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.