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The River, Our Mother

Ezek 47:1-8

1It was late in the evening and a wife noticed that her husband was standing looking down at their baby’s crib. As she stood there silently watching, she noticed that a whole host of emotions could be read on his face; disbelief, skepticism, and amazement. He repeatedly stood back, shook his head and said, “amazing,” all the while beaming from ear to ear. The woman was deeply moved by his rather unusual display of emotions. She quietly entered the room and put her arms around his waist and whispered: “A penny for your thoughts?”. And what was his reply? “Isn’t it amazing!” he said, “When you take the time, really look close and think about it, how can anyone make a crib that like that sells for only $200!” There can be no doubt about it, mothers and fathers can be very different! But on the other hand, the story I just told you also conveys the typical stereotyping of fathers and mothers, where the husband seems more concerned about the crib than what’s inside it.

It took me a while to decide what to call this service today. The tradition is of course, “Mother’s Day” but, in more recent years, the church tends to refer to this day as “Christian Family Sunday.” This is more inclusive and recognizes that not everyone is a biological or adoptive mother. Some women have either not wanted, or have not been able to have children, or have lost their children to death. Or others have had painful experiences of being a mother or even have been hurt as a child of a mother.

I was asking myself, is being a mother something that is limited to gender? Biologically, this is true, of course. But I also suggest that all of us in some ways carry the mother image inside us. So, I decided to switch from a noun to a verb, or maybe it’s an adjective, not “Mother’s Day, not “Christian Family Sunday” but ‘Mothering’ Sunday. Maybe the verb ‘mothering’ helps us to see that each of us carries the mother image deep within or souls, though often, unseen, unfelt and unacknowledged. And maybe it’s due to the lack of that mother image, that mainly male political leaders feel they have the prerogative to ride rough shod over women’s reproductive rights. This is what appears to be happening in the US. Where it is likely that access to abortion in some states will be abolished because of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.

The text from Ezekiel 47 is an extraordinary image of water, emerging from below the threshold of the temple and becoming a river. Along its banks, there is lush vegetation and trees. The river flows on to the Arabah, a wilderness region where it transforms a sea of stagnant water into fresh water. Psalm 23 also speaks to the still waters. In fact, some biblical scholars believe that they have located the place where water runs through the valley of the shadow of death. It’s located in the Wadi Qelt. North-east of Jerusalem, and opens into the Jordan Valley. The water runs through a deep gully, and because of the steepness of its sides the valley loses the evening sun early and is filled with shadow. Margaret and I visited Wadi Qelt in 2019, I didn’t know it was associated with Psalm 23 at the time, but I was struck by the deep shadows there.

The river is a powerful symbol and an archetype of motherhood. An archetype comes from the thinking of the great Psychologist Carl Jung. It is an image or a theme that comes from the collective unconscious. It carries universal meanings across all cultures and shows up in dreams, literature art, and religious faith. I did a memorial service for a lady called Gloria last year. Gloria grew up on a farm on the banks of the Hillsborough River. The sight of the river through her bedroom window as a child became part of her life and her memory. The river centered her as a girl, as a young woman, a mother, and as a grandmother. The Hillsborough River seemed to flow through Glorias life in her consciousness, imagination & hope.

Without water, there is no life. And a river suggests movement, connection, power, and an energy that sustains life in all of its forms. Motherhood or mothering is a life-giving activity. And it’s a role not limited by gender, but in fact, a vocation that we all share. The vocation that each of us has in our lives finds its source in the waters of our baptism. And to live our vocation in whatever form it takes, we need to know and to realize that there is a river that runs through us. We are a resurrection people, and a river people!

The Wicklow mountains in Southern Ireland are the source of the Liffey. The Liffey begins as collection of rills which come together into a bubbling brook, then as it tumbles down the mountain slopes it turns into a stream then, a river which widens and eventually enters the city of Dublin. In James Joyce’s book Finnegan’s Wake, the river named Anna Livia is a symbol of motherhood! Starting in the mountains as a young girl, joyful skipping and carefree, she eventually slips into the city as a maturing woman. Along the way she accumulates and takes on the dirt and the grime of Dublins streets, quays and buildings. The emotional highs and lows of marriage, the reality of living in an unequal patriarchal relationship with her husband. And all the sorrows and joys that come with motherhood. Eventually, Anna ages and merges with the ocean. Her fresh water mixes with the salt water of the Irish Sea. As the seagulls cry out, her final words are. “The keys to … given, away a lone a last, a loved along the…..” and then Anna, the river, dies. But, does she? We are, after all, an Easter people. A community of the Resurrection, and like our lives, and the book, about Anna, hers and our story, ends in mid-sentence, unfinished without a full stop, beginning again with the lower-case first word on the first page…. riverrun. The moisture from Anna’s waters has risen into the air, formed clouds which bring rain down over the Wicklow mountains. Anna is reborn. As she carries the leaves from the trees on her banks out to the ocean which, during her life’s journey, have fallen into her wake, she herself is carried in the arms of God the Divine Mother.

There is a meaningful coincidence about Mother’s Day this year. On May 8th, 1373, Julian of Norwich, a mystic and the first woman author in the English language, while at her home, was struck down by an acute illness. It brought her to the brink of death. But during those dark days that followed, she received sixteen visions. She came to understand that Jesus, is our mother and reforms and restores us. And through the power of his passion and his death and rising, he unites us to our essential being. Julian realized that we are nourished by the water, and blood which streams from the wound in Jesus side.

She writes,

2‘God is our mother as truly as he is our father, and God says to us. It is I: the power and the goodness of fatherhood. It is I: the wisdom of motherhood. It is I: the unity. I am the sovereign goodness of all manner of things. It is I: that makes you love. It is I: that makes you long. Furthermore, it is I: the eternal fulfillment of all true desires.

So, on this Mother’s Day Let us celebrate the vocation of all Mothers biological and otherwise. And let us give thanks to God whom we know in Christ our Father and Mother.

  1. Sermons.com: Leonard Mann, The Time of Our Visitation
  2. Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love

Smoke from A Charcoal Fire

John 21:1-19

Fishing isn’t really my thing, not my cup-of-tea” I’ve had several tries at it, but it’s not something that I really get excited about. And it’s only rarely that I’ve caught anything big enough which I could cook and eat. I remember, on one occasion, fishing even got me into trouble. When I was about 12, or 13, I had a sleep-over at my friend John’s house. The day I arrived, we took our tackle over to the rocks at North Shore off St. George to go fishing. We weren’t catching anything, but then all of a sudden, there was this almighty tug. As we pulled in the line, we realized that we had hooked a three-and-a-half-foot green moray eel! We didn’t know what to do with it. Normally, when you catch a fish, you remove the hook from its mouth. But there was no way we were going to put our fingers any­where near that vicious-looking thing. (Green morays can give you a nasty bite, especially if they’re angry.) I don’t know why we didn’t cut the line and let it fall back into the sea. Maybe we lacked a knife, or maybe we were just stupid, which is probably more likely. So, we ended up dragging this eel, behind us, two miles, along Cut Road and Barry Road to John’s house. After cutting the line, we left it at the bottom of John’s Mom’s garden. By the next morning, it reeked, and John’s mom was spitting feathers at us, for stinking up her garden. That eel was probably the biggest thing I ever caught, but like I said, fishing’s not really my thing!

In this morning’s text from John 21, Peter was most likely thinking, at the time, that being a disciple was not his thing. He was probably remembering that he had a couple of weeks earlier denied Jesus three times. He was feeling guilty, ashamed and a failure. So, he said to the others, “I’m going fishing!” They said “we’re coming with you.” It seems they decided to go back to doing something they were good at… fishing. But often when we fail at something in life, and then we go back to what we were doing before, it’s just not the same. It no longer gives us the sense of accomplishment and self-worth that it once did. After a nights fishing, they weren’t catching anything at all. Then they saw this stranger on the shore who called out to them, “friends,” or in the NRSV he says “children,” “you’re not catching anything, are you?” They answer, probably somewhat annoyed, “No.” So, the stranger shouts out, “try putting your nets on the other side of the boat!” Not knowing is was Jesus, I can imagine them retorting. “Why don’t you go and bother somebody else?” Moving the nets from one side of the boat to the other would have taken quite a bit of effort because they were weighted with lead, and were difficult to manouuvre. And what difference would it have made to the number of fish they would catch? One side of the boat was only a few feet from the other side! But they do as the stranger suggested, and soon, the nets are full almost to the point of breaking! It’s at that moment that they remember what it was like being with Jesus. The wedding and the taste of the wine at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, this experience of God’s abundance. They realized that it was Jesus there on the beach waiting for them to come ashore.

Last week when I was preaching about Thomas and his declaration ‘My Lord, and my God,’ after Jesus said, ‘touch my hands, feet and side,’ I distinctly remember telling you that this was the end of John’s gospel. And after reading that chapter, I was fooled into thinking it was. That particular chapter ends, ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah.’ I’m embarrassed to say, but I had forgotten that this wasn’t in fact, the end of John’s Gospel. It certainly reads like it is. But John continues, and adds this extra story which is preceded with the words, ‘after these things … Jesus showed himself to his disciples.” After these things— those words remind me of our journey of discipleship. In other words, “the story’s not over until it’s over.” The passage we read today is a repeated call story, and echoes the one when Jesus first met Peter and the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. When he said, “Come follow me I will make you fishers of men (or people).” They have just failed in that discipleship endeavour. But rather than reminding them of this, Jesus reaffirmed that call. So for us, discipleship implies… “after these things, after failure, after fear, after regret, there is resurrection, and there’s a renewed call to pick ourselves up and follow Jesus again.

Peter gets a second chance, after his denial, after these things. Typical of his impetuous personality, once he realized that Jesus was there on the beach, he jumped into the water, leaving the others to haul in the heavy nets. Jesus has a charcoal fire going and there are already fish cooking on it. There’s something about this story and that charcoal fire that just grabs my imagination and puts me right there with the disciples because every time I read it, I can smell that charcoal smoke! That day on the beach, the smoke from the charcoal fire would have reminded Peter of his denial of Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest. There was a charcoal fire there as well. It’s the only two instances of charcoal files mentioned in the bible, so you can be sure that John has deliberately placed it in these two stories. The smoke from those coals connects Peter’s failure in discipleship to his redemption.

The smell of the smoke of our failures in discipleship is the same smoke by which we can find renewal. And there is always a point when we can say, “but after these things.After these things, there is renewal, after these things there is forgiveness. After these things there is hope.

The other evening we spent a couple of hours cleaning up the property around York. And it always surprises me, how much of a mess things can get into during winter. And likewise, how much of a mess we can get ourselves into. At York, we removed all the stones broken by the ice. We raked up the twigs and leaves and dead grass. We spread soil where the grass had died and worn away, and we planted new grass seed. And there was some storytelling going on as well, where we shared memories of people who were part of our community and have now passed on. But the point I’m making is this. Like nature, and fishing, and agriculture, with the sowing, reaping harvesting of seed. Discipleship is a cycle of failure and success, of death and resurrection, or winter followed by spring, of scarcity followed by abundance. We always end up making a mess of things, and then, after these things, we have to clean our lives up again. And then spring comes and resurrection, and then this is followed once more by winter and death, and regret, and then resurrection again. And all we are asked to do is this. To take the fish we have caught, or the food we have grown, and offer it up to God on the charcoal fire, so that more people than just ourselves can be fed physically and spiritually. A fragrance of smoke pleasing to God.

The centre of that cycle of discipleship is the very question that Jesus asks Peter,” Do you love me?” He asks Peter three times as if to counter his thrice denial in the courtyard of the high priest. It’s the same question we are asked to answer. “Do you love me, do you love each other as a community in Christ.” And as long as we are responding, “Lord, you know everything, you know that we love you,” then we continue that thing that is ours. The journey of discipleship, of following Jesus, and of feeding his sheep. Thanks be to God for that journey we share together.

Wall or Trellis?

John 20:19-31

There’s a story of a man 1in West Kentucky around the year 1900. He never touched a drop of the “Demon Rum” except for one memorable occasion. He got roaring drunk, stole a horse and buggy, and raced down the main street of Arlington, Kentucky. All the while singing at the top of his lungs the song, “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!” But, for the rest of his life, he was then known as “Hot Time.” Just one night and a reputation for a lifetime! Surely, it wasn’t fair to call him “Hot-Time” all his life! In the same way, is it fair to refer to Thomas as “Doubting Thomas?” just for one brief moment of his life, or should we rather remember him for the permanent affirmation that Jesus evoked from him. “My Lord and My God!” I don’t think it’s right to keep on saying, “Doubting Thomas” for one request on one night. In reality, Thomas found a Lord who dealt with him where he was, in his present circumstances, and led him beyond the passing into the permanent.

In our text today from John, the disciples are gathered in a house. Even though some of them have experienced the fact that Jesus has risen, the implications haven’t fully sunk in yet. And at this point they’re afraid of the religious authorities, which is why they’re huddled together behind locked doors. Thomas is not there that night. And when he returns, he doesn’t believe what the other disciples, tell him, that Jesus has risen and appeared to them. This is why he makes the famous statement about putting his hands into the wounds of where the nails pierced Jesus’ flesh, and into the wound from the spear in his side. So, a week passes by, and Jesus does the same thing again, comes to them through the locked doors. But Thomas is there this time, and Jesus invites him. “Thomas put your hand here, feel my wounds, touch my side and believe!” Notice that Jesus doesn’t criticize Thomas for his earlier disbelief. Or as occasionally what I’ve seen in a church, when someone hasn’t been in worship for a while, a regular member might ask, ‘where were you and where have you been?’

Of course, this second visit is when Thomas makes his famous statement of belief, ”My Lord and my God.” This is the final bookend to what John writes at the beginning of his Gospel, where he states what he is claiming about Jesus’ divinity. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. And then right at the end of the Gospel, John restates this through the mouth of Thomas, My Lord, and my God. It’s the adage of 2‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to tell you, about Jesus the Messiah, then I’ll tell you, then I’ll tell you what I told you. But this story certainly seems to be about the contrast between doubt & belief. Or at least that’s how it’s been interpreted. And Thomas is a problem figure because he represents doubt. And Christianity itself seems to emphasize the importance of believing. Many churches on the more fundamentalist spectrum will state unequivocally, if you don’t “believe” that Jesus is the Christ, then you’re going to a different place than the rest of us who do. If you don’t believe, then sorry you’re toast! So, like the old Kentuckian, Hot-time, Thomas gets this bad name and reputation because he epitomizes the “problem” of not believing. In other words, “doubt” is something that should be avoided.

That’s how Thomas became my patron saint because his doubt and uncertainty resonated with mine. Can you remember the first time you began to question the faith that you’d received as a child? I think I was about 15 or 16, and I went along to an evangelical crusade for teenagers called Young Life. Their worship and social gatherings emphasized the importance of being born again, being born of the Spirit, and it made me question everything about my faith. I remember telling my Mum afterwards when I got back home from one of these events. I said to her, that I now realized that I was not a Christian after all because what I imagined faith to be, didn’t match what I was now hearing. I’ll always remember her reply “Don’t you bloody well tell me you’re not a Christian, I brought you up to be a Christian, you are one!” In a way she was right as well!

But I think that’s also when I started to realize that it’s OK to have doubts about faith, and Thomas epitomized my struggle with believing. More recently though I’ve been reassessing Thomas. He has this one instance of doubt which ends up defining him. Why is that? Why is “believing” so important? It’s certainly promoted as being a significant factor in faith. In the confirmation vows last Sunday, I asked Carter, and Taylor, and Emma. “Do you believe in God, who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit?” This is why we have Creed’s, authoritative formulas of Christian belief, which we can hang onto. I’m not saying that belief isn’t relevant, but it seems at times, that the whole emphasis is a faith that rests on a structure of what we believe. Indeed, I have often imagined my faith as being like a wall, one stone built upon another, in my case a wall that has been built and toppled, and rebuilt several times over. But is that really what faith is, a wall of belief? I think it’s always good to ask questions about what we believe, to chip away at that wall, and likewise, the scriptures from where our belief come from. Like this morning when I pointed out that in Psalm 150 the Hebrew word “toph” isn’t referring to a tambourine at all but a frame drum. The translation in the bible is wrong. When I was speaking about tambourines and frame drums in Psalm 150 to someone, who attends a synagogue in Halifax, she said, “I’ll never look at that Psalm in the same way again! 3When we ask questions, it can change the way we look at things, and for the better. And that’s why studying the bible is so important, not because it reaffirms what we already believe, but to allow our assumptions to be questioned. So that our Christian faith and life of this community is not shaped by those assumptions, but by the practice of being open to the word of God, and being open to being changed.

We could ask ourselves some questions about this text from John. Firstly, who was Thomas, and why wasn’t he with the other disciples, the first time Jesus appeared to them? And is Thomas really someone who epitomizes doubt? In fact, Thomas is one who practises his faith. When Jesus in an earlier part of John’s Gospel announced to his disciples that he was going to Judea, the others tried to stop him because it was too dangerous (11:8). But Thomas supported Jesus. He boldly proclaimed: “Let us also go that we may die with him. We don’t know where Thomas was on the night Jesus first appeared to his disciples. But, we know that he wasn’t hiding behind locked doors. Theologian, Tanya Bennett, suggests he might actually have been the only one out of all the followers who were out in the streets already sharing what Jesus had been teaching and doing. Trying to live the life that Jesus called his followers to live. 4 So, if Thomas in any way is one who doubts, then he is a symbol of the doubts of all the disciples. And maybe to some degree, we read our uncertainties into Thomas, rather than admit the doubt in ourselves, which stops us from claiming the full meaning of the resurrection and claiming the life Jesus calls us into.

John’s Gospel refers to the “beloved disciple” in several places. But we don’t know exactly who the beloved disciple is. Generally, it’s assumed to be John the author of this gospel. We know that the beloved disciple was the only disciple who was a witness to the crucifixion. The one who stayed next to the cross with Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene and Mary the Mother of Jesus, later provided a home for and looked after her. Some biblical scholars believe that the beloved disciple, was not John, but Thomas. Thomas was one who overcame his fears. And the fact that he says, “until I touch the wounds in his hands and feet and the wound in his side, I will not believe.” The only disciple who would have been aware of the wound in Jesus’ side, would have been the one who stayed by the cross during the crucifixion. The one who was not afraid, and who pushed through his fear and stayed there with Mary. And for me, the fact that Thomas actually wants to touch Jesus wounds reveals a closeness in their relationship. I think it’s possible that Thomas doesn’t represent doubt, as much as he does the intentional practice of faith. Where we set aside our fears, we live our faith by doing those things that Jesus tells us to do. Such as, being with the sick and the suffering and offering comfort to those who mourn.

Maybe the model of Christian faith is not the wall of belief, but a trellis. A trellis is a frame of Lallice work used as a screen or as a support for climbing plants and vines. Imagine not a wall, but a trellis of Christian practice that reveals our faith, and is characterized not by what we believe, but what we do. The Trellis is the intentional Christian practice of prayer. Of supporting others, of Charity, and of gathering together, in community as we do each Sunday. But also on other occasions, like the book club, the craft group or the mens lunch. Or sharing the work of cleaning up our properties from the twigs, branches and dead leaves of winter. Thomas is still my patron saint today, not because he doubted, but because he demonstrated his faith in action. God promises that we can find assurance not through believing, but be-loving, not in what we think but in what we do. That’s the lesson I want to learn from Thomas. That’s the Trellis I hope to be shaped by.

A Prayer out of a little book someone gave me last year by the mystic Evelyn Underhill

Come, Lord! come with me: see with my eyes:

hear with my ears: think with my mind: love

with my heart, in all the situations of my life.

Work with my hands: my strength. Take, cleanse,

possess, inhabit my will, my understanding, my love. Take me where you will, to do what you want,

in your way. Amen 5

  1. Illustration by John Ewing Roberts
  2. Lectionary Lab Live: April 24 2022
  3. Judy: Lectionary Ball Game
  4. Bennett, Tanya Linn. The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021 (pp. 91-92). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Evelyn Underhill: A Book of Prayers

The Risen Community

John 20:1-18

It’s strange that we read these texts every year during Easter, you would think that as a minister I would have said everything that can be told about them. Well granted, I’ve only been in the ministry for four years, so fair enough! But all the same, even though I’ve preached on these texts several times before, I find that when I read them again, there’s a whole other level that reveals itself. I think this is one of the remarkable things about the bible, you just keep digging and you find more.

I mentioned to you in a previous sermon that I had been reading a book called “Resurrecting Easter,” by John Dominic Crossan.1 Crossan and his wife in preparuing the book, travelled across several Countries, Greece, Russia, Romania, Turkey, Italy, and other countries. All regions where the Eastern Orthodox church played a big part in these particular societies. And what they discovered was , when it came to paintings and iconography, whereas Western churches always portray Jesus’ resurrection as a solitary figure, an individual. In the art of these Eastern Orthodox communities, when Jesus rises from the tomb, he is invariably grasping Adam by the hand and sometimes Eve, and lifting them up from the grave. It emphasizes that in this more ancient tradition, that the resurrection is not so much about the individual but about a community. Adam and Eve represent the relationship of all of humanity. There is evidence for this theology in the scriptures of the New Testament, it wasn’t just something that the Eastern Church dreamed up. In Matt 27 we hear that when Jesus’ was raised “the tombs opened and people who had died, came out of their graves and went into the Holy City and appeared to many people. Those particular verses I’ve always tended to ignore and discount, became they just seemed weird and strange in more ways than one. It actually reminded me of Michael Jackson’s thriller video, with all the zombies coming out of their graves! But then I realized, quite recently that this text, regardless of whether it is factual or not, is intended to communicate this idea and theology of a general community resurrection. Not merely an individual one, which our western Christian tradition tends to emphasize. So I’ve been reading these verses with new eyes recently.

In John’s account of the resurrection, Mary and the “other disciple” discover that they also need to take a second look before they fully realize that Jesus has risen. After Mary tells Jesus’ followers that his body has disappeared. Peter and ‘the other’ disciple, who is probably John, race each other to the tomb. John gets there first and looks into the grave and sees the linen wrappings, but he doesn’t go in, and so he does not yet realize what has happened. Likewise, Mary sees Jesus but she thinks he’s the gardener. She doesn’t recognize him, until the moment he calls her name, ‘Mary!’ and then she responds joyfully, ‘Rabboni!’ teacher. So with resurrection there is the need for a second look, or for a second set of eyes.

This week I went to see Jean and Laken Lewis, and one of the things I always enjoy about visiting them, is the stories they tell me of what PEI was like many years ago. This week Jean was telling me about her grandmother, and she gave me her permission to share this story. She said times were tough for everyone back in the 1920’s and 1930’s. But unlike today, everybody knew who their neighbours were, and everybody would look out for each other. There would be a number of men in those days who couldn’t find work, and would sort of wander from one place to another. And Jean’s grandmother would take them in, give them a bed for the night, wash and mend their clothes and feed them a meal. They would often do chores around the farm to repay her, and then go on their way the next morning. Jean’s grandma wasn’t unique in this, it was apparently a common practice on farms. When I got home I was thinking about that story and realized how alike that was to those eastern orthodox icons of Jesus grasping the hand of humanity in Adam and Eve and lifting them up. That this story was also about community and about someone in the spirit of Christ lifting others up and resurrecting them from despair, Jean’s grandmother was reaching down and giving people a hand up. It’s something we don’t tend to see today in our society. And as a church and as a wider community like Mary and the other disciple, we lose sight of what resurrection really is, as we peer into that tomb. We don’t see the whole picture of what resurrection is or what it could be for us as a church. It’s why we need a second set of eyes to show us. And it occurred to me, Ella, Carter and Taylor, on this your confirmation day, like the story Jean told me about her grandmother revealed what resurrection looked like in the past. You have feet which walk further into the future than the rest of us. And so, as I said you during our final confirmation class. never hesitate to tell the rest of us what resurrection means to you and what it can mean for this faith community. Because you’re that second set of eyes which we need so much. Remember that, as you continue your journey of faith in this community. For our part, we will do our best to listen, and to look, so we might see the things you show us!

  1. John Dominic Crossan: Resurrecting Easter

Between the Peace of Earth and Heaven

Luke 19:28–40

Whenever I read these Palm Sunday texts, it always brings back the memory of when Margaret & I stood near the Mount of Olives. It was close to where Jesus would have been in this story, looking down on the city of Jerusalem and its surrounding walls. From where we were, we could see the double arches of the Golden Gate through which Jesus entered the city on that day. In front of the now bricked up gate, an Islamic leader from centuries ago, built a cemetery in front. He believed that if the Jewish Messiah returned, he would never dare cross over the dead bodies to enter the city. It underlines the fact, that from Jesus’ time to today, Jerusalem has been a place of contest and conflict.

We try to imagine what was going through Jesus’ mind as he approached Jerusalem. I’m sure fear would have been one of his emotions. And to counter that fear, I can picture Jesus reciting the words of the prophet Isaiah.”I have set my face like flint. I will give my back to those who will strike me, and my cheeks to those who pull out my beard.” Jesus was under no illusions as to, what would happen to him, and he knew that he would never leave the city alive. Another emotion that Jesus, may have felt, was that of anger. He had seen, most likely on the route to Jerusalem, the barbarity of the Roman occupiers on display, in the rows of crosses lining the way to the city, where those who had opposed Rome had been crucified. And, as I mentioned in the story the other week, the Romans had recently killed a group of Galileans in the temple, because they were protesting against Roman rule. Galilee was a small place, so Jesus would have known the victims personally. So, I can imagine that there were feelings of fear, anger and grief kindled in Jesus as he approached the city. But, as he passed through that double arched gateway, somehow he was able to move through those feelings, so he could then carry out what he knew must be done on the inside of the walls of Jerusalem.

Rev. Joy Noble lent me a book a couple of weeks ago, called ‘Resurrecting Easter,’ by the Roman Catholic theologian, John Dominic Crossan. And in the book was a picture of another gate, in the city of Moscow, called the “Resurrection Gate.” Like the Golden Gate in Jerusalem, it’s also a double-arched structure. Built in 1535, it was part of the original Kitai-Gorod wall, which at one time surrounded the city. It’s called the “Resurrection Gate,” (or in Greek, the Anistasia Gate) because between the two arches there is a large icon of the resurrection of Jesus. But in the photograph in Crossan’s book, across the large square outside the Anastasia gate, there are rows upon rows of tanks and armoured vehicles. And I thought, of how this was like the Golden Gate of Jerusalem in Jesus time, with a similar context, and in the same way, presents a contradiction. The icon of Jesus” resurrection, where he ushers in a kingdom of peace, and the instruments of war, blocking the way in.

As the images during the last week were shown to us over the news media of the atrocities carried out in Bucha, Ukraine. I’ve been struggling (as I’m sure you have as well) with the feelings that have been coming up inside me, of grief and anger. A small wounded child lying alone in a hospital room crying for his papa, bodies in the street lying where they were killed weeks before, when they were just out grocery shopping, or riding a bicycle. These accounts stirred up a lot of anger in me. To the extent that when I saw some smashed, burned out Russian tanks beside the road, I was glad. But, then shame came up in me as well, because I realized that, one of the reasons, why I was so upset, was because the Ukrainians were like me. They were white, of European descent, and I don’t think that I felt quite as upset, when there were Africans, or Syrians who were in similar circumstances. And I remembered as well, the thousands of people from 3rd world countries, who are still waiting to be allowed entry into the West as refugees.

On Palm Sunday God challenges us, to follow Jesus and to walk through that gate, the gate of our anger, shame and fear. And, of course, this isn’t something we can do on our own. But that gate stands between us and the peace which we seek. It’s interesting, how in this passage, the crowds cry “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” These words about peace, are mirrored in Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus. There, the angels sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward humankind.” We have the promise of peace on earth, and the promise of the peace in heaven, but we don’t experience that peace, because there’s a gate through which we must pass to get there.

When we think of the crowds who were following Jesus that day, waving palm branches, or as in this gospel, spreading their clothes and cloaks on the ground before him as he moved into the city. What were they thinking and feeling? Did they actually understand why Jesus was there? Was their belief assumptions and theology about Jesus correct? No, of course, not. But much of the time neither is ours either. We catch a glimpse of Jesus, after he goes through the gate, and then suddenly, it’s like he has turned a corner, and we have lost sight of him. Yet in their confusion and wrongheadedness, the people this day,show up with all of their wrong theology, and their anger and their fear, their confusion and their judgment. But they still show up anyway and praise God and sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” That’s what we are called to do today also. To show up, to praise God, and to celebrate Jesus our Messiah.

Someone, shared an amazing song with me this week. It’s called 1 Lagi Bina/Chal Mele Noon Challiye. As soon as I listened to it, I knew right away that it was about worship, though I was not able to understand a single word because it was sung in the language of the Sindhi and Punjabi people, of Pakistan. However, later I was able to google the lyrics, and translate them. And I used the song with our confirmation class on Friday, because, we were focussing on the meaning of worship. We were looking at the importance of those special sacramental moments, where we feel God’s presence close to us in music or in nature. And then I I thought that this song conveyed the essence of what worship is about, and what it might have been like for the people who followed Jesus that day, rejoicing and dancing and singing praises to God. This is what Palm Sunday is about. Despite the fact, that, like those crowds we carry within us the anger, shame, confusion and fear of our humanity, we can still lift up our hearts and voices in praise.

“Everywhere I turn I see the brilliant color of my beloved.

I went to see that dazzling hue.

And myself got dyed in his blessed color

The sparkling assembly of the world

is now here and now gone

Let us go and see its sights for these few moments.

For we must ultimately die and leave here,

Let us go and see its sights for these few moments.”

Ho Allah, Ho, Allah

And so, let us also be here together for these few precious moments, while we still have them. And let us like the people of Jesus’ day, despite our uncertainty and confusion follow him into Jerusalem, through the Golden Gate and along the narrow streets and round the many corners of the city, For if we are silent, the very stones will cry out.

  1. https://youtu.be/I3tS2oTUvHI

An Aroma of Grace

John 12:1-8

I was wandering through the market in Jerusalem today, and I visited one of my favorite places, Simeon’s spice stall. I love going there and experiencing the many aromas of nard, frankincense, cloves, cardamom. I picked up some nard and cinnamon to take home to Mary and Martha in Bethany, just a few miles from here. As I now walk along the road back towards home, I am thinking about how “smells” connect us to the events from our past, how aromas intimately interweave with memory. As I make my way out past the Jaffa gate, I try to remember what the earliest smells in my life were. Let me think now.. , aah!…. apples, apricots laced with cinnamon, the fatty scent of meat cooked long and low. What are these smells? I remember now! They are the aromas of Passover! Mother in the kitchen cooking. Abba rehearsing us children on the Seder meal questions. “How is this night different from all other nights?” He would ask us. We would reply in unison. “On all other nights we eat leavened bread, and on this night only matzah.” Those were such happy times with us three children, Abba, and mother. How old was I then? Ten, maybe eleven? And then the happy times suddenly ended, and a cloak of despair descended over us. Abba and Mother both died of fever within a week of each other, leaving us as orphans. We lived in Bethel then. Thankfully, Martha, Mary, and I were able to stay together, with relatives. But, it was impossible, for the girls as they grew older to find husbands because we had no money for a dowry. So we made a pact that together we would look after each other. That was when we moved to Bethany.

The word “Bethany” means the place of affliction. The smells are coming back to me from our early days there. Urine, blood, ointment. There were many sick and dying people in Bethany when we arrived, and we wanted to help them. So in honour of our parents we started a healing house, looking after those who suffered from disease. We were not trained in medicine, but we did the best we could. The smell of a bonfire reminds me of the first time we met Jesus. I was burning some infected clothes that day. He came and asked if he could enter the healing house to comfort the sick and dying. We welcomed him in and he lay hands on many of our patients that day and healed them. Thereafter, he would visit each time he came through Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, bringing hope and healing to more people than I can ever remember. He would stay at our house while visiting, and the four of us became close friends. We loved it when he came. Jesus would tell us stories and parables. Mary, would always sit at his feet and listen to him.

(draws in breath sharply.) That smell, the fear! how can I forget? It was shortly after one of Jesus’s last visits, that I became infected from a diseased patient. I was gravely ill and struggling to breathe. I vaguely remember Mary and Martha weeping in their helplessness, and then, fading voices, and then.. darkness, and silence, the silence of death. Mary said I was in the tomb for three days. But a piercing light broke through the blackness of that place, so bright that it hurt my eyes. And I heard a voice, “I am the resurrection and the life! Lazarus come out!! The smell of death was all around me, clinging to my shroud, but I was breathing, and I was whole. How can this be? But it wass true, I had died, and now I was alive! Mary and Martha sobbed with sheer joy, because the three of us were together again. Jesus came to our house for a meal, so we could honour him, and thank him for all he had done. Even though Passover was only a week away, we put on a sumptuous dinner, like the ones that Mama and Abba used to make for us.

Some of his disciples were there, and there was a lot of laughter that night. I didn’t join in too much. I was quiet and just watched and listened. I guess I was thinking and reflecting about what had happened to me. When you have experienced death personally, and then a sudden resurrection. It makes you look at life with a whole new perspective. It all still seemed like a dream. Jesus had given me this extravagant gift of life, what was I going to do with it? It was then that I noticed Mary walking over to Jesus with a vase of nard, It was from the healing house. We used it to anoint the sick and the dying. Why was Mary crying? Mary is a woman with great insight. She can see things that others can’t. She knelt and slowly drizzled the nard all over Jesus’ feet1, covering them with the fragrant ointment.” Whether consciously or not, she was anointing him for his death and, but She also took on the role of a temple priest anointing Jesus as a king, about to his holy City. I’ll never forget how that scent filled the room. Jesus looked down at Mary and nodded. Whatever she had done, he knew the reason for it.

One of the disciples, Judas, leaped to his feet, and said with disgust, “What a waste!” Woman, the cost of that ointment would have fed many of the poor!” Reflecting on this weeks later, I realized how Mary’s actions reflected Jesus’ ministry, which always demonstrated the extravagant love of God. We had heard the stories about Jesus. Of how he turned the water into wine at Cana, so that there was more than enough to quench the thirst of the whole town, let alone the guests at the wedding! We heard of how Jesus took five loaves and two fish and fed a multitude with 12 baskets of food left over. And Martha, Mary and I saw for ourselves Jesus extravagant love when he came to the healing house in Bethany and cured the suffering. Mary’s actions that night reflected the love and the self-sacrifice that was in Jesus. But Judas reaction to Mary’s act of generosity was one of limitation over and against love. Judas responded by counting the cost of her action, for him love had limits. Mary acted out of silence, whereas, His presumption was evident in his angry criticism and argument. Jesus defended Mary that evening and said to Judas, “leave her alone! the poor you will always have with you. You will not always have me.” Jesus was actually referring to Deuteronomy 152 “For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor.” Ironically, today as Martha, Mary & I continue our work at the healing house, we meet Jesus daily in the poor and afflicted. What Mary sensed, came to pass within the next week. Jesus raising me from death gave the authorities a reason to arrest him. He was tried and crucified during passover. But, the extravagant love of God overcame death. As I died and was raised by Jesus, so was Jesus raised by God, and came from the tomb triumphant over death. Jesus said to Martha when I was buried, I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live even though they die.

I am old and, surely, it won’t be long before I die, or I should say, before I die again. But I’m not afraid because our God parted the waters of the Red Sea and led us to safety, as our people walked on dry land through the middle of the waves. Our God, when we were lost and dying of thirst in the desert brought us rushing streams of living water. Our God will always make a path for us through the darkness. So with that knowledge, we receive faith to live and love extravagantly.

Here I am finally. I arrive at the entrance to our home, and I can smell the delicious aroma of Martha’s bread baking in the oven! Mary opens the door. “You’ve been gone for a while Lazarus,” she said. “Yes, Mary,” I reply, “I was taking my time on the way home, thinking of how the Lord has blessed our lives so abundantly.” “He has indeed!” Mary said, “Blessed be the Lord our God for his abundant grace, revealed to us in his mighty acts, and in our risen Messiah Jesus.”

  1. Rev, Mavis Peters, Lectionary Ball Game
  2. Rabbi Ellis: Lectionary Ball Game 30.3.22

To Love a Dragonfly

Luke 15:13, 11b–32

Ralph Milton 1 tells of the teacher who, for reasons of her own, asked the kids one day, “If all the bad children were painted red and all the good children were painted green, which colour would you be?” Red or Green? It is a tough question, isn’t it, when you pose only two options. One wise child answered the teacher: “I’m Striped” The person who related the story said, “It is the same in the world today. We are a curious combination of the lost and the found. We are striped. Likewise, we are, in some sense, not completely complete.” He also said, “It seems to me that in the frame of the story—everyone but Jesus is striped.” On that, I disagree. I think Jesus is also striped. There are certainly instances in the bible, like the story of the Samaritan woman where Jesus exhibits bias and prejudice against others. But I don’t think this detracts from his divinity in any way. Gregory Nazianzus, a fourth-century Archbishop of Constantinople, said, “The unassumed is the unhealed.” In other words, Because Jesus is striped, it is with his stripes he heals our sin within himself. I don’t think Jesus could have thought up and told the brilliant and thought-provoking parables in the gospels. The characters of which reveal the deepest conflicts within the human soul, if he were unable to see the various characters and their struggles in himself. He realizes he is all the players in the story. He is the prodigal son, the angry older son and the radically inclusive father. I’m sure you have heard this parable hundreds of times. So, I wonder what else we might squeeze out of this story of the Prodigal Son. Well, for one thing, maybe we could shift what we focus on. Instead of calling it the Prodigal Son, we could call it “the ticked off older brother!”

The reason this parable happened in the first place was because of a complaint by the Pharisees. A group of sinners and Tax Collectors had gathered around Jesus to listen to him. The Pharisees were railing about the fact that Jesus welcomed these people. Now, we might tend to see these “sinners” through Rose-coloured glasses because of the judgmental opinion of the Pharisees. But let’s realize they probably were the type of unsavory people, that you and I might not want to be associated with, either. So, we can cut the Pharisees a bit of slack here. The parable which Jesus tells them, apparently has to do with repentance. This means a turning around and going in a different direction in life, which is what the Prodigal son does at least physically, because yes, indeed, he turns around and goes back to his family. But whether he is really repentant, is not clear. He never has a talk with himself where he comes to an understanding of his sin. What drives the change in his life, is his physical hunger, more than his remorse for what he did to his family. All the way home, he rehearses to himself what he will say to his father so that he may at least receive sustenance as a servant. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” His father meets him on the road, and the son repeats the line that he has memorized along the way. But there is nothing in the text that suggests that he is truly remorseful. I pointed this out to our lectionary group on Wednesday that the younger son’s main concern is with his self-preservation. Pam, 2 a Lutheran minister, replied but isn’t self-preservation a very human response?

The older brother represents the bad guy in this story, he’s a stand-in for the Pharisees. But let’s look at the story from his perspective for a moment. Note that the older son wasn’t even invited to the party which the father held for the younger son.3 They don’t even come to get him, they leave him to work in the fields. The first he knows about it is when he hears the music and the dancing. Secondly, let’s think about where the food for the meal come from? Remember, the father divided his property between his two sons. The younger son sold his half and spent the money on prostitutes and riotous living. Which means that the fatted calf actually belonged to the older son, or at the very least it was his inheritance. 4No wonder he’s ticked off!

Maybe this part of the story brings back memories from your life. Where you feel you were being responsible and fair and yet, you were treated unfairly within the family circle, possibly another sibling far less conscientious and hardworking than you were, got off scott free or was given preferential treatment. One of the people on the Working preacher podcast 5said how he was teaching this parable to an undergraduate class. When he focussed on the feelings of the older son, he said a woman in the front row looked absolutely livid. She just sat there looking at her bible and she was shaking with anger, feeling the pain of the older son. Finally, she said through her clenched teeth, ‘this makes me so mad!!!

The grace of God comes out in the character of the father, and that grace is so extensive that it knows no bounds. For example, 6the father scandalously allows his younger son to persuade him to sell half of his land. Jesus’ audience would have been as shocked by the sale of the land as they would have been by the son squandering the proceeds. For Jews, selling land would have been controversial because it was connected to their religious beliefs that ancestral land holdings were God’s gift to their families. When the man’s son returns, rather than being shamed by the actions of his son, he does what a patriarch in the Middle East would never do, he lifts his robes and runs to meet him. He then holds a party for his son so that he can re-insert him into the life and good graces of the community. But the invited guests would have seen this dinner party as undermining the community’s traditional values and setting a bad example for other fathers. The grace exhibited by the father in this story is so lavish that in our eyes, Grace becomes almost disgraceful or at least inappropriate. These actions of the father, and the hurt feelings of the older son, make this a tough parable to think about because it challenges our whole notions of what is fair and reasonable. God’s grace is demanding but rarely reasonable in our eyes.

I’m currently reading a book called “Brother to a Dragon Fly,” 7it’s written by Will Davis Campbell. Will was ordained as a Baptist minister in Mississippi at the age of 17. His ordination took place in a church, that once permitted Klansmen to attend. They dressed in their full regalia and marched down the aisle to present the congregation with a bible. Will remembered touching the embossed KKK on the bible at his ordination and sensing the conflict which exists between the church and the message of Jesus. “Brother to a Dragon Fly,” is the story of Will’s brother Joe, who despite having the same upbringing, as Will did, being initially successful as a pharmacist. He spiralled down into alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence, tragically dying at the early age of 46. “Brother to a Dragon Fly” tells of the difficulties and the frustrations that Will and his family experienced having to constantly react and respond to Joe’s disease. Will come to see that the story of his brother and how it revealed humanity’s imperfections, was also mirrored in the racial attitudes of the South. That the South after the Civil War turned to segregation as a kind of drug which made them feel better but eventually led to their downfall. But rather than avoid those who held racist views, Will decided that a key focus of his ministry would be to engage with them.

He tells a story about being at an all-night funeral vigil, for a nephew who died. Campbell’s unrepentant racist of an uncle approaches Campbell, and in sympathy pours him a cup of coffee from a thermos. Will asks himself is this act of care and generosity negated by this man’s racism? How does racism differ from other sins like greed or envy? He wonders about the difference between a white man feeling superior to a person of colour, and a man of any race feeling superior to a racist. If we’re all God’s creatures, he argues, there is no reasonable occasion for superiority on either side of the debate. In other words, we are all striped. Will writes, “I came to understand the nature of human tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides.” Can’t take sides? Even as I say that, I find it difficult to accept! What do you mean I can’t take sides? I can’t take sides against the unrepentant Putin?? But what Will is saying, and I’m afraid what the gospel says is that the Grace of God is so far-reaching, so deep and broad that it has demands. That we must seek to be in relationship with the other, the other who we want to hate.

This parable is a tough story to consider, but it teaches us that the God we claim to worship, is more interested 8in relationship than ritual. God is more concerned about the community than in cancelling others, and is more willing to reconcile than to repulse. As followers of Jesus that’s what we’re called to do. And we can’t do it unless it is done through the cross, with God’s grace, challenging us and calling us to be transformed by the renewal of our hearts and minds.

  1. Ralph Milton: Sermons.com
  2. Rev. Pam McNeil: Lectionary Ball Game
  3. Working Preacher
  4. Working Preacher
  5. Working Preacher: Matt Skinner
  6. Leslie J Hopp: Feasting on the Word, Year C Lent
  7. Bill Campbell
  8. Working Preacher, adapted from a comment made by Joy J Moore.

God In The Midst of The City

Luke 4:1-13

Psalm 46

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved, and God will help it when the morning dawns.”

I heard this text from Psalm 46 on Tuesday afternoon, when I was attending a zoom Hebrew reading class hosted by St. Alban’s Cathedral in the UK. As we read through and translated the verses of this psalm, I couldn’t help thinking of the news of the war in Ukraine that is being reported in the media. I decided right there and then to set the lectionary aside for one Sunday, at least in part, and to use this particular psalm instead of Psalm 91 which we were originally going to read.

The City of God in Psalm 46 may well be referring to Jerusalem, though it doesn’t specifically say this. It just declares that God is in the midst of the city, and it shall not be moved. Though, with the bringing of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, and the establishment of the temple there, the people of Israel understood that Jerusalem was the place that God had chosen to reside. For them, it was “the city of God,” a holy city, and thus it was unshakeable. Now, it’s fine to have a location that serves as a visible symbol of God’s presence. But it’s another thing entirely to rely on the concrete symbol itself for salvation rather than on the presence of the god that the city symbolized. Indeed, despite the confidence expressed in this psalm, Jerusalem did eventually fall, specifically to the Army of the Babylonians. The Babylonians demolished Jerusalem. Centuries later, it was rebuilt by Herod around the time of Jesus into an even more magnificent structure. But it was again, except for the western wall, leveled to the ground by the Romans in AD 60. But for Jews and Christians separately, the physical temple became transformed into a more powerful symbol and an idea that could never be extinguished again. For the Jews, the temple became the Torah. It has sustained the Jewish people in exile during most of the last two millennia. For Christians, the temple became the resurrected Christ, our Torah.

“There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved, and God will help it when the morning dawns.”

As I said before, the text doesn’t refer specifically to Jerusalem, so it can refer to any city. Every town and every city, every place, can be the City of God. This week, the river in this text is the river Dnieper which runs through the centre of Ukraine and beside Kyiv, its capital. And just like in the Psalm, there is a shaking and a trembling in Kyiv. And in many of Ukraine’s other cities as, Russian bombs, shells, cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons fall without discrimination into civilian areas, apartment blocks, schools, and utilities. They are killing scores of innocent people and destroying the infrastructure needed by communities and hospitals to sustain life. As you have no doubt heard on the news, there are over a million refugees, mainly women and children fleeing Ukraine for safety while their husbands remain behind to defend their country and their ideals.

I remember a few weeks ago in a sermon I quoted Father Daniel Berrigan who said 1“your theology is not where your head is at. Your theology is not where your heart is at. Your theology is where your ass is at.” In other words, God calls us to place our bodies where our faith is. In our text from Luke, Satan tempts Jesus three times, and we traditionally understand these as temptations of the spirit. But Jesus experienced these temptations in an embodied way2, the pain and the suffering that he goes through is an important part of his struggle to become whom God was calling him to be. The first temptation is of the body and is of hunger. Jesus is famished and he is tempted to change a stone into bread. The third temptation is also about a threat to his body, of falling from the pinnacle of the temple. The second temptation is in resisting the desire to misuse power for his ends and against the needs of others. This is the temptation that the leader of Russia has fallen into and embraced and caused unimaginable suffering for others.

When we really think about it, most if not all wars happen due to the failure to resist these three temptations. The temptation of bread, where we believe that we do not have enough for ourselves, so we take from others. The temptation of power, where we try to impose our will over others. And the temptation which comes through the fear of death, which in turn causes us to inflict death upon others.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved, and God will help it when the morning dawns.”

Like Jerusalem The city of Kyiv may well fall, and clearly there is much suffering in the days ahead. But as President Zelensky said after the Russians bombed s Kharkiv’s Freedom Square and opera house “Every square of today, no matter what it’s called, is going to be called Freedom Square, in every city of our country. Nobody is gonna break us.” In fact, there are people gathering in freedom squares all over the world including Russia, in the heart of Moscow! You can kill a physical representation of an idea, but you can never kill the idea, especially when it’s about freedom.

One of the refugees from Ukraine 3is Victoria from Irshava, in western Ukraine. She said, “I came to Hungary with my two daughters. I’m leaving them with relatives who are waiting here at the border and returning to my husband,” When asked if she was afraid to go back she replied, “Honestly, I’m not afraid. though I worry about my daughters, I can see that things are not good for Ukraine, but I cannot leave my country. ‘My husband and I are ready if necessary to protect Ukraine for the future, for our children. Putting their bodies where their faith is, is what is happening in Ukraine today where people are defending their commitment to a way of life, and for their freedom. And not only for their freedom, but as the world is coming to realize, with their bodies, they are defending our freedom as well.

In the Text from Psalm 46, God gives us a promise “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire. ‘Be still, and know that I am God!”

Margaret shared a post with me from Facebook It’s an astrological post, which I don’t tend to follow, but it caught my attention. The writer Rebekah Hirsch put it this way, 4“we are waiting in the eye of the storm. And what is clear is that now, today, we are entering into a powerful emphasis on the sign of Pisces the fish. This is a major shift away from the dark energy of Pluto in Capricorn associated with war. Pisces the dreamer, the gentle, the magical; the archetype of the peacemaker, the visionary, the healer, the mystic, and the possibility of transcendence. Pisces is the sign most associated with Jesus Christ, with his message of universal love and the oneness of all creation.

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved, and God will help it when the morning dawns.”

As we begin our Lenten journey, the idea is that we walk with Christ towards Jerusalem, to deny ourselves and our needs so that we can with intentionality embody his journey. But, the fact is Jesus walks with those who are suffering today. He is walking with the people of Ukraine and he is in their midst. So in this season of Lent let us walk with them also. I encourage you to donate to the people of Ukraine, which you can do through the United Church of Canada. There is also a letter provided by the United Church which as a community we could send to our local Ukrainian community to show our support. It reads in part.

5Dear siblings in Christ, Our hearts overflow with sorrow as we listen to the news of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Shock and outrage mingle with our tears at this horrific violation of innocent people in a sovereign nation. We are aware that many in your community have family and friends residing in Ukraine who may be hard to reach at this time. We join our prayers to yours for their safety and well-being. In love, we reach out to you, to offer support and comfort. We open our hearts to you as we extend the hand of solidarity. You are not alone. With the spirit, who broods over creation’s waters and intercedes with sighs too deep for words, we hold you in prayer. May you know the strength and comfort of God’s constant presence with you and your community.

In peace and solidarity

(Your friends at York Covehead Pastoral Charge of United Church of Canada)

“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved, and God will help it when the morning dawns.”

Amen

  1. Daniel Berrigan
  2. Working Preacher Podcast
  3. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60539104
  4. Rebekah Hirsch: A Good Day to Expect a Miracle
  5. United Church Letter to Ukrainian Communities

I Am Your Brother

Luke 6:27-38

Genesis 45:3—11,15

I have been reflecting on the story of Joseph, looking at where this text we read today fits into its wider narrative. It’s a long story, starting from when Jacob first gave Joseph his coat of many colours as a young man, Joseph’s dreams of greatness, then when his jealous siblings betray him, by selling him into slavery. Joseph’s suffering and various adventures in Egypt, and finally the reconciliation with his brothers. I was thinking of the colours of Joseph’s robe as a young boy together with those themes of persecution, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It reminded me of another more modern story like this one, and of an extraordinary individual, and an incident which took place in South Africa in 1995.

It was the final game of the World Rugby Cup, played between the South African Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks. Nelson Mandela had become the president of South Africa in 1994, just one year earlier, but South Africa was still a divided nation. To black South Africans, the green, and gold of the Springbok colours continued to represent the brutal apartheid regime. The Springboks were almost without exception, a white team with only one black player, Chester Williams. So hated were they, that black South Africans attending the rugby games leading up to the cup final would cheer for the opposing teams. The Springboks were seeded to be in 9th place, but they surprised the whole world when they won the cup, under the leadership of their captain Francois Pienaar. And the spectators that day were astonished during the post-match presentation ceremony. This was because, Nelson Mandela, went onto the field to present Francois with the Webb Ellis Cup wearing the hated Springbok jersey and colours.

I found several interesting parallels and contrasts between the story of Joseph, and the life of Nelson Mandela. For example, Joseph is thrown into a hole to die, and is later sold into slavery. Mandela was also thrown into a hole of sorts, a prison cell on Robbin Island, after he challenged the white South African authorities. It was a moment which I will never forget, when I stood at the entrance to Mandela’s tiny cell when we visited Robbin Island in South Africa in 2012. Joseph grows and matures in Egypt, making good use of his exile away from his country. Likewise, Mandela matures in prison as he continues to work to bring about justice in South Africa, while at the same time wrestling to overcome the bitterness that he felt towards his captors. Joseph’s coat of colours is a sign of his privileged status, which distanced him from his brothers, and becomes another cause of their rejection. But by contrast, Mandela puts on the green and gold colours of a privileged white class, but transforms it from a symbol of exclusion, to one that unites white and black South Africans. Mandela once said that 1“forgiveness liberates the soul, it removes fear, that’s why it’s such a powerful weapon.” So, these are both stories of how forgiveness builds community and overcomes oppression and injustice.

The text from today’s reading begins when Joseph’s brothers are standing before him afraid for their lives. They don’t recognize that he’s their brother because they could only see his outward form. No doubt, he was dressed in the stiff robes, breastplate, and headdress of an Egyptian high official. His appearance as a ranking Egyptian administrator was intended to instill fear and awe in any who came into the presence one of his stature in Egyptian society. When Joseph finally reveals himself, his brothers naturally assume that 2the pattern of violence they once inflicted on him will continue, but against them. The narrator tells us that they were silent because they were terrified. (Genesis 45:3).

Recalling the story: when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt from Israel to find food during a time of famine, Joseph at first toys with them. 3He does this to test their good will, throwing them in jail and then sending them back to Canaan to retrieve their youngest brother, Benjamin. They return with the boy, and Joseph continues his game, planting a silver cup in the boy’s satchel as they leave and after bringing them back, pretending that he might kill Benjamin because of the “stolen” cup. Judah, in his concern for Benjamin, and remembering the terrible grief that his father Jacob endured when Joseph himself was lost, offers his life in exchange for Benjamin’s. Joseph and Judah’s joint and genuine concern for their father, Jacob, is what finally unites them. Joseph is overwhelmed with a desire for reconciliation. He breaks down and cries before them and reveals his identity…. “I am Joseph, your brother!”

Maybe there are additional reasons why Joseph felt compelled to forgive his brothers. 4Justin Michael Reed In his commentary on this passage points out that after their reconciliation, Joseph invites his brothers to live with him, including their children and their children’s children. This reunification brings together the family that will eventually develop into an entire people in Egypt. And we can imagine over the ensuing years that Joseph had a positive influence on this new community. A community that can now break away from the violent norms of the past. Justin suggests that perhaps Joseph’s optimistic theology about God transforming evil human intentions into a greater good allows him to endure trauma and seek to transform society for the better rather than seeking revenge.

In our Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you,” Forgive, and you will be forgiven. As members of a society mainly based on individualism, we tend to think that Jesus is directing his words to us as specific persons. But, in fact, he is addressing the community at large 5and saying that collectively, we must live in a context that promotes and brings about forgiveness. This is what defines us as a community, i.e. how we respond to those who try to hurt us. And even when we are called to forgive others individually, we often need the support of our community to achieve this. And I would say at times, that we even need to forgive on behalf of the community.

We admire Nelson Mandela for his ability to forgive those who instituted and maintained apartheid. He was a great man for being able to do this, and if he hadn’t South Africa would have been lost. But we underestimate how difficult it must have been for him, to put the oppression he suffered behind him. 6When Bill Clinton met Mandela for the first time, he had a question on his mind. He said, “When you were released from prison, Mr. Mandela,” I woke my daughter at three o’clock in the morning, because I wanted her to see this historic event.” Then President Clinton zeroed in on his question: “As you marched from the cellblock across the yard to the gate of the prison, the camera focused in on your face. I have never seen such anger, and even hatred, in any man as was expressed on your face at that time. That’s not the Nelson Mandela I know today,” said Clinton. “What was that about?” Mandela answered, “I’m surprised that you saw that, and I regret that the cameras caught my anger. You see, as I walked across the courtyard that day, I thought to myself, ’They’ve taken everything from you that matters. Your cause is dead. Your family is gone. Your friends have been killed. Now they’re releasing you, but there’s nothing left for you out there.’ And I hated them for what they had taken from me. Then, I sensed an inner voice saying to me, ’Nelson! For twenty-seven years you were their prisoner, but you were always a free man! Don’t allow them to make you into a free man, only to turn you into their prisoner!’ In other words, you can never be free to be a whole person if you are unable to forgive.

I suggest that this points out two truths. First, to forgive others who have wronged us, we must accept and acknowledge the anger and the hurt, it has caused, and let it flow through us. Second, we forgive for ourselves and for our community. No doubt Nelson Mandela knew that the future well-being of all South Africans was at stake. In other words, if he was not able to forgive, then the nation could not be saved. He did forgive, and one way he demonstrated that forgiveness was during the following year when he dressed himself in the colours of the Springboks.

If we harbor hatred and hurt against others, it not only affects our lives, it will eventually affect everyone around us, our family, friends and community. If we can’t forgive, we are not free to be the people God calls us to be. Our community may be unaware of the hurt that is inside us, but our inability to be reconciled will impact them, though they may not understand why. So, we must find the means and the way forward to forgive those who have hurt us, for the good of others, with the help of others, and through the Grace of God who we know in Jesus Christ

Amen.

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Working Preacher: Justin Michael Reed
  3. Working Preacher: Justin Michael Reed
  4. Justin Michalel Reed: Working Preacher
  5. Lectionary Lab Live
  6. Illustration King Duncan, Sermons.com

Resurgam and Resurrection

Jeremiah 17:5-10

1 Corinthians 15:12-20

When we travel to the UK for a vacation this summer. I’m looking forward to going to London and seeing St. Paul’s cathedral. There’s an interesting tale about when St Paul’s was being designed by the renowned architect Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London destroyed an earlier cathedral that stood on the same site. The story is that before work could begin on the new cathedral, the remains of the old cathedral had to be taken away. Once they cleared the site and took the necessary measurements, Wren asked a workman to bring a stone to mark the center of the new building. By pure chance, the workman handed Wren part of a gravestone from the old cathedral. On the stone was the Latin inscription RESURGAM, which means, “I shall rise again.” Sir Christopher Wren was so moved that the words “I shall rise again” should appear on that stone strictly by chance, that he had the word RESURGAM engraved on the exterior of the new cathedral. It is still there today above the great south door. And I’m looking forward to seeing it this summer.

Resurgam!” is the key argument that Paul is making to the Corinthians in our text. He has learned that some within the Corinthian church doubt the truth of the resurrection. Others are worried about what had happened to those who have died before the return of Christ. Early Christians expected Jesus’ imminent return, but many years had passed since his resurrection, and this had not happened. Paul responds at length to their disbelief and their concerns, and he explains to the Corinthians why resurrection is such a big deal.

Rev John Fairless 1sums up the somewhat complex argument Paul is making in the following manner. There’s a lot of “ifs” to follow here, but if you can hang with it, it comes to a very plain and blunt conclusion: Paul argues:

  • If there’s no resurrection, then Christ has not been raised (v.13)
  • If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and futile—you are still in your sins (vv. 16-17)
  • (If the above is true) then those who have died have perished. (v. 18)
  • If we hoped in Christ for this life only—well, we have grabbed the short end of the stick, so to speak. And pity on us. (v. 19)

Of course, this is all Pauls way of setting up the proclamation of the gospel in v. 20: when he writes, “But in fact, Christ HAS been raised…!”

The Corinthians had a problem accepting the whole concept of resurrection. These people were mostly Romans and Greeks, not Jews. And their culture emphasized a separation between the body and the soul. In their view the soul was entrapped by the body and at death, would separate from the body and go up to heaven. But Jews didn’t hold that view, they believed that body and soul were one, not two things. That the real “you” is an 2inspired body into which God breathed the breath of life. The word inspire is from the Latin inspirare “breathe or blow into.” So, as humans, we are ensouled bodies. But we still cling to that Greco-Roman idea of the separation of soul and body today, though occasionally, it can be challenged. I remember when my Mum died in 1990, we took the children up to the gravesite following the funeral. Daniel, who was three, said to me, pointing at the top of the whitewashed grave. “So, Granny’s in there, is she?” I tried to explain to him. “Well Dan, her body is in there… yes, but her soul is in heaven.” Daniel, not unlike Paul’s style of blunt argument, immediately challenged my Greco-Roman viewpoint and asked, “Her body is in there? Alright, but where is her head then?”

Some things haven’t changed since Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. Many in the church, many church leaders, including leaders and ministers in the United Church doubt the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, arguing that it’s not scientifically possible. Frank Crouch tells of a congregational leader who confided in him, that Easter was his least favourite Sunday. This was because “you can’t escape the idea of Jesus’ resurrection on that day, so you have to preach on it, but I just can’t make myself believe in it.” This week resurrection falls in Epiphany, but as Crouch notes there is no Sunday of any season or any day at all where one can escape the reality of resurrection. For Paul, without it, we’ve got nothing (15:17).3

I checked our burial register recently, and thus far I have conducted 22 funerals. I know that each one of them has been a tragic, sometimes unbearable loss to the families who had to say a final farewell to their relative or friend. And probably, most if not all of us here have had to face the 4emotional struggle of watching someone die. Of receiving their ashes, of experiencing the death of a child, or participating in the burial of a friend. Death leaves us feeling empty, hopeless and helpless. And death reaches further than this, in that the fear of death is the root motivation behind sin. When Jeremiah writes, “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” Well, we can understand that the fear of death drives the deviousness of the human heart, which in turn drives our exaggerated self-preservation. As 5Christopher Hudson notes, The fear of death causes us to hoard money, to overreact against real and perceived threats, and to behave against one another in so many destructive ways.

In his letter Paul is not specifically trying to prove the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he’s trying to prove the theological reality of the resurrection, which is beyond our ability to understand conceptualize or explain. We only know that it happened. After all, Paul wasn’t there when Jesus walked away from the empty tomb. Paul never experienced Jesus in the flesh. But we know the story! In the midst of his attempts to persecute the followers of Jesus, on the road to Damascus, he had a vision of the resurrected Christ, and he was radically changed by it, 180 degrees. And he later realized that it’s not so as significant that Christ is coming in the future (though he is) but that Jesus is alive now, today! And there is not a fundamental difference between Pauls vision or experience of resurrection, and the experience Sir Christopher Wren had, or those experiences we have ourselves. Like Paul, people’s lives continue to be transformed by the living presence of Jesus and through visions and realizations of the resurrected Christ. I think many of us have moments which reveal to us the reality of resurrection, we just don’t tend to talk about them.

When my mum died in 1990 at the young age of 55. I remember that feeling of utter helplessness in the face of death. The day before her funeral I sat in the chair at a barber shop feeling a sense of powerlessness. I asked myself, “is this really the only thing I can do now for my mother, to have my hair cut and shine my shoes for the funeral?” And yet, a couple of days later, the radio was on at home and I heard “resurrection” in a song which Phil Collins was singing called Two hearts. The lyrics just hit me like a thunderbolt.

There’s so much love you’ll never know

She can reach you no matter how far

Wherever you are

Two hearts, believing in just one mind

Beating together till the end of time.

And I knew then that there is life beyond death, and that resurrection is real. I’m sure that many of you have had similar experiences. Well, I say to you don’t doubt those experiences, those epiphanies, it is God at work inspiring us to hope, through signs of the resurrection.

But, another key thing to know about resurrection is that it’s not just about the individual. It’s about the hope of a whole community. John Dominic Crossan 6writes about this in his book Saving Easter, which explores the Eastern Orthodox understanding of resurrection. He tells of visiting Saint Barbara’s Church in Cairo. Crossan and his wife found a painting there, in which the risen Jesus grasps the hands of other figures around him, his disciples. As they visited, other eastern churches, unlike the western image of a solitary Jesus rising from an empty tomb. The Crossans saw multiple icons of the resurrection, depicting Jesus holding the hands of figures around him, and drawing them, pulling them into the kingdom of heaven. So, the 22 people I conducted funerals for over the last three and a half years, and the loved ones we have lost, are hidden from us by death for a time, but are joined to us in resurrection. And, the correct theology is not quite what was written on that stone that Sir Christopher Wren discovered, Resurgam “I shall rise again. It should be the plural, resurgemus, “we shall rise again.”

In her COVID-19 update the other day, Dr. Morrison spoke of moving into the future with hope. Likewise, as we gather in-person next week as a community who believe in the resurrection, let us say out loud hallelujah! Because we will be moving towards our future in hope as a risen people.

Amen.

  1. Rev John Fairless Lectionary Lab Live
  2. Christopher Hudson Feasting on the Word, Year C page 1048, Christopher Hudson
  3. Frank L. Crouch
  4. From Feasting on the Word Year C Epiphany.
  5. hristopher Hudson , Feasting on the Word Year C, epiphany 6
  6. John Dominic Crossan, Saving Easter

Called To The Deep

Isa 6.1-13

Luke 5.1-11

Summer vacations at home used to be long because of the high temperatures, schools would break for about 10–11 weeks. Everywhere in Bermuda is close to the ocean, and most of the time within walking distance. I remember when I was in my early-teens during summer holidays I would often stroll down to the St. David’s ferry wharf in the morning for a swim. I would jump off the dock and then dive for mussels. I’d collect about a half a bucket full, walk home steam them, season them and eat them for lunch. I found early on that it was difficult to retrieve the mussels from the floor of the bay because they were quite deep, about 12–14 feet, and they had to be pried or twisted off the rocks they clung to. With my mask and snorkel, I could see them from the surface, but it was hard to reach them because the air in my lungs made me too buoyant. By the time I had swum to the bottom, the effort in getting to that depth meant I had to quickly return to the surface with only one or two mussels in my hand. But I had an innovative idea, a weighted belt, which I crafted for myself. I cut the legs off a pair of denim jeans, filled them with rocks, tied the ends off with string and fixed the two bags of stones to a belt around any waist. It worked well, because I could now swim to the bottom with much less effort and subsequently collect more mussels. The story in our text from Luke is also about innovation, deep water, and producing a bigger catch. And the image of the breaking nets in the story provides an insight into what the Kingdom of God is like.

Luke tells us that Peter and his fishermen friends were on the Lake of Galilee, they had let down their nets all night but had caught nothing. The next morning, Jesus wanted to speak to the crowds to tell them about God’s kingdom. He realized that Peter’s boat would make a good pulpit, as people would hear him better. Speaking across the water of the lake from the boat, his voice would have carried further. The text tells us that after Jesus had finished teaching, he asked Simon Peter to have the fishermen cast their nets in the deeper water. Peter reluctantly agreed to do so, but only after pointing out to Jesus that they had already been fishing all night and had caught nothing. Maybe, he was thinking to himself, “you’re a teacher, and we’re fishermen, I reckon we know more about this than you!” But, honoring Jesus, he reluctantly complied. Who were these fishermen, and what were their lives like? Professor of Preaching Ronald J. Allen suggests that owning their own boats, they were similar to middle-class business men today. They had no particular religious credentials to commend them to Jesus. But they were typical representatives of a broken age, living under Roman oppression, which included heavy taxes, social conflict and economic distress. Many Christians in our churches today could identify with the like of Peter and his friends. 1

When Luke writes in his gospel, the phrase ‘put out into deep water,’ the word deep in Greek βάθος ‘bathos’ in Hebrew (הָעֹמֶק) (Ha-Omek) doesn’t just mean deep. It’s not just depth in terms of feet or fathoms. It means much more than that. ‘Deep’ holds other meanings, like obscure, unintelligible, strange, unpredictable, difficult. In other words, ‘deep’ describes the times that these fishermen (later to become apostles) were living in. So, in Luke’s mind, Jesus is calling Peter and his fellow fishermen to go into the depths of the things that are difficult in their lives to find renewal.

There’s a similar context in the reading from Isaiah. Isaiah was called to be a prophet during the year that King Uzziah died. Uzziah reigned from 783BC to 742BC, over 50 years. And he provided much economic and social stability during his time as leader of Israel. But after he died, the whole society, and the region was plunged into uncertainty, doubt and distress. It was the end of one age and the beginning of another. It was precarious time, an age where people’s minds were dull. Where they looked but could not see, listened but did not hear. Where there were deserted homes, where the terebinth and oak tress across the land were burning. And like Peter and his fishermen friends, Isaiah was called into the deep to be a witness of God’s Grace, bringing hope to others.

In a book called ‘Turning Ourselves Inside Out,’ written by United Church Ministers Russ Daye and Rob Fennel, who was one of my professors at AST. They describe our times as a church in much the same way. The age of Christendom is over. The mainline denominations are struggling to survive. Many churches are closing down. Rob and Russ in their book compare this new uncertain age for the church which we are still in the beginnings of, as like that apocalyptic vision from Isaiah. A forest full of dead wood that has caught fire and is burning itself to the ground. And yet, there is a truth that lies underneath the apparent reality which we see.

For example, Rob and Russ point out that ‘some years ago, a department of the United Church of Canada organized a consultation on the future directions of the church. A senior executive from a large bank was at this consultation and asked about the collective value of all United Church of Canada property, including the thousands of local church buildings around the country. When she received the answer and learned that the figure added up to billions of dollars, she responded, “Well, I know your problem: You don’t believe in your mission.” What she was implying was if the UCC really believed in their mission, they would liberate much of that money to support renewal and innovation. 2 Of course that’s looking at the macrocosm, the whole church. But suppose we look at the microcosm, our pastoral charge with its four churches. Don’t we see at least some of those same principles at work?

When a forest burns it may take years, even centuries before it grows back. But amazingly, deep underneath the charred remains and roots of the destroyed trees there is a vast system of fungus that lives underneath, and3 it carries the intelligence, nutrients and the memory of the original forest. And from it new species of trees will also grow and find their own way into the future. You can decimate a forest, but you can’t easily kill it, it will most likely resurrect, though not necessarily in the same form. As we are told in Isaiah, when the Terebiths and Oaks have all been burned down, there is a stump … which remains standing. And underneath at the root of that stump is the holy seed that gives life to the forest as it was, as it is, and as it will be again.

In Luke’s gospel text for today, When the fishermen finally pull up their nets, the boats are almost sinking, due to the weight of the catch. And Luke points out a detail in the story, that the old nets are so full and heavy that they are beginning to break. Which suggests that the old systems and ways of doing things are no longer sustainable. They have to be replaced with something else. Something that is still connected to the stump, and it’s seed, something that can contain the vision of the future for God’s kingdom. It’s interesting that after they have filled their nets with fish, Peter, and his friends leave their boats, nets and their giant catch of fish behind. Maybe Jesus has taught them a living parable that it’s time to start thinking about the deeper, more profound things. That there’s more to life than just catching the one or two fish which only feed us for today.4

Like most mainline churches, we are facing challenges. The forest is burning, even more brightly because of COVID-19. But because of that stump and the holy seed, the forest will never die. Because the life-giving grace of God underneath the surface will always stimulate new growth in unpredictable places. As we move towards our annual meetings, where we will reflect on the past year and the future before us. Perhaps there are a couple of images we can carry with us and ponder on. One is of the burning forest, and the life of our Christian faith and practice which lives underneath it. The other is the image of those old nets that will break under the heavy catch of fish which is coming. What are those nets that we have been using that no longer sustain us, the nets that are holding us back. Nets we can afford to leave behind?

Maybe as we head into 2022 we could spend some time reflecting and thinking of new and innovative ways to be the fisherman and fisherwomen God calls us to be. When Peter says we fished all night and caught nothing, he is stating what to him is commonsense reality. 5 But Jesus is saying, “no Peter we need to go beyond the apparent! There is something you have missed here!” It’s true you caught nothing last night, but that’s not the end of the story!” Likewise, we are being called by God to go to the deep part of the lake, to go further than the apparent, to realize that the end of the story is beyond where we imagine it might be.

Amen

  1. working Preacher: Ronald J. Allen
  2. (from “Turning Ourselves Inside Out: Thriving Christian Communities” by Russell Daye, Robert C. Fennell)
  3. (from “Turning Ourselves Inside Out: Thriving Christian Communities” by Russell Daye, Robert C. Fennell)
  4. Lectionary Ball Game: Judy
  5. Lectionary Ball Game: Rabbi Ellis

Between Precipice and Self-Preservation

Jer 1:4-10

Luke, 4:20-30

What was it, I called my sermon last week? “Wrapped in the Good News?” Maybe that wasn’t the best choice of a title, considering where the story is taking us today! What a difference one week makes as we read these texts. How did the Good News turn sour in Jesus’ listeners’ ears? So much so, that they decided to expel him from the synagogue, take him to the edge of town and try to throw him from a precipice. The cliff is actually still there, it’s called Keduman. I remember spotting it from the coach when we were in Israel in 2019 as we approached Nazareth. I could see near the town of Nazareth, which was itself is on a hilltop, there is a rocky outcrop, which is the place where they dragged Jesus that day.

What went wrong in that synagogue on that occasion? The townspeople certainly seemed to be delighted that Jesus had come home for a visit, so much so that they asked him to be the guest speaker. In the Synagogue service, he says to them that he “has come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And then, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke relates that following this, all spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Some commentators suggest that the part about “Joseph’s son” was an implicit criticism. In the sense, that they were thinking, “he’s just a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter, who does he think he is?” Similar to a conversation I had with someone the other day. Who said, “when someone from the Halifax region made it into the NHL people asked, ‘how could that possibly happen? And from Cole Harbour?’ But I think the people’s response to Jesus that day implied surprise, but not criticism. Rather, the immediate cause of the conflict is Jesus himself. Clearly, as we read the text closely, he is picking an argument with the people in the Synagogue that day. He is provoking them. After they have been admiring him among themselves and nodding with approval, he responds by saying ‘Doubtless, you will quote to me this proverb, “Physician, cure yourself!” And you will say,’Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ It doesn’t say it in the text. But, I imagine Jesus continuing, ‘I’m not going to do for you, what I did in other places!’
Possibly, while he was in Nazareth, Jesus heard gossip. That people had been complaining that he was not doing for Nazareth, the miracles and healings that he was doing in other places like Capernaum. And there was an expectation that now he was home among his own folk, he was going to focus on what they needed. But he was challenging that thinking because he saw that they were being too insular, too wrapped up in themselves and their needs. Jesus is saying to them, ‘this ministry isn’t only about you and your needs, this is bigger than Nazareth. This is about God’s kingdom, which means it’s about everyone!

Let’s try to place ourselves into that time and into this story. Imagine you are a citizen of Nazareth sitting on a wooden bench in the Synagogue that day, listening to Jesus’ message. What are you thinking and feeling as Jesus suddenly turns towards you and challenges your assumptions and expectations of what he should be doing for you, your town and its people. I always visualize that I’m the man whom Jesus hands the scroll to, after he had finished reading the text from Isaiah. In the synagogue, I would have been a hazaan (חַזָּן‎). (an assistant to the Rabbi) and a hazaan had many duties. One of them was to take out the Torah scroll from its special cupboard, which was called the Aron hakodesh, and unroll the sacred scrolls to prepare for reading.

I imagine that at the beginning of that synagogue service, I was feeling very pleased with myself. Because a week before, on hearing that Jesus was coming home for a visit, it was I who recommended to the Rabbi that he be invited. To come and read the scriptures and to bring a message to our congregation that day. Yes, I was patting myself on the back when Jesus finished the reading and then handed the scroll back to me. I was expecting that people come up to me after the service and complimenting me and saying ‘good job David’ for suggesting that Jesus come and speak to us.

But then, after Jesus sat down, he went completely “off script,” and started criticizing the people of our town. I was standing there still holding the Torah scroll, uncertain of what to do. And before I could say ‘oy gevalt,’ people were shaking their fists and shouting at Jesus, and then they proceeded to drag him from the synagogue, crying out ‘let’s throw this scoundrel from the top of Keduman.’ What do I do now, I thought? Should I stay here and put right the overturned benches and return the Torah scroll to its proper place? Or, do I follow the crowds to Keduman? I follow the crowds, but I feel suddenly like a frightened powerless boy too scared to speak, or to defend Jesus. When we reach the precipice, miraculously, Jesus escapes and leaves Nazareth safely. But for the next few days I wrestle with what happened that day and especially my part in it, realizing that my real motive for suggesting that Jesus come to the synagogue was selfish from the start. I was looking for praise from my fellow townspeople because in my mind this was all about me! About my thoughts and my feelings. Yes, I followed the crowd to Keduman, but I should have been in front of them between their anger and the precipice. Telling them to turn back and return to their homes. But I didn’t, neither did I try to protect Jesus. Why? Because I was afraid and worried about my needs and safety.

I’ve recently been listening to an audiobook about the life of Father Daniel Berrigan 1. He was a Roman Catholic Jesuit priest who was immersed in the scriptures, he would study them for several hours each day. And the Word of God inspired him, to move beyond his needs, and to respond to the needs of the wider world, particularly the need for peace. He was an anti-war activist for his whole life. On one occasion May 17, 1968, during the Vietnam conflict, Daniel and his brother Philip, along with seven other Catholic protesters, used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board. Daniel was incarcerated numerous time for his provocative anti-war activities. He once asked, ‘but how shall we educate men to goodness, to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time? He also said “your theology is not where your head is at. Your theology is not where your heart is at. Your theology is where your ass is at!” In other words God calls us to place our bodies where our faith is. To speak the truth and to bear witness to God’s word as Jesus did that day in Nazareth. To do what I failed to do, as David the Hazaan, and as I must confess what I have not done many times, i.e. put my body where my faith is.

There are times in a community, or a society when things need to be said and actions need to be taken, without any ambiguity when the Word of God is fulfilled in us. When we are called to place our bodies where our faith is, between self-preservation and the precipice. To move beyond our own immediate needs and to speak and act for what is true, for what is right, and for what is just. And to speak and act against what is wrong. Sometimes we don’t have sufficient courage to do so. We feel we are unequipped as Jeremiah did. We think, “Ah, Lord Truly I am not able to speak, or act for I am like a boy (or a girl). When we discussed this passage the other day. One of our group was saying that the Gospel of Luke is very Jewish because it emphasizes the importance of human agency. That despite what God wants and commands, nothing changes in the world, until we can broaden our circle of concern from our needs to include the needs of others.

We may feel like mere boys or girls lacking the courage or the ability to do what is right. But regardless, we are called to live and act prophetically. In the sure knowledge that before God formed us in the womb, God knew us intimately. So, we should not be afraid to live our faith boldly. Because when the need arises and when the time is fulfilled, God will touch our lips and put the right words in our mouths. And lay the right actions upon our hearts, to enable us when called upon to, pluck up and to pull down, to build and to plant.”

Putting our bodies where our faith is may mean at times that we must stand near the precipice. But we have the assurance that when we do, God will be like a rock under our feet!

Amen

  1. Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings, by Daniel Berrigan and John Dear.

Wrapped In the Good News

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Luke 4:14-21

1The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims His handiwork. Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out. There is no utterance, there are no words, whose sound goes unheard. Their voice carries throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world.

Those verses are from Psalm 19, one of the assigned lectionary readings for this week. And they describe in beautiful prose how God makes herself known through creation. Even in nature we experience, we hear, and we see the word of God. In the Psalm, the writer 2at one point is describing how the sun rises in the east, dances across the sky and returns to the tent that God has pitched for it in the high heavens. As the Sun rises, it is like a bridegroom emerging from the marriage bed, boldly challenging all other heavenly bodies to compete with it or match its brightness.

I remember in 1988 one morning I was on my way to a training course held in Paget, Bermuda. I got off the bus and walked along Chapel Road. The sun was low in the sky and there was a ploughed field on one side of me. And because of the directional light from the sun, there were these alternating bands of light and shadow as the rays played over the furrows. It felt like God had stopped me in my tracks, so that I could experience a proclamation of the news of God’s Grace. It seemed I was rooted there for several minutes. I’ve never forgotten that moment, it was an epiphany for me. Coincidentally, the training I received that week became a turning point in my career, and in many ways laid out this path towards, and into ministry in which I am walking today.

Three of the passages from our lectionary today speak to the proclamation of Gods Word. As well as Psalm 19, a portion of which I just read. There is the reading from Nehemiah, where the prophet Ezra preaches the message of the Torah to the Israelites who have just returned from exile to their home in Jerusalem. Then there is the reading from Luke, where Jesus, like Ezra, is called by the spirit from out of the wilderness. At the beginning of his ministry, and for the first time, he proclaims the Word of God, in a synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth.

In the Psalm, in Nehemiah and in Luke, the writers set before us God’s Word proclaimed in nature, proclaimed in the Torah, and proclaimed in Jesus the Messiah.

When we turn to the passage in Nehemiah, The crowds have been there for several hours since dawn, listening to Ezra declaring the message of God’s Law. When he has finished, the people started to weep and to cry. Why was that? Why were they crying? Consider, they’ve been in exile, for many years. Finally, they returned to Jerusalem, but their city and its temple lie ruined before them.

3Rashi, the great 11th-century French rabbi and Biblical commentator, argued that the people wept because they were confronted with how many ways they had failed to fulfill the laws of Torah. That certainly may be the case, but there’s another possibility raised by another theologian. Maybe the people were weeping because of some of the interpretations of Ezra’s Torah readings provided by the Levites as they moved among the people, to explain what Ezra was saying. It could be that some of those interpretations of Ezra’s message were hurtful, unnecessarily reminding them of what they already knew. That the cause of their exile, was their sin in abandoning God and God’s law. When Ezra sees them crying, he comforts the people and gives them hope by saying that the real message of what they heard that day from the law of God is about God’s grace. And he says to them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; so do not mourn or weep. Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared.” Ezra is preaching to them the Good news, but they are hearing it, as interpreted by some Levites, as bad news.  

The church has too often communicated our faith to others, taking what is good News and covering it over with bad news. In John Updike’s novel” 4In the Beauty of the Lillies,” he tells the story of a minister, named Clarence Wilmot who lived at the beginning of the 20th century. Rev. Wilmot lost his faith in the God he was taught in the seminary. The God Wilmot came to believe in and to preach about was a rationalistic, all powerful, in-control-of-everything, divine being. But once Clarence Wilmot went into active ministry, this understanding of God made no sense at all, in light of the poverty that he was seeing all around him. Updike writes, Wilmots seminary teachings were like the “twigs of an utterly dead tree.” Eventually, confronting these realities of human suffering, Rev. Wilmot concluded that his professors had sold him a message that was half wishful thinking, and half self-promoted lies. As a result, he was unequipped to give any comfort to the people of his parish, whom he encountered in their sick beds, or in the Sunday pews or around kitchen tables of their, impoverished households. People needed hope and courage, but he couldn’t give that to them. And rather than question, and then transform this concept of God that he had been taught in Seminary, he abandoned his faith altogether. The litany “There is no god,” kept repeating in Wilmot’s head. He never saw an alternative to the god of the inflexible doctrines he learned. So, he left the ministry, and ended up peddling encyclopedias to people who could not afford them (but bought them anyway). And even this, he was doing it the way that he peddled negative views of God to people who were unable to afford that either. If only he had opened his heart to this text from Luke. If only he had found the place where it was written: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring GOOD news to the poor.”

When we were discussing these passages with Rabbi Ellis the other day, he was saying that sometimes there are negative things said and written by the prophets. But the Jewish practice is always to reframe the text, and to emphasize the positive. Never leave it on a negative note, wrap the negatives around with the positives! But sadly, in every religious tradition there is a tendency to emphasize the darker side of faith, even to the extent of building a whole religious belief system around it. This is what happened to Rev. Wilmot, and to many where faith has been wrongly portrayed. Where an understanding of God does not reflect the reality of who God was at all. And then instead of giving people hope, we create moral boundaries, that exclude others who do not fit our concept of what it means to be a person of faith.

But when we turn to Luke, we can see how Jesus keeps to that Jewish practice of accentuating the positive. In his keynote address to his home community. Jesus says, “God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” The words “To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” are from Isaiah 61.2 part a. But Jesus deliberately omits Isa 61.2 part b, 5 which continues, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Jesus leaves this part out because it’s not what his ministry is about. It doesn’t represent what he is called to do. It doesn’t represent what we’re called to do either as Jesus’ followers.

We’re invited to see, and recognize the reality of sin, violence, suffering, death, judgment, guilt, and all the bad thing in our world, but always to wrap around it the positive good news of God’s grace. We don’t need to look very far at all, before we find negativity and despair. There is more than enough of it to go around, it surrounds us. It threatens to overshadow us now, with this resurgence of the Omicron virus. There are those in our community who are no doubt near their breaking point. It’s far too easy to lose heart at this time, to succumb to fear because we are back in this pandemic isolation, where the future looks uncertain. But listen to the words of the prophet Ezra as he spoke to the people who gathered in front of their ruined city. “Lift up your hands, do not mourn or weep.” and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The Joy of the Lord is our strength! A joy we know through the 6“God which Jesus Christ shows us!

We are like the Levites, moving among the crowds, gathered in the public square before the water gate and the ruined walls of the city. We are interpreters of the Word, called to bring understanding and hope to all people and to show them the good things which God is doing in this world, a world which was created out of love for us.

  1. Psalm 19
  2. Walter Harrelson: Feasting on The word, Year C Vol 1 page 820
  3. Corrie Driver: Working Preacher 2022.
  4. — Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor
  5. Feasting on The Word Year C Vol 1page 847.
  6. Rabbi Ellis: Lectionary Ball Game 19.01.22

When The Wine Flowed at Cana

John 2:1-11

Margaret and I were married in England just over 40 years ago last August in 1981. Of course, we were wed there because that’s where her family was living, and some of mine were there as well. The remainder of my close relatives travelled to the UK for the occasion. Some things obviously had to be arranged from a distance. Margaret’s aunt Eileen made the wedding cake, for example. However, there was one detail concerning the cake that that was coming from a Bermuda tradition. There is a custom in Bermuda of a bride and groom standing under a moon gate. A Moon gate is an entrance in the form of an open circle. It’s a popular piece of architecture at home, apparently inspired 1by a local sea captain who visited China in 1860. In Chinese culture, closed doors were seen as discourteous since they implied exclusion. The nobles of China used moon gates as a means of enhancing views and welcoming neighbours, reflecting the essentially outgoing and inclusive Chinese temperament. 2

Margaret came up with the idea of having a small moon gate on the top of the cake. So we went to a local carpenter in St George who crafted for us a miniature one made from Bermuda cedar. When we arrived in England, the arrangements were complete and Margaret’s Aunt had made a beautiful three-tier wedding cake. To crown her masterpiece, a small sprig of flowers was to be placed in a silver thimble on the top, but we planned to have a moon gate there. I was a bit worried about how we might resolve this issue while not offending anyone. It was our wedding, after all, and the moon gate was an important Bermuda symbol. It turned out not to be a problem after all because the sprig of flowers and thimble fit perfectly inside the open moon gate. And the two combined decorations really put the finishing touch to the cake. It’s a reminder to me that marriage is about love, and about change and transformation. And it’s about family traditions coming together in a kind of synergy, where the sum of the parts becomes greater than the whole. Where something entirely new, even miraculous, can come into being.

In the story from John chapter 2, Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding banquet in Cana, which is about 9 miles (ca. 14 km) away from Nazareth. As Jesus arrived, his mother came to him and said, “They have no more wine.” Now I have to say his reply to Mary seems abrupt and sharp. “Woman, what does that have to do with us?” he said to her. Maybe he was tired from his journey to Cana and just wanted to sit down and rest for a while. What we don’t hear in the text, is Mary’s reply to Jesus, or the “look” which Mary may have given him after he said that. I can only imagine! In the text, Mary doesn’t respond to Jesus, but probably very typical of Jewish mothers, she tells the servants, “You just do whatever my son tells you to do.”

According to the story, there were six, large stone water jars, each one of them holding up to thirty gallons. That’s a lot of water! But the water was used only for one thing and that was not for drinking, it was reserved for ritual washing. Which suggests that the household was probably associated with the priesthood, and the temple. I can’t imagine many families at that time in Israel having so much water on hand for ritual washing. Not even one stone jar’s worth, let alone 6!

We were talking about this text the other day during an online lectionary group studying this week’s readings. And we were looking at the water and the wine in the story. And I suggested that what Jesus was doing was taking the water and turning it into something more valuable, i.e wine. But another member of the group, challenged that interpretation. She said, remember this is Israel, water is extremely scarce. So, you could look at it the other way around, Jesus was converting something of greater value, water, into something of lesser value, wine because wine would have been generally more available than water. I don’t know which of us was correct in this. But I think we all agreed that in transforming the water into wine, Jesus was making the liquid in those stone jars more accessible, and more enjoyable to more people. And he was also breaking the rules that limited how the water could be used.

In fact, he was breaking the rules of how wine may be shared at a gathering. According to Rev. Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez, 3 in those times food and drink was served based on social status. Some guests were served cheaper wine, a mixture of wine vinegar and water, like that which was offered to Jesus on the cross. While others received the higher quality wine. Consider also, the sheer extravagant amount of wine produced by Jesus. It was a huge quantity, approximately 450 litres, far more than needed for the wedding guests in fact, more than enough for the whole town of Cana! So, the wine of Cana, is an excellent symbol of the sheer extravagance of God’s kingdom. The message here is that Jesus’s wine is the best, and it’s for everyone, including those outside the boundary lines we might tend to create.

The wedding at Cana was the first of seven signs John uses to portray the person of Jesus and to declare who he is. He is the messiah who reveals to us God’s extravagant love and unparalleled generosity. And this unlimited extravagance of God, for those of us who tend to put boundaries around things, that love is something we might struggle to come to terms with. It’s something I certainly wrestle with at times and I need to be reminded of.

There’s a story called “Babette’s Feast” 4written by Isak Dinesen. It’s about an aging puritan religious community of 12 people in a small village in Norway. Their spiritual leader, their Dean, had died some years before, but his two daughters Martine and Phillipa now in their 60s remained with the community. They were the only link for this village, tying them to the memory of their beloved Dean. The community of Berlevaag was strict and spartan about what they ate. It was the same food day in and day out, cod and an ale-and-bread-soup! It kept them healthy, but the constant diet was monotonous, to say the least! Over the years, without the guidance of their Dean this aging community had turned in on itself. Disagreements and quarrels between individuals from years past, had been re-ignited. The community was dwindling in numbers and in spirit. They were holding to the form of their faith but not to the substance.

The two daughters had a cook named Babette, who was a penniless political refugee from France, and a stranger to the community. She had lived with Phillipa and Martine for the last 15 years and worked for them in exchange for her food and board. She had once been a great chef in Paris, but she conformed to the wishes of the sisters and continued to make the cod and ale-and-bread soup they were accustomed to. One day, Babette received a notice from Paris in the mail informing her that a lottery ticket she had held for many years had come up, and was worth 10,000 franks. In celebration, she asked the sisters for permission to cook a meal for the whole community. They were afraid that the rich French food would in some way tempts them to turn away from their puritan lifestyle. But Babette had never asked for anything before, and so they reluctantly agreed. Babette spent the next month ordering supplies from Paris. The community out of politeness to the sisters and to Babette decided to attend the dinner, but agreed among themselves they would not comment, either negatively or positively on the dishes they were served that night.

The dinner night arrived, Babette had decorated the room with beautiful flowers and candlelight. She served the food. A range of exotic dishes were set before them. No one in this community had ever seen or tasted anything like it before. As the evening progressed the food, the wine and the fellowship gradually opened up the minds and hearts of those attending. One of them stood up and joyfully declared “that which we have rejected is poured upon us abundantly, for mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another.”

It seemed that the evening time itself had merged with eternity. Relationships began to mend. Two older women who had once slandered each other sat together laughed and remembered and celebrated their friendship as young girls. Members of the community who had held grudges and quarrelled over the years, were reconciled. The food and the fellowship of that one evening changed the community forever. The whole experience brought to life again their common faith in God and in each other. As the night drew to a close, when everyone had made their way home, the two sisters congratulated Babette. But they were also sad, because they remembered that Babette would now be returning to Paris with her fortune. Just imagine how shocked and humbled they were, when Babette told them that she could not afford to return to Paris, because she had spent the entire 10,000 franks on that one meal for this one community!

The extravagance of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus Christ is always beyond what we can ever imagine, and beyond our immediate circle of concern. We hear of the troubles of our world and our first reaction might be, “what does this have to do with me?” But as a community of faith we’re called to try to imagine that extravagance, and as best we can to live that imagining faithfully. And sometimes when we adopt that view, miracles can happen. You see, we are the honoured guests at the wedding feast. A feast which all are invited to come to, through the open and welcoming moon gate entrance where transformation and change through the unparalleled grace of God is possible, in fact, more than possible, inevitable, Amen

  1. https://www.gotobermuda.com/article/bermudas-mystical-moongates
  2. article
  3. Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez: working preacher commentary on John 2:1-11
  4. Babette’s Feastby Isak Dinesen

The Water and The Winnowing Fork

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

There’s one thing I’m not looking forward to when we next manage to get home for a couple of weeks’ vacation, and that’s cleaning out our basement. We left Bermuda in 2016, and I was supposed to get rid of a whole pile of stuff stored there. The Atwood family traditionally hold on to and hoard things, especially my dad and my grandmother. So, as well as my drum kit, Margaret’s old quilting machine, there are also many old photographs, books, files, letters. Things passed down to me from my dad, things passed down to my dad from my grandmother, then in turn passed down to me. I remember there was a box of congratulation cards he had kept, which my parents had received when I was christened over 65 years ago. I think I may have thrown those out, at least I hope I did! There’s a complete encyclopedia set called “The Book of Knowledge,” from the early 20th century replete with Victorian illustrations, given to me after my grandmother passed away. But most of the spines of the volumes had deteriorated, and I could never make up my mind whether to chuck the books out, or hold on to them, and maybe one day restore them. I decided to keep them, but I never got around to repairing the books.

As I mentioned earlier, I was supposed to sort out all this stuff in 2016 before we left for Canada. But the task just seemed overwhelming, so I probably only got about half of it done, if that. And one of the problems on our island is the humid weather. You can imagine what that basement will be like now. I suspect much of its contents are ruined through dampness. We will have to put on our face masks, throw everything in the trash, tear up the mouldy carpet, wash down, treat and clean the walls, and then paint them. But, one of the worst things is, this mess, located a thousand miles away in our house in Bermuda, occupies space in my head. And it will do, until we can get over there and clear it out. Do you ever carry junk around in your head or heart that you really need to get rid of? There’s a poem called Cleaning Out The Heart, 1that speaks to this.

I tried cleaning out my own heart one day. So many memories and feelings piled in the way. I knew it was cluttered but oh, what a mess, Seeing all that garbage fueled my distress.

Bitterness, fear, anger and strife,

Lay in the dust of my tarnished life.

Pettiness, jealousy, old words I regret,

Hadn’t been swept out since, well, I forget.

Down on my knees I started to scrub and to scrape Trying to get my heart back into shape. But no matter how hard I scrubbed and I wiped, More and more clutter popped into sight.

How does all that clutter that clogged space and glut of garbage get into our attics, our basements, our closets, our drawers, 2and our lives. Hard as we try, how come it never seems to ever really clear-out or cleanup? When we look at the abcd’s of every home or of every life: attics, basements, closets, drawers. No matter how clean and neat they start out, is there any one of us here that doesn’t have an abcd problem? We’re at the beginning of a New Year. And granted, because of our experiences with COVID over the last couple of weeks, 2022 holds some uncertainties for us. And I guess one of those things that we may be wondering about, is how can we enter into this New Year, 2022 with a sense of hopeful faith-filled expectation, rather than worry and uncertainty? I would suggest that it has less to do with concerns that lie in front of us and more about those things we are dragging behind us in our attics, basements, closets, and drawers.

I’m talking about, things like, unhealthy habits, obsessions, fear, regrets from the past over lost opportunities, regrets over guilt, that we find ourselves unable to let go of, or find forgiveness for. Resentments against those who, we feel, have hurt us in some way. Or a sorrow or grief, that we’re unable to move forward from. 3 A woman who had lost her husband once said this. “I knew how to be a wife and I know how to be a grieving widow, but I don’t know how to be a widow who has good days and is moving forward.”

The text from Luke this morning is about clearing the attics, basements, cupboards, and drawers of our lives, in other words, John’s baptism of repentance. And then being washed in the river Jordan, and moving on to where God invites us to be.

Jesus participates in that baptism. He stands in line with us and the people waiting to go into the waters of the Jordan. Carol Lakey Hess 4notes that Jesus’s participation in baptism is an indication that he knew that he was born into a world of suffering. His baptism is a signal that he was not only identifying and showing solidarity with the human world, he was fully acknowledging its tragic structure, and that he was a part of it.

In Luke’s Gospel, John describes, “Jesus the Messiah holding a ‘winnowing fork … in his hand, to clear his threshing floor. The winnowing fork was a key tool in the harvesting of wheat. 5Ernest Hess describes how the harvested grain is taken to the threshing floor and cleaned. The farmer would toss a portion of the harvested grain in the air with a winnowing fan, a fork-like shovel, then he would let the wind do the work. The wind takes control of the process, separates the wheat from the chaff, a mixture of heavy husks and straw. The wheat falls away from the chaff. The chaff is collected and burned, and the wheat remains safely stored in the barn. It’s a good illustration of repentance, which means among other things to refresh and restore. And despite the references to the burning of the chaff, the passage isn’t so much about divine judgment. It isn’t only centred around the issue of sin, but a clearing of our attics, basements, cupboards, and drawers. And the most active agent in bringing that about is the wind. The Spirit which separates the good from the bad, the stuff that we need to move forward with and the other stuff we can leave behind. I sure wish I could use a winnowing fork to clear my basement at home. But maybe it’s better for me, and for us to allow Jesus and the wind of the spirit. To sift the needful from the not so needful in our lives. And then in our imagination to walk into the cool waters of the Jordan as we prepare to enter a new year, with its new challenges and new opportunities.

Being winnowed isn’t about throwing everything out, we can hold on to the memories. We can hold on to the lessons we have learned and the things we can treasure and celebrate. 6Margaret and I have been watching a series on Netflix called Queer Eye. It’s an American reality TV series. It features a “Fab Five” group of gay men, who are experts in food and wine, fashion, culture; house design and grooming. What they do in each show on the series is to give people a life makeover. It portrays the Fab Five’s thoughtful, kind, genuine, enthusiastic efforts to transform the lives of deserving people from many backgrounds. Whether they’re conservative Trump supporters with big families or gay young adults with chosen families. The series is very much about secular society, but it has this sense of grace about it. It reminded me of the life makeover that takes place at the river Jordan.

For people who are finding it difficult to let go of the past. The Fab Five don’t judge. Instead, they approach every person and every situation with empathy and love. One episode we watched was about Cory, he was a 36-year-old former Marine and NASCAR fan. Bobby from the Fab five modified the spaces on the main floor of Cory’s house, so he would feel more comfortable in his own home. They help him with grooming, and nutritional advice. He’s transformed by the experience. In some ways, this particular episode reminded me of our basement. Cory was grieving the death of his father, who had passed away a couple of years before the show was filmed. He kept all his fathers clothes in his own closet so that it was hard for him to find his stuff. Cory finds it impossible to let his father’s clothes go and he refuses to move them from of his bedroom. So, the fab five with the families’ permission separate the wheat from the chaff. They cut Cory’s father’s clothes, shirts, trousers pajamas, etc into squares. Then they sew all the squares together and make a beautiful quilt celebrating Cory’s Dad’s life. The memory of Cory’s father moves from Cory’s bedroom closet to a place of pride in the families living room.

As we continue the journey into 2022, maybe this is a good time for us to have a makeover. To allow our lives to be lifted and sifted by the Spirit, and then with Jesus alongside us to walk into the river and be washed by the Jordan. Water is a symbol of life because it nourishes all living things. 7 It’s also a symbol of birth, as it reminds us of the fluids that accompany birth. It’s used as a means of symbolic cleansing in a variety of settings. It’s a traditional Jewish practice to wash the hands at the beginning of a new day. I would encourage us to recognize symbolically that we are leaving behind the chaff of 2021 by symbolically washing our hands and entering a new year with its many possibilities.

A Baptismal Prayer 8

To you, O God, our faces we turn

Out in this desert stark and hot

We pray that we might here discern

Who we are from whom we are not

And when you make our mission clear

Lead us again to the river wide

And while your Spirit hovers near

Cleanse us from all spite, fear, regret and pride

Water flows over these hands

And in the name of the Father,

in the name of the Mother,

source of life,

from whom water flows,

to whom water returns,

In the name of the Son,

in the name of the Daughter,

flesh and blood

in whom we meet the Divine,

born of the physical water of childbirth

and the subtle water of spirit,

In the name of the spirit,

the Word, holy Mother Wisdom,

ideal formless form,

wind that moves water,

and separate chaff from grain

unseen energy,

bliss of creativity,

rapturous beauty,

We are baptized with this water,

to wash away all

that obscures God from our soul,

so that we may become

a clear, clean mirror

reflecting the presence of the divine.

With this water we are awakened

to your divine nature,

and we are ordained to works of service and compassion,

and confirmed in our intention

to grow in love for God and all beings.

Amen.

  1. Cleaning Out The Heart: An Original Poem by Billy D. Strayhorn
  2. Leonard sweet: Attics, Basements, Closets
  3. https://whatsyourgrief.com/grief-and-the-fear-of-letting-go/
  4. Feasting on The Word: Year C Vol 1, Page 706
  5. — Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queer_Eye_(2018_TV_series)#Season_1_(2018)
  7. Spirituality Practice on Ritual Hand Washing

In The Beginning

John 1:1-18

I always remember going with Margaret and the children to the John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This must have been around 1989, before they launched the Hubble telescope during one of the Space shuttle missions. We were lucky to see the NASA technicians working on the Hubble as they prepared it for launch. The Hubble has been in orbit now for 30 years, bringing a wealth of information about our universe to scientists and astronomers. For example, among many accomplishments it helped to pin down the age of the universe, now known to be 13.8 billion years old.

On Dec 25, 2021, on Christmas Day, NASA launched the James Webb Telescope. This telescope, though of similar size to the Hubble, has a telescopic mirror 5 times larger. It is deployed much further out into space, about a million miles away from the earth, over twice the distance of the moon from earth. But the most remarkable thing about the Webb telescope is, its ability to detect infrared light at great distances. It will be able to see the faintest light emissions coming from the remotest galaxies that were formed over thirteen billion years ago. In other words, it will be looking at what happened at the very beginning of creation.

It reminded me of what John does in the introduction or prologue of his gospel. He is using a theological telescope to look back through time. His first verse echoes the words of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” but he is actually looking back further than that, before time ever existed. When there were only God and the Word, which was with God. And John is proclaiming that Jesus is that word of God made flesh.

And here is the irony for me. Jesus not only shares his divinity with God, but he also shares with us his humanity. This suggests that in the beginning, and from the beginning even before creation, God has always been with us, and we have always been with God. John is writing about the incarnation. Incarnation comes from the Latin word (incarnatio), “to enter the act of being made flesh.” And this is the whole meaning of the Christmas story that God entered our history in human form. And that through Jesus, God met us face to face and in person. The one who created all things became part of his/her creation. The other week we were watching a film about the Christian Writer C. S. Lewis called “the reluctant convert.” And he described 1the incarnation where creation is like a play, and the writer of the play wants to meet the characters in person. C. S. Lewis said, that the only way that Shakespeare could ever meet Hamlet would be if Shakespeare himself became one of the characters in his play. And that is essentially what John means by the incarnation. God enters this play that we are all a part of and meets us face to face in Jesus.

And John through the incarnation is also correcting our misguided views about God. In a book called God Was in Christ, the author Donald Baillie writes: 2

“It is astonishing, how lightly many people assume that they know what the word God means. But it is still more astonishing that even when we profess Christian belief, and set out to try to understand the mystery of God becoming man, we are apt to start with some conception of God picked up we know not where, an idol of the cave or the marketplace. This is different from the Christian conception, and then we attempt the impossible task of understanding how such a God could be incarnate in Jesus.”

In a book called America’s Four God’s, 3the authors reveal from a 2008 survey conducted in the USA that 28% of those surveyed believe in an authoritative God, who is engaged in the world but is judgmental. Twenty-two percent believe in a benevolent God who is involved in our lives and is loving, and not stern. Others believe in a critical God who is removed from daily events but will render judgment in the afterlife. The fourth category believes in a distant God who set the world in motion, but then disengaged from it. Our failure to fit our misconceived understanding of God to the incarnate Christ has created much if not most of the darkness in our world. A darkness often caused by those who are religious. Where their concept of God has resulted in bias, unfairness and prejudice against others because of their gender, sexual orientation, nationality, race. As preacher Jim Somerville 4says, “instead of looking at God through the clear unclouded lens of the person of Christ, we turn the telescope around and try to look at Christ through our clouded and preconceived notions of God.”

But John in his Gospel is turning the telescope the right way around, giving us light and understanding of who God is through the person of Jesus. John in the prologue of his Gospel talks about light and darkness. ‘In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’ John wrote his gospel during a time of great darkness, against the backdrop of the destroyed temple, a demolished City of Jerusalem, and the persecution of the early Christians.

And that darkness has never gone away, it is still with us. Steven Bauman notes 5. The darkness remains “In wars, in human devastation, in greed and in torture, in oppressions of every variety. And in the darkness that may be in our personal lives, through depression, confusion, helplessness, and hopelessness.” The darkness is with us now as we continue to grapple with this pandemic. Many are isolated. I believe 5000 in PEI, many were unable to meet with their families over Christmas. There were people stranded in airports around the world. And there is the economic impact of COVID-19, people unable to work, businesses struggling through lack of staff. The exhaustion of our health workers. Which we could see reflected in the tired eyes of Dr. Heather Morrison, during her latest COVID-19 update. And as a church once more, we are unable to safely worship together in person. And at this point, we have no idea how long this will last for. We are in the beginning …. Of a new year, and normally, I feel that I can look through a telescope into the future and imagine with some idea what the coming year will look like. I don’t know about you, but this year I’m just not able to do that, what I see through the lens seems very cloudy and dim.

But even in these times which are difficult and dark, “In the beginning” ….at the beginning of an uncertain year we can go forward holding on to the truth of the incarnation. We may not be able to be with each other, but God has always been with us and will continue to be with us and among us. The God who created this world understands the need for physical presence. When John says the word became flesh and lived among us, he uses the word which in Hebrew is שָׁכַן (Shachain) which means that in Christ, God pitched his tabernacle or tent among us. It’s a very physical, concrete image of a tent erected on top of our muddy red soil. And the tent pegs hammered in.

God + is + with + us + in + Christ!

In the middle of his prologue, John suddenly introduces John the Baptist. ‘There was a man sent from God whose name was John, he came as a witness to testify to the light’ I believe that John is suggesting that we, with the knowledge that God is with us in Christ. We, having seen the light in the midst of darkness, are, like John the Baptist, called to be witnesses of that light to others. And like the incarnation we are invited in Jesus to see that the words we associate with our faith, particularly the word, hope, become incarnate and take on flesh.

How do we put flesh on our hope? We can see the examples of Christians who lived in darkness, people who were able themselves to rise above despair. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who passed away last week on the 26th of December, said that “hope is being able to see that there is light despite all the darkness.” He knew what he was talking about. Because during the time of apartheid when so many governments seem to be supporting the policies of the South African Government by their refusal to divest of this regime, overturning this racist regime seemed impossible. But Tutu said, 6“remember, the sea is made of drops of water. And what you do as one drop and where you are is of significance.”

So, we should never feel overwhelmed by the circumstances we live in. But by demonstrating our hope before us, we encourage others to hope. Archbishop Tutu said that countless supporters of the fight against apartheid were students who tried and most often failed to persuade their institutions to divest or speak out against apartheid, but it was their hope that made a difference. So let us seek ways in which to make our faith incarnate, and to put flesh on our words of faith. Each of us, one drop of water in the body of Christ. By helping, encouraging and reaching out to others even in small ways, an email, a phone call, a card. By living our faith in the flesh we can bring the hope we have in the incarnate Christ to others.

Amen.

  1. Film> C.S. Lewis, The Reluctant Convert
  2. D. M. Baillie, God Was In Christ: An Essay on Incarnation and Atonement.
  3. America’s Four Gods: What We Say About God―And What That Says About Us by Paul Froese and Christopher Bader.
  4. Jim Somerville: A Sermon for Every Sunday
  5. Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1: page 570
  6. https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/article/section/opinion/archbishop-desmond-tutu-in-his-own-words/

Magnificat Among the Hills

LUKE 1:39-45,46-55

There’s a poem written by Mary Szybist, called “Annunciation Under Erasure.” She creates the poem by removing some words from Luke’s text of the Annunciation. And in doing so, captures the uncertainties and the vulnerability which Mary would have felt in the days and months following the visit by the angel Gabriel. I’ll read it to you. 1

And he came to her and said

The Lord is

troubled

in mind

be afraid Mary

The Holy will overshadow you

therefore

be nothing

be impossible

And Mary said

And the angel departed from her

The poem by having these gaps through missing words, captures that sense of fear and uncertainty that Mary would have experienced. Particularly during the early months leading to Jesus’s birth. Maybe it portrays some of the feelings that every expectant mother has at some point during her pregnancy.

I imagine that Mary would have at times taken comfort by reciting to herself the words of Gabriel, “be not afraid.” But at other times she would have been preoccupied by the words from Mary Szybist’s poem, “be afraid”, “be nothing,” “be impossible.” And how did Mary even know that what she experienced at the annunciation was real? You’ve heard the expression, “seeing is believing.” But, in early paintings of the Annunciation, consistent with the biblical text, the path of the descent of the Holy Spirit is not to the womb of the Virgin Mary, but to her ear. In other words, Mary heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, but at no point are we told she saw anything. And this contributes to a sense of uncertainty that is part of this story. We tend to focus on Mary’s extraordinary faith but when we really think about her life in human terms. 2 We can ask, wouldn’t she have needed confirmation and encouragement to continue believing God, or should the word of Gabriel have been enough for her? So in the story nothing is sure, nothing is certain. The words of Gabriel are almost like a dream, not able to be verified. Nowhere do we hear of Mary being settled in her mind, unworried, and confident after her meeting with Gabriel. This fear and uncertainty may well have prompted Mary’s journey into the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary was traveling over geography to the hill country, but emotionally she was already in the hill country, one moment on the peaks of hope, the other in the valleys of uncertainty or even despair. What would have she been afraid of? Well, I can only imagine as a young girl, she would have been fearful of the pain of childbirth. I imagine as well that she was afraid of being shamed by her community, because of her condition, and the fact that she was carrying a child out of wedlock. The penalty of which was a public stoning. Even in our generation, if an unmarried woman became pregnant, she was made to bear the shame that society imposed on her. So for Mary, there was much to be frightened and uncertain of. She was vulnerable, not because of what happened to her through the work of the Spirit, but in how her community would probably respond to it.

Mary’s experience of uncertainty is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. Even with the progress that has been made in human rights for women. They often find themselves in situations where they face discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse. In “Annunciation by erasure.” Mary Szybist reminds us of the hills of courage, and valleys of fear that women still experience today. There was a Time magazine article 3 about a group of women, who were named as Time’s Person of the year in 2017. This was because despite the risks involved, they were stepping forward in solidarity with themselves, with other women and speaking up against sexual harassment. There are several of them on the cover, but on the lower right-hand corner of the picture, there’s simply an arm, cropped at the shoulder. It belongs to an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas. A sexual harassment victim who fears that disclosing her identity would negatively impact her family. She is faceless on the cover, and she remains nameless inside TIME’s red borders.4 But she is not erased like the words of the poem because her appearance limited though it was, is an act of solidarity, representing all those who cannot yet come forward and reveal their identities. Hilary Clinton in a speech to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, cited numerous examples where women’s rights were jeopardized. Through slavery, though abuse in the home, through rape, through being denied the right to plan their families, or by being forced to have abortions and sterilizations. She concluded by saying human rights are women’s rights—and women’s rights are human rights.”

In Luke’s Magnificat, there is a unity of women, particularly at the literary level. The Magnificat is Mary’s song, but its origins are from a collection of women’s voices found in the Hebrew bible. These are the song of Miriam, the song of Deborah, and the song of Hannah. So, the Magnificat is a solidarity of several voices through history denouncing through the power of God’s Spirit the oppression and discrimination against the poor and the vulnerable.

In Luke’s story, we have a coming together of two women in the hill country, Mary and Elizabeth. Through the declaration of Elizabeth, “Blessed Art Thou Among Women,” and Marys’ response My soul magnifies the Lord,’ 5Theologian Michael S Bennet notes God gives Mary and Elizabeth two things they each lacked, community and connection. God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies.

The rythmn and song and theme of justice in the Magnificat can still be heard from women today. In the hills and valleys of Afghanistan, in its plains and cities there are girls who have been isolated, and prevented from going to school and receiving an education, since the Taliban siezed power in Aug. After twenty years of substantial progress in women’s education, women young and old are being erased from their proper role in society. However, a member of the Afghan community overseas has decided to act on their behalf. Angela Ghayour is a teacher, trained in Afghanistan and living in the UK. Remembering the obstacles she once faced in securing her education, started the online Herat School, an educational resource for Afghan women and girls. She posted on Instagram asking for help from any experienced teachers, and since that first post nearly 400 volunteers have joined the program and 1000 students. Via Skype, they offer more than 170 different online classes in everything, from maths, to music, to cooking, to painting. So you see, God shows strength with his arm. And through his mercy has filled the hungry with good things. And through the work of women like Angela, God lifts the lowly, creates community and connection among the vulnerable, filling them with knowledge and strength and courage for the future.

The Magnificat is a song about revolution and reversal. It’s a turning around in circumstances of those who are afflicted and oppressed. But more importantly, it’s a revolution and a turning around in people’s minds, particularly those who face difficult times. It’s a song that turns despair into hope, being erased to being seen. We all need a song like that today. A song that even when we are in darkness and uncertainty when some of the words we expect to be there in the continuing story seem to be gone. The Magnificat fills those missing words with the love that God has for us and prompts us to sing and to recognize that we are near to the the coming of the child Jesus and the world is about to turn.

  1. Mary Szybist: “Annunciation Under Erasure.”
  2. Feasring on the Word, Year C Vol 1, p281
  3. Time Person of the year 2017
  4. From Time article, 2017
  5. Feasting on The Word. Year C, Vol.1 pp286,287

Zechariah’s Benedictus

Luke 1:68-79

I’ve called this message “Zechariah’s Benedictus.” Zechariah was the father of John the Baptist, He was a priest in the temple and was visited by Gabriel, who announced the birth of John. Because Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s words, he was struck dumb until the day of John’s circumcision, when he sings joyfully his Benedictus. A Benedictus is a Song of praise, also called a canticle. Luke includes three canticles in the first chapter of his gospel. Elizabeth’s song, the canticle of Mary, called the Magnificat, and Zechariah’s Benedictus. The word “Benedictus comes from a Latin word at the beginning of a prayer with the words ‘Blessed be the Lord our God.’ This in turn comes from the Jewish tradition of starting every prayer with the words ‘Baruch ata adonai eloheinu,’ ‘blessed be the Lord our God.’

In this message from Zechariah, I am using a monologue of Zechariah, adapted from a presentation 1performed by the Parkway Presbyterian Church in Georgia. I also added in a reflection by Zechariah on the passage from Malachi, which we read this morning. How we might consider learning from Malachi, so we find peace in our lives. The peace of God which passes all understanding, the theme of this Sunday in Advent.


I was in the temple the other day, watching the drawing of lots for the priest, who would make the offering before the Lord for that week. Caleb was the one chosen, and I know that he will do an excellent job, he is a good man and devoted to serving the people and God. Well, it took me back to a day 20 years ago, when I was chosen to make the same offerings, in the temple.

Malachi speaks of what makes the offering of Judah and Jerusalem pleasing to the Lord. He writes of how God will purify the priests, the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Well, I suppose that’s what happened to me all those years ago, and in my life since then. I guess I have been refined and purified and scrubbed clean with fuller’s soap. I can tell you, that day in particular, was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had. So let me tell you the story of what happened before my son, John was, born and the lessons I learned from that experience. It was 20 years ago today when it was my time to serve in the temple. This was just before Pentecost, which is the one time of the year when all the priests come together at once, 20,000 of us go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord, you can imagine the noise and confusion. And I was selected by lot to lift before God an offering of incense and prayer. It was such an honour to go before God on behalf of the people. So, the day came for me to offer up before the altar of incense. The Chief priest parted the way, so I could go into the Holy of Holies. And I went before the altar of incense in the Holy of Holies. It was just me and the quietness of that place, just me and the lights of the candelabra in the back, and the table of shew bread, and of course, the presence of God. I’ll never forget it, I took the incense, and perhaps in my enthusiasm I sprinkled too much of it on the fire because suddenly, there was a flame and this dense smoke all around me. I sprang back, alarmed, thinking that I had set the place ablaze. After the smoke cleared, I realized I was no longer alone. There was a man there, and I thought, ‘what is he doing there?’ For it is only permitted for the priest to enter the Holy of Holies.” And then I realized that he was not an ordinary man because there was brightness about him and an illumination from him. There was a sense of peace about him. I said, “who are you? Why are you here?” And he began to speak to me and said that my wife Elizabeth would bear me a son! Well, We had wanted children for so very long, and naturally, I wanted someone who would carry on our family destiny. Elizabeth had felt cursed, that maybe she was unable to bear children because she had not pleased God. But that was not true at all. The whole town knew that she was a holy woman devoted to God and to the service of others.

That day when God when spoke to me through this man, I realized he was an angel, for he said his name was Gabriel. And he told me that the son Elizabeth would give birth to would grow up in the fear of God. That the spirit of God would be on him for all of his life. And that he would become a great man and bring great joy not only to Elizabeth and me, but to all the people. He would bring them a message of hope and peace. Over time, I realized he would bring a message of the coming of the mashiach, the Messiah, who will save us from our sins. I was in the holy of Holies for a long time that day. And when I eventually came out of there, the people were confused, and wondering what had delayed me. “Why had I been in there for so long?” they asked. And they demanded, “Zechariah, do you have a word for us from the Lord?” But I did not because when the angel told me that Elizabeth would have a child, I replied, “How can this be, for I am an old man, and my wife is old.” Then the angel said, “I am Gabriel I stand in the presence of God and because you have questioned what I have told you, you will not speak a word until these things have come to pass.” Would you believe it? My tongue was glued to the roof of my mouth and for many months, I could not talk to anyone, not even to ask for a glass of water. I had to write everything down and make signs to others to say what I needed. During the long months ahead, Elizabeth looked after me, as she always has. This was the first time in my life, I couldn’t speak of what was on my mind. It was very difficult, I spent a lot of time during those months thinking and praying about that day in the temple. Well, I was in that silence for a long time. But then soon after John was born it came time for my son’s (בְּרִית מִילָה) Brit Milah, his circumcision. I was sitting there at home the day before that event, when suddenly many people from the town led by the Rabbi crowded into our house. The Rabbi said, “We need to know what you will name this child.” Elizabeth said, as the angel had told her. “His name will be John.” Well, the Rabbi wasn’t able to take the opinion of a woman easily, and he wanted to know why John? He said to me There are no “Johns” in your family, Zechariah. Your father and grandfather weren’t called John! And then the people came to me, and they were sticking their fingers in my face and saying what is his name, Zechariah? What is his name? And I was trying to make signs to explain to them that his name is John, and trying to speak with my mouth but couldn’t get anything out. So, they brought me a tablet and I began to write (יוֹחָנָן שְׁמוֹ), (Yohanan Shmo) his name is John. And do you know what happened? The moment I wrote that on paper, my mouth opened up, and I shouted, “His name is John!”

The whole place was shocked, some seemed like they even wanted to run away, and then I began to sing. Now, I have never had the gift of being able to sing before. I can’t even hold a tune. I’ve often had song in my heart but never on my lips. But that day I sang praises to God. I sang, and the words came out of me like a river of praise. And then I began to prophesy over my son. And I said.

“And you, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on before the Lord to prepare His ways; To give to His people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the sunrise from on high will visit us. To shine upon those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Yes, I prophesied, and I have never prophesied like that again, I’ve been inspired many times, but not like that. But I know what it’s like to have one’s heart so full that they can no longer be silent. And I also understand now what the Prophet Malachi said when he wrote of how the Lord will suddenly come to his temple. Because he came suddenly to me that day in the Holy of Holies through his messenger out from a cloud of smoke. And that day, God challenged my assumptions and my doubts. I’ve had a lot of time to think during that 9 months of silence and since that time. And what I’ve come to realize is that peace comes to us when we put our trust wholly in God and not in our own limited understanding. Our perception often too clouded, and obscured by our sin. This is why Malachi wrote, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.”

You see, when a silver smith refines silver, 2she only knows that the process is complete when she observes her image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the metal. And so, we are only deemed good and righteous when the divine image is, once again, reflected in the human heart. That divine image and that peace is found in Jesus the Messiah, the one who my son John spoke of. Malachi was saying that the priests needed to be reformed, they needed to repent of their ways they needed to first put their trust in God before they placed it in their rituals. I thought I was a good man and a good priest, I certainly tried to be. But you see, all of us are a a priesthood of believers. And to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, we all need to look at closely ourselves to see where we are following God’s law and where we are not. Too often even as people of faith we live 3casual lives ignoring God’s judgement, exploiting neighbors, abusing the earth and refusing justice and peace. But we can find the peace of God through repentance and by allowing the Lord to refine us like silver.

When God’s promise spoken through Malachi is finally fulfilled, what will look different in our lives? What will look different in this community of faith? What will look different in our world? 4

Let us be open to the work of God in us. Let us hear the words of Malachi and of my son John, calling us to repent and to believe, as we wait expectantly for the coming of Messiah. For we will find peace when we’re right with God, when we have 5laid aside our ambitions and passions, or at least turned them over to God. We live the in between times, and do not live fully in the Way of Peace. But my boy John will teach us all to bridge these times as we live towards God’s reign of hope, whom we will know in the Messiah.

  1. Parkway Presbyterian Church, Georgia
  2. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1 p,92
  3. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1 p.94
  4. Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1 p,104

The Coiled Spring of Advent

Luke 21:25–36

Reading this dark text from Luke, I wouldn’t blame you if you were asking yourself, “what does this have to do with getting ready for Christmas? Why all the doom and gloom?” But the passage from Luke is not about Christmas so much as it is about Advent. And though Christmas and Advent are both about hope, they are not the same thing.

This passage from Luke is classed as apocalyptic literature, which describes the times associated with the end of the world and tends to focus on the catastrophic events that precede it. Unlike some churches, in the United Church we don’t have a strong apocalyptic tradition, which would create a significant theological tension between the present and the future. Maybe that’s a good thing, though, on the other hand, in some ways, maybe it’s not!

I was participating in an online Advent planning session about a month ago led by two pastors from the Southern states who had grown up in more fundamentalist churches. These place a great emphasis on the second coming of Christ. Delmer Chilton, one of our workshop leaders, was telling us 1how as a child that second coming theology was part and parcel of their family and community culture, Jesus was expected to return any day. He told us a story of when he was about 7 or 8 years and woke up one morning. He’d slept through the night because he had a bad fever the previous day. So he tumbled out of his bed and flicked the light switch, but nothing happened. There was no electricity at all in the house. He went downstairs and then from room to room, desperately trying to find somebody in his family. But his mother and father and all his brothers, sisters had all disappeared. He was alone in a dark, cold house. Apparently, Delmer got it into his head that the second coming had happened that evening while he was asleep. That his entire family had been taken up into heaven, leaving him behind. He told us, “I went outside that farmhouse that day in my underwear. I knelt down on the cold ground and desperately prayed that the Lord would just come and get me. Don’t leave me behind, Lord!” It was then he noticed his family in the distance walking towards him. They had been on the other side of the farm clearing out the barn. They left the house without waking him because he had been sick the night before. He said his brothers never let him live that incident down, “Delmer are you ready for the Lord’s coming, they would ask?”

Imagine someone coming to church for the very first time this Sunday and hearing this passage from Luke. They might have come today expecting to hear warm and cozy readings about the journey towards Christmas, and the coming of the Christ child. But instead are confronted by words such as “distress among nations,” “the confusion of the roaring of the sea and the waves” “people fainting through fear and foreboding!” It doesn’t sound very Christmassy, does it?

Jesus’ audience would one day experience a lot of these things Luke describes, when Jerusalem, and its great walls and temple would be destroyed by Rome. By the time Luke wrote his gospel, Christians had already experienced those events. The memory of the destroyed city, temple, and disrupted lives was fixed in their minds. And the memory of those days has been passed down to us through this text. You can feel the tension and fear in this passage which builds and builds until, like a trap, the spring releases and the trap snaps shut. It’s the end of the world and the coming of the Son of Man.

I would suggest that this text actually does describe some of the things we are living through now. There is a sense of coiled-up time and tension in the world today. We are in the second year of a worldwide pandemic, that doesn’t seem to be abating. In the last week, there’s been yet another strain of the virus.)

There is the growing threat of the impacts of climate change. Some areas of the world are facing a real danger of rising sea levels due to global warming. The Marshall Islands because are likely to lose their status as an island nation before too long. At the Cop26 conference, Tuvalu’s foreign minister Simon Kofe recorded a speech for the conference. while standing knee-deep in seawater to emphasize how his low-lying Pacific Island nation is on the front line of climate change. I would suggest that as just as Bob Dylan sang “The Times They are a-Changin” we are in living in or at least on the cusp of apocalyptic change.

Come gather “round people wherever you roam

and admit that the waters around you have grown

And accept it that soon. y ou’ll be drenched to the bone.

If your time to you is worth savin”

And you’d better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone.

For the times they are a changin’ 2

The times they are a Changin here in PEI as well. PEI farmers are issuing warnings because our Federal Government halted fresh potato exports to the U.S. due to the fungus outbreak. Five thousand livelihoods are directly at risk, and I imagine many more indirectly.

And then there are those of us who are facing our personal apocalyptic experiences of uncertainty, worrying about the future state of our health or our economic survival.

There is no doubt in my mind that in more ways than one we are living through the tension of time tightly wound up which feels like it is about to spring open.

Luke shifts his focus from these dark images to the ripening fig tree, and tells us through the words of Jesus to “stand up, raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” There is a juxtaposition of these two, Fear and Hope. It reminds me of the person 3who encountered the security guard at the airport. This is the guy who checks bags for bombs that might be loaded onto the aircraft, The officer at the airport was eating juicy figs, and he gave one to a passenger with a smile. Fear and Hope! I imagine Jesus is doing the same thing in the midst of catastrophe, he metaphorically hands us a ripe juicy fig. And says “look up and dare to hope,” “heaven and earth may pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

This dark passage from Luke invites us take that negative apocalyptic tension of time. and through the help and Grace of God turn it into a positive tension that incorporates trust and hope for the future.

There’s a painting by the Dutch post-impressionist artist Vincent Van Gogh.4 It’s called “Starry Night”, and it depicts the view from Van Gogh’s east-facing window of his asylum room at St. Remo De Provence, just before sunrise. Van Gogh created this masterpiece after his 23 December 1888 mental breakdown, that resulted in the self-mutilation of his left ear. He painted numerous pieces of the same scene, but this was the only one painted at night. It’s a canvas that reflects the dark tension and despair in Van Gogh’s life. But also, like this apocalyptic passage from Luke, it looks forward and gives what one art critic described, “A never to be forgotten sensation of standing on the threshold of eternity.” Van Gogh wrote of his painting, “Hope is in the stars. That’s what Luke is underlining. In the middle of crises, we are called to lift our heads and find hope. Where do we see that hope today, where do we see people who are able through their faith to turn negative tension into positive tension?

I saw hope this week in a woman named Wanda Cooper-Jones, 5whose son Amhaud was pursued and shot by three white men in Georgia in 2020. In what had been for many years, a Jim Crow state, it took over two months before the perpetrators were even arrested. There were eleven white people on the jury and only one person of colour. The tension that Wanda and the black community were experiencing became even even greater when in earlier recent trial, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted for killing several people with an assault rifle. After the three men were found guilty, Wanda Cooper-Jones told a crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Glynn County. ‘To tell the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good.’ The Rev. Al Sharpton, standing beside Wanda, thanked God ‘for shining on us,’ He said ‘Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the deep south stood up in the courtroom and said that black lives do matter,’ he said. ‘Hope has been renewed in a just God’

That’s what this first Sunday in Advent is all about. It’s about hope. It’s about seeing the stars behind the dark background. It’s about taking the tension in that tightly wound coil of time and using it to pull us towards a just future which is held in God’s hands. Now I’m not recommending that we all start reading the ‘left behind’ series of books, which came out a few years ago. But it is important as Christians that we never lose that sense of anticipation and expectation. Despite the circumstances we are in now, let’s take time to hope for the coming of the Lord into our lives. And to demonstrate and live that hope before others.

  1. Story by Delmer Chilton
  2. Bob Dylan: The Times They are a-Changin”
  3. The Symbolism of Figs in the Bible: One for Israel Ministry
  4. Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night
  5. CNN: Al Shapton praises White and Black Acrtivists, for they support during the trial.

Living On The Border

Rev: 4:1-8

John 18:2837

In his book called “The Canadians, 1Andrew Malcolm writes about a woman named Cecille Bechard. She was ‘a Canadian who visited the United States several dozen times a day; when she went to the refrigerator, or to the backdoor, or to make tea, for instance. To read and sleep, she stayed in Canada, and she ate there too because she sat at the north end of her kitchen table. Mrs. Bechard’s home was in Quebec and also in Maine, USA.’ Her house sat on the United States‐Canadian border, the 3,986.8 miles (ca. 6,416 km) frontier, drawn in 1842. The border cut through Cecile’s kitchen wall and across the sink. Split the salt and pepper shakers, just missed the stove and passed through the other wall to sever the Nadeau family’s clothesline and cut off the candy counter in Alfred Sirois’s general store. In the late 1970s when Malcolm first published this story in the New York Times, he concluded that anywhere else in the world Mrs. Bechard might need a passport to take a bath. But the Canadian‐American border in her case and for her town was different because it seemed to unite rather than divide.

Mrs. Bechard’s home and town provide an analogy or comparison for understanding Jesus’s words about the differences between these two worlds that we must live in. The ordinary world that we normally inhabit, which is heavily influenced by our culture and society. And the territory which is named by Jesus as the Kingdom of God, a place that doesn’t necessarily refer to heaven and the afterlife, but to God’s Kin-Dom of justice and Grace. It’s a very present realm that borders and touches the world we spend most of our waking hours in.

What does Jesus mean when he talks about the kingdom of this world? He is referring to a place where real truth is lacking and where the actions of humankind are driven by fear. Fear that is afraid of seeing and speaking the truth. Fear which creates barriers whether physical, mental or social and uses them to exclude others, whether because of ethnicity, or culture or sexual orientation or nationality or faith. Fear results in the control of those who are often the most vulnerable and the least able to defend themselves. We pray to God every Sunday, ‘Thy kingdom come,’ but we know that we’re still living in that other kingdom, especially when we hear of the experiences of people such as Muhammed Anwar Rasul. 2

Muhammed came from the Kurdish region of Iraq. He was in a hospital in Hajnowka, Poland, just last week. He was recovering from lacerations to his legs after he had been beaten by Belarusian guards with heavy sticks of wood. Muhammed had tried to cross the border into Poland via Belarus seven times, because of the oppression and extreme economic conditions in his own country. But each time he was thrown into a police car and transported back inside the exclusion zone which recently trapped over three thousand people between these two countries. The refugees couldn’t cross into Poland, neither could they return to Belarus. This area where they were trapped was a freezing forest without food or fresh water to drink. Apparently, at least 9–10 people died from exposure there. The tragedy that occurred on the Poland Belarus border is just one reminder, that the Kingdom of this world is fed by fear, hemmed in by protective barriers and results in the oppression of others. It is a reality in our time as much as it was in Jesus’ day.

The story in our text from John is also about barriers and borderlines. For example, the Jewish leaders refuse to cross the line into Pilate’s Headquarters because Passover is coming, and entering into the house of a gentile would make them impure. But in seeking Jesus’ death, they are unconcerned about crossing the more important boundary between justice and injustice. (Note John is criticizing the temple authorities not the Jewish people as a whole). Jesus refers to the line between these two kingdoms when he is interrogated by Pilate, when he says, ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’

The text is about a trial, but John is suggesting that it’s not Jesus who is on trial here. It’s the Roman procurator and all that he represents. Pontus Pilate knew he was the most powerful person in Palestine. The most ‘in control’ person in Jerusalem. He was the local representative of the most dominant nation on earth at that time. Peter Peery 3 notes how Pilate goes out of his way to brag to Jesus about his position and authority, saying, ‘do you not know I have power to release you and the power to crucify you?’ But Pilate, despite his authority, is trapped between his culture of empire and God’s reign of grace. Because of his fear, he is asking himself whether he will be able to stay in control if he does not give these Jewish leaders what they want. Despite Rome’s overwhelming power, the Jews were defiant against them. They were not an easy people to rule, and were constantly rebelling. Pilate was probably worried whether he had sufficient troops to quell the riots that might break out if he angered the Jewish leaders. He is a man with power but haunted by fear.

Jesus demonstrates that he is a king of peace and truth in how he responds to Pilate. In his interrogation of Jesus, Pilate in his power and authority tries to maintain a distance between himself and Jesus. To communicate to him through the barrier which separated oppressor from oppressed, Gentile from Jew. ‘I’m not a Jew, am I?’ He asks at one point. But Jesus, who is now at the end of his earthly ministry, responds to Pilate as he did at the beginning of his ministry, to the Samaritan woman at the well. She also came from a different culture. He responds directly, person to person He sees Pilate as an individual, not in his role of authority, and not merely as a Roman, but as a man. ‘Did you ask this on your own, or did somebody put you up to it?’ He knows that the dividing line between himself and Pilate is inside Pilate’s fearful, fractured and conflicted self.

The borderline between the kingdom of this world, and the Kin-dom of God is not out there somewhere, it’s in here, within ourselves. We tend to live according a set of barriers that we have adopted. Opinions about the world and our place in it. But Jesus lived faithfully in both worlds. When he says to Pilate 4 ”my kingdom is not of this world”, At that moment he is like Mrs Bechard5 looking across her kitchen table to the “other country” where her refrigerator is. Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth, and in doing so, has enabled us to face the truth about ourselves, our relationships, our faith, and the world in which we live. We tend to consider truth to be a set of propositional opinions about who we are and the world we live in. But the truth as revealed in Jesus takes precedence over all other human understandings of truth. Emilee Townes writes, 6to live according to the truth, “we are compelled to go beyond merely understanding and making sense and order in our world. We must seek to know God and to live as active witnesses on the journey into God. Jesus’ life is a model and mission of this for us. Truth is something that we do and take us beyond the barriers of where we may define our world and ourselves. It allows us to see the needs of others and respond to them by stepping into that other kingdom.

There’s a story 7from the American Revolution when a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, ‘Sir, I am a corporal!’ The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, ‘Corporal, next time you have a job like this, and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.’ With that, George Washington got back on his horse and rode off. Where did Washington learn such leadership skills? I think he learned them in the person of Jesus, the king of Peace and truth, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.

Theologian Dorothy Soelle 8offers us a model on how we can live in both the kingdoms of this world and the kin-dom of heaven. In her book ‘Beyond Mere Obedience’ she urges us to practise discerning obedience. Discerning obedience has its eyes wide open to discover God’s will in any given situation, and encourages us to seek to understand and live anew the truth found in Jesus. This sets us free to discover God’s will in a future that is open to possibilities. So, let us be always open to the possibilities found in that other kingdom, and revealed to us by Jesus, the king of Truth who is, who was and who is to come.

  1. The Canadians: Andrew Malcom, also from Lectionary Lab Live.
  2. Aljazeera: Poland Belarus Border: People are Dying in the Forest
  3. Pete Peery: Feasting on the Word, Year b Pent 2, page 896
  4. Delmer Chiltern: Lectionary Lab live
  5. Delmer Cilton, Lectionary Lab Live
  6. Emily Townes: Feasting on the Word, Year b Pent 2, page 896
  7. Larry Powell: Just Speak the Word on Sermons.com
  8. Feasting on the Word: Year B, pentecost 2 page 887.

Event Horizon

Job:1.1, 2:1-10

For some reason, as I was reading this text from Job, it reminded me of the phenomena of black holes. A black hole is a star that has collapsed in upon itself, where the forces of gravity become so huge, so immense that nothing can break free from it. Even light, which travels in a straight line at 186,000 miles (ca. 299,338 km) a second, cannot free itself from a black hole. A light particle moving away from one would bend back upon itself. The story of Job is in a sense like a black hole, at least in terms of the human experience of suffering. In this story, following a conversation, and a wager between God, and the “Adversary,” who we know as Satan, gravitational forces are unleashed upon Job. Where, except for his wife, everything that is important and precious to him is sucked into darkness and nothingness and utterly destroyed.

At the beginning of the story, Job is a wealthy man, he owned, land, thousands of sheep camels and hundreds of oxen. He had a large family, seven sons and three daughters. And his sons and his daughters all got along really well together, the grown children would periodically in turn gather at each other’s homes for a feast. The text tells us that Job was good and righteousness, blameless and upright before God. He would go to the temple after a round of feast days and offer up a burnt offering for each of his children. He did this out of concern for his children, just in case one of them had in some way blasphemed against God by thought word or deed. He is a good father. But then calamity strikes at the heart of Jobs happiness. A series of messengers arrive and inform Job first that his livestock, His oxen, sheep, and camels have all been stolen and his servants put to the sword in the process. And then another messenger brings the even more terrible news that while Job’s sons and daughters were gathered to share a family meal, a storm destroyed the house which fell on Job’s sons and daughters and killed them all.

Job has practically lost everything that important to him. He is devastated. Mourning this loss, he shaves his head and tears his clothes, yet he kneels before God and says, ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Despite this tragedy, he holds on to his faith. But then the adversary, with God’s permission, turns the screws even tighter on Job. Soon afterwards, Job is afflicted with horrible sores which cover his body. At the end of this part of the story, Job has lost practically everything, wealth, family and now even his health. The text paints for us a tragic picture of Job sitting on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city. There, among the fish heads and watermelon rinds, picking at the scabs of his sores with a broken piece of pottery. His wife finally loses patience with him and says,” “Do you persist in your naive integrity? Curse God, and die!” But even then, Job refuses to speak against God. In tears, he replies, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” A spoiler alert, before the entire story is over in the book of Job, in later chapters Job does indeed curse God, but not yet.

You have heard the expression, “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” But this story from Job calls that assumption into question. I was reading this week that theologians use a triangle of statements to recognize three truths which do not sit well together. One is that God is Good, two, that God is all powerful. But three, that evil and suffering are very real in people’s lives. And here is the problem, If God is good, and if God is all powerful, then why do terrible things happen to good people? Why do innocent people get killed in horrible accidents, why do people who do their best to live a healthy life die before their time? 1

“Only God knows about my hurt.” 2These were the words spoken by Emal Ahmadi, as he sat a few weeks ago on a dusty hill by the graves of his brother Zamarai and his children, including one of Emal’s little girls. Emal lost ten members of his family, his brother Zamarai, with Zamarai’’s three sons, along with another adult and five other children. This happened in the US drone attack in Kabul, which mistakenly assumed that Emal’s brother Zamarai was a ISIS terrorist. In fact, the US military made a terrible mistake. Zamarai was an aid worker who had been employed for some years by a US-based helping agency. He was hoping to resettle with his family in the United States, until that terrible day when Zamarai’s car was destroyed in a ball of fire through a drone strike. I saw the picture of him sitting by his families graves, and I thought, “he is Job”. I find it impossible to imagine the amount of pain that Emal’s family must be going through now. Furthermore, I also find myself thinking about the person who was sitting that day far away in a bunker, possibly on a military base in the US. The person who pressed the button that released the missile, and the crushing remorse, they no doubt must be feeling now. Why do bad things, why do black holes, happen to good people? And to be clear, none of us here can escape black holes forever. We have either fallen into one in the past, or we are in one now. Or, at some point in the future we will fall into one where our world, our relationships and all of our confident hopes and assumptions about life come crashing down around our ears. A place where we find ourselves sitting on the rubbish dump of despair.

The fact of the matter is, there is a black hole at the very middle of our faith. It’s called the cross. Suffering lies at the centre of Jesus’s experience. He cries out like Job does, “my God, my God, why have you abandoned me.” And I would even go as far as saying, that the tragedy and the suffering in the cross casts a great shadow over the Christian story. Even the story of resurrection, in the same way that despair has dominated the lives of those, main experience in life is one of suffering. But despite those massive forces of evil and injustice, that’s not the whole story.

Black holes aren’t completely black. The Cambridge theoretical physicist, and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking 3mathematically discovered that black holes do, in fact, emit light. At what is known as the event horizon, which is the point at which escape from a black hole is impossible. Because of a theory known as the uncertainty principle, when a particle of light enters the event horizon, they will sometimes split in two. One half will fall into the black holes, but the second particle of light escapes and becomes free. So Black holes actually shine. And likewise, regardless of the overwhelming experience of suffering in the cross, and in peoples lives, resurrection happens and is real.

This has become evident in how people are somehow at the event horizon of their suffering, able to hang on to their faith despite overwhelming forces which conspire against them. We’re reminded of the experience of people of color during and after slavery. They could see 4 the hypocrisy that many who enslaved them were Christians and devoted followers of Jesus. They were troubled by the contradictions. That their suffering was at the hand of those who claimed to be followers of a loving God. For example, one famous slave ship, named Jesus, was used to lure slaves into its hold and then took them to be sold. But despite being enslaved for over two hundred years, somehow they were able to hold on to the reality, that God knows about their hurt. They can sing both.

“Over my head there is trouble in the air,” but also confidently proclaim against all the evidence against it that ‘there must be a God somewhere.’ We meet hope at the event horizon.

We can also think of the first nations people, where their experience since the white settlers arrived is one of increasing gravitational forces of discrimination, oppression, and injustice. And yet, the fact that Canada has this week established a national Day of Truth and Reconciliation, shows that the first nation’s long experience of injustice is not the final word. It’s not the end of the story. That there is an event horizon where even though engulfed in darkness, hope can be found in what goes beyond the experience of history.

What we do today as we gather today is also an event horizon. You may be sitting on a heap of ashes today. You may be experiencing worry, despair, or hopelessness. But in the broken bread of Christ’s body, and in the grape juice, which represents his blood, shed for you. And in this community of followers of Jesus, we are at the event horizon of hope. A place which recognizes the reality of suffering but breaks through our despair and shows that God’s love is real in Jesus. We eat this bread and drink this cup, as we gather round Christ’s table, and we bear together the suffering of humanity. And we receive a certainty that comes to us from beyond ourselves. From beyond our knowledge, from beyond any intellectual affirmation. The certainty which is the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things unseen.

  1. Robert Verlarde, How Can God Allow So Much Evil And Suffering?
  2. Euronews: Afghan father who lost daughter in US strike tells Euronews
  3. Stephen Hawking: A Brief history of time.
  4. Zan Holmes, When Trouble Comes.

For The Love of Jesus!

“For the Love of Jesus!”

Mark 10:46-52

Paul Harvey 1tells a story about a 3-year-old boy who went to the grocery store with his mother. Before they entered, she had certain instructions for the little tike: “Now you’re not going to get any chocolate chip cookies, so don’t even ask!” She put him in the child’s seat and off they went up and down the aisles. He was doing just fine until they came to the cookie section. Seeing the chocolate chip cookies, he said, “Mom, can I have some chocolate chip cookies?” She said, “I told you not even to ask. You’re not going to get any at all.” They continued down the aisles, but in their search for certain items, she had to back track, and they ended up in the cookie aisle again. “Mom, can I please have some chocolate chip cookies?” She said, “I told you that you can’t have any. Now sit down and be quiet.” Finally, they arrived at the checkout. The little boy sensed that the end was in sight, that this might be his last chance. He stood up on the seat and shouted in his loudest voice, “for the love of Jesus, may I have some chocolate chip cookies?” Everyone in the checkout lanes laughed and applauded. Do you think the little boy got his cookies? You bet he did! The other shoppers moved by his daring pooled their resources. The little boy and his mother left with 23 boxes of chocolate chip cookies. I guess that shows the value of persistence, and there may be a few other lessons there as well. It reminded me a little, of the persistence of Bartimaeus.

It appears that Bartimaeus was creating a problem for the people in his community. Jesus had arrived in Jericho as a visiting rabbi, and Bartimaeus was shouting and drawing attention to himself. We don’t know a lot about him, as he only appears in this one place in Marks’ gospel. We know, of course, that he was blind (though he had not always been so) and that he survived by begging by the side of the road. His name is given to us in the Aramaic language which Jesus spoke. Bartimaeus means (Bar) the Son of Timaeus. Timeous is not a Jewish, but a Greek name, m so, possibly, Bartimaeus was part Jew, part Greek. The people of Jericho would have attributed Bartimeus’s blindness to a sin which he committed in the past, which is why he was now reduced to begging to earn his living.

I remember when we were visiting Zimbabwe in Southern Africa, there were many of its people who were very poor and disadvantaged. Their only way of earning money was to sell cheap souvenirs, carved necklaces and small wooden statues, by the roadside. They would lay out their wares on an old blanket. They could be very assertive and demanding towards the tourists as they walked past. I imagine Bartimaeus in a similar way spreading his cloak on the ground, using it as his storefront, from where he sold his carved wooden beads and souvenir carvings of the wall of Jericho. Desperation, and the need to survive, had taught him to be loud and demanding.

Jesus had only just explained to his disciples that those who are least considered in society, are the most treasured in God’s eyes. But in this story, it’s as if the disciples had forgotten everything Jesus had just taught them. When Bartimaeus tries to draw attention to himself, the crowd and the disciples order him to “sit down and be quiet. You’d think 2the crowd would have known by now, having seen Jesus healing the sick and caring for the lowly. At the very least, you’d think his disciples would have remembered what he’d so recently told them. ‘The Son of Man comes not to be served, but to serve…’ (Mark 10:45).

People on the margins of society are often not seen or paid attention to. Even when our best intentions are to help them, we often do it on only our terms. There’s the story of the frail elderly woman standing at the street corner. A gallant young man takes her by the arm and propels her across the street, brushing off her feeble protests. Safely on the other side, she glares at him and says, ‘Now take me back over there before I miss my bus!’ 3Cathy A. Ammlung notes how disadvantaged people often complain that authorities don’t seek their input about welfare reform, new bus routes, or urban renewal projects that directly impinge on their lives. Sometimes people ‘talk past’ a person in a wheelchair or hospital bed, as if that person had neither ears nor brains. Many people—perhaps you—have been patronized, talked down to, or offered inadequate, inappropriate, or downright insulting assistance.

There are similarities and differences between this story and the one we looked at last week, the one about James and John, who wanted to sit at Jesus’s right and left hand. Both of these stories are about ‘blindness.’ James and John are unable to see who Jesus really is because of their blind ambition. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, though he’s physically blind, and a source of annoyance to the people of Jericho, he recognizes Jesus, and he sees in him what others cannot. Jesus asks the same question of Bartimaeus as he does James and John. “What do you want me to do for you?” Cynthia Jarvis 4notes that “the answer from James and John rests on a well-established religious prestige. But the petition from Bartimaeus issues from darkness and doubt. The request from James and John would side step suffering, the request from Bartimeaus is forged out of loss, exclusion and helplessness. One request is bent on an exclusive claim to righteousness, the other is bowed down in need before the Son who alone is righteous.” In contrast with the blind ambition of James and John and the other disciples, Bartimaeus has perceptive perseverance. He is blind, but he sees who Jesus is despite the darkness of his physical handicap.

‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ he cries out. Bartimaeus is the first person apart from Peter in Mark’s Gospel to declare Jesus as the Messiah Son of David. And of course, Jesus isn’t blind to the needs of Bartimaeus, though he must have had a lot on his mind that day. In a few hours time he would enter Jerusalem where he knew he would be arrested, flogged, mocked and killed. Yet despite the concern he must have had for himself, he sees the suffering of another, and responds immediately. When Bartimeaus cried out, Jesus stopped still in his tracks. You would have imagined that he would have gone over to Bartimeaus to heal him. But he doesn’t. You see, there’s a second miracle at work here. Jesus always stresses the need to bring people into community with one another. So, he enlists the crowd into the work of the gospel, and he gets them to bring Bartimeaus to him. You can see in the text, the mood and the concern of the crowd shifts. It moves from blindness to sight, from concern about self need, to compassion for others in need. They call out to Bartimeaus, now encouraging him, ‘Take heart; Bartimeaus, rise, Jesus is calling you.

I think that sometimes we hear an inner voice, the voice of Jesus saying to us, “Bring them to me.” And if we would but listen and respond to that voice, the blindness we have toward those who in need would drop away. A friend was telling me about an experience she had on the streets of Charlottetown. It was winter, she had just finished doing some shopping, and the weather was turning nasty. It looked like there was snow was setting in. So her main concern was to get home as quickly as possible into the warmth, and snuggle down with a cup of hot soup. A woman was standing on the side of the street as she passed, and said, “can you spare some change?” But concerned about getting out of the cold as soon as possible, my friend walked by her with a quick, “sorry, not today.” However, before she had reached the next street corner, she said, “something just stopped me in my tracks. I was forced to ask myself, “what do you think are doing walking past someone in need, where all they are asking for is a few coins?” She turned back, and found the woman, gave her some money, and said to her, “I’m ever so sorry that I ignored you.” The woman said, “That’s all right dear, I get it all the time, I’m used to it.” To which my friend replied “that may be true, but you didn’t need that same behavior from me, I totally discounted you, and I apologize.” She said the woman started to cry when she heard her words of regret. Why did she cry, I wonder? Probably because for once, a stranger SAW her really saw her as a human being, worthy of being noticed, worthy of being seen and worthy of being respected. And maybe that brought to her along some tears but some healing as well.

Cynthia Jarvis 5 says that “our role as a church community is to obediently gather a crowd around what God is doing in the world. To make and keep human life human. The cry of need that caused Bartimaeus to be shunned by many, became the occasion of God’s intention for creating a glimpse of grace in ordinary time. That glimpse is called a miracle, and miracles are those events that bring all of us from darkness into light.” Let us likewise be obedient as we gather around the gracious acts which God performs in our world as we participate in Jesus healing touch which is always extended towards those who live on the margins.

  1. Paul Harvey: The Friend at Midnight
  2. Cathy A. Ammlung: Will the Real Blind Beggar Please Stand Up?
  3. Cathy Amlung: Will the Real Blind Beggar Please Stand Up?
  4. Cynthia Jarvis: Feasting on the Word Year B Pentecost 2
  5. Cynthia Jarvis: Feasting on the Word Year B Pentecost 2

The Rudder and The Trim-tab

James 1:1-12

Are you a Jane Austen fan? I’ve never read any of her books, but I love the TV adaptations of her stories, particularly Pride and Prejudice, especially the BBC version with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, and Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet. She is my favourite female literary character of all time! But, has anyone ever read one of Austen’s other books, “Emma,” or seen the movie? In this story, Emma is a young woman, 21 years old. She is very confident in herself. She is the head of her widowed father’s household, and she oversees the social goings-on in the village of Highbury. Emma’s misplaced confidence in her abilities as a matchmaker and her prudish fear of love are the central focus of the novel, which follows Emma’s many mistakes and the gradual development of her character and self-awareness.

On one occasion, Emma is with some friends of hers at a picnic. Emma comes up with the idea of playing a game, to keep everyone amused. The rules of the game are that each person must say either, “one thing that is very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated, or two things moderately clever, or three things very dull indeed.” And Emma promises to laugh heartily at whatever is offered. There is a Miss Bates at the picnic who, as Jane Austen, describes. Is a “middle-aged spinster without beauty or cleverness, but with universal goodwill and a gentle temperament.” She replies to Emma’s challenge. “Oh! Very well,” she says, “then I need not be uneasy. Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?” Well, Emma just can’t resist the temptation for a retort. “Ah! Ma’am, she says, but there is the difficulty. Because when have you ever stopped at three dull things?” Miss Bates, who is terribly embarrassed and hurt, says, “I see what you mean, Emma, I will endeavour to hold my tongue.” Of course, it’s Emma’s tongue and her lack of maturity, thoughtlessness, even her cruelty, that’s the problem here. Through the book, Emma, she gradually gains greater maturity and kindness and learns and improves on many traits of her character, including learning to tame her tongue.

“Taming the Tongue” is what this passage from the letter of James is all about. After giving a warning about “teachers” (which I paid close attention to), James uses three things to illustrate the challenge of taming the unruly tongue. A fire being one of them, a horse’s bit another, and a rudder. James using the image of fire to illustrate the negative impact that the human tongue can have on others. ‘How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!’ Well, the people out west certain know about the dangers of small fires, don’t they. In the same way we can so easily set things on fire with what comes out of our mouths, creating damage and hurt to others. You will have heard the old saying that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me’ Well that just isn’t true! I’m sure many of us suffer the mental scars inflicted upon us as children through verbal abuse. The reality is, when we talk about others unkindly, it can create untold damage to a person’s reputation and their self-worth.

‘There’s a story of a lady in France 1 who went to confession, and she told the priest, “I’m afraid I’ve been a gossip, and I’ve been gossiping in this village for years.” The priest said, “Then you must do penance.” “Oh,” she replied, “I’ll do anything if I can be forgiven.” He said, “Well, you must do these things. First, I want you to go and pluck two chickens and bring all the feathers to me in a bag,” which she did. She said, “Is that enough penance?” “No, there’s a second thing. You must now walk down the village street and take handfuls of feathers out of the bag and throw them up into the wind. When you have emptied the bag, come back.” When she came back, she said, “Is that enough penance?” “No,” he said, “There’s a third thing.” “What’s that?” “This is all you need to do: now go and pick all the feathers up.” She said, “But I’ll never be able to find them all! They’ve blown away in the wind.” He replied, “Yes! That’s what your gossip has been like. You can’t ever get it back. It’s gone! You’ve filled the village with your gossip, and with your rumours.” A’ (from ‘A Commentary on James’ by David Pawson) Times change, but human behaviour doesn’t so much. And in a world radically influenced by social media and inaccurate news reporting which too often sensationalize events, I would imagine that James would be even more concerned today than he was in his time.

James illustrates the solution to the uncontrolled tongue through the example of a horse’s bit. He writes, ‘when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal around. Growing up in a farming community, you probably know this better than I that even a small child can control a large horse. by tugging gently at the bit. I didn’t realize it until this week that the bit fits into a natural space behind the front incisors of the horse and in front of the back molars. And the bit literally controls the horse by pressing against its tongue! It’s almost as if the horse’s mouth is designed to take a bit. But we could ask who is that child who sits on top of the horse controlling the reins which controls the bit?

Similar to that illustration, James gives a third example that the tongue is like the rudder which though small controls a ship or a boat which is much larger. And again we ask what is it, or who is the pilot via the tiller or wheel, controlling that rudder? We all know what rudders do, but did you know that for massive ships, it’s a little more complicated to change course than having a simple rudder. I want you to think about 2 a giant tanker steaming through the ocean. Consider how much energy there is in the ship’s forward motion. How does the captain get such a giant object with so much momentum to change course? He turns the ship’s wheel, the wheel turns the rudder, and the rudder turns the ship, right? Wrong! There is actually so much water pressure on the rudder that turning the wheel just won’t work. The way it actually happens is that the rudder has a little mini-rudder on it called a trim-tab. When the captain turns the ship’s wheel, the wheel turns the trim-tab, the trim-tab turns the rudder, and only then does the rudder turn the ship.

To control our tongues, we need a trim-tab. I suppose in one sense, a trim-tab is that remorseful feeling, the bad taste in our mouth that often sticks with us for the rest of the day when we have just said something hurtful to someone. In the picnic scene in Emma, Emma knows immediately what she has done, unfortunately she doesn’t apologize, but she does learn from the experience. But it would be nice to have a trim-tab that we can use, or think about, or consider before we unthinkingly throw the tongue/rudder to the left or the right. Rotary International have one that’s an ethical guide for Rotarians to use for their personal and professional relationships. It’s called the four way test, 3and it encourages members to ask these four questions before speaking or responding to an issue.

  1. Is what I am about to say, the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build Goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

I ran the four-way-test on what Emma said to Miss Bates at the picnic. (That she always said at least three dull things.) Well for one, it may have been true, but two, it was not fair, and three, it did not build good will, and four, it wasn’t beneficial to anyone. But I would suggest that the ultimate Trim-tab is found in looking at how Jesus approached communications and relationships with others. And let’s not kid ourselves he needed a trim-tab, as well just as we do. Remember his “Emma” moment when he insulted the Canaanite woman who was begging him to heal her child? and he responded by saying “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”

Jesus’ trim-tab was in spending time in silence and solitude with God. This is very evident in the gospels. Bill Gaultiere in his blog 4 notes, that even in Mark, which moves through the story of Jesus really quickly. Many Biblical scholars say that Mark tells his gospel in a hurry. Indeed his favourite expression is ‘immediately’ (or ‘at once’) which he uses 39 times. But despite this rush to tell the story about Jesus, threaded through Mark is clear evidence of Jesus’s intention of slowing down. Taking-time-to-cease-from-activity. For example

—Spending 40 days alone in the wilderness (Mark 1:12)

—walking beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16)

—Going off to a solitary place early in the morning to pray (Mark 1:35)

—Going out to a mountain side and spending the night there talking with God. (Mark 3:13)

—Gethsename (Mark 14:32)

Jesus lived the words written by the Trappist Monk Thomas Merton, who wrote extensively on the value of solitude, “In silence and hope, are formed the strength of Saints.”

Silence is a good daily discipline to cultivate, to just sit in before God and not even feel you need to pray, but only to listen. I wouldn’t say it’s easy, Margaret and I once went on a silent retreat to a monastic centre called the Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles. We were on our way to a vacation in Hawaii, but we stopped at the retreat centre for three days. The time there was spent in meditation, chanting and going for walks around the beautiful lake. The one rule was we were asked not to speak, not even to each other, including when we were alone. For the first two days, I found it extremely difficult in fact, Margaret had to keep telling me, you’re talking again. But on the third day I was able to enter into the beauty and silence of that place and felt a deep sense of peace and calm, which stayed with me for the rest of that trip. I encourage us all to try the trim-tab that Jesus used that was so central to the way in which he governed his relations toward others, and how he responded to what was happening around him. I say responded because that’s not what most of us do, like Emma, we react rather than respond. Spending time in silence provides space for words to be formed and later spoken which are grounded in God’s grace.

It’s difficult but also simple, all you need to do is to sit, breathe and just be aware of what is around you. The light reflected from a piece of furniture, a clock ticking, a bird singing, the creaking of the floorboards. We always make the present moment, a tiny sliver of our consciousness squeezed into nothing by the past and the future. But you don’t need to worry about the past, because it doesn’t exist anymore. And you don’t need to worry about what might happen in the future, because it hasn’t happened yet. You only need to allow your attention to be in this one present moment, which is much larger than we realize. And let what is happening around you and the presence of God fill your awareness, and ultimately form your thoughts and your words to others.

  1. David Pawson: Sermon, Teachers and Tongues.
  2. Steve Strauss Ask an expert: The trimtab principle
  3. Rotary: Guiding principles
  4. Bill Gaultierre: Soul Shepherding, Jesus solitude and silence.

When We Forget the Mirror’s Image

James 1:17-27

Margaret was telling me a story the other day about Deborah when she was about seven or eight years old. It was coming up to Christmas, and Deborah gave Margaret her letter to Santa. At the top of the list, she had written a Malibu Barbie doll. This rang a bell with Margaret, and so she had a look in Debs toy chest and noticed that she already had about three or four Barbie dolls. She knew that she hadn’t played with them. Some of their clothes and outfits Deb had been given to dress Barbie had not even been opened. Margaret pointed this out to her and asked her why she felt she needed yet another Barbie Doll. Deborah’s head dropped, and she explained, that all her friends were getting the Malibu Barbie Doll for Christmas, so she thought she should have one as well. Margaret said, but you never played with your other Barbie dolls? Deborah went quiet. Margaret said, is it that you don’t really know what you want for Christmas? Deborah nodded. And, Margaret said, and if you don’t write something down, then, you might not get anything? Deborah nodded again. Margaret said, then why don’t I have a chat with Father Christmas, and I’m sure between us, we will be able to come up with a present that you will really like. OK Deborah said. So instead of the Barbie Doll for $30, Margaret bought Deborah a popcorn machine, which, I think, was about $9. When I spoke to Deborah, the other day because I wanted to ask her permission, to use this story, she couldn’t even remember having any Barbie Dolls. But she remembered that popcorn machine because she played with it for a couple of years. We talked together about how as children and as adults we come under influences and pressures from our friends and others to conform. And how we can become disconnected with the core of who we are. This makes the journey of forging our self identity all that more difficult. While we were chatting, Deborah gave me another example of cultural pressures from when she was attending church and Sunday school as a young teen. She was not one for wearing dresses, she always felt more comfortable going to church in smart pants and a blouse. She said to me that when she was about 14 one of the Sunday School teachers told her that she should not wear pants to church. Because she was a girl, she should wear a dress, and that God would see and presumably not approve of what she was wearing. Deborah told me that was the point when she decided, “this isn’t for me, I’m out of here!”

In the gospel song “I’ll fly away” there is a line “like a bird from prison bars has flown.” It reminded me of the Irish writer James Joyce. He was well acquainted with the expectations of a culture which imposes its values and norms upon us, and restricts our freedom to be ourselves. Joyce went into self-imposed exile in Europe just so that he could have the liberty to write. He once said. “When a person is born … there are nets flung at them to hold them back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion, but I shall try to fly by those nets.” James, the author of our text, wrote his letter to followers of Jesus, who he felt had become caught up in the nets of a culture that was robbing them of their Christian identity. The letter is addressed to the “the twelve tribes,” revealing that, these were communities of Jewish Christians living in a non-Jewish, non-Christian, pagan world. This meant that there were pervasive influences on them to conform to the wider culture in which they lived. Some of them had lost their connection with the core meaning of the gospel, which had at one time radically changed their lives, for the better, and helped them to discover who they were in Christ. They were backsliding, they were not living according to the God’s gift of faith which had brought them into relationship with God through Christ and into a better relationship with their community. James describes some of them as people who had once looked into a mirror, recognized themselves, but then forgot the image of who they were called to be. As a result, their understanding of the gospel, no longer translated into action. James urges them to be doers of the word, not merely hearers. The way they were now living was incompatible with what they claimed to believe. James argues that, true religion is in how we act. But the society these Christians were living in was governed by selfish actions, and a lack of concern about those who were vulnerable. Where personal morality focussed on selfish wants and not on the needs of others. James pointed out to this Christian community that faith should be shown in how well they look after the needs of the vulnerable, such as widows and orphans. And in how strenuously they strove for purity in their personal lives. This is why James is calling these Jewish Christian communities to look back into the mirror of the perfect Law. The law as revealed in the person of Jesus, the living Torah, the law of liberty, where they can rediscover themselves again.

Jesus was doing the same thing as James in the passage from Mark when he criticizes the Pharisees. He is calling them as well to look into the mirror of the Torah. He tells them, speaking for God, “You abandon the commandment of God, and you hold to human tradition.” Jesus knew that it was in being in relationship with the Word of God that Jews could rediscover whom God intended them to be. But the Pharisees were adding to the law and imposing their traditions on others. They ask Jesus in this passage, ’why do your disciples do not wash their hands before eating in accordance with the “Tradition of the Elders”? Well, the fact is, nowhere in the 613 commandments of the Torah, is there any rule that one should wash their hands before eating. They were pretty much like Deborah’s Sunday School teacher, who told her that God wanted her to wear a dress to church. They were telling people to live their lives not according to whom they were called to be as a covenant people, but according to some artificial Barbie Doll type image. So in both of these instances, we have people of faith, coming up against cultures, which were either enticing them, or telling them how to live in a way that was not life-giving.

James draws a distinction between those who look “at” the mirror, and those who look into the mirror. How often do you look at yourself in the mirror? I imagine many times each day to check if you look well groomed before going out into the world to make sure your hair looks OK, or that you have properly shaved. I suppose that most of our looking at ourselves in the mirror is quick and cursory. But how often do we look into the mirror and ask ourselves who we really are? Who is this person God wants us to be? James suggests to the communities that he is writing to that there is a big difference between merely looking “at” a mirror of the law of God and looking “into” it. When we look into the mirror of God’s grace, then we really see ourselves as we are meant to be.

I was reading a sermon written by Rev. Martha Sterne.1 She tells the story of when she was a social worker. Apparently, she had hair that was very difficult to manage and cut. Every time she went to her hairdresser, Grady, he would always scream in mock horror. “Emergency, emergency!” But this particular day she went in, she was not in the mood for joking around. She had just discovered that one of her clients, a lovely young woman whom she had found a job for, was leaving her five-year-old child at home alone. It was because she couldn’t find childcare, and she wanted to avoid disappointing Martha, her social worker. Martha was distraught that her actions to help this woman had placed a child in risk. She said to her hairdresser, that day ’Grady, I either need a whole new haircut or a totally new me, and I don’t care which! Without saying a word, Grady spun her chair around, so she wasn’t facing the mirror and without saying a word he cut off every hair from her head, almost like shaving someone who was entering monastic orders. Martha was thinking to herself, “O my lord, what is he doing?” Then he swung the chair around, and she said, “I-saw-me.” Then Grady said Martha you don’t need a new “you,” you need to be you and God knows that’ll be enough! And she came to realize that Grady was right, and the hair grew back, and she grew up. And five years later, she had graduated from a seminary and had been ordained. Grady had gotten sick and had died of AIDS, and his funeral was her first as a priest. She said, ’Grady still haunts me, but in a good way. ’Here’s a good exercise to do which can help us to affirm our self-identity. 2 Draw up a list of things you like most about yourself. But focus on your inner qualities that mark how you are different compared to others, and on things that you don’t necessarily see in the mirror, things like.

—“I have a lot of imagination,”

—“At work, I’m good at identifying tasks and meeting deadlines.”

—“I helped my neighbour a few days ago.”

—“My friends tell me I organize great suppers.”

—“I am a good friend, and I’m compassionate towards others.”

When you have created the list hang it on the mirror of your bathroom, this time every time you look in the mirror, you will also see what you like in you, and what makes you special. The exercise reminds us of our real value, especially when we are feeling vulnerable. And then once a month update the list, keep the qualities that you most appreciate, but try to find new ones. It will reassure you that the individual, who you are, is a very alive human being who never stops moving and evolving. So let us fly away from cultures and people who try to tell us who we are supposed to be. Look into the mirror of God’s grace, and see the real you, and trust in that person you see. Because we are created in God’s image, we are a covenant people called to do great things for ourselves and for others. Amen.

  1. The Rev. Martha Sterne: Looking in The Mirror
  2. FABIENNE BROUCARET: Why do I look at myself in the mirror all the time?

Sacred Spaces

1 Kings 8:(1, 6, 10–11), 22–30, 41–43

I’d like to invite you to think about a point in your life when you experienced a sense of the sacred, or the holy. A time and place that was special to you and where the experience you had burned into your memory, in such a way that you never forgot about it. It could have been something you felt as a child, or as an adult, whether you were in church or in the midst of nature. Where were you when that experience happened, and what was it that you felt? I have a couple of special times in my life that particularly come to mind. One was when I was a child of six years old. It was probably my earliest memory of being part of worship in a church. We were living at that time in Lincolnshire on the east coast of England in a little town called Mablethorpe. My mum would take us to worship at a little ancient Anglican church called St. Mary’s, built in the year 1300. I don’t remember what I felt during the worship service exactly. But whatever it was, whether it was the stained-glass windows, the ancient stones, the priest’s vestments, or the candles. It had a profound effect on me because when I got home I remember I tried to dress up as a priest, using assorted bits of clothing, dressing gown cords and pieces of cloth. I think I borrowed one of my dad’s ties to use as a stole. I suspect that this experience of worship as a child and my response to it might have been the first sense of call I had to the ministry.
Another time I experienced the sacred was as an adult. We were in the South of England for the Christmas season, and we drove to Stonehenge on the 21st of December, the winter solstice, which also happens to be my birthday. When we arrived, there was hardly anyone there, though all around the henge, there were hundreds of footprints in the snow, which had been left by a group of modern-day druids. They had gathered there several hours before we arrived at dawn to celebrate the solstice. I think ancient places like Stone Henge carry a special energy about them, which you can feel when you’re there. I certainly felt a sense of the holy and the sacred that day. Deborah and Daniel had given me a new drum for my birthday. So, I decided to christen, or dedicate, my drum by walking around the henge in a circle to its beat. I’m certain that the few other tourists there that day and maybe my kids as well thought I was a bit crazy, but I pushed my hesitation aside. When those moments come, we need not worry about what other people think, but to enter into and embrace the experience.

Our text from 1Kings Chapter 8 is probably one of the most significant sacred moments in Israel’s history, the dedication of the first temple on Mount Zion. If you recall from my message a few weeks ago, King David wanted to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, which was always kept in the tent of the tabernacle. It was in a tent because until the time of David it had always travelled with the people of Israel, wherever they were. But once David had defeated all of his enemies and established Jerusalem, the Ark could finally have a permanent home. Because of the blood on his hands, God would not allow David to build the temple, but after his death, Solomon was able to undertake this task. After Solomon built the temple, he arranged for a great procession of the Ark of the Covenant. This went from the city of David, located on the lower slopes of Jerusalem, up to the summit of Mount Zion to the new temple. The Holy of Holies, within, was built on top of the “noble rock, or the foundation stone. It’s the place where God first instructed Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Today, the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqṣā Mosque stand over that foundation stone.When you read the story of the dedication of the temple, you can see that it is a liturgy, remarkably similar to the liturgy of our Sunday worship services. At the beginning of the dedication, there is a ‘Call to Worship,’ a gathering of all the elders and tribal leaders around the ark. Then there is The Approach, a procession toward the temple, which is essentially what we do in the prayer of approach or the opening prayer. They bring the Ark, with the tablets of the law inside the sanctuary, or the Holy of Holies. This is the Word, the reading of scripture and reflections upon it. There are sacrifices of grain and burnt offerings, which correspond to our offertory. In the story, a cloud filled the temple so that the priests are unable to continue to minister. This is where the people sense, and become overwhelmed by, God’s holy presence. It is the same cloud that led the Israelites out of Egypt and protected them from the Egyptian army (Exodus 14:19-25). It is the cloud that descended on top of Mount Sinai when God made a covenant with the Israelites and gave them the law as a gift. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the cloud of God’s presence in one of our worship services. But maybe there have been times when through the readings, the music, or the prayers, or maybe in the message, you have felt that God is close, and is near. If and when you have that feeling, that’s what the cloud represents, the presence of God in and among the people.

In the story, Solomon stands first facing the altar, and he addresses God and says, ‘I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in forever.’ He then turns away from the altar and faces the people, stretches his arms toward heaven, and offers a prayer to God that:

—Praises God’s name

—Recounts Israel’s relationship with God through its history,

—Confesses the sins of the people.

—Commits to God that the people will follow God’s commandments and live better lives

This is kind of a combination of our prayers of confession, prayers of the people, as well as the prayer I offer before communion which remembers our history. At the end of the temple’s dedication, like our ‘commissioning’ there is the ‘sending out,’ and the people return to their tents, joyful and in good spirits.

It’s a liturgy, and it forms the basis of our liturgy. But the dedication ceremony in this story expressly emphasizes that all foreigners in the land, whether they are Israelite or not, will be welcomed to worship, and they are invited to pray before God at the temple. In other words, the experience of worshipping God is opened up to non-Israelites. It’s like the hymn we sang at the picnic service the other week. God draws the circle wide. The inclusion of the other is right there in the text. It is part and parcel of what the purpose of the temple is all about.

There’s some irony here, particularly the verses that emphasize the inclusion of foreigners. Because when Margaret and I were in Jerusalem in 2019 we went to the site of Solomon’s temple, now, as mentioned earlier, known as the Dome of the Rock or the Al-Aqṣā Mosque. We were allowed to go up the surrounding area of the mosque, but we were not permitted to go into the mosque, and we were expressly forbidden to pray anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, I was told by a security guard to cover the tattoos on my arms, I’m assuming because of their religious significance. Now obviously, due to the tensions between Jews and Palestinians in Israel, The Al-Aqṣā Mosque is a contested space in Jerusalem. But our experience at the Dome of the Rock, made me think about how we as Christian people have also excluded the foreigner, or we could say, ‘the other’ from the full-worship life of the church. For many years, we excluded women from the ministry, and they are still barred from leadership in some Christian denominations. We excluded LGBTQ persons by not affirming and celebrating their right to marry. We excluded children from the Lord’s table, apparently because they were too young to understand its significance. But God’s intention in this text from 1Kings is to include ALL into the life of the worshipping community. And clearly, that has not been the case.

The word liturgy comes from the Greek word leitourgia, from two words ‘litos” and “ergos’ or ‘public service’. Liturgy essentially means, the work of the people. And a significant part of liturgy, the work of the people, is the inclusion of foreigners, or we could say the other. People who are not considered to be of the community, or don’t consider themselves to be part of it. It’s why it’s important to do the work of the people to ensure that we prevent no one from coming to God’s presence. This (copy of Voices United) is a work of the people, it was quite controversial in its time because through the changes in language of hymns, it worked to be inclusive of others. The liturgy the work continues because we must always ask ourselves, are we in some way in the language we use in our worship excluding others?

At choir practice the other night, we were looking at a hymn we are singing next week, called fairest Lord Jesus. And we discussed the question, of whether the words ‘fairest Lord Jesus’ would, in some way, exclude a person of colour. I think we decided, in the end, that the word did not refer to Jesus’s complexion, which, of course, would not have been fair at all, but to his persona. But we should always ask, how might a person of colour react to that language. I asked that question of my friend Amoti Nyabongo. He didn’t answer specifically about the hymn, but he said, ‘to develop understanding of others, it’s important that we can eat from each other’s plate … not just our own. Way too many times we only eat from our own plate … which gets us nowhere quickly.’ Sometimes as well, the people we consider to be the other, is ourselves. We sometimes make ourselves the foreigner. For example, we might rationalize to ‘I’m not going to attend worship in this church, because I’m not part of that community. But Liturgy, the work of the people, is also asking, why am I excluding myself from entering into worship with the people of God? Solomon at one point in his prayer to God says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! God can’t be contained, and yet, isn’t this what we often try to do? To contain God inside our ideas of who God is, and by doing that we exclude others, or ourselves?

When I was a student in the UK in the North of England, I was living in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighbourhood. I would sometimes attend mass with my landlady. The first time I went to mass with her, I was unaware they didn’t permit Protestants to take communion. So, I went up and the priest gave me communion, but he realized afterwards that I was not a Roman Catholic because I was unaware that I was supposed to say “Amen” after receiving the sacrament. He had a word with my landlady, just to make sure that this wouldn’t happen again. But a year later I went on a pilgrimage with a group of Catholics and Franciscan Friars to Ilkley Moor in Yorkshire. They held a mass there and brother Dunstan and Father Gerard knew that because of the rules, they could not serve me communion. However, to include me, they invited me to help them serve the communion to others. That’s liturgy, the work of the people, which includes the other. I have always regretted that I declined their offer. But you see because of my first experience I was hesitant, and so I excluded myself.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims consider Jerusalem and particularly the site of Solomon’s temple to be the Central mountain of the world. But speaking of mountains, Black Elk who was a shaman of the Lakota tribe once said this about Harney Peak in South Dakota.

“I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world, “And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell, and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”

Black Elk said that Harney Peak was the centre of the world. But then he added that the centre of the world is everywhere!” Wherever we worship God and when in that worship we include the other, even when that other is ourselves, we are standing in God’s presence at the centre of the world.

Waking Up and Seeing The Light

2 Samuel 11.26-12:24

I often find it fascinating to discover the origins of a piece of music, or a song. There is one we are performing as an anthem today called “I Saw the Light.” It was written by the great country western singer Hank Williams, and it has become very popular in churches. It’s a song about sin, repentance, and grace. The first verse goes:

I wandered so aimless, my life filled with sin

I wouldn’t let my dear saviour in

Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night

Praise the Lord, I saw the light. 1

I don’t generally like country and western music, but this one caught me. 2 Apparently, the song was first created when Hank’s mother was driving her son back from a concert late one night. By the time the show was over, Hank was drunk and higher than a kite. His mother was in the driver’s seat, and Hank was in the back seat of the car sleeping it off. There was a beacon light near Dannelly Field Airport, in Montgomery, Alabama. And Miss Williams, Hanks Mom, knowing it always took time to get Hank awake when he was drunk, turned around and called to him, “Hank, wake up, we’re nearly home. I just saw the light!” Hank woke up, and between then and their arrival, somehow the words of his mother “I saw the light” cut through his drunken stupor and inspired him to write this song. It’s impossible to know what was going through his mind exactly. But it seems that the words “I saw the light,” were like a clarion call, summoning Hank to realize where he was heading in his life and to repent. Hank struggled with alcoholism, and tragically because of his substance abuse he died when he was only 29 years old. But he left a collection of songs behind, which speak to the despair and hope we all experience at times, because of the poor choices we make in life. In the movie 3about Hank, a reporter asked him, “Hank, in your music, what is it you are offering your fans?” He replied, “I write what I write, and I sing what I sing, But you know, everybody has a little darkness in them. They may not like it, and they may not want to know about it. But it’s there. I’m talking about things like anger, misery, sorrow, shame. And they hear those things in my music it if I show it to them.” Hank Williams was a sinner, but through his music and his art, he also was in many ways a prophet. He was both Nathan and David from our story today. He was both the sender of a message of hope and the one who needed to hear it. It goes to show how close sin and grace sit next to one other. There’s only a hand’s breadth between them, in Hank, in us, and in David, the topic of our text today.

In the story we heard last week. David through his arrogant and selfish behaviour was creating a real mess, which he finally has to face in our text today. In last week’s reading, David, the king, was sending many messages. He sent a message to bring Bathsheba to him in his palace, so he can sleep with her. He sent a message to Joab to bring Uriah to him, so he can cover up his sin and Bathsheba’s pregnancy by trying to persuade Uriah to be with his wife. When that didn’t work, David sent a message to Joab carried by Uriah that led to his death outside the city walls, where the Israelite soldiers were fighting. When Joab sent word back to David that Uriah had been killed, David sent another message which revealed his deep cynicism, about his actions. “Don’t let this upset you, Joab; the sword devours one as well as another.” But in this part of the story, It’s God who sends a message to David, through the prophet Nathan.

Nathan has a problem. God has given his judgment against David. But how is Nathan going to communicate that verdict to someone who is, firstly, a person of great power and authority, and secondly a man who has a habit of acting suddenly and impulsively. After all, David has just had Uriah killed because he wouldn’t do his bidding. David as ruler is surrounded by “yes” men, people who are unwilling to challenge him. And Nathan has to tell him NO to the harm he has done to others. And so, Nathan decides to do this by telling David a story.

It’s the tale of two men who lived in the same town. One was rich and the other poor. It’s interesting to read how Nathan gives us the comparative details of these two characters. All we hear about the first man is that he had many sheep and cattle, that he was rich, and that’s pretty much it. There is nothing of value to say about him. He’s not very interesting as far as the writer of 2 Samuel is concerned. But, when it comes to describing the poor man, we’re given a much more in-depth description of who he was, and what he was like. Nathan emphasizes that the only possession this man owned, was a little ewe lamb, which he had bought, raised and tenderly cared for. Nathan describes to David how this little lamb was a practically a member of this poor man’s family, and even ate from his table and would lie cradled in his arms.

So, apparently, the rich man was hosting a visitor, but rather than use a sheep from his large flock, he takes the one lamb which the poor man owned and slaughters it for the meal. When David hears this story, he is absolutely indignant, and livid with anger. “That man deserves to die!” He says to Nathan, and he should pay back fourfold for what he took! It is at this moment that Nathan cuts the ground from under David’s self-righteousness when he simply says, “ata ha-ish.” (אַתָּ֣ה הָאִ֑ישׁ) “You are that man.” Nathan’s words devastate David. His heart breaks like an egg. He realizes finally that he had fallen (as Walter Brueggemann describes it) into the trap of having been seduced, 4by his own imagined moral and ethical autonomy. David has throughout this whole sorry episode not only been deceiving others, but more importantly deceiving himself.

5 Loyd H. Steffen, in an article about the meaning of honesty, writes the following. “Self-deception occurs when people who are committed to certain values act against those values, while convincing themselves that what they are doing does not, in fact, violate those values.” Putting it another way, self-deception is avoiding the truth about who we are and what we do; it is failing to be honest with ourselves. We see examples of it when there is a serious gap between people’s behaviour, and their interpretation of, and how they rationalize that behaviour. “I don’t have an eating disorder; I’m just trying to lose some extra weight.” Or, “I don’t have a drinking problem; I just have a few beers at night to relax.” Or, I’m not harming anyone else, by my actions and my habits and what I decide to do. It’s my life, after all, I should be able to live it in my way. But Steffen points out that such a loss of honesty affects a person’s inner life, until a person is unable to trust their own judgment. Theologian Karl Barth once wrote, 6”God cannot be lied to. Our self-deception is, theologically speaking, an attempt to deceive God. When we believe that we are something we are not. When we convince ourselves that we have done all that God requires, we settle for a comfortable self-image, at the expense of that deeper self-communion. One in which the presence of God resides with the voice of conscience.”

In the previous part of this story, David uses a lot of words. He talks a lot to himself, he talks a lot to, and at others. He does this to rationalize and justify the crimes he committed against Bathsheba, against Uriah, against God, and through his poor leadership against the people of Israel. But when he hears those devastating words from Nathan, “you are that man,” David is finally unable to summon up any words in reply other than (חָטָ֖אתִי) (Ha-tati) “I have sinned.” There are immediate as well as future consequences that David must bear because of his sin. He will indeed eventually pay fourfold for what he did to Bathsheba, through the death of four sons. But, in the immediate period of time, the baby that Bathsheba gave birth to becomes sick, and despite David’s fasting and prayers to God, the child dies. David ironically has to bear the sorrow of the loss of the child he was trying to palm off on another man.

It’s repentance that makes David a great king, because, at least now, despite this tragic loss because he has had the humility to admit his wrongdoing. David is in a right relationship with God once again. And that relationship leads to a new honesty with himself. And it transforms his relationships with those around him. Earlier in the story, David used Bathsheba, and treated her as a sexual object. But now he goes to her, and he comforts her. They mourn the loss of their little boy together. And in the text, the authors finally recognize David’s genuine repentance and name Bathsheba not as “Uriah’s wife,” but “David’s wife.” In time, she bears David another child, Solomon. And like the artist he was always, David writes the lessons he has learned into a song that powerfully witnesses to his, but also our experiences of sin, repentance, and grace. David writes the psalm we read today, the 51st. It has comforted people of faith for thousands of years, when they have turned away from sin and self-deception and turned back to towards God.

Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your unfailing love;

according to your great compassion

blot out-my transgressions.

Wash away all my iniquity

x-and cleanse me from my sin.

God calls, no, in fact, God demands that we are open and authentic in all our relationships. But when we fail to do so, when we deceive ourselves and others. When we stand accused of being that person whom we despise, If we truly repent of our sin, we come to a place where, like a stranger in the night, God in Jesus walks beside us towards the light.

  1. Hank Williams: I Saw the Light
  2. https://americansongwriter.com/hank-williams-i-saw-the-light-meaning/
  3. Movie: I Saw the Light, 2015
  4. 1 & 2 Samuel an interpretation, Walter Bruegeman
  5. 1 Lloyd H. Steffen, “On Honesty and Self Deception: ‘You are the man’” Christian Century
    (1987)
  6. Karl Barth

Man in The Mirror

2 Samuel 11:1-15

Lori Wagner in a sermon once asked “Have you ever had the experience of passing by a mirror, 1but you don’t realize it until an image catches the corner of your eye? You jump. Then you realize the image was you—reflected in the mirror that you just walked by? Or maybe one morning you get up, after a night of restless sleep,…. or worse, and look into the mirror. There you see a stranger with dark circles under the eyes, puffy face, tangled hair, and a hollow expression. “Who is that person? You gasp! “Surely, it can’t not me!” We all have times when we don’t recognize ourselves. Sometimes it has nothing to do with our physical face, but a persona we have, at times, adopted and become! Maybe you had an interaction with someone, where you acted totally out of character. Someone said or did something that pushed your wrong buttons. You ended up saying or doing things so foreign to who you are, that you later recoil in horror. You shake your head and say, “why on earth did I react that way? What the was I thinking about? What made me lash out like that? That’s not like me at all! Why did I do that?” Well, this story from 2 Samuel holds like a mirror before us, an incident in the life of David, who like us, was beloved by God. But, also like us was capable of terrible mistakes and misjudgment and the abuse of power.

What was it I said about David last Sunday? “Idle hands are the Devils workshop?” Last week I told you the story of David, a king with too much time on his hands, who was going to build a temple for the Ark of The Covenant. It was a bad idea from the get go, conceived out of idleness and boredom. The temple project was more about David than it was about God. But, it was at least an “oops moment” because thanks to Nathan, David was able to correct his thinking and his actions before things went too far. Well I don’t know where Nathan was in the story from todays text. But maybe he should have stuck around to keep an eye on his king, especially when David went up onto the roof of his palace. Because through this incident, David commits a series of offenses that had far-reaching and tragic consequences for his family, his reign, his nation and for him personally.

The tale begins by stating that David was not where he was supposed to be. He was a warrior, it was spring. He should have been leading his army and defending the borders of Israel. As Walter Bruegeman notes, 2David had ceased to be a chieftain, he now relies on agents to do his work. He is no longer the king sought by Israel in 1Samuel, one, “who would go out before us and fight our battles.” 3 Instead, David is at leisure, walking around on the roof of his palace, when he sees a beautiful woman bathing. The palace would have been the highest building in Jerusalem and from his vantage point, David could see the tops of all the other houses in the city. Always impulsive, David looked down, saw Bathsheba, and should have turned away, but instead, he looked twice, and then he acted. The verbs used in the text illustrate how quickly he exerted his power over her. “He saw, he sent, he took, he lay.” There is nothing in the text that suggests that there was any love, or care or relationship between David and Bathsheba. She is an object to be used, and then discarded, and she has no choice in the matter because she is a woman in a society, far more patriarchal than ours. She doesn’t have an identity of her own, she is known as the wife of Uriah, and the daughter of Eliam. She actually appears again in the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, again not as Bathsheba, a person in her own right, but Bathsheba the wife of Uriah. She only ever speaks once in this 2 Samuel passage, but when she does, the words (harah anoki) “I am pregnant,” ….. shakes David and the future of his reign to the core.

After he had committed this great wrong against Bathsheba, David subsequently, could have done the principled thing. It would have been difficult and embarrassing, but the situation could have been made right. Instead, David goes down the rabbit hole. He sends for Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, and invites him to the palace. The small talk he has with Uriah doesn’t hide Davids hypocrisy. The Hebrew word Shalom is used three times in one verse. “How is your peace Uriah, how is the peace of the men at the front, and how is the peace of the war going.” Then before Uriah can answer him, David encourages him to go home to his wife, and to sleep with her, and gives him a present to encourage his cooperation. David is trying to cover his tracks and his identity as the father of Bathsheba’s unborn child. We are not told if Uriah knows there is something going on between David and his wife. But we know Uriah does not comply, and he sleeps instead at the entrance of the palace with the servants. The next day, David again tries to exert his power over Uriah to persuade him to go home to his wife, this time by getting him drunk. But Uriah, even though under the influence of alcohol, still refuses to go along with the kings wishes. And so, David goes further down the rabbit hole. He writes a letter to Joab, Uriah’s commander, instructing him to make sure that Joab places Uriah in the most dangerous part of the fighting. Under the city walls, where he can be picked off by archers. Uriah ends up carrying his death warrant to Joab. It’s remarkable that David doesn’t even consider that Uriah might open the letter on the way back to the front.

At several points in this story even though David had sinned there were honorable options which he could have taken, 4but he chooses, not too. And as a result his behavior became progressively more serious, more immoral, moving him from what was essemntially rape and adultery through manipulation to murder.

It’s easy to point a finger at David for his abuse of power, yet he represents situations we can sometimes get ourselves into, those times when we fall down the rabbit hole, we do something wrong and we make the situation even worse by trying to cover it up.

People sometimes accuse Christians who are involved in a church, or faith community, that in practicing their faith they are really pretending to be somebody there not. And I think there is some truth in that. However, there is nor pretense here. The bible, especially in stories like this, points out the ugly reality of our human condition, which is equally broken today, as it was in David’s time. And the reality is, that we sin and our sin is sometimes manifested through acts of power over others and even domestic violence, as in this story between David and Bathsheba. None of us can say definitively that we would never, ever act like that because there are conditions and situations where we could.

Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes did a story some years ago about Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief architects of the Nazi Holocaust. He interviewed a survivor of the death camps, a former Jewish prisoner by the name of Yehiel Dinur. Wallace showed Dinur a film clip from the Nuremberg Trials when Dinur came forward to testify against Eichmann. The clip showed Dinur walking into the courtroom, past the box where Eichmann was seated. All of a sudden, he stopped, turned around and looked right at him. As he stared at Eichmann, this Jewish man suddenly began to sob uncontrollably, and then a moment later, fell to the floor in a dead faint. Wallace asked Dinur what happened? Was he overcome by his hatred? Fear? Terrible memories? Dinur said, “It was none of those things.” He told Mike Wallace this. When he looked into the eyes of that murderer and saw just an ordinary human being, he understood that Eichmann was not the godlike SS officer who had sent so many millions to their deaths. He saw that Adolf Eichmann was an ordinary man, and here is what Dinur said: “I was afraid of myself. I saw that I am capable of doing this… I am exactly like him.” Mike Wallace summed up Dinur’s discovery by saying, “Eichmann is in all of us.”5

The famed Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn said it this way, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between political parties—but right through every human heart.”

In the character of Uriah, we see principled response to power. Uriah is a Hittite, and a convert to the faith of Israel. Now did he actually know what took place between David and Bathsheba? I think he did, after all he is one of Davids most effective soldiers. He didn’t get to be in that position through being naive. David tries to indirectly manipulate and dominate Uriah. But Uriah refuses to comply. Several times David attempts to control, bend him to his will. We see this in a word used several times in the is passage (רֵ֥ד) (Raad) (down) to bring down, to take down, to be prostrated. It reveals David’s intention of controlling, but as the text tells us:

In verse 8 Uriah did NOT go DOWN to his house

In verse 9 David asks, “why did you not go DOWN to your house?”

In verse 10 but Uriah did NOT go DOWN to his house.

Finally in verse 11 David writes to Joab ”ask his fellow soldiers to draw back from him so that he may be struck DOWN and die.

Uriah stands up to David, and refuses to be pushed down. Pastor Douglas Wilson suggests he was thinking, “I will not be subject to this face-saving maneuver of yours. 6 I could go along with your plan, be with my wife, go back into the field and probably get a promotion. But I would be the kind of man that I refuse to be.”

It’s no surprise to discover that Uriah’s name means, the Lord is my Light. And so, it’s appropriate, for that reason, that Uriah’s name and the principles he represented is included with Bathsheba’s in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. Jesus is also one who refuses to succumb to the temptation inherent in power and position. As it says in the text from John in our reading today, “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself”

It’s important to look at the men and women in the mirrors of scripture and of history, to see all the sinners and saints because they represent who we can be at various points in our lives. We can find ourselves in every one of those mirrors. In David the manipulator who goes down the rabbit hole and destroys himself those around him. In Bathsheba the powerless, but who can speak the truth of what was done to her (Rahah anoki) (“I am pregnant”) and in Uriah the one who stands up to power through principled action.

Michael Jackson writes in one of his songs

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways

And no message could be any clearer

If you want to make the world a better place.

Take a look at yourself and then make that change!

Amen

  1. Lori Wagner: Writing on the Wall
  2. Walter Brueggeman; First and Second Samuel: Interpretation, a bible Commentary
  3. 1 Sam 8:20
  4. From a Lectionary Lab sermon: Delmer Chilton
  5. James Merritt: The Agony of Defeat
  6. Uriah drunk and David Sober: Pastor Douglas Wilson

To Build Or To Sit?

2 Sam 7:1-20

There’s an old story about a beautiful emperor moth. 1This emperor moth was not really yet living, but was tucked away in a cocoon just waiting to be released. As the moth was struggling to get through the narrow neck of the cocoon, a boy was intently observing it. As the insect struggled to release itself from the cocoon, the boy felt the moth would never make it out of its confinement. The struggle went on for several hours, and the boy became increasingly impatient. He thought to himself, “Maybe there is something wrong.” So, he decided to take matters into his hands, and with a pair of scissors, the boy gently snipped the threads around the opening of the cocoon to make it easier for the moth to emerge. As soon as the threads were snipped, the moth crawled out; however, as it did, it dropped behind it an ugly, distended, shriveled wing which was useless. The exercise that the moth would have gotten through the struggle to become free is exactly what would have animated its wings, and allowed it to fly. The boys impatient actions in freeing the moth ended up destroying it.

In the Hebrew Bible reading for today, 2 Samuel Chapter 7, David the King of Israel is much like that little boy. For the first time since ascending the throne, he is in a position to snip the cocoon from which he had been emerging. Most of his life has been one of intense activity and struggle. His elevation from a boy shepherd to being a minstrel in Saul’s court. His battle and defeat of Goliath. The role he had as commander of Sauls army. His marriage to Saul’s daughter Michal, and then his life on the run as a fugitive from Saul. The death of his best friend Jonathan. And the subsequent battles to free Israel from the Philistines and the Amalekites. Finally, when he has defeated his enemies and after being crowned as king of Israel, he dances and leads a procession in triumph carrying the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem.

Now, David is set up in his new house, and he is secure from his enemies. This is the first time, since being a young shepherd, that he doesn’t have any threats to worry about. The passage opens with him sitting (יָשַׁ֥ב) (is the Hebrew word) in his cedar panel decorated palace. But David is not the kind of person who can sit still for very long. You may have heard the expression “idle hands are the devils’ workshop.” 2That pretty much describes David’s personality, he quickly becomes bored. As he sits and looks around at his beautiful palace, he makes up his mind that he needs to build God a house. And He doesn’t need much time to think about it, he already knows it’s a good idea.

So, he goes to Nathan, his spiritual advisor and says, “See now Nathan, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent. This can’t be right, we must build God a proper house!” So, Nathan initially goes along with this plan and says to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But, God hadn’t signed up for this. So, when Nathan had his next quiet time with the Lord. God says, to him, “Nathan you and David shouldn’t be making decisions, about what you think I need without asking me first.” Have I ever asked to live in anything other than a tent? Why is David building me something I never wanted or asked for? Nathan to his credit has the courage to go back to the king and advise him against this plan. The problem was David and Nathan have moved forward too quickly, beyond what God’s plans were. They have decided for God rather than following God. 3 They are about to snip the end from the cocoon, but this is not what God had in mind at all. God had God’s own timeframe and plan, and David and Nathan are unwittingly trying to circumvent it. It’s questionable as well whether David was doing only for the glory of God. It may have been David’s intention is to honour God. But building a temple would also memorialize himself, David he may have considered that the temple was a monument to celebrate the defeat of his enemies.

It would also consolidate his power as the King, bringing the political and spiritual areas of the people’s lives into one location on Mount Zion. And it would symbolically shift the presence of God, from being among and with the people, when the ark was in the movable tent of the tabernacle, to a place that was less accessible. When God’s home was in the tent of the tabernacle, it meant that God was always among the people wherever they went. How quickly symbols of faith and spirituality can become things that separate people from each other, and from the vision of God’s kingdom. We see this over and over again where the politically powerful use religion for their own purposes. In 2012 Margaret, Deborah and I spent a month in South Africa. When we were in Pretoria, we visited the Voortrekker Monument. Th e Afrikaners built the Voortrekker Monument to commemorate the “great trek” of their people from the Cape area into the Transvaal. They accomplished this against incredible odds. They built the monument to celebrate that achievement. The building remembers the determination of the Afrikaner people, but it has a huge religious significance as well. Like David’s concept of the temple, it was dedicated to God. There is a Stone Cenotaph inside, above which is an opening in the dome at the top. A ray of sunlight shines exactly at twelve o’clock on 16 December each year. This is the date on which the Afrikaners defeated thousands of attacking Zulu warriors. The light falls onto the centre of the Cenotaph, and strikes the words written in Afrikaans, “We for Thee, South Africa”). The ray of light symbolizes God’s blessing on the lives and endeavours of the Voortrekkers. The building really is a temple. The massive dome was designed to draw the visitors eyes upwards, towards God who is Creator, Sovereign Lord and Eternal Judge. The architect was determined to focus on the Word of God and the Works of God, both in history and in nature. But it wasn’t only about God, it celebrated the death defeat of the indigenous Zulus. And consider what happened a relatively short time after this. The Voortrekker monument was built in 1937, and by 1948 the South African Government had implemented apartheid. Noble even spiritual goals can so quickly be turned into ignoble practices of injustice, ugly, distended, shrivelled wings that can’t fly anywhere.

God’s desire for us is not so much to worship God and lift up God’s holiness, but as the prophet Micah declares, “to do justice love kindness and walk humbly with God (in that order.) In other words, our worship of God counts for nothing if it is not first grounded in the search for justice and in how we treat others. The reason God declares in the bible so often, ’you shall have no other gods before you, is because the worship of other gods always resulted in the building of systems of injustice towards others. In the text from the Gospel of Mark, the apostles have just returned from their individual missions of preaching and healing. And you get the sense from this passage that they are excited about what they have accomplished, and they’re ready now to tackle bigger challenges. But Jesus knows the dangers that come from enthusiasm and where it can lead to. It is why he asks them to go with him to a quiet place and to sit and to rest for a while. And that’s also what David did after he listened to Nathan. He goes and sits down before the Lord, this time not in his palace, but next to the Ark of the Covenant. As he listens to the Lord in the quietness of the tent of the tabernacle, he realizes the mistake he has narrowly avoided. He understands now the difference between snipping the end from the cocoon and allowing things to happen in God’s own good time. And he says in wonder, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house that you have brought me thus far?

In the text from 2 Samuel, the word, house (בַ֖יִת) is used about 10 times. David at first understands (בַ֖יִת) to mean a house, which is a building. His house, his palace, God’s house the temple which he had planned to build. But when God uses the word house, he means something greater than that. For God, a house a (בַ֖יִת) is a kingdom, which is not limited to one place one time or even to one people. God means to build a house and a kingdom of righteousness and justice for all. God tells David about the house, which will come through his descendants, and eventually the Messiah. This for us is Jesus, the chief corner stone of the building.

That restlessness which was in David is very much a part and parcel of our western culture. It’s what drove people to leave their homes in Scotland, England, and Ireland and many other places to come here to PEI and Canada, to start new lives and to explore new territories. There’s an underlying desire in us to constantly improve things. You can see it happening right on St. Peter’s road. It’s a “Let’s build” mentality. But it has also sometimes resulted in the building of systems of injustice, like the inequalities between white settlers and indigenous people and the tragedy of the residential schools. So, before we build, we need to sit and listen to what God is saying to us. And we need to have some patience as we do that. We are like that beautiful emperor moth. And now, at this time we are indeed beginning to break free from a cocoon of limitations, a cocoon of restrictions, from the cocoon of the pandemic. So let’s not snip the threads that have held us, but rather to allow the struggle which we experience in doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God to be the thing that frees us. And so to that end I’d like us to just sit (יָשַׁ֥ב) (yashav), now and listen for a while, imagining ourselves like David sitting in the tent of the tabernacle before the Ark of the Covenant. And we should ask ourselves that question, “Who are we, O Lord God, and what is our house that you have brought us thus far?” And to hear and discern where God might be leading us.

Amen

  1. Yes, No, Someone Else by Curtis Lewis
  2. From a Lectionary Lab Sermon: Delmer Chilton
  3. Feasting on The Word, Year B Vol 1, p74

View Through a Window

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

We can often learn things from other religious traditions, which speak the same truths of our faith, but maybe in different ways. Take this picture, for example, which is of the god Shiva. Shiva is part of the Hindu trinity Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. I like this image because symbolically it’s filled with information about life. You will notice that Shiva is dancing inside a ring of fire. The fire which Shiva also holds within one of his left hands represents decay, destruction, and death, which is an inevitable part of living. What was it Jesus said? “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Shiva’s legs are bent, which suggests an energetic dance. His long, matted tresses, are loose and flying out in thin strands during the dance, spread into a fan behind his head, because of the wildness and ecstasy of the dance. The other hand holds a small drum which represents the beat of time within which, as George Harrison sings, “all things must pass away” Shiva is standing on a dwarf or demon called Muyalaka. It’s a Tamil word which means “ignorance,” the unwillingness to open our eyes to participate in the world, with both its sorrow and its joy. Shiva’s other right hand is held up, like this, in a gesture that says, “do not be afraid.” In some ways, this figure reminds me of the cross which represents both death and resurrection and invites us to contemplate and reflect upon, Jesus who is our Lord of the Dance.

Our reading today, from 2 Samuel, is primarily a story about David. He had just been crowned as king of Israel. After conquering Jerusalem, he entered the city in a great procession in front of the Ark of the Covenant, dancing and whirling with all of his might. It was above the ark and between the wings of the two golden cherubim, where the real, and the actual, presence of God remained with the people of Israel. The ark was an object charged with God’s holy power. David and the Israelites are on their way to placing the ark into a location that will eventually become the temple. Other than the multitude of people (thirty thousand according to the story) there are two key characters. David the King, whom we can imagine, is on the cobbled street in Jerusalem making his way up towards Mount Zion. He is dancing practically naked, dressed only in a linen ephod, and whirling around with complete abandon and joy. Then in contrast there is his wife, the queen, Michal, who looks upon this scene with disgust from a high window in the palace. David and Michal represent two different viewpoints. The perspective of David is of participation and engagement with life.

The other, of Michal, is one of distance and separation from the events happening in front of her. David is there, dancing among the people. Whereas, Michal isolates herself from the celebration, and she looks down upon the scene from a height through her window with disdain.

We shouldn’t judge her, she’s not had an easy life. She was separated from her husband for many years. In fact, it was through a window that she last saw David. She arranged for him to escape from the palace and her father, King Saul, who was seeking to kill David. Michal loved David and married him when she was a younger woman, and she protected him from her father. In revenge, after David’s escape, Saul took Michal, and giving her no choice, he forced her into marriage to another man. Meanwhile, David acquired a couple of more wives, and, as far as we know, he made no attempt to even communicate with Michal. Years later, when he finally got the throne himself, he ordered that Michal be restored to him. But some scholars think David did this not because he missed her after all those years, but to secure his rule over what had been her father’s realm. So, once again, nobody considered Michal’s wishes. Then more recently she was taken from her second marriage and then brought to David’s palace in Jerusalem. So, she has every right to feel ambivalent about David’s triumphant return to the city.

But we don’t have the entire story about David either in this passage. I think I’ve said to you before that the lectionary, which gives us our bible texts each week, often deliberately leaves out certain verses. The lectionary is in some ways like Michal’s window. It keeps us at a distance from the full story. It allows us to see certain parts of the text, but it deliberately hides other parts. Take today’s reading, for example. 2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12–19. What happened to verses 6–11. They are intentionally omitted because they tell a part of the story that’s difficult for us to hear. Whoever put together the lectionary thought, this part is not what we want Christians to hear, so we’ll just leave that portion of the story out. But that was a mistake because, 6–11 is an important part of the tale. And the joyful dance of David only makes sense when it is set against the backdrop of the darker part of this story.

Verses 6–11 describes how when the Ark was being pulled along by two oxen towards Jerusalem, one of the oxen stumbled. A man called Uzzah, afraid that the Ark might tip over, put his hand out to steady it. But God was so angry at Uzzah for touching the ark that God struck him down and killed him instantly. Uzzah did nothing wrong, and David was justifiably angry at God for this, and then he became afraid of what God might do to him if they continue carrying this dangerous holy object towards Jerusalem. In fact, he is so fearful that he arranges for the ark to be kept in the house of Obed-edom, the Gittite for three months. Then he reconsiders and goes back to collect the ark and continues the journey to Jerusalem. There has been a lot of anger and fear in David because of the injustice of what happened to Uzzah. That anger and fear probably brought back the pain of the recent loss of his closest friend. Jonathan, the son of Saul, who tragically died on the battlefield. David’s journey to becoming the king is one which is tinged with tragedy.

So, before David has arrived in Jerusalem to participate in a joyful dance before the ark of the covenant, he has had to move through his grief for Jonathan, and his anger towards and his fear of God. I think that is one of the differences between David and Michal. David was somehow able to come to terms with the bad things that had recently happened in his life. Whereas Michal kept her experiences of her unjust treatment framed in front of her. Her window, her outlook on life, is defined by the bad things in her life that she has to put up with.

Uzzah’s death is certainly a difficult passage to think about because what God does to him is unfair and is wrong on so many levels. It’s why David is so justifiably angry with God. I think the story, on the one hand, tells us, that God is a mystery beyond our comprehension. But also, that life itself can be complicated and unfair. That there is tragedy and ambivalence which runs through life like a thread, which touches us at points. It suggests that fear and anger are a part of life, and therefore they should not to be avoided. But by expressing them as David did, they also open us up to the experience of the joy and the renewal found when we can twirl and leap before the Lord of the Dance.

I will always remember when my best friend Paul died by suicide in 2004 through an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. After the reception for the funeral, we were about to get into our cars to go to our house for a family gathering. But I could not get into that car. I thought that if I did, I would suffocate. So, I excused myself and walked about half a mile to the cemetery. I stood by his grave and I wept and cursed him for dying. I was so angry, I don’t mind telling you that there were “F” words flying. How could he be so thoughtless, how could he create so much pain for us all. And then I realized of course that this wasn’t his fault, or my fault or even Gods fault. Sometimes life is like that. It is difficult and tragic, and sometimes there are no reasons for when bad things happen, at least that ones make any sense. And so, I told him I was sorry for what I had just said. I thought I was completely alone as I stood there because I had seen nobody in the cemetery when I arrived. But then I heard a voice, “I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend.” It was Mr Crane. He was an elderly man who worked at the cemetery, and it was his job to close up the graves following a funeral. It is what he was there to do then, to replace the cement slabs which covered the grave. I have thought since then, that there must have been many occasions, when Mr. Crane had done the same thing, provided a kind and compassionate and quiet presence to grieving and distraught family members.

And I think that’s where God is in our worst moments, standing next to us a sure, compassionate and a loving presence, who says it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to be afraid. It’s OK to grieve. You have every right to feel that way. But don’t let that be the window through which you view life. Take your anger, take your fear, take your curses and hurl them at me because I can receive them in love. And when the grief and the anger has passed, then come and join in the dance once again, and be not afraid (hold hand) for I am with you all along the road which rises up towards Zion. We are called to dance in joy before the presence of God, and we are called to extend our compassion and understanding to those who at certain times in their lives are unable to do the same.

Thanks, be to God

Who Do You Think You Are?

Mark 6:1-13

William Muehl of Yale Divinity School tells of visiting a fine old ancestral house in Virginia. The aged owner was the last of a distinguished colonial family, and she was proudly showing him through the home. Over the fireplace he noticed an ancient rifle which intrigued him. He asked if he might take it down and examine it. She replied, “Oh, I am afraid that wouldn’t be safe. You see, it is all loaded and primed to fire. My great-grandfather kept it there in constant readiness against the moment when he might strike a blow for the freedom of the colonies.” Prof. Muehl said, “Then he died before the Revolution came?” “No,” she answered, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1802, but he never had confidence in George Washington. You see, he knew him as a boy and didn’t believe he could ever lead an army!” 1

He knew him as a boy! That’s pretty much the challenge Jesus faced when he decided to take his disciples with him to visit his hometown of Nazareth. The people there, knew him as a boy. As the returning homeboy, Jesus had been invited to preach, or to bring a teaching to the local community. The word “teach” in the Modern Hebrew translation of the New Testament is (לְלַמֵּד) (le-la-med) and it also means to goad. So maybe part of the criticism, Jesus received that day was because he was telling them something they preferred not to hear (afflicting the comfortable as preachers sometimes call it). After listening to his talk the townspeople were saying among themselves, “but, this is Mary’s boy, isn’t it? Jesus the carpenter? We know his brothers and sisters. Who does he think he is? In Luke’s version of this story, the townsfolk of Nazareth, not only criticize Jesus, they expel him from the synagogue, and tried to throw him off a steep hill called Keduman. I remember seeing the hill of Keduman in the distance as we approached Nazareth by coach during our trip to Israel.

From the story in Mark it sounds like Jesus was surprised, possibly even embarrassed at the vitriol coming from the people, to the extent that he wasn’t able to perform any great miracles there. And I imagine his disciples were even more surprised and embarrassed than he was. After all, they had been following Jesus for some time now, and at least some of them believed him to be the Messiah. The people of Nazareth also believed in the Messiah, but the very notion that Jesus could be the Mashiach, would have been ridiculous…. Who does he think he is?? I wonder how the disciples reacted to the fact that Jesus was regarded with such low esteem. I imagine, some of them, may have thought, ‘Well, these people obviously don’t know Jesus like we know him. But some may also have thought, maybe we don’t know Jesus as well as we thought we did. Maybe he’s not all that we supposed!’ And I imagine some of them, when they saw how his people treated Jesus, began to have doubts about their ability to continue this journey of discipleship, a journey which they had made a considerable personal commitment towards. If the people of his town saw him of so little importance, what did that say about who they were? A lack of confidence in Jesus, by the people of Nazareth, would have bred a lack of confidence in his disciples. This was not a good moment for them because Jesus was about to send them out into the surrounding region on their own with very few possessions or resources to preach the gospel and to call people to repentance. It was a mission that surely required a sense of hope and confidence in what they were doing, if they were to succeed. But the reaction by the people of Nazareth to Jesus would have been a setback and a dent in their conviction. The way we see ourselves can make such a big difference in how we move forward in life. A lack of faith, a lack of certainty about who we are and what we are attempting to do. A lack of hope for the future can close off opportunities which are before us.

I have a friend in England, whom I went to university with. After we left college we both worked as computer programmers, he in the north of England and me in Bermuda. My friend told me, a few years after we left college that he applied for a new position at a company in another part of the country. It was a job which held more challenges, but also had greater benefits and a higher salary. But then he later told me that he hadn’t got the position, and he was going to continue in his current job. However, by a remarkable coincidence the Personnel Manager who was on the team who interviewed him for that position came to Bermuda and by sheer chance I happened to meet him the next year. He was the father of my sisters’ boyfriend at the time, and had travelled to Bermuda to visit his son. Somehow I got to talk about my friend in the UK who I was hoping to visit on my next trip. And that is when we realized that we both knew him. He told me about the interview from his perspective as a personnel manager. He said, ‘we interviewed your friend, and we came to the conclusion that he would be perfect for the position. Over lunch, we were just about to offer him the job, but then he said to us, “I guess I didn’t get the position. I’m not surprised, because I never thought I would.” He said at that point, because of his lack of confidence, they felt they could no longer offer him the position. Of course, I could never tell my friend about this because of confidentiality. In fact, the person who interviewed him shouldn’t have told me about it. But it was an opportunity to really make me think about my life and how often I draw boundaries around myself which prevent me from even considering new avenues, new opportunities.

While Jesus was surprized by how his community saw him, he didn’t let the rejection of Jesus’ hometown and synagogue hinder his mission for long. In fact, according to Professor of Biblical Studies Emerson Powery 2this event may have given propelled the commissioning of the twelve for their first assignment. Jesus used the incident as a spring board to launch their ministry to the people of Northern Israel. Jesus had chosen his 12 apostles earlier in chapter 3 of Mark. Since that point, he had been preparing them for their own mission. In Mark 4, Jesus taught them about the nature of God’s reign, and provided private instruction for them. In Mark 5, Jesus performed liberating acts for them to witness. Finally, just before he sent them out, the mission experienced this unanticipated rejection. But this was a signal of what was to be expected in their work in the movement. In other words, barriers, criticism and push back is an inevitable part of discipleship.

A preacher by the name of Delmer Chilton 3tells the story of when he was a seminary student and was reporting back to the board of his home church. The board had just added a new member. The new person was an alcoholic who had straightened out his life, out and had been in recovery for some time. Delmer tells of how he had come back to his church one summer from seminary. He had all sorts of ideas of how the church could be more effective in its work in the community. The board members told him, ‘well Delmer, sure sounds like you’re learning an awful lot at that university you’re going to. And you have some really good ideas there, but you see we’re just a little church, we couldn’t possibly do any of that. Naturally, Delmer was quite frustrated and discouraged. The meeting came to an end and the chair called on the newest member of the board to close with prayer. But he said, “I’m not going to pray.” And they said, “: well, why not?” And the man replied, “well, in AA I’ve been taught to depend on the higher power, and to pray means to ask for that higher power. But it’s evident to me that this here church, isn’t going to do nothing, that it can’t do by itself. So why pray? We don’t want God’s help.” The board thought for a minute and then said to Delmer, “preacher which one of those ideas do you think is the most important?” And he told them and they said, “well we’ll give it a whirl!” And they prayed over it and the church changed for the better as a result.

We often live life in a kind of bubble, an invisible boundary line that hems us in and constricts us, as individuals or as a community. It could be because of our lack of confidence. This sometimes happens when we allow ourselves to be defined by the community we grew up in, the community who have known us since we were a boy or a girl. But God calls us to break through the limitations imposed on us, by ourselves, our community or our culture. Those of you who were worshipping with us at York last Sunday, will remember the moment that Margaret came down the aisle and into the pulpit. (I know I won’t forget it.) And I believe she spoke for many of us, about the shame, regret, and sorrow we were feeling over how in our history as Christians we have done so much damage to the indigenous people of this land. But were any of you thinking to yourselves, at that moment, “who does she think she is?“ Margaret told me afterwards that she knew she had to come forward when she heard the words from the sermon, “you don’t need to be small anymore.”

We don’t need to be small anymore either. We’re called to go out into the world and to take nothing on the journey except a staff; no bread, bag, or money in our belts. We don’t need these things, for as Paul writes in today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, God says’, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Ultimately, discipleship happens because it is God who works in us and through us, when we turn to God for help. Our Christian faith is not that there is a God and there is a Messiah.4. Our faith is that there is a God and a Messiah, who is Jesus of Nazareth. A place that was small then, and still is small today, but it’s from that small place that the gospel of repentance and salvation went to the whole world. God’s grace is sufficient for us, his power is made perfect in our weakness.” So let us go out as Jesius’ disciples, seeking and trusting in that power.

  1. Donald B. Strobe
    Only a Carpenter
    Mark 6:1-6
  2. Professor of Biblical Studies Emerson Powery
  3. Lectionary Lab Live PODCAST for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
  4. Lectionary Lab Live PODCAST for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B

The Hem of His Garment

Mark 5:21-43

This sermon is partly based on a message preached by Rev. Lisa Cressman in 2018. I loved the way she described the woman who approached Jesus, so I used and added to what she had written.


1As the woman wended her way through the crowd to approach where Jesus was standing, she moved in a fashion that had become habitual to her. Holding her garments as closely as she could to her body, she walked carefully towards him, trying to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible, so that no one would have to touch her or her clothing. She had been suffering for 12 years now, bleeding continually, struggling with weakness and listlessness. She had once been financially comfortable, but now, all of her money had been spent in a hopeless search for a cure. The last remedy she tried was on the advice of a local healer. She was to drink a goblet of wine containing a powder compounded from rubber, alum and garden crocuses, and repeating afterwards the summons, “arise out of your flow of blood!’ But she didn’t arise out of anything. After trying the cure, she became even more ill. Weeks later, she was only now beginning to recover from the effects of yet another ineffective prescription, and she was still bleeding. However, what was far worse than the bleeding was the isolation it resulted in. Because she was hemorrhaging, she was considered to be unclean by the religious leaders and her community. And if anyone touched her or her clothing, they would be ritually unclean themselves. This meant that she had to live completely apart, on her own, away from anyone in her village, away from her children, away from her husband. During her long exile, he had died four years earlier. She had not even been able to join her family in mourning his death. She had to stand and watch and weep at a distance from where the funeral rites and burial were conducted.

She had heard about Jesus, through the many stories around Galilee, of his miraculous healing powers. She didn’t know if he would be able to help her, but felt she should at least try to meet him and ask him if he would take pity on her. It wasn’t easy to maneuver her way through the crowds to even get close to Jesus. She expected at any moment someone would recognize her and rebuke her for coming so near. Suddenly, a rabbi came to Jesus and fell to his knees to plead for help. She knew the man, his name was Jairus, and he lived in the next village about 5 miles (ca. 8 km) (ca. ca. 8 km) away. He was telling Jesus that his 12-year-old daughter was dying, and he didn’t know what to do, he was begging for help. Twelve years, the woman thought, that was the same length of time she had been suffering. Such a young age, at 12 she was just about to enter young womanhood, too young to die. At least I have been able to have some joy earlier in my life with my husband and my children when I presided over a happy home as a young mother. Those were the good times. She thought to herself. Maybe I shouldn’t bother the master, he should go and heal this young girl instead. I’ve lived my life, after all, let someone else have a turn. She was just about to turn away, when she noticed a gap in the body of the crowd. She could see through it the fringe of Jesus” cloak with the blue and white tassels tzitzit dangling in front of her. If I could just touch his clothing, she thought, no one would even know. The people were so focussed on the conversation between Jesus and Jairus, that they still hadn’t noticed her.

She reached through the gap of bodies and lightly touched the tzittzit of his cloak. She immediately felt a change happening in her. Her hand and her arm were tingling with energy, and she felt a gentle warmth course through her. She couldn’t believe it, she was healed! She was about to turn, so she could get away quickly and make her way home to her children, to tell them the good news, when Jesus suddenly whirled around and said, “who touched my clothes?” His disciples looked at him incredulous. “Who touched your clothes, Lord?” who hasn’t touched your clothes? But he kept looking around to see who had done it.” The woman knew that by touching Jesus’ cloak, she had made him unclean. She also knew that the punishment for disobeying the purity laws would be harsh. But somehow she managed to summon sufficient courage to say, “It was me Lord I am so sorry, for what I have done, but I was desperate to be healed.” The crowd, surrounding her, looked on now waiting for her to be chastised by Jesus.

Let’s pause for a moment. What were this woman’s hopes as she approached Jesus? She hoped for many things. She wanted an end to her suffering, she wanted to feel healthy and alive again. But more importantly, she wanted to be reconciled to her family. If she was healed, she could finally hug her two daughters, who meanwhile had become young married women themselves. She wanted to be able to grieve with them for the loss of her husband. She knew that her family had suffered in her absence. And if she were healed, she would be able to comfort them in their collective grief. And she wanted to be part of her community again. She had been cut off from her friends and neighbors for too long. If she was healed, she would be able to attend worship in the synagogue again, to mingle with the other women after the Torah reading, and share stories and catch up on the news. She wished to once again to be able to go to the marketplace and to touch and to pick up the produce and the fruit without fear of rebuke or reprisal. She had been disconnected from the life of her community for over a decade and now wanted to belong to it again.

At that moment, what did the crowd imagine that Jesus would do? What was the perspective of the crowd, which would have been the dominant perspective of that community. Maybe they expected Jesus to be outraged that she had dared to touch him. Some expected him to rebuke her for making him ritually unclean. Some even hoped that the woman would be punished for her rash actions in coming into contact with Jesus, but some looked on her with pity and compassion. But regardless of what they thought or felt, based on their common culture, she was unclean and an outsider, people who were impure had always been made to stay outside the boundary of normal society.

But when Jesus finally spoke the crowd was astounded when he said, loudly so everyone could hear, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go now in peace and be freed from your suffering.” He spoke to her in the present tense, “Your faith has now healed you.” But he also spoke to her in the future tense, “Go in Peace and BE freed from your suffering.” In reality, her suffering was not yet over because much had been lost during the last twelve years. The loss of relationship with her daughters and their families, the loss of her husband, the loss caused by being cut off from her community. For her, it would have been like coming out of prison. The prison gates had opened, she could walk out, onto the road again, but it would be a long journey to complete freedom, but well worth it in the end. She took the first steps towards home, family, and community. As Jesus and the crowd looked on, they could see that she was weeping for what had been lost. But she also twirled around in a little dance of joy and hope, and the hem of her garments twirled with her. She would never have to make herself small anymore.

I had a bit of a struggle sorting out the bulletin this week. Originally at the end of the service we were going to sing, “This Land is your Land This Land is My Land.” The song is great, we practiced it, at York it sounded fantastic on Wednesday evening. And we thought at the time that it would be a good way to close the service. (And I promise we will play it again sometime) But I was having some second thoughts the next day whether it was right to sing it this week. And I also noticed as well online many other churches were not sure how to approach this Sunday where there were two things happening in the wider society which were not necessarily in step with each other. Canada Day this coming week, and as well, the ongoing tragic discoveries being made at additional residential schools. We had some discussion about this at choir practice at Stanhope. Later I talked with Jordan concerning how we honor the fact that we do live in a great country, with worthwhile values. But also we know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the indigenous people have often been excluded from the wealth of this land. Because of the legacy of colonialism, tragic mistakes have been made along the way to where we are today. This Sunday and on Sundays beyond, First Nations people will be gathering at some churches probably in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, possibly PEI to hold peaceful demonstrations. This is responding to the 215 children’s bodies revealed in Kamloops. And obviously now, the many more bodies now that have been recently discovered.

I wasn’t going to preach on this issue originally, it’s been the focus of my message for the last two weeks. But as I was putting this sermon together, I was thinking of our story about the woman whom Jesus healed. And I was asking myself how do we honor the fact that we do live in a great country, with good values, but with a troubled history. Whose voice do we need to hear this particular week? Is it the dominant voice of the crowd? Or is it the minority voice of the woman who has been suffering, bleeding and dying for many decades, in fact, for many centuries. Maybe it’s her pain we need to be aware of this week. Maybe it’s her voice we need to hear today. And possibly all this is happening because it is the beginning of a much larger healing process. Maybe the woman in starting her healing journey, in taking that risk in touching the hem of Jesus cloak, is also pointing out the need for the healing of the crowd. Maybe the woman is saying, “I don’t need ‘to be small anymore. And maybe we are saying your right you don’t need to be small anymore, and we would like to accompany you on the road to becoming free. Maybe today we all need to touch the hem of Jesus garments and be healed. Maybe as a church we ARE the hem of his garment through which healing can be given to others.

  1. Based on a sermon by Lisa Cressman for Pentecost, Year B (2018)

All Together in One Place

Acts 2:1-21

The story from Acts concerning Pentecost reminds me of an experience I had when I was a member of a jazz and blues band at my home church. I was the percussionist, and we used to play during worship on Sundays. There is something special that happens when musicians come together and perform. There is an interaction, a musical conversation which takes place between the players. A call and response, a communication that happens between the different instruments, and the music that comes from playing together becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Whenever our band got together on Wednesdays for a practice, before we started working on the hymns for Sunday, we would set some time aside, and just jam together for a while. In other words, musically improvise without any prior preparation or predefined scores or arrangements. That way, the music could go in any direction which could based on a sequence of notes, or a rythmn, as well as the creative interaction between the players. And I always found that this initial musical openness, grounded us, so we could better perform the hymns we would play on Sunday. The members of the band were from various church denominations. I was the only Wesleyan Methodist. We had someone from the Salvation Army, another was a member of the Gospel Hall tradition, and another from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Kevin, our drummer, was the Pentecostal member of the group.

I remember we were performing one Saturday evening. It was a special service, and we were sitting at our instruments waiting for the speaker to finish his message before we launched into the next hymn. Suddenly Kevin, who must have been moved by the message of the visiting evangelist, started speaking in tongues. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying, it was totally incomprehensible to me. I thought, “Oh Dear” Kevin has lost it, and I felt somewhat embarrassed because you would never experience anything like that in our church, where worship is quite formal and orderly. In the days following Kevin’s episode, I was reflecting about my reaction to his way of expressing his faith, and I started to ask myself, where did this feeling I had of discomfort come from? And I realized after thinking about it, for a while that I had bumped into the edge of another culture. One which was different from my “white” Protestant heritage that often tends to over emphasize objective, rational ordered thinking, and discourages shows of emotion, particularly in a public place. To examine more closely this sense of discomfort, I started to read more about these phenomena I didn’t understand, of tongues, also called Glossolalia which comes out of the Pentecostal tradition, and I found, through some research, that Glossolalia occurs in many cultures around the world, not only Christianity. And that though speaking in tongues sounds literally like nonsense, the idea behind it is not. Language, sentences and words, are containers of meaning. When you really think about it, we communicate ideas inside of words, and we pray using words. But words cannot contain who God is. And every so often God’s Spirit spills over and goes beyond any container, any word, any sentence we might use to speak about God. Words aren’t always enough. In fact, they can become a boundary line that excludes others and limits our relationship with God.

The spilling of the spirit is what happened in the story from Acts. Though in this case, Jesus’s followers were speaking in real languages, not the unintelligible glossolalia like Kevin was using that evening, which Paul refers to in some of his letters. But God’s spirit was spilling over the cultural boundaries that had divided people like the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea Pontus, Asia, and Cappadocia. Pentecost means fifty in Greek. It’s called that because the festival of Pentecost comes from the Jewish Shavuot. Shavuot happens fifty days or seven weeks after Passover, and it celebrates the giving of the Torah to the People of Israel. Seven weeks was the time it took for the people of Israel to escape from Egypt to Mount Sinai where the Law was given to them through Moses. There is a rabbinic tradition 1that says when the law was given at Sinai, the ten commandments were spoken through one single sound. Yet when the voice went out from Sinai, it was divided into seven voices and then 70 tongues, so that every person heard the law in their language. I don’t believe that the people who fled Egypt under Moses’s leadership were necessarily all Israelites. I think some came from different cultures, and spoke different languages. I can imagine that there were others, slaves from countries like parts of Africa and other regions in the middle east who like the Israelites saw the exodus as an opportunity to free themselves from Egyptian oppression.

The Christian story of Pentecost parallels that tradition. The followers of Jesus have travelled from what Jesus called his exodus, or departure on the cross, to the coming of the Holy Spirit. Who, like the Torah, will guide the Christian community into their future. When Luke wrote this story from Acts, in the back of his mind, he was also thinking of another story from Genesis, the tale of the Tower of Babel. In that account, Nimrod the great-grandson of Noah started to build a tower to affirm and celebrate his culture and language. The tower was a symbol of a dominant unified Babylonian society which defined what the norm would be for all people, in terms of language, law, and culture. But Nimrod soon discovered to his downfall (and that of his tower) that the Lord is not a God of norms, but a God who celebrates diversity. God mixed up all the languages of the builders so that they can no longer understand what each other were saying, and therefore they were unable to complete Nimrod’s building project, and became scattered across many lands. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost is a reversal of that story, but it’s not about imposing one language or one culture but rather seeks unity in the midst of diversity.

In the history of the church, in fact, in most religions we try to draw a box around God, by coming up with rules and norms and criteria which define, who’s in and who is out. At home, I have a little booklet passed down to me through my grandmother. It is called “Rules … for the Society of People called Methodists” and it was printed in 1879. Here’s an extract from it.”

The general rules are to be understood as forbidding neglect of duties of any kind, imprudent conduct, indulging in sinful tempers or words. The buying selling, or using intoxicating liquors as a beverage, dancing, playing games of chance. Encouraging lotteries, attending theaters, horse races, circuses, dancing parties, patronizing dancing schools. Taking such other amusements as are obviously of a misleading or questionable moral tendency and all acts of disobedience to the order and discipline of the church— (Discipline, par. 35)

I think it’s a good thing that we have lightened up a little since then don’t you? It doesn’t sound very Pentecostal, does it? But these so-called norms of behavior, which focussed on moral conduct, were used at a time when people of color had to come into the building to worship through a separate entrance from those who were white. And were told where they could and where they could not sit in church, that’s not very Pentecostal, is it?

The NRSV bible states that, “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.” When Margaret and I were in Jerusalem, we visited the traditional location of the upper room. Where the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’s followers with a great noise, and in tongues of fire. But we were surprised when we entered this space because the architecture in the room was not Christian, but Islamic. It was a bit off-putting to see that. It was the same feeling I had when the spirit grabbed Kevin. We were bumping up against a different culture and religion, which didn’t feel like it belonged in what was supposed to be a Christian space. Which is ironic when you think about it because the place where the followers of Jesus would have gathered on that day would have been neither Christian nor Muslim but Jewish. In fact, it is more likely that they were gathered in the temple that day. At Shavuot, it was the tradition for Jews to gather at the temple for prayer. Furthermore, where else would you find a place where 120 people could meet? And where else would you have all those hundreds of people gathered outside from so many nationalities other than near the temple? But in fact the actual place, the location isn’t that important. When we were studying this text in the Hebrew language translated from the Greek, Ilana pointed out to me that what it says is (כֻלָּם בְּלֵב אֶחָד) (koolam-Belaav-echad), not together in one place, but “gathered of one heart.” Those early followers of Jesus were not all of one mind or one culture, but of one heart. I imagine that who Jesus was to each of them varied depending on whether you were, young or old, male or female, whether you were a slave or free, Greek, Jew or Samaritan. What they did know, was that Jesus, and the radical love in his heart, which he demonstrated through his life, death, and resurrection was the ground of their faith. He was the person through whom they were in relationship with each other.

When people are of one heart, they don’t have to believe in the same thing, there doesn’t need to be one language, one culture or even one religion. They don’t need to be unified in a Babel way. There doesn’t need to be a ”norm.” They can still be unified through the spirit.

At our bible study this week. Instead of focussing on the story from Ezekiel from the Hebrew Bible, we read the story of Samson and Delilah. And the place where all this happens is in Gaza. You can imagine where that place name took us, that evening in our discussion, any least if you have been following the news from Israel recently. We were certainly not of one opinion, about the rights or wrongs of what was happening in Israel. But what was remarkable was there was a mutual listening and respect, which has developed because we have been meeting to study God’s word every week for over a year. At the end of the session Rosalind sang the blessing of thanks to God for the giving of the Torah, as she does for us every Wednesday.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם נָטַע בְּתוֹכֵנוּ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה אֲדֹנָי נוֹתֵן הַתּוֹרָה.

“Baruch Atah Adonai, elo-heinu melech ha-olam, asher natan lanu Torat emet, v’cha-yei olam nata b’to-cheinu. Baruch Atah Adonai, noten ha-Torah.”

Blessed are You, Adonai OUR God, Ruler of the universe, who has given US the Torah of truth, and implanted within US eternal life. Blessed are You, Adonai, Provider of the Torah.

We were not gathered in one place, in fact, we were in two countries two states and three provinces, but with the intention of being one heart and one spirit. As Peter promised when he quoted the prophet Joel in that first sermon of the Christian community. I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. We can be thankful that our God is not a God of norms, but one who colors outside the lines. And through the love which is known in Jesus brings many voices and many cultures and unifies them in the one Holy Spirit.

  1. Feasting on the Word Year B, pp4

The Gathering

Heb 10:24-25

Do you remember as a child going to those big family gatherings. They may have happened at Christmas or Easter, or the end of the summer holidays. It might be that one time during the year, other than funerals where you would get together. Not only with close family, your siblings, aunts and uncles, but distant relatives as well, uncles twice removed, second and third cousins, people who were members of your family. But you couldn’t always remember their names, or how exactly they were related to you. We used to go my Aunt Lena and Uncle Bifty’s every Boxing Day. It was a family tradition, which had probably began when my Dad was a boy in the 1940s. As a youngster, I would sometimes ask my Mum if I could be excused from going, as I preferred to stay home and play with the gifts I had received on Christmas Day. But I never won that argument, “You’re going with us to Uncle Bifty’s” my mum would say, “get in the car!”

When we arrived it always seemed like organized chaos. The house was filled with many offshoots of the family. Conversations were going on in every room, and outside on the porch. There were drinks and plates of food. My uncle Bifty would sit in the living room and entertain us with family stories, which he had told us the year before and the year before that. My Aunt Lena was in the kitchen watching over the turkey, potatoes, and vegetables and the cassava pie, keeping us well supplied with things to eat and drink. What I remember most about those gatherings was the noise, There were children running around laughing, screaming or crying. Plates clattering, glasses clinking, multiple conversations going on at the same time. I remember a Christmas tree ornament, a plastic bird which always perched on one of the tree branches. It had a sensor in it, and would start chirupping every time there was a loud sound which or course was often. One year when Margaret and I were there (she was pregnant with Deborah at the time) one of my cousins, young Michael, who was I believe, four years old, figured out what triggered the bird in the tree. He brought in a battery operated Santa toy, which rang a bell, and also a toy rabbit that kept clashing two cymbals together as it whirred and rolled along the living-room floor. Of course, that would start off the chirping Christmas ornament again. And my mum would say, “I swear, any minute now, and I am going to kill that bloody bird!”

Presiding over all of this was my Aunt Lena in her red Santa hat. I remember, she laughed a lot and always had a smile on her face, as she tended to the needs of her extended family. Where I wonder, did she get the inclination and especially the patience to cater to all of us every year? It may have been her Portuguese ancestry, as family is so important in their community. There was an instinct in her which was all about celebration, bringing people together with their stories, so they could be told, heard and retold once again. I don’t know if she realized it or not, but she was not only a mother, wife, grandmother, and aunt. She was a “gatherer” as well, a facilitator of relationships, of the cords which connect people together, and result in the telling of family history and story. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, these events nourished the lives of all who experienced the annual event she hosted.

Margaret and I were doing some research into the origins of Mother’s Day which has its roots in this idea of gathering. Mother’s Day, here in Canada, comes from the American celebration of Mother’s Day. This goes back to the early 1900s, when a woman called Anna Jarvis 1 started a campaign in 1905 which was the year her mother died. It was the character and the principles of her mother that inspired Anna to want to honor her. Mama Jarvis cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the field during the Civil War. In the aftermath of this terrible war, she organized a “Mothers’ Friendship Day.” It’s goal was to foster reconciliation between former Union and Confederate soldiers by having them to meet, along with the mothers from both sides, to share their stories and experience. It’s no wonder her daughter fought for a day that could be dedicated to all mothers who often portray those peace making principles which her mother identified with.

Mother’s Day in the United Kingdom 2 is celebrated on a different Day altogether, the fourth Sunday in Lent. And it has an entirely unrelated history, but still carries within it this same idea of gathering. Originally called Mothering Sunday, it had nothing to do with mothers per se but was a church-centered holiday, that celebrated the return of the children each year to their mother church. Many people, some as young as ten years old worked as domestic servants, or apprentices, around the country. Once a year though, they would be given a day off to visit their home church. And while they were there, naturally, they would visit their families. As they walked along the country lanes 3, children would pick wild flowers or violets to take to church or give to their mother as a small gift. Over time, the idea of the “return to the mother church” became an opportunity for family reunions when children who were working far from home could return.

I wasn’t sure how to name this day in our Sunday bulletin. At home, it is simply Mother’s Day. The United Church calls it Christian Family Sunday, so I went with that because I was trying to be sensitive to the cultural differences. The name Mother’s Day can be painful to some. Some have not been able to be mothers in the biological sense. Some were mothers but have have lost children. Or, others have had difficult and painful childhood experiences and are conflicted about their relationship with their mothers.

But I think that the important thing to remember about this day is the cords that connect us to our families are unbreakable and cannot be separated by loss, or neglect or even death. And it is the gathering instinct, which is a female energy and in many ways defines the nature of motherhood, but is not limited to those who are mothers. And God calls us to recognize and celebrate those cords of relationship. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “to “not give up gathering, as some are in the habit of doing, but to encourage one another.”

On Thursday evening I watched a movie called “The Glass Castle” some of you may have read the book. It’s the true story of Jeannette Walls, an American author and journalist. Jeannette tells the story of her coming of age in a dysfunctional family of nonconformist roamers. Her mother is an an eccentric artist, who neglects the children so she can paint. Her father is an alcoholic, who is brilliant in many ways, and can entertain and stir his children’s imagination with hope as a distraction to their poverty, but their bellies were still empty. Each of the children eventually find ways to break away from their parents to find some sanity and happiness in their lives. But in the final few days of her father’s life, it is Jeannette’s mother who calls her to her father’s bedside. There she finds an inner grace, despite all that happened in her childhood, to reconcile with her parents. Despite the trauma they have caused her, she can finally move through the painful memories by acknowledging and celebrating the unbreakable bonds that connect her to her family.

If you recall in my sermon last week, I told you that I’d heard that York-Covehead once had a mission statement. I wondered then whether you knew what it was or whether it was something you had accomplished. Sheila found it for me this week. It was prepared by Rev, John Foster on behalf of the Session and approved on Feb. 3rd 1998. The mission statement is quite long and composed of several elements. But the part of it that drew my attention particularly concerning today were these words: “Our mission is to make our church a place that is sharing and caring; that thinks of itself as a family tied together by the bonds of Christian love and relationship.” Have we accomplished that lofty goal? No, of course not! Like families, churches are, to some extent, dysfunctional bodies, even as they attempt to journey towards the vision of what a People of God should be. We are after all, a work in progress.

But our God is a God of relationship. A God who seeks us out and longs for us to live in connection with each other, with those outside these walls and all creation. 4 This is why the church is modeled on the family, and the inseparable bonds that exist there. We are a family because we are bonded to God through the unbreakable cords of the waters of baptism, and also by blood, the blood of Jesus sacrificial love for us. So let us, while we live and have the opportunity, consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Not giving up on being in community, as some have done but encouraging one another 5. Because, we can never, stop being a family no matter how noisy and chaotic being in relationship with each other might be at times. Ultimately, we are called to gather and hear and share the lessons of scripture, the tales of our history as a people, and the stories of our lives, and then celebrate all that we have learned and been nourished by in the name of the One who gathers us together as a Holy people.

In memory of Aunt Lena
  1. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/mothers-day
  2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/herefordandworcester/features/mothersday/history.shtml
  3. From a BBC article on Mothering Sunday
  4. https://united-church.ca/worship-special-days/christian-family-sunday
  5. Heb:10:24-25

The Good Shepherd

John 10:11-18

One of my earliest childhood memories is a small picture of the Good Shepherd that my grandmother gave me which I kept by my bedside. It must have made an impression on me, because when Margaret and I had our children we bought the same pictures for Deborah and Daniel to put in their rooms. The Good Shepherd is one of the earliest images of Jesus found in the catacombs in Rome. In early Christian art, he is nearly always depicted holding a lamb in his arms, or carrying a sheep over his shoulder. Shepherds in Israel are quite different from those that you see in other countries. In the U.K. for example, the shepherd drives the sheep ahead of him, using a sheepdog to round up the animals that have gone astray. If the shepherd wants the sheep to change direction to avoid danger, then off he sends the dogs to direct them, to bark at them, and frighten them to turn towards a different way. But in the Middle East, shepherds lead their flocks from the front, and they don’t require dogs for this task.

A North Carolina Bishop Leonard Bolick told the story of a retired clergyman who organized a Holy Land Tour. One day, the group made a bus trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Along the way the Pastor told the group how they would see many sheep and shepherds, and to think about how Jesus was the Good Shepherd, and how shepherds always went in front of the sheep leading them; he never went behind, beating or pushing or shoving them. Suddenly, the bus stopped for a herd of sheep to pass. The pastor was surprised to see a man with a stick beating the sheep. He got off the bus and confronted the man, “Look here, everything I’ve read says the shepherd leads the sheep with love, doesn’t come from behind beating and pushing.” “That’s true,” the man said, “but I’m not a shepherd, I’m a butcher.”1

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday which always falls on the 4th week following Easter, and includes this reading from John Chapter ten. It’s always a good idea to look at a passage in its entire context by reading what comes before the text and what follows it. In the passage I read today, Jesus is talking to his listeners about what it means to be a Good Shepherd. But, just before he says these words, there is an incident where Jesus demonstrates that he is the Good Shepherd. He and his disciples encountered a man who had been blind from birth. The disciples ask whether the man is blind because he sinned, or because his parents sinned. Jesus answers, that neither the man nor his parents sinned, and then he restores his sight. But the Pharisees are incensed because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. The Pharisees begin an investigation of the circumstances of the man’s cure, in order to assign blame for this contravention of the law. They question the man, and then his parents. They are afraid to say anything in case they get kicked out of the synagogue, because of the association their family now has with Jesus. The point is, none of these people in the story except Jesus see the man for who he is, as an individual. Through the eyes of the disciples, he is a theological question about sin. To the Pharisees he is a symbol of Jesus’ apparent disobedience of the Torah. The man’s parents even though he is their son, he has become a risk to the welfare of their family. Only Jesus views him as am individual seen by God. It’s at this point that Jesus explains what the difference is between a Good Shepherd and a hired worker.

Jesus in this passage is comparing the characteristics of a Good Shepherd, with that of a hired hand. And we can think of these two, as being on a scale where on the one side is the hired hand, and the other side the Good Shepherd. The scale is a measure of the level of commitment we have in serving others. A Good Shepherd is committed, to the point of laying down his life, whereas the hired hand is only concerned about their own needs.

There is a story of a shepherd herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of a dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Broni suit, expensive Italian shoes and Ray Ban sunglasses, leans out the window. He asks the shepherd, “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?” The shepherd looks at the man, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, “Sure, why not?” The guy parks his car, whips out his Apple notebook computer, connects it to his iPhone. He surfs to a NASA page on the internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location. He then feeds this to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra high-resolution photo. The young man then opens the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop and exports it to an image processing facility in Hamburg, Germany. Within seconds, he receives an email on his iPhone that the image has been processed, and the data stored. He then accesses the data via his iPhone and finally turns to the shepherd and says, “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.” “That’s right, he replied. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep,” says the honest shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car. Then the shepherd says to the young man, “Excuse me, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?” The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, “Okay, why not?” “You’re a consultant,” says the shepherd. “Wow! That’s correct,” says the young man, “but how did you guess that?” “No guessing required,” answered the savvy shepherd, “You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; you don’t know squat about my business … now give me back my dog!”

Where do we find ourselves on that hired hand, good shepherd scale, we know where Jesus is. When Jesus refers to himself as the “Good” Shepherd, he is according to theologian Lee Griess saying to us, “I don’t care how much trouble comes your way; the Good Shepherd will never leave you. I don’t care how difficult times become, the Good Shepherd will never desert you. I don’t care how helpless, how hopeless, how hapless your life may seem, the Good Shepherd will always be at your side. He will not desert you in time of need. For the true shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” 2 And for us as Christians, Jesus, who lays down his life, is God, laying down her life for us through the Incarnation. God is the Good Shepherd. As Ezekiel writes, “I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD.” It is the knowledge that in Jesus, God lays down his life for us, which gives us the courage for us to be Good Shepherds to others.

Mr Kenneth Clegg

There are many examples of Good Shepherds out there in our world, who sacrifice their time for others, and especially for those who are considered to outside the fold. I had a chemistry teacher when I was in secondary school whose name was Mr. Clegg. I was utterly hopeless at chemistry, at least on the academic side. I used to hate the theory and having to understand and memorize periodic tables and such things. But, on the other hand, I had my own chemistry lab at home, and loved experimenting with chemicals to see what happened when you mixed them together. In fact, I used to make my own gunpowder, and even managed to singe my eyebrows a couple of times. But I’m sure Mr. Clegg knew I was a hopeless case as far as the theory of Chemistry was concerned. But he could see the excitement in my face in class when we were using bunsen burners and test tubes and working with chemicals. So, he would stay behind with me after school help to help me improve my grades. And he would even gave some old equipment from the chemistry lab for my experiments at home. I’m sure he wasn’t supposed to do that, but he did anyway. Ultimately, I failed chemistry, in fact, I was never proficient enough to even take the final exam. But I will never forget Mr. Clegg. He was a Good Shepherd particularly to his students. And he had a big influence on many people. I was reading a blog post last year called “What Makes a Life-Changing Teacher?” written by Spencer Critchley. 3 Spencer is an award-winning writer in the USA and a communication consultant (one of the good ones) who worked for both Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. He described how when he enrolled in our school in the fourth year, which is one year before the final GCE exams how Mr. Clegg offered him free Saturday morning classes, so he could properly prepare. He said Mr. Clegg epitomizes three qualities that make a great teacher, empathy, warmth, and genuineness, and I would add a fourth, absolute commitment to others.

There are many good shepherds in our world who demonstrate that commitment, and lay down their lives for others. The mother who works tirelessly for years tutoring her son with a learning disability. The husband who walks through the difficult days of a cancer diagnosis and treatment with his wife. A son in India this week who drove his father strapped to an oxygen tank, suffering from COVID-19 from hospital to hospital desperately trying to find an available bed.

We are invited to be Good Shepherds to each. Not because of an ideal, or a theology or a concept, but because of who people are as unique individuals seen and cherished by God. It was good this week that justice was carried out in the trial of Derek Chauvin over George Floyd’s death. But it also struck me how George Floyd has also become a political symbol. Jesus would see him as George, the man. A person in his own right, who deserved to continue to receive the love of his family. One who deserved to enjoy life rather than have it cut short. In Gods eyes, George is not a symbol, he is unique and treasured in God’s sight and a sheep of his fold. Economist and seer E. F. Schumacher had a story about an old shepherd, who always said, “Don’t count the sheep,” , “or else they won’t thrive.” By this, he meant that counting the sheep turned each live, unique animal into an abstraction, a symbol of a sheep, each one like the next one. In this way one would begin to lose sight of them as individual sheep. One would fail to notice whether they looked healthy, acted normal, and in general were becoming their best sheep selves. He concludes with this observation. “What we easily forget, in our passionate twentieth-century love affair with abstract thinking, is that to make an abstraction out of some part of reality we must take some meaning away from it.” 4The shepherds with whom Jesus were familiar knew each of their sheep by name, and called the flock to their side each morning. We are also called not to count sheep, but to serve each one individually by name. We are all aware of those who may be struggling in life, because of an illness or depression, or grief, or isolation or an economic issue. I would encourage us all to be a Good Shepherds to them. Let us see them and know that they are part of that one flock guided by the one Great Shepherd. Let us focus on them as an individuals and try as best we can to find ways to accompany them on the difficult paths they are treading.

  1. https://lectionarylab.com
  2. CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Return to The Lord, Your God, by Lee Griess
  3. https://spencercritchley.com/what-makes-a-life-changing-teacher/
  4. Holt’s Learning All the Time Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1989, 104.)

Windows In The Sky

2Kings 7:1-16

Luke 24:36–48

I like the stained-glass window behind the choir here at York, but it’s only recently that I’ve really studied it in detail. The picture of Jesus and the figures in the foreground remind me of our reading from Luke. Jesus seems to be standing there and saying, see me, touch me, feel me! I am risen and I’m here. I’ve been puzzled by the other figures in the window, though. For example, there’s a man on the right dressed as someone from the East, Is he Chinese or possibly Malaysian? There’s a person of colour opposite him, is he from Africa or the Pacific? Then there are two children in the foreground. One of them, I realized only recently is a First Nations child, is the other child of European descent? The initial impression I received when I looked at the stained-glass window the first time I saw it, was that it was about the church’s involvement in foreign missions, but this didn’t make sense to me. Missions to China and Africa are more associated with the late 1800s or early 1900s, and these images don’t always resonate with us today. During that time, people of European descent who brought the Gospel message to other lands also imposed a white Christian culture on racialized people. Then I discovered that the window came from the old York Church. So, I thought OK well at least it makes sense, it’s not a modern window after all, but from a different era. But when I checked “The Valiant Connection, A History of Little York” I discovered to my surprise that the window was installed in the old York church in 1985, just over ten years before this church was built, it’s quite modern. So I had to go back and rethink all my initial assumptions. I still haven’t discovered what the symbolism of the four figures represents. But, for me its message emphasizes the acceptance of all ethnicities, it’s a mutt-cultural and multi-generational vision. It portrays the idea taught by Jesus of being open and accepting of others. And I think the figures may also represents the four cardinal directions East, South, West and North. I’m not 100% sure I’m correct , but it makes sense to me. I’ve tried to understand the meaning of the window in the same way that I do the exegesis on a passage from scripture, to look at the original languages and the context and to be open to what the artist was trying to communicate.

The sacred texts by which we live our faith are not only in the New or the Old testaments, They are all around us. They are in church buildings and in stain-glass windows, but especially they are in us, because we are the resurrected body of Jesus. But we often don’t see the truth of that. We look at each other in the same way I first looked at that window, where truth becomes obscured by assumptions. Why do we always miss, or not see the reality of the risen Jesus in each other? We are much like the disciples in that regard we have heard about Jesus’ resurrection, and yet our actions and the way we live often demonstrate that we have difficulty in accepting it. What will finally convince us that God’s power over death is real, and that we can claim that power at work in our lives and in this community of ours?

In the story from Luke there’s a process, and a gradual developing understanding of the resurrection. There’s a persistent story emerging, which starts with the women at the empty tomb, moves outward to Emmaus and then back into Jerusalem. And there’s an equally persistent inability by Jesus’ followers to grasp the fact that Jesus has indeed risen. The resurrection, is so astonishing that it divides human history, into two parts, before Christ and after Christ. It’s comparable to God’s original creation, but a creation of a new people raised together with Jesus. But his disciples and followers are not initially able to grasp or understand its meaning and significance. In Luke, as in the other gospels, the event has happened. Stories, and varied and confused tales are being told and shared of the empty tomb, and the appearances of Jesus, but no one is really sure about all of this. The community who had placed their hope in Jesus initially don’t understand the significance of the empty tomb.

The passage before the one we read today, is about two of Jesus’s followers on the road to Emmaus, who meet the risen Christ but don’t recognize him. Cleopas, one of the two men speaking to Jesus, says, “the chief priests and our rulers handed our Lord over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but ‘we had hoped’ that he was the one who would save Israel.” We had hoped! These two men have already heard the story from the women at the tomb, but didn’t believe it, because women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Then these same followers after Jesus broke bread with them having realized that he was there with them, tell their story to the others in Jerusalem. At that moment, Jesus appears again. The disciples are startled and terrified, and they think they are seeing a ghost. Jesus assures them that he is really risen and says, ‘here, touch my hands and my feet.’ It’s really me! They felt a joy welling up inside them, and yet they are still unable to believe that this can be really true.

And so then Jesus says look if you don’t believe me, give me something to eat. Again this is something they would have seen Jesus do many times before as they shared a meal with him, and it brings a final sense of familiarity that this is really Jesus in the flesh. I like the fact that in the King James bible, Jesus not only eats a piece of broiled fish but also a piece of honey comb. Possibly the two represent the nutritious value of food, but also the simple human pleasure of eating. 1 The most human thing Jesus could do is to eat something. During the course of his life, Jesus has been subjected to the need of eating and drinking; and now, though relieved from that necessity, he eats to convince his disciples of the certainty of his resurrection. It’s only then that the disciples finally realize that this is him alive and well, and with them. And it is at this point that he opens their minds to the scriptures, and they finally reach a fuller understanding of what this all means. So then, after the witnesses of the empty tomb, the witnesses on the road to Emmaus, the testimony of Jesus physical body, Jesus says ‘you are now witnesses of these things.’ Resurrection becomes real in them, and in their bodies.

I love the story from our Old Testament reading from second Kings, It also contains within it a resurrection theme. It’s about four lepers at the gate to Samaria. They become witnesses to the salvation of their city. Samaria had been besieged by the Syrians who were starving the population to death. The people had lost all hope. Elisha the prophet tells them that they will be saved and fed, but the Captain of the Gate asks, “Even if the Lord were to make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?” The four lepers are also starving, and they can’t go through the gate to enter the city because they are unclean. But on the other hand, if they leave the city, they will likely be captured and killed by the Syrians camped outside. So they are between a rock and a hard place. And then one of them finally declares in exasperation. מָ֗ה אֲנַ֛חְנוּ יֹשְׁבִ֥ים פֹּ֖ה עַד־מָֽתְנוּ (Ma Anach-noo Yosh-veem Po Ad Matnoo.)” Why should we sit here waiting to die! So they leave the city gate, they enter the Syrian camp and they discover to their surprise that the enemy mistakenly thought they were under attack and since have fled Samaria leaving everything behind them. There is food and provisions for all. The city has been saved, and the lepers go back to Samaria and tell the others this joyful news.

The followers of Jesus on the road to Emmaus said to him not realizing who they were talking to, “But we had hoped!” Today is the 25th anniversary of the opening of York United church building, but it’s a good opportunity for all of us to look back a few years maybe even 25 years. Where was your hope then? Where is your hope now? We are surely less in number than we were. It may be that things have not turned out the way we expected or hoped. And yet there is nothing fundamentally different between ourselves today and those disciples in the upper room, who expressed, their own doubt, fear, uncertainty and disbelief. Jesus has defeated the cross and stands among us. He says to us as he did to them touch me, feel me! I am risen and I’m here. Take a second look at the risen Jesus here among us, in this place in our bodies and in the memory of those who have gone before us. מָ֗ה אֲנַ֛חְנוּ יֹשְׁבִ֥ים פֹּ֖ה עַד־מָֽתְנוּ “Ma Anach-noo Yosh-veem Po Ad Matnoo!” Why should we sit here waiting to die when we know that Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed! God does make windows in the sky, and “you are now witnesses of these things.”

Amen

  1. Thanks to Ilana, my Hebrew teacher for the perspective on the honeycomb.

Spirit of the Goose

John 20:19-31

I saw some Canadian geese flying the other day, at least that’s what I think they were. They were in their typical V formation. It really caught my attention, I guess it’s a sign that spring really is coming. Dr. Mickey Anders researching Christianity in Ireland discovered that the ancient Celtic Christians chose, not the dove, but the wild goose as a symbol representing the Holy Spirit.1 It sounds strange to us, but it has a long tradition in Ireland. Anders writes, while the Roman Church imagined the Holy Spirit in the form of a peaceful, graceful dove, the Ancient Celts understood the Holy Spirit to be like a wild goose. The image of the Holy Spirit as dove has become so familiar and domesticated that we pay little attention. But the image of a wild goose descending upon us is a different matter altogether. A wild goose is a noisy, bothersome bird. There was an article in the CBC news the other day when a Canadian wild goose actually beat off an eagle that had attacked it. I like this image of the Holy Spirit as a courageous wild goose because it jars us out of our complacency. It was this wild Goose type of Spirit that Jesus referred to when he preached his first sermon and quoted Isaiah. Saying, “for the Spirit of the Lord is upon me for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind. To set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of God’s favour” (Luke 4:18).

The disciples who were gathered in the still and stifling air in a room behind locked doors, following the resurrection needed the power of that Spirit. It needed to blow through them to take away their fear and to equip them for the mission Jesus had called them to do. They were not in a good place at that time. Mary Magdalene had reported to them that Jesus had resurrected, but they were not inclined to believe her. They were filled with doubt and fear. We tend to label Thomas as the one who doubted, but that’s unfair. Certainly, Thomas questioned the disciple’s account of the risen Jesus. But he never questioned Jesus himself. When Jesus in an earlier part of John’s Gospel announced to his disciples that he was going to Judea, the others tried to stop him because it was too dangerous (11:8). But Thomas was not dissuaded. He boldly proclaimed: “Let us also go, that we may die with him. We don’t know where Thomas was on the night Jesus first appeared to his disciples. But we do know that he wasn’t hiding behind locked doors. Theologian Tanya Bennett, suggests he might actually have been the only one out of all the followers who was out in the streets already sharing what Jesus had been teaching and doing. Trying to live the life that Jesus called them to live. 2 So, if Thomas in any way is one who doubts, then he is a symbol of the doubts of all the disciples. And maybe to some degree, we read our uncertainties into Thomas, rather than admit the fear in ourselves, which stops us from claiming the full meaning of the resurrection and claiming the life Jesus calls us into.

Let’s just try to put ourselves in the disciples’ shoes that evening, what would they have been thinking and feeling. Well, for one thing they were afraid. And it wasn’t fear of the Jews as described in this passage. It was fear of the temple authorities, The Greek text names them as the Ἰουδαῖος (ee-oo-dah’-yos,” not the Jews in general, but a specific group of Jews opposed to Jesus. Secondly, I’m sure they would have felt anger at the ee-oo-dah’-yos and the Romans who had taken their master and teacher and crucified him. Thirdly, there would have been a lot of guilt. Other than the women, and the beloved disciple, they had all abandoned Jesus to his fate, and Peter their leader had denied him three times. How do you even begin to move past something like that? Imagine the despair and the regret they would have felt. They also knew that Jesus expected them to carry on his mission of healing and proclaiming the gospel. But they would have had no idea or any capacity whatsoever how to even start to go about doing that. So, they were stuck and stifled, behind locked doors. Caught between the guilt of their recent actions and their fear of an unknown and uncertain future. They were paralyzed.

When our lives are ruled by regret for the past or fear of the future we can become immobilized, and unable to live and to breathe freely in the present. Guilt for past deeds produces fear, and fear prevents us from living into and claiming the promise of resurrection. It may well be Easter, Jesus may well have risen, and is alive today in this present moment, but that doesn’t mean that we’re living as if that were true. There’s a story I read online by Rhea Shah 3about Nelson Mandela after he was elected as the President of South Africa. He was having lunch along with his security guards at a restaurant. Everyone placed their orders and were chatting while waiting for their food. At that moment, Nelson Mandela spotted a man sitting right across his table, also waiting for his food. He told his guards to ask the man to join them for lunch. The person agreed and joined them but sat quietly the whole time. After some waiting, their food arrived, and everyone relished the delicious meal. The man too starting eating, but his hands were trembling. Without uttering a word, he quietly ate his food and then left. Everyone could sense something wasn’t right, so after he left, his guards were speculating that he might have been ill because he was trembling so badly. But Nelson Mandela shook his head and said that he knew the man. He was the jailor where Mandela was incarcerated on Robbin Island. And that same man gave him a very tough time while he was in the prison, subjugating him to all kinds of torture. But now, things were different because Nelson Mandela had become the President. And he had reached out to all those who mistreated him and forgiven them fully. But this man when he was invited over to join them was unable to move beyond his history.

W.H. Auden writes in his poem ,”The age of anxiety”

‘We would rather be ruined than changed

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.’ 4

We can find that we live in illusions of the past or illusions of the future and completely miss breathing into this present instant.

In our story in John, Jesus breaks through the fear of the disciples and comes to them through locked doors. He stands next to them and among them, shows them his wounded hands and side and says ‘peace be with you’ And then he commissions them to continue the work that he started. And the author of this Gospel writes that ‘he breathed on them’ and said, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The breath of the Holy Spirit mirrors the beginning of the book of Genesis, where God breathes on the chaotic waters and creates the world. Here in John’s Gospel, Jesus through the wind of the Holy Spirit is creating a new community. And Jesus doesn’t just ‘gently breathe over them. The word in the Hebrew translation (וַיִּפַּח) (vay-ee-pach) means to blow (blowing mic) to seeth. It’s much stronger than a gentle breeze, it’s more like the Canadian goose variety of sprit rather than the dove. Think of the text in Ezekiel, another resurrection theme, where God breathes life into the valley of dry bones. As Ilana put it 5when we looked at this word (וַיִּפַּח) (vay-ee-pach) on during my Hebrew lesson she said, it looks like Jesus is energizing his disciples to carry out the work he has called them to.

And then Jesus says, “If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” He is calling the disciples to forgive. Who are they being asked to forgive? First, before they forgive anyone else they must forgive themselves. Jesus has already forgiven them from the cross. Now they must claim that forgiveness within them, so they have the spirit given capacity to forgive others and the freedom to carry out the mission Jesus had charged them with. Is the inability to forgive ourselves or others preventing us from living into the reality of resurrection. The spirit provides us the grace to forgive ourselves so that we can forgive others. In Shakespeares play the tempest, Prospero when finally given a chance to punish those who had removed him from his rightful place as king states, “Let us not burden our remembrance with a heaviness that’s gone.” 6 The inability to forgive ourselves leaves with us a heaviness that must be cast aside if we are to live as God intends.

In one of her books, Corrie Ten Boom tells of meeting the guard from the concentration camp where she and her family had been held by the Nazis. She had been speaking at a large church meeting, and after the meeting he had come forward. He put out his hand to her, and she instinctively pulled back, remembering the horrors to which that hand had been put, or in which it had cooperated. But then, she said, something came over her, she knew not what, and she reached out and grasped his hand and extended her forgiveness as the tears rolled down his cheeks.

Forgiveness is the work of God and can only be done by us through the grace of God at work in us. Forgiveness, like the resurrection, breaks in upon us through shut doors. We are called and sent to participate in Jesus’ message of forgiveness because we have been forgiven. ‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ 7

How many times do we say when we pray together or alone, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?’ Are these just words or are these words carried on the resurrecting wind of the Spirit. The next time we say them, let us hear the noise of the wings of wild geese beating and stirring the air around us and let us claim the power of the resurrection. We are fully and freely forgiven, let us go and do likewise towards others.

  1. http://www.pikevillefirstchristianchurch.org/Sermons/Sermon20020519.html.
  2. Bennett, Tanya Linn. The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021 (pp. 91-92). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  3. https://www.thinkrightme.com/en/think-right/a-life-altering-lesson-by-nelson-mandela/
  4. W H Auden, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue Covid issues and problem of a culture of boundaries
  5. Ilana Clyde, commenting on (וַיִּפַּח)
  6. William Shakespeare, The Tempest
  7. Brett Blair

The Gatekeeper

Jer 31:31-34

Heb 5:1-10

In ancient China, the people wanted to be safe from the barbaric hordes to the north. So, they built the Great Wall of China. The wall was huge, so big that it’s said you can see it from space. It was too high to climb over, too thick to break down, and too long to go around. Security was achieved … apparently! The only problem was that during the first hundred years of the wall’s existence, China was invaded three times. Was the wall a failure? Not really, for not once did the barbaric hordes climb over the wall, break it down, or go around it. How then did they get into China? The answer lies in human nature. They simply bribed a gatekeeper and then marched right in through a gate. The fatal flaw in the Chinese defence was placing too much reliance on a wall and not putting enough effort into building character into the gatekeeper. With walls, who the gatekeeper is the key to whether the door will open or remain closed to the outside.

I remember my first experience going to the western wall of the temple in Jerusalem, when Margaret and I visited Israel almost two years ago. We decided to explore Jerusalem on foot, the day after we arrived, which was the day before our tour started. We walked all around the city, and we found the Kotel, also know as the “wailing or western wall.” It’s the only remaining structure from Herod’s temple in Jerusalem, which was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70. When we got there, we realized that there was a barrier which divided the men from the women. Women could approach the western wall only on one side. There have been numerous demonstrations at the Kotel during the last few years by women Jews. They have protested and fought for their right to practice their religion, and to pray at this holy site without having to be segregated from others.

But those were the rules, So Margaret and I parted for a while, she went to the women’s side, and I went to the men’s area. It was the week of Passover, so the Kotel was packed with people. There were hundreds upon hundreds of worshippers praying. In the men’s section, 90% of the those gathered were orthodox Jews. They were lining up in front of the wall praying in their dark suits with their Shtreimels (fur-lined hats). some were in white knee stockings, with their prayer shawls and prayer books.

I felt out of place to be honest. It was as if, in addition to the barrier that separated the genders, there was another cultural barrier that separated me from the rest who were there. I wanted to approach this holy site to pray, but at the same time I felt, as if I didn’t belong there, as if I wasn’t welcomed, which wasn’t the case at all. In fact, one of the religious Jews went out of his way to show me how to ritually wash my hands at one of the water fountains before I approached the wall to pray. But I think the feeling I had, that I didn’t belong, was probably for the most part something in myself. Possibly my own inner awareness of the cultural differences between Jews, particularly orthodox Jews and Christians. So when we returned to our hotel that day, I felt disappointed. The experience of visiting the western wall was not what I had hoped for or expected.

Reflecting on this more recently, I have come to realize that there are two types of walls which can cause people to feel excluded. There are the real external barriers, like those that literally separated the men from the women at the Kotel. Then there are the barriers we build within our own psyche, in our own minds which we use to either exclude others or exclude ourselves as I was probably doing that day.

In our text from the letter to the Hebrews, the author (who is not actually Paul, but a later writer adopting his name) is giving us a job description for the ideal gatekeeper to the temple. The gatekeeper was in effect the High Priest, whose role it was to be responsible for the temple, its surroundings and deciding on who could have access to the temple and who didn’t. And it was his job to place the prayers of the people before God inside the temple. Paul notes some things about the role of the High Priest. First, he is to be chosen from among men, and appointed to act on behalf of men and women in relation to God.

Second, he is to offer up gifts and sacrifices for the sins of people of Israel, Third he is also to offer sacrifice for his sin. Fourth, he is to deal gently with those who come to worship because he knows that he himself is beset with weakness. Now Paul might be using a sprinkling of irony and sarcasm here, because this certainly does not describe the High Priests whom Paul and Jesus would have known. In those days the office of the high priest was a political appointment controlled by the Romans, and it generally went to the highest bidder. The high priests were not known for their humility or their care of the people

And then there was the temple of which the whole architecture emphasized the holiness of God, but also the distance of God from the people and the sense of order by which people should come into God’s presence. The temple mount was about the size of 20 football fields, it could cater to about 100,000 people on high feast days. The mount stood 30 metres above ground and extended 20 metres below ground. The doors to the main temple building were about 20 metres high, and it took twenty priests to open and close them. The inner and outer courts of the temple were cordoned off by walls. These kept certain groups like women and gentiles and even Jewish men away from the center of the temple, the Holy of Holy where only the High priest could enter. You couldn’t just walk up to the temple, not if you valued your life. If you were a gentile, you were restricted to an area called the court of the gentiles.

The apostle Paul knew all about walls. In Ephesians, he writes that Christ has broken down “the wall of hostility.” Paul is referring to a wall that stood in the temple in Jerusalem that was about 3 or 4 ft high. It ran through the court of the temple. Its purpose was to keep Gentiles away from the inner court, into which only Jews were permitted. There was a sign which warned anyone who wasn’t a Jew that entering this area was punishable by death. This was a wall of religious discrimination. Paul calls it a wall of hostility. In the year 1871, archaeologists, digging around the temple site in Jerusalem, actually uncovered the very stone that marked the wall. It had this warning in Greek and Hebrew “no man of another race is to proceed within the partition and enclosing wall about the sanctuary. Anyone arrested there will have himself to blame for the penalty of death which will be imposed as a consequence.”

I think there is something in our very nature that seeks to exclude others. Maybe it even starts when we are kids or maybe we learn it from our society. I remember when I was in secondary school, any one new joining the school at least if you were a boy in my class you would subjected to a rite of initiation. You would be taken into the bathroom by the other boys, who would then stick your head down the toilet bowl and flush it! After that ordeal you were part of the community, unless you were from away, like the United Kingdom, or the States, or Canada, then it took longer before you were accepted, because of your accent being different! A boy called Ian who became a good friend of mine arrived at our school from Scotland. With his strong Dunfermline accent, they really zeroed in on him. But he turned the tables on them when it came time to be initiated, after they explained the process to him. He said, “Ah don’t bother, I’ll do it meself!” Which he did! But the fact is that I struggled with later was I was becoming Ians’s friend and yet I stood by and didn’t I defend him. I was a afraid to cross that cultural boundary that had been set by my class mates. I could have been the gatekeeper that opened the door to Ian but I didn’t.

God’s vision for humanity is not one based on walls and boundaries, but on love. Order is not a bad thing, but it always needs to take second place to love. Because when we create barriers, we are looking at life through the lens of one particular perspective. In our bible study sessions, we have been learning to go outside the borders set by the lectionary. The lectionary is very specific and selective in which verses it chooses will be read on any given Sunday. There is an emphasis on readings on the Old Testament which support passages in the New Testament. We only read about 8% of the Hebrew scriptures during the course of a three year cycle. The lectionary completely passes by many stories about women in the bible. This week the selected verses from Jeremiah 31–34 refer to the new covenant, avoiding the first thirty verses as if to theologically distinguish it from the old covenant. The people who created the lectionary, drew a hard line between the old covenant and the new covenant, between the Jewish Faith, and the Christian faith. Can you see what’s happening here? There is a barrier being built between the people of the old covenant and the people of the new covenant, between Jews and Christians like the barrier that separated Jews and Christians in the temple.

But What we discovered this week by reading the whole chapter of Jeremiah is how this prophet reveals how radically inclusive God is. Jeremiah is writing about one people of one covenant. “At that time,” declares the Lord, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people.” See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth. Even, the blind, the lame, those who limp, the injured, those who hurt, the pregnant woman, they will all return home from exile to Jerusalem. The emphasis, as Ilana put it who lead us in a discussion of Jeremiah is on words like together everyone, all unity equality harmony and Social Justice. This chapter in Jeremiah was written to unite all of humanity not to divide it. And the relationship between us and God, is not one governed by walls and courts, but through closeness and intimacy, as that between a father and his children. And even between a husband and his wife. Jeremiah speaking for God emphasizes a relationship which borders on the physical, ‘I have pulled you close to me with love.’ That’s not about walls, or about order or structure!

In the text from Hebrews in vs 5–10 The author shifts his attention from the job description of a High Priest, to a reflection on who Jesus is. He describes Jesus as designated by God a high priest, according to the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is the first individual in the bible to be given the title Kohen (priest). He is a Canaanite, an outsider, someone who would not have been permitted to enter the temple. But he is a priest with roots going further back than the established Priesthood of the Levites. The writer of Hebrews later describes him, as being without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life. He is a universal high priest. As Jesus is universal, being the beginning and end of all things, the Alpha, and the Omega of our faith. The gatekeeper who leads us through the doors and into the Holy of Holies. In fact, for us, as Christians, he is the gate itself. We have a choice whether we choose to worship a God of order, or a God of love and relationship. We have a choice about who our gatekeeper is. Will our perspective conditioned by the ordered walls and barriers of the temple, or will it be Jesus, the outsider, but a high priest, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Margaret and I visited the Kotel a second time near the end of our trip to Israel. By that time we had been there for over a week, and we had been to numerous sites which are considered holy to Jews Christians and Muslims. This time when we went to the western wall, it was no longer Passover, so there were not as many crowds of people there. As before, I washed my hands in the fountain and walked up to the wall. I was better prepared this time, both emotionally and spiritually. The walls in myself which had been there during the first visit had come down. There were still a number of people there in the Kotel. But when I went up to the wall this time and placed my hand on the ancient stones and closed my eyes, the only thing I could hear were birds singing. I felt a deep sense of peace and the knowledge that I was welcome and that I had the right and the privilege to stand there and to pray. I had written a special prayer for this pastoral charge and for our ministry here at York Covehead. I placed it in a crack in the wall. There were hundreds and hundreds of other prayers there as well jammed into the crevices. Prayer notes left at the wall may not be thrown away according to Jewish law. Once the cracks become full of paper, the letters are buried because they have the status of letters to God. Twice a year, the Rabinovitch and his assistants collect all the notes left in the Wall and they bury them in the Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. So there is a prayer there on the mount of Olives for this faith community. It lies among thousands of other prayers from other Christians, Jews and Muslims and many other faiths. As Jeremiah tells us, God has gathered them from the ends of the earth, a brother hood and sisterhood of men and women of all faiths. As we come to the end of this Lenten reflection, and as we enter into the passion of the Palms and Holy Week; may we come to understand the radical love that God has for us through Jesus Christ, the gatekeeper, and the gate. The High Priest who breaks down walls and invites all people into his temple.

— Dedicated to the memory of Ian Sinclair —

Look Up!

John 3:14–21

I was thinking about the story of the fiery snakes in our reading from Numbers. Apparently, there are some snakes here in PEI, garter snakes which can bite but are not poisonous. I didn’t know that until just the other day! We don’t have snakes at home, though occasionally people have accidentally brought them into the island. We do have an insect called the centipede, which can grow up to 6 -8 or even 12 inches in length, and the sting can be pretty nasty, though rarely is it fatal. I remember as a child, walking along the road from where we used to go swimming at Fort St. Catherine’s in St. George. We would pass a little café along the way to Tobacco Bay. There were several jars of alcohol in the window containing these dead centipedes. I would always stop and gaze in fascination at these horrible looking insects kept safely in their jars. Why anyone would want to put something like that in the front window of their café is beyond me. But I remember someone telling me, the alcohol from one of those jars would cure a centipede sting. Just one example, among many of where venom becomes an antidote. This is pretty much the kind of thing that happens in this story. The bronze snake on the pole is like a vaccine which cures the people from the fiery snake bite.

In our story, the people of Israel have been travelling through the desert for many years now. By this point they have walked their way through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and are now halfway through Numbers. They are complaining about the long journey, about the lack of food and water, the heat of the desert. They are tired of the tasteless “manna,” which God drops from the sky to them each day. After years trekking through the desert with everything they have been through, they have succumbed to a “back to Egypt thinking.” Life has become so difficult that they are considering returning to Egypt as slaves rather than endure this freedom where they are always hungry, thirsty, and hot.

Normally, when the people of Israel have a complaint they go to Moses, who negotiates with God on their behalf. But in this case, for the first time ever, they go around Moses and complain to God directly. You’ve heard the expression, be careful what you wish for! This is a difficult passage to read because in the story, when the people rebel, God sends deadly snakes which kill many of the Israelites. In our bible study, we wrestled with the image of God punishing the people like this. It certainly appears to portray God as vengeful. But it’s important to understand that the ancient people who told these stories would have believed that ALL misfortunes in life happen because of sin, and are punished by God’s hand. It’s an idea that most, though not all people would reject today. So for example, you can imagine how the Old Testament authors would have written about the pandemic, during the last year. The headline might have read, “God kills millions, punishing sinful humanity, through deadly virus.” But what the writers of the Old Testament are trying to capture in their own way and within their own culture, is that God punishes the Israelites to teach them how to live as a free people. They are also not shy in describing the human emotions of God. And anger is a part of being human, much like the story of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple. As I was saying last week, if we take away such emotions as anger from God, then we have taken away a part of God’s humanity. We have created only an “idea” of God, that we might be comfortable with, but isn’t who God is. So, these are scriptures that we have to wrestle with, to uncover the truth behind them.

One of the things that the people in this story are unhappy about, is that in their travels to the promised land they have had to take a long circuitous route. In Hebrew, the word is (לִסְבֹ֖ב) (leesvov). They travel via the Sea of Reeds to skirt around the land of Edom, and it adds many miles to their journey, with much suffering along the way. The problems they encounter during this long journey become the main focus of their day-to-day lives. As someone mentioned in our bible study the other night, God has given them a pillar of fire to guide them by night, and a pillar of cloud to be with them during the day. But they have forgotten to “look up,” and see what God has given them. Their focus is not on the fact that they are free, but on their immediate experiences of suffering, and on what they think they have lost because they are no longer slaves.

In some ways the journey of the people of Israel with its many detours is not unlike our situation at York Covehead, and for practically every other church during the last year. We’ve had to take this (לִסְבֹ֖ב) (lees-vov), this long circuitous route to get to where we want to be as a community, and we still have a distance to travel before we arrive there! And when we finally do, things probably won’t be as we expected them to be. We have lost things along the way. We haven’t been able to gather as we did before. And meeting in the way we do, is not always easy to manage and coordinate. Those of you who are joining us online are probably doing so because it doesn’t feel safe to be among a large group of people. We are fortunate, but we have all lost something along the way through the pandemic. People have been separated from their families. I have missed just being able to go to the door at the end of the service and talk to people and shake their hand. Yes, we have had to travel the long way around to where we want to get to, through isolation, circuit breakers, lockdowns, and caution levels. And it has been difficult at times. There has been suffering, and in truth some of us have died along the way. It’s as if we are booked on a flight, we’re at an airport, where we have a connecting flight to reach our final destination. We have our ticket in hand ready to go, but we can’t yet get there yet.

Just before Margaret and I arrived in PEI in 2018, we went on a trip to Italy. We had been looking forward to it for months. We arrived at the airport in Montreal excited about the experience we were going to have. We booked several tours, one of which began the day after our arrival. But then the airlines delayed the flight, first for an hour, then two, then it was delayed again, and then again. In the end it left a day late, and when we finally landed in Italy, wearing the same clothes from when we left, our luggage hadn’t arrived. And the apartment we were renting wasn’t what I had hoped for, and moreover, we’d missed our first tour. We were walking around Rome having to buy new clothes, I was angry with the airlines for messing up the first part of our journey. And I have to admit for a little while, until our suitcases turned up I was focussed on what I thought we were missing rather than what was in front of us. We were in Rome for God’s sake! The Eternal City, one of the most beautiful places in the world, with its great cathedrals and churches! But to begin with I wasn’t looking up to see what was around me, I was looking down at the problems we were having.

In the passage from Numbers, after their encounter with the snakes, the Israelites realize that they have sinned by becoming so focussed on their day-to-day struggles. They have forgotten the signs of Gods presence, the pillar of fire, the pillar of cloud, and the nourishment received through the manna provided by God. As well as the hope and the promise which God gave them at the beginning of their journey. And so, they go to Moses, and ask him to intercede with the LORD to take away the serpents. And God does this remarkable thing. God takes that which caused them pain and death, and makes it into a symbol of healing and hope. In fact, the Hebrew word for fiery snake (שָׂרָ֔ף) seraph has a double meaning. It means both serpent, but is also the word for angel, the same word with two completely different meanings. Sometimes God uses our pain to bring us hope and healing. In the story, God instructs the Israelites to raise their eyes and look up at the bronze snake, and not just to look, but to look with intention. And it is through that simple act of looking that they are healed, and given new hope. It’s in our very worst moments, whether, it is through death, or physical pain, or loneliness, or a broken relationship that God gives us signs which point to our healing. So, when we are in a place of darkness and difficulty we should watch for the signs because they will appear before us.

In 2004, I lost my best friend Paul who died suddenly and unexpectedly by suicide, through an overdose of drugs. I was devastated by his death. One of the ways I tried to deal with my grief was to go for a run every morning. Early each day, when it was still dark I would run about two kilometres into St. George and back. The turning point on my route was a place called the Old State House, just off the town square. It’s an interesting building and the oldest structure in Bermuda built in 1620. There was an unusual leaf design over the front door that always drew my attention. Each morning at the mid-point of my run, I would stop right there at the entrance for a while and look up at that design. And I used to wonder to myself if anyone ever used the building, or whether it was just left empty? It was the following summer, when there was an open house event at the State House when I discovered that the building was the home to a lodge of masons. A fraternity of men who were committed to gather, to work, and support each other in brotherly love. I joined that community and like the snake on a pole, it was a healing experience. Not long after that, I was in hospital in Boston, it was the night before I had to go for a major operation to remove a brain tumour. I received an email from one of the brethren saying, “we had a full lodge last night and I just wanted to let you know that there were 60-70 of the brethren all standing together praying for you. It was one of the most powerful experiences of God’s presence I have ever known. And I realized then that this was all interconnected right back to the original pain of loss l had experienced, and to the sign I saw when I looked up. I had lost an important relationship in my life. But “looking up” led me to a place where I found many new relationships, which have been an important part of my continuing journey. In today’s Anthem, we hear the words

Bathe me in your light, O God of all. Creator, be to me a beacon, through shadows of life’s wounding, showing me the way to live in faith in your embrace.

As we continue this Lenten journey drawing ever closer to Easter, we see Jesus being lifted before us, the embrace of God like the bronze seraph on the pole in the desert. A sign of suffering but also a sign of love resurrection and hope. As one theologian puts it 1 “as we move through Lent, the truth of this passage is not complicated, though it’s hard to get our heads around it. The path to redemption is coated in suffering. The cure for a snake is a snake, the cure for human life is one man’s life, and the cure for death is death. So, wherever you are in life and whatever you are facing lift your eyes to the cross and trust in the light of God’s redeeming grace. And always remember to look up because that is where we discover God’s healing presence.

  1. Craig Kocher, Feasting on The Word Year B Vol 2 page, 102

Holy Anger!

John 2:13-22

Well, here I am again at the place where it all happened, when everything changed. I come here for a walk sometimes just to remember how things used to be, and to recall what life was like back then in the old days! I still find it difficult to believe that where I’m now standing was once a magnificent temple. It took 46 years for Herod to build it, and just a few weeks for the Romans to destroy it. It was truly a sight to behold in those days, as you approached Jerusalem from the (east) the temple gleamed and dazzled in the distance. This is one of the coins from that very day when my life was turned upside down. It’s a temple shekel, I’ve always kept it with me, as a souvenir, a remembrance of the day when he came here. Come on I’ll show you around, give you the grand tour, so to speak, but now without the grandeur. I should introduce myself, my name is, Yehuda (Juda) HakasPi (Juda of the silver, or of the money). The name HakasPi comes from the Hebrew word (כֶּסֶף ) cesaph, silver like this coin. Well, it was right here I remember where I used to sit every day, you can still see what’s left of the old gate post. My table was near the entrance to the court of the Gentiles. When I say “court” I mean that’s what this place used to be, before it was destroyed. Now it’s just a desolate wasteland, mostly rubble. The great temple stones were knocked down and carted off by the Romans, to help fortify the city walls. “Not one stone was left on another,” as they say. Yes, I remember those days so clearly, “HakasPi is my name, Cesaph’s my trade, ”I would call out (silver name, silver trade, you see?) To the pilgrims entering the temple precincts, I would say, “Believe me you can’t get a better rate for your Denarii anywhere in Jerusalem!” Well … that was a lie, I had a silver tongue, as well, and I used to make a good living exchanging Roman Denarii for temple shekels.

Now, you’re not from around these parts, are you? So, I’d better explain. You see pilgrims came to the temple from all over Israel to make a sacrifice to God (יהוה) And the sacrifice had to be a pure and unblemished animal, a sheep, or a bullock, or if you were poor, a pigeon would do. But imagine having to travel all the way from places like the Jordan, Capernaum, or Nazareth with an unblemished animal, even a pigeon. You had to feed it on the journey, so it probably wouldn’t be unblemished by the time you got it to Jerusalem! So, the temple helped the pilgrims by selling the animals right here in the court of the Gentiles. But you couldn’t buy the animals with Roman Denarii, which were the coins used all over Israel. You see the Denarii had Caesar’s head on one side, so, it was considered unclean. It wouldn’t be allowed inside the inner temple, only in at the entrance to the court of the Gentiles. So, what the money changers, used to do, was to take, the pilgrim’s dirty Denarii and exchange them for nice clean shiny temple shekels, and then charge a percentage for the service. After all, money changers had to live too. And I lived well, after 10 years at this I had a big house and my own olive grove just outside the city walls.

But that all came to an end the day He arrived in Jerusalem. It was the Passover, I remember when hordes of people from all over Israel entered the city. I used to make more profit on Passover than any other time of the year. You see, there were thousands of people buying animals, who needed to convert Denarii into shekels. On Passover, we all used to put our rates up, both the sellers of animals, and especially the money changers. If someone was buying a bullock for example, which was normally 8 shekels, well on Passover, the price went up to 10 shekels. And then on top of that, my regular exchange fee of 10% went up to 20%,…. Just during these holidays mind you! I would make 2 shekels on every 10 for a bullock. I gave the poorer pilgrims a bit of a break and only charged them 15 instead of 20%. After all, they were only buying a little pigeon! But it was quite a set-up, I can tell you! The money was rolling in, and the people coming to the temple were so emotional, and filled with religious fervour, they weren’t paying attention to practical matters like Denarii and shekels and the rate of exchange. We took care of that worry for them! I can tell you, it was a racket, and in more ways than one. It was noisy and chaotic. Imagine all the animals some of them terrified, baying and crying loudly as they were being led off to slaughter. There was the smell of burning flesh, blood and all the other things as well.

Well, it was noon, and I was just about to count up what had come in that morning, when He walked through the gate. He passed by my station, and then over towards the far side of the court (where the oxen and sheep were kept.) There were some other men with him, poorly dressed and looking around in wonder at the magnificent temple walls with their colourful tapestry hangings. But their leader looked angry, and I mean furious! Suddenly, he started shouting something, I couldn’t hear what he was saying from where I was standing. But I saw that he grabbed some cords of rope from one of the animal stalls. He twisted them together and started striking at the animal keepers. It was pandemonium! Soon there were sheep, oxen, all breaking out from their stalls and charging towards the entrance. I had to jump out the way, so I wasn’t trampled. Then he came quickly, striding, towards me! I didn’t know what to do. As he came up to my table, he took it and (הָפָך) flipped it, over on its end, there were shekels and Denarii spilling all over the ground. And he looked at me and said, “do not make my Father’s house into a marketplace!!” I-was-terrified! I didn’t know what to say, think or do! I’d never seen anyone look so infuriated before, and I can tell you, I’ve seen many angry people in my life. I saw as well that there were tears coursing down his cheeks. Then he stooped, and picked up one of the shekels from the ground (it was this one). He looked right at me and said, “follow the commandments of God (יהוה), ‘and then he said, “Yehuda HakasPi, your life is worth more than this!” Then he handed me this shekel. I was stunned, I just took the coin, left the rest of the money lying on the ground, and I walked home shaking. It was only then that it occurred to me that he had never met me before, yet he knew my name. Well, after that, I tried a few times to go back to work at the temple but, I just couldn’t do it anymore. I kept thinking of his words, “follow the commandments.” You see I had broken them. The commandments say, “You shall not steal,” but I had stolen, and I had taken from those were the most vulnerable in our community. The commandments say, “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below,” but I had made money my idol.

The stories of that day were shared by people for many years afterwards. They say he was a prophet, I believe he was. His followers later remembered that it was written in the scriptures, “Zeal for the Lord’s house will consume him.” Well, that’s true as well. I saw and felt his zeal, and his zeal did consume him because a few years later during another Passover, he was killed by the Romans outside the city walls.’ I heard that day, when he was confronted by the temple leaders demanding a sign for his authority, he said to them, “destroy this house and I will rebuild it in three days.” They thought he meant the temple, but he was really talking about himself. Well, as you can see, looking around you, the temple was destroyed, it happened years afterwards when it was consumed in the fire during the war with Rome. But they also say that three days after his death on the cross, the prophet rose from the tomb. I don’t know if that’s true, or whether it’s just a story. But this I do know, my life was destroyed just like this temple. I lost my business, I lost my house, I lost my olive grove. But I have found a new life of freedom through my faith, by living the commandments, and worshipping the Lord. And I’m still in the silver business! I have a little silver smith’s shop on Shimon Street. I specialize in making medallions of the old temple, for those who still go to pray at the one remaining temple wall. I sell them for a fair price, if you’re interested. These days I also try to share what little wealth I have with others. It’s what he told me to do, and what I try to do now, follow the commandments. (יהוה) God gave them to us, so we could be free.

Conclusion

In our culture, we find the idea of an angry God, and an angry Jesus disturbing. After all, the church’s portrayal of a judgmental God has inflicted a great deal of damage on people over the ages. But truth be told, anger is an emotion, and emotions in themselves are not wrong or sinful. What we do with them can sometimes be sinful. If we push anger down inside us, we wrong ourselves, and when we allow our anger to deliberately hurt others, that is also wrong. But the anger of God is a Holy Anger, anger grounded in grief at the injustice that many encounter in the world, an anguish that God feels deeply, and it’s an outrage filled with compassion. In the passage from John one of the verses refers to Psalm 69 “Zeal for your house consumes me, and the insults of those who insult you fall on me.” The same psalm also says, “I sink in deep  mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.” The anger of Jesus is not just anger in itself but is grounded in grief, compassion and tears for our world. God calls us to have that same compassionate holy anger. To feel the deep waters, and the flood  which sweeps over those, suffering the breaking of Gods commandments. God’s anger leads to salvation, as it did in for Yehuda HakasPi, as it can do for us, and all those we are called to serve in Christ’s name.

Amen

“Love-Locked!”

Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16

When Margaret and I were in the UK in August 2019, we visited Liverpool for a few days. Down by the Albert docks we noticed that the fences that bordered the docks were covered in padlocks that people had attached over the years. Most of them were engraved with the names of those who put them there. They’re called “love-locks.” Apparently, the love-lock tradition started in 1914 in a town called Vrnjačka Banja, in Serbia, during the First World War. Young men were being sent off to fight. And before they left for the front, lovers would write their names on a padlock and fasten it to the rail of one of the 15 bridges that crossed the river of the town. It was a sign of their commitment and relationship, and expressed the hope that they would one day be reunited again. Over time, the practice spread to other towns and cities around the world. Well, it happened to be our 38th wedding anniversary while we were in Liverpool. So to celebrate that event, I bought a special heart-shaped lock, and we had it engraved with the words David and Margaret 38 years with the date of our anniversary and a heart underneath. We fastened the lock to a fence, and then took the keys and threw them into the Mersey. I’m hoping we can go back there some day and find our lock by the Mersey again. I’m probably not the most romantic person in the world, but I have my moments!

I was thinking about the symbolism of the love-lock. It represents a covenant between two people. In marriage, it becomes enacted by the wedding ceremony, when a couple says those words “to have and to hold from this day forward.” Marriage is one example of a covenant. But when you think about it, much of our lives are affected by either covenants, agreements, or contracts. Some of them are legal, and some based on an expectation, or an obligation of one kind or another. Many of us have had a contract for example for a mortgage, or a car loan or an employment agreement, which are written agreements. And there are those unwritten obligations such as our commitment to take care for our families, our friends and members of our community, and to stand by them in their time of need. When you think about it, anything we feel as an obligation is either a contract or an agreement or a covenant of some kind. Though, covenants are different from contracts. A covenant is generally a better way of building relationships both in business and in life. In a contract, if a person does not fulfill his obligation, then it gives the other party a reason to back out as well. The same is not true in a covenant. There, you must hold up your promise even if others do not hold up their pledge. 1

The covenant referred in our story in Genesis 17, was first established years before, between God and Abram, (Abram was his name before he became “Abraham”.) In this episode of the story, Abram is ninety-nine years old and Sarai is ninety. This is the third time that God has appeared to Abram, and it is the third renewal of the covenant. Long- story-short God created this covenant almost twenty-five years before when Abram received the call to leave his home in Haran, which was in Mesopotamia. He was seventy-five years old at that time, about the age most people retire and settle down. So, Abram and Sarai left with their flocks and some of their community to seek the blessing of the land that God promised. Then God came to him a second time, when Abram was eighty-six, after eleven years wandering through various parts of that region. God renews the covenant again, and this time promises him an heir through his wife Sarai. Now it’s thirteen years later and God appears to Abram a third time to remind him again of the covenant. But now, to all appearances Abram and Sarai are at the end of their lives. There have been many adventures and hardships since God last promised Abram and Sarai a son. But, despite God’s promise of an heir, Sarai had not been able to bear any children. In those days a woman’s identify and value was based on her ability to provide children. Desperate to do this for Abram, years before, Sarai had taken matters into her hands. She arranged for her Egyptian servant girl Hagar to sleep with her husband, so at least he would have an heir. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, but you can imagine the problems this creates between Sarai, Hagar and Abram. Although her husband now has a son and an apparent heir, I imagine that Sarai continues to feel threatened and unworthy as a woman and as a wife.

In this third meeting with God, Abram falls on his face. I wonder what he was feeling at that moment when God appeared to him. Awe and excitement I expect? But regret as well, that God’s promises have not come to fruition in the way Abram expected they would? Despair because their difficult history with Hagar had placed a strain on the family relationships. Abram knows Sarai is not happy, but at their advanced age. I imagine they were resigned to the fact that they will never have children together. They have tried to be faithful to God since leaving Haram. They have made mistakes along the way, but now in their final years, it would have been difficult for them to see God’s promise beyond the boundary of their limited years.

It’s easy to let our experiences create boundaries separating us from God’s covenant, which is just over the horizon. We can look around our church today, and not unlike Abram and Sarai, we may find it difficult to see where the future promise for this community lies. After all, compared to years past, there doesn’t appear to be many of the next generation lining up behind us to carry our faith into the future. But isn’t it also true for us, as it was for Abram and Sarah? Don’t the events of our lives, and our experiences as a community create this horizon that limits our perspective and constrains how we view ourselves and the furture. Our faith can be limited by the boundary we think we see, rather the promise that God calls us into. We settle for what is rather than what is promised.

Several times in this passage the words בֵּינִ֣י   וּבֵינֶ֑ךָ (benee, oo-veneecha) are repeated. They are a core part of what covenant is all about. The words mean “between” as in, “between you and me.” God is saying in this passage from the heart, “Abram this covenant is between you and me, between me and you, and your community as well. You and I are “to have and to hold each other from this day forward.” And I will carry our covenant into the future, even beyond the horizon of your life here on earth, to countless descendants of yours who will come from you and Sarai. The relationship between God and Abraham and his people is everything to God. Our God is not some remote being like the other gods of that time, Gods who grant favors from a distance, only when they receive a sacrifice. For our God, it is only through a relationship that the promise is fulfilled. God’s promise is something that connects us into our future, past our horizon. God’s promise is an unbreakable bond, a love-lock between where we are now and the place where God calls us into. But we have to wait for the promise in hope and faith.

Philip Yancey tells a story about his first visit to Yellowstone National Park. he writes “Rings of Japanese and German tourists surrounded the geyser (Old Faithful), their video cameras trained like weapons on the famous hole in the ground. A large digital clock stood beside the spot, predicting twenty-four minutes until the next eruption.” Yancey wrote, “My wife and I passed the countdown in the dining room of Old Faithful Inn overlooking the geyser. When the digital clock reached one minute, we along with every other diner left our seats and rushed to the windows to see the big, wet event. I noticed immediately, as if on signal, a crew of busboys and waiters descended on the tables to refill water glasses and clear away dirty dishes. When the geyser went off, we tourists oohed and aahed and clicked our cameras; a few spontaneously applauded. But, glancing back over my shoulder, I saw that not a single waiter or busboy—not even those who had finished their chores—looked out of the huge windows. Old Faithful, grown entirely too familiar, had lost its power to impress them. Sometimes we may feel the same way about the gospel, it no longer impresses us. In the New Testament reading Peter regards only what lies inside the horizon he can see. But Jesus, says, “get behind me!” And he says this because he is love-locked to God, and the relationship he has with the Father pulls him towards the promise, towards resurrection.

In this lenten period I would challenge you to consider all the covenants you have in life, especially your covenant with God but also those you have through that covenant with others. Are there some relationships that need reaffirming. A couple of days ago, I realized I hadn’t been in contact with a good friend of friend for some time. So we reconnected when I reached out to her via a text to say, was just thinking about you, how are you doing? We have a covenant with God and with each other, and God is always true to her word, through Jesus we’re in relationship with the Father, to have and to hold, from this day forward. As the old puritan said: “Tarry at the promise, and God will meet you there. He always returns via his promises.”

  1. https://www.upcounsel.com/

“Red Pill or Blue Pill?”

Genesis 91-17

Have you ever seen the film “The Matrix?” It’s the story of a young man called Thomas Anderson. He lives a quiet life working as a computer programmer. Thomas has always had a vague notion through his whole life that the world is artificial. He hears other people referring to this sense, of things not being right, or not being real, which they describe as the matrix. So, Thomas starts trying to find out what this matrix is. “What is the Matrix?” he asks over and over again.” It is the voicing of this question which begins his journey to a realization of the truth. Anderson meets some people who know what the matrix is. They offer him a choice, either to remain in his everyday existence and forget about the matrix, or to really learn what it is, and how it has radically influenced the world he lives in. They offer Anderson one of two pills, a blue one, and a red one. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up the next morning having no memory about his curiosity concerning the matrix, and even his meeting with these people. But if he takes the red pill, he will awaken reality around him, though it may shock him and change his life forever.

So if you were in Thomas Anderson’s situation, which pill would you swallow, the blue, or the red one? It’s a serious question, and based on your answer you might hear two completely different sermons this morning. You could wake up tomorrow forgetting that I ever offered you a red or a blue pill. So…. Which pill, blue or red? I’ll assume you chose the red pill. But first we have to go back to the text in Genesis because I didn’t read all of it to you. The passage you heard this morning is from the revised common lectionary (RCL). We use the lectionary each week, and it gives us a set of readings from the Old Testament the psalms, the gospel and letters of the early church. The lectionary is designed to unify the church’s belief and focuses on readings which support the Gospel accounts, But it leaves out big chunks of the story, especially from the Old Testament, which are important for us to hear and understand. A lot of the stuff we should hear is effectively hidden because it’s not in the lectionary. Take this week’s passage for example, (the Genesis story I just read.) It finishes with the covenant, established between God and humanity after the great flood, represented by the rainbow. That’s the last image we are left with, a beautiful arc of colour, God’s multi-coloured bow of war pointed away from humanity, to remind God never to destroy the world no matter how corrupt it becomes.

But now we turn the page, so to speak and see what follows right after the survival of Noah’s family from the flood, and the establishment of a new covenant society. This is an incident not in the lectionary, but it’s an inseparable part of the story all the same. It’s a text you will rarely hear in church.

“The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled. Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, Cursed be Canaan (son of Ham;) lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”? He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.”

So, we had just finished reading a passage about God’s covenant, God’s promise to humankind, and this promise recognizes that ALL of humanity are created in the image of God, which means ALL are equal. But now we continue into this story which follows, where the descendants of one son, Ham are cursed by Noah, and told that they must serve as slaves the family of the other two sons. I don’t know if you are familiar with this text, but the three brothers are seen to represent three different races and populations. Shem is the ancestor of Semite or Middle Eastern people, such as the Jews and Arabs. Japheth is the ancestor of people from Greece and Europe, Ham is the ancestor of African people, the Egyptians and the Cushites. What I find startling about this second text, is that no sooner are the principles of God’s covenant declared, that all men are made in God’s image. And before the rainbow has even faded from the sky, those same covenant principles are trashed by Noah.

And what did Ham do that was wrong? Nothing, he walked into his father’s tent, and saw Noah naked, out of concern he alerted his brothers. But because of his, responsible action, Noah through his embarrassment or shame curses Ham’s descendants. There’s a puzzling verse in the text as well, where we are told, “when Noah wakes up and sees what his “youngest” son has done to him.” However, Ham wasn’t the youngest son. Ham was the middle child, the one between Shem and Japheth. The Hebrew word used for youngest is הַקָּטָֽן (hakatan) which also means the least important. So, Ham is already seen as less important than his brothers, he had the deck stacked against him from the very beginning.

One of the questions I asked when I looked this passage is where is God in this? Why is God silent, in the face of this injustice towards Ham and his descendants? We may say that the story is just a myth, and that may be the case. But there have been real consequences of this myth. It has been used as a narrative to justify systemic racism against people of colour for many hundreds of years. And it has seeped into the consciousness of our white-dominant society. It was only in June 2018 that the Southern Baptist Convention rejected the doctrine of the curse of Ham.

Having the deck stacked against you is a reality for people of colour through the ages. Though things have improved much through equal rights legislation, racism is a story conveniently tucked away from view, like the hidden narrative in our lectionary, but very real for people of colour. This week I was watching a part of the PBS series, The Black Church: “This is our story this is our song.” It was telling of how in the early days of slavery, plantation owners in the Caribbean saw it would be useful for their slaves to be exposed to the message of Christianity. So, they made the bible available, but not the whole bible, but what was called the slave bible. In the slave bible, most of the Old Testament is missing, and only about half of the New Testament is remains”. The reason? So, that the enslaved Africans in the Caribbean couldn’t read or be read anything that might incite them to rebel. It was a lectionary crafted especially to keep them in their place. Missionaries apparently believed that it was appropriate to teach people off colour excerpts from the bible which reinforced their enslaved status. We understand racism as something which is abhorrent, outdated, or carried out by bad and immoral people. We might think of the proud boys, for example a neo-fascist, male-only white nationalist group, but we don’t realize that racism is a lot like the matrix. In that’s a story we’re all a part of, and one we are often unaware of. It is a system, crafted within our society to hide the truth of inequality between the races. Through the matrix of racism, people of colour experience discrimination through a manipulated story more that we can imagine. Most of us are brought up to treat everyone as people with equal dignity because we’re all made in God’s image. In other words, with the thinking that “All Lives matter.” But the reality is very different, as experienced by people of colour, for example;

Black Canadians are far more likely than non-racialized Canadians and other visible minorities to be unemployed. Black Canadians make less annual income than non-racialized Canadians, both for new immigrants and third-generation Canadians. In 2018, Black Canadians were more likely than any other racial group in Canada to be the victims of a hate crime, according to data reported by police.

The curse of Ham is a story that many people of colour still experience today. Robin DiAngelo the author of the book “White Fragility” 1argues that racism is far more pervasive in our society, than we realize, it’s just that the majority of us don’t see it because of our white privilege. We don’t see how differently society treats us. We don’t realize that we never experience the many challenges faced by people of colour.

This month of February is Black History Month, and some have even wondered why there’s a Black history month, why not a white history month as well? It’s because as DiAngelo notes “white history is implied in the absence of its acknowledgment; white history is the norm for history. Thus, there is a need to qualify that we are speaking about black history because the contributions of people of Color, have not generally been recognized.”2

I still wrestle with the question I had about this text, where was God, why didn’t God step in and call out Noah’s injustice? Why was God silent when Ham and his family were being made to serve those who were their equals? Where was God during the days of slavery? Where was God during the many years of legislated discrimination when people of colour were being so disadvantaged? “Where was God?” I’m sure it’s a question that people of colour have struggled with far more than I have. But I think the real question is not why is God silent, but “why are we silent?” Why have we not acted? We can’t expect God to solve every problem in human society. Somewhere along the way we have to take responsibility for ourselves, and those in our community who are treated with less value than others. God has shown us the way, God reset all creation in the flood because the world was corrupt and unjust. God then established a covenant with humanity in the rainbow which calls us to respect all people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. God came to us came in Jesus, who when he was baptized in the Jordan stepped into the river of our shared humanity, a humanity crafted in the image of God. And it is through Jesus that we are taught,” There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: Galatians 3:28, a verse that was not included in the slave bible.

It’s up to us now to live that Truth. And living it always means choosing the red pill over the blue pill because the blue pill will wrap us up in our sense of comfort, our own safe assumptions. It protects us against seeing the systemic injustices in our society including the hidden matrix of racism. Whereas the red pill reveals whom we are individually and collectively. Today we begin the journey of Lent which mirrors Jesus forty days in the wilderness, a time when we are called to open ourselves to “metanoia” the Greek word for repentance. It’s an honest self-examination and a reality check, to make sure we are living the life we are called to live. In Lent, we can experience light in the darkness. We can tease apart truth from deception, and become aware of the world we live in with its systemic injustices, and we can experience freedom through the resurrection in and with Christ for ourselves and all of Gods people.

  1. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility
  2. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

Remember the Mountain

2 Kings 2:1-12

Mark 9:2-9

Have you ever had one of those moments when you see and experience something that makes you realize that you are part of something much bigger than yourself? I think thousands of people have that sense when they see an eclipse. Apparently, the feeling people have, being in a total eclipse is difficult to describe to others. I was looking at stories of these events on the internet. And I read one from David Makepeace, who describes an eclipse he saw in the 1990s. He wrote, “I flew to Mexico to see a girl. I didn’t go to see an eclipse, and then it came, and it completely floored me. I was unprepared for the vision I saw in the sky, and for how intense the feeling was, of suddenly being lifted in my consciousness off the globe, off this, two-dimensional life I was living. It opened up a three-dimensionality, that I was not prepared for”

I’ve never experienced an eclipse, in that way, but apparently the next one is in 2024. And the totality path will pass over New Brunswick, and part of it over P.E.I. so I’m adding that future event to my bucket list!

The word eclipse means an obscuring of the light, from one celestial body by the passage of another between it and the observer. So, the reading in Mark is the opposite of an eclipse, because the light of Jesus, in this story isn’t obscured, but revealed. The passage of the transfiguration is a turning point in Mark’s text. He places it, and the mountain where it happened right in the very centre of his Gospel. But the miracle which takes place at the summit comes out of an experience of impending darkness and loss for Jesus’ disciples. Six days before this event took place, Jesus had just completed a successful preaching and healing tour across the region. He had become a phenomenon, crowds were flocking to see him. And there comes a point in his time with his disciples when he asks them, ‘who do people say that I am?’ Peter, having experienced Jesus’ many healings, and the lives changed by his message of the kingdom declares, ‘You Are the Messiah, the Christ.’ But then Jesus overturns their whole understanding of what it means to be the Messiah. Because he tells them that he will suffer and die at the hands of those holding power in Jerusalem. After such a successful beginning to Jesus’ ministry, Peter and the disciples are crushed by these words. Their whole understanding of what it means to be the Messiah has been cut from under them. It’s at this point, in doubt and fear about the future, that Jesus along with, Peter, James and John climb to the top of Mount Tabor.

We all need some proof or assurance, or a sign of some kind, that we are not alone, that God is with us in our darkest moments. We need something that shows us that in the overall scheme of things everything is going to be OK. And this is especially so when we experience a great loss, or when we are anticipating loss as the disciples did when they climbed the mountain. If we don’t receive any sign of hope, we fall into despair. So, moments of transfiguration are important to us. Sometimes we experience them when we are grieving, people have reported having numinous or super-sensory sensations after the death of a loved one. This happens, in part because sorrow intensifies our sense of touch, sight and hearing. Maybe you’ve had such moments yourself, which you hold and treasure in your memory. I remember the morning after my mum died in 1990, I had spent the previous afternoon and evening with my Dad to be with him returning home early the next morning on my motorbike. As I rounded the corner of Mullet Bay close to where we lived, the sky had an unusually reddish color for that time of day. As I looked up I could see a solitary bird silhouetted against the sky flying towards the rising sun. It was one of those sacred moments I’ll never forget.

It’s often in the midst of our doubt, fear and sense of loss, that we receive assurance and proof that God is with us and that we are not alone. In the Old Testament Story of Elijah and Elisha, Elisha knows that his mentor and teacher is going to leave him, and he’s afraid. When that moment finally comes, and Elijah is taken up in the whirlwind, Elisha cries out in distress אָבִ֗‘ אָבִ֗,‘ Avi! Avi! my father, my father!’ He tries to hold on to Elijah, but to no avail, he is gone. Elisha tears his robes, but moments later when he looks down at his feet, there on the ground, is Elijah’s mantle, a symbol of prophetic authority passed on to him. It’s a sign of assurance and hope and a confirmation for Elisha that God is with him.

In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus takes his closest disciples to the top of the mountain. What happens there is impossible to describe with words, but we are told that Jesus goes through a transformation of some kind. His clothing turns a brilliant white and his disciples see Jesus conversing with Moses and Elijah, who represent the law and the prophets. And the disciple hears the voice of God saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, listen to him.’ Despite Peter’s earlier lack of insight into Jesus’ messianic role, his confession six days before, that Jesus is the Christ, is confirmed by what he now sees and hears. Peter, James and John, all future leaders in the church, will become witnesses of this event to others, but this is only after seeing the empty tomb. It’s only then they understand the meaning of what they experienced that it points to the resurrection, that it can only be understood in light of the cross. Mark connects these two events together in his Gospel by the images of the brilliant white clothing of Jesus on Mount Tabor with the white robe of the young man in the empty tomb.

Do we experience transfiguration today? Yes, I think we do often. One of the people on our United Church Minister’s Facebook group said, ‘To understand the light of the transfiguration, you just need to watch a person light up when the person they love enters the room. I believe we experience transfiguration in our faith community as well. I remember flipping the pastoral charge calendar to the page for November last year, and my emotions being caught by the picture. It was of a Sunday service at West Covehead. In fact, it was Reformation Sunday, as I recall. The photo was taken in winter and the furnace had broken that day. It was too cold to worship in the main sanctuary. So, we crowded into the little back room. I remember thinking at the time, how am I going to preach, I don’t even have a pulpit? And yet, there was something special about that Sunday. Somehow the fact that we had to come together in that little room, created an even greater sense of community that we may not have felt in quite the same way in the larger worship space. And there in the picture is Roma, who, of course, we lost last August. She has this beautiful smile on her face. To me, that day was a moment of transfiguration, a memory I keep with me. I think we have such experiences among us. As one writer puts its “Every time we gather for worship (sometimes distant from each other in person, or on a screen), we are the disciples on the mountain seeing the rabbi—the carpenter from Nazareth who became our teacher—bathed in light.” 1

These experiences are important to our faith, but we can’t stay in them, we carry them with us into the journey ahead. Peter wanted to build three huts, one each for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses, so they could stay on the mountain. But Jesus leads them back down into the valley again, back into a world filled with trouble and suffering. At the foot of the mountain, he will heal a boy suffering from violent seizures whom the other disciples had failed to help. And then the journey will continue as Jesus turns his face towards another mountain, to Zion, to Jerusalem, where he will experience suffering through his death, and glory in the Resurrection. Peter James and John will be witnesses to the others when the time is right, of what happened on Mount Tabor, but only when they have understood what it means in light of the cross. We are also invited to be witnesses of God’s grace which we come to know, sometimes even in our darkest moments. We’re being called today, to enter the season of Lent, to go down the mountain again. To turn towards Jerusalem and to love and to bring healing to others, sustained by the stories of when we experienced the transfigured Christ among us.

  1. From Sermons.com

“Praying In Desolate Places”

Mark 1:29-39

Do you ever feel nervous when you have to stand up in front of a group of people? I often have, I still do sometimes. But I’ve learned over the years the importance of taking some time to prepare myself beforehand. When I was working for the Civil Service, I chaired a committee of about 20-30 managers and administrators. Our department used this group to help us make decisions about policy and how we would divide up our annual budget to fund various computer projects. There was only so much money available, so sometimes we had to have some difficult discussions about how to share the limited resources. It was my role to lead this group of people so that we could arrive at sound decisions. Some managers had strong opinions and wouldn’t hesitate to voice them. I was the one standing up leading the meeting, so any frustrations they may have felt were directed towards me, even though they weren’t about me.

I often used to feel nervous before the meeting started. But I found a way to deal with my anxiety. If a meeting was coming up, an hour and a half before we gathered, I would leave my office and walk about a half a mile up a steep hill to a place called Fort Hamilton. It was built a couple of hundred years ago and equipped with long-range cannon to protect the island and nearby shipping lanes. The ruined fort was surrounded by a dark deep moat, inside of which there was a pathway which encircled the area. The moat was filled with trees and bushes which had grown up over the years. And I would go down into the moat take my time to walk slowly along the path through this jungle of vegetation at the bottom of the fort, and pause from time to time to think. In my mind I would walk through the meeting agenda for the afternoon, imagining the words that I might say, how the people in our panel might respond. I would try to anticipate arguments, and how I would react to them, I would reflect on the issues we were to decide upon. Then at the end of my walk around the fortress, I would offer up a prayer that all would go well, and that I would be able to handle myself calmly and professionally. Even on the days when the meetings were difficult, if I went for that walk around Fort Hamilton first, it always helped me. I could face my anxiety and the pressures that came with the particular role I had at the time. Walking through the jungle in that moat, prepared me for what sometimes felt like a jungle in the meeting room. That experience reminded me of the second part of this passage from Mark. Because that’s what Jesus does in this story, he finds a remote place to escape from the pressures he is facing. It’s a place where he can regain the strength to live into a new day, with its own unique set of challenges as he carries out his ministry proclaiming God’s kingdom.

In this story Jesus has just begun that ministry. He has called his disciples, and he starts preaching and healing in the region of Galilee, The week before last in our lectionary he chose Andrew, Simon, John and James to follow him. Last week , he healed a man possessed by demons in the synagogue at Capernaum, In this week’s passage, which actually happens on the same day, he heals Peter’s mother-in-Law. She recovers and serves a Sabbath meal to Jesus and his newfound family of disciples. But the population of Capernaum and the surrounding area hear about these miraculous events, and before you know it, there are people lining up at the door to Peter’s house seeking, even demanding Jesus’ help. And as Mark describes to us, “He healed many who had various diseases.” So, it sounds like Jesus’ first week proclaiming God’s Kingdom had gone really well.

The next morning, Mark tells us, Jesus gets up while it is still dark and finds a desert place. The Greek word is erēmos, חָרְבָּה or Harvah in Hebrew which means not just a desert, or a deserted place but a desolate place. Capernaum is nowhere near any desert area or desolate places. It was a pleasant seaside town on the shore of Galilee. So to find somewhere that was desolate, Jesus would have to walk quite a distance. What Mark might be suggesting here that the desolate place Jesus goes to, is not just a physical location, but also a place within himself.

Whenever you see movies about Jesus, he is almost always portrayed as someone who is on a completely different level than the rest of us. He is calm, peaceful, controlling every situation, divine-like, otherworldly even. But I question that view of Jesus. There has been a tendency in the church to shift our understanding of Jesus more towards his divine nature, which he shares with God, at the expense of his human nature which he shares with us. Mark’s story of Jesus’ life is the earliest, and probably in many ways the most accurate. And there are clues in his Gospel which point directly to Jesus’ human Identity. Luke and Matthew tend to give us a more exalted view of Jesus. For example, Luke typically writes “And the whole multitude sought to touch him,…and he healed them all.” But Mark says that Jesus healed many people, he doesn’t say he healed all people, as Luke and Matthew would. In other words, in Marks story there were some that came to Jesus and went away disappointed, maybe even frustrated. Possibly they didn’t have sufficient faith, or maybe Jesus, despite his healing powers, had some limits to what he could accomplish, like us.,

So, in this passage, Jesus takes some time to get away from the others and pray in a desolate place. And Mark shares that the disciples followed him. The more accurate translations say they hunted him. The word carries a sense of hostility, or at least frustration. “Everybody is looking for you,” they complain, which suggests that they believe that Jesus’ time could be better spent in Capernaum, healing people rather than being alone with God. I imagine Jesus went to this place because he felt under pressure. The pressure of expectations, from his disciples, from the crowds, maybe even from God. His preaching was drawing more and more people to him but also putting him at greater risk of getting into trouble by the authorities. It would be natural and human to feel anxiety. To feel that he needed to take time away from the crowds and his disciples, in order to reconnect with God, to find peace and a sense of direction. Jesus was no doubt a man under pressure.

So as we are talking about pressure, how was your week? 1 What pressures have you been under? What does next week look like for you? Are people crowding in on you to meet their needs? Did your boss give you a project which should have been completed yesterday? Do you have sick children, or an unhappy spouse looking to you to satisfy needs you’re not sure if you can meet? Or are you worried about your health, are you facing an operation or medical treatment. Are you struggling under a deadline to write something that makes sense and means something to people? Are you weary, wishing you could run away? Sometimes, the stresses in our lives seem overwhelming. And some of us may tend to, or try our best to “suck it up,” in other words to avoid burdening others, or let anyone else see that we are worried or hurting or afraid. We may have a tendency to push down our worries, to show the world that we are more in control of our lives that we really are. But we all know if we’re totally honest with ourselves, that the person we allow others and the world to see, is not really who we are inside. When you think about it, much of our speech and our polite conduct covers up what we are often thinking. We rarely dare to share our needs, wants, fear and anger with others. But do we dare to share them with God, or do we hold God at a distance as well?

I’ve been reading a book by Walter Brueggeman on praying with the psalms. 2The psalms were the prayer book used by Jesus and his community. He would have committed many of them to memory. So remember when you pray the psalms you are praying as Jesus did, using the words he used. Brueggeman writes that “most of the psalms can only be prayed by those who are living at the edge of their lives. Sensitive to the raw hurts, the primitive passions, and the naïve elation that is at the bottom of our life. For most of us, entry into the psalms requires a real change of pace. It asks us to move into the open, frightening, healing world of speech with the Holy One.” That’s what prayer is, “moving into the open, frightening, but healing world of speech with God.”

There is a rich tradition of argument and strong emotions in Judaism. Jews in the old testament are always arguing, provoking both God and each other. You can see it sometimes in the New Testament as well, as when the disciples pointedly say to Jesus, “Everybody is looking for you!!” They are telling him what they think he should do. I always like the character Tevye from Fiddler on the roof. When he says, “It may sound like I’m complaining God, but I’m not. After all, with your help, I’m starving to death. I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” It’s important to remember that Jesus was a Jew, he wouldn’t have hesitated to argue with God, and neither should we. God can take our frustrations, our anger and our fear, even if we don’t believe that God is to blame for them. Honesty, even argument with God is a sign of relationship.

Psalm 118 declares the LORD is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; And as Martin Luther in his famous hymn writes

A mighty fortress is our god, a bulwark never failing;

Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:

God is indeed a fortress where we can find our refuge, but to find it, we are the ones who must let the drawbridge down, so we can cross over the moat into God’s presence. The drawbridge is our very relationship with God, which we can discover in the example of Jesus’ close kinship with his Father.

So, I would ask you a couple of questions, Are you able share your fears, frustrations grief and anger with others, or do you keep them bottled up inside? The problem is, if you do try to cover them up they will come in other ways, sometimes sideways and they will affect your relationships with others. Are you able to share your fears, frustrations grief and anger with God? Does prayer form part of your faith life, whether it’s reading, journalling, a devotional in the morning or evening, or when you go for a walk. If you talk to yourself and maybe your dog as you walk you can always invite God into your conversation. Prayer is sharing our emotions with God whether it is feelings of anger, fear, praise or gratitude. Prayer isn’t easy but it’s guaranteed that “God meets us in that place, hears our pain, assures us and equips us to face each new day in faith.” As the prophet Isaiah tells us, “they that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

Amen

  1. Sharon W. Betters
  2. Walter Brueggeman Praying the Psalms, Second Edition: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit

What About Us?

Deut 18:5-20

Mark 1:21–28

This morning’s story of the man disturbing the peace of the synagogue in Capernaum reminds me of someone I knew. A well known, and to many a much beloved character from our hometown in St. George. His name was Album Noel Anderson, but everyone called him Alabama, or “Bama” for short. Alabama had an alcohol problem and when he got too rambunctious he would get locked up for the night for being drunk and disorderly in a jail cell at the St. George Police Station. He used to stand in the middle of the street and direct traffic blowing on his whistle and daring motorists to run him over. He was a good athlete, it was not unknown for him to run a half-marathon following a night out on the town, and he was always the first up in the morning, or possibly the last to retire. I know this because I used to go out for a run at 4:30 every morning into St. George. I would see only two people in the town at that hour, a police constable checking doors and windows were secure, and Alabama wending his way home. “Good morning Alabama” I would call out as I ran past him, m “hey Bye” he would reply. Bama would sometimes wander into a church during the middle of a Sunday service. And if they were doing an altar call, he would often make his way to the front and give his life (again) to the Lord.

I remember one year the Bermuda Synod, our Presbytery staged a production of a play about the missionary Rev. John Stephenson. He was an evangelist who brought Methodism into Bermuda in the late 1700s. Stevenson was locked up in St. George’s town jail, by the authorities because he was preaching to the slaves and because he was an Irishman, a rebel and a Methodist. Well, we had just reached the part in the play where Rev. Stephenson was languishing in jail praying to God for deliverance. When who should wander into the church hall, but Alabama. And as Stephenson’s hands were clasped together through the bars of his cell. Alabama shouted out “brother I know just how you feel!” The man locked ME up too just last week, But thank you Jesus I’m Free now! Alabama could sure act a bit crazy at times, but he was a real part of our community. And when he died a few years ago our town of St. George mourned his loss and celebrated his life. I think when Alabama came into our church hall that evening, he was seeking the consolation of community, a consolation which he found. Mark tells us a story about Jesus’s first healing and about a man who, unlike Alabama, was cut off from his community. A confrontation took place at a synagogue where Jesus was teaching in Capernaum. Margaret and I visited the town when we were Israel. This is the very site where these events happened. The remains of the original synagogue lie underneath the one in the picture which was built in the fourth or fifth century.

Mark tells us that the people were astounded and even apprehensive because of Jesus’ teaching? Why was that so? I think Jesus was breaking down barriers and boundaries erected by the religious authorities. Between those who were considered to be part of the community and those pushed outside. The scribes emphasized rigorous purity laws which were not in the Torah, but had become an expectation on people to live by. There was a wall between those who were clean and those who were unclean. The Torah always emphasized inclusion of the outsider, but scribes asserted rules which expected people to abide by, at least if they wished to be part of the community. For example, the ceremonial washing of hands before meals, which was not a part of the Torah, but insisted upon by the religious authorities. In a country where water could be scarce that placed many on the outside of that purity boundary.

So on this day in the middle of Jesus teaching in this synagogue he’s suddenly interrupted by a man possessed by an impure spirit, a demon. The man is unclean. You can hear the voice of the demon in the Hebrew version of Mark אֲהָהּ מָה־לָּנוּ (Aha Man Lanoo), Ahah!! what about us? he’s saying What about us?? The response of this possessed man to Jesus’ teaching is disruptive, loud and jarring.

He is a symptom of everyone that is going wrong in in the wider region of Palestine at that time. He was possessed by a demon, but Israel was also possessed, occupied by a foreign power, Rome. The Roman occupation would have taken its toll on individuals. When a community is under such extreme levels of stress, the likelihood of mental health issues occurring increases dramatically. People who live on the fringes of society are unable to cope any longer, sometimes acting out in ways they may not have done under normal circumstances. The people in Palestine were in desperate need of healing and restoration. They were in an environment where they were placed under ever-increasing political, economic and social stress. There is a social conflict going on between Rome and the people of Israel. And there is a cosmic conflict in Mark’s gospel, with Jesus on one side and Satan on the other.

“What about us,” is the cry of people that have been marginalized or exiled from their society. At Atlantic School of Thgeology, I took part in a workshop called the “blanket exercise” which was developed by the Kairos group. The purpose of the exercise was to teach others a deeper understanding of the history of the 1st Nations People. We spread blankets on the floor which were at first all joined. These represented “Turtle island. ” The name which the indigenous people gave to this land we live on. The students all moved around on the blankets. They represented the people who have lived here for thousands of years.  While we moved around, someone recited the history of their relationship with The European settlers. But as the history moved forward, some were made to leave the blankets. These were those who died before their time. People who had succumbed to disease or violence in various land and treaty wars. Soon only half the people remained on the blankets. And the blankets were no longer joined. They were now folded into smaller squares representing the reservations which the people were moved onto.  The most difficult moment for me was when we got to the history of the residential schools. Some people representing the children’s First Nation’s parents were gathered in a protective circles around them. But, the children in each circle were removed. When they returned, the circles which faced outwards, preventing the children from rejoining their communities, and their families. which meant they lost all contact with their culture. It’s probably the greatest tragedies of the residential school system. The 2011 census revealed for example that fewer than one in five indigenous people retained their mother tongue because the policies of the schools which permitted only English to be spoken.The blanket exercise was a powerful experience, particularly for me, who up to that point, coming from another country had not been familiar with it. I had heard of the stories of the First nations people before. But this made their experience of exile more tangible and more real for me. I think it was because, in a small way I had, through the blanket exercise been given some hint of what their experience might have been like.

The name of the town Capernaum where this miracle in Mark took place, means the village of consolation, meaning ‘village’ and nahum meaning consolation or comfort. And that’s what this man receives when Jesus heals him, consolation. We don’t know the details of his life after Jesus exorcises his demons, but we can fill in the blanks. He was welcomed back to his community. And maybe like Alabama he still acted differently to others, but guess is that after Jesus left his society included him into its fabric he was an indispensable part of the quilt of his community. I think that’s the real miracle of this story.

In our text from Deuteronomy God speaks to the people and says “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, כָּמֹ֔נִי like myself; him you shall heed. Jesus is that prophet because he is כָּמֹ֔נִי like God. His authority as a teacher was demonstrated because he includes those who have been excluded by their community, and his teaching and his healing ministry were one and the same. As he taught, so he brought healing to those who were troubled and vulnerable. Through Jesus “God confronts Chaos, breaks boundaries and invites the marginalized into community.”

An important test of whether something in politics religion or society at large is true or not true, and if it is authoritative or not, is the question of whether it includes others or excludes them. Do our words and ways in which we live create boundaries between people or do they dissolve them and bring healing?

As followers of Jesus, like Malala, we are called to be prophets. Prophets, in how we live and how we speak. In how we use the magic pencil given to us to create a community and a world which reflects God’s love which seeks justice and embraces all in relationship.

“Fish or Cut Bait?”

1 Samual 84-20

Mark, 1:14-20

United Methodist Minister Maxie Dunnan tells the story 1about the fisherman who had a fantastic reputation for his ability to catch fish. Every day he would go out in his boat and bring back an incredibly large number of fish, and his reputation spread far and wide. One day, a stranger came to where his boat was tied up and wanted to go fishing with him. The fisherman said, “Come back tomorrow morning at 4:30, and we’ll go. The stranger was back the next morning, and two men got into the boat. The stranger was puzzled at what he saw. All the fishermen carried was an old rusty, green tackle box and a dip net and some bait to scatter on the surface of the lake. There were no fishing poles, no casting rods no reels. None of the paraphernalia normally associated with fishing. They motored across the lake and got back into a little secluded cove. The fisherman opened his rusty tackle box, they cut up some bait threw it on the surface. Then he pulled out a red stick of dynamite. He took a match, very casually struck it—as the stranger’s eyes grew wider. He lit the fuse and tossed the stick over his shoulder. When the dynamite had exploded in the water, fish began rising to the surface. Very calmly, the fisherman began dipping into the water and putting the fish into the boat with his dip net. The stranger then reached into his pocket, pulled out a worn leather billfold; opened it to reveal a shiny metal badge—he was a Game Warden. ‘You’re arrested! It’s against the law to dynamite for fish!’ Again, very calmly, the fisherman reached down into the old rusty green tackle box, and pulled out a second stick of dynamite, struck a match, lit the fuse, and handed the stick of dynamite to the Game Warden. The Game Warden was so confused that he took it. The fuse was burning in his hand. The fisherman, with a gleam in his eye, and glee in his voice, said, ‘well, are you going to fish or cut bait?’

Are you familiar with that expression? It means, ‘Are you going to spend your time getting ready—or are you going to get on with the task at hand?’ Or it may mean ‘The time has come; we can’t delay any longer; we have to act now or there will be no chance for action.’ 2Fish or cut bait, describes the challenge of our primary calling—to be disciples. ‘Fish or cut bait’ expresses a kind of urgency, a call to decision and a tension between what we might be doing now and what God is inviting us to do. But it also signals great opportunity. Let’s look at our scripture lesson with that image as a backdrop.

Our story in this particular passage begins with an event that propels Jesus into ministry with some urgency. Jesus had just returned from his 40 days in the wilderness, to discover that John the Baptist had been arrested and thrown into prison. I believe up to this point, Jesus saw himself as being in partnership with John. I’m not even sure that he was entirely clear about who he was and what his mission was. But he knows that like John he must preach about the kingdom of God, and call his people to repent to prepare for that kingdom. And this is something he doesn’t see himself doing alone but in community with others. Everything Jesus did in his ministry he did in relationship with other people. And so when John is taken by the authorities there is a sense of urgency which compels Jesus to recruit followers and to continue Johns work. Jesus goes to the region of Galilee to start his ministry. He begins in Galilee probably because he is familiar with the area. After all, his hometown Nazareth was in lower Galilee.

The text tells us that Jesus saw Andrew and Simon casting their nets on the water, and he calls them to follow him. And according to the story, they leave their nets immediately, followed by James and John. This is the way the scene is normally portrayed in movies about Jesus. But I suspect it was more complicated than that, I think Jesus probably already knew many of the fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. He had built a kinship with them. I imagine that he’d probably been out fishing with them numerous times and that they had talked about the teachings in the Torah. I think they had may have even discussed the possibility of discipleship. Andrew, Simon, James and John may have already considered among themselves that they might follow Jesus. But now, because of John’s arrest, a critical decision, to fish or cut bait, in terms of the life which Jesus had invited them into was upon them. They had to make a choice.

It must have been a difficult decision. Despite their relationship with Jesus, the self-identity of these men, was based on who they were then. Their primary function in life was to be fishermen. But Jesus sees a bigger picture and a bigger destiny for these men who had become his companions. In their fishing nets, he sees a symbol of God’s kingdom. Like a net which gathers many species of fish, the net of God’s kingdom would gather into a holy community of hope and love men and women from all walks of life. And Jesus saw Andrew Simon James and John, not merely as they were then, fishers of fish, but who they were called to be, fishers of people. And there must have been a tension which the disciples felt between the present and the future. Between the familiar, comfortable, predictable and safe, and this new way life which Jesus had invited them to live into. A life which their hearts yearned for but were hesitant to enter. Up to that point, in terms of their higher calling as disciples, their earlier conversations with Jesus were a preparation for this moment. Before they had been cutting bait, now they were being asked to fish.

I can relate to that in my experience. My journey towards ministry was a long one. Hundreds of conversations were held over many years about entering the ministry. There was a lot of cutting bait and preparation and to be honest, hesitation and reluctance. But it was when Margaret said if you’re going into the ministry, then maybe you should retire from Government, that’s when that decision point came. Are you going to fish or cut bait?

I love exploring the meanings of words, their etymology, where words come from, their archaic roots. I am always fascinated when I discover that a single word can have two opposite meanings. Take the word ‘Net’ for example, such as those used by the disciples. It’s an old Saxon, Norse and Swedish word. A net can be a textile or fabric, tied or woven with a mesh for catching fish, birds or wild animals. A net can also be something that connects people together, like a network or the internet. In my mind, during the last two and a half years here at York Covehead, Margaret and I have been trying to work with you create nets that connect our churches and our people together. Nets which make the pastoral charge stronger and more resilient. For example, the pastoral charge calendar is like a mesh, of interconnected moments through photographs of our experiences and history. Our visitation team and the grief support group that Margaret has been leading is a safety net of care and concern to help those in our pastoral charge who are more vulnerable than others. The drumming group has connected the women of our churches together through rythmn and music. The reading group creates supportive relationships between people both within and beyond York Covehead.

But a net can also carry negative allusions as well, for example, figuratively, a net can mean a moral or mental snare or trap. A net can be something that drags or holds us back and stops us from moving into our future. The word for ‘net’ used in the Hebrew version of Mark is מִכְמְרׂתֵיהֶם (meech-merotay-hem). The root of the word is כמר (che-mer) which is the same root word used for crowd, swarm, singe or blacken. But it’s also the same root for a priest, 4 so it relates to ministry as well. A net can be confining and limiting, dragging a community backwards. In many ways the pandemic feels like a mesh of some kind, thrown over us, confining what we do, limiting our opportunities for worship, constricting our income and finances. But there were things caught in that mesh which I’m sure we want to carry forward. Like online worship, and our zoom bible study group which connects us together and even reaches people of other faiths in other provinces and other countries.

The new status of Andrew Simon, James and John is anchored by the reality that Jesus has fished for them and claimed them. They have left the things which confined them behind and are now part of a greater reality which is God’s kingdom. Jesus has fished for, and claimed us as well, and we should respond accordingly. These men who were to be Jesus’s disciples, and ourselves, as followers of Jesus have been invited to leave the nets which limit us behind. And to enter into a new life where yes, there is some danger and risk, but also hope and joy. Like Andrew Simon, James and John, we are also called to be disciples , and maybe this pandemic has been that urgent moment where we are brought to ask ourselves, “are we going to fish or cut bait?”

During this next week, we will hold our annual meetings. This is the time of the year when it’s important to evaluate where we are as a faith community to look at the past year and to anticipate what God calls us to do in 2021. As we have these meetings, I would invite us to ask ourselves these questions. What are the things we have caught in our nets that we want to keep, and what are those we can afford to throw away? In what areas of our life as a faith community are we fishing, and in what areas are we cutting bait? What nets should we hang onto and which ones are slowing us down, and can safely leave behind us.

I always like the quote from the Lord of the Rings where Bilbo says to his nephew Frodo “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” 3 Discipleship is a dangerous business as well because it holds risk and uncertainty. And I know that it’s difficult to move forward without a sense that there is a safety net underneath us. That’s what the people of Israel in our reading from Samuel were worried about. They thought having a king would be a safety net for them. But It didn’t. In focussing on that safety net they lost sight of their relationship with God. There is a safety net though it is God’s kingdom of which we are an integral part of. And we can never fall out of that greater reality of God’s loving embrace. That’s the important thing to hold on to as we move into 2021 with its uncertainties but also its hope and joy for the future.

  1. Maxie Dunnam (from Sermons.com) (Modified)
  2. Maxie Dunnam (from Sermons.com)
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
  4. Thank you Ilana Clyde!

Broken, But Not Lost

Mark 1:1–8

Techilat Besorat Yeshu Hamashiach תְּחִלַּת בְּשׂוֹרַת יֵשׁוּעַ הַמָּשִׁיחַ. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These are the first words written in Mark, which is the first gospel written. Every Gospel has a different beginning. 1Matthew begins with the birth of Jesus. Luke begins with the birth of John. The Gospel of John begins with the beginning of creation. But Mark begins with the words of the prophets. Moses, Malachi and especially Isaiah, who wrote in chapter 40 that rhythmic, verse “comfort O Comfort my people.” Mark starts with the story of John the Baptist, who calls the people to repentance. And we need repentance, because though we often tend to forget it, we are broken people. And it’s only when we turn to God in our brokenness, that we find ourselves and find healing. Bob Dylan sings about our brokenness in one of his songs from an album called O Mercy.

Broken lines, broken strings

Broken threads, broken springs

Broken idols, broken heads

People sleeping in broken beds

Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking

Everything is broken. 2

It’s only when we realize our brokenness, that we find the comfort and the peace that comes through repentance. The peace which the second candle of Advent represents.

In the first chapter of Mark, John the Baptist is in the wilderness preaching about repentance, and of the coming of Jesus the Messiah. And we are told, “There went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.” That sounds like a lot of people, doesn’t it? And the question I found myself asking when I studied this passage, was this. Why did so many people leave the relative comfort of Jerusalem, and the surrounding towns and villages, and trek all those miles out into the wilderness to find, and to listen to John? Well, I think part of the reason was John himself. He must have been an incredible preacher, with a charisma and grace that drew people to his message. And his charisma and persona didn’t get in the way of the message either, a message which came directly from God through John to the people. John was absolutely honest and authentic and transparent. His clothing of camel’s hair, and his girdle of animal skins was an outward expression of his inner holiness, and his clarity of purpose.

So people were drawn to hear John. But I also believe that those who travelled all that way into the wilderness, went because they were broken. In part, because of the oppression and the taxation imposed by the Romans. But I’m sure they were also broken in other ways as well. The fact is, extreme poverty and deprivation often create moral dilemmas for people. It’s harder to maintain a moral life when you’re poor, than when you can sustain yourself economically. When people have been destitute, they have at times, by necessity, turned to activities like prostitution or drug dealing or other unhealthy behaviors. or example, the fact that statistically, people of colour are more likely to end up in prison, is a direct consequence of their economic status.

So, these people who went to listen to John, even though they had a magnificent temple in Jerusalem and a profound and rich liturgy. A religious script of prayers and sacrifices and festivals like Rosh Hashanah. Yom Kippur. … Sukkot . … and Hanukkah. It did not bring them the deep peace they were seeking for in their faith. When I read of John preaching in the wilderness, I am reminded of John Wesley, who said, “The world is my parish.” In his day, people in their thousands left towns and villages in England and went out into the fields to hear John preach the gospel. They also were broken people, living on the margins of society, receiving little comfort or peace from their church rituals. They were suffering from poverty, alcoholism, despair, and a host of other ills. The script their society expected them to live by wasn’t working, it was broken.

Walter Brueggemann 3 the great Old Testament biblical scholar says that everybody has a script. We all have a script that we live by. Think of a script from which an actor reads. Each of us, says Brueggemann, has a script in his or her brain, and we live our lives both consciously and unconsciously guided by it. This script is the product of a lifetime of influences. Part of it comes from the rituals in which our families engage. For some of us this may be as simple as, “My dad or my mom always said.” Part of the script comes from our surrounding culture, especially television, the internet and advertising. The average American, we’re told, is bombarded by up to 3,000 ads PER DAY! These ads may be as banal as, “You only go around once in life,” or “Because I’m worth it!” or “Just do it.” With enough repetition, these messages become part of us. Central to our cultural script, says Brueggemann, is the assumption that happiness comes in a bottle or in a product, or in a service. According to this script, “There is a product, or a treatment, or a process to counteract every ache, pain, discomfort and trouble, so life can be lived without inconvenience.”

Here is the problem, says Brueggemann. This script has failed. It promised to make us safe and happy and fulfilled. Yet, the truth is, it has instead produced new depths of insecurity, and new waves of unhappiness. And I would suggest that even our religious faith, can become a product or a script or a habit. But the script we often live by, is broken. It may have helped us for a little while, but ultimately, it can’t save us or bring us peace. What the church is called to do, especially during this time of Advent is to help people to disengage from the script they’re trying to live by, and to re-engage with the Gospel.

This is what John is doing in this chapter in Mark, he’s getting people to disconnect from the story they have been living, by calling them to repentance. And in Mark, John is not the fierce “fire and brimstone” prophet we imagine, or see in the other Gospels. In Mark, which has the earliest and probably the most accurate portrayal of John, he invites people to unburden themselves from the script they’re trying to live by, and to find grace and peace through repentance. And repentance תְּשׁוּבָה teshuva, is both a question and an answer. And for John, God’s love for us, made known in the Messiah Jesus Christ is the question. And our teshuvah our turning our heart toward God is the answer and the response. And we don’t have to focus so much on looking for, or finding God, but in realizing that God has already found us right where we are. You see, it’s true that we’re broken, but we’re not lost. So, you don’t even have to find yourself, you’ve already been found. It’s a case of seeing ourselves as God sees us.

I have to tell you, I was having such a struggle with the sermon this week. It felt like I was banging my head against a wall. I was supposed to be preaching about peace. But in trying to find the answer to the riddle of this text, and its message about repentance, I felt no peace whatsoever. And then Margaret rescued me, as she often does and passed to me this quote which her friend Katherine gave to her the day before. And it led me to ditch the script I had been working on, and to look at things through fresh eyes. The quote said.

4Finding yourself isn’t really how it works. You aren’t a ten dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You also are not lost. Your true self is right there buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. (Your script.) Finding yourself is actually returning to yourself, it’s an unlearning, an excavation, a remembering of who you were before the world got its hands on you.

So, you see, repentance is a “returning.” In fact like advent, it’s a re-returning, not a one-off thing. The gospel invites us re-discover who we are in the eyes of God. When we see ourselves as God sees us, loved in Christ Jesus. And when we realize again that God has found us, then we receive the peace and the comfort that Mark and Isaiah both write about. And when we know we are found by God, then we are then called to pass on that peace to others. In other words, we are called to do what John did in the wilderness, to be the forerunners of the Christ who is coming soon, very soon.

Soon and very soon we are going to see the King.

Soon and very soon we are going to see the King.

Soon and very soon we are going to see the King.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, we’re going to see the King.

  1. Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 1 pp 45
  2. Bob Dylan, O Mercy
  3. From a Sermon by King Duncan on sermons.com
  4. Emily McDowell quote

Dare to Hope!

Isaiah 64

Mark 13:24-37

The American poet 1Emily Dickinson tells of one evening at dinnertime, when the fire bell started ringing madly in her hometown. All the people came running out looking for the fire. And there stood Emily Dickinson’s father, he had just seen a gorgeous sunset, and he didn’t want anyone to miss it, so he rang the fire bell to get everyone’s attention, before the beauty faded! Perhaps it is no accident that the three wise men were said to be astrologers. And as they waited with hope for the coming of the Christ Child they were awestruck when they looked into the heavens and saw the star in the East.

Emily Dickinson’s father is like the watchman from our text in Mark, who also sounds the alarm, to rouse his community at the coming of the Son of Man. But these texts from Mark and Isaiah aren’t what you would expect to read on the first Sunday of Advent. In Mark the heavens are torn apart. The sun is darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars are falling out of the sky, and the powers in the heavens are shaken. In the Hebrew translation of the New Testament, the word shaken is תְמוֹטָטוּ (teet-mot-tatoo) which describes the heavens as literally collapsing. In Isaiah, as well, we read of the heavens being torn apart, and mountains which are quaking. The word used here is נָזֹֽלּוּ (nazolu). The mountains are not just shaking, they are literally melting, disintegrating. So, both texts from Isaiah and Mark are dark apocalyptic passages. They’re not just depicting trouble, they are describing catastrophe. It reminds me of reading about a man named David Johnston, and what he saw on December 18, 1980, in Washington State. He made an urgent radio call to the USGS monitoring team in Vancouver. “Vancouver! Vancouver! 2 This is it!” David Johnston, was a watchman as well, looking on from his monitoring station, on the north flank of Mount St. Helens. What Johnston had witnessed was the largest landslide in recorded history. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake had caused a wave of earth and ice to rush down the side of Mount St. Helens at 150 mph. By the time it petered out, the landslide had entombed 24 square miles of forest. Then, Mount St. Helens exploded, sending a 100-story-high mixture of ash, magma, rocks and sand spreading a path of destruction 10 miles wide as it plowed down valleys and over ridges at speeds near 700 mph. There were 57 fatalities that day—including David Johnston. So, when it comes to trouble, that’s the scale that both Mark and Isaiah are referring to, catastrophic trouble. Mountains not just shaking, but disintegrating. In Isaiah, the land, like the aftermath of a volcano has become desolate. The temple in Jerusalem is burning, and the people have been cast off like a filthy rag.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has just finished telling the disciples that the magnificent temple at which they looked on with such admiration and amazement, will be destroyed and burned to the ground, not one stone will stand upon another. He is warning the disciples that devastation is on its way in the coming years, and in the coming days. He urges them to wait and to listen for the cock crow at dawn, which will announce such times. In the following week, in the next chapter of Mark, Peter will hear that cock crow, and deny his Lord three times, and he will be devastated, because of his failure as a disciple.

So, season greetings, and welcome to the beginning of Advent! But, you see in both these texts, although we have this sense of catastrophe, they emphatically encourage us, even though we are in the midst of a crisis, to wait in HOPE for the coming of the Lord. Advent is the Latin word for comingwhich implies waiting.

Well, we’ve all learned a lot about waiting this year, haven’t we? Advent 2020 is very different from Advent 2019! When I preached on the first Sunday of Advent last year, I was emphasizing that we shouldn’t confuse the season of Christmas with the Season of Advent. That we shouldn’t get caught up in the commercialism of the holidays, and forget to wait for the Christ Child. Well, this year you might well ask, commercialization, commerce? What were you talking about? Because since that time, the economies around the world have (תְמוֹטָטוּ teet-mot-tatoo) collapsed. We’re in the middle of the worst crisis we have faced in over a hundred years. And we’re waiting in many ways. We’re waiting for a vaccine! Thank goodness there is one on the horizon, but there is uncertainty about when it may become available. We’re waiting for it to be safe to travel. I would love to get home for a vacation. It will be three years this Christmas since I’ve been there. We waited from March to September for the Church to open, so we could be with each other in a community again. There are many people who are waiting in hope and in fear to see if their loved one’s suffering from the virus in hospitals will recover. There are others stuck at home isolated, waiting to see what their COVID-19 test results will reveal. So, you may well be thinking, “don’t preach to me about waiting, because I know all about it!”

But you see there is a big difference between waiting in fear and despair, and waiting in hope. Yes, there are different kinds of waiting. Martin Copenhaver 3 notes. “A fisherman finds it burdensome to wait for spring to arrive because it is a passive waiting. Once he is fishing, however, he doesn’t find it a burden to wait for the trout to rise to his fly on the surface, because this is an active kind of waiting, full of expectation. At the pool, near his favorite trout stream he studies the water closely. And his waiting is filled with an active sense of anticipation, because he never knows when the trout may appear. This is the kind of waiting Jesus had in mind, an active waiting filled with anticipation and expectation. We fool ourselves if we think we’re merely waiting for Christmas to arrive. One thing we’re NOT doing during Advent, is waiting for a fixed date and time. Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th, we don’t know when he was born. And we don’t know when the messiah will return either. What the Season of Advent is trying to do, is to shift our consciousness, our perspective, at least for a while, so that we can foster a sense of anticipation and hope. We don’t know when that beautiful sunset is going to appear, but we need to have our bell ready to ring when it does. And it’s difficult to sustain that kind of hopeful anticipation all the way through the year, but we can practice it for the next few weeks! Jesus tells us to watch for the cock crow because we don’t know whether the Son of Man will come at midnight or at dawn. And the Hebrew word he uses for watch is שִׁקְדוּ (Shik-doo) which means to study while we wait. Like the fisherman who studies the surface of the water waiting for the trout to appear. And ironically, שִׁקְדוּ (Shik-doo) is almost the same word for the almond tree ַ שקד shaqad which is a symbol of Hope. So when we are in crisis, we’re called to study which leads to hope. And we reminded ourselves of that hope this morning when we lit the first Advent candle.

So yes, we’re still in a crisis, and there is still much to be fearful of, as we wait for things to improve. But when we reach the very bottom, the very end of our fear, when we feel completely helpless and overwhelmed, there is always hope waiting for us. It waits for us in the words of Jesus who said, ‘heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words will never pass away.’ So as we continue our journey through this season of Advent let us hang on to that word. שִׁקְדוּ (Shik-doo), and in the middle of crisis, let us study the times we’re in, but interpret them through the scriptures we will hear each week. This is a time which, on the one hand, is worrying, even frightening but it also holds promise and anticipation. Why? Because, the Son of Man, who calls us to wait with hope, waits for us like a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

  1. Sermon by King Duncan from Sermons.com
  2. 1. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/environment/natural-disasters/4219883.
  3. Feasting on the Word Year B Vol.1 Page 23

Paying it Forward

Matthew 25:14-30

Are you a risk taker? Do you know someone who is? There is a story of a young man 1 who enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division. He was assigned to their jump school. He eagerly asked his recruiter what he could expect at jump school. “Well,” the recruiter said, “it’s three weeks long.” “What else?” asked the young soldier. “The first week they separate the men from the boys,” the recruiter said. “The second week, they separate the men from the fools.” “And the third week?” the soldier asked. “The third week?” the recruiter said with a grin, “the fools jump.” I’ve never jumped from a plane before. And I probably won’t, but I went bungee jumping once. About 25 years ago the day after I was at a summer party at Margaret’s former place of employment. We were having a great time, wonderful food and drink, great conversation. Then one of Margaret’s workmates said, “Hey you know what we should do? Why don’t we all go bungee jumping tomorrow out at Dockyard?” (They used to have a bungee jumping experience which operated off a 200-foot crane.) I thought… “What a great idea!!” Sure, I said, count me in!!” Now Margaret will tell that it normally takes a while for me to make up my mind about anything. But in this instance, my decisiveness, and courage, was fortified by one or two extra glasses of wine, that I probably should not have had that night.

I will never forget the trip out to the dockyard on the boat the next day. The crane which seemed to grow taller and taller as we got closer and closer, or the multiple signatures I had to provide to excuse the bungee jumping company from any liability if I broke my neck. Or the palpable fear I felt in the pit of my stomach as I stood near the jumping off point with nothing between me and the water 200 feet below. And then falling forward into space. It was some experience I can tell you! And it will not be repeated! But there was actually a reason why I did it. You see I was coming up for my fortieth birthday that year and, and I think I wanted to make a statement at what was possibly not far from the halfway point in my life. I wanted to say to myself and the world that I will embrace the next half of my life with all that is in me, without fear or hesitation.

This story from Matthew is about taking risks, but, we tend, more often than not, to interpret this parable pretty much in the same way that I did with the children this morning. That it speaks to the stewardship of our talents, and that we should offer them up to God and for others. But this story is more than being about the stewardship of our “gifts.” Though in fact, our word “talent” comes from this particular story, from the Greek word used in the text, which is tä’-län-ton. But a telanton is not a skill or a talent in the way we understand it, it’s a measure of weight. It can refer, for example, to money weighed, based on the talent standard unit. It was the benchmark for weighing stuff in the time of Jesus.

We struggled with this text during our bible study on Wednesday. Key questions that came up were, why is the master so judgmental? How can this person be a representation of God or Jesus? Why is the third servant’s punishment so excessive? What did he do that was so terrible wrong? Let’s look at details. A man goes on a journey and distributes his goods before he leaves. He gives five talents to one servant, two to another, and one talent to a third servant. He’s entrusting various numbers of his goods to them. This is based on his insight of what each servant can accomplish. He’s conducting a financial risk assessment. He’s thinking, “Hmm, “I want each of my servants to receive a portion of my goods in trust, and I hope they will use these resources and multiply them. But they are not equally capable, especially servant number 3, so I will give him, only one talent.” The master’s thinking proves to be correct. Because when he comes back, it’s clear that he’s minimized his losses. Just think of the impact on his return, if he’d given 5 talents to the third servant. Because no doubt he would have buried them as well.

But why was that such a problem? Wasn’t he, just being thoughtful and prudent? After all, this wasn’t his money! If someone gave you a hundred dollars in trust, and said they would come back and ask for an accounting. Wouldn’t you be tempted to hang on to it, to keep it safe, so you could return the full amount, rather than risking its loss through bad investments? But when the master returns in this story, and the servant says here is your talent O Lord, I have looked after it, everything is there, and I now return the full amount to you. But the servant gets a severe punishment for his prudence. He loses his one talent and, moreover, he is thrown into outer darkness.

What is the difference between the third servant and the other two? I would say it comes down to one word “fear.” He hid his single talent because he was afraid. The other servants are not afraid. For example, we are told, the first servant on receiving his five talents doesn’t hesitate. He leaves immediately and he invests it. But fear rules the third servant. He buries his talent in a place where he can forget about it in the ensuing years. But by so doing, he buries himself! I was interested in that word “afraid.” In Hebrew, the word is “va-ee-ra” וָאִירָא and it’s the same word used by Adam in the Garden of Eden “I was “va-ee-ra, afraid, so I hid.” Fear is the one thing that stops us from living the life of faith God calls us to live. And maybe we become afraid because we either disbelieve, or we forget the extravagance of God’s Grace extended to us.

What happens when we hide our treasure? I remember my home church in Bermuda had a substantial investment of at least a couple of hundred thousand dollars, due to the prudent management of our trustees over many years. Debates were going on whether we should keep it invested, or use it. Some felt it should be saved, for a rainy day, when we may not have the number of members we had at that time. But some of us felt that we could use the money to improve the building. We thought we could cash the investments and renovate and extend the building, so that we had a facility that could better serve the wider community. I put together a concept document describing what we could do with our church building. I named it the Beacon project. Our church was on a hill, which reminded me of the verse from Mat 5:14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.”

Many people liked what I’d written, and felt that it was a good vision of what we could be achieved. We even got an architect involved at one point. But then I got scared. If this was ever going to happen, somebody would have to drive the project. And we all know what happens when someone comes up with a good idea. I believed that the person with most of the responsibility would end up being me. And with my workload in Government I felt this would be too much to take on. But in truth, “va-ee-ra,” I was afraid of failing, and so I hesitated, and ultimately the beacon project never happened. I was like the servant who received five talents, went off to invest it, but stopped, turned around, came back and buried them. A couple of years later the big stock market crash of 2000 happened which resulted in a worldwide loss of 8 trillion dollars worth of wealth. The value of our church held stocks also melted away. Because we hesitated and sat on that money we lost an opportunity to be extravagant in our faith. I still have regrets about that, but I learned from it. Maybe that’s one reason why I decided to go bungee jumping!

We live in fear when we don’t realize how extravagant God’s love and grace is. We read this parable, and we think, well, that third servant only received one talent anyway. Just one talent! I mean, after all, that wouldn’t make a big hole in the ground when he buried it. But I never told you what a talent was. I did say it was a measure of weight, but I didn’t say what one talent weighed. A talent of gold in Israel weighed about 200 pounds (91 kg). So, the weight in one talent in coins, which would have been the denarii was a HUGE sum of money. The man with five talents received an amount of money equivalent a hundred years wages, and even the servant with one talent received twenty years worth of wages.

It’s helpful to understand at what point Jesus told this parable. It was in the last few days of his life, and he knew very soon the Roman authorities would arrest him and he would probably be executed. So, I don’t think he was merely saying to his disciples, “when I’m gone, use your gifts for God and others.” No, he was saying, “live your faith with the extravagance that God, through me has revealed to you, and live it boldly!”

The judgment part, still sounds pretty severe. But Jesus knew his disciples would face some big challenges in the following week. And he hoped they would be extravagant in how they responded. But, like the third servant, who hid his talent, they were afraid, hid themselves. Peter feels the judgment spoken of in this parable after he denies Jesus three times. But the judgment of the cock crow is one of grace, which leads him to repentance and reformation. I think God’s judgment is what we feel when we realize what is lost because have not been in our faith. When we bury our treasure, we bury ourselves, and that can be a dark place.

There is a wonderful movie on Amazon Prime that I can recommend watching. It’s a story of a young boy named Trevor, who begins 7th grade in Las Vegas, Nevada. His social studies, teacher Mr. Simonet, give the class an assignment to devise and put into action, a plan that will change the world for the better. Trevor comes up with an idea for a charitable program, based on the networking of good deeds. He calls his plan “Pay it Forward,” (also the name of the movie). The way it works is, the recipient of a favour does a favour for three others, rather than paying the favour back. However, it has to be a big favour that the recipient cannot complete themselves. Trevor’s first good deed is to let a homeless man named Jerry live in his garage. And Jerry pays the favour forward by doing car repairs for Trevor’s mother. But Trevor’s project seems to falter when Jerry relapses into drug addiction. But, unknown to Trevor, Jerry pays his second debt forward later, by talking to ,and rescuing, a woman, who is about to end her life by jumping off a bridge.

Although Trevor is convinced his Social Studies project has failed, Pay it. Forward is in fact taking off as the idea spreads from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. In LA, months later, a journalist Chris Chandler hears about “Pay-it-Forward.” Chris is like the gospel writer Matthew, he starts piecing together all the threads of this story. He tracks down and interviews as many people as he can find in the pay-it-forward phenomena. He arrives in Las Vegas and meets Trevor, who by this time has given up on the idea, convinced it never worked. Chris explains to Trevor how his social studies project has changed hundreds of lives. When he asks the surprized Trevor to explain why he started Pay it-forward, Trevor replied,

“I think some people are too scared or something…to think things can be any different. I guess it’s hard for some people who…are used to things the way they are…even if they’re bad…to change. I guess they kind of give up…and when they do…everybody loses.” 2We all receive at least one talent, it’s what we do with it that counts. Jesus doesn’t like buried treasure. He isn’t in the burial business. 3 He’s in the resurrection business. He didn’t take the side-street safe-way route through life. And he didn’t teach his disciples or us to do that either. He didn’t tell us to bury our faith for some distant time in the future. He taught us to bear witness to our faith. That’s the difference between the third servant, and the others. The third servant didn’t pay it forward. But, that’s ‘what we are called to do. So, if we find ourselves standing on a precipice somewhere, inclined to turn towards a quieter life. Let us see, know and remember the extravagance of God’s love and just…. JUMP!

  1. From a Sermon by King Duncan
  2. From the Pay-It-Forward Movie Script
  3. Leonard Sweet

More Oil

Matthew 25:1-13 

Why do we play the bugle on Remembrance Day? The “Last Post” originally signified that the final sentry position had been inspected, and the camp was secure for the evening. It signalled to those who were still out in the field who might be wounded or separated that the fighting was done, and they should follow the sound of the call to find safety, rest and sleep. We use it on November 11th to call our attention to those who fell in the Great War, the Second World War, and the many other battles and conflicts since. So, I suppose you could say that the Last Post is a looking back in memory. Its function is to get our attention, so we can remember those who sacrificed their lives for freedom. The parable of the five foolish, and the five wise virgins is also a call for our attention. But as we will discover, unlike the Last Post, The SHOUT that we hear in this passage looks forward into the future, and it anticipates the coming of the bridegroom. The story calls us not to rest, as the last post was intended to do, but to stay awake because we don’t know the day or the hour of Jesus’s return. In the story, all the virgins fall asleep, but at midnight (who has a wedding at midnight you might wonder) they are awakened by a SHOUT! five virgins with their full lamps are admitted to the wedding. But the others are sent off to get some lamp oil, and while they are away the doors are shut and they are left outside. Which seems unfair to me, surely weren’t they all invited? And didn’t both the wise and foolish virgins fall asleep? And tell me why it was that the wise virgins wouldn’t share some of their oil with the others? It seems selfish, to say the least. Personally, I sympathize with the foolish virgins because I would have been one of them. I can easily imagine myself turning up to the wedding having forgotten to top up my lamp with oil.(I tend to be forgetful sometimes.) So, this parable is one of those that makes us feel a little uncomfortable. It speaks to the negative consequences of not being prepared. It suggests that there are winners and there are losers! The Gospel of Matthew was written about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early church was expecting Jesus to come at any day on the clouds of glory. But years had gone by and nothing had happened. And the issue the church would have been wrestling with was: How do we live between the now and the not yet? And it was an important question, because when the church had this expectation of Jesus’s return, the people lived in hope, it was a time of creative tension! And that tension, in many ways defined who they were as a people of God. It meant that the church was more comfortable taking risks because the emphasis of their lives and their concern was on the coming of the Lord, not so much on the present but on the future. But when the hope of Jesus’s return began to fade, the perspective of the church shifted. The community began to think, we are in this for the long haul now. How do we live in expectation when we can see the years endlessly stretching out before us? And that’s when the church started to become more structured. It became an organization, with a polity, procedures, and with an established priesthood.

The sense of expectation conveyed in this parable is really important for us to have as people of God. It’s something we just cannot afford to lose. We are not who we are called to be without this hope for the future. But as we’re now living over two thousand years after Jesus, how do we live between the now and the not yet? I think the parable of the lamps is really speaking about two things. It is about the stewardship of the “present” and the stewardship of the “not yet.” And the stewardship of the present, focusses on who we understand ourselves to be today. How we best use and manage our resources as a faith community. How do we avoid wasting the precious oil that we already have? But the stewardship of the present doesn’t get us to the kingdom of heaven. After all, many pastoral charges in the United Church have closed even though they were excellent stewards of the present.

When you come here as a newcomer like Margaret and I did two years ago, you notice some things that are unique to this pastoral charge. It’s the traditions here. It’s the practices which have been repeated each year and which define our identity as a faith community. When I went to the Auction at Central last year and the year before. I could see how that event is not just a fund raiser, it builds community as well. You can see the oil going into the lamps at such an event. When we had the church picnic at West Covehead this year, despite the pandemic, we were putting the oil of fellowship in the lamps. The work that we put into the Christmas Cantata, and the hanging of the Greens at Central and the Christmas concert here at York, That music is like lamp oil connecting the community through rythmn, liturgy, and song. The tradition where you read the names of those who served today in York, and also the service held at the North Shore Community Center. It’s was so meaningful to be there and take part in it. It was like lamp oil reaching out across the community. These are all examples of the stewardship of the present. But there is also the stewardship of the “not yet” which requires a different mindset. We could look at it from a farming perspective. For example we can ask the question, do we put money into the irrigation systems we have now OR do we invest it in new seed varieties?” The fact is We need to look to the future as well as the present. That means living in celebration of who we are today, but having that that sense of expectation, of who we might be tomorrow, as we wait for the coming of the bridegroom. Living into that space between the now and the not yet is a place of creative tension.

I never understood the fuller meaning of this parable until the other night during our bible study. One of our participants, Tony who lives in Fredericton often brings to us the Jewish perspective behind the texts in the New Testament. And he explained to us how this parable refers to an ancient Jewish festival called the Yom Terua. The Feast of the Trumpets, which later became known as Rosh Hashanah, celebrated the enthronement of God, and the beginning of the Jewish New Year. The dates and times of Jewish feasts in the bible were set in the calendar, and were pretty predictable. Just like November 11th is for us as an example. It’s unlikely that we would ever forget to remember Remembrance Day, and to offer our gratitude to those who fell. But Yom Terua was not like that. It’s date and time shifted. Because of the uncertain phases of the moon as they related to the Jewish calendar, it was not easy to determine when Yom Terua would arrive. So two temple priests had to stand on the walls of Jerusalem as lookouts every night leading up to Yom Terua until they spotted the new moon. And at that moment they would sound a piercing BLAST on the Shofar. And because it was late at night, people would immediately need to go and get their lamps, making sure they were filled with oil and then go to the temple for prayer. If they couldn’t get to the temple in time, the doors would be shut, just as they are in this parable. I find the resonances between this ancient festival and this story from Matthew to be fascinating. But you can imagine how such a festival with its unpredictable timing, would created a sense of looking forward with expectation, hope and above all preparedness, never quite knowing when Yom Teruah will come. THAT”S what Jesus is talking about in this parable. Having that expectation in our faith, being ready for the future which can suddenly arrive when we least expect it. Like the pandemic for example, who could have predicted what would have happened to our community in 2020.

I think when we look at this parable we need to think again of what role in we see ourselves in. We tend to identify with five wise or foolish virgins. But shouldn’t we instead see ourselves as the temple priest? Standing on the walls above Jerusalem, looking up into the sky, and blowing the Shofar, and when we see the new moon to summon the people to the temple for worship. Where we keep and celebrate who we are in the present but have that capacity to look forward into the future? When Margaret and I visited the National Arboretum in Staffordshire, UK a couple of years ago, both those ideas of looking back, and looking forward are reflected in a magnificent sculpture called the Armed Services Memorial. One figure is a soldier of the presenting is inscribing the names of the fallen. Like the ones we read out at York today But the second figure is peering forward, like that priest on top of the wall of the temple. He is looking into the future through a gap in the wall. Where rays of the sun shine each year, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of November. That’s the sense that we get from this parable to look back but also to look forward to. To remember the past in our traditions, and especially this week to remember those who sacrificed their lives. But we must always look forward for two reasons. Firstly, as a church we cannot survive without a sense of hope and expectation. And secondly, in the bigger context of our society in fact, of all societies, wars will only cease when Jesus the bridegroom returns. So, we must always keep that expectation of the bridegroom returning alive in us. So for these reasons we must trim our lamps and look forward with hope and preparedness in all; that we do.

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