Friday, March 10, 2017

The Nicodemus Dilemma (Lent 2, March 12 2017)

Homily:  March 12 2017, Yr A Lent 2, St. Albans
Readings: Gen 12.1-4a; Ps 121, Romans 4.1-5,13-17; John 3.1-17

How many of you are responsible for your own birth?  I’m guessing not very many.  Because it doesn’t work like that.  You were born by someone else.  Someone else carried you, someone else did the labour, someone else dealt with the mess.  Each one of us entered into an incredible new reality at our birth, but not one of us can say that we did it on our own.

In today’s gospel, we’re back in the womb again.  Not our mother’s womb this time, but the womb of our present reality, the womb of this earth as we know it, of this material world, the womb of the flesh.  We know it well, this life.  We’re starting to get the hang of it.  Sometimes, like Nicodemus, we feel like we’ve got things figured out.  But then Nicodemus meets Jesus, and Jesus tells him, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!”

Because there’s a whole new reality waiting for us.  A spiritual reality.  A dimension of life that we don’t even realize is there even though it surrounds us and penetrates us.  A reality that Jesus calls the kingdom of God.  Can you see it Nicodemus?

No, you can’t.  This is a spiritual reality that Nicodemus has completely missed.  It’s not just that he doesn’t know it, he doesn’t even know that he doesn’t know it.  He thinks he’s in the know.  He’s a Pharisee, a teacher, a leader.  He comes to Jesus proclaiming his knowledge.  “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God.”

And Jesus responds, “you don’t know nothing.”

Now, we can’t really blame Nicodemus for that.  Think about it.  How much did you know about this reality that we live in now before you were born.  Imagine yourself in your mother’s womb in the days before your birth.  What would you have known about sky and trees and people apart perhaps from your mother?  Not very much.  Maybe a few hints, some sounds, the occasional sensation of touch through your mother’s belly.  But there is no way we could have imagined this world while we were still in the womb.  In order to see it, in order to enter it, we had to be born.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that the kingdom of God is like that.  Even though it’s all around us, even though it’s near to us, it’s still beyond our imagination.  Not one of us can see it, not one of us can enter it without being born, just as we entered a new world when we were born from our mother’s womb.  But this is a new birth.  This time, Jesus says, we must be born from above, born again, born into a new reality, born of the Spirit.

You have to admit, this is pretty astonishing stuff.  “How can this be?” asks Nicodemus.  “How can anyone who has grown old be born again?  Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

And he’s right.  We can’t birth ourselves.  And for those of us who like to be in control of our own lives, who like to do things for ourselves, that’s a problem.  In fact it’s more than a problem, it’s frickin’ annoying, downright frustrating.  If we are to be born again, and that’s what Jesus is telling us needs to happen, we can’t do this ourselves, no more than we did it ourselves the first time around.  To be born from above, Jesus says, it’s the Spirit who must bear us.  It’s out of our hands.

This is the Nicodemus dilemma. 

When Nicodemus encounters Jesus, he sees something of God, and so he wants to lay his hands on it and bring it into his world, to incorporate Jesus into his own knowledge and understanding.  But Jesus says to him “you can’t just bring me into your world, you need to be born into a whole new world.  There is a whole new reality with God that awaits us, that surrounds us, a reality that is beyond what we can imagine, a reality that goes beyond our present awareness by as much as our present reality transcends the reality we experienced in the womb before our physical birth.  It’s here, but it’s a whole new world.  And you can’t see it, you can’t enter this new reality until you are born again.  And you can’t birth yourself.

So what is a Nicodemus to do?

Fortunately for us, there is a solution to the Nicodemus dilemma, and it’s summed up in one of the most famous verses in the Bible:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

We can’t see or enter the kingdom of God without being born from above.  But God loves us so much, God wants so much for us to be born from above and to enter that new reality and to be with him that he gave his only Son to make it possible.  Jesus is the one who is from above, the one who was born from above, and so he can speak to this new reality, he can testify as to what the kingdom of God is like.  Jesus can tell us about it!  Are we listening?  Do we receive his testimony?  Do we believe, can we trust what he is telling us?  Sadly, at least in this story, Nicodemus isn’t there yet.  He isn’t receptive to Jesus testimony, he’s not yet ready to trust what Jesus has to say.  He’s not ready to be born yet.

Because even though we can’t birth ourselves, it does seem that we have a part to play in getting ready to be born.  God is preparing for our birth, he’s making it possible by giving his Son, and by lifting him up for us to see.  Our part is to receive this gift, to hear Jesus’ words and to believe in him, to trust him, to have faith.  We don’t have to do the heavy lifting.  God will send his Spirit to bear us, to carry us, to do the labour, to give birth.  Only the Spirit can bear us from this world of fixed realities into God’s kingdom, full of new possibilities.[1]

And what a birth that will be.  Just as we opened our eyes that first time when we left our mother’s womb, our eyes will be opened again to a world that is transformed, to a new home, to the astonishing reality of the kingdom of God.  When we were born the first time, our world was filled with new sights and sounds, new relationships, new hopes and dreams.  When we are born from above all this await us once more but in new and unimagined ways.

Birth is not easy.  Birth can be a struggle, it can be painful, it can be disruptive.  We don’t know much about this new birth from above.  Does it happen in an instant or is it a long process?  Has it already begun?  Will we know when it is complete?  We can only push our metaphors so far.  All we know for sure is that we have to trust our birth to God.

And that’s ok, because birth is what God does.  God makes children.  God sent us his Son into the world so that all who receive him, who trust and believe and have faith in him will be born as children of God.

So get ready.  You are being born.

Amen.



[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching Year A (Minneapolis: 2016, Luther Seminary)
Image by Torsten Mangner, Creative Commons

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Six Days Later ... (Transfiguration Sunday Feb 26 2017)

Homily: Yr A Transfiguration, Feb 26 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Exodus 24.12-18; Ps 99; 2 Pet 1.16-21, Mt 17.1-9

Six Days Later …

Six days later.  Six long days later.  Six of the longest days of Peter’s life.  Almost a full week with Jesus’ words ringing in his ears: “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”

Everything had been going so well.  The week before, Jesus had taken Peter and the disciples up north, to the outskirts of the Roman city of Caesarea Philippi.  There, overlooking the enemy city, overlooking the soldiers’ barracks, he had asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?”  And it was Peter who had responded, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  Jesus had been pleased, he had praised Peter for his response, and he had chosen Peter as his leader, the rock on whom he would build his church.  Peter was honoured and thrilled and determined to take his role seriously.

So when Jesus turned away from the Roman enemy at Caesarea Philippi to go to Jerusalem, when Jesus began to teach his disciples that he must undergo great suffering at the hands of the Jewish authorities, that he would be arrested and put to death, and on the third day be raised, Peter objected.  Peter wouldn’t listen to Jesus.  He had a different understanding of what it means to be the Messiah and so he pulls Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke him, saying this must never happen to you.

And that’s when Jesus lets him have it.  He turns to Peter, and with everyone listening, Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan.  You are a stumbling block to me.”  Strong language.

Have you ever screwed up?  Tried your best but failed?  Tried to understand something but just not get it?  Been chewed out and put down in front of your friends or your colleagues?  If so, then maybe you can relate to Peter, maybe you can relate to where Peter was at that very moment and how difficult the next six days must have been.  Confused, angry, remorseful, bitter, dejected – all of the above?

Six days later, Jesus takes Peter, and James and John with him and leads them up a high mountain.  I don’t imagine he gave them much of an explanation why, after all, what explanation could you possibly give for what was about to unfold.

On the mountain top, Jesus was transfigured before them, his face shining like the sun and his clothes becoming dazzling white.  And there appeared with him Moses and Elijah, talking to him.  It is an awesome moment, a moment of transcendence, a once in a lifetime experience for Peter.  And so Peter gets excited, and he starts talking, he starts talking about making three dwellings, one for each of them, he wants to capture the moment somehow.  But then a bright cloud overshadows them, and a voice from the cloud says, “This is My Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”

And then, continues the voice:  “Listen to him!”

But Peter had refused to listen to Jesus, in fact he had argued with him, had rebuked him.

“Listen to him!”  The last words Jesus had said to Peter were “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me.”

“Listen to him!”

Peter collapses, falls to the ground, overcome by fear.

Have you been there?  Afraid?  Overcome? Overwhelmed?  Knowing you’ve screwed up, feeling like a failure?  If you have, then I want you to pay close attention to what happens next.

Peter is lying on the ground like a corpse, as good as dead.  But Jesus comes to him and touches him, and says, “get up.” 

“Get up.”  “Be raised up”.  This is resurrection language.  These are the same words which will be used at Easter when God raises Jesus from the dead.  Get up.

No matter how bad it gets, Jesus cares about us and Jesus has the power to raise us up.  To give us new life.  And so we don’t have to be afraid.  Get up and do not be afraid.

Jesus called Peter to be the rock on whom he would build his church.  Peter screwed up royally on his first day on the job.  He fully expected to be fired, or worse.  But that’s not how God works.  Even in our weakest moments, even in our moments of failure, God will raise us up to do the things he has called us to do. 

For Peter, the transfiguration of Jesus was a life-changing event.  In our new testament reading from the letter that bears Peter’s name we hear how as an old man, Peter looked back to that mountain top experience as the pivotal event that confirmed his faith in Jesus as Lord.  Did he look back to that vision of Jesus with Moses and Elijah, his face shining like the sun, his clothing dazzling white?  I’m sure he did.  Sometimes we can really use the occasional glimpse of glory on the mountain top to encourage and inspire us as we slog our way through everyday life in the valley.  We long for moments of transcendence, those moments when we get a glimpse of God. 

But I also believe that Peter looked back to the transfiguration as the day when he was lost but then found.  The day when he was dead but then raised to new life.  The day that he was down and overwhelmed by fear, but then Jesus came to him, touched him and said “Get up, and don’t be afraid.”

And it’s the same for each one of us.  Jesus doesn’t just call the best and the brightest to be his disciples.  He calls us.  He calls us with our strengths and our weaknesses, with our hopes and our fears, with our insights and our misunderstandings.  He calls us as we are, and when we screw up, and we will, he will come to us, and gently touch us and say “Get up, and don’t be afraid.”  For he has the power to raise us up.


Amen.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

No One is Disposable (Feb 12 2017)

Homily:  Yr A Proper 6, Feb 12 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Deut 30.11-20; Ps 119.1-8; 1 Cor 3.1-9; Mt 5.21-37

Image by Chris-Havard Berge, CC
Did you find today’s gospel disturbing?  If so, that’s a good start.  The kingdom of God has come near.  And it’s going to disturb us.  Shake us up a bit.

One of the reasons that we hear today’s gospel as disturbing or even painful is because we hear it as ethics.  We hear it as a high ethical standard, which I know that I don’t meet, and that makes me liable, and I don’t like to hear that.  We hear Jesus teaching about the law as ethics, and it sounds like it’s aimed squarely at us.

But it’s not about us.  It’s about God.  This is not ethics.  This is revelation.

Two weeks ago, when we started reading the sermon on the mount together, I said that this was Jesus’ manifesto, his public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  Or, to put it another way, in this teaching, Jesus is revealing for us what it looks like when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives.
In fact if I had to sum up today’s gospel reading in one sentence, I would use the exact same words that Jesus used as the opening statement of his ministry:

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

The kingdom of heaven is a vision of life the way God intends it to be, a vision of what it looks like when we become the people that God created us to be.

What would that look like?

In God’s kingdom no one is disposable.  People are not plastic cups.  No one in God’s kingdom will be insulted or dismissed as a fool.  No one will be denied their dignity by being objectified and looked at with lust.  People are not tools to be used for profit.  Women are not something to be discarded when they no longer serve a man’s purpose.  All people deserve to be told the truth.  When promises are made they are to be kept.

This is what God intended when God created humanity in God’s image.  This is the vision that God affirmed at our baptism when we were recreated as children of God and told that we are loved.  This is the vision of humanity that was embodied in the person of Jesus.  This is why Jesus called disciples to participate in the realization of this vision, on earth as in heaven.

In the kingdom of God, no one is disposable.  That is what God intends.  That’s what Jesus is revealing about God, what he’s trying to get us to see in today’s gospel.  It’s not about me.  It’s about God.  And it’s about God’s vision for us.  We are the people of God, and this is who we are.

It’s not like we haven’t heard this before.  Each one of us at our baptism committed to this vision, or our parents committed to it on our behalf.  Let me remind you of what you affirmed.  Here are two the questions which were posed:

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

To which you responded each time with, “I will with God’s help.”

These are first and foremost statements about God.  This God that we commit to in baptism, this is what God intends.  This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  First, revelation.  First, we commit to God’s vision.  Only then do we consider the ethical implications of God’s vision for his people.  How then shall we live?

Remember what Jesus is doing on the mountain.  He is not speaking in the first instance to the crowds.  He is teaching his disciples, those who have made a commitment to follow him.  He begins by teaching them who God is and what God wants, fleshing out for them what he means by the kingdom of God, pointing out the disorienting nature of a kingdom which blesses the poor and the hungry.  Then he turns the focus on the disciples, telling them, telling those of us who have committed to following Jesus, that we are the salt of the earth, we are the light of the world, and that this isn’t some kind of private practice that we are called to but rather a very public vocation that shines, that gives life and light to those who need it, life and light for the world around us.  Because as disciples we are called to embody the kingdom of God in this world and to be the very place, the very community where God’s kingdom draws near and breaks into people’s lives.

This is the vision, this is the revelation, this is our identity, this is our vocation.  First, we need to see it.  Only then do we ask the question, how then shall we live?

And now with this perspective, this new perspective, it is pretty clear that it’s not enough to not murder or not commit adultery.  Jesus is calling us to embody this new reality called God’s kingdom, a reality in which no one is disposable.  When we are angry, or insulting or dismissive with another, we fail to embody God’s vision.  When we objectify people and view them as a means to an end, we fail to embody God’s vision.  When we consider some people as not worthy of hearing the truth or of having promises kept, we fail to embody God’s vision.

And when we do fall short, and we will, we confess our failings and God forgives us and reminds us once more that he loves us and that we are his children and that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, the ones that he has chosen to make his kingdom known.  And we will, with God’s help.

Let me say a word about divorce.  I know that gospel readings such as this one can be painful to hear for those who are divorced or whose loved ones are divorced or who are in the midst of a difficult marital situation.  I know that readings such as this one have been used in a way that has caused hurt and harm. Let me repeat what I have already said this morning.  I believe that Jesus’ words here are first and foremost revelation, and not ethical instruction.  They are intended to reveal to us something of the kingdom of God, and something about who God is and what God’s vision is for humanity, what God intends for us.  God never intended for us to have to go through the pain of divorce.  God never intended that there be bad or abusive marriages.  God never intended broken relationships.  This is not what God wants, and when these things happen, God shares our pain.

In this text, I believe that Jesus is revealing to us what God intends for marriage, which is that two people should be joined in a life-long, loving, covenant relationship.  That is after all, what each of us intended at the beginning of our own marriages.  But when things go wrong, this teaching of Jesus about what God intends, this vision of the beauty of God’s kingdom is not sufficient for us to sort out the ethical issues involved.  Our church has recognized that it is insufficient to use this text alone to deal with the ethical issues around divorce.  We need also to remember that our God is a God of mercy and compassion.  We need to remember that Jesus’ most important ethical teachings are love and forgiveness.  We need to remember that the way that God deals with our failings is not by judgement and punishment but by the love manifested on the cross.  As St. Paul puts it in his majestic letter to the Romans, yes, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” and, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

This holds true for all of us. 

When we hear today’s gospel as ethical instruction, as an ethical standard that no one I know has ever met, and for which we are liable, it is disturbing and even painful.  And maybe it’s okay that we spend a little time in that place, and then know that we are forgiven.

But when we hear today’s gospel as a vision of what God intends for us, as an image of the kingdom of God which is coming near and breaking into our lives, this is glorious.  Don’t you long for a world, for a day when no one is disposable?  When the dignity of every human being is respected?  When we recognize the image of God reflected in each member of our community?  When we can fully live into our identity as salt and light?  When each one of God’s children will know that they are loved?

That’s what God wants.  That’s what we want.  Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.


Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Up the Mountain (Jan 29 2017)

Jesus went up the mountain.  Does that remind you of anyone?  It’s meant to.  It’s meant to remind us of Moses.  Matthew in his gospel is presenting Jesus as a new Moses, as the one who will speak God’s words to us.  In the book of Exodus, after God has freed the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt, after they have crossed the Red Sea and entered the wilderness, they come to Mount Sinai and they camp there, in front of the mountain.  And Moses went up the mountain.  But the people were not allowed to go up the mountain.  The people stood at a distance, afraid.  And when God began to speak from the mountain, they became terrified, and they said to Moses, “Do not let God speak to us or we will die.”  And so the people did not go up the mountain.

But when Jesus goes up the mountain, he sits down, and his disciples come to him, up the mountain.  And so do the crowds who have been following Jesus, for though Jesus’ teaching is initially directed to those who are his disciples, we are told that by time Jesus has finished speaking, the entire crowd was astounded and amazed.

I want you to put these two images side by side for a moment.  The first is the image of Moses going up the mountain, but the people standing at a distance, terrified that God will speak, terrified of what might happen when God speaks.  The second is the image of Jesus going up the mountain, sitting down, inviting his disciples to gather around him, and as he speaks, the crowd starts streaming up the mountain to join them, to hear the word of God.

When Moses spoke God’s words, they came out in the form of commandments, you shall do this, you shall not do that.  But when Jesus speaks, the words that come out of his mouth are blessings.  Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

There’s a difference, isn’t there.  Something new.  And before we get into all the words of the sermon on the mount, when I take these two images, one of Moses going up the mountain and the other of Jesus going up the mountain and I hold them together, here’s what I get.

Jesus wants us to know that God is good.

The God that Jesus reveals to us is a God who wants what is good for us, what is best for each one of us.  A God who loves us and looks upon us with favour.  A God who blesses us and wants us to be blessed.  A God who is approachable and wants us to be near him.  A God who invites us to be with him on the mountain.

God is good.  Jesus wants you to know that.

I could stop right there.  If we could absorb, if we could really come to know just this one thing, it would change an awful lot.

I could stop there – but you know I’m not going to.  God is good.  But we want to know more.  And this is precisely where Jesus gives us more.  Last Sunday we talked about how Jesus inaugurated his public ministry by proclaiming a vision:  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  The sermon on the mount that we begin today fleshes out that vision.  It is Jesus’ manifesto: his public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  And it is a manifesto that holds out for us a way of life.  And when we live that way, the kingdom of heaven comes near, and those who see it will say, so that’s what he’s talking about, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is.

The kingdom of heaven, or kingdom of God, same thing, it is the central message, symbol and metaphor of Jesus’ ministry and teaching.  It’s what we should be striving for.  It is at one and the same time a deep insight and a call to action.  “Repent.   Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” Jesus proclaims as he calls his disciples to follow him. 

And the disciples ask “What’s the kingdom of heaven?” even as they watch Jesus begin to embody it, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, healing those who are sick among the people.  Maybe they expect a one-sentence answer.  Instead, Jesus goes up the mountain, and sits down, and he teaches them, saying,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled
Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Now do I understand what the kingdom of heaven is?

No, not yet.  But I am starting to get a glimpse. The first thing I see is that the kingdom of heaven looks different from most of the world around me.  I live in a world where the wealthy and the healthy, the famous and the successful are assumed to be blessed.  The kingdom of heaven is an alternative vision, a radical alternative.  It is a call to see people differently, to upend our notions of what it means to flourish as a human being, to learn to favour those whom God favours, that is, those who are in need.  Our government is proud to say “we will favour the middle class.”  In the U.S.A. it's "America First".  God says that he will favour the poor, and the poor in spirit.

Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of heaven is what theologians would call an eschatological vision, a vision of the end-times.  It is a future vision of what will be when God is King, when all is the way God wants it to be, when God’s kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven.  This creates a tension for us.  The kingdom of heaven has come near but it is not yet.  Those who mourn will be comforted, but there are those who mourn who are not comforted today.  But even today they are blessed.  God looks upon them with favour and will comfort them.  The kingdom of God is a future vision, but one that is breaking into our lives and has the power to re-shape the present.

That power comes, in part, from the fact that by making public what God wants, Jesus presents us with a program for participating in its realization.  Jesus’ manifesto calls us to a way of life.  Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus is not so much about what you believe as how you live.  He calls us to a changed life, for that’s what it means to repent.  We are to be people who mourn, not just for loved ones, but for all who are the victims of injustice.  We are to be meek, gentle with one another, living with humility, considerate of others.  We are to be people who hunger and thirst for righteousness, people who hunger to see a just society and thirst for wrongs to be made right. We are to be merciful, people who forgive one another, people who reach out with compassion and are steadfast in their love for others.  We are to be pure in heart, people who love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and whose actions are guided by that love.  We are to be peacemakers, those who strive to create God’s shalom, God’s peace, harmony, and well-being in the lives of those around us.

When this is what we seek, we are blessed.  And in the moments that we live into this vision, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, our present reality.  And we get a glimpse of what Jesus is teaching, a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven that Jesus holds out before us.

I suppose you could say it’s circular in a way.  But it’s a good circle.  Jesus calls us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.  We ask, what is this ‘kingdom of heaven’?  Jesus responds with this manifesto that we call the Sermon on the Mount, a public declaration of who God is and what God wants.  The vision of the future that Jesus lays before us serves as a present call to action, a call to an alternative, counter-cultural way of life that has the power to re-shape the world around us.  And in the moments that we respond to that call, the kingdom of heaven breaks into our lives, and we and those around us get a glimpse of what it looks like.  And we are blessed.

Because our God is a God of blessing.  A God who looks upon us with favour and wants the best for us.  A God who invites us to draw near. 

God is good.


Amen.

Homily:  Yr A P5 Jan 29 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Micah 6.1-8, Ps 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Inauguration (Jan 22 2017)

Homily:  Yr A P3, Jan 22 2017, St. Albans
Readings:  Isaiah 9.1-4; Ps 27.1, 4-9; 1 Cor 1.10-18; Mt 4.12-23

Has anyone here ever looked for the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali on a map?  Those of you with smartphones can try it if you like.  Type in Zebulun or Naphtali into Google Maps to see what you get.  Actually, to save you some time, I tried it last night.  And you know what you get?  Nothing!

Because the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali haven’t appeared on a map for over two thousand, seven hundred years.  They used to be there.  These were the lands in the northeast corner of Israel that were allotted to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali when Joshua led the people of Israel into the promised land some 3400 years ago.  But in the eighth century BC these were the first of the lands of Israel to be conquered by foreign empires, initially by the Assyrian Empire, then the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and many others, right up until the Roman occupation in the time of Jesus.  Empires, war and oppression have made life gloomy in the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali for over seven hundred years.

But God never forgot the people of Zebulun and Naphtali.  Seven hundred years before Jesus, God made them a promise through the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who sit in darkness will see a great light; and for those who sit in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”

When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.  He left in Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Is it just a coincidence that Jesus, when he left his home in Nazareth decided to move to Capernaum?  Did he simply want to enjoy some sea-side living?

Absolutely not.  Nothing in today’s reading is a coincidence.

What we have in today’s reading from the gospel of Matthew is the inauguration of Jesus’ public ministry, a much more hopeful inauguration than the one we witnessed on Friday.  And at Jesus’ inauguration, nothing is left to chance.  The beginning of Jesus’ mission is intentional, deliberate and purposeful.  Clearly what he is doing matters.  And it is also a clinic in leadership, laid out in five steps.

The first step:  “It’s time.”  Jesus has been baptized.  He has been called into his identity as the Son of God.  He has wrestled with that identity and what it means during forty days of temptation in the wilderness.  He has been watching for a sign from God that will signal the beginning of his mission.  And he sees it:

“When Jesus heard that John had been arrested in the wilderness,” he knows that it’s time to begin his mission.  It is an ominous sign.  It takes courage to begin now.  It is an act in defiance of the empire that arrested John.  But it’s time. 

The second step:  “It starts here.”  Jesus deliberately chooses a place, the town of Capernaum in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali to begin and to serve as the context for the start of his mission.  One might have imagined that Jesus would go to Jerusalem, to the centre and the place of power to begin, but instead he goes the exact opposite direction.  He goes to the margins.  He goes to the people who have been sitting in darkness for seven hundred years.  He goes there to fulfill God’s promise to be a light to those who walk in deep darkness and in the shadow of death.  He is God’s light, he is the one who fulfills God’s promises, and he goes first to those who are marginalized and oppressed.

Step three:  Cast The Vision.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Remarkably, these are the exact same words, the exact same vision that John the Baptist proclaimed.  It is a call for action.  It is the proclamation of a new beginning.  And it is once more an act of defiance.  John has just been arrested and will soon be killed for proclaiming these very words.  Jesus chooses to proclaim them again, verbatim.  The light comes into the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Step four:  Build a team

Immediately after he casts out his vision, Jesus’ next step is to call  disciples.  “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, and immediately they left their nets and followed him.  “Follow me,” he says to James and John, and immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.  Why did Jesus choose these four?  What do we know about them?  Not much at this point, other than the fact that they were fishermen.  But what we do know is that they were all-in.  When called, they immediately left their previous lives behind and followed Jesus.  The most important thing that Jesus looked for in building his team were people that were all-in.

Step five:  The Mission begins.

“Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”  Teaching, preaching and healing.  That’s the mission, that’s what Jesus will do and it begins, urgently, purposefully, throughout Galilee.  The mission is an embodiment of the vision:  the kingdom of God has come near.  This is what it looks like.

That’s today’s reading, the inauguration of Jesus’ mission, laid out in five steps.  When I look at it I am blown away by how intentional and purposeful it is.  Jesus is in charge here, no doubt about it.  He’s on a mission.  It’s a high stakes mission.  John has been arrested and will soon be put to death.  It’s pretty clear when Jesus embarks on his mission that he is risking the same fate.

And so you might want to ask, why is Jesus so intentional and so purposeful about his mission?

And I think the answer must be this:  Because it really matters.  It matters to Jesus, and it matters to God.  Jesus’ mission is to fulfill God’s promises.  He is the light coming into the darkness.  He is the one who will reveal God to us.  Jesus’ mission matters to God because we matter to God.  God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.  God cares about each one of us and wants to be reconciled with each one of us, and today’s gospel is the beginning of that mission of redemption, salvation and reconciliation.  So, yes Jesus is intentional, deliberate and purposeful.  Because yes, it matters.

And next Sunday we’ll see the next step in the mission, and there are surprises waiting for us there.  The next step is the manifesto.  Jesus will proclaim his manifesto from the mountain top.  We usually call this the Sermon on the Mount, but to call it a sermon fails to do it justice.  It is a manifesto, a call for a new world order.  We will be reading Jesus’ manifesto over the next few weeks on Sundays.  And one of the surprises that awaits us is that he who is the light of world, the one who enters the darkness, the one who is on a mission of redemption, who began his mission in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, he will in turn hand that mission over to us, and call on us to be the light that shines in the darkness.

“You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others.”

And so if we ask the question again, why is Jesus so intentional and purposeful about his mission, the answer is not only because Jesus’ mission really matters. It is also because that mission has been handed over to us, and as a result what we do really matters.  And so maybe, we should not just be amazed at the intentionality and sense of purpose with which Jesus pursues his mission, maybe we are also being called to the same intentionality and the same sense of purpose in our own lives, as we live out our mission to be the light of the world.

So did Jesus leave his home in Nazareth to make his home in Capernaum because the rents were cheaper?  Or because the employment prospects looked better?  Or because it was nice sea-side town with a good fish market?

No.  He did it because the mission matters.  And what we do, how we live our lives, that matters too.


Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Reed Breaking and Wick Quenching (Jan 15 2017)

Reed Breaking and Wick Quenching

Homily: Yr A Baptism of the Lord. Jan 15 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 42.1-9; Ps 29; Acts 10.34-48; Matthew 3.13-17
Image by Trudy Bloem, Creative Commons

When I used to play high school football, one of our coaches would go and scout the other teams to determine their strengths and weaknesses.  I remember the day before we were scheduled to play Merivale high school, the coach gathered the defence together and he showed us how Merivale’s favourite play worked.  The quarterback would fake a lateral to one side, holding the ball high in the air like this, and then he would hand off to the running back on other side.  And so during the game the next day, whenever we saw the fake lateral with the ball held high we would swarm the running back on the other side, and we tackled him for a loss almost every time.  We had found a weakness, and so we exploited it.

There’s a big difference between the high school football team and the high school debating team. But the coaching philosophy wasn’t all that different.  Debaters were trained to look for weaknesses in their opponents’ arguments, and when they found one, they pounced.

Power exploits weakness.  People who want to win will find a weakness and use it to their advantage.  They will break the bruised reed, they will quench the dimly burning wick.  And that’s not just in contrived situations like football games and debates.  Think of what happens among children in schoolyards.  Think of what happens among adults at your workplace.  Think about what happens between spouses in a marriage.  Reed breaking and wick quenching happen all the time.  The easiest way to assert that you’re right is to tell somebody else they’re wrong.  Too often we lift ourselves up by putting others down.  I know.  I have broken bruised reeds and quenched dimly burning wicks.  I suspect you have too.

But when God looks upon Jesus, hear what he says:

“Here is my servant, my chosen in whom my soul delights; 
I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.
A bruised reed he will not break,
And a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”

We call this compassion.  The biblical language for this is the Hebrew word “hesed”, usually translated as steadfast love and mercy.

The God revealed to us in Jesus is a God of compassion, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.

Some people would have been surprised by that.  In our psalm today, the psalmist focuses on the power and the strength of God, the one who created the heavens and stretched them out.  And so when the psalmist imagines the voice of God, he imagines it as a voice which breaks cedars, a voice which flashes forth flames of fire, a voice which shakes the wilderness and strips the forest bare.

But in our gospel reading we hear a different voice.  When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came out of the waters, the heavens were opened to him and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  The wilderness does not shake, and there are no reports of cedars breaking.  What is heard is the voice of love, the voice of compassion, a voice which sees Jesus’ baptism and says, in a very loose paraphrase that I heard this week, “This is just so awesome!”

Today’s account of Jesus’ baptism begins with grace.  When John sees Jesus coming, he recognizes him as one who is more powerful.  John even says that he’s not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.  And so, John refuses to baptize Jesus at first, probably he has every expectation that the one who is more powerful will now take over the ministry of baptism.  But Jesus doesn’t take over John’s ministry, instead he affirms it and he submits to it.  Would that you and I were so gracious about affirming each other’s ministries!

Jesus submits to the baptism of John, because he understands that our part in baptism is to present ourselves to God and to commit to God and to God’s ways.  But the most important part of baptism is what God does.  God sends his Spirit upon us.  God gives us a name, child of God.  God tells us that he loves us and delights in us.  And God calls us to go and to be his agents in the world.

This is what happened at Jesus’ baptism.  This is what will happen here in twelve weeks at our Easter Vigil, when eight of us will be baptized here at St. Albans.

At Jesus’ baptism, God called him to a special ministry and mission, and that was to reveal to us who God is, what God is like.  And Jesus, through his life and teaching, even his death, did just that, revealing God to be a God of compassion, full of steadfast love and mercy.  We see it in Jesus’ ministry of healing, we see it in his ministry of reconciliation.  We see it when he reaches out to those who are marginalized.  We hear it in Jesus’ message of love, of forgiveness, of praying for enemies, we hear it as he proclaims the good news to all in need, people of all genders, races and nations.

Jesus surprised people.  Jesus disappointed some people.  Many thought that the Messiah, the one chosen and sent by God should act in a more powerful way.  That he should put down enemies.  That he should pick winners and losers, determine who’s in and who’s out.  Because isn’t that how power usually works?

But Jesus is the one who will not break a bruised reed and will not quench a dimly burning wick.  When he encounters people he will not condemn them for their bruises nor will he dismiss the dimness of their light.  No, he will see our bruises and our dimly burning light and he will be moved with compassion towards us, loving us as we are, bringing healing and grace into our lives.  Jesus reveals God to be a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.

In baptism we commit ourselves to God, and God names us as his beloved children, puts his Spirit upon us and calls us to go and be compassionate, agents of God’s steadfast love and mercy in the world.

Is that a big task?  It’s huge!  Compassion is hard, it’s something we have to learn and practice, every day.  So much of the time we see and do the opposite, power-seekers who exploit weakness, those who would break the bruised reed in order to gain advantage, and snuff out the smouldering wick to make themselves appear strong or to prove that they’re right.  We live in a world where often compassion is not the norm.  But you in your baptism were called to lift people up, not to put them down.  You are to support the one who is bruised, to tend and heal the broken reed.  You are called to affirm even the dimmest light, to celebrate that light even as it smoulders, to show compassion and to help it burn brightly again.  For every person you will encounter is a brother or sister made in God’s image who has the light of God within them.

Let me remind you of some of your baptismal vows.  At your baptism, you, or someone on your behalf, promised,

To proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ.

To seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself.

To strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.

Those are big promises, difficult promises to fulfill, which is why in our baptismal liturgy the response is always,

“I will, with God’s help”

The God revealed to us in Jesus is a compassionate God, abounding in steadfast love and mercy.  In your baptism you promised to follow in this way, following the example of Jesus.  May it be said of this church that we are a compassionate community that builds people up, not that brings them down.

May it be said of each one of us:

Here is my servant, in whom my soul delights.
A bruised reed she will not break, and a dimly burning wick she will not quench.

Amen.


Saturday, January 7, 2017

Overwhelmed with Joy (Epiphany, January 6 2017)

In November I was fortunate enough to attend a preaching workshop in Toronto with colleagues from across Canada, and the main text we focused on was this very text from the gospel of Matthew.  In preparing to preach, one of the things that Anna, our workshop leader insisted on is that you have to go into the text and wrestle with it until it speaks to you.  And so, after spending time with the text, reading it, questioning it, discussing it, looking at commentaries, whatever, the first question that you have to ask yourself before you start preparing your sermon is this:

What is the moment in the text that gets you?  That is, that fascinates you, troubles you, thrills you, haunts you, disturbs you, or otherwise jumps up to meet you?

We broke into small groups for this exercise, and we asked that first question.  What is the moment in the text that gets you?  And we went around the room:

“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”
“overwhelmed with joy”

All six of us picked the same moment:  “When the wise men saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.”

Then we moved to the second question of our exercise, “Why does this moment in the text get you?” and our responses again were the same.  It was because the phrase “overwhelmed with joy” awakened a deep longing in us, a deep longing to be overwhelmed with joy.  There was a wistfulness in our midst. We had caught a glimpse of something in the text, and we wanted it.  We really wanted it.  Real bad.

Do any of you have a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy?

Do you remember a moment when you were overwhelmed with joy?

We asked that question too in our group.  And, again the answers were remarkably similar, at least at first:

“The birth of my child”
“when my child was born”
“The birth of my child”
“I don’t have any children”

The wise men in today’s gospel had a deep longing.  They must have had a deep longing, otherwise why undertake such a long and arduous journey through the desert.  They were seekers, and they saw something in the night skies that inspired them to set off on their quest.  “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?  For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage?”

It’s a strange story, this story of great longing.  Wise men, who naively ask the King of the Jews about the child who has been born king of the Jews.  Do you see the problem here?  This is the same ruthless King Herod who put his own children to death to avoid any risk of premature succession.  He will not respond well to the question of the wise men.  Strange too is the behaviour of the star, which goes ahead of the wise men to Bethlehem and then stops over the place where the child was.  Stars don’t normally do that.  And the wise men, who had journeyed long and far, not quite sure of what they would find, not quite sure of where they were going, when they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy.  On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage.  And I expect that Mary and Joseph found all of this a bit strange!

Our stories of longing are often strange stories.  Our deepest yearnings tap into something that we don’t fully understand.  On the Camino de Santiago, it’s a common experience for pilgrims to burst into tears of joy when they finally arrive at the Cathedral of St. James, the end point of the journey.  At one level we understand why.  It is the end of a journey, the culmination of months of effort and determination. Sometimes we have a good idea of what it is we’re longing for.  Expectant parents long for the birth of their child.  Pilgrims long to arrive at their destination.  Wise men from the east long to see the child that has been born king of the Jews.

But at other times it’s hard to articulate just what it is we’re longing for.  We have this deep yearning for something that may seem just beyond our grasp.  Throughout the ages, poets and mystics have entertained the possibility that these deep longings have something to do with God.  The Hebrew poet writes in Psalm 42,

“As the deer pants for the water, so my soul longs after you O God.  My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”

St. Augustine in the fourth century also felt within himself a restless yearning for God. “O Lord,” he cried, “our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

More recently C.S. Lewis wrote in his autobiography Surprised by Joy how even as a child he experienced deep yearnings, longings for something beyond, moments of which he labelled as joy.  Later, as an adult he wrote about these experiences:

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Do you have this sense of longing within you?

Do you know what it is you’re longing for?

And if you get there, or if you glimpse it, will you let yourself be overwhelmed with joy?

My colleague, the one with a great longing to be overwhelmed with joy but who hadn’t yet experienced it in the birth of a child the way some of us had, she took some time to think, and then she had an insight.

“Maybe I’ve never been overwhelmed with joy because in my life I just feel so overwhelmed most of the time.”

I think she’s on to something.  Life can be overwhelming at times.  And so with that in mind, let’s return to the wise men, and see if we can learn anything from their story.

I think that a first lesson from the wise men is that if we want to be overwhelmed by joy, we need to make time and space for what matters.  Clear the clutter.  Simplify.  In order to go on their journey, the wise men needed to leave many things behind, and they had to put lot of things on hold in order to spend months and years traveling across the desert.  Create the time and space to go on your journey.

And then, when you get to a place of joy, stop!  Follow the example of the star.  When the star arrived at the place where the child was, it stopped!  And so did the wise men.  It would have been easy to rush on to the next thing.  After all the wise men did have Herod on their tail.  But they stopped.  They allowed themselves to be present, and they were overwhelmed with joy.

And not only did they stop, but even more importantly, they knelt down and paid him homage.  They worshiped.  They gave thanks to God.  They connected with the divine dimension of that experience of overwhelming joy.  They gave gifts, and they celebrated.  Take the time to worship, to celebrate and to connect with the divine in your moments of overwhelming joy.

And finally, don’t be afraid to be naïve.  We don’t have to have it all together, we don’t need to look good, we can’t always justify our longings and our quests.  When Matthew’s readers first heard the story of the so-called wise men walking up to the ruthless King Herod and asking him where was the child who had been born king of the Jews, they would have laughed at how naïve and foolish those wise men were. 

Your deepest longings are a gift of God.  They are holy and they are good and you should pay attention to them, even if some might think that naïve.  Make time and space for what matters.  When you get to a place of joy, stop!  Kneel down, pay homage, give thanks, worship and celebrate.  And may you too, with the wise men, be overwhelmed with joy.


Amen.

Homily:  Epiphany, January 8 2017, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-6, Ps 72, Eph 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12