sermon

Water into Wine

            Before we dive into our readings for today, I want pause and appreciate the fact that the bible contains a story where water becomes wine. It’s pretty amazing really. Then you add to it the fact that Jesus is the one who turns the water into wine – mostly because his mother, like mothers of every time and place, says to. Then, perhaps my favourite part of the whole reading, not only does Jesus turn water into wine but it is the best wine of the night. This is a story of the abundance of grace. What could have been a disaster become isn’t. It is generous. It is overwhelming. It is more and better than we could ever have imagined and isn’t that what God’s grace is like. 

            It stands in stark contrast to the world we live in where fear and sacristy seem to be taking hold in every corner of the world. We have school aged children and youth with anxiety and mood disorders – 1 out of 12 are on medication of some form.  (https://www.cihi.ca/en/child-and-youth-mental-health-in-canada-infographic) Turn on the news and we hear about increasing rates of racism, sexism, and homophobia and not just in the United States here in Canada too. People are worried about where their next meal will come from or how they are going to cope from day to day or what bad news a phone call will bring or about their family or having enough money or how their relationship is going to survive or about a loved one who is sick. There seems to be a never-ending list a of reasons to be afraid.  

That’s why we need to lean on that abundance of grace that Jesus offers – when it seems like every possible door is closed and there is no way to move – that’s when we need grace. It seems to me, that all too often in my life, I forget what grace and mercy are like. Our reading today helps us to remember what God’s grace looks like and feels like. 

This reading from John is the first act of Jesus public minister. The wedding at Canna is the first of the “signs” or miracles in John’s gospel. Our reading for today follows Jesus’ baptism and the calling the disciples with the invitation “come and see.” Wedding in Jesus’ day were not like the weddings of today which are a day long affair. A wedding in Jesus’ day lasted a week and was a community celebration. Jesus was there with his whole family, disciples and the entire gathered community. 

Over the course of the celebrations, the hosts ran out of wine. Now this may not sound like a big problem to our modern ears. Today we’d probably think nothing of it. If the wine runs out, we pop up to the store and buy another bottle. Not a big deal. But it was major social faux pas in Jesus’ day. Wine was considered a sign of God’s abundance. If the wine runs out what does that say about God’s love? What does it say about this particular couples future? 

 Upon hearing the news about the wine, Jesus’ mother turns to him, with an expectant look in her eyes. I think it’s the look only a mother can give and says, “They have run out of wine.” Can’t you just hear Jesus saying back to her as he rolls his eyes, “Oh Mother, why are you worried about that. Besides which, this not my time, it is not the hour.”  Do you notice how Mary pays no attention to Jesus’ objection about it not being his hour? Son of God or not, she knows best. She is the one whose watched him learn and grow. She simply turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you to do.”  

            Jesus has no choice and he somewhat reluctantly tells the servants to fill six huge containers – each holding 20 to 30 gallons of water and to take them to the wine steward. The wine steward tastes the wine and is amazed. He calls the bridegroom and compliments him for saving the best wine for the last days of the celebration. 

Letts but the this amazing sign into context. In ways that make sense for us today. Today wine can be mass produced and shipped easily from one place to another. Not so in Jesus day. In today’s measurements it would be like Jesus gave them about 900 bottles of wine. But not just any wine – the good stuff. This surely never happened on the 3rdday of a week long party. That is just like God’s abundant grace. It is unexpected. It is good wine when you are expecting the cheap stuff and it is more wine than we can imagine! Dr. Karoline Lews writes, “The details of abundance cannot be overlooked in this text -- six water jars, each 20-30 gallons, filled to the brim, of the best wine. The amount in and of itself is extraordinary. But the best wine? At this point in a wedding celebration? Unheard of. Back in the day, weddings typically lasted a week, where the host would serve the better wine when the guests could actually taste what they were drinking, a nice Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Chardonnay, perhaps. Only after a few days of drinking and determined levels of inebriation would the guests be served the Franzia box Merlot or Gallo jug Chablis. Where have you experienced this kind of grace?” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1556

In the words of the psalmist, “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of delights. For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (Psalm 36: 7 – 9) 

I think it makes all the difference in the world when the starting place each of us is that abundance of unexpected grace. Grace doesn’t insulate us from life’s tragedies or cure us from disease or give us jobs or banish depression or give us money. Grace gives a starting place that reminds us that we are deeply loved. 

This week the Pulizer Prize winning poet Mary Oliver died at 83. Her poetry delves into the heart of faith. She writes, “You can have the other words – chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I’ll take it.” Like Mary Oliver, we may know what exactly what grace is, but every now and then we catch a glimpse of what it’s like – an abundance of the best wine when we least expect it. With grace as our starting place anything and everything becomes possible. Whether we know what it means or not grace is ours. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

School Of Love

“School of Love”

Laura Hunter and Lauren King

Scripture References:   

Deuteronomy 6:1-5

Mark 12:28-31

Intro to Scripture readings:

·     Indigenous elders, teachers have repeatedly said, “Our people were given our original instructions by Creator.  We are to protect the lands and the waters, and work for the good of all. We still remember our original instructions.  You settlers have forgotten yours.”

·     Nagged at me for years.  Came up again this summer at a gathering and so afterwards I decided to “take into prayer”, really sit with the question.

·     “As white, North American, Jesus followers, what are our original instructions, or “sacred instructions”, as one Indigenous writer calls them.  

·     Allowed a generous block of time for contemplating this question, but an answer came to me within minutes. A well known passage from our sacred stories.

·     So obvious I laughed out loud, I cried, then laughed some more.  The answer was hidden in plain sight.  Certainly some of you can guess it right now.  

·     Somehow, I felt reassured to be reminded that I was not the first one to miss what was in plain sight all along.  

·     Let’s hear what two of most “woke”, attuned teachers of their times had to say when pressed about “instructions”.  First, an account of what Moses said around 1400 years or so before Jesus was born. And then what Jesus himself answered when he was asked a little less than 2000 years ago, as told in the book of Mark.

 

Scriptures are read.

·     See what I mean! So obvious,  I probably have quoted these very passages as the central message of the entire Christian and Jewish traditions.  But that day I heard and felt it differently. 

·     LOVE    GOD   HEART        MIND   STRENGTH NEIGHBOUR           AS       SELF   

·     EVERY SINGLE WORD had new depth, new implications for me on a personal level, but also for our mission as church in the world.  We could explore each of those words alone for weeks at a time, for years, in fact.  

·     It illuminated for me a notion I had been carrying around for several months about the potential of the Church as a “School of Love”.  ( Introduced by Brian MacLaren in his book, A New Kind of Christianity)

·     Not talking romantic love.  But that gritty, tenacious, love that you DO, when it is not easy.   

o  The kind of love that gets you through the turmoil of a family member living with dementia, or another type mental health crisis.  

o  The kind of love that causes your heart to break at the stories of families torn apart as try to find safety and hope by seeking asylum in another country – strangers to whom you have no explicable connection, but yet you care. 

o   That counter-cultural love that pulls us together to help each other in a disaster, despite the dominant messages that would tell us to be suspicious and afraid of our neighbour. 

o  The kind of love that keeps a community working together on a huge project like renovating their church to include affordable housing, and new kinds of gathering spaces, overcoming differences and obstacles. 

·     Everything that Jesus was teaching was about increasing our capacity to love one another, love our neighbours.  

·     And thus, everything we do as church, should also be about increasing our capacity to love!

·     For Jesus, that played out as healing the sick, as reaching out to the lonely, the hated, the shunned, AND in a military occupied territory it sometimes looked like challenging the powers that were keeping the people down.  That’s what the curriculum included at Jesus’ School of Love. 

·     What should a School of Love look like here and now?  In this time of political chaos, of growing divides between rich and poor, of wrestling with the uncomfortable realities of racism and white privilege – what should OUR curriculum look like? What skills, and values, and practices do we need to equip ourselves?

·     What should it look like here in St. John’s, at Cochrane St. United Church?  

·     What does it look like for Youth and Young Adult ministries? – Lauren

 

Lauren

Church at its best allows young people to show up as their whole selves – questioning, messy, wrestling through the muck of it all. Church at its best allows all of us to show up fully, which helps us to feel brave in the world. We are able to take risks, knowing we have a safe home base to come back to. A kind of touchstone. The only way we can be our best as the church is by grounding ourselves in love – deep love that stands up to injustice, embraces the stranger into our midst, and doesn’t shy away from pain. 

Young people are hungry for this kind of place – a place that acknowledges the chaos of our world and hears the despair. Youth and young adults are navigating coming into themselves in a world with a looming climate crisis, witnessing the largest mass migration of refugees and asylum seekers in history, coming up against a struggling economy, and feeling the effects of hateful attitudes just across the boarder. In the face of extreme uncertainty, it’s tempting to want things to be clear so that we can maintain illusions of safety. Young people see right through the smugness of certainty. The youth I have the privilege of working with know that we all possess a deeper level of being, one that loves paradox. One that knows God is found in the places where opposing ideas are held side-by-side. A place deep in our bones that knows that when we sit in silence, we hear the roar of existence. That healing is found in the deepest places of pain. Knows that our hope as Christians is found in the death and resurrection. Young people are drawn to places that drop concrete answers in favour of asking better questions, and offer experiences to grasp hold of. It is experiences that tap us into deep love, bringing faith from our heads into our hearts. Some of the most powerful youth programs in our church are those that offer experiences in community with others, stepping beyond the walls of the church and beyond faith as something that we think. There’s a beauty to working side by side with new & old friends, then sitting down together at the end of the day to reflect and debrief, wrestling with big questions of injustice, dreaming up the world we want to live into. We are called to action in a world that longs for healing – the young people I work with are keenly aware of the heartbreak and love that is required to transform our world. 

A few years ago I travelled to an international Christian festival with a group from the United Church. One of the evenings, a number of us attended a service called Queer Communion. We were a rowdy cohort of United Church folks – bringing joy and laughter into the space, dancing to the songs and celebrating with the joy of belonging to a church that affirms and celebrates gender + sexual diversity. It didn’t take us long to recognize our energy was very different from the rest of the room -  it was a sombre mood, with a number of folks in tears, and we realised that what we took for granted was a deeply moving experience for others, as they came from traditions that didn’t affirm their identity, and for some even barred them from the communion table. We received communion at the rail that evening, and the last to go up was a woman carrying a young child in her arms. The child was clutching a bunny tight to her chest, it was a stuffed animal that you could tell was well-loved and cherished, the white fuzz fading to grey. The woman drank from the cup offered to her, and then raised it to her child’s lips. After drinking, the child confidently and without hesitation dunked her beloved bunny straight into the cup. This child knew that the table was open to all. 

As a church, let us draw community into our love story, a place where whole selves are celebrated and love grounds all. 

 

Laura, again:

·      What role can Justice and Mission play in this “School of Love”?

·      I have become convinced that these instructions to love God, our neighbours (humans and all beings), and further… love our enemies,  help the poor, feed the hungry, be with the prisoner – these instructions were not so much for the benefit of the neighbour, or the prisoner, but rather these actions are important because of the ways they change us. The ways they open us, soften our overly simple judgements of good and bad.  The ways they fuel us with courage to stand for what is right not just what will be popular. 

·       Over and over through the years I have had the experience, and other people have told me the same thing, of thinking we were going to help others in some way, but instead we were helped, and humbled in the process.

·      It also goes back to the very first part of our “original instructions” that we heard in the scripture reading.  Love God.  In order to love anything you must have an experience of it.  You must know it.  Surveys report that the most common times that people report experiencing a sense of a Divine presence, or a profound connection to something beyond themselves, whether or not they would call God, are in nature, in times of deep despair, AND in times of serving others or a meaningful cause.

·      So here’s the thing.  You don’t need to be a Christian or go to church ever, to care about the Earth or want to make a difference in people’s lives.  Millions of people with no connection to this spiritual tradition work for positive change in the world day in and day out, year after year, and always have.  So why do it? Why give attention to what this guy, Jesus, had to say?  Why come to church?

·      Because if we, together, as church are doing our job well, if we are practicing our tradition as Jesus taught, you should be able to confidently tell your friends,“I go to church because it makes me a better lover!”

·      Seriously, everything we do, from chairing a meeting, to protecting rights to clean drinking water, to holding the hand of a grieving friend, should be growing our skills, knowledge, and opportunities to practice increasing our capacity to love and to receive love.  Even every little thing we do here on a Sunday morning from sing together, tell a story to the children, hear one another’s stories of love and change –all of these things should be opening us to love -  and if that’s not the case we should be asking ourselves how to make sure it does. 

·      So let’s review:

o  What are our original instructions? (Scripture)

o  As a church what will we aspire to be? (school of love)

o  And why come to church? (better lovers!)May it be so. 

Misfit Magic

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany. Epiphany, it really is that same word, as in, “I heard myself say that and had an epiphany—I am becoming my father.” Epiphany—a realization, a revelation, a moment of insight, when what was previously muddy or confusing, becomes crystal clear. On this Epiphany Sunday and the beginning of another calendar year, you and I receive a lot of invitations to seek—seek to be better, to improve ourselves, to finally make that change we’ve been meaning to make in our lives.

Today is the first Sunday in January, the first Sunday of the New Year. And while those of us following the liturgical calendar said, “Happy New Year” six weeks ago, on the First Sunday of Advent, we still have plenty of reminders that the rest of the world operates on this other calendar. Vitamins and dental floss are on sale at Shopper’s Drug Mart. Co-workers, friends, and extended family will ask you about your New Year’s resolutions. And for the next few weeks, you’ll have to wait in line to get on the exercise bike at the gym. 

It should also not surprise us that the first Sunday of the New Year gives us a text about a few worn-out travelers. I wonder how wise they are. I wonder how wise we are when it comes to our mental and physical health this time of year. It seems that everyone travels over the holidays, everyone goes on some sort of journey. Samantha and I are no strangers to this – by the end of our Christmas “holiday” on Tuesday, Sam and I will have spent time in four cities spanning three provinces. Despite two full weeks of that holiday being spent here in Newfoundland it seems like there still was not enough time to be spent with friends and family.

What is it about this time of year? As we furiously prepare for Christmas, it finally comes to us, those of us who are already exhausted, we come back a few days later ready to tackle a fresh New Year and rather than being rested by our “Vacationing” we are more worn out than ever from our “time away,” battling as some might be coughs, sniffles, and sore throats. Perhaps next year for Christmas I’ll get what I really want – and I’m guessing what some of you – really want, not presents or more shopping or a Rock em’ Sock em’ New Year’s Eve, but just a few more hours of relaxing by the fire and some sleep.

But perhaps that’s just not the way that the Christmas season is supposed to be. I’d like to tell you that the Bible gives us the rest we need, but it doesn’t. The Christ-child is born in Bethlehem and before you can say seven swans a swimming and six geese a laying, we are on to the next scene in this cosmic drama, and we see precisely what Karl Barth meant when he says Christmas begins an uprising against the powers of the world. Matthew throws us into an eternal story of epic heroism, a politically charged religious battle of life and death. Brutal King Herod rightly sensing that another one, a little baby, has been born who will challenge his strong-fisted government, sends these odd wise men, probably astrologers of some kind, on a quest to find the Christ-child. I’m always amazed at how differently the Bible depicts Christmas than how we see it in our homes, or in the world around us.

I saw an image on Facebook this past week. It was a beautiful scene of a desert, in the lower right hand corner were the three wise men on camelback, their eyes fixed on the upper left hand corner of the picture where the Star of Bethlehem is shining brightly. But in the middle of the image, right between the wise men and the star for which they had traveled so far, is a 30 foot wall, a wall that is snaking its ways along a border. On each side of the picture is a flag. One American. One Mexican.

So much for the notion that religion and politics don’t mix. You turn on the news, check Facebook, or go on Twitter this week and all you hear about is the US government shut-down and the border wall. All the Canadian networks have panellists discussing what this could mean for our country if this continues to go on south of the border for much longer. So much for finding some quiet hours in the New Year. So much for catching up on rest in the New Year, for King Herod’s New Year’s resolution is to slaughter Mary’s infant boy whose tender new-born hands pose a threat to the rule of the government. 

And so it is that this epic tale of life and death, of good and evil, of light and dark come these minor characters, the magi, who are about to play a major role. Now we do not know much about these travellers from scripture. We often call them kings, though they were far from royalty. In fact the bible does not even say how many of them there were. We assume three because of the three gifts that they brought. We do not know their names. We do not know where they are from, all we know is “from the East” and nothing more. 

And yet, the life of the Christ-Child rests on the unknowing shoulders of these mystery men, these Magi, not religious people at all, but rather these weird, misfit, out of the mainstream astrologers, with little to no knowledge of scripture or religious conviction. They just happen to walk across history’s stage at the right moment and find their feet scripted into a journey of darkness – a journey illumined by the bright light of God’s grace shining in the Eastern sky, shining into their misfit lives.

They are often portrayed as bumbling fools of sorts. They get lost. They are depicted in Christmas pageants wearing funny hats and bathrobes. They just don’t fit in and one has to ask the question why in the world would God allow the life of God’s own son to rest on the journey of these mis-fit men? And yet the Bible tells story after story about how God uses the misfits of the world to accomplish God’s purposes in the world, even non-religious astrologers like these can help bring about God’s good work in the world. Ironically, it is these mis-fits who have gifts they bring to the Christ-child.

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit Frodo is the most unlikely candidate to carry the ring to its destruction, and yet he is given the task. “I wish I had never seen the Ring,” said Frodo. “Why did it come to me? Why was I chosen?” “Such questions cannot be answered,” said Gandalf. “You may be sure that it was not for any merit that others do not possess; not for power or wisdom, at any rate. But you have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength and wits as you have.” 

Like Frodo, all of us, in our own unique and misfit way have been chosen, we have been created to offer our gifts to God and God’s work in the world. Contrary to much mainstream thinking, when we try to follow Christ in our lives we do not begin to mirror the values around us, but rather we discover that our lives are increasingly at odds with the surrounding culture. Sometimes these moments of mis-fitness are easy to spot and sometimes they are not. 

I’m sure we all have felt that way as well, even though we try to live good lives, there may still be times when we feel like we do not belong, like somehow we don’t fit it. Whether we’re single or married (or somewhere in-between), whether we’re retired, working, or a student – every one of us, in some way or another can feel like a misfit at sometime, like we do not belong, like we do not feel at home in the world. Our lives can feel off-balance, maybe just be a few degrees, but enough to make us pause. And in that pause we might ask with Frodo, “Why me? I didn’t choose this quest, this script that I find myself in.” It is easy in that moment of pause for us to respond by saying, “Oh I want to fit in so badly, I’m just looking for normal.”

But the hope of the gospel is that God is not very interested in the normal and the mundane. God reveals time and time again that God can and will use anyone, even mis-fit magi, that God can and does love everyone, even you and I. There is no one that can escape that embrace. There is no one “too mis-fit” to be excluded by God.

This Epiphany story, is an improbable and ridiculous one. It is a story about wise magicians from a foreign land travelling to some far off country to bring a boy born in a back-water town gifts that are fit for a King. This story is absurd. But it only becomes more absurd from here – the poor will be blessed, the first will be last and the last will be first, and the son of God will be nailed to a cross. But this absurd story is an epic tale. A tale where we are all part of God’s work in the world.

In this New Year, in 2019, you and I – we can declutter our houses, eat better, and establish healthy habits this year. But we have an invitation from God and that is to travel with the misfit magi – it’s an invitation to seek something different, something besides self-improvement or goal achievement – it’s an invitation to be in relationship with God, revealed to us in the most ordinary and inconvenient moments of our lives, with forgotten, imperfect, misfit people in improbable and ridiculous circumstances. This invitation is one that says that “you are worthy” even when you feel that you are not. For in God’s story, you are valuable, not because of what you do or who you are or what you say or what circumstances exist in your live, but in God’s story you are valuable simply because you are a beloved child of God. You are worth knowing. You are worth loving. For that epiphany, thanks be to God. Amen.

Hope

Today the countdown to Christmas begins. It is busy season in so many ways for people. We come to the place ready for some quiet and renewal for our souls and for the first Sunday of Advent we have two challenging readings. At first glance it seems that our readings are have completely different messages. Our reading from Luke sounds ominous and scary.“‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:25 -28)

It doesn’t sound anything like Christmas. It doesn’t sound like hope and it is certainly different than our reading from Jeremiah which says, “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lordis our righteousness” (Jeremiah 33:15 – 16)The reading from Jeremiah, known as the weeping prophet, was written during the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah is being held hostage. What reason does he have to hope? And yet, he knows that they will be saved by that righteous branch that will rise up and execute justice.

It seems to me that we need both of these messages today. Things our world can sometimes seem like the passage from Luke – a bit scary.  Whether it is ever increase levels of carbon monoxide which is destroying habitat and changing our weather or the divisive rhetoric that is makes up our political landscape or the fact that hate crimes are on the rise. 

Dr. David Lose says that the root of all our troubles is fear. “Think about it. From Pharaoh in the first chapter of Exodus (v. 8-10) to today’s despots, fear is the means by which we turn those who are in some fashion different from us into an enemy, a people against whom we should war. Fear causes us to horde, assuming we will never have enough and seeing those around us as competitors for scarce resources. Fear drives wedges of distrust into our communities that fracture solidarity and compassion. Fear causes us to define ourselves and those around us not by what we share but by what makes us different. …Fear, in short, drives us inward, hardens our hearts, darkens our vision, and stunts our imagination.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/11/advent-1-c-courage/)

So how do we live? How do we set that fear aside and live in hope? The bible shows us the way – angels and prophets alike tell us, “Do not be afraid.”  Jesus invites to live in hope. After the people faint from tear and foreboding of what is coming, Jesus says, “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up, and raise your heads, because your redemption is downing.” (Luke 21:28) 

There are signs of people standing up and raising their heads. On October 26that 1:30pm the service started at Bethel Church in The Hague and hasn’t stopped – not for one minute. All to protect an Armenian family whose asylum claim was denied. “The Tamrazyan family, including three children Hayarpi, Warduhi and Seyran, fled Armenia and have been living in the Netherlands since April 2010 while their claim for political asylum was being decided. But their case was rejected, and they've now been told to leave the country.” https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/29/europe/netherlands-church-service-deportation-intl/index.htmlThe congregation offered sanctuary to the family of five in order to protect the well-being of the children. Dutch law says that as long as the worship service is going on the police cannot not disrupt the service. “Theo Hettema, chairman of the General Council of Protestant Ministers in the Netherlands, told CNN the service will continue "as long as it's necessary.""We want to love God and our neighbor. And we thought that this was a clear opportunity to put the love for our neighbor into reality," he said. https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/29/europe/netherlands-church-service-deportation-intl/index.html

            Volunteers and clergy step in to lead the continuous service around the clock. Groups, choirs, and clergy from all across the Netherlands come to take their turn leading the service. One of the children, Hayarpi Tamrazyan who is 21 writes this of her faith and her experience of living in sanctuary: 

In these difficult times
Of darkness and grief
I lift up my head
And feel Your love in my heart.

In these difficult times
Of desperation, of anger
I lift up my hands
And praise You in my heart

In these difficult times
While I seem to be paralysed
I feel Your peace in my soul
And open my eyes to see Your grace…

No power and no devil
No grief and fear
Can separate You from me

I surrender myself
Let Your will be done
Your work is unimaginable
Your ways are in the light
How happily I walk with You
The Light of the world
The world… doomed and dead
But risen and renewed with You

My words fail
No words, no sentences
Can describe Your love
How thankful am I
How jubilant am I
While I am so tired
Hallelujah    Amen

Hayarpi

https://gedichtenvanhayarpi.wordpress.com/2018/11/29/in-these-difficult-times/

 And here we find hope and the promise of a world made in God’s image. For now, we live in the in between times. Between that which was – the angels proclaiming the joyful birth of the one called “Emmanuel – God with us” and for that which will be – God’s coming reign of peace. In this in between time, we take courage from those stories of hope, stories of people who refuse to give into fear as we work for a better world. How shall we live? We live with God’s promise in one hand and hope in the other and that makes all the difference. Amen

The Ties that Bind

The course I did a couple of weeks ago was in Hamilton, Ontario. For me it was a bit like a homecoming. I grew up in Halifax but I was born in Hamilton. I spent almost all my summers as a child making the long drive from Halifax to Hamilton to visit my paternal grandparents. As I sat on the bus from Toronto to Hamilton, I was transported back in time. I felt like I was sitting in the back seat of the blue Dodge Aspen beside my brother watching for the Dundurn Castle, the Royal Botanical Gardens and the Hamilton Spectator building. These were the signs that we had almost arrived at my grandparents’ house. I still remember their address on St. Clare Avenue. We loved it there, even though the attic where we slept has stifling hot and my grandmother jumped every time the screen door slammed shut. There was always something special about these visits.

My first morning in Hamilton, I called a cab to take me to see my grandparents’ house. I took pictures and remembered my grandparents and those childhood summers and gave thanks. Somehow, we are bound together over time and those connections don’t fade away with the passage of time or death. Those who’ve gone before, like my grandparents and people I don’t even know, all leave a mark on us. We are bound in ways that I can’t explain to the previous generations and the generations that will follow us. This is the beauty of the great cloud of witnesses – those saints who’ve travelled the path of faith before us. Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:1 – 2)

Those connections, those ties that bind are woven through scripture. That is certainly true of our gospel reading. Jesus wasn’t telling the scribe anything he did not know or hadn’t heard before. Jesus was quoting the Shema from Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding your today in your heart.” (Deuteronomy 6:4 – 6) Jesus learned these words as an infant. He touched them every day on the way in and out of his house. … hear O Israel: The Lord is our God… Jesus had these words written on his heart in the same way we have the words of the Lord’s prayer or the 23rdPsalm written on ours. They were passed down to him from generations of the faithful just like Jesus commandment has been handed down to us.

Normally when scribes, Sadducees and Pharisees are introduced into a gospel story we think that they are out to set a trap for Jesus. That is what happened moments before today’s gospel. It says, “One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked, “Which commandment is first of all?” (Mark 12:28) Jesus tells him that the greatest commandment is to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength and that the second is just like it, love your neighbour as yourself. Then the scribe agrees with Jesus and then adds “this is much more important than all whole burn offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33) Then Mark writes, “When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34)

It’s not often in the gospels that we have Jesus commending a scribe. But here you have it. This scribe understands the heart of God’s message to us. Love God with all that we have and love our neighbour as ourselves. When we carry this message in our hearts and live this message each day we are doing what all the faithful who’ve gone before have done. It is binds us together as one people.

Today as we gather for gifts are bread and wine, we are connected with so many who like us gather at God’s table. A friend of mine shared this quote with me about the communion rail, "Some church structures have a communion rail inside that completes a circle with the graves of the saints awaiting resurrection on the outside of the building. I love the imagery that we commune with that great cloud of witnesses. This meal is both for the strengthening of those living and for the sure and certain hope of the blessed dead."

https://www.luthersem.edu/godpause/?devo_date=8/17/2018

It is when our souls nourished by gifts and bread and wine that we can do the challenging work of loving our neighbours as ourselves. Because, when we love our neighbours as ourselves the things that are often seen barriers come tumbling down. When we love our neighbour as ourselves race, social status, sexual orientation, wealth, poverty, position can no longer divide us. We are bound together as one people loved by God. The suffering of others becomes our suffering and we must help. Paul says it best in Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer salve or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

We are one. Bound together from one generation to the next following in that way of love. Together we can transform our world as we live into the promise of loving our neighbours as ourselves. By God’s grace all things are possible. Amen.

Mandy Penney and Miriam Bowlby talking Jesus, Healing and Disabilities

Miriam:

I am thankful that Mandy agreed to help out today. A few months ago the text set for the day was one the healing stories. I started wondering what it was like to hear those healing stories and have an illness or disability. Whether it is the promises in the old testament that on the day that God comes the blind will see and the lame will walk or Jesus healing the man born blind or healing Lazarus after being dead or the hemorrhaging woman – there are many stories. But I know that in our daily lived experience miracles don’t always happen. There are people who born with or develop illnesses that don’t go away. I asked Mandy to help me out and to share her thoughts. I sent her a list of miracles stories from the gospel of Mark and she picked the one we heard today. My job today is to ask questions and share the biblical context. Mandy is going to share her insights and impressions of the story from Mark and her lived experience.

Before we begin talking about Jesus, healing and disabilities, I thought it might be helpful to learn a little bit about Mandy.

MandyShares her background.

· Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) in Psychology and Sociology

· Bachelor of Social Work

· Training Support Facilitator/Inclusion Crew Coordinator with Inclusion NL, which is a program within Empower, the Disability Resource Centre. We work with businesses/employers on becoming more accessible, inclusive and comfortable working with persons with disabilities.

· Enjoys volunteering at long term care, events within Cochrane Centre, Raise Up Fundraising, learning American Sign Language class, working out at the gym, and rock climbing, among other things.

Miriam:Can you help us out with some context. Can you give us a definition of disability and maybe the difference between disability and barrier free?

Mandy

It might be best if we tell the difference between disability and accessibility. Disability focuses on healing the individual, whereas accessibility is about removing barriers in our communities that limit peoples’ participation. Accessibility is for everyone because as we age we will experience barriers within our daily lives. Additionally, if the world was fully accessible “disability” would not exist. For example, if each book had a line of large print, braille, and an audio CD in the back the world alternate format would not exist. Some groups we might assume as having disabilities do not see themselves as having a disability but as belonging to a culture. Those who use ASL see themselves as knowing another language. In fact, there is a movement to make ASL/LSQ Canada’s third official language.

Miriam:Give me some sense of how many people experience barriers?

· It is 14% of the population and 75,000 in NL

· Who experiences barrier in their daily living?

· Who wears:

o Glasses?

o Contacts?

o Hearing aids?

o Dentures?

o Orthidic footwear?

o Canes?

o Arthritis?

o Colour-blindness?

· Did you know that the onset of disability is age 40 – 45?

Some of you who are at that age or beyond might agree with me.

o As we age we develop conditions that create barriers to our life

§ When we are younger we might be able to run up three flights of stairs but we might always be able to do so.

· Who has ever used the accessibility features at Cochrane Street United Church?

o The lift

o Elevator

o Automatic buttons

· This highlights the accessibility movement, where we focus less on the individual and more on removing all barriers so that everyone can be included

· Which is why I picked this story because it focuses on fixing the barrier not the person.

Miriam:

This story happens very early in Jesus ministry. Jesus has just called the first disciples and has started teaching and healing. The word about the amazing ways that Jesus changes peoples’ lives is spreading from community to community. By the time chapter two starts there are so many people surrounding the door where Jesus is teaching that no one could get close to Jesus.

Four many brought a paralyzed man to Jesus but when they arrived they could not even get close to the door. So they removed the roof above Jesus was teaching, dug through the sod and lowered the paralyzed man so he was right in front of Jesus. When Jesus sees his faith, he says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mark 2:5) The scribes started muttering and complaining among themselves. “Why does this fellow speak in this way? Its blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)

Jesus doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. He says to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgive,’ or to says, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’ – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” (Mark 2:8 – 11) The man does just as Jesus says.

Mandy, can you share a little about what stands out for you in this story?

Mandy:

· They did not quit when they could not get their friend through the front door

· They worked to make it possible for him to access Jesus because they valued their friend

· Friends really must have cared about them so the individual must be valuable and have strengths

· Did not complain about having to do that, they did not blame the man for needing their help. Sometimes, we see accessibility as being too much work or too expensive. However, it is too expensive not too.

o If is right to become more accessible

o If members can continue in their faith as they age then the church community can continue

o The spending capital of individuals with disabilities and their families is 55.4 billion dollars annually

Miriam:What does it mean to hear in this story that sin and disability are considered the same thing?

Mandy:I do not understand the connection between disability and sinning because this has always been my lived experience. However, as we age, we often experience health concerns that limit our daily lives even if we believe we are good then how does that relate to sinning? I think that was used a way to cope with the fear of developing an illness. “Oh, that person must have sinned to become like that! That won’t happen to me because I am a good person!”

The thing about faith is that not everything has to be understood and our understanding is always changing. My faith may be strong one moment and weak the next.

Miriam

The connection between sin and disability was different in Jesus’ time. Two thousand year ago, any type of disability whether it is being born blind, leprosy, a hemorrhaging woman, or being paralyzed meant that either the person or someone in the family must have sinned. In order to get forgiveness and healing you had to go and present yourself to the priest at the temple. I’m guessing this would not have been easy. The temple probably wasn’t accessible.

In many ways Jesus defied expectations by offering healing on the spot. That’s what made the scribes so mad. Throughout the gospels, Jesus spends his time with are the sinners and tax collectors. These are all people who are on the margin of society. Jesus tells the scribes it does not make a difference whether he says “get up and walk” or “your sins are forgiven”. For Jesus what matters most is restoring people to their community. I think that the kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of is barrier free because everyone has a place in the kingdom. Healing can take on many forms. Maybe it is being able to walk again or sight being restored or maybe it is having a community or the resources you need to live a full life.

What does healing mean for you?

Mandy:

We all wish for healing, not just persons with disabilities. We ask “why me?” Why is this unfortunate event happening to me? I do not ever remember wishing to be healed, but I do remember wishing for a pony then looking all over my house the next morning, so I am curious as to when my pony is going to appear.

Healing to me is healing or fixing society’s barriers and not the person. Removing barriers so that everyone can participate in the community and church. Making churches accessible so we can stay connected as our life situations change.

Miriam: How is your lived experience helped you to grow person:

Disability as teacher

Problem-solving

Empathy

Resiliency

Makes you motivated because it takes more effort

Good at planning

Friendships

Miriam: Where do you find hope?

Mandy:Hope in actions! Seeing people work towards creating an accessible work, where people with disabilities can find work and live in safe, affordable and comfortable homes like the ones at Cochrane Centre!

When I graduated university for the second time and could not find an affordable home and I could not find a job because I could not find a home I became hopeless. This cycle was extremely frustrating. I do not like to sit and wait for things to work out, I like to take action. My hope was restored when I found an apartment and started coming to CSUC. Now when I experience frustrating situations I loo back on that situation and remember that things will work out.

For God All Things Are Possible

Even though it is a challenging reading, even Jesus is blunt and even though what Jesus asks seems impossible. I really like this reading from Marks gospel. It begins with someone looking to go deeper into his faith and looking to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give it to the poor and follow him. It’s a hard request – especially when we have so much in this part of the world. But even though it hard, there is something special about the it.  Woven through the challenging parts is good news for us. We hear the same story in Matthew with one important difference. It happens in verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him...” The starting place for Jesus’ challenge is love. That’s what makes the good news good. Jesus looks at him … looks at us and loves us. Everything after that is somehow manageable even it is hard, even if it seems impossible. 

            In Mark’s version of this story, Jesus is leaving – likely at this point a reference for Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and crucifixion. When a man comes up and kneels before Jesus and says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17) Jesus reminds him that only God is good and then says, “‘You know the commandments: You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.’” (Mark 10:19) I imagine the man in our reading creating a check list in his mind, going – do that, do that, do that. Then he tells Jesus, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” (Mark 10:20)

            It is then that we have the all important verse 21. “Jesus, looked at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) I’m guessing that Jesus knows before the words are out of his mouth, that the man is not going to be able to follow through. I’m guessing that Jesus knows his big ask is going to diminish this man’s desire to take the next step in his quest for faith. What Jesus asks is counter cultural and demanding. And it doesn’t even matter the time period – then or now it is hard.

            Then and now wealth and prosperity are viewed as blessings from God above. If you have a lot then somehow God is smiling down upon you. You don’t need to look very hard today for signs this understanding of God. I’m sure you’ve heard it. “If you work hard enough, if you pray hard enough, then God will grant you the gifts of success and wealth.” In the world of the spiritual but not religious you hear the same kind of messages, people say things like, “You just need to visualize success and it will come to you because you’ve focused your positive energy on success and wealth.” 

            It’s a nice theory. But we’ve all met people whose faith is deep and abiding whose lives aren’t filled with success and wealth. We’ve met people who’ve visualized a better life and it never happens. So there is a problem with seeing wealth and success as a sign of God’s blessing. God’s love is for everyone not just a select few.

            What Jesus does in this reading is turn the idea of wealth as blessing upside down. Instead of being a blessing, wealth is what is keeping you from taking the next step in faith. I’m not sure that Jesus’ problem was necessarily with young man’s wealth so much as with what happens to people who choose wealth as their master. When something like wealth becomes your master then the priority becomes accumulating more, instead of looking inward at faith and looking outward to the people who need help. Jesus’ teaching in the previous chapters have focused on storing treasure in heaven and reminding people that you cannot serve two masters.

            When the rich man walks away shocked and grieving, because he has many possessions, Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “How hard will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23) And the disciples can’t understand what Jesus is saying. Perhaps they are thinking if the wealthy – in their mind the blessed ones—can’t get into heaven then what chance do we have? Jesus, notices their confusion says, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:26) You can imagine what the disciples’ reaction is going to be. “What are you talking about Jesus?” Especailly when you remember that many of the disciples left everything behind to follow Jesus. So they ask “Then who can be saved?” 

            Jesus then gets to the heart of the story. Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” (Mark 10: 27) Jesus is pointing us to something bigger. It is God who makes the impossible possible. When Jesus looked at the rich man and loves him before he tells him what he must do, changes the story. Jesus doesn’t tell the rich man to go and sell everything because he is testing him or because he is trying to make a point about wealth or set an impossible task for him. Jesus loves him right then and there as he is. Jesus knows that grace will be offered and that even though he walks away grieving, God is still at work. And if this man is willing to keep asking deep questions of faith, who knows what will be possible in the future. 

            Jesus then offers one last teaching. He says, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive hundredfold now in this age houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecution and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:29 – 30) Sometimes I’ve heard the news of the first being last and the last being first as challenging or unfair. When I was listening to the Pulpit Fiction podcast this week,  I heard something I’d never heard or thought about before. Even if you are last in the kingdom of God, you are still in the kingdom of God. It opened my eyes to the amazing good news that is offered to each one of us. Jesus says to the disciples, whether you are first or last everyone has the gift of eternal life in God’s kingdom. It is not about who is getting left out because everyone has a place in God’s kingdom. 

            There are no exceptions to this. It doesn’t matter if we walk away grieving because we can’t seem to go the next step in our faith. It doesn’t matter that we can’t quit seem to give up everything to follow Jesus. The most important thing is that we strive to follow Jesus by caring for the world and helping others. As we travel the road of faith, we have the promise of grace which makes all the difference. The good news is for us all – the first, the last, for you and for me. God’s grace makes the impossible possible. And it is by God’s grace means we all find our place in God’s kingdom. What remains is to give thanks for this grace each day. Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Don't Worry... Consider the Lilies of the Field

            All week, from the moment I read our gospel reading for today, well really from the moment I read the title to our reading, “Do not Worry” I’ve had ear worm. I’ve been humming Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry. Be happy” either out loud in mind since Monday. The tune is catchy and makes you want to dance. “Here's a little song I wrote. You might want to sing it note for note. Don't worry, be happy. In every life we have some trouble. But when you worry you make it double. Don't worry, be happy.” 

            I’m not sure that Jesus message is as simple as don’t worry be happy. But there is no mistaking Jesus point. He says, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” I hear the words Jesus words, “Don’t worry” and I smile to myself because I know that even though Jesus told me not to. I’m going to worry. I’m a professional multi-generational worrier. Jesus saying, “Don’t worry” has had little impact on my ability to cease worrying. 

When it comes to worry, I know I’m not alone. I talk to people who worry about everything from the state of the world to their children to their parents to how they are going to make it through the day. This got me wondering about what Jesus was trying to teach us if at some point all of have spent time worrying. Maybe Jesus teaching is not so much about not worrying ever period. Maybe it is more about the power we give to those worries. This morning’s reading from Matthew follows some of Jesus most powerful and memorable teachings. Chapter 5 opens with the beatitudes… “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:3 -4) and closes with the imperative to love our enemies. Chapter 6 offers teaching on prayer, in particular the prayer that is written in our hearts – the Lord’s Prayer. 

            It is in this context that Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. Instead of worrying, Jesus invites us to “Consider the lilies of the field. How they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Matthew 6:28 – 29) “So do not worry,” says Jesus, “instead strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well. Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:33 – 34)

            I think, and it is only my best guess, that Jesus also lived in a time when people worried. Then it was about being free from oppressive Roman rule and likely for many who followed Jesus having enough food to eat. Then, like now, there are a lot of things competing for people’s attention and people’s hearts. Jesus is not trying to say food is not important, Jesus is inviting us to put things into perspective. We can’t spend every minute of the day worrying because if we do, there is no time for the work of the kingdom. There is no time to comfort the grieving or care for others. 

            “So consider the lilies who neither toil nor spin” says Jesus. Jesus isn’t talking about the regal white lilies we often see in flower shops. Jesus is talking about beautiful red flowers that are much like our dandelions. They are weeds. They grow in cracks in the concrete. They fill fields with their vibrant colour. They grow everywhere and like dandelions even in places they aren’t supposed to. As we consider these lilies we are reminded that God’s love is tenacious and grows everywhere. 

            Jesus invites us to consider those lilies so that we can open our eyes and see past the worry to the beauty that is around us in the world and give thanks. Each day is a gift. Each day is filled with unexpected moments of grace. And if we spend all our time worrying we miss what God is doing in the world. 

I’m not likely to give up worrying completely. It’s not really in my DNA. But I can lay those worries aside to take time to give thanks for the world and people around me. I can pause to give God thanks for the abundance of gifts that are ours. God’s gifts are given to us freely with no expectation of return. Diana Butler Bass in her book Gratefulwrites, “…far more often, Jesus speaks of a wildly untargeted God – one who lavishes drunken wedding guests with even more and finer wine, who throws seed around with abandon, who issues invitations to the unnamed poor to dine, who throws a party for a profligate son, and who multiplies fish and bread so that thousands might eat not once but twice. On a massive crowd relentlessly pursuing him, he showers blessings, “Blessed are the poor! Blessed are those who hunger! (Matt. 5:3, 6) Standing up on an ancient hill, Jesus yells out; “Presents for everyone!” These gifts are not targeted. They simply are.” (Grateful. Diana Butler Bass page 26 – 27)

Jesus tells us, “Do not worry… consider the lilies” because God’s gift of grace to us means we can lay aside those worries that consume our time for a moment to give thanks for the gifts given to us each day. Gifts like bread and wine to nourish our souls. Gifts like grace and mercy. Gifts like beauty and wonder. Gifts like community and friendship. 

Take a minute today and every day to consider the lilies – those parables of God’s grace that help us know that God’s love is a gift that is always with us. Amen. 

Esther's Courage

The Book of Esther remarkable in so many ways. First and foremost, it tells the story of a woman in a time when women’s voices were not considered important. It is one of the few standalone books of the bible. God is not mentioned once in the entire book and yet ever present as this tale unfolds. It is a tale of intrigue and social politics. In order to understand our readings for today, we need a little background to understand how Esther becomes the Queen Esther. The book of Esther takes place in Persia under the reign of King Ahasuerus.

            King Ahasuerus is in the mood for serious celebration, we don’t know why. He declares that there will be a seven day celebration for all the people in the palace. And the king knows how to throw a party. It says in the first chapter of Esther “Drinks were served in golden goblets, goblets of different kinds, and the royal wine was lavished in accordance with the bounty of the king. Drinking was by flagons, without restraint; for the king had given orders to all the officials of his palace to do as each one desired.” (Esther 1:7 – 8) Queen Vashti did the same for the women.

            Queen Vashti was very beautiful and the King on the seventh day of merrymaking decided he wanted to show her off his beautiful wife. And by show off, the King meant show up at the party wearing nothing but her crown. In anytime this was a terrible and crude request. The Queen may have hosted a celebration but she still had a sense of dignity and refused the Kings command. 

            This was a big problem for the King. This was a time when women were considered property and they had to do what is asked of them. You could not refuse a command even if it was crude. The king was both annoyed because she refused and not sure what to do next because he was so used to getting his own.  He consulted with his royal advisors who were also terrified that their wives would follow Queen Vashti’s lead and stop listening to them. Then the country would be in a real mess. They advised the king to depose Vashti and choose a new, more obedient Queen. 

            The king ordered that the most beautiful virgins in the country are paraded in front of the king as though it were a beauty pageant. One of those young women was Esther. Esther was a Jewish girl and an orphan. She was raised by her cousin Mordecai who adopted her and raised her as his own daughter. The Jewish people living in Persia at this time were part of the diaspora who were captured by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Esther quickly won the kings favour and he gave her special cosmetic treatments, her share of food and seven servants. Esther did not tell the King that she was Jewish because Mordecai advised her not too.

            After a period of testing, the King decided that he loved Esther best of all the virgins and made her Queen. During this time the King promoted Haman and gave him more responsibility. Haman did not like Mordecai because he refused to bow down to him. Mordecai followed the ten commandments. You shall not worship other gods. Mordecai was faithful to God alone. Haman decided he wanted all the Jews in the land killed. He persuaded the King that this was a good idea. When Mordecai heard about the devastation that was to befall his people he begged Esther to do something about it. 

            At first Esther refused. She knew that if she went to the king without being called she would die unless he raised his royal sceptre. Mordecai replied to Esther saying ‘Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.’ Then Esther said in reply to Mordecai, ‘Go, gather all the Jews to be found in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast as you do. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.’” (Esther 4:12 – 16)

            Esther was wise and courageous. After the fast she went to the king and he raised his sceptre. The king asked what she wanted. He would give her anything, even it was half of his kingdom. Esther invited the King and Haman to a banquet she was preparing. The King enjoyed the banquet and asked Esther what she would like. Again, Esther invited Haman and the King to another banquet. 

            On the second night the King offered to grant Esther any request even it if it half of his kingdom. Esther said, “‘If I have won your favour, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me—that is my petition—and the lives of my people—that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.’” (Esther 7:3 – 4) The king rose and demanded who would do such a thing and Esther pointed to Haman. 

            And with that Esther saved her life and the lives of all the people of Israel living in Persia. One act of courage changed the course of history. Courage takes on many forms. Esther was raised as a person of faith. She knew the stories of God’s deliverance and through her courage she helped her people. Esther’s faith and courage are celebrated every year at the feast of Purim. We can learn from Esther’s courage. We too can stand up for what is right. We can speak out when we see injustice. It is particularly important to stand up today as All of this takes courage. 

Think of the people who’ve lived with courage down through the ages. Scott and watched the movie Selma this week about Martin Luther King Jr. march from Selma to Montgomery. It took courage demonstrate in peace for the right to vote. It wasn’t just one person – it was thousands upon thousands who stood up for what was right. Think of the courage it for Christian Blassey Ford testifying about her own terrifying experience of sexual violence. Think of Phyllis (Jack) Webstat who shared her experience of residential schools so that we can all remember those who suffered at residential schools and those who died while in residential schools and intergenerational survivors of residential schools. 

Courage takes on so many forms. A while ago I read this story of courage that has its roots in a meal.

“During the Everest climbing season last May, just 1000 feet from the top of the world, 24-year-old Israeli law student Nadav Ben-Yehuda noticed a 64-year-old Turkish man, Aydin Irmak, lying in the snow with no gloves, no oxygen, no shelter as other climbers streamed past him in their quest for the summit. 

Climbers know instantly 26,000 feet is the infamous 'death zone' where the lack of oxygen is insufficient to sustain human life for any length of time. Exposure in that zone quickly leads to acute mountain sickness, hypothermia and, most often, death.

In the death zone of Everest, there is no time for inaction. In an instant, Nadav relinquished his summit bid and put all efforts into Aydin's rescue. Nine hours later, Nadav arrived at base camp having saved the life of Aydin. 

What makes this story remarkable is that Turkey and Israel have long been nations with relations icier than the slopes of Everest. Nadav's act not only saved a life, but also bridged a distance between inimical countries. When asked why he relinquished his dream of conquest and instead stopped to help, Nadav answered, "Because we had shared a meal together." (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-hickman/eating-with-the-enemy-est_b_1916776.html?utm_hp_ref=religion)

            Sometimes courage has its roots is a simple meal. Courage is something countless numbers of people have shown over the generations as they stand for what is right and just. As we live our lives of faith, let us to have the courage to stand up for what is right for our community, for the earth and for our world. God is with us as we proclaim our faith and seek to live justly in our community and world. Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Kingdom of God

            One of my favourite things about Mark’s gospel is the disciples. They never seem to understand what Jesus is doing or saying. Sometimes they half get it but then do the totally wrong thing in response. They make me feel so much better about the number of times I get things wrong – especially when it comes to following Jesus. If the disciples, the people Jesus chose to follow him, can mess up, fail to understand what Jesus is saying, well that gives me a lot of hope for my own faith journey.

            Our reading for today follows just after the transfiguration – that holy moment on the where God blesses Jesus say, “This is my son the beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Most of the disciples may not know what happened up on the top of the mountain, but they do know things are different with Jesus. The way he teaches about God is different than any other teacher and Jesus can heal people in amazing ways. 

            Our reading this morning picks up as they are returning home to the area around the Galilee. Jesus wants time to teach his disciples and that was impossible if there are crowds around. When they finally get to that quiet place, Jesus says for the second time to them, “The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (Mark 9:31) The very next line says it all. “But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” (Mark 9:32)

            I’ve been there – maybe you’ve been there. Too afraid to ask the question that was on your mind. There are a hundred reasons why we do this. Sometimes we are worried about how it will look to others in the room if we ask or sometimes we imagine that everyone else understands and we don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t. Sometimes we just assume that it is a stupid question. In this case it seems like a strange response because Jesus clearly wants them to understand what he is saying to them. It’s the second time he’s told them. The first time, we heard about last week when Peter gets mad at Jesus for saying he must suffer and die. Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) This week everyone is pretending to know what’s going on because they are too afraid to ask what this all means. They miss a great opportunity to understand more about Jesus ministry and mission. 

            See what I mean about the disciples. They don’t always get it right. And it doesn’t really get better for them as the reading goes on. After the teaching Jesus and the disciples head to Capernaum. When they finally get in the house, Jesus asks the disciples, “What were you arguing about on the way?” (Mark 9:33) No one answers him. Jesus asks and the room gets that nervous kind of quiet and not because they didn’t know the answer. They know but they also know that somehow Jesus knows and they’ve been caught. The Message translates it this ways, “The silence was deafening – they had been arguing with one another over who among them was greatest.” (Mark 9:34) Yup these are the disciples – the ones Jesus himself picked to follow and to carry on his message. 

            Somehow, I find their missteps as disciples comforting. Who among us hasn’t found themselves in the middle of a foolish argument that totally misses the point of what’s important. Fortunately for us Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes or do shake his head in embarrassment or do what one of my children when I say something foolish – hand to forehead shaking their heads in disbelief. Jesus sits down and then invites the twelve to sit and listen. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:36). Then Jesus takes a child, and holds that child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)

            This is what the kingdom of God is like. To our modern ears and even to the disciples ears what Jesus says makes no sense. We all want to come first, win the race, be the best, earn the most, gain the prize in short be the greatest. But Jesus is the one who turns the world upside down. The logic of the kingdom of God and the logic of our world are completely different things. It’s what Jesus told Peter last week, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but human things” (Mark 8:33) Every day, we are bombarded by reminders that the greatest in our world are those who win, those who make the most money, those who are famous. Jesus says no to all of that. Jesus reminds that greatness is found in putting others first. Jesus puts one of the most vulnerable in society in the midst, a child, and reminds them to welcome those who need our care and attention. 

It’s not very often we have someone say to us in order to be the greatest you must not only come last but serve others. If we could all follow the example of serving others, our world would be transformed. Dr. David Lose writes, “In the first-century world, as you know, children were of no account. Oh, of course, their parents loved them, but they had no rights, no influence, no standing. They were utterly dependent, utterly vulnerable, utterly powerless. So how could caring for a child count as greatness? It’s crazy. Or is it? Think about it for a minute: What if Jesus is right? I mean, what if we imagined that greatness wasn’t about power and wealth and fame and all the rest, but instead we measured greatness by how much we share with others, how much we take care of others, how much we love others, how much we serve others. What kind of world would we live in? Can you imagine if people were regularly trying to out-do each other in their deeds of kindness and service? If there were nationally broadcast competitions to see who was willing to be last so that others could go first? If there were reality TV shows that followed people around as they tried to help as many people as possible?” (https://www.davidlose.net/2018/09/pentecost-18-b-a-different-kind-of-greatness/)

            That, my friends, is the life Jesus invites us all to. It is not easy follow live into the promise of God’s kingdom. We won’t always get it right – just like the disciples. But like them we will keep trying. There is something so amazing about the logic of the Kingdom of God where signs of greatness are marked by helping others. Jesus tells how to make it happen. Put others first. Help others. Serve those who are suffering. Care for the earth. It is only when greatness equals caring for the most vulnerable in our midst will God’s kingdom be fully realized. Until that great day we must strive to care for those who need our help in particular those who are most vulnerable. Let us go into the world with our mind fixed on divine things so that together, we can follow in Jesus’ way of greatness. Amen 

Who Do You Say That I Am?

I love the two questions that Jesus asks of the disciples in our gospel reading. Who do people say that I am? And Who do you say that I am? These are two crucial questions for our life of faith. And Jesus asks them at such a crucial time in our gospel reading. Our reading falls at the midpoint of the Gospel of Mark just before the transfiguration. Up to this point, the focus of Jesus ministry is healing and teaching. The transfiguration, the holy moment on the mountain, which we usually hear about just before Lent, follows right after today’s reading. This is the moment that moves Jesus from his teaching and healing ministry to his journey to Jerusalem. The things that Jesus says and does in our reading for today are laying the foundation for what is to come.

At first it seems like an ordinary moment. Jesus and the disciples are on the way to Caesarea Philippi. While they are walking, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27) It is almost as though Jesus is trying to get the pulse on what is happening in the community. What are people saying about me? The disciples come up with a great list, “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. It is a pretty good list. But that is not enough. Jesus pushes a little further and says, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29) Peter without hesitation says, “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:30) Jesus tells them not to tell anyone. He goes on to tell them that the son of man must suffer and die. This is too much for Peter. The kind of messiah that Peter is expecting doesn’t suffer and die – the lead rebellions and change the political landscape. So Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Jesus. Jesus puts a stop to it saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mark 8:33)

There is so much that is packed into 6 verses questions of identity and expectations. I’ve been watching some superhero movies lately. They are great teachers when it comes to identity because there are always two – the everyday Peter Parkers and then their secret identity as the superhero. One person and yet two faces are presented to the world. Superheroes help us explore not only the nature of good and evil, but how to live in the world with integrity. We are not all superheroes but we all have multiple identities and roles. I’m a mother, a wife, a friend, a minister, a daughter. Each of those identities come with expectations and we must find a way to hold onto the values that make us who we are no matter what role we find ourselves in.

We can see it so clearly in Peter. Sometimes he gets it so right like he did when he proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah. The problem comes for Peter when his definition and expectations of what it means to be the Messiah get in the way of seeing who Jesus really is. Peter hears words like suffering and death and he thinks that Jesus has it all wrong. That is not what the Messiah does. He did not sign up for this when Jesus invited him to follow. It was a complete clash of expectations. Jesus knows who he is and exactly what he is here for and knows the road that he must travel. But Peter imagined a much different road. But Jesus knows who he is and invites Peter to keep following. The final teaching from Jesus in chapter 8 reminds the disciples that part of what they are called to do.

Too often what Jesus says next is used to keep people living in untenable situations. Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34) This is an invitation to follow Jesus and help make the kingdom of God a reality. And sometimes that means sacrifice. Peter had to sacrifice his own expectations of Messiah so that he could truly see Jesus and know who Jesus is.

It means answering those crucial questions for ourselves. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am. If we know who Jesus is, in our community and in our lives, it opens us up to new ways following in Jesus’ way. In the church we have decades of study and history to tell us who Jesus is. We have all sorts of names for him: good shepherd, lamb of God, the Christ, Emmanuel – God with us, Lord, Master, The Word, Son of God, Son of David, Light of the World, Rabbi, teacher, friend, brother, Saviour, bread of life …

The list of the names for Jesus can go on. But that is only the first step. We know what people and the church have been saying over the years, but Jesus asks us all, Who do you say that I am?

I’m going to invite you to take a minute and think deeply about that question. I can’t answer it for you. Maybe todays answer is different from last months or last years. In your bulletin, there is a slip of paper in the bulletin with the question, “Who do you say that I am?” take a minute to answer Jesus question. Maybe you will have so many ideas that they won’t ift on that piece of paper and maybe you won’t know what to write. That’s all okay. This is your time to ponder a little bit about Jesus. You can write it down, close your eyes and think about, talk to a neighbour.

Reflection time with music

Jesus, asks us “Who do you say that I am?” The answer for this question is not fixed. It can change over a lifetime of faith. Knowing who Jesus is for your shapes your faith and guides each of us as we live out our faith as individuals and in this gathered community. It helps us live into that promised kingdom of God. Who do you say that I Am? Amen

God's Infinit Love

Many churches have stained-glass windows just like we do. They are beautiful. Their beauty helps us to remember we are entering a holy place. Many of the windows in churches around the world tell us the gospel stories. Look around us this morning. On my left and you find the Christmas story, baby Jesus at the centre and Shepherds and Magi on either side. After church, come stand in the pulpit or by the rail and you can see the parable of the sower, Jesus healing someone, and the great teaching moment “Knock and the Door Shall be Opened.”  Over to my right, your left we have Jesus as young boy in the Temple, the story of the loaves and fishes and others. Stained glass windows are not only beautiful but they serve a functional purpose. When bibles were few and literacy rates were low, the windows told the stories of our faith. In many ways they acted as cue cards and visual reminds of key gospel messages. There are many different gospel stories told in stained glass windows, but if I were to guess, our gospel reading from this morning would not be one of them. It is challenging. 

On the surface we have two healing stories – the Syrophoenician woman and the man born deaf. Jesus has left his home turf around the sea of Galilee and is traveling in the region of Tyre – a predominately gentile area. We don’t really know why. Marks says that Jesus, entered a house and “did not want anyone to know he was there.” (Mark 7:24) Maybe Jesus was looking for some rest and solitude and hoped to find it in a place surrounded by strangers. Even here, in this place, word about Jesus was spreading. 

One of the women from the community heard about Jesus and came to him to plead her case. Jesus was barely through the door when she arrived. She was desperate. Her daughter was sick. Mark says she has an unclean spirit. She was terrified that her daughter would never recover and was willing to go to any length to ensure her wellbeing. Even taking a chance that the rumours about Jesus are true. Elizabeth Johnson writes, “The woman who approaches Jesus breaks through every traditional barrier that should prevent her from doing so. She is “a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin” (Mark 7:26). In other words, she is implicitly impure, one who lives outside of the land of Israel and outside of the law of Moses, a descendant of the ancient enemies of Israel. She is also a woman, unaccompanied by a husband or male relative, who initiates a conversation with a strange man -- another taboo transgressed. …Any way you look at it, this woman is an outsider.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3761) None of this mattered to the woman. Her daughter’s life was at risk and she knew, she believed that Jesus was the one who could cure her daughter. 

This bold and courageous woman found Jesus, knelt at his feet and begged him to heal her daughter. There is no excuse for what Jesus says next. There is no way to translate the words to soften the harshness of his words. Jesus says, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” (Mark 7:27) It is terrible. It is amazing really that there is a record of this event. Somehow it is in two of the four gospels. 

Jesus words are harsh and so different from how Jesus treats people in any other stories throughout the gospels. Not only are Jesus words harsh, but he is dismissing her cry for help simply because she is not one of his people. She is other. In that moment, Jesus believes that God has called him only to bring God’s word to the children of Israel. No one else. He wanted to rest in silence not expand his horizons and share God’s grace with a broader audience. 

But she wouldn’t let him rest. She insisted. She persisted. She pushed back and said, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28) Crumbs, those little bits that we brush away, not big enough to be worth keeping. She demands a scrap of the grace and mercy that Jesus came to deliver for her daughter. Jesus says to her, “For saying that, you go – the demon has left your daughter.” (Mark 7:29) When she returns home, she finds her daughter in her bed and the unclean spirit gone. 

There will be no stained glass windows of this story. It is a hard story. Jesus is dismissive and harsh. I find it hard to accept that Jesus dismiss someone just because of where they are from. It is not in keeping with the Jesus I know and love. But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. 

       Part of being human is making mistakes. Judging took quickly. Having blind spots. Holding on to prejudices. Dismissing people who we deem to be different whether it is because of where they are from or because of the colour of their skin or because of their gender or because of their sexual orientation or because of their income level or because of their disability. None of this is okay. Yet, if I’m honest with myself, I’ve done it and I’m angry with myself for it. Yet I’m guessing I’m not alone. The only thing to do when you make a mistake is ask for forgiveness, learn from it and do better next time. 

       I think that is what Jesus did and maybe the person who was really healed in this gospel story is Jesus and that’s why this story lives on. She stood up and said wait a minute, surely God’s grace and God’s mercy are not limited to one small group of people. Surely God’s grace is for all of us no matter where we come from. Her insistence and persistence changes Jesus. “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Mark 7:28)

       In that moment Jesus is changed. He is reminded that God’s grace is infinite and for everyone – no exceptions. In her column, “Dear Working Preacher” Karoline Lewis reflects on this moment when Jesus mission is expanded, “It is a rare moment when we glimpse how much beyond our comprehension God really is and how much beyond our imagination God’s love extends. And in that same moment, we perceive how easy it is to give in to this world’s estimations of God, this world’s propensity to limit what God can do. How quickly we retreat from zealous proclamation and settle for lukewarm confession. How often we shrink in fear from the bold belief.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5216) 

       It says in our reading from Isaiah, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. … He will come and save you." Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;” (Isaiah 35:4 – 6)

       So maybe there needs to be new stained glass added to the repitoire telling this story. Jesus learning from the Syrophoenician woman. She helped Jesus remember that God’s grace, God’s love, God’s mercy is without boundaries and limits. It will be our cue card, reminding us, in a time when our political life is making everything us versus them, that we are one people created in God’s image. No us. No them. Just God’s beloved children living into the promise of God’s kingdom. Amen. 

Risking Faith, Daring Hope

The theme for General Council this year is “Risking Faith, Daring Hope.” I think it is a theme we need for the church as we look to the future. For the past decade and maybe more, churches everywhere are stuck in that place of lament – I’ve heard them and so have you. The lament is that longing for that time long since passed. “I remember the church was full every Sunday and there were 200 hundred children in Sunday school.” The place of church in the community has shifted. We are no longer the institution leading the way – advising government leaders or setting the cultural norms. I don’t really notice the change because the church the shaped my path of faith  was a small church with a small Sunday school.  

            We need to move forward. The time to lament is over. Now it is the time for Risking Faith and Daring Hope. It is a time to be bold and have courage to live into a new way of being God’s people in the world. We have excellent examples in our gospel reading. Jairus, the synagogue leader and unnamed woman who dared to touch the hem of Jesus rob. Each in their own way risked their faith and dared to hope. 

            The story begins with Jairus. His daughter is sick and he is desperate to help her. He’s heard about Jesus, how teaches with authority and how he heals the sick. It says in the gospel that Jairus begged Jesus repeatedly, not a polite once but repeatedly saying, “"My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live."(Mark 5:23) Jairus was wealthy and probably could have looked for help elsewhere. He could have turned to the local doctor or healer. Instead he risked everything and came to Jesus begging him to help his daughter.

            Jesus sets out with Jairus but so does the large crowd. They are pressing in on Jesus from every side. In the crowd that day there was a woman who had been bleeding/ hemorrhaging for twelve years. She’d seen every doctor and every healer. She’d tried everything to make the bleeding stop. Nothing worked and she’d spent everything she had in search of a cure. Life was lonely for this woman. In Jesus’ day a woman who was bleeding was unclean. She was alone and isolated form the community. She couldn’t touch anyone for fear of making them unclean. For twelve long, lonely years she searched for hope, for a cure … for anything that would make it possible to be part of the community. 

            She’d heard about Jesus –whispers at first, then amazing stories of new life. She didn’t want much. She knew if she could just touch him her ordeal would be over. She dared, she hoped and without a thought about the taboo she joined the crowds pressing in on Jesus, reached out her hand and brushed the hem of his robe. She said to herself, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (Mark 5:29) And she was. The minute her hand touched his robe she could feel it stop and so could Jesus. Time stood still as Jesus turned and looked at the crowd and he said, “Who touched my clothes?” (Mark 5:30) No one could believe what Jesus was saying because there were so many people gathered and pressing in on him. The disciples wondered why Jesus didn’t keep going to Jairus’ house. 

            With fear and trembling she came forward, fell down at Jesus feet and told him her story, her truth. Jesus could have been outraged that this woman made him unclean. Jesus could have ignored the feel of power draining out of him and kept on walking toward Jairus’ house. Instead he stopped. He drew attention to the woman and her plight. He listened to her whole truth – to her pain and to her fear. At the end of the story Jesus says to her, “"Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." (Mark 5:34)

            The next moment a messenger arrives with bad news for Jairus, "Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?" (Mark 5:35) But Jesus, whose is the hope giver says to Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe." (Mark 5:36) When Jesus arrives at Jairus’ house, he leaves the crowds behind and goes to the place where the girl is laid. Hetakes her by the hand and says, "Talitha cum," which means, "Little girl, get up!" (Mark 5:41) And she does. 

            Three people healed. They took a risk and dared to hope. It is the kind of message we need as a church both locally, regionally and nationally. The world has changed and the church must change along with it. The time we spend longing for the good old glory days of the church and lamenting the loses are keeping us trapped in the fear. There is no future in fear. We can’t move forward when our eyes are focused in the rear-view mirror. The church can’t remain frozen in time. Now is the time of risking and hoping. A friend posted a beautiful picture of mountains with the words, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” 

            There are so many reasons to hope. Jesus message of compassion, caring, justice seeking, world changing love is what our world needs right now. Whether we are big or whether we are small, we are called to share the message of love today. Increasingly, there are people who are suffering from loneliness or isolation and or fear and our church communities cab provide a healing balm. We are called to following in Jesus way of caring and compassion. We are invited to reach out and give hope to the most vulnerable in our community – the people who find themselves lost, or on the margins or hurting. Our churches can be beacons of hope. 

Hope is what made it possible for Jairus to ask Jesus repeatedly to save his daughter. “Come touch my daughter that she might live.”  Hope is what made it possible for the woman in in Gospel reading to reach out and touch the hem of Jesus robe – even though she was taking a huge risk.

            As a church community we could have walked the path of fear. We could have closed our doors or sold our building to a developer. Instead we chose hope and risk. We hoped to help people, we hoped for a future, we hoped to find new ways to follow Jesus and we took risk. We dreamed big and we started something new. Would you believe that it was almost four years since we voted on the new vision to set up Cochrane Centre? Look at what risk and hope have accomplished here. Grounded in our faith, we dared to hope for a new way of being church. 

It hasn’t been easy. The path hasn’t always been clear. There have been set backs. We spent longer than we expected “on the road” and when we came home we needed to get used to new space and new ways of doing church. Every time, I’m tempted to believe that price was too high and the challenges were and are too many, I remind myself – 15 people have homes because dared to hope, and risked living out our faith in a new way.  For us locally the journey continues as we reimagine the ways we can be God’s people at work in our community sharing Jesus’ lifesaving, life giving message of hope. 

As we continue risking faith and daring hope, we don’t do this alone, God is with us. As it says in Lamentations:

But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope: 

The steadfast love of the Lordnever ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; (Lamentations 3:21 – 23)
            God is not finished with us yet! Let us risk faith and dare to hope trusting that God is with us each step of the way. Amen. 

 

One Tiny Seed

Jesus tells two parables in our gospel reading for today. Neither of them is very long. Parables are sometimes challenging to understand. Whenever I tell the Godly Play parables, which come in gold boxes, we are reminded that parables are more valuable than gold and presents given to us long before we were born. We also say, “The box has a lid on it. Sometimes it is as if parables have doors that are shut. You can’t go inside even if you are ready. I don’t know why. It just happens, so don’t be discouraged. Keep coming back again and again. One day the parable will open for you.” (Godly Play, Parable of the Good Samaritan) 

            I find these two parables have doors on them that don’t open easily and I need to keep coming back to them again and again. I read the words and I try to imagine what the message is that Jesus has for us, particularly in the parable of the mustard seed, and I struggle to find it. What’s the good news about seed growing or a tiny seed growing into huge shrub or birds nesting in a giant shrub? What does it tell us about how to live in this world? These are kingdom of God parables and Jesus is trying to tell us something important. 

Perhaps the biggest help to me in opening up these parables to me was the weekly blog written by Dr. David Lose called In the Meantime. He reminded me what parables are all about. “Parables are narrative contrasts – Eugene Peterson somewhere calls them, more provocatively, “narrative time bombs” – that are meant to undermine our assumptions of the various “givens” and even “realities” that we accept unquestioningly and offer us a vision of something different. …“parable” comes from two Greek words, para, “beside,” and ballein, “to throw.” A parable is then throwing one thing (a vision of God’s kingdom) beside another (the world as it is) to see what happens. The comparisons are unpredictable” (vhttp://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

            The second thing he writes is this, “The challenge with that translation is that “kingdom” seems so static, as if describing some fixed place, whereas basileia is far more dynamic, describing the arenas of God’s activity and influence. Some therefore translate it “the reign” or “rule” of God to highlight that more active dimension of the word. …when we see the world as God does, and when we act toward each other as God would have us, we are living in God’s rule. That means that we can experience and enact the kingdom here and now as well as recognize that even our best efforts fall short of God’s vision and so recognize that God’s activity and reign is not yet fully present among us.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/) 

Jesus says, “‘The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then then head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickly, because the harvest has come. “He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’” (Mark 4:26 – 32)

The first parable is about us. Our faith. How does God’s word take root in us and in our daily living. “Dr. Fred Craddock, the eminent retired seminary professor who has influenced so many pastors …once told of the teacher who most influenced him. Her name was, “Miss Emma Sloan.” Miss Sloan was an elderly woman, single. She taught him in the primary department, and since there was nobody to teach his group as juniors, she went right on with them, and taught them for years. She gave him a Bible. She wrote in the front: “May this be a light to your feet, a lamp for your path. Emma Sloan.” She taught the children to memorize the Bible; she never tried to interpret it. …She said, “Just put it in your heart, just put it in your heart.” She used the alphabet, and they’d go around the room saying verses. “A A soft answer turns away wrath. B Be ye kind, one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, as God also in Christ has forgiven you. C Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden. D Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. E Every good and perfect gift . . . F For God so loved the world . . .”

He says he can still remember those verses. Miss Emma didn’t explain what the verses meant. She just sowed those seeds of Scripture from the King James Bible in their hearts. … “I can’t think of anything, anything in all my life that has made such a radical difference as those verses,” says Fred Craddock. “The Spirit of God brings them to my mind appropriately, time and time and time again.” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories p. 33-34.)

I’ve noticed the same things about scripture. Sometimes those passages and stories which are written in our hearts, sown likes seeds, come to us at just the right time. They remind us how to live following in Jesus way. It helps us to remember who we are as God’s people. This is especially important in a week when passages of scripture were be used to justify separating migrant children from their parents. Thankfully churches of all denominations have stood up and loudly proclaimed that this is not what the bible says. People remember that God calls us to welcome the stranger to care for others in our midst. Some have used the opportunity to remember that Jesus himself was an immigrant. It is at times like this, when the words of scripture are distorted and used to justify cruelty, it then that we need the second parable … the mustard seed. 

In this one tiny seed we are reminded that God’s kingdom is something unpredictable and can take root in the most amazing places. The mustard seed is really a tenacious weed. It grows whether we want it to or not. One tiny seed reminds us that God’s rule, is something right now and something that by God’s grace we live into. And when God’s word takes root in us our world can indeed be a place where all God’s children are loved and cherished. God’s kingdom of love cannot be stopped. God’s justice that flows in the desert. 

And when God’s word take root in us we live with compassion and mercy. With God’s words ringing in our hearts we live our faith daily by show love to our neighbours and one another. When we plant those seeds amazing things happen in our world.Archbishop Oscar Romeo writes, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one-day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. (http://rainandtherhinoceros.wordpress.com/2007/11/05/we-plant-seeds-by-archbishop-romero/)

            Just like the tenacious weed, God’s kingdom cannot be stopped. God will work through us and our brothers and sisters in faith to transform the world bringing healing, hope, justice and peace for all. Let us live into that kingdom. Let us live into that love. Amen.   

 

Sing a New Song to the Lord

My professor of Old Testament at Emmanuel College drilled into our minds that the hymn and prayer book of the Bible is the book of Psalms. It is poetry and music woven together in the most beautiful way. Although the book of Psalms, is credited to David, it is likely that many of the Psalms were passed on from one generation to another. Many scholars believe that some of the Psalms predate David and others follow his death. As the Gospels were being written, they did not need to have a book of prayers, because they had everything they needed in the book of Psalm. 

In this one book you can find prayers for those who find themselves in trouble, payers of celebration of God’s goodness, prayers of lament for when everything seems to be going wrong and even some acrostic poems! Each Psalm is telling its own story of the ways God is at work in our lives. Think of Psalm 139, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.” (Psalm 139:1 -2) Or those familiar words from the 23rdPsalm, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1 -3) In the mode of confession you could pray Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; accord to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. …Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:1, 10)

The words of the book of Psalms are on the tip of tongues and imprinted in our hearts. I’m guessing that is why it is one of the most widely read book of the Bible.  It is also why I’m pretty sure that most of you could quote your favourite Psalm. From thanksgiving to lament to confession to praise, the book of Psalms tells the story of our faith. I’m always amazed at how the Psalms that are the most heart wrenching, end with words of praise about God’s abiding presence and mercy.

Psalm 102 starts with these words, “God, listen! Listen to my prayer, listen to the pain in my cries. Don’t turn your back on me just when I need you so desperately. Pay attention! This is a cry for help! And hurry—this can’t wait! I’m wasting away to nothing, I’m burning up with fever. I’m a ghost of my former self, half-consumed already by terminal illness. My jaws ache from gritting my teeth; I’m nothing but skin and bones.” (Psalm 102:1 – 4) The Psalmist is in agony. It seems that everything could go wrong is going wrong. And yet somehow toward the end of this Psalm the writer proclaims, “Write this down for the next generation so people not yet born will praise God: “God looked out from his high holy place; from heaven he surveyed the earth. He listened to the groans of the doomed, he opened the doors of their death cells. Write it so the story can be told in Zion, so God’s praise will be sung in Jerusalem’s streets and wherever people gather together along with their rulers to worship him.” (Psalm 102: 18 – 22)

The Psalm remind us of our longing to be in God’s presence and to worship God. In Psalm 42 we sing, “As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you; you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you. You alone are my strength my shield, to you alone may my spirit yield, you alone are my heart’s desire and I long to worship you.” (Voices United, Psalm 42 page 766). The same theme is found in one of my favourite Psalms, Psalm 16. So many lines stand out for me remind me of my need for God’s presence in my life. “Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge, I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; I have not good apart from you.” (Psalm 16:1 -2), “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places. I have a goodly heritage.” (Psalm 16:5 – 6) and my favourite, “You show me the paths of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.” (Psalm 16:10 – 11) 

Psalm 40 reflects on themes of survival and discipleship. The writer of Psalm has clearly been through a difficult ordeal.  The psalmist says, “You lifted me out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay and set my fee upon a rock, making my steps secure. You put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.” U2 in their song simply called 40 offers this version of the Psalm: 

“I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry.
He brought me right out of the pit,
out of my miry clay.
I will sing, sing a new song” (U2, 40)

 The invitation to sing a new song is woven through the book of Psalms.  It is our calling as a people of faith to keep singing the Lord’s song in new ways so each generation can hear of God’s abiding mercy. The Psalmist teach us to sing the Lord’s song in times of challenge and in times of joys. Because, as the words of Psalm 121 remind us, God is with us no matter what. I want you to imagine for a moment, you are standing in a place where there seems to be danger everywhere you turn. You look to the hills – danger. You look to the valleys – danger. You look left – danger. You look right – danger. So you pray, “I life up my eyes to the hills – from where will come my help?” (Psalm 121:1) A good question. Sometimes it is our questions. The Psalmist knows the answer. “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.  … the Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:2, 7 -8) In the thousands of years since these words were first written, this truth has not changed. God is with us in going out and our coming in. God is our shelter in the storm and our hope for the future. Let us sing a new song unto the Lord whose love, whose mercy, whose guidance, whose promise will never fail us. Let us sing to the Lord. Amen 

Today we’ve come full circle in Lent which began on Ash Wednesday. There is a beautiful hymn in our hymn book called, “Sunday’s Palms are Wednesday’s Ashes.” It sums up so well this day of contradictions. The palms that we wave as we sing our hosannas become that ashes that remind us of our human frailty.

            “Sunday's palms are Wednesday's ashes

                        as another Lent begins;

            thus we kneel before our Maker

                        in contrition for our sins.

            We have marred baptismal pledges,

                        in rebellion gone astray;

            now, returning, seek forgiveness;

                        grant us pardon, God, this day!” (Voices United #107)

It is like the Palm branches that turn so easily into crosses. Today is a day of contradictions. A day of joyful music. But we also know what this week holds – we are on the road to crucifixion and death. Even Jesus knew what was coming. In Luke’s Gospel it says that Jesus, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) That particular phrase isn’t in Mark’s gospel but it is woven in the story. In the days and weeks leading up to Palm Sunday, Jesus talked openly about what was to come next. He says to the disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”  (Mark 10:33 - 34)

            Now they are finally near Jerusalem. Jesus sends out two of his disciples saying, “Go into the village ahead of you and immediately as you enter it, you will there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it to me. If anyone says to you ‘Why are you doing this just say this ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately’” (Mark 11:2 – 3)

            I’m guessing that the disciples were used to following directions that seem a bit strange because they did just what Jesus asked. They put their cloaks on the colt. Large crowds gathered, spread their cloaks on the ground, cut branches from trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds began to shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark)

            It’s not a scene I imagine happening today. People lining streets because a prophet is coming to town. Perhaps now it would be more like filling stadiums with crowds crying out “Hosanna” which means “save us.” The expectation rings out in every word and with every wave of the palm branch or leafy branches as Mark says. The crowds believe that Jesus is the one who will save them from the cruel Roman rulers.

The disciples hoped? Knew? that Jesus was the one to save their people from the heavy hand of the Romans who ruled the land. They hoped Jesus was the one who would end their misery. The same is true for us today. Scott Black Johnson writes: “When we wave our palms and boldly cry out, "Hosanna," do we dare imagine what we really want God to save us from? Save me from anger. Save me from cancer. Save me from depression. Save me from debt. Save me from the strife in my family. Save me from boredom... Save me from the endless cycle of violence. Save me from humiliation. Save me from staring at the ceiling at three a.m. wondering why I exist. Save me from bitterness. Save me from arrogance. Save me from loneliness. Save me, God, save me from my fears. Please God take the broken places that will tear us apart and make them whole. We beseech you, God, jump into the water and drag our almost-drowned selves to shore. "Save us." "Hosanna." (www.sermons.com)

            Palm Sunday is more than the sweet band of children waving palm branches. It is an invitation to let Jesus come into the broken places in our lives. As I think about Palm Sunday and the story that unfolds during holy week. I can’t help but think about hands. The hands that waived palm branches while singing “hosanna”. The hands that became fists with angry shouts of “crucify.” We use our hands in so many ways. Hands create beautiful works art or music. We can use our hands to comfort, to pray, to care. With our hands we craft weapons of destruction, with our hands we can hurt, with our hands we can destroy. That is the contradiction of Palm Sunday and Holy Week – beauty and destruction, life and death, hosanna and crucify.

            The good news for us all is the hands that matter most are God’s hands. In this somber week, as we stand in the shadow of the cross we offer into God’s hands all our broken and hurting places, hoping, trusting that on Easter Sunday the tomb is empty and there is new life. Amen. 

Beloved

            I love the story of the transfiguration. It is full of mystery. There is no way to explain it or make sense of it so I’m not going to try. It is simply one of those glorious holy moments when God comes close and something amazing happens. It seems to me that it happens at just the right moment.

The disciples have been with Jesus for quite a while. They’ve heard him teach. They’ve seen him heal. They’ve watched him change the world around him. But lately Jesus has started talking about things that the disciples don’t quite understand.  And not only do they not understand it, they don’t like it. Jesus is talking about dying and being rejected and rising in three days. It was confusing for the disciples. It sounds like the end of something that has given them so much life. The disciples want to press rewind and go back to the days when Jesus was healing and teaching. It was easier. There was no shadow hanging over them. No end in sight.

            Our gospel reading begins with an invitation. Jesus invites Peter and James and John on a bit of road trip up the mountain. I imagine the disciples walking up the winding path to the top of the mountain heavy hearts because they don’t what is going on. But then Jesus was always surprising them so this was nothing new. When they finally reach the top of the mountain something extraordinary happens. It says in our reading that Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” (Mark 9:2 – 3) But it doesn’t stop there. Elijah and Moses appear. They are to Jesus. About what? The gospel doesn’t say. And Peter, well Peter just doesn’t know what to do or what to say. He, along with James and John are terrified. Not knowing what to say or do, Peter calls out, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here, let us make three dwelling places, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:6)   The words are barely out of Peter’s mouth when a cloud overshadows them, and a voice says, “This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)

            These words echo the words from Jesus’ baptism at the beginning of Marks’ Gospel. It is a promise of love. Dr. Matt Skinner writes, “Because the Transfiguration is so bizarre and unusual, it can be easy to assume that we’re supposed to approach it with sober reverence and awe. But that isn’t how God views it. For God, the Transfiguration presents an opportunity to declare love for the one called “Son.” If God is capable of smiling, this would be the occasion in which that happens. I don’t see how anyone can talk of one’s “beloved” without breaking into a pleased grin.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2341)

            For one shinning holy moment Jesus stood in the glory of God basking in that love. Peter, James and John are reminded that Jesus is God’s beloved. It somehow puts all those things Jesus has been talking about death, rejection and rising into perspective. They are insignificant when they are reminded Jesus is God’s beloved. Peter fill with both terror and awe wants to hold onto this holy moment. The challenge of those holy times when God comes near to us, is that they come so quickly and are over so quickly. It says in verse 8, “Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them anymore, but only Jesus.” (Mark 2:8) As they walk down the mountain, they are no longer worried about what comes next. They know what they must do. Listen to Jesus.

            I think that we all need those holy moments that remind us what we are about as a people of faith. It can be hard – especially when it seems like everything is going wrong. We don’t know when those holy moments are going to come. God’s love, as we will sing later, colours outside the lines and is always full of surprises. Here is what we know. God is love. God is with us in our doubt, in our sorrow and in our joy. When God calls Jesus beloved, God is reminding Jesus who he is and what he is about – love at work in the world. Jesus and the disciples, leave the holy place, God’s words echoing are echoing in their hearts. “This is son, the beloved. Listen to him.”

It’s a message for us today. For those moments when we get discouraged or when we forget that God loves us. We can remember God’s words to Jesus because they are for us too. And if we listen to Jesus and follow in his ways, then our world will be filled with loving community. Because when we love our neighbours as ourselves and we do unto others as you would have them do unto you, our world is a better place for everyone. It means safe places to live and food on the table and abundant life for all. And when the task seems daunting, we remember that each day God whispers in our ears, “You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased. Amen

Unclean Spirits?

The reading from Mark is one of those ones that doesn’t easily translate into our modern context. We don’t often talk about unclean spirits or demon let alone someone command that unclean spirit to leave. We see it maybe in sci-fi movies or maybe alien moves.

Just because it doesn’t easily translate to our modern world, doesn’t mean that we don’t know about unclean spirits or long for someone to command those demons to be gone. We know demons – we call them things like low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, perfectionism, anger, addiction to any number of things drugs, food, shopping alcohol, money. We know demons in our world, we just call them by different names. Maybe your unclean spirit is the voice inside your head that keeps telling you that you aren’t good enough as you are or maybe fear isolates you from community. Nadia Bolz-Webber Pastor, preacher and author writes, “I’ve confessed this before but I don’t always know what to do when it comes to talk about demons in the Bible.  Especially when the demons talk and have names and stuff like that. I’m never sure if back then they had the exact same things going on that we do, but they didn’t know about things like epilepsy or mental illness so they just called it all demon possession.  …But I do know that many of you, like myself, have suffered from addictions and compulsions and depression – things that have gotten ahold of us, making us do things we don’t want to. Or making you think you love things, or substances or people that are really destructive. So maybe if that, in part, is what having a demon is, maybe if it’s being taken over by something destructive, then possession is less of an anachronism, and more of an epidemic.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Uncleans spirits or demons in our world today are those things that take us on a self-destructive path. I wonder how many of us hear wrestle with our own personal demons. I call my worry and anger and self-doubt.  What names do you call your demons?

And there are days when I wish I could tell that demon to leave me alone as Jesus did in our reading today. In our reading from Mark this morning is Jesus first public act of ministry. So far in chapter 1 we have John preparing the way, Jesus’ baptism, and forty days being tempted in the desert Satan. Jesus called his first disciples and together the go to Capernaum which is where we start today.

Jesus is in the temple and he begins to teach and everyone who hears him is amazed. They say he teaches like one with authority. He wasn’t anything like the scribes. The words of scripture came to life in new ways. As Jesus is teaching, a man enters the temple and he is filled with “an unclean spirit” (Mark 1:23) We don’t really know what that unclean spirit ways. The minute the man enters, he cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazraeth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (Mark 1:24) But Jesus has no part of these unclean spirits and say, “Be silent, and come out of him.” (Mark 1:25) And the unclean spirit leaves the man. And now the crowd is even more amazed.

David Lose in his commentary on this text writes, “Notice that the very first thing Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel is cast out an unclean spirit. We don’t always know exactly how to process “unclean spirit” in modern terms (and certainly want to avoid the way it has been conflated with mental illness over the centuries!), but from other passages in Mark we can easily imagine its impact and effects on the life of the man this spirit holds captive. He has likely become a danger to himself and others. If he hasn’t already, he will likely soon be socially ostracized. And we can imagine the distress of those who love him. Anguish over his plight, fear about his future. (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

Sound familiar? Jesus wasn’t just at work then but at work today. And Jesus stands with us and for us just as he did for that man so long ago in Capernaum. Jesus not only invites us to follow by stands up and says, “Be silent, and come out” to all those unclean spirits that hold us captive.  Our God as David Lose so eloquently puts it, is “God is opposed to anything and everything that robs [us] of abundant life” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-4-b-against-the-robbers/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29) Jesus, the Holy One of God, comes to bring us abundant life. It is a gift beyond measure. It is a promise that when the unclean spirits come we are not left on our own. It is not a matter of if it is a matter of when. We all face challenges – some big and some small. In all these challenges Jesus stands with us silencing those demons that do us most harm. Nadia Bolz-Webber, “I think our demons totally recognize Jesus right out of the boat and our demons are afraid of him.  Which is why they try to get us to stay away from people who may remind us how loved we are. Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And these lies are simply things that Jesus does not abide.” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/)

Love has a way of making us whole. The love that Jesus showed to the man with an unclean spirit is the love that he shows to each one of us. As we head into this week, carry that promise in your heart and help be that face of love for friends, for family, for neighbours and strangers. Love changes us and it changes the world. It is much like the reminder I had from an article called “The radical but gentle faith of Mister Rogers” How many of you remember Mr. Roger’s neighbourhood? I grew up with his song, “Won’t you be my neighbour?” and the closing benediction, ““You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6) Fred Rogers was also a Presbyterian Minister. He lived his faith by reminding each of us of the importance of caring for one another. It says in the article, “ Rogers thought of the act of loving and accepting someone as your neighbor as holy business, as he said in a 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College: “When we look for what’s best in the person we happen to be with at the moment, we’re doing what God does; so in appreciating our neighbor, we’re participating in something truly sacred.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/01/30/the-radical-but-gentle-faith-of-mister-rogers/?utm_term=.d889e0f741a6)

Sundays we gather for that reminder that we are God’s beloved children and we can participate in the sacred act of sharing that love with others. There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. That is a both gift and promise. Amen.

Fishers of People

I begin with thanks to the people who put together the lectionary. Today we have two great stories about how God calls. First, we hear about Jonah – who really doesn’t want to have anything to do with what God’s call to help the people of Nineveh. Doing exactly what God asked of him! It only took being thrown overboard and sometime in the belly of a whale. In our next reading we have the first disciples who hear nothing but, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” (Mark 1:17) It seems that Simon, Andrew, James and John leap at the chance to follow Jesus. They drop everything to follow him. It is two completely different ways to respond to God’s call and God’s grace. I for one am thankful that God works with us no matter where we find ourselves.

            Today we start with Jonah. A story of God’s grace and the winner of the bible’s prize for most reluctant prophet. God says, “Go” and Jonah runs away. In his attempt to flee from God’s call he gets thrown overboard and spends “three days and three nights” in the belly of a whale. During that time Jonah prayed until finally the whale spit Jonah out on dry land.  Again, God says to Jonah, “Get u, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim the message that I tell you.” (Jonah 3:2) Jonah drags his feet but he goes to Nineveh. When Jonah finally arrives, you can hardly say he spoke a prophetic word with any kind of conviction. Oh yes he said the word that God asked him to speak. But I don’t think he did not put his heart into it. You might say his preaching lacked a certain amount of punch.

I imagine Jonah delivering his prophesy in the most monotone voice he could muster “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” No mention of who was doing the overthrowing. No mention that God had sent him on this mission. No talk of hope or of God’s abundant grace. Just, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” In spite of all that or perhaps because of all that the people of Nineveh listened but Jonah sulks. He is angry because he knows too much about God’s grace. Jonah plain and simple does not like the people of Nineveh. They are his sworn enemies and for him the idea that they would be saved is horrifying. On this front you cannot blame Jonah. The Syrian army was cruel. The King never relented. Some biblical scholars say that the people of Nineveh repented is more unbelievable than Jonah spending three days in the whale.

You can understand why Jonah did not want God’s grace to extend to the people of Nineveh. You can understand why Jonah said no to God and fled. The story of Jonah and Nineveh tells us everything we need to know about God’s grace. Jonah says it best in chapter four, “O Lord! Is this not what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abound in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”” (Jonah 4:2) God’s love reaches beyond our imagining and invites us to follow in our own ways.

This story is a gentle reminder that in spite of our no’s, God’s answer is always yes. God finds ways to work through us even when we are reluctant to follow or have closed our hearts to the abundant nature of God’s grace.  Jonah did not want to do as God asked, yet God still works through him to change the hearts of the people of Nineveh.

            The story of Jonah stands in stark contrast to our Gospel reading for today. Instead of running the in the other direction – Simon, Andrew, James and John drop everything and follow Jesus. It seems to me that the people of Nineveh and the story of the first disciples have more in common with one another than God’s chosen prophet Jonah and the disciples. When the people of Nineveh hear God’s word proclaimed they stop all that they are doing and repent – and not just a select few. Everyone from the King to the barn animals change their hearts and their ways as they sit in sackcloth and ashes repenting. In the same way, the disciples drop their nets, leave behind family and friends and go to pursue a new calling as fishers of people.

            As usual with the Gospel of Mark, the details are scarce. Here’s what we know. Jesus has just returned from forty days in the desert and John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus now begins his teaching ministry “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the Good News.” That’s all Jesus says before he walks up to Simon and Andrew and says, “Follow Me and I will make you fish for people.”  Simon and Andrew drop their nets and follow. We don’t know if they’d grown tired of fishing or if they’d known Jesus for a while. You might think that this kind of major life altering decision would take some time to make. You might think that Simon and Andrew would walk just outside of Jesus’ earshot and have a little conversation about what they should do. But that didn’t happen. They dropped everything to follow Jesus – no questions asked.

            Then the same thing happens again with James and John. Again, Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Once again, no questions asked, they drop the nets they are mending and follow Jesus. James and John even leave their father in the boat – confused by what is happening. There is something special about this story. The bible is full of people who respond in some way to God’s call.  But this story is different from the rest. The disciples just go. Jesus didn’t have to do anything to persuade them – they follow.

Often we talk about the courage it must have taken for them to go and leave everything behind not knowing what was in store for them. For me, miracle is the word that comes to mind. It is like some of the miracle stories in which Jesus says the word and they are healed. In this case Jesus says the word and they follow. Given, all the frailties and failings that come with our human natures, it really is miraculous.

            The contrast between the miraculous call of Simon, Andrew, James and John and the reluctance of Jonah gives us some balance in perspective as we all struggle to respond in faith to God’s call in Jesus Christ day by day. God still calls us today. We might be reluctant like Jonah or filled with excitement like Simon, Andrew James and John. The contrast shows that there are many ways of being faithful to God’s call but in all things God finds a way to use us and the gifts we bring. Can you hear that voice calling, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Amen

Come and See

To really understand our gospel reading from John, you need to press rewind and go back a few verses. It really begins the day after Jesus’ baptism. John is standing there with two of his disciples. Maybe John’s disciples are wondering what John was getting on with saying that there, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! …And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1: 29, 34) Maybe they are preparing for the day’s work. Maybe they are just waiting for something to happen. As they are standing there Jesus walks by and John says, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:37)

            John’s two disciples follow Jesus so they can figure out what John is talking about. When Jesus notices them following him, he says, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) The two answered by asking, “where are you staying?” [Jesus] said to them, “Come and see.” (John 1:38 – 39) They did just that. I’m not sure what they saw or what they did during that day. We only know that one of the two was Andrew and Andrew’s brother is Simon Peter. Inspired by what he saw that day, Andrew boldly tells his brother, “We have found the Messiah.” (John 1:41) Then Andrew brings his brother to see Jesus. Jesus takes one look at Simon and says, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).” (John 1:42)

            It is almost miraculous how Jesus calls the first disciples – it begins with looking for something and an invitation to come and see. And when they see what Jesus is about they drop everything and him. It is only after the calling of Andrew and Simon Peter that we arrive at our reading for today.

Our reading starts the next day when Jesus decides to go to Galilee. This is where Jesus finds Philip and says him, “Follow me” and Philip does without hesitation. Philip finds Nathaniel and tells him the amazing news about Jesus being the Messiah. Now we hit the first road block. Nathaniel is skeptical. Oh he hears Philip telling him about Jesus and how they have found the Messiah in Jesus, son Joseph of Nazareth. All Nathaniel says is “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46)

            It’s a bit rude – playing on stereotypes and preconceived notions about people from a particular place. It’s sarcastic. It implies that there is no way Philip is telling the truth. Nathaniel is a sceptic. Philip doesn’t get mad. He simply repeats the invitation he received from Jesus, “Come and See”

            It’s a powerful invitation – especially since it seems that so many people are looking for something more. I’ve found often wondering or looking for something that gives more meaning. Perhaps you’ve been there too.  I think most of us can identify with that search for deeper meaning can’t we? As a society it seems that we are all searching for something whether it is meaning, or hope, or a new way of living, or that “thing” that will help everything else make sense. It reminds me of one of U2’s great hits “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for”


I have spoke with the tongue of angels
I have held the hand of a devil
It was one empty night
I was cold as a stone
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

I believe when the Kingdom comes
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one
But yes I'm still running.
You broke the bonds
You loosened the chains
You carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found
What I'm looking for

We are looking for “that something” that puts everything in perspective. I read an article in Christianity Today this week about the “new monasticism.” It is Christian monastic communities where people become “monks” but the target age is 20 – 35 and you commit to a year instead of a lifetime. In these communities they learn the ancient practices of prayer that have stood the test of time. The new monastic communities are attracting the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Perhaps if Nathaniel were living today he would be spiritual but not religious. In the article it says “'There is a deep spiritual yearning for substance and depth,' says Rev Ian Mobsby of St Luke's Camberwell in Peckham, London. 'But people immediately assume the church has nothing to offer to that. That is why people call themselves spiritual and not religious.'  'People are asking, "What are the anchors to life? What is life about?"' he says. 'New monasticism is trying to say to a world increasingly interested in spirituality that Christianity has a lot to say.'” (https://www.christiantoday.com/article/new-monasticism-why-are-so-many-young-people-choosing-to-become-temporary-monksupdate1/123897.htm)

            I think that the heart of Jesus’ invitation. It is like Jesus says to us, “Come as you are with your questions and your doubts and concerns and see what I am about.” Jesus didn’t really answer Nathaniel’s questions but Jesus somehow sees him as he is. Philip asks Nathaniel to come and see. When Jesus sees Nathaniel coming he says, “Here is truly and Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47) The Message translates this phrase, “There’s a real Israelite, not a false bone in his body.” (John 1:47) Nathaniel couldn’t hide his questions or doubts or that he did not believe Philip’s proclamation that Jesus was indeed the One, the Messiah that they had been waiting for.

            You can imagine that Nathaniel’s reaction to statement about his was just as direct. “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (John 1:48) I’m not sure what happened for Nathaniel in that moment but something big happened. The next words out of his mouth are, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) It is amazing.

Jan Schnell Rippentrop writes, “Nathaniel is not one of those folks whose faith developed gradually. He is one who was also himself startled when the reality of Jesus snapped unexpectedly into focus. There is something about that fig tree remark that made who Jesus is clear for Nathaniel. The reader does not get to be privy to what exactly transformed Nathaniel’s view of Jesus. What is clear is that epiphanies of the Christ come to different people in such drastically different ways that it can even be incomprehensible.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3529)

We come to faith in a variety of ways. For some it is just like it was for Nathaniel one-minute doubting and asking questions and then next minute full of conviction. For others it is a lifetime of questions and answers and gradually coming to believe. A friend of mine once describe the different ways of as faith as deep fryer faith and slow cooker faith –both create something beautiful.

Jesus invites us all to come and see. It is not an invitation rooted in the past but one that is given each day. With that invitation comes the promise that Jesus sees us just as we are and invites us to be about God’s work in the world. We come as we are with all our questions, fears, beliefs, doubts, joys and see what Jesus is about in our lives, community and world. Jesus to us today, “Come and see.” Amen.