I remember when I first became a believing Christian about 15 years ago now. I heard this reading one Sunday and I thought, ‘yeah baby, I’m going to be sent out into the figurative fields of Southern Ontario and I’m going to convert the whole province. I mean, what could go wrong: I was going to go out there (at the time with my friend Matt) and we were going to go out two by two to convert people to Jesus. I was excited because I like physical and intellectual challenges. The harder something is, the more I get excited by it … solving a puzzle, having to use all of my various gifts to find a unique solution.
And here, Jesus’s own words to me: ‘the harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’ And so Jesus said to me, Go, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’ To me, this was an adventure, a test, a challenge, and something that would require all of my capacities. I was going to go out there and proclaim the gospel to people who had – just as I once had – turned away from the gospel, from the God news of Jesus’s coming into the world and his gathering us and saving our lives by reconciling us to his Father. I was to proceed Jesus in this great work … how proud of me would he be when he saw my success?
The disciples – and now me, one of Jesus’s disciples – were going out, without all their belongings, with just what they had on and they were to stop and eat and drink and rest where they were invited and to turn pronounce to those who rejected them: even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. So not only did I have directions about what to do with those who welcomed me, but also those who rejected me. I thought my mission would be so incredibly clear. How very black and white: acceptance and condemnation, clear as glass right? I had my warning and knew to look out for the wolves. I wasn’t to take with me any extra stuff, just go. God would give me the power even to heal the sick. If I’m rejected, it is because they have rejected Jesus, and his Father who sent him into the world and his Spirit who gathers people to him.
Adventure to be sure. A mission to be sure. Following where God had already set his path, and telling of the Son, Jesus Christ, who is coming. Only, perhaps I didn’t hear the whole passage, but rather heard what I wanted to hear. You see I had been so excited by what I thought was the call to a minimalist approach: don’t take a purse or extra sandals … you don’t need any of that stuff for you’re doing God’s work, you can’t fail, so you need nothing. What I failed to grasp however, was why the workers are often so few. In fact, to be sure, throughout my subsequent years as a Christian, my work waned so that it probably at times, was more alike the rejecting masses than the workers of the harvest. You see when Jesus said, ‘leave all of those things behind – your sandals and your purse – I think that he intended something more than simply our physical possessions.
What I think Jesus was getting at here is a deeper spiritual truth: to become a laborer in the field God has prepared and planted, we must be willing to let go of the presumptions we carry, the figurative baggage of our own lives, the things we use to protect ourselves from being vulnerable, from having to really get to know other people, from having to love people we don’t like, don’t trust, don’t know, who aren’t one of us. And surely this passage, if read in isolation – what theologians call – eisegesis, might lead us to conclude that we are quite free to proclaim the gospel and cast off those who don’t receive it in judgment.
But in fact, the judgment one can proclaim here is predicated or presupposed by an essential reality: Jesus will come, Jesus has come, Jesus will come again. Jesus’s own life of judgement and forgiveness and the way that these things unfold throughout his ministry, changes the shape of what our ministry of labor must look like. To be sure, Jesus’s incarnation is predicated – as we heard in Advent, by a warning to people, a coming judgment: repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand; if you deny the one who is to come, the life you build will be built on quicksand, and it will sink all around you when Jesus returns. In other words, it will leave you with nothing to offer up to God from the gifts he has given you.
And yet his incarnation, his call for repentance, is not about God’s desire to seek vengeance on human beings, for what would our perfect God gain from vengeance, since vengeance is not justice but ego satisfaction? No God’s desire for repentance is his call to human beings to see his light, to see the world and their lives in the light of grace and so to catch glimpses of the true purposes for which each person was made. And so while us laborers of his planted and tilled field might say of those we encounter who reject Jesus, ‘we protest against you,’ we are quickly chastened in our own judgment by knowing that we stand among those judged. That we stand as those who sin, as John puts it, no one who says they have no sin know Jesus Christ. That we bear – in all the things that we carry with us from our life in the flesh (life ordered to the goods and values, the ethics and morals and ways of our secular world, or even our fallen church ways) – the bad seeds that so often fall on the thorny ground of fleeting faithfulness, of fleeting kindness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control.
We can find these things not only in ourselves, even as the faithful laborers we try to be, but when we turn to the Scriptures, we find ourselves in those laborers who carried with them baggage unfitting the kingdom of God … people like Annanias and Saphira who carry with them the greed of not sharing their physical resources with their fellow laborers, people like Peter who deny Jesus our of fear, people like David who murder, steal, fornicate, to fulfil carnal desire for power, prestige, and lust, people like Judas who perhaps doubt God’s power to the extent they will betray him to the point of leading him into his death. Indeed, seeing the example of so many laborers of the field who have not left behind their own baggage, we can find ourselves if not today, then at various points throughout our lives. There is not a moment, not a time, not a day, not a year, when we do not find ourselves tucked into the very lives of those whom we hear about in our Scriptures – as faithful laborers, fearful doubters, lazy farmers, persons filled with Legion, angry, bitter, ignorant, unwilling to learn, grow, study, follow, turn to … yes, all of us carry this figurative baggage on our journeys into the field of labor where we are to carry out the mission of proclaiming Christ.
For me, my faith turned a mighty bit bitter as I carried with me the NEED to win; the need to succeed, the need to see success, numbers, money, conversion. And when I looked out and saw that this was not happening, that churches were declining, that my theological convictions were not being adhered to, I turned from being a faithful laborer in the field, to one sitting in the chair of judgment. You see – you and I – we fit into both characters in this particular passage throughout our own life times. We so often intend to go out into the world as faithful laborers, but all too often we do not heed Jesus’s words and carry with us so much of our own figurative baggage, that we cannot proclaim the coming kingdom as something to be hoped for, of a fulfillment of being, of life, of love, and so of joy. The call to repent and turn into the gift of grace – of wholeness, completeness and reconciliation – is heard not as hope, but rather as an egotistical human desire for retribution. As Paul puts it, we will reap what we sow in our labor of faith. If we wish to proclaim the hope, peace, love and joy by which we have been saved, we must learn to leave behind the things to which we cling, and open ourselves with humility and vulnerability, to become instruments of grace by which God draws others to him. Let us commit ourselves to him, to knowing him more deeply, and to allowing ourselves to be filled by his Holy Spirit for all the days we remain laboring in his field. AMEN.
I think our readings this morning overlap in one really important way: they all are dealing with the issue of what it means to leave behind what Paul refers to as ‘the flesh’ or what we might call, ‘our old lives,’ for one purpose: to follow Jesus Christ. Now of course this really isn’t news right? It’s sort of a central tenet of Christianity: we are followers of ‘the Way,’ followers or disciples or learners of Jesus Christ. It seems as if this is pretty straight forward.
So we hear Jesus put this a few different ways in the Gospel Luke records: ‘when the days drew near for Jesus to go to the Cross, to die, to descend into hell and then to rise and then ascend to his Father’s right hand’, he ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem. Yep, he knew his Father, he love his Father, and so he followed him even though doing so would mean people would kill him by mounting him on a Cross. And of course Jesus’s own words here, and his ascension to being with his Father are foreshadowed or prophesied in our reading about Elijah’s being ‘taken up’ and about Elisha’s having to ‘take up the mantle’ or the mission or the work or the way, in other words, of having to follow Elijah’s way.
We know that prophets like Elisha so often not heard by the Isrealites, just as the many of the villagers in the gospel story from Luke did not receive Jesus. Why? Because he set his face to Jerusalem. Because Elisha, just as had Elijah, as does Jesus, put first the Kingdom of God. They place it above their own personal reputation, their own monetary or property gains, it even gives shape to how they live out their relationships with other people: they all prioritize – even in their closest relationships – their relationship with God. They set the stage for what life will look like as one follows God.
So what does it look like. Does it grant you some great power to control or coerce or threaten others into believing in God. Apparently not. For when the disciples see people not following Jesus and they ask if they should command fire to come down and consume them, Jesus turns and rebukes them. Tough luck Westborough Baptist, Jesus just called out your improper following him there.
Jesus next implies that his mission is not merely of this world, that his mission is bigger than the general concerns for food, shelter, etc, that living things have. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, he says. Why? Because he is on a mission to reconcile all things – every created thing – to himself. Until things are, as we hear in Corinthians – all in all, until all time, history and creation is brought to perfection in God, Jesus will work to reconcile us all.
Twice, we hear what at first sounds like a rather harsh response from Jesus. Jesus tells two men, “follow me.” Both say, ‘but I have something I must first do – bury my father, and say farewell to my family.’ Jesus says, ‘let the dead bury their own dead and no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
While this might sound harsh, the point Jesus intends to make is this: there can be nothing that you place before following God; no relationship, no work, no ideology, no hopes, no dreams, no project, no obligation. What is this? It’s simple really. Jesus’s point here is that if we are not first following him, anything and everything else we do will become distorted because it will be formed according to the way of life that we have come from – the flesh, or old way of life – that Paul speaks of. The things of the flesh, rather than the Spirit, the ways of the flesh, the concerns of the flesh.
What are these things? Well, we see them spoken of all over the Scriptures: customs and traditions that are done for their own sake, rather than because they are good witness to God, prayers that are offered for others to hear, a kind of showing off, rather than because we desire relationship with God. Paul has a really particular list. He says, look, when you decide to follow Jesus, when you get baptized and put your hand to the plow that is living your faith out in this world, you commit to loving God first. That’s your first obligation, but when you commit to doing this, you learn what it truly means to love your neighbor, and even your enemy. You learn that love isn’t necessarily consistent with a culture or societies, customs, norms, acceptable ways of life.
Jesus’s and Paul’s points here are that if you stop putting God first – this God who reveals himself to us in Jesus’s own life – then you’re going to so much more easily be led back into the old life by temptations: things like fornication … I mean, hey, who cares who you sleep with. It’s not like God made sex for a specific purpose or anything right? Didn’t he just give it to us for general pleasure? Scripture doesn’t have much to say about sex does it? It’s not like issues of sex and sexual practice have undermined the Church’s witness in the world have they? Why don’t we just follow our culture’s norms here or an individual’s particular proclivities?
OR there’s idolatry … money, possessions, power, it’s not like the power of church going republicans have undermined evangelical witness to God in the United States right? Strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy … not like these things haven’t eroded any Christian foundation in the Western world – say that rather large dissension or factionalism that happened in the 16th century called Church division that seems to have an endless consequence of factionalism. Not like jealousy, gossip, envy, and obnoxiousness haven’t pushed people out of the church never to set foot again into its worship life right? You don’t know anyone who’s been pushed out maybe even away from God because of this do you?
Jesus, echoed by Peter, says, ‘friends, I have come for you. I’ve changed the world and so the meaning of everything. If you want to know what the new meaning is, you’re going to have to follow me, and you’re going to have to put my own Words to you, and the life that I lived, first. I’ve revealed who God is to you. I’ve lived out what it means to be a true human being who loves God and in turn, his neighbor. This is what your life is all about. It is what your neighbor, your enemy and even the non-believer’s life is all about. But you’re only going to see how all of these claims are the case, if you put me first. If you put me first, it will change what you do, it will change how you do it, it will change what you prioritize, it will change what otherwise would have been: the dead burying the dead. You are no longer dead for you no longer live life according to the old life, to the flesh, you live by the Spirit. So allow yourself to be guided by the Spirit who is transforming you into the very Person of Jesus Christ, the one true human being. But him first, and to him you will be led. Don’t fall back isn’t this sort of ‘one time warning.’ After all, Paul has the most famous monologue about how he constantly does. Don’t fall back is rather the continual refrain that should press us onward, to set our own faces to Jerusalem, to carrying our own crosses when we feel the old ways of the flesh rise it us.
The life of faith is cross carrying and so often happens in the midst of other’s own dismissal or doubt about our commitment to God, or our own frustration with the way other Christians behave or deform our collective witness. It is so easy to turn back from our plowing the faith field. It is so easy to turn instead to the temptation to making things idols, or people idols, or to engaging in strife with others because we are jealous, or angry, or envious. It is so much easier to simply react, rather than to do the hard work of figuring out why we have acted or responded in a way that does not fit the life of God revealed to us by Jesus. It is exceptionally difficult – particularly when we live in a diverse world with tremendous complexity – to figure out how to live in accordance with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Jesus came into the world to set us free from the fear that our lives are nothing more than the mere measure of what we accumulate or lose, or the power we attain, or the people we control, or the attention we get, or the battles we win. He set us free so that we could love. He showed us what it means to live out that love by revealing it to us in the Scriptures through his Son. And in his Spirit, God gives us the power to allow ourselves to be reshaped, reformed and reconciled to our Father. Let us take the time to examine just who or what we are following, and to ask God to enable us to follow him. So that when he asks us, are you fit for the Kingdom of God. We can reply: I followed you, as you called, healed, encouraged, taught; as you forgave – including me! – as you were transfigured, stood firm, suffered, died, rose, lifted me up, led me on, empowered me, gave me hope, transformed me. I know. I followed you LORD. AMEN
What deeply rich passages we have this morning when we read them as speaking of God himself and our relationship to him – not as separate passages, but rather as different levels, metaphors, figures – of understanding how God has come to gather and transform us.
Let me start with rereading the gospel lesson to you from John’s testimony: "I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
Jesus has completed his mission – his work of opening the way for us to be reconciled to God our Father in him. Because he and his Father are one, so when we are brought into his own life (which we mark by our baptisms), we can say, ‘yes, I am with my Father, because I am in his Son, my brother, Jesus. He binds me to him in his Spirit.’ The little catch that you and I might miss though, if we’re not careful, is that we don’t always live out our lives, we don’t always seem to realize or be willing to witness to this new reality. We – as Paul puts it – so often fall back into sin, into the things of the flesh. What are these things? Basically an endless, nuanced, and often complex assortment of acts and words that contradict God’s intention for our lives, and that contradict the shape of his own life that he calls us to follow. We know this story. But it’s worth remembering that Jesus acknowledges there is a difference between his relationship to his Father, and our relationship to God in him. Notice Jesus does not say, ‘and now they are one as you and I are one.’ But instead he says, ‘make them one – these ones you have given me now – and those who, following my disciples, will come seeking me. Make as all one.
This is pretty important to recognize that we are not yet one as the Father and Son are one (I’ll leave the ontological distinction aside and only speak about the matter of time and of sin). Jesus doesn’t say, ‘they are one’ for a primary reason: not all yet believe. Not all have seen or acknowledged or known the reality of their creator, and his power and ordering of their lives. And I’m not speaking here simply of non Christians, but of Christians themselves. So instead, what we hear is a plea to the Father, but also, a calling or mission for us: Father make them one. And so it follows that if Jesus asks the Father to make us one, that we ought to be open to being made one. And herein lies one of our great challenges. Do we look as if we are open to responding to Jesus’s plea to the Father? To be made one? Most of our history is replete, in fact, with well, to be really blunt, SIN. The sin of constantly dividing over so many things, where every one of us wants to do what is right in our own eyes, to the point we refuse to actually engage anyone who does not follow us.
And why is this a sin? What is it problematic? Let’s ask Jesus. Why do we need to be open to being made one, Jesus? I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. What is implied in Jesus’s words here? That being open to being made one is essential for mission, for bringing people to God through his body, the Church. Why might this be the case? Can’t we all sort of figure it out for ourselves in our own way? Get to Jesus in a million different ways? Here’s my fundamental problem – and not just mine, but seemingly Scripture’s problem with it – when people do, as Judges tells us, what is ‘right in their own individual eyes,’ we tend to end up worshipping our own idols – whether that’s a false happiness, a false materialistic contentment, a malformed sense of self that ends up in self-hatred, or just a lack of belief that following Jesus isn’t the equivalent of following the ways our culture sets out as good and right without question and examination – and in worshipping these things, we actually too often stop being open to being made one in God. Instead, we might be one small fragment of a thousand different sects, each with its own little limited, partial and self-confirming, never challenged, never transformed, stagnant self, frozen in time like a pillar of salt without taste; without capacity, that is, to witness to the good food or fruit of the Gospel. How can we testify to our one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if we refuse to be open to being transformed, to being made his body, and therefore to embodying his own life of unity with his Father in the world?
If we look at our story in Act – a very concrete story of mission in the world – through this lens of being open to being made one, joined to the Father through the Son in the Spirit, what do we have? Imagine the events of the story in Acts as the Persons of our Triune God. We hear of an Earthquake that blows open the doors of the prison in which Paul and Silas, Jesus’s disciples, have been unfairly detained for speaking the truth. Think for a minute about what that Earthquake represents: this Earthquake is the Father, the waves that follow after the earthquake are the Son sent – as the waves are sent out – into the world, shattering the prison of sin and damnation, opening the doors so that we might be raised from the prison of sin, into the life of God himself if we are willing to stand firm and hold fast to Jesus as the quake reverberates around the world, through our city, our culture, our struggles and triumphs, through time, through history, through all that is. The chains that bound Paul and Silas, like the chains of sin that bound all people everywhere, are broken, unfastened, and even remaining just where we are as Paul and Silas did in the prison, so we are set free by God to take hold of life now and eternally, when we open ourselves to him, allowing him to make us one, allowing him to – whereever we are, whatever our struggles, whatever our disagreements that make us want to run from other Christians – hold fast to him, hold fast to the faith. In him we are being made one. Let us take hold of that reality and live it out, not running away, not lashing out, not building up barricades, or withdrawing, or going ahead with whatever we think is right, but holding fast to engagement with one another where God makes us one in his body. AMEN.
Sometimes my dad and I will – along with other things we need to know – talk about what we’re going to preach about on Sunday. This week, my Dad said, ‘you know, I’m just not really sure where to go with our readings.’ Is there a common core to them and if so, what if anything, can we say that helps those of you sitting in the pews?
We read the passages over a few times. Then we hunted around in the Scriptures as the passages that we read, evoked links or connections to other passages through the Old and New Testaments. And we settled on a common theme amongst the passages: healing. From there, we both set off on our own ways in thinking and writing.
What seemed to my dad important, was what really mattered about God’s healing? What did it mean or does it mean for people suffering from a disease? And he said to me: God has not healed you from your type 1 diabetes, he has not healed you from the gender dysphoria that you experience, or the fact that your anatomy and hormones aren’t typical. What about my parishioners who have cancer, or Alzheimer’s, or in wheelchairs, or who struggle with deep depression, or who were raped or assaulted or abused? What connection can I make between their suffering, and Jesus’s healing, in John’s Gospel, of the man who was sick for 38 years? Why hasn’t God healed them.
I said to my dad: as for the healing miracles, yes, I believe they have and still happen. I don’t know why. And I don’t know why they happen for some but not others. Faith isn’t necessary for healing. God heals those who did not believe, and in being healed, they recognized their having been healed by this one called Jesus, who says he is one with the Father, and only then do they come to belief. Lack of faith then, wasn’t a deterrent to being healed. So there must be a bigger lesson – something more going on in these readings – than just a physical healing.
And if you dig a little, you’ll find that this is indeed the case. If you look at the reading from Acts, you’ll see that we’re following on, once again, with God’s commission to go and proclaim the gospel. This time, it’s not merely about a promise – that the King, the Messiah, the Christ has come into the world – a message we heard people go out to proclaim during our season of Epiphany. This time, the commission is about God’s promise fulfilled by God himself, in the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, his Son. In him is life and you are invited into it. Let the world know. So sure enough, in our reading from Acts, Paul is following Jesus, having seen the truth for the first time, the scales falling from his eyes, he sets his eyes on the Cross, and so out he goes into the world to say, ‘my friends, your sins have been forgiven, you are healed, now live into that reality.’ And so to Lydia he goes and baptizes her and her whole household.
How does she reply to the cleansing from sin, the forgiveness, to being invited into the freedom of new life in Christ? She says, ‘my Lord and my God, I open my life, my house, my world, my possessions, my everything to you, come and stay with me, with us, for in receiving your servants and their healing message, in the Spirit, they are one with me and we are together being made new. How do we know this is what she was doing in saying, “if you have judged me faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home?” Well because to invite someone – strangers – into your household on the basis of your faithfulness, would imply that you recognize the thing that has happened – your baptism or initiation into a new life – is a gift and it is such a gift that you are willing to open your whole life (your home, yourself) to the members of the body of which you are now a part. The gift of new life in this family and the promises it holds are enough, it seems, to move Lydia to say, I believe enough in this new life, this new family, that I am willing to freely share of the limited resources that I have, without fear that I am not enough, that I do not have enough, that I am not good enough to do so. This promise of God fulfilled in Jesus and communicated to her by Paul is sufficient to alleviate her fear and to invite God and his people into her life to reshape and reform it.
Yeah, we can probably get that just out of this one passage from Acts given the whole history of mission recorded in the Book of Acts. But today, our reading from the Revelation God provides to John fills out this story in a little more academic or spiritual sense. God gives John this revelation of what IS coming. Not what might come, but what Jesus has already sealed for us in himself, in his life death and resurrection. It is a reality we will meet because of the one who came into the world for us. We hear that the new Temple is God himself, that this new city that God is restoring or reconciling to his intended creation – this new earth that God is now reforming and will complete, it will not require the sun or moon because all that is needed for us to see and to live, is God himself; there will be no more brokenness, no disease, no holocausts, no murder, no rape, no abuse, no torment of disease or disconnect between brain and body; no one who is unclean will enter it for God will make the clean and burn away the chaff that we all become far too often. He will make flow again the river of the water of life, which is simply his presence, his very being, holding us in and as the perfected creation he made us.
The nations will be healed by the leaves of the tree of life. All will be reconciled by Jesus Christ, the alpha and omega, the beginning and end, when he brings all things to completion, when he is all in all and has made his enemies, disease, destruction, pain and anguish, a mere footstool with no power, no capacity. And he will thereby wipe every tear from our eyes, the literal tears of anguish, suffering, exclusion, loss, anger, frustration, feeling trapped and helpless, he will wipe those tears and the figurative tears of a whole world, animals, plants, the solid earth, mountains, snow, planets, that cry out in longing for reconciliation of all things to their creator.
This is some heady stuff and might sound a little out there. The point though, is that God made all that is, all that exists. And he promises us that he has already fulfilled his reconciliation of all that he made by sending us his Son who took on every pain of every type that we suffer. And in taking it on, he endures for all time, the fate that we would suffer had he not done this: a life of mere suffering without hope; a life of mere brokenness or the need to strive and climb on top of others and crush and deform others, to make ourselves invincible and immortal, so that death might not swallow us and all that we are up. He endures for all time the generations of people whom he is drawing to himself, often without their even recognizing it.
So where does that leave us – those of us who live these little spec of time lives that are filled with good and bad, that always come with suffering that is common to everyone whether our experience is Job like or Sarah like or Ruth like, or Peter like, or the beloved disciple like. Where does this leave us? I can’t speak for you. For me, it leaves me with hope that is grounded in the only one who has the power to truly fulfill his promise: the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The only one who could come into the world he made and reconcile what he made to himself. The only one who is goodness itself, who is love itself. The only one who promises that despite my frailty, my inevitable decline and my major suffering, and my transient triumphs, he has me and will not let me go.
Only with such a promise can I get beyond myself, beyond my own fears and anxieties and rage filled tantrums of pain and inability, and impatience, and lostness, and helplessness to live a life where I can invite others to share the gift of life and particularities that God has given me. The alternative is that I feel I must somehow manipulate and control others to accomplish a path I feel is worthy, always sinking into the quicksand of the impossibility of this task in a fallen and treacherous world of our own making. Does God heal? I believe absolutely he does. He did not cure me of my diabetes or my gender dysphoria. Instead, he gives me the hope that these things do not define my worth and value to him, and they do not define my ability to be loved and to live eternally with him. And so he heals me in giving me the capacity to live with and endure these things, never collapsing into them as limits that prevent me from sharing God’s love poured through me as a catalyst to others receiving that very same love and acceptance and healing. AMEN.
What has been your greatest challenge in being a part of the Church? In calling yourself a Christian? In telling others that you are a Christian. I would consider that one of the things I am naturally drawn to doing is sharing what I believe in with others, not to promote myself, but rather in the hope that I might give them support and hope. Or that I might create space in time – open up a space in time through a relationship, a connection, where we can exchange, knowledge, answering or asking questions, challenging the way someone thinks, and being challenged myself – creating space in time for that person to be able to become the person God intended them to be.
But you know what, I often find this hard to do. Why? Because we as Christians belong to a body, and perhaps even have participated ourselves, in eroding the trust necessary for people to believe that we have a message that is true and so worth hearing. I’m going to be really blunt this morning. Have you ever heard of Westboro Baptist Church? Here is an example of Christians who – trying to live faithfully – have turned the good news of Jesus’s coming into the world for the sake of everyone, into an angry, violent, and exclusionary message. How? Well, as I’ve talked about before, it isn’t so much what they have to say that is problematic (although in some cases, it has more to do with secular moralism than the Christian faith), it is rather in how they proclaim the message of the Christian faith both to other Christians and to those who aren’t Christian, who have yet to hear the good news or who have abandoned it for one reason or another.
So let me get really specific. This Christian group has proclaimed and stands behind these words:
Concerning gay men: "Filthy sodomites crave legitimacy as dogs eating their own vomit & sows wallowing in their own feces crave unconditional love."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, Jan. 15, 1998
"We told you, right after it happened five years ago, that the deadly events of 9/11 were direct outpourings of divine retribution, the immediate visitation of God’s wrath and vengeance and punishment for America’s horrendous sodomite sins, that worse and more of it was on the way. We further told you that any politician, any political official, any preacher telling you differently as to the cause and interpretation of 9/11 is a dastardly lying false prophet, cowardly and mean, and headed for hell. And taking you with him! God is no longer with America, but is now America’s enemy. God himself is now America’s terrorist."
— Fred Phelps, “9/11: God’s Wrath Revealed,” Sept. 8, 2006.
Concerning Jews: "JEWS KILLED JESUS! Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry! God hates these dark-hearted rebellious disobedient Jews."
— Westboro Baptist Church news release, April 23, 2009
This sect of Christians makes it very difficult for me to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ as, ‘good news,’ or as something that provides hope to all, or as something that isn’t a mere tool of those who want to control or witch hunt others. I MUST recognize these persons as my brothers and sisters in the faith, for indeed they have been baptized into Jesus Christ. I cannot dismiss, therefore, their testimony as if a Christian has not uttered these words. These words are what the world hears – they are one part of Christian witness to the world. And I must therefore, acknowledge that in Jesus Christ, they are one with us.
And yet, precisely because they are, in Christ, one with us (even if they would deny it), the love to which Jesus Christ calls us in this case is very particular: it is NOT, NOT, radical acceptance of ‘just any witness to him.’ Rather it is faithful witness to the one who brings not hatred, not rejection, but invitation and so mercy, by grace for ALL, all who are all undeserving. And so to love God is not to accept my own actions of disobedience under the pretense that anything is forgiven or acceptable to God and it is not to accept other actions that contradict God’s own laws, his order, his discipline and his redirection of our erroneous desires (often given to us by the culture we live within).
To love God, which requires that we love one another, even those whose words or actions make them our enemies, is not to merely accept them, but to know God deeply enough to challenge false witness and to challenge it not with condemnation and vitriol and hatred – since this simply drives people away – but rather to do so with love, patience, kindness, perseverance in relationship.
I need to reiterate this. If we are going to respond to God’s love by returning the love we have received; that is if we are going to follow Jesus when he says: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another – then we MUST come to know who this God is who sent his Son to reveal himself to us. We know the basic outline. Adam and Eve sin, we call this the Fall. God clothes them and raises up a people, Israel, to be his witness. They often fall and are chastised and sometimes cast out by God so that they might understand their reality without him, turned over to nations that rout out and destroy and plunder, rape, and ravage them – a kind or Lord of the Flies reality that humanity lives within without God. God sends his Son who suffers the fate to which all human beings are subject. And fulfills his promise to Abram that he might be the Father not just of the Israelites, but through adoption into Abraham’s own family line which includes Jesus, opens the way to God for all people, more than the number of stars in the sky. We know this broad outline right? But what about all the details? What about all the side stories in this grand narrative? All these side stories of fear, anger, sickness, a fear of and the reality of abandonment, of being turned over to what seems like a life long evil, or enslavement, or uncertainty? Do we know these stories? If we don’t know these stories – all of them – how can we say that we know the one whom we promised to follow?
Part of the reason that I have trouble, that I think many of us sitting in here, have trouble not just talking about, but living our faith out in the world around us, is because we don’t actually know God very well. And I include myself in these ranks of not knowing. It’s much easier to watch the news, youtube, Netflix, Prime, etc. It doesn’t really require self examination or a challenge to my own lifestyle. On my own I can construct an entire way of life that accords with my own beliefs and inclinations. To come to truly know God, to come to know that we are loved by God, actually requires some really difficult grappling with who we are and what we believe. But it is precisely in that challenge of our own self proclamations – when we have to figure out how we can share this WITH THE PATIENCE, PERSEVERANCE, LOVE, SELF CONTROL, JOY AND HOPE, that Jesus calls us to, that Jesus in fact gives to us as a new commandment, it is precisely in going more deeply into the Scriptures and learning the side stories to this over all narrative – what was God’s response to the cutting up of the concubine in the Book of Judges, or God’s response to David after he murders Bathsheba’s husband, or God’s lack of response for so long to Job, or why did God command Isaac to sacrifice his only Son, what does Sarah’s and Abraham’s miracle birth of Isaac mean about the purpose of marriage, about the purpose of sex – it is only when we dig into these stories that we can actually follow God, and truly share him with others.
If we are going to love one another as Jesus loved us, we must first understand who it is that Jesus has loved – ALL PEOPLE - and how God in Jesus, has cast the light of his grace in judgment and in law and in command and in correction and in affirmation, and in challenge, to each person and each situation encountered in Scripture. For in Scripture we find ourselves and therefore our own lives revealed. To receive God’s love, we must know God. That’s not because our effort to know him causes his love to come to us. No. it is simply because we are unnaturally inclined – this is SIN – to hide from the love of God who sometimes calls us out in a desire to redirect us. If we do not know him, we will keep hiding from his love, and when we go to share what we presume to be his love with others, we will, like the Westboro Baptists, tend to distort his love by HOW we share it (i.e. in a way that contradicts Jesus’s own commandment to love, and his very definition of what love is: self giving that is patient, kind, embodied in hope that perseveres through push back and rejection that comes out of anger and fear, and yet firm over time). Or, we may in fact retreat – as I do too often – to not sharing the full extent of challenge to current presumptions about the lifestyle, the morals, ethics, the ways, in which God calls us to live. God demands of us Christians much more than we have been willing to offer for so many decades. He has asked us to have love for one another. Love is NOT acceptance of everyone’s own personal opinions. Pragmatically, this sort of – what we call, moral relativism i.e. anything goes – has led us to epidemic levels of loneliness and depression. Love, discipleship, is coming to know God so deeply, that we allow ourselves to be filled with Jesus Christ – his whole life, his ways, his inclinations – and thereby raised up beyond our own fears we try to eliminate by satisfying our own ego demands for control. In this way – filled with the love of God himself, we are equipped to share our hope in God, with love that often includes the challenge of others and disagreement. This was what God gave to us in his Son. Isn’t it time we stopped sharing secular moral relativism that is easily converted into terrible ideologies – things like ‘be good, treat others as you would like to be treated, be the change you want to see in the world’ and instead share the particular life – that is, the love of God fulfilled in Jesus Christ?
“The Father and I are one.” These are the very last words we hear in our Gospel reading from John this morning: ‘The Father and I are one.’ How incredibly important are these words? They are the very foundation of hope not just for each one of us, but often more importantly to us, for those we love. As I talked about in Remember back to Epiphany. I talked about the fact that Jesus Christ had come into the world to transform it. And only he alone – its creator, the creator of all that exists – was capable of changing it. We of course are in the midst of celebrating this now in Easter. Jesus took on everyone’s sin on the Cross, he descended into hell where sin leads, and he overcame it, he conquered it, conquered death, through his faithfulness, and then he rose from hell, having vanquished sin. And these last few weeks, we have been witness once again to his presence amongst the early disciples. Having left the linen wrappings of death in the tomb, out he went the first and the last, the creator and redeemer, to show his followers who knew him, that yes, the world really had changed: the dead are not dead, they are made alive in him.
We hear this story today in the Book of Acts. Tabitha, a faithful disciple of Jesus, fell ill and died. They began to prepare her body for burial, for this is what we do when someone we love dies of course. And yet … and this is pretty darn important, along with this preparation for death, some fellow disciples sent out for Peter to come to see Tabitha. Why? Why would they do this? Well remember the story we’ve been following so far, it’s one that Paul will recount in 1 Corinthians 15: God sent his Son into the world, that Son died for our sakes and released us from sin when he rose from the dead. This wasn’t simply a great feat of magic. It was a fulfillment of God’s promise to gather us; to come for us; to never leave us. And so Paul says in 1 Corinthians that he appeared to some disciples and then to many others. And we hear that he sent his disciples out again and again to share this reality: his forgiveness of sins, his promise to raise us from the dead into new and everlasting life with him; to reconcile us to life with God.
Of course this gift of life that we have a foretaste of now, something promised to us in perfection and fullness of relationship with God in the life to come, well this can seem so far off that it’s almost easy to take for granted. To be perfectly frank, we often don’t think much about how Jesus turned the world upside down with his resurrection, simply because where we live here in Etobicoke, we are quite shielded from some of the worst atrocities of sin – things like holocausts, starvation, massive violence that sweeps through and destroys whole cities. And because we don’t face the struggles that so many people throughout history have – those for whom death, violence, danger, disease, was a common and regular occurrence – grace can seem like a quaint add on to what we have already accomplished. And this is so much so the case that many folks under 60 simply don’t go to Church at all. They see no need, no reason. They see nothing in Jesus’s claim that he and the Father are one, that evokes a sense of desire, hunger, passion, and hope. What need have we for hope.
Let me stop just there. What need have we for hope? We heard from our speaker, Carol, last week, that the number one reason kids end up in bad situations, on the streets, it isn’t abuse. It’s neglect. For all we have as a culture and a society, for all the material things we can buy, for all the million dollar homes and hundred thousand dollar cars we’re surrounded by in this neighborhood, far too many children here (and I mean young children) experience neglect, not necessarily intentional neglect, but neglect that often comes because parents cannot simultaneously work, one, two, sometimes three jobs, spend all day and evening commuting, somehow find a way to prepare meals and then get the kids off to one of the numerous activities the kids must do if they wish to ‘be successful in life.’ And because so many, and not just young kids, but people into their 20s and even 30s, have had their lives directed by a whole society, culture, language, and vision of ‘success,’ of meaning and of purpose, built and bent to the possession of more goods, if they do not seem to be achieving these things from extremely early ages, if they seem not to be keeping up, if they seem not to be driven to the same purpose of possession as others, they begin to feel a sense of shame. And that shame builds over time.
That shame comes, and I can tell you this from personal experience, from not knowing who your creator is. Not knowing that you – the very particular person you are called to be – was made by and is loved by God who sent his Son into the world to transform it and your destiny, so that he might reclaim you; hold you, comfort you, sometimes tear you down so that he can build you up into the person you are intended to be. Shame comes from all sorts of very concrete circumstances as Carol said last week (maybe you’re part of the lgbtq community, maybe you weren’t the most intelligent, maybe you weren’t very good looking, maybe your parents were harsh and judgmental, maybe you had some strange quirks, maybe you weren’t well liked). But beneath the surface of all of these things lies something we are often unwilling to talk about. We rather like many aspects of our society, I know I do. But these have come with a cost: a sense of self sufficiency; a sense that we do not need God.
I have heard it said that we are suffering from an epidemic of depression and loneliness in this country. I believe it. If our hope is anchored to things that figuratively blow away with the wind – material possessions, work, pensions, hobbies, even frail human relationships – we have no foundation from which to recover from the inevitable struggles, loses, fears, physical and emotional traumas – that we will encounter. The foundation isn’t merely a transcendent God. Rather this God created us in himself through his Son when we wanted to throw our with him relationship away; thinking that somehow, the sort of world that we have created and live in here in Toronto, or in the United States, or England, or in Rome, or Greece or Egypt during these society’s respective ‘golden eras,’ would be a utopia. It is not my friends. And we now see this well. The question is, what will we do about it? Some have proposed that the Church must change to meet the culture. Really? Others have proposed that we move away from the culture and create little Christian hives of a sort with home schooling and special worship groups.
I want to suggest something else to you. Many of you have lived long, long lives. You’ve watched a time of blooming for the Church and its subsequent massive decline across all denominations. You’ve had children, and grand children and sometimes great grandchildren. You have loved and loved deeply. And you have lost. I know you have lost for I have seen it, I have been in the midst of it, and I have seen how you push on, often, sometimes too often I think, burying your suffering and pain from others, attempting to remain strong and just carrying on. I get that. But it is also a product of a culture bent on, ‘keeping up appearances,’ of not allowing the messiness of death, pain, anguish, loss, doubt, anger, hurt, and yes, the hope you have found, to show through to others. We have been taught, particularly those of us who live/have lived a fairly middle class life, that being overly demonstrative or sharing our struggles, is somehow problematic. My friends, it is not. Hear again what happens when the disciples lose a beloved friend and colleague: “preparing her body for death” these folks went out seeking Peter, seeking help, asking him to come and to be with them in their loss, to maybe help in any way he can, to provide his own gift, to share of himself and his gifting. They went out in a hope that was met with the embrace of love, the fulfillment of God’s promise. It is precisely this that Jesus brought and in which he makes us and in which he commands us to go out into the world. Not in some false sense of strength or power, not living in accordance with the standards set out for us by this world, but in love received and still hoping, still pressing, still needing, being shared in our own strengths and frailties, with those whose own suffering might be buffered by the hope and love that enabled us to share with them. In conclusion, let me read to you a fine reflection on these passages from colleagues in ministry:
“Love works in this way. Love gives and returns and shares in endless exchange. Love has a voice and love gives a name. “Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died” (Acts 9:36-37). Peter, acting in persona Christi, addressed her by name. “Tabitha, get up” (Acts 9:40). Even his actions are in Christ. “He gave her his hand and helped her up” (Acts 9:41). Receiving the hand of Peter, she received the hand of Christ, who then handed her to a Father from whose protection she could not fall. “No one will snatch [her] out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:29). She is presented alive in the life of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Her new life is much more than resuscitation. She is alive in the love that holds all things in being, for the Father has given everything to the Son. She is named in love, as are all things. “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Ps. 147:4). The love given to her is the same love that gives life and being to creation from moment to moment.
On the deathbed of our sin, weighed down by a burden of guilt and shame, we wait and languish. Jesus comes and speaks each and every name, and reaches with the strong hand of his grace, pulling us up from death to life, life everlasting, life evermore. He brings us to singing and blessing and wisdom and honor and thanksgiving forever and ever. Take comfort in this, take your purpose and your hope from this reality my dear little flock. I know many of you have lost spouses and children, mothers and fathers. Don’t hold in the pain, or the struggle, it is not yours alone to bear. God gave to you his grace so that you might be lifted up and in that, that you might lift up others so they can see his eternal light and life. AMEN.”
I will presume that most of you have been seeking after God for some time. Or maybe you have not, or only have been for a short period of time. How has that time of seeking God been for you? Have you ever experienced doubt? Doubt about God being real? Or doubt about the God you heard proclaimed in the Scriptures? Or doubt about the sort of God proclaimed by Christians of one type or another? Maybe even your own priest?
In our gospel lesson from John this morning, we hear about St Thomas, or doubting Thomas as he’s often known. As we just heard, Thomas had not been with the disciples when Jesus came to meet with them and so when he arrives on the scene, the disciples rush to tell him, “Thomas we saw the Lord.” Thomas replies, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."
Now doubt of course is not a new thing. We’ve encountered story after story of doubt through our Scriptures. Sarah actually laughs in doubt at God, when he tells her that she’ll have a child in her old age. Abram says to God, ‘how on earth could you give me a child God, I’m an old man well past child bearing years.’ Then of course as we heard over Lent, there were the Israelites in the desert who doubt God so much that they make a golden calf to offer to other gods in the hopes that they will be provided for when they doubt God’s provision of food, water and life for them.
There are the Israelites we hear about in the book of Judges who complain so mightily that they need a king to help lead and guide them because they cannot follow God loving him with their hearts and minds, they doubt in the midst of their struggles and do not hold fast to the faith. Of course God finally grants them their wish with the kings of Israel and ultimately with the King of kings, Jesus Christ. We also know of course about the disciples’ doubts: who will betray you Jesus, surely it is not I, I will not deny you Peter says to Jesus, until he hears that cock crow. On and on I could go in the Scriptures, and on into history books: doubt, fear, worry, struggle, for a whole host of reasons.
Each of us has likely faced a moment of doubt, or perhaps a long drought of doubt, even a loss of faith. Maybe you’re not even so sure now. Are you really there God? If I cannot see the mark of nails in his hands, and put my hand in there, and put my hand in his staff wound, I will not believe. In day to day lives where we measure most of the things of our lives by the ability to count, see, demonstrate, prove, show, confirm, how can we believe in the story of God come into the world, crucified for our sakes, resurrected three days later? How can we believe when we cannot see, touch, hold onto? How can we believe that God sent his Son into the world for us, to transform it completely, when the world still looks violent, when Christian faith seems to be in decline in the West? How can we believe God truly loves us when most of our lives are about navigating relationships where people leave us, get sick, fall apart, become angry with us or we with them so much so that there’s withdrawal, sometimes for good? How can we trust that God really has got us and isn’t going to let us go, when we experience nothing but that here on earth?
I know for me, I have come to doubt God’s existence at several points in my decade and a couple years of being a Christian. I’ve talked before about my doubt that came after I realized I had followed people and their ideology, rather than God. I wondered if there was a God underneath all their personal professions and characterizations, especially as these contradicted those of other Christians. Who had it right? Did anyone. Or was God simply an invention of people looking to control their own lives or the lives of others; to give themselves order and purpose in a world that can seem very much without either.
Then there was the doubt that has come with actually studying historical theology. Ironic hey? As folks in the Church have tried to work out what we call doctrine (or, central tenets of belief, doctrine of the trinity, how Christ can be both God and man, etc, how one is saved), not only has the Church split over and over again into different groups, but along with that came executions, murders, war, imprisonment, manipulation and violence. How many conceptualizations of atonement are there? Is it essential to hold to one? If so, am I not a Christian if I don’t hold to one? What if I’m wrong? Or is the Christian faith merely about vague sincerity: I believe in some concept of God and I try to be a good person in accordance with the Scriptures and at the end of the day, I rely on Jesus to get me there. Maybe that’s actually true. Personally, I’m too skeptical, I think too often about the worst possible case when plotting out my life, and try to avoid that. So I tend toward thinking I must actually ‘do the right thing’ for God to save me, which of course creates massive doubt because I can’t tell – amongst the myriad of ways the faith has been articulated – what the right way necessarily is!
For a variety of reasons, intellectual and quite pragmatic, I had to work out these doubts while going to church every week, not to sit in a pew, but to climb into a pulpit to preach faith, hope and love. In order to do this, I was forced to reckon with what John, in today’s gospel lesson, calls ‘signs.’ John says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” You see to preach, you cannot simply read the Scriptures and regurgitate them; you must determine where you, where your congregation; where your friends and family, where the people of this world past and present, are met by Jesus in the Scriptures. Where does he encounter all of us, each of us? The fact of the matter, is that he encounters us right where we are. And in his Spirit, he draws us into the world he has already created, and which he brings to an end, that is, into the world we find in the Scriptures.
The signs he does then, aren’t simply being done to or with characters that we find in Scripture. No. That’s not how it works. The signs we find in the Scriptures are being done to us and with us, and with our neighbors and our enemies. Those are the signs into which everything I saw in this world were being drawn every time I had to preach. And do you know what I discovered? Especially in the midst of doubt, doubt perhaps much deeper than Thomas’s?
I discovered that my doubt was actually fear. Fear that God did not come for me. Like you, I too grew up in a world that measures all things by Thomas standards: let me put my hands into you, right into your body, let me see, hold, count, be utterly certain of your presence with me. Only if I can hold, see and measure, can I know for certain that I am okay. Only if I know for certain that that I’ve got the right doctrine, that my grandparents who have died are with you, that you are going to make this world better than it is now, only if I know you will save me despite the decisions and choices I have to make in light of my body’s and my brain’s failures to be ordered rightly, only if I know I am wanted, safe, of value, only if I know that in my failures, you will still have me, only then will I believe, only then can I sustain.
Jesus says to Thomas and so to me and to you: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Jesus isn’t actually asking us for a blind faith here. In fact, what he is saying is that in order to see me, first, you must follow me. I have often heard it said by older people that it is only in retrospect, looking back on their marriage, or looking back on their lives with their children, that they can truly say ‘what it is that they actually had.’ Any relationship – whether with friends, or co-workers, or with a spouse, or with kids and grandkids, or with neighbors or bosses, requires faith. Faith to sustain through periods of struggle, doubt, fear, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, bitterness, jealousy, envy, confusion, illness, disease, change, and decay. But faith over time reveals the signs that become interwoven pieces of the story of our respective lives together.
Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Jesus does not tell us this because he demands blind faith to him. Rather he tells us this because he knows precisely who we are: finite creatures who still live in and see the world through a glass darkly, as Paul puts it; people for whom faith is not about obtaining mathematical certainty. Faith is not perfect knowledge. It is following God, hearing his Word, the Scriptures. That Word, the whole of the Scriptures, made incarnate in Jesus Christ; the one who fulfils and makes them real to us as we are drawn into their times and characters and so into him by the Holy Spirit. Faith then is about allowing ourselves to let go of our present so that we can be caught up by these signs given to us in the Scriptures. For it’s just here that we encounter him and he encounters us. It is therefore simply following Jesus, attending to his Word with the kind of work we’d do in relationship with our friends or spouses, or that we’d do to work through new challenges in health, in living situation, in family situations, that sustains us through doubt. Why? Because when we look back at the path we’ve walked in this life through our Scriptures, there we might see the signs of God present with us. AMEN.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. We of course recite this in what we call the Sanctus – the part of our Eucharistic Prayer where we usually sing, ‘holy, holy holy.’ This comes right before the priest says the words of institution, or what’s better known as the part of the Eucharistic prayer where the bread and wine are consecrated; where we have present with us the body and blood of Jesus Christ who offered himself to us once and for all, which we recognize and receive most Sundays.
And where are these words from? Well they come directly from Jesus’s descent from the Mount of Olives as he prepares to ‘go to Jerusalem,’ to live in faith and love his Father to the very end of his own life where, before he dies, he is stripped naked, tortured, mocked, and mounted up on the Cross with stakes being driven through his hands and feet, and finally thrust through his side with a spear. But before this final day of all time which we will mark this coming Friday (and which I hope each of you faithful and thankful to our Lord for his sacrifice, will attend), there is much celebrating to be done.
You see Jesus’s followers anticipate something monumental happening. Our Gospel reading today tells us that they had seen his great deeds of power and they fully believed that he was their King, the one who came in the name of the Lord: God come to deliver them, to restore them to relationship with him in their land. There was a sense of expectation and of fulfillment: he is here they cry: it is coming, it is nearly here, peace in heaven; glory in the highest heaven, deliverance in this Jesus who has done great things among us is finally here.
And so in accordance with his command, off go some disciples to get him a colt as he asks, so that he can ride it into Jerusalem just as the Scriptures (what we refer to as the OT Scriptures) foretold. The owners say, ‘uh, guys, where are you going with my colt.’ And the disciples reply without fear they’d be charged with thievery, ‘the Lord needs it.’ And off they go placing their own cloaks on it as a saddle. When Jesus gets on and begins to ride, people start lining the streets and they lay down their cloaks to mark his way to what they believe will be his great triumph. Here we see that, at least at some level, they are shedding their own layers of clothing (the clothes God provided to Adam and Eve after their fall from relationship with him). They give back those clothes, in one sense, and in so doing they are offering up to God not merely their clothing which he provided as an interim, but their whole lives, which is what he actually wants.
Now just remember that these folks didn’t have a NT with the Gospels laid out in front of them. They knew only the Scriptures that you and I refer to as the OT. These were ‘the Scriptures.’ And it is these Scriptures that were and are to be fulfilled. So to them we turn to understand why they would shout out, as we hear in other gospel passages for this Palm Sunday, ‘hosanna in the highest, along with waving palm fronds. Blessed is he (Jesus) who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in the highest. These words that make up what we call our Sanctus during our Eucharistic Prayer are a recognition of this moment, of this time of Jesus’s life, each Sanctus, (which is the Latin word for Holy), we proclaim, is a mini palm Sunday where we shed our own flesh and our own clothes, and prepare receive spiritual bodies renewed and made in the image of God, in the way and in the life of Jesus Christ himself: this one who comes in the name of the Lord.
So in our Sanctus, we join with all those Christians who have come before us, and all those Christians around the world who celebrate/have celebrated the real presence of Jesus Christ with and in us through the Eucharist. And I mean this. When we take of the body and blood of Christ after the bread and wine have been consecrated, when we say the Sanctus, we are not merely doing a ritual to mark something that has occurred; we are physically joined by God, with those Christians who have died and are with God, and those Christians who are all around the world. It is a fellowship, a moment of elevation to receiving the presence of God in us, uniting us to one another.
The Sanctus closes off that part of the our service that is referred to as the Preface which begins with the Sursum corda (when we say, "Lift up your hearts!"). This prayer prepares us for entering the Holy of Holies to worship God, the inner sanctum of the Temple which is Jesus’s Body.
Holy, holy, holy
Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory.
Hosanna in the highest.
Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.
As I said, the words we pray, that we hear in our Gospel today, "Holy, holy, holy" are not those of ‘the NT, which was not yet in place in the disciple’s time. Rather these words come to us from the Scriptures they had, what we know as the OT, from Isaiah 6:3. In this passage, Isaiah tells us of his vision of the Lord in the heavens. These words are part of the heavenly refrain of the seraphim: "'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts! they cried one to the other. 'All the earth is filled with his glory.'" So what is going on here is a fulfillment of the promise God has made to his people: I will come amongst you and I will gather you from the four corners (N, S, E and W). And Jesus’s descent from the mountain, like Moses descent from the mountain, is the descent of the law perfectly fulfilled, coming into the midst of people who had gone astray in Israel and in the disciple’s day. Down the mountain, across and beyond all time and space, God comes in the Jesus Christ, He who comes in the name of the Lord, to reclaim us, to grab us, to hold us and secure us and conform us to God himself. We hear this testified to by John’s vision of the heavens (the fulfillment of all time) in Revelation, “holy, holy holy is the Lord God almighty who was and who is, and who is to come.
By these words we are not only recognizing or confessing our fallenness, but stripping away our on cloaks – the defenses we have of emotions, of possessions, of desire to control, of anger or bitterness or resentment – we are laying these things on the ground both as the impediment they are to us, and as the invitation to God we make to enter into us and draw us into his own mission, his own path from descent from God, to earthly life, to death, to resurrected or reconciled life with God. That is what those cloaks thrown to the ground mark: they mark our commitment to go from a life created by God, to one so often mired in the sin of this life and all the fears, defenses and blocks we put up to receiving grace, to a commitment to lay these things down, to give them up, so that we might follow the path and life of God himself revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
So following Jesus, shedding the confines of this world, we are raised, each Sunday, each encounter with Jesus upon which we can draw, into a world that is illuminated by his grace, rather than kept in the darkness of sin. We are invited then, by the grace first laid down for us in Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem we hear about here, into Jesus’s own life of righteousness as we hear in our psalm, psalm 118: vv 25-26 "Open the gates of righteousness; I will enter and thank the LORD. This is the LORD's own gate, through it the righteous enter.” Jesus is of course this very gate by which the righteous enter into the Holy of Holies, into a reconciled relationship with God, adopted as we have been.
And what is the proper response to receiving such grace? Well, let me tell you, I actually think that it’s something that can’t authentically come unless you’re willing to stick with, endure and persevere in the sometimes major struggle to live a life of faith in this world – to go out from here having received the body and blood of Christ – to engage the world in and with faith in God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. In other words, the proper response I think comes only when we actually find God present with us where we sustain in being faithful to him in our day to day lives. That proper response, at least for me, comes out much like this one we hear in psalm 118: "I thank you for you answered me; you have been my savior."
There’s no formula for getting to this point because I think it comes for each of us in such incredibly unique ways in such a variety of circumstances. But it is where all of these unique, sometimes complex, sometimes immediately recognizable and sometimes only recognized after many years or a whole lifetime events intersect with being taken up and into the life of God himself through his Son by his Spirit – that we are moved, I do believe, to give thanks. It just comes. And it comes because it is this moment of recognition: I am with my creator, my redeemer, the one who gives me purpose and eternal life. He has come, he is coming, he will come for me. And I endure here now – through all of this ‘stuff’ – in the light and because of the light of his presence: hosanna in the highest. AMEN.
Have you ever had one of those conversations with someone where you’re talking about faith and belief in God and someone says, “well, I know a lot of really crappy Christians, or look at how Christians did this or that bad thing in history, and you want to tell me that somehow belief in God makes you righteous, when my atheist friend is so much a better person than any Christian I know. My friend or my daughter or my nephew is much better person, much kinder, does more good, than any Christian I know. Go ahead and raise your hand if you’ve ever spoken to someone who’s said something like this.
If I were being really blunt (and frankly a bit of a jerk), I’d blurt out, “you’ve entirely missed the point of God’s relationship to human beings and of the Scripture’s testimony to this.” Fortunately, I generally catch myself before responding so insensitively. Paul provides a much more helpful response to the claim about ‘human goodness’ in our passage today from Philippians. He says, ‘if we’re going to go on about our own righteousness and the ‘goodness of our own works,’ here, I’ll lay mine out for you. You know that law that God gave to his people, well here’s are my credentials: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”
Here Paul defines what it means to be righteous: to be righteous, to be holy, is to fulfill the law completely, to love God and to love neighbor without fail; it is to have been born without sin. Oops. We have a problem: who of us has been born without sin? According to Scripture, ‘no one is good, no not one.’ That’s not a statement about whether we perform good acts that the Psalms make, that is a statement about the fact that every human being is born into the sin of Adam and Eve. If you are created, you are a sinner. Only a human who is uncreated, who is and was and always will be, before all things that were created (as John chapter one says to us), could be without sin. Only the one whom we call Lord, could be a human being without sin.
So Paul’s claim here then, is that if you were born through the sexual union of two human parents, or cloned from human DNA, or developed in a test tube, you are a human being born into sin. So whatever good or bad we do as human beings created in sin, even if we were to follow God’s law to a T, these acts do not make us righteous before God, because they cannot do so by themselves. Article 10 in our Book of Common Prayer, on Free Will puts it like this: “The condition of every person after the fall of Adam is such that they cannot turn and prepare themselves, by their own natural strength and good works to faith and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works … acceptable to God …
Of course we affirm this sort of thing in our liturgies all the time, ‘my works don’t save me or make me righteous before God, that’s why I need Jesus.’ Paul makes this bit pretty clear when he says, “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” Paul makes a pretty bold claim here that we might just take as zeal were we to hear him or anyone else say it: “I regard all the good things I have or do as loss, as rubbish even, in comparison to my knowing Jesus Christ, and being filled with his own will.” I’ve got to tell you that if I actually did hear this, I’d likely think the one proclaiming it was a brainwashed, zealous nut, or at best, a follower groupie who couldn’t think for himself, perhaps a man with serious personality issues and an inferiority complex.
But here’s the thing: I’d be halted in my thinking when I heard what Paul says next. Paul has said, I regard all my actions and my ways as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ; in order that I might be found in Jesus Christ, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from me ‘doing the good’ i.e. doing the law, but one that comes through what: through the fact that my brokenness and sin, together with my faith, has been taken up, has been literally taken on by Jesus Christ, who offers every single human life to God unstained by sin, cleansed, washed clean, and reconciled to relationship with God. That’s quite a claim. It’s a claim about receiving the fullness of existence and of my own particular life, through this one whom I commit to follow. And this is why Paul says, “I’m willing to give my claim to ‘do good’ to ‘act well’ to ‘be holy’ to ‘be righteous’, because having known Christ, I recognize my sin, my weakness, my incapacity, my frailty, my part in sin and brokenness, and so my inability to actually fulfill the law. Everything I have that matters at all in God’s figurative eyes, “I receive as a gift, as grace, from God alone.”
This would fundamentally stop me in my tracks in thinking Paul to be a wild zealot groupie. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Umm, what, I might say. This is where the story turns. I want to know Christ and to be the recipient of the goods that come out of his resurrection. This of course implies that this one who Paul is following is going to die at some point, and then be resurrected or rise from the dead. This is of course a shocking enough claim – what could it mean? But Paul continues on, that he wants to “share in Jesus’s sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if he himself can obtain resurrection from the dead.” Paul isn’t suggesting that he’s going to become powerful, wealthy or famous, but more strangely, he is actually implying that by following Jesus in faithfulness to God, he will have to endure suffering, and struggle; this, we know from the Gospels, is the mission of going out into the world to live, through what we say, and how we act, our faithfulness to God. This is what Paul is saying, I want to live into this life of Jesus Christ, and I accept that to inhabit it, I will have to endure the things that come with sticking to my faith.
For Paul this meant enduring torture, imprisonment, snake bites, constant threat, fighting parishioners, breaking up immoral or unethical practices, calling people out on false proclamations of the faith. But potentially the hardest thing it required, was not just speaking with, but living with the humility of being a finite and sinful person. Acknowledging that, and acknowledging that it is solely by the gift of grace that he has life at all. But that this gift of life is given as God intended it, for a particular purpose: the exercise of loving God and loving one’s neighbors, including one’s enemies. Paul acknowledges this when he says, “Not that I have already obtained this [promise of resurrected life or the fullness of life with God] … but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own [because I must always remember that this is a pure gift from God]; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind (all those things that I once thought made me a good and righteous person, complete and satisfactory) and straining forward to what lies ahead (fully reconciled life with God), I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
This is a tremendous and many might think – were this to take place today – a foolish commitment of the fullness of one’s life. You see the thing about faith that we sometimes struggle to understand in North America, is that receiving grace doesn’t set us free to do whatever we please, and receiving grace often doesn’t feel pleasant precisely because as we receive grace – that is, as we come to know God through his Scriptural revelation to us of Jesus Christ – the following we do, the following of Jesus’s own life through all the characters and situations, the ups and downs that we find in Scripture, as we follow that life figured in all of the Scriptures, as we find ourselves into those characters and situations, our very following him strips away so many of the false idols we like to cling to that make us feel as if we’re safe (whatever that happens to be, whether that’s money, possessions, emotionally controlling others, gossiping about others, always walking around as if we can be righteously angry at the world, being moody or irritable, or self-righteous, or condemnatory, or self-righteously violent, or sustaining in ignorance, or hatred, or bigotry, or lacking in the willingness to step into the shoes of another, our impatience, our constant criticism or cynicism, or lack of kindness all exuding the fruit of defense mechanisms against real or perceived threats).
You see to follow Jesus where he has gone and continues to go in this world is to give up our claim to ‘be good or do good, with our self-perceived effort being sufficient.’ This claim is usually made by those who have underlying insecurity about their value and worth. To follow Jesus though is to step into a value and worth that is well beyond the value of any gift we have to provide God with, as our gospel reading makes clear. We can provide our finest oil to anoint Jesus, but we can also steal from him the very gifts, the common purse, that he gave when he created all human beings. We cannot, even at our finest, do works or provide gifts sufficient to reconcile every human being to God. This is something we can only receive. And our reception of this overflowing abundance, this overflowing gift of washing and cleansing from sin, this overflow of God’s love, well our receipt of it is a journey, a lifetime journey that takes guts, the kind of guts that arrogance and demand for certainty cannot foster. It takes the willingness to sacrifice the illusion that we are self-reliant, so we can let go and give ourselves to God for him to transform us in his love. AMEN
Lent 3 March 24, 2019
This vocation of being a priest involves really hard discussions sometimes. The discussions that are hardest are those where someone’s pain is rippling off the surface of their skin, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to relieve what they are experiencing. I was speaking to a friend this week whose partner is in stage four pancreatic cancer. A mutual Instagram friend messaged me to ask what had happened to our friend’s profile as it seemed to have disappeared. I checked and sure enough it was gone. So I started hunting around, knowing only my friend’s name, what city he lives in and what he does for a living. I messaged him through facebook and through Instagram and grew increasingly worried as I wasn’t getting a response.
Finally, the next morning, I received a response and my friend said to me, I just had to get off Instagram for a while, I had to turn away from everything. I’ve just experienced something that is just not of this world. I am dazed. I took the conversation slowly, giving him space to explain in his own time, meanwhile extremely anxious about his well-being. Eventually, he told me that when he had driven home that night, he got out of his car and heard his partner, who was inside the house, scream with a kind of guttural agony that would chill anyone to the bone. He said that he went into the house and could see things not of this world near her. He got in to the house just in time for her to fall limply into his arms. He said to me, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t take on her pain and her suffering, I couldn’t take on the physical and mental agony, the desire to let go and be taken by death. And I felt gouged out, as if something had simply ripped my soul knitted to hers out of my body and left me a hollow shell, unsure who I was, what I was, or how to go on as if there was still meaning rather than mere routine.
I know I’ve been in a situation like this. I know that at least several of you have as well. I know some of you or those you love have been diagnosed with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, with arthritis or wicked back or stomach pain. I know some of you have lost children and or partner’s yourselves, sometimes to long term sickness, sometimes it happened very suddenly. I know some of you have grappled with a struggle to figure out personal relationships, not just at a surface level, but deep below, struggling with insecurity, loss, fear of getting close, fear of being vulnerable, lack of self-worth, or a kind of indifference that sometimes grows out of the pain of failed or complicated relationships from the past. We have likely all gone through some sort of struggle and wondered: why me, why this. And we’ve wondered, how can I deal with this? How can I go on? What will I do with …?
I remember once talking about things I was struggling with with someone whom I respected very much and he said to me our very words from 1st Corinthians today: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” At first this made me pretty angry. I thought, you’re diminishing my own suffering. You’re not taking me seriously. You’re giving me no space to feel anything. You want me to just get over it, as if ‘everyone struggles so suck it up, be stoic, and get on with things. And yet part of my anger had to do with the fact that what this person said to me was true: and I called to mind the stories of friends who had been sexually abused or physically abused as children, friends who live in a corrupt nation where they can barely scrape together what is necessary to feed themselves, friends who lost children, friends who lost parents, friends who died, in their 20s, of cancer. I had friends who lost jobs, who felt squashed by their workloads, not sufficient for their families, who worry endlessly about how their kids will turn out. While my generation might curate their live to look perfect on social media – while under the surface trouble is all around them – your generation curated your lives by not talking about your pain, your suffering, your fears and anxieties. Particularly the men of your generation; told not to share, not to feel, because to do so would be weakness. So we have all in some way spent time covering up, hiding, masking, and distracting, from our own struggles.
Into this God says something very key to us that we too often forget living in a world where we have spent so much time and effort curating our lives and distracting ourselves from real struggle. ‘Testing is common to everyone.’ In the passage from Corinthians, Paul had been telling of Israel’s test in the desert. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, just as we are freed from the slavery to sin, Israel is taken out into the desert and there find themselves all tested by elements common to all of them: the need for food, for water, the danger of their physical environment, the difficulty of dealing with sick, ailing people in the desert, the danger of temptation to turn away from the freedom they’d received and the new life they had in the desert, to slavery in Egypt.
Likewise Paul is saying the danger is always present to us, that having been freed from slavery to sin, the things that we encounter in this world that test us – need for food, for shelter, for water, for community, for safety, for treatment for conditions, for basic love and relationship – can become a snare for us where instead of trusting in God when things fall apart with family, with friends, with our health, with our loved one’s health, with our careers, with our personal lives, with our sex lives, with our retirements, we imagine these things to have power over us instead. We can end up placing our hope in the figurative golden calves of so many things: possessions, a sense of personal justice, vengeance, our self-righteous anger, our ability to control, scold or mold another in our likeness. We can in fact turn away from God in despair – just as the Israelites did in the desert – God why the hell would you free us from Egypt, from sin, only to lead us out into the desert where we hunger, thirst, get sick, where our relationships go bad and we hurt and maim each other, each one of us bitten by figuratively poisonous serpents, who are in fact, us.
I’m in the desert each one of us have said. I have nothing left. Why should I turn to you God? If you loved me, why would you allow this to happen? Why wouldn’t you stop this from happening? Why would you let us have to walk through this land, through this life, without bread, without water. There is no testing that is not common to all. Why? Because every single human being who lives, must walk through the desert that is in fact, life. We spend our lives constantly tested through so many means for we are the Israelites, we enter into their very desert, their very reality as we struggle through our own particular lives. And like my friend, we sometimes wonder, why Lord, would you leave me helplessly here; why would you leave me helpless to cure or take away this other person’s pain whom I love so much?
This is what Paul says to us in the midst of our darkest moments of this life where we are all tested: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We know from our reading from Corinthians that God provided both bread and water for the Israelites: the bread of heaven, manna; water from a rock, that rock being the foundation of all life, Jesus Christ himself.
From where did that water and bread come to the Israelites, and where does it come for us? For both, it comes of course through Jesus’s own incarnate life, where he takes on our humanity, where he takes on the death due to us for our sin, where he rises from death and reconciles us to life with the Father through his Spirit. We know this is where life and so our hope to endure come from because this of course is precisely what we hear echoed again and again. What more could water from the rock in the desert mean than the water that poured out of Christ’s own side when he was stabbed upon the Cross. This is the water, the Christ, the bodily substance, by whom we have life. God is faithful, he will not let us be tested beyond our own strength. He provided a way out in the desert by remaining ever faithful to his promises to reconcile us to himself. He provided a way out by not leaving us to death, but reconciling us to eternal life in himself. He provides a way out by showing, in the desert – remember our reading from Lent 1 – that he has overcome Satan, sin and the temptation to turn away from God in the greatest trials of life. Jesus opens the way for you and for me as we walk in the desert that is life. We are often parched, hungry, fearful about our capacity to survive, confused about our meaning and purpose, saddened by losses, by our decline, by changes and disappointments we couldn’t have anticipated, or that we knew and always dreaded.
Every single one of us is or will be tested. That is what it means to live. We all enter into the desert where we will all face a myriad of things that will constantly tempt us to turn from God. I don’t know what these temptations will be for you. But here’s the thing: you are not alone in facing temptation. God himself in Jesus Christ faced into temptation and overcame it. In doing this, he didn’t just come along side you in your struggle to comfort you – as any person could – he literally took on your suffering, your decline, your sadness, your death, your loved one’s death. He took this on when he took on our humanity, and so he inhabits us, draws us, kneads us, shapes us, forms us, sustains us in the worst of times, in the worst of circumstances, in the most utter anguish and despair and sense of loss, he is within us, holding on to us, securing us, breathing life into us, or raising up our spiritual bodies. Testing will happen to all of us, but God in Christ through his Spirit has given us a way out, so that in Jesus Christ, as he is in our bodies and minds, we have the assurance, the love, the physical presence, and therefore the hope to endure and persevere in our respective deserts of life. AMEN.
The Rev. Dr. LEigh Silcox
Born in Windsor, ON, Leigh moved around Northern and Southern Ontario during her childhood. She attended North Carolina State University to play soccer, but after repeated injuries, instead took up mountain biking, road cycling, bouldering, trail running and hiking, which she continues to do to this day.