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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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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on August 11, 2013.

Scriptures: Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16 , Luke 12: 32 -40

The letter to the Hebrews is written to a church community that is in trouble. To be fair, most of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches that are in trouble; churches that are barely holding on.

There are no perfect churches. There are no churches that ‘have it all together’, where there are no problems. There are only groups of ordinary people who have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit. They find themselves on a journey with Jesus and most of the time they are not sure where they are going. Much of the time they are pretty sure that this journey is going to take a lot of faith — more faith than they can muster on their own.

“Faith,” says the letter to the Hebrews, ‘Is the assurance of things hoped for; faith is the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) In case that’s too vague, it goes on to say that faith is Noah building a boat to save his family from a flood even though there isn’t a cloud in the sky and all he has to go on is a word from God telling him he needed to do so.

Faith is Abraham at 70 years of age hearing God tell him to pack up his belongings and head out on a journey even though he didn’t know where he was going.

Faith, says Jesus, is being dressed, ready for God to show up at any time, surprising you with what he wants you to do. Faith is being open to receive God’s creativity into your life even when it comes in unexpected ways (Luke 12: 35 – 36).

People often talk about faith as if it were something they were trying to wrap their mind around: “I gave up faith when I studied science at university. Now I can’t believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection from the dead on Jesus walking on water.”  They think people who still have faith are like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland. “One can’t believe impossible things,” said Alice. The Queen replies, “I dare say you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes, I believed as many as 6 impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking Glass, chapter 5, Lewis Carroll)

Some people pit faith against doubt and thing that they have to wrestle their doubts to the ground before they can have faith. That’s not what the Bible does. In the Bible, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. The opposite of faith is fear. The opposite of faith is being afraid of what life might bring you; being afraid of what God might ask of you.

The really critical question of your life is not, “Can you believe?” The really critical question is, “Will you trust? Will you trust God with your life?”

Have you noticed how often the Bible says, “Don’t be afraid?”

“Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people,” say the angels to the shepherds as they announce Jesus’ birth (Luke 2: 10 ).

“Don’t be afraid”, says Jesus, ‘It is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  (Luke 12:32)
“Don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.  (Luke 12:7)

“Don’t be afraid,” say the angel to the women at the empty tomb. “the one whom the world crucified has been raised by the power of God.” (Matthew 28:5)
“Don’t be afraid,” says the risen Christ to the his disciples before he sends them out to be in witnesses in the world.

“Don’t be afraid”.

God promises joy and peace and steadfast love and faithfulness.
God promises to lead you home and to a place of rest and to a city where love rules and life flows to all people and you shall see God face to face.
God promises that nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from his love.
God promises that God will never leave you or forsake you.

However, the truth is that, for much of the journey, we travel by faith and not by sight. We hold only promises that are about things that are not clearly evident. Partly that is because we are dealing with great mysteries — large realities that cannot be seen and touched and measured. Partly it is because God’s ways are not our ways and some of God’s ways confront us with difficult and painful truths. They disrupt the plans we had for our lives.

Jesus said, “God can be like a thief in the night. (Luke 12: 39 -40) It is not a particularly flattering picture of God, but that is what faith can feel like sometimes. In order to follow Jesus, you have to leave somethings behind. Sometimes, what you have to leave behind is the safety of the careful plans you had made for yourself.

Some people find faith hard because, at some level, they know it is risky. They have been wounded in the past, or they are afraid of being wounded. They decide it is safer not to trust anyone, not even God, especially a God they cannot control; especially a God who often works in hidden ways; especially a God who might take you on a journey and you will have no idea where you are going. They choose not to venture any further into faith.

You can do it: you can life you life operating more out of fear than out of faith. But know this: fear will make your life small. Fear can take over and paralyze you. It will keep you from opening your heart to others. it will keep you from opening your life to God’s grace. Invite it into you heart and it will threaten your soul and control what you do. Fear steals the kingdom from you — the reign of blessing and love that God wants to give to you.

Somebody said, “Faith does not mean that you have no fear. Faith gives you the courage to walk through the fear.” (Joanna Adams,   “Faith and Fear”, Journal for Preachers 19 no 4 Pentecost 1996, p. 25-29)

Faith is trusting God to walk with you through your fear and to get you home.

There was an evening when Jesus gathered his disciples together in the upper room of a friend’s house. He knew that they were about to head into an unknown future full of danger and fear. He said to them, “Don’t be afraid. In my Father’s house there are many rooms and I am going to prepare a place for you. You know the way to where I am going. “ One of his disciples said, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”   Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life.”  (John 14: 1-6)

Stanley Jones was, for many years, a missionary in Africa. He loved to tell the story of the time he got lost in the jungle. He wandered around for a while and did not see any familiar landmarks. At last he came upon a small settlement of huts. He asked if someone could show him the way home. “Follow me,” one of the villagers said and set off. As he hacked their way through the jungle, Jones became worried. They didn’t seem to be on any path. “Are you sure this is the way?” he asked. “Where is the path?”  The man turned around and said, “Bwana, in this place there is no path. I am the path.”  (“Proclaiming the Gospel on Mars Hill,” Michael Rogness, Word and World, June 1, 2007, p. 275)

There are no perfect churches. There are only communities of people who have been gathered together by the Holy Spirit who find themselves on a journey with Jesus toward God’s reign of love. Most of the time, you are not sure where you are going. Much of the time you are pretty sure the journey is going to take a lot more faith than you have on your own.

“Don’t be afraid,” says Jesus. “I am the Way. I am the Truth. I am the Life. I will lead you home.”

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Although it is well past Easter, I’m just getting around to typing this sermon up (yes, I still write my sermons out by hand). Many thanks to Craig Barnes and Ed Searcy for their reflections that proved so helpful.

Gathered in Christ

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on April 8, 2012

Scriptures: Romans 5: 1-11
John 21: 1-14

Easter happens after a long, frustrating night of fishing and no fish are caught. Easter happens after failures and futility and coming up empty. At least, says the gospel writer John, that’s how it happened for Simon Peter.

Three years earlier, Simon had been a fisherman with his brother and his father on the Sea of Galilee. Then, Jesus showed up on the shore and said, “Come, follow me. I’ll teach you to fish for people.” Simon left the life he knew and started following Jesus and was renamed Peter. Then, Jesus was crucified and everything Simon Peter was living for was gone. His life was broken by cruelty. His hope was crushed by cowardice. Everything that held his world together was lost. His dreams and his hopes abandoned him. He was confused; uncertain as to how to move forward.

Craig Barnes has written that that describes the dominant experience of our time: confusion, loss, a sense of being abandoned. One age is dying. A new age is still struggling to be born. Nothing is nailed down anymore. We grow certain about less and less. How do you find your way forward when you are in the midst of that? Where do you find hope for living?

Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” He wanted his old life back. He wanted things to go back to ‘normal’. However, he discovered that there was no ‘normal’ to go back to. His old life was no longer ‘there’ to go back to. He spent the whole night fishing but caught nothing.

Have you ever been there? If you have not, someone you love has. It is a hard place to be. It is hard to be in that space where life as you know it is over but the new life, the new day, has not yet arrived. We have a name for it in the church: Holy Saturday.

Ed Searcy is a minister at University Hill United Church in Vancouver, B.C. He often reminds his congregation that Easter weekend is the heart of our life as Christ’s people. Three days — Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday — shape our life together. Those three days shape your life as a follower of Jesus. Those three days point you to the work of God in your life.

Good Friday is the day of loss and grief. It is the day when life as you know it ends. A job is lost. You become ill or disabled. Someone you love dies. Friends desert or betray you. Then, life takes you where you do not want to go.

We never get much of a crowd out at Good Friday services. This year, three congregations worshiped together and there were still plenty of empty pews. Who can blame people, though? Who wants to face the loss and the sorrow and the grief that comes into our lives? Most people would rather go fishing or golfing or cruising — anything but enter into that difficult time.

Nevertheless, this is where the gospel begins: on Good Friday. The gospel begins with Jesus not abandoning you when you feel most abandoned, but entering into your suffering; walking with you in it. Even when the path you walk takes you through the valley of the shadow of death, he walks with you.

Holy Saturday is that time between Jesus’ death and resurrection. It looks like nothing is happening. It can feel as if your life is stalled. You cannot go back to your old life but you are not able to move forward either. There is nothing you can do to fix what has gone wrong. You cannot find a solution no matter how hard you work at it. Whatever God is up to in your life, you cannot see it. Mostly it feels like God is absent, missing, unable to move against the chaos and the darkness. Holy Saturday is a time of waiting: you want to do something but every way forward is blocked.

Not until Easter arrives do you realize that God has been at work in ways beyond your comprehending. On Easter morning, as morning is now “coming to be”, as John puts it, the risen Christ shows up. He usually shows up unexpectedly. If this morning’s story is any indication, you won’t recognize him at first. He does not swoop in like a hero to rescue you. He doesn’t solve your problems for you. He does not fix whatever is wrong. Instead, he provides you with what you need to get through such a time.

“You haven’t caught anything, have you?” he asks. “Try fishing on the other side.” Jesus invites you to enter into a new life, a different way of being. When you listen and do as he says, you discover that the new life which is given is given lavishly, abundantly.  It is full of the presence of God.

Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday: this is the shape of your life with God. This is the bedrock truth of your life, even though your experience of God may be different as your life changes: No experience you have can take you beyond God’s reach. God loves you too much to abandon you any day of your life.

At University Hill congregation, the people ask each other, “How is the gospel with you? Are you living in Friday or Saturday or Sunday today?” God is up to something in your life. The question helps you recognize it and trust it and live into it.

The challenge comes when you find you’re spending most of your time in Good Friday and Holy Saturday instead of Easter Sunday. You can believe that God is at work; you can believe that God has a good purpose for your life. At least, you can want to believe that that is true, but that is not the way the human spirit works.  When you go through long periods of experiencing God’s absence and hiddenness, you can have doubts and questions that will not go away. It gets hard to hold onto faith; to keep believing.

That is why Jesus doesn’t just tell us about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Jesus offers a meal. Over and over again in the scriptures, he gathers the people together. He takes bread and blesses it. He breaks the bread and gives it to them. Then, he takes the cup and blesses it and gives it to them, saying, “This is my life poured out for you.”

We are used to hearing those words when we remember the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples. However, if you look at the other meals that Jesus shared with people, those same actions are repeated over and over and over. Jesus take, blesses, breaks, gives. Take, bless, break, give. Ed Searcy says that it’s like a figure skater, practising her figures over and over and over until they become part of her muscle memory. She doesn’t have to think all the time about every little move. The body remembers, making the moves even when the mind cannot. It’s like a musician, practising scales and chords and arpeggios over and over and over until they become part of his muscle memory. The music can be played long after the mind cannot concentrate.

Take, bless, break, give.

Take, bless, break, give.

That is what God is up to every day of your living. God is taking what you have and even, even those parts of your life that seem wasted, useless, and too full of failure or compromise or grief to be of any use anywhere. The Holy Spirit takes all that intoa Christ’s suffering love, blesses it, and offers God’s presence within it. God breaks it open and works within it, changing and transforming it so that it becomes something new. It becomes a gift given to you and to the world. It becomes food for the journey. It becomes a way of serving others.

Take. Bless. Break. Give. Those are the figures we practices as Christians, over and over and over again. We practice so that, when life takes you to Good Friday or Holy Saturday, you will know deep in your soul’s muscle memory, that God is at work. God is taking your life and working a blessing into it. God is breaking your future open so you can be given a new life, full of resurrection.

Easter happens. After long nights of frustration and futility, despair and discouragement, ‘as the morning is coming to be’, Jesus stands on the shore, calling you into a new life, a resurrection life, a life full of the gifts and grace of God. He was there all along, making a new beginning. Now you get to enter into it. Thanks be to God.

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A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on November 20, 2011. (Reign of Christ Sunday)

Scriptures:  Isaiah 9: 1-9;  Psalm 23;  Mark 1: 14-20

Who is imagining your life for you?  (from an article by Michael Paul Gallagher,  Anchors in an Ocean of Change)

One of the highest values of our culture is that we should be imagining our own lives. We should be the ones choosing our lives. We become what we choose.

This past week the Royal Society of Canada said that assisted suicide and euthanasia should be legal in Canada: people should have a choice about when they die and how they die. Their recommendations will resonate with many people because for decades now our culture has been vigorously nurturing the notion that choice is the highest virtue.

Some of you will remember when ‘duty’ was the highest virtue. If you did your duty, the world would progress to become a better place. ‘Duty’ now has been replaced by ‘choice’. “You can be anything you choose to be”, we tell our children. Now, the millenials — the group of young people between the ages of 13 and 29 — are what someone called ‘the Choice Generation’. They have been part of family decisions since about the age of 4. They are characterized by their “unrelenting demand for choice in every aspect of their lives.”

There is, of course, every chance that we are fooling ourselves — that we are not really the masters of our choices that we think we are. Many of the choices we make have already been chosen for us by marketing companies. They want to imagine our lives for us. They spend billions of dollars and enormous amounts of energy shaping our desires and our fears, our hopes and our dreams. They want to ensure that the choices we make are the choices they want us to make. And they are experts at making us imagine that we our making our own choices about the things we choose.

I remember hearing years ago about a government official from the Soviet Union who was visiting North America. He wasn’t here too many days before he turned to his host and said, “Everybody looks the same. How did you do that?”

We may not be as in control of our choices as we think we are. Even the notion that ‘personal choice’ is the highest virtue was chosen for us. We were trained to think that way. It makes us very good consumers.

As we enter more and more deeply into that season of the year when the marketing companies are moving into high gear, it is helpful for followers of Jesus to take time to take stock: “Who is imagining our lives for us?” Are the images they offer us helping us to become more deeply human — sensitive and compassionate to others? Are they nurturing in us moral courage?  extravagant hope? Do they inspire our imaginations so that we live creatively? Are they shaping our desires so that we are being set free from ego and pride? Are we being set free to love in more radical and risky ways?

Someone once described Jesus Christ as “the Lord of the imagination”. He came to subvert all unworthy images we might have for our lives. In his words and in his actions, he coaxes us out of narrowness and fear — anything that leaves our lives small and pre-occupied with trivial matters. He awakens us to new possibilities for our lives. By his stories and his actions, he pulls us into the great, expansive imagination that God has for our world. He nurtures us toward goodness and holiness and beauty and truth.

To follow Jesus is to enter into his imagining of the way the the world is meant to be.

Have you ever been in an Eastern Orthodox church? How did you feel? Did you feel like you were entering into a very strange world? — a world very different from the one just outside the doors through which you entered?  Orthodox churches are intended to help you see the world that surrounds us all the time   but a world that usually remains invisible to us. It hovers just beneath our consciousness. The walls are filled with icons — stylized art that is meant to be a window into the spiritual world. The icons at eye level depict saints of the church throughout the ages. As your eyes travel upwards, you see the apostles and first disciples of Jesus — Mary, Peter, John, Paul.  At the highest level — often in a great dome at the centre of the ceiling, there is an icon of Jesus, Christus Pantocrator — Jesus, ruler of all, Lord of history, ruler of the nations.

There is lots of gold everywhere. The gold is trying to help us imagine the splendour of the God’s glory. The beauty of the light of Christ that shines in our world.

You enter this space and you smell incense — a reminder of the prayers of God’s people. Both the prayers of the congregation that are said every Sunday, but also the prayers of the saints being continually offered to God who rules over all.

In a book called “The Russian Primary Chronicle”, there is a story about Vladimir, a prince of Kiev in the tenth century. He was not a Christian. He was what we today would call a seeker. He sent envoys to various countries to discover the true religion. One day his envoys entered the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul). They reported back to Vladimir, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or one earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere on earth. We cannot describe it to you. Only this we know, that God wells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

There is a saying that, “We shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.” Orthodox churches are decorated so that the beauty and splendour of the building will shape the lives of the people who worship there: shaping what they see, what they value, what they value, what they hope for.

If you come into a sanctuary week after week whose exquisite beauty points you to the glory of God, your eyes and spirits are being trained to look for that glory out in the world. You learn to recognize it as you go about shopping and working and sitting in the doctor’s office. More than that, you become discontented with anything that mars or disfigures the beauty that God intends for all creation and are moved to change it.

If you come into a sanctuary week after week, aware that you are surrounded by saints through the ages who even now watch over us, joining our prayers with theirs, it becomes more possible to live your life with courage and in truth. You go out into the week, facing the challenges you face, knowing that you are not facing them alone. The saints of the church have journeyed through such discouragements before — some even greater than our own– and they are whispering to us, “Courage, courage”. Their words keep pulling you towards the finish line where you will see how your little story has been part of the great drama of salvation and reconciliation and peace that God is writing.

If Sunday by Sunday, you see an image of the crucified but risen Christ presiding of all things, making the sign of blessing over your life, you are being trained to go into the world aware that Christ really is Lord. In spite of all the darkness that can cover the earth, the great light of Christ is shining.

We are part of a tradition that has emphasized the word more than images. But those words invite us into an alternative imagination for our lives. We don’t put an icon of Christus Pantocrator at the highest spot of our sanctuary; we tell stories that shape a world for us. We hear Isaiah tell us that the world is presided over by one whose name is Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. We hear Isaiah promise us that, in spite of all the precious things that are ending, God is at work, bringing unexpected newness.  That newness is small and fragile as a child is small and fragile, but the authority of Mighty God, Lord of the cosmos, rests upon the newness. It will grow because God is determined to move his beloved creation towards goodness and truth. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s promise that nothing in all creation can ultimately defeat God’s purposes. In all the moments of our lives, Christ is offering the blessings of God’s redeeming grace. In every situation, we can be on the lookout for the blessings that Christ is inviting us to receive.

The most elemental confession of the Christian Church is “Jesus is Lord”. We don’t have to be jerked around by every television commercial.

Jesus is Lord. Christ defines your life and he defines you as a beloved child of a good and loving Father.

Jesus is Lord.  All the structures and systems of this world are not. We do not have to settle for a world of violence and injustice. God’s Spirit is on the move and we can be part of the new creation.

Jesus is Lord. What ultimately shapes your life is not your choices. As important as they are, what ultimately shapes your life is God’s choice of you. In Christ, God chooses you to receive love and grace, forgiveness and the possibility of beginning anew. God is Christ chooses you and he longs for you to choose Christ.

Allow that word to dwell richly in you. Let it shape your imagination and it will transform your life in good and compassionate and holy ways. And you will live to the glory and praise of God.

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“Carrying the Gospel”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia, Ontario on December 26, 2010.

Scriptures: Matthew 2: 13-23

Over the past few months, the website Wikileaks has made headline news as they began publishing on the internet some of the 250,000 secret U.S. diplomatic cables that they have in their possession. On December 6, 2010, Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, was arrested in England on a charge of sexual assault by the government of Sweden. Assange claims that he is innocent. The charges, he says are trumped up. They are a vendetta of the U.S. government, trying to silence him. They are trying to punish him for embarrassing them. He claims that he had expected all along that something like this would happen. Those who hold power will defend it fiercely when they are afraid that their privilege is threatened. “The Empire always strikes back”.

Matthew tells the story of Jesus as a clash between two claims to power. Christ’s kingdom of love and mercy and grace stares down one of the most powerful forces in the world — the army of the Roman Empire. The Prince of Peace takes on the Pax Romana — the Roman peace enforced with great brutality and violence. It would seem to be an uneven contest.

Herod was the public face of the Roman Empire in Palestine where Jesus was born. Rome needed someone out on the fringes of the empire to keep order and to enforce the Roman peace. Herod was their man. He knew how to work the system and how to make the system work. He was a builder — keeping the construction industry busy building large, impressive, public buildings — palaces, theatres, stadia. He was also cruel and paranoid. He had his favourite wife killed when he suspected that she had been unfaithful to him. He had three of his sons murdered when the thought that they might be trying to stage a coup.

Then some foreign scholars showed up, asking dangerous questions: “Where is the child who is born to be King of the Jews?” “King of the Jews” was Herod’s title. It had been given to him by Rome. He had no intention of giving it away to some baby. “We’ve come to worship him,” they said. However, it was Herod’s job to make sure that the people pledged their allegiance to Rome and to worship the Roman emperor. Hearing such threats to his power, Herod’s paranoia kicked into high gear. He summoned the religious leaders of the city. Convincing them that national security was at risk, he persuaded them to do whatever they could in assisting the intelligence services in finding the child. He tried to recruit the foreigners to act as spies and collaborators as well. However, when they disappeared under the radar, Herod had every child in the region under the age of two slaughtered. Then, once again, the wounded cry of grieving mothers filled the air.

We are a long way from the soft glow of candlelight on Christmas Eve. This is a hard to story to tell. It is a hard story to tell on the day after Christmas; yet, from very early on, it is the story the Church has told and sung soon after the nativity, when the Church tells the story of God’s entry onto this planet. It is the kind of story Christian communities tell when they are hanging on by their fingertips. The names change; the players change; but this is where the gospel is born.

Much of human life is surrounded by powerful forces that threaten human creativity and freedom. We give those forces names like terrorism, climate change, global pandemics, corporate greed, political corruption. When those threats grab the headlines, they can also fill our imaginations. Then, they rob people of energy; they destroy hope for the future. Any faith worth having is a faith that can makes its way in the midst of such troubles.

Matthew does not hesitate to name the evil that is in the world. “Herod,” he says. Four times he says it in the short passage we read this morning. Herod. Herod. Herod. And, after Herod died, his son Archelaus took his place. He was no better than his father. Yet, says Matthew, as powerful as Herod seems, there is another player at work who is more powerful still.

Herod has all the resources of the Roman Empire at his disposal, but he cannot control the scholars from the East. They bring news from outside the system. This is news that should have been kept secret. It should have been classified as a danger to national security, but it was not long before all of Jerusalem was buzzing with it. Angels, messengers from God, are afoot, undermining Herod’s carefully cultivated control.

It is much like C.S. Lewis’ story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the beginning of the story, Narnia is ruled by the white witch. She makes it always winter but never Christmas. If any creature steps out of line, she turns it to stone. Then, rumours begin: Aslan has arrived in Narnia. Nobody has actually seen Aslan yet. It is still very much winter and there is no sign of Christmas but the whispered rumours spark hope. They spark hope, at least, among the creatures who have not given up or given in to the white witch’s power.

Matthew writes to struggling churches and say, “Herod is powerful and dangerous, but he is not God.” At the edges of his power, a very different future is coming to birth. This future, God’s salvation, is being sheltered, protected, carried by angels who speak into people’s dreams. This future is being protected and carried by Joseph who is open to alternate voices. He pays attention to them and dares to follow where they lead.

It does not seem like much, does it? All the power of the empire is pitted against an old carpenter from a small town in Galilee. Yet, this is how our God works. God works on the margins, behind the scenes, among small gatherings of faithful folk who are willing to listen to the word from God and to follow it into a new and different future.

We do not know much about Joseph. The few times we do encounter him in Matthew, he has a dream in which a messenger from God sends his life in a very different direction from what he had planned. He follows the word, even when it seems crazy to do so. By doing that, he ends up carrying the salvation of the world in the midst of powerful forces that try to destroy it.

There was a time within the memory of most of us here when, to be a Christian, was to have special access in the corridors of power of the nation. To be a Christian was to have a predominant say in shaping the values of the culture. That is not the case anymore. We now carry the gospel in the midst of powerful forces that threaten it.

It is not just the viability of our congregations that is threatened (although that is also true). It is that the way of life which Jesus forms in those who follow him is rapidly disappearing. It is increasingly rare to find people who are committed to living in truth. It is increasingly rare to find people whose imaginations are nurtured by the biblical hope that comes form a God who makes new beginnings where none seem possible. More and more people are willing to trade their freedom for the sake of comfort and security. So few people know how to shape their relationships by God’s grace and mercy and forgiveness instead of by selfishness and greed. All those practices and habits are basic building blocks in creating communities where all people can thrive. That is what is threatened in a culture where Herod dominates.

Like Joseph, we are summoned to carry this precious, fragile treasure that comes to us in Jesus Christ. It will mean travelling down paths we would not have chosen on our own. However, we have been warned: we cannot stay where we are. We cannot stay the way we are.

It is easy to feel helpless against the challenges that face us. We may wonder if what we are doing is making any difference at all. So, we gather on the day after Christmas and tell again the story of our God who works through a poor family on the edge of empire to bring salvation into the world.

It does not sound like a revolutionary or powerful strategy; except, over 2000 years later, Herod is a minor footnote in a few history books. The story of Mary and Joseph and the child named “Save” is shaping human communities around the world. Among Napoleon Bonaparte’s last words are these: “Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I founded empires; but on what foundation do we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded an empire upon love and, at this hour, millions of people would die for him.”

Our God’s power resides in the mystery of grace and truth and hope. It is carried down through the ages in the ordinary lives of people who are willing to hear and to receive and to obey that Word. Thanks be to God.

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“Living Well”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church on November 21, 2010 (Reign of Christ Sunday).

Scriptures: Colosssians 1: 11-20

What do the following hymns have in common?

Blessed Assurance, Jesus is Mine
To God be the Glory
All the Way My Saviour Leads Me
Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross
Pass me not, O Gentle Saviour

All these songs were written by Fanny Crosby (1820 -1915). She wrote eight to nine thousand hymns over her lifetime. She spent much of her life serving those who were poor and needy, often using the money she had earned from her hymns to support her work with the poor. As if those two things are not remarkable enough, she did all that while she was blind.

She had not been born blind. When she was six weeks old, an incompetent doctor treated her for an eye infection and left her without sight. When, later in her life, she wrote about being blind, she thanked God for it: “The first face ever to gladden my sight will be when I get to heaven and behold the face of One who died for me . . . I truly believe God intended that I should live my days in physical darkness so that I might be better prepared to sing His praise and lead others from spiritual darkness into eternal light. With sight, I would have been too distracted to have written thousands of hymns.” Later she wrote, “Blindness cannot keep the sunlight of hope from the truthful soul.”

Fanny’s life could not have been easy, but her hymns convey great confidence and faith in God. They witness to strength that holds even in the face of difficulties. When the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in Colossae, he was trying to draw them into that same strong confidence: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power”.

The Christians in Colossae had lots of options open to them when it came to spirituality. Theirs was a city where there was a multitude of cultures of religions telling people what they needed in order to live the good life. Yet, for all the options open to them, it seems that they were not living better lives. They were feeling pressured. They were confused as to how to sort through the conflicting demands on their time and energy. They were increasingly frustrated with the way their lives felt fragmented. Paul wrote to Christians in Colossae to help them pull their lives back together again. He was trying to impart to them some spiritual wisdom. He wanted to help them clear the clutter so that they could focus on what is essential.

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian of the nineteenth century, used to pray for the ability ‘to will one thing’. People who will one thing know who they are, he said. They are no longer distracted; rather, they are focussed, clear about their mission. Consequently, they live with authority.

What is ‘the one thing’ you want in life? Can you answer the question? A more important question: does the ‘one thing’ nourish your soul? Does it integrate your life so that all the pieces find an appropriate place?

Paul was very clear: the one thing he wanted to know was Jesus as Lord. When that is your focus, he writes, all the other parts of life hold together. Then, no matter what happens, you can live with hope.

Remember, this is a man who was writing from a prison cell. He had been beaten and arrested. He had been chased out of countless towns. He knew what it was like when life hits hard; when you’ve been tossed about and broken; when you are feeling weary and frayed at the edges.

He does not offer platitudes. They are not deep enough to hold a life together. He offers Jesus. He is convinced that everything finds its purpose in the risen Christ. He holds everything together. “From beginning to end he’s there, towering above everything, everyone. In him, all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies . . . He puts your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust.” (Colossians 1, The Message)

That does mean that as followers of Jesus we have everything figured out. It does not mean that we never encounter problems that threaten to overwhelm us. It means that we just keep placing the disconnected, confusing and confused pieces of our lives into Christ’s keeping. He takes them and holds them together and works them into God’s saving purposes for our lives.

Marva Dawn is an author and theologian who, every day of her life, deals with multiple handicaps and illnesses. As a child, she contracted red measles which destroyed her pancreas. Now she deals with diabetes and kidney problems and blindness and intestinal troubles and . . . the list goes on. She writes that she frequently finds herself discouraged. When that happens, some people say to her, ‘You should not be depressed. You’re a Bible teacher after all.” That just makes her more despondent. Then she also feels guilty about being depressed. That makes her feel defeated, which leads to more feelings of guilt. She finds herself caught in a vicious cycle.

She writes that, what helps her is that she reminds herself that Jesus does not say to anyone who is struggling, “You ought to get out of that pit.” He does not say, ‘Here are ten easy steps for getting out of pits. Follow them.” Jesus jumps into the pit with us and, with him, comes power to reconcile all things.

The most hope-filled promise I cling to is that, whatever happens, Christ is working to bring every bit of our lives into God’s good purposes. Nothing in all creation has more power than the risen Christ. The cross says that our God takes what the world considers failure and uses it for our salvation. The resurrection shows us that God is able to take even the most devastating, destructive event and, somehow, redeem it. God is able to weave it into God’s good and holy purposes for our lives.

At the time when we are struggling the most, we may not be able to see how that is happening. Indeed, we may not be able to see God’s redemption for a long time. However, we can trust that Christ is able to confront and break the power of whatever evil has befallen us and use it to accomplish God’s loving intention for us.

A few moments ago, as we were baptizing Margaret, Maddie poured water into the font and Robbi said, “This is the water of baptism. Out of this water we rise, forgiven of sin . . .” Now, every moment of our lives is bathed in the grace of God. Nothing in all creation, nothing in life or death, nothing visible or invisible, nothing present or still to come, can ever separate us from the love of God that has met us in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 37-39). By that love, your life is being redeemed, made holy, set apart for God’s good purposes. All of it. Live into that hope. It is gift of your baptism into Christ Jesus our Lord.

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“Living in the world of God’s grace”

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Christine Jerrett at Central United Church, Sarnia on September 19, 2010.

Scriptures: Psalm 14; Luke 16: 1-13

J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the last century’s greatest writers of epic fantasy tales. He is probably best known for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Critics often accused him of writing escapist literature. They said that he wrote magnificent, fantastic stories but those stories shifted his readers’ attention away from the issues of the real world. He replied, “Everything depends on that from which one is escaping. The flight of a deserter is viewed very differently from the escape of a prisoner.” He asked, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” (Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 218)

The poet, T.S. Eliot made a similar point: “In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.” (The Family Reunion). As followers of Jesus, we shall often find ourselves heading in the opposite direction from many people around us. The gospels are convinced that, when we follow Jesus, we are heading toward the real world. We are heading toward the way the world really is even though the values and priorities of the Bible’s ‘real world’ are radically different from the values and priorities of the world which often shapes our perceptions.

For instance, how would you define success? What does it look like? More importantly, how do you get there? Some of it is luck, of course. You were born at the right time, into the right family. Society provided you with certain opportunities. Nevertheless, from a very young age, we are told that success comes to those who hustle. Those who dream big and work hard and make the right connections and play the system will be able to be whatever they want to be. They demand their rights. They do whatever it takes to achieve their goals, even if ‘whatever it takes’ includes trampling over other people. There is, after all, only so much room at the top.

Jesus, on the other hand, invites us to live in a topsy-turvy world that turns our priorities upside-down. “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” he warned. This is a world that is shaped by the grace and mercy of God. God’s grace is a gift. You don’t earn it. You cannot earn it, no matter how hard you hustle. God gives it. The only thing you can do is receive it. You can live with open hands and open hearts and lean into God’s grace with all the trust that you can muster.

The parable that is often called the ‘shrewd manager’ is the last of a set of four parables that Jesus tells to the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees and scribes had been complaining that Jesus spent too much time with people who had not succeeded in living according to their standards of how good, decent, religious people should behave. In response Jesus told two parables about a sheep who got lost and about a lost coin. The shepherd left ninety-nine other sheep in the wilderness in order to find the lost one. A woman tore her house apart looking for the lost coin. In both parables, a great celebration is held when the lost is found. In those parables we learn again that God loves each and every one of us as if there were only one of us. No matter how lost we think we are, God searches and finds us and brings us home.

Immediately after those two parables, Jesus told a story of a father with two sons, each lost in his own way. Then, he followed that up with the parable of the shrewd manager. This managers may have enjoyed some level of success as the world defines it, but, suddenly, everything shifted. He was accused of cheating his employer and was told he was going to lose his job.

Eugene Peterson (Tell it Slant, p. 99-108) suggests that the surprise in this story is that the manager is fired but not punished. He did not get what he deserved. He experienced mercy and grace. His next move was to extend that mercy and grace to others. He went to people who owed his employer money. “You owe 100? Make it 50 and we’ll call it even.” “You owe 100? Make it 80 and the rest is forgotten.” Then, said Jesus, the master commended the manager because he acted ‘shrewdly’.

The word ‘shrewd’ is related to the Hebrew word ‘wise’. To be wise in the scriptures is what you become as you spend your life alert to the ways of God. Wisdom consists in developing the right responses to God and to your neighbour. You are wise when you live into the grace of God. (Eugene Peterson, Where Your Treasure Is, p. 124-125)

The opposite of a wise person is the fool the fool does not know what is really going on in the world. He or she does not recognize how the world really works. In Psalm 14, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’.”

If there is no God, then it really is all up to you and me to hustle, to get ahead, and to make sure everything works out the way we want it to. The problem for fools, though, is that they’re heading in the wrong direction. They’re heading into a world of illusions, mirages and false promises.

When we are fools, we receive warnings that we are heading down the wrong path, but we do not listen. Jack Higgins is the author of a number of best-selling novels. The Eagle has Landed is one of his best known books. He has once asked, “What do you know now that you would have liked to have known when you were a boy?” He replied, “That when you get to the top, there’s nothing there.” After the tennis star Boris Becker tried to take his own life, he reflected, “I had won Wimbledon twice, once as the youngest player. I was rich. I had all the material possession I needed; money, cars, women, everything, and yet, I was so unhappy. I had no inner peace.” (Intellectuals Don’t Need God and Other Modern Myths, Alister McGrath, p. 15)

Do you know how your life is measured in the world shaped by God’s grace? In the world that is real and eternal and not an illusion, your life is not measured by how much you have succeeded. Your life is measured by how much God loves you and what God is able to make of your life. It is not easy to remember that, not when there are so many other voices telling you how you do not measure up: you have to reach higher, do better, get more in order to make your life count, they tell you. When we are surrounded by so much gracelessness, we need to take small steps in learning to live into the world of God’s grace. We learn to be faithful in little things so that we become the kind of people who are faithful in much.

Author and speaker Brennan Manning suggests that we take as the slogan for our lives, “I am the one who Jesus loves”. The phrase comes from the gospel of John. John is identified there as ‘the one Jesus loved’. Says Manning, if John were asked, “What is your primary identify in life?”, he would not reply, “I am a disciple,” or “I am one of the apostles,” or “I am the one who wrote one of the four gospels.” He would not give any of the ways by which the world might say, “You’ve made it. You’re important.” John would say, “I am the one Jesus loves”.

Imagine the difference it would make if you lived into the identity. When your boss yelled at you: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When your children are crying and whining and you have picked up the toys for the one hundredth time and the house still looks a mess: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When you are sitting in the doctor’s office waiting for news you dread: “I am the one Jesus loves”. When you have been deeply hurt by someone you trusted such that you begin to doubt yourself and all you have tried to do: “I am the one Jesus loves”.

This will not make the hard challenges disappear, but you will move within them with growing confidence that even they are in God’s hands. God can take even this experience and redeem it. God will weave it into God’s good and holy purposes and you shall find life in it. The resurrection of Jesus promises us that all our conflicts and defeats and failures are no longer decisive. God is at work, wiping out the marks against us; offering us new possibilities that we had not imagined.

We live into that primary identity for ourselves. Then, that deep grounding in God’s redeeming love frees us to go out and help others hear the good news as well: “You are the one Jesus loves.” Many churches these days are anxiously looking for whatever it is they must do in order to survive, maybe even thrive. What programmes do they have to offer? What needs to they need to meet? What technology do they need to buy? Those are the wrong questions. They will lead us away from the real world — the world ruled by God’s grace. We are the ones Jesus loves. It is our privilege and our blessing to be the kind of community whose passion it is to help others hear that as well. Hearing it, we and they may believe it. Believing it, we may create together a space where grace and jove and joy shape all we do to the glory of God.

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