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A message based on Luke 15: 1-3, 11b – 32

“There was once a man who had two sons . . .” Today’s scripture story is probably one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables; at least, the first part of it is. For most of my life, I’ve heard it called, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” One son. However, the parable has two sons — a younger one and an elder son. It also has a father, who is really the main character of the story. It’s the father’s actions that drive the story — that are the most decisive. 

“There was once a man with two sons.”

This isn’t just  story about a person who led a wild life and then had a conversation experience and found his way home. Many of the sermons I have heard and read give the impression that that is what it is primarily about. 

This is a story about a family. It is a story about a family navigating its way through the messiness and disappointments, the hurts and betrayals that happen whenever human beings live in relationship with each other. 

It is a story Jesus told to the Pharisees and the religion scholars. That means that it is specifically directed to the people of God. It is about the shape of the Kingdom of God that Jesus said is ‘at hand’.

The Pharisees and the religion scholars — the committed leaders of God’s family — were complaining that Jesus was giving too much time and attention to people they called ‘sinners’. It is not really clear what the Pharisees and religion scholars meant by calling the people with whom Jesus was hanging out ‘sinners’.

Just before this, Jesus had been encouraging the religious leaders to host parties that included the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind — the misfits, the homeless, the wretched. Outsiders. The people who had been pushed to the margins of the community because they did not fit in easily. They did not look like they belonged. They looked different. They behaved differently. They moved in different social circles. They lived by different standards. They probably held different views about the important issues of the day.

When Jesus included them in the community of God’s people and the religious insiders complained, Jesus told them three parables about something that was lost. Whatever was lost was sought for and when it was found, everyone was invited to a celebration party. The third of the parables was about a man who had two sons. 

The younger son was the wild child and broke all the rules.

The older son was the obedient son who kept all the rules and resented the son who didn’t. 

Throughout the parable, it is the father who just keeps navigating these fractured relationships. Again and again, he sacrifices his own dignity and his own position in order to bring this family together despite their differences. With extravagant love, he keeps pulling the two sons back into community with each other. He invites them to come together beyond the barriers that they have put between themselves.

“God was in Christ,” says the apostle Paul, “reconciling the world to God.” In Christ, God reconciles us to God by entering into our communities. With extravagant love and grace, God sacrifices God’s own life in the work of bringing God’s children together in spite of their differences. God reconciles us to God by putting us into community with other people.

What we know about that community is that Jesus has very eclectic taste. He puts us into community with other people, some of whom we have very little in common.

What we do have in common is that Jesus’ death and resurrection sets us free to live without fear. Living in the power of Jesus’ victory over the powers of death, we are free to let go of the protective barriers we put around our hearts.

What we have in common is that the Holy Spirit is at work among us. As we navigate our life together through all the things we don’t have in common, the Holy Spirit is shaping us into the kind of community that reflects the love and grace of the community that we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the kind of community where we find healing for the brokenness and the wounds that are part of being human in this world. 

This week I heard about another nearby congregation that is shutting down. Do you know what is sad about all the churches closing these days? Many things, of course, but chief among them is that there are fewer and fewer places where people are gaining the skills and the habits and the character they need in order to live in community with other people. 

So many people are desperately searching for authentic community — for a place where they know they belong; where they are cherished and supported and loved and cared for. Yet, they lack the very qualities of character and soul that are needed to create and sustain that kind of community.

Being in authentic community with others doesn’t just happen because your soul is thirsty for it, because you long for it. Being in community with others — especially in the kind of community where people are cherished and supported and loved and cared for — is hard work. The qualities of soul and character that form those kinds of communities are nurtured and developed slowly, over long periods of time. In company with others who are also being formed by the Spirit of Christ, you learn slowly, sometimes painfully, the fine arts of forgiveness and patience and humility and grace. 

You cannot develop those capacities by yourself. You need other people —especially other people who are different from you. You need other people who stay on the journey with you, even when the path goes through rough terrain. You need other people who stay in relationship even when hurt happens and it would be easier to walk away. You stay with it because God keeps meeting you in the place of hurt and brokenness. God keeps pulling you back into relationships with people whom Jesus has changed from strangers and enemies into your brothers and sisters.

If there are no churches left to be that kind of community, where will people become the kind of people who are capable of living in peace with one another, cherishing our differences as precious gifts that make our lives richer?

One of the things that the pandemic has shown us is that human community is both very precious and frighteningly precarious. One of the first things that happened in the pandemic was that we were isolated from each other. Almost everyone was cut off from their usual ways of being in community with each other.

Two years in, we are witnessing how that isolation has diminished our capacity for being in relationships with people who are different from us; people with whom we disagree over important matters. People get divided into separated camps, each fiercely defending their own territory, their own convictions. Our communities are emerging from the pandemic wounded, fractured, weakened, even less capable of nourishing and enriching people’s lives than they were before the pandemic. 

We come to this moment, concerned for our communities and wondering what we can do. Over many years, God has been at work among you, building you into the kind of community that has gained wisdom about what it takes to be in community with each other. There have been some pretty painful times. Those difficult times  forged in you humility and grace and some sense of how costly forgiveness can be. 

We don’t do ‘community’ perfectly but the kind of community we are is a gift that God has formed amongst us for the sake of the world in which we live. 

You and I are here together at this place and in this time because “there was once a man who had two sons” and the two children had forgotten that their life, their well-being depended upon each other, as different as they were. What transformed the situation was that the Father refused to let either of them stay lost or dead in their separation from each other.

You and I are here, together in this place at this time because the Father is relentlessly at work in our lives and in our communities. Our Saviour is even now seeking out the lost ones, the ones who feel that they don’t fit anywhere, the ones that feel they don’t have a place where they are deeply cherished. God’s Holy Spirit is relentlessly at work inviting us and them into community together with Jesus — a community where all can be healed and grow and flourish and find the salvation and healing that our souls long for.

You and I are here because we get to be ambassadors for Christ. We get to host a grand party where all are welcome. Where everyone gets to hear the Father say, “You are my beloved child.” 

If we don’t do it, who will?

A message on Luke 9:28 -36

“Jesus is Lord”. That phrase may have been the earliest Christian creed. When the early Christian were baptized, they pledged allegiance to Jesus as their Lord, their King. He was King not just of their personal lives; Jesus was King of the whole world.

“Jesus is Lord” is an extraordinary, astounding claim. When the first Christians said that, they were risking their very lives. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not. First century Rome was not the kind of place where you could challenge your rulers and get away with it.

“Jesus is Lord” means: This Jewish peasant who was nailed to a Roman cross is the ruler, the king of all creation. Dying on that cross, being raised from the dead by the power of God, Jesus won the victory over all other rulers and powers and systems that pretend to rule our lives. He has redeemed and rescued all creation. When the book of Revelation describes what happened in Jesus’ death and resurrection, it says, “The kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of our God and of his Messiah. He will rule forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15

Jesus rules. Jesus is building a kingdom where God’s justice and God’s peace are being realized. Jesus is Lord. That’s the truth; the gospel we proclaim.

It is not always evident that Jesus is Lord. A tiny, microscopic virus invades a human body and the whole world is plunged into a years-long pandemic that has upended the lives of almost everyone. Vladimir Putin declares parts of the Ukraine as independent states and Europe and North America find themselves being drawn into another war.

Jesus is Lord? There will be times in your life of faith when much of the evidence points to the opposite. There will be times in your life of following Jesus when everything you believe and trusted is called into question. There will be times when you find yourself living in what someone called ‘the unpredictable plans of God’. In those times, living in faith and hope will be a matter of simply holding on. You will be in a state of waiting for the Lord Jesus to make his victory apparent to you. You will find yourself trusting with everything you’ve got that Christ’s hold on you is stronger than your hold on him. That is part of what it means to walk by faith and not by sight, to hope in things that are not seen with your eyes.

For many years, Ed Searcy was the minister at University Hill United Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. I think I have mentioned to you before that, while he was there, that congregation developed a practice that helped them help each other through those times when faith was a matter of simply holding on through your doubts and questions. They practiced seeing their lives through the lenses of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Searcy calls it the “three-day narrative of the good news”. 

They would check in with each other to see how they were doing. “How is the gospel with you today? Are you living in Good Friday, Holy Saturday or Easter Sunday?”

To be living in Good Friday is to be experience a time of tragic ending. On Good Friday, hopes and dreams and expectations are dashed and broken and destroyed. You find yourself at the foot of Jesus’ cross, your world falling apart. Life will not be the same again.

Holy Saturday is that time of waiting, of being ‘in between’. The devastation has happened. There is nothing you can do to fix the problem; there is nothing you can do to resolve the crisis. Whatever God may be up to, you cannot see it. Your only sense that God is present is that deep ache in your soul that marks God’s absence. Holy Saturday is that long pause between what has been lost and whatever new life God is going to give you.

Easter is the surprise of the new life God gives beyond the loss of Good Friday. It is not simply a matter of “getting back to normal.” It is something new. It may frighten you but it also beckons you into a world that is shaped by God’s resurrection power. 

All three days are part of the journey of gospel faith. When you are going through them, it helps to know that others have journeyed this way before you. It’s good to know that Good Friday and Holy Saturday are not the end of the story. This morning’s gospel story is a gift for those days when you are living in Good Friday or Holy Saturday.

The disciples have been following Jesus for three years. They have caught glimpses of the way that Jesus is Lord: he heals the sick; he sets free those who are imprisoned in fear or brokenness or social isolation; he feeds the hungry; he brings God close. The disciples are beginning to realize that Jesus is the Saviour for which God’s people have been waiting through many long years. 

Then Jesus says to them, “It is necessary that the Son of Man, the Messiah of God, proceed to an ordeal of suffering, betrayed and found guilty . . .  be killed, and on the third day, be raised up alive.”

Then, he told them what they could expect for themselves:  “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat. I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how.”

The disciples didn’t realize it, but this was the beginning of their living in a Good Friday time. Their hopes and dreams for being in the winner’s circle were beginning to break apart. Their expectations for how God would save them were getting dashed. The world as they knew it was beginning to fall apart. 

That was when Jesus took three leaders of the group to a mountain to pray. There, on the mountain, the disciples saw Jesus’ face begin to shine. It shone the way Moses’ face shone after Moses came down from Mount Sinai having talked with God. There, in the light of God’s glory, the disciples saw Moses and Elijah — those great figures of faith who had carried God’s promises to God’s people. There, surrounded by the cloud of God’s presence, the disciples heard God affirm Jesus, “This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.”

Living in Good Friday can call everything you have been counting on into question: your belief that God is good and loving and full of mercy; your trust that Jesus will be with you through everything life throws at you; your decision to let the Holy Spirit guide your life; your confidence that you can live faithfully into the promises you have made to God. All that can seem less certain, less sure.

The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration is a gift to you for just such a time. It affirms the truth about God, about Jesus, about the world. Jesus is Lord. The suffering and the death he endured does not make that untrue. God takes all that happened to Jesus and blesses even the suffering and the death. God uses it to rescue you and me and the world from the false lords and powers that are pretending to rule our lives. God immerses your life in resurrection power, redeeming what was lost, transfiguring your life, make a new creation. That is the gospel truth, even in those times when that life-giving truth is hidden from your view.

Do you remember the story of Corrie Ten Boom? She was a Dutch survivor of a Nazi concentration camp. She said, “When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”

You tell the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. You let it carry you through those difficult times when you cannot carry the faith yourself. You let it renew God’s promises to you. You let it proclaim “Jesus is Lord” for you. 

You do that until God brings you once again through Good Friday and Holy Saturday to the new dawn of Easter morning. You have been set free to do that because Jesus is Lord.

We bring our praise to you, God.
We bring our praise 
in the words we say,
in the songs we sing,
in the silences we keep.

We bring our praise
for those moments
when we have been awed by the beauty of creation,
for those moments when we have caught a glimpse
of the greatness of your steadfast love and faithfulness.

We bring our praise
for those moments
when we have sensed your Holy Spirit
hovering over this world
unsettling us
pushing us into new life
opening us to new possibilities.

Turn us toward you 
in those times
when praise gives way to 
sorrow
or anxious fear
or horror at the world’s pain and violence.

Teach us
that deep trust which 
makes even those troubling times
moments when we know that you are
moving us deeper into your love and grace.

We bring our praise, O God,
in the name of Jesus
and in the power of your Holy Spirit
for it is your goodness that holds us and keeps us
through all that life brings us.  Amen.

A sermon based on John 2: 1-12.

Jesus and his disciples attend a wedding where the wine runs out before the party is over. This is the first story that the gospel writer John tells about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has just finished beginning to recruit his disciples — Simon Peter, James, Philip and Nathanael are named. And then, ‘on the third day’, there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee. 

You want to pay attention to what’s happening here, signals John, because this happens “on the third day”. Christians know what happens on the third day. “Early in the morning, on the third day . . . some women ventured to a sealed tomb and they found themselves in the midst of a new world, a world where Jesus is raised from the dead and God’s resurrection power is loose in the world. 

God’s resurrection power is God bringing life where we can see only death; God making a new beginning where we think we’re up against a dead end; God pouring an abundance of grace into a world where we see only what we lack.

The story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee happens “on the third day”. “Pay attention!” says John. Whenever Jesus shows up, we are in a world filled to the brim with God’s resurrection power.

The story doesn’t begin with resurrection. The story begins the way the stories of God’s people often begin — with the cry ‘there isn’t enough’. At the wedding, the wine has run out but we have heard that complaint before. 

For Abraham and Sarah, the cry is that there are ‘not enough’ children; or, even worse, for so many years, there were no children at all. That meant that there was no future for them. 

In the days of the Hebrews’ wandering through the wilderness, there was not enough to eat, not enough to drink.

When the Babylonians had overrun Jerusalem and taken the Israelites into exile, there was not enough hope, not enough faith to ‘sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.’

“The wine has run out. There isn’t enough . . . not enough, not enough, not enough.” The cry echoes through our story.

Even though we live in one of the richest countries in the world, we know about living with “not enough”. Indeed, consumerism trains our hearts and souls to sing that song from our earliest days. Consumerism depends on us being discontented with what we have. There is always something more, something better that we need, that we deserve, that we strive for. That recurring refrain exerts a powerful force in our culture, shaping us to be anxious and fearful that we won’t have what we need. It pushes us to be selfish, to hoard what we have, to nurture our greed. Ultimately, it distances us from our neighbours; it undermines community. 

The Bible counters our fear of not having enough with stories of God’s abundant generosity. The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of the creation of the world as a story of God’s abundant generosity. The refrain that echoes there is, “And God saw that it was good . . . good . . . good.” The Bible tells the story of the creation of our world as one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.

Abraham and Sarah are promised children as many as the stars in the sky, descendants as numerous as the sand on the seashore.

The Hebrews in the wilderness receive gifts day after day — gifts of manna, of water, of meat.

The exiles learn how to sing in a strange land. They produce some of the greatest poetry and music of the world while they live in Babylon.

Today’s story carries those stories forward to a wedding in Cana in Galilee. What is significant is not just that it happens on the third day — resurrection time! What is significant is also that it is a wedding. Bible often uses the metaphor of a wedding to describe the relationship between God and us humans. In John’s gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry at a wedding. “Pay attention,” says John. “What we’re learning here is about our relationship with God.”

There will be times in that relationship with God when the wine will run out. God will not be as present we we think we need God to be. God will feel distant. God won’t answer our prayers the way we want them answered. We shall feel abandoned, unsure, full of doubts. In those times, we often do what Mary did. We turn to Jesus. We tell him, “The wine has run out”. Sometimes we are not that calm about it. Sometimes we cry with the Psalmist, “Save me, Lord, or I shall be lost,” or “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

In this story, John is training our hearts and minds to hold onto the promise that Jesus is the presence of God with us and for us in ways more abundant than we can imagine. Did you read the paragraph in the weekly email that lines out the significance of the six jars of water that become wine? The jars are there at the entrance to the wedding to be used for the ‘rite of purification’ at the beginning of worship. I envision it as something similar to Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics dipping their hands into the water in a baptismal font as they come into worship — a reminder of their baptism and of God’s gracious action to remove the stains of the world from their souls. You don’t need a lot of water, just a few drops. Six large jars, filled to the brim, would have had enough water for the whole world to participate in the rite of purification. 

Jesus provides the wine of God’s presence and salvation, enough for the whole world. Jesus is God’s generosity and abundant grace, surprising us when we thought all was lost, when there was not enough. 

In a consumer society, one of the most important things the Christian community can do is to tell the stories when we ourselves have experienced that abundant grace of God in our own lives. In a culture that breeds discontent and anxiety and fear, we get to be witnesses to the ways Jesus has turned our sense of ‘not enough’ into wonder and amazement at the generosity of our God. 

We get to be a community that intentionally lives out of God’s generosity. That is among the best things you do as the church. A family experiences a fire and suffers terrible burns and you provide generous financial assistance without hesitating. A single mother is going through a season of struggling to provide for her children and you fill up the benevolent account with your donations so that she can be helped. At the end of the year, the church’s bank account is in the black and one of you asks, “Who shall we give our surplus to? The church is not meant to be sitting on a lot of extra money. It needs to be out there in the world, helping out those who need it.” The pandemic shuts down the yearly euchre parties and you find other creative ways to raise funds to send to the Canada Food Grains Bank so that people around the world who are crying “There is not enough” will have food. 

You can add other stories of the ways you witness in this community and beyond to the goodness and grace and generous blessings that come to us from God through Jesus. When it looks like resources are in short supply, it is easy to be afraid. But that is not who we are. We are followers of Jesus who turned water into the best wine, enough to save the whole world. We are the flock of the Good Shepherd who makes a hungry crowd sit down on the green grass in the middle of a deserted place and takes five loaves and two fish, blesses them, breaks them open and gives them out to feed a crowd of thousands. 

We are disciples of our Master who takes a handful of ordinary people and blesses them and breaks them open and gives them to the world to be a community of God’s abundant grace. It looks like a miracle. It’s simply the way God works when we live into and out of the power of Jesus’ resurrection. Thanks be to God. 

“Christ growing love in you”

A sermon based on Philippians 1:1-12

The work of the church is to be a community of love. We exist to witness to the love God has for all of God’s creation. We exist to pass that love along. We are to love God, love one another, love the world with the love that has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

When people come among us, they should be impressed by the love that overflows in every meeting, in every event, in every gathering of every group. “See how they love one another” was what the watching world said about the earliest Christian communities. Aristides wrote to the Roman emperor Hadrian about the communities of Christ’s followers: “They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something, they give frely to the person who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother.” (The Apology of Aristides, XIV, XV)

During World War II, members of a Christian Church in Le Chambon, France sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis. When they were asked about this extraordinary courage, they all referred to the Bible verse that was carved into the doorway at the entrance to their church. This verse was embodied and preached about by their pastor over and over again. “Little children, love one another.”

The work of the church is to be a community of love that is a sign, witness, and foretaste of the life-shaping, life-changing love of God that meets us in Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, ‘there is nothing we are less good at than love’  (Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience, p. 73).  From our earliest days, we have been encouraged to be competitive — to get ahead, to succeed. Day by day we are surrounded by powerful pressures to get more for ourselves by loving things and using people. We are schooled in impressive techniques for manipulating people so that we can get the things we love. However, the more focused we are on loving ourselves, the less capable we become of forming community with other selves. The end result is that we live in a culture where many people are profoundly lonely and looking for love.

So, Sunday be Sunday, we set ourselves at Jesus’ feet and open ourselves to the work of God in our lives, asking God to form us and mature us in love. The promise of the gospel is this: “the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). It is an amazing claim. What is most decisive about us is not our love or our failure to love. The most decisive thing is the work of God among us and God’s promise to complete what God began doing in our baptism.

On the day you were baptized, you were adopted into a community of people whose lives also had been claimed by God for God’s good purposes in the world. God has claimed each of us for the great and holy work of learning to love with a love like Christ’s. Indeed, God intends to produce in us and through us a “harvest of righteousness” (Philippians 1:11).

What do you hear when you hear the word ‘righteousness’? Do you automatically hear ‘self-righteous’? Do you think of people who are arrogant and judgmental; who consider themselves superior to others. Do you picture people who think that they are better than everyone else?

When Paul uses the word ‘righteousness’ in Philippians, he is not talking about that kind of self-righteousness. He is talking about a righteousness that is rooted in the grace and the love of Jesus Christ. The word means ‘in right relationship’. As we immerse ourselves in the grace and love of Jesus, a harvest of right relationships develops and grows: right relationship with God; right relationship with each other; right relationship with the world. The ‘harvest of righteousness’ that God’s Spirit produces in us i love that is growing and maturing and looking more and more like the love that Jesus lived.

Love is a word that is often messed up, perverted, or misunderstood. Jesus redefines love for us. Jesus’ love is not anything like the sentimental, ‘anything goes’ parody of love that is so prevalent in our culture. Jesus believes in us enough to summon us into an apprenticeship to a costly kind of love. Loving the way Jesus loves is risky and radical. It means that, day by day, we relinquish our own self-righteousness, our ego-driven desires, our fears that we are not good enough. Instead, we open ourselves to the Spirit’s guidance. We open ourselves to God’s grace that is at work in our souls. We pray. We learn to tell the truth to God, to others, and to ourselves. We receive forgiveness and practise offering it others. We take every circumstance of our lives and hand it over to God — all the messiness, all the pain, all the suffering, as well as the joys and triumphs. We ask God, “Show me your grace and your glory in this.” “Show me how to grow in the love of Christ through this.”

We learn to play jazz with our lives. Said one jazz musician, “We are a people who have sought freedom. Jazz expresses that freedom. More importantly, we are a people who, even through suffering have learned to love. Our music expresses our love for God, for God’s universe, for God’s people . . . We play jazz and the blues so as not to waste any pain.” (Mtumishi St. Julien, quoted in  “Moments of Inspiration: Preaching, Jazz Improvisation and the Work of the Spirit”, Charles Campell, Journal for Preachers, 21 no 4 Pentecost 1998, p 30-35)

Paul prays for the disciples of Jesus Christ in the church in Philippi that they will have no experience that is wasted. All is taken up by God and used to deepen their love and mature them in love, the the love of Christ that changes the world, even as it changes us.

It is a long, slow process. This is soul work and souls cannot be hurried. Yet, God does not give up on us. God’s Spirit continuously works in us, seeking to draw us out of ourselves and pulling us into the wide expanses of the love of God. God’s Spirit loves us just as we are; God’s Spirit loves us too much to leave us that way. God believes in us enough to say over and over again, “Repent. Turn from a life defined by your self. You are made for something more. Turn toward a life made large and holy by the love of God.”

Often, says, Craig Barnes, we are like a half-finished painting. Sometimes we are not sure what it will look like when it is finished. In the middle of the process, things can look pretty ragged. But you can trust that the Spirit is painting the image of Jesus in your life. Your work is to respond to the Spirit’s creativity. Your work is to receive the creative, life-transforming grace of God.

Will you let the living God change you? Will you open spaces in your life where the Spirit can work God’s love into you?

Let us pray:

Compassionate God,
we thank you for the work you are doing among us,
leading us forward into new challenges,
forming us into the image of Christ for the sake of the world.

Through your Spirit, lead us to make this community
a place where the lonely find friendship,
the despairing find hope,
the wounded find your healing power,
and all are brought ever more deeply
into the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Amen.

A sermon based on Luke 21: 25 -36 for Advent 1, year C

In last Sunday’s gospel story, Jesus told Pilate, “I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.” (John 18:37, The Message). We look to Jesus; we set ourselves at his feet; and we learn to hear the truth and to tell the truth about our lives. This is the work God is doing through us:  the most significant impact the Church can make in a culture drowning in lies is to tell the truth. The work of the Church is to be a zone of truth-telling. 

This morning’s gospel story begins by telling the truth about our world. It was written 2000 years ago but, when you heard it, did you say, “That could be describing our time”?

“It will seem like all hell has broken loose — sun, moon, stars, earth, sea — all creation — in an uproar and everyone all over the world in a panic; the wind knocked out of them by the threat of doom; the powers-that-be quaking.”  (The Message)

Storms and first, earthquakes and pandemics; alarming rates of mental health issues; warnings of economic woes as supply chains strain and break and inflation amplifies the troubles of those who are poor. Turmoil on all fronts. The world coming unglued.

Where do you find the courage and the hope you need to live creatively in the midst of all that bad news? In Advent, the first thing the Church does is talk about it. The Church talks about both the bad news and the hope that we hold. The Church talks about it even though, in doing so, it is swimming against the tide.

Most people are well into the Christmas season already. Our culture’s hope for the Christmas season is that all will be “merry and bright”. Talk about trouble, fear and foreboding, confusion and the threat of doom seems out of place. The closer we get to Christmas, the more pressure there is to push the mute button on the bad news.

Yet, the Church insists: the only path to hope runs through telling the truth about the way things are. If you want to live creatively in a time such as this, you begin by facing honestly the trouble we are in. 

The truth is — being a human being is hard. Suffering is part of the journey. Life is sometimes going to take you to difficult, painful, even terrifying places. 

You can react to that suffering in any number of ways. You can try to ignore it — just not let the pain and the hurt enter too deeply into your consciousness. The only problem is that it doesn’t work in the long run. It is like trying to hold a beach ball under the water. It is going to pop up to the surface at some point.

You can take your suffering out on someone else, which just means that both of you end up in pain.

You can get angry about whatever it is you are suffering. You can shout, “It’s not fair!” or “I don’t deserve this!” or “I can’t take it anymore!”. Sometimes that helps, doesn’t it?

Still, any of those paths won’t take you much further on your journey through your suffering. Do you know what the scriptures do with our suffering? Once they face it head on and tell as much of the truth about it as they can, they set the suffering before God. They turn our suffering into prayer.

Do you read or pray the Psalms? I often recommend to people that they develop a practice of praying through the psalms. Pray one a day. Or, pray the psalms for 15 minutes a day, however many psalms that takes you through. And then write your own prayers out of that. “Pray your way through the psalms, over and over,” I say.

I don’t know how many people take my very good advice. Not many, I suspect. Praying the psalms isn’t easy. They don’t feel like the prayers we are used to praying. The majority of them are full of talk about enemies and troubles and hurt and suffering. They lay all of that out before God with more honesty than most of us can muster. Nevertheless, I stand by my advice. Pray your way through the psalms.

You see, as we learn to pray our suffering that truthfully, God meet us there — in the depths where our suffering has taken us. Sometimes the presence of God comes as a quiet knowing that you are being held firmly in strong arms that will not let you fall. Or, at least, however deep you fall, God is deeper still.

Sometimes that presence comes as a gift of strength and courage beyond your own. You find that you can do what needs to be done; you can face what needs to be faced, or at least, hold on until the fog lifts and you can take the next step that you need to take. 

Sometimes God’s presence comes with healing power; with great mercy that binds up the wounds and sets you on your feet again.

All these are experiences that people have had as they lay their troubles out before God and wait for God to answer.

However, it also needs to be said that there can be long stretches when you have prayed as honestly and as deeply as you can and you do not feel God present with you. You do not feel that the gifts of strength or courage or mercy or healing are being given to you.

That, too, is part of the journey of faith. In those times, I have found it helpful to remember: we walk most of the Way by faith and not be sight. To walk by faith is to hold onto God’s promises even when there is much evidence to the contrary. To walk by faith is to decide to face and live through your suffering, trusting: 

that Jesus the truth about God; 

that our God is relentless in not letting anything in heaven or on earth come between you and God’s great love for you;

that our God is vigorously at work in your life and in the world to save us, to free us, to overcome the power of death and to bring us life abundant.

To walk by faith is to live in the midst of trouble and chaos and still to lift our heads, scanning the horizons for signs that help is on its way, that the kingdom of God is already near at hand and is making new life and new possibilities where we can only see things falling apart.

There is a sacred mystery to your life. There will be times of joy and delight, of beauty and wonder, of love.

There will also be times of sorrow and suffering, of lost and hurt and injustice. Sometimes you will feel God’s Spirit present with you, loving you guiding you, strengthening you. Sometimes the only assurance you will have of God being with you is that great yearning in your heart for God, the anguished cry of your soul. Sometimes the only sense you will have of God’s work will be the suffering. Even those times are holy for, in your suffering, you are participating in Christ’s own suffering for the world.

Even then, God’s promises are sure: nothing is more powerful than Christ’s good and holy work in your life. Let these promises carry you. Christ’s words are the anchor that will hold you fast. So, stand tall with your heads held high, for the Son of Man is coming with great power and glory. Your salvation is, indeed, near at hand. Thanks be to God.

Scriptures: Psalm 8
John 1: 1-5

I have posted this before but it seems like a good time to reflect again on these thoughts.

The climate of this planet is changing. Increasingly, weather is in the news, reporting the damage caused by severe weather patterns.

We face a great challenge: How do we live in creation without destroying it? At its heart, that is a spiritual question. It has to do with what we believe about God and about human beings and about our relationship with this world that God has entrusted to our care. We set ourselves under the stories and prayers in the scriptures that tell us about God’s creation, our place within it, and our role in its care, and we discover that the answer comes with wonder and awe. 

We live in a culture that, in many ways, does not encourage wonder. It comes naturally, spontaneously, in childhood. If you watch little children, you see them discovering this amazing world for the first time. You see their delight in the smallest of things. However, over time and in many little ways, that sense of wonder can get squeezed out. You can get pre-occupied with mastering and controlling the world. You can get busy becoming competent in manipulating its elements. You can become pre-occupied with ‘getting ahead’.

Wonder takes time. It is about mystery. It requires that you loosen your tight grip on life so you can be surprised, allowing the unknown and the unexpected come to you. You can get so busy that you lose the wonder that feeds your soul. You can lose the wonder that is at the root of living well and reverently in creation. 

The awe of God is the beginning point of cultivating the capacity for wonder within our lives. It is the beginning point for living lives that are adequate to the great gift of this marvellous and precious creation. That is where Psalm 8 begins: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” The Psalm begins and ends praising God. 

That is what frames our lives, it claims: the majesty, the glory of the Lord, the Sovereign of all the earth. In Hebrew, the word is actually YHWH. YHWH is the personal name God gave to Moses when God showed up in a bush that burned but did not burn up. YHWH is the name of the God who enters into covenant with a group of newly liberated slaves and leads them through the wilderness. 

It is an amazing claim. What frames our lives is not just a generic deity, a vague energy force. Our lives take place within a creation ruled by a named God who keeps showing up in our lives and in our world. We are not orphans, lost in an indifferent cosmos. We are met. We are claimed by a God who sets God’s glory above the heavens. This God puts moons and stars in their places, lifting nothing more than the fingers of God’s hands. This powerful, cosmic God is, nevertheless, mindful of us human beings. This God attends to us mere mortals.

“Why do you bother with us?” asks the psalmist. “Why take a second look our way?” And yet, YHWH does bother. YHWH does take a second look. This God does even more than that. John’s gospel begins by quoting an early Christian hymn. It sings the wonder of the God who created the cosmos by the power of God’s Word: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life” (John 1: 1-3).   Then, this God became flesh and blood, “moved into the neighbourhood” (The Message) as Jesus of Nazareth. 

By the end of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, we know that this God cares for us and for this world so much that God is willing to go to hell and back to rescue us and to restore our broken relationships with God and with each other.

Julian of Norwich, one of the great mystical saints of the Church, said, “Human beings are clothed in divine love.” God’s love wraps around us. God’s love enfold us every moment of our lives. We are not always loveable. We are certainly not always aware of that love, but that love is the bedrock of our lives. The sovereign ruler of the cosmos loves us and cares for us with an infinite, attentive, creative love. 

So many people whom we encounter day by day do not know that. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine being loved that deeply and not knowing it? Our culture mostly gives us two messages. We are told either, “You are the centre of everything and you deserve to get everything you want or desire”, or “You are nothing more than a bundle of appetites. You are nothing more than the chance product of the survival of the fittest.” We live in the tension between these two messages. 

Both of them lead us away from wonder. Both of them destroy community and compassion and care. They lead us, in the first case, to reach too high for our own good, trampling over others in careless arrogance. In the second case, we settle for too little, figuring that there is nothing we can to do make a difference so we might just pursue our own private happiness and comfort.

Then, we come to worship and we pray Psalm 8. We remember that we are not gods and goddesses. We cannot arrogantly use and abuse this planet. We are accountable to a sovereign Creator who bestows upon us great dignity and a holy purpose: to love and care for this fragile creation. 

We come to worship and we pray Psalm 8 as a protest against every force that tries to demean us, to make us think less of ourselves than we should.

We hold these two truth together: You have made us a little less than gods; yet, You have given us charge over Your handcrafted world.”

It is said that a rabbi said that every person should carry two stones in her pockets. During the day, she should touch the one stone and remember, “I am but dust and ashes.” She should touch the other stone and remember, “For my sake, the whole universe was created.” The rabbi said that each person should use each stone as she needs it. 

We face large problems for which there are no easy, large-scale solutions. The way forward will consist of many small actions. The way forward begins with framing our lives in the loving care of a sovereign God who bestows upon each of you great dignity and responsibility. Find two stones small stones and carry them in your pockets. Carry them remembering, “I am but dust and ashes” and “For my sake, the whole universe was created. Take two stones for yourself and two stones for someone else. Invite that person to live this week, each day, with wonder. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”

A sermon preached at Shiloh Inwood United Church on October 3, 2021, Worldwide Communion Sunday, based on the lectionary reading: Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12

Zedekiah was the last king of the ancient nation of Judah. He was king at a time when two empires — Egypt and Babylon— were jostling for power and control of that part of the Middle East. He was neither a very good nor a very strong king. He certainly was not a faithful one. Nevertheless, at one point, when he was particularly desperate, he sent for the prophet Jeremiah and asked, “Is there any word from the Lord? I am stuck; I am at the end of my own resources; I cannot see my way forward. Is there any word from our God to guide and help me?”

Is there any word from the Lord?

That’s the question we ask every Sunday as we gather for worship. Is there a God who is stronger than the troubles we face day by day? Is there a God who cares about the troubles we are facing? Is there a God who can act and save us — or at least give us the courage and strength we need to keep on the journey?

The letter to the Hebrews was written — or probably preached — to a congregation asking those questions. They were asking those questions because they were getting weary and were thinking about giving up. They had been faithful through the years but now the troubles were many and were unrelenting and were threatening to overwhelm them.

The Preacher answers their cries by placing them in the midst of a great story:  “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets; but, in these last days, God has spoken to us by a Son.”

We are part of a story in which the answer through the centuries has been, “Yes, there is a word from the Lord.”

God speaks a word and there is light and there is dark — the first day. God speaks five more times and a whole creation bursts into being — a creation so good, so wonderful that even God can take time to rest and enjoy this new life that God has made.

God speaks and an old man and an old woman who have given up all hope for the future receive a promise and a child long after the time when that seemed possible.

God speaks and the prophets point the way for communities to live humanly and humanely together. 

At the centre of this story, God speaks and the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth. Even though Jesus came to his own people — the people God’s Word had created — they did not receive him. Nevertheless, his light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.

To be a follower of Jesus is to be part of the story in which God speaks powerful words — words that change lives; words that transform the world.

When you are in the midst of trouble — troubles that threaten to overwhelm you — you choose, you decide again and again:  Will you trust that God is speaking that life-giving Word even here, in your life, in your circumstances?

Such choosing takes practice. In our culture, we have been trained to respond to trouble either by ignoring it or by trying to harder to fix whatever is wrong. We trust in denial or in technique. Either way, we trust in our own resources to get through it.

Living in a world where God speaks takes you in a different direction. For one thing, you get to face your troubles honestly, head on. Because God is bigger than the troubles, we see that there is a limit to them. 

Because, in Jesus, God has experienced the worst that life can bring, we don’t have to hide from God any part of what we are going through. God has entered into our suffering. God already knows the depths of what trouble is doing to us, what it is doing to our souls.

Like the psalmist in today’s psalm, we are free to admit it all to God who is more powerful than all of it: 

Be kind to me, God — I’m in deep, deep trouble again.
I’ve cried my eyes out; I feel hollow inside.
My life leaks away, groan by groan;
my years fade out in sighs.
My troubles have worn me out, turned my bones to powder.

Have you been there? Has someone you love been there? If you have, you know that part of what you suffer in such a place is that words fail you. You cannot even put into words what you are feeling and experiencing, especially in prayer to God to whom you have turned for help.

Here, the Psalm prays your prayers for you. The Psalm gives you the words that your spirit doesn’t know how to say. You pray the psalmist’s words over an over again. Slowly, they become your own prayer. They become your own words that you lay before God.

“Desperate, I throw myself on you: you are my God!
Hour by hour, I place my days in your hand,
safe from the hands out to get me.”

People who pray this way are learning to trust that God is in control. Through trouble may loom large, it is not larger than this God. At the heart of reality, even in the deepest depths, Jesus has gone ahead of us. Jesus meets us with God’s faithfulness and God’s steadfast love that will not give way.

People who pray this way are learning to depend upon the Holy Spirit to sustain us, to renew our strength, to overcome and lead us into God’s new creation.

In conversations I have been having over the past few weeks, I have been struck by how weary and stressed people are. The challenges keep coming and last longer than they expected. People are at the end of their own resources.

Health care workers and first responders — stretched beyond their limits for months on end and still being asked for more.

Small business owners, restaurant managers — struggling to navigate the changing government rules and regulations; faced with angry customers and mounting debts and supply chain problems and too few staff. 

School teachers, farmers, parents, seniors and young people — all stretched beyond their own capacities to cope.

And the Church, not immune from the troubles engulfing our world.

We bring all that with us when we come to worship. We have gathered it all up in our prayers and in our songs; in our speaking and in our listening. 

“Is there any word from the Lord?”, we ask with Zedekiah and with the church through all the ages.

“Yes, there is,” says Jeremiah.

“Yes, there is,” says our Psalm

“Yes, there is,” says the scripture reading this morning. 

The word from the Lord is God’s Word made flesh in Jesus of Nazareth.

“Come,” says Jesus. “Come to me and rest your weariness. Come to me and take my body broken for you; my blood poured out for you. Come and know the power of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. In the world you will have trouble; but, courage, I have overcome the world.”

The mystery of faith is that those words are enough. Those words are enough to sustain us and give us hope while we watch and wait and listen for the ultimate word which God will speak. The powerful, life-giving Word that God will speak will take us to the far side of our troubles. That powerful, life-giving Word will usher in God’s new creation, full of grace and truth. That powerful, life-giving Word is even now at word in your life and in mine. This is a Word you can trust with your troubles, with these confused and confusing times, with your life. Thanks be to God.

A prayer based on John 15: 1-8

O Lord, our God,

you surround us with your grace and your mercy.

You create us in your image

and invite us to share your holy work

in the company of your holy people.

You place among us gifts and hopes and 

hearts that yearn for your presence.

We thank you, 

we praise you

for your faithfulness,

for your rich love so generously given.

Now, in this time together,

as we turn towards you,

you invite us to venture

ever deeper into your love.

You know the fears that keep us 

from saying, “Yes” to you.

You know the ways we resist your Way.

You know the wounds that mark our souls.

You know the risks of loving

that we hesitate to take.

Grant us this further gift, we pray —

that your Holy Spirit moves among us again,

purifying, cleansing, healing our spirits,

preparing our hearts to abide

each moment

more fully in Christ,

making our lives living sanctuaries

where his love makes a home.

Then, let his love pour out of our life together,

full and overflowing

to nourish the places where we live,

bearing the fruit of peace and joy and hope.

So may our worship bring you joy.

A message at Shiloh Inwood United Church on May 2, 2021 based on John 15: 1-8.

One of my favourite ways of reading and praying the Bible is one that some of you are familiar with: lectio divina — holy reading. It approaches the Bible differently from many Bible studies. In most of the Bible studies that I have experienced for many years, the group reads a passage from the Bible. Then they would start learning information about it: When might it have been written? Who was it written for? What do some of the words means? What lesson or moral or principle does it contain? How might you apply that moral principle in your life?

Does that sound familiar? I think of it as a matter of stepping back from a passage, examining it so you can apply its message.

Lectio Divina – holy reading — approaches the Bible not by stepping back from it but by stepping into it. You are not mining the passage for information or for some life lesson. You enter into it; you wander around in it; you let it sink into your spirit.

You begin by reading the passage slowly several times. As you listen, you pay attention to words, images, phrases that emerge or stand out for you. Then, you let those words, images, or phrases take your mind where it will, entering into a dialogue with God. You pray. You listen for what God might be saying to you. In the final stage, you sit in the presence of God, intentionally conscious that you are immersed in the love and care of a good and holy God. 

When you use lectio divina, you end up in a different place than when you engage in the more common type of Bible study. You are listening to who Jesus is more than to what you should be doing. You are experiencing a deepening of your relationship with God — a deepening that shapes who you are.

When I am working with groups of people, I often use a variation of lectio divina called Dwelling in the Word. Dwelling in the Word begins in much the same way as lectio divina. A passage is read two or three times. You are asked to pay attention to words, images, phrases that emerge in your listening. But Dwelling in the Word asks you to pay attention to something else as well. It asks, “Where did you stop?” As you are listening to the passage where did you stop paying attention to the words that are being read? Where did your thoughts start wandering down a different path instead? Pay attention to that. 

Perhaps your thoughts didn’t wander down a different path but you did encounter a ‘speed bump’. The story was moving along smoothly. Then, something interrupted the flow for a moment or two. The speed bump may not have sent you off in a different direction, but the ground shifted under your foot just a little. Your pace was interrupted. You are invited to pay attention to that. 

When I am doing Dwelling in the Word, I don’t often pay much attention to the speed bumps. I don’t know why— that is just how it has been. However, this week, as I was studying and praying the gospel passage, I kept experiencing a speed bump and kept ignoring it. Finally  I clued in that I ought to pay attention to it!

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower,” says Jesus in his final talk with his disciples. Yes, yes, I have heard this before. 

“He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” The image of pruning — not an entirely pleasant image but typically good gardening practice. Okay.

The talk goes along until he says, “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Powerful image.

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit” Wonderful promise.

“. . . because apart from me you can do nothing.” Wait! What?? “Apart from me you can do nothing”? Really? That’s different. That’s not what we’ve been trained to believe. We live in a culture that urges us to stand on our own two feet, to claim our own abilities to go after our dreams and make them happen. 

What child has not heard, “You can be anything you want to be”? “You make your own life by the dreams you dream, the choices you make”. “You create you own identity by setting your mind on your goal and letting nothing get in your way.” “You are the author of your own story and that story is all about becoming the ‘you’ you want to be.”

Do you remember Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley singing “I did it my way”? They crooned a seductive anthem for people who were being trained to believe that what made their lives significant was that they were self-made people.

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
and saw it through without exemption.
I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.”  (the lyrics were written by Paul Anka)

No talk there about depending on anyone else. No talk about participating in a deep relationship that immerses you in someone else’s way or direction. Just you, yourself, your actions and your decisions.

Which song do you listen to? Which promise do you lean into with your life? “I planned each charted course . . . I did it my way”? Or, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Jesus invites you out of a self-made life, a life shaped by your own choices, a life focused on your wants, your self-determined identity, your rights. Instead, Jesus invites you to participate in his life. Did you notice? Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” The abiding is mutual, a shared life. You often hear people talk about having invited Jesus into their lives. That covers only part of what is going on when you sign on with Jesus and it’s not the most decisive part. Here, Jesus is inviting you into his life. He is inviting you to move out of your self into something so much larger than your own self. You abide in Christ — you move out of your own self-created story into the large, beautiful, life-giving story that God is telling in our world. And the promise is that, when you make yourself at home in that story, your life will bear much fruit.

As you grow in faith, you hear Jesus’ invitation to abide in him, in his life, over and over again. You enter into a life-long process of letting go. Instead of trusting your own efforts to make something of your life, you submit to God’s work of creating your life. 

You face a difficult challenge, or you encounter some pain or sorrow or suffering. You find yourself dealing with disappointment or betrayal. You come to the limit of what you can manage and control. In each situation, Jesus is inviting you to abide in him – to move more deeply into his life, into the work God is doing in your life.

As you accept the invitation, each event becomes more than simply that event. It becomes holy — our holy God at work in it, refining you, deepening you, making you holy, fruitful, part of God’s salvation of the world. 

It is risky to to accept the invitation. It often feels like God is pruning your life — cutting back attitudes or behaviours that are no longer serving you well; pruning that which is alive and healthy in you so that you bear even more fruit. We resist the pruning work of God. There is something in each of us that keeps turning us in towards ourselves. As Eugene Peterson writes, “The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory.” We have a lot of learning and unlearning to do. The learning, the unlearning, the risking, the letting go — that’s all part of being made a living sanctuary so that God can do God’s saving work in the world through you.

In a few moments we shall gather at Jesus’ table to which all those who hunger are invited. As we gather, we hear again Jesus’ invitation to share his life in the world, to abide in him. At this table, we are reminded that what the world needs most is not more of us. What the world needs most is more of our Saviour. We come with empty hands and thirsty souls and wounded selves. We abide in Jesus. We sit and wait and share in Christ’s life. We pray that in all of that, God will do His good and holy work in us so that our lives bear fruit — fruit that will last; fruit that will bless the world God loves.

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