Doubt and fear creep in as trouble happens around us, we see decline, we wonder what’s next, we lose our way, our health, our hope, we struggle with things we don’t want to tell anyone and we really wonder: are you there God. Imagine being in the trenches, imagine being a refugee, fleeing from danger, violence, oppression, perhaps punishment, even death … it’s enough to make anyone say, ‘enough,’ I cannot go on. Enough, I will do whatever is necessary to survive and that is all. Enough, I will stop believing, stop hoping, stop loving, stop giving, even stop living.
All of our readings today touch on just these issues. Because these are not issues unique to us or to our time. They’re actually extremely universal throughout history. Into these very issues God speaks to us through his prophets, through his priests, his wise men and women, through his people, and yes, even through his enemies.
We hear over and over stories of people’s lives, real lives, filled with doubt, confusion, fear, anger, loss, and questioning, And we see how God enters their lives in so many different ways – ways fitting to the particular circumstances – and draws them out of hopelessness and despair and into his own life where hope is to be found. But of course, as we probably all know, in the middle of our ‘stuff’ it can feel as if God has abandoned us, or God is not there, or that God simply doesn’t exist; that he’s the construction of human ideas
Let’s look at our alternative reading from the Prophet Haggai: In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?
Here we’re hearing about a small faithful remnant of the divided people of Israel. If there are any left who knew of the greatness of what Israel had been, of the promises God had made to save and protect them, that splendor, that hope, would seem very far off for these people. Their numbers had declined, they lived so often in fear from enemies and in exile even. Many, under those circumstances, had turned to idols, to false gods, to other customs and practices, leaving their people and most particularly, their God, behind.
Does this sound familiar? This past week I was asked by an editor of the Anglican Journal to write an article our Church’s statistical decline over the past 20 years, roughly 40% down from 2001—and the implication (made by some) that the church may “vanish” by 2040.” This is a subject about which I’ve written fairly extensively over the last decade and so I’m preparing to condense my 300 page dissertation into 800 words … but I’ll give you an even briefer summary of what will lead my reflection, and I will borrow these words from our Prophet Haggai:
“Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts … The ... splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.
You see I’m firmly of the belief that our response to any loss, whether it is the loss of our church membership, or whether, like Job, it is the loss of our money, possessions, or like so many characters through Scripture our health, our sanity, our homes, our way of life, our past, our memories, our safety, or like the Thessalonians, the loss of friends, of family, of those they deeply loved, I am firmly of the belief that our responses to all matters are to be understood, celebrated, or endured, or even suffered, knowing one central thing: that God is with us, that we are in him and he is in us, even if we cannot grasp this reality with certainty.
How can we know this? Because we encounter this reality as we hear God’s life with his people over and over recorded in our Scriptures. Not just people from the past. That is not what Scripture is. It is not a history book. It is not a book of events that only occurred in the past. It is a book that pulls us, shows us, and directs us in living relationship with God. That’s what Scripture is: it is our lives – each of us, you me, Tyler, Theo, Erika, Willa, Gib, Irene, Mavis – it is our lives being fitted into the very body, the ark, the cross, the house, the kingdom of God himself.
Christian life isn’t foremost bound to a particular denomination we belong to, like Anglican, or Catholic. It is fundamentally and most basically about having BEEN bound to Jesus Christ, by him, through his Holy Spirit, and so to God his Father who has become again our Father. When we are struggling, whether with the decline of a parish, or of a denomination, or more personally, when we struggle with sickness – mental or physical, when we struggle with violence, with poor relationships, with job losses, with retirement, with wondering what purpose our lives have anymore, or how to endure through pain and suffering, the thing that has allowed God’s people to hold on is no great strength or power, no program, no political victory; it is simply this: that God came to us in Jesus Christ. And by his death and resurrection, by our baptism into Jesus’s own life, we have entered into new life, into the promise of life eternal, and into seeing our daily affairs not as our culture does, but rather as we find our daily lives, the events, fears, anxieties, losses, frustrations, confusions, addressed by God in Scripture.
God says to us over and over: fear not little flock for I have come for you. I will wipe away those tears that you cry now; I will wipe away the suffering; I will not break you on account of your weakness and your uncertainty, in my Son I have come to you and you are mine. And so then, Paul says to the Thessalonian Church and so to us, in our struggling Anglican denomination, as he said to the Israelites in exile in Babylon, or those struggling to survive in the desert: stand firm in your faith. Do not fret. Live by hope in me so that your hope is seen as faith, the faith given to you and sustained in your weakness by Jesus Christ. You are not alone my little flock – whatever you suffer, wherever you’re at in life – you are not alone, you are mine. Seek me, ask me, and I will give to you all that you need to come to me, even with your final breath. AMEN.
Our gospel lesson from Luke today once again asks us to consider who orients our life and the decisions we make in our dealings with others. Jesus tells us a parable about a manager who was squandering the things he’d been entrusted with by his boss. When the boss catches wind of this he asks the manager for an accounting of his actions. The manager recognizes his guilt in squandering what he’d been entrusted with and says, “oh dear, what will I do? I don’t want to pay the consequences. I don’t want to beg, and I can’t actually physically work, what will I do? Cunning and shrewd as he is the manager says, “I know, since I’ve already ripped my boss off and he’s going to fire me, I might as well try to gain favor with those who owe my boss the money so that they might take me into their homes.”
So the manager goes and asks them each how much they owe to the boss. When they tell him, he says, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll only collect from you part of what you owe and you’re in the clear.” Of course the manager is hoping that this will lead to them thinking he’s a swell guy so that they might take him in now that he’s been fired by his boss; little does he care about not returning to the boss what it is that he owes as the one entrusted to manage the accounts of these others.
The boss, surprisingly, most especially when the parable comes from Jesus, commends the manager’s actions as shrewd; a smart self-protective move to be sure. But as Jesus’s commentary on it indicates, also very much in keeping with the ways of the world in which both the boss and the manager operate and by which they order their lives.
In this case, both seem to believe it prudent to ground not only their basic survival; but their success in the world, on the ability to support themselves even if it comes with unjust dealings at the expense of others.
Sure you might say, but the wealthy boss could afford it and he helped those who were likely more financially stretched than his boss. Oh how we like to rewrite our dishonesty in the guise of self-defined righteousness don’t we? But what happens when the shrewd boss goes to collect his money from those who owed him, who, thinking they were in the clear, might have spent it already? And what happens to the manager when he seeks a place to ‘lay his head’ and he encounters those who not only had to repay the boss eventually, but perhaps give up something they had come to possess with the extra money they thought they had by grace?
And what happens when the manager goes to look for another job, his reputation as a liar and thief now widespread in the little village in which he lives? And in communities where trust is easily undermined by the shrewdness of the age, someone might say, "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much,” as Jesus does. How could we trust him to hire him, let alone let him stay with us? So also, would the manager’s act not simply confirm his boss’s sense that he too must operate shrewdly if he is to succeed? Always watching out for himself, never able to trust those who work for him?
By the sin of one man all fell, we hear in Genesis. And we can see here both the effect of that one man’s sin and its tangled and pervasive web in which all have become ensnared, becoming shrewd managers of a sort. This is what we hear about in our reading from both Jeremiah and from Psalm 79: the pervasiveness of sin that keeps Israel apart from God. Jeremiah and our Psalmist cry out and lament Israel’s greed, their disobedience, and their turning away from God. Both lament the natural consequence: God allowing people to ‘have it their own way,’ which results in their submission to their foes, the surrounding nations. Our alternative reading from Amos says that Israel has “sold the righteous for silver (recall Judas’s payment to the Pharisees that condemns Jesus), by forsaking the poor, those who struggle mentally and physically, they take up their own desires in sexual sins and they forego God’s provision for their material and sexual lives.
These acts of the Israelites aren’t unique of course. We have seen and heard and ourselves struggled with them all in our Churches, our communities, our workplaces, and one look at social media or one search of ‘Church or Christian’ alongside ‘greed, sex scandal, abuse, jail, fine, imprisonment, harm, suicide, death, etc’ will bring up millions of hits concerning events that have taken place across time and history.
These acts, where we prioritize our desires, and hunger and thirst after what will satisfy them, are a rejection of the lives we’ve been given by God. For if we cannot even be trusted to act in accordance within the faulty laws and systems of a fallen world, how on earth could we even recognize grace and grasp hold of its true riches that free us from the fears that enslave us to the ways of this world? “If then you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with the true riches: the grace of God that demands witness to him alone?
Jesus continues, “if you can’t be faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own.” While Jesus uses money in the parable here, the money stands for something more fundamental: the gift of life and of the particularities of someone’s own life and of a neighbor’s life. And what Jesus is driving at here isn’t merely the money exchange in the parable, but rather one’s refusal to return to God (the owner) what the manager (us) owe: everything, every aspect of our lives (all our gifts, all our relationships, all our resources).
If you cannot be faithful in tending to the gifts that God gave to you of your life and all its capacities, God will allow you to live out the consequences (as he did with Israel, as I suggested above might happen with the manager). If you can’t be faithful to God, no one else can or would give you the fullness of life for which and by which God made you; and you will have simply thrown those away. It is you, or I, who will have created that separation from God, when we squander what he gave to us.
But so also does the symbol of money stand for God’s graciousness to us that frees us from being enslaved to the things of this world. Recall that Jesus is indeed turned over to the Pharisees for 30 pieces of silver, who in turn take him to Pilate who orders his execution. And yet on the Cross Jesus takes with him our own betrayal of ourselves in giving up the gifts we were given by God to steward and offer to others.
He takes with him to the Cross, all the brokenness that separates us from God; all the ways we misuse our gifts hoarding, hiding, burying, storing up, using in harmful ways, manipulating with shrewd cunning so often to protect us from the pervasive effects of sin and our own fears and misdirected desires. He returns to God, with interest, what we cannot: his own life, and the life of every man, woman and child whom God made in his own image. Perfect love returning perfect love, casting out fear.
For as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable … we will not all die, but will be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and will be changed … death has been swallowed up in victory. Where O death, is your victory, where is your sting? Therefore, be steadfast, always faithful in the work of the Lord [whatever your vocation in the life you’ve been gifted by God] because you know that in the Lord, your [honest] labor is not in vain.” AMEN
So this letter we read this morning from Philemon is an interesting and potentially strange one to our modern ears. And I think that, if we tried to read it from the perspective of righteous judgment of modern people, we might in fact miss what’s really going on in the letter and why it ended up in our canon of Scriptures i.e. why it ended up in the bible to begin with.
So here we have Paul, along with Timothy, writing a letter from his jail cell, to another Christian, Philemon. Philemon is apparently a fairly wealthy Christian and who likely hosted at least a group of Christians in Colossae for worship and fellowship in his home. Paul gives thanks to Philemon for his ministry in Colossae, for his faithful proclamation of the gospel and perhaps for his leadership.
Then Paul makes a really specific request though. You see while the background is a bit fuzzy, Paul encountered Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, the latter of whom we are led to believe left Philemon likely without permission. At this point, Paul takes a stand and says, ‘listen Philemon’, I am going to make a specific request of you. I have the right to ask this of you, and you have the obligation, as a Christian, to fulfill this command. But rather than appeal to my authority or power here, I’m going to appeal to your mercy, to your charity and to your sense of love for others. So please, Philemon, Paul says, out of love, would you be willing to receive Onesimus back NOT as your slave, but rather as your brother in Jesus Christ.
That is, forgive him, do not count his fleeing from you against him. Do not punish him as you could do by the Roman law (a slave was subject to any punishment an owner saw fit to enact should that slave leave the owner without permission). Forgive him, Philemon. But not just that. Do not leave him in the place of a slave. He is no longer a slave to you, Philemon, there is not longer slave or free, gentile or Jew, male or female. In Jesus Christ, he is your brother, Philemon; in Jesus Christ he has been elevated from the position of slave, to a free man in Jesus Christ. If you were loved by Christ, forgiven by Christ, redeemed by Christ, and elevated from your status as a slave to sin; then would you not do the same for this son of God, who as a brother by the blood of Jesus Christ, is made your equal, would you not receive him as he is in God?
This is the claim that Paul has made: if you have been forgiven your sins and elevated to the status of a child of God, how will you treat your neighbor? Who is my neighbor? Is my slave my neighbor? Did not Jesus tell us a parable about precisely this just a few weeks ago? It is the one who comes near, who forgives, who binds up, who heals, who cares for, indeed, who loves, that is righteous before God. This is the new reality to which Paul is appealing when he speaks to Philemon.
Paul says: I would be very happy to keep Onesimus with me, but actually, I think it’s right to send him back to you, Philemon. And in fact, I think, Philemon, that you will find that Onesimus has gone from useless before his conversion, to being useful; that is, in his conversion to a child of God, Onesimus has been elevated so that his service as a mere slave to Philemon is surpassed by the equal witness that he can now join with Philemon in sharing with the people of Colossae. Paul here poses a question of Christian morality to Philemon: what is more important to you, Philemon? Receiving works of the flesh, recompense for an earthly wrong, or letting go of your claim to flesh and fleshly ownership and desires, and opening your home, your heart and your life, to God’s redemption in the form of a brother and colleague in witness to the Gospel?
We don’t get Philemon’s answer of course. Standing this side of the judgment table with the whole of Scripture unfolded for us in Jesus Christ, we’d hope, I’m sure, that Philemon would see the wisdom in Paul’s ‘gentle, yet, instructive’ moral question, and that Philemon would see the work of the grace of God in Onesimus’s conversion and would accept him back as a brother and fellow witness to God in Christ.
Lest we think this is a letter solely to Philemon, let’s put ourselves in his shoes: what about our own desires, our own possessions, our own inclinations, do we cling to? What ways of living or things we have, or things we do - things of the flesh - might we be tempted to covet, as if they are more important than our relationship to or our moral position before God? For that is what this letter is challenging us to think about I think. Surely it challenged Christians in the first centuries to think about the morality of owning slaves.
Do you know that slavery was actually almost eradicated by Christians by the Middle Ages? How unfortunate that the Philemon’s of the early modern period did not heed the lessons of this letter, and of the Scriptures as a hole, disastrously coveting the labor and flesh of those they could enslave, imprison, torture, and malign.
What harm did such a blight of Christian witness echo in Africa and Asia, in South, Central, and North America i.e. in the whole world? So my friends the moral question Paul poses to Philemon remains for us this day: having been forgiven your sins by being joined by Jesus Christ to become a child of God, will we let go of those things of the flesh – people, possessions, emotional reactions, ideologies, economic presumptions – that prevent us from recognizing Christ in others, and allowing their elevated status in Christ to be joined to our own witness? AMEN.
Let me ask you: what must you do to be healed by Jesus? (Good Samaritan, response to ‘who is my neighbor’). At first we might be tempted to say, ‘well nothing, it is grace alone that saves.’ Alternatively, we might say, ‘well you have to do x and y; be good, be right, be kind, etc.’
I think both extremes are wrong answers. And this passage from our gospel reading today helps us to understand what I think is a general theme in scripture. So let’s look at it. “Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment." When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.”
If we were to take this woman’s example as Luke records it here, what would one have to do to be healed by Jesus? That’s right: come to him. To ask for his help. Here’s the catch: a lot of us want help, but we want it on our own terms. I remember when I was a master’s student at Wycliffe. I had one goal and one goal alone: I wanted to do my PhD. And I remember my prayer to God was this: God, I want to do my PhD. I don’t care what it takes, get me into the PhD, give me the ability to get into the PhD. This really wasn’t a humble ask, because it wasn’t grounded in trusting God. It was grounded in me wanting my own way, me wanting to do something whether or not it was in line with God’s will for my life. I didn’t care about what God might have put before me as an alternative, only getting into the doctoral program. As you know, I did get in and I did complete it. And perhaps this was of God’s will. Or perhaps he used my stubborn refusal to listen to his will, my insistence on my own way, to chasten me, to teach me, to reshape me. Because I can tell you this: the years I spent working on my PhD are some of the worst years of life I have ever endured. They were exhausting, gut wrenching, but more than that, they were years where I lost touch with God, years that made me doubt God’s existence, years that made me see the whole academic enterprise as an exercise in human ego, fear, hurt, and frustration.
I wanted to be healed from so many things, but I ask myself now, ‘was it God to whom I truly turned, or was it to my own need for validation, for place and purpose, under a thin veil of serving God.’ The woman in our gospel lesson demonstrates the opposite to my own thinly veiled prayer: this woman came near to Jesus, she responded to his call to come over, she didn’t direct God to fulfill her will, but rather she accepted Jesus’s healing touch. There’s an essential difference between opening up and asking God for his healing, and trying to build the figurative ladder or structure that we think will make us right and good and just and whole.
These two types of responses: my own – borne of real need, real hurt – that still clung to earthly standards of value and worth, of standing and place; and hers – borne of submission to God’s own will, direction, knowledge, and perfection in accordance with the kingdom of God – both of these responses we find in numerous examples throughout the Scriptures. Every time Israel tried to accomplish its own will, for example with the golden calf in the desert, afraid they didn’t have a provision of food or water, or in Judges where they kept going astray I did – they ended up suffering in the most painful way one can: the feeling of being abandoned or bereft of God. Not just suffering – suffering is bearable when it is done with hope in God – but suffering in the absence of assurance that one is yoked or tied to God for his people is virtually unbearable.
So the first lesson I think this passage provides to us is that when we approach God, we are to do so with humility. Lord, here is where my heart and mind are, here is what I’m struggling with, here is what I am thinking. Yet Lord not my will but yours be done: heal me Lord in accordance with your will. Give me the strength to endure and to persevere in faith as I follow you, whatever my circumstances.
Then of course there is the second half of this passage where the Jewish leaders criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, a day when no work was to be done. When Jesus is criticized though he shoots back and the leaders and says, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?"
In other words: yes, our customs and our ways of doing things are important for running an organization, and we do need them as they help us ensure social order, teaching, etc. But they ought never to inhibit someone from seeking and finding God. When someone approaches God, they need God, they need to touch him tangibly, to receive his embrace and not to be inhibited. What does this mean? It means that sometimes we have to play it by ear as to how we’re going to share the faith. Sometimes we have to step out of our traditional ways of communicating or worshiping or communicating about God to others, so that they can receive him. This doesn’t mean we have to throw away these customs and traditions and ways. Not at all. It simply means that sometimes, in certain circumstances, we need to forego or adapt or alter how we share God with others.
In summary: our gospel lesson today is I think about figuring out how we can be ‘nimble Christians.’ What I mean by this, is that, if we want people to truly open up to God and this goes for all of us in here, as well as all those we encounter, we need to know who God is and to know the sorts of ways he’s interacted with others as Scripture tells us so well, that we can adapt our own ways on the fly, in order to ensure that we do not become like the leaders of the synagogue, but rather follow in Jesus’s own ways: to show God to others, to receive God into ourselves, we must place him and his ways first and then adapt to what it is that he shows us. In this way, we are made able to rejoice with the crowds because we ourselves might better be able to see, to then trust and then to rejoice and be joined into all the things Jesus is doing. AMEN.
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
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.