love

Trinity Blessed

            In the calendar of the church year, the Sunday after Pentecost is Trinity Sunday. It is one of the doctrines of the church that I struggle with and I’m guessing we all struggle with. Three in one? How does that work? For the strictly rational and mathematically inclined it doesn’t work. St. Patrick tried with the idea of the shamrock – three leaves and yet one leaf. From the Song of Faith 

With the Church through the ages,

we speak of God as one and triune:

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We also speak of God as

Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer

God, Christ, and Spirit

Mother, Friend, and Comforter

Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,

and in other ways that speak faithfully of

the One on whom our hearts rely,

the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.

The preacher Nadia Bolz-Webber writes, “So let’s get right down to it, shall we? Here we go:  God is three persons and one being. God is one and yet three. The father is not the son or the Spirit, the son is not the father or the Spirit, the spirit is not the Father or the Son. But the Father Son and Spirit all are God and God is one. … So to review. 1+1+1=1.  That’s simple enough.” (https://sojo.net/articles/some-thoughts-holy-trinity#sthash.WnU2XuS2.dpuf)Richard Rhor writes, “Religious belief has made me comfortable with ambiguity. “Hints and guesses,” as T.S. Eliot would say. I often spend the season of Lent in a hermitage, where I live alone for the whole 40 days. The more I am alone with the Alone, the more I surrender to ambivalence, to happy contradictions and seeming inconsistencies in myself and almost everything else, including God. Paradoxes don’t scare me anymore.” https://onbeing.org/blog/richard-rohr-utterly-humbled-by-mystery/?fbclid=IwAR0S32QTPqTU3_rT4OA4WvaYmlb-P-XqUeoZqBq8929r4M02GJstfDAtX5s

The trinity is beautiful in its complexity as is our reading from Romans which sounds more complicated than it actually is. Our reading from Romans begins with Paul writing, “Therefore since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (Romans 5:1 – 2) We are justified by God sounds like we have to complete a series of skill testing questions to receive it. But the opposite is true. It means do nothing to earn God’s love. It is a gift offered to us daily. 

Dr. David Lose in his blog “In the Meantime” writes, “…I am also struck by Paul’s insistence that it’s precisely because we have the peace of God through justification that we can endure almost anything, and not just endure but grow stronger and find hope. Justification is nothing less or more than the promise that God accepts you as you are not because of who you are or what you have done, not because of what you might become or do, not because of who you have promised to be or what you have pledged to do, but that God accepts you because that’s who God is and what God does – justify the ungodly in order that we might know peace and turn in love to extend the same grace, mercy, and acceptance to those around us.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2016/05/trinity-c-shh-dont-mention-the-trinity/)

            And because we are justified (read loved and accepted) we can get through times of challenge and suffering. No magic wands. No instant cures. Through faith we are not alone. God is with us. In our most challenging times we are sustained by the prayers of our brothers and sisters in faith and by their acts of kindness and support. A friend of mine is going through a difficult time, he recently shared this, “If any of you wonder whether thoughts and prayers matters as you send messages our way, let me say YES. It creates a wonderful sense of warmth and comfort know that we are surrounded by a host of people who care, love and support.” Part of the reason for joining a community of faith is to be sustained by those prayers – and to sustain others in our prayers. 

Paul says, “And not only that, but we also boast in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3 – 5)

That is the good news on this day of weighty theological ideas of trinity and justification. We have a hope and because there is hope we can find our way through the most challenging times and we don’t do it alone. God is is with us loving us just as we are, we sustained by the Spirit we follow in Jesus’ way of love. On this amazing journey, we have brothers and sisters in faith. Sometimes we are held in prayer and other times we hold others in prayer.

Together we make our prayer, in the words of the hymn Three Things I Promise, “Revive and guide me living God, as day by day until my death, I bless your name, and cling to Christ and listen for the Spirit’s breath.” Amen.

The Good Shepherd

The fourth Sunday after Easter is always “Good Shepherd Sunday.” The image of the good shepherd is central to our faith. Just think of all the times the image of the shepherd is used in scripture. There is the young David who goes into battle against the giant Goliath. He tried to wear the battle armour belonging to his brothers but it just didn’t fit. Instead he goes out into the field with nothing but what he’d take in the field as a shepherd – a sling and five rocks. There is the book of Revelation that reminds us that we will hunger no more and thirst no more for the Lamb who is at the centre of the throne will be our shepherd and guide us to springs of water and wipe ever tear from our eyes. (Revelation 7:17) Think of the shepherds on that first Christmas who left their fields to follow the angels promise of Good News. 

            Woven throughout the book of Psalms is image as God as the shepherd who leads us. The best known are the words of 23rdPsalm, “Then Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want….” There is the wonderful but confusing parable of the shepherd who is missing one sheep and goes out searching for it and when he finds it comes home rejoicing. Then there is one of my personal favourites, John 21, just after that beautiful breakfast on the beach with broiled fish and bread. Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (John 21: 15) And Peter always keen to please says, “Yes, Lord, you know I do.”  Jesus says, “Feed my lambs” (John 21:15) Jesus turns to Peter a second time again, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:16) Now Peter is starting to wonder if Jesus is doubting him or didn’t take him seriously the first time. Peter says, “You know I love you.” Jesus looks Peter in the eyes and says, “Shepherd my sheep.” (John 21:16). Just when Simon Peter thinks it’s time to go, Jesus turns to him a third time and asks him if he loves him. Peter can’t understand what Jesus is talking about now. He stands up and cries, “You know everything there is to know. You’ve got to know that I love you.” (John 21:17) One last time Jesus says, “feed my sheep.” 

            And if you flip back a few chapters in John you get our reading for today, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. …My sheep recognize my voice. I know them and they follow me. I give them real and eternal life.” (John 10: 14, 27 – 28). When we imagine the task of the shepherd I think we imagine gentle pastures and flowing brooks. The life of the shepherd in 1 century Palestine was grueling. There are no gentle green fields and water is scarce. Danger lurked at every turn. When we hear the promise of the Good Shepherd it is the promise of one who will guard our lives – who will seek out food and water even when it is hard to find and who will find us when we are lost or separated from the flock. It is the promise of the one who will never leave us behind. 

Dr. Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus does not all of a sudden or out of the blue decide that describing himself as a shepherd is a good idea. He’s on a mission. A John 3:16 mission. A John 10:16 mission. He’s brought the blind man into his fold. And with only one more miracle left in his pocket, the disciples need to know that they are his mission, too. Jesus as shepherd in John is the one “I AM” that holds intimacy and apostolicity together. That holds the extraordinary tension of John 20:30-31 together -- this book is meant both to sustain your believing and invite new believers. That holds “come and see” and “as the Father has sent me, so also I send you” together. That is, in Jesus as the Shepherd is revealed both our identity and our calling.” (https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5326

            This why, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, every year, we take time to reflect on the Good Shepherd. It is the heart of the Easter Story. When we are lost we will be found. We are fully known and fully loved. We are invited to share that love with others. We do this trusting that our Good Shepherd leads the way and we are never alone. In the words of our opening hymn, “O to grace how great a debtor daily I am drawn anew! Let that grace now like a fetter, bind my wandering heart to you. Prone to wander, I can feel it, wander from the love I’ve known. Here’s my heart of take and seal it for your very own.” (Voices United #559 Come, O Fount of Every Blessing). 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. 

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. 

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.

Baptism of Jesus

            I’ve been a minister for almost 17 years now. There are many things I love about the work I do but there is one thing that is always a joy for me – baptism. I enjoy meeting with the families and hearing about their little miracle and hearing about the challenges and blessings of being parents. But perhaps the part that I love the most is standing with person being baptised, placing water on their heads and reminding them that they are God’s beloved child. Every time I do baptism, I have the privilege of offering blessing in God’s name. It is a reminder to us that each one of us is special in God’s circle of love. We all are beloved children of God. The beautiful thing about baptism whether it is a baby, an older child, a teenager or a senior – is that it pure gift. You don’t have to earn the promise of God’s love. It is yours. It is mine. It is ours. No need to strive, or earn or be a certain way. God’s love is pure gift. And in our world where there is a price attached to everything or people have do or be a certain way to be accepted this is priceless.

            I think this is why Mark in his gospel gets straight to what is important. In Mark’s gospel there is no Christmas story. There are no angels or shepherds or dreams or genealogies because none of that matters to Mark. He says it in the first line of the gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) Then we meet John, clothed in camel hair and eating nothing but locusts and honey. He is a teacher and prophet called to prepare the way for Jesus. In this morning’s reading John is preaching about a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

            It sounds daunting doesn’t it? Repentance and sins are words with baggage. But repentance is about turning in a new direction and living in a new way. Sins are all those things that separate us from the love of God. Different perhaps for each one of us. They are the things that prevent us from remembering that we are God’s beloved. John is teaching and preaching to all who will listen about a new way living and a new of drawing closer to God. One day as the crowds are gathered, John says “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptised you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7 – 8)

            The very next words of the gospel are, “In those days Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee was baptised by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from haven, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9 – 11) With that, Jesus begins his public ministry of teaching and healing.

            That is the starting place for all of us to. We are God’s beloved children and God is well pleased with us. This past year, we started hearing the hopes and prayers of parents as they bring their children for baptism. Each family offers something different but they are all grounded in a deep love for their children. One family wrote, “Our hopes and prayers for our daughter are that she is healthy in mind, body and spirit. We hope to raise her in a supportive community of family, friends and neighbors - where she feels protected and supported, encouraged and challenged, and treated with respect. We pray that she learns and reflects Christian values in her everyday life: that she has optimistic faith, patience and peace; that she is thoughtful, confident and brave; lives with intention and purpose; gives thanks and finds happiness from within and shares that happiness with the world.”

            David Lose writes, “In Holy Baptism God just chooses us. …God says that we are enough. Already. That we are pleasing to God and deserve to be loved. And that identity of being God’s beloved child – precisely because it is established by God – cannot be taken away from us or, for that matter, lost by us. Rather, God continues to come into our lives to call us beloved and blessed and promise once again to be always both with us and for us. That promise and blessing, in turn, helps us face all the challenges we mentioned earlier. Problems at home or in the community, concerns about the world or our personal lives. We can face whatever might be plaguing us with greater confidence knowing that God is on our side.” (http://www.davidlose.net/2018/01/epiphany-1-b-powerful-words-for-a-new-year/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+davidlose%2FIsqE+%28...In+the+Meantime%29)

            As each one of us meets the challenges of this day, this week, this month we are reminded that faith is not a magical cure all but the constant reminder that God is with us lightening the burden and providing hope. Any challenges we face we do so with God’s help and the support with support from our community of faith. With the words beloved ringing in our ears each and every new day, we are called to be about God’s work in the world. And there are so many ways to respond but they are all grounded in a new way of living that is rooted in God’s grace. This makes all things possible. Rooted God’s love, Jesus showed us what that new way of living looked like. It was the face of compassion. It was mercy. It was grace. It was life giving. It was healing. It was hope.

We are invited to be about that work of compassion, mercy, grace, living-giving, healing, and hope. When we feed those who are hungry we proclaim the good news that God is with us. When we walk in the shadows with those who are lost and hurting we offer the light of new life. When we support our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our lives proclaim the good news that we are all God’s beloved children. It is the promise that comes with baptism and that has called us and claimed us as Christ’s own everyday since. 

            Baptism is a new way of living. Mark knew that. He knew that there could be no better way to start the story of Jesus’ life than on the day of his baptism. Today, we are God’s beloved and with us God is well pleased. Amen