

And while we often find ourselves caught up in the story from their perspective, as those who are struggling or disheartened and longing for God to call us into something else – and rightly so, we also would do well to remind ourselves that those of us here who are white, educated, North Americans might more readily align with the Roman citizens than with the Jewish fishermen in this story.

But that is the neat thing about the gospels. Today we have the story of call of four Jewish fishermen.

Later on, we’ll read the call of a man who is known to us a tax collector, a man who is overtly complicit with the colonizers oppressing these fishermen, and yet he will coexist and be a valued part of Jesus’ followers in the same way Simon, Andrew, James, John are.

Because it doesn’t matter what your ordinary is… Jesus is there. Not only is Jesus there, but Jesus breaks into and transforms ordinary.

I think that is one of the reasons we have this season of Epiphany – yes, I know we need to somehow fill the space between Christmas and Lent —

But we go from that magnificent celebration of Christmas where we rejoice at God entering into Creation, becoming incarnate and dwelling amongst us …

and then we get this season of Epiphany where we can be reminded that God also comes to us in little ways. In more subtle ways. In ways that don’t always get heralded by angels or celebrated by distant kings bearing gifts.

This season of ordinary time where God breaks in and makes the ordinary holy

For Simon, Andrew, James, and John, Jesus breaks into their ordinary day fishing and offers a different way: A way that subverts the political structures and offers them a new way of being

A way that creates instability in the empire by declaring that the oppressive status quo is not okay while simultaneously creating some stability in their lives – someone, something to hold onto

No, it is not without risk. But they go with Jesus anyway

We heard the same thing in our reading from the Hebrew Scriptures this morning in the story of Jonah. In the brief section of the story we read today, Jonah finally answers God’s call to go to Nineveh and bring God’s message. I love that this passage opens with us hearing that Jonah hears from God a couple of times before he responds because I believe that it is important to hear that it is okay to struggle with following God.

Both Jonah and the four fisherfolk have something in common: They all have to give something up to answer the call and they have to get prepared to experience the unexpected – the small epiphanies, or in-breakings of the power of God into their lives

Jonah has to leave behind his prejudice – as Alastair talked about last week when talking about an “us and them” mentality of the calling of Nathaniel – Jonah is also being called to understand that all are God’s children and none is left out because of where they are from or because we think we might be better than they are.

Jonah has to leave behind that prejudice and in doing so, is surprised to find that God is actually there, at work in Nineveh.

Simon, Andrew, James, and John are called to leave behind the secure insecurity of their livelihoods to follow Jesus. Ultimately, they are leaving the things they are doing that prop up empire to follow Jesus into unknown territory…

Holding these two stories together, I think that we can safely say that there are times where we will see it immediately like, Simon, Andrew, James, and John – even if we don’t understand it immediately – and there are times where we’ll need to see it a few times to get it, like Jonah.

And that both are okay.

Both will involve these moments of God breaking into our lives in unexpected ways and bringing holy moments into the ordinary.

But all the time, seen or unseen, God is here. God is at work. And God is proclaiming that the Kingdom of God is among us.

My prayer for each of us this week is that we may catch glimpses of that kingdom of God – catch sight of God breaking into our lives in unexpected ways. Showing holiness in the ordinary. Amen.

Advertisements

A Sermon for Advent 4: Mary

The author sporting her Magnificat t-shirt

It was one of those years where the Sunday of Advent also happened to be Christmas Eve and so we had a mere 5 services at St John’s. Fortunately, I was only required to be at three of them: preaching in the morning at 10am and presiding in the evening at 7 and 11pm. I had the great idea of re-using a sermon I preached on these same readings on this same Sunday three years ago, thus giving me a little bit more brain space for all of the other things that needed to happen before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. It was a really good sermon too, one that I was really proud of and quite happy with and was actually excited about using again. However, the Spirit had other ideas, as I alluded in my previous post. I began to feel really strongly that I needed to preach something different, something that addressed #metoo and the stories in the news of strong men being brought down by the world finally listening to the voices of vulnerable women and something that acknowledged that St John’s has had a complicated relationship with some of these issues as well. So, in a matter of hours, I sat down and this is the sermon that the Spirit gave.

Preached December 24, 2017 at St John the Divine, Victoria

Find the audio recording here:

“Yes”

The gospel of Luke tells the story of the Annunciation – the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to ask her to bear God’s son into the world. Mary knows that this is a dangerous and subversive call, yet still says yes, giving her consent to bear God. In doing so, she is proclaiming the greatness of the Mighty One who turns the world upside down and reminding us that listening to and believing women has always been a foundational part of our our faith.

Gentle Mary?

Gentle Mary, meek and mild. We like to sing about it every Christmas. We look at pictures of meek and retiring Mary. She always looks to pure, so innocent.

I call bullshit.

Image by Ben Wildflower. It is one of my favourite depictions of the Magnificat. I have the tshirt.

Where on earth did we get the idea that a woman who sings about God scattering the proud, who calls on God to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the oppressed, who demands that God fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away with empty hands – where on earth did we get the idea that this woman is anything but a strong, feisty, courageous woman with agency?

When I read the gospel accounts of Mary the mother of Jesus, I do not see some mild-mannered girl quietly acquiescing to God’s demand of her to carry his son.

Rather I read about a woman who joins a long line of people throughout Scriptures and throughout history who question God. What if her “How can this be?” in Luke’s story of the Annunciation is less about doubt and more about wrestling with what God is asking of her? And what if in wrestling with it, she decides to agree to the vocation of being the mother of Christ? “Here am I.”

Just as Moses said “But suppose they do not believe me… O my Lord, I have never been eloquent” but went with God’s words.

Just as Isaiah said “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips” and then said “Here am I; send me.” And God sent him.

Just as Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak!” but then went and prophesied the message God gave him.

Just as Esther hesitated because of the strong possibility of death, but then spoke out at great risk and saved the Jewish people.

Just as “ordinary” folks like you and I wrestle with the tasks – big and small – and vocations that God sets before us; wondering if we are really being called, debating whether we actually want to do that, and eventually finding that God really is with us and we want to say yes.

Mary’s agency is at the heart of this story, and it is this strong and courageous woman who answered God’s call and brought God into the world.

Amen.

 

With thanks to my Young Clergy Women International (YCWI) sisters for some inspiration, and who, through our conversations on Mary and consent, provided more links for thought:

The Mary Who Said No

Mary’s Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency

Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

Sermon for January 15, 2017

Preached at The Abbey, Victoria
Texts: John 1:29-42, Isaiah 49:1-7

 

This week we re-entered the ordinary.

I love this season – the season after Epiphany – not because it is a season of Ordinary Time in our church’s calendar – but because it is an ordinary that isn’t ordinary. It is the ordinal-ed time, the numbered season where we count the weeks from Epiphany – that wonderful feast where we see Jesus made manifest as the Saviour for all – to Lent – where we travel with Jesus towards his death and then his glorious resurrection.

We visibly show it through changing our church colours to a life-giving green … but the green might be best thought of as a translucent green mixed with white: ordinary time mixed with holy days. And that is a good summary of what this season is all about: looking for the holy, for Jesus made manifest in the midst of the mundane, in the midst of our daily life. All the while looking for little epiphanies where we might see Jesus and find ourselves found over and over again.

***

Perhaps the most frequently used word in our gospel today is some variation on the word for seeing: see, look, watch, seek …

The first major event commemorated by the church in this season after Epiphany is the Baptism of the Lord: Jesus goes down from Galilee to be baptized by John in the Jordan River. All four of the gospels recount the event  —  Sort of.

While Matthew, Mark, and Luke give a play-by-play, all that is said about Jesus’ baptism in the gospel of John is what we heard read today: John the Baptist’s account of SEEING the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism:

I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him … I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.

John the Baptist is so convinced of this that he becomes like that guy on the corner with the sign who needs to tell everyone: Look, here is the Lamb of God! As if to say – I saw the Messiah – he is over there! Do you see him walking by? That is him! Go!
And two of John’s followers turn and follow Jesus.

It obviously wasn’t a very covert follow – there is no way that these two would have passed spy school because Jesus saw them right away: Jesus turns, lifts his eyes into their eyes, and SEES them.

What are you looking for?

Jesus’ first words in the gospel of John aren’t a command to silence a demon, a sermon about the Kingdom of God while sitting on a mountainside, or a proclamation of the year of God’s favour, but a simple question: What are you looking for? 
What are you seeking? What do you need?

It is a question that is simple in its complexity. Because as soon as you have an answer, another, deeper level of question will become apparent.

What are you seeking?
What is motivating you?
What is it that you really need?  — Not just on the surface, but deep down into the very core of your being.
Why are you here? – not here on earth, though that is a valid question, but why did you interrupt your Sunday afternoon to be right here now?
What are you looking for?

Those poor disciples of John. Things get awkward. Quickly. Likely what they wanted to say was something like,  “Um. Hi – we were following you because that other guy said you were the Lamb of God so we thought we’d come take a look…”
What they come out with is Where are you staying?

We can poke fun … But maybe there is more to it than that . Maybe what they really wanted to know was, Where are you dwelling?

Where do you abide?
What lets you put down deep roots into this world and be stable? What is it that allows you to endure life?
What makes you different?
How can we get what you have?

Because there is something different about him. John the Baptist has named it: He is the one on whom I saw the Spirit descend and REMAIN. And in a little while, Jesus will mention this word again: Remain in me and I will remain in you

Jesus, where are you staying?

Jesus’ only response is Come and See.
Come and see.
There is no judgement here. No negative evaluation of a hurried response when being caught following. No criticism.
Only:  Come and see.

We, and likely those two disciples, tend to expect that what results from responding to the invitation to “Come and See” is that we find Jesus – that we learn more about Jesus as we witness him in all of the different moments of daily life – the ordinary and the holy. And it is. But John’s gospel invites us to see more. It invites us to see and to be changed by seeing.

Jesus said to [the two disciples of John] “Come and see” … so they came and saw where he was staying … and REMAINED with him that day.

Jesus, where are you staying? 

Come and see…Remain with me and I will remain with you…

In remaining, these two disciples are found and they are changed.  How do we know this? How do we know that a change took place in their lives?

For those of you who have children, when were they born? I don’t mean the day – but what time was it?
For those of you who have lost a loved one, what time did they die or what time did you receive the phone call telling you of their death?
For those of you who are married, what time was it when you made that decision to spend the rest of your lives together?

Pivotal, life-changing moments have a time attached to them.

They came and saw where Jesus was staying and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon…

About four o’clock. Someone, one of them at least, took note of the time that their lives were changed.

And then they went and told their friends who came and saw and had their lives changed too … and then they went and told their friends who came and saw … and on and on and on for two thousand years.

That, my friends, is evangelism: Come and see.

John the Baptist does it: he sees the Spirit descend as a dove and he tells his followers. They go and see Jesus, have their lives changed and then go and tell their friends… There are no complex steps to take. There is no complicated theological argument to construct in order to carefully counter any potential resistance.

Just:

What are you looking for?

Where are you staying?

Come and see…

Two thousand years of people asking, people pointing, and people coming to see.

I remember one of my instructors in Bible College saying that the one thing he wanted people to say about him after he died, what he wanted to have written on his tombstone, was, “They saw John and followed Jesus…”

Come and see.

Not “you should go check out that church” or “Here go read this book and then we’ll talk about it…”  But Come and see
Come and see Jesus made manifest in my life – the holy mixed in with the ordinary…

If that sounds too much, remember what God says to the nation of Israel through the prophet Isaiah :

“You are my servant in whom I will be glorified.”

But I said, “I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says, who formed me in the womb to be his servant, … for I am honoured in the sight of the Lord and my God has become my strength – He says,
“…I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth…
Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves, because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you…”

You are seen. You are chosen.

And we say to all the world –

Come and see

 

 

Sermon for the Reign of Christ, November 22, 2015

Preached at St Mark’s by-the-Lake, Tecumseh Ontario, November 22, 2015.

Text: [Revelation 1:4b-8], John 18:33-37

I was invited to preach at St Mark’s because I was awarded the St Mark’s by-the-Lake award for Christian Leadership last year and they have a tradition of inviting those who receive the award to preach in the church and meet the community. I had a wonderful morning with St Mark’s and was able to speak with many people in the community over coffee (post-8am) and soup (post-10:30). They are a warm and welcoming community just outside of Windsor. Many thanks to Rev. Robert Lemon and his congregation for the invitation.

I would like to invite you to take a walk with me if you will.

It might not be an easy walk. The streets are crowded. Its that Holiday rush – the tight pack of people all headed in the same direction with far too little space to accommodate them all. And yet the crowd is growing – where they are all coming from and how many more will fit is anyone’s guess.

The air is full of voices – but there are so many voices that it is hard to pick out what anyone is saying. From the tone, there are some who are overcome with excitement for the Holiday. And there are others who are muttering about this inconvenience or that annoyance.

The sounds and smells of animals – horses, donkeys, sheep – provide that smellscape that you sometimes get when the petting zoo or live nativity scene sets up in the town centre. But that isn’t too surprising: we are headed towards the Temple. It is Passover. We are in Jerusalem.

You look around, taking in the sights, and start to notice that there are soldiers strategically placed along the roadside and even more around the Roman government building up ahead. An extra show of force – and security? – at Holiday time. They are instructed to keep the peace at all costs.

The crowd begins to shift, bunching in closer together and you start to hear the clinking of armour. Looking back, you can just see through the mass of people a group of fully armed soldiers pushing through the crowd. You can tell they are soldiers because of the sun glinting off of their drawn weapons. No wonder the crowd is surging away to give them space. And the soldiers have with them a group of men wearing the long robes of religious leaders and a man who looks like he is their prisoner.

They are heading towards the headquarters of the Roman Governor in Jerusalem, a brutal man who would have only have come to the city if he anticipated civil unrest and the need for soldiers to squash it.

The Roman Empire. A vast empire won and held by force.

There is no way that anyone can take over most of the known world without some sort of violence: violence of the sword, of executing political prisoners by crucifixion, of brutal suppression of dissent.

Or, perhaps there are other ways of taking over or spreading dis-ease that are more familiar to us sitting here in our pews today: The violence of systems that enslave people and keep them in poverty. The violence that strips culture by stifling the speaking of native languages or religious expression. The violence of having to work long hours in a sweatshop for only pennies a day to produce clothing you can’t afford to wear. The violence when children are removed from loving families. The violence that forces families to flee from their homes and risk everything in small boats on an open sea to get to safety. The violence of intolerance and hate.

If the Reign of Christ, Jesus’ kingdom, if Jesus and his followers – if he and they were of this world, then they and we would use the primary tool of this world for establishing and keeping power: violence.

Pilate turns to Jesus and asks him, Are you the King?

My kingdom is not from this world. Responds Jesus. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to you … But my kingdom is not from here …

Imagine an alternate reality with me, and let us think back to last night, when we were gathered with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying. Suddenly soldiers appeared with lanterns and weapons – maybe even the same soldiers we saw earlier today pushing him through the crowd.

These soldiers want to arrest Jesus and take him away! But Peter, that faithful follower, will have none of that. Before anyone else can even wrap their head around what is going on, Peter has pulled his sword out and cut off someone’s ear. The next thing we know, everyone is pulling out swords and fighting the soldiers off. Then it is a run down the hill into the city to catch them unawares – fighting into the palace and installing Jesus as King.

For the next few decades, people like Paul will sail around the Mediterranean spreading the good news of a kingdom of violence to the world.

While we know this is not what actually happened with Jesus and his followers, it is what eventually happened with the Crusades, with the colonization of North America, Africa, and many other parts of the world, and is what happens today when good people spread of messages of hate and intolerance in places like Facebook…

This is what happens when kingdoms are spread through the ways this world knows.

But My kingdom is not from this world. Said Jesus.

My kingdom is not a kingdom of violence. Put your sword back into its place, Peter. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.

We can imagine Jesus saying, Those who live for violence – for hate, intolerance, distrust – will only bring more of the same into their lives.

Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself by violence, nor will he establish his claim by violence. Jesus doesn’t usher in God’s kingdom using violence. And Jesus will not make any followers by violence.

Nevertheless, Pilate asks, So you are a king?

Jesus answers; You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Instead of coming to establish his reign through violence, Jesus has come to witness to the truth. The truth that God is love and that God so loved the world that God sent God’s only son to the world. The truth of the Word becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us so that we might see his glory, his glory full of grace and truth.

But, as the writer of the gospel of John reminds us, the world did not recognize him. Because no one has ever seen God. (John 1)

Because we have not seen God, we have a hard time imagining God. And when we try to imagine things we have not seen or known, our imagination becomes dominated by our experience. Rather than imagining a God of love, often we imagine God to be angry or violent because we live in a world of violence. The headlines we read, the images we see, and the sounds we hear daily on the news and in social media are frequently ones of violence.

Rather than recognizing the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume that it is the legal ways of punishing Jesus in our place – because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships.

Rather than believing that God’s grace and acceptance and love are entirely unconditional, we assume that God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God – and despise those who do not – because so much of our life is about “tit for tat.”

But Jesus is not of this world. And so his followers do not fight to bring about his reign because to use violence is to violate the very principles of his kingdom and will only cause its destruction.

No, the way to bring about the Reign of Christ is through love.

That radical love that, in the words of our baptismal covenant, calls us to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbours as ourselves.

Because while the Reign of Christ on one hand reveals Christ in his glory, coming in with the clouds so that every eye might see him, the Reign of Christ is also about the glory of Christ hidden beneath rags so that when we see him, we might love him by giving him clothing,

or find Christ thirsty that we might lovingly hand him something to drink,

or discover Christ the stranger or refugee who we might welcome into our homes or communities.

The Reign of Christ – the reign of the Christ who is calling us to transform the unjust structures of society that cause people to have to flee from their homes,

or that force people to work in dehumanizing conditions for insufficient funds,

or that calls us as a national Anglican church to grapple with a legacy of violence stemming from systematic abuse in Residential Schools –

The Reign of Christ is here on earth so that we might challenge violence of every kind to pursue peace and reconciliation.

Because here is another difference between the kingdom that Pilate was looking for and Jesus’ kingdom that is not from here: Jesus’ kingdom is not limited to a particular place or time like the Roman empire was or like the empires of today are.

Jesus’ kingdom is a state of being. A way of life. A commitment to view the world through Jesus’ eyes of love and to love fiercely even in the face of these violences in the world we see all around us every day.

In a few moments we will gather together around a table. A table where we proclaim the power of the sacrificial love of Christ. And then together we will pray, praying with believers all around the world, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”

Today we proclaim that the Reign of Christ is here on earth. That Christ is among us, enthroned in glory and leading a kingdom not spread through the means of this world, but spread through love.

Welcome to the Reign of Christ, to the Reign of God’s love.

Amen.

Sermon for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

Preached at St Andrew Memorial Church, London, Ontario.
Text: Mark 16:1-8

Well, here we are at the end.

Lent is over.

The eight short verses contained in our gospel reading this morning are, as determined by biblical scholars, the final original verses of the gospel of Mark: The gospel of Mark is over. We have reached the end of this too.

The end of the gospel of Mark begins with the equivalent of a Biblical all-nighter: The Sabbath has ended with the going-down of the sun on Saturday, but it is too late to do anything about Jesus’ body tonight. So, the women conclude, we may as well just try and sleep a little.

It has been an emotional and heavy week – Jesus: friend, leader, and hope, has been killed.

The women – Mary, Mary, and Salome – these faithful women who have followed Jesus from a distance all through his ministry and then, even when none of the other disciples remained, followed him right up until his death.

They watched while their friend Joseph from Arimathea collected Jesus’ body from the cross, wrapped it in linen cloths, and then laid it in a stone cold tomb. The stone door was rolled in front and that was the end.

The Sabbath began and everyone rested. Though I imagine it was more restless than it was rest: All of Jesus’ ministry has been building, working towards this point, culminating in Jerusalem where it would be launched and recognized by everyone around them, the oppressive government would be overthrown, social injustices would be righted and our nation would finally be restored to God’s favour.

And then it failed. Jesus is killed so dishonourably that nearly everyone fled and went into hiding, and those who did stick around, like the women, did so from a distance.

I can imagine the women deciding that though Jesus did not fulfil their hopes for their nation, they still loved him and he was their friend and leader and they aren’t about to leave him, even in death.

So they wait until the sun goes down and the day of restless rest ends. Then, they head out to the market to find spices. They’re not prepared with all of the ointments and spices that you would anoint a body with at death: In their mind, Jesus wasn’t supposed to die so why would they have them on hand?

Since this rest is so restless, they probably don’t sleep much that night. Up all night pacing, waiting to finish their duty to their friend and then fade back into obscurity when they return to “normal” life. Then tossing in their beds, watching time tick by:

3:48 am: I should really get some sleep

3:49 am: I can’t believe Jesus is dead!

3:50 am: It must be time for the sun to rise soon; I want to get this done with.

How much, in a time before battery operated flashlights or iphone flashes, we depended on the sunlight of day to get us through.

5:10 am: Never mind sleep. I’ll just get up. The sun will be rising soon anyway.

5:11 am: Oh no! I forgot about the stone door. Who will roll away the stone for us?

For some reason, the women set off anyway, without any plan about how to actually get to Jesus’ body in the rock tomb on the other side of the stone door.

Perhaps it is some unconscious remembrance of Jesus speaking to the disciples while he was alive: three times the gospel of Mark has Jesus tell his disciples that he will go to Jerusalem, be condemned to death, be mocked and beaten, be killed, and then that he would rise again in three days. But I don’t know if the women actually heard, understood, or remembered this, after all, in the gospel of Mark everyone who knows Jesus and should know what is going on, don’t get it. Jesus keeps telling them and they keep not understanding, so it isn’t too surprising that the women would be debating about how they would roll the stone away from the door of the tomb to get to a body.

And so the women arrive at the tomb, expecting to find death, even though they have been promised life, in order that they might anoint Jesus’ body.

However when you are looking to find death and you find life instead, amazement and surprise are pretty natural responses.

Not only is the stone door moved and no longer covering up the opening to the rock tomb, but there is, what is described as a young man dressed in a white robe, just sitting to the right of the opening.

Sounding a little bit like the office administrator for a busy CEO, he says: “Oh, you’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.”

Perhaps realizing that the women are, understandably, a little freaked out, the young man, who scholars think is an angel, says what all angels tend to say when they encounter a human: Do not be alarmed.

Then: He has been raised; he is not here.

These two phrases pack some pretty major punches:

First the angel says, He has been raised, like this is the obvious one that the women should know and understand.

He has been raised.

I am told that it was normal for people from that time period to speak of resurrection like it was a more common event. The Caesars were, in popular lore, apparently resurrected to be gods when they died.

The women lived during this time, they heard Jesus speak about being raised after three days, and they’re still surprised. But then again, this isn’t popular folklore that we’re talking about.

Either way, when you’re expecting death and you find life, amazement is a pretty natural response.

I mean, if any of us were to go to the cemetery and find graves open and bodies gone, we’d be, at the very least, surprised.

He has been raised: We can say with the apostle Paul, Death has been swallowed up in victory!

Death has been swallowed up in victory. Jesus is alive and with that resurrection he has broken any of the power that death might have held on us. Death is not the final answer. In the ultimate inversion, the final answer is not death, but life.

The women went to the tomb expecting to find death when they had been promised life. How often do we go through life expecting to find death when we, too, have been promised life? In the liturgy of baptism, [which we will all participate in this morning with Kathy as she is baptised,] we thank God for the water of baptism, because through baptism we are buried with Christ in his death and then also share in his resurrection, being reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Do not be alarmed, you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, the angel tells the women, He has been raised: he is not here.

He is not here.

This second phrase is just as terrifying as the first. At least with He has been raised we can talk about resurrection.

But He is not here? If Jesus is not in the cold, dark box where we left him, where is he?

It might have been simpler to have a safe, contained, and predicable God who stays put, right where we left him.

If we have learned anything these last weeks of Lent, it is that Jesus does not stay put. That following God is not simple or safe – and certainly not predictable.

After all, we are talking about the one who whipped corrupt moneychangers out of the temple, who spoke back to unclean spirits before casting them out, who healed a disciple’s mother-in-law, and who challenged us to take up our crosses and follow him.

Take up our cross and follow him. That is so much more poignant this side of Good Friday. Suffering, death, resurrection, life.

Follow him to life.

So when the angel says He is not here do we stop and peer into the empty tomb and wonder where God is?

It is certainly understandable that we might do that, with violence in Kenyan universities, discriminatory legislation being passed in the United States, and financial injustice and extreme economic disparity on display in our own city.

But then we might remember what else the angel said to the women: He is going ahead of you to Galilee there you will see him, just as he told you.

And if we decided to go back to Galilee, we might leave the end of the gospel of Mark and turn back to the beginning. Going full circle to read, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God … In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee …

So it isn’t the end: this story is not over.

It is only the beginning and we have a part to play.

It is only the beginning and, if you wonder why there is still so much pain and distress in the world, it is because God isn’t finished with it yet.

It is only the beginning. Mark is inviting us to get off the bench and get into the game, sharing, with everyone we meet, the good news of Jesus’ complete identification with those who are suffering and his triumph over injustice and death.

It is only the beginning and we are empowered and equipped to work for good in all situations because we can trust God’s promises that all will, in time, come to a good end, even when the only evidence of that we can see in the moment is a cold, dark tomb.

Death has been swallowed up in victory! Where, O death, is your sting? Where, O death, is your victory?

Well, here we are at the beginning…

Amen.

Sermon for March 22, 2015 (Lent 5)

The fifth Sunday of Lent, Preached at St. Andrew Memorial Anglican, London, Ontario.

Text: John 12:20-36

I have never been much of a gardener. I have joked that the only plants I ever want are succulents – cacti and the like – because they seem to be the only thing that can take the neglect I would put them through. I have certainly never lived on a farm. I have always been a city kid – a city kid who loves the outdoors, but at home in the big city none the less.

My grandparent’s retirement project was a farm in the county. To seven-year-old eyes, it seemed like a big farm, but was really not more than an acreage with a turn-of-the-century limestone farmhouse, wooden board barn, and an apple orchard.

But it was the farm fields back behind their property – fields that stretched way back to the tree line, which is a long way when you’re a kid – that captivated us as grandkids. Many summer afternoons were spent hiding in the fields, creating forts, and hoping that the tall grasses and grains would hide us from the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents – wandering as far away down the back field as we dared.

As we plucked the grain from the stalks, I never, in any of those long summer days, stopped to think about what happened to the grain when we were done playing.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Until the seed becomes buried in the ground, it has no hope of bringing forth new life.

We have spent these last weeks of Lent participating in just that: contemplating the wheat that falls to the ground and dies and then is buried in the tomb.

It seems like just yesterday that we had ashes placed on our foreheads in the shape of a cross: “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Death. It has been ever present with us this Lent, in more ways than one.

And while it is difficult to imagine getting closer to the cross than the intimate placement of it on our foreheads, our readings, our meditations, and our worship together over these last weeks have been doing just that. They have been gradually bringing us closer and closer to that cross. Closer to the reality of death: Jesus keeps predicting his own death and now, in today’s reading, he is meditating on it with his disciples:

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Strong words: Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

I don’t know about you, but I was always taught that hate is a stronger word than I should ever use.

And the words “hate their life”?

As a society we spent so much time and money on bettering ourselves, on loving ourselves, on teaching our children to have positive self-esteem and to love themselves too. That clearly jars with what Jesus is saying here. Or does it?

We heard Pastor Marty preach on Mark’s version of those words a few weeks ago when they came up in our Sunday readings: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. And he challenged us to take up our cross with us every day.

I like Luke’s version of the same phrase: Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.

Trying to make their life secure. That sounds a lot like playing it safe, being fearful of sticking our necks out, excessive caution, a reluctance to identify with Jesus and the way of the cross.

Today we are also commemorating the life of a martyr:

Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated, while celebrating the Eucharist, 35 years ago this Tuesday.

He dared to speak up against injustice. He dared to speak up when people were being mistreated. He dared to speak up and ask for basic human rights for his people.

He challenged people to feed the poor, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to love their enemies and seek to make them enemies no longer.

He dared to live the gospel – and lost his life.

Today we also commission a new leader to a new ministry and position of leadership in the church – in this Church of St Andrew Memorial and in the whole church. Leadership in a ministry that we – all of us here at St Andrew, whether we have fancy robes and special chairs or not – share together as a family.

And as we continue this path towards the cross together, we will come to Mandy Thursday where, following in the footsteps of Jesus when he wrapped a towel around his waist and knelt in front of his disciples to lead by serving, we wash each other’s feet in loving service…

From today’s gospel: Whoever serves me must follow me … Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

Maybe that is what Jesus is asking. It isn’t an ask for us hate who we are in order to gain eternal life in heaven. It is about now, because daily decisions that we make about following Jesus in the way of the cross are simple and are before us every day.

It is the questions of:

Can you keep loving me and serving me, even in the midst of the pain of the valley of the shadow of death?

Even on the day when the gloom clouds will not clear?

Even when your co-workers are talking about you behind your back?

Even when nothing is going right and everything is getting up in your face and discouraging you?

What about when things are going so well that the temptation is to think that you don’t need Jesus? Can you keep loving and serving me then, says Jesus?

And, Jesus adds, God honours and glorifies those who follow.

            Not those who are successful followers.

            Not those who always make the right decisions.

            Not those who never have anything go wrong or never been discouraged.

But those who follow.

Luckily for me and my brown thumbs, I don’t actually have to do the work of making the seed bring forth new life. The seed already has that new life inside of it – I just have to make sure it gets into the ground and water it now and then, when I can.

We are the Church that is the wheat which bears its fruit in dying.

And so, we now prepare to go to the table, where we recognize that because we have died with Christ, we live with him, and, as we holding firm and following him, we shall reign with him.

Amen.