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A reflection on Genesis 1.

The first chapter of the first book of the Bible was written for/by the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon. It was written as a protest against all those voices which were telling them that they were ‘nobodies’, ‘losers’ in life. To the Babylonians, they were just one more conquered nation. They felt humiliated, broken, and rejected. They were victims: pawns of Babylonian power, of forces that were beyond their control.

The first chapter of Genesis says, “You are confused about your identity. You have forgotten who you are and what defines you. What is decisive is not what the Babylonians think about your. What is decisive is not even what you think about yourself. What is decisive is what God thinks about you.” The story of creation proclaims that God’s primary relationship toward God’s creation is one of delight and graciousness.

Throughout the story, God looks at what God has made and pronounces it “good” — lovely, pleasing, beautiful. God gives God’s blessing three times: over living creatures, over human beings, and over the sabbath, the day of rest. The Creators delights in the creation. It brings God joy.

G. K. Chesterton imagined God’s childlike delight in what God had made. He said, “If you take a five year old child, throw her into the air, catch her, bounce her off your knee and then set her down on the floor, she will exclaim, ‘Do it again! Do it again!’ Every time you do it, she will shout with more enthusiasm, ‘Do it again!’ Even if you repeat the process a dozen time, the child will not tire of it. You will have to stop before she want you to.”

Chesterton believed that God maybe that way about creating daisies. He imagined God creating the first daisy and enjoying it so much that something deep inside God exclaimed, “Do it again!” When God made the second daisy, God was even more excited and shouted, “Do it again!” As God creates daisy after daisy, and after making the one hundred billionth daisy, God is filled with even more excitement than when God first began.

It is a wonderful image — but not just for daisies. It is a wonderful image for human beings as well. Can you imagine the joy and delight God had when God created you? Can you imagine the joy and delight God still has in you?

Most of us are far more aware of how often we have messed up. We live far more deeply out of the third chapter of Genesis that we do out of the first. You know the story: God places Adam and Even in a beautiful garden with everything they could want of need. The only rule was not to eat the fruit from one of the trees in the garden. Of course, the first thing they did was to betray the trust God had placed in them, eat the fruit and get expelled from the garden . . . and the rest of us have been paying the price ever since.

That is the story that many of us live our lives by. The truth is, we do betray the trust God places in us. We do reject the love that God lavishes upon us and treat it carelessly.

But, that is not the most important thing about us. The deeper truth is that God loves us and delights in us and will do whatever it takes to reconcile us to God, short of coercing us to love God.

There is a significant difference when God creates human beings from when God creates the rest of creation. With all the rest of creation, God speaks a word. The creation responds and becomes what God calls it to be. Then, God moves on to the next thing: day and night; sky and land; sun, moon and stars.

The pattern changes when it comes to making human beings. They are the only part of the creation to whom God speaks directly. God creates them and then starts talking to them. In entering into conversation with them, God invites them to enter into a personal relationship that is different from God’s relationship with the rest of creation.

“Speaking” signifies two things: God is intensely committed to human beings; human beings have the marvellous freedom to respond. God creates because God wants to share love. At the pinnacle of the process of creation, God creates a creature who can choose to love in return.

Each of us has the choice to respond to God’s love in our lives or not. We can listen to the voices that tell us that we are nobodies who will never measure up. Or, we can choose instead to listen to the voice of God who delights in us much more than we can imagine. We can listen to God who believes in us much more than we believe in ourselves. We can listen to God who entrusts us with the great and holy work of shining the light of Christ in our world.

That voice is so committed to us that the Word comes to us in Jesus of Nazareth. That voice will challenge our fears, our lies, the shallowness of our lives. That voice will bring us to that place where we experience the joy and the delight God has in us. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon based on Matthew 13: 1-9.

Some people think of the Bible as the place you go to get answers to your questions:

What happens when I die?

What does God want me to do?

What is the “Christian” response to poverty?

That is certainly the approach that was taken when I was in Sunday School. You heard the story; you asked the question; you learned the ‘lesson for living’.

Several years ago, I read something that changed the way I listen to the Bible. In Living Faith: Belief and Doubt in a Perilous World, Jacques Ellul proposes that “The Bible is not the answer book to our questions. You go to the Bible ho hear the questions that God is asking you.” Through the scriptures, God is talking to you. God is asking you questions about your life, about who you are, about your relationships.

More than that, in the scriptures we host Sunday by Sunday, God is speaking to us as a community of faith that is participating in God’s mission in this place and in this time. Our task is to hear the questions God is asking us and to answer as truthfully as we can. It is a different way of hearing the scriptures. It takes some practice.

Lectio divina is a way to listen for the questions that God is asking you in your life. You read the scripture passage several times slowly (preferably out loud). You listen for words, phrases  or images that emerge as you hear the passage. After meditating on those words, phrases or images, you pray them — talking with God about the thoughts they evoke in you. Then, you take some time to sit in God’s presence, becoming aware of God’s great love for you . . . receiving it into your life.

That is a lengthy introduction to today’s gospel story, which includes the “Parable of the Sower”. A sower went out to sow seeds and, as he sows, the seeds fall on 4 different kinds of soil: on the path, on rocky ground, among thorns and into good soil.

How many times have you heard this parable and told that its meaning was that you were to work hard to be good soil — the kind that produces a harvest of grain, some one hundred-fold, some sixty-fold, some thirty-fold? You hear the story. You ask, “What does God want me to do?” The answer is, “God wants you to be good soil.” Having heard your assignment for the week, you go out to implement it. Lesson learned.

Listening for God’s question to you in the passage takes you in a different direction. What words, images or phrases emerge for you?

When I was preparing this sermon, I didn’t get as far as the parable. The first words that stood out for me were the first words of the passage: “That same day”. I wondered, “What ‘same day’?” I went back to the chapter before this story and found out what else had happened on that day.

On that day, Jesus had been accused of working for the Devil, for Beelzebub. The Pharisees were conspiring against him. They were criticizing him and trying to figure out how to destroy him. They tried to trap him. They demanded that he prove who he was. On that day, in the midst of trouble and challenges and difficulties, Jesus tells a story about a sower who sows seeds with reckless abandon.

This sower doesn’t farm in the way you and I know farming: preparing the soil, planting carefully chosen seeds in straight rows, watching and waiting for the rains to come or to stop. This sower went out to sow and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path and birds ate them up. Some seeds fell in rocky soil and couldn’t put down deep roots. Some seeds fell among thorns and got choked by them. But, some seeds fell in good soil and produced an abundant harvest.

Jesus’ parables help us pay attention to God’s presence in our lives. They help us hear the questions God is asking us. Jesus has been telling people that God reigns over this world. God is at work in this broken world, always and everywhere, setting things right. Nothing in all creation can ever come between us and that power love of God that is at work in this world.

Do you believe it? Do you trust those promises even when you cannot see much evidence of them? Do you trust that God is at work in your life even when God’s grace and love fall on the hard path you are walking at the moment? Do you trust that God’s love is the most decisive power at work in your rocky relationships? Do you trust God when troubles come so thick and thorny that they choke the life out of you? Do you trust that God is at work even when the world seems against you? Because, that is how God works.

The apostle Paul describes what that trust looks like: “We continue to shout our praise, even when we’re hemmed in with troubles . . . so, stay alert for whatever God will do next.” (Romans 5: 1-8)

I know a minister who put up signs around his church that said, “Expect God to act.” You would turn a corner and see the sign. You would walk up a flight a stairs and see the sign. He was trying to help the people of the congregation develop eyes to see the Sower sowing seeds of love and grace and hope in every place, in every circumstance.

A few weeks ago, another minister told me that he had done something similar. He put up signs that said, “Surely the Lord is in this place. Pay attention. Don’t miss it.”

Someone I was talking with last week says that, every time she meets with a group of people that she is mentoring, she asks them, “Where has God met you in the past two weeks?”

What answer would you give? Where has God met you in the past week?

Take a moment and think about the places in your life where the path you are walking is hard and difficult. Offer those circumstances and say, “Surely the Lord is present in this place.”

Take a moment and think of a place in your life where relationships are rocky, where it hard for love to take root and grow. Offer that relationship to God and say, “Surely the Lord is present here.”

Take a moment and think of a place in your life were trouble is troubling someone you care about. Offer that situation and that person to God and say, “Surely the Lord is present.”

Take a moment and think of a place in your life where God has blessed you. Give thanks, offer those blessings to God and say, “Surely the Lord is present in this place.”

Lastly, look to the week that is ahead of you. Offer it to God and pray, “Surely the Lord is present. Lord, help me to notice.”

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A sermon based on John 20: 19-23

The very first worship service of the Christian Church took place in the evening of the first Easter Sunday. The gospel of John says that the disciples were gathered “in the house”. All the earliest churches were house churches. The followers of Jesus would gather in someone’s home. They would tell the stories of Jesus; they would share the meal as Jesus had given it to them; they would pray together. That was the shape of their worship.

As John tells it, the first worship service wasn’t much of a service at all. There were no announcements about upcoming fundraisers and programmes. Even though it was Easter, there were no special anthems sung by the choir. The worship leader didn’t say, “Christ is risen!” and the people didn’t respond, “He is risen indeed!” There were no joyful shouts of “Alleluia!” In fact, the congregation seemed to be having trouble getting past the Prayer of Confession.

That morning, some of the women had brought news of having found the tomb empty. They told of messengers telling them that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mary said that she had actually seen Jesus and that he had talked with her. He had told her he was “ascending to the Father”, whatever that might mean. However, when the disciples gathered that evening, they locked the doors behind them.

They were afraid of the Judeans, the religious authorities. They were troubled. They were troubled not just by events in the world around them; they were troubled in their own hearts and minds. You can imagine that they were still reeling from the loss and the grief of Jesus’ death just a few days previous to this. They were confused about the reports from the women at Jesus’ tomb. I may be reading too much into it, but they were probably enveloped with a sense of failure and guilt and shame for having deserted Jesus. William Willimon called this, “the church of the sweaty palms and shaky knees and firmly bolted door. . .  All who were there had gotten an “F” in following Jesus. (You Call This A Church?)

The worship service seemed to have stalled there. They couldn’t get past the Prayer of Confession.

Then, suddenly, unexpectedly, Jesus shows up. He pronounces the “Assurance of Pardon”, the “Assurance of Grace”. He says, “Peace be with you.”  He could have said, “You guys really messed up.” He could have said, “Shame on you. I thought we were friends. Where were you when I needed you?” He didn’t. He said, “Peace be with you.”

He showed them the wounds in his side and hands. Then, he said it again, “Peace be with you.” The disciples were experiencing everything except peace and Jesus offers them this great gift of God’s mercy and grace.

He offers it not just in the first church service on the first Easter. He offers it to us every Sunday. We gather together and we bring with us the trouble that we have been carrying all week long. Most of the time we keep the trouble locked behind the closed doors of our hearts. We keep it hidden, but it is still there.

There’s trouble in the world — in the streets of London, England; in the refugee camps in the Sudan; in the sea between North Korea and Japan; in the Arctic where the ice cap is melting at accelerated rates.

There’s trouble in this neighbourhood where people are grieving the death of someone they love and parents are worried about the drug addictions of their children; and young people search for a reason to live.

There’s trouble in our own hearts and minds: the fears and worries; the regrets and sense of failure; the guilt and shame that haunt our souls.

We bring all that with us into worship. In the Prayer of Confession, we tell the truth about it to God.

Some churches no longer have a prayer of confession in their worship services. “That’s too negative,” they say. “We don’t want to make people feel bad. People come to church to feel good.”

The point of the Prayer of Confession is not to make people feel bad. The point of the Prayer of Confession is to make a space where we can tell the truth about the troubles that makes us afraid. It gives you a place where you can tell the truth about the things that you have done that cannot be made right. It gives you a place to speak the guilt and shame that is crippling your soul.

Together, we tell the truth and we offer all of it to our crucified and risen Lord. Then, we listen. We listen for his offer of forgiveness, he release from the burden, his “Peace be with you.”

The Prayer of Confession proclaims: You don’t have to keep carrying your guilt. You don’t have to keep letting fear drive your life. You don’t have to let shame hold you in its grip. Failure doesn’t need to turn to into a victim. Jesus went to hell and back to free you from all that. With grace more powerful than death, God takes you old life and gives you a new one. You can begin again, in a different place. You can move down a different path. You are no longer a victim. You are no longer “guilty”. You are forgiven and graced and redeemed and made new and set free.

I read once about a prison chaplain who had on his desk a framed photograph of a Christmas pageant. There were angels in white robes, holding candles and bringing “good news of great joy”. There were the shepherds kneeling and looking like they were frightened. Except, the characters in the photograph were not children as we are used to seeing in Christmas pageants. The shepherds and angels in this photo were rough looking men. They were convicts — convicted of murder and violent crimes; criminals serving time in jail. Yet, there they were, men who had been transformed by Christ, acting out the story of the birth of Jesus. When the chaplain was asked why he kept the photograph on his desk, he said, “It reminds me of the awesome power of God to change us, to set us free, to give us new life.” (William WillimonPeople Don’t Change — Do They?”)

We proclaim that truth every Sunday. Sometimes you will believe it. Sometimes, you will be glad and you will worship Jesus and you will find your way into the new life he offers. Sometimes, you will hear the gospel and you will doubt it. You will say with Thomas, “Unless I can touch Jesus’ wounds, I won’t believe that a new beginning is possible.”

What do you do when you are in that space? You keep showing up, Sunday by Sunday. You “practice resurrection”. You practice resurrection until you experience resurrection in your life. You do the slow work of making a space where God can work: you tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” as best you can. You confess the trouble, the mess, the fears and the doubts. Then, you wait for the risen Christ to show up and say, “Peace be with you.”

That’s why we share the peace of Christ every week. We practise with our voices and with our bodies the peace that Christ gives. We practise living into what Jesus says is God’s own truth about our lives. We practise trusting that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is at work in our lives too, forgiving sin, making all things new. We practise until, one day, Jesus enters the locked doors of our spirits. Then, we know we are forgiven. We know we have received the underserved mercy and grace of God. You know God’s peace is setting is setting you free and you can begin again. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Corunna United Church on February 14, 2016.

 Scripture: Luke 4: 1-13

There is an ancient legend about John, Jesus’ disciple and the author of the gospel of John: When John was a very, very old man, he was carried into a gathering of the church for his final sermon. He said, “Little children, love one another.” Then, he said it again, “Little children, love one another.” He said it again . . . and again . . . and again. In fact, it was all he said. “Little children, love one another.”

Some people thought it was a shame that the silliness of a senile old man should be put on display in such a manner. But others understood: John’s sermon summed up a long life’s reflection on the core meaning of the gospel.

Jewish rabbis would sometimes test their students by asking them to summarize the Torah, the Law, in the time that they could stand on one foot. When religious scholars asked Jesus, “Which command in the Law is the most important of all?”, Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as you love yourself.”

Churches can spend a lot of time developing mission statements but we already have a mission. Jesus gives it to us. “Love God with everything you’ve got and everything you are. Love God with the fullness of your life and, with the fullness of your life, love your neighbour as yourself.”

What is your mission? Why are you here? You’re here learning how to let God’s great love for you fill your whole life. You are here to get better and better at letting God’s great love for you fill your life to overflowing until it flows out into the world and into your neighbourhoods. That’s the mission.

If you push people on that — if you say to them, “Tell me what that love looks like”, many people will say, “It looks like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” That’s good advice for living in Jesus’s Way. It is the gold standard for our relationships with each other. Jesus gave it to us early in Matthew’s gospel, in the Sermon on the Mount. He gave it along with the Beatitudes and other words of wisdom for his Way.

Later in his journey to Jerusalem, though, as he was on his way to the cross, Jesus bumped it up a notch. In fact, he bumped it up several notches. He pushed beyond the gold standard, the Golden Rule, and he gave us his platinum rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” became “A new commandment I give to you: that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13: 34) It is not enough just to love others as you yourself want to be loved, as challenging as that is. Jesus commands you to love one another as he has loved you. Jesus himself becomes the standard for our love.

Do you know how Jesus loves you? Jesus loves you with a glorious staggering love. Jesus loves you so deeply, so fully, that nothing in all creation could ever separate you from that great love. Nothing. Not the terrible suffering that life can throw at you. Not the wounds that scar you soul. Not the humiliating failures that haunt your sense of worth. Not the broken relationships that cripple your spirit. Nothing. Nothing in all creation could every come between you and the great love Jesus has for you. (Romans 8: 31-38)

Jesus’ love is a love that searches for you when you are lost and does not give up until he finds you. Jesus loves you with a love so fierce and strong that he would rather die than be without you. He will go to hell and back for you. Jesus loves you as you are and not as you should be because none of us is ever going to be as we should be. The essence of the Christian life is a love affair, allowing yourself to be the recipient of God’s great love.

Brennan Manning was a Catholic priest who said, “After thousands of hours spent in prayer and meditation, in silence and in solitude, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus will ask each of us one question and only one question: Did you believe that I loved you? that I desired you? that I longed to hear the sound of your voice?”

Do you believe that? do you trust it? Are you learning to trust it more and more deeply? more and more fully? with all that you are and all that you have?

None of us gets very far in this journey with Jesus before our trust in that love gets tested. The story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness comes right after the story of Jesus’ baptism. Jesus begins his public ministry by showing up at the River Jordan asking to be baptized by his cousin John. When Jesus is baptized, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him live a dove. A voice comes from heaven that says, “You are my Son, the Beloved — you are chosen and marked by my love, the pride of my life.”

That same Spirit, having conveyed God’s blessing and love to Jesus, then led him into the wilderness. For forty days and forty nights, that love was tested:

“You think you are loved by God? Let God prove it to you. You’re hungry — turn these stones into bread.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Use God’s love for you to get what you want, to make your dreams come true.”

“You think you’re loved by God? Make God prove it. Make God rescue you. Make God keep you safe from getting hurt.”

What is it that makes you doubt that God loves you?

Is it when you hear those old voices in your heart that tell you that you’re not good enough? that you have to earn God’s good opinion of you?

Is it when life throws you a curve ball and all your carefully made plans and hopes and dreams lie scattered at your feed and your prayers seems to rise no further than the ceiling?

Is it when you have been deeply wounded by someone you trusted and you’re not certain about anything anymore, much less God’s great love for you?

To be a follower of Jesus is to know that God loves you with fierce, unconditional, steadfast and faithful love. To be a follower of Jesus is to have your trust in that love tested over and over again. Journeying with Jesus into the heart of God’s love means that there will be times of wilderness testing. You will leave behind the safe and comfortable places. You will end up in a place where you are not in control. When that happens, the task before you is learning to trust more deeply in God’s great love for you. It is learning to trust more deeply that God is taking even your doubts and fears and feeble attempts to love others as Jesus has loved you and is gathering all of that into God’s own all-encompassing, redeeming, life-giving, creative love.

I don’t need to tell you that you folk are every blessed to have Blair as your minister. Last week I asked him, “What has been the theme of your ministry?” He replied, “God loves us passionately.” He tells you that over and over and over again. He tells you that over and over again because it is easy to forget; it is easy to doubt when so many voices in our culture tell you that you are on your own; that you have to hustle to be considered a success; that you have to earn God’s approval.

God loves you passionately. Nothing you could do could make God love you less. There is nothing you have to do to make God love you more.

God loves you passionately. Blair tells you that over and over again so that that deep truth lives deep within you. Trust God will all you have, with all your are, for that love is holding you fast and will never let you go.

This is a great mystery.

This is great grace.

Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Forest United Church, Ontario on April 30, 2017

Scripture:  Luke 24: 13 -35

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by a script, a story. That story tells the community what is important. It tells the people where they can find hope and purpose. It shapes the way its people act in the world.

The Church is a community that is gathered around the stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Actually, the Church tells four stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. They are all one story but each gospel tells it from its own perspective.

Mark’s gospel says that the resurrection happens as three women are going to a tomb, expecting to anoint a dead body. They are surprised by an angel who tells them that Jesus has been raised. The women flee from the tomb “and they said nothing to anyone for . .  .” That’s how Mark tells the story. When you are amazed, perplexed, and terrified, look around for signs that the God who raises the dead is at work.

Matthew says that Easter is a great earthquake. The crucified and risen Jesus invades your life in places that are dead or shut down. He breaks them open and destroys death’s hold. You are in a new world, a new creation filled with God’s grace. There is a risen Saviour on the loose. The Church has to stay on the move if it is going to catch up with him.

John says that Easter happens when the church is huddled in fear, trying to protect itself. The crucified, risen Jesus shows up and breathes new life into frightened disciples and gives them the power to offer a new beginning to others.

Luke says that Easter is an ordinary church service that gets taken over by a stranger and everything changes. The service begins the way our worship services begin: with ordinary people dealing with ordinary lives. They bring with them the tangled webs of their lives — all sorts of emotions and experiences.

There are the women who are struggling to deal with the death of someone they love. They do what they know how to do: they go to the tomb with spices to anoint a dead body. They are met by two messengers who tell them that Jesus has been raised. They, in turn, tell the men in their group. The men don’t believe them, although a couple of the men do go to the tomb to check things out for themselves.

There are two disciples who do not know what to make of all this. They start heading back to their ordinary lives in a small town called Emmaus. On the way, they talk through their broken dreams and shattered hopes together.

All of these people are a lot like us when we gather for worship. None of us has this ‘faith’ thing all figured out. When we show up here, some of us are perplexed; some are disbelieving and unconvinced; some of us are amazed at the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead and we want to talk with others about it.

All of us have lives that are not perfect. Indeed, many of us have lives that are a mess— a mixture of broken relationships, shattered dreams, and glimpses of glory and beauty and mystery. We bring all of that with us into worship.

In Luke’s church, you don’t check the mess at the door. You don’t have to pretend that you are doing better than you are. You bring it all with you. Somewhere along the Way, Jesus join us in the midst of the mess.

The chances are that we will not recognize that he is with us, at least not at first. The two disciples certainly did not. They thought he was just a stranger, walking the same road they were. Then, he invites them to tell the truth about their lives. In telling him the truth, they tell him about Jesus. Listen to their prayer of confession:

They say, “When Jesus was around, God was near.”

They say, “Our own leaders let us down. They handed him over to be killed.”

They say, “Now there are stories that he is alive. We are heartbroken. We are confused. We are wondering.”

Jesus takes their stories — all the broken pieces, the hurts, the losses, the hopes, the questions and assures them that God’s mercy and grace is already at work in their lives. He sets those pieces into God’s story, the story of God healing this broken world with self-giving love and amazing grace. As he does that, the disciples find their place in that great story.

That’s what we do every Sunday. We take this book of ancient stories. We set ourselves under them. We wrestle with them. We listen for a word from God in them. For a few minutes every Sunday we live in the strange new world that the Bible tells. We practice living in the country of God’s grace.

As you set yourself under these stories often enough, the stories begin to shape how you live in the world of your ordinary, every-day life. For instance, you are faced with an impossible situation and everybody else says, “We are a dead end. There is nothing to be done but to give up.” You begin to look for signs that God is at work with resurrecting power. You begin to look for the risen Christ to make a way where there is no way.

Or, you meet a stranger and the world says to you, “You better be on your guard. Perhaps she is dangerous. Perhaps he will hurt you.” However, you enter into relationship with him or her and you wonder, “Is she an angel in disguise? Is he a messenger from God with surprising news that will bless my life in unexpected ways?”

You may be struggling to find your way forward and you go for a walk by the lake. When you see the water you remember, “I am a baptized person. I have been claimed as a beloved child of the One who went to hell and back so that I may know that nothing in life or death, in sickness or in health, nothing in all creation can ever come between me and the love of God made visible in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

These stories tell us where to find hope. They tell us where to find courage. They tell us where to find strength for the day. One of the great blessings of being part of the Church is helping people wrestle with these stories. It is a gift to help them get these stories into their hearts and minds, so that they see the world from inside the Story of God’s action in the world.

You need the stories we tell here so that you can face all that life will bring you. When the bully in the workplace tries to intimidate you, you will face the situation differently when you know the story of David and Goliath; when you know that David found courage to face Goliath because trusted that God was with him. God had been preparing him for this moment and had given him the gifts and skills he needed through long, lonely nights of watching sheep and protecting them from lions. God is with you too, giving you what you need to face the giants that threaten you.

Or, when you are asked to do something that compromises what you know to be good and true and right, you face the situation differently when you have wrestled with the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. You remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, figuring out how to live faithfully even while they worked in the Babylonian civil service. Have that story in your heart and you find the courage to live authentically, faithfully even in very ambiguous situations.

You need to know the twenty-third Psalm deep in your bones so that when life takes you through deep valleys, you cling to the promise, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.” You hold on knowing that the Good Shepherd will leave 99 sheep in the sheepfold in order to go looking for the one that is lost and won’t give up until the lost is found. That story becomes the rock where you find refuge and hope and a reason to keep living.

Everybody lives their life by some script. Every community is shaped by some story. Our story is the story of a living God who loves us with death-defying love. Our story is the story of a crucified and risen Saviour who takes and blesses and gives the broken pieces of our lives so that we become instruments of God’s grace and love and hope and peace. Our story is the story of the Holy Spirit who adopts us into a community of faith and then sends us into the world to tell the story of God’s healing, reconciling, redeeming work in ordinary lives.

Easter is formed among the people who worship this God. The risen Christ shows up and gives you hope and purpose and courage. Praise be to the One who meets us on the Way and leads us to new and joy.

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“Thirsty Souls”

A sermon based on Exodus 17: 1-7

In a number of different contexts, I have been encouraging people to practice an ancient Christian tradition: lectio divina, or ‘holy reading’.

You take a passage of scripture and work through four steps with it. Here’s how I have described the steps:

Lectio Divina

Lectio Divina is a slow, contemplative praying of the scriptures. It helps us to listen deeply for God in the scriptures and engages us in conversation with the living God.

LectioRead the scripture passage  (or a portion of it, if it is long) slowly, preferably out loud. Do this several times (at least three times).  Pay attention to the words or phrases or images that speak to you.  Some unexpected word or phrase may emerge as you repeatedly read the passage.

MeditatioMeditate on the word or phrase that has drawn your attention as you read through the passage in the lectio stage. What thoughts, hopes, memories, desires, concerns, ideas come to mind?

OratioPray the word(s) or phrase(s) that you have been meditating on. Enter into an unhurried, loving conversation with God.  Interact with God as you would with one whom you know loves and accepts you. Offer to God the experiences that emerged in your meditation. Let the words or phrases from the scripture text speak to those experiences, with God’s healing grace.

ContemplatioRest in God’s presence, allowing yourself to receive God’s transforming love.

For many people, this is a different way of engaging the scriptures. As with any new skill or habit, people can feel uncomfortable with it. They tend to say, “I don’t get it”, or “I am not getting anything out of it”. When someone is learning to play the piano, it takes some time before they actually ‘hear the music’. When someone is first training to run in a long distance race, it takes some time before they find the rhythm. You learn to dance, to paint, to play baseball by making your way through a time period when you feel awkward.

Generally, we have been used to reading a passage of scripture in order to understand it. You ask, “What does this tell me about God or about Jesus or about how I should live the Christian life?” Some people get more serious about studying the Bible and seek to understand the historical background of a passage. What was the culture like when the story was happening? What did the words mean originally?

Other people, using the scriptures in their daily devotions, may approach a passage asking, “What does this tell me about prayer? about how I should treat my neighbour?” They stand back from the passage and figure out how it applies to their lives.

Many people have found these approaches helpful. However, a lot of people could not see how the Bible applied to their lives. There were some passages they just could not understand, no matter how much background information they got. Eventually, they gave up reading the Bible altogether.

Lectio divina does not invite you to understand the Bible. It invites you to stand under it. It says, “Do not step back from the scripture; step into it.” In lectio divina, you do not go to the scriptures to find out about God. You got to the scripture to encounter the living God, who is waiting to meet you there.

I encourage people to develop this practice because I am convinced that people do not first of all need to know more about God. They need first and foremost to know God. Years ago, I was at a workshop where the instructor asked someone, “Do you know the Shepherd’s Psalm?” The participant answered, “Yes, and I know the Shepherd too.”

We have thirsty souls: souls that are parched for the living God. Do you know what a thirsty soul feels like? When our throats are thirsty, they are dry and scratchy. When a soul is thirsty, it can feel like that deep yearning that hovers in the backgrIMG_3676ound of a busy life: a yearning that, when you stop long enough to attend to it asks, “Is this all there is?”

A thirsty soul can feel like a deep loneliness that does not go away, even when you have lots of family and friends.

In today’s Bible story, thirsty souls showed up in the midst of a crisis about having no water in a desert. The people were afraid and angry and feeling powerless. They turned on Moses because they needed someone to blame.

They turned to Moses, because that’s what we often do with our thirsty souls. We look for someone or something to fill the emptiness or to stop the loneliness. We think that it is someone or something that we are yearning for.

One of the elemental lessons to learn in your spiritual journey is that your deepest yearning, your deepest thirst is for the living God.

Somehow Moses knew that. When the people started complaining to him, he knew that he could not give them what they wanted. he know that only God could do that. So, he turned to god. He prayed a direct, honest prayer. He does not begin with polite or vaguely religious words. He launches into prayer: “What can I do with these people? Any minute now, they are going to kill me!” In other words, “This is your problem, God! Do something!”

Sometimes our prayers don’t go very deep because we are too polite with God. We only bring the surface stuff into our conversation with God — the places where we are still in control; the places where we still retain the illusion that we are in control. It is harder to trust God with the ugly parts of our life, with the broken places in our souls.

Even after God provides water for the people, Moses call the location “the place of quarrelling; the place of complaint”. This, too, is part of the journey. There will be places and times when our thirsty souls cry out, quarrelling with others, complaining about what we do not have. This story signals that even our quarrelling and complaining are invitations to encounter God. Even our brokenness and yearning and emptiness are invitations to place our whole lives in God’s hands.

Interestingly, when God answered Moses’ prayer, God provided water but, more importantly, God provides God’s own presence: “Go to the rock that you will strike with a rock and water will come out AND I will be standing there in front of you.”

God is not just ‘there’ to meet your needs and to answer your prayers. God is standing there in front of you, longing to enter into relationship with you; yearning to be in communion with you. In every part of your life, God is reaching out to be with you and to share God’s great love and grace and transforming power with you.

Do you believe that?

Brennan Manning was an author and public speaker who, often, would invite people to trust that deep love of God and to enter into it. In one talk, he says, “In the forty-eight years since I was first ambushed by Jesus in a little chapel in the Allegheny Mountains in western Pennsylvania, and then, in the literally thousands of hours of prayer and meditation, silence and solitude over those years, I am now utterly convinced that on judgement day, the Lord Jesus is going to ask us one and only one question: “Did you believe that I loved you, that I desired you; that I waited for you day after day; that is desired to hear your voice?”  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQi_IDV2bgM)

Do you believe that? That is what your soul is thirsty for. Jesus offers you himself — living water to quench your thirst. That is the invitation the lectio divina offers: an invitation into the heart of God’s love and God’s great longing for you.

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Faith enough

A reflection on Luke 17: 1-10 and 2 Timothy 1: 1-14

When the apostle Paul wrote to the young recruit, Timothy, he said, “Join me in suffering for the gospel . . . we’ll only be able to keep going by relying on the power of God, who first saved us and then called us to this holy work.”

You’ve got to wonder: is that any way to grow the church? Is that any way to inspire young people to sign on? “Come and join me in suffering for the gospel.” Yet, it speaks to the deep longing to give our lives to something that matters.

God is alive and active in the world, transforming it by healing brokenness, confronting evil, creating communities where love and forgiveness shape who they are. Given the nature of the work, there will be resistance, confrontations, rejection, suffering.

When the disciples caught a glimpse of what Jesus was asking of them, they realized that they were out of their depth. Overwhelmed, they cried out, “Increase our faith!” Jesus says, “It’s now about how much faith you have. If you have faith as small as a grain of mustard seed, you would be able to say to this mulberry tree,’Go jump in the lake’ and it would do it.”

How many mulberry trees have you transplanted lately? We can’t even convince our children to join us in worship on Sunday morning! All it would take is faith the size of a mustard seed?

We have our doubts; we feel inadequate; our failures loom large in front of us. Somewhere in his writings, Eugene Peterson says that the predominant characteristic of people in churches these days is feeling inadequate. Each of us looks around the sanctuary, sees the other people sitting there and is convinced that everybody else is more sure about their faith than we are. They are more confident; more committed; more settled.

Yet, our doubts, our feelings of inadequacy, our failures don’t seem to disqualify us in Jesus’ eyes. He recruits us for his mission anyway. “Just do it,” he says, long before the Nike shoe company adopted the slogan. “Just do it, the way servants just do the jobs they are given to do. Do what God gives you to do. Go into your workplace and speak the truth and act with integrity. Refuse to participate in the gossip. Create a home for your family. Pray for someone you care about and then pray for your enemies. Do your ordinary, everyday tasks and offer them up to God.”

Faith is not the opposite of doubt. It is not as if you have to have all your questions answered, all your uncertainties settled and then you can say, “Okay, now I have faith.” Faith is about venturing forward into God’s project, God’s transforming work, bringing your doubts and your feelings of inadequacy with you, and then seeing what God will make of what you offer.

It is not an easy time to be a disciple of Jesus. The truth is that nobody has enough faith for the challenges that face us. If you are not failing at least some of the time, if you are not being driven to your knees by the challenges you face, if you are not crying out, ‘Lord, increase my faith’, then you have probably settled for too little.

We serve a living God who is intent on nothing less than the transformation of the world. God is healing our brokenness. God is making a new creation where the lost and the lonely are fathered into a feast of love and a banquet of joy. Jesus invites you to join up, doubts, failures, inadequacies, uncertainties and all. He takes what you offer to him; blesses you; breaks your life open; pours his life into your life and offers you to the world. By the power of God’s grace, you become channels of Christ’s grace, instruments of the Holy Spirit’s peace, signs of hope for the neighbourhood and the world. Apparently you don’t need a lot of faith for that to happen. You just have to be willing to do what God asks you to do. The rest depends on the goodness and grace and mercy of God. Thanks be to God.

 

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