When I first came to St. Matthias, I remember looking out at the congregation and seeing this collection of folks and thinking, ‘good Lord, all of these have known God for so much longer than I have even been alive, how on earth could you have placed me here to serve them?’ As it is rather unusual for Anglicans to do, the first folks who really stood out to me were those sitting at the front: dear Robert and Sylvia.
I remember looking at the two of them wondering, ‘I wonder what their story involves … work, travel, kids, retirement, where were they from, were they from here or did they move here.’ Well soon enough I got some answers. I went to visit them both and had a conversation about where they had come from. I learned they were from BC, the grand city of Victoria. That they had come here for Robert’s work. That they had two daughters whom they loved dearly. That Robert was a magnificent cook and uber kitchen maestro! These were of course, the surface details.
Over the years of being here, I learned of Robert’s Parkinson’s condition, and of Sylvia’s own struggles. I tried to place myself in their position of having a sense of physical autonomy, to being reliant on others, their daughters, nurses, for their basic care. I thought about what that would mean to someone like Robert who was a husband, a father, a worker, a cook, a social fellow. And I wondered what he thought, what he thought at his core if you could pull back the shield that all of us put up to protect from appearing vulnerable. I can’t say for certain because as most of you know, communication was one of the most challenging aspects that Robert and frankly that the whole family had to live with.
Here’s what was communicated to me though: bravery. Robert didn’t retreat from his community, the Church, or from his family. He attended this parish until he simply couldn’t physically do so. That is brave. Incredibly brave. To remain with others when you decline physically and mentally, that my friends, that takes character; it takes humility, it takes love, and it takes focus. It takes a particular kind of focus that I saw most revealed to me in the last months of Robert’s life. When I would go to see him, we would chat briefly, and then I would read some scripture to him and he would recite parts of it with me.
He never lost the most essential part of life: belief that he was loved and desired, and held and sustained by God. And that focus allowed him to balance the parts of his life where – for most of us – we might find ourselves falling apart. It allowed him a sense of proportion: the things of this life are temporary, the things of this life are extremely important yes, but they are also temporary. The love of God is forever and it endures all things, all our suffering, all our decline, all our wondering, our doubt, fear, and anguish. Robert knew God because God first knew Robert. Robert held fast to this and it sustained him through what were quite obviously some tough times.
When we prayed together, I saw tears. Those tears reminded me of the cry that Jesus made on the Cross, ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.’ That in Robert’s physical, mental and emotional suffering, God would inhabit his heart and mind, and that Robert himself was taken up in Jesus’s own suffering on the Cross, means that Robert is also taken up in Jesus’s body and so in his resurrected life, indeed, in his spiritual body.
Through Robert, through his life – regardless of his condition – God showed me what it means to have life, to have grace, to allow God to work through him so that others might know love, and in turn share it with others. Robert was for me, and for so many others – his wife Sylvia, his children, Sharon and Denise – an instrument of God’s grace: a life of service (however imperfect, however, broken, however weathered by disease, or decay as well all eventually are), it was a life of faithfulness to God and to neighbor; a fulfillment of the law and of the gospel.
I cannot tell you exactly where Robert is now, God alone knows this. What I can say is that in Robert, in the life of a man, a father, a husband, a brother, an uncle, God was made known to others. And in God, Robert has the promise not just of rest eternal, but of new life, a life free of suffering, of pain, of disease, he has the promise of a resurrected body, a spiritual body perfected by the one who gathers all of us to him. AMEN
Our readings this morning share a central theme: what it means to love God and in turn, to then become capable of truly loving neighbor. Yes, the summary of the law, the two great commandments: to love God and neighbor (which includes enemy).
So let me ask you – folks who have been Christians for most if not all of your lives – how do we go about loving God? (ASK)
Now let me ask this question again: What does Scripture say about loving God? (ask).
Let me read you a passage from the first letter or epistle of John”
“Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” Let the Scriptures rephrase that for us for deeper understanding: “we are able to love God, solely because he first loved us.” And then solely because he first loved us, displayed this love, showed us what love looks like and how it is lived out with other people, only then are you and I, is anyone able to actually love other people.
And there are some key things that follow from this reality. One of the things that I’ve discovered in both just general observation of human behavior, but also in studying human behavior formally (academically) and informally, through being a pastor, is that the thing that most prevents being able to receive love, and in turn to share love with another, is fear.
Receiving love and giving love involves being really vulnerable. It involves sharing our lives – our inner most things, things that scare us, that make us feel weak or ashamed or confused, or different from others, things that worry us, also our hopes, our most core of values, our desires and our needs – the things that make us who we are. If we do not reveal the fullness of who we are to another, we cannot say that that person knows and loves us, the particular and peculiar us that we are. But of course this puts us all in the position of being mighty vulnerable, of being judged for the things we reveal, of being rejected for one reason or another. So we often fear revealing ourselves and then don’t.
But here’s the thing about God: he knows your inner most thoughts, actions, worries, concerns, hopes, dreams, struggles, and desires. Look at how he speaks to his people Israel. He calls them in our reading from Hosea: dearest Israel, my child Ephraim, my people, I know you, I know you hide from me, you have turned from me, you have indulged in idolatry and you are greedy, you dash each other literally and figuratively, and oh I shall give you over to another nation so you can experience what life is like without me. But I cannot leave you; I will never leave you, for I love you more than any human parent could ever love a child; I will pick you up and heal you and care for you and give you life eternal like no earthly parent ever could. And the John’s letter echoes this voice of God we hear in Hosea when John says, “perfect love – that love of God who sent his Son into the world for our sakes, to bind us up, heal us, reconcile us to him and to one another – that perfect love is the sole means by which the fears you have are actually cast out.
Why is that? Well what sorts of things to we fear? Some common things I hear are feeling alone, lonely, rejected, unwanted, lacking purpose, worrying about one’s own health and the health and well being of one’s kids. I also hear about fear concerning money, about having to endure suffering. These are all certainly realistic worries. I have them. I’m sure many of you do as well. And you know what? We’re right to worry about these things. We really need to find ways to address these issues. They certainly don’t disappear because we believe in God. God is not nirvana. He is not emptiness. He does not remove suffering. No. The fear that is cast out is the fear that all we have and all we are must be measured and obtained in accordance with the standards of our given culture.
God’s love in sending Jesus into the world for us, to reconcile us to him, isn’t about removing struggle and suffering, but instead it provides light to know that this world isn’t our measure of value, success, worth, acceptance, or love. God’s revelation to us in Jesus’s life is that he loves us so much, that as he told Ephraim, or Israel in Hosea, so he sustains us and draws us to him. He loves us so much that he has reset the really broken ways of measuring value and worth, so that in following and seeking him, we find ourselves loved by him. And when we seek and follow, we find ourselves loved by him. And as we find ourselves loved by him, it’s not that our worries of fears disappear, but that we can approach them in hope rather than with despair. This is really vital.
Go into example of US libertarianism and the fear and violence it has sowed into the very DNA of its citizens.
I see people so constantly living as if they must win, they must have the best, they must be successful, they must accumulate, they must get to the top, they must become the best, they that they are willing to trample on anyone who gets in their way. I also see people though who sink into despair because they find themselves feeling trapped, alone, between a rock and a hard place. And I see people who use the worst of ways to handle their idolatries: cheating on spouses for various reasons, eating too much, drinking too much, doing drugs, gossiping about other people, triangulating someone thereby tearing down all the relationships around them, allowing anger to fester to the point it boils over into an explosion of rage, irritability and sometimes even abuse, greed that strips both goods and people of their value and worth, making housing costs sky rocket so next generations cannot afford a home or to raise a family and then blaming that generation for destroying old structures and social roles that caused the problem in the first place, destroying the environment and family life and community by building suburbs that required driving everywhere, long commutes and less time spent in social groups.
These things, my friends are symptoms of self-idolatry, born out of fear, otherwise, in modern terminology, known as narcissism. God says to us: I am coming into the world for you to bind you up and heal you. Now take hold of me, follow me, even if you have to grab just the crumbs under the table, or just a piece of my cloak because you can’t hold on tightly. I will secure you. My love for you is enough not to erase the challenges and struggles and suffering that is common to everyone, but in my Son I have already given you a way out – a way to me – a way to see that your value and your worth is not dependent on your success here, but rather your value and worth is evaluated in accordance with the humility of being vulnerable enough to receive my love for you, and to share that with others.
So when we hear Paul talking about not living our old lives which were full of this life of fear – of malice, envy, idolatry, anger, fornication, passion and greed – what he means is that whomever we are, whatever life circumstances we come from, God loved us so much that he came into the world for us in our broken little corners. He loved us so much that he set us free to not live as if our broken little corners are all that is. He loves us so much that he set us free so that we could live not for ourselves, or for the sake of what we can accumulate or accomplish here, but so that we might share his love even when it makes us vulnerable, even when it challenges our conceptions, our presuppositions, our self constructed identities. It allows us to look at life and to evaluate what we are dealing with on the basis of the reality that we have been, are and always will be loved by God. AMEN.
For those of you who are here most Sundays, you will likely have heard me talk about this notion of God that you sometimes hear non-Christians or unfortunately, even many Christians espouse: that there are three gods. There’s the God of the OT, angry, judgmental, vengeful, much like the worst of human tyrants who gets his way by commanding people to commit acts of war and violence on others. Then there’s this teddy bear like Jesus who is just pure love and acceptance of all things. And then there’s this Holy Spirit who, far too many folks, even some professional theologians, think is sort of the unhinged part of God … doing a ‘new thing’ whenever human beings need a reason to justify whatever it is they’re doing.
And I’ve said to you that we are much to be pitied as believers in the God of Scripture if what I’ve described here is true. Why? For a really simple fact: if the picture of God – three sort of loosely affiliated people or concepts of justification is our God, then we are left in our sin. And concretely, what that means is that when we die, the measure, value and meaning of our lives would amount only to what we accumulated, and only what is valuable in the eyes of the particular society in which we lived: 15th century Spain, a 17th century English resident 19th century Victorian England, the United States up until the 1960s. Or even today’s supposedly free and open world. Woe to you then, if you were a person of relatively immediate African descent, woe to you if you were a woman, woe to you if you were a third or fourth son, woe to you if you were a small man born into a family of physical laborers, woe to you if you were intelligent and capable, but unfortunately Catholic in 17th century England, woe to you if you were male or female and intelligent but born a mere commoner, woe to you if you were born today with all the freedom and opportunity in the world but faced tough circumstances and did not fulfil expectations of our culture, woe to you if are over 40, past the cultural best buy date. Woe to you if you invested in stocks and bonds or borrowed on heavy credit to pay for a home and then lost it all in one of many recessions we’ve had. Woe to you if you’re a man and enjoy helping and working with people, you’re not really a man are you? Woe to you if you’re a woman who is exceptionally intelligent, strong, independent, articulate and assertive, yet also nurturing and loving. You’re not really a woman are you? Sorry folks: none of you is worth much by societal standards.
We, along with every person at every point in history, lives within historical circumstances that define value, worth, and meaning in very particular ways. These values and our worth is often measured by how much we accomplish in accordance with some socially set measure of value. Now let me say at the outset that this is certainly an important aspect of living together in community. We need some means of living, working and making decisions together. So we need some form of governance, law, stability, and education, that can help us to make decisions, to make changes where necessary, and to live together where we inevitably have competing interests, and limited resources. The difficulty arises when we live our lives as if this is the only reality that exists; as if these human constructed ways of living are the only reality that we have.
Paul reminds us that those of us baptized into the Christian faith hold that there is a more important, and more true reality to which we are tied, and by which our lives and measured. He says to the Church in Collossae: Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (this God we hear of in the OT), This Son, sent into the world for our sakes by his Father is the firstborn of all creation. Why do we say this about him? Because he exists eternally, one with God the Father, this one we often think of as the God we hear about in the OT, and therefore, in the Son, Jesus Christ, the firstborn and therefore true human being, all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. Paul gets really philosophical here when he says: “He himself is before all things (that’s because, as the beginning of the Gospel of John puts it, he is eternally one with God and was not created but is the origin of all that is created), and so in him all things hold together, since they were made in him and are being perfected in him.
Really practically then, Jesus’s own life is the measure or the standard for our own lives. We are judged, our acts, words and deeds, are judged in accordance with his own life: his words and actions. He took on human flesh and became one of us. Then he lived an historical life with us that ended in his murder at the hands of his own people and many non-jewish participants and onlookers. To interpret that slightly differently: he lived his life, including his death in a way that bore faithfulness to God and to his Jewish people and his non-jewish people, the gentiles: he loved God and neighbor. And in this, he changed our fate. We were headed to the dust, to mere ashes, with a life measured solely by our lifetime of busy accomplishments, accumulations, success by our society’s standards, where love, empathy, hope, joy, sacrifice, and commitment have absolutely no meaning, so long as we accomplish our particular version of busy goals. God said, and he shows in Jesus’s response to Mary and Martha, that this busyness of accomplishment, of ladder climbing, of changing the world, of owning a home, of getting our own way in relationships, of beating down or out those with whom we disagree, of winning our particular theological or political or social battles, is simply not the reality by which our lives are right now – right this instant – and for all eternity, being measured.
To live as if this is your reality leaves you living estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, to what it means to be a truly human person. To truly live, Jesus says to us in our gospel lesson this morning, you must set aside those things of the world by which we measure life, value and worth, and attend to our true reality: the reality of God’s life as shared with us in Jesus’s own life. And what does this life look like? It is a life of service for the sake of others. It is a life in which we commit our lives to reestablishing for ourselves and in our relationship and commitment to and with others, what it means to live in the way that Jesus lived and lives with us. Concretely, it means fulfilling our promises to one another. It means not deciding to do our own thing when it suits us. It means looking for Jesus just where he is – precisely the act of Mary – even when it doesn’t suit us, when it doesn’t fit our agenda, when it challenges us and makes us struggle, even sometimes hurt. It means being present to where Jesus is in the life of another in every given moment of life. It means getting stuck into our relationships with one another, not walking away, not chastising, or beating down, not busying ourselves with work that makes us look strong, powerful, worldly, wealthy, worthwhile … it means making the sacrifice necessary to love others to the end of our lives. And so sometimes this means setting boundaries with people too, saying, ‘no, this isn’t right, and here’s why,’ but always explaining why; not simply judging as if our lives and our actions and words are somehow consistently holier or superior to those of another. At the core, our Gospel and epistle lessons this morning are about remaining bound, as Jesus did with us in his death, and as, Mary and so we, are called to do: to love God, manifest to us in his Son, and to love one another, as we seek Jesus Christ at work in their lives. This is what it means to be alive: to love. It is simultaneously the most simple of claims – the point of life is to love the other; and yet the most profoundly difficult life to live. To love is not to radically accept all that happens, every claim that’s made. To love is to go up to Jesus Christ himself – as he reveals God to us in the Scriptures – to allow him to permeate our bodies and souls and so our hearts and minds – and to share him, the world’s reality, with all whom we encounter.
This morning, we celebrate the ministry and the life of Ann. A faithful member of this community whose words and actions gave shape to the community, the life and the witness of this parish. As we recognize her commitment to God, and ask God to preserve her life and her witness, we look for those places in our own lives, or in our community’s life, where her work built and continues to press us into God’s bosom so that we might be strengthened – as individuals and as a community – to share the life and love of God with others. AMEN.
The parable Jesus tells today is very timely for us as Anglicans. You see, we just of course had our general synod – the gathering of all the bishops, representative clergy from each diocese, and representative lay people from each diocese. There were some really important issues that were discussed, one of which was the horrendous treatment of First Nations persons by colonizing Europeans: residential schools where children were literally ripped from the arms of parents and forced into schooling systems that stripped them of their heritage, customs, ways of life, language, values, ethics, morals, and so their capacity to understand their place in the world. Now the intent was very noble: Europeans believed that by being stripped of false beliefs about the world, those who didn’t know God would come to know him, and then could willingly accept him into their lives and be saved. Believe it or not, these Christians truly believed what they were doing was saving and bettering the lives of these folks. Don’t belittle or judge their hopes on the basis of our values and ethics. Hindsight is 20/20. What those colonists and missionaries believed they were doing were offering life and love.
Unfortunately, as is so often the case in every single endeavor we engage in as people, the ways and means of ‘conversion’ or ‘mission’ of helping people to know God, turned out to be exceptionally harmful in ways that Christians of the time should have known better, and in ways that we only understand now after having studied things like anthropology, psychology, sociology. The impetus to convert was good and holy. The method of doing so, we now can see in retrospect as often stripping people of their actual competence in coming to know God through their own means, so also then their autonomy in knowing and willingly accepting or opening to and allowing grace to transform them; and so finally in their relatedness to God and to one another i.e. in their capacity to take what they learned and allow it to shape and reshape their relationships to one another, to share in love and hope in building up their families in the worship and service of God. Instead of enabling far too many of these folks to flourish in a shared faith, we suffocated their capacity for unique reception and transformative witness, by destroying their common and individual lives. Whether intended or not, our sin (as European descendants who inherit the sins of our great grandparents, grandparents, parents and even our own lives) was the failure to recognize something key: that mercy necessarily exercised in sharing grace is not always and to be honest, is often not consistent with the norms and customs of our culture. Mercy MUST be shaped by the witness of Scripture, not by the witness of our culture.
And therefore rightly, the Archbishop, Fred Hiltz, apologized, he confessed and repented, on behalf of our Church, for the sin we committed in bearing false witness to the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. This is important. Why? Because without it, no space in time is made for healing and reconciliation. Without recognizing our sin, without confessing it, without opening ourselves and recognizing we need help and direction from God, we place the scales of blindness over our own eyes, we turn our backs on the freedom, grace, light, and sight, that God brought in Christ. To love neighbor we must see; but to see, we must first know God or else we’ll stumble blindly often causing others and ourselves harm, rather than healing and reconciliation. So this was a step of asking God to forgive our methods and our ways – where we intended good but acted too much in keeping with the ways and understanding of our culture (in the 17th and 18th century) rather than in accordance with the ways of God, as communicated to us by his Son through Scripture.
The other most important matter before the Synod gathering was that of whether or not to change the canon (a canon is a law of the Church), which would unambiguously permit same-sex marriage (marriage between two women or two men) in the Anglican Church of Canada. In order for the canon to receive assent (to pass or for this matter to be allowed unambiguously or only in specific parishes in particular dioceses), the resolution had to pass by a 2/3 majority in three categories. Category 1 are the laity representatives, category 2 are the clergy representatives, and category 3 are the bishops of the Church. The resolution to change the canon passed by 2/3 majority in both the laity and clergy categories, but it failed in the Bishop category, which means that the resolution failed to pass. Now there is a caveat to this in that there are several dioceses, Toronto being one of those dioceses, where there has already been some provision for some parishes to perform same sex marriages. But this resolution not passing means that that permission is not universally given to dioceses, thus to bishops and to clerics in the Canadian Anglican Church.
As you might imagine, and perhaps sitting here today, you might find yourself feeling hurt, angry, frustrated, or confused. Some of you might be indifferent (which would surprise me given that you, as a witness to God, will likely have to speak to your children, grandchildren and neighbors about the church and its teachings on sexuality). On the other hand, there are some of you who might be feeling relief, but also maybe fear about how you will be received or judged for your particular position or understanding.
Here’s the thing: whatever you hold, believe and however you feel, I want you to know something essential and central: you are loved by God. So often in our Church, the implication is that if you do not believe as this or that group of Christians does, you are hated, despised, damned, going to burn in hell. This presumption to certainty is utterly false and unscriptural: no one knows the will of God with respect to another’s salvation. No one. And to presume as such carries with it a dire warning from God about which I have spoken before. So let me state this again: whatever you believe, whomever you are, you are loved by God. It is impossible for this not to be the case, since your very existence is the result of God’s love. And it is his love that sustains you and in which you endure. Without this, you would cease to exist. And I’m not using hyperbole here: without the love of God that sustains you in your very being, you would return to nothing. So the fact that you exist means that you are loved and desired at the level of your very innermost being, by God. Know this and allow it to inform how you respond.
This is the most central thing that I want to say: allow the fact that you are loved by God to be the basis for your response to these particular circumstances. When the lawyer in today’s parable asks Jesus: who is this neighbor that I must love, how does Jesus respond? He doesn’t give a definition of the one who is the neighbor. No. He gives a definition of what it means to fulfil the two commandments and thus the law and therefore, to being a neighbor. It is not the priest who uses purity and contamination worries to avoid the beggar who is suffering after facing a brutal encounter, it is not the legalist who uses laws and again, notions of purity and holiness to avoid the beggar who is suffering, ailing, broken. The one who does the will of God – who fulfills the life of Jesus and so the law – is the one who remains and assists where the beggar is in desperate need of healing.
Now why would a Samaritan – a supposedly unholy one before God – stop to help the beggar on the street? I cannot say for certain. However it has been my experience that those who remain to help despite the cost to themselves, do so because they recognize that they have been loved, that they have been forgiven their own inevitable transgressions, and therefore, they desire to share this lifegiving reality – a release from being defined by our failures – with others.
It is essential then, that you recognize that you are loved by God, for this is the basis of your being – the grace of God more inward to you than all your own inclinations borne out of pain and suffering – that will allow you to fulfil his commandments to love him and your neighbor. To cross over the road – that is, to sustain with those who are themselves hurt, frightened, worried, angry, bitter, tired, relentlessly annoying, whatever their understanding of the results of this synod, whatever their fear about how people will now perceive them, this is the work to which God calls us. Most of you in here will likely understand this. Some of you might not. But let me tell you something: many out there, many who claim the name, ‘Jesus Christ,’ do not. You have the experience and the wisdom to speak to them in charity, with the love you have been consumed in for so much longer than many have been alive. Take your years of living, of loving, of suffering, of enduring of remaining, and share it with those beggars – angry Christians, hurt Christians, dismissive agnostics and atheists – show them the love of God that has given you life. AMEN.
I remember when I first became a believing Christian about 15 years ago now. I heard this reading one Sunday and I thought, ‘yeah baby, I’m going to be sent out into the figurative fields of Southern Ontario and I’m going to convert the whole province. I mean, what could go wrong: I was going to go out there (at the time with my friend Matt) and we were going to go out two by two to convert people to Jesus. I was excited because I like physical and intellectual challenges. The harder something is, the more I get excited by it … solving a puzzle, having to use all of my various gifts to find a unique solution.
And here, Jesus’s own words to me: ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ And so Jesus said to me, Go, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’ To me, this was an adventure, a test, a challenge, and something that would require all of my capacities. I was going to go out there and proclaim the gospel to people who had – just as I once had – turned away from the gospel, from the God news of Jesus’s coming into the world and his gathering us and saving our lives by reconciling us to his Father. I was to proceed Jesus in this great work … how proud of me would he be when he saw my success?
The disciples – and now me, one of Jesus’s disciples – were going out, without all their belongings, with just what they had on and they were to stop and eat and drink and rest where they were invited and to turn pronounce to those who rejected them: even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. So not only did I have directions about what to do with those who welcomed me, but also those who rejected me. I thought my mission would be so incredibly clear. How very black and white: acceptance and condemnation, clear as glass right? I had my warning and knew to look out for the wolves. I wasn’t to take with me any extra stuff, just go. God would give me the power even to heal the sick. If I’m rejected, it is because they have rejected Jesus, and his Father who sent him into the world and his Spirit who gathers people to him.
Adventure to be sure. A mission to be sure. Following where God had already set his path, and telling of the Son, Jesus Christ, who is coming. Only, perhaps I didn’t hear the whole passage, but rather heard what I wanted to hear. You see I had been so excited by what I thought was the call to a minimalist approach: don’t take a purse or extra sandals … you don’t need any of that stuff for you’re doing God’s work, you can’t fail, so you need nothing. What I failed to grasp however, was why the workers are often so few. In fact, to be sure, throughout my subsequent years as a Christian, my work waned so that it probably at times, was more alike the rejecting masses than the workers of the harvest. You see when Jesus said, ‘leave all of those things behind – your sandals and your purse – I think that he intended something more than simply our physical possessions.
What I think Jesus was getting at here is a deeper spiritual truth: to become a laborer in the field God has prepared and planted, we must be willing to let go of the presumptions we carry, the figurative baggage of our own lives, the things we use to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, from having to really get to know other people, from having to love people we don’t like, don’t trust, don’t know, who aren’t one of us. And surely this passage, if read in isolation – what theologians call – eisegesis, might lead us to conclude that we are quite free to proclaim the gospel and cast off those who don’t receive it in judgment.
But in fact, the judgment one can proclaim here is predicated or presupposed by an essential reality: Jesus will come, Jesus has come, Jesus will come again. Jesus’s own life of judgement and forgiveness and the way that these things unfold throughout his ministry, changes the shape of what our ministry of labor must look like. To be sure, Jesus’s incarnation is predicated – as we heard in Advent, by a warning to people, a coming judgment: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand; if you deny the one who is to come, the life you build will be built on quicksand, and it will sink all around you when Jesus returns. In other words, it will leave you with nothing to offer up to God from the gifts he has given you.
And yet his incarnation, his call for repentance, is not about God’s desire to seek vengeance on human beings, for what would our perfect God gain from vengeance, since vengeance is not justice but ego satisfaction? No God’s desire for repentance is his call to human beings to see his light, to see the world and their lives in the light of grace and so to catch glimpses of the true purposes for which each person was made. And so while us laborers of his planted and tilled field might say of those we encounter who reject Jesus, ‘we protest against you,’ we are quickly chastened in our own judgment by knowing that we stand among those judged. That we stand as those who sin, as John puts it, no one who says they have no sin know Jesus Christ. That we bear – in all the things that we carry with us from our life in the flesh (life ordered to the goods and values, the ethics and morals and ways of our secular world, or even our fallen church ways) – the bad seeds that so often fall on the thorny ground of fleeting faithfulness, of fleeting kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.
We can find these things not only in ourselves, even as the faithful laborers we try to be, but when we turn to the Scriptures, we find ourselves in those laborers who carried with them baggage unfitting the kingdom of God … people like Annanias and Saphira who carry with them the greed of not sharing their physical resources with their fellow laborers, people like Peter who deny Jesus our of fear, people like David who murder, steal, fornicate, to fulfil carnal desire for power, prestige, and lust, people like Judas who perhaps doubt God’s power to the extent they will betray him to the point of leading him into his death. Indeed, seeing the example of so many laborers of the field who have not left behind their own baggage, we can find ourselves if not today, then at various points throughout our lives. There is not a moment, not a time, not a day, not a year, when we do not find ourselves tucked into the very lives of those whom we hear about in our Scriptures – as faithful laborers, fearful doubters, lazy farmers, persons filled with Legion, angry, bitter, ignorant, unwilling to learn, grow, study, follow, turn to … yes, all of us carry this figurative baggage on our journeys into the field of labor where we are to carry out the mission of proclaiming Christ.
For me, my faith turned a mighty bit bitter as I carried with me the NEED to win; the need to succeed, the need to see success, numbers, money, conversion. And when I looked out and saw that this was not happening, that churches were declining, that my theological convictions were not being adhered to, I turned from being a faithful laborer in the field, to one sitting in the chair of judgment. You see – you and I – we fit into both characters in this particular passage throughout our own life times. We so often intend to go out into the world as faithful laborers, but all too often we do not heed Jesus’s words and carry with us so much of our own figurative baggage, that we cannot proclaim the coming kingdom as something to be hoped for, of a fulfillment of being, of life, of love, and so of joy. The call to repent and turn into the gift of grace – of wholeness, completeness and reconciliation – is heard not as hope, but rather as an egotistical human desire for retribution. As Paul puts it, we will reap what we sow in our labor of faith. If we wish to proclaim the hope, peace, love and joy by which we have been saved, we must learn to leave behind the things to which we cling, and open ourselves with humility and vulnerability, to become instruments of grace by which God draws others to him. Let us commit ourselves to him, to knowing him more deeply, and to allowing ourselves to be filled by his Holy Spirit for all the days we remain laboring in his field. AMEN.
I think our readings this morning overlap in one really important way: they all are dealing with the issue of what it means to leave behind what Paul refers to as ‘the flesh’ or what we might call, ‘our old lives,’ for one purpose: to follow Jesus Christ. Now of course this really isn’t news right? It’s sort of a central tenet of Christianity: we are followers of ‘the Way,’ followers or disciples or learners of Jesus Christ. It seems as if this is pretty straight forward.
So we hear Jesus put this a few different ways in the Gospel Luke records: ‘when the days drew near for Jesus to go to the Cross, to die, to descend into hell and then to rise and then ascend to his Father’s right hand’, he ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem. Yep, he knew his Father, he love his Father, and so he followed him even though doing so would mean people would kill him by mounting him on a Cross. And of course Jesus’s own words here, and his ascension to being with his Father are foreshadowed or prophesied in our reading about Elijah’s being ‘taken up’ and about Elisha’s having to ‘take up the mantle’ or the mission or the work or the way, in other words, of having to follow Elijah’s way.
We know that prophets like Elisha so often not heard by the Isrealites, just as the many of the villagers in the gospel story from Luke did not receive Jesus. Why? Because he set his face to Jerusalem. Because Elisha, just as had Elijah, as does Jesus, put first the Kingdom of God. They place it above their own personal reputation, their own monetary or property gains, it even gives shape to how they live out their relationships with other people: they all prioritize – even in their closest relationships – their relationship with God. They set the stage for what life will look like as one follows God.
So what does it look like. Does it grant you some great power to control or coerce or threaten others into believing in God. Apparently not. For when the disciples see people not following Jesus and they ask if they should command fire to come down and consume them, Jesus turns and rebukes them. Tough luck Westborough Baptist, Jesus just called out your improper following him there.
Jesus next implies that his mission is not merely of this world, that his mission is bigger than the general concerns for food, shelter, etc, that living things have. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he says. Why? Because he is on a mission to reconcile all things – every created thing – to himself. Until things are, as we hear in Corinthians – all in all, until all time, history and creation is brought to perfection in God, Jesus will work to reconcile us all.
Twice, we hear what at first sounds like a rather harsh response from Jesus. Jesus tells two men, “follow me.” Both say, ‘but I have something I must first do – bury my father, and say farewell to my family.’ Jesus says, ‘let the dead bury their own dead and no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
While this might sound harsh, the point Jesus intends to make is this: there can be nothing that you place before following God; no relationship, no work, no ideology, no hopes, no dreams, no project, no obligation. What is this? It’s simple really. Jesus’s point here is that if we are not first following him, anything and everything else we do will become distorted because it will be formed according to the way of life that we have come from – the flesh, or old way of life – that Paul speaks of. The things of the flesh, rather than the Spirit, the ways of the flesh, the concerns of the flesh.
What are these things? Well, we see them spoken of all over the Scriptures: customs and traditions that are done for their own sake, rather than because they are good witness to God, prayers that are offered for others to hear, a kind of showing off, rather than because we desire relationship with God. Paul has a really particular list. He says, look, when you decide to follow Jesus, when you get baptized and put your hand to the plow that is living your faith out in this world, you commit to loving God first. That’s your first obligation, but when you commit to doing this, you learn what it truly means to love your neighbor, and even your enemy. You learn that love isn’t necessarily consistent with a culture or societies, customs, norms, acceptable ways of life.
Jesus’s and Paul’s points here are that if you stop putting God first – this God who reveals himself to us in Jesus’s own life – then you’re going to so much more easily be led back into the old life by temptations: things like fornication … I mean, hey, who cares who you sleep with. It’s not like God made sex for a specific purpose or anything right? Didn’t he just give it to us for general pleasure? Scripture doesn’t have much to say about sex does it? It’s not like issues of sex and sexual practice have undermined the Church’s witness in the world have they? Why don’t we just follow our culture’s norms here or an individual’s particular proclivities?
OR there’s idolatry … money, possessions, power, it’s not like the power of church going republicans have undermined evangelical witness to God in the United States right? Strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy … not like these things haven’t eroded any Christian foundation in the Western world – say that rather large dissension or factionalism that happened in the 16th century called Church division that seems to have an endless consequence of factionalism. Not like jealousy, gossip, envy, and obnoxiousness haven’t pushed people out of the church never to set foot again into its worship life right? You don’t know anyone who’s been pushed out maybe even away from God because of this do you?
Jesus, echoed by Peter, says, ‘friends, I have come for you. I’ve changed the world and so the meaning of everything. If you want to know what the new meaning is, you’re going to have to follow me, and you’re going to have to put my own Words to you, and the life that I lived, first. I’ve revealed who God is to you. I’ve lived out what it means to be a true human being who loves God and in turn, his neighbor. This is what your life is all about. It is what your neighbor, your enemy and even the non-believer’s life is all about. But you’re only going to see how all of these claims are the case, if you put me first. If you put me first, it will change what you do, it will change how you do it, it will change what you prioritize, it will change what otherwise would have been: the dead burying the dead. You are no longer dead for you no longer live life according to the old life, to the flesh, you live by the Spirit. So allow yourself to be guided by the Spirit who is transforming you into the very Person of Jesus Christ, the one true human being. But him first, and to him you will be led. Don’t fall back isn’t this sort of ‘one time warning.’ After all, Paul has the most famous monologue about how he constantly does. Don’t fall back is rather the continual refrain that should press us onward, to set our own faces to Jerusalem, to carrying our own crosses when we feel the old ways of the flesh rise it us.
The life of faith is cross carrying and so often happens in the midst of other’s own dismissal or doubt about our commitment to God, or our own frustration with the way other Christians behave or deform our collective witness. It is so easy to turn back from our plowing the faith field. It is so easy to turn instead to the temptation to making things idols, or people idols, or to engaging in strife with others because we are jealous, or angry, or envious. It is so much easier to simply react, rather than to do the hard work of figuring out why we have acted or responded in a way that does not fit the life of God revealed to us by Jesus. It is exceptionally difficult – particularly when we live in a diverse world with tremendous complexity – to figure out how to live in accordance with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus came into the world to set us free from the fear that our lives are nothing more than the mere measure of what we accumulate or lose, or the power we attain, or the people we control, or the attention we get, or the battles we win. He set us free so that we could love. He showed us what it means to live out that love by revealing it to us in the Scriptures through his Son. And in his Spirit, God gives us the power to allow ourselves to be reshaped, reformed and reconciled to our Father. Let us take the time to examine just who or what we are following, and to ask God to enable us to follow him. So that when he asks us, are you fit for the Kingdom of God. We can reply: I followed you, as you called, healed, encouraged, taught; as you forgave – including me! – as you were transfigured, stood firm, suffered, died, rose, lifted me up, led me on, empowered me, gave me hope, transformed me. I know. I followed you LORD. AMEN
What deeply rich passages we have this morning when we read them as speaking of God himself and our relationship to him – not as separate passages, but rather as different levels, metaphors, figures – of understanding how God has come to gather and transform us.
Let me start with rereading the gospel lesson to you from John’s testimony: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Jesus has completed his mission – his work of opening the way for us to be reconciled to God our Father in him. Because he and his Father are one, so when we are brought into his own life (which we mark by our baptisms), we can say, ‘yes, I am with my Father, because I am in his Son, my brother, Jesus. He binds me to him in his Spirit.’ The little catch that you and I might miss though, if we’re not careful, is that we don’t always live out our lives, we don’t always seem to realize or be willing to witness to this new reality. We – as Paul puts it – so often fall back into sin, into the things of the flesh. What are these things? Basically an endless, nuanced, and often complex assortment of acts and words that contradict God’s intention for our lives, and that contradict the shape of his own life that he calls us to follow. We know this story. But it’s worth remembering that Jesus acknowledges there is a difference between his relationship to his Father, and our relationship to God in him. Notice Jesus does not say, ‘and now they are one as you and I are one.’ But instead he says, ‘make them one – these ones you have given me now – and those who, following my disciples, will come seeking me. Make as all one.
This is pretty important to recognize that we are not yet one as the Father and Son are one (I’ll leave the ontological distinction aside and only speak about the matter of time and of sin). Jesus doesn’t say, ‘they are one’ for a primary reason: not all yet believe. Not all have seen or acknowledged or known the reality of their creator, and his power and ordering of their lives. And I’m not speaking here simply of non Christians, but of Christians themselves. So instead, what we hear is a plea to the Father, but also, a calling or mission for us: Father make them one. And so it follows that if Jesus asks the Father to make us one, that we ought to be open to being made one. And herein lies one of our great challenges. Do we look as if we are open to responding to Jesus’s plea to the Father? To be made one? Most of our history is replete, in fact, with well, to be really blunt, SIN. The sin of constantly dividing over so many things, where every one of us wants to do what is right in our own eyes, to the point we refuse to actually engage anyone who does not follow us.
And why is this a sin? What is it problematic? Let’s ask Jesus. Why do we need to be open to being made one, Jesus? I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. What is implied in Jesus’s words here? That being open to being made one is essential for mission, for bringing people to God through his body, the Church. Why might this be the case? Can’t we all sort of figure it out for ourselves in our own way? Get to Jesus in a million different ways? Here’s my fundamental problem – and not just mine, but seemingly Scripture’s problem with it – when people do, as Judges tells us, what is ‘right in their own individual eyes,’ we tend to end up worshipping our own idols – whether that’s a false happiness, a false materialistic contentment, a malformed sense of self that ends up in self-hatred, or just a lack of belief that following Jesus isn’t the equivalent of following the ways our culture sets out as good and right without question and examination – and in worshipping these things, we actually too often stop being open to being made one in God. Instead, we might be one small fragment of a thousand different sects, each with its own little limited, partial and self-confirming, never challenged, never transformed, stagnant self, frozen in time like a pillar of salt without taste; without capacity, that is, to witness to the good food or fruit of the Gospel. How can we testify to our one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if we refuse to be open to being transformed, to being made his body, and therefore to embodying his own life of unity with his Father in the world?
If we look at our story in Act – a very concrete story of mission in the world – through this lens of being open to being made one, joined to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, what do we have? Imagine the events of the story in Acts as the Persons of our Triune God. We hear of an Earthquake that blows open the doors of the prison in which Paul and Silas, Jesus’s disciples, have been unfairly detained for speaking the truth. Think for a minute about what that Earthquake represents: this Earthquake is the Father, the waves that follow after the earthquake are the Son sent – as the waves are sent out – into the world, shattering the prison of sin and damnation, opening the doors so that we might be raised from the prison of sin, into the life of God himself if we are willing to stand firm and hold fast to Jesus as the quake reverberates around the world, through our city, our culture, our struggles and triumphs, through time, through history, through all that is. The chains that bound Paul and Silas, like the chains of sin that bound all people everywhere, are broken, unfastened, and even remaining just where we are as Paul and Silas did in the prison, so we are set free by God to take hold of life now and eternally, when we open ourselves to him, allowing him to make us one, allowing him to – whereever we are, whatever our struggles, whatever our disagreements that make us want to run from other Christians – hold fast to him, hold fast to the faith. In him we are being made one. Let us take hold of that reality and live it out, not running away, not lashing out, not building up barricades, or withdrawing, or going ahead with whatever we think is right, but holding fast to engagement with one another where God makes us one in his body. AMEN.
Sometimes my dad and I will – along with other things we need to know – talk about what we’re going to preach about on Sunday. This week, my Dad said, ‘you know, I’m just not really sure where to go with our readings.’ Is there a common core to them and if so, what if anything, can we say that helps those of you sitting in the pews?
We read the passages over a few times. Then we hunted around in the Scriptures as the passages that we read, evoked links or connections to other passages through the Old and New Testaments. And we settled on a common theme amongst the passages: healing. From there, we both set off on our own ways in thinking and writing.
What seemed to my dad important, was what really mattered about God’s healing? What did it mean or does it mean for people suffering from a disease? And he said to me: God has not healed you from your type 1 diabetes, he has not healed you from the gender dysphoria that you experience, or the fact that your anatomy and hormones aren’t typical. What about my parishioners who have cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or in wheelchairs, or who struggle with deep depression, or who were raped or assaulted or abused? What connection can I make between their suffering, and Jesus’s healing, in John’s Gospel, of the man who was sick for 38 years? Why hasn’t God healed them.
I said to my dad: as for the healing miracles, yes, I believe they have and still happen. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why they happen for some but not others. Faith isn’t necessary for healing. God heals those who did not believe, and in being healed, they recognized their having been healed by this one called Jesus, who says he is one with the Father, and only then do they come to belief. Lack of faith then, wasn’t a deterrent to being healed. So there must be a bigger lesson – something more going on in these readings – than just a physical healing.
And if you dig a little, you’ll find that this is indeed the case. If you look at the reading from Acts, you’ll see that we’re following on, once again, with God’s commission to go and proclaim the gospel. This time, it’s not merely about a promise – that the King, the Messiah, the Christ has come into the world – a message we heard people go out to proclaim during our season of Epiphany. This time, the commission is about God’s promise fulfilled by God himself, in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his Son. In him is life and you are invited into it. Let the world know. So sure enough, in our reading from Acts, Paul is following Jesus, having seen the truth for the first time, the scales falling from his eyes, he sets his eyes on the Cross, and so out he goes into the world to say, ‘my friends, your sins have been forgiven, you are healed, now live into that reality.’ And so to Lydia he goes and baptizes her and her whole household.
How does she reply to the cleansing from sin, the forgiveness, to being invited into the freedom of new life in Christ? She says, ‘my Lord and my God, I open my life, my house, my world, my possessions, my everything to you, come and stay with me, with us, for in receiving your servants and their healing message, in the Spirit, they are one with me and we are together being made new. How do we know this is what she was doing in saying, “if you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home?” Well because to invite someone – strangers – into your household on the basis of your faithfulness, would imply that you recognize the thing that has happened – your baptism or initiation into a new life – is a gift and it is such a gift that you are willing to open your whole life (your home, yourself) to the members of the body of which you are now a part. The gift of new life in this family and the promises it holds are enough, it seems, to move Lydia to say, I believe enough in this new life, this new family, that I am willing to freely share of the limited resources that I have, without fear that I am not enough, that I do not have enough, that I am not good enough to do so. This promise of God fulfilled in Jesus and communicated to her by Paul is sufficient to alleviate her fear and to invite God and his people into her life to reshape and reform it.
Yeah, we can probably get that just out of this one passage from Acts given the whole history of mission recorded in the Book of Acts. But today, our reading from the Revelation God provides to John fills out this story in a little more academic or spiritual sense. God gives John this revelation of what IS coming. Not what might come, but what Jesus has already sealed for us in himself, in his life death and resurrection. It is a reality we will meet because of the one who came into the world for us. We hear that the new Temple is God himself, that this new city that God is restoring or reconciling to his intended creation – this new earth that God is now reforming and will complete, it will not require the sun or moon because all that is needed for us to see and to live, is God himself; there will be no more brokenness, no disease, no holocausts, no murder, no rape, no abuse, no torment of disease or disconnect between brain and body; no one who is unclean will enter it for God will make the clean and burn away the chaff that we all become far too often. He will make flow again the river of the water of life, which is simply his presence, his very being, holding us in and as the perfected creation he made us.
The nations will be healed by the leaves of the tree of life. All will be reconciled by Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, when he brings all things to completion, when he is all in all and has made his enemies, disease, destruction, pain and anguish, a mere footstool with no power, no capacity. And he will thereby wipe every tear from our eyes, the literal tears of anguish, suffering, exclusion, loss, anger, frustration, feeling trapped and helpless, he will wipe those tears and the figurative tears of a whole world, animals, plants, the solid earth, mountains, snow, planets, that cry out in longing for reconciliation of all things to their creator.
This is some heady stuff and might sound a little out there. The point though, is that God made all that is, all that exists. And he promises us that he has already fulfilled his reconciliation of all that he made by sending us his Son who took on every pain of every type that we suffer. And in taking it on, he endures for all time, the fate that we would suffer had he not done this: a life of mere suffering without hope; a life of mere brokenness or the need to strive and climb on top of others and crush and deform others, to make ourselves invincible and immortal, so that death might not swallow us and all that we are up. He endures for all time the generations of people whom he is drawing to himself, often without their even recognizing it.
So where does that leave us – those of us who live these little spec of time lives that are filled with good and bad, that always come with suffering that is common to everyone whether our experience is Job like or Sarah like or Ruth like, or Peter like, or the beloved disciple like. Where does this leave us? I can’t speak for you. For me, it leaves me with hope that is grounded in the only one who has the power to truly fulfill his promise: the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The only one who could come into the world he made and reconcile what he made to himself. The only one who is goodness itself, who is love itself. The only one who promises that despite my frailty, my inevitable decline and my major suffering, and my transient triumphs, he has me and will not let me go.
Only with such a promise can I get beyond myself, beyond my own fears and anxieties and rage filled tantrums of pain and inability, and impatience, and lostness, and helplessness to live a life where I can invite others to share the gift of life and particularities that God has given me. The alternative is that I feel I must somehow manipulate and control others to accomplish a path I feel is worthy, always sinking into the quicksand of the impossibility of this task in a fallen and treacherous world of our own making. Does God heal? I believe absolutely he does. He did not cure me of my diabetes or my gender dysphoria. Instead, he gives me the hope that these things do not define my worth and value to him, and they do not define my ability to be loved and to live eternally with him. And so he heals me in giving me the capacity to live with and endure these things, never collapsing into them as limits that prevent me from sharing God’s love poured through me as a catalyst to others receiving that very same love and acceptance and healing. AMEN.
What has been your greatest challenge in being a part of the Church? In calling yourself a Christian? In telling others that you are a Christian. I would consider that one of the things I am naturally drawn to doing is sharing what I believe in with others, not to promote myself, but rather in the hope that I might give them support and hope. Or that I might create space in time – open up a space in time through a relationship, a connection, where we can exchange, knowledge, answering or asking questions, challenging the way someone thinks, and being challenged myself – creating space in time for that person to be able to become the person God intended them to be.
But you know what, I often find this hard to do. Why? Because we as Christians belong to a body, and perhaps even have participated ourselves, in eroding the trust necessary for people to believe that we have a message that is true and so worth hearing. I’m going to be really blunt this morning. Have you ever heard of Westboro Baptist Church? Here is an example of Christians who – trying to live faithfully – have turned the good news of Jesus’s coming into the world for the sake of everyone, into an angry, violent, and exclusionary message. How? Well, as I’ve talked about before, it isn’t so much what they have to say that is problematic (although in some cases, it has more to do with secular moralism than the Christian faith), it is rather in how they proclaim the message of the Christian faith both to other Christians and to those who aren’t Christian, who have yet to hear the good news or who have abandoned it for one reason or another.
So let me get really specific. This Christian group has proclaimed and stands behind these words:
Concerning gay men: "Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, Jan. 15, 1998
"We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist."
— Fred Phelps, “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed,” Sept. 8, 2006.
Concerning Jews: "JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009
This sect of Christians makes it very difficult for me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as, ‘good news,’ or as something that provides hope to all, or as something that isn’t a mere tool of those who want to control or witch hunt others. I MUST recognize these persons as my brothers and sisters in the faith, for indeed they have been baptized into Jesus Christ. I cannot dismiss, therefore, their testimony as if a Christian has not uttered these words. These words are what the world hears – they are one part of Christian witness to the world. And I must therefore, acknowledge that in Jesus Christ, they are one with us.
And yet, precisely because they are, in Christ, one with us (even if they would deny it), the love to which Jesus Christ calls us in this case is very particular: it is NOT, NOT, radical acceptance of ‘just any witness to him.’ Rather it is faithful witness to the one who brings not hatred, not rejection, but invitation and so mercy, by grace for ALL, all who are all undeserving. And so to love God is not to accept my own actions of disobedience under the pretense that anything is forgiven or acceptable to God and it is not to accept other actions that contradict God’s own laws, his order, his discipline and his redirection of our erroneous desires (often given to us by the culture we live within).
To love God, which requires that we love one another, even those whose words or actions make them our enemies, is not to merely accept them, but to know God deeply enough to challenge false witness and to challenge it not with condemnation and vitriol and hatred – since this simply drives people away – but rather to do so with love, patience, kindness, perseverance in relationship.
I need to reiterate this. If we are going to respond to God’s love by returning the love we have received; that is if we are going to follow Jesus when he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another – then we MUST come to know who this God is who sent his Son to reveal himself to us. We know the basic outline. Adam and Eve sin, we call this the Fall. God clothes them and raises up a people, Israel, to be his witness. They often fall and are chastised and sometimes cast out by God so that they might understand their reality without him, turned over to nations that rout out and destroy and plunder, rape, and ravage them – a kind or Lord of the Flies reality that humanity lives within without God. God sends his Son who suffers the fate to which all human beings are subject. And fulfills his promise to Abram that he might be the Father not just of the Israelites, but through adoption into Abraham’s own family line which includes Jesus, opens the way to God for all people, more than the number of stars in the sky. We know this broad outline right? But what about all the details? What about all the side stories in this grand narrative? All these side stories of fear, anger, sickness, a fear of and the reality of abandonment, of being turned over to what seems like a life long evil, or enslavement, or uncertainty? Do we know these stories? If we don’t know these stories – all of them – how can we say that we know the one whom we promised to follow?
Part of the reason that I have trouble, that I think many of us sitting in here, have trouble not just talking about, but living our faith out in the world around us, is because we don’t actually know God very well. And I include myself in these ranks of not knowing. It’s much easier to watch the news, youtube, Netflix, Prime, etc. It doesn’t really require self examination or a challenge to my own lifestyle. On my own I can construct an entire way of life that accords with my own beliefs and inclinations. To come to truly know God, to come to know that we are loved by God, actually requires some really difficult grappling with who we are and what we believe. But it is precisely in that challenge of our own self proclamations – when we have to figure out how we can share this WITH THE PATIENCE, PERSEVERANCE, LOVE, SELF CONTROL, JOY AND HOPE, that Jesus calls us to, that Jesus in fact gives to us as a new commandment, it is precisely in going more deeply into the Scriptures and learning the side stories to this over all narrative – what was God’s response to the cutting up of the concubine in the Book of Judges, or God’s response to David after he murders Bathsheba’s husband, or God’s lack of response for so long to Job, or why did God command Isaac to sacrifice his only Son, what does Sarah’s and Abraham’s miracle birth of Isaac mean about the purpose of marriage, about the purpose of sex – it is only when we dig into these stories that we can actually follow God, and truly share him with others.
If we are going to love one another as Jesus loved us, we must first understand who it is that Jesus has loved – ALL PEOPLE - and how God in Jesus, has cast the light of his grace in judgment and in law and in command and in correction and in affirmation, and in challenge, to each person and each situation encountered in Scripture. For in Scripture we find ourselves and therefore our own lives revealed. To receive God’s love, we must know God. That’s not because our effort to know him causes his love to come to us. No. it is simply because we are unnaturally inclined – this is SIN – to hide from the love of God who sometimes calls us out in a desire to redirect us. If we do not know him, we will keep hiding from his love, and when we go to share what we presume to be his love with others, we will, like the Westboro Baptists, tend to distort his love by HOW we share it (i.e. in a way that contradicts Jesus’s own commandment to love, and his very definition of what love is: self giving that is patient, kind, embodied in hope that perseveres through push back and rejection that comes out of anger and fear, and yet firm over time). Or, we may in fact retreat – as I do too often – to not sharing the full extent of challenge to current presumptions about the lifestyle, the morals, ethics, the ways, in which God calls us to live. God demands of us Christians much more than we have been willing to offer for so many decades. He has asked us to have love for one another. Love is NOT acceptance of everyone’s own personal opinions. Pragmatically, this sort of – what we call, moral relativism i.e. anything goes – has led us to epidemic levels of loneliness and depression. Love, discipleship, is coming to know God so deeply, that we allow ourselves to be filled with Jesus Christ – his whole life, his ways, his inclinations – and thereby raised up beyond our own fears we try to eliminate by satisfying our own ego demands for control. In this way – filled with the love of God himself, we are equipped to share our hope in God, with love that often includes the challenge of others and disagreement. This was what God gave to us in his Son. Isn’t it time we stopped sharing secular moral relativism that is easily converted into terrible ideologies – things like ‘be good, treat others as you would like to be treated, be the change you want to see in the world’ and instead share the particular life – that is, the love of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ?
“The Father and I are one.” These are the very last words we hear in our Gospel reading from John this morning: ‘The Father and I are one.’ How incredibly important are these words? They are the very foundation of hope not just for each one of us, but often more importantly to us, for those we love. As I talked about in Remember back to Epiphany. I talked about the fact that Jesus Christ had come into the world to transform it. And only he alone – its creator, the creator of all that exists – was capable of changing it. We of course are in the midst of celebrating this now in Easter. Jesus took on everyone’s sin on the Cross, he descended into hell where sin leads, and he overcame it, he conquered it, conquered death, through his faithfulness, and then he rose from hell, having vanquished sin. And these last few weeks, we have been witness once again to his presence amongst the early disciples. Having left the linen wrappings of death in the tomb, out he went the first and the last, the creator and redeemer, to show his followers who knew him, that yes, the world really had changed: the dead are not dead, they are made alive in him.
We hear this story today in the Book of Acts. Tabitha, a faithful disciple of Jesus, fell ill and died. They began to prepare her body for burial, for this is what we do when someone we love dies of course. And yet … and this is pretty darn important, along with this preparation for death, some fellow disciples sent out for Peter to come to see Tabitha. Why? Why would they do this? Well remember the story we’ve been following so far, it’s one that Paul will recount in 1 Corinthians 15: God sent his Son into the world, that Son died for our sakes and released us from sin when he rose from the dead. This wasn’t simply a great feat of magic. It was a fulfillment of God’s promise to gather us; to come for us; to never leave us. And so Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he appeared to some disciples and then to many others. And we hear that he sent his disciples out again and again to share this reality: his forgiveness of sins, his promise to raise us from the dead into new and everlasting life with him; to reconcile us to life with God.
Of course this gift of life that we have a foretaste of now, something promised to us in perfection and fullness of relationship with God in the life to come, well this can seem so far off that it’s almost easy to take for granted. To be perfectly frank, we often don’t think much about how Jesus turned the world upside down with his resurrection, simply because where we live here in Etobicoke, we are quite shielded from some of the worst atrocities of sin – things like holocausts, starvation, massive violence that sweeps through and destroys whole cities. And because we don’t face the struggles that so many people throughout history have – those for whom death, violence, danger, disease, was a common and regular occurrence – grace can seem like a quaint add on to what we have already accomplished. And this is so much so the case that many folks under 60 simply don’t go to Church at all. They see no need, no reason. They see nothing in Jesus’s claim that he and the Father are one, that evokes a sense of desire, hunger, passion, and hope. What need have we for hope.
Let me stop just there. What need have we for hope? We heard from our speaker, Carol, last week, that the number one reason kids end up in bad situations, on the streets, it isn’t abuse. It’s neglect. For all we have as a culture and a society, for all the material things we can buy, for all the million dollar homes and hundred thousand dollar cars we’re surrounded by in this neighborhood, far too many children here (and I mean young children) experience neglect, not necessarily intentional neglect, but neglect that often comes because parents cannot simultaneously work, one, two, sometimes three jobs, spend all day and evening commuting, somehow find a way to prepare meals and then get the kids off to one of the numerous activities the kids must do if they wish to ‘be successful in life.’ And because so many, and not just young kids, but people into their 20s and even 30s, have had their lives directed by a whole society, culture, language, and vision of ‘success,’ of meaning and of purpose, built and bent to the possession of more goods, if they do not seem to be achieving these things from extremely early ages, if they seem not to be keeping up, if they seem not to be driven to the same purpose of possession as others, they begin to feel a sense of shame. And that shame builds over time.
That shame comes, and I can tell you this from personal experience, from not knowing who your creator is. Not knowing that you – the very particular person you are called to be – was made by and is loved by God who sent his Son into the world to transform it and your destiny, so that he might reclaim you; hold you, comfort you, sometimes tear you down so that he can build you up into the person you are intended to be. Shame comes from all sorts of very concrete circumstances as Carol said last week (maybe you’re part of the lgbtq community, maybe you weren’t the most intelligent, maybe you weren’t very good looking, maybe your parents were harsh and judgmental, maybe you had some strange quirks, maybe you weren’t well liked). But beneath the surface of all of these things lies something we are often unwilling to talk about. We rather like many aspects of our society, I know I do. But these have come with a cost: a sense of self sufficiency; a sense that we do not need God.
I have heard it said that we are suffering from an epidemic of depression and loneliness in this country. I believe it. If our hope is anchored to things that figuratively blow away with the wind – material possessions, work, pensions, hobbies, even frail human relationships – we have no foundation from which to recover from the inevitable struggles, loses, fears, physical and emotional traumas – that we will encounter. The foundation isn’t merely a transcendent God. Rather this God created us in himself through his Son when we wanted to throw our with him relationship away; thinking that somehow, the sort of world that we have created and live in here in Toronto, or in the United States, or England, or in Rome, or Greece or Egypt during these society’s respective ‘golden eras,’ would be a utopia. It is not my friends. And we now see this well. The question is, what will we do about it? Some have proposed that the Church must change to meet the culture. Really? Others have proposed that we move away from the culture and create little Christian hives of a sort with home schooling and special worship groups.
I want to suggest something else to you. Many of you have lived long, long lives. You’ve watched a time of blooming for the Church and its subsequent massive decline across all denominations. You’ve had children, and grand children and sometimes great grandchildren. You have loved and loved deeply. And you have lost. I know you have lost for I have seen it, I have been in the midst of it, and I have seen how you push on, often, sometimes too often I think, burying your suffering and pain from others, attempting to remain strong and just carrying on. I get that. But it is also a product of a culture bent on, ‘keeping up appearances,’ of not allowing the messiness of death, pain, anguish, loss, doubt, anger, hurt, and yes, the hope you have found, to show through to others. We have been taught, particularly those of us who live/have lived a fairly middle class life, that being overly demonstrative or sharing our struggles, is somehow problematic. My friends, it is not. Hear again what happens when the disciples lose a beloved friend and colleague: “preparing her body for death” these folks went out seeking Peter, seeking help, asking him to come and to be with them in their loss, to maybe help in any way he can, to provide his own gift, to share of himself and his gifting. They went out in a hope that was met with the embrace of love, the fulfillment of God’s promise. It is precisely this that Jesus brought and in which he makes us and in which he commands us to go out into the world. Not in some false sense of strength or power, not living in accordance with the standards set out for us by this world, but in love received and still hoping, still pressing, still needing, being shared in our own strengths and frailties, with those whose own suffering might be buffered by the hope and love that enabled us to share with them. In conclusion, let me read to you a fine reflection on these passages from colleagues in ministry:
“Love works in this way. Love gives and returns and shares in endless exchange. Love has a voice and love gives a name. “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died” (Acts 9:36-37). Peter, acting in persona Christi, addressed her by name. “Tabitha, get up” (Acts 9:40). Even his actions are in Christ. “He gave her his hand and helped her up” (Acts 9:41). Receiving the hand of Peter, she received the hand of Christ, who then handed her to a Father from whose protection she could not fall. “No one will snatch [her] out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). She is presented alive in the life of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Her new life is much more than resuscitation. She is alive in the love that holds all things in being, for the Father has given everything to the Son. She is named in love, as are all things. “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Ps. 147:4). The love given to her is the same love that gives life and being to creation from moment to moment.
On the deathbed of our sin, weighed down by a burden of guilt and shame, we wait and languish. Jesus comes and speaks each and every name, and reaches with the strong hand of his grace, pulling us up from death to life, life everlasting, life evermore. He brings us to singing and blessing and wisdom and honor and thanksgiving forever and ever. Take comfort in this, take your purpose and your hope from this reality my dear little flock. I know many of you have lost spouses and children, mothers and fathers. Don’t hold in the pain, or the struggle, it is not yours alone to bear. God gave to you his grace so that you might be lifted up and in that, that you might lift up others so they can see his eternal light and life. AMEN.”
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.