Sermons

Sermon: "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" & The Arrest of Jesus: Gifts of Humility August 11, 2019

47 While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” 49 When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?

 

(Message: 51 Jesus said, “Let them be. Even in this.” Then, touching the servant’s ear, he healed him.)
— Luke 22: 47-52 (NRSV)

Great God of steadfast love,   1 Kgs. 3:6

we study your works and delight in your ways.         Ps. 111:2

Illumine our understanding by your Holy Spirit,       Eph. 5:18

that we may reverence your name and grow in your wisdom.          Ps. 111:10

Amen.

 

If you haven’t been here in a few weeks – this will seem very strange – why has Ingrid chosen the story of Jesus’ arrest before his crucifixion in the middle of Summer?  Don’t we do that in the Spring sometime?  Like just before Easter?

Yes!

We definitely do – and yes, it is a totally strange time of year to read it.  We have been recounting the last week of Jesus’ life, focusing on some of the tiny details that undergird the very big and important things that happen.  Little bits that are important but sometimes get lost in the telling of the big and overarching story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.

 

Today we heard about the way Jesus was arrested, before his trial and subsequent execution – just a reminder, Sunday he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, Monday, flipping tables, Tuesday: confrontation with the Scribes and Pharisees, Wednesday: Judas plans to betray him and the anonymous woman anoints him with oil; Thursday: Last Supper.  It is now the middle of the night and they have come to arrest him.

 

Today I would like to take our camera lens out and set our focus in on the disciples.

Last week we learned about Jesus’ Last Supper and shared in the sacrament of Communion together. 

In that last meal with his friends, Jesus modeled self-giving love – he was the one who served, he offered them wine and bread; he invited them to share and to remember, as they enacted the beginning of a new covenant of life together.

 

Yet even as he poured himself out for them in that sacred holy moment, they failed. 

At the table was Judas, the one who would give Jesus over to the authorities.

At the table Jesus warned Peter that he would deny him three times.

 

Setting the stage for our reading today, they all set out, moving to the Mount of Olives.  Jesus instructed the disciples to stay alert! and pray, and then retreated to pray on his own.  And what happened?  He came back from his own prayer time to find them sleeping!  They failed again.

 

And then in today’s selection – a crowd arrived, Judas at the front and he leaned in to kiss Jesus – a betrayal in the intimate act of friendship.  And the others?  Had they learned anything from Jesus?  Peter grabbed a sword and cut off ear of the assistant to the High Priest!

 

The disciples failed to understand, all through the Gospel stories of Jesus earthly ministry.  And they fail even up to the very end of Jesus’ life.  They fail and fail and fail, highlighting for us the dramatic contrast between the Kingdom of God and the Prison of our own selfishness and our own inability to do what is right on our own.

The disciples learn the depths of their weakness, their frailty, and their need for a strength beyond their own.

 

And what about our caterpillar today?  He starts out well – an apple, couple of pears, few plums…but whoa Saturday?  Chocolate cake, ice cream, salami, sausage, pie, candy – and then a whole lot of regret.  Caterpillars know what they are supposed to eat, and yet our little friend failed to do what he knew he should be doing.

 

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And if that were the full expression of our story, it would be very bad news indeed – you will fail, even when your intentions are good.  You will screw stuff up, important stuff, at critical times, right in front of God.

 

But that isn’t our story.  Our story is one of second, third, 589th chances. 

Yes, at the table of the Last Supper was the one who would give Jesus over to the authorities, yet Jesus did not withhold the bread and wine.  Yes, Jesus warned Peter that he would deny him three times, yet he did not cast him away, but rather urged him to return once his failure was complete, to strengthen the others. 

Even after all that time teaching love, mercy, forgiveness, and non-violence: when they came to arrest him and Peter pulled out the sword and used it, Jesus jumped up and said NO!  But he didn’t send Peter away, he healed the man’s ear saying, “Let them be, even in this” (V. 51, MSG).

 

 

And can you just picture Peter as he is corrected in this way?  The anguish screwing up his face as he realizes what he has done – how could I have done this, I know better. Maybe it is the same sorry face we saw on the caterpillar after his frenzied day of binge eating.  How could I have done this, I know better.

 

Over and over again, throughout the stories of Jesus in all the Gospels, the disciples don’t measure up.  Don’t get me wrong, they do plenty right – they drop those nets and follow, they go where he leads them, they listen and learn and try and work. 

But left to their own devices they cannot do what is right – Paul writes about this very thing in Romans, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I do not do the good I want to do.” (Romans 7: 15, 19 NRSV).

 

But the good news here is that we are never told that we need to do this on our own.  We are assured time and time again that Jesus is here and Jesus is for us and God will give us the strength we need to live out our call as Christians, as disciples of Christ, so long as we keep coming back, we keep seeking, we keep trying. 

 

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I don’t know about you, but those disciples?  Those are my people – I get them.  I try, and I have the best of intentions and when push comes to shove, I can so easily forget all the things I know and believe and teach…and I step in it again.  And that caterpillar?  Starting out with fruit, vegetables…only to follow it up with pie and cupcakes and the like?  I know this story all too well.

And the response is the same – whether literal or figurative, the disciples and the caterpillar – and me too – we feel awful after having done the wrong thing, especially because we know the right thing, because we spend time and energy, we spend our lives trying to follow. 

 

And yet, the disciples didn’t just end there – and neither do we. This story highlights for us, yes, the depths of their weakness, the depths of our own weakness, but it also shows us that no matter what terrible things we do, Jesus is there with us.

 

Even there in Garden, the sweaty, adrenaline filled moment in the dark of his very last night, bloody ear in hand, Jesus remains with them and for them, healing the wounds they inflicted, correcting the mistake, forgiving.  Even after the gluttonous extravaganza of the caterpillar, he is led back on course, given another chance, and eats the nice green leaf and feels better.

 

That is why today’s sermon is called Gifts of Humility – humility means to be teachable – and that is faith in Jesus.  To know that we can be taught, that we can screw it up again and again, even in the most dire of circumstances, and Jesus can catch our attention, heal the wounds we have inflicted, and teach us about love.

 

Now, all this talk about all the ways we have, do, and will mess up and fail, might sound like a discouraging word – but I promise you, it is not.  The recognition of our own weakness is paradoxically our greatest source of strength, not no mention a huge relief. 

We will not get it right all the time, we are not expected to be perfect – we are not God. 

 

The disciples learned the depths of their weakness, their frailty, and their need for a strength beyond their own.  In our day-to-day living, we too encounter our own failings, and come face to face with the reality that we need a strength greater than our own.

 

And we have it.  That strength is here, it is with us, it is for us.

With the spirit of humility – teachability – we can grow, we can learn, we can be the church, just as Peter did. 

 

Because despite all of our denials, our betrayals, our violent outbursts and sneaky backstabbing, Jesus still shows up for us, still calls us to be his body on earth, his church.  Shockingly Peter becomes the rock on which all of this is built.  Shockingly, the caterpillar transforms into a beautiful butterfly – and perhaps, so will we.

 

Amen.

Sermon: "Stuck" & The Institution of Communion: Gifts of Adaptation August 4, 2019

12 On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, “Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” 13 So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.” 16 So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

17 When it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread[a] into the bowl[b] with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, “This is my blood of the[c] covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

26 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.
— Mark 14: 12-26 NRSV

God of Love and Justice,                                                                  Col. 2:8, 10;

we are grateful for inheriting the tradition of                           John 1:14

the Scriptures.

By your Holy Spirit, speak to us through your Word,

that we may know the love and grace of Jesus Christ,

your living Word made flesh among us.  Amen.

 

If you were here last week, or if you listened in online, you will have heard the Scripture that came right before today’s reading.  Just a quick recap:

 

Jesus had, on Sunday, ridden into town on his donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” while palm leaves were laid on his path (11:8-10), Palm Sunday.  And then on Monday, he went into the Temple and freaked out, flipping tables over and calling people out for their behaviour.  Tuesday, he had crowds of people all around as he was confronted by the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious elites, and they challenged each other’s authority – the crowds swelling in support of Jesus, “delighting” (12:37) in his teaching as he denounced the leaders.  Last week’s Scripture was Wednesday, where the plot to destroy Jesus was being confirmed and he had been anointed for burial by an unnamed woman.

 

Today Mark’s story of Jesus’ last week moves toward its climax: our reading from today comes on Thursday, and the events that were set up on Wednesday begin to unfold. 

 

Remember, this is the last day before Jesus was crucified, it is full of drama: we have his final meal with his disciples, Jesus prays for deliverance in Gethsemane; he is betrayed by Judas, denied by Peter, and abandoned by the rest of his disciples.  Each of these last days are packed with events and layers and layers of meaning.

 

In the church we call that week leading up to Easter Holy Week, and we call this remembrance Maundy Thursday, Maundy meaning new commandment, and it is about the way the Sacrament of Communion, also known as the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper, was established in the church.  And that is where I want us to focus our attention today.

 

First of all, what is Communion anyway?  We can be long-time church-y people and still learn more and more about this thing we do. 

It is, quite literally, a thanksgiving meal – Eucharistos – the Greek word, means thanksgiving, gratitude.  And honestly, it is something the church has been fighting over basically since the beginning – how to do it, what it means, who gets to preside at it, who gets to receive it.

We are not covering all of that debate today – happy to refer you to a Church History class or give you some books to read from mine if you are interested.

 

Today though, I want to get at the heart of the matter.  We understand the church – the gathered group of Jesus lovers – to be Christ’s body on earth.  In the simplest terms, it is in our receiving of this sacrament, named by Jesus as his body, that we, together, become the body of Christ.  We are made one in the Spirit through this receiving. 

Communion is an intimate sharing, an exchange – we heard this morning about this intimacy shared between Jesus and his disciples that nourished the disciples individually and bound them to their Lord and each other.  That is essentially still what it is today: a way to bind us to one another and God, as taught by Jesus.

 

And that is essentially why we do it: because Jesus told us to.  And what the church through the ages has learned, is that he told us to for good reason.  It broadens our understanding of life beyond the physical, it refreshes us by giving us a connection to a depth of life and meaning that we wouldn’t otherwise have.  Jesus knew that in his absence we would need a ritual, a symbol to represent that which we could no longer see – a space and a place to encounter God in a tactile way that points beyond. 

When we gather together and share in the loaf and cup, we engage with what God started long ago, and what God continues to do today.  And it reminds us of who we are – we are the people of God.

 

So, we’ve got the what and the why – and we will do the how here in a little bit.  But it wouldn’t be a Sacrament if there wasn’t an element of mystery involved.  St. Augustine defined a Sacrament as: a visible sign of God’s invisible Grace.  It is a sacred act through which Jesus invites us into his own life.  And it is through this act, each time we partake, that the church is renewed because somehow, we together are made into something greater than ourselves.

Ordinary things – bread, juice – are representative of something extraordinary and somehow transform us ordinary things into the extraordinary people of God.

 

And I love this notion of ordinary things (us, bread, Welch’s grape juice) being claimed, made beautiful, holy, extraordinary. 

But Ingrid!  (you may say), Ingrid!  Isn’t all of God’s Creation precious and holy?  Don’t we live in a sacramental universe?

Yes.

I love this understanding – that all of this is sacred and sacramental – all of it points to God. Ooooh, and then I get that song playing in my head ‘take, take off your shoes, you’re standing on holy ground’

But Ingrid! (you may say) Ingrid!

‘Why bother with the Eucharist – Communion - if I can encounter Christ every time I eat a soft, warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie?’ (And really, who hasn’t felt a touch of the divine in a soft, warm, gooey chocolate chip cookie??!!) 

Why bother with this strange thing Jesus did with his disciples over 2000 years ago?

Well, all of my years of seminary training – and there were many of them – all of my years taught me about this thing.  How it started, why we do it, the bits that we need to include when we do it. 

But the why bother with this specific thing is so profoundly shaped by my own personal experiences in sharing this ancient sacred mysterious meal.

These instances have taught me that something different does happen in the receiving of the bread and the juice at church.  I want to share one of those stories with you – one of the spiritual experiences I have had during Communion.

Todd and I had been married about seven months, and we were visiting my Mom on Bowen Island, as we often did, to have breakfast with her and go to church at the Little Red Church in the apple orchard.  We were celebrating that day, as we had just found out that I was expecting our first child.  In worship, we were participating in the sacrament of Communion, and as I received the bread, dipped it into the juice, took it into my mouth and began to pray, I was struck with a powerful and resounding understanding that I was also offering this Communion to the teeny life that was growing in my womb.  And in that moment, I understood that God already had a relationship with this new wee human and, whoever they were to be, they were partaking in this mystery that was beyond my own understanding.

 

God took this ancient sacrament and used it to begin to change me into a mother. 

Maybe it is this experience that led me to call this sermon, “Gifts of Adaptation”- the definition of adaptation being “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment”.  Let me read that again, “a change or the process of change by which an organism or species becomes better suited to its environment.”  Communion gives us the mechanism to become better suited to be followers of Jesus.

 

Now how about that book “Stuck”?  I love the absurdity of that story – I love children’s books for their suspension of laws of physics and their play with the imaginative possible.  Because it is in their play that they are able to point us to bigger things. 

Thinking back to the story, I want to ask you to consider for a moment, who in this story can you relate to the most?  They boy whose kite got stuck?  Do you have a problem that no matter how much other crap you throw at, never seems to get resolved?  What about Mitch the cat, who gets tossed into a problem without any understanding of why, or what he has to do with it, or any idea of a solution?  Maybe you can identify with one of the firefighters – you show up to help with a big problem, only to get stuck in the problem yourself?  Or are you the rhinoceros, left up in the problem, after the instigator has taken off and gone to bed?

 

We all get stuck.  We get stuck because of our own accidents, of our own poor choices.  We get stuck because of others’ poor choices.  We get stuck because of circumstances beyond our control, and we get stuck because we misuse the tools we have in hand – remember, Floyd at one point had a saw in his hand, and rather than cut down the tree, he tossed it up too!

We all get stuck.

The disciples got stuck too – they betrayed Jesus, abandoned him, denied they were with him.

 

We all get stuck.

 

But you know what?  God doesn’t get stuck.  God doesn’t get stuck, and better yet, God has hand delivered this mechanism for getting us un-stuck.

 

 

 

Communion is the key that unlocks the mystery of God who is desperately trying to get our attention to let us know how loved we are.  Communion is the tool we have to realign ourselves with God’s will for us.  Communion is the process of change by which we become better suited to our call as disciples of Christ, our method of adaptation to the Christian way of life.

 

And Jesus doesn’t say – this isn’t for Judas, I know what you are up to, or hey Peter – hands off, I see what’s coming.  There are no stipulations by Jesus marking those who are in and out from this meal.  He shares it with all present, no matter how stuck they are.  No matter how broken they are.  No matter what they have done or what they are about to do.

 

“Take,” he says, “Take, this is my body.”  Take me, he says. 

“Drink,” he urges, “Drink and know a new way.”

 

And in a few minutes, I will invite you to this table.  Not my table.  Not the table of St. George’s United Church or the United Church of Canada.  I will invite you to the table where Jesus is all at once the host, the participant, and the adaptor.  We are welcomed to the table by God, a place where we have the opportunity to encounter God, and we are then digested by God and made into people of the light.

 

No matter who you are, what you have done or are about to do.  No matter what you believe or what doubts you have, you are welcome at this table.  And it is at this table, in this simple sharing of these ordinary things, something beyond our understanding takes place, and we are transformed, adapted, un-stuck, into the precious, holy, extraordinary children of God that we were born to be.

 

Can I get an Amen?

 

Sermon: "Extra Yarn” & Jesus’ Anointing: Gifts of Place July 28, 2019

storybooks and scripture picture.jpg
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,[a] as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii,[b] and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news[c] is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
— Mark 14: 3-9 (NRSV)

“Extra Yarn” and Jesus’ Anointing[1]

Gifts of Place

Mark 14: 3-9

 

Holy God,

allow us your wisdom.

By the power of your Holy Spirit

open the Scriptures to us today,

that in the Word read and proclaimed

we might know your truth.

In Jesus’ name we ask it. Amen.

 

This might seem like a strange choice of Scripture for today – for at least two reasons (though you may have more): 1 - how does this even go with the children’s story?  And 2 – isn’t this part of the passion narrative?  The story of Jesus’ last things before he is crucified? 

 

I promise I will get to 1 – how this works with “Extra Yarn,” shortly.  And yes, this story is oddly timed for in the Summer; typically we hear these words in Lent, or even on Good Friday, because they detail the moments leading up to Jesus’ death.  And the reason we do that is because these Scriptures are so tied to the time and place in which they are located – this story doesn’t make sense unless it comes just before the Crucifixion.  Which is why I have called this sermon “Gifts of Place”. 

 

First, let’s dive into a little background and context, so we can get the fullness of the details here, and then we will begin to pull it apart.

 

Like I said, timing is key here.  In the Scripture, it is just about Passover – one of three Jewish pilgrimage festivals, and Jesus and the others are in Jerusalem, along with thousands of other Jews who have travelled from far and wide for this Holy occasion.  Now, because of this influx of Jews, the city was crawling with soldiers – troops in place to keep order and peace.  It is a strained situation: a hot, dusty city – bustling all year, but absolutely teeming with people at Passover.  The tension palpable in the streets, as the authorities attempt to put a lid on what is an escalating situation. 

 

This story takes place on a Wednesday, and the days leading up are important to note: Jesus had just, on Sunday, ridden into town on his donkey to the shouts of “Hosanna!  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” while palm leaves were laid on his path (11:8-10), Palm Sunday.  And then on Monday, he went into the Temple and freaked out, flipping tables over and calling people out for their behaviour.  Tuesday, he had crowds of people all around as he was confronted by the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious elites, and they challenged each other’s authority – the crowds swelling in support of Jesus, “delighting” (12:37) in his teaching as he denounced the leaders.

 

Our Scripture for today comes the very next morning – just as the “chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1), fully aware that if they did it in the open, there would surely be a riot (14:2).  So, this is the place we are in with this woman today – build and build and build and build and…pause.  The writing here is beautiful, because it is like time slows for this moment.

 

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Jesus is at Simon’s house, a leper, hanging out with the undesirables (as usual), and onto the scene walks this woman.  We never know her name, or even who she is, but, as Jesus later states, the whole world would know her by her actions. 

 

She walks in with an alabaster jar – this would be an ancient version of those beautiful hand-blown glass perfume bottles of the 1920s, 30s, 40s.  A piece of art – recognizable at once for holding costly ointment, or oil.  The contents: made from the spikenard plant, native to the Himalayan region of India – so it is not only a luxury item, it has travelled a great distance before landing in this woman’s possession.  The jar is sealed – to keep the precious contents safe until they are to be used. 

And she CRACKS it open…and pours the entire contents on Jesus’ head.  The thick oil creeping down his face, soaking his hair and beard, (inhale!) the musky, sweet, earthy, rich fragrance filling the space, overpowering all else.

This moment of love, of bliss, of generosity, of recognition by the woman of who Jesus is.

 

A Holy moment…shattered: “why was the ointment wasted in this way?”

“we could’ve sold it for the poor!”

 

They are, of course, correct in a certain way – this imported luxury was costly – roughly the annual wage of a day-labourer in this time.  Could’ve fed a lot of poor people with that.

 

But Jesus defends the woman’s prophetic action to those who were denigrating her in the name of the poor: her expansive gesture – breaking and pouring the entire vial when she could use just a few drops – highlights for us the depth of her understanding of the costliness of what is about to happen.  Especially as its contrasts to the apparent cheapness of Jesus’ life in the eyes of those who seek to betray and destroy him.  Remember, Judas sells him out for a few meager coins.

 

And another level of understanding is revealed in this story with Jesus’ response to those who attempt to rebuke the woman for her apparent wastefulness. “‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus, ‘why are you bothering her?  She has done a beautiful [kalos] thing to me.’” (14:6, NIV).  The Greek kalos, translated as “beautiful” or “a good service” has a richer meaning than we can understand in English.  It can mean good, as in morally right, or, it can mean beautiful, as in aesthetically pleasing, but in this context it means more than either one of those.

To give to the poor – what the followers are calling for – is right, but the woman’s deed is of a different order of rightness. 

To anoint the head with perfume is aesthetically pleasing, but the woman’s act is of a higher order of beauty. 

Her action is greater than these simple meanings – though it is both a good service and beautiful, it is elevated because it is timely.  The beauty of her extravagant and apparently wasteful gesture is due to the particular time and particular situation: Jesus is about to die.

 

This understanding is magnified further by Jesus’ next words: “she has done what she could” (14:8a), which literally translated reads “what she had.”  The expression suggests that what she had, she gave – or, what she had it in her power to do, she did.  Her act is so powerful because she invested herself in it.  She gave what she had to him who was about to give his life for her.

 

And he makes this even clearer with his next words, “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial” (14:8b).  She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’ three prophecies of his death and resurrection, she alone believed him – is she the very first believer?  Before even, the tangible empty tomb and left-behind grave-clothes of Easter?

 

Her actions, and Jesus’ recognition of their significance (and the legacy they hold to this day) lay before us a tremendous model of the possible response to Jesus’ presence in our lives.  She left no name, but rather the lasting memory of a beautiful and generous deed.

In any other context, perhaps this un-named woman’s action would’ve been wasteful, would’ve been over-the-top extravagant – maybe in a different time and place, the followers’ rebuke would’ve been warranted – a years wages poured out.  But for this woman, in this moment, it was kalos, a good and beautiful thing, magnified by the enormity of her love.

 

Remember Annabelle?  From the storybook?  She had a precious box, and used what was inside with a generosity of spirit, even for those who teased her.  And the significance of her actions carried on far beyond her – in the story we are told that “news spread of this remarkable girl…and people came to visit from around the world.”[2]

 

And what of her box?  Maybe it was only full because the little girl’s heart was full too. Maybe the box was only full because she was giving away what was inside instead of keeping the treasure for her own gain.  Maybe it was only full because of where it was: the box of yarn only worked in one place, and only for the sharing with others.

 

So then, what is the alabaster jar we are holding?  What box of unending yarn is here at St. George’s to use to give?  What precious, good, beautiful, kalos thing are we being called to – as individuals, and as a community of faith, that is particular to this time, particular to this place, and maybe doesn’t make sense anywhere or any-when else?

 

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This anonymous woman’s response to Jesus opens us up to what being a disciple really means.  Her deed sprung from a personal love for Jesus.  A love which, on occasion, breaks all patterns, defies common sense, and simply gives.  Spontaneous, un-calculating, selfless, and timely, her gift calls us to love Jesus in this way too.  What is extra beautiful about this is her boldness – she is likely aware that the others will judge her for her generosity, but she decides to be reckless in her discipleship, in her love of Jesus.

 

Annabelle, the girl, her actions, too, sprung from a place of abundance, of love, defying common sense (she knit for trucks and mailboxes, you’ll recall).  Spontaneous, un-calculating, selfless, and timely.  She, too, was mocked, teased for her bold generosity, but she decided to be reckless in her giving to the community.

 

And maybe the way we respond to the love of God known to us through Jesus Christ is unconventional.  Maybe it doesn’t fit into what is expected, maybe others will judge us – but we too can be BOLD in our response to this costly love.

There is a generosity inside of each of us, waiting for the pot to be shattered open.  The jar is precious, yes, but not more precious than the oil inside.  The oil is costly, yes, but cheap in comparison to the one we yearn to pour ourselves out for. 

 

So knit your sweaters.  Break open your jars – break patterns, defy common sense, and give LOVE: spontaneously, un-caluclatingly, selflessly: now is the time, and this surely is the place.  God is here, Jesus is calling, and love and generosity abound. 

 

Can I get an Amen?


 


[1] Inspiration, exegesis, and great ideas from Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week; Pheme Perkins, “Gospel of Mark,” The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VIII; Amy-Jill Levine, The Jewish Annotated New Testament; Lamar Williamson Jr, Interpretation Bible Commentary: Mark.

[2] Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen, “Extra Yarn,” p.21.

Sermon: "When God Made Light" & The Cosmic Christ July 21, 2019

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1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.[b]

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)
— John 1: 1-15 NRSV
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in[a] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in[b] him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
— Colossians 1: 15-20

I have quite the habit of collecting books. I’ve been doing it ever since I began studying in my 20s, and because I was a student, I was forever foraging in used bookstores. I’d even stop in small towns while driving through BC, and comb through the local thrift store, just in case there was a good volume to be found amongst the Danielle Steele and the old cook books.

 

One time, I can’t remember how long ago now, maybe 15-20 years, I found this little blue hardcover with a curious title- The Unfinished Universe. On the inside of the dust jacket it said, “A great creative process is taking place in the universe, one in which we take part, for mankind is not only a witness but also a participant”. I thought that sounded intriguing enough, so I bought it and stuffed it away somewhere on my growing wall of IKEA bookshelves, not to open it again for many years.

 

Little did I know that this new understanding of cosmology- which The Unfinished Universe, published in 1986, would be among the first to herald- would one day become a big part of my intellectual and spiritual life. Little did I know that one day I would walk into a church where the pastor was doing a version of Christianity based on this new cosmology, and that I would be inspired to go into ministry, changing my life forever. As it turns out, this little blue book was an omen glowing in an old brown box, whispering to me from my latent future.

 

Today I want to talk about this new cosmology and the theologies that are embracing it. Over the course of May and June, I led a small group on this topic here at St. George’s. It was a good group- which included Katarina, Margo, Alana, Deb and Ula- and I think everyone got something out of our time together. What I wanted to do today is tell you a little bit about what we learned, so we can feed our experience back into the life of the congregation. So hang on to your hats- we’re about to take a wild ride through the new movements in theology that are embracing cosmology and evolution, and talk about what this means for how we understand God, Jesus, and the future of life on this planet.

 

The new cosmology tells the story of a universe that came into being 13.8 billion years ago, and has been evolving ever since. After the big bang there was only hydrogen gas, but over vast scales of time particles formed, then galaxies, then stars, then planets, then cellular life on planets, then the biological world emerged, and eventually humans and human culture came into being. There are two main things to note about this story, for our purposes today. First, there are observable patterns to what the universe has been doing throughout this vast cosmic history- and this includes moving towards increasing order, increasing complexity, and increasing consciousness (or the increasing depth of self-awareness in beings). One saying in our small group readings that we were struck by, and one that takes a long time to really take in, is that in human beings the cosmos has become conscious of itself. The interior conscious dimension of the universe has now developed to such a degree, that the cosmos includes creatures that can contemplate the cosmos as a whole. That’s a pretty amazing and mind-bending thing to consider. But the important point is that the universe is not just a bunch of stuff randomly smashing about, but is following patterns of self-organization over time. The universe is up to something, and we can track its patterns.

 

The second main thing to note about this cosmic story is that it’s not deterministic. There wasn’t some clockmaker God who wound the thing up, and then let it run according to a predetermined plan. No, the universe contains truly novel things that could not have been predicted from what came before it. Although we see patterns in the evolution of the cosmos, as we just said, the future of the cosmos is unknown. It’s unfinished, to the use the title of that book I found. The scientific word for this non-determined dimension of cosmic evolution is emergence. Things emerge in the process of cosmic evolution that are truly new, and not just combinations of what came before it. The universe is alive and unfolding in creative new ways, and because of this we can never know what the future holds. The future is unwritten.

 

So how does this all relate to God and Jesus and our own spiritual lives? Much of what I’m about to tell you comes from the growing field of theology called Open and Relational Theology. That’s an umbrella term for theologies that are embracing the cosmic story I just described. The term open refers to what we just said- the future is open, not even God knows the future. This might seem startling to some who grew up with the classical view of God as omniscient, or all knowing. A supreme being must know everything, including the future right? That’s what Calvin and Luther thought. But this new theological understanding rejects this. In a universe that’s free and unfolding, like the one science is discovering, there’s no pre-existing divine plan for creation. God knows all of the possibilities for the future, but doesn’t know which way creation will choose to go. The cosmic novel is being written in real time.

 

So how does God relate to the world then? In an open and relational view God does relate to beings in an ongoing and intimate way. God’s not some distant sky God, totally different and separate from the cosmos. In this view God’s primary nature is understood as love, as the Bible says. But the nature of love, if we reflect on it, is to not be controlling or coercive. We don’t love someone by controlling them. So God gives birth to the cosmos, and sustains it on a moment-to-moment basis, but does not control it or intervene in it. The cosmos contains genuine free will. So how does God relate to us, if God cannot intervene in that Monty Python hand from the sky kind of way? God is omnipresent, or present everywhere in the universe. God is within everything, wooing us, whispering to us to choose the more beautiful future that God wants to come into being. Jesus called that future the kingdom of God, a world in which love and justice and equality would reign. But God can’t force or strong-arm that future into being. God must allure creatures like us to participate with God in bringing about that future. There’s a line in the Talmud that says, “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers: ‘Grow, grow’”. That’s how God relates to us, always alluring us to grow in the direction of love.

 

But we must choose it. In every decision we make, we have multiple options in front of us. We can choose on a spectrum from love to full blown evil. Of course we’re never fully free in our choices. We’re influenced by our culture, our biology, our moment in history, our family, etc. But we do always have some modicum of free will despite these restrains, and God’s constantly wooing us to choose the next right thing. That’s the heart of our spiritual practice, this moment-by-moment choosing to act a little more in the image of God. And of course we often fail, or stray off course. We are, after all, human, all too human. But when we stray off course, we turn back, and try once again to choose actions that bring about a little more of the kingdom of God. And of course things like prayer and worship and reading scripture can help us become more capable and primed to choose the direction of love.

 

Our exemplar for this life lived in the image of God is of course Jesus. Jesus is the Word made flesh. What does this mean? The Word is the Logos or the mind of God, what in the Old Testament was referred to as Wisdom. In many places, including our readings today, the Bible asserts that the mind or wisdom of God is working throughout all of creation. It’s God’s active power in the physical world, alluring all things to evolve in its image. For those who like to read in other religions, this wisdom or logos is very much like the Tao in Taoism. The Tao is seen as the eternal Way that flows through all things. The Taoist master is one who aligns with this Tao and embodies it fully. This is what Jesus does in the Christian tradition too. Jesus is the human being who fully opened up to the logos or divine wisdom. As Jesus says, “Anyone who sees me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). If we wanted to see what the divine looks like when fully aligned with the human form, we can see this in Jesus.

 

But when we look at Jesus from a cosmic perspective, from the deep time perspective of 13 billion years of cosmic evolution, we can see two additional and important things about who he was. We can see that Jesus is not some supernatural being who flew down to earth and did his thing, only to fly off again when done. No, Jesus is the product of this epic story of cosmic evolution. This is how the theologian Ilia Delio puts it- “The body of Jesus, like every human body, is made from cosmic dust birthed in the interior of ancient stars that long predated our planet and solar system. The iron that ran through his veins, the phosphorus and calcium that fortified his bones, the sodium and potassium that facilitated the transmission of signals through his nerves- all make the Incarnation a truly cosmic event”. Jesus comes up out of the cosmos, and it took millions of years of evolution to create the conditions for his emergence. Jesus is thoroughly an inside job.

 

But even more than this, Jesus tells us where this cosmic story is headed. Paul called Jesus the “firstfruits of a new creation”. In Jesus we get a little taster of what’s possible, of where cosmic evolution might go if creatures choose it. He’s a herald, a sign, an indicator of what the future could be if we listen and respond to God’s perpetual allurement. But there’s no guarantee we will, because real freedom truly exists in the cosmos. And life is pretty touch and go on this planet at the moment, as we all know. The story written here on earth might turn out to be a tragedy. But it might not. We don’t know, because the future is unwritten.

 

And I think that’s one of two important takeaways I wanted to leave folks with today, from this new theological and cosmological perspective. I know there’s a growing amount of depression and resignation about the future of life on earth. I read an article the other day that said “‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life” (1). The article says that it’s “Super painful to be a human right now at this point in history”.  I had a minister friend tell me last week that her two teenage daughters don’t even think about what profession they might go into, because they assume there’ll be future at all. What’s the point of even thinking about these things then? This is heartbreaking stuff to hear. And I understand it. But we need to realize that the future is open. Nothing is set in stone, nothing is predetermined, including total planetary disaster. Sure, the heat is on, and the walls are closing in, I’ll grant that. But nothing is certain! Let’s not give up hope on a story that’s still being written.

 

And even more importantly, God needs us to co-create the future. God can’t do it alone. God’s eternal and undying love means God has let creation be truly free, so God needs creatures to participate in bringing about the world God desires. That’s why in the Bible God is constantly seeking out human partnership, coming to Abraham and Moses and Jesus and the other prophets, making a covenant with the Israelites, enlisting everyone from wise men to shepherds to work on God’s behalf. God’s always seeking out creaturely partnership to bring about the kingdom of God. If we give in to despair now, we guarantee there’ll be no future worth living, because it can’t be done without us. And this might seem like a daunting responsibility, a heavy burden. But I think it’s exciting. It imbues life with an incredible amount of meaning and purpose. We matter to the future of life on this planet. Our actions affect the course of cosmic evolution. Of course, we need to be careful about falling prey to hubris, and allowing our human egos to direct this story. But if we spend time in prayer and silence we’ll become more capable of hearing where God’s calling us. We’ll better discern what needs to be done.

 

So friends, let’s stay the course and keep fighting the good fight. The beautiful future Jesus revealed is still calling to us. Let’s keep trying to choose love in each next moment. Let’s reject those forces that are constantly trying to divide and conquer us. Together we are strong. As the Bible tells us many times, if we partner with God, anything is possible. Anything. Let’s stick that divine promise in our cosmic hat, and together unveil the glorious future that’s waiting for us on the other side of the storm. May it be so. Amen.

 

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(1) “‘Climate Despair’ Is Making People Give Up on Life”.  Vice. June 11, 2019. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/j5w374/climate-despair-is-making-people-give-up-on-life?fbclid=IwAR0g3OiYvccdAKWLIx7MpcIWPGn8mTHV9Uy9QFPMetPoewn3DDVaBen0-b0

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sermon: "Red: A Crayon's Story" & The Woman at the Well July 14, 2019

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A video of “Red: A Crayon’s Story” can be found HERE.

5 So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. 6 Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.

7 A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8 (His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)[a] 10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19 The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you[b] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I am he,[c] the one who is speaking to you.”

27 Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28 Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29 “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah,[d] can he?” 30 They left the city and were on their way to him.
— John 4:5-30 NRSV

Open our hearts and our minds,

so that we can understand the fullness of your Word.

Fill us with the light of the Holy Spirit,

and bless the servant you have chosen,

to share the Word proclaimed today.

In the name of Christ, the Word revealed. Amen.

 

When I was studying in seminary – grad school training for ministers – one of my professors always used to say that each reading has at least 70 faces – a truth she had inherited from a wise Rabbi who had taught her.  I think of that like facets in a diamond – every time we sit down to read and study Scripture, the Holy Spirit has something different to teach us, a new side or facet or face to a multi-dimensional story.

 

And this story from John of the woman at the well is no different: I have done an entire Lenten series – 6 weeks - on this one passage of Scripture, because of its richness.  So today I could preach on how this passage legitimizes women in ministry, preaching and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus…but I won’t.  I could reflect on how this scripture is about building community by crossing gender, racial, and social boundaries to share the love of God with everyone…but that isn’t quite for today.  Today I want to spend some time leaning into the story of the unnamed woman of Samaria.

 

In the story told in John’s gospel, Jesus has just had his secret night meeting with Nicodemus (wealthy educated Jew who could not understand) and he and his disciples have left Jerusalem, travelling on their way to Galilee.  In the verse right before this, most translations read, he had to travel through Samaria.  You see, but the Greek reads, it was necessary.  This is not a semantic detail – Samaria is not exactly on the way to Galilee.  Yet, it was necessary for Jesus to travel into Samaria, though perhaps not for a geographical purpose.[1]

 

Now, what of Samaria?  Not a Jewish place – Jesus and his disciples are foreigners here, both religiously and racially.  Not only that, these are rival people – that is why the story of the good Samaritan is such a scandal – to Jews, people of Samaria were on the wrong side of everything, they were outcast, despised.[2]

 

And this anonymous woman?  She is likely unnamed to focus our attention on the fact that she is Samaritan, not Jew – the women who are named in this Gospel are all Jewish (Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene).  And we know that she has had five husbands plus the partner she is currently living with.  For many years, mostly beginning with the Puritans, this has been understood to mean that she has a scandalous past – and maybe she does.  But this five-husbands business is likely not pointing to a sexually provocative past.  What is more socially probable is that she was barren.[3]  Women who didn’t bear children were divorced, cast aside, abandoned.  Maybe she is a widow as well.  We don’t know exactly, but what we do know, is that never in this story does Jesus give her a lesson in morality or even offer her his forgiveness for her past – she does not need it.  He does see her need, and that need is belonging. 

 

The truth of her situation is that she is marginalized, ostracised, holding deeply the pain of abandonment and barrenness.  She is isolated.  Disconnected.  And likely not because of anything she had control over.

 

This woman could not make herself into what society told her she should be.  She was alone.

 

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Remember that story I told to the children? “Red” was alone.  Red was marginalized, ostracized.  Red could not fit into the expectations of his parents, his teachers, family, friends, peers. 

They saw what he should be.  He was red, he just wasn’t trying hard enough.

 

And we know this story from our own lives don’t we?  We wear labels, each one of us.  Labels of how we should be as a man or a woman, as a Mom or a Dad, as a teacher, a carpenter, a grandparent, a preacher, an adult, a spouse, a professional, an elder; we could go on and on.

 

There are a lot of “shoulds,” weighing heavily on each one of us.  Pushing us further away from one another, further away from the healing that comes through connection, relationship, community.  We feel the weight of the should – you should eat less chocolate; you should save more money; you should get off your phone you should spend more time with your family; you should get more exercise; you should yell less; you should should should

And when we aren’t living up to the shoulds?  We pull away – or are pushed away – and we either put on a perfect outside or we lose our connection with community.

 

Red could not make himself into what those around him told him he should be. Red was alone.

 

Until.  Red was alone until he met a new friend who asked a different question.  The purple crayon didn’t try to fix or change him, she just invited him into relationship and saw Red as he was.  Not trying to change but giving him the space to express himself as he was made – which, ironically, made space for a new identity to emerge: from a place of shame and brokenness to purpose-filled and free.

 

The Samaritan woman was alone.

Until.  She was alone until she met a new friend who asked a different question.

Jesus didn’t try to fix or change her, but invited her into relationship.  They engage in this back and forth about living water: is she naïve, or playing along with him as a part of her wit?  She is perceptive, bright – the conversation moves quickly from the mundane, step-by-step, over the barriers with which she erected to protect her inner self, until she is in a rather intimate conversation with Jesus.  As it turns out, Jesus is not some stranger who knows his theology accosting her at Jacob’s well, he knows her intimately, and accepts her as a worthy discussant.[4]

 

The woman is a quick study, and we see Jesus bring her to a new level of understanding of who he is: from thirsty Jew to strange water purveyor to prophet…[5]  From there, she presses forward into this theological dialogue with Jesus regarding the acceptable place for worship – something Jews and Samaritans had disagreed over for centuries.  This back and forth bringing her to yet another level of understanding…could he be, Messiah

And Jesus makes himself fully known to her with the words, “I am.”  He reveals that the presence of God is before her.  It is the first “I am” statement in this Gospel.  Jesus makes God known to this woman at the well and, as a result, makes her a co-witness to his work in the world.

 

--

 

Jesus sees and validates her, and what happens?  She drops her pot – leaves behind her water jar to run off, in joy, to share this revelation.  She leaves behind a key piece of her old identity. 

This new-found relationship with Jesus makes room for her identity to evolve.  She sheds the labels of marginalization and abandonment and assumes a new identity as preacher and centre-point of a brand-new movement in the Samaritan community.

 

In John’s Gospel, salvation means restored relationship, it means belonging.  When Jesus meets and shares with people, when Jesus heals them, it is so they can get back to their place of belonging in the community. 

 

And because of this unnamed woman of Samaria, we know that we too have a place to belong.  Because of her we know that no matter who we are, no matter our place in society, not matter the boxes we have been put into or the corners we have been assigned to, God, as revealed in Jesus, is for us too.  No more ‘shoulds,’ no more labels. 

Except the one that matters the most: beloved child of God.

 

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Red was alone.  The Samaritan woman was alone.  There are times when we too feel alone – isolated by others or by our own shame or fear of what we have done or not done or by who we are. 

But Jesus sees us.  Jesus calls us into relationship, stripping off the false or harmful tags that we ourselves and others put on us.  Jesus claims us as his own, making room for us to put down the pots of our old selves. 

Neither Red nor the Woman at the Well could’ve done it on their own.  This is not a pull yourself up by your bootstraps situation.  It isn’t redefine your identity and begin again

Jesus, as Christ or crayon, goes out of his way in his travels, to sit down at the well and wait for us.  He knows us.  He wants us.  And he is ready to engage in creating an intimacy with us to unbind us from the threads or wrappers that constrict who we think we are and make wide the path to freedom for the person he knows we are. 

 

Are we ready to recognize his invitation?  To engage in that witty dialogue? 

Are we ready to have our minds opened to a new understanding? 

Are we ready to put down our pots and venture into the world with the label beloved child of God? 

I pray that we might move from this place today, leaving behind our water jugs and into the newness of life in Christ.

Can I get an Amen?


[1] As per Karoline Lewis via the “Sermon Brainwave” podcast on workingpreacher.org

[2] Kysar, 180 and Sloyan, 52-53.

[3] More from Karoline Lewis.

[4] Spencer, “You Just Don’t Understand (or Do You?)” from A Feminist Companion to John Vol. 1 (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 35.

[5] From Ian Ramsey via Culpepper, The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, 139.

Sermon: "Naming Our Demons" June 23, 2019

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26 Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28 When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”— 29 for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31 They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.

32 Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33 Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.

34 When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35 Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36 Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37 Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus[g] to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38 The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39 “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
— Luke 8:26-39 (NRSV)

Spirit of God,

may your Word be as rain

falling from heaven, soaking dry soil

until it sprouts and springs forth,

giving seed to the sower

and bread to the eater,

through Christ—

Living Water, Living Word. Amen.

 

Its not every day that you come across a naked, wild, demon possessed man here at St. George’s, but today is your day.

What a story. 

Jesus and the twelve have been travelling through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the Good News of the kingdom of God (8:1) to anyone with ears to hear.  Along the way, Jesus cast out evil spirits (8:2), taught using parables of seeds and lamps (8:5, 8:16), and commanded the winds and waves to obey him (8:22-25).  So then, Jesus and the twelve land their boat on the far side of the lake from Galilee – they are in Gentile territory now, a few Jews in residence but mostly not. Jesus doesn’t even have both feet on the land yet and he is confronted by this man, chair of the Gerasene welcome committee. 

 

This is a terribly tortured man – he is the ultimate outcast, scarcely even human: overcome by forces beyond his control he is naked, unpredictable, violent, and alone, living among the dead.  Can you picture him in your minds eye?  Wild, filthy hair, dirt entrenched finger and toe nails, sun weathered skin, eyes darting, not present.

 

One foot out of the boat and this is who rushes up to Jesus, throws himself Jesus’ feet and screams at the top of his lungs,

“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most-High God?” 

Remember, they are just getting off of the boat after Jesus has calmed the storm and the disciples are freaked right out, wondering, who is he?, that “the winds and water should obey him” (8:25) and they are immediately confronted by this demon who knows exactly who Jesus is and the power he holds.

 

And Jesus asks him, “what is your name?”  “Legion” he replies, “for we are many.”

It is enough to give you chills – this demon has a name.  We don’t know who this guy is but we know his demon.  And we might miss this, as 2019 listeners but legion is a military term, a great number of soldiers, similar to a battalion.  These folks were living under occupation by legions of the Roman army, and his demon occupies him; Legion.

 

--

 

 

We have seen our share of Gerasene Demoniacs, haven’t we?  If you have spent any time here during the week, if you exist in the neighbourhood, in the world, you have seen, lived, touched: addiction, poverty, violence, rage, unimaginable living situations – our neighbours in the community, our friends, folks who move in this building all the days of the week, folks in the pews beside us, and the one whose pulse we feel beating through our own bodies – we have all, we are all, wrestling with demons.

 

A favourite preacher of mine, Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed, recovering alcoholic, Lutheran, irreverent Reverend of the House for All Sinners and Saints parish in Colorado, is very open in the way she shares about her mental illness and addiction. 

She wonders about those things that get a hold of us: making us do things we don’t want to do, or love things or substances or people that are really destructive, she wonders if those are, in part, what having a demon is all about.  She refers, in particular, to a point in time in her history when her depression was so significant, it felt like a character in her life, so she decided to give her a name.

“I called her Francis,” she writes, “…I picture my depression Francis…emaciated in her torn vintage nightgown and smeared lipstick.”  She carries on to say, “Francis first stopped by in my teens and early 20s which was easily written off by my family as me being “moody”. But later, when I seemed to increasingly like the same things Francis liked: booze, emotionally unstable boyfriends, and self-destruction, she finally just moved in, turning my studio apartment into a Wilderness.

She was a terrible roommate. She kept the place filthy and always told me really devastating things about myself.  For some reason, when she lived with me, I was no longer able to do simple things like shop for groceries.  I’d stand for far too long looking at the dairy case, unable to make a decision about yogurt.”[1]  

 

We are all wrestling with demons.  Do you know your demons name?  Are they the occasional visitor or the roommate you can’t seem to evict?  Is this occupying force so directive that you have lost sight of your identity?

 

Oppressed by too many demons to count, the man occupied by Legion lost himself in the cacophony of their voices and ceased being a self.  He spent his days raving alone in the wilderness, a danger to himself and others, separated from his community and separated even from himself. 

How many of us are similarly overwhelmed by the voices raging at us from inside and out, denigrating our identity and driving us to places of extreme loneliness or despair?

 

And if this man’s torment, if our torment, was the end of the story, it would be very bad news indeed.  But it is not.  Jesus comes near, and before he is even out the boat, the demon knows exactly who he is and screams out in terror.  Because it knows it ain’t got nothin’ on Jesus.  Legion has taken everything from this man but is powerless in the face of Jesus.

Unfazed by all of this, Jesus strikes up a conversation with the demon, removing them from the unnamed man and allowing them to enter the herd of swine nearby, who promptly plunge themselves into the water, to their own destruction, in Jesus’ presence.[2]

And what was true for that man is true also for us today: our demons recognize Jesus right out of the boat, and are afraid of him.  Do you know how I know this?

Because our demons try to keep us away from the people who remind us how loved we are.  How precious we are.  That we are already claimed by God.  Our demons want nothing to do with the love of God in Christ because they know they ain’t got nothin’ on Jesus.  Our demons are powerless in the face of God, so they lie to us to keep us hiding ourselves away from that love.  They try to isolate us, telling us that we are not worthy, that no one wants us, that we cannot be known and seen as we are or we will be rejected.  But those demons nuh-uh, they ain’t got nothin’ on Jesus.

 

It is said that Martin Luther, the great reformer, when feeling oppressed, overwhelmed by his demons, would take courage by shouting, “I am baptized!”.[3]  It was his way of claiming confidence in the power of God over these forces that torment us all.  The voices of this world, the demons we wrestle with, shout but they do not have the last word.  We can declare that God claims us once, again, and always, as Gods own beloved children.

 

I am not done, but can we get an Amen?

 

Now, it would be my greatest pleasure to tell you that the farmers, the ones who had spent all this time fretting over our unnamed Legion host, making sure he was out of the community, shackled, retrained, contained, I wish I could tell you that those farmers saw the miracle and lined up to follow Jesus. 

But they didn’t – they took off! 

They ran off to tell everyone about what had happened, and when the crowds came back to see for themselves, they found this once wild, naked, tormented man hanging out, wearing clothes, chatting away with the disciples.  And I wish I could tell you that then the crowds saw for themselves and lined up to follow Jesus! 

But they didn’t – they told Jesus to take off. 

They were afraid, “seized with great fear,” (8:37) and wanted nothing to do with this power in their presence which was greater than the power of evil. 

How can this be?  Why not unanimous joy at the presence of a power greater than evil?

 

Have you ever seen a family completely break down after an addict gets clean or a person with depression begins to heal?

The world of the folks around the one who was tormented and is now healed gets turned upside down and well-worn systems are thrown into the chaos of the unknown.

There is a certain security when people know the locus of the evil: where it lives, how to fence it in; there is time and expense devoted to guarding and controlling it.  And a community learns, we learn, how to live with the demonic powers, isolating and partially controlling them.

Then power of God shows up and disturbs the way it had been neatly arranged. 

 

Some days, the unknown grace is scarier than the known, the comfortable, familiar demon. 

 

Jesus’ healing power has a wide blast radius, reaching far beyond the intended target.  The impact of the restoration of this man [radiated out] with the deafening echo of God’s love for everyone, and God’s power over everything.  And that world shaking message has the power to disrupt and disturb comfortable systems, and it doesn’t always feel like good news for everyone who is invested in the broken system.

Stepping into the unknown power of God can seem almost unbearable.  It is like when the ancients in the Old Testament are unable to look direct at the glory of God – it overwhelms. 

Jesus though, Jesus is the walking, talking glory of God that doesn’t blind us when we look at him, but heals our blindness, our inability to see who we really are. 

 

It is in Jesus that we come face to face with God who sees us, really sees us: the naked, distorted, isolated, mess we are, and greets us unflinchingly. 

It is Jesus who reaches into the distance we ourselves and our demons have created.  And our demons scream in terror, because they know, they ain’t got nothin’ on Jesus.

 

This Jesus who claims us, heals us, restores us to our rightful place as precious, beloved children of God.

 

Can I get an Amen?

 


[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Demon Possession and Why I Named My Depression ‘Francis.’” Blog: Sarcastic Lutheran: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, June 25, 2013. https://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2013/06/demon-possession-and-why-i-named-my-depression-francis/

[2] Ancient Middle Eastern demonology understood that demons could not survive in water, as per Elaine A. Heath, Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 3, p. 168.

[3] Thanks to David J. Lose in Feasting on the Word Year C Vol. 3, p. 171 for this treasure!

Sermon: "Wholly Mystery, Wholly Love, Wholly Relational: The Holy Trinity" June 16, 2019

5:1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

5:2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

5:3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance,

5:4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

5:5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
— Romans 5: 1-5 (NRSV)
trinity-sunday.jpg

Sing into our ears, O Spirit, the holy word of life.

Tell us who we are and to whom we belong

so that we may live with gratitude for all that you have done. Amen.

 It is a somewhat strange thing, Trinity Sunday.  God as three-in-one is a doctrine of the church – a way that we, the church through history, have done our best to attempt to express the fullness of God in our limited understanding.   A summary, so to speak, of the witness of Scripture to God’s unfathomable love incarnate in Jesus Christ and experienced and celebrated in the community of faith.[1]  So, do we preach on a doctrine?  Well, no.  But, well, yes.  Because really, every Sunday is Trinity Sunday – we are always reaching to a greater, deeper understanding of the mystery of God, and as we do that, we cannot help but bump into the Holy Spirit, into Jesus, into God: the Mother/Father of us all.

 

So, for this particular Trinity Sunday, the church gives us this reading from Paul to the new church in Rome.  Now, Paul may not have intended to develop a theology of the Trinity, but throughout the book of Romans, he speaks about having peace with God (5:1-11), being united with Christ (6:1-14), and living according to the Spirit (8:1-17).  All of these expressions of God were already moving, and these first Christ-followers were learning how to relate to all three, as one.

 

And when we look specifically at this passage, it is easy to see why the church selects it for this Sunday – we have peace with God through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.  Kind of sums it up.  Alright, I guess it is a short one then, someone go get the kids from downstairs, Ill meet you outside for lemonade.

 

Kidding aside, it is quite helpful to talk about the Trinity because we have so much that we can learn from a God that is three-in-one.  One of the most basic, and I think, beautiful things of our understanding of God, is that fundamentally, God is community.  God is not God outside of relationship.  God in God’s very own immanent, eternal being, is an activity of mutual self-giving, a community of sharing, God is a “society of love.” (Augustine) Trinitarian Doctrine describes God as self-sharing, other-regarding, community-forming love.  1 John reminds us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8).  It's not just that God loves, it's that God is inherently love through the loving relationships that God consists of.

And because God gives us an example of mutuality in relationship, it shows us Love that is united but not smothering, that maintains unity and diversity at the same time. God shows us Love that is coequal rather than hierarchical. That allows the other to be fully other.  The Trinity gives us a model for how we are to build our relationships, as those who are made in God's image.

 

Now, if we are to turn back to our specific passage we learn even more about God and our relationship with God.  It is a short but packed full selection of Scripture, starting with a therefore, which propels us back a little bit before we can move forward. 

 

Paul has just reminded his listeners that through resurrection, Jesus broke the chain of death that began with Adam, the chain of death which is: separation from God.  He urges that those who have come to know and follow Jesus, are to live according to a new chain of life – not groping for self satisfaction, but assured of God’s presence.[2] 

 

“Therefore,” the writes, “since we are justified by faith we have peace with God through Jesus” – let’s pause here.  Justification is traditionally a judicial term – it means free from the charge of being guilty.  So, in this case, Paul is saying that we are free by our faith; that is, we are at peace with God through Jesus, and he goes on to say that it is from Jesus that we have access to this “grace in which we stand.” (v. 2)

 

Now, oftentimes, we read this and think (or have been taught) that it is our faith in Jesus that justifies us, sets us free.  But I want to open something up here.  There is a funny little preposition in Greek that changes this understanding.  Ek.  It means “out of” (dikaiothentes ek pisteos).  This same sneaky preposition pops up in Romans 3:26, which is often translated “God justifies one who has faith in Jesus.”[3]  But, it just isn’t quite right.  Because that little ek implies the causality of the justification.  Let me explain: it shifts where the responsibility lies.  So, instead of “God justifies one who has faith in Jesus,” it reads, “One is justified to God through Jesus’ faith.”  This actually is in keeping with Paul’s understanding, as he later in Romans 5:19 states, “by one man’s obedience all will be made righteous.” 

Ok Ingrid, why does this matter?  Aren’t you talking semantics now?  Or are you just showing off your Greek skills? 

It matters because it speaks to where our reconciliation with God is initiated.  This is not about our salvation by way of us accepting Jesus Christ as our Personal Lord and Saviour –

though we do and he is

– it is that our entering into right relationship with God is the consequence of Jesus’ faithful obedience to God in his life, death, and resurrection. 

 

So when we hear, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to the grace in which we stand,” (v. 1-2) we can hear, “through Jesus and his faithful obedience we are reconciled to God and have access to God’s free gift of grace.” 

God initiated the action – our justification by faith is not through our acceptance of, or faith in Jesus, but is in our active response to Jesus’ faithfulness in our living in God’s way.

 

Paul then takes a sharp turn into suffering.  The Scripture reads, “we also boast in our sufferings,” which may sound a bit strange, it means to hold one’s head high in hard times.  Remember, Paul is writing to Romans who are steeped in an honour-shame culture; public shame was to be avoided at all costs.  In that worldview, one would never boast in their sufferings, because it was a sure sign of God’s displeasure.  

And like most things related to the teachings of that Jesus, he takes the cultural norm and flips it on its head.  Rather than being deterred by its oppression, suffering, affliction, the church is to stand up, shoulders back, head high.  For Paul, suffering was an opportunity to double down on the newly understood relationship between God and Humanity; Jesus opened up the flow so that we can have love peace with God through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  So stand tall, he says to these folks shirking in their shame and fear, stand tall he says to us in our shame and fear – give thanks!  Give thanks, for you are winning where it really matters – you are reconciled to God.

 

To give thanks for and not be ashamed of our hard times, our failures, seems like a pretty big stretch – both for the ancient people Paul was writing to, and to us.  We work really hard to make ourselves look just so good on the outside – our Facebook pictures of happy family vacations, our manicured lawns, our put together outfits.  Paul encourages us to be real.  And this isn’t just about getting real with God and ourselves, it has some rather practical consequences.

 

In practice, getting real and in public deflates our suffering – bad things happen, we live in a broken world, but when we are able to give thanks in the mess, we are able to catch a glimpse of grace, a glimpse of God in the midst of it all.

 

Now, Paul carries on to say that suffering builds endurance which produces character which leads to hope and hope is of God so suffering brings us to God.   Which I get - for many of us, myself included, pain has been the gateway to faith through which we have walked, and a stairwell to deeper and deeper relationship with God.  .  But let’s be careful and clear here – I do not believe in, and Paul is arguing against, the notion that God is the cause of our suffering.  Remember, that was common in these times, and is a line of thinking still amok around us – if you are suffering, you’ve done something that made God mad (think of Job) but our Scriptural witness – Jesus on the cross -  and our lived experience tells us that God is in the midst of, not the cause of, our suffering.  Paul is pointing to the gifts of God that are present in their suffering to dispel this false notion of God as punitive. 

 

God as a community of persons - the Trinity - assures us that we can love and be loved under exceptionally challenging circumstances.  And also, ordinary grocery shopping, bill paying, lawn mowing circumstances.  God does not reserve our spiritual transformation to the after world – it is a process that we are in the midst of right now, in the gruelling and in the gorgeous.  Not because of something we have done or not done, but because of something God has done and is still doing.  And because this three-fold one God is at work in us and the world right now, everything, everything is dripping with Holiness – it gets all over us and we track it wherever we go.[4]

 

The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity has, perhaps, at times been used as a tool of sure-ness, right-ness; after all, we humans love a sure thing, we like to get things right.  But of course, we cannot – we do our best with bananas and hard-boiled eggs, and long argued church documents. It is a statement, a concept that tries to communicate or express the character of God, as love in relational, self-giving action.  This is not end-all theology[5] but rather an invitation for us to recognize that we abide in the Holy at all times, pointing us toward the great mystery that is God.  A God that is as broad and deep as the whole cosmos, as particular as Jesus, and as invested in us as the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 


[1] This, along with many other beautiful descriptors of the Holy Trinity are thanks to Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), Ch. 4.

[2] Thoughts sparked by Amy Jill-Levine, Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011), 262-263.

[3] See also 3:22, 3:30.

[4] Dripping and tracking metaphors are courtesy of Michael Jinkins.

[5] Some thoughts here are sparked by Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary.

Sermon: "Surprised by the Holy Spirit", June 9, 2019

2 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd
14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:

17 ‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show portents in the heaven above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20 The sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
— Acts 2: 1-21 NRSV

Almighty God,

by the power of your Holy Spirit, speak to us in the language of our hearts, that we may hear your Word with understanding and answer your call with confidence. Amen. 

Before we really get into this, we need a little bit of history – what exactly is Pentecost?  We might think of it as a Christian tradition, but it started out as a Jewish one – it is the celebration 50 days after Passover that marked the giving of the Torah – the law of God revealed to Moses, and specifically the Ten Commandments.  It was also the time the Jewish people gathered and offered their first fruits at the temple.  Today’s reading in the book of Acts tells us that Pentecost had come and so they were all together in one place.  What that means is these Jewish Jesus followers were gathered together for this Jewish festival celebrating God’s gifts to them, and Surprise!  God gave them a new gift!

 

And like I demonstrated with the children earlier – suddenly, and with great gusto, the Holy Spirit filled that place to the brim!  And while this might seem like a separate celebration, for us it is the continuation of the Easter story – at Pentecost, the power of God – made manifest at the resurrection and ascension of Christ, is bestowed upon the People of God.  Both the ascension of Christ and the descent of the Spirit are a continued witness to the breadth of the wonder of Easter.  And for those of us who have hung out around church for a little while, this wild and wonderful and weird story can get a bit routine – yay, wear red, hang the banners, let the kids run around a tad more than usual, sing those great songs…so maybe we can pause for a moment to recall that we are listening to the account of something strange, beyond the bounds of imagination – miraculous, inscrutable.  Let’s jump into the text.

 

Qu’est-ce que c’est d’exister dans un endroit où votre langue première n’est jamais parlée? Quelqu’un a-t-il déjà vécu dans un endroit où sa langue maternelle n’est jamais entendue? Avez-vous déjà visité un endroit où l’anglais n’est jamais utilisé? Ici en Occident, nous sommes tellement habitués d’entendre de l’anglais, même en voyageant à l’international, que la majorité d’entre nous n’a jamais vécu le malaise et l’inconfort d’être isolé auditivement.

 

 

For those of you who don’t speak French, what I said was What does it mean to exist in a place where your first language is never spoken?  Has anyone ever lived in a place where their native language is never heard?  Have you visited a place where English isn’t spoken?  We here in the West are so accustomed to hearing English even when we travel internationally, most of us have never experienced the discomfort and disconnect of being aurally isolated.

 

Now this question isn’t rhetorical, I am actually asking, who has had the experience of being immersed in a language not their own? 

(personal stories, examples from the congregation)

 

And what about when we hear our first language in that situation?  There we are, standing in a sea of unfamiliarity, that sound becomes like a homing beacon, we find ourselves sharpening our senses to its signal. It is as though every molecule in our body relaxes as we tune-in on that voice and understand the words. Like coming home.

We hear this Pentecost story, and we might not quite grasp the visceral impact of hearing one’s own language, living as a foreigner, an immigrant, a refugee in a strange land. These folks were in Jerusalem but not from Jerusalem. Maybe we haven’t experienced this linguistically, maybe we have never been language isolated but I will warrant a guess that most of us have felt sequestered, alone, remote, even when surrounded by people.  We have felt on the outside.  And then something catches our ear, our eye, our attention.  Something that resonates in deep place and that draws us in, towards.  These outsiders, who maybe hadn’t heard their mother tongue in years, heard the beautiful and life-changing message of Jesus in their own language of comfort and care, not the language of the Empire under which they were living. 

The Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples in this way not for their own comfort, but for the resonance of the Jesus message for those who were on the margins nearby.  It makes me think of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, where he freely shares of how the Holy Spirit gives him what he needs to connect with those who haven’t received entry into the blessed community (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

This, my friends, is a miracle.  A miracle of welcome, a miracle of hospitality beyond anything we could muster, a miracle to spark belonging.  And I bet it was as surprising for the ones hearing their language as it was for those from whose lips those languages emerged.  God promises over and over in our Scriptural witness to give us words, and the Holy Spirit delivers.  I wonder what the language of comfort is to those on the margins of our neighbourhood?

Now – what happens next?

Everyone immediately drops to their knees in praise and reverence to God!  NO!  Some folks nearby are like WHAT?  And others are like they are DRUNK! Which is basically everyone’s response God’s unexpected revelation – we see a miracle, something incredible, something powerful and we either are ‘amazed and perplexed’ (v.12) or sneering (v. 13) and dismissive.  Happened in year 35, happens in 2019.  And its ok, its ok, because miracles, big or small throw us off – we don’t get them or we get mad at them for some reason.  But the very next thing that happens is key – Peter is there to explain it.  And I will guarantee that every time something happens that is God (which actually, by the way, is all the time if we are ready to notice), every time God happens and we don’t understand, some who gets it is nearby.

 

Remember, these are Jews from all over living in Jerusalem, having this experience.  Peter, a Jew, jumps up and links the story of Jesus with the Scriptures of the Jewish people.  His listeners would know what the prophet Joel said, which Peter recites here.  He says, hey pay attention – remember Joel?  Remember, he promised that God would pour our God’s Spirit on all people?  That God’s spirit would flow regardless of a person’s gender or social status?  Remember?  Joel told us that we would ALL be filled with God’s Spirit and God would give us good things to do!  Remember?  ITS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW!

 

This Pentecost event doesn’t work without these things all at play:

Rooted in tradition, the new Jesus followers are gathered in one place.  The Holy Spirit floods in to that place in a surprising, astonishing, remarkable, overwhelming way that includes everyone – inside and outside the community.  Nobody knows how to handle it, and Peter jumps up, reminding them of their Scriptural witness, and proclaiming boldly God’s work in that moment and all of their transformation in it.

 

The day of Pentecost occurred just seven weeks after those who were opposed to Jesus had ended his “nonsense” by crucifying him.  But now, for some, their worst nightmare was coming true.  This broadening understanding of God’s love was no longer contained to one man’s message.  They thought that they had put out the light of the world in Jesus.  Instead, the same Spirit that enlivened Jesus, exploded like fireworks in a hundred different directions.  You see, God didn’t stop showing up in Jesus – God didn’t raise Jesus from the grave, bring him home and stand back to see what would happen.. 

No!  The message of Pentecost is that God shows up!  God shows up, God meets us where we are and uses tremendous, ridiculous, miraculous means to catch our attention and tell us of love, grace, mercy, freedom, salvation.  And then in our doubts, our dismissals, our explanations and excuses, God sends us prophets, preachers, teachers, dentists, contractors, children, baristas, accountants, neighbours, friends, enemies to help us understand, to spell it out. 

To get it through our sometimes very thick skulls, that God is here.  That God has given each one of us – all genders, all ages, all races, all expressions of humanity, even me, even you, the gift of God’s unending presence.  God is HERE (the world).  God is Here (the church).  God is here (our hearts). 

And you know what the very next thing they asked Peter?  What do we do now? And that is our question too, isn’t it?  What do we do now?  We hear of Gods love, we hear that God is with and for us – maybe we even feel that love, that grace, that hospitality in this place – what do we do now?

Peter says, get baptized!  Let the Holy Spirit all the way in, be encouraged, and then – become an encourager.  One who loves and gives and forgives with the same reckless abandon as our God.  And so they did.  They taught and shared and loved and forgave (and messed up, and got back up, forgiven, to try again).  And miracles happened, and happened, and happened, and this Jesus thing didn’t go away, the Holy Spirit didn’t fade, God went right on creating….and so here we are – what a legacy to inherit.  What do we do now? We throw our lives at God, in God’s service, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is here, here, here.

 

Who is with me?  Can I get an Amen?

Sermon: "Psalm 46: A Very Present Help," June 2, 2019

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;
see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God!
I am exalted among the nations,
I am exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.
— Psalm 46

by Keith Kovacs

So are you asking yourself “what’s going on at St. George’s”? The lead minister has left us for three months, the minister that has stepped into his shoes in his absence is no where to be found today and some guy from the property committee is standing in the pulpit on the verge of preaching the sermon.  Well as most of you know our lead minister Rev Ryan Slifka has just begun a three month, well deserved  sabbatical. During this time let us continually pray that Ryan has a time of rest and relaxation. Ministry is not a 9-5 Mon to Fri job. Let us also pray for safe travels as he and his family make their way across Canada visiting with other family and friends along the way. Our minster of Children, Youth and Families and Weird Church Rev Ingrid Brown who has stepped up to be lead minister is in Langley attending the inaugural general meeting of the newly created Pacific Mountain Region formally the BC. Conference of the United Church. So let us pray for Ingrid as well as she takes on new duties over the next three months, on top of everything she already does.  I was asked to attend the meeting in Langley but when I said that I had a previous commitment that prevented me from attending Ingrid asked if I would preach and now that I think about it maybe that was an ultimatum. At any rate, as many of you know, it’s hard to say no to Ingrid so here I am. For those of you that don’t know who I am, my name is Keith Kovacs and my wife Laura and I are fairly new members of St. George’s but in many ways we feel like we have been members of this church family for much longer.

 

A minister once told me that God will speak through those who are willing. I am willing but before I begin let’s have a word of prayer.

 

 Gracious God.  As willing as I am may the words on these pages be your words, not mine. May the message I give here today be your message, not mine and let it all be to your glory. Amen.

 

Today is the seventh and last Sunday of Easter. It is also known as Ascension Sunday following this past Thursday, which some people call Holy Thursday, being the 40th day after Easter. Scripture tells us that 40 days from the day that Christ rose from the grave He ascended into heaven. Perhaps I should have prepared a sermon about Jesus’ ascension into heaven but when I was asked to preach today I was given the freedom to choose something that, as a lay person, I felt comfortable enough to craft into a sermon. So just for this week we’ll leave the book of Acts and the sermon series “Surprise” that Ryan and Ingrid have been doing a wonderful job of presenting to us each week and we’ll spend some time in the Old Testament in the Psalms, Psalm 46 to be exact.

 

Psalm 46 was the favourite Psalm of Martin Luther, — the psalm that inspired him to write “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” God is a stronghold and a tower, a bulwark never failing!  It’s a psalm that tells you what to do when trouble comes.  And it's also my favourite Psalm and I'll tell you why. When I was seven years old my Dad died. He was what they called a stationary engineer and he tended the boiler at a pulp and paper mill. For whatever reason, and I'll never know why, one day there was a problem with the boiler and he was badly burned. They called my mother to tell her to be ready to be picked up by the ambulance on the way to the hospital. I was home from school that day so there I was when the ambulance came. I saw my Dad briefly and he said 'I'll be all right son' but I never saw him again. He died four days later. I'm not telling you this looking for sympathy and I'm sure many of you have similar stories about sudden and tragic loss in your lives. At seven years old, as much as my world was turned upside down, I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on the rest of my life. A few years later I began attending an evangelical Christian summer camp that was all about Jesus and there's certainly nothing wrong with that, and eventually, as often happens at these camps, I asked Jesus into my heart to be my Lord and Saviour. That was something else that I had no idea of what a profound influence it would have on the rest of my life. At that camp we sang a chorus everyday after breakfast during a time of devotion and the words were 'God is my refuge and my strength, a very present help in times of trouble'. The words of that chorus always spoke to me and so Psalm 46 became a cherished and reassuring passage of scripture that has helped me through times of trouble over the years.  I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t mention something else that happened at that camp that has also had a profound but in a different sort of way influence on my life. That is where I met my dear wife Laura. I’ll save that story for another sermon or perhaps Laura should write that sermon!

And there is one other event that really cemented my love for Jesus and that was attending a Billy Graham crusade in my early teens. I sang in the mass choir lead by Cliff Barrows and the words of Blessed Assurance, and watching all those people come forward as we sang 'Just As I Am' are as fresh in my mind today as it was those many years ago.

Some people seem to lead charmed lives … trouble rarely comes their way. When it does come, they’re the kind of people who can pass it off quite easily. But for most of us trouble does come from time to time and it’s important that we be prepared when it does and like me, may the words of Psalm 46 be a blessing to you and offer some guidance in dealing with times of trouble.

 

In poetic language, the psalmist describes the way trouble can come. He talks about the earth being changed, and the mountains shaking in the heart of the sea. That is a picture of an earthquake. Sometimes trouble comes just like that with the sheer finality of an earthquake. All of a sudden it’s there, and there’s nothing you can do. I think that was what happened the day my Dad died but I didn't even realize it. People who have gone through earthquakes say they don’t know of anything else that makes a human being feel quite so helpless. Have any of you experienced an earthquake and that sort of helplessness? The only time I know of that I felt the tremor of an earthquake was sitting in a truck stopped at a traffic light in Richmond. The truck began to rocking back and forth but I had no idea what was happening. It was only later on the news that I heard that a small earthquake had been felt in the lower mainland. Sometimes trouble comes to people without any warning, with no way of resisting it, with total finality, and suddenly they find that every thing has dropped right out of the bottom of their life.

The psalmist uses a second poetic expression after he talked about the earthquake. In the first part of verse 3, he says, “though it’s waters roar and foam.” Here he’s talking about the trouble which comes with the sheer fury of a storm. We've all been caught in storms whether it be wind and rain, snow or even dust storms. Have you seen on the news coverage the devastation caused by a record number of tornados and twisters in parts of the United States? For some people that’s how trouble comes with a shrill, shrieking violence and the irresistible force and fury of a storm.

 

I like this story of a fellow in the Old Testament called Benaiah. He was one of David’s mighty men. He got up one morning, and was going out to battle. Unfortunately, they had a snow storm. ( 2nd Samuel 23:20)  We all know what happens when we have a snow storm. If we want an excuse, we have a perfect excuse when the snow storm comes — we cancel everything! But Benaiah didn’t cancel anything, he kept going. As he was going along in his snow storm suddenly he fell into a pit. Imagine him lying in the bottom of this pit, having struggled through the snow storm, wondering how he would ever get out. Then he heard a noise behind him, and looked and there was a lion. Some translations say he chased the lion into the pit but either way he probably said to himself, “This just isn’t my day!” I start off with a snow storm, I fall into a pit that I can’t get out of, and down in the bottom of this pit, there’s a lion. I quit! I give up!
What do you do when trouble comes with the fury of a storm from every angle?  The beautiful thing about this mighty man of David is that he slew the lion, in the pit, on a stormy day, and lived to tell the tale. And that’s what we need to do when trouble comes! Face it head on knowing that God is on our side.


And then sometimes trouble comes with the force of a flood. If we read all of verse 3 it says this: “Though the waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with it’s tumult.” Here you have the picture of everything shaking, with the swelling of the flood and everything being absolutely overwhelmed. When I was thinking of this, I thought of Job. Have you read Job recently? I know those that are in Ryan's small group study are up to date on the adventures of Job.  It’s a fascinating story. Job was a remarkable man! He was a success. He had a large family and large everything. You name it, he had it! He was the greatest! Satan was a bit worried about him, and he wondered if he could knock him on his nose! So he had a word with God about Job. God gave him permission to do certain things. The philosophy of Job is vital to the understanding of trouble. There is a Satan. There is a power of evil in the world. Things do happen, but they always happen under the jurisdiction of God. In other words, God never allows anything to happen to His children outside of what He believes they can cope with — remember that! Satan was given permission by God to do certain things in order that Satan might be an instrument of blessing under God’s overwhelming grace in Job’s life. He took everything — all his sons, all his daughters, all his lands, all his buildings, all his camels, all his donkeys, all his oxen. Then in the end he even took his health. We now see Job sitting on the trash heap outside the city scratching himself with a shard because he had developed a chronic disease and was about driven out of his mind.
Trouble does come — sometimes with the force of a flood like it did to Job. But again remember: “God Is Our Refuge and Strength, a Very Present Help In Trouble.”

 

So what can we do when trouble comes?

Three things are outlined for us in Psalm 46.


First, realize when trouble comes that God is a Refuge for His people. Secondly, realize, according to verse five, that God is Resident among His people. Thirdly, realize that, according to verse four, God sends a River of blessing to His people. It is the understanding of these three things that equip people to cope with the trouble that either will come, or has come, or is still here.


We must never forget that God is continually available. This Psalm is an Old Testament passage, but the New Testament amplifies it even further. In Matthew Chapter 11 verse 28 the Lord Jesus Himself said that we must come unto Him, all of us who are weary, and heavy laden, and He will give us rest. So the simple message as to what to do in time of trouble is this: admit that God is your Refuge, and you need His help. Christ is the One who opens His arms to you and says, “Come to Me with all your burdens, roll them upon Me, give Me the problem, and I promise to be what you need.”


And we must also remember that God our Refuge is not only continually available, but He is thoroughly adequate. Not only is God our refuge and our strength, He is “a very present help” in trouble. This is the message of what to do in trouble. Recognize that God is your Refuge, and turn to Him.


And then verse 4 tells us God is resident among His people: “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God”. God is very much alive in the fellowship of His people. In the fellowship of His people there is support; in the fellowship of His people there is concern and compassion; not because they are special people — they’re not, they’re just like everybody else except God is resident in those people. He's resident here at St. George's. God is alive through the Holy Spirit. It is so evident in this congregation. We had friends visiting last Sunday and they attended worship here. They are both retired Presbyterian church ministers although still very active in both the Presbyterian and the United Church. The one thing that really stood out to them, beyond Ryan and Ingrid’s awesome leadership, was the number of people in this congregation willing to step forward and participate in worship. I think that is very evident here this morning. We told them that was only the tip of the iceberg. Every day of the week you will find members of this congregation engaged in, as it says in the bulletin, being ministers of the gospel.


What do I do in time of trouble? I turn to God as my Refuge and I come to Christ, who opens His arms, and who says, “Come unto Me all ye who are weary and heavy laden” and at the same time relate to Christ who by His Holy Spirit is in all of us. God is resident within me and He is resident in each one of you!


 What an exciting thing it is to be a Christian today. It doesn’t mean that we are immune from trouble. It doesn’t mean that we won’t have problems but the exciting thing about it is in the midst of trouble we know what it is to have a God alive and alert within us, who is seated on the Throne of the Most High. He is a God of overflowing grace and overruling serenity, and He is therefore a God of power and purpose alive within us. If you really believe that, when trouble comes your attitude toward trouble is going to be different. You realize that the God who is resident in your life is the God of power and purpose. He is the Most High! Reading again the words of  verse 4:“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God.” There’s no question about it, the picture of the river, according to the interpretation of the New Testament, is a picture of the activity of the Spirit of God. If you’re in trouble today, there is a glorious river that is nothing less than the flow of the Holy Spirit straight from the Throne of God. The lovely thing about this river is that it brings refreshment wherever it flows because it is a river that makes glad the people of God. It is a vast river with many tributaries. If you want to explore those tributaries as the work of the Holy Spirit in your life, you’ll discover that wherever the river flows it has a reviving effect.


And finally there’s one more thing we should do in time of trouble? Relax! Psalm 46:10, which surely is a great favourite with a lot of people says: “Be still, and know that I am God!” The words, “Be still” mean literally “relax.” To relax in the Lord, first of all, means that you are going to have to resist the natural impulses. Be Still! Easier said then done...right? In this spinning world of ours today, in its rapid pace, it’s difficult to “Be Still! But it’s not talking about physical stillness. It’s talking about stillness of the heart, simply relaxing in the Lord Jesus. That means there has to be a resisting of every natural impulse that you have, to hit that trouble as hard as you can. It doesn’t mean ignore trouble and hope it just goes away but resist that impulse to fight it on your own. Trust in the Lord and relax in Him.


Restore the spiritual relationship which comes through Knowing who He really is. What do you do when trouble comes? You realize certain things, you respond to certain things, and then you relax in your relationship with Him, and you will begin to discover the God of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament and the Spirit of God, who has offered it all combined on your behalf. And you will begin to discover “Victory” in times of trouble.

 

Amen!