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170423 – I Believe (Guest: Betty Turcott)

Yr A ~ 2nd of Easter ~ John 20:19-31

This isn’t the morning after, it’s the Sunday after.  The second Sunday of the Easter season.   Easter Sunday is thought of as the highest point in the Christian Calendar.  Without Easter there likely would not be a Christian Religion.  In contrast this Sunday, is often called Low Sunday.  Historically the church was full on Easter Sunday, folks came who were called Twicers by my father.  They came to church twice a year Christmas and Easter.  The attendance dropped on this second Sunday of Easter and some think that is the reason it is called Low Sunday.  But it is most often named that because of the let down after all the spiritually deep and moving worship times associated with Easter and the celebration of the Easter morning when we joyously proclaim—Christ is Risen.

Be all that as it may, our scripture this morning was about someone who 2000 years ago was feeling about as low as one can get.  Thomas.

Thomas comes from an Aramaic word whose root means twin.  But this guy had another name, Didymus and that also means twin.  We have no record of this twin, and no way of knowing if Thomas or Didymus was a nickname or the real name of the man in the story.  Let’s just take that position and assume he was named Thomas.  Often referred to as doubting Thomas, and we will look at that later.

Thomas the disciple is the patron saint of Portugal and tradition says that he was martyred in Indian, pure speculation but interesting.  All we know for certain about him is what we read in the Christian scriptures.  He is mentioned in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke in a list of the disciples, and that is all they say about him.

John gives him a voice and he speaks three times, all near the end of Jesus life on earth.

The first is the story of the raising from the dead of Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha.  The disciples and Jesus were in Perea, east of Jordan. They were avoiding the establishment who were ganging up on Jesus.  The news of Lazarus death comes and Jesus is ready to go to Bethany to his friends.  You can almost hear the disciples muttering,  ‘This is trouble.  We came here to get away and now he’s going back?  How can we stop him?’

Into this conversation Thomas speaks and says,  “Let us go there too, so that we may die with him.” Sounds as gloomy as Eyore, but it isn’t.  He is saying that if Jesus is going to die, and that is a very real possibility of which all 12 would be aware, he is saying, then I don’t want to go on living.  Rather than a statement of gloom or despair, it is a statement of his deep love of and loyalty to Jesus.  Loyal Thomas.

The second time Thomas speaks is at the Last Supper.  Jesus has just told his friends, that he is going to the Father’s house and will prepare rooms for them and will come and take them there.  He says, “Don’t worry you know the way I am going.”  The disciples may be sitting around the table, looking at Jesus and trying to look wise and full of understanding.  One wonders if they were.  But Thomas speaks, “No I don’t.  I haven’t the foggiest idea where you are going, so how can I know the way?”  Thomas is not being disagreeable, or obtuse, he really doesn’t know, he doesn’t understand.  At this moment he is Honest Thomas.

Last Sunday, resurrection Sunday in our church, the disciples were gathered and Jesus appeared to them.  But Thomas wasn’t there.  Where was he?

We are not told, but perhaps we can suggest an answer.  I would suggest that he was simply too overcome with grief to be with other people.  We heard him infer that if Jesus was dead then he had no desire to go on living.  As far as Thomas knows, Jesus is dead.  He doesn’t see any point in going on, and he just needs to be alone to grieve, for a time.  He needs time as we would say, to process all that has happened, and try to understand and to speculate on his future.  Now we can call him Grieving Thomas.

He is looking at a future completely turned upside down in a very short time.  Like the others, he was looking to Jesus to establish his Kingdom.  The disciples hadn’t grasped that Jesus was not talking about an overthrow of Rome.  He wasn’t talking about that kind of revolutionary change.  They had heard him say the kingdom is here and now, the kingdom is within you, and among you.  But they had a lifetime of looking for another King David.  They remembered when they were a powerful, successful nation and that was the vision for the most part.  They had not been able to wrap their minds around the kind of realm Jesus was talking about.  And now Thomas stood alone in his grief.  His teacher, rabbi and friend is dead. His super hero.   He has just had an overdose of reality and he didn’t like it or grasp it.  He couldn’t see anything hopeful or new ahead of him.  All hope had died on that cross.  This is the Thomas of Reality read on

170416 – E-E-E-E-Easter

Yr A ~ Easter Sunday ~ Matthew 28:1-11

Easter Sunday is always a tricky sermon to preach because more than usual the congregation is an interesting mix of first-timers, some-timers, and all-the-timers. And because it’s Easter, and it’s our biggest celebration of the year, we tend to fill the service up with extra music, and extra liturgical pieces, and communion takes longer, so that means my speaking time is a little shorter than usual. So with less time I get to tackle what is probably the most important, and theologically trickiest, part of the Christian story.e-e-e-e-easter

When I was reading Matthew’s account this year I was struck by the earthquake – well, not literally. The way Matthew’s gospel tells it some women who were followers of Jesus came to the tomb early Sunday morning, found the tomb still sealed, an earthquake happens as angels come and roll the stone away, scaring the guards stiff, and the women are told that Jesus has risen and they leave in fear and joy.

Great story! Lots of action! But if you look at the other three accounts of Easter in the bible the story isn’t exactly the same.
In Mark, Luke, and John the women find the tomb empty and open when they arrive.
In Mark there’s an angel sitting inside the tomb and the women leave with trembling and ecstasy.
In Luke the angels suddenly appear and terrify the women.
And in John it’s Jesus himself who appears and Mary recognizes him but the story doesn’t say anything about how she reacted.

So which one is the right story? All of them, of course.
If you’re coming to these stories looking for factual analysis and a definitive set of historical events you’re coming with the wrong kind of eyes. Gospels are not that kind of writing. Biblical writing in general, and the New Testament writings in particular, are intensely personal.
It’s much more like reading someone’s diary than a textbook. Diaries are not fiction, they’re incredibly personal and biased versions of real life experiences seen through the eyes of someone who has a stake in the telling.

So instead of picking apart the differences among the gospel stories and trying to say they don’t agree so maybe they’re not true (I’m happy to have that discussion another day!) – we should look for the commonalities in the stories and try to discern just what it was that moved the people who wrote them.

What’s common is that some number of women went to the tomb early Sunday morning fully expecting to find Jesus’s dead body there so they could anoint it – and soon after arriving they came to the realization that something quite out of the ordinary was happening.
Jesus was not found dead as expected. There was an empty tomb. There was a dazzling experience of something overwhelmingly spiritual. The women had a reaction to it all – and then they left to share the news.

I can sum that up in four words. Expectation. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing.

The women arrived that morning fully expecting to find Jesus dead in the tomb. Of course they did. Expecting anything else would be ridiculous. They watched him die. They watched him be placed in the tomb. And yet they also had a sense of expectation that there might be Something More to the story.

Jesus had taught them that God is always with them, and that there is a spiritual life pattern of dying and rising, of endings and beginnings, of resurrection. And so even though they fully expected to attend to a dead body they also had some expectations that with God anything is possible, and that maybe there would be more to their story even though they couldn’t possibly see it at that point.

You all came here today with expectations. Whatever reason brought you here you walked through those doors with expectations.
It’s a church service. You pretty much know what to expect.
And it’s Easter, so you pretty much know we’re going to talk about Jesus’ resurrection.
Some of you are here with jubilant expectations, some are here with eye-rolling reluctant expectations of having to endure these three hours (!).
But hopefully all of you are sitting with some expectation that maybe, just maybe, something UN-expected might happen!
Hopefully you’re sitting there expectantly – not really sure what it is you’re hoping for, but quietly hopeful for the possibility of something spiritually wonderful happening.

After the expectation, and especially if one is expectant, comes the encounter. All four gospel accounts tell of the women having a profound spiritual encounter. They all experienced something they described as angelic, or otherworldly. How else do you describe the indescribable? You can’t see or touch the presence of God, so when you encounter it in such a palpable, all-encompassing, powerful way you flail about for words to try to capture it. And the words fail you, because there are no adequate words to describe an encounter with Ultimate Reality, the Really Real, the Holy Mystery we call God. So we assign a placeholder for it – like calling it an angel. Our brains have an image of angels that we can relate to, so it’s like a shorthand for explaining the unexplainable.

In the Easter story the women come to the tomb expecting to find death. Even though they are expectant their logical brains assure them that death awaits. And then, overpowering their reasonable expectations, they have a life-transforming encounter with the very presence of God. You can’t control a God-encounter – all you can do is be open to it, and hopefully allow it to touch you and move you and work its power on you. No one knows what form or shape an encounter with God’s presence will take. But when it happens you can feel it in the absolute depths of your being.
I pray that you will have a God-encounter like that in your life – and hopefully over and over again.

What response do you think you might have to such an awesome encounter?
The women were described as experiencing fear, joy, terror, trembling, and ecstasy. Sounds about right! And after that initial shock where our senses are so overstimulated that we aren’t really sure what to make of an experience, we settle into the same reaction those women had to their God-encounter – elation. Jubilation, delight, euphoria, pick your synonym. They all speak to that heart-soaring feeling of knowing that you’ve encountered something awesome and awe-full and you are absolutely elated by the experience.

You came with low expectations. You had a spiritual encounter. And now your whole world looks different.
It’s like the person you were when you first arrived is gone. There’s a new person here now.
A person touched by God’s presence and changed by it. It’s like having a brand new start – a new life – a new life filled with an awareness that God really is right here, Present, moving, inspiring, and filling your every moment with light and love.

That’s what happened that first Easter morning.
Those women arrived with low expectations, had a spirit-encounter, and came away changed, renewed, and elated. In some mysterious, inexplicable way Jesus was a present reality for them in a new way. His physical body was not reanimated or resuscitated – he’s not a zombie, or a ghost – but he is alive to them in a profoundly new spiritual way. And the only word that comes close to describing that is resurrection. There was a dying, and now there is a rising. There was an ending, and now there is a new beginning. And new life feels great!

Expectation. Encounter. Elation. And what’s next?
Well, when you’ve experienced something as wondrous as those women did don’t you think you’d need to tell someone about it? Could you possibly just keep it to yourself? No way! And so they left the place of low expectations that were transformed by an encounter with the holy, and elated they went off to share their news.

Sharing their good news. We have a special name for sharing good news – it’s evangelism.
And every single one of you is going to do some of that today.
You won’t be able to help yourself. Sometime today (or tomorrow) someone somewhere is going to ask you what you did Sunday morning, or if they already know they’ll ask how church was. When you answer you will be evangelizing!

How will you tell the story of today?
When you leave this place and connect with other people who weren’t here today how will you choose to relate the story of what you experienced this morning?

Will you mention the size of the crowd?
Will you talk about the wonderful music?
Will you include a description of the sanctuary or decorations?
Will you talk about communion, or kids time?
Will you brag about the mortgage burning we’re going to do?
Will you go on and on about the incredibly insightful message?

Will you try to tell the story of Jesus’ resurrection and the reaction of the women at the tomb? If so, which part will you emphasize? Will it be the same parts that I emphasized?

And here’s the really important question: will you tell of your experience this morning the same way that the person beside you will? Or the person over a few rows?
Do you think any two of you would tell the story of this morning in the same way? I doubt it!
Not because you all didn’t experience it authentically but because you all experienced it personally – and whenever a person experiences something it is unique to them alone. And when they tell their story, try as they might to be objective, they can’t help but tell their story.

That’s why I don’t get very bent out of shape about the various versions of the resurrection of Jesus found in the four gospels. Each telling is unique, just like your telling would be. The important thing is that we recognize the spiritual experience at the heart of it.
Expectations. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing. That’s Easter.
Against our expectations we have an encounter with the Holy Mystery we call God and find ourselves elated in the afterglow – because what was over has a fresh start – what was ended has a new beginning in God – what was dead has new life in Spirit. And then we have to talk about it. That’s not just Easter – that’s spirituality!

Each and every one of you has had an Easter experience of some sort this morning. Maybe it wasn’t as powerful and profound as what those women had on the first Easter Sunday – or maybe it was! – but either way you’ve had an Easter experience. You’ll be different when you leave than when you first came in.

Now go and share your experience. Tell your story.
Not to convince someone that your version of events is correct, or your theology is superior, but to invite them to enter this awesome story of exceeded expectations, incredible encounters, and unsurpassed elation for themselves. And then maybe they too will catch their own glimpse of new life, of resurrection, of Easter.

Expectation. Encounter. Elation. Evangelizing. Easter.

Excellent!
Amen.

170414 – Good Friday Reflection

And Then There Was Nothing

And then there was nothing.
No future. No dreams. No Jesus.

How did it come to this?
A few days ago we were waving palms and singing his praises. Maybe we were too loud?
It probably didn’t help that he caused that scene with the money changers. Maybe he went too far?
And when he went toe to toe with the Pharisees on Solomon’s Porch challenging their interpretation of scripture he surely didn’t help his case.
But did he really deserve this?

Was he that offensive to them? Were his words that upsetting? Was his vision of loving God, and others, and one another so threatening that they had to silence him permanently?
Another bitter reminder that Rome doesn’t need much of an excuse to execute another Jew.

And it was awful. It always is. Hanging there until the life drains out of a person. What a terrible way to die.

They made a special effort to mock and ridicule him. Some people get their thrills in really disturbing ways.
He faced it bravely, of course, like you’d expect a man of his faith and character would. Even then he was thinking about other people.

Just before he died he said he was thirsty. How ironic!
All that time sharing his spirit, helping people awaken to God’s Presence, and encouraging people to drink deeply of the living water of God’s love to quench our deepest thirst. All the people who will never thirst again because of him.
And in his darkest moment he too surrendered everything he was to God and thirsted for that Presence that he taught so passionately.
The soldiers misunderstood and gave him some sour wine. One taste was all he needed. As good as he was he couldn’t overcome the sourness of the world.

Then he quietly said, “It is finished.”
He took a breath. And we waited. And there wasn’t another.
And then there was nothing.

It is finished. Finished. Over.
All those years with him.
All those times we hung on every word.
All those days we hoped would last and last because the moment was so beautiful, so glorious, so filled with life.

And then there was nothing.
Finished. Over.
Nothing lasts forever I guess, but we never thought that Jesus would just be gone so quickly.

We had dreams. We’d sit around the fire at night and dream about how things could be the way he described if more people just opened up and received what he was saying.
We dreamed about our leaders not being so hung up on rules and regulations and really starting to hear what Jesus was talking about.
We even dreamed about how it would be if the Romans could wake up too. We met a few who did. So why not all of them? Why not everybody? Why couldn’t the whole world open up their eyes and see that God was all around them and filling them up with light and love with every breath?
It would be like heaven on earth!

And when Jesus talked like that it seemed like it was so obvious that we thought it was going to happen any moment – that the whole world could be transformed and changed.

But it wasn’t.
If Jesus couldn’t make it happen I don’t know who can.

What are we supposed to do now?
How am I supposed to wake up tomorrow and go on?
It’s over. This thing that I’ve given my life to is over.
I just can’t see where to go from here. What am I supposed to do now that a giant block has been put in the road?

Everything I dreamed about is gone.
Everything I counted on is gone.
Everything I thought was going to happen is different now.
I mean, we were just flying, everything was happening for us, it was like we could do no wrong…and then there was nothing.

If Jesus was still here he’d probably tell us to take a deep breath and pray. That was his answer for everything. Pray. Wait. Trust. God is here. Notice.
Well, here we are, on the cusp of the Sabbath, we can’t do anything else anyway, so I guess we might as well pray. And pray. And pray. And pray.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the best thing.
Just be still, and know that God is God, and God is here, and we’re not alone. That’s what he taught us.

Maybe a day spent doing nothing but praying is exactly what Saturday should look like after this day of endings.
Maybe things will look different after a Sabbath day – God’s day.

Jesus always said the end is a chance for a new beginning.
And I will pray with all my might all day tomorrow that he was right.
And I’ll wait. And hope. And notice.

But it’s so hard – because just a moment ago it felt like things were so different – and then there was nothing.
So now I’ll pray, now and all day tomorrow, for…something More.

170413 – Maundy Thursday Reflection

One Another
John 13:34-35

It was so important and so innovative that they named a whole religious holiday about it. And yet it’s so obvious and such common sense.
Or maybe not. Maybe that’s the problem.
Maybe it should be common sense but our own stuff gets in the way and we miss it. Maybe that’s what happened?

We call it Maundy Thursday after the Latin word mandatum from which we get our word mandate, which is another word for command or commandment. In other words we call it Commandment Thursday. But it isn’t one of the famous 10 that Moses got on the mountaintop. And it isn’t what Jesus called the greatest commandment – which is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength – or even its partner command to love others as we love ourselves.

No, this is a whole new commandment – a commandment to love one another.
Love one another. We say it so often in church – but have you ever stopped to really think about it? Love one another.

If there were only two of us we could say love each other, and we’d be on the right track. ‘Another’ means to add something, someone, of a similar sort. Not an ‘other’ as in something or someone different – that one already has a commandment – love others – love the stranger, love the person you encounter, love your enemy even.

But this new commandment is clearly aiming us at people like us.
Like us how? Followers of Jesus’ Way, of course. Fellow disciples.

And that should be common sense, shouldn’t it? – to love people like yourself, to love your fellow journeyers. And maybe it is, I don’t know. But then, why did Jesus make it a commandment?

And he made quite a production out of delivering it too! He took the role of a servant and washed all of his disciples’ feet – even Peter who protested at first. And after he did that act of humble service he told them that he was giving them a new commandment – to love one another as he, Jesus, had loved them.

The dictionary says that the idea of ‘one another’ means that what’s going on is reciprocal – that it’s something given or felt by each toward the other.
There’s an equality about it. It’s egalitarian.

It means to be mutual – to embody mutuality. Me and you, and you and her, and her and them, and him and me, and us together. Mutuality.

But it’s mutuality without a sense of owing anyone anything. It’s mutuality for the sake of love – selfless giving for the betterment of the others – and their giving, or loving, back to you.
It’s not give and take – it’s give and give!

In Jesus’ version of mutuality there’s no one-upping, no score-keeping, no ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’, no ‘they did that for me so I guess I have to return the favour’.
Jesus didn’t command us to transact business with one another he said to love one another.
Love.

Maybe that’s why he felt like he had to call it a commandment – because if he didn’t our own stuff would probably get in the way and we’d turn it into a contest.

But love’s no contest – it’s just giving for the joy of giving – helping for the satisfaction of helping – supporting for the benefit of stronger one-anothers.
And knowing that when it’s your time the giving, helping, and supporting will flow – not because you’ve earned it but because we’re part of one another and we love one another.

We love one another for our mutual benefit and for the strengthening of the body of Christ.
That’s why we can’t be solo Christians.
We need one another – like Jesus needed his disciples.

And in the end, that’s what undid them all, and especially Jesus.

They didn’t all love him like he loved them.

Some were plotting rebellion and were awaiting their chance.
Some wanted to be the right hand men.
And one sold them all out for a few bucks.

That’s not mutuality, that’s selfishness.
That’s not building one another up, that’s tearing everyone down.
That’s not giving for the sake of giving, that’s taking for your own sake.

Jesus never did that.
But the disciples did.
His followers did.
His friends did.
I do – too often.

And on this night, all those years ago, Judas did.

And what happens when commandments to love are ignored?
The opposite of love happens.
The opposite of mutuality happens.
The opposite of a basin and a towel happens.
Our own stuff gets in the way and something like a cross happens.

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Will you?

170409 – TheoSpeak-Jesus

Yr A ~ Palm Sunday ~ Matthew 21:1-11

I want to jump right to the heart of this story and really wrestle with its central question. Jesus and his disciples are arriving at Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. This is an annual pilgrimage that thousands upon thousands of Jews would have made utterly swelling the population of the city and creating a potential tinderbox of rebellion and trouble – especially since Passover has definite political undertones of releasing occupied people from their bondage.who-is-this-question

That meant that the Roman army who were occupying the territory in a most brutal manner would have been on high alert and displaying their full power. Picture the police presence at a G20 demonstration and then amplify it many times. These aren’t well-meaning people looking to serve and protect – these are mean and nasty soldiers looking to violently quash any form of unrest.

And in strolls Jesus.
Except he doesn’t stroll in, does he.
No, according to Matthew’s version he comes in like a royal procession. Matthew clearly wants his primarily Jewish audience to make the direct connection of Jesus with the procession of the Messiah on a donkey in the book of Zechariah. This is no accident: it’s a very carefully constructed piece of political theatre. There is absolutely no way that a person of Jesus’ intellect and experience would not know that this royal procession he was at the centre of would be a blatant and pointed provocation of the powers that be. Jesus is not naïve. According to Matthew, Jesus was thumbing his nose at both Rome and the Jewish authorities by entering in this way.

Let’s talk about the three crowds for a minute. Each crowd represents where we might stand as we relate to Jesus. Some of the crowds are part of the political theatre, others are watching it, but all of them have a relationship with Jesus.

There is the crowd that is out in front of Jesus, laying down their cloaks, and cutting down branches and placing them before him. Think about the crowds at the front of any demonstration – they are the trail blazers. They clear the way for the movement to happen. They are the ones who come up against the opposition first and strongest. In this story they are probably the people most committed to Jesus and his Way – willing to risk all for him. Are you in that crowd?

Then there’s the crowd behind him. They are still part of the parade as opposed to being on the sidelines, but they are following. They’re committed but not as demonstrative about it. I don’t want to undersell how risky even being part of the parade in any way was, but the crowd behind’s experience would be different than the crowd in front’s experience. They are still shouting Hosanna and whatnot, but they aren’t at the forefront. Are you in that crowd?

Then there’s the crowd watching. Matthew 21:10, When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?”

The third crowd is the whole city and it was in turmoil because of Jesus! Can you imagine what that was like?
The word translated as turmoil literally means to shake, to agitate. The whole city was shaking, agitated, stirred up. What would it take to stir up or agitate our city and draw a crowd?

We have the benefit of television, and news, and the internet, and social media. If something happens nowadays word about it can spread virally in a matter of minutes and everyone can hear about it.

But there was no Twitter or Facebook or CNN back then.

How powerful an entrance into Jerusalem must that have been to have the ability to stir up the whole city and agitate them simply by word of mouth?! And it wasn’t just the Jewish people who heard about it. You can be sure that the Roman occupiers were just as agitated by this, that the Jewish religious authorities saw it as a direct threat, and that everyone seemed to be asking the same question that we’re asking right now:
Who is this?

Chances are, because you’re sitting here in a worship service, you are probably not part of the on-looking crowd but already part of the parade of Jesus – walking in his Way – sharing the journey with him. Some of us might be at the front of the parade – others might be at the back – but all of us are likely already part of the movement. Guess what?
That means that we are the agitators! We are the ones shaking up the status quo. We are the ones stirring up questions.

It didn’t used to be that way… read on

170402 – TheoSpeak-Resurrection

Yr A ~ Lent 5 ~ John 11:1-46

(A Monologue)
Four days ago Mary and I sent a note to Jesus telling him that our brother Lazarus, who Jesus loves, was ill. We were hoping that Jesus would come right away, but he didn’t, and our brother Lazarus died. When I heard that Jesus was finally coming – too late – I went out to meet him. I spoke with one of his disciples who told me that Jesus had received our note much earlier but chose to not come right away saying that Lazarus’ illness was not the kind that leads to death. And yet he died.here-and-now

I wasn’t really sure what I was going to say to Jesus, but when I saw him I blurted out, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” I don’t know what I expected, or what I wanted him to say or do, but I knew that he and God were as one so I just left it for him to decide.

Jesus said to me, “Martha, your brother will rise again.” I said, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” That’s what our Jewish faith believes – that at the end of days all who are righteous would be resurrected. I was grateful that Jesus had judged Lazarus to be righteous. I mean, he was a very good, faithful man. He deserves resurrection in the last days!

Then Jesus said something I’ll never forget. He looked me very intently in the eyes and said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And he asked me if I believed that. To be honest, I’m not sure I completely understood him, but I trusted him, and so I said, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

I pondered that as I went and got Mary. She was at home mourning with friends and relatives. When she came she flung herself at Jesus’ feet, as usual, and started loudly weeping and wailing. The mourners who followed her did the same.

I noticed that Jesus had a strange reaction to all this. It was like he was really angry or something. His face looked like a snorting animal! I couldn’t figure out what made him so mad. Was it that Lazarus had died? Was it my questions? Was it the wailing? I’m still not sure.

Jesus asked where Lazarus’ body was, so they showed him. Jesus softly and quietly shed a tear. You could tell he loved Lazarus! But that didn’t stop the grumbling I heard behind me as somebody wondered out loud why Jesus couldn’t heal Lazarus like he did the blind man!

Then, as Jesus turned toward the tomb that angry look, or maybe it was frustration, came back to his face. He asked that the stone be rolled away. I couldn’t help but speak up about the smell. After all, Lazarus had been in there four days. It would not be pleasant at all.

Jesus’ face softened again as he looked at me and reminded me to trust in God and trust in him and his teaching. Sometimes that’s hard!

And he prayed a strange prayer – because usually Jesus prayed in silence, but here it was like he wanted everyone to be sure that what he was doing was about God’s presence and power and not just his. And with a loud voice he said, “Lazarus, come forth!”

I was stunned! I mean, my brother was dead. Death was the end, until the final resurrection. Nothing could change that. What did Jesus think he was doing?

And the next thing I knew Lazarus was standing there!!! I don’t think I’ll ever know what to make of that.

And Jesus said to unbind Lazarus so he could experience new life. I wonder if that’s what Jesus meant by saying “I am the resurrection and the life”? I wonder if new life now is what we’re supposed to embrace? I know that after today I will! And lots of people who were there that day understood it too.

But some didn’t get it. Some went off to tell the Pharisees that Jesus was teaching strange and contrary things to how we’d always learned it.

But as for me, and my sister Mary, and my brother Lazarus, we will never forget that for all of us new life began today!

~~~
I have to start with a confession. I’ve always really disliked this story. In all my years of ministry I’ve managed to avoid having to preach it. I gave you some hints in that monologue about where I landed after wrestling with it this week. Seeing it through the eyes of the wonderful character of Martha really helped me come to a new and better place about this story. But I’ll begin with telling you why it has always irked me! read on

170326 – TheoSpeak-Seeing

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Yr A ~ Lent 4 ~ John 9:13–41

Unlike some of the scripture passages we get to tackle, this one is not a particularly deep story. It’s obvious what the intention is from the start using the simple metaphor of blindness and sight. So this morning I’m just going to retell and amplify the story and hopefully we will “see” what Jesus wants us to see! We’re going to pick up the story after Jesus has enacted the healing.eyes-to-see

John 9:13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.
Sadly, in their culture blindness was seen as a punishment for sinfulness, and sinfulness meant you were unclean and excluded from both religious life and much of societal life.
We don’t do that. We don’t equate disability of any kind with sin – at all – and if you do even a little, stop!
But in their culture they did, and that’s why the blind man was a beggar, because he was considered “unclean”. So if a blind person is suddenly able to see then it would be a sign that they are no longer sinful, and in order to be accepted back into society they would need to get the “cleanliness stamp of approval” from the Pharisees. That meant the Pharisees had a lot of power!

Verse 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened the man’s eyes.
This is crucial for understanding the story. It wasn’t that Jesus healed him that was the problem – it was that he dared to heal him on the Sabbath! The Sabbath was a holy day where you were not allowed to do work of any kind, and performing healings was considered work. So Jesus broke the law by healing the man on the wrong day!

That probably sounds ridiculous to us, but for the Pharisees, who kept the letter of the law, it was a very serious offense. And the really confusing part is that Jesus would also preach about keeping the Sabbath – the difference here was the Pharisees were actually undermining the Sabbath by adhering to the letter of the law and ignoring the spirit.

John 9:15-16 Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “The man who did this healing is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And the Pharisees were divided.

It was the first and last time ever that a group of church leaders couldn’t agree on something!
Ok, obviously I’m kidding. And speaking of comedy…

John 9:18-21 The Jews didn’t believe it, didn’t believe the man was blind to begin with. So they called the parents of the man. They asked them, “Is this your son, the one you say was born blind? So how is it that he now sees?”

His parents said, “Umm, we know he is our son, and we know he was born blind. But we don’t know how he came to see – haven’t a clue about who opened his eyes. Why don’t you ask him? He’s a grown man and can speak for himself.”

The Pharisees are looking for ways to discredit the healing so they can sidestep their religious dilemma – which is: how can a man who’s a sinner for breaking the Sabbath rule do such godly things?

But there’s something else I need to say here. Listen to verse 22: read on

170319 – TheoSpeak-Need

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Yr A ~ Lent 3 ~ John 4:5–30

It was absolutely scandalous!
If you knew more about their culture you’d know just how scandalous it really was. jesus-woman-well9
Women and men simply didn’t speak with one another if they weren’t with others, and it was definitely a no-no for a good Jew to speak with the despised Samaritans, and even more so a Samaritan woman. Speaking to her would have made Jesus “unclean” by Jewish standards.

On top of all that, women normally gathered for water early in the day and it was a social time for them – but this encounter takes place at noon suggesting that our heroine was not welcome in the morning group. That makes her an outcast – probably because of her multiple marriages.
And in the conversation between her and Jesus she is certainly not demure and deferential – she’s giving as good as she gets! So this is a culturally scandalous scene.

And if you knew more about theology you’d know that it was indeed absolutely scandalous, but for completely different reasons.
It was absolutely scandalous that Jesus’ disciples would look at something that Jesus, their mentor, was doing and because it crossed some of the accepted social norms of their day they assumed the worst. It was scandalous that these religious guys were so quick to judge.
It was scandalous that they couldn’t see the transformation that had just happened.
And it was scandalous that the disciples didn’t see that while they were off trying to meet their low level need for sustenance this ostracized woman was awakening to a much deeper need within herself.

The storytelling here is problematic because there are several things that don’t make much sense. Jesus and the disciples were travelling through somewhat hostile territory because Jews and Samaritans were enemies, so for a dozen disciples to all go into town for food and leave Jesus all alone is highly unlikely.
And the bit in the middle about Jesus telling the woman how many husbands she’d had doesn’t serve much of a theological purpose other than sullying her character.
But if we take the story in broad strokes and don’t get too hung up on some of its quirks there is some wonderful theology and spirituality in it.

It’s no accident that this story is placed right after the story of Nicodemus that we looked at last week. The juxtaposition is intriguing! Nicodemus was an upstanding man who came to Jesus under the cloak of night, representing secrecy and unknowing.
In contrast, this woman was presumably a disgraced person who came to Jesus in the full light of day.
You’ll notice that Jesus welcomed them both. He made no judgements.
And to both he offered profound insights into the nature of spirituality – and both of them pretty much missed the point. At first.

Like we talked about last week, Jesus is offering a profound paradigm shift from a religious world of rules and regulations to a personal, spiritual relationship with the Holy Mystery we call God. Nicodemus learned that to embrace that new paradigm is like being born anew. Now it’s the woman at the well’s turn. read on

170312 – TheoSpeak-Spirit

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Yr A ~ Lent 2 ~ John 3:1-17

Sacred conversations that reveal deep things about theology are our theme for this season of Lent, and today we have a conversation that Jesus settled once and for all, but for some reason his followers have struggled with it for around 2000 years now and we still haven’t all got it straight.theospeak-spirit

The quandary is set on the lips of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night – suggesting both that he’s doing it in secret because Pharisees were generally against Jesus, and also that the night symbolizes his not understanding. Nicodemus represents the institutional, educated, scientific, rational world – you know, us. That’s us.

We love rational, scientific explanations for things. Despite a recent fondness for “alternative facts” for many people today if you can’t prove something it isn’t true.
Although, to be fair, that attitude is changing in the actual scientific community and they are much more open to wonder and mystery these days, but the general public is still mostly caught in the “show me” phase.

Nicodemus begins by acknowledging Jesus’ authority, but he doesn’t even get a question out before Jesus bakes his poor brain.
His confusion comes from the Greek word anāothen which can be equally translated into English as again, above, and anew. And when you add the word “born” before that the fun starts!

Jesus says, Very truly [literally, Amen, amen], I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.”

And Nicodemus falls into the classic trap of trying to apply a physical, scientific lens to a spiritual, metaphorical thing. He hears “born again” as being impossible – and uses the graphically hilarious image of a person climbing back in their mother’s womb. Not happening!

So we need to turn to the other meanings of anāothen: “born from above”, which gets us part way there but still is problematic because it makes it seem like God is out there or up there – or we can go to “born anew”.

And for me, all of a sudden this whole passage makes way more sense.
It’s not that born again or born from above are wrong, it’s just that born anew says what I think Jesus means so much more helpfully.

He’s not talking about a biological birth. He’s talking about a spiritual birth – a spiritual awakening, a spiritual renewal.
Why is that so hard to understand?

John 3:6-8 Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Of course it’s poetic. Of course it’s cryptic.
He’s trying to explain to Nicodemus – and us – that this whole spiritual God-thing is all mystery and wonder and especially relationship.
He doesn’t just say we are to be renewed in the Spirit, he says we are to be reborn in the Spirit. Being born implies there’s a parent, a nurturer, a person who loves you beyond all else.

That’s very different than a series of sacrificial transactions that Nicodemus was accustomed to. For Nicodemus and the Pharisees, if you sin you need to pay this penalty of two doves, or a sheep, or whatever. God stands far off as judge and disciplinarian demanding retribution for misdeeds.

But Jesus paints a picture of something very different – he describes a loving parent who gives birth to a renewed person ‘by the Spirit’.
And Christians have been missing that fundamental point ever since. read on

170305 – Theospeak-God

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Yr A ~ Lent 1 ~ Matthew 4:1-11

As with many passages of scripture in the bible today’s reading from Matthew lends itself to multiple interpretations – and that’s a good thing because in one form or other the story of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness is used every year to start off the season of Lent. Even someone with no church experience at all probably has sense of what the story is basically about – especially if they ever watched cartoons as a kid and saw images of people with a little devil on one shoulder trying to talk the person into doing something wrong and an angel appears on the other shoulder to save the day.theospeak-god

That sense of personal, ethical choosing is a valid approach to take to interpret this passage. But of course, we’re going to take it in a different direction. Today I’m going to suggest that this story is not really about Jesus at all but primarily it’s about God and how we ought to relate to God. But before we dig into that we need to go through the story and make sure we are seeing what it is saying and not just relying on our memory of cartoons past!

To begin, it’s important to locate this story in Matthew’s time line.
The temptation of Jesus happens immediately after the baptism of Jesus where he emerges from the water and has an overwhelming experience of communion with the Holy Spirit – it descends like a dove and rests on him! Immediately after the temptations he announces that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near (like he just experienced in the water), and invites people to turn around and notice it, and he finds a few disciples.
Then in the next chapter he teaches all about the Kingdom of Heaven through his Sermon on the Mount which we just spent the last month or so on.
Ok, do you have the sequence? Baptism, temptation, announcement about the Kingdom, and teaching about the Kingdom.

So…my question is when did he become so wise about this Kingdom of Heaven thing? You might argue that he’s Jesus and he just knows these things, but that denies the need for him to go through things like baptism and temptation. If he already knew everything he doesn’t need to have a spiritual transformation – and a spiritual transformation is precisely what’s going on here! read on

170219 – On Planting and Watering

Our 20th Anniversary service featuring as guest preacher: The Rev. Dr. John Young

 (full text below)

 

I want to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here with you today.  To be asked to speak at an anniversary service is a particular honour.  But my pleasure today comes from two sources.  First, Larry is a former student but, more significantly, someone of whom I think very highly and value as a friend and colleague in ministry.  Second, church amalgamations are challenging things to pull off, and Faith United Church is an example of as successful an amalgamation as I know.  Indeed, I do not know of one more successful, though I am aware of many that have been far less successful.  So, I want to congratulate you on the success of that amalgamation, one involving first two congregations and then at a later point, Harmony United Church.

I chose a reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  I shall come back to some specifics of the passage later, but I want to begin by talking a little bit about that church in Corinth.  We do not know a lot about it.  But we know a few things.  First, it was a church Paul founded.  He spent about eighteen months there before moving on either to found other congregations or to try to strengthen other congregations someone else had founded.  Eighteen months was a long time for Paul to stay in one place.  Generally he moved around a lot, visiting an existing congregation in one place, trying to start a new congregation somewhere else.  The Christian church at this point in time, twenty years or so after Jesus’ death, was not the kind of institution we think of today.  When Paul was writing, Christianity was a movement; there was nothing we would recognize as an institutional church.  Congregations existed as independent entities with little contact between them.  I use the term “congregations,” but that term could mislead.  These early congregations met in people’s homes.  A well-to-do early church member or family might have been able to accommodate thirty or forty people in their home with its accompanying courtyard, but many early Christian churches probably had a group of between fifteen and twenty gathering for worship.  We do not know the size of the Corinthian congregation, though we know from other things in the letter that the congregation did have some well-to-do members, so it is possible we have a group here of thirty or so.  My point is that these early churches to whom Paul wrote were not large, and they did not have buildings like the one in which we gather this morning.

Another important thing about the church in Corinth—they had not been around a long time at the point Paul wrote this letter to them.  We are celebrating Faith’s twentieth anniversary this morning.  The church in Corinth was probably three or four years old at the time Paul wrote.

A final thing about the congregation in the early 50s of the Common Era, the time from which this letter comes.  The church in Corinth, like all the Christian congregations, functioned in a wider society that knew nothing or next to nothing about what this new religious group believed, how it worshipped, or what it required of its adherents.  Those in the wider society who did have some knowledge of this new religion were generally ambivalent toward it, though some may have expressed a mild hostility.  An active persecution of the Christian church would come at a later time, but such was not a reality when this letter was written.

Paul, both in this passage, and in his letter as a whole, had three goals.  He wanted the Corinthian Christians to see that, as a congregation, they were involved in something God has initiated and maintains.  He wanted them to be a united community.  And he hoped to have them catch the vision of what they were called to do and to be.

Those three points of Paul’s are relevant to us in our time.  While the Christian church has been around for a long time, the environment in which we operate bears, I think, a striking resemblance to that in which the church functioned during the first several generations of its existence.  Then, as now, the wider society knows little if anything about who we are or what we do when we worship.  Then, as now, the values we have as Christians differ from those of the wider society.

Let me now come back to those three things Paul wants the church in Corinth to recognize.  The first is that they are involved in something God has initiated.   Enid DeCoe read the first nine verses of chapter 3 for us this morning.  In that section of the chapter, Paul spoke of the Church as God’s field and God’s building.  If I had asked Enid DeCoe read the entire chapter, the reference to God’s building would have been developed much more than it is here, and we would have discovered Paul also used a third image for the Church, namely that it was God’s temple.  By temple, Paul did not mean a building, but, rather, a place in which God’s spirit dwelt.  Paul’s point to the church in Corinth, whose members tended to think about their status, and what they would accomplish, and the gifts they had, was that they were part of something God had initiated.  In making this point, Paul was not saying that they did not have a role to play with those gifts they had.  However, he wanted to stress that God was the one who had brought the church into being for God’s own purposes.  Their temptation was to stress the gifts they had, what they brought to the Church.  Now Paul never, here or elsewhere, advocated passivity on the part of the Christians.  Remember this same letter to the Corinthians is one in which Paul used as an analogy for the Church the human body—the human body with each part needing to contribute or to do its part if the whole body is to function as it should.  But in this chapter, with his reference to the Church as God’s field, or God’s building, or, later in the chapter, God’s temple, Paul wanted to remind the Christian Church in Corinth that the Church is something God had established.  They had a part to play, but the Church was God’s entity, and God would use their gifts in ways beyond their imagining.

We, too, need to hear this message.  We live in a society where we are taught from the time we are very young that everything depends upon us.  Indeed, our culture exudes this philosophy in all aspects of life.  Paul’s challenge to the Church of his day applies to us to.  It is not that we should be passive and live as though the world owes us a living or that the Church will prosper if we sit back.  However, what we need to do is to use our gifts as best we can, to give of ourselves as best we can, knowing that God can and will take and use these efforts of ours in ways beyond our imagining.  Those who founded St. Andrew’s United Church, or Courtice United Church, or Harmony United Church could not have imagined this future.  In this passage, Paul challenged a party spirit that had developed in the church in Corinth.  He noted that, as the founder of the church in Corinth, he had planted; a successor of his, Apollos, had watered; but it was God who had given the growth.  So, too, God takes our gifts, the planting by some, the watering by others, and develops those gifts.

A second challenge of Paul’s in this letter was community formation in two senses of that term.  He wanted to from a community, to get the Corinthians away from identifying with one leader or another.  In the opening chapter of this letter, Paul criticized the way the Corinthians had divided into parties.  It seems that some persons had identified with Paul as the founder of the community, while others had identified with Apollos, as a subsequent leader of the community. Paul made the point that he and Apollos had both had important roles, one as the founder or “planter” of the community and the other as the developer of the community or the one who “watered.”  However, Paul also made clear that such identifications were far from what either he or Apollos, not to mention God, wanted to see.  He and Apollos had played different roles, but their commonality was serving God in the leadership they offered to this new congregation.  Their common purpose was the growth of the congregation, and the congregation needed to see itself as one community.

As an amalgamated congregation, and a congregation that has developed its own identity following this two stage amalgamation involving three different congregations, you have had to be intentional about thinking of yourselves as one community.  You have had to work to be one community, Faith United Church.  From what I have heard, you have managed to do that in a most remarkable way.  You have become one and learned to think of yourselves in that way.  You have been able to do what Paul was working to persuade the church in Corinth to do.

But there is a second way to think about community formation.  This second way also applied to the church in Corinth and it applies to us.  Paul wanted to form a community designed to follow in Jesus’ way, a community of disciples, a Christian community.  He saw the need for a process of formation, for teaching the faith tradition and for preparing them for the life to which they had been called.  As Christians, that way of being differed from the norms of the world and culture in which they lived.  Part of their unity problem arose because in the surrounding society people sought leadership positions for status and power.  So, attaching themselves to a previous leader, saying that they were “of Paul” or “of Apollos,” was to follow the way of that society.  Some of Paul’s criticisms of them later in this letter concerned the sense to which they had retained their culture’s practice of valuing people on the basis of their race, or their gender, or their wealth.

Third, Paul wanted them to catch a vision of what they were called to do and who they were called to be.  This third hope of Paul’s may apply to us even more than the two previous ones.  Paul was quite clear that to become a Christian was to become counter-cultural in many ways, even if he did not use the term “counter-cultural.”  To be a Christian in our society is to have an alternative vision as to how the world can be, and when I say, “an alternative vision,” I mean a vision different from what our society and our culture sees as “normal.”  At one time the Church and the society seemed relatively close in the values we held.  That certainly seemed to be true when I was a child.  That said, I do not think the overlap then was nearly as great as we believed it to be.  Certainly it is not so now.  Our contemporary congregations, congregations like Faith United Church, need to help to form those who come here as Christians, as those who know the faith tradition and who are also prepared to try to live their lives according to it.

We live in a society that says what we have has come to us as a result of our own efforts; we practise a faith tradition that says that what we have comes to us as grace, as God’s gift.  Yes, we need to work at those gifts and develop them, but I did not choose the country of my birth, or the family that gave me much love, or any one of a number of other things that have helped to make me who I am.  Those things were gift; they were not my accomplishment.

We are part of a society that encourages us to look after ourselves and not to worry about anyone else.  Watch carefully the ads for investment counsellors or financial advisors that one sees on TV or that pop up when you are looking at something on line.  Our faith tradition tells us we need to love our neighbours as ourselves and to share what we have.

Our culture teaches us that our happiness lies in owning a particular type of car or having a house of a particular size, or having a TV with a very large screen.  None of these things are bad.  But none of them are the basis for our ultimate happiness.  And a consumer driven way of life that sets our valuing of ourselves on the basis of what we possess is proving toxic for the environmental capacity of our planet.  We are part of a faith tradition that says we find meaning in life through loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbours as ourselves.

In other words, our faith tradition provides us with an alternative picture for what the world should be, a picture different from the images we would draw from our culture.  In their book, Minding the Law, Anthony Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner assert, correctly I think, that every culture is, at its base, a “negotiated” compromise between what is “already established” and what is “imaginatively possible.”  Every culture has battles over how to conceive reality, that is, over what is real and over how things ought to be.  Or, to quote Amsterdam and Bruner, “In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”[1]  In the Christian church, we have an alternative imagination.  We do not have alternative facts, but we do have an alternative imagination of how our world could be, of how it could look.  In such a world, we would not have ongoing boil water advisories in a large number of indigenous communities here in Canada.  We would have more initiatives like the United Church Women’s one of several years ago that raised a large sum of money for maternal care in Tanzania.

Like the church Paul was working to correct and to create, Faith United Church needs to be a place where people can learn about and grow in the faith tradition.  Indeed, that must be, or become, the reality for all our congregations.  All our congregations need to be places that help provide an alternative imagination, an imagination that can picture the world as we believe God would want it to be.  Hopefully our congregations are also ones that strengthen us not only to have such an imagination but also to work to bring that imagined world into being.

The United Methodist congregation at which I worshipped while doing my doctoral degree in Dallas celebrated its 25th anniversary during the time I was there. A hymn writer who was a member of the congregation wrote a hymn for the occasion, hymn that was picked up by a number of hymnals though not, alas, by ours.  However, I want to close with two stanzas from that hymn, for they capture well both a sense of what we owe to those who have gone before us, both here and in the history of the congregations who came together to form Faith, and a sense of what we contribute to a future for this congregation, a future that runs beyond what we can foresee.  Here are the two stanzas from Jane Marshall’s hymn “What Gift can we Bring”:

Give thanks for the past, for those who had vision,
who planted and watered so dreams could come true.
Give thanks for the Now, for study, for worship,
for mission that bids us turn prayer into deed.

Give thanks for Tomorrow, full of surprises,
for knowing whatever Tomorrow may bring,
the Word is our promise always, forever,
we rest in God’s keeping and live in God’s love.

In the days that lie head, may we water what others have planted, and plant for those who will come after us.  And to that God, in whose keeping we rest and in whose love we live, be all honour, glory, and praise, Amen.

 

[1] Quoted in Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), p. vii.

170212 – But I Say ~ Love

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 6 ~ Matthew 5:38-48

I think I’ll start at the end of today’s scripture passage, and then go way back to the beginning of the whole section, and then do some highlights! Because if I don’t start at the end there’s a word that will hang over the whole proceedings today and unhelpfully colour how you hear anything I may say. I want a different word to hang over us. I want the word love to be ringing in your ears this morning, but I fear the word you’ve already latched onto is perfect. It comes from the last verse of today’s reading, Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.but-i-say-love

Does that trip you up? Are you thinking that perfection is impossible so why bother even trying? Are you thinking Jesus is bonkers?
I wouldn’t blame you for thinking those things, if Jesus was talking about actually being perfect. But again, as happens so often, he isn’t. How we hear the word is not how the word was intended.

We hear the word perfect and we think “without fault or error, flawless.” We can probably agree that God is without fault or error but we are absolutely positive that we are not!
Try hard? Yes. Perfect? Not on your life.
But even in English that is only one very limited meaning of the word. Happily, that is not what this verse means.

The Greek word is teleios which primarily means “mature, full grown, complete in all its parts.” Perfect because the goal has been consummated. Jesus is not asking us to strive to be flawlessly perfect but to strive to be mature, and full grown or fully orbed in our faith. God is obviously the fullest completeness of loving-kindness and holiness, for God is love. We can’t be God (that job’s taken) but we can absolutely strive for spiritual maturity and depth. We can strive to love like Jesus, like God.

So if we start there – knowing that the goal here is not perfection but maturity – then maybe we can hear the whole thing in a much better light. Now let’s go back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters in Matthew’s gospel, but we’ve only had time to do the first chapter of it, chapter 5. We’ve done it as a four-part series (and today’s the last one).

The overarching theme of Jesus’ teaching is about the kingdom of heaven. The kingdom of heaven is nothing less than a full-blown reordering of reality with God and God’s values at the centre.
It’s a spiritual orientation that we can be immersed in right here, right now.
It’s a realm and a way of being that is utterly and inescapably enfolded and immersed in God’s Presence and God’s love.
Jesus is inviting his disciples, his followers, us, into that kingdom, into that love, right at the start of the journey. read on

170205 – But I Say ~ Transcend

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 5 ~ Matthew 5:21-32

I know what you’re thinking: “Is he actually going to preach on murder, anger, indebtedness, adultery, lust, sin, and divorce today?” Yes he is! Except, no he isn’t! Because this text isn’t actually about those things. Well, it is, but it really isn’t! How do you like this so far?but-i-say-transcend

Unfortunately, texts like these have been used to argue for all sorts of very unhelpful things, in my opinion. I suspect more than a few of you have been pinched by texts like these. So I’d like to begin by apologizing for those in my profession who have profoundly missed the point. Preachers have stood in pulpits time after time and railed on and on about how Jesus is telling us what appropriate behaviour is for a follower of his Way.

Except that’s precisely NOT what Jesus is doing. But preaching on behaviour, and measuring behaviour, and judging behaviour seems so “religious” and it’s so easy to do. Well, I don’t think Jesus cared two figs for what seemed religious and he definitely was not about taking the easy road. In fact, this whole section of the Sermon on the Mount is about taking the hard road, the high road, the road less travelled by.

It’s a text about raising the bar for his followers. If, as you read it, you’re thinking that he raised it too far, that it would be impossible to ever live up to it and he’s dooming us all to failure, I’m going to suggest you’re missing his real point. And the main reason for that is that we think he’s talking to us, which he is, except he isn’t!

What Jesus is all about here is culture change. His newly called disciples have lived immersed in a transactional culture of “requirement and reward” or “infraction and fine” where keeping the letter of the law was rewarded and breaking the letter of the law required payments, or sacrifices, or penance of some kind.
In contrast to that Jesus paints a picture of a kingdom of heaven with values that challenge us to go above and beyond the requirements of the letter of the law and live according to a higher standard. To make his point he uses a classic form of discourse called hyperbole. It means he exaggerates for effect. He goes to extremes to underline his message.

This is the part that he’s not talking to us about because we have not lived in that transactional culture. Sure, we may tend to follow the world’s values of rewarding good rule-followers and punishing those who disobey, and that’s ok as far as it goes, but we’ve never been required to submit to religious purity codes and make sacrifices of birds or animals to clean our slate.

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So the main thing Jesus is doing by using this hyperbolic language is to shock his disciples out of their conventional mindset and get them to begin to reimagine the values they should live by. That’s not our mindset so the tone of the passage confuses us.

This is crucially important for our understanding of this teaching of Jesus. Without knowing that we will misinterpret what he’s saying about anger and lust and divorce and think he’s setting impossible standards that we inevitably break and then we feel terrible and beat ourselves up about it. That is entirely not the point.

The point is about a new mindset for living kingdom values. And here he brilliantly uses the “You have heard it said…but I say” device. read on

170129 – But I Say~Shine

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Yr A ~ Epiphany 4 ~ Matthew 5:13-20

So that. These are two very powerful little words.
So that. It’s kind of too bad that they’re such small words because if we’re not careful it’s pretty easy to breeze right over them. I’m about to argue that these two little words are among the most important and crucial for understanding Jesus’ teaching.but-i-say-shine

Jesus is a master at painting word pictures and using parables to come at his meaning sideways because if he came straight on he’d probably ruffle too many feathers with how audacious his message was. Today’s reading isn’t a parable, but it does paint some amazing pictures that are powerful enough to be the whole message but then he zaps us with a “so that” that shows us what his real meaning is.

When you say “so that” you’re saying that everything you’ve said previously is the build-up, the groundwork, the foundational concepts that you’re working with. I’m not saying that everything before the “so that” doesn’t matter – in fact, I’m saying the opposite. It matters greatly, because you need a strong theological foundation in order to launch your “so that.” So let’s start with that foundation.

First, we need to set the context. Remember that this is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teaching. It’s the first real teaching he did in the gospel of Matthew, and the indications in the text are that at this point he’s still talking to his newly formed inner circle of freshly called disciples.

The Sermon on the Mount began with the Beatitudes which were all about describing Christian values, or more specifically kingdom values – values which stand in stark contrast to the usual conventional wisdom of the world’s values. If you remember our discussion of that passage two weeks ago we underlined how important utter surrender to God is for understanding the kingdom Jesus speaks of and invites us to be immersed in. Kingdom values are about living surrendered, sensitively, using our power gently, yearning for God, being compassionate, having pure intentions, being diplomatic, staying on the path even when facing obstacles.

So Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount painting the picture of this kingdom and telling his followers that they don’t have to do a single thing to earn it – that they are already ready to simply open their hand and receive it as they embody those values beginning with surrender to God’s Presence. And immediately upon telling us that ours is the kingdom of heaven he begins to say how kingdom people should act.
Here’s the kingdom – it’s all yours – now here’s how to live it out.
The Beatitudes explain our inward orientation – this passage explains our outward actions. Our actions flow from our orientation toward God. We love because we are loved.

~ text continues below ~

Jesus teaches that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the salt of the earth! And then he warns us about the dangers of not being salty. Jesus says that because the kingdom of heaven is yours you are the light of the world. And then he warns us about the dangers of hiding our light. Salt is meant to be salty – lights are meant to shine. That’s us.

He says that a city on a hill cannot be hidden. He means us. If you’re immersed in the kingdom of heaven, because you’ve surrendered and strive to embrace kingdom values, then you are salty and lit up and stand out like a city built on a hill in full view of the world. If you’re salty and lit up people are going to notice. If Jesus didn’t want people to notice us he’d have told us to be cities hidden strategically away. But not us – we’re supposed to be visible, living our faith out loud, being noticed.

Now, that flies in the face of our usual self-understanding that as people of faith we’re supposed to be meek, and mild, and self-deprecating, and quiet, and humble. I submit to you that our usual self-understanding is flawed. You can be salty and shiny without being a jerk about it, but you can’t be salty and shiny hidden away and not causing any fuss. read on

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