Who He Is / Who We’re Called to Be

These two mini-sermons were prepared for Mountainside United Church, Westmount, for their Sunday service on Aug. 5, 2018 (Year B, Pentecost 11).

Application for Today #1 – John 6:24-35

Crowds, in the Gospel of John, don’t ask smart questions. And the Johannine Jesus never gives straight answers.

But, in all this cryptic dialogue, something new is being revealed.

Moments before Jesus was working miracles, and now the crowds have followed him to learn more about who he is.

What kind of teacher is he?

Where does his power come from?

Is he Moses?

He works wonders like Moses did. He fed them like Moses fed the Israelites.

But, he’s not quite like Moses; instead, he’s like the one Moses’ power came from in Exodus.

His words echo the words of the Burning Bush who declares… “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

When Moses says “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What’s his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

The Burning Bush responds by saying, “I am who I am. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”

Jesus is not Moses. He is so much more. He positions himself as both the messenger and the message—I think Marshall McLuhan would approve!

He is the bringer of and the gift of life.

The verses in John we read today include the first “I Am” statement in this Gospel.

“I Am the Bread of Life” is the beginning of a larger exhibition where Jesus will reveal different parts of his character.

He doesn’t just bring Manna, but his very body will become like Manna to us.

Now, this first “I Am” statement is curious to me.

Why not start with… “I am the way, the truth, and the life” or “I am the Good Shepherd”? Out of the seventeen times, Jesus declares “I Am” in the Gospel of John this is where he starts, the first part of his character he reveals.

This declaration follows his Feeding of the Five thousand. After caring for the needs of the crowd, he then compares himself to the sustenance he nourished them with.

It is a declaration based on the mundane experience of being fed—a basic need being met.

Jesus spends much of his ministry caring for the bodies of his followers. He cares if bellies are full… if mouths are parched… if they have clothes on their backs. And, he offers human connectivity and healing—calling his students to do the same.

“I Am the Bread of Life” is a declaration that, as children of God, we are cared for, but that this nourishment is holistic—inside and out.

The mystical God who speaks from the Burning Bush first meets us in our human experience and need. God doesn’t reject our “fleshly” selves—or ignore our pain. This is where God meets us—in our humanity.

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with reminders of this. A favourite of mine is Isaiah 49:15, which says:

Can a woman forget her baby who nurses at her breast? Can she withhold compassion from the child she has borne? Even if mothers were to forget, I could never forget you!

What a powerful sentiment to begin this delve into who Jesus, the anointed, is. “I Am the Bread of Life”.

Over the centuries this will give way to rich imagery of Christ as a parent, a mother who nurses, a source of nurturing goodness.

Let’s reflect together on God as parent, as a source of goodness and compassion by singing together … HYMN MV157 I Am a Child of God

Application for Today #2 – Ephesians 4:1-16

Friends, I live in the wake of General Council 43; the gathering of our church from across the country every three years to discuss, discern and decide together. I was privileged to attend the week-long gathering of our church at the end of July. It was a first for me, and I found it to be an intense experience.

Not just because there was so much work to be done, and people to meet, but because there was also a breaking open in our church.

The last afternoon, two Fridays ago, there was a disruption in our business session; a discombobulation, as Rev. Philip Peacock put it in his sermon from earlier that morning.

You see, the Spirit moved in the gym, as the Rev. Paul Walfall spoke to our church about the erasure of black people in our community.

United Church/Flickr/Creative Commons | Rev. Paul Walfall at GC43
Rev. Paul Walfall speaks at General Council in Oshawa, Ont. on Friday, July 27, 2018.

We all stood and clapped when he was done—but it felt empty and disjointed. How do you respond to a deep challenge like the one Paul had given us?

Well, we didn’t. We didn’t respond, we just went on business as usual.

Until God broke us open. Someone got up and called us to stop. We suspended our business, and our Moderator, Jordan, asked white brothers and sisters to step back from the microphone.

Space was opened for our racialized brothers and sisters to speak—space we hadn’t made all week. For over two hours, through the rest of our business time and over our dinner break, we listened to our Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and Disabled siblings share their deep pain and frustrations with us.

They shared stories we had refused to hear, about the racism and white supremacy that exists within our church.

It was hard to hear but necessary.

In the 1980’s theologian, James Cone decried “American white theology” for how it had justified atrocities against racialized people like Native Americans and Black; and failed to “relate the gospel of Jesus to the pain of being black in a white racist society.”

This was that same cry.

Our Ephesians reading tells us that there is one body, and one spirit. And, we are all called to tend to it; to tend to one another.

But, we have not loved our siblings equally.

If we truly believe that we are all children of God, and that God desires to provide for us, to bless us with abundance and goodness, how can we hoard our blessings? How can we turn our backs on the stories of rejection and oppression from our sisters and brothers?

Our first reading today told us a little bit about who Jesus is, and this second reading tells us who we should be.

A community, knit together by love and truth, called to stand steadfast in the face of doctrines and theologies that would pull us away from the liberating Good News.

As our Song of Faith tells us sin is “a disposition revealed in selfishness, cowardice, or apathy,” that “Sin is not only personal but accumulates to become habitual and systemic forms of injustice, violence, and hatred.” And, we acknowledge that “we are all touched by this brokenness”.

Reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement and repentance—we can’t put right our relationships with one another without it.

What I heard at GC on that Friday afternoon is that we need to acknowledge that racism is not merely a historical problem, but a present-day reality in our churches and wider communities.

We are called to unity, but have been complicit in disunity.

Friends, there is healing to be done, and new paths to be found, but we need to take an honest look at ourselves before that journey can begin.

I am living in the wake of General Council 43—it has made my heart raw, and I know I must live differently now.

Part of this new path means returning to my corner of our church and sharing what I’ve heard from my racialized siblings, that there’s work to be done.

But fear not, because we are not alone in this. We are surrounded by fellow travellers, who know our strength as a community comes from love and truth.

And, we have a wonderful example to follow, a role model who crossed divisions, who cared deeply about the suffering of others and calls us into a kinship that honours each member.

So may God continue to break open our lives with the radical call to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly together. Amen.

***

To read Rev. Paul Walfall’s initial reflection on July 27, 2018, at GC43 you can find it here on the UC Observer’s website.

Additionally, Paul wrote a piece called The Journey Now Start! for the UCC website where he reflects on the events of GC43, the response, and how we can move forward together.

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God’s steadfast compassion

Sermon prepared for Wesley United Montreal’s Sunday morning service on July 1, 2018 (Year B, Pentecost 6) based on Mark 5:21-43 and Lamentations 3:22-33.

Have you ever stood in a crowd of people and thought to yourself, I feel invisible?

That’s how I imagine the woman, in the Gospel story from today, felt. Surrounded by a huge crowd, she walked along behind Jesus as he spoke with one of the synagogue leaders.

There were so many people—more important than her.

I imagine that she didn’t just feel invisible, that she also felt no one in the world understood her. Her pain. Her desperation.

Mark tells us that this unnamed woman had been suffering for twelve years. Twelve years of chronic pain.

Mark tells us she had exhausted all her resources by consulting physician after physician and nothing could relieve her pain. Instead, it got worse.

She was destitute, a burden in a society with no social safety net. And, she was only a shadow of a woman, in a world that focused so heavily on childbearing.

She had no dignity because she couldn’t fulfil the expectations society had for her, and she was suffering in an unspeakable way. Her sickness was more than physical—she was suffering from broken relationships, and social isolation.

I wonder… did she get lost in the crowd, or did she hide there? Because carrying shame makes us wish we were really invisible.

***

When she reaches out she is reaching for her own healing—and what a wonderful image of our God this is because Mark tells us how that reaching is honoured.

She takes a risk and reaches out, and suddenly she feels a shift in her body. Something is changing.

Yes, by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak she is healed physically, but he offers her so much more when Jesus turns back towards her.

“Who touched me?”

Trembling, but brave, she owns up. Can you imagine how hard that must be? Did everything in her scream:

Why did you do that? You took what you didn’t deserve! You never should have bothered. He’ll be angry with you! Know your place!

Trembling, but brave, she falls down and confesses to him.

Now, Jesus doesn’t just allow her to take her healing; he also turns to her and recognizes her as a “daughter”. He invites her into relationship; he honours her and holds her up in a crowd jostling for his attention.

He says, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Now, everyone will know the change she felt inside herself.

Jesus stops on his way to the house of an elite member of the community, a spiritual and political leader, and says (despite Jairus’ protests) that this daughter is worthy of his time and attention.

She takes her physical healing for herself, but he offers her so much more—he offers her restoration.

***

Jairus’ daughter, the second one to be healed in this section, is twelve years old. She was filled with life which was abruptly lost. The older woman has been lifeless for twelve years and is now filled with life.

These parallel healing stories tell us that Jesus is reversing the world around him—the Gospel shows him as having power over the forces of life and death.

In the section immediately before this one, we see demons calling out to him by name: Jesus, Son of the Most High God. Mark presents us with a series of stories about a powerful man who commands spirits, heals illnesses by mere touch, and commands the dead to awake.

Yet, these acts of power are always personal—they are always based in the restoration of relationship—and the reinstating of the sufferer in the wider community.

Healing is so much more than just caring for the body.

Even when a cure is not possible, healing always is. Jesus shows us new balms for wounded souls.

***

Lamentations, too, offers us this assurance. That, God, is steadfast in loving-kindness; God’s mercies are daily, renewed over and over again. It speaks of seasons of suffering and joy, and that grief is always accompanied by compassion.

For, God “he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.”

This is not a promise that you will not face difficulties in your life. By now we know, so much of the human condition is spent in discomfort.

Yet, there is a voice in our spiritual tradition that says: God is the giver of every good and perfect gift; a parent doesn’t give their child a snake when they ask for bread.

***

Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychologist, wrote in his seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning that:

“In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

The Book of Lamentations, which our assurance comes from, is the texts of a community on a desperate search for meaning in a senseless world of violence. It is written by Ancient Jewish peoples in Babylon following a devastating experience of war and exile. This poetry is their attempt to understand the “why”.

Yet, even in that pursuit, they write of God’s goodness, God’s compassion, and mercy.

This text is their mourning and healing—a process of coming to terms with their communal pain.

It echoes the story of the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak by saying: Even when a reversal of fortunes is not possible, healing always is.

***

God wants to meet each of us in our suffering—God sees us and hears us.

God extends an invitation to restoration, inviting us into the kinship of God.

It is an invitation to find meaning in our life stories and to receive healing.

But, God doesn’t just come to us—it is an invitation we have to accept. Because, Jesus didn’t look around for people to heal, instead he responded those who cry out to him; follow him and his disciples around causing a disruption; people who cut holes in roofs to get into see him; or slip through crowds to grab onto his cloak.

God wants us to reach out for our own healing as active participants—knowing we are worthy of it. We reach out in trust and expectation, that transformation awaits us—though it often takes place in the ways we least expect it.

***

I wonder if there is something you’ve been carrying for twelve proverbial years, that you need healing for. During our Prayers of the People we’ll be focusing on prayers of healing and restoration, so I invite you to consider whether it’s time for you to reach out for your own experience of restoration.

Be emboldened, knowing that God’s steadfast compassion is offered to us each day—an unfailing testament to God’s love for us.

 

In the Face of Fear,​ We Persist

This sermon was prepped for Wesley United Church, Montreal’s Sunday morning service on June 24th, (Pentecost 5), based on 1 Samuel 17:1a, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49.

David and Goliath, what a fantastic story! An ancient Hebrew legend, that reminds me of the stories my parents used to read to me before bed.

It has everything that makes for a great bedtime story! A young peasant boy whose destiny is greater than his father’s sheep pastures… A horrible monster not even the strongest man in the army can defeat… Jealous brothers… A king to impress who will shower our young hero with unimaginable gifts….

It is also a dramatic introduction to the man, who would be king, as David is anointed secretly just verses before the story we read today.

Human beings love legends and myths because they touch on our greatest hopes—to be chosen, to be brave, to do good and great things.

Is it any wonder that this story, beloved by folks of all ages, was preserved in the collection of ancient texts we call The Bible?

Yet, in our daily lives, there is little epic adventure like we read here… We don’t live in the world of legends and fairytales. Stories like this, that once may have captured our imaginations, become difficult to put our hope into….

Because, the Goliaths we come across in our lives can’t be defeated with a small rock.

Every day proverbial monsters come out on the battlefield and heckle us—they remind us of our failures, of the situations we can’t control, the regrets we carry with us, and the burdens that wear us down.

As we get older, we laugh at stories like this one.  Believing them would make us naïve. We smile and shake our heads because we know better.

… We know better? Or is it that we know our own fear all too well?

***

God doesn’t ask David to go and do the impossible out of nowhere.

David tells Saul how he has been protecting his father’s sheep against wild animals. And, though this challenger appears more intimidating—with taunts and bravado—David can recognize Goliath for what he truly is: a bully. And, David has faced bullies before.

1 Samuel tells us that David grew up as an insignificant nobody in a large family; when Samuel went to visit them and asked to meet all of Jessie’s sons they didn’t even remember the runt out in the pasture with the sheep. David has been fighting wild animals, and cruelty from his loved ones, his whole life—out with the sheep and God to keep him company, he has been building resilience.

Bravery is a tricky thing; a muscle we have to train. It is a reality of the human condition that this growth is a result of pain and suffering. We fall down and learn that despite how much it might hurt, it doesn’t break us. And, so we get up and begin again.

We start with small acts, small risks, and we start to learn our limits and our strengths. We don’t go after Goliath all at once, and certainly not without backup.

***

A friend recently commented that he was surprised by how much I travel because I get really anxious when I travel. It’s stressful, and it can be challenging for me enjoy myself in the moment—but I still do it. Because anxiety doesn’t get to bully me into living a half-life.

We all have bullies in our lives, proverbial or real, and stories like these tell us that this challenge has been a part of the human experience for millennia. It is an exaggerated story to point us to a very real truth: human resilience and courage are integral to our story, and to God’s.

Madeline L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, once said that:

“We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.”

Isn’t that the driving plot of the Bible? Unqualified but courageous people called to do so much more than their families, communities, and countries thought they could?

***

Last time I was with you, I used a quote from the movie Evan Almighty, where God says to another character:

“Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous?”

The Older Testament stories for the lectionary this summer speak of just that—young people called by God to do amazing but hard things. Our Bible stories tell us of men and women who take risks in their stories…

In the face of fear, David persisted against Goliath.

In the face of rejection, Samuel persisted in delivering the message God gave him.

In the face of poverty, Ruth persisted to care for her mother-in-law.

In the face of death, Esther persisted to save her people from genocide.

In the face of an enemy army, Deborah persisted in leading the Israelites to victory.

Though we might not be called to lead an army into battle, the Spirit invites us, too, to courageous acts both big and small. Our daily lives are filled with opportunities to step up, despite that knot in our stomach…

Have you ever stopped to help someone in need, who was being hassled by someone else?

Spoken up when a comment was going to be let go, even though it was hurtful and wrong?

Taken a stance for equality, even if it meant being the unpopular person in the room?

These are our moments, where we’re called to be brave, to do good and great things!

And, like David, we don’t do this alone. For some, it’s the overconfident certainty of youth that helps them march out onto the battlefield. For others, it’s being part of a community who’s committed to their work. For some of us, it’s a nagging belief that there is something good and true out there beyond us, that desires a world filled with justice.

***

The stories we read together in this place, these ancient stories, inspire us and point us towards hope… Hope is the thing that makes the risk worthwhile. It is a belief that the seemingly impossible task can be accomplished.

But, we don’t get there all at once—trust, just like bravery, is a muscle we learn to flex and strengthen. So we gather in this place and share stories, old and new, about goodness, about failures and triumphs; strengthening one another for the challenges ahead.

We add our own stories to this faithful collection.

So, may the Spirit grow within you this week… a courageous heart ready to persist in the face of fear, and return you to us next week with plenty of stories to share. Amen.